Grace

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Gekkou Hayate and Uzuki Yuugao are my new canon!OTP—ironic, seeing as both my canon!OTPs are now severed by death. I take this to mean that manga canon is very cruel to my favorite characters, and that I should stick with my own. This story, therefore, is based on backstory developed for Uzuki Yuugao and Gekkou Hayate at Revanche RPG (in which Hayate is alive! Hurrah!). Hayate's characterization is based on that developed by the superlative Nezuko; all praise is to be laid at her feet, and any faults should be cast at mine.

This fic is set approximately two years before the start of the series, when Yuugao is twenty.

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I need your grace

to remind me

to find my own

– Snow Patrol, "Chasing Cars"

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The locker room in the basement of ANBU HQ was cold, and very dirty. Some unidentifiable substance crusted one end of the bench straddling the row between two lines of lockers; the cement floor hadn't been mopped in years. The handle of locker 301 was slimy beneath Uzuki Yuugao's hesitant fingertips. She held her breath and eased the handle up.

Of course it didn't open. Yuugao's lips thinned. She resettled the bundle of newly issued uniform and armor under her right arm, gripped the slimy handle harder in her left hand, and wrenched.

The hinges squealed protest and snapped. Yuugao staggered backward as the door abruptly came off in her hand. The back of one knee bumped the bench, and she leapt away from that disgusting support as quickly as she could. Soap scum slipped beneath her heel. Falling, she slammed chakra into her feet, securing her footing to the slick floor long enough to give her natural balance time to recover—

Just as a broad hand slipped beneath her shoulder blade, and a concerned voice spoke in her ear. "You all right?"

"Yes, thank you," Yuugao gritted through clenched teeth. She hadn't been falling anyway by the time whoever-this-was intruded, and she could feel the flush of embarrassed anger already heating her cheeks. What a perfect way to show off to the ANBU veterans what a good choice they'd made in giving her the mask. And did this man even realize how rude he was being in acknowledging her slip?

Apparently not. "I took a tumble here last week," the man said sympathetically. His hand was still spread on her back, fingers slightly cupped over her spine, trapping a few strands of her long hair. "Damn near cracked my head on the bench. Ryoma swears you could ice-skate if it got just a little colder..."

Yuugao's lips twitched despite herself, as she thought involuntarily of ANBU, sleek and deadly in their black clothing and bone-colored armor, sliding across the floor. She regained control a moment later, and stepped away. "It would be safer if they cleaned instead," she said severely, leaning the broken metal door against the rusted row of the rest of the lockers. The repairs would have to come out of her pay; at least she'd get a new locker door out of it. Unless they were as slovenly with repairs as they were with the upkeep of the rest of this place, which she didn't doubt. Difficult to bear the thought of changing here—though given what ANBU did on their missions, perhaps a little grime at home didn't bother them.

It would bother her, she told herself. No matter how much she changed in ANBU, that never would.

"You're probably right," the man behind her agreed. A sandal scuffed, and metal creaked; she could almost see him leaning against the end-locker, cocking a heel up. Why didn't he go away? "But nobody below chuunin's got high enough security clearance to get in here, and everybody above chuunin's got better things to do."

"They could hire retired ANBU," she muttered rebelliously, taking the bundle of uniform and armor from under her arm and inspecting the inside of her newly opened locker. There was a mess of brown-stained bandages at the bottom, but otherwise it looked almost safe to touch. Presumably it would be safe to leave her clothes here while she changed; none of the lockers actually locked, anyway.

"That's a thought," he said slowly, as if he were actually thinking about it. "I'll have to suggest—here, lemme get that."

Before she could protest he was there again, so fast that she barely leaned back in time as he ducked into the narrow space between her body and the open locker. He scooped out the tangle of crusted bandages with a gloved hand and stood back again, gesturing grandly with his free hand. "All yours."

He was smiling at her, and something about that smile caught her attention, turned her head for just a brief moment. She saw a thin face, almost delicate, with dark eyes and a straight nose and an easy smile just this side of gentle teasing. He was a few centimeters taller than she, almost as slender, with shaggy dark brown hair that fell just past his chin and a forelock that brushed the bridge of his nose. The scarlet spiral tattooed high on his left shoulder was a little faded, and his armor was worn and visibly repaired in a few places, but well cared-for. A veteran, obviously, and he just had to be handsome as well…

Yuugao was blushing again, and knew it, and couldn't stop it. It sharpened her tone a little as she looked quickly away. "Thank you, senpai."

"Hayate," he said. He leaned against the next locker over, still smiling at her, with the filthy bandages crumpled within his black-gloved fist. "Gekkou Hayate. We don't stand much on formality here."

"Hayate-senpai," she said, carefully. Perhaps he could be informal, with his gentle smile and his unasked-for help, knowing his place and fitting into it as comfortably as the thin cloth of his uniform shirt clung to the hollows of his collarbone...

Yuugao refocused with an effort, settling at a point over his right shoulder. She could not afford informality. She was the newbie, the rookie, the kunoichi in an organization still dominated by men; she would have to prove herself their equal by being better than any of them, and she wasn't here to be distracted by smiles or collarbones. She set her scarlet-painted mask on the highest shelf of the locker, and said, "I'm Uzuki Yuugao."

She hadn't expected a reaction; neither her own name nor her family's would ever merit any attention. What little there was of her father's clan had died even before he did, back in the mud and fire of the Third Great Ninja War; she had not even been old enough to remember his face. Her mother's family had been minor nobility, but they would see her as a bastard at best, if they'd ever bothered to acknowledge her existence at all. She wondered, sometimes, what it must feel like to introduce yourself as Hatake Kakashi, or as Sarutobi Asuma, or even as a Hyuuga or an Uchiha before their slaughter; what must you feel when people know your name, know your face, know what to expect from you? Her own eyes had sought out the katana-hilt protruding over Hayate's left shoulder when he'd said his name, before she remembered her manners and looked elsewhere. The Gekkou were Konoha's kenjutsu specialists; there was no doubt why he was in ANBU.

But his dark eyes were oddly alight, and his smile had widened, and he said, "I've been waiting for you."

She forgot she wasn't looking at him, and stared. "Pardon me?"

The smile slipped into a grimace. He tucked at his forelock, wincing. "Sorry, that sounded awfully stupid, didn't it? I mean, they gave me your dossier yesterday, and I've been waiting for you to show up. Um. I'm your new squad captain."

Yuugao closed her eyes for a brief moment and fought, fiercely and successfully, against the urge to bash her forehead against the locker. Or simply translocate away, go back to her apartment and her bed, wait to wake up...

"I'm pleased to meet you, Gekkou-taichou," she said, hoping that didn't sound as idiotic as she thought it did. Hoping he wasn't already tallying up her mistakes so far, in neat columns behind those riveting eyes: clumsy, rude, whining, squeamish, dull-witted...

But a grin had replaced the grimace. "Not nearly as pleased as I am to meet you. Shou and Ryoma were making bets, you know—they're idiots, you'll meet them later—and they even managed to scare me. That was before I got your dossier," he added hastily. "Your official photograph's a good one. I didn't show the other two—they'd've been fighting to meet you here, instead."

"I take it I should be grateful for this," she said dubiously.

He shrugged, shoving one hand into a pocket. "They're good guys. Shou's our medic and genjutsu boy; Ryoma's an all-rounder. I stick to ninjutsu and kenjutsu, so you're the taijutsu genius, now."

"Not genius, surely," Yuugao protested, wishing she was already in uniform and could wear the mask. He was going to think her cheeks were permanently red. Perhaps she could claim sunburn?

"Your mission record argues otherwise," he said, but he left it at that, and peered at the bundle in her arms instead. "You're all outfitted, then? Great. Get changed, and I can take you to get your tattoo."

He leaned back against the locker, cocking his heel against the squeaking metal, and whistled a few bars of a tune she didn't recognize. Waiting, obviously.

Was this another test?

If so, it was one she wasn't going to fail. She was shinobi, and he was her squad captain. If they served together, he'd undoubtedly see her in far more compromising circumstances. She'd just have to hope the blush stayed in her cheeks...

She set the neatly folded clothing on the second shelf, grasped the hem of her shirt in both hands, and peeled it off.

Hayate choked on a strangled yelp and bolted around the corner.

For a moment, shirt dangling from her hand, Yuugao stared after him. Then she bit her lip, kicked off one sandal, stood on it to repeat the process, and stepped out of her pants as well. Dressing in the skin-tight black trousers and sleeveless turtle-neck was the work of another moment. She left the armor and leg-wraps for the time being, fastened her sandals again, and followed Hayate around the row of lockers.

The dull thudding she'd been hearing for the past few minutes was his head smacking repeatedly into another locker. He paused when he heard her footsteps, and rested his forehead against the locker without looking around. "I am so sorry. I swear I didn't mean—I didn't even think—"

Yuugao's lips twitched, and she stepped closer. "It's all right," she said softly, reaching for his shoulder to turn him towards her. He came reluctantly, head ducked, almost as if he were afraid to look at her now. On an impulse she stooped, and saw that his face was redder than hers had ever been.

Of course, some of that probably came from repeated blows to the forehead.

Her lips twitched again, and this time she let them curve into a smile to echo the one he'd given her. Gentle, teasing, friendly.

I can work with this man, she thought, and her smile spread a little wider. I can enjoy working with this man.

"It's all right, Taichou," she said again. "You'll probably have to stitch me up on a mission at some point anyway. I'm not offended—if you're not," she added belatedly. Perhaps that was the problem. If he was body-shy, he might have been mortally offended by her immodesty; she might be off his squad before she'd ever really been on it...

She dropped her hand from his shoulder, backed two steps away. "I apologize, Taichou; in the future I'll endeavor to—"

"Hayate," he said firmly, interrupting her. He looked up, met her eyes; he was smiling again, though the blush still burned in his cheeks. She blinked, uncertain, and he repeated himself: "It's just Hayate."

"Hayate-taichou," she said, relenting that far. He shrugged, rolled his eyes, sighed—and grinned again.

This time, she met his grin with her own.