The long, naked stretch of Kakashi’s back glowed like a pale river in the lamplight, and Katsuko sent up a quiet prayer of gratitude to one of several gods she didn’t believe in. She balanced the ink pot on her knee and held the brush in her other hand, weighing warm, weathered wood against her palm.
Ceremoniously, she set the tip of the brush between his shoulderblades, and murmured, “Hold still.”
Kakashi twitched. Black ink made a ragged streak.
She hissed and swatted his hip. “You had one job!”
“It’s cold,” he protested, and buried his face—still masked—into folded arms.
“Giant fluffy-headed babyman.” She licked a calloused thumb and smudged the mark away, trying not to notice how the faint white scars across his back flexed with every breath. Tiger stripes.
The first proper sweep of ink laid a long, curving line down Kakashi’s spine, dark and gleaming. Katsuko tilted her head, studying the effect, and decided it would do. She laid down a second line, then a third, and settled quickly into a rhythm. Kakashi’s breath rose and fell, becoming meditative. His skin shivered a few times—he was ticklish, she discovered delightedly, especially around the ribs—but he’d resigned himself to holding still, a pretty living canvass for her to paint.
The design grew, scattered lines slotting together to form an actual pattern. It started at the nape of Kakashi’s neck and slid all the way down to his waistband, winding around his spine, spreading across his shoulderblades. At her urging, he rolled over when his back was dry and let her lay siege to his front. She traced curling lines over his ribs, hard edges across his collarbones, long beautiful sweeps down the central line of his body, from sternum to navel. Everywhere the brush went, her chakra followed.
It was an exercise in control, but she congratulated herself when she managed not to blister his skin or singe his chakra pathways. She was a master among artists. Praise her! Praise her with exceeding praise!
“Okay,” she said at least, sitting back on her heels. “How’s that?”
Kakashi pushed up onto his elbows and looked down at himself, eyebrows arched curiously. The ink was so dark against his skin that it looked like it was drinking the light. The black lines glimmered, like the energy inside the design made it want to ripple.
Kakashi’s visible eye gleamed. “Perfect,” he said.
Katsuko set the brush down and grinned. “Don’t feel like you have to put your shirt back on. You can call that my payment.”
He snorted, but he didn’t re-dress until after he’d gotten up to check himself out in the mirror, twisting to see what she’d done to his back, so Katsuko called it good.
She didn’t get to see the full effect until a week later, when they drew a mission that set them up against one of Lightning’s more deadly missing-ninja and the band of varyingly talented idiots the man had managed to draw to his flag.
For once, the orders were delightfully simple: capture or kill.
Since Haruto-san had spent a month razing civilian villages, stealing supplies and burning their occupants to charred cinders, Katsuko wasn’t feeling in much of a capturing mood. She took her place with the rest of the team on the jagged rise they’d picked out, marking the edge of an open, unplanted series of fields that would serve for an open-ground battlefield, and waited for her moment.
Haruto came over the border, flanked by a ragged group of twenty ninja. Their clothes and faces were dirty, but their chakra had the sharp, lethal edge of dangerous weapons.
Ryouma stirred at her side, dark chakra filling his hands with the promise of rot and ruin. Raidou drew his black sword, its edge gleaming with poison. Genma fanned senbon between his knuckles, like sharp claws.
Katsuko smiled with a wicked edge, and let fire spill down her sword.
At her other side, Kakashi stood bare-handed and slouched, in his usual casual manner of apparently failing to notice there was a fight on the horizon. Katsuko felt her smile broaden, hopeless fondness warming her bones beneath the surge of bloodlust, then the enemy ninja got within reach and everything devolved into carnage and chaos.
Katsuko killed three, just to warm herself up, and whooped when Ryouma melted a man’s face off. Raidou cut a bloody swath on the northern flank, moving fast and brutal with Genma at his back, silver senbon finding eyes and throats with perfect precision.
A flicker of pale hair caught the corner of her eye. She sliced a kunoichi down, fire hissing against spraying blood, and watched as Kakashi wove himself through the madness. He was still bare-handed, ducking and sliding until he came up at Haruto’s side, and gave the other man a red-eyed Sharingan smile.
Then he worked the seals that he and Katsuko had spent three days perfecting, and her artwork blazed to life. Beneath Kakashi’s clothes, light and fire blossomed, rushing out to wreathe him in a violent halo of Katsuko’s chakra. The shape was formless for a moment, then it twisted into her vengeful, brilliant dragon, echo of the design she’d painted onto his skin.
Kakashi tilted his head, eyes going half-lidded like a man hearing beautiful, distant music, and flicked his fingers.
Her dragon exploded out and burned half the battlefield clean. In the middle of the inferno, surrounded by shocked, screaming ninja, Kakashi moved like iced lightning and punched a raikiri through Haruto’s heart.
After that, there was nothing but the clean up.
Katsuko was the first to reach the center, guiltlessly leaving Ryouma, Raidou and Genma to deal with the few remaining twitchers—and the four smarter shinobi who’d actually tossed their weapons down—and discovered, to her great delight, that her jutsu had not only been amazing and effective, but it had also burned most of Kakashi’s shirt off. He stood in the smoking remains of armor, shaking crispy blood and the remains of a glove off his hand. At his feet, Haruto was charred postscript.
“I am a mad genius,” Katsuko proclaimed.
Kakashi lifted his head and smiled at her, both eyes curving. He liked to do that when he was fake-smiling, expression folded into something false and hidden, but this time she thought he actually meant it. “Could have used a little more finesse,” he said, “but it got results.”
Sometimes, she didn’t know whether she wanted to hit him or hug him. She grabbed him by both steaming shoulders instead, and shook him in an effort to make him have enthusiasm. “Mad genius.”
He caught her hands, but he was laughing, a sound that rasped with adrenaline, and when he opened his eyes, they gleamed again. The shape beneath his smoke-stained mask looked like an actual grin. “Maybe just a little.”
Across the field, Raidou yelled, “What did you idiots do?”
“Won, taichou,” Katsuko yelled back. “We won!”
Kakashi freed one hand to peel off a scrap of ruined shirt. “Next time, we should try something that doesn’t destroy my clothes.”
Katsuko leaned comfortably against his fire-licked shoulder, warm and smelling faintly of cinders, and envisioned the next thing she wanted to paint on him. “Shh,” she said. “Don’t ruin it.”