Actions

Work Header

Tsundoku

Chapter Text

What had she ever done to the Sandaime that he set aside all of these political bullshit missions for her?

Had she wronged him in a past life? Spurned one of his spawn?

Asuma had never had eyes for anyone other than that assassin tokujo with the nice legs – though that had thankfully been a phase – and Kurenai, but she couldn’t actually remember having met the man’s other children before they had passed. Hadn’t they all been married though? At least one had procreated, she knew that much, from all of the trouble one of the grandchildren caused for the poor paperwork ninja.

She so did not envy them.

“Ugh,” she groaned, head on the table sometime later that night, Haku picking up and organizing the authorized and argued over paperwork, chakra signatures in each ink splotch and stroke. They were going to have to make copies of it in triplicate, and then quadruplicate of those, just in case, because ninja paranoia wasn’t left behind when you entered an office. “I hate bureaucracy.”

Across from her, one hand massaging his temple, the Demon of the Mist grunted in agreement, snatching up his cup of tea and draining it, before pinching at the bridge of his nose against a threatening headache, once which Asuka had already been welcomed by. Headaches she was familiar with, even if this wasn’t the almost sharp ache of her usual ones.

She pulled the senbon out of her hair and laid them on the table, letting her braids fall haphazardly over her shoulders to release some of the tension in the back of her neck and skull, rolling her shoulders after she did so in hopes of forestalling horrible stiffness and then popping her neck. When Haku placed a new cup of hot tea down by her head gently and carefully, she smiled at him gratefully, enjoying the way the boy’s cheeks pinked at her thanks and his eyes lowered demurely. He was so adorable it wasn’t even funny.

Ah, she was getting soft in her old age.

Taking a large, bracing gulp of the hot liquid, shuddering a little as it burned down her throat and settled into her stomach, she felt the heat spread through her bones, causing her to sigh with pleasure before draining the cup and standing, gathering her hair senbon and tucking them in her pouch. Hopefully, she would find a room in this inn that wasn’t occupied, and if not, that there was a hostel near enough that had room and was willing to put her up for the night until she could find something more suitable. While she did have her outdoor gear – never left home without it, like, literally, her apartment – she was in a city, and would much prefer the luxuries that a door and walls provided, namely an indoor bathroom and some sort of warning in case of attack. Always appreciated.

It was easier to hear someone sneaking about if wood flooring was creaking, than if dirt and twigs were shifting. Well, unless she slept in a tree, but that was a Konoha trick that wasn’t necessarily the best to use when conditions allowed otherwise.

She liked creature comforts when she could have them, damnit.

“Well,” she stated tiredly, stretching out one of her shoulders idly, a little careful with her still weakened arm. “I’m out of here. Continue all this tomorrow?”

The man grunted at her again hand now rubbing at the back of his neck.

“Wait, Asuka-san,” the boy called timidly, causing her to turn from where she’d placed her hand on the door handle. “You could stay here, with us.”

“Eh?”

She blinked owlishly at the boy, who was suddenly under the scrutiny of two adults, causing him to flush and stare at the floor, his hand folded in his lap.

“There’s no need to waste your funds,” he continued, despite the uncomfortable lilt of his words and slight hunching of his shoulders. “We’re staying here for free because Zabuza-sama –” yeah, she had to do something about that she idly decided. Honorifics were great and all, but the hero worship was a little too obsessive for her taste. “– knows the owner. So,” he looked up and into her green eyes. “You could stay with us.”

This was leaps and bounds more confident than the boy had been last time they’d met, considering he wasn’t even asking his master what his thoughts were, and the man himself looked poleaxed at the very thought of it. It was this lovely expression that decided it for her. She didn’t mind looking at his covered mug more anyway, especially since he usually slept half naked, as far as she could tell. Eye candy was always nice, especially since it was eye candy that neither minded her perusal of his form, nor expected her to really do anything about it the way some nin got when you sized them up or found something about them that interested you. Even shinobi could have certain expectations.

It just depended on the nin.

She could at least hit other ninja to get the idea across if they were her rank or lower, and they generally didn’t repeat the offense.

“That sounds fine,” even as the words left her mouth, she enjoyed the indignant noise that came out of Zabuza’s bandage covered mouth, her lips twitching. “If you don’t mind sharing the bed, Haku-chan,” he opened his mouth to protest, no doubt to say that he could sleep on the floor, but she beat him to it. “I wouldn’t dream of kicking you out of it, but I won’t submit myself to Zabuza’s questionable intentions,” another strangled sound from the man that caused her to full out grin. “A man who calls you cute when he first meets you…” she clucked her tongue, enjoying the twist to the man’s features out of the corner of her eye. “Well, that is a man who would have his wicked way with you when you least expect it. Remember that, Haku-chan!”

The boy smiled brightly, amusement dancing in his pretty eyes.

“Of course, Asuka-san!”

Asuka!”

Ah, what dulcet tones.

How homey.

~*~

When she woke in the morning, it was to the sound of Zabuza rising.

His broad, bare back was directed towards her from where he had moved to stand at the window, staring out at the sunrise, the Kubikiribōchō leaning on the wall beside him, and as she ran her eyes over the blade, she noted that the crack she’d made was gone as if it had never been. Interesting, and curious, but not exactly surprising. The scar from where she’d cut him during their fight was thinning nicely, a dash of pale on otherwise smooth caramel colored skin where it arched softly down towards his hip from the opposing shoulder. The muscles beneath dark skin rippled as the man turned slightly to meet her eyes, gaze traveling from her sleepy emerald orbs downward to where his apprentice had his head pillowed on her chest. Asuka had her arm was around his slim shoulders comfortably while the boy’s hands were tucked beneath his chin demurely, and his legs curled up in a rather defensive position. The man looked a tad bit skinnier than the last time she’d seen him half naked, and there were definite shadows from the indents of his ribcage under his darker skin, his musculature clear and shifting enough that it distracted from most people’s study.

She had been looking for it, though.

There was the distinct feeling that the man had to have been maintaining a genjutsu or something to keep his apprentice from noticing.

And that apprentice…

As soon as the boy had fallen asleep the night before, he’d curled into the warmth of her, seeking comfort that she’d found it hard to resist giving, what with how often she’d had to comfort children of late, especially Sakura, and the strangely – or not so strange, really – fragile Sasuke. Naruto was just tactile in general, not just when he was seeking abstract comfort. She was certain that this was a product of being denied touch that wasn’t antagonistic for the majority of his life, and now he was just starved for contact that meant he was cared for. Suddenly, after so many years without, having several people that weren’t negative towards him had caused him to explode with hugs, tackles and – so far only but she didn’t think he would hold out on the others much longer – with her, snuggles.

He’d become such a cutie, she was barely irritated with the fact that he’d ruined her Laundromat once upon a time. Hardly at all.

Only on occasion.

Just sometimes.

Well, when she got back from some missions… like the one where she’d been impaled… yeah, she’d been a little ticked.

It still wasn’t fixed! How was the place not out of business yet? Why hadn’t they sold out to someone or something? Why must they taunt her so?!

Lifting her free hand, she gently ran her fingers through loose dark hair, examining his sweet pale features, a little sad that they relaxed from some unnamed tension. Why were all of the talented nin she knew being followed by horrible pasts? Did it have to be this way, that genius was carved from pain, or was their nothing but strength grown from persevering through adversity?

The thought was heartbreaking.

“You were injured recently,” the man murmured to her, his deep voice a velvety rumble that caused her cheeks to heat and her heart to thump once harshly, and she found herself soothing the boy in her arms again as he shifted, sensing the sudden, momentary shift in her mood. “Your chakra is all messed up.”

“Yeah,” she sighed as she rubbed a knuckle against her one of her fuzzy, sleepy eyes, blinking at him with a single eye, expression reminiscent of a certain Copy-Cat Ninja. “It was kind of a problem.”

“Better now,” he stated as he examined her with gaze and senses, dark, seemingly bottomless eyes stared into her own mossy emerald green ones for a moment, before turning to gaze out the window for another few. “You needed rest.”

A little battered, almost broken, but kind; it seemed to be the theme with a lot of powerful jounin.

She hummed softly, smoothing her fingers through those dark, soft locks, smiling softly without thought as one of the boy’s hands gripped into her shirt fabric lightly, his face nuzzling against breast her like a kitten seeking warmth in the dark of night, and she huffed out a soft murmur of wordless comfort, the boy’s minty, cool chakra shivered sleepily against her own. Lying with him next to her with his chilly energy brushing against her own, which was almost warm in comparison – and wasn’t that odd, she’d always had her own called rather cold by others – to his chakra which was like standing on a bank on the verge of frost, or a mountain waiting for snow in a wood of pine.

“How about we take the day off?” she queried softly, fingers still running through the boy’s hair lightly, looking back up at the jounin, where he was silhouetted in warm gold and amber against the sunrise, looking back at her. “I have all week for this mission.”

“Hmm,” the man nodded slightly in agreement, no doubt pleased with the idea of putting off more political bullshit.

It was half why she’d suggested it, really.

The other half was rather obvious.

~*~

“Onsen~!”

She was singsonging happily as she stripped down in the mixed bath, something that catered mostly to ninja as civilians were a bit prudish in this regard, even though they were altogether cheaper, and so the bathes were generally empty when a nin came in to use it, which was pleasant. In towns like this it was actually odd to find onsen that catered a room solely to shinobi and kunoichi, and she was pleased that they did. There were several bath houses in Konoha, and only a few had actual separated bathes, which were nominally used by civilians, but if you felt the strong urge to hang out with only your gender – usually jounin-sensei kept their team members separate until they hit chuunin because of hormones – you went to one of the few separated bath houses.

Finally at the onsen~!”

Nobody wanted to deal with interteam sexcapades and where they could lead you.

At least, not until a certain sexual maturity and responsibility had been beaten into them and they knew how to prevent accidents.

Honestly though, the drama usually just made it not worth it, as far as she’d seen.

“You hit your head during that invasion?” the ex-Mist nin asked dryly, causing her to sniff imperiously from where she’d turned on her showerhead and was getting ready to wash her body in preparation for entering one of the pools. “What’s so great about a bath house?”

“If you must know,” she started, ignoring Haku’s quiet giggles from behind her. “Jiraiya has been about in Konoha, so no bath house was safe from him.”

She didn’t mention the damages to several parts of the village that also barred her.

The jounin let out a bark of laughter that echoed over the tiles, and she rolled her eyes before she ducked her head under the spray.

Wetting her hair for washing, it turned into a dark brown as opposed to her usual bronze, and plastered wet locks against her skull, before she massaged shampoo into it. She took her time enjoying the soft scent of cleanliness and pine that she was allowed as a chuunin who didn’t go on many high-risk infiltration missions, meaning she didn’t have to completely remove her physical scent, if not her spiritual one, her chakra scent. Letting herself take the time to be careful with her hair, she even indulged herself with a small scalp massage with just the tiniest bit of chakra to promote strong strands and growth before she washed out the shampoo and started on the arduous task of conditioning. Years of experience shortened the chore, but it was still lengthy, due to how much hair she had, and once she’d finished and rinsed her hair again, she carefully pinned it up into a high bun with two of her senbon that she’d brought in with her for this very purpose.

She grimaced as she scrubbed over her body carefully, mindful of her more recent and more sensitive scar tissue on her stomach, and only a little careful with that on her thigh since it had mostly lost its ultra-sensitivity and winced at the pull in her bad arm as she tried to use it to scrub at her back.

“Asuka-san?” the boy queried softly from behind her, causing her to turn and blink at him as he stood all pale skin and slender muscle behind her, a modest towel tied around his hips and hair caught up in a similar bun on his head. “Would you like me to get your back?”

“Oh,” she smiled at him gratefully, pleased by his generosity and kindness. “If you wouldn’t mind, Haku-chan.”

“Of course not,” he returned, taking the sponge from her and carefully running it over her back, mindful of the angry scar on her lower left back, politely stating nothing about the smattering of scars that covered her form or the rather blaring tattoo on her upper back.

She idly wondered if he recognized it as a symbol of the Sharingan from his time spent sparring with Sasuke after the original confrontation.

“You injured your arm?” he asked worriedly, no doubt looking for an external scar or wound that didn’t exist.

“In the invasion,” she answered. “A medic got me.”

Sighing as he finished, she shifted to rinse off her back with the extendable showerhead before standing and turning around, noting the embarrassed flush as the boy’s eyes immediately had gone to her breasts, and she rolled her eyes in amusement before pulling a towel off the rack to tie around her chest, falling to end just below her ass. Even if he had no real interest in women – he may one day find them attractive, but it was not that day – it was the way of teenage boys to find themselves drawn towards looking at the physique of a naked female and to be embarrassed by it. After all, they had parts that he didn’t.

“A medic?” the surprise in the deep voice caused her to look over to where Zabuza was already leaning back in a moderately hot pool, pretty much naked as the day he was born, but obscured by water and steam, with his face covered. “You got messed up by a medic?”

Scowling at the man, she took the boy’s hand and entered the same pool after a moment of deliberation as to whether or not she wanted to be coherent – the really hot pools always made her feel like she was melting and put her into a drowsy state pretty quickly – and deciding for coherency. Sadly. Sagging down against the cool tile of the pool with a sigh as she did so, releasing Haku’s hand to let him get comfortable on his own in the water of the pool, though he ended up sitting adjacent to her, with the jounin facing them both, a humorous couple strips of thick bandage covering the man’s face from view.

Every ninja had their quirks, and who was she to talk? Her jounin was just as ridiculous about his face.

“Yeah, well, ever heard of chakra scalpels?” she sent back, closing her eyes briefly. “He did to me without breaking the skin what Kakashi did to you with all the blood.”

“Ouch,” the man muttered with a grimace after a moment, eyeing her. “And the new one on your back? That’s older than a few days.”

“Mm,” she nodded, stretching her legs out in front of her and sighing at the feel of it, letting them float a little, but not to the top of the pool. “Not just on my back though, went straight through me from the front, actually,” she scowled, and shifted her towel enough to show off the entry wound before letting it drop on noting the gasp the boy next to her gave, and she patted his shoulder in consolation. “Fucking Oto was busy.”

It didn’t pass her notice that dark eyes dragged up her bare thigh until he gazed at the entry wound scar, leaving heat in their wake before she shifted the towel back into place for the teenager’s comfort.

Hanging out with missing nin was certainly good for her ego, at least.

“So, it was Sound then? I heard something about Sand, though,” the interest in the Missing Nin’s voice was clear.

She debated for a moment, before deciding it would be fine. The Sandaime hadn’t been fooling around when he declared them as allies, and they’d need to trust each other. Also, it wasn’t like the information wouldn’t get out eventually, anyway. A lot of ninja were horrible gossips.

“Yeah, Otogakure’s Kage is actually Orochimaru,” the man looked taken aback, dark eyes going wide. “I know, right? Anyway, Sand was tricked because Orochimaru posed as their Kage after killing him,” they both grimaced at this, Sand did not look good with this information. “And ordered them to take part in the invasion. So, long story short, Sandaime-sama fucked Orochimaru up,” there was some satisfaction in this, as she’d heard from Anko that the Sandaime had used a jutsu that took away the Snake Sennin’s ability to use chakra in his arms, meaning hand seals were useless. “Almost died, then didn’t die, and bam, here I am.”

She blinked, then smiled slyly.

“Also, the kids took out their jinchuuriki,” she stated proudly, causing small black brows to jump and Haku to blink at her owlishly. “Not as in killing him, because the boy was under orders and isn’t exactly the most stable little thing,” he was kind of cute in his own skittish and slightly homicidal way. A bit like Zabuza really, only without all the muscle and a bit more vulnerable and gentle inside. Also, she wasn’t attracted to Gaara because ew. “But they defeated him in combat despite his general accumulation of experience being higher than theirs. Also, I’m pretty sure that Sand’s boy is not that far away from being able to master his bijuu, all things considered.”

He at least had known about his burden since he was old enough to comprehend. Naruto had only found out just before graduating thanks to that nasty Mizuki business.

She really hoped he was enjoying his stay in T&I.

“Huh,” he seemed rather impressed and surprised by this. “Cool.”

He was amongst the few that knew that Konoha had a jinchuuriki of their own, and he surely knew that the blonde boy had no control over his bijuu as of yet, his skill level clearly still mediocre, and so they’d had to take on the Sand boy with nothing but basic jutsu, well, and gratuitous overuse of Summons, but whatever. She was never more glad that Jiraiya had done the ridiculous and taught that boy how to Summon. If it hadn’t had been for that giant toad, she didn’t know what they would have done, because Kakashi had been forced to send only genin after the second most dangerous threat behind Orochimaru himself, and he’d confided in her the terror he’d felt at perhaps having made the wrong choice. He hadn’t, but they were both aware of just how much worse things could have gone, how many new horrors could have been haunting the both of them in the night.

Three new names on a stone for them to visit could have been in store.

The fracturing of everything they had built.

A slow drift of isolation…

Yes, that could have gone a completely different direction.

“Yeah,” she grinned at him, not bothering to hide her pride and affection as it covered her face. “I know, right?”

The coolest.

~*~

Later, they were sitting in the hotel room, Asuka was running her hairbrush through Haku’s long hair, much to his shy, slightly embarrassed pleasure, and Zabuza was running a cloth over the blade of the Kubikiribōchō, features relaxed as he sat around in the most comfortable position she’d ever seen him in, one leg spread straight out in front of him the other bent at the knee and keeping the cleaver propped up.

The teenage boy had given her a yukata to borrow, and even though it was a little short – it was one of his longer ones – it was still beautiful and comfortable, a rather lovely deep shade of royal purple with silver filigree that denoted vines and flowers. The boy in question was wearing a light green one that slowly changed into dark green the farther down it went, with – funnily enough – white leaves tumbling across the bottom and trailing sleeves. The missing nin, however, wore a sleeveless haori top that he left untied, similar to the red one that the Toad Sage wore, only it was dark gray, and he wore regular standard black cotton pants that ended just below the knees but weren’t strapped down at all.

He wore no shirt underneath, much to her delight – he was so pretty to look at – and they’d shared playful leers when they’d gotten dressed and he’d teased her for looking like an actual woman – the dry look she’d sent him had evened out the horrified expression on his apprentice’s features – and she’d casually told him that if his career ever fell through he could always be a male escort.

As long as he kept his mouth shut.

She noted that he had a thin pale scar up the length of his calf from the top of his foot, almost perfectly straight, and idly wondered what had caused it, but knew that she wouldn’t ask.

There were some scars that were personal, and it was best not to pry.

So, she eyed the large cleaver instead.

“How did you repair the Kubikiribōchō anyway?” she wondered, gaze wandering over it as the boy whose hair she was brushing giggled a little. “It doesn’t even look like I scratched it.”

He grunted a little sulkily at the reminder of her damaging the blade, but seemed altogether amused by her question, glancing at her with curved dark eyes.

“I might tell you,” she huffed at the teasing tone. “But not yet. It’s a secret of the Seven Swordsmen,” he finished a little more seriously. “I can’t just hand it out.”

Despite my circumstances was unsaid.

“Alright,” she said with a longsuffering sigh, setting her brush aside to steadily braid the boy’s hair in a silky, complicated plait, which seemed to catch his interest, if the small mirrors of ice that were strategically placed around his head so that he could see her hands was anything to go by. “I guess I can let it slide,” she pursed her lips consideringly with a sly look and the man rolled his dark eyes at her. “For now.”

“Hmph.”

A part of her was relieved that though Zabuza had taken on Haku as his apprentice, his student, he hadn’t tried to force him into the role of an Apprentice to one of the Seven Swordsman, rather than just an apprentice. Zabuza’s student, rather than the wielder of the Kubikiribōchō’s.

Looking at his sword made her slide her fingertips against her palm and consider her own apprentice back home in Konoha. Sakura was improving day by day, but perhaps it was time to start looking into getting her a bokken to do drills with, to learn the feel and weight of a blade even if she didn’t go for a katana. To be honest, she saw her young student with perhaps a tanto, something with enough reach to matter but could be much easier to imbue into taijutsu, especially the forms she already knew.

Something to look into, but when Yugao was getting too cooped up she was overseeing Sakura’s training. She’d ask her for her opinion when she got back, seeing as the other woman had more in village time at present.

And take her out for drinks to unwind a little before the other woman inevitably returned to the hospital to wait with and try to keep the man she loved alive.

They lazed the day away, with the chuunin teaching the teenager several different braiding styles and hair knots that she knew from her travels as well as kunoichi training, and then letting him practice on her after she gave a live example with a clone that she’d decided she could risk, if only because she hadn’t been doing anything else with her chakra, though it did make her coils terribly itchy when she made it. Heck, she’d even gotten a reprimanding glance from the Demon of the Mist and considering his own recklessness she’d felt mildly sheepish and a more than a little gob smacked but had brushed it off because she’d made the teenager happy with how much attention she was giving him. That was more important than any set of itchy coils.

They fiddled around with hair for a while, picked on Zabuza, who was looking a bit put out – it seemed to both horrify and delight Haku that they could do so without reprimand, reminding her that they still needed to have a talk – and then eventually, the topic drifted towards Haku’s bloodline limit of the Ice Release.

The little mirrors that he’d used throughout the day gave her this sort of pulling sensation when she was near them, as if she were almost touching them, but there was something in the way of it, like a barrier, so she asked him to make one for her so that she could experiment.

Zabuza had gone downstairs to get a tray of snacks and tea – he seemed to be something of an errand boy when it came to food, she was coming to realize – but when he came back up, it was to a wide eyed staring contest between the two smaller nin.

The woman had her hand on the mirror, and it was the strangest sensation she’d ever felt. It was water, yes, but it wasn’t her water, as every other kind she’d ever come into contact with was, didn’t belong to her as all of the other liquid she had come across had.

No, this was Haku’s water, and he stood between her and it.

“How…” the boy was blinking at her oddly. “How strange.

“Yes,” she furrowed her brows, playing her chakra lightly over the cold surface, ignoring the way her coils hissed at her in displeasure. “It’s really rather unusual.”

“Zabuza-sama has tried to manipulate the water in my mirrors before,” the man in question sat down next to them, setting down the tray of snacks and examining the place where her hand was, no doubt noting the odd sheen of the ice beneath her palm, as if it were almost melting but couldn’t become liquid again. “But I’ve never truly felt it.”

“This is the first time I’ve ever come across some form of water that I couldn’t manipulate,” Asuka admitted, pulling her hand away and watching as the ice went back to its normal matte mirror sheen. “It’s as if you are standing between me and its liquid form.”

Pulling water into her palm into a ball, she put it forward.

“Can you freeze this?” she queried, completely flabbergasted with the turn of events, even as she felt the tingling pain in her coils and decided this would be the last use of chakra she’d have that day.

Putting a finger against the globe of water, the apprentice sent his special chakra through it, and both adults noted how something like frost crossed the surface before shimmering once again into liquid nature, before repeating the process again and the boy pulled his hand back with a bewildered expression on his face.

“Hmm… Well, that was weird.”

Zabuza’s brows were furrowed thoughtfully, and his coal colored eyes stayed focused on the water in her hand.

“It was as you said,” Haku concurred, expression slightly amazed. “You stand between me and its frozen form.”

“For now,” she allowed in a musing tone, causing the two males to look at her in surprise as she dissipated the water from her hand and flexed her fingers carefully, massaging her palm distractedly against the pins and needles feeling in her coils. “But you are still growing, and with even that much reaction at your age, it’s likely that you could grow strong enough to overwhelm my chakra entirely and freeze the water I summon. Your stores are already almost on par with my own,” she mused sadly at her lot in life. “So, once you finish growing you’ll be able to win against me strength wise.”

“Hmm,” the jounin interrupted for the first time, gaze considering as he looked at her, curious. “Do you have a kekkai-genkai, Asuka?”

“Me?” she blinked at him, brows furrowed in thought. “No, not that I know of. Both of my parents had no main affinity for Water like I do, even though my mother’s was secondary Water. I have no knowledge of my grandparents, as they were dead before I was born. I think my grandfather or maybe my great grandfather might have had a Water affinity, but I can’t really remember what my mother said about that.”

That and her great grandmother had apparently only cackled when her mother had asked who had fathered her mother.

The water was in the blood the blood was in the water.

Her head throbbed, and she brushed the thoughts aside.

“Huh, maybe you’re a Progenitor.”

She shuddered at the thought of what the Council would make her do if she was the beginning of another bloodline. If they had their way, and if she could, she’d be pregnant before she could say Konoha or deny anything and stuck like that until she couldn’t have kids anymore. She loved her village, but the Elder Council frightened her a good portion of the time, which was why she didn’t like to draw attention to herself with the higher ups, especially since Kakashi had pointed out just how unusual her ability to manipulate water the way she did was.

“Don’t even joke!”

It wasn’t funny in the least!

“Stop laughing!”

Smack.

“Ow!”

“You deserved it.”

“Just a little, Zabuza-sama.”

“Hmph.”

~*~

“Well, it’s been great,” she stated dryly, cracking her back and stretching her arms over her head, feeling oddly refreshed, her coils relaxed and back to normal. “Super awesome.”

Actually, they felt a little… hmm, roomy might be a good way to put it? Like she had more space than usual? Stretched, perhaps? Well, whatever. It was probably just the relief after being in pain for so long and using her chakra when she shouldn’t.

This mission had been pretty much downtime, for her, and for the missing nin too, she was sure. They went to the onsen, drank sake into the night, compared battle tactics, almost gotten into a fist fight in a bar – that had been fun – she’d done Haku’s hair and nails… the bureaucratic bullshit had been the only downside.

Ugh, paperwork.

Iruka could have it.

“Yeah, marvelous,” the tall man grunted back while Haku fussed and wriggled subtly at the thought of his new female friend leaving. “I’m just stoked.

“… You just said stoked.”

“Oh, shut up.”

“You Mist nin with your – “

Asuka.

“Kidding, kidding. Jeez, calm down.”

“Why are you so… peppy? It’s weird.”

“Rude.”

“Seriously, you’re freaking me out.”

“Just because no one’s bleeding doesn’t mean that I’m bored or unhappy, for your information.”

“Konoha ninja are strange.”

“Because open wounds don’t make me giddy like the good drugs?”

“Well… yeah.”

In the end, she had sat Haku down and explained that Zabuza was trying to protect him in his own emotionally stunted way – she didn’t right out say that the man was fascinatingly shy about things like that, emotionally stunted and traumatized by his youth of war and slaughter, but it was heavily implied – and that Haku should just do what he felt best, but in the end, that his master would care for him either way. While initially uncertain, after nearly a week of teasing the ex-Mist nin with the Konoha chuunin, he’d come to sort of begin to have some kind of thoughtful hope in his eyes, and she felt some satisfaction that things would work themselves out eventually. She’d probably have to have Naruto do his sparkling innocence thing at them, like he’d done for the Hyuuga branch kid and apparently the Suna jinchuuriki, but it’d be worth it.

She was pretty sure that it wasn’t just the Hyuuga heiress that was smitten, after all that.

Like father like son.

Oh, no, don’t think it Asuka.

Stop!

Argh, my brain.

But really, she was a little sad to see the kid go, since it appeared she was one of the first females he’d met who hadn’t reacted to his very much more attractive countenance with something between resentment and hostile dislike. Even in their little resistance group, it appeared that most of the women there didn’t particularly like how close he was with Zabuza, seeing as he was something of a figurehead for the movement, and the Yuki Clan member had never even been granted a hitai-ate other than what his master had given him. It appeared that the women who did get along with him were usually not around when he was, and so he was normally subjected to scorn and dislike from the female masses that made up some of the Rebel grunts. Some of the men were like this too, if the cues that the Demon had dropped were anything to go by, and she had to see about having the boy stay in Konoha for a time so that she could chuck genin at him and possibly introduce him to the easy to get along with Iruka and her batshit crazy Anko. Heck, even Imori – the cantankerous old bastard – would soften in the face of Haku’s gentle insecurity when it came to social interaction.

Of course, nothing could happen until the Hokage had awoken.

“We’ll… see you again?”

At the effeminate boy’s soft query as he looked up at her from under his lashes, she couldn’t help but pull him into a tight hug, his face only slightly higher than her leather armor covered breasts as she clutched him to her.

His arms came around her waist hesitantly and she just hummed delightedly at him, causing his grip to tighten just enough to portray his upset. Honestly, her genin were drudging up all kinds of maternal instincts that she’d never encountered before, making it easier for her to coddle them and deal with the spontaneous need for cuddles – Naruto – or finding the best way to comfort them when they needed it – Sasuke – and occasionally chat about boys and clothes – Sakura. Spending time with Haku she’d had to do all three, and she was definitely glad for the practice that her troublesome kids had given her, despite the headaches they caused, because she was pleased with how happy she had been able to make him in just a short time.

Even if she was never able to – if she couldn’t ever… yes, what she could do for these kids, what she felt for them, it was good. She was glad she’d been able to have this.

“Of course!” she returned, delightedly petting the boy’s soft hair in a motion that was becoming rather familiar. “You can count on it!”

It was only a little frustrating that he didn’t use any special product, but that was mostly because he was such a sweetheart that she didn’t think she could stand disliking anything about him for long. Those other women were fools to think anything bad about a boy as sugar soft and gooey on the inside as the Ice Release user, and she tried to soak up and give as much comfort and affection as she could.

“It’ll be likely that either me or Kakashi and the kids will be the ones to come by,” she continued, pulling back from where she’d accosted the boy, who was blushing something fierce from the attention. “Though it won’t likely be the genin anytime soon.”

Because the likelihood of Sasuke being allowed out of Konoha when we don’t even have a Hokage at the moment… to risk Orochimaru getting his hands on the only Uchiha that Konoha has… yeah, those aren’t the best of odds.

She couldn’t see Sakura or Naruto going on a mission without their third in tow either, at least, not without some serious arguing.

“Speaking of Kakashi,” glancing up from the pale boy’s pleased, lightly embarrassed features, green eyes met black, and the intrigue and light heat she saw there made her heart thump painfully once. Boy, foreign shinobi were turning out to be interesting once she got passed the violent enemy phase… “He’s well?”

This was something they had apparently been avoiding speaking of, her jounin superior, but she found herself smiling wryly at the darker skinned man, her expression amused. The little game they’d played together in the Land of Waves had been fun, and she had almost found herself trying to say something to her superior officer several times throughout the course of her stay with the missing nin. It was odd that they’d both noted and completely ignored the Kakashi shaped hole in their banter, but well, it was hard to get around the Copy-nin at the best of times, and they had both silently agreed to hold back.

“He was when I left,” she rolled her eyes as the man hunched just a little – shinobi were so shy, it was adorable – before reaching out to swat his arm playfully as she released the possibly Low jounin level boy and he stepped back. “But you never know with those kids in tow,” she sighed heavily, suddenly weary, brows furrowing in a slightly harried expression. “They pull you into the weirdest shit…”

She couldn’t believe how many of their missions went down the crapper…

How hard was it to find a chunk of art shaped like a bear catching a fish? Why did the random bandit have kekkai-genkai that Kakashi had been unaware of? Then there was that thing with the cheese in the market… and that poor man with his cabbage cart…

What was wrong with those kids?

As the jounin tossed a commiserating glance at his own apprentice, she had the sudden feeling that someone had walked over her grave, a chill moving down her spine and causing her to tense, immediately catching the attention of the dark-haired man before her, who surreptitiously scanned the surroundings for enemies.

“What is it?” he asked quietly, his young apprentice calmly making his way to his side in a familiar, carefully controlled action.

This signature… her eyes were wide, breathe caught in her throat, ice blooming in her chest. Oh, gods, please no.

Uchiha Itachi.

That was bad enough.

But…

Uchiha Itachi is near Naruto. My Naruto.

She hadn’t even noticed the genin until she’d registered the known hostile nin!

That boy –!

She was using shunshin before she knew what she was doing, and she was speeding over the rooftops, barely aware of the Mist shinobi following her until the jounin barked at her in the tone of voice she was used to hearing from her superiors.

“Report!”

The commanding tone broke her from her sheen of terror and she shook her head to clear it, pushing back some of her blind horror. While it wasn’t the best idea to answer to that tone from a shinobi who was technically an opposing force, as a missing-nin, she had little cause to hold back information, and considering the treaty that the Sandaime had drawn up, it wasn’t likely that she would get in trouble for it.

“Uchiha Itachi is in this town not that far away,” she stated lowly, her voice slightly ragged. “And… and so is Naruto.”

A blank silence that lasted several moments before the man next to her swore, Haku completely silent, not fully aware of the implications.

“There’s another signature I can’t identify,” she managed to drag out as they got closer. “But that chakra is… monstrous.

“Yeah,” the jounin sounded resigned and extremely unhappy. “That’s one way of putting it.”

Asuka flickered a glance over at him as they stifled their chakra signatures for stealth, to scope out the situation before busting in.

She was lucky that during the war she’d had to take stealth specialized courses – that her mother had given her a head start in when she’d been alive – for information grabs so that she didn’t get caught and mangled, otherwise she wouldn’t have been able to hide from the senses on par with the jounin beside her and his apprentice.

“I’ll handle him if it comes to it,” he continued, returning her look steadily, before an odd expression crossed his features, a kind of what and ew, gross look. “… Did I just…?”

“I think you did,” she returned, a little surprised, her shoulders relaxing some with relief at the message he’d just delivered. “But if it does come to it, I can hold off against the Sharingan long enough for Haku to get Naruto out of there.”

“Then we bale,” the man agreed, nodding as he did so, brushing off his odd declaration of intent from only moments before.

The moment she felt Sasuke barreling down the road she closed her eyes against the feeling of dread that sank into her stomach like a cold stone, her brows furrowed against her will, lips tight with worry.

“This just got worse,” the jounin muttered.

Black eyes fixed on the boy that’d come flying around the corner, his chakra signature wild with emotions, clearly not thinking straight. No, no no no! Not her kids gods damnit!

“Yeah,” was all she managed through the tightness of her throat before the two remaining Uchiha saw each other.

Because hey, why not?

The gods hated her.

Fucking Team Seven was so cursed.

She had no doubt that Itachi had known that his brother was in the area the moment she had, perhaps before if his sensing skills had improved – she had no doubts that they had – and she knew that this wasn’t going to end well, no matter what happened, because she didn’t know what Sasuke would do when faced with his Clan’s killer, and certainly didn’t know what she could do about it.

The moment Sasuke went to strike, his brother’s words infuriating him and cutting deep enough to provoke him, she was moving. The too loud but soft sound of bone snapping and a small body slamming into the wall was pushed to the back of her mind in her swiftness of action and movement.

He cried out.

Sasuke screamed.

Her child was in pain!

I knew he shouldn’t have taught him Chidori! Was all she could think in a panicked frenzy as instinctive combat smothered her emotions back. This is all your fault Kakashi!

She avoided thinking about where said jounin was, though, because with two of their genin there…

Before she could really comprehend it, she was parrying a kunai with her katana and pushing back the older Uchiha, felt the surprised flicker of a chakra signature in front of her as she managed to instinctively catch the prodigy with her water needles, making him bleed. His shoulder and chest were slightly punctured, though the shoulder worse off because he’d turned into it to avoid a critical injury like what he would have received had he been pierced in the chest and straight to the heart because he had hurt her kid. She was in a defensive stance in front of her dark haired genin, the boy crowded between her and the wall of the hostel, and even as she felt the air go heavy around her with her chakra pulling the water particles from the air into a more solid form that was almost mist but not quite, she caught a glance of her surprised looking blonde haired genin.

When she fully looked up, she met Sharingan eyes that were only the slightest bit higher than her own, and unlike many – even other Konoha nin – she didn’t flinch.

There was something familiar about his Sharingan, despite the fact that it was the common three tomoe she remembered him having. She couldn’t quite name it, couldn’t figure out just what it was that niggled at the back of her mind about his eyes just out of her reach, but she pushed it aside for the threat that stood in front of her currently, not some abstract worry that wouldn’t present itself fully when she didn’t have the time to think about it. The ache building at the backs of her eyes, which she hadn’t noticed growing, waned.

The teenaged boy’s eyes widened at her, brow twitching just a bit as he stepped back, blood dripping steadily down his arm as the water that pierced him was still under her control, and slowly drilling against the chakra shield he’d erected under his skin to hold her back. Out of the corner of her eye, she noted the tall man with blue tinged skin and what looked like gills on his cheekbones with a scratched-out Mist hitai-ate wearing a similar cloak of black with red clouds on it, and felt her heart beat harder against her ribcage for it.

Yeah, she was glad that Zabuza was there.

Of course, the man was still hiding on the rooftop they’d been perched on like they had planned on, observing the situation because he could control himself.

Oh god, if Kakashi heard of this she would never, and she meant never live it down.

Well, if she survived anyway.

She could almost hear the dark-haired man face palming from where he was, grumbling about fucking Konoha hippies the Yuki Clan member cutely confused and concerned beside him. The chuunin didn’t blame him; she was more and more concerned for her own sanity every day.

“Oh?” Hoshigake Kisame – oh, gods this team had the worst luck fuck fuck fuck fuck – murmured interestedly, his voice surprisingly light as deep as it was. “Another Konoha nin, how interesting. Wherever do you all come from?”

“We have a village,” she found herself stating dryly, her gaze returning to her main problem, the Uchiha, who was looking at her blankly, features smooth as he assessed her. “It even has a symbol and everything.”

The blue skinned man chuckled at her words, the sound pleasant and even; a tone that spoke of an ease with the situation that she definitely didn’t have.

“Oh, I like this one,” the missing-nin stated, shifting comfortably where he stood. “She’s funny, and she even managed to wound you Itachi-san.”

“Hn.”

Though the young man scoffed drolly, seemingly uninterested in the fact that she was meeting his gaze head on, there was the tiniest pinch behind his eyes as he looked at her, a discomfort that was almost pain.

Still, she could see it through that careful blankness.

She could see the Itachi she had known.

Perhaps his ghost.

What had once been a tortured child was a man unknown before her.

That same curiosity with a hint of shyness that had graced his expression when he’d been a timid eight-year-old with the too heavy responsibilities of his Clan and the sad, aged maturity of a prodigy put into a position he hadn’t asked for. He had followed Shisui around like a chick with its mother, and the child who had been called Shunshin no Shisui in his latter years had followed Haruka around something awful a good portion of the time, a habit that Chitose had complained about to no end. The younger boy would sit down quietly and wait for his louder, older friend to finish whatever argument he would get into – they were both terribly immature a good portion of the time, Chitose and Shisui – with the taller twin, and on occasion she would take up place beside him, sharing her lunch with him, since he didn’t look like he ate nearly enough for a Clan child.

She had been the one to help him discover his favorite onigiri filling. She had been the one to start him on the path of the blade when he’d shown interest. She’d been the one to teach him some iryō-ninjutsu and find his strong affinity for it, mourn with him quietly at the knowledge that he could never be an iryō-nin as the Heir to the Uchiha Clan. Neither his father or the Clan Elders would have ever allowed it; would have punished him for even considering a path other than the one they chose. She had been there, when he had giggled quietly beside her and Haruka while they laughed at Shisui having sneezed a globule of snot into Chitose’s face. She had been there, when he had expressed excitement at his brother starting the Academy to her quieter teammate, sparing her a soft, happy smile filled with quiet affection and a shy hopefulness that had yet to be smothered by his Clan’s expectations. She had been there when he had crawled into her and her twins’ apartment in the middle of the night, Shisui trailing quietly behind him, when he had received the order to join ANBU, had been pressured into becoming an assassin when all he wanted to do was live in peace.

She had been there.

“Onee-san, please, I can’t… please, help me…”

He had stood on her opposing side from his normally loud, boisterous and affectionate best friend when they had added her teammates’ names to the Stone, the courtyard empty but for a few other nin that they had been acquainted with; Shisui and Itachi had been the only Uchiha at the funeral. He had put his small, callused, warm hand into her own and let her hold it while numb grief tried to crack open her heart and bleed her out. He had been there when she had begun to relearn to breath after her short, painful talk with the Sandaime, had sparred with her for what had been her most painfully aware day since they had left her behind, left her alone. Oh, gods she had never felt so alone before, but those boys had stood by her through her pain, silly Shisui and sweet Itachi. No matter the aching pit that had yawned great and terrible in her chest and stomach, hollowed out her bones, it was still better that they’d been together than separated, her twins. Truly, no matter how painful and cold and lonely it was without them she was glad that they’d had each other in the beyond. A tiny hand in her own had cemented that, one of a size with her, her own covering the other, had made it easier to breath.

He had been there.

So when she had found him in the forest near her clearing the day that Shisui’s suicide note had been found, first, she had let him attack her, and fought back just as fiercely and as strongly as she could because she knew that pain, and then held him as he wept afterwards, trying to stay as silent as the empty grave of the person closest to him. For a name that would never grace that stone with her twins, that would likely only grace the shrines of those not of his Clan, who didn’t see him as disgraced. He had been so small in her arms, so terribly young, trembling and clutching to her like she was the last thing in the world that was stable, like he would fall and shatter as glass beneath that great weight that pressed down upon him more surely than gravity if he let go. She had held bruised, scarred, and burned fingers in her own, running chakra filled water over rough and beaten digits as she cradled a child soldier’s hands in her own and tried to sooth the trembling, the shudders of shock and horror and fear and dread and so much loneliness and pain. She had let him sob into her throat, her armor having been ruined and tossed aside after a katon jutsu to the chest, and she had breathed in the scent of onigiri, ink – he had habit of calligraphy to calm himself – ube and the barest hint of plum overtop the hickory of his chakra usage. She had rocked him back and forth as his world ended for the first time, and she had pressed kisses to his hair as tears stained her skin, gasping breathes taking in her chakra scent desperately as if he had thought it would be the only time he would ever be able to breath it in.

That had been the last time they sparred.

And the first time he’d won.

She hadn’t been close to him, not really, not in the way his best friend had been, but she had understood him in an abstract way. Had tried to fill a void for the both of them as someone who cared. She and her twins had tried to lift some of that debilitating pressure that hardened him when he was with them, to give him moments of true childhood. She had fed him and her quieter twin when they would finish speaking about whatever serious topic they would get onto, and then she would silently encourage Shisui’s silliness, since it softened the lines of stress on a young face with too old eyes. She had thought that she knew something of a quiet boy with a dream to heal but with a propensity for death fed by his Clan’s ambitions, had thought that if only for his brother’s sake he would change that Clan, with the help of his dopey older friend – there had been something blooming there, but it had been crushed with the teenager’s death, fracturing what might have been – who had a rather alarming addiction for dango that was almost worse than Anko’s.

Then her boys had died.

She had changed.

And then Shisui – sweet, silly little Shisui – had gone after them.

He had changed.

Everything had changed.

It would appear that, despite what she’d felt, she hadn’t known him as well as she’d thought.

Perhaps that said something about how well she thought she knew herself, as well.

“N-nee-chan?” Naruto wondered, voice a little wavering from where he stood, uncharacteristically quiet. “What are you doing here? Weren’t you on a mission?”

“Naruto,” she said sweetly instead of answering him because now was not the time. “Why are you alone in Otafuku-Gai?”

“I’m not!” he defended immediately, and she could almost see the reeling back he did at her words, even though she never took her eyes from her opponent, waiting. “Ero-sennin is here, but he went off to peek at women!”

Lie, she decided. Or rather, untrue. Jiraiya wouldn’t just leave him. And why is he with Jiraiya anyway?

No, she decided again, that didn’t matter at that moment.

Especially when she felt a cold shaking hand press against her lower back tentatively through her armor, as if making sure that she was real. She pulsed her chakra back at him comfortingly, which caused him to place both hands against her, this time more firmly, to reassure himself. His arm was probably fractured even if shock and adrenaline were keeping him from feeling it; she’d have to do something about that soon.

“Well,” she instead said drolly. “It’s a good thing I went to the bathes earlier this week then.”

Then she felt it.

The moment Jiraiya appeared in a murderous burst of shunshin, everything became action.

As the older Uchiha came at her she agitated the water she’d already saturated with her chakra, causing his eyes to flinch at the sudden influx of information, too much moving chakra too suddenly in the air around him, creating a barrier between her and him. This was a technique that she had never used against him, but had learned when sparring with her twins after they had gotten their Sharingan and had been acting a little smug about it, needing something to knock them down a peg again. While it had taken her a while, she had definitely been happy enough to shut Chitose up from his insurmountable bragging whenever he managed to best her in a spar those first few days.

That boy had been such an insufferable brat.

She missed him.

Itachi didn’t stop, though he couldn’t use his Sharingan until he got used to what he was processing, and she found herself knocking kunai out of the air from where she stood pinned against the wall in defense of her student, her hands in a two-handed grip on the hilt of her katana. Her heart shuddered in her chest because in this position she couldn’t do anything, but she daren’t move out of the way because that would leave the young Uchiha without aid and open to attacks that he wasn’t nearly coherent or skilled enough to defend against.

Chakra built to the side, but she paid it no mind, allowing the Sennin to take care of whatever it was, knowing that if things became dicey, that the Demon of the Mist would step in, though she couldn’t imagine Jiraiya needing assistance.

The Uchiha stepped back from her after a flurry of movement and weapon’s steel, eyes slightly tensed as if in pain or discomfort.

The hand closest to her was trembling just barely, out of sight of everyone else in the room, the fingers trying to curl into a fist, but he forcefully relaxed them.

What was he… what was this?

He was… why was he looking at her like that?

Like lost little Itachi-chan?

This wasn’t the time to wonder about it, however, no matter the confusion slithering up the back of her throat and throbbing in the back of her head.

“Kisame,” he stated calmly, which brought the taller, broader male to his side, sighing a little as he shouldered his beast of a weapon.

“Already?”

“We didn’t come here to start a war,” the missing-nin continued stoically, his gaze traveling away from the chakra stained water that hovered before her over towards the very unhappy looking member of the Sannin, keeping his dark eyes off of the kunoichi before him as she felt her mind roil with confusion. “Let’s go.”

As the two walked passed her, she was infinitely glad that she hadn’t let her guard down, because she just barely caught the behemoth that the blue skinned missing nin called a sword on her katana when he lazily struck out at her. She found herself braced on one knee, heady woozy with sudden inexplicable chakra loss, but her arms stayed steady, even as a blast of Killing Intent so strong she felt her spine quiver in fear and her heart quail washed over the area, focused on the two missing nin, and they disappeared. Gasping at the abrupt release of pressure and the shocking depletion of nearly half her reserves, she lowered her suddenly shaking and weak arms, and leaned on her supporting leg whilst pulling the chakra she had left in the water out of it to refill what she could to lessen the sudden fatigue and shock.

“Oh,” she wheezed out, taking a few careful breathes before Sealing away her katana and moving to stand, wavering more than a little with black dots spotting her vision, only to have two different but familiar hands catch her on both sides and help her to keep standing. “Ow.”

This was getting to be a habit, wasn’t it?

Somehow, she was sure that this was also all Kakashi's fault.

“Ah, Zabuza! Haku!” her loud student called out in delight, even as the Sennin stared down the other man suspiciously, the genin unsurprisingly not sensing the mood. He was good like that. “What’re you doing here?”

“We were here on business, Naruto-kun,” the sweet voice of the older boy stated as he moved over to him. “It’s still good to see you even considering the circumstances.”

“Ehehe~!”

Pulling back a little unsteadily, she turned away from the glaring match that the two men were getting into and towards her pale, shocked Uchiha student, her green eyes soft as she studied him. She couldn’t say that she hated Itachi, couldn’t even say that she really disliked him, but for the haunted, lost look in those young eyes before her she could feel great anger and disappointment. There were no people left in the Clan that she cared for, all having passed before the Massacre, but she was glad for the fact that he had spared his little brother, and she had no delusions about why he had done so.

If there was one thing she was certain of, it was that he held some love for his otouto, out of anyone else in the Clan.

Even if the boy himself couldn’t see it, wouldn’t allow himself to see it.

“Sasuke.”

Dark eyes stared up at her, before traveling down towards one of her legs.

“You… you’re bleeding…” his voice sounded a little shocky, and she glanced down at the wound on her calf that a kunai she half remembered moving into the path of to protect the boy from, had apparently been caught in the muscle.

“Oh, that’s easy enough to fix,” she stated, carefully pulling forth enough chakra for her water bandage and popping the weapon out before sealing the wound shut temporarily. “See?”

Putting her hand out, she grabbed his shoulder and gently drew him into her side with a sigh, sliding chakra water over his awkwardly angled arm to numb the nerves and set the bone in his forearm before he could question it. At the curl of his small frame against her own, she found her entire body beginning to relax from battle adrenaline, even as she glanced over at the poleaxed expression on the orange wearing boy’s face. Her heart was still shuddering in her chest from the intensity of the Sennin’s KI, her body was weak and unsteady from the sudden devouring of her chakra, and she was pretty sure that the older Uchiha had something laced on that kunai because that leg was starting to tingle something fierce, but she could deal with that in a moment. She filtered a little yin chakra to the water bandage anyway, just to be safe, tugging out the majority of the foreign substance that had been making its way into her system. It seemed similar enough to the Konoha Basic Paralytic that anyone who’d gone to the Academy could make with little difficulty, but there were a few differences that she would deal with at a later time.

When she couldn’t feel her heart beating like it was outside of her chest and compressing her lungs. Her coils had already been fucked over by her miraculous unbelievable saving of the Sandaime, and the shock to her system really wasn’t doing her any favors, so wasn’t even going to dream of remote healing herself at the moment.

Didn’t count when it was the kid, obviously. The children were the priority.

“Come here, Naruto,” she told him, and he scrambled over to her with wide eyes, looking at her like he’d never seen her before even as he squirmed under her free arm in a familiar motion and she squeezed him as well to comfort herself. “You’re alright?”

Even as she scanned her eyes over him, he was nodding his head and his teammate seemed to be coming back to himself somewhat, looking up at her with an inscrutable, almost lost look that had her placing her hand over the Curse mark. It took a moment before she was soothing her chakra over it gently, despite the fact that her head ached with the use of it, causing his shoulders to relax and him to lean against her ever so slightly. Oh, she wanted to sleep for a week.

All of that rest and relaxation, gone in the space of a few minutes.

Stupid blue bastard.

With little thought, she dropped to her knees so that they were of a height and tugged the two of them against her shoulders, burying her hands in two different sets of hair colored like night and day, pressing her face first to the dark-haired boy’s hair for a breath of his scent, and then to the slightly shorter Naruto’s. The jinchuuriki was someone she kind of expected to smell like Ramen or salt, possibly dirt, but he had a clean scent littered with sunshine, persimmons and only something that could be described as a summer breeze passing over the tall grass and flowers in a meadow, carrying the scent of sweet nectar. It was comforting and surprising, and he probably had more of a human scent than the blood-stained majority of the ninja of their village, and that saddened her to know that some people would never believe that, no matter what the boy did to prove them wrong.

The paler boy’s hands shook where they gripped her, his right hand caught in the cloth on the back of her left shoulder in an echo of how he’d been positioned after he’d first been Cursed in the hospital, his right fisted against his chest and coincidentally over her heart, so he could feel her heartbeat slowing as she calmed. His face was buried against her, hitai-ate pressed against the meat between neck and shoulder, the chill of the metal not making its way through her leather armor but the soft sound of his taking careful, unconscious breathes of her scent was clear to her. After every breath his body relaxed just a touch more, and she felt something like satisfied relief making its way through her chest.

Exuberant, loud, cheerful Naruto, on the other hand, was more hesitant, as always – even after so long, even when Sasuke had taken longer to open up to her – and took a moment to grip her free shoulder in a mirrored position of his teammate, right hand pressed against her stomach and ridiculous amounts of chakra reaching towards her hara for shy comfort. His cheek was laying against her shoulder with his oddly warm hitai-ate pressed against the part of her under armor that met her leather armor, so she could just feel the odd temperature to it. When he took a breath, it was slow and careful, as if he were afraid she’d jerk away in disgust, or reprimand him for the action, but she just sighed and laid her cheek against his spiky, springy hair for a moment so that he relaxed against her.

So much relief

“Honestly, boys,” she muttered as she held at the two of them against her with weak, jittery feeling limbs. “Why does Kakashi let you out of the village?”

Sasuke stiffened against her side, all of his previous relaxation disappearing as he did so, his eyes widening in consternation as he shifted back a little to look into her face, her arm shifted from where it had been positioned to let her hand dig into his silky hair to lay against his back.

“Kaka-sensei ran into Ita – him in Konoha,” his voice was raw as he at her, dark eyes lost, and she felt a stab of worry in her chest, a cold pain that gripped her heart like a vice. Kakashi… “He’s probably in the hospital now, I…” he glanced away, features twisted, likely feeling the small stutter in her heartbeat against the edge of his fist. “I heard that he was after Naruto and just…” he shrugged helplessly, and she squeezed the arm she had around his back reflexively to comfort him. “I just…”

With a deep breath, she let thoughts of what could possibly be wrong with her jounin fade to the background. It was not the time.

Please, no…

Not the time.

“It’s alright, Sasuke,” she murmured softly, green eyes warm and a little sad. It was the first time she’d ever heard him refer to the jounin with the epithet of ‘Kaka-sensei’ that his teammates preferred rather than just saying Kakashi. He was really shaken, more so than he wanted to admit, or perhaps even knew. “We’ll worry about that when we get back to Konoha.”

Turning her gaze towards the bright blues that were staring at her a little wondrously and soulfully, she sighed just a little as she pulsed her much needed chakra against her still in shock student.

“Might I ask what exactly it is that you’re doing running around with Jiraiya?” she queried instead, gripping the silent dark-haired boy reassuringly, raising a brow at the other genin so that he raised his head and squirmed uncomfortably. “Have you pulled some horrendous prank and are escaping with him until things cool down or what?”

“What? No!”

Naruto looked horribly offended, eyes wide and very blue, but the deadpan look on her face shut him up – she was just so done with today – before causing him to explain really quickly, his words tripping over themselves as he tried to get them out as fast as possible. The hand he had gripping her shirt sleeve trembled a little momentarily, and she let her gaze soften so that he steadied again, he might be loud and boisterous and mostly clueless, but he was also just a kid.

“He’s – he’s training me, and – and we’re going to – to find some old lady with – like – really, really big –”

“Okay!”

Jiraiya interrupted with a single clap of his hands from behind them, shoving the jinchuuriki to the side before taking a hold of her upper left arm and lifting her easily back to her feet and steadying her as she swayed and put a hand on the Uchiha’s shoulder for support.

After she found her feet, he gripped her shoulders and spun her around like a top, causing her to blink up at him as he ended up steadying her once again as little black fuzzies moved into the peripherals of her vision in odd blobs and nonsensical shapes. More than a little bewildered, she just stared up at his rather tanned features framed by shocking white hair, close enough from his tugging her around that her leather covered and bound breasts brushed against his rather well-defined chest with every breath she took, because he… he couldn’t have been talking about who she thought he was, could he…? That was impossible, wasn’t it?

Wasn’t it?

She’d vowed never to return to Konoha!

Oh, her head really, really hurt, and for a multitude of reasons.

“It’s very nice of you to drop in on us, Asuka, my dear, lovely kunoichi, but you should probably take that,” he pointed at Sasuke without moving his dark gray eyes from where they stared into her green ones, the boy in question bristled only slightly in insult, something that was a little shocking considering his pride. Well, he was emotionally drained and possibly a little catatonic. She’d cut him some slack. She was feeling a bit overwhelmed herself. “Back to Konoha for a scolding, and we’ll be on our way, yeah?”

That natural way he exuded PI drifted over her still slightly trembling coils, her still jittery insides along with her hara having felt oddly cold since his frightful use of KI, and she felt a knot of tension in her stomach release, the heat that radiated out from his body warming the sudden cold that coated her shivering skin. Whatever it was that Kisame had done to rip her chakra out of her had done a number on her system, which was still shaky from her unusual transfer to the Sandaime, the coils still feeling loose and stretched like old clothing that had yet to reach that just perfect comfortableness.

As she cast a glance at the grumbling and a little leery Zabuza, and Haku who was ever so kindly aiding Naruto to stand again and speaking to him softly, she decided that was another thing that she would wait to think about at a later time. There was only so much shock she could take in a day, after all.

“Well, uh, okay,” she replied, looking up into her superior’s dark gray eyes, a little disconcerted at how close he was, and at the serious glint in his eyes. “My mission ended today anyway, so I was already planning to head back.”

Oh, his hands were really warm and the way he was exuding that Positive Intent was ridiculous... was it stronger this time? Missing half her chakra was making her unpleasantly cold, and he just had so much it basically felt like through just a little contact it was jumping into her coils… she really wished that she knew how to do reverse transfusions, but that wasn’t something that they taught to field medics. Or people without the utmost clearance in the medical field, really. The ability to steal chakra was not one that would be spread wildly and with no regard for who exactly it was being taught to, and what they might do with it. There were perhaps five people from all of Konoha who had knowledge of the technique, and two of them weren’t within the village.

Well, not yet, apparently.

Oh, no, Asuka stop thinking.

I am so bad at this not thinking about things I shouldn’t think.

Just like when I was thinking about Naruto’s –

Gah!

No!

Just stop it, Asuka!

She was such a horrible person.

Her head ached like a motherfucker.

“Well, that’s good then,” the man coughed a little awkwardly and gave her a little pat on the shoulder with his large heavy hand, stepping back from her – taking his heat with him, the jerk – before picking up Naruto and slinging him under an arm like a sack of goods. “See you around, Asuka!”

The extra glance he sent her told her not to talk about that bit with Tsunade, and also conveyed some slight exasperation with the situation in general, a vague affection in quirked lips that had her blinking and smiling back helplessly. Honestly, she’d have to see it to believe it, and she wasn’t known for spreading false information when she did speak to others. She certainly couldn’t make herself believe it.

“Bye, Jiraiya,” she called after him faintly, still a little dazed, brows furrowed with subdued bewilderment and weariness. “Make sure to eat your vegetables, Naruto!”

“Eeeeeh?!”

With that, they were gone.

Just like that.

Freaking… Sennin?

She needed sleep.

A lot of it.

And alcohol.

Lots of that too.

Catching her eyes with those of the jounin across from her, she found herself inordinately weary.

“So, Kisame’s sword is one if the…” she trailed off, absently setting her arm around her boy at her side’s shoulders and giving him a squeeze.

“Yeah,” he sighed at her, his Kubikiribōchō slung across his back drooping as he did so.

It would have been more amusing if one of the cleaver’s sister swords hadn’t just tried to cripple her for the heck of it, but she was sure she’d take the proper enjoyment from it at a later time, possibly with a certain pale haired jounin –

No.

Ah, jeez, just… she really wished she were unconscious.

“That bastard yanked out basically half of my chakra in one go,” she muttered, rubbing at the back of her neck tiredly with her free hand, blinking tiredly, mind a bit of a haze.

“He does that,” he sighed back before signaling to Haku. “He’s a bit of a dick,” coming from Zabuza, she was sure that meant something, but she couldn’t quite think straight enough to truly appreciate it for all of its comedic gold. “We’re outta here, anyway.”

The Konoha shinobi are really fucking weird and pull you into the weirdest fucking shit and we’re out before they start the next Shinobi War over a smashed flower or something was implied.

She couldn’t argue it, really.

Team Seven was just cursed.

“Alright,” she waved him off and smiled at Haku vaguely, who smiled back a little hesitantly and nodded to the two remaining Konoha nin. “See ya around, Zabuza.”

“Asuka.”

After he ran his gaze over her one more time – men were such mother hens, especially jounin, she was finding – the two disappeared in a burst of shunshin.

After taking a moment to breath, she grabbed her student on the shoulder tighter, wondering if she could ask Iruka to help her with the incident report, and prepared for shunshin – oh, this was going to be uncom fortable – only for his voice to give her pause.

“… You made him bleed,” it was a soft, confused, and stunned breath, and she sighed, eyes heavy.

There was some kind of directionless accusation there, and she didn’t know if it was at her, for doing what Sasuke couldn’t, or at his brother, for being weak enough to be hurt by her.

It was probably a mixture of both.

“So I did.”

It was unlikely that she ever would again.

She couldn’t get the sight of that trembling hand out of her head.

And the familiarity of his eyes…

What was going on?

What was this?

Itachi-chan, what was this?

~*~

It was a little ironic – morbidly so – at least, she thought so, that he was in the exact same hospital room she’d been in only a little over a week prior.

And she was sitting in the exact same seat he had been during her stay in the hospital, her heart a squeezing, choking mess in her throat above her constricted chest.

After she’d finished her mission, dropped Sasuke off at his house after thoroughly chewing him out in the nicest way possible – he’d still given her the wide eyes despite the sweet smile on her features that she’d tried to mellow her words with, go figure – she’d delivered the scroll full of documents into the box for Hokage’s eyes only and gone home to shower. It hadn’t been as purifying and restorative as usual, and she couldn’t find it within herself to relax completely despite her exhaustion from receded adrenaline and chakra loss. She’d gone to bed after that despite her jittery energy, knowing that if she went with a little less than half her reserves to the hospital, they would demand a checkup, especially since she’d been wounded by Itachi whilst protecting her unauthorized genin while out of village bounds. She was going to keep that quiet for as long as possible, that bout of insanity that had driven a boy who knew full well the rules of leaving in the village, to keep the heat off of that silly, emotional boy, at least until his idiot jounin-sensei was well enough to take care of it himself.

Which… yeah.

That was, um, a thing.

One that she was most definitely not thinking about.

On her way back to the village, she’d run into Gai – which had been… interesting to say the least – and the man had quite colorfully lamented missing the member of the Sannin’s departure from the area, as he’d been hoping to have the man ask Tsunade to heal his student. Since he’d found that Sasuke was gone after he had apparently transported his Eternal Rival to the hospital, and thought the boy’s actions most YOUTHFUL in passion, but most UNYOUTHFUL in exploit, she’d asked him to take it up with Kakashi when the numbskull woke up. When they did stupid shit, they were his genin, damnit, and she was cranky enough from the sudden chakra drain destroying her nice vacation recovery. She did not sign up to deal with brats who could get in trouble with the Council, a problem she had absolutely zero ability to help them with. That’s what using an Elite jounin with a Clan – even if it was on the outs – was about; intimidating the Council into backing the fuck off.

She had reassured him that Naruto would likely remember – though she wasn’t quite certain – that he had a comrade who was in need of assistance and would manage to convince the woman to return to Konoha to aide him as well as take up the position of Hokage.

Something told her, that if anyone could pull off that miracle that Sakura was asking for, it was the little blonde genin.

The one who smelled like persimmons and flowers on the breeze.

But at present, she sat in the slightly uncomfortable chair next to her friend, hesitating on whether or not to take his hand, and if it would bother him at all, despite the fact that he was more than thoroughly unconscious – the word coma sifted through her mind in horror – and rather used to her chakra signature. The fact that he was so sickly pale, instead of his usual smooth, moon glow of a velvety ivory complexion threw her off, especially since nearly the entire top half of his features were showing, what with his hitai-ate having been removed. His silver hair hung limply down against his forehead looking both terribly soft and limp, and while it shown cleanly in the afternoon light, it was shadowing his pale features just that much more, looking a little odd since she was used to them being pushed back by his hitai-ate.

He looked… aged.

The scar that bisected his left eye looked angry and red, despite it being older than their genin were – normally it was as cool and silvery as the rest of the stories that patterned his skin map – and she had to refrain from reaching out with her chakra to sooth it, to make discomfort fade. No matter how much closer they had gotten in the past few months, touching that eye when he wasn’t fully conscious, and consenting, was an unsigned suicide note; she wouldn’t put it passed his unconscious ability to maim or kill her. She worried that perhaps he had strained the chakra pathways that were knotted up around his Sharingan implant, and that perhaps the eye itself was damaged from going against a blooded Uchiha’s own eyes, possibly burning them out even more than was usual. The bruises around his eyes were more pronounced with the ashy, wax sheen to his skin, his brows furrowed even in the depths of unconsciousness, dark lashes twitching with the dream, the nightmare that he was caught in.

She dreaded whatever it was that Itachi had forced on him in the Tsukuyomi.

Her tongue felt thick and hot in her mouth, her throat swollen and dry, eyes burning and pinched.

She… she couldn’t help him with this.

It was strange, seeing him lay so still, his body not tensed in the least because his mind couldn’t find a connection, had been separated from conscious thought and ability. He still wore his mask, likely the medics couldn’t remove it via some jutsu or seal, or there was some specification he had in his file that stated that it stayed on even when critically injured. The sleeveless ANBU grade under armor that he wore was identical to the ones she’d seen him wear before, but she knew that there had really been no need to remove his clothing farther than this, because it wasn’t a physical injury that had him laid up like this.

It was mental.

And that… that was so much worse.

A shinobi was trained to endure pain and torture after a certain rank, and during wartime, all ninja received specialized training for if they were captured and tortured, but the worst kind of torture all around was the kind you couldn’t separate your mind from. Genjutsu, an art that if one wasn’t a ninja didn’t seem particularly threatening. Genjutsu. She disliked it herself and so didn’t use it, but it didn’t mean she didn’t understand how effective of a weapon it was, how dangerous it was. Chitose had wielded it like an art form, had done so until his dying breath, and she could never hate a tool no matter what it had done and could do to her comrades. It was a terrible thing in the skilled hands of someone who wished to destroy you, who knew how to tear the human psyche apart piece by piece, who knew you enough to lay you bare and drip acidic compulsion or threats into the very darkness of your thoughts.

If there was one thing that Itachi was, it was skilled.

To hell with it , she decided, taking his left hand in hers, a little alarmed with how cool it was. His hands were normally chilly, yes, having some problems with his circulation as all ninja do to a certain extent, considering how hard they work their bodies, sometimes things just get pinched wrong and body parts got cool, and his being a ninjutsu specialist generally messed up the flow of energy in his body, but this… this was almost… like…

Without thought, she fluttered her chakra over his hand, letting it sooth up his arm and into the rest of his body.

That chill was because almost all of his chakra was focused on trying to fight Itachi’s, where it had been implanted into his coils, into his mind.

Where she could not go.

Aw hell, she thought weakly, letting her forehead fall to press against the back of his cold hand, continuing to circulate her chakra through his system to support the production of heat in his body. His coils responded easily, though in a sluggish manner, and circulated her chakra, though didn’t absorb it, the leftovers returning to her to be circulated again, since he currently had no need for more than what he already had, already at capacity as he was, and she sighed against the bed sheet in front of her face, trying to make the burning in her eyes dissipate. She willed herself not to cry, not to let the scent of her salty tears permeate this room with hopelessness. She didn’t want that to be the first thing he smelled when he woke, didn’t want him to feel that guilt or pain, to pull back from her because she’d shown him emotional weakness before he was comfortable enough to look for it.

She hadn’t hated Itachi before, no matter what had happened with the Massacre, but she felt a little bit of darkness bloom in her heart as she held his hand in hers.

He had hurt her Kakashi.

Gods damnit.

~*~

In the intensive care unit, she walked up behind a woman who was shorter but arguably more dangerous despite her petite frame and delicate features, with long purple hair and stood at her shoulder. Green and gray eyes were focused on the other side of thick, treated glass filled with sterile white and stark black, the faint hissing sound of machinery could be heard outside of the sealed room but nothing else left it.

What she could sense of Hayate’s chakra was… muted and pained. Sharper where it was normally soft and soothing.

“Don’t let him give up hope, Yugao,” even though Asuka’s chest ached with a sympathy and understanding it hadn’t had before, she spoke evenly, quietly. Reassuringly. “Keep him here.”

Her own hopes were reflected in her voice, in the steady confidence that she didn’t quite feel but could portray. Asuka… Asuka didn’t have with Kakashi what Yugao had with Hayate, but she at least knew, well, felt half of what her rival did.

“Asuka?” gray eyes flickered tiredly, but shrewdly up at her. “What’s happened?”

“Just… make him hold on.”

“Asuka.”

“There’s a possibility, that’s all. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” a small hand wrapped around the chuunin’s larger one, callus again callus. “I’ll keep him here.”

The smaller kenjutsu mistress’ eyes went flinty and pained as she stared through the glass at the bed surrounded by machines and medical seals, at her kenjutsu master lover where he lay in the middle, pale and bandaged. Even at that distance, intubated as he was, both women could see the tension to unconscious features, speaking of pain, the shadows on features speaking of illness and exhaustion that was more than just physical.

“Even if he hates me for it.”

It was what people did for the ones that they loved despite their wishes. It was a selfish version of love that they bore as nin who could die at any moment; who knew loss intimately.

Perhaps it was kinder to let them – him – fade, to let the pain end, but they were blade mistresses.

They were made of cold, folded steel. To protect that soft center that they so jealously guarded with razor sharp edges, they would even cut themselves.

It was simply who they were.