Early morning of May 4, Yondaime Year 5
That night, Katsuko dreamt of the Kyuubi’s tails trailing fire in the night sky. The scent of smoke and charred flesh hung thick and cloying, almost enough to drown out the demonic intent that stained the air red. The Kyuubi’s chakra ate up all the light, burning like a small sun in the wreckage.
Hideki-sensei grabbed Katsuko’s shoulders and pushed her back, into the arms of the waiting medics. Soot streaked across his forehead where his hitai-ate should have been; she could see burns on his arms, on his jacket. Beni and Nori hovered behind Hideki-sensei, faces grim above the collars of their chuunin vests.
“Let me go with you,” Katsuko begged, reaching for him. “I can fight, I can help, just don’t leave—”
“You’re still injured,” Hideki-sensei said, catching her hand. His eyes softened. “Go with the medics, Katsuko. Stay safe.” He let her go and turned away, towards the center of Konoha where the Kyuubi raged.
Katsuko woke up still calling for him, throat tight and eyes burning. Sweat ran down her temples and neck, clammy and cold. Air rushed out of her lungs in a ragged gasp as she threw the covers off, swinging her legs off the bed.
Her alarm clock read 0300 in neon red. Katsuko dragged her hands down her face, gritting her teeth. “Shit.”
The walls of her apartment offered no reply. She cursed and dragged herself to her feet, stumbling for her dresser.
She hadn’t dreamed about her old genin team in months. Hideki-sensei, Beni, and Nori— It would have made more sense for her to dream about the demon bugs. That mission hadn’t even been a week ago. But nightmares didn’t have to make sense.
For a moment she was tempted to go find Raidou, but he needed all the rest he could get. He’d already helped put her back together after the mission; there was no sense in testing the limits of his goodwill. No one felt charitable towards 3 am visitors, and Katsuko had managed to survive years without a strong shoulder to lean on. One more night spent training herself into exhausted sleep wouldn’t hurt.
She hadn’t done laundry in weeks; the cleanest things she owned at the moment were her jounin blues, folded neatly at the bottom of her dresser. She threw them on and added the jounin vest on a whim, shrugging as the awkward weight of armored canvas settled over her shoulders and torso. Not something she really wanted to get used to, but right now she could use the extra security. Her mother’s kodachi hung useless and broken on the wall next to her mask, but she had an ANBU-issue kodachi as a backup. She slid it through her belt, next to her katana, and ran her fingers over the plain black hilt.
Her face in the mirror looked haggard and wan: pale skin, chapped lips, bruised eyes. The wild tangle of her hair stood in stark contrast to the military neatness of her uniform. She grabbed a hair-tie from a drawer in a fit of pique and wrestled her hair into a low ponytail at the base of her neck.
The air tasted clean and sharp on her way up the monument to the ANBU training fields. Katsuko tilted her head back and savored the pure bite of it, closing her eyes. Still dark outside, still quiet; if she tried hard enough, she could pretend she was somewhere else.
Someone was already using the field furthest away from HQ. Katsuko slowed, wary, and stopped completely when she recognized the chakra signature and the shock of grey hair. Two Kakashis flickered in and out of sight in the middle of the field, trading blows too fast for a non-Sharingan eye to track. Katsuko shoved her hands in her pockets and watched in frank fascination.
Kakashi didn’t break pace, even though he must have sensed her. He and his clone moved with savage grace, changing fighting styles on each other fast as a drawn breath. Katsuko recognized several different schools of taijutsu, from Academy-standard to Wind Country Mantis. When the clone ducked underneath Kakashi’s scything kick and came back up with a volley of sparks, Kakashi countered with his own lightning, narrowly missing the clone’s heart. A short round of ninjutsu followed, where the clone yanked spikes out of the ground and ice gathered in a fine mist around Kakashi’s hands. They charged each other at the same time.
Katsuko didn’t see the hit connect, but the clone erupted into a cloud of smoke. Kakashi landed in a crouch ten feet away from Katsuko, slightly out of breath, and looked up at her. He was a lean shape in the darkness, pale skin and hair even more striking for the contrast. “What?”
“Morning, Sparks.” Katsuko grinned in delight, sour mood forgotten. “Done playing with yourself?”
“Why, did you want to play with me?” Kakashi said, because it was three A.M. and the universe contained an unfair amount of Katsuko.
She laughed, bright and slightly tired. “You looked like you were having a good time. Wouldn’t want to get in the way of that.”
Kakashi straightened up. The point of being on a training field at three A.M. was that it contained an abundance of space and an absence of people. He could train in peace without the watchful analysis of outside eyes. And he could stop when he wanted, if he got tired enough to actually sleep.
Which hadn’t happened yet.
Katsuko’s swords hung at her hip: her usual katana, and what looked like a standard ANBU-issue kodachi to replace the broken one. Kakashi tilted his head, looking at them thoughtfully.
“We haven’t sparred with swords yet,” he said.
Her mouth curved in a slow smirk. “You’re on. No ninjutsu, no Sharingan.”
“No fun,” Kakashi said.
“Afraid you won’t be able to beat me without them?” she asked sweetly, unzipping her jounin vest and shrugging it off. She tossed it onto the field’s wooden perimeter fence. Beneath, she wore standard jounin blues and sandals. It was only the second time he’d seen her out of training clothes or her ANBU uniform. The loose jounin uniform made her look younger, though no less knife-like.
“I’d be lying if I said the thought of burning your eyebrows off hadn’t crossed my mind,” Kakashi said, rolling his shoulders. “You want a minute to warm up?”
“Thoughtful of you.” Katsuko cracked her neck with a bone-shifting pop. “Give me three.”
He shrugged and stepped aside, letting her have the field. The fence offered a place to sit while Katsuko went through a fast series of stretches, limbering up and getting her blood moving. She was still stiff on the right side, he noted. Collarbone healed enough to forgo the sling and heft a sword, but that arm was weaker. She was slower than she’d been before the mission, too.
In fairness, so was he.
At three minutes on the dot, she turned to him and grinned. “Bring it.”
He slid off the fence. Katsuko wasn’t in any formal stance, but he’d seen enough of her to know she could fall into one in less than a breath, and she favored the samurai practice of one flawless draw-and-strike. She wouldn’t show steel before they started.
She would use both blades.
He had a kodachi, ANBU-issue, and his tanto. Both shorter than her katana, but his arms were longer. Against someone with her skill, used to fighting against bigger opponents, that would barely give him an advantage.
She lifted one eyebrow when he walked over bare-handed. “I’m going to refrain from asking which sword you’re sparring with,” she said, eyes watchful.
“Mature of you,” he said.
The wind whispered between them, rustling the grass as they sized each other up. Katsuko didn’t have a traditional poker face—of the whole team, only the lieutenant came close to maintaining a smooth mask of concentration when he fought. Ryouma and Raidou both liked to grin, broad and bloody. Katsuko tended to smirk when she wasn’t outright laughing. She was smirking now, one eyebrow cocked like a challenge. It still gave nothing away. No eye-flick to suggest a direction. No tensing shoulder muscles to reveal which hand would strike first.
For a woman so obvious, she could be very subtle.
After a few seconds, Katsuko looked like she was just barely restraining the impulse to roll her eyes. So, not completely subtle. In a game of patience, he knew which one of them he’d bet on.
Above them, streaks of cloud scrolled gently across the sinking fingernail-moon, washing dark shadows over the training field. A strand of Katsuko’s hair slipped across her forehead.
“When they were handing out bastard genes—” she began, and blurred into sudden motion, drawing her swords like a striking snake and hammering them down at him. He caught both blades on two drawn kunai. Metal screeched against metal as he slid the kunai down, choking her swords near the grip.
“—you definitely got in line for seconds,” she finished.
“Actually, my parents were married,” Kakashi said, and twisted both kunai, knifing for her unprotected fingers.
With suicidal disregard for her ability to ever perform jutsu again, she slammed her hands up, against the kunai. A quick wrist twist caught his blades on the metal plates of her gloves, striking sparks. And then—
She scissored the swords, using their longer reach to carve for his inner elbows, aiming to cut his arms in half. He broke the lock, disengaging, and dropped down flat, throwing both kunai at her knees. But Katsuko was already leaping. Her swords flicked like liquid lines of steel, spinning his kunai off into the distance. They landed somewhere on the other side of the fence. She twisted in midair and dropped knee-first towards his head, with both blades facing point-down like mantis claws.
He flung himself to the right, narrowly missing a vicious ear piercing. A bright hot line sliced the outside of his shoulder, parting cloth and skin. She landed hard enough to dent the ground, swords sinking deep. Kakashi vaulted back upright, putting distance between them, and flung a humming cloud of shuriken at her.
She yanked her swords free and scythed them through a fluid pattern, creating a moving wall of steel. Only one shuriken made it through, on that weaker right side. A line of shallow blood laid itself open across the back of Katsuko’s forearm, scattering droplets like jewels.
She shook her arm, grinning. “Thought you wanted to spar with swords, cricket?”
“What do you call those?” Kakashi said, nodding at her weapons.
“I call them Princess and Goremonger,” she said, spinning them easily. “And you’ve got something up your sleeve.”
He shook his sleeves back to his elbows, showing bare arms. “Who, me?”
Katsuko’s smile didn’t change. “Stop holding back.”
She’d noticed that?
In the field, if this was a real fight, where would he go next—? Ah. He smiled, eye curving, and said, “I’m going to break your guard.”
“You can try,” she said, with a teasing lilt that fell between playful and serious. Her eyes swept over him, analyzing.
Kakashi hadn’t telegraphed a move in a fight since he was eight, when Minato had kicked him repeatedly to knock that shoulder-twitch out. He dropped that same shoulder now, and Katsuko’s eyes flickered, catching the movement. She was already shifting to the left when he attacked.
On her right.
His kodachi and tanto struck together, clashing against the guard she’d managed to bring around in time, but he’d made the angle awkward for her. He pressed forward, forcing the weight of defense entirely onto that right arm.
Katsuko bared her teeth at the white-hot pain that raced from her fingers to her shoulder, newly-repaired bone and muscle screaming at the strain. She shoved back against Kakashi, hard enough that the hilt of her kodachi creaked.
Then she gave way.
Flow like water. Retreat to advance.
Kakashi’s blades skidded off her katana as she pivoted on her right heel, sliding out of the way. With nothing to push against, Kakashi’s momentum drove him forward. Katsuko swung her left arm around to drive the butt of her kodachi down onto the back of his unprotected neck.
Except Kakashi wasn’t there.
The skin between her shoulderblades pricked. Katsuko threw herself out of the way, hissing as razor-sharp steel barely kissed her spine through cloth. Kakashi was on her in the next breath, blades singing in the air. Katsuko parried a strike at her throat and danced back, buying herself time. She recognized the overhead swing he was using, the lunge-reverse-block sequence, the distinct guard stance he assumed when she counterattacked—
“You’re copying me,” she accused.
Kakashi’s expression didn’t change. “You’re very unoriginal.” The intensity behind his attack eased just a little, settling into a fast-paced rhythm as they traded blows. Every exchange of steel and sparks perfected his mimicry of the Hyoho Niten-ryu, coming closer to flawless accuracy each time.
Sweat trickled down Kakashi’s temples, disappearing underneath his mask. Katsuko’s shirt clung to her back, fabric damp with perspiration. Neither of them slowed down. Kakashi locked hilts with her again, his face framed between their crossed blades. This close, she could see the outline of his mouth through the mask. A distraction, if she were anything less than professional.
Katsuko smiled. “Impressive.”
Then she hooked her foot around his ankle and yanked, because no amount of copying could compensate for the way the knee overextended in this particular stance. It had taken months for Katsuko’s mother to beat the correct muscle alignment into her.
Kakashi’s visible eye widened an instant before he fell. He tucked his shoulder in and rolled when he hit the dirt, striking at her legs with his kodachi when she darted after him. He caught himself with one foot braced on the ground and leapt at her, sliding into a different fighting style with effortless grace.
This was new. Kakashi switched to a reverse grip, sacrificing defense for lightning-quick offense. The way he lunged at her, balanced lightly on the balls of his feet, looked more like boxing than anything else. Katsuko swept her katana in a wide arc, trying to gain space.
He pressed close, thwarting her attempts to put distance between them. His shorter tanto tangled with her katana and kodachi, fouling up her guard long enough for him to slam a knee up into her solar plexus. The breath rushed out of Katsuko’s lungs as she doubled up. One last-ditch effort freed her kodachi; she swiped at Kakashi, forcing him to leap away while she recovered.
Kakashi smiled underneath his mask, a little breathless. “Now you’re holding back.”
Katsuko sprang at him in answer. Her muscles burned, but it was a welcome ache; the give-and-take dance of a good spar hummed in her veins. Kakashi matched her every step, sliding around her blades like mist. She pushed herself to keep pace, switching her katana and kodachi hands to vary things up.
He threw his tanto up to block her. She used the contact point of their blades as a fulcrum, pushing the hilt of her kodachi like a pendulum and slamming it into his sternum. He staggered, and Katsuko brought her leg up and kicked him in the stomach as hard as she could.
Grass and dirt flew into the air when Kakashi hit the ground. He landed sprawled out on his back; after a second he managed a faint, “Ow.”
“That’s my line,” Katsuko said, wheezing. She pointed accusingly at him with her katana. “What do you sharpen your knees with, knives?”
“The bones of my enemies,” Kakashi rasped, still staring up at the sky. Katsuko, because she wasn’t an idiot, made no move to help him up.
“Funny,” she said, dust-dry. “What was that, before? The fighting style with the reverse-grip.”
Kakashi raised his head. “Kakougan no Ken Fu? It’s from Iwa.”
“Oh.” Figured a style called ‘Fist of Granite’ would come from Earth Country. Earth Country ruined everything. “That’s why it’s so ugly, then.”
He made a sound almost like a snicker. “Seemed appropriate to go with your face.”
“Wow,” Katsuko said. “That shattered my feelings. Into pieces.”
“I can tell,” Kakashi drawled, and flipped back onto his feet in one smooth, effortless motion. “Let me apologize.”
He blurred in place and reappeared inches away, blades slicing for her throat like they hadn’t stopped to chat at all.
If their first match had been hard, their second was vicious. Kakashi’s tanto laid her shirt open from ribcage to hipbone, leaving exposed skin and a stinging line of crimson behind. Katsuko repaid him with a swipe that sliced through his belt.
Kakashi had earned his reputation. He never made the same mistake twice, arrowing in on holes in her defense with deadly accuracy. She pushed herself to the limits to keep him from gaining ground, exhilarated and breathless.
If Kakashi had his ninjutsu, she’d have been a smear in the dirt. But kenjutsu was hers, damn it, and like hell was she letting him walk all over her in her own specialization.
Sometimes, sparring was a lot like civil war.
Kakashi caught Katsuko’s swords on crossed blades, and felt the ground dent slightly beneath his heels. Felt himself slide back an inch, then three, without moving his feet. There was a battlefield of chakra in Katsuko, and it was all in her muscles. Even without jutsu, she hit like a brick wall.
And she was fast. Her kodachi disengaged, flicking around like a silver snake to strike at an unprotected gap between his ribs. He jerked away; the tip of her kodachi split a razor-line across his jounin vest instead of nailing his right lung to his spine. His counter-strike missed her neck and nicked her shoulder. They re-engaged with a flurry of clashing steel, matching blow for blow.
The riddle of training was that it could never be the real thing, but it had to be close enough that when they did face the real thing, they were conditioned, primed, and ready. Killing intent without the actual kill.
Which meant that while Kakashi and Katsuko were fighting each other, they were also fighting their own instincts.
The handicap of no jutsu, no Sharingan was starting to hurt him. Not doing something was simple on the surface, but difficult in the reality when every natural moment for a katon or a suiten had to be ignored, which caused a fractional pause in his attack. Katsuko had the same restrictions, but her fighting style was different. She’d built herself around blades, and she could go for miles without dropping. Kakashi’s prime advantage depended on finishing a match quickly.
He hadn’t started fresh. He was getting tired.
But that was why you trained with modifications. In the field, he wouldn’t always have jutsu. He wouldn’t always be fresh. And he couldn’t always rely on Obito.
This was good for him.
And, if he was completely honest with himself, more fun than a clone fight.
Katsuko grinned like a red-light warning and came at him with a humming cage of steel, swords blurring almost faster than a regular eye could track. He blocked the initial charge and mirror-stepped with her, following the five technique pattern of her nitou seihou. At its central core, her style matched her affinities: all the ferocity of fire blended with the evasive grace of wind, which made her a lot like lightning. Fast, and hard to hit. But if he could cut real lightning—
She leapt high, chakra punching a deep gash in the turf, and flipped over him. Kakashi twisted, ready to catch the final step that would try to carve his spine out.
She wasn’t there.
She dropped like a comet a full beat after he’d expected, and landed on his kodachi, balanced on the razor edge with precise chakra-control he hadn’t thought she was capable of. The weight hit his shoulder. He slammed chakra through his muscles, changing his stance to compensate, and knifed his tanto for her knee.
Katsuko kicked him in the face, hard, on the blind side.
Pain shot through his cheekbone. Steel connected with flesh—not her knee; felt like her calf—and seeing stars killed his follow-through. She hooked his kodachi out of his hand with a savage twist that nearly broke his fingers, and vaulted away. He dropped back, trying to clear his vision.
Katsuko followed, chakra blazing.
He blocked two strikes with his tanto, ducked the third. Her katana whistled over his head, too close; strands of grey hair sheared into the wind. She slammed a knee up at his face. He jerked backwards, feinted, got around her, and sliced for the nape of her neck. She evaded like an eel and swung back at him, blades hammering down.
He caught both hits, steel striking sparks.
The tanto creaked. Strain shivered through the blade. He’d already had it reforged once, and it wasn’t designed to be used this way. Katsuko’s eyes flicked towards his hand, knowing. She grinned, disengaged, and brought her swords down together, full weight of steel and chakra clanging down on his tanto like an anvil.
A second before the blade snapped, Kakashi let his guard break.
The tanto spun away, shining in the moon’s fragmented glow, and Katsuko hit him like an oncoming storm. He went down in a welter of torn grass and obliterated dignity for the second time tonight, breath slamming out of his lungs. When the dust settled, her knee was on his chest, and her swords were at his throat.
“My win,” Katsuko said, voice curling low. “Why did you let me break your guard?”
“I like that tanto,” Kakashi rasped.
“Hm,” Katsuko said, and flexed her fingers around the hilts of her swords. Sweat ran down her forehead into her eyes; she ignored it, as well as the hind part of her brain that purred at having all that wiry strength pinned underneath her. “Trying to go easy on me?”
Kakashi glanced down pointedly at the blades kissing his throat. His voice was hoarse. “That felt easy to you?”
Katsuko grinned, breathing hard. “You really want me to answer that?”
“You asked first.”
She chuckled and drew her swords back, still wary. When Kakashi didn’t immediately lunge to attack her, she shifted her weight off her knee and let him up. Blood trickled down her calf from the knife wound; she grimaced at the sting. Given that she’d kicked Kakashi in the face and nearly caved in his ribs, she didn’t have grounds to get angry. Besides, he looked good on his back.
Almost as if he’d read her mind, Kakashi sat up, hooked his foot around her good ankle, and brought her crashing back down onto her butt with a seamless jerk. “How bad’s your leg?”
“I take back the kind thoughts I had about you,” Katsuko said, clutching her calf. Her recently-healed arm shook a little from the strain she’d put it through. “All three of them.”
“Somehow, I’ll find a way to go on,” Kakashi drawled, and made an impatient gesture. Katsuko grudgingly gave him her ankle and let him roll up her trouser leg. He was still breathing hard, but his hands were steady as he ran them over her calf, testing the edges of the cut.
Katsuko ignored the feel of calloused fingers against her skin. “Does it need stitches, or can I just stick a bandage over it?”
“Stitches. You’re down to muscle.” He tilted his head slightly, eye narrowing. “Medic wouldn’t hurt, unless you want to explain to the lieutenant why you’re limping after two days of rest.”
“I’ll go if you go,” Katsuko said. “I’m not explaining to the lieutenant why your face looks like an eggplant.”
His mask moved as he winced, grimacing and pushing his hitai-ate up. Long fingers skated over the reddening bruise framing his left eye. “You realize I stuck to not using the Sharingan, right?” he asked. “You didn’t actually need to blind it.”
“It disoriented you, didn’t it?” Katsuko waited until Kakashi slapped a bandage over her calf before she reclaimed her foot and tugged her pants leg down. “You were the guy who knifed me in the leg. Have you been to the ANBU infirmary yet?”
“Awesome,” Katsuko said. “Then you can deal with Toushiro-sensei. He’s the head medic there.” She staggered upright and went to go look for Kakashi’s tanto.
A glint on the ground caught her eye; as she reached for it, Kakashi’s hand appeared out of the corner of her eye and snatched the tanto up. He sheathed it at his back in one smooth motion and gave her a look like he was daring her to comment on it.
She shrugged. “Fair enough. You ready to go?”
Kakashi’s kodachi lay a few feet away. He scooped it up and nodded, falling into step with her as she retrieved her jounin vest and started the trudge down to HQ. Several quiet minutes passed before he spoke up again. “What did you do just before you landed on my sword? It’s like you changed the timing of your jump mid-air.”
“Oh, that?” Katsuko inspected her nails. “I just jumped really, really high.”
“Mm.” Kakashi gave her the side-eye. “Next time I’ll beat you.”
She smirked. “It’s nice to have goals.”
“Then we’ll spar with ninjutsu.”
“No one likes a sore loser.”
HQ’s main building loomed overhead. The lobby was empty, which meant there was no one to gawk at their sliced-up, bloody clothes or the trail of dirt they left behind when they took the elevator down to the infirmary. As the elevator car creaked downwards, she said, “Figure out how I changed the timing of my jump, and I’ll teach you how to do it.”
Kakashi gave her an attempt at a dry look, but there was a spark in the back of his eye. “If I figure it out, I won’t need you to teach me. How about you show me something else instead?”
Katsuko’s eyebrows rose. “I’m guessing you have something specific in mind.”
“The training kata for the sword style you use,” he said. “I want to learn them, if you’ll let me.”
Whatever Katsuko had been expecting, it certainly wasn’t that. She stared at him as the elevator car jolted to a stop with a soft chime. “Nobody’s asked me before,” she said at last, stepping out into the hall. “Let me think about it.”
Toushiro-sensei’s door opened before Kakashi could reply. The red-haired medic stuck his head out, saw Katsuko, and scowled. “What have you and Namiashi broken now?”
“No Namiashi this time, sensei,” Katsuko said, and pointed at Kakashi. “But this guy stabbed me.”
Toushiro-sensei—assuming that was the razor-thin, bespectacled man in the regrettable cardigan and drawstring pyjama pants—turned a glare on Kakashi like the inside of a black hole, green eyes narrowing to slits.
Kakashi took a step back. “Sliced,” he corrected. “Not stabbed. And just a little.”
“It’s four in the morning,” Toushiro-sensei said.
Katsuko rubbed the back of her neck. “Sorry about that,” she said, sounding genuine. She offered hopefully: “But we don’t need many stitches?”
“I don’t need any,” Kakashi said. “Just her.”
Toushiro-sensei’s glare completely failed to warm. “I’ll be the judge of that, since you have blood in your hair. Get in here, both of you.”
“You first,” Katsuko said to Kakashi.
“Thanks,” he said sourly, and stepped into the lion’s den.
He’d done a medical evaluation before joining ANBU, but that had been at the hospital with a phalanx of Hyuuga, and had mostly involved veiny-eyed invasions and lots of needles. They’d dinged him for a moderately low iron count, and forced a new abundance of leafy green vegetables into his life, but he’d come through with flying colors otherwise. This office looked more like it belonged to a general practitioner who catered to the irrational and dangerous. Ranks of glittering senbon shared counter-space with otoscopes and cotton swabs. An autoclave lurked in the corner, humming quietly. A heavy desk groaned under the weight of overstuffed files. Medical charts hung on the walls, showing, respectively, the basic anatomy of the nervous system, common effects of STDs, a five-point guide to determining gradients of concussion, and a long, detailed chart listing the fifty most common battlefield poisons.
On the far wall, a dry-erase board had been titled “STUPID LIST”. The first name, Asano Kirito, had a note written next to it: ‘broken tailbone from rough-housing in the shower’.
With increasing fascination, Kakashi read: ‘Uchiha Mutsumi, torn ACL from impact with tree.’ ‘Sunada Yoshiyuki, flash-burns from returning to inspect an unexploded tag.’ ‘Shiranui Genma, self-poisoning from stirring coffee with a poisoned senbon.’ ‘Usagi Ikuyo, three fractured toes from kicking a vending machine.’ ‘Kawagashi Matsuhiko, lacerations from continuing to spar with a broken shinai.’
The last name, Akimichi Bunpei, simply read ‘offended Aburame insects’.
“On the table,” Toushiro-sensei told Katsuko, nodding at the padded examination table that took up the center of the room.
“Have you met Hatake yet?” Katsuko asked, hoisting herself reluctantly onto the table. “He’s one of my rookies.” There was a slight, subtle stress on the word my.
Kakashi tore his attention away from Genma’s name, and raised one eyebrow.
“Of course I know him,” Toushiro-sensei said dismissively. “Team Six. Captain: Namiashi Raidou. Lieutenant: Shiranui Genma. New rookies: Tousaki Ryouma and Hatake Kakashi.” That wasn’t how most people knew Kakashi. How long had Toushiro-sensei been living in his cave? The medic continued, “And you, Ueno, who could get injured falling over a paperclip. You think I don’t do my research? I could recite files in my sleep. Which leg?”
Silently, Katsuko raised her right leg.
Kakashi drifted closer, watching curiously as quick, competent hands peeled away crimson-soaked bandages to reveal a gash like an open purse on the back of Katsuko’s calf. It was a straight-line injury, deep and neat, slicing down to slick red muscle fibres. An easy fix for a good medic, or an awkward stitch job for a soldier in the field. Katsuko looked barely concerned. Toushiro-sensei seemed mostly annoyed.
Kakashi was a little annoyed, too. That kind of injury would barely inconvenience a civilian, let alone a ninja. He hadn’t wanted to cripple Katsuko, but given that he’d hit her, he could’ve at least done a better job of it.
“What was this? Kunai?” Toushiro-sensei asked, settling green-glowing hands over Katsuko’s leg.
“Tanto,” Kakashi said.
Toushiro-sensei glanced at him, then said, “Never mind. I don’t want the full story. our arm is bleeding, Hatake. And your face is bruised.”
“I kicked him,” Katsuko said serenely. “But he’s still pretty with bruises.”
“One of us should be,” Kakashi returned, fighting the reflexive twitch. Some days the mask was an annoyance, and some days, like today, he wished it would cover his whole face. Maybe he’d start wearing his ANBU dog full-time.
He clamped a hand over his arm. The bleeding was minimal, barely worth commenting on.
Katsuko laughed, soft and low, with a rasp. “You’re pretty without ‘em, too.”
Was this her new version of pet names? Kakashi gave her a blank look, since people usually used that as a template to draw their own reactions on, and he didn’t know what else to do. Finally, he drawled, “Boundaries, Ueno.”
She cackled at him, waggling her eyebrows in ridiculous victory.
In the two weeks, approximately, that he’d known her, Kakashi had learned that anything could amuse Katsuko, including dead silence. He’d think there was something fundamentally wrong with her, except 1) ANBU, 2) he’d seen her in a fight, and 3) it wasn’t just her. A good rule of thumb with shinobi was that, the higher the rank, the more subtle unhinging you could expect.
Or unsubtle, depending. Jounin were crazy.
Still, if there was a grain of something serious under that jester-mask, like actual interest—Ryouma had said Katsuko thinks you’re hot—he didn’t want to encourage it. He’d been up and down that road with Rin, and it hadn’t ended well for anyone. He stepped away from the table, retreating until his back hit the counter-edge, where he could lean, and flipped Icha Icha one-handed out of his hip-pouch.
Unlike Ryouma, Katsuko didn’t follow him.
Over the edge of Ikeda Terumasa-sama’s suicide scene (aborted by the arrival of Koyanagi Kiyohime, in the nick of time), he heard her say confidingly, “You should see Tousaki, Toushiro-sensei. He’s real pretty, too. In a taller way.”
Alternatively, maybe Katsuko’s interest was directed at anyone with a pulse.
“I cannot tell you how much I don’t care,” Toushiro-sensei said. “And if you keep wriggling, I’m going to fuse your knees together.”
There was drifting silence for a moment, presumably as Katsuko thought that over. “That would make a lot of things difficult,” she admitted, and quit fidgeting.
Medical jutsu were usually pretty quiet, unless there were broken bones to crunch back together. But flesh did make a sound when it was resealed, like paper ripping in reverse, except slowed down and wetter. A good medic would throw in a nerve-block for bigger injuries, but not for the papercut Katsuko had, so she had to be feeling the ant-fire of reconnecting nerves. The padded table squeaked as her hand clenched.
Kakashi flipped a page, attention split between Koyanagi Kiyohime’s desperate speech and the rising spike of stress in Katsuko’s scent. She hadn’t liked needles in the field. Clearly she didn’t like doctors any better at home.
“Done,” Toushiro-sensei at last.
Katsuko was off the table in the fraction of a second, bouncing gently on the balls of her feet with her obvious desire to leave. Toushiro-sensei turned to Kakashi. “Let’s take a look at that face.”
Kakashi didn’t lower his book. “No.”
The temperature in the room abruptly dropped. Katsuko sidled away to lean against the doorframe, propping herself up for the impending clash of wills. Her newly-healed right leg still tingled a little; she shook it out surreptitiously and kept her eyes on the two combatants.
Toushiro-sensei’s eyebrows rose a bare fraction. She could almost see frost issuing from his mouth. “ANBU Agent Hatake, show me your face.”
Without changing body-language, expression, or tone, Kakashi flipped a page and said, “No.”
“You could give Hatake an ice pack,” Katsuko suggested. “You could tape it to his face.”
“How hard did you kick him?” Toushiro asked, without looking away from Kakashi.
She seesawed her hand. “Medium hard? Middling hard. Less than middling. I didn’t even break his nose.”
“Wasn’t the nose I was thinking of,” he said. “Hatake, I just want to check your cheekbone for fractures. You don’t even have to take the mask all the way down.”
Kakashi’s voice was flat. “It’s not broken.”
Toushiro narrowed his eyes and looked over at Katsuko. “Some assistance with your rookie, please?”
“I’m his senpai, not his mom,” Katsuko said. “C’mon, sensei, Hatake’s smart. He’ll be fine.”
Toushiro threw his hands up. “Fine, if his face falls off, on your head be it. And you can deal with that arm, too. Unless either one of you has any other middle-of-the-night disasters to throw at me, I release you back into the wild. Get out of my office.”
Katsuko waited until she and Kakashi had made their escape to the elevator to say, “I was lying, you know. You’re the complete opposite of smart.”
“I’m you?” Kakashi asked.
“Please,” Katsuko said. “Like you could compete with all this.”
Kakashi tucked Icha Icha back into his hip-pouch and looked at her. “That’s true,” he said at last.
She snorted. As the elevator creaked open, she said, “Are you still serious about learning the kata?”
That caught his attention. “You’ve made your mind up?”
The lobby was still empty. Katsuko cut across it towards the exit, avoiding the muddy trail of footprints they’d tracked in earlier. “Hyoho Niten’s a disappearing style,” she said. “My mother’s the only other surviving master, and she won’t teach anymore. I’d been thinking about letting it die out with me.” She shrugged and pushed through HQ’s doors, out into the cold morning air. Kakashi kept pace with her. “But you’re one of our best. That means it’s always a race to stay a step ahead of whoever wants to kill you this week. Anything that gives you an edge, I’ll help you with. I just have one condition.”
“Which is?” Kakashi asked. She couldn’t read anything in his voice, but she could feel the weight of his full attention.
Katsuko glanced over. “The Sharingan stays closed. If you’re learning Hyoho Niten, you’re learning it the hard way.”
His eyebrows furrowed slightly. “So, a slow edge.”
“Take it or leave it,” Katsuko said. It hadn’t been an easy decision to teach him in the first place. The Sharingan was the one point where she wouldn’t bend.
“What do you want in return?”
She blinked in surprise. “What do I want?”
“For teaching me,” he said.
Giving her a way to preserve Hyoho Niten—no fighting style survived without disciples, and Hatake Kakashi made a hell of an acolyte—was payment enough, but if she told Kakashi that he’d be unbearable for the rest of their natural lives.
After a moment, Katsuko scratched her head. “Call me senpai during training sessions,” she suggested, for lack of any other ideas. “Do a funny dance.”
“I’ll buy you lunch,” Kakashi decided.
“A big lunch.”
“Regular lunch,” he countered. “And I’ll keep the Sharingan out of it. Deal?”
Katsuko peered up at the dark, starless sky. “You really don’t owe me anything,” she said at last. “We’re not bartering. Still, I’m not going to turn down free food. Deal.”
Kakashi’s expression of faint doubt was easy to read, despite the poor light. He contemplated her for a second, like one would a strange museum exhibit, before giving her a nod. Then he held out his hand. Katsuko copied him, surprised when he clasped her wrist instead of shaking her hand. She clasped his in turn, wary of the sudden air of solemnity that surrounded the moment.
“Is this a secret handshake?” she asked. “Have I accidentally sworn a blood oath? Have you?”
“Not yet.” Kakashi put his free hand on his tanto, pulling the blade an inch out of the sheath with a soft shing. “We can, if you want.”
Katsuko narrowed her eyes. “You’re messing with me.”
Kakashi’s own eye crinkled at the corners. “Little bit.”
“Bastard.” Katsuko snorted despite herself, letting go of his wrist. “Careful, or I actually will make you call me senpai.”
He shrugged and tucked his hands into his pockets. “Better than sensei.”
She smirked. “There’s an idea.”
“Never going to happen,” Kakashi said.
The moon was starting to sink, casting silvery shadows over distant tree-tops. It was still just past four in the morning; he had another hour, maybe two, before Naruto came bounding awake, wanting attention and breakfast. Even if he woke sooner, he was back at the palace now, safely guarded under Turtle’s practiced eye. Kakashi had moved over, too, and stayed until the itch under his skin had finally driven him out to the training fields.
Returning now would give him enough time to catch a nap, if he actually felt sleepy.
Except he didn’t.
He’d put it down to post-mission jitters, or even post-mission guilt, but this restlessness didn’t have that old sour edge. It was a different worry, carved around the empty hole Minato had made with his absence. And maybe, a little, the memory of Ryouma backing him up against the counter’s edge.
Which was a game Kakashi had fallen for, nothing more.
He sighed and rumpled a hand through his hair. Post-puberty teams were complicated, and Katsuko wasn’t any more decipherable. If she had interest, which he couldn’t tell, it seemed to extinguish in an eye-blink, swapped out for easy bickering that at least made more sense. Maybe Ryouma had been messing with him twice?
“Thinking pretty hard there, sweet cheeks,” Katsuko said, jarring his attention back to the present. She winked at him. “Remember, you’ve still got to figure out how I pulled the jump trick thing.”
“You jumped high,” he said, dry.
“Oooooh,” Katsuko said, and clapped with dripping sarcasm.
He snorted. “And you threw your chakra.”
Her step paused fractionally, barely a hitch. “Go on,” she said. “Show your work.”
“That’s it. You jumped high—with an overhead twist that helped confuse the angle—and then you threw your chakra. Or expanded it, more likely. I lost sight of you for a second, so I used what I thought was the edge of your chakra to figure where you were in space, and got it wrong.” He glanced sidelong at her. “Since your chakra’s so big, you can shove it forward and still have it feel dense enough to fool a passing sweep. It’s a smart move against a chakra-sensor.”
And not something he could really replicate, with his chakra levels.
Katsuko was silent for a beat, then she broke into delighted laughter. “No one’s figured it out that fast before.” She grinned at him, sharp and white. “Alright, I’m impressed. Think you can keep impressing me during training?”
Despite years of Minato insisting he learn otherwise, sometimes it was just too easy to be arrogant. Kakashi’s mouth tugged sideways. “Probably. Your standards aren’t high.”
It was disturbing how easy it was to sense the smirk underneath Kakashi’s mask. Maybe Katsuko had a better read on him. Maybe his smugness just transcended all barriers.
“I won’t need to raise them for you,” Katsuko said. “Keep on meeting bare minimum standards like during our spar, and in a month you’ll be where I was at when I was nine. Maybe two months.”
“I’ve fought nine-year-old ninja,” Kakashi said, unruffled. “Some of them are terrifying.”
“Those aren’t nine-year-olds. Those are gremlins.”
Kakashi shrugged. He’d been one of those terrifying child prodigies tearing up the battlefield. “Same difference.”
Katsuko tried to imagine Kakashi as a nine-year-old. The best she could picture was a bush of grey hair with tiny hands and feet, radiating judgment like fire radiated heat. “I bet you were a short kid. Is that why you let your hair stick up like that? So you’ll get an extra inch or two?”
He looked at her. Thoughtfully, he said, “Is the reason you have no filter because it stops people from looking at you too closely?”
Surprise made Katsuko miss a step, but irritation quickly took its place. She raised an eyebrow at him. “Let’s say it is. Is the reason you push everyone’s buttons because it stops people from getting too close?”
Kakashi didn’t even bother deflecting. “And it’s fun.”
“And it’s working,” Katsuko said. “One more spar. This time I want to headbutt you.”
“That actually sounds like you want to get closer,” Kakashi said, but he seemed to be considering it. “If we go again, this time we use chakra.”
He was still unfairly pretty for a man with most of his face covered, his sliced-up clothes and fall of silver hair giving his appearance a honed edge. For a moment, Katsuko imagined Ryouma standing next to him. Dark hair and a rakish grin, tanned skin and broad hands. He and Kakashi were almost mirror opposites in appearance. The only thing they had in common was that they were stupidly handsome, and that made her want to kick them both in the head.
It was hard, not noticing how attractive her teammates were out loud and in her own mind. Easy enough to ignore it during missions, but downtime gave her too many opportunities to slip up.
“No Sharingan,” Katsuko said. “And I won’t use clones.”
Kakashi sighed softly. “If you insist.”
“Don’t worry, my little sugar pumpkin.” Katsuko gave him an earnest look. “It’ll be fun.”
“That’s one word for it,” Kakashi said, completely ignoring her pet name for him. He seemed to be making a campaign of it; maybe he thought that if he didn’t acknowledge it Katsuko would stop.
If he was serious about learning Hyoho Niten, they’d have to fit in lessons after team training. And she needed to find swords for him more suited for the style. But that could wait— right now, she wanted to see if she could get under his skin half as well as he got under hers.
“Darling,” Katsuko said, straight-faced. “Baby-face. Kitten whiskers.” She leaned in and whispered, “Sparkle-toes.”
Kakashi’s visible eyebrow twitched faintly. He turned and walked away from her, towards the training field.
More potential comments about her psyche’s inner workings: averted. Likelihood of her getting a Chidori to the face: increased.
She yelled after him, because she’d never been taught self-preservation. “Bunny-butt, we can make it work! Don’t leave!”
Kakashi paused. Katsuko felt the working of chakra a millisecond before he stamped one foot; she barely managed to dodge when the ground snapped open in a four foot wide trench beneath her.
Well, now she could say he’d started it if they got in trouble for casting jutsu in the street. Katsuko whooped and leapt after him, flickering through the seals that would call fire to her hands.