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KNIGHTHOOD.

09/19/2021 03:02 PM 

Mask Off

Summary: Gai wakes up to Kakashi's face. In the time his long time 'co-existee' (Kakashi won't call it anything else) takes to wake up, Gai reflects on Kakashi wearing his mask during different times in their life, and ponders its significance. Or the lack thereof.   Title bears no connection to any Trap songs, nor similarly named Nicholas Cage movies. Also, when I say 'teenager', let us all think 'seventeen and up'. I know the timeline doesn't work that way but this is fanfiction and I say they're older. How about when Kakashi joins ANBU, he's like twenty, and when he leaves it, he's around twenty five; this would fit better into my headcanons.     Gai wakes up to Kakashi's face.   He blinks himself awake. They were up late yesterday, so he notices that it's already daylight outside. Somehow, he's surprised that he doesn't feel sad at having, for once, missed the sunrise, even though he watches it every day.   Other times when he's missed it—only ever because of Kakashi, as Gai has a strict routine—he's always felt a small pang of regret at not waking up sooner. Strange indeed that that is completely absent today.   He looks at his rival's peaceful face, maps out his features. Every time he sees it he feels compelled to do it anew, surprised of it every time, surprised of it being familiar, surprised of it being visible.   His jaw is shapely, very pleasant to the eye, despite it being more sharp than broad. His lips are pale, lending him a slightly sickly appearance because they barely contrast with his skin, but Gai knows not to worry; it's just part of how he looks. The shape of them he knows more by touch than by sight, any way, and he doesn't need them coloured to know how passionately they can move. His eyes get caught on the tiny mole beneath them, on the side. Again, Gai has seen it before. Just like his nose, long-bridged, slim and triangular at the end.   He's known this face for many, many years, even if it was one of Konoha's best kept secrets.       (It is natural to a human's way of thinking to see the actions of others as rewards for ones own behaviour. Education, after all, functions in much the same way.   It is natural, too, that based on this viewpoint, humans try to replicate behaviour that has lead to what they perceived to be a reward. To try and reconstruct ones actions in order to make sense of what was the first domino, what set which positive behaviour of another in motion.   Maybe this was not it, or maybe it was. All Gai knows nowadays is that he's not certain, and he doesn't want to be. But for a long time, until the theory dissolved in thin air, the explanation Gai gave himself as to why Kakashi had apparently decided he was the person to show his face to was this:)       When they were but children (children with an excrutiating amount of responsibility and a disposition to give their life for the village, but children still), Kakashi almost got killed during a mission and had to be resuscitated.   So Gai kneeled, panicking, next to what could have been Kakashi's corpse, knowing he wasn't breathing, and he had to make a choice and quickly.   So he'd done it... through the mask.   Of course he'd been curious. But more than about the face—Gai didn't really focus so much on faces, anyway, it were deeds which caught his attention the most—he was curious about Kakashi's reason to conceal it.   Curious, then, that in the moment where Kakashi's life was at stake, and it was possible that the mask would have put it in danger, Gai still thought it more important to respect his presumed wish than to be efficient.   Kakashi had found it equally curious.   He recovered consciousness, averted his face, and coughed pulling his mask off. Then he put it back up before turning around, and, still wheezing, asked why Gai hadn't taken it down.   Gai explained. He'd vowed not to violate Kakashi's privacy and comfort this way. He'd been sensible enough to notice Kakashi didn't even take it off when he was alone, so Gai figured it held more meaning than one might perhaps assume.   Kakashi thought it had been pretty reckless and could have cost him his life, which, Gai supposes, was the rational truth of the matter. He said his reason was rather stupid and did not thank him for it at all, instead mocking him for such an inefficient decision.   But still, to this day, Gai stands by his choice. And not because he'd come to see it as some sort of catalyst for Kakashi's further behaviour: rather because he saw a way to both respect what he thought were Kakashi's wishes and safe his life, and followed it regardless of the best rational strategy. He'd acted on instinct, on the feeling that this was right, and it had worked out.       They hadn't talked about it again, until one day, they ate dumplings together, watching the sundown after a particularly long sparring match Gai had ended up winning.   His reward, consensually agreed upon, was just the moment—simply sitting there, watching the sundown, the two of them still catching their breaths. And it had been perfect.   Gai had been waxing poetic about something. He remembers his emotion more than what he'd actually been saying, but at the time it had seemed exorbitantly important.   When he looked to his side, Kakashi was chewing without his mask on.   The look on his face was almost defiant, as if daring him to comment on it.   Gai had lost his wording, for just one moment. But looking into those challenging eyes, taking in the slight tension in Kakashi's jaw, he decided... whatever.   The moment had already been significant. Seeing Kakashi's face was sure cool, but it didn't make it any better.   Truth be told, Gai thought to know he wasn't going to remember it any way. So what he did was give Kakashi a thumbs up, remember what he was saying, and finish his speech.   He didn't see him smile that day, but it didn't matter. What mattered was that it had been a beautiful, beautiful day.       The next time he saw his face was the time Kakashi taught him how to fish, under the premise, of course, of a challenge. Gai lost, which was comprehensible, considering he had misjudged the difficulty of fishing completely, especially since the rules were to fish with a fishing rod and not with his bare hands.   (A little part of him still thinks that that was cheating.)   They'd spent the day at the lakeshore together. After Kakashi had caught an admittedly quite impressive amount of fish—even throwing some back into the water—it was clear that Gai had lost. He was ready to sulk back home, but Kakashi invited him to eat instead.   Gai had felt his heart burst out of his chest. Kakashi prepared and cooked the fish. It was absolutely perfect.   Gai had been so absorbed in the flavour he'd barely looked at his face at all.   But then—again, he doesn't remember what exactly he'd been saying—Kakashi actually laughed at something, and Gai had wanted to protest to his making fun of him, and noticed the mole.   More surprisingly, that he remembered the mole.   And it must have been that that made him notice the smile.   But, again, he found what he'd been talking about, and insisted it wasn't silly. By the time they did the dishes, the mask was already back in place.       The next time he saw Kakashi's face, it was years later, and everything shifted.   In part, it was because they were teenagers. And, well, being a teenager at a time where you knew you could die any moment... relaxed your view on certain topics. Made some others a lot more relevant.   (Gai could wax poetic about the death instinct beckoning the life instinct, and about youthful passions arising after moments of great bravery. One of those, any way.   Kakashi has always de-romanticized it as being a horny teenager, not wanting to bite the dust without biting the pillow first.)   Gai and Kakashi had barely survived a mission, one that had left Gai vulnerable, recovering against a rock, after opening five gates. He hadn't known how to pace himself, and was in excrutiating pain—but there was no way to alleviate it. No painkillers. Not even a bed.   Kakashi was calm on the outside, but full of tension on the inside.   When he asked Gai about how the recovery process worked, Gai had explained as well as he could.   Kakashi had asked plenty of questions. He asked if Gai's pulse quickening could make it worse.   Gai thought he'd meant if maybe they shouldn't be talking, if he needed complete rest, and so had replied that keeping the circulation up and quick was actually not that bad an idea.   And Kakashi nodded, and he took off his mask.   Gai didn't understand.   He didn't, as a matter of fact, understand it until today. He certainly didn't understand it when Kakashi zipped down Gai's pants—he hadn't been, regrettably, allowed to wear his trusted green training suit that day—and put his unmasked face right there.   The pleasure, however, had made his pain a lot more bearable.   (His face had looked different from last time. The jaw was so much sharper now, a jawline there that made Gai jealous. He hadn't seen that change happen.)   He'd thought about that for a long time.           Kakashi's face is peaceful now, and although he has aged considerably better than most of them, Gai makes note of the changes he has seen happen.   The nose got a bit longer, not as pointy as it was when they were children, a straight line down his face without any particular curves or bows. His lips have gotten paler. There's lines accentuating the shape of his mouth now.   Even when he is not smiling, and not stern, just completely relaxed like he is right now. Gai thinks of touching them, but wouldn't want to disturb his slumber; Kakashi is a light sleeper.   As a matter of fact, maybe it's that which makes this moment so... different. Yes, something is decidedly different. Even in those lines.   Hard to place.         That event was both the last time he saw Kakashi's face for many, many years, and the ushering in of a time period of... another aspect of their relationship.   At first it was companionable handjobs, with barely more physical contact than that. They'd hang out without the expectation of that happening, but, once in a while, the circumstances just led there naturally.   Then, ANBU, and Kakashi had grown more desperate.   The first night, Gai barely questioned him, slightly overwhelmed.   It wasn't unheard of: a quick exchange of pleasure, the simple reassurance of someone else's touch to reaffirm that he was alive. Gai knew it could help, and Kakashi seemed unharmed, so it wouldn't be dangerous. His hands were eager, all over Gai's skin, insisting, demanding, for the clothes to come off.   They held each other close and used their hands.   It was only when Kakashi left, pretty much immediately afterwards, that Gai noticed he'd never even hinted at taking his mask off.       Back then, he understood, or thought he understood, Kakashi. He could push to get him to open, but if Kakashi didn't want to, he wouldn't. During his time at ANBU, Kakashi was going through more than he could possibly digest himself. So if he didn't want to take his mask off, ever, because it gave him safety, that was okay.   What was not okay was that, the physically closer they got, the more it started to hurt.   It happened a few more times, that Kakashi simply snuck into his apartment and initiated things. He left his mask on even in the shower, but Gai had seen him bathe with it before, so it wasn't odd. And it was all okay: it was stress relief, and something quite companionable Gai could give him, a little thing to make him feel better.   Until Kakashi whispered into his ear that he wanted to f***, and Gai said no.   He hadn't had to think about it: denying him had been immediate, the bad feeling in the pit of his stomach instantly overpowering the desire.   Kakashi had clearly not expected that.   He offered to be the passive part. As a matter of fact, he did so very provocatively, using entirely more words than necessary, his tone even playful.   And Gai had wanted to. He'd wished it hadn't bothered him. But when Kakashi threw him down into the couch and straddled him, demonstrating the flexibility of his spine in how he moved, Gai felt so impossibly wrong that he had to tell him the reason.   Exactly as it was. That Kakashi should never, ever feel pressured to take his mask off for him, that Gai had never expected him to, that he accepted it if he never would; but he couldn't do this after having seen his face. It was too intimate for him.   "You were the only one who never cared. Everyone else tried to take it off." His voice was calm. He wasn't sad, or angry. But the complete and utter lack of emotion did nothing but reassure Gai in his denial. "I... I... what I'm looking for. When we do this. It's not just. You must know it's not just sex."   "I know. It's the pleasure as much as it is the intimacy. The care."   Awful, that even simply looking into Kakashi's eye this long felt so much more intimate that their interaction had in months.   "Yes. But. In ANBU, it's... they all do it. With the masks. The masks don't matter."   "Then I don't understand why--" you don't f*** one of them, Gai wanted to say.   Kakashi's emotionless voice let out a cold chuckle. "I've been coming here all this time. Could have done it with one of them all along. Why do you think I'm here."   "Because I know you" Gai said, without having to think about it twice.   The look in Kakashi's eye was impossibly cold. "Because you don't ask stupid question. Because you don't want me to take off the mask. Because you get me off while calling me your rival and don't think anything's special because of it"   "You are contradicting yourself. If what you want is someone who won't take off your mask--"   "You don't understand" Kakashi taunted.   Gai didn't. But he was confident that, for once, he wasn't the only one. "You're right. If you explained it to me..."   "No." Kakashi said, if just an octave higher pitched than he'd said the rest. "Y-you're my friend. The others aren't. You're supposed to understand."   It was the very first time Kakashi had acknowledged such a thing. But instead of it being a joyous moment, it hurt worse than being gutted.   Still, he tried not to show his hurt.   He lifted a hand to Kakashi's face, noticing him flinch away and putting it on his neck instead. "Kakashi. If what you want is tenderness, perhaps it would help you more..."   And he could see that it hurt him. He could see it in the way his brow furrowed, his eye glistened.   "You're just like everyone else, then. You want me to—"   In a moment, it was all too much.   He felt guilty, because he was being accused; worse, because the accusation was true.   He wanted to give in. He wanted to comfort Kakashi in whichever way he needed it, and he wanted his body, also, wanted it just like he was—if he could at least look into his eyes, the mask didn't matter--   He threw Kakashi off his lap and stood up, turning around to witness him roll off the couch and to a ready squat on the floor.   "Listen to me, Kakashi—you won't get what you're looking for like this. You're trying to have it safe? I understand. And I have watched you do this, and let you have it. We could have trysts like we did before, and I am happy to perform as your friend."   "What's the difference? Just where do you see the difference?!"   Gai felt himself turn red in anger. "More of our bodies shared will not give you the closeness you seek for if you do not want to acknowledge what it is you're looking for in the first place!"   Kakashi stood up, and Gai could hear the sarcastic smile in his tone, in his posture, as he was used to making himself known through the mask. "Oh, are we going there? All I'm looking for is a friend. You are bringing something into this--"   "You are the one who asked for this. You are the one justifying your actions with intimacy."   "It doesn't have to mean--"   "I know, and I wasn't implying it! But you come here, you tell me that what you want is someone who sees you—a friend—and instead of allowing yourself to have that--"   "What's the big--"   "The big deal is that you might want to punish yourself with a simulation of closeness, but I want neither to torture you, nor to torture myself."   "F***ing me would be torture" Kakashi said, laconically.   "No. Being purportedly more intimate with you while at the same time being denied the easier, more meaningful intimacy we had before—that would be."   "We've never f***ed before."   "We had something better."   Kakashi exhaled loudly through his nose, and Gai knew his next words were going to hurt.   "Let's clarify things. The only reason I ever showed you my face was because I knew you were too dumb to remember it anyway. You think that was intimate? That was you, reading way more meaning into everything than it actually has. As you tend to do." He laughed. "My rival. Sure. As if you could compare. My friend. Yeah. Whatever. I just have a thing for muscle."   "Kakashi. You are contradicting yourself again."   Kakashi's brow furrowed in anger. "I'm contradicting myself because I was lying before. I've f***ed half of Konoha's ANBU forces. All I wanted today was a funny little diversion, and really? You should see your face when you come. That's all. I find you amusing."   There was a moment. Just that night and that night only, before the morning came. It was short, but it was there.   In that moment, Gai believed him.   It certainly made a lot more sense than Kakashi wanting to have sex without even showing his face, especially since Gai had already seen it. It certainly made more sense than the half-things Kakashi had been saying before, the things he left in the open, the contradictions.   Then, Kakashi said it again, and what had sounded like a cohesive explanation started sounding like something a man might tell himself, desperately, in order to make it true.   (Gai knew those affirmations well. His father had used them, trying to maintain face.)   "I get enough as it is. I don't need you. You're funny, and I'm human still. I still find things funny. Body of a model, face of a goblin, fashion sense of a... of a... a bad one, in any case. What's not to find hilarious?"   Kakashi turned around, and Gai heard something he couldn't cathegorize. A snort, or a sniff, or a gasp.   There was a pause. Then something that was definitely a laugh... and his voice was suddenly an octave higher.   "And the f***ing speeches. Wow. The speeches, the man tears, the cringeworthy over-confidence."   He turned back around again, his eyes wide open, a smile stretching his mask, blatantly visible, exaggerated precisely so it could be seen. "I'm—you're a part of my childhood. Nostalgic! I'm human. I'm human. Some things are still funny. Some food still tastes good. My d*ck still gets hard. I still have memories. Distractions. Good distractions, in my time off, I can't just sleep, I need to distract myself. Porn and comedy. Porn and comedy. That's all."   A feeling of cold dread sunk down Gai's spine, worse than the actual threat of dying, if simply because that one he knew far better. Kakashi said all that in a tone that was so impossibly friendly, so well natured, so humorous and nice, that Gai found himself a second away from forgiveness.   And the worst part, Gai had heard this voice before.   Just another mask.   He couldn't bear his presence any more. "Kakashi, please leave my house at once."   Kakashi laughed, waving his hand as if mildly embarrassed. "Sure. Sure. Was going to, any way!" He went to Gai's window, crouched on the windowsill, and then turned around one last time. "Yo. Sorry about this, okay? No hard feelings? We're still, uh, rivals and stuff?"   Gai did not say anything. He couldn't.   He didn't have to. Kakashi's eye opened, black and affraid, and then he was gone.   It was the worst moment of their relationship.   Gai still remembers going to bed that night, and not crying, but not sleeping either. He remembers not sleeping well for nights and nights. He remembers wishing, however stupidly, that he'd just done as Kakashi had said.   The memory of having his body but not his face would have been a thousand times better than the pain he'd caused both himself and Kakashi, for him to have reacted this way, for him to have been like that, if only for a night.   Gai believed—and the belief kept him hopeful—that Kakashi simply hadn't been within his wits. That he didn't always fake his laughter, and his friendliness. That there was a person there Gai knew, or some pieces of him, anyway.       Kakashi apologized, not long after. It was better than what he'd tried to do when leaving, and it did leave things better.   He admitted his tiredness that day. Admitted 'confusing his needs', however vague that statemen was. Said he'd lied to him, took back every single one of his insults. Said he would never do it again, that he'd gotten carried away after the touches they'd been sharing. And he asked Gai if they couldn't get back to how things were before. See each other sometimes. Challenge each other.   Gai took it, took every single word of it, and forgot that night. It was enough. It was enough because whatever Kakashi could give him was enough, and he'd never wanted to ask for more anyway.       Things went back to normal. Kakashi reverted into that silent, emotionless ANBU.   Gai still preferred that, a thousand times more, than the small glimpse of a humorous personality that he'd seen that night.   Because hiding his emotions was a part of Kakashi—so much more than pretending to feel something he wasn't feeling until he didn't know what he was really feeling any more.   Gai was okay with the distance. He missed him dearly, but he, himself, had a person to become.       After ANBU, after it was finally over, Kakashi snuck back into his apartment.   Gai went out of the kitchen, having gone to grab some water before heading for bed, and saw the shadow on his couch. He simply turned on the living room lights and watched him.   The mask was on, but sitting there, slouched, with his headband grabbed losely in a hand that hung between his legs, his sleeveless shirt showing his surprisingly skinny arms, Kakashi seemed as vulnerable as if it wasn't covering him at all.   "I'm sorry." He said, with a heavy sigh.   Gai shook his head. "The only thing you've ever needed to apologize for you did long ago."   Kakashi looked up, tiredness in his mismatched eyes. It was strange to see the sharingan uncovered outside of battle. "Did I really? I offered no real explanation."   Gai took a few steps into his living room, strangely feeling like he was the intruder.   There were so many things he could have said, or asked, but the only one that made sense to him in that moment, the one he wanted to know the most, was, "Do you have one?"   And for all that Kakashi always seemed to be prepared for everything, that seemed to catch him off guard.   He fiddled with the headband between his hands for a moment, looking back down. When he next met his eyes, Gai felt, finally, really invited into the room. "Not really."   Gai smiled. "Then I don't need one."   Kakashi stood up, carefully left his headband on Gai's couch, and crossed the distance in quick, silent strides.   When he stood in front of him, there was nothing of his usual detachedness in his gaze: it felt like he was looking right at Gai, giving him his full attention.   "There are things I don't understand." Gai thought he was going to try and explain the mask any way, so he was about to interfere; but Kakashi kept talking. "Not just that. Things like... things like you. I... I tried, that night, to make sense of it. But I can't."   Something hurt in Gai's chest. "What do you mean?"   Kakashi's sharp silver brows met at the middle in what he assumed to be disconcertment. "I want you to be there. When you aren't there and I think about it, I don't understand, but when I'm with you, I don't think as much. You're... you're a lot of work, Gai."   Gai decided to take that as the compliment it most probably wasn't. He laughed and scratched the back of his head. "Thanks?"   A slight amusement crinkled the corners of Kakashi's eyes, but it was only an instant. "I mean it. Do you have some sort of problem with attention? Because you command a lot of it."   "Hey! Now that is not nice to say. I can't help being fabulous!"   Kakashi's voice was hushed, several octaves lower than Gai's own, but they were unmistakably in the same room, on the same topic—just very different intrinsically. "That's what I mean! Who talks like that wearing legwarmers? And you—you aren't even a lot of work." Gai didn't point out how, again, he kept contradicting himself. "You're the most easy maintenance person I know; I keep insulting you and you keep coming back. Do you not care about what I say?"   Gai thought about that.   Maybe, if someone else had treated him like Kakashi did, he would have cared more. But it wasn't just the things Kakashi said that mattered.   It was, mostly, the things he did, and how he did them.   Gai smiled, and his voice lowered on its own. "Do you always say what you feel, Kakashi?"   Kakashi's frown deepened, his eyes hardened, and he took a step back. "You don't know how I feel."   Gai shook his head, not taken aback himself. "No. But you're the strongest ninja I know, Kakashi. You're talented, intelligent, and possess skills I could never hope to match, like an admirable level of stealth. And don't pretend you don't know my chakra signature from a mile away. If you truly did not care about me, you would have no trouble beating me, humiliating me, or at the very least, avoiding me."   Kakashi put his hands on his chest and pushed him back. Gai couldn't tell if he was trying to be hurtful or playful. He simply allowed himself to fall back a step. "So you acknowledge it. After years and years of whatever the hell it is we've been doing, you acknowledge you can't win"   Gai frowned, his cheeks reddening. "That is not what I said."   Kakashi pushed him back again. "If you say I have skills you could never hope to match, that pretty much means I've won."   "My hope is to exceed--"   "What the f*** is the point of a rivalry if you know you can't win?"   Kakashi pushed him back with slightly more force this time, and Gai's back hit the wall.   "It's the other way around, Kakashi" Gai found himself saying. "What's the point of a rivalry if it doesn't teach you how to lose?"   Kakashi put his hands back on his chest, but this time he had nowhere else to push, so he just kept them there.   He simply looked at him, his heterochromia first forcing Gai to look from one eye into the other--until he forced his gaze to still, and understood how to see both at the same time.   It was a learned skill, to mantain Kakashi's self-contradicting gaze, from this close, for such a long time. But it was rewarding in and by itself.   "You've done it again." Kakashi observed, after a while, his eyes still focussed on Gai's, although seemingly much more at ease.   "What?"   "That. I don't even remember my point."   "Do you have one?" Gai repeated himself.   Kakashi's fingers splayed on Gai's chest, keeping him firmly locked to the wall.   He waited a moment—then, his shoulders relaxed.   "Not really"   Gai found himself laughing.   And Kakashi's eyes crinkled again—that same hidden smile, the one he wasn't putting on for Gai to see.   Suddenly, they were both laughing, in the middle of the night, without a real reason why other than to share the moment.   "I don't understand." Kakashi said, but he was still smiling.   Gai shrugged, smiling too. "You don't have to."   Kakashi looked up at him, his eyes so inviting that Gai felt a pull, and a need, and got carried away: he put a hand on Kakashi's cheek and pulled him into a kiss.   Kakashi's hands raised to his face, and he responded. Gai could feel his lips through the material, warm, his face close. It was, maddeningly, enough and not enough at the same time.   After a while, and before they could make the mask too disgusting for Kakashi to wear, Kakashi separated. The crinkling in his eyes was gone, left only a sorrow Gai could guess, but never know, was regret.   "I can't take it off right now."   Gai did feel hurt, but Kakashi, at least, was admitting it. Telling him. Gai kept his hand at his cheek, smoothened the fabric on it.   His voice came out even lower than he'd intended to when he repeated himself yet again.   "You don't have to."   Kakashi's eyes fell to his lips, then wandered back up to his eyes.   There was barely any voice behind it, making the tone of his words practically unreadable, no emotion to be discerned from them.   "I want to."   And Gai understood.   With the smallest gesture, he extended his arm beside himself, found the lightswitch, and turned the lights off.   Funny, to think that that was the first time they kissed.   He didn't need to see his face to feel it, to feel his lips open up slowly.   Kakashi had had sex before, but he was surprisingly—or perhaps not at all—inexperienced in kissing.   That night they only kissed in darkness and didn't trade another word, meeting each other completely anew, each discovering how to enjoy themselves in their new joint space. He did not sleep in Gai's bed, but Gai knew he was near, and pressured him no further.         In the shower, the next morning, Gai saw the fully naked shape of Kakashi blurred through the condensation on the shower door.   He looked to the wall when it opened. Let him step in.   Naked arms around his chest, a naked chest over his back; a naked forehead on the nape of his neck and naked lips on his spine.   Just standing there, breathing, holding him close and in place.   He didn't turn around. He watched Kakashi reach for his soap then closed his eyes, breathed, and felt himself grow hard in anticipation.   Kakashi prepared him just enough to thrust into him, and took him quickly, without another word to spare. All the while, Kakashi's face remained pressed to his neck, hiding from his eyes.   The shape of him, though, was imprinted in his skin's memory.   After his last thrust, Gai noticed Kakashi's hands freeze on his hips—and when he slipped out and opened the shower door, he knew he was about to simply leave without another word.   "You will not." Gai said.   When Kakashi closed the shower door, Gai thought he would simply run, so he turned around with the full intention to pursue him. Kakashi, however, was turned towards him, the blurred shape of him visible through the steamed glass.   That made him hesitate, although he was glad of it. He turned off the shower and asked, "Would you simply have left?"   He saw the red blur of Kakashi's sharingan and the black shadow of his own eye focussed at him. Then Kakashi lowered his head and crossed his arms around himself. "Yeah. Sorry."   Gai shook his head. "Why?"   Kakashi shrugged. "Nothing else to say."   "Except 'good bye', you mean."   "Formalities, Gai? Really?"   Gai considered this. "I suppose we don't need them. But then, why did you apologize?"   Kakashi's shape shamelessly stole the towel Gai had laid out for his hair and wrapped it around his face. Then he opened the shower door.   Gai stepped outside once let out, crossing his arms in front of his chest. Kakashi scratched the back of his head. "Because you called me out."   Gai didn't know what to say for a second, then took his body towel and wrapped it around himself. It was an insecurity on his part, but uttering it aloud made him feel better. "I... wanted to make sure we were on good terms."   Kakashi looked at him, his brow strangey furrowed. But this time, he didn't shrug it off.   "...that makes sense."   "Are we?"   Kakashi sighed. "Yes."   Gai believed him. In a gesture of good will, he spread his arms. "Then, until next time, my eternal rival."   Kakashi looked at him. Then, he went into his embrace.   It was tender. It was warm. Kakashi's arms came up behind him.   "...Thanks."   Gai did not ask what for. He merely kissed Kakashi's temple and relished his closeness. Kakashi moved in his arms.   Gai let him rub himself against him for a moment, until it dawned on him what he was doing.   "I could just give you your own towel, you know" he said, smiling.   Kakashi laughed and let go of him. "Just lay out two next time."   Gai gave him a vigorous thumbs up. Kakashi rolled his eyes, turned around, took the towel off his face and threw it back at Gai before he left.         They did not talk about it. They didn't have to.   The ease between them returned. They treated each other sometimes as colleagues, sometimes as friends, and sometimes as rivals.   The day Kakashi tried, and failed, his first students, Gai tried to invite him to lunch, but Kakashi avoided him.       A few nights later—or the same night? Details are blurry—when Gai went to his bedroom to sleep for the night, Kakashi was already there, completely naked but for the mask.   Gai had tried, and failed, not to be disappointed at Kakashi's rejection—so he allowed it to manifest as playful aggression, figuring it wouldn't be wasted.   He pressed Kakashi against the wall, easily taking his wrists in one arm. They were both positioned behind Kakashi's head already, as he'd been untying his forehead protector.   Gai bit at Kakashi's neck, and used his other hand to cup Kakashi's cock. Straight to the point.   "Wait", Kakashi said.   Gai had not been expecting that. "Huh?"   "F*** me" Kakashi murmured, voice monotonous.   He let go of Kakashi, feeling hurt.   Kakashi, emotionally distant, asking that of him without taking off his mask.   Kakashi stayed at the wall and watched him. For all that his voice had been almost robotic, his eye was focussed solely on him.   Gai calmed himself. Breathed through his anger, and through everything that reminded him of that night.   "Why?"   Kakashi's hands went, slowly, back up to his forehead protector. Gai watched as he took it off.   "Same reasons as last time. I... want to be close. Closer."   The same request, and the same reasons.   But...   Kakashi wasn't desperate. Kakashi didn't latch on to his touch. Kakashi's tone was calm, but it sounded real. His eyes were steady.   Same request, same reasons...   Entirely different situation.   Gai approached him, returning to the moment. Hesitantly, he put his fingers on Kakashi's mask.   Kakashi did not twitch, and he didn't jump away. He merely, calmly, shook his head... and raised his forehead protector.   Gai understood, and at the same time, he didn't. His mouth opened, but he didn't know how to phrase the question.   Kakashi's eyes dropped to his lips, then wandered back to his eyes, and lingered.   Just that. A shared gaze and silence. It was enough.   Gai closed his eyes, and let Kakashi tie the forehead protector around them.   He felt his lips almost immediately after the knot was tied, Kakashi's hands fast and efficient and his mouth eager. Kissing him was still not familiar; each time it felt, at first, like they had to find a common rhythm.   But they did, oh, they did.   Kakashi hummed into his mouth as his arms raised to his shoulders, and Gai lowered his core, grabbed Kakashi's legs and hefted him up. He didn't need to see to find his way towards the bed, and laughed when Kakashi, once there and on his back, remained holding on to him, using his feet to tug down Gai's pants.   Gai climbed onto the bed and separated his lips from Kakashi's, however staying just a moment more when the man licked after him. He bit his rival's bottom lip, then his chin, and felt the marvel of Kakashi's exposed throat under his tongue.   Kakashi was, by no means, passive. With each inch Gai went down his body he pressed up, his c*ck sliding wetly on his belly, between his ribs, on his chest, until it hit Gai's face and he caught it there, licking up the shaft.   Something cold nudged his shoulder, and he took it from Kakashi's hand. It was some sort of ointment.   "You came prepared" he said against the head of Kakashi's cock.   Kakashi convulsed under him. "I knew what I wanted. Would have done it myself but..."   He hesitated, for a moment, and Gai waited for him to finish the sentence.   His voice was quiet when he did. "I... I don't know. I don't know why. I wanted you to do it."   Gai had theories. Maybe he was lazy. Maybe he wanted Gai to take care of him. Maybe it didn't matter at all, because Gai wanted to do it as well... however a bit differently.   "Whatever you want" Gai said, kissing down his cock, between his c*ck and his balls, and then under, "You can tell me."   Kakashi's hand stroked his hair. "I know."   Gai took the ointment, swirled it to analyze its consistency, and poured it on Kakashi's hole, making him gasp.   Then, he licked into his rim.   "Holy f***" Kakashi said, and Gai pushed the liquid further inside him with his tongue. It tasted vaguely plastic, but he didn't care. He pressed upwards inside him, then took it out and licked around in shapes, applying pressure where he felt like it.   Just as Kakashi moaned and bucked his hips, Gai retreated to breathe against his skin, substituting his tongue with a finger. Kakashi went slack on the bed, and Gai felt no resistance at all.   He still took Kakashi's c*ck into his mouth before slipping a second finger in. And, feeling and hearing how receptive Kakashi was, another.   "Gai, I'm good" Kakashi said, his voice slightly breathless.   His own c*ck twitched in anticipation. He scrambled onto his knees on the bed, poured the lube on his cock, and moaned as he stroked himself to hardness.   Kakashi made a noise, and then Gai felt him raise from the bed, grab his face, and kiss him.   "You're f***ing hot." Kakashi said against his lips. "You're hot and you're the best friend I've ever had."   Gai moaned in response and raised his own hands to Kakashi's face. As they kissed, Kakashi took a hold of his cock, and Gai tensed as he felt him sink onto him.   It was not exceedingly tender; it was just intimate enough to be satisfying. Kakashi fell back onto the bed, and Gai f***ed into him on his knees, propping his hips up with both hands.   "I want to see you", Gai said, because it was the truth. "You don't need to—but I wish I could see you."   Kakashi removed the forehead protector from his eyes, seconds later... but had his mask back on.   And although Gai had been bracing himself to be hurt, he found he wasn't, as it dawned on him:   it had nothing to do with him. Whatever being seen without it meant for Kakashi, it had nothing to do with him.   He took one of Kakashi's hands, raised it to his lips, and kissed his knuckles. "You're beautiful."   Kakashi closed his eyes and came.   He did not stay afterwards, but he took his time to say good bye.           When it happened the next time, Kakashi had his students. They were both different men.   In the blink of an eye:   One moment, Gai was making tea, Kakashi sitting peacefully in his kitchen with his book open. The next, he'd taken his mask off to enjoy his cup.   Nothing ceremonious. Nothing incredible. Just an afternoon with tea.   Gai sat down, and smiled at him. Then he blew the steam away from his cup and closed his eyes to enjoy its scent.       (They talked about it once.   Kakashi lied nestled into the crook of his shoulder, his mask off, looking up to the stars.   They'd had a rather exhausting and very dissatisfying challenge—it had dragged on for hours, and in the end they stopped trying and started f***ing instead. Which Gai normally would not have allowed, but since he picked the challenge, and admittedly had not thought that it could be both frustrating and maybe even impossible for either of them to complete, he was willing to declare it a tie.   It was the middle of the night, they were both buck naked, and they were in public.   Anyone could have seen them. And yet here Kakashi lay, mask off and looking up to the heavens, completely fine with it.   Gai simply asked.   Kakashi shrugged, and gave his best answer: it depended on how he felt.   Whether he was able to feel.   Whether he trusted his emotions.   Sometimes it was the comfort of the material, sometimes it had something to do with being seen.   He took a deep breath, but then his voice strayed off, his words became jumbled, incoherent.   He said something about his father. He said something about others, but that he didn't care--he never cared--his father cared--he didn't care. But also, it had started before. Who knew. Who knew why or at what age. No one could remember or remind him, no one was left, who cared. He didn't care. He never cared.   He went silent, then. After a while he said, "I don't understand".   Gai, who didn't understand either, said, "You don't have to."   And Kakashi said, "No, I don't have to."   Even though Kakashi cried for exactly one minute afterwards—and then stopped, and looked up at the stars again as if nothing had happened—it was a rather nice night.)     From then on, it became normal. Some days he'd be readier, some days more reluctant. There was days he wouldn't take it off for sex, but he spoke his mind, was always clear about his limits. Gai knew, in any case, that the mask was no longer, if it had ever been, a punishment for Kakashi, and knew to cherish all the times it was off as much as when it was on.   It was all organic. Also the way, after the war, that Kakashi had begun to stay after sex.   They didn't need to talk about it. Gai would wake up to see the sunrise, and instead of the bed being empty, he'd see the familiar silver hair. The mask, of course, would have been put back on at some point during the night, but that was okay too.       Kakashi begins to stir.   One would think that after so many, many years, familiarity would be the thing holding them together, and Gai should know Kakashi, should know how he works.   It is not so; as a matter of fact, the greatest thing is that he knows he doesn't, and thus gets to meet him anew again and again.   He doesn't know the rules of the mask; every time he thinks he understands what it stands for, Kakashi will take it off or slide it back on when he least expects it.   But that is the greatness of their 'co-existence' (as Kakashi prefers to call it, all other words too telling): if he knew Kakashi's movements before a fight, he would not be his rival.   Just then he understands the thing he's seeing for the very first time today: the slight silvery glitter of morning stubble, making his face shine in the sunlight that so unapologetically floods his room. He's either always shaved when they have breakfast, or he wears his mask to sleep.   Finding out why he didn't this time is pointless, as it would be to try and replicate the result.   Kakashi surprised him again.   He doesn't even think to pretend he hasn't been looking when Kakashi opens an eye, and closes it again.   "Wow. Okay. Good morning." he says, eyes closed. He blinks and yawns.   "Morning, my rival. Was your sleep restful?"   Kakashi hums. "You been awake for long?"   Gai extends his hand towards Kakashi's face, lays it softly on his cheek, relishing on the sharkskin feel of it.   "No. It can't have been but 10 minutes."   Kakashi scuttles a little bit closer. "Oh. You missed the sunrise."   Gai smiles at him, and Kakashi smiles back.   Softly, Gai pulls his face close, and lays a kiss on the corner of Kakashi's mouth, another on his nose, and one last on his forehead. When he pulls away, Kakashi has raised an eyebrow.   "No" Gai says. "I did not."   Kakashi groans and buries his face in the pillow, but Gai laughs, stretches himself, and moves to start a new day.   Nothing else needs to be said.

KNIGHTHOOD.

09/19/2021 02:52 PM 

FOOTSTEP IN THE DARK

Summary: The more he is with her, the closer he comes to falling for death. Note: This passage is pretty heavy on the gore side, and maybe a bit intense for those who are not good with that type of stuff.    He steps through the front door of his new home and scrutinizes the place with a bored gaze. Instantly, he is displeased. When Sasuke’s mother had first told him about the house, she practically gushed about how timelessly elegant it is. “It has history, and the character really gives the place a charming atmosphere,” she had said while animatedly moving her hands around as if taking part in an interpretive dance. He should have realized that all the adjectives she ended up using had been code for “old” and “musty.” Looking around the expansive entryway that feeds into the living room, kitchen, and library, he notices that it appears as if darkness lingers in every corner. The only light filters through the small paned windows situated around the front door and illuminates the particles of dust that drift through the air. Peering into the living room, he can see maroon, damask wallpaper that peels at the edges as well as antique couches that look as if his great-grandmother might have owned them. “Character, huh?” Sasuke looks up at his older brother who had just entered on scene, a large duffle bag tossed over his shoulder. “Next time, we should have a say in the place,” Sasuke grumbles in response. “If mother sees you complaining about her ‘dream home’, she might smack you,” Itachi chuckles as he inspects some of the aged furniture. “She fell in love with it and apparently the ‘bargain was too good to be true’.” He imitates their mothers excited voice, causing Sasuke to roll his eyes once again. “I just wish we didn’t have to use furniture that probably has fifty years worth of dust mites in it.” “Apparently it was all reupholstered a decade ago and is worth a lot now.” Itachi tries flipping a switch to turn on the large chandelier dangling above them, but with no luck. “I’ll let you have first pick of bedrooms,” he tells Sasuke while gesturing towards the upper floor. Sasuke nods in response and watches as his brother heads towards the very modern looking kitchen, before making his way up the staircase. It is grand, with wide steps that curve around the circular foyer, each creaking and groaning under his weight. Just like his mother to pick some place so obnoxiously over the top. Once arriving on the second floor, and seeing six doors on each side of the hallway, he officially thinks his mother has lost it. After all, who could possibly need this much space? Reaching the first door on the right, he twists the knob and swings it open, prompting the hinges to moan at the action. Peering in, he finds a bathroom that seems fairly modern with a minimalist design, much like the kitchen, complete with an open shower and a stainless steel sink. He shuts the door and crosses the corridor to open the one across from it. A mirror image of the bathroom he just exits greets him. He continues his self-tour, opening each of the twelve doors. He finds that the next two doors past the bathroom lead into the same bedroom. He enters the third to last door and finds that it also shares a room with the last two doors, except from within the room, the center door is blocked with a large bookcase. Deciding that this is as good as room as any, he sets his book bag on the ground. The room is furnished with the same antique looking furniture. A large bed with black sheets sits directly in the middle, a bedside table next to it and an old writing desk adjacent. He walks through the room and exits out of the last door in the hallway. I’ll probably just keep this one locked, he thinks before moving to inspect the window at the end of the corridor. He looks out the dusty panes and notices a grove of trees as well as the corner of the neighbor’s house, but something about the window frame catches his eye. The same old wallpaper decorates the wall around it except for the areas directly above and below the window. He runs his hand over the bare area and feels grooves in the plaster as if something had been bolted into it. He decides to ignore the little peculiarity and reenters his room. “Hey!” His head snaps up at the voice as he realizes that he is no longer alone. There, sitting on the edge of his bed is a girl about his age. She appears to be wearing a thin cotton dress with white ribbons tied around the front, similar to nightgowns that women wear in old movies. Her hair is cut short, just barely coming past her chin and her eyes are wide and green. “Who are you? How did you get in here?”  Sasuke questions. Wouldn’t he have seen her in the hallway… unless, she has been in here the whole time. “I’m Sakura,” she chirps happily, swinging her legs back and forth. “What are you doing here?” Sasuke asks, more confused than anything. “I just wanted to pop in and say hi,” she smiles and makes a hand gesture that references to his whole room. “Did you know that this place used to be an orphanage?” she whispers, as if sharing a secret. Sasuke shakes his head, but thinks that it explains all the doors. When they converted it into a house, they must have knocked down some walls to create larger rooms. “Well, it was.” She begins messing with the ribbons on the front of her shirt, untying and retying them. “Run by the esteemed Dr. Orochimaru and his medical assistant, Kabuto. They mainly kept teenagers, but there were some younger kids here as well.” She cups a hand by her mouth and goes back to whispering. “They say you can still hear-“  “Seriously,” Sasuke cuts her off, not sure what to think of this nonsense. “How did you get in here?” She leaps off the bed, and Sasuke notices how petite the girl is, her limbs are skinny and almost appeared malnourished. She can’t be much taller than five foot, and he guesses that she just barely reaches the hundred pound mark. “Well, be seeing you,” she says with a wink before walking past Sasuke. He turns his head to stop her, not exactly sure what to do about a girl that possibly broke into his house in nothing but her pajamas, but she’s gone and all that is left in her place are bloody footprints that lead out, into the hallway. Panicked, Sasuke rushes into the hallway and glances down it, only to find complete emptiness, no sign of the strange girl. He turns to go back into his room, and finds the crimson colored footprints gone along with a piece of his sanity. Xxxxxxxx Knock-knock. Knock Knock-knock. Knock. Sasuke awakens, his body jolting with a start. Knock-knock. Knock. He spins around, trying to pinpoint where the sound is coming from. Knock-knock. Knock. Climbing out of the bed, a flash of blonde catches his eye. There, in front of his bed, sits a hunched over figure with blonde spikey hair, his fist repeatedly hitting the air as if there is an invisible barrier. Knock-knock. Knock. Each time his fists halts, a steady knock echoes through the room. “Who are you?” Sasuke questions while reaching for the metal baseball bat that he stowed under his bed when he unpacked earlier that day. Knock-knock. Knock. The boy continues on, as if Sasuke had never spoken. “Hey! I’m talking to you,” he yells louder, the repetitive appearance of unwelcome guests getting on his nerves. “He can’t hear you,” a familiar feminine voice says sadly. Sasuke looks up to see Sakura standing by the far door, the same white nightgown billowing around her. “What are you two doing in my room?” Sasuke yells at her. Her head bows silently and tears begin running down her cheeks. “It’s not by choice.” “What do you mean?” Sasuke asks. “I tried to tell you before,” she whispers before beginning to back out the door. “He’s coming.” Then she disappears in the hallway once again.  Sasuke is about to chase after her, determined to catch her this time, but a strangled cough from the blonde boy causes him to spin around. His stomach drops at the sight. The boy lies on his back, a bloody hole torn through his stomach. His eyes stare up at the ceiling, blue and blank, blood dribbling down his chin. He coughs again and the crimson liquid spurts from his mouth. “Sa-aku-ra,” he gasps out before the ragged moving of his chest stops and his head falls to the side.  Xxxxxxxxxx “Sasuke?” Onyx eyes open to be met with a matching set. “Why are you sleeping on the floor?” “I-tachi?” Sasuke as he sits up, already feeling the stiffness from falling asleep on the wooden floor. “Itachi! There was this kid and he died on my floor and the blood. There was so much of it.” He looks around on the floor, finding no traces of what happened the night before. “Sounds like a bad dream,” Itachi says as he pokes Sasuke in the forehead a habit that Sasuke despises. “Anyways, breakfast is ready.” He lets out a “hn” in response before standing up and following his brother downstairs. In the kitchen, he watches as his mother bustles between moving boxes and cabinets, trying to get everything unpacked in the large space. The room is a huge contrast from the rest of the house. Granite counter tops, stainless steal appliances, and cream-colored cabinets line the actual kitchen area while a large, round table establishes a dining area.  The biggest contrast is the large windows that take up much of the wall space, each one open and blowing the wispy drapes around. Sasuke thinks he catches a glimpse of pink behind one of the sheer curtains, but when he blinks, it’s gone. “Here ya go, honey,” Mikoto Uchiha, Sasuke’s mother, says as she hands him a large plate topped with eggs, bacon, and some fresh tomatoes.  He sits at the table across from his father, who is reading the newspaper and sipping a cup of coffee. “Did you know that this place used to an orphanage?” Sasuke asks, prompting his brother to pause from drowning his pancakes in syrup, while his father peers over the edge of his paper. “Really?” Mikoto asks, “That’s funny, the realtor didn’t say anything about that, did she tell you, Fugaku dear?” “No,” Sasuke’s father replies, “where did you hear about that?” “One of the neighbor girls told me,” Sasuke replies quickly, the lie rolling right off his tongue. But then again, who’s to say it isn’t actually the truth? “Which neighbor is that?” Fugaku says, an eyebrow quirked in curiosity, at the same time Mikoto says, “You met a girl? What does she look like?” “I don’t know,” Sasuke tells his father, while rolling his eyes at his mother’s questions. “Hm,” Mikoto hums in contemplation as she searches for the perfect cabinet for the nice dinner plates. “I guess it adds to the charm of this place.” Xxxxxxxxx Sasuke stares at the blinking cursor in the search bar of his computer screen. Where should he even start? Konoha Orphanage Multiple results pop up, none having to do with his new home. Konoha Orphanage Murder No results, but it was worth a shot. “Try ‘Sound’s Home for Children and Young Adults.’” Sasuke jumps at her voice and almost sends his laptop flying across the room. From his place at the old writing desk, he turns to find Sakura jumping up and down on his bed. He wants to ask her what she thinks she’s doing, but at this point has realized that he might was well be talking to a wall. So instead, he types in what she said and hits the Search button. The first result is of an article “The Tragedy of Sound: The Unexplained Mystery.” Already feeling uneasy about this, Sasuke clicks on the link. A large, black and white image of the house pops up. For the most part, it looks exactly the same except for a sign out front with the name of the orphanage written on it. Scanning the article, he feels all color drain from his face. “The esteemed Doctor Orochimaru, known for his opening of Sound’s Home for Children and Young Adults, was found dead along with all ten child residents.” Sakura reads from over his shoulder. “All the articles will tell you the same thing, that his apprentice Kabuto is suspected because he was never found afterwards.”  She pauses, straightening her nightdress. “But none of them know the truth.” “What is the truth?” Sasuke asks as he watches a piece of her pink hair come untucked from behind her ear. She smiles sadly, “I don’t think you’re ready for it.”  Then she turns to walk away, and for the first time, Sasuke sees her back. A large gash replaces most of the back of her neck, marred flesh and torn muscle visible inside of it. The entire back of her nightgown is soaked with blood to the point that it drips down her legs all the way to her heels. She pads out of the room, leaving her usual footprints and humming quietly. Xxxxxxxxxxx It is a week later when Sasuke sees her again. He had spent all day researching the bloody past of the orphanage. 80 years ago. 11 murders. 10 children ages 12-17 and the famed Doctor Orochimaru. The majority of the deaths were caused by blood-loss from ghastly wounds, but there were a few that were especially gruesome: electrocution, drowning, there was even a decapitation. According to all of the articles, all the blame was pinned on Doctor Orochimaru’s apprentice and assistant, Kabuto, who was never seen again after the incident. While the children all suffered horrible deaths, the doctor himself was killed by poison, most likely slipped into his food. Sasuke leans back on his desk chair, anxiously running his fingers through his messy hair. It is a lot to absorb, his house being a place where so many murders took place. He’s about the call it a day, when a link at the bottom of the webpage catches his eye. Photo Gallery Hesitantly he clicks on it, not knowing what to expect. The first picture is of the house, similar to the one he saw earlier, except in sepia with a group of people stand in front of it. They are standing pretty far away, so it’s difficult to make out faces. However, he can immediately point out the doctor and Kabuto. Doctor Orochimaru stands tall and proud, his hair long and dark, and an unsettling smile on his face. Kabuto wears a pair of spectacles and his arm rests over the shoulders of a girl. Sasuke does a double take, though he can’t make out her facial features, her height and build resemble Sakura’s. The only real difference that he can pick out is that her hair is long, coming to rest to just above the waistband of the skirt she wears. She frowns as if unhappy with Kabuto’s touch. Another arm is intertwined with hers, and Sasuke realizes that it belongs to the light-haired boy next to her. He could be the one that was making the knocking noise, Sasuke realizes, though it’s hard to tell without the gaping hole in his stomach. Sasuke clicks on the arrow that takes him to the next picture. It’s of Doctor Orochimaru, but he’s lying on floor of what appears to be his office. Father’s office, Sasuke realizes, recognizing the shape of the room. The doctor’s eyes are shut, but his mouth is still twisted into that creepy smirk, it gives him the creeps, so he clicks to the next picture. His blood runs cold and his heart skips a beat. The picture is of a body, and Sasuke immediately knows that it belongs to Sakura. She’s face down, a large wound covering her neck and blood blooming over the familiar nightgown. Bloody hand and footprints surround her body, along with a black-handled axe that seems to be what caused the gash in her neck. The caption under the picture reads, “Sakura Haruno, the oldest female resident at 17. Cause of death is multiple blows to the back of the neck with the axe seen next to her. She was found near the upstairs window, presumably trying to escape.”   “I knew the windows were barred.” Sasuke turns to find Sakura in her usual place on his bed. “They had been since Kabuto first brought me here, but in those last moments, I was foolish enough to hope that they would somehow come unbolted.” “Sakura,” Sasuke says her name for the first time. “What really happened?” She shakes her head back and forth. “I’ll show you sometime soon, but not now.” He brings his laptop over to the bed and sits down next to Sakura, glancing at her neck wound quickly before clicking to the next picture. He doesn’t get a chance to look at it however, because then the knocking starts. Knock-knock. Knock. He glances at the clock and realizes how late it has gotten. Every night, consistently, the knocking starts at 2:30am. He looks up to find the boy, in his usual hunched over spot next to the invisible wall. “Why does he do that?” Sasuke asks Sakura, his eyes never leaving the blonde’s hunched over form. “It was our code,” she replies with a sad smile on her face. “One knock means ‘Are you there?’ Two slow ones mean ‘Goodnight,’ and two slow plus two fast mean ‘All’s clear’.” “What do two fast and one slow knock mean?” Sasuke asks. “Danger,” she says beneath her breath. “It means that the Doctor is performing his experiments.” Sasuke takes a moment to digest what she’s really saying. Experiments? What kind of messed up orphanage was this place? “Why can’t he hear me like you do?” “Because he’s trapped.” Sasuke watches a lone tear run down her cheek. “He doesn’t realize he’s dead, yet he knows he’s not alive.” Her voice breaks. “I know that I’m dead and have accepted that I’m stuck here.” They watch silently as the boy continues knocking, his labored breathing the only other noise. “I have to go,” Sakura says as she rises from her spot on the bed and heads towards the door. “You know enough now that it’ll only get worse. Stay out of the hallways at night.” A couple minutes later, Sasuke watches as the boy falls to his back, his chest just barely moving. A piercing feminine scream cuts through the silence and Sasuke finds himself glued to his spot on the bed. Then like all the times before, the boy gasps out “Sa-aku-ra,” before his head falls to the side. Glancing down at the computer to screen, Sasuke finds an exact replica of the sight before him, except in the picture a solid wall with bloody knuckle prints sits next to the boy’s body. “Naruto Uzumaki: Oldest male resident at 17. Cause of the gapping wound in his stomach is unknown, but investigators believe that Uzumaki dragged himself up the stairs only to die in his room. Investigators are puzzled as to why Uzumaki would do this when he was much closer to front door before his very tedious climb; they suspect that the trauma of the wound drove Uzumaki to insanity in his final moments.” Xxxxxxxxx “Sasuke, you’ve been cooped up in your room for the past week,” Mikoto says one night at dinnertime. “Maybe you should go explore the neighborhood or something.” “How much do you know about the history of this house?” Sasuke counters as he pushes the pasta around his plate absentmindedly. “What is with all your questions?” she asks getting annoyed at her son’s strange behavior. “That’s the fifth time you’ve said something about it since we moved. Why won’t you eat your dinner? It’s your favorite.” “Mikoto, stop pestering him,” Fugaku says quietly. “Oh honey,” Mikoto says as if realizing something. “Is it because you’re missing Suna? You’ll make new friends once school starts, I’m sure of it. In the mean time, you should make the best of it. Konoha is a beautiful place with lots of kids your age.” She glances at the clock on the wall and exhales in annoyance. “Where is your brother?” “That boy hasn’t been acting like himself for the past couple of days,” Fugaku says before taking a bite of pasta. “I know,” Mikoto says sadly, “It’s not like him to act so moody and distant, maybe we should start having family movie nights again or something.” Just then, the front door slams and the heavy footfalls are heard from the foyer. “You’re family’s sweet.”Sasuke glances up to see Sakura sitting on the kitchen counter. “Don’t worry, they can’t see me.” Sasuke gives her a questioning look as a silent way of asking why that is. “I’m not sure exactly,” she replies, apparently understanding the message. “I think you might just be better attuned to the spirit world than them.” Just then, Itachi enters the kitchen and glares at the table. “Pasta again?” he mumbles before turning to leave. “Itachi, wait!” Mikoto calls out, standing from her seat. “We need to talk, son,” Fugaku adds as he sets his eating utensils down. “You’ve been acting strangely,” Mikoto walks around the table towards Itachi. “Is something wrong? You can always tell us anything, we’re your family.” She moves as if to hug him, but Itachi slaps her hand away. She stands back, shocked that her son would treat her that way; Itachi has always been a kind and caring child, he would have never dreamed of hurting her before. “Itachi!” Fugaku yells. “How dare you treat your mother that way!” Itachi stares at his hand for a moment before looking around the room at the stunned faces of his family before turning to leave once again. “I-I’m sorry,” he stutters. “I’ve been feeling restless lately. I will retire to my room for the night.” Then he rushes out of the room, the creaking of the steps signaling his course upstairs. “Itachi, I’m not done with you!” Fugaku calls after, before following him. “Sasuke,” Mikoto says, before bringing a hand to her temple. “Will you do the washing up tonight? I’m suddenly not feeling well.” Sasuke nods as she walks away, pretending to not see the tears running down her face. He turns to find Sakura staring at the doorway, a curious expression on her face. “Your brother’s never acted like this before?” she asks, eyes still vacant. “Never,” Sasuke replies as he gathers the dishes from the table. Her gaze turns to the vase of roses that his mother had cut from the bush in the garden. “I have a bad feeling.” With that said, she leaps off the counter and walks out of the kitchen. Xxxxxxxxxx “When does your school start?” Sakura asks one sunny afternoon as she lies across his bed. Sasuke has gotten used to her sudden appearances and doesn’t jump at the sound of her voice anymore… very much at least. “Not for two more months,” he responds as he puts the finishing touches on a certain drawing he’s been working on. “Why?” “Will you tell me about your days?” she says while making a frame with her fingers and peers at Sasuke through it. “Like all the drama and gossip.” “What do you mean?” “You know,” she smiles as she rolls over onto her stomach, and Sasuke thinks that her perfect teeth and upturned, petal lips are such a pretty contrast from the gaping wound in her neck. “The family that was here before you had a daughter that would always be on the phone talking about ‘who’s dating who’ and ‘what so-and-so did at the party.’ She was in the room right next to yours.” “What happened to that family? Did you talk to any of them?” Sasuke asks, instantly curious. “They were gone within a month. They had a young son who found the false wall that led to the basement.” “What basement?” There was no basement in the house, that he knew of at least. “That’s where Kabuto and Orochimaru would run their little ‘experiments,’ nobody knew about it until that boy found it. I tried to keep him away, but he couldn’t see or hear me like you can and ended up stumbling across some nasty things.” She sighs and her emerald eyes pin Sasuke where he is. “The realtor freaked and had somebody come and fill it in with cement. They didn’t try to sell the house until ten years later. You’re the first family since then.” “What about families before them? Could anybody else see you?” He couldn’t be the only one, right?” “There was only one other person, about thirty years ago. A fortune teller or something.” Sakura makes a motion with her finger indicating that she thought the lady was crazy, which is rich coming from a ghost. “She lived here peacefully for about a year before she tried to contact all of us spirits with some sort of thingamajig. I don’t know what she saw, but she hung herself that night.” “Oh my god,” Sasuke says in shock. How many people died horribly in this f***ing house? “Anyways,” Sakura begins, seemingly unfazed by the conversation, as she peers over his shoulder. “Whatcha drawin?” “Uh,” a blush burns on Sasuke’s cheeks as he turns the sketchpad towards her. “You.” The picture is a rough pencil sketch of her looking backwards towards him. She wears a pair of jeans and a sweater with sleeves that reach down to her palms. No gash tarnishes her slender neck and her hair hangs down to the small of her back. She smiles as she looks at the picture. “I always thought I looked better with long hair.” “Then why’d you cut it?” Sasuke asks. He had given her long hair on a whim, inspired by the picture of her standing in front of the orphanage. “It wasn’t a choice.” Another one of her sad smiles. Sasuke doesn’t know what possesses him, but he has the urge to kiss her, to touch her, to do something. So he reaches forward, and she pulls back. “Soon,” she whispers, before jumping up and walking out the door. Xxxxxxxxxx “Is today your birthday?” Sasuke turns around to find Sakura standing behind him in the bathroom. He never actually sees her appear or disappear, simply one second she would be somewhere and the next she would not, or vise versa. He’s not sure whether some glowing light engulfs her, or if she simply evaporates in the air, but he figures that he prefers it this way. It makes her seem more real. He takes the toothbrush out of his mouth and spits in the sink. “How come you don’t have a reflection?” She jokingly pouts. “I asked you first.” “Fine,” he sighs, “Yes, I turn eighteen today. How’d you know?” “Wow, you’re an adult.” She giggles and Sasuke feels his stomach flutter. “I’m not a tangible thing, so there’s nothing for the mirror to reflect.” She takes her hand and sticks it through the sink, passing right through to the other side. “See? And to answer your second question, I was downstairs this morning and overheard your parents talking in their bedroom.” “You spy in my parents bedroom? Pervert,” he mutters under his breath with a teasing grin. “Not in their bedroom, just outside of it. I can’t go into anywhere I never went when I was alive, and I can’t leave the premises of where I died. That’s why I can go through the sink, but not the furniture in your room.” “Really?” Sasuke asks, receiving a nod in return. He always figured that she ghosted around outside when she wasn’t with him. “Anyways, I think your mother said something about a special breakfast for you, so I’d head downstairs.” With that, she exits the bathroom. Xxxxxxxxx In the entire month he’s been living in the “Haunted House,” Sasuke has been picking up on more and more of the “spirit world” as Sakura calls it. Instead of hearing the knocking and then seeing Naruto, the blonde boy appears first crawling through the bookcase, where his bedroom door used to be. A trail of blood always follows behind him from where his injured stomach drags on the rough floorboards. If he walks down to the kitchen for a late night snack, the sink will be filled with water and the sound of somebody choking can be heard. If he goes to the bathroom, crying resounds off the walls. If he looks out the window, he’ll notice the porch lights flickering. By far, the worse thing is the sound of Sakura’s scream being cut short at the same time every night. One time he asked about why she screams and she shrugged him off once again, but when he asked about the disappearing bloodstains, she answered him simply. “Just like the screams, flickering lights, and water, the blood doesn’t belong to your world. You’re just seeing and hearing echoes of what used to be here. Though the rest of your family isn’t, which is a bit odd.” He has tried approaching his parents about the strange occurrences, but each time they send them away with a “Give the place a chance.” However, he’s grown closer to Sakura. Though she’s dead, she makes pleasant company. Today, he leans back against his headboard, doing nothing in particular on his laptop while Sakura is draped over the foot of the bed.  “Kabuto cut it,” Sakura says after a long period of silence. “Wh-what?” Sasuke asks, taken off guard by her words. He shuts his laptop and sets it on the nightstand, looking at the strange, dead girl lying on his bed. “My hair.” She runs her fingers through the short ends. “He always talked about how peculiar and interesting it was, and one night he called me to the lab and chopped it all off with a pair of scissors.” Sasuke remains silent, taken aback by her sudden openness. “It was two nights later when Doctor Orochimaru went on his rampage. He was the one that murdered everyone, even Kabuto; that bastard’s buried under the rose bushes outside. Naruto was one of the first; having been called to the basement, then it was little Moegi who had gone to get a glass of water. Everybody else was a sleep, completely unaware of what was happening until it was too late.” “Sakura…” Sasuke trails off, not knowing what to say. An apology didn’t seem fitting and he is not quite sure how to deal with her when she acts so serious. “You don’t have to tell me this,” he ends up saying. “No,” she sits up to stare him straight in the eyes. “I can show you.”Then she leans forward and Sasuke thinks that she’s going to kiss him. But when her face gets close to his, she goes right through. Her whole “body” enters his, and his eyes forcibly shut. “Relax, Sasuke,” her voice echoes in his mind. Then he opens his eyes to the sound of knocking. Knock-knock. Knock. “Naruto?” the voice comes from his throat, raspy from sleep but distinctly belonging to Sakura. Feet swing over the side of the bed and land gracefully and soundlessly onto the wood floor below, pale, feminine feet with little scratches on them. It is then that Sasuke realizes he’s a passenger in Sakura’s body. Knock-knock. Knock. Sakura looks up and in the small mirror hanging on the back of the door, Sasuke watches as her eyes widen. Then, the little, white nightgown she dons becomes all too familiar. Knock-knock. Knock. Sakura glances over to the wall, which was not there before Sasuke shut his eyes. A scream echoes out in the hall and Sakura moves to her door, opening it. Glancing down the darkened corridor, Sasuke sees the house as she did in her last few moments. A thick blood trail leading down the hall, into Naruto’s room. She begins moving towards it, and Sasuke thinks she’ll peer in the room and see her dying friend, but she doesn’t get a chance. A tall figure, masked in the shadows of the hallway emerges from the door across from Naruto’s. Water and blood drip down the front of his shirt, and the moonlight illuminates his pale hands wrapped around the black handle of an axe dragging behind him. “Come here, little blossom,” a voice sings out as the man moves towards her. Sakura gasps and falls backwards to the ground, scampering away from the man. He steps into the light, and Sasuke sees the gold eyes, the creepy smile. It was two nights later when Doctor Orochimaru went on his rampage. Sakura is able to scramble to her feet and instantly runs to the window. She pulls on the large iron bars frantically, hoping beyond hope that they’ll break free. The footsteps behind her stop, and slowly, she turns her head to peer over her shoulder. He raises the axe, and a familiar scream rips from her throat before it is cut short with the heavy blow. She falls to the ground, unable to move, barely able to feel. An enormous pressure hits her again, and then everything goes dark. Xxxxxxx Sasuke’s eyelids fly open and he pants heavily, trying to gulp down all the oxygen in his vicinity. Sakura leans over him, her green eyes seeming to search him for something. “Now you know,” she whispers, “now you know what I and all the other ghosts in this place, have to relive every single night.” Sasuke sits up and Sakura leans backwards to give him room. It’s then that he notices the tears running down her cheeks. He brings a hand up to wipe them away, but it goes right through her. “Why now?” he asks while pulling his hand back in frustration. “Why show me all of this now?” “I’ve been feeling odd lately,” she replies as her palms wipe away the moisture from beneath her eyes. “I feel like I’m fading, I don’t even know what day it is anymore.” “Sakura?” Sasuke says hesitantly as he watches the petite girl close her eyes. “I’ll be alright,” she whispers before curling up on the side of his bed, seemingly asleep. Xxxxxxxxx When he wakes up, she’s gone and the morning light filters through the curtains. Groaning, he throws an arm over his eyes to block out the sun. “Good morning, sleepy head!” He moves his arm to find Sakura leaning over his bed, her eyes shining much more green than usual. He groans again turns his head to the side, that’s when he notices it. In the mirror on the far wall, he can see her back. No blood stains the little nightgown, and smooth, flawless skin covers the back of her neck. Wait… reflection? Sasuke sits up so quickly that his forehead bumps into Sakura’s, and the slight pain causes him to wince. Sakura lets out an “ouch!” and Sasuke stares up at her. “I touched you!” he says before slowly bringing a hand up to cup her cheek. Surprisingly, it comes into contact with the soft surface of her skin. His other hand touches her pink hair, like he has wanted to do since first seeing her, and thinks that the feeling resembles that of goose down. Wispy… soft… real. “Am I dreaming?” Sasuke asks as he pulls her down on top of him, feeling the warmth of her body over his. She giggles and shakes her head. “Are you alive?” he asks hesitantly, and her smile dims. Another head shake. “It must be today then,” she mumbles to herself. Sasuke looks up at her curiously, not sure what to make of the situation. “On the anniversary of our death, those of us who are aware of our situation get to materialize. I don’t know why exactly.” She nibbles on her lip and Sasuke can’t help but pull her closer. He knows it’s stupid and impossible, but he can’t help himself from leaning closer and touching his lips to hers. She seems shocked at first, but responds, moving slowly against him. Even though it is slow, hesitant, and over far too soon, it is easily the best kiss that Sasuke has ever had… also the weirdest. Maybe she’s dead and maybe it can never be, but Sasuke has fallen head over heals for Sakura Haruno, the dead girl haunting his house. A pretty blush colors her cheeks, and Sasuke can’t help but smirk up at her. “Wow,” she says quietly, “that was my first kiss.” She lies down next to him on the bed and runs her hand over his face. She traces his messy hairline, running her fingers through the silky locks, her fingertips outlining his sharp cheekbones, softly following the bridge of his aristocratic nose. His arms wrap around her hips, securely her to him, and Sasuke thinks that he can get used to this feeling. She tucks into him perfectly, her thin body molding against his, and they just lay there in silence, feeling each other. “Why couldn’t we have been born in the same time period,” Sakura whispers as she tucks her face into his chest, memorizing Sasuke’s scent. He doesn’t respond, thinking the same thing himself, instead he brushes his lips over her forehead and watches as her face turns the same color as her hair. Embarrassed, she buries her face in his neck, trying to hide. Chuckling causes his chest to rumble, sending Sakura into her own fits of giggles. Sasuke just watches the joy in her eyes as he smoothes her hair, loving the feel of the strands. Her smile falters slightly as she pushes her body up so that she is eyelevel with him. As if unsure, she slowly moves towards him, and kisses him. She begins to pull away, but Sasuke secures her in place and deepens the action. His tongue prods against her lips, and she opens her mouth as invitation. Tasting her, touching her, loving her. It’s almost too much. She hums happily against his lips, and Sasuke makes a mental agreement with himself that he will not be leaving her side today. Xxxxxx “Can I meet your family?” Sakura asks as she runs her foot up and down his. “You know, for real?” “Hn,” Sasuke says, neither accepting nor rejecting her request. He settles for ghosting a kiss on her upturned nose. “I’ll be a girl from the neighborhood who comes down to stay with her grandmother during the summers,” she nuzzles his cheek with her nose. Then, rising from the sheets, he nods towards the door. Sakura looks at him as if confused, her hair mussed from his constant attention. “If you’re going to come to dinner, then I’ll need to get you some clothes.” He heads towards the door. “Stay here.” Quietly shutting the door behind him, Sasuke heads down the hallway intent on making his way downstairs to his parents’ room. However, a loud noise from his brother’s room causes him to stop. “Tomorrow,” a voice hisses from behind the closed door, but the rest of the sentence is muffled, so Sasuke finds himself leaning his ear against the aged wood.“-starting to notice,” the voice continues and Sasuke recognizes it as a man’s, definitely not Itachi’s. Still muffled, he can only catch bits and pieces. “…can’t escape… anger… do it.” The door opens and Sasuke jumps back from it in shock.  “Sasuke?” his brother inquires, looking down at him. Lately, Itachi has had deep circles under his eyes, as if he hasn’t been getting much sleep. At first, Sasuke assumed that he had been hearing the deaths as well, but when he asked about it, Itachi responded with a look that made him feel crazy. “Is there somebody in there with you?” Sasuke asks as he tries to look around the tall form of his brother. “No,” Itachi replies curtly before shutting the door in Sasuke’s face. Xxxxxxx When he reenters the room, Sakura is no longer on the bed. “Sakura?” he calls, panicked that she turned back into a spirit. He jumps slightly when his wardrobe door opens and the girl peaks her head out. “What are you doing in there?” he asks as she steps out. “Your brother came in, so I hid,” she says before launching herself in his arms. Sasuke catches her, surprised at how light she is and sets her back on the bed. “I cleared told my mom that you were coming to dinner and I grabbed you a pair of leggings and some boots.” He picks the items up from the floor, having dropped them when she leaped and shows them to her. “My mom’s pretty tall and I figured your dress would pass as normal clothes. You’ll probably have to roll the leggings up, but my mom has so many clothes and shoes that she shouldn’t notice the boots.” She pulls the items on and examines herself in the mirror. “How do I look?” she asks teasingly. “Beautiful.” Xxxxxxxx They sit around the dinner table, except Itachi who left shortly after sitting down, and the room is filled with Sakura and Mikoto’s chatter. The Uchiha woman had instantly took a liking to the dead girl, even hinting at Sasuke needing a girlfriend like her. Fugaku remained his passive self as always. “So, you’re only here during the summers?” Mikoto asks. “Yeah, I live in Ame, I just come down here to help out with my grandmother.” “That’s too bad,” Mikoto replies. “It would have been nice if you and Sasuke went to the same school.” “Yeah, it would be fun to go to school with each other.” Sakura sends a wink at Sasuke before excusing herself. “She’s very charming,” Mikoto says after directing Sakura to the bathroom. “Though she doesn’t seem to like my cooking.” “Yeah,” Sasuke says quietly. “You know, long distance relationships don’t typically work out well unless you are both very committed to each other.” Sasuke shoots his mother a withering glare. “Don’t you look at me like that, Sasuke Uchiha.” She points her fork at him threateningly.  “Never, have you ever brought a girl home, not even that one girl that you dated for almost a year.” Sasuke shakes his head as his mother continues giving him unwanted – and frankly, unnecessary – relationship advice. Xxxxxxxx Being a ghost, Sakura doesn’t really have to use the restroom, but feels the need to wash her face. Mikoto is such a beautiful woman and very motherly as well, accepting Sakura even though she knows so little about her, not even saying anything as she pushed the food that she can’t eat around the plate. This was a mistake. Sakura thinks as tears burn in her eyes. She should have never asked Sasuke for this, she should have stayed away from the family that she can never be a part of and remained the orphaned, dead girl that she is. But she is selfish and couldn’t pass up the opportunity of feeling normal. Turning off the water and drying off her face, Sakura stares at her reflection. Gaps in her memory have started forming. Have her eyes always been green? Has she always been this short? How old was she when she died? She doesn’t know what the lapses mean, but she figures that it cannot be anything good. Make it worth it. She tells herself before exiting the bathroom, only to run into a strong chest. “I’m sorry,” she says, quickly moving out of Itachi’s way, but his hand shoots out and grabs her arm before pinning her to the wall. “What are you doing?” he spits out and Sakura could have sworn that she saw his eyes flash red. “I was just washing my face,” she replies trying to remain calm.“That’s not what I mean, little blossom.” The change in his eyes is distinctly visible now. They remain bright red and the tone of voice shifts to one that sounds all too familiar for Sakura. “What are you doing in this world?” “Orochimaru,” she realizes as she watches Itachi’s tongue come out of his mouth and flick across his lips in a way all too familiar. “I won’t let you harm this family too.” She tries to make her voice sound strong, but her yelp of pain as Itachi’s grip tightens around her wrist ruins the effect. “Learn your place, girl,” Itachi snarls. He blinks rapidly and his eyes fade back to the dark color that resembles his brother’s. He looks at his hand and in shock pushes away from Sakura. “Please forgive me,” he states, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I have not been myself lately.”  Sakura watches him as he rushes away, her eyes swimming in sympathy. It seems as if she is not the only one losing herself. xxxxxxxxx “My mother is quite taken with you,” Sasuke murmurs as he strokes her hair. After dinner, when his parents had retired elsewhere, he and Sakura had snuck upstairs and resumed their position on his bed. He lays on his back, with Sakura curled up in his arms, half lying on him, drawing geometric symbols over his shirt with her finger. “I’m fading, Sasuke,” she whispers. His hands come down to cup her face, and turn it so that she looks in his eyes. “What do you mean?” “I’m drifting away, I’m forgetting my past, who I am, what happened. It’s all leaving me.” Her eyes close and she begins humming a sad, haunting tune. “Soon enough, I’ll be just like Naruto and the others.” Sasuke allows that to sink in. He knows that their relationship is dysfunctional, but he never imagined something like this. Having to hear her die every night, calling out to her, but his voice never reaching. Her humming stops and he thinks she fell asleep, so he runs his fingers up her back, tracing all of her vertebrae and her soft skin. “Sakura?” he begins, there is still a way that they can be together, forever. “Sakura?” he asks again, shaking her lightly. Slowly her head rises up, and her eyes are filled with confusion. “Is that my name?” she asks. “Yes,” Sasuke breathes out his reply, not believing this. “Yes, you’re Sakura.” Her eyes widen and she jumps up. “Sasuke, you need to get out of this house!” “Whoa, wait a minute,” he rests his hands on her shoulders. “No, you need to get out, you need to move somewhere else,” she starts breathing quickly as if hyperventilating. “He’s coming back, he’s coming back.” She begins looking around as if in a panic. “Sakura, calm down.” Sasuke’s at a loss, he doesn’t know what she is talking about or why she is suddenly hysterical. “I love you, Sasuke, and you need to leave.”  He pauses and stares at her, shocked, then he decides to voice the thought he had just a moment ago. “What if I never leave?” he whispers. “What do you mean?” she asks slowly, in a way that makes him think she already knows. “I could d-“ “Stop, stop right there,” she says sternly, frowning at him. “You are not killing yourself. You are not going to be trapped in this house, reliving your death everyday for me. Don’t you dare ever suggest anything like that ever again!” She yells the last part, tears streaming down her face. She leans her head on his chest, clutching her shirt in her hands. Her shoulders shake as she begins crying, and he instantly embraces her. “You need to leave,” she whispers between sobs. “He’ll kill you too.” She slides to the floor, and Sasuke comes with her, until they are on their knees.“I’ll speak with my family soon, okay?” he tells her, burying his nose in her hair and breathing the light scent that he discovered this morning. She nods and he picks her up before setting her gently on the bed. “It’s time,” she whispers softly, and her voice sounds distant. “What do you mean?” Sasuke asks and Sakura holds up a hand in response. It does not appear translucent, but it is not quite solid. Testing it, he tries to interlock their fingers, only to go right through. “No,” he says quietly.He stares at her and watches as the rest of her body begins to lose its solid outline. He grasps her around the waist and begins kissing her. He puts everything he has into the kiss since he knows it will be the last. Then, she is gone and he’s left alone in the expansive bedroom, crying out for her to come back, as her scream echoes in the distance. xxxxxxxxx She did not come back the next morning. She did not come back the in the afternoon. She did not come back at night. xxxxxxxxx   “Sasuke!” Dark eyes fly open at the sound of Sakura’s voice. He glances around and finds her leaning over him, her hands resting on the bed. “Sakura! You’re still here!” he exclaims reaching to touch her face, but his hand passes right through and he is left with the gut clenching reminder that she is dead. “You need to run. You need to run now!” she shouts as she points to the open door. “Get out! He’s awakened, Itachi is possessed! You need to leave!” He takes a moment to figure out what she is saying. “Run!” she screams, “the window!” Sasuke slowly tumbles out of his bed and enters the hallway. There, standing at the foot of the stairs is a dark silhouette, and Sasuke is hit with an awful sense of déjà vu. This scene is too familiar. Moon light streams through the window, a tall from shuffling towards him, with dark hair hanging down, an axe dragging along the ground, leaving a trail of blood in its wake. It is almost exactly like the vision Sakura showed him or her own death. He begins trying to open the window, only to realize that there is no way to do so. There are no hinges or handles. It’s just a solid pane of glass. Itachi steps into the moonlight, and Sasuke notices that his eyes are glowing red, even more shocking, the handle of the axe is black. An evil smirk splits his face in half and blood splatters across his forehead and cheeks. Is that the same one that killed Sakura? He breaks out of his shocked state in an instant, forcing his mind not to linger on whose blood might be coating Itachi’s body. “Come her, brother,” Itachi calls, but his voice is not his own. “Itachi, why?” Sasuke asks, pounding against the window, begging it to break. “We must join them,” he lets out an inhuman chuckle and continues down the hall. Sasuke dashes back into his room and grabs his baseball bat. He barely acknowledges Naruto, who his executing his usual knocking routine. Spinning around to enter the hallway once again, Sasuke finds his brother blocking the doorway. He instantly runs to the other door, only to find that it’s been locked from the outside. Then, a hand grabs the ends of his hair and pulls him back. “Your turn, Sasuke,” Itachi smiles as he raises the axe over his head. This is it. Sasuke thinks, bracing himself for the blow, but it never comes. Looking up, he notices Sakura standing in front of him. “No!” she yells at Itachi, “You can’t have him too.” Then, she steps into the elder Uchiha’s body. Itachi lets out a blood-curdling scream and grasps at his head. His voice comes out, morphed as if multiple are using it to argue with each other. Then, in a voice that clearly belongs to Sakura, he shouts. “Run! Use the window! He sabotaged all the other exits!” He glances at Itachi one last time before running to the window. Swinging the bat he shatters the glass, creating an opening big enough for him to slip through. Before jumping to safety, however, he glances in his room and watches as Sakura is pushed out of Itachi’s body, her spirit glowing brightly. She turns to him, a large smile on her face as her spirit begins to evaporate. First goes her fingers and toes, then her whole body becomes streams of light. “Thank you,” she whispers before disappearing. Xxxxxxxxx Two years later, Sasuke opens his eyes, finding himself in a strange white room. He looks around him and almost has to shut his eyes again due to the hazy, bright light. It is then that he notices a familiar pink-haired girl hovering over him. “Sasuke,” she chokes out. “Do you know what happened?” He’s in a shock. He hasn’t seen Sakura since the night Itachi was possessed by Orochimaru. After she had disappeared, he was able to jump out the window and get help from the neighbors. When the cops had arrived at the house, they found his parents dead and Itachi missing. Since then, he had been living on his own off of his inheritance. He is in college now, studying law. People have passed through his life, their faces blurring together. Though he survived that night, he felt more dead than alive. His family was gone, the one girl he fell in love with was gone, all the light in the world… gone. The last thing he remembers is driving to a lecture and then, nothing. But with Sakura here, looking down at him, it is as if somebody has resuscitated him, breathed oxygen into his body and shocked his heart into beating once again. “Am I…” he hesitates to say it. “Am I dead?” Sakura smiles sadly, a tear running down her face. He reaches up and wipes it away, and at there touch, instantly knows the answer. “Yes,” she whispers, covering his hand with her own. He notices her usual white nightgown is long gone, along with any traces of blood. Instead, she wears a wispy dress that seems to float around her, even from her seated position. He rises from his spot on the ground, and Sakura comes up with him. She points in the distance, and all he can see is ever expanding white. “Your family is that way,” she explains before slipping her hand in his and guiding him forwards. As she giggles and leads him towards a golden light in the distance, a new warmth spreads through him, calming him for the first time since the incident. 

KNIGHTHOOD.

09/19/2021 02:42 PM 

to love what is mortal

Summary: Team 7 takes the long way home after the war. “Change of plans!” Sakura cries out. “We’re going to get lost on the road of life, sensei!”       ...To live in this world you must be ableto do three things:to love what is mortal;to hold it against your bones knowingyour own life depends on it;and, when the time comes to let itgo,to let it go. In Blackwater WoodsMary Oliver     Obito’s skin is deathly pale, with a grayish cast that only comes from extreme chakra exhaustion. He looks like a dingy old dishrag, wrung out and set out to dry. Dying, Sakura has come to learn, is nothing like the movies, with heroic warriors passing peacefully in a field of their slain enemies. It is ugly and dirty and all too real. “Is it all over?” Obito asks, voice faint and whispery. Sakura bends down and instinctively presses a glowing green hand on Obito’s chest. His body hungrily sucks in her chakra, but it’s no use; it slips out again as quickly as it goes in, his chakra coils riddled with hundred of microscopic holes from overuse. She pulls her hand away, green glow slowly flickering and then dying away. “Yes, it’s done now. The war is over,” Kakashi-sensei says, voice husky. A trembling finger traces the line of Obito’s brow and Sakura looks away, suddenly feeling as if she’s intruded on something private. “Are they alive?” A pale fingertip following the strong line of Obito’s nose. “All of us, all my students.” “Good,” Obito sighs and it seems as if all his remaining strength flows out of him in that one breath. “Then I can give you this one last thing, at least. I can send you all home.” Kakashi-sensei’s shoulders stiffen, back curved over Obito’s head, cradling his teammate in his lap. “Obito--” “Sakura,” Obito commands, and even on his deathbed, his voice makes the hair on the back of her neck rise. “Sir,” Sakura salutes, inclining her head respectfully. “Bring the boys over here.” Kakashi-sensei says nothing but his fingers continue their slow, delicate exploration of Obito’s face. Sakura notices that he hasn’t put his Sharingan away, tomoe spinning lazily. “Of course.” It’s the work of a moment to bring Sasuke and Naruto over to Obito’s side. Sakura carries their stretchers herself and settles them down, mere inches away from Obito’s ravaged chest. For a brief second, they look like a line of corpses, so still and pale, ready to be blessed and honored for a proper burial. Sakura swallows the faintest hint of bile in her throat and forces her attention back to Obito and her sensei. “Good, good,” Obito smiles and looks up at Kakashi. “You’re going to have to let go of me,” he says, gentle. “What if I refuse your gift?” Kakashi’s voice is ragged and he bends down even more, until his masked nose almost grazes Obito’s jaw. “What if I want to just stay here with you?” “I died a long time ago,” Obito says and his eyes are soft. “Let go of me and go on with the living.” Kakashi-sensei’s silent for a long while, so still and quiet that he looks like a marble carving, chiseled out of stone to reveal weary shoulders and a bent back. He looks old and tired and ready to give up. Then, in one smooth motion, he drags his mask down and Sakura’s too shocked to register more than skin skin skin before Kakashi-sensei presses his mouth against Obito’s. It’s over in less than a heartbeat’s span and sensei’s properly covered up again before Sakura can draw in a sharp breath of surprise. “Sakura-chan, will you get our packs ready?” Kakashi-sensei’s hoarse voice snaps her to attention and Sakura nods woodenly, flagging down a passing Konoha chuunin with orders to bring General Hatake and Uzumaki Naruto’s personal belongings, as well as enough travel supplies to service four people. Another genin, drawn by the unusual gathering, has orders to bring Sakura’s trauma bag over to medics for a full restock. Recognizing her hair and the seal on her forehead, they fairly fly across the devastated battlefield. “You’re going to have to be standing, I’m afraid,” Obito says softly and he struggles for a brief moment, trying to sit up. Kakashi-sensei braces his shoulders and lifts him up, letting Obito rest against his own chest. “What about the boys?” Sakura asks, staring determinedly at a spot over Kakashi-sensei’s shoulder and trying not to flush at the gentle way her sensei is holding him. “We’ll have to carry them,” Kakashi-sensei answers and calls over a shinobi with a terse jerk of his head. Instantly, a jounin from Iwa appears at Obito’s side, kneeling respectfully. “You may have the honor of holding him,” Kakashi-sensei tells her, voice low and intense. The jounin bows, pressing her right fist against her heart. Slowly, carefully, Kakashi-sensei shifts away from Obito, and the jounin takes his place, inch by precarious inch, until she’s the one holding Obito in her lap, the top of his head almost grazing her chin. By then, the ninja have returned with her supplies and Sakura is busy going through the packs, re-organizing everything to her satisfaction. She hands Kakashi-sensei his bag as well as Sasuke’s and takes Naruto’s. “Pick them up now,” Obito murmurs, face even grayer than before. “Naruto and Sasuke?” Obito nods a fraction of an inch, eyes fluttering closed. Sakura bites her lip and carefully does not look at Kakashi-sensei, instead bending down and slowly lifting Naruto in her arms. His skin is hot and flushed, signs of a fever well on its course. In the corner of her eye, she can see Kakashi-sensei take up Sasuke, dark head lolling from the movement. “We’re ready,” Kakashi-sensei says. Obito’s eye snaps open and the familiar pinwheel is revealed. He smiles up at them all, the years falling away from his face in one brief, radiant moment. “Goodbye, Kakashi.” And the world dissolves away, leaving nothing but a blood-red eye, spinning and spinning in the air, until that too fades away.       For once, Kakashi-sensei is well enough to be walking, cradling Sasuke against his chest, bending down every so often to check up on his breathing, like Sakura instructed him to. Naruto is practically a furnace on her back, radiating enough heat that Sakura starts to sweat, even in the cold, wintery night. The heavens above are strange and unfamiliar, with none of the ordinary constellations to guide their way home. But Kakashi-sensei takes it all in stride, his walk steady, his face unreadable. She asks him, at the beginning, if he knows where they were, in this cold and desolate wasteland. “We’re on our way home,” he says, head tilted as he looks at her blankly. “Wasn’t he supposed to send us there?” Sakura growls, knee-deep in snow. “I guess we’re just taking the long way,” he says in that reasonable voice of his and continues to trudge through drifts of snow. Sakura has no choice but to follow in his footsteps. They pick their way through the snow through the long night, guided by strange starlight, clutching tight to their boys.       Sasuke wakes up first. Only the slightest change in his breath, the faintest flicker of chakra, and he slides into the waking world with a grace that makes Sakura feel ugly and embarrassed of her thick knuckles and blood-stained vest and her wide, pale forehead. In all these years, she forgot how small and clumsy Sasuke makes her feel, inadequate and fierce with longing. He coughs, wet and slick with blood, and Sakura cracks her neck, calling up chakra to her hands in an instant. Crimson flares in his dark eyes for a brief second, before fading away. Sakura holds her hands up in the air, letting the firelight illuminate the wispy green aura clinging to her fingers. “I just want to check up on you,” she says quietly. He stares at her hands, pale face unreadable. “You had several broken ribs and one of them punctured your left lung,” Sakura says, voice slow and measured. “I healed as much as I could on the field but there’s still some residual damage.” Sasuke’s eyes flutter closed and he jerks his head away from her, revealing the stark line of his throat. Sakura can see the distended curve of his jugular, the bony ridge of his Adam’s apple. It’s enough. She moves with deliberation, taking care to make noise with every step. “I’m going to need to press my hands against your chest, right near your collarbone. You’ll feel a faint tingling sensation while I run a diagnostic on you.” She shifts the blanket aside, stripping him to the waist. He lies unnaturally still, an immobile statue with hawk-like eyes, carefully watching her every move. It’s easy to let the familiar motions carry her through. The man beneath her is just another patient, just another hurt to be carefully evaluated and fixed. Her chakra seeps into his skin and radiates everywhere, following the rush of his chakra. She lets it guide her through his body, following it deep into his lungs and the newly healed tissue, hungry and still multiplying. It’s good work. All her work is. “Breathe in.” Sasuke tenses. “I need to listen to your lung sounds,” she says, a little sharper than she means it to be. He breathes. Sakura can feel the fluid in his lungs crackle and burn, catalogues the slight flinch when he breathes out. “Residual blood and interstitial fluid,” Sakura murmurs and burns it out with just a flick of her finger. She re-inflates alveoli with a nudge and carefully rebuilds the walls of his bronchi, shoring them up with dainty flecks of chakra. His ribs are soft, still developing and Sakura encourages them with a gentle touch, feeling them harden and even out under her fingers. She leaves alone the old scars on his chest. It’s over in just a few minutes and Sakura draws her hands away, skin instantly protesting the loss of heat. She quietens it by shoving her gloves back on. He never stops watching her. “I’ve fixed up as much as I can in your lungs for now,” she says, not quite looking at him. “The rest, your body’s just going to have to do on its own.” She rocks back onto her heels, brushing the dirt off her knees. It’s the silence that hurts, more than anything. Sakura draws herself back up and walks over to her side of the fire, where Naruto is still sleeping, firelight casting strange shadows over his golden face, shifting and changing with every blink. She presses a gentle hand against his forehead, feeling the warmth even through the thick leather of her glove, so different and so similar to Sasuke. She draws her hand away and settles back into her bedding, prodding the fire with a long stick. “You’re going to have to sit up.” Sakura can almost feel the way Sasuke’s gaze hardens, two black coals burning, searing deep into her skin. “It’ll be better for your breathing,” she says and does not offer to help.       Kakashi-sensei comes back with two rabbits slung over his shoulder, blood dripping from his fingers and staining his mask. They’re properly bled out and gutted, thick white winter coats still visible under dirty brown patches of dried blood. By then, Naruto is awake and squirming under Sakura’s touch, bright blue eyes flicking between the Sasuke-shaped lump on the far side of the fire and the open mouth of the cave, half-enclosed by drifts of snow as tall as he is. “Good morning,” Kakashi-sensei says, tilting his head in acknowledgement. “Sensei!” Naruto beams excitedly and Sakura’s hand tightens in warning on his shoulder. Naruto subsides almost immediately, to Kakashi-sensei’s bemusement. “Sakura-chan said she’d wallop me all the way to the Land of Noodles if I woke Sasuke up,” Naruto explains, rubbing the back of his head. “Don’t even think about getting up,” Sakura warns as she moves closer to the fire, pulling her gloves on and hauling the melted pot of snow onto the fire. Kakashi-sensei grins at her underneath his mask and starts skinning the rabbits with a sharp knife from his boot. “Aw come on, you know I’m almost all healed up,” Naruto says, scratching furiously at the wad of bandages circling his head. They’re dingy and more than a little blood-stained, but Sakura can’t afford to change them out yet. They’re only a couple of rolls away from ripping clothing and they need every layer they can get in this weather. “People who had their hearts torn out and demons extracted do not get to walk around and exert themselves!” “But I hate just sitting around and doing nothin’!” Sakura throws a kunai at Naruto, who catches it easily with two fingers. “Start skinning,” she says, a touch dangerously. Kakashi-sensei tosses the second rabbit over to Naruto and the two of them devolve into a subtle competition that Sakura ignores, busy poking at the pot and trying to make it boil faster. The water remains serenely calm in the face of her impatience. A pelt drops at her feet and Sakura contains her flinch, instead raising a single eyebrow in the face of her implacable sensei. “I win,” he says. “You had a head start!” Naruto shouts furiously and turns his attention back to his own rabbit, a streak of blood marring his cheek. Kakashi-sensei gives him a one-shoulder shrug. “So?” Sakura accepts the plate of rabbit chunks and dumps them into the pot along with a packet of ramen soup base she found in Naruto’s pack. She also adds a handful of wild rice grains, to add a little more substance. The meat sinks to the bottom and she pokes at it with a long stick, stirring it all up together. “How is he?” It’s soft, quiet enough that even Sakura can barely hear him. “He’s not dead,” Sakura says dryly, careful not to move her lips too much. She pokes harder at the ramen rabbit stew. “I gathered as much.” Kakashi sinks to his haunches, spreading his knobby fingers in front of the fire to warm them up. “Is he talking?” Sakura stares at the tiny little cookpot, dented and worn thin with years of use. She used it once to hold a man’s liver, packed in conjured ice and carried over a battlefield with kunai raining down over her head. It was a successful transplant, but the man died all the same. “No.” Kakashi-sensei makes a thoughtful noise and shucks off his boots. They’re black and well cared for, patched up and wrinkled with age. One of shoes fall over and Sakura catches a brief glimpse of a embossed spiral flame on the sole, worn smooth, before Kakashi-sensei tugs it back upright. “It won’t be easy,” Kakashi-sensei says and peels his socks off to dry in the heat. Sakura risks a quick glance at Naruto, but he’s still focused on his task. “Are you…?” She stops, unsure how to phrase her words. Are you okay? I’m sorry about the loss of-- of-- of whoever Obito had been to you. It sounds awkward enough in her head; she can only imagine the embarrassment of speaking it aloud. The shadows of his mask shift, enough to tell Sakura that Kakashi-sensei is giving her a small smile underneath it. “I’ll be fine,” he says. “If you need--” Sakura’s cut off by Naruto’s triumphant shout. He waddles over to the fire, clutching a plate full of dead rabbit and dumps it into the pot, delighting in the burbling splashes they make as they sink to the bottom. He’s bundled up to his nose in blankets and what little skin she can see is bruised and battered, with great dark smudges under his eyes. “Gotta ask old man Ichiraku when we get back if he’ll try making miso and rabbit ramen,” Naruto smiles and Sakura looks away, blinking rapidly. Her leather gloves creak a little when she tightens her fists, fingernails digging into her palm. Kakashi-sensei pats the ground next to him. “Sit before you make Sakura angry, Naruto.” “Aw sh*t, I forgot about that.” Naruto squeezes between the tight space between Sakura and Kakashi-sensei, knees banging and blankets flying everywhere. “Sakura-chan, it was only a little walk and I didn’t mean to go against you, honest! And I don’t even hurt much anymore!” “Idiot,” she says, voice a little rough, and cuffs him round the head. But she leans into his warmth and the three of them sit together, pressed tight, Sakura’s head pillowed on Naruto’s shoulder, Naruto leaning on Kakashi-sensei and Kakashi’s arm slung around their shoulders, holding them close. Naruto breaks the silence first. “How long has he been sleeping?” Sakura closes her eyes, listening the faint heartbeats of her team echo through her body. “Not a peep since we got here,” she says, sleepily. It’s not quite a lie. “He’ll wake up soon enough,” Kakashi-sensei says. A pause and then: “Do you think he’s afraid?” “Afraid of what?” Sakura yawns and reaches out to stir the stew, fatigue making her arm slow and clumsy. “Afraid that this was the wrong choice to make.” The stick stills in Sakura’s hand. “What makes you say that?” Kakashi-sensei’s asks, voice almost too bland. “It must be scary, to come back and not know how much has changed,” Naruto says quietly, looking down at his fingers. “The villagers probably don’t like him much, after what happened.” His voice is too low, small and worn thin and everything Naruto is not and it makes Sakura want to rise up with chakra flaring in her fists and kill everyone who ever made Naruto so sad and his eyes so old. Instead she presses closer and breathes in the smell of his sweat and blood and his cheap dollar store shampoo. It just makes her eyes sting more. “Every choice comes with its price.” Kakashi-sensei’s hair droops forward, still damp with half-melted snow, and he brushes it back with a careless hand. “Do you think we made the right one?” Sakura asks, rubbing furiously at her eyes. Her fingers come away wet and she hurriedly wipes them on her pants before Naruto can see. “Of course we did,” Naruto says fiercely, blue eyes radiant. The years fall away from his face and he looks more like himself again. “There’s no doubt about it.” Sakura carefully watches Sasuke from the corner of her eyes and wonders what price they will have to pay.       Naruto’s the one who finally coaxes Sasuke into eating a bowl of food, the two of them sitting close enough that it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins, black and blond hair falling together in the flickering firelight. Naruto whispers something into Sasuke’s ear, his idea of a quiet voice loud enough to send ripples through Sakura’s bowl of ‘tea’ (really just hot water and and some evergreen needles Kakashi-sensei had found while hunting, but she’ll take what she can get). “Wait til you get a look at old lady’s mug up on the mountain. Ever since I saw it, I’ve been planning the best prank ever for it.” Sasuke mutters something inaudible, lips hidden by a pale hand and Naruto laughs, bright and clean and it cuts straight into Sakura’s heart. She jerks her head away from them and down at her kit, sheets of leather unrolled at her feet, revealing rows of gleaming steel blades and needles as thin as a single strand of hair. They were always close. Sakura worries at her bottom lip and puts her tea down, stomach suddenly too tight and uneasy. Instead, she picks up a scalpel and an oiled rag and sets to cleaning her tools, hands steadying as she falls into the familiar routine. More laughter and the sound of blankets rustling as bodies jostle against each other. Sakura presses her lips together, concentrating on the keen edges of the blades, sharp enough to cut with only the slightest of pressure, parting flesh so quickly that there is no pain at first touch. It’s been six months since she’s earned her medic kit at the end of her apprenticeship and it’s seen plenty of use already, handles worn smooth by the weight of her hands. “Well, Sakura-chan told me this crazy story that Obito-not-actually-Madara sent us all here with his mangekyou thingy in his eye, which is just like Kakashi-sensei’s, ‘cept apparently he was almost dead when he did it, so that’s why we’re probably up north somewhere instead of back in Konoha.” There’s a brief pause and Sasuke murmurs something indistinct. “--oh yeah, Kakashi-sensei left out a whole buncha stuff about his past. Did you know that Uchiha Obito was his teammate? And when he almost died during the last war, he gave Kakashi-sensei his Sharingan and everything when he died, which is why sensei has it. Then he came back to life I guess and pretended to be Madara, but that’s where the stuff gets really weird.” Sasuke doesn’t respond, not vocally, and Sakura is left to fill in the spaces of the quiet with her own thoughts. Number ten, for cutting straight through. Number eleven, to pierce and stab. Number fifteen, for precision. Tsunade-shishou has hundreds of scalpels in her personal library, kit upon kit upon kit stacked in boxes sitting in the dark, most of them too rusty and dull to cut human flesh. Sakura practiced with them during her apprenticeship, balancing the handles on her fingertips, pressing them against her anatomy notes and pretending to dissect the hidden secrets of the heart. From beneath her lashes, Sakura can make out the two huddled figures by the fire, positioned so that the only thing she can see is the outline of their shoulders, broad and distinct even under a pile of blankets and mismatched bits of clothing. For a brief moment, she is twelve and long-haired again, watching her teammates run far, far ahead of her, leaving her only with the shadow of their backs. “Your watch.” Sakura moves automatically, scalpel flying through the air and hitting the stone wall with a clatter. Kakashi-sensei raises an eyebrow. Sakura’s cheeks flush. “Sorry, I was. Distracted.” “It is my fault, a little bit.” When he raises a hand to touch his cheek, his fingertips come away bright red. There’s a clean line of blood against the black of his mask. “I should know by now not to startle people when they’re holding sharp objects.” Sakura winces and moves to get up but Kakashi-sensei just flaps a hand at her, easily picking up the scalpel and handing it off to her, handle first. The body is only a little scuffed, but the blade is blunted, the very tip of it chipped off. Sakura’s mouth twists. Wasteful. “Hey, is everything ok?” Sakura puts it down, carefully, before looking up at Naruto and rolling her eyes. “Yeah, Kakashi-sensei was just being stupid again.” “I’m going senile in my old age,” Kakashi-sensei says cheerfully, curling up on his bedroll with a battered copy of Icha Icha Tactics, a wad of dirty cloth pressed against the cut on his cheek. Sakura gives him a disgusted look but he ignores her, flipping the book open and sticking his nose in it. “Tell me something new,” Naruto hmphs and turns back to the fire, ladling another bowlful of stew. Another conversation strikes up, marked by the low murmurs of Naruto’s voice and the occasional sound of Sasuke’s grunts. Sakura ignores it all and prepares to face the winter. She rolls up the leather cases, broken blade and all, and stows it away it in her trauma bag, cushioned by rolls of pressure bandages and vials of blood pills wrapped in tape and gauze. Socks, then another pair, then her standard issue boots, given to every shinobi to outfit them for war. Leather gloves with armored backings. A mask filched from Kakashi sensei, a scarf over all of that and as many layers of clothes as she can fit on underneath her baggy chuunin blues and flak vest. “You know there’s no one around for miles. No reason to be so jumpy.” Sakura is busy lacing up the front of her boots, tucking her uniform pants in. “No reason not to be on alert,” she corrects him. The sound of a page turning. “Have a little faith, Sakura-chan.” “We’re down two people and I have to conserve my strength to both fight and heal those idiots over there.” The laces are long enough to wrap around her ankle twice over and she double knots them, pulling tight enough that they’ll leave marks on her skin in the morning. “I’m starting to think Naruto was talking about the wrong person.” Sakura looks up sharply from her boots but Kakashi-sensei’s still hidden behind his book, lying boneless in his nest of blankets. “I’m not afraid.” “Sure, sure,” he says affably, and turns another page. “The wind is getting worse, coming in from the northeast so the lee’s probably half-filled with snow by now. Have a fun watch.” Sakura tries not to stomp out of the cave.       A week drags on before the boys grow strong enough to last a full day’s travel, the dark hollows of their cheeks slowly filling out. Sakura pulls her hands away from Sasuke’s chest, faint rays of green light still clinging stubbornly to his skin like bits of sticky candy. She snaps them off with an irritated flick of her wrist and dunks her hands in a vat of steaming hot water, boiled with special herbs, to cleanse them of any lingering sickness. “Well?” Naruto demands. “As can be expected,” Sakura says, intent on scrubbing her hands. Her skin turns a bright, angry red before she’s satisfied, drying it off with cloths marked with seals to preserve health and ward against contamination. “And that means?” Sasuke’s voice is quiet, but no less forceful. “It means what it means,” she says and dumps the leftover water into the fire, killing it instantly. “None of you are back at a hundred percent yet. We still have weeks of supplementary healing to go.” “It means we’ll be leaving after breakfast,” Kakashi drawls, already helping himself to a second bowl of gruel. Naruto gets up with a shout and makes motions to hug her but Sakura wards him off with a grumpy look. He settles for beaming at her instead. “I always knew you were gonna be the best.” “Oh hush,” Sakura mutters, feeling heat rise in her cheeks. “And get moving, we’re losing daylight.” They break camp in less than an hour and if Naruto looks a little less steady on his feet than normal, Sakura doesn’t say anything but makes a note to push for an early midday rest. Sasuke, clad in spare chuunin blues and an oilcloth cloak, lurks at his side like a dark shadow, pale face unreadable. They both have full packs slung over their shoulders. Naruto wouldn’t accept anything else. “We’re about a day from the coast,” Kakashi-sensei announces from the mouth of the cave, just as Sakura finishes packing up her medical supplies. “We’ll stay for the night at an inn and catch a boat from there to Fang Country.” “You knew where we were all along?” Naruto howls and would have done much worse if he hadn’t overbalanced and almost tripped over his feet. “Oh, uh,” Kakashi-sensei says, scratching the back of his head. “Did I forget to tell you all?” Sasuke grabs the back of Naruto’s collar when he makes an attempt to throttle Kakashi with his bare hands. “We’re in Frost, idiot.” “You knew too?” Naruto looks like a kicked puppy, blue eyes wide and filling up with alligator tears. “Yes.” Sasuke’s mouth curls up in a familiar smirk and he tugs harder against Naruto’s shirt. “Why didn’t you tell me?!” “You never asked.” Sakura narrows her eyes. “How did you know?” The conversation abruptly falls silent and Sasuke lets go of Naruto’s collar. He avoids her look, instead staring intently at the streak of blue sky revealed by the opening of the cave, a cold and metallic sort of color that Sakura saw only once before, when she visited Lightning Country in the depths of winter. It is a color that is more felt than seen, striking like the keen edge of a blade. “I’ve been here before,” Sasuke says, very stiffly, and his face closes off, returning to its usual pale smoothness. Sakura hefts her bag over a shoulder and walks out of the cave, taking care not to brush Sasuke’s shoulder. Kakashi-sensei’s single gray eye watches her, impassive, as she passes by. “So tell me more about the Land of Frost!” Naruto says behind her, voice cracking.       They would have passed by quietly, the group of rogue ninja slipping through the forest in ignorance of the four little cardinals perched upon a tree branch up high, if it hadn’t been for that one little mistake. Sakura feels the subtle flicker of chakra next to her, and when she turns her head a fraction of an inch, she catches sight of Sasuke’s face, bone white and shiny with sweat. The faint afterimage of a sharp beak and quick dark eyes lingers at the edges of her periphery, the illusion clinging tight to the four of them. Kakashi-sensei jerks his head, Sharingan spinning lazily with the effort of maintaining the genjutsu. No chakra use allowed, he signs with his hands, fingers almost too swift to make out. On her other side, Naruto twitches a little, craning his neck around her and giving Sasuke a worried look. He okay?, he signs awkwardly, with none of Kakashi-sensei’s casual grace. Sakura peels her glove off her right hand with her teeth and presses it against Sasuke’s forehead. He turns his head away from her slightly, dark strands of hair clinging to his sweaty skin. He’s only slighter warmer than usual, but her palm grows slick. Look at me, she signs with her free hand and gently tugs his chin towards her. He resists a little and she puts a little more pressure on it. Sasuke’s wide dark eyes look up at her, almost too big for his pale face, with faint purple shadows smudged underneath. A single red tear drips unsteadily from the corner of one eye and down his cheek, stark against the white flesh. His eyes blossom into bloody pinwheels. “Oh you idiot,” Sakura swears through gritted teeth, not caring that she’s gripping his face hard enough to leave bruises. “Let it go, you’re not strong enough to use it--” Sasuke shudders and his eyes fluttered closed. “You have no right,” he says through numb lips. “I have every right as the medic on this team,” Sakura snaps back, ignoring Naruto’s cautionary hand on her shoulder. “Release the Sharingan before I make you.” Sasuke raises his arm and his hand flashes a brilliant white for a brief second, leaving behind a trace of ozone. It’s enough. Sakura automatically unholsters her kunai and sets the keen edge of it against Sasuke’s eyes, close enough to brush his lashes. “You dare.” “Just try me,” Sakura says coldly. “Well, there goes our cover,” Kakashi-sensei says placidly and closes his left eye, peering down below the branch as three chakra signatures flare bright in alarm. “If you hadn’t pulled that elemental trick, they wouldn’t have caught the chakra spike.” Sasuke snarls. “If she hadn’t interfered, none of this would have happened.” “We’ll discuss this later,” Kakashi-sensei says, voice hardening. “Sakura, take the boys and go on ahead. I’ll catch up.” The chakra signatures below are strong and unruly. Sakura pegs at least two of them as chuunin-level ninja, the third just short of jounin in terms of raw power; they feel untrained and wild. “Sensei, are you sure?” He looks down at the group of missing-nin prowling beneath the tree, growing ever closer. “Quite sure,” he says, mild. “We have only a little bit before-- ah, here they come.” One of the ninja tilts his head towards the sky, dark eyes flashing. The sun glitters off the hard metal band of his forehead protector, but even from this distance, Sakura can make out the single musical note etched into steel. “Sound,” Naruto growls. “Go.” Kakashi looks at all three of them, his single gray eye unreadable. “I’ll catch up.” “But, Kaka-sensei--” Sakura bows her head. “Understood, sensei. Naruto, get on my back.” “Sakura-chan, we can’t just leave him here by himself!” “We must,” she says, looking down at the ninja, her heart growing cold. “We have to. You and Sasuke will only be liabilities in a fight and I have to protect the two of you. It’s the only way.” “Sakura-chan.” “I’m really not that feeble,” Kakashi-sensei says and he reaches over, his hand patting Sasuke’s head, then Sakura’s, and finally Naruto’s. Even through her hood and the thick leather glove, his touch is warm. “If you don’t come, I’ll kick your ass all the way to the frog mountain.” Naruto gives him a fierce grin. “I’m shaking in my boots,” Kakashi-sensei says dryly. “Now, hurry, before they catch your scent.” Naruto clambers awkwardly onto her back, muttering apologies about his weight under his breath. Sakura rolls her eyes and beckons impatiently towards Sasuke. “In my arms.” He looks at her, his dark eyes furious. Twin bloody tear tracks cut through his cheekbones, still fresh and wet. “I can go on my own two legs.” “Too bad,” Sakura says, and she grabs the scruff of his cloak. It’s the surprise that helps more than anything and she has him in an awkward half carry within a moment, his head side by side with Naruto’s, the rest of his long body cradled in her arms. Quietly, hardly moving her lips, Sakura whispers into his ear. “If it were my choice, I would leave you here.” He doesn’t move at all, but Sakura knows he heard it. “Go,” Kakashi-sensei says again, his voice urgent, and Sakura leaps off the branch and into the clear blue sky. Behind her, she can feel Kakashi-sensei’s coiled signature dive off the branch and below at the group of ninja, chakra burning bright in his clenched fist. She’s barely two tree branches away when she hears a ragged scream that tears the deep silence of the forest into shreds. “Sasuke-sama!” Naruto’s breath hitches in her ear. Sakura runs. She runs until the wind whistling around her turns into silence, until the chakra flowing in her legs turns thick and heavy and burns like fire, until the weight of her boys on her back feels like the world upon her shoulders, bowing her back. She runs and runs and runs. She runs until she can no longer feel herself anymore, until the edges of her soul fade away and all she can taste is ash and dust. She runs until she is no longer running. “Sakura-chan,” Naruto croaks into her ear, his arms clamped tight around her neck. “Are you okay?” She comes back to herself in slow pieces and finds herself kneeling in the snow, Sasuke cradled in her arms, Naruto hanging off her back. “I can’t feel anyone,” Naruto coughs. “Not the ninjas and not even Kakashi-sensei. I think it’s safe now.” Sakura blinks, then blinks again, slowly relearning all the different parts of her body, so strange in stillness after what seemed like an eternity in motion. She unsticks her tongue from the roof of her mouth and works her mouth open. “Safe?” she rasps. “Safe,” Naruto confirms. Sakura sighs and her arms suddenly collapse, Sasuke’s body sliding down onto the ground before he jerks himself away, his body stiff and uncertain. Naruto’s arms slowly unlock themselves around her neck and he too slides away. Sakura feels almost too light now without their weight, as if she will now float away into the sky without her anchors. She shivers and wraps her arms around herself. “Here,” Naruto says, holding out a small canteen. His hands are shaking. “Drink.” Sakura takes it with clumsy fingers, sloshing water all over her front. It doesn’t matter-- the water is the sweetest thing she’s ever tasted, bone achingly cold and wet and everything she’s ever wanted in her life. She drinks it all in one go and takes the other canteen Naruto offers her, finishing it off as well. “How many soldier pills?” Sakura shakes her head, setting the canteen down. She takes the ration bar he offers her, tearing into it. “Don’t know,” she says. “Three or four.” “I don’t think you should be taking any more.” Sakura swallows the last of the bar and tears open a soldier pill from a wrapper. “I’m fine,” she says sharply. “But if you take too much, you can get the sickness--” “I know what I’m doing.” Sakura bites down onto the pill, feeling smoke and phantom fire wash through her coils. It’s enough. It has to be enough. “We need a shelter and fire and a place to wait for sensei,” Naruto announces and he stands up shakily, brushing snow from his cloak. “There’s no forest, but there should be some kind of rock thing we can camp out under for a little bit since we’re so close to the mountains. Sasuke stirs from his place on the ground and Sakura catches the twin trails of dried blood on his face, like strange warrior markings. The sight of it sends a fresh stab of anger deep in her heart. “It’s called a cave, dumbass,” Sasuke says hoarsely, contempt edging his voice. “Not a rock thing.” “Cave rock whatever.” Naruto scratches the back of his head. “We should get moving though.” “He’s not a dumbass,” Sakura says quietly. Sasuke starts and looks at her with his black eyes. “What?” “I said he’s not a dumbass,” she says louder, forcefully. “He’s not, so stop calling him that.” “Oi, Sakura-chan, you know he doesn’t mean anything--” “Doesn’t he?” Sakura says dangerously, narrowing her green eyes, heat running through her veins and blood pounding in her head, driving her ever onward, ever forward. “How do we know that he doesn’t mean it? He’s tried to kill you and sensei more times than I’d like to count, how do I know that he won’t try again? That the Sound ninjas Kakashi-sensei’s fighting aren’t his own men, searching for him? Maybe you planned this whole thing, set up the trap.” Naruto’s face whitens. “Sakura, you can’t say things like that.” “Can’t I? Isn’t it suspicious, how he’s the one who blew our cover and that we just happened to run into Orochimaru’s ninja?” “It’s not true, right Sasuke?” Naruto asks, his fists clenched tight, almost desperate. “Tell her it’s not!” Sasuke says nothing, his eyes twin embers burning in his white face. “I was right,” Sakura says softly. “You never wanted to come back with us after all.” It’s a confirmation of the suspicions she’s been harboring since the end of the battle, since even before that, when he suddenly turned up, dark eyed and scowling and Konoha’s newest ally, with several undead Hokages in tow. She wonders, a little, why it hurts so much, when she already knew. “There’s no point in denying anything,” Sasuke retorts, rocking back on his heels as he struggles to rise from his crouch. “You won’t believe anything I say.” “The bastard fought for Konoha, he helped us defeat Madara and the Ten Tails. He fought with us, Sakura-chan. He wouldn’t betray us like this.” Naruto stands in between them, his arms spread out, teetering awkwardly as he strains to be in two places at once. “So you believe me?” Sasuke spits. “I thought you were in love with Sakura, why not take her side.” “Because you’re my friend,” Naruto says simply. Sasuke reels back as if punched, his face whitening even more. Sakura aches to see the pain etched in every line of Naruto’s face, his face pale underneath his tan. There are no more whisker marks on his cheeks, only hollows that no amount of healing can fill, and a regenerated heart that beats unsteadily beneath tattered flesh and bone carefully sewn back together. Naruto’s blue eyes are clearer than the sky above them, bright and filled with hope. Sakura can’t bear looking at him any longer and turns her face away. “You can’t trust him. Not again. Not like this.” “I made a promise to you, don’t you remember? I promised to bring him back, to make Team Seven whole again.” “I released you from that promise,” Sakura says and she slowly gathers herself, standing up with care, clenching her trembling fingers tight. “You’re the one holding yourself to it, not me.” Behind her, a wolf starts to howl. “Truce,” Sasuke says unexpectedly, getting up slowly. “We need to find shelter, we can’t stay out in the open the entire night. A truce, until dawn.” “And how do I know you’ll keep your word?” Sakura demands. “Or my brother’s eyes as forfeit,” Sasuke says and he gives her a thin lipped smile. “If I attack your or Naruto during the night, you may take my brother’s eyes, like you threatened to before.” Sakura unholsters the same kunai as before and twirls it in her hand, thinking it over. “Truce,” she says finally. Naruto heaves a very deep sigh. “Couldn’t you guys have figured out all this before I got really cold?” “No,” Sakura and Sasuke say at the same time. Sakura flinches a little, hearing his voice echo in time with hers, and resolutely does not meet his or Naruto’s gaze. She picks up her pack on the ground where Naruto had thrown it down and slings it over her shoulders. “Alright,” Naruto says, sounding absurdly pleased. “Let’s get going then, I’m really craving some ramen.”       The night passes in quiet, as Sakura sits against the mouth of the cave, keeping watch against the relentless darkness. It’s started to snow again, small little flurries that will be enough to hide their tracks in the snow from the Sound ninja, and perhaps even from Kakashi-sensei. Sakura pokes idly at the small fire and adds another dry twig of firewood Naruto managed to scavenge. “You can leave, you know,” Sakura says, conversationally. “I won’t stop you.” Sasuke emerges from the shadows, his cloak fastened at his collar and his pack hanging from his side. “You’re letting me go.” Sakura says nothing. “You don’t want me here,” Sasuke corrects himself, firelight glinting off his black hair. The wood snaps in her hands. Sakura feeds the shattered wood into the fire, hair falling over her eyes. “Do you want the honest truth? I’m angry at you because Naruto loves you so much it’s killing him. Every time you leave, every time you push him away, you hurt him and you hurt me. I don’t know if you’re the one who set the ninja on us-- at this point, I don’t even care anymore. Just go.” She thinks of dappled sunlight falling across scarred brown cheeks, warmth pressed against her side, of certainty embodied in the stubborn line of his jaw. She thinks of the raging inhuman fire contained by fragile skin and bones and enough determination to keep the tattered threads of the world together. Sakura turns away from the fire, away from Sasuke, and towards the pile of blankets just outside the glow of firelight. Naruto snuffles a little in his sleep, arm casually draped over his face. Sakura reaches out, the tip of her finger just barely brushing his cheek. A spark of green chakra flickers to life as she delicately traces the lines of his old jinchuuriki whiskers on unmarked flesh. His face gently smoothes out as he falls into a deeper, healing sleep. “Naruto...loves me?” Sakura looks up. Sasuke's pale face is heartbreakingly young, his lips parted open in faint surprise. For a moment, he looks like a boy of twelve again, shock tearing away at the stiff arrogance he wears like a second skin. “Idiot,” she says, fierce, his question cutting at the tender and vulnerable spots of her heart, the keen edge of it coming away slick with her blood. “He’s loved you from the very beginning.” Sasuke turns his face away, his lips pressed into a thin line. “I--” Life unfurls at the very edges of her senses, like a tiny sunburst of light slowly coming into existence. A chakra signature almost as familiar as her own, tasting of static and the air after rainstorms. “Kakashi-sensei,” Sakura breathes and she scrambles to her feet in a heartbeat. Naruto sneezes loudly before his head pops up groggily from his mess of blankets. “Izzat him?” he mutters, eyes narrowed in concentration. “His chakra always makes my nose feel itchy.” “Stay there,” Sakura says automatically, pulling up a blade in both hands. “Let me go check it out first.” When Kakashi-sensei ends up strolling through the entrance, with only wisps of snow lost amidst the gray shock of hair to mark his passage through the snowstorm, Sakura doesn’t know whether to hug or stab him. “Hello, everyone,” he says, saluting all three of them cheerily. There’s a single jagged scar running along the line of his cheekbone, above his mask, sticky and almost entirely scabbed over. “Sensei,” Naruto starts before he scrubs his bright eyes with the back of his hand. “Sensei, you’re-- you’re--” “You’re late,” Sasuke finishes, black eyes glittering. Kakashi-sensei rubs the back of his head sheepishly. “Sorry, I got a little lost on the way here. I wish you had left better trail marks, Sakura.” Sakura gives him a shaky smile, relief flooding her with warmth. “I’ll take that into consideration the next time we flee an ambush of ninja.” “Oh, that reminds me,” Kakashi-sensei says, and he digs something out from the pocket of his flak vest. “Courtesy of the surprise party.” He draws out a hank of dirty red hair, damp from the snow and stiff with old blood. “Look familiar to anyone?” He throws it down onto the ground, strands scattering at Sasuke’s feet. Sasuke’s face is frozen still, the elegant lines of his face sculpted out of marble and stone. Sakura’s heart stutters to a stop, caught in the taut space between the red curls of hair and his fathomless eyes. “Is she dead?” “Not quite, though I assure you, I put my best effort in. She begged for a chance to meet you, one last time.” Kakashi-sensei’s pleasant smile fades away into something harder and distant. Naruto draws in a ragged breath, almost too loud and personal in the tense silence winding tight between the four of them. “It’s Karin, isn’t it?” He’s loved you from the very beginning. Hot tears prick the corners of her eyes and Sakura turns her face away, unable to look at the shattered remnants of Naruto’s face. “She said she’ll wait for you by the forking river, nearby Orochimaru’s base.” Sasuke closes his eyes. “Will you come back?” Naruto asks, and the uncertainty in his voice shakes Sakura to the core. Sasuke bows his head and gathers the folds of the cloak around him. Sakura watches him leave, blades hanging loosely from her fingertips, his slender back growing smaller and smaller until it disappears; try as she might, the only thing she can see is the snow falling from the sky, unceasing, covering the faint trail of footprints until that too fades away into oblivion.       The beach doesn’t look much like the ones she’s seen in magazines, of the resorts dotting the southern coast of the Land of Fire, filled with deeply tanned people dressed in skimpy clothing, drinking brightly colored drinks topped off with fruit sticks and paper umbrellas. It’s bitterly cold and gray and yet the sea is still the most beautiful thing Sakura’s seen in her life, waves crashing upon the pebbled sand, the white foam swirling around her ankles and chilling her to the bone. Her cloak’s whipping wildly in the wind and Sakura digs out her old blue Konoha headband from the bottom of her back, using it to tie her hair back like in her genin days. “Huh,” Naruto says quietly, reaching out with a brown finger to tug at one end of the knot. “I didn’t know you had it with you.” “When I was packing my things for the war, I brought it along.” Sakura looks over at the endless churning expanse of water, stretching until what seems like the edge of the world. “As a reminder, I guess, of what we’re fighting for.” “Half an hour before the boat leaves,” Kakashi-sensei calls out faintly from behind them, his gray hair standing up even more from the relentless wind. One of his summoned dogs is sitting by his side, sunglasses perched on the end of its snout. A pair of bright orange goggles hangs from its mouth, straps wet with drool. Sakura waves at the the two of them. Kakashi holds up a hand, lone eye curved cheerfully. “Do you think everyone’s back yet?” “From the front lines?” Sakura turns back, adjusting her headband. “Only the Kages and the injured, I think. I remember Tsunade-shishou and Shizune going over exit plans and how to best send the troops back home. But we've been gone for weeks now, who knows how many have come back home by now. She might actually kill us for taking so long. Kakashi-sensei sent Pakkun along with a message when we first realized Obito didn’t exactly send us back to the right place and Pakkun came right back with a bloody nose.” “That’s the old lady alright,” Naruto grins and it’s too flashy, too broad, too much like an exaggerated version of himself. Sakura’s hand reaches out in the air for a moment before she draws it back, fingers clenched into a tight fist. “Do you remember what Kakashi-sensei said, Sakura-chan?” She tilts her head. “Kakashi-sensei said a lot things,” she says, dry. “He said, ‘Every choice comes with its price.’” Naruto looks up at her, his blue eyes clear and piercing. “I’ve made my choice. And it’s okay if it hurts because it’s worth it, it’s worth waiting for him.” “Naruto--” He holds out a hand, worn and brown from the sun. “We’re Team Seven, remember? We’re in it together. Wait with me.” She’s seen his hands burn bright with demon chakra, grow jagged claws sharp enough to disembowel; she’s seen his hands curled into furious fists, flickering through hand seals; she’s healed his hands, her chakra washing through him in delicate harmony. She thinks of Sasuke’s pale, scarred hands, intertwined with his. “Aren’t you scared? Of him hurting you-- us again?” she whispers, her voice catching in her throat. Naruto smiles at her, and it’s a real smile this time, soft around the edges and filled with a brightness that makes Sakura’s heart ache. “You can always heal us, right?” “That’s not how it works,” she laughs, tears glittering in the corner of her eyes, and takes his hand. Naruto pulls her into a tight hug, his chin resting on the top of her head. “I’m really scared,” he breathes. “Really, really, really scared he won’t come back. But I want to try this anyway, because I can’t give this up. I won’t give it up. That’s my ninja way.” “I remember,” Sakura says, thinking of snow falling from the sky and on Sasuke’s still body, lying at Naruto’s feet, of yellow and black hair woven together by firelight that night in the cave. Her boys, lying side by side on the battlefield, like two corpses waiting to be blessed and honored for a proper burial. Sakura draws away from him, breaking the hug, but she clasps his hand tight. “Sensei!” she calls, waving furiously at the lone figure standing by the shore, dog sitting by his side. “KAKASHI-SENSEI!” Naruto bellows helpfully. Kakashi turns around, somehow projecting bemusement under ten layers of clothes and a facemask. “Change of plans!” Sakura cries out. “We’re going to get lost on the road of life, sensei!”       He cannot remember a time when he hasn’t felt cold; it seeps deep into his bones and his blood, curling razor sharp fingers around his beating heart. His cloak is heavy with frost and old blood and he draws it closer around himself, chasing a phantom warmth he remembers only distantly. Ahead, he can see smoke rise up in the air in faint spirals. Fire, he thinks, and his heart beats a little quicker. He has been walking for a long time, and he walks on still for a little longer, anticipation blooming inside of his chest as the smoke grows clearer, stronger. He can smell the ash in the air, charred wood, and heat bringing along with it wisps of warm memories. The forest parts and slowly gives away to a small clearing, lit up by the glow of a small, bright fire and two small figures, crouched over a small bubbling pot and a man lounging casually on a bedroll with a sleeping dog. He uncoils his chakra carefully, letting it shine from within himself again, cracks of light filtering through his carefully guarded walls and burning away the cold. “I’m back,” Sasuke says.

KNIGHTHOOD.

09/19/2021 02:23 PM 

a heap of details, uncatalogued, illogical

Summary: “Oh,” she says, white hands clenched into tight fists. “I’m-- I was your student. Haruno Sakura.” Kakashi tilts his head, gray eye analyzing her carefully for tells. He finds nothing. “I’ve never seen you before in my life,” he says flatly. (Kakashi wakes up fourteen years old.)   A serious man who devised complex systems of numbers and rhymesto aid him in remembering, a man who forgot nothing, my fatherwould be ashamed of me.Not because I'm forgetful,but because there is no orderto my memory, a heapof details, uncatalogued, illogical. MnemonicLi-Young Lee       Kakashi wakes up to the smell of antiseptic and death, eye cracked open slightly. The light sends shooting pains in his head, thunderbolts ricocheting violently in the tiny confines of his skull and reminding his stomach that he needs a bucket now. It takes all of his strength to roll over onto his side-- he’s survived through a war and a demon attack, it would only be sad and pathetic if he ended up dying by choking on his own vomit. “Easy there, sensei--” A pair of strong hands hoists him up easily and a bin is quickly shoved into his lap. Kakashi ignores the strange voice and pulls down his tattered mask. He throws up quickly and efficiently, a remnant of the war. There were many rotting corpses and many enemy ninja waiting for the chance to gut a distracted soldier. Even vomiting became routine and regulated. Kakashi waits a moment after his last dry heave and then pulls his mask back up. The light isn’t as blinding now and he rubs his eye, clearing the last bits of gunk. When he blinks, the wavering lines straighten and the walls of a hospital room come into sharp focus, yellow paint bleached by the long exposure to the sun. Kakashi blinks again, taking into account the well-worn cot he’s lying in, the waxed tile floors. They’re patterned blue and white, with faint black scuff marks from years of use. “Are you thirsty?” Kakshi turns to the side, watching the medic who is binning the basin in a biohazard container, snapping her gloves off in a smooth and practiced manner. “Yes,” Kakashi says, voice rough and cracking. She looks at him apologetically, squeezing hand sanitizer into her hand. “Sorry, but since water will just make you throw up more, we’re just going to have stick with ice chips and saline bags for now. And only if you behave and don’t down all of them in one go!” “Yes, medic-san,” Kakashi says obediently. The medic’s smile falls, like she was expecting a different response. “Y-you don’t know who I am, do you?” Kakashi watches her brow furrow, her dark green eyes widening and turning a little watery.”No,” he says quietly. “Oh,” she says, white hands clenched into tight fists. “I’m-- I was your student. Haruno Sakura.” Kakashi tilts his head, gray eye analyzing her carefully for tells. He finds nothing. “I’ve never seen you before in my life,” he says flatly.       The Hokage is dead. “I know this an extremely unusual set of circumstances, but I believe that it is reversible. I have the best members of my Sealing Corps on this issue.” The Hokage is dead. “Kakashi.” The Princess raises a delicate golden brow. “Are you following along?” “I am, apparently, a younger version of my thirty year old self, a genjutsu trick that blocks out all memories in my mind past the age of fourteen and casts an illusion on my body to make it appear my-- my mental age as of this moment,” Kakashi recites, voice stony. “It was activated by the interaction of my Sharingan and a mystical sealing scroll while in the field, protecting a temple from attack.” “So you were listening,” Tsunade-sama nods, looking satisfied. “Don’t fret, I have my best minds on this, you’ll be free of it in no time. Until then, you’ve been placed on the inactive duty roster. Yamato here--” Tsunade gestures at the strange-looking man standing obediently near the doorway, who salutes at her mention. “--he’ll be your guide in the meantime.” She crosses her legs, leaning back into the wooden hospital chair. “Any questions?” “What happened to the Hokage?” Kakashi demands, fingers automatically curling as if they were wrapped around the handle of a kunai. “Why is it you?” Tsunade’s brown eyes widen a fraction. “Of course, you wouldn’t remember. Tell me, what is the last date you can recall?” “April 6th, the first year of the Sandaime’s second reign,” Kakashi says automatically. “Six months after the attack, more or less.” “Sarutobi-sensei died fighting Orochimaru over three years ago,” Tsunade says, arms crossed over her chest. “I was appointed his successor not long after.” First Minato-sensei and now the Sandaime. Logically, Kakashi knows that no man is infallible. The Sandaime had been old when Kakashi was born and even older still when he had retired and positively ancient when he had taken the mantle up again after Minato-sensei’s death. It should be no surprise that he had-- died. “Next you’ll be telling me Jiraiya is dead,” Kakashi says bitterly, picking at the stray threads of his hospital-issue blanket. Tsunade goes still. “Oh,” Kakashi says. Tsunade leaves after that, when the silence between the two of them grows until it becomes suffocating, the Yamato fellow hovering anxiously around the doorway, looking back and forth at Kakashi on the bed and the Princess’s back in the hallway. Kakashi makes the decision for the man and curls up on his side, closing his eyes. It’s only when Kakashi has faked a slow, steady breathing for a full five minutes that Yamato makes the decision to leave, closing the hospital door behind him, distinctive chakra signature floating down the hallway after Tsunade. Kakashi sits up carefully and takes stock of his situation. One Sharingan. (He’d checked right before Tsunade’s visit and had never been more grateful for Obito’s familiar presence.) Low chakra reserves but otherwise negligible physical injuries. Hospital-issue gown and tattered ANBU blacks underneath. The mask is barely held together by fraying threads and Kakashi tears it off, replacing it with a surgical mask he finds in the cabinet above the room sink. Hospital socks, with the rubber coating on the bottom to stop him from slipping on the waxed floor. Forehead protector, which he ties on. It’s a good, heavy weight. He finds a battered orange book lying next to his forehead protector on the bedside table: Icha Icha Paradise. He flips through the pages and on the title page, someone has scrawled a nigh unreadable note. Kakashi would recognize Jiraiya’s handwriting anywhere. Thought you might enjoy this during one of your hospital stays. Keep breathing and I’ll see what I can do about sequels. Happy birthday, kid. Jiraiya’s signature takes up nearly half the page, followed by a small date. Sep 15, Sandaime 6. The sixth year of the Sandaime’s reign. A quick flip to the copyright page in the book confirms it. It’s well-worn, the pages dog-eared and the hard covers have been scored with blades and in one spot, chewed enthusiastically by a small animal. His-- his older self must have read it a lot. Kakashi swallows past the lump in his throat. It’s too big to slide into his sock, so he rips a hospital sheet in half and turns it into a makeshift satchel with strips of hospital blanket to hold it all together. It’s too loose to hang off his hips so Kakashi sling it over his shoulder and across his back. Further investigation of the room reveals a few disposable scalpels that he does tuck into his sock, a rusty old shuriken that is too dull to be of any use and lots of mysterious disposable plastic objects with strange medical names. Kakashi briefly debates the use of oxygen tubing as an effective garrote but abandons the idea when he feels the nurses’ chakra signatures starting to circulate down the hallway. He’s wasted too much time. The window needs just a touch of chakra-enhanced strength to budge open and the gust of fresh air feels delicious, carrying the familiar scents of Konoha, mixed liberally with pollen. Kakashi sneezes. So it is spring here like it is back home in-- Kakashi leaps out the window and does not think of anything else but the fifty foot drop between him and ground.       “I should have known you were going to end up here.” Kakashi tilts his head but otherwise doesn’t bother to acknowledge the man --Yamato a voice in the back of his mind helpfully supplies-- who flickered beside him. There are a lot more names on the Stone now. Kakashi wonders what they’ll do when they run out of space. Build a new one? Make the old one bigger? There’s only a row or two of empty space; Kakashi finds Obito and Rin’s names out of habit and to his surprise, they’re well-worn and weathered, instead of freshly engraved. Of course. Sixteen years is a long time, Kakashi thinks. There’s many more names he vaguely recognizes in the vast sea of carved stone and a few that he knows very, very well to be alive. Or they were. They’re dead now. Here. “Kakashi-senpai--” “I’m not your senpai,” Kakashi says sharply, palming a scalpel. “Of-- of course,” Yamato bows his head respectfully. Kakashi can’t bear looking at him, not when he looks at Kakashi like he knows him, not when he looks at Kakashi as if he’s searching for something, something that isn’t there. “Tell me about Sarutobi Asuma,” Kakashi says. A brief hesitation. “I didn’t know him very well,” Yamato says slowly. “But he died fighting a little over a year ago. I’m told he was very brave.” Kakashi cannot imagine the skinny, lanky kid with a scruffy half-grown beard dying bravely. When Kakashi had last seen him, he’d been trying to pick up smoking and failing miserably, coughing up a storm out in front of the chuunin headquarters, sucking stubbornly on his cigarette. With the Sandaime and his wife Biwa-sama and now Asuma gone, Kakashi wonders if there are even any Sarutobi left in the village. Sixteen years is a long time, Kakashi thinks again. “I think it’s best if you come back--” Yamato steps closer and Kakashi whips his head around, nose nearly grazing the front of Yamato’s flak vest. Yamato freezes, giving Kakashi enough time to press the thin blade of the scalpel against the other man’s inner thigh. If he presses hard enough at the right angle, he’ll easily hit the femoral artery. “You’re shorter than me,” Yamato says, dark eyes wide with surprise and Kakashi blinks. “Of course I’m shorter,” Kakashi says, suppressing the urge to roll his eye. He’s always been shorter than everyone. Price of being a genius. “No, I mean--” Yamato flushes a little. “You’ve always been taller than me,” he explains, rubbing the back of his neck a little sheepishly. “For as long as I’ve known you.” He almost doesn’t seem to notice the blade at all. Kakashi reevaluates Yamato’s stance, noting the almost casual way he’s angled away from the scalpel. Notice, yes, but strangely, he doesn’t seem too bothered. Kakashi opens his mouth to ask him more about how long Yamato really has known him, but the words never leave his mouth. Kakashi notices the arm Yamato has around him just a second too late and he feels the familiar translocation jutsu hooking itself right behind his bellybutton, spiriting him off into the great unknown. He doesn’t like this Yamato fellow very much, Kakashi thinks sourly.       It rushes at him, a cannonball of bright orange energy, tainted with a chakra that Kakashi dreams about in his darkest nightmares. He acts automatically, using its own momentum to drive it over his head and slams his fist against its chest hard enough that he can hear the crack of bone breaking. Another chakra presence flickers behind him, faint but agitated and Kakashi throws a scalpel behind him, briefly halting it in its place. He palms the last one in his left hand and settles into a crouch, already drawing up the dregs of his chakra to gather in his right, ready to-- “Kakashi-sensei!” Kakashi blinks, momentarily disoriented. He’s not a sensei. Yamato’s hand clamps down hard against his shoulder and Kakashi feels sorely tempted to drive his last scalpel right into it. The pink haired medic from before is standing in front of him, hands covering her mouth in a horrified gesture. He blinks again, matching the voice to the face. So she had been the one to scream his name. “Kakashi-senpai,” Yamato says in a strained voice. “These are your students, not enemy ninja. Please drop your blade.” “I don’t have students and I’m not your senpai,” Kakashi spits out irritably but he does put the scalpel away. Yamato’s hand tightens and then withdraws. The girl flinches a little at his words, but she doesn’t say anything, instead bending down to check on the blond haired boy lying on the floor, hands glowing green with healing chakra. “Welcome home sensei,” a voice says sardonically behind them and Kakashi turns around. A dark eyed Uchiha defiantly meets his eye, pulling a scalpel out of his shoulder. He throws it down onto the floor, dark red blood splattering all over the hardwood floor.       Kakashi strips down to his bare feet, shedding his ANBU blacks and balling it up with the stupid hospital gown, throwing it into the the far corner of the room. His room. Kakashi pushes all thought of that aside and digs through the drawers, looking for clean underwear. All the boxers he pulls out are too big on his hips, but there’s a couple of balled up briefs in the corner that look like they might fit. Kakashi pulls out a pair, washed out black patterned with little red shuriken. They look old and worn out from too many washings. It’s his underwear, technically, but Kakashi doesn’t know how to feel about sharing underwear with this thirty year old Hatake Kakashi-sensei-senpai. In the end, practicality wins out and Kakashi also digs out a pair of worn jounin blues from the bottom of a drawer that he cinches tight at the waist with some spare wire. Some more investigation reveals ANBU blacks that he pulls on, thankful for the tight fit, and a whole drawer just filled with plain black masks. He hesitates a little before the row of flak vests hanging in his closet. He’d never really worn one-- they didn’t have one in his size when he graduated and during the war, they were all issued standard metal-plate armor that he’d taken to wearing during the tail end, when he’d grown enough to fit the smaller sizes. And now he wears the ANBU armor, smooth silk and steel molded specifically for his body. But his older self wore the vests. He pulls one out, measuring the breadth of the shoulder with his hands and the space from collarbone to hips. He was big. Bigger than Kakashi right now, taller and broader. Older. Kakashi wonders how he holds up to being called sensei and senpai. Tries to imagine himself bigger, taller and broader. Sensei to those kids, senpai to Yamato, regular jounin of Konoha, loyal servant of Tsunade. He can’t. Kakashi puts the vest away and digs around in the closet for something else instead. He finds a locked box (he picks it easily) filled with old ANBU issue armor and several masks --his Hound mask!-- cracked beyond repair. They’re old, some spattered with old blood, and don’t look like they’ve been touched in a while. A long while, judging by the dust and the smell of stale air. This too, he puts away. In the very back of the closet, he finds a few boxes labeled REALLY OLD STUFF in his handwriting and drags it out into the room. From inside, he pulls out an old knit sweater with whirlpools and narutomaki dancing around on the front-- with a start, Kakashi recognizes it as the sweater he wore last winter. Kushina had knit it for him a few years ago right before a big mission to Snow Country. It looks old, stretched out and faded by the long years. Kakashi buries his nose in it, smelling mothballs and a tiny hint of wet dog. “--he’s just-- can we trust--” “I know….strange...but--” Kakashi makes his silent way to the door, pressing his ear against the wood. He instinctively funnels a little chakra to his ears, voice becoming much clearer. “He almost crushed Naruto’s ribcage in half!” That was the pink medic talking, and the ribcage one-- that must have been the one who charged at him like an idiot when Yamato had translocated in. Naruto. Kakashi swallows and focuses harder. “He’s lucky that Naruto can heal so fast otherwise--” “I’m fine, Sakura-chan, jeez! It was just a friendly punch!” Naruto’s voice is too loud and it grates on Kakashi’s ears. “I’ll totally kick his head in next time as payback and maybe Rasengan him for making us worry so much.” “Like you can, dead-last.” The angry Uchiha, this time. Then Naruto shoots back something about stiff bastards and the two of them devolve into a squabbling mess and Kakashi rolls his eye several times in the privacy of his own room. Stupid kids. Soon enough there is the sound of furniture scraping on the floor and the pink one --Haruno Sakura-- starts yelling again, her chakra flaring like a bright beacon. Kakashi wrinkles his nose. They’re really noisy students. “Alright, alright settle down everyone,” Yamato finally says, clapping his hands together. “You’ve heard this from Tsunade already. Kakashi’s in a delicate mental state right now--” Delicate! Kakashi holds back a snort. “--and you should all be reminded that he doesn’t remember any of us right now. Any ninja would be thrown off balance.” “He doesn’t remember you at all?” A new voice, this time. Kakashi frowns, focusing on the chakra signature. It’s tightly controlled, a tiny spark next to Naruto’s blazing maelstrom, easily overlooked. “No, I met Kakashi-senpai when he was a little older,” Yamato says after a pause. “I was seventeen when I joined, so-- I believe when Kakashi-senpai was twenty.” A three year gap between the two of them. Kakashi tilts his head. And at least six years in ANBU. “You knew Kakashi-sensei for that long?” Naruto asks eagerly. “Did you ever see his face, did you did you did you?” “Oh Naruto, don’t be silly,” Sakura scoffs, but then asks a little hesitantly, “Does he really have fish lips?” “Uh, you know, Kakashi-senpai’s been an awful long time in his room, maybe we should go look for him--” Kakashi swiftly opens the door and stalks out, keeping his face as blank as possible. He pats the kunai holster at his hip and makes his way over to the table, where Sakura, Yamato and another dark haired boy are sitting. Naruto and Sasuke are relegated to the floor after, presumably, fighting for a chair and wearing Sakura’s patience thin. “Kakashi-sen--san,” Sakura recovers quickly, smile just a touch too bright. “How are you feeling? You gave the nurse a scare when she found your room empty.” Her smile hardens. Kakashi swallows, unease prickling his spine. “I needed some air,” he shrugs and settles into stool in the corner of the room, back to the wall, with line of sight to at least three different exit points. They all stare at him, eyes hungrily tracking his every movement, searching for something just like Yamato did at the Stone. Kakashi deliberately looks away and out the window. It has a nice view of the Mountain. His stomach coils tightly in his stomach as he looks down at five completed faces and-- “Is that a scar?” he asks abruptly. At their confused faces he elaborates, “On the Sandaime’s face.” “Oh that,” Naruto laughs. “On the old man’s nose? Happened a while back, during the first Invasion, I think.” Invasion. Kakashi’s body stills. Were the Walls breached? “Orochimaru,” the dark haired boy says, face even paler than an Uchiha’s. “He invaded a few years back.” So that must have been when the Sandaime-- when he passed. Kakashi jerked his gaze away from his massive stone face to the Yondaime’s, which was finally completed, hair not half as spiky and gravity defying as the original. Work is still progressing, as far as he can personally recall. “You are small,” the dark haired boy observes in his flat, monotone voice. It gets on Kakashi’s nerves. “And you have an interesting choice in clothing that differs from Kakashi-san.” “Hey, hey are those narutomaki?!” Naruto says excitedly, jumping up and shoving his face right into Kakashi’s personal space. “Um,” Kakashi says. “I love ramen,” Naruto says very seriously. “Did you make this awesome sweater Kakashi-sensei?” He has bright hair and blue eyes just like Minato-sensei and acts just like Kushina. He thinks of the tiny little baby with whiskers in the orphanage, pitifully small and weak. He looks up at Naruto, who towers over him, shoulders broad and skin dark from long hours in the sun. “No,” Kakashi says, a little dazed. “It was a gift from someone.” “Hey, hey do you think you can ask them to make me one then?” His eyes are bigger, wider but the color is just the same. Kakashi had forgotten how vibrant they were and hates himself a little for forgetting so soon, in the six months that have passed since Minato-sensei’s sacrifice. “They’re dead,” Kakashi says, hating Naruto even more for reminding him. “Oh.” Naruto draws back and Sakura gives him a sympathetic look, mouthing something that Kakashi doesn’t care to lip read. Angry Uchiha just snorts again, tossing his hair. “So, what about dinner!” Yamato says brightly.       It takes a summoning scroll and a soldier pill, but soon Kakashi is surrounded by a familiar swarm of dogs, cold black noses snuffling eagerly at his hands for treats and climbing all over him in a frenzy. “Did you shrink or something?” Kakashi buries his nose in Pakkun’s warm fur and laughs a little hoarsely. “Or something,” he says, and lets his dogs jump all over him, licking reassuringly at his face and hands. They pile onto the bed (he rather likes the shuriken quilt) and curl up into a giant mess of shedding fur and wagging tails, one dog’s butt (probably Hiro’s) planted right on his forehead. It’s the safest Kakashi’s felt since he woke up in this strange new world. “You smell different,” Pakkun says after a long while, just when Kakashi’s just about drift into sleep. “Mhmm,” Kakashi mutters. “You should trust them,” Pakkun snuffles, paw digging uncomfortably into Kakashi’s collarbone. The old dog (and Kakashi has noticed a fine sprinkle of gray on the dog’s muzzle and it hits him like a chidori to the heart, because here his dog is growing old and Kakashi cannot remember any of it--) has claimed the prime position of Kakashi’s chest and rules the pack from his bony throne. “Trust who?” Kakashi asks, sleep slurring his words. “Your kids,” Pakkun says seriously. “Tenzou, Naruto, Sakura, Sasuke, even the new one, what’s his name, Sai.” “Don’t know a Tenzou,” Kakashi says. “Oh yeah, I keep forgetting, that boy goes through more names than Ino has boyfriends every month. Yamato or summat like that, right?” He doesn’t know an Ino either but that hardly seems relevant to the situation. “I don’t know any of them and everyone I know is dead here.” Pakkun burps right in Kakashi’s nose, a touch reprovingly. “You’re acting like a whiny puppy.” It smells like death and moldy old socks. Kakashi cracks his eye open to glare down at his dog. “You’ve been eating cheese again. It’s the only thing that makes your breath that rank.” “Stop changing the subject,” Pakkun says sternly. “You know me and I’m giving you some sound advice here. Trust the people here. They’re not your friends for nothing, you know. You picked them yourself.” Kakashi thinks of the vest, nearly two handspans broader at the shoulder and one and a half longer from hip to collarbone. “You mean older me did. That’s not the same.” “Sure, yeah, older you knows how to treat a dog better,” Pakkun grumbles. “And he’s a lot more respectful. Calls me Pakkun-sama and everything.” Kakashi can’t help the tiny laugh. “Shut up.” “See what I mean?” Pakkun curls up into a smaller ball, body rising and falling with every breath. “This disrespect I never would’ve gotten from him.” “Yeah, yeah,” Kakashi says and pulls a hand free from under a sleeping dog to scratch Pakkun’s ears. The dog grunts in pleasure and bumps his head affectionately against Kakashi’s hand. “Now go to bed.” “You’re the one who woke me in the first place!” Pakkun growls. “Are you gonna listen to me or not?” “Yes, Pakkun-sama,” Kakashi says obediently, burying his laughter in Pakkun’s fur. “Smartass,” Pakkun says fondly and they fall asleep listening to the gentle lullaby of a pack of snoring dogs.       Kakashi spends the next three days learning about all the different traps his older self had set on his flat. Most of them respond to his chakra signature, but a few other he triggers accidentally (once, in a rather embarrassing manner, on the way to the bathroom in the middle of the night) and he resets them, studying the way they were designed. They’re very good and Kakashi feels a strange sort of pride in them. Then he feels the twinge of a kunai cut on his hand (laced with Akimido poisoning, which he thankfully has immunity to) and mostly tries to forget that these are the trap that he set. For meals, he heats up instant ramen noodles and miso soup; there are leftovers in the fridge, but some of the cartons look like they’re about to sprout sentient mold, so he leaves that alone for his older self to deal with. In between traps, he reads. Icha Icha Paradise had been pretty good for the first twenty pages. A little florid, but that was Jiraiya all the way. Then the clothes started flying out the window and people got creative with their limbs. “It’s about porn,” Kakashi confesses to Pakkun at night, more than a little mortified to be seen reading that book in the privacy of his own home. “Sex.” “Yeah, I know,” Pakkun says, feigning disinterest but failing. He looks immensely happy for a tiny grumpy little pug. “You go around reading it in public,” he adds. “No!” Kakashi flushes, cheeks burning a bright red. Pakkun nods sagely. “Let’s face it kid, you turn into a total weirdo when you get older. It’s nothing but downhill from here.” But he keeps going and in between the really long sex scenes in luxurious feather beds and shorter sex scenes in closets and erotic oil massages, there’s a good plot going on about pirates and samurai and people saving each other. It’s nice. And the sex stuff is very educational. Kakashi didn’t know that people could bend like that before. Yamato and co. knock on the door every once in a while, leaving plates of food and anxious notes that Kakashi ignores. They try breaking in via his window but a hail of kunai keep them at bay, along with a particularly ingenious seal that emits an electric shock at touch. Kakashi spends nearly six hours copying and recopying the seal over and over again on sheets of scrap paper, marveling at the design. It’s almost even fun, as long as he doesn’t think about why he’s there or why he doesn’t know about these traps and why he doesn’t ever leave the apartment. On the third night, Pakkun sniffs reprovingly at Kakashi’s greasy hair (hygiene had fallen by the wayside when Kakashi found the giant book of Whirlpool style seals hidden in a cache underneath a kitchen floorboard) and gives him a look. “You need to get out of here,” he barks. “Never,” Kakashi says absently, scratching his nose and accidentally smearing ink all over it. “I have books and food and dogs. Don’t need anything else.” “You need human interaction,” Pakkun says firmly. “You’re not a dog and you’re not a mountain sage hermit. There are people out there who’re worried about you.” “People,” Kakashi says scornfully. “Why would I want to talk to people when I can read about the prime subjunctive lemniscate of the Uzumaki Crescent Triad seal for controlling the tides.” “Kid, that is exactly why you need to leave,” Pakkun growls. “Shower, eat food that can’t be made by adding hot water, go talk to your kids.” “I don’t have kids.” “Then what about the three idiots that tried to break in last night?” “I have no idea who they are,” Kakashi says fiercely. “We are strangers.” Pakkun gives him a gusty sigh. “You promised me.” Kakashi looks down at his seals, ink splattered all over his sleeves and embedded deep in the grooves of his nails. The tertiary component of the triad seal was painstakingly copied out onto the rice paper beneath his fingers, bits and pieces accidentally written directly on the floor in some places. “One visit,” he says finally.       Kakashi and Angry Uchiha are forced to sit in the shade of a tree while Naruto and Sakura fight an exasperated Yamato, drinking electrolyte enhanced water that glows an unpleasant shade of neon green. It’s an uncomfortable silence, punctuated occasionally by Naruto’s shouting and the crack of shattered earth. Kakashi fights back the urge to pull up his forehead protector; using the Sharingan would only deplete his slowly recovering reserves and he needs every bit if he’s meant to spar with the silent figure he’s sitting next to. He closes his eyes, slowly stretching his senses out to cover the entire field. Naruto feels like a burning bonfire of chakra, laced with the malevolent demon chakra; everyone else is a mere flicker in comparison, wavering candlelight next to a raging wildfire. Sakura’s chakra feels cool and hard, all sharp edges and control. It reminds him of Tsunade’s chakra signature; they both have the same contained feel. Yamato --or Tenzou or whatever his name really is-- puts him into mind the deep silence between the vast trees of the Shodai’s forest, heavy and powerful and a touch mysterious. But it’s the Angry Uchiha next to him that Kakashi focuses on the most. His chakra signature is tiny, a faint guttering flame that Kakashi has to concentrate hard to get a read on. The faintest hint of ozone and fire before it’s gone; the Uchiha just seems like an ordinary civilian, chakra reserves undeveloped and too small to amount to anything. But if he feels like a civilian, he moves like a ninja, dark eyes flickering from the battlefield to Kakashi to the circling hawks above in the sky. Kakashi marks at least ten different hidden knives on him and suspects that the Uchiha pin on his collarbone doubles as a hidden dagger. “If you’re going to stare at me, at least do it quietly.” Kakashi tilts his head, meeting the Uchiha’s eyes squarely. “Your chakra is weird.” Something in the other boy’s face tightens. “My punishment,” he says in a tense voice. “And my salvation.” As Kakashi thought: weird. “Was it from a ninjutsu?” The Uchiha gives him a long look, black eyes unreadable. “You really don’t know.” “No,” Kakashi snaps at him. “Would I be asking if I did?” The Uchiha’s pale face is inscrutable, shoulders tense and arms coiled to spring on a moment’s notice. If he had the chakra, Kakashi imagines that the entire field would have been flooded with killing intent. He makes a sudden jerking move and Kakashi draws back, instantly palming kunai in both hands. The Uchiha gives him a wry smile (it looks strange on his face after a whole afternoon of thin-lipped frowns) and takes his shirt off. Kakashi keeps his blades in hand. “Look,” the Uchiha says, one scarred hand pointing at the flat expanse of his pale chest. A spark of chakra briefly flickers at the tip of a finger before he presses on the space right above his heart. Ink blooms into existence, seal arrays unfurling with dizzying speed until the Uchiha’s entire chest is covered in a beautiful kaleidoscope of seal characters, each stroke painted with a careful, almost breath-taking precision. Kakashi drops his blades, caught off-guard by the magnificence of the seal. “Can I--?” The Uchiha nods gravely and Kakashi comes closer, studying the core of the seal, which pulses in time to what Kakashi guesses to be the other boy’s heartbeat. “It’s suppressing your chakra,” Kakashi observes, an outstretched finger hovering over but not quite touching the array. “I can’t even imagine the months of work that went into this, I don’t even recognize half of the compositional elements used here. And this part--” Kakashi points at the Uzumaki spiral over Sasuke’s main chakra point in his abdomen. “--looks like it’s the main reservoir for your chakra. There’s another array here that seems to slowly re-integrate your chakra over a period of time. I can’t figure out the parameters but it seems like you’ll have this on for a very long time.” Kakashi draws back, blinking rapidly. “What did you do to necessitate something like this?” “Betray the village,” the Angry Uchiha answers dryly. “And join Orochimaru.” “That explains a lot,” Kakashi says. The Uchiha simply snorts and pulls his shirt back on, seal already fading away into his skin. “But you’re my student,” Kakashi says, a touch hesitantly. “Yeah,” the Uchiha nods. “I mean we were in Team Seven together, you were our jounin-sensei when we were genin but we still-- you still--” He shrugs, apparently having used up his quota of words for the day. “Did you-- betray us when you were my student?” The Uchiha gives him a sharp look and doesn’t say anything. “I see,” Kakashi says slowly but he doesn’t, not really. “I guess…I guess I wasn’t a really good sensei then.” “Good enough to help Naruto and Sakura drag me home,” the Uchiha says quietly, picking up the kunai Kakashi had dropped on the floor. “Good enough to vouch for me to the Hokage.” He hands the knives over to Kakashi, handles first. “Good enough to fight against my execution and spend months researching a seal that ended up saving my life.” Kakashi takes the kunai. He thinks of the beautiful web of seal characters painted on the Uchiha’s chest, each array painted with an unspeakable breath-taking precision. “I did that?” “You did.” Over in the training field, Sakura has Naruto in a headlock, green-glowing fist grinding into his head. Yamato watches on fondly from a safe distance, protected by a shield of coiled wood. Naruto scrabbles for leverage and manages to flip her over and slams her down onto the ground. As if he has some strange sense for annoying emotional interactions, he raises his head and meets Kakashi’s eye straight on. “Kakashi-sensei!” he bellows, waving his hand. Slowly, Kakashi raises his own hand up and waves back.       Ramen after training is, apparently, a thing. Old man Ichiraku looks just as Kakashi remembers; maybe a little grayer around the temples, but his laugh is the same and his eyes are as bright as ever. “Naruto-kun! I have your regular orders coming right up.” The kids and Yamato fill up the entire stall, with Yamato discreetly conjuring up an extra stool for Sai in between Sakura and Kakashi. (“He had an appointment with the Hokage regarding her official portrait,” Sakura explains proudly.) A bowl of miso ramen is slammed down in front of him and Ichiraku gives him a wink. “Here you go, Hatake-san. And what a nice illusion you have going there. Reminds me of when I first opened my shop nearly twenty years ago.” “It’s just a joke,” Sakura adds hastily when Kakashi doesn’t respond to Ichiraku’s comment. “To make it look like sensei’s the same age as us.” “Ha ha,” Kakashi says dryly. “Very funny. Great joke. Many laughs.” “If you can bottle that up and sell it, you’ll make a fortune,” Ichiraku grins. “I know my wife would kill to have something like that.” Kakashi snaps apart his chopsticks, suddenly aware of four very keen faces peering intently at him. “What is it?” he mutters irritably. Creepy kids. “Nothing, nothing,” Naruto says, whipping his head back at his third bowl of ramen. Kakashi stirs the bowl of ramen with his chopsticks and again feels the curious gaze of four intent pairs of eyes. His finger traces the outline of his mask, ready to pull it down and the tension in the air ratchets up to the point where it becomes a little uncomfortable to breathe. “Hello everyone. Yamato-taichou, did you make my seat?” “Sai!” Naruto shouts. “Old man, one miso and pork for the creepy faced bastard.” The dark haired boy from before (he’d called Kushina’s sweater questionable, he remembers a little grumpily) slides into the seat next to him, pulling out his own pair of wooden chopsticks from a sleeve. “Did you already finish?” Sai asks politely. Naruto and Sakura give him shocked looks; the Uchiha hides it a little better and Yamato rolls his eyes fondly. Kakashi grins behind his mask. “It was okay,” he says serenely, placing his chopsticks in the empty bowl. “You came just at the right time, Sai.” “So I did,” Sai says, giving him a small and genuine smile.       Kakashi discovers that Naruto has an intense love for scrapbooking that almost rivals his fanatical devotion to ramen and quest to become the Hokage. “That’s you in the hospital, oh that’s you again in a hospital bed, and this is you passed out in a hospital couch after that mission to Sand and…” Kakashi also discovers that his older self seems to be a permanent fixture of the hospital. Naruto has an entire scrapbook devoted to KAKASHI-SENSEI PASSED OUT BECAUSE OF REASONS BUT MOSTLY CHAKRA EXHAUSTION, decorated with stickers of dog bones and flying shuriken. His older self is big-- bigger than Kakashi had thought, and mostly sleepy-looking, though Kakashi can’t tell whether it’s the chakra exhaustion or merely his older self’s natural state. In the back, there’s a picture of him with a bunch of the other jounin in front of a bar that he doesn’t know-- The Rusty Kunai. There’s Asuma, tall and thick as a tree trunk, with a cigarette planted firmly in his mouth and a beard full enough to make teenaged Asuma explode in envy. Kurenai, her face harder and hair wilder, arm around Asuma’s waist. Gai, who looks disturbingly the same, except taller and his smile, if possible, is even brighter than Kakashi remembers. And there is his older self, in a flak vest and regular jounin blues, one hand tucked into his pocket and slouching. He’s holding up Icha Icha Paradise with the other hand, looking immensely bored with the world. Kakashi traces the messy spiky hair, a touch longer than he wears it now, the broad shoulders, the armor-backed ANBU gloves. He looks like Sakumo. On the back of the photo, there’s a note scrawled on it, dating it from a couple of years ago. Gai congratulating the three new jounin-sensei. “That’s you, Kakashi-sensei.” He looks like someone Kakashi doesn’t know at all. Naruto, catching the look on his face, hastily shuts the scrapbook and pulls another one out. “Hey, what about this one of our genin team?” This one is mostly filled with the kids --even smaller than they are now-- running around in various states of disarray. The daimyo’s wife’s cat features prominently in a lot of them. There’s only bits of Kakashi in this book; he’s mostly a phantom figure in the background, reading porn and sending his genin off on D-ranked missions walking dogs and weeding gardens. “And this is our team photo--” Naruto moves to flip quickly past the page, but Kakashi stops him with a finger. It’s heartbreakingly familiar. Obito for Naruto, little Kakashi for Sasuke, Rin for Sakura and Minato-sensei for his older self. He looks happy. “Well, yeah,” Sakura says, crossing her arms over her chest. Kakashi starts a little; he didn’t realize he’d actually said it out loud. “You loved making us miserable as our jounin-sensei,” she says, wrinkling her nose. “You always came late and you made up all these stupid excuses and talked about looking underneath the underneath and made us do the stupidest stuff.” But then she smiles, more than a little fondly. “You drove us crazy.” Love, Kakashi thinks, studying his older self’s curved eye, the hands ruffling Naruto and Sasuke’s hair, the faint smile hidden behind the black mask.       Team Seven takes Kakashi’s grudging training session with them as a sign and barge into his life at every inopportune moment. They badger him about seals (well, Sakura and Sai do, and Kakashi spends an entire hour talking to them about chakra stabilization seals for medical and field usage before he realizes that they’re not terrible company) and make him eat vegetables (Naruto crows something about karmic payback) and drag him outside into the glaring light of day to train. Pakkun falls asleep when Kakashi tries to tell him about his theory that Yamato has a deep-seated grudge against older Kakashi, because he makes Kakashi pay for all of his meals when they finish training together, muttering something about “milking this while it lasts.” They’re alright, Kakashi supposes, in between whirlwind days of training and seal practice with Sakura and and nights full of memorizing the new stars on his apartment rooftop. Naruto still messes up and calls him Kakashi-sensei more often than not but Kakashi finds that he doesn’t really mind anymore. He stops correcting Naruto sometime at the end of the week. One night, lying back on the rooftop, Kakashi is tracing the unfamiliar lines of the stars, constellations shifting and changing in the sixteen years since he’s grown up. Yamato is sitting by the roof vent pipe, whittling idly at a piece of wood. Sasuke is hopefully extinguishing the fires Sakura will inevitably set while making dinner, Sai already negotiating with Naruto over the takeout menu, having surmised that dinner will again be a charbroiled mess. It’s nice. Kakashi curls up on his left side, fingers digging into the cement rooftop, feeling the whispers of thousands of chakra signatures against his fingertips, from thousands of flying ninja feet passing over his rooftop. “What if I never change back?” Kakashi can hear Yamato’s knife still. “What do you mean?” he asks carefully. “I mean, what if you never get your Kakashi back and I’m stuck like this, as a fourteen year old boy forever.” “The Hokage has her best sealing masters working on this problem, Kakashi. I wouldn’t be discouraged by the lack of notice--” “What if.” There’s a pause and a rustle of fabric. Yamato’s voice sounds much closer now, his chakra signature washing over Kakashi’s body. “I think we’ll miss him,” Yamato says quietly. “But we’ll also have you.” It only takes a touch of chakra to enhance his hearing and he can hear Sakura’s frustrated shouting now, Sasuke grimly barking at her to stand back, he’s got the fire extinguisher ready and Naruto laughing hysterically in the background, Sai sniping at Sakura about her newly discovered fire affinity. They’re no replacement for a dead sensei and a genin team remembered only by their weathered names on the Stone. Kakashi thinks back to his lonely room in the ANBU barracks, stacks of mission paperwork to be filled out and daily visits to the Stone only interrupted by the growing number of assassination assignments. They’re something new, something that fills the aching hole Kakashi feels deep inside of him. Is it possible to be jealous of yourself?, Kakashi silently asks the strange stars above him.       The notice comes at first light, brought by a hawk with the seal of the Hokage branded on its dark wings. Come in two hours. It’s not signed, but that seems to be the new Hokage’s style. Kakashi sets it alight with the tip of his finger and scatters the ashes on his windowsill. Now that the moment’s finally come, he’s not quite sure how to feel. Pakkun bites Kakashi’s hand, teeth digging in hard enough to break skin. “Pull yourself together, brat.” Kakashi shakes his hand free, giving Pakkun a sharp glare. “I’m fine,” he says, a touch acerbically. “You’ve gone whiter than an Uchiha,” Pakkun observes. “What did the message say?” “Princess Tsu-- the Hokage says it’s ready,” Kakashi says, frowning. “I’m to-- to call on the Tower in two hours.” “Is there anything you want me to do?” Kakashi, sucking on the bleeding bite on his hand, almost dismisses Pakkun but something deep inside of him stops him from releasing the tenuous bond of chakra that keeps his ninken on the mortal plane. He swallows, tasting the salt and copper of his blood. “Can you let them know?” he asks quietly. “Later, when it’s time.” “You got it,” Pakkun grunts and he climbs into Kakashi’s lap, letting Kakashi scratch his ears. They watch the sunrise together for the last time.       Kakashi sits naked in the center of a vast surgical theater, seals sprawling out all over the floor and even up into the walls. He can feel chakra seals for health and recovery embedded into the very material that makes up the hospital, giving a boost to his chakra reservoirs. Everything is clearer, sharper, a little more in focus. “Are you ready, Kakashi-kun?” Kakashi tilts his head, Tsunade standing in front of him in a set of interlocking seals that will channel her chakra, powering the immense array covering the room. No wonder it had taken weeks for them to set up the room, Kakashi can't even begin to comprehend the sprawling characters that filled up every spare inch of the floor. “You have to be a willing participant for this to work. Any last minute concerns or questions?” “Is it like dying?” Tsunade blinks and then gives him a short laugh. “You and your damned questions, Hatake.” Kakashi sits cross-legged, chakra circulating so he doesn’t feel the chill as much as he should. “Is it?” “I don’t know,” Tsunade says honestly, looking at him straight in the eye. “But you realize that all of this-- you, your memory loss, the way your body looks right now. It’s all an illusion. You’re really thirty years old inside.” She taps her expansive chest in demonstration. “I don’t feel like it,” Kakashi says. “I don’t feel like that at all.” “None of us really do,” Tsunade says. “We just make it all up as we go along.” Kakashi swallows his fear and breathes in deeply. “Alright. Let’s do it.” He lies back down flat on his back like one of the medic-nin had told him, slowing down his chakra as much as possible, willing every muscle in his body to relax. “It’ll be less painful that way,” she’d told him, gently. He thinks of Pakkun and the sunrise. He thinks of Yamato and the strange stars here in Konoha. He thinks about the five looming faces on the Mountain, about the Stone full of names. He thinks about the apartment full of flak vests and a potted plant that refuses to die. He thinks about miso ramen and masks. Mostly, he thinks about Team Seven. Their laughter, the pranks, their bright, luminous faces. He wonders what made them love him so much. Sensei, Kakashi drowsily thinks before everything fades into black.       Kakashi wakes up to the smell of antiseptic and death, eye cracked open slightly. The light sends shooting pains in his head, thunderbolts ricocheting violently in the tiny confines of his skull and violently reminding his stomach that he needs a bucket now. It takes all of his strength to roll over onto his side-- he’s survived through a couple of wars and a genin team, it would only be sad and pathetic if he ended up dying by choking on his own vomit at his old age. “Easy there--” A pair of strong hands hoists him up easily and a bin is quickly shoved into his lap. Kakashi pulls down the surgical mask on his face and vomits up mostly water and bile that sears his throat. He trusts her to look away while his face is uncovered. He waits a moment after the last dry heave before pulling the mask back up. The light isn’t as blinding now and he rubs his eye, clearing the last bits of gunk. When he blinks, the wavering lines straighten and the walls of a hospital room come into sharp focus, yellow paint bleached by the long exposure to the sun. Kakashi blinks again, taking into account the familiar hospital room he’s lying in, the cot with HATAKE KAKASHI scrawled on the side bar, the cheerful non-regulation walls painted by an enterprising genin team, the well-worn linoleum tiles. “Are you thirsty Kakashi-san?” Kakshi turns to the side, watching the medic who is binning the basin in a biohazard container, snapping her gloves off in a smooth and practiced manner. “Yes,” Kakashi says, voice rough and cracking. She looks at him a little apprehensively, squeezing hand sanitizer into her hand. “Sorry, but since water will just make you throw up more, we’re just going to have stick with ice chips and saline bags for now. And only if you behave.” “I’m the perfect picture of innocence, Sakura-chan,” Kakashi says mock-seriously. “And what’s with the Kakashi-san, I thought I was your sensei--” Sakura throws herself at his chest, bursting into tears. “Sensei!” she wails, soaking the front of his hospital gown. “Erm,” Kakashi says. Sakura flares her chakra and in an instant, Naruto and Sasuke hurtle through the hospital door, probably throwing the hinges out of warp. Again. For the fifth time. This month. Kakashi holds back a sigh. “SENSEI!” Naruto bellows and jumps into Kakashi’s bed, shedding ninja sandals mid-dive. “We missed you so much sensei your fourteen year old self was a total brat don’t ever do that again to us even though it was a lot of fun you also broke my ribs and--” Kakashi looks helplessly at Sasuke over his two full-grown students clutching at his hospital gown and crying. Sasuke merely shrugs and sits on the edge of Kakashi’s bed, dark eyes quietly amused. “Welcome home sensei,” he says, one hand pressed against Kakashi’s ankle, as if to reassure himself that he's still there. Kakashi gently curls his arms around his students and smiles, wide enough that even the surgical mask can’t quite hide it. “It’s good to be back.”

KNIGHTHOOD.

09/19/2021 02:17 PM 

We Three Not a Crowd

Summary: The boys are back in town. Frank is excited. Maria is excited. The kids are excited. Billy is nervous. He'll come around.   Frank, I picked out a new cellphone today. I decided it was my prize for being right. I'll think of a few others for when you get home safely. Bring him with you, of course. I'll let the kids know. They have a calendar up, now. We're all marking down the days, mister.   Frank read the letter three more times before he finally folded it back up and kissed it, tucking it protectively into his shirt pocket.   “You're gonna wear a damn hole in that thing, you know?” Billy shook his head. His kit was already rolled up and packed on the cot. His tone was casual, but his jaw was tense. He'd tried to un-invite himself about half a dozen times, making excuses. Frank wasn't about to buy into any of that bullsh*t, though. He knew Billy would have spent his leave in some random hotel, eating fast food and at the bar. He had better things in mind. Frank wasn't about to let the bravest man he knew be nervous.   They'd been 'hot and heavy' for weeks, now. Since the hotel room, they'd given up the pretense of tiptoeing around each other. They'd f***ed whenever they had a damn moment of privacy, and even a few moments when they damn well knew they shouldn't have. It had been good as hell for both of them, and if he was honest, Frank was hoping it'd continue on their leave. He'd meant what he'd first said to Billy. Maria did like to watch, but he wasn't gonna push anything. He didn't take for granted the things Billy gave him, and he didn't underestimate how hard it was for him to relax and let go with him. If it happened, great, but the important thing was to have all of his family back together under his roof. He ignored Billy's jab, low hanging fruit. He always kept Maria's latest letter in his pocket, needed it there. If anything happened to him, he wanted her with him in the end.   He leaned over and gave Billy's knee a reassuring squeeze. “Come on, we've got a plane to catch, huh?”   —   Billy hated flying, not the actual air travel itself, just the f***ing crowded-in tinned can feeling. If he wanted to feel trapped in a metal box, he'd have joined the navy. This was a bad idea all around. He'd almost skipped out on his leave altogether. His commanding officers sure hadn't wanted him to take it. Now that he was in their pocket, they were using more, relying on him more for their black market sh*t. God, he hated that, but when you were in the hole you were in the damn hole, and he knew there was no digging himself back out.   Here they were, though, weeks away from all of this sh*t, and Billy couldn't figure out if this was gonna be great or terrible. He hadn't forgotten what Frank had told him. That Maria liked to watch him, and he didn't think that'd been a lie. Frank didn't seem like the type to lie about that. But watching your man f*** someone as a one night stand was one thing... Billy was a jaded cynic, but even he knew what he had with Frank was more than that. In the desert, it was easy to just live in that, like a fever dream, but the waking world was a cold dose of reality. Billy didn't see Maria wanting him around when she realized he loved Frank.   Which presented a problem, because for so long Maria and the kids had been the closest thing he'd had to a family since... Who was he even kidding? They were the only thing he'd ever had resembling a family. He still remembered getting the news about Maria being pregnant with Frank Jr., and feeling like it was him having a damn kid. He went to their stupid plays and clubs and outings when he was in town, and he loved every dumb minute of it. He loved the macaroni necklace Lisa had made him, and the duct tape wallet Frankie Jr. had given him on his birthday, even though his money stuck to it half the time.   How was he supposed to reconcile all of that with how he felt about Frank now? He felt like one wrong step and he was going to f***ing lose all of it. He couldn't. He couldn't let that happen.   He glanced over at Frank, Frank who was out cold, half-drank foam cup of tepid, burnt coffee balanced on his tray. Frank with his cupid bow pink lips parted slightly. Anyone else would be snoring, hell, he sure would be, but Frank had always been a quiet sleeper, so Billy just watched him. He thought about leaning in, kissing him, but not here. Too many witnesses, especially in their Class B uniforms.   As nervous as he was going home, he craved the anonymity it provided. He loved spending time with Maria and the kids, but he was also thinking about the possibility of going out with just Frank for a little while, drinking in some dive bar, maybe keeping his hand on him on the walk home when they were both drunk off their asses. What the hell had Frank done to him that that's where his mind went now, instead of f***ing the first good pair of legs he saw? He'd god damn wrecked him, and he was sure if he complained to the man, he'd just grin at him.   He thought briefly about smothering Frank to death with his sh*tty travel pillow, but he turned in his seat a little, instead, wishing the damn things clicked back just a little further so he didn't feel like his legs were folded in half to fit him. First thing he'd do when he made it big? First class anywhere he needed to damn fly.   Billy watched Frank turning down the third bunch of peonies from the vender and had to laugh. Too purple this time. The vendor was only being respectful about it because of the uniform and the repeat business whenever Frank came home, and they both knew it. Frank had the same ritual whenever he came home. It didn't matter how many times this happened, Frank got a little jittery the closer he got to home, like he was some new suitor in Maria's life and this bouquet was going to make or break it all. Everyone standing there knew Frank wasn't leaving that stall until he found the perfect arrangement.   “Come on, the white ones with the pink on the ends, you had them last time, Michael.”“Frank, you're killing me, for the hundredth time, they're out of season,” the florist lamented. and Billy bit the inside of his cheek to suppress a laugh. He poked around a little at the buckets and pointed to some in the back.“Come on, Frankie, you're killing all of us, what about these coral ones? You know she'll like those.”   Frank stepped closer, the back of his hand brushing against Billy's hip as he looked past him. He scrutinized where Billy had pointed, clearly mulling over the idea carefully before his lips parted into a warm smile. “Yeah, those are perfect, thanks, Bill.” He breathed the words against Billy's ear like it was some great secret between them, and Billy felt the shell of his ear burning.   “Don't mention it.” He grinned a little. Frank's excitement was contagious. “Now pay the man before he buries us in his compost bin.” He shoved his elbow into Frank's side, laughing and spinning on the heel of his shoe so he could hail them a cab. Maria had offered to pick them up, but Frank always turned the offer down. Billy never asked, but he suspected it was so that the man could slowly unravel himself, dip back into the life that he had here with his family. Billy could appreciate the process.   —   “Mom, come on, when?” Frankie Jr. was pulling at her sleeve, a practiced whine in his voice. The motion was something he was really too old for, but that always seemed to happen when Frank came home. Both of their children seemed younger. She would never go so far as to say they behaved better, god forbid, but the world felt a little different. It would for the entire time he was home, like a breeze of fresh air blowing over them that they could all breathe in together.   It was hard when he wasn't home. It wasn't that they weren't self-reliant. They always had been, Maria had known exactly what she'd married into. There was always the feeling of a missing piece, though, and it made those times they were together all the more important. She felt that, and she knew from everything they'd shared that Frank felt that, too. Her fingers slipped absently to the pocket in her cardigan, crinkling against the last letter Frank had sent her. The wear lines in it were as fine as cloth from her constant unfolding and folding. She knew Frank's would be the same when he slipped it out of his pocket, tonight. They'd set them together on the bedside table when they lay down together tonight, and neither would talk about them. Some rituals meant everything.   “He'll be home, soon, baby,” she murmured with an absent pat to his hand. “Did you put the extra blankets on the couch for Uncle Bill?”   “Yeah!” The sudden reminder seemed to quell his impatience. “He can have Lisa's bed, you know?” he said with false innocence.   “Yeah right, he should go in your room, since you both snore,” Lisa called from the kitchen, and Maria held back an inner groan when she heard her going for the apple juice. Maybe they should just buy an orchard, or stock in Mott's. She'd ask Frank to run to the corner store and get juice, later. He'd like that, he liked all of those simple things he'd missed, diaper runs, grabbing juice, the little things.   She ignored their bickering over who was grosser when they slept, over who was the drooler and who was the snorer, and who was more likely to still be wetting the bed. She'd heard every iteration of this before, and there was absolutely no point in intervening at this point until it turned into hair pulling and shoving, but it rarely did. Not never, but rarely.   Maria looked over at the couch to see the neat pile of blankets and fresh sheets she'd laid down there. She thought again that they should really get a pullout bed, but Billy would demure that he didn't need them to do that just for him, and it would be just for him. Frank had never extended the invitation to his inner sanctum to anyone the way he had to Billy. Well. Maybe he wouldn't need the couch at all, anyway.   She wouldn't assume, though. Billy had certainly never been shy around them, but this was a completely different situation. They'd always had their fun. They'd realized early on that both of them were sexual creatures, and if they were going to be apart for months at a time then monogamy was a dangerous game they were both likely to lose. It wasn't fair to stack the cards against themselves.   There were simple rules. Maria knew to keep it out of the house and away from the kids, Frank knew to be careful and that she preferred he stick with men. It made things simpler, and there wasn't any risk of surprises. Lisa had been a happy accident after all, and someone else with Frank's baby was something she wasn't willing to share.   They hadn't had a threesome in ages, not since before Frank Jr. was walking, but Frank had been happy to take some pictures, a few videos of him when it was a man he knew she'd like to see. She'd done the same, on occasion. It was a game that kept things open and fun. They both liked it.   Billy was different, she'd known that when she’d first seen how Frank was starting to look at him. It had been a simple moment, them at the zoo, the kids’ coats lightly dusted in snowflakes. Billy had been goofing off for the kids, half stretched over the railing to try and feed one of the sheep in the petting zoo enclosure and Frank had needed to quick yank on the back of his collar to keep him from falling headfirst into a water trough.   Maria had watched them both laughing and she'd seen it in Frank's eyes then. She knew her man better than he knew himself, sometimes. There were looks he gave when he wanted to f***, and there were looks he gave when he was falling in love. She had smiled at them both when they had walked back over to her. Her hand had touched the back of Billy's wrist, and Frank had been happy to lift junior up into his arms to carry as they’d walked. She had wondered if maybe they’d all known it then, but men were just a bit dumb, sometimes. She hadn't minded. They'd catch up eventually.   When it had finally happened, Maria had been tempted to request video of Billy. She had spent more than a little time during her nights alone picturing just how they might slot together. But it was just like Frank had mentioned in his letter. They both knew it would be sweeter in person, whether it was him whispering a play by play in her ear while he warmed her body up with those hands she always missed, or Frank showing her on Billy exactly what he liked done to him.   She saw a flash of yellow coming down the drive, and felt her heart skip a beat. “Kids!”   —   Frank could hear the commotion before he was even to the door. It had him grinning, had the corners of his eyes feeling wet. One day, he'd get through their reunions without the waterworks, but when the door opened and he saw the kids running towards him, he knew that today was not the damn day. He felt both of his babies crash into him, stronger than ever. One day, they'd barrel him over. For now he groaned, lifting them off of their feet and into his arms, laughing with them and kissing their cheeks, steadfastly ignoring any protest.   “You guys always look like a damn hallmark moment,” Billy said behind him, and he could see Maria out of the corner of his eye walking over to pull Billy into her arms.   “Aw, Billy.” She smiled and squeezed him close. “Don't worry. We'll just be over here together until he wises up.”   “Maria, you are, as always, too smart and too beautiful for him. I'm telling you. Just say the word. I would be a better father for the children... hey, hey!” He started to wheeze out a laugh when her powerful elbow caught his ribs. “Ok, ok, I surrender. Frank, she's all yours. She's too wild for me. No couth, I can see why you're together. Just plain feral.”   Frank was laughing listening to them, Maria's reply lost over the million questions the kids were asking. That could wait a moment, though. He knelt back down and picked up the bouquet he'd let rest on his suitcase.   “Those for me?” Maria asked like she did every time, her hand making the paper wrapped around the flowers crinkle softly. Her hand traveled further to his wrist, slipping under his cuff to touch his bare skin, just over his pulse point. “This for me?” she asked softly, and they shared a million words in a single look.   “If you'll have them. If you'll have me.”   Maria smiled at him, and her arms felt stronger than his would ever be when she wrapped around him. He caught her up, grateful when Billy took the flowers so he had his hands free to hold her.   “You'll do.”   Frank laughed, resting his head against her shoulder and breathing in, letting the knitted fabric there wick away the dampness on his cheeks.   —   Billy was stretched out on the couch in a food coma. After the waterworks, the kids had gotten their hugs in with him. He'd 'tipped' them in the chocolate bars he'd picked up from the airport gift shop to drag his luggage inside, and then he'd raced to the shower while Maria had distracted Frank from it with a kiss. When he'd been caught, he just grinned at Frank's pounding on the door and turned the water on hotter.   Now, Maria's early dinner had conquered him. There had been a whole damn turkey waiting for them inside. Slow roasted in the oven all morning, huge bowl of mashed potatoes, ears of corn piled high on a plate. Absolutely nothing from a powder or can, real butter. Billy coulda cried at the spread. His damn mouth had watered like they hadn't been fed right since they last left for their tour. It wasn't such a far off truth.   Comfortable lounge clothes, full stomach, clean skin. The couch was always a little short for his legs, but still, he could have knocked out right then. He probably would have, if Lisa hadn't begged him to play video games with her. He'd never been much of a gamer, but her wish was his command.   “Jesus, how many video game consoles are they going to come out with every year?” Billy muttered while Lisa patiently explained to him what each button did. Again. He ran through a few puzzles with her while Frank Jr. 'helpfully' offered such pearls of wisdom as 'try not to fall down that—nevermind' and 'hey, you died, again.'”   He shot a few glances over to Frank and Maria, still in the kitchen. Frank was doing the dishes, elbows deep in sudsy water. Maria was alternating between packing up leftovers and leaning into his space, hovering close to kiss his cheek or whisper something in his ear. The usual. This time, he wondered what they were whispering about, especially when they both had glanced over a few times. At him? At the kids? Billy wasn't one to feel self-conscious, but this was pushing his limits.   “Uncle Billy.” Lisa's voice, sounding ever patient, but more than a little pained at watching his continuous on screen deaths. “Maybe we should play something else...”   “Sure thing, darling,” he agreed readily. “Go grab the deck of cards out of my bag, and I'll teach you two how to cheat at poker. Clean out your school friends.”   —   “Alright kids.” Maria had gone to put in a load of laundry, an ever losing battle with two kids, and Frank stood over them where they were seated on the floor, crossed legged from their uncle Billy, way too interested in all of the dirty card tricks he was teaching them. “Mom told me you're both due for your sleepover at your grandmother’s... And I don't want you remembering anything Billy just taught you.” He gave Billy a disapproving look, snorting when the man just grinned up at him. Not a lick of shame. He loved that about him, just not when it came to teaching his kids certain things.   “Aw, man. How come we always sleepover grandma's when you come home?” Junior whined, and Frank had to bite the inside of his cheek when Billy whined with him.   “Aw, yeah, come on, dad, how come?” Billy echoed him, and Frank had no doubt the man knew damn well why the kids more often than not ended up at Maria's mother’s. He loved his kids to the ends of the earth, but after months away, he needed some alone time with his wife.   “Are you guys gonna kiss again?” Junior looked up at him warily as he scooped up the cards.   “Definitely,” Frank snorted, only laughing harder at Junior's quiet, disgusted 'ew'.   “Hey, give me the keys and I'll drive them,” Billy offered, standing up and brushing his pants off a little.   “You don't have to do that.” Frank shook his head.   “Nah, come on, I want to. Give me some more time with them. You're so stingy.” Billy goaded him until Frank finally got him the car keys. Frank watched the kids chorus out goodbyes to him and Maria down the hall and then run out to the car, backpacks in tow.   Handing Billy the car keys was as good a time as any to touch him. He held his wrist for a second. He could feel Billy go still. The entire time in the house, Frank had noticed he'd seemed twitchy, almost imperceptible if you didn't know to look for it. But now there was a moment of just them, and Frank felt like the tension was easing out of him from that simple touch. He squeezed Billy's hand and shot him a little smile.   “Come find us when you get home, huh?” Frank finally said before letting go.   Maria was already sitting on the bed when he made his way back to the bedroom. He slipped her letter out of his pocket and set it on the nightstand over his while he admired her, dressed in a nightgown and rubbing lotion briskly up her hands to her elbows.   “Sexy.” Frank grinned at her a little, admiring the way her slip rose above her knees.   “Frank, baby, it's Jergens. It's not supposed to be sexy.” Maria shook her head and he smiled with her, walking over to the bed and taking her hands. He drew them up to kiss her wrists. “I don’t know, it’s doing it for me…”   “Big surprise, mister.” She gasped suddenly when his hand was on her waist, the other gripping under her thigh, and he was hauling her up, up, up. She hooked her knees over his thighs and held on tight. He laughed when she swatted a hand against his chest playfully. Her cheeks were flushed, and he knew without feeling that she’d be wet. She’d always loved when he lifted her up.   “You don’t want to wait?” Maria whispered, giving up her pretense and holding onto his shoulders as she kissed him.   “Baby, I can’t, I can’t wait one more minute to have you.” Frank could hear the longing in his own voice, and he didn’t even try to hide it. He’d been thinking about her all day. “Give me at least a taste. I’m a dying man…” - Maria hummed softly and kissed him again. “Maybe just a taste,” she whispered playfully as she nibbled on his bottom lip. “Come on, put me down.” She had to coax or she knew Frank, she’d be against the wall in a minute and he’d be inside of her and they’d lose all focus. Not that that was usually a bad thing when it happened, but it shouldn’t happen tonight.   She lay back on the bed, her toes dangling off the edge and Frank crawling up over her. She laughed and rubbed at the patch of fuzz covering the back of his head, well acquainted with the low, rough rumble in his chest as his nose tucked between the edges of her robe, determined to get to her chest and bare skin.   “God you smell so good.” Frank’s warm breath fanned over her, and she curled her fingers into his shoulders as he nuzzled between her breasts, as he just breathed in and savored the contact.   “Mm—tell me how,” Maria whispered as she ran her nails slowly down the back of his neck.   “Nothing like the desert, nothing like the sand,” Frank murmured. Nothing like blood. Nothing like death. Frank wasn’t the only one who could hear what wasn’t being said. They’d shared too much together, lived too much together for her not to understand. She knew. She knew the things her husband did, and the life that he lived when they were apart. She never expected a clean break just because he was home in her bed.   “Was it hard this time?” she asked, fingers pressing into his shoulders. There were knots there that would only work free from a night of sleeping on a good mattress, but she could tell from his quiet groan of enjoyment that the effort was still appreciated.   “Some of it,” Frank answered, and that was enough of an answer.   “Did he help?”   “Yeah.”   “I’m glad you had each other, then,” Maria whispered, leaning down so she could kiss the top of his head as she cradled him to her. “I’m always happy to know you’re both out there watching each other’s back.”   “I know.” She felt his lips curling up into a smile on her skin and she smiled in return.   “Was it good for you both?”   “Yeah. Yeah. What we both needed.”   —   Billy took his time on the drive back. He tapped his fingers against the steering wheel, trying not to let his mind run away with him on what he might be coming back to. He snorted to himself. They were probably screwing like rabbits the second he’d closed the front door. Billy couldn’t blame them, but he wasn’t sure how he felt about coming back to them being in the middle of that. Maria might like to watch, but he doubted that extended to Frank letting anyone near Maria.   And Billy had no idea how he felt about being watched. No, he knew, if it were anyone else, if anyone else saw what Frank could do to him… He just hadn’t been quite able to piece together for himself if Maria watching was better or worse than a stranger doing it. By the time he’d pulled into the driveway, he’d decided it was worse.   Whatever version of love he was able to give Frank, it extended to his family, to her, to the kids. He was mostly sure of that. They were an all in one deal, Frank was so much a part of them and vice versa that it was impossible to separate those feelings. It sure would have been easier, though. He was used to being selfish, and god damn did he want to be selfish right now. It meant he might not be sitting in the driveway scared sh*tless about letting not one but two people who he was pretty certain he loved and who loved him in return watch him fall apart.   He let himself back into the house and locked up behind himself even if at this point someone breaking in would almost be funny with two marines inside. No reason to risk it and interrupt their fun.   “Honey, I’m home!” he called out with a falsetto tone, twirling the car keys on his finger before he hooked them up on the little key rack in the hall. The light was on under their bedroom door, big surprise, and he could hear movement. No moaning, so maybe they were taking a break?   Frank opened the door a second later, dressed only in a pair of boxer briefs. His face was flushed pink. Billy didn’t miss the shine on his lips and smear of slickness on his chin. He definitely wasn’t the least bit surprised that one of Frank’s first actions on home soil was to eat out his wife. He’d known every time Frank had touched his tongue to him that it was a craft that he’d spent years honing. He supposed he should be thanking Maria for being such a thorough instructor.   “Hey.” Frank hung around the doorframe for a second, looking at Billy before he opened the door more. He stopped him at the threshold, and Billy closed his eyes, almost hating how easy it was to relax when he felt Frank’s wide hands cupping his cheeks. He sighed into the kiss he was given. Billy could taste what could only be Maria on Frank’s lips, and if the man had wanted to make him jealous of them both, then mission f***ing accomplished.   “Come on, come to bed,” Frank murmured between kisses that felt greedy. Billy’s teeth caught against his bottom lip in turn, sucking the taste off him, tracing his tongue over the cupid bow that was Frank’s pink mouth. “Come on,” Frank continued to coax. “Daddy wants you so damn bad.”   If Billy was expecting those words not to affect him just because he could feel Maria’s eyes on him from her place on the bed, then he was dead wrong. They twisted warmly in his gut, and his grip on Frank turned desperate. So much of their early times had been Frank laying him down, Frank teaching Billy how to be cared for and loved and cherished.   Billy had been learning, though. Now, he knew how to touch Frank. He knew how to love the man in front of him back without feeling like he was going to die if he didn’t dig his claws into Frank to rip his chest open and bathe in his affection. He was still feral, something wild, and they knew that. There was no mistaking Billy’s eyes for something tame, but he knew how to reflect the reverence the man had showed with each caress down his body, and he could turn it back. He craved being able to show Frank his love back. There was nothing more dangerous, nothing more addictive for Billy than to be able to prove he could feel things, too.   “Take me to bed, Frankie,” Billy whispered into his lips. He’d bitten down on Frank’s mouth too hard, and he could taste a tinge of copper. It wasn’t the first time, and it wouldn’t be the last, but he bathed his tongue over the little nick in a wordless apology for never quite being able to reign himself in. He never seemed to scare Frank off, though. Frankie had been the one pursuing, and maybe he was just too stubborn to admit that Billy hadn’t been quite what he’d expected, what he’d wanted, or maybe he’d known all along. Billy wouldn’t ask. He’d never ask a question he couldn’t take the answer to.   Their bed felt good, better than the couch, and Billy stretched out on it lazily. He tipped his head back to see Maria smiling at him.   “Ma’am,” he greeted, cracking a shining grin at her and giving his best salute.   “Billy.” She shook her head, long brown hair framing her face as she smiled down at him. “Am I too close?”   “Nah.” He rolled his shoulders a little, determined not to let her proximity be an issue. He didn’t let himself focus on how nice she smelled, or the little brush of her hair over his shoulder as she shifted beside him, laid out to watch comfortably.   “Ok. Let me know if I am,” Maria said simply, and she leaned forward to give his cheek a familiar peck that felt wildly out of place in this context. He just nodded and didn’t let himself dwell on it. Nothing was going to put a damper on how good it was going to feel to get f***ed on a real bed again.   “I’m good so long as your man has some real lube around here. I’m tired of coconut oil.”   “Don’t worry about that,” Frank promised. “I’ve got us fixed up.” He climbed onto the bed beside them, and it was a good thing they had a king size, or three was going to be a crowd. Billy felt the slight impact of a bottle falling beside his elbow, and he knew Frank had likely asked Maria to pick up something so he could f*** Billy properly.   Billy bit the inside of his cheek a little and leaned up so that he could peel his shirt up and off. Too much clothing. Maria in a robe and Frank in his underwear? He wasn’t about to stand being the most dressed person in the room. His hands went for his pants, and he wasn’t surprised when Frank knocked them away. He did like to handle that part. He encouraged Billy to lift, and he peeled them down.   “Look at you, baby boy,” Frank murmured when he kissed over his throat and chest. He lovingly stroked his slicked fingers over Billy’s hole, always acting like he was somehow seeing and touching Billy’s bare body for the first time. Did he treat Maria like that, too? He pushed away the thought and let himself ride the waves of pleasure Frank was treating him to. He couldn’t keep comparing, or this would never happen. He hummed a little instead, let himself preen under Frank’s affections. Let his long, bare legs spread more, and his thighs bracket around Frank comfortably. He held on tight and kissed him as he opened him up.   “Just as nice as I thought it would be.” Maria’s voice drifted between them, and it actually made Billy smile a little. She sounded like she was enjoying herself, and if she could see them now… if she was ok with how reverently Frank was touching him… Maybe she knew more than he thought she did, and maybe that was ok.   It was ok that she was there when Frank was pushing himself inside of him. Billy had a long leg thrown over his shoulder, and he let his eyes drift shut, let himself be bent in half and f***ed into. Each of Frank’s strokes felt so good. He rocked into him with long pushes that sounded wet from too much lube. He’d been overzealous with it, but it was fine. It just made them sound filthy. The noise hit his ears and it was almost loud enough for him to ignore all of his own noises, the little cries Frank pushed out of him so easily.   Frank f***ed into him until the whine in Billy's throat was loud and desperate. If felt like barely any time had passed, but he already couldn’t take much more. Frank always ended up being too much in all of the best ways.   “Are you close, Billy baby?” Frank’s words were barely more than a low rumble in his chest, and Billy nodded, eyes shut tight.   “Frankie, Frankie, come on—” Billy gasped out, and Frank let his leg drop, slowing down to just hold his hips, f***ing up and deep, each stroke too slow. Too full.   “Ok, tell me where, tell me, look at me, let me see you,” Frank encouraged, and he studied the pleasure on Billy’s face when he forced his eyes open. His lips parted and he was about to speak until Frank pushed again and he saw f***ing stars.   “There, please!” he choked out, and knew it was so close to begging just as much as he knew he didn’t f***ing care as long as Frank kept going.   “Ok, ok,” Frank whispered against his ear. “Let’s get you coming for daddy.” He pushed again and stayed right where Billy needed him, little jolts of his hips that kept him so deep, too deep, just holding himself there, f***ing over his prostate until Billy was beside himself, the sweetest agony he could ever feel. Until he was shouting hoarsely and shaking apart, his body’s vise grip taking Frank with him.   Billy reached to grab onto the nearest hand available and squeezed tight, riding out both of their orgasms. Frank sounded so good moaning, felt so good when he kissed over his collarbone as they both cooled down. It took him longer than it should have, took feeling both of Frank’s hands rubbing his hips, to realize that it was Maria’s hand he was holding.   “Oh, Hey… Sorry.” Billy smiled weakly and jumped a little, squeezing more when he felt Frank sliding out of him, too over sensitive.   “You don’t have to apologize. Thank you.” She smiled at him.   “Oh I aim to please,” Billy said, words coming out shakier than he’d hoped for.   Maria laughed and seemed to see right through him. She lay beside them, and Frank cleaned up while Billy caught his breath. He didn’t let go of Maria’s hand, but that was her fault, because she hadn’t asked for it back.   He let himself relax a little more. It was going ok. Billy was feeling good and f***ed out and definitely considering round two if they weren’t going to kick him off to the couch just yet. He was doing ok. Right up until Maria’s other hand was on his cheek, up until she was leaning in close. She had to be going for another peck on the cheek, and for a fleeting moment Billy had leaned up towards her, lips almost touching, like he’d lost his mind and might actually be able to kiss her. Like she wasn’t the most sacred thing in Frank’s life and here he was having the nerve to try and taint that.   He jerked back and bolted up and out of the bed, leaving a trail of confusion in his wake as he worked to catch his breath. He waved them off, trying to keep the panic out of his tone and forcing a smile. “Just… Just need a minute. Need to catch some air. You two crazy kids have fun,” he joked weakly as he grabbed his pants, hightailed it out of the bedroom, and just barely didn’t slam the bedroom door behind him.   Billy pulled his pants on in the hall, and walked straight into the kitchen, feeling like he’d run a marathon. He opened the freezer door, resting his head against the cool plastic and squishing what was probably a bag of frozen peas. Jesus, he didn't know what the f*** he was doing. Frank and Maria were forever. He’d always known that, but somehow seeing them in their bedroom had made it more solid than he could ever imagine. He’d never be able to touch that. He was just here as, what? Some fun? He hadn’t second guessed a thing him and Frank had been doing since their hotel stay, but now he felt like he didn’t know what was what anymore. He should have stayed in the deserts where things at least had a sense of structure he could follow.   “We didn't scare you off, did we?”   It was a testament either to Billy's nerves, or how much he let his guard down in Frank's home that he hadn't heard Maria approach.   He straightened his back and shut the freezer door before he flashed her a smile. “Of course not. Sorry about that.” Billy mumbled out the apology like if he got that part out quick enough, it could be ignored. “Just looking for some ice,” he lied, and they both knew it was a dumb lie, but he wasn't going to change his story.   “There’s nothing to apologize for, Billy. Except running off. There's a dispenser in the fridge door.”   “Oh. Fancy.” He didn't move, but he could hear her shuffle lightly to the cabinets and saw her take down a glass. She still only had a robe on, and when Billy turned his head just a hair he could see how it lightly hugged her body, how soft her bare thighs looked in the warm glow of the low lit kitchen. She was f***ing beautiful, not that he hadn't known it. He'd just never let himself think on that one. Even he knew there were just some things you didn't do about your best friend's wife. Or at least, that's what he’d thought.   He didn't let himself stare as she stepped closer and pressed the empty glass into his hands. It was a cliché, but their fingers touched in the action, and Billy couldn't help but want that contact to continue. He ran a long finger across the knuckle of her ring finger, breath catching in his throat when he bumped right over her wedding ring, a stark reminder of reality enough to have him draw his hand back with the cup.   “Thanks.”   Maria had followed his gaze. She was quiet when he turned around and pushed the cup into the ice dispenser, watching little cubes clink down into it. That was the thing about Frank and Maria. Both could be so quiet it was eerie sometimes. Quiet enough that it was dangerous, because that quiet usually meant they were thinking.   “You'll never have what we have, Billy,” Maria finally spoke, and her voice was gentle for delivering such a damn cutting blow. Jesus, she was the one who should have been the sniper.   He set his jaw hard, putting the glass down on the counter as he nodded “I know I'm no—”   “Shh, I'm not finished,” she continued. “You'll never have what we have, but I'll never have what you two have.” Her tone was serious, her head tilted up to meet his eyes. “And maybe one day Frank won't have what we have. No two people love each other the same way, and that's ok.”   Billy stared at her, hard. Her gaze didn't waver. Did he believe everything she was unpacking before him? He didn't know... But, god, he wanted to. “You really believe that?”   “I do.”   “Have you and Frankie...” Billy's voice trailed off. He didn't know how to ask her if they were in the business of taking in someone else, f***ing them, and then breaking their heart when they found out it was just for some fun.   “Not like this, Billy. We wouldn't offer this to anyone else.” Maria's voice was understanding what he was saying, what he couldn't say, Jesus, she was like Frank with that, too. The perfect pair. How did they both know how to read him so well? How the hell was he supposed to fit into that?   Maybe it didn't matter, because Frank and Maria seemed to be hell bent on figuring it out. She was already reaching for him. No fear. Why would she? She'd already tamed a wild beast before. She was an old hand at this. She had stepped forward enough that Billy leaned back, felt himself stopped by the cool backing of the fridge, a chill up his spine, boxed in. Forget sniper, Maria should have been a military strategist, because no enemy had ever been able to back Billy into a corner.   He felt her lean in closer. Billy could smell the woodsy shampoo in her hair, could smell sweat cooling on her body, and he could smell Frank on her. It was more intoxicating than any shot he'd ever taken. He could get drunk on that f***ing cocktail, and be a happy man. He breathed in slowly, and she seemed to take that as permission to reach up and lace her fingers behind the back of his neck. She pulled lightly, and it was clear what she wanted, but he still found himself hesitating. Lost.   “You didn't make me reach all the way up here for nothing, did you?” she murmured, one hand moving to fix firmly on Billy's shoulder.   He swallowed nervously and started to open his mouth. “We should get—”   “William Russo, why don't you grow some ovaries and kiss me right here like you want to? Let's figure out the rest later.” Maria smiled, and Billy snorted and then laughed with her. Yeah. Frank sure knew how to pick them. Maybe he did, too. He leaned down, his hand on her hip, the feeling of her silky robe bunching under his long fingers when he kissed her. She was right. It wasn't like his first kiss with Frank. That kiss had been dry from the desert, a little rough from desperation, sweet underneath. This, it was their first kiss, though, and it was softer, sweet in its own ways. Good. He let himself be lost in it, felt her tongue dip out to trace his bottom lip in a way that made his fingers tighten a little on her hip...   “Hey, you really think that's fair?”   The sudden cold reality of Frank's voice behind them was enough to make Billy snap back like he'd held his lips to the hot barrel of his rifle. Fingers in the cookie jar, or they might have been in a few minutes if they hadn't been interrupted... “Frankie—”   Maria's laugh overshadowed the worry in Billy's tone as she turned in Billy's arms to face her husband. “I didn't get to see any of your first time together. It's more than fair. Ignore him, Billy.”   “Hey.” Frank was leaning against the door frame to the kitchen watching them, arms crossed, and Billy couldn't help but feel a little in love with the dopy, crooked grin he was casting on them both. He'd seen that look a million times, but he'd seen it directed towards Maria, and damn if he didn't feel like he was floating when he realized it was at them both.   “Hey yourself,” Billy retorted, not caring if it was silly. His hand slipped a little boldly around Maria to touch her stomach, long fingers slipping just past the hem of her robe until he touched down on soft skin. “You let a woman like this out of your bed... and you ain't got no right to go complaining when she finds something better...” His voice trailed off when he saw Frank's eyes.   The playfulness was gone. There was hunger in those eyes, for him, for a woman he'd been held back from for months. His eyes were following Billy's fingers where they rested   “You gonna keep touching my wife in front of me?” Frank's voice was rough, and Billy knew an absence of anger when he heard it. He knew by now what Frank's voice sounded like when he was only thinking with his d*ck. It was enough to heat him up more, in turn.“Maybe,” Billy challenged, and he could hear Maria's breathing shift. Her hand came up to rest on his wrist, but not to stop him. Billy suddenly wondered just how inevitable this moment in their kitchen had been. Had this been slated to happen the second Frank had sat down next to him in the mess tent in boot camp? Had it been written on the walls the first time Frank had proudly introduced him to Maria at one of their shore parties? Some things felt biblical, like a god damn religious experience, and right now his fingers wanted to shake from the powerful current he felt running through the three of them.   Frank pushed off the door frame, and closed the distance between them in three short paces. Billy had watched him stride across a battlefield with less intensity than he had now. He felt his c*ck twitch at the display. Maria breathed out and let her hand rest on her husband's chest with practiced confidence. She was trapped between them, and seemed pretty pleased with that. Billy peeked past her shoulder and watched as Frank leaned down to kiss her. He might never get tired of seeing them kiss, just like he'd never get over that little twinge of jealousy and want for them both at the same time. Those feelings twisted up together in his gut, and, honestly? It was just good to know he could feel that strongly about this, about them, about anyone. That there were things he didn't have to fake. This, he'd never have to fake.   He watched Frank break the kiss finally, his breathing heavy. He was leaning in closer, Maria pressed more between them as Frank moved his lips to the shell of Billy's ear. His hand had made its way to Billy's hip, a familiar home for it now. It held on tight, squeezed in a way that made Billy's skin feel like it was on fire.   “Come to bed to do it, then. Show daddy,” Frank's voice whispered huskily against his ear, teeth scraping against his lobe and lips pressing a wet mark at the corner of his jaw. Billy's knees wanted to wobble into jello, and his d*ck wanted out to play immediately.   They scrambled to the bedroom, an unspoken race. Billy almost wheezed out a laugh when Frank playfully yanked him back from the doorframe so that he could get there first, but Maria used their competitiveness against them to dart stealthily past them both so she could take her triumphant seat on the edge of the bed.   “Spoils go to the victor,” she said promptly and almost primly. Maria crossed one knee over the other and her robe was well past her thighs, bunched up and pooling on the bed around her, only her crossed legs keeping her hidden from view. Billy looked over at Frank and watched the man as he leaned against the dresser, closer, almost in reach but content to be a spectator for the moment.   “Thought you were going to show daddy?”   “Yeah…” Billy licked his lips a little and tried not to let his nerves show as he nodded. They weren’t giving him any rules or structure on this, so he was just going to do what he wanted, what he thought Maria might like, and, well, if they had a problem, he’d just have to trust that they’d stop him. Trust. What a concept.   He dropped down onto the floor, knees hitting the carpeting. Even he knew Maria was the kind of woman that you should first approach in supplication. He reached for the cloth knot on her robe and tugged until it was finally free, and then he reached quietly to slip it from her shoulders. Good riddance. Maria was beautiful, and he was more than happy to get a good look. It had been a while since he’d seen a women that wasn’t one of the pinups the guys kept around the tents and, well, he’d always had a thing for brunettes, her and Frankie both, apparently.   Billy touched her thighs, and didn’t bother to keep in his wide grin when she parted them willingly for him. Her breathing was quick and she was smiling back at him, her hands touching through his hair, nails lightly scraping his scalp. God, he hoped he could f*** her, and he might just beg for it if he had to. He loved what Frank did to him, but god damn, it had been so long since he’d been able to slip inside of something. The possibility alone was a distraction, almost all he could think about as his long fingers pet over damp curls and her soft lips, stroking through slickness and realizing that the wetness he was touching was likely from both her and Frank.   Another flash of jealousy, and he still didn’t know who he was more jealous of. Billy just knew he wanted. He pressed, careful, sure, feeling Maria take him smoothly, so wet that his d*ck ached in want. It had been a while, but he still knew his way around a p**sy, and he rubbed inside of her, worked his fingers with a few slow pushes, and was rewarded with Maria’s soft moan.   “Frank always uses his tongue first.” Maria’s lips were at his ear, and he shivered as her breath fanned over him warmly. “He isn’t happy until he’s used his mouth. Same with you?”   “Always, since the first time I let him at my ass,” Billy agreed. “I’m not gonna even try to compete with that mouth. I got my own skill set,” he teased, and curled his fingers a little, grinning again when Maria gasped and he felt her body squeeze around him.   “God, those hands. He feels so good, baby. You feel so good.” She had her arms wrapped around his head now, crushing it close, and he kind of loved how greedy the action felt. He let his other hand rest against her mound, wetting his thumb with her slickness and rolling it slowly over her clit, laughing at her soft whine and feeling her smack lightly at his arm for doing it.   “Hey, hey, I told you I aim to please.”   “Mhm, Then aim a little higher.”   “Oh, a challenge, huh?” Billy breathed out, delight in his tone that he didn’t try to hide as he pressed higher, listening to Maria sigh as she shifted on the bed, lips parted as she rode his fingers greedily. He heard footsteps behind him, and Frank was kneeling behind him. Apparently he could only resist the party for so long, because his lips were suddenly kissing up Billy’s spine, and between that and Maria’s hands sifting through his hair, he was feeling pretty damn cherished.   “God damn, look at you two, baby boy,” Frank whispered behind his ear, his thick nose tucking behind it as his tongue pressed against the hollow just under his lobe, sending a shiver down his entire body. “You have no idea what the two of you do to me.”   “So tell us,” Maria challenged, her voice laced with heavy pleasure, her hips twitching in little jerks towards Billy’s thumb that told him she was getting close to coming on his hand.   “I-I got no words, Maria…”   “Try. Shouldn’t he try, Billy?”   Billy nodded, nuzzling Maria’s breast in the process. He’d just been about to contemplate how he was going to attack both of them at once with his hands full, but this he needed to hear. “Yeah, come on. That’s the deal, isn’t it?” he asked a little boldly. “Telling us what we need to hear?”   Frank’s teeth bit down sharply on the back of his neck, and Billy jolted, groaning louder than he meant to. “Oh, f***—” he swore, and Frank’s hand was on his hip, the grip bruising and perfect.   “It’s like seeing my two worlds come together, Maria, Billy… There’s nothing… There’s nothing I could want more than this. This is everything, it’s everything,” Frank whispered, and Billy felt those words as deeply as he heard them.   “It’s home,” Maria agreed, and her hands were on Billy’s wrists, stilling his movements so he had no choice but to look up into her eyes and focus on that, instead. Billy’s tongue was frozen to the roof of his mouth, his lips were f***ing sealed and he didn’t know how to open them back up, but he found himself nodding desperately in an agreement that he couldn’t for the life of him verbalize, but needing them to know that he agreed. That he had never wanted so badly to be a part of something.   “It’s ok.” Maria touched his cheek, leaning in to press her lips against his forehead. “Come on, up here with me.” She pulled on his arm, and he scrambled. His pants were off, half his, half Frank’s hands, and he was climbing over her. Her legs trapped him, and he only hesitated for a second.   “Do I need, uh…”   Maria laughed and pulled him down for a kiss. “Birth control. Believe me, without it, Frank would be coming home to another baby after every rotation.” Billy laughed with her. He believed it. Frank was an animal, big shock he was fertile as one.   “Ok, ok.” He relaxed and watched her, just watched the pleasure on her face as he entered her, knew it was written all over his own damn face, in turn. Frank’s hands were on him, on her, touching down his back, rubbing her breasts. He was kissing them both like he couldn’t touch them enough, like he had to make them feel how hopelessly in love with them both he was.   Billy gave into all of that, he kissed Maria when he could, watched Frank reach between them, his thick fingers touching where they joined. Billy could feel him with every stroke inside of her, and he shuddered at the connection between them.   Maria’s hands rubbed down his back. “Come on, come on, sweetheart,” she whispered in encouragement, and that was a nickname no one else in the world would dare to grant him, but from Maria’s lips, it felt genuine. It felt like he could live up to that endearment, here, or at least he could die trying to uphold it. He cried out when he felt her walls clamping down on him, as greedy as he felt. He pushed deeper, his orgasm rushing through him when he felt her riding her own out under him, shaking and laughing breathlessly, swatting Frank’s hands when his touch became too much.   “Enough, enough, you’ll kill us both,” she gasped when Frank’s hand came dangerously close to her clit and forced another aftershock through her body that Billy felt in her thighs around him. He laughed when he separated from her, running his hands through his own wrecked hair.   “Yeah, what a way to go, though, huh?”   “Oh, don’t encourage him.” Maria laughed and curled up on her side towards Frank, taking his hand and kissing it before she sighed deeply. “Let’s get used to that.”   “Sure.” Frank was smiling down at her, goofy and lovesick, and Billy had never understood it more. He looked at them and felt his heart twisting around in his chest, and god damn it, he was going to turn into some lovesick idiot like his man, like their man. He got up, instead, and went to clean up a little, studying himself quietly in the mirror before bringing back a damp washcloth for Maria to do the same.   “So I can—”   “If you’re even thinking of trying to say you’ll take the couch, quit it,” Frank ordered, and Billy bit his tongue.   “Maybe I just don’t want to feel you drooling on me, for once. Every morning, Maria, separate cots but somehow his drool gets on me.” Billy whined a little. “How do you do it? Wash cloths? Towel over his face? Share your secrets.”   “Shut up.” Frank was laughing, and he grabbed Billy’s hand, pulling him until he was falling into bed with them again. They swarmed him like a pool of piranhas. No mercy. Their arms were over him, Maria’s leg hooked over his own, Frank’s nose tucked over his shoulder. He was out in seconds, there was no hope or point in even trying to fight it. He was sawing wood in their ears almost before his head hit the pillow.   The next morning, Billy woke up before them, the sun shining, and despite the pretty sunrise he was tense in the bed. He waited to be booted out of it, even knowing it wouldn't be coming. There were some scars from his past that ran too deep. He trusted this pair more than anyone else on god's green earth, and still when Maria's hand sleepily brushed past his shoulder, he flinched. Too much prolonged intimacy. He rarely got this with Frank, save for a few precious moments. All of their contact had been intense but brief. His skin itched. Was it always going to be like this? Was he always going to try to push away after they gave him everything?   Maybe it didn’t matter, because he wasn’t in the bed when they woke up, but Frank was there to kiss his freshly shaved cheek when he shuffled sleepily into the bathroom behind him. Maria’s hands took his in the living room, and she pulled him into the kitchen insisting that he be the one to make the pancakes because the kids liked his best. His pulling away didn’t matter, his fear didn’t matter, because they saw it, and they overcame it with him. One unit. One family.  

Mithrandir

09/18/2021 11:03 PM 

𝐀𝐬𝐡𝐞𝐧 𝐀𝐯𝐞𝐧𝐠𝐞𝐫. [Writing Entry.]
Current mood:  devious

          Grace the heathen earth below with the coming of swift white horses. They gallop madly and proudly from the twisting dark skies above. Heavenly hooves conduct a symphony that will sure to rattle the ears and bring a trembling burden upon weak hearts. Their proud paths are beaming brightly, leaving big wide swatches in momentary darkness on the massive meadow of murk.      Dim emeralds seem lost towards the horizon tens of yards away, withholding ill judgment. A smoldering caldera is brewing within an aged soul so slighted. Power meant to punish may be inevitable as the seconds mosey on. Testament of sin by bloodshed and defilement of innocence, done with not a speck of shame to show, is alit and quite bitter for musing. Dark dirty deeds were done two sundowns ago. Such blasphemy to comfort and goodwill requires... retribution. Justice.     Blood will be spilt, for reason has been forsaken by the sinners. The sickening pleasure to enact wicked things is unending opium. They excite themselves with the putrid portraits and melodies of a massacre, even egregious ecstasy of making others, young and old, into fleshly toys for breeding or satisfy stomach-turning urges. Despicable. Many enough of those kind souls had charity so divine to give even to an unsightly bloke such as he; his wrinkle-riddled visage could sorely belong in a crypt. Some even nursed him back to fair health. Damn these cretins who robbed the friendly strangers with so much more than a drop of blood.       “F i e n d s .”     His slighted spill was a brooding baritone with a fair blend of an intimidating croaking growl by the king of the jungle.     Awaken from the slim house behind the person, sharp prophet of war. The steady steel is made from compounds considered as silly myths in this latest iteration of the Grandest Cosmos. It does mimic that adamance of modern metal, but there is more to it. Far more. It gleams handsomely with each thunderous passing of the stratospheric stallions. Produce a stance that will erupt into a graceful pounce, bringing a vigorous swing or stab that can slice or skewer a boar snout to tail with ease.     He is furthest from pleased, this knightly traveler. In him, there is an agitated ache to unleash unbridled rage from offense greatly taken. This band of demons before him are the great offenders. Curse them with their sickly wax-like skin, tree-tall hunched stature, two unkempt rows of fangs, and long curved talons, all still damp from sanguine stain as they had such fun and a feast with their latest prey, different from who is avenging. But these poor souls are ever so worthy of being avenged themselves.       “For your vileness, I will exact a toll placed well on your roads long paved. One so deserving of you to pass through.”      Justice will be served, indeed. Each will not listen to reason to cease the madness they are drowning in. By blade bringing beautiful barbarism with storm-strong strength, they will cuddle close with a cosmic comeuppance.       “Payment is absolute.”     Sing and stomp savagely, stallions from the storm. A storm too is what this valiant corpse in tattered grey will wield away towards these wretches. One of his own marvelous making. Dare to harm and to pervert others as they are just meat for devious delight, taste thoroughly the hells of the brave who will show remorseless wrath.     Roar and make haste onward, ashen avenger! Stomp a stride, flow of a river his grace. United grip on his sharp ally is a python’s hug. Leap and aim for a neck or where a heart is! Do not miss! Through lusty limbs and celestial steel, and through virtue and vengeance, the man in grey, with extreme prejudice will bring forth the wrath of the gods!      [ My warmest thanks to Lady Kimiko for providing much constructive feedback further adding to what was included in this entry and some really neat wording suggestions. You are divine, my dearest. 💜 ]    

とんぼ

09/18/2021 08:09 PM 

SLUM RAT

“You’ll never be nothin’ more than a slum rat, kid. There ain’t no place in the world for you.” A snicker. “Yeah, ya’ got that right. I ain’t nothing more than a slum rat but there ain’t no place in the world for ya’ either, piece of sh*t.” BANG.   BIRTH NAME: OPHELIA LUCIENNE KISHIMOTO. ALIAS: SOPHIE OR LUCI. CODENAME: DRAGONFLY. - AGE: TWENTY-ONE DATE OF BIRTH: JUNE 22, 2001. ZODIAC: CANCER. LOCATION OF BIRTH: SHINSEKAI DISTRICT, OSAKA, JAPAN. CURRENT LOCATION: KAMAGASAKI DISTRICT, OSAKA, JAPAN. - GENDER: FEMALE. RACE:HUMAN. SEXUALITY: UNSURE. NATIONALITY:JAPANESE. - OCCUPATION: CRIMINAL. GANG AFFILIATION:  STREET SCUM SNAKES. EDUCATION LEVEL: DROPOUT. - HEIGHT: 4’11/58 IN/ 147 CM. WEIGHT: 100 POUNDS/45.4 KILOGRAMS. HAIR COLOR: BLACK EYE COLOR: BLACK COMPLEXION: PALE. STYLE: GRUNGE/PUNK/ALT. - PIERCINGS: EARS. TATTOOS: “KEEP IT UGLY” RIGHT HAND, 4TH FINGER, LEFT SIDE. BIRTHMARKS/SCARS: MANY SCARS SCATTERED. NO BIRTHMARKS. - DRUG USAGE: NICOTINE, ALCOHOL, AMPHETAMINES, PRESCRIPTION OPIOIDS, MDMA, LSD, COCAINE, MARIJUANA. CRIMINAL ACTIVITY: THEFT, KIDNAPPING, MURDER, EXTORTION, TRAFFICKING IN DRUGS AND WEAPONS. - ABILITIES: FAST AND FLEXIBLE, ABLE TO JUMP FROM BUILDING TO BUILDING. USUALLY USES ROOFTOPS AS MEANS OF TRANSPORT. WEAPONRY KNOWLEDGE. KNOWS HOW TO USE MANY MEANS OF WEAPONS AND IS NOT AFRAID TO KILL ANYONE. THE GIRL MIGHT BE A STREET RAT WHO DROPPED OUTTA SCHOOL BUT SHE’S SMART AS HELL. - PERSONALITY: SERIOUS, PLAYFUL, ANGRY, JOKING, VIOLENT. DOESN’T GIVE A F*** ABOUT YOU OR YOUR FEELINGS. MENTAL ILLNESSES: PROBABLY A PLETHORA OF THEM. DEPRESSION, SELF HARM.  

𝑮𝑬𝑻 𝑩𝑨𝑻𝑻𝒀!

09/18/2021 07:07 PM 

Rules

Disclaimers My portrayal of Morrigan is serious yet playful. She is a college professor on Irish Myhtology and loves her job in the human world as it gives her more of an understanding and admiration for human life.  I am NOT Morrigan, I am but a mere roleplayer who loves the Darkstalkers series. I'm not interested in smvt. I get it when I want it irl, I'm not interested in micro d i c k s that are trying to overcompensate with their fictitious egos. If you're going to question my priorities thinking that Because I accepted you that means I will write with you...NOT everyone is gonna write with you, deal with it. Don't cry, don't get mad, don't call me names and tell me to delete my profile like a immature and imascualted little boy just move the f u c k on. Just because I add you, doesn't mean we're instantly besties. You WORK for this s h i t just like you would in real life. The Basics about moi Myspace Vet 28 years old Married Has two girlfriends has a kid (so yes, there's my main priotiry)  Novella writer Non Binary Being a b i t c h is my kink My Priorities My Child My Husband My Girlfriends My physical health My mental Health Video Games Role Play RP Basics No smvt/er0 platonic relationships is where It's at  I write romance with my husband and my girlfriends, that's about it. don't attempt to control my character no god mod Don't start nothing, won't be nothing Treat me with respect and I'll treat you with respect, treat me like dirt and I'll treat you like dirt. 

Solitary Ninja

09/18/2021 02:20 PM 

☆ Regulations + Guidelines ☆
Current mood:  busy

☆ rules and guidelines ☆  1. Do not steal the content of my page. Everything you see has been edited, changed, or manipulated in some way to suit my needs as a roleplayer.2. I am a paragraph/multiple paragraph writer which means I will be using complete sentences, proper grammar, and punctuation. I do not expect perfection, however, but I would like you to at least put some effort into what you're writing so I have a better understanding of it.3. Please keep the drama at the door. I do not tolerate drama from either side. It's stuff like high school he-said-she-said that makes me not want to roleplay.4. Do not expect instant romance with my character. She does not have an easy time expressing her feelings.5. I am not always going to be online so please don't rush or push me for comments or messages.6. I do not and will not give out personal information such as personal phone numbers, emails, and addresses.7. Don't try to control my character (do not try to mind read, god mod or otherwise take control without talking about it within the roleplay).8. If you would like to contact me comments are for discussion and messages are for roleplaying.9. I will not always have the time to be here so please leave me a message and I'll get back to it when I can. If I'm not around it does NOT mean I am ignoring you at all.10. I don't really care who talks first. It's always what you prefer to do in my book.11. Just remember this is a hobby and meant to be fun and the minute it starts feeling like a job I will cease the roleplay.12. Please remind yourself that this is roleplay and not real life and try not to merge the two.13. I've got a life outside of here and sometimes I don't have time to be here. I will always notify you when I have these times that I have to be away.

NEETs FTW

09/18/2021 01:14 PM 

Rules

Rules are extremely important, so lets get to the list! They're all fairly basic anyway.Rule Numero Uno~:  I only ask for moderate levels of literacy, I'm not too picky, not everyone can stretch an entire paragraph out of details, it's not too big of a deal, so don't worry.Rule Number Two: Electric Boogaloo: Don't control the NEET, please. And when I refer to "control" don't make him act for me, instead setup a way that would influence his behavior, but not completely take him from my control. Rule Number Three, It's time for Tea: Please don't bring any drama to me, I'm just like the rest of most of the people here, just trying to enjoy myself, and I don't want it to be ruinedRule Number Four, time to go out the door: And the final rule, since I don't have many of these, don't send me NSFW photos unless we got something going. I've had accounts before and the 'greetings' from those accounts were stunning, enough so I was put off from them. Not pointing out anyone in particular, NSFW is fine with my account, just don't make it a focusing point.Alright... that looks good so far. Remember to not be a stranger, any and all people are welcome here, just follow the four rules, and we should be on the same page! The standard rules everyone has goes without saying: "Don't be rude", "Don't be sexist, homophobic, etc, etc." Because they're so cookie cutter I didn't feel the need to mention them as people should be courteous anyway. But, have a nice day to all of you willing to look!

Zenko

09/17/2021 04:38 PM 

Notgitsune

野狐のぎつねTranslation: wild foxAlternate names: yako, yakan; many local variation exist as wellHabitat: fields, forests, and wild areasDiet: omnivorous; they particularly like wax, oil, lacquer, and women’s life force and bloodAppearance: Nogitsune, also frequently called yako, are a type of kitsune—magical foxes found in East Asian folklore. Specifically the term refers to low ranking, wild kitsune that do not have a divine soul or serve as messengers of the gods. They are particularly known for transforming into humans. In folktales where humans are tormented, tricked, or possessed by kitsune, the culprit is almost always a nogitsune.Behavior: Nogitsune are cautious creatures with a keen danger sense. They dislike bright light, and hide from the sun during the daytime. They are also afraid of bladed objects, and will avoid swords and knives. They are frightened of dogs as well. A nogitsune disguised as a human might accidentally reveal their true form when startled by a barking dog.Nogitsune are able to recognize signs of human activity. They generally hide from humans when possible. However, they like to sneak into human-inhabited areas at night to steal some of their favorite foods: wax candles, lamp oil, lacquer, alcohol, and fried tofu.Some types kitsune are viewed as holy animals; nogitsune are not one of these types. They are low-ranking members of the kitsune family, and do not act as divine messengers or serve Inari. Despite this, they seem to be comfortable in their position and don’t aspire to increase their standing.Interactions: Nogitsune are notorious tricksters. One of their favorite activities is transforming in order to trick foolish humans. They use their power to scare people, and often to steal things from them as well. In order to change its shape, a nogitsune requires a magical focus of some kind; usually a bone from a cow or a horse.Kitsunetsuki—possession by a fox spirit—is also commonly performed by nogitsune. Sometimes it is to punish humans they don’t like, other times it is just for the nogitsune’s own amusement. Women are a favorite target. This is sometimes said to be because women are weaker and easier to possess, but it is also because nogitsune can feed off of a woman’s life force.Despite these conflicts with humans, nogitsune do occasionally interact positively with people. There are many tales of wild kitsune returning favors to those who are kind to them. There are even stories about men happily marrying nogitsune disguised as beautiful women. Unfortunately these stories almost always end in tragedy when the disguise is discovered. Humans occasionally ask nogitsune for favors. However, nogitsune are notoriously unreliable. If you ask a one to protect an object, it will only do so for a short time before it forgets its promise and wanders off.Origin: Nogitsune are known by many different names. The most common one—yako—is simply another reading of the kanji in its name. The name yakan (野干) is more archaic, and has its origins in a different animal.Yakan are magical beasts from Chinese Buddhist scripture. The term literally means “wild dogs,” and their description can be found in various scriptures. They are small and cunning. They are yellow in color, and resemble small dogs with fluffy tails. They can change their shape, so their true form is unknown. They live in packs, and cry out at night like wolves. In the original Sanskrit, the animal referred to is the jackal. Jackals linger around burial grounds and eat carrion, and so they were viewed as wicked animals and servitors of evil gods. When Buddhism was transmitted to China, because jackals do not exist in China, the animal was not understood. They were assumed to be a creature similar to foxes, martens, or wild dogs. When Buddhism was brought to Japan, yakan was assumed to be a fox, and became synonymous with kitsune. Thus, the wicked deeds performed by jackals in Indian folklore came to be associated with foxes in Japanese folklore. 

Zenko

09/17/2021 04:38 PM 

Kiko

気狐きこTranslation: spirit foxAlternate names: senko (wizard fox)Habitat: usually found near Inari shrinesDiet: none; they no longer need foodAppearance: Kiko are zenko—good kitsune—who serve the kami Inari. It is the third rank of fox spirit, below tenko and kūko. In general, kiko are between five hundred and one thousand years of age. They can have as many as nine tails, depending on their age. Most kiko are white-furred foxes (byakko), black (kokuko), gold (kinko), and silver-furred (ginko) kiko also exist. They are spiritual beings without true physical bodies, and can take many different forms. Occasionally they appear in human form (usually beautiful women).Behavior: When a kitsune gains the rank of kiko, it sheds its body and begins to live a spiritual existence. Their duty is to act as servants and messengers of Inari Ōkami, one of Shinto’s major gods. The vast majority of kitsune in Inari’s service are kiko. While they are not particularly high-ranking, they do rank above the foolish wild kitsune (also known as nogitsune or yako). Their magical skills are much greater than those of nogitsune as well. They are not as likely to act maliciously towards humans than lower ranking kitsune, but neither are they as pure as the higher ranking kūko and tenko.Interactions: While nogitsune are known for taking human form in order to drain the life force of humans, kiko often take human form to help people. Some of them even fall in love with humans and live with them in disguise for many years (although these relationships often end in heartbreak once the kitsune’s true nature is discovered). One of the most well known examples of such a kitsune is Kuzunoha, the mother of Abe no Seimei.

Zenko

09/17/2021 04:37 PM 

Kitsunebi

狐火きつねびTranslation: fox fireHabitat: originates from kitsune and only appears when they are nearbyAppearance: Kitsunebi, or foxfire, is named for the magical kitsune who are said to create it. Kitsunebi appears as a mass of floating orbs of light, usually only a few centimeters in diameter and less than a meter above the ground. The orbs are as bright as lanterns and, in most cases, appear red or orange; although they are sometimes blue-green.Behavior: Kitsunebi appear only at night. There can be a long chain of them hundreds or thousands of meters long, as if there were lanterns carried by invisible bearers. Often the kitsune responsible for the fireballs are standing right next to the flames, invisible.Kitsunebi are formed by foxes, which breath the ball of fire out from their mouths and use it to light their way at night. It is most often a sign that a large number of kitsune are nearby—often lighting yōkai events such as the night parade of one hundred demons, yōkai wedding ceremonies, and other processions or meetings.Interactions: Kitsunebi are not directly dangerous to humans, however the wild foxes behind the strange lights might be harmful. Sometimes, kitsunebi are used to trick humans off of their paths at night as a malicious prank. Other times they are used to lure curious humans into the darkness towards a group of hungry yōkai. Following kitsunebi is never a good idea—they only lead people to places they should not be. 

Zenko

09/17/2021 04:36 PM 

Zenko

天狐てんこTranslation: heavenly foxHabitat: the skyDiet: none; they no longer feed on human life forceThe Sky Fox (Chinese:天狐 tiān hú. Japanese:天狐 tenko. Korean: 천호 cheonho), or Celestial Fox is a type of divine beast in East Asian mythology. After reaching 1,000 years of age and gaining its ninth tail, a kitsune turns a golden color, becoming a 'Tenko' (天狐, "heavenly fox"/"celestial fox"), the most powerful form of the kitsune, and then ascends to the heavens. With its new celestial form, it is able to see a thousand ri ahead (c. 3927 km or 2440 miles).HistoryThe mythology of multi-tailed foxes originate from the beliefs of Ancient China. A collection of stories dating from the Jin dynasty known as Xuanzhongji (Simp.Chinese:玄中记) records:"When a fox reaches the age of fifty, it is able to transform into a woman. At a hundred years old, a beauty or a female shaman, who knows about outside affairs a thousand li away. It's kindness and charm make people confused and demented. At a thousand years, the fox connects with the Sky and is transformed into the Sky Fox."[1]According to legend, It is said that there are three ways to make a fox open its mind and gain wisdom. The first is to swallow treasures by accident, such as the treasures of heaven and earth. The second is for the fox to find a good place to cultivate its spiritual virtues (修行:Xiūxíng). As foxes are Yin, they need a lot of Yin Air (阴气) containing the essence of the moon in order to work at self improvement. Therefore, movies and TV shows sometimes portrays foxes worshiping the moon. The third way for a fox to gain wisdom is to follow a Taoist monk or master to learn abilities.Every 100 years, a catastrophe occurs. It was believed that if a fox could go through it smoothly, it will grow a new tail. The number of nine-tailed foxes is small because many foxes unfortunately interrupted their practice of self-cultivation or died during the 3~5 tail period. When the fox reaches 1,000 years of age, it will become the Thousand-Year Heavenly Fox, formally gaining the Heavenly Court's canonization and obtaining the Immortal Rank.In the Edo period of Japan, Tenko were considered to be of the highest rank of foxes, and in the essays "Zen'an Zuihitsu (善庵随筆)" and "Hokusō Sadan (北窓瑣談)", the foxes are ranked in the order of tenko, kūko, kiko, and then yako.[2][3] Also, in the Nihon Shoki, in the 9th year of Emperor Jomei (637), the great shooting star was written as 天狗 (normally read "tengu") and was given the reading of "amatsu kitsune", and from this, the essay "Zen'an Zuihitsu" put forth the theory that tenko and tengu are the same creature.[2]Furthermore, at the first ridge of the Fushimi Inari-taisha, a male fox by the name of Osugi (小薄) is worshipped as Suehiro Daijin (末廣大神), however, these foxes are always the divine messengers of Inari Ōkami, and not Inari Ōkami himself.In Ojika, Nagasaki, the tenko is a type of spirit possession, and it is said that those who are possessed by it have a divination ability that is always correct, and is thus a divine spiritual power.[4]Appearance: Tenko are good kitsune which possess divine powers. Of all the kinds of kitsune, they are the highest ranking. Usually they are described as having lived for one thousand years, possessing golden, silver, or white fur, and multiple (usually four) bushy tails. They are spiritual beings without physical bodies, so their actual appearance depends upon the form they decide to take. They often appear as beautiful human-like goddesses.Behavior: Kitsune are commonly described as having a ranked hierarchy, with great power and divinity being acquired as they grow older. Additionally, older and more powerful kitsune tend to be benevolent and noble, while lower-ranked kitsune tend to behave wickedly and mischievously. Upon achieving the rank of tenko, a kitsune attains a level of power similar to a god and ceases to commit wicked deeds.Interactions: Tenko are often worshiped as gods by humans, and they are known to grant boons and favors for the people who revere them. Like other kitsune, tenko can possess humans. When they do so, their host gains the tenko’s power of clairvoyance, and is able to correctly predict any future event.Origin: Kitsune folklore originates in the folklore of ancient China, but has been heavily adapted by Japanese writers. In China, foxes were believed to transform into human women, and then use sex to drain men’s life force. A one hundred year old fox would appear as a youthful young beauty, while a thousand year old fox would appear as an insatiable whore. The idea that upon reaching one thousand years, a fox would cease to torment humans and become good, divine spirits also goes back to Chinese folklore, although it is worth noting that in order to achieve that rank, it must first feed off of human life force for one thousand years.Kitsune monogatari, part of the Edo Period essay collection Kyūsensha manpitsu explains that kitsune are divided into two categories: zenko (good foxes) and nogitsune (wild foxes). Tenko are one of the five kinds of good kitsune. The others are kinko (gold foxes), ginko (silver foxes), kuroko (black foxes), and byakko (white foxes).Another Edo Period document, Zen’an zuihitsu, defines four categories of kitsune. Nogitsune are the lowest ranking; these are the most wicked, and also the least magical. Kiko (spirit foxes) are higher ranking kitsune who are no longer confined to physical bodies and exist as spirits. Kūko (void foxes) are the second highest rank, possessing twice as much power as kiko. Finally, tenko are the top ranking kitsune, possessing magical powers or par with the gods.

Aloy

09/17/2021 03:46 PM 

Character information: Aloy

Name: AloyAge: 19(20)Title: Seeker, of the NoraA former outcast, shunned from infancy, now reluctantly she is affiliated with the Nora tribe of the savage East as most other tribes refer to it. She is now an anointed Seeker of the tribe and free to roam the lands in search of her goal, to track down a traitor but she stumbles upon something even bigger… A threat that could destroy the world. A cult lead by an unlikely entity of destruction. The cult is equipped with a few dozen focus'Her Focus: The device just above her ear is a tiny static Bluetooth device that was manufactured by the old ones to simulator virtual audio logs and virtual space holograms and scan-she records audio logs and voice data points and any other media on her device and stores it. This device can also provide information about machines they’re weak points and strengths, it enables tracking as well




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