Ryouma blinked down at him. He remembered, after a moment, to draw a breath.
It took a moment more to gather thoughts, as if they’d grown slippery without the familiar spikes. Cradled close, they still didn’t hurt. He could turn them over, recognizing each one (warm night, cool grass, moonlit water, Genma safe, Kakashi by his side) and...not looking for more. Not tensing for the inevitable end. Not even telling himself, You don’t deserve this, and you’ll fuck it up.
That old voice still shouted, but from very far away. The rasping song of crickets in the grass and the fading hum of tanuki drums drowned it out. The lantern’s golden glow caught the edge of Kakashi’s jaw and the sharp curve of his cheek, and gilded the long fringe of his lashes. His eye curved just a little with an inviting smile.
Ryouma thought of Raidou and Genma at that inn with the fireflies, the warmth of Genma’s hand on his shoulder, the deep tones of Raidou’s voice.
Feel whatever you’re gonna feel, and don’t kick yourself for it.
Ryouma felt himself smile back.
“Right now, in this moment,” he said, “I’m completely happy.”
Kakashi’s eye crinkled at the corner. “It suits you.”
“I’m very charming,” Ryouma agreed. “Probably a good thing I’m not always happy, or I’d be irresistible… Or maybe it’s the soaps?”
Kakashi tilted his head. “That make you happy or make you irresistible? Because I have questions either way.”
“That make me not irresistible,” Ryouma said. “Uh, resistible.” He looked down at Kakashi, the curious brow, the faint eye-smile that still hadn’t faded, and he swallowed. Reminded himself, Enjoy the moment. Don’t ask for more.
He went to shove his hands in his pockets, realized too late that ANBU blacks didn’t have them, and ended up awkwardly hooking his thumbs in his waistband instead. “The soaps really do make me happy though. ’Specially the super lathery ones. So, y’know, some resistibility is okay.”
Kakashi’s head tilted a little more. “So... if you start smelling extra-flowery, I should take it as a sign that you want more personal space?”
“I didn’t mean you!” Ryouma said. “Well, I did, but— You only push about, like, talking things, not touching things.” He was starting to confuse himself now. He backed up and started over. “I guess if you smell camellia and honeysuckle and jasmine all at the same time you’ll know I’m pissed at you. Orange blossom would be just ‘cause I miss it, though.”
Kakashi’s head tipped back to level. He nodded once, a serious little jerk of his chin, and turned toward the reed-fringed pond again. They were approaching on a shallow curve, arcing around to the farther shore. Cherry trees silhouetted aganst the sky on a grassy slope above them. “We could get you an orange blossom tree. Though they only bloom once a year. Wouldn't it be easier to just dilute oranges?”
Ryouma unlocked his knees. He had to jog two steps to catch up. “Oranges don’t really smell much like orange blossom. You’d probably just end up smelling like you dumped your breakfast juice over yourself, instead of like you walked through an orchard in springtime… Might help cut the rot reek better, though.”
Kakashi cast him a sidelong look. “An orchard in springtime?” Something rich and bright, like the edge of laughter, lined his voice.
Ryouma grinned up at the first stars beginning to prick the velvety sky. “In southern Fire Country. When it’s still rainy-cold in Konoha, before it gets sweltering hot down south. When you’ve finished the mission and you’re heading home, but there’s no rush, and the sky’s blue with big puffy clouds and the trees tossing all white against it, and you can put up your hand and brush the blossoms down, but some of them stick in your collar and you can still smell them at the end of the day… I think,” he decided, “I’m a little bit drunk.”
They’d reached the edge of the pond: less a water-carved bank here than a squelchy verge, jointed reeds and fringed rushes rising up tall and slender in the dusk. Kakashi brushed them aside with an open hand, stepping down bare-foot into the shallows. Ripples spread out from his wet toes, glinting in the golden light. Kakashi held the lantern out so that the soft glow touched Ryouma and looked back, thoughtfully.
“No,” he said. “You’re eloquent.”
From the dull heat in his neck and cheeks, Ryouma was fairly sure he was flushing. Maybe the light wasn’t that good. “I could be both,” he said. “That was some pretty impressive sake. Wonder if they’ll let us take any back.”
“If Yuuhi bargains for it, almost certainly,” Kakashi said. His foot stirred idly in the shallow water. His eye curved again, like the dawning of a slow grin. “You’re blushing.”
“That’s just proof I’m drunk,” Ryouma said, and came down a step closer. Mud squished between his toes, weirdly pleasant. Cool water lapped at his feet. “Are we swimming?”
Kakashi looked back at the dark water. The placid mirror of the moon gleamed beyond the circle of lantern light. Across the pond the bonfire was only a distant glow, ringed by small dancing figures. “We could. You want to?”
Cold water might help, but stripping down in front of — beside — Kakashi certainly wouldn’t. And sitting around afterward in wet underpinnings was significantly less appealing. The tanuki still had the rest of their gear, inaccessible in chakra-sealed scrolls. Ryouma feinted: “There might be leeches.”
Kakashi evidently hadn’t thought of that. He took a sharp step back, recovered, and sloshed more moderately through the reeds toward the shore. “What did you have in mind?”
Now that he’d thought of it, too, Ryouma wasn’t too proud to check their feet. The lantern revealed only a clean wet glistening, no dark blobs or blood. He straightened in relief. “I, uh… Nothing really. It was just getting hot and noisy by the fire, and I didn’t wanna get stepped on. And I wanted—”
Kakashi looked steadily back at him, the lantern drooping from his hand, still haloing the edge of his profile.
“I wanted,” Ryouma said, “just to talk with you. It’s been a while.”
Kakashi blinked. Didn’t we talk this morning?
Except they hadn’t really. Kakashi had offered to mind-twist Ryouma out of repeating nightmares, Ryouma had gotten embarrassed, and Kakashi had solved the problem by sleeping on him. Not much of a conversation.
Before that… The last time they’d talked about anything meaningful had been on the rooftop at Embers, after Kakashi had dragged Ryouma away from Ginta, and everything had been hideously awkward and painful until they’d made it okay, somehow. The rest of the evening was a bit of a blur, but he had a few stand out memories: flaming lemons, discussions of octopus sex, hope at Ryouma’s door.
They’d agreed to be friends. Talking was the easy part of that; Ryouma always had weird and fascinating things to say.
Kakashi found on a spot on the sloping verge where the reeds gave way to lush, dry — and, most importantly, leechless — grass, and sat down. He balanced the lantern on a flat rock. “What’d you want to talk about?”
Ryouma settled down next to him, folding an arm around his knee. “It wasn’t really anything big. Not like I have a secret plan for escaping the tanuki or anything. I don’t actually think we need one. It’s weird, but it’s like— I think things are gonna work out. We’ll go home tomorrow, we’ll find a safe place for Harubi, I’ll maybe be a little more careful at crossroad shrines from now on. I dunno if that’s some kinda magic panic-suppressor, like how they took our chakra, or if I’m just panicked-out after what happened with the wolf gods, but…” He shrugged one bare shoulder, and picked at the dusty bandage around his wrist. “I don’t have anybody’s killing intent creeping up my spine, and it just felt like a night I could come out here with you and… look at the moon on the water.”
That — the inexplicable optimism — might actually be the alcohol. Or stress-exhaustion. The wolves had been carved-out terror. By comparison, the tanuki were frustrating, but they weren’t white teeth in Ryouma’s wrist.
The moonlight… Kakashi didn’t have an explanation for. He didn’t try too hard to find one. He studied the sweep of light glittering on the water’s surface, ice-blue and beautiful, and tipped his head up to observe the celestial body. “Do you think it’s the same moon?”
“Could be. Ours was a crescent, though, and this one’s full. So either we lost a couple weeks in the wolf gods’ world, or this is a different one.” He glanced up for a moment, then flopped over onto his back and folded his arms behind his head. “Do you recognize any of the stars?”
Kakashi’s mouth twitched. Ryouma was as well-versed in constellations as Kakashi, like all ninja. They were a crucial navigational tool. He already knew the answer, unless he thought Kakashi had a hidden trove of previously undisclosed star knowledge tucked into his back pocket. Which, Kakashi supposed, was a little flattering.
“No,” he said. “But that one looks like a watermelon stand.” He pointed to a cluster of stars that, if you squinted hard, might make a sort of rectangular shape with one lumpy side.
Ryouma opened his mouth, closed it, then said kindly, “I know your depth perception isn’t good, but that is clearly a shave-ice stand.”
“You are wrong and you don’t know you’re wrong, which makes it even sadder,” Kakashi said. “Pick your own constellations; don’t steal mine.”
“You steal things all the time,” Ryouma complained. He freed his bandaged arm and pointed. “There’s a sake cup. It’s probably a giant sake cup the tanuki threw at the wolf gods when they were having an argument, and it got stuck.”
Kakashi reached up and caught Ryouma’s wrist. The bandage was sweat-streaked and grimy, frayed where tanuki claws had raked it. Ryouma’s arm went stiff.
Kakashi said, “Why did you do it?”
Ryouma didn’t pretend ignorance. He didn’t pull his arm back, either. He kept his eyes on the sky, and his throat moved as he swallowed once. “I owed him. You. All of you.”
“ANBU Trials. He was the medic who saved me.” Ryouma turned his head, meeting Kakashi’s eye. “You know what you did.”
“Akiyama,” Kakashi guessed. Ryouma gave a single, short nod. Kakashi sighed, breath trapped warm against his mouth by his mask, and tugged Ryouma’s arm down to rest on his knee. He tapped his fingers against the bandage one by one, counting out: “Stopped Fukuda cutting my head off. Gave me two — three? — chakra transfusions. Didn’t let me get killed by a rockfall in Kiri.”
“Three,” Ryouma said. “It’s not the same. I’m your teammate, now. I wasn’t anything to you then.”
“Ah,” Kakashi said understandingly. “So if our positions had been reversed, you’d have let Akiyama cut my hand off?”
“Of course not!” Ryouma lurched back upright. “That’s still different. I only went after him because he said you— Anyway, you’re basically the Hokage’s son, you’ll be a jounin commander, you’ll probably be the next Hokage yourself. It’d be my duty to save you!”
Kakashi didn’t let frustration make him stupid. This mattered; he wanted to understand. “You went after Akiyama in the first place because he told you I was in danger; that’s how he caught you. Because I’m more important than you?”
“Well, yeah,” Ryouma said, as if Kakashi was being kind of dense for not seeing the obvious. Then he stopped, and added hurriedly: “But I mean, it’s not just because of Minato-sama. I don’t— He said someone had cut you up, that you were still bleeding, you were holed up and needed help. I wasn’t just gonna hand him my med-kit and walk off. Not after I knew you.”
Kakashi frowned. “But you didn’t know me. You’d just met me. And you punched me when you met me.”
“Well, you were being an asshole when I first met you,” Ryouma said reflexively. “But you stopped. You listened to me. You probably thought I was getting all worked up over nothing, even Shibata-sama thinks I should share my jutsu, but you listened. And you came back and talked to me afterward.”
And the next time they’d met, Ryouma had thrown all his ANBU dreams sideways because Akiyama had said Kakashi was bleeding in a hole. Ryouma might call it duty, but Kakashi was certain Ryouma just didn’t think his own survival mattered that much. Akiyama had used Kakashi’s name, but he probably would have gotten the same results no matter what he’d said.
“Why is your life worth less?” Kakashi asked.
Protests rose, automatic. I didn’t say that or Didn’t I just tell you or Why do you think? They didn’t make sense together, though. Ryouma was starting to wonder if anything he was saying made sense.
It didn’t seem to, for Kakashi. His hand still curled around Ryouma’s bandaged wrist, loose enough to bracelet instead of shackle. The pebbled thickness of his knee protector was rough under Ryouma’s palm. His eye hadn’t left Ryouma’s face.
“I,” Ryouma said. Stopped. Swallowed again.
It wasn’t in words; you couldn’t line them up all neatly and trot them out in regimented rows, ready to conquer any objections. There were words behind it, certainly: the old, razored ones, still sharp despite the years, but they were distant now, disordered. Not something you could send out to the battlefield against Kakashi, because he’d see the holes in their ranks, he’d exploit them mercilessly, and Ryouma—
Wanted to let Kakashi in. Wanted to hear him say, It’s not true. Still remembered the gritty feel of Kakashi’s hands cupping his face, and the black tomoe spinning in Kakashi’s Sharingan eye.
He found his voice. “I know I’m a valuable member of this team. A valuable shinobi. But I also know what I owe the village. And there’s an arithmetic to sacrifice on missions, you know that as well as I do. Besides,” he added recklessly, “I told you I’d show you a jutsu if you showed me your face. So then I’ll be less valuable, and you’ll be more.”
Kakashi was silent for another long moment. His eye had gone dark. His hand closed a little tighter around Ryouma’s wrist.
Then he said softly: “Ryouma, your worth isn’t your jutsu. It’s the mind that created it. Your skills make you valuable, but you aren’t expendable when someone else has more.”
He turned Ryouma’s wrist over, and began to pry at the stiff knot on the bandages.
“I could die to save Minato-sensei and the village would call that a smart trade, but he wouldn’t. Naruto-kun wouldn’t, no matter how much you explained the math. And it’s not because I’m special. It’s because I’m worth something to them, more than my ability to yank hearts out.”
The knot loosened. Kakashi tugged the end of the bandage free, unraveled the loops, and dropped the dirty mess at their feet. His thumb rubbed gently between the long, scabbed scratches. “You probably saved our lives, but I don’t think that’s even occurred to you. They wanted a sacrifice and you offered yourself because you think it paid a debt. You don’t owe a debt. You’re owed the right to be alive, because you’re you.”
“You used my name,” Ryouma said, stupidly.
It was the least consequential thing Kakashi’d said. It seemed like the only thing Ryouma’s brain could fix on. He wanted to push up and move, to pace through the cool grass, to run: to find some place where he could spill out the rest of those thoughts and finally piece the shards together. He could feel Kakashi’s hand like a brand on his wrist.
“I did,” Kakashi said. He didn’t loosen his hold. He didn’t move away, or say anything more, or do anything but sit there holding Ryouma’s wrist, shadow-eyed, waiting.
Ryouma could break that grip, if he wanted.
And then what? Fight Kakashi, because Kakashi said he wasn’t expendable, because Kakashi said he deserved to live, because Kakashi said he was worth something more than three deadly jutsu and a debt? Hell, he should be happy to hear that. And he was, he just—
“I don’t know how you believe that,” he said. “I mean, I get how you do. Naruto-kun cares about you, anybody can see that, and everybody knows your sensei does too. So of course they see you as more than Sharingan no Kakashi, because they know you when you’re just Kakashi. But I— I don’t—”
Kakashi said, very quietly, “I think you’re still listening to your grandfather, even now.”
Maybe so. Could he honestly look Kakashi in the eye, and tell him that no one on Team Six knew him as more than the kid who rots faces? Knew him as just Ryouma?
Genma thought he could be a medic. Raidou thought he could be a good person. Katsuko had wanted him to be her wingman. Kakashi’d called him a friend.
And it wasn’t just Team Six. Hakone, Ayane, Norita Takeshi, Sakamoto Ginta: they’d seen him off the battlefield, asked him out for evenings of nothing but his company. Some of them didn’t even want to sleep with him.
The old man would’ve said none of that mattered. That anyone who tried to get close to you was really just looking for what they could get out of you. That anyone who let Ryouma get close to them would see soon enough what he was really made of, that he was rotten deep down—stupid, lazy, lying—
Only the good worry they are bad, Genma had said, at the inn where they’d watched fireflies. The truly bad don’t think about it at all.
If he was going to listen to someone, Genma would be a better choice than his grandfather.
So would Kakashi.
“How d’you balance a right to be alive with being a ninja?” he asked.
“Cognitive dissonance,” Kakashi said, with an dry edge to his voice. “They don’t balance. But that still doesn’t mean you sell your death cheaply.” His grip tightened on Ryouma’s wrist, with a sharp little shake.
“I didn’t think rescuing Genma and saving the rest of you was cheap,” Ryouma said.
Kakashi turned his head to give Ryouma a long, penetrating look. Ryouma set his jaw. Listening didn’t mean buckling.
Then Kakashi said, “Thank you.”
Ryouma blinked, stumbled: “Uh. You’re welcome. I mean, I know it was stupid. You’d have figured something out, I just didn’t think we had time…”
“I would have tried to stab her in the face,” Kakashi said.
Ryouma squinted at him. “Before or after she had Taichou in her jaws?”
“Ideally before. In practice,” Kakashi admitted, “I had a giant paw on my chest, so options were limited.”
“Yeah.” Ryouma looked down, at Kakashi’s hand on his wrist, at the long dark scabs below. “All the choices were bad choices. I thought I was doing the right thing. And I can’t promise I won’t do it again. But— If I’ve got to sell my death, I’ll set the price high.”
Kakashi smiled, and borrowed a favorite ploy of Naruto’s. “Promise?”
Ryouma snorted, but he folded his first three fingers down on the wolf-bitten hand. “Want me to pinky swear?”
In certain ridiculous aspects of his own life, Kakashi was unembarrassable. He released the grip on Ryouma’s wrist and hooked their pinkies together. “Yes.”
The corners of Ryouma’s mouth tilted in a reluctant smile. He lifted his hand and pressed their thumbs together, making a solemn seal. “I promise I won’t die easy.” A returning spark glinted in dark eyes. “Even if I live that way.”
Kakashi’s skin tingled, as if storm lightning had just brushed his nerve-endings. He pulled his hand back to hide the shiver. “I guess that’s close enough.”
Ryouma rubbed his palm over his knee, as if he’d caught the same charge, and looked up sunnily. “So, no more ‘Tousaki,’ huh? We’re on a personal name basis now?”
Probably should have seen that coming.
Kakashi opened his mouth, closed it, couldn’t think of a single good reason to say no. “I was giving an important moment weight,” he protested, lamely.
“And I listened!” Ryouma said. “See, it worked! You should keep doing it.”
This seemed like dubious logic. But it also felt a little cruel to argue, just for the sake of knocking the glow off Ryouma’s face. On the other hand, there were exactly three people Kakashi referred to by their given name, and Minato still got his -sensei tacked on.
He scratched the side of his head awkwardly, and tried: “Ryouma.” His face scrunched. “It feels weird now.”
“Well, you don’t have to do it all the time. Practice rounds, maybe.” Ryouma’s glow shaded a little, as his expression turned wry. “Like me, working on listening to different voices.”
Kakashi bumped his knee against Ryouma’s, connecting carefully with the one that had been broken and fixed, and tried again. “Ryouma, I am very smart and you should always listen to me.” He brightened. “Actually, that one was easier.”
“Hah. You’re the one who nearly went swimming in possible leech-water.” Ryouma knocked Kakashi’s knee gently back. “But I’ll try. When you make sense.”
Kakashi’s mouth twitched. “That’s fair.”
This time, he was the first one to lie back and fold his arms behind his head. “What else did you want to talk about?”
Ryouma snorted again. “I didn’t exactly come out here with a battle plan, y’know. Sorry to disappoint.”
“I’d act surprised, but we both know that would be a lie,” Kakashi said. He tilted his head back, studying the clean lines of Ryouma’s profile cut out blue against the star-stitched sky. Straight nose, except for the faintest dip at the bridge where it had been broken and reset. Angled jaw tapering to a narrow chin, cheekbones sharp enough to cut an unwary hand. The mouth that tilted down just as easily as it lit into a cocky grin. “Tell me something else that makes you happy.”
Ryouma half-smiled, looking down at Kakashi. “You’re sure you’re ready for the entire plot of the Five Rings Cycle? Maybe Shuriken Force’s latest album, I could do the drums on my knees…”
Intrigued, Kakashi said, “Sure.”
Ryouma blinked. “Uh, okay. My voice isn’t great, but— Hah, well, you won’t tell the difference anyway. Uh, let’s see…” He hummed to himself for a moment, a simple melody that wandered up and down a scale, and struck his palm gently against his knee until he found a steady beat. Then he sang. “Way out here, nothing’s clear, except the world we left behind...
His voice was rough and a little too low, shaky at first, but smoothing and strengthening as he gathered confidence. He sang like he meant it, like the music mattered to him.
Nothin’ to fear in this hollow land
Tears won’t make you blind
Run on, run hard, you can’t look back
You’ve got something more to find
It wasn’t a shinobi song, the kind Kakashi had grown up listening to, handed down from one trench-fighting generation to the next. Songs with a work-beat, meant to be sung in the dark and cold, when the world was iced in despair and you might not make it home tomorrow. About pretty girls and boys left behind, or the noble, gruesome ways ninja died for each other.
At first, Kakashi didn’t understand this one; there was no story in it. But the longer he listened, the more it slipped under his ribs and resonated. Something in the lyrics was familiar. Or maybe it was the man singing them. Ryouma had found his stride now, wending from verse to chorus with smoky grace. He’d sung this song before. A lot, Kakashi thought.
Knife and stone
Flesh and bone
Boy, make up your mind
Ryouma’s hand stilled on his knee. He let the last note fade out and looked down at Kakashi with fathomless eyes, and Kakashi had no idea what he was thinking.
Then Ryouma broke the moment with a self-conscious little shrug. “Good thing I joined ANBU instead of a rock band, huh?”
Kakashi’s knowledge of rock bands was limited, but a life of creative expression seemed like it would suit Ryouma, where he could travel and sing and be adored for it, and no one asked him to melt traitors in their beds.
On the other hand, without Ryouma, Kakashi would have been dead two months ago.
But even without that…
It was a thought he didn’t want to put his hands around. Since graduating from the tattered remnants of Team Minato, Kakashi had worked solo, or in transient, uncomfortable squads, frustrating his teammates and himself until he could walk away. His sparks of easy companionship were his dogs, and Naruto, and as much as he loved them both, he could acknowledge that neither one exactly qualified for a mature relationship. Konoha took the lion’s share of Minato and Rin’s attention, and he didn’t begrudge it.
Ryouma had caught Kakashi’s attention with a sucker punch, but he’d kept it with his skilled hands, unorthodox mind, and unexpected kindness. With his humor that still caught Kakashi by surprise, and his old scars that made Kakashi want to reach into the past and burn parts of it down.
He was the first new person in a long, long time that Kakashi trusted enough to stretch out next to, and leave himself unguarded.
“I’d miss you,” Kakashi said.
This time, Ryouma didn’t blink. He just sat for a long moment, mouth slightly open, as if Kakashi had poleaxed him. When he finally reanimated, it was with a jerky head shake. “Well, maybe we’d still have met. Another life, you could be anyone, y’know? Lead singer for a rival band. My drummer.” A sharp smile flashed by. “A groupie.”
“I’ve always wanted to stand in a crowd and scream,” Kakashi said dryly.
“No, no, groupies get to go backstage, they—” Ryouma paused. “Well, I guess you wouldn’t like that part either. Uh, anyway. What about you? What makes you happy?”
This side of the questions was significantly more loaded. Kakashi considered and discarded the glib (porn), the dull (mission success), and the obvious (dogs, Naruto, Minato, Rin). Which left…
“Interesting jutsu. This team.” He smiled behind his mask. “Watching you try to backpedal. Are you saying I wouldn’t enjoy risky and meaningless sex with international stars?”
Ryouma’d been all set up to have his heart warmed and fuzzy — maybe he’d even offer to help Kakashi with that blood-blade jutsu again — but Kakashi kept talking, and Ryouma tripped right over himself.
“Risky sex?” he scoffed, before his brain had quite caught up. That was bad enough, but his mouth kept moving. “You? You wouldn’t even have a go on the kitchen counter. I bet you’d need, like, white sheets and rosebuds, maybe a shamisen serenade...”
Shut up, shut up, shut UP— His brain finally wrenched back control. He closed his teeth with a click.
“Seems unnecessarily fussy,” Kakashi observed. “Have you ever listened to shamisen music? It’s neither rhythmic nor sexy.”
Ryouma had suffered through several evenings of Hakone’s attempts to educate him about ‘real’ music, but Kakashi wasn’t supposed to be disagreeing with him here. He tried to find his bearings again. “What, you can’t tell me Shuriken Force is doing it for you.”
“Was it not supposed to?” Kakashi asked innocently.
What Ryouma was supposed to do now was back down. Play the game, admit Kakashi’d called his bluff, take the conversation somewhere safe and sensible. Somewhere the lieutenant would approve.
He couldn’t quite remember where that might be.
“Well, I’ve been seduced by a song once, but nobody’s ever said the same to me.” Not that he’d ever actually sung for anyone else, before. “So, what d’you think? Ready to throw your briefs up on stage with the rest of ‘em?”
Kakashi turned his head a little on his folded arms. He gave Ryouma a slow, thoughtful, dark-eyed look. “Not for Shuriken Force.”
Was he saying—?
Ryouma swallowed. “I could do something from Feral Porpoises.”
“Veto.” Kakashi untucked one arm from behind his head and reached up to catch the shoulder-edge of Ryouma’s underpinnings. His fingers crooked beneath, warm against Ryouma’s skin, and tugged.
Ryouma could have resisted. He couldn’t think of a good reason why.
He let himself lean back, angling into Kakashi’s pull. His abdominal muscles tightened. He could lie back beside Kakashi and gaze up at the stars, comradely as ever. Or rotate his shoulders just a little, and lean over him…
Kakashi released his grip on Ryouma’s shirt. His fingers slid away. Ryouma turned his head, looking down at him.
The lantern light caught gold in Kakashi’s hair and gleamed in his eye. He lay still, his hand still lifted, curved with the memory of touch.
Ryouma closed his eyes, opened them again, and lay down beside Kakashi, shoulder against shoulder. “Maybe Shutdown Assassin?”
Breath sighed out, softened by Kakashi’s mask. “Do they win a lot of briefs?”
“Probably not. They’re angrier.” Ryouma folded his right arm up, behind his head. His left shoulder brushed against Kakashi’s with every rising breath. Kakashi didn’t move away. “I listened to them more a couple years ago. Not so much lately. I’d probably have to make up some of the lyrics.”
He was babbling again, but his coward mouth seemed to be running in the other direction now. Boy, make up your mind.
Well, he had already, hadn’t he? Kakashi was his friend. Friends could tease, but they couldn’t push. Kakashi had drawn his boundaries once already, and that was enough. Ryouma wouldn’t cross them.
He could wish, with a stomach-clenching urgency, that Kakashi would reach across, but—
No. That longing led to misery for them both. He’d done it too many times already.
Kakashi’s shoulder did move, then. He rolled onto his side facing Ryouma, right arm curled under his head, right eye glinting beneath the fall of his hair. His voice came as soft as his breath. “What’s something else that makes you happy?”
Ryouma’s mouth betrayed him once more. “Spending time with you.”
It should have been surprising — it might have been, if Kakashi hadn’t been angling for it. Instead, it made warmth curl in his chest like a stolen sunbeam. He likes me, too.
He felt himself smile. “Ten points to me.”
Ryouma huffed out a laugh and jabbed Kakashi between the ribs with two fingers. “Screw you, I’m worth at least 20 points.”
Kakashi caught Ryouma’s wrist to prevent further attack, wrapping his fingers around heavy bone and a quickening pulse, and let himself grin. “I didn’t say how many you got.”
Tendons flexed. Ryouma didn’t pull away. “No, I meant— How many do I get?”
“For your ability to be happy in my radiant presence?” Kakashi teased. “Three. Maybe three and a half for good taste.”
“Seven,” Ryouma countered. “Happiness is hard work.”
Why is your life worth less?
Kakashi’s smile softened. He scratched his nails gently over the back of Ryouma’s scarred knuckles. “Fifty.”
Ryouma’s breath shivered. “Whoa,” he said. “That sounds like an unforgivable corruption of the points system.”
Of course he remembered, verbatim, something Kakashi had said once. Of course he did.
It felt like a warning, albeit a soft one. Kakashi couldn’t translocate to the other side of the kitchen — or pond — this time. Ryouma had already retreated once, easing out of Kakashi’s pull on his shirt. If Kakashi kept pushing, it meant something.
Did he want to push?
Teasing along the edges of their resistance was exhilarating, like sharpening a sword with another, even more lethal blade. A slip the wrong way could break something, or bleed them out. And Kakashi was the first to admit that he a) had no idea what he was doing, and b) didn’t know if what he wanted now would be the same thing he wanted tomorrow, in the reality of dawn.
He’d hurt Rin so badly.
If Ryouma said no here, right now, or tomorrow, Kakashi wouldn’t crumple. A friendship with this strange, complicated man was enough, and more than enough. Anything beyond that was curiosity, and risk.
Two things Kakashi, admittedly, thrived on.
He lifted his chin, catching Ryouma’s eyes. “I’m the inventor of the system; I can modify it.”
Rouma pressed his lips quickly together, wetting them with an unconscious swipe of his tongue. “That’s true. Whenever you want.”
That seemed to be on Kakashi’s wavelength, but he hadn’t really expected a no. The better he knew Ryouma, the more he was realizing Ryouma would throw himself over for a smile. Kakashi already had too many advantages. He didn’t need extra leverage here.
He released Ryouma’s wrist and caught Ryouma’s hand instead, pulling it up to his face. Very carefully, he pressed Ryouma’s fingertips to his masked mouth. Not a kiss, precisely; it laid the edge of his canine against the focus of Ryouma’s deadliest jutsu. A reminder, on both sides, and a gesture, that he was thinking of more than friendship.
Ryouma swallowed slowly.
Kakashi said, “If I change my mind, will you hate me?”
“Now? Or later? No.” Ryouma’s voice had rusted. He still didn’t pull away; he was watching Kakashi, eyes so dark Kakashi couldn’t tell where pupil bled into iris. “I’d understand, now. I might not later. But I’d try.”
That was honest, and fair. Kakashi said, “Would you hate yourself?”
Ryouma inhaled. “Would it matter?” He answered himself before Kakashi could. “It would. I didn’t think it would. But you’d care.”
Kakashi examined the way his own heart clenched a little, like a bird-watcher studying a strange and rare specimen, and decided that rapping his knuckles on the top of Ryouma’s head would ruin the moment. He traded honesty back. “Yes, I’d care.”
“Well, if you changed your mind, maybe it’s because you hate me,” Ryouma shot back. His tone said: Did you ever think of that, genius? “Maybe I’d do something worth hating. Or maybe you’d just— figure out something better. I’d understand that.”
Kakashi revisited the knuckle-rapping idea, but decided that the moment, while increasingly battered, might still be salvageable. After all, he’d presented Ryouma with a worst-case scenario. Ryouma was allowed to offer one back.
“Maybe we’ll both die next week,” he said at last. “It’s actually more likely, on the balance, than you doing something worse than I’ve already seen, or a queue of people with suicidal taste lining up to steal me.” In a weird way, it was a comforting thought. His mouth crooked. “You have seven days to live. What do you want to do tonight?”
“I feel like I should say something about ‘suicidal taste,’ but…” Ryouma propped himself up on one elbow, so that he could look down at Kakashi. “Tonight, I want—” He stopped, and his throat moved with another swallow. Very slowly, he rubbed his fingertips over Kakashi’s masked mouth, making the skin tingle. “But I don’t know what you want. You didn’t, before.”
“Before, we’d known each other ten minutes and you asked me if I topped or bottomed,” Kakashi pointed out dryly.
“It was more like ten days, but— that’s fair.” Ryouma’s fingers curled around the angle of Kakashi’s jaw, leaving his thumb free to drag gently back and forth along the edge of Kakashi’s lower lip, as if Ryouma was mapping the contour. “Is it different now?”
A warm, electric shiver rolled down Kakashi’s spine, ending rather lower and warmer, and— well, okay, that confirmed he was interested in something tonight. He lifted himself up, closing the gap until there was a breath and a glimmer between them, and said, with a voice lower than he meant it, “Yes.”
It felt like a key fitting into a lock, like the final handseal that opened up the conduit for chakra to flow through. Like Ryouma’d turned a corner in an unmapped city and found himself on the broad straight road leading to the Hokage’s Palace. He knew what to do, finally. He wouldn’t go wrong.
He tucked his chin, slid his thumb down, and pressed his mouth carefully to the outline of Kakashi’s lips.
Ryouma’s abortive fantasies had never quite dealt with the problem of kissing through a mask. There was pressure, and a very faint fuzziness of close-woven cloth. No slickness of spit or taste of teeth, but when he let his lips part very slightly, he felt the veiled movement of Kakashi’s mouth against his. Eager, almost hungry, opening in return: Ryouma could feel the warmth of his filtered breath.
He found the masked border of Kakashi’s lower lip again, and drew it very gently between his own.
Kakashi made a surprised little huff of breath, but it rumbled into a note of deeper approval before Ryouma could break off. He dropped his hand to grip Ryouma’s shirt, tugging him in. The other hand drifted along the edge of Ryouma’s cheek, then sank into his hair, flexing against the shape of his skull.
Ryouma gave in to long-buried yearning and spread his own hand along the sharp edge of Kakashi’s jaw, below the velvet of his earlobe, to the nape-grazing fringe of his overgrown hair. It was as thick and soft as in Ryouma’s memory, the bones of his skull strong and clean beneath it. The collar of his mask came up only to the third cervical vertebra; there was bare skin above it, a finger-thin strip beneath his hair, like some forbidden secret. Kakashi shivered.
Slow. Don’t push. Whether Ryouma had seven days to live or seven years, he didn’t want Kakashi hating him after this; he didn’t want to hate himself. He teased his tongue over the shape of Kakashi’s lip beneath the mask, and murmured, “Changed your mind yet?”
Kakashi pulled back. He was faintly flushed above the skewed border of his mask, and breathing harder than two minutes of mild exertion should account for. “About topping or bottoming?”
If Ryouma didn’t redden even more, it was only because most of his blood seemed to have already fled southward. Where there wasn’t really room for it, between the tightness of his uniform pants and the secure fit of his protective cup. Why were they still in uniform again?
He drew a deep breath. “Don’t need to worry about that, if you’d rather not. This… this’s good.”
Kakashi gave him the long, thoughtful look that meant gears turning behind his eyes, then leaned up again. His mouth pressed against Ryouma’s, firmer, insistent; his mask was damp in a way that felt almost like skin. Ryouma felt a groan climbing up his throat.
The hand tightened in his shirt. Kakashi spoke against his mouth, voice a rumble. “Tell me what you want to do.”
You was not a helpful answer.
“This’s good,” Ryouma managed, again. “Maybe… a little closer.” He rotated his shoulder, leaning in, and Kakashi sank back beneath him: down onto his back in the cool springing grass, his hands still gripping Ryouma’s shirt and threaded in his hair, drawing Ryouma down after him. One of Ryouma’s hands cushioned Kakashi’s head from the ground, but the other was free; after a moment he curved it against Kakashi’s side and felt Kakashi’s chest rise against him.
He could feel his own heart pounding. He’d done this so many times, and never like this before. He should have fantasized more, instead of yanking his thoughts back from too-dangerous ground. He’d have a list then, he’d know what to do, what would be good, what wouldn’t make Kakashi run…
“Let me suck your cock,” he said, into the side of Kakashi’s mouth. “You don’t have to take your mask off. I’ll make it good.”
Kakashi made a startled little sound, breath caught on a hiss. His grip tightened in Ryouma’s shirt, then slowly unclenched. His left hand lifted. Ryouma had one glimpse of Kakashi’s eye narrowed, intent, and then Kakashi’s palm sealed over Ryouma’s eyes. The pulse in the base of his thumb beat against Ryouma’s cheek.
His other hand left Ryouma’s hair. Cloth rustled.
Ryouma drew a breath. Is he—? He wouldn’t really—
Then Kakashi’s lips met his, bare, close-mouthed and gentle. They lingered before they drew away. “You already are.”
Ryouma closed his eyes. His heart hammered against the cage of his ribs. He could feel his lashes brush Kakashi’s palm. The darkness made no difference, but Kakashi had unmasked, and somehow that was all the difference in the world. “Can I taste you?”
“Yes.” Kakashi sounded puzzled, but willing.
Ryouma leaned down, into the pressure of Kakashi’s hand. He found the upper edge of Kakashi’s mouth first. He traced his tongue along the seam of Kakashi’s lips, and they parted for him. The floral, earthy taste of sake lingered on Kakashi’s breath. His mouth was hot and wet and his tongue met Ryouma’s, and then the sharp edge of a tooth grazed Ryouma’s lip…
“Fuck,” Ryouma said, involuntarily. He barely kept himself from rubbing against Kakashi’s thigh. “Don’t do that, it’s too good. Let me—”
Kakashi bit him, very lightly. Ryouma groaned.
A laugh vibrated deep in the back of Kakashi’s throat and through his chest. He pushed at Ryouma’s shoulder, tipping him back and then over again. The thick grass padded Ryouma’s head and tickled his skin. Kakashi’s leg hooked over his hip. Their chests bumped as Ryouma breathed.
“Keep your eyes closed,” Kakashi murmured. His lips brushed the curve of Ryouma’s ear.
Ryouma shuddered. “Yes.”
The pressure left his face. Kakashi nipped at Ryouma’s earlobe, and then the hinge of his jaw. He licked the delicate skin under the shadow of Ryouma’s ear, closed his teeth, and sucked. Ryouma strained against him, swearing, sweating. “Fuck, Kakashi, that’s good—”
The tightness in his pants was growing painful and far less pleasant. He fumbled a hand down between them, found the fastening, stopped. Kakashi hadn’t agreed, and it might be too much.
If he left it, the pain of the cup would wilt him quickly enough. But if Kakashi kept biting him—
Kakashi’s teeth set in the hollow of his throat, and Ryouma jerked. His eyes almost sprung open before he clenched them shut. “Ow. Fuck!”
“Sorry, sorry.” Kakashi gave the mark a quick, apologetic little kiss and rolled Ryouma’s high collar back up. His weight settled back on Ryouma’s thighs, and his palms explored down Ryouma’s sides. They hesitated at hip-level. Two fingers tapped the back of Ryouma’s wrist, over his belt. “Need some help?”
Ryouma almost opened his eyes. He caught himself at the first lash-fringed flicker of lantern light, and squeezed them tightly shut. “Just need the cup out. I can do it. Unless you want…?”
There was maybe the edge of a plea in his voice.
Kakashi laughed again, that unexpected rumble deep in his chest. He unlatched the belt, twisted the fastening open, and filched the cup out as quickly and economically as a man picking pockets. Ryouma barely felt his touch.
He was still breathing out relief when Kakashi’s weight shifted, lightly up and then settling back down over his hips. The cold metal of another open belt brushed Ryouma’s lower belly. Kakashi eased down again, flattening Ryouma beneath him in the grass, and nipped gently at his jaw. “You’re allowed to touch, you know. I took most of the knives out already.”
“Sorry. I’m not usually this shy.” That wasn’t the right word, but he couldn’t think of a better. Could hardly think at all, with Kakashi nosing and nibbling at his throat, Kakashi’s lean muscle pressing him down, the promise of Kakashi’s interest hardening against his hip. He turned his hand blindly between them, and grazed the cold blunt teeth of a zipper.
“Stop me if this’s too much,” he said. His fingertips brushed a swell of warm cotton.
Kakashi made a strangled sound on the edge of incoherency. His forehead dropped against Ryouma’s sternum. He ground his hips down into Ryouma’s hand, seeking friction.
This, Ryouma could give to him. He worked his hand inside the open fly, rubbing rhythmically, then pressing down. Kakashi groaned. His hips stuttered against Ryouma, and his hand flexed and closed against Ryouma’s bare flank, under the rucked-up shirt. The scent of his hair and the rising musk of his arousal warmed the air, intoxicating.
Ryouma rolled his palm over the round welcome weight of Kakashi’s balls, pulled back up to tease his thumb over the damp head pressing against the waistband of Kakashi’s trunks. Kakashi made a rough, muffled noise and bit at Ryouma’s chest. His teeth just missed the nipple ring. Ryouma gasped aloud anyway.
“Roll back,” he managed, when he caught his breath again. “Let me up. Wanna suck you.”
There might have been thought in there, somewhere, but mostly there was movement, and then there was grass under Kakashi’s back. Ryouma rolled with him; Kakashi might have hauled him. He was a dark, curving weight between Kakashi and the sky, muscled and solid, roiling storm-scent like the edge of a thunderhead, and his hand had stopped moving.
Kakashi made a frankly embarrassing noise, which Ryouma responded to by accidentally kneeing him in the thigh.
Vision would probably be helpful at this point.
He could— No, he couldn’t. He fumbled his mask up to the bridge of his nose. It clung damply to his mouth, a reassurance and an irritation, catching hot breath and trapping it against his skin. “Mask’s up, you can look.”
Ryouma had been keeping his eyes squeezed shut — fighting every shinobi instinct against making himself voluntarily blind. He opened them now, blinking a little in the lantern light. He looked down at Kakashi and drew a long breath. “You’re beautiful.”
Kakashi felt rumpled, overhot, and needy. He gave a raspy snort. “You don’t have to flatter, you’re already in my pants.”
Ryouma flashed a smile at him, sweet and wicked, then lowered his gaze and slid down Kakashi’s body, settling between Kakashi’s legs. “That’s a beautiful place to be, too.” Leisurely, teasingly, he eased Kakashi’s pants down his hips, tugged his trunks down, and wrapped a hot, callused hand around Kakashi’s cock.
Kakashi’s head thumped back against the grass. His heartbeat was jackrabbit fast and his skin was far, far too sensitive. Every imperfection scarred into Ryouma’s fingertips dragged sparking sensation across his nerves. And that was just Ryouma’s hand.
A rough thumb rubbed over the glans, smearing pre-cum, and Kakashi jerked and swore. It wasn’t like he’d never masturbated before — the village might think he was frigid, but he was still a teenager with a healthy imagination — but it was radically different to have someone else setting the pace. Ryouma pressed a hot, startling kiss against the inside of Kakashi’s thigh, because he was a jerk who enjoyed making Kakashi twitch.
Romantically, Kakashi knocked his knee against the side of Ryouma’s head. “Ryouma.”
Ryouma flicked a glance up through his eyelashes, and grinned. The lantern light flickered gold in his eyes. “Used my name again. That deserves a reward.” He lowered his head and licked a burning hot stripe up the underside of Kakashi’s cock.
Little bits of Kakashi’s brain fused together, melting into nonsense and holy fuck and a convulsive clench that dug his nails into the palms of his hands. He managed to keep his spine on the ground. Quick, scattered thoughts tumbled by: We should blow the lantern out. Is this too fast, am I being stupid? I really want him to do that again.
His breath shivered out between his teeth. “Did you just try positive reinforcement on me?”
“Did it work?” Ryouma asked smugly. He leaned down and hot, slick warmth wrapped around the head of Kakashi’s cock, followed by light suction, and Kakashi just… stopped having thoughts for a while.
One of Ryouma’s hands anchored on his hip, keeping him steady; the other circled firmly around the base of Kakashi’s cock, adding pressure. Somehow, Kakashi’s hands ended up in Ryouma’s hair. He didn’t yank, he had better manners than that, but he did clench a little harder than necessary.
“Definitely… working,” he managed.
Ryouma darted another glance upwards, meeting Kakashi’s eye with a grin, and took Kakashi deeper. Kakashi groaned, completely involuntary. Ryouma hummed, sending vibrations racing though Kakashi’s skin, and took complete charge with a practiced, certain skill that made the one undistracted part of Kakashi’s mind want to take notes. His tongue was evil. He worked his mouth and hand together, licking and teasing, modulating pressure and heat, occasionally slipping back to play with Kakashi’s balls, which was a little strange and surprisingly nice, before finally devoting himself to sliding his mouth all the way down to the base of Kakashi’s cock, and that was Ryouma’s throat.
Kakashi whined. He didn’t mean to. It just spilled out, voiceless and wanting, as his spine arched and his hips stuttered. A dark, vicious part of him just wanted to fuck Ryouma’s face, knowing Ryouma would like it. The rest of him knew he wasn’t going to last that long. He clenched his hands warningly, hard in Ryouma’s hair, and bit out, “Ryouma—”
Fortunately, Ryouma didn’t require an explanation. The hand against Kakashi’s hip tightened, reassuring, and an ANBU sign pressed into Kakashi’s hipbone: Go.
Kakashi didn’t want to, it was too fast, goddamn Ryouma’s talented mouth, goddamn the tanuki sake, he wanted to stay here a little longer, teetering on the crest where his whole body was golden and melting and so, so good. He bit his lip and held back.
Ryouma's thumb pressed into the soft, sensitive skin at the central juncture between Kakashi's legs, jolting something deep and electric and ascendent, and Kakashi didn't so much fall over the edge as get shoved over.
It was like getting hit with lightning again, in the best possible way. His entire body clenched and surged and unwound all at once, and thought went away entirely.
He came back to himself some unknown amount of time later, sweat-soaked and gasping, little aftershocks still shuddering through him, and thought, wow.
Then he looked down at Ryouma and rasped, "What—?"
Ryouma leaned up over him, wiped his mouth, and grinned. "Perineal node."
Kakashi blinked, gasped a laugh, and whacked Ryouma on the side of the head. "Asshole."
“Awesome,” Ryouma corrected. “That was better than books, wasn’t it?” He ran his tongue around the inside of his teeth, swallowed again, and decided smugly, “Much better.”
Kakashi’s abdominal muscles heaved with the effort of catching his breath. They’d pushed his shirt up, just a little; sweat gleamed in the hollow of his navel, bracketed by the puckered dimples of old blast burns. Ryouma wanted to lick it, but—
Maybe better to wait for Kakashi’s agreement, first. If he did agree.
Of course he would. Ryouma knew he was good; hell, from the amount of time it’d taken Kakashi to speak again, he must’ve been spectacular. Still, until the first full sentence, you could never quite be sure…
“The books are responsible for your flashcard education,” Kakashi said primly.
Good enough, Ryouma decided, and licked a long streak up the pale, sparse trail of hair from Kakashi’s groin to his navel. Kakashi shuddered beneath him. His hand flexed in Ryouma’s hair.
“I could keep showing off my education,” Ryouma suggested. He licked three framing strokes around Kakashi’s navel and came back for the central components: 肉. He wasn’t sure he’d remember all the strokes for the next character 棒, but maybe Kakashi wouldn’t notice. “You could tell me what you like from the books…”
Kakashi’s skin quivered beneath him, like a horse shivering at a fly. His hand dropped from Ryouma’s hair, fisted in the front of Ryouma’s shirt, and hauled him up the long lean length of Kakashi’s torso. His chest still heaved, but Ryouma wasn’t exactly breathing easy either. Especially not when Kakashi’s knee slid between Ryouma’s thighs, delicious friction and pressure. Ryouma’s breath hissed through his teeth. He rested his forearms in the grass on either side of Kakashi’s head and let his weight come down a little more heavily on Kakashi’s body.
Kakashi made a sound more stirred than squashed, and tugged Ryouma flat. His thigh rocked against Ryouma’s groin. “Tell me something you want.”
He hadn’t exactly been worried that Kakashi might not want to reciprocate, but it still eased something indefinite in him. He ground down against Kakashi’s leg. “Just… this’d be good. Or your hand. If you want.”
“Mm.” Kakashi’s chest vibrated with the sound, like a purring cat. His left hand dragged down Ryouma’s back, found the hem of his shirt, and shoved it up. The graze of his short nails trailed sparks up Ryouma’s nerves. Ryouma was steel-hard again, and when Kakashi’s hand scratched down once more to flirt with the back of Ryouma’s waistband, Ryouma might have moaned.
Kakashi caught his breath, shifted, and worked his other hand down between them. Ryouma lifted his hips obligingly. Kakashi found the open belt and fly, traced a curious outline around the front of Ryouma’s trunks, and then pushed down the waistband and curled his warm hand around Ryouma’s cock.
Ryouma definitely moaned. He shoved his hips down, rubbing against sword-callus and softness, the gentle cradle of Kakashi’s palm and the hard press of his fingers. Kakashi changed his grip and tried a slow, easy rhythm. His hand was dry and rough, but the pressure was perfect and the friction just shy of too much, and his taste still lingered on Ryouma’s tongue.
Then his other hand worked beneath the band of Ryouma’s trunks and gripped Ryouma’s ass, while his right thumb pressed against Ryouma’s slit, and Ryouma gasped and bucked and swore. “Fuck you’re a quick learner. Your books teach this? Or you been thinking of it?”
There was something almost feral in Kakashi’s rumbled laughter. Ryouma looked up to catch the blown-wide gleam of Kakashi’s pupil thinly ringed by grey. He entirely missed the signaling shift before Kakashi flipped them over in one sleek, perfectly leveraged movement, all muscle and sinew.
Ryouma’s back thumped into the grass. His pants were halfway down his ass, his shirt shoved partly up his chest. Kakashi leaned over, pinched out the lantern, and settled back onto Ryouma’s thighs with his other hand still wrapped firmly around Ryouma’s cock. In the sudden darkness he was a shadow cut against starlight, the moonglow catching only at his hair.
He leaned down, and Ryouma felt the filtered warmth of breath against his neck again. “Have I thought about jerking you off?” The damp mask nosed at the soft skin under his ear. Kakashi tightened his grip and twisted his wrist. “Once or twice.”
Ryouma had to work up moisture to spit into his hand. He reached down, smearing slickness over Kakashi’s hand and his own cock, and gripped convulsively for Kakashi’s thigh as Kakashi grazed a fingertip over the frenulum. “When?”
Kakashi’s free hand folded gently over Ryouma’s eyes, a silent question.
They’d kissed bare-mouthed already, Ryouma’d sucked his cock, but—
Ryouma closed his eyes.
After a moment he felt the hand leave his face. He heard the rustle of cloth again, becoming familiar. Sharp teeth nipped at the edge of his jaw. “When I was alone.”
Ryouma groaned, straining up against him. “Couldn’t’ve been...after the kitchen.”
Kakashi dragged his fingers up and down Ryouma’s cock, setting a new rhythm now that he had slickness to play with. A kiss pressed the corner of Ryouma’s mouth. “After Embers. Before this mission.”
After they’d drunk together, and danced, and talked about Ryouma’s sex life. After Ryouma’d turned down Ginta’s welcome offers and walked Kakashi back to his door.
After Kakashi’d chased him with dogs, pinned him on his back in the forest, straddled his thighs just like this, put a knife and then a hand to his throat…
Or maybe after they’d patched the holes in Genma’s house, when Ryouma’d taken off his shirt, and they’d worked together like friends.
Ryouma turned his head blindly, found the edge of Kakashi’s mouth, breathed him in. “I wanted you. Didn’t think it was fair to you. Thought it’d be enough just being your friend. But this’s good. Better’n good. Fuck, keep doing that...”
Kakashi held still, for a moment. His circling fingers tugged thoughtfully at the head of Ryouma’s cock. Then he made a soft, pleased sound against Ryouma’s mouth and pressed back, lips parting, trading breath and tongues, sucking Ryouma’s lower lip in and then slowly releasing it between grazing teeth.
“I want both,” he said.
Ryouma’s brain stuttered over those simple words, for a moment. Or maybe it was the curious, intent hand fondling his balls, squeezing lightly then dragging nails up the underside. He gasped, found Kakashi’s mouth again by bare chance, mumbled into him: “You can have ‘em.”
Kakashi laughed, and kissed him, and bit his lip. He peeled Ryouma’s collar down again, sucked bruises into his throat; shoved Ryouma down when he bucked, and pinned him with a forearm across the collarbones while he worked Ryouma’s cock with his other hand.
Every touch quivered through Ryouma’s nerves. He panted open-mouthed, thrusting against Kakashi’s hand. Kakashi bit at Ryouma’s nipple ring, and Ryouma almost cried out, catching himself just in time with a clamped jaw and fingers digging into Kakashi’s shoulders. Kakashi seemed to like even muffled noises, though, and the strength of Ryouma’s grip didn’t send him shying off. He tugged at the ring with his teeth, and pressed the tip of his thumb against the underside of the glans again.
Ryouma’s skin seemed to be made of fire. “Almost there,” he grated out. “Do that again—”
Kakashi made a low, urgent, encouraging sound, twisting the ring between teeth and tongue. His breath felt like steam against Ryouma’s chest, and his tongue struck electric sparks. He pumped his hand up Ryouma’s cock, pressed the frenulum, did it again, until Ryouma’s hips shuddered and his back arched. Then Kakashi lifted his head and stretched up over Ryouma’s body, still stroking Ryouma’s cock.
His voice was a rolling growl against the shell of Ryouma’s ear. “Come, Ryouma.”
Ryouma shook himself apart, with Kakashi’s voice still wrapped around his name.
He blinked the world back slowly, lashes brushing something warm and dark. Kakashi’s hand. The pressure was gone from his sternum and shoulders, but still pinned him down at the hips. From the faint rustling sound, Kakashi seemed to be wiping his other hand in the grass.
An hour ago Ryouma might have been uncertain. Now he felt too wrung out and sated for anything but a mild lazy interest. He closed his eyes again. “Y’can clean up with those bandages. Or the pond.”
“That would require moving,” Kakashi said.
His hand still glistened under the moonlight; grass wasn’t much of a towel. Curiously, he touched one fingertip to his tongue, and wrinkled his nose. Salty, a little like chlorine, an edge of sour apple. Ryouma seemed to like it. Maybe it was an acquired taste?
He wiped his hand on the grass again, and pulled his mask back up. His other hand was still curved protectively over Ryouma’s eyes; he withdrew it now and laid himself down on Ryouma’s chest with a comfortable sigh, fitting his head into the curve of Ryouma’s throat.
Ryouma wrapped both arms around Kakashi, quite naturally, without the awkward hitch he normally employed before a gesture. One arm settled across Kakashi’s shoulders, warm and solid. The other hand cradled Kakashi’s head, playing gently with his hair. “I’m probably still sticky,” Ryouma said.
“My pants are still undone. Are we supposed to be dignified?”
Ryouma snickered into Kakashi’s hair. “Well, maybe not us.”
Kakashi huffed softly, and basked in the burning leaves satisfaction rolling off Ryouma’s skin. There were thoughts he needed to attend to crowding up his spine, but he wanted a few minutes to just be. Ryouma’s nails scratched gently between his shoulderblades, and Kakashi stretched with a contented shiver. The rapid beat of Ryouma’s pulse was steadying under his ear, winding down to a shinobi’s slow rhythm. Sweat gleamed in the hollow of Ryouma’s throat. And they were here.
So that’s what sex feels like.
In the grand scheme, it was a small moment, but part of Kakashi was startled and victorious that he hadn’t buckled and bolted. This time, this time, he hadn’t panicked. He hadn’t hurt anyone. He’d had an orgasm at someone else’s hands. He’d made Ryouma orgasm. He’d… had an effectively normal human experience.
On a mission. Which was a thought he wasn’t going to examine too closely, because it flouted about fifteen different rules and was also massively stupid. But so were Himself’s magical testicles, so.
Ryouma drew a deeper breath, making his chest rise like a wave that carried Kakashi with it. There was something about being lifted by the simple strength of Ryouma’s ribs that was strangely comforting. Kakashi curled his hand around the ridged muscle of Ryouma’s flank, and asked, “Do you mind that I didn’t give you a blowjob?”
Drowsily, Ryouma said, “I like your teeth other places than my cock.”
Kakashi laughed, embarrassed and pleased, and tipped his chin up to press a masked kiss against a telltale scratch on Ryouma’s jaw. He paused there. With the urgency spent, it was a much more deliberate act to put his mouth on Ryouma. Was kissing a thing they did now? Did Ryouma like to kiss afterwards?
Icha Icha had been a little light on post-coital pillow talk that wasn’t about the saving or destruction of nations, or family politics. Kakashi needed a protocol map.
Ryouma, sleepy and relaxed, didn't seem to have noticed the hesitation. He lowered his head easily and met Kakashi with a straightforward kiss. He didn't seem to notice the mask, either, even though it was damp and a little chilled now. Or perhaps he just didn't care. "I really liked what you did. And I really liked what I did. So long's you liked it, too, we're all good."
A glow settled in Kakashi’s chest. He smiled and kissed back — a little more enthusiastically than Ryouma had expected, judging by the muffled laugh. When they broke apart, Kakashi said, “Next time, I want to try a bed.”
Ryouma blinked, face gone blank. Kakashi gave him the moment to process, because he knew what he’d said and what it meant, and he knew Ryouma had expected something different.
Very carefully, Ryouma said, “You can still change your mind. But if you don’t… I can wash my sheets. Any time.”
A small, distant part of Kakashi’s brain noted: Remember this moment. It’s the most romantic thing anyone has ever said to you.
The rest of him wanted to crow at Successfully Navigating Pillow Talk (one hundred points!), but what actually came out of his mouth was: "The same goes for you." Ryouma tilted his head, puzzled, and Kakashi clarified. "About changing your mind. You can, you know."
“Oh.” Ryouma was still for a moment. Then, with the returning spark of challenge in his eyes, “I do know how to say no, y’know.”
Not, Kakashi thought, when it counted, but perhaps this was something Ryouma hadn’t realized about himself yet.
“Good,” he said simply. And added, with almost complete truth, “I like it when you argue with me.”
Enlightenment dawned slowly across Ryouma’s face. “We’ve argued a lot.”
“I’m bad at flirting,” Kakashi said.
Ryouma laughed — just laughed, helpless and delighted, like a weight had been lifted and he could finally get air into his lungs. His arm slipped down to Kakashi’s waist and tightened; he rolled them both over with an easy show of strength, and braced himself over Kakashi, looking down. “Those times you kicked me in the head?”
The sheer predatoriness of it made Kakashi’s pulse jump. He reclined on his back, in the cage of Ryouma’s arms, and enjoyed the hot, red shiver that came entirely from the hindbrain. He was learning all sorts of things about himself today.
“Sixty percent necessary.” He placed a testing hand on the center of Ryouma’s chest, and pushed. He might as well have tried to push a wall. Kakashi grinned.
“Well, I needed it sometimes,” Ryouma admitted. “But in the future, I like biting better.”
Kakashi kept a straight face. “That is brand new information.”
“Use it wisely,” Ryouma advised, and yawned.
That effectively doused the stirring embers of new interest. Kakashi let them go without regret. One tumble in the — admittedly dark and secluded — outdoors was risky enough. Two was just courting disaster. Tanuki. Superior officers. Pakkun.
Where was Pakkun?
This time, he shoved Ryouma’s chest with intent, and Ryouma rolled aside to let him up. Kakashi rose in a shower of grass and rumpled clothes, and took a renewed look at himself and Ryouma. Sweaty, bruised, and in Ryouma’s case, obviously debauched. Red-bitten mouth, marked throat, silvery trails still drying on his bare stomach and hiked-up shirt. Kakashi had matching evidence on his own shirt, because Ryouma had been right about being sticky. A change of clothes was unlikely; they couldn’t unseal a scroll without chakra. So, the pond.
It was colder than it looked.
Shivering, they bent and scrubbed in the dark water, and Ryouma heroically did not make sad comments about the lack of soap. Fortunately, the fight with the tanuki had left plenty of dirt. They didn't need to be immaculate; they just had to achieve acceptable mission-levels of grime, which was doable in pond water and moonlight.
When they splashed back to dry, leech-less land, Kakashi re-stowed his weaponry and studied the final result with a critical eye. Grubby but less obviously sex-rumpled. Ryouma’s turtleneck ANBU shirt hid his throat. There wasn’t much they could do about his mouth or the scratch on his jaw, but he splashed cold water on his face. Kakashi poked one of his own shoulders, and couldn’t decide if the pleasant aches from Ryouma’s hard grip were going to turn into bruises or not. They’d probably blend in with the aftermath of the wolves, if they did.
He kept wanting to touch Ryouma. Not in any particularly sexy way; he just wanted his hands on Ryouma, wanted them skin-to-skin, wanted…
He yawned, surprising himself.
Sleep. Preferably on Ryouma. Which wouldn’t raise any officer eyebrows, of course not. Or cause Kurenai to make notes.
He rubbed his face. “Bonfire? It’ll be warm.”
“And comes with a side of judgemental officers, I bet,” Ryouma said, but cheerfully. He seemed relaxed, in a loose-limbed, amiable way, as if they’d quieted whatever mental itch usually kept him fidgety and restless. He stooped to gather up the discarded cups and bandages, looked around for something to do with them, and then prosaically shoved his cup down the front of his own pants again.
“I’m open to suggestions,” Kakashi said.
“Judgemental officers are fine! What’re they gonna do, ground us from the next mission? Anyway, Sakamoto told me it’s not actually against the rules.” Ryouma handed Kakashi his own cup. “Are your dogs gonna disapprove?”
‘Sakamoto says it’s okay’ was not their most stellar argument, Kakashi reflected, since it would give the officers hives. Even if he was right. Kakashi had studied ANBU’s regulations; there was nothing in them that prohibited fraternization outright.
“Depends on the dog,” he said, since that was the more important question anyway. “Probably not. Kin’s already adopted you. Pakkun will have opinions, but you’re allowed to ignore them.”
“Pretty sure Pakkun thinks I’m an idiot, but, y’know, maybe he’ll be okay with me being your idiot.” Ryouma paused.
The wind blew swift, silver ripples over the surface of the pond.
Ryouma said, “Not that I’m staking any claims. Just let me know. Do you want a hand with that cup?”
Smooth. Kakashi had reserved the right to change his mind, but, looking briefly inward, he didn’t find the desire to. Nerves, yes. Uncertainty, yes. But also curiosity, excitement, and a very definitive list of things he wanted to try next.
He stowed the cup back into place, leaned deliberately and reassuringly against Ryouma’s side, and said, “We’ll figure out definitions later. Right now, you owe me a gentlemanly walk to the fire and pillow talk.” He considered this. “Also a pillow.”
“I’ll see how far the tanuki’s hospitality extends.” That was gentlemanly, right? He hadn’t said anything about Kakashi being welcome to use Ryouma himself as a pillow. Though, if pillow talk meant what it sounded like…
He wasn’t going to overthink this. He pulled his thoughts back, with a surprising ease. There was pleasure enough in this moment now, in Kakashi’s strong shoulder against his side, in the lazy echoes of warmth curling through his veins, in the promised possibility of next time and later. He didn’t need to chase after the future, or run from it.
Feel whatever you’re gonna feel.
He’d have to thank Raidou for that, someday.
Though the orgasm probably also had something to do with it. Ryouma grinned to himself, stretched, and dropped his arm casually along Kakashi’s shoulders. “Tell me if this isn’t gentlemanly enough.”
Kakashi didn’t pull away. He didn’t even tense. He looped his arm around Ryouma’s hips, anchoring his thumb in Ryouma’s waistband. His shoulders shivered with soft laughter under Ryouma’s arm. “It’s a start.”
When he wasn’t overthinking, it was astonishingly easy to move. Ryouma turned half a step, bent his head, and kissed Kakashi over the mask. “Better?”
A momentary blink, then Kakashi’s eye curved with a smile. He stretched up to return the kiss, rising high enough to suggest he’d gone up onto the balls of his feet. His breath warmed the mask, and the muscles of his arm hardened against Ryouma’s back. “Keep it up.”
“I’ll try.” Ryouma straightened. He left his arm where it was, and so did Kakashi.
They picked up the dark lantern and circled the pond again, returning towards the dying-orange flames of bonfire. Grass bent soft and fresh beneath their feet, and the cool evening breeze flirted in Ryouma's hair. Shadows fell gently here, concealing secrets without danger.
Ryouma tipped his head back again to study the huge silver-bright moon climbing up among the stars. Gentlemen recited poetry to their lovers under the moon, didn’t they? At least, the doomed noblemen of the Five Rings Cycle did, though admittedly he was usually falling asleep by that point in the second film and hadn’t bothered to memorize any of it. He wished he’d paid more attention, now.
Maybe Shuriken Force counted. Ryouma hummed his way through the opening bars of two songs and settled on a third. Kakashi leaned a little against Ryouma’s shoulder, and seemed to listen.
They rounded the curve of the pond. The bonfire was burning lower, almost unattended. A few sleepy tanuki elders sat on a log bench, smoking long-stemmed pipes and sharing a jar of sake. The children had evidently all been bundled off to bed, along with the dancers and musicians. Himself’s vast wooden platform lay empty under the moonlight, but soft light shone in the windows of a few thatch-roofed homes.
Ryouma didn’t see Harubi or her children, or the officers. His discarded armor wasn’t quite where he’d left it, either, but after a moment he spotted a tidy pile of gear near the bonfire, guarded by two of Kakashi’s sleeping dogs. Saishou and Yori lay nose to tail, firelight shining in their fur. Their heads lifted, drowsily, as Kakashi neared.
Ryouma dropped his arm.
Kakashi’s fingers left his waistband, too. But they skimmed gently across Ryouma’s lower back before his hand dropped, and he didn’t step far from Ryouma’s side. He made an enquiring noise in the back of his throat, halfway between a dog’s bark and a man’s lilting question.
Saishou heaved her hindquarters up and stretched out the long line of her spine, toes spread and jaws gaping with her yawn. She settled again, yipping softly. The tilt of her ears spoke an eloquent language Ryouma couldn’t quite understand.
Kakashi said, puzzled, “Taichou and the lieutenant went to take...a bath?”
Grey-muzzled Yori rolled over with a grumbling sound. Probably something like I’m too old and tired for this nonsense, Ryouma guessed. He glanced expectantly at Kakashi.
“With Yuuhi,” Kakashi interpreted. “And Himself.”
“I’m sorry, I think you lost something in translation,” Ryouma said. “The officers went to take a bath with the terrifying Intel agent and a literal tanuki god?”
Kakashi lifted an eyebrow at Saishou. She barked once. Kakashi looked back at Ryouma. “Yes.”
“Okay, then.” Ryouma stared at the tired dogs, at the neat pile of gear: not just armor, he realized, but the confiscated lumps of packs and utility belts, weapons and scrolls. He didn’t see Genma or Raidou’s armor there. “Point in our favor: the officers can never judge us for reckless decisions ever again.”
“I suspect that won’t stop them,” Kakashi said dryly.
Saishou’s ears flicked forward, as if in amused agreement. Then she lifted her head, sniffing intently. Her ears pricked. She heaved her heavy belly up, crossed the trodden dust toward them, and reared up to plant her paws on Ryouma’s chest.
He almost lurched under the weight. Standing on her hind legs, she was nearly as tall as him, and her long teeth were very close to his face. She sniffed at his throat and jaw, her whiskers tickling against his ear. He held very still.
Something seemed to satisfy her. She licked his chin once and dropped back down to four paws. Then she headbutted Kakashi hard in the hip and trotted back to her spot by the fire.
Yori snorted, and settled his chin on folded paws.
“Did your dog just give me her blessing?” Ryouma asked, dazedly.
Kakashi’s skin shone just a little red in the dying firelight, above his mask. He scratched the back of his neck. “Yes.”
“Oh.” No one had ever approved of him before. He wasn’t sure what to do with his hands, either. Or with his face.
Standing here staring at Kakashi like an idiot until the officers came back probably wasn’t the best option. “Should we, uh, go make sure Yuuhi isn’t trying to assassinate a god?”
Kakashi’s eye crinkled again. “If—”
He stopped, head lifting.
Ryouma turned, and saw Himself looming up out of the darkness between the nearest houses. His fur glowed silver-white in the moonlight; he’d lost his hat and red neckerchief, but kept his pipe trailing smoke like mist. His scrotum had shrunken to an almost manageable scale, barely hampering his upright, bow-legged stride. A smaller tanuki trailed in his wake, carrying a pile of folded cloth so high she could barely see over it.
Himself stopped at the edge of the firelight, removed his pipe, and sniffed the air. He rumbled a deeply amused laugh. “Look who we’ve found, Fumi-chan! The well-bred man-kit and his faithful hound, back from their frolic by the pond.”
Ryouma stiffened. Himself smirked. “I don’t need to ask if you enjoyed yourselves.”
Assassinating a god didn’t seem like such a bad idea after all.
“Thanks for not asking, then,” Ryouma said coldly. “Where’s the rest of our team?”
Himself shook his massive head. “ ‘How fragile is the first spring blossom in the snow.’ ” It sounded like a quotation, though Ryouma didn’t recognize the source. The tanuki went on, in a gentler tone: “There’s no need to bristle your tail, kit. I’m delighted for your happiness. Just don’t let the pup’s bad manners rub off on you.”
“Hey,” Kakashi said mildly.
Ryouma looked back at him. Kakashi was standing easily, weight centered over one hip, nothing like a man tensed to fight or run. His flush had faded. He didn’t look embarrassed or angry, or even really annoyed. He hadn’t stepped away.
Maybe he didn’t mind.
Ryouma felt a little of the tension relax out of his own shoulders. He turned back to Himself. “I, uh, thanks. ‘Fragile’ is right, though, so if you could keep quiet about it…”
Himself waved an airy paw at Fumi, behind him. “See what you can find in that stack for these two.” As she set down the pile and began to rummage through, he gave a conspiratorial wink. “I’ll help you destroy the evidence. Change of clothes, erase those little bite marks. Your companions are engaged in a bath themselves, at the moment.”
Ryouma’s hand jumped to his jawline. By the fire, Yori snorted.
“Or you could give us our chakra back and we could do it ourselves,” Kakashi pointed out.
The tanuki drew thoughtfully on his pipe. “I’d have to take you out of the village. None of the adults have reason to suppress their auras here at home, and there are dozens of kits here, who couldn’t even if they tried. It would be much easier if you’d just let me help.”
Fumi held up two clean yukata, encouragingly.
If that was true, it answered one question that’d been nagging at Ryouma since smoke first bloomed and a statue fell. He scratched at the edge of his jaw. “Where’s Pakkun?”
That drew an unconcerned shrug. “The little pup with the big mouth? I couldn’t say. Is he likely to wander off by himself and get lost?”
That sounded honest. At least he wasn’t trying to lull them into false security. Ryouma looked back at Kakashi again.
Kakashi hesitated a moment, then lifted one shoulder. “We already drank the sake.”
“Good point.” Ryouma sighed and stripped off his shirt.
He couldn’t help the turn toward Kakashi, as he blinked free of blinding cloth. They’d barely half-undressed, by the pond: shirts shoved up, pants shoved down. Ryouma’d had his eyes closed half the time, and then Kakashi’d pinched the lantern out. Of course, Kakashi’d seen him shirtless before — seen him naked or nearly so, on nearly every mission they’d run. Still, would he look? Would he let Ryouma see in turn?
Yes, apparently, and no. Kakashi was standing still, slightly wind-tousled, wrapped in a boldly patterned blue and black yukata with a little too much extra cloth around the middle. He was still wearing his mask. Fumi blinked down at one empty paw, and then up at Kakashi. Himself removed his pipe long enough to cackle.
And Kakashi’s eye was on Ryouma, warm as the firelight. He didn’t look away when Ryouma unbuckled his pants, or when he stepped out of them and reached out to collect the green-and-white yukata Fumi held. It was knee-length on Ryouma and the wide panels could have lapped him twice around, but the belt tied snugly and the crisp cotton smelled of a hot iron and—
Ryouma sniffed. “Cherry blossom soap?”
Fumi looked delighted. Himself puffed approvingly. “Will you trust Fumi-chan with your laundry, or should I have her bring you some soap?”
Fumi looked significantly less delighted. She made a small whimper of protest. “This late?”
Kakashi, whose laundry contained both knives and Konoha secrets, said quickly, “Soap is fine.” He glanced at Ryouma. “Do you have orange blossom?”
The small tanuki brightened up again. “It’s not the season for orange blossom, but I’m sure I can find some of last year’s stock. I’ll leave it by your beds when I’m done with this errand.” She hefted up her stack of folded cloth and bustled off again, toward a lantern-lit path up a rising hill.
Ryouma said, hopefully, “Beds?”
“First things first.” Himself stepped closer, soft-footed despite his bulk. He bent his head to peer at each of them in turn. His eyes glittered, dark and depthless under his furrowed brow. Then he reached out and caught Ryouma’s chin with two delicate claws.
Kakashi made a short, bitten-off noise. Himself slanted an amused look at him. “Your turn next.” He reached back with his other paw to catch up an armful of his immense, fluffy white tail.
Fur brushed like snowflakes over Ryouma’s face, his head, his shoulders and chest. Himself rumbled thoughtfully, and an intense warmth itched for the span of two heartbeats in the bridge of Ryouma’s nose and the tip of his right ear. The warmth followed the sweep of the tanuki’s tail down Ryouma’s face, over his jaw and throat, flaring briefly in the scar-knotted muscle over his left shoulderblade and the new seam on his right triceps. It faded halfway down his chest, as Himself’s tail fell away.
“That’s everything that would give you away to your friends,” the tanuki god announced. “And I cleaned up a few other little things while I was at it. Shall I do the rest of you? Your knee isn't unsightly, but..."
Ryouma felt, fumbling, for the angling divot in the top of his right ear, under his hair. His fingers found a flawless smooth curve.
“It didn’t match,” Himself explained.
Ryouma’s knee hadn’t buckled since the last session with Niimi-sensei, but it was seriously considering doing so now. His voice came like a croak. “That’s good enough…”
Himself’s claws tapped lightly on his chin, and released him. Ryouma stumbled back. The scratch on his jaw was gone. He pulled open his yukata, and found no reddened marks on his skin. His tattoo was still there, vivid red-blue-green in the firelight, and so was the nipple ring, but when he shoved the collar down his shoulder he found the striated line of Genma’s field-forced healing had disappeared into smooth, perfectly tanned skin. The old burn scar on the back of his right arm had faded nearly to invisibility.
Akiyama’s scar still shone livid across his wrist, with the wolf goddess’ teeth-marks above it. Himself’s healing had swept away every scar his tail touched, like a divine cosmetic brush. But he hadn’t gone below the elbow, and Ryouma didn’t know whether the clench in his chest was gratitude or anger.
He hadn’t liked any of those scars, but he’d earned them.
He let his breath out, slowly. “Better let Kakashi choose.”
For half of a very alarmed second, Kakashi thought Ryouma wanted him to choose which of Ryouma’s remaining scars should go. Forget definitions, that was not a level of intimacy he’d planned to achieve with anyone in his entire lifetime.
Then he realized what Ryouma actually meant. Kakashi’s scars. Kakashi’s choice.
That was… fractionally less alarming.
The bump on the bridge of Ryouma’s nose was gone. So was the mark of Iebara’s blood-stealing jutsu. So were a dozen other scars, collected from a lifetime of fights and falls. Faint lines from Ryouma’s chin, throat, and shoulders. Landmarks Kakashi had memorized on their first day as teammates, because they were the hardest details for an enemy to replicate in henge and illusion.
Kakashi tilted his head the other way, calming his own rapid heartbeat, and reframed his perspective. It was still Ryouma’s face: his sharp cheekbones, angled jaw, smart mouth. Dark eyes that went from worried to wrathful to playful at a moment’s notice.
Worried right now. Kakashi stepped closer, disregarding their audience, and reached up to brush his thumb over Ryouma’s jawline. Ryouma twitched slightly. Kakashi pressed down until the skin blanched, then let up; blood rushed back into his thumbprint, making a brief red mark. This close, Kakashi could see the faint imperfections: freckles, sun lines, the darker shadows under Ryouma’s eyes that were likely permanent.
He smiled at Ryouma, behind his mask. “Still you. Now you’re just extra pretty. And symmetrical, apparently.”
Ryouma flushed — another thing his skin did normally — and his mouth tugged up at the corners. “The nose isn’t too big now, is it?”
“Just straighter,” Kakashi assured.
That seemed to help. Ryouma settled more into himself, rubbing the bridge of his nose like he was trying to relearn the shape of it. “It, uh, didn’t hurt. Better than the wolves’ version, that way.”
“The wolves?” Himself said, credibly outraged. “The wolves have no finesse. Of course this was better. Were you really so attached to the bump on your nose? I could put it back, if you insist.”
“No, that’s okay, you don’t need to rebreak it,” Ryouma said, with enough alarm that Kakashi turned to put himself between the two of them. “This is great. I’m just— getting used to it again.” After a belated pause, he added politely: “Thank you. For the healing, and… the rest of your hospitality.”
Himself nodded, satisfied. “Good. It’s better to have your nose repaired. Better for breathing.” He inhaled deeply, demonstrating a point Kakashi reluctantly agreed with. “The rest was cosmetic.”
The silver tanuki’s gaze fell on Kakashi, almost interrogative. Kakashi considered his choices.
He shrugged the yukata off his shoulders, folding the cloth down until it hung from the belt wrapped around his hips, and let his arms fall loose at his sides. The wind curled gently over his shoulders. The bonfire warmed his chest. He knew the firelight highlighted his scars. There were a lot of them.
Kakashi didn’t think about most of them. The old burn over his right hip still tugged sometimes, where the scar had healed thick and inflexible. A few of the deeper ones ached when the weather got cold, especially where they overlaid bone injuries. His hands were toughened and silver-latticed, though Rin had done stellar work in keeping his joints flexible.
It hadn’t bothered him. Most of his life, he’d regarded his body as a container for mind, chakra, and speed. The aesthetics were a distant second. He had a mask, anyway.
He glanced back over his shoulder. Ryouma was staring at him, fascinated and hungry and appreciative. For the first time in a very long time, Kakashi found himself considering how he looked, and whether he could look better.
“Nothing above my neck. Or my arms below the elbows,” he told Himself.
Himself studied Kakashi’s face with bright, curious eyes, so intently that Kakashi’s skin started to prickle. Could he see—
The pale head nodded. The tail swept warm over Kakashi’s shoulder, and he watched with queasy detachment as a set of shrapnel gouges melted away. Himself muttered as he worked, whiskers twitching in concentration. Occasionally a word made it to the audible range; most of them were about symmetry.
Ryouma was right. It didn’t hurt. Himself’s tail swept over his skin like featherdown. When it got to Kakashi’s hip, the sudden unlocking of skin that had been held clenched for a decade made him stagger sideways. He caught himself.
He thought about physics after that. There was no light when Himself worked. There was heat, but barely enough to account for the massive amount of energy Himself was manipulating. When Rin performed complex ninja surgeries, she had to keep a person standing by purely to manage temperature control, or the person on the table would come out with a functioning spine and third-degree burns. Kakashi just felt pleasantly warm.
It was a frightening level of skill. He would have given a lot to experience it with his chakra sense intact.
He made Himself leave the appendectomy scar, for the purely practical reason of not wanting to undergo that surgery a second time if he ever showed up delirious at a hospital. Judging by the frustrated whisker twitch, Himself was strongly considering adding a matching scar on the other side.
Acid marks and animal bites washed away. Blade cuts. Blast burns. Most of his war career. Kakashi thought about physics some more.
Then, abruptly, Himself was stepping back, and Kakashi realized they were done. He looked down. An unfamiliar map of skin met his eye, smooth and sleek, wonderful and frightening all at once. Hesitantly, he touched his stomach with his fingertips. The skin dented. His nerves reported the sensation. There’d been a numb section there. He could feel it now.
He ran his hand over his hip. Sensation there too. He crouched, testing, and the joint rolled smoothly in its socket. No twinge, no catch. His muscles moved like butter. He straightened again.
There were still faint marks, he realized. When he moved, light caught on silver shadows, like a watermark memory of the previous ruin. It was... a little grounding, actually. Not everything was gone.
“Well,” he asked Ryouma. “How does it look?”
Ryouma’s expression was complicated. Still hungry, wanting, which made relief and heat coil down Kakashi’s spine in equal measure, but there was something else, too, almost like… awe? Ryouma reached out, slowly enough for Kakashi to shy away if he wanted to, and brushed warm fingers over the hollow of Kakashi’s shoulder, where Akiyama’s scalpel had sliced a purple scar.
Ryouma swallowed. “Like… new.”
“Like good new?” Kakashi pressed.
“Yeah.” Ryouma’s voice had gone low. He flattened his palm under Kakashi’s collarbone, callouses rough and welcome against sensitized skin, and then (annoyingly) pulled his hand away. “You still look like a ninja. Just a good one, now.”
Kakashi briefly considered dragging Ryouma back to the leech pond and shoving him in it, but the frank undercurrent of heat rolling through Ryouma’s scent like smoke and thunder told the true story. He liked it. He wanted his hands on Kakashi.
Well— damn right.
Kakashi pulled his yukata back up around his shoulders and dipped his chin at Himself, a respectful gesture that would have made the wolves bristle. “This works. Thank you.”
Himself’s silver muzzle crinkled wryly. “The marks you gave each other are gone, but if you insist on generating new evidence before you see your comrades again, I can’t help you.”
“I wasn’t going to,” Ryouma said, with exaggerated innocence.
Himself made an amused sound in the back of his throat, something like a bark and a chuckle.
As useful as it was not to have screaming evidence of their recent activities, Kakashi was starting to get exhausted of the twinkly eyed, all-knowledgeable tanuki chief. Or perhaps he was just reaching the end of his tolerance for a long and very strange day. He took a step closer to Ryouma, and murmured: “Bed? Or are we tracking down the others first?
Bed sounded unbearably tempting, especially with Kakashi’s yukata still gaping loose at the chest and firelight shining gold on the broad slice of bare new skin. And Ryouma didn’t exactly want to confront Raidou and Genma with that raw consciousness of Kakashi’s body burning like a young flame, but—
But they were in a strange place, with their team fragmented among strange people, and he’d probably already hit his quota of reckless choices for the month.
“We should at least check in on ‘em,” he said reluctantly. “Where’s this bath? Uh, sir?”
Himself gestured toward the lantern-lined path Fumi had taken, winding away from the village toward a moon-silvered bamboo grove. “It’s right up that hill.”
That was it? No cryptic utterances, no hard bargaining? Ryouma took a cautious step sideways. “Thanks. Uh. Good night.”
“Smooth,” Kakashi murmured.
Yori sighed loudly, climbed to his feet, and trotted stiffly over to join them. Saishou fell in at Kakashi’s other side, like a furry flanking escort.
“You’ll find beds prepared for you as well,” Himself said, sounding amused again. Or still. He drew deeply on his pipe, puffed a perfect smoke ring into the still night air, and added, “To share as you see fit.” With a bob of his head at Saishou, he turned on soundless paws and headed over to join the elderly tanuki on the other side of the fire.
Ryouma dodged back to scoop up a heavy armload of gear before they left the clearing. Genma and Raidou must have gotten permission to take their things, because most of the neat pile had Ryouma or Kakashi’s marks scratched on the inside. Genma’s med-kit was there, though, along with their weapons and the rest of the confiscated equipment. Someone had set Ryouma’s little festival tanuki-toy atop the stack, like the tiniest guardian. He tucked it safely in his belt-pouch with its head sticking out.
Kakashi snatched up his tanto, checked it over carefully, and then thrust the saya through his yukata belt. He gave Ryouma a hand with the rest of it. Sealing scroll pouches dragged heavier with no chakra to access their contents.
“D’you think he was telling the truth about chakra-suppressing auras?” Ryouma asked, when they were on the narrow path between stone lanterns. “Do you think the scar healing’ll last?”
“It could be an elaborate genjutsu,” Kakashi allowed. “But I don’t see the point, unless it’s just to screw with us.”
Yori snorted eloquently.
Ryouma glanced down. “You wouldn’t put it past ‘em, huh? But they’ve been pretty decent to us so far. And Harubi-san seems to feel safe here.” He stepped carefully over a protruding tree root in the sandy path. “I wonder why they didn’t fix Sen’s scar.”
Saishou growled softly. Kakashi hummed agreement. “Maybe she didn’t want them to.”
He could see that. The way Kakashi’d kept the scars on his face and hands, the way Ryouma’d felt so bitterly possessive of his own: I lived through this, I survived, don’t take all those victories away from me.
He shifted the awkward, heavy burden in his arms. “Do we hurt Nomiya, when we get back? We don’t have to tell Harubi-san.”
“I wouldn’t miss him,” Kakashi said coolly.
Kakashi’d seen blood in the Nomiya house. Ryouma considered, carefully, what they’d told Harubi, and what he’d promised Genma.
“We’ll see how things stand,” he said. “Maybe ANBU sniffing around scared him enough we’ll get home and find his corpse hanging from the rafters.” He cheered up a little. “Maybe the lieutenant’ll get his ghost story after all…”
“Pleasant thought,” Kakashi agreed. “Wouldn’t be too hard to stage, either.”
“True. You could probably copy handwriting well enough for a note, right?”
“Of course.” Kakashi ducked beneath a glowing paper lantern hung low in the trees, and said nothing more. They’d found the officers.
Mossy stone lanterns marked the end of the pathway before it opened out into a clearing paved with flat rocks and screened with tall maple, tumbled boulders, and clumps of bamboo. More colored lanterns hung overhead, light-dappling the steam that rose from an oblong rock pool.
At the near edge of the pool, back turned to the path, Genma sat with his wet hair knotted up and his scarred shoulders stretched out. Kurenai’s mass of dark hair rested on his right arm. Raidou sat, brown skin gleaming wet, on his left.
Ryouma briefly forgot how to breathe.
At the edge of his vision, Kakashi looked back at him, narrow-eyed, then dropped his entire armload of gear on the rocks.
The three shinobi in the pool started, separating into mobile fighting stances. Raidou came up over the edge of the pool, skin-sleek and slippery; Genma pulled a senbon from his hair. Kurenai grabbed a porcelain sake bottle from a floating wooden tray, like a bruiser in a bar-brawl. A dripping morsel of brown fur wormed its way between Raidou’s feet, shook vigorously, and resolved into Pakkun.
“Shitting balls, kid, have you ever met a moment you didn't ruin?”
Kakashi’s eyebrow lifted. “You were having a moment?”
“I was trying to,” Pakkun announced. He shook himself again, ears flapping.
“We could come back later,” Kakashi said, with a lilting edge of mockery in his voice.
Genma scooped a floating cup back into Kurenai’s tray and stepped out of the pool, with a calming hand for Raidou’s shoulder. He twisted his hair back up with the senbon. “Why don’t you come join the moment. I think we were discussing, uh... dimension theory.”
Was that supposed to get Kakashi to go away? Was Ryouma supposed to not be looking at them? This wasn’t like the bathhouse at Hiraizumi, when they’d mostly focused on getting clean. The officers were already shining clean, steam rising from their skin in the cool night air, trickles of water chasing the defined lines of muscles down chest and thighs. Kurenai sank back in the water, finding a ledge on the opposite side of the pool in only a token gesture at concealment. Genma and Raidou didn’t even try.
Raidou said, resigned, “Buckets are over there if you want to wash up.” He took a another, sharper look. “Why’re you both in yukata?”
“Uh,” Ryouma said. “We met Himself. I think there were supposed to be yukata for you, too.” He wrenched his eyes away, cast a swift glance around, and spotted the neat folded pile on the end of a bench near the stone lanterns. “There! Fumi-chan must’ve brought them while you were, uh, bathing.”
“And thus we remember the shinobi rule to never leave one’s back unguarded,” Kurenai murmured. “Did she bring more sake?”
Ryouma set down his gear and went to investigate. That seemed to be something useful he could do.
He hadn’t remembered bottles in the pile Fumi had picked through for them, but there were two of them now, white porcelain with wax-sealed mouths and two small matching cups. That was… more than Ryouma wanted to think about, right now. Most things were.
When he came back Genma and Raidou were both in the pool again. Yori had eased himself in to join Pakkun, while Saishou lay panting on the puddled pavement. Kakashi was stolidly washing up, with his mask still on and his body turned away. His skin glowed under lamplight, pearly and perfect. Ryouma stopped, dry-mouthed, to watch him.
Kakashi looked up and saw him. His eye curved with a promissory, predatory gleam, just for a moment. Then he ducked his head down again, and scrubbed at his feet.
Genma said, abruptly, “Are you a tanuki?” He was staring at Kakashi too, but suspicion darkened his amber eyes.
“Me?” Ryouma clutched bottles and folded yukata to his chest.
“Either of you. Both of you.” Genma propped himself up on the edge of the pool again, a breath away from, presumably, emerging to kick their furry asses. “I’ve seen Hatake stripped down; he’s barely got skin between the scars.”
“We offended Himself’s aesthetic sensibilities,” Kakashi said, without looking back. “So he made us pretty.” He switched to scrub the other foot. “Also your last apartment burned down and you once made me do paperwork for sitting on a river.”
Genma’s eyes narrowed, skimming over the smooth, unmarked surface of Kakashi’s back. “Huh.” He sank down chest-deep again. “Did it hurt?”
“No,” Kakashi said. He sluiced himself from shoulders down with one bucket of steaming water, dumped another over his head, and shook the spray off. Raking back dripping hair, he eyed Genma. “You want to poke us, don’t you?”
Genma’s gaze swung to Ryouma. “Did he remove your scars, too?” He peered more intently. “Your nose is straighter.”
“Just elbows up.” Ryouma set the yukata on the nearest dry rock, placed the sake bottles and cups at the edge of the pool, and hesitated before he straightened again. He’d never been nervous about stripping before...
Well, it wasn’t like they didn’t know what they were getting. He loosened his belt and shed the yukata, dropping it over the rock with the others. Too late, he realized that the partial scar removal might lead to even more questions. “It felt weird,” he muttered. “And my knee’s fine now.”
“You mean only the parts your uniform doesn’t cover?” Genma asked, sounding puzzled. “With the gloves, I guess that makes sense. But it looks like Hatake’s lost all the scars on his torso and legs, too. But not the one over his eye.”
“Kakashi’s braver than I am,” Ryouma said, and grabbed a bucket.
Kakashi was already in the pool, damp mask still clinging to his jawline, a small towel folded on his head. Pakkun paddled over for ear scritches. Kurenai reached for the sake bottles. Ryouma set about determinedly scrubbing himself clean.
Genma sank down until his chin touched the surface of the water. “Tanuki,” he muttered, and held out a sake cup for Kurenai to fill.
“Regretting you turned down the healing now?” she asked him.
“Maybe a little,” he admitted. “I guess I’ll just have to hope my scars make me look rakish.”
Ryouma’d intended to ignore everyone else until he was clean and potentially less flushed—or at least uniformly red from scrubbing—but he had to turn round at that. “What did happen with the tanuki? You spent a day with ‘em, and the kids seemed cuddly but kind of terrifying too… If they’re the ones who dropped the statue on Taichou, I mean.”
“Same tanuki kids.” Genma sipped his sake. “Cuddly but terrifying is pretty accurate. I spent half the time concussed, then broken in half to ‘fix’ me. It did fix the concussion, so…” He shrugged and tipped his hand back and forth, balancing the scales of experience. “Then they alternated between trying to convince me I was a victim of domestic abuse, treating me like a pet, and making it clear I was completely powerless. The youngest one took me down like I was a sack of feathers.”
There was a moment’s frozen silence. Raidou said, “Relatively speaking, I prefer the statue.”
“That’s horrible,” Pakkun agreed. He’d squished up in Kakashi’s arms, a sodden bundle of big eyes and fur. For once, he seemed completely serious.
Kakashi said nothing, but his arm locked around Pakkun, holding him tight.
When it came to being treated like a pet, Pakkun probably knew what he was talking about.
Kurenai said quietly, “Himself treated us like sentient beings, at least. The kits… seem very young, still. Not malicious, but not yet empathetic. They’re clearly attached to you, but they know just enough about the world to make them dangerous.”
“Yeah,” Genma said. “They meant well. They thought they were helping.” He blew out his breath. “Also there was a weird effect when I was around them. Like a very subtle genjutsu that makes you sympathetic to the caster. I didn't really get the implications of my situation until I got a chance to be alone for a few minutes.”
“Himself mentioned an aura that suppressed our chakra,” Ryouma put in. “He said the adults could turn it off if they thought about it, but the kids couldn’t even if they tried. Could be the same thing?”
“Like spots on a fawn, sort of,” Genma mused.
“Uh, sure. If the spots mean they’re too cute for predators to eat? Except the tanuki make you like them, and even if you don’t like them, you don’t have any chakra to fight back…”
“Explains why the magic sake makes you happy, too,” Genma pointed out.
“Exactly! Though I dunno why they’d need to defend themselves with happiness when they have magic and shape-changing testicles, but probably Himself has some poetry quote about it.” Ryouma dumped the bucket over his head, shoved hair out of his eyes, and looked back. “They seem to have been kind to Harubi-san, though. And us. After we got everything sorted out.”
“I think we’re interesting to them,” Kakashi said.
“Like bugs,” Pakkun added.
“Bugs exist for squishing,” Ryouma said firmly. “And we’re going home tomorrow.” He unfolded from his crouch, crossed to the edge of the pool, and dropped down into the heavenly hot water between Kakashi and the drowsily floating Yori. “Let’s take the long way and skip the cicadas this time.”
Genma held out his cup for another refill. “Is this leading up to another diatribe against the cicada sex? Because we’re not discussing it.”
“We wouldn’t have to discuss it if we took the train to Nagiso…” Ryouma bumped his shoulder against Kakashi’s, a comradely c’mon, join in that may have been a tactical mistake. He didn’t want to lean back. He forced himself to offer Yori an ear scratch before Genma noticed.
“The train, which is expensive, takes us hundreds of kilometers out of our way,” Raidou said.
“That’s why it’s a tactical advantage,” Kakashi pointed out, lazily sinking a little lower. His shoulder bumped back into Ryouma’s. He didn’t lean away. “No one expects it.”
Pakkun wriggled in his arms, scrabbling his way above water. He sniffed experimentally at Ryouma, paused, and shoved his wrinkled black snout closer.
Ryouma stared down at him, and knew he was dead. A brief scrubbing, no matter how good the soap, couldn’t defeat a ninken nose. Saishou might approve and Yori might not care, but Pakkun thought Ryouma was only slightly brighter than a box of rocks, and he’d probably think it hilarious that Kakashi’s scent clung to Ryouma’s skin. And then Genma would find out, and Raidou—
Pakkun sighed, closed his big eyes, and nestled down into Kakashi’s arms.
Ryouma’s shocky pulse slowly settled. Clearly, Kakashi’s dogs cared about him, more than most contract-bound summons did. Maybe even Pakkun would pass up a joke for the chance to see Kakashi happy.
Maybe Kakashi actually was happy, and Pakkun knew it.
Ryouma eased down in the water a little more, until his knee brushed Kakashi’s. Kakashi’s legs spread wider, pressing back.
They drifted a little, after that. Raidou and Kurenai discussed train prices and expense accounts. Genma’d apparently kept a running tally of all they’d spent so far, because that was part of the lieutenant’s paperwork. Ryouma closed his eyes, too, and listened to the ripple of their voices around him, as soothing as the breath-lifted shift of Kakashi’s shoulder against his, or the lap of the warm water against his skin…
Nails clicked, distantly, on stone. Raidou yelped.
Ryouma pried his eyelids open and saw Raidou with a hand clapped to the back of his neck, while Saishou sat back on the edge of the pool, licking her chops with an air of satisfaction in a job well done. Kakashi said drowsily, “She wants you to know the tanuki have prepared beds for us, somewhere, apparently.”
Raidou dropped his hand. “...Thank you?” he told Saishou. He swept a glance over his heat-flushed team, and abruptly stood. “Right. Yes. Everyone up. No one is allowed to get heatstroke and drown.”
“We’re on a mission,” Ryouma protested. “They’ll still put us on the Heroes’ Stone if we drown.”
“Not if you drown in a bath,” Kurenai observed, levering herself up and offering Genma a hand. They both made it out of the pool while Kakashi and Ryouma were still wrestling with dogs, coaxing Yori and his stiff hip out of the steam. By the time Ryouma toweled down and wrapped himself in his yukata, the others were dressed and...damp, if not dry.
It was a good look on all of them. Ryouma was tired enough to let himself appreciate it: Kurenai’s pink cheeks and black curls, the little halo of short hairs at the nape of Genma’s neck, the damp stretch of patterned yukata over Raidou’s broad chest. Kakashi’s wet hair the color of steel, and the heavy droop of his eye, and the way the mask stretched tight over his jaw as he yawned.
Even masked, the yawn was contagious. Raidou’s jaw cracked. He scrubbed a big hand through his hair, spiking it on end, and stooped to pick up an armload of tumbled gear. “Where’re these beds, then?” he asked Saishou.
Saishou flicked her tail and trotted off down the path, light on her paws despite her heavy belly. The rest of them followed, Pakkun riding on Kakashi’s shoulder.
It wasn’t far: another winding path branching off through wind-shivered bamboo, a single stone lantern at a wicker gate, a low-roofed cottage like a tea-house with five futons laid side-by-side on a tatami floor. Kakashi, investigating further, found a tidy outhouse and a garden well. Genma bullied them all through drinking their fill of the cold metallic water.
Then back to the tatami room, and a moment of bewildered blinking at futons. Ryouma couldn’t help remembering Himself’s amused rumble: To share as you see fit.
There’d be no sharing going on, not with all five of them and the dogs in the same room. Unless that was what Himself had meant...
Exhaustion broke like a wave over any further thoughts, and dragged them back down to sea. “You can have the wall,” Ryouma told Kakashi, and dropped onto the next futon over.
He didn’t dream.