Trick Questions
M/M pairing. Spoilers for Sound, Kabuto. Misumi POV. Set before the series.

When you're first introduced, he tells you he's five. He's a bad liar. That's your impression as you look at him, too wide-cheeked and eager to be believed. His body is long in the fingers; he uses his hands with surprising deftness, which betrays him as older, an adept claiming a younger birth so that he can be underestimated. You'd mark him at seven.

Even that young, you can feel a wrongness about him.

During your review as everyone lines up on the mats -- some stumbling, some snapping to attention with wearied practice -- Kabuto is on the end of your row. He's smaller than the other students; several glance over, wary of the potential threat in this younger child. You could have told them not to worry. Kabuto's not that good at fooling others.

After the candidates are reviewed, you're presented with the dossiers of the two boys who will be your teammates. Sound doesn't have enough girls to be kunoichi --blame Orochimaru -- so both folders are flagged blue for male. One of them, Yoroi Akado, is eight, just like you. When you flip to the second, the date on the file tells you that this Kabuto child is only four years old.

Four. You're twice his age. Basic reasoning kicks in -- you were trained to be a ninja, but he must have shown talent to be launched into training programs earlier. Six is the cutoff date for child geniuses, when they stop testing for innate gifts and start measuring study habits. Some of the softer Villages don't even bother to hold major crimes against anything younger than that, because of the antiquitated notion that children can't understand the full repercussions of murder.

At eight, you laugh at that, but all through the afternoon as you finish lunch with your new team, you find yourself staring at Kabuto. He's a natural. Even in the lax heat of summer, and him beaming eagerly to a teacher's praise, there's a cold patience in his eyes that lingers just a little too long while observing others.

Yoroi fidgets and demands more apple juice. You are quiet. Kabuto is the first genius you have met who is not disfigured, and when he turns his head up -- features vague and fuzzy with baby fat -- you wonder what exactly he is already capable of.

He charms the teachers into giving him an extra hour off, but instead of wasting it playing chase-me chase-you on the practice field with you and Yoroi, you catch sight of him reading in one of the study halls. His expression is fierce as he bows over a textbook that's bigger than he is unfolded. His lips move over the longer words as he sounds them out, shaping them into incomplete sentences.

It is the only time you will ever see him honest.

At eight, he is taken away from you.

Sound doesn't care much about celebrations. That leaves it up to the genin to make up their own. Your birthday comes late in the year, so by the time frost is tickling the windows, you are freshly twelve and already resenting Kabuto's single-digits. Yoroi is your age and Yoroi does not try to stick his finger in the frosting of your cake when he thinks you're not looking. Yoroi does not make faces at the watery milk.

Just as you have finished puffing out the candles, four Anbu push their way inside the study room.

Your team hasn't trespassed -- no one else had scheduled the use of the communal reading lounge -- but even so, you shove the cake away as if you could pretend it was there all along, a natural fixture of the table. It turns out that you shouldn't have worried. The Anbu make a direct line towards your team, but it's Kabuto that they surround, animal masks betraying no hint of their intentions. It's Kabuto that they take.

You have one last glimpse of your teammate as he is trundled along the halls, his face very blank and his eyes staring ahead obediently. There are Anbu on either side of him, two clutching each of his hands, so that his arms are stretched out wide like a prisoner. He keeps pace without flagging. The parade makes its way through the corridors and you follow, keeping yourself pressed against the walls just like you've been taught. All the way down to the sterilized laboratory wing, and then the white metal doors close behind him and you are alone with Yoroi.

When you see Kabuto again, it's seven years later in Leaf.

Konoha cleared your registration papers without a fuss, placing the both of you up briefly for adoption, which lasts for all of a week before your tutor accepts ritual guardianship until you settle in. Not an uncommon occurrence, with any Kyuubi-orphan, and you and Yoroi are already nineteen. Kabuto arrived before you, but he was destined to be placed with a family, a feat which he must have pulled off masterfully because you didn't even see his name on the lost-and-found billboards.

You're not allowed to bring the dossiers from Sound, of course, but Leaf provides you with one Kabuto-now-Yakushi, a printout sent ahead with the sunny Get to know your team! slogan blazoned across the top. There is woefully little information on the Leaf summary, and none of it is accurate. For one thing, it says Kabuto is now claiming a mild allergy to crab.

When your tutor visits the Yakushi household, he brings you and Yoroi with him. The two medical-nin who greet you at the door bow formal hellos, hands pressed together, eager and sincere. Peeking around them, you catch sight of a mop of pale hair standing just down the hall, dark eyes unfocused, one lip bitten.

At first you are surprised to see Kabuto so nervous, but then his eyes lift, meet yours, and you are transfixed by the cold intent inside. They're like two ponds at midnight, black oil to drown in, and when his gaze moves on you're not sure what his expression meant.

A warning?

If he is unhappy to see you, it does not show in his actions. Called forward by his parents, Kabuto Yakushi shuffles forward and stammers a hello. "I am... I am glad to meet my new teammates for the very first time," he gulps, ducking his head in a bow. "Please treat me well."

Yoroi makes a scoffing sound, but he goes along with the charade. Then it is your turn. Not trusting your reflection in those ice-oil eyes, you stare at the floor. "I am pleased to see you," is your token offering, bowing stiffly with your hands at your sides.

Kabuto says something back, but your eyes are fixed on the tatami mats and Yoroi's muddy shoes and your ears are filled by the happy babble of the Yakushi parents. So proud to see their son with new friends. Have more noodles.

This will be Kabuto's third Konoha team, you discover later. His previous two graduated the Chuunin exams and left him behind.

Failure takes surprisingly little effort. You keep track of the grade averages between yourself and Yoroi, because he doesn't bother and Kabuto handles himself. Unlike Kabuto's previous Leaf-teams, all three of you are Sound, and you have been ordered to stay with him until your work is done.

There isn't anything new to learn from your tutor. Most of his lessons are pointed at Kabuto, who apparently has him convinced that the spy can't even master a simple bunshin without help. You and Yoroi get to spend most of your time logging unrecorded missions, filling out practice tests, and listening to Kabuto being berated for incompetency.

Yoroi watches girls. You read.

One afternoon when your teacher's voice has risen to a fever pitch, Kabuto trudges past you both, grinning.

You stop him with a question. "Why do you do this, Kabuto? It's not like our teacher doesn't know the truth."

He seems surprised, and then offers a plain, unworried shrug. "More realistic this way," is his answer, and then he slides four coins into the vending machine and punches out a request for soda.

Three cans rattle out. One of them, he sets on the table beside you. Another goes in his medical pouch. He throws Yoroi's.

Ignoring your teammate's protests when Yoroi pops the tab and is assaulted by carbonation, Kabuto twists his head to read the cover of your book. "So what are you both up to?"

You give a nod down the hall in the direction of the classroom, where your tutor can be heard asking the gods for patience. "Avoiding him."

"Checking out the kunoichi," is Yoroi's reply. He's holding out his soda can, letting the foam bubble over the edge and drip onto the floor. "Have you seen what Mariko is wearing today? No shame. I love it."

Kabuto frowns, glancing out the window and sorting through the figures in aerobics practice below. "Is she the one in mesh with pigtails?"

"Braids." You give your answer while you turn another page.

Yoroi scoots closer to the windows, setting his still-fizzing can on the table. "When this village is ours, I'm going to have Mariko served up to me on a golden plate." He licks his fingers of clean of soda for emphasis and then adds, leaning forward with a hungry leer, "Completely naked."

Kabuto considers this answer with a raised eyebrow. His voice is flat. "Why would you want that?"

A smirk, and Yoroi waves his hand superciliously in the younger boy's direction. "You wouldn't know what to do with a girl yet, Kabuto. Maybe we can tell you when you get older."

That's where the joking should have terminated, and you know it as soon as the words finish crawling out of Yoroi's mouth. But it's too late. One look at Kabuto and you see his lips parted, eyes bright with anticipation.

"What to do with a girl... " There is a twitch of his mouth, like a dying fish's last spasms, and Kabuto straddles the bench on your side of the table. "I'd find one of the recent dead," he starts, almost conversationally, "and work their hearts to beating. Their skin would warm in less than a minute -- their muscles would be so soft after rigor mortis, you'd never know the difference." Just as Yoroi makes a face of disgust, opening his mouth to comment on Kabuto's perversions, the younger nin speaks louder, faster to override him. "I'd have them slide into your bed, Yoroi -- just for you -- and you wouldn't even realize you were being mounted by a corpse until you opened your eyes as you came and saw it had no face."

With a curse, Yoroi jumps to his feet, and accidentally knocks his soda can all over your notebook.

Word gets back to your tutor eventually that Yoroi is not reading the standard curriculum. You blame the fact that your teammate rummaged through his bag for homework one day, and pulled out a skin magazine instead.

In an attempt to steer the team back on course, your teacher hands out a new assignment. It's a twisted form of honing your social skills: find a successful date by the end of the month. Information gathering comes in many ways, he explains, and if you're all victims of teenage hormones, it's time you did something productive with them.

Kabuto tries to pass off at first, claiming that he wouldn't have any time to date anyway -- but then your teacher insists that it's important to Orochimaru for some reason, so Kabuto only shrugs, looks up a few chemical chains in one of his father's reference manuals. The next week, there's a letter in his jacket cubby. His name is scrawled on the front in purple pen. When he opens it, a strange, remote triumph spreads across his lips; they smile automatically, the same cruel hunger that appeared in the hallway when Yoroi apologized for ruining your homework.

"Mariko Susuri," he says, flapping the letter carelessly. "Don't let Yoroi know. I want it to be a surprise."

He's gone for the rest of the day. It would cause too much notice if he showed up at the ramen bars with the genin favorite, so Kabuto leaves her on the river bank, clutching only her shirt to her body while her skirt floats downstream. He gives her underwear and bra to Yoroi, and the story to you.

You're not sure how to respond as Kabuto describes the details of his encounter. He lists her assets as he would rattle off a coroner's report. When you ask how he pulled the trick off, he only spreads his hands in the air. "People are controlled by their bodies, Misumi." He sounds bored. "That's all."

When you ask him why he chose Yoroi's favorite, something changes in his expression. Instead of becoming gleeful, it sobers. "Practice, Misumi." Your name sounds like a tired litany in his throat. "It makes it more realistic this way."

At the end of the month, Orochimaru demands the reports in person. It's part of his usual check-ups; the Snake is paranoid, and he likes fiddling with all the details of his conspiracies. He doesn't trust anyone. "Not completely," Kabuto comments distractedly when you bring this quirk up. "Not yet."

For security, Orochimaru makes his visits while transformed via henge into your instructor. The meeting is performed deep in the woods, under the pretense of a camping trip to train your survival skills. Last time, it was chakra control on the ocean. Orochimaru likes to change plans on people, just to see if they are paying attention. It's a game of control that you've learned Kabuto has a similar taste for, though there's always the possibility that Kabuto himself is just lying.

The team lines up, one by one. The Snake studies you each while you give your reports, listing off your grade point averages and your false relationships with the village of Hidden Leaf. Yoroi ended up without Mariko, but convinced another girl to meet him for dumplings over the weekend. You managed only on a technicality: one of the kunoichi had a particular knack for history, so you bribed her with dinner in exchange for help with a paper.

When it comes to Kabuto, the younger genin gives his explanation in a clear monotone.

Orochimaru praises him for concocting a pheromone mix heady enough to sway a human being, though he seems disappointed when Kabuto explains the mixture is a custom fit, and can't be expanded for mass use. At the end of his rundown, Kabuto slides in a question. "Sasuke Uchiha is maturing on schedule." A pause, and then a respectful bow. "Will we be done with Leaf after this, sir?"

Something in his voice incites Orochimaru's sense of cruelty. The Sannin leans back against the broken stump that serves as a chair, folding his arms across his belly with a satisfied smirk. "What if I decide to hold off for another generation, hmm? I am immortal. I can wait."

"You wouldn't waste me like that," Kabuto replies smoothly, and he straightens up from his bow, daring to meet the Snake with his eyes. "Not when I have such a good position here. Where would you find another like me?"

"You would give me your children as replacements," Orochimaru counters. The order is blasé. It cannot imagine ever being contradicted. "Bred from the very best genetic combination possible. And I would instruct them, just as I have instructed you, and you will thank me for it."

Kabuto looks thoughtful for all of a minute before breaking out into an easy, submissive smile. But when the meeting is over and Yoroi has taken off separately to go hit up the magazine stand, Yakushi turns suddenly and pushes you against a tree.

When you blink at him -- a rare form of shock, you don't normally bother with the effort of being surprised -- Kabuto explains himself with disinterest, breath hot against your face. "I just thought you should know," he starts listlessly, "I'm not attracted to women."

You stare. "Since when?"

"Since always." A shrug. "I think we should become friends, Misumi. We both have natural impulses, and you have to admit that it's better if we keep them on the team. Since we have no kunoichi, I guess we just have to make do."

Your throat feels sticky. Clearing it feels insufficient, so you do it twice. "I... don't think I'm attracted to you like that, Yakushi. Not in that way."

Kabuto doesn't seem too bothered by this revelation. He doesn't move away, but only lets his weight settle on his forearms, one on either side of your head. "You don't have to fall in love with me," he chides. "It just... improves morale if we can pretend that we care about how the other person's doing. Try it. Think of it as a new lesson. It's not like we have anything else to do."

After one week goes by, you are certain he has forgotten his bizarre offer, but then when you open your supply bag during lesson review, there's an extra book inside. The spine is pristine and there's plastic wrapping on the cover, signifying how fresh it is off the shelves. The book talks about meditative practices from Sand Country. The topic came up briefly in conversation last month, and you frown at the gift, wondering why Kabuto even bothered -- but he must have seen your expression, because the next day, there's another manual in place of that one. This time, it's pressure techniques from Mist, an author you've been searching for since last year, and you find yourself unexpectedly grateful.

Little things continue. He picks up lunch for the team one day and it's plain soba for Yoroi, udon for himself, ramen for you. When you accept your paper bag and lift out the plastic takeout bowl, there's a triangle of onigiri revealed beneath the napkin.

Pickled plum. Your favorite.

You didn't even realize he noticed that.

Despite your awareness that he is -- at best -- using you for his own personal reasons, you can't help but be fascinated by Kabuto's knack for detail. It's relentless. Casual in public, but always watching, always keen to categorize even the most minor of your preferences. His attention is constantly on you. You occupy his time.

At first you wonder if you should reciprocate. But when your mind tries to bring up a list of Kabuto's tastes, it conjures a blank. Your efforts are clumsy; attempts to discover anything he wants result in uncertainties, second-guessing while you wonder if he's agreeing from formality or honesty.

The problem does not actually bother you. It's a diversion on Kabuto's part, nothing more, and if you were the type to be unsettled by lies, you would have never passed the criteria in Sound to begin with.

Still, Kabuto does not stop.

"Good morning, Misumi," he sings out one morning as you trudge into the classroom, dripping rain in a miniature flood off your clothes. When you look up, every joint aching from the flu, a cloud of concern brushes over his features and turns them dim. He pushes himself off the desk and pads over towards you. Before you know it, his hand is touching your forehead. It's cold; so cold, and you make a slight noise of protest even as you press closer against his skin.

"I'll make you some soup for lunch," he offers. "It'll help you feel better."

When it's time to go home, you find a blue umbrella leaning against your desk. There's a note attached.

Keep it. I'll drop some medicine off tonight.

It happens faster than you expect. While you are busy watching, waiting, dark eyes behind clear glasses, Kabuto burrows his way into your life like a hungry tick. He does not give up. And slowly, gently, you realize that you are letting him in further than you thought. He sleeps over on your couch; he brings by take-out. He knows how to manipulate you, and you don't even mind.

One night he's over at your apartment to review a taijutsu tape. The motion goes too fast, and neither one of you can keep up, staring helplessly at the enthusiasm of the jounin performing the acrobatic routine.

"Play it back," Kabuto urges, and you nod.

That's your intent, at least. But when you turn your head to look for the remote, you find yourself turning into his neck. He's sitting too close; somehow while you both had leaned forward to watch the screen, he had shifted his weight without your knowledge.

Automatically you freeze in place, resisting the urge to push away. Sudden movements are bad around Kabuto. They attract his attention.

You hold yourself there, poised. Kabuto's skin smells like honey and spice, cinnamon undertones beneath the day's sweat -- rich, so rich you almost start to taste it, chasing an ancient memory of cookies from the caretakers in Sound. Your tongue is drenched in saliva. He's murmuring something in the direction of your cheek, and your Sound-trained ears would pick it up if it made any sense, but the words blur together. Is this good enough yet, ripples against the curve of your skull, is it enough enough for you?

The white noise nonsense of Kabuto's behaviors never changes. But it distracts, which is the intended purpose, and his mouth has turned so that now it's whispering on yours and into yours, and when you open your lips -- to protest, to refuse, you don't know -- you end up swallowing his voice.

There's just enough time to remember, very vaguely, the pheromone project he got top marks on before Kabuto's fingers tighten in your scalp.

The problem with saying no to Kabuto is that there isn't anything to say no to. He plays a game, but it's not with you and Yoroi, not even with your teacher. You're all just shogi pieces that he's honing his skills on. While you and Yoroi go soft with years of idleness, Kabuto remains sharp as the best kunai.

That's what you're convinced of, right until one weekend when you shift your weight to get up and make breakfast, and he bites your hand.

You don't cry out in pain; you know better, so you only turn and frown. "What was that for?"

Kabuto's teeth let go. He buries his face back into the pillow. "If I stay here any longer," he groans, muffled by feathers, "I'm going to become stupid." One of his feet lifts, kicking itself against the mattress. "I'm going to forget that I'm anything other than some below-average student whose only responsibility is to fool Leaf."

"What about Lord Orochimaru?"

"Yes," Kabuto muses aloud. He rolls over onto his back suddenly, and you are struck by the feeling that you and he are thinking about entirely different things. "Can't forget about Orochimaru."

Later that day, your team is assembled on the outskirts of Leaf. Your teacher pushed a mission scroll into your hands with a mumble before running off; from the briefing, you can understand why. There have been two potential security leaks in Sound's spy network. One of them is within the school, where only your teacher can go safely. The other involves a small rest-stop just inside Fire Country. You're assigned to handle the latter.

"Only one person needs to be terminated," you state, rolling up the scroll. "There's a boy named Koji who came across a Sound supply cache. He doesn't understand what he's found, but one of our agents saw him playing with a Sound head protector, and someone will ask questions if we're not fast."

"A boy?" Yoroi smirks. His hand drops, caressing his kunai in a slow affection. "That doesn't need all three of us. They could have just sent me to do the job."

You glance over to Kabuto, who shrugs, eyes wide behind his glasses. "I'm just here to gather information. You and Misumi are allowed to terminate Leaf if they interfere. I'm not," he adds, mockingly, "a common killer like you are."

The potential insult slides right over you, but Yoroi's expression darkens. "That's right," he growls. "I forgot. You're nothing like us."

Sometimes you wonder if your teammate ever forgave Kabuto for the Mariko incident.

If not, Kabuto gives him another reason to become angry. "Are you jealous, Yoroi?" he taunts, moving forward a step, his chin up and unafraid of the older nin. "That I don't have to dirty my hands like that as often as you do, but have something else to fill my time?"

Yoroi's hand snaps out. The punch strikes across Kabuto's face and the spy's lenses go flying, twin stars becoming comets in the sunlight.

Yoroi has turned away before they even hit the ground. "Stay out of the way like a good underling," he calls back without looking, sauntering away like a sated lion. "Let those of us who know what they're doing get this mission done."

Kabuto staggers upright, one hand cradling his jaw. You have a split-second to notice how the teenager's eyes have gone red, and then Kabuto's muscles jerk forward, his spine inclining like a cat about to pounce.

Your body has already gone into action. There is one warning that was given in Kabuto's Sound file: never let those orbs go scarlet, never. If they do, it is your responsibility and Yoroi's to keep him under control, to minimize the damage, but over the years of Kabuto's mock-obedience, you think only you remember and Yoroi has completely forgotten.

The fight is performed in silence at first, all your energy gone into the struggle. Your legs brace against the ground, setting a pressure lock against his knees; you are gripping him from behind, forcing his limbs spread-eagled so he cannot gain any leverage. He's thrashing underneath you, so hard that you can feel your own muscles start to tear from the effort of keeping him restrained -- but you know that he's letting you hold him down. If he wanted to be free, really wanted, then you would be dead by now.

Then Kabuto screams. The noise is a garbled roar that cuts off before it can keen. His skin is hot through his clothes. As he twists his shoulders against the ground, you feel the dull pop of a joint going loose. From training, you know it's his left arm that's just been dislocated; you've memorized the harmonics of a human body pressed against your own, worked with dozens of training dummies who had plastic skeletons inside.

The rest of Kabuto's body goes slack.

For one dangerous minute, you are afraid that you've hurt him enough to push him over the edge, but when you let go and roll him over, he's grinning.

His one good hand comes up and yanks you by the shirt. He kisses you, hard -- but it's not a kiss, it's just a gesture in that Kabuto-way, where it means twenty different things you could guess at and twenty more you can't. He bites your lip hard enough to break it. You start to jerk away, but suddenly he's melting against you, muscles soft and pleading, supple with hunger.

And then he snaps your wrist.

He's kind enough to reset it later, but leaves you only partially healed -- a reminder, a love-note, you don't know. You can't know, never with him. Kabuto borrows a splint from the team's med-kit and does you up with tape, tugging down your sleeve over the bulky injury. While Sound's surgeries have made your joints fluid, they still retain breaking points, and a properly trained medic knows exactly where those are.

Everything is normal the next day. Not for the first time, you're grateful that your mask covers your face almost entirely; your mouth is swollen from the puncture wound, and talking feels thick. Still, as you watch the way Kabuto is eyeing Yoroi, you know that whatever suppressed Kabuto's blood-rage can't have been your doing.

He only let you see it happen.

You don't know what Kabuto means by showing you these parts of himself. If he expects you to do something, or if it's a display to someone else. To Orochimaru, maybe, if the snake has been spying on your bedroom and licking his fingers like a voyeur every time you come. You don't know. Kabuto is horrible like that, and sometimes when you think back on that day when he was only a small, pale head bowed through a window -- sometimes you wonder if the only reason you noticed him reading in the library was because he let you see.

"Are you playing a game with me, Kabuto?" you can't help but ask one day, when your broken wrist has become only a phantom memory.

Kabuto glances up from across the room where he's idly going through the pockets of your pants, your shirt on the chair beside him. He's still fully dressed. You're never allowed to remove his clothes -- he demands that much wordless control -- so that he is the one who strips away your outer layers but prefers to keep his own.

He doesn't give a straight answer. In fact, he doesn't give an answer at all for several minutes, and then he finishes with your pants and tosses them aside. "Do you know how Anbu investigate murders, Misumi?" Now he's turning your shirt right-side out. "Once the chakra analysis and mortician's report has been completed, they look for connections. Random killing is much less common than killing which starts from the home. Most people need reasons to kill. Death is a means to an end for them. And they begin locally, starting with what's nearby before they expand."

You are silent for a while as you realize that Kabuto has just led your own question around in knots, twists of words that cunningly wrap up the answer and present it in liquid logic. Rather than let yourself fall deeper into doubt, you start another line of inquiry.

"So what would you do if... Yoroi and myself, if we died?"

"Is there anything particular you want?" he asks, and you are struck suddenly by the fact that there's no pause, no hesitation, no if I'm alive to do it? Kabuto expects he will outlast you, and this with such certainty that you wonder if he will kill you himself if you do not expire on the proper date.

Kabuto doesn't bother to wash his hands after sex sometimes, and you are willing to bet it's on purpose. One morning he catches you alone outside the classroom and the next thing you know, you're pressed with your back against the wall and Kabuto's knee at your thigh and his clever clever doctor's fingers stroking inside your pants.

It's already too late by the time your mouth has managed to form the word no. Your hands tighten on his shoulders; the stain soaks through the fabric, leaving a moist spot bigger than you can easily cover. Pushing Kabuto away, you curse in the bathroom and mop at the leg of your pants with a wet paper towel to dampen the smell.

Kabuto looks smug during afternoon lessons. Your tutor frowns at you both.

But it's Kabuto that he rounds upon, tapping the teenager's desk with a folder. "You should be more careful around here, Yakushi," he snaps. "You will not jeopardize your mission cover by forming attachments that you have not received permission for. It is important for you to remain available for any plan which may be requested of you. If you are meant to start a relationship with a member of Konoha, then you cannot have other dalliances standing in the way!"

Kabuto rolls his eyes up in a long, exaggerated sigh. "I'm a teenager," he wheedles, boyish pout in full force. Yoroi sees it and turns away in disgust. Kabuto, he told you once, is always so spoiled. "How can Lord Orochimaru expect me to be perfect?"

"Hsst!" Your teacher slams his hand down on the desk, hard enough to make the pencils jump. "Not that name here, never here!"

Kabuto closes his mouth; you know him well enough to understand that the soft pulse in his throat is laughter. But the matter is deflected, swept away by your tutor's eagerness to conceal your communal betrayal and Kabuto comes that night to your room again.

You wake up well before dawn. Kabuto is sleeping half-sprawled. The covers have been kicked into disarray, and you wonder why he isn't shivering. But when you reach over to pull the sheet across his body, you suddenly find your elbow stopped, gripped in place.

Kabuto's eyes are lazy slits, watching you. He waits until your arm goes limp before he lets go, and then drops his hand. It makes you wonder what he is doing, poised like that in deliberate display -- as if he expects someone to walk in on him, and has arranged his limbs for maximum effect.

You retreat to your side of the bed.

"Misumi," he murmurs one afternoon, legs up on the couch, head tilted back, "tell me what your specialty is again."

You know he knows, so the only question is why he wants you to repeat it. "I can get out of everything." Two cups go on the coffeetable, smelling strongly of tea. The fragrance perks Kabuto's curiosity enough that he looks in their direction. "And I can trap anything that lets itself get into my reach."

"So why don't you?"

You can guess at his reference. But there isn't an answer for it, because there are too many reasons -- this isn't anything serious, this is just another amusement to pass the time. This doesn't matter.

You pick up your teacup instead, sitting down next to his legs. He rearranges them in your lap. "Why do you act like this, Kabuto?"

"Maybe it's a way to keep you from getting close to me." There's a glimpse of that boy at four, fresh-faced and eager, and you remember the statistics for early geniuses. The ones whose instincts are wired into their brains so clearly that they know it before they know language, before tumbling routines, before the idea that games and reality are separate. "Maybe I don't want to be vulnerable."

"Is that really true?"

He laughs, and suddenly he's nineteen again. "Who knows?"

You let the question pass away, recognizing the futility of getting anything direct from your teammate. Instead, you dig for rumors. You're not as good as Kabuto, but you're not a slouch like Yoroi either, and you'd like to think that you can keep up. "I hear that Kimimaro is getting better."

"Is that so?" Kabuto has reached for his teacup and is cradling it in a fold of his shirt to keep from burning his hands. "I'll have to visit him."

The harmonics in Kabuto's voice are multilayered. Amusement, disapproval, indifference, ignorance. They're too hard to untangle. You try again. "If Kimimaro recovers," you offer, piecing together ideas like so much gauze, "then the Uchiha won't be needed anymore."

He touches your leg to distract you, more white-noise filler -- like static on the radio, making it hard to pick out the emergency news announcement. "That's right," he remarks. "This year, Sasuke will be tested. Yoroi will enjoy the chance to fail in the last exam again, don't you think?"

You grunt. Last year, you had been instructed to also step out of the dueling matches, under the excuse that your injuries from the Forest were too severe. Yoroi was ordered to lose against the first person who looked weak enough to spare him. The other genin had looked upon you both with pity, but you ignored them.

Kabuto keeps talking. "And you'll be joining him." His voice is even and melodic. Casual. "You'll both be allowed to compete, isn't that right?"

"Yes." The hand on your thigh is making it hard to concentrate while simultaneously giving you the chills. "But you won't."

"No," he affirms, counterpoint. "I won't. You and Yoroi get to be the ones risking death in the noble pursuit of inducing the Uchiha boy's surrender." A turn of his head, and his smile is concerned, as thoughtful as if he was offering you soup on a rainy day. "Do you think you'll make it out okay, Misumi?"

This doesn't bother you, shouldn't bother you, except that Kabuto is talking about such things with relish as his thumbnail is drawing creases on the inside of your leg. Instead of giving a no or maybe, you only find yourself offering back a question in turn.

"Are you even human, Kabuto?"

He laughs at that, and rolls over so that his face is drowned in the couch, setting down his tea on the floor. His hair drifts in a white cloud on the cushions. In the dim light of your living room, he blends in with the couch. His arm melts into the sheet. The track of his spine is one long fold down his muscles. From experience, you know that if you touch him like this, he will either sigh or plant a kunai in your stomach. Or both.

Kabuto takes off his glasses to sleep, but only at the last minute so that he can close his eyes immediately. It causes problems during sex; foreplay leaves smears on the lenses, so that Kabuto prefers to do everything with his head tilted back or at arm's length. When he finally does remove the frames, he keeps his eyes half-shut like a drowsy cat. You have worse vision than he does; when you picked up his glasses once by accident, his lenses did nothing to help you see any better.

When Kabuto is unconscious, his face goes slack again, perfectly pliable, so you wait until his breathing evens out before you slide out of bed that night. The floor is cold on the soles of your feet. Circling the mattress, you can crouch near Kabuto's side and study him, leaning close until you can focus on him in the dark.

You are not why he is here. You have never been the real target of any of his coaxings; his sincerity is perfect, but the reason behind it isn't. And if you were anyone else -- anyone other than Misumi Tsurugu, a traitor for Sound -- then it might have been a problem. You might have believed him. You might have let yourself be taken in by the boy-genius, the bad liar. The spy.

From the right angle, it looks like Kabuto is smiling in his sleep.

You should know what he is by now. After all this time, you should have been able to figure him out while he was crawling around inside your life. You should be able to understand what is so important to him that he has decided to use you as a human worksheet, filling out your answers on the lines of your ribs with his mouth.

After fifteen years, you don't know him at all.

As you wait there in the shallow darkness, listening to the draughts of his breath, you can't help but wonder what he's planning. You sit back on your heels. If you wake him, he will smile at you and calm your nerves and do everything as perfectly a practice quiz in the middle of the night. You know, because he has done it before. And in the morning, despite your doubts, despite your curiosities, you will let him.

For now, you hold yourself silent, trying to capture the exact shape of him in your memory -- even knowing it's nothing like the actual truth.