Notes: A few of you kind enough to review mentioned that yaoi/slash really isn't your thing, I can understand that, so I wanted to warn any of you still reading that the penultimate section is slightly more graphic than is usually implied in this fic:D
Thanks again for reading/reviewing!
Thanks to Shock (zomg Pimp!Gai...) for reading through the dodgy bits, sna for the music and pimp-talk, Faith b (check out her new fic Assimilation!) and Telosphilos, as ever
Stuck in a room with a bratty little tomboy, Reiko was almost wishing she'd been stuck in a village of pathetic wives.
Kotetsu had visited often, though. He'd apparently volunteered to be her guide during her initial stay in Konoha - before she moved on to the invented relatives in the outskirts of Fire Country. The far outskirts. Of course, Reiko, being an experienced spy and a sceptical shinobi, mentally rearranged a few words to find a far more satisfactory explanation of his visits.
He'd apparently been ordered to be her guard during her entire stay in Konoha.
Ah well, Reiko's inner strategist smirked at the prospect of this adorable piece of Chuunin man-flesh at her beck and call. He was nothing like Koukotsu - her lover had been fierce and strong and strict and powerful. He'd even been brutal, occasionally, but never to her. From the way Kotetsu looked at her, his eyes lingering sadly - and maybe a little longingly - over her bruises, suggested a softness that intrigued her to no end.
Reiko didn't really want to take a lover, she didn't want to feel the touch of a man who wasn't hers - but she'd sworn to Tak that she'd find a way to make the situation work.
The Stone was counting on her.
He was so unbelievably fucked.
He couldn't think. He was falling apart on his feet here, and he really couldn't see any way out. The unexpected shock of losing his wolf-hounds, his precious, feral scavengers, in such a dreadful manner had momentarily thrown him from the callous detachment he depended on. The coursing of that loss through his veins left him weak in a way he really didn't understand, and he struggled to maintain his necessary calm.
Kakashi had never lost a summons to death before, though his father had lost several during the war - Kakashi had always been so careful, so protective. The worst part of it all, though, was that the Copy Nin would never see their remains. He had to trust that they'd been dumped or disposed of, before their corpses could disintegrate from the physical world - he had to trust that no one had witness that telling evaporation.
It was strange, Kakashi thought, how such a small thing as a death could change a perspective so completely. He'd been appalled before, at his own detailed massacre of the Stone team. He hadn't enjoyed staging such a scene - but he couldn't risk leaving tracks or indication of himself, and so had been forced to be brutal and precise - using weaponry and sheer force to kill his prey, rather than the jutsus that would have made life so much easier. Now though, he was infinitely glad that he'd taken out that tracker, Hanamaru - that blind bastard who'd alerted Tak to his dogs' presence. He'd watched emotionlessly as the middle-aged man twitched sporadically before finally dying, but the memory was now filled with a malicious satisfaction. A sickness that Kakashi couldn't really help but taste fondly.
Kakashi scrubbed at his body mindlessly, finding himself fighting a strange, frustrated itching in his eyes as he scoured grotty, dust-darkened skin first pale, then pink under his administrations. The moon's light was pitiful, far too dull to see by, and Kakashi let his guard drop minutely as he considered his new game plan.
The group assassination had turned out a pointless exercise, in the end. Had it been anyone but Hantaro Tak to examine the scene Kakashi was certain he'd have gotten away with it. It was only now that he realised how imprecisely he'd recalled Tak's fluid ruthlessness. He'd somehow never thought the man would realise Kakashi's pack consisted of more than Pakkun's snide little self. He somehow never thought Tak would have known just how to exploit that weakness.
If he'd just somehow found the courage to kill Tak first - no other shinobi of the Stone would've made the connection, no other ninja would have ordered the death of so many innocent creatures. He was almost glad that the puppies he'd left in Konoha couldn't hold the same connection as Pakkun and the grown dogs yet - their reactions to their sire's death would no doubt be more than the kids could handle. Kakashi just hoped they were remembering to feed the dogs!
His food supply was now fucked, of course. Kakashi would have to somehow find a way to scavenge for himself - an incredibly dangerous and amateur move if the Stone nin were on high alert, but it was better than starting a campfire and hoping the guards on the watchtowers were blind to the smoke.
It was all so poorly timed. On any other mission this would have been the point of retreat, and Kakashi's many years of experience all screamed just how deeply in over his head he was now. It was just such a waste this time round - Kakashi had gathered so much information, so much of the lives of these nin over the last month. He'd watched these excellent strategists work day in, day out on a defensive jutsu that, used correctly, could crush the Leaf's offensive. He needed to copy that justu; he needed to at least find the plans to recreate it from. Without that jutsu, his time here would be pointless.
But sweet fuck, if they knew it was him...
Kakashi dunked his head under the cold water until the pressure grew too much, gasping for breath as he came up, head slightly clearer, calmer. He was an elite tool of Konoha, an assassin of the Leaf. For a shinobi of Konoha, there was always something; it wasn't like he'd never been this deep in before - it wasn't like this was the hardest thing Kakashi had ever faced.
If the Stone were expecting him, it would just make it that much more interesting.
"But hasn't the other girl got the spinny-chakra-thing?" Izumo asked, blocking Iruka's final punch and twisting, keeping Iruka in his grip as he swung the katana fiercely at his friend's neck.
"Hanabi?" Iruka grunted as he bent into a crab to avoid the blade, the movement forcing Izumo to release his fist. "Yeah, but it's not strong enough to be of much use, or be consistent. She hasn't got half the skill of Neji, whatever the family say."
Iruka kicked out as he moved into a flip and Izumo sprung away from the attack, allowing Iruka momentum to regain his balance in favour of keeping his own. His friend's katana was still on his side of the room, though, he just needed to keep Iruka weaponless...
They crouched slightly, considering each other; Iruka's eyes flitted towards his lost sword. "You should've seen it - the balloons hit her right in the back of the head, paint everywhere. Teach her to pull her comrade's pigtails."
"Heh, Sounds like Hanabi's got a cruusshhh." Izumo returned the bright grin, shuffling in short steps to place his body more securely between Iruka and the katana. "The teachers won't be happy with the prank, surely?"
"She was bullying Nayami and driving me mad with the Fate-Will-Make-You-Suffer spiel. This way, Nayami could get her own back, and Hanabi would learn a valuable lesson on letting Fate rule your estimation of an enemy." Iruka's voice was curt - that much feared Caring Teacher Voice. Izumo's grin widened.
"And the Hyuuga Clan?"
Iruka made some derisive noise before smirking, eyes fixed on Izumo's footwork as the man shifted. "Let them say what they like. Bloodline limit or not - when they can deal with a truck-load of squalling pre-Gennin, they can tell me how to teach."
"You and your Hyuuga-angst!" Izumo crouched, recognising Iruka's stance. "Just be thankful you only had to teach one Uchiha!"
As Iruka leapt to the right - away from his fallen sword - Izumo hurried to correct his defence, realising too late he'd fallen for a simple bluff. He managed to eventually counter the movement, but they were both panting as conversation moved on to Kotetsu.
"Don't bait me with that, Iruka." Izumo growled, scraping sweat-damp hair from his face as he shifted again. Izumo looked younger, Iruka thought, with his expressive face so clearly on display. "He's been set to guard Reiko; and heaven forbid that he speak to his friends while on precious duty!" His back tensed, and Iruka - inching slowly forward - almost missed the rest of his muttered sentence. "We should have let the bitch bleed out, out there."
Iruka straightened, momentarily shocked by the bitter cadence of his friend's voice. He had it bad. "What if I have a chat with her? If she's taking him for a ride we'll know."
"You'd do that?" Izumo relaxed at Iruka's nod. If anyone could wheedle the truth out of a ninja it was Iruka. "I just don't trust her, you know?"
"If it's any consolation," Iruka paused to dart past Izumo, dropping into a roll to dodge the other nin's attack, the sound thwack of metal hitting the concrete floor as Iruka grabbed for his katana. They paused again as Iruka straightened. "Kotetsu's the only idiot that does."
Izumo's face split into a bitter grin, and they lost themselves to the fight, exchanging furious blows - stopping now and then to re-enact a particular move, to get it down right, make it easy and effective. Eventually, Iruka managed to pin Izumo's sword hand to a wall, his own blade scratching close to the other chuunin's neck.
"This is the part where I make some stupid pun." Iruka smirked, breathing heavily. Something twisted in Izumo's expression, some mischievous knowing.
"You really are banging a Jounin, aren't you?" Izumo grinned at Iruka startled protest, not convinced despite the Academy Sensei's relaxed expression. Iruka placed their training katana back in their places on the training room's wall, well practised at ignoring Izumo's sing-song speculation.
"Well, you've never beaten me so easily before - all that extra training would have certainly paid off... and if you listen to the rumours..."
"Iruka-Sensei! Izumo-san!" Both Chuunin paused in their bickering to see Maito Gai posing grandly in the doorway, Lee and Neji standing stiffly by his side. "I would like to use this training hall, if you are both finished with your own training?"
"Of course, Gai-san." Iruka answered politely, trying to hide the perpetual amusement that came when dealing with the melodramatic Jounin master. "We'd just finished, actually."
"Ah, the Vigour of Youth!" Gai exclaimed, gesturing to his students to take their positions and begin sparring, wanting to train himself but loathe to do so until they'd figured out just how much damage he'd sustained from the ambush.
Gai listened to the chattering Chuunin as they left the building, smiled to himself as he heard them say something about rumours involving Iruka-sensei. A surprised "It's not Gai, is it?" evoked a burst of laughter from Iruka that caused a sting of jealousy in Gai.
He could never seem to find it in him to laugh so freely, at least while sober - hadn't even as a child. His Rival had never laughed like that at all, not once in Gai's recollection. He couldn't imagine Ibiki laughing like that - perhaps Genma could have, once. Or Kurenai, though she'd been a solemn child.
There were only four years between he and Iruka, Gai'd only started really fighting at the end of the war - those final, horrific weeks that had still managed to sink into his skin in a way that scolded him. How could four years and too much determination cause such stark differences between their social groups?
Gai's friends had all had laughter stolen from their lips, replaced by strict, barking orders and the lingering burn of chakra from countless killing jutsus. They teased each other - but often cruelly - not knowing like others how and when a joke became too much. Such was war, he supposed, but it didn't seem fair to Gai that he would never be so free of the demons of his generation.
"Gai-Sensei!" Neji groaned slightly as Lee saluted his teacher. "If I can't beat Neji-san, I will train with these weapons until I can!"
Maito Gai grinned at his students - the calm confidence of Hyuuga Neji and the desperate determination of Rock Lee and thought that no, his generation would never be free - but maybe that entrapment helped their students attain freedom.
If Neji was a bird, in a cage without a key, then Gai would teach him how to break it.
"Go on, boy. You've got news?" The Tsuchikage's voice was fond - the only man to have not lost patience with this nin, who so often went over the top to get the job done, a habit he'd seemed to pick up in his twentieth year, upon his return to Stone from the Leaf. It wasn't an issue though, not to the Tsuchikage. It wouldn't become an issue until the day one of Tak's missions failed.
"I believe I know the spy's identity."
"Tak!" The reproach was mild, but the tone held much warning. "Until you find us proof of this so called spy - who is so conveniently skilled that they must be tracked by scent..."
The elite Jounin raked messy hair from his face in irritation. "Your own tracking master was closing in. He -"
"No, Takeshi." The Tsuchikage growled, his old face wrinkling up in some hesitant emotion. Tak sighed noisily at the pointed use of his given name. The Tsuchikage continued, voice grave. "Hanamaru had become obsessed. He was a broken man. You are swiftly joining him. So I will say this: There is no spy in Stone."
A muttering ran through the room, several arrogant scoffs of agreement, several shocked protests. The room seemed divided, Tak seemed outraged.
"But - "
"Kotaru-san!" A heavily built man - large samurai sword strapped to his belt - stepped forward from the crowd of elite as the Tsuchikage addressed him. "Is my defence ready yet?"
"Yes, Tsuchikage-sama. We're just awaiting your inspection."
"Tomorrow then. You're all dismissed." The elite bowed respectfully as they left, sparing openly curious glances toward their comrade as the Tsuchikage continued. "Hantaro Tak, wait a while."
There was total silence in the Kage's office, apart from the odd echoes of the shinobi's deliberate footfall. Eventually Tak was beckoned closer to the old man.
"There is no spy in Stone." The Tsuchikage stood abruptly, easy manner replaced with a stern calculation. "And until you can prove otherwise, you will stop this nonsense, my Shinobi."
"Yes, Tsuchikage-sama." Tak bowed stiffly, his jaw and back horribly tense; and from the window ledge, chakra masked and presence hidden, Kakashi allowed himself a satisfied grin. For a shinobi with a little patience, there was always something to work with.
Kakashi just happened to be an opportunistic son of a bitch.
Ibiki glared up at Genma, challenging the other shinobi to keep the self assured smirk in place. Finding himself unable to stare out his comrade, Ibiki sighed and slid the folder closer. "I liked it better when you were scared of me." Ibiki paused before muttering loudly, playing up to the timid audience of his subordinates. "You egocentric little shit."
Genma's smirk broke into a grin, senbon twitching between straight teeth. "Win some, lose some. It's your own fault, you know. You ruined the fearsome thing when you were nice." A snort came from a dark-haired Chuunin rifling through a filing cabinet behind Genma.
"I'm never nice." Ibiki growled, opening the folder with a violent gesture. Genma turned to see the Chuunin - Hijiri Shimon - leaning close to the files to smother a grin.
The interrogation expert's eyebrow rose slightly as he read the mission brief - the action tugging at his deep scars in a way that made his jowls twitch.
"Sign. Date. Gimme." Genma instructed, smirking again, trying not to let his shock show as Ibiki wordlessly obeyed. "Thank you, Morino-san."
"Sure." Ibiki went back to his work, his sudden ignorance of Genma indicating it was time to leave. As Genma moved towards the door, Shimon intercepted him as subtly as possible.
"Yo," Genma chirped, chewing amusedly on his senbon. "How's Yuugao-chan?"
Shimon flushed a stunning pink, but kept grinning. "She's - we're good, thank you, Shiranui-san."
Genma waited, smiling slyly as Shimon willed his face to cool. "I thought you'd like to know that we're all impressed." He gestured towards Ibiki's subordinates - the paper pushing interrogation experts and trainees that were peering round the office's partitions and glass panels. "We never figured you'd have the guts to order him around!"
Genma was a little surprised to realise how many of the interrogation team he recognised as ANBU operatives - he'd been told that many shinobi doubled up where possible, to avoid the imminent insanity that came very quickly with full time ANBU work, but he'd never imagined that so many of the supposedly bumbling Chuunin were so uniquely capable.
"You know..." Genma raised an eyebrow thoughtfully. "Me either. It's amazing how hard it is to be afraid of someone who you've played strip limbo with."
Shimon didn't laugh - but only because he was obviously biting the inside of his cheek to keep from doing so. Genma glanced over his shoulder to see Ibiki glaring at the chatting ninja. He waved at the scarred Jounin before leaving the room, endlessly amused by the muffled snort from behind him.
Kakashi's thoughts raced as he tried to analyse the defence, his Sharingan dissecting the pathways and nuances of the technique in ways that made his head ache to think about. Suddenly, with a small pop of chakra, the structure vanished. Oh fuck me, Kakashi remembered details of the type of chakra being used - if it was fed enough, powerful enough, it became untraceable, invisible... so that's their secret; that's how they'll attack the Leaf.
Kakashi's eyes narrowed as he heard the crunch of sandals on rock directly behind him.
He hadn't realised the guard had got quite so close but - Kakashi took in the scene around him, listening to his discoverer's light breathing andsilently judging how close any other presence was - it didn't matter now. He just needed a few more seconds for the Sharingan to finish its deadly spin and his mission would be over. Five weeks, three days and too many minutes - Kakashi was more than ready to go home.
Eventually, the guard grew impatient. "What do you think you're doing down there, shinobi-san?"
"Collecting your secrets, shinobi of the Stone." He rose from his crouch, making a quick hand seal and standing to his full height - subtly stretching his back a little before turning to face the enemy. Fearful eyes widened comically as the guard took in the spinning Sharingan.
Kakashi grinned, relaxed as he casually tugged down his hitae-ate. Time to leave.
"Best make sure that stays quiet, hmm?" The guard didn't have time to react as Kakashi's clone put a knife in his neck. Kakashi gathered the corpse up in his arms - for the first time in five weeks not worried about the blood on his clothing - and transported as far outside the village as he dared before making his way to the ANBU's meeting spot.
Kakashi entered Konoha the same way he had left it - silently, secretly.
On the 1st of July, Tsunade was informed of his arrival by the ANBU escort - who'd somehow managed to lose the Copy Nin as they neared the Leaf's gates. Apparently, a month in secrecy had honed his skills well. When Kakashi eventually slipped in the Hokage's window - his feet stumbling slightly after the three day run from Stone - Tsunade had been more than a little surprised at the easy dishevelment and tense glow of the shinobi as he'd greeted her and Jiraiya.
"We expected you to come straight here." Tsunade's voice was stern, but amused.
"Yeah, sorry. I had to check on the pups." Kakashi scratched at his head, the gesture far less staged than normal.
"How'd it go, brat?" Jiraiya spoke up quietly, strangely subdued. His nose wrinkled up a little as he neared the Copy Nin. "You smell like..."
"I lost two dogs." The flat monotone brought a rush of memory to the Sannin - standing there, watching the Hatake's jaw tense as he let the blank statement do the talking for him. I've lost two of my dogs and I don't know what to do about it.
Sakumo had been the same, in the war. Tsunade watched quietly,her relief at his return dissipating rapidly,as Jiraiya awkwardly clasped Kakashi's shoulder in one large hand.
Sakumo had been the same; weather beaten and smelling of sweat and dogs and summer-heat and grass and fuck but did seeing this arrogant little boy - all grown up and ready for nothing - slouching there, daring to look so very much like his bastard of a father, bring back a shit load of memories that Tsunade just did not need at this point, while her village fell into crisis!
Once, Sakumo had told her that he lived to put the village before his own life. Some fucking hero he'd turned out to be.
"You mentioned an attempt by Stone to infiltrate Konoha." Tsunade found herself speaking through gritted teeth, locking gazes with Kakashi's confused eye.
He turned his face towards the window, ruddy orange light from a streetlamp putting him in profile as he looked away, the slight hint of stubble poking through his mask and filling Tsunade's senses with Sakumo.
So very much like his father, she thought, hating herself for the rush of betrayed anger, no matter what Jiraiya says now...
Tsunade pulled a photograph from a pile, holding it out to Kakashi, who took it with a harassed sigh.
"Is this the girl?"
"That's Reiko." Kakashi's voice was oddly clipped, professional, much unlike his usual drawl. "Elite Jounin, served under Hantaro Tak, lover of a close combat specialist named Koukotsu, deceased; if that's any use?"
Tsunade gave him a calculating look, astounded that he'd know so many details, searching for smugness. Sakumo would've been smug. "You weren't asked to get inside their pockets, Hatake."
"True, Hokage-sama. But she was an easily accessible source of information."
"She acted as a contact?" Tsunade kept her voice calm - wary of having to change her assessment of the girl so close to her judgement.
"No." There was an odd stress to Kakashi's voice, some mocking tone. "But she was overconfident of her team-mates' abilities and didn't know when to shut-up."
"Did you find anything useful?" Tsunade couldn't help the impatient rush of words, she felt out of her depth with the brat - over worked, she thought to herself, You just need a little sleep - a feeling that wasn't helped by his respectful responses and obvious deference to her experience.
"You have received my notes and the scrolls I managed to gain; I had hoped they would be of some use to you." Kakashi's voice grew quiet, his exposed eye darting between her and Jiraiya's thoughtful glower. "I collected twenty six original ninjutsus, and several adaptations of existing jutsus; including the incomplete technique which I believe was used to injure Maito Gai."
"Congratulations." Her voice was endlessly sarcastic. "But how does this help the Leaf, shinobi?"
"I copied a Ninjutsu technique that was specifically designed to attack the Leaf." Kakashi snapped, having reached the end of his patience. Tsunade couldn't remember him speaking to anyone this way, wondered if he'd ever lectured Sandaime, wondered if he'd ever needed to - she knew the Professor had held Kakashi in high esteem. "We should examine it for flaws immediately, though I could find no obvious ones."
"And you're capable of reproducing this technique in your current state?" She smirked slightly as Kakashi cast his eyes down, considering how best to respond to the obvious insult.
"I would prefer to rest first." The Copy Nin slouched a little more pointedly, obviously nearing the limit of his straightforward cooperation. "To ensure its accuracy..."
"Report to me directly, once you feel capable of reproducing the technique," Tsunade commanded. "You may leave."
Jiraiya strode quickly across the room, leading Kakashi out of the door and putting a key into his hand. When Kakashi was gone, the Sannin turned on her.
"Do you treat all your shinobi with such inspiring respect?" Jiraiya sneered, narrow eyes intent with barely constrained fury. "He's been gone for five weeks, Tsunade!"
"He's fine." The Hokage tossed a pig-tail over her shoulder, raising her chin defiantly against the man's accusing tone.
"He's fucked. He's tired. And you're supposed to be the reason he fights! Neither one of us expected him to come back alive, Tsunade!" Jiraiya leant over her desk, the wooden surface seeming far too narrow suddenly as his face loomed above her own. "How could you speak toyour shinobithat way?"
Tsunade opened her mouth to retort, but couldn't think of a good enough answer. She knew exactly why she addressed Kakashi in such a manner, knew why she couldn't hold a fondness for the shinobi that her peers had always seemed to. She'd idolised Sakumo, as a girl; his brilliance had been considerate and focused. He'd been human, like Jiraiya, but with all Orochimaru's competent genius; and he'd never once fallen down - until the end.
And now, every time Kakashi returned from a mission, bruised and a little more broken, all Tsunade could see was him falling into Sakumo's madness. And every time he fell shy of perfection, each time Kakashi didn't mourn for the targets he slaughtered in her name, all Tsunade could see was him failing to live up to Sakumo's bright standards.
Most of the time she could forget all this, see Kakashi for his own merits and flaws. Sometimes, though, she just felt like a teenager again, trapped in her own youth, and grief and horror, repeating the same mistakes over and over again.
But how could she tell Jiraiya that his student's student made an excellent scapegoat?
"Sakumo-kun couldn't have kept hidden for so long." Tsunade's voice was thoughtful, and Jiraiya suddenly understood. "He could never have maintained such coldness."
"Kakashi is not his father." The old shinobi grimaced. "It's time you realised that."
"Stand by shinobi." Nara Shikamaru reached for the nearest map, catching the eye of the Blind Operation's commanding officer, the ANBU Boar, as he tapped the new details into the computer before him, leant into the desk-mic. "Position Compromised; Badger."
"Badger's got the package?" the Boar confirmed, referring to the information the ANBU team had been sent to attain from the Stone's temporary encampment. According to the Hokage, they'd been hoarding information there for a week - and judging by the horror unfolding on the other end of Shikamaru's headphones, the enemy wasn't keen on giving that intelligence back to the Leaf. "Right. Cat should be closest - locate the Badger, cause a distraction."
"Cat's at 33/68," a control operative shouted the ANBU's location across the room. Shikamaru ran a finger across his map, brow crinkling with concentration.
"Badger, if you're where I think you are your distraction should be coming into your east side any second now." The Chuunin chattered into his mic, earning an interested glance from the ANBU Boar - at least, he assumed it was interested; it was hard to decipher the expressions behind those fearsome masks. "Let me know..."
"Position Compromised; Wolf."
Shikamaru tried to ignore the desperate call from the booth to his left, the last month's training leaving him familiar to the sympathetic shock of fear in his gut each time those words were spoken. Positioned compromised - the control room's code for they're screwed.
"Control? I have a problem..." the crackling in Shikamaru's ear had him tapping desperately at the keypad on his small desk. Last time he'd checked the Wolf and the Badger had been running parallel - "That distraction isn't gonna work..."
"Target Compromised!" Shikamaru shouted - actually shouted - the irrepressible sympathetic panic making his mind race as he heard his contact's laboured panting. "Get that Wolf away from my shinobi!"
The ANBU control operatives glared for a moment, before the Boar - through his obvious shock - began to bark orders along a similar vein. The control room was a flurry of movement and commands, all of them seeming to realise the necessity of getting this intelligence - whatever it was - home.
Shikamaru's ears burned with a sharp cry and suddenly his head phones fell into the irritating hiss of white noise. That could only mean one thing, he looked around for confirmation, but his comrades were too intent on getting their own contact out of the Stone's furious defence.
"Badger down," Shikamaru flipped a switch, sent the call to the control desks. "Need a visual." For almost a minute - an eternal minute - there was simple silence roaring in Shikamaru's ears.
"Confirmed Visual." The Boar said from behind Shikamaru, voice apologetic. "Your part's over, Nara-san. Go on."
Shikamaru took a few deep breaths before leaving the control room - the memory of that empty hiss more potent than the blood-thick scream seconds that preceded it - already returning to its desperate flurry as the ANBU rallied to protect whoever had taken the package from the Badger
"Yo, Shikamaru!" Asuma was slouching against the wall of the ANBU Headquarters - taking deep drags of another cigarette. Shikamaru felt his mouth twitch up at the sides a little, but couldn't quite force the words from his throat. His sensei filled the silence easily. "You can't blame yourself for his death."
Eyes widened - Shikamaru hadn't expected that move - as he managed to get a grip on his rebellious vocal chords. "H- How did you - ?"
"I used to control on Blind Ops a lot, back when a friend was in ANBU." Asuma smirked, almost smiling but thinking better of it. "They try and pair the guys up with shinobi they can respond quickly to. We used to go by the rule that if your contact terminates, you leave the control room. That is why you're out so early, right?"
Shikamaru nodded mutely, feeling Asuma's eyes boring down onto him, into him. "You know," the Jounin started, grinding his cigarette under his heel as he pushed off from the wall, throwing an arm around Shikamaru's shoulders as they began to leave the compound. "Kakashi can instantly reproduce any Ninjutsu you use in front of him; Kurenai-chan can make you believe you're walking on water, while you fall off a cliff; Gai can walk out of a three day fight and keep training for three days more..."
Asuma casually pulled Shikamaru closer as they walked, letting the teenager's head loll against his broad shoulder. "...but even they can't predict the weather."
They walked on in silence, Shikamaru pondering Asuma's words and - though he knew the man was right and meant well - finding no comfort in them. Eventually they reached the Nara's home, Shikamaru's mother peeking nosily out of the kitchen window and, seeing her son, scurried to open the door.
"Asuma-sensei?" Shikamaru mumbled, hating how illogical his grief seemed. "I don't think I'm cut out to help people take such risks."
For long moment Asuma just looked at him. He fished around in his jacket for a cigarette, glancing up at the clear, unspoiled sky, squinting in the sunlight as he lit up between cupped hands. Shikamaru's mother started calling him in impatiently from the door. Eventually, Asuma shrugged, Shikamaru recognising the prelude to the man's odd, off-colour humour.
"Looks like rain, don't you think?"
The problem, Iruka decided, with getting used to another man in your bed - and a certain thistle headed idiot of a Jounin had developed a penchant for turning up most mornings lately - was that when they went on long, dangerous, classified, solo missions that you weren't allowed to know anything about you tended to find sleeping without their insistent weight (and sprawling limps and bony elbows and breathless nightmares and sleep-sweaty morning scent) surprisingly difficult.
So Iruka, upon hearing that ceaseless, irritating knocking on his front door, really wasn't all that up to entertaining in the middle of the bloody night. Alright, Iruka conceded, checking his alarm, so it was only 11pm - but still, you know? He'd had a rough few weeks!
Iruka ripped open the door - jaw clenched, legs astride, fiercest scowl in place - to find a skinny, scruffy, slightly damp Kakashi slumped against the frame.
Unable to resist, Kakashi pulled his mask down, leaning in, intent on lapping that pout from Iruka's face, and didn't protest when he was tugged inside the house.
"Hey," Iruka said against his jaw, breathing deeply. "When'd you get back?"
"Not long ago - had to debrief, and er...beg for a little rest before the practical demonstration."
"Doesn't sound fun..." Iruka hands ran across him, through him; Kakashi closed his eyes and justlet himself be led. Iruka tried to catalogue everything; every change. Kakashi was thinner than before, fatigue stole his graceful slink. His hair was longer, almost flat on his head where water had made it heavy; it fell to the smooth hollow of his cheeks on one side, and felt slightly greasy despite how recently it had obviously been washed. His bottom lip was a little raw from where he'd chewed it in thought. A stupid habit, which nobody ever seemed to notice. Iruka wondered if anybody knew, besides him. He was pale as well, sickly even, with tired bags beneath his eyes.
But he was here, he was standing (albeit shakily), he was so very, deliciously responsive...
Iruka rewarded him with another nuzzle, lips dancing across his smooth cheek and jaw. "You're very clean. You smell all soapy."
"Mmm, spent a month sleeping with dogs, been running like a moron for the last three days..." Kakashi let his head drop, a heavy weight on Iruka's shoulder. "Y'would've kicked me out on the streets smelling like I did."
"Wouldn't count on it." Iruka muttered, so profoundly desperate, now this man was home, to get him in his bed. It had only been a month or so, but it had been a long month, a critical one. Konoha was crumbling, and Iruka wasn't sure if it was because of Kakashi's absence or in spite of it. He pressed himself against the Copy Nin, receiving a breathless sort of sigh at the level of contact. "Missed you..."
Sluggish fingers threaded through Iruka's hair in answer. "Can we move? Don't think I can keep standing for long..."
Iruka led him to the couch, leaning on the floor between the other man's knees. "Better?" Iruka grinned as he gently removed sodden - slightly brown - wraps from Kakashi's calves. His loose trouser leg hung over them scruffily. "Did you shower in these?"
Kakashi made some noise of assent as he slumped further into the comfortable cushions, mumbling a little. His eyes closed at the gentle administrations, wriggling his toes as Iruka rubbed his aching foot, warming the cold limbs. "Didn't wanna take off everything at Jiji's..."
"Jiji? Jiraiya?" Iruka asked, hands moving slowly up Kakashi's legs, working the tense muscles as he watched the Copy Nin's breathing even out.
"Yeah... He taught my Sensei..." The breathy, half conscious comment made Iruka smile deviously as he slipped the loose trousers - Far too loose, even with the weight-loss. Jiraiya's? - from Kakashi's thin waist. Mismatched eyes opened slightly, when Kakashi caught himself automatically helping someone undress him. Iruka smiled warmly at that tiny, trusting slip.
"It alright, it's just me. Your muscles are tense from running so long." Iruka could remember many times when he'd just crashed out after a gruelling mission only to be woken by Cramp of Death - and Kakashi's agony wasn't something he wanted to witness on the man's first night back. "Let me help."
Kakashi's eyes closed again, his breathing evened out, Iruka hands travelled further up the other man's thighs. When the muscles had relaxed Iruka let his hands continue travelling - past the hem of the shirt, over the smooth planes of his stomach, loving the little hitches in breath that came every now and again. He tugged that shirt off gently - Kakashi hindering more than helping in his sleepy desire - the pretty dampness from the Copy Nin's recent shower still clinging to too-pale skin and drawing Iruka's patiently hungry eyes.
Iruka continued to tease so very gently, dipping his head down to swipe at that lingering condensation, to mouth nonsense words against a naked thigh. Kakashi's right leg dragged slowly up Iruka's side, opening up for him, inviting him. Iruka ran a hand back down to strip Kakashi fully, to aid his mouth in teasing a little more purposefully, sick now of waiting, that hunger no longer quite so patient...
For a second time that night, Iruka was interrupted by a persistent knocking on his door. He hesitated for a second, debating...
"Oh god, please - please just ignore it - you have curtains..." Kakashi's needy whine shocked Iruka into moving as a hand threaded desperately through his hair. Fuck it, he thought, we need this...
"IRUKA-SENSEEIII!" Naruto's scream surprised Iruka into propriety, breaking contact with Kakashi as he stood; the sudden loss of skin dragging out the most endearingly wanton whimper the Chuunin had ever heard in his life. Gotta make him repeat that.
"Don't move; I'll get rid of him." Iruka took a final, greedy look at the form on his couch before he could bring himself to pull away.
"S'a ninja village, Iruka..." Kakashi's heavy eyes finally cracked open, all that intensity projected from the bleary focus of those mismatched slits. The tiny speck of logic Iruka could still retain protested that there was no way Kakashi could actually see with his eyes so closed and dilated. The rest of his thoughts just mindlessly appreciated the view.
Kakashi's mouth formed a mischievous grin as he continued. "...So I wouldn't worry about hiding the body."
Tsunade's voice was calm, cold. She sat behind her desk, surveying her kingdom. An ANBU Guard stood behind each of her shoulders, framing her delicate features with their power. The Sannin, Jiraiya, leant against the doorframe, while a dark-haired female mirrored his stance by the window opposite. Two Chuunin stood at each of Reiko's shoulders, and while she could no doubt take them easily, she'd never make it to the exits. She had no escape.
"We have come to recognise you as a competent and most efficient kunoichi."
Reiko bowed politely as she answered, her head spinning, her inner strategist climbing metaphorical walls as she found herself lost and outdone. "Thank you, Hokage-sama. Your hospitality has been very kind."
Tsunade smirked - a small twist of the lips. Hospitality indeed. She hadn't had her people stop trailing Reiko since the girl had regained consciousness. She leant forward on the table, and Reiko heard a slight snort from the shinobi in the room. "It is with great regret then, that we bring you here today. Choose your answer wisely shinobi."
She held out a piece of parchment, and the Chuunin on her right - bushy pony tail high on his head, she remembered him from the bar of only a few nights ago, though his name escaped her - handed the paper to Reiko. The words 'Fox in the coop. Stones lie in Earth' were written in a rushed and untidy scrawl.
"I don't... I don't understand... I explained my situation..." Reiko knew it was over. She thought of the drugged senbon in her arm wraps, hoped that she'd have the time to use it before they started torturing her for information regarding her Village.
"Yes, you did. Unfortunately, we are aware that you were lying. You answered well, but not wisely." Tsunade paused, gestured to the Chuunin on her left, who she recognised as Kotetsu's friend. She'd miss the spiky haired idiot. Tak was right about a person getting attached to this village.
In spite of Reiko's affectedly calm posture, the Hokage was continuing. "The punishment for illegally infiltrating the defence of a Hidden Village is death."
"Sure. You're not gonna torture me first?"
Tsunade smirked at the girl before her, that last grasp at bravado was convincing, she'd give the girl that much. "Before I have you killed, Reiko-chan, I'm going to share with you a little secret. For over a month, one of my Jounin was observing your village. We've been monitoring you for weeks."
Tsunade leant back in her chair while the silence grew, reclining, utterly relaxed. "If your village wants war so very badly, Shinobi-san," Tsunade grinned, glancing at each of her comrades in the room. "It will have war."
Tsunade nodded sharply and before Reiko's face could even begin to express her shock from the new information, Izumo snapped her neck from behind.
"Thank you, Izumo-san." Tsunade turned to Jiraiya. "You said Hatake requested the Tanto?"
Jiraiya nodded, chewing on his answer. "Hmm. Something about that last scroll you needed belonging to the girl's superior? Should be fine."
"If you think so?" A significant look passed between the two Sannin before Jiraiya nodded again. Tsunade continued, fierce eyes not leaving Jiraiya's. "Iruka, please deliver the tanto and mission briefing to Hatake-san as soon as possible. Shizune will give you the briefing now."
"Godaime-sama." Both Shizune and Iruka moved immediately, picking the black sheathed knife from Reiko's corpse and leaving the room quickly. Izumo stood nervously, facing the Sannin and the ANBU guards - why did he always seem to be the one out of his depth?
"Izumo," As Tsunade fixed her eyes on him, he tried to swallow a slight whimper. "Do you understand the process we have for Jounin promotion?"
"Three separate Jounin must recommend a Chuunin before he is considered, and the Hokage is offered the chance to dismiss or accept the proposal. One elite or ANBU elite examines the candidate and decides to fail or pass them. They are then, if possible, paired with an experienced Jounin for several weeks to get them used to the advanced standard and expectation."
Izumo stared blankly forward, not understanding why she was explaining this to him. She sighed noisily, and Jiraiya sniffed from the corner of the room. The ANBU didn't move.
"You have been recommended for promotion, Izumo. You have 48hours in which to decide whether or not you would like to accept and take the examination."
Izumo gaped openly. "Me?" he squeaked, dumbfounded. "Who in their right mind would recommend me?"
"You may go, Izumo." Grinned the Hokage, "But think on this: If we go to war, we will need capable, strong and efficient Jounin in the front lines. There is no shame in wishing to remain alive; and your best chance of that is within the Chuunin ranks."
"Thank you, Godaime-sama." Izumo bowed politely, totally shocked, waved awkwardly at the ANBU guards, and left the room.
His head spun wildly - he'd never considered the Jounin ranks, wondered why he'd been chosen, out of so many of his comrades. Maybe Tsunade had simply seen his melancholy in these recent weeks - since Reiko and Kotetsu and that growing sense of loss - and decided to offer a way out of it. Whatever the reasons were, Izumo knew it was a rare offer he could not turn down.
There is no shame in wishing to remain alive, perhaps. But to have the chance to fight and choose to do nothing? Some things were more important than a person's life; and sometimes opportunities were there to be taken. Izumo was a competent shinobi: but if he failed this, he would die.
There is no shame in wishing to remain alive, maybe. But he'd choose to fight.
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