Actions

Work Header

Tsundoku

Chapter Text

It was both harder and easier to wait it out than she’d thought.

Knowing that if she somehow gave a sign that they knew this was an infiltrator kept her in check, despite how worried she was about Sasuke. If things got out of control, she knew that Hayate could handle it, but that didn’t mean that she didn’t feel her anticipation zinging under her skin with tension.

After the match with the definitely not Yorui, Kakashi had taken away the young Uchiha to have the Cursed Seal as Sealed off as possible. Of course, that wasn’t before she got a hug in and enveloped him in her chakra to smother the fear stink that covered him, making tiny tense muscles relax a little. Lightning chakra hung like static in a veil around the two, Kakashi and Sasuke, their shared – though the Uchiha’s wasn’t as strong – affinity making the synchronization enough to almost taste. A quick look at Naruto and Sakura had kept the other two genin from accosting their teammate, but there really wasn’t the time for the kind of dramatics that the kids preferred.

Later, it would come later.

After the Seal was dealt with.

Well, as best they could without a Seal Master around to take care of it – there was no telling the next time that Jiraiya would be in the village – and she’d stayed behind to look after the children as Sakura looked on worriedly. While she wanted to be moving, to do something about the intruders in their midst, she knew that she couldn’t.

Not when it meant leaving the kids undefended.

As the next two matches blew by like a blur before her eyes, with a win for Konoha and one for Sand – she had never worked with Misumi before, but since one member of that team was compromised, she didn’t know what to think – she felt a little tense and off kilter, but held together as best she could for the genin that remained to her.

Then it was suddenly Sakura’s time to compete, going up against Inoichi’s girl, Ino.

Asuka crouched down beside the girl, who turned to her with determined, if slightly uncertain eyes and bit her lip, the Fire in her eyes no dimmer than the chuunin had ever seen it before. She was bruised and battered, something both sharp and soft in her eyes, a blade that wasn’t quite out of the sheath, still a little more silk than steel.

To be honest, the chuunin thought that Sakura had never been prettier, coming into her own as she was.

“You’ll do fine,” she assured, smiling slightly, running one hand over the girl’s shorter hair. Her brow furrowed in contemplation before she cocked a crooked grin at her female genin. “You know, I think I like this short hair.”

“You do?” jade eyes blinked in surprise, attention diverted from whatever nerves were running under her skin. “Really?”

She reached a hand up shyly to touch the cut, and the woman grabbed her hand to squeeze it for a moment in reassurance.

“I do,” she stated firmly, smiling and standing. “It suits you. You look taller, stronger.”

“Yeah?” a tiny, hesitant but pleased smile. “You think so?”

“I know so,” the chuunin’s eyes softened. “Do your best, Sakura.”

“Hai, Asuka-sensei!”

With that, the girl hurried down to the arena Naruto hollering his encouragement after her as she did so.

“Ah, Nagisa-san?” she heard the jounin kunoichi from nearby query as she approached her. “I hear you’ve been taking up time with Kakashi’s genin team?”

The chuunin was mildly surprised at her internal territorial spike of thought, her chakra roiling at some implied, vague insult.

For a moment, her immediate thought had been that the kids were their genin team.

How embarrassing.

“Yes, Yūhi-san,” she returned coolly, brow cocked. “I am working with them.”

She really hoped that the woman wasn’t going to go on one of her judgmental rants about ability and mentality – usually reserved for jounin who slid by with minimal effort – because then she would have to shut her down in front of her genin team, and that would just humiliate the poor woman. Not to mention it would put Asuma on the offensive for harming his poor wilting flower – if there was anything that the female jounin wasn’t, it was a wilting anything, because a genjutsu mistress was nasty, even if she wore ridiculous bandages like a fashion statement – and then Asuka would never hear the end of it, because that Sarutobi man could hold a grudge like nobody’s business. Something that his father could attest to.

The poor Sandaime, his son was still throwing such a hissy fit…

“I understand that you must have the urge to ingratiate yourself to a jounin –” Oh, the chuunin felt herself think faintly, her gaze sharpening, even as she turned away to look back down at the kunoichi she was helping to train. Did she really just say that? Really? Here, now? Ah, and she’s apparently still talking. “– But to bring the children into this! Nagisa-san, are you listening?”

“No,” she stated blankly, grimacing a little as Sakura stumbled after a clash of kunai.

When there was a little girl who needed her attention she definitely wasn’t going to deal with that classist bullshit, especially not in front of their kids, who were so very impressionable.

The two girls were pretty evenly matched, both worryingly starting to gain muscle mass after dieting, but still not up to par in chuunin type skill sets.

Well, she’d just have to find out the girl’s elemental affinity, and if it wasn’t something she could help with, shove her off onto Kakashi – no matter the wide eyed pleading he would subject her to, the horribly lazy bastard – to widen her repertoire. It wasn’t as if she were the difficult child, she picked up chakra exercises and theory like Naruto did cup ramen and Sasuke did cherry tomatoes. Honestly, it was more surprising that the blonde girl, being a Yamanaka didn’t have more in the way of jutsu knowledge, but since the two had been best friends, they likely had a similar mindset and had recently had the fangirl being beaten out of them. It was a little odd that a ninja family hadn’t been taking care of their Clan Head’s daughter in the nutritional sense, but considering their interests were in psychology – almost all of the Yamanaka’s that she knew were in T & I – there was perhaps something more in play there.

The affronted silence behind her lasted long enough for the genin girl to be caught by the Mind Body Switch, and for Naruto to yell out encouragement to his teammate and for the girl to free herself with a strange fluctuation of chakra – odd that it reminded her of Juli-chan – before the two charged at each other and knocked themselves unconscious.

Allowing a small smile to curl onto her lips, she shook her head with fond exasperation.

The girl was going to be moping for weeks about how she’d almost won against her rival in love, and of course it was going to be Asuka’s job to straighten her out and comfort her. Honestly, she’d never met a man who was lazier than the Hatake jounin, not even a Nara.

Not that she knew many Nara that well, though. Well, she'd eyed the Commander’s well toned backside a few times, just like any other red-blooded nin with an interest, but having a few conversations with the man didn't mean that she understood his Clan.

Very rarely was she sent out with a Nara, as they generally took more high profile missions, the demand of higher rank needing that kind of genius touch.

As she was readying herself to leap down and grab her student, the other kunoichi – who had stopped speaking to her with something like affront – took hold of her upper arm, tried to turn her by force. Of course, this was only to find her wine red eyes meeting with flinty, hard, flat emeralds, unable to shift the immobile other woman.

I am not in the mood to deal with your bullshit right now.

Without looking down, it was clear that the jounin still noted the rock hard muscle beneath the black, clinging fabric beneath her hand, the way it shifted minutely with very unhappy, displeased promise. If there was one thing that the chuunin was confident in, it was that she was better at close quarters combat than the genjutsu mistress that was trying to restrain her from going down to retrieve her unconscious student. It was in her nature as a frontline kunoichi to be built like a brick shithouse, to be able to take pretty much anything that was thrown at her and dish it back, and she had only gotten stronger training with a jounin Elite such as Kakashi.

It was hard for Asuka to pull back the instinctive inclination to break the woman’s hand for grabbing her so familiarly and with a rather obvious amount of – hopefully – unintentional Negative Intent involved as well, but she managed it.

The kids had at least helped her grow more patient.

While fighting a jounin would be tricky, and genjutsu specialists were a pain full of psychological trauma and freaking personality ticks, she’d known more Uchiha than most, and trained with them even more than most. And Chitose had been phenomenal at genjutsu.

Even to the last …

Asuma could vaguely be seen in the background with a wincing expression on his normally laid back features, a hand rising towards his face as if to cover his eyes. Apparently he didn’t want to see the wreck that could happen before him in the form of a kunoichi death match.

“Please release me,” the chuunin requested politely, her tone perfectly balanced between order and query.

It wouldn’t do to actually order around someone who was technically of higher rank than she was, especially if the woman ended up listening to her. She did not want to deal with that kind of backlash again, especially when there were more important things to be paying attention to.

Kurenai did so immediately, apparently before she’d even fully processed the words, taking a step back as the chuunin jumped down to easily lift up the pink haired kunoichi in a gentle hold, keeping the girl’s head carefully propped against her shoulder as she jumped back up to the banister to give her an instinctive if unneeded look over with medical jutsu. As the jinchuuriki moved over to his teammate’s side with worry, he gave Kurenai a mistrustful eye, squinting sky blue eyes at her in suspicion and something like dislike as he did so, crowding against the younger woman’s side as she ran a simple diagnostic jutsu over the girl. The boy was hopelessly protective of his teammates, especially after the incident with Haku giving the illusion that Sasuke was dead, and apparently that was beginning to spread out towards his two sensei as well, if the amusing way he was glowering at the other woman was of any indication.

For such a loud idiot, he could be surprisingly endearing.

“Is Sakura-chan going to be okay, Asuka-nee-chan?”

“Yes, yes, she’ll be fine, you don’t need to worry. It’s just a knock to the head and some simple chakra exhaustion,” the boy’s mouth opened, and his eyes widened in something that precluded shouting, so she spoke quickly. “Nothing like the exhaustion that Kakashi experienced during his bout with Zabuza, so don’t worry. It is very rare for someone to experience chakra exhaustion to such extents as he did outside of life or death situations,” which technically, the encounter with the missing-nin could be considered as at the time. Afterwards, well… “After so long in the Forest of Death and getting a bit banged up, she’d just low on chakra and she doesn’t have much to start with. She just needs some sleep and snacks, that’s all.”

“Oh, okay. Just like training then!” he grinned when she ran her suddenly free hands over his head and mussed his already messy golden spikes, before he danced away with slightly pinked cheeks, sticking his tongue out at her. “Stop picking on me, Nee-chan!”

She snorted after arranging the girl into a more comfortable position and standing, giving the boy an amused smirk, just as Kakashi used shunshin to appear before her. Relief slithered from her hara out towards the rest of her limbs and suddenly it was easier to breath than before, her heart not quite so enclosed by her lungs. The jounin gave his female genin a cursory glance before looking to the chuunin and she just waved her hand to show it was nothing serious, even whilst she was reaching out and mussing up the boy’s hair again the man was flicking the boy in the ear and getting a squawk in response.

“Just tired,” she explained, as they shifted over towards the railing again, as something of a unit, the boy a little in front and in the middle, her hand still on his head, the man brushing up against her side casually. “And the angriest little Uchiha?”

“Hmm.”

That dark eye slanted over towards where Kurenai was standing in something like outrage, her genin were giving her odd looks as the jounin woman’s cheeks pinked with indignation, her red eyes still focused the chuunin who had given her insult. Asuma seemed to be trying to stifle a burgeoning headache by pinching the bridge of his nose with one hand and fumbling for a cigarette with the other, his Nara student giving him sympathetic if darkly amused looks.

It was strange, that Yuhi Kurenai, who was normally very polite and interested in equal treatment amongst the ranks, had taken offense to Asuka and her relationship, or lack thereof, with Kakashi and the rest of Team Seven.

But what did she know?

She was only a chuunin after all.

“He’s in the hospital,” the tiniest twitch of his hand out of sight to anyone but her signaled that the boy was under guard, which caused her brows to furrow and lips to pinch for a moment. For him to be under guard so soon… there must have been an altercation – she paled at the thought Orochimaru being anywhere near any of her boys or Sakura – because the only guards available during the Exams would be ANBU. “Asleep.”

Wait, did she just call Kakashi one of her boys?

Oh dear…

“You do the,” she wiggled her fingers around her neck a little ridiculously, causing him to roll his eye heavenwards as if for patience. “ Thing?”

“Yes,” he returned long sufferingly before his fingers twitched again to signal package delivered. “I did the… thing.”

That was why he’d been gone so long, he’d gone to drop off her hastily chakra printed report scroll on Akadō Yoroi’s identity to Intelligence, to let them know that they had been infiltrated. It wasn’t unlikely that as soon as the package had been delivered, the man had been hauled into Interrogation to be milked for everything he had. Well, as least Anko would have someone to vent her frustrations on. She’d put down her suspicions concerning Orochimaru’s involvement as well, but it was only supposition, so there was very little she thought would come of it, even if her gut told her that she was right in her theories.

“Well, Sakura did rather well, I must say,” the woman continued, allowing the boy to wriggle under her arm against her side to watch the next match, one between another set of kunoichi, this time the girl from Sand and one of the Green Beast’s students. “Especially since she’s only been doing light weight training for a few weeks. Her taijutsu has certainly improved, but we should broaden her ninjutsu to oh, I don’t know,” she tapped a finger against her lips and adopted a thoughtful pose before sending him a wry glance. “Maybe a bit more than E-ranked jutsu.”

“Ah,” the light haired man seemed to come to the same realization she had, eye blinking at her as he did so, peripherally watching the match below, which bore an impressive amount of weapon Sealing, and Wind natured chakra. “That’s right.”

“Yeah,” she quirked her own grin at him for his bewildered eye smile. “I forgot that she doesn’t know any as well, what with the boys throwing them around like candy,” she pulled on Naruto’s cheek idly, something he barely seemed to notice, but to squirm his face away and throw her an unseen outraged look while rubbing at it before proceeding to forget it and watch the match. “Even if bright eyes here only knows the one, it still counts. The fact that she’s still managed to keep up is a testament to her mind.”

“The best of the three, it is.”

Wincing at the brutal assault from the Sand kunoichi, Asuka mused that the genin from their own village was rather skilled, she had just had a grotesquely horrible matchup, especially considering the fact that it would appear that no one had taught the girl how to use chakra strings to pull her weapons back to her, a skill that a weapons mistress who only used one tool should know, and doubly important for one who used them as the girl appeared to. Honestly, she should perhaps invest in some explosive tags as well, to mix them in amongst her smattering of weapons – who randomly mixes in a sickle with the rest of your weapons? – just to put her opponent on edge. This, however, didn’t seem to be something that was amongst the taijutsu master of Konoha’s repertoire, seeing as he rarely used chakra based attacks – she’d heard that he’d had some problems with chakra as a kid – and the one member of his genin that did actively use chakra looked like he had a barbed pipe shoved up his prissy Hyuuga ass and likely wouldn’t teach the girl anything she didn’t already know.

Next, she watched the match between the Nara and a girl from Sound – man, she really disliked Sound, what with them basically camping on their border of late – and sent contemplative looks at the jounin she was idly leaning against, calmed by the firm, warm muscle and slightly frizzy chakra that buzzed against her own. There was something comforting about the fact that he didn’t seem to really notice her weight against his side, leaning back against her just enough to even out the proportions and to keep from getting uncomfortable. She still had a hand on the blonde jinchuuriki’s shoulder and she absently put it on top of his head and sifted her fingers through his dirty – but not wet with sweat anymore, thank the gods – hair as she thought, like one would when petting an animal or house pet.

Was there perhaps someone who rivaled Kakashi for pure laziness?

Another glance as the boy gave an explanation – likely for the civilians in the crowd as well as the especially slow chuunin and below, but still, unnecessary despite these being testing conditions – she decided there wasn’t. Kakashi likely wouldn’t have given any words during the match, or would have ended it much quicker, just so that he didn’t have to stay hanging around or deal with people for longer; or to be a contrary little shit, depending on his mood. It didn’t look like the boy had really hit the peak of laziness, as the jounin had.

“Nah,” she muttered. “I’ve got the laziest…”

“What was that?”

“Ah, it’s nothing.”

Once it was announced that it was Naruto’s turn against the Inuzuka boy, she gave him a pat on the back to shove him away, his jounin-sensei waving and giving a faint, rather unbelievable ‘Good Luck’ as the boy jumped over the edge for his fight. Oh, he actually nailed the landing.

Well, that was something, right?

The two who’d been teaching him winced at the first large smack down that the boy was treated to.

Well… sort of.

It seemed that enthusiasm and familiarity with his former classmate had kind of… caused a bit of regression. The Inuzuka was doing alright at reminding himself that he wasn’t just tussling with a friend, which said something about Kurenai’s teaching ability, but Naruto, who wasn’t the best at keeping himself focused normally…

“Can he at least pretend that he has some training?” she wondered dryly, listening in amusement to the Nara boy groaning at the loud protests of her blonde haired genin. “All that hard work thrown out the window like he’s in a schoolyard brawl…”

“Maa, I’m sure he doesn’t mean to be an idiot,” was what she got in return, just as dryly.

As the fight went on, she was impressed and warmed by the boy’s continued stamina and willpower, but when the winning blow came, it was all she could do to remember to breathe through her guffaws, wheezing and hanging off of both the railing and Kakashi, who had his free hand palming at his masked face, eye closed in resignation. She found herself doubled over, one hand fisted in the jounin’s shirt sleeve, the other smacking at her thigh, as her eyes watered in mirth. Really, she didn’t think that she’d ever seen a more ridiculous end for a match in her life.

Oh kami above, flatulence!

“W-well,” she managed once she’d started to get a hold of herself, shifting her weight against the metal railing, wiping the hand that had been gripping the man’s clothing against her humor wetted cheeks to remove the moisture, feeling the grin that was cramping her facial muscles due to its unfamiliarity. Hanging out with Team 7 was really working out her cheek muscles, that was for dang sure, they were such a hoot. “That was certainly… unconventional.

“I’m pretty sure that’s the only word that constantly applies to Naruto,” the man lamented as the cheering genin came running up to them, face glowing with accomplishment, wanting praise. “That and what. Or perhaps why.

“Did you see, Kaka-sensei?! Did you?!”

“Aa…” the jounin looked skyward for a moment. “It was very… original,” the pale haired man twitched for a moment, before the fingers of his left hand flickered quickly through signs she couldn’t see, and then there was a small breeze blowing against the natural one, going towards Naruto rather than towards Kakashi. After he was done the man gave a halfhearted thumb up that made the boy beam at him. “Good, uh, job.”

It seemed that the Copy-nin didn’t appreciate being downwind of his student just then. Considering the fact that if she didn’t force it down his throat – or made the jounin do it – all he would eat was ramen, she didn’t even want to think about how that must have affected the enhanced senses of both Hatake jounin and Inuzuka genin. That poor boy.

She snickered quietly into her hand, eyes crinkled slightly, before glancing over to where her kunoichi genin was wakening.

“Sensei?” the girl queried groggily, rubbing her fists over her eyes.

“Here, Sakura,” she spoke up, causing the girl to glance over at them, taking in Naruto’s scruffy appearance.

“Neh, neh, Sakura-chan! Guess what, guess what! I won against dog breath!”

“Eh?” the girl looked surprised as she moved over to them carefully. “Really?”

“Yeah, yeah, it was super cool! See, I –“

“Perhaps you can tell her later, Naruto,” Asuka broke in, glancing at the board that set up the next fight, her lips twitching down ward into a frown, brows furrowed. “The next match is about to begin.”

She wasn’t going to like this.

A branch kid against a main branch… this wasn’t going to end well.

She hated Clan shit.

~*~

It hit her once again, just how much she appreciated having Team Seven in her life. How these awful little shits, who were more self-absorbed, selfless and contradictory than she’d ever thought a person could be, their sensei as well, was kami damned charming.

She had stopped in with Kakashi to visit Sasuke, and was pleasantly surprised, if not a little saddened by the way that he leaned into the embrace she’d pulled him into, his fingers clutching against the material that covered the back of her shoulders where her armor ended and shirt sleeves began, his forehead pressed against her chest. Smoothing one hand through his hair, and the other over his back before keeping her grip steady, she let him lean on her, taking his slight weight – she still felt like he should eat more – breathing in the scent of smoke and ink that coated him from his use of fire jutsu and the recent Sealing he had undergone. As she pressed her face into his hospital cleaned hair, letting him take comfort from her, she shifted the hand she had in his hair to just over the Cursed Seal, and as she felt him stiffen she hushed him gently, aware of the Copy-nin watching her carefully as she slowly gathered her chakra against the mark.

The moment he took a shaky, hesitant deep breath against her through his nose and gave a shaky sigh, she took in his scent with soft eyes, burning his chakra into her mind.

He was like smoke, light and sweet with the hint of ube that was the Sharingan.

There was a slightly sour smell from the Seal, but from what she could tell, only a shadow behind his natural scent.

It made her grip on him tighten and something like helplessness followed by cold rage flittered over her features quickly before disappearing as her darkened green eyes slid shut and she buried her nose and mouth closer to his skull, nosing at his soft dark hair. She pretended not to hear the soft, wounded noise that left his throat as he trembled ever so softly in her arms, the very presence of the jounin on the opposing side of the room from them seeming to spread broadly, a dangerous arch of power, in response to the note of distress and the way pale features rubbed against her seeking comfort.

Growing up in a shinobi rich environment, his entire Clan having had large chakra stores to an extent even in the civilian sectors, Sasuke would have a greater understanding of what it meant to take in another person’s chakra scent. He would also understand what it was like to never be able to take in that smell again, to lose the one attached to it, as he had with his entire family in one fell swoop. Asuka felt something like pride, affection and sorrow shifting in her chest as she held him gently against her and breathed lightly in his hair, smoothing her free hand over his back as she focused on the hand she had over the mark.

The boy released a noise of surprised respite at the feeling of her chakra pushing back the taint of the Cursed Seal.

“What did you do?” he queried, voice filled with relief, body relaxing against her fully.

“The chakra inside the Seal is full of Negative Intent, something similar to Killing Intent,” she explained softly, her eyes half lidded as she spoke, concentrating on holding back the chunk of Orochimaru’s vile energy. This Seal was stronger than Anko’s was when she had gotten it, and even now, but thankfully had the same basic proportions that made it so that her chakra trick still worked. “What I am releasing here is Positive Intent, my chakra is filled with the exact opposing force, cancelling out its ability to touch your own chakra system by having it conflict with my own instead. It can’t influence you when it’s counteracting an outside source, one that it wasn’t designed to combat.”

“Something like that would take practice,” Kakashi mused behind her before shifting over to the other side of the bed and pulling up his hitai-ate briefly to examine the chakra flow. The banked storm of his presence shifted but held steady, dependable. “It’s also something that you couldn’t do on your own Sasuke, not yet.”

“He’s right,” she added, when she felt the boy in her arms shift, as if suddenly remembering that his jounin-sensei was in the room, and taking offence at the man’s words. “You don’t have fully developed coils yet. The stress of expending chakra with the more complicated forms of Intent could damage your system, especially with the Seal corrupting it. You should wait at least another year before attempting this, and only with supervision.”

He subsided in her arms, and just let himself rest there until he fell asleep, and she settled him back against the hospital bed with a fond look on her face, brushing his bangs back from his pale, exhaustion stained features before standing.

With a glance to the jounin standing behind her, the two adults quietly left the room to speak outside of it.

“You’ve done that before.”

Sighing, she glanced up at the single dark eye regarding her and she nodded.

“Anko and I are friends, of a sort, and I found out about that when we were younger, not long after it happened. It was something we reported to the Hokage, but he asked us to try to keep it to ourselves,” she grimaced and they began to head towards the public wards, since the Uchiha was in the private, guarded wards. “He didn’t want it to somehow get leaked and for Snake-Face to find out about it and tweak the Seal against it.”

A soft snort greeted her nickname for the disgraced Sennin.

“You can do it now, I trust?” she looked at him in askance, positive that he at least had the knowhow, even if he’d yet to put it into practice.

“Hmm,” he concentrated chakra to his hand and pressed it to her shoulder, little sparks jumping around it and fizzling against her chakra network like little playfully nipping teeth before he smoothed them out into almost tasteless soothing heat, like the press of skin on skin, entangled limbs and shared breath. “That it?”

Sweet holy mother of the Sage of Six Paths…

“Yeah.”

Her voice may have been a touch rougher than before, but the man didn’t seem to notice and she certainly wasn’t going to bring it up. That was definitely the sensation that was normally the accompaniment to the chakra trick, so it had to be something intrinsic to how she perceived Kakashi.

Awkward.

It was a moment before she managed to blink away the warm, tingly, ridiculous sensation with a wry grin, ignoring the way that heat was suffusing her cheeks as she shook her head, metal jingling softly, taking a breath to calm herself.

This man was going to kill her, without even trying, at that.

“Geniuses,” she sighed in exasperation.

The man gave a noise of affront as they rounded the end of the hall to the waiting room where their orange student was in a glaring contest with one of the receptionists, his pink haired teammate standing in irritation behind him, tapping her foot, arms folded over her chest, scowl in place. The girl looked like she was about to tear into her loud and rambunctious teammate – well, either that or the decidedly unhelpful looking woman who was manning the front desk – until she spotted the two adults out of the corner of a jade eye, turning to look at them with surprise and worry on her features.

“Ah, Sensei!” she called, causing the boy next to her to look over at them. “Is Sasuke-kun alright?”

“He’s resting at the moment, Sakura,” Asuka assured her. “But he’ll be fine as long he does what he’s told.”

“Oh,” both genin sagged in relief as the girl spoke. “That’s good. I was so worried.”

“I – I wasn’t worried.”

“You so were.”

“Was not!”

A noncommittal hum made its way out of the jounin’s mouth as he regarded the two quietly bickering children that stood before him, and then in a momentary lull, he spoke up about the training for the Final Task.

As soon as the words ‘Don’t have time’ left his lips, and Naruto’s bright eyes flinched, she found herself smacking him resoundingly on the back of the head, scowling at the wide eyed look he gave her as he lifted his hand slowly, disbelievingly up to his head. She easily ignored the frankly disturbing look that the receptionist was giving her for the action – likely another Clan groupie, there was no end to them – and glowered at the man something powerful. Honestly, with how often she smacked him in reprimand, especially lately, he should be used to it by then. Even Chitose and Haruka had learned faster than Kakashi was, and he was a supposed to be the prodigy.

They had been Uchiha, and were still quicker on the uptake of social conditioning.

Brilliant ninja. Brilliant mind. Also, a complete and total moron. Considering the pride of the Uchiha – even her twins – this was something that was a little confounding and more than a little amusing as she mentally began to take a tally of how long he might hold out with the shock.

She was contemplating betting against herself.

Maybe different prizes for different times of desensitization… hmm…

And chocolate was always a good reward…

“Idiot,” she muttered, before turning to the yellow haired genin, looking him calmly in the eye. “What Kakashi meant to say, even though it came out completely wrong in so many ways because he’s an emotionally stunted rodent, is that Sasuke needs to work with his Sharingan, and that the two of them share a very similar fighting styles and physique, so the Uchiha will get more out of training between the two of them –” she hitched a thumb at the silver haired jounin, who was regarding her warily, shoulders a little hunched. “– Than you would with Kakashi,” she affected a sly look, causing interest to hop in those mollified sky blue eyes; got him. He was a prankster at heart, their Naruto, any hint of secrecy or cunning got him interested. “Plus, don’t you think he needs more help than you? Didn’t you see how beat up he was? You’re in much better condition and you still made it to the Final Round.”

Which was only because he had a little guest, but, eh, semantics.

All but beaming, the boy barely threw a hissy fit at the fact that Kakashi had somehow arranged for Ebisu to be the boy’s instructor for the duration of the break between Exams, since she didn’t have the time to dedicate to it, what with her own missions and the like. The fact that the silver haired man hadn’t saw fit to discuss it with her got him a calm, almost serene, glance out of the corner of her eye that had him shifting a little sheepishly in place – though it technically was his right as the jounin-sensei to make decisions about the team alone, it’d become something rote to talk things over together – and she just sighed and shook her head while rubbing at her forehead. The amount of headaches she got just by associating with the dreaded Team Seven would be more worrying if a good soak in a hot bath and some warm sake didn’t take care of them so quickly, and if the latter wasn’t well within her budget thanks to the amount of meals she had purchased for her by her jounin friend. So headaches were easily assuaged before they became migraines, all things considered.

Even so, they were unpleasant.

She’d always had chronic headaches, but still, hanging around Team Seven was exacerbating the condition.

That creeper – it didn’t matter how good of a teacher he supposedly was – gave her the side eye from behind his pompous trying-to-be-Aburame-smooth-but-won’t-ever-be sunglasses whenever she saw him, and she found herself inching behind the jounin, then disappearing only a moment after her impromptu shield did, so that she didn’t have to deal with the pervert’s stare. It wasn’t as if he were on the same level as Kowaru in Sand, but it still made her terribly uncomfortable to be so obviously ogled by a colleague, one whom she had never actually even spoken to, and who when talking affected a holier than thou kind of attitude. It was more than a little tiring to have to deal with such things at home, with those who were her comrades, to have her people look at her as if she wasn’t a person but a slab of meat, as if she didn’t have a mind or a personality of her own, just a body that they wanted.

That they couldn’t have.

Yes, it was exhausting to run into that, not appreciation as a person or a kunoichi, but lust after her body with no inclination to the mind within. So, she avoided it as much as possible.

Even if they never acted on it, the knowledge of how they looked at her was still tiring.

Perhaps what had caught her attention when dealing with Kakashi in the beginning was the fact that he had looked at her, and he had seen her, even behind all of his awkward mannerisms, his lack of people skills that completely outclassed her own deficiency in social graces. She had looked into that dark eye and seen herself reflected back without any sort of motive, without desire or manipulation, and she had thought in some part of her oh, good, thank kami, I’m a person to him even though it was rare for her to run into those people amongst their own who made her so tired. When she considered what kept him associating with her, all she could see was that he enjoyed her mind, her straightforward thinking, the acidity of her tongue and her willingness to deal with being batted around like a cat toy by a jounin who outclassed her so much it wasn’t even funny. Perhaps he liked that she could take criticism, that she tried to better herself and didn’t content herself with the skills that she’d learned to make it to High-chuunin, that she reached forward for more even after she’d hit twenty five, unlike most ninja did, settling in skill wise by the time they were eighteen. She hadn’t plateaued.

Hadn’t allowed herself to.

The regard he had for her was still something of a mystery to her, but what drew her in now, what kept her within the silver haired man and their genin orbit… was his mind, his twisted and convoluted thought process that she could never follow, the dry drawl of his speech, the lazy ease with which he took in her own arguments and ideas and thought about them. Hell, even the way that he batted her around when they sparred and then corrected her or helped her with some things that he’d one upped her with, only to leave others for her to struggle over on her own, even that, it kept her falling into step beside him with a smile and children glued to her sides.

He rarely made her feel tired, and had never made her feel hollowed or less than she was.

It still made her disproportionately pleased that one of the first things he said to her was a compliment on her skills as a kunoichi. That probably colored her regard of him in a positive light, even if it was just subconsciously.

When she reached the rooftop outside and a couple of blocks down, as she fled from the homegrown creeper and Aburame wannabe, she ran into the silver haired man’s arm when he put it out to stop her, the breath being knocked out of her slightly by the iron bar that was his limb across her chest and hooked around her ribs. Oh, sweet kami, she’d run into literal steel pipes that hurt less on her diaphragm than this man’s limbs did. Said man, the owner of the most uncomfortable appendages to be stopped by in mid jump, received a grimacing glower of discomfort with a clear tang of not cool that he seemingly ignored, and was tempered by his words as he spoke.

“Lunch, Asuka?”

It was a little surprising that he’d been the one to invite her, but he’d been doing that more often of late, so she just let the corners of her lips curl upwards slightly at the pleased hum of chakra curling delightedly in her chest.

“Mm, sure,” she could eat. She could always eat. “What do you feel like?”

“Saa… How about barbeque?”

“Sounds good.”

They took seats in a cubicle at the back of the room that had two horizontal exits and one vertical rather easy to access if the need be, and a rather old privacy Seal was slapped onto the wall of the booth that they could activate if they so chose to, a common enough application in ninja catering businesses. Automatically they positioned themselves so that Asuka’s back was to the room and Kakashi had a clear view of their surroundings, his much more hair trigger nature in need of calming after the posturing and bristling he’d been doing at the hospital room with the exhausted Uchiha boy. She herself was a little more wired with tension than usual but left the jumpy, thundering mal-temper to her male counterpart, the flow of her own chakra more calm and smooth but still possessing white caps of regular if small intervals in the flow of it, metaphorical foam building up on the surf.

With a soft yawn that she covered with the backs of her fingers she propped her feet up on the seat beside the man, making sure to keep them inside towards the wall instead of potentially blocking his exit for a quick response. He bumped his knee against her calve companionably and she smiled absently in response while their tea was sat down for them with some agedashi tofu and some mixed tempura appetizers.

Ah, how shinobi speed and jutsu precision could be translated into the kitchen…

It was a beautiful thing. A beautiful, beautiful thing.

“It’s not the sweet sauce, is it?” she asked with a soft wrinkle of her nose as she glanced at the tempura sauce. “It’s house sauce?”

“Mm, yeah,” he hitched his shoulder slightly with an errant sniff and she followed his movement to place her hand on the old inscribed kanji next to his. “Endo knows me well enough to know I prefer savory.”

A chakra fluctuation later they were encased in their booth with sound being able to travel in but not out, unless it was of a certain volume – one that neither of them were prone to, unlike their students and the Inuzuka Clan as a whole – and was the reason that everything was ordered together at the beginning of the meal instead of throughout in places such as these.

“Bleh, good riddance that. I’m a firm believer in not mixing salty and sweet.”

“You don’t seem the type, true.”

“If I want sweet, I’ll buy candies or something, but for a meal it’s got to be savory.”

“Hmm.”

“Are you even listening to me?”

“You make a good point.”

“…”

Ow, don’t kick.”

“Hmph, jerk.”

Still, she nudged him a bit to take away the sting of her foot being shoved with mildly chakra enhanced force into the thick muscle of his thigh.

“Tell me,” she said after a few long minutes of silence and finishing off the appetizers.

Licking the ends of her fingers idly to chase the slightly salted flavor of the tempura sauce and clean them of potential stickiness, she was unaware of the icy and terrifying dark glare that her silver haired friend idly tossed at an ogling, appreciative Mid-jounin across the way as she licked at a half healed cut on her first knuckle of her middle finger. The man quickly paled and stared at his food instead, clearly having lost his appetite as his survival instincts kicked in full blast at the suddenly overwhelming protective violence that had been momentarily directed in his direction. If she had seen, she likely would have been both amused and highly exasperated, as well as a little embarrassedly pleased by the Copy-nin’s overprotective if understated tendencies towards her involving anyone that could be construed as a pervert since the encounter with the bottom feeder in Wave those few weeks before.

That likely also contributed, since there was a little she could do against their own nin in such circumstances other than report them, which generally went nowhere and did nothing.

While she didn’t notice the hostility, brief thought it was, the other nin in the building did, and if she had been aware of it, she’d have sighed at the fresh gossip fuel that would no doubt be halfway across the village by the time they’d finished lunch.

“The guards?” was her idle continuation, pulling her fingers from her mouth and calmly buffering a tiny amount of water over the digits.

That single dark eye shadowed briefly as the man sighed and sat back to rest against the seat back, his gloved hands gripped together loosely on the table in front of him before he splayed out pale knuckled fingers that she could only see half of the appendages, pressing against the table top.

“I had just finished putting the Fūja Hōin on Sasuke when he came in,” the man’s features twisted a little behind his mask. “I have to say that I’m unused to being seen as someone who isn’t threatening these days, so standing there with a Chidori on hand and being basically dismissed…”

She pressed her ankle against his thigh, giving a small fluctuation of her chakra to softly sooth the sparking, grumbling charge of his own.

“He left after the creepy limbless reptile kind of mocking that he seems to favor and some awkwardly disturbing promises. It couldn’t have taken more than five minutes total, but that’s more than enough time,” for pretty much anything to happen, went unsaid between them. “After that lovely encounter, I took Sasuke to the hospital and summoned some ANBU to keep an eye on him while I returned to the Arena to try and stall any suspicions as well as, well, you know.”

“Cheer on our louder children while silently mourning the death of whatever dignity we might have ever possessed?”

“Yeah, that.”

“I really can’t wait until someone stabs that guy, seriously,” she muttered, taking a sip of her tea. “He’s always been creepy and weird, even before he got kicked out of the village.”

“Aa,” the jounin mimed an overly obvious shudder, though there was something genuinely disturbed in his single eye. “He has also always been a bit too interested in young boys, especially prodigies who have the potential to grow up deadly.”

Even the insinuation that the disgraced Sennin had taken any kind of interest in the young Hatake Heir had her jaw clenching, the memory of their dark haired genin trembling softly in her arms and clinging to her for comfort clear and stark in her mind, an echo of the past, his scent still drifting up from her clothing to remind her. She knew that the Uchiha had to have been unconscious with the completion of the Seal overtop the Curse mark, so she was vaguely grateful that he hadn’t seen the snake Summoner again so soon after his initial assault in such a weakened state, if only because of the substantial amount of trauma receiving the Curse had caused, and any more damage to his psyche would be catastrophic at this point. He wasn’t quite built up enough to deal with such strain just yet. More still, she could tell that the technique had done quite a number on the silver haired man’s chakra stores and if he’d faced the member of the Sannin with a charged Chidori – which to be honest, may have been more than a little bit of a frazzled decision considering the heavy chakra drain he’d just gone through – on hand then he’d wasted even more of it and he needed to eat to recuperate as much as he could.

“Are you sure that Ebisu was the right choice of a replacement?”

Though she was unaware of the displeased twist of her lips she did take note of his raised brow and the consideration in his gaze as she changed the subject abruptly.

“He was the only one that Sandaime could spare and would actually try to teach him despite what he is, even if he doesn’t want to,” was the low answer. “We both know that if I could, I would take them both, but I need to monitor the Seal on Sasuke and he’s going to be extremely volatile once it settles in. And despite what we would prefer you make more of a difference on the border than you do teaching one genin for the long haul during Exams when we are the most preoccupied and security might be remiss,” he sighed and grabbed a remaining tempura prawn, causing her to flick her gaze down to the table for a few moments before looking up again to see him setting the crusted tail to the side, mask in place once more. “Which it already has proven to be in several cases, not just the biggest and most obvious example of it at the moment.”

For a moment she felt a little fond because he’d been starting to speak more, which was always nice, before she turned her thoughts around again.

“Ebisu though?” she couldn’t help muttering in malcontent. “Had to be him?”

“You have a problem with Ebisu?” he queried, his tone oh so casual but she knew that he was amused the smug bastard.

The base of shrewd examination and calculation was simmering in his bristled but more settled chakra and lingered in his lazy dark eye, making her a tad bit leery of actually stating what her specific problem with him was. While she wasn’t overly fond of the man, she didn’t want to be the cause of the tokubetsu jounin having been maimed or experiencing a mental breakdown; Kakashi could get downright scary when he wanted to.

“He’s perfectly good at his job.”

“In theory,” was the petulant reply after the man spoke mildly. “Hell, I’m sure that Naruto could beat him up if we’re being perfectly honest.”

“Details, details.”

“… You just want our genin to beat him up, don’t you?”

“Well, it had crossed my mind.”

It was a rather pleasing idea, she had to admit, and she warmed to it.

At that point their meat and table top grill had been prepared and they were throwing on strips of chicken, pork, and beef to cook alongside from fresh, crunchy, crisp vegetables that looked like they had come out of the Yamanaka farmland because they were the best at dealing with plant life in general. After the Senju of course, but they were a sadly declining Clan, down to a few scattered members, all rather old, a new generation something they’d lost hope of during the last Wars. Though, considering the friendship between the three largest Konoha Clans – if not the most ‘powerful’ – it wasn’t unlikely that the produce was from the Yamanaka’s, and she was pleased with the juiciness of a slice of pepper she had hot but still crunchy and held between her chopsticks.

“I love the Akimichi Clan,” she mused as she flipped a few slices of meat. “They sure know how to treat people well and make you feel loved.”

“Mm.”

“Oh, hey, do you have any chakra paper for testing Sakura after the Exams or should I order some while you’re out training with Sasuke?”

Even the thought of doing so made her wallet weep.

That shit was expensive.

“No, I have some. Kusakabe stock, too.”

“Ooh, nice!”

They continued to chat for a while, the meat and vegetables slowly dwindling – she noted that he was more interested in the meat than anything else, as most were and so she ended up with more vegetables than anything, though she didn’t mind – as they did so, and soon the sun was sinking down enough for sake to be rung for. The taste was warm in her throat and on the back of her tongue and the pleasant tang of plum whispered in the soft fumes within her mouth like a gilded flame, and she relaxed back in her seat with a small, easy, completely comfortable smile.

“What did Kurenai do, Asuka?”

Goddamnit, Kakashi.

Wincing as she swallowed wrong at the non-sequitur she quickly cleared her airways with a flick of chakra before she could cough and choke embarrassingly. The technique rarely occurred to her when she did swallow incorrectly, though it was something she’d used often on missions when she had to make sure she was as quiet and unobtrusive as she could manage and choking was definitely a no-no on the inconspicuous trade. Considering her recent – or not so recent, when she really thought about it – company, then she really needed to get back into the habit of clearing her airways, if only so that her said airways didn’t start to hate her with the constant abuse they received from said non-sequiturs.

… What even was her brain these days?

“Uh, it was nothing really,” she grimaced. “I may have overreacted a bit – just a bit – and that’s why Naruto is likely planning her imminent demise. I was… tense, is all.”

“Overreacted? You?” he seemed a tad bit unconvinced, if the tone and quirk of his brow were anything to go by. “To what?”

“It was…”

“Hmm? What?”

You are such a bastard.

The amount of rumors that had been flying around through both civilian and other circles had them fucking six ways from Sunday or at least her giving him sexual favors of some sort, as well as a couple of them that said she had some sort of blackmail on him and was forcing their acquaintance. Hell, there were a number that said that she was pregnant or some other such nonsense from an illicit one night stand and that was why they were tolerating each other considering their prickly and antisocial personalities for the restoration of the Hatake Clan. Which, uh, no, not really. Normally people didn’t approach her about it – and she was the only one going to be approached, obviously, as no one was going to ask Kakashi – so it was a little odd that the jounin genjutsu mistress had done so, especially in public the way that she had, considering what the chuunin had heard about the other woman’s tendency to be very aware of young ears listening to her.

That Hyuuga girl had looked downright scandalized.

While rumors and accusations – some outright discrimination in civilian sectors – were something that she had gotten used to during her tenure as the female third of a Uchiha oriented team, the interim years where she hadn’t had to deal with it seemed to have rubbed some of the verbal callus off. Her skin wasn’t quite as thick as it used to be, it would appear.

Perhaps it had just pinched so much because it was Kakashi, more than anything else.

Chitose and Haruka had been her team, they’d never have abandoned her, no matter what, and hadn’t until death took them from her, but Kakashi? What said that he wouldn’t decide she was more trouble than she was worth, all the badmouthing her presence brought? It was… she knew they were friends, that they’d managed to get along remarkably well so far, but… did that really mean he would put up with the rumors?

Well, whatever.

It wasn’t like she could do anything about it anyway.

Asuka decisively ignored how her chest panged uncomfortably and swallowed a little harder then necessary.

“Just a misconception that she’s under,” she shrugged a shoulder and popped the last piece of chicken into her mouth, a silent victory. “It wasn’t so much of a big deal, but I was a little edgy at the time, is all.”

“… Right.”

With a sigh she gave him a rueful look, fully knowing that he wouldn’t let it lie like that for long even if he didn’t ask her directly about it.

Cracking her back a little she pulled her senbon from her hair so that the braids fell over her shoulders and then unhooked the small kunai from the ends and shoved them into her hip pouch, rolling her head on her neck to relieve some of the tension in her shoulders.

“Children are hard.”

While it was a little abrupt, she agreed with the statement and took a sip out of the cup of sake that’d been warmed and set on the end of the table for them by the waitress, taking note of the matching patterned rims of deep purple petals in comparison to the hodgepodge that others within the establishment had.

They weren’t exactly being subtle, though she doubted that the jounin understood what the waitress’ and staff were trying to do. She appreciated the nice service at least, even if the fact that they were acting like they were catering a date was both uncomfortable and somewhat embarrassing under her exasperation. There was only so much giggling she could stand, that and the significant looks from some of her colleagues who were watching with amusement from around the restaurant, arching brows and lifting cups of their own sake in salute to them that had something like embarrassment swishing in her stomach.

They were most definitely not on a date.

It took two interested parties for something to be a date and this… wasn’t.

Half of an equation does not an answer make.

“We should torture them after Exams are over.”

“Yes, let’s.”

All in all, this was probably one of the more entertaining Chuunin Exams that she’d found herself witnessing, and not just because she had brats to worry about this time.

This one definitely made her more nervous than her own had.

~*~

Nagisa Asuka.

High-combat class Chuunin of Konohagakure.

A woman who only a few months before hadn’t meant anything at all and was now… significant.

When they had run into her on that training field as they were chasing after Kakashi’s Summon, there had been something strangely familiar about her, something he couldn’t quite place but had left him a little off kilter because she had looked at him like he was just a body in the crowd and not that Uchiha boy. There had been a surety in her stance that was vaguely familiar as well, something about her eyes and the tone of her voice, a voice that was a tad bit deeper and harsher than most women’s, but held no dislike, none of the either sickly honey sweet sucking up to him, or the disparaging superior smugness of those who wanted to see him taken down a peg. She had looked at all three of the genin before her with the same expression, had shown no preference for any of them, although it was clear that she knew who both the Uchiha and the blonde haired orange wearing idiot were, but there was no bitter aversion or poorly disguised pity.

She hadn’t dismissed the two less skilled in comparison to the dark haired boy newly graduated genin, but she hadn’t paid any of Team Seven much mind.

He hadn’t known what to think, mostly because he couldn’t quite find that balance inside to figure out why he had the strangest sense of déjà vu when he looked up at her.

He found himself curiously glad when their jounin-sensei had appeared and decided that he wished to speak with her about something, had silently but not quite as sullenly followed his blonde… teammate. The fact that he couldn’t figure out what it was about her that disquieted him was frustrating, was so tiring that he didn’t even find himself annoyed when after they found the Summon and their sensei released them early when there was still time to train. After he went home and did some personal conditioning however, he felt much more like himself and pushed the kunoichi out of his mind since it was unlikely that they would ever run into each other again.

It wasn’t like she mattered in the long run anyway.

His goal was what was most important.

But then, of course, as if to spite the way that he’d managed to force her out of his head along with the uncanny familiarity she exuded, she showed up while they were futilely waiting for Kakashi to show up, offering extra training.

Extra training.

For Sakura.

Sure, he could see that the girl was severely lacking in everything except book smarts and was in no way prepared for the life of a ninja, but this Nagisa had managed to use two jutsu in quick succession – without hand signs – the last time they’d seen her, and it was clear as day to him that there was no way that the pink haired fangirl was worth that kind of attention from a kunoichi who was clearly skilled. Heck, even Naruto would have benefited from tutelage under someone like the Nagisa woman more than the pink haired girl on their team would, because she was just so far behind them in skill level it wasn’t even funny. The fact that he had gotten likely the two most useless people for his team infuriated him to no end, and he just knew that the Council had something to do with it.

They had been butting into his life ever since then and he didn’t like it, he didn’t like the way they were trying to mold him, to control him.

He wasn’t stupid.

He knew what they wanted from him.

As the last of his line who was living on Konoha soil and under their rule, he was a commodity, a resource, and he was sure that they were trying to get him to marry into another one of the Clan’s, to have whatever children he might bear belong to them. When he officially hit puberty, he was sure that the pressure would truly be on then, and he would have little control over whatever decisions they decided to make with his progeny unless he hit sufficient rank and strength enough to thwart them. While, yes, resurrecting his Clan was one of his goals, it didn’t mean that he wanted to just jump into it the second his body was able.

They’d given him a civilian girl with little to no potential who wasn’t taking any of this seriously, who had no idea what she had gotten herself into and ate like a bird with a death wish and the dead last who couldn’t get anything through his thick skull and was inexplicably hated by the majority of Konoha’s inhabitants for no reason?

Hell, even he knew that there had to be more to it than just his ridiculous need to prank people, and he rarely thought about others and their problems at all, too focused on his goal.

He remembered when Naruto had been quiet, had tried to blend in with the surroundings. He remembered when blue eyes had been dark and unhappy, sad and lonely in a reflection of what he saw in the mirror after that day.

People didn’t just change like that, didn’t feel like that or look like that, with no reason.

He knew that they were trying to cripple him by putting him with two of the least likely genin to succeed on a team with him, trying to get him to give in to their whims and do as he was told, but the only people he had cared enough for, respected enough to listen to were all dead.

All of them.

Well, except for Iruka-sensei and the Hokage, obviously.

But the Council had neither of those people on it, so he deemed them unnecessary to his goal.

Still, while he had been upset by the fact that she wasn’t here to train him or at the very least all of them, he was mollified somewhat that she was only going to be training the irritating girl with the kunoichi arts, something that he had no use for in the least. He had silently decided to follow her advice – which had been given in some exasperation, but had still been surprisingly honest in its offer if he was being completely honest – and bothered their ridiculously lazy sensei whenever they saw the man about speaking with her.

It wasn’t that Kakashi was a bad shinobi, he was quite skilled from what Sasuke could tell, but it seemed that the man had no motivation to speak of and likely saw his new genin team as a waste of his time and of resources in general. Not that Sasuke didn’t agree with him on the general principle, but he needed training, he needed to be stronger, so much stronger, if he was to reach his objective, and the only way he was going to do that was with proper instruction. There was only so much his family scrolls could teach him when he didn’t have someone to… explain things to him.

He was smart, he was driven, but there were still some basic concepts that he hadn’t had the time with his family to broach.

While it was disturbing to find himself in agreement with his irritating loudmouth of a teammate, he would take what he could get and he would use it to the best of his advantage for the sake of growing stronger.

The amount that after one session with the woman his pink haired teammate had grown, had changed, was astonishing, and he felt his desire for instruction grow, the desire for knowledge and challenge and understanding pulsed in his chest. He liked learning things, he liked to know things, he liked to be good at things, and he was sure that he could do better, be better if he got to have a one on one session with Nagisa the same as the girl had. He was sure that he would benefit more than the pink haired not a complete menace had under the woman’s instruction.

So he… investigated.

If asked he would never admit to skulking around looking for her apartment, or to planning with the Dobe to find out where she lived so that when Kakashi caved – oh, he would give in, they were sure of it – they could immediately go to her and have her fulfill the promise in her words. He was not stalking her either, not like his… fans did him. It was reconnaissance.

That was all.

He knew post mission fatigue when he saw it on her face, in her posture the day that the man had caved under the pressure and likely intense irritation – when they wanted to be, he and his team could be downright cruel – knew the tired frustration in her eyes, and expected her to tell them that she’d work with them on another day, one on which she wasn’t so obviously exhausted. It was how everyone in his family had acted when they were just returning home from a mission or a particularly trying meeting, they would set aside spending time with him until a later time. The number of times he’d been brushed when training had been promised was something he didn’t even know.

But she had… done the opposite.

The woman was oddly amenable to working with them despite her obvious wish to have been left alone to sleep. She had only just returned from a mission, via her own words, and the other two genin on his team seemed to find this perfectly natural, only he and Kakashi understanding that she was being extremely polite and kind in only demanding food from the jounin for instructing them. He’d never seen someone chat or well, speak with his sensei before, so it was odd to him that the two adults seemed to be having a completely normal conversation and even joking around with each other a little, a foreign sight if he’d ever seen one. That she didn’t go back on her word at all was strange to him, almost completely at odds with every experience he’d ever had with every active duty ninja he’d ever met, and despite himself, he was pleased, his stomach squirming oddly as she calmly walked beside their apathetic instructor towards food, and then the training grounds.

Of course, this changed when they started the teaching.

She had… pushed him down.

Right into the dirt on the packed earth of the training grounds.

The woman didn’t seem to even notice how her shocking amount of strength had easily shoved him to the ground like a… like a child, as she only calmly began to explain her reasoning despite his horrified embarrassment, his horrendous self-loathing at having been remiss in his family style, in honoring their great memory and prowess. The instruction he had received from his Clan had only been in the beginning stages of his taijutsu, the latter stages slowly filled in until his awaked his eyes. Sasuke had mostly learned things from scrolls and from what he could remember of his Clansmen sparring in their family owned training grounds, so he wasn’t exactly surprised that he had some of it wrong or that his understanding of the forms was lacking, but…

It hurt.

The fact that his jounin-sensei apparently knew his style fluently – perhaps with more skill than several of his Clan members had – came out of left field, and he found himself staring in shock even as he absorbed the verbal instruction she gave him. Nagisa’s own intimate knowledge of the Interceptor and Cat’s Paw was frighteningly accurate, and when he watched – almost completely missed – the high speed strike she easily delivered that was just as easily diverted by his sensei, he found his voice.

“How do you… know this?”

Those deep green eyes had focused on him carefully, studying his face for a moment, looking for something even though he couldn’t tell what expression was adorning it. Apparently she found whatever it was she was looking for, because his face felt numb and cold and he couldn’t even dream of controlling whatever lay upon it, so very stiff as he tried to sort through his mind, distantly glad for his teammates’ silence as he stared into her calm features, her eyes slightly sad but still warm with an understanding that on anyone else had enraged him.

“Most of the older generation ninja have worked with Uchiha in the past. I was on a genin team with two,” this was something that was almost unheard of, and Sasuke found his heart squeezing in his chest as he realized where exactly this was going. She had lost them, like he had lost his family. Had it been then that they died? Had it beenhim who killed them? Had he taken more from people even besides him? “And while I could kick Chitose’s ass around the block, Haruka knew what he was doing most of the time, and didn’t mind explaining his taijutsu styles, even if he wouldn’t teach them outright.”

Haruka… he thought dully for a moment. And Chitose.

The names were vaguely familiar.

There were fuzzy faces popping up in his memory, a set of… twins? Something that was as rare in shinobi households as it was in civilian ones if not more so, something to do with chakra dependency and danger to the mothers or something. He remembered tall silhouettes in hazy afternoon sunlight, two men taller than Shisui-nii had been, and in most of his memories, Shisui-nii had been as tall as a mountain but as bright as the sun; he knew that wasn’t accurate, but he couldn’t find it in himself to mind.

One of the two had been much taller than the other, he could just remember, and much louder, though that had been rare as well. They hadn’t been very important at the time, just two new members of his Clan to meet, from amongst hundreds, only interesting in the fact that his best friend had found them important enough to introduce and spend time with.

When he thought harder about it, there had been something about disapproval when the two came up in conversation, hadn’t there been? A hushed sort of distaste, something to do with how even though they’d become chuunin early they hadn’t kept up with promotions, had stayed with their original team or something…

Oh.

Oh.

Ah, so that was why she was strangely familiar.

She had been to the Compound before everything, when it was still strong and proud and beautiful and full of life and people. He wouldn’t say that the Uchiha had been happy – he’d rarely seen anyone over the age of ten laugh or smile, except for Shisui-nii – but they had been whole and alive and there when he would look for them, not ghosts that stained the once lovely wooden floors and scattered across once flourishing grounds and gardens. To those twins she had been… This woman had seen them during that time, had known them during the years that she’d been on the same team as two of the Clan’s own, longer than he’d even been alive, and he felt bile burn at the base of his throat because in a way her family had been taken from her too.

He needed to be stronger, faster.

He needed it to be over.

(Please, just let the nightmare end.)

The way that she spoke of Kakashi’s apparently obvious reasons for knowing the style intimately had thrown him for a loop, because while he had vague memories of people in the Clan mentioning his name in hushed tones as well, they would always become quiet when Clan Head’s youngest was around, as if the subject were taboo. It was a little ridiculous now that he thought about it, that the two people who had been spoken of in hushed, disapproving whispers were the ones who were now instructing him in his family’s taijutsu, and a part of him wanted to cry, and another wanted to laugh uproariously.

Just because he had loved his family, didn’t mean that he didn’t know that they were stuffy and rude, that they were very caught in their ways.

He hadn’t liked most of them, but he had loved them.

A good portion of them had been stuck up and cold, had sneered at him or stared at him as if he were less than he was, less than they were. While it had hurt then, it hurt even worse as the last, alone, because he would never be able to change those expressions, never get to show them that he was worth his salt, that he was more than what they thought of him.

Without them, he would only have himself to show.

It was enough.

It had to be.

A piece of him that was not so small but flatly ignored tried to tell him that his new team would perhaps be proud of him when he grew stronger, that his teachers would look at him with an expression he’d only ever imagined and never actually seen being on his own parents’ faces.

(Shisui-nii had always been free with his praise, mussing his hair when Sasuke hit a target or performed a kata correctly. He’d been there when he couldn’t, and that had been… worth a lot. It was difficult to think about now, so he just… didn’t.)

So he listened as his jounin-sensei finally instructed him, listened as the man talked quietly and concisely with several demonstrations of the words he spoke, as the man answered questions he couldn’t hold back that he’d had for years but never had anyone to ask them of, despite his own reservations.

Iruka-sensei had done what he could, had dug up a few people to talk with him about the little they’d known about his Clan techniques, but the Uchiha had been just like every other major Clan; secretive. He’d appreciated it nonetheless, and the man had often stayed late to supervise Sasuke as he worked through scroll after scroll to make sure that he didn’t strain or hurt himself during his training.

Whenever he had glanced over towards where the woman who knew how some of his pain felt, he would see her calmly and bemusedly teaching his loudmouthed teammate – who was oddly quiet and attentive – the Academy katas that he should have known before, yet had apparently never been taught, as well as later on working on a style he had no idea what it was, but was vaguely similar to the Inuzuka techniques from what he could see.

The fact that their jounin-sensei was actually paying attention to them, was giving them much needed instruction was a little mind blowing, because for the weeks they’d been assigned to him they’d learned next to nothing, and suddenly there was stuff being shoved down their throats.

Even when she wasn’t there the man seemed to be growing more and more comfortable with giving them exercises to complete, in correcting their stances and technique, in challenging their aim, reflexes, teamwork and planning abilities. While the ache and burn of muscles was in no way pleasant – he’d never enjoy exhaustion, he was sure – it was a more solid way of telling how much he was improving, how all of the drills that he and his two teammates were put through actually did something for them, made them stronger. It seemed that when he put his mind to it, Kakashi wasn’t half bad at teaching, but he’d needed motivation of some kind, and it was likely that he’d found some extra unknown, untapped well of energy now that Sakura wasn’t drowning herself in chemicals every morning in an attempt to win his favor.

The girl hadn’t seemed to understand that it had done the exact opposite.

While he admitted – to himself, at least – that he was in no league with those with enhanced senses, he did have a rather high pedigree from a chakra rich family, so he much preferred the natural scents of a person to the fake, processed cesspool she was inclined towards due to a civilian upbringing. It wasn’t only his sensei who had been relieved when she’d had her first meeting with the older kunoichi and had shown up the next day smelling like a person and not a cleaning product from the civilian sector that was out to bleach his eyes and nostrils and blind him altogether. Heck, even Naruto had noticed the difference, though he hadn’t even seemed to be able to tell he’d started to act differently, or that he’d started to breathe through his nose more than he had before her sudden revelation.

Mouth breathing was so… unsightly.

He was thankful that that was over.

While part of him was relieved that she was eating more, another part of him was disturbed by the information that she hadn’t known she was supposed to eat more as a kunoichi than as a civilian, something that in his family had been par to the course. It had even been taught in the first two years of the Academy that once you started to use chakra you needed to increase your diet to coincide with how much your chakra stores were growing, as well as to feed your growing body and muscles. It dawned on him that they had had different instructors until third year when she’d been moved into his class with most of the Clan heirs and it had never occurred to him that perhaps some of the instructors hadn’t been as competent as their Iruka-sensei was, even when he was having to balance out the brownnosing dick Mizuki when he was being a little shit who didn’t want to do anything he didn’t have to.

So he was vaguely glad that Nagisa had corrected that error so that he wouldn’t have to break in a new teammate after his first one starved to death.

Even still though, he honestly would have preferred the Hyuuga girl, to be frank.

Who cared about their Clan’s rivalry?

There wasn’t anything to fight about.

Not anymore.

Sasuke could admit that Hinata was a little… intimidating to face in a taijutsu match and had been one of the only people who could defeat him when they were allowed to use kekka genkai. He still cringed with a phantom ache in his coils from her precision hits to his tenketsu.

The whole Naruto… thing… was a bit of a setback, but that could change, right?

And she was definitely a better kunoichi than Sakura, had better strengths and would have been a definite bonus in the field, especially on recon missions. While he had strongly desired his Sharingan, he could readily admit that at some points the Byakugan was a more useful tool, that it was just as offensively inclined as the Sharingan could be in the right circumstances, and he was sure that if he’d had a doujustu user on his team he would have had an easier time of mastering his own when it activated.

He didn’t even consider that he might not have it.

It would crush him, should he not.

Nearly every week after that first practice, she made time to spend with them and assist Kakashi with demonstrations of the basics, and sometimes they would catch the two of them discussing jutsu theory way over their heads, sending his mind whirling with the implication that this woman was smart. His jounin instructor was a genius if the way he was teaching that woman things – it disturbed him on some level that things that made his head spin so painfully, they actually enjoyed speaking and debating about – was any indication. Some of it the pink haired girl apparently understood, which gave him a grudging respect for her intellectual abilities, but most of it had her just as lost as he and Naruto were, staring dumbly until the two decided that whatever they were talking about could be continued at a later time without helplessly confused genin standing like they’d been concussed before them.

It was… impressive.

He felt… pleased… with his two sensei.

A couple of times it seemed that they’d interrupted a spar, because the man would have some dirt and leaves scattered across him and his book would be put away securely, the landscape would be a bit warped and wet in spaces with kunai scattered about, and the woman would be panting or wheezing, a good portion of the time leaning against something to keep herself upright while sending acidic glares at the jounin wherever he was standing or perched. On the rare occasion his jounin instructor would be damp, sometimes with mud or dirt splattered across him – one memorable time he’d had a neat slice in his jounin vest – and eyeing the bronze haired woman contemplatively while she blatantly ignored him and cuddled Pakkun mindlessly, something that the Summon in question seemed to enjoy immensely.

For some reason he got the implication that every time the pug saw him it was laughing at him.

It was unnerving.

The woman whom he was surprised to discover was still a chuunin – that’d had him terribly confused and horrified until their jounin-sensei had explained to the team that she was holding back on taking the Trials until she felt she was properly prepared – was probably the most affectionate nin he’d ever come across, as well. Shisui didn’t count because Shisui had been abnormal in all ways.

After the first month she had begun to pat shoulders, ruffle hair, sling an arm around them or use one of their heads as an armrest, and on occasion she gave thoughtless embraces that she was too strong and fast in approach and grip for him to escape. To be honest, the most frustrating part was that none of them disliked it or even told her to stop. He couldn’t remember a time when he’d ever freely been given praise like she gave it, given physical comfort or affection in such a way, and even his jounin-sensei was beginning to give it, albeit awkwardly and usually only verbally. He couldn’t remember a time when anyone other than his mother when he’d been very small – pre-Academy at the very latest – had hugged him to them and softly pulsed their chakra over him to sooth, had looked at him with naked affection and warmth that wasn’t tempered by tired weariness or impatience.

He was… getting an idea of why Haruka and Chitose may not have wanted to part from her.

Had risked the ire of the Clan for her.

Had Chosen her.

“Nagisa-san,” he’d started with her one time, sitting down next to her at the teahouse she’d taken them all to for a middle of practice treat. “May I… ask you a question?”

The woman had turned away from the little cutsie cake she’d been snacking on – she appeared to have a preference for girly looking foods, but he felt it wise to never bring it up... ever – and positioned herself so that she was straddling the bench to face him, a position that should have lacked dignity but she somehow made look focused, despite her absently parrying Kakashi away from her food with her utensil. From what Sasuke could tell the jounin didn’t even like sweets, so it was likely that he was only trying to irritate the woman who had become something like their second sensei, though the dark haired boy was unsure as to why someone would antagonize her for fun.

It was insane.

“Sure,” she answered with a slight, absent but true smile at the corners of her lips. “If you call me Asuka, already.”

“I…”

He scowled slightly, glancing away when the pale haired man on the other side of the table sent him an amused look from behind his detested Icha Icha; he was not blushing. No, nope, definitely not.

The man probably read it just to get to him, enjoyed riling up his Clan sensibilities.

They couldn’t be that interesting, could they?

… Could they?

Expectant green eyes stayed locked on him as Sakura chased Naruto around the store to the amusement of several patrons, and the owner who he recognized as an Akimichi just chuckled along in spite of the way they were shouting and knocking down chairs left and right. He was starting to get the idea that whenever they went somewhere together – at least two of them had to be together so far – that they either ended up with the most unlikely, ridiculously good luck or the more common and frankly bewildering bad luck.

It looked to be a tentatively good day.

He didn’t hold out much in the way of hope, however.

He found it best not to rely on optimism, it had the potential to give him hives.

Despite the fact that her features were usually smoothed of all expression, except for the occasional smile or frown, sometimes a twist of the brow, she was still inordinately good at displaying and implying a number of emotions such as pleasure, humor, affection or unhappiness… pride… and he felt a mix of that swirling in his gut as he looked into her lightly tanned features.

He should have learned already, that he couldn’t beat her. That there wasn’t even a contest, not anymore.

The sad part was that she wasn’t even trying to pull him in.

He’s seen suck ups and swindlers alike, seen women and men who would take advantage of him for their own gain, had had to walk the minefield alone since he was six, but she was none of these. She genuinely wanted nothing from him, except perhaps for his success in whatever he was trying to do as hard as that was to believe, and took pleasure from whenever he himself was pleased with his progress or anything else at all. When he hit a mark he had been aiming for.

Would she be happy for him when he finally did it?

“Asuka-san, then,” he bit out with a slight flush moving into his cheeks despite himself.

“Yes?” was her pleasant reply.

As he opened his mouth, he blinked, before his brow furrowed and his cheeks burned with embarrassment – not again! – a scowl automatically swirling across his features.

“Forgot, huh?” was the unneeded input from the man across the table.

The moment of scowling irritation and almost pure mortification had been interrupted and mitigated by her soft laughter as she set an arm around his shoulders, shifting to sit properly on the bench again, and refused to move it despite him trying to shrug her off and sidle away. He always tried to move away because of the warmth she exuded, as well as the pleasant, steady calm… they always made him feel terribly safe, and that wasn’t going to help him to grow stronger. Being coddled and comfortable wasn’t going to help him grow into the avenger he needed to be. It just reminded him that he was going on a path that no one else could follow, a path that would bath his hands in blood and then this woman would not look at him the same, would not bear a gentle affection for him, or feed him tidbits about her deceased teammates when the pain it brought up was bearable.

Force through it when it wasn’t.

For him.

He had learned that Haruka was shy and sharp, and rather easily embarrassed if you knew the right words and meant anything to him on a personal level. His taijutsu prowess had also been something she’d envied with a burning desire – he had been both enraptured and humbled by the love in her eyes as she spoke of witnessing it – because he had been strong and quick in a way that she had yet to manage. The two of them had always been neck and neck for who was the strongest member of their team, and when he had awoken his Sharingan – she didn’t mention the age he did so, and he felt oddly relieved for that – it had only enflamed her to be better.

That Chitose had had a strong hand at ninjutsu, though he preferred genjutsu despite his large stature denoting physical combat. While he had been loud and boisterous, posing a confident figure, he was also very careful in how he treated others, very concerned and empathetic towards even complete strangers. She told him of how he had been the one to reach out to her when they were first assigned to each other because she hadn’t known what to do with two Clan children, how he had been her best friend above anything else because he hadn’t cared that she was without the prestige of a Clan. He had been the heart of the team, if her words were to be believed.

Two members of his family that he had never had the chance to have known, he was getting to know through this woman.

After a moment where she’d said something that had offended his sensei slightly, he was jolted when his blonde teammate burrowed with unneeded force into the woman’s other side, causing him to give thanks for her sturdy form between them as the other boy continued shouting about how Sakura was going to kill him until the woman covered his mouth with a lethal hand and gave him her small, sweet smile and told him to shut up. If he hadn’t known better, the Uchiha would have sworn that he felt Killing Intent flowing off of that soft smile and those flinty, dulled eyes as she stared down calmly at his suddenly silent and still teammate, who looked like a small animal caught in the thrall of a predator.

Was it just him, or had it gotten colder and darker suddenly?

That was an expression that they were all beginning to be familiar with, since she appeared to have become comfortable enough with them to threaten them on nearly a daily basis with the horrifyingly beatific expression on her face. One time when Naruto had in an inordinately quiet, solemn voice asked about it, Kakashi had explained that once a kunoichi hit a certain age they either learned how to be terrifying in the least threatening and obvious way, or they became violent and loud, screeching like a bird of prey as they came for you to take their reprisal out of your hide. Most didn’t manage to master the first and a good number of kunoichi instead had to do with the second skill, and it was mainly used on their allies or family members when the female in question was displeased with them.

Sasuke had yet to receive the expression, but both Naruto and Kakashi had encountered it more than once while the woman had yet to do it in front of Sakura.

When Sakura reached that age… he really hoped that he wasn’t around for that.

Really truly.

He had the feeling that she’d be the violent type, if her treatment of their blonde teammate was anything to go on and he didn’t have the other boy’s apparent sturdiness.

He couldn’t help the slight smirk that crossed his lips even as they set back into eating their snacks and drinking their tea, her arm never leaving where she had set it across his shoulders, the heat and feel of her chakra against him setting him at ease and relaxing his muscles until he just gave in. There was something about N – Asuka and his sensei that made the heavy weight of their chakra comforting rather than overbearing the way it was in most upper ranked nin, though that may have been because of the way that they wielded it so… carefully over the three genin in their care.

Nagisa Asuka seemed to bring out something in all of them, Kakashi included, that was… soothing. She didn’t have to help them the way that she did, could have fobbed off after the first lesson or denied them, but she’d chosen to aid them.

He thought that that mattered.

Choice.

The Uchiha had always needed to Choose.

The dark haired boy figured that she was just a pleasant woman who happened to be a kunoichi, who was comfortably a chuunin, likely a career one like Iruka-sensei who stayed away from most of the conflict. He could respect that the same way he respected Iruka-sensei’s desire to stay in his position and stay a teacher for the future generations. Sasuke had certainly appreciated the way that Iruka-sensei hadn’t looked at him with pity and had been genuinely dedicated towards helping him in any way he could; and when he thought about it, that he’d also kept him from hurting himself.

Then, he’d seen her in battle.

When facing Zabuza and Haku, he hadn’t had much time to gape at her apparent skill in kenjutsu, hadn’t had much time to marvel at the speed at which she’d moved, but after the fact, listening to Sakura’s quiet stilted explanation of everything that had happened on the bridge – what could have happened – had him inordinately uncomfortable. And dazzled. He was very glad that he’d been unconscious during the confrontation – as if it deserved that title, civilian mockery that they were – with Gatou, because it had been deeply ingrained in the Uchiha family that females were not there for your entertainment no matter if they weren’t a member of the Clan or a civilian. A woman had the ability to create life, where men had no such talent, had no ability, could not hope to copy this skill and had no chance of surviving without women, who, ultimately, could choose whether or not to have a child, especially if they had any form of chakra training.

His mother, while not terribly affectionate, was also scary enough that even Uchiha Fugaku had backed down when he displeased her.

After he’d gotten to know Haku as well, he’d found himself equally disgusted and disturbed at what they would want to do to a boy who while having seen some of the deep darkness of the world still had a pure heart and a sadness in his eyes that spoke of hope. A hope that he had found.

(He wanted that.)

Still, though, the fact that she had seemingly without a care slaughtered dozens of civilian grade mercenaries without batting an eye had something inside of him relaxing, because part of him had been holding her on a pedestal made of ivory that was clean of blood and death. It meant that when he finished killing him she wouldn’t hate him, wouldn’t flinch away or find him disgusting for killing a family member, for kin slaying even if it was just to get revenge for the… for that day.

Wouldn’t turn from him in the way his perhaps too bright genin teammates might, though there was something about Kakashi that understood.

So when he couldn’t push down the terror in his chest from running into Orochimaru in the Forest of Death, of being completely and totally outclassed, he gladly leaned into her to let her support him, took a breath without thought and found the scent of river water, fresh rain, a muddy bank, sharp salt and pine swathing his senses.

It was a good scent, a nice one, comforting.

The action had been reflexive when seeking comfort when he was so vulnerable and for a moment he feared he’d done wrong in reaching out in such an intimate way, until she’d just returned the gesture, her hold on him tightening even as she soothed him with her chakra over the Seal in a way that was both familiar and foreign and horribly relieving. The weight of strain he hadn’t noticed on his chakra system, on his heart that she had lifted had exhaustion and adrenaline encroaching on and receding from his frame as he pressed his face against her, fingers clenched like a child’s in her clothing. Even though he didn’t want to admit it, the steady, strong, powerful presence of his jounin-sensei behind him had helped in easing the tension from his body – the man was like a shield against the evil of the Snake Sannin, an immovable force – until he’d fallen into slumber, breathes soft and even against her.

He didn’t want to admit it. He didn’t. But he did, if only to himself.

He… was thankful for them. So very thankful. His two sensei. Even his teammates.

He was glad.

He wasn’t alone.

He wasn’t cold.

There was warmth.

The Fire had yet to die