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Tsundoku

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That was loud, and familiar.

What was…

Right.

“– and then, and then, he just said –”

Ah, those were familiar, extremely loud and not exactly dulcet tones. It was an awaiting coincidence, really.

“– but I told that teme that –”

As she sat down on the other side of the orange monstrosity, she wondered what it was that had her running into these kids regularly, even when she wasn’t working with them for food that Kakashi had paid for. Honestly, if she wasn’t aware that these kids had practically zero skill in subterfuge or planning these meetings, she’s say that they were playing against her.

She was, however, quite pleased to note that despite her prior disenchantment, her secondary affinity was coming along nicely under his tutelage, though she didn’t think that it was going to ever be as strong as her water type, since for her water jutsu she didn’t even need to use hand signs. Or really concentrate for any length of time, just used instinct more than anything, and she could sense bodies of water depending on the distance. It was understandable really, especially since she’d spent so long without building on her secondary affinity that it had probably waned some in strength since she was younger and had initially tested for it with her team. Still, it was nice to have options.

Better chances of staying alive with how her missions had been going lately.

She was kind of getting the sneaking suspicion that Hatake was using her to gauge teaching techniques, but considering the fact that she was an adult, with a much more mature and experienced mindset, she didn’t think they’d work so well with the kids.

They likely didn’t have much in the way of experience with other jutsu, or wouldn’t understand advanced chakra theory. Wouldn’t find dark humor when he suddenly felt the need to switch from basic ninjutsu drills, to something a little more dangerous on a whim. Like test out their reflexes whilst they were performing stationary jutsu by flinging sharp things from one side and tiny bits of Killing Intent from the other just to watch her squirm in surprise.

All things that amused him, apparently, the sadistic little shit.

That bastard had certainly improved her reaction time, if nothing else, and she had the sneaking suspicion that he’d only been doing it because he found her speed abysmal, even though she was likely one of the physically strongest kunoichi in the village; it wasn’t easy to be both physically powerful and quick as well, and she only had so much time on her hands. Really, it was as if he expected everyone to have either been taught by the freaking Yellow Flash, be a kami forsaken Lightning user.

Well, or be prodigiously awesome at working out and coming up with dangerously frightful exercises like Maito Gai, his self-proclaimed rival.

Sometimes, she wondered if Maito Gai might have some kind of obscure bloodline that made it so that he didn’t ruin himself with his training exercises, because it certainly seemed like someone should have keeled over from exhaustion just by thinking about it.

Honestly, she was just pleased with how well he had expressed that he thought she was coming along in her Earth affinity, commenting offhand several times that she had a very strong grounding in it, that he had seen others whose main affinity was earth who couldn’t make constructs as steady or solid as she could. Also, for some reason, he found her ability with water techniques fascinating, and sometimes during a pause in whatever they were working on, he would ask her to demonstrate some jutsu, and he seemed inordinately impressed with the fact that some, most, of the techniques she used – like her senbon shaped projectiles – were unnamed, and things that she just did spur of the moment. Instinct. Something that she didn’t have with the secondary affinity, no matter what he was saying about her growing skills in its use.

She was definitely not a ninjutsu specialist in any stretch of the word, but didn’t like the idea of limiting herself knowingly.

Besides, it was useful for more than just combat.

Really, she didn’t know what she’d do if she could sense the very earth she walked on, and if it got as in depth as her sense of water, she’d be sensing specks of dirt all over her apartment.

It’d drive her crazy.

He’d yet to take out the Sharingan to watch her, but she figured with his strong interest in it, it wouldn’t take more than a couple more weeks for it to progress to that point.

Either way, she was positive that most of the things coming out of Naruto’s mouth had never happened.

“What can I get you, Asuka-san?” Ayame asked, a friendly tone in her voice, and Asuka found herself smiling back at her.

“A chicken ramen, if you don’t mind, Ayame-chan.”

“Alright,” she smiled at her childhood playmate. “Extra veggies, right?”

“Yup! Thanks.”

“Ah! Asuka-nee-chan!”

She blinked at her name and turned towards the boy she was sure had been stuck in some faux serious conversation with the Academy instructor Umino Iruka. She liked Umino, he was rather no nonsense a good portion of the time – his mischievous streak was well known in some circles, and it didn’t hurt that he was cute – but he was still pleasant to converse with on the occasion she found the need, if strangely shy. He flushed suspiciously often, and sometimes she wondered how he could teach a room of loudmouthed, ungrateful up and coming ninja without his face burning off. The poor man.

“You like to eat ramen?”

She quirked a brow at him and shared an exasperated look with the suddenly slightly flushed Iruka.

Honestly.

“Well, if I didn’t, then I wouldn’t be eating it, now would I?”

“Eheh,” he rubbed the back of his head, and she found herself eyeing the four empty bowls stacked up next to him with something like trepidation; what would it be like, to have so much chakra that you had to eat that much in one sitting? It boggled the mind. And the bank account. “Yeah, I guess. Anyway, are you going to come to practice again this week? Every time you come, I learn a lot!”

“What and you aren’t with Hatake-san?”

She found that hard to believe, not when he now had a base to work from, and the system they had developed.

“Well,” he pouted a bit, the expression ridiculously exaggerated. “No, no, I learn stuff with Kaka-sensei, but – but still! It’s fun when you come to training!”

“Ah, thank you, Ayame-chan,” she said as her food was set down before her, and she broke her chopsticks apart. “Itadakimasu.”

Quickly grabbing a couple of the veggies, she popped them into her mouth before going for some noodles and swallowing them down with a sigh at the delightful heat. It was a little cooler out than usual that day, and she’d been training over on the waterfall since it calmed her, having that much water near her and easily accessible, and she felt the heat spread throughout her chest and stomach delightfully. Ah, she could almost feel her coils sighing with that same pleasure at the comfort of it. Eating right after intense training wasn’t advisable, not if you didn’t want a stomach cramp, the same with before, but with the nice leisurely way she’d walked back into town and to the food stand had taken almost twenty minutes, and the meal was hitting just the right spot.

“I’m glad you think so,” she managed to say between quick bites. She was hoping to catch Natori for some weapons maintenance before he closed up shop, as it was his early day. “But I don’t think I’m going to be able to make it in the next couple of days, but probably before the week is out,” she chewed on some chicken and stretched back, enjoying the pops of her vertebrae as they aligned after intense muscle strain from flexibility training. “I’m heading out to do some stuff outside the village.”

Her back was her weak point concerning agility since she dedicated so much strength training to her upper body, and she really needed to round that out. Her heavy chest was doing her no favors in that department and she wryly thought of how jealous some kunoichi were of larger breasted women. It was no picnic, she could say that.

“Boo,” he muttered, before some sort of light popped on in his head. “Oh, this is Iruka-sensei!” he gestured wildly beside him, almost smacking the tanned man in the face, but the Academy instructor managed not to get his nose crunched by wheeling to the side in a rather experienced motion. “Iruka-sensei, this is Asuka-nee-chan! I was telling you about her, remember?”

“Of course I remember,” she shook her head with a small smile at the warm affection in his tone, enjoying the clinking of kunai on senbon. “Also, I’m already acquainted with Nagisa-san.”

“Eh?”

The boy turned to her with those wide blue eyes, and she couldn’t restrain the need to reach out and ruffle his sunny locks, enjoying the squawk that he released and very carefully pretending that she didn’t see the beaming, though inordinately shy smile and flush on his features as she smiled at him.

The lonely light in his eyes made her chest ache.

“Well, we are both chuunin.”

“Eh?” he glanced back and forth between the two as she continued to eat, his brows furrowed and eyes narrowed. “Eh? But, Asuka-nee-chan is like, super strong and can do lots of jutsu, and well, Iruka-sensei doesn’t do that.”

Coughing as she swallowed some broth wrong and clamping a hand over her mouth, she used the other to cover the upper half of her face at the embarrassment that no doubt was reflected on both chuunin’s faces, though Umino’s likely bore a healthy dose of mortification. Where was his brain to mouth filter? That kid was just too honest sometimes, and he really needed to learn some tact before he went and said something like that to someone who wouldn’t deal well with that loud blabbermouth’s personality. Well, it was more likely that his sturdy body would be his saving grace, rather than him learning any subtlety.

He wouldn’t know discretion if it bit him on the ass.

“Ah,” her voice was rough as she listened to the Academy instructor sputter in indignation. “Well, Naruto, we have different classifications, so I do the flashy jutsu, and he doesn’t.”

“Oh,” something like understanding passed over his features, before confusion set in. “Classifications? What’s that?”

“Well, Naruto,” there was a dark tint to the man’s voice, even if he was still flushed when she took in his features. “If you’d listened in class, then I would have explained that to you. A classification is sort of like a dedication. I’m a teacher because that’s what I specialize in, what I’m best at is helping others to learn, and Nagisa-san is a front line, combat kunoichi, because she’s best at fighting for Konoha.”

Asuka quirked a half smile at the two males.

As she recalled, last she’d checked he was a High-intelligence class, with a minor note about sabotage. She’d heard talk that he wasn’t a jounin only because he enjoyed teaching children so much and couldn’t stomach the thought of possibly having to harm a child on a mission, which often came with things above B-rank if they were a witness. Or a target. He was too kind hearted for the rigors of being a jounin, his emotions too much towards the surface, too strong to be suppressed or compartmentalized against the things that he would run into on a mission of jounin caliber. Still, he had the skills needed, just not the gut, and she could respect that, as she had the exact opposite problem, as far as she could tell.

“Yeah, you see, I’m more brute strength than Umino-san, and he’s smarter than me, so we do different things,” she looked up into his dark brown eyes, curious about the light flush that suffused his cheeks again, and why he was scratching at the scar that passed across his nose. It couldn’t honestly still bother him, could it? He’d had it for longer than she’d known him, and she’d known him for several years already. “If he cared less about the children of Konoha, and more about kicking butt, he’d be out there with me, taking more active missions, but he likes kids,” she lifted a brow. “Though, with you in his class for so long, I don’t see how he still has any interest in the job.”

“Hey!”

The two chuunin laughed with the two civilians at the Ramen stand, the genin between them sputtering and denying the accusation just making their mirth all the stronger.

So, she didn't know why the kids were suddenly everywhere she went but…

Well, it wasn’t like she minded running into the brats.

They were always entertaining, at the least.

~*~

“Taking a late lunch, Nagisa-san?”

Looking up from where she’d been absently watching the sunlight reflecting off of the river water, she spotted the jounin perched in the tree from which he had spoken out to her, taking in the slightly battered look to his clothing, but seeing no signs of injury and assuming that he’d just gotten back from a mission and was avoiding medical, or he was waiting to be late to a debriefing as was his habit. She’d heard of his boycotting of the hospital – the staff really hated him there from what she could gather and he was a horrible flight risk – and wondered if he suffered through injuries that could easily be taken care of just because he didn’t want to deal with iryō-nin snobs who hadn’t seen a day of actual combat in their lives. She couldn’t see anything too damning or any injuries that bled, so she was sure that he was perfectly alright, but she still wondered if in the past he might have done just that.

As for his ridiculously exasperating propensity for tardiness, she didn’t really understand it, not in the half sympathetic way she did the aversion to the hospital, but with how very deliberate she had begin to realize it was, she was starting to think that it was likely better that she didn’t ponder on his reasons too hard. There was something very carefully constructed about portions of his public persona, namely the ridiculous excuses he used when he was deigning one with his presence after making them wait for two hours feeling like an idiot.

Well, either an idiot or tending towards homicidal inclinations.

The fact that it was very familiar, these carefully tended traits, doubly so kept her from thinking on them too hard.

“Yup,” she absently patted the ground next to her invitingly, the grass springy and a little damp from water splashing up onto it, the ground a little soft from the same. “Want some?”

“Hmm,” he seemed to regard her from her spot on the riverside for an inordinate amount of time with that dark gray-blue eye before shrugging and hopping down from the tree to stroll over casually. “Sure.”

Meandering over, he plopped down comfortably in the grass beside her and reached out easily for one of the onigiri she’d prepared for herself that morning, and she took note of the deep new scrapes on the metal plate on the back of his glove, as well as the dried blood ingrained in them there. From the way it was smeared, it looked like he’d backhanded someone rather successfully, and she pulled water out of the air without thought and washed it off of the metal because it was unhygienic to eat food when you had blood on your hands if you had the choice not to. She was sure that he’d already taken a scraping of it when it was still wet anyway, for analyses by the hospital to put on record and study for any anomalies. He seemed the efficient type when it came to missions and his duty. Leaving it like that was very deliberate, and likely meant to fend off civilians and his fan club.

Luckily, she wasn’t included in either of those factions, and even if he for some unfathomable reason thought of her as such, she still wasn’t going to watch him eat with blood staining his hands. While she was aware of how it likely wasn’t an uncommon occurrence for him, she didn’t want to have anything of the sort associated with her in his mind, subconsciously or not.

She would not remind someone of death just with her presence. She refused to live like that ever again.

“How considerate of you,” he drawled and she rolled her eyes at him with an exasperated sigh.

“Just eat, Hatake-san.”

She didn’t care how weird it made her look washing someone else’s hand – or glove, as it were – before eating when you could potentially ingest someone else’s possibly poisonous blood was gross.

“Hai, hai.”

“Just one is enough.”

“Ah, hai…”

Turning back towards the water she nabbed an onigiri for herself, enjoying the konbu seaweed she’d filled them with, as a change from her usual umeboshi since she’d run out two days before and hadn’t felt like running to the store for just one thing. The breeze was nice as it traveled over the water, carrying the scent of wet earth and cut grass from her previous training, the water reflecting the sunlight that lit the clearing and shimmered over the nearby leaves and tree trunks. She had removed her shoes and calf bandages when she’d sat down for her meal so that her feet were trailing in the water, and she absently lifted a single foot and pointed it, the iridescent blue of nail polish glittered under the water’s magnification as she was holding the water against her skin so that it fit over the appendage like a sock before letting it fall back into the river. The splash brought up several droplets of water that she caught and floated around in the sunlight like shimmery lightning bugs as she fell back to lay on the ground with her eyes closed and reached for another of her onigiri.

“So,” she spoke languidly, keeping her eyes closed but moving the little droplets in shapes and patterns above her, barely having to think about it. “Learn any super cool jutsu while you were out?”

A low chuckle muffled by food greeted her and she smiled a little in enjoyment of his amusement.

It was nice to make people happy since she so rarely got the chance to, and it was likely that he rarely got the chance to be pleased. He was rather somber and serious when he wasn’t being an immature obnoxious bastard just to annoy her and waving porn at the masses so as to ward them off.

“Hmm, well, not one that you would find any use in, I’m sure,” was his mumbled answer. “It’s Fuuton.”

“Ah, boring,” she singsonged with a laugh of her own. “I’m sure you won’t taunt the Hokage’s son with it, of course. Since there are so few Wind jutsu around here.”

“Who? Me?”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

With an amused huff, she burst her chakra inside of the tiny water drops and they briefly exploded and turned into a fine mist that quickly dissipated as it blew away on the wind, before she reached for her canteen blindly and took a drink of the lukewarm tea she’d put inside that morning.

“When do you think you’ll have time to help me with Hidden Mole?”

“Hmm, well, I have some time now,” he said easily with a half shrug, and she opened an eye to look up at him wryly, taking in his post mission self.

“I’ll bet,” was her dry response.

So lazy.

~*~

A couple months after starting to work with Hatake-san and his kids she ran into them while she was out in the Land of Waves. It was the first time she had run into them whilst in the middle of a mission – their D ranks didn’t count – and she could honestly say that she wasn’t pleased with the situation as she found it.

The Sandaime had taken to using her as a courier for passing information in regards to the coming Chuunin Exams, between the villages, seeing as she didn’t really need an escort the way that others who were perhaps more diplomatically qualified would, at least, not at that time, and it was always best to conserve village resources. Considering her Bingo Book entry had her as a low B rank to high C rank risk, her bounty wasn’t all that great or attractive, so it was unlikely that she’d be targeted by Rock or Mist, the only ones that really cared much about bringing in bounties. It meant that she could, in a pinch, be sent out with minimal backup, at most two other nin to escort her, but generally on her own considering she had a better chance of being undetected if she stayed away from larger groups, simply looking like a courier rather than anything else. She’d thought to stop off in Wave for the night, only to sense the fluttery, low chakra of the Copy-nin, and the frazzled, worried auras of their three mutual students, all stationary in an enclosed space with two – no, three – civilian level signatures.

If she hadn’t have been requested by the Hokage to take this mission, it was likely that another chuunin who was unfamiliar with their chakra signatures would have kept on going past despite the obvious distress in the signals in their textbook projections. Even though there was a Konoha signature that hovered about them – one of the first chakra manipulations that were learned in the Academy – if the chuunin in question hadn’t known who they were… and considering it was easy to assume that they were a genin squad, well. Most chuunin are of the opinion that jounin can take care of themselves, even if they have kids to watch out for, and while Asuka herself was well aware that the Copy-nin could most definitely take care of himself and if she hadn’t felt anything she’d have gone on her way. Under any other circumstances she would have continued on, happy to hear about their mission when they got home and could brag or whine about it so that she could put them into drills, but… her senses told her that apparently he’d hit a snag of some kind.

So, she veered off the path she’d been taking through the woods that lead to a little cottage on the border of Wave that held a friend of hers, and came to a nice little house that was just within her rudimentary sensing range. She was sure that Juli-chan would understand when the explanation was given to her next time that the chuunin was in the area, and though her little brat would huff and puff at her, there would be no complaints.

With a frown she jumped down from the trees and after a cursory glance around the area, stretched her senses outward, unusually worried – which she thought was completely logical, considering whatever could put Hatake down, could certainly take her – only to find nothing she could detect, and heading to knock on the front door.

The everyday sounds that had been softly trickling through the wood ceased, and she waited patiently for one of the genin to open the door, and was inordinately pleased to see the unmarked features of the pink haired girl who answered the door.

Jade eyes blinked up at her in surprise and relief, then with pleasure as the girl’s lips curled in surprised happiness.

“Oh, Asuka-sensei!” she cried suddenly, throwing herself at the chuunin with her meager weight, arms wrapped around the woman’s waist, the adult’s hands finding their way to pet her hair and grip shoulder. “I’m so glad that you’re here! Kakashi-sensei is – “

“Sakura,” she interrupted gently, looking down into teary and fearful light green eyes before smiling at her. “It’s good to see you, but perhaps we should take this inside?”

“Ah,” the girl flushed, glancing around the area near the house before moving inside followed by the elder kunoichi. “Gomen, sensei.”

The sight that met her dark green eyes was that of an older man drinking cheap likely watered-down sake at a table covered in paper with scribbled schematics, and what looked like building plans, his black eyes behind small glasses regarding her warily until he noted the leaf forehead protector that was secured around her left thigh and sighed with relief. There was a lovely, tired looking brown haired woman who was standing in the kitchen entryway, her eyes worried, lips slightly pinched on features lean and thin from lack of proper nutrition, the clothing she wore slightly loose on her frame.

She was likely a mother, considering the fact that she hadn’t been eating well, and with Wave in the state it was… there were few signs of that on the man’s features, but he had the air of one who’d recently been traveling, and if the architectural calculations she could see on the table meant anything, he’d probably eaten well whilst away. But the woman… no, she was definitely a mother.

A mother who had been giving her food to the child.

It fit with the smaller, child sized civilian chakra that she could sense inside the house.

“Sakura,” she started once she’d finished her examination. “Introductions?”

“Oh! This is Tsunami-san and Tazuna-san, Tazuna-san is the customer and he paid for a C-rank but it turned into a B-rank when we ran into two chuunin missing nin and suddenly Kaka-sensei called it an A-rank because first there were the Demon Brothers who were really easy to take out for the boys, if scary, and then Momochi Zabuza –“

“Zabuza?” she interrupted a frown creasing her brows and tightening over her lips.

Shiiiiit

That was reason enough to be worried.

“Oh, but Kaka-sensei fought him off and he has the Sharingan! That made Sasuke really upset, but it was so scary, and then there was a Hunter-nin and –“

“Sakura,” she forestalled more word vomit, squatting down to the girl’s level and placing her callused palm on top of her head, feeling the cool metal of her hitai-ate against her palm, pulsing her chakra softly to comfort the girl, whose eyes had gotten rather wide with recollection. “Is Hatake-san injured?”

“Um, we think it’s just chakra exhaustion, but I haven’t let the boys check for anything else because you told me that you shouldn’t approach an unconscious jounin unless properly qualified, especially when he’s injured, because he could hurt you out of instinct.”

Hurt isn’t exactly word I used, she thought with a mental twist of her features. Maim or slaughter was what I said, but well, she likely edited it even as I was saying it. Baby steps, Asuka, baby steps.

Sighing, the chuunin stood, lips tight and pale at the corners.

If the man was deep enough into unconsciousness that he hadn’t sensed her approach…

They didn't know each other well enough that he would implicitly trust her; simply the comradery of fellow Konoha nin.

“Right,” she turned back to the civilians, features a little tight as she gave a short bow. “I am Nagisa Asuka, kunoichi of Konohagakure, sorry for intruding, but I noticed the kids in the area and had to stop by.”

“Ah, no,” the man started, bowing a little in his seat automatically, shaking his head. “It’s not a problem.”

“Do you mind if I intrude further?” she questioned, gaze sliding from the woman to the man and back again. “I’d like to examine my comrade.”

“Go right ahead,” the mother answered, smiling a somewhat strained smile, and the other woman nodded her thanks. “Please be welcome.”

“I thank you for your hospitality. Sakura, lead the way.”

Once they’d entered the room, she found herself having to navigate over genin like they were overeager pets that had awaited the return of their masters after months of separation. Asuka allowed them a few moments, before she finally kicked all of them out to save herself the problems of having them underfoot, especially Naruto, who was steadily getting louder the longer he spoke. If he got much louder, then he was going to set off those dangerously honed instincts and reflexes that his jounin-sensei possessed, and she held no delusions about how well she would work as a meat shield between that man and the genin should he be so far gone that he couldn’t tell friend from foe.

At least it would be a quick death.

Heck, he’d likely regain some of his consciousness as her body hit the floor, so at least the kids would be alive, right?

A little traumatized perhaps, but alive.

She learned of how the boy had used his Shadow Clones to carry the unconscious jounin to the bridge builder’s abode under the direction of her kunoichi protégé, given the proper praise, and then promised to look over the Uchiha’s injuries after she finished with the Copy-nin to get them out. After this, she ordered Naruto to send out clones to patrol. Pretend he was looking out in preparation for a big prank he was doing.

Honestly, children.

They were like puppies tripping over each other at her feet for her attention.

Even the broody one.

Careful not to get within three feet of the man before she’d removed her weapons pouch and had already unsealed her medical supplies should she need them, she examined the pallor of the patch of skin she could see, and grimaced with worry over the small, fluttery feeling of his chakra against her senses.

That Sharingan eye really did a number on the normally ridiculous chakra stores.

She didn’t like not having that towering, thunderstorm feeling chakra crackling under tight control next to her when she looked at the silver haired jounin, and was distinctly uncomfortable with the concern and consternation she felt at his laid out appearance. The ragged edges of his clothing and the slightest scent of copper that permeated the air near him made her muscles twitch under her skin with agitation, and her heart fluttered with worry in her chest. She rather sincerely hoped that none of the blood that stained his dark attire in the few places that she could discern was his.

So, after taking a bracing breath, she knelt at his side, and nonchalantly – careful to not be too slow, and not too fast – placed her hands on his firm chest and gave a small, questioning chakra pulse into his system, to alert him to her intentions. It was standard procedure when dealing with a nin the rank of Mid chuunin or above, doubly so for any that had been active during wartime and had been in enough battle situations to have developed a nicely rounded sense of paranoia. It had always been dangerous to wake up a ninja, but it was especially so when said shinobi or kunoichi was wounded and had experience in wartime; more than one medically trained nin had been lost to their wounded comrades’ moments of disorientation upon waking. Just another thing that the Senju Princess had made for the betterment of Konoha’s forces was the conditioning to associate medical chakra signatures with positive things required by all ninja by the time they started learning chakra manipulation in the Academy, so that they could recognize the presence of a medic from their village even unaware when wounded and unconscious.

There were some cases though, that… well, there was only so much trauma that the human mind could deal with before it rewrote itself and replaced previous conditioning with something it found much more fitting. Because, while convenient and generally a good practice, the standard chakra query that portrayed the intent to help didn’t always work.

After all, chakra fluctuations could be copied.

Apparently Hatake Kakashi was one of those paranoid individuals.

Go figure.

Ah, hmm.

From where she lay on her back after not even a moment of her chakra slipping against the man’s hara, the chuunin pondered the irony of her situation. If only she hadn’t been introduced to this genin team she wouldn’t be in the position. Asked to teach a young kunoichi how to strive and is nearly killed by the one who has asked in the first place.

There was a rather sharp kunai at her throat, her hands were pinned above her head, legs held under the weight of the jounin’s wiry, muscular form, as she found herself struggling not to struggle orfight back against her sudden, not altogether unexpected attacker. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the Sharingan up close.

His eyes were dull with exhaustion and a lack of comprehension, the darkness of his original eye a little hazily more gray than blue, the pupil blown just a little more than the crimson counterpart, the red of the doujustu the darker the farther towards the edge of the iris it reached, until it turned into a black ring. She found herself mildly hypnotized by the slow spinning of the tomoe in his red eye, the scar that bisected his eyelid was strangely dark, like a curse against the sallow of his skin, but that small spark of chakra he had left was fizzling over her skin like static electricity, trying to determine her threat level and she had to suppress a shiver at the foreign feeling. The breath that struggled weakly and laboriously from behind the material of his mask against her face was scentless but extremely warm, telling more about his fever than the glazed sheen to his eyes and the shivering of his skin where it pressed against hers even through thick cloth.

“Hatake-san,” she said carefully, but no response was forthcoming and she felt her brows crease more with her worry at the tremble that was beginning in his limbs. “Hatake-san.”

The man’s breathing was getting a little more belabored, ragged, losing even the slight amount of control he’d had over it at first, and she pressed her lips together for a moment before completely relaxing her body and staring up into those mismatched eyes, the only part of his face she could really see.

He has nice eye lashes. Long, dark, curling. Very pretty. I wonder why they aren’t pale like his hair.

“Kakashi-san,” she tried his first name cautiously, her tone was soft, gentle. “I need to tend to your injuries,” she tugged lightly, almost playfully at her pinned wrists, and received a waiver of his grip for her efforts. “Kakashi-san.”

Another, stronger falter in his bruising, painful hand around her wrists – she was that glad she was wearing her bracers, or her bones would be grinding together – and she risked a soft breath to speak again, hoping that her next effort didn’t have the opposite effect she was going for despite how risky it was. Something like confusion slithered over those glazed eyes as he stared down at her, and she knew that she was beginning to get through to him, no matter how… awkward her means.

“Kakashi…”

It was embarrassing to call him without honorifics, a little rude considering he was Elite – despite her failings in social understanding, he was her superior and deserved the respect of the position, especially so the more she got to know him – but it certainly got results.

That hard, blank stare ended once he blinked, the first time he’d done so since pinning her to the floor, and then he squinted at her, left eye flinching shut before his arms and legs seemed to give out, all of the muscles in his body deciding that enough was enough all at once. It was only her own, newly honed, reflexes that saved her from a slit throat – oh shit fuck fuck fuck almost dead – as his full weight fell on her torso, and she was able to shift just enough to be able to catch him to her side, carefully setting the kunai within his reach, but keeping it from his hand for the moment as she set him back onto the futon that had been lain out for him. In the back of her mind, she was vaguely thankful for his being a pain in the ass and increasing her reaction time by almost fifty percent since having started helping her with her affinity, and still doing so, despite her having mostly mastered her secondary affinity.

It was apparent to her that he couldn’t even move his arms he was so weary, so she gently resettled his hitai-ate over his Sharingan eye, frowning at the drag it had had on his already dangerously low chakra reserves, heart settling more calmly in her chest. Now that the worst was over, she managed to maneuver him carefully, as gently as she could, onto the sleeping pallet once again so that he could be as comfortable as possible while she looked him over to make sure that there wasn’t anything more serious than the disturbing state of his chakra stores to deal with.

“… Nagisa?” he managed to wheeze hoarsely, voice sounding painfully dry. He was beginning to burn up with a high fever, and she pressed her lips together with worry and displeasure. “What are you doing here?”

“I was passing through on my way back from a mission,” she returned, gently beginning to remove his jounin vest, folding it carefully and placing it next to his head on the side nearest her, the one with his uncovered eye. “I felt the kids’ chakra signatures, and well,” she grimaced at him. “ You. Feels awful, by the way, Hatake-san.”

The beleaguered sigh he released seemed to remove the remaining tension in his body, and his dark eye regarded her, half lidded and bruised, lines of exhaustion clear as day tugging out from the heavy lid. He looked so aged with his veins showing clearly through his pale skin, the sudden addition of lines at the corners of a normally smooth, finely shaped eye. She didn’t like it.

She didn’t like that she didn’t like it.

Were they becoming… something like friends?

She couldn’t tell.

But. She.

She wanted.

~*~

Nagisa was almost… she… he had almost…

It was painful to swallow, but he did so to try to soften the harsh lump in his throat of almost dread and the pathetic palpitations of his heart as adrenaline dried up in his abused system.

He had never felt so inordinately glad that she had strangely soothing, calming chakra when she focused it through her hands, that she was such a calm and steady presence that matched her outward straightforward personality.

That was likely that the only reason he hadn’t killed her by reflex alone when she gave the standard query into his system, because her soothing chakra had been familiar and also completely non hostile, almost… friendly and warm, no reticence whilst still having human personality and touch to it, not clinical at all. There was also relief in the fact that when he could no longer hold himself up anymore – it was vaguely embarrassing, but he was too exhausted to really care – she managed to keep herself from being sliced open anyway – something that would have given him more things to regret, more people on the stone to remember for his folly – and made sure he didn’t slam his head into the floor. That would have compounded the lovely headache that was already pounding away in his head causing his brain, that felt like mulch in a meat grinder as it was, to shatter into a thousand pieces of slicing glass and possibly ooze out of his skull.

Her speed in reacting was something that was probably of his own doing, to some extent. He got the feeling she wouldn’t scowl at him as much when he decided to surprise attack her during their ninjutsu sessions anymore, though it was likely that she’d never grow to enjoy them as he did, taking some fun from her irritation.

She had called him by his first name, as well, which had shocked him when he could think again, but he didn’t feel displeased by it, nor did he feel insulted with whatever insinuation it could say about them, especially considering the large gap in relative rank. The civilians were already gossiping, so what did it matter? While the woman wasn’t exactly the most personable of people, or exactly overflowing with deference, there was a subtle sort of respect that she regarded him with, namely by not assuming that it was alright to use his first name or disregarding honorifics as some did. It was refreshing as well as familiar, the brisk politeness, and it had both helped create as well as reduce the distance between them comfortably. The way that she had diverted from that comfortable routine to get his attention was a bit shocking, but it had gotten results. To be quite frank, it had apparently soothed and made him relax through his battle readiness and violent urges, likely calling to his subconscious telling him that this was a person who he didn’t want to maim and kill because they were close enough to him to use his name familiarly.

There was some timid, tired pleasure at being correct about her medical training, though.

“Yeah…”

Because it was rather correct, he readily agreed with her assessment of how his chakra exhaustion felt even from an outside perspective.

It took him a moment to realize that he was allowing her to pull off the long sleeved shirt he wore over ANBU grade under armor, glad when she made no move towards removing either that or the mask attached to it via chakra insulated fibers, but instead removed his hip pouch and separate kunai pouch, putting those on top of his vest and shifting down to remove his sandals. Her hands were careful and deliberate, every motion telegraphing exactly what she meant to do before and even as she did it. He watched as she frowned with her slightly furrowed brows at the slight swelling in his ankle from almost turning it too much when he’d set his foot wrong bracing against the weight and power of the Kubikiribōchō and its wielder, and though she was clearly displeased with it she appeared to set it aside for later, though her fingers lit over the bones for a quick moment. The calluses of her trade skimmed over his hypersensitive swollen flesh and felt almost ticklish, and if he’d had anything resembling energy, he would have felt properly insulted and offended at the very fact that his body twitched a little at the touch and had reacted in any way.

He'd thought Kushina had killed those nerve endings when he was a kid.

After she shifted to the rest of him, he watched her lightly tanned features frown and twist with worry as she removed his gloves and took in the impact bruises and blisters from stopping Zabuza’s sword with only a kunai for defense against a rather large legendary blade, even beneath hard callous and scar tissue. The small, oblong shape of the blades on kunai weren’t quite built to endure that kind of force or pressure, and he was sure if it’d been anyone else faced with the might of the missing nin, they’d possibly be nursing broken or strained wrists from the power. Well, either that or they wouldn’t have been able to stop it at all and would have been killed.

Eh.

Despite the fact that neither the missing nin or he had gotten serious – though the Copy-nin had felt the urge towards the end once he’d been released from the Water Prison as he distinctly did not like his genin being in danger and would strive towards never having a repeat performance – the skill that the other man possessed would have been a challenge for most other Konoha jounin to keep up with. Those below perhaps a jounin on the upper side of Mid would have not been able to keep up and would have surely been crushed under the pressure and unable to escape or hope for such, possibly during the first attack.

There was a reason he was considered Elite, the same as there was for Zabuza, though Kiri didn’t call it that if he remembered correctly.

He was just one of the Seven, their highest ranking below Kage.

It was likely that there was a ranking system even amongst the Seven themselves, but he didn’t know it. Also, with each regime change, things were iffy in other villages in how stable the information one knew about a village's systems prior to the change. Often, there were minute changes in ranking that threw off those outside of the village who had had some idea of the system that belonged in the previous regime.

“Anything you can tell me about your condition other than a gross state of chakra exhaustion?”

He watched, faintly surprised as he always was at noting her lack of need for hand signs when using certain jutsu, apparently included in this particular case, she had summoned water to her hand and was using it to channel her yin chakra into healing his hand of contusions.

The sight was both mesmerizing and inordinately pretty, glittering and shimmering the way it was, like a decorative pond in the moonlight, or a many faceted jewel in the sun flickering like a tall candle flame with warm gold and cold blue – eh, hmm.

He apparently really needed to get some sleep because that was just ridiculous.

It was both distracting and calming to look at, like the waterfall and river that she frequented for training more often than not, where they ended up eating lunches fetched for them by his Summon. For some reason, the water medium almost made the iryō-jutsu feel… more effective in a way, closer would be another way to describe it, as if the water was making it easier to touch and regenerate damage. Perhaps it was just because it was another of her strange affinity abilities, but he might suggest this method to other med-nin should he get the chance, or if it was even possible for them to perform the jutsu in the same way. The human body was mostly made up of water, after all, and perhaps using such to channel the chakra made the infiltration and manipulations of the cells easier. Who knew? It was something to think about.

After all, he knew a few jutsu that could mess with the tiny electrical currents running through a body. He'd just never considered using it to heal if it even had medical potential.

It boggled as to why she wasn’t a jounin already now that he’d been witness to a large array of her skills – Sandaime was right damn him – but well, it was half choice entering the Jounin Trials, and she had mentioned not feeling up to the test yet. Still, she didn’t seem to even truly comprehend some of her own skills, and the fact that they were rather above average in all aspects – even had some impressive skill in genjutsu, considering she wasn’t interested in the field only knew few, though having had Uchiha on her team it was explainable – of those of her rank. It wasn’t every day that you met someone – a chuunin at that, even a High – who could perform the majority of their known ninjutsu without hand seals, or with modified one handed seals. If she spent less time training alone, and spoke more with the ninja population, she would know this, but well, she likely wouldn’t have the skill set that she did if she had been more social. He didn’t really have any right to say anything in regards to that, anyways, and he hated being a hypocrite, despite the fact that he was a living contradiction.

He himself found himself often confused when people were in awe of certain skills.

Like his own affinity with Lightning and how it was so strong in a mainly Fire aligned country, how he’d had no secondary affinities and had to develop them from scratch and still mastered them better than most with their main affinity. It seemed to have people dropping jaws with envy and admiration even though it wasn’t a skill exactly, just some strange mix of genetics and chance that had given him a propensity for learning and adapting even before he’d received Obito’s Sharingan.

It was just the way he was, so he could understand her bemusement, but he was starting to see where others had come from in regards to interest in his strong affinity.

Nagisa’s affinity was ridiculous.

And so very fascinating.

“My shoulder,” he didn’t elaborate, settling for closing his eye and concentrating on breathing through the familiar, heavy pain of his body and chakra coils. His head felt so heavy… “Possible sprain in my ankle. Might check my lungs.”

“Hmm, there isn’t any water in them,” she muttered absently without even checking with her jutsu, setting his hands down gently at his sides before shifting foreword and trailing the jutsu covered palm over his already visibly bruising right shoulder, which was only bared because he’d chosen the sleeveless armor on a whim before they’d left Konoha. “And your ankle will need a day of two of rest too, that’s all. But the shoulder…”

The jutsu was soothing on the partially torn ligament, boosting its strength and starting to knit it back together. Normally he hated being healed, but the way she wasn’t babying him or ordering him about made this much more comfortable than it otherwise could have been with another medically trained nin. She wasn’t scolding him, wasn’t making it seem like she knew more than he about his own body like some combat trained medics and all hospital workers. She was just going about her work, doing what she could, and not complaining about how he should know better or be better despite not being a field operative and not knowing what it could be like in the midst of battle. That got old. Fast.

“Jeez, what exactly did you do?”

“Stopped the Kubikiribōchō with a kunai,” he stated with as much dryness as he could. “Y’know, the usual.”

Kakashi could honestly say that he was rather pleased that he hadn’t slurred the words even though his mind was starting to fog into unconsciousness at the relaxing feel of her chakra through his tired muscles.

It was rare that he spent so much time with one person constantly, and he hadn’t done so since his leaving the active ANBU registry. He’d forgotten how relaxing, how warm and relieving it was to have someone you recognized as friendly when you were injured who was strong enough to aid the weaker members of his pack, someone who could be counted as an ally. He had rarely found himself able to fall fully unconscious in hospitals, or on joint missions with those whom he had to lead, and that wasn’t good for his health at all, didn’t speed up the recovery the way proper rest would.

The fact that she was even there to take care of the kids in some capacity while he couldn’t – he shuddered to think of what he might have done, had the genin approached him while he was unconscious, it was the stuff of nightmares – was a huge relief even though a part of him was very unhappy with himself in the fact that he had been unable to remove the threat to the young under his protection. Although she wasn’t as capable as he was in general, her overall strength much less than some Mid jounin, she was leaps and bounds more effective than the genin and still several of his fellow jounin, definitely able to defend against most of what they could be facing. Even if, as he suspected, Zabuza was still alive – which was just great really – she would still definitely be a bonus as backup, if she stayed.

He carefully avoided the thought that he hoped she did.

Pretending ignorance was generally best.

Bliss and all that.

“Ow,” she muttered, lips twisting in distaste, taking a breath. “Alright, I’m going to start a chakra transfer,” he could hear her grimace and echoed it internally. “It might be a little rough, since I have no Lightning affinity to speak of, but please bear with me.”

“Mm,” he just hummed, falling firmly into the darkness.

It was always better to be unconscious during a transfusion.

Experience told him this.

~*~

Once she was sure he was out, she began the transfusion, frowning deeply at the greedy way that his coils pulled on her reserves, finding barely any reluctance on his part to pull in the Water aligned chakra into his system as he gobbled it up. That spoke of a despairing familiarity with having to make do with apposing affinity transfers via something of a regularity, and in the long run, this could damage his ability to produce chakra, or even mess with the strength of his affinity.

Considering his trademark was the freaking Chidori, she was embarrassed to note that she was suddenly taking into consideration the idea of beginning to work on building up a rudimentary Lightning affinity, just in case he needed another transfer at some point in the future.

She was turning into such a sap.

They barely knew one another; when would she need to do this again?

~*~

“So,” she sat back beside the mostly recuperated jounin with a yawn, a little tired and hungry due to the rather large transfer the previous day. Her hands tingled a little with how she’d overworked her coils, though she was glad that it wasn’t the icy pins and needles of using too much yin chakra. That shit was irritating as all get out. “Zabuza’s alive.”

“Yeah,” it was almost a groan as he stared up at the boys as they worked on tree climbing.

Sakura having already finished the exercise – a fact that she was delightedly smug about, though she’d only taunted her teammates a little, which only a little while ago she never would have done – and had headed to the bridge with Tazuna, so it was only the boys that were working on it still.

“Fake death with a senbon, you said?” she asked curiously, causing him to glance over at her. “Where exactly did it hit?”

“Hmm,” he reached out and tapped over her leather armor, just where the meat of her major neck muscles met her shoulder, next to her vertebrae. “About there, I think.”

With a frown, she considered.

“There must have been some other factor,” she wondered aloud. “Just the senbon wouldn’t have done that.”

“Oh?” he looked a little interested.

“How deep would you say it went?” she spread her finger a bit apart. “About this?”

“Little deeper, perhaps, but very close,” he glanced up at the boys when Naruto fell off of the tree again with a yell of discontent, the Uchiha tsking and landing much more gracefully as he did the same.

“Well, you probably know the human body better than I do,” she mused, not noting the wry twist to his visible brow at her words. It was true, to be able to tear apart a body and take a life efficiently, knowledge was a necessity. It was why combat capable medics were so dangerous, because they knew everything about the human body, why the Senju had been so feared even with their propensity for iryō-jutsu. “But there is a nerve there that could cause temporary paralyses, but it wouldn’t stop the heart, temporarily or otherwise. It was either some kind of chakra charge – unlikely, you’d probably have sensed it, no matter how out of it you were, but still possible – or it was some sort of poison.”

She pursed her lips in thought before glancing over at him.

“You didn’t smell anything different?”

“Hmm, no,” he decided after a moment, shaking his head. “Although there are a number of poisons that are relatively scentless.”

“Well,” she released a breath and relaxed back into the tree more, stretching her lightly tingling fingers. “It’ll come out eventually.”

“Mm.”

They sat for a bit, and she pulled a bag of crackers from her kunai pouch, a little put out that she didn’t have more on her person, but didn’t want to stand to go hunt up something to eat. Things were sparse enough in Wave, so they didn’t need her eating their food, as well. Leaning back against the same tree as the recently healed Copy-nin and offered him some of her treat, somewhat pleased when he did take a handful, no matter how cutesy the shape of the crackers were, and even more pleased when he didn’t say a word when she plucked the pandas out of his hand and replaced them with flower and puppy shaped ones. She just really liked the pandas, okay? Those little seaweed wrapped ears and sesame seed eyes… adorable.

So she had a weakness for cute things, so sue her.

Everyone had a vice and hers was relatively harmless.

“I’d say you had a slight case of disturbing narcissism,” he started after they both finished their snack, somewhat amused from behind his orange book. “But your hair isn’t settled quite high enough on your head for that to be the case.”

She nudged him in the side with her elbow, sniffing imperiously. His chakra crackled against hers with a mischievous tint, and she found hers fluttering back at him as if to shoo him away, like one would do with hyperactive children or animals begging for table scraps. Though she flushed a little at the sudden instinctive and thoughtless chakra play, unsure of what it could mean, she continued to bicker with him for the fun of it. He could be delightfully snippy when he got into a mood, and it was rare that she got the chance to exchange barbs with people. Especially witty ones.

“High placed hair causes a stupid amount of wind resistance,” she stated gravely, lips twitching at the corners.

“I’ll be sure to bring this up to many of the kunoichi I know,” was his equally serious answer, his own lips twitching behind his mask though she couldn’t see it from her angle. “I’m sure they’ll take this knowledge in with considerable grace and poise.”

They shared a glance, before both chuckled at the thought of the murderous rage that those women would go into if they were told that their hair styles were unprofessional, and that they detracted from their physical capabilities at all. Especially if they were told by a man. Yeah, that’d definitely be the last thing seen. Enraged herd of kunoichi, what a way to go, right?

Not everyone was as good at surviving beatings from kunoichi as Jiraiya of the Sannin, the sturdy bastard.

Most didn’t have experience with the Senju princess’ fists, either.

“It’ll take Zabuza another couple days until he’s in top shape again,” Kakashi murmured, dark eye completely serious, and she turned her head towards him. “So, do you think that you are going to stick around for that long?”

“Yeah,” she answered simply, pulling a knee up towards her chest and propping her elbow on it, hand dangling at chest height, relaxed. She noted that she had a small impact bruise on the back of her hand that was from a few days previous when sparring with Mai. The girl was getting better. “I’m sure Sandaime-sama will understand the delay,” she cocked her head to the side. “You want me to take the accomplice?”

“I’m going to think on it a bit more, but probably,” that dark eye glanced over at his less than gifted in chakra control students. Those poor trees... “The boys would have to if you weren’t here, and that’s not really something I want to throw at them just yet.”

“Probably for the best,” she agreed.

“Argh!”

Crash.

“… Falling practice sometime after we get back, do you think?”

A heavy sigh.

“Aa.”

~*~

When they did end up at the bridge and the missing nin decided to show up at the same time, she was irritated to note that there were several water clones hidden in the sudden onset of unnatural mist. While she excelled in Water techniques, and could sense water rather well, it was still irritating to be surrounded by the not quite solid state of her element – especially when suffused with another’s hostile chakra – as well as being bombarded by several clones of a man who was apparently much larger than she was. She found herself protecting the bridge builder and the pink haired girl from several water clones at once instead of intercepting the fake Hunter-nin and separating him from the group, which then fell to the Uchiha boy, and she couldn’t withhold a curse from springing from her lips at the thought.

She could hear the clanging of metal, the grate of a large slab meeting a small slice, and winced, sensing the two jounin level shinobi’s positions by the parting of the mist.

She could smell blood.

It was always worse when she could, because she didn’t have the enhanced senses of some of her fellows and that either meant there was a lot of it, or they were really close. Usually too close.

“Asuka,” she heard from only a few feet away. Close then. “The mist.”

“Right,” she muttered.

Breath steady as she pressed her chakra overtop the former Mist shinobi’s and told the particles of water to fall to the ground, to disperse, something that was obeyed immediately.

“Wait, when did you start calling me by my first name?”

That was unexpected, and she felt a little blindsided by the sudden change of both her first name and a lack of honorific, as if they were close.

… Were they?

That would be…

Well.

Though she cleared it quietly, the soft sound out of her throat made her face feel warm with implications.

“Well –”

She heard a faint grunt that pulled her from her bewilderment as the man was interrupted from what he had been going to say, and turned to see that impressively large cleaver pressing down on the silver haired jounin, who held it at bay with a kunai.

A kunai.

An itty bitty little kunai.

Honestly, he could at least bring along a sealed longer blade, the man had used a tanto in his youth. Plus, it was an open secret that he’d been in ANBU, the gear he wore beneath the standard uniform telling enough that even if she hadn’t heard the rumor she would have figured it out – despite whatever he had covering or hiding the tattoo – and it was standard procedure in ANBU to carry a longer blade, which was usually a tanto or a kodachi.

“– You did use mine when I had you pinned to the floor,” he finished after a moment.

Of course he would bring that up.

Bastard.

The faint, offended, no, downright appalled “Sensei!” that came from the genin girl caused the chuunin to roll her eyes towards the heavens before a deadpan expression moved over her features. He had either the most ridiculously good timing abilities or the absolute worst and she couldn’t quite figure out which it was, not yet.

He’d claim the former, she was sure. Because he’s a genius, the whiny little snot.

He did enjoy verbal banter though, and it usually kept the mood from becoming too serious when in battle she had seen often enough, although she found it difficult to initiate on her own. She wasn’t known for her verbal finesse, after all, but if he was leading this dance, well, she could follow well enough, she had found.

“Hmm,” Zabuza’s voice was much deeper than she expected, a little rough, and she watched the corded play of muscles over his arms as he lifted the great cleaver from where he’d been pressuring the Copy-nin, jumping back. Oh, wow, he had to be strong to lug that thing around like it was nothing. “She’s pretty cute, that woman you brought,” he leered at her dangerously, the Killing Intent in the area spiking at her almost playfully, and she frowned at him, brows furrowed. How rude. “Asuka-chan, was it?”

“… You think I’m cute?”

Snorting at her words, the Konoha jounin leapt forward, his hands flashing quickly, before he spat lightning – oh, it was a conundrum how he did that through the mask but chakra – at the taller, broader man, who shifted out of the way of it. The bridge shuddered under her feet at the collision of jutsu with wood, sending a loud crack echoing sharply in the cool morning air, the tang of ozone sharp and immediate, closely followed by the taste of smoke in the back of her throat. As the Demon of the Mist swiftly evaded the jutsu, he brought his blade up in a flash of movement that she could just barely follow. Oh, he really had to be immensely strong to swing that thing around like that, meaning that those muscles weren’t just for show, then. There was an edgy part of her that wanted to fight him and to test her own blade against his, because if there was anything that she could call her folly, it was her desire to fight strong kenjutsu practitioners. Something that she rarely got the chance to do, seeing as there very were few ninja with those interests and skills in Konoha, and the ones they did have were very rarely free around the times that she was in the village.

It was what she specialized in, after all.

Yep, she was Konoha’s very own aspiring kenjutsu mistress.

Well, her and Uzuki Yugao.

She swore she’d pin that woman down someday and get a proper spar out of her, it was always getting interrupted when they managed to find each other.

They both got downright jumpy when they ran into each other on the street, both of them reaching for their weapons so often that people thought they’d explode at each other in the street due to the anticipation that they exuded. It was a common misconception that they didn’t like each other, that they downright hated each other, but that wasn’t true at all. Uzuki and she had an understanding, similar passions and pursuits, and when they couldn’t find each other for a spar they unanimously decided to take their frustrations out on the purple haired woman’s somewhat sickly but extremely gifted significant other Gekkō Hayate who was known as the best swordsmen in the village. While it was good practice and always fun to terrify Gekkō into a spar, it was also frustrating that they never got the time to spar each other the way that they wanted to, because there was something different about going against a woman instead of a man.

“I’m not cute,” she stated firmly to the wide eyed genin standing behind her. “I’m attractive. I’m dangerous. I’m a motherfucking kunoichi. Don’t ever let a man call you cute, Sakura,” she instructed, holding up a finger seriously. “Cute is for small children, civilian men,” she almost heard Tazuna sputter. “And baby animals. You go with pretty at the very bottom of the barrel, and the highest form of compliment you can get is red faced fumbling and speechlessness.”

“A-Asuka-sensei,” the girl looked dumbfounded, but her nerves had quieted. Good. “I don’t… really think that right now is the time.”

“Oh?” she queried, her gaze drifting towards the ice prison on the other side of the bridge. It didn’t seem that anything horrible was happening over there, so she didn’t let her gut sink in dread just yet. “What time would you prefer?”

“W-well…”

“Kakashi,” she called his first name ignoring the tiny flutter in her stomach as she interrupted the poor girl. “What’s the best way to compliment a woman’s appearance?”

“Speechless awe,” he grit out after being forced back by the missing nin, now only ten feet in front of the two kunoichi and the civilian. “And awkward jabbering. Possibly a dead faint, depending on the circumstances.”

The chuunin gestured in satisfaction at the silver haired man’s back, only to go battle ready in half a second, left hand tapping her right palm with a dot of chakra, the specialized tattoo there releasing her sword and she appeared on the other side of the bridge builder, the sound of metal scraping on metal reaching her ears a moment after the pressure exerted against her. Her right hand was bracing the back of the blade of her katana, the left gripping her well used hilt, the familiar grain of black braid beneath her hand a comfort against superior odds and that supreme strength. She was thankful for her muscular training as she didn’t slide back, though she used a little chakra on her feet just in case anyway, even if her arms and back screamed out at the strain while she had to remind herself that she was still wearing her wrist and shin weights. Truly, such a little thing was what made all the difference on her psyche.

Not on the situation, though.

“Ooh,” there was something like interest in those dark eyes as they regarded her above those industrial bandages. She could feel the heat of his breath on her face, and couldn’t help but feel relief at only the smell of herbs and tea reaching her nose. That would have been the icing on the cake, gnarly smelling breath. Odd that scent made it through his bandages but not Kakashi’s mask. Quality of materials, maybe? “Soshu Kitae, very nice,” his eyes drifted over her features, strangely considering, and she worked to push down the pressing urge to flush for something other than exertion. “Very nice.”

Well, that was a… compliment if she’d ever heard one.

Was flirting with the enemy an approved combat instrument?

It wasn’t exactly a tactic that she’d used before…

Without thought, she shifted her balance just enough for him to need to readjust his footing and let up on his pressuring of her, his superior height being used against him as his center of gravity was much higher than hers, and tapped her right hand to her left palm, and from that Seal popped forth a thick, self-stylized knife. The edge was razor sharp and the shape of the blade was a separated length of metal of a size with her forearm, the sharpened edge waved like her element, the tip of which she then slammed the strong point against the thin part of the blade that created the first guillotine curve, pleased at the agonized screech that came from the Kubikiribōchō. Dark eyes widened, and the man jumped back, only to be set upon by the jounin who had been waiting his chance, and with the enemy once again preoccupied, she glanced over towards where the Uchiha was fighting with the ex-Mist jounin’s accomplice, only to swear internally at the newfound information that Naruto was in there as well.

He’d been asleep in exhaustion when they’d left!

Troublesome boy.

She couldn’t tell what exactly it was that was going on in that ice prison, which was apparently a kekkai-genkai, if Zabuza was to be believed, and she frowned at the feeling of water that was just beyond her reach.

Having not been looking at the direction of the two genin boys and the unknown nin after her initial glance, watching and hoping for an opportunity to part the man from his sword, she was shocked at the moment she heard ice shattering like glass and turned her head to see, just before she felt.

– The pressure of the beam crushing against her back, the heat of that monstrous chakra burning in her lungs, her baby sister bleeding out beneath her, metal matte and glimmering faintly where it stuck out of the younger girl’s chest, someone screaming, was she screaming what was happening everything hurt –

Her back burned like rage and anguish. Like grief.

“Naruto!” she and Kakashi cried together.

All it took was simply a single momentary glance for them to switch out – if things went south with what that boy contained, he had a better chance of holding him back – her katana meeting with the stunned, wide eyed Zabuza’s blade and sending the Kubikiribōchō launching twenty feet away to stick out of the bridge.

Ah, she was sure that Tazuna would want to have words about all the damages later.

Well, if he was still alive, anyway.

Which if that were the case he should just be grateful and get over it because a few damages were better than corpses and being dead, in all rights.

“Haku...”

Asuka just barely heard him breathe the name, dark eyes tight at the corners, blood dripping from one rather injured arm, even as he plucked a kunai up to block her blade, only to have to dodge away at a swipe from her dagger.

The drag of resistance meant that she’d caught cloth, and she found herself rather pleased with that. It wasn’t every day that you ripped up the clothes of a talented shinobi, especially one who was a whole rank and skill level above yourself, but she didn’t let it get to her head. It was rather obvious that he was preoccupied with the fact that Kakashi was now within reaching – maiming, killing – distance of his young friend. Who was apparently named Haku.

Could they use that? The emotional attachment he had to the boy? To be honest, that want her style, she disliked manipulation like that, but if it came down to it…

He sent a quick, pressurized spout of water at her, but she subjugated it, and returned it to him in a sharp batch of highly compressed water needles – this was her go-to move, it required little chakra, and even less concentration – and barely noted the furrow of his angular black brows. Or the widening of eyes as he twitched out of the way of the returned attack. There was but a moment before he blurred out of her field of vision, and it was only the change in temperature behind her that had her directing chakra to the metal plates sewn inside of her leather armor, causing them to fuse and harden as they were designed to, that saved her from a set of broken ribs as his fist slammed into her right side, and while she did get tossed a few feet, she was up and standing before him again in a blink.

A quick glance at his fist, showed some damage done to his knuckles and fingers through the arm warmers covering them, and the relief she felt was short lived, because she suddenly felt a disturbance on the water and rolled her eyes with some sort of resignation, lips quirking wryly.

Of course, as soon as things were looking to be – not good, not quite positive – interesting, the backup would arrive.

Man, she rarely got to spread her wings with a new swordsman!

She was a bit confused though, as to why the man was toying with them, why he hadn’t forced Kakashi to get serious, and why he was willing to play with her, when she could just barely keep up with his movements. If it were anyone else, she'd heave thought he was just buying time or teaching her something as the superior swords person. As it was, maybe he was bored…?

Yeah, that didn't sound right to her, either.

The fact that she could hear the “dead” bridge workers groaning as they began to wake up was starting to build on her growing theory as to what was really going on here.

By the twist of his features, she could tell that he was scowling at her from beneath his bandages, even if there was no real heat in it, and he’d since stopped throwing around Killing Intent like candy and flowers and he was an oblivious civilian trying to ask her on a date. They moved simultaneously towards the Kubikiribōchō, and just as he lay his hands on it with his longer reach, she hooked her dagger into the inward facing bladed circle as she leaned her weight on the back of the blade in a manner similar to what Kakashi had done earlier in their bout, and that moment it took for him to recalibrate the strength needed to lift her as well as the blade gave her what she needed. As she flipped over his back mostly propelled by his strength – it was only a little fun to be lifted so easily… no, really – she slapped some quick paper seals that she was glad to have thought to grabbed from Anko’s stash over the broad side of the cleaver with chakra strings since her hands weren’t free, before twisting in the air and swiping out with her katana, slicing a nice gash into the man’s back, before being thrown back by a foot in her gut.

Ow, she thought kneeling with one foot supporting her, and left knee down as she rolled back into an upright position, blades held at the ready. I’m glad that I left the Guard setting of the plates on, otherwise I’d have some majorly punctured internal organs. Son of a – Ow.

Still, that hurt like a bitch, and she struggled to pull air back into her lungs, muscle memory and reflexes the only thing that saved her from being cleaved in half in his anger, as well as getting her to a fair distance when she felt the chakra she’d set into the paper seals sizzle in warning.

Shit.”

The missing nin snarled as he reluctantly tossed the blade away from him so that it exploded with concussive force in the air as opposed to in his hands – honestly, she was extremely impressed with the strength of the blade, as it had nary a scratch on it after the blast – and damaging his “good” arm.

Considering the fact that she hadn’t even seen him use his left since she switched in, she was pretty sure that the slice in the back of his deltoid had caused considerable damage. They both raced towards the weapon again, and she found herself having to dodge kunai that he threw at her with whistling, whining accuracy, and she felt the pain in the front of her thigh as one gouged a gash into the muscle, luckily not piercing any ligaments, but still causing discomfort, and the weight she could then put on that leg was fleeting. The shock of being stabbed made her stumbled a little, but she quickly corrected her balance, never taking her gaze off of the dangerous missing nin that had given her the wound. He managed to grasp the handle of the large, monstrous blade and take the initiative, pushing her back, pressing down on her with an emphasis on her injured side, black eyes staring into her own like a shark in the water with the desire to truly maim her now that he’d caused her to bleed.

What was it with thinking of Kiri nin in shark metaphors?

Shifting her weight, she managed to slide the larger blade down the crest of her katana and flickered away in a hurried, leafless shunshin – a technique that took more chakra control than she’d thought she had in those moments – only to dart back in for a clash of blade on blade.

They parried back and forth, and she felt sweat beading on her brow, her breathing beginning to become labored. His stamina was much greater than her own, and whenever she could, she swiped at his blade with her sword-breaker, the small, dense dagger causing an angry, mournful cry to ring up from the metal every time it struck. She was waning though, and they both knew it, even though the blood that they had to avoid slipping in was mostly his and he himself was slowing and his swings had less strength behind them. The missing nin had a larger mass and therefore had more accumulative blood to lose in the first place, and she had little doubt that she would be the one to fall when he finally tired of playing with her completely.

The cats eventually bored of the mouse, after all, and why turn down a meal?

… She needed to stop thinking about the animal kingdom.

“Zabuza.”

When Kakashi called from the sidelines, and the missing-nin’s attention flickered for just a moment, it gave her the chance to in a flash charge her chakra into the smaller blade and slam it into the spot on the broad face of the blade that she’d been working on since she’d first drawn steel.

The whining screech of steel against steel cut off after a moment, and there was the sound that interrupted the lament, a small, discreet, pop-crack that gave her endless satisfaction, no matter that he switched his grip on the blade used it as a support to kick her back, the back of his sandal connecting with her face and sending her tumbling back. She rolled back to her feet and noted that the dark haired man had stopped in mid motion and was glaring at his silver haired counterpart something fierce, dark eyes extremely unhappy with the Konoha jounin.

It likely had to do with the bound, dark haired boy in his grasp, slung under one arm and unconscious, body limp, face dripping blood, but it could have just been that Kakashi was just very good at being irritating. To be honest, it was a bit of a tossup when considering the Demon of the Mist’s psychopathic tendencies which it was that truly mattered more to him.

Not seeing Naruto, she glanced over, green eyes narrowing at the sight of the orange clad boy kneeling next to the Uchiha, who seemed to be playing pin cushion.

Her heart squeezed in her chest.

The jinchuuriki was alright, but…

She examined all of the entry points for the senbon that littered his body, and decided that none of them, not even put together, would have killed the child, and that he was likely in a state similar to what Zabuza had been put into by that very same fake Hunter-nin. Something told her that there wasn’t any poison coating those needles either, despite every reason for that to be the contrary.

Frowning, she was extremely curious as to why neither of the two missing-nin had gone for a death blow on any of their opponents.

It was common knowledge that Zabuza had been involved in a coup, that he’d risen up against the tyrannical Mizukage, so perhaps…

No, she’d leave those thoughts for later, when there weren’t several boat loads of people coming up to the dock.

“Kakashi,” she muttered.

After tonguing the molars on the right side of her jaw, anyway, tasting the blood from the large cut on her inner cheek she’d had gained from the pressure pushing the skin against her teeth, looking passed the unhappy Mist nin with a frown.

Well, at least her teeth weren’t loose. Or serrated, like his were. Though, they probably had techniques to prevent things like that… hmm, something to ponder on later.

“Aa,” he returned softly, only a couple of feet to her left.

While the dark-haired man was still facing them, she could tell that most of his attention was focused behind him on the rather large group of men that were unloading themselves from boats with little grace.

“Huh,” a rather unremarkable voice scoffed in a tone of superiority. “Looks like the Demon of the Mist is more of a dead fish than anything else!”

Oh, wow, she’d never heard words so stupid leave the mouths of drunkards as the ones that had left the rather frail, unfit civilian man in a business-like attire, who she was assuming was that Gatou guy who was opposing the construction of the bridge to swindle money out of the town. It could perhaps be said that Zabuza didn’t look to be in all that great of shape, left arm dangling uselessly at his side, blood wetting the back of his dark sleeveless shirt and dripping steadily against the wooden flooring of the bridge. The fact that his right hand was bleeding down the grip of the Kubikiribōchō, stature slightly slumped with the strain of lost blood did not detract from the picture that he really was not doing very well.

But still, the thought of insulting a shinobi like that… even one who was injured… it was like asking for the blade.

Irritating little man.

The missing-nin’s expression twitched with annoyance, dark eyes rolling at the weak verbal barb, before –

“Anyone who kills all those silly shinobi, including the useless Zabuza, can have double what I paid that waste,” even as she felt her lips thinning in displeasure, the man continued, jingling a rather weighty coin purse. “And I’ll even add in some extra compensation,” a dirty leer crossed unattractive features. “You get to keep the woman and that pretty boy of Zabuza’s.”

There were about fifty mercenaries who were looking rather interested, whether it was in the money or depravity, she didn’t know, but she was sure that given both her own state, and that of the two jounin, that they would be able to take the filth, even if they wouldn’t get out of the altercation unscathed. For a moment, she didn’t understand why she was mentally hesitating, before she realized that she had grouped the larger man amongst their numbers in the coming confrontation, despite the fact that they had been toying with killing each other not minutes before.

While the dark gaze of the ex-Mist shinobi had been unaffected before, it had chilled considerably at the added incentive for the petty criminals, and she found herself glancing at the boy who Kakashi was laying gently down near Sakura and the bridge builder, his own dark orb – Sharingan once again covered, considering the fight amongst ninja seemed to be on halt for the moment – cold as he did so. That single eye slid over to her for a moment, and she found herself raising her brows to ask what was taking him so long, rolling her head on her shoulders to loosen the tension that had built up in her shoulders and back during her short bout with the broader male.

Ugh, she needed to train more.

Her shoulders burned.

The soft huff of resigned amusement she received from her superior officer – and that was what he was in the field, and as well as in the village, even if Konoha were rather lax about such things when still within its walls – caused a quick smile to quirk over her features for a moment, before the two Konoha nin cast considering eyes towards the Missing-nin.

“Yeah, yeah,” that deep voice grumbled, right shoulder jerking up in a half shrug, his lips beneath the bandages twisting in something like a grimace. “Let’s do this.”

Letting the jounin take point, Asuka pulled some water from the body below the bridge and disposed of the impurities, before securing it with a thought over the gouge in her thigh, eyeing the Missing-nin’s back and arm in thought as she did so, before shrugging and giving a moments consideration into infusing yin chakra into the water to stop the blood flow, before moving forward with the men. Whilst she couldn’t quite work through a great deal of blood loss – even if she hadn’t truly lost all that much, all things considered, and she’d worked through worse – like her higher ranking companions, it wasn’t out of any real physical danger of excessive blood loss, she just didn’t fancy slipping in any additional puddles that may accumulate, like the one she’d stepped out of to join the other ninja.

With a sigh, she resealed her sword breaking dagger and rubbed at her forehead, blowing her bangs up after doing so.

This was turning into an interesting day.

Wading into the fray and switching to her non-dominant hand since the challenging fight was done with, she systematically and rather automatically actually, began to cut down her adversaries with relative ease, mildly interested before being put out when making contact with the blades of a few samurai dropouts. One or two managed to get in a few lucky hits, what with their greater numbers, and she could hear the Copy-nin grumbling to himself on the opposing side of the fracas, as well as a few bored comments from the Demon of the Mist.

“Hey, Asuka-chan.”

The foreign jounin called out to her rather drolly, causing her to send him an irritated look, only to scowl and stiffen a little when one man she’d had heading towards her grabbed at her backside, stinking of sake and cheap alcohol. Honestly.

What Zabuza?”

Her scowl smoothed, brow furrowing as she tilted her head towards him, something niggling at the back of her mind, something in her water sense warning her of a nearby disturbance.

“Do that green water thing for me, too,” the words were concise, like an order, but there was an interested query in those dark eyes.

With a sigh, she glanced over at her fellow Konoha nin, glancing over the stab wound in his own thigh, deeper than her gash, but also smaller in width, as well as a deep wound in the shoulder she’d healed not a week before. Rolling her eyes, she repeated the process of decontaminating the water and infusing her chakra before adhering it to the two male’s wounds, a little disoriented as she usually was by using this jutsu on others when not within touching distance. It was like having an extra eye that didn’t see, but felt, and wasn’t always where she thought it should be.

It was extremely awkward.

“Thanks, Asuka,” the silver haired man called mildly once the jutsu had settled.

“Yeah, yeah,” she grumbled to herself, before finally confirming what it was that her senses had been telling her through the natural mist that had taken up the latter half of the bridge behind them, on the other side of the unconscious Uchiha, the Uzumaki guarding him, their charge, Haku and Sakura. “Incoming from the south, civilian level and,” she paused in her quiet talking to herself, blinking a couple of times in surprise. “Hmm, one familiar presence. That boy. Inari.”

“Eh?” she heard faintly from behind her. “Inari?”

She had a moment where she was a little impressed with the boy’s range of hearing before she felt something invasive tugging at her chakra and smacked the poorly trained almost genin down with a backhand from her metal plated wrist guard. Carelessly, she stabbed him through the heart and turned to parry a blow from a slightly more trained or skilled individual, only to jump out of the scuffle when a large group of townspeople and the angry, petulant boy called Inari charged forward after a small speech about heroes and bravery.

Honestly, she hadn’t been paying that much attention to him at all, his indolent attitude having been off putting, tiring her more than anything else.

It was the self-involved people such as he – only a child, she had to remind herself – that were the ones who caused the most problems, shoving their feelings and thoughts down other people’s throats, especially when they’d been hurt, as the child had. At least most people had the decency to pretend when in the presence of others or grieve quietly. Trying to drag others into your pain and misery was something that she couldn’t abide by, as was telling someone that they couldn’t understand their feelings, that whatever they had been through was worse than anything could have been in the other person’s life.

That just made her so… angry.

Who did they think they were, telling others how to feel?

“Asuka,” Kakashi spoke up beside her, glancing over her form and seemingly displeased with the small wounds that dotted her body, gaze lingering on the water sealed gash in her leg, then back to where he was keeping a careful eye on the civilians that had gone charging in against the mercenaries, Zabuza clearing through the remainder to reach the jabbering mess that Gatou had turned into. Ah, men were such worry warts, she was fine. “Check Sasuke?”

Rolling her eyes lightly at him, she carefully cleaned her blade before sealing it away and turning her back on the melee, trusting the two jounin had everything well in hand, and could prevent the civilians from braining each other or managing to get themselves killed she moved towards the fallen boy. Save her from the protective urges of jounin-sensei. The man should be more concerned about himself, what with the rather low reserves she could feel quite clearly through the liquid medium she had coating the man’s wounds, and even as she walked away, she gathered small beads of the healing water and plastered them over his new wounds. No matter how minor, she didn’t trust the cleanliness of those buffoons’ weapons. They probably serviced them even less often than they bathed, and from the smell, well, that couldn’t have exactly been often.

Kneeling down beside the unconscious boy, she ignored Sakura’s fretting for the moment, keen dark green eyes taking in the damage to her newest patient.

Man, she really shouldn’t have given up the fact that she was trained in some iryō-ninjutsu because by no means was she a doctor, or even anything other than emergency field qualified to use her knowledge.

She had a feeling that she was going to get stuck on nurse duty for the remainder of this mission, and while she was resigned to it, that wasn’t the kind of kunoichi she was. Whoever said that kunoichi were better at iryō-ninjutsu didn’t know what they were talking about, because a good portion of the competent medics that she’d met were males, aside from the Senju princess and a few others. Just because you had good chakra control didn’t mean that you were automatically good at iryō jutsu, you had to have mentality, intelligence, work ethic, and a genuine appreciation and concern for the very life you were working to better or save.

Not everyone cared enough.

And not all of the few kunoichi were in the number who did.

“Nee-chan?” the blonde boy queried when she’d placed a hand on the unconscious boy’s chest, his bright blue eyes worried and tinged a tiny bit purple, oddly enough, his pupil a tiny bit elongated in a disturbing to perceive kind of way. It looked rather uncomfortable, actually. “Are you okay? Is Sasuke gonna be okay? Isn’t that Zabuza a bad guy?”

To forestall his questions, she raised a hand before carefully beginning to remove the senbon from the boy’s skin and muscle tissue, grimacing a little at the twitches that were incited in his limbs as some nerves were brushed. Carefully, she pressed chakra into the Uchiha’s still form, not knowing if the oddly chilled senbon might have some effect on the child’s chakra system, only to be relieved when there was nothing of the sort. She did, however find a tiny, tiny pulse that was twitching larger and larger the more senbon she removed, and she wondered if the ability to cause a death like state was something that came with the Haku boy’s kekkai-genkai.

Soon, all of the senbon had been removed, and other than a small amount of nerve damage which had been easily remedied, she had found nothing truly wrong with him other than a few bruises, and so set tiny dots of water over the entry wounds and charged them with yin chakra, causing those areas to glow like fireflies had landed scattered across his body.

She did, however, take note of the change in his ocular chakra pathways as she was checking his skull for fractures from falling and hitting the bridge.

It looked like he’d awoken his Sharingan, then.

“Nee-chan,” the worry in the jinchuuriki’s voice made her glance up from her examination. “Is he gonna be okay?”

She thought of the awakened Sharingan with a grimace. Well, she was sure that he would be happy about it.

“Yeah, he’ll be fine.”

If the Council didn’t immediately order him to start breeding, he’d be great.

~*~

It was odd, the next day, to be sharing a room with the two jounin.

To say the least.

Tsunami somehow having been convinced by Inari, who had, of all things, taken something of a shine to the gruff, bloodthirsty missing-nin once Naruto had vouched for him upon Gatou’s death, after having been given the chuunin’s simplified explanation as to why they were joining forces, to let the two fugitives stay with them. At least, that was going to be only until Zabuza actually decided to leave to gather anything of value from Gatou’s manor and emptied the man’s bank account to fund some organization that he wouldn’t speak of but both adult Konoha nin new it was likely to help the Mist Rebellion that he had started only a few years prior.

The situation was… not quite clear, and if all of them hadn’t been so damn tired then perhaps the whole thing wouldn’t have come about, but, well…

These genin had the weirdest luck.

Asuka didn’t remember her genin team having weird encounters like this.

While oddly flattering, the way the man was eyeing her with appreciation was also distracting while she worked on his injured arm.

She had noted it after he’d removed his shirt the previous night, showing skin tight under armor similar to Kakashi’s, and no one had felt up to dealing with a lengthy healing session and had all just crashed – her water bandages able to hold even when she was asleep – but the man was actually rather lean without his clothes giving him the illusion of bulk. There was a reason that he was doing mercenary work for money under the command of a civilian and it showed. The fact that Haku showed none of this slightly less than nourished yet not quite mal nourished muscle tone, told much about the man himself, and it hadn’t been a conscious decision, but she’d noted after seeing that, that both she and Kakashi had relaxed despite his presence. If there was one thing that Konoha could understand, it was sacrifice in the name of someone that you cared for.

Protect your comrades was an unofficial but crucial rule of Konoha nin.

The fact that this man was doing something similar to, if not exactly the same, as what the woman downstairs was doing for her son but for his apprentice, was perhaps one of the most telling passive actions that she had ever seen from a foreign nin that she had only been fighting hours previous. Perhaps Tsunami had known this somehow when she’d seen him, and that was really what had made her let him stay in her home after he had been halfheartedly trying to kill her father, and not their assurances that they would keep him under control. A mother’s intuition perhaps? What did Asuka know about such things?

Not a whole heck of a lot, that’s what.

“Your water affinity is probably one of the strongest I’ve ever seen,” the dark-haired man said to her, tones quiet as he watched the glowing green water that she had resting on his arm. That was quite the compliment, coming from a Mist nin, whose village had the largest abundance of Water aligned people after Uzushio had fallen. “I’ve never seen someone use water as a medium for medical jutsu, though.”

“Hmm, thanks.”

She was wearing what she normally wore for sleep on missions that didn’t expect combat action as her initial parameters had been, a regulation long sleeved black shirt with the aforementioned village’s swirl on the shoulders, and an extra pair of pants, the material always comfortable to sleep in, the ends free and hitting her just at mid-calf, and the loose material made a soft shushing noise as she shifted where she had to stand on her knees to reach his shoulder comfortably.

“Well, I’m pretty sure that Mist doesn’t exactly have the best in the medical field. Or really focus on it. At all.”

He gave a rumbling laugh at this, and she noted Kakashi, who was sitting parallel from the taller jounin reading another Icha Icha – how did he have a different one every time she saw him? Did he keep a sealed scroll full of them on his person at all times? – glance up and regard the other man with a lazy rake of his dark eye.

“Well, that’s true enough,” if anything, those black eyes seemed to deepen for a moment. “Yagura has never been very interested in the preservation of life, and everyone knows how attached you Konoha nin get to each other, so the focus speaks for itself.”

Rolling her eyes, she exchanged a slightly amused and knowing look with her compatriot; the wording of that really couldn’t have been any better.

Preserving life.

Keeping it safe.

Like he was doing for his fair faced apprentice and had pretty much done for everyone he’d ‘killed’ on the bridge before they had shown up.

Every civilian that had been on that bridge had been knocked unconscious with that jutsu that Haku had put on the senbon, something that Zabuza had mentioned was actually unintentional the first few times, and the effort that he had to put into having each and every man put under without threat to life or limb was ridiculous.

So, yeah, his tough guy image was a bit ruined.

That was pretty much why she and Kakashi had been eyeing him with a new light in their eyes since he had stripped down with them the night before.

There was potential there, in those dark eyes.

Sparks that were buried in the deep waters of a Mist upbringing during the last war, which was ten times as brutal as its usual nastiness, were more than enough to tell the two Konoha nin what they needed to know. Where they saw the potential for Fire, they brought kindling.

It was what the Sandaime taught all of his ninja, passed down from the Shodaime to the Niidaime, now their generation and beyond.

“Breathe life into the Flames of our future, and they will light your way.”

“Oh yeah,” she muttered dryly. “We peace loving, tree hugging weirdoes are big on free love and keeping everyone alive,” Asuka looked up with a twinkle of fun in her emerald eyes, her braids shifting over her shoulders as she shook her head in amusement, the tips just hitting her waist when free like they were. “What a tragedy.”

“Maa, Asuka,” the dog Summoner added his own two cents, setting down a cup of tea that Tsunami had brought up for them, his mask not seeming to have moved a wink. He appeared to be pleased that neither of the other ninja in the room looked to be considering trying to sneak a peek at his face, but well, one also covered his features, and the other was always conscientious of people’s privacy because she valued her own. “You must be more kind. Remember, Mist drowns the smart ones at birth.”

Snickering, she ignored the indignant grunt that the Demon released, cocking her head as she finished reattaching the ligament, though it would take more to get it up to snuff, he would have a limited range of motion on that side again. She carefully examined the neat slice from the outside, seeing no uneven length of muscle that said she’d reattached something incorrectly, and to be sure, she slid chakra stained fingertips over the back of his deltoid with a little pressure, idly appreciating the smooth warmth of his skin, and the firmness of the muscle even damaged as it was while she was feeling for lumps or divots. Well, everything seemed good for the moment.

Yes, good.

… Wow, she needed to hit a bar or something when she got back, because her hormones were acting up way more than usual.

“Hmm. Zabuza, tell me, how does that feel?”

The man lifted his arm carefully, slowly, and shifted it, fingers moving towards her face as she watched, only to veer away and the tips trailed over her shoulder and down to her elbow, impossibly warm points of contact through cloth as he rotated his limb. There was an audible huff from the Copy-nin where he sat, and she felt her lips twitch as the Missing-nin’s dark eyes crinkled at the corners just a little with amusement.

She wasn’t stupid, nor was she completely dense.

That move had been deliberate.

She also hadn’t moved out of the way, so she just caught the rice cracker – it was a plain cracker, boring – that the pale haired man opposite them had tossed at her with a small, teasing smile. His brow raised and something like disgruntlement on the quarter of his features that she could see, causing her to press the back of her fingers to her lips to hold in a laugh at his expense.

Asuka: 1

Kakashi: 0

He’d have to do better than that and she had the rather thrilling thought that this would continue for a little more than a week, since that was about how long it would take for Tazuna to finish the bridge with the additional repairs, and once the bridge was built the mission was over, whether the threat was gone or not. To her slightly uncomfortable awareness, was an almost embarrassing thought, but this was the most interaction she’d had constantly with someone in several years, and it was with two dangerous jounin and their respective students. The idea of playing tug of war with the oblivious missing-nin was a good one, if baffling with a dash of what-the-fuck, and she let the smile that was resting softly at the edges of her usually smooth lips linger for a few moments, her good mood a soft presence in her expression.

“It’s good,” the man’s lower features twisted into a visible grimace even through the bandages and she popped the cracker into her mouth. “A bit tight. Kinda weak. Sorta… thin.”

“Yeah,” she nodded her head, moving behind him after cocking her head at Kakashi and then looking meaningfully at the bandages that needed to go over the still open wound. She was taking care of the serious injuries first, and you could only use so much yin chakra in once place at a time before it could start to irritate chakra pathways. Her own, especially. She was not a medic. “It’ll be like that for a couple days. I’ll work on it during that time, and then you’ll have to take it easy for about a week after that, but once that’s over it should be fine, just start as slow as you can.”

He grunted in acknowledgement, his gaze suddenly fixated on the Copy-nin’s bare hands as they began to competently wrap bandages around his bicep, watching the play of muscles beneath pale skin, tendons shifting over the back of his slim, long fingered hands. Even as she worked the jutsu over the large man’s impressively muscled, tan back, she found her own gaze drawn to the talented appendages as well and even as she quickly averted her eyes from the strangely… enticing act, despite its normalcy, she found herself intrigued by the small scars that slid like silver script over knuckles and fingertips like a wall scroll, telling a story.

He has lovely hands, too. Honestly, what is it with this man?

When she’d been healing his hands before, she hadn’t exactly taken the time to admire the slim and limber appendages, considering the environment they had found themselves in, what with his dire need for a transfusion and the worry of missing-nin in the area that could take down a jounin. When she was healing someone, she usually fell into a very single-minded focus, a kind of business like tunnel vision that focused her only on her patient and their wounds, not their physique, not matter how impressive. Whenever she was healing someone, it was usually in the field when they were surrounded by either enemy nin or in mixed territory, so tensions were high, therefore it was a little odd to be so relaxed while she was utilizing iryō-ninjutsu and that she had the ability to look around and… admire for lack of a better word, the shinobi specimens before her.

Blinking, the taller man brought his brows together for a moment in consideration before glancing up at the jounin and to Asuka’s eternal amusement, she noted that the man hadn’t even discerned their preoccupation with his ninjutsu nimble fingers and even as she updated the score to 1 and 1 in her mind, she traded a surprisingly familiar look with the Demon of the Mist. It was a consensus that Kakashi was as bewildering as he was terrifying. How someone who was hailed as prodigy and one of the most experienced shinobi of their village, having participated in two different Wars – one before she’d even entered the Academy – she was pretty sure that his observational skills should most assuredly exceed her own, but he appeared to have a bit of a blind spot in regard to himself. The bit of social awkwardness that he bore seemed to be of the mind that he was not obviously physically desirable, that no one would look at him and want to unwrap all of his layers like he was a present, or find strong, talented hands fascinatingly limber and attractive.

Honestly, jounin.

Wincing slightly without thought as she shifted her weight onto her right leg, thigh jumping and pulsing with her heartbeat, she dragged the jutsu along the slight diagonal angle she had carved into his back over his spine feeling a mild amount of amusement remembering the man beginning to stumble later after their fight. She covered all of her weapons with a paralytic, and considering the amount of blood he’d lost, washing out the drug as well, she was a little surprised that it had had any effect at all, but the poleaxed expression he’d sent her when he’d needed to be covertly supported to the house by Haku after the boy had awoken to find that his master had switched sides, had sent her into fits, and Kakashi had needed only the hand sign for poison to get what had gotten into her – or rather, him – and had snickered under his breath.

The genin had just ignored them, though Sakura had looked a little worried about her kunoichi-sensei, as the woman had been keeping her balance whilst laughing by keeping her hand on the girl’s shoulder.

That girl was growing into a good kunoichi, slowly but surely.

Baby steps.

Haku was a sweet boy, and very earnest in the face of his master’s grumpy, gruff embarrassment, insisting once they’d made it into the room, that if he needed anything to make sure to tell him, and that he could gather herbs to help and several other things he went on about for a number of minutes before Zabuza had reached his breaking point and ordered him from the room. While the two other nin hadn’t laughed openly, their amused eyes had followed him around the room as the three figured out how they would be comfortable sleeping in the same room as two other predators, and they’d ended up with both men on either side of the room, with her in the middle, because she was the least likely to try and decapitate someone coming through the door.

Plus, though neither of them mentioned it, she trusted her commanding officer to protect her if shit went down while she was sleeping, as well. The Copy-nin had a protective streak a mile wide, even if he was terribly awkward and dismissive to the point of ignoring this personality trait, she was coming to understand. Of course, she’d slept with her back to Kakashi and a kunai under her pillow, because no matter how amusing the dark-haired man was, he still hadn’t quite proved himself trustworthy. The chuunin hadn’t managed to live this long by being naïve, even if she thought he was cute, because that didn’t mean that she was blinded to the fact that he was more than a little insane – most ninja were, really – and recently their enemy.

Considering the fact that if she left the jounin to themselves they’d likely somehow start a fight, having just enough jackass in both of their personalities to be able to set each other off – she’d had to calm the room more than once when they’d gotten into a fit of glaring and KI – and she couldn’t just leave Sakura to sleep in the same room as the boys alone, she’d set Haku up as the adult supervision, seeing as he was the eldest. That boy had little to no interest in women – especially adolescent girls – and was extremely stuck on his master in a sense that had yet to reach physical attraction but would likely hit that at some point, having no one else worthy in his rather hero-worshipping sights. Or perhaps someone would romance him? An amusing thought.

Plus, no matter how indifferent he tried to appear, Sasuke was very much aware of Sakura when sleeping in the same room as her, and being in the same room as someone who had beaten him in a fight would certainly catch his attention instead.

It was odd, but she’d not thought anything of Naruto during the arrangement, even though he was the boy with the crush on Sakura. Likely, it had something to do with the earnest innocence behind those sometimes sadly dark, old blue eyes, as well as his bashful personality at even a hint of affection or praise, and he’d seemed more focused on Haku as well, for some reason. She’d seen him sending regretful looks at the bruises and cuts that dotted the attractive boy’s features, and she was sure she was going to get that conversation – the “Try not to regret fighting your enemies even though they’re people too” speech – thrust upon her by the Copy-nin.

Lazy bastard.

It would be nice if everyone they fought was evil, if they were the villain, but that just wasn’t true. Sometimes what Konoha did was inherently morally bad by civilian standards, as it was with all ninja, and that was something that every young genin needed to take to heart if they wanted to succeed as a Konoha nin.

Sometimes you were the bad guy in someone else’s story.

“Asuka,” that familiar tenor of her friend pulled her from her thoughts and she glanced up, steadying herself with her right hand on the broad man’s shoulder, the skin warm and smooth beneath her callused fingers. “How’s your leg?”

“Meh.”

Shoulders shrugged a little, lifting off a little more of her weight and balancing off of Zabuza with little thought. Honestly, it would be easier if he lay down flat on his stomach, but well, he didn’t trust them either. And there were more of them, even if she was little more than a fly in the thick of things.

“I’ll take care of it after I’m done with you,” she smirked a little. “By the way, I’ll be done with what I can do today for our friend here in a minute, so take off your pants.”

She took vindictive pleasure at the widening of that single eye, the soft chuckles coming from the man whom was easily bearing her weight – he likely barely noticed, the jerk – despite his injuries caused the other jounin to send him a caustic look before sniffing and looking away.

Honestly, she felt a little overwhelmed, sitting here in this room with two such powerful individuals. Flirting with them.

Oh god, she realized in that instant. I’m flirting with dangerous shinobi. No, no, that wasn’t so bad really, she’d done that dozens of times back home. Oh god, I’m flirting with Hatake Kakashi.

Yeah, that sounded about horrifying enough.

The man practically oozed antisocial awkwardness on a daily basis, she wasn’t really one to talk, but she would never have pegged him as flirtatious, even if he couldn’t quite grasp the physical appreciation his way. It was common knowledge that he disliked much in the way of frivolity and physical contact, despite his open enjoyment of the debauchment of the written word, but little was actually known about his personal life, nothing was really telling about how… dare she say it, cute he was.

Was he – oh, he was – he was pouting beneath his mask, and she could only tell because she caught the tiniest glimpse of his profile as he turned away from the two ninja who were picking on him and she waspicking on the mother effing Copy Cat Ninja. She thought he was adorable.

She sighed.

It was beginning to seem like she really should have just asked another chuunin for help with her affinity training. It would have made her life much simpler, and she wouldn’t be sitting there wondering about how in the world she had gotten herself into this mess, how she had ended up sitting in Wave ogling two Elite jounin. And yet… she also wouldn’t have had the chance to see two terrifyingly lonely and lost boys try to figure out what to do with themselves, to learn what it was to be a shinobi, to learn who they were and who they would be. She wouldn’t have gotten the chance to teach a young girl how to stay alive, wouldn’t have seen jade eyes shine with happiness and pleasure when it was just the two of them, or when Asuka kidnapped her from practice and took her out for mochi or tea and cakes just to chat.

She wouldn’t have known those kids, if she hadn’t of ignored the fact that a chuunin shouldn’t associate with a jounin, if she had remembered the social norms and hierarchy of the village, if she had just been a bit more socially understanding, more in the know.

Really though, she knew that she’d regret not having the man as her friend – they were friends, right? – as well. He was funny, in a quirky, cynical way that she could thoroughly enjoy, and he didn’t mind helping her to improve herself as a fellow ninja of Konoha, despite the fact that as a jounin, he didn’t need to spend so much time with a chuunin. They hung out sometimes – a lot, actually – even outside of training with either the kids or by themselves, just grabbing food and talking about the most ridiculous things – honestly, one of the people he’d gone on missions with only slept underground – and whereas she rarely got to talk in her friendship with Anko, she did a good portion of the talking with the last Hatake, and she never felt pressured or… convenient, as she did for her female friend. Not that Anko was a bad friend, but the other woman knew that Asuka wouldn’t turn her away; knew that too many had.

Perhaps it was because they were both a little socially awkward, straightforward and blunt sometimes, but, well… it didn’t really matter in the long run, did it? They were friends, and there was nothing she could do about that, other than suddenly turn into a gigantic asshole.

He had that pretty much covered though, didn’t he?

That wasn’t her job.

Shaking her head with a rough exhalation of breath, she didn’t notice the twin glances of confusion, and the matching arched brow over covered features as the Copy-nin opened the door at a small scratching sound.

Her hand twitched on Zabuza’s shoulder at the sight of the source of the sound.

“Yo, Pakkun,” the Summoner greeted his canine companion.

Pakkun.

When Kakashi had Summoned him before, she’d still been sleeping – as he had horrible waking up early tendencies despite always being late – and so she’d missed him, but there he was, in all of his adorable glory, mournfully holding a small message scroll from Konoha between his teeth. The silver haired man knelt to grab it, and she felt the wound on his thigh pulse against the water bandage that was still adhered to him, preventing blood loss, but not doing any active healing because she hadn’t had the concentration at the time for that, and it also would have been more chakra consuming. Her priority had been more about it lasting long enough for all of them to get some sleep more than anything else.

Once the scroll had been removed from his needle-sharp fangs, the pug meandered over to her, and rubbed against her good thigh, causing a warm smile to spread over her features, cheeks warming with affection. On normally blanked and unimpressed features, this was a huge change in demeanor, and the Demon of the Mist gave her wide eyes in shock before he narrowed them in contemplation, both expressions unnoticed by the woman who was enamored of the canine.

“Yo, Asuka,” the pug greeted her in his gravelly voice, leaning contently against her good leg, oddly straight tail thumping softly with contentment. “You good?”

Ah, right, he could probably smell her blood even from outside the house, and he’d already been around her that morning whilst she was resting.

“Yes,” she stated, refraining from rolling her eyes. It took too much work and she was getting tired from this chakra use. It was more taxing than people seemed to think, healing others, and her chakra control wasn’t the greatest at the best of times, so she leaked more than professional sensei did. “I’m fine for the moment, thanks for asking, Pakkun.”

But really, like man like dog.

“Well,” the Konoha jounin said, standing again and meandering back over to them, scroll open and in hand. “Sandaime-sama sends his thanks for helping out a shinobi and his brats in need, even if it does detain you past your original mission parameters. He says that while Councilmen Kowaru is saddened that you won’t being going to meet him on what was to be your next mission, he understands duty.”

She grimaced at the name of the man on the Sand Council whom she was supposed to speak with about the coming Exam, distaste and disgust in equal measure in the expression.

That old man was a grade A pervert, a complete and total creep. He was nothing like Jiraiya with his innocuous peeping and his writing porn, no, this was a man who was slimy in both words and hands. If he saw the chance to go for a grab, he went for it, and if he had the chance to make an innuendo, he would. He disliked being told no, and had the nerve to try and cajole, trying to get her to give in to his disgusting desires. Often, she couldn’t get out of meetings with the man until a hawk from Konoha came, or they were interrupted by something urgent the man had to tend to as a Councilman.

Bleh, good riddance.

Honestly, she dealt better with lechers when she could stab them without inciting war with a tentative ally.

“Yes, well,” she patted the missing-nin’s shoulder, suddenly much more pleased to have found herself in this situation. Who cared that she found herself flirting with Kakashi? This was much more fun, anyway, no matter how odd. Better sights to see and all that. “I much prefer my meeting with Zabuza, anyway.”

Both men’s brows rose at the finality of her tone, as well as her slight exhalation of relief, before Kakashi’s lowered with a frown as he examined her features, the other unable to see her face at the angle she was currently at.

After a moment, she sat back on her bare feet, hand falling to the Summon’s head to rub at his fur gently, and scratch behind one of his floppy ears, blowing up at her unrestrained bangs in a breath.

“Alright, Kakashi,” she stated, flexing her hands for a moment as the water dissipated back into the air for the moment before going back to petting the soothing fur of the warm body next to her. “Wrap him up.”

Grunting in acknowledgment, the man started to do just that, completely missing the way that Zabuza’s eyes widened again when the Copy-nin ended up close to his body, arms neatly wrapped around his torso to re-grasp the roll of bandages he was putting over her new water plaster, this one containing no medical chakra, just being used to keep out impurities. She wouldn’t look at this one for a longer time than she would have to look at his arm next, and his arm wasn’t quite as wide a cut, so she hadn’t bothered with a water seal on that wound, a bandage was enough. There was only so much chakra she had to spare, in comparison to the men before her.

Scooting over to sit next to the two, instead of behind the largest occupant of the room, she found some interest in the way that the Mist nin seemed to be very aware of the lean line of his torso as the other man’s arms quickly and efficiently once again bound his wounds. She was mildly impressed with the fact that the pale haired man’s arms had yet to touch flesh, and she wondered how long the dark haired man would be able to deal with the heat without contact, and if Kakashi would be able to finish his work before the man either spoke without thought or leaned in to breathe in the other jounin’s scent, as most ninja did to express intense interest.

Intimacy.

It was difficult to duplicate a shinobi or kunoichi’s scent, due to the chakra that permeated their beings, and leaked out like a personal marker of individuality. Even to those without enhanced senses like the Copy-nin’s, the scent of a comrade, family member, or lover was something that could be deeply ingrained into the minds and instincts of any individual. They were like identification tags that only worked for the living.

Because that scent vanished with death, unlike the metal plates.

When she had crossed her legs as comfortably as possible into the lotus position, she was delighted that the Summon crawled into the bowl of her legs, warm wriggly body a pleasant weight on her bare calves and feet, and she pressed both hands to his silky-smooth fur and even started to scratch him beneath his little vest to thank him. The soft whuff noise he made caused her smile to bloom anew, and she glanced up from where she’d been gazing fondly down at half closed wet dark eyes, to see Zabuza gazing at the Summoner with something like curiosity, his head cocked slightly to the side as the other man secured the bandage in place with deft hands. The Copy-nin’s lazy eye was topped with a single brow that was slightly furrowed in concentration even though his hands were sure and experienced, and she wasn’t the only one who took a careful breath as those pale hands smoothed unthinkingly over his finished work, caressing the Demon’s chest at the same time.

Oh gods, the images just that action produced. Her cheeks flushed with red and she swallowed around the sudden lump in her throat.

She couldn’t help the incredulous glance she sent down to the canine in her lap as the oblivious jounin sat back and took off his long-sleeved shirt – she was sure it was just to spite her tease about his pants that he decided on his shoulder first – only for the dog to give her a commiserating look from those doleful eyes.

“Water, Asuka?” the deep voice of the pug queried sadly.

She pulled a small ball of water from the air and held it hovering above her palm at the level of his face since she had no bowl on hand, her scrolls on the other side of the room. Pakkun made a noise of gratitude and lapped at the ball of water, the drops that would have splashed her catching on her chakra and being pulled back into the construct.

“Honestly,” stated the darker skinned man, side eyeing her once he’d finished taking in his paler counterparts firmly toned torso who’s skin but not muscle definition was concealed beneath the under armor, his form thin and wiry from genetics rather than sparse nutrition. “The strongest water affinity I’ve ever seen.”

Blinking at him a bit, she felt her brows furrow even as Kakashi sat down next to her, and leaned down a bit so that it was easier for her to reach the top of his shoulder because even if he wasn’t quite as tall as the Mist nin, he was still taller than she was by a good chunk, even sitting down as they were.

Still, she was aware that they thought the strength of her affinity was strange… now. They didn’t have to keep saying it though.

“Also, Zabuza,” the Konoha jounin spoke lazily watching as she tossed the ball of water over to her right hand, and affixed her water filtered iryō-jutsu on her left hand, her dominant. “The Hokage wouldn’t mind perhaps working something out with your organization for trade or resources, something like that,” the Demon of the Mist looked taken aback for a moment, before calculation and speculation entered his gaze. “You’re welcome to send your terms or someone to negotiate to the village at some point in the next few weeks, but no later than three.”

Yes, that would interrupt the Chuunin Exams, if a messenger came any later than that.

It wouldn’t do for other villages to get wind of Konoha dealing with a Rebel faction.

It would give them ideas.

“I’ll let you know,” the dark-haired man allowed, rubbing the lightly bandaged hand of his good arm over his messy, constant bed head, his hitai-ate having been removed earlier and sitting with his clothing. She wondered how he kept it on his head so precariously perched, though she would never ask. “But even if it doesn’t pan out with the others, thank him for his consideration, yeah?”

“Mm.”

Once the hand that had held the water ball for the pug was empty, she pulled off the water bandage and examined the murky brown mist that had seeped into the liquid with a purse of her lips, before dissipating it, blood and all, into the air and pressing her jutsu clad hand against the gash. She frowned at the crack in his collar bone and scowled at the jounin, because honestly, this was something that she should have taken care of rather immediately, because he could have damaged he bone further in his sleep. Of course, she didn’t mention this in from of the foreign shinobi, and only raised a brow at the man instead, and he carefully looked away from her to where Zabuza was leaning back on his good hand and examining them with some interest. He looked both terribly amused and curious about something, even as he was running dark eyes over the two of them, focused mainly on where her hand touched against pale skin, and the way Kakashi’s lithe, wiry form curved over a little towards her.

“This is the second time I’ve had to deal with this shoulder on this mission,” she complained a little irritably, sending an acerbic glance at the smiling, devious Demon, before quirking a small, wry grin at the Copy-nin. “You should step up your strength training.”

“Eh?” the bewildered, startled glance that her comrade sent her gave a tickled satisfaction and the swordsmen snorted softly where he sat. “Why?”

“If Zabuza here hadn’t been playing around, he could have cut off your arm,” she was only a little smug, and she was pleased to note the small amount of apprehension in his gaze at her slowly widening smile, though it wasn’t the thought of losing an arm that was making him wary, and she knew it. Ah, it had been so long since she’d properly intimidated a man. She missed Chitose’s fear something awful. His terrified face was a huge confidence booster, quite cute too. “I’m sure your eternal rival would be willing to give you some strengthening tips if I brought it up for you, since you’re so shy.”

“You wouldn’t,” despite his words, the tone was questioning, his dark, seemingly black gray-blue eye wide with horror.

“Well,” she conceded with a small shrug; it would perhaps be rather more than a little unnecessarily cruel. “Not if you start to carry around something sturdier and more useful than a kunai,” she made a small face of disgust. “If a blade is smaller than your hand, it’s not really worth much. Especially when you’re faced with a kenshi.”

“Oi!”

Both she and Zabuza laughed at the indignation in his tone as the kunoichi smoothed her free hand over the shifting, sleeping Pakkun in her lap.

She sealed the crack in his collarbone with a good chunk of her strength and carefully began the process of knitting together the torn muscle tissue, grimacing at the mess he’d made of all her previous work by doing the same thing that he had the time previous, only this time unsuccessfully blocking the impressive bulk of the Kubikiribōchō. Although, considering its placement, he’d shifted its pathway just enough so that he wouldn’t need to removed his under armor as well for her to heal him – actually, it was to avoid an artery, but it still bothered her – and that just bugged her, so she plucked her chakra against his in an irritating manner, causing him to twitch and hunch a little as if chastened. He fizzled at her despondently, and she burbled back in exasperation.

Lazy,” she muttered at him, plucking again before pulling her hand away, carefully laying a water seal against his still torn skin to keep out infection. She made quick work of roping bandages around his shoulder, having him test the resistance before she was satisfied with her work. “Alright you, take off your pants.”

Getting the feeling that he was scowling petulantly a little beneath his mask, she swiped at him idly – with a hand which faltered as her focus shifted – as he smoothly balanced on his elbows and lifted his hips just enough to shove his standard shinobi pants down to his knees in a single, strangely sensuous movement.

Dear gods, the man was trying to kill her, and give Zabuza an aneurism.

“Huh,” Zabuza commented idly, voice very deliberately calm, eyes devouring pale skin on finely muscled legs, pale silver hair basically invisible against his skin. “Briefs. I never would have guessed.”

Smiling distractedly at her superior officer’s mild discomfort, she pulled off the used water and dissipated it as she had the previous bandages and set her jutsu to the deep rent in his thigh, just below where said briefs – gray ones – ended and smooth pale, slightly – rather less than one would expect – scarred skin began. She was pleased to note that the kunai that the swordsman had shoved into the ninjutsu specialist’s leg hadn’t reached bone, had instead been stopped by a strategic clenching of powerful muscles around the wide end of the blade. The contrast of her slightly darker than peachy tan colored skin against his ivory tone was only barely more noticeable on this part of his body that saw even less of the sun than his arms did, and she’d never seen him in short sleeves other than when she was healing him. She bet that showing skin made him uncomfortable like it did some of the more introverted shinobi, and not just the idea of the skin on his face.

Things like that were personal, when your body was the roadmap of all the things you’d managed to live through.

Well, she wasn’t one to talk, really, she rarely showed more than her hands and face on a daily basis, even though she wore more revealing things in the privacy of her apartment, and when she did go out with more skin showing, she generally avoided people, such as when she was going for a swim, or on the rare occasion she went to the bathes, she went to the less used ones and usually at their least busy. Even if she went to ninja specific bathes, she still felt a little… not awkward exactly, but less than comfortable showing strangers the scars that covered her body. That may have just been since she was rather antisocial, because she didn’t exactly mind being undressed around other people, or being undressed in general; perhaps it depended on the people?

She certainly hadn’t minded when it was Chitose and Haruka, or even their sensei, that one time… thought that may have been the circumstances. Perhaps it didn’t matter with teammates? Bah, she didn’t know.

Out of the three of them in that room, Zabuza seemed the one who cared the least about showing off his body – not that he had any reason to be ashamed, he had a nice one – which was a little amusing considering the fact that Mist was much cooler and overcast than Konoha, and he still had more of a tan than both of nin from the warmer climate. Perhaps he was naturally darker than them as well, which wouldn’t be odd if some of his relatives came from one of the small island countries.

People such as this were scattered throughout the countries.

Umino Iruka was an example that came to mind with his cheerful naturally dark features and perpetual flush.

“Alright,” she said once finished, sealing off the significantly shallower wound and covering a yawn with her free hand, her fingers tingling from prolonged use of the jutsu and tossing a roll of bandages at him, which he quickly and efficiently put to use. “You’re done for the day.”

“Mm,” pulling his pants back on in a reversal of the previous smooth movement – she could almost hear Zabuza grinding his teeth – he sat up and stretched his arms above his head a little, slimly muscled frame beneath the highlighting cling of dark fabric flexing and releasing in a despondently carnal way. And he had no idea what he was doing. The bastard. “Thanks, Asuka.”

So oblivious.

Strangely enough, she’d never looked at someone in quite the way that she found herself looking at her jounin companion, found herself looking at him in a sudden surge of new light. As if she had never seen him before, like there had been a filter in her mind that separated him as a person with his being a man. With new eyes, so to speak. It was unusual, but even though she’d looked at him before and been vaguely pleased by the general shape and power in his physique, suddenly he was… attractive. The fact that it was suddenly smacking her in the face after the months they had become something like friends – she was sure now, that they were, because what else could they be? – and having bloomed an affection for his penchant for droll sarcasm and wry witticisms, was startling. Startling, yes, but not altogether bad.

Although, she might just somehow manage to lobotomize herself from the constant whiplashing switching from confusion to exasperation to sheer disbelief so quickly and so often; it wouldn’t surprise her.

“Yeah, yeah,” she waved him off before picking up the Summon gently and cradling him in her arm as she scuttled over to her bedroll on one hand and both knees, ready for a full night’s sleep. “Just don’t undo my work.”

Tucking the sleepy little ball of fur under her blanket so that she could steal his heat and cuddle him once she got in, she slid her own pants off her hips and sat back on the light cushioning that was the bedding of her sleeping pallet in her black boy short underwear – she rarely felt the need for pretty panties, especially on missions because then people gave her awkward looks when she changed in front of them – pants down at her feet, covering another yawn as she plucked her own water seal off and sent it away. Grimacing, she examined the exposed meat of her thigh, unhappy with the fact that she couldn’t feel the deepest point, that part of her leg having gone numb at some point during the day, before sighing and setting the jutsu to her own flesh.

Nerve damage was a bitch and a half, and she was going to need to get looked at when she got back to Konoha.

“I’m gonna get food,” the ex-Mist shinobi suddenly stated, standing and shoving his under armor back on, careful of his arm as he did so. “You guys want anything while I’m at it?”

How kind of him to offer.

The snack tray they’d had set up for them was sadly bereft of crackers and rice, and the thought of food after all of the chakra use she’d done that night made her stomach grumble hungry and soft as she leaned back on her right hand, left trailing over her wound.

Sending the two jounin dark looks as they chuckled at her, her cheeks a little pink, she sniffed imperiously, tossing her twin braids over her shoulders to trail over her bedding as she did so.

“Yes, that would be nice,” she stated primly, ignoring the soft huff from Kakashi at her tone before he sent his positive answer to the taller man as well.

After reconstructing as much of her leg as she could handle at that moment, her tenketsu throbbing in the way that told her she’d used almost too much yin chakra through her hands that day, she sealed her wound with water and flopped back on her borrowed pillow, throwing her arm over her face with a soft groan of sleepiness, not bothering with bandages just yet. She wondered how long it would take for the foreign shinobi to return with some rice and soup, like she was sure he was going for, even at the late hour, he would likely raid the poor woman’s fridge for the remnants of dinner.

It looked like she was going to have to make sure to sneak some money into the kitchen for Tsunami to find once they left, to pay her back.

She listened to her superior officer as he moved around the room for a few minutes until he approached her side and knelt down and tapped her right knee, a few inches below the glowing green liquid bandage, causing her to remove her arm from her eyes and blink up at him owlishly with the change in brightness. He was again dressed in his long sleeved shirt, sitting cross legged at her right side, holding a roll of bandages up for her inspection and she sighed for a moment, giving in and letting him wrap her leg for her, shifting so that her leg was bent at the knee, slipping the rest of the way out of her pants, her foot set next to his thigh and half tucked under for heat, calf touching his pants, warmth sifting from his form into her chilly skin. Using a lot of chakra always made her cold, as it messed with already iffy blood circulation, and feeling vaguely hollowed out, everything about her getting sluggish, so she greedily enjoyed stealing the man’s body heat.

Stretching her arms above her head she let him do as he pleased, blinking sleepily up at the ceiling and not bothering to restrain another yawn as she did so.

This was oddly comfortable.

She was very… relaxed.

How rare.

She’d missed this.

Team. Comfort. Companionship.

Friends.

Her eyes must have closed at some point, because she found the Copy-nin nearly done with her bandages when the ex-Mist nin walked back into the room, the tray refilled with goodies in his good hand, the other one steadying the edge, but not taking any significant weight, as per her instructions.

She was mildly pleased with his obedience.

As he regarded the two Konoha nin, his brows hitched up a bit as Kakashi finished bandaging her thigh and smoothed his hands over the finished product, causing her to glance up at his concentrated features with her own raised brows. The man really didn’t know he was doing that, did he? The soft, humming buzz of his focused and shifting chakra through his hands against her leg was an extremely soothing sensation, and prickled some feeling back into her wound with the electrical impulses it sparked in her nerves, and she found herself burbling back softly, chakra tinged just a touch with amused if tired fondness.

While the dark haired jounin set the tray down before them – ah, she’d been right about the miso – she shifted her leg a bit to feel out the tightness of the bandage, before humming in satisfaction as she sat up slowly and unenthusiastically to pull her pants back on.

The Konoha jounin seemed terribly pleased with the job he’d done, and she smiled in amusement, her chakra bubbling in amusement and he popped back at her smugly.

“Well, you could always leave them off,” Zabuza teased as she reached for her clothing, causing her to send him a wry glance before pulling them on anyway. “Oh well, had to try.”

“Uh-huh. Right.”

~*~

The comradery he shared with Asuka always seemed to come out of left field to smack him in the face when he noticed it, no matter how used to it he convinced himself that he was after some months of association, and it was no different when he suddenly found himself comfortable teasing the Demon of the Mist with her as they sat in the room allotted to them. He’d never teased a foreign shinobi outside of battle before in his life – although was baiting an enemy considered teasing, the same with trading barbs? – and he had certainly never been friendly with one, let himself run considering, lingering looks over the man’s impressive physique before he’d gotten to know the chuunin. It was odd, because when they had been the only ones in the room the tension between them had risen away from the more, ah, fun kind, and had been the violent potential he was used to, and even though they had managed to keep the KI battles within the confines of the room, she had still given them that look like they were naughty genin.

He was glad that he hadn’t been the only one shuffling awkwardly under that direct green gaze.

He hadn’t felt scolded like that for a long time. However, adding her into the mix had somehow automatically shifted that tension into something else, something a little more… palatable, less violent, more charming, and he had no idea how she did it, but he was sure of one thing.

She was a bad influence.

Not, it seemed, that the missing-nin in question minded, particularly open in his small flirtations back with the woman, and more subtly showing his appreciation for the Konoha jounin, something that was rare in and of itself with sincerity, and Kakashi wasn’t exactly sure what to do about it. The fact that his fellow Leaf nin was brushing it off with good humor gave him some form of template to follow, and he was relieved that no one suggested an orgy or something, because then he’d suspect that everyone was drugged with a hallucinogenic, or this was a genjutsu and, well, he just hoped that the sudden urge for seppuku wasn’t a family trait.

It wasn’t until after the fact that he realized that each adult in that room had been half naked at one point, even himself, that he’d touched both of the other nin, and he would choke on the tea he was drinking, causing some concerned glances from his chuunin comrade, and some amused ones from the other jounin, as if the other man thought that choking was a fun trick. He probably did. Fucking Mist nin. It had been a long time since he’d willingly touched another person for any reason – assassination and combat didn’t count – other than carrying the injured or training, and he didn’t quite know what to think of the ease in which he’d come in contact with both of them, especially when he’d so recently been playing with killing one of them.

It kind of hit him that it had been several years since he’d had any sort of intimate contact, physical or otherwise.

Mission related liaisons really didn’t count as real uh, relations .

But still, there was a huge chunk of time where there was nothing and that was… something he hadn’t realized.

Huh.

How low was a guy when, as a pervert, he hadn’t realized that he hadn’t had sex in years?

Physical affection had never been something he’d sought out – not consciously, and not in twelve years at least – but with the kids though, there were small things that were growing in frequency that showcased a growing closeness, a physicality that he hadn’t imagined ever getting again. More than once he’d found himself ending practice and training with one of the genin passed out against his side. Mostly it was Sakura, but on occasion it was Naruto.

There had even been a time or two with Sasuke, though he could hardly believe it.

Unanimously they had all decided never to speak of it, because a scowling, flushed Sasuke brought in the fangirls infringing on whatever training grounds or restaurant they were at, making an already bad mood worse and thus more broody, drawing them in like weird, grumpy Uchiha pheromones.

This thing of having been forced into an Alpha position was growing on him – gods forbid that the Sandaime ever hear that, though, he’d be so smug his face would get stuck that way – the way that the kids were beginning to look up to him as well was something that helped his instincts to settle and eased the burning in his chest. They were starting to act like pack, to feel like pack more than he’d expected them to. Bickering had fallen to something like a minimum, their volume was usually within acceptable levels, and there was even something like comradery or affection that had started to build between the genin themselves, as well as something towards himself that he had never expected. Sure, he had expected them to perhaps look up to him as time went by, for them to maybe like him to an extent, to trust in him to keep them safe – no matter just the thought made him want to break out in hives – but he’d never expected them to actually care for him in any capacity that truly meant they had accepted him. Like true pack.

That was… as awe-inspiring as it was anxiety inducing.

Still, he found himself surprised yet again with her abilities when he found out about her water bandages, something that was supremely useful in the heat of battle, since he didn’t have to stop to wrap up his wounds. Truth be told, he was without a doubt requesting her as back up for the any of the individual missions he might take in the future that she qualified for without the genin, since it was unlikely that he would run into anything too disastrous in the future. Ah, or at least, he hoped not. Those kids were trouble magnets, after all.

Naruto alone was like Minato and Kushina’s bad luck all merged into one being.

It was horrible.

And Sasuke… don’t even get him started on that angsty little shit.

To be honest, Sakura was the one he worried about the least, not since he could smell her chakra even though it was weaker than he’d have liked, and she sort of had someone looking out for her that he himself had appointed. A good chunk of him wanted to label Asuka as something like a Beta in his pack, one who looked out for the pups, the second in command, but a small part of him was hesitant to label her just yet, didn’t want to cement her in the way that he had the children.

He listened to his instincts and held back.

Not just yet.

The ability to form water and hold it solid and immovable for perhaps days on end – even when unconscious – was spectacular and he was starting to realize that she was very awkward with the compliments the two jounin had been giving her on her Water affinity.

He’d come to understand that she was very hesitant to take praise when it came to her skills as a kunoichi. Not, of course, that she didn’t enjoy them, she was just awkward and a little disbelieving of them in general.

Perhaps something to do with her sensei? He didn’t know what her upbringing had been like, but maybe there had been some disparaging of ninja in general? What he’d heard of her teammates had all been positive… well, he didn’t know, and he didn’t ask.

It wasn’t his place.

Still, it was a little odd to note that whatever problem she had with the Sand Councilmen was one serious enough that she openly expressed relief about not having to meet with him, and that the thought that perhaps the man was less than professional with a foreign kunoichi caused him some anger on her behalf. He didn’t really know what to do with the feeling, so he set it aside, letting himself be pulled back into the banter they were throwing around the room, let himself relax into her chakra presence with only a little bit of hesitance at the chakra play that wasn’t uncommon between friends and close companions… and they were friends, weren’t they?

He was feeling just a bit amused by how smitten it seemed Pakkun was with the chuunin, considering the fact that whenever he Summoned him when she was in the area, the first thing he did was find her and buddy up to her. Honestly, was there something in the water he always asked her for? Because his Summon was getting downright perky when she was around.

… Well, what did he know? Maybe there was something in the water she summoned.

Maybe he’d check when they got back to Konoha.