Title:Of Problems and Concussions
: Minato, Kushina, and a very, very small cameo by Teuchi-san. (That's the dude who owns Ichiraku Ramen, by the way.)
T, I suppose.
It's done. It's also kind of unfunny and kind of serious and kind of...well, crappy. This has gone through as much editing as I can take, at this point. And besides, classes start tomorrow, and from what I hear, organic chemistry's a bitch. If I don't get this up now, well, I wouldn't touch it again until winter break or something. As always, I would love to hear all of your feedback to this very long conversation I'm going to make these two have. Please, remember to review!

Minato, Kushina thought grumpily, for all his genius, has awful timing. The least he could have done was give her enough time to sort out her conflicting feelings towards him after that nasty lecture he had given her, but no, of course not: he'd find her, of course, when the hurt was still blistering and anger was still simmering in her mind, and smile that stupid smile of his, and ask her out to lunch. She didn't smile back at him, schooling her face into a blank mask, and refused to listen to the happy, clamoring hormones that were exclaiming over his cheekbones.

She was supposed to be mad at him, damn it.

But lunch? Lunch was fine. Lunch she could handle. With finesse, even.

"Sure," she replied, proud of the way her voice had modulated itself evenly. "Have you got a place in mind?"

He shoved his hands in his pockets and shrugged, bright blue eyes skittering away for a second before snapping up to her own. "I'm not much of an eater, but I'm game for anything you want."

"All right then," she said, "follow me." She turned without waiting for him and began an easy pace down the street. He caught up with her in seconds, his easy, loping stride a far sight longer than her own. He walked a step in front of her and turned around, walking backwards.

"What do you have in mind?" he asked.

She blinked at him. "You sure you can walk like that?"

"Sure I can," he grinned, and sidestepped a streetlight and a cabbage merchant's cart with maddening grace. "Can't you?"

"Show-off," she teased good-naturedly, but belatedly remembered that she was mad at him. It was entirely too easy to fall back into her old camaraderie with him, to laugh and to joke with ease. She cursed his smile, his affable nature. She couldn't stay mad at him, and it didn't help that with passing time, the edge of her resentment had dulled and didn't sting quite as badly as it first had—but they did have things to discuss, she decided firmly. That conversation in her hospital room that horrible day needed resolution, and besides, he had been a grade-A jerk. He was simply lucky that she no longer wanted rip out a chunk of his hide as reparation, pretty face notwithstanding.

"I hope you like Ramen," she breezily remarked, stopping by a modest bar. "Ichiraku's, my favorite."

She slid into the seat next to him, and called out, "Oi, Teuchi-san! Guess who's back!"

She had surprised him with her acceptance of his offer, and she had surprised him even more with her easy teasing during their short walk. But he had seen the shutters behind her eyes close, so quick and so sudden, he could almost hear them clack as they slammed shut. He fought the urge to wince. The strength of the desire for her smile—a real one, when her eyes turned into crescents and her cheeks went wide and honest pleasure rolled off her—that was clamoring inside him alarmed him, but that was a problem her could deal with another day.

Preferably one when she was talking to him again.

"Ah, Kushina-san, back so soon, I see!" exclaimed a heavy-set man behind the counter. "And you've brought a friend!"

"As though I could stay away! Minato, this Ramen's the best in all of Konoha. I'll have a salt Ramen. What'll you be having?"

"The same," he replied, never having indulged in Ramen that originated outside of prepackaged plastic containers before. He preferred soba, himself.

"Be right with you," Teuchi-san said, and busied himself, but didn't leave them enough time to begin a serious conversation. Two bowls of steaming Ramen soon sat before them. He blinked. The sight was unexpectedly savory: the braised beef gleamed appealingly, the chopped scallions unexpectedly added a dollop of bright color, and the smell was heavenly.

He found watching Kushina eat more interesting than eating, though the Ramen was unexpectedly delicious: she dug in with gusto, took big bites and didn't act like the fact that he was witnessing her eating like a man bothered her in the least. Still, he thought idly, while his eyes followed the movement of her mouth and throat, glided over her face as she closed her eyes with ecstasy and savored the flavor after every bite, for a woman who wasn't even trying, she was doing a damn good job of unraveling him.

"Not hungry?" she asked at last, wiping at her mouth with a napkin. She gestured to his mostly-full bowl.

"Hungry," he replied, and spooned a bit of broth in his mouth. "Not all of us have such enthusiasm for food, Kushina-san," he smiled, hoping that it was charming and would entice her into bantering with him again.

A beat of silence passed between them.

She narrowed her eyes at him. "Are you calling me fat?"

What the hell? He choked on a stray noodle.

She snickered at him while she pounded his back. "You need to work on how you smooth-talk your way around us women-folk, Minato. Most of us don't like attention drawn to how much we consume."

He finally stopped coughing. "That," he panted, "wasn't what I meant." It seemed important to clarify this point, but a bubble of pleasure had lodged itself at the base of his throat. It had been rather mean-spirited and completely at his expense, but she'd laughed.

She attempted a sage nod, though she utterly failed at it because of the wicked smile lighting on her lips. "Understood. Usually one smoldering glance has their brain cells self-destructing so no one's ever called you on how un-Casanova-like you are, I know, I know." She waved a hand at him. "Eat your food, it's getting cold."

"I'm sorry." The words burst out with no warning, flying past his lips like sentient beings. Minato cursed mentally; what was it about this woman that made him shed years of ingrained habit—to plan ahead, to measure words, to deliberate actions—and start flying by the seat of his pants?

In any case, he thought, with a sickening sort of feeling shifting in his chest, he'd said it. He waited for her response with baited breath.

"About what you said in the hospital the other day?" Her voice had lost its teasing lilt, and adjusted; it was softer now, more thoughtful.

She chewed on a bit of beef to buy her some time to think, then wrinkled her nose and came to a decision: Kushina, if anything, was straightforward and, if she wanted an honest friendship with Minato and she wanted to be honest with herself, she was going to say what she needed to say. And that would be that—he could deal with the rest.

"Well," she said stonily, frowning into her noodles, "you should be."

He said nothing, but she felt him stirring at her side, heard the soft jersey material of his shirt brush his flak jacket.

"But I should be, too." She turned her head to look at him full-on. "What I did was reckless and irresponsible. The odds were terrible and I should have planned beyond the initial step of 'stick my kunai in hard-to-reach places in the enemy's bodies'. You were right about that part, and I'm sorry I put myself in such a dangerous situation without a back-up plan." She shot him a quick, hard smile. "But that's all I'm apologizing for. I'm not sorry I took those Iwa-nin on and I'm not sorry that I didn't leave them for you to mop up: you were engaged with an enemy far more dangerous than any of us could take on, and you were my teammate. It was only natural that I did my best to defend you from the small fry. I'm just sorry I did such a shoddy job of it."

His eyes bored into hers. "I shouldn't have said that," he said after a beat of silence, agitation creeping into his voice. "You were…what you did was…admirable. More than admirable. What I should have said was thank you." He licked his lips, sheepishness skittering across his face. She found it strangely adorable. "So thank you, Kushina-san."

Her cheeks were heating up again, but this time it was a more pleasant sensation. "All's well, then," she chirped, voice a bit higher than normal. She happily resumed polishing off her meal.

He, however, continued staring at her, a wrinkle working itself in-between his brows. He wasn't done yet.

Unfortunately for him, Kushina was.

"Don't explain why you were angry," she said, cutting him off when he opened his mouth to say more, her tone brooking no argument. "Big stupid hero complex. I know already. You felt responsible for me, and thus felt as though you had failed me or something retarded like that when you got to me after that run-in with the sensor." She glowed at him. "I'm not going to tolerate that attitude, you know. I may be weaker than you, but I'm not a ninja that goes on missions to be protected." She spat the word out as though it tasted sour. "I go on missions because I'm capable, I'm strong, and I'm reasonably intelligent. It's one thing to act as a team and defend your teammates, but it's quite another to take on their responsibilities to protect them from themselves and from the mission. I appreciate help when I'm outmatched, but I don't need someone to be on the constant look-out for my safety. Do me a favor, Minato, and don't belittle my pride that way."

He stared at her for a long moment, then ran a hand over his eyes and though his hair. When she saw his face again, there was something tired and resigned about his rueful smile.

"I suppose I should apologize for that as well. Do you want to know why I acted that way?" he asked.

Did she? She studied his face, eyes following the yellow strands of hair that fell over his hitae-ate and over his eyes and across his cheeks as she considered. There were so many pieces of him that she still didn't know, parcels of himself that he kept hidden underneath an unbreakable mask of smiling, deadly perfection, so much of him ghosting around her, just out of her reach.

Silence threaded around them for a long, complicated moment.

"I don't think I have the right to know," she said at last. "We're ninja, right? We all have our own personal ghosts. We carry them everywhere, in our pockets, in our kunai holsters, in our most secret places. And, to be perfectly honest…I don't think that either of us is ready to share our ghost stories yet."

He watched her intently, eyes a blazing blue, too many emotions flitting across his face for her to read. Goosebumps ran down her arms. She drew a fortifying breath. "We're all kinds of screwed up, you know. There are things broken inside of us that no one can fix. We all have things we failed to protect. Even you, you genius. We're ninja. But, sometimes, I think we forget that we're human too, and because of that, all we can do is just live. We have to trust in the fact that we still have life in us, trust in our friends, and try not to let our ghosts eat us alive." She patted the back of his hand with her fingers, let them linger a touch more than necessary. "I don't know you very well, Minato. And I want to know you before I meet your ghost."

Something changed in his face then, almost imperceptibly—the slight upwards tilt of his mouth, the gentler angling of his brows, the softer jut of his chin, the pause in the shifting shadows in his eyes—but she saw it, and wondered what it meant, and if it meant what she wanted it to mean.

"And you," he asked, voice slightly husky, "will you introduce me to your ghost someday?"

The hand holding chopsticks stilled of its own accord. She swallowed. "Maybe someday. If I let you meet them now, how will you know which one of us is real? Them or me?"

He said nothing, just stared into her face with his astonishingly bright eyes, with too many emotions swilling in them for her to decipher. For a long moment, neither of them moved, until he lifted a hand and, with infinite gentleness, tucked a lock of hair behind her right ear, rough fingertips just skimming her cheek. They held themselves suspended in a dimension of their own making, eyes locked and wide open. Kushina forgot to breathe.

"Ah, damn it!" Teuchi-san swore loudly as he burned a grill full of meat, which effectively, if rudely, jerked her back to reality, and sent air whooshing back into her lungs.

They both looked away simultaneously. He cleared his throat and deposited a large chunk of beef into his mouth while she scrambled for something to say as her entire face reddened.

"Also, I should probably thank you for saving my life. And for taking care of that last Iwa-nin. And for carrying me back, I suppose." She jabbed her chopsticks in his general direction. "Damn, Minato. Why the hell are your insides the ones that are tied in knots? I'm the one who should be guilty here."

He shook his head, traces of consternation finally gone from his expression, and smiled blithely. "You were my teammate. What, did you expect me to sit around and do nothing?"

"Bastard," she snorted, "you can't throw my own words back at me like that. It's unfair." The sudden shift in the tone of their conversation, from emotionally charged discussions to jocularity made her feel a tad lightheaded. She quickly slurped the last of her noodles and slapped her half of the bill on the counter.

"This was my treat, Kushina-san," he said, eying her money disapprovingly.

"I'm on leave, not unemployed," she quipped, smiling impishly. "And this was just lunch, not a date." Blood was rushing to her face again, making it redder than ever, but Kushina steadfastly ignored it and the fact that she probably bore a strong resemblance to an overripe radish. She hopped off the stool, collected her worn suede messenger bag, and said, "See you later, Minato."

He raised his eyebrows at her, but said nothing.

She turned and strode off determinedly. Let him think of that what he would—she had dropped enough hints (or just one really big anvil-sized one, but Kushina decided that, in this case, maybe overkill was a good thing). She had left that door swinging wide open, and it was up to him whether or not he stepped through it.

The blue sky stretched out above her, bright and clear as Minato's eyes; life beat in her chest; she felt like she might leap for the sun and maybe even make it. She wanted to fling out her arms and dance, laugh at the world until her sides split, and perhaps leap off a cliff to see if she could fly.

She didn't do any of those things, though. Instead, she went home and waited for Minato's call and inevitable invitation to dinner for the following night.

A few dates later, as Minato brushed her lips against her cheek as he bid her goodnight in front of her door, Kushina rapidly came to a decision.

And hauled him inside her apartment by his tie seconds later. She shut the door firmly behind them--she did want to have sex with him very badly, after all, and though his gentlemanly nature was very sweet, she just didn't have that kind of patience.