Breaking Free

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Written for all the players at Imamade Nandomo, but especially for Hagane Kotetsu, who inspired it all. Special thanks to link no miko for encouragement, to Chevira Lowe for (unwittingly) providing the impetus, and to a certain English Language 223 professor during whose lecture I wrote the first two pages of this fic.

Note: this fic takes place eight years after "Great Expectations" and a year and a half before "Broken." Kamizuki Takashi and Izumo's teammate Matsui are both original characters. As usual, the timeline leaves something to be desired. If you want to hear specifics, visit my livejournal (link through my author's profile) to read my gripe on the Canon Chronology of Doom.

-

We are like birds of a feather

We are two hearts bound together

We will be forever as one

My brother under the sun

--Bryan Adams, "Brothers Under the Sun"

-

Kamizuki Izumo wakes up in the hospital on the night of the last Chuunin exam, swimming through a haze of drugs to a consciousness laced with pain. His ears echo with a dull roar, and the throbbing pain at the back of his head stabs toward his eyes when he tries to pry them open. Breathing hurts. Everything hurts.

"Oi, he's awake!" a delighted voice announces from somewhere around his feet. A hand thumps his leg. "Ne, Izumo, how ya feeling?"

"Idiot," another voice growls. "Remember what the nurse said?" A spiky black head fills Izumo's frame of vision, dark eyes narrowed in concern, swollen nose now bandaged but still crusted with blood. "D'you know who I am?"

"Idiot yourself," Izumo retorts, rather lamely, because he's not sure he can piece together any more coherent thoughts that will stand up to Kotetsu's verbal sparring. But the other boy just stares down at him, bruised mouth thinned into a tight line, until Izumo gives in and answers.

"You're Kotetsu, of course, and Matsui's down there somewhere—" He tries pushing himself up on his elbows to see better, but his left arm is wrapped in bandages and bound to his chest by a heavy cloth sling. He settles for leaning on just the right elbow, although the slight twist of his torso sends sharp little jabs of pain through his ribcage. He doesn't quite manage to bite back the wince.

"You're gonna make it worse," Kotetsu says sharply. He reaches behind Izumo to rearrange the pillows at his back, and his hands are strangely gentle when he pushes Izumo back down again. "Can you see okay?"

Izumo blinks and stares over Kotetsu's shoulder at Matsui, hovering anxiously at the foot of the hospital bed, and then at the blank cream-colored wall behind him. Nothing seems fuzzy, although his headache is starting to grow. "Fine." He refocuses with an effort and eyes Kotetsu's battered face, both eyes blackened, nose clearly broken, left cheek bandaged, lips cut and swollen. "Did you make it?"

"No," Kotetsu says, his jaw tightening a little. "I went up against an Uchiha in the second round." His eyes are bitter, shadowed by the envy of a clanless orphan for the proud heir of a Bloodline Limit. Izumo and Matsui exchange glances over his shoulder. Matsui's brown eyes, usually sparkling with fun, are serious now, and his lips are thin with concern. It was bad, his eyes say.

Was it worse for Matsui, Izumo wonders? Trapped in the stands after his broken ankle in the second exam forced him to withdraw from the third, unable to either fight for himself or help his teammates, condemned to watch helplessly as they fought and failed…

"It wasn't as bad as your match, though!" Matsui says cheerfully, and Izumo groans. So much for sympathy. Of course, neither Matsui nor Kotetsu has ever really grasped the concept of tact—Matsui because he's never understood why he shouldn't say exactly what he thinks exactly when he thinks it, and Kotetsu because he doesn't see why he should blunt his words for the sake of someone else's feelings.

"What happened?" Izumo asks.

Kotetsu's gaze sharpens. "You don't remember anything?"

The pounding in his head has built to a stabbing pain centered behind his eyes. Izumo reaches up to rub his temple with his right hand, but his fingers meet cloth instead of skin. Bandages? He runs his fingers around the back of his head, calloused fingertips snagging linen threads and then skittering up to catch in blood-clotted hair. "I remember most of the fight," he says slowly, "up until I planted a kunai in the guy's shoulder and he started forming seals." He prods the back of his head, but the bone seems solid enough. "What'd he do?"

"Used a wind jutsu to smash you into the arena wall hard enough to leave a dent a foot deep." Kotetsu settles back on his stool, glaring at the curtained window on the other side of Izumo's bed. "The medics said you were lucky to survive—you must've cushioned the blow with chakra. As it is, your wrist and half of your ribs are broken, and you had a concussion bad enough to knock you out for nearly three hours."

"Good thing your head's so hard," Matsui grins.

Izumo tries not to think of his skull smashing into the concrete wall, bone shattering like the shell of a raw egg, blood and brains spattering against the stone. He's a ninja; he's lived with the knowledge of his own mortality since he was four years old, the day only his mother's dog-tags came home from her last mission. "Good thing," he says, and if his voice is a little duller than usual, only Kotetsu catches it.

But then, Izumo has never been able to put anything past Kotetsu anyway.

"The Uchiha made it," Matsui says after a moment. "Uchiha Shinsui, he's two years younger than us. Beat out Umino Iruka in the final round, but they'll probably both get their vests anyway. You remember Iruka—a year older than us, spiky ponytail, scar across the nose? He used the coolest water jutsu, if Shinsui didn't have the Sharingan he never coulda beat it…"

Unconsciously, Izumo pulls his legs aside a little so that Matsui can sit on the edge of the bed, and Kotetsu leans forward, and when the nurse looks in twenty minutes later, Izumo's already forgotten about the pain.

-

He gets his painkillers anyway, as well as a fifteen-minute check-up that turns out to be darn well near a full-body examination. The nurse is young and pretty, probably only four or five years older than the three of them, and Matsui starts sniggering from the moment she has Izumo sit up and all of them realize that under the blankets he's not wearing anything but boxers and bandages. The nurse blushes a tiny bit, and Izumo can't help himself.

"I'm sorry to make this so awkward," he apologizes. "Ordinarily I wouldn't dream of appearing before a lady like yourself in this kind of, uh, state of undress." He sweeps a despairing glance down the length of his bare and bandaged body, then turns the glance up through his lashes and turns up the heat. His voice is a low purr, smooth as honey. "Wouldn't it be better to take it all off?"

Matsui doubles over in hysterical laughter, and even Kotetsu's mouth twitches. The nurse's cheeks burn a little pinker, and she slaps Izumo's right hand away from his waistband. "Behave," she says sternly. Then a small, playful smile touches her lips, and she leans forward and drops her voice just enough for the other two to have to strain to hear. "If you were a few years older and a few inches taller, I might consider it. Now let's have a look at those wounds, shall we?"

Izumo spends the rest of the check-up alternating between unrepentant grins at his teammates and low whispers with the nurse. When she heads off at last for the rest of her rounds, leaving Izumo with a bottle of painkillers and a more-than-friendly pat on the cheek, Matsui is nearly incoherent with envy. "How d'you—" he sputters, flapping his hands. "You're flat on your ass, in the gods' names! You—she—it's not fair!"

"What can I say?" Izumo waves a languid hand in the air. He's feeling unnaturally good, floating on a sea of drugs and hormones. "Some of us are just talented. You watch. Next time she comes by, I'll score a kiss."

Matsui howls in outrage, but Kotetsu elbows him in the ribs. "Shut it, idiot. He's just teasing. No way he could get her to kiss him."

Their eyes meet over Matsui's head, driven by Kotetsu's lopsided smirk. Izumo bites back his own grin. "You wanna bet?"

"You know I'm broke," Kotetsu retorts coolly, which is true; he's always broke. But Matsui's parents run a successful shop in the village, and his pockets are usually full of spending money. He eyes Izumo dubiously, and Kotetsu adds, "Anyway, it'd be like hitting the side of the hospital with a kunai. No challenge at all. You're sure to lose."

"Five to one," Izumo says, watching Matsui out of the corner of his eye. "And the loser buys lunch for the other two tomorrow. And, next overnight mission, he has to carry the winner's pack."

That does it. Matsui slams his fist down on the bedpost. "I'll take it!"

Izumo's eyes meet Kotetsu's again, and this time both of them smile.

They pass the time playing cards with a dog-eared deck Matsui keeps tucked in one of his cavernous pockets. It's the same deck they've used night after night on boring missions, some of which quickly turned not-so-boring; several of the cards are flecked with blood, which makes them easy to identify. Izumo keeps his cards tucked in his sling, and he keeps both eyes firmly fixed on Kotetsu, who cheats whenever he thinks he can get away with it. He doesn't really need to, because Matsui's got appalling luck and Izumo's a decent player at best, but Izumo's fairly sure that it's almost second nature to him now. He's also almost certain that sometimes, when their most recent missions have yielded little more than pocket-change, sneaking into bars and cheating at cards is the only way Kotetsu makes the money to pay the rent on his tiny one-room closet.

Those are usually the times that Izumo makes his bento extra-big and loses his appetite after a few bites. It's the only way he can think of, because Kotetsu's pride is as stiff and prickly as the rest of him, and after the first few times Izumo learned not to ask his father if his teammates (that insolent orphan and that loud-mouthed brat) could join them for dinner.

Dinner here at the hospital comes during the fifth hand, on a cart pushed by the same pretty young nurse. Izumo flashes a quick look at his teammates and greets the nurse cheerfully. He waits while she sets up the tray so he can eat, then reaches for his chopsticks and pauses with a woeful expression. "I'm sorry to bother you any more, neechan, but—" He wiggles a little against the pillows. "I can't really sit up…"

"Oh, it's all right," she assures him, and slides one arm under his shoulders to help him sit up so she can prop the pillows up a little more. He does his best to help as well, slipping his right arm around her waist and leaning against her as she fluffs up the pillows behind him. When she's finished, he offers her an especially sweet smile of the kind he saves for very rare occasions, then presses a quick kiss to her cheek.

"Hey!" Matsui shouts. "That's not what—umph!" He doesn't quite stop so much as keel over, clutching his stomach, all the air driven out of him by Kotetsu's very sharp elbow.

The nurse freezes, a penetrating glance skimming from Matsui's startled gasps to Kotetsu's bland face to Izumo's innocent smile. "So that's it, eh?" she says at last, raising one delicate eyebrow. "How much is riding on this, kiddo?"

"All my earnings from our next mission," Izumo says in a small voice. "I didn't think you'd really mind—"

She laughs. "Well, I don't. You're cute. Just don't do it again, okay?" She hesitates a moment, glancing at Matsui's recovering smirk, then curves her lips in her own deliberate smirk. "And just to keep you out of trouble—"

Matsui's yelps go unheard this time. Izumo is thoroughly enjoying this kiss.

He leans back, folding his right arm behind his head and smiling as smugly as a cat licking the cream off its whiskers, when she leaves him with another pat (on the hip this time!) and a cheerful "Don't break too many hearts when you get out of here, okay?" Matsui is too shocked to even stammer this time. He opens and closes his mouth, shakes his head, and silently pulls out his wallet. "You earned it," he says at last, with a low whistle. "Swear I didn't think you could do it. But you had it planned that way the whole time, didn't you?"

Izumo grins. "And this," he says, "is why you never, ever expect anything less than the best."

It's the wrong thing to say. His own body coils with tension, and a muscle twitches in Kotetsu's jaw. Matsui doesn't notice—when, Izumo wonders wearily, has Matsui ever noticed?—but the other two look at each other for a long moment.

You don't have to go back, Kotetsu's gaze says fiercely. Not yet. You don't have to face him yet.

When else? Izumo's tired eyes ask. And what do I say then?

The shadow has fallen between them again, and when Izumo shoves the tray aside and pushes himself out of bed to stand wavering on his feet, Kotetsu doesn't protest.

-

Matsui protests in plenty. But then, he's only met Izumo's father a few times, always in frigidly polite circumstances when a little more frigidity didn't seem out of place. Kotetsu knows a little more—some because Izumo's told him, and probably more because that's just the way he is, every fact the world contains stored somewhere in that cool, analytical brain. He knows enough, at least, not to argue as Izumo hunts for his clothes (and finds them, still torn and bloody from his fight, folded on a stool at the end of his bed). He lets Matsui trail protesting after Izumo, and he leans against the doorframe with his arms folded and his brows snapped down in a sullen glower.

"It won't make any difference," he says finally, as Izumo gives up trying to work his left arm into his shirt and just settles for trousers and sandals instead. "No matter when you get there—"

"I know," Izumo says. He closes his eyes for a moment and squeezes them tight, trying not to think at all, trying to push down the bubble of sheer panic that rises in his chest every time he wonders Oh gods, what will my father say? He wouldn't blame Kotetsu at all for despising him for this; hell, at times he despises himself. But he can't help it. "He's my father," he explains, and whatever bastard, orphaned, fatherless Kotetsu makes of that statement, he doesn't say.

At least Matsui offers him a shoulder to lean on. Izumo accepts, even though it hurts his broken ribs horribly to lift his arm just high enough to sling around the taller boy's shoulders. He needs the human contact more than he needs relief from pain at this point, anyway. But he does tuck the bottle of painkillers in a pocket before they head out of the room, and he swallows two of them as they steal down the empty hall. He's fairly sure that he's going to need them even more before this night is through.

Kotetsu asked him once, sudden and fierce as they sat on watch together one long mission when Kotetsu had guard and Izumo couldn't sleep, if his father beat him. Izumo blinked at him, too startled, for the moment, to respond. But Kotetsu waited, face turned away and eyes glaring out into the darkness, fists clenched white-knuckled on his knees.

No, Izumo said at last. Or—not much, at least. A punch once in a while, when I deserve it. No worse than I got from fighting at school. He tried a smile. Never worse than I've got on any of my missions!

But Kotetsu didn't smile back. Just because I can't see the bruises doesn't mean they're not there, he snapped, and pushed himself off the ground and stalked off into the darkness. He didn't come back until his watch was nearly over.

Izumo's not sure why he remembers that now, nor why he's suddenly remembering all the times during their Academy years when his glib tongue and recklessness would get him into trouble only Kotetsu's fists got him out of. This is one danger from which Kotetsu will never be able to protect him, one fight which, if he's ever going to amount to anything, he'll have to face alone.

They check Izumo out of the hospital without problems and step out onto the darkening streets of Konoha. The village is still celebrating its twice-yearly festival, even with war winding its way to a slow and bloody close on the northern border. Many of those shinobi Izumo spots laughing at the sake bars will be heading out on new missions come morning, and as many as a third of them will never come home.

He wonders, a little morbidly maybe, what his father will say when the day comes that Izumo's name is on the list of those who will never return.

And he tries to shove down the silvery lump of pain that rises in his throat when he realizes that he doesn't know.

"You sure you'll be okay?" Matsui asks worriedly, craning his neck to stare at Izumo. "Your eyes are all wide again, does that mean your concussion's back—?"

"That's constricted pupils, idiot," Kotetsu snaps. Matsui subsides with a sullen mutter, and they trudge on in silence and rising tension a little longer.

But however bad it gets with his teammates, Izumo still can't be glad when they reach his house. He draws his arm reluctantly from Matsui's shoulders and hesitates a long moment. Matsui follows his gaze to the dark house and mistakes the reason. "Ne, if your dad's on a mission you can just come stay with me, okay? My parents'll put up a futon—"

Izumo doesn't quite have to force his smile. "Thanks," he says, slugging Matsui lightly in the shoulder. "I'll be fine. Take care, you two."

He doesn't meet Kotetsu's eyes as he slides open the door and steps into the house, but he can feel the gaze burning through his back all the same.

-

As he expects, his father is waiting for him, kneeling with head bowed before the family shrines. Izumo stands in the doorway, breathing as softly and as shallowly as he can to avoid pressuring his ribs or disturbing his father. He's not sure whether his father is praying or simply meditating, but either way, he knows that this isn't a good sign. Kamizuki Takashi is not a devout man. The last time Izumo remembers him praying was the day they carved Izumo's mother's name on the Heroes' Stone.

He's not sure how long he waits. Long enough for his bare feet to grow cold and then numb from the chill floorboards, long enough for his wrist and ribs to begin their twinging protests even when he's not moving at all. Long enough for the incense sticks smoldering on the mantel to burn themselves out and for his father to collect all the anger and disappointment and frustration of fourteen years of failures.

Fourteen years that haven't been failures, Izumo knows. He graduated near the top of his class, he's stayed alive through four years of completed missions that have taken the lives of far more experienced shinobi than he. He's no prodigy, no Hatake Kakashi or Uchiha Itachi, but he's done his best, he's fought and sweated and bled and refused to weep, and he's forged his life as best he can into an offering he can lay at this man's feet…

But it's an offering that a single day, a single minute has just destroyed, and as Izumo watches the thin plumes of smoke cease curling from the incense sticks in their little holders, he feels another fire die in his own soul.

He turns to go, bare feet soundless on the wooden floor. His father's voice stops him, a low, harsh whisper that carries clearly to his ears.

"The Kamizuki have never failed."

Izumo swallows.

"The Kamizuki," his father says, "will die with me."

He can't breathe. Can't think, can't speak, can't do anything but stand there and watch as his father's strong brown fingers collect one of the burnt-out incense sticks from its bowl and snap it cleanly in two.

And then, at last, he can run.

-

He's not sure how or when he fetches up against a wooden door with a force that drives him to his knees and brings sharp tears of pain to his eyes. But he does know why. And as he curls gasping around his jarred wrist, refusing to let those tears fall, the door opens and he glances up into Kotetsu's eyes.

"C'mon in," Kotetsu says, stepping back into the tiny windowless room. There's one twin-sized cot pressed against the wall, an ancient desk they 'liberated' from the Academy storerooms, a rickety chair and a stack of crates crammed with battered books. When the door's open, there's barely enough room for Kotetsu to stretch his arms without touching the wall.

But, for all that, it's warm, and real, and welcoming. And there's no I told you so in Kotetsu's eyes, no See what it feels like now, no You coward, I knew you'd run away, you've failed at this just like everything else…

Just…understanding. And something more, something that's gone in another moment as Kotetsu grimaces and turns away to toss the book in his hand back onto the desk.

"You coming in?" he asks. "You can have the left side. Against the wall. I always sleep on the right."

Izumo blinks, and nods, and rubs the back of his right wrist against his eyes. "At least," he says fiercely, "both of us being so short'll come in handy."

Kotetsu glances back, and for just a moment, he smiles.

Izumo steps in and slams the door behind him.