The pale yellow light flickered once. Then twice. No one else noticed, not with the other lights carefully hung up in the room, but he watched it carefully. It pulsed beneath the stained glass, a dead fly caught beneath the surface. Dead for months. Kakashi had seen it the last time he stood in the Hokage's office.
“Hatake? Hatake? Are you even listening to me? Your Sharingan.”
Kakashi’s glance tore back to Tsunade, and he slid down his headband, smiling guilelessly. He hadn’t realized he had turned it on.
“Of course, Tsunade-sama,” he maintained his smile. “I thought I saw something outside.”
She stared at him, frowning. He remained still, unsure of what she was looking for and what she had already found. To most, Tsunade was known for her sharp temper, terrible luck, and legendary strength. It was easy for her enemies and allies alike to forget about the sharp mind that had developed countless medical and torture jutsus.
“Your mission was clearly a success,” she said after a moment. “Even if your report is shit. What is this, Hatake?” She picked a section and read aloud. “Reached Kiri. Undercover. Killed enemies.”
He shrugged. “It was a months-long mission, Hokage-sama. I thought I’d spare you the details and paperwork.”
She rolled her eyes, rising to her feet. He stiffened but didn’t move. It was unlike her to move from her desk, not when it established her position of authority. Tsunade was a woman, shorter than most men and unpopular, and everything proved a disadvantage to her. She never let go of higher ground, and she never circled around the desk.
“I let this go on too long,” she said.
Tsunade sighed. “I let you punish yourself too long. Who do you think will be Hokage after me, Kakashi?”
He decided to ignore her first comment. “Naruto, I assume.”
She barked a laugh. “I doubt Naruto will ever return.”
“Shikamaru then,” said Kakashi. “He has a good mind for strategy.”
“If he ever got off his ass,” said Tsunade. “No, you know as well as I do that you’re the only viable candidate for the next Hokage.” She touched his shoulder, and he wasn’t able to control his reactions enough not to flinch. “And you’ve gone feral.”
“Hardly, Hokage-sama,” he said. “Perhaps you’re blowing this up.”
Kakashi had no desire to be a glorified paper-pusher anyway.
“I don’t need to check your records to know every mission you’ve taken in the past ten years have been A or S-ranked missions. It was my fault for letting it go on for so long… but the village needed the money.”
Kakashi sighed. “Someone needs to take them. I’m a better candidate than most.”
“You’re wasted on them,” Tsunade told him sharply.
“And then what do you want to do?” He demanded. “Sarutobi’s solution? Make me a jounin-sensei? Find another trio of overpowered, overly-confident children for them to turn traitor?”
“Sakura didn’t turn traitor,” Tsunade reminded him. “And Naruto… It’s complicated. You know that.”
He bit back his response. Uchiha Sasuke was a traitor, a murderer, chasing his brother across the world. Naruto had decided to chase him, no matter was his village had asked of him, and that was as good as a betrayal. Sakura may be no traitor, but after a few years of training under Tsunade, she had quit. She was as weak as he had presumed her to be.
Murderer. Desperate. Weak.
“And don’t you dare raise your voice at me, Hatake,” Tsunade added, voice steely.
Kakashi only bowed his head, savage and unrepentant.
She sighed again. “No, I won’t leave you to fail a few teams of genin. The fact is, we need you more with a different case. Go to the hospital — and if I hear you don’t, I really will make you a jounin-sensei. Come in tomorrow at seven for briefing. Don’t be late.”
Her lipstick had smudged after a few hours, but it only took a few seconds in front of the bathroom mirror to clean it up. Satisfied, she stuck the lipstick back in her purse and stepped into the corridor. Regardless of how many hours she worked or how long the shift, Yamanaka Ino never looked anything short of impeccable.
“He’s in 205?” She checked with the nurse.
She hesitated outside the door, but this was her job. Few ever treated the copy-nin. Sometimes Sakura would, a year or two after Sasuke had left. He must have indulged her out of some team loyalty, but Sakura was no longer a med-nin, and Hatake Kakashi no longer came in for medical treatment. Not when he was conscious anyway.
“Hello, Kakashi-san,” she smiled brightly at him, reluctant to call him sensei like she might with Kurenai. He didn't feel like any mentor of hers, and she owed him no more respect than any other shinobi. “Are you ready to get started?”
He lifted his head. Even with only one dark eye unobscured beneath a shaggy head of gray hair, he was handsome. The ANBU uniform did little to hide the sharp lines of his body and the breadth of his shoulders. Not that Ino was interested in dangerous, unstable men.
He didn’t answer, only offering a false eye crinkle.
Ino was used to treating ANBU though. That was why Tsunade had given her this assignment. “You’ve been away a while,” she chattered, slipping on her gloves. “We’re going to start with a chakra exam. Be still. Lee asked out Tenten, you know.”
“Gai’s students?” Kakashi asked, bored.
Ino placed one hand on each shoulder, chakra emanating from her fingertips. Slowly, she had to treat this slowly. No missteps. “Yeah. You remember, right? The Gai-double and the one good with weapons?”
Kakashi hummed, eyes fluttering shut as her chakra threaded its way into his veins.
“Shizune and Genma went out a few months ago,” Ino added in a whisper. “A few fractured ribs. Bruises mostly. I see some self-healed cuts.”
“This was an extended mission,” he said.
“Well, they weren’t really going out,” she began to heal the fractured ribs, more painful than she had to make it. Hopefully, her gossip and the dull pain would be enough to distract Kakashi from the chakra creeping up his neck. “Friends with benefits. Anyway, some feelings developed on Genma’s side, but Shizune didn’t want anything serious.”
“Not like Genma,” Kakashi commented.
Ino didn’t smirk, but she wanted to. This was almost always a successful method. ANBU and jonin who had been away too long couldn’t help but want to know about their friends and family. Even Kakashi.
He grunted when his ribs cracked.
“Sorry,” Ino smiled, entering his mind. “Almost done. Anyway, the break-up was crazy…”
She kept up a steady chatter of gossip, slipping deeper within him. Into his fractured mind. Darkness emanated from every corner of his psyche. His father. Two people she didn’t recognize, one an Uchiha. Sasuke and Naruto, darkness and light. The last ten years, death and death and death. A child, smiling up at him. His hands, damp with blood.
Sakura, maybe fifteen, sobbing and shoving him. Her concentration flickered, and he knew. He knew.
He shoved her back against the wall, hand wrapped around her throat. “What the fuck were you doing just now?”
Ino gasped for breath, lungs heaving. She gestured frantically at him, unable to speak. His grip tightened for just a second.
Then he let go. “Answer me.”
She touched her throat briefly, certain it was bruised. Another ten seconds and she would slip into the darkness. Another twenty, and she would be dead.“I was only following Tsunade-sama’s orders. She wanted to know exactly how screwed up you were. I’m a Yamanaka, Kakashi-san. I’m no average med-nin. I’m a psychologist.”
“And exactly how screwed up am I, Ino-chan?” Kakashi asked. “Are you satisfied now? Will you take me off the roster?”
“Get out,” Ino said, pointing at the door. She turned away, carefully arranging her notes on the table, so he wouldn't see her limbs terse with rage. The gleam in her eyes. She wouldn't give anything to him unless she had to. When she turned back to the room, he was gone.
Depressed. Anxious. Traumatized. But no more than she expected. She lingered on the last memory, wondering why it stuck with the betrayal and deaths, with his grief and misery. But she wasn’t likely to get an answer from him.
He was better at this than he expected. Although he always had a talent for drawing, an understanding of anatomy and ink, people rarely enjoyed what he drew. They were disturbed by what they found on paper, what he could see in them. Perhaps they were only disturbed by themselves, by their ugly self-portraits. His art may have been accurate, but it wasn’t usually considered beautiful.
When it came to tattoos, people liked being disturbed. Haunted. They wanted to take their insides and stamp it onto flesh. Sai found that he liked the challenge.
“Do you take walk-ins?” The woman asked, leaning over the counter.
“I don’t have any appointments right now,” he said. Most people were ugly, but she was uglier than most. “I don’t think you want a tattoo from me though.”
She arched an eyebrow. “Why not?”
“You’re very ugly,” Sai explained. “I’m not sure why. Your proportions are adequate, and your facial features are symmetric. Maybe it’s the pink hair. Pink isn’t a very natural color. Do you dye it?”
“No,” said the woman, more amused than offended. “Pink is my natural hair color. And I don’t mind what you think of me. It’s not me I want tattooed on me.”
“Really? That’s very popular.”
“I know,” she smiled so gently that she was, for a moment, less ugly. Still hideous but less so. “There’s a boy I have a picture of. I want to capture him in a very specific way, and I was told that you're good at looking at people and understanding them.”
He frowned. “It’s more difficult from a photo. Can you bring him in?”
She shook her head. “I’ll never see him again.”
Ah. He couldn’t tell immediately from her clothes or gait, but the slender muscle and callused hands made sense now. She had once been a ninja or was one now. It wasn’t usual for nin not to wear their headbands, but perhaps she was civilian-born.
The grief reeked off her.
He held out his hand, and she silently took the photo, pointing at one of the boys. Even from the photo, he understood. “You were less ugly then.”
She only smiled. “Can you make it like a fox?”
“Yes,” said Sai.
He smelled of alcohol, and his head was pounding. He stumbled out of bed, peeling his clothes off as he went. He had enough time for a shower before his meeting with Tsunade.
“I told you so,” Pakkun said sleepily from the bed.
“Shut up, Pakkun,” he called back, shutting the bathroom door. The hot water did nothing to sooth him, and one of his ribs still weren’t properly healed. With Ino’s chakra still buzzing in his system, he was afraid to touch it. He didn’t want to know what she had seen before seeing Sakura had stopped her.
Drying roughly with a towel, he picked out a general jonin uniform and slipped it on. “What time is it?”
“You don’t have a clock,” Pakkun pointed out.
This was true.
He squinted out at the sky, and the sun was yet to reach midpoint. Before noon, still very early in the day. He shushinned into her office.
“Late,” said Tsunade, not glancing up from her paperwork.
He glanced at her clock. “Sorry, Tsunade-sama. You see, there was this grumpy dog… ”
“I don’t want to hear about that ugly mutt of yours,” said Tsunade flatly. “I hear you harassed my medic last night.”
“I hear you ordered her to creep around my head,” Kakashi smiled.
“Yes, and I have every right to know exactly how traumatized you are,” said Tsunade.
She did. Anger coiled beneath his skin, but there was nothing he could or should do. He had pledged himself as a weapon of the village, and the wielder had every right to know how sharp his blades were.
“You have two missions,” she extended her hand, holding a scroll. “One is to rest. While you were busy taking every highly ranked mission available, your peers have been living their lives. Kids. Marriage. So on. Believe it or not, Konoha has been in peace. Spend some time with old friends. Spar. Ditch the bill. Whatever else you do in your spare time.”
“And the other?” Kakashi accepted the scroll but didn’t open it.
“Konoha police have been investigating…. well, you know Root.”
Kakashi nodded. He knew very little, and that very little was still far more than most. It was a secret subdivision of ANBU.
“Something’s going on,” said Tsunade darkly. “I don’t know what, and I don’t like it. Your subterfuge skills may come in very handy with this. You’ll be working with the Konoha police department.”
Someone shushinned in a few feet behind him. “Shishou.”
“You hardly have to call me that anymore, Sakura,” Tsunade’s expression softened.
Kakashi glanced back. It seemed she was still in possession of ninjutsus even after quitting, but she clearly wasn’t a shinobi. Not now.
“Kakashi,” she greeted. “It’s been a long time.”
Nearly seven years. “Sakura.”
“Anyway,” said Tsunade. “Detective Haruno will be your contact in the police, and you’ll be assisting her with this investigation. You defer to her, Hatake. She’ll update you on the case, and I expect weekly progress reports on both your missions.”
Kakashi froze, eyes darting back to her. She smiled sweetly.
“And I assume she’s also my babysitter,” he drawled.
Tsunade shrugged. “Call it what you want, but yes, Sakura will be keeping an eye out on you. Two years of training under me is four under any other. Don’t be mistaken. Sakura remains a very capable shinobi. Do you understand?”