Wait, what is this? A Give and Take chapter? No way.
Yes way. Not only did I get this finished, but I went back and edited all previous chapters. I didn't do anything that changed the general storyline, but I did change a hell of a lot of dialogue and tried to clean up all the titles and ages and heights and things or various ninja. If you see anything glaring just let me know. I'm really happy to be posting this finally, as its taken me over two years to update.
There is one more chapter after this one, and I swear I'm working on it right now. I am so grateful and so, so thankful for all of you readers out there that have stuck with me through this one. It's been tough with everything that happened in canon in the last year. And on that note, I think this story is now officially AU. Or, canon AU? Not sure the exact title. Anyway, prepare to have your questions answered. Enjoy!
"Oh come on, it's like two in the morning."
"Maybe he smelled the pancakes?"
"You get it, Kakashi, I'm trying to flip here."
The messenger bird perched on Genma's window, a tiny scroll tied to its leg. Kakashi lifted the small animal gently and pulled the release tag. There was a puff of smoke and a quiet pop sending the bird back to the aviary as its mission was complete. When Kakashi tried to open the scroll, warmth spread out through his hands. It was the tingle of electricity, the power of a complex sealing jutsu designed to keep anyone but Shiranui Genma from getting inside and reading the mission details.
Cold dread dropped into the pit of the Copy Nin's stomach and he touched Genma lightly on the shoulder.
"It's sealed," he said softly.
Genma paused in the middle of transferring pancakes from the pan to a platter. He glanced over his shoulder at the small scroll and sighed.
"God damnit," he whispered.
Mission scrolls with a blood seal were almost always S-class.
"Seriously, on a Sunday morning?" Genma removed the rest of the pancakes and turned the heat off on the stove. He reached up and pulled free the senbon that was holding his hair back and used it to prick his finger. The seal released and the scroll rolled out onto his palm.
Kakashi waited as the tokujō read silently. The older man's brown eyes darkened and his brow furrowed as he took in whatever mission parameters were outlined in the small writing. With every passing moment that Kakashi waited in silence it became that much harder to bear. Why now? Why when everything was going so well? They'd had the weekend. It was just the two of them, all alone in Genma's apartment. There were no missions, no details, no paperwork; just happiness and laughter and sex.
It was quite possible that the last twenty-four hours had been the best of Kakashi's life. Laying there in the darkness with Genma beside him, just being together, talking about friends and family, the past and careful hopes of the future, it had sometimes seemed like a dream. They had come together once in Genma's bed, and once in the bath, twice on the couch, and then again in the kitchen as they searched for something to drink. The light from the setting sun had caught in loose strands of Genma's hair as the special jounin had pulled himself up onto the counter and spread himself wide. That time had been a little quicker, a little rougher than the rest as Kakashi's passion had overtaken him. Genma had not seemed to mind, and had returned the favor when he had taken Kakashi on the floor by the kotatsu not even a half an hour later.
It was hard to believe that time had been real.
Naked, hard, and buckling under the weight of his love and his worry for Genma, Kakashi tried to keep what he was feeling off of his face and out of his stance as the special jounin finally finished reading the mission scroll, but it was impossible. Genma saw it the moment his eyes met Kakashi's.
"Hey," he said softly and lifted his hand to Kakashi's bare jaw, "Hey, don't look like that."
Kakashi let out the breath of a failed chuckle, "I can't help it, this is my face."
The tokujō closed the scroll and waved his hand as it disintegrated between his fingers. When it was gone, he put his hand on Kakashi's hip, pulling him closer.
"I don't have to report until tomorrow morning. We still have our weekend."
Sighing, Kakashi relaxed into that warm embrace and rested his forehead against Genma's. He slid his arms over muscled shoulders and wrapped them around the other man's neck. "You want to talk about it?"
Genma nodded. "I'll tell you about it after we eat, it actually sounds kind of interesting."
"You sure you still want to eat?"
Smiling, Genma slid his hands down to cup Kakashi's bare ass. "You're the one who said he was craving pancakes at one o'clock in the morning."
"I don't know what's wrong with me."
"There's a lot wrong with you," Genma teased, "but craving pancakes isn't part of it. Can you grab some forks?"
They ate at the kotatsu, sitting close, their naked bodies warm under the thick blanket. Genma pulled one of Kakashi's legs over his lap, putting the Copy Nin immediately into his space. He alternated between slipping bits of pancake into Kakashi's mouth, and running his hands up the inside of the younger man's thighs. Kakashi savored the attention one moment, heady with arousal and affection, and the next, wanting to tuck his face into Genma's throat and cry from feelings that were overwhelming.
"Where are you going?" he asked finally.
Genma wiped at the edge of his mouth with the pad of his thumb. "Somewhere north in the Land of Earth. We're headed to Iwagakure for specifics and then further west for some kind of retrieval."
Nodding, Genma ran his fingers down into the valley where Kakashi's thigh met his hip. The Copy Nin caught his breath and leaned into the older man, pushing him back against the foot of the couch.
Genma continued as if nothing was happening at all. "It sounds like this is the hub for that slave ring. You remember that mission a few months ago with Aoba?"
Kakashi shivered as Genma's hands continued to torment gently. "How could I forget that mission?"
"Well, I guess intelligence has tracked that guy's superiors to a small town a little north of Hanaishi. The ring is run by a few missing nin. Sounds like Bingo Book."
Sighing, Kakashi shook his head. "Why am I not going?"
Genma shrugged and let his hand slip lower. Kakashi bit back a moan.
"Maybe because you just returned from an S-class a few days ago? I'm sure there's something in the regulations about that somewhere."
Kakashi's eyes slipped closed as Genma's fingers teased the sensitive skin at the base of his cock. He was hard; he had been for a while. The special jounin's soft voice and his talented hands had sufficiently distracted him from his distress over Genma's mission and he was slowly turning into putty. He was warm clay, pliable, ready to be molded into whatever Genma wished. Kakashi was not entirely sure if that had been the tokujō's intention, but did it really matter?
"I can't believe you're ready to go again," Genma whispered into his neck.
"Why," Kakashi breathed, "aren't you?"
"Of course," the special jounin ran his lips over Kakashi's throat as he spoke, his breath puffed warm across the Copy Nin's skin. "You have to remember though, I'm an old man. I can't keep this up forever."
Kakashi smiled as his head fell back. "Just one more. One more time and then we can sleep for a bit. Get your strength back."
He felt Genma's hands grip his forearms, felt the older man tremble with desire.
"You will be the death of me, Kakashi," Genma groaned.
No, he was wrong. Kakashi knew if either of them was going to be overcome with the other, it was him. Genma would be his undoing and Kakashi had finally surrendered himself to that fact. He reveled in it.
Slowly, in one smooth, solid motion, Kakashi climbed up into Genma's lap. He kissed the special jounin lazily, and pushed the older man back to relax against the couch cushions. Genma gripped his hips, slid his thumbs down into the curve just above his straining sex. His tongue was leisurely, gentle as he explored Kakashi's mouth. His hips rolled slowly, carefully as they rocked to together between the kotatsu and the couch.
Their pace had eased throughout the day and night. Besides the time in the kitchen, it had been in slow decline, going from quick and playful in Genma's bed, to slower, more thoughtful movements in the bath, and here in the living room. Each time was longer, each time the touches became less about sexual release and more about exploration, more caress than anything. With each time, their movements slowed but the intensity increased. The passion mounted with each sigh and with each cry of release.
This time was the slowest, the most languid of them all. This unhurried, gentle sex against the couch was more intense, more overcoming than anything Kakashi had yet experienced. When he sank down onto Genma's length, he took a moment to just look, just appreciate the way the special jounin's eyes clouded over with desire. The way his mouth came open and deep, panting breaths slipped from between his lips.
Kakashi leaned in close, braced his arms on the couch cushions, and wrapped himself around Genma. The special jounin's arms came up around his waist and those brown eyes bore into him as Kakashi started to move. It was so slow, like they wanted it to last forever. Genma's cock slid in and out of Kakashi's body so smoothly, so perfectly. He felt it inside of him, touching places he didn't even know could feel good. He felt strong hands holding him down, holding him steady against Genma's shuddering frame.
They spoke no words, gave each other no commands, and voiced no requests. There was no need. Their bodies did all the talking for them. As Kakashi felt himself getting close, starting to come, he wrapped his arms around Genma's neck and held him tight. The tokujō's hand was on his cock, stroking him as slowly as their grind would allow.
I love you, Kakashi breathed into Genma's mouth, screaming the words in his head. I fucking love you.
"Ah, fuck," Genma groaned and Kakashi felt him start to come, but then he himself was lost in a shattering moment of pleasure and electricity. Every one of his muscles tensed before everything released at once. He saw stars before his vision blacked, and then he felt Genma's lips on his face, kissing his cheeks and eyelids.
He had lost time again, blacked out. When he came to, he opened his eyes and found Genma there, panting, flushed. His eyes were tired, his skin hot and damp, but he was still kissing Kakashi's face, still running his hands over the Copy Nin's back.
This would be the time. If there ever was a time to tell Genma that he loved him, this was it. He could just open his mouth right now, let the words fall out. There were already there and waiting, just on the tip of his tongue. It would be all right, Genma wouldn't hate him. Even if Genma didn't love him back, they would be okay. He would understand.
No, he was a coward. Kakashi had lost so much and he couldn't bear the thought of losing what he had with Genma as well. Besides, he was so tired. So very, very tired.
"You wanna... sleep now?" Kakashi asked, having a little trouble finding the words.
Genma nodded against his forehead.
They stood together and headed to the bedroom, neither bothered with clothes or cleaning up, they just fell onto the futon and tangled themselves together underneath the sheets. Kakashi tucked himself in underneath Genma's jaw and felt his heart break at the way the special jounin pulled him tightly against his chest.
Kakashi was done for. He knew it. He just wished he had the courage to say it out loud.
Monday morning came too soon. Genma still had laundry in piles around his apartment and he had forgotten to empty the fridge. Unfortunately, three weeks was just enough time for takeout to grow feet and escape. He hoped Iruka had assigned someone competent to take over his duties until he returned, because the last time he had left on a mission that was longer than three days, Genma had returned to chaos. It had taken forever just to correct all the errors.
As he locked the door and reset the traps, Genma felt a tightening in his chest unlike anything he had ever felt before. A sadness pulled at him from deep inside and he knew it had nothing to do with leaving his apartment and his things, or the possibility of his work being tampered with. No, there was really only one thing on his mind. One singular thing that was causing an ache in his heart that was so profound that he almost couldn't breathe.
He was dreading leaving Kakashi.
The weekend they had just spent together had been the best two days of Genma's life. However, those two days had also torn him apart inside. Kakashi's touch, his breath, his skin, the taste of his lips, and the feel of his body were all Genma could think about, all he could see. He wanted more and he wanted it to be okay that he wanted more. He wanted, for once, to be able to love someone openly. He wanted to be free to give everything he had without the possibility of everything falling apart. He wanted to be with Kakashi without fear and without guilt.
Maybe this mission was a good thing. Maybe a few weeks away, with his focus on something else, he could distance himself a little.
"Hey Gen," a familiar voice pulled him from his thoughts and he turned around.
His friend smiled and adjusted the pack strapped to his shoulders. "You ready?"
Genma nodded. "Yeah, let's go."
That was a lie, he hadn't said goodbye to Kakashi yet. The Copy Nin had left his apartment late last night, promising to see him before he left, but had not shown his face since, and now Genma was headed to the gate. It hurt more than Genma wanted to admit, but there could be any number of things that were keeping Kakashi from coming to see him and say goodbye.
"You all right?" Raidou asked as they made their way over rooftops.
Genma sighed, "Just stupid stuff. I'll get over it."
"You know you can talk to me," Raidou said.
Genma smiled over his shoulder as they slowed and dropped to the street below them. "I know, Rai, thanks."
Sakura and Kiba caught up with them as they made their way through the market. Sakura waved to them and Kiba nodded a greeting as he tore into a bit of grilled meat on a stick. He tossed a piece to Akamaru and licked the remainder from his fingers.
"Fine day for an S-class isn't it?" he grinned.
"Suppose so," Raidou said, "Iwagakure's gonna be cold as balls though."
"Yes," Sakura said, pulling small packets from her bag, "please remember to wear your gloves. I have extra soldier pills and heat rations but I'd rather not use those up."
"Is it really going to be that cold?" Kiba asked.
"For some of the journey, yes," Genma answered.
As they turned the corner, the West Gate came into view. The rest of their team stood waiting, gathered in a small group. The green of Lee's obnoxious spandex was obvious, as was the white of Kakashi's silver hair.
Genma almost stopped in his tracks, the relief that washed over him was so powerful he almost laughed out loud. Of course Kakashi would see them off, Sasuke was here too. The young Uchiha was a part of this mission and so Kakashi had no doubt been with his charge, helping him get ready.
Sasuke stood with his hands settled lazily in his pockets as Lee regaled him with some tale or another. He feigned disinterest in the same manor Kakashi feigned disinterest with Guy. It was almost charming the way both men stood listening, but making an obvious effort in looking like they were not.
Sai was there as well, but he was not pretending to do anything. He had his nose deep in his sketchbook, his focus on something far away.
The last of their party stood a few feet behind Lee, away from the group, his attention on the tree line just outside the village. His long, dark hair fell across his shoulders and down his back, tickled by the gentle breeze that filtered through the open gates.
"What the fuck," Kiba muttered under his breath, "What the hell is Neji doing here?"
"We need him," Sakura said simply. "Don't complain."
Kiba growled low and Akamaru followed suit. "If I had known that asshole was gonna be here I would have told Iruka to go fuck himself."
"Sorry, Sakura-chan, but seriously."
"Hi Kakashi-sensei," Sakura ignored Kiba's apology and joined her team members, "Hey Sasuke-kun. Did you remember to eat?"
Sasuke nodded and put a hand over his flat stomach. "Yes, I am full of ramen."
"Of course," she replied, laughing softly.
Genma caught a look from Raidou and his friend grinned at him. He took the unspoken signal and made his way around the group towards Kakashi. The Copy Nin met him halfway, his one visible eye was crinkled, but Genma could still see the anxiety there that was not quite hidden enough.
"It's only three weeks," Genma smiled, "I'll make sure he's okay. Not that he needs my help, I mean he could kill me with his pinky, but you know what I mean."
Kakashi continued to look at him with that same quiet trepidation. Genma wanted to believe it was for him, that Kakashi's worry and sadness was for his leaving more than Sasuke, but he knew that was not very likely.
Finally, the Copy Nin motioned with his head. "Walk with me for a sec?"
Curious, Genma nodded, "Sure."
They moved away from the group to stand underneath one of the trees lining the inside of the wall. Kakashi slipped his hands in his pockets and looked as if he was about to say something, but he only managed to whisper a soft hum before he fell completely silent.
Genma could feel the other man's anxiety heighten and for a moment he panicked. What if Kakashi was planning to end this thing between them now? It was a good time to do it. They had just spent that wonderful weekend together. He could end it now on a high note and then they would have three weeks apart to separate themselves effectively.
Stammering, tripping over his words, Genma tried to break up the silence before he did something stupid.
"I um, could you maybe water my plants while I'm gone?" he asked. "I usually have Aoba do it but I forgot to ask him."
Kakashi watched him, unmoving for several moments before he finally nodded.
Pain tightened in Genma's chest and in his gut at the way Kakashi's shoulders seemed to slump.
"Hey, I just wanted to say that I had a good time this weekend. You were, I mean, it was really fun, but if you wanted to maybe tone it down when you get back it's okay. I'm not—"
"—I love you," Kakashi said softly.
Genma felt the ground beneath his feet fall away. Something swooped in his stomach as his limbs suddenly felt weak. He found questions piling up in the back of his throat but his mouth, his tongue, and lips could not form them into words.
His heart pounded inside his chest; thumped relentlessly against his ribcage.
He tried to form the word 'what' because that seemed the only logical response. He wanted to understand how and why, and could this even be real, but he couldn't get sound past his lips.
"I've been trying to think of how to tell you all weekend," Kakashi said, his voice still quiet. "I'm not expecting an answer. You don't have to answer ever if you don't want to. I just needed to tell you and three weeks would have been enough time to make me lose my nerve forever."
A gentle warmth of happiness started to fill Genma from the deepest, most hidden and lonely parts of his heart, all the way out to his head and toes and the tips of his fingers. He had never known such a feeling existed. He had never known that he could feel this good. He wanted to scream, to jump up and down, to dance in the middle of the village until he passed out from exhaustion, and cry every last one of his tears all at the same time.
Kakashi loved him.
"I uh," the Copy Nin was watching the ground at his feet, "When you get back… you don't have to…" he shifted his stance, lifted a hand to scratch at the back of his neck. "You should know my pride'll be okay with a pity fuck now and then. But hey, that's completely up to you, so don't—"
Genma moved before the Copy Nin could talk himself into a hole. He closed the distance between them and lifted a hand to pull down Kakashi's mask. The younger man's eyes found his and widened as Genma came close. His breath was sharp as their lips met in a soft kiss. The Copy Nin stood stiff and unmoving for a fraction of a moment, and in that moment Genma suspended his doubt and his worry and everything else that had been holding him back for the last few months. He let the moment happen and waited patiently, hoping, believing.
And then that moment fell away and Kakashi moved. He made a soft noise and opened into the kiss. Genma felt hands in his hair and then arms around his neck. Kakashi kissed him and held him tightly, possessively, like a lover. When Genma's arms came around the other man's waist, it felt right. It felt perfect.
They broke apart to look at each other. Kakashi's one grey eye was so bright and so full of affection, even underneath the heavy eyelid. It crinkled at the corner as he smiled and Genma felt like swooning.
"—Wait, no," Kakashi held up his hand to interrupt, "Don't say anything."
Genma chuckled softly, "Why?"
Shaking his head, Kakashi put a finger to his lips and leaned in close. They came together again, kissing sweetly underneath the branches of the tree, out in the open, unashamed in the eyes of their friends and team members. They did not care if anyone saw.
"Save it," Kakashi whispered as they pulled away. "Hold onto it for me. Give it to me when you come home."
Genma's heart fluttered at the thought of coming home to Kakashi, not just in his mind or in his dreams, but coming home to Konoha where Kakashi would be waiting for him, missing him.
He rested his forehead against Kakashi's and nodded.
"Promise you'll come back to me," Kakashi breathed.
Several yards away, Sasuke ignored the way his teammates were talking and laughing over Lee's confusing and convoluted jokes. The young Uchiha was watching the way Kakashi's body leaned into Genma's. He could not see the Copy Nin's face, but he could tell when he spoke because Genma's smile would widen. Sasuke liked Genma's smile, that smile would make Kakashi happy.
Even with his emotions hindered, Sasuke understood more than anyone how hard it was for Kakashi to be happy.
The next few days were a strange blur of forest and the back of Rock Lee's uniform. Genma commanded his team competently and efficiently through Fire and across the border into Grass, but spent most of the time in his own head. He was aware of the trees as the shinobi leapt from branch to branch, and he noticed when the terrain started to flatten and the ground hardened into a strange and dry topography, but paid it no mind. His thoughts were far away, replaying moments he and Kakashi had shared, but he was now remembering them with new clarity, the knowledge that Kakashi had been hiding feelings for him.
At night, the special jounin lay awake, staring up into an infinite sky of stars, thinking about pale skin and silver hair.
When they were in sight of Iwagakure, Genma reigned himself in. They had been out almost a week and he hadn't been paying attention. He chided himself rather harshly for letting his focus wander. He was not some genin on his first real mission, but a seasoned veteran. He should know better. Thankfully, his team had ether not noticed his state, or they were kind enough to have said nothing about it.
Thoughts of Kakashi pushed back and controlled, he conducted himself like a proper shinobi and responsible squad leader.
That was when he started noticing things were off.
It started with simple incidents: a purposeful trip here, an 'accidental' flash grenade there. If Genma had been paying attention he would have stopped it sooner, but he had been preoccupied. He had not noticed it.
"Kiba, stop," he growled.
The Inuzuka paused, his hand on the strap of the makeshift slingshot. The small pebble was pulled back and ready to be sent flying at the back of Neji's head.
"Are you serious?"
Genma glared at him. "Yes, I'm serious. Leave him alone."
Kiba's hands dropped. "Just so I'm clear, you're telling me to ease up on the biggest asshole that ever walked the face of the earth."
Putting a hand on Kiba's shoulder, Genma halted. Raidou glanced at him, ready to signal a full stop, but Genma waved him on. "It's okay, Rai, keep going."
Raidou nodded and gave a jerk of his head for Sakura and Sai. The group continued, leaving Genma, Kiba, and Akamaru standing alone on the path between two large rock mesas. The special jounin turned to the younger man when the others were out of earshot and folded his arms over his chest.
"You're acting like a child."
Kiba rolled his eyes, "He deserves it."
"What he deserves and what he doesn't deserve is not the issue right now."
"Hey, what's your problem anyway?" Kiba growled, "You know what he did. You know he's a heartless, unfeeling, bastard that only cares about himself. How long before you think—"
"You can't let your personal issues with your teammates interfere with the mission!"
"That prick is not my teammate!"
"—Inuzuka Kiba, you are currently on a top level mission, arguing with a superior officer about harassment of a high ranking jounin. Are you gonna cut this shit out, or do you want your conduct and insubordination to go on record?"
"Do you know what I smell on him, senpai?" Kiba barked, his hand pointing furiously to the stretch of road where their team had just disappeared over a gentle ridge, "Absolutely fucking nothing! No remorse! No pity! Not even any anger! He ruined—fucking tore apart one of my best friends, and he doesn't give a shit! And now I'm just supposed to go on a mission and call him 'sir' and follow his orders like it never fucking happened? No disrespect, Genma-senpai, but FUCK you. I'll take the disciplinary action."
Genma stood silent, carefully watching the furious young man and his equally furious familiar snarling up at him. Kiba was still in the wrong, but he had a point. It was almost impossible to trust and rely on a comrade who had so thoroughly betrayed another. Genma still trusted Neji, but only as a ninja, and he had not taken time to really think about what that meant.
"Kiba," he said softly, soothing, "Kiba, I understand your frustration."
The Inuzuka said nothing, and his stance did not change, but his lips relaxed over his sharp teeth.
"Shikamaru is my friend too. I'm… there aren't enough words to explain how pissed I am about what Neji did to him," at this Kiba snorted, but Genma pressed on. "However, we are on a mission. Neji is your squad leader. As much as that sucks, we have a duty and an objective. We can't let personal stuff interfere with things that could cost people lives."
Kiba studied him for a moment, watching his superior with dark eyes. Then after a few moments, he relaxed his postured and lowered a hand to pet Akamaru behind his ears. The ninken relaxed physically, squatting to the ground and rubbing up into his best friend's touch.
"So, you're not actually defending him, you're just saying I should cool it until the mission is completed."
"So what about after the mission?"
Shrugging, Genma lifted his hands in defeat. "I don't have any say what you do on your own time. When you get home you can tie him down and shave his head for all I care."
Akamaru barked as Genma turned and readied himself for a leap onto the rocks.
"You're totally right, Akamaru," Kiba snickered, "That is a really good idea."
A few minutes later, as the three traveled over natural rock towers and outcrops, Genma spotted Raidou waiting for them on the road, but interestingly, the rest of the team was nowhere to be seen. Landing next to his best friend, Genma looked around warily.
"What's up? Where is everyone?"
Raidou's face was a mixture of confusion and worry. "I'm not sure what's going on. According to the map, we need to head northwest along this cliff if we're going to get to Iwagakure before nightfall. But Neji said we have to go east." As he spoke, Raidou pointed in the opposite direction from where the sun was beginning it's decent towards the rocky hills. "I didn't want to argue with him and Sakura seemed to know where they were going so…"
Genma frowned, "That doesn't make any sense. I saw Iwagakure when we were up on top just now. Are they actually headed east?"
Raidou nodded. "Sasuke asked if I would stay here and point you three in the right direction."
Shaking his head, Genma glanced again in the direction of the sun. "That's so fucking weird, why would they go that way."
Kiba lifted his arms and laced his fingers together behind his head. "Personally, I think considerate Uchiha is a lot weirder than that."
"Well," Genma sighed, "We have to catch up with them. We can't all get separated."
"Let's go, Akamaru."
The four took off down the path, following the Inuzuka's noses. It took only ten minutes to find where the rest of their team had gone, as the group had come to a large tor and, from what Kiba told them, had climbed to the top.
After climbing what he figured was some kind of sandstone and pulling himself up to the top shelf, Genma stood and took a moment to process what he was seeing. A flat, circular area about twenty feet across had been carved into the top edge of the outcrop. Runes had been painted and etched into the stone in patterns that Genma did not recognize. Lining the outer rim were eight small pillars.
Sai was taking note of the different runes in his book and Neji was speaking softly to Sasuke in the middle of the circle when Genma and the others arrived. When Genma finally moved past his initial shock and started to make his way into the circle, Sakura came forward and put her hands up.
"Be careful," she said softly.
Genma and Raidou halted in their tracks.
"Why?" Genma asked.
"The ground here is a natural chakra node. Kind of like a hot spring, but with energy instead of water. The force flowing through this rock face is some of the most powerful I've ever felt, so, just be careful."
"Damn," Raidou murmured.
Genma watched as Sasuke removed his jounin vest and uniform shirt. Sai came forward, and with what looked like instructions from Neji, started to paint runes across the Uchiha's pale skin.
"Sakura," Genma said softly, "What exactly is going on here?"
He had an idea, but it was so unbelievable the special jounin didn't want to voice it aloud for fear of sounding insane.
Sakura turned her bright green eyes to him and smiled sadly.
"I'm sorry we lied to you, Genma-senpai."
"What's going on, Shikamaru?" Iruka asked gently. "What did you find out?"
"I…" Shikmaru's words caught and he swallowed hard. "I thought I knew. I thought I knew him but I didn't. I was so wrong. I'm such a fucking idiot."
"What?" Kakashi asked.
"Neji," Shikamaru whispered, "he—he doesn't hate me. I fucked up. He was trying to fix it. It's all my fault."
Kakashi pushed himself off the desk and stood. The Nara's body was sagging, like he was going to collapse at any moment. The Copy Nin moved across the office and caught the younger man just as his legs gave way. He helped Shikamaru back towards the desk and lowered him to one of the chairs across from where Naruto usually sat.
"You're probably starving, "Iruka said. "Naruto, you still have those muffins in your pack?"
"No," Naruto made a face, "You think sweets last more than ten minutes on my person?"
"I'm not hungry," Shikamaru leaned his elbow on the arm of the chair and rested his forehead in his palm. "Can I just have some water?"
Kakashi poured a glass from the pitcher by the window and handed it to him.
"What's going on?" he asked as the young Nara swallowed greedily.
"He read the file," Iruka said softly.
Kakashi turned to his friend, confusion pulling at every corner of his brain. "What file? What are we talking about?"
Naruto raised his hands in a helpless gesture. "Like Iruka said, we're sealed. We can't talk about it—not that I really know a lot anyway. I just signed the paperwork and felt really shitty about it."
Iruka nodded beside him. "If we had known what was wrong we could have helped sooner."
"Like two years ago sooner," Naruto mumbled.
Kakashi looked down at Shikamaru, who was now staring blankly into the empty glass, and then back up to Iruka and his Hokage.
"Okay, someone better tell me what's going on right now," he said, his voice dropping. "I'm starting to get a little pissed off."
"Sasuke's seal," Shikamaru said.
Kakashi's head whipped back around so fast he felt his neck crack. "What about it?"
Shikamaru's lip trembled as he ran a hand over his partially disheveled hair. There were no tears, but the Nara's voice wavered as he spoke so softly, Kakashi could barely hear him.
"He did it to himself, because of what I did to him. He volunteered because he thought that way he could make it right."
Exasperated, Kakashi knelt down in front of Shikamaru and laced his fingers together over his mask.
"Shikamaru, what the hell are you talking about? What does all this have to do with Sasuke's seal?"
Shikamaru's eyes lifted and pierced Kakashi's with so much pain it was crippling.
"Neji is the seal."
"What do you mean 'he is the seal'?" Genma asked.
Sakura led Genma past the pillars and over to where Sai was helping Sasuke to lie down in the center of the circle. Neji had moved to kneel at Sasuke's head, directly below a set of runes that looked identical to the ones painted on Sasuke's chest.
"It's difficult to explain," she said.
"Try me," Genma growled.
"I don't really understand how it works, but as it's done now, in order to successfully inhibit all emotion in a person's brain, there has to be a secondary frame, like a backup. Neji's mind is working like a storage unit for the suppressed emotions. He stores them all, Sasuke's and his own, and keeps them locked away until the seal is removed. The missions he's been going on, all these back to back weeks of being away from the village, have been him looking for natural chakra nodes like this one. He found several but they weren't powerful enough."
"Enough to break the seal, I'm assuming?"
Sakura nodded. "Because he does not have the approval of the counsel, and because Hinata is gone on a diplomatic mission, there is no other Hyūga to assist him. Neji knew he needed a source of powerful chakra to syphon from otherwise, he could kill himself and Sasuke trying to undo it all."
The implications of what Sakura was saying flashed through Genma's head at light speed. When things started clicking into place, his heart gave a lurch of pain at his conclusion.
"So, wait," he murmured, "are you saying that because Neji is the backup, and he's holding all the emotions for Sasuke and himself, does that mean that he's also completely suppressed? Emotionless, like Sasuke?"
Sakura nodded, not looking at him.
Genma let out a breath and turned to Raidou. The scarred man ran a hand over his face and turned away, shaking his head.
"You know, there are certain people who could have really benefitted from knowing these things. You could have saved a certain person a whole lot of pain if you had told him."
Sakura's face turned dark as she turned to Genma. "I only learned about all this until the day before the mission. I didn't know."
"I did not know either," Lee's voice was uncharacteristically quiet as he moved to stand beside Sakura. "It seems everyone who was part of the jutsu was sealed up along with it. They could not say anything."
"Then how did you all find out?" Raidou asked.
"Iruka-sensei must have found a loophole because he kept telling us about this file in the restricted section of Records. He didn't tell us anything about it, just the number. Sai and I went in and made a copy."
Kiba appeared beside Genma, his face grave and his voice quiet. "Does Shikamaru know?"
Sakura shrugged, "He didn't before, but he should by now."
"Hey," Sai interrupted, "we are ready for you, Genma-san."
Startled, Genma almost took a step back. "What? Why me? What the hell am I supposed to do?"
"Your knowledge and understanding of tenketsu nodes is almost as good as a Hyūga's. We need that knowledge and we need your skills with senbon."
Turning to Raidou, Genma put his hands on his hips and let out a harsh breath. His friend looked at him, his eyes steady, supporting, everything that Raidou had always been and always would be. That look of trust and complete friendship strengthened Genma's resolve and he sighed.
"Can you believe this shit?" he growled.
Raidou smiled softly, "Fucking kids."
Genma turned back around and reached for his tool kit.
"All right, what do you need me to do?"
It was not actually that complicated. As Sai explained where they needed the flow directed and for how long, Genma began to understand the basics of what they were doing. He would never understand the seal itself, but the power and the power flow behind it were right up his ally. He had gotten many a rogue shinobi to give up information with similar procedures.
He wasn't sure what that said about this jutsu exactly but that was something he would ponder at a later time.
Sasuke looked up at him with dark, dull eyes when Genma knelt at his side.
"I thank you for this, Genma-san," he said quietly.
Genma shook his head, "Don't thank me just yet. This will probably hurt a lot."
"It will be worth it."
Genma's eyes rose to look at Neji, who was kneeling inches from where Sasuke's hair was spread out across the stone. His eyes were that milky grey-white of the Hyūga clan, his hair long and thick over his shoulders. His skin was pale and smooth, perfectly unblemished. He was beautiful, perfect in physique and form. Only his expression was wrong. It was not so obvious, if one did not know about the suppression it would be impossible to tell, but Genma could see it now. There was an unnatural stillness, a lack of anything human behind those eyes. They were cold and dead. Unimaginably empty.
Genma thought about what it must have been like to be Shikamaru and look into those eyes. To love this man with all of his heart, but see nothing looking back at him when the Nara desperately needed it.
But then, it was so much worse even than that.
"Neji," he said softly.
"Yes," the Hyūga answered.
"I'm so sorry."
The lines of Neji's forehead, just below his hitai-ate, furrowed. Not in confusion, merely from the strain of processing incomprehensible emotion.
"Do not apologize to me, Genma-san," Neji said, "I do not care."
Genma's heart stung and he smiled softly, sadly.
It took almost three hours. Three hours of straining, fighting against Sasuke's thrashing body. Sakura and Lee held him down while Genma blocked tenketsu nodes with his senbon, directing the flow of chakra to pool where Neji needed it. The special jounin could feel the power in the ground, he felt the rumble of the chakra being manipulated by the runes Sai drew on the stone. Raidou, Kiba, and Akamaru defended the outcrop against the animals that were drawn towards the power. Bears and mountain lions came in large numbers, attracted by the outpouring of natural energy.
Sasuke screamed like he was being torn apart, and maybe he was. Neji's hands dug into his sides, his neck, bruised the flesh of his chest. Tears ran down Sakura's cheeks as she held him down, whimpered softly every time her best friend's cries ripped across the evening sky.
Genma's hands were covered in blood. At first, he had thought it was Sasuke's from all the piercing of the senbon into his skin. But as the hours ticked by, he realized that it was Neji's. The bandages on the Hyuga's fingers were shredded, his flesh was raw and bleeding from clawing against the seal, pulling it apart piece by agonizing piece.
Finally, sometime after the sun had disappeared behind the mountains, Neji placed a hand over Sasuke's chest and ordered Genma to remove all of his senbon. The tokujō obeyed, and at the insistence of Sakura, everyone but Neji came away from Sasuke, leaving the two alone in the center of the circle.
"Breath, Sasuke," Neji said, his voice punctuated by his fatigue. "I am releasing the seal… now."
Neji's hand came away from Sasuke's chest. There was a feeling of an explosion, like an explosive tag going off in the distance. The ground shook one last time, and a flash of bright light erupted from Sasuke's body and shot out in all directions. It blew through Genma and the others like they were not there, and then disappeared into the night.
Then there was nothing.
No one moved for a few moments, but finally Sakura went carefully to Sasuke's side and knelt beside her friend.
"Sasuke?" she whispered. "Sasuke, can you hear me?"
Sasuke took a breath, spread his hands out against the stone underneath him and opened his eyes slowly.
"Sakura…" he murmured.
"Are you okay?" she said again, wiping at her eyes. Sai joined her and knelt next to his teammate.
"Do you… feel anything?" Sai asked.
Sasuke lay there, blinking up at the starry sky, eyes wide. His lips fell open as many different things started to play out across his face. "There's a lot…" he said, and his voice caught on nothing. "I don't… I'm not sure…" tears slid down his temples. Sakura leaned over him, feeling for his pulse.
"But you're all right?" she asked.
Nodding, Sasuke reached for her hand. She took it, gripped it hard.
"Yeah, I think so."
Genma smiled and wiped sweat from his face and neck. He was exhausted, but they had succeeded. Kakashi would be ecstatic when they returned. His charge was whole again and was free to feel the affection and love from his family. And, most importantly, he would finally be able to return it.
Content, drowsy, and satisfied, Genma was not prepared for the quiet intensity of Lee tugging furiously on his arm.
"Woa, woa, Lee-kun," he said, "calm down, what's wrong?"
Lee whispered to him in that way Guy whispered, which was not a whisper at all.
"I cannot find Neji!"
Genma was not entirely sure why, but for whatever reason, instinct perhaps, cold, hard dread dropped into his gut and in the midst of his exhaustion he nearly panicked.
"Don't draw too much attention," Genma said softly. "I don't see him, so he's obviously not up here. Take this side, climb down and see if he's on the ground somewhere below. I'll take the other side."
Moving swiftly, but not enough to attract attention, Genma went to the opposite end of the tor and climbed down the side of the outcropping. Rocks and pebbles slid from underneath his feet, but he managed to make it to the bottom without making too much noise.
"Neji!" he called out. "Neji, where are you!"
Surprisingly, it didn't take long to find the jounin. Neji was only a few yards away, kneeling in the grass around the side of another small rock mesa. He was doubled over, coughing, retching onto the ground. Genma slowed, eyeing the blood smeared into the grass, shining black in the darkness of the early evening.
"Neji," he moved closer.
"I said I'm fine!" the Hyūga straightened, slowly pulled himself to his feet, and wiped at his mouth with the back of his bloody hand.
"I don't want your help. I don't need anyone's help. Just leave me alone."
Anger simmered underneath Genma's cool exterior. He had just come from three hours of agony, torturing his lover's charge, working himself close to exhaustion, and this was how he was treated in return?
"Look," he said quietly, "I understand you have your Hyūga pride, but you should probably have Sakura take a look at you. You're bleeding and your chakra's probably depleted. You need medical attention in case—"
"—Don't tell me what I need, Tokubetsu. I will see the medic when I need to see the medic. Right now I need to be alone."
Despite the condescending way Neji spoke to him, and the anger that started to boil just beneath the surface, Genma realized that Neji had just gone through almost exactly what Sasuke had just gone through. He had been storing away emotions for two people for more than a year and now suddenly they were all back. If all feeling had come back all at once, there was no way it was not completely overwhelming.
"I mean no disrespect," Genma said, "but you've just been through a pretty traumatic event. Don't you think you should—"
"What part of 'I need to be alone' don't you understand?" Neji snarled. "Get away from me. You are the last person on this entire fucking planet that I want to see right now."
Stunned, Genma's anger melted away into utter confusion. Neji was angry with him?
"Do you have a problem with me?"
Neji turned on him, he moved close, his eyes cloudy and terrifying in the twilight. "YES! I have a problem with you!"
"What the fuck did I ever do to you!?"
"It's not what you did, it's what you are! You disgust me!"
Rage twisted in Genma's gut and rose into his chest. Who the hell did Neji think he was talking to? What the hell was his problem?
"You may technically be my superior, Hyūga, but you are more than ten years my junior and I will not tolerate such disrespect!"
"You're going to talk to me about respect!? That's fucking rich!" Neji's voice shook as reached up to pull the wraps from his arms. He yanked at the fabric, tearing the bloody strips from his skin in violent, jerking movements. "You just take whatever you want! Have whoever you want without any thought to who you might be hurting! You make me sick! You and all you're group! You all just fuck around with each other! You don't care about anyone else! You don't care!"
Slowly, the pieces began to fall into place.
"Neji… what are you talking about?"
"What do you think I'm talking about!?"
There was a desperation in Neji's posture that made Genma hesitate, a hopelessness in the young Hyūga's voice that Genma himself knew all too well. It cut at the tokujō's heart, knowing that feeling and being a part of what was causing it in someone else.
"Are you talking about me and Shikamaru?"
Some of the anger and unchecked rage that Neji seemed to be so caught up in started to slip away. The hard lines between his thin eyebrows softened. The tension in his body, in his shoulders, loosened and he turned away as if embarrassed.
"He was with you," he said softly, his voice strained. "I came back from the mission and he was in your home, sleeping in your bed."
Shit. "No, Neji, it's not what you think—"
"—Do you love him?"
Running his hands over his face, Genma tried to calm his racing heart. How had this happened? How had this situation gotten so completely and utterly screwed up?
"I care about Shikamaru as a friend, yes, as a comrade. Not as…"
He trailed off as Neji turned back to look at him. "Does he love you?"
"No! Bloody hell, Neji, he loves you!"
"He hates me."
Confusion pulled at every part of Genma's mind. Shikamaru was stupid over Neji, everyone who knew him knew that. How could Neji be so blind? What was actually going on? Finally hearing things from Neji's perspective made Genma realize that maybe there was something pertinent to the story that he was missing.
"Why do you say that?"
His heart gave a soft pang as Neji's face pinched slightly and tears started to slip from those lovely gray-white eyes. The young jounin looked up into Genma's face and the pain the tokujō found there was so familiar it stopped his breath.
"Because he's angry with me," Neji murmured through his tears. "He has always been angry and disappointed in me."
"No," Genma murmured, "that can't be. Why do you believe that?"
"Because it's true," Neji's face went slack, even if the tears continued to stream down his face. He spoke in a voice that was so quiet, so anguished, that Genma had to come within inches of Neji's lips to hear it.
"We were together, our first time after months—years of dancing around it. For so long we were like pieces on a shogi board. Our paths were already planned and our lines were inevitably going to cross, but we took our time and savored the game. For several weeks it was perfect, I finally had something in my life that was just mine.
But then I was tasked to create the suppression jutsu. It took me weeks but I completed it, and when Shikamaru found out, he was furious. He said it went against everything I was trying to fight, everything that I stood against in my clan. I tried to explain but he wouldn't listen to me. And then he left.
He was gone for weeks. I didn't know if he was ever coming back and so I continued with the preparations. The night before Sasuke's sealing was planned, I heard he was back. I went to the ramen stand where he had met with Chouji. I was going to interrupt, take him somewhere quiet and explain the jutsu and the sealing…"
Neji took a shuddering breath. The tears had ceased, but his face was so full of pain and despair that Genma almost couldn't bear it.
"I heard him talking," Neji's voice was haggard, his breath hitching as he tried to speak. "He had been in Suna."
"What's in Suna?" Genma asked gently.
"Gaara," Neji said flatly. "He had gone back to Gaara because he was done with me. He was disappointed in me and angry because he thought I was doing the very thing that my clan had done to me, only worse. I was a hypocrite in his eyes.
I wanted to make him understand, but I was also hurt, and so I left. I didn't speak to him before the sealing, and then after that, I didn't care anymore."
Genma watched as Neji's body started to sag. The young Hyūga leaned against him as exhaustion began to overtake the side effects of the jutsu's release.
"What did you want to make Shikamaru understand?" Genma asked.
Neji coughed and spit blood into the grass before he continued. "I wanted to tell him that I created the jutsu with a failsafe, that it could be undone if I was the backup and I had a second. We could undo the seal and keep it a secret from the counsel. But I'm assuming my family anticipated that because Hinata has been on a diplomatic mission for almost two years now. I had also not anticipated that everyone involved would be sealed into silence.
…I had no way of telling him."
"Neji, you know that Shikamaru will understand," Genma said softly.
"No," grief welled up in Neji's pale eyes, "I've been cruel to him. He said that he never wants to see me again."
"You're wrong," Genma said, and took Neji by the shoulders. He pulled the younger man close and willed the Hyūga to meet his eyes. "You are so wrong. Shikamaru loves you more than life itself. He's an absolute fucking mess over you."
Neji shook his head. "I don't believe y—"
Turning from the Hyūga, Genma met with the impossibly wide eyes of Rock Lee. The young jounin was panting, his face shining with a thin layer of sweat.
"The emissaries from Iwagakure that Sakura sent for have come! I met with them a few miles down the road! They are filled with such vigor and were very enthusiastic about getting their message to us!"
Neji straightened next to Genma and ran the back of his bloody hand across his cheeks, "And?"
"It seems our mission timeframe has moved up! There is movement to the north and Rock's squads are meeting with us in one hour! They gave us coordinates!"
"Good work," Neji replied. "Make sure Sai erases the extra sigils. I'll check on Sasuke and make sure—"
"WAIT!" Lee held up a hand as if signaling for a halt.
"Are you…" Lee swallowed, and for a moment he seemed unsure. "I heard you speaking to Genma-san and I did not want to interrupt, because you have told me one-hundred and twelve times to not interrupt when you are having serious conversations. But I wanted to know if you were okay."
"Yes, Lee," Neji sighed, "I'm fine now."
Lee studied his friend carefully, his head cocking to the side, very birdlike, before he straightened, and then did the same movement again on the opposite side.
Genma watched, caught somewhere between amusement and complete awe. The way the two interacted was almost identical to the times he had seen Kakashi and Guy speak to each other. The friendship between the two young jounin was unique, but so genuine that it was practically flawless. They were opposites but complimented each other in many ways. It was wonderful to see that Neji had someone like that.
Beside him, Neji sighed again, "What is it, Lee?"
Lee straightened. "I was just observing. Are you sure you are all right?"
"Oh my fucking…" the Hyūga made a growling noise and then barked, "Yes!"
To Genma's surprise, or maybe not, Lee smiled wide.
"It is good to have you back, my friend. Let's go!"
With that, Lee dashed away in a blur of orange and green, while Genma and Neji were left regarding the spot he had just vacated.
"Don't say anything," Neji said, his face deadpan.
"I wasn't going to."
When Neji readied himself to leap up to the top shelf of the rock formations, Genma reached out and gently placed a hand on the younger man's bloody wrist.
"You know you're going to have to tell Shikamaru everything."
For several long moments, Neji merely stood. The after effects of the jutsu had worn off and now he was back in control and in check. On the outside, it was almost like he was back under. He was as still as the mesas surrounding them; as serene and calm on the surface as an untouched pool of water. However, now when Genma looked into those eyes, there was no longer nothingness. There was a wealth of pride and strength and feeling just behind that veil of milky-grey.
Genma understood now. He understood that there were storms of emotion hidden beneath that cool exterior. Hidden behind a mask.
Finally, Neji's pale eyes slid over to Genma and he nodded.
"I'll talk to him when we get home."
Satisfied, Genma let him go, watched him jump to the top of the tallest arch, and then followed.