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Tsundoku

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When Anko confirmed the remains of Akadō Yorui amongst the dead faceless nin who had been found along the border, Asuka felt every bone ache. They hadn’t been close really, though she’d been out to drink with the team they’d shared together, hadn’t known each other on any personal level, but…

She was the only one to bring flowers to his grave marker, to smooth her fingertips over the engraving of his name on the stone.

Everyone else he’d associated with had died as well, killed by the same man who had killed him. That, or had betrayed them.

Sometimes, Asuka was just… tired.

Everyone died, but sometimes it was just… worse than others, because sometimes the fact that death could be meaningless just made the world and every mission that much heavier to bear, a burden when normally it was a duty. An honor, to protect and serve their home, the beautiful Konoha.

Was this what it would have been like for Asuka? If she had died before Kakashi had approached her for help? If those silly genin hadn’t run into her training grounds against all of the teachings of the Academy and rules of conduct?

Would she be just another flowerless grave?

“Sensei?”

Looking up at the voice of her pink haired genin from where she was leaned back against a Hashirama tree with dark thoughts circulating, Asuka managed to pull up a smile at the corner of her lips, pleased to see the girl despite the pressure that still sat heavily in her guts. There hadn’t been much time for her to regain her equilibrium between all the things she’d had to do since returning to Konoha, but she hadn’t wanted to cancel her date with the young and budding kunoichi. Even if the chuunin herself was still trying to catch her balance, she didn’t want to leave her little student floundering in the face of her jounin sensei in the hospital and her louder teammate outside of the village with an unknown. The inevitable question of Sasuke, who had practically disappeared after she’d entered the village with him and had his arm treated at the same hospital that housed Kakashi.

Asuka knew that she was going to have to break down and find that kid sooner rather than later, but in her current mindset the chuunin was pretty sure she’d do more harm than good. That, however, was not allowed.

Kid had enough problems, he didn’t need hers piled on top as well.

“Hello, Sakura.”

“Sensei, are you… okay?”

In the face of the innocent, sincere query from the girl who would learn the blade from her, who liked to sit at tea shops and talk about jutsu theory as well as complain about her teammates, the chuunin melted. There was a growing ferocity in jade eyes that was endearing.

“I’m not at my best,” she admitted after a moment with a tired quirk to her lips. “But I do still want to do some work today. That is, if you’re up to it.”

After another moment of worriedly studying the woman’s face the pink haired girl planted her feet and flexed one arm as the opposite hand squeezed her tiny bicep amusingly, face set in determination as Sakura nodded seriously.

“Let’s do this so I can beat up Naruto when he gets back, and Sasuke-kun for leaving me behind! And scare Kaka-sensei when he’s better!”

Asuka barked out a laugh of genuine surprise and enjoyment, feeling that knot in her chest lighten at the fire burning in jade eyes. Sakura beamed at the sound and the woman didn’t even attempt to stop herself from slipping to her knees to hug the girl, who returned the affection eagerly, tucking her face into the woman’s neck with a breath to both give and receive comfort.

Team Seven might drive her up the wall, but Asuka wouldn’t trade them in for the world.

“Alright,” she said, straightening and setting a hand on soft pink hair and a barely scuffed hitai-ate. “Time for some laps; stamina training today. You ready?”

“Hai, Asuka-sensei. You have to work hard to be terrifyingly stunning!”

“That’s my girl!”

She really did love these kids.

At the very least, she knew that there would be flowers on her grave someday.

And that…

That was enough.

~*~

Kaka-sensei was hurt, and Naruto was gone.

It was… scary, how quickly things had changed, how fast worse and worse things were happening to them, when before the scariest thing had been Zabuza and he was definitely not scary anymore because Haku-senpai made him all soft. Well, that, and whatever it was that was going on between Asuka-sensei, Kaka-sensei and him.

Having watched Inari follow the big scary missing nin around had been kind of a mark in the not-so-scary column as well.

It was scary that Sasuke-kun’s brother had managed to hurt their Kaka-sensei like that, that he’d needed to protect two other jounin and that was what had gotten him hurt, having Ino and Hinata’s sensei behind him as a weakness. Since she’d started working with Asuka-sensei, Sakura had taken to browsing the chuunin woman’s Bingo Book during down times after training, when her arms felt like jelly and her legs were leaden weights below her abdomen, which stung whenever she moved.

Hoshigaki Kisame was in the same section as Zabuza was, but his bounty and warning were higher because of his boundless chakra reserves and a sword that apparently ate chakra. Sakura couldn’t imagine what it would be like to face someone with Naruto levels of chakra – well, without that other thing that Sakura suspected, anyway – that could also steal yours away, making even an attempt at endurance nearly impossible. When Asuka-sensei had spoken of him – before Kaka-sensei ran into him – she’d shuddered with a little grimace at the thought of having to cross blades with him, saying that while she was a good kenjutsu mistress, she wasn’t on that kind of level of chakra monster. That she might, emphasis on might, have been able to beat Zabuza in a purely kenjutsu battle, but becoming one of the Seven Swordsman of the Mist wasn’t something that just anyone could do, and Kiri specialized in kenjutsu in a way that Konoha didn’t.

That both of her sensei had face him and been hurt, even if it was Jiraiya-sama that had kept Asuka-sensei from getting really hurt, was horrifying. And enraging.

Sakura wasn’t very good at the katas that she’d been started on for the path of the Nagisa, but she kept practicing them diligently because someday she was going to cut a chunk out of Hoshigaki Kisame for hurting two of her most important people. She didn’t care that he looked kind of cool, she was gonna bust some of his pointy teeth in if it was one of the last things she did.

Of course, this was all to avoid the terrifying elephant in the room.

Even if she’d been little when the Uchiha had been Massacred, she still remembered them. There had been two other Uchiha in her class other than Sasuke-kun when she’d started at the Academy, a Kotoni and Mamoru, who even if she hadn’t really spoken to them before, had been a scary, confusing absence after the fact.

There were scary things in the world; Sakura knew that, now as a genin more than ever. Uchiha Itachi was scary in very different ways than she was used to.

Even if she’d been picked on a lot for her big forehead, which Asuka-sensei said wasn’t even big and she’d grow into it, and for not being pretty enough, for being a slow civilian girl who didn’t know what she was getting into and that had hurt… her family had never hurt her like Itachi had hurt Sasuke-kun. Never deliberately, and certainly never physically, even if sometimes her mother would say things thoughtlessly or her father would have something slip his mind that they’d planned to do together.

When she’d run into the hospital room that held her genin teammate and her once crush – now friend, hopefully – with their chuunin sensei standing at his side as a medic looked over his broken arm it hadn’t been fear that was taking up most of the space in her throat. No, she’d used up most of that laying curled up next to Kaka-sensei while she waited for word from Gai-sensei that Sasuke and Naruto were alright, and while she was still afraid, it was mostly fury that buzzed inside her stomach and twitched at the back of her skull.

How dare they hurt my team!

Kaka-sensei was big and strong and kind of a dork sometimes when it came to whatever it was that was going on between him and Asuka-sensei, but he was also really gentle and caring and taught her all that she wanted to know about jutsu theory and advanced chakra control techniques. While he still got a little stilted when teaching them because he wasn’t quite sure how to dumb things down to genin vocabulary – Sakura was a little proud of the fact that she was the defacto translator for her teammates when it came to complex training – he always made time for them if he wasn’t assigned a random personal mission.

Asuka-sensei was taller than most kunoichi, it was true, but she also had a presence, one that Sakura was learning was subconscious in the same way that Kaka-sensei consciously made himself less noticeable. She was sly and a bit of a joker sometimes, enjoying picking at Naruto because he was easy to animate and liked it when color would crawl up Sasuke-kun’s cheeks because of her gentle teasing. She would braid Sakura’s hair when she was tired after having drilled her into the dirt in stamina training and force-feed her enough to satisfy Chouji when he was having a snack craving because she cared in a more obvious way than Kaka-sensei, who was a jounin, and so apparently emotionally weird.

In a way, it was harder to tell that there was something going on between her two sensei when she just looked at Asuka-sensei’s side of things; the chuunin was much softer with them than he was, and perhaps better at handling her emotions instead of ignoring them. But she knew from her lessons with the woman who she wanted to make proud that it wasn’t common for ninja to be tactile with people outside of their comfort zone, with people that they weren’t emotionally invested in.

They touched each other a lot. Not in any way that would make Sakura’s mother huff and sneer like most civilians would, but just hands on the back or elbow, leaning against one another and sharing food in a way that spoke of easy affection. It was… weirdly pleasing seeing them slowly get closer together as they taught her genin team, like another piece of a puzzle coming together to make a perfect picture made up of them.

Sakura didn’t understand it, but then, learning chakra relationship stuff was hard and embarrassing to talk about.

While she hadn’t thought that she would, she… loved her team.

Not like she’d once thought that she loved Sasuke-kun, though she did love him, if only in a maybe friend sort of sibling kind of way. She’d learned a lot about him since they’d become a team, and there were a lot of things about him that for all of her years of following him around she’d never even thought about.

He never, ever wore anything that showed his calves and shins, he was actually a pretty good cook, had a particular way of taking notes that apparently didn’t make much sense unless you were an Uchiha or had a Sharingan. Something to do with the way that their brains comprehended patterns different than everyone else and Kaka-sensei could look them over with him even when Asuka-sensei couldn’t manage to puzzle something out with her familiarity with Uchiha. Even if he didn’t move when he slept his hair got all weird in the morning and he always had pillow imprints on his cheeks and bags under his eyes. He hated mornings and wouldn’t speak unless he’d been awake for an hour or more.

She’d never thought a boy would care more about the way she folded her laundry than she did, but if he saw either herself or Naruto doing it even a little sloppily he’d take it from them with a sniff and fold it himself; it was shocking the first few times, because it was after they’d been on a team together for a while, but it was also nice. If a little weird.

She wondered if that was a Uchiha thing too, not liking sloppy things like that. Maybe because of that same pattern comprehension or something? His eyesight was really good even before he’d activated his Sharingan, and maybe it was the asymmetry that got to him.

Either way, it was both funny and interesting.

The times she liked best is when she didn’t understand some shinobi culture thing and he’d explain it to her. A little awkwardly, stilted and quiet, but he’d explain it to her.

It was nice.

Admitting to herself that a lot of what she’d thought about Naruto had been wrong had been… difficult. Sure, she was right that he was loud and kind of dumb – not stupid, dumb, there was a difference – but he wasn’t the nuisance that she’d always thought he was; the monster.

Kind of like how she’d realized that people were talking badly about Asuka-sensei, Sakura realized that the civilian population was really mean to Naruto, too.

She didn’t understand it, now that she’d gotten to know him at all. He was loud in the way that Sakura had been unfortunately smelly; out of ignorance because no one had given him a reason why he shouldn’t be. He was a prankster and troublemaker because he was bored of being inside – and lonely, both of the boys were lonely in a way that Sakura couldn’t quite relate to – and didn’t like learning bookwork the usual way and did better when things were on the physical spectrum because reading was difficult for him in the same way that Sasuke-kun forgot he was writing in that Uchiha-style sometimes because it was easier for him to organize.

Sure, he was still loud and could be irritatingly energetic, but that was just because he had so much chakra that when Sakura was feeling for it she sometimes felt a little punch drunk from the bright, fuzzy warmth of it. It was ridiculous and awesome at the same time because Asuka-sensei was trying to get his control high enough that he could do chakra transfers with the rest of the team, and Kaka-sensei had explained that it would be simple for him to have a Shadow Clone do it once he learned how to do it if they ever ended up in an awful situation like with Orochimaru again. He didn’t mind if she slumped against him in exhaustion when he was still ready to go because apparently, he had ridiculous stamina, didn’t mind when she’d passively bask in his aura while she tried to catch her breath. Naruto liked the same kind of shows that she did, well, the romances and dramas, not the documentaries, and he wasn’t ashamed or embarrassed by it the way that other boys would be.

Sasuke was the quick taijutsu specialist who was surprisingly easy to fluster, Naruto was their chakra powerhouse who delighted in any group activity and Sakura was the brains of the outfit that was turning into a hidden blade that didn’t want to be the reason they lost that.

She liked her team.

So if she ever saw Uchiha Itachi when Asuka-sensei let her have a blade, she’d go straight for his damn precious eyes and cut them out of his skull and break his arm.

Sasuke, when he’d seen her enter the room, had been pale and small seeming in a way that she’d never seen before and never wanted to see again, and there had been something tired in her sensei’s pretty green eyes that had made Sakura sad and heavy feeling. He hadn’t even minded when she asked if she could hug him despite nodding, even if he hadn’t hugged her back as Asuka-sensei’s chakra had flowed over them, and she’d only held him until he’d twitched a little at the prolonged contact, chakra frizzing with discomfort.

“Sakura are you ready to head back home?”

Yawning and stretching from where she’d been slumped against her chuunin sensei, the young girl rubbed at her eyes. Even though Asuka-sensei had told her that she wasn’t okay, that it was okay to be angry and frustrated, to worry and be scared, it was still tiring to think of such powerful people being after the dumb ray of sunshine on her team, people that had hurt Sasuke-kun and their teachers as well. They were powerful and infamous in their own ways and Sakura had a long, long way to go to reach her goal.

Getting stronger was hard, especially when you had to recover from malnutrition and grow your chakra stores up to an acceptable level, but Sakura was sure it would be worth it in the end.

“Can we stop by and see Kaka-sensei first?”

Warm lips pressed against the top of her head where she no longer wore her hitai-ate, instead having it around her neck, and her own mouth copied the smile pressed against her bright pink locks as an arm slid around her shoulders.

“Of course we can.”

Sakura was going to get scary enough and deadly enough that no one would have to protect her the way that Kaka-sensei had had to protect Asuma-sensei and the Yuhi woman, she wouldn’t be the reason that her team and the people she cared about got hurt.

Oh, right.

“Next time, can you teach me an iryō-jutsu?”

“Hmm… maybe. If you show me your progress with those chakra control exercises that Kakashi gave you.”

“Okay, Asuka-sensei! I’ve gotten even better.”

The woman laughed softly from above, obviously pleased, and warmth smothered some of the anxiety and restlessness in young chest, and she beamed up at her kunoichi sensei.

“I don’t doubt it in the least, Sakura.”

They protected her, so she’d protect them.

~*~

When he knocked on her door, he wasn’t sure exactly of what he was doing.

He had been in a bit of a shocked daze since they’d run into Ita – that man, and he was unsure of whether or not it was a good time, wasn’t sure what he should do, but couldn’t focus enough to train, was unsure of whether or not he could have even tried.

“Sasuke?”

Her soft voice had him looking up from where he’d begun to contemplate his hand without thought, staring at small, pale appendages. There were slight developing calluses and a few nicks here and there that would not scar in the way that experienced nin’s hands scarred, as those who taught him had scarred and hardened hands.

What could these hands do?

These were a child’s hands.

A child could not defeat that man, meant nothing against him.

What was he going to do, with these weak hands of his?

He had no power.

He needed power.

With her hair unbound and dressed in a large T-shirt and some shorts, her features soft and warm from sleep she looked like a civilian, but her green eyes focused on him with that intensity he had come to expect from her, steadying him a bit where he stood with an internal fortitude that he wanted to rely on. There were some tangles in her ridiculous curtain of hair that would turn into knots if they weren’t taken care of, but the long locks glinted like precious metal turned liquid in the light of the early rising sun, and he realized that as soon as the dawn had started, he had left his home and walked here.

“I…”

He blinked, feeling his cheeks heat as his senses began to return to him.

What had he been thinking coming here?

He shouldn’t be… he should be…

With his preoccupation he didn’t hear her as she sighed, but he did feel her hands as they slid over his own smaller ones, calluses scratching almost soothingly against the still too soft skin on the back of his fingers and the still malleable calluses on his fingertips from shuriken jutsu, closing his too small hands. Her heat pressed in against him as she slipped an arm around his shoulders to herd him into her apartment and he didn’t even have the time to think about arguing before she was shutting the door behind them and pulling him towards what would be her room if the layout of the small apartment was anything to go by.

Oh.

He had never been in there before.

Usually whenever Naruto dragged them to her place when she was on downtime from a mission they all stayed in the main area that was her kitchen and living room at the same time. When he had first entered her apartment, he had been rather confused and disturbed by the lack of space, but he was at least socially aware enough to realize that it wasn’t something to mention in polite conversation. Not that he was much for polite.

Or conversation.

Oddly enough, his jounin-sensei had seemed to understand his slight discomfort, perhaps because as his teacher he had seen the inside of the Compound, seen how spacious it was and connected Sasuke’s strangely confined feeling with being used to much more open space. So instead of wandering around as his teammates had, he had sat himself at the table next to his slouched and relaxed looking instructor because if there was one thing the man was good at it was letting his students be uncomfortable silently unless it was about something important. Though he hated to admit it, there was something extremely reassuring about the silver haired man despite the lackadaisical way that he seemed to regard everything around him, even his genin team, and the dark-haired boy wasn’t as immune as he’d like to pretend to the steady brace of the man’s presence at his side when he felt out of his depth.

While Asuka herself was… comforting – even thinking it made him embarrassed and he wanted to squirm in place – there was just something about Kakashi that made him feel as if he were protected in a way that was both active and passive, if his instincts were to be believed. Looking back on the confrontation with Zabuza, even knowing that they hadn’t been serious at the time, he knew that the rage at the threat to their persons that Kakashi had released had been very real, as had the prior ridiculously calming wave of Positive Intent that had raced over their chakra systems to unfreeze them from the trembling that the missing nin’s KI had instilled in them. Once the dark haired genin had been injured – Asuka had told him that his ribs were cracked, before she had proceeded to heal him – and the jounin had exploded out of the Water Prison, causing what looked like true fear to flash over the swordsman’s countenance, he had come to an understanding.

Hatake Kakashi was their sword and shield.

There was something more to being a sensei for that man than there was to other jounin who had accepted the role, something more to having dependents than the boy was sure he could understand without asking the man outright.

He knew more than many did, coming from a Clan as he did, about the quirks that a shinobi could have in regards to those they let close to themselves, and what they might do about it when one they had accepted into a unit or group was injured or in danger. While he himself had never been on either side such an equation he had heard stories from others in the Clan about how some ninja had individual needs of either violence, isolation, or some kind of consolation when those they’d decided to let close were put in danger. When the chuunin had luckily arrived during that mission that was supposed to be a C-rank but had warped beyond recognition – civilians drove him up a wall sometimes, why hadn’t the man just haggled over rights of trade over the bridge instead of worrying about payment? – and managed to awaken and then take care of the jounin who had wasted a good portion of his chakra psyching out his opponent and nearly killing him, she had sat them down before they could rush in to see him.

While he didn’t like to admit it, he was more worried about the man waking up rather than the fact that he had a Sharingan.

Not that his teammates thought this, of course.

Not that he’d tell them that.

Ever .

The woman had explained that if they wished to see him, they needed to go in individually and she would have to chaperone should he either be unconscious or fall such and basically not to approach him without her, something that was entirely understandable, though Naruto grumbled about it some. She had then prudently stated that it would be Sasuke who would see him first, considering the fact that she needed to take a look at his ribs first and all of her things were situated in the room that they had sequestered the jounin in. The fact that he was the least excitable was also mentioned, and it had only taken a single raised brow to silence his two teammate’s protestations.

He had entered behind her carefully, ribcage aching with sharp pains, following her motions as exactly as he could while they approached the man who was laying situated on the borrowed futon, trying to remain both alert and relaxed, as she had stated he should be the latter and the pain in his abdomen wouldn’t let him lose the former.

So when he stepped wrong a few feet from his sensei and cringed at the pain in his ribs, he just barely caught a flicker of movement towards himself before the woman was between him and the futon the jounin had been laid out on.

The next thing he comprehended was the two adults on the ground, the woman struggling to hold sparking, chakra coated hands away from her throat without actually retaliating, her green eyes were focused and intent, staring up into the single eye bared to her as if bore into her coldly. Without recognition. She was going to die because Sasuke couldn’t control himself! Their combined weight hitting the floor didn’t make a sound, he felt no vibrations shake the wood even though he was sure that the impact had to have been great considering the speed at which they’d moved. Later it would terrify and amaze him, the fact that a weight of well over two hundred pounds, possibly almost three hundred had impacted hard enough to give the woman bruises on her back that he would glimpse but did not even stir the air around them in the least.

Frozen as he was if felt like forever as he stared at what he thought might be his jounin-sensei ripping out the throat of the woman who had accepted all of them, until in the blink of an eye they were separated from each other and giving one another wry looks, as if they had simply been fighting over a snack again. As if there wasn’t anything wrong, that this was just another facet to their day like any other, a squabble that had been started by something inconsequential or ridiculous just like all of their other confrontations that he had ever been witness to.

His heart thudded once painfully in his chest as shock came and went, the entire debacle over in a matter of moments.

These were experienced nin, battle hardened, and war stained.

His teachers.

“Sasuke, come here.”

Her voice had jolted him into moving again after he took a deep breath and swallowed against the knot in his throat and he approached her calmly, a part of him amazed that he wasn’t uneasy with his sensei after the scene he had just witnessed but most of him strangely finding the idea that the man who had bathed them in such thick, relaxing, comforting Positive Intent would ever actually attack him ridiculous and unbelievable.

As she looked over his bruised and aching ribs he found himself locked into something of a staring contest with his jounin-sensei, the man’s weary dark eye seemingly terribly tired and old as it had looked into his much younger black eyes.

“I also had a Uchiha on my team as well, when I was a genin,” the man had stated softly without prompting, which caused the genin to jolt in surprise though the chuunin who held a water covered hand against his side made no reaction. She had probably known already, which he would puzzle at later, but couldn’t really compute in those moments. “There was a mission during the war that went wrong, and… to say the least of it, he decided that he’d rather give something to support Konoha than have it die with him.”

The man pulled his hitai-ate up to bare the black and red of his Sharingan to him, which was spinning so slowly that it made Sasuke want to cringe with the show of weakness. The amount of chakra that was devoured by that eye had to be astronomical, for the rings to spin in such a sluggish manner, the tomoe so uneven and lagged.

“Okay,” he had managed and something like relief flashed in mismatched eyes at the signal that the boy was not upset. It was rare that his opinion mattered. That it actually mattered to an adult. “Alright.”

The worry deep in his gut made him squirm because the doujustu was not supposed to be so sluggish when it span, should not have tomoe moving at different speeds, it signaled that the bearer was sick and unhealthy, and he was glad when the green eyed woman coughed blatantly, never looking up from her work on his torso, and the man covered it again with a slightly exasperated tinge to his tired aura. Whenever he felt the proof of his, for lack of a better word, growing fondness with those that made up this Team, which had somehow come to include the chuunin swordswoman, it made him feel like gasping for air, as if for the first time in forever he could find oxygen again when he’d been slowly suffocating alone. It made him shorter and more awkward verbally than he already was, but he didn’t know how to deal with such emotions, how to – to make it so that he could keep this, especially with the path that he had chosen, because for all of Team Seven’s faults, they were his Team, and that made them important.

They weren’t cannon fodder or placeholders. Weren’t pawns to be used.

Sasuke would deny it if ever asked directly, but he… wasn’t unhappy with them.

Team Seven.

“When…” he cut himself off with a frown, glancing down at his naked, bruised abdomen in surprise as water shimmered over his ribcage to encompass it, but the woman refrained from speaking to sooth his obvious interest with information. He’d ask later. Maybe… Probably not. “When I get mine…”

“I’ll be willing to work with you, obviously,” the man sighed and seemed to slump a little as he sent an acerbic look at the woman sending cool chakra through his skeleton. “Not that I have a choice.”

“Hmph,” was her only response.

After she had finished with his ribs, binding them anyway just to give them the extra support needed to fully heal as well as to keep him from reinjuring them with the training they would no doubt shove down their throats during free time, the jounin had fidgeted slightly in an uncharacteristic manner. He was so used to Kakashi being still and mostly inconspicuous that any unnecessary movement was almost shocking.

The sigh the man released had seemed to be one of odd resignation before a single hand reached out slowly before gripping the genin’s wrist and then in an even slower action began pulling him towards the silver haired man with a light enough grip, still slow enough that Sasuke could have easily pulled away should he have wished to. Because some part of him intrinsically trusted the man who had nearly drained himself dry of chakra to keep him from harm after he had been punted by Momochi Zabuza, he did not resist the pull, only finding himself cautious and curious until the man’s free hand settled on his shoulder tensely and then a masked face was pressed into his hair. A long, powerful breath that pulled in the boy’s scent had the genin’s eyes widening in shock and his heartbeat picking up as his hair shifted beneath the breath of the adult.

Epiphany struck.

They had been Imprinted.

Or rather, something similar to it. With the Uchiha it was difficult to spread your affection from more than one person even in families – most families didn’t even bear affection for one another, something that had hurt more than he could ever describe, because he hadn’t understood, still didn’t – and so Imprinting was usually done with a singular individual, someone that you absolutely could not do without. A Chosen. Most did not risk it and went throughout their lives keeping people at a distance because love of any kind could be a weakness, especially for a Clan that while not affectionate or warm, loved or hated with a fierceness that could be terrifying to behold. The strength of those emotions could lead to madness and obsession, as had been seen in the time of Warring States, whole regions being destroyed or reshaped in the aching, indomitable grief of a Uchiha who had lost their Chosen.

It took inordinate emotional and mental strength to be able to have more than one Imprint, more than one Chosen, to give yourself that many weaknesses, to have enough love in your heart to be able to spread it to more than one focus point. Many who had only Imprinted on a single person lost their sanity when that person was lost, the effects lesser when there were other Imprints to fall back on, disconnected with reality as they knew it and either became irrationally violent or they withdrew into themselves and became quiet and pliable, just dolls that wore the faces of those they used to be.

Sometimes when he was thinking deeply, his heart aching and his mind numb, he wondered if Ita – he had lost it because Shisui-nii had been his Imprint and had died.

Most of the time, he tried not think about it at all because it hurt, didn’t want to rationalize anything, didn’t want anything to make sense about the deaths of his family, his Clan, who he knew had pushed and pushed at both Shisui-nii and him. Even after Shisui-nii had died.

Before the Massacre, he’d thought that it was him, had had no doubts.

Clearly, he had been wrong.

(But privately, in the places where he didn’t dwell except in the night, alone in the Compound with his thoughts, he remembered the way that sometimes he would catch them sitting together. How his brother would look more human, more fallible, in the light of Shisui-nii’s presence, as if he didn’t have to be more with his best friend in the way that he had to be to keep their Father and the Elders happy. In the way he had been to protect Sasuke from the scorn of those who compared the Clan Head’s two sons against one another.

He remembered how when their cousin would appear out of nowhere and place a hand on his brother’s shoulder would relieve a tension that Sasuke, who had been holding his hand, or been riding on his back, had previously not noticed.

Sometimes, he let himself remember being happy with his brother. How the prodigy had been happiest when it was the two shinobi plus an Academy student walking down the road to the teenager’s boisterous voice from above, or sitting in a training field in one of the few times that Itachi had managed to free himself from the Elders and their father, just talking or getting help with his throwing or stances. Yes, sometimes he let himself remember. But not often.

Because it hurt more, if he thought about it.)

So as he sat next to his jounin-sensei, sitting back on his knees with his face basically pressed to the man’s black clothed shoulder, he didn’t think much as his face flushed beet red at having been chosen for such an honor, to be important enough to someone of his sensei’s caliber for him to need the reassurance of his scent after a battle in which he’d been injured. He could literally feel the ambient chakra that hovered placidly over the bits of pale skin that weren’t insulated by the touch of chakra woven cloth being pulled up and into his jounin-sensei’s body with each heavy breath. That said that the man had been worried for him, that he meant enough to him personally – as a person, as Sasuke – that just seeing wasn’t believing, that even watching someone he trusted run medical jutsu over his wounds did not assuage whatever feelings of concern he held. He found that he had to consciously hold his breath so that he didn’t nervously breathe in the man’s own scent without express permission – he’d gotten into trouble many times with his father for doing so, and the punishments he had received left their mark… literally – when seeking comfort.

His reticence had clearly been felt, because carefully restrained chakra suddenly felt like it had exploded out of the jounin in ridiculous amounts.

This was what the man had called average chakra stores?! Really?!

Later he would wonder what Naruto’s chakra unrestrained by his subconscious would feel like up close, and then he would shudder because even restrained as it was it felt like the blonde had twice his own capacity and he held no desire to be sense blinded. He would also be informed that Kakashi had not had his chakra fully restored and what he had felt was somewhere around a third of his full capacity, something that had him staring at the chuunin in shock, the understanding droop to her own shoulders and exasperated, tired quirking of her features the only comfort to his incredulity.

Average.

Right .

Being caught in the thrall of the silver haired man’s chakra blanketing his system he felt like he was standing in a storm head, like the very air around him carried static charge and could light up and tear the heavens asunder at any moment. It was terrifying and exhilarating in equal amounts because… the hand on his shoulder had relaxed and the fingers gripping his wrist were but a loose comfortable link around his strangely thin seeming appendage, something inside of the jounin had been comforted by his scent, had been relieved by the physical evidence of his health. That chakra that rumbled around him like thunder from afar that was slowly but assuredly getting closer, no hurry in its eventuality, was mixed with the deep bass growl of what he imagined two titan gods crashing against one another in battle would sound like, causing his coils to shiver and roil with confusion and nerves, jumping and twisting under the heavy weight that surrounded him with awe and shock.

Still, he found himself taking the reassurance – for that was what it was, a signal that this great thunderous monster was between him and everything else – and letting himself take a soft slow breath against the fabric he had pressed his nose against, feeling the scent of ozone shivering down his spine, mixed with dust, salt, copper and canines, with a surprising dash of lavender of all things. The shoulder beneath his face had been solid with muscle even in relaxation, and he imagined that it would feel like coiled steel when tensed, something that would not have been comfortable to lean against in the least though it was another reassuring factor about his sensei.

While he had known that the pale haired man had taken in their scent when he’d first gotten them, hadn’t been very discreet about doing so, all things considered, he hadn’t known that they were… important enough for any reaffirming such as this.

That he was.

Oh, he knew he was important. He was the last Uchiha after all, but… most people didn’t actually… care. About him.

They only cared about his face, his name, his blood – which were important he knew, they were things that he was proud of, aside from his face because that was just confusing – because he was Uchiha Sasuke, but they did not care for Sasuke, did not know him.

As his fanclub could attest to, they didn't want to know him outside of the image they'd built for themselves.

It was unknown to Sasuke if his teammates had noticed the fact that the man had scented them immediately after having passed them as a team, and he was aware that they didn’t know that the fact that Sakura’s lack of obvious scent had seemed to stress the jounin. The last Uchiha hadn’t been aware of it himself, only noticing when out of the corner of his eye he’d seen some interaction between the chuunin woman and his sensei in regards to the pink haired kunoichi’s training. He himself had never taken in his fellow genin’s scents, didn’t want to be close to them like that, especially when they were so much weaker than he and much more likely to die on a mission than he was, considering his skills in comparison to theirs.

(He feared how he might feel if he did, if it might change him. Sasuke hadn’t been taught how to Choose, he’d been too young.

Now, he doubted that he’d ever know how.)

But blanketed as he was, sitting before the man who was a veritable monster in his own right, he had contemplated the fact that whatever would be able to kill his teammates would have to go through his sensei first, and if it did, then well, they were all fucked either way.

In its own way, it had been strange seeing the man like that, much calmer with fatigue than he usually was at full strength, mostly because he had been without both his sandals and his jounin vest, though strangely enough the unnerving part was his lack of gloves. His hands were large and thin, strong though, with tendons that stood out starkly beneath his pale, scarred skin that he had only noticed with a deep scarlet face as he’d been released from the scenting to sit back on his heels, face twisted to express a tangle of emotions that he didn’t understand.

It was weird seeing his sensei’s skin.

Both of the people who taught him wore a lot of clothing that covered the majority of their flesh, something that was a little odd amongst ninja in general, who seemed to favor the ‘less is more’ adage when it came to attire. Sometimes it was a little ridiculous though, he had to admit. It was, however, his jounin-sensei that obviously covered more of himself, considering his mask and gloves, fingerless though they were. He had never seen the man in anything remotely casual, though he looked more so without the vest than any other time he’d seen him, but he had seen the chuunin in civilian clothes before, though usually it was just her arms that were bared in comparison to be fully covered as her combat outfits centered around.

That was weird enough. Who knew that arms could make someone look completely different?

Come to think of it, he realized, brought back to the present where he was standing in her apartment, she was definitely showing more skin than he had ever seen from her before, and he tensed slightly as color and horror bloomed across his features in equal measurements with his mortified embarrassment. If there was one thing he’d thought of her since the first moment he’d laid eyes on her, it was that she was very pretty in comparison to a lot of the kunoichi he’d seen, much nicer to look at than the girls his age were, with an attitude to match.

Immediately, he scolded himself for even thinking about her in such a fashion – she was not for ogling, for–for anyone! – confusion twisting with stunned anguish as he tried to figure out a way to remove himself from the growing discomfort of his situation while she carefully shoved him gently down to sit on the edge of her bed. Even as she was tugging off his sandals, which should have been left at the door as was polite, and his hip pouch – which he’d put on out of instinct and routine – and setting it to the side he was still struggling within himself with emotions and numb apathy as they warred against each other.

“Sleep, Sasuke,” she murmured.

With gentle hands she pulled him with her as she lay down, her hair blanketing him in her scent, like copper colored satin of the finest quality, like a shield against his thoughts that would not start, nor would they stop, and he felt his eyes close.

As her warmth seeped into him, his mind emptied of static once again and he sighed against the chaos of his thoughts, allowing his hands to grasp the cloth of her shirt and his nose to press into the hollow of her throat as he relaxed in her arms where they both laid on their sides facing each other. Her soothing chakra sifted over him, centering in a calming spiral around the heavy weight that was the Cursed Seal and giving him respite from a pressure he hadn’t even noticed was building, easing the dark burning in his chest and the nonsensical displeasure of his thoughts. It was probably better not to think, he realized. Probably better to let himself just float for a while, to not feel the rage and loss and betrayal of a family torn apart only magnified by that much more by his inability to truly hate the one who had brought it all crashing down around him.

(Why didn’t He kill him too? Why?

Why did He leave him behind?)

When he woke a few hours later around ten in the morning – later than he’d slept in a long time despite his loathing of mornings – it was to well-known, soothing fingers petting through his hair and a soft lilting, slightly husky humming coming from above him and his face pillowed in someone’s lap, the familiar scent that permeated the air and the bedclothes reminding him of just where he was.

Feeling so relaxed… a night without nightmares… it had been so long…

This was the closest to tears he’d been in a long time, and it was because he’d had a peaceful few hours of sleep.

Pathetic.

“Feel better?”

At the woman’s murmur, he tightened the hand he had apparently kept tangled in the material of her shirt, releasing a shuddering breath.

“No…” he breathed, eyes burning so much with shame that he squeezed them shut.

There was still an aching, churning pit of despair in his chest, waiting to grow and swallow him whole if he let it and he was so… tired.

“That’s alright,” she reassured calmly, both hands starting to sift through his dark hair, short nails digging softly against his scalp in a relaxing way. “You don’t have to.”

His heart shuddered in his chest at the words and his throat felt tight.

“I… don’t?”

“No,” she replied surely, bending down in a subtle show of flexibility at the waist to press her forehead to his shoulder. “No, it doesn’t have to get better. It won’t ever be alright,” she continued gently, and he swallowed as he began to tremble. “It won’t ever feel better, but you will get better.”

He felt lost, and he didn’t like it, but there was nothing he could do to push away the heat in his eyes, though he didn’t cry.

“Me?” he heard himself ask distantly, his voice that of a stranger’s unsure whisper.

“You,” she confirmed. “You will get stronger, you will find things to hold you up, new memories to hold back the darkness,” she sat up again and returned to petting his hair, the weight of her chakra holding him aloft. “People to strengthen you. It won’t be easy, but it doesn’t have to be impossible.”

He thought of the faces of those he’d loved pale and slack with death, bodies ragged and torn and bloody, and he thought of sad smiles from his favorite person, thought of piggybacks and learning how to throw kunai and shuriken and senbon. Of hands ruffling his hair and boisterous laughter from above.

She was right, he was sure.

It would never get better.

Hopefully, she was also right that he would get better, would be better.

A small part of him hoped that she would be right about people being there to help him.

While he could deal with it, had been dealing with it, he’d prefer not to be alone if there were other options.

It was… cold.

He’d much rather be warm the way he was while he was laying in this woman’s bed with her comforting fingers against his scalp and her smooth humming starting up again to thrum nonsensically but comfortingly through the room that smelled like her, saturated with her scent. Her chakra was soft against his network, a pulse in time with her heart, slow and deep and steady as it held that weight off his mind and heart, letting him lie boneless against her with a head a mess of thoughts and thoughtlessness. He felt weightless, almost. Like he was drifting and floating, the effect of gravity canceled as she held him up. There wasn’t a memory in his mind of his mother ever doing something like this for him, he couldn’t remember a single time when the woman who had raised him had treated him with as much affection and tender care as this chuunin did and that was painful. It hurt.

It was also… nice.

Faintly, there were instances with Shisui-nii and his older brother before that he could recall, but he shoved them away to bask in the now.

Sasuke so rarely got to enjoy nice things, that sometimes he thought he was hallucinating most of his interactions with his teammates and sensei.

“Haruka and Chitose did not die in the Massacre,” she stated suddenly, and he found his eyes opening from where they lay closed and he turned his head to look up at her.

Lightly tanned features were calm and steady where she gazed out into a distance at memories he could not share, eyes sad and soft and full of the grief that came with losing those that you held dear.

“It was perhaps four months before,” she continued softly, and he felt his heart pick up as he realized just what she was saying. She was telling him how she lost them, something she had yet to do. “We were on a mission.”

His fingers tightened on cloth as he stared up at her.

“The mission… it was supposed to be rather cut and dry,” she smiled humorlessly. “It was A-rank, but barely. We were a successful team, so we’d taken a few with no problems,” she paused for a moment. “We were on our way back to the village when we were attacked. They had no markings to distinguish them from any village, wore blank masks, bore no marked jutsu that would cause them to stand out, but they were skilled. They pressed us hard, as it was just the three of us against fifteen unknown nin of varying skill levels with a few nonstandard techniques,” he started at this. Fif teen? That was ridiculous to throw against one team! He considered for a moment. Perhaps not when it was a team with two doujustu holders and a kenjutsu practitioner, but still, he’d never heard of an assault like that. Of course, he’d learned that he didn’t know everything; that was Sakura’s job. “We injured and killed a number of them, but they were well trained and well prepared. Every one of them that fell was a weapon; their bodies were rigged with explosives that detonated upon the stopping of their hearts. Haruka was injured first as a close combat expert.”

She closed her eyes for a moment before looking down at him.

“Chitose pushed me out of the way of an explosion and took the brunt of it himself, and we were both injured. I had minimal functionality in my left side and a fracture in my upper thigh,” licking her lips, she continued petting his hair from where she’d stopped, seeming to take some comfort from the action. “Haruka had sustained a spinal injury and was missing a large chunk of his abdomen and Chitose had severe burns across his body, both of his arms were useless with shattered bones and it was likely that had he tried to move he would have died from shock and pain on the spot. While I had limited mobility, I could still stand. So, I moved to defend us from the remaining four, but Chitose and Haruka acted faster,” the smile she gave was melancholy and warm. “Their ability to do joint genjutsu was envious, a gift from being twins they said, and it saved my life. They could not be moved, for fear of killing them all the quicker, and we had to wait for the remaining enemies to believe me dead and their objective accomplished via the genjutsu before we could think of anything at all.”

She didn’t mention what this objective would have been, and he didn’t ask. To be frank, it was none of his business, and he wasn’t what one could call curious about it either. He could… take a guess, though, considering her teammates had born his bloodline limit.

He had nightmares about having his eyes gouged out sometimes, of-ofOrochimaru pulling them out with his spindly fingers and his tongue –

Without thought, he reached one of his hands up and grasped one of hers, which caused her to startle slightly and she smiled down at him, squeezing back in thanks for the comfort he had subconsciously offered. And needed.

“I could have made it to an outpost with some difficulty, but they would not have survived in the time it would have taken for reinforcements to return with aid,” she closed her eyes. “So, I waited for them to die. I sat with them until they took their last breathes, trying to make them as comfortable as possible because they did not want me to… to… I sat with them. For hours.”

The woman’s eyes were a little wet when she opened them to look down at him, his own features were tight, and his throat stuck with a heavy ball of tension as he stared up at her, beginning to understand what she was saying in the back of his mind. There was something haunted and familiar in her eyes, and Sasuke swallowed the lump in his throat.

“So, I know what it is to lose those most important to you,” she murmured, pressing their joined hands to his cheek. “I know what it is to see a fraction of what you have seen.”

His heart pounded hard in his chest, his tongue felt heavy even as he felt lighter again in a way he was unsure of how to interpret.

“You are not alone, Sasuke.”

He was… was she right?

She had been, before.

So he wasn’t…

Not alone.

His neck burnt harshly, making his chest feel heavy and tight.

“But he almost took Kaka-sensei away too,” he found his raw voice asking with whispers of anguish, not noticing the epithet, and choked terrified fury. His sword and shield had almost been shattered, had almost been obliterated before his very eyes by the same person who had ruined his life. Who ruined everything. “And Kaka-sensei is… while you… he could have taken you away.

(Who had been everything.)

“Ah…”

The soft exhalation of breath had him glancing up with burning dry eyes and furrowed brows towards the woman who was still sifting her fingers through his hair. The sight that greeted him was features that were slightly twisted with helpless unhappiness and pale with both worry and the sort of tiredness that curled low in his gut. Her normally calm green eyes were covered by pale lids and she took a deep breath through her nose as she seemed to center her thoughts before she released it through her mouth slowly and softly as she collected herself, her features smoothed into something similar to her regular, familiar lecture mode.

“To be frank with you, I heard about the entire confrontation from Asuma and the way that it played out would have been very differently had Kakashi not had two basically useless –” the venom in the word was mildly surprising. “– Jounin to protect and that was likely what Itachi was banking on in that situation.”

… What?

“What… what do you mean?”

“While Itachi is indeed a formidable opponent with prodigious talent, he is also a teenager who lacks in experience in comparison to your sensei,” she stated, looking down at him with a single raised brow. “When you also factor in the fact that Kakashi graduated at the age of five – only being kept in the Academy for one year for formalities sake, he already knew everything when he went – and then became a chuunin within a year, also only due to formality and age restrictions,” he felt his dark eyes widen and his mouth dropped open slightly. Had he not been so terribly conflicted with a numb squirming mass in his chest he wouldn’t have shown such an amount of shock at the new information because honestly, he’d had no idea of his jounin-sensei’s history. “The only reason he wasn’t promoted to jounin by the time he was ten was because his body had not caught up with his brain, the same for his chakra network, which even for a Clan child had been rather impressive for his age, if memory serves,” she mused, seemingly taking some amusement from the dumbfounded look on his face.

Clan? His mind uselessly wondered. Hatake is a Clan ? That wasn’t in my studies with Mother!

He’d never heard of another person with the name, either.

“So he was promoted to jounin at thirteen, the bare minimum he could do so – this is all before he received the Sharingan, mind you – and still minimize any health risks to his growing body. His immediate placement was Mid because of his physical limitations, but his intelligence scores alone granted him Select status though he did lack in some practical experience and wasn’t particularly interested in academics in general. By the time he received this promotion he had already participated in two Wars, the second going on at the time of said promotion, and he was immediately taking high priority missions – mostly A-rank or above – and blowing through them at a spectacular rate.”

What?

What?

Kakashi was a prodigy? Intelligence of Select at thirteen ? He had – he was – graduated before he had? Had scored higher than he had?

Bwah…

If he could comprehend he likely would have had a terrible headache.

“I’m pretty sure that by the time he was… fourteen, I think,” she pursed her lips in thought, brows slightly furrowed. “He was ahem,recruited into the Special Forces unit,” his sensei had been ANBU? What else didn’t he know about Hatake Kakashi? “Of course, this was only because Sandaime-sama couldn’t keep him out anymore what with Yondaime-sama being in charge of said Forces, and of course, being Kakashi’s jounin-sensei since he was an itty bitty genin he knew his student’s skills thoroughly enough that he had no worries about Kakashi taking up the duties.”

Though he could tell that his features were twisted with incredulity he didn’t make an effort to change this and rolled onto his back to look up at her with slightly narrowed eyes and a disbelieving tilt to his lips as she situated so that only one hand was in his hair and the other was resting on his chest over his heart.

“What?” he asked, finally voicing something from his tangled confused, rather beaten thoughts. “Seriously, what?”

“I’m going to be perfectly honest with you, Sasuke,” previously mildly amused green eyes turned serious as she looked down at him, hands stilling. “If it had just been Kakashi against Itachi, Itachi would have lost. Badly.”

That didn’t… make sense?

No, it didn’t, it couldn’t. If it made sense then it would mean that his bro – he wasn’t so powerful that he could annihilate their whole Clan in a single night without planning it so that those who could oppose him weren’t in the village or he had somehow blocked the entire Massacre from reaching anyone outside of the Compound. It would mean that it could have been prevented, that all of that could have…

“Sasuke.”

He was drawn out of his confused really not making very much sense thoughts at the sound of his name.

“While Kakashi is strong, ridiculously so, it would seem, he’s not infallible,” he swallowed against his dry throat and swollen feeling tongue, head fuzzy and numb as he couldn’t find the energy to try to think again. “It still would have been a difficult battle for him, but…” she sighed, leaning back against her pillows propped up against the wall. “Look at it this way. Kakashi has had his Sharingan almost as long as Itachi has been alive.”

He really should stop being surprised by these things.

“He got it before Itachi even set foot in the Academy, and he’s been using it since day one. He has twice the amount of experience in using it as Itachi does, and basically three times the battle experience in general. While all of this is a great way of looking at it, there’s also the fact that his Sharingan eye eats up his chakra like Naruto does ramen after a mission out of the village,” he grimaced lightly at the imagery. “The initial implantation was done by a medic whom I hope had no familiarity with the Sharingan ocular pathways – otherwise that is justshameful – and afterwards your Clan wouldn’t allow someone who was familiar with them to realign them to minimize the chakra drain,” yeah, that sounded like them. “No matter how experienced he is, the fact that he only has one Sharingan against two is not a good matchup no matter how you look at it, and there are only so many abilities that you can awaken in your Sharingan without someone to work on them with. There is no defense against the Tsukuyomi that is known outside of your Clan and since he had never experienced it before he had no way of knowing how to find a way to prevent it from catching him… your – Itachi would also have grown skills in his time outside of Konoha that Kakashi would have no way of knowing. With the fact that time constraint would be a big part of a one on one confrontation there would only be a minimal amount of analyses before Kakashi would have been forced to end it or risk losing.”

“… Killed him?”

Killed Itachi?

He didn’t know why his voice shook, didn’t know why it wasn’t a satisfying thought other than he probably wanted to do it himself rather than have his sensei do it for him but he didn’t know for sure because his emotions and thoughts were both stalled and moving a mile in a second.

“Yes.”

When he flinched without thought at her blunt tone she pulsed chakra over him softly before continuing, features soft but grim.

“Itachi is a prodigy, yes,” she twisted her lips sardonically. “But in matters of genius Kakashi is simply better than him.”

B… Better?

“You fought him off,” his mouth moved without his say so and he was vaguely annoyed with it. “You fought him off and you’re not a genius.”

The soft laughter she released was amused and it took him a moment to realize that that could be construed as vaguely insulting, though her reaction said that she was anything but insulted. There was something like pride in the tilt of her eyes as well as a wistful sort of exasperation that told him nothing of her thoughts other than the fact that he’d brought up a good memory, likely of the two family members he could just barely remember.

“In the right conditions, even I could win against Itachi. In a one on one fight, that is,” she grimaced and mussed his hair, causing a scowl to move over his features. “He wasn’t going nearly all out, and if you’re to be believed – which you are, don’t look at me like that – then he didn’t want to risk damaging Naruto. Still,” she mused for a moment. “I also have a lot more experience than he does, and certainly more experience fighting against those who bear the Sharingan than Kakashi does, all things considered…”

A shrug had him shifting in her lap as she seemed to toss that thought aside before she continued.

“If you play your cards right, just about any battle is winnable.”

“Any battle?”

“Mhmm. Just about.”

He closed his eyes as they fell silent, listening to her breath for several minutes until she softly began to hum again, the sound tuneless and absent as she pulled her fingers through his hair and trailed the other hand over his back after he had turned towards her to bury his face against her stomach. Pretending that the rest of the world didn’t exist outside of her bubble of chakra and warmth and peace he let himself enjoy the gentleness of her touch, the firm press of her abdominal muscles against his forehead through her shirt, the pleasant tone of her voice. Right now he was weightless and warm and she was soft and smelled nice, with kind hands and a strength he didn’t have.

There was time to think about battle later.

Just then, wrapped up in her scent and her arms, he would let himself bask.

He really wanted her to be right.

Being alone was…

Cold.

If he won… if he ‘played his cards right’…

He would have this again, even after he reached his goal. She would – they would accept him again.

His neck felt heavy and burned like wildfire.

He needed more cards.

~*~

A week after her return from Otafuku-Gai the Sandaime awoke.

The joy was… indescribable.

She had been doing her semi-routine chakra circulation through Kakashi’s system, Sasuke and Sakura having recently left the room to go train with Gai and the Yamanaka’s respectively, when she’d been summoned to go speak with him by one of the nameless, faceless ANBU.

This one wore a cat mask, and while there was something oddly familiar about him that she found puzzling, she was mostly grateful for his patience in waiting until she’d finished reheating the silver haired jounin’s body and chakra system enough that she felt comfortable leaving for a time; so that she could return to finish the job after her meeting. The fact that there was no extra tenseness in the jounin’s coils during the procedure while the ANBU was in the room, to her, meant that the Copy-nin knew the member of the Hokage’s guard personally, and well enough that he found no threat in their presence. There had been others that when they’d entered the room the man’s coils had twitched and roiled slightly against hers, as if trying to signal a threat was in the area, but unable to respond, though she’d seen his nose crinkle instinctively as if he had taken in an unpleasant scent.

Shimura Danzo was apparently a man that Hatake Kakashi did not get along with.

At all.

She’d almost expected him to jump up from the bed and maul the bandaged too serious man, consciousness be damned, and she couldn’t quite find it within herself to disagree with the action should it have occurred, strangely enough. Asuka herself had never had dealings with the Council member, but something vague in the back of her mind told her that it was best not to get involved with him or question Kakashi’s dislike for him. That she wouldn’t like the outcome.

The throbbing headache that the whole situation gave her did not help in the slightest.

The Neko ANBU member bowed her into the room and she blinked at the oddity of his strangely formal respect, before continuing in to speak with her Hokage.

“Asuka-kun,” the Sandaime spoke fondly, causing her to look up from her automatic bow, and she blinked at him.

He didn’t look much different, all things considered. Exhausted and a bit pale, a little odd outside of his Kage robes, but otherwise he didn’t look at all different, despite being in a hospital bed propped up by several pillows, ANBU shadows in every corner. Still, he had the air to him that he always had had. Fond, strong, and a little bit stern.

He felt no different than he did behind the desk during a mission debriefing or an annual checkup.

Just by looking, you couldn’t tell that he could no longer mold chakra to the marvelous degree he’d once had. She could still feel that towering monster inside of him, and that made her heart hurt.

But still, The Professor’s strongest weapon had always been his mind.

“Hokage-sama,” she greeted, smiling at him a little helplessly, the man who held Konoha together.

“Do come take a seat, won’t you?” he patted the bed next to him in a rather ridiculous manner, and she flushed even as she smiled at him, taking the chair next to his hospital bed instead of a seat on the sheets next to him. Sandaime was getting wicked in his old age and convalescence. “Now, tell me about your meeting with Momochi Zabuza, won’t you? I’m sure it was interesting.”

There was a certain slyness to that smile that had her cheeks burning even brighter.

Surprised at the request she did so, not being able to help grumbling good naturedly a bit at certain parts, causing chuckles and laughter to be released from her Hokage, and she took some pleasure in his happiness. She tentatively spoke of her run in with Jiraiya and the two missing nin, noting the grimace that went over the Sandaime’s features, though he didn’t look surprised, and she was sure that the man had gotten news from Jiraiya via Summons after he’d awoken. There was something sad in the Hokage’s eyes whenever she said the older Uchiha’s name, and she felt something twinging in the back of her heart. She didn’t have any idea what it could feel like to have one of your children betray you in such a way. For that was what the ninja of Konohagakure were for Sarutobi Hiruzen, his children.

To have had two of his trusted leave…

The pain must have been horribly indescribable.

“There was something…” before continuing, her gaze automatically flickered to the corners of the room where the ANBU were stationed.

She didn’t know that she could bring it up, didn’t know that she should, if it was important.

No, she knew it was important, but…

She hadn’t put it into her report because it hadn’t seemed right at the time, her head aching with more than just chakra drain, but to tell it directly to the Hokage was different. Something told her that doing that was safe, as opposed to putting it down on paper. Perhaps it was the normal paranoia she was used to as an active kunoichi, but even though that thought didn’t feel quite right she swept it aside as she looked at her Kage.

“Hmm,” the man hummed thoughtfully, staring at her with dark eyes. “Boar, a silencing screen, if you would.”

“Hai,” was the near silent reply and chakra fluctuated over the room until she felt the barrier fall into place.

That was… cool.

Much more advanced than a restaurant’s privacy Seal, that was for sure. Wait, could Kakashi do that? If he could she was gonna beat it out of him at the earliest convenience because that was something that could come in handy.

Unless it was a forbidden technique; which, boo.

“Now, my dear, I believe you were saying?”

He seemed a tad amused by her wonder, the way she’d not so subtly craned her head to look at the spreading chakra net over the room, but she pushed it aside.

“Ah, hai, Hokage-sama,” her brows furrowed slightly and her hands twitched in her lap. “It’s about Itachi.”

In a near replica of the way his eyes had sharpened on her when she’d come to report on the shortcomings of the Academy, he focused on her and made a vague gesture with his hand and she suddenly felt like they were alone in the room. Not that she could normally sense ANBU, because that was kind of in their job description, to be unseen and unheard, to leave without a trace, but it almost felt like there was more room to breathe.

On second thought…

She… should probably keep track of just what it was that Kakashi trained into her, shouldn’t she.

“Go on.”

The intent in his words was unnerving, but she kept on.

“There was something odd about him,” she stated, feeling a little silly, despite the seriousness of the situation. “He seemed… reluctant, perhaps?” she pressed her lips together. “No, he was upset that I was there, as if he were prepared for Sasuke, but not for myself.”

She blinked at her own words, brow furrowing.

“He wasn’t… expecting me?” she mused suddenly, confused at her own thoughts, tongue tracing the inside of her bottom teeth. “He was surprised.”

He had been waiting… for Sasuke to show up, but she had… been where she wasn’t supposed to be?

How would he have known?

Oh, kami above, were there even more leaks in their damned information network than they had already noticed? It had to be pretty high up the food chain for it to be leaking to the Uchiha pariah that terrified more people than Asuka could honestly comprehend.

“Asuka-kun,” the Sandaime sighed, frowning intently dark eyes alight with interest. “Is there anything else?”

Despite the odd way that the man was acting, the strange intensity to his concentration and the echo of guilt and sadness that layered across his gaze, his order kept her going.

“He had plenty of time to strike,” she continued, heart pounding in her chest like a hammer against an anvil. “It took nearly a full minute for Jiraiya to arrive from wherever they’d drawn him away to, and despite my initial injuring of him, either he or Hoshigake could have easily overpowered me to kill Sasuke and take Naruto, but he –”

The peculiar vulnerability in dark, strangely familiar eyes flashed behind her own, hands that were still slightly smaller than her own even if he was a little taller trembling as he flinched into a fist and then back out. There was something there, something just on the back of her tongue as the back of her eyes began to ache, tension running up her neck to coil in the base of her skull like a spring ready to snap.

What was it?

There was something –

“Sorry Asuka.”

“We’re so sorry.”

“Sorry Asuka-nee, but you gotta forget, y’know.”

– She decided she was making something out of nothing. She was stressed enough she didn’t need to have her ninja paranoia jumping the gun on situations that were way above her paygrade that she wasn’t exactly equipped to handle.

Honestly, she needed to focus better.

“… He stalled, bought just enough time that it wouldn’t look suspicious in Jiraiya’s arrival…” her own words were getting softer and more filled with horror as she spoke, ignoring the pain throbbing in her skull that slowly slowed. “I’ve sparred with Ita-chan,” she didn’t even notice the endearment, but the Hokage grimaced in pain with darkened eyes as he heard it slip past her lips. “And he’s brutal, he doesn’t leave openings like that, doesn’t waste time. He prefers short bouts that are over quickly…” she couldn’t stop now that she’d started. “Prefers to conserve energy for other potential opponents.”

Doesn’t like to draw out someone’s pain and apprehension… His hands don’t shake the way they did…

“Asuka-kun.”

“Hai.”

She jerked to attention in her seat despite the growing horror in her chest, the interruption likely timely before she actually spoke out loud the words that were beginning to cycle through her mind like a broken gear in a clock.

“Asuka-kun,” was stated more gently, and she blinked at her Hokage, who suddenly looked terribly aged. “You must speak of this to no one, do you understand?”

“Hai, Hokage-sama,” she stated automatically, heart pounding against her ribs, mouth dry with unease.

“Uchiha Itachi is a shinobi that you need not concern yourself with,” the order was hard, flat and unbreakable, but his dark eyes were tired, so very tired. “His past actions are what they are, and his current are not to be analyzed by yourself.”

Oh. Oh.

Oh. Oh no.

This was… her heart thumped in her chest, because despite the threat implied by her beloved Hokage’s words, something niggled in the back of her mind like a loose tooth an ache just outside of the pain her head was throbbing with. The information leaks. Maybe… it wasn’t a leak? Was he… was he working for Konoha, in some capacity? Was he being supplied with information on Konoha ninja’s whereabouts to avoid them and confrontation so that he could continue as a free agent on Konoha’s payroll?

After the Massacre? Was her Village the kind to keep someone who had gone so completely mental, had snapped so wholly as to kill his family, if unofficially and secretly? If she was right, and this got out then what would it do to the ranks? To the Clans?

And…

And sweet gods, Sasuke. If he learned of this, no when he learned of this, it would break his fragile hold on himself, would ruin his love for Konoha, and would bleed darkness further into the growing monster fueled by the Curse inside his young heart.

Was she right? Was she –

No. No, don’t think about it. Push it from your mind.

Just like with everything else that she shouldn’t be thinking about, that was above her paygrade. Ignore it.

She was a kunoichi of Konohagakure, and sometimes that meant that she had to push beyond her personal feelings and just not.

“Do you understand, Asuka-kun?”

“Hai,” she managed faintly, taking a bracing breath herself and swallowing against the lump in her throat to steady herself, pushing the thoughts aside for the moment. “I understand, Hokage-sama.”

Her head throbbed harshly before settling into a dull ache at the base of her skull from the sudden stress.

“Now,” another obscure hand gesture, and the barrier field that had been erected in the room was dismantled, signaling the end to that discussion. “Tell me more about your time with the Demon of the Mist and his charming apprentice.”

So she did, glad to have something to push back her own traitorous thoughts for a while as the age slowly receded from his tensed features, as he slowly relaxed his frame enough to smile and laugh as she spoke, to ask for details about her debates on the fine art of metal folding in designing a blade. In discussing the best way to conceal blades in fancy yukata so that they could be easily retrieved but unseen by those who did not already know they were there. It was nice to relax and speak to someone who knew what they were talking about – the Sandaime pretty much knew everything – and she let her mind drift and roll within her memories of Haku and Zabuza and the peaceful time she’d spent with them.

In the back of her mind she felt great relief that knowledge such as he possessed had yet to be snuffed from the world. The pain in her skull eased off to that aching absence of pressure.

“I’m glad you had an entertaining time, my dear,” he sighed wearily, leaning back heavily into his pillows, and she couldn’t suppress her worried frown or shifting as he did so, and he gave her a longsuffering amused look. “I’m not an invalid, Asuka-kun, and I’d thank you not to treat me as such. I get enough of that from my ANBU,” he stated dryly before his expression softened and his lips curved slightly. “And I understand that I have you to thank for that, despite the irritation.”

“Ah.”

The chuunin’s cheeks flushed, even as she felt that cold dread creep into her chest again; she had kind of been hoping that he wouldn’t bring that up.

He had been smiling so peacefully…

“You know,” he began, closing his eyes for a moment. “My son came to see me this morning after I woke.”

She started a bit at this, her gaze locked firmly on the elderly man. Asuma? He’d actually… well, she hadn’t seen him more than twice since the Sandaime had nearly died, so she couldn’t really be sure of how the jounin had been feeling, but to know that he’d given into his emotions other than anger to see his father?

“We seem to have found… armistice,” he looked at her with terribly warm eyes, and she found the tightness in her chest easing. “Something that… I had not hoped for in the end,” he reached out and she automatically took his hand the same way she had been taking her jounin’s these few weeks. “For that, I thank you, Asuka-kun.”

“I… Of course, Hokage-sama, you’re welcome,” there was no way she could say ‘think nothing of it’ because it was important, it was real. “There was nothing else I could do.”

They stayed silent for a few moments, as she studied the way his larger hand encompassed her own smaller hand. The calluses that adorned his skin made it feel hard, like horn, and she wondered if hers would feel as such someday. While not exactly what one would expect of a grandfatherly figure such as Sarutobi Hiruzen, they were… dependable. Steady.

These were hands that had molded generations and shielded the youths of Konoha.

Asuka suddenly felt an ache for her own father, who had died so long ago.

“Hokage-sama,” she found herself saying, looking back up into his face. “Thank you.”

“Oh?” he looked a little bemused. “For what, Asuka-kun?”

“For… helping me to remember myself after Chitose and Haruka after they… after,” she began, her brows furrowed a little in remembered pain and earnestness. “For taking care of and loving all of the people of Konoha,” she kept going sincerely, her voice honest and thoughtful.

She barely noticed the slight widening of the man’s eyes as she continued. This was something that needed to be said, to help remove or ease the dark sadness in his eyes that talk of Itachi had brought with it. It was odd, this new instinct of hers, which had previously been buried under solitude and duty, assigned to those few she had left to care for, that now prompted her to seek the happiness of those she’d needed to aid.

“Thank you, Hokage-sama, for being the Will of Fire. A father of Konoha. Thank you.”

“Ah.”

He closed his eyes once she’d finished, and that same content smile passed over his features, this time softer, warmer, a little less sad.

This was the expression of a man who was going to live.

“For that, I can say nothing in turn,” he chuckled softly and patted the back of her hand in a fond fashion.

Shaking his head, Sarutobi sighed, features relaxed.

“Defeated by my own subordinates…”

~*~

As for when another important man in her life woke up, well, it didn’t start out as pleasantly.

She was walking past the hospital when it happened.

Having just heard about the homecoming of the Slug Sennin to Konoha after she had returned from a mission, she was rather exhausted. Asuka had been going nearly nonstop since the invasion and sneaking away from the two other of the chuunin she’d been out with so that they wouldn’t drag her in to get examined had been a bit harder than expected. It was getting downright creepy how much her comrades, who had been perfectly fine with letting her live her life in peace before, had turned fussy, weirdly attentive and almost deferential in some cases. She was perfectly fine. Honestly, it was only a little bit of blood – she saw more blood on her off No Go month than had come from that wound – and she could take care of it at home, there was no need for a hospital at all.

She’d been in that building more than enough of late and she only wanted to go again if it meant seeing her jounin after having been gone for nearly a freaking week working with those two headache inducing bastards. All she wanted to do in those moments was sleep, not listen to the doctors at the hospital tell her how to do her job, especially after the fuck-load of a mess her latest mission had been, what with how the idiots had been practically useless. How someone could get informationthat wrong she had no idea, and if she had to fight one more fucking jounin upstart who’d run from his village and decided he wanted to try to rule the fucking world and was so sure that he was kami’s gift to women… she was not going to be held accountable for her actions. Not when her backup was a poison user and a close quarters weapon specialist who didn’t know how to work with a swordswoman that specialized in strength and flexibility. An unusual combination for a woman she admitted, but the fact was that she would have been better off on her own than protecting those two mother hens.

Then, of course, she found out that the little fucker was awake.

The hard way.

“You son of a bitch!”

Asuka found herself yelping out the words as a small shock ran over her whole body, pinging off of all the metal she wore to cause her muscles to twitch and spasm.

The familiar tang to the chakra jumping from nerve cluster to nerve cluster made her heart jump in her chest and almost caused her irritation to evaporate behind hopeful elation.

Almost.

Whipping a glare up at the window she was passing she saw a silver head scramble from the edge and back farther into the room, and she felt her chakra roil dangerously even though it was lower than she’d like it and she’d feel like she had a nasty hangover in the morning to accompany the growing ache in her skull. Leaping up to the window she had no idea what her features were doing, but knew that she really, really wanted to violently maim Kakashi in that instant, no matter the aching joy that was bouncing around in her chest like a breath of fresh air after having been choking on gas and fumes while her chest was slowly being compressed. It was like a vice that had been constricting her lungs and heart had suddenly disappeared, and suddenly she didn’t even need to breathe, because she had all of the oxygen she could ever require because of that skinny, adorable bastard.

There he was. Sitting up.

And – oh he was looking at her – his one eye was open and dark with fatigue mixed with a roiling tumultuous flurry of emotions that he didn’t seem to know what to do with as he stared at her, but she could still see the hidden blue and grey even from the distance she was at.

That eye stole the breath it had given her.

Thank the gods…

“Yo,” he laughed nervously from where he was awkwardly situated on the hospital bed, obviously having just returned to it, left eye drooped shut, right open and apprehensive over his mask. “Asuka, funny you’re here – “

“Oh, Kakashi-kun,” her voice was sweet, like steel singing from a sheath, and the man’s laughter and words dried up like an oasis in the desert at high noon. She may have been elated at his return, but she wasn’t the type to let something like this go, and the darkness behind that tired eye encouraged her normalcy. “It’s so nice to return from my mission and see you awake and already channeling chakra against your dear friends,” she stumbled a bit as she stepped down from the windowsill, frowning at the way his hands jerked towards her as she did so. He did not get to mollycoddle her from the freaking hospital bed. That was just… over the top. “Obviously you’ve just been dying to see me again, and that’s why you so rudely made me aware of your presence.”

Her eyes narrowed as he remained silent.

Without taking her gaze from his she still watched thin, scarred pale hands fiddle slightly with the hospital issue blanket in his lap with his nerves, the silence drawing out for several long moments as they stared at each other.

“… How was your mission?” he asked a little pathetically, his single eye both bewildered and nervous and open thank the gods he’s awake.

“I’m going to drown you,” she stated flatly.

“Ahahaha, maa, Asuka that’s – Ah, wait, what –”

“You know, I’ve heard that death by drowning is pretty painful...”

Aaah! Wait, wait, wait!”

Even as she was dissipating the water she’d summoned – the initial action was something that she was actually kind of regretting, considering how tired she felt, her whole body one big ache – she was sitting down into the chair beside the bed and dropping her face into her hands with a groan, propping her elbows on her knees. There was a grating pain in her muscles that deepened farther down into the sharpness of her bones, a tired sort of aching agony that pulsed throughout her entire body, her coils twinging at her unhappily in an echo of her physical symptoms of exhaustion.

“You’re such a dick,” she muttered petulantly, voice a little thick with emotions that she wasn’t going to speak of, and the man sighed deeply, the weight of it especially heavy.

“Sorry, Asuka,” his tone was tired and regretful, and she looked up at him, her features twisted with wry affection.

“Well, you wouldn’t be you if you didn’t have just the right amount of jackass and socially constipated idiot.”

At his slightly offended look she rolled her eyes and sat up straight despite the discomfort in her joints and muscles, skin feeling too tight and dry as she absently situated herself so that she was more comfortable in the plastic with sparse padding hospital chair, the motion automatic and natural.

“Ah, um, hmm…”

At the tone, she opened her eyes from where she’d closed them without noticing and looked at the man in a questioning manner, before following his oddly focused gaze downward to see her hand joined familiarly with his.

Oh gods… really? Really, Asuka? You have got to be kidding me.

“Not a word,” she threatened, her grip tightening unconsciously, cheeks hot and her brows furrowed in irritated embarrassment. “I mean it.”

Despite her mortification, she didn’t let go, didn’t release her gentle but firm grip on him.

Didn’t even think to.

What if I wake up and this was all a dream?

They sat in contented silence for several long minutes, and she took some comfort in the fact that she could feel his chakra strongly through his hand again, even if she had to catch herself a few times to keep from circulating her own throughout his system by reflex. She caught herself more times than she cared for as she started to leak over, weary and a little annoyed because she needed her chakra much more than the jounin did at the moment, if the better tint to his pale skin and pinked scar was anything to go by. Feeling that towering thunderstorm next to her was more than a little relieving, calming her nerves in a way that the sluggish spark of it while he’d been comatose could not, and she bubbled back tiredly, like fish in a somewhat low sitting pond during the dry season.

“Asuka,” his deep, calm tone had her looking up, and she found herself blinking with a little bit of confusion at the seriousness in that dark gray-blue eye.

“Yes?”

“Train with me tomorrow.”

“Eh? Train?” she frowned at him, sitting up straighter, not bothering to hide her winces as she did so. It wasn’t as if he wouldn’t see them anyway, even if she tried to hide them. “Tomorrow?”

She ran her gaze over him with a doubtful expression, her misgivings plain to see on her features.

While the medics had done a pretty good job of keeping him from stiffening up or his muscles from atrophying – she’d done what she could when she was around as well – he’d still lost significant muscle mass, if not definition itself, and she found herself disbelieving the notion that he could be ready to train just yet. No matter the rumored Hatake physical hardiness and stamina that he boasted in having survived the ocular transplant of a Sharingan into his body, something that few had ever managed to do and live to tell the tale, and none other in the past century. He’d have to do some rather intense in-home conditioning first, she was sure, and his appetite was likely going to be enormous for several weeks as his body tried to make up the difference in fat content and fuel the protein needed to build muscles.

“When did you wake up?” she asked with her expression still disapproving. “ Exactly?”

“Doesn’t matter,” he stated calmly, waving his free hand idly, causing her eyes to narrow and lips to drop open slightly as her jaw unhinged. Doesn’t matter? “I’m leaving this hospital bed tomorrow morning one way or another,” she sighed, her expression beleaguered. “And this way, you can keep an eye on me.”

As if that were incentive! The man was just too much.

“Baka, just stay in the hospital.”

“Eeeeeh, so cruel, Asuka.”

“Stop whining at me.”

“Aaaasuka, train with meeee –”

“Oh my god, shut up. I already have a headache!”

“Maa, Asuuuuuukaaaaaa~”

“No, Kakashi.”

“But, but –”

“No, means no.”

“… Please?”

“… I hate you.”

“Thank you.”

God she’d missed him.

… Even if he was a huge dick.