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Tsundoku

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What, exactly, was it that she was doing wrong?

Her procedure was just as it had been described to her when she’d shown an interest, the very same as what the scrolls depicted, but…

It wasn’t exactly turning out the way it was supposed to, so she was obviously messing something up in the process. Well, either that, or this jutsu really wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be which she doubted, because she'd seen other people use it and have it do exactly what it was supposed to do. Which is what had interested her in it in the first place.

Gah, so frustrating

“Yo.”

At the sound of the unknown gruff, deep, scratchy voice she turned around quickly with a glance to the surrounding area in confusion, pulling herself out of exasperated thoughts. She had been walking down the street thinking about her failure to – yet again – perform a jutsu that she’d been working on, which wasn’t exactly high level, though she’d never particularly used the element before.

Having not sensed anyone approaching, she was a little irritated with herself for being so preoccupied that she was unaware of her surroundings, before looking down to where she heard the soft, somewhat pointed clearing of a throat... and into the face of the cutest pug she had ever seen in her life.

Any feelings of ill will she had, were disappearing like a leaf on the wind. Pun totally not intended, but she appreciated her own thought processes for a pitiful moment before her brain completely became a pile of mush at the sight of so much cute.

Her fingers twitched with the sudden strong urge to rub the tips over his oh-so soft looking floppy little ears, and wrinkly skin, to touch those tiny, tiny paws, but she managed to hold herself back.

Honestly, she needed to control herself better.

Still, he was just adorable.

“Um, yes?” her voice was a tad bit higher than it usually was, due to tension in her body as she restrained herself. “Can I help you with something?”

“Got any water?”

At the question, she took a closer look at the dog, the Summons, she realized after a moment of scrutiny, one with a very distinctive mark on its tiny doggy vest, and saw that he was rather bedraggled, and panting a little.

His squished face was so solemn, dark eyes so doleful that she couldn’t help her internal squeal at the sight of it, as he panted softly, tiny pink tongue stuck out ridiculously from between small, needle sharp fangs. Beige and gray sides heaved beneath the light blue cloth, small black paws that were slightly turned in towards the center of his chest were supporting his less than substantial weight, and that velvety black nose reflected wetly in the sunlight.

Without thought, she popped a bowl – one normally used for rice – out of one of her scrolls and with a snap of her fingers summoned some water from the particles in that air to fill it, and squatted, flat footed down to put it on the ground before him, arms wrapped around her legs to better control her urges. This wasn’t just some dog, she couldn’t reach out and fondle those adorable features, this was an intelligent fellow shinobi of Konohagakure, and she would not – would not – reach out and pull at the rolls on his face, no matter how enticing they were.

“Thanks,” was the gruff reply as he started to lap it up rather quickly.

“Hatake-san working you hard today?” she queried, squeezing her fingers tight into fists as they twitched towards him. “Even with the heat?”

His face was so serious and it was so cute… all those marvelous little wrinkles

“Aa, he’s got brats now, apparently.”

He stared forlornly down at the empty bowl before gazing up at her with wet, dark eyes which caused her left eye and cheek to tick a few times with strain before she managed to snap for more water to refill it.

“Thanks.”

“Well,” she started, after sealing away the empty slobbery bowl to give her hands something to do. Normally, she’d have at least rinsed it out after having someone else use it – even just a dog – but she was too focused on keeping her hands to herself. “Keep up the good work.”

“Hmm,” he nodded at her, dark eyes considering, and oddly solemn. “Go ahead, give me a pet.”

Her hands spasmed at her sides and she bit her lip, eyeing him with consideration, unaware of the girlish hope glimmering in her green eyes.

“…Really?”

“Aa.”

Slowly, so as to keep her composure to some extent, she extended her fingers and smoothed them over his silky skull just behind his forehead protector, gently sliding the tips over his floppy ears, before moving to give him a little scratch behind his ears that he leaned into with a doggy groan, causing an uncharacteristically warm smile to move over her features and her cheeks to pink. It had been a long time since she’d been able to pet any animals, let alone a dog, and the fact that she was doing so was made all the sweeter by the fact that she had been given permission to do so by the animal himself instead of by an owner making the decision. She contemplated going underneath his chin to give that a rub as well, before he sighed and reluctantly pulled away from her hands, doggy face seemingly even more forlorn than before.

“Well, thanks for the water, and the scratch, kunoichi-san.”

“No problem,” none at all. Oh, that had been the perfect cure for stress, an honest relief right there if she’d ever had one. “And it’s Nagisa Asuka, if you ever happen to run into me again,” she couldn’t get rid of the smile that was playing over her features, and she pressed her hands together to keep from reaching out anew to touch those soft, velvety ears. “There’s no need for formalities, ninken-san.”

“Asuka, then. The name’s Pakkun.”

He nodded to her before running off down the road again, and away from the edge of the shopping district he’d caught her at.

“Pakkun,” she muttered to herself with a sigh as she stood again, unnecessarily dusting off the back of her pants to keep her hands occupied, her lips still quirked. “So cute.”

With that, she turned and went back to her search for a place to have a late lunch, that didn’t involve much in the way of cost, considering the fact that the pay for her last mission had yet to be deposited in her account. Hmm, well, there was also the fact that she had needed to restock her knockout and smoke tags, since while she could handle some basic explosive tags with little problem, the other kinds of tags were beyond her. Oh, she should probably get a new set of scrolls as well, since hers were getting dated and would likely wear out before long, and it wouldn’t do to be unable to unseal her supplies because of laziness or procrastination…

“Hmm…” Asuka sighed, tilting her head back to look at the bright blue sky and the few wisps of cloud that fluttered in the high stratosphere. “Well, it looks like it’s yakitori and miso again tonight,” she scowled a little. “I really need to go shopping.”

The amount of time she wasn’t in her apartment was getting expensive when she wasn’t just training and needed to feed herself as well.

~*~

It wasn’t a week later that she ran into the Summoned dog again, and this time on the training grounds.

With sweat dampening her brow behind her bangs, which she pushed back with an errant hand clenched into a fist before stretching to pop her stiff, slightly aching back from strained muscles. The courier mission she’d taken the day before to pay for the afore mentioned tags had ended with one of her teammates getting himself injured and poisoned on an old, forgotten trap that’d been ground laid. Luckily for him, she’d been able to extract it for study and further analyses by the Poison Control Squad, and then treat the most important breaks and seal the wound, even though the idiot had an allergic reaction to the aged toxin. Who did that? It just made everything more irritatingly complicated and used up her chakra. How was he even allowed in the field when he was allergic to a common poison ingredient? Was that some kind of oxymoron, being allergic to poisons? That just made the initial fact that he’d been poisoned that much worse to deal with and him more likely to die in the field. It boggled the mind. Also, because he was almost twice her size, it had been awkward to carry him back to Konoha, making her back ache and burn, the muscles clenching in a way that told of stubborn unhappiness, something that she could honestly agree with.

She sympathized with those who were even smaller than she was who had to deal with those kinds of situations, and she was one of the taller women in the field.

It was always awkward having to carry someone whose body type was so fundamentally different than your own, but the fact that she’d been the only one strong enough to carry him the distance – her other teammate, a man who was similar in size to their injured comrade, was extremely embarrassed at this fact, and rather defensive, though she’d given him little attention once they’d found this out – was still irksome.

So what if they were just chuunin?

Who cares if you didn’t specialize in or utilize any strength based taijutsu?

That didn’t mean that you could slack off on your training just because you’d hit a rank higher than genin! Did the relief of not being sucking into the Genin Corps rot your brain? No! Did that mean that since you weren’t the weakest of the bunch that you could slack off in training? No! Bah, sometimes the others frustrated her to no end.

If you couldn’t carry an injured nin back home to Konoha, back home, you were pretty useless, in her book.

With a sigh, she swiped the back of her hand over her forehead and reached into her kunai pouch for a few pins – which she kept in a little pocket she’d sewn into the flap – to pull her bangs back with, idly thinking that it would be best not to have two differing skin tones due to a tan line on her forehead from her bangs covering everything from eyebrow above.

Yeah, this really wasn’t working out as well as she’d hoped.

“Yo, Asuka,” that same gruff voice called to her, and she glanced over to see the cute pug from the other day – who she hadn’t sensed again, she really needed to work on that, no matter how distracted she was – causing a smile to spread over her slightly sweat dampened features. “Good training?”

Those weren’t exactly the words she would use to describe it.

Honestly, she’d have described it with more frustrated snarls and strangling motions than articulation, anyway.

There were no words.

“Hey, Pakkun,” she returned, before eyeing the slightly misshapen shape to the mound she’d been struggling with miserable disdain. It almost seemed as if she was getting worse at Earth natured jutsu, which she hadn’t thought was possible. “Well, it could be… sort of worse.”

Probably, she thought wryly. Thought I’m not sure how exactly.

“Affinity training?”

“Working on a second, actually,” she stated.

Squatting down as she had before, and automatically pulling out her rice bowl again, sighing at the familiar, comforting – much more natural – action of pulling water from the air before setting the filled bowl down before him.

“Hmm, thanks,” he took a couple of gulps before sitting down and regarding her. “Water type, huh?”

“Yeah,” she nodded, eyeing the dirt mound that was supposed to be a spike ruefully. “If this were my main affinity… well, I’d probably cry.”

Yeah, Earth was… Definitely not her element of choice.

“I’m next closest to Earth, but it doesn’t seem to be working out just yet,” she pinned her bangs back, shaking her head to make sure that they were secure, listening to the sound of her finger length kunai hair ornaments – as ornamental as blades were, anyway – tap lightly against the senbon she had holding her braided buns in place on the back of her skull. “But, it’s not like I’ve been working on it for long. Not even two weeks yet,” she gave a wry smile, cocking her head to the side, chin propped up on her knee. “I try not to judge myself by other people’s standards, since a good few ninja I know start to pick it up quicker, but it does get irritating. I should have started on it when I was younger but, well,” and expansive shrug. “It wasn’t exactly a priority at the time. War and all that, then there were other things to do.”

Looking back at the Summons, she crossed her arms and settled them on her bent knees, pressing her chin into her forearms to stall reaching out to pet him until he maybe once again gave her permission to do so.

“Go ahead,” he stated as if reading her mind.

That smile shot across her face again as she went for his ears and gave him a good scratch, before moving below his chin like she’d thought to do the time before. Careful not to press too hard under his chin, because having a finger jammed up underneath the soft spot beneath the tongue wasn’t fun for any species, she was sure.

“Ah, you’re good at this,” he panted out, melting against her callused hands, giving out a soft woof of content.

“Thanks!”

She laughed softly, petting her hands back over his skull, barely pausing at his hitai-ate before massaging against his back with her fingers through the Henohenomoheji symbol on his blue vest.

“I’ve got ninja fingers,” she playfully fluttered them against his sides to give an example, enjoying the groan he gave at the same time as a cute little wriggle, tiny paws scrabbling against the ground as he did so. “I’m sure you’re used to them.”

“Well, Kakashi doesn’t always have time for rubs,” he sounded despondent, and yet oddly petulant at the same time as he rubbed his wrinkly forehead against her wrist guard lazily. “So, this is nice.”

“Glad to be of service,” her fingers traveled up to his ears and head again as she sighed with regret. “But I’ve got to cut this short. I’ve still got enough chakra to keep at this stupid jutsu for a while, and I can’t excuse not finishing my training,” her lips twisted wryly. “No matter how much I’d rather sit here petting you.”

Despite her words, she continued to do so for several more minutes, before the Summons himself pulled back, glancing behind himself in the direction he’d come from with a sniff, before slumping dejectedly.

So… so cute…

“Looks like they’ve caught up,” he grumbled, standing and shaking his body out of the relaxed state it had been in for a few enjoyable minutes, before dipping his head for a few more drinks from the bowl of water, emptying it and saluting her with a paw. “See ya later, Asuka.”

“Bye-bye!”

Asuka waved as he took off, sealing away the bowl once again and standing, just in time to see three genin come running onto the training ground.

Oh, she tilted her head curiously as she took them in, one brow cocked slightly. This must be Hatake-san’s genin team.

She knew the jinchuuriki right off the bat, and couldn’t help the scowl that settled lightly onto her previously pleased lips. They still hadn’t fixed her regular Laundromat from when he’d done one of his idiotic – though she admitted, it hadn’t been meant to be malicious, the kid wasn’t that kind of person, didn’t have the brains for it, exactly – pranks in the water tanks, the paint he’d dumped in clogging up several pipes, and they couldn’t get the itching powder out of the dryer vents no matter how hard they tried. She’d picked her apartment complex for its closeness to the Laundromat, because when she got home from a mission and had blood and nasty shit all over her clothes, she was either tired or injured, and she didn’t want to have to walk extra when she didn’t have to, and before she had only needed to go right across the street, but after that prank…

So much walking

Well, she didn’t have any real problems with him other than the fact that he’d needlessly complicated her post mission rituals and forced her to take a route she would prefer not to, so she wouldn’t rough him up for it.

Well, that and… the orange was a little… eh…

Asuka may not have been the most fashionable or feminine of kunoichi, but she still wasn’t colorblind.

The Uchiha was obvious as well, and she almost rolled her eyes at the arrogance and petulance that seemed to ooze off of that one. Honestly, the kid should go for a little originality, but there was little she could say about it in his case. It just reminded her in the back of her thoughts just how different Chitose and Haruka had been from the expectations she’d held for them, and the fact that it was rare for a Clan member not to conform to their Elders wishes. This boy was certainly no Uchiha Shisui, or Obito, though, as they were the most outlandish Uchiha she’d ever seen, and whilst both were deceased, she’d found them equally entertaining. Also, Shisui had been a bit of a cutie, even if he’d turned handsome when he’d grown up. Completely adorable in all reality – curly hair on a Clan pretty boy? Fantastic! – especially with how he’d drag his less sociable friend around with him like a particularly beloved toy, more touchy feely with that kid than pretty much anyone else that she’d ever met.

The fact that this boy didn’t seem to be trying to hide how angry and twisted up he was inside seemed to show the fact that he wasn’t nearly emotionally aware or composed as a genin should be, even a newly graduated one.

Politics, huh?

The girl was an unknown, though she may have seen her in the market a time or two, she was sure that pink hair was familiar. Hmm, perhaps in one of the sweet shops? She couldn’t help the slight stiffening of her lips as she caught the scent of perfume on the air drifting towards her and if that wasn’t a beacon shouting ‘Here I am!’ for anyone looking, she didn’t know what was. Honestly, Asuka didn’t even have any sort of heightened senses, and she could probably pinpoint the girl from scent alone, just because it was so strong. She cringed a little inside because it was well known that Hatake Kakashi had some sort of affinity with canines, something that had been passed down in his family, not unlike the Inuzuka, but instead of some sort of obscure bloodline, it had to do with a Summoning contract.

Or at least, she was pretty sure that was it; Asuka was admittedly no expert when it came to most of the Clans.

The poor man must have been weeping himself to sleep at night, or perhaps drowning himself in sake to hold off the inevitable breakdown that being swathed in fabricated scents would bring him too, as it did for several Inuzuka who were around civilians for too long.

They started to act strange, a little deranged because of the chemicals.

While amusing, it was also a bit of a problem.

Having an Inuzuka cackling like mad or either flirting or picking fights with plant life was a more than a little bit of a setback on a mission. She’d once been on a mission that had a civilian born kunoichi who was infiltrating a small group of bandits and an Inuzuka, and watching as the man had gotten strangely close to the ferns where they set up camp had been… well, not quite traumatizing, but it had been up there.

“Hey, Lady!” jeez, did he have to be so loud? “Have you seen a talking dog come running through here?”

Well, he hadn’t run through.

And ‘talking dog’? Seriously? Could the kid not even identify a Summons, or had Hatake Summoned him out of sight?

Was he really that rude?

“No,” she raised her brows, scowl fading into a tight, resigned line.

Well, finally deciding that she was just going to have to put in a D-rank request about the kid fixing the damned Laundromat and be done with it. Even having to fill out the specialized forms for requisition of a genin team, especially a specific one – he needed to learn from his actions, dammit, she just wouldn’t have this happening again – and then deal with the scrutiny of requesting anything dealing with the jinchuuriki would be worth it. Mostly, that is. Perhaps once she reached that stage, she would find ire again, but in those moments, it was just too hot to be irritated.

She still lamented, though.

All the walking

“Naruto!” the girl hollered and Asuka winced at the combined decibels, sticking a finger in her ear to even out her hearing again. “Don’t be so rude!”

Surprisingly, and perhaps a little amusingly, the snarl that had been on the genin girl’s features disappeared as quickly as it had come and features twisting into a sweet smile when the girl turned to face her.

Well, this one was going to be dangerously bipolar, she could already tell, even though she was about as unprofessional as you could get at that moment. Perhaps she would benefit in an infiltration specialization, like a lot of civilian born kunoichi did, where you didn’t need many combat skills?

Depending on what you were infiltrating at least…

“I’m sorry for him, Kunoichi-san, he’s a little bit of an idiot. Are you sure you haven’t seen a dog come through here?”

“Ah, sorry, genin-chan,” she smiled back, turning back towards her mound with a critical eye and a much calmer air to her because that canine therapy session had done wonders on her nerves. “But I can’t help you.”

This is surely some kind of training exercise, and I’m not going to interfere, she felt a tiny smirk shiver over her lips. Especially with the pity I feel for that poor Hatake bastard.

Dealing with this doomed squad must give him ulcers already, and she was sure that the Academy exams hadn’t ended that long ago. It had only been recently that the jounin had been lamenting having to test the new blood, hadn’t it? Hmm, she couldn’t quite remember when the last time she’d run into Asuma was, and she knew that had been when she’d heard about him being assigned a team… As for the Copy-nin, this was the first time she’d heard of him passing any genin, so there must have been something good about them. Well, either that, or the Council had insisted on the Uchiha being passed on to genin, and there really wasn’t anyone else they would trust with the boy, or who could either defend against, or protect the jinchuuriki quite as effectively. Not anyone who was taking on genin teams, or was in the village, anyway.

She was a little sorry for Pakkun, though, getting this shoved off on him. She assumed it was some sort of tracking exercise, though, because considering their sensei, it had to be, right?

Well, either that or some twisted, sadistic way of getting rid of them, but she shouldn’t just believe rumors, should she?

Either way, the poor kids didn’t stand a chance.

Taking a slow breath as she gathered her chakra, she planted her feet firmly, before pushing just enough into the ground that she could feel the earth breath and then

Pushing her hand sharply up and out, she was pleased to note a den of spikes – perhaps not quite as high as she should aim for, or as dense – but certainly better than what she had been managing, before a presence appeared quite suddenly behind her.

Unknown.

Needles of highly pressurized water senbon formed behind her just before she remembered that she did indeed know this chakra signature – if only faintly, with the Konoha regulation chakra broadcast that shifted into perception the moment she felt something like hesitation – as well as the familiar scent of dog washing over her nose, causing her to relax her battle ready muscles, the needles to dissipate once again into the air. And really, she was within the confines of Konoha, so she really shouldn’t be nearly as twitchy as she was, with such hair trigger reactions, but for some reason she just couldn’t seem to help it, feeling a constant strain of unease of late, almost like she had eyes on her all the time. She turned around with a frown on her face, only to be faced with that silly smiling eye sitting above his mask and a closed orange book held against his chest with one hand and the other held up palm out to signal peace.

Right. She was sure he was harmless.

Her shoulders were already slumping and her brows quirking exasperatedly – with only a touch of unease – at that ridiculously unthreatening aura, even though she knew he could rip her limb from limb with both hands behind his back. It was irritating how unassuming this man could seem.

Stupid jounin.

“Ah, how nice to see you again, Nagisa-san,” the cheer in his deep, smooth voice was mildly disturbing. “Lovely weather we’re having.”

From out of the corner of her eye where she stood regarding the taller adult, she could see the gawping jinchuuriki, the shocked girl, and the sullenly trying not to look interested Uchiha staring at her as if she were the most interesting thing they’d ever seen, either that or the most scandalous. Like the Sandaime in the nude or something. Which… that was a disturbing thought. Urgh. Not that she didn’t love the Hokage with all of the fierce burning of the Will of Fire, but that was just… not an image that she was interested in in the least.

Oh, right, she’d done jutsu in front of impressionable genin. Hadn’t she always been interested in cool jutsu when she was their age? She couldn’t quite remember, but she might have been more interested in weapons at the time, or perhaps it was taijutsu… no, no, it was her brief – very, very brief – stint with condensed explosive tags and complex Fuuinjutsu, wasn’t it? Time just flew by.

Like her hand almost had with the tags.

Yes, it had been a very brief interest. Almost nonexistent. Not worth mentioning at all.

Hence why she bought her high grade explosive tags now, instead of made them herself like some nin.

Still was a crater in Training Ground 36 though, and she was always very careful to avoid the bets about where it must have come from, if only because she wasn’t sure she’d be able to keep a straight face. Disturbing childhood traumas and all that. Plus, some of the stories that bored off duty ninja could come up with were just marvelously ludicrous, completely and totally ridiculous. It was pretty great.

“Hatake-san.”

Her returned greeting was dowsed with some level of dry exasperation, her brow furrowing as she wondered what exactly it was that the jounin wanted from her.

The man had totally startled her on purpose. Well, either that or he lacked a propensity for spatial awareness – she sincerely doubted that – or he lacked social awareness that startling another ninja while they are training is not okay.

The latter theory was the least hard to believe, if only because his social retardation was a thing of legend. It was likely that regulation was something that he was familiar with, but was ignoring with all the aplomb of an Elite Jounin who really just didn’t have anything to fear from a chuunin of any rank. Still, it was completely outside of the normal for him to have approached her like this.

He wasn’t exactly one for pleasantries from what she’d discerned, and she certainly wouldn’t have felt him if he hadn’t have wanted her to, so clearly something was up. They both knew that he didn’t even have to have shown up seeing as the kids could, and would, have continued on their search like good little genin drones, but it looked like he was interrupting that expected routine. For some reason, she had the momentary, out of the blue and quite sudden thought that perhaps this was going to be some sort of extortion, that perhaps he would try and bully something out of her, and then immediately she shook it off. Even if some jounin were useless pricks – puffed up bastards a good portion of the lower ranks of jounin were – she had never gotten that sort of vibe from the lazy pervert before her, and even the worst of jounin wouldn’t do something that low in front of impressionable – talkative and loud – genin.

“I was wondering –”

“No. Whatever it is, I’d really much rather not.”

Whatever it was, it couldn’t be good.

She blanched internally at a sudden, disturbing thought.

It didn’t have anything to do with a challenge from Maito Gai, did it? Oh gods, she sure hoped not. The man was infamously monstrous. She’d rather deal with the infuriating, grating, more than a little awkward personality of the Copy-nin over the highly exuberant, bright and frighteningly dangerous – possibly deranged, no one was quite sure and no one wanted to ask – Green Beast at any time or any place. Heck, she’d rather be obscurely blackmailed within an inch of her life and sanity than have to deal with that frightening eyesore of a man for any length of time. He just didn’t know his strength. She’d seen him accidently shatter a man’s ribs by hugging him when he’d been so very happy for a reason no one could understand and then another time patting a woman on the back he had thrown her spine right out of place and she’d been off duty for a month.

Asuka just didn’t have that kind of padding in her bank account to go without mission pay for that long, or the levels of masochism to be able to deal with that man.

“Ah,” he rubbed the back of his head and put away the Icha Icha before gesturing to the far side of the training grounds, the opposite side that the genin were on. “You kids go on and find Pakkun, alright?”

He waved them away without care and proceeded to ignore them as he herded her away from their hearing, but not before she heard the sound of their grumbling as they continued on their way. After the kids had disappeared into the tree line he turned to her and leaned against a nearby tree trunk, shoulders slightly slumped, eyeing her thoughtfully.

“Hear me out,” he held up a hand to forestall her as she opened her mouth to deny whatever it was that he wanted, before placing it in his pocket as he had the opposing one. “You are a very competent kunoichi, Nagisa-san.”

She blinked at him, her brows drawing together as she stared.

… Well, that wasn’t what I was expecting. Actually, there wasn’t much I was expecting, but this is certainly better than anything else I could have come up with.

Better than a challenge from Gai, she had to admit.

Pretty much anything was.

There was a tiny – not so tiny, really, she could admit to herself – part of her that was pleased, and, admittedly, a little embarrassed at the blunt praise. It wasn’t often that she was complimented on her skills as a ninja of Konoha. Actually, it wasn’t often that she was complimented at all. Not in ways that were, you know, complimentary. She would have had to speak to more people for compliments to come into the equation, and she rarely found the need. She found her time was much more practically and usefully spent to train, or read in relaxation, and puzzle over jutsu that she’d never be able to perform. Sometimes she would let Anko drag her to dango every once in a while and let her vent about the horrible crush she had on Ibiki, and how she really wished that Kurenai would just bang Asuma already to get the man to loosen up a little and stop giving the Hokage such a hard time.

She agreed with that last bit, anyway.

Everyone had known since they were children that it was more than likely that Asuma and Kurenai would become an item, but it seemed they were putting of the inevitable.

Plus, he had been holding that grudge for an absolutely ridiculous amount of time.

“Thank you?” she returned after a brief pause.

“There are very few truly competent kunoichi that one would trust with children –” Oh. She could almost see where this was going, and she felt her brows rising incredulously. “– and I have no idea how to make that girl into an able bodied kunoichi, and while I would normally turn towards Kurenai at anything female related, she has her own brats to look after.”

The girl’s scent must have been killing him for him to ask her for help.

It was… a little sad, really.

Poor man.

“You want me to work on the girl,” she deadpanned, rocking back on her heels and setting her hands on her hips, lips pursed with thought. “Make it so that she doesn’t get herself killed.”

Well, it wasn’t like she didn’t want to help the future generation, she’d just never thought of herself as someone who was very good with children at all, and she hadn’t been good with them even when she was one. Hmm, neither had the jounin before her, and he was a sensei even after having been a much worse adolescent than she had been, attitude wise, if she remembered correctly. The rumors of his horribly bratty attitude and icy demeanor had reached even her lesser ears through her gossipy, downright rumormonger, teammates back when she’d been a genin and then a chuunin. Hell, she’d heard more than she’d ever wanted to about him out of Obito more than once back in the day, but back then all she’d really wanted to do was make that doofus smile at her, so she’d kind of zoned out sometimes and made commiserating noises. She’d never met the Hatake until they were older, after all, and that was after the Kyuubi attack. And, well… everyone was a different person after that day.

The girl could certainly do with a stern talking to, she could see that. Any ninja worth their salt could see that the girl wasn’t in any way preparing herself emotionally or physically for the life she’d chosen for herself, and wasn’t taking this line of work seriously at all, not really. She had fangirl written all over her pretty little face, and while being girly wasn’t a bad thing, you could still be kickass and dress well at the same time. It was apparent that this girl had yet to learn this lesson.

Still, she wouldn’t be able to do much in any case, what with having to take her own missions, as well as train –

Wait.

She smiled when the thought struck, unaware of the slight darkening of her eyes as they half lidded, as if in threat, causing the jounin before her to shift a little uncomfortably.

Who better to have helping her when developing a secondary affinity than the Copy-nin? The man who used several – if not all – of the affinities himself? Who had needed to build them up?

“Sure,” she nodded, turning back to him from where she’d looked away in thought. “You scratch my back I’ll scratch yours.”

“Oh?” he raised his own visible brow in question, relaxing slightly, a movement that was imperceptible to her.

With a frustrated wave, she showcased her abysmal earth technique that was already crumbling, somehow having gotten wet on the inside, causing her shoulders to droop a bit. Ah, well, that hadn’t happened before. She rubbed a hand over her face before turning back to the incredulous looking jounin, his visible eye slightly scrunched, as was his brow, as if wondering what in the world she had done to have results such as those.

She wondered this as well.

“Help me with my affinity training on occasion, and I’ll do what I can for the girl when I’ve got time.”

A dark eye considered her for a moment, and then the deteriorating state of the jutsu she’d cast, before shrugging and nodding at the same time, a move that should have looked positively awkward as he stood straight, but didn’t look it in the slightest on his lean frame as she looked up at him. Jounin, she thought amusedly, shaking her head a little with a small smile. They are so ridiculous.

“Sounds good,” as he spoke they both glanced over towards where there was a spike in chakra.

At the same time as the jolt of chakra, there were the echoing cries of several of the same voice and the distinct poof-squeak noise of poorly constructed Shadow Clones being extinguished, before a familiar small form darted out of the woods and to her feet, leaning against her combat flats clad foot comfortably and staring up at his Summoner.

“They suck,” he stated plainly to the pale haired man, causing her to snicker and squat next to him in a position that was beginning to feel familiar, placing her hand on his head after his doleful glance up at her and scratching him softly behind his ear. “The – ah, that’s nice – orange boy has a good sense of smell, but he doesn’t know how to use it, and the cat-boy didn’t even try,” she snorted at the moniker for the Uchiha. Well, several of the Clan were known to use Cat Summons back in the day. “The stinky girl just followed along behind the boys, who were following the crappy directions of the orange boy.”

Asuka sighed.

“Well, looks like I’ve got my work cut out for me,” she muttered, shifting to scratch the Summon beneath the chin again.

She shared a commiserating glance with the pug.

That man sure knew how to shove work off on to others.

The epitome of lazy.

~*~

When his Summon had returned to him smelling of a Konoha kunoichi – one who didn’t even bear the slightest scent of chemicals as most women did, which was a mild relief – he’d thought little of it, even though the pug looked a little more relaxed than usual, as if he’d gotten spoiled with a good pat down and some rubs. It wasn’t unlikely that whoever this mystery woman was – he had taken an idle breath, wondering if the familiarity of it would click, though it didn’t, the scent too faded – she had given in to Pakkun’s dangerous wiles and petted him to his little heart’s content. The fact that his Summon was a bit more effective and pleasant to be around was a bonus, since Kakashi rarely had time to comfort or connect with his pack in between missions for either ANBU, or for the increasingly more common jounin lounge handouts. The time they did manage to scrounge up was usually used for training, and that didn’t exactly lead to too much in the way of bonding, and he fondly remembered the days of relaxation and lying about with his dogs and Sensei before the Kyuubi attack had decimated their ranks.

Days like those were few and far between, and the missing human factions of his pack were an empty chill that shuddered over his soul as he hardened and numbed the heart still stubbornly beating in his chest, dulling the comfort and warmth that his canine pack mates brought with them whenever Summoned. Sometimes he felt the ghost of callused, elegantly ink stained hands shifting through his hair or and leanly muscled arm thrown around his shoulder, other times the warm safe feeling of a soft chest and heated pale skin wrapping him in a hug, a curtain of crimson ghosting over the bared corner of his features… Ghosts, ghosts everywhere.

The fact that they’d given him Sensei’s son was something he didn’t miss, couldn’t have missed if he’d been deaf, dumb and blind, and he knew it was likely that they’d given him to Kakashi because they knew he was the least likely jounin to intentionally ruin him.

It hurt, to look at that kid.

He looked just like them, Minato-sensei and Kushina-san, a perfect blend of them. That golden sunshine bright hair that spiked everywhere without direction or cause, those blue, glimmering eyes were his father’s set into his mother’s softer, rounder features. He was tanner than both of his parents had been, Sensei having been a much paler man with sharper, more defined features though what color he’d had was a soft golden tan, and his eyes had been a tad lighter, less of a deep sea and much more of an icy, all seeing blue that pierced deep within like he knew the very heart of you. There was no point in his memories where he could actually remember seeing the Uzumaki woman with anything like color to her skin other than the red of a flush when she’d either been enraged or when Sensei had done something that had softened the shell she kept around her heart. Kushina’s boisterous attitude had taken over whatever personality traits he may have gotten from his father because of her abrasive personality, as she had done when they were together and alive, taking over the man who was her husband with her liveliness and joy.

Apparently, his looks hadn’t really delved inward, and so he wasn’t all that bright – his parents had been an intellectually inclined battle prodigy and a rather, if raucous, intelligent woman – but he had the horrifying verbal tick that his mother had, only a little altered, and it made Kakashi twitch every time he heard it. He was getting a terrible crick in his neck from tensing every time that ‘dattebayo’ left the boy’s mouth and it made his habitual slump a little more uncomfortable every time he saw those hellish brats. There was also the very real fear that this boy would look at him one day with features that spelled out betrayal – he hadn’t figured out the scene it would be in, not yet – and he knew that if that ever happened, the mixture of two of the most important people in his life’s features unhappy with him in that boy would kill him.

The Uchiha boy was just a big ball of angry hurt – just looking at him made his chest ache with memory – it was plain as day that he had no idea what to do with all of the rage and hate and pain that was wrapped up inside of him, and the Copy-nin was just as clueless, and he felt great fear that he was going to ruin this boy, the way he’d ruined himself as a child. They’d foisted him off on him with the excuse that he had the Sharingan, but it appeared that the boy wasn’t aware enough of his fellow shinobi to even know that – it didn’t really occur to him until later that the Academy curriculum hadn’t exactly been as up to par as it should have been – and the last Hatake was well aware that the Uchiha Clan gave basic training to all of their members even before they activated their Sharingan, and then had them figure it out mostly on their own as a rite of passage. Every Sharingan was different.

Obito had ranted on it enough when arguing that when he got his Sharingan he’d be able to best the Hatake prodigy even if other Uchiha in their age group had not been able to, because his Sharingan would be the best and most powerful. Yes, that he remembered.

Vividly.

The civilian girl was going to give him an aneurism though, and possibly deaden his sense of smell with whatever monstrosity it was that she coated herself with every day, the conflicting scents of her shampoo and whatever skin products and oils she used made him want to vomit or burn out his nostrils. Even his covered eye watered at the combination whenever he had to bite back the urge to sneeze or pinch his nostrils closed just to get a moment or two of relief. He had taken to mouth breathing through his mask whenever he was around his team whilst standing the farthest away from her as he could, and while it wasn’t as bad, the scent clung to the back of his nose and mouth like ash, and there was little he could do but put strong chakra filters on the inside of his mask every day, because otherwise he might go mad. Every day he had to swap out his masks to make sure that none of the stench from the previous day clung to him and drove him up the wall with acid on his face. Dealing with her was a lot like torture really, and it reminded him of his training when he’d first been pulled into ANBU and he’d needed to be able to pass psychological and physical torture regimes fitted for someone with enhanced senses, but well… that had ended, and this hadn’t.

It bothered his instincts to no end that he couldn’t smell her chakra at all beneath that disgusting and powerful concoction that emanated from her form. What made it worse was that he couldn’t tell if that was because she had so little that it barely escaped her skin like a civilian – unlikely, considering the fact that she had graduated after all – she was extremely unhealthy and therefore her chakra was working to keep her alive and so didn’t move outward to conserve – a possibility, he’d rarely seen her eat, and he remember Rin eating almost twice as much as he and Obito when they were growing up – or whatever it was that she wore was just that bad.

With the fact that the three were under his care – like young in a pack, pups he was teaching to hunt and pounce for the first time – he was supposed to ingrain their chakra scents into his psyche so that he could protect them better and be able to find them, to know them as well as he could so as to be able to help them when they were injured or ill. Part of the reason he had avoided having a genin team thrust upon him was the fact that he would automatically take them under his wing, pulling together a patchwork pack of the likes he hadn’t had in years, and he didn’t know what to do with that. He didn’t know if he could do it again, deal with the very real possibility of losing that feeling of wholeness, of not being alone. Again.

If he wasn’t already so broken, he’d shatter.

Before, he had always been a Beta in his packs, the second in command, never an Alpha, never in the lead, never in charge of the others and above all. That wasn’t what he was before, he wasn’t born to lead. Always following, always a follower. He’d never needed to ingrain the scents of his subordinates into his subconscious on such a deep level, never given them the power over him – no matter how abstract – to control his reactions by giving him the need to suss out whatever caused them distress and to destroy it as his Hatake instincts dictated.

Hell, he’d never even taken in Obito’s scent until his dying moments, so even the memory of it was poisonous and tainted with blood and pain, taking in Rin’s after that because he couldn’t stand the thought of forgetting her too.

He regretted that.

He always would.

It was an ingrained action though, taking the lead, and he was mildly gladdened by his family’s particular affinities with canines that made it so that he didn’t have to ask Pakkun for help in sorting out hierarchy in his infantile new pack. The willful pug that was his lifelong companion never would have let him live that down.

Still, with those ingrained needs from ascending to pack Alpha, he needed to know the ins and outs of his new… young.

Guh, even thinking about it was disturbing in new and intensely nauseating ways.

Despite the nerve wracking disconcerting realization that he had pups – sweet kami, just kill him already, he was too young for this – it was still more distressing that he couldn’t tell anything beneath the scents with the girl, and it messed with his instincts like mad.

Half the time he had to stop himself from grabbing her and pressing his face to her skin to try and find her real scent beneath the filth she wore that she apparently thought was attractive, and the other half he had to resist the internal demand that he throw the girl from his new pack because she smelt wrong. Either one of his urges would likely cause a reaction that he had no desire to deal with, and the repercussions of whatever accusations would be thrown at him would be complicated and exhausting in a way that even paperwork wasn’t.

Being a jounin instructor was turning out to be very stressful. And they hadn’t even left the village yet. Kami help him.

His already considerable respect for Sensei grew every day.

Kakashi’s Team 7 wasn’t nearly as bad as his had been.

Well… at least Rin had been a quiet fangirl, and always the professional medic when needed. That may have just been the wartime seriousness though. He’d never really tried to figure it out, or get to know her, because losing her after Kannabi would have hurt that much worse, especially with their little four person pack being all that remained.

Not that he hadn’t ripped open his own chest that same day as he had hers even though he’d tried to be distant without being distant, anyway.

When he’d halfheartedly sent the kids after Pakkun to track him down – he’d firmly ignored the betrayed look on his longtime friend’s canine features – it was with the halfhearted excuse that he was a nin who did a lot of tracking as a specialization… so it was not really a lie. When he had then followed them lackadaisically as they clamored all over Konoha to observe their progress while analyzing their abilities – providing himself some mild entertainment – and to make sure they didn’t somehow kill themselves, he hadn’t expected to run into the kunoichi that his Summon had before.

He solemnly, and perhaps a little hysterically if he was being honest, which was rare, swore that Naruto would lead them into inter village anarchy somehow, he just wasn’t sure how yet, and he added the combined decibels that the blonde and pink haired genin released to another fact he hated about his team, he was mildly concerned about retaliation on the woman’s part but was sure that she wouldn’t physically attack them. Probably. Even if she did, he was more than capable of stopping her despite his rather lengthy distance. Being speedy and agile was something that he had learned from the best, after all, and there was no one in Konoha today that could beat him when it came to battle reactionary reflexes. Not even Gai, though he came close with sheer speed. His ability to perceive and distinguish things at top speed was still not quite up to par with the Copy-nin’s just yet, though Kakashi was sure that he’d have it down in a year or two and then likely be faster than him. Without chakra boosts, anyway.

Even though he’d rarely used them – it made him uncomfortable, made his chest heavy and tight – there were several Hatake tricks he still had up his sleeve that he’d only pull out if he were facing someone where that speed was a necessity.

Like the Raikage.

Which, to be frank, was a rather unlikely situation.

The chuunin his genin team had interrupted so rudely was perfectly within her rights to meet out punishment for the kids for bothering her, especially when she was clearly their superior – the observation course at the Academy was apparently not as demanding as he remembered it – her posture and bearing all but screaming military experience. There was also the fact that while she was practicing jutsu, it was very easy for them as the god awful disaster team to bungle it up with their very presence, just barging into a training field without going through the proper procedure to enter when someone else was using it. It was dangerous to enter when it was unknown what kind of battle or jutsu that could be walked into. Those kids were just asking to get stabbed or fried, really.

He was so young – no matter the cracks that Sensei’s son said about his hair – and he was sure he was beginning to get an ulcer.

There was a reason that people reserved training fields and it was so that when you looked at the roster to find one open or to share it was easier to see if your training would mess with someone else’s who had a prior claim. Since his Summon had chosen to run through her chosen reserved field, it was unlikely that she was one of those hoity toity know it alls like the chuunin that manned the mission desk, but it was never wrong to be safe rather than sorry. A good dose of paranoia in a shinobi was healthy.

More or less.

It was debatable, he had been told.

Even still, he felt a little sympathetic when the kunoichi stuck her finger in her ear to make sure she hadn’t gone deaf. What was her name? Hmm. He knew her name, he did, they’d been on a mission together before, more than one, though not any time recently… Ah, right, Nagisa… um… Nagisa Aiko? Nagisa… Arata? No, no… Nagisa… um… Asuka! Right, Nagisa Asuka. She was easy going and relaxed enough with those less experienced than her so as not to get on their cases for going against protocol, but others wouldn’t be and would take it out of their hides and possibly put in a formal complaint. Depending on how they reacted to his interference, should it be required.

There were two extremes should that occur with other ninja they could have come across. Either ridiculous devotion – and possible trying to schmooze the kids which was actually unlikely to work at all, since they were kind of canny despite being idiots in pretty much everything – or they would despise him and take it out on the kids, making it that much worse for two of his young pack than it already was.

Somehow he was going to have to bring that up to them – the fact that they could get into trouble for those kinds of things now that they were considered adults as genin – and he was really beginning to wonder at the standards of graduating from the Academy even when not in times of war. This was getting ridiculous, the amount of things that they didn’t know or blatantly seemed to ignore.

The look of disbelief and vaguely pinched discomfort on her face was one he knew well.

He wore it under his own mask often enough, although his was tempered with weary, resigned horror a good portion of the time as well.

The thing was, was that he was beginning to worry that his face might get stuck that way, with his luck.

It was such a handsome face too. Such a tragedy to ruin it with the pain of the children that were wrecking his senses of hearing, smell – and by association, taste – and his intestinal tract with their inordinately bad luck and chaotic nonsense.

Sandaime owed him for wasting his youth on these brats.

He’d noted the amusement she regarded his genin with, the mild exasperation and distaste she looked at each of them with equally, felt mildly relieved that she wasn’t glaring at Naruto with hate and disgust the way some did – it pained him to see his comrades look at his Sensei’s son like that, the people he’d… sacrificed for… for them to hate and fear his child like that… it was agony, it was… exhausting – or eyeing the Uchiha boy like a piece of meat. That was a little disturbing thing he’d taken note of in several females – even those up to ten years older than the boy – when he’d been observing the kids and how they interacted with others when they thought they were alone. A number of women, mainly civilians, eyed the orphan as if he were their next meal ticket, their claim to fame. It was more than a little disgusting, and he’d found himself improving on the traps set about the section of the Compound the boy lived in when he found some of them lurking about, even kunoichi around Nagisa’s and his own age. Gold diggers were disturbing in so many ways it wasn’t even a little bit amusing, especially when there was an unhealthy dose of pedophilia thrown into the mix. Not that any dose of pedophilia was not a bad thing.

It didn’t take long before epiphany struck as she was eyeing Sakura with distaste and a little awkward worry like when one was waiting for an accident to happen or witnessing someone as they blithely walked into a trap involving explosive tags or untested poisons. Those were protective instincts that she had no idea what to do with blooming, he was sure, dealing with pups – er, young, no youths… children, sweet kami his brain… – that were unprepared for being weaned or separated from an adults protective shielding. She didn’t seem the type to have a soft spot for children in general – he didn’t know for sure though, he’d never bothered to look into her before – but for the potential future comrades before her, the current liabilities that she’d diagnosed relatively easily in less than five seconds made her uneasy and worried for their survival.

These were future pack mates and she saw that they stood on shaky thin legs and were more fluff than muscle, looking puffed up and smug but with no idea what to do with budding claws and fangs other than to bear them in a way that wasn’t really threatening that they couldn’t even back.

Of course! He thought, even as he watched her perform a rather nice Earth Spike without hand signs once she had dismissed the genin – an action he much preferred when the other options were considered – though there was something odd about the jutsu, and used shunshin to appear behind her. I’m a genius!

When her reflexes and chuunin honed chakra sense caused her to nearly attack him, he’d been mildly impressed with the water needles that had materialized before him, but had taken her blanching at his appearance in good nature, even as she dismissed her jutsu without a thought and eyed him warily.

In hindsight, it probably wasn’t a wise move to appear so suddenly himself, and to be so rude about it as well, without even a flicker of chakra to warn her. Heck, he’d just been mentally reprimanding the kids for not using proper procedure to approach an occupied training field, and he’d tossed it out the window without a second thought himself. Hypocrisy at its finest, really.

The fact that she didn’t look at him with awe or the strangely disturbing trepidation that some of his fellow shinobi did gave something in him reason to relax and he eye smiled at her, the corners creasing just a touch more than usual in regards to his innate genius in idea coming up with these type of things, the features beneath his mask matching the movement.

Really, he was so smart.

He didn’t know what to do with himself some times.

Ah, the burden of genius…

“Ah, how nice to see you again, Nagisa-san,” he stated cheerily, enjoying the way her eyes narrowed suspiciously, and the way the kids off to the side were staring with some rather badly concealed interest. “Lovely weather we’re having.”

With the ease of growing, resigned practice he ignored the hollow pang in his chest as the genin gave him the stink eye, clearly mistrustful of his presence despite the fact that he had in no way threatened them bodily or otherwise since they had passed his exam. It was his job to protect them, and they didn’t trust him to do that, sometimes seeming to find him the biggest threat, and he really had no idea what to do with that because the last thing he wanted to do was harm a member of his pack. He was Alpha, and their innate leeriness of his very presence had his hackles raised because they felt threatened, and it was his duty to get rid of threats, and it wasn’t as if he could get rid of himself. Well, he could, but, that was… not an option. It baffled and twisted him, and while he knew that they just didn’t know him very well – he wasn’t exactly an open book, he would admit – with a part of him being approving of their wariness when encountering a potential threat, most of him didn’t know how to take it because he would never hurt them.

No matter how reluctantly he had taken them on or forcefully they had been shoved onto him.

They were still his, despite the fact that he lacked experience in the role of teacher and protector, despite the fact that the very idea terrified him and made his nights long with nightmares and memories he’d rather forget, pulled forth the strong desire to hide behind a porcelain mask where things were easier, simpler. Sleep was hard to come by, peace when he managed to do so also a precious commodity, making his hours at the Memorial Stone that much sharper and colder, his mind that much more numb and apathetic in thoughts.

It was like they sensed the failure in him.

Saw the stains on his hands.

“Hatake-san,” she returned shortly, still wary, pulling him from his dark, useless thoughts.

Well, this wasn’t going so bad.

“I was wondering –” he started with some optimism which was alarmingly out of character, and seemed to put her off even more.

“No. Whatever it is, I’d really much rather not.”

Ah, there it was.

For some reason, he felt mildly relieved.

He’d remembered her to be somewhat blunt from their few interactions, a personality trait that he could appreciate with the chuunin kunoichi where he was normally confronted with effusive prattling and political knots of subterfuge with most everyone he encountered in the upper echelon of Konoha’s ranks. It didn’t really depend on who you were, with this particular chuunin, though he was sure she was nothing if not polite to the Sandaime though he’d never heard her debrief from a mission, because there wasn’t a member of the active duty roster he could think of that didn’t worship the ground the Professor walked on as a leader if not a person. He’d also noted on their few joint missions that this rather equalizing aspect of her personality was something that some of the other chuunin he’d heard speaking to her had found odd about her, since she didn’t socialize much.

It was rare for a kunoichi to spend so much time training, to hold herself apart from the rest of her comrades as much as she did, as most kunoichi – and shinobi – were social creatures, and it was rather interesting that it appeared she hadn’t adopted the social norms of her station because of this habit, wasn’t doing the usual chuunin act. Most below his own jounin status he came in contact with either tried to butter up to him something awful – frankly, it made him uncomfortable as well as more than a little embarrassed for their fervency and ridiculousness – or felt insulted, snubbed or perhaps disgusted at his very presence, as if he were the reason that they weren’t jounin.

Technically, to some extent, he probably was, but it wasn’t his fault that their ability didn’t match up to his.

Still, he managed to convince her to speak with him, and studied her as she thought about his proposal, her eyes a little distant as she pondered.

Nagisa was one of the more utilitarian kunoichi he’d come across, one of the most competent in her abilities he’d seen below the rank of jounin who had not sacrificed their femininity completely, something that his female student wouldn’t respond to at all. She had a no nonsense kind of air to her, but if the way she treated everyone equally stretched over to his most painfully troublesome child – some nin disliked being around civilian born, and he didn’t know if she was one of those or not – he could definitely take advantage of that.

When her eyes narrowed and darkened into a look that either spoke of extreme desire to cause pain or uncomfortable and dark arousal, he’d felt his nerves spike.

S-sadism…? Ah, no, don’t be ridiculous. This isn’t one of Jiraiya’s books.

Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea?

No, no, I’m a genius, right? This should be fine, right?

Sometimes, though, he did wonder…

“Sure,” she stated with a nod.

She turned to him as she spoke, her expression relaxing as she turned to him with clear, rather pretty green eyes as the corners of her lips turned up slightly, completely changing her features into something much warmer and open, causing his gaze to catch on a small scar on one side of her mouth. That had to have been an impressive backhand to leave a scar like that, because the look of it had her having had it split right open to the teeth and then sewn back shut. She had rather pleasant features, attractive in a way he could appreciate without much thought when she wasn’t staring blankly or looking at someone like they were the scum of the earth, as if they weren’t good enough to grace the sole of her shoe. Although, to be fair, he thought that those were her factory settings for expressions and he doubted she knew that she had a rather intimidating mien even outside of battle, just because she wasn’t a very open person and her features rarely reflected her thoughts.

To some, he rather thought that it was generally thought that they did and that was what made her fellows avoid her.

“You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”

“Oh?”

All things considered, he was a little interested in what she would want from him, what it was that a self-sufficient woman like herself couldn’t do or get on her own, and not so small a part of him was waiting for the disappointment that came with people wanting to use his rank for something, or to get in good with the famous Hatake Kakashi.

When she’d indicated with some frustration her previously proper seeming, rather nice Earth jutsu, he found himself gob smacked to note the actual water that was dripping out of the center of a deteriorating spike. He was sure that it had been a perfectly respectable Earth Spike last he’d checked. Was… was that supposed to happen? He had never… No, no, he’d done something similar when he’d first started using different affinities, hadn’t he?

Right, his Lightning had completely destroyed his Earth jutsu, until he’d learned to separate his affinities properly, something that had amused his Sensei to no end.

Don’t even get him started on learning even basic Wind… he could almost hear the hysterical laughter whenever a particularly strong draft passed through wherever he was, the gasping chokes and snorts that the golden haired man had released when he’d nearly blew his hand off with a Gale Palm…

Yes, affinity training could be problematic.

“Sounds good,” he managed, a little relieved that assistance with training was all she asked for.

Training, he could do. At least, with other mature nin.

He had no idea what he was doing with these genin.

Oh gods, he was going to ruin them.

He mourned his fading youth.

~*~

“Wow, you really are here,” the chuunin mused aloud, a little amused at the fact that all three genin were sitting at the training grounds waiting for their jounin-sensei, despite the fact that they must have learned that he wouldn’t show up for at least another three hours. Even the civilians – who could care less, unless they were females of a marriageable age – knew of his terrible habit of tardiness. “I didn’t think you would be.”

“Eh?” a squinty eyed stare from the yellow haired nuisance who made it so that she had to go an extra twenty minutes to get her laundry done after his evil prank. “Who’re you?”

“Baka!” the pink haired girl – Haruno Sakura – smacked a fist into the back of the jinchuuriki’s head. “That’s the kunoichi from the other day, when we were tracking Pakkun-san!”

“Eeeh?” he looked at her with a frown, before the metaphorical light turned on. “Oh, right! Hey, Lady, what are you doing here?”

Lady… ugh. This kid has horrible manners.

“Standing,” she stated dryly, turning to examine her would-be student, dismissing him with a wry smile, entirely missing the shocked, confused look that had suddenly started to cross his mobile features. “Haruno Sakura, right?”

The girl blinked light, jade green eyes at the older female, something like confusion and surprise crossing her features.

“Yes, that’s me.”

At the clarification, Asuka nodded her head as she studied the girl.

“Right, I’m Nagisa Asuka, Hatake-san asked me to work with you for a time,” she gestured towards the opposing side of the training grounds. “Shall we discuss this in private?”

After staring at the chuunin with something like shock for a moment, the girl nodded shyly and tucked a long lock of pink hair behind her ear.

“Of course, kunoichi-san!”

They hadn’t even started to move towards the semi privacy that the other side of the training grounds could bring, when the orange clad genin burst in.

“Eh? Sakura-chan gets extra training? Why does she get extra training?” he scowled at Asuka with surprising ferocity, and she blinked at him in astonishment. “I want to train too!”

Brows furrowed, she glanced at the glowering Uchiha, to see something like disgruntled agreement on his pale, pretty boy features.

Oh, something like sympathy and confused discomfort squirmed in her chest at the odd flinching kind of loneliness and awkwardness in those two pairs of bright and dark eyes set in young features. They just don’t know what to do with themselves, do they?

That’s… familiar.

“Here’s the deal,” she set her hands on her hips, considering the two boys and the flushing girl who stood next to her staring at the ground and playing with her hair nervously. “I only spoke to Hatake-san aboutkunoichi training, and considering the fact that only one of the genin before me is a kunoichi – unless one of you spontaneously loses a piece of your anatomy and sprouts something else – you should speak to your jounin-sensei about any additional training that might be up for grabs, alright? Negotiate it out with him, okay?”

“Oh,” there was something endearing about the sheepish shrug of orange clad shoulders and shuffled feet as the boy rubbed the back of his hand. “Eheh, sorry. Good luck, Sakura-chan! Do your best!”

“Of course!” she shot back, looking pleased nonetheless, even if that expression melted away into dejection at the indifference that had taken over the Uchiha’s features.

That, Asuka thought with absolute certainty. Has to be one of the first things to go, she took a breath and grit her teeth against the urge to sneeze at the overwhelming power of perfume as the direction of the wind changed, pressing her tongue to the roof of her mouth uncomfortably to hold it in. That too.

Once the two females had sat themselves down on the other side of the field, the chuunin found herself quizzing the genin on the basics, and found herself rather pleased and relieved that the girl at least knew theory… well, most of it.

Some of the holes in her knowledge were, quite frankly, alarming.

“You’re dieting, why?” was the first thing that came out of her mouth after the girl had finished speaking.

“Eh?” she flushed a little, playing with her hair. “Well, I want to be thin for…” she snuck a glance over at the surviving Uchiha. “It’s bad to eat too much.”

“Eat too much?” the thought had never occurred to Asuka, not really, not with the basic nutritional outline given after the first year of chakra exercises were introduced in the Academy. “Sakura, dear, do you know how much you should be eating in a day, as a kunoichi, using chakra and doing a lot of physical work, and still growing?”

“Um,” the girls brows furrowed and she looked up with something like confusion on her features. “No? Three meals?”

The chuunin was already shaking her head even as the words came out of the girl’s mouth, kunai and senbon clinking together like chimes in the wind.

“Well, first off, using your chakra takes a lot of your stamina, right?” a nod. “And how do you regain energy?”

“Eating and sleeping.”

“Yes, so, a kunoichi or shinobi should be eating up to – or more than – three times the amount of a civilian, due to growing chakra stores, as well as a good deal of muscle mass.”

At the wide eyed look being directed at her, she found herself much more perturbed. Wasn’t this taught in the Academy? She remembered this course from her own years, and it was definitely something that wouldn’t have been forgotten once taught, but…

“I myself, eat perhaps five or six full meals packed with calories and protein in a day, as well as snacks. Considering I’m a chuunin, with mostly settled physical abilities, this is actually more than I strictly need as I’m not a chakra intensive jutsu heavy kunoichi; the jutsu I do use don’t take a lot of chakra. Those who reach the rank of jounin usually need to take in more nutrients in a day to keep peak efficiency and most also have the ability to regulate their metabolism to use their nutritional intake to the best of their ability. But, you, a growing girl who hasn’t yet settled your hormones or physical capabilities, need a lot, even when you aren’t doing a dangerous mission, which is why even D-ranked missions have considerable pay, to feed the growing coils and bodies of newly minted genin.”

That stare was really bothering her. Did no one ever tell her any of this? Really? Asuka remembered units on nutrition and diet. Like, units and units of study on the subject because the basic action of feeding yourself was doubly important when things like chakra got involved. During wartime, there were even segments in learning what nutrition you can go without when short on rations, which losses will harm you the most in the long run vs. short run. There had been distinct lessons in both her kunoichi and basic classes in the Academy.

Peacetime couldn’t have changed the curriculum that much, could it?

“If not properly fed and cared for, a ninja could collapse their coils by over exerting themselves when out of energy, because, due to dieting or lack of calorie intake, the physical aspect of chakra cannot hold up to the spiritual, can’t support it, causing an overall smaller chakra store. The older you get, the more food you are going to need, and the larger your chakra stores are going to want to grow, which, considering the lack of protein and vitamins you take in a day, could kill you outright, and possibly stunt your growth, or even prevent you from having children, your body sacrificing the unnecessary organs – generally starting with your uterus and ovaries – by cannibalizing your internal chakra stores keeping them healthy to ensure your survival.”

A moment of silence, and something like fearful, shocked sadness trembled through jade green eyes and over wobbling lips.

“Oh,” was the soft whisper, an audible click loud as she swallowed. “You won’t get…” her gaze flickered up to meet the darker, emerald green of the woman before her. “Fat?”

The small, amused, patient smile that crossed her features stayed for a moment before she gestured to her own, toned, athletic physique, decked out in almost zero battle attire as it was, considering she had the day free.

“Do I seem fat to you, Sakura dear?”

“No,” she shook her head as she said it, pink hair flickering around her as she did so. “You don’t at all.”

“No, I don’t.”

With a considering look at the girl before her, Asuka reached into her kunai pouch and brought out a small packet of calorie rich rice crackers designed and created with kunoichi in mind, and handed them to the girl.

“Here, you’re hungry, aren’t you?” the genin flushed, but nodded, taking the bag, but not opening it. Baby steps… “As a kunoichi, you’ll find it hard to gain weight after you hit your physical peak, and very easy to lose it, especially when your life is busy with training and missions, so you always have to make sure that you make time for meals, or carry several snacks around with you. You also must make sure to balance your nutritional plan with how much physical training you do, otherwise you either won’t be eating enough, or you’ll gain muscle too quickly, and possibly hamper your growth. Hatake-san mentioned that you were the top in your class in theoretical testing?” the girl squirmed a little but nodded, her cheeks flushed a little brighter, something like shocked, fragile pleasure alighting in jade eyes. “There are a number of scrolls or books you could either purchase from a ninja geared store or check out from the genin section of the library that contain information to help you calculate your own dietary needs. I’ll give you the list of them that I made for you when we’re done today so that you can work on that.”

When the bag opened with a crinkle, the chuunin felt something like satisfaction settle in her chest.

Baby steps…

“Also,” she considered the girl before her as she ate the cutesy, animal shaped crackers with restrained hunger. The panda shaped ones were Asuka’s favorite, but she’d never say that out loud. “You should perhaps wait until you’ve gained some weight, but consider getting wrist and ankle weights, nothing too heavy, but enough to passively work on strengthening yourself until you can actually have taijutsu training do anything for you. I’d rather you gain at least a solid ten to twenty pounds before doing this, but it is your body, so the decision, ultimately, is yours. I will, however, warn you that doing so too early could damage your ligaments and growth plates. There are a number of texts concerning this that will also be on the list I give you.”

“Hai, sensei.”

It took a moment as the girl stared down at her hands, but the girl looked up from the snacks she’d been eating, something like determination settling into those lightly colored eyes.

Sensei, huh? She raised a mental brow, feeling oddly uncomfortable and almost equally pleased with the title. Well, it’ll do.

“Also,” she frowned severely, taking some satisfaction as she stared into the girl’s eyes that she had riveted on the woman’s resolute, hard expression. “I will have no talking of crushes when you give me an explanation for whatever ineptitude or attitude – be it lacking or superficial – that I find in your training do you understand me? I’m doing this as both a favor to Hatake-san, and to save your life. That boy over there is of no interest to me,” her frown softened at wide, shocked eyes, dark green eyes warming in a way that the pink haired girl blinking and swallowing with sudden emotion. “You are. I’m not here for him, I’m here for you. No matter what Hatake-san might ask in the future regarding those two boys over there, here – now and later – when it is just you and me, you are my priority, do you understand?”

When those lovely jade green eyes trembled and watered, the girl staring down at her bag of snacks, Asuka ran a tender, callused hand over that silky – ridiculously so – pink hair in comfort, pulsing her chakra warmly over the girl to sooth, even as tears dripped onto the plastic of the cracker packaging.

“Do you understand, Sakura?” she asked softly.

“Hai,” she sniffled, quickly rubbing her hands over her face before smiling brightly up at the chuunin, despite her still wet eyes. “I understand, Asuka-sensei.”

“Good.”

She took a breath that was spoiled by an acidic tang and wrinkled her nose a bit in distaste.

“Now, about that perfume…”

~*~

“The Hokage will see you now.”

Looking up at the chuunin at the desk – one of the ones she was unfamiliar with, which meant it likely wasn’t a chuunin, probably some ANBU who had gotten onto the Sandaime’s shit list – when she spoke, Asuka stood and nodded her thanks before entering the office.

“Hokage-sama.”

She bowed at the waist before straightening, taking in the slightly tired looked to those wizened dark eyes as they regarded her from where he smoked on his pipe, leaning back in his seat.

“Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.”

“Asuka-kun, how good to see you,” the warmth and affection she remembered from her youth caused her to smile warmly at the grandfather of Konoha, cheeks warming slightly in something like pointless embarrassment and fondness. “There was something you wished to discuss?”

“Ah, yes sir,” she nodded and shifted to stand in a more comfortable position, features smoothing. “It’s in regards to the Academy curriculum.”

Those dark, tired eyes sharpened as he stared at her, and she realized that perhaps there was more going on there than she had previously realized or considered. She knew that Mizuki had turned traitor, and that he’d been a teacher at the Academy, that he had tried to use an Academy student to steal the Forbidden Scroll, but he certainly hadn’t been situated there for that long, not long enough to affect the curriculum, had he? He hadn’t been a member of the senior staff, so he would have had little effect on things other than giving suggestions to those who were in charge of class arrangements. If he hadn’t, did that mean that there was someone from before that mess who was and had been sabotaging the future nin of Konoha, or had the curriculum switched something out – even something as important as diet and physical health – after having deemed it unnecessary?

She really needed to speak to other ninja more often, if she were missing things like this.

Still, she felt a bit mollified in her dislike of the other chuunin who had been revealed to be a traitor, even if the thought was distasteful.

“Oh?” he extinguished his pipe and set it aside, interlocking his fingers and leaning forward on his desk. “Please, explain.”

So she did.

His expression grew grim as she explained her concern over the complete lack of knowledge in regards to the effect that chakra had on the body of a kunoichi, likely a shinobi as well, and perhaps a complete section regarding physical health having been removed. The fact that stealth training, as well as a regard for other Konoha nin with enhanced senses hadn’t been completely instilled, causing perhaps some dissention in the ranks, as well as animosity towards civilian born nin who didn’t have the ideals taught to them, and caused people like the Inuzuka to not want to work with them. It would certainly explain the lack of civilian graduates in the past years – direct sabotage, and wouldn’t the civilian council just be so thrilled by that? – as well as a drop in kunoichi who were viable for field work – most were civilian born and first generation ninja – making her job that much harder, giving her a heavier load of missions that needed a female presence, but also required battle specialists.

Not that Asuka minded all of the missions that ended up foisted upon her because of her somewhat in demand skillset, but it would be nice to have been able to split it between more than the three other kunoichi who matched the criteria, especially since one of them was a jounin who had other missions to tend to as well.

It was just concerning that there weren't more people with the necessary skill sets to give her and others a break. And if they are injured, well… that's a loss for the village of those kind of contracts.

“Well,” his lips pressed together tightly at the corners, showing his displeasure, and the lines on his face lengthened. “Asuka-kun, please tell my secretary to bring forth all Academy instructors for a meeting as soon as possible.”

“Hai, Hokage-sama,” she bowed as she had when entering and turned to leave.

“Oh, and Asuka-kun?”

“Sir?”

She turned back, her expression inquiring, brows slightly furrowed with discontent.

Something inside her relaxed at the smile he sent her despite the weariness in his dark gaze, and she recognized it as her distress at having caused him unhappiness.

“Thank you for coming to me with this.”

“Of course, Hokage-sama.”

~*~

She snarled as she staggered out of her room.

“Son of a bitch.

Half dressed and ready to tear that little orange loving little bastard a new one as she struggled to bring her half shirt over her head to cover her hastily redone done chest wrap, Asuka was definitely not pleased. Her eyes were blurry from being woken into a battle adrenaline and it being a false alarm, body buzzing unpleasantly, and heavy feeling. Her mouth also tasted like she's licked a cat.

Gross.

“I’m going to kill him.”

He kept pounding away on her door and hollering, and she could hear Sakura scolding him, as well as Hatake half-heartedly trying to get them to calm down in a bored monotone, and a couple of soft snorts from the Uchiha as she threw her leather armor over her front, sticking her arms through the holes and lacing up the back with chakra controlled wires, before double checking that her bandaged ribs were still properly accommodated and that she was wearing her pants the correct way. She’d never had them turn around in her sleep before, but well, there was a first time for everything, and as a ninja she’d learned that strange things happened from time to time.

Quickly securing her wrist guards, she did a small jump up and down, careful of her wounds, to make sure that everything was strapped down the way it should be, and that nothing jingled too outstandingly. Double checking her weapons pouch while stabbing through her left braid and twisting deftly to shift it into a bun with a senbon and approaching the door, she tried not to grimace at the throbbing of the bruise on her cheekbone from her last mission, the stitches that held the edges of the cut in the middle pulling beneath the bandage as the muscles in her face twitched with irritation. While she couldn't put on her usual shin guards with the rather impressive dent that the left one had in it from blocking a rather large piece of shrapnel from hitting Ito in the face, she had some spares in her scroll in her pouch; still, her shin throbbed accusingly at her.

She’d gotten the bruised ribs on this last mission, as well.

With a sniff, she realized that she still smelled slightly burnt, and her nostrils were a little clogged from a light exhaustion fever.

Great.

Finally getting both of her buns into place, she paused for a few seconds to secure the metal shin guards that went beneath her leg wraps before wrapping up her legs quickly, and then she ripped open her door and glared down at the hovering fist of the little beast that had woke her up from her much needed slumber.

“What!” she snapped irately.

Staring at the people in front of her with eyes narrowed and brow furrowed a touch as she gave a slight glare to the loud one, who’s eyes widened as he recoiled comically, before she fixed her tired eyes on the jounin who was standing with his nose in a copy of Icha Icha: Paradise.

“Oh, Asuka-sensei,” there was a gasp that caused the chuunin to look down into the young kunoichi’s eyes. “What happened?”

“Mission,” she stated, rubbing at her eyes carefully, feeling herself softening at the genuine concern in those eyes, before glancing wryly at the jounin and his loud subordinates, expression weary. “That I got home from about two hours ago. Maybe.

“Ah,” the book snapped shut and the silver haired man gave a wince of apology but shrugged a bit, because hey, he hadn’t known. “Well, the boys were bugging me about training, so…” that dark eye looked at her so earnestly that she felt vaguely uncomfortable, but noted that his eye was a sort of deep gray-blue if you looked hard enough. “Please?”

She was tired, she had a headache, her ribs hurt, her face hurt, she was hungry… hmm… well… she was hungry, and he was of a higher pay grade…

And she never said no to free food…

“Fine,” she grumbled, slipping on her shoes and shooting a chakra string behind her from her shoulder to set the AWAY traps before shutting the door so that they could arm. “But you’re getting me breakfast, you smarmy bastard.”

“Maa, that sounds fine,” he eye smiled at her as they set out, and she found herself rolling her eyes and trying to suppress the twitching of her lips as she did so, watching the kids race ahead, the orange one shouting some sort of challenge that the young Uchiha apparently couldn’t back down from, causing him to run forward as well. “You were on the border patrol?”

Her young student ran to catch up, gait much smoother than it had been and she was pleased to note, that even though it hadn’t yet been two weeks since their initial talk, the girl had put on some healthy weight. Kunoichi snacks could do wonders, especially when they were geared towards weight gain. The Akimichi were the best, really they were. Geniuses with food of all kinds for all purposes.

His dark eye glanced over the patch over her right cheek and she sighed.

“Mhmm,” she tried to stretch her arms above her head a little and grimaced at the ache in her ribs as she did so. “Hit and run,” she brushed a hand over her bandaged cheek. “They set a timed explosion for the area we chased them too and then booked it,” she scowled slightly. “What frustrates me is that they had to know that we were heading that way despite route scrambling, and well, the Hokage wasn’t exactly pleased about it either.”

There was very carefully no pattern to the patrol routes, so that no one could predict where the scouts would be to try to sneak past them as the quickest opportunity and that someone had been able to either predict where they would be or had been informed…

Yes, the Hokage was displeased, to say the least.

“No casualties, though?” there was a serious glint in his eye as he regarded her from the corner of it, as she chosen to walk on the side with the exposed one.

“Not yet,” she grimaced on the uninjured side of her face. “But Imori wasn’t looking so good last I heard, he was in surgery, took some shrapnel right in the gut.”

“Hmm,” he returned softly, visible eye dark in thought. “And you couldn’t identify the enemy shinobi?” features dissatisfied, she shook her head, calming slightly at the clinking of her hair weapons. “Dango good?”

“Sure,” she agreed, letting the subject drop with something like relief and a sigh. In all actuality, she’d just have to talk about it more later, anyhow. “But if that’s all for breakfast,” so cheap… “I’m gonna need lunch too, so when you skip out, bring something back for me, yeah?”

He chuckled, as if she had said something amusing, but nodded agreeably anyway, his book hovering comfortably in front of his face.

~*~

“So,” she stood considering the children before her, munching on her current stick of dango, the plate being ever so kindly balanced on the jounin’s free hand, half of it covered in empty skewers. “Show me your stances.”

“Alright!” predictably, the orange loving nuisance-to-her-laundry crowed before settling into… something.

Umm… did he… even go to the Academy?

She’d seen civilians with better stances, and they didn’t know jack shit about taijutsu.

“The hell is that?” she muttered, nibbling on her breakfast carefully, trying not to pull at her stitches again as she stared, brows furrowed, carefully keeping her fingers from getting sticky by holding the skewer delicately with the tips.

It almost looked like he was deliberately making openings in whatever poor excuse for a stance he had. To suck that bad it just had to be deliberate.

This was the sort of thing a master would do to lure in chumps and this kid was far from anything resembling an expert in the art of taijutsu… or anything, for that matter.

The Copy-nin just grunted helplessly from where he was still reading, as well as being a table, leaning against a tree before releasing a prolonged breath that was just loud enough for her to hear the exasperated, longsuffering held within it. Now she saw why he was asking for help, and from a chuunin at that. She was sure, having grown up with a family style, he’d never have had much memory of starting from scratch, and she was equally as sure, that once the kids were settled into a style – a real one – he’d be able to do more for them, considering his experience in taijutsu, and just battle in general, but it looked like they hadn’t exactly been doing much for this kid at the Academy.

Another irritating thing in regards to the curriculum, she was sure.

The Uchiha, when she looked at him, caused her to make a face of half I’m so done and half what.

He was standing in something of a bastardization of the Uchiha Interceptor mixed with the Cat’s Paw, and she really wanted to palm her face, but her hands were both occupied. His feet were way too close together for either of those, though, so she wasn’t quite sure where he’d gotten his footwork, and that made her really uncomfortable. Perhaps he hadn’t thought to adjust it for growing? Or… maybe he’d learned from a scroll.

The thought made her grimace, chest tightening briefly but she swallowed passed the sudden dryness of her throat and sighed, shaking her head slightly.

A wry smile crossed her features as she finished her perusal of the three genin.

While Sakura was the most likely to fall in a taijutsu bout since she was lacking in strength, reflexes, speed and stamina, she also had the most correct stance, and stood in the basic position of the Leaf’s Dragon Balance that was taught at the Academy, something that Asuka hadn’t really done much with since after reaching chuunin and settling into her own style.

Well, it could be worse.

Sort of.

“Alright,” she sighed placing her empty skewer on the empty plate, and sending a wry glance at the seemingly oblivious jounin because last she’d checked there had still been three of the mild sweets left the last time she’d grabbed one, but hey, he had to be hungry too, and he had paid. It wasn’t something to take up arms about. “Starting with the Uchiha.”

His features twisted so that he looked a bit miffed at being addressed like that, and the Uzumaki boy was scowling something fierce as well, but that displeased expression lit up into something like ecstatic joy when all she did was walk over to the pretty-boy and push him over into the dirt. The resistance had been pathetically easy to outmaneuver, and even though she was a seasoned chuunin with a high strength count on her data sheet she should have at least felt more strain than she did for opening a kami-forsaken door but the kid apparently ate like a bird or something.

Well, she’d probably have to take care of that, too, then.

Sweet mother of the Sage of Six Paths, these kids were a mess.

“What –” he looked outraged from his seat on the ground.

“First off,” she held up her hand to forestall him. “Were you trying to stand in Cat’s Paw, or Interceptor? Because whatever that was, was neither of the two.”

His expression was mutinous, but he stood, dusting himself off and answered her query.

“Interceptor,” his lips were tight at the corners with anger.

Still, he wasn’t disregarding her as some of his predecessors would have, and that was good. He wasn’t a complete prick yet… still, perhaps it would hit after puberty did.

Like a punch in the teeth.

Sudden, jarring, and more than a little painful.

“Yeah, so, that wasn’t a very good starting stance,” she gestured at Kakashi, who had magically made the plate disappear altogether, but looked up lazily when she’d waved in his direction. “A demonstration of the Interceptor stance, if you please,” with a sigh, the man closed his book and settled his feet, his left hand still holding the orange volume. “Now,” she placed her hand on his side, ignoring the warning, dangerously aware and armed electric buzz of his chakra beneath the firm heat of coiled, lean muscle shifting with fabric. Hmm, perhaps this wasn’t one of her better decisions. Touching a jounin without their express permission? Hah, well, at least he hadn’t stabbed her yet. “When I push him,” and she did just that, using significantly more force in comparison to shoving at the Uchiha boy when she did so, and he shifted his center of balance perfectly with no sign of strain. “Did he fall over?”

“No,” made it out through gritted teeth, his pale cheeks flushed with either embarrassment or fury, probably a mixture of the two, brows almost meeting in the center they were so tensed, dark eyes glimmering with heat and displeasure and something she couldn’t quite identify.

Children were insurmountably complicated.

“See his feet?” she crouched down into her familiar flatfooted squat, gesturing at the sandaled appendages, and looking up at the Uchiha boy to make sure he was paying attention, and pleased to note, that while sullen, he was still listening and watching. While he wasn’t exactly eager he was still willing to listen to a more skilled ninja to excel his own abilities, even when they weren’t from a Clan or of jounin status. Wait, had she ever mentioned to them that she was a chuunin? Well, whatever, it didn’t particularly matter as long as their sensei didn’t contradict her somewhere down the line. “Look at the way his back foot it planted parallel to the direction he’s facing, and the way his front is angled just slightly out, not pointed straight, to work as a counterbalance from attacks from the side, making it easy to shift his weight accordingly, and his knees are bent to absorb impact and direct the weight away.”

Standing, she grimaced a bit at the pull on her ribs, but turned back to the lesson.

“And his arms, the left hovering a bit lower than shoulder height, bent almost ninety degrees at the elbow, the right echoing that in front of him,” she snapped out a lazy backhand at his front, and he easily, smoothly directed it away and his arm was back in place, she barely noted the interest that all three were having in the demonstration, as well as her in depth explanation. She also didn’t noticed the dark gray-blue eye that blinked at her thoughtfully before returning to a bland expression behind a dark navy mask, position perfect and at ease despite her proximity. “Also, the slight lean forward at the hips, not the waist, keeps his weight proportionally centered.”

She turned back to the Uchiha survivor, surprised, but pleased at the serious expression on his features, as well as the interest that was shown in dark eyes over the anger the perceived insult had garnered her when she’d ‘embarrassed’ him in front of his peers.

“The Interceptor style is aptly named, in saying that you intercept attacks, it is a mainly defensive, reactionary taijutsu, with Cat’s Paw being its aggressive partner. In the Interceptor you should have no need to repurpose your stance, and can defend from both sides, by simply turning your torso,” she heard the shifting of fabric behind her that signaled the jounin doing just that. “And switching the positioning of your arms.”

She waited for the question she could see burning in his eyes as he stared contemplatively at his jounin-sensei’s unfaltering stance, patiently settling her weight carefully onto her right side to relieve some of the pressure on her ribs.

“How do you… know this?” his brow was furrowed, and there was a familiar, heavy dark pain in his eyes.

For a moment, she glanced at the other two genin, only to be inordinately pleased at their own serious expressions as they regarded their taciturn teammate, the two keeping their silence at some nonexistent signal that it was not the time.

“Most of the older generation ninja have worked with Uchiha in the past,” she stated calmly, looking him in the eye despite the pain twinging in her chest. “I was on a genin team with two, and while I could kick Chitose’s ass around the block, Haruka knew was he was doing most of the time, and didn’t mind explaining his taijutsu styles, even if he wouldn’t teach them outright.”

She quirked a sad smile at him, her eyes darkening with memories. Ah… how she missed the twins. They were always good for a laugh, for joy, for… everything. They were always… would always. No matter how… unconventional their relationship had been, she had cared for them deeply. To her it was a given. They had been teammates. Especially after that night twelve years ago when the entire village had wept in grief, they had meant the world to her, had been hers in a way no one else was anymore.

They had been Haruka and Chitose, and she’d loved them.

She still did.

“And, well,” she glanced at the Hatake behind her – pulling her mind from thoughts of those she’d lost – who had returned to a normal standing position, shoulders slumped and hands shoved haphazardly into his pants pockets. “Him knowing is something of a given, considering he is who he is.”

At the mildly confused – who was she kidding, they had completely uncomprehending expressions on, like brick walls – looks on their faces, she shot an incredulous one at the jounin, only to receive a helpless, sheepish shrug in turn.

Did they really not know who their sensei was?

How… did you miss that?

What was the Academy teaching these days?

Oh, whatever.

She didn’t have any reason to start giving history lessons as it were, and she definitely wasn’t going to bring up the Sharingan with that little sourpuss there, not when he still had that hot poker of grief and rage and childish insecurities shoved up his ass.

“Anyway,” she cleared her throat, shaking her head in disbelief. “The Uchiha is going to go over there,” she pointed towards the far side of the training field. “And Hatake-san is going to go over forms with him,” she gave a quelling look at the boy who looked like he was going to speak, only for his teeth to click quietly as his mouth shut quickly. “Forms for both the Interceptor and the Cat’s Paw, while I work on you,” she pointed at the jinchuuriki with a frown, already imagining the headache that this would bring. “And hope for the best.”

Something like a despondent sigh escaped the jounin but he began to walk away, and the Uchiha boy followed after him, once he’d given her something of a searching, uncertain look. He had seemed to find whatever it was he was looking for in her calm visage as she gazed mildly back at him, left brow quirking just a touch as if to tell him to hurry it up, and then he had went on his way.

“Now,” she turned to the orange wearing boy, only to see him situating himself into that mess again. “No, stop, that’s gross,” she grimaced at the bewildered look he sent her, but she waved a hand in front of her face at it, like it was a bad smell. Luckily, the pink haired girl had listened to her advice and no longer had herself drenched in chemicals so there was no real scent wafting eye wateringly in her direction. “What you are doing is not a taijutsu stance.”

“Eh?” he looked confused, before glancing at Sakura, as if she had an answer, but she was watching her jounin-sensei correcting and explaining the stances of her crush on the other side of the field. Honestly, the girl hadn’t even entered puberty. “But, this was what I was taught! I’ve been using this since forever!”

A fierce frown found its way onto her aching features.

“Who taught you this?”

“Um,” he glanced at his feet before looking up at her sulkily, sky blue eyes dark with unhappiness and a smidge of pain. “Mizuki-sen… I mean, Mizuki-teme.”

“Ah,” she breathed in deeply through her nose, eyes closed for a moment. She really hoped he was having such a nice stay in Interrogation… perhaps she would ask Anko to make sure he was comfortable. It was only polite, after all. “Well, it’s wrong no matter how you look at it, but that’s no fault of your own, so, we’re just going to have to start from scratch then, aren’t we? I mean,” when she opened her eyes again, she was greeted with an oddly watery pair of sky blue eyes, and something like helpless wonder on that silly, scruffy whiskered tan face. After a moment, he sniffed, rubbed the back of his arm over his face and then grinned up at her. What had she said? “It’s not like you can’t learn taijutsu, and I’ll drill into your skull what I can so that you have something to work on in the mornings when that asshole over there,” she jerked her thumb towards the jounin, who looked like he was shaking his head at something as the dark haired boy stood in the opening stance of Cat’s Paw. “Decides that he needs more primping time in the morning.”

The silence wasn’t uncomfortable only because Sakura was looking longingly at her crush – Baby steps Asuka, remember the baby steps – while the Uzumaki was staring down at the ground with a conflicted sort of expression, the woman herself was looking at the yellow haired child with slightly furrowed brows and a small frown, eyes half lidded against the sun. From an outsider’s perspective it looked like she was a little sternly disapproving, but up close, when bright blue eyes flickered up to look at her what she conveyed was amused concern through a tilt of her head and a hand on her hip, torso slightly tilted to keep her from worsening her wounds.

“You ready for this, kid?”

“Yeah…”

The boy was inordinately quiet for a moment, before he brightened with determination and a grin.

“Yeah, Nee-chan!”

~*~

There had been something a little familiar about her when he’d first seen her, but he hadn’t remembered until she’d shown up to take his pink haired teammate to teach her about the girly side of being a shinobi and hadn’t ignored him the way other grownups did. That steady gaze, those deep green eyes that seemed to stare right into him, into the core of his sense of self with intent he didn’t understand was what jogged his memory, the burnished way that her hair had burned brightly in light of the sun on the bridge like a new copper coin had cemented the memory into place, and he’d found himself silently contemplative, even as he was hesitant.

She’d helped him once when he was younger, though he didn’t think she remembered it.

Why would she?

It wasn’t like he was worth notice.

He’d been looking into some store window, he couldn’t remember exactly what it was he was looking at, but it had been bright enough to hold his attention for just long enough for one of the villagers to notice him hanging around and get upset. He had still been trying to get on their good side at the time, had tried to be quiet and good for them so that they’d like him, would maybe smile at him like they did the other kids. It was before he’d given up on being what they wanted and had decided to be what he wanted even if it hurt and he cried more on the inside. It was before he felt what it was like to have his heart warmed by the acknowledgement of someone other than Hokage-jiji, to eat with someone and not have the stall owner glaring down at him and giving him subpar orders for extremely overcharged amounts of money.

He really was glad to Teuchi for dealing with him, for giving him a place.

Eating his ramen was like coming home.

Ah! Get out of here, demon brat!” the man had yelled, waving a broom at him threateningly, causing the blonde to stumble back away from the window with wide eyes and hunched shoulders. He didn’t know if the man would actually hit him, but it had happened enough that he was leery of it even then. It didn’t matter how quickly the pain left, it still hurt. “You’ll ruin my business!”

Scampering back, he hadn’t noticed the kunoichi who had paused in her shopping with her two dark haired companions to frown at the shop keeper intensely with green eyes lit by the reflection of sunlight like a shard of bottle glass glittering in the rays, the color eerie in the daylight, the older man flinching and quavering under her gaze, nor did he see the way that the two young men seemed to slump with resignation as she followed after him with nothing but a short word to her companions, handing off bags of groceries to them. All he noticed was the fact that some of the civilian children had spotted him after the man had yelled out about his presence and running towards him until he ran away himself, and then they were chasing after him with taunts and jeers, some were laughing and picking up rocks, throwing them ahead after him, trying to hit him or trip him up, to make him cry, to fall and bloody his knees, to dirty one of the few sets of clothes he had.

Sometimes he hated how clumsy he could be, how sometimes his skin felt too tight and the inside burning energy that kept him awake at all hours of the night much too big – he would later learn that this was chakra and feel awe… and much later fear at what else it was he could have been feeling – for his little body and small limbs, because he tripped and fell, skinning his knees and hands with a muted cry of both resigned pain and despair.

Sometimes… he just hated.

A rock connected with his shoulder and he ducked down into a ball, covering his head against further assault as he’d learned, an ingrained reflex when one of them had managed to get a hit in on his small, thin form. Once one had gotten him, the rest would get more enthusiastic and he’d end up bruised and cut all over. Even if it healed really fast it still hurt – if he gave up he’d give in and he knew that was a bad thing even if he didn’t know why and the ache in his chest would get worse and worse like a pressure trying to crush him from the inside out even after they were done and gone.

Bored of him.

“Hey.”

A young woman’s slightly husky voice had interrupted after a second rock had caught him, this time in the lower back, causing him to release a whimper and wish it was just over already. Wished that they’d get bored soon and wander away because he did nothing to entertain them, only hid his face and stayed as still as he could so as to lose their attention, even though it was lonely being alone. Her voice was surprisingly close, like she was… right behind him. Close. He could almost feel her heat.

“What do you brats think you’re doing?”

“Ah! A ninja!”

“Oh no!”

“Run!”

The footsteps that had been following after him scurried away quickly at the interference, and he hesitantly looked up and around himself, finding none of the kids that had been chasing after him in the area, but there was a pair of legs behind him.

They were kind of long, too.

Much longer than his stubby six-year-old legs.

Following the limbs upwards he found himself faced with a rather pretty young woman who was examining a rock that she had apparently intercepted with something like both detached distaste and rage, though it seemed to him that it wasn’t directed at him like it usually was. Naruto was well practiced in telling when someone was angry at him for existing and when they were upset about something else, and her expression was definitely in the latter area, though he had no idea why she seemed so furious and disgusted about whatever that rock made her think about.

She had pretty bronzy brown hair pulled back in a single bun on the back of her head that was covered in black cloth, the string that held it tight against her hair dangling down with little shimmering beads on the ends, red, white and navy blue little commas. Her large green eyes were very glittery and warm in the light when he looked at them, eyelashes like a bronze haze in the summer light where they bordered those pretty green orbs, before she turned to him with her features clear of blemishes as she studied his slightly dirtied face and his wide blue eyes, lips soft and slightly open as she ran her gaze over him. There was a hitai-ate tied around her forehead, glinting just barely in the light of the sun, the metal a little beaten up and scratched, the material that held it in place looked a little dirty and burnt as well. Really, she actually kind of looked like she’d been in a fight – he imagined something epic with made up explosive jutsu being flung around, he bet she been really cool facing whoever it was she’d been fighting with, probably with the calm, assessing gaze she wore just then – her black and brown ninja clothes all mussed up and there was a little bit of blood on her left arm coming through the bandages she wore on her arms.

For some reason, he got the feeling that whatever fight she’d been in, she’d been really strong. That she’d won.

Naruto had rarely won anything in his life – and never anything that anyone but the old man Hokage had congratulated him on – and he felt awed at the thought of someone who so clearly did had defended him from the bullying village children.

“You alright, kid?” she had asked with an uncharacteristically soft voice, squatting down next to him, still playing with the rock in her hand. “You’re not hurt too bad?”

“F-fine,” he had stammered out, before scowling at her despite the hot burn in his cheeks as she kept steady green eyes focused on him. She was… she was looking at him… at him… “I-I’m… I-I didn’t need your help!”

“Oh?” she tilted her head to the side slightly and studied him curiously, eyes curving faintly to match her lips in a small amused smile with a wry tilt. She was… really pretty. His cheeks burned fiercely, his lip pouted without his knowledge, causing her smile to grow. “Well, then, I’m sorry for getting involved and stealing your thunder. You had a master plan, right? I’m sure those kids would have trembled in fear if they knew what was good for them.”

There was something about her tone that he didn’t understand, so he just looked at her a little confused, and she sighed in something like defeat before he watched her casually crush the rock that was sitting in her palm into small grains and pieces. The shattered fragments glittered and sparkled in the afternoon sunlight, falling to the ground on a lazy breeze that stirred them through the air before they scattered across the packed earth that was the street.

Later he would meet a woman who could vaporize them into dust in her hand, with just a finger, but for a long time this was the most impressive display he’d ever seen outside of awesome showy jutsu.

It didn’t change the fact that it was still one of the most important memories he had.

His eyes were wide with shock as he stared at her hand, even as she was reaching one that had water at her fingertips to his dirty slightly bloodied knees and washed away the grime and studied the tiny already mostly healed cuts. The water tickled and felt nice, and he felt his cheeks flush a little more at the action even though he couldn’t move his gaze away from the ground and the evidence of ninja strength, not resisting as she grabbed his dirty cut hands and cleaned gravel out of his skin, her touch gentle and careful.

Her hands were warm, and not soft in the least, they were hard like the old man’s, but not as hard.

It was… nice.

He’d only ever had one person touch him nicely before.

He kind of liked it. It made his chest tight and warm, his eyes burned a little like he was going to cry but he clenched his teeth to hold back the tears.

“Huh,” her brows rose and she brought that deep green gaze back to his slack features where he was still staring at the pieces of rock, her own gaze having been curiously focused on his slightly raw hands that were visibly healing. “Neat. Well, see you around, kid.”

She had stood and turned to join the two young men he hadn’t seen before but definitely noticed as she walked over to join them. They had the Uchiha crest printed on the shoulder of their slightly scruffy and dirty looking shirts – a much less blatant display of Clan presence than he was used to from the ninja police – and were carrying grocery bags, one was noticeably shorter than the other and the same height as the woman was, the other was almost half a foot taller than his two companions. The dirt, blood and ash that splattered them and the singed areas of their clothes as well told him that whatever fight she’d been in they had probably been in it too, and they didn’t really look like they’d won the way she did, especially not the tall one. She was much so cooler than them, it was obvious.

He noticed the way that she smiled at the two men warmly, the way the taller one slung an arm around her shoulders to pull her into his side familiarly and grinned in an expression he’d never seen an Uchiha make, the action slightly crooked on pale, dirty and bruised handsome features. The shorter one bumped a shoulder against hers on the opposing side of his taller counterpart, his own attractive features twisted by a small, affectionate smile while his cheeks pinked a little in a blush that the blonde boy was half convinced he was hallucinating.

He wanted someone to smile at him the way she smiled at them. He wanted someone to look at him the way they looked at her.

His chest ached.

Even as he thought it, the woman turned halfway back around and those pretty green eyes zeroed in on him. She gave him a slight smile tinged with some of the warmth she’d directed at the two Uchiha and a short wave, before taking the shorter man’s free hand in hers, something that brought a brighter flush to his features as he glanced down towards the ground almost shyly, and they started on their way.

He sat in the dirt for quite some time after they’d gone, wondering if some day he might have friends like her. If he might have had something like that if he’d had a mother or a sister, if when he became a ninja people would respect him the way they had her, if he could crush rocks in his hand without thought the way she had, if he would have friends.

If, if, if.

Six years later, he was finally a ninja, and she was standing before him without her two Uchiha friends – he felt an ache in his chest at the grief he’d seen in her eyes as she’d spoken to his jerk of a teammate about them – and she was teaching him. Her face was a little less expressive, her eyes a little sadder, her voice a touch rougher, but her gaze was still warm and intent, still focused whole heartedly on whoever stood before her, those brilliant green eyes on his face not filled with an ounce of malice, only that kind of longsuffering indulgence and slight annoyance that he’d seen on Iruka-sensei after he’d become important to him.

When he’d told her about Mizuki, she had seemed to know why he was unhappy with it even though he tried really hard not to show how much his stomach and chest felt heavy at the thought of the teacher who had apparently screwed him over in more ways than one. The woman had known that his former sensei had tried to use him, had betrayed the village, and she’d gotten that same exact look of distasteful, slightly bored, distant rage she’d had when he was just a six year old boy running from civilian bullies. He had felt the constant ache in his chest ease in much the same way it had when his favorite sensei had started to treat him like a person rather than like a nuisance that would go away the longer he ignored him, to take care of him like a big brother mixed with a father or an uncle – like family, his mind whispered shyly, something he’d never say out loud – the way he’d felt when he’d been really hungry and mugged by some of the meaner civilian kids so he didn’t have any money and Teuchi had given him free ramen, a safe haven from the other civilian adults. The way he didn’t like to admit it but Sasuke had made it ease when he’d offered to share his lunch with him when he’d been tied to the post as a failure again.

When she was teaching him she was patient, and when he didn’t understand something, she would do that same kind of demonstration she’d done with his jounin-sensei only using Sakura as the dummy this time, the pink haired girl he admired not protesting as much as he’d come to expect at being separated from the Teme. Asuka was amazing.

It was a lot easier to understand than the things that that bastard Mizuki had shoved down his throat, too.

He always did better when he could see and then copy, rather than when he was just being told what to do. He was a genin of action, not a bookworm.

Not that that was a bad thing. Sakura was very smart and a bookworm, but he… wasn’t very smart.

It had taken him a long time to learn how to read and write – and he still had trouble with some words – even when the old man and Teuchi had had the time to help him.

He wasn’t smart, but he knew that something that this woman, this Nagisa Asuka, had done with them that day was different than anything he was used to. The way she had done something before with his female teammate that impressed their sensei but he couldn’t really tell what it was other than the fact that he didn’t want to sneeze as often when she walked close to him, the way that their sensei wasn’t as distant with them as usual. With that, he knew that she had performed a miracle.

Kaka-sensei was talking to them, working with them when the first few weeks he’d just dump them on D-ranks and go on his merry way, as if expecting them to teach themselves.

With the knowledge that those two who she’d looked at with such affection –love? He thought unsurely – had been her teammates – Chitose and Haruka, he reminded himself, determined to remember their names, to carve them into his mind – had given him hope that he might be close with his own someday, even if Sakura didn’t seem to like him at all yet, and the stupid emo bastard didn’t like anybody, he still hoped so.

It would be nice, to have someone to smile at like that.

To be smiled at like that.

~*~

With a harsh groan, she slid down the tree trunk and squinted up at the sky, taking in the positioning of the sun to note that she’d just spent almost an hour and a half schooling the bright eyed idiot in actual taijutsu drills with some cajoled help from Sakura to play dummy after she’d dragged her eyes from the Uchiha. Really, that was probably the most Asuka had ever spoken to someone in such a short period of time in, like, ever and man, she sure was hungry because of it.

The kid was surprisingly attentive when you had something interesting to teach him, something he wanted to learn.

She glanced over at where the Uchiha was slowly moving through forms, switching from offensive to defensive, from Interceptor to Cat’s Paw, trying to remember the feel of it, the smoothness of transitioning at the right moment, trying to ingrain reflexes. The fact that the Uzumaki boy was doing the same, under the careful, watchful, sometimes correcting eye of his female teammate brought a smile to her lips, and even as she reached into her pouch for a ration bar – ugh, man, she really needed to restock her snacks – and some pins for her hair, she felt the slight ruffling of air and scattering of leaves that signaled shunshin.

Well, the common shunshin, anyhow.

Shisui, that little brat…

She’d never stop missing him.

“Lunch?” she queried, hands securing her bangs back whilst looking up at the returned jounin, who held two rather large bento in his hands.

Cool, she could forego choking down a ration bar then. Awesome.

Life was always brighter when one didn’t have to suffer through a small, dry granola bar that was designed not to be tasty but efficient in delivering as many nutrients in as small a form as possible. It was like eating dirt. The most unappetizing of dirt if it could be found, at that.

“Aa. No preferences?”

He plopped down next to her at a respectful distance, his dark eye lazily taking in the progress of his genin students, and was perhaps pleased by their progress if the small, more natural curve to his smiling eye was anything to go by.

“Nah, anything’s fine.”

She nodded her thanks and broke open the cheap chopsticks that came with the takeout bento, making a noise of pleasure at the sight of the slightly sticky rice and steamed vegetables that sat to one side before her. Something else caught her eye over the regular additions to a standard lunch set.

“Ooh, inari sushi! Itadakimasu!” she plucked a piece up and popped it into her mouth, humming in approval as he echoed her opening to the meal, though his tone was rather bored. “Wow, you sure go all out, huh?”

She carefully timed her glance up for when he’d set his chopsticks into her line of sight, so that she wouldn’t make him have to rush his eating – she’d seen him choke once, subtly, when they’d been on a joint mission, and while it was mildly amusing at the time, it also made her feel a little bad for him, as well – and took in the pleased expression on the corner of his face she could see. There had to be a reason that he was always hiding his face, because no matter what some people said, one didn’t just decide that they weren’t going to show their face to the world on a whim, because as far as she knew, he had literally worn a mask since before he’d gone to the Academy. That spoke of purpose, and it was only common courtesy to adjust to his needs like one would with any comrade who had some sort of special circumstances, like never trying to look under the bandages around a Branch Hyuugas forehead, not commenting on the eating habits of the Akimichi, and never treating an Inuzukas canine companion as just another dog.

It was the little things, that made the village go round, and being courteous while this man ate wasn’t a hardship.

“Hm, well, I owed you lunch,” he gestured at his own bento, which was lacking in sushi, as well as sweet pickles, but had beef and radish in its place.

They ate for a bit, and she couldn’t help but tease a little that she thought he should know that she had a preference for yellowtail for the next time he decided to drag her out of bed, and he seemed amused by her words, even if his preferred sushi was regular old fatty tuna. She sighed after she finished, stomach comfortably full for the moment. When she got around to testing for jounin, likely tokubetsu considering her skill set, the first thing she’d do was learn that metabolic jutsu, so that she didn’t have to eat as much when she wasn’t expending chakra. It would certainly help her savings, and she’d get to eat tastier things more often, considering their prices and how much she had to eat normally, that would about even things out if she was only a little less frugal than usual. The jutsu itself was complicated and dangerous enough that it had a rank assignment to it that was casually called double A, because if you fucked it up you could end up in the section of the hospital wards dedicated to Akimichi that had used too many of their food pills, so their body was eating itself.

Not the way that anyone wanted to go, really.

“So,” she started, gaze on the loud, earnest, annoying blonde boy as he fumbled a step, only to receive a whap over the head from his female teammate before she corrected him. Well, you couldn’t expect everything to fall immediately into place. “The loud one is working on some stances from the Academy style, and I’ve started him on the Grab and Go,” the Grab and Go was just a name for putting effective brawling moves together, a choreographed wildness, as it were. “But since I’m not particularly unconventional in my taijutsu, nor do I have the time to dedicate to this, you’re gonna have to finish that out with him.”

“Well, that’s fair,” the sound of wings overhead caused the two to glance up, and Asuka groaned softly at the chuunin signal on the scroll it carried, before standing. “Have fun.”

“Thanks for lunch, Hatake-san,” she called over her shoulder as she walked away before hollering at the genin. “Keep up the good work kids, see ya!”

“Ah! Bye Nee-chan!”

“Bye, Asuka-sensei!”

“Hn.”

These were her simultaneous answers from the children as she was about to abscond from the training grounds. Hesitating for a moment thoughtfully, she threw a considering glance over them and then one back to the jounin who was eyeing her with a single pale brow arched.

“I might do this again,” she said vaguely.

“I might feed you again,” was the equally noncommittal answer.

While the shunshin that she executed in the next moment wasn’t taxing in particular, though her chakra system did throb a little like an overworked muscle, there was a headache building behind her eyes. Hell, her face kind of hurt, and not just from the cut on her cheek either, from all of that talking that she wasn’t used to doing, which meant that her throat got kind of scratchy by the end of the day. Even if she’d only spent a few hours with the kids, going over taijutsu stances, there had still been a level of effort to keeping their attention that she hadn’t noticed until after the fact and she was already tired. Asuka certainly had a newfound respect and sympathy for the even more antisocial than she was Hatake Kakashi, that was for sure.

Kids were exhausting.

~*~

She was… not what he’d expected.

Even though he’d asked her for her assistance – in hindsight, he was surprised that he had actually gone through with it, since it meant willingly socializing to some extent – and she had agreed to give it, he hadn’t really expected much from her. However, he’d been pleasantly surprised when he’d shown up to training the day after she’d taken Sakura aside for the first time, something that the girl had been thinking about the entire day after the woman had left, and been able to breathe. The girl had looked terribly embarrassed when he’d thanked her, with as much emotional sincerity as he could conjure, for toning down on her painful aroma so that he didn’t have to sacrifice his senses. The shampoo she used was still too strong, but they couldn’t have everything at once, and he got to use his nose again, so he was rather glad. She also had crackers that she would snack on when the boys were sparring together, some candied fruits as well, something that he approved of, and when he mentioned this to her, the girl had lit up like he’d told her that she could skip chuunin to go straight to jounin and Sasuke had agreed to marry her.

Of course, his yellow haired and extremely loud genin had not let things lie as they were, since the chuunin had apparently told the kid to stuff it by passing off the ability to ask for extra training from her to him.

In some way, he was sure that he deserved the constant irritation from his two male genin, but he couldn’t help but sulk a little at her backhanded revenge.

When he’d finally given in and told them that yes, they could ask Nagisa for help with training, the genin had dragged him off to her apartment – which it was a little odd that they’d already found out where she lived… it was… he… he had the creepy stalker genin, didn’t he? Hah, why wouldn’t he? There was a team every year… kami hated him, he was sure – and he’d known as soon as he’d felt her chakra spike agitatedly, that they had woken her from an exhausted post mission sleep. The low snarling of words he couldn’t make out could be heard through the door, and the Copy-nin was vaguely glad that he had chakra coating on his eardrums out of habit from being around the loud obnoxious students, because she obviously hadn’t thought to do so when she went to sleep and was cursing them out. Not that he could blame her, because unless confronted by how obnoxious they were, one really didn’t think about how to avoid hearing loss when dealing with genin, and she certainly wasn’t surrounded by the chaos and anarchy that were these children day in and day out. And no, he wasn’t jealous of her for that. Not even a little.

Okay, so denial was something he practiced. Often.

Looking at her after she’d opened the door, her pretty features dark and strained, he belatedly realized that this probably wasn’t a very good time.

Her hair was slightly askew from sleep, features wane with exhaustion, light purple bags standing out against her lightly tanned skin, causing her large green eyes to look even angrier than usual, the high color in pale cheeks suggested something of a fever, too. There was bruising that was snaking out from beneath the bandage that had been slapped over her cheek, likely for whatever abrasion was in the center of her cheek, a tiny dot of blood having seeped through the material to be clear to the eye. He could already tell that she was supporting some form of abdominal injury, just by the way she had situated her body, and was ever so slightly slouched to one side to keep pressure off of the area of impact, her breathing shallow.

She smelled like charred earth, hot metal, blood and the lower key scent of pine and sap.

He didn’t breathe too deeply, it would be impolite to take in her deep chakra scent after they’d only been able to meet twice for training since the initial agreement.

They weren’t close.

He hadn’t done close in a long time.

Not when he wasn’t being forced to take on monster genin, anyway. The Sandaime was so cruel…

He did feel a bit guilty about dragging her out to entertain the brats when she was so obviously exhausted, her reserves a little low, if not to the extremes that he usually managed, but if all she wanted for the inconvenience was food, then he didn’t particularly mind. It was a bit startling to realize in a sudden epiphany that she really didn’t have much interest in impractical things when she wanted something from someone, or likely at all, and she wanted… useful things from him, like food and for him to help her equip herself against stronger opponents. There was something in the back of his mind where his instinct lay that rolled this around in consideration in a way that the rest of him didn’t understand, and he let it be. If it was important it would jump out at him later.

He’d learned to listen to his instincts.

The few times someone had done him a favor – he had never… asked for assistance before – they had always asked for ridiculous things that he had no plans of ever fulfilling, like showing his face or telling them about the Yondaime, occasionally there were the idiots who wanted him to put in a good word with the Council for them when they were trying to get promoted.

Like the Council cared about his opinion enough for that to even make a difference.

It could even have a negative impact, who knew.

The fact that they had been ambushed on home soil was a little unnerving though, as was the inability to identify the nin that had managed to set it up in the first place, and she seemed a lot more irritated with the fact that they had mostly gotten away after harming a member of her team rather than the fact that they had been unidentifiable. It was a sentiment he could get behind at least, he could see the genuine affection and worry when she’d spoken of her injured teammate, and that fit with the picture he was getting of her personality of an abrupt, socially reticent woman who had few people she cared to speak with but held an affection for all of her fellows, even if it wasn’t a personal one. She may not speak to all of the ninja of Konoha, may not find the need to, but she cared for her comrades both on and off the battlefield.

When she basically stared in affected adoration at the large order of dango he got for her, he chuckled openly, well aware of the craving for food when tired, even more so was what he normally dealt with, what with his own much larger chakra stores.

Of course, it was nice to be validated in his distaste for the kids’ taijutsu, even though he had no idea how she had managed to get them to listen to her for so long without shouting or arguing or anything of the sort. All she’d done was given them a placid, calm look and they’d been hung up on her every word. He had to be extremely serious and borderline angry for them to take anything he said to heart, and even then he had to beat it into them, especially the boys. Perhaps she had a teacher’s aptitude? No, if she did, then she’d be teaching at the Academy, even though she was a battle oriented kunoichi, it was a sad truth that the Council preferred having the female side of the shinobi of Konoha firmly within reach, and even if it had lessened its grip due to things like Senju Tsunade becoming a formidable force, they still tried to hold females back. She was lucky that she was so militantly competent, because half of the Council’s argument for women not being in the field had to do with their apparent inability to compartmentalize, a thick, smarmy lie if he’d ever heard one.

Maybe it was because she was female that they listened to her better? Children reacted to women differently than they did to men, didn’t they? Something about most adult females in a position of authority reminding them of their mothers and instinctively listening to her because women ruled the household or something to that affect? Except that couldn’t be true for Naruto, no matter how much the thought burned…

Maa, well, he didn’t know.

It’d never really made sense to him, and well, he’d never met his mother, only vaguely remembered a tone and the smell of earth, ozone and flowers, perhaps a flash of pale mint colored hair dangling down towards his face, but he could have just made a memory up about seeing her hair as an infant after looking at her photos. She had died when he was very young, before he was even a year old at the hands of an assassin that had come to take care of the Hatake Clan Heir while his father was out on the front lines before the lull between wars. His mother – Hatake Isami – had been a high chuunin with a specialization in stealth about to be promoted to jounin before she’d gotten too heavily pregnant with him, and the Council hadn’t wanted to risk the potential Clan Heir on the front lines, so she’d been suspended from active duty much earlier than was common for females while pregnant.

She’d died defending him and he couldn’t remember her face in the flesh of his memory, just warmth, a loving murmur and the tingling scent that meant love and safe and mother. He was lucky that he could remember even that and he was thankful for his prodigious memory in the times when he thought of her in the dead of night, or saw her name etched alone on the Memorial stone when it should have his father’s right next to it, thanked the enhanced sense of smell he’d received from the Hatake family Summoning Contract’s alteration to their physiology.

It was a little odd, having someone touch him casually at all, even during a demonstration, but he found another reason for Pakkun to be so hung up on her. She had very soothing chakra through her hands, the tenketsu there very open and well used.

Perhaps she had some medical training.

He knew the look in her eye though, when she spoke of her former teammates, knew the loss and the tiny spark of pain that she couldn’t quite hide from him, though he was sure that the children hadn’t noticed it. He had his own version of it whenever he looked in the mirror, or saw his reflection in the Memorial Stone. It was strange that she’d had two Uchiha on her genin team, but the Chitose she spoke of was probably close to dead last in his class, and the other Uchiha much higher up the ladder from the way they put it, meaning that she was rather high in the rungs as well. The fact that she’d been close enough with members of the Uchiha Clan that they would demonstrate Clan techniques to her, if not outright teach her said something about both her character and theirs, setting them apart from the rest of their family.

Absently, morbidly, he wondered if they’d fallen in the Massacre.

When they sat down for lunch, he was surprised at how pleasant it was to pass small verbal barbs back and forth, and the woman was even polite enough not to try to peek at his face, carefully timing her own bites against his own so that they could converse easily without any misunderstandings or unnecessary unease on his part. It was rare that she didn’t particularly seem to want to see his features, which he found was a nice change from what he usually found in his comrades and the civilians. He never had been very comfortable with people wanting to look at him when he didn’t want them to, and for this reason he had somehow found himself commiserating on occasion with the woman in the bathhouses who got peeked on by Jiraiya and other perverts. He himself was a pervert, no doubt about it, even if he was repressed, but he was a pervert of seclusion, and in no way did he involve others in his own physical pleasures, nor did he push himself on the people he found attractive or pleasant enough to perhaps pursue. Generally, if someone was interested, and he felt comfortable enough to attempt sleeping with them – outside of missions, of course – he let them make the first move.

It was easier that way.

However, speaking to her seemed more stress-free than he’d expected, especially since they were of differing ranks, and he was technically her superior even though she easily handed out what could be construed as orders to him throughout the training session with the little twerps. He didn’t particularly mind, was amused enough by the children’s reactions to her to not even make an offhand jab about it, and even though they were thoughtless little things that were easily done for the sake of efficiently teaching headstrong genin there were jounin he knew who wouldn’t have been as accepting as he had been, and that made him wonder how she dealt with those people when she ran into them. She was a very self-sufficient woman who had little problem speaking her mind, and she hadn’t asked for anything that he wouldn’t have done anyway under different circumstances, but it wasn’t difficult for him to see the more petty of his peers taking offence at her pointing out holes in their plans or giving her more observant opinion.

Perhaps it had to do with her lack of socializing but she really hadn’t adopted most of the mannerisms that her fellow chuunin had when confronted with jounin, the deferential attitude, but well, in the end, he didn’t particularly care on a personal level other than feeling a vague discomfort at the idea of someone else taking offence. Between them it just made the fact that they were working together much simpler, and easier to deal with because he enjoyed a more relaxed way of handling things, and when someone else was uncomfortable and nervous even in an abstract way, he couldn’t real in his senses and unclench. Staying tense was terribly tiring.

Working with Nagisa was turning out to be easier than he’d hoped.

If something were easier on him, it was better.

At least, he had expected everything to keep with that easygoing feeling – he didn’t know why, he’d never been particularly optimistic – for the smooth sailing to continue for at least a while longer, but fate hated him, and there was something about Team 7 that he was coming to dread.

Stupid luck.

“I hear that you’ve asked a chuunin to help you teach your team,” the Sandaime stated calmly, standing at the window and looking out over Konoha. “It’s rather unusual for you to approach another and include them in your life. Willingly, I might add.”

Of course, he was referring to those emotional, frustratingly unprepared beasts that he’d foisted off onto the jounin.

Really, the Hokage was just lucky that the last Hatake loved and respected him as much as he did, because he was still around, despite the clear risk to his sanity.

“Maa, well, it seemed like a good idea at the time,” not so much when you’re being a busybody, though.

“You’re a lazy ass, Kakashi-kun,” then don’t make me have to bring it up first, the older man stated with a wry twist to his lip, reaching into his robes for his pipe before stopping himself and moving to sit at his desk instead. “And the fact that you foisted off some of your duties on a lower ranking ninja doesn’t surprise me very much. Probably less than it should, anyway.”

It always kind of made him feel awkward and thankful that the Sarutobi Clan Head remembered about his sensitive nose and didn’t light up in his presence. It wasn’t that the smell was bad so much as it was clinging and it coated his nostrils for a while after he’d left proximity, making him slightly disoriented. Of course, it seemed that he didn’t hold this same regard toward the Inuzuka who came into his office, if the loud and whining complaints he’d heard about the longer meetings with the Professor were anything to go by.

Personally, he thought that the old man got a kick out of torturing the most irritating Clan in his own passive aggressive way that didn’t mess with politics.

Politics were ridiculous. That was why he skipped as many Clan meetings as he could.

“Still,” the man continued as he sorted papers on his desk. “Out of all the chuunin you could have forced into labor you did a magnificent job of picking the one that I most often send out of the village to settle political disputes without wasting my much needed manpower and would actually refuse you if she should not have desired to do what it is that you have asked of her.”

Hah , he preened. The product of genius.

“You are one lucky bastard.”

Or… not?

Had the man ever actually read one of their mission reports? Did he not see the disasters that were the genin under his command?

Lucky? I think not.

“Asuka-kun is a rather strong kunoichi in her own right,” he mused, ignoring as the silver haired man just stared at him with his visible eye slightly narrowed in disbelief. “I’ve yet to convince her to take the Trials, but I believe she’ll wear down soon enough.”

“You’re having trouble with a chuunin not wanting to be promoted?”

That was a first, if he’d ever heard it.

“Yes,” the Hokage shifted to the side, propping his chin on a fist with a wry, humorless smile. “It seems that it’s always the most capable of my chuunin that fight against promotion the longest. Or at all.”

Huh. He did pick well. He’d thought her very capable for a chuunin as well, although he didn’t know much about the middle ranks these days, what with him mostly having high ranking and solo missions since he’d been fourteen. Before that even, especially because he’d been under his Sensei’s command, and if there was one thing that his Sensei had been, it had been high profile enough to only get the most dangerous missions.

“Hmm,” he shrugged, unsure.

He’d not yet seen most of her skills, even if her use of water jutsu was impressive, so he didn’t really have much to say about the matter.

“Anyway, onto a matter that she, out of all my jounin instructors, as a chuunin with no affiliation with instruction at all – which doesn’t particularly please me, Kakashi-kun – brought to my attention more thoroughly than Naruto’s graduation incident had implied.”

Without thought, he straitened, his attention caught.

That ‘graduation incident’ had included an ANBU alarm that he’d had to answer to as well, and the only chuunin in the mission room with a back bone almost losing said back bone. He’d heard that it was only the man’s foreign heritage that had saved him from being permanently crippled by the injury he had sustained in having to protect the blue eyed little devil.

“The Academy has been compromised.”

Well, shit.

“Fuck.”

“Yes, just what I thought as well.”

After the long and arduous meeting that had followed – and the light headache that came with it – he’d found himself walking through the streets without his beloved Icha Icha in front of his face to protect him from the randy civilians and their staring, curious or awed eyes, though his bad humor seemed to be keeping them in check for the moment.

The problem that had been touched on with Mizuki had been much, much worse than he’d been expecting. To hear that the sabotage had been going on for years and that the increase in genin fatality rates dealt into it… well, it wasn’t pleasant, and apparently the only reason it hadn’t been worse was because of a few chuunin instructors who had been teaching outside of the somehow changed curriculum to help their students.

When a disturbance popped up on the road ahead of him he gladly latched onto the distraction, angling his direction towards it, only to raise a brow at the sight of his chuunin… assistant? Did that work? Maa, it didn’t really matter. Anyway, she looked to be having a rather intense staring contest with Yugao for reasons not apparent to the naked eye, and the very haggard and put upon Hayate was standing slumped next to his girlfriend and partner with a beleaguered sort of amusement on his features.

His gaze apparently caught the other jounin’s attention and then the tired and sickly man raised his eyes to the heavens and sighed as if the very world were against him.

“C’mon Yu,” the man said, coughing a little. “We gotta turn in our report.”

“But… she’s right there Hayate!” the woman actually whined for the first time that Kakashi could recall. “So close…”

Nagisa just kept staring intently at the kenjutsu user, a bag of groceries clutched in her left hand and her body angled into a stance that hinted as to why the two women were eyeing each other like pieces of meat and they were starving.

“I know,” the man patted the purple haired woman’s shoulder comfortingly. “I know.”

With a frustrated noise from the purple haired woman, the two leapt to the rooftops and took off quickly towards the tower to give their report.

Some of the civilians looked a bit unnerved, some relieved, but the majority seemed to just take this whole scene in stride, as if it happened often, which was interesting enough, considering the borderline hostility that the two women had been exuding. It hadn’t been Killing Intent, hadn’t even been negative really, but the intensity was somewhat intriguing, he had to admit.

When the chuunin sighed and quirked her lips to the side unhappily he meandered forward before he really thought about it.

“That was interesting,” his mouth said, and he wondered why he was talking.

What was he doing?

Was he socializing?

How… disturbing.

“Oh,” she turned and blinked large green eyes at him, features clearing into something a tad more sheepish as she shifted her grocery bag. “Saw that did you?”

“Does it happen often?” he tilted his head. And he was… still talking. Weird. “You and Yugao looking like you want to rip each other’s heads off.”

“You could say that,” she muttered vaguely before her expression turned curious and slightly thoughtful. “Are you busy at the moment?”

“Hmm, no.”

“Feel like helping me out with something?”

For a mistaken moment he thought she was talking about training, and he rarely said no to that.

“Sure.”

“Want to carry my groceries and look manly?”

Ah, yes, assumption. Everyone knew what it made a person.

… Was he really getting drafted into hard labor? Was he letting himself get drafted into hard labor? After all those D ranks he managed to avoid getting conned into with his genin?

And why was that old woman at the fruit stall looking at him like she’d sucked a lemon and then whispering to her crone friend while pointing at the light brown, sort of bronze colored haired woman who was pleasantly holding the bag in her hand out towards him? He contemplated listening to their conversation, but the younger woman’s delicately raised brow had him reconsidering and taking the bag from her hand, a part of him vaguely relieved that she didn’t brush her skin against his own in the transfer. Now that he was thinking about it – he normally didn’t worry about staring whilst within Konoha, since it either happened or it didn’t – he found that a good portion of civilian women were looking at the chuunin woman as if she were the scum of the earth, and at him with something like distastefully confused incomprehension, dipped in envy, greed and desire. Hmm. Uh, awkward. Some of the men were giving them the side eye as well, and it snapped together suddenly that both he and the woman he was with weren’t exactly known for their talkativeness or sociability, so the two of them just casually chatting by a fruit stand might be considered odd. A number of emotions he picked up were a mixture of anger, jealousy and dislike.

A good portion of those emotions were directed at the green eyed woman, though she easily brushed this aside, blatantly ignoring the staring with an aplomb that spoke of experience.

Considering the fact that he was treated as a commodity to a lot of civilians who dreamed of having a chance at reawakening the Hatake Clan through marriage or sexual manipulation of other kinds with him – and didn’t that make him squirm with awkward disgust and tired resignation – it wasn’t all that hard to guess what those people were assuming. He found that it was equally as easy to understand that the fact that in her youth she’d been flanked by two Uchiha boys, so it wasn’t unlikely that she’d developed something of a thick skin when it came to civilian rumors or staring and rudeness in general, because the Uchiha, even when they’d been plentiful, had been something of a hot article of interest. Of course, the fact that they even thought that they had any reason to start whispering and gossiping like vicious animals gave him pause, but that steady gaze had kept his grip on the bag of what appeared to be vegetables firm when he slowly and steadily reached out to take it from her.

What was he doing?

Was he really doing this?

“Awesome, because their having a sale down at ChiChi’s on rice and I want to stock up while the getting’s good.”

Right.

Of course.

This woman was probably one of the strangest he’d ever met.

Briefly cocking his visible brow at her he released a somewhat beleaguered sigh somewhat reminiscent of the departed Hayate, though he was unaware of it as he decided to push the thoughts of disgruntled and unhappy civilians from his mind. Well, if they were already talking, just helping the woman tote around large bags of rice since she couldn’t very well effectively carry all of them herself even if she did have the physical capacity wouldn’t really do anything further.

They had taken to keeping a healthy, polite foot or two between them at all times, and there was really no way that the stiff, impersonal postures that they portrayed could be mistaken as romantic in any sense of the word. At least to his understanding of the word.

Which, admittedly, was basically theoretical.

But hey, genius!

It wasn’t likely that he was wrong.

Again.

Hmm…

“You were hell on your teammates’ pride, weren’t you.”

It wasn’t a question, and he was both amused by the thought and mildly exasperated. It was great that she spoke to him like a real person, but he couldn’t help the dryness of his tone, though she didn’t seem to mind, was even amused by it.

She was something else, alright, the Hokage had gotten that correct.

“Ahaha! Pride! They didn’t know the meaning of the word!”

“I’m getting that.” for

~*~

She hadn’t known the woman’s name until she’d introduced herself the second time she’d met her in person, but she’d heard about her when she was younger. She hadn’t known she had until the woman had told Sasuke-kun that she’d been on a team with some of his relatives, and when she’d mentioned having had two of them it had clicked inside of the pink haired girl’s memory that this was the woman that the civilians used to whisper about.

Nagisa Asuka was disliked by many a civilian woman for a long time only a few years before. It also appeared to be starting up again for some reason.

When she was younger she hadn’t quite understood why it was considered bad that a woman was on the same team as two members of a prodigious, very important Clan in the village, hadn’t understood the pressure that a lot of civilian women were under to marry into one of the influential Clans. The chuunin was seen as something of a blockade between other females and her teammates, keeping them from the market of eligible marriageable age civilians, of proper ladies getting in good with those that they deserved. There had been a lot of gossip about how her relationship with the Chitose and Haruka of her team had been less than professional, about how they were inseparable and how they even went into mixed bathes together.

A lot of civilians found the idea scandalous.

To be honest, so had Sakura, until the person she had tentatively started to call Asuka-sensei had explained how a ninja’s sensibilities differed from a civilians, how because the lifespan of a shinobi and kunoichi was generally much shorter than that of the average noncombatant they more often than not matured faster and had to find more life experiences to shove into a potentially smaller timeframe. She had explained that sexuality was fluid amongst the ranks, even though it was frowned upon for those under the age of fourteen to fraternize amongst themselves, and genin teams below this age were not allowed to go into the mixed bathes due to both immaturity of mentality and physicality. The woman had even admitted to having her own smattering of lovers that didn’t fit civilian standards of romance or ‘relationships’, that what most nin got the chance to do between missions unless they were very lucky was considered a hookup or a one night stand by the pink haired girl’s parents.

It horrified her that her mother would call her kunoichi sensei a slut and any other number of insulting, degrading names.

To think that the green eyed woman had mentioned that Konoha civilians were some of the most accepting!

She… she wasn’t a bad person.

The light brown haired woman looked at her, only her, when before she had never had someone’s full attention focused on her, dedicated towards just her, the intensity of the woman’s gaze made her feel warm and fluttery and appreciated, like she was important enough to warrant that serious stare.

It was a feeling she was unused to, having the sole attention of someone.

Her mother was very busy with the other women on the street, often going out to dinner parties to gossip with them, she had stopped taking her daughter to them after she’d found out the girl’s interest in becoming a kunoichi, mostly because she hadn’t thought she was interested in them anymore. As for her father, he was always out for work, and while he tried to make time for her, he was always very tired from long meetings and spending all day at work. Still, she was sure that they loved her, they just didn’t know that she was supposed to eat twice as much as a civilian girl her age should, and when she’d told her mother this tentatively, the woman had looked scandalized, looking at her daughter in a strange light, while her father had frowned severely, looking over his daughter’s thin frame as if noticing the fact that she was… boney for the first time.

It was something she hadn’t realized until she’d looked in the mirror the evening after speaking with Asuka-sensei.

She looked… unhealthy.

Looking the way she did… it wasn’t pretty.

Not at all.

She wanted to be stunning, like Asuka-sensei was without even trying.

It… she wanted to not try.

“Well, are you sure, dear?” her mother had asked her, something pinched appearing around her eyes. “Wouldn’t it be unflattering to eat so much at a time? And your weight, Sakura! Aren’t you on a team with that nice Uchiha boy? You wouldn’t want to put him out, would you?”

“I…” she blinked at her mother, who was echoing things she herself had said to the woman who had become her sensei. “If I don’t eat well, it’ll be bad for me, Okaa-san.”

“You do eat well,” the blonde woman had insisted, leaning forward in her emphatic response. “Darling, you eat quite a bit in a sitting already. Certainly more than young Hikari down the street, and she’s a year older than you!”

“Mebuki,” her father interrupted, seeing the taken aback meekness on his daughter’s features, the wideness of jade green eyes. “Let her speak.”

“If… if I don’t eat enough,” she started softly, staring at the floor. “I could lose the ability to have children, Okaa-san.”

Silence reigned for a few moments and the genin could hear her father taking a quick, shocked breath.

“Sakura, dear, that’s ridiculous –” her mother started, but she cut her off, her gaze flickering up with tears in her eyes.

“Okaa-san, I could die!” she snapped out, her hands shaking so she grabbed her opposing elbows, cradling her thin, slightly concave stomach.

Before it hadn’t bothered her, but seeing her kunoichi sensei’s fit, muscular build that still looked slim and compact and shapely – like a woman – had made her feel… inadequate, made her feel small in a bad way. Asuka-sensei was pretty, sometimes it struck her that the woman was beautiful in a rather plain way – though she didn’t really understand it herself – her body full in a way that Sakura’s had yet to reach, and could be out of her reach due to malnutrition if she didn’t take steps to prevent such a fate. The way she’d seen the womaneat… it made her stomach clench in hunger and fear because she had never eaten like that.

Even when she had dearly wanted to, been so very tempted, but she never had, because she still thought like a civilian. She wasn’t though.

Not anymore.

Her kunoichi teacher had drilled that into her over and over again as she explained and taught and assigned self-study.

Sakura couldn’t let herself think like that, like what she had been instead of what she was.

She would be a kunoichi.

A strong one.

“Because I use chakra and do a lot of exercising I could damage my organs, and my body would start trying to conserve resources by first getting rid of nonessential organs like my uterus!” tears trembled over her cheeks but she didn’t brush at them, staring at her parents imploringly, willing them to see how serious this was. “I could… I could…” she choked off and gave in to her tears, wiping at her face, hiccupping and sniffling.

She was so afraid.

“Oh, my Sakura-chan,” her father murmured, standing and moving to wrap her in his arms. “You just tell me how much more you need and I’ll add it to the budget.”

“R-really?” she asked quietly, trembling in his arms.

It had been a long time since her father had last hugged her and she’d forgotten how warm he was. It was comforting and nice, but an aching part of her chest reminded her that her two sensei were more solid, a sharp pain telling her that she felt safer with them than she did in the arms of her own father.

“Of course. You’re my precious daughter.”

“I – I have c-calculations,” she stuttered out through her tears, clenching her fingers in the fabric of her father’s shirt. “There a-are books a-and scrolls that,” she sniffed as she listened to his heartbeat, closing her hot eyes. “That talk about appropriate food items a-and how much someone my size should eat…”

“Can I read them?”

She loved her father, even as she was worried about her mother’s silence.

“S-Some of them… other’s you’re n-not allowed…”

“Alright then.”

In the end, she’d actually had to convince her new sensei to come over and speak to her mother, who while she’d given in to serving her daughter larger portions and getting her snack foods that were directly for ninja in their growing years had still been skeptical on a number of things, including her no longer using scented lotions and shampoos.

Haruno Mebuki had been scandalized by her daughter’s insistence on having shinobi standard unscented lotion and soaps.

It seemed hard for her to compute that Sakura didn’t need to smell like a girly girl.

While she wasn’t exactly happy about it either, she was determined not to be a burden, to hurt people with enhanced senses – even if Kiba was an annoying pain – with negligence or ignorance that she could no longer claim. It had been mortifying to learn that her own jounin-sensei had heightened senses when the woman had brought up the topic, and she had nearly cried in frustration at the understanding as to why the man was so tense when he stood beside her or spoke to her directly, why he tried to stay upwind of them.

There was something odd about seeing her fashionably dressed mother trying to stare down her very obviously a ninja kunoichi sensei who wasn’t dressed to impress in the least, something strange about the way that the older woman who was her mother ended up conceding something to the younger woman with a nod of her head. They were the same height, but for some reason the bronze haired woman seemed… taller. Older. Perhaps it was the confidence with which she situated her body, the smooth, elegant way she carried herself with a surety of grace that many civilians only saw in dancers or in the rich politicians who were either from the large civilian trading businesses or from the Daimyo’s court.

“I am Nagisa Asuka,” her sensei had stated with a slight, respectful bow. “A High-combat class chuunin kunoichi,” she introduced, as was proper when meeting the parents of your student, a greeting for only those civilians of your own village. “Thank you for taking the time to speak with me, Haruno-san.”

“Ah,” the blonde woman who was her mother seemed somewhat surprised by how polite Asuka-sensei was as she bowed back. “No, thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to suit my whims, Nagisa-san.”

If she hadn’t have started learning things with her kunoichi sensei, she likely wouldn’t have understood the need for the classification on anything other than the fact that she was a chuunin.

There was a grading system within the village for anyone higher in the ranks than a genin – there were only High and Low genin, of which she was currently the latter – that gave a quick and succinct definition to the individuals skill set, strength and abilities. High for genin meant a good chance of getting promoted to chuunin, while Low was the opposite, meaning that you sat in your rank for a while to learn, train and gain experience. New genin were often called Low and experienced genin were High.

There were three rank levels of strength for chuunin; High, Mid, and Low.

When one was call High, it meant that they were close to a promotion, that their ability was above their peers, and it was often that if there was a High ranked chuunin amongst a team of Mid or Low’s then they would be the ones in charge unless the classification of the closest in rank was more suited to it. A Mid level was what was usually seen amongst the chuunin ranks and lead most chuunin cells, as once someone hit High they rushed forward to take their Jounin Exams so that it left a gap between Mid chuunin and Low jounin. When one was considered a Low they were usually newly promoted from genin and had yet to receive a classification because they had yet to choose a field to focus on and their aptitude had not been decided or the test was inconclusive.

For each rank there was a description of that level, a classification such as combat, intelligence, medic or specialty.

Combat focused on general skill with weapons and body, with jutsu augmentation thrown in due to battle effectiveness. A frontline shinobi or kunoichi would be call a combat oriented nin, someone who was used to deter attacks and take the heaviest brunt in any assault to cover their weaker less physically able comrades, they were the ones who held the line when retreating or caused distractions during ambushes, drawing attention to themselves to take the brunt of everything. They were commonly thought of as the strongest classification as during war they were the ones who survived the longest on the frontlines and caused the most damages to the enemy, even if they had a high mortality rate. It was extremely rare for a female to reach High-combat as most women didn’t go down the combat route at all, keeping their specifications more suited for their body types because of a generally smaller physique that held less muscle mass and lower stamina.

Intelligence dealt with those who were more prone to planning or categorizing – strategists – to those who became teachers or dealt with internal affairs rather than going outside of the village on missions. Those who worked in the Missions Office were mostly classified as Mid or Low-intelligence, while those who worked at the Academy were either Mid or High-intelligence. Everyone who worked in the T & I department was a High-intelligence ninja. Many having an intelligence class had a secondary classification as well, for when they were on rotation through other stations to get as much use out of those who remained within the village as possible, to use the resources available to the village to the best of their ability, the most efficiently. It wasn’t unheard of for those with especially High-intelligence scores to have two or three other classifications as well, so that they used that well developed intelligence to be as useful as they could by multitasking and helping to fill as many positions as they could.

Those with medic stated as their classification rather spoke for themselves, and most that had it as theirs were either Mid or High just because it was such a sought after skill in the field and out of it, and the ability to use iryō-ninjutsu was rare when one didn’t completely dedicate their career towards it. Most with a medic classification never left the village because they were so rare and such a useful commodity, the training it took to raise them up to an appropriate level of medical knowledge allowing little time for physical training in combat situation, so having a fielded medic was something that was practically a godsend to whoever managed to snag one for their team on missions. There were those who worked in the hospital who had some field qualifications but they were often very weak offensively and need a large escort when leaving the village, so it was usually seen as a better choice just to keep them within the safety of Konoha’s boundaries where they could easily be protected and they could be of use in a moment’s notice.

When one was of the specialty variety of classification, it was usually Clan or family related, due to style, jutsu or kekkai-genkai ability. Sometimes it was used to classify those with an ANBU background or a rather shady skill set such as assassination, seduction, espionage, infiltration or sabotage, things that one wouldn’t speak of openly or want to advertise to the civilian populace. It was very rare for those with a specialty to be out and about in the village and not on missions, as they were usually the busiest because their skill set was a rare one, another thing that was hard to find and needed to be put to the best use for the village.

Jounin had the same classifications, but different ranking systems.

There was Low, Mid, High, Select and Elite.

The first three were the same as for chuunin with the exception of there being no higher rank to move to for chuunin, but Select and Elite were what could be considered a rank of their own in the ranks of jounin. Select were those who had a name for themselves, most of them went into ANBU at some point in their lives – the Sandaime’s son Sarutobi Asuma was an example of a Select as a former member of the Shugonin Jūnishi, the Twelve Guardian Ninja for the Daimyo – but had yet to either exceed a certain amount for their bounty or receive a kill order in the Bingo Book, and Elite were what civilians commonly referred to as Legendary, like the Sannin and the previous Hokages like the Yondaime and Shodaime. The Yondaime was famous for his Flee On Sight order in the Bingo Books of every surrounding country because he was so strong, and it had been because of him that at the time the Council had apparently toyed with creating a new classification that was eventually vetoed.

It was when her kunoichi sensei introduced herself to her mother that she realized that the woman wasn’t a jounin yet.

While embarrassing – Sakura was glad she hadn’t said anything about her kunoichi-sensei’s rank – she waited until the chuunin was done getting her mother to see reason – she did love her daughter, but she was very set in her civilian sensibilities, sensibilities that she had been drilling into her daughter since birth – before they headed off to training to ask her about it.

Haruno Mebuki was not a bad mother, and had promised to follow the dietary instructions that she’d been handed by the younger woman with a new understanding of the female ninja’s body and she apologized to her daughter before stating that if she needed anything else just to let her know. It was a little mind boggling and downright shocking to see her mother seem humbled by someone else, considering the fact that she couldn’t ever remember her mother apologizing for anything before, or backing down without browbeating someone into agreeing to whatever it was she wanted. Her mother was very strong willed, and that her new kunoichi sensei had done the impossible and won an argument with the civilian woman without actually arguing was awe inspiring.

“Um, Asuka-sensei?” she felt very foolish. “You’re… you’re a chuunin?”

“Oh,” the woman blinked lovely dark green eyes at her before laughing softly, patting Sakura on top of her head just behind her hitai-ate. “I forgot I hadn’t told you,” she smiled down at the pink haired girl. “It must have slipped my mind.”

“But…” pink brows furrowed as she took in her sensei. “You’re ranked High, right? And combat on top of that! From what you told me, you should already be a jounin!”

“Ah,” the woman rubbed at the back of her neck a little awkwardly. “Well, I haven’t taken the Trials yet.”

“Eeeh, why not?” she caught herself as she inquired interestedly. “I mean, if you don’t mind my asking.”

A wry smile was quirked at her and the genin flushed a little at the attention as the woman absently slung an arm around her shoulder and pulled her against her side to navigate through the crowd of civilians gathering in the market for early morning shopping in a way that didn’t get the girl trampled or pushed against. The woman was surprisingly affectionate with her when it was just them, and she enjoyed it immensely because her mother had never been one to coddle her after a certain age, and her father rarely gave her hugs, though they did press kisses to her head when they passed her or put her to bed. Still, the easy affection that the chuunin gave out made her warm on the inside, feeling like she was… cared for by someone other than family.

She had no friends really, no one other than Ino, who was more a rival than anything else at that point.

She… missed them. Being best friends.

She missed that.

Sakura missed the girl who’d given her a pretty red ribbon and stood up for her, who’d taught her how to stand up for herself, and she was beginning to realize that you could be rivals and friends at the same time. Naruto and Sasuke-kun were, weren’t they? So why couldn’t Ino and her do it? Why had they had to split apart so that Sakura was practically alone again? The only difference was that this time she could stand up to the bullying of the others, to the ninja raised kids who put her down for being from a civilian background.

It wasn’t fair.

Now that she was learning all of these things about her body, she worried over her old best friend – her only best friend – and whether or not she would be receiving the instruction that she needed, because in the Academy she had always been thinner than Sakura herself had been, and while it had been a point of contention then, it just made her worried now that she knew what could happen. It also made her wonder.

Wouldn’t Clan ninja know this anyway? Sasuke-kun had known it, and had even taken to keeping snacks for her, just like Kakashi-sensei and Naruto had at Asuka’s insistence. They’d been helping her, the way that a team was meant to, and Sakura worried about Ino.

“Hmm, I just don’t think I have what it takes yet,” she mused down towards her student. “I’m not confident in my skill set just yet. Perhaps I’ll take the Trials after another year.”

“I’m sure you could do it now!” the pink haired girl encouraged, practically gluing herself to the woman’s side. “You’re really good! You make Kaka-sensei work hard when you spar, and he’s a jounin!”

“Thank you Sakura,” the small, amused smile she received had her beaming. “I’m glad you think so.”

“I know so!”

“Oh, do you?”

“Yup!”

“Riiiight.”

“I do!”

“Mhmm.”

“Asuka-sensei!”

“Ahahaha!”

It was like having an older sister, she decided with flushed cheeks, joy spreading a large smile over her features.

Walking beside her teacher as she handed her a stick of dango to munch on while they headed out to meet the boys, Sakura was content, happy even. Where the chuunin would run them through drills and throw things at them for a while with a placid look on her face, before she left a little after their jounin-sensei showed up so that she could do missions. Sometimes she would stay and the two adults would both torture the genin together – though it was rare – sometimes snacking idly while they did so, something that drove them up the wall with how at ease they were even when the genin were trying their hardest to attack them when that was what they’d been instructed to do.

She was sure it was the boys’ goal as well to manage to interrupt them while they were having a conversation when the team was trying to land hits. That got irritating. The fact that they were talking about complex jutsu formulae was even more frustrating, because they never even broke stride on whatever difficult topic it was.

They had worked out a system for when she was in the village during the morning where she would meet up with them at the bridge and they’d go to an open training ground to work for a while to make the most out of their day before Kakashi-sensei showed up to run them into the ground. When she couldn’t be there they would do what they could on their own which generally involved a lot of sparring and even more yelling, but they were making progress, even if the young kunoichi had to take frequent breaks and eat a lot in the mornings to keep up with even half the things the boys could do.

Altogether, Sakura could say with some certainty that Nagisa Asuka was good for them.

And she… she had always wanted an older sister.

Her new teacher was very close.

Very.

~*~