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Queen of Diamonds

Chapter Text

 

Mission: Accompany and protect the Heiress of the Samosa Clan to the Village Hidden in the Flowers. Diplomatic correspondence.

 

Target Information

Name: Samosa no Kaya

Age: 25

Rank: Chūnin

Important:

    • Kekkei Genkai: Shōton [Crystal Release]
    • Ninjutsu: Suiton and Fūton
    • Aversion to killing

 

  • Short fuse, do not aggravate!

 

 

The folder with the mission’s information contained an old picture of the Heiress; a faded snapshot, probably from after her Chūnin exam. One of the eyes seemed discoloured and there was a harshness in the set of the jawline, a defiant streak in the arched eyebrows. The soft fullness of her lips was the only thing saving the features from painting a picture of pure animosity.  

The note at the bottom of the paper had been added hastily, scribbled in the Hokage’s slanted handwriting; an absent-minded recollection moments before summoning the Anbu. Given Samosa-san’s long absence from the village during which she had been scouting the lands and reportedly went further into unknown territory than anyone before her, being quick-tempered was almost a given. After spending years with minimum human contact she had most probably developed a taste for peace and quiet, for things happening her way. Being sent on a mission so soon after her return was odd. Not to mention that with her “short fuse” she’d probably not be the best choice for a diplomatic liaison.

“I expect your return by the end of the week,” the Sandaime grumbled, a crease folding his eyebrows. “Samosa-dono wishes to have his daughter back before the festival.”

A small catch in the older man’s voice hinted at his displeasure; it would take at least two days to get to the Village Hidden in the Flowers, and even if negotiations went smoothly, and they rarely did, they’d still need to rush back to make it in time. The Anbu didn’t respond, the cool porcelain mask hiding his frown.

“Ah, before I forget.”

Rummaging through the drawers and sending a pile of papers flying to the floor, the Sandaime found and tossed a scroll towards the male.

“Lady Momori would probably want to have a word with Samosa-san. Make sure she doesn’t.”

Bowing, the Anbu vanished in a cloud of smoke.

 

***

 

“A squad of Anbu is a bit too much, don’t you think, Jiji?” Kaya lifted an eyebrow at the Sandaime, his frown wavering under the brilliance of her smile. His own lips twitched.

“Hm.”

“One would have been more than enough. Two, to keep it fun. But four? What am I to do with all of them?” The mirthful smirk rearranged her features.

“You are to do nothing with them, Kaya. They are there to protect you. Shadows-”

“- not to be noticed,” she finished, shaking her head. “I know.”

The Sandaime cast her a half-hearted glare. She had been back in Konohagakure for no more than three weeks and half the village was already in an uproar. Apparently, the young Heiress’ manners had been found lacking by the more genteel circles. The most favoured adjective linked with her name was ‘insolent’. Blunt frankness did not sit well with the other Clans. Kaya had always lacked a proper sense of social decorum; hence why she was the only Heiress to ever leave the safety of the village’s walls for six years, alone and unguarded, and go travelling.

“I did not mean any disrespect, Jiji.” She bowed her head, a sombre expression shifting the pattern of her face once again.

“I’ve gotten ten more complaints, Kaya.” She bristled, hands fisting at her side. “What compelled you to call Hyuga Tsumi a ‘pompous peacock’?”

“He was trying to pick a fight. It was either that or crash his fragile masculinity by sweeping the ground with him. I believe I made the best decision, knowing how much you detest scandal.”

She was beaming again yet behind the seemingly sweet curve of her lips laid sharpness, barely-concealed anger. Hyuga Tsumi was known for making off-handed remarks, often to deteriorate people’s confidence or make women skitter away, faces hidden behind shaking hands. There was a number of anonymous complaints piled on the Hokage’s desk, but no one was willing to step out of the shadows and speak. Most probably because no one wanted to be molested by one of the oldest, strongest and pettiest clans in Konoha. Anyone, but Samosa no Kaya. She didn’t care what people thought of her six years ago; she seemed to care even less now.

The old man didn’t manage to suppress a sigh - Kaya was no longer a child, but a woman. A woman that was expected to become the new Samosa-dono, lead her clan and ensure the continuation of her line, bearing offsprings that would hopefully possess an ounce of their mother’s Kekkei Genkai. Yet by the looks of it, he was prone to believe she’d rather sprout wings and fly away into the sunset. Nothing seemed important enough to chain her down.

“You should know better, Kaya. There’s no honour in shaming your opponent.”

“Tell Tsumi that.” Her huff was low, a breath that tickled her lips, but the old man’s hearing was still sharp.

He was about to reprimand her, for all the good it would do, but a shift in the air halted him. There were a time and a place to try and get certain things through to her and now was not it.

Kaya sensed the disturbance and averted her eyes from the Hokages’ Mountain. The faces etched into the stone always brought a sense of nostalgia. They had greeted her not a month ago, and here she was, turning her back to them once again.

“Are you sure four isn’t too much, Jiji? Surely there are better things for these men to do than escort me?”

It was the last attempt at reasoning; she was going to go and discuss clan politics, for goodness sake, not prevent a war. There was no need for four Anbu men to trail her. She didn’t need anyone trailing her for that matter. The Hokage harumphed, so she dropped it. ‘They’re here anyway. Might as well.’ A quick glance revealed as much as she had expected - little to nothing. They were all male, dressed in the standard dark Anbu uniform. Porcelain masks gleamed in the early morning sun as they bowed to the Hokage. ‘A boar, a fox, a cat and a hound.’ Apart from that, and some minor physical features such as height and hair colour, it was hard to tell them apart. The cat and the fox were of a shorter stature but bulkier built. The boar had a tousled brown hair sticking out in every possible direction and broad shoulders, the tallest among them. The hound came second, his build leaner, yet his muscles were well defined if the tight-fitting black top was to be trusted. His hair was silvery white, like moonbeams reflecting off a sleeping lake, and for some reason defied gravity by sticking upright. The sight tickled something in the back of Kaya’s mind, but she averted her gaze. She might not be able to see their faces, but they had an open view of hers. And staring was still considered offensive, even in her book.

As a child, she had always been secretly fascinated by the legendary Anbu and the air of mystery and threat that hung about them like a cloak. People had a love-hate relationship with the special forces and she could see why. While they were exceptionally strong and one could always rely on them to save the day, they also had the emotional capacity of a conch shell and just as wide range of communicativeness. She’d have better luck engaging a corpse in small talk than any of these men. ‘It’s going to be a long, silent journey.’

“Stay safe, Kaya-san.”

She nodded, a sudden wave of fondness smoothing the harshness of her features. The Sandaime had been an important parental figure during her childhood, more than her actual parents. He had supported her, given her the freedom to breathe when everyone seemed to wish to suffocate her, and had set her free to roam the world to her heart’s desire (and her Clan’s greatest discontent). It pained her to leave him behind again, but before she could get truly soppy and even shed a tear, he smiled, patted her shoulder and walked away.

“Samosa-san, we need to go.”

Absent-mindedly she nodded, tugging at the straps of her backpack. The journey was going to be long, but at least they had nice weather. If all went according to plan, she’d be back in time for the Spring festival and her sister’s birthday.

 

***

 

The air was tacky with moisture; like a damp cloth, it clung to anything it wrapped its tentacles around, leaving a shimmering film behind. It was hard to breathe; the murky fogginess snaking around the trunks of the trees compressed the blanket further. With the gradual slant of the sun, Kaya had hoped for either a downpour or strong wind. Anything to get rid of the oppressiveness. Ever since leaving the Fire Nation’s territory that afternoon, the climate had taken a drastic change. By this point the kunoichi was unaware whether she was drenched in vapours or sweat; only that she felt like she wanted the claw her skin off. It was irritating how the men seemed unperturbed by any of it, despite having it worse than her - their faces were probably glistening with condensed moisture underneath the masks. She at least could wipe the rivulets trickling down her forehead.  

The light seeped out of the forest, submerging it in shifting shadows. At times she lost sight of all four of her companions and with no chakra signatures to confirm their presence, she had to simply hope they were there. Pinpricks scaled the back of her neck and she glanced over her shoulder. The Hound was a few branches behind her, the lightness of his hair a beacon in the enclosing dusk. She was just starting to turn her face when a flash of red caught her attention. Like a ruby winking at her, grasping at a stray ray of light. Something about him nagged her. There was no way to gouge how old he was and chances were if asked he’d not answer. But something in the way he moved, the litheness of his body despite the toned muscles hinted at a young age. Maybe a bit older than her? They could have gone to the Academy at the same time. Or she had seen him on the street? It wouldn’t have been a mission; she had done a handful of those as a Chūnin before calling it quits. He, on the other hand, gave off the vibes of a man that would not be kept awake at night by his enemies’ ghosts.

Kaya shook her head. There was little point nudging her memory to spit out that one time she probably caught a glimpse of hair like his. It was probably an insignificant accident, like bumping into someone in the shop. You apologise, pick up the dropped goods, and off you go on your merry way. Konohagakure shinobi were faceless strangers to her, just like these Anbu.

Jumping to a slightly higher branch, eager to stay away from the milky mist suffocating the ground, Kaya slipped against its smooth surface. If it wasn’t for her chakra-coated hands, she’d have plummeted down and made a fool of herself.

“Are you alright, Samosa-san?”

The Boar was the only one that had spoken to her. And while his voice was void of emotion, the baritone was deep and reassuring. Enough so that she didn’t scowl at him for calling her Samosa-san. That was her father’s name; and, as far as she was concerned, she’d rather not be associated with him more than necessary.

“We should make camp soon.”

The Fox was perched a few branches off to the right, crouched like a beast ready to pounce.

“We won’t reach the nearest village before dark,” agreed the Cat, cocking his head to the side, as if listening to someone whispering in his ear.

And with that, they were off again, in search of a place to spend the night. Kaya’s knees ached and her feet, her poor little flat feet, were numb. She should have been used to it by now, with all the travelling she’s been doing, but the humidity set off all her old-woman rheumatic ticks. ‘Nothing a hot bath won’t fix.’ By the looks of things, the next opportunity would be when they reached the Village Hidden in the Flowers.

By the time they found a suitable spot and set up camp, the welkin was an inky canvas; an overarching dome pressing the humidity upon them. Kaya wiped the perspiration off her face and pinned her frizzy hair on top of her head, trying as best as she could to ignore the uncomfortable feeling of her clothes sticking to her like a second skin. The small clearing they managed to find, void of the fog’s creeping tendrils, was just big enough to fit all five of them without bumping elbows. The men moved around soundlessly, disappearing and reappearing like ghosts, making Kaya’s body tense until the cramps in her feet traversed the curve of her spine and settled in her shoulders. If they were normal shinobi, it would have been fine - casual chatter would have put her at ease. Yet the iron silence that reigned, alongside their masked chakra signatures and scents led her into a false sense of being alone. Every subtle noise they made set her off - any movement of shadow caught with the corner of her eye, any rustling of blankets or leaves; she was like a ticking bomb, waiting to explode. ‘Why are they not talking at least among themselves?’ She eyed them, her ears trying to catch even the faintest whisper of a word. Nothing.

That gave her pause. Nothing. No hooting of owls, no flutter of wings, no night hunters on the prowl. Not even the leaves stirred. The silence was disturbed only by the five of them. Kaya slowly spun on her heel, gaze trained on the shadows. The movement was fluid and measured; fore- and middle finger rose before her face.

“Kai.”

The chakra pulse travelled softer than a baby’s breath - not a single cloud of fog shuddered. Her range had grown impressively in the past couple of years, stretching for miles. The low-frequency and the barely-there imprint allowed her to spot even the minutest disturbance while remaining unnoticed by other shinobi. After a whole minute of waiting Kaya stood up, the popping of her knees oddly loud in the tense silence. She could feel the men looking at her, senses sharp and probing at their surroundings. The wave stretched as far as it could go before dissipating.

“When was the last time any of you noticed any wildlife?”

Her voice was hoarse and grating. The back of her throat was sticky with humidity.  

“Before the fog,” the Fox replied.

She nodded, fingers still raised to her face. Kaya could control her Kekkei Genkai without using hand signs, the same applying for most of her Water and Wind techniques. Only the odd combinations scavenged from her travels required her to actually use her hands. Yet the gesture offered a sense of reassurance.

“There’s no life for miles; not even a mouse in the shrubs.”

Her hand slipped down, brushing against the kunai pouch strapped to her right thigh. A thrill climbed her spine, needle-like nails digging into each vertebra, snapping her shoulders back and straightening her posture. ‘There’s something lurking in those shadows.’

Pure instinct bit into her and she dropped to her knees, palms pressing into the ground. Crystal formations erupted from the soil like daggers, splitting the shadows in pursuit. A screech pierced the air as one found its mark; with foreign blood coating the structure, she could sense it. Those precious seconds were enough - she jumped sideways, missing a hook-like nail by mere inches.

Once activated, her Kekkei Genkai acted on instinct - the crystals lurched after the beast, trying to capture it but the creature was quicker. The Anbu seemed to have no better luck. The Boar’s Wood Release served as a shield (that gave her pause; there were few shinobi that could use Hashirama Senju’s Wood Style), while the Fox’s Wind made the fog’s heavy body shuffle and shudder but nothing more. Kaya rose from her crouched position, coming to stand back to back with the men.

“Samosa-san, stay back. Let us deal with it.”

“Do I strike you as a woman that will shy away from a battle, Boar-san?” Her smile’s cutting edge reflected in the crystal dagger clasped in her hand.

A movement to her right caught her eye and a cluster of crystals erupted from the tree’s bark like fungi, adding another wound to the creature’s flank. Whatever it was they were dealing with, it wasn’t messing around.

“Any idea what it is?”

Kaya frowned, teeth chewing on her lip. There wasn’t anything coming to mind - no summon or even ghoulish creature that she had ever met or heard of.

“No, but-”

A kunai whistled past her ear, embedding itself into the mass of darkness leaping her way. Instinct told her to duck, but that meant allowing the creature to breach their line of defence. Wood and crystal collided as a barrier burst forth before Kaya, saving her face from the creature’s claws. Before it had the chance to bolt and hide, the crystal snapped shut, trapping it into a glistening prison.

“Bloody hell!”

She echoed everyone’s thoughts. The thing was no wild beast or at least not what one would consider a wild creature. It was small, child-sized, but its limbs were elongated and its back had a certain curve to it, hinting at a pedal manner of moving. Its hands were adorned by hook-like claws, each longer than a kunai and probably sharper. The body was covered in a thick coat of hair or hair-like substance that seemed to lack some of the usual solidity. There was something almost aerial about it; even confined within the heart of the crystal, its form refused to remain solid. Kaya leaned forward, transfixed, only to leap back with a yelp when the creature’s form changed, shrinking, giving it enough space to manoeuvre and jump at her, smacking against the unbreakable inner wall. Kaya’s back hit something firm and a hand grabbed her elbow, steadying her. A quick glance over her shoulder revealed the painted smile of the Hound’s mask, the smooth surface basked in shadows, and for a brief second she could have sworn she saw that red gleam again.

“What the hell is this thing?”

“We need to get rid of it,” the Fox’s voice sounded strained.

She could practically sense the men’s chakra wrapping around her like a blanket before spreading out like the tendrils of a vine; searching for other hidden monsters in the darkness.

“Samosa-san-”

“No!”

Heads turned her way.

“I’m not going to kill it.”

“But it’s your crystal...”

“I can let it go and you can catch it,” her glare didn’t elicit the usual reaction but then again she could not see their faces.

She threw a last glance at the squirming mass, an ugly disfigured being that repulsed her and wrung her heart at the same time, before walking away. Her backpack and cloak lay discarded by the trunk of the tree. She picked them up, grimacing at the moisture that had seeped into them before returning to the where the men stood, pointedly ignoring the crystal jutting out of the ground.

They all walked to the other end of the clearing that had remained unmarred by their elemental assaults and dropped their backs. The Bear’s hands moved in a blur and the ground shuddered, wooden beams growing out of it like trees, each thicker than Kaya’s thigh. They locked overhead with a hollow thud, enclosing them like a pearl in a clam. It wasn’t roomy, but at least it was safe. The impenetrable darkness startled Kaya - she hadn’t realised how much light the few meagre stars had been providing until they vanished.

“Jee, Boar-san, you have no consideration for my reputation. Locking me in a tiny space with four men. My honour will be tainted.”

Before the last syllable even slipped past her smirking lips, all four of them startled and stepped away, backs smacking into the wall.

“Samosa-san!” The man’s exclamation unleashed her laughter. “We would never!”

“I know, I know.” She waved off the sounds of discontent, “I was just kidding. Forgive me.”

A couple of low chuckles popped into the silence like firecrackers.

“Any volunteers to shed some light? Or am I to risk it and grope my way around?”

It was probably childish, jesting like that, but at least the heavy atmosphere that had persisted throughout the day finally started to disperse. A couple of minutes later their little yurt (it was a stretch of the imagination to call it that, but the second best was a coffin and Kaya would rather not refer to their resting place that way) was illuminated by the jolly flicker of a fire, a tentative thing barely battling the humidity. Her eyes stung, but it made her feel better to finally be able to see her companions; well, sort of. Their expressionless masks still unnerved her.

“Samosa-san-”

“Forgive me, Boar-san, but Samosa-san is my father at worst, and my mother at best. I’d much appreciate it if you just call me Kaya.”

A smile took away some of the words’ sharpness. Apparently, she had lost the few social interaction instincts she had while traversing the wilderness. It had been so much easier, talking to people that didn’t know who she was and didn’t care to find out; that didn’t mind some harmless jest or some sharp reproach. Ninjas took offence, no matter what she said. It was the reason why she wasn’t mad that the Hokage sent her off on a mission so soon after her return. In the span of three weeks, she had managed to deeply offend six clan members, scandalise half the civilian population and even have a couple of sparring sessions with some Chūnins that had gotten insulted by something she had probably meant as a joke.

Kaya rubbed her face, wiping away some of the dampness that clung to her brow. It took her a moment to remember she had a keenly developed Water Affinity; extracting the water molecules from her clothes and hair didn’t get rid of the irritating sense of stickiness, but she was no longer shivering and the urge to strip was more manageable. With a flick of her hand, she did the same for her companions.

Her Kekkei Genkai had kicked in late so she had spent the early parts of her life developing her Water Affinity to such an extent that she had excelled in the Academy on the sole basis of being able to manipulate it with ease while the other kids struggled to form Shadow Clones. When the Crystal Release had activated, she had found herself juggling two rather clashing ninjutsu. In the end, she clung to both, the latter being Kami given and the first being an old friend that had never betrayed her. As of recent she often forgot that there was more to her than crystals and diamond sculptures gleaming in the sun.

“Thank you, Kaya-san.”

She gave them a small nod of acknowledgement, her eyes trained on the flames. There had been a time when she had wished it had been Fire she could contort. It would have made many cold nights more bearable. Not anymore; rigidness was her trademark - either in the emotional department, or the ninjutsu one.

They ate in silence, warming their stiff bodies, clustered together like chicks. Kaya took comfort in their proximity; it reassured her even if their silence was disturbing. ‘It’s probably part of the training - not talking to the person they shadow. Keeps it impersonal and professional.’ Without a word, they soon moved away, getting ready for the night. No one expected her to keep watch so she curled in a ball, face pressed against the wooden wall. The scent was familiar; it smelled like home, like Konoha. It was soothing and soon enough her mind drifted off, lulled to sleep by the gentle pop of the fire.  

 

As soon as Kaya’s breathing grew even, the men sighed with relief. They had almost expected the Heiress to stomp around, demanding they find an inn or at least provide better shelter for the night. Instead, she had slipped into the deep sleep reserved only for the innocent and the tired. All four of them felt a small spark of jealousy - it had been a while since they had had a good night’s sleep.

“So what now?” The Fox was the youngest among them, having joined their ranks only a few months ago.

“We proceed according to plan.”

“But that thing-”

“There’s nothing to be done about it. It’s trapped in Samosa-san’s prison.”

“Can’t we make her get rid of it?”

The cool porcelain mask hid Kakashi’s amused expression. Had Izuni paid no attention to the briefing they had had about Samosa no Kaya? Not even the Hokage could bend that woman’s will. Not to mention her fundamental repulsion towards manipulation.

“Does she strike you as the type of woman you can make do something?”

The youth shrugged, his head tilting to the side. A shudder shook his frame a few moments later as he seemed to consider the question. She’d probably lock him in a crystal and be on her merry way.

“We are safe for tonight so we should rest. Tomorrow will be a long day.”

With that Tenzo crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the wall. Chances were none of them would be getting any sleep, confined in such a small space with the Samosa Heiress but they could at least pretend. Kakashi tried not to look at her. The picture in the file had barely done her any justice. It was like looking at two completely different people; comparing a vague memory with a vivid nightmare. The blood-red hair, the two different coloured eyes, the tanned skin - they were all features that had been bleached out from the photograph. Six years of travel had left their mark - the youthful beam of her smile had acquired a cynical sharpness. Now, she resembled her famous diamonds - too many sharp edges one could cut himself on.

He followed Tenzo’s example, willing his mind to slow down. With the corner of his eye he could see Kaya’s body shuddering. He ignored the instinctual reflex to cover her with his blanket. He was there to protect her, not coddle her.

Chapter Text

The morning's light spilled across the forest, bathing the dewy land in a kaleidoscope of colours reflected by the various crystals protruding from the ground. The fog had lifted and with it, the humidity. The group had a quick breakfast, Kaya taking extreme precautions not to look at the men while they ate - their masks hid their identities for a reason and while she was mildly curious, her firmest belief remained that people needed to keep their noses out of others’ businesses. She wasn’t about to become a hypocrite. Not yet at least.

They were on their way before the sun fully rose from behind the horizon, leaving behind the creature locked in the crystal. During the night its body had shrivelled and contorted in a way that almost made Kaya unable to stomach the few bites of food.

After hours of running through the forest, the outlines of the Village Hidden in the Flowers finally emerged in the distance and Kaya breathed a sigh of relief - a warm bath and a comfy bed were within reach.

 

***

 

The last three hours of the journey were spent trying to outrace the worst of the rainstorm. Unfortunately, by the time they entered the village they were drenched. Finding the inn was a bit of a challenge within itself as well, with no clear directions ever being given. And when four masked men and one very angry kunoichi finally stepped over the threshold of the Golden Daffodil, the man behind the counter that greeted them had to put in an extra effort not to flinch. It was uncertain what made his palms sticky and his heart pound - the silent frustration emitting from the men or the female’s scowl. Her different coloured eyes made him stutter a couple of times. As a result, he decided to disregard her and face the men, which in turn ended up with his desk turning it into a pile of splinters. Behind the sweet innocence of Kaya’s smile gleamed a sharp edge that sent the gathered spectators scurrying away. Rooms were allocated and dinner was on its way within a heartbeat and the front desk manager was left staring at his destroyed desk. Small clumps of diamonds were scattered amongst the wood and papers, glistening under the soft light of the paper lanterns.

After the disastrous fiasco downstairs, Kaya locked herself in her room. She hadn’t meant to lose her temper and breaking the desk had been rather impolite, but the careless way in which that man had dismissed her rubbed her the wrong way. Men always did that - for them, she became nothing but a pretty face as soon as they could not detect the impressive chakra reserve her companions exuded. Next to the four Anbu, she became insignificant. A mere bad-tempered kunoichi. ‘Not sure whether smashing the desk fixed that.’ As she soaked in the small tub, easing her stiff muscles and washing away the days of travelling, Kaya tried to blank her mind. The meeting with Koromo-san was tomorrow and she had to be at her best behaviour. Not to mention that probably his wife Momori-san would also be lurking about, looking for a chance to pounce. The woman was six years her senior and came from a very well-respected family. They had met a couple of years back when Momori still lived in Konoha, and while Kaya had immediately disliked her, there hadn’t been anything to prove her suspicion. Until an off-handed remark had lodged a diamond dagger through a table, silencing Momori-san’s lamentations and that was that.

Sliding deeper into the tiny tub, the kunoichi sighed. ‘Just a couple of days. I can do this.’

 

***

 

The first day came and went so quickly that no one really realised what had happened. The Anbu escorted Kaya to the Koromo mansion where the negotiations would be taking place. Upon arrival, they were offered a quick tour, with only a handful of distrustful glances towards the masked men (who looked mildly uncomfortable being in the open). Kaya had offered that they spent their time as they pleased while she was in the meeting, but they had declined. Hours later, rounding a corner on their way out, she could almost see their collected sigh of relief. She didn’t blame them; her head was throbbing with the beginnings of a headache and her bottom was as stiff as a rock; it took a lot of willpower to stop herself from kneading the muscles just to reawaken the nerves and send blood flowing back. It somehow seemed inappropriate to grab a hold of her own bum in front of them. ‘I’ve spent too much time away from civilisation.’

The Village Hidden in the Flowers was a charming little thing, drowned in flora - from vines and ivy to any kind of colourful aromatic flower. The whole place smelled like a spring garden on steroids. And while Kaya enjoyed it, she often saw the Hound twitching whenever they walked past a particularly big explosion of flower ornaments; he’d either make a beeline and go as far away as possible or shift so that he was downwind. After observing the peculiar behaviour on more than one occasion Kaya assessed that his bloodline probably had some animal connections that lent him a sensitive sense of smell. The idea of being drowned in the opulent breath of flowers all the time made her cringe in sympathy. Rounding yet another corner they halted and she saw said male’s shoulders stiffen. A gust of wind made her jolt.

“Kami-sama, this is potent!”

She had to tiptoe to see what exactly exulted such a strong stench. The arrangement, while impressive in its execution, was grotesque and troubling. The hybrid of patched together flowers stood proudly smack in the centre of the square, weaved around the cute little fountain that had been there that morning. And while the general vibe seemed to be awe and admiration, Kaya’s eyebrows furrowed. Such a strong smell could give her an aneurysm. The Boar patted the Hound’s shoulder, making him wince. If his posture was anything to go by, he’d have gladly vanished in a cloud of smoke. Without thinking, Kaya focused her chakra and a strong gust of wind ransacked the square, picking up the heavy odour and carrying it away. The structure swayed under the assault and people shivered, pulling their clothes closer.

“Hm.” She couldn’t help the smug smile that tugged at her lips. “Let’s go.”

 

Three days and a shitload of paperwork and bureaucracy later, as well as a barely averted disaster and a small hissy-fit, Kaya was walking around the Koromo gardens, enjoying the crisp night’s air and the tranquillity and solitude it provided. The elders and she had managed to reach an agreement that left all parties more or less pleased and for once no one had been offended or had his or her honour hurt, so Kaya was more than eager to mark the mission as a brilliant success. Dressed in her usual clothes, just a bit newer and less scruffy, she had dined with the gathered associates with something akin to content. Her shadows, reluctant to let her out of their sight, had taken turns trailing her as she moved around the compound. Even now, when the night was heavy with muffled noises of festivities and everyone was enjoying a well-deserved cup of sake, she could sense the telltale absence a few feet away. It had turned into a fun pastime, finding a way to sense the Anbu squad. She had just managed to figure it out this afternoon by mistake. While trying to sense Koromo-san’s daughter her chakra wave had brushed against a void, a pocket of artificial emptiness. Startled, she had yanked at it, unceremoniously summoning the Fox. Even with the mask safely in place, his shock and mild irritation had been palpable. To covered up the faux pas she had dispatched him to find the girl.

The void that beckoned her this time, hidden in the crowns of the venerable trees, was different; the way one type of silence differed from other - with subtle alterations in its consistency.

“Samosa-san!” Kaya flinched, her features quickly rearranging to hide her exasperation. “I finally caught up with you! If I didn’t know better, I’d have assumed you were avoiding me!”

‘If only I was that lucky...’ Her smile stretched a notch as the other woman sauntered nearer.

Upon meeting Momori-san, one could easily be fooled into thinking her the kindest, most considerate woman ever to walk the earth. Her big doleful eyes, the soft curve of her lips, the easy manner with which she addressed everyone - it predisposed people to be less vigilant. The lack of chakra signature, marking her as a civilian, further served her purpose. She swooshed left and right like an apparition, always immaculately dressed in the finest kimono, her cherry blossom scent wafting like a cloud of opium. Men were basically drooling at her feet. Women either put extra effort to be friendly (which earned them her scorn), or made a note to stay in the shadows with as much distance between them and her as possible (which was relatively wiser). Despite her marriage to an influential Clan leader, she was the one pulling the strings - if given a broader spectrum to work with, Kaya could easily envision wars being waged for Momori-san’s amusement. It had been a Kami-offered blessing, having her out of Konoha as soon as she was old enough to marry. It had made Kaya’s life relatively less stressful once the main cause behind the never-ending thread of gossip was gone. But even then the slander didn’t die out. It probably never would.

“Nonsense, Momori-san,” Kaya quickly clasped her hands behind her back, “I have just been admiring your gardens. They are truly a work of art.”

Which was technically true. Rumour had it that over twenty men, some of which shinobi, had slaved away in those patches of earth, sculpting images straight out of their mistress’ imagination. No wonder half of them were so disturbing.

“I’m so glad someone appreciates my hard work!”

The woman fanned herself, the smooth milky whiteness of her hand catching Kaya’s eye. There wasn’t a single blemish disrupting the softness of her skin. In comparison, Kaya’s hands were hardened with callouses, rough like a man’s. ‘Definitely not your hard work.’

“So tell me, is it true? Have you really been wandering about for the past six years?”

“Indeed I have.”

“Oh, how dreadful! You poor thing! What compelled you to undertake such an awful endeavour? Was it the rumours? Are they still going around? It baffles me how someone would slander you in such a way, the noble Samosa-san!”

Kaya blessed the stars that she had had the forethought to hide her hands behind her back - it gave her an outlet for the growing frustration. Facing the other woman, she could not frown of even avert her eyes, her features frozen in a permanent mask of painful politeness. Her hands, however, were gripping each other with painful ferocity, little crystals floating in the air behind her. If someone happened to come down the opposite path, they’d probably think she was planning on attacking Momori-san.

“I have enjoyed it. I met a lot of new people and discovered interesting places.”

The other woman didn’t seem to have heard; her small smile took a pitying edge. Kaya’s fingers gripped tighter.

“You poor thing ! At least you encountered a lot of potential suitors? Anyone worth your status ?”

Kaya’s smile stretched another notch; if Momori could read her thoughts, she’d have waltzed away like an evil spirit by now.

“No. No one worth mentioning.”

Though there was a small part of her that wanted to hint at all the exceptionally skilled men she had encountered in the dead of night only to see the look of pure horror on the woman’s face.

“Oh, dear. I’m sure you’ll find someone soon. After all, you’re not too old yet.”

Ouch .

Kaya knew that unless she found a way to excuse herself soon, all the hard work she had done these past couple of days would go to waste. Burying her fist in that insufferable snobby little face would almost be worth it. ‘I’m sure the crunch of broken bones will be very satisfying.’ The temptation made her hands itch. The crystal flakes behind her started taking shape, becoming dagger-like formations and absorbing the moonlight that glided against their polished edges.

“Thank you for your concern, Momori-san, but I am not interested in getting married. I will lead the Samosa Clan by myself, unperturbed by marital obligations.”

“But your heirs!”

“What of them?”

The shock had exaggerated the doleful look to a comical extent. It eased some of the hate that rushed through Kaya’s system like a drug, egging her on.

“Surely you don’t want to have kids too late! If you wait too long, you might not be able to...”

“If that’s the case, I will make sure to appoint one of my many cousins as my heir. Worry not, Momori-san, I will not leave the Clan in incapable hands.”

The older woman spluttered, thrown off-kilt by Kaya’s words.

“Samosa-sama.”

Startled, the women spun around. Kaya had completely forgotten about the shadow lurking in the trees. To her right, on one knee, with his head slightly bowed, was the Hound. ‘Since when does he use that honorific and bow?’ She wiped the shock off her face. Whatever was going on, she was going to thank him later. Momori looked positively sick; her skin had turned ashen and her eyes were even wider. Apparently, she hadn’t heard about the Anbu squad.

“Yes?”

“We must return.”

The man stood up, towering over them. For a brief moment, it felt like Kaya was looking at him through the broken prism of her diamonds. The moon basked his back in soft milky light, making his hair acquire a captivating lustre that tempted her to run her fingers through the silky locks. His front, however, was cast in thick shadows and painted a different picture, accentuating an underlayer of danger.

“I didn’t know you had a private guard, Kaya-chan!”

“The Hokage insisted that I be escorted.”

She stole another look at the masked man; it was evident he had been listening, and sensing her growing agitation had decided to intervene and save them from having to stay in the village longer than expected. Tendrils of mortifications slithered across her skin. ‘He heard it all...’

“I’m afraid-”

“Oh, don’t you dare rush off so quickly! Do tell me, what did you do to have such a fine male specimen follow you?”

There was enough insult in that sentence to justify the Anbu killing her, and they all knew it.

“Momori-san, they are here to ensure everyone’s safety.”

They ? You have been travelling unchaperoned with a group of men?”

“You forget that I’m a kunoichi - civilian sentimentalities do not apply to me.” Kaya started walking, hoping that the woman would get the hint and leave. “I do not require chaperones. And Anbu are not just any men, so please do not degrade them to common citizens.”

Her sandals made soft crunching sounds as she headed towards what she hoped was one of the exits. The serenity of the evening was shattered and Kaya was ready for bed.

“Oh, do forgive me. I always forget you wanted to be part of their elite ranks back in the day.” The sting froze the blood vessels around her heart.

“Plans and people change, Momori-san. You should know. I still think it such a shame that the Hokage’s son showed no interest in you.”

The women eyed each other, lips pulled into thin sharp smiles, eyes flashing. Any pretence for civility and politeness was at the cusp of shattering. All the tension needed was a spark for a wildfire to engulf their small corner of the gardens.

“Indeed, plans and people change.” They proceeded to walk. “Do tell me, have you finally changed your opinion about the White Fang?”

Kaya and the Anbu halted at the same time, each with a foot raised mid-step. Something dark and dangerous crept across the ground and the night’s breeze chilled, yanking at Momori’s kimono.

“Momori-san.”

“Oh, do not look so cross, Kaya-chan. I know we’ve always been at odds, but you said things change. This has always been something you’ve been unbelievably stubborn about. I’m curious to know if you’ve finally seen reason.”

Kaya could sense the air behind her gathering like a storm about to be unleashed, looming shadows folded within Death’s cloak. Shaking off the desire to hear the crack of bones, Kaya forced her feet to move, sending a wave of chakra back towards the male. She didn’t like the lowkey murderous buzz that suddenly permeated the air around him; her own was simmering with anger, but she tried to offer him some sense of calmness. Urging him to refrain from committing a heinous crime. Not that she wouldn't aid him and then help hide the body. But still.

“I have not changed my views.”

“Even with your Clan’s disapproval?”

“Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, Momori-san, regardless of how ignorant or absurd it might be. So I would appreciate it if you keep yours to yourself.”

The sharp edge of the words seemed to give the older woman a pause.

“I just do not understand what you saw in that man-”

In an eyeblink Kaya blocked her way, the angry roar of honey-scented chakra permeating through Momori’s skin and seeping into the hollow coils, making her stumble back.

“I do not expect someone with your sensibilities to comprehend the complex notion of sacrifice. Coddled and protected as you have been, the shinobi’s credo is as foreign to you as the lands beyond the Veil. Hatake-san saved his comrades’ lives, my sorry excuse of a father being one of them, and he was punished for it. So do not dare speak of him in a disrespectful manner, otherwise, I’m afraid I might lose my temper. And I’m sure you’ve heard the rumours of what that entails.”

Shock and fear distorted the woman’s features into a mask that held no recollection of the previous sly lustre. Like a frightened child, she backed away, hand pressed to her chest, before spinning on her heels and running off. Silence settled in, and Kaya found herself closing her eyes and trying to regain control over her emotions. It had been inevitable, Momori bringing up Hatake-san. The woman knew how the Samosa Clan had shunned Kaya for aligning herself with the shamed man and for mourning his death. After all, Momori had made sure it became public knowledge. At one point Kaya had fled to the Hatake residence, afraid and mad, and in need of an adult that would understand. And Hatake Sakumo had understood. He had appreciated her faith in him and the unshakable resolve to clear his name before sending her home. Back then, he had known what she understood only years later: that being by his side would ruin her. She’d never get to be a shinobi or anyone of importance for that matter. As a child, Kaya had been hurt in a way all confused angry children were. Now she knew there had been nothing she could have done to help.

A low crackle snapped her out of her thoughts. Looking around, she spotted the Anbu a few steps away, an electric charge snapping in the air around him, bouncing off his skin. Opening her senses, his chakra flooded into her like a tidal wave, sweeping away the bitter-sweet emotions. The smell of the air right before a thunderstorm filled the space between them, calming her down. For whatever reason, he had reached out, allowing her to not only sense but also to take him in. Their eyes met through the barrier of his mask.

“Nothing better than a thunderstorm to calm me down. How did you know, Hound-san?”

She smirked at him playfully, the darkness in her eyes finally reseeding. Another wave of his chakra spun around her tentatively. She twined hers in response, unfolding it like a bird’s wings. It took her all of her concentration not to shudder in delight, and even moan! (Kami save her) - there was nothing more sensual and arousing than a barely controlled thunderstorm, and the man before her seemed to be just that. Kaya had the acute feeling that he was smirking, but she couldn’t be sure.

“Let’s get out of here before she screams murder.”

His fingers gently wrapped around her wrist and before Kaya could even react, they were gone.

Chapter Text

“Can we please stop at the hot springs? I swear, I lost sensitivity in some parts of my body days ago.”

The Village Hidden in the Flowers was a faint outline in the distance by late morning. They had left at the break of dawn, eager to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the heady haze that surrounded the village. The hours had slipped by in silence, inclining Kaya to believe that the Hound had not mentioned her confrontation with Momori-san to his comrades. ‘Probably for the better,’ she thought, jumping off a branch and landing a few paces ahead of everyone. A collective groan rumbled behind her - the Anbu hated it when she rushed ahead, reckless and open to attacks. The Hound levelled up with her almost instantaneously, leaving a respectable distance between them but still making Kaya’s skin prickles with static electricity. 

 “Kaya-san, your presence was requested back at the village in time for the festival. If we take a detour, we’ll be late.” The Boar reasoned, catching up on her other side. 

“Not if we speed through these lands and take a break for the night before the border. There is a nice little inn with hot springs there.”

“That’s doable.” The Fox muttered, overtaking her.

With no other source of entertainment but taking in her surroundings (the men were as reticent as ever and barely spoke a word, and there were that much foliage and trees one could look at before growing bored to death), Kaya had spent a good chunk of time silently appreciating the way their bodies looked and moved. Graceful and deadly like cheetahs, the Anbu provided an eyeful she’d be a fool not to drink in (as inconspicuous as possible, of course); their skin-tight uniform left little to the imagination and their physiques were drool-worthy. ‘Very nice bums.’

“What do you say, Hound-san?”

She looked over her shoulder at him. He had mainly kept to the rear of the group, save for the few occasions she rushed ahead. It made her wonder whether he was getting an eyeful of her behind. The notion made her cheeks tingle. 

The man gave a small nod and a triumphant smile bloomed on the kunoichi’s features. She had been craving to submerge her aching body in the hot springs ever since they left Konoha. And with such amazing weather ahead of them, nothing could go wrong. She’d be neck deep into heavenly goodness by nightfall.

 

***

 

As expected, everything went wrong. And as she and the Hound carried the limp bodies of the Fox and the Cat away from the bank of the river and hopefully towards safety, Kaya cursed silently. The Boar was a few paces ahead of them, nursing a nasty wound on his arm and favouring his left leg. She ignored her own throbbing body.

Coming upon an ambush was not uncommon, not for her and definitely not for the Anbu. But coming upon and ambush AND two Akatsuki members? Well, that was an extraordinary amount of bad luck. The Sound ninjas never even saw the Cat and Fox’s combined attack. Who knew Wind and Fire could be so effective when mixed? The Boar had stayed behind to help, leaving the Hound to whisk Kaya away.

“They are probably after you. We have to keep you safe.”

His words had unnerved her. She was not the type of shinobi that left her comrades to fight her battles, but there was little point arguing with him. In hindsight, she should have been more insistent. They wouldn't have ended up face to face with Uchiha Itachi and Hoshigaki Kisame by the river otherwise. The formidable had apparently been expecting them. 

It had quickly become apparent that Kaya lacked proper training for engaging in close-range combat. She had the strength and chakra control to inflict damage, but there were no well-developed techniques, strategies or speed to direct her punches. On the other hand, her ninjutsu abilities proved to be as impressive as rumoured, Kakashi had to give her that. Aware of her disadvantage, she made sure to keep the Akatsuki members at an arm’s length. It wouldn’t last long; being on the offensive in such situations never did, but it at least bought them some time.

It had been a two against one type of fight initially. Kakashi made sure to distract the missing-nins long enough for the kunoichi to flee. To his dismay, however, she did the opposite. Granted, it saved him from experiencing the painful sting of the Samehada - the sword was renowned for its greedy leaching of chakra - as her diamond wall appeared in a heartbeat and blocked the swing effortlessly. There hadn’t even been a scratch.

“Ahh, so this is why they call you the Queen of Diamonds.” 

The carnivorous way the shark-man eyed Kaya had set something within Kakashi reeling and growling. It was evident that he would enjoy every second of torturing her if he managed to get his hands on her. Kakashi just needed to make sure Kisame lost one if not both appendages, just in case.

Even after taking her place next to him, it had been an odd type of fight. The silver-haired Jonin engaged Itachi as much as possible, Sharingan against Sharingan. If Samosa-san got caught under a genjutsu the fight would be over. At least now she could defend herself and throw the men off. And he had to give it to her, she was a shield to be reckoned with. Nothing seemed to be even remotely close to penetrating her walls. There were no weak spots to aim at. It made him smirk; the barrier depicted perfectly the summoner’s stubbornness. His momentous distraction, a glance to the side making sure she was still holding up, was all it took for the tables to turn.

In a heartbeat, Kisame and Itachi swapped places, and no matter how hard the Copy-nin tried to slip away and re-engage the Uchiha, the other man was always in his way, his Water Affinity annoyingly strong. By some sheer luck (and brute force) Kaya managed to keep Itachi at a distance. He appeared intrigued, mildly amused, and willing to humour her by exploring the scope of her lack of verse in the art of taijutsu. 

 

Kaya didn’t remember the last time she had received so many blows. There wasn’t enough strength in them to inflict damage, just enough to toss her around like a rag doll and agitate her. Enough to remind her she was the lesser shinobi. That she was nowhere near his level. All the while, as Kaya stared into those emotionless jet black eyes, already out of breath, she wondered. Why was he doing this? What did he want? What had happened to change him so? Because back in the day, Samosa no Kaya had been very close to Uchiha Itachi. Her junior by two years, by the time they met he had already surpassed her. Yet his shy, amiable nature and the warmth of his smile had drawn her in; intrigued, she had allowed herself to befriend him. In the back of her mind, Kaya had always had the distinct feeling that if things had unfolded differently for both of them, they’d have inevitably ended up together. Their personalities had clicked so nicely - she had been the rowdy loud-mouth dragging him into mischief that made his Clan bristle, and he had always been able to bring her back from the brink of her self-destructive darkness. It had been nice, being his friend.

She tried to push away the old sympathies; shove them back into the tiny little box they had crawled out from. Itachi was a traitor to the village. He had gone off the charts. 

“Why are you here?” 

Her voice was strained from the pain resonating across her chest; his kick had not only knocked the air out of her lungs but might have cracked a rib as well. 

“To bring you with us.”

He threw a kunai at her as if they were kids training in the forest. Her Kekkei Genkai reacted before she even had time to step away. The click of the metal against the solid surface of the diamond was drowned by the screeching of lightning. The pressure in the air sparked; like a Thunderbird taking flight, it charged the open space with static. Kaya kept her eyes locked on her opponent despite the urge to make sure the Hound was okay. 

“And if I refuse to come?”

The crystals erupted around Itachi, making him jump away. The flying kunai and shuriken were easy to deflect, but they took his attention away from where he was stepping. To Kaya’s greatest dismay, however, he somehow managed to slip out of her reach yet again, leaving his black cloak to be devoured by her jutsu. 

“Then I will take you by force.”

In a heartbeat, he was in front of her, a breath away, and despite herself, Kaya flinched when their eyes met. The familiar blackness seeped away and a vivid red took its place, the tomoes spinning lazily. She stared, transfixed. Somewhere in the distance, she could hear the crackling of lightning and the roar of water. Shouting permeated the air in a muffled, cotton-candy type of way. 

“You are still lacking, Kaya. I’m disappointed.”

“So am I.”

He didn’t have time to react; had not accounted for Kaya being able to fully resist the Sharingan’s power. No one had ever been able to. ‘Smug bastard!’ Her chakra-infused fist buried right into his stomach, sending him flying back, shards of diamonds combusting from his midsection. The ground around them cracked open like a wound; she had packed quite a large amount of her chakra into it, sending Itachi crashing through the forest. A breath of air slipped past her lips with a low hiss. Pain was burning numerous meandering paths through her body.

Looking to the side, she almost gasped. One Water Affinity could not necessarily cancel out another, and Kisame had greater power reserves than her; yet with the Anbu locked in a water prison with decreasing oxygen levels and that Kami-cursed sword quite literally glowering her way, Kaya decided to take a different approach. For once, she needed to do the hand signs. 

“Little bitch!”

The ice burst forth from underneath the man’s feet, trapping his legs and breaking his hold over the jutsu. The Hound collapsed, heaving and coughing, but alive. A small victory. Kaya ignored her screaming body and the painful contraction of her chakra pathways - she didn’t have much left, and if they didn’t get out of there soon-

The thought fled almost as quick as she did. Her darting gaze reflected a sword raised for a swing and a flash of black coming from the woods. There was no outrunning them.

 

Kakashi’s senses picked up on the disturbance in the air - the glutinous swing of the Samehada like a lion’s jowls about to lock around his neck, the peaked chakra signature of Itachi, and the flickering beep of Kaya’s. And then there was the ringing clang of metal colliding with something stronger and a puff of smoke that irritated his lungs further. The jade wall was precariously balanced on top of the rippled water surface, half-formed and already cracking under the weight of the sword. A whiff of blood filled Kakashi’s senses and his head snapped up. The kunoichi had intercepted Itachi’s attack mid-teleportation, leaving herself exposed. The kunai gleamed red under the brilliant sun. She had not managed to fully parr it.

“Kaya!”

Before anyone could react, the river came to life under an explosion of ice and crystals, making the Akatsuki men retreat, the combined ninjutsus chasing after them like a pack of ferocious dogs. Not missing a heartbeat, the kunoichi grabbed Kakashi by the shoulder and teleported them out of there.

 

They found the Boar amongst a sea of dead bodies. Kaya didn’t have the time or energy to explain what had happened as the man went rigid at the sight of them. She was sporting a number of cuts and bruises and a heavily bleeding wound at the side of her midriff where Itachi’s kunai had sliced through her. It had been pure luck, appearing just an inch to the side. 

Silently, they heaved their fallen comrades up and vanished in a cloud of smoke, teleporting as far away as they could with their diminished chakra reserves. From there on they ran. The Hound shouldered the Cat, while Kaya took the Fox on her back, silencing the Boar’s protest with a single glare. The hours spent running slipped past her as her mind kept on turning back to what had happened by the river. The anger she had felt when Itachi had tried to put her under a genjutsu; the painful sting of his betrayal after all they had gone through as kids. The smugness of startling him, dismantling his arrogant Sharingan and punching him halfway across the forest. The cold pinpricks of fear at seeing the Hound locked into the water prison, drowning. The heart-stopping dread at glimpsing that monstrous sword lift for the final blow, and at the same time sensing Itachi’s chakra burning its way towards them. Those few moments had branded themselves into her mind, probably shedding some years off her lifespan. It hadn’t just been Kaya’s aversion to seeing and causing death; it had been the prospect of the Hound dying, of his reassuring presence vanishing, of his tantalizing thunderstorm-scented chakra being blown away like a candle, never to be experienced again. The downright horror that she’d not only see a highly-skilled man die, but be the indirect reason for his demise. She had acted before she could even think. In that very moment, caught in the cusp of time between seconds, she had realised that she could not, must not, let him die.

Chapter Text

They reached the inn before nightfall. Tucked away near the border, it was tiny, just like Kaya had said. It consisted of a single-storey building curving around a niche in the body of the mountain. Even from that distance, Kakashi could smell the hot springs; their slightly acidic twang made his nose twitch. 

The inside was unremarkable - plain wooden beams and a couple of potted plants, with the bright artificial light of the lamps casting pale shadows. The woman behind the desk startled at the sight of them and opened her mouth to scream.

“Mina-chan, it’s me.”

The woman blinked for a few minutes before jumping on her feet and approaching them.

“Kaya-san! What’s happened?” She eyed the masked men with apprehension, taking in their blood-soaked clothes. 

“Long story. Please get Kaisa to lift the barriers immediately and ask Sumo-san to come and treat these men’s injuries. We’ll need rooms for the night as well.”

Any other person in any other inn would have been deeply affronted at such a blunt approach, yet the girl before them merely pressed her lips in determination, nodded and indicated that they walk in before rushing off.

“Your room is empty, Kaya-san. Go there.”

And so they did. It was spacious enough to comfortably fit all of them and the windows looked out into the back garden. They worked in silence, laying down the Fox and the Cat gently on the floor, putting their bags away, taking the travelling cloaks off. By the time Sumo-san arrived, Kaya and Kakashi had undressed the unconscious men and were applying pressure to the more serious wounds.

“Dear Kami-sama! Kaya-san, what-?”

“Sumo-san, sorry for the abrupt summon. We need your help.”

The old man did his best, years of being a field medic kicking in, with Kaya as his assistant, whose basic medical training came in handy. Kakashi and Tenzo, unneeded, went to ensure that the premises were secure. The cool night’s breeze greeted them as well as the distinct hum of the force field surrounding the inn. Another girl was walking towards them, blood smeared across her wrists.

“I presume you are Kaya-san’s friends?”

They nodded.

“No need to worry about someone finding you here - I’ve raised the barrier. Ain’t nothing getting past it!”

She pointed with a thumb over her shoulder, a smug beaming smile stretching her features. No older than sixteen, she had an impressive chakra reserve humming within her like a sleeping beast.

“Thank you.”

“Anything for Kaya-san.”

With that, she walked away. The trees rustled and somewhere far away, an owl hooted. The two Anbu exchanged a look before proceeding to walk around the building, making sure there were no weak spots or possible ways in. They’d look for a way out later. 

Upon returning to the room, they found the situation under control - the sleeping Fox and Cat were all bandaged up and the medic was patiently waiting. There was no sign of Kaya.

“She’s waiting for you next door,” the older man offered helpfully, sensing their alarm, “I just need to check your wounds first.”

After what felt like an eternity, they were finally allowed to go and join the kunoichi. In the small adjoining room, there was a table set with steaming food and tea. Kaya was seated by the window, her elbow resting on the sill and her chin propped on her fist. Tenzo cleared his throat, startling her.

“You’re back!”

There were dark shadows dancing across her face; some were fatigue, others - bruises. In the dim light, her eyes looked sunken in, two dark orbs gazing at them from deep within the sockets. Kakashi could sense the weak twinge of her chakra as it shivered around her like ripped gauze. 

“Sorry to keep you waiting, Kaya-san.” 

“That’s okay. Shall we eat?” They sat around the table. “We managed to feed the Fox and the Cat some miso soup, but I’m sure they’ll wake up ravenous.”

There was a soft smile on her features as she spoke, her eyes focused on her meal. Even when she went to pour tea, she didn’t look up. 

“The hot springs here have healing properties, courtesy of Sumo-san’s years of researching different types of medical ninjutsu. I plan on going for a soak after this. You are more than welcome to join me.”

Tenzo choked on his tea, making Kaya smirk.

“Are you modest, Boar-san?”

Even with her downcast eyes, Kakashi felt the power of her smirk. She enjoyed teasing them, eliciting a reaction. He wondered if their reclusive and silent detachment bothered her and whether jesting was the only way to reassure herself that everything was okay.

“Kaya-san!”

“Cus I’m not.” This time she gave them a bold look; even rimmed by shadows, the gleam of her colourful eyes was hypnotic. “And, of course, you can keep your masks on. I understand the importance of Anbu keeping their identities a secret.”

No one said anything further on the topic. Kaya kept her head bowed, allowing them to eat without having to time their bites with hers or be alert of her sweeping gaze. After they were done, she piled the plates and cups on a little tray, preparing to take them away. Kakashi’s fingers slipper over hers and pulled it away, easily balancing it in one hand. He tried to ignore the jolt of electricity that travelled between them and the way Kaya jumped and blushed, her eyes anchored to a spot above his shoulder. He had half a mind to wrap her in his chakra, see if she’d jump any higher or blush any brighter. The Heiress wasn’t the only one that could tease.

“Go and enjoy the springs, Kaya-san. We’ll sort things here.”

With a silent nod, she left the room. 

 

***

 

The water was blissfully hot, doing wonders for Kaya’s sore muscles. Sumo-san had healed the gash at her side and made sure she didn’t have a cracked rib, but she had waved off his offer at dealing with the more minor injuries. She wanted to keep the bruises as a reminder. Her left biceps was turning a vivid shade of blue, while the spot beneath her breasts on the right, which had received quite a kick, was tinted purple. There were a couple of scratches and nicks, pink sensitive skin stretched thin, and some more colourful patches on her legs. While showering, she had counted ten spots that would be extremely painful tomorrow. Washing away the blood, dust and fear had felt amazing. Those and the few tattoos she had scattered around, alongside her scars, made quite an interesting map of her body. 

The hot steam cast a dense fog across the springs, that hung low over the water, creating a sense of privacy. The soft whiff of lavender and aloe vera hugged her in a soothing embrace, and not even fifteen minutes after submerging herself, Kaya started dozing off. The opening of the door snapped her awake. Two sets of feet padded in, making her duck further behind the boulder she was leaning on. With her bosom pressed against the rim of the pool and her back facing the door, she couldn’t see who had entered. ‘I never asked Mina-chan if there was someone else at the inn! Damn it!’ Kaya didn’t mind sharing a bath, even with men - she had lost all sense of modesty a long time ago - but in her current weakened state, she didn’t like the idea of being alone with strangers. A pulse of her chakra shot out, questioning but also warning - letting the newcomers know they were not alone. Her prob was met with a telltale emptiness, and then the reassuring buzz of the Hound’s chakra signature. Kaya breathed out a sigh of relief, catching a whiff of rain and thunder.

“You gave me a fright, sneaking in like that!” She shifted enough so that they could pinpoint her location by the mass of blood-red hair twisted into a knot on top of her head.

“Habits.” 

The water sloshed as they stepped in. Kaya allowed for a few minutes to slip by before speaking.

“Should I remain with my back to you?”

There was a brief pause; she instinctively knew they were looking at each other, silently consulting on the matter. 

“You can turn around, Kaya-san. In light of the day’s events, it doesn’t matter much.” The Boar’s voice was soft. 

The kunoichi emerged from behind the rock, eyes downcast. A small mirthful smile was stretching her flushed cheeks.

“You say that, but last time I checked, people had gone missing for inflicting less offence to Anbu than glimpsing at their faces.”

The men chuckled.

“It will be our little secret.”

The Hound’s voice sounded different, less a muted rumble and more of a husky drawl. Tempted, Kaya peeked at him from underneath her eyelashes. Her heart skipped a beat. 

“It all makes sense now.” The words slipped out in a daze as she studied his features.

The mess of silvery hair was falling free across his face, hiding the better part of his closed left eyes - an old scar was bisecting it. The visible one was a stormy grey with the faintest touches of blue around the rims. He was pale - a result of being covered from head to toe all the time - but that only gave him a sense of etherealness. A mask covered the bottom half of his face, leaving a lot to the imagination. Even practically naked, he somehow managed to remain an enigma. 

 

At her words, Kakashi raised an eyebrow. The way she was looking at him, transfixed, was stirring up a concoction of emotions, all of which conflicting. He gave his best try not to ogle her in return - her cheeks were flushed from the heat (or at least he hoped so, there were more than enough women swooning after him as it were), her vibrant hair pinned into a messy bun on top of her head and her eyes … well, her eyes did things to him he was unwilling to admit. Sheer force of will stopped him from looking at the expanse of skin stretching below her chin.

“No wonder you guys walk around masked. Your identities aside, you won’t be able to get anything done otherwise. Those gorgeous faces would attract all the unwanted attention.”

She chuckled and shook her head, the senbons clinking against each other. Both men’s cheeks flushed and they looked away, hands unconsciously coming up to hide their faces. 

 

Kaya laughed at their reaction - it was cute how a simple compliment could make men trained to kill feel uncomfortable. She moved a bit closer, making sure to leave a respectable distance between them and not to lift her body too high above the water - she might not be modest, but she wasn’t keen on flashing them either. Instead, she resumed her previous position, turning around and pressing her chest against the stones and folding her arms over the edge of the pool. Cold shivers travelled up her spine and she cocked her head to the side, sliding an eyelid open. The Boar was looking away, a grim look distorting his handsome features, while the Hound had his eye trained to her. Something dark and dangerous flashed in that moonstone gem before his aloof mask clicked back in place.

“What?” 

She rested her chin on her arm, shifting ever so slightly. A side-boob would be a better view than the warzone that mapped her back. Amidst the old scars, with their stark white edges and paler skin, bloomed her biggest tattoo. Somehow the chain of interlinked crystals starting from the base of her spine and following its ridges all the way up to the back of her neck had preserved its integrity - not a single line was severed. Yet.

“What happened to you?”

The Hound’s gaze was unflinching and cold, clashing with the detached drawl of his voice. Distractedly, Kaya rolled her shoulder blades, almost expecting phantom pain to dig its claws into her. Even after so long, she could clearly recollect the feeling of skin being torn open.

“Travelling isn’t always fun, Hound-san.” Her eyes lost their focus as the memories jostled to the surface. “Especially for a lone woman.”

“You were ambushed?” The Boar’s anger and disbelief were palpable. 

“I was prosecuted.”

The men startled, bodies tensing up and instincts sharpening. Kaya could sense the killing intent of the Hound’s chakra whipping at the air, a thunder set loose. The other man exercised more self-restraint, though she could suddenly catch a whiff of a woodsy smell lurking in the air.

“Doesn’t help that I’m such a troublemaker and don’t know how to keep my mouth shut.” Her laugh rang hollow. “But yeah, men don’t tend to like confrontational kunoichi.”

“But your Kekkei Genkai-”

“It hasn’t always been so well-developed. By now it’s rather instinctual, like a creature with its own mind that responds before even I know what’s going on. But back then it wasn’t.”

“Regardless of whether you stir trouble or not, you are still a Konohagakure shinobi. No one should dare attack you without serious allegations.”

Kaya looked at the silver-haired man; with his self-control clicking back in place like a porcelain mask, not a single muscle betrayed his anger. 

“That’s not how things work, I’m afraid. At least not for women, alone, in foreign places. Most of my wounds have been inflicted solely because I wore the Konoha Hitai-ate. People fear our village and they fear our teams, but they have no care for lone travellers. Everything’s fair when you are by yourself.”

The bitterness of the words left a bad taste in the back of her mouth. It has been a while since the old grudge showed its nasty head, but Kaya couldn’t help it. People’s cruelty had changed her; not so much that she’d become as ruthless as them, but enough to give her thicker skin.

“Anyways, something good came out of it as well!” The men regarded her as if she had lost her mind, before quickly averting they eyes, flushed, as Kaya spun around, “I found this little slice of paradise tucked away very conveniently at our border. I’ve spent countless nights here, soaking in these springs.”

As the words slipped past her smiling lips, a rustling of leaves snagged their attention. Kaya, by instinct (and completely forgetting she was naked), made a move to stand up and confront whoever dared be a peeping Tom. The Hound’s body blocked her line of sight. ‘When the hell did he even move?’ Mouth slightly agape, she eyed the spot he had been leaning against not even a second ago. The soft rippling of the water was the only indication of his shift. ‘I wish I was that quick!’ She needed to find someone willing to train her; if the confrontation from earlier had taught her anything, it was that she lacked speed more than she had initially thought.

“Come out you two.”

The bushes rustled again and two guilty-looking faces appeared from between the leaves. Kaya felt her face acquire the colour of her hair.

“Horaku! Tamo!” The boys flinched and ducked their heads even lower. “How many times have I told you not to be little perverts!”

She glided around the man before her, making sure to keep her body underwater while simultaneously giving the boys the evil eye and ignoring the newly revealed expanse of pale skin. Multitasking had never felt more difficult, yet if he caught her ogling again, she’d die of shame.

“We just wanted to make sure it was really you, Onii-chan! We heard Kaisa nee-chan mention you had arrived.”

The water lapped around her as she stood before the boys. Half-obscured by the mist, they looked even more identical than usual; two little Shadow clones enveloped in smoke. Seeing their ruffled rust-coloured heads and their freckled faces made something in Kaya melt. The last time she had seen them they had been toddlers, holding onto her tunic with little fists and eager to follow her around. Her heart twisted ruefully; they were no longer babies.

“And this has nothing to do with your obsession with my breasts?” Someone behind her choked.

It had been the oddest, funniest (and a bit disturbing, though understandable) revelation ever - their initial attachment to her had been solely based on their fascination with her bosom, which she has an ample amount of. With the boys’ mother dead and their sisters too young, her equipment had appeared to be the most alluring one. It didn’t matter that she didn’t have milk, their transfixion persisted regardless - they’d grope and squeeze and make a pass at pulling her tunic open whenever they could get their tiny sticky hands on her. The concept of women bandaging their breasts had greatly affronted them; they had taken it as a personal offence.

“Onii-chan!” Their petrified unison gave her joy; she could sense the men’s cold glares and knew the boys were ready to bolt. 

“Well, you’ve seen me. Now off you go to bed.”

They bowed and ran, not daring to look back. Kaya chuckled and shook her head, disrupting the delicate balance of the bun, allowing for a long curly strand to slip out. She managed to grab the offender before it submerged itself into the water and twisted it back in place. Unfortunately, in doing so she rose higher above the water, exposing more of her breasts than was strictly appropriate in company. The men froze before almost tripping over their feet in turning around. She was willing to bet they were nursing some severe nosebleeds.

“Kaya-san!”

“My, my! Sorry boys.”

She swam towards the shallow waters.

“I’ll head to bed before the heat gets to my head. See you upstairs.”

Without even looking, she knew they had their faces averted, blushes tinting their cheeks. ‘So shy.’  

Back in the room, the Fox and the Cat were sleeping soundly, their faces vacant of any signs of pain or discomfort. After quickly checking their vitals, she went to her futon and unrolled it, eager to snuggle underneath the duvet. Dressed in loose shorts and a baggy T-shirt, the evening’s chilly breath caressed her bare thighs, making goosebumps race across her skin. There were two more sleeping bags propped against the wall. Without thinking, she grabbed them and stretched them out next to her own. She had been made aware that she tossed and turned in her sleep, often landing quite the blows, so there was plenty of room between them.

Tucking herself underneath the covers, she took a moment to assess her own body. Underneath the layers of stiff muscles and aching joints (yes, she was a shinobi developing arthritis) the low hum of her chakra pathways cried with fatigue; the coils were shivering, at the verge of collapsing. The warm food and hot springs had helped in relieving some of the strain, but she knew that come tomorrow morning, she’d feel like she had been run over by a herd of buffaloes. 

***

By the time Kakashi and Tenzo returned from the springs, the kunoichi was already asleep, her body curled in a fetal position, the river of hair leaving a bloody streak across the white pillow. The Hound took a second to study her. Her chakra levels were low but steadily replenishing, and by what he had managed to see, the worst of her wounds had been dealt with. The angry bruise on the upper arm had almost made him growl, but he had managed to swallow it down. No point in scaring the woman away. Not when he was actually starting to enjoy her presence. For all the hardships and bullshit she had been through - from the village and her Clan, and from strangers - she had somehow managed to retain some semblance of good humour and optimism. It made Kakashi wonder exactly what it cost her to always be so full of banter. The sharpness of her face and her quick temper hinted at a harsher personality lurking beneath the still waters, yet for the better part of their journey, she had proven to be anything but. Yet he had the distinct feeling that there was more to her, more than a hastily scribbled line in a file.

Feeling the toll of the long day finally catching up to him, Kakashi went to his futon. It had been made, alongside Tenzo’s, the covers and pillows neatly laid out. The men shared a look over Kaya’s sleeping form. For an Heiress, she was considerate and self-sufficient, lacking the usual spoilt behaviour akin to children primed for a life of power and control. It put them on edge, her deviating from what was considered “normal” for someone in her station. It also made her highly intriguing.

As he went to bed he tried to ignore the resurfacing memories of the other night - of how Kaya had lost her temper and the seething hatred that had flashed in her different coloured eyes, making the green one gleam in a vibrantly dangerous shade. He willed himself to ignore the tug of his heart at the echo of her words. At their implication.

She had cared about his father. She had mourned him.

The question, unbidden, punctured the blanket of sleep moments before his mind drifted off.

If she had cared so much why had she left Kakashi behind?

Chapter Text

The Anbu left Kaya to sleep-in the next morning, conscious of the cloak of fatigue enveloping her. They went to find some food, the Fox and Cat starving as predicted when they came upon the two women from last night drinking tea in the main area. At the sight of the men, they bowed. 

“We will bring breakfast in a moment. Please have a sit.”

They indicated towards the adjacent room where a table was laid with fruit and cups. Soon after they seated themselves, the women returned with trays of food. Dishing out the portions with silent efficiency, they paused only for a moment to ask a question.

“Is Kaya-san doing okay?”

“She is still resting,” Tenzo replied, his soft voice putting them at ease.

Once the men were done eating, the women returned with a new pot of tea, trailed by the twins from last night. Kakashi eyed the boys. The conversation between them and Kaya still rang in his ears. ‘Breast obsession, eh?’

“Boys, do you have something to say?” The older one, Mina, nudged them forward.

“We wanted to apologize,” began one, “for sneaking up on you and Kaya-nee-chan and interrupting your conversation.”

They finished each other’s sentences in common twin fashion, freckled faces downcast and sprouting some severe blushes. 

“And?” Kaisa ruffled their hair, making them squirm.

“We promise to never peep again.”

There was a brief awkward silence before Kakashi found himself nodding.

“Can we… can we ask you something?”

“Horaku!” His sister shushed him, squeezing his shoulder and trying to stir him out of the room.

“Ask.” Tenzo’s patience with kids never ceased to amaze the Copy-cat.

“Is Kaya nee-chan in danger? You are here to protect her, right? Is it bad again?”

The Anbu tensed. ‘Again? She has arrived here in a similar state before?’ The kunoichi’s words suddenly resurfaced, recounting the countless nights she had spent in the hot springs. It had been a subtle hint; probably one she hadn’t even realised she had given.

“We are here to make sure she is safe, yes, but she is in no immediate danger.”

That seemed to make all four siblings breathe a sigh of relief. Kakashi and Tenzo shared a quick look.

“What is your relationship with Kaya-san exactly?” Izuni, with his lack of decorum, had asked what his comrades were already wondering.

The sisters looked at each other, the creases of their eyebrows and the press of their lips so slight they were easy to miss. 

“Kaya-san is part of the family,” Kaisa spoke first, her glazed over eyes staring out of the window. “After Mother died, Otousan was at a loss of what to do with all four of us after just quitting his job as a medic. We had just moved when Kaa-san fell ill, and things fell apart after she passed.”

Kaisa stole a glance at the twins, their faces downcast, sadness realigning their otherwise mirthful features.

“Horaku and Tamo were babies at that time and fell ill that winter. We feared the worst, but that was when Kaya-san appeared. She knew what was needed to heal them and also helped us set up the inn, making sure that despite our location we’d be safe. She came and went on a regular basis, always friendly and willing to listen, sometimes bringing friends with her. That’s how we’ve managed to stay here for so long - she made sure to tell people to stop by, and we often have strangers pop in, asking after her.”

“She taught me how to raise the barrier and how to properly channel my chakra and gave the twins their first sets of kunais for their birthday two years ago.”

“We worry because it had been a while since she stopped by and when you all turned up last night in such a state ...” Mina’s eyes watered, her quivering lips betraying no sound of her distress.

The twins turned around and hugged her, their rust-coloured heads resting on her lap. Kakashi managed to catch a glimpse of dampness on their cheeks.

“We’ve often seen her injured, but never like this. The look in her eyes, it was dangerous.”

No one had had time to see the look in Kaya’s eyes last night, but somehow that didn’t surprise them. The woman had nerves of steel and a backbone of steel. Kakashi didn’t know a single person apart from his squad that would stand between him and Uchiha Itachi. 

 

***

 

Three days after returning to the village, Kaya was walking back home after a quick morning shopping when a gruff voice caught her attention.

“Yo, pretty lady!”

She swivelled around, eyes wide. She couldn’t remember the last time someone referred to her in such an insolent, not-clan-appropriate manner. The street appeared empty but for the vendors milling about.

“Down here.”

Dropping her gaze, she was met with the panting face of a pug. A talking pug. ‘A ninken on a mission?’ The poor thing looked quite hot, with the morning sun already slanting across the ground mercilessly. Even Kaya, who loved the heat and the feel of the sun’s rays as they kissed her skin, felt a bit short of breath. The weather had changed drastically in the past couple of days, taking them by surprise. Kneeling down, she quickly fetched her water bottle from her bag. 

“Are you thirsty, ninken-san?”

He nodded, his tiny little bandana tilting ever so slightly. Kaya had to suppress the squeal of delight that threatened to burst out of her chest. He was a trained ninja, just like her, not a lapdog. She should respect him, not coo over him! Yet his scrunched up grumpy little face made a pool of warmth spill within her. 

With nothing to use as a bowl (crystal powers momentarily forgotten), Kaya put her bags on the ground and cupped her hands. With little chakra coercion, the water snaked its way out of the bottle and into her palms. When the ninken started lapping at it, his tongue ever so often touching her skin, Kaya’s restraint began to waver. The need to pet him, give him a good scratch behind the ears, or simply snuggle him was getting overpowering. 

Once he was done, he moved away, pink tongue darting out to collect a couple of stray droplets. Kaya was sure her face was tinted by a blush and she suffered from starry eyes.

“Thanks! The name’s Pakkun.” He sat down on his hind legs and regarded her for a moment, a small frown altering his squishy features. “Nice eyes.”

The blush crept down her neck and across her chest. 

“Thank you, Pakkun-san. I’m Kaya. Anything else I can help you with?”

“Ah.” 

He twisted around and fetched a tiny scroll from underneath his vest. Gently held between his sharp teeth, he tilted his head at her to take it. 

“What is this?”

She broke the seal and unravelled the parchment. There were only a few lines written down, and no initials or name.

 

Training ground 40 

3 pm 

Today 

Be ready

 

It sounded rather ominous, and if it wasn’t for the ninken still sitting before her patiently, his head propped on her knee, she’d have suspected foul play, a trap, or something of the sorts.

“I’d take the time with a grain of salt if I were you,” he drawled, his wet nose nudging her hand; she complied and scratched his head, “the Boss is always late.”

“Do you know why I’m being summoned?”

She found it intriguing and amusing, having someone disregard her social status in such a bold manner. It was refreshing to know that not everyone in Konoha hated or feared her; there was at least one person (a proud owner of the cutest pug ninken ever) that appeared to regard her as yet another human being.

“You’ll have to go and find out. Oh, that feels nice. Right there. A bit to the right. Perfect.”

His short stumpy tail wagged, sending a cloud of dust floating around. Kaya half-expected one of his legs to start thumping next. He seemed to have caught himself because he moved away.

“You give very nice scratches, lady. I might come for more later. I need to go now.”

“Feel free to come to me whenever Pakkun-san. It’ll be my pleasure to give you some affection.” 

“Heh.”

He threw her a small doggy smirk before running off, his bandana flapping in the wind. Kaya needed another second to compose herself. ‘Smitten by a dog.’ She shook her head and ignored the sideways glances passers-by gave her as she stood up. There was lots of time until 3 pm, and while she did have a number of meetings happening, Kaya resolved to make sure she was at training ground 40 on time. 

 

***

 

A couple of hours and mind-numbing meetings later, Kaya found herself plopped underneath the thick shade of an oak tree, staring at the empty training ground. It was a couple of minutes until three and she had made a mad dash for it in order to be on time. It had been quite a mission on its own to find the place, the patch of land being so secluded and off the charts that it had taken three different attempts to finally find a person who knew the exact location. He had been kind enough to draw her a detailed map. Changed into her training gear (since she was here to begin with, she might as well make a start on all that well-needed speed training) she fiddled with the zipper of the sleeveless tunic. The fine clothes from earlier were swapped for more practical ones - a pair of leggings stopping at the knees, a black crop-top with a fishnet vest underneath it, and her trusty forest green tunic (long at the back, with a split in the middle, and short at the front). She had the zipper halfway down, right underneath her breasts; when trying to pull it up, it had snagged and would go no further. ‘Too much dango does that to you.’ Equipped with a weapon pouch and a kunai set strapped to her thigh, she felt ready. Not really sure for what, but ready nonetheless. 

The heat started subsiding as the sun made its gradual descend, but it still felt too hot - there were no bird songs to stir the heavy air, and if Kaya squinted ever so slightly she could see the heat rising from-

Twack !

The kunai ricocheted off the crystal and landed by Kaya’s foot. Her heart plunged into her stomach before lodging into her throat. Cold sweat dampened her brow as she jumped on her feet. The crystal retracted back into the ground. A quick sweep of her surroundings revealed nothing but a gaping hole a bit to her right. ‘No, left! No, behind!’

She jumped, narrowly missing a shuriken. Spinning around, kunai ready to block, she waited. The steady drum of her heart grounded her as her honed senses searched for any chakra signatures or any emptiness. This time she reacted a bit quicker, the kunai flying past her face, but the crystals hit the target. A man’s heavy ‘Ompf’ made her lips twitch in a smirk before a puff of smoke wiped it straight off her face. ‘A clone?’  

“That wasn’t half bad, Kaya-san.”

The voice came from behind her. Something sharp pressed against her throat. ‘How?’ A bead of sweat followed the outline of her face. Anger blazed in her chakra, and the man behind her retreated as crystals of various shapes and sizes exploded from the ground beneath him. Their edges reflected the afternoon sun, painting the ground in a kaleidoscope of colours. Kaya spun and finally faced her attacker.

“You?”

The Hound wasn’t wearing his Anbu uniform, but a standard Jōnin one with a long-sleeve black turtleneck underneath the green vest. A mask was covering the lower part of his face, and a Hitai-ate - the left eye. He observed her in contemplation, disregarding the irritation fracturing her features. 

“Mah, don’t look so mad, Kaya-san.”

“You attacked me!” She was embarrassed at the shrillness of her voice. 

A bitter sting nipped at her. The man didn’t owe her any loyalty but she had never thought he wished her harm either. 

“I was testing you.” His voice became milder, coercing; like she was a frightened rabbit he didn’t want to scare away.

Her eyebrows furrowed and her hands balled into fists; the crystals shivered and retracted into the ground. Sensing her darkening mood, the man raised his hands in surrender, a sheepish smile outlined underneath the mask.

“Mah, mah. Sorry, Kaya-san. I’m not explaining this well. You see, I’m here to help you.”

Her left eyebrow quirked up.

“You suffer from a severe lack of speed and, frankly, your taijutsu skills are appalling. So I’m here to fix that.”

Jaw unhinged, she gaped, dumbfounded. Had he really just said that? To her face? It took her a moment to regain some semblance of control over her facial features and breathe in, fighting not to splutter, or worse - lose her temper. 

“I don’t recall enlisting your help.”

He seemed perplexed by her mounting irritation. 

“I’m offering it freely.”

“And what if I don’t want it?”

He considered the question for a second.

“Then you can continue being slow and bad at close-range combat, and instead rely heavily on your Kekkei Genkai.”

The urge to smack him made her hands itch. No one had ever dared talk to her in such a way and not come to regret it. Many men had ended up trapped in crystals, wriggling, or frozen into icicles under the cool fury of her ninjutsu. Yet somehow she knew that none of those tricks would work against the silver-haired man. He was incredibly fast and she was shamefully slow. Not even her Kekkei Genkai could respond quick enough. Kaya gritted her teeth. She had wanted a teacher, not a cocky bastard that would try and destroy her confidence.

“Why would you help me? Surely you have better things to do than fix my appalling taijutsu skills.”

His eye swept over her once again, and for a brief moment, she thought he’d reconsider and vanish. 

“You saved my life,” the graveness of the words gave her pause, “and I want to return the favour.”

“I’m a shield, not a sword.” He cocked an eyebrow. “I defend, not attack. I don’t need to be a good fighter, or super fast. I just need to make sure nothing gets past me.”

He considered her for a few long minutes, mulling over the words. Underneath the stillness of his face, she could almost see the wheels of his brain spinning and turning. Before she could blink, he was gone. 

A kunai stopped her from flinching; hot breath fanned against her braided hair. His body heat washed over her like a tidal wave, followed close by the thunderous sizzle of his chakra. The scent left her tingling all over.

He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to - he had made his point. What use of a good shield when she was not equipped to deal with enemies quicker than her? Relying on others being slow was not the mindset one used when wanting to remain alive on the battlefield. Her shoulders sagged. He retracted the weapon but did not move away. Kaya was tempted to lean back into his enticing presence.

“You could have told me this,” the mild annoyance was overshadowed by her smile.

“You’re not the type of person that takes kindly to critique I’ve noticed.”

He jumped back, easily evading her elbow. 

“So what, you’re gonna make me run laps and kick at dummies until I wheeze out?”

“No,” mildly offended, he got into a fighting stance, “we are going to spar until you wheeze out.”

A trickle of sweat snaked down her spine.

 

The sky had started morphing from baby blue into pink and burnt orange by the time the sparring session ended. By then, Kaya had abandoned her tunic, her braid was a mess, sweat was glistening in the setting sun and she had a number of small nicks and scrapes to add to her ever-growing collection. A couple of places were pulsating with a rhythm of their own, some were stiff, and there was a certain level of soreness in her ligaments and muscles that foreshadowed tomorrow’s pain. In contrast, the Hound looked the same as when he had arrived. He hadn’t even broken out a sweat, and for the majority of the time, one of his hands had remained in his pocket, taunting her to no end. 

It had been a while since the last time Kaya felt the twinges of despair take root. Yet as she stood there, bent in half and trying to catch her breath after he kicked it straight out of her lungs (the bruise had just started vanishing, damn him!), Kaya realised that it wasn’t brushing up on basics she needed but a full re-training. Angry tears flooded her eyes but she blinked them away. She’d be damned if she let him see her cry!

“So, sensei , how bad is it?” Some humour always made the blows smart less.

“Mah, I’ve seen some Genin do worse.”

Her eyebrow twitched as heat rushed to her already flushed face. She’d train hard, work her ass off if she had to, only to get the satisfaction of smacking him. Hard. 

“Can you fix it?”

He looked her up and down. After such a gruelling session (Kakashi never went easy on anyone, Heiress or not) he was pleasantly surprised to find her still standing firm on the ground. Her knees weren’t shaking like a newborn calf’s and she hadn’t passed out either, though the latter was expected. She’d not have reached the rank of Chūnin if she lacked that much stamina. 

“I guess...” 

His reluctance made her shoulders stiffen. The snarling frown she gave him made something in Kakashi shiver in apprehension and appreciation. She was not afraid to challenge him even after he defeated her with ease.

“Let’s meet next week, same time, same place. If you perform a bit better, I’ll make you the fastest kunoichi you could possibly be.”

The tension didn’t leave her body.

“And what if I haven’t improved enough in that time?”

His gaze was unflinching as he spoke the next words.

“Then you’ll just have to become the clan leader everyone expects you to be and resign from shinobi life.”

In retrospect, Kakashi knew he had been too harsh. The way her eyes widened, how she flinched away from him, the paleness her face had suddenly acquired - he might as well have stabbed her. He wanted to smack himself for saying that - not only because it was pointlessly mean, but because instead of breaching the gulf between them (which was partially the reason why he wanted to train her) he was expanding it further. Whatever feeble connections had appeared between them during the mission shrivelled and died before his eyes. For one straining moment he feared she’d walk away and never turn back.

“Fine then!” The snarl was back on her face, eyes blazing with indignation, pride, and challenge. “Next week. Same place, same time! And, Hound-san.”

He had started turning, ready to leave, thankful that his mask hid the expression of relief.

“When I finally manage to land a blow and mark my words, I will land a blow next time, you’ll tell me your name! Promise!”

He nodded impulsively; the vehemence in her eyes made the wilder, more primal part of him growl and strain against its chains. The woman had a backbone, that much he knew. But she also had passion. Kakashi never knew he’d find a woman’s desire to injure him arousing. He had just reached a new level of perversion. 

 

***

 

Kaya was no fool. She knew that the chances of her improving enough to land a blow were slim if she trained by herself. There was that much she could do with her limited knowledge and general distaste of gruelling physical exertion (not to mention her poor knees). Yet sacrifices had to be made in the name of the greater good, and if that meant being sly and sneaky about it, then Kami help her, she’d be the sliest and sneakiest kunoichi ever. 

There was only one person in the whole of Konoha that would do the job of giving her a boost. And thankfully enlisting his help would not be that hard, as he was constantly on the lookout for new challenges. 

As she took in the approaching shinobi the next morning, Kaya tried her best not to let her face show the cringiness his obnoxious too-tight-to-be-appropriate green spandex suit elicited. 

“What a lovely day to challenge the power of youth! Kaya-san, such a pleasure for sore eyes! Your summon caused the spring of youthfulness to soak me in its rejuvenating waters! Tell me, how can I aid you?”

There was a brief moment where the kunoichi considered whether she had made the worst mistake of her life in asking Maito Guy for help. He was well known not only for his jaw-dropping taijutsu abilities but also for his gruelling, nerve-snapping, bone-crushing, mind-numbing training sessions. Did she really want this man to try and give her a quick lesson? Or rather, the question was, could she survive it? 

The sun was still low on the horizon and while the heat carried on the morning air, a daunting warning of what was to come, for now, the brisk coolness rejuvenated her. She could do it! She’s gone through so much, survived so much! A bloody workout session would not be the thing to break her!

“I’m so happy you agreed to help me, Guy-san. There isn’t a single man in Konoha more capable than you.” Her dazzling smile made the black-haired man blush and fidget; underneath the warmth, there was a sharp edge that could cut through anything and the Green Beast worried for the well-being of whoever had stirred her wrath.

“It’s a pleasure to share the youthful vigour of life through a good workout. So, shall we begin?”

His smile made Kaya a bit uneasy; he appeared a bit overly-eager to exercise. But then again, Guy had been like that ever since the Academy.

“Let’s start with the warm-up!”

 

It was early afternoon by the time Guy left. The sun was burning its way across the welkin and while he had half-heartedly tried to insist they go on, Kaya had firmly declined and plopped herself underneath the thickest shade she could find. That had saved her the humiliation of collapsing in the middle of the field. 

Now, as she let her sore body rest and tried to coerce her screaming muscles and joints to relax, Kaya remembered why exactly she had veered away from taijutsu back in the day. Born with semi-flat feet, she struggled to spend long periods of time upright. Many medical nins had tried to alleviate the pain by offering her various creams, insoles, sponges, exercises - you name it, she had probably tried it. Things had improved as she grew up, enough so she could walk around without problem as long as she remembered to put her special insoles in, but when the Academy had pushed its gruelling regime on her, she had flat out refused to do it. Well, not quite. She had tried her best until one day one of the teachers found her crying in an empty room, nursing her feet. They had had to carry her home that day; the pain had been that excruciating. In hindsight, Kaya knew there were worse types of torture in the world. And yet by far, nothing could compare to the training session she had just had. ‘Frankly, I don’t think I’ll be able to walk home.’ It angered and saddened her at the same time. Having blissfully forgotten how bad her case was, it was quite a blow to deal with now, especially with others around. She had made sure that Guy saw none of her pain, though she feared he had guessed after the fifth hour, when she had jogged behind him, balancing on the balls of her feet since her heels felt like someone was shoving senbons in them. And like a good sensei, he had looked the other way, pushing her far beyond her comfort zone and into an abysmal state of hallucinations caused by pain. Kaya pitied the poor Genin squad that ended up under his tutelage - they’d be fearsome opponents, but oh-boy would they suffer until they get there. 

She sighed and laid down on the grass. The foliage of the tree was thick enough to hide her from the sun’s blinding gaze, but every so often the soft breeze swayed the leaves, opening small gaps through which the sky peeked down at her. There wasn’t a single cloud to mar the canvas. Only an endless expanse of blue. 

And suddenly Kaya realised she was happy, almost giddy. Despite the fatigue and the screaming of her muscles, the sweat sticking to her skin, her ruined shoes and scraped knees and palms, despite the discomfort that would be a daily occurrence for a while, her whole being was brimming and buzzing with joy. She was home, she was training towards something, she was sorting her life out, one small bit at a time. 

It was nice, having something to look forward to; someone whom she wanted to impress. It had been a while since anyone was important enough to make her work this hard. ‘The last person was...’ her thoughts snagged and ripped on the sharp edges of the memory and a lump blocked her throat. It felt like yesterday when she had snuck out of the Samosa compound and made her way to the little grove her and Itachi used for training. On that particular day, it hadn't been the Uchiha Heir she was meeting. He hadn’t been someone she wanted to impress; he was had been a friend, and one does not try and impress their friends. No, she had gone in search of someone else. Someone whose smile, hard earned, always managed to make her feel worthy. 

Hatake Sakumo had most probably never wanted to have an eleven-year-old clinging to his robe for dear life, yet he humoured her every single time. She knew where and when he trained, though the gaps between his sessions were growing longer after he had returned from his mission. It had been a disaster, she had heard. He had failed, people said. Yet Kaya did not understand. Her father and the rest of the men had come back unharmed. And yes, the mission had not been concluded as expected, but wasn’t human life more important? No one was willing to discuss that with her, or explain, and she was too afraid to ask Hatake-san whose sad smile and eyes made something in her twist and knot and pull, until she was rummaging through her brain for ways to make him laugh, to lift the oppressive weight that pushed down on him.

He had been her idol. In a way, he still was. Kaya aspired to be as feared and loyal, as true to her instincts and morals. His death had left an irreparable crack in her tiny little world, sending her off-kilt in more ways than one. ‘I haven’t brought him flowers in so long.’ The thought slipped between the flashing memories of their last encounter. He had ruffled her hair after she had finally succeeded in performing a complex jutsu using her Kekkei Genkai (he had also been the first to know she had awoken her powers). The gesture had been so fatherly, it had made her eyes well with tears. In a heartbeat, all the throbbing bruises she sported from the long training session had ceased to matter.

You remind me of my son. He is just as determined and stubborn as you. You would’ve made good friends.

She had almost choked. No one had ever mentioned he had a son; he, himself, never spoke of the boy. A small part of her had bristled with indignation. In her mind, he had been her fatherly figure, no one else’s. And now she had to share him?

Looking back on it now, Kaya realised she had been a selfish little brat. She had found it hard, sharing the man with his biological child, but soon after that the thought had slipped out of her mind and had not re-emerged until now. ‘He has a son. I wonder, is he still around? Is he alive? Would I recognise him if I met him-’ Her eyes snapped open and she bolted upright. The heat that had been drowsing her vanished as cool shivers rose goosebumps across her skin. In the back of her mind, jagged jigsaw pieces started clicking into place. 

The Hound’s white hair, the way he held himself, his innate predatory grace, his enhanced senses. The sense of familiarity she had felt around him. Like she had seen him before. ‘I have - he is a carbon copy of his father.’

“I’ve been so stupid!”

She buried her face in her hands; a futile attempt to erase the shame. Of all the things Kaya could have done to dishonour the memory of the man she had idolised, ignoring his son was probably the worst. And she hadn't even had the brains to realise it! To connect the dots sooner! Frankly, she had completely forgotten about the boy; so hollowed out and selfish she had been in her own grief that in her mind he had stopped existing. 

A pained groan slipped between the kunoichi’s dry lips as she rubbed her eyes, chasing away the forming headache. How was she to look the man in the eye now? Knowing what she knew? And how would he react? The jostling thoughts left a pool of unease in the pits of her stomach and the cold touch of dread made her shiver. She had started liking him, with his mysterious and aloof demeanour. His presence calmed her, made her feel safe. He provoked her in a way few dared, and she liked him so much better for it.

Yet she could not help but wonder, what was the real motive behind him helping her? Was it a wicked plan she could not spot? Was he mad she had never tried to contact him after making it obvious she had liked his father? Was he looking for answers? Kaya shook her head, chasing the buzzing thoughts away. Whatever Hatake-san wanted, she was going to stick till the end to find out. She owed his father, and indirectly him, that much.

Chapter Text

The week had been a long one. After the session with Guy where he had offered some guidelines as to how to approach the whole thing, Kaya had spent every free hour of every day at the training grounds, regretting all the times she had skipped taijutsu practice in order to polish her ninjutsu techniques. Her body, while strong and toned, was not accustomed to such levels of exertion and by Sunday evening she struggled to stay upright for more than an hour at a time. The pain in her feet had not subsided or become bearable but had transformed into a wailing siren that jabbed her nerves at every step and made her stomach turn. No amount of soaking, cooling, healing, rubbing or resting seemed to make it go away, and Kaya was growing desperate. Yet her determination persevered. She needed to be quick enough to land a blow. She needed to know his name now more than ever. Needed to know if her anxieties were for naught and he just resembled the man from her past, or if she was right. There wasn’t a defined plan as to what to do if he was Hatake-son’s son; she’d cross that bridge when she got there. 

To top the gruelling exercises, Kaya had to deal with her Clan dramas as well. Her parents were eager to have her settled down and married as soon as possible. The quicker she started producing heirs, the better. It took some expert manoeuvring and dodging skills to evade the throng of relatives that were overly concerned with her waning youth. They were disregarding Kaya’s primal instinct for self-preservation that, if push came to shove, would aid her in packing her bags and leaving, Clan be damned. She didn’t owe them anything - not loyalty, not power, and definitely not children.

Sunday evening, neck-deep in blissfully hot water, the Samosa Heiress tried to think of other things than the identity of the Hound or the pressure her Clan placed on her. Yet the more she tried to steer her mind away, the more nagging the thoughts became, until eventually, with a frustrated groan, she got out of the tub, got dressed, and left her flat, eager to feel the cool night air in her hair. 

There was no actual recollection of how she ended up at her secret spot by the river. It was only when the soft whiff of moisture brushed against her bare legs (she had shoved a pair of shorts on in her haste) that her eyes regained focused and she took in her surroundings. The clearing was just as she remembered - with the river snaking its way straight through it and the ground covered in grass that crunched underneath her sandalled feet. The throbbing in her soles seemed to reverberate throughout her whole body and the cold water suddenly felt tempting. Without thinking, Kaya kicked her shoes off and waddled in, failing to suppress a yelp when the cold currents twisted around her ankles. To keep warm, she walked the breadth of the riverbed a couple of times, squirming as she stepped over pebbles. Even their rounded smoothness felt like needles piercing her skin. 

The night sky was an inky canvas sprinkled with stars, and the round heavy body of the moon cast a milky light. An owl hooted not far off, followed by a fox’s cry. Nature’s sounds were no longer startling; Kaya had grown used to them after many nights spent camping in a foreign forest. Closing her eyes and lifting her face towards the sky, she let the water wash away her worries. It didn’t really matter what happened tomorrow. Whether she won or lost; whether he was or wasn’t who she thought him to be. It didn’t matter whether she found someone willing to marry her and have kids, or decided to call it quits, pack her bags, and leave. All of it was irrelevant at that moment. With the elements dancing around her and nature at its purest wildest form scurrying at the edges of her awareness, Kaya felt alive and unbound. Her long red hair whipped behind her as the wind tugged at it, the water lapped at her calves, the ground was sturdy and supportive beneath her feet. 

“It’s all going to be okay.”

She breathed in. Held it for a few seconds. Exhaled. 

Everything was going to be okay.

 

***

 

Training ground 40 was vacant at a quarter to three, safe for the red-headed kunoichi. Mercifully there were some fluffy white clouds playing across the sky, hiding the sun’s angry glare every so often, and making Kaya’s warm-up session a bit more manageable. Stretching the soreness out of her limbs, clicking her knees as she squatted - she had never felt older and more alive at the same time. Last night’s journey had cleansed her, washing away a part of her that had been plaguing her mind and disturbing her inner peace.

Going to Hatake-san’s grave had helped as well. It was the first thing she had done in the morning, grabbing two bouquets on her way there. The plaque looked well-kept, and there were no weeds that needed tending to, which made Kaya’s heart do a little leap. She had thrown away the wilted flowers that had greeted her, changed the water in the old vase and returned it to it place, before fashioning one out of diamonds. It was her contribution, her mark, her responsibility to make sure that her vase would always have flowers for him. She had knelt there for a while, hands pressed together. There hadn’t been any prayers slipping past her lips; only a one-sided conversation. Imagining that Hatake-san could hear her, she had confessed all the regrets that had been eating at her for the past week. She also told him of her adventures, of her misdeeds, of her victories and of her losses; of her friends. Kaya had left the cemetery with a soft smile on her face.

She grabbed her left ankle and leaned forward, stretching the leg back. A couple of satisfying pops disturbed the silence. Learning from her previous mistake, her senses were on high alert - she’d be damned if she let him surprise her once again. She held the stance for a few minutes, re-adjusting whenever her leg started wobbling and shifting her weight. The greatest downside of having flat feet was that balancing became more difficult; her centre of balance wanted to shift inwards, instead of staying rooted in the middle. She veered to the side once again, her free arm flapping about in a meagre attempt to stabilise her. Eventually, she let go of her ankle with a huff. She needed to fix that too. 

A kunai whistled past her, missing her by a hair. She had twisted at the last possible second. More came flying, making Kaya dodge and block. One came close to grazing her cheek while another, aimed from the opposite direction, left a rip in her crop-top. Blocking another two and activating the traps, she didn’t hide the satisfied smirk when the man came bouncing out from the bushes with a low yelp.  

“Hello to you too.”

He glared at her, rubbing the back of his left leg where one of her crystals had prodded him. 

“Yo.” 

‘This man has the social capacity of a brick.’ The notion didn’t surprise her much, though it did make her smile grow. She wondered whether his aloofness was genuine or if it served a different purpose. 

“You are late,” she scolded.

“Told ya, lady.”

The familiar gruff voice made her skin prickle with delight. By the man’s feet sat Pakkun, his little scrunched up face looking up at her with barely concealed mirth. He had probably seen his summoner get poked.

“Pakkun-san.”

The ninken trod her way and just like that she forgot today was the day she had to prove herself and win an impossible fight. After a quick nod on his side, she scratched him behind the ears, her other hand gently caressing the soft fur on his back. 

“Ahh, yea, that feels nice. The Boss rarely gives us such good rubs.”

At that Kaya cast the man an affronted look, her colourful eyes zeroing on him in a way that made the Jōnin fidget and rub his neck.

“Mah, I’ve been busy.”

The ninken made a sound resembling a snort before leaning into Kaya’s touch. The need to pick him up and squidge him to her chest was strong. If he was any normal dog … she squashed the thought. He was a ninja, not a pet. 

“You poor little soul. Starved for physical affection,” she crooned, stealing a glance from underneath her eyelashes at the silver-haired man; he stiffened. “My offer still stands Pakkun-san; you are more than welcome to come to me whenever you need a good scratch since the Boss is too busy. You can bring the others too.”

“I wouldn’t say that if I were you,” the man sounded amused and a bit exasperated. “You’ll never get rid of them.”

Kaya looked up, meeting his gaze with mock horror.

“Oh no, a pack of adorable ninken moving into my apartment! All those cute paws and floppy ears! What would I do, I wonder?”

His glare was comical and Kaya couldn’t help the laugh that skipped past her lips. 

“Hmmm...” the pug was a step away from climbing in her lap.

“Don’t even think about it.”

Pakkun vanished in a puff of smoke. 

“That was rude.”

“You’ll spoil him.”

“I’m sure some affection hasn’t done anyone any harm.”

The pale grey of his eye turned into flint, a dark shadow scurrying around the edges before vanishing.  

“Are you ready?”

He spun a kunai around his finger, a smile rearranging his features behind the mask. Kaya’s throat went dry and her hands grew clammy. ‘There’s something sinister about that twinkle in his eye.’

Rising up and taking her stance, she ignored the small pin-prickling pain that shot up her leg.

 

It was tough, keeping up with him and trying to gouge his moves. And while Kaya was painfully aware he was not unleashing his full potential, he wasn’t holding back either. There was no frantic manoeuvring, no miscalculated moves, no underestimation of her abilities - things she had observed in previous opponents. He made sure to sneak up on her, side-stepping her crystals, evading her Water jutsu, and come face to face - close enough to sense the low permeating buzz of his chakra. He knew it threw her off. The longer they sparred the harder it became to keep him at a distance. The result was a couple of smarting cuts and a dull pulsation in her left wrist; he had diverted one of her many futile attacks and probably dislocated the joint. In comparison, Kaya was yet to land a blow, and the sun had started painting the sky in its burnt colours. 

On the other side of the field, narrowly missing a crystal dagger plunging at him from thin air, Kakashi noticed the way the female balanced on the balls of her feet. His first thought was that she was preparing to lunge, brutal strength and all, but the longer they danced around each other, the more he wondered. It certainly wasn’t a wise tactic - it put her off-balance and strained the muscles in a way that was bound to do damage. The few times he caught a glimpse of her face pinching in pain worried him. Was she trying to mask an injury? Whatever it was, it didn’t fool him. Spotting an opening in her defences (yet again) he pounced. She blocked and tried to land a blow with her knee. He grabbed it. Her left wrist was partially dislocated so he knew she’d be unable to draw a weapon, yet danger still lurked - her crystals didn’t need hand signs and at any moment she could have him impaled. Why she didn’t was beyond him. 

Twisting, Kakashi’s kunai glided against hers with a high-pitched scrape. Sparks flew. He shuffled. The sudden shift threw her off-balance and she veered forward. His left leg connected with her midriff, sending her flying across the training ground. He fought a wince when she hit the ground with a dull thud. The need to go and check on her was making his leg twitch. ‘The whole point is for her to get stronger; if I coddle her or go easy, she’ll never improve.’ Yet each bruise, each cut, each drop of blood that soaked into the dust cracked his resolve. She struggled to get back up, her long slender legs shaking, her right hand nursing her midriff while the left one twitched. Kakashi stood still for a few moments, taking her in - the fatigue that oozed out of her chakra pathways like a vapour, the bent curve of her back. The blood that drip-drip-dripped on the ground. The day was almost over and she had not landed a blow. There had been a couple of instances that she had gotten close, where only his honed reflexes had saved him. A deal was a deal. And yet he felt … desolate. Maybe he could bend the rules, just this once, for her? Yes, he’d do that. He’d brush away last Monday’s remark, tell her she’d achieved decent enough progress, and that they’d proceed from there. 

The kunai was badly aimed and he responded by reflex, grabbing it in mid-air. His body, like a well-oiled machine, threw it right back at her. Believing she’d move or block, or that he’d miss. 

He never missed. 

The cold steel buried into the soft flesh by the left shoulder blade, eliciting a painful gasp. Kakashi froze. A deathly coldness dug its clutches into him. ‘No, no, no, no, no!’ His mind snagged at the sight of the rich red liquid, so similar to her hair, trickling down. He took a step towards her, apology already forming on his lips when a sharp pain in his left thigh snapped him out of the daze. Looking down, he saw the protruding senbon gleaming victoriously in the setting light. 

 

Her back burst on fire, yet Kaya ignored it. Her left hand was already in her hair, grasping the senbon that held the heavy braid in place. She had moments before sunset and a final chance. If she failed, it was over. She flung it before her legs gave out and she collapsed with a grunt, teeth sinking into her bottom lip. A metallic taste filled her dry mouth. 

“Sonofa-”

Unceremoniously, she twisted her good hand back and yanked the weapon out, stifling another curse. The kunai clattered on the ground as warmth gushed out of the wound. A hand was on her shoulder in a heartbeat, supporting her so she didn’t tumble forwards. 

“Kaya!”

His voice sounded strained and distant. Vaguely she wondered whether she was about to faint. The idea sounded preposterous. She was the Queen of Diamonds, she did not bloody faint! Grasping at the wandering threads of her consciousness, she yanked herself back from the edge of the precipice. Her chakra reserves, depleted, howled in pain when her healing ninjutsu kicked in - she needed assistance to reach the spot now that the kunai was not there to guide her. The pool of darkening soil stopped growing. The dampness on her forehead cooled under the soothing touch of the evening breeze. 

“Thanks.”

It was a reflex. She wasn’t sure her rational mind approved of it. After all, he had stabbed her.

“Let me see that.”

It was hard keeping the satisfaction out of her voice at the sight of the senbon jutting out of his leg. Though she was surprised she had managed it - her aim wasn’t that great when she had her back to the target. 

“It’s fine.”

Still, she yanked the weapon out and placed her glowing hand over the wound.

“We’ll still need to go to the hospital, but that’ll do for now.”

She made a move to stand up. Pain exploded behind her eyes like thousand fireworks and she didn’t manage to stifle a groan. He made a move to pick her up but she waved him away.

“I’m fine.”

Ignoring the protest, he hoisted her up in his arms and moved away. Not even for a moment did he wobble on his injured leg. The silence stretched as he teleported them straight into the hospital and grabbed the nearest passing-by medic. An hour later, Kaya made her way out of the tall white building gingerly, the masked man walking at her side. She didn’t ask him why he had waited for her and he didn’t question her hesitant steps and the barely concealed grimaces. 

By the time they reached her apartment building, the sky was inky blue and the first stars had already claimed their place. The silence suddenly grew heavy and Kaya fished for something to say. ‘Should I invite him in? Or thank him and leave?’ Words were the sharpest asset in her weaponry; after years of having others shove them in her mouth, in the end, she had harnessed them and turned them on their heads.

“Thanks for walking me home.”

That was a safe start. He merely nodded, his eye staring into the distance, hands buried in his pockets. In a rush of bravery, she poked him in the chest, gaining his full attention. It was hard not to squirm under such an intense look.

“So, how did I do, sensei?”

She kept her small smile steady and the wavering of her voice to a minimum. He studied her for a couple of minutes.

“You’d put the Genins to shame.”

Silence. One flint coloured eye taking in the colourful duo of green and brown. What was meant to be a scoff crumbled into a burst of laughter as Kaya’s shoulders shook. 

“That’s good to know.”

She nodded towards the building.

“Wanna come in for a cup of tea? I have a special batch that helps with aches and sores.” She sized him up quickly. “Though I doubt you really need it.”

He gave her a small nod. Kaya was willing to bet that the gesture happened without his mind’s approval. He masked the shock well; she almost missed the minute widening of his eye and the twitch of his eyebrow. 

They went around the building and through the side door leading into the enclosed garden. From there, she jumped and hoisted herself over the railing of the balcony on the top floor. He followed suit. 

“I hate taking the stairs.” She unlocked the door and entered the living room. They left their shoes outside. “Make yourself at home.”

Her footfalls were soft as she vanished into the kitchen without a backwards glance. 

 

This was not what Kakashi had planned. Being alone with her after injuring her was not the way he envisioned ending up in her apartment. The room was tidy, with everything put in its respectable place, yet it lacked personality. Anyone could be living here, there were no photographs of her family or teammates, or even friends, nothing to hint at the owner’s identity and interests. Only the bookshelves. Curious, Kakashi scanned the titles - some held various scrolls and papers on different techniques, while others had a decent selection of maps and guides of different regions. The next shelf held classical literature - it didn’t have all the great names, but the reader’s choice was evident - she was extremely selective and prefered quality over quantity. It was the next three shelves that made Kakashi whistle; it was all the type of literature aimed at civilians - novellas and gushy adventure stories - nothing a respectable Clan member, let alone an Heiress, would ever be caught dead with. Yet Kaya had it all - from the cheesiest to the steamiest, to the funniest. He recognised some of the titles, while others rung no bells. A couple intrigued him and he couldn’t help himself from slipping one out of the neat rows and flicking through it. ‘An avid reader with a guilty pleasure,’ the idea made him smile. 

“Ah, I see you have noticed my little collection.”

He started; he hadn’t heard her approach.

“That one’s not half bad, though I’d recommend the ‘Forgotten Letter’ - it’s a bit more plot-oriented rather than character-driven. Though, I guess it does depend on your preferences.”

She moved away, returning to the table and pouring the tea. The soothing smell of mint filled the air. Kakashi watched her as she deftly performed a mini tea ceremony - long years of training had ingrained themselves into her. He didn’t know another kunoichi that could serve tea in such a sensual manner. 

He put the book he was holding back in its place, keeping a hold of the one she had recommended, and took a seat at the table.

“Can I borrow it?”

“Sure.”

They sipped their tea in silence. Kakashi took the opportunity to read; that would be less offensive than staring at Kaya. He felt compelled to make sure she was alright. Some time slipped by before any of them spoke.

“So, are you still up to the challenge of training me?”

She had been mulling over how to approach the topic for the past twenty minutes while discreetly looking away whenever he picked up the little teacup. She was curious what hid behind the mask just like everyone else, but at the same time knew that it was a superficial curiosity. In truth, she wanted to know what hid behind all the layers of aloofness and awkwardness he brandished like a shield. 

“Mah, I guess I did say that, didn't I?” His eyes remained focused on the book.

“Your exact words were that you’ll make me the fastest kunoichi I could be. I’ll be holding you up to that, you know!”

He huffed. Kaya breathed a sigh of relief before another thought jumped forward and her courage floundered. Her fingers tightened around the porcelain cup.

“Also,” she began, spinning the teacup in her hands and making the liquid slosh. 

He closed the book and placed it on the table before fixing his eye on her expectantly. Kaya’s cheeks tingled. 

“You promised me… that you’ll tell me your name if … if I managed to land a blow.”

She nodded towards his leg, her eyes straying from his face. She could feel the heat of her blush soaking the air around her. ‘Why do I feel so uncomfortable? Surely it’ll be worse if I go around calling him Hound-san?’

“Ah, I did.”

Silence. His gaze was burning holes through her skin. When he stood, her head snapped and her body reacted. She was on her feet and blocking his way in a heartbeat. 

“Well?”

As quick as she had gained the upper hand, she lost it - he vanished and was out on the balcony before her huff of indignation left her. A hand wrapped firmly around his upper arm moments before he jumped over the bannister and vanished into the night.

“Wait!” There was a breathlessness to her words, a certain agony. “I need to know. Are you really his son?”

She had said it. And by the way his muscles stiffened under her touch, she had hit the mark. They stood there, one halfway gone, one clinging for dear life, and no one made a move to break the stillness that suffocated them.

“Does it matter?”

He sounded resigned. Like it was not a point worth his attention, yet at the same time, it matter so much it made him bleed.

“Yes,” she breathed out. “It matters to me.”

He tilted his head to the side. In the pale moonlight, the single grey eye gazing at her looked almost translucent. 

“Then yes, I am.”

And with that, he slipped out of her grip and was gone before any of the many words she had bubbling up within her managed to pour out. She stood, frozen, leaning against the railing until the chill seeped into her bones and sent shivers chasing up and down her spine. Until her feet grew numb against the cold tiles. She retreated into the flat and closed the sliding door with a soft click. 

Her gaze swept over the vacant room. The tea was no longer steaming. The place where he had sat was cold. The book he had been reading was gone.

Kaya needed a shower and then to go to bed. She’d think of ways to fix the mess tomorrow.

Chapter Text

A week later and there has been no sign of the silver-haired man. Kaya lived in dreadful expectation for the first couple of days. For all she knew, he was avoiding her like the plague. She crisscrossed her apartment like a caged beast until her feet started aching, or wandered around the village in a futile attempt to spot him perched somewhere. Afterwards, she grew angry to the point where the flush tinting her cheeks raised a couple of concerned eyebrows and she had to excuse herself and go let off some steam. So many hours later, she was still angry.

Training ground 40 was her go-to place to wreak some havoc and soothe the angry howl of her chakra - no one wanted to be around a pissed-off Crystal Release kunoichi, whose ninjutsu was tightly linked to her emotions. Accidents tended to happen. So, instead, she trained and trained until her clothes were soaked with sweat, her muscles were screaming and her mind grew numb. 

Today was no different. Halfway through her work-out, a familiar chakra signature reached out to her, seeking permission to near.

“Ah, I see the power of youth has swept you off your feet, Kaya-san! What amazing crystal display!”

Guy walked closer, ignoring the irritation that surrounded the kunoichi like smog. The air around her was heavy with particles - equal measures of dust and tiny crystals. 

“How can I help you, Guy-san?” She fought to keep the edge off her voice.

“I’ve heard you’ve been rather … ” he struggled to find the right word, eyes scanning the wreckage, “... exuberant recently. I’m just making sure that no one has been foolish enough to cross you.”

Behind his smile was a sharpness that startled Kaya. For a brief moment, she wondered whether she had offended him in some way. Spotting her confusion, the Jōnin quickly added:

“That’s to say, I don’t want to see anyone try and restrain the blooming power of your youth.”

‘Ah, that’s what this is about.’ Kaya chuckled and shook her head, the senbons holding her braid emitting a soft chirp.  

“No need to worry, Guy-san. People’s opinions no longer bother me. I’ve made it clear I will not participate in any political schemes.”

In short, she’d rather stab herself in the foot than be someone’s pawn. The Hokage should’ve known that before summoning her before the Council with the ridiculous suggestion that she marry the heir of the Totony Clan and bridge the shaky truce between Konohagakure and Kumogakure. It had taken every bit of self-control for her not to fling the table through the roof and turn the room into a crystalised mausoleum. Needless to say, she had made her opinion on the matter clear and had left, despite the Elders’ begrudging murmuring. Rumours had spread quickly enough to make some give her the evil eye; they thought her selfish for not wanting to be married off to secure them a firmer alliance. Kaya could live with their hate; she had for twenty-six years after all.

The man beamed at her, a hint of proudness glimmering in his eyes. They had never really been close, she and Guy, but they had still grown up in the same environment and fought in the same war. That established bonds tougher than most blood ones.

“But anyway, that’s not what has me so riled up.”

“No? Pour your worries out, lovely war maiden. I shall be your shoulder to cry on!”

The man’s theatrics made her laugh. 

“Oh, it’s just this frustrating man that’s making my life difficult. You know? The usual female drama.”

Their sparring was easy to fall into and nothing like what she had undergone with the white-haired Jōnin, where the dire need to prove herself had pushed her beyond any boundaries. With the Green Beast, it was almost like messing around - there was no vehemence in their blows, no deadly-aimed accuracy.

“Aha! A young man has captured your heart! How romantic! The power of youthful love strikes again.”

She chortled at that, her swing thrown off-kilter and completely missing him. She had to stop and compose herself. 

“Oh, Kami-sama, no! No, no! It’s nothing like that!”

The man lifted an eyebrow, a twinkle in his eyes that begged to be disproved. 

“He’s helping me train, nothing else. But he’s being difficult and secretive and frustrating me to no end. ”

“He’s either madly in love with you or simply mad.” 

Kaya snorted and deliver a roundhouse kick. Guy blocked it, his fist flying towards her face in the next instant. She sidestepped.

“No man would want to be on your bad side, Kaya-san, unless he either wants to lose a limb or is trying to impress you.”

Duck. Block. Sidestep. Kick. Kick. Kick. Punch!

“I think he’s just being his normal self; and maybe he does get some sick joy from annoying me, but it’s frustrating how...” she ducked and swivelled around, narrowly missing his leg, “... he won’t even tell me his name!”

Guy frowned at that. 

“I mean, I get he enjoys being secretive and privacy is a big thing, but surely his name is common knowledge anyway!?”

“How does this mysterious admirer of yours look like?”

He sidestepped and jumped back as the power in Kaya’s kick split the ground, creating yet another crater. 

“Tall. Silvery-white hair. Has a mask hiding his face?”

“Kakashi? Kakashi is training you?”

The man’s laughter gave her pause. She didn’t see what was so funny, apart from probably a character trait she was unaware of. ‘Kakashi, eh?’ It was a small victory.

“Is there something I’m missing?”

“Ah, forgive me, Kaya-san. I always forget you haven’t been around for a while.” It was a statement, not an accusation, yet it stung just the same. “You see, Kakashi, my eternal rival, is renowned for his laziness. Don’t get me wrong, he’s the only man I consider my equal, but still. He is the laziest person you could meet. If there’s a way for him to slither out of an obligation or social event, he will without a doubt do so.”

She wasn’t surprised. If anything, she had deduced as much, though she was surprised to hear that Kakashi and Guy were rivals. Did that mean all the rumours circulating Konoha about two shinobi men and their ludicrous challenges were about them? She could see Guy dashing about to test his speed, but somehow the grey-haired ninja didn’t strike her as the type that would endorse such behaviour. ‘Then again, people are not two-dimensional. We reside primarily in the grey space rather than in black or white.’ 

“That explains why he is always late.”

The man nodded, blocking her fist but ignoring her leg. Jumping up and twisting, she managed to catch his midriff and sent him stumbling a few steps. ‘Amazing! I didn’t even hold back!’ It was way too easy to forget the power that lurked behind that horrendous green suit. 

 

***

 

Two more Mondays came and went without a word from the silver-haired Jōnin. Kaya had continued her training as vigorously as if he had been there, trying just as hard to ignore the disappointment and sadness. It was late afternoon and the kunoichi was going home after a gruelling session when she came across Pakkun waiting in her back garden. His presence startled her enough so that she initially didn’t even notice the other dogs milling about.

“Yo, pretty lady. Took you long enough.”

“Hello, Pakkun-san. What brings you here?”

At the sound of her voice, all the dogs moved closer. Of various breeds and sizes, the only thing they all had in common was their ninja uniforms and the small bandanas. ‘Are all of them Kakashi’s ninken?’ The shock melted into warmth and giddiness. She wanted to pet every single one of them.

“I’m guessing this is the rest of the pack?”

Her smile beckoned them closer and their cool wet noses poked at her. She’d have felt self-conscious if it wasn’t so damn ticklish. 

“Yea, I brought them round. Hope you don’t mind.”

“Not at all.”

After having gained their consent she made sure to pet and scratch every single one, from the big silent mountain of a dog to the smallest one that wore funky sunglasses. In-between their barks of content and little squabbles at to whose turn it was, Pakkun introduced them. 

“Want to head upstairs? I can fetch you some snacks and-”

Before she could even finish they were already jumping up to her balcony, their barks and jests making the air shudder. The sight made Kaya laugh, melting away the last traces of stress. If his ninken were here, surely things between them weren’t ruined? It was a tiny hope, but one she was willing to cling to.

And that’s how Kaya ended up with a room full of dogs, some sitting on the couch, some on the counter (she had to tell Bisuke off a couple of times) and the clatter of their claws filled the silence. She had no idea why they were here, but frankly, she didn’t care. As promised, she made some snacks and filled a couple of bowls with water before leaving them unattended to have a shower.

“Please do not destroy my living room while I’m gone.”

Pakkun had given her a shaky promise, something that made her eye the pack with apprehension before she decided that even if she returned and the place was up in flames, she’d be fine with it. 

The hot water washed away the sweat and grime of the day and with it some of the emotional turbulence that had been weighing her down. Scrubbing herself clean (she was extra aware of her guests’ sensitive noses and made sure to use nothing fragrant) she rinsed the soap. Turning the water off, she patted herself dry and slipped on a pair of lacy underwear before twisting her wet her into a fluffy towel and wrapping a bigger one around her body. With it still barely reaching mid-thigh, she knew she had to make a slip and dash for it, with the pack members having quite the vantage point from where they stood. 

She had almost reached her bedroom when she heard male whispers coming from the living room, none of which belonged to the ninken. Making a beeline, she grabbed a kunai and headed down the other hallway, around the kitchen and through a narrower passageway into the room, only to stop short when she saw Guy and Kakashi lounging on her couch.

“What are you two doing here?”

At the sound of her voice, they turned. A ninken whistled before someone smacked it. The men stared for a second before bolting on their feet and turning around. Her chakra whipped at the air, making them shudder. 

“Mah, Kaya-san, I was just here to collect my pack.”

Ignoring how uncomfortable her semi-nakedness seemed to make them, she trudged across the room, making sure not to step on any paws or tails or sprawled bodies while keeping her towel close. 

“Oh, don’t you dare!” She waved a finger his way before looking at his rival.

Guy was intensely staring at the ceiling, probably counting all the little cracks that had appeared over the years.

“And you? What’s your excuse?”

“Ahh.. you see, Kaya-san … I’m just … you know… ”

Her frown deepened and everyone in the room shuddered. 

What happened next could be written off as an accident, a silly misjudgement on Bisuke’s part who already seemed enamoured with her and had quickly developed the need to be cuddled. That, or it was Pakkun’s idea of relieving the tension. Either way, when poor little Bisuke jumped her way, he misjudged his trajectory due to Bull’s sudden shift (which Pakkun caused by telling him to shuffle over). Colliding with the bigger dog sent Bisuke flying past the kunoichi in a flurry of fur. His claws snagged on the towel, intending to stop his arch towards the wall. The same towel Kaya was not holding because she was gesturing passionately at the men. Needless to say, poor Bisuke dragged it with him as he landed in a heap on the floor with a heavy ‘Oomph’. 

With a yelp, Kaya’s hands covered her breasts, and a shake of her head sent the other towel tumbling down, letting the long red locks cover her naked skin. Both Kakashi and Guy stared dumbfounded before in their haste to turn around they tripped over the couch and keeled over it. 

“Bisuke, you fool!” Pakkun’s scold followed her into her room. 

She had vanished into a puff of smoke, humiliation burning her cheeks scarlet and lodging her heart into her throat. With shaky hands, she yanked an oversized T-shirt on, a pair of shorts, and dove underneath the duvet, eager to disappear from the face of the earth. ‘Oh my god, I cannot believe those two just saw me naked!’ She hid so deep underneath the many pillows and blankets that she was certain they’d have to dig her out for her to see daylight again. 

Ages later, a knock sounded on her door, accompanied by the clatter of claws. There were voices on the other side, whispering and arguing before someone opened the door tentatively.

“Kaya-san?” It was Bisuke’s whisper, as far as a ninken could whisper, that punctured the stillness. 

The kunoichi had prayed they had left after she had fled, but they had hung around, probably wanting to apologize. ‘Not now. Oh, why did it have to be him!? Of all people, why him?’ She’d have groaned if tears of humiliation and anger were not burning a hole in her throat. Kaya didn’t mind people seeing her body - under her conditions. Not when she was flustered and angry and confused and relieved and oh so mad! The clatter of claws filled the silence, accompanied by soft footfalls. Her distressed hung heavy like a mist, seeping into every surface. 

The mattress gave under additional weight and twitching cold noses weaselled their way underneath the layers of blankets. The first to reach her prodded her hand gently, before shimmying closer and touching his nose to hers. She tried her best to remain unresponsive, yet when the ninken licked her tear-stained cheek she couldn’t help the soft giggle. As if that had been the sign, more cold noses probed at her legs, her arms, her stomach. They were everywhere, eager to win back her favour. Despite herself and the mortification she had experienced, Kaya’s laugh soon filled the room as she tried to wriggle away from their gentle assault. 

“Okay, okay! I’m coming out! Ahaha, okay! I give up, I give up! Help! Kakashi!”

The words had slipped out of her; she knew he was there, awaiting her scorn and anger. She hadn't intended to call on him for help or use his first name, yet it had glided so easily off her tongue. In an instant, the covers and pillows were thrown off and Kaya resurfaced, gasping. She was hot and the air underneath her little forth had grown stuffy ages ago. Tentatively, Kakashi sat back at the foot of the bed and shooed the dogs away. Before the silence could grow tense, Bisuke climbed in her lap and gave her the most solemn look she had ever seen on a dog.

“I’m so sorry, Kaya-san. I did not mean for your towel to come off. I just got excited.”

The poor little thing looked proper chastised, his ears flat against his head and his tail curled close to his body. She couldn’t help it, he was too cute.

“It’s okay, I know you didn’t mean it. Just be more careful next time, okay?”

Those and the gentle rub she gave him were the magical words that set the whole pack shifting forward like a wave and climbing on top of her. Before she knew it, she was buried in a sea of ninken - Bull was lounging between her spread legs, Pakkun proudly flopped on her stomach, Bisuke was snuggled between her breasts, and the rest had taken up various positions, making sure that at least one if not all four of their paws were touching her. Kaya’s smile hurt her face. Looking at Kakashi, she found him still sitting there, at the edge of her bed, halfway hidden in shadows, looking at them with something akin to sadness. Without thinking she unearthed one of her hands and waved him closer. For a moment he seemed apprehensive as if she was about to vanish but eventually moved. Kaya patted the space next to her. He looked as if that was some sort of a trap. ‘Or is that regret?’ She smiled at him, patting the spot again. He lay down on his back with a soft sigh of relief.

After a few minutes, her hand snaked over his shoulder and a slender finger poked his cheek.  He turned and looked at her. In the dim light, there was something in his eye that snared her - some hunger, need. He reminded her of a malnourished dog at the sight of food. The need to consume, devour, protect was strong enough to completely override any previous behaviour traits.

“I’m still mad at you, you know.” She didn’t know why she was whispering, apart from not wanting to wake the dozing ninken. “You owe me some training sessions!”

The initial distress vanished and he visibly relaxed before nodding. Her hand moved away, resting close to his but not touching. It was getting late and she was tired. Her eyes closed and she snuggled further into to furry warmth of his summons.

 

Kakashi’s heart ceased hammering in his chest only after Kaya fell asleep. Buried under his pack, she looked peaceful despite the tear streaks marking her face. The hardest thing he had ever done was walk into her bedroom after she had fled. He had heard the distant sobs, and so had the ninken, all of which looked at Bisuke with disdain. This was not how he had imagined patching things up with the red-headed kunoichi. 

He had returned from a gruelling mission only to be cornered by Guy who had shared, by-the-by, how the Council had tried to pressure Kaya into marrying a pompous prick from Kumogakure. Anger had flared to life and he had wanted to shove his Chidori through something, or someone. The violent outburst of his chakra had startled him as much as it had startled Guy, who afterwards had acquired a smug look. There hadn’t been much time for questions; after dispatching Pakkun (and the rest of the pack as they had complained about not meeting the pretty lady with the gentle hands) he had gone to report to the Hokage and then have a shower and get changed. When he found Guy waiting for him a few blocks away from Kaya’s apartment, he had barely managed to conceal an eye-roll. His friend could be quite the meddler when he wanted to be. Either way, they ended up in her apartment and from there, things had only gone downhill until this moment. As he watched her sleep, Kakashi once again felt the soft pinpricks of envy. She looked content; no demons in her closet trying to claw their way to the surface in the dead of night. The warm pressure of her hand curling around his startled him. Her slender fingers wrapped loosely around his and her head tipped his way, inviting him to come closer. A part of him knew he shouldn’t - despite both of them being shinobi, their worlds were too different - she was destined to marry someone of importance and lead her Clan, and he … well, he was he. The trajectories of his future were never set in stone and often changed. As an Anbu, he wasn’t sure how much of a future he had to begin with. ‘I’m just sharing her bed, nothing else. Me, and my pack.’ If her Clan found out, they’d be over their heads. And most probably demand his. She was a pedigree, while he was a scruffy mutt. And despite his best accomplishments, Kakashi knew he’d always remain one. Her hand gave a tug, pulling him away from the steep descent of his thoughts and back into the present. If all he could get were stolen moments of homeliness and happiness, then so be it. He’d be greedy and take full advantage if she was offering to bask him in her glowing warmth. Taking his Hitai-ate off and shuffling a bit closer, he turned and faced her. Kaya’s sleeping face was the last thing Kakashi saw before darkness claimed him.

Chapter Text

It didn’t take them long to establish a routine - meet two or three times a week, spar for a couple of hours and then go have some food. In the beginning, their few sparse conversations were a bit stiff or training oriented since Kaya didn’t want to pry and Kakashi was unaware of how to have a proper conversation with someone he was not impartial towards. All the while, somewhere in Konohagakure, the Green Beast was grinning knowingly, his usual exuberance notched up a bit too high for everyone’s pleasure. By the end of the second month, as Kaya’s muscles became less sore, their chats flowed with ease, making the occasional silence comfortable. It was around then that she took notice of the little orange book he was carrying all the time, which often served as an additional shield between him and the world. He seemed to put it away only when they were together. 

“You’ve been reading it for two weeks now, Kakashi-san. Are you savouring every word, engraving it into your memory?”

He hadn’t even lifted his gaze. 

“Ah.”

When she tried to peer over his shoulder and see what it was all about (she had noticed the affronted way everyone eyed it) he always ducked away or closed it, often to throw a kunai at her and re-engage the training session even if they were in the middle of their lunch. It had piqued her interest further, having him deny her in such a blatant manner (he did that a lot - offhandedly deny her things as if her social standing did not matter one bit; she loved it every single time). It was when he had giggled like a little schoolgirl, a sound that shook her to her very core, that she knew that whatever the cost, she needed to see what that book was all about. 

And this was how the silver-haired Jōnin and the Samosa Heiress ended up sitting beneath a tree one sunny afternoon reading Icha Icha. Kaya had taken off the brightly coloured dust jacket and put a plain black one on instead - foresight that was most probably induced by Kami himself. The more she read, the hotter her ears burned, the faster her heart pounded with anticipation. The blood would eventually drain into the pits of her stomach where it simmered as her eyebrows quirked higher and higher on her forehead, threatening to merge with her hairline. Certain sections would have made her squeal if she had been by herself, while others - scoff and laugh. Whoever had written that had either had some amazing sexual encounters or had never had sex at all. It was so ludicrous, overly sexualised and disturbingly arousing that Kaya, upon reading an exceptionally vivid scene, snapped the book shut and smacked it against her legs. Her companion glanced over his copy.

“Everything alright, Kaya-san?” His drawl confused her.

If all the books in the series were more or less the same level of pornographic, how the hell did he manage to keep a straight face when reading it in public? How was his voice so nonchalant? The only give-away was that giggle every once in a while that never ceased to startle her. It was a bit disturbing.

Kaya’s bafflement glimmered in her widened eyes. 

“Yeah, no, I’m alright. Just a … a frustrating chapter.”

Which was technically true. Just not in the way most people would think. He eyed the book in her lap for a brief second before returning to his. After a few calming breaths and some mental pep-talk, Kaya resolved to put on her big-girl pants and finish the chapter. She had read more explicit things than that and barely batted an eyelid. Why this was making her so uncomfortable was beyond her. 

“Has this guy ever met a real woman???” The frustrated growl was quickly followed by the thud of the book as it bounced off the ground and flipped open on a random page. 

Her mumbling continued as she strode off, ignoring Kakashi’s look of alarm as he snatched it and scanned the page. His low groan was muted by the thundering crackle of the ground as it split underneath the kunoichi’s fist. A cloud of thick dust obscured the training ground and chunks of soil flew everywhere. 

Kakashi had enough time to dodge her kunai and crouch by the roots of the tree before her voice reached him.

“Bloody men and their degrading fantasies! That guy had one job! One (smash) bloody (smash) job!”

A cluster of crystals erupted underneath him. Ignoring the shroud of dust still heavy in the air, Kaya attacked, needing to channel her frustration into something more palpable, more physical, more breakable. Kakashi’s bones fit the bill perfectly. 

For someone who claimed to be a shield, the red-head spent the majority of her chakra reserve in attacking. Her steps were lighter, her reflexes quicker, and her aim was getting more difficult to evade by the day. It made the Copy-nin swell with pride, an emotion that quickly deflated by the dreadful realisation that their cat and mouse chase was coming to a close. She was engaging him in proper combat now and if he wasn’t careful he could get seriously injured. Kaya relied on his ability to evade and did not check her strength or the sharpness of her crystals. One wrong move or misjudged step and he’d have to make a trip to the hospital.

By the time they were done, the day had waned and the first coquettish stars were peeking from behind the inky curtain. Training ground 40 was thoroughly destroyed - there were uprooted trees, shifted layers of ground, a couple of gaping holes, lots of crystals and some smouldering flames.  

“Someone might think we are getting invaded!” Kaya shrugged on her tunic, hiding the newly acquired cuts. 

She felt better. All the pent-up frustration had finally found an outlet and she was jolly and smiling. Kakashi, on the other hand, was mildly traumatised. The extent of her monstrous strength had caught him off-guard, as well as the sudden pique in her sensitivity. He could no longer slip behind her or hide in the trees. Like a hound hot on his trail, she spotted his manoeuvring every single time. ‘Has she been holding back all these weeks?’ 

“Mah, I think they’ll forbid us from coming here now.” His gaze assessed the wreckage. “We’ve created quite a mess.”

You have created quite a mess.” He cast her a sideways glance. 

“You were finally not holding back. I must have improved.”

She threw him a cheeky smile over her shoulder before picking up the discarded copy of Jiraiya's book. Kakashi cringed. 

“Not bad, this.” She fanned herself with it, making him twitch. “I still don’t understand why you like it so much, but I can see why some parts of it can be seen as intriguing.”

“Some parts?” She blushed. 

“It’s a cheesy story with very unrealistic pornographic aspects to it, Kakashi-san. It’s by no means a masterpiece, but it has potential.”

They scrutinised each other. He had the advantage of years of schooling his features to remain blank (having a mask also helped), but Kaya was unashamed of showing her emotions. The blush did wonders to her sharp cheekbones. 

“I do not know what private experiences you’ve had, but I can conclude they have been lacking if you find those,” he tapped his copy of the book, “unrealistic.” 

Widened eyes and parted lips suited her, Kakashi decided; they gave her a more approachable look. 

Scandalised, affronted and speechless, Kaya gaped, for once not having a comeback at the ready. And as he walked away, pocketing the wretched book, she stared at his back for a solid minute before her vocal cords resumed working.

“Excuse me?” The high-pitched frequency made him shudder.

“Mah, you’re loud.”

She tossed the book at his back. He caught it without turning and pocketed it.

“Oi, that’s mine!”

“If you can’t appreciate it, I’m going to confiscate it.”

‘Since when is he so cocky?’ 

“Come back here, you pervert!”

Her shout followed him as he ran off, leaving her no other choice but to follow. As tired as she was, there was no way she’d catch up to him. They chased each other to their favourite eating place. He was already seated, reading , by the time she walked in. And when everyone in the establishment cast the Jōnin an affronted side-glare, Kaya shook her head. She understood now; that little abomination was his ticket out of any social situation that could inconvenience him or make him communicate with other people. 

 

***

 

Every other Thursday was dedicated to dining at Kaya’s. She set a table on the balcony if the evening was nice, cooked some interesting foreign dishes she had picked up while travelling and made sure there was enough dog food to go around. Kakashi brought drinks or dessert. The set time was seven, but he and his ninken always arrived closer to eight.

“I got lost on the path of life.” He was balancing on the railing, his right hand pocketing Icha Icha, a sheepish smile outlined by the mask.

“You got lost between the pages of a book, you nerd.” She set the plates on the table before casting him a sideways glance, smiling. 

“Yo, Kaya!”

Pakkun launched himself at the same time as Bisuke, both landing into her outstretched arms. The pug climbed on her shoulder like a proud parrot while the other ninken snuggled against the softness of her breasts - to his summoner’s greatest dismay. Sometimes he envied the frivolity his pack showcased towards the kunoichi. 

The others greeted her cheerfully as they walked into the living room. Blankets and bowls of food were already laid out. The two ninjas followed, Kakashi taking a moment longer to undo his sandals. It didn’t matter how many times Kaya told him he could just walk in, he still made a note to take them off. Her soft white rugs were already looking worse for wear with his pack rolling and slobbering in them all the time; he needn’t add to it. 

Depositing Bisuke on the couch and making sure to go around and give every ninken some generous amount of affection and belly scratches, Kaya went to the kitchen. Pakkun was the only one allowed to sit on the counter (he had won that right by promising to keep the others in check), from where he could easily see the two shinobi dance around each other like shy teenagers. It baffled him, how after spending so many hours in the other’s company, they were both blatantly oblivious of their feelings. It was also quite entertaining to watch.

 

The balcony chairs were stiff and uncomfortable and the cushions Kaya had strapped to them didn’t take away from the rigidity. With the table set and the cool night’s breeze caressing her skin, the kunoichi breathed a sigh of relief and leaned back, propping her bare feet on the railing and tipping her head back, balancing the chair on its hind legs. The welkin was a softer shade of navy with the moon’s belly nicely rounded, casting its milky illumination over the slumbering streets of Konohagakure. The soft rustling of leaves and the muted chatter of the ninken in the living room did wonders for Kaya’s strained nerves.

The Clan’s objective to see her married was becoming vexing; a pestering yapping that never seemed to cease in its attempt to wear down her resistance. Whenever she went round to the compound to check on her sisters, a relative would make an off-handed remark or pull her to the side, or straight-out tell it to her face: she had to marry soon. It was getting harder and harder to battle their joined assaults, and Kaya took to summoning Gia, the Samosa Eagle, to relay messages to her siblings as she stayed away from her family’s home. 

It seemed her single status was becoming everyone’s business and a theme worthy of Konoha’s gossip. Even during her night strolls down the deserted streets, she could hear the whispers of unfamiliar people discussing, scorning, wondering why she was being so obstinate. 

“What’s bothering you?”

Kakashi’s voice startled her. The chair tipped back a notch further, her feet lifting in the air, and the rickety table tilted. A firm grip steadied her, pushing the chair back down, the metal clanging against the cool tiles. 

“Thanks,” she brushed a loose strand of hair out of her face before taking a sip of wine.

Sake made her sick, so as a rule, she stayed away from it. For Kakashi’s benefit, however, she had procured a bottle of the best sake she could find. Yet even after having finished one glass and refilling a second, his grey eye remained as sharp as ever. He saw through the small little laugh, the way she brushed off certain topics, how her skin turned ashen or flushed, the way her fingers twitched, or how her eyes seemed to glow when passion overtook her. He re-filled her glass, the red liquid sloshing alluringly.

“So?”

A resigned exhale slipped past her. She had been chewing on her bottom lip again - he could make out the faint imprints of her teeth over the supple flesh. Unbidden, images of that same mouth pressed against his, of his teeth marking it, flashed in his mind. Like ivy, she had snuck her way around his walls, through the tiny cracks, underneath the barbed wire, and wrapped her sensual tendrils around him. Even the smallest of gestures stirred something in the Copy-cat; something he was unwilling to examine, in fear of admitting to its existence. He pushed the images of claiming her lips away, purging his traitorous mind with another sip of sake. ‘Damn, it’s good.’ That woman would make a drunk out of him.  

“My family is being adamant that I marry before the end of the year.”

The burning in his throat was only partially caused by the liquor going the wrong way. She waited for him to stop coughing, an amused little smile lighting up her features and chasing away the recent surliness that had been residing there. 

“Why are they in such a rush? You are not going anywhere.”

Kaya cocked an eyebrow, darkness overcasting the glimmer in her eyes.

“Just because I don’t plan on going anywhere doesn’t mean I want to get married.” The defensive tone was sharp; Kakashi knew he had once again said the wrong thing (he seemed to do that often). “They treat me as a sacred cow that needs to start producing offsprings before the prime of her life is over. As if it bloody matters! For all we know, the Kekkei Genkai may not even appear in my children!”

She tipped the glass back, the liquid pleasantly numbing her mouth before sliding down her throat like silk, leaving a tingling sensation behind. 

“They don’t care what I want, or what is best for me. They’ll marry me off to the highest bidder the second I let my guard down!”

“Surely not. You may be the Heiress, but you are also a kunoichi. They should take into account your independence as something more than a fleeting whim.”

“One would think!” 

He filled her glass again, partially because he feared she’d grab the bottle and chug it down, partially because Kaya rarely talked about her feelings when it came to her family. She needed to unburden herself otherwise she might combust any day now. Kakashi didn’t mind being a silent listener.

“But no. I swear to Kami-Sama, if they could, they’d have clamped gilded shackles around my neck years ago and locked me in my room until I procured at least one child that had potential .”

The word was spat out in a manner that called to mind spitting out a piece of rotten food - with the strong desire to scrub your mouth and tongue with soap until some semblance of cleanliness returned. Kakashi’s general opinion of the Samosa Clan, which hadn’t been that favourable to begin with, dropped another notch. If they didn’t have the sense to treat her better, they’d lose her. Buzzing silence slipped into place, the kunoichi’s mind turning inwards, her eyebrows narrowing under the dull glimmer of her eyes. Ever-thinking, ever-scheming, her brain didn’t seem to ever shut off. 

“No one will be foolish enough to try and force you, not even your father. And no potential suitor would dare incur your legendary wrath.”

“They are choosing men from other villages with that reason in mind. Trying to find an ignorant fool that has no idea what he’s getting into.” 

Exasperated, Kaya shook her head, threading her fingers through the red locks. She had left it down for once, enjoying the sense of power and fierceness the wind slipping between the curls incited. 

“It’s turned into a battle zone, the compound,” the words cut through the air, “my sisters are trying to reason with our parents, but by what I hear they have their minds set on it. My aunts and uncles will be more than eager to hold me down while they don the bridal gown over my head.”

The image of a snarling Kaya, all wild hair and sharp claws, tossing and turning as her various relatives tried to pin her down while her parents struggled to get a white gown on dispersed the gloomy mood as laughter rang in their small bubble of the world. 

“Can I sit front row and cheer you on?”

Kakashi caught the cherry tomato aimed his way. The affronted look on Kaya’s face cracked under the mirthful tug of her lips, the brilliant shine of her eyes giving away her amusement.

“No way! I’ll be expecting you to drag me out of there! Not enjoy the show!”

“Mah, mah! You know me - I don’t enter confrontation unless it’s dire.”

“Me getting assaulted by my Clan and married off is quite dire I’ll have you know!”

At his resumed look of indifference, Kaya threw another tomato.

“You traitor!”

The jolly ring of her laugh was cut short when something heavy landed in her lap.

“Yo, Boss Lady, are you gonna eat that stake or not?”

Kaya stroked Pakkun’s soft fur, her shoulders still shaking. The pug eyed her plate, tongue sticking out. He also noticed the way his summoner was staring at him; shock and horror swirling in the man’s eye like a thunderstorm. He was still in denial; that didn’t surprise the ninken much. If anything - it was expected. Kakashi liked taking his sweet time accepting things that disturbed the carefully established equilibrium of his life. Thankfully, the Boss Lady seemed willing to humour him and be patient, though if what he had just overheard was true, they didn’t have much time left. Summer was almost upon them, and after that, the seasons slipped from one into the other like rapids. Before anyone knew it, winter would arrive with its heavy woollen coat and frost stuck to its hair. Pakkun and the pack had to make sure that if push came to shove, they’d be ready to shove the silver-haired man right into the kunoichi’s awaiting arms. 

The pair spent the rest of the night in comfortable silence, each immersed in a book. One of Kaya’s legs rested on Kakashi’s lap while the other was bent at the knee. Halfway sprawled on the couch, her red hair streamed over the armrest and across the floor. The ninken were snoozing around them, with Bisuke curled on Kaya’s stomach and Pakkun huddled in the man’s lap, chin propped on the kunoichi’s leg. His soft snoring tickled her.  The serenity of it unspooled an emotion that made both of the shinobi shudder. 

It was past midnight when Kakashi dismissed the pack and made a move to leave, the moon’s heavy belly proudly gleaming like a pearl across the sky, surrounded by its star maidens. He was perched on the balcony, ready to jump off, when Kaya was seized by the odd sensation of finality, like something precious was about to slip between her fingers. Words crawled at the back of her throat, digging their sharp edges into the tender flesh. There was a metallic taste permeating her mouth. 

“Wait,” her hand fisted into his vest. 

When he turned his head to the side and glanced at her over his shoulder, eyebrow raised, she wavered. ‘Is this the right moment?’ 

“I want to talk to you about something.” 

She gazed at the darkness humming in the backyard, content within its domain. As if sensing the building tension and the heaviness lodged in the kunoichi’s heart, it unfolded its tentacles and drew closer. 

“It’s quite late, Kaya-san. Can it wait until tomorrow?” 

“It can’t. I don’t think I will ever be able to talk about it, so I need to tell you now, while I still have the courage.”

That piqued his interest. Shuffling backwards, she opened up enough space for him to jump back down and lean against the railing, hands stuffed in his pockets and eye trained on her. In the pale light, her hair had a soft glow of its own and if she were to look up, he was certain her eyes would glimmer like jewels. Yet she was not meeting his gaze with the usual defiance but anxiously studying the shadows. A crease formed between her furrowed brows as she flickered through the manila folders filed neatly into her mind, sifting through the information, rearranging it. He could almost see the wheels of her brain spinning as she plucked the courage needed to speak. Vaguely, he dreaded what she had to say for he had a suspicion whom it concerned. The evening had been pleasant and relaxing and he was apprehensive to put the blot of the past over it.

Silence rolled its shoulders, shuffling nearer still, as Kaya took a sit on one of the chairs and lifted her feet, chin propped on her knees. Studiously, her eyes remained trained on something beyond him, a spot where she found the solace needed to speak the words that were branding the inside of her soul with every passing hour. 

“I loved your father more than I ever loved mine.” Kakashi’s body stiffened. “He was soft-spoken and kind, patient and understanding. He never treated me differently just because I was an Heiress. Never allowed me to give up on my dreams either, even when it all failed and I wanted more than anything to just vanish into the background of society. He stuck by my side even when… even when… ” A shaky breath rasped in her chest as a vivid memory flashed behind her glassy eyes. “He understood that I was odd, different, that I craved freedom and appreciation, approval. I needed those things like one needs to breathe and he was the only one who saw or cared. After that mission ...” 

Decades-old anger simmered to the surface, permeating the air with the heavy breath of honey as Kaya’s chakra, unchecked, dug its nails into the open space. Almost immediately the low rumble of thunder and a whiff of rain washed over it, wrapping it in a blanket. She wanted to stop, leave things as they were, but she couldn’t. Once the dam had been opened, all of it must spill out otherwise she’d drown in the pent up emotions. Carmine lips parted like petals once again, the voice steady and unwavering, with only the slightest steel edge to it - a thorn guarding a rose. 

“I heard the rumours, the names. The slander. I hated them, every single one of those awful, ignorant, ungrateful men. I wanted … I …  there were days when I wished I could rewind time, go back to that moment when he decided to save them, and just tell him: No, don’t. Let them die. They do not deserve your kindness and loyalty. Don’t show them mercy. They’ll show you none.” Her voice remained smooth as a sleeping river even when the green and brown of her irises were submerged in glistening waters. “When he passed, I spent months grieving. I was choking on it until it bittered and one day I woke up and wished them all dead. Every single one of the men that had betrayed him. I wished them dead.”

The confession hung in the air like an axe ready to strike. The stars’ shine dulled in comparison to the gleam in Kaya’s eyes. Momentarily, the air shivered with the vehemence of that old rekindled hatred, before it was once again whisked away. When she spoke a moment later, the words were a low whisper laced with regret.

“I was selfish. I didn’t think to seek out others that mourned and share their burden; console them, or just let them know they were not alone.” When she finally braved his gaze, the heart-wrenching sorrow and regret reflected in her eyes wedged a dagger between his ribs.

His being, momentarily dulled by all the emotional baggage she had unceremoniously pulled out of the box and dumped before him, a rotting corpse laced with poison, was stirred back to the present. Images flashed in the back of his mind, memories buried for too long, emotions ignored and bottled past their due date - they were a low buzz in the back of his head, kept at bay only by the gravity of Kaya’s gaze. Of the plea trembling between her lips.

“I didn’t seek you out. I … I … ” The tense clench of her jaw gave an audible pop. “I forgot about you, Kakashi. I forgot he had a son. I forgot that you were left alone, all by yourself, in that big empty house.”

The air whooshed out of his lungs soundlessly and the blood rushed to his head, filling his ears with an erratic thud-thud-thud .

“I know it’s a shitty excuse and that it means little to nothing and believe me when I say that if I could go back in time and fix things, I would. But I’m so sorry.”

A shiver traversed the expanse of his body. A small part of his mind, a section he had been careful to keep tightly barred, was creaking open. From the darkness within he could see glimpses of more memories and the curdling fog of emotions seeping in. He fought to slam it shut, to chase away the sense of desolation and abandonment, of loneliness, that clung to his gut. It was Kaya’s arms wrapped around his middle, her face pressed against his chest, that did the trick. Stunned, the gaping jaws of the past slammed shut and retreated, chased away by the soft smell of lavender and the pulsating hum of a sweet-scented chakra that tentatively brushed against his. 

Kaya acted on instinct when the shivers shook his tall frame, when his bleached face and the distant look in his eyes put a barrier between them. Mentally scolding herself for being a senseless heartless idiot, she had risen from the chair as quick as she could without startling him. His body had felt tense, a strained string about to snap. It took a couple of moments for her warmth to seep into him, for the smell of her hair to fill his senses and for the reassuring beat of her heart to imprint against his skin, before the muscles relaxed and his frame bent forward into its usual slouch, cheek pressed against the top of her head.  

They stood like that for a long moment, neither willing to move away. The cool evening breeze slipped around them, tangling in Kaya’s hair, caressing her bare skin. Goosebumps littered her flesh and she struggled to suppress a shiver. 

“I know I have no right to ask for your forgiveness, ” the words traced his chest, her hot breath slipping through the material of Kakashi’s black top, “but I’d do anything to gain it nonetheless.”

He sighed, eyes closed. Had it been anyone else, he’d have held the grudge like a child clings to a piece of candy, and made her wriggle in his feet, if only to rid himself of the bitterness that bubbled to the forefront whenever he remembered the long empty days after his father’s death. Yet he was keenly aware that though it might hurt her deeply to be in his disfavour, she’d never fall so low as to beg. Frankly, he wasn’t even sure she knew how to - whatever hadn’t been given to her, she had earned with resilience and stubbornness, with the sharpness of her wit and the power of her fists. If she had been anyone else … ‘But she isn’t.’

A hand smoothed the long waterfall of her hair, long slender fingers treading through it. 

“That’s all in the past, Kaya. Let it stay there.”

“But-”

She pushed away from his chest, eyes lifting to meet his. 

“We were children. I don’t blame you for what you did. I don’t think I’d have done any better in your place.”

“But you knew-”

“I knew you supported my father, yes, but that doesn’t change the fact that there was little you could have done.”

She saw her reflection in the smooth calm grey of his iris - she looked like she was about to plead. 

“If it’s my forgiveness you want, it’s yours.”

She stared in silence, the tight press of her bloodless lips etching a frown of worry on his face. Was he wrong? 

“Thank you.” The smile was a blooming flower that transformed her features like magic, wiping away the anxiety and regret and reawakening the soft approachability that always gleamed in her eyes. “And we will remain friends?”

The stab was painful but he bore it as best as he could. ‘Of course,’ he thought, ‘of course she wants us to be friends.’ The mask hid the cringe that pulled at his face.

“Of course.”

She eyed him with almost childish wonder, eyes big and glimmering, happiness wafting from every corner of her soul.

“After all, free entertainment is rare.”

The fist knocked the air straight out of his lungs.

“And off you go.”

Unceremoniously, she threw him over the railing and into the awaiting darkness.

Chapter Text

Her gloved knuckles barely grazed the surface of the door when an abrupt ‘Enter!’ rippled through the silent hallway. Kaya had successfully survived her short apprenticeship with Senju Tsunade whose temper was as legendary as her monstrous strength, yet whenever the soft-spoken Sandaime so much as rose his voice, she could not help but shudder. Still waters run deep and whatnot.

The door closed with a soft click and Kaya took three steps in before bowing.

“You wanted to see me, Hokage-sama?”

There was a grunt from behind the tipping pile of paperwork. Parchments were shuffled, scrolls were knocked over and sent rolling off the desk and onto the floor, unfolding their secrets. Kaya kept her gaze trained straight ahead. Beyond the window, the sky was a pretty shade of blue, with only a handful of small fluffy clouds traversing its expanse.  

A whole minute passed before the old man appeared from behind the blockade. A tired frown was etched into his features, adding more texture to his face.

“I have a mission for you.”

Kaya’s shoulders stiffened.

“My informants tell me there’s something brewing in the South. I want you to go and investigate, see what you can find.”

“Hai.”

“And Kaya,” she paused and looked over her shoulder, “don’t take any unnecessary risks.”

With a silent nod, the kunoichi left.

 

***

 

Kaya took inventory of her body - her left thigh was growing numb after a spinning shuriken had embedded itself into the skin, ripping the top layer of the muscle tissue. She could limp as long as she didn’t put her weight on it. Her ribs had been less fortunate - at least two were cracked if her painful wheezing was anything to go by. To add insult to injury, the back of her head throbbed with a rhythm of its own after she had proven her skull was thicker than the columns framing the temple, so that was that. 

The diamond walls reflected the blinding rays of the sun, breaking them through various angles and casting rainbows across the ground. The grass was blotchy, some areas tinted a telltale shade of red; the metallic scent wafting from every corner. Kaya fought to keep her composure. That smell awoke too many memories she’d rather keep repressed. Now was not the time to dwell-

Screams. Howling. Her squad running through the forest. A roar splitting the air, halting them. Kiru was the first to reach the top of the tree. The giant fox demon’s eyes blazed with the mad redness of a beast set loose.

"Kunoichi-san!”

The voice jolted her. The memory’s talons closed around her throat but she pushed nausea away. There was no time for this. Not when the enemy was lurking close by. 

“What is it?”

The man, a villager in his late forties, eyed her apprehensively, stealing a glance over his shoulder at the people clustered by the entrance of the temple. Most of the locals had heeded her warning and gotten here in time for her to lift the walls before the enemy had seen through her bluff. 

“What is the plan?”

He, like all of the unsuspecting innocents caught in the cross-fire, had fear digging grooves across his face. Those people had been dragged out of their homes, fleeing in panic, with no one but a red-haired kunoichi to lead them. 

“Get out of here and go somewhere safe.”

Noises climbed from the other side of the wall. She ignored them. There was yet to be an occasion when someone managed to break through her Hall of Diamonds. In their current situation, it only bought them some time, nothing more. There was no food or water here and despite her best efforts, Kaya could not move it. 

“But those men-”

“They are not your concern.”

They walked away, Kaya making sure not to favour her injured leg. The villagers clustered by the ruins of their holy temple regarded her with something akin to fear. They had just witnessed a foreign kunoichi single-handedly fight the group of assassins that had been terrorizing the area for the past couple of weeks. Then promptly get her ass kicked before erecting a whole building made of diamonds to shield them. 

“We can’t stay here,” she looked at their faces, took in their injuries, addressed no one in particular, “nightfall will be upon us soon and we can’t stay locked in here forever.”

“What do you suggest?”

One of the younger men gave her a nasty look. They hadn’t been ecstatic to follow through with her plan of abandoning their homes and gathering here. The fact that some of them hadn’t made it left an accusatory sharpness in the air, hovering like a leering beast. She eyed him - the warmth that usually made her appear approachable had been leached away, leaving her features sharp and taunt, her eyes two glittering jewels. The man shuddered and looked away. She didn’t want to intimidate them, but rioting would not do.

“The temple surely has some underground passages linking to key places.”

Some of the gathered flinched, their downcast faces paling. That was a well-guarded secret only selected individuals closely connected to the temple were aware of. 

“If they were any, they are no longer accessible.”

The man bit back, eyeing the split ground. Several craters were marking where Kaya’s blows had landed, accompanied by protruding crystal formations. The layers had shifted and the possibility of the tunnels having been destroyed made the kunoichi frown. She hadn't been planning that far ahead when she had fought to keep the enemy ninjas away from the civilians.

“Either way, they are our only way out. Surely at least one of them would still be intact.”

She headed towards the steps, but a hand gripped her wrist. In a heartbeat the offender was on his knees, hand bent under an angle that pinned him down. A loud pop echoed in the sudden stillness.

“Don’t do that unless you want to lose your arm.”

She released him and walked away.

“You have two options - stay here and see who can outwait the other, or come with me and find a way out of here. We have no access to provisions and the oxygen is limited. They,” she nodded towards the faint dark outlines of the men on the other side, “have all the time in the world to wait us out. I don’t know about you, but I don’t plan on dying today.”

Soft murmuring followed as she climbed the steps, and soon enough the shuffling of feet followed. Kaya made sure to readjust the texture of the crystal walls, blurring out any shapes. 

 

It took her a couple of minutes to get accustomed to the darkness ruling within the temple. Much of the original construction had been destroyed, but enough remained to provide shelter and alters for those who still believed. Kaya disregarded the shrines and bodies of animals lying around. It was none of her business what these people believed in; she was there to protect them (not technically, but at this point, she might as well). Walking deeper into the unwelcoming shadows, she let her chakra spread its tendrils and explore. The stairs leading to the underground chambers were worn smooth and the breath of moisture wafting out from the opening was daunting. 

“Has any of you ever gone down there?”

“Not in a while. That used to be ...” She eyed the older man, Yato, making him flinch,“... they are catacombs.”

Kaya schooled her features. The custom in the Fire Country was to burn the bodies of the deceased, not bury or preserve them. The shivers that skipped down her spine remained unseen underneath her cloak. 

“There are legends that the dead rise from their sleep and kill whoever dares trespass,” the younger one, Uma, eyed the shifting shadows.

“Well, let’s hope we don’t disturb their beauty sleep.”

Kaya grabbed the nearest torch and descended the stairs. The darkness wrapped around her like a hand and the miasmic stench of death and decomposition filled her senses. Memories from bygone days dug their teeth into the walls keeping them pressed back, and the kunoichi prayed her strength held, for those people’s sake, if not hers. Locked underground with someone whose Kekkei Genkai was wrapped around her emotions did not bode well for those unfortunate enough to be close by when memories resurfaced. There were better ways to go than being buried alive. Gritting her teeth and setting her shoulders straight, Kaya focused on the task at hand. 

The Shadow Clones she sent ahead reported over ten unaccessible tunnels. Only one had not returned and as they sat before the gaping openings in the ground, she clung to the hope that the last one would be the one. There was no going back by this point; their only hope lay ahead, and if she had to blast through layers of dirt, then Kami help her, she would. People were waiting for her on the other side. People that mattered, that cared for her. She wouldn't let them down by dying buried underground like a rat. 

A cough startled her. Yato was leaning against the wall, a fist raised to his lips. The coughing was picked up by others. It took the kunoichi a while to realise what was causing it. ‘The dead have not relinquished their hold yet.’ A bitter grimace stretched her features as she eyed the smaller side openings. She could block them, but the damage was already done - the miasmic breath had seeped into the air. ‘It’s a matter of time before there’s nothing left.’ Suddenly buried alive sounded mildly better than suffocation.

A surge of electricity travelled up her spine and her head snapped to the side, eyes trained on the unmoving bulk of darkness. There was a low dripping sound permeating the silence. If she listened, she could hear the heavy breath of the cave. ‘One is open!’ 

“Let’s go!”

Shuffling feet, low groans and murmurs echoed as she neared the middle entrance. Whoever had been in charge of digging this place had done a good, if a sloppy job. ‘They probably had to work quick.’ While the structure was sound and sturdy, having withstood generations, there were lots of rough edges left, little holes and abandoned tunnels that whispered of haste, of long sleepless nights. Of despair. The same despair the civilians behind her emitted like vapour. The further they went in, the harder it became for Kaya to ignore the blundering masses - everything and anything set them off into a frenzy, from the dropping of water on their shoulders to random bats swooping low. The air rung with screams and yelps and groans. The torches cast flickering shadows that made the children cry. With a hand pressed to the cool rocks, Kaya feared they’d never make it on time with their pace. That, or the ceiling would give in and tons of dirt would collapse upon them. ‘They will all die.’ Kaya knew her crystals would protect her, enclosing her in a capsule strong enough to support the weight, dooming her to a far worse fate. 

The kunoichi shook her head, making the senbons click together. The soft jolliness of the sound pacified the crowd. Their eyes zeroed on her. Awaiting. 

“We must not stop. We’re halfway there.”

Which was a lie. They were not even at the midway point yet. And the longer they stalled, the more Kaya felt the walls pressing down on her, sensed the shifting weight of the ground above them, and the air heaving with indignation at their intrusion. If they lingered she suspected her fear of enclosed spaces would resurface, triggering worse things in its wake. 

When the tunnel narrowed and the humidity became palpable, crystals started appearing at equal intervals to support the ceiling. She had noticed broken chunks of soil and stone littering the ground, and more than twice small parts had crumbled down, sending people scattering. Chances of someone getting trampled to death were high. As they walked on, the flicker of the flames danced across the angular structure of the newly erected supports, reflecting the light in ways that at least kept the children entertained. Their ceaseless crying, while understandable, had started causing her a severe headache. ‘And they are gonna force me to have a screeching banshee glued to my hip?’ The Clan dramas sounded less dire here, stuck underground with a crumbling ceiling and a group of assassins that might be awaiting them on the other end.

To keep panic at bay (and to make sure her mind did not spiral down a very dangerous path of reminiscence) Kaya visualised the faces of all the people she cared for. Her sisters, her friends, the twins, the Hokage. All the civilians she had managed to establish some semblance of normality with, the girls from her Zumba classes, the ones she helped in the editing of the local newspaper. She reconstructed their features, some in stark detail, others not so, before she allowed her mind’s eye to build the image of the face that haunted her the most. She knew that would be the face she’d miss the most after her sisters’ if she died. ‘Not that I’ve seen much of said face.’ The silver unruly hair, the grey flint-like eye, his dry sense of humour and social ignorance, his perpetual desire to scandalise people. The innate laziness in stark contrast with all the dedication he had put into training her. The huskiness of his voice behind the mask when he spoke to her alone, and the complete change when there was someone around. His tall frame that bumped shoulders with her at every occasion. The wink of the Hitai-ate hiding his left eye when he cocked his head to the side, puzzled at her words or ideas. Her heart did a funny thing as the image of the Jōnin resurfaced fully fleshed out from the fog. Tears brimmed her eyes and a new kind of tightness wrapped around her throat. The flame of her torch shuddered. Then Kaya felt it - the soft breeze making the few loose strands of hair tickle her cheeks. ‘The opening! It’s close!’

“We are almost there!”

She made sure her voice was upbeat, encouraging. The people behind her had walked tirelessly for hours, without food and with the few sips of water she could extract and filter from the space around them. The news rippled through them and those who had been dragging behind found the strength to push forward. After the next bend in the tunnel, there was the distant flicker of light. 

 

***

 

The moon was high in the sky by the time they all crawled out of the tunnel. The opening had truly tested Kaya’s self-possession, her claustrophobia being a sneeze away from sending her crystals bursting through the ground. With an iron grip, she had reigned herself in and crawled on all fours, ignoring the squeeze of her heart and the petrified fear that had left her mouth dry. Pulling everyone out had taken a while and by the time the last villager was sitting in the meadow, Kaya was drained. Having a nap sounded tempting but no one could afford that, not in the open, and not until she was sure there was no one lurking in the trees and shrubs. 

Sending a searching chakra wave out, Kaya focused on her surroundings. Muting the mindless chatter of the villagers, she aimed her senses towards picking up on other noises. Snapping of twigs. The rustling of leaves. Hushed breaths. Shifting feet. 

When her chakra wave spiked in warning, she had enough time to yell at the others to run before two of the four assassins were upon them. The whistling of weapons filled the air, screams of fear and pain ripping the tranquillity. In the darkness of the night, with little to no light and chakra, Kaya knew the battle would be a quick one. A kunai swished past. She made a mental note to treat Kakashi to dinner if she ever made it back to Konoha. The long hours of training and getting her ass kicked paid off - she was able to evade and block several attacks that would have left her if not dead then badly injured a couple of months ago. 

Shards of crystals whizzed forth, pinning one of the men to a tree by the shoulder. The other one managed to duck and dive, receiving a minor scratch. Before she could re-launch, he was upon her. His Lightning Affinity threw her off; she had grown to associate the soft rumble with Kakashi’s thunderous chakra, eliciting a sense of familiarity and comfort. The fact that this man was using the element against her felt almost sacrilegious. The first two attacks she managed to evade, the white-hot burn of electricity only grazing her flank. The pain knocked the air out of her lungs and made her stumble. 

“It seems the Queen of Diamonds has finally been upended. I’ll give it to you, kid, you’re one sneaky little bitch to get a hold of.”

She had had the daunting suspicion that these were no ordinary assassins out to kill a couple of hours or raid a tiny village over and over again when there was little to get from it, to begin with. Kaya’s scowl deepened as the man she had pinned to the tree finally released himself, falling on the ground with a thud. It was two against one once again. ‘I can only hope to stall them until the civilians get away.’ Her lips set into a grim line. Dashing to the side and missing the lightning blade, she ducked away from the massive shuriken that almost decapitated her. A thumb rose to her lips, teeth breaking the skin. In one smooth motion, stepping away from another attack and sending her crystals forward, she rolled her sleeve. The tattooed lioness looked even blacker against the pale skin of her inner arm. With eyes trained on her opponents, Kaya smeared blood over the ink, activating the hidden seal. 

While the Slug Princess had been reluctant to pass over the hidden knowledge of the Reserve Seal, she had imparted some general allusions as to how to collect chakra and store it. Kaya had taken her to take on it, using tattoos as storage boxes. It was nowhere near as powerful or efficient, but it got the job done. The burst of chakra unfurled and coursed through her body, feeding into her straining pathways. The men pounced on her at the same time, weapons raised. The diamond wall burst forth, intercepting them. More crystals formed in the shapes of daggers ready to pierce or traps eager to capture. The men jumped back, evading as best as possible, curses slipping from their lips as quick as they made seals to summon their ninjutsus. Kaya was quicker. Slipping between the towering obstacles, she remained out of their sight until it was too late. Her fist connected with the ground, breaking through layers of soil and sending junks of earth-shattering, throwing the men back. She chased after. The younger one was not prepared, too shocked to react on time. Her foot connected with his midriff, sending him flying through the forest and smashing against a tree a couple of meters away with a sickening crunch. Kaya’s insides lurched. Facing the other man, she found him making seals in mid-air, eyes flaring. A telltale crackle filled the air.

Kaya had never experienced the full sting of Lightning Affinity - it was a rare one, and she made a note to deal with such opponents before they managed to use it on her. Some of the crystals in her arsenal could conduct electricity, thus weakening the bond and ruining the crystal’s integrity. When her mind processed the inevitability of her getting struck full frontal by the lightning charge, diamond walls erupted in a heartbeat, dispersing it in various directions. One of the strands reached her, imbedding itself into her right arm. For a heartbeat, she stared at her flesh, anticipating the pain, the numbness, the spasms. She steeled herself against it. When her heart seized and palpitated, however, she keeled forward and fell on her knees, panic and fear and pain, so much hot-white searing pain burning through her. A scream ruptured her vocal box. Any living thing that had not fled, pounced. Somewhere in the distance, a flash of lightning buzzed to life in response.

Kaya was dying, that much she was certain of. The charge burned her nerve endings, disrupting the palpitations of her heart and trying to cease the pulses that kept it going. Initiating her healing chakra on time and wrapping her heart in a protective gauze was the only thing that saved her from a cardiac arrest. Deaf to the world and drowning in darkness that burned with pain, she struggled to keep her mind focused on dispersing the charge. There was no recollection in her mind of hitting the ground or of the screams that ripped from her; she didn’t see the crystals bursting haphazardly from the ground, imbedding themselves into everything and anything. She set chaos in motion without even knowing it, her whole existence centred on remaining alive. Only when she finally managed to contain and neutralise the electricity did she attempt to move. Her whole body was paralysed, seized by spasms that cramped the muscles. Tears blurred her vision and blood burned the back of her throat. Disorientated and afraid, Kaya looked around and caught sight of her reflection staring back at her from the crystal dome that shielded her. Bloodshot eyes, tear-streaked face, ghastly pale skin. Blood trickling from the corner of her mouth. The ringing in her ears was ceaseless; in tune with the pounding of her head. It felt like her organs had been rearranged and re-wired. 

Honey-scented chakra was trashing in her system, the pathways halfway collapsed after the attack, in need of an outlet. Tired and dizzy, with pain washing over her in waves, Kaya closed her eyes. The loud THUD-THUD-THUD drowned out any other noises. 

“Samosa-san!”

The voice was distant, pushing through the thick fog of oblivion. Vaguely, her mind responded, but her body was shutting down.

“Samosa-san, wake up!”

So many voices. Sensation prickled back to life in certain parts of her body - her injured leg twitched, her hands burned, her heart ached. She just wanted to rest. Let the world roll past her. She needn’t be aware of it for a bit. She needn't be aware of it at all. Darkness swam at the corners of her mind, creeping in, devouring sounds and feelings in its wake, numbing her. In the middle of the patch of light left, she saw Kakashi - his wet hair falling across his face as he leaned above her, eye gazing down at her with worry and fear. She could see his lips behind the mask moving, knew he was saying something to her, but she couldn’t hear. He was so far away. Yet instinctively, she knew . He was calling out her name. The despair in his flint eye stirred something in her; a lodged splinter that imbedded itself further. This man mattered. His happiness mattered. 

A pinprick of consciousness came back to her; the awareness that if she fell asleep, she’d die and never see him again. ‘I don’t want to die!’ Instinctively, her mind rebelled. She was strong and young and had so much to do, and oh Kami-sama, not yet, not now, not when she had found someone that mattered. 

The chains shattered. With a violent wrench, her consciousness ripped itself away from the tentacles of darkness and plunged right into the vast ocean of pain that was her body. Her eyes snapped open and her body lurched forward. A scream got stuck in her throat were the ripped vocal cords shuddered, choking her. Kakashi’s hands caught her. Her hand sought out his, fingers gripping desperately, searching for comfort and strength. When the darkness came this time, it was less absolute. It was like the gentle hug of a long-awaited friend. 

 

The mission had been a success and Kakashi and his team were heading back to Konoha sooner than anticipated. He had been gone for over two weeks and a part of him yearned to return to the red-headed kunoichi’s side. Void of her calming presence and easy banter, he had found the time away dampening his mood. They had been just setting up camp when the first blast split the air. The sound was distant and dull but when he went to scout, perched on the top of the highest tree at hand, he saw the familiar gleaming of crystals against the pale moonlight. He was dashing ahead before his teammates had time to react. He barely paused when he came across a group of people fleeing for their lives. The familiar crackle of lightning made him pick up speed. When a scream followed moments later, splitting the night, Kakashi’s whole body flinched, almost sending him gliding against a branch. He steadied himself and ran on, a familiar kind of emotion, one he had hoped never to feel again, wrapping around his heart and sending wave upon wave of adrenalin spilling into his bloodstream. 

She was on the ground, immobile, with the man that had presumably attacked her raising his hand for the final blow. He never saw Kakashi coming, only heard the scream of his Chidori as it ripped through his chest. The assassin’s eyes went round with shock before the light died out and he collapsed, blood pooling around him. To the side, impaled on a protruding jade dagger was another man. Two more were sticking out from between the trees. The battlefield was littered with crystals of various shapes and sizes, all jagged and with a malicious gleam to them. 

“Samosa-san!”

The despair in the medic’s voice was all the information the Jōnin needed. He was on his knees next to her, hand cupping her face and tilting it his way. He barely recognised his voice when he called her name. As if in response to his emotion, the sky grumbled and opened. He shuffled closer, hiding underneath the crystal dome and sending a wave of his chakra through her system. Her reserves were severely depleted and even without any medical knowledge he knew something was wrong with her pathways - they felt shrivelled. It made him sick. 

“Kaya! Wake up! Stay with me!”

Later, when his mind went back and analysed every single detail all over again, he wondered whether it had been his voice that had drawn her back from the brink of death. Her skin had been ice cold and her lips had begun turning blue and something in him, the pitiful remains of a heart, had started cracking and flaking off, small chunks about to vanish into the abyss. He had kept the flow of his chakra steady, trying to lure her back, to tell her he was there, that she wasn’t alone. 

The long soundless nights spent next to her hospital bed provided ample opportunity to detangle the knot of emotions that had lodged itself in his throat in the moments between the medic’s hands ceasing to glow green and Kaya’s sudden shudder of breath and her body lurching forward, her chakra lashing out. He had managed to smother it before anyone got hurt, namely, the man trying to save her life. Sensing him, she had calmed down, collapsing into his arms, her hand fitting into his like a glove. 

In the brief moments of her almost dying, Hatake Kakashi had re-lived every single instant in his life when he had lost someone important; experiencing the pain anew, bracing himself as best as he could for the change of his axis that would ensue when Kaya breathed her last breath. Needless to say, as he held her small hand cupped between his and listened to the reassuring beep of the machines, he thanked any god that might be listening for not taking her away from him. For not leaving him alone with the charred remains of his life crumbling to dust around him. 

Chapter Text

Kaya woke up with a head that felt like lead, numbness in her muscles and joints and a foul taste in her mouth - as if she had licked one of the local sewage rats clean. As her sluggish mind dragged itself from the blissful abyss of nothingness, she tried to recall the most recent events. She had to crawl through a tunnel to evade assassins. She had fought. She had even injured one of them quite badly. Murdered . What happened then? There had been a bright flash. A thunder. A bolt of lightning ! She had been hit by one of the dispersed lightning blasts!

‘Sweet Kami-sama!’ Her eyes snapped open. With a hiss, she cringed away from the brightness and tried to move away from the direct source of the light only to find her body rather reluctant to obey. 

“Samosa-san! You are awake. Thank goodness.”

The voice was female, brimming with delight. Unfamiliar. Kaya’s alarm must have manifested itself for the woman gave a startled yelp and moved away, knocking into something that rattled as it hit the floor. The Heiress’ brain felt like mush; a sensitive, spongy mush. 

“S-samosa-san, please calm d-down.”

The fear ringing in the words triggered something within Kaya; a deeply ingrained instinct of self-preservation. She was the apex predator. She could overpower her and win and go and find her teammates-

Her teammates. Dead. Lifeless bodies bleeding into the soil. Children’s faces that would never know the sorrows and joys of life. Rubies glimmered - mocking, taunting. Accusing. You did this, they whispered. It’s all your fault. 

“Kaya, calm down.”

The smell of a thunderstorm wafted through the thick shroud of blood-soaked memories. She blinked her eyes open. The images were blurred. She blinked again. Was she crying?

“Everything’s alright. You’re home.”

His soothing voice and the way he gently supported her frame (when had she stood up?) eased the tight knots in Kaya’s body. Laying her back in the hospital bed, yes, now she realised where she was, Kakashi beckoned the frightened nurse over. The girl was Kaya’s age, her skin ashen and the blue eyes were as big as saucepans.

“You shouldn’t have approached her without a trained doctor by your side.”

The admonishing came out in the usual casual almost careless baritone she had grown to associate with the man’s reassuring presence. She leaned into him as her eyes took in the room. Crystals had sprouted from the floor and walls like fungi, their sharp gleaming edges reflecting the light and distorting the scene through a hundred different angles.

“I’m sorry.”

The kunoichi managed a small apologetic smile before focusing her attention back on the crystals. Kakashi noted the way her eyes glazed over almost immediately, the usual light dimming away like a flame enclosed by a glass - shuddering and flickering, about to go off. He had seen many men react similarly - those who survived the war and the Kyūubi attack suffered from the same overpowering post-traumatic stress the Samosa Heiress just exhibited. A frantic backlash fuelled by fear, by the need to remain alive long enough to return to your comrades. ‘I hoped they’d have kept her away.’ Apparently, with the thinning ranks of shinobi, no Clan had been able to save their protegees from the duty that came with naming oneself a ninja. 

The nurse rushed off to fetch a doctor, giving them a few seconds of privacy. Kaya looked like she had just crawled out of her grave - pale skin stretched thin over sharp cheekbones and strong jawline, dark purplish circles underneath hazy eyes. She appeared thoroughly shaken and for a brief moment, Kakashi feared that whatever demons lay beneath the smooth surface of her iron willpower had managed to dig their way to the surface and were currently pillaging the sanctuary of her mind. His chakra wrapped around her like a blanket, drawing her back. He knew better than to touch her. She was vulnerable, weakened and hence prone to lash out and strike blindly. 

The crystals retreated, leaving not even a scratch behind. The door slid open. The medic, a woman in his late thirties, neared the bed. 

“It’s a pleasure to see you finally awake, Samosa-san.”

She didn’t respond at first. When she did, her face, void of anything remotely human moments ago, shifted and transformed and the familiar mask clicked back into place. 

 

***

 

Kaya remained bedridden for another 24 hours before being allowed to leave. Under Kakashi’s scrutinizing eye she had been examined and encouraged to try and walk around the room. Her muscles had screamed in protest and she had wobbled like a newborn calf but had done the laps nonetheless. Her sisters came to pick her up the next day, eager to make sure she was out of danger’s way and imploring her to give her body some rest. Their concern was appreciated, yet the kunoichi had too much buzzing through her system to stay put. She needed to be occupied if her sanity was to remain intact. The little episode in the hospital replayed itself over and over every single time she felt tempted to slump back and let the world smudge around the edges. The past called out to her, drawing her in. If she succumbed … Kaya decided not to veer off that way. Whatever hid behind the sealed doors in her mind, it was meant to remain forgotten. She didn’t have any business stirring it.

Instead, she had some decent food, a shower, and a change of clothes before going to report to the Hokage. There was quite a bit she needed to tell him, most of which he wouldn’t like.

Her knuckles rapped against the smooth surface of the door.

“Enter.” The muffled voice sounded tired.

Pushing the door open and making a point not to favour her left leg, Kaya stepped into the brightly lit room. There were books piled in every corner and the desk was a mess of teetering towers of papers and scrolls. From behind the mountain of paperwork, the Sandaime’s tired broody eyes glanced up at her before returning to whatever he was reading. It took her a second to notice that they were not alone. 

“You’ve made a quick recovery, Kaya-san.”

“Hai, Hokage-sama.” She bowed her head before stealing a glance at the mess of silver hair a few feet away.

All she got was a small nod of acknowledgement. His scrutinising glance made her skin prickle. She had to suppress the urge to smooth her hair down and re-adjust the sembons holding the heavy braids in place. 

“I see what you mean, Kakashi.” The man hummed, discontent gracing his forehead before he rolled the scroll and put it on his desk. “I will look into it.”

With that, the Jōnin was dismissed. A bow and a final glance her way later, and he was out of the door. 

“So, Kaya-san. Tell me, what is so important that you decided to come and report to me personally so soon after your dispatch from the hospital?”

In the few days she had been away, the Sandaime seemed to have grown wearier, older than what she remembered. His calculated sternness and mild smile were nowhere to be found; instead, fatigue had taken over. At that moment, he looked fragile. A misconception that could seal a man’s fate in a heartbeat.
“You were right to send me to the Temple. Weird rites and sacrifices aside, the Hoshi Organisation has been busy. I managed to infiltrate their archives and interrogate one of their men. The rumours are true - they are in possession of one of the Tailed Beasts. They keep the boy locked away and sedated, but I did not manage to extract the exact location of the hideout.”

The Hokage’s grim expression morphed into one of acute discontent. The Hoshi Organisation having obtained one of the Tailed Beasts meant that there would be a shift in power soon. Many organisations coveted to channel the immense power the Bijus possessed, disregarding the host entirely which often resulted in the person’s death. Kaya had started keeping tabs on all the odd little movements of the big players in the game - from lords to gang leaders, to major organisations. She had successfully infiltrated remote high-security places, stolen or coerced information out of unsuspecting victims. Like a fox, she slid between the cracks, always finding an opening in their seemingly unbreachable defences. The amounts of valuable information gathered and delivered to Konoha during her six-year-long journey had prevented lots of unnecessary deaths from occurring. Unravelling plots, spying on traitors, overhearing loud-mouths brag after too many cups of sake. She had used any tool in her arsenal to get what she wanted. It had come with a price, but seeing her village safe and sound, prospering, made it all worth it. 

“I see.” Absentmindedly, he rubbed his forehead. “That complicates things. And the men that attacked you?”

“It was a trap.”

The sharpness in the Sandaime’s eyes matched hers.

“I think they were made aware that you had sent me. They were prepared and waiting.”

The numbness that still lingered in her injured hand was evidence enough.

“Are you sure your position had not been compromised?”
“Affirmative. I ensured there was nothing that could link the ruined documents to the masked kitsune or the Queen of Diamonds.”

Kaya gritted her teeth, preventing the next words from tumbling from her tongue.

“You think we are dealing with a rat?”

“Yes.”

The man’s eyes darkened further and his frown grew severe. Konohagakure prided itself on their secrecy and highly reliable staff; having someone infiltrate and leak information out was a blow no one would take lightly. 

“I will look into it.”

She made a move to protest, but he silenced her with a wave.

“You almost died. I will hear none of it. Go rest. Enjoy a break. You deserve it.”

“But-”

“No.” The sharpness in his eyes startled her. “I will not have you snooping around. I will never hear the end of it if you get injured again. Your father-”

“I’m a shinobi before I am my father’s daughter. My duty comes before my family.”

His gaze softened, the harsh lines smoothing into their usual amicability. 

“I know, dear. And your devotion is greatly appreciated. But for once, don’t be so stubborn and just go home.”

There was nothing left to say so with a bow she exited the office. It felt unsatisfying going home when a mole was on the loose. Yet, there was little Kaya could do about it. Her face was widely recognised in Konoha; there was no way she could enter a building unobserved, or go around asking uncomfortable questions. 

And while almost everyone knew her face, she doubted there was a single soul in the whole village that truly knew her. Not her family or friends, not the Hokage, not even Kakashi. It was lonely in her small isolated corner of the world; there wasn’t anyone she could talk to, no one who would understand. ‘He will,’ her heath whispered and the longing, the deep-rooted fundamental need to tell someone, anyone, forced the air out of her lungs. How she craved to unburden herself, to let someone in. To stop being alone. Spies didn’t get such luxuries. Silent appraisals from the shadows were their only reward; doing great deeds no one knew about and dealing with trauma no one cared to hear. 

Kaya convinced herself that it was okay. That it was normal. After all, that was the path she had chosen. No one had forced her, no one had even offered it to her. With her inability to kill, the sheer panic the act drew out of her and the violent outlash of her Kekkei Genkai, she had had to scrap the dream of being an Anbu and settle for the second-best. Spies didn’t have to engage in combat as long as there weren’t any witnesses. In those six years of working undercover, she had never had to get rid of someone. She had gotten so good at lying and hiding and pretending that she often lay at night wondering if she looked at her soul’s reflection, would she even recognise it?

Chapter Text

On Thursday evening, exactly two weeks after Kaya almost died, her arm bore no signs of injury and had regained full mobility, but for the odd occasion when numbness washed over from her fingertips to her elbow. The chakra reserve hidden beneath the lioness tattoo felt disturbingly empty, the ink faded and bleak, so as soon as she was able to, she began refilling it. Kaya was fond of all the artwork on her body but that one held a special place in her heart - it had been the first, the riskiest. The one that would either help her improve or destroy the chakra pathways in her left forearm. 

Shaking the memories of a sunny afternoon away, Kaya took a sit in the lest uncomfortable chair. She should invest in better ones with the amount of time she’s been spending out here lately. 

The food was served and glistening crystal domes kept it warm. There hadn’t been any signs from the Jōnin ever since she bumped into him into the Hokage’s office and Kaya wasn’t sure if he was even in the village. Nevertheless, she cooked and set the table, putting in the extra effort to make the dishes he liked. ‘It’d be such a waste of time if he doesn’t show up.’ Propping her bare feet on the bannister and leaning back, tipping the chair on its hind legs, the kunoichi clasped her hands behind her head. Her eyelids fluttered shut. The evening air was warm, caressing her exposed skin gently, slipping between her hair and ruffling the soft curls. The dying-out noises of Konohagakure travelled on the wind’s tail, their buzz soothing. ‘So peaceful.’

Her senses sharpened and one of her eyes snapped open. Perched on the railing like a rare bird, the silver-haired Jōnin pocketed the little orange book before waving. Her feet touched the cold tiles.

“I was almost beginning to think I’d have to throw away all this food.”

Under her silent command, the crystal domes opened like budding flowers. Kakashi’s eye widened. 

“You’ve had lots of free time.”

She snorted and adjusted in her chair.

“I’ve been given sick leave for a while.”

“You deserve it.”

He sat down. Kaya poured sake in his cup and wine in hers.

“I get restless if I don’t have things to do. I was injured, not made an invalid. Everyone’s been walking on eggshells around me.”

To her shame, she didn’t manage to reign in the frustration tinting her voice. 

“You almost died,” the tart reply piqued her attention.

The anger rimming his gaze burned her cheeks scarlet as she averted her eyes.

“Almost. I’m alive now, aren’t I? Also, I hear it’s you I have to thank.”

He brushed the remark away. 

“No, really. Thank you, Kakashi.”

The tip of her chopstick probed at the steamed vegetables peeking from between the heaps of rice. She feared she had overcooked them - they looked mushy.

“All the training we did, it came in handy. Who would have thought I’d be thanking you for shredding all my clothes for over three months?”

Her laugh, though genuine, was a bit strained. Marooned in her flat, forbidden from training or doing anything remotely strenuous had made Kaya build a certain mountain of exasperated frustration. She knew herself, down to her petty little soul. Unless she let some steam off, she’d start rattling like an under-pressure cooker. The sense of being clogged made her restless. Reckless. She was self-aware enough to realise she was snappy and would gladly pick up a fight with the silver-haired male. Putting in the effort not to start anything was hard. The bitterness simmered beneath the surface and tinged her tongue. If she didn’t reign herself in and keep a tight hold on those reigns, she might say something highly inappropriate, offensive or corrosive; or all three at the same time. Then she’d have to fling herself off the balcony in shame. 

“I promised myself I’ll treat you to dinner if I survived.” 

She peeked at him from underneath her lashes. Grey met a combination of green and brown. He was studying her, void of any give-away expression. Only a whisper of apprehension grazed his features.

“So here you go, sensei,” with a grand gesture she swept her hand over the table, a dazzling smile illuminating her face, “a feast, to my best abilities!”

The dark material of his mask outlined the soft curve of his lips. They ate in silence. The vegetables were a bit overcooked.

 

***

 

‘Note to self: do not let Kaya drink more than four glasses of wine ever again.’ Kakashi reasoned that if he had attempted to write down his observation, the female would have smashed the empty bottle over his head. The evening had been going smoothly, a rather pleasant silence settled over the table until he had the ingenious idea to ask her why she was sent on a mission in the first place. A part of him was still seething in rage, the image of her motionless body and pale face a vivid recollection whenever he allowed himself to think back to that day. 

“I’m still a shinobi. I go on missions.” Needless to say, her answer had left lots to be desired.

The questions poking through the weak reasoning and the general secrecy behind her station had urged him on. In retrospect, he reckoned he should have backed away. Their friendship was still too tender to allow him to pry into her life. Yet, it pestered him. ‘What was a non-combat kunoichi doing alone in a crime-heavy area?’ So he had pushed and prodded, flaring her temper, stroking it like one might stroke the forge flames, all in a vain attempt to breach her ever-so-high walls and get to know a bit more about her. Secrets were lurking behind the tough facade she liked donning. If people feared her, or respectively hated her, they would not care about what she did when no one was looking. No one would question her, as an Heiress; everyone simply assumed she was doing Clan business. Kakashi prided himself on having more brains than that. He knew Kaya was hiding something; the off-hand remark Momori-san had used as a weapon still replayed in his mind. ‘You wanted to be an Anbu, ne, Kaya?’ A woman that had been striving for such a high-profile position would not be content with being an un-active Chūnin. 

“Mind your own business, Kakashi!” Her snarl had been vicious, the fire in her eyes scorching.

The green eye had shifted from a forest shade into a burning emerald. He disregarded the warning the way he did most rules - as a mere strong suggestion rather than an actual restriction. 

“I’m merely curious,” he shrugged.

“Curiosity killed the cat,” she bit back. “And unless you have nine lives, I suggest you back off.”

Naturally, he didn’t. He had done the exact opposite, forgetting himself in the heated debacle. Later, he’d place most of the blame on the sake getting to his head. That, and his recently appeared feelings . Staring off as amicable friendship, they had somehow escalated without his notice to a point where his desire for her was an ever-present acute pulsation in his lower back. Where the idea of her getting injured set off a darker, cruller side of him; and where the secrets she guarded so jealously intrigued him more than they should.

Kakashi had little recollection of what exactly provoked him to pin her to the wall. If it was the need to intimidate her he knew he had miserably failed if the heated, glazed over look in her eyes was anything to go by. If it was to shut her up, then yes, he had succeeded - she was struck silent by the boldness of the move. The rational part of his mind that still functioned properly, however, wondered whether there were some less unconventional ways he could have undertaken.

What he knew for certain was that one second she was snarling at him like an enraged lioness, eyes ablaze, and the next he had her wrists in his hand and her back pressed against the cool surface of the wall. That had turned the tables (metaphorically and literally; he made a note to sort out the mess and buy her new plates). Fury and indignation, born from the same flames blazing in their souls, had morphed into something different. More dangerous. Pressing his body against hers and caging her between his arms was surely the worst possible tactic he could have chosen to implement on a kunoichi whose cardinal strengths were dagger-like crystal appearing out of thin air and monstrous strength that could turn his bones to dust with concerning ease. Yet instead of looking affronted or mad, she appeared amused and intrigued. The initial surprise had developed into an eagerness to see what he would do next. 

With a vixen’s keen eye, she took in the few visible patches of skin on his face with a hunger that sparked and fuelled the primal, more basic part of his mind. Oh, if he could only-

No, he could not ! She was the Heiress to a powerful Clan, a friend he had grown to admire and cherish. Not a pretty face to fix his unresolved problems and satisfy his deepest, darkest needs. He’d stop this foolishness this very instant and move away, and apologize-

“So, Kakashi, tell me. Is this how you prove a woman wrong? Because if it is, I’m curious to know what lengths you are willing to go to in order to ensure that you prevail.”

Uh-oh. In the few seconds it took him to shake away the shock, Kaya had already moved. Arching her back, she pressed her chest against his. He knew from the teasing peek of the black lacy strap that she had not bandaged her breasts tonight. The fact that the t-shirt was nicely stretched at the front was indicative as well. Damn her for being such a tease, and damn him for having no restraint. Holding her almost lifeless body had done something to him; it had opened a new neat little niche in his soul where her presence fit like a glove. It was her nook, and whenever she was away, he felt that space spasm and twitch before it, like him, started brooding. An emotion easily erased when she was near. 

Damn him if he soiled her virtue with his barbaric passions. And yet, she didn’t behave with her usual sly teasing - a manner easily discerned as something meant as a jest. No, she was truly teasing him right now. Her ample bosom pressed to his chest, her eyes beseeching and her sensual lips tempting. If Kakashi did not release her immediately, he risked throwing away any scrape of prejudice and just taking her, right there, on the balcony, for everyone to see. The image formed so easily in his mind as if it had been waiting, hidden in the shadows, for him to lower his guard.

“I rarely find such challenging women. Most are humble and shy.”

She scoffed, the smirk bringing some of her usual self back. 

“You should know better by now. There’s nothing humble or shy about me.”

“I’ve noticed.”

The words were not meant to be whispered, let alone grumbled, yet he suddenly found his throat dry. The need to taste her, to hold her, to have her, to claim her, was so strong it made his skin feel tight. If there had ever been an instance where sin incarnate appeared in mortal form, Kakashi was willing to bet it was in Kaya’s smile. She regarded him with a smugness that derived from knowing she had won and patiently waiting for her prey to stop wriggling so she could devour it.

They were tiptoeing on the verge of a very deep and dangerous precipice, Kaya knew. And if she misread him, if she acted out of step, everything would be ruined. She’d make the pure comfortable friendship they’d struck awkward and tense. The notion chilled some of the fire burning through her body. She didn’t want to lose him. If anything, she wanted more of him. 

The look he gave her was scalding - a mixture of warning, desire, apprehension, need. Her breath came out short and quick, fluttering like the wings of a bird. He should either release her or kiss her or else she’d do something reckless. The heat that had been awakened by their argument pooled in her belly and trickled down between her legs. The yearning for him to touch her was acute; an exquisite type of pain that she savoured and hated at the same time. 

She regarded him for a second - all tense muscles, intense eye, clenched jaw, and discerned that his inner struggle mirrored her own and that if he wouldn’t be the one to relieve them of the pressure by some misplaced sense of chivalry, then it was up to her to do so.

She leaned away from him and the flame in his eye fluttered. With a swift motion, she rose her left foot and pressed it flat against the wall before propelling herself forward. With their height difference, she needed a boost to reach his face.

It was quite a kiss if one could call it so. True to her aim, her lips found his through the mask. He gasped, the hold over her wrists loosening enough for her to slip one out and cup his face. For a brief moment, he had remained stunned and unresponsive before pressing his body into hers. They smacked back against the wall, the air whooshing out of her, leaving her breathless. Their lips broke away and Kakashi buried his face in the crook of her neck, hiding in the long red locks. He didn't recoil in horror, which was a good sign, but he didn’t make any attempt to face her and (hopefully) kiss her properly. Kaya decided bemused would be a better reaction that hurt. The soft laugh shook her frame. The man groaned, nuzzling her in a way that hitched her breath. The sigh came out as a half-suppressed moan. 

“Mah, mah. So shy,” she teased, tilting her head to the side and resting her cheek against his soft silver locks. 

His low growl made her chuckle, before, still pinned by one wrist and dwarfed by his bent frame, she twisted her head to the side and buried her face in his hair. He smelled of soap and rain. She breathed in deeply, taking the scent in, burning it into her memory. Whatever happened between them next, this would be a scent that she’d never forget. 

He stiffened. The hand wrapped around her wrist tightened its hold. If possible, he pressed himself against her even more, her softness moulding into his firmness like clay. She felt every single inch of him, every taut muscle, every dip, every line. That man had a lot of firm places on him.

“Stop teasing me,” the growl tickled the sensitive skin.

“I can’t help it.” 

He traced the curve of her slender neck. Breathing in. Briefly, she wondered what she smelled like to him, but the thought was gone in a second as he pulled away. The lurking desire in his eye was still there, and Kaya could not help herself. She leaned forward and captured his lips again. It was more of a gentle peck rather than another assault. The hand wrapped around her middle tightened its grip, pulling her closer.

“You awful woman,” the growl sent shivers down her spine.

“I’ve been called worse.”

With a scoff he released her, taking a step away. Kaya felt coldness creeping in, seeping beneath her heated skin and freezing the blazing fires in her body. She guessed this was the moment he declined her advances gently and told her he’d rather they stay friends. ‘You better not lose your cool, young lady!’ Her whole body stiffened, preparing for the blow. ‘Let it be quick! Please, Kami-sama, let it be quick!’

When he made a move to climb over the bannister and leave, Kaya’s momentary dumbfoundedness vanished and she lunged forward, crashing her body into his.

“Don’t you bloody dare run away from me, Kakashi!”

The man stumbled and almost lost his footing. 

“I wasn’t-”

“Don’t lie!” Her face was pressed against his chest; she could not look him in the eye when he broke the news to her, she just couldn’t. “I saw you make a move to bolt. Have a heart and just tell it to my face rather than vanish into the sunset. I’m a big girl, I can handle it!”

She’d have seen his confusion if she had taken a moment to look up. Instead, the kunoichi remained stubbornly pressed against his chest, her erratic heartbeat resonating through the thin fabric of their clothes and seeping into his skin. He ignored the soft pressure of her breast. The ringing pain in her words, badly concealed behind her usual bravado, gave him pause. ‘Is she really think that I would…?’ Apparently she did. She was preparing herself for a refusal. 

He let the silence stretch, waiting for her breathing to calm down; the fervent panic his movement had caused finally vanished. He gingerly wrapped his arms around her, placing his chin on top of her head. ‘So fragile, this one. And still, she plays it tough all the time.’ It was amusing as much as it was enraging. All her life Kaya had had to rely on herself to survive - something he was bitterly familiar with. He dreaded to imagine the war she had waged in order to be allowed to attend the Academy and become a ninja. And now, years later, she still waged the same war for her independence. Not because she felt it was threatened, but because she had never been offered a different alternative. She awaited his judgement with the silent reconciliation and pride of someone who has been dealt a similar blow before. Kakashi was suddenly overcome by the desire to seek out those nameless people and rearrange the alignments of their faces. 

“Just… just do it. Say it. I won’t make a scene, I promise.”

Her words, spoken with a small, unwavering voice, lodged themselves like daggers. For the first time in a while, he felt helpless in a most infuriating manner. The need to tell her how much she meant to him was as strong as his inability to phrase the words properly. The way she deserved to hear them.

“I was not trying to run away,” he ran his fingers through her hair, marvelling at its shine and softness. “I needed to put some … some distance between us. I can’t think straight when you are around me. ”

Her body went rigid and he knew he had failed at explaining things properly. Nonetheless, he trudged on. He had already started, might as well finish it before she tossed him over the bannister and out of her life.

“You distract me, tempt me. I cannot be impartial when you’re close. I can’t focus on what’s best for you if my mind conjures images of what I could do to you.”

He hadn’t planned on saying the last bit and as soon as it tumbled out, he paled before a fierce burning spread over his cheeks and down his neck and chest. The kunoichi remained silent, immobile. Her whole being was zeroed on him and not a single syllable or heartbeat slipped past her. 

“I desire you in a way that goes beyond inappropriate and would scandalise even someone as shameless as you. I can’t stop thinking about you,” the whisper ruffled her hair, and he swore he heard a low whimper muffled against his chest, “dreaming about you. It’s a battle of wills whenever you are close. And every single time you chip away at my resolve. I cannot last any longer, Kaya. If you don’t stop me, I’m afraid I will do something despicable and I will not have the good graces to regret it.”

His hands tightened around her. She had yet to make a move to put distance between them. He was thankful for being spared the scorn in her gorgeous eyes for a few more seconds. 

“I cannot help it, I desire you in such a primal possessive way that any second spent close to you is bitter-sweet torture.”

She shuddered. She was coming back to her senses and he was beginning to either scare her off or repulse her. ‘Might as well plant the last nail in the coffin.’

“The fact that I cannot have you is killing me. The notion that you are destined for someone else makes me want to hide you somewhere, find that man, and put the fear of God in him.”

A pause. He needed to say the last bit. It was the most important one. The one that would hopefully redeem some of his character. 

“You deserve someone better than a lone broken wolf, and I’ll be damned if I let my desire spoil your future. That’s why I’m letting you go. Not because I do not desire you, but because the need to have you overpowers all my senses.”

It had been a couple of minutes, a lifetime in Kakashi’s mind before Kaya’s shoulders started shaking and her hands fisted into his shirt. Before he had time to come up with something to say or do, her tears filled the silence. They started as small muffled hiccups before growing into heart-wrenching sobs. Faced with her grief, Kakashi felt helpless. He was unsure what had caused it but one thing was certain - unless she explicitly told him so, he could not leave her side. Not right now. Not like this. So broken and sad and crumbling in his hands; her vulnerability closed his throat. 

Silently he hooked his arm behind her knees and hoisted her up. Her face remained buried in his chest and he made a note not to look down. His resolve would crumble if he saw the tears streaming down her cheeks. Instead, he walked into the apartment and headed for the bedroom. The initial plan was to just lay her on the bed, letting her emotions exhaust themselves in the silent privacy of the darkness. Instead, she clung to him as if her life depended on it. 

They slipped underneath the covers together, she curled in his lap, with the covers securely tucked around them. He held her until the shaking stopped and the tears ran dry; until her breathing calmed and her heartbeat evened out. And even after he was sure she was asleep and would not wake if he moved, he remained still. Holding her. Threading his fingers through her hair. Taking in her scent, now dampened by sorrow, and filing it away with the few selected ones that would never be erased from his mind; alongside his father’s and his teammates’. 

It was well past midnight when his eyelids grew heavy and his head tipped to the side, resting on top of hers. Seeing that this might be their last night together, he was willing to cling to every single precious moment.

Chapter Text

The next morning Kaya woke up with soreness in the very core of her being and an empty bed. She laid between the tossed sheets, a hand thrown over her eyes as memories flooded her groggy mind. All the crying had felt cleansing, but god was it a humiliating thing to re-cap. Not to mention it always came with a headache that would persist for a couple of hours. It was a menial problem that could easily be fixed, so she channelled her powers towards sorting it out. After she had had some coffee and breakfast she’d focus on the more intricate problem at hand. 

“Mah, what am I meant to do now?”

The darkness in her room was silent and her brain, for all the smartness and cunningness she prided herself with, was void of any ideas. 

It came to her while she was sipping her coffee on the balcony, sunglasses perched on the tip of her nose, protecting her sensitive eyes from the blinding sun. 'There's nothing else I can do but talk to him. We’ll have to come up with something that suits both parties. I’m not staying away just to please the tender sensibilities of my Clan or appease that misconstructed sense of social inequality he was on about.’ That last one made her blood boil. If he had denied her because he didn’t reciprocate, that would have been okay. Painful, but okay. But to stay away from her because he didn’t think himself good enough? She needed to punch something - hard and soon. Ideally, before she met up with him. She was rather attached to his face, as little as she had seen of it, and she’d hate to break it. 

 

***

 

The training ground was secluded, buried away between ancient half-uprooted trees and abandoned training posts. Once upon a time, a Genin squad had attempted something on the premises and by the looks of it, had miserably failed. The telltale marks of combat were faint, a whisper of days long gone. It brought back memories of the endless afternoons Team 6 had slaved away under their sensei’s unwavering gaze, trying their best to fulfil the simplest of tasks. ‘Gosh, how much I miss them!’ Tearful and with the gaping abyss reawakening, Kaya shook her head and tried to steer her mind away. Even so many years later, the sting of their absence was still sharp and cutting to the bone. 

She scanned her surroundings once again. The place was in such a state of disarray that no one would think better of it if she hacked at it a bit more. The leather gloves gave a low creak as her hands balled into fists. The ground shook and the few birds nesting nearby took flight. 

 

Having once slipped into the familiar set of exercises, Kaya’s mind barely registered the new presence. Thankfully, her body, buzzing with chakra, was quicker and her reflexes saved her from having to go to the hairdressers and explain what exactly had befallen her hair. In a single smooth motion, she fetched a senbon out of her pouch, coiled the long scarlet braid and pinned it in place, while spinning on her heel and facing the direction of her opponent.

“Is there ever an instance when you are not late?”

“Hardly.”

A kunai embedded itself into the spot she stood moments ago. Another intercepted the one she threw in mid-air.

“Are you going to grace me with your presence or am I to weasel you out of the bushes once again?”

A coy smirk lit her features at the sound of him clicking his tongue. Stepping out of the shadows and into the open space, Kakashi looked as unperturbed as usual, his hair askew, his mask neatly arranged, his sole grey eye focused on her with deceptive laziness. Her heart leapt. ‘Get a hold of yourself!,’ she chided. A weapon in each hand, battle stance unwavering and her resolve as stable as she could command it to be under the current circumstances, Kaya let her mind take over, pushing her traitorous heart to the back. 

Without a warning, she lunged forward. A smear of red and black. A flash of metal. Clang .

Sidestep. Block. 

Clang . Clang-clang .

Kick (blocked). Uppercut (evaded). 

Clang, clang, clang

The sun winked at them, reflected off the smooth surface of their weapons. Having once infiltrated his innermost circle of defence, Kaya held her ground and doggedly chased him whenever he attempted to put some distance. His words from the night before still rung in her mind - ‘you distract me, tempt me’. She was about to put that to the test. 

When he took notice of the gap in her defences and went for it, Kaya made no move to block, but merely turned sideways. The kunai ripped straight through her tank top and fishnet bodice, slicing them open. White bandages peaked from between the gaping flaps, throwing the man off-balance for a second. Kaya’s foot collided with his midsection, sending him flying across the training ground. The small smug smirk that tugged at her lips was hard to suppress.  

The ripping of fabric filled the silence. When the Jōnin got back on his feet, an exasperated frown on his for falling for such a trick, he was momentarily startled by the brightness of the bandages covering the female’s upper body. Black ink peeked from underneath, scaling the right side of her ribcage. He had taken notice of the tattoo on her left forearm, as well as the one snaking down her spine and interlacing with the scars on her back but apparently there were more. Kakashi’s blood grew a notch thicker.

If his shameless gaze was anything to go by, Kaya knew her plan had worked. A cruel part of her relished the idea of making the man suffer, fighting against his own ideas of right and wrong, of desire and propriety. There was a barely masked heat in that flint grey eye, scolding her exposed chest, marking her tattoos, her scars, her curves. 

“Wheezing out already?” 

He didn’t reply. Instead, he formed a series of quick blurry hand signs. The river nearby came crashing in, a dragon’s head charging at full speed. Crystals erupted from the ground, splitting it in half. Most of the water soaked into the cracked earth, but some puddles remained. Kaya made a note of them - with Kakashi’s strong Lightning affinity, one could only imagine the attack he could launch through a puddle.  

“We’re finally getting somewhere.”

They lunged at each other once again. Water and crystals collided. The ground split and reshaped, forming walls, prisons, arms ready to grasp. The wind hollered and trashed, but Kaya didn’t allow Kakashi to master it. He had control over all five Affinities, while she could use only two, and one secondary. But, unlike him, she also knew how to manipulate two at the same time. He quickly became aware of that when, with hand made of ice gripping his calf, crystals erupted all around him, sharp points gleaming in the afternoon sun.   

In a manner of good faith, she left some space between them and his skin; an idea he didn’t seem to reciprocate when his Chidori shattered through the quarts and sent shards flying everywhere.

She stood staring, mouth slightly agape, eyes wide. Then she ducked and rolled as another water creatures lunged at her. The static electricity sizzling in the air sent pinpricks dancing down her left arm; a phantom pain nipped at the flesh. Blood rushed to her head, making her ears ring. He had broken her crystals. No one had ever broken them since-

Dead. All of them. The fox’s burn marred Kiru’s pretty face. Aoi’s lifeless eyes stared at Kaya accusatory. Broken shards of crystal littered the ground, glistening in the pools of blood protruding from the bodies of foreign ninjas that had ambushed and attacked them. The crystal dagger glinting from her teammate's stomach. Her eyes had looked so pretty… black, like onyx… pleading … afraid … lost …. GONE … 

With a sharp intake, Kaya veered forward, palms pressing against her shaking knees. Her throat slammed shut, lungs burning. Panic-stricken, her hold over the Kekkei Genkai wavered. It was a momentary lapse hidden behind a cluster of crystals that protected her from his last attack. One she has no recollection of. 

“Kakashi!” His name was a whispered prayer brimming with fear; if in her daze she hurt him-

In a heartbeat he stood before her, a hand gripping her shoulder, steadying her. 

“I’m here.” Husky and stained, his voice barely betrayed pain. 

One of her crystals had found its mark. Kaya noticed the rip in his vest and the dark patch blooming across his black top. 

“No,” choked, the word was drowned in the shuffle of clothes being hastily taken off.

Before Kakashi knew it, his vest was gone and Kaya’s hands were glowing in soft green - her chakra lapped at the gash, willing the skin to stitch itself back together. The severe furrow of her brows, a sign of concentration, was made even more worrying by the silent tears streaming down her face. He had observed the exact moment her mind had gotten snagged on the jagged ends of some ill-triggered memory and was brought under. By then it had been too late, his next attack halfway across the field. While Kaya hadn’t physically responded, the crystals had - parring the water missile and then swiftly disarming him. He had evaded the worst of it, but even with his Sharingan (for otherwise he’d have been impaled sooner) he didn’t manage to sidestep the jade that formed from thin air and bit into him with vengeance. The only thing that saved his life was the kunoichi coming back to her senses and yanking her Kekkei Genkai back.

With the wound closed and there being no sign of him dying anytime soon, Kaya made a move to retreat. The hand holding her upper arm tightened its grip. 

“Let me go,” her voice was small, tired.

The medic’s mental examination years ago had turned out to be spot on - she was unstable, on occasion. ‘Those occasions have been growing more frequent recently.’ She gritted her teeth.

“It wasn’t your fault.”

“Kakashi...” 

Kaya never knew such a level of fatigue, not physical but mental, as she did in that very moment. The image of a hot bath and a bed in a dark room were alluring. She wanted, needed, to hide. 

“Look at me.”

When she didn’t immediately comply, he stepped into her personal space and grasped her chin gently, tilting her face upwards. She gasped. The Hitai-ate had been moved, exposing his left eye. The familiar ruby gleam of the Sharingan stared down at her. 

“It was an accident.”

Through the foggy gauze wrapped around her sense, his words barely made sense. Her whole being was transfixed by that eye. And then, as if to further confirm her instability, Kaya laughed and shook her head.

“You have two different eyes too!”

Kakashi sighed. Naturally, she’d focus on that .

 

***

 

On Kaya’s insistence that she was fine and that all was under control, and that no, she’d rather not go home and rest, they continued training. By an unspoken agreement, they stuck to taijutsu. The Jōnin found himself balancing a tricky point between pride, for she had improved under his tutelage, dread, for her improvement meant that if he spaced out he’d end up in the hospital, and unchecked desire, for there were only slightly dirty bandages covering her chest and her skin glistened invitingly under the golden hues of the setting sun. Every time he caught a glimpse of ink, his blood pressure rose a notch.

That, and she made a note to keep close, brushing against him at every opportunity. The proximity was probably a way to get under his skin, and to his greatest annoyance, Kakashi had to admit it was working. The only thing keeping the tightness in his loins in-check was the deadly accuracy of the kunoichi’s punches and the whistling of her kunai. All it would take was a second of absent-minded lust and he’d-

Her hand closed around his wrist like a manacle and with a swift turn (pressing her back against his front) Kaya leaned forward (pressing her bum against his front even more) and chucked him over her shoulder. Kakashi welcomed the pain - it took some of his desire’s acute edge off and redirected it to his throbbing areas. 

“Getting sidetracked?”

Back on his feet within a moment, he slipped into the shadows. 

“Not this again. You sure enjoy me chasing you around, sensei .”

Always jesting, teasing, that insufferable woman. Trying to drive him out of his mind. Worse of all, it was effective. Images of him pinning her against a tree and ripping those bandages off flooded his mind. A groan rumbled within his chest. ‘I’m a bit old to be acting like a pubescent.’ And yet there he was, hidden in the thickest shadows, observing her like a bird of prey. Blood singing in his veins, heart pounding, brain conjuring salacious images. And his loins, well, better not venture that far south. It was safe to say the trousers were no longer comfortable.

“If you wanna play hide and seek, so be it,” her smirk sent shivers exploring the expanse of his back, sharpening his senses.

The gleam in her colourful eyes was mirthful and Kakashi was vaguely certain that if she had a tail, it would be swaying behind her sensually. In his mind’s eye, she was a vixen. 

Darkness was gradually enveloping the forest with the approaching of dusk, opening new hiding places. Pulling her discarded tank top over her head, Kaya hid the bandages as best as she could - they’d be a giveaway even with their now rather grey appearance. A wave of chakra washed over the ground, climbing up the trees, slipping between the leaves, scanning, searching. To her left, ten or so meters away. With a coy smile, she slipped into the shadows and gave chase. 

The game lasted until the moon rose high into the inky sky, bathing the ground in a soft white luminescence. In the end, Kaya had managed to catch Kakashi, pinning him to a tree, adding another rip to his black turtleneck top. (She vaguely wondered whether his mask was attached to it or if they just seamlessly merged together.) The look he had given her had no pretence of boredom; it had set her skin ablaze and stole her breath. He had removed the kunai with a soft growl and Kaya had immediately fled. There was no place to run to really - even with her chakra signature hidden, she knew he could sense her, so she simply ran and tried to evade him, paying little attention to direction.

Hence why she ended up in a familiar clearing, the tall grass tickling her ankles and the jostling of the rapids filling the air with cool moisture. Winded and grinning, she spun around and faced Kakashi. He strode out of the shadows as if he belonged there - his body reforming itself upon entering the ring of light. The grey of his eye gleamed, raising goosebumps across her skin. 

“Giving up?”

There was nowhere left to hide and Kaya was done running. Instead, she took a defensive stance, feet apart, shoulders forward, fists raised, and eyed the male.

“Never.”

The fight was quick; neither of them took it seriously, and soon enough they were rolling in the grass, trying to gain dominance over the other. Kaya succeeded in striding his waist for a whole minute, managing to restrain his hands with hers, but then he rolled his hips and she lost concentration and in a heartbeat, the grass tickled her cheek and his hot breath fanned her face. 

“Do you give up now?”

He was gazing down at her with a look that collected all her blood in the middle and unleashed a flurry of butterflies in her belly; it set her skin crawling and her mouth-watering. 

“Never,” she breathed out, eyes flickering to his lips for a second before locking into his once again.

“So stubborn.” He leaned lower, his face burying into the crook of her neck and nuzzling the tender skin.

Kaya gasped. Her senses took him in - his smell, his presence, his heat, his power, and a part of her yearned to be dominated by him, to submit and leave herself to his mercy. Her heart drummed against her ribs. He followed the arch of her neck and she tipped her head back and trained her eyes on the expanse of glittering stars strewn across the welkin. 

“I’m told that’s my best quality.”

He scoffed. A giggle shook her shoulders. With his weight balanced on his forearms and legs, his hands released her wrists and instead intertwined their fingers together. 

“You’re also troublesome.”

“Oi!” She wriggled under him, wedging a groan in his throat. “I’m not troublesome, I just have a strong unyielding personality. Weak men cannot bend me.”

With a low warning growl, he pressed his body flush against hers - hips against hips, hands snaking around her wrists once again and gripping them. She could feel all the ridges and swells and dips of his body in a way that made her blush and bite her lip. There was quite a lot of firmness to him. 

A shaky breath fanned against his ear and ruffled his hair. The silver gleamed in an almost pearlescent white. The sounds of nature that had permeated the air moments ago reseeded, locking the couple in a bubble filled only with the thud of their hearts, the rasp of their breaths and the song of their desire. Intoxicated and feeling daring, Kaya launched yet another assault. Her hips bucked and her teeth grazed his earlobe. 

Kakashi almost jumped out of his skin before a shudder traced every single vertebra in his spine. His muscles tensed and a desire washed over him anew, setting every nerve ending sizzling. He needed a second to compose himself, to reign in the lust that threatened to slip out of its cage and ravage her then and there, on the grass beneath the glittering stars. Her next attack chipped further at his resolve. Hips rising once again, back arched, she whispered his name into his ear in such a sensual sultry manner that this time he didn’t manage to check the low groan that ripped from his chest. 

“Vixen,” the word slipped between his gritted teeth, burning into her skin like a brand.

“A vixen and a wolf? What an odd pair we make,” nibbling at his ear, she basked in his feral sounds, a sign of his resolve crumbling.

“Must you always tease?” Breathless, Kakashi felt the rational part of his mind growing silent as something else came to the surface.

“Must you always deny me?”

“Kaya.”

There was a warning laced within the vowels of her name that only increased the heat between her legs. One word and he had successfully undone her. She wondered whether he felt her burning need through their clothes (he most definitely did; it scorched through the fabric and straight into his skin). They breathed each other in - the desire equally palpable in the thunderous crackle of his chakra, as well as the low hum of hers.  

“I will not let you deny me again!”

In her mind, she had a whole speech ready to launch ahead like a battleship.

“As you wish.”

Stunned, she didn’t react when in one quick motion he undid his headband and looped it across her eyes, drowning the world in darkness.

“What are you-”

His warm lips kissed her neck, chasing her pulse. Kaya almost forgot how to breathe. Pinning her wrists with one hand, the other slid down her body, exploring. He left a trail across her collarbones, successfully donning the chains of obedience over her head. The world might burst aflame and Kaya would not even flinch. His bare mouth pressed to her throbbing skin was the only thing that existed at that moment. 

He traced the arch of her throat a few times before his teeth made an appearance. When the sharp canines grazed across an artery, a soft moan rippled in her chest and she arched her back, seeking proximity. Somewhere very far back in her mind, a small voice warned that she should not be this attached to a man she barely knew. That she should guard her heart better. But the voice was a faint whisper, submerged beneath an ocean of desire and longing.

He bit and sucked and licked until he had her panting and trashing, drenched in desire so palpable it permeated the air around them and seeped into all his senses. It was driving him insane. If he didn’t pull away soon, he risked throwing all caution to the wind and burying himself into her inviting warmth. He yearned to get lost in her in a way he had not gotten lost in anyone before - like a beacon she drew him closer, pulling away the layers of darkness he was hiding beneath and unsheathing his most feral and possessive instincts.

Kakashi .”

He swore he heard the chains snap and clang to the ground moments before the few feeble pretences of resistance he had been nurturing crashed. He clung for dear life to the last teetering staw.

“This is your last chance, Kaya.” The words burned a trail up her now bruised neck, the hickeys quickly darkening. “Stop me now, or ...”

He didn’t finish, couldn’t. Her smell intoxicated him, dulling the sharpness of his mind, sending him slipping down a precipice from which he didn’t think he could climb out. In response to his words, she hooked her ankles around his legs, holding him still, and lifted her hips once again, grinding against him. The moon’s light illuminated the blush tinting her skin and the small smile curling her lips.

“Ravage me.”

 

Blindfolded, Kaya felt anticipation thicken the blood that coursed through her stream as her erratic heart pumped faster and faster. Her senses, attune to his, picked up on what her eyes couldn’t - the barely restrained desire, the raging war in his mind, and the last shreds of resistance being turned to ash. His growl was ferocious, a deep rumbling thunder contained within his chest that hitched her breath. In a heartbeat, the hand holding her wrist was gone and the cool touch of earth took its place. The weight and warmth of Kakashi’s body shifted and vanished, eliciting a whine.

“Be patient.”

His breath tickled her exposed midriff; he had crawled down her body, heading towards her most sensitive parts. The notion of what they were about to do, out in the open, was scandalous and exciting and Kaya felt the wetness between her thighs increased. A part of her was shy and uncomfortable - she had been training the whole day and hadn't had time for a shower, but somehow it all seemed rather insignificant, so she willed herself to focus on the way he made her feel. 

Her sandals were the first to come off, tossed aside heedlessly. Then skilled fingers undid the pouch and the kunai pocket, moving them out of the way before hooking underneath the band of her leggings and pulling them off. For a brief terrifying moment, Kaya couldn't recollect what underwear she had put on in her haste that morning. She didn’t have much time to worry, however, as whatever it was, it was ripped away. She had felt his hot breath tickle her abdomen moments prior so it wasn’t a stretch of the imagination to conclude that he had used his teeth to get rid of the offensive garment.

“Hey, I’m pretty sure those were a nice pair! Must you rip them?”

“Yes,” the words fanned across her sex.

Instinctively, her legs jerked together, but Kakashi’s grip was unrelenting. He held her wide open for the whole world to see and if her mortification hadn’t been potent enough to silence her, she’d have yelped.

“Don’t,” he growled when her legs gave another jerk, “stay put or I’ll restrain you.”

Saying that when his face was mere inches away from her dripping centre somehow, instead of making Kaya wish for the ground to open and swallow her, excited her. The faint tremor in her legs subsided and she willed herself to stop resisting. To just enjoy. ‘This is literally what you’ve been asking for! Might as well have the decency to-’

“Oh heavens!”

The greedy sweep his tongue had made to part her folds had Kaya arching her back, any pretences for keeping still forgotten. Something heavy enveloped her legs to her mid-calves, probably earth, successfully immobilising her. Low pants mixed with feral growls, ringing in the empty clearing like a primordial song, as Kakashi’s tongue explored her most intimate parts in a way that stole the air out of her lungs over and over again. Moaning and gasping, head tossed back and knees shaking from the sheer force of the emotion, Kays felt the pleasure gradually build at the base of her spine. Like a puddle growing with each drop. And boy, was she dripping !

There was something exceptionally intimate in having a man’s face buried between her legs; feeling his breath fan against her exposed flesh, his tongue lap at the proof of her desire, his fingers leaving marks into the soft flesh of her thighs as he gripped her, not so much to restrain her, but to ground himself. Trembling and no longer caring if someone on patrol walked past, Kaya’s breath hitched yet once again when said tongue entered her without warning, turning and twisting. The low guttural growl made the air shudder as her body convulsed, pelvis rising, seeking to fill any little crevice of space between them. Under different circumstances, such shameless depiction of desire would have made even her blush and look away, but Kaya was too caught up in the moment, climbing up the steep ladder of pleasure to care about anything but Kakashi’s mouth doing wonders to her cleft.  

He undid her, one lick at a time until she was a knot of tense muscles, a bomb waiting to go off, a figure leaning over an endless abyss of bliss that needed one final push to delve headfirst into it. She was so close, so damn close. Her moans had grown raspy, throaty, low and pleading, testing whatever there was of Kakashi’s resolve - he had decided to pleasure her, to release some of the build-up tension, not fuck her. But Kami-sama help him if she kept on making those sweet sweet sounds, he’d-

“Kakashi!”

Her muscles tightened and he knew she was close. Pushing away the need to plunge into her, bury himself until he felt like he’d get lost within her, he licked and lapped at her juices for the last time before redirecting his attention the sensitive peak of nerves cresting her sex. With a handful of licks and gentle sucks, she came undone beneath him under a symphony of moans that he took great care to commit to memory. 

He licked her clean, giving her time to catch her breath and savouring the taste of her desire - ripe like a peach, with a faint hint of saltiness. He’d drink her dry five times over before he was even remotely close to being sated. The moon reflected off the sheen of sweat that covered her exposed skin, giving her an ethereal gleam. Her hair had come undone from its braid and was now scattered across the ground, reflecting the light in mirthful red winks. The earth shackles crumbled and vanished, allowing her limbs to relax. With his headband slightly askew over her face and the rosy tint to her cheeks cooling down under the night’s soft caress, she resembled a war goddess coming back from a fight. Kakashi licked his lips, savouring the last remains of her pleasure, before pulling his mask back up. His hand travelled up her body, across her neck and came to cup the side of her head. Lying on his side next to her, trying his best to ignore his throbbing erection, he marvelled at how easily she fit against him, how willingly she welcomed his touch. Even spent and nodding off, her body responded, tilting his way, shifting so that she faced him. The Hitai-ate slipped off and fell in the grass between them. Kaya’s lids fluttered open for a second, her awareness returning for long enough to give him a content little smile, before she dozed off, curled against his side. He nuzzled her hair, allowing himself to enjoy the feel of her next to him. 

A small shiver shook her frame eternities later and in an instant, he was up. It took longer than anticipated to put her leggings back on, but once done, he re-adjusted his headband over his injured eye, collected her shoes and pouches, and picked her up. She snuggled into his chest, a wave of warmth washing over him and relaxing his muscles. Even in her sleep, she was capable of affecting him.

“So troublesome.”

 

***

 

The room was enclosed in heavy shadows; faceless protectors keeping the outside world away. Kaya woke up feeling hot, smothered under the duvet and what felt like a heated pillow behind her. Her mind was dizzy and sluggish, taking a couple of seconds to process where she was. The layout of the room, illuminated in the incandescent light peeking from underneath the heavy curtains, was familiar. ‘Home.’ 

A heaviness clung to her midriff, which she’d have ignored as an injury stiffening the muscles, until it twitched, fingers grazing the exposed flesh and jolting her awake. Head snapping to the side, already halfway upright, Kaya bit her lip, staying her elbow. Curled behind her, spooning her into his taller frame, slept Kakashi, blissfully oblivious to the start he just gave her. With the blanket pulled over his face and his hair a mess on the pillow, he looked peaceful. Warmth spilt within Kaya’s body like a balm and she reached out, gently tucking away a lock of stray hair. 

Slipping out of his grasp was no easy task, his hand flexing into the fabric of her T-shirt (he had taken off her training gear and put her into her pj's) and it took a while to gently peel off his fingers without waking him. Tip-toeing around the room and picking up some essentials, she closed the door behind her with a soft click. The hallway was no different from the bedroom, bathed in clustered shadows. A quick glimpse at the clock mounted to the wall informed her that it was nearing six a.m. Inwardly, she scoffed - the only reason she’d be awake at such an abominably early hour on a day off would usually be if someone was dying. 

It took her eyes a whole minute to adjust to the bright lights illuminating the bathroom and for the sting to vanish. Squinting into the mirror, she took stock of the damage - red hair was sticking into every possible direction, a rat’s nest filled with knots and tangles. Sleep marks were bisecting the right side of her face, adding some texture to her smooth skin. Her eyes were a bit bloodshot - nothing a cup of strong coffee couldn’t fix. Her neck, on the other hand, was a battlefield and she was unsure if whoever waged the war survived. A map of hickeys, red, blue and purple formed an imposing necklace. Her mouth went dry. Memories from yesterday resurfaced from their hazy bliss, colouring the kunoichi's face in a soft shade of red that spilt down her neck and reached her decolletage.

A small smirk tugged the corners of her mouth after she eyed her neck for another couple of minutes - if she had needed proof of his infatuation, she had it, bright and clear twisting around her throat. Giddiness sizzled through her bloodstream, stretching the smirk into a self-satisfied grin.   

Clothes piled in a heap on the floor and moments later the cascading of water tapped at the silence, droplets hitting the tiles with a soft pitter-patter. The steam fogged the mirror. A soft hum, a song whose lyrics were long forgotten, added another layer to the wakening morning. The faintest whiffs of jasmine permeated the particles and enveloped the room in a soothing embrace.

Showered and dried, with only an oversized T-shirt to hide her body, Kaya left the bathroom and padded into the kitchen, steps soundless in the sleeping apartment. Opening the curtains, the early morning light shyly entered the room, basking it in soft golden light. Cocking the window open a bit, noise filtered in alongside the cool fresh air. Shops were opening and vendors were setting up their stalls, early risers already on the hunt for the freshest fruit and meat. The distant distorted speech served as background noise as Kaya made herself a cup of coffee and nibbled at a slice of toast absentmindedly while wondering what to prepare for breakfast. ‘I don’t even know whether he has breakfast.’ She eyed her steaming cup. ‘Does he drink coffee, or is he a tea person? Or maybe one of those weirdos who wake up rejuvenated and don’t need an additional boost to power them through the day?’ The idea made her snort - if anything, Kakashi seemed the type that’d need a remarkable number of cups of coffee before he was anywhere near willing to mingle and socialize with the masses. ‘Sweet or savoury?’ Stuck between pancakes and an omelette, she willed her mind to comb through every food-related conversation they had had, in search of any indication of preference. Coming up with nothing, she pulled an old lucky coin from its hiding place in the cutlery drawer and tossed it. ‘Heads for savoury, tails for sweet.’ The coin spun in the air, almost reaching the ceiling, before descending. It clinked against the countertop, making a couple of flips before landing straight on its edge and going for a leisurely roll across. Kaya glared, willing it to tip over. Instead, it stopped upright. With a frustrated groan, she snatched the coin and tossed it back into the drawer before pushing it closed with her hip.

“Unhelpful little imp...”

Muttering under her breath, she turned the hob on and placed a pan on it before rummaging through the fridge for ingredients. Pancakes didn’t necessarily need to be sweet. Shove some ham and cheese in there and voila!, you have a savoury one. 

The menial task allowed her to zone out, her mind exploring various routes - from things she needed to get done to a Clan meeting in the afternoon, before inevitably slipping into the blissful memories from last night. Recapping their interaction on the meadow left a faint blush burning across her skin and a pleasant warmth pooled between her legs. They might have not had the opportunity to talk, but their action had spoken for them. Kaya wondered what exactly it was she needed him to say, to do? Did she want commitment? She felt a bit too old for dating. A fling? No, the yearning wrapped around her like vine demanded more than that. Friends with benefits? That would do, albeit the notion left a taste of dissatisfaction in the back of her mouth. ‘What do I want?’ The answer was right there, at the forefront, but she doggedly ignored it. A relationship would never sustain the strain of their lives - he was an Anbu, coming and going unannounced, with the projectile of his life no longer than that same day, while she was an Heiress that was expected to marry into her station or not marry at all. And while making her family squirm and froth ta the mouth gave her a dark sense of satisfaction she didn't want to put him through all the nastiness that came with Clan drama. There was little they could do to her, but hell would freeze over before they acknowledged him as an equal. They'd make sure his life was hell and Kaya would have no other choice to intervene and possibly severe ties with some people.

 

Her grip on the pan’s handle, a deadly vice moments ago, slackened as another realisation struck. She’d do it, in a heartbeat. She’d cut people out of her life for him. A chill washed over her, goosebumps blooming over her skin. ‘Oh no.’

A presence snapped her out of her thoughts and she whisked around, spatula at the ready. Kakashi lifted his hands in surrender, moving away from the counter he had been leaning against for the past couple of minutes. His hair was dripping over the towel tossed around his shoulders. His bare shoulders.

“Morning,” she croaked, pulling her gaze away from his exposed chest and training it on his eye.

The headband was not fastened to its usual place. Instead, he kept the left eye closed and Kaya explored the long jagged scar splitting it in half, starting from just above his brow and travelling down across his cheek and hiding beneath the mask. 

“You sleep well?”

She turned around, fully aware she had just gawked. The blush took a slightly darker shade.

“Ah.”

The soft padding of feet filled the silence. Busying herself, Kaya flipped a pancake, f etched a cup from the cupboard for then reached for the coffee pot. 

“Coffee? Or tea?” 

A jade-coloured eye peaked at him, eyebrow cocked. He was right behind her.

“Coffee.”

The hot dark liquid sloshed against the sides of the mug.

“Milk?”

“A little bit.”

A jug of milk clanged on the ceramic surface. The black dissipated into a lighter shade of brown.

“Sugar?”

“No.”

His breath tickled the back of her neck, the red locks tossed over her shoulders. A cool finger traced the peeking diamond outline cresting the top of her spine. Kaya almost dropped the mug. 

“Hope you like pancakes.”

She pushed the cup into his hand, wrapping his digits around it and giving him a meaningful look. Distracting her while she was attempting to cook could only end in disaster. Silently, he took two steps back and leaned against the kitchen table. She turned back to the hob. 

“You don’t need to cook for me.”

She snorted, feigning coyness she didn’t feel.

“Don’t feel so special, butterfly. I’m cooking for both of us.” 

The back of her neck prickled and she glared over her shoulder. He was giving her a look that was hard to read. Unamused by the pet-name, to be sure.

“So, yes or no? I still have time to prepare something else.”

A moment of silence. 

“I don’t mind.”

“Sweet or savoury?”

The quizzing seemed to amuse him - he retained answering just to make her glance at him again, savouring the little annoyed furrow of her brows. Dressed in only a baggy T-shirt, with the long blood-red tresses falling in heavy waves, Kaya posed a temptation yet again. Waking up in an empty bed had thrown him off, fear and anxiety washing over his body in quick jets that erased any traces of sleep. It had taken him a moment to sense her moving about in the kitchen and another couple of seconds to collect his heart from the pit it had flung itself into. Dread left a sheen of perspiration clinging to his brow, so he went for a shower before braving facing her. Expecting scowling or ignoring or even being told to leave, Kakashi was not prepared for her blushing, busying herself in the kitchen, preparing breakfast and coffee. It felt … homely. Like her doing something to please him was a given, not a Kami-sent. 

“Savory.”

She nodded in a manner that seemed to confirm her suspicions.
“Heathen,” the whisper was barely audible.

He laughed and she almost dropped the pan. She threw him yet another glare before flipping the pancake and finally spinning around to face him. He eyed her in return, taking in the marks on her neck. A pang of guilt pierced his good mood - he had almost forgotten he had done that and in the bright daylight, shame edged its way into his side. Though the swell of pride and smugness was a bit too grand to leave much space for anything else. She had not healed the bruised skin but was flaunting it around, unperturbed. The steel edge in her eyes dared anyone to challenge her. The bubble of pride expanded another notch. He was dangerously close to puffing out his chest like a peacock.

“Would you stop trying to distract me while I cook? Or would you like your breakfast charred?”

“Mah, mah!” He rose his hands in surrender once again. “I’ve not been doing anything.”

She scoffed and rolled her eyes before moving around the kitchen, muttering underneath her breath.

“Yeah, sure. Just sitting half-naked in my kitchen in all your wet glory. Not distracting at all. Sure.”

He couldn’t help but smirk. A new thread of emotions spun around him, this one darker, thicker, more potent. His eyes followed the confident movement of her legs. Well-shaped and toned, he knew first hand the power lurking beneath that honey-coloured skin. A power that had almost cracked his ribs and had successfully pinned him down last night. He followed the curve of her thigh and focused on the faint outline of her bum. Vaguely he wondered whether she had any underwear on. The lacy thong he had ripped last night had looked promising in regards to her taste in lingerie - unconventional and maybe impractical for a kunoichi, but he was not voicing any complaints. 

“Make yourself useful, Kakashi.” She snapped back into character almost unfalteringly, making him raise an eyebrow. “Fetch from the fridge whatever you want in your pancakes.”

“Mah, but I’m a guest.”

She shot him a look.

“Does this look like a guest-house to you? You need to earn your keep.”

Kaya was only marginally surprised when his hands snaked around her middle, halting her midstep, and pulled her flush against his chest. 

“Earn my keep, eh?” His breath tickled her ear. 

A sigh of pleasure slipped between her parted lips and she leaned back into him, tilting her head so it rested on his shoulder. Unfortunately, she chose his left side. He made a move to move her, but her lips were already sealed against his neck, the tip of her nose pushing up the material of his mask.   

“Mm-hmm.” 

The need to nibble at the smooth porcelain was strong. Her tongue darted out, chasing a stray droplet. He shuddered but did not attempt to stop her. 

“You know,” she trailed kisses as far up as she could reach without overstraining her neck, “you’ve given me such a vibrant necklace,” her tongue made another teasing sweep, “that I think it fair I give you one in return.”

Taken aback, he didn’t manage to grab her in time. Twisting in his arms and coming to face him, Kaya pinned him against the table’s edge. Her cool fingers slid beneath the mask, caressing his throat and pushing the material up while her teeth grazed the exposed flesh. For the briefest moment, he believed she wouldn't dare. When she nibbled gently, his breath hitched. And when she sucked, he almost moaned. In a heartbeat, he flipped them around, hoisting her up on the table, T-shirt riding dangerously high. There was a mirthful flame in her colourful eyes as she regarded him, gaze darting to his exposed neck before locking with his once again. Aware that he wouldn’t miss a thing, her tongue did a sensual sweep over her lips. 

He caged her between his hands and leaned in. She met him halfway, their noses almost touching. 

“What is it, Kakashi?” She breathed out, a smirk tugging at her supple lips. “Am I too much for you to handle?”

“Hardly more than a menace.”

She snorted and leaned back on her hands, regarding him from underneath her eyelashes, a flicker in her eyes that spoke of mischief. 

“I’ve been called worse.”

One leg looped around his thigh while the other went around his waist. The muscles flexed and dragged him closer to her exposed centre. He kept his eye locked to hers, unwilling to fall into her well-crafted trap. He’d not-

In a single swift motion, her legs gave a powerful tug and she shot forward like an arrow, burying her face in the juncture of his neck, teeth sinking into the soft flesh. A low growl erupted from within his chest, hands fisting into worn cotton of her T-shirt, into her, gripping, holding, anchoring. The feral part of him gave a snarl, eyes blazing. He had never been so blatantly challenged, so foolishly staked a claim to. A shiver traversed the expanse of his back and his eyes closed. The drum of his heart pulsated against her lips. She placed butterfly kisses up and down the spot until it finally stopped throbbing with such intensity. A red mark stood out against the porcelain stretch of his neck. He felt it pulsate with a life of its own, demanding attention.

“You bit me,” the husky growl sounded foreign.

“A bite for a bite.”

She moved away, brandishing her neck before him, showing the multitude of marks he had left behind.

“Consider yourself lucky that I’m satisfied with giving you only one.”

Green and brown clashed with grey. Eventually, he nodded, accepting the punishment and stepping away. The leg hooked around his thigh tightened its hold. A grey eyebrow rose in question. To answer, she leaned forward and pressed a chaste kiss over his lips, the soft material of the mask tickling her. She felt his lips move, part, but before anything more could happen, she pulled away and extracted herself from his hold with admirable speed. 

Only once there was a distance between them did he finally smell the burning. The pancake had been left unattended for too long. Its side was charred and crumbly, black flakes coming off. Without wasting a second, Kaya deposited it in the bin and returned to her station. 

“Breakfast will be ready in a few minutes.”

He lay the table, fetching ham and cheese as well as a jar of spreadable chocolate from the fridge. It was half-empty. A low throaty chuckle made her steal a glance his way.

“Don’t judge.”

With a shake of his head, he moved around her, refilling their cups with coffee and putting them on the table. The plate of steaming pancakes stood proudly in the middle.

“That’s a lot of pancakes.”

There were over twenty. The tower was tipped slightly to the side.

“I’m a hungry lass.”

And without any further premonition, she pulled the topmost pancake into her plate. Kakashi fought to keep his amusement at bay. 

 

An hour later they were lounging on her balcony, feet propped on the railing, basking in the morning sun. There were still at least two solid hours before it became unbearable. The warmth permeated through Kaya’s skin, shifting the layers of dread that had nested themselves within her ever since breakfast. She knew they needed to discuss whatever was between them and where the borders lay, and if there were any. On her part, she feared there were none. She also feared that yearning that had taken residence in the closed quarters of her heart. Still unsure of what was it that she was so desperate for exactly, the prospect of finding out that Kakashi had certain boundaries he was unwilling to cross was daunting. So she stayed quiet, sipping her third cup of coffee, and stewing in anticipation. 

Closing her eyes and tipping her chair back, face lifted towards the cloudless blue sky, Kaya didn’t see the way Kakashi’s eye took her in, drinking in her beauty and the lines of distress etched in her features. Sharp jawline set, lips pressed together, a furrow between her eyebrows. 

“Tell me, Kakashi,” he cocked his head to the side, “what do we do now?”

The chair’s legs clanged against the tiles. She swivelled around, facing him; there was insecurity in her gaze, but also a shadow of her iron will. 

“Your Clan-”

“They do not matter. I’m asking what you plan on doing about us. If there is an ‘us’.”

She looked away. The light dimmed and her shoulders hunched forward. Refolding her limbs, she ended up with her chin propped on her knee, her foot firmly placed on the chair while the other one was dangling underneath her. In a matter of moments, she had made herself as small as physically possible. Bracing herself. 

“I don’t think there’s much to be done, to be honest.”

A muscle in her jaw ticked. 

“So we pretend nothing happened?”

“That’s not what I said.”

Her eyes refocused on him. Waiting. 

“Then what are you saying?” The defeated whisper provoked an immediate response.

He was before her in an instant, kneeling at her side, his face inches away from hers. To her credit, Kaya didn’t flinch but her breath hitched and her eyebrows arched. 

“That we take it a step at a time and see where it leads us.”

She pondered the words. There was no promise in them, but neither was there a restriction. At best, it was an uncertain hint of some kind of a future where they could have more than stolen moments in the shadows of the trees or huddled in her apartment. ‘It’ll have to do for now.’ The sharpness melted away and her features rearranged into a small smile. Tipping her head forward, she rested her forehead against his. 

“It’s not a lot-”

“But it will do. For now.” 

She moved away, unfolding from the chair. A hand raised to her throat. If there was to be nothing official between them, she could not walk around with a necklace of hickeys and no explanation. With a regretful look, her hand lit up in a soft minty green and one by one the marks faded away until the slender expanse of her neck was once again untarnished. She made a move to heal his, but he caught her wrist.

“I’ve grown rather fond of it.”

She rose an eyebrow. Hidden behind the mask, no one would even know the mark was there. 

“And it’s also proof of how volatile you can get.”

She bristled before lunging. He slipped away, his movements barely visible.

“Come back here, you little-”

But he had already vanished within the safety of the apartment, leaving her blushing and fuming. ‘Mah, that man!’ 

 

Chapter Text

The idea to ask Kakashi out had been a very poorly planned one. Summer was upon them, the days growing longer and the evenings - warmer. Their tumultuous relationship, if it could even be called that, had been steadily evolving under the nourishing care of their desire and fondness for the other. For the most part, they had somehow managed to refrain from indulging into any compromising acts, apart from a few stolen kisses in the dark and hands brushing against each other. Still, there was a good assortment of memories to flicker through in the long hours in between meetings: of bodies pressed together, of greedy hands eager to explore and skilled fingers traversing ridges of scar tissue, black ink, dips and supple mounts. Sounds of passion, need and lust to listen through.

Kakashi took to spending at least one night every week in her bed - they didn’t go any further than their initial passionate elopement but took solace in each other's presence. Curled beside him like a cat, a hand tossed over his chest possessively and face nuzzled into his neck, Kaya often half-climbed on top of him during the night. Her weight was reassuring, helping him feel grounded, safe, and soon Kakashi realised he slept better when she was there.

It was after one of their gruelling sessions that she gathered the courage to ask. The idea had been spinning in her mind for a while, her sisters’ goading making it so much worse. They were eager to meet the man that had kept their free-spirited Onii-chan firmly planted in Konoha for months now, plastering a goofy smile on her face whenever a note was delivered by one of his ninken. Kaya feared they also harboured the misconception that whoever was ‘courting’ her was from the Inuzuka clan, courtesy to Pakkun’s face appearing in the compound more than a couple of times. No one had noticed the crest on his vest that was most definitely not the Inuzuka one, but she preferred to keep everyone none the wiser. 

“Anything interesting planned next week?”

He took a bite from his rice cake, face hidden behind his book. Sprawled on her back, Kaya explored the blue patch of sky peeking from between the leaves of the tree. For once she was grateful he wore a mask - sometimes she struggled to form coherent sentences when confronted with his gaze.

“Not that I can think of.”

“I was wondering...”

“A dangerous pastime.” 

She ignored the remark.

“Do you wanna go to the Summer festival with me? Sumo-san and the kids will be there, and I managed to get Tenzo and Guy to tag along. It would be nice to have you there as well.”

She felt him lazily studying her features but refused to meet his gaze. 

“What day was it again?”

“Friday.”

The silence stretched and Kaya struggled to keep her carefree mood from splintering. She didn’t mention that the festival coincided with her birthday.

“Mah, I don’t know. There’ll be lots of people.”

She eyed him, the frustrated twitch of her eyebrow not staying unnoticed.

“You are dead-set on remaining a social outcast, aren’t you?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“But we are all friends. And I promise to keep all your crazy fangirls away.”

Her laugh at his affronted snort lightened the mood. It hadn’t taken her long to encounter the amassed group of love-stuck women swooning after the silver-haired shinobi. His discomfort was plain (and quite funny) and he did his best to evade any possible collisions with them, yet they always somehow managed to sniff him out. A couple of times they had spotted Kaya by his side and had given her the evil eye, to which she had responded with her sharpest smile. Needless to say, they had fled. Kakashi took to walking with her around Konoha more often, seeing how her mere presence sent people shuffling out of their way. 

Deciding to change tactics, she rose up and went to stand behind the Jōnin. Kneeling, she wrapped her hands around his neck, nestling his head against her chest as she leaned down and crooned:

“Oh, sensei, I implore you. Grace your faithful friends with your presence for just a couple of hours. I give you my oath to dispatch any arrogant female that dares glance at you for too long.”

The man’s lazy slouch stiffened as her hands sprawled over his chest. She could make out the erratic drumming of his heart underneath the vest. His hair smelled nice, minty, and Kaya couldn’t help but lean forward, burying her nose in the silvery locks. If possible, Kakashi stiffened further. With the corner of her eye, she could see the redness tinting his face. ‘He’s so easily flustered.’ Giddiness pooled within her.

“M-mah, Kaya...”

“Say yes.” A notch of plea rung in her voice. “Socialising every once in a while would do you good. And festivals are meant to be fun for everyone. I’m sure at least one aspect of it would appeal to you?”

“There’s one,” his mumble made her heart leap; she’d grasp at anything at this point.

“See? Which one?”

“Getting home afterwards.”

Well, that sealed it. Removing herself with a low defeated sigh, the kunoichi plopped back in her previous spot, eyes trained on the sky. It took her a moment to reign in the bubbling emotions. Her smile was almost genuine when she looked at him.

“It was worth a try.”

 

***

 

Kakashi met Tenzo on his way out of the Anbu Headquarters. He had been assigned a mission (more like he requested one), which gave him a good excuse to miss the Summer Festival. He had almost caved in when Kaya had all but thrown herself at him, her teasing sultry voice stirring the long-repressed desire within him. The woman had no sense of self-preservation, taunting him like that. She had no idea how much she affected him even when sitting cross-legged on the ground, let alone wrapped around him like a vine, her sweet smell clouding his senses and making his body tighten. It wouldn’t do, him developing any lasting feelings towards her, not unless he was willing to make certain proposals that would alter both their lives. Her Clan would demand nothing less. On the other hand, he was fairly certain Kaya would rather fling herself off the Hokage Rock's edge than be tied down. The knowledge always gave him the painful pang he needed to slip back into reality. Friendship with some occasional stolen moments of passion was the safest option for both parties for as long as they could stretch it. With summer upon them, he knew her Clan would stay true to their promise and probably find a way to marry her off before the turn of the year. Then she’d be forever out of his reach, and he’ll return to the established routine of remaining at the fringes of society. He refused to acknowledge all the emotions that leapt forward whenever his mind wandered that way. They’ll probably need to have Guy restrain him from getting his hands on the poor fellow that ended up as her husband. He shook his head, chasing away the images. It wasn’t healthy to start the day with murder on his mind.

“Don’t tell me you are going on a mission?”

Kakashi slowed down, allowing Tenzo to fall in step. 

“You did it so you wouldn't have to attend the festival, didn’t you?” The accusation made the silver-haired Anbu shrug. “I’m going to assume Kaya-san is unaware.”

The silence stretched for a moment more. 

“And what if I’d rather be on a mission than stuck in a melee of people jostling about?”

The other man eyed him incredulously for a moment before his eyes widened.

“Oh, she didn’t tell you?”

“Tell me what?”

They stopped walking. A passing pair bowed their heads in acknowledgement. The men waited until the receding sound of footsteps vanished completely. 

“It’s Kaya-san’s birthday today.”

The blood circulating through Kakashi’s veins froze.

“She’ll be stuck in the Samosa compound the whole day, receiving relatives and so on, but she wanted us all to spend the evening together and celebrate.”

Tenzo’s eyes were sharp.

“And Kaya-san, being the good soul she is, didn’t tell you so that you won’t feel obliged to be there. She wanted you to come along on your own vocation. I tried to reason with her, but alas...”

They walked on. Once outside, Tenzo patted his friend’s shoulder almost compassionately. Kakashi had to fight the urge to shrug him off. The news that it was Kaya’s birthday had initially shocked him, leaving a sense of inadequate guilt behind. Now? Now he was mildly annoyed and felt like doing something unquestionably stupid. Like sneaking into the Samosa compound and luring Kaya away, to a dark side-room and …

He shook his head. He would do nothing of the sort. If Kaya had made the choice not to tell him, then it was not his fault he missed her birthday. Within the same heartbeat of that thought taking root, his mind veered off and began calculating how long it’d take him to complete the mission and be back, and whether he’d have time to change or would have to improvise. 

“Well, good luck on the mission. I’ll tell Kaya-san you send her your regards.”

“You’ll do no such thing.”

With that the silver-haired man vanished in a cloud of smoke, his annoyance not having slipped his friend’s eye. Anyone who was relatively close to the duo knew there was something between them. They riveted each other in a way that was both complementary and clashing, setting the other off with the same ease they soothed. It was a bit tragic, Tenzo had to admit, for two brilliant people to force themselves into such ignorant oblivion out of a misplaced sense of propriety.  

 

***

 

The cherry blossom trees in the gardens had already undergone their transformation, leaving no trace of the soft petal pink of their early bloom. At least the shade's thicker, Kaya mused as she slowly walked underneath the canopy. The courtyard was bustling with people, all dressed in their finest, gathered to celebrate the Heiress’ birthday and wish her joy and prosperity. Kaya had been trapped into an endless loop of smiling and nodding and thanking, and more nodding and some extra smiling, for hours. The trickle of people seemed endless. It was almost noon by the time she managed to slip away from the throng and stretch her legs into the quieter parts of the back garden. The new kimono she was wearing was exquisitely gorgeous and tremendously expensive, so she took great care not to get it snagged on anything. Sticking to the marked pathway, she kept her head high and her spine straight. There was always a chance her mother would spring upon here like a wild cat, scolding that she was slouching again, or that her head was tipped forward in an ungainly, unwomanly , manner. It would probably be the dozenth time today she’d hear it, anyway. 

Sumo-san and the kids had stopped by briefly in the morning immediately after they had arrived and their familiar faces had given her the strength to push through the family ordeal. The promise of meeting them later was the silver lining of the day. That, and seeing Kakashi, potentially. Maybe. ‘I really should not hold any high hopes. Knowing him, he’d show up for the fireworks.’ She’d be glad to see him nonetheless. They hadn't had the chance to meet after the afternoon last week, and she missed him terribly. 

The jolly chirp of swallows halted her steps. If she ignored the bustle of noises coming from the other end of the compound, she could imagine herself a maiden in a story - dressed the part of the princess, with the heavy fabric hugging her body, the intricate twists in her hair, the chandelier pins holding the curls and swoops in place. A damsel wandering through a heavenly garden, waiting for her chosen one to show up so they could steal a couple of precious moments together underneath the Sakura tree. It was a childish fantasy, all of it, but Kaya could not help herself - some wishful thinking rarely hurt anyone. As she made a move to turn around and return to her guests, the insistent hum of familiar chakra signature washed over her. Startled, she barely managed to stop herself from twisting her ankle. The shoes were ridiculously high today. The thunderous sizzle came from within the building, she realised. Baffled (and intrigued) Kaya followed it. Grabbing her sandals in one hand, she slipped inside the deserted back of the house. It didn’t take long to locate where he was hiding, and after making sure there was no one around, she slipped into the room, closing the door soundlessly behind her and locking it. If anyone walked in and found the two of them together … The thought elicited an involuntary shudder. 

The room was drowned in darkness and Kaya’s sun-sensitive eyes took a while to adjust to the drastic change. A candle flickered to life, casting the furniture in faint golden light. The man sitting on the bed (it was a rarely used guestroom) was in full Anbu gear. Kaya’s initial delight at seeing him shattered and her heart plummeted. Her face, from a cheerful beaming smile, slipped into a sad, resigned disappointment before in a heartbeat it resumed the mask of politeness. Kakashi took off his Anbu mask. He was mildly impressed by how good she was at juggling her facial expressions.

“Kakashi. To what do I owe the pleasure?”

He took in her appearance. Dressed in her regalia, she was stunning. Breathtakingly gorgeous. Sinfully alluring. Kakashi already regretted being there.

“I hear you have an occasion for celebration.” 

“Mah,” she waved a hand dismissively, “nothing too grand. It happens every year.”

The hem of her kimono dragged over the floor with a sensual rustling. Instead of joining him on the bed, she propped herself against the armchair’s armrest, making sure not to disturb the gentle folds of her attire. 

He regarded her silently, not making a show of hiding his emotions - he was still annoyed. He was also lusting. Wrapped like a birthday present, she begged to be unravelled.

“I see you’re about to go off on a mission?” Her sharp smile made him bristle. “Let me guess, that was your attempt at not participating in the celebrations tonight?”

“I wasn’t made aware there was an occasion for celebration.”

“That’s not true - you knew it was the Summer festival.”

He tilted his head, eye narrowed. His hair, usually bound in place by the Hitai-ate, was now falling across his face, hiding his injured eye. Chastened, Kaya looked away, focusing on the soft flicker of the candle.

“Would it have made a difference if I had told you?”

“Yes.”

“You’d have come because you didn’t want to offend me, not because you wanted to be there.” Her features sharpened, her eyes once again zeroed on him. “I’d rather you be there and enjoy yourself than be dragged along.”

“It wouldn’t have been like that,” the words were barely whispered, swiftly swallowed by the shadows. 

The silence sat heavy between them. It was the kunoichi that eventually caved in and sauntered closer, her kimono rustling after her like autumnal leaves. The sound was soothing. She took a seat next to him.

“I’m sorry. And I’m sad you won’t be there tonight. We’d have loved to have you there.”

“We?”

I would have loved to have you there. There, happy?”

Her smile was genuine as she bumped her shoulder against his. It was like hitting a brick wall; she bounced off while he stayed immobile.

“Uff! You’re so hard!”

The blush that crept up her neck and across her cheeks was not subtle, and it only grew fiercer when Kakashi looked at her, the flint-grey of his eye darkening. He arched an eyebrow, making the kunoichi’s heart wedge in her throat.

“That did not come out the way I thought!”

“I wonder what was on your mind then?”

Aghast, she smacked him playfully.

“I meant that ...” 

With the words ‘solid’ and ‘hard’ and ‘impressive’ at the tip of her tongue, Kaya was at a loss. There was no way to make it less inappropriate and he knew it, a mischievous twinkle lighting up his eye. ‘Two can play at this.’

Leaning towards him and taking him off guard, Kaya placed her hand on his thigh, letting her manicured nails dig into the stiff muscle for a second before dragging her hand down towards his knee and back up. Her face offered the best interpretation of a sultry temptress - hooded eyelids, parted lips, even the telltale twinkle in the eyes. She had been trained to seduce men more impartial that the one sitting before her. If they had caved under the pull of her allure, so would he. 

Kakashi found himself stuck between wanting to bolt out of the door and grasping the woman around the waist and dragging her into his lap. The initial impulse was quickly being overpowered by the tug of her lustrous presence. 

“Oh, Kakashi-san , surely you don’t need me to tell you how a woman marvels at a man’s solid, firm, hard body.”

He almost choked on the tiny breath of air that somehow managed to slip between his sealed lips. As her hand climbed up to his chest, the honey-coloured flesh in stark contrast against his black uniform, all the blood that had pumped in his head moments ago redirected lower, way lower. Her voice dropped another octave.

“We just cannot help ourselves - anything remotely firm makes us all gushy and ...” she looked at him from underneath her eyelashes, the mirthful twinkle in her eyes rising the pressure in his loins, “... needy.”

“Needy?” He praised himself for not squeaking out like a chastened virgin.

“Mm-hmm.” 

Her hand glided over his chest before sliding across his shoulder and wrapping around his biceps. The long slender fingers grasped slightly and by some unfathomable male impulse, he flexed the muscles. 

“We need to touch and feel. To explore.”

She was exploring alright. If Kakashi didn’t come up with a way to stop her, he’d not be able to control himself. To his amazement, she was a step ahead. With a swift gliding motion, she sat in his lap, legs stretched sideways across the bed. Instinctively his hands wrapped around her middle. 

Kaya cupped his face, leaning forward, allowing her sweet scent to envelop him in a blanket of jasmine. The aroma did something to him. It snuck right underneath the walls of his self-control and battle-rammed into his resolve. He clung for dear life to the last shred of restraint he had.

“Don’t.”

His voice was low and husky, more of a growl than human speech.

“Don’t what?”

Her breath tickled his ear as she gently rubbed her cheek against his.

“Don’t tease.”

Kaya could hear the strain in the words, the warning. He was at his limit. If she pushed, he’d cave. Absentmindedly she wondered what would happen when his aloof side finally crumbled and gave way to the wild thing lurking in the shadows she had only caught fleeting glimpses of? The memories from their night in the clearing resurfaced. He had had some self-control then. Warmth pooled in the pits of her stomach, making her breasts tender under the layers of silk. Her body beckoned her to continue. To give him the final push and finally cross the border they had been tentatively dancing around for weeks. 

Her lips skimmed against his fabric-clad cheek. He shuddered, hands fisting in her kimono.

“But it’s in my nature, Kakashi-san. I tempt,” another kiss on the cheek, “tease,” her lips were at the corner of his mouth, “bewitch my victims. I seduce.”

Her lips pressed against his, and even with his mask between them, the sensation sent shivers down her back and an involuntary moan rumbled in the back of her throat. It was a chaste peck, a teasing little thing that was meant to make him yearn for more. When she moved away and looked into his eye, she saw the grey had melted into a darker, deeper shade, almost black.

With a low growl, he made a quick job of ridding her of the heftiest layers of clothing before flipping her around and moving them. With his back pressed against the headboard and Kaya nestled between his legs, the kunoichi didn’t manage to suppress the startled gasp that escaped her.

“Heavens, you are awful.” His voice in her ear was dripping with desire. “Always tempting, always teasing.”

She vaguely made out the sound of his gloves coming off. His fingers undid all the knots and twists holding her glamorous armour together, shedding the layers.

“And what of it?” Defiant even when her body was aching with need, she cast him a glance. 

“I need to teach you to be more mindful of this pass-time of yours...”

The candle’s flame flickered for a second before being extinguished by an invisible hand. 

“... and not to push all my buttons.”

Those were the words that would forever replay in Kaya’s mind - the husky warning lingering within the barely concealed arousal, the nerve-throbbing need. Another shudder skimmed down her spine and her back arched.

The heat from his body washed over her, enveloping her into a soothing embrace. The ache between her legs grew, a dull throb, an emptiness wishing to be filled. His hand snaked around her midriff, hoisting her higher, head tipping back over his shoulders, cheek pressed against the smoothness of his mask. His hands were greedy explorers, marking the map of her skin with calloused fingers and foundling her supple breasts. Kaya’s body sung in anticipation. He was going to unravel her; peel her layers off like a present.

A purr rippled through her as his deft fingers slid down her stomach and into her underwear. His coolness felt exquisite against the moist swell of her heat, the sensation making her shudder. His grip around her middle tightened, keeping her still. His calm breathing tickled her face as he stroked her, eliciting a moan. A shocked gasp came in quick succession as one of his slender fingers stroked her folds before slipping in.  

Another finger joined the first, making Kaya arch, her body’s need to move proving unquenchable. The soft teasing thrusts of his fingers ceased, and his other hand slipped from her breast. A whimper rose within her, dragging angry frustration after it. The rustling of material filled the silence and his body moved, leaning forward. His hot breath fanned against her ear, the curve of his lips teasing her earlobe.

“Mah, you just can’t sit still, can you?”

He nibbled gently at the soft flesh. Her shocked exhale stole most of the air out of her lungs - the simple gesture stirred her in a way that made her skin feel tight, itchy, crawling with desire. And finally having his face so close to hers, his lips mere breaths away from hers! 

“If you struggle, I’ll have to tie you down.”

The summoned image made both of them hotter, the slickness between her legs growing.

“Stop being such a tease,” she rasped in-between breaths.

His fingers slipped back into her warmth without any premonition. His thumb stroked her clit and Kaya’s head fell back, bearing her slender neck to Kakashi’s hungry mouth. 

He unravelled her. Slowly. Sensually. Like a well-oiled machine, he utilised every tool in his arsenal, every accumulated scrap of knowledge about how to make the woman in his arms shudder and moan and cave in. Her heat was beckoning him and her soft moans and gasps were a siren’s call. He kissed and nibbled down the stretch of porcelain skin, struggling to refrain from leaving a mark. The need to possess her, claim her and make her his was so strong that it made him feral. She had driven him far beyond any shores of rationality and composure, teased him out of all restraint. Unleashing something dark and primal and letting it roam across her body. She trusted him to handle her with care. Kakashi wondered, in the split second before inserting another finger into her alluring folds, whether he would be able to. The need to ravage her like a caveman, to be rough and greedy, was overwhelming.

“Kakashi!” The sultry raspiness made him growl, teeth gazing her jawline.

Locked between his arms and legs, Kaya was powerless. The pleasure clawed up her spine, making the heat in her stomach simmer and spill across her strained body. The need to be filled was growing unbearable. Ruthlessly, his fingers picked up the pace, his mouth marking her, his other hand playing with her breast, pinching the taut nipple. And all the meanwhile, his low husky voice whispered to her all the things he’d do her. It drove her mad with lust. 

“Kakashi...” the plea was soft, beckoning.

He would not cave. Would not give her what she wanted. Not yet.

“Are you going to beg?” The smirk in his voice probed at her.

“Never!” She bit back, hands fisting into the soft material of his clothes.

A flick of his fingers hitched her breath and the darkness was punctured by sounds of passion. 

With three skilful fingers stretching her and his mouth ravaging her, tension gathered at the bottom of Kaya’s spine. Her toes curled and her pelvis arches, the numb pulsating ache, the emptiness that craved to be filled, the need, it was all becoming too much. Forgetting to be silent, Kaya’s moans and whimpers rose as her body convulsed with the building pleasure. Kakashi’s hand released her breast and snaked across her face, covering her mouth. His low pants fanned across her throat, body stiff with desire.  

He kept the pace steady, ignoring the twitch in his muscles and defying the primal need to swap his fingers for something else and thrust into her until the world around them lost its outlines and they were consumed by passion. Her sounds of pleasure were undoing him slowly but surely, like droplets of water bending the rigid surface of a rock. He struggled to restrain her body’s responsiveness - the arching hips that tried to move with him - but a part of him didn’t want to. Seeing the always composed kunoichi break down to her most basic instincts stroked the desire in his loins.

He could feel the approaching climax; her inner muscles tightening around his frantically, her barely suppressed moans muffled behind his hand. One more thrust and-

The darkness behind her closed eyelids exploded in a palette of colours and her whole body seized, scattering her consciousness in every possible direction. It took her a few seconds to register that Kakashi’s hand was not what was silencing her sounds of pleasure, but his lips. She’d have rejoiced if her body didn't feel so pleasantly boneless and her heart was not trying to leap out of her chest. Instead, she let him kiss her, swallowing her mewling as she came down from her high.

When they finally parted, Kaya struggled to find her voice. She also struggled to normalise her breathing, but that was a different point. She had just been given the best orgasm she had had for a while by a man she was very fond of ... in her family home, with her whole extended relations only a few hallways away. Vaguely, the realisation that her whole outfit and hair were probably ruined and there was no way for her to fix them slithered across the periphery of her mind. To hell with that. The son of the man her clan had denounced as a villain had just done marvellously exquisite things to her! Everything else paled in comparison.

“Oh, Kami-sama...” Not the most original first words ever spoken, but her heart was still hammering in her chest and she could feel Kakashi’s firm body pressed against her, with some parts very prominently firmer than others. “Oh.”

“Kaya.” 

His husky voice ruffled the hair. She was tempted to turn to the side and kiss him again, properly this time, but there was the smallest fear that it would be crossing a line. ‘As if we just didn’t bloody burn all the lines ever established in the history of high society!’

“Kakashi, that was … I ... That was…. ”

A content sigh was the best she could articulate. He chuckled, gathering her closer in his arms. She twisted slightly, tilting her head to the side. She could barely make out the outlines of his face; there wasn’t enough light to see anything. ‘One day.’

“Kiss me.”

“I already did,” his amused reply ruffled her feathers.

“Sorry, I was a bit preoccupied experiencing the best orgasm I’ve ever had in a while so I wasn’t paying much attention. Be a good sensei and repeat it for me, please.”

He snorted but nonetheless leaned forwards, his lips grazing hers tentatively. Now that he didn’t have to silence her, he felt a fleeing apprehension. Kaya was unperturbed; arching her neck, chasing after him, she deepened the kiss. His lips were soft. Kissable. A moan vibrated in her chest. His tongue darted out, exploring, and she granted him access. It was a playful kiss, adventurous, almost a bit too proper in light of what they had just done. Kaya gently bit his lip, tugging at the supple flesh and eliciting a low throaty moan from the male, his hands gripping her a bit firmer. 

Too soon they parted.

“Must you go? Tell Jiji that you’re needed in service of the greater good of a woman starved for physical contact. I’m sure he’ll make an exception.”

“Or I’ll disappear without a trace,” he murmured.

They were already moving away from each other. Kaya heard the familiar sound of his mask being pulled on.  

“I’m sure he’d never do that.” She took a moment to assess. “Actually, no, scratch that. He might torture you a bit, but he won’t kill you.”

He snorted and reignited the candle. Kaya had enough time to readjust her undergarments before his gaze swept over her, dark and strained. She knew she was yet to bring him any satisfaction and that bothered her immensely.

“How bad is it?”

“Like you fell off a cliff and rolled all the way down.”

Her eye roll was almost painful.

“Gee, you know how to make a woman feel beautiful. And here I was, about to vouch for you.”

He was before her in a heartbeat. Her breath hitched. ‘How does he move so damn fast?’ 

“You look ravaging. The second I laid eyes on you I knew I’d never seen anyone more ethereal.”

The words startled her. It was by no means poetry, yet from the always aloof shinobi, who was never one for compliments, it might as well have been. Heat rose to her cheeks, scalding them.

“I feel ravaged.”

He didn’t say anything, but the way he regarded her spoke volumes. Silently, they went about restoring her to her previous appearance. Kaya was surprised to find Kakashi’s deft fingers could do as good a job at wrapping her as they had done unwrapping. Her hair was unfortunately beyond salvation and neither of them had any idea how to fix it, so Kaya pulled all the pins out and let the long red locks stream down her back. The pressure in her scalp immediately eased. 

Kakashi ran his fingers through the curls, parting them. Stealing a glimpse at his reflection in the mirror, Kaya saw him looking genuinely fascinated.

“Mesmerised by my hair?” Her sly grin made him raise an eyebrow.

“It’s so soft.”

Mumbled underneath his breath, the words almost slipped past her. In the distance, voices travelled down the corridor. She bolted for her sandals, shoving all the pins up her sleeve, and faced Kakashi. He was already by the window, about to vanish. In a rush of exhilaration and madness, she made a dash for him. Looping her hands around his neck, she placed a peck on his lips before releasing him.

“Be safe.”

Not waiting for a reply, she left the room in a cloud of smoke.

Chapter Text

Kaya’s room depicted the characteristic aftermath of violent preparations - clothes scattered across every possible and not so possible surface (there was a pair of tights dangling from the ceiling fan and a tank top hanging for dear life from one of the blades) - bottles filled with scented water and oils rolled around, make-up was stacked in a dangerously tilted tower, and lengths upon lengths of silk draped like some eccentric decoration, tracing the width of the room. It was the battlefield no man was allowed to be made privy of.  

Gingerly making her way around the piles of discarded kimonos, towels, shoes and hair accessories, she opened the door a crack and peeked outside. One of the servants was just passing by and happened to glance her way. To poor girl almost fainted at the sight of the Heiress poking her head out of a lightless room, an askew smile on her face and her hair a mess. 

“Go and fetch my sisters. Tell them I need them. And also,” the girl made a move to leave, but halted, “whatever you do, do not speak a word to my mother. If she asks, I’m resting.”

Twenty minutes later there was a knock. Before Kaya got the chance to respond, her younger sisters barged in, kimonos shuffling as they squeezed in (there was an impressive pile of clothes stacked in the corner, blocking it). 

“Onee-chan, what’s wrong?” Saori took in the dishevelled state of the room before focusing her eyes on her elder sister.

“What happened to your hair?” Himari was less subtle.

The girls had matching elaborate hairstyles, the locks more of a mahogany shade rather than Kaya's blood-red. With only two years separating them, Saori and Himari could easily be mistaken for twins - they shared roughly the same stature, features and mannerisms. Growing up together had established a bond that they didn’t share with the eldest sister. She had missed years of friendship and trust, substituting it for training and travelling. 

“It’s a long story,” with a sigh she brushed away the unruly curl and glanced at the mirror.

She had managed to compose herself enough so that the fierce blush left her cheeks and the glazed over opalescent glimmer in her eyes dimmed. 

“Ah!” 

They even gasped in sync. Kaya resisted the urge to roll her eyes. For all their strict upbringing, all three had managed to cling to some ounce of childhood theatrics. 

“It’s your admirer! He was here, wasn’t he?”

Kaya shot Himari a look. As the older one, she had a keener eye and sharp perceptive mind but was not necessarily one for subtleties.

“Can you fix my hair or not? Mother will have a fit if she sees me like this.”

They inspected the damage. No one remarked on the creases in the lavish kimono. 

“Oh my god, it was him! He snuck in! What did you two do?” Saori was almost vibrating with glee.

“You must tell us everything!” Himari insistent.

“I must do no such thing. You are my younger sisters!”

They eyed her, perched on either side like a pair of judging ravens, hands crossed over their chests and eyebrows quirked. It was a battle Kaya had neither time nor energy to wage.

“Fine. I’ll tell you. Just fix my hair.”

With a squeal, each grabbed a comb and started parting and reshaping the long curly tresses. Kaya’s mortification at having to recount the passionate scene between her and Kakashi to her siblings wasn’t as acute as she anticipated, mostly because she kept it vague, only hinting at certain things. Either way, it felt nice sharing her joy with someone and having them be happy for her, rather than be condescending and scold her for shaming the family name. 

“You made out in one of the guest rooms?” Saori faked a swoon, fanning herself with a discarded fan.

As a sworn romantic, few were aware of the stash of romance novels hidden beneath the floorboards in the youngest sister’s room. On more than one occasion Kaya had had to swoop in and snatch a book out of Saori’s hands moments before one of their parents rounded a corner. 

“He must be madly infatuated with you, sister, if he made such a mess of your hair.”

Himari's tongue was sharp and uncensored and Kaya feared her influence shone too bright - almost six years her junior, at times the middle sister had attitude worthy to rival the Heiress’.  

“You have driven that poor man to despair; having him sneak into our parents’ house in broad daylight!”

Kaya rolled her eyes. If there was one thing she hadn’t done yet, it was drive Kakashi to despair. She had driven him mad with lust, yes, but not despair. Not yet. 

“Don’t pity him.” A smirk tugged at her lips. “He deserves everything that is heading his way.”

“Cruel as usual.” Saori bent down and placed a kiss on Kaya’s cheek. “Wouldn’t expect anything less from our Onii-chan.”

“Hey!”

Their laughter filled the room, slipping out of the open window. For all the time they had been apart, the innate bond between sisters had remained unsevered. It was shaky at times and strained by lack of good nourishment, but it held.

“One of these days you must let us meet him.”

The flicker of apprehension reflected in the mirror, catching Himari’s eye.

“I’m sure he is a lovely man, Kaya-chan. If you like him, we are going to like him too.”

A hand smoothed the newly arranged curls, expertly pushing the chandelier pins in place and securing the whole structure. The thing was heavy. 

“Maybe one day.”

Kaya’s reluctance and the underlayer of sadness were palpable as she averted her eyes and stared out of the windows, so the younger women dropped the subject. They couldn’t have known that while it warmed her heart to know they were so supportive and understanding, it also sent waves of dread poisoning her tranquillity. No one dared discuss the Hatake topic on the compound and Kaya was unsure how much their parents’ influence had affected her sisters. It would break her heart if they recoiled from Kakashi just because of his name. 

“Let’s get you back out there. Mother’s mind is halfway set on sending a search party to find you.”

They left the room, Kaya walking a step ahead and Saori and Himari right behind her, hands linked. The soft jingle of crystals and the rustling of fabric filled the silence of the hallway as their figures vanished behind the corner.

 

***

 

It was past midnight by the time Kaya dragged her tired feet back home. The clamour and laughter of the Festival still rang in her ears even in the deep silence of the apartment. Shoes clattered to the floor and keys jingled as they slipped into the small ceramic plate. Bright bursts of colours dotted her vision every time she blinked - the fireworks had been magnificent, a sight to behold that had left her grinning like a fool - but the brightness had imprinted itself on the back of her eyelids, a fuzzy kaleidoscope of flickering sparks. She stumbled about in the darkness, finding her way to the kitchen without toppling over.

It took two glasses of water to wash away the taste of sweets and wine from her tongue. With her friends eager to fill in the void left by Kakashi’s absence, they had not checked the intake of unhealthy food, instead allowing her to indulge in various delicacies. Needless to say, she had gorged herself. 

Wine and sake had been poured in generous quantities and their little group had danced, spun, twirled, hopped, clapped, and swivelled until Tenzo had to step away, his face an interchanging palette of ashy white and green, and Mina had lost a shoe. Her father swore it flew across the street and struck a man across the head, resulting in him spilling his drink down a woman’s cleavage. Emotions had escalated quickly, as is the custom when liquor drenches the body, and things had been blown out of proportion almost immediately. Kaya vaguely recalled seeing the poor man sprinting for dear life, a flurry of kunai and shuriken whistling past him, singing a song of vengeance.

The bed gave in under her as she threw herself down, allowing the soft duvet to cushion the fall. The senbons still pinned in her hair gave a startled jingle. ‘Such a lovely night.’ After distancing herself from the disappointment that came with the silver-haired Jōnin never appearing, Kaya had had a grand time - with almost all her favourite people gathered, their smiling faces lit by lights or liqueur, their jolly laughs ringing in her ears - it had been a spectacular evening. One Kaya wound not be forgetting any time soon. Her eyes drifted closed.

A quick succession of taps against the window echoed. ‘I’m probably dreaming.’ Another insistent tap. ‘Whoever it is, they can wait. T’morrow...’

Her thoughts became sluggish as her mind slipped beneath the welcoming blanket of sleep. Perched at the verge of the black abyss and ready to leap, the creak of the window being pushed open jolted her awake. In one swift motion she on her feet, crystal daggers pressed against the intruder’s neck. Shadows obscured his features.

“Another step and you’re a dead man,” the threat made the shadows shiver. 

“I’d rather keep my head attached to my body if you don’t mind.”

The momentary shock elapsed into an annoyance that quickly morphed into exasperation. ‘I swear to everything holy, this man will be the death of me.’ The daggers remained a breath away from his throat for a few more moments before disintegrating. With a huff Kaya moved away, flickering the lamp by her bed on, casting the room in a faint glow. Sitting in the small stool before her vanity, she started taking off all the ornaments that adorned her. Clips and pins fell from her hair with soft sighs. A necklace hushed as it pooled on the polished wood. Bracelets and rings caught the light, winking playfully before tumbling into the little bowl with soft ching . The window closed, drowning the noises of the festival’s merriment. By the time everything but the chandelier senbons in her hair were gone, Kaya had calmed down enough to flicker her gaze back into the darkness of the room and catch the Anbu sitting on the edge of the bed, observing her. The reflection showed him still in his gear, mask and protection plates on, elbows resting on his knees, the handle of a sword peaking ominously over his shoulder. A ruby glimmered from one of the slits of the mask. Heat kissed her cheeks and Kaya averted her gaze. 

“You’re back sooner than expected. I gather the mission was easy?”

The silence felt like a forcefield pushing at her back. She resisted the urge to turn around and face him, still a bit mad he had requested an assignment in the first place. 

“Ah.”

Two cotton pads took off the last remnants of make-up. Kakashi watched silently, his fingers twirling a small box. He had half a mind to hide it back in his pocket and leave. The kunoichi was not in the mood to deal with him and he couldn’t blame her. 

“I hope you haven’t taken any unnecessary life-endangering risks in order to be back before the night’s end?”

“No more than usual.”

“How are you still alive?” The mumbled question was rhetorical; his skills and superior analytical abilities were enough to get him through any tricky situation. 

“Luck always plays a part. Was lacking some of it today.”

Her reflection shot him a glare. 

“I hope that’s your attempt at a bad joke.”

When he didn’t reply, she swivelled in her chair and eyed him incredulously.

“Tell me you are not bleeding on my bed?”

“I’m not dying, thanks for worrying.”

In a heartbeat she was upon him, her kimono flapping open as the sash came loose. Kneeling on the floor, it took her a second to spot the wound that drove a groove across his chest. It was superficial and had stopped bleeding a while ago. The possibility of infection wasn’t gone, however. 

“Strip.”

Behind the mask, Kakashi fought a blush. Her tone was imperious and commanding, her colourful eyes calculating and admonishing. He sighed. It never ceased to amaze him how arousing her domineering attitude was.

“Mah, Kaya-san, you sure know how to make a man feel special.”

With a scoff, she grabbed the front of his top and ripped it open. 

“You are bleeding on my brand-new sheets, Kakashi. I don’t have time to make you feel special right now.”

The promise of a later was a tangible force in the space between them. 

The green glow of the healing jutsu cast odd shadows across the smooth porcelain. When there was but a faint pinkish mark left to show where the cut had been, she leaned back on her hunches and gave the man an annoyed look. 

“Sometimes you remind me of a child, ignorant of things that should be common sense. Your safety and health come first. Paying me a late-night visit, second. Why you have your priorities all muddled-up is beyond me.”

“I have my priorities straight.”

A red eyebrow quirked up and the kunoichi eyed the exposed expanse of ivory skin. He was well-toned, the muscles defined but not in a manner that took away from his inherent elegance. The image of a willow tree sprung to mind whenever Kaya’s thoughts managed to disentangle themselves from other, more carnal, directories. 

Shaking her head, she stood up. Manicured fingers gently grabbed the sides of the mask and pulled it away. One eye was closed while the other stared up at her from underneath a halfway hooded eyelid. 

The porcelain barely made a sound when she placed it on the bedside table. Her hand rose and cupped the side of his face that had the scar, her thumb caressing its ridges. 

“You missed the festivities. Tenzo-san almost had a fit when we dragged him dancing and respectively almost threw up when we spun him round and round for a solid hour. Mina-chan lost a shoe and an unfortunate man had to run for his life after he spilt his drink down a woman’s bosom. The twins nearly set a stall on fire with firecrackers and I’m fairly certain Guy-san is scarred for life after tumbling headfirst into a tank with electric eels.”

Her thumb stroked his face as if ironing away the creases left there by life’s impervious touch.

“I wish you had been there to see it - one of the eels wrapped around his neck like a boa and gave him a little zap - his hair stood up in spikes for the next hour or so.”

The giggle was so feminine and girlish that Kakashi involuntarily leaned into her, his hands coming to rest on her waist. 

“I missed you,” the words were lost among the silvery locks as she placed a kiss on top of his head. 

He rested his forehead over her breasts. He could see white peeking from between the folds of the kimono; the bandages were mocking him. The one night he’d allow himself to bury his face between the supple flesh of her bosom and of course she’d have it all wrapped up. 

“I’m sorry.”

“What for?”

Someone was yet to move; they were basking in the warmth and calmness of the other’s presence.

“For not being there. For being late.”

Her fingers threaded through his hair, trying to smooth it down. It ended up sticking out more, defying gravity and making her unable to restrain a soft scoff. 

“You’re here now, aren’t you?”

“Ah.”

They stood like that for a bit longer, Kaya ignoring the painful jabs travelling up and down her calves and lodging themselves in her knees like nails. It felt like steam hammers were trying to dislodge the kneecaps. She needed to sit down and soon.

“I’ve bought you a present,” the suddenness of the statement threw her off.

“You didn’t have to.”

They parted. He held the box between them like an offering. It was small and black with a big red ribbon wrapped around it. For a second her heart lodged in her throat. ‘It’s too big to be a ring, you fool! Get a hold of yourself!’ Her fingers trembled as she took it and untied the bow, twisting it around her palm. An idea was taking shape in the back of her mind. The lid opened soundlessly, the silence magnifying Kaya’s gasp. Snuggled in a bed of velvet lay a necklace - a thin silver chain peppered with small chunks of unrefined rubies. Her lips parting in awe, Kaya turned to the side, allowing the light to glide over the gemstones. They were all of different intensity, some light and almost pink while the one in the middle was the colour of her hair. Her eyelids fluttered, blinking away the tears. 

“I figured, since you liked the first necklace I gave you so much, you’d like something a bit more … permanent. And less scandalous.”

His voice was calm, collected, with only the faintest hint of uncertainty sharpening the edges.  

“It’s perfect. I love it.”

The beaming smile hurt her face. Leaning down, she placed a kiss on his cheek.

“Thank you.”

She didn’t skip to notice the slight air of disappointment that wrapped around the male once her lips moved away. Pretending not to, she went back to the vanity and placed the box next to all her other prized possession, taking a moment longer to marvel at its beauty. Then she pulled out the senbons holding her hair and the burgundy locks tumbled down in heavy waves, cascading to the middle of her back. With measured steps she returned to the bed, the ribbon twisted around her hand. 

“I can only imagine one thing I’d love more than that necklace.”

Kakashi tensed up, his brain bringing up strings of conversations, searching for something he had overlooked or forgotten. In the back of his head, a part of him slowly registered what his senses picked up almost immediately - the way her chakra hummed, shifting from content to an almost magnetic pull. He didn’t see the tantalising colour of her eyes as they became deeper, darker. Or the seductive, hungry , curl of her carmine lips. 

Having come up empty-handed, he was about to ask what could have been a better present when suddenly the ribbon was looped around his middle, binding his arms to his body, and tied at the front. 

“There.” She readjusted the bow, tilting it to the side with almost motherly affection; the gleam in her eyes made Kakashi’s throat dry. “Perfect.”

And that’s how Kakashi of the Sharingan, the Copy-cat Ninja, tied up like a present with an obnoxious bow dead centre on his chest, ended up sitting on the bed of the only woman in Konohagakure that could level down his impenetrable walls of composure and aloofness with all but the merest glance. 

“What more can I possibly wish for?”

The devilish curve of her lips gave him a couple of ideas, all of which made his mouth water. He hadn’t planned to be physical with her so soon (he had been hoping, but not counted on it) but the turn of events somehow led him to believe things would be different. 

She kneeled between his spread legs, resting her arms on his thighs, daring eyes gazing up at him. 

“Will you be my present, Kakashi-san ?”

It was as if he had spent the past couple of hours drinking sake rather than trying to dispatch enemy spies. His mind, always sharp and crystal clear, was all but a hazy mess draped in thick, impenetrable fog. He felt intoxicated .

“Ah.”

Not his proudest moment, losing all vocal abilities, but she didn’t seem to mind. 

“Where do we draw the line tonight?”

It was usually the other way around - the man inquiring about the woman’s boundaries. Yet seeing how he was tied with a chakra-infused ribbon and the female situated between his legs emanated a deeply primal hunger, he couldn’t find it in him to deny her anything, not tonight. Not any night for that matter. ‘I’m gonna regret this later.’ That was probably one of his last coherent thoughts for a while that night (he just didn’t know it yet).

“No lines.”

Her eyes twinkled like Christmas lights, a pink tongue darting out to wet her lips. A shudder travelled down his spine.  

“You do know how to make a woman happy.”

With a coy smirk and uncanny patience, she started taking off his gear. First all the protection, then the weapon pouches; the short sword strapped to his back went next. Then his sandals. His gloves. 

“Is the mask part of the top?”

“No,” the low husky whisper made her insides quiver.

The fire that burned in his eye, the unabashed desire, stroked the flames within her. Maybe she had had too much to drink. Maybe she had a burst of bravery which might come back to bite her later. Maybe she was done being proper, patient, good . For one night Kaya would be greedy, taking, devouring. Enjoying herself. And giving the man before her equal amounts of pleasure - making up for all the times he had made her shudder and moan and lose herself. She yearned to sense his body tensing up with the building pleasure. It was her birthday. And she wanted him. All of him.

Shreds of black material littered the floor.

“Compensation for my ruined underwear.”

The crimson stood out nicely against his alabaster skin. With only his trousers and mask on, he was a sight that left Kaya struggling to stop her hands from shaking. Her blood hummed a song she had come to yearn for, a tuneless lull, tribal drumming that only the silver-haired man was able to summon.  

Hungry lips left a meandering path starting from his throat and making its way down his chest, over his stomach and finally tracing the line of his trousers. Hands, eager to explore, followed the ridges and bulges of his upper body - broad shoulders, biceps, forearms - before memorising every rigid muscle comprising his chest. Nails painted dark green left red pathways down his back, circling his middle, and then going over his legs, marvelling at the power in his thighs, the leanness of his calves. All the meanwhile, lips still painted red marked and marked and marked. Down and up, and down again, further and further, until Kakashi’s breath hitched in his throat and his head tipped slightly back. Tension rallied through his abdomen where she wove circles with that lush mouth, and down his thighs, where nails sought ridges and dips. 

“I want you,” the words ghosted across his chest as her deft fingers made a quick job of the buttons and zipper of his trousers, “all of you.”

There was that much he could do in order not to force the chakra strings in the ribbon to snap, toss this unbelievable woman across the bed and have his way with her. He didn’t feel patient tonight, or gentle, or teasing. His body was edged with tension, with lust, burning , painful and raw. Behind his closed eyelids, she was naked, sprawled before him, hair spread like a halo, and it was his hands leaving marks, his lips stirring the flames. He was buried deep in her, finally home, finally whole-

The trousers were gone. A pile on the floor, one among many. Wordlessly, Kaya moved him, her power manifesting itself with such practised ease it almost seemed natural. Suddenly Kakashi was on his back, wrists tied to the bedframe with the same crimson ribbon that was just moments ago looped around his chest. There was barely time for him to be shocked before the rustling of her discarded kimono snagged his attention. He saw honey-coloured skin, pale marks, supple swells of flesh hiding behind white bandages, and black ink teasingly peaking at him. And when her hungry mouth waged a final crusade down the plain of his chest and finally, finally , reached the place where all his maddening lust had collected, his eyes rolled in the back of his head, a groan slipping past his lips. 

Kaya didn’t have time to be shy, or feel insecure, or even contemplate the consequences of her actions - she simply took what he was willingly offering. Gobbling it up like she was starving. He was hot and hard and silky smooth in her mouth, throbbing with need. Gently her tongue explored, gingerly her lips kissed and soothed. Then she took him in again, savouring the sweet sounds rumbling in his chest as she sucked and licked and moved her head up and down. The bedframe gave a weak creak, the ribbon stretching taut. Kaya’s warm breath fanned against his throbbing erection as she looked up.

“Don’t go breaking my bed now.”

A teasing lick made his hips jerk. The huff of her laugh blew across the rigidness of his arousal.  

“Don’t tease,” he bit out, head tossed back across the white pillows.

“You seem to be enjoying it,” butterfly kisses fluttered up and down his length before her lips parted once again.

Whatever he had planned to say got stuck in his throat and a low growl filled the room. Kaya felt the soft buzz of his chakra growing in intensity, permeating the air around them, wrapping around her like a gauze, pulling, taunting, urging. It was as lascivious as its wielder. Even restrained and at her fickle mercy, the Jōnin’s dominating presence, the silent power humming in his aura, made her moan and quiver. She did not doubt that he’d be rid of his restrains eventually with little difficulty and then have his way with her. The heat between her legs spread. Like honey in drip-drip-dripped.    

She played with him, exploring parts of his body in small breaks, letting him recover, allowing for the tension in his loins to build and simmer but never pushing him beyond the brink. Hickeys kissed the edges of the wound she had just healed, as well as some of the other nicks he had acquired over the years. By the time she was satisfied with her work and breathless with the need to feel him in her, his chest looked like a battlefield, splashes of purple-red tinting the alabaster skin. 

“Kaya.”

It was a plea, a command, a warning, a summon. A shiver traced her spine, but she fought back the desire to cave in and let him go. Things would be over quick if she did - he had no patience left (which was fantastic, she was getting rather worried that he had an endless reserve of it tonight) and would most probably ravage her in a manner she had never experienced before. And despite how much she yearned for that, she was unwilling to relinquish her power. Not yet. 

“Patience.”

The words skittered across his chest as she made her way up, making sure that her breasts (which she had unbound soon after realising that breathing was getting difficult with raw desire coursing through her veins rather than blood) caressed every inch of him. He sucked in a breath with a soft hiss that made her lightheaded and giddy. Oh, how much she enjoyed seeing him unravel. The headboard gave another pitiful creak and in the faint glow of the lamp, she spied the red bruises on his wrists. He was pulling at the ribbon with force enough to rip it, uncaring for the damage he was doing to the skin. 

“You sucked it all out.”

‘Smartass.’ Her smirk imprinted itself over his heart as she kissed the skin, feeling the erratic thud beneath her lips. It was a summon, a battle drum, a call for release. She moved away long enough to reach over and turn the light off. There was only the faintest luminance peeking from between the curtains, from where the full moon was basking the village in its glory. It took her eyes a moment to readjust to the darkness enough so she could make out the outlines of his body. She kissed her way up, up, up, until she reached his face. Straddling his waist, her dripping centre hovering over his erection, she couldn’t help but lower herself ever so slightly, rock her hips ever so softly. Her lacy thong was drenched, that much she was certain of. She just needed to make sure he was aware of it as well. The growl, a deep feral sound that rumbled deep within his chest with an intensity that made the hairs on her body stand up, was all the confirmation needed. 

Two slender fingers followed the column of his neck, past his bobbing Adam’s apple, over his clenched jaw and up to his cheeks where the edge of the mask seamlessly vanished. Gently, she tucked a nail on each side and tugged. He didn’t make a sound of protest or told her to stop, so she kept on going, peeling the material off like a second skin. The darkness of the room, while not absolute, still prevented her from seeing all but the merest outlines. She’d not be too greedy. For that, she’d be patient. 

The mask slipped past his jaw and pooled around his neck with a soft sigh. Or maybe that was Kaya, who held her breath throughout the whole procedure. A second of stillness, enough for him to tell her to pull it back on, and enough for her to compose her fluttering heart and estimate the exact position of his lips. 

When they kissed, it was like a war had been announced - he attacked and devoured and took and ravaged savagely, implicitly telling her what he’d do to her once the restraints were gone. Tongues battled and clashed, looping and twisting, fighting for dominance. Bracing herself with her right hand, she buried the left in his hair, fisting it into the locks, holding him close. His hips jerked up in retaliation and Kaya gasped. His attack renewed, taking her off-guard, and he dragged her back underwater, where breathing was unessential, where heat meant more than warmth, and lust pumped through their veins. 

In the silence, the sound of ripping material was loud and ominous - of chains snapping, resistance capitulating, and greedy desire roaring to life. The kunoichi didn’t have time to react or even gasp when his hands burned a path down her waist and went to grab the back of her thighs, fingers digging into the flesh, bruising. She didn’t cry out when he flipped them over, caging her with his body, and with a single swift motion ripped her underwear off. Breathless, she clung to him, lips locked against his, legs parting to accommodate him, hips thrusting up to greet him. 

“Kaya.”

It was a question locked at the juncture of her neck, his kiss gentle, in contrast to the sharpness of his teeth. She hissed when he bit, arching her back, rubbing herself against him shamelessly, driven desperate by need, by lust, by wanting to feel whole, filled. 

“Kakashi,” what little air she had left, she used it to call out to him, a siren’s final song. 

“I can’t be gentle with you tonight.”

“Ravage me then.”

He plunged into her with a single thrust, burying himself deep into the inviting warmth. Pulling out felt like punishment for all the sins he had ever committed and would commit; bitter-sweet torture that clawed and chewed at whatever shreds of restraint he managed to salvage for her sake. He’d never forgive himself if he hurt her; yet when her legs hooked around him and her arms snaked across his back, nails biting into him, he let it all go. She had brought it upon herself, the wicked woman. If rough was what she wanted, then he’d oblige.

After a certain point, all the air that slipped into Kaya’s lungs was mainly ushered straight back out via moans and gasps and breathless pleas. Wildfire consumed her from the roots of her hair down the tips of her toes, and her only salvation was the man on top of her. In his strong arms holding her, in his mouth marking and kissing her, in his body fitting against hers so nicely, in his powerful thrusts that drove her closer and closer to the edge of the precipice. It began at the bottom of her spine, pinpricks jolting the nerves, then rapidly climbed up, setting everything ablaze. The thunderous sizzle of Kakashi’s chakra caught and reciprocated the hum of hers, the waves upon waves of euphoric pleasure wrapped around them as she neared her peak. Dragging him under alongside her, sharing the powerful surge of pure bliss that shattered her like a mirror, only to mould her back anew.

He collapsed on top of her, muscles spasming and shaking, breathless and stupefied. The wild drum of her heart filled his senses as he enveloped her in his chakra like a blanket, bringing her down from the electrifying peak they had reached. Silence slipped like a faithful mistress into the room. Minutes trickled by. The blood burning through their veins cooled. Her soft breath ruffled his hair and for a few moments, Kakashi thought she had fallen asleep and made an attempt to move away, worried that he was crushing her. The arm lazily slung across his back closed like a vice before slackening again. His laugh came out as a low huff. One slender leg snaked over his, looping securely around his calf. He was locked down. 

“Not letting me go, are you?”

The soft swell of her breasts pressed against his chest. He felt her nipples poking at him. His mouth watered despite the drowsiness that was quickly wrapping its tentacles around him.

“No,” she mumbled flatly before turning her face to the side, burying it in his hair. 

Wrapped in her arms, pressed to her warm body, Kakashi felt a long-forgotten feeling pooling within him. Happiness? Fulfilment? Content? Pleasure? He wasn’t sure what exactly it was that this woman made him feel. All that mattered was that she provoked an emotion when he had reconciled with the fact that whatever shreds of heart he had left had long ago withered and turned to dust. From the ashes, green saplings budded to life, wrapping around the gaping hole like vines, filling it. The vast emptiness that had been a faithful companion for years suddenly reseeded a bit.

‘Hope,’ he realised, his head moving up to gaze at the female’s peaceful face. She was giving him hope. 

In order to cope with the complexity of that realisation and all the forgotten or unfamiliar secondary feelings it entailed, the Jōnin distracted himself with the suppleness of her breasts. It was probably rude playing with them while she was resting, but he didn’t plan to take advantage, just explore. When his lips closed over one nipple gently, a hand ruffled his hair and fisted the silver locks. He grunted and flicked his tongue over the sensitive bud. Her breath caught. The tribal drums picked up their low tantalising rhythm once again.

Chapter Text

The Great Hall was at the very centre of the Samosa Compound, with the main branch’s house behind it, shielded from prying eyes, and twin rows of buildings flanking it in every direction. Once upon a time, the Clan had been great enough to house almost a thousand members, most of which travellers - the flow of people a never-ending stream feeding into the village. Now, there were barely a hundred, a substantial chunk of which infants or elderly. As a child Kaya often wondered what it had been like, having the ghostly boulevards bustling with people, the abandoned derelict houses at the periphery brimming with life and the main mansion echoing with merry voices. It had gotten even quieter after the Kyuubi attack; their numbers had been cut down by the halves until the Samosa Clan was only a vague outline of its former glory. A bunch of old people and drooling babies the only remnants of fame and grandeur. 

‘Fewer people to shun and judge me,’ was the rationalisation she gave herself as she grew. The backlash she’d have experienced after Hatake-san’s death, were her clansmen at full capacity, would have destroyed her. They’d probably have disowned her then and there, all those stiff-upper-lipped grumpy men, with their stoic faces and cold eyes. The files recounting their lives and their likes cut into the marble walls of the Great Hall provided enough information as her mind’s eye rebuilt their images alongside those of the living. The previous Heads of the Clan and other notable relatives of great prowess, achievement or success, joined the gathered men gazing down at her from the tiers. Sat behind the benches there were almost a hundred judges, real and ghostly, that waited to seal her fate. That’s what the Samosa men seemed to be capable of nowadays - bask in the sensation of being able to grind others to dust. Kaya’s shoulders were stiff and her neck was beginning to hurt from holding her head tilted higher than usual, in order to be able to look her father dead in the eyes. The desire to flee was a persisting prickling at the base of her spine but she ignored it. 

Today, in the Great Hall that hadn’t been used for generations, the picture book of Kaya’s life was to be set ablaze, the flames scorching the blank pages of her future with a mocking, vindictive glee. Erasing the tentative sketches she had started filling them with. Chills kissed her skin, a frosty breath caressing the back of her neck. She was coming undone, one loop at a time. 

“It’s been decided. You’re to marry in two weeks.”

The finality of the words hammered into her, opening a crack in her facade - the defiant glint in her eyes dulled and the straight line if her jaw slackened. A voice inside her head took up a frantic chant, an endless chain of ‘ no, no, no, no ’s that expanded to a deafening chorus as the blood drained from her face, pooling on the floor like a perverse sacrifice to any god willing to push time’s wheel back and wipe away the last half an hour. 

“And if I deny?” 

The whisper travelled around the room, an echo of the grey muddle of emotions that was drowning her from the inside. 

“Then you will no longer be the Heiress of the Samosa Clan.”

Something in Kaya shivered - the child that had always sought acceptance and love, a family that would not shun or criticise her, but love her unconditionally. Grinding her teeth to stop the wobble of her chin and squaring her shoulders, Kaya gathered herself, piece by broken piece. Without a word, for they had all bled out, she took off the tunic bearing the Clan’s crest. The green fabric pooled on the floor, its rustling muffled by a wave of gasps. Her eyes never left the cold piercing jade of her father’s. His shock slipped into a scowl and he opened his mouth to speak.

“I won’t be your pawn. I will not be sold or exchanged. Disown me if that’s your wish, I will not argue. But know this - there is not a force on this land that will make me marry for convenience.”

The silence sat heavy and even the marble statues seemed scandalised. Kaya bowed her head slightly, fighting the tick of her jaw and the sting in her eyes. 

“Get out!”

She bristled. Her heart gave a painful twist. 

“You insolent, ungrateful-”

The rest was lost in a puff of smoke as the kunoichi vanished. The gathered men exchanged looks of incomprehension. Sitting upon the dias, Samosa no Ryou glared at the spot his daughter had occupied moments prior. Words breathed a life of their own in the back of his mind and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t shut them down.

“Your daughter has taken an unlikely lover,” they hissed, “a silver-haired man. No different than his father. A lone wolf eager for power. But you shouldn’t be surprised, Samosa-dono, we knew she has always been drawn to the corrupted ones.”

The thick black beard covering his face hid the clench of his jaw, the thin press of his lips and the sourness that tugged at his mouth. Two twin shadows huddled behind one of the great columns supporting the ceiling scurried away, the soft hush of their dresses drowned out by the explosion of voices.  

 

***

 

“Enter,” the Sandaime didn’t lift his eyes from the report he was reviewing.

The door closed with a soft click and the approaching steps halted a few feet away. The elderly man’s eyebrows furrowed. There was something odd about the person that just entered - their chakra signature was completely masked, buried deep under layers and layers of static, but the turbulent vibrations, lashing out, were palpable. His eyes flickered up, curious. Kaya’s face was a stony mask - features drawn and taut. The caramel hue of her skin appeared ashen and there was a twitch in her jaw. At first glance, one would assume she was tired, or a bit ill. The Hokage wasn’t a fool. She looked like a bomb about to go off, its fuse broken beyond repair and the timer beeping, the zeroes flashing. In the dead silence, he heard her soft halting breathing and a weird crackling sound. His gaze swept the room - there was nothing out of the ordinary.

“What’s wrong, Kaya-san?”

He put the report away. The glazed over look in her eyes made him tread with cautious. 

“It’s just my father again,” absentmindedly, she rubbed her upper arm.

“You seem distressed. Tell me what’s happened.”

There was a twitch in her left eyebrow, the beginnings of a frown that were cut short. She was in full control of her body - a machine buzzing and brimming with power, eager to be let loose. Shaking her head, she tried to push away all the emotional turbulence that was threatening to throw her off-kilt. She had received a summon for a reason, not to chat.

“Has he been pestering you to marry again? I told him to wait-”

“He wanted to marry me off in two weeks to a man I’ve never met. I denied. He disowned me.”

The words rang hollow and whatever emotions there had been in the kunoichi's face moments ago, drained away. Stripped of all sentiments, she resembled the angry lost child that had barged into his office half a decade ago, demanding to be sent away. After so many years, she had learned how to hide the desperation to leave better than anyone. Her colourful orbs flickered around the room.

“I’m sorry to hear that. I’m sure he’ll come around eventually.”

“I doubt it.” Kaya’s shoulders stiffened and she tucked her chin a notch higher.

‘Still as prideful as ever,’ he fondly thought, trying to ignore the pangs of irritation and sadness. Samosa no Ryou was a fool that still had no idea how to properly interact with his daughter; trying to treat her like a commoner had never worked, yet he was ignorantly arrogant and kept on pushing. And by the looks of it, for once he had reached her breaking point.

“You’ll be relieved to hear that I’m sending you on a mission then!”

Kaya looked up, eyes wide and brilliant in the afternoon sun. 

“You are going to accompany the team rescuing the Jinjuriki boy, Kazu. We have located the whereabouts of the Hoshi hideout near the Gato Village.”

A scroll was tossed her way. She caught it mid-air but made no further move to read it.

“Wait, no- what?” 

“I’m sending two trappers and an attacker to bring back a potential ally to Konohagakure. In a show of goodwill, we will aid the Village Hidden in Dreams by rescuing one of their own.”

That would guarantee an alliance with the powerful but reclusive village. It would also release Kaya from any marital obligations her father had attempted to entangle her in. ‘Does my father know that the Hokage was scheming behind his back?’ Thinking back on the gathered crowd in the Great Hall, the answer to that was no. 

“Why send me?”

“Because you’re one of our best spies and your abilities have excelled beyond expectations in the past couple of months. You’ll be a great asset to the team, and all your inside knowledge will come in handy once you reach the hideout.” She blushed at the praise. “And also, I know how deeply you feel about someone being held against their will.”

His small conspiratorial smile resulted in one of her own. The numbness that had been washing over her limbs for the past half an hour reseeded. 

“However, I have one condition.”

A red eyebrow quirked up and some of the giddiness soured. ‘Of course,’ she thought, ‘there’s always a catch.’ She was not on the books as an active mission kunoichi (not on any books to be fair, similar to most spies), so being sent on one, officially, was a big thing. It meant he was pulling her at the forefront. The backstage had been her battleground for so long she wondered whether she’d be able to work in a team again. It also meant that her career as a spy was at its end.

“When you complete the mission, I want you to run some more examinations through Anko and her team.”

Kaya flinched. 

“I don’t want you to think that I don’t trust your mental state, Kaya. But after the few incidents you’ve had recently, in the hospital and with Kakashi-”

“He talked to you about it?” Her voice was small.

“Don’t get mad at him, dear. He was just worried. He came looking for answers about what was causing your … relapses . If he wanted to get something out of me, he had to tell me why he was asking in the first place.”

“And what did you tell him?”

“I advised that he better ask you.” Which he hadn’t done.

Shock and disdain sucked the rosiness out of Kaya’s cheeks; then her eyebrows furrowed and a frustrated frown blossomed like a rose across her features, red blotches dotting the caramel skin all over again. There was a sharp edge in her eyes, especially the green one, and the Sandaime vaguely wondered whether he had just sentences one of his men to a very unfortunate faith. 

“Anyway,” he coughed, “it’s merely re-evaluation; it’s been ten years. Think of it as a check-up.”

“I don’t like people rummaging through my brain,” she muttered, hands folded across her chest.

“You know this is done for your own good.”

The stern frown sobered up her childish pout. She bowed.

“I know, Hokage-sama. Forgive me.”

It was concerning how easy it was to forget that the venerable old man with his kind brown eyes and warm smile was her superior. Resilience and power were hiding behind the white cloak and the old bones, a beast ready to pounce.

“I will check in with Anko-san once I get back.”

With a nod he dismissed her, eyes already focusing on the nearest scroll, a frown re-adjusting his features. Kaya bowed and left.

 

***

 

There was an angry hornets’ nest lodged in her skull and no matter how hard she tried to silence it, it just kept on getting louder. No amount of pacing, meditation, reading or tea-drinking helped. In the end, she sat on her balcony, a blanket thrown over her shoulders. The welkin was a deep shade of navy, almost black, and the few dwindling starts formed only a fraction of the constellations she enjoyed exploring. She knew only the bigger ones, and no matter how many times she traced them with her finger, the motion of drawing an invisible line in the air was always soothing. 

Not tonight though. The anger that had blossomed in her chest after hearing of Kakashi’s betrayal (she was still in the mood to be a bit dramatic about it) was a force buzzing within her like a charge waiting to be released. No reasoning dampened it. Yet there was more. Digging beneath the layers of pent-up frustration lay a tangle of knots and the more she tried to unlace them, the gloomier her mood went. Things between her and Kakashi were getting a bit too complicated, a bit too real and the fact that she was keeping things from him made her feel guilty. Naturally, they had secrets; hers just felt a bit harsher to swallow.

With a sigh of resignation, she stood up and pulled the blanket tighter across her shoulders. She needed to get ready - they had plans to go out, and while there was a small petty part of her that wanted to stand him up and give him the silent treatment, she also wanted to see him. All his nosiness aside, they hadn’t had much time together recently and after the day’s fiasco, she yearned for the comfort of his calming presence. Shuffling back into the living room, she closed the door with a soft click.

Things lay where she had left them; a book propped open on the coffee table, a blanket tossed in one end of the couch, an empty coffee cup gingerly balanced on the armrest. For the first time, Kaya noticed how unhomely her apartment was - it lacked personality or any traces of her being its occupant. There were no decorations, no pictures, no souvenirs. Nothing. Just barren walls and open space. A bookshelf overloaded with information - words that had once held meaning and had offered solace in times when the notion of tranquillity had been a foreign spice she could not stomach or obtain. 

It was a reflection of her, this emptiness. The barriers she had raised around herself for protection had pushed away natural affiliations; there wasn’t a single item that hinted at who the people she cared for were. ‘And if I die tomorrow, no one will be the wiser.’ All the things she had kept under lock and key, all the words she had swallowed down in fear - they’d all vanish with her. A shiver shook her body, the tips of her fingers growing numb. Tip-toeing on the verge of a precipice, she felt like all that was needed was a final push and she’d crack open like a hollow shell. Grinding her teeth and blinking the tears away, Kaya flopped on the couch just as a scratching sound filled the silence.

 

***

 

“This is an S-rank mission, so I expect your utmost caution when approaching its execution.”

Tenzo and Kakashi nodded, each stealing a glance at the file containing the details of their assignment. Reach the Gato village undetected. Locate the Hoshi hideout. Infiltrate. Locate the Jinjuriki boy, Kazu, and evacuate the premises. All of that ideally done while remaining unobserved and with as little noise as possible. Though by the looks of things, Kakashi wondered what exactly the Hokage classified as ‘too much’ noise. The chances of them avoiding confrontation were essentially nonexistent. The boy would be heavily guarded. 

“One more thing.”

The two Anbu men looked up. The flicker of the candle reflected in the smooth surface of their masks. The Hokage regarded them with a hawk’s unfaltering gaze, chin propped on top of his laced fingers. There was an unusual sternness in his brown eyes, a warning.

“You’ll be accompanied by another shinobi. Well-skilled spy and master infiltrator. She’s been successful in all her assignments and has not been compromised as of yet. She’ll be a well-needed asset when you reach the location.”

Kakashi scanned the piece of paper once again. The name was scribbled at the very bottom, near the blueprints of the hideout . There were small delicate markings done in pencil and it took him a moment to realise they were potential entrances and exits. Whoever this woman was, she had been preparing for a while.

“The Queen of Diamonds?” The only sign that the words were a question was the slight lilt at the end of Tenzo’s voice. 
“Ah.”

The back of Kakashi’s mind prickled. He had heard that name before. The nagging persisted as the Hokage went on explaining more details about the mission. Like a silk thread, no matter how much he chased after it, the memory kept on slipping between his fingers. Eventually, he had to push the notion to the side and pay attention. Whoever she was, he’d meet her soon enough.

“You leave at dawn.”

 

The plan for the evening had been to meet up with Kaya for dinner; she had been trying to coerce him to be sociable for weeks. It seemed to be her life’s mission to break him out of his shell and drag him into the open. Kakashi liked the shadows, preferred their calm complacency and the secure anonymity they offered. In the end, she had used foul play (namely teasing) and managed to rip a promise from between his lips. Seeing her smile, a mixture of victory and happiness had made it worth it. Now, with the mission meddling his plans, and that name lodged into his mind like a splinter, his mood soured to a level he’d rather keep in check in the safety of his home. 

So, naturally, he did what any man would do (or so he thought) and sent her a message via Pakkun. 

 

 Sorry, won’t be able to make it tonight. 

                                     -K  

 

 

***

 

The only thing that kept Kaya from plunging headfirst into a murderous rage upon receiving the message was Pakkun’s scrunched up face as he jumped into her arms and plopped himself on her shoulder. She gave him an absent-minded pat as she took deep breaths, struggling to reign in her temper. Reading the note, he gave a little snort and shook his head. 

“I have to admit, Boss Lady, that’s a shitty excuse.”

The thin silver cord, the last shreds of composure, snapped with a twang and a whirlpool of emotions was set loose. With a vicious snarl, Kaya crumbled the paper and cannon-balled it across the room. Pakkun managed to jump off her shoulder and land on the couch before the inertia sent him flying. Crystals erupted like wildflowers from every surface as the kunoichi grabbed the nearest thing (a book) and hurled it as well. Glistening bursts of jade and onyx and a dozen other gems littered the shadows as emotions charged the air. The ninken shuddered - he almost dreaded thinking what she’d do when she met the silver-haired shinobi. Almost .

“Damn, she’s scary ...” his low mutter was muffled by a cloud of smoke as he vanished.

Chapter Text

The sun was just peeking from behind the horizon, painting the sky in a pomegranate shade that merged into the awakening blue, while the edges remained dusted in vermillion. Kaya, who had woken up late to begin with, found herself compelled to stop and watch as the golden disk rose in its shy morning glory, the cool nippy air reflecting its hues and bathing Konohagakure in the warmest shades of ochre. Perched on a high rooftop, she felt the light seep into her skin, chasing away the paleness from her cheeks. She had barely slept, emotions riddling her system until the wee hours when she had all but fainted into slumber only to be woken up by the shrill yell of the clock. No amount of food or coffee felt adequate in shrugging off the fatigue that clung to her bones. Nothing but the first rays of sunshine and the fresh air rushing through her lungs. Some of the weariness' acute edge faded out. 

It was a couple of minutes later when she startled out of her trans and ran, jumping from one rooftop to the other, a chain of curses following her like a banner. By the time the gates came into view, she was almost ten minutes late. The guards were rubbing the sleep out of their eyes and dragging their feet, their sloth-like motions discouraging any hope of her slipping through a crack between the gates. Instead, she covered the distance in a single leap and jumped over the edge, the ground rushing up to meet her. Two lonely figures waited on the side of the road, enveloped in the receding shadows, their backs to her.

“Morning!” she chirped apologetically as she jogged their way. “Sorry, I’m late. Got sidetracked-”

Halting abruptly, Kaya fought to suppress a startled exclamation from choking her. The men regarded her with no less amount of shock.

“Kaya-san?” Tenzo’s incredulous face would have made her giggle if her eyes weren’t glued to his companion.

Kakashi all but baulked. The momentous surprise was quickly overshadowed by realisations blooming like wildflowers, one after the other. She could all but see the pieces clicking into place. ‘Shit, shit, shit, shit! Why, of all the shinobi in Konoha, did you allocate them, Jiji?’ Her lips twitched into a sheepish smile as she fought the desire to flee.

“You’re the Queen of … oh.” Tenzo nodded, fingers scratching his cheek. “Actually, it makes sense.”

He seemed unbothered by the revelation; Kaya wasn’t sure how to take that, though she was inwardly breathing a sigh of relief. Kakashi, on the other hand, had a grim aura around him. 

“Since we have finally gathered,” a side-glance her way, “let’s get a move on. We’re wasting time.”

Turning on his heel, he was gone in an instant, leaving Kaya with her lips open but no words coming out, only a low wheezing breath. She clamped her mouth shut before the echo of her heart cracking could reverberate out.

“Give him time, Kaya-san.” Tenzo squeezed her shoulder, “he’ll come round eventually.”

She gave a weak smile in return. 

 

***

 

The hours slipped past in silence. Tenzo tried to engage Kaya in mindless conversation once or twice (a noble attempt for someone who lacked the needed conversational skills for it) but eventually noticed her vacant eyes and gave up. A few paces ahead of them, Kakashi jumped from branch to branch, his silver hair a beacon between the trees. The sharpness of his anger had simmered down to throbbing displeasure. The few times they had to stop for rest and food, he had kept to himself, or exchanged only a couple of words with Tenzo. Kaya was ignored, pushed to the margins of their small group as a punishment. Once Tenzo tried to reproach his friend for it but the sharpness of Kakashi's glare silenced any further retorts. 

Not much changed by the time they stopped to set up camp. Everyone went about their activities, Kakashi being the first to vanish, leaving Kaya and Tenzo staring at his back. They exchanged a glance - hers tried to hide the sadness that oozed off her like vapour, while he attempted to reassure her. ‘He’ll come round,’ his soft brown eyes promised. The kunoichi had to quickly walk away before he noticed the abundance of moisture she was desperately trying to blink away. 

There was a river not far off, its rapids jostling as they raced down around boulders and over half-fallen trees. The booming roar of a waterfall not far off electrified the air and chased away the buzzing in her ears. After so many hours of silence, the noise was harsh and bruising. She welcomed it. A good distraction was always needed. With a swift kick, her sandals came off and she waddled into the ice-cold water, its touch jolting her. ‘Keep on moving. This is a mission. Keep your head in the game!’ Once almost knee-deep, she stopped, her whole body strained against the raw power that pushed at her with a constant force. If she let even one muscle slacken, the current would drag her under and wash her downstream. 

‘I’m a boulder that cannot be moved. A wall that cannot be broken. I’m a force that will not be stopped. A diamond.’ The thudding of her heart slowed down and the nails leaving crescents into her palms slackened. The stiffness coiled between her shoulder blades unfurled. 

One.

Two.

Three.

Jade rods broke the surface of the water, each drenched in murky blood. The greenish scales of the trouts glistened with water droplets, their bodies spasming and tossing in vain attempts to escape. After a couple of seconds, they stilled. Kaya made sure her eyes remained focused on them the whole time, fighting the need to look away or worse - let them go. No matter how many times she told herself they were just food, nutrients, things her body needed to survive, killing animals never became any easier. Taking life that wasn’t hers for the taking made her nauseous. She collected the catch with shaking hands and steely eyes. The time for weakness was over. 

The evening passed in an oppressive silence, with only a few occasional words exchanged between them. Kaya was studying the mission details and the blueprints of the hideout, memorising each and every little tick. Around them, the forest slept. 

Immersed within the safety of her buzzing mind, into possibilities and probabilities, potential problems and their solutions, Kaya didn’t notice Tenzo going to bed, or Kakashi staring at her from across the flames. 

“You lied to me,” the words startled her.

Her head snapped up, eyes fixed on the Jōnin sitting on her right, legs crossed and head tipped back, seemingly gazing at the sky. ‘When did he-?’ She scanned their surroundings; it had gotten darker and anything beyond the soft circle of amber light was cast in heavy shadows. 

“Actually, no, I didn’t.” She focused on the scroll again, incapable of meeting his eye, “I just didn’t tell the whole truth. There’s a difference.”

“Is there?”

“Yes. One is intentional concealment of facts, often done with unclear and malicious intentions, while the other is a simple omission.”

Pinpricks scaled the side of her face. Frustrated, she put the scroll away and faced him. 

“What do you want me to tell you, Kakashi? That I’m sorry?” A log popped and fell, scattering a shower of embers. “Because I am.”

“Then why didn’t you tell me?”

“Would you have told me you were an Anbu?”

His eye narrowed the grey darkening. 

“That’s different.”

“Is it?” An eyebrow rose and a small smile tugged at her lips. “How is your secret identity any different than mine?”

The silence stretched for a few minutes. They both watched as the flames shuddered and danced under the breeze’s song. A dull headache pulsated in the back of her skull and vaguely Kaya realised she was drained. Being at odds with him was taxing.

“Look, I’m sorry you are displeased but under the circumstances, there was no way for me to tell you without compromising myself. And unlike you, I don’t have a job to fall back into. There’s no safety net for me. After this mission is over...”

She didn’t finish, her lips forming a straight line. Leaning forward, Kaya rested her head in her hands, the balls of her palms pressing into her eyes with such zeal she could easily shove the orbs into her skull or crack the tender sockets. A deep sigh whooshed out. After a second, she pulled herself back up.  

“You are still a kunoichi.”

“An un-active Chūnin. There aren’t many options - it’s either gonna be re-qualification or simply quit and become a civilian.”

At the last part, her face scrunched up in distaste. Her shinobi life was the only thing keeping her relatives at bay-

The realisation came down upon her so hard she gasped. After everything that happened, she had temporarily forgotten that there was no Clan to speak of that she needed to worry about. ‘They disowned me.’ A hand covered her mouth before the hysterical cackle could escape. Kakashi’s expression darkened. If he didn’t know better, he’d have thought her at the verge of snapping. 

“God, it’s even worse than I thought,” she whispered, the words muffled against her palm, “I don’t even have civilian duties to return to.”

“But your Clan-”

“They disowned me.”

Kakashi was pretty sure he misheard. It was unheard of for Heirs or Heiresses to get disowned, no matter how bad they mucked up. And yet … He finally acknowledged the air of unease that hovered around her like an early morning mist - anxiety and apprehension were masked under layer upon layer of the usual blasé façade. Too caught up in feeling betrayed, he hadn’t noticed what had been right before him; how much the woman he cared for was bleeding, in silence, shunned by his wounded pride. The tight knot in his stomach burned and darkness unspooled within him. Her family had abandoned her and then for one dreadful day, so had he.

“What happened?”

The pressure that had sizzled between them quelled. The softness in his voice masked the anger that left his heart racing. The need to touch her, comfort her, was almost painful. 

Another deep sigh. 

“Yesterday was just a disaster from start to finish.” There wasn't any accusation in the words, yet Kakashi flinched. “The gist of it is that my father told me I was to marry in two weeks, I said no and as punishment he disowned me.”

The flames reflected in her eyes, painting them yellow and red. Sharp teeth irritated her bottom lip and she cracked her knuckles a couple of times, letting the eerie pop echo away before repeating the action on the other hand. 

When Kakashi pulled her into his lap and wrapped his hands around her hunched frame, he almost expected her to retaliate, tell him off, wriggle free or simply glare. Instead, she snuggled closer, burying her face in the crook of his neck. There were no tears or sobs or any emotional outbursts, just barely perceptible shivering and her hot breath caressing his neck in uneven intervals. The reigns of her self-control were pulled taut, not letting the facade slip or crack. As he stroked her hair, resting his cheek on top of her head, he wondered how long she’d last before she snapped like the overstrained string of a violin. His grip tightened. 

 

***

 

“Him,” Kaya pointed at the stout man entering the tea house, his obnoxious purple vest a glaring contrast against all the muted earthy tones, “he’s our ticket in.”

“How do we get him out?” Tenzo eyed the building.

Squat and covered in a thick coat of mud-brown paint, the tea house's single distinctive feature were the red banners billowing in the wind. At first glance, it looked a bit dodgy - a place where illegal transactions occurred or maybe a very poorly run-down drinking house. An untrained eye would not spot the ninjas lurking in the shadows, the glint of their weapons reflecting the weak sunlight, or the markings on the facade. There were hundreds of them. Few knew they were tally marks - for every single man or woman killed attempting to get in or get out. It was the most imposing warning Kaya had ever come across - spiked heads would have been less off-putting.

“We don’t. It’s a matter of getting in.” Kaya’s eyebrows furrowed as a pair walked in. 

The woman was tall, her purple hair pulled in a fierce ponytail at the top of her head. A billowing robe, once a lavish garment that was now faded and tattered around the edges, was fastened with a sash and hid an assortment of weapons. The man was unimposing - plain features and plain build comprised an individual who would not stand out in a crowd. Kaya took extra pains to memories the lines of his face, the brown of his hair, the built of his frame before the pair vanished inside. ‘It’s the inconspicuous ones I need to be wary of,’ she reminded herself.  

“Do they have a special hand sign or something?” Kakashi had been frowning ever since she told them they needed a password to get into the hideout. A password known only by a few selected individuals.

“If only it was that sophisticated,” she mumbled and moved away, letting the branches close with a soft rustle.

The tree was one of the tallest ones around and offered good vantage point of the tea house; they had to dispatch the shinobi posted to guard it. The men followed her as they made their way deeper into the forest. 

“I’ve seen some of the people that just entered before. There’s nothing in common between them - some are drug lords or second or third sons, and the couple that just went in are assassins.”

“Then how did they all walk past the guards?”

“Frankly,” she scratched the back of her head, “I think they just faked it.”

The men stared at her blankly. 

“If you act as if you belong there, they let you in. It’s not a place for the weak-hearted. That’s my guess.”

“You plan to entrust our mission's successes on a hunch?”

After last night, the things between her and Kakashi had calmed down a bit. He still held a grudge (like the toddler he was) but there was no more prolonged silence or intense glares. Now he questioned her at every turn.

“If you have any better suggestions, I’m all ears.”

Crossing her hands under her breasts, she eyed him expectantly. She was the spy here, the one that had been infiltrating places way worse than this. Her ‘hunches’ had never let her down.

“I agree with Kaya-san, Kakashi-san. There doesn’t seem to be anything connecting these people.”

“So we just walk in there?” 

“No,” Kaya’s eyes narrowed as she unfastened her hair, letting the long red tresses spill over her shoulders and down her back, “‘we’ are not going anywhere. You two stay here and keep watch while I go in, get the password, and get out.”

“No.” The men’s voices clashed, each eager to halt her.

“You’re not going there by yourself,” Kakashi’s fingers wrapped around her upper arm.

Grey clashed with a mixture of green and brown. The frown altering her features was threatening to become a vicious scowl. If he thought he could boss her around just because he was an Anbu, he was sorely mistaken. As her lips parted, Tenzo spoke up.

“What Kakashi-san meant is that it will be unsafe for you to venture alone as we don’t know what that building houses. You might get trapped. And if they figure out who you are-”

“They will not.”

“How can you be so certain?” Kakashi was unrelenting, grip tightening ever so slightly.

Honey-scented chakra dug into his side and he released her, rubbing the sore spot.

“Because they probably already know. My reputation precedes me.”

They wandered deeper into the forest, away from scouts or any open spaces. The men trudged behind, sharing a look. Neither was happy with her plan and the fact that whatever criminals and scum lurked in the tea house knew who Kaya was. Sending her in alone sounded like a suicide. 

“Not to mention we will raise suspicion if we all waltz in there. It’s best if I go alone.”

Once they were a safe distance away, Kaya pulled her cloak away and unfastened her travelling bag. It dropped on the ground with a low thud. The next step was to methodically part her hair and twist the upper layer in a knot, pinning it with the sembons. Kakashi and Tenzo silently observed the preparations. When she pulled a mask out, they both flinched. They had seen drawings of it, usually with a hefty reward written underneath. And the words Dead rather than Alive added as a postscript. Securing the porcelain in place, Kaya fastened her cloak back on, pulling the heavy hood low over her forehead and letting the long blood-red tresses tumble down across her chest. 

The demonic kitsune mask glowered in the soft afternoon light.

 

He held his breath as Kaya neared the entrance of the tea house. The men lurking in the shadows leaned forward, the gleam of their weapons painting their faces in light patches. Kakashi could spot narrowed eyes and rotten teeth peeking from between snarling grins. The sun slanted across the sky and a breeze scurried across the street, lifting clouds of dust. It spun around Kaya’s legs like a dog as she calmly proceeded. The men looked ready to pounce and as if having sensed their intentions, she tilted her head up ever so slightly, giving her chin a regal tilt. Immediately the ninjas retreated. The shadows around them thickened but Kakashi managed to spot the fearful contortions of their faces, the stolen glances, the pale skin. Kaya stepped over the threshold and was gone.

Chapter Text

The inside was a stark contrast to the outside - every corner housed signs of opulence  - rich draperies hung in heavy folds from the walls, plush cushions littered the floor, a heady cloud of incense masked an underlayer of unmistakable intoxicating sweetness. As she ventured further into the establishment, Kaya forced herself not to rush; her steps were paced and soft, not a single floorboard giving away her movement. Hidden behind the mask, her eyes darted around, noting the occupants - some stopped mid-conversation and openly gawked as she made her way. The incense burners multiplied the further she moved from the entrance, the opium clouds growing denser. They wrapped around her head like cotton candy, sneaking around the periphery and gradually dulling the sharpness of her mind. In three measured strides, she was at the screen door, sliding it open and filling her lungs with air. The teeth-rotting sweetness almost made her part with her breakfast. Forcing the bile down, she scanned the back yard.

The open courtyard had once been a lavish garden with a big marble fountain in the centre and willowy trees and bushes filling every plot of land. Under the merciless glare of the sun, the scenery resembled a garbage disposal dump - rotting food lingered half-buried in the soil next to tattered clothes and junk that formed great piles; rags snagged on thorns and branches flapped like tiny flags in the wind. The stench was eye-watering - a thick decomposing sweetness that stuck to Kaya's skin like perspiration, a tacky layer of condensation underneath her mask. Holding her breath, she marched ahead, sidestepping any peculiar-looking puddles or heaps, ducking underneath the low-hanging branches and eyeing anything that twitched with no small amount of distrust. Once safely on the other side (she made sure to not pay too close attention to the surrounding garbage - there was no need to know whether the smell of a rotting corpse was courtesy of a human or an animal), she exhaled. The smaller building, once a guest house, was derelict and obscured by shadows. The roof was sunken in on this end, the porch served as a death-trap and the windowpanes had all but caved in after years of humidity and neglect. Despite the need to put more distance between her and the rot, Kaya stood still and listened. The initial silence, disturbed only by the low buzz of voices coming from the main building, receded. Arguing hummed to life. There wasn’t any shouting yet, but the volume was enough to muffle any potential sound she would make while finding her way around. The sharp edge of a kunai caught the sun’s rays and reflected a bold slash across the peeling paint. Kaya gripped the handle and stilled her nerves - there was no going back now and she only got one shot. If she failed, the mission would be over before it even started. Kazu would be lost and with him - many more innocent lives down the line.

 

The shadows surrounding the building were thick; a space where the unattended trees, shrubs and weeds had taken hold and ruled supreme. Kaya decided to disregard the possibilities of what might be lurking there - from dead rats to faeces - and crept closer. Gingerly, she picked her way, senses strained to detect any sound or movement. Confined in a room at the very back, the man from earlier was engaged in a heated argument with an older male whose shrivelled skin reminded her of prunes left in the sun for way too long. Too busy barking at each other, gesturing and shaking fists, they didn’t sense her until it was too late. The crystal trap snapped its jaws shut around them, capturing the shock morphing their features. Kaya vaulted over the windowsill and made her way towards the target, his starch-pale face staring at her through the transparent shell of the quarts.

“It will be in your best interest to cooperate, Toro-san.”

A defiant spark flashed in the bleak brown eyes, but the crystal’s steady pulse, mimicking Kaya’s, drew the blood away from his face. The walls tightened and small needless pierced the skin, blocking chakra paths.

“As I said, it’s in your best interest to tell me what I want to know.”

The quartz receded from his face, exposing pockmarked skin, a flat nose and swollen under-eyes. 

“You!” He sputtered accusingly, fear reeking off him in heavy fumes. 

“What’s the password to enter the Hoshi hideout?”

He glowered, pressing his lips shut. The quartz shifted once again, moving his body and stretching his limbs. 

“Don’t make me repeat myself.”

The mask hid the thin sheen of perspiration coating Kaya’s brow. Any second wasted was an invitation for the assassins in the other building to sense her and come hurdling in. 

“I… I d-don’t know,” the words were barely intelligible, slipping from between his gritted teeth.

The quartz soundlessly rearranged once again until Toro-san's limbs were stretched in all four directions to their maximum. A low popping of joints echoed in the silence as Kaya leaned back and sat on a throne made of big rough chunks of gems. Ruby gleamed behind her head like a trapped flame while onyx devoured the lower part, camouflaging her legs. It was as much for show as an alleviation for her sore muscles - the gruelling pace Kakashi and Tenzo had insisted on had almost left her feet throbbing. Regal and intimidating, with one arm tossed over the side of the armrest while the other supporting her chin, she waited. Years of gathering information had taught her that fear of what she could do outweighed any actual damage she did. It was the anticipation that made them crack.

“The password, Toro-san. Unless you want me to reshape you?”

His hands began a gradual movement backwards, a twisting motion that resulted in his palms facing upwards. The slow tug did not stop and panic dampened any pretence of bravery. She could see it, primal fear creeping at the corners of his being, gnawing away at what little self-possession he had. The men loyal only to themselves moulded like putty in her hands - no guilt or sense of duty bound them to their employers. Only fear. And with the Demonic Kitsune sitting no more than two feet away, the soft glow of the candle casting dancing shadows against the smooth porcelain of the mask and the throne’s sharp edges, Toro-san quickly realised whose wrath he feared more. 

“Okay, okay, okay! Just … just make it stop! Please!”

A small smirk curled her lips.

 

Getting out of the tea house had proven to be less of a challenge and more of a nuisance. The derelict back building rested against a stone wall, which in turn marked the edge of a moat. Climbing the unsteady rooftop was one thing, strolling away on the wall in bright daylight - quite another. Yet with no other options available (there was no way she could walk out the way she came in), Kaya braced herself and climbed the stones and once at the top, vaulted over the edge and used chakra to keep her footing as she dashed away.  It turned out that running when in horizontal position was more taxing on her muscles than anticipated. By the time she reached the place Kakashi and Tenzo were waiting, she was out of breath.

After a quick change of appearance, they teleported closer to the Hoshi hideout. It looked abandoned. With the sun beating against their backs and the impending sense of time ticking away, they ventured in, on high alert but still unprepared for what greeted them.

 

***

 

Tap-tap-tap.

Kaya’s hurried steps, as soft as a feline’s, resonated in the absolute silence of the hallway. The torches’ flickering flame shuddered as she slipped past. Blinking away the dust particles that spun in the air and fighting the cough that itched in her throat (she might or might not have swallowed a lungful of dust) she peered around yet another corner. She had left the rubble of the fall at least an hour ago and was still to come across anyone. It all looked the same - floors coated in thick layers of dust that captured the imprints of her steps, stale air that irritated her windpipe, and endless hallways. One after the other, they branched out in what seemed like a million different ways. Kaya was no closer to getting out now than she had been in the beginning.  

Tap-tap-tap , her steps measured the beats of her heart as she turned yet another corner and entered a vast gallery. Halting, she made a move to duck into the shadows, cursing her carelessness for not checking the perimeter, when her eyes snagged on a movement in the shadows. Frozen in place, she watched the soft swaying as the air whooshed out of her lungs in a single low gasp. Her eyes widened as she finally managed to make out the details of the ghastly scene. Time halted.

Suspended from his wrists, Kakashi swayed under the soft tune of a lyricless song. His top was practically gone, only tattered shreds hanging around his waist that revealed toned muscles; the ivory skin had been desecrated, a number of cuts weeping softly. Under the hazy light filtering in through a broken lantern, he looked dead - there was no rise or fall of his chest that Kaya could account for. His chin rested on his chest and his ruffled grey hair fell limply across his face.

In the gut-punching silence, Kaya heard it loud and clear.

 

Drip - Drip - Drip

 

“So you finally showed up? Took you long enough. Wasn’t sure how much more he’d last, and I’d have hated it if you missed his last breath, Your Highness .” The female voice was a low mocking menace, snapping Kaya out of her stupor. 

Leaning on a chunk of the fallen ceiling, a woman twirled a kunai between her fingers, eyes trained on the kunoichi. Her long purple hair was pulled into a high ponytail, revealing austere features. The assassin from the tea house, Kaya realised. Stealing another glance at Kakashi’s motionless body, its soft sway making her nauseous, she decided she didn’t need to know who this woman was; she was going to kill her either way.

“Do you appreciate my handy work?” She gestured at the wounds on the male’s body with the handle of a whip.

The weapon was coiled around her wrist like a snake, twisting all the way up to her elbow. ‘She has whipped him,’ the realisation struck a myriad of emotions - crippling shock and fear, but also a blazing river of fury and hatred.  Gritting her teeth, Kaya fought to restrain the beast that lunged with her, murderous with the desire to rip the woman to shreds. Following her gaze, the enemy ninja smirked, stroking the whip’s length.

“I’m Aoa, the Whipcracker, part of the Circus.”

The names all struck a chord in the kunoichi’s memory. Cabinets upon cabinets with stored information flew open and banged shut until she found what she needed. ‘The Circus - a group of carefully selected assassins. Most are S-class criminals. Affinity to fighting as if they are performing. Easy to underestimate due to their theatrics. The Whipcracker - female, early thirties, has killed over thirty opponents in direct combat by using a chakra-devouring whip as a main weapon of choice. No records of having been bested. Potential weaknesses - close-range combat. Affirmed weaknesses - none.’ Clipped and concise, the details flooded Kaya’s mind before seeping back below the surface, leaving her seething and eyeing her opponent in a new light. ‘If the Hoshi and the Circus are working together, we are in serious trouble,’ her hands balled into fists, making the leather creak sadly.

“You do know you’re not getting out of here alive, right?”

A wave of honey-scented chakra snaked across the floor and wove around Kakashi’s suspended body. To her greatest relief, a low charge fizzled through her and a whiff of a thunderstorm filled her senses, calming down the spasms in her chest. Kaya would have laughed with relief if the woman across the room wasn’t glowering. ‘She somehow managed to defeat Kakashi. I must be careful.’ A darker, angrier voice hissed that she needed to strike true and end it quick. 

The whip unfurled with a crack, making the silence shudder. Goosebumps travelled down Kaya’s spine as she eyed the weapon - there was a chakra pattern coursing through it that emulated the one of its wielder and a hungry hum that was disturbingly similar to that of the Samehada. Aoa raised a hand, preparing to a strike.

“Lay another scratch on him and I will grind your bones to dust,” the growl was low and feral, rumbling from within Kaya’s chest cavity like a trapped thunder.

The assassin halted, eyes widened in mild shock before narrowing into slits - there was a predatory smirk that made her uncomfortable to look at.

“I thought Her Highness didn’t kill?”

“Don’t worry - you’ll remain alive … just.”

And with that, they lunged at each other. Kaya had never had to face a gluttonous whip (or any whip for that mattered) but she had dealt with a sword that had just as ravenous glower to it. It was a couple of minutes later, after she had successfully managed to evade a swing, that she seemingly misaimed an attack, resulting in a shard of quarts flying through the air and cutting the ropes holding Kakashi. The victory was short-lived as searing pain licked a path up her calf. With a hiss, Kaya jumped away, sending a wave of jade smashing through the floor and knocking Aoa off her feet and into a wall. The cut, no longer than a few centimetres, stung like a hornet’s bite and bled profusely. With no chakra to spare, she plastered a thin layer of diamond coating over it and charged again. 

Three more strikes later a profusion of blood was making the floor slippery, and Kaya was running short on patience and ideas. Dread filtered through her bloodstream in equal measures to adrenaline and hate, and too soon she found her mind discarding her vow to never take a life again. ‘It’s me or her.’ Stumbling back on her feet, she assessed her surrounding for a moment. The spot Kakashi had collapsed onto was empty; instead, there was a trail of blood drawing leading towards a cluster of crystals and blocks of concrete a few feet away. ‘Kakashi, Tenzo, Kazu ... they all count on me. I can’t fail. I can’t die.’ And with that, Kaya sent a silent prayer to whoever was listening and activated her tattoos. The chakra surged through her system like a warm hug and under the influx, her pathways buzzed to life. Wasting no time, she quickly formed the hand signs. The crack of the whip split the silence, the movement no more than a blur. 

“Kai!”

This time there was no painful sting, no flesh torn open - just the sensation of something leeching off her like a tick. The whip was twisted around her left upper arm, the rope pulled tautly. The diamond armour gleamed in the low light, catching the fleeting glances of the torches. Kaya grabbed a hold of the whip’s end and pulled it away, twisting it around her hand.

“Not this time, you bitch!” The hiss was muted by a startled yelp as she pulled with all her might.

Aoa’s firm grip left her unprepared for the change of tactic as she was yanked across the room and right into Kaya’s awaiting first. Upon impact, a sickening crunch and the ripping of flesh filled the space between the two women before the assassin was sent flying back, smashing into the stonewall. The sound made Kaya shudder as bile burned in the back of her throat and a faint tremor threatened to topple her over. ‘Think of Kakashi! And Tenzo! Think of them! They need you!’ The whip hung limply from her grasp, disconnected from its wielder’s chakra manipulation. Kaya let it slip between her fingers and fall on the floor, right into the waiting jaws of an onyx. In a heartbeat, both were gone. 

“Aoa!” A male voice boomed as shadows darted through an opening on the other end.

“Shit!” 

Kaya ducked away and slid across the floor as a fireball flew over her head. Another one burned a line across the room, followed by a dozen smaller ones. The temperature quickly rose. Scurrying away, the kunoichi hid behind a half-crumbled column, trying to regain her breath. The armour was heavy, not meant for swift movement, and it had almost impedimented her retreat. ‘I imagine being bald would not suit me.’ When the guy launched yet another attack, she summoned a wall of moonstone as a shield before sending forth jade daggers that sprouted like grass from the ground. A string of grunts and hissed curses echoed. 

“You’ll pay for that you little-”

The tail-end of the sentence was devoured by a high-pitched screech that charged the air with a voltage that sent Kaya stumbling back, the fine hairs on her arms standing up. She recognised the sound. 

He appeared by her side moments later, small coils of electricity jumping off his skin, slipping between his fingers and through his hair. The blood-red pool of the Sharingan reflected the glow of her green eye. 

“You okay?” She whispered, unwilling to let her voice waver.

“I’ll manage,” he peeled his gaze away from her face and nodded at the wounds. “You?”

“Scratches. Let’s get out of here.”

Silently, he followed her out of the room. There wasn’t any time to stop and think of a plan, only enough to dismiss her armour, as they needed to move quickly. They ran down the deserted hallways as the chakra wave Kaya sent ahead scanned for familiar signatures. The echoing thud of their footsteps was taken up by the absolute silence of the hideout and blown out of proportion. It sounded like they were being followed from every corner. The place was a ghost town. The few men that had lurked about had put quite the offensive, but it had not been enough - two trappers and an attacker had breached through easily enough. Now that the Circus was added to the equation, Kaya felt uneasy. She shared some of her concerns and observations with Kakashi as they turned corner after corner, trying to find a way out. Their team’s untimely separation had not been part of the plan, but as the floor had collapsed and the whole structure had come alive and sent them scrambling for ground, she had been tossed down the lower levels, losing sight of her comrades. In the belly of the underground maze, dread had almost sent her into hyperventilation but she had managed to push her way through and climb back up. Now they just needed to find Tenzo and Kazu and get the hell out of there.

The torches were spaced far apart, bathing most of the hallway in darkness, the flickering shadows trembling as the two shinobi sped past them. A low familiar bleep almost made Kaya trip over her own feet as she halted.

“Found him,” she huffed, out of breath. “Three levels above us. There.” Her finger pointed at the top right corner.

“Alone?”

“No.” A frown tugged at the gash above her eyebrow, forcing her to relax her features. “We must hurry.”

Kakashi scanned the corridor. They were close to a bigger crossroads and each of the six sleeves looked identical to the others. There were no steps imprinted in the thick layer of dust that coated the floor, or any other indicators of someone having been here. With a low curse, he began making the signs to summon his pack, but Kaya stopped him.

“Wait,” her fingers wrapped around his wrist, eyes still focused on the spot where Tenzo was, levels above them. “I can get us there.”

“Breaking through the rocks might get the whole thing to collapse on top of us.”

“Have some faith in me, Kakashi,” the smirk she gave him was almost cocky.

His curt nod made her smile and the sharp cut of his tired features softened. Covered in grime and blood, trapped miles underground with a Jinjuriki that had been under the influence of opium and was probably unstable, afraid and confused, and a troop of enemy ninjas whose number was still unknown was not a situation that allowed for light mood. Yet within each other’s company, they felt an odd sense of ease.

“Stand behind me and wrap your hands around my middle.” He did as told, the pressure of his palms against her abdomen tentative and gentle. “Grab tight. It’s going to be rocky.”

His grip tightened, mindful of her injuries, his forearms tensing as he pressed flush against her. Kaya could feel the drumming of his heart, the warmth of his breath against her hair, the power that radiated off him in waves, engulfing her in a humming embrace. 

In the back of her mind, there was a logbook with all the hand signs she had ever memorised. Flicking feverishly through the pages, she found the pictures faded around the edges after years of neglect but still distinguishable. On their own accord, her hands moved, slowly at first, and then with more confidence. The chakra reserves she had opened still overflowed, washing through her system. She grasped at the strongest current and wove it into her stream. 

The ground shook and the flames shuddering underneath the lash of an unseen force. A cracking sound, like the breaking of ice, the forming of crystals , filled the silence. With her eyes squeezed shut, Kaya didn’t see a new world come to life around them - the ruby and sapphire crawled out of the shadows, covering the stones and reaching out towards them. Like lianas, they wove around the pair, loop after loop of red and deep blue and red again, forming a cocoon as the ground beneath their feet trembled. Dust and small chunks of rock fell from the ceiling, dusting their shoulders. Kakashi’s hands tightened their grip and he leaned forward, shielding Kaya. 

Diamond gobbled its way up around their legs, over their torsos, shoulders and finally heads. The panic that seized the silver-haired man ebbed away as he felt the kunoichi’s chakra ooze from within the very walls of her crystals. She was not planning to blast through the ceiling, he realised, an awed look on his face - she was going to dig . And as if his very thought triggered the process, through the transparent casing of the diamond he saw the outer layers sharpen and begin to turn. Slow and sluggish at first, they gradually picked up speed. Up the drill went, swivelling and bulldozing through layer upon layer of stone, earth, rocks and everything in-between. The sound was horrendous, grinding at their ears.  

It was over quicker than Kaya expected. One moment she felt like she’d be sick and the next - the shaking stopped and the layers of the drill unfurled like petals. She’d have breathed a sigh of relief and maybe even had a quick break (her legs trembled - the jutsu had gobbled almost all of the chakra she had stored in her rib tattoo) but her impeccable aim had positioned them smack in the middle of the battlefield. A water blast collided with the ruby and split, drowsing her from head to toe. 

“Took you long enough!” Tenzo’s voice was strained, breathless.

There was a thick throng of branches filling the majority of the hall. Like everything in the hideout, it was derelict, long-abandoned and at the verge of collapsing. Most of the main columns were gone and wooden beams were erected in their place to support the weight of the ceiling. Gulping and pulling her gaze away, Kaya focused on their opponents. There were four of them - all faces she knew from the files she had stolen not so long ago. The Circus’ best. ‘Of course.’

“Thought we got rid of the diamond bitch!?”

Hers was not an ability easily forgotten, especially not after she had wrecked as much havoc as possible and left the Hoski hideouts in ruin more than once. A tight smile pulled at her lips as she readjusted her posture and pulled a kunai out of her pouch. Four against three - not great odds, not when she was unsure of Kakashi’s state and Tenzo seemed about to collapse. If it came down to it, it will be up to her to buy them time to get out of there. The thought made her grimace and scoff - she could already hear their arguments and rejections. ‘Men, so prideful.’ 

“Not yet.” 

She’d get her teammates to safety if it was the last thing she did. This time, she would not fail. 

 

***

 

Blood gushed from between her fingertips as she clutched her side. The massive shuriken had been hard to evade to begin with - the speed and manoeuvrability of it compared to nothing she’d ever seen before. To spite her further, it had also spun backwards, the bastard. As soon as she ducked and dived, thankful to have her head still attached to her shoulders, the blasted thing came right back at her, readjusted by thin chakra strings. Kakashi’s warning had come a second too late and her Kekkei Genkai, already at its limits due to her depleted reserves, hadn’t responded on time. The metal bit into her side, knocking the air out of her lungs and sending her on the floor. The wound was bleeding so profusely it took a whole minute for the diamond casing to close over it. Kakashi and Tenzo were no better off - out of breath, with sweat trickling down their foreheads and their eyes losing focus every time they stopped moving. All three of them were solely propelled on adrenalin, but how long would that last? 

Kaya scanned the other end of the room, the thick curtain of dust finally settling. Half the ceiling had come down with little coercion. Two of their opponents were already dispatched and the other two didn’t look much better. Wincing, Kaya readjusted her weight on her right leg. The left one sported a deep cut that split it from hip-bone to kneecap and the dull pulsation had subsided into worrying numbness. She hadn’t sensed the man sneaking from behind, too focused on blocking another of the water missiles and diverting the boulders aimed at Tenzo. The assassin had come inches away from killing her. Somehow, from across the room, Kakashi had intervened. The pain in her leg had been debilitating that it had prevented her from reacting accordingly to the still-warm corpse sprawled on her feet. She had collapsed with a barely stifled string of curses. 

‘I can’t go anywhere with this leg,’ she eyed the wound once again, ‘but I can win them some time.’ Her heart grew heavy and sat low in her stomach. Licking her lips, she assessed the ceiling once again. ‘It won’t take much.’ Yet as the plan took shape, tears filled her eyes. This was not how she wanted to go, but she’d be damned if she let them all die for nought. 

“I have a plan.” There was no need to shout, the battle had brought the three of them closer, each having the others’ backs.

Tenzo looked at her while Kakashi twisted at the middle, angling himself so that he’d be able to spot any potential attacks while simultaneously having her in his line of sight. There was blood trickling down his face - the Sharingan eye was not faring well under the extensive use and Kaya could all but feel the pain emanating from his body. And still, he somehow managed to steal her breath away with his brazen ferocity. Shirtless, with gashes crisscrossing his chest, his gloves in tatters and his mask almost gone, he looked dangerous, feral. His hair was sticking in every possible direction where blood had not matted it, his Hitai-ate long gone. She drank him in, searing this image of a fearless warrior into her memory. This was what she wanted to see when the rocks and dirt came crashing down. Him, the man she cared for, looking ready to tear the world apart with his bare hands. Blinking away the tears, she cleared her throat and focused her attention on the other end of the room. Vague shapes shuffled and moved; coughs and curses filled the air.

“Take the boy and go.”

Their eyes burned holes in her skin, the shock a palpable force within their small circle, yet she kept her gaze trained straight ahead. There were too many emotions bubbling to the surface for her to be able to look them in the eye and speak the words. Too much fear and disappointment, sadness and regret, for it to be the last image they had of her.  

“I can’t get far with this leg so take Kazu and get out of here. I’ll hold them back. Buy you some time.”

“Kaya-”

“Go!”

Her head whipped his way, tears blurring his image. Somehow, she forced a smile. ‘Be brave, pebble.’ The voice was familiar, a husky rumble with an unnatural softness to it. A sound she loved as it was so similar to his son’s. 

“Trust me.”

He shook his head, the silver tresses shuddering. The pain in his eyes tore at her, squeezing like a vice and knocking the air out of her lungs. Her lips moved, but no sound came out. She wished she could tell him that it would be fine; that she’d find them later. 

“It’s alright, Kakashi. Go.”

Her teeth made a low scraping sound as she gritted them, the wobble in her chin a painful reminder of her fragility. She would not break. Not now. Not when it mattered most that she remained strong. 

He made a move to near her but jade erupted from the floor, intercepting him. ‘Go,’ she mouthed and gave Tenzo a final look. The lines on the brunet's face made him look older, the set of his jaw and the furrow between his eyebrows the only vociferating of disapproval, of regret and sorrow. After a tense moment, he nodded.

Kaya turned and balled her hands into fists. The end of the kunai dug into her palm, imprinting a semicircle into the irritated flesh. The voices echoing from the other end grew louder, angrier. The thud of rocks being pushed away whisked her words away.

“Hurry.”

A final glance at Kakashi was all she allowed herself. That single look conveyed all the emotions she could not utter - the love, the regret, the gratitude. All of it. He looked broken - the grey was dulled, the sharpness was gone and even the ruby Sharingan seemed faded. Shaking his head, he took another step her way.

“Kakashi-san!” 

The moment shattered and Kaya jumped forward, spotting an attack. Putting herself between the enemy and her friends, she vowed she’d intercept anything, break anything, kill anyone, for them. For him. Taking a deep breath and burying the painful spasms of her heart deep beneath the rubble of regrets, Kaya activated the diamond armour once again. The gemstone’s coolness soothed the burning aches of her body. The world became a bit quieter as it covered her from head to toe. 

“I love you,” she whispered without turning, without checking if he heard, and charged.

 

***

 

The ground shook with seismic convulsions, splintering like wood and giving in. An impenetrable cloud of dust rose high and choked the air as chunks of soil and rubble scattered in every direction. The eruption hacked at everything within a ten-mile radius, a variety of gemstones glimmering amongst the debris. The heavy smell of honey permeated the air. Beasts and birds fled; many fell between the cracks or got dragged down with the uprooted trees. The sound was deafening - the groan of a beast as its breast was ripped open, followed by the howl of an empty orifice being filled. The wheezing air, the wailing of life being swept away in an avalanche as everything suddenly collapsed onto itself. From being blasted up, up, up, it all suddenly fell - down, down, down. The ground trembled as layer upon layer of the hideout collapsed, filled with soil and dirt and stone. 

The silence came dragging a heavy stillness along - like two samurais, they stood to watch, swords pressed into the soil, fists gripping the space around them, calming the quivering caused by a life sacrificed in the name of peace. What had been a lush forest blooming with life less than a day ago was now a barren desolate plain. It was as if someone had turned that patch of land upside down - roots and the underbellies of rocks were graced with the dying sunlight after aeons of being enshrouded in darkness. 

A safe distance away, the men stopped and looked. Waited. The cloud of dust settled and was blown away by the wind. The ground’s soft groaning ceased. The periodic slips of soil hummed away as every crevice was filled. Still, they waited. Until the night sky unfolded fully above them into an inky canvas and the cool evening air caressed their injuries. 

“I’m sorry, Kakashi-san.”

The silver-haired man said nothing, eyes trained on the havoc a woman afraid of death had wrecked to save them. In the silence, he still heard the crack of her crystals as they came to life, barring the passage after them. The shattering of one, only for another to tear at the air. 

Crack-crack-crack-crack

The sound travelled around him, within him, filling his body. It was the sound of his heart splintering and disintegrating. Down into the darkness he slipped. It was familiar, safe. He had been there before. Alone. Where the walls were coated in blood - he could smell it, thick and hanging in the air like a threat. It trickled down into small puddles.

.

.

.

Drip

.

.

.

Drip

.

.

.

Drip

.

.

 

Fighting nausea and vaguely registering the stupor of denial he was in, Kakashi made a last sweeping search with his chakra, stretching it as far as he could and not caring to mask it or tone down the frequency. There wasn’t a living soul for miles.

Without a word, he turned on his heel and walked away. Tenzo followed, supporting Kazu’s limp body. Hearts heavy with loss dragged at their feet as the men headed towards the Village Hidden in Dreams. Silence shrouded the way there, their minds scattered like shattered diamonds; all the meanwhile, Kakashi could hear her final words echoing from every corner of his mind. 

I love you. I love you. I love you. ” Over and over again, as the moisture in his eyes grew then receded and he eventually grew numb. 

Chapter Text

A flash of light snuck beneath her closed eyelids, a persistent trespasser with no mercy. Something small, soft, a pinprick of a sensation, touched her skin. A hand rose to inspect it but it was already gone. Tilting her head back (or up, maybe sideways?) her gaze swept around as more particles twirled in slow sensual spirals.  

‘Snowflakes.’ The thought was a soft hush before the open space swallowed it.

“Where am I?”

Crisp blanched nothingness stretched in every direction, endlessly, as the snow kept on sprinkling her hair and shoulders. It took a bit more time (or maybe a lot? was there such a concept as time here? where is here?) before she noticed her bleached features. The skin stretched over her hands was milky, almost translucent. The dress hiding her body was the colour of pearls. Grasping a strand of hair and pulling it before her eyes, Kaya yelped. The long locks were the shade of seal pups' fur. Even without the aid of a mirror, she knew that her eyes were nothing but a washed-out version of their former glory. Whatever that might be.

“Hello? Anyone here?”

The questions stretched like dough, far far far, before collapsing onto themselves and rolling back to her feet. The place was encroached by stifling silence. ‘Am I dead?’ Once again, without her lips uttering the words, the question expanded and grew, rolling as far as it could before, like a sling, it snapped back, knocking into Kaya with such force the air wheezed out of her lungs. Bent over, with her hands resting on her knees, she tried to breathe in but there seemed to be no air left. Suffocating, shivering, she collapsed onto her side. Nails clawed at the nothingness, and then at her throat. 

“You are on the Cusp.” A disembodied voice breathed against her face, a cold presence washing away the hollowness with a fresh jolt of panic.

Shuddering, the invisible force that had seized her throat dispersed and Kaya inhaled shakily. Sitting up, her stinging eyes scanned the open space. Nothing.

“Who are you?” The words were like stones, clumsily tumbling out of her numb lips, apprehensive to venture forward when there was a field that seemed to repel them.

“You are stuck between life and death. One push can veer you either way.” 

Whoever was speaking seemed to reside behind her. Turning around, she was met by the daunting whiteness.

“Who are you? Show yourself!” Panic squeaked around the vowels. 

“I’m a shadow, unseen by the eyes of the living.”

“Is that why I can only hear you? Because I’m half-dead?”

A low hum at her right shoulder. Tilting her head slightly allowed for a glance over her shoulder with the corner of her eye. There, a shadow, a smudge. Amorphous darkness against all the whiteness. 

“How do I get out of here?”

“Live or die.”

“I don’t understand.”

There was a low disgruntled sound. 

“If you do nothing, you’ll die.”

“Then what must I do to survive?”

Silence. For a long moment, she feared the mysterious helper had left after delivering a final warning. If waiting was all it took for her to breach this line of in-betweenness and die, then she was running out of time. She needed to find a way out of here and back-

Back to what? Where had she come from? Where was she going? Try as she might, Kaya could not remember why she had even ended up in this place. There was a gap where her memories should have been - as if someone had reached in and simply plucked all the threads out, snapping connection, ruining paths, and leaving her stranded amid an open ocean of chaotic currents. She didn't manage to suppress a shudder that made her bones rattle or the low moan that ended as a pitiful howl. Her memories were gone. Wiped away. And with the - her identity. There was nothing to show for her life's turmoils and achievements. Nothing but pristine whiteness.

“You are finally understanding,” the voice whispered from her left.

A startled glance revealed a waver in the space, vague outlines of something that was only partially there. 

“If I remember, will I go back?”

“Maybe.”

“What’s that supposed to mean!?” She snapped, hands balling into fists.

Fear was quick to launch its tentacles into this new stream of emotions and all the fire bled out of Kaya, leaving her weak and disoriented. Tired, she wished only to rest. To lie down and sleep. Forget. The odd compulsion, reassuring and warm like a long hug, jarred the survivalist part of her brain and she jerked away. Glistening treads snapped and floated in the air like ripped spiderwebs. The invisible force, unsatisfied with its inability to suffocate her, had just tried to lull her to a quick death. If Kaya had been mildly apprehensive before, she was en route to be terrified.

“Tell me! What must I remember? Is it what happened before I died?”

“You must remember everything,” the shadow responded. 

A wave of dread washed over, making her skin prickle with goosebumps and lodging her heart in her throat. She didn’t understand why the notion of remembering filled her with such primal fear and for one prolonged moment, she didn’t want to know. Maybe she had forgotten for a reason. Maybe her life had followed its natural course to a conclusive end and she needed to accept it. Maybe-

A flint grey eye staring at her. A blot of grey. A ruby gleam. A deep husky voice calling her name.

The images surfaced from the thick grey fog, clawing its way through the murkiness of missing memories before being whisked away by the void, leaving behind only aching emptiness. Whoever that was, yanked at more than one thread holding Kaya together and all of a sudden she was gripped by a sense of finality; of coming apart, untangling and unspooling like a ball of yarn before disappearing into the same nothingness that she currently inhabited.

“Remember and live, or die in oblivion.”

Did she want to remember? If the notion frightened her so much, did she want to relive it? And what for? What if her life was awful and it was a mercy she was dead? Maybe there was no one out there than needed her or cared for her. Taking a deep breath, a meagre attempt to sooth the rallying emotions that fought to overpower her, she caught a whiff of something familiar. Another intake, deeper, two lungfuls, and still she could not get enough of it in to recognise it. Sniffing like a dog, she followed the trail, trying to find the source. 

‘Dog? Why a dog? Did I have a dog?’ The thoughts rippled and dispersed as another chestful of the smell filled her. It was warm, familiar, heady, musky, dangerous. Electrifying. Kaya didn’t realise she was running until she halted abruptly as another image burned to life in her mind. A jet black sky, frowning down at her. A flash of light. A distant low rumble. And then droplets over her face. One. Two. Three. Coming by the dozens. Rain. ‘A storm.’ More flashes of lightning split the sky, their cries piercing the stillness. ‘A thunderstorm.’ The grey eye reappeared, vibrant and in stark detail - she could see the blue rimming its edges, the long black eyelashes tipped in the softest silver. And emotions. So many emotions. A lake-full of feelings that spilt into her. Kaya stumbled back, a name lodged in her throat, perched at the tip of her tongue, but unutterable. Tears pricked her eyes and uncontrollable sobs wracked her frame. 

“Who… who...”

Blown by an unperceivable whiff, the image disintegrated. She chased after it, following the smell, begging him to come back. To save her. 

“Please...”

It was fading, slipping between her fingers like smoke. The memory smudged around the edges. Vanishing. ‘No!’ 

“No!”

The doubles bounced around her like bullets, ricocheting off unseen walls and aiming right back at her. Their sharpness cut deep and crimson tinted the white dress. Kaya stared at the splodge of colour in disbelief. It looked … familiar. A hand grasped a strand of hair and she pressed it against the open cut. The tip came off red. It no longer looked wrong. ‘My hair is red.’ The second the thought took root, a mass of red waves erupted from within the bleak white shell, cascading down her body. The purity of the scenery dimmed a notch and the snowflakes dancing around ceased their performance. Instead, droplets of rain pitter-pattered in the hollowed-out space of her mind. A whiff of a thunderstorm clung to the air. Closing her eyes, she saw a face - a male face, half-obstructed by a mask, mild eyes gazing at her, one grey, one red, and a mess of silver hair sticking out upright, defying gravity.

“Kakashi.”

It was a prayer, a fresh gulp of air, a plea, a moan and a gasp.  It was a memory.

The whiteness shattered into a million pieces. Like chunks of glass, each fraction reflected Kaya’s image back at her - stripped of any colour but the harsh red of her hair - before falling into the blackness that gaped open, bigger, wider, more intimidating with each heartbeat. She stood there, wide-eyed and staring in stunned silence as the scenery changed, one extreme giving way to another. And in the middle of it all was her, suspended above the gathering darkness until the only white spot was her dress - a feeble flag of surrender.

“Memory is the key to unlock the doors.” The voice of the shadow followed her as she sailed forward, dragged by a thin glittering thread looped around her middle. 

Her feet touched something cold. Wood, she realised upon looking down. Her gaze swept the space that put itself together out of the nothingness - the shapes and forms moulding and growing, creating a new world. Hallways upon hallways, stairways upon stairways, doors upon doors. It all panned out before her for as far as the eye could reach.
“Where am I?”

“Your mind. The memory department of it, at least.”

“It looks jumbled.” She spotted a staircase that was upside down and another that took a sharp left into a wall. There was a concerning number of ones that simply ended mid-air.

“You’re half-dead. What did you expect?”

She took a few cautious steps in. Her toes curled into a soft worn rug. 

“Must I open all of them?”

“Only some. The rest will come to you as you go along.”

“Which ones then?”

“Those you locked.”

Her eyes were on a small red door that had a symbol engraved into it, a nightingale in mid-flight when the shadow’s words filled the silence. The voice sounded decidedly male now. Looking over her shoulder, she found him lurking against the opposite wall, still no more than a formless blot, barely distinguishable from the darkness that lurked in the corners. At least his form no longer evaded her searching eyes.

“I locked them? Why?”

He scoffed and slipped down the hallway, stopping at the door she was looking at.

“Memory wounds. You didn’t want to hurt anymore.”

A claw-like appendage ran over the wood and Kaya realised she could still see the door’s texture through him. It unsettled her more than his hinted monstrosity did.

“So I need to remember everything bad to survive?”

“Not all of it is bad. It just hurts.”

He moved on, not waiting for her to follow. After a final glance at the cheery red door, Kaya moved along. The fast pace allowed only for the briefest of glances at the small plaques adorning each door. By the looks of it, they were all happy recollections from her childhood. She gazed at them with fondness.  ACADEMY and SISTERS and RIVER CLEARING (whatever that meant) were one of the few that stood out.

The rest slipped in a blur of colours and wisps of sensations - tastes, sounds, emotions. The memories, like long-lost soldiers, slowly crawled back home, where they belonged. She tried not to focus on them but rather let them settle in naturally. The hallway changed as they took a sharp right and the warmth seeped away as the small doors vanished. The wall stretched for what felt ages before a massive gate broke the repetitiveness of bricks. That had also changed, Kaya noted. The previous corridor had had buttercup yellow wallpapers. She paused for long enough to feel the cold gust of air slipping underneath the threshold and wrapping its tendrils around her bare ankles. A single word was etched into the marred surface of the wood. Cuts and burns and chips and hacks - as if someone had tried to knock the doors open. MISSIONS , the word warned. There was no time to peek in, but Kaya was certain that behind the gate lay another hallway, webwork of them even, with doors upon doors filled with memories. She vaguely wondered how many of them were nice. The shadow’s impatient grunt a few feet ahead spurred her on.

Eventually, they reached the deeper levels of her mind where the corridors became tunnels. The surface of the doors and at some places the walls were coated in a thick layer of something. Something semi-transparent and hard. Cold to the touch, yet pretty. ‘Crystals.’ The word came unbidden. It was like a punch to the gut that sent her reeling back.

“We’re close.”

The further they travelled, the more prominent the crystals' hold of the space became. Each step brought forward more emotions and recollections - vague outlines of memories, not enough to form pictures, but potent enough to reassure her there was nothing to be afraid of when in the gemstones’ presence. Big clusters sat in the corners or grew from the ceiling like flowers, from lustrous rubies to onyx as black as the darkness that awoke from within the light. And dazzling diamonds. Hundreds of them. Kaya’s fingers fondly traced their surface.

The doors here were bigger, sturdier, more worn down with use. Places she revisited often. Some looked more battered than others - opened and closed so many times they barely hung on their hinges. There was no indication as to what hid here - no shiny plaques or carved words. She passed on, peeking over her shoulder a couple of times, wondering whether she could catch a glimpse of something. Each time the crystal formations seemed to be leaning after her, their solid bodies shuffling forwards, reluctant to let her go. Kaya picked up her pace. They descended an inverted staircase (walking upside down would have been fun if she wasn’t terrified she’d fall and crack her skull open) and turned a corner. The hallway stretched before them was endless and bathed in a darkness that had a unique feel to it. The temperature dropped as the air shifted upon their arrival, making Kaya shiver, her breath coming out in small white clouds. A low hum filled the silence. Kaya’s steps echoed loud and clear as her sandaled feet connected with flagstones. ‘When did those appear?’ The thought slipped away before the imposing girt of the six doors that greeted her. They all seemed to be barred in one way or another - one had planks nailed across it, while another’s handle was missing. Nearing the closest one, she stared at the yellow crisscrossing tape that warned KEEP OUT with a slightly panicked look, the familiar sense of dread creeping up her back and making her sweat. She could just about make out the wooden surface of the door. There was something engraved into it and her fingers itched to trace it. 

“What are those?”

“Repressed memories. They locked them away.”

She snapped around.

“Someone else’s been here?”

He seemed to nod, or tilt his head to the side - an affirmative answer of some sorts. Indignation and anger and shame burned through her like poison. Strangers had walked those hallways and rummaged through her memories? Taking inventory and judging what she should keep and scrap. And she had let them? Or maybe she hadn’t? Suddenly, it no longer mattered what lay on the other end, she needed to know what had compelled her to allow someone to walk the maze of her mind and place seals and restrictions. Her hands fisted the yellow tape and she yanked, ripping it off and revealing the door’s surface. There was a complex matrix of symbols burned into it that looked ominous under further inspection. Instinctually, or by the aid of a memory slipping between the cracks, she knew they were blocking seals. Kaya hated the sight of them - vandalism in her own home.

“Will I be able to come back?”
“They are just memories. You are going to re-live them and once they’re done, you’ll walk out.”  

She grasped the handle but pressure on her shoulder gave her pause. Glancing over, she found him holding her back. He was a bit more substantial now, less a shadow and more a mould of a person. There were still no features, only blackness, but she hoped by the time she came back, she’d know who he was. There was something oddly familiar about him, about his presence and voice.

“Remember, those are things that have already happened. You can’t change them.”

The door was jammed shut but Kaya put all her weight, power and determination into the shove and true enough, the wood creaked and gave in and she tumbled headfirst into the shadows.

Right into the day her teammates died.

 

***

 

The trees’ leaves rustled as they sped ahead. The night sky was getting darker and with the loss of light, their chances of survival would diminish. Kaya was at the rear, while Kiru propelled them onwards, his keen eyes peering into the thickening shadows for any signs of danger. They were coming back from a mission that had been meant to be easy but had turned out disastrous. Tension had sizzled and zapped in the cauldron that was the Fire Country for weeks now, and by the looks of it, it had finally reached its breaking point. Kaya could sense the acute sharpness of the still night air as they ran towards home, towards Konohagakure, and she could not get rid of the feeling that something was wrong. That something terrible was about to happen. The stench of brewing war hung heavy around them - it smelled of blood and death and fear. Danger breathed down their necks like a panting beast. Still Genins, they shouldn’t have been sent out to begin with, but the times were desperate. So they had gone, all four of them. Only three were returning. 

Kaya’s gaze scanned the span of trees, eyes strained to pick on any potential traps or shadows that were a bit too thick, a bit too big and accommodating. There was blood crusted in her tunic and her fingers were stiff from gripping the kunai for hours. The weapon had acquired a coppery sheen as their Sensei’s blood dried on its edge. He had yanked it out of his leg and tossed it towards the man that had been about to decapitate her. The ambush they had walked into had turned into a massacre. When the three of them fled, scattering like marbles under their Sensei’s commanding voice, she had grabbed the weapon, averting her eyes from the dead man’s face. 

They had been running for hours, their bodies and minds sore and numb. Kiru cut ahead, the movement catching Kaya’s attention. She stole a glimpse at the makeshift tourniquet supporting his left arm. The sickening crunch on the bones still echoed in the back of her head, muffled only by the erratic beating of her heart. Aoi was better off, only minor injuries and a hefty dose of shock that had left her shaking and jumpy, but functioning well enough. Kaya was unharmed but for the few scratches. It almost felt like a betrayal, coming out of the confrontation unscathed. It wasn’t her fault her Kekkei Genkai had kicked in recently. It was still unstable, not yielding to her properly and she was reluctant to use it but it would do until they got home. In the heat of the moment, between one enemy ninja trying to kill her and another, she hadn't even thought about it - the walls of jade had erupted on their own volition, unbidden, and cocooned her in the safety of their embrace.

A demonic screech pierced the air like a spear, lodging into them and momentarily freezing their bodies, weapons raised, eyes wild and frantically turning in their sockets. Nothing jumped out of the shadows. No bombs went off. No enemies appeared. Kiru climbed the nearest tree, ever so agile even with a broken arm. The two girls stood guard, hearts lodged in their throats, palms sweating, chapped lips locked between teeth. When he climbed back down, his face was ashen, in stark contrast with his black hair and dark brown eyes. 

“What did you see?”

Mutely, he shook his head, eyes glazed and staring into the nothingness. Another unearthly howl sounded, a yelp of a creature too big and too close to be anything they had ever seen or wished to encounter, making the hairs on Kaya’s body stand up in alarm. Sweat pooled underneath her armpits and behind her knees. The girls climbed the tree, too afraid to see, yet reluctant to remain unaware. The demon fox had nine tails, all of which whipped the air in frenzied swoops, knocking down trees and buildings. Konohagakure was up in flames. 

 

The memory rippled and tore, the images fading away enough for Kaya to realise that the shadow had forgotten to mention the web-like substance linking some episodes. How they slipped into each other like currents. Scrambling for footing or any form of leverage, she struggled to resist the pull. Another memory, darker, was dragging her down, caught in the momentum - Kaya’s breath caught as the frightened faces of her teammates flashed before her eyes, the village blazing like a torch, and the Kyubi’s brazen red eyes staring right at her for a fraction of a heartbeat. Dread clung to her and she knew, deep down she knew , that maybe the reason this memory had been locked away was because she could not handle it. Some of them just hurt too much, her shadowy companion had said. 

“They don’t hurt,” Kaya whispered, “they rip and sear the flesh.”

The in-betweenness she was hovering in receded and she plunged into the next memory, its freezing touch stealing her breath away.

 

The room was enveloped in darkness save for the circle of light. There was a girl no more than fifteen years old sitting on a chair, her head bowed, long red tresses limply hanging around her like a curtain. Kaya’s gasp didn’t disturb the silence and when she glanced at her hands, she saw they were translucent. ‘That’s me.’ This time she was not reliving the memory, just observing. It made her wonder why her mind had decided to put such great distance between the experience and the memory of it.

Three more people hid in the shadows, but a woman with dark purple hair and long camel-coloured coat stepped forward, placing her hand on the girl's shoulder. It was uncanny, seeing herself from the side, so broken and … vacant . Her child self reminded her of an empty shell - glassy eyes, ashen skin stretched taut over a bony body, not yet properly developed, malnourished from scant rations and lean times. The only thing alive about her was the hair, and even that looked lifeless. ‘Kami-sama, what’s happened to me?’ She took a few steps closer, eyes glued to the apparition, that memory of her that seemed so fractured. Dull pain began a slow steady pulse in the pits of her stomach, gradually burning its way across her body like acid.

“Tell us what happened,” the voice was gentle; a woollen blanket sheathing a blade. 

‘It’s Anko!’ Kaya realised, taking in the familiar, younger features of the woman that had come to be something akin to a friend. ‘Has she?’ The certainty of the notion confused her, but before she could ponder, her younger self parted her chapped lips and spoke. The voice was low and gravelly, breaking on every other word like glass.

“We were coming back from the mission. Tanto-sensei …  he-he died, saving us. When we reached the village … we … the Demon fox was there, burning, killing, destroying-” A pause during which Anko’s steady gaze never wavered, while Kaya almost toppled over, sick and weak with the images that were resurfacing. She wanted to scream for the child to shut up, to stop, to forget, but her lips were sealed. 

“One of Kyubi’s attacks killed Kiru. We wanted to go around and reach the village. He was ahead, making sure … making sure …  he was not prepared when the tail struck. None of us were.” 

Another pause. Child-Kaya’s empty gaze bore a hole into the concrete floor. The only indication of emotion was the unsteadiness of her voice. Adult Kaya felt like someone was tinkering with her insides. The more she tried to stop the pain, the harder it became to stay afloat. Oblivion suddenly sounded very tempting.

“I found his body last, whatever was left of it. Enemy ninjas attacked us and Aoi and I fought them off but-but … we were so tired… I wanted to go to Kiru, to help him but I couldn’t leave Aoi behind. I-I managed to block some of the attacks, but I couldn’t ... my crystals ... I- ... I tried to shield us. She was bleeding. There was a kunai stuck in her shoulder .”

A pause. No one moved as the narration continued. Not even adult Kaya dared to shift. The dreadful fascination and the searing pain kept her doubled over, eyes glued to the tiny slip of a child whose innocence had been stripped from her in one swift moment.
“I killed her. I remember being injured, I … I thought I was dying and I looked up at her and … and … I swear there was a man above her, about to strike… I … I don’t- I don’t remember, I’m not sure … but it was too late, the crystal dagger ripped her in half … She was looking at me, staring straight at me, and there was so much fear and shock and betrayal-”

The words cracked and splintered, piercing the skin and drawing blood. A couple of minutes rolled by before she spoke again. Kaya noticed that the men in the shadows had shuffled closer, forming a circle around the chair. Daunting settled over her.

“I don’t know what happened afterwards - I woke up amongst crystals. They were everywhere, all around me, coming out of the trees. I was so confused, and tired … and then the pain came, and the memories, and I saw Aoi’s body … ”  Silence. “I dragged myself away. Kiru was stuck underneath a fallen tree. I think he died upon impact.”

“And the men that attacked you?”

Kaya knew it was a trick question - a small corner of her mind piped in that the squad that had been sent to retrieve her teammates’ bodies found the enemy ninjas all dead. Impaled by crystals, some torn and split apart. She had gathered the courage to read the report a couple of years after the incident. 

“Dead.”

“Can you recall how they died?”

The child lifted her head and gazed straight at Anko. From her spot, Kaya couldn't see the look etched into the hollowed-out juvenile features but knew it must have been terrible enough, for the older woman straightened her back and moved away, putting some distance between them.

“I killed them. They killed my friends and attacked my home. They deserved to die.”

Those were not the desperate words of a child that wished to mend what was broken or prove her innocence. No, they were the iron-cast punches of a survivor that had seen the cruelty of the world, had lost everything in one quick succession of event and had decided to deal punishment single-handedly. Kaya feared that part of her. She dreaded the ruin that child's rage could have caused if the Anbu hadn't whisked her away, put her somewhere safe and quiet, and then got Anko's team to sort out the jumble her mind had become.

The image dulled and began fading around the edges, wisps of smoke blown away by a current that did not touch her. As her eyes took in the hunched spindly form for the last time, hands dipped in blood and a soul contorted and cracked beyond recognition, she felt its presence shuffle within her. Finally remembered and acknowledged. Awake after over a decade of slumber. 

 

Kaya stumbled backwards out of the opening, her feet slipping on the smooth stones and sending her flat on her bum. The door closed with a crash, the latch falling into place. The runes burnt into its surface were gone.

“Took you long enough.”

Leaning against the wall, hands stuffed in pockets, his black eyes were boring into her. He was dressed in the clothes of their childhood - a pair of plain trousers and a black T-shirt.

“Itachi.”

It was his lookalike at least, but it startled her nonetheless. Why, of all people, was it him that was to lead her through this makeshift purgatory? As if having read her thoughts, he spoke up.

“I can take any form you wish. This is the face you trusted for the longest.”

It was true - their friendship marked the best years of her childhood; some of the happiest memories she had were with him. 

“I can change it if it bothers you?”

“No. It’s fine.”

She stood up and made a move to dust her clothes, only to notice that the white dress was gone. Instead, she wore a pair of black leggings, a fish-net bodice and a deep olive coloured tank-top over it. The long red-blood tresses were pulled away from her face and twisted in a bun at the top of her head. Fingerless gloves hid her hands. She glanced at her left forearm but the skin was bare, unmarked. The sight bothered her; something was missing.

“You didn’t tell me that memories were linked and would drag me along.”

“If I had told you, would you have gone?”

She glared at him. Awareness and more memories crept at the periphery of her mind like predators, sinking their teeth into the emptiness and transfusing into her. At present, she functioned on assumptions and following her gut, but something told her that soon enough she’d remember why his presence here felt like a betrayal.  

“This is your mind, Kaya. Your memories. I’m here to lead you to where you need to go.” 

He walked towards the next door. This one was barred by massive planks nailed into the wall. She eyed them before looking at Itachi. With his hands crossed over his chest, his head cocked to the side, and those bottomless black eyes staring at her, she felt vulnerable, naked. It took some convincing to remind herself that he was just an apparition, a construct her mind had put together so that she could cling to something familiar. ‘But why not Kakashi?’

The beams rattled and groaned. Kaya took a couple of steps back, eyes wide, as one by one they snapped off, falling on the ground with a loud crashing sounds. For a couple of moments, the hallway reverberated with the cry of their demise. 

“This will tell you why it’s not his face you see.”

The door swung open and she didn’t get to ask what he meant as an invisible hand wrapped around her and yanked. The door banged closed, muffling her shout.

 

It was the same for all the rest of the doors. Under her silent command or with some coercion they opened and she walked in, reliving everything she had wanted to forget for the majority of her life. After each door, a piece of herself clicked back in place - the scars, the tattoos, the tantalising green of her eye. And the hole in her soul began closing. It was a wound that had been kept open for so long it had begun festering and rotting at its core, but finally, it was healing. By remembering, by accepting, by forgiving herself, she allowed that little child huddled in the darkness to relax, to breathe, to stop shaking and crying and hating the world.

The second door revealed the day Hatake Sakumo had died. She had mourned him, the grief so raw and debilitating it was as if he had comprised a crucial part of her being. The images reminded her how she had tried to stay at his grave for the whole night, only for her father to find and drag her back, giving her a thrashing she’d never forget, even as an adult. It had taken a lot of time for her to heal (both physically and mentally), to not break down whenever a fair-haired male walked by, or whenever she glimpsed or smelled something that reminded her of him.

Door number three housed all the awful things that had happened to her during the six-year-long mission as a spy - pain, hurt, shame, fear. The ways her skin had grown thicker in more ways than one, and the transformations her body had undergone - from losing its value to becoming a weapon she wielded as skillfully as her crystals. The chain of memories wasn’t long but it felt like it had dragged her underwater, where unsurmountable tons of pressure had tried to squash her like a bug. 

The next door was dedicated to all the childhood trauma her Clan had inflicted - all the undeserved punishments and humiliation that often made one bitter, estranged from their relatives, cold and distant and eager for freedom. It was also the door that re-awoke the resentment she felt for her father and the anger at her mother’s passive breezy and often dismissive attitude towards things that mattered.

The final one reminded her why she had been able to resist the pull of Itachi’s Sharingan and the genjutsu he had tried to put her under during their last encounter. The images merged into each other like spilled ink - their gruelling training sessions and all the different scenarios he had put her through to make her stronger. All the suffering and pain and fear he had inflicted, believing he was helping. And the hate that had burned bright like a star within her, the desire to hurt him, to make him bleed. It was the hardest memory to take back and reconcile with. She had almost killed him, the last time they sparred as kids - the drum of his pulse under her fingers had felt like ants crawling under her skin. She'd been more than eager to squash them.
“Now you remember.”

She faced him. Dressed in a black cloak with red clouds, he looked every bit the Akatsuki member, a demonic apparition there to haunt her. 

“I do. What now?”

“You go back and live.”

“Just like that?”

He smirked and pushed off the wall. Ignoring her flinch, he nodded towards the end of the hallway where another door had appeared. Left ajar, it painted the opposite wall in a bright strip of light.

“It won’t be easy.”

“Do you always talk in riddles?”

He tilted his head to the side, eyes scanning her face. It was as if he was committing it to memory. ‘This is not the real Itachi.’ She felt the need to keep on reminding herself of that every time a glimmer of warmth threatened to crawl beneath her defences.

“Don’t panic and just dig.”

With that, he pushed her over the threshold and into the blinding blistering light. She didn’t have the time to protest or ask him what he meant before she was falling.

 

Down…

                …. Down…..

                                     …… Down…..

 

Kaya’s eyes snapped open as pain exploded across her body, seizing her nervous system and wringing it dry. Gasping, she blinked, desperate to chase away the darkness that clouded her vision. Something heavy clamped down on her, obstructing any movements.

Blink-blink.

The darkness persistent - it was absolute, without a single ray of light. 

Blink-blink.

Her skin brushed against a familiar smoothness and under her silent command the crystal lit up with the low glow of her chakra. She vaguely registered her coils’ hiss of disapproval. Her mind was too busy taking in her surroundings. 

Rocks and dirt. On all sides. Dread formed beads of sweat that slip down her spine as the sinking realisation of her predicament settled in. She was alive after blowing up the hideout, which was not a feat to ignore. Under different circumstances, she’d have even been proud for not only pulling it off splendidly but also remaining alive (just about) to tell the story. Unfortunately, her circumstances were such that she didn’t have it in her to rejoice, seeing that her return to the land of the living might be rather short. 

Buried beneath tons of earth and boulders and dirt, the only thing between Kaya’s fragile bones and a pressure that would kill her in less than a heartbeat was the diamond armour encasing her body. With the corner of her eye, she spied a crack, thin and delicate like a spider’s web, forming across her left shoulder. A scream lodged itself in the back of her throat and if she wasn’t in a dreadful state of fright she’d have wasted the few remaining gulps of air on it. A banshee’s screech no one would hear.

As it were, she swallowed it down, held her breath, and tried to think. 

crackcrackcrackcrack 

Chapter Text

Almost 30 hours after the first explosion that reshaped the landscape on the outskirts of the Gato village, another one awoke the light-sleepers in the early hours of the morning. It was not as loud or powerful but it had many jumping towards their windows, hands already fastening coats, ready to flee but also eager to know what was going on. The moon’s soft pearlescent shine reflected off the cloud of dust that rose above the treeline. No secondary seismic waves followed, only the low rumbling of the earth as it readjusted itself one last time. Minutes of anticipation tickled past and when nothing happened to further alarm them, people went back to bed - relieved but also mildly disappointed. 

Kaya didn’t know how she managed to pull it off a second time, only that the pain that was dousing her system was excruciating and whatever chakra there had been left in her reserves was gone. The diamond armour melted away, leaving her bleeding and gasping on the cold ground, lungs hungry for fresh air. The oxygen in the capsule had finished halfway through the digging (that had been the initial plan) and seeing that she was nowhere near the surface and the lightheadedness was getting progressively worse, she made the executive decision to blast her way out or at least die trying (it seemed that death was in her cards lately, there was no getting around it). Scraping together the remains of her chakra and sending a silent prayer to any deity that might be watching, she channelled it all into one powerful punch, ripping a tunnel straight through hefty chunks of soil, boulders and remnants of hallways. Crawling out was a feat in itself that took ages, but once out, Kaya cried tears of joy, a peal of small croaking laughter slipping past her cracked lips. She was alive. She was out.

After a while, once her lungs were no longer burning and her head stopped spinning, another realisation sunk in - she was alone. Barely raising her head from the ground, she scanned the premises for any signs of Kakashi or Tenzo, or anyone for that matter. Nothing. A pang of betrayal pinched her heart. ‘They presumed me dead, which was not far from the truth. Of course, they’ll head for the village! Kazu was still with them. We can’t risk exposure, not when the price is so high.’ It didn’t make her feel any less abandoned, but it took away some of the oppressive sadness that weighed her down. He’d not have left if he hadn’t been certain she was beyond salvation. ‘He thinks I’m dead.’ Eyes widening, the kunoichi made a move to sit up, sending shots of pain scorching a path up her spine and across her abdomen. Her heart fluttered and lunged against its restraints, bouncing off all the cracked ribs before flopping down somewhere below to her stomach. Tears drove grooves into the layers of dust that coated her face. She needed to get to him. But first, she needed to get out of here. Screwing her eyes shut against the oppressive emptiness, she tried to come up with a plan - crawling, as undignified as it was, was probably the only feasible way to move, but even that would not get her far. Shouting for help had the fifty-fifty chance of drawing the attention of potential enemies, or not getting heard at all. Tentatively probing at her chakra reserves, she found them all empty, while the core one hummed under the strain of keeping her conscious. No chakra wave then. ‘What else? What else?’ The words spun on repeat until the world smeared around the edges and faded into darkness. 

 

***

 

“Is she dead?”

“Don’t think so.”

Something sharp jabbed her thigh, barely missing the open gash - sensation pin-pricked its way up the leg, over her spine and right through her brain, zapping it awake. Kaya groaned as she slowly shrugged off the heavy cloak of sleep.

“She is alive! Quick, get father!”

The voices sounded distant and somewhat muted, but distinctly juvenile. Kaya tried to force her eyelids to open but they seemed glued shut. Another pain-laced groan rumbled in her sore chest as she made a move to rub at her face and accidentally knocked her hand against the swell on her jaw. 

“Fuck sake,” with a low growl she rolled to the side. 

It took some coercion to blink her eyes open and look around, the daylight painfully bright and searing her retinas. She had slept through the night, and by the looks of it - the early morning as well. A tapping sound caught her attention and Kaya shifted, glancing up at a boy no older than ten gazing down at her with a mixture of apprehension and wonder. He sported a head of wild wheat-coloured curls and the palest blue eyes she had ever seen. A gap-toothed grin split his face as he nudged something with his stick. ‘Smart lad,’ she thought, taking in the distance he had put between them. The stick tapped again and she followed its length, spotting a pouch tentatively balanced between two rocks. She looked at the boy again, raising an eyebrow.

“Water,” he responded, voice laced with prepubescent squeakiness.

The ground spun and tilted as Kaya pushed herself upright. One after the other, painful alarms went off from various places on her body. It was yet to be determined how many of them were injuries, and how many - stiffness from spending a night out in the open, with boulders for pillows. Tentatively, she picked up the flask and lifted it to her lips, greedily taking two large gulps before putting it down - with no food in her stomach, the last thing she needed was to induce violent sickness. 

“Thank you,” the low croak of her voice was painful.

Rubbing her throat absentmindedly, Kaya looked around, letting her senses re-adjust. After being huddled in the dark for so long, it all felt too acute and sharp. A dull throb formed in the back of her skull. 

“What happened to you? Are you gonna die? Did you blow up this place?”

The boy fired the questions in quick succession, launching an attack that made her putty brain reel in protest and her ears ring even louder. Cringing, Kaya closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. 

“What’s your name?”

A full minute of blank staring, blue eyes opened wide. 

“Kohoto. But my friends call me Ko.”

“Pleasure to meet you Ko. I’m Kaya.”

She tried to smile but the movement pulled painfully at the injured muscles. Even talking was hard, but she needed to get to safety and the boy was her best bet. It was a pure miracle she’d not been discovered by enemy ninjas by now.

“I was buried underground and had to get out. My friends think I’m dead so I need to find them. Is there anyone who could help me-”

The sound of running feet made Ko snap upright like a spring, posture erect - a little soldier trying to appear inconspicuous. From the treeline, the tall frame of a man appeared, closely followed by a little girl.

“Kohoto, step away!” The man bellowed, making Kaya wince.

The boy gave her a sideways glance before moving away, allowing the man to step closer. The plain roughly sewn together clothes and sun-burnt face warked him as a civilian. Over six feet tall, he towered over her like a giant that was also built like a brick house - a barrel-like chest, biceps bigger than her head and forearms that could crack open a skull like a walnut. The frown on his face and the tight set of his jaw didn't look promising.

“Who are you and how did you get here?!” He barked.

Kaya wondered whether he was hard of hearing and had to shout to compensate for it, or was simply trying to intimidate her. Either way, the volume made her cringe. The dull thud in the back of her skull expanded and spread its tentacles. 

“I’m Kaya.” She indicated the tunnel next to her. “ I got buried underneath the landslide. Had to dig my way out.”

The man eyed her incredulously, a small slip of a woman compared to him and heavily injured at that, before taking in her clothes and the weapon pouches strapped to her body (all tragically empty). Realisation widened his eyes. He grabbed the boy by the shoulder and yanked him away.

“You’re one of them ninja bastards! What do you want!? Here to cause trouble?”

His temper flared up (he truly reminded her of an ox), his blue eyes narrowed into slits and the set of his jaw firm - such a sharp edge could cut glass. Kaya studied him, stalling for time, trying to string together the right amount of reassurance and trustworthiness in her words while also assessing for any potential dangers and respective their counter-attacks. He was dressed plainly - worn linen pants and a shirt that barely contained his bulging muscles. Perspiration marked his forehead and patches of dust or dirt clung to his cheek where he had swiped at his face. There was soil under his fingernails. ‘A field worker.’ Something bright flashed across her eyes, blinding her. Blinking away the white spots that clouded her vision, Kaya noticed the sharp edge of a machete catching the light. Chills dragged their cold fingers down her spine.

“I’m not here to cause you any trouble. I just got separated from my friends. I need to find them.”

He tightened his grip on the worn leather handle. A faint tremor shook his fingers and Kaya hoped that was a sign of his reluctance to use it. 

“I know your kind - murderers and thieves! If you’re planning to-”

“Look, I don’t know what types of shinobi you’ve come across, and I’m terribly sorry that it’s been the worst. But as you can see I’m not exactly squaring up to you with a weapon in hand.” She nodded at her beaten body, hoping that he’d turn out to be a decent man that’s had a hard time, rather than a brute. If it came to it, Kaya was certain she’d be able to disarm him without causing any further damage. The semi-relaxed posture indicated that he didn’t perceive her as an immediate threat. With his guard lowered, he’d never see her coming (if the bloody blinding headache juicing her brain went away).

“I need a medic. If you don’t want to help me, then at least tell me which way to go. I promise I’m not here to hurt anyone. I just … I just want to find my friends and go home.”

Tears pricked her eyes and she swiped at them before they could spill down her cheeks. If years of espionage had taught her one valuable lesson, it was that men never knew what to do with a weeping woman - even the toughest, most hard-hearted mobsters were left an anxious mess at the sight of a sobbing female. It helped that Kaya already looked the part of the woeful maiden in distress. Within moments the burly man was kneeling not too far off, his features no longer cut in stone but softer, the faintest edges of unease and worry tugging at the corners of his eyes. The two of them studied each other, the midday sun’s scorching glare making sweat trickle down their backs.

“And if I help ya, you ain’t gonna slit our throats in our sleep?”

She gasped, aghast. Who the hell did she think she was? A misery thief? A scummy mercenary? Flabbergasted, it took a couple of calming deep breaths for the indignation that had flushed Kaya’s cheeks to subside. ‘He lives near Gato - no wonder he was ready to chop first and ask questions later. This village is infested by throat-slitting turncoats!’

“I will not. I give you my word.” Her eyes shimmered like jewels, big and honest.

“Fine.”

He crouched closer, eyes alert, and looped his beefy hands around her - one underneath her legs, and the other around her waist, before hoisting her up as if she weighed nothing. It went to show how drained Kaya was - allowing an unknown man to get this close while he still held a weapon in his hand and not knocking him unconscious was nothing short of miraculous.

“Let’s getcha patched up, shall we, lass?”

Flashing her a smile framed by deep dimples, he strode off, the children running ahead and stealing peeks over their shoulders every once in a while. Huddled in his strong arms, head pressed to a broad sun-kissed chest, Kaya felt her hold on reality slip once again. The steady powerful drum of his heart, a persistent thud-thud-thud, soothed her. 

 

The village Souta was from consisted of no more than fifteen huts, halfway buried into the ground, with thatched rooftops and bare wooden insides. There were no trained medics there, only the local herbalist - a woman past the prime of her life and well into those fragile papery years when the flu could topple her over. She also doubled-up as a healer, a midwife and a counsellor. Being the oldest citizen in their tiny community, Aiko had enough experience to cover all bases. When Souta carried Kaya into his humble home, his wife Kirin, a sturdy-looking woman in her early forties, almost dropped the plate she had been wiping, the colour draining from her face. The red-headed kunoichi was conscious enough to note the woman’s darting eyes, moving from her husband to her children, to the bleeding stranger at her door. Within a couple of minutes, old Aiko was examining the deep gash splitting Kaya’s thigh and the one across her midriff. It was almost funny, seeing her order the household around with a voice that left no place for complaints, unpresuming but commanding at the same time. Water was brought and the dirt and dust were scrubbed off. There was no alcohol for disinfection, so Aiko made a poultice. Kirin helped her while Souta became a handyman - fetching this and that, lifting Kaya, then putting her back down, then helping her turn this way and then that way. Once all the open wounds were treated and bandaged, there came the inspection for broken bones. The old woman’s shaky hands acquired uncanny firmness as she patted down the kunoichi’s body, harrumphing whenever the red-head flinched or hissed.

“Only cracked. No broken” was the final judgement.

An hour later, old Aito patted Kaya’s hand affectionately, pinched her cheek (the side that wasn’t sporting a swelling bruise) and trotted away, supported by her cane. The herbal tea she had prepared contained quite a concoction of anaesthetic sedatives that kicked in before Kaya had the chance to properly converse or thank her hosts. There were no dreams in the space she plunged into - only darkness that was like a balm over here sensitive receptors. 

Hours later the sun had nearly finished its decline, painting the sky in burnt oranges and reds. Kaya awoke to a canvas of colour and an empty room, with only dull pain pulsating across her body. Sitting up (a tough job when your ribs are not exactly intact), she focused on the low strained hum of chakra as it did a sweep over her body, assessing the damage - three cracked ribs, some minor torn muscles in the left leg (and no brewing infection thankfully) and a case of serious fatigue that would need at least another 24 hours of rest to be dispersed. 

“You are awake,” a soft voice whispered, startling her. “Sorry. I didn't mean to frighten you.”

The woman moved closer, allowing the dying light to bask her features in a palette of fiery tones. In that light Kirin looked less tired and worn out by life - the silver in her hair had a tantalising golden hue and the wrinkles framing her face were smoothed out by soft shadows. Warm brown eyes studied the kunoichi with calm patience and intrigue.

“I didn’t see you there. My apologies. How uncouth of me. I’m Kaya. Thank you for accepting me in your home and taking care of me.” 

As she bowed her head, heavy red coils spilt down her chest and over the crisp white sheets. The contrast caught Kaya’s attention, steering her mind to a time not that long ago when she had marvelled at a handful of bloodied tips.

“No need to thank me. We did what any decent person would have done.” The smile was motherly; a painful pang squeezed her heart.

"I owe you my life.” 

They gazed at each other, tentative yet genuine smiles illuminated by the dying daylight. 

“Ah, she lives!” A booming male voice broke the tranquillity.

“Souta-kun!” The older woman chided, a wrinkle forming between her dark eyebrows. 

The kunoichi huffed a laugh and shook her head as the couple engaged into a mini-contest of out-whispering the other. Eventually, her low laugh, no longer containable between her cracked ribs, caught their attention and they looked at her, redness tinting their cheeks. 

“How’re ya feeling, Kaya-san? Better?”

His steps were unusually quiet and soft for a man his size. Stray water droplets trickled down his neck and caught the light, turning golden. 

“Ah.”

Nodding softly (the headache was still there, lurking in the shadows) Kaya gingerly touched her ribs only to bite back a yelp at the pain. 

“I’ll be out of your way in a day if you’ll have me. I just need some more time-”

“Nonsense!” He interrupted, a frown shifting his features. “You ain’t fit to travel to who-knows-where. Just lie and rest.”

“I don’t want to impose on your hospitality.”

“Such fancy words! I knew you were not one of ‘em scumbags.”

“Souta!”

Kaya wasn’t sure whether he was referring to the Gato ninjas or shinobi in general. For the sake of peaceful co-existence, she refrained from asking.

“Wha?” He looked at his wife, incredulous. “Look at ‘er! Well-bred and mannered. Not like-”

“I think that’s enough.” An edge cut the older woman’s voice. “Kaya-san needs to rest.”

Grumbling under his breath, he made a move to leave the room before seemingly remembering something and turning around. A big hand cupped the back of his neck and he rubbed the spot, eyes gazing out of the window and towards something beyond the horizon.

“There are one of ‘em … medics in Gato. I can try and find one to look at your ribs.”

“Thank you, but there will be no need Souta-san.” Kaya’s lips curved into a smile. “I need a bit more rest and then I will send for my friends.”

She didn’t tell them she didn’t want any Gato ninjas anywhere near while she was in no state to fight. After the stunt with the Hoshi hideout, the chances them being on the lookout for foreign shinobi was high. The last thing Kaya wanted was to get the people that helped her in trouble. Not to mention all the questions she’d not be able to answer. She’d be patient and recover her chakra supply before giving out her location.

 

***

 

Life with the Bokoichi family was routine - they rose at dawn and each went about their work. Kirin busied herself with breakfast and sweeping the front steps while Souta nibbled on some food and headed off for the fields. The children, Ko and his younger sister Fuyumi, helped their mother with the chores - feeding the chickens, tending to the vegetable patch, cleaning the house - before they took their respective places at the foot of Kaya’s bed and gazed at her with mute amazement as she told them various stories. Bedridden, there wasn’t much for her to do but let time trickle by, so she enjoyed the company - it was refreshing to be able to amaze someone as easily as she amazed them. Eventually, they’d have a snack for lunch (something that worried Kaya - the few scraps of food were nowhere near enough for growing children) before she’d go for an afternoon nap, only to be woken up for dinner. They’d all gather in her room (technically Souta and Kirin’s room) and eat in silence before spending a couple of hours talking. Kaya told them some things about herself - where she hailed from, some of her journeys and in turn, they narrated their lives. Souta told her about the corruption that plagued the land and how the shinobi were left to do as they pleased. His anger was a burning fury that only his wife’s gentle touch seemed to sooth. Kirin and the children contributed with mundane information and the occasional adventure the siblings would undertake. In three days Kaya learned not only how much they had suffered and lost, but also how after all the hardships life had shoved their way their love for each other kept them going. Two miscarriages and one killed and Kirin’s warm smile had not been dimmed or extinguished. Daily heavy labour under the scorching sun, with the fruit of his labour often stolen by the men meant to protect him and his family, and Souta still tried not to be too prejudiced and untrusting. Both were cautious but willing to believe in the best in people, and Kaya’s heart brimmed with gratitude. By the looks of it, the only thing the Bokoichi family lacked was money; and they were no worse for it.

It took a total of four days of being bedridden and swaddled in compress after compress and drinking tea after tea for Kaya’s chakra levels to no longer sizzle and hiss like a fuse about to go off. The first thing she did was summon Gia. It had been a gamble, reaching out to the Clan’s Summon, but word needed to reach Konoha and unless she wanted to train a carrier pigeon and rely on it not getting shot down and eaten, she had to try. It was after dinner when the family were all cosy and huddled around the foot of the bed when she bit her thumb and did the hand signs. A wave of relief washed over her at the sight of the majestic bird appearing from within the thick cloud of white smoke. Its golden-red plumage glowed in the dimly lit room, black eyes like onyx beads zeroing on her. Her hosts gazed on in mute amazement (and no small amount of apprehension as the eagle was almost as big as Fuyumi) as Gia leapt and perched herself on the edge of the bed, cocking her head to the side.

“You look dreadful.”

Ko sucked in a breath between his teeth and his little sister squealed, eyes bright and shining. The Summon ignored them. 

“You should have seen me five days ago,” Kaya huffed.

It had come as a surprise when they had calculated the time of the first attack. The kunoichi had placed it as four, but it had turned out to be five! There was no feasible explanation as to how she had managed to survive a whole day underground. 

“I need you to take a message to the Hokage. It’s urgent.”

Much more was left unsaid, hidden in the margins of her words, but with the Bokoichi family a few feet away, their faces in various stages of amazement and shock, she decided it was safer to keep them in the dark. The less they knew, the better. Gia eyed the scroll with disdain, snapping her beak with a loud clack a couple of times.

“Do I look like a carrier pigeon to you?”

Kaya rolled her eyes. Gia could be quite self-important when she wanted to. As a Clan Summon, she was above menial tasks, summoned only in the midsts of missions (which hadn’t happened in ages since Kaya was the only one from the main branch of the Samosa Clan that was an active shinobi). Not to mention how bossy and entitled the bird would get whenever things were not going her way. It was usually not worth the headache to even summon her if the task was something Kaya could do herself. 

“I need you to do this for me, Gia.”

“You know I’m not even meant to respond to your summons, right?”

The kunoichi flinched and tensed, eyes narrowing. The question had been brewing in the back of her head, but she had been reluctant to mention it. 

“And yet you did.”

“Your sisters were adamant that I do not abandon you on your last mission. I could not say no.”

“And here I was, thinking you liked me.”

Sarcasm was a rare thing to find in Summons. Gia never ceased to amaze Kaya with her ability to both live up to the expectations and side-step them at the same time.

“You are daring, brash and arrogant. Exceptionally stubborn and loyal to a fault. Sometimes I want to peck your eyes out.” 

The kunoichi scoffed, fighting to stop a smile from curving her lips. 

“But most of the time you give me hope for better days. If you are not going to take your rightful place, then don’t you dare leave me behind.”

With a meaningful look, Gia closed her claws over the scroll and got off the bed. Ko was the first to react, jumping to his feet and edging towards the window, eyes locked on the predator bird. She could swallow him in a single bite, he was so skinny.

“Hurry up, boy. I’m not going to get any younger.”

With a quick shove, Ko pushed the window opened and moved to the side just as Gia leapt and landed on the windowsill.
“Don’t die,” the words were swallowed by the ruffling of feathers as she spread her wings and cut through the air. 

Silence settled in as the family watched the departing shadow grow smaller and smaller until it vanished into the night. Kaya’s gaze focused on them, faces glowing with awe. The soft flicker of the candle cast shadows, accentuating the hollows underneath their eyes and the sunken-in cheekbones. If Ko took his shirt off, she knew she’d be able to count and trace his ribs. ‘They deserve better than this.’ The thought had been burning a hole in her mind for the past couple of days as she observed their lives unfold, a cycle of poverty and hard work, now accompanied by the strain her presence put on the food rations. ‘I cannot change their situation here without raising too many questions, but I can remove them from it completely.’ An image of them safely tucked away in a nice homely apartment in Konoha formed in her mind. Kaya had enough influence and money to arrange something. Souta and Kirin could find better jobs and the kids could go to school rather than work the fields. And they’d be safe, protected by the shinobi of the land. 

“That was so cool!” Ko exclaimed, a massive toothy grin splitting his face, showing off a set of dimples that mirrored his father’s.

Kaya smiled. Yes, she could give this family a better life, somewhere far away from here. 

 

***

 

Two days later Kaya could finally move around and help Kirin with some of the chores. The air still wheezed out of her whenever she bent or tried to lift something heavy, the painful scraping of cracked ribs enough to break her out in a sweat. Truth be told, apart from the growing restlessness, a sense of impending danger had gotten the red-headed kunoichi out and back to building her strength. The gut-squeezing feeling would not dissipate, egging her on until her anger would flare up and she’d kick the covers off, muttering a chain of curses as she pushed herself off the bed. The first day had been hard - doubled in half and dragging her feet (the left leg was stiff and uncooperative), she had gone as far as basking in the sun for a bit and monitoring the kids as they played in the back. Eventually, she’d gotten them to help her stand up (that had been a tear-jerking experience all on its own; lots of juicy curses were a bit back) and walk her around. They had become her portable crutches, a fact that didn’t seem to bother them but inspire an immense sense of pride. Smirking through tightly pressed lips, she’d done a couple of laps before sitting down, sweat coating her skin, muscles burning. The next day found her with her stiff but with a certain amount of power buzzing through her system that launched her out of bed. The chakra pathways seemed to have recovered, the flow coursing through her system uninterrupted. The first thing she healed was the gash on her leg until it was no longer an open wound. Then the midriff, with the same pitiful results, before finally focusing on sorting out her ribs - her limited medical knowledge had never been more frustrating. Patchwork was the best she could do, but at least movement to longer made her feel sick with pain and wish to just keel over and fall face-first. ‘Baby steps,’ she reminded herself and went for a walk in the garden.

‘Gia should have reached the village yesterday and a team should be on their way by now.’ It was a bitter-sweet thought, knowing that her time here was limited. There hadn’t been an opportunity to discuss her plan with Souta and Kirin, but deep down she knew leaving them behind would be a mistake. Pacing back and forth around the vegetable patch, lost in her thoughts, Kaya almost missed the aggressive whiplash of an unfamiliar chakra that washed over her like a foul stench. Hands balled into fists and crystals brimming right beneath the surface of the ground, she scanned the surrounding forest. Nothing. The intruder was at the other end of the house, where Kirin and the kids were. As fear and worry settled heavy in her stomach, Kaya snuck around, keeping to the shadows and placing her feet on the ground with the grace of a feline. Not even a leave rustled as she slipped past an unattended rosebush.

“And what do we ‘ahe ‘ere?” 

There were three of them, each armed with a pair of short swords. No marks distinguished them as Gato ninjas, but Kaya could tell by their swagger - those were men used to getting what they wanted whenever they wanted it. In their late thirties, with shabby hair and dishevelled clothes, wafting of booze and cigarettes, they spelt trouble even without the leering swatting of their chakras adding to the mix. 

“Go back inside kids,” Kirin’s voice was strained but unwavering as she clutched the broom firmer.

Ko balled his hands into fists, his small face scrunched up in disdain, fear and hate. Behind him, Fuyumi also stood her ground despite the way her small frame shook and the tears that glistened in her brown eyes. 

“Leave my mother alone!” Ko bellowed as he charged ahead, fist raised.

A swift kick sent him flying back, his small body hitting the dust with a thud. His sister’s scream muffled a low painful groan, but Kaya heard it. She also heard the vicious snarl that slipped past Kirin’s lips as she slapped the man that had made a pass to grab her. Not expecting retaliation, he let her go as if she’d burnt him and stumbled back. 

“You bitch!”

Pulling Ko to her chest and yanking Fuyumi behind her back, Kirin held her chin high, eyes glinting like daggers in the morning sun as she glowered. By that point, Kaya had seen enough to justify the rage that choked her, setting her blood on fire. The man whose cheek burned with a scarlet handprint took a threatening step forward, hand on the hilt of his sword and a cruel smirk distorting his face. Before he even had the chance to draw, Kaya blocked his way, fist connecting with his face with a loud crunching sound, sending him flying back into an ancient oak. 

“G-Gachi!” One of his friends, the shortest, shouted.

“You were told to leave.”

Unbound, her long red hair billowed behind her as Kaya took a fighting stance, feet apart and shoulders straight. Nails dug into her palms as she restrained the need to unleash her crystals upon the scumbags that dared threaten a mother and her children. 

“Who the fuck are you?” The short one growled, indignation and a spark of fear glowing in his muddy eyes.

Under different circumstances, she’d have smirked, maybe even toyed with them for a bit before finishing them off in one clean sweep. Yet with Fuyumi’s muffled sobs and Ko’s groans ringing in her ears, she felt less lenient. More savage. 

“Leave.”

The word squeezed between her lips like a growl. A wave of chakra whipped at them with a killing intent so vicious that it sent them staggering back a few steps. Underneath the grime, the men’s faces paled. The sweet scent of honey hung heavy in the air as a gust of wind spun around Kaya’s feet, lifting the hem of her dress and spreading her hair like a halo - a blood-river threatening to drown them. She took a step forward. One of the men fell backwards, scrambling away. The short one stood his ground, hands holding the sword with an uncertain, shaky grip. 

“Last warning.”

He made an uncertain move, to attack or pull away Kaya wasn’t sure, but whatever it was it was cut short as a dog’s jaws closed around his wrist, teeth sinking deep into the flesh. The weapon hit the ground with a clang, lifting a cloud of dust as a painful yell filled the silence. Before he even had the chance to shake off the small body, more dogs latched into him. The most prominent was Bull’s bulk as his massive paws pressed down on the man’s shoulder while his teeth locked precariously around his head.

“Boss Lady, you good?” Pakkun leapt into her arms, unbothered by the growls of protests from the others.

“Hello, Pakkun. Yes, you guys came right on time.”

She almost choked on the words, too afraid to scan the premises for the Summons’ Master. He was close, maybe right at the edge of the treeline about to emerge in the daylight and spot her flaming hair burning in the sunlight. Her heart smacked frantically against her still sore ribs and she took a shaky wheezy breath. 

In the blink of an eye, Konohagakure shinobi had the enemy ninjas apprehended, weapons drawn. Fighting the need to scan their faces, she turned around and looked at Kirin and the kids, all staring at her wide-eyed.

“Are you okay?”

No response, save for the mute moving of lips. Finally, the older woman managed a nod, eyeing the newcomers apprehensively.

“Are they ...?”

“My friends,” she finished. “They’re here to get me.”

A small tentative smile curved her lips. There was more she wanted to say, to reassure them, but a familiar chakra brushed against hers, a low thundering grumble that sent pinpricking sensation up her arms and down her spine. He was there, a few feet away, his silver hair almost pearlescent in the bright light.  

“Kakashi.”

The second his name slipped past her lips he was before her, his towering frame looming over her. Pakkun wriggled out of her grasp, but she barely registered. Kakashi looked older, more tired than she’d ever seen him, the half-hooded eyelid of his uninjured eye barely open - it was if he hadn’t slept since the day of the fight. And yet the grey peeked from underneath, burning into her like a brand. A variety of emotions she could not read had darkened the colour to a stormy shade. 

“No hug?”

In one fluid motion, he buried his hand in her hair, pulling her closer, and yanked his mask down, kissing her like she was oxygen and he had been left breathless for weeks. Startled gasps reached Kaya’s ears (everyone knew the silver-haired Jōnin was not one for public displays of affection) before all sounds receded into the background. Wrapping her shaky hands around his neck, face tilting, she deepened the kiss. Unchecked, passion burned a course through her system, taking up the fire kindled by anger and spinning it into something stronger, hotter, more consuming. ‘He’s here. He’s here.’ Then, there was only silence. And him. 

Sometime later, a throat being cleared snapped them out of the moment. Pulling apart, with her eyes locked on his, Kaya’s fingers tugged at the black material pooled underneath his chin, re-adjusting it back in place. Later , her gaze promised. With a nod, he pulled away, hands gliding away with reluctance. 

“Samosa-san, I’m Kiyo. I’m a medic.”

The man was her junior by a couple of years, the posture of his body awkward and jittery (though that might be due to the passion that sizzled between the pair as they stood shoulder to shoulder, fingers brushing).  And yet there was certain defiance in the gleam of his eyes as he scrutinised her.

“Pleasure to meet you, Kiyo-san.” She smiled, trying to ignore Kakashi’s enthralling presence as he stood a bit straighter, eyeing the poor lad. “Let’s go inside, shall we?”

Throwing a sideways glance at the Jōnin, she headed back into the house, closely followed by Kirin and the children. Shock-struck, they felt out of sorts in their own home. The hut suddenly became too small to accommodate so many people.

“May I look at your injuries?”

“Make sure Ko is okay first. He fought bravely but got hit.” Nodding at the boy who was hunched over by his mother’s side, Kaya watched as the man approached the child with a smile.

After a few whispered words of kindness, the minty green of the medic’s chakra illuminated the room. Gasps aside, the silence remained absolute, allowing Kaya to listen to what was happening outside. The Gato men were being taken away and the ninken, having done their part, came in, the click of their nails attracting Fuyumi’s attention. Her tear-streaked face, ashen moments ago, lit up at the sight of them. Yet she made no move to approach but clung to her mother’s skirt. Kirin’s unphased expression worried Kaya. ‘Is it too much to take in?’

“Are you okay, Kirin-san? Shall I bring you something? A glass of water?”

The older woman simply shook her head and patted the space next to her on the bed. Kaya sat down, barely concealing the grimace as her ribs gave a jolting zap of pain. 

“I knew you were special the second I laid eyes on you. But this.” She eyed the medic tending her son, the ninken sitting a few feet away, alert and waiting to be allowed to approach (that was new) and then focused on Kaya. Honey-scented chakra sweetened the air. The ninken inched closer.

“You are truly remarkable,” she whispered, a hand raising to cup Kaya’s cheek.

The words startled her. When was the last time someone found her remarkable? Tears smudged the outlines of the room. 

“Mah, Kirin-san. I haven’t done anything.”

“You did more than I could ever thank you for, yet I will try my best. Thank you, for protecting my kids and me.”

A nod was the best Kaya could do, the lump in her throat choking back any other sound. The medic cleared his throat again (the lad had a thing for ruining moments) and neared. The ninken inched closer still. With a cracked laugh, she waved them over. Descending upon her like a tsunami, it was Pakkun who stopped them from tackling her over and giving her ribs the final push they needed to break.

“Oi! Calm down!” Perched on her lap, he scrutinized his teammates. “Boss Lady is injured!”

Grumbling, they sat around - in her feet, behind her on the bed, curling around her like a fort, eyes watchful and bodies mindful. She’d have kissed every single one of them wasn’t it for the edge of frustration in the medic’s eyes. 

“Shall we?” He kneeled by her side and lifted the hem of her dress, exposing the white bandage that covered the left thigh. “What happened?”

“A massive shuriken.”

With a silent nod, he cut through the bandages and started healing. The skin tingled and tugged as it was pulled closed, the blood vessels and nerves joined once again. With the corner of her eye, Kaya could see Fuyumi gingerly petting Bull while Ko, with his chin propped on his knees, conversed with Pakkun. Even Kirin, who had eyed the canine invasion with stunned horror, was smiling at the sight of her children’s happy faces. 

“Who the hell are you!?” A familiar voice bellowed, making the women tense. “Where’s my family?”

In an instant Kirin was out of the door, her voice carried in through the open window. Souta had come home early. ‘Maybe he had a premonition as well. But even then, if I hadn’t been here...’ Kaya didn’t allow her mind to stray that way. Instead, she focused on the foreign feeling of the medic’s chakra as he stitched her back together.

An hour later he left her to change into some spare clothes that the squad had brought with them. Using the basin with cold water to wash away the layer of dust that always seemed to cling to her, Kaya shoved her legs into the black cargo pants and pulled on a vest top over her head before adding her signature cropped top. Those were her clothes, the spares she always had ready at the top of her wardrobe, stuffed in a small bag with other essentials. There was only one way that same bag had found its way here, in the other end of the country. ‘Kakashi went out of his way to pick it up for me.’ The thought evoked the memory of their kiss, making her lips tingle. Heat nipped at her cheeks and the tips of her ears. 

Knock-knock.

The sound shattered the image of them locked in a passionate embrace and Kaya quickly removed her fingers from her lips. She was acting like a love-struck fool and it showed.

“Come in.”

Bent over, she fastened the sandals around her ankles, securing them in place, before looking up. Leaning against the door, his hands buried in his pockets, Kakashi observed her. The straight set of his shoulders and the levelled gaze made her heart somersault down to her heels. 

“What’s wrong?”

She made a move to near him, but he lifted a hand. Dread settled like a boulder in her stomach. ‘He’s gonna tell me off for not getting in contact sooner. He’s mad I tried to sacrifice myself to save them. He’s never going to forgive what I put him through.’ Slipping down the spiral, Kaya’s heart lodged in her throat as anxiety brimmed to life, filling her eyes with tears. ‘I missed him so much and he’s never gonna talk to me again!’

“Do you have a minute?” His voice was mild, borderline disinterested.

Not trusting her own not to crack, Kaya nodded. A couple of minutes went by before Kakashi spoke.

“I just wanted to make sure you were alright.”

Struck silent, she only managed to lift an eyebrow, making the Jōnin fidged and lift a hand to scratch the back of his head. 

“I mean, I know you probably aren’t alright, with almost dying and all, but I ...” 

The deep sigh held a note of defeat that squeezed at Kaya’s soul. The goofy, aloof attitude seemed impossible to summon and that made Kakashi uncertain. 

“It was a bit terrifying coming round and realising that I was buried underground with several tons of earth pressing down on me and a diamond armour that was beginning to crack, but I’ve had worse. The important thing is that we all made it out.”

His attention snapped back to her, eye wide in mute horror before the grey turned to flint and Kaya cringed. 

“What I meant to say is that I will be fine.”

The silent stare down dragged on for another minute before Kakashi sighed and looked away. This time, when his rigid posture slackened, she melted the distance between them. Her arms wrapped around his middle and she buried her face in his chest, basking in his presence and warmth.

“I missed you. And I’m sorry I made you worry.”

“Promise me you’ll never do something so foolish and selfless again,” he bit out and Kaya felt his body strain to hold the emotions in check; her grip tightened.

“I promise.”

Eventually, his hands snaked around her and he pulled her even firmer into his chest. For a brief moment, their surroundings receded to the background and it was just the two of them, clinging to each other for dear life, savouring the other’s presence. 

“What happened?” The whisper was so low it barely ruffled her hair, making the words hard to discern.

“What do you mean?” Cold sweat beaded at the base of her spine.

Experiencing that blinding white purgatory was one thing (for all she knew it was a fiction of her imagination, a post-mortem type of shenanigans her brain had played on her), but discussing it in the open was a completely different one. 

“You seem different. Changed.”

When she didn’t elaborate or rebuff him, Kakashi’s hold on her tightened until a couple of joints gave an audible pop.

“Kakashi...” The uncertainty that slipped between the consonants made Kaya cringe.

Abruptly, he released her and moved away, restoring some of the distance between them. Mourning the loss and trying to reason with her mind, Kaya sighed and went to him once again, pressing her face to his back. He remained rigid, giving her the closest thing to a cold shoulder he could muster. 

“It’s so weird and wacky I don’t know if I even believe it happened. I was locked down there for so long, I might as well had a minor brain dysfunction due to lack of oxygen, who knows?”

The small rumbly laugh did not ease the tension; if anything, the Jōnin’s muscles felt taut and ready to snap. ‘Brain damage might not be fully out of the question.’ Sighing, she threaded her fingers through his, pulling him towards the bed.  

“When I woke up after the explosion, I thought I was dead. It was all white and disturbingly pristine, so I assumed that was that. Though, to be fair, I won’t be allowed anywhere near heaven, so should have called it then and there. Anyway, I-”

The headache began at the back of her skull and spread quickly to the front. Kaya had to stop and massaged her temples. It was like someone was trying to hack her head open. A small part of her didn’t want to recount what had happened, how close she had been to dying. Talking about it made it real, and that opened a whole new avenue of questions she wasn’t ready to deal with. Thunderstorm and rain-filled her senses and the burning pain of the headache eased a bit. A small smile of thanks was all she could muster.

“I was a clean slate - no memories of anything or anyone. Nothing.”

A couple of minutes slipped past as another wave of pain washed over her. Warning bells were going off in the back of her head, drowning her thoughts and not allowing even for the simplest of sentences to be strung together.

“It was like a mission,” Kaya gritted out, hands clutching her head as she bent in half, elbows resting on her knees, “of retrieving everything I had lost. It was either that or vanish, and I didn’t want to simply disappear. I was so afraid and confused. And when I had to remember everything-”

Her voice broke and a tear slipped from the corner of her eye, forming a small dark circle over the fabric of her pants. The room’s walls seemed to close in, pressing into her skin and branding it, and all the air evaporated, the void applying insurmountable pressure over her lungs. Black spots dotted her vision even after she squeezed her eyes shut. It felt like she was back underground, with the remnants of the Hoshi hideout trying to crush her. 

Clusters of crystals, the most vivid ruby and coldest diamonds, exploded from the corners of the room with ferocious snarls, sharp edges pointing in all directions. Like their wielder, they were confused, lashing out at the open air and coming dangerously close to the pair sitting on the bed. Sensing the gathering storm, Kakashi let his chakra grumble to life and gently wrapped it around Kaya, soothing her jittery panic. Her emotions bounced off and ricocheted right into him, knocking the air out of his lungs. The fear, anger, pain and helplessness were so vivid and palpable they felt dangerously similar to the demons he had locked in his closet. Shutting the door on that, he dragged the fainting woman’s consciousness back from the tendrils of darkness.

“Kaya, look at me!” The urgency alarmed her.

Blinking her eyes open, she struggled to get anything in focus.

“I need to lie down.”

Before the last syllable slipped past her dry lips, she was already horizontal, the male’s hands gently adjusting her head. 

“Are you okay? Do you want me to bring you something? Water? Food? Shall I get the medic?”

The aftermath of her emotional assault had shaken Kakashi, leaving him anxious and fidgety - a state he hadn’t been in for a very long time. He didn’t like remembering the feeling of it, but he liked even less seeing Kaya in pain. 

“No, I’m okay. I just need a minute.” 

The silence settled down between them, with only her uneven breathing filling it. As the minutes tickled by the pounding headache subsided enough so that she could finally think straight. Heat tinted her cheeks and scorched the tips of her ears. ‘I just had a meltdown!!!’ Internally, she was screaming and running in circles, pulling at her hair. Externally, she blinked her eyes open and looked at the Jōnin. 

The stress lines marking the small visible patch of skin shocked her - he appeared truly worried, his body tense and ready to bolt and grab help. His hand gave hers a reassuring squeeze (when had he grabbed her hand??).   

“I don’t think I’m ready to talk about what happened. I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright.”

He lifted her hand and pressed it to his lips before placing it back down and standing up.

“Rest. I need to get back there. Call if you need anything.”

With a final glance, he exited the room. His absence left a rip in the room, a cold presence that hadn’t been there prior, and before Kaya could stop herself, a shiver traversed the curve of her spine. He had just gone, and she already missed him. 

 

Half an hour later she emerged out of the bedroom. Everyone was gathered in the living room, making a tight squeeze of it. Souta sat next to his wife, their children flanking them while Kakashi and the other two Konoha men sat across. Steam was rising from the teacups in soft white swirls.

All eyes turned to her.

“As good as new,” she smiled and took a seat on Kakashi’s other side. 

A cup was placed before her and filled with chamomile tea. Nodding her thanks, she took a sip, savouring the flavour. The knowledge of how hard-earned and precious it was bittered the taste and she struggled swallowing. A hand on her leg snagged her attention and she stole a glimpse. Pale fingers peeked out of a black glove with a metal protector gleaming in the faint light. Tap-tap-tap went a dozen small paws, and Kaya was surrounded once again by warm bodies. The giddy joy their proximity caused her was almost euphoric. 

“Thank you once again for taking care of her. Kaya-san is an important member of Konoha’s forces and we are happy to have her back.” Kakashi’s voice was low and calm, with no telltale emotion to hint at the passionate kiss they had shared. 

Souta narrowed his eyes, arms like tree trunks crossed over his chest. Tension emanated from his body like a vapour, weaving its way around the room. The sweet smell of honey filled the air and Kaya extended her chakra towards him tentatively, wrapping him in a gauze of calmness. The man visibly relaxed.

“Thank you for everything, Souta-san. You had the chance to kill me or leave me, yet you did neither, and I will be eternally grateful to you for your kindness.”

Bowing low, she let the words sink in for a minute before rising back up. Taking a deep breath, she continued.

“Know that I am in your debt and would do whatever you wish of me, as long as it is in my power.” The solemn look on her face must have struck a chord because the hulk of a man fidgeted under the intensity of her colourful eyes.

“We lack nothing, Kaya-san.” 

She nodded, having anticipated that answer. Despite their state of poverty, the Bokoichi family possessed a sense of pride tightly linked with their kindness and humility. They did good things because that was the right thing to do, not because there was anything to gain from it. ‘Send goodness out in the world if you want goodness to knock on your door,’ Kirin had said. She repeated these words out loud now, making them all look at her in wonder.

“If there’s nothing you desire, then let me offer you something.”

From the top of her bag, she pulled her headband and gently placed in on the table before Souta. The man eyed the metal plate with Konoha’s symbol engraved in it with confusion. Beside him, Kirin gasped, a shaking hand coming up to cover her mouth. 

“I do not understand.”

“You shared your home with me when that could have cost you dearly. Unfortunately, I can’t improve this place without putting you at risk, so I’ll offer you something else.” 

Silent tears were marking a path down Kirin’s face and understanding began to dawn on her husband’s face, stiffening his features.

“I wish to share my home with you.”

Silence. Next to her, Kakashi remained relaxed, his thumb drawing circles against her thigh. The others seemed shocked, eyes wide. She paid them no heed. 

“It will be a place of your choosing. And there are plenty of jobs available so that you won’t feel dependent.”

“Why?” Souta’s voice was hoarse, the severe frown on his face barely masking the fear that lurked underneath. 

‘If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,’ Kaya’s mother used to say in the rare moments of talkativeness she had. ‘Not this time. Not if I have a say in it!’

“I’m repaying the favour,” the words were bland.

His steady gaze remained unwavering until a smile blossomed on her face and she shook her head. 

“Because you were kind to me, so I wish to be kind in return. I want to offer you a better life. A fairer life. How you’d use it is up to you. I’m just helping you with the foundations.”

“And if we decline?”

Kaya tried not to show how much the words grieved her. Leaving them here sounded preposterous. 

“At the end of the day, the choice is yours. Do me a favour and at least think about it.”

Stretching across the table, Kaya put her hand over Souta’s. Unconsciously he had been tracing the leaf symbol on her Hitai-ate. After a moment, he nodded, turning his hand around and squeezing her fingers.