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Tsundoku

Chapter Text

Sadly, when the next half of the exams started, Asuka found herself late coming in, having recently returned from an easy delivery mission that had taken more time than she’d assumed it would when she’d accepted it the night before. Perhaps it was because she was anticipating returning to Konoha more than she had in previous times, for the past few years, that it felt like missions were taking longer than before, though if she thought about it through the slight throbbing of her head, perhaps they had been just as tiresome, it just hadn’t seemed to matter.

There hadn't been any complications, really, but her scar had pulled some, leg aching, and she didn't want to make the damage worse by irritating the injury without due cause and had taken it a bit easy.

Her body must be using more chakra than usual to keep her going, too, since she felt a little lower in reserves than she’d anticipated, as well.

Blowing out a breath that caused her bangs to shiver, she ignored the way the genin she’d appeared next to in a brush of shunshin jumped in shock and gazed down at the arena that everyone was watching with some interest, as if it were an afternoon soap opera. Once she caught up with what the Hyuuga branch boy was blathering on and on about, she winced at the fierce expression on the Kyuubi jinchuuriki’s tanned features, his blue eyes determined as he stared down his pale, effeminate opponent.

The determination on his features peaked when he shouted his will to prove the other boy wrong – it pinched a little in her chest because she knew he was trying to prove it to himself as well, considering the lot life had dealt him so far – and then that burning chakra emanated from his body in challenge. As the match continued, she noted the many ninja who were surprised at the genin’s use of the Kyuubi’s chakra, and she couldn’t help but snort as she took a seat next to her kunoichi student with a faint smile in greeting at the girl.

It was almost as if they expected him to be ignorant of the fact that it existed, even considering the effectiveness of their past jinchuuriki in their ability to mold the bijuu’s chakra.

Honestly.

Uzumaki Kushina had been terrifying.

The woman that pretty much all kunoichi had sighed over.

She found herself proud when he was declared the winner of the match, pleased with the chakra enhanced flip that Kakashi had taught him, and called out to him to tell him as much, clapping ahead of the crowd, amused at the wide eyes that were cast at her, before he beamed at her happily. He’d managed the maneuver without exploding the ground beneath him with the force of his chakra for once, so that was nice, as well as the show of flexibility he’d given; good points in his favor over his improvement. Of course, she was a little irritated when Kakashi didn’t show up with Sasuke on time for his match, but rolled her eyes anyway at the pronouncement that the fight between Sabaku no Gaara – and wasn’t there just Killing Intent oozing from that boy – and Uchiha Sasuke would be postponed for the time being. The fact that if Sasuke hadn’t been a Uchiha the match would have been cancelled all together and it would be counted as a forfeit was acknowledged by the older generation with some irritation, but the genin seemed pleased with the fact that their friend wouldn’t be disqualified before he got the chance to compete.

Well, except for the Nara boy, but he didn’t look like he cared much either way.

Even as the Sand genin forfeited the match, the chuunin felt herself tensing with suspicion. You didn’t make it this far into the Exams for no reason, bad matchup or not, and that little shit looked far too smug and calm – forcibly so – for this to be just a case of nerves or the actual reason stated.

However, she put the thought out of her mind as the Nara made his way down to the stage with a haggard, put upon expression to fight against the female sand ninja, the one who had demolished Maito Gai’s student. Her orange clad student took up a place next to her with exuberance, extolling on the awesome that was his matchup against the Hyuuga genius, and going into detail about how badass he’d been, including sound effects and disparaging belittling of his opponent until she cocked a brow, causing him to give her sheepish eyes and to correct himself a bit. Still, kids would be kids; he wouldn’t be Naruto without his ridiculous embellishments.

The match between the Nara and the kunoichi – again, it was a little funny, considering his verbal dislike of fighting with women – was quite interesting, no matter the grumbling from others in the stands, and she found herself curious as to what the Nara boy would do in an actual battle situation, not one where he was just going through the motions. His Clan was known for their strategists and intellectuals, so it didn’t come as any surprise that the boy was rather intelligent, but his nonchalant use of battle tactics was interesting, and she took some amusement from Asuma’s apparent frustration when the boy forfeited due to a lack of chakra.

That was a lie, but she wasn’t going to call him on it. If the kid could hold a jinchuuriki for full minutes in a chakra heavy shadow jutsu then there was more chakra available than he was projecting at this point in time. He was from a Clan that had been around longer than Asuka could truly fathom, perhaps of a similar timeframe to the Senju and Uchiha; the Nara was older than the Akimichi or the Yamanaka.

Still… it wasn’t like he had to win to be promoted.

She hadn’t.

From what she’d seen so far, though, it was likely that this Nara would be the only one promoted to chuunin when the Exam was over and done with. Maybe the Aburame.

She loved her kids, but they just weren’t chuunin material, not yet.

They’d barely been genin for six months, they had plenty of time, there was no need to rush into things. This wasn’t war and they were allowed to be children for a little while longer as they grew; Kakashi and she would protect them and guide them as they improved. It was more important that they were prepared, mentally and physically, before they moved up in the ranks. Both she and her jounin knew that promoting too quickly just put strain on you, and their kids were already under enough pressure and had enough psychosis that they needed the extra time to work through it.

Plus… promotion could mean separation if they didn’t promote together.

Once the time limit for the match left the Sandaime’s lips, Asuka felt like throttling the jounin-sensei, because no doubt about it, this was his fault. The angriest little Uchiha loathed being late, and he especially would be pissed about being late to his own match, considering the boy’s stupidly competitive nature that was rarely challenged by the genin he normally surrounded himself with, though Naruto was growing into something of an appropriate rival. She longed for Haku for a moment with his serene smile, just to knock the boy down a peg, considering he didn’t actually have a rank that Sasuke could hide behind and Asuka doing so wouldn’t do anything to the boy’s ego at all.

Even if he was more emotionally open, he still had the basic Uchiha arrogance like no other.

Just when she was planning ways to cause the Copy-nin some serious pain, and mumbling them under her breath, unknowingly getting several nervous glances from everyone around her except for her genin, who were used to her threatening their jounin-sensei, as well as carrying out some of her threats, the man showed up in a burst of shunshin with the dark-haired boy in tow.

After the fuss was over, she gave him a quelling glare as he took up a position near her, causing him to laugh nervously and slouch like she’d scolded him.

Of course, she just about did scold him when she saw the Uchiha charging his hand with electricity. Hadn’t he been upset with Gai for teaching his student to open the Gates? Which was, admittedly, downright stupid to teach anyone below High chuunin, let alone to a kid with deformed chakra coils considering it could potentially cripple the kid . And yet, there he was teaching their very own angsty emo Uchiha boy how to produce lightning from his body, which had only recently had his chakra system compromised; that little hypocritical piece of shit.

Really?

He was going to pull that?

“You taught him…?” she shot him an incredulous look, which he gamely met with an infuriating eye-smile, causing her to slump and groan like she was in pain. She wanted to drown him. “I’m going to have to clean up after you again, aren’t I?”

The look he gave her was all ‘Who, me?’

Bastard.

“You do realize,” she continued dryly, returning her eyes to the match, already beginning to plot her revenge. “That when he finally hits puberty, I’m not going to deal with the temper tantrums, right? That is all on you, and I will laugh and laugh at your misfortune.”

Some kind of dawning realization coated the silence that followed her mocking, though she didn’t notice the way his visible dark eye locked onto her with something like shock mixed with awkward appreciation and stilted hope. Though she did feel the sudden whispering rumble and crackle behind her which she paid little mind to except to absently swish back at him as if shoving him playfully, ruefully twitching the corner of her lips up.

Honestly, prodigies.

“And I’m definitely not going to get between the two idiot’s pissing contests,” she gestured to where Naruto was shouting in excitement for his teammate and completely ignoring the adult’s conversation in a way that was an art form the three of them had perfected over time. “Because when they get confused on whether they want to strangle each other or fu–“

“Okay, okay,” the jounin hurriedly interrupted, eye suddenly harried as he stared at the arena with something like fixated fascination. “I’ll fix it.”

“Uh huh.”

“Really, I will.”

Riiiiight.”

“I mean it!”

“Mhmm.”

“Maa, Asuka –“

In the next moment, she was on her feet after an instinctive Kai to dispel the genjutsu that had been layered over her and those surrounding her. As she searched around herself, she saw that a good portion of the stadium was unconscious under the effects of the genjutsu, including several ninja from the Low ranking chuunin to pretty much all of the genin, though Sakura had dispelled it quickly enough, much to the woman’s satisfaction and pride.

The next instances were something of a blur of enemy ninja pouring through the stands and her making sure that the people who were unconscious weren’t impaled on randomly deflected kunai, as well as some frustration at the mixture of both Sound ninja – hah! She’d been right! – and Sand ninja pressured her. The fact that Sand was involved soured her morbid pleasure at being correct in her assessment of the new Hidden Village, though it did give her leave to stab Kowaru the next time she ran into him which was a plus. She’d see how handsy he could be without the limbs in question.

She was half aware of Kakashi giving orders to Sakura to follow after Sasuke – who’d done the fool thing and chased off after boy who was clearly a jinchuuriki, and of a much higher level of training and control – and make sure that he didn’t get himself killed. The fact that the Sandaime was battling against Orochimaru inside of a giant barrier made her both terrified and terribly angry, because if anything were to happen to the Sandaime, then all of Konoha would weep in a way it hadn’t in twelve years, and while she wasn’t one for tears, she didn’t know what would happen without that immovable fixture in her life anymore.

The Sandaime had always been there.

Behind herself, she felt medical chakra charging, and if it hadn’t been for just the faintest taint of Intent that was wrapped up in the chakra, she wouldn’t have dodged away from it, due to the familiarity she had with medical jutsu. She’d never been more grateful for her sensei managing to foist the medical jutsu off on her when they’d been promoted to chuunin, even though he’d been horribly sexist about it, considering the fact that she could have beaten either of her teammates on a good day, and often did defeat Chitose, but he’d said something about the softest teammate becoming the medic and wouldn’t hear about either of the others taking it on.

They’d copied it later anyway, because hey, why only have one medic? It was also a bit of quiet rebellion against Mori-sensei.

Sometimes she wondered if he knew, if he’d done it on purpose, been harder on her than them, because he knew something she didn’t. Because he knew how hard this world was on women, on shinobi in general.

Spinning around to face her attacker, she blinked for a moment at Yakushi Kabuto, the genin who had dropped out in the very beginning of the tournament part of the Exams, and grimaced at the fact that he had also been on the fake Akadō’s team as well. Honestly, why hadn’t anyone thought to pull him in for questioning? Hadn’t she put that in her report? Were they checking out their third member or what?

Did anyone even look at the post mission debriefs anymore?

The government of Konoha seemed to be falling down on the job.

The thought was disturbing, though it wasn’t as surprising as she’d have liked, and she would properly have a mental breakdown at the thought later. Much, much later.

Kami above, her head hurt.

“You have caused Orochimaru-sama some hindrances,” the young man stated in a kind voice, features pleasant as he regarded her, hands held easily at his sides. “You have the horrible habit of staying alive when he would much rather you just be dead.”

Lips thinning, she pulled her katana from storage.

“I’m not sorry to say that I’m enjoying his displeasure.”

“That’s too bad,” that happy smile was disturbing. “It looks like you won’t get to enjoy it for much longer.”

It was best not to fight a medic at close range, after all.

~*~

“Holy shit!” someone exclaimed. “Is that Shukaku?! The fucking One Tail?!”

She took a quick glance over towards the forest and saw a towering figure in the distance, her mouth drying out even as a giant toad Summon appeared across from the creature. Considering the fact that she knew Jiraiya was taking care of two snake Summons that his former teammate had Summoned that could only mean…

Was that… Naruto?

Sweet Mother of the Sage of Six Paths…

“Asuka!” Kakashi called, a line of tension she was sure only those closest to him noticed. “He’s made of sand, could you – “

He was cut off by a Sound ninja, but she understood what he was going for. She had, after all, sent him a missive using Pakkun about the encounter in the hospital and how she'd countered the boy's sand.

“I would if I could – fuck –” she called back, cursing when she felt a severing looseness and jagged pain bloom in the back of her arm. “– God damnable son of atch – but I’m just a tad bit busy.”

Whirling back and away, she sliced across the glasses wearing, disturbingly smiling young man’s torso, blood spraying out at her even as she grimaced, watching his flesh knit back together in record time. Honestly, she couldn’t think of a creepier sight when she’d nearly bisected someone and that was saying something.

Fucking medics.

~*~

She stood on the roof some feet behind the Copy-nin and several other ninja of Konohagakure, and she felt numb, her head fuzzy with shock and denial, despite the slow burning in her veins, staring down into that smiling, peaceful face, the same smile he had granted to all of the children of Konoha, to all those who’d loved him and fought for him throughout the years. Tripping forward slightly on rubber legs, but catching her balance at the last moment, she pulled herself out of her funk and knelt at the man’s side, firing up her iryō-ninjutsu in her functioning arm despite the discomfort, just in case… in case…

There was still a tiny, tiny spark of chakra in his coils, so small and fading so fast that she doubted that she could boost it into that all-encompassing flame again, but… she had to try.

She had to.

Her hand flared with chakra, reflecting an eerie mint green off of the water she had encased over her hand, and was slowly situating and spreading all over the Sandaime’s body for the most intensive transfer she’d ever done, didn’t even know if she could do, but even as she felt his coils respond, a fluttering of joy that caused her breath to hitch, she knew that she didn’t have the chakra.

Not alone.

“I need,” she had to clear her suddenly clogged and sticky throat. “Who –” her voice was rough as she glanced up at the men and women holding their breaths surrounding her, watching her with both dread and hope. Faces both familiar and unknown twisted with the tension and fear that was knotted up in her chest. “Who has chakra to spare?”

The next thing she knew, she was being flooded with chakra from all sides, she could feel Kakashi’s hand on her shoulder, his familiar, sparking chakra soothing along the river of her own until it touched against the Sandaime’s starving coils to be consumed, and others forming chains of chakra transferal that she flooded the empty reservoir of their beloved Sandaime with, and felt a tiny, tiny pulse.

Even as her coils began to burn and twinge with the near overload, as she felt other medics elbow their way through the crowd and kneel on the other side to support her, she felt a smile of such relief flutter over her features, stretching her stiff cheeks at the suddenly steady tempo that greeted her. He still had severe internal damage, bore horrible scars on his chakra coils, but she felt the life inside of him that had been a bare flicker rise into a small, steady flame – like a candle that needed to be shielded from the wind – as she slowly eased out of the entanglement she’d made between her own chakra system and his, slowly pulling the water she’d coated his body in off and disbursing it, gratified to hear the rickety, painfully harsh sounds of his chest rising and falling with air.

When she went to stand, the world darkened around her, causing her to stumble on weak legs before she was caught by familiar hands on her bad side, and unfamiliar ones on her good one.

“Asuka?” Kakashi queried softly, worriedly beside her.

“He’s alive,” she managed to get out hoarsely, sagging in her comrade’s hold, eyes closed against the sharp, nausea inducing pain in her skull. Everything was so bright. “That’s all I could do,” she coughed harshly against her suddenly dry throat, heat like fever spinning through her veins as something hot and wet came out from between her numb lips. That was odd, she couldn’t taste, could she? It seemed a little thick, whatever it was. Perhaps phlegm? “Rest is up to… them…”

“Asuka!”

Darkness wavered in her vision as she collapsed, the world spinning with too much heat and chilly, painful cold.

“– internal bleeding –”

Something heavy on her chest caused her to cough harshly, but the weight just got heavier, causing an ache in her bad arm’s shoulder. It was funny, how Yakushi had severed her tendon in much the same manner as the pale haired jounin had Zabuza those few months ago. Inordinately so, but she couldn’t laugh.

“– clear her airways –”

Unfamiliar chakra tried to invade her system, causing her to strike out blindly against them, only to be soothed and by the familiar, delightful thunderstorm that suddenly restrained her whilst saying her name, calling to her in both words and reaching energy, giving her pause in her assault. Did it want to play? She couldn’t tell. As it was, she didn’t think she was awake enough to play. She was very confused. It was only a moment before another familiar presence joined them where she was wrapped in a comforting cloak of static, this one with the dry heat of a reptile in the desert, caused her to fully relax. Reluctantly, she let the foreign chakra invade her network.

“– toxins in her system –”

A loud whump-whump thundered through her ears as she struggled to breathe, despite the numb ache of her body, the exhaustion in her burning coils dragging her down.

“– lose her –”

Whump-whump.

Whump… whump…

… whump…

And so, she faded into darkness.

… whu... mp...

“Asuka you can’t!”

“Not you!”

~*~

Beep… beep… beep…

Furrowing her brows at the noise was inordinately difficult, and she slowly blinked open heavy eyes, the familiar scents and feel of both hospital garb and the heart monitor had her frowning through the plastic mask that covered her face, a tube having been shoved up her nose and down her airways, likely supporting her lungs in bringing in much needed oxygen.

Just outside of her range of vision, she could hear medic-nin speaking in slightly hushed tones.

“I don’t know what to do about the poison that’s still in her system,” one man was saying, voice both grim and tired. “We don’t have the skill to remove it, and we don’t have enough untainted samples to concoct a proper antidote.”

“We have to do something,” a woman, this time, she sounded rather harried and upset. “She saved Sandaime-sama’s life! We can’t just give up !”

“And did you see Hatake-san?! We have to do something or we’re all dead!”

“I’ve never taken the thought of being fried by electricity lightly and I’m not gonna start now!”

“I know that!” the man spoke up again, voice harsh. “I know that, but it’s attacking her organs, and the only reason she’s not dead now is because she’s reinforcing her body with chakra somehow – probably instinctively, goddamned frontline ninja – against the internal threat.”

Poison, she thought dully, confused for a moment, before remembering her bout with the medical ninja Yakushi Kabuto. Right, he hit me with a senbon before retreating with Orochimaru when the Sandaime fell, saying something about finally getting me out of the way.

So, the senbon was likely lost somewhere amongst the other weapons in the stadium and it wasn’t like she knew what had been coating it anyway. Whatever, that little brat wouldn’t get the satisfaction of winning, of ending her life, not if she had anything to say about it.

This is going to suck SO badly…

A full body purge was never a good idea, least of all when she felt as weak as she did, but she had little choice if she wanted to continue living. Her thoughts were somewhat sluggish, but she knew that ending as she was would be terribly regretful, was something that she didn’t want, that there was something that she had to be there for, though she couldn’t quite tell what it was. Despite how fuzzy her thoughts were, she could tell that the muscle damage and severed tendons in her arm had been repaired, so she didn’t worry so much about the convulsion she was going to go through making the wound too much worse, but she also knew that next time she woke – because she certainly wouldn’t stay conscious through this – that she would be very, very sore.

So, gathering her chakra into her hara, she quickly converted almost everything she had to spiritual chakra to cleanse her system, before sending it charging through her coils and throughout her body, rushing out in a wave that burned like fire.

Pain.

Beepbeepbeepbeep – beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep –

Pain.

Darkness.

“It’ll be okay Asuka.”

“We’ll take care of you.”

ALWAYS.”

~*~

Ugh…”

The chuunin groaned, lifting an inordinately heavy hand towards her eyes as someone flicked on the lights, waking her rather painfully.

She heard a gasp, and then a choked noise before someone flung themselves bodily onto the hospital bed she was laying in, and only the familiarity kept her from striking out.

“Sakura?” she mumbled down at the pink head that was resting on her chest, shaking with what appeared to be sobs, frowning, before looking up after hearing footsteps rushing down the hall, and the two boys ran in, eyes wide and wild as they saw her, both fighting through the doorway, elbowing and pushing out of habit, not taking their frantic eyes off of her. “Boys?”

Blinking at them groggily, she grunted when they threw themselves at her bed as well, and small hands desperately grasping at her arms and hospital gown tightly, slight wiry forms shaking with emotion she was both gratified and regretful to see. She somehow ended up with Sakura on her left, newly healed side, tucked under her arm with her head pillowed on her breast, and Naruto curled around her waist like a limpet, the girl openly crying, and the blonde sniffling loudly into her blanket covered stomach. Sasuke hovered uncertainly beside her for long moments, his pale face twitching and slightly scrunched with his indecisiveness, and she reached out for him tiredly, her small smile warm with affection, and he swallowed hard, before glancing at his teammates as if to make sure they weren’t watching. Ever so slowly he crawled up onto the hospital bed beside her and then curled up on her free side, mirroring Sakura somewhat on the other side with his face tucked against her neck instead of her breast, and the dark-haired boy quietly hid his damp eyes against her throat.

Honestly, like a pile of puppies.

They were so warm

When they each spoke, it was near simultaneously, and each voice was full of both relief and watery pain.

“Asuka-sensei…”

Nee-chan…

A few quiet wet breathes against her throat, a soft gasp.

Asuka-san…”

Pressing her hands into the two children on her sides’ hair, she wrapped the boy on her middle in her chakra to sooth him, despite the immediate angry rather painful fizzling of her coils, and they all tightened their grips on her.

As the dark-haired boy took a careful breath against her neck she sighed heavily, head muzzy and a little out of it. Despite her quickly returning faculties Asuka definitely wasn’t at the top of her game, so she propped her cheek on the top of his head for a moment, rubbing her skin into his soft hair. The girl tucked against her chest was sobbing quietly, the intensity of the motion slowly waning as her strength did, and her soothing smell drifted up towards her, tinged with sorrow and the sour stink of fear, making her weakly pulse her chakra through that hand to try and sooth even more. Their blonde child was like a burning sun on her hara, and meadow flowers drifted to her nose as she sent a soft smile down to him, his tanned features unusually pale with a gray tinge to them, the whisker marks on his cheeks standing out more than usual.

She was a little relieved that someone had thrown her hair into a single braid and that it was lying across her chest, not stuck under a distraught genin, so that it was simple enough to turn her head at the sound of someone settling into the chair that sat by her bed to see Kakashi taking a seat there. No Icha Icha in sight, dark eye slightly relieved, but still serious as tension slowly worked out of his body. There was a tiredness that ringed that single visible stormy eye in a light bruise of strain, sooty lashes casting a deep shadow over exhaustion lines that were peeking out from beneath his trademark mask at the top of finely defined cheekbones. Smiling at him a little helplessly, she ran her slowly strengthening fingers through their kids’ hair, glad when they began to calm, Naruto staring up at her from her stomach as if she were planning on disappearing at any moment, his expressive eyes wide and wet as he watched her, tan features tensed.

Her vision was a little blurry with exhaustion, but she blinked it away, trying to think more clearly.

Kami, everything hurt.

“How –” she coughed lightly, chest and throat spasming, muscles paining her with sharp tension when they clenched with the action of trying to speak at a normal tone, grateful when the Copy-nin put a straw to her lips and she had the chance to wet her throat and mouth with the cool liquid, licking her lips carefully against chapped skin after he pulled the cup away. “How long was I out?”

“This is the third day since the failed invasion,” the jounin stated lowly, dark eye trailing over their three students where it looked like Sakura had fallen asleep, her light features drawn and tired with worry and the other two were unmoving. “As of yet, the Sandaime hasn’t awoken, but, well,” that single eye dropped a bit in sadness and pain, looking at her with just a bit of how lost he felt showing at the edges. “It would seem…”

Poor man, poor Konoha. They were all going to feel lost.

“He likely won’t be able to mold chakra very well anymore, if at all,” she finished tiredly, noting the way that the two boys jolted against her, and the twist of features beneath a mask that spoke of his agreement. “His coils were pretty much shot when I was working on them, and I likely damaged them even more when I was shoving chakra into them.”

“Yeah,” he sighed heavily, breath soft.

After a moment, the man leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees as he regarded her, gaze drifting over her sleepy, weary features softly.

The feeling of his chakra towered protectively in the room, like a reaching shield snarling viciously at anything outside of its shell that kept on checking on her own battered coils to make sure she was where she should be, and she felt her low, damaged reserves shivering back at him as much as they could, trying to take comfort and give it at the same time. It was strange to her in a way that was different than all of his mothering tendencies were, the way he worried over her as if she were going to disappear at any moment was somewhat similar to how Naruto was burying his face against her stomach as his brilliant chakra bristled lightly. The unshakable Hatake Kakashi was looking at her with a tender glint in that storm dark eye, his fingers clutched tightly together so that his nail beds stood out starkly against his moon pale flesh and silver flecks of scarring, a tiny scabbed nick on the back of his left ring finger drawing her attention. She wanted to reach out and sooth him, to have those tensed muscles relax, but she didn’t.

Cuddling the children would have to be enough.

Closing her eyes for a moment, she just basked in the feel of sparking ozone against her skin, the heavy, blanketing feel of base Intent that filled the room like a physical presence, easing her breathing and energizing the beat of her heart in a steady, stronger rhythm.

This man cared for her more than she’d thought, was worried about her more than she would have ever expected, than she would have… dreamed.

She’d missed that feeling of being important to someone, in the years that she’d been by herself.

Drifting.

Teamless.

Alone.

When she was with their kids, with him, all of them together or separate, it was like she got something back that she’d lost.

There was no replacement for her twins, but this… this was close. Still just different enough to be good.

To sometimes be better.

And they were still evolving together, changing into something more.

“I know you were poisoned, they were able to figure out that much,” he said after a moment of contemplating the scene before him, and his tone said clearly that he wasn’t very confident in the hospital’s medical ninja, it was just a little bit more disparaging than was usual. To be fair, he usually sounded a tad like that, but had never been quite so open about it, to her knowledge. Or while within the hospital. Medics could get downright nasty when they wanted toas she was currently attesting to. “But they wouldn’t tell me what it was that happened after they got you into the hospital.”

He quirked his pale brow at her tired, stiff features and the slight weakness in her arms, the appendages she’d had in the kids’ hair moved so that they lay resting on their backs.

Feeling a little warmed by his open concern – it was rare for the Copy-nin to show any emotion to such extents – she took a deep breath, trying to relax her sore muscles and gauge her full physical capabilities and limits in those moments.

“I heard them speaking sometime after I got in, probably not that long after I was admitted, actually,” she shrugged carefully, a light grimace on her features. “They didn’t know how to remove the toxins that Yakushi had shoved into me, and they couldn’t synthesize an antidote without an uncontaminated sample,” she scowled a little at the thought of the man, and shifted slightly under the weight of the children, soothing them when they mumbled and squirmed until they calmed again. “So… I did a fully body purge. And let me tell you,” she wrinkled her nose at him with lips twisted in distaste. “Those are not comfortable.”

“I’ll bet,” he stated dryly, eyeing her carefully. “There was some talk of you almost going into cardiac arrest. Twice.”

She blinked, even as she soothed her hand over the back of the Uchiha and pressed her cheek to his hair anew, as he had tensed like ninja wire about to snap at the words of his jounin-sensei, the jinchuuriki not knowing what they meant but still uneasy, and the girl sleeping the sleep of the truly emotionally weary. There was no doubt in her mind then that the jounin had been snooping about the hospital for news on her, since apparently no one was willing to tell him about her condition, even though he was the famous, Legendary Copy Cat Ninja. It was heartwarming, and a little embarrassing, but, well… she let herself smile at him, enjoying the way he shifted a little with discomfort at the slightly knowing but mostly fond glint in her eyes, but she said nothing about it, instead going over his words.

Despite his discomfort and awkward shifting, the towering force of his bridled chakra did not change in the slightest in its protective positioning over and around them.

Her heart had picked up at the news of her almost demise, but calmed at the steady, flickering lightning bolt that pulsed beside her.

She had lived.

She was alright.

A part of her that she refused to acknowledge in that moment was tired and resigned to this fact, but the majority was relieved and perhaps even gladdened to have succeeded in trumping the medic nin who had turned traitor for the rogue Sennin. For a man who had harmed and traumatized one of their kids.

Who had abandoned Konoha and all that entailed.

“Really?” she asked, a bit surprised at the thought of a cardiac event at her age. “Well, it must have had some metal or something in it, perhaps an iron base that had gotten into my heart, then, through my chakra shielding, for the reaction to have been that bad.”

“About that,” the man continued, single eye traveling idly over her features since she was no longer regarding him openly with emotions that made him uncomfortable. “How did you come up with it? I’ve never seen an internal defense like that, and neither had the Hyuuga who looked at you.”

“I didn’t,” she shook her head, keeping her cheek propped up on the slowly falling asleep Uchiha, the Uzumaki on her waist already nodding off, curled tightly around her. She wasn’t sure how she’d get these limpets off, but she might just go back to sleep when she wanted them off of her and let the lazy jounin deal with it for once. Hah. Revenge. “It was something that my jounin-sensei taught my genin team during the war.”

“Your sensei?”

“Yeah, Mori-sensei’s family was originally from Sand, so they had their own way of defending against poisons that he taught to Haruka, Chitose and I when we were genin,” she quirked a smile at him, though it was melancholy and tired. “I’ve never had reason to use it before, but… I’ve also never encountered a poison that complex before. Usually the normal antibiotics, antidotes and antivenins work, or I can remove it myself through an open wound, but, well…”

“There were no visible wounds, and you were a little preoccupied,” the man sighed, shaking his head a bit and letting it fall between his shoulders to look at the floor, one hand rubbing at the back of his neck, massaging the stiff muscles under his vest and through his ANBU issue under armor. “Well, your Mori-sensei saved your life.”

The words were heavy and filled with grim understanding.

It was the way of the Sensei to save the student.

Even after death.

~*~

Cold burning and agonizingly sharp intensity.

He hadn’t known fear like that in years, not since his Sensei had died to protect the village, not since he’d feared losing those closest to him, the pain had been sharp and indescribable. Sasuke’s encounters with Orochimaru had brought up a rage like nothing else, had chakra he hadn’t felt in over half his life roiling up to the surface to sing for blood under his skin, but he Kakashi hadn’t been afraid.

It was both humbling and alarming that he’d found someone else who could bring out that all-encompassing terror like Asuka had, the protective instinct that had bloomed with Rin after Obito because she was all that was left of their team. The only one he could protect.

Look where that had gotten him.

First, he had been so, so relieved, so amazed that she had somehow kept the Sandaime alive.

Then he had had to press his chakra around her in a cloak so that she didn’t kill the medic-nin trying to save her life.

A familiar if extreme reaction that came about because the other man’s chakra was unknown to her. Felt a jolt as her chakra reached out to him in confusion, brushing deeply against his coils. In the back of his mind at the time he had taken note of the fact that she was impressively violent when convalescent and wounded for future reference, because he had certainly not expected to have to protect one of their medics from her. It got better after Anko showed up and did that soothing chakra Intent based jutsu on her, her eyes wild with something other than crazy for the first time since he’d met the snake Summoning tokujo. The chuunin had been coughing up blood in his arms, the only arm she had that she could apparently move had had the hand clenched in the fabric of his vest like a life line as she was delirious and then fell into unconsciousness. For a few long, dreadful moments after she’d released him he’d thought she was dead, until he saw her chakra focusing inward with his – admittedly not the best idea, all things considered – still bared Sharingan eye.

He had pretty much camped out in her hospital room when the genin had been asleep, watching her breathe, growing more and more agitated the longer she slept. Her scent was subdued and sickly, weak, covered in blood and antiseptic, the smell of death that hung around the hospital like a plague overlapping her natural one. When he’d walked into that room to see her covered in their genin team and softly, wordlessly comforting them with hazy slightly confused eyes, even the taciturn and angry Sasuke, he’d never felt so much relief in his life, not even when he’d woken after the bridge mission to learn that their Sensei had shown up in time to make sure Rin was safe after he’d passed out. Not even when Orochimaru walked away from him and his chidori rather than call his bluff and attack while the young genin who was his charge lay unconscious and weak behind him.

Her easy affectionate, open expression as she looked at him had pierced him, had eased the tension in his tired muscles, and the companionship he’d become accustomed to returned as they spoke easily, despite her exhaustion and the presence of the emotionally distraught children.

That settled it.

She was pack.

Perhaps he still hadn’t settled her into a role in the pack, but she was still a part of it, still one of his to protect and have. She was his not quite Beta, but not quite something else that he had no idea of the label for and he was still refusing to ask Pakkun even though the smug bastard seemed to know what she was turning into in that regard and was tauntingly keeping mum about it.

Seeing his Team – all of his Team – in a tangle of limbs curled up together in a puppy pile atop the chuunin woman who had burrowed into his life like a particularly stubborn vole had eased something in his chest and at the same time had had his aggressive instinct, long repressed, jumping to the fore. The urge to not let anyone into the room was strong, but he managed to rein himself in enough to station one of his previous subordinates from ANBU to the room so that he didn’t have the horrible urge to just camp out in her room like a moron, keeping the children where he could see them at all times. He wanted to keep his pack safe, it was new and fragile, and he was the strongest, something he wasn’t used to in his last pack, his last true pack, and he had to take care of them, had to make sure that they were all safe, especially the trouble magnet puppies that kept tripping he and Asuka as they scampered around feet in their hurry to grow up.

They hadn’t even lost their milk teeth yet, and they were trying to take on the world.

Silly pups.

They had taken on a jinchuuriki, and while he was proud of them, had incidentally been the one to send them after the unstable boy – who Naruto had somehow magicked into a friend like his father could have, had somehow done with a jinchuuriki from Kumo – he was just as terrified and flabbergasted as those aforementioned emotion. These kids were going to give him wrinkles while at the same time swing him into early senility, and the woman was going to just flat kill him.

He was starting to really believe that Team Seven was cursed.

Of course, eventually after she had fallen into slumber again, her features more relaxed than they had been previously, he’d found some well of internal strength and herded the children out of her room and to their own homes – which he had also outfitted with a trusted ANBU guard each, and added his own higher security measures too… he may have been abusing his authority a little, but only just a little – before returning to her hospital room to gaze down at her with a rather weary single eye. He’d already had to turn away many an unknown well-wisher who wanted to give thanks or see the woman – the chuunin – who had saved the Sandaime’s life, including several members of the Council, Danzo included, that cantankerous, manipulative old warmongering bastard. Without her express permission he had decided to allow no one he had not specifically met and learned of her friendship with them into the room while she was wounded and weak, unable to defend herself to the best of her ability. He didn’t want to take any chances with her life.

She had grown on him horribly, like deadly, noxious fungus.

She was black mold in the corner of the shower at a ratty Inn that didn’t go away no matter how much bleach was used.

… The flower that bloomed through the hard packed and rocky earth despite a lack of water and sunlight.

Oh, sweet gods, he was thinking in lyrical prose. Not very good prose, but still…

Never again.

He was not going to turn into a sap like that.

It was disturbing.

Like the smile on his Sensei’s face had been whenever he’d spoken about Kushina.

Nope .

Not. Happening.

It was odd to be experiencing and learning social niceties from a woman who had few uses for them herself – and used them few and far between, from what he had come to understand – especially when it was in regard to her fellow nin. Though she was normally perfectly polite to those who hadn’t expressed some form of idiocy or narrow-mindedness – there was something about Ebisu that rubbed her wrong, but she’d given him a look and wouldn’t explain it – he found himself both amused and unhappy with the strange animosity that had bloomed between the two kunoichi he was closest to.

He liked Kurenai and Asuka was… Asuka.

He had no idea what it was that Kurenai had done to make Asuka put that chillingly polite and dangerous look in her eye that caused the opposing wariness in the female jounin after whatever retaliation had come across from the initial insult, but it certainly didn’t help matters that Naruto had apparently told his two teammates what was going on. While withholding the information from him, the little brat. His genin team was boycotting the woman that Asuma was in love with in the strangest ways like hair dye in her shampoo. Which, really? She’d also ended up smelling like fish for a while. Definitely Naruto’s doing. Still, they were mostly getting back at her by giving the woman unhappy, and distrustful looks, or ignoring her existence in the case of Sasuke. Still, he got the feeling that it had something to do with rank, which all things considered Asuka was actually the stronger kunoichi all around – being of the combat variety – than Kurenai was, so the genjutsu mistress shouldn’t have brought it up at all.

He may have become a tad bit biased, if he was being completely honest.

While he liked Kurenai, considered himself friendlier with her than other kunoichi, he didn’t actually know her that well. There was the distinct chance that he’d cumulatively been around Asuka more than her, even though he’d known the jounin since he was a kid.

Also, he’d thought the red eyed woman was above such things, like pulling rank. It seemed that Asuma as well was a little disappointed and shocked by the woman’s audacity, and had given the chuunin something of an apology of his own – he hadn’t known that they were acquainted and it made him oddly disquieted, though the nickname she used for him was just… that was just great, so perfectly hilarious – which had seemed to amuse and annoy her in equal amounts and while she had accepted it, she had said that she still wasn’t going to listen to the female jounin’s romp. Still, it was rather out of character for the red eyed woman to bring up things like inappropriate jounin-chuunin relations in public – or at all really, unless it was out of worry for a chuunin being taken advantage of – especially around impressionable genin.

Just because he did it, didn’t mean he thought his fellow jounin should.

Ah, he was a high-class hypocrite, alright…

Yes, her scolding about how he’d caused the emotional harassment of Umino Iruka had struck a nerve, and memories of his secondhand slander in the name of his father as a child had come to mind immediately. Before she’d made him frog march up to the chuunin to apologize, he’d observed the polite, kind Academy sensei – if it was to be believed, he was rather close with Naruto, so he felt doubly bad about causing the man trouble – and seen the slightly gray tinge to normally caramel colored skin, as well as the strain around eyes and mouth as his peers whispered to each other rather obviously even when he was in the room. It was just louder when he was out of it, even if the people in question didn’t seem to take into consideration – or care about – the fact that Umino Iruka had perfectly good hearing, perhaps even a bit above average if the stiffening of shoulder and slumping of confidence when he was out of eyeshot was to be believed.

Kakashi had felt sick to his stomach.

This was a disposition that was disturbingly familiar.

It was like his father in the first few weeks after that mission, the one that had condemned him in the eyes of Konoha.

So, he hadn’t protested when his new chuunin friend pulled him into the Mission office before he’d taken Sasuke out to train, had merely given a rather awkward and slightly stilted apology, taking comfort and strength from the silent support of the woman’s slighter form behind him and off to the side. The way that the Academy teacher had brightened instantly and smiled at him warmly with both happiness and relief had tugged inside of his chest and he shuffled a bit in place even as the younger man had accepted his words with little fanfare, same impossibly bright smile plastered on his scarred features as he turned to Asuka and asked her if she’d mind lunch with him. Although the kunoichi had declined and stated that perhaps another time would work better, as she had a mission she had to go on in only a few hours, the pleased flush that had taken over caramel features had intrigued the part of him that noticed how attractive people were, and the part that noted the particulars of strangers’ emotions looking for weaknesses concluded that Umino had a crush on his kunoichi chuunin.

Part of him felt awkwardly aggressive and possessive – he’d only just gotten her, he didn’t want to share his new friend yet – and another part was amused and strangely pleased.

It was good that other people were noticing how skilled and desirable his Asuka was.

… He wasn’t going to go there again.

Ever.

Nope, didn’t happen.

This really just couldn’t be happening. He’d thought that sappy wasn’t contagious!

Then… then she’d saved the Hokage.

There was nothing – nothing – that could be said by any nin of Konoha that could cover how thankful, how relieved they were that she had somehow pulled out a miracle with her special chakra water and kept the man alive from what was supposed to be a suicide jutsu. He himself didn’t know how to describe the feeling that this person who had once been a nameless kunoichi in a sea of shinobi and the other inhabitants of Konoha, this person who on a whim he had decided to associate himself with and befriend, had saved a central piece of their home. He didn’t know what it would have done for him to have lost another person who was so close to him, didn’t know how the village itself could have functioned without The Professor, and he was glad that he didn’t have to find out, not yet.

Her water jutsu had glimmered and sparkled, glowing in the light from the sun and from her yin chakra, reflecting up into her impossibly green eyes that had stared at their Hokage with a single-minded intensity and seemed to be lit from within with the very essence of the Will of Fire… and then the nin from Konoha had joined together to help in the saving of their beloved Sandaime. She had been beautiful, Aflame as she was, burning as brightly as he’d ever seen anyone despite her injuries and the situation, which even then he had been aware of, had taken note of, but had shoved to the side because he’d been answering her call her for chakra, sliding his chakra along hers familiarly.

It kept on playing over and over in his mind.

When she’d stood the water saturated in her chakra had broken apart and shimmered in the sunlight around her, she had been mesmerizing, breathtaking even as tired satisfaction had crossed her too pale features with an unnatural flush, one of her braids had either fallen free of its senbon or she’d ended up using them at some point in the battle, so it slid over her shoulder with the glittering kunai ornament reflective and sharp in the sunlight.

He would never forget the sight of it, burned into his memories through Obito’s eye.

She had done it though, despite all odds, she had done the impossible in a display he was sure would be spoken of in hushed whispers for years to come.

And then she’d fallen into his arms, vomiting and choking up blood, and the seriousness of her injuries had jumped in his mind.

Such terror he’d felt…

Such directionless fury.

The aimless Killing Intent he’d released had sent a number of nin scattering and had caused some of the lower ranks to pass out from the pressure, and later Gai told him that it was a most heartfelt and beautiful display of his feelings for his fallen comrades.

It had mainly been embarrassing to hear about, especially after the fact.

What if someone told her?

That would be awful and so terribly, terribly mortifying.

He’d have to hide.

She would smile at him in that smug way that women got when they knew you cared – or so he assumed, as he was basing this off of admittedly questionable literature and Kushina – and then she’d taunt him with it.

Although, to be fair, a small part of himself was giving her credit for only ever looking smugly at him when she managed to protect her snacks from him, well, that, and when he somehow managed to repeatedly make a fool of himself where it came to Water ninjutsu. How he had managed to continuously underestimate her capabilities where her elemental affinity was concerned he’d never know, but when he thought about it her smug amusement whenever he ended up drenched during a sparring match was actually a bit more than well deserved. Before Asuka, he’d thought he was pretty good at water jutsu, that he had a pretty good grasp of it, but… well, Water Prison and the like aren’t a problem for her.

After a moment of deliberation, he lifted his hitai-ate, just to take in the details of her exhausted, slightly pained features and cement them in his memory next to his most recent memorization of her form surrounded by glowing droplets and streams of water that had slowly faded back into the atmosphere, evaporating unnaturally fast for such large water deposits.

Usually, all he tried to do was forget. He’d seen so many awful things in his life, but…

This time, Kakashi wanted to remember.

He wanted to remember the feelings it brought out in him, wanted to remember how much more human he felt when looking at the reminder of what he could still lose – of what he had gained – before quickly covering the Sharingan eye again to reduce the chakra drain. Her golden brown, almost bronze hair was a little dampened from sweat of the fever she’d been in the day before, and one of the nurses had put the heavy, long bronze locks in a single thick braid to keep it out of the way, and it hung between her hospital gown covered breasts, rising and falling with her every shallow breath. Her features were pale, eyelids bruised and sunken slightly, the sickly white of her skin causing her two facial scars to stand out starkly against her flesh even though they were mostly faded, as well as the golden freckles that were barely noticeable when she had her normal pigmentation filling her features with color and life.

He took note of the ugly pale white scar above her collar bone that he’d never seen before, looking like someone had tried to slit her throat and she’d moved out of the way just enough for it to miss her artery and travel down instead, ending when it hit bone. With how faded it was he could tell that it was already several years old, possibly older than the genin team, but he didn’t know, just knew that he was glad that even with her abysmal reaction time she’d been able to survive long enough for him to meet her.

Taking a seat in the chair he’d sat in for the past three days when visiting hours were over, he reached for her hand without the hesitation he’d expected of himself, glad that his chakra was familiar enough now that she didn’t even twitch at the contact, reminded of the slight relief he had sensed when his chakra had been a buffer between her and the flood of others into her system. Her considerably lower than normal chakra reserves slithered against his pathways like a trickle of a faucet rather than the normal expanse of a cool river that it usually was, focused on recuperating internally so that it was barely focused in her hands. If anything, even in unconsciousness, even when her chakra would do better to be supporting her, it seemed to be reaching out to him in the same way it had taken to lately, brushing against his own much larger reserves as if looking for comfort or reassurance, something that he didn’t know how to portray, and so did nothing, even if she seemed to take it in any case.

He didn’t even deny to himself that the reverse was much the same.

Looking at her he knew that he was already halfheartedly willing her to wake once again, to look at him with sleepy, fond green eyes and smile at him like he was the most exasperating man she’d ever met even when bewildered with exhaustion. The same look she would give him when he’d said something that was apparently just not spoken, or portrayed some of his social awkwardness. To look at him in that way that said that he mattered as more than a shinobi of the village, more than the last Hatake, than Sharingan no Kakashi, the Copy-Cat Ninja. Just a man. Just… Kakashi.

He hadn’t been just Kakashi since his father had killed himself for the village.

When she had been conscious for those few minutes, she had soothed him, all of them, with the gentle, if weak fluctuations of chakra, his own burning agitation and restrained violence melting a little in the face of her calm, warmhearted amusement and genuine affection.

This woman had, only days before, only hours before the invasion, thoughtlessly promised him years of companionship, of friendship, years of staying with him and the genin, of being there – with witnesses – and there she lay, exhausted and hurting after fighting to stay alive, after saving the Sandaime’s life. She had had the choice between certain death, oblivion and possible death, and had chosen the more painful route so that she could stay with them. She had almost killed or crippled herself so that they wouldn’t have to experience her loss, wouldn’t have to know a life without her after they had gotten her. He was no fool, if Asuka hadn’t had anything to live for she would have let herself fade, he saw that in her eyes, knew it even if she didn’t quite know it herself, felt the echo that existed inside himself because even though he loved Konoha fiercely and would die for it, there were few things that he would live for, and the few living members of that list he could just barely count on two hands.

Because of her.

Because of the genin.

Because… he… cared again.

Gripping her hand infinitely gently – like spun glass it felt so fragile, calluses and muscles aside – within both of his, strangely vulnerable to the fact that even just one of his hands covered most of her single and two together completely engulfed her one, he hung his head limply between his shoulders, just feeling the soothing cool balm of her chakra sifting gently against his coils, even as he carefully kept track of how low her reserves were at the same time. Releasing a long, careful, shuddering exhalation at the feel of her unconscious pathways coiling against his as if seeking shelter in a particularly drafty area and he was the only safe harbor within sight, he felt his chest warm and prickle even as his eye fell shut.

Pack.

Yeah, he was definitely upping her reaction timing, because he didn’t know if he could do this again without going crazy. Emotions were so terribly tiring.

Plus, there was the bonus that she’d absolutely loathe it.

It’d be great.

Something to pull his mind away from the sight of what was probably going to haunt him for longer than he’d like, joining his lovely queue of nightmares.

For weeks he’d had a young boy who trusted him curling up closer and closer to his side at night once he allowed the exhaustion to win, and Kakashi had grown accustomed to letting his chakra arch and freely roam over his charge. The little temporary camp they’d made hadn’t had much in the way of amenities for them, though Kakashi had had his little kouhai drop off new scrolls of food every few days so that they didn’t get sick of rations. Even he wasn’t cruel enough to subject his angry little genin to such torture without any truly dire need for sustenance in necessary conditions… and he’d probably never hear the end of it if he’d actually have done that.

If not from Sasuke then from Asuka.

During breaks in training, the Uchiha had sat close to Kakashi, not rebuffing the man when he’d build up the ability to settle his hand on sweaty or soft hair depending on the time of day, cupping a hand over the back of the kid’s neck protectively. At night on the days where the jounin had worked him through chakra exercises, he’d settle his grip gently over the pulsing and slightly inflamed Curse mark and do that Intent trick that Asuka had taught him, making little lungs breathed less labored and tensed features ease while he sat up during the night. When nightmares would break through the boy’s exhaustion he would wordlessly settle the kid into his lap and bury his mask covered nose into the soft dark strands that had been cleaned in a nearby stream. Breathing in deeply of the smoky sweet scent his student gave off and saying nothing when small hands clenched against his flack jacket or sleeves when the twelve-year-old would bury his face in the jounin’s chest.

They hadn’t done much talking other than what Kakashi needed to teach him, but neither of them was particularly chatty, despite Asuka, Naruto and Sakura’s nitpicking and nudging towards conversation. It had felt at the time as if he hadn’t needed to say anything, that his presence had been enough, but now, with Asuka laying out before them and three children who feared losing her and only one who truly knew loss…

Maybe he should try to find the words.

~*~

A familiar presence woke her some time later after everyone had left, and she groggily opened her eyes to see the slim, feminine form of her kenjutsu rival curled up in the chair that had been set up opposite where Kakashi had been sitting before she’d fallen asleep when the kids had been there. His chair was still open and present, but she didn’t put too much thought as to why the other woman wasn’t using that one instead and just focused on her.

“… Yugao?” her voice sounded terrible, but the other woman looked up at her with slightly wet eyes and pale worried features. “Are you alright?”

Before saying anything, the tokubetsu jounin sat forward and helped her take a few sips of water to ease the dryness of her throat.

“Hayate almost died, Asuka,” the woman stated softly, uncharacteristically subdued instead of confident and intense. “He just woke up from a month long medically induced coma.”

Green eyes widened in shock and Asuka tried to sit up, only to have the slim, callused hands of the other woman keep her settled against the bed so that she didn’t make any sharp movements and hurt herself again.

“What? How?” the worry was clear on her features. “A month? Why haven’t I heard before this?”

“It was… he witnessed a meeting between some Sand shinobi and the traitor Yakushi Kabuto before the Finals in the Exam and they struck him down,” gray eyes filled slightly before she blinked the tears away. “If it hadn’t had been for the updated medical kit you gave him a week before after your spar he – he would have bled out before he could make it to a medic. As it was, he passed out and they thought it best to keep him under until he was fully healed so that he didn’t get injured anymore. They kept it secret until the Exams were over. They didn’t tell me. I thought he was on a mission, I thought…”

“Yugao…” she didn’t know what to say. “He’s awake now, though? He’s alright?”

A tight, relieved, pained and still stressed smile. Eyes tired and bright in a less than pleasant way.

“Yes, he’s awake now.”

“Yugao.”

“It’s… He’s not doing so well, there’s… there was so much damage and it caused some rather severe scarring, to his internal organs and spine that… his… his lungs… that our medics aren’t skilled enough to fix…” tears finally won out and slid over pale cheeks and the other woman leaned over her knees with her face in her hands to hide them. “He might… they still don’t know if…”

“Oh, Yu,” she breathed, sitting up enough that she could tug the stiff but trembling form of her rival onto the bed with her so that they could share heat. “I’m so sorry.”

“I don’t – don’t know what to do!” the normally calm woman whispered, staring up at the ceiling with a tortured expression on her face, tears falling freely. “I don’t know how to help him! He’s always been sickly, his lungs already so abused by that stupid disease that the medics can’t fix!” a choked sob. “And now this! Even if he lives he probably won’t be a shinobi anymore and he – he loves what he is, Asuka! Losing it would break him!”

Hands with matching calluses gripped one another tightly and Asuka felt pain spike through her chest at the anguish in her comrade’s voice, at the roiling of fiery, intense chakra.

There was nothing that the chuunin could do either, so all she could do was offer silent support and listen as the other woman vented her worry and frustration.

“He’s already almost given up,” the woman continued in a soft, hoarse voice. “He’s in so much pain, can barely move, they have him hooked up to all of these machines… I just don’t know if he’ll even want to keep living without being a shinobi, in so much pain all the time…”

The long purple haired woman wiped her shaking free hand over her face tiredly, features twisted with love and helplessness and directionless fury tempered with pain.

“What if he decides that he can’t take it?” she breathed quietly, like the very words would make it happen. “What if he decides that it would just be better to die than to fight?”

What if he leaves me? Went unsaid.

“I don’t know,” was all the green-eyed woman could say. “I don’t know.”

They lay in silence for several long minutes and the woman slowly lost her tears to stare at the ceiling with exhaustion that came with heavy emotion, with being so drained that you just couldn’t anymore.

“Can I stay here for a while?” the tokubetsu jounin asked softly after a while. “I feel calmer.”

“Of course, Yugao, of course.”

Later in the evening after consoling her friendly rival and fellow swordswoman, the chuunin woke to her window sliding open and a familiar chakra sidling up to her before curling up at her side wordlessly. It was difficult because she was so tired and her body aching, but Asuka carefully rolled over and slid her hand against her friend’s neck, twisting her chakra just so to release some of the tension in the woman’s frame. Using the technique burned just a little but she could stand it for this, because she had to. Because she had before.

“He almost took you.”

Anko smelled a little bit like sake, but mostly like poison and explosives, the tang of blood lingering beneath that. It was very telling as to her mental state and Asuka briefly wondered if her fellows in T&I had been taking care of her properly and allowing her to decompress the way that she needed to.

Hopefully there wasn’t poison waiting for her at home.

“I know,” the chuunin returned hoarsely. “I’m sorry.”

“He almost took you away! He almost killed the Hokage, caused the death of scores of Konoha shinobi! I hate him!”

When the tokubetsu jounin pressed her hands against her face, the swordswoman tightened her arms around the smaller woman, keeping her hand carefully in place and continuing to fluctuate her chakra. It was awful that such a feared kunoichi was hurting like this – why was everyone falling apart in her arms? – that even one of her friends was in such a way, but two of them? Yugao she could understand a bit, had sat at the bedside of people she loved and tried to will them to get better, to live despite all the odds and the difficulties that could follow them if they managed it. With Anko, however, it was more complicated.

She had such conflicting emotions regarding her former sensei, the man who had practically raised her.

Asuka could still remember the teenager who had collapsed in her arms screaming that she hated him, hated him so much.

Which the chuunin had believed just about as much as she did right then, because she also remembered that same girl crying because he left her behind.

“He left me, Asuka! He didn’t want me anymore! He abandoned me!”

So, she could honestly say that this young woman who was so broken and messed up inside, who had twisted herself up into knots at the perceived abandonment from someone who had meant the world to her, loved Orochimaru more than she hated him. Hate was tiring, absolutely exhausting, but it was easily fueled, easily chained. Love… well, it was painful when you were hurt by your loved ones, but it still felt warm. Even if it was like the ache in a bruise instead of the heat of happiness. Anko still loved her sensei, still fondly thought of their time together, and she honestly wished in her darkest moments that he’d taken her with him.

When she was at her lowest, like now, the snake Summoner still loved him.

And that just made it worse.

~*~

She was out of the hospital late in the evening of the next day; much sooner than expected.

However, considering the great improvement of her condition, even though she wasn’t at 100%, and she had been ordered to try to take it easy... that was unlikely to happen.

With the number of injured ninja in the village, and the genin being ordered to clean up the damage from the failed Invasion, it was up to the chuunin to take the bulk of the missions. Since the jounin were being kept in the village to be a deterrent against a secondary attack on the Village, this wasn’t exactly a surprise. A preventative defense should any of their potential enemies decide now was the time, when they were without a leader. Something similar had been done after the Kyuubi attack had killed the Yondaime and a considerable number of their forces as they protected civilians and aided in evacuations. The weakness of the village at that point, leaderless as they were, hanging in limbo with their Hokage comatose for the moment, was awfully tempting for some of the more power hungry of the Hidden Villages. Such as Cloud and Rock, and they would take any chance they could to overthrow the Village hidden in the Leaves and loot its riches. Sand was worse off than they were, and she didn’t have any updates on Mist, so she didn’t know what was going on there, but another attack was unlikely from that corner.

Jiraiya had stepped in with Shikaku to temporarily lead the village, because otherwise I would have been the Council, and everyone knew that that wasn’t a good idea.

It was luck that had her handed a mission scroll four days after her release, that had been set aside by the Sandaime for either herself or Team Seven to take care of, instead of doing boring courier missions or finding that gods forsaken cat for the Daimyo’s wife.

That thing had to have some nin animal in it, there was no way it didn’t. It had been around when she was a child, and it was way too sadistic to be a normal animal.

Of course, it had been a kitten when she was young, but still.

When she’d read the scroll, she’d nearly broken down into marvelous hysterics in the middle of the Missions Office, the laughter she did release however, unnerved most of the chuunin manning the desks, except for Iruka. Who just looked a little interested, even though his usual flush – which had returned to his face after Kakashi had given him a stilted apology under her scrutinizing eye before he’d taken Sasuke out to train in the middle of nowhere – was just a tad bit deeper than customary.

Sasuke… That poor boy.

She didn’t know how she’d take care of the scarring on his sad little mind. Spending so much time isolated in the woods with Kakashi couldn’t be good for his mental state, fragile as it was.

As she went about gathering the supplies she’d need she found herself randomly chuckling, as well as when going through the contracts and papers that the Sandaime had written up for either her or Team Seven, as the mission was set for just after the Exam was supposed to have ended, but the benefactor hadn’t minded the delay after hearing about the damage Konoha had taken. No, what she really wanted to do before she left was pick on the Copy-nin, and though she really wanted to rub this in Kakashi’s face, she doubted that she’d see him on her way out of the village, what with him having to babysit the paranoid children with her leaving the village.

They had gotten rather clingy since she’d ended up in the hospital, to both her and their jounin-sensei.

Not that she minded, in particular, since it was nice to be warmed with the feeling of children basically climbing her like a particularly favored tree whenever she was spotted. Their eager, happy faces – well, less sullen, in one case – whenever they saw her brought a smile to her own features whenever it was directed towards her or she remembered it. Even that silly jounin was acting friendlier, in the most amusing, heartwarming ways, such as when he randomly showed up at her apartment with takeout the night that she was released, casually mentioning that he thought she might be hungry for real food after hospital crap, even as his chakra stretched towards her, seeking, hesitantly concerned and needy. Once, when he’d obviously been on his way somewhere, he’d stopped her in the street the day before she’d picked up a mission scroll to mention that her favorite sweet shop had a sale, as if the information were off hand, and when she ventured to it, she found that some things – her favorites – had already been purchased and were waiting for her.

That man was so ridiculous. It was adorable.

It was a little embarrassing, but mostly she felt a ball in her chest tightening and loosening with heat that stretched wider than her near perpetual smile.

Still, she chuckled at the thought of those worried, overprotective genin having only one outlet while she was gone.

While she hadn’t gotten to laugh in the man’s masked face, she did chuckle at his misfortune as she left the gates for Otafuku-Gai for her meeting with the Demon of the Mist and his apprentice.

Poor man.

~*~

It had taken her a bit longer than she’d originally anticipated – a few hours, actually, had somehow gotten away from her, and her head ached – to make it to the rather large, bustling city. Asuka grudgingly admitted that she was a bit more winded than usual due to the weakness her several days of inactivity in the hospital recuperating had brought with them, but she eventually made it to the Inn that the man and his apprentice had notated in the mission scroll. With some time to spare, thankfully, even though she wasn’t as early as she would have liked, preferring to scout out the area leisurely, but it didn’t look like she’d get the chance. Not with the way that things were going.

The second she walked through the doorway, she was hit with the smell of grilling beef and chicken, her mouth was watering as she enjoyed the scents as they assaulted her nose with warmth and hunger. Her stomach grumbled hungrily with a low whine, angry at her for not fueling it up properly for most of the week, and she gave in to its rather embarrassedly vocal demands for sustenance and ordered some beef skewers to munch on, with a bowl of plain sticky white rice and some tea, just to settle the beast in her gut. She didn’t exactly have much in the way of funds at the moment, as a good portion of ninja funds were being directed towards fixing damages done to the village during Orochimaru’s failed invasion; of course, they’d be paid back after the village accumulated the amount back, but still, it was tight until that happened.

As she sat eating, she did a mental catalogue of her status, and was a little resigned to note that her coils were still stinging irritatingly, something that the medics had told her to let dissipate completely before using much chakra, or she could cause serious damage to her coils.

They’d been most irritated with the way she’d used it to comfort the kids and Anko.

When she’d been doing that massive transfer to the Hokage, she hadn’t had the proper time to filter the chakra from all of the different nin who were donating through her, so most of them, being of different affinities, and vastly different chakra levels, had stretched her coils uncomfortably close to bursting which would have, well… more than sucked, to say the least. She had been lucky, though, that she’d only been the temporary conduit and not the recipient, because the Sandaime had the ability to use all the affinities to some extent and had still ended up with great scars on his pathways. Whereas she most certainly did not – her Earth affinity really was… more than a little disappointing, to be honest – and wouldn’t have survived such a tumultuous transfer, even though she appeared to be developing a small sympathy to Lightning, due to her continued relationship with the Copy-nin.

The amount that their chakra networks brushed when they were sparring, teaching, eating or just hanging out was ridiculous, and somehow, it was easing her into growing a resistance, if not an outright empathy – which was usually reserved for relatives – to the Hatake’s main affinity. It was strange, since the same hadn’t happened despite longer exposure and a more intimate relationship with her twins back in the day, but they had both had Fire affinities, so perhaps because they had opposing chakra types it had just been as expected. They had cancelled each other out rather than imbued any kind of sympathies in the other. It was different with Kakashi, however, seeing as he had an affinity that when used in tandem with her own was enhanced, as Lightning was strengthened by Water, more affective when a target was dowsed first. Since the jounin also had the stronger chakra network, it was unlikely that her own was rubbing off on him in the same way, but only time would tell, considering that resilience against Water didn’t really do much, except make Water Prison’s negligible from spiritual chakra absorbing the equivalent of oxygen from the water due to sympathy, and perhaps water walking more thoughtless.

Well, thinking about his initial confrontation with Zabuza, it probably would have been a little helpful then, at least.

If at that time the missing-nin had chosen to use the decidedly deadlier version… well, she didn’t think that the Hatake Clan had gills, so that would have been an abrupt end to beginning of their friendship.

And the Clan.

Oh, ouch, she couldn’t even think that without flinching.

Boy, he’d been so angry with the kids after that though, even if he hadn’t told them as much, had only given them a short reprimand. He’d spoken to her about it later once they’d returned to Konoha and gone out to get some drinks to blow off steam and the fact that he’d been stressed enough by it to actually tell her had been huge in and of itself. That man was the most complex mixture of twisted up feelings and awkward hang-ups that she had ever seen, and she had never met a more introverted shinobi.

When they’d disobeyed his orders, he hadn’t known what to do. Kakashi had never been in such a situation before, hadn’t known if he’d be able to get out in time to save them should Zabuza turn his eyes towards them with any kind of seriousness and less ridiculing amusement. A subordinate had never disobeyed him before – oh, he’d had some interpret his orders in interesting ways, but never outright disobey – especially not in such a situation as that, and it was times like that that he rued having accepted a genin team when he was so much more used to working alone or with experienced nin who knew what they were doing. The fact he’d turned to her for advice had warmed her, but all she could say was that while he should really talk to them about it himself – the look of absolute, betrayed horror she had received had been exasperating and more than a little amusing – but she would do so in his stead until he worked up the courage to do so.

His pout was getting downright dangerous.

However, the fear of losing his team had been very real, and when she’d had the chance she’d sat down the kids individually to explain to them following orders; Asuka had honestly never pictured having that conversation before. It just… was.

This conversation took place when the man wasn’t around, of course, because he was an awkward rodent, to at least give him some peace of mind should a situation such as that crop up ever again. Sakura had been properly chastised and had apologized even if she was glad for the result, and had even said so to the jounin himself, who squirmed under her experienced eye enough for a twitch to appear in his visible eye to the notice of even the genin girl. Their most intellectually inclined student probably realized the likelihood of just how they probably wouldn’t get that lucky again if the situation repeated itself in the future. Which was, practically zero.

Sasuke had been a little rebellious about it, had stated that it had gone well, and that he would follow orders when they made sense, only to fall silent under her raised brow, and then mumble an apology of his own to her and promise to be more respectful of his jounin-sensei’s orders. She’d cuddled him as a reward as well as incentive to not be such a little jerk about things that the adults really knew better about.

Naruto… well.

That little bugger made her want to rip her hair out.

There is only so much of his endless optimism that one could take at a time, and his inflated self-importance and veneer of confidence was more difficult to crack than Uchiha pride considering her experience in that matter, but she had managed it with soft tones and a hand on his head until he had understood that he could have gotten himself and his teammates killed. That as the more experienced nin, he should listen to them and actually think about his actions, because in the end it would be them who had to protect him and would get hurt doing so if they couldn’t trust the genin to follow orders. He’d been much more solemn and attentive after that, and had even expressed his regret for worrying his sensei in an awkward mumble that she hadn’t caught all of – he’d said something about Umino, she was sure, but couldn’t quite hear – and that he’d try to do better in situations he had no experience with.

They had matured a lot, but they still thought that they knew best.

Youthful arrogance.

Chewing carefully on a tender but still not Akimichi tasty beef skewer, she took a breath and released it deeply, eyes half lidded and heavier than she’d like.

Oh, she was tired.

Her muscles ached, her scars felt tight, and she had to be careful with her newly reattached tendon, which she had nearly pulled when using the detox jutsu, but otherwise she seemed better, if not quite up to snuff. It was almost as if she were getting over a cold and not an organ liquefying poison and a serious case of chakra deprivation. She’d used all of her moldable chakra on the Sandaime and had been running on other people’s, which was a big no-no. The only chakra she’d had left was that which kept her organs fully functional and kept her chakra network from collapsing in on itself and killing her as surely as starvation or asphyxiation would have.

Chakra dependency like that could have ruined her ability to mold chakra, or even have decreased her ability to produce it, and considering the fact that most kunoichi had lower chakra stores to begin with – she had one of the larger reserves in females, and she didn’t add up to some of the genin she’d met in the past… Naruto didn’t count – that would have really pissed her off, even if she would have learned to make it work. She didn’t know how Kakashi did it, working around the exhaustion and dealing with the fact that you might lose or inhibit your chakra growth or production, it made her horribly jumpy and unhappy.

She felt old.

“Ah, Asuka-san!” the soft, demure voice of the Ice Release using boy caused her to look up from where she’d finished her food and smile at the lovely androgynous boy, his soft dark hair falling loose down around his features as he smiled at her from the bottom of the stairs he’d just descended. “You’ve made it!”

“Haku-chan,” she couldn’t help but give him the affectionate epithet, he just brought out all of her girly instincts. “It’s good to see you! How have you been?”

“I’ve been very well,” that smile warmed at her and the boy walked over to her in his light blue yukata that descended into dark blue with white flowers and birds artistically crafted on the sleeves and hem. It would appear that for the sake of civilians he was using the guise of a female – using Watashi as he was at the moment – because it always seemed to break their minds that a man could want to dress or act in a way considered ‘feminine’. “Are you ready to meet?”

Nodding, she stood, glancing at the waitress to make sure that it was alright to leave her dishes where they were, and heading up the stairs with the shorter nin to the room they had purchased for the duration of their stay.

“Are you alright?” the boy questioned softly, dark brown eyes roving over her features worriedly, taking in the slight pallor to her skin and causing her to smile again. “You look tired…”

“I’m fine, don’t worry,” she returned just as softly. “If I weren’t, I wouldn’t be out of the village.”

Her lips twisted wryly, and she glanced at the large form that was waiting in the doorway down the hall from them, no doubt listening in, leaning against the frame casually, with his well-defined muscles standing out through soft looking tanned flesh on arms nonchalantly crossed over a broad chest.

“Because Konoha is just that soft,” she kept going, tone gone slightly dry. “That we enjoy keeping everyone alive and in peak condition.”

A snort answered her words as they reached the Missing Nin, his half lidded black eyes looking down at her with both amusement and exasperation.

“Say something once,” he muttered, turning back into the room, leaving it to the smaller nin to follow him in.

If she had been nervous about meeting with the Demon of the Mist, the chuunin could honestly say that the banter eliminated that before it set foot inside the door. While she may have been tired and beaten, her home in tatters at the moment, the was still a chuunin of Konohagakure, high-combat and training under the supervision of Hatake Kakashi, the man of a thousand jutsu, the Copy-Cat Ninja.

She didn’t think anything would happen but reminding herself of her strengths would help her in the coming hours and perhaps days.

It was a nice room, all things considered, spacious, with plenty of room for a futon or two on the ground while one person took the bed, and with a half bath that likely promoted the bath house down the lane for use in all of your bathing needs. Not that she was going to complain, it was likely that with things the way they were in Konoha, this would be her only chance to go to the onsen for a while. She eyed the bed for a moment, considered the nice things that were piled on the bedside table – pretty handheld mirror, lacquered comb, and a lovely folded sleeping yukata – and found some amusement at the fact that Zabuza had been giving the comfortable mattress to his young charge, even though the bed was large enough for even a man as tall as he to share it comfortably.

What a softy, the thought was fond, even as she shook her head slightly with amusement. The big bad Demon of the Mist is a huge emotional marshmallow. Other than that whole slaughtering his graduating class thing, he'd fit right in at home.

“Anyway,” she stated as she sat on a cushion across from their current Mist Rebellion contact at the table. “Let’s get down to business, shall we?”

The man grunted in answer as she pulled out her mission scroll, which she’d Sealed her required paperwork into.

This would take a while.

Bleh, politics.