Rating: PG15 for language, some sexual references and violence.
Spoilers: Yes, a few, for episodes before the time-jump.
Warnings: Some weird streaks of humour and a lot of violence. It's the usual Maldoror, then. Some possible OOC-ness due to ANBU-related reasons.
Disclaimer: Naruto is the brainchild of Kishimoto-sama, and I am not worthy. I merely borrow the manga's characters and situations, and make no money off of them.
Timeline: Situated during the time-jump, six months after Sasuke leaves.
Posted in two parts (link to second part at the end of post)
Kakashi sighed as he recognized the presence on the other side of the door. It was ten o'clock at night, what did the kid want now?
Lee's face was full of serious enthusiasm until he realized it was Kakashi who had answered his knock, and then the young Genin's expression changed and he gave Kakashi The Look.
Kakashi was getting very familiar with The Look. He'd been getting it for the last seven months, ever since a gigantic Sand-summoned snake had inconsiderately destroyed Gai's apartment block, along with some other Konoha real estate, and Gai had moved in with Kakashi. It wasn't actually the 'moving in' part that had earned Kakashi The Look. It was the bit where it sort of came out that he and Gai had been banging each other since their late teens, and had decided it was probably time to shack up and move to a bigger pad, what with giant snakes and totalled apartments and all that.
The Look clearly stated 'I don't understand this and I'm not sure I like it, since I'm wondering if you didn't seduce Gai-sensei with some impure wile, but as you are now Gai-sensei's Dearest One, I will jump in front of a kunai for you'. That was a lot of meaning for just one Look, however capitalized. Kakashi felt a bit heavier each time it rested on him, but he tried to be nice to the kid for Gai's sake.
"I was hoping to speak with Gai-sensei," Lee said, polite but also rather stiff, as if he wasn’t yet sure he wanted to openly acknowledge the fact that the two Jounin were living together. He also looked like he was trying to pretend Kakashi hadn't opened the door bare-foot and without his Jounin vest; such informality in Gai-sensei's home obviously disturbed Lee a bit.
"Sorry, kid, he's not here," Kakashi lied and closed the door in Lee's disappointed face.
He made his way back to the bedroom, dragging his shirt over his head as he walked, leaving only the black, sleeveless top he was wearing beneath it.
"Who was it?" Gai asked him without looking up, his eyes fixed on the sword's edge as the light played over it.
"Lee, who else."
That got Gai's attention. The sword flickered back into its scabbard and he shot to his feet.
"I told him you weren't in," Kakashi added, dropping the shirt on the floor.
"What? But he might need something-"
"I'm sure he does. If you want to trot off and be his sensei, go ahead; I can do this alone.”
Gai looked at the doorway to the bedroom as if he could see Lee still waiting out front, then his gaze travelled back to Kakashi’s visible eye and the ANBU armour chestpiece Kakashi had picked up.
Kakashi suddenly got a close-up view of a righteous finger nearly poking out his eye as Gai made a dramatic gesture at him.
“I am not one to leave my eternal rival and friend alone in a time of danger!”
“Danger? What danger? I’m chasing down some lame-ass excuse for a-“
“I’m coming with you!” Gai tightened the straps on the long wrist-guards of his own armour, over the glove that rose past the elbow. The ANBU tattoo on his right arm seemed as dark as the cloth against solid muscle. Kakashi glanced down at Gai’s mask lying on top of the rest of his equipment and wished it could have all stayed in mothballs where it belonged.
“You sure? Lee might need something important,” he found himself saying.
"If you really thought so, you wouldn't have lied to him. And you need the backup.”
“Bullshit. Why did you volunteer for this mission anyway? As the teacher of a Genin team, you’re only in the ANBU now as last resort. You could have opted out.”
“Yeah, I volunteered, because otherwise Tsunade would have just turned around and made it an order,” Kakashi said, opening his own equipment box with an idle flick of fingers. “If I was still a Jounin instructor, I could refuse a recall to the ANBU, but since all my pupils have managed to garner the mentorship of a Sannin - even if one of them had to go AWOL to do so - I can’t really rely on that excuse any more, now, can I.”
It had taken a few days of solitary reflection at the memorial, but Kakashi had eventually taken the whole Team 7 deal like he usually did, with resignation and strategies to work around future problems that could arise from Sasuke’s defection. Regret and remorse were not luxuries he could afford for long; he'd rather try to make up for yet another of his many mistakes and look to the future. Otherwise Obito might rise from the grave and kick his ass.
That was why he could talk about it casually, the usual half-smile beneath his cloth mask creasing his visible eye. Accept it, move on. But Gai still gave him that hurt-puppy look in return. Gai always seemed to take Kakashi’s problems more seriously than Kakashi did, as if he were still feeling his lover's pain long after Kakashi couldn’t anymore. Maybe that was why Kakashi stayed with him.
"I'm not going to be able to shake you off, am I?" Kakashi murmured, taking off his headband and riffling fingers through his hair.
"Turn around," was Gai's only answer.
Kakashi obeyed and held the chest plate against his body while Gai tightened the shoulder straps carefully. He didn't need any help getting dressed; he’d been putting on this armour all by himself since the age of thirteen. But he let Gai have his way, with nothing but the expected "Maybe sometime today?" Straightfaced sarcasms and eternally bored attitude aside, Kakashi always let Gai help him on with his armour when they partnered, he always accepted Gai's challenges, he always listened to Gai's speeches on Youth with nothing but a raised eyebrow, he always put up with anything and everything that made Gai his strong, reliable, enthusiastic green self, because it never occured to him to stop Gai from being quintessential Gai. Maybe that was why Gai stayed with him.
He fished the long gloves and forearm protectors out of the sealed crate he kept his own armour in, and fastened them on under Gai’s supervision. Belts, boots, weapons...minutes were ticking by, but they checked all their equipment carefully, leaving the ANBU masks for last.
“All set?” Kakashi asked, fastening the lower strap of his tanto scabbard around his thigh.
“Ready! The Mighty Green Beast of Konoha will destroy the enemy who has foolishly returned to the scene of his crime.”
“Yeah, I don’t get that bit either; it’s fucking stupid for a missing-nin from Sand to try to hide out in Leaf after he blitzed us a few months ago. Maybe he figures our forces are too depleted to do anything about it.”
Kakashi twitched an inch of his spare dagger out of its ankle holster and dragged the ball of his thumb over the edge of the revealed blade. Then his hands blurred through the seals.
“What now?” Pakkun mumbled, blinking up at him. The dog’s jowls and eyes seemed to settle a little more heavily as he examined Kakashi’s uniform. “Oh, one of those. I thought you didn’t have to do these kinda missions anymore-“
“Greetings, Pakkun,” Gai interrupted quickly, leaning over with a friendly smile.
“Wotcher, Twinkle-toes. You in on this too?”
“Yes, I’m Kakashi’s backup.”
“Lucky him. Is there a third and fourth?”
“No,” Kakashi answered. “Our guys are still stretched too thin. Two is enough.”
“If you say so. What do you want me to sniff out?”
“We’re meeting up with someone north of here. Can you keep your nose on alert till we get there? Tell me if you smell anything odd on the way.”
Gai paused as he was fitting the tight hood over his head (after a lot of argument years ago, Sandaime had finally persuaded Gai that it was little use running around in an anonymous mask when you have the only bowl cut in the village). “What? You suspect a trap from the Sand Hunter? But his village has been our ally for six months now.”
And seven months ago, they helped Sound invade Konoha and tried to drill us in the stadium, Kakashi thought. But he didn’t say it. In their small team, Gai was the one who held the powerful, driving belief in their cause and their strength and in Youth and Friendship, and Kakashi was the paranoid bastard. It was called task distribution or something.
“Just being cautious,” he said out loud. A quick flow of chakra to his thumb sealed the minor cut to avoid bleeding all over the place and giving himself a scent trail an enemy could spot. “We all ready?”
There was no answer. He glanced up to find himself looking into a stylized cat mask.
He wasn’t surprised when the only response Gai gave him was a silent nod. Something deep inside Kakashi’s chest twisted. As soon as Gai put on that bloody mask, he never said a word. Maybe it was simply discretion; he had, to say the least, a very distinctive speech pattern. Kakashi’s guts told him it went deeper than that and he disliked it. But he never mentioned it. What went on behind the mask stayed there.
The metal settled over his features, cold even through the cloth hiding the lower half of his face; a mask over a mask. It was carefully engineered to provide protection from blows to the head while weighing as little as possible. But it felt heavy all the same. His vision of the world became straight and narrow through the slits. Kakashi’s other senses immediately compensated. The mask helped enhance the feel for auras and chakra patterns, instead of relying on the easily-fooled eye. The holes in Kakashi’s dog mask were wider than others because in his particular circumstances, the eye was not easy to fool.
He distantly wondered if he also changed when the mask went on; would he change, considering he wore a mask day in day out anyway? Did it matter?
Not right now, it didn't. All that mattered now was the hunt.
They silently landed side by side on the branch, weapons at hand.
After a tense minute, someone stirred up ahead. A figure stepped out of the shadow of a tall oak, his hands raised above his head. The moonlight played upon the bone-white mask of a Hunter-nin.
"Greetings," the Hunter said in the direction of the two ANBU.
Kakashi took in the slight frame which wouldn't reach his collarbone, the voice that was trying to sound deeper than it was and the straight-backed posture that was just a bit too tense, too serious.
"Great," he whispered sardonically, "it's just a kid."
"And a jumpy one at that," Pakkun muttered after scenting the air.
"Anyone else around?"
"Not that I can sniff out."
"Good. Stick around though."
"If you say so."
The three dropped from the tree and approached the Hunter. Kakashi touched two fingers to his mask in a lazy salute. Gai said nothing.
The Hunter's eyes, barely visible through the slits in his mask, flicked from one to the other, and then down at Pakkun with something like surprise in his stance.
"Thank you for assisting me in this matter, and for honouring the treaty between our two villages," he said formally. It sounded carefully rehearsed. "As a representative of Sand-"
Kakashi smiled like a wolf beneath his two masks. "Really? Prove it."
"P-prove it?" the kid stammered. Sixteen, maybe fifteen, Kakashi estimated; probably his first Hunter mission.
The Hunter started back as Gai silently extended a hand.
"Mission statement," Kakashi translated for the kid's benefit. "That will do."
"But-but why should I have to prove-"
"Because I already found out the hard way that any bozo can put on a mask. Mission statement, or things get ugly." Kakashi’s voice was warped by the metal and the feral grin beneath it.
The Hunter reluctantly pulled a scroll from his satchel and opened it, his fingerprints cancelling the seal that should be trapping it as further proof of his credentials. Gai took the scroll from his hands with a curt nod of thanks and started examining it. Then he passed it to Kakashi.
The ANBU checked the mission statement quickly; orders to hunt down a high-level Jounin from Sand who'd gone missing after the village had discovered the Kazekage's corpse. Likely this guy, Sakae Nori, had been in league with Orochimaru and had helped him ambush the Kazekage.
Kakashi didn't bother with the details; they'd been in Tsunade's mission handout. He checked the seals on the letter and the signature. It was some civilian councillor, and not the one that had formally requested Leaf's help when the fugitive had headed into their forests. Looked like Sand's High Command was still totally screwed up and busy infighting over the next Kage. And sending out kids on Hunter missions. Seeing how a good number of their higher-level Shinobi were pushing up daisies in a field outside of Konoha, they probably didn't have much choice.
"Looks in order," he said, tossing it back to the Hunter. "Except for one detail."
The kid fumbled the scroll at that last word, though he caught it quickly and he never had his hands so busy that he couldn't get to his weapons. Good material there, though not quite Hunter level yet.
"We are not assisting you." Kakashi crossed his arms over his chest.
"What did you say?" The question was sharp and dangerous, and the tension in the kid went from ‘I want to make a good impression on my first mission’ to ‘fuck with me and die’. At least the boy wasn’t a pushover.
"My colleague and I are going to go after this guy and take him down," Kakashi informed him. "You're just here to get rid of the corpse, according to treaty rights."
"But I'm a Hunt-"
"He's on our territory. He's our business. You stay behind us - far behind us - and you won't get hurt."
The Hunter took a breath through his mask to object- the crunch of boots on dry leaves behind Kakashi signalled that Gai had turned to go. The kid deflated. Kakashi smirked. Good one, Gai.
Kakashi summoned a few more dogs, one of which fell back to guide - and watch - the kid. The two ANBU and the pack started to quarter the forest. They were right on the northern border of Konoha's principality. It seemed a bit strange for a fugitive from Sand, who’d helped precipitate the attack against Leaf, to hide out here of all places. Then again, maybe he thought the treaty between the two villages was still too new and fragile, and that Sand would let him go rather than call on Leaf or risk a diplomatic incident. And as Sakae had been part of the forces attacking Konoha, at least he knew the terrain. He probably thought that gave him an advantage. Stupid, stupid, stupid mistake, Kakashi chanted silently, staring dreamily up at the moon.
A dog had caught a scent foreign to their forests. Now it began.
It took an hour to triangulate the location. The man was taking precautions, and old scent-trails crisscrossed his and muddled it. But they were getting close. Kakashi moved carefully through the trees towards a faint chakra signature, Pakkun in front of him, Gai a few hundred yards to his right with another dog. The branches beneath his feet didn't move, the dry autumn leaves didn't rustle. Kakashi had grown up in these forests, he'd killed his first man not too far from here, he'd bled in several different locations all around Konoha, this was his land.
Up ahead, Pakkun suddenly stopped and crouched low on the branch. Kakashi slowed his approach, moved in time with the shadows, the leaves and the moonlight, and crept up to the dog.
"A man," the dog murmured, so low the hush of leaves in the breeze nearly covered it. "But not the one we've been following. There are other scents too."
He got nothing but a haughty sniff for an answer.
Kakashi felt a prickle of alarm. "Gai. Where's Gai?" he breathed.
Pakkun sniffed the air, then looked off to the right. "Coming our way," he muttered.
Gai appeared like a shadow in the next tree over, a dog at his heels. Through the mindset of the mask, Kakashi still felt a muted relief at the sight.
Gai stayed crouched down in the shadow of a redwood's trunk, obviously aware of the presence of a stranger nearby. He looked around prudently, then his left hand drifted up, the same slow rhythm that would not catch the eye of an enemy watching the dark woods. His fingers flicked a few short sentences in the ANBU hand-signal code.
Enemy spotted. The target. Plus three Shinobi. Maybe more.
One of these days, thought Kakashi, I'd like a mission that actually goes according to plan.
Gai was looking at him. Kakashi flicked a finger at Pakkun, who gave the tiniest whine in response, confirming the find.
"There was only one fresh scent up until now. He must have met them here," the dog murmured. "I can smell them now though, we're downwind. Six...seven separate scents. Leather. Metal. Grease. Flints. No fire, no blood. Tension." Pakkun cocked his head. "They're arguing, I think. There's one closer to us. Sentinel."
"Stay here," Kakashi breathed. He gathered Gai with a glance and fell back slowly and in complete silence for ten yards. Then he moved more swiftly back the way they'd come, Gai three steps behind him.
The Hunter barely had time to look up. He made a comical squeak when Kakashi slammed him to a tree with an elbow pinning his throat.
"It appears our target has met up with a few friends," Kakashi said pleasantly. "Talk."
The Hunter made a choked sound, hands on weapons but unable to draw when Kakashi could crush his throat in an eye blink. Kakashi could see the white plate of the mask through his own eye-slits. Mask to mask, faceless face to face, two puppets with chakra strings running back to their respective villages.
"Are there more from Sand? Did you know about this?"
Gai's restraining hand gently touched Kakashi's wrist. Kakashi eased up on the kid before the latter passed out. He could smell the fear on the boy. Kakashi cultivated a harmless appearance normally, and he wasn't a vicious hardass by any standards. Maybe he changed too when the mask went on. Just a little.
"He's supposed to be alone," the Hunter muttered, massaging his throat. His hand was trembling. The other one had fastened on his kunai holster.
"Well, he's not. There're at least seven of them."
"I...we don't have any other missing-nin in Sand. But...erm..."
"But?" Kakashi prompted.
"Sakae sent a message before he ran. We weren't able to find out to who and what for, but-"
"But he might have been setting up a meeting with some friends," Kakashi finished, suddenly thoughtful. "People from Orochimaru's group?"
He glanced at Gai, who crushed his hopes with a curt shake of his head. A few gestures followed, hand signals that Kakashi knew well and didn't particularly want to see.
Mercenaries. Chuunin, Jounin level. One from the Bingo Book. Maybe more.
Great, just great. The others Gai hadn't seen might be Sound-nin, but then again, it was likely they were all hired hands. Extremely dangerous hired hands.
The hunter was looking from one ANBU to another. "What-?"
"You stay here. When all the screaming and noisy thuds are done, you come check. We should have a body or three for you to dispose of."
"B-but don't you want my help? It's the two of you against the seven of them."
"That would be their bad luck."
Kakashi vanished into the night, Gai at his heels.
Link to the second part