Chapter Sixteen: Muscle Memory
The drop to the floor was unexpected, as was the empty space in front of him, and Tenzou barely had enough time in his drunken state to throw his arms out to minimize the impact. It was quite an unfortunate fact of life that being a shinobi didn't counteract the effects of being a supreme lightweight, and Tenzou's delayed reaction had his face smacking painfully against the wooden boards of the inn floor despite his valiant (and sloppy) efforts.
Tenzou pushed himself back into a sitting position and groaned. The throb along his cheekbone was dull, but he knew, like only someone who experienced blows to the face frequently, that it would be bruised in the morning. He closed his eyes against the spin. Where had Kakashi disappeared to?
A few seconds later, he felt a cold, wet towel laid on his cheek. "Is this how you acted in front of Gai? He always talked so highly of you."
Tenzou leaned into Kakashi's hand. "Unlike you, he was a gentleman that night. I like his leggings. Very fashionable."
"I'll pass the message on," said Kakashi. "How much did you have to drink?"
Tenzou shrugged. "That one bottle. I think."
Kakashi sighed much in the same way that Tenzou's old sensei did when he'd been on the cusp of choking his genin pupils. The violence never came, however. Instead, Kakashi began to probe and poke at Tenzou's throbbing cheek without the tenderness Tenzou thought he justly deserved.
If anyone had told Tenzou months ago, when he'd first met Kakashi, that he would allow the man to touch him and take care of him (outside of a life-or-death situation), Tenzou would surely have had an aneurysm and dropped dead from the stress. Now, it just felt natural—even nice.
"You're a sloppy drinker," said Kakashi, after determining that Tenzou's face wasn't going to fall off anytime soon.
"Oh, am I? Didn't realize this."
"You are so sarcastic tonight. It's not a good look for you," replied Kakashi evenly. "I never knew a man who couldn't hold his liquor."
"I'm sorry I'm not an alcoholic like you," snipped Tenzou in reply. "I'm still sixteen, you know. You're a bad influence on me. If I had a mother, she'd keel over if she knew I was getting into this kind of d-debauchery."
Kakashi tweaked Tenzou's nose. "The mothers of Konoha love me."
"Maybe so, but my mine would hate you for sure."
Kakashi helped Tenzou back up onto his bed. "You don't say?"
Tenzou fluffed his pillow and snuggled into it. "Mmhm. You might be able to charm everyone in all of Fire, but you wouldn't be able to fool Mama Tenzou. She'd see right through you and your happy little eye crinkle. I'd come home from just one mission with a teeny-tiny scratch and you'd never be allowed over for dinner again."
"Look at you and that imagination," deadpanned Kakashi.
"It's very vivid, I know. And you'd still bully me despite my fake mother's fantastic home cooking."
Kakashi chuckled and ran his hand through his silver-colored hair. "You'd deserve it, I'm sure."
"The bullying? Never," said Tenzou, nose wrinkling in bemusement. "I'm sure you would have liked me much more in that alternate dimension. I'd have little emotional trauma and no off-putting personality traits, and we'd have met somewhere normal like a market. We would have fought over the last eggplant, but you'd let me have it, and I'd invite you over for dinner or something lame like that, since you were so kind. And... things would go from there."
This alternate dimension Tenzou spun together had him longing for a slice of normalcy he hadn't wished for in a long time. 'Professional shinobi' wasn't the only lot in life in Konoha someone could pursue. Who knew if he would have even entered the Academy, had he not been kidnapped by Orochimaru and made into a test subject? Perhaps he really would have been born to a farming family, grown something simple and plain, where he would eventually sell to the handsome ANBU Captain that came by every week or two.
"Do you even like eggplants?" asked Tenzou.
"Actually, I do," replied Kakashi with a small smile dancing around his lips. "As much as I enjoy hearing about this other Tenzou, the one I like the most is sitting in this room with me."
It was a simple confession and obviously had no further meaning behind it, but it made Tenzou feel warm inside. "Oh stop, sempai."
"It's the truth," confessed Kakashi lightly. "Is it so hard to believe that I might enjoy your company?"
It was another simple confession, but it was enough to turn the cogs in Tenzou's alcohol-laden brain. Never before had Kakashi been so forthright about anything. He was taciturn on his better days and a jerk on his worst—getting anything useful or thought-provoking out of him was like pulling out teeth with pliers. Tenzou knew he'd forged a place in Kakashi's life, somehow, but he never once imagined that Kakashi experienced enjoyment from this company.
"It is," said Tenzou. He was at a loss at what else to say. "You're hard to read."
"And you're an even harder to get rid of," replied Kakashi, tilting his head slightly. He looked like Pakkun did whenever Tenzou asked for a 'handshake'. "I find it easier to accept that you're going to be in my life than keep fighting against it."
Tenzou was about to come back with a quip of his own, but yawned rather aggressively instead. He rubbed his eyes. Although he enjoyed their faux-malicious banter, they did have a mission objective. "So what did Naoko tell you tonight?"
Kakashi shook his head as if confused. "Hm?"
"Don't pretend like you don't know what I'm talking about."
"You're three sheets to the wind and you want mission info," said Kakashi with a light sigh. "Only you. I won't repeat myself tomorrow."
"There used to be another village on the other side of the Red River. They were vying for the Moon Temple's backing, but they clearly chose Hana as their home. This other village eventually packed up and moved on, but there is still bad blood between families around here. Rumor has it that a rather rambunctious fellow from this neighboring village is attempting to sabotage the festival and almost caused a scandal last year—"
"—with those damn fireworks, yes," finished Tenzou. "That's pretty mild."
"I never said it was exciting or original."
Tenzou sniffed. "I guess we need to be on the lookout then."
"Yup. Which means you need to reign in your raging alcoholism."
"Wah-wah," mocked Tenzou. "You really need to lighten up."
"Are you really one to talk? Getting you to leave your apartment and your thousand cats—"
"One cat, thanks—"
"—was almost as bad as suturing myself up with a fishhook."
"Okay, rewind. You have eight dogs. I have one cat. And I'm the crazy cat guy?"
"We had a vote," replied Kakashi. "And we agreed. Why else would I give you a cat mask? Also, my dogs are summons. They're a hundred times more useful than your cat, have saved my hide a thousand times over, and they can disappear when the apartment gets too crowded."
"You didn't even know I had Bucket until after the daimyo mission," said Tenzou with much indignation. He was not a crazy, cat-loving lunatic. He and Bucket barely got along half the time.
Kakashi tapped his nose and winked. "The nose never lies."
"I hate you," said Tenzou. "Just thought you should know."
"Don't be a sore loser," cajoled Kakashi. "I'm older than you, and therefore much wiser in the game of wits."
"Maybe, but it's all a defense mechanism," said Tenzou. "The more of a bully you are, the more insecure you are."
"You think I'm insecure," repeated Kakashi.
"No," said Tenzou, finding himself backtracking on his earlier observation. He wasn't sure why, but the look on Kakashi's face was beginning to unsettle him. "You're too confident for your own good, I'd say."
Kakashi said nothing in reply. Tenzou watched his sempai's face carefully, hoping to catch a flash of emotion that might display what, exactly, the infamous Copy-Nin was now thinking. But it seemed that the unguarded moment between them had evaporated and would not be coming back anytime soon.
Was it something he'd said? he thought warily. There was no point in combing through their conversation to see where he might have run afoul. It would take all night.
Tenzou rolled over onto his other side to face the wall.
Sweat ran down his forehead and Tenzou tried to wipe the perspiration away in vain.
The relatively cool weather Fire country had been blessed with had effectively been blown away by this new heat wave. Being next to the ocean in Hana did nothing to lessen the blazing sun, nor the inferno he was now trapped in. The monks had said this kind of heat was extremely unusual and Tenzou, once again, cursed his bad luck. Tenzou tugged at the collar of his working blouse. He was quickly approaching that pinnacle of desperation that would allow him to toss decency aside and disrobe. There were no females at the Temple to offend and he doubted the monks were body-shy.
Besides, Kakashi had been topless for the better part of the day.
Tenzou's eyes swung over to his counterpart on their own accord. He sighed at his own transparency, but drank in the picture despite the (very miniscule) part of him that still fought tooth and nail against his attraction to his superior. Kakashi had his back turned towards Tenzou and was currently working on digging holes for the support posts. He had a shovel in one hand. His other hand was running through his damp hair. As if he felt Tenzou's lecherous gaze and meant only to tempt it further, Kakashi bent over and picked up the green canteen that lay at his feet and began to pour water over his head. Tenzou watched for as long as he dared and averted his eyes when he'd had his fill. Thankfully, it didn't take too long.
Kakashi and he had been tending to the gardens of the Moon Temple for the past two days. It was uneventful, dirty labor. And he hated it. Tenzou was used to running himself into the ground with hard work, so that wasn't the veritable thorn in his side.
It was Kakashi.
Ever since Tenzou's botched attempt at a kiss (which had landed him and his face on inn floor for his troubles), Kakashi had been acting… different. There was no other way to describe it.
It had taken a better part of the first day for Tenzou to realize what had transpired after their visit to the Silkworm. He'd been absolutely mortified and nearly cut the top of his index finger off with his shears when the memory had returned to him. He'd tried to apologize to Kakashi several times since then, but Kakashi had brushed off every single one of Tenzou's attempts. He acted like nothing had happened. Essentially, theoretically, nothing had. But Tenzou couldn't shake the miserable feeling that clung to him like a leech since that night.
He wasn't giving Tenzou a cold shoulder necessarily and Tenzou thought that that was the worst part. He still talked to Tenzou cordially, when he needed to, but all the progress they'd made as 'friends not teammates' seemed to have vanished like the cool weather.
Tenzou had been put back into that box he'd fought hard to escape from and he didn't like it one bit. He might not have been mentally ready to expound upon his romantic feelings (while sober, in any case), but he still valued Kakashi as a friend. Now that they were hundreds of miles from Konoha, he thought he needed it even more than before.
He didn't want to go back to Konoha without that bond, but he wasn't sure what else to do. He couldn't do much more than explain or apologize, but if Kakashi wasn't having it, then Tenzou was truly stuck-unable to go back in time to slap his drunk self silly, and unable to move forward with his personal troubles.
Kakashi had forgiven him for blowing their first mission together. Kakashi had forgiven him for punching him square in the eye. Kakashi had forgiven him for spying on him at the memorial. The man had forgiven him for damn near every transgression, but he couldn't look passed one night of drunken foolishness. It didn't make much sense, but Tenzou had stopped trying to use logic a long time ago when it came to his captain. Once again, their radio frequencies were not in tune. Perhaps Tenzou had finally bought all the good favors Kakashi had placed on the table? Perhaps this was how the man acted when he was fed up with his subordinates?
There was always the option that he hadn't realize what Tenzou was trying to do, but Tenzou knew that was more wishful thinking. Kakashi had been sober that night, only one drink deep, and his eyesight was actually quite good, and more so in the dark.
Tenzou angrily snipped off the little brown leaves of the bush he was tending.
"Tenzou-san, that verbena did nothing to you. Don't you think you should be more gentle?"
Tenzou shielded his eyes from the relentless sun to better see the monk that now joined him. Tenzou had felt Yadagori's presence lingering behind him for a while now, but he was pretended to be a gardener, not a ninja, and he had to keep up appearances of such no matter what.
"Perhaps," Tenzou agreed with a vague shrug.
"We monks believe that emotions often contribute to the growth of the world around us," the monk said calmly. "If you are dour, your aura is dour, and this translates into unhappy people around you."
"And unhappy flowers."
Yadagori conceded Tenzou's point with a smile and slight nod of his head.
The verbena didn't look more or less upset than it had been before Tenzou had started on it, but Tenzou wasn't about to argue with the man about auras and emotions. He barely understood how his own emotions affected him, having trained for most of his life to compartmentalize them. There was no need to throw flowers in the mix.
"Come," said Yadagori. "I pulled up a bucket of water from the well."
Tenzou stood and followed as ordered. Yadagori was one of the few monks who was not down by the mulberry trees taking care of the silkworms. He'd explained this when Tenzou had stumbled upon him meditating in the L-section of the garden the day before. So far, Tenzou liked the older man well enough. He was compassionate, but stern, and seemed not to mind Tenzou's cynical views on most things.
The well was further into the garden, nearly all the way in the back. Tenzou assumed it had been the centerpiece of the garden once, before the koi pond fountain on the eastern side had been built. The well was in a clearing that was surrounded by three high walls that had ivy crawling up them. A few low stone benches were placed strategically around the clearing, most likely for those who liked to come and contemplate the meaning of life while also enjoying a cool drink.
Yadagori handed Tenzou a wooden cup filled to the brim with water. "It's said this well was built two hundred years ago when Hana was first established."
"Is it safe to drink?" asked Tenzou, second-guessing his thirst.
Yadagori chuckled. "I've been drinking from this well since I was a little boy and here I am, as healthy and strong as an ox. Perhaps your city boy stomach won't be able to handle it?"
He didn't have a choice to drink the well water after that, so Tenzou put the cup to his lips and drank. Despite his earlier worries of tapeworms and the like, the water was delicious and untainted. "Not bad," he said.
"It's our aura," said Yadagori with a wink. "Forgive me for prying, Tenzou-san. I realize you came here to work our gardens, not to receive spiritual advice, but I've sensed that you have been troubled since coming to the Temple. Is there anything we can do to make you more comfortable?"
Tenzou flushed as the familiar feeling of embarrassment washed over him. "It's not the Temple, Yadagori-san, nor any of the monks. I am extremely grateful for your gracious accommodations and the opportunity for work."
"Then?" prompted the monk.
Tenzou opened his mouth, then clinked it shut, unable to explain any further. How could he tell a monk that he was infatuated with his mission partner, who he had attempted to make a drunken move on, who was now keeping him at a distance, and that was the real reason for his 'dour' aura? It was a mouthful.
Yadagori smiled and hung the well bucket back on its hook. "It's no matter. My interrogating skills have never been up to snuff. Forgive me for prying, but is Yamato-san the cause of your worries?"
Tenzou leaned his hip against the well and crossed his arms. He didn't feel comfortable about blatantly lying to a religious man, ninja or not, so he decided to take the middle road. "Something like that."
"You two make quite a pair," remarked Yadagori with a mild shake of his bald head.
Tenzou blanched. "Eh?"
"Yes, quite the pair. Both of you are skirting around one another like cocks ready to fight. When you are looking away, Yamato-san is looking at you. When he is looking away, you are looking at him."
Tenzou remained silent, but not for lack of things to say. Yadagori barely knew them, but he was perceptive enough to see how Tenzou and Kakashi acted around one another.
"When one person is looking to the left without any care to the rest of his surroundings, everything that transpires to the right is not perceived," continued Yadagori. "You should try turning your head some, find out what you see."
After Yadagori had left the clearing, Tenzou resumed his work.
By the position of the sun, he knew his midday break was coming up soon.
The respite he'd taken had made all the difference. Tenzou had managed to get the remaining verbena plots cleared out and spruced up in record time. He was planning on starting the primrose after he returned from his lunchbreak-cum-recon session.
Tenzou was nothing if not a quick learner and gardening wasn't half bad now that he got the hang of it. It was methodical work that was right up his alley. He didn't even have to resort to using chakra and his innate abilities to get the job done correctly. He sniffed as he thought of Yi Ling and her sourpuss attitude—when the festival truly kicked off, he would thrust a huge bouquet of orange lilies under her nose.
He had learned from Kigiku, the monk gardener, the first day of working at the Temple that they managed to speed up the cycle of the vegetation with a special rod that was infused with energy. Kigiku did not expand on what kind of energy lay in these rods, but was quite adamant that he and Kakashi wear a special pair of leather gloves when handling them.
Tenzou dug a small hole in the middle of the verbena patch and thrust the rod into the ground. It was a thick gray pole, approximately two inches in diameter, which they stuck into the ground in three feet intervals. The special energy it contained was said to infuse into the roots of the plants, cutting its blooming cycle by more than half. It was something of a secret in Hana and Kigiku was quite unhappy that he had to sell his secret to a new set of gardeners.
Luckily for him, neither Tenzou nor Kakashi were going to take his special gardening trick back home with them. Tenzou had even made a silent promise that he wouldn't even mention it to the Yamanakas.
He dusted his hands off onto his trousers and shrugged out of his top. He copied Kakashi's action from earlier by pouring a canteen-full of water over his head. He shivered as the cold water hit his skin, relishing every moment. The sun was only getting hotter and the cool wellwater felt absolutely amazing. He opened his eyes to find a stoic Kakashi watching him from a few feet away.
"You ready to go?" Kakashi asked.
Tenzou nodded his head. "Yup."
Kakashi picked Tenzou's top up from the ground and held it out to him. Tenzou took it without any thanks and lead the way out of the gardens towards the dusty road that would lead them back to the village.
"You should put that on," said Kakashi once they were halfway to Hana. He pointed towards the gray blouse that Tenzou had folded over his arm.
"I'm still a little wet from earlier," replied Tenzou. He didn't even care about bad that sounded. "Are you offended?"
Kakashi cleared his throat. "No."
Tenzou sighed, knowing full well that he was pressing his luck by trying to fall back into their normal pattern of bickering, and shrugged back into his top without a word more.
"You did a good job with the verbena," said Kakashi suddenly. It sounded like an apology, not a compliment.
Tenzou wanted to roll his eyes, but settled for a quiet reply instead. "It comes naturally."
Tenzou hated this awkwardness between them and he hated his drunken subconscious even more for causing it. If only he had kept his wits about him, if only he had the foresight to keep his imbibing to a one drink (or no drink) minimum, he would never have found himself back in this awkward predicament. Three weeks of bunking with someone who clearly wanted to be miles and miles away from him was not what Tenzou considered a good time. What made it worse was this desire for distance wasn't because Kakashi hated him—it was because he was repulsed. It was the only explanation.
The logical side of him argued to err on the side of letting the incident bury itself naturally. Eventually, whatever issues that lingered between them would blow over and they would be as right as rain.
"Sempai," Tenzou started. "About the other night…"
Kakashi stiffened and the emotion that flitted across his maskless face betrayed his attempt at stoicism. He was acting as if he was waiting for Tenzou to strike a blow. It only made Tenzou's theory of repulsion more solid, but he knew he had to steamroll past the moment and attempt to repair what he'd broken.
"I'm sorry for whatever I said or did to offend you," he said.
Kakashi sighed. "I think we need to talk."
Kakashi stopped walking, but Tenzou kept down the dusty path towards Hana. It was childish and immature to pretend like he hadn't heard Kakashi stop, but he knew the moment of honesty was right around the corner. Everything in his soul—including his literal bodily reaction, with the sweaty palms and increased heart rate and perspiration—told him that he needed to be as far away from that corner as possible. He'd attempted the route of avoidance once before and he had nearly ruined their relationship. But what more could be said that didn't completely drive a stake into whatever was left of Tenzou's pride?
Kakashi asked him to halt, but Tenzou couldn't bring himself to stop.
"Don't do this," called out Kakashi. "Don't walk away."
Tenzou's next step faltered. Despite wanting to book it down the dusty road as fast as possible, deep down he couldn't deny Kakashi his request. Tenzou took two more steps before coming to a tense stop. Even still, he kept his back turned towards his object of ultimate frustration.
"Turn around and face me," said Kakashi. It wasn't a request. It was a demand.
Tenzou had been at odds with Kakashi more than he could count on all his fingers and toes, but he'd never felt threatened by him. But right now, with his back exposed and Kakashi's low, clipped tone reverberating through his mind, threatened was the only way to describe the prickling sensation at the base of his neck.
Tenzou exhaled slowly and pivoted on his heel.
Before he could fully comprehend the movement, Kakashi was on him. Hands, elbows and knees lashed out in a blurred fury and Tenzou blocked the onslaught as best as he could, looking for an opening to start his counterattack.
His fingers encircled Kakashi's wrist and he used the momentum to bring the other man off balance, jabbing two fingers into a pressure point under the armpit.
Their impromptu sparring match lasted only a minute or two, and ended when Tenzou knocked Kakashi onto his ass with a well-placed kick to the chest. The both of them were panting hard—more due to the extreme midday heat than actual physical exertion. Tenzou blinked down at his sempai, who was squinting back up at him strangely.
It was in the middle of the day, on a well-traveled road to the temple, and anyone with a pair of eyes looking in their direction would have seen them fighting. It was an extremely reckless thing they did, but the look they shared said it all: it was exactly what the both of them had needed. Actions did speak louder than words, after all.
Tenzou held out his hand and Kakashi reached up.
As soon as Kakashi's hand touched his, Tenzou knew his sympathy had been a mistake. Kakashi tugged down, hard, and Tenzou buckled underneath his surprise and Kakashi's strength. They tussled on the ground for a second, but Kakashi had the clear upperhand with grappling this time.
Kakashi rolled until he was on top, his expression eerily blank as he gazed down at Tenzou. He pinned Tenzou's arms down with his knees, but there was hardly enough weight behind it to really keep Tenzou from throwing him off he so desired. It was this fact that kept Tenzou from doing just so.
"Sempai?" asked Tenzou tentatively.
"You really think I just tolerate you," said Kakashi quietly.
Tenzou attempted to shrug, unsure of how to respond.
"In reality, I admire you," continued Kakashi. "We're teammates, and we are equals. Don't forget that."
Tenzou exhaled sharply, staring in wide-eyed bewilderment as Kakashi leaned in close. Either he really wanted to get a close-up view or—or what? Tenzou's adrenaline spiked, and his heart began to hammer in his chest so hard it was a miracle he didn't die from cardiac arrest on the spot. Is this really happening? he screamed inwardly.
Oh my god, he thought desperately. Oh my god!
When Kakashi's lips pressed against his, Tenzou trepidation vanished and the screaming inner voice was silenced immediately. He closed his eyes and reveled in the simple sensation. It was... it was bliss.
Tenzou had kissed a girl or two, but he'd never been kissed, and it had never, ever felt like this. A flash of heat burned from his toes up to the tips of ears, then back down to settle in his groin. Tenzou was instantly hard; his member strained against the thin material of his trousers. It would be asking too much to think that Kakashi didn't feel it, and it was asking too much for him to feel embarrassed over his very obvious desire. Tenzou tilted his hips up on instinct, a sharp thrill running down his spine as Kakashi reciprocated the motion, and Tenzou couldn't hold back the animalistic groan that tore from his throat.
Kakashi wound his hands borderline roughly into Tenzou's hair then, pulling his kouhai closer than before. The kiss deepened, both parties willing and eager, and before Tenzou knew what he was doing, his arms were free and his hands were tugging at the damp hair at Kakashi's nape.
Kakashi pulled away suddenly and rolled into a low crouch. Tenzou stayed on his back for a moment, reeling from the sensory deprivation, then rolled onto his knees to join his team captain—their tryst temporarily forgotten.
Kakashi tapped his index finger to his own lips, then pointed off into the distance. Tenzou squinted. A small cart was creeping along the horizon towards them, swaying slowly which each step of the mule that was pulling it along. Tenzou couldn't make out the driver, nor the contents of the cart. There was no outright reason to be wary—the monks did do business with merchants, and frequently so—but there was something he couldn't put his finger on that had Tenzou raising his defenses up a notch. He turned towards Kakashi for further guidance.
"Continue on as normal," said Kakashi after a moment.
They both stood, acting as if they were tired travelers coming from the temple who'd simply stopped along the road for a respite, which was more or less the truth.
It didn't take long for the shinobi pair to get close enough to make out their new "friend", and Tenzou thought his stomach was going to bottom out as soon as he caught sight of the traveler's face. He felt his face rapidly drain of color. The image might have been comical under different circumstances, but not these ones.
There was no denying that they'd seen that face before.
Because there, holding the reins of the rickety old cart, was the daimyo whose head Tenzou had sliced clean off months ago.
Kakashi looked at Tenzou, his jaw set, his expression equally grave. "Do you believe in ghosts?"
Note: A million apologies for the wait, and another million for the quasi cliffhanger. I hope you enjoyed this chapter.