Note: Themes are songs by James Blunt ("Stay the Night") and Third Eye Blind ("Motorcycle Drive-by"). Don't worry; this is just a horrifically long, but completed oneshot* before I get back to "A Wheel in Constant Motion." Once again, I'm proudest of the fact that everyone mentioned by name in this story, with three exceptions (one of whom is referred to without name in canon), exists in the "real" Naruto universe.
With the usual premise of a non-Uchiha massacre Alternate Universe with Itachi as an ANBU captain, except: Unusually for my writing, life is dandy in this one – i.e., the Sandaime is still alive but ready to retire as soon as Tsunade gets her shit together. Which, given how the Uchiha are very much around, is a little more complicated. As an added bonus, thanks to the low tragedy/death toll in this universe, Itachi doesn't have the Mangekyo Sharingan, and Tobi and Minato died together. Lots of people who should be dead are still very much alive. Plot, on the other hand, is taking a break (or trying to, despite this massive paragraph) for this attempt at … fluff? Like all my attempts at fluff, it ended up being oddly unfluffy. I TRIED.
It also ended up taking longer than I expected, so… Happy New Year! … Insert "belated" somewhere in this phrase. :P
Misc Japanese: Oyakodon is a rice bowl with chicken, onions, and an egg. Tonkatsu is pork cutlet. I'm also using Japanese honorifics in some places because it's difficult to show the sort of respect the suffix denotes merely by tone and the alternative is clunky.
*[Now uploaded in two parts.]
Careening through the universe
Your axis on a tilt, you're guiltless and free
I hope you take a piece of me with you
Two pairs of dark eyes stared steadily into each other. One pair was rheumy and squinting myopically, and so far, that one looked like it was winning. The sound of rustling leaves and the birds nesting in the branches of the tree outside drifted in from the open window, but neither they nor the cool air blowing into the room relieved the tension. The clock on the wall ticked loudly as the silence stretched on.
Eventually, one of the two occupants of the room blinked and spoke a single word: "Yes."
"How many?" was the grim question.
Utatane Koharu braced her wrinkled hands on the table between them. "Miss…Inuzuka," she said slowly, with a biting undertone, "how did you manage to make it to chuunin rank without being able to read?" A single, liver-spotted finger tracked the relevant lines on the document on the table. "No pets."
"They aren't pets, ma'am. They're ninken. Ninken are –"
"I was a kunoichi once, girl, I know what ninken are."
Hana bit her tongue. Koharu might be a prickly old woman, but she was a village elder, and on top of that, a village elder who owned an ideally situated apartment complex in Konoha, thanks to some well-placed relations who had left the place to her after their deaths. Unlike most apartment buildings with civilian owners, this one tended to make more allowances for its tenants. Having once been a kunoichi, Koharu allowed ninja to rent her apartments and dealt with everything that came with them – wasteful hot water bills (being deprived of long, refreshing showers on missions usually meant the returning ninja overindulged at home), odd hours, and various other (occasionally disturbing) quirks.
What Koharu did not put up with, apparently, was ninken.
Hana tried another angle. "Would you take in tenants with contract animals?"
Koharu's brows, thin as they were, formed a truly intimidating frown when they drew together. They both knew very well that Hatake Kakashi had once rented a unit in the building, and no less than eight ninken were signed over to his service.
"As I understand it, your dogs will be roaming the premises and more often present than not. So I'm afraid it wouldn't set a good precedent."
"Ma'am, I only need to rent this place for a few months, and then I'll be gone. Please understand – my relatives from the eastern valley won't stay past the wedding, which is already set to happen in early May." And Hana would rather try her luck with Koharu than attempt to budge the immovable obstacle that was Aunt Fuuko.
"So you're asking me to give up this spot to you instead of a permanent tenant?" Koharu's lips quirked. "On top of permitting your three dogs?"
"What do you have against dogs, anyway? They're ninken, ma'am. They won't bark at odd hours or frighten anyone around here unless it happens to be someone who faints on sight, and they might as well be family to me." Hana let out a breath. "I'm sorry for wasting your time." She stepped away from the table, intending to leave.
"Yuuhi Kurenai was a good tenant of mine, and she occupied this unit for over ten years… thirteen years today," said Koharu.
She stopped at the door.
"I'm trying to spare you some potential trouble, but I do take into account the fact that she referred you here. These apartments are first-come, first-serve, and admittedly, you were the first to inquire about it."
In fact, Kurenai had been the one who had tipped Hana off, after Hana had told her about the situation during their off-hours at the izakaya. The conversation had gotten around to discussing the presence of Hana's normally out-of-town relatives, who were staying for the better part of spring to help one of Hana's cousins plan a wedding. Not for the first time, Hana wished her family favored smaller, more tastefully subdued affairs, but with Fuuko as part of the family, that would never happen. It was going to be huge, boisterous, and crowded, and it necessitated the emptying of a couple of rooms to accommodate all the out-of-towners. Since Fuuko would be dealing with the actual work of planning and organizing, Hana had to temporarily remove her redundant self.
She would much rather find her own living space for those months than fight for a place to sit, anyway. Outdoors, there were always the woods, though it seemed silly to live there while within the village walls. The kennels were all very nice, but the ninken didn't deserve to be crowded just because their humans had briefly gone mad. (Hana also had no desire to spend whole weeks there, with all her equipment and basic toiletries. She loved the dogs, but just… no.)
Kurenai had given her a sympathetic look, and with another cup of shochu, her expression shifted from pensive, to conflicted, and back again. "You know… I'm moving out of my old apartment in a week. If you're interested, I would recommend that you talk to the owner about it as soon as possible."
Hana didn't ask where Kurenai was moving. The older kunoichi guarded her privacy fiercely, and besides, Hana's nose told her everything. Kurenai's most likely destination was the home of Sarutobi Asuma, considering she was carrying his child. It would start to show in a few more months, but until then, Hana would respect her friend's wishes and mention nothing.
Koharu had been proving incredibly frustrating, though. The day after their initial meeting, she had summoned Hana with the news that someone else had asked after any available apartments. Clearly, news traveled fast.
Now, Hana waited tensely to see if Koharu would honor her usual policy. After all, she had asked the woman about the apartment first, even if she hadn't decided for sure on the apartment before the second inquiry came in.
What had she been holding out for, anyway? Koharu's apartment complex was really the best option available.
"I'm going to let you sign the lease," said Koharu at last. "It's better than letting this drag on."
A weight seemed to fall from Hana's shoulders. She picked up the pen and turned the papers around before the woman could change her mind.
Koharu kept talking as she scrawled her signature and the date. "Pay your bills promptly at the end of every month and we won't have to see each other again. Your deposit will be subtracted from the first one." She seized the last sheet just as Hana finished writing the year and scanned it. "The other one's your copy. Remember, utilities are included only within reason. Now, I have somewhere else to be. You can see yourself out the door."
That was a lot of trust. Then again, Hana thought wryly, Koharu could bring the full weight of the village council down on Hana if she so pleased. "Thank you, ma'am," she called after her.
The woman snorted. "You might not be thanking me when all's said and done."
Hana didn't really appreciate her new landlady's pessimism, but being Hana, she didn't dwell on it. There were other more pressing matters to deal with, such as figuring out how to pay the rent.
Missions were a good source of income, and the rest of Hana's family gladly supported each other as needed. But forty percent of mission paychecks went towards taking care of the ninken, who couldn't very well barter or shop for themselves, and it seemed churlish to rely on relatives who were already shelling out for cousin Chigako's wedding. After all, Hana could continue living at home for the duration… she just didn't want to.
She decided to drop by the jounin headquarters first thing before lunch. Even though she held chuunin rank, there were usually job listings on the general bulletin that were open to chuunin and jounin alike, and a mixed company of ninja took advantage of the rec room.
When she walked in, a few friends had already gathered there to mock the contents of a small book in Yamashiro Aoba's hand.
"Damn," Aoba said, "what does a body have to do to earn a page in Kiri's Bingo Book?"
"I see a baseline of forty-five child murders," said Mitarashi Anko, who was reading over Aoba's shoulder from her perch on the couch's arm. Her head turned. "Hey, Hana, come take a look at this one. Makes you understand why he hid his face with a mask the last time we ran into him in Grass."
"Forty five is just about the size of a graduating class," observed Ebisu. He normally hovered by the coffee machines so that no one who wanted caffeine could evade him, but it was noon, and so he had to stalk closer to express himself satisfactorily. "That must be the final exam for the Kiri Ninja Academy. You'll notice that these criminals are the right age to have participated before Zabuza's slaughter convinced the elders to change policy…"
Kotetsu yawned extravagantly and caught Hana's eye. "Yeah, so what brings you here, Hana?"
She gestured at the bulletin. "Looking for something to do, as it were."
Hagane Kotetsu was a friend Hana had made through Genma in a chance encounter eight years ago. Genma had proctored the second part of her chuunin exam – a first for both of them – and they had run into each other at a soba stand. Genma had started their introduction by saying, "Kotetsu, cover my meal and we'll call it even." It turned out that they had started a bet while en route to the food stalls. Hana could have warned Kotetsu against it, had they already been acquainted. Genma's betting pool tended to be skewed in exactly one person's favor – Shiranui Genma's. But she soon found out, from Genma himself, that Kotetsu was one of his longtime victims.
The other notable thing about Kotetsu was the bandage that spanned his cheekbones. He hadn't always had it, but when it stayed on for more than three weeks after its initial appearance, Hana finally asked him about it.
"Couple weeks back, I got slashed across the face on a mission," Kotetsu had explained. "Now that part of my face sunburns real easy."
"Sorry to hear," said Hana.
The man had sighed. "You just think I'm vain, don't you."
To which Hana had said, "No, not at all," gesturing at the bandage with her chopsticks. "If you were vain, that wouldn't be there."
Kamizuki Izumo, who had been present at the time, muffled his laughter in his oyakodon. Kotetsu's eyes had widened piteously in a poor simulation of the wobbly look of young puppies. It had been a singularly hideous sight.
"Look." Kotetsu jerked his head at the door connecting the rec room with the corridor that lead to the administrative offices. "Iruka seems like he'd appreciate some help."
Umino Iruka slunk into the room with a decided slump to his shoulders. It was so unusual for the chuunin to look less than moderately happy that eyebrows lifted and Anko hailed him with, "Iruka, did one of the midgets die or something?"
"Noo…" He dragged the word out until he had fallen into the seat on the other end of the couch like a ragdoll. "ANBU reports have been pouring in all day today, just when it's my rotation on filing duty."
"That's rough, man," Kotetsu offered.
Ebisu nodded sagely. "It's almost the anniversary of the end of the Third War. Hokage-sama is letting everyone return to observe tradition and pay respects," he explained to no one in particular. "Of course he would wish to extend the opportunity to as many of the ANBU as possible."
Iruka sighed, pulling out the elastic in his hair to rub his scalp. "Well, it's not just the ANBU, but their reports are the worst to file."
Hana had vague memories of her rotations in filing duty as a chuunin, before she managed to get herself largely removed from the roster (except for rare occasions). Filing was tedious at best, confusing at worst. ANBU reports in particular fell under multiple categories (straight-up infiltration, investigations for external and internal security, assassination types A to D, and so on) and there were two to three copies of each report for ascending levels of security clearance. She'd had to write a few memos to go with them in the past, and figuring out what information to cut at each stage had been an absolute chore. Had she stayed on, she might have gotten more training and a higher level of clearance that allowed her to deal with even more stringently classified information. Iruka had been one of the unlucky ones trapped in the system.
"Think of it this way," Aoba was saying, "You get, what, almost five thousand ryo a day for putting reports in files, and if you finish early, that's a better pay rate by the hour than a crappy B-class mission."
"I suppose. It just never ends…"
Hana glanced over her shoulder at the shinobi who was presently slumped on the couch and pinching the bridge of his nose. Close to five thousand a day… That would cover any bleed-over expenses. "Hey, Iruka, do you know if the Hokage would be willing to hire more part-time staff to do filing?"
Hana looked thoughtful. "I might know someone."
The Haimaru brothers wandered through the apartment's rooms as Hana unpacked her three boxes. A few years on a steady stream of C- and B-class missions had taught her how to pack light. The last box contained only a tightly-rolled futon and spare bedding.
"What do you think?" she asked the ninken.
"It smells friendly," noted Taisa, sniffing around the perimeter of the apartment. Hana had already started setting up a few traps by the windows and door, standard practice anytime she was sleeping outside of the Inuzuka house.
"Small," said Chusa, just to be contrary.
Shosa dashed onto the pale grey couch – which was among the several pieces of furniture that Kurenai had generously left behind – and turned in circles in delight at its softness. "Oh! I like this. I like this a lot. Kuromaru and Boss-Lady never let us sit on people-chairs." Boss-Lady was the Haimaru brothers' enduring name for Tsume, Hana's mother.
"So long as you keep yourselves clean, I'm fine with it." The three ninken nodded vigorously, assuring her that they would use the absorbent mat and shallow basin of water near the door to avoid tracking dirt all over the rooms.
Given the few possessions she had brought, it didn't take long for Hana to arrange everything to her liking. The apartment was as airy as Kurenai had kept it, and during the day, sunlight would brighten the lounge area and bedroom without choking the apartment in stifling heat. It really was quite ideal, and Hana looked around with a sense of satisfaction. She had no idea what Koharu had intended by that cryptic parting remark. Probably hoped Hana would step down and let her give the lease to the other person, the one intending to move in permanently.
The first four days went by in a peaceful sort of way, which was a contrast to how Hana's home life had become. The neighborhood tended to be quieter than the Inuzuka house was on a regular basis. While Hana made an extra effort to check in on Kiba and the ninken, he was often training with his team, and by and large, the dogs were doing well without her, only they missed the attention. It was a humbling discovery.
With extra time on her hands, Hana took on more missions in addition to filing duty. On her return from an escort mission to the southern coast of Fire, Hana discovered that the tenant of the unit directly above hers was none other than Gekko Hayate. He and Yuugao had been going steady for years, but Hana didn't know her boyfriend that well, so it seemed like an agreeable coincidence when they ran into each other on the stairs.
Hayate was carrying three moving bags. It was a mildly clumsy process due to the lack of elevators in the building. Fortunately, Hayate only lived on the fourth floor. Hana took one of the bags, and they talked as they descended the stairs. Hayate paused intermittently to cough.
"Have you gotten that looked at?" Hana asked. The man looked like he was an insomniac on top of whatever was eating at his lungs, what with the black eyebags.
Hayate eyed her warily, but evidently Yuugao had given him a decent enough impression of Hana. "I'm moving a bit closer to Konoha General Hospital," he said quietly. "Yuugao asked me to."
Hana frowned. "Oh, I hope it's not serious."
He shrugged. "It's probably genetic. My father died hacking out his lungs." Hayate didn't seem to register that he had said something rather morbid. Well, his girlfriend was in the ANBU. "I did enjoy living here, though."
"Yes, it's nice and quiet."
"And it's as close to the most important buildings in Konoha as you can get without being too near the police headquarters," said Hayate.
Hana laughed, surprised by the spark of humor in his eyes. "True enough."
The Uchiha clan dominated Konoha's police force, and while no one would deny that they did their job fairly well, most of them tended to have an abrasive manner. The clan heir was an ANBU captain, and according to Yuugao and a few other of Hana's friends in the division, he was usually alright, but that was one person out of a hundred Uchiha.
"Maybe that's why it's so nice and quiet." They parted ways outside the building, heading in opposite directions.
When Hana came back from her next mission, dawn had just broken and the sky was lightening to a grayish cobalt blue. A week had passed since Hayate's move out, and Hana was trudging up the stairs, letting her chakra return to normal levels, when she thought of Hayate and wondered if Yuugao would be in town later for drinks.
She didn't hear a second set of footsteps, but the tiny breeze generated by the swinging door of the stairwell made her aware of another person heading up the stairs.
"Good morning," she said, just as he was about to pass her.
His shoulder brushed past hers. The odors of pine needles, blood, dirt, and sweat threaded through the air.
No reciprocal 'good morning' would have been alright, but saying 'excuse me' for jostling someone else didn't take that much effort. Hana rolled her eyes and pulled open the door at the third floor, muttering, "Excuse you, mister."
She turned in the direction of her apartment. Someone was standing less than half a meter away, so close that at first she only saw his nose.
"Gah!" thought Hana. At least she hadn't said it aloud.
"Excuse me, Inuzuka," he said, not sounding as though he wanted to be excused at all. Hana took in the charcoal grey eyes, black hair, and straight-backed posture. An Uchiha. He had probably read her name off the plaque above the doorbell.
"Oh, you didn't have to stop by just to say that." Especially since he clearly didn't mean it.
"Inuzuka, I'm very tired." How did he imbue such a neutral non-expression with so much irritation? "Sometimes it's better if I don't talk."
Translation: I don't think you're worth the spit it takes to be halfway polite.
Hana nodded, watching him head for the stairwell before digging out her keys. "I just hope you don't cry yourself to sleep around the silver spoon in your mouth, Uchiha," she murmured. So he had just returned from a mission – so what? She herself felt cranky and exhausted.
"Would you like to repeat that?" said a cool voice close behind her. He hadn't continued up the stairs yet, after all.
Suppressing a sigh, Hana glanced over her shoulder. "No," she said clearly. "Since you obviously heard what I said. Good day, Uchiha." She walked in and closed the door after her.
Hayate would have been a better neighbor.
By and large, the other residents of the adjacent apartments seemed agreeable. Natori, a young shinobi who worked in the Konoha Aviary, expounded on the fastest messenger birds from different villages when Hana came across him in the laundry room, and promised to drop by if any of Konoha's own needed medical aid. Tenten, a quiet but generally cheerful looking kunoichi in the year before Kiba, lived in the apartment diagonally across from Hana's, and usually said hello in the mornings before leaving for a run or a sparring session. There were a few others that Hana had seen around before but whose names she hadn't yet learned, but she hardly expected introductions.
She met up with Kurenai and Yuugao one evening for drinks. Kurenai looked pleased when Hana told her how much she liked the apartment. "I'm glad it's to your liking. When I was moving out, I worried that someone who wouldn't know how to appreciate the apartment would move in."
"I like the view," volunteered Chusa from somewhere around their knees. Kurenai smiled and leaned down from the elevated stool to scratch him behind the ears.
"Chusa, you're looking a little pudgier," she teased.
"I keep telling him that," said Hana. Taisa and Shosa whined, wanting their share of attention. The problem with hanging out with old friends who remembered the Haimaru brothers as puppies was that the ninken didn't care if they embarrassed themselves. "Alright, behave." To Kurenai, she admitted, "It gets so that I don't want to leave the apartment until after the sun rises."
"Have you ever been in the bedroom in the evenings? You can see the sun set over the Hokage Monument. Asuma brags that his place has a better view, but I don't think so."
She didn't seem to notice her slip, though Yuugao, arriving late at the bar, raised her eyebrows at Hana, who gave her a half-smile and asked, "How is Hayate doing?"
"Barely functioning and corpse-like, as usual," said Yuugao fondly. Even so, some genuine concern crept into her voice. "Tsunade-sama is busy attending councils these days, but her apprentice did a biopsy recently… we'll know what she finds out next weekend."
"Sakura knows what she's doing," agreed Hana. She had been impressed the last time she had visited the clinic. An Iwa nin had disrupted the chakra circulation in her right arm, and Sakura, for all her youth and relative inexperience, had both located the minute blockage and healed it in record speed. Hana's arm had recovered as if nothing had ever happened.
Yuugao ordered a bottle of sake and returned her attention to Hana. "As for me, I really appreciate this break from missions for once. More time to see Hayate, and, well, considering the last assignment…"
Kurenai looked faintly curious. "Considering, Yuugao…?"
Yuugao sighed. "This isn't classified, or even all that new, but it was just twice as hard to work with Itachi as squad leader than usual. I think he was having problems getting that place he wanted."
Hana paused on the verge of sipping from her cup. "I didn't know he was looking for a place." Why would he? The Uchiha Compound probably had a billion extra rooms, and definitely accommodations for the clan heir.
"Yes, and a grumpy captain doesn't a pleasant mission make. Granted, it's not his job to make it pleasant, but it could have gone better. Hopefully, his mood will have improved by the next time I'm placed on his team."
Kurenai had a wistful expression. "I miss assignments like those. Not that I can't sign up for them, now that my old cell is no longer genin…" Yuugao and Hana refrained from commenting on the second slip. Of course Kurenai didn't want to risk it.
The conversation shifted to reminiscing. Hana spared a thought for Yuugao's startling information. Itachi could very well be the irritable Uchiha whom she had encountered in the stairwell. Nearly two weeks removed from the incident, however, she had a better perspective. Whatever his reasons for seeking an apartment, it would have been very easy for Itachi to pull some strings and get what he wanted, but he hadn't. On the other hand, it didn't take a genius to see that Hana had been unconscionably rude herself. Now that the Uchiha was back in town, she couldn't let things stand as they were.
Instead of leaving the stairs on the third floor that evening, Hana climbed an extra flight and came out on the fourth. The fourth-floor hallway was the spitting image of the third, lit by dim ceiling lights and furnished with a single, narrow table and notice board (NO FLYERS ALLOWED – Utatane Koharu). A rough, durable carpet covered the floor.
On the surface, nothing distinguished Unit 4-2 from the other apartments. Same squarish doorbell, unremarkable white door, and frosted name plaque. The slip of paper that was supposed to have the tenant's name was missing from the plaque, but all the other units had names, so this one had to be Itachi's.
But this was Uchiha Itachi's unit, the apartment of an ANBU captain, so it couldn't be that simple. If Hana stepped up to the door, or even breathed over the doorbell, all hell could break loose. Kiba had once told her the legendary catastrophe that had come of Team 7 trying to surprise its instructor in his bed, and Hatake Kakashi was ex-ANBU.
After a few minutes of careful consideration, Hana tested the defenses around the entrance with a length of wire and a kunai in dire need of sharpening. A light impact on the wooden door met with a faint clanging sound – possibly a concealed defense with which all the apartment doors were equipped, thanks to Koharu's sensibilities. When nothing else occurred, Hana targeted the floor directly in front of the door, the doorbell (it rang inside the apartment; no one answered), and started infusing chakra into the kunai in case the traps activated upon sensing foreign chakra.
The methodical experimenting so absorbed Hana's attention that fifteen minutes flew by.
"What are you doing?"
She reeled the kunai into her hands and spun around. How embarrassing. No one should have been able to sneak up on her, especially without masking his scent.
"Oh, I've been meaning to talk to you," she said, recovering.
Itachi tilted his head slightly, looking impatient and expectant all at once. "That wasn't my question."
"I didn't know if you had set up anything," Hana explained. "Running a few trials with a ranged weapon seemed safer." It sounded idiotic now. Hana had gotten caught up in the task itself, though she could hardly admit it.
"Did you ever try knocking on the door?"
Novel idea. "No, but the doorbell rang and no one answered, so I concluded that you were out."
"But you continued regardless?"
"Well, I was planning to come back later and ring the doorbell and so on, so I thought I might as well make sure it's not hazardous."
She bit the inside of her cheek. "I think so." She had even asked the Haimaru brothers to head home ahead of her, not wanting it to feel like a confrontation. It could still turn into one. "Look, Uchiha, I came to apologize. I'm sorry for what I said earlier." Attacking him for life circumstances he didn't control had been out of line, no matter how he behaved. "I was raised better than that."
She glanced up at his eyes warily – one should always exercise caution around Uchiha in case they felt like doing funny things with their Sharingan – and saw from his expression that she'd startled him. Just a little, but even so.
"Apology accepted," said Itachi. A beat passed.
Oh. He wasn't planning on reciprocating. "Ok, I'm done here, so… have a nice day." Hana went down the stairs, back to where the normal people lived.
They ran into each other again that week. Iruka had left her alone in the filing room, asking her if she wanted him to bring back anything (tonkatsu, please) while she worked through the lunch hour. It turned out that the office was perpetually understaffed because a fair number of chuunin skived off filing duty, leaving responsible chuunin like Iruka to pick up the slack. Half of Hana's motivation was the extra pay; the other half might have been a guilty conscience.
Hana paused to shove a strand of hair behind her ear and heard someone ring the bell at the desk up front. "Just a second!"
Itachi was in one of those black, wide-collared Uchiha shirts that would never be in style. His clan really did know how to make every family member look exactly alike; only his scent enabled Hana to identify him at once.
His eyes flitted past her momentarily. "Afternoon. Where's Iruka?"
He does learn manners! "Out for lunch. Do you have a report to submit?"
One copy must have already reached the Hokage. The other, an eleven-page affair that must have been a pain to write up, landed in her hands with the cover sheet on top.
"Thank you. Have a nice day."
He looked about to leave, but something in her overly – or rather, mockingly – courteous farewell turned him around. "Why are you doing filing work, if I may ask?"
Ask politely, and you'll get answers. Hana figured that operant conditioning was a good way to reinforce his good manners. "It helps pay the rent."
Itachi was only slightly taller than her, but he could make it feel like a lot by subtly leaning in. The hairs on the back of Hana's neck stood on end. "Why did you move into the Utatane apartments?"
"Some visiting relatives took my room, so… not many other places to go, really. You?" she added impulsively.
He ignored the question. "Couldn't you have moved in with some relatives instead?"
She expelled her breath in an annoyed sigh. "It's not like we have a ton of spare rooms, so no." Unlike some clans in Konoha. "Why didn't you do that yourself?"
"Have a nice day," said Itachi, and left.
Way to go, Uchiha. They'd almost had a pleasant, normal conversation there. "Baby steps," Hana muttered, withdrawing to the filing cabinets with the report.
"No," shouted the future bride, "I don't want real flowers in the centerpiece – I told you that I'm allergic!"
"Peace lilies are hypoallergenic!" Aunt Fuuko shoved the potted sample in cousin Chigako's face to prove her point. "You see? Just smell them –"
"Delicious," said Fuuko's bulldog, chomping on the spice sticks that had been shipped with the flower samples and now lay scattered and crushed underfoot.
Hana wove her way through the chaos of relatives and canines in the courtyard to the back of the house. Even though she didn't live in the house right now, she still received patients in the shed beside the kennels.
Luckily, Kakashi hadn't yet given it up for a lost cause. She ushered the white and brown dog sitting at his heels into the shed with her and leaned the door shut to block out the noise.
"Hey, Urushi. Long time no see." The ninken wagged his tail, his tongue lolling out. Despite his fierce eyes, Urushi was really friendly at heart. "Can you walk in a circle for me?"
While she observed Urushi's movements, she said, "Sorry about… all that, Kakashi. It's not usually that bad."
Kakashi shrugged, seemingly unconcerned. He had put away his little orange book, though, to scrutinize Urushi's gait. "He said it was his left foreleg."
"Yes, he's holding it a bit stiff."
"Pakkun also had something to ask you."
Pakkun… that was the small brown dog with doleful eyes who had become the first of Kakashi's adoptive ninken. "What about?"
"A friend of a friend of his," began Kakashi with the dutiful air of someone quoting, "wanted to know if the white dog with the black spot on her ear liked beef more or pork. Or was it the black dog with the white spot?" he wondered.
Hana was pretty sure Kakashi had gotten it wrong. "Is that what he said? There's Shiromaru and Aomaru. White dog with a black spot on the ear, black dog with a white spot… but they're both male."
There was a lull. Either Kakashi was terrible at small talk or he couldn't bring himself to care. Probably the latter.
Hana checked the articulation of Urushi's foreleg with a few more exercises, reminded of those times when Kiba rushed into her room with a barrage of worried questions about Akamaru's latest injury. At present, her brother was out training again (who wouldn't, given the ruckus taking place just outside?), and it led her to comment lightly, "I hope you're not running from your students. Sakura said that you tend to be a little… elusive." Not in so many words.
"You mustn't believe everything you hear," he said modestly.
Hana folded her arms. "Actually, do you still keep up with your students? How are they?"
"Monstrous as ever." His cheerful smile – more of a combination of eye-crinkle and extrapolation from the wrinkled fabric of his mask – slipped as he remembered, "They're probably waiting for me at the southern gate."
"When did you agree to meet?"
"Eight a.m." It was ten-thirty. "It'll be another hour before Sakura goes ballistic. The two other ones will keep." He sounded as though he was talking about fruit.
"And what do you call this lesson?"
"Do they usually wait for you until noon or do they set off and assume you'll catch up?" After all, all three were chuunin already, and if the clan had its way, Sasuke would probably be the first of his year to become jounin. (Kiba was mildly indignant about that.)
Kakashi scratched his head. "Yes."
She gave up; the Copy Ninja wasn't the type to divulge real information casually. Urushi promised not to strain his leg by sprinting or giving it too much strenuous exercise until the fracture fully healed. "That might mean you have to sit out for a few things when Kakashi summons you, ok? And you –"
Kakashi managed to widen his heavy-lidded eye in an easily interpretable look of who, me?
"Make sure he does sit it out," finished Hana. "Give it two or three more weeks, and Urushi should be able to use it normally. I'd be happier if you two came around for another checkup, though."
"See you around, Kakashi." Hana turned and gave the shed a look-over. It really needed cleaning, but she didn't feel like it. And – oh. Kakashi's scent hadn't skipped out the dusty yard. "Is there anything else I can do for you?"
The man tilted his head. "Is there a reason you smell a little like my student?"
She blinked. "Who?"
The man really had an incredible sense of smell for a non-Inuzuka. "I don't know what you're talking about," Hana said blandly. She could come up with better excuses, but Kakashi sometimes deserved his own medicine.
"Ah, well." He looked about to let the subject drop, but right at the threshold, he added wickedly, "It's just that for a moment, I thought I smelled Uchiha Itachi on you."
"That's because I recently gave him a great… big… hug," Hana deadpanned, watching his single visible eye widen fractionally until the final word – just as unbelievable as whatever dirty thing he might have been imagining – fell on his ears. "I was feeling down, and Itachi is a gentle soul filled with sunlight and compassion, as you must know. He's very huggable, when you need a hug."
"I'll keep that in mind." Had Kakashi just shuddered?
Hana looked at him seriously. Maybe she'd laid it on too thick. "He's probably just misunderstood and socially awkward," she said more kindly. "Like some other people I know."
Now Kakashi was shifting his weight to a different foot. "Huh," he drawled in the same flat tone. "Look at the time. I should get going. Thanks for taking a look at Urushi, Hana. it was nice talking to you,."
"Bye!" said Urushi.
"Take care," Hana called after him. The two were gone before she could wave. She probably deserved a badge of honor for successfully freaking out an ANBU vet. And sidetracking him from the information he wanted.
Everyone had his or her own way of coping with stress.
That was what Hana told herself five days ago, when a loud crashing sound came through the ceiling, or the floor of the apartment above hers. It sounded like a piece of furniture falling over, or someone throwing a heavy projectile. What Itachi did in his own space was his business, unless he kept up the midnight shot-put practices. He didn't, so Hana didn't end up dragging herself out of bed after all.
What she couldn't walk away from, however, was a sopping wet Itachi with blood all over his face.
The night before Urushi's appointment, Hana had decided to mix up her post-mission routine by loading up on groceries from the modest, open twenty-four seven supermarket near the restaurant district. A sudden rain took the spontaneous fun out of the trip, and Hana arrived back at the building far damper than she had planned.
It was an odd hour to be up, meaning that, as usual, one of Koharu's night-owl tenants was returning, either from loitering around a bar or completing a mission. She wouldn't have looked up in the stairwell (the not-my-business policy had been keeping the peace so well) but for the sharp, metallic odor that drifted to her nose. And then she had been horrified, in a detached kind of way, by the sight of him. He hadn't even gone to the ANBU Compound to remove his uniform, which – as Yuugao had once mentioned – no one was supposed to wear when off-duty, or without also wearing the mask.
He paused near the top of the third flight of stairs. For an instant, Hana feared that he couldn't see her at all – a devastating turn of events for someone with his kind of bloodline limit – but then he blinked slowly, and the illusion sloughed off.
"You shouldn't be walking around like that," she heard someone say with her voice, intending to offer to escort him to the hospital or nag him until he reached the ANBU Compound. "Why don't you come upstairs? I'll make some tea."
Stupid Hana. She didn't even know why she had offered tea. Her own mother didn't say that when her kids were upset. Tsume usually sent them outside to kill a practice dummy or something until they felt human again.
Taisa thrust his head out before the door had fully opened; his brothers circled Hana anxiously, then stared at Itachi. Relax, she signaled to them, kicking off her sandals. "Come in. I'll get a towel."
By the time she reemerged with towels, Itachi had removed his sandals and rearranged her pair as well so that the toes pointed at the door. He had been raised with good manners, too, she noticed; he just didn't show their verbal counterpart all that much.
He rubbed his hair dry with the first towel and wiped away some of the blood on his face with the smaller one that Hana had rinsed under the faucet. She directed him to the couch before heading to the kitchen to check if the electric water dispenser was empty.
The sky outside was a surreal navy blue that went well with the blinking numbers – three-fifty-seven a.m. – on the digital clock atop the bookshelf.
She left the teapot on the counter and brought over two cups, handing one to Itachi. His cold fingers brushed hers as he took it. Rather than sit down next to him, she took the seat at the far end by the window. Any other person would look like he needed a hug; Itachi looked like he needed his space.
"Do you need to go to the hospital?" she ventured.
He shook his head; the floor lamp painted highlights in his hair, still silky and damp from the rain. Now that his face had been cleaned of blood, Hana could see for herself that he had no cuts on his cheek. The blood hadn't been his. His breathing sounded regular from where she sat, so the dark, angled flecks on his uniform also came from someone else's wound. His armguards looked filthy, even in the gentle light. Still, something felt off about him, and Hana didn't know him well enough to tell what it was.
At a loss for something else to do, she sipped from her cup, nearly scalding her tongue. She hoped Itachi didn't care what kind of tea it was. She didn't drink it that often and had never developed much preference for any particular kind.
Itachi drank his tea, which meant he didn't consider it toxic, at least.
Uchiha Itachi was exactly the kind of high profile figure about whom Hana had heard a lot of hearsay but not a comparable amount of verified information. She didn't pay that much attention to politics or gossip, and most of what reached her ears was inexact and filtered through twenty different opinions. One thing she did know, though, was that Yuugao had claimed this particular Uchiha was a decent sort, and now that she had a good look at him, Hana thought he had to be pretty young – her age, give or take a year.
And then his gaze suddenly swung around to focus on her, grey and inscrutable, and her mind backpedaled – No, oh no;she was wrong. Even though they were both old enough to remember the bloodshed and anarchy of the Third Secret World War, Itachi looked much older than Hana. Yuugao got that look sometimes.
"Why?" he asked flatly.
She needed no further context to complete the question she had been asking herself. Itachi made her feel uncomfortably tense; she had never cared to examine why. Yet she had invited him into the apartment.
"You could say that I have a sense of civic duty, and I didn't want you to frighten the next person going up the stairs."
"Am I that frightening to you, Inuzuka?"
The smile on his face was faint, but unmistakable. Hana couldn't pretend she didn't see it. Her heartbeat stuttered. You had blood all over your face, she began in her head, trying to formulate a coherent retort; it would have startled anyone.
"I don't generally invite things that frighten me into the house," she said. "That would hardly be logical."
"Then that brings us back to the question of why you extended the invitation at all." He turned the cup around in his fingers. Hana found herself watching its motion instead of meeting Itachi's eyes. "Unless you mean that you believed negative consequences would follow if someone else saw me in this state."
"If you say so." If she gave that answer to Kiba these days, her brother would simply stride out the door in frustration. Itachi probably wouldn't do that, but in starting to imagine it, Hana realized that she didn't want to leave him with that reply. "It's not just that, Uchiha. I think anyone who stumbles into a building dripping blood and rainwater, no matter how irritating he may find it, deserves to hear at least one other person ask him if he's ok."
When Itachi said nothing for a long time, she stole a look at his face. He had turned his head to look at the window, watching the rain slide down the other side of the glass.
"Would you like some more tea?"
He stood up, passing the cup to her. "I should go."
"Alright." Hana took the cups to the kitchen. "You can leave the towels over there." What a bizarre night – or morning, if you went by the clock. She almost expected him to cut her off with a Have a nice day and walk out without further comment.
"Thank you." A pause. "I left stains on one of your towels."
"Don't worry about it, Uchiha."
"It's Itachi. You used it before."
Hana looked up from drying the washed cups, but he had already closed the door behind him.