Kakashi eyed up the tree where Sasuke had finally dug himself in after vanishing from the hospital roof and stifled a sigh. Every team, he reminded himself, was it’s own unique experience. It was only his imagination that this year’s Seven was deliberately working to be especially so.
He climbed quietly up on Sasuke from behind, and really the boy needed to break that habit of ignoring his surroundings when he brooded. At least he’d put his back to something solid this time. Kakashi supposed that was progress of sorts. “Hey.”
Silence. Not even a twitch among the dappled, gold leaf shadows.
Kakashi found a branch a quarter turn around the tree, leaned on the trunk, and propped a casual foot against it–the better to propel himself out of the way if Sasuke lost it again and went for Kakashi like he had for Naruto. “You shouldn’t really be out of the hospital yet,” he tried, speaking from his own lingering aches and twinges. Itachi’s Tsukuyomi had lasting after-effects, which, he was guessing, had been a lot of the reason for the fight. “The medics get upset about losing track of a patient.”
More silence. Kakashi checked off approaches, in his head, that had already failed in the last twenty-four hours, and settled on a blatant appeal to sentiment. Surely there must still be a little of that, after the past year.
“People worry, you know.”
“Then they don’t understand,” Sasuke finally answered, flat.
A flash of familiar exasperation tightened Kakashi’s mouth behind his mask, but he didn’t think an admonition to grow up already would go over very well right now. Not right after Sasuke had faced his brother and been reminded of that bloody night all over again.
Actually… maybe that was the best place to start after all. To show that someone did understand. Now he thought about it, maybe he should have started there a year ago. At the time, he hadn’t known just how much Sasuke himself had seen that night; he should have re-evaluated when he’d found out.
“I was ANBU then, you know. I was on the squad that was sent out to hunt after Itachi that night,” he said, staring out through the branches and over the roofs of the nearby apartments, seeing again the blood spattered and pooled relentlessly all the way across a compound that took up a sixth part of the village. “We started from the compound, to see if we could pick up any hints of where he might be going.” And every member of the squad had come back from that mission dead-eyed, cold down to the marrow. Two had turned in their masks that year; Kakashi had been one of them.
“They weren’t your family.”
A finger of cold slid down Kakashi’s spine, because Sasuke’s empty, even tone was a perfect match for the way most of the team had spoken that night, as they sifted bodies and parts of bodies for the track of madness. “No, they weren’t.” He took a breath against the memories, wondering what memories Sasuke was looking into, starting to be afraid that he’d drastically misjudged his own student’s state of mind all this year. But the words reminded him of when it had been his parents, and that suggested another step he could take. Slowly, feeling his way into what this might mean, he said, “There are people in this village who have walked into blood and death like that. There are people who know the pain of betrayal by their own friends, their own team, even their own blood. There are people who fought for nothing but revenge, though not many who lived in the end. They fought in the Third War.” His voice was soft, now, realizing the truth at the same time he spoke it. “That’s what you’ve seen. What you’ve been in since that night. War.”
Leaves rustled beside him and he looked over to see Sasuke finally looking up at him. And just maybe he knew how to answer the blankness in those eyes, now. “There are people in this village who know what that’s like. And who can tell you some of how to survive it.”
“I don’t care if I survive,” Sasuke cut back, low and intent, “as long as I kill Itachi.”
Kakashi looked down at him, thoughtfully, for a long moment. He hadn’t been able to turn Sasuke away from that determination. If he’d understood sooner where Sasuke’s head and heart were, he might not even have tried. If this had been war time and a comrade had said that to him…
“Do you care if you die before you get to him?” he asked, cool. “That’s where you’re headed right now.” In war… in war, he would even have let one of his squad members use a curse seal–just not unawares. Not without understanding exactly what it meant.
“I need more power!” Sasuke flared up. “It’s always going to be a risk, but I need more!”
Kakashi leaned back against the tree, sure of his way now. “There’s always more power to be had, if you look for it.” He snorted as Sasuke stared at him. “Power isn’t the hard part. What you need right now, to keep you alive long enough to strike your target, is an anchor.”
“An anchor? What the hell good is something that holds me back going to do?!”
Kakashi waved a hand, increasingly cheerful as he exasperated his student further. Any emotion was an improvement right now–anything that got Sasuke out of that dead, blood-dripping place in his head. “You’re thinking about it the wrong way. Not an anchor that you have to carry with you in a race. An anchor that can hold you against the current.” He glanced down again, eye as dark and hard as it would be while he laid down mission parameters for one of his squads, and watched Sasuke still in response. “You don’t need to run toward revenge. Revenge is a rogue river in flood; it will take you to the end, like it or not. What you need is a way to not drown. Something to hang on to so you can pull yourself out when you’re going under and dry off and rest your muscles before you dive in again.” Because Sasuke would dive in again, he could see that now. Better to forge him the anchor and trust his own blind determination to make him use it to keep himself alive.
“You’re talking about the team.” Sasuke eyed him mistrustfully. Not a surprise, that, after his vicious little set-to with Naruto.
Kakashi shrugged. “Maybe. For some people it’s their team. For some it’s their family or a lover. For some it’s the village. For some it’s something as simple as a pet. The thing you fight for, fight to come back to. Without that, you’ll drown and fail your mission.”
Of course, it was his team, for Sasuke. He had nothing else but them. But better to let Sasuke figure that out on his own.
…on the other hand, and considering Sasuke, there was nothing wrong with a little bit of a hint.
“We put people in teams in the first place because no one person can do everything it takes to complete a mission. Everyone has their weaknesses. You need to get out of the current. Naruto needs to stop running off the edge of cliffs. Sakura needs to trust herself to move. But your weakness is also your strength. You focus. Naruto doesn’t quit. And, because she stands still, Sakura sees more than either of you.” He cocked his head at Sasuke. “I said power is always handy if you look around for it. The fastest way to find it isn’t to ignore your weaknesses or even work to overcome them. It’s to use them. And that,” he added quietly, “is also the nature of war.”
Sasuke was staring at him now, eyes slowly widening, focusing again on his one goal; the goal, again, not his stubborn, muddled idea of the means. Kakashi hid a smile to see that. Maybe it wasn’t what would be healthy in a normal child, even a normal ninja child, but nothing in Sasuke’s life was especially normal.
“Survive. Use anything.” Abruptly Sasuke slammed a hand down on the branch under him, with such violence that it broke off and he had to cling to the trunk as it fell. He didn’t seem to notice, hunched like one of Fire Country’s great southern hunting cats against the tree. “That’s why! That’s why he said those things! So I wouldn’t see it, so I wouldn’t see how to win!”
“Who said?” Kakashi asked casually, hands poised to lock a knock-out seal around Sasuke if it turned out to be necessary.
“Itachi,” Sasuke hissed. “Live, he said. ‘Cling to your wretched life,’ he said.”
Kakashi took a slow breath, in and out through his nose, and knew anyone watching him right now would see exactly how angry he was, even with just one eye to judge from. So much for the imperturbable Hatake Kakashi. Of course, it was always his teams that had been able to get to him, too. “To make you ashamed of doing what any good shinobi would,” he murmured. “To blunt your edge.” He leaned abruptly around the turn of the tree and caught Sasuke’s shoulder in a hard grip, turning the boy to look at him. “Are you going to let him?” he demanded harshly.
Sasuke straightened, and that black gaze burned back at him. “No.”
Kakashi nodded, accepting his student’s determination. “All right, then. Back to the hospital to get you checked, and checked out. And then…” he smiled suddenly, behind his mask. “Then we go and find Sakura.”
Sasuke, who had already started to screw up his face in response to the part about the hospital blinked. “…Sakura?” He’d probably expected Naruto; Kakashi wondered when those two would admit just how much they defined themselves by each other.
“Of course,” Kakashi said, airly, waving Sasuke after him as he strolled back down the trunk. “I told you, you have a serious case of tunnel vision. You and Naruto are really very alike that way.” He smirked at the faint growl behind him; it was a competitive growl, again, not an infuriated one. “What you need is strategy, and that’s what Sakura is best at.”
“So, what, I learn it from her?” Sasuke hazarded.
“Nope.” Kakashi tilted his head back to look over his shoulder. “You learn to use that tunnel vision of yours, and you learn how to listen to her when she tells you where to aim it.”
Sasuke followed along, frowning to himself. A considerable improvement over homicidal rage toward his teammates, Kakashi congratulated himself. Indeed, he had to work a little not to whistle cheerfully as he strode along, hands in his pockets. If they could just come together again, then next year his team was going to sweep the chuunin exam like a broom. And by then maybe the inkling in the back of his head would have turned into an actual plan. He already had some thoughts about how it all needed to come together.
The only real question he could see was who would try to kill him first: Tsunade for the student he planned to give her, or Sasuke for the tutor Kakashi planned to give him.
As they turned down the dusty street to the hospital, he found himself whistling after all.
Four sets of eyes watched the two go, hidden among the leaves.
“Fuck,” Tayuya spat, disgusted. “There goes our chance.”
“The kid doesn’t have to come willingly,” Sakon murmured. “Orochimaru-sama just said to try that first, to keep it quiet. We’ll keep watching for an opening.”
They faded back into the shadows of the tiled roofs and were gone.
Kakashi and Sasuke stalked each other through the training ground, in and out of the trees, flickering through the shadows. Neither of them used any but physical techniques, for both of them had their Sharingan active. Sasuke had hesitated over that, but Kakashi wasn’t about to let the enemy deprive one of his subordinates of his strongest weapon and waited calmly until Sasuke gave in to the logic of the exercise and activated his too. The chuunin exam had done his students good, Kakashi observed; he had yet to spot Sakura, who was mission control for this exercise. If she honed this talent for stillness of hers, she would be second to none at infiltration some day.
Of course, he had yet to spot Naruto either, but that was most likely because the note informing the boy of his team’s renewed training was still chasing him around the village while he searched stubbornly for Sasuke.
He also hadn’t seen Tsunade, and he expected to know the minute she got his other note, the one about modifying his currently assigned mission. He hoped Naruto would get here first, so he could start things back on track with his team before he had to explain his logic to his new Hokage.
As if summoned by his thoughts, Naruto dashed out of the edge of the trees and screeched to a halt, looking around a little wildly. “Kakashi-sensei!”
Kakashi signaled a break, tugging his forehead protector down over his eye again, and smiled to himself as Sasuke touched down across the clearing, wary. “There you are. You know, punctuality is very important to a shinobi; you should work on that.” He let the smile show as both Sasuke and Naruto gave him identical looks of disbelief at the utter hypocrisy of Hatake Kakashi lecturing anyone on punctuality. It was important for a team to have common interests to bond over, after all.
The boys caught each other’s eyes and looked away.
Predictably, it was Naruto who offered the first peace overture; Kakashi had only had to teach him once about the value of a team. He jammed his fists into his pockets and looked sidelong at Sasuke. “You done being a jerk yet?” he muttered.
Sasuke stiffened. “I’m not…” He broke off. Whatever self-deception Sasuke sometimes indulged in, Kakashi acknowledged, even he could recognize that magnitude of untruth when it started to come out of his mouth. Sasuke looked down, mouth tight. Finally, softly, he said, “No. Probably not until Itachi is dead.”
At their age, that would have made Kakashi go bang his head against a rock a few times, but Naruto’s face cleared at once. “Well okay. As long as you’re just being a normal jerk.”
Sasuke looked up at that, expression blank for a breath. Slowly, though, the blankness melted into something sardonic and challenging. More edgy than usual, but closer to his normal expression than they’d seen all week. “As long as you’re being a normal idiot.”
They smirked at each other and Kakashi really couldn’t help rolling his eyes.
And in that sliver of distraction, Sakura popped out of her grass-covered dugout, eyes blazing in her dirt-smeared face, and slammed her hand down on a prepared seal. “Now!” she barked.
Sasuke whipped around in pure, unthinking response and drove a kunai toward Kakashi’s diaphragm.
Startled, from a cold start, snapshots of thought flashed through Kakashi’s mind. Sakura had never stopped watching. Sasuke had never de-activated his Sharingan. His elbow was coming down on Sasuke’s forearm with full force, and Sakura’s seal was slowing his responses, and he didn’t know if he could pull it in time–unintended consequences. The kunai kissed his ribs as he twisted. Sasuke wasn’t going to recover his stance in time to deflect the elbow strike.
Naruto’s foot struck his arm, pushing the blow harmlessly aside, and all three of them spun away from each other again.
Kakashi straightened, hand pressed to his ribs; the cut was shallow, but noticeable. “Well, now,” he murmured, and broke into a smile. “That was a bit more like it.”
Sakura actually punched the air with triumph before recalling herself and clasping her hands demurely. She couldn’t erase the grin on her face, though, and Sasuke nodded what might be thanks to her. More hesitantly, he glanced over at Naruto. “Your timing’s getting better,” he offered gruffly.
Naruto had his hands squarely on his hips and was glaring. “And yours is getting worse! What the hell was that?”
“That,” Kakashi intervened lightly, “was your new training regimen. To take advantage of your particular strengths and learn to use even your weaknesses.” He cocked his head at Naruto. “You jumped right in without thinking or asking the first question, just like Sasuke took the opportunity that Sakura saw without caring for the consequences. And that’s why this exercise worked.”
“Huh.” While Naruto worked through that, though, Sakura’s grin had melted into a thoughtful frown.
“Isn’t this a dangerous way to operate, Kakashi-sensei?” she asked, hesitant. “I mean… it will mean we’re all getting even more unbalanced, as as shinobi.”
“Shinobi are unbalanced,” Kakashi said quietly. “We teach you all of the basics that we can, but after that you have to start concentrating on what you’re good at. And accepting what you’re bad at. You just have to trust the team you’re in to balance it out.” He ruffled her hair with a wry, hidden smile behind his mask. “That’s what reality is, Sakura. This is how it goes once you’re out of the classroom.”
Her pale eyes were shadowed as she looked up at him. “Oh,” she said very softly. And then she took a breath and straightened her shoulders. “All right, then.”
Sasuke was unquestionably a genius, and Naruto might well be the greatest idiot savant the world had ever seen, but Kakashi thought that, of all his students, Sakura might be the best shinobi in the end.
All four of them looked up as a cloud of birds suddenly rose from the administrative quarter of the village and a wordless yell drifted faintly over the trees. “Ah,” Kakashi said brightly, “that would be my appointment with the Hokage.”
Tsunade, fifth Hokage of Konohagakure, slapped a hand down on the scrap of paper in the middle of her desk, glaring daggers at Kakashi. “Explain,” she growled.
“Team Seven was assigned to me so that I could keep an eye on both Naruto and Sasuke,” Kakashi pointed out. “If I’m to fulfill that mission, already in progress, then I need to keep the team with me.”
Tsunade crossed her arms and sat back, looking skeptical. “You know how shorthanded we are! And, while none of them were advanced to chuunin, they all demonstrated plenty enough power to start taking missions solo.”
“As you said, none of them were advanced.” Kakashi turned a hand palm up. “The final decider in that test is maturity, isn’t it? Do you really want three people of their demonstrated power running around and not learning the maturity to wield it well?” He looked meaningfully out the window of her office, to where the mangled cisterns on top of the hospital were just visible.
Shizune, standing behind Tsunade’s shoulder, grimaced. "Tsunade-sama, perhaps he’s right. At this rate, there will be people thinking Naruto and Sasuke are already out of control."
"Mm." Tsunade laced long, fine fingers under her chin, elbows propped on the padded arms of her chair. “That isn’t a nice thought. But neither is the idea of Cloud or Rock deciding to invade us because we’re suddenly taking fewer contracts and must, therefore, be weakened. And they’d be right,” she added, dourly. “Why the hell did I let that brat talk me into this?”
Hearing the helpless affection under her exasperation, Kakashi had to stifle a grin. Yes, he rather thought she’d agree to his tutoring plans a year from now. She’d yell about it, but she’d agree. “They are quite strong,” he offered. “I can take on A and even some S rank missions, with them as my team.”
She cocked a brow at him. “S rank?”
Kakashi hesitated, but she was, after all, Hokage now. She probably needed to know. “It will be beneficial if they face serious danger together. That’s always been the circumstance under which they come together as a team and support each other. And if they don’t come back to that, if Sasuke and Naruto, especially, don’t remember how to trust each other again, we’re going to lose Sasuke.”
Shizune hissed between her teeth, and she reached out to clasp Tsunade’s shoulder. Tsunade’s entire body had frozen, breath stilling, eyes icy. “He would go to Orochimaru?” she asked, very flat.
“That has become less likely,” Kakashi said, picking his words carefully as he spoke to this, Orochimaru’s old teammate. “Sasuke has some alternatives, now. I believe that he will pursue his course from within the village.” He ran a hand through his hair and sighed. “But unless he can accept Naruto’s and Sakura’s support, he’ll be killed when he finally confronts his brother.”
“Damn Uchiha Itachi to reincarnation as a worm for a hundred lives,” Tsunade muttered. “The village was already weakened by the death of the Uchiha clan, and now this!” She planted her elbows on the desk, fingers driven into her hair, and was silent for three breaths. “All right,” she said, finally, not looking up. “The four of you are going to get the hardest, nastiest missions short of ANBU work, you realize that?”
“I planned for it,” Kakashi agreed calmly. “If you can give me a week to settle them back into training, that will be useful.”
She glared at him some more. “A week he wants! Why don’t you ask me for the peaches of immortality while you’re at it?” She flipped through the mess of binders on her desk, frowning ferociously, until Shizune extracted one quietly and handed it to her. “All right, you can have a week," she snapped, paging through it. "Not more! And then you’ll leave directly for Tajimura, up north.” She pulled out a red folder and tossed it across to him. “They’ve been having serious trouble with bandits, and the local garrison thinks that it’s a band of missing-nin from Cloud and Mist.” She gave him the tight smile of someone anticipating sharing her headache. “There could be as many as twenty in the band.”
“I’m sure it will be a learning experience,” Kakashi murmured as he read.
“And send both Naruto and Sasuke to me, before you go,” she added. “I want to have a look at their seals. Jiraiya said that Naruto’s had been interfered with, and I’ve got to find a way to undo that curse seal on Sasuke, too.”
Kakashi nodded. “That seal really isn’t a temptation I like put in the way of any genin, especially not one as driven as Sasuke. Not if there’s any choice.”
Her mouth twisted. “That too. But, more urgently I think, Mitarashi Anko plans to kill herself, rather than let hers be activated again.”
A chill stroked down Kakashi’s spine again. War. It might be coming to them again. “I’ll tell them to see you,” he agreed quietly.
“So?” Jiroubou asked. “What did it say?”
Sakon rolled the message strip into a tiny cylinder and breathed fire onto it. "It’s from Kabuto. Orochimaru-sama couldn’t hold out and had to transfer into a new body. It says if the Uchiha brat comes willingly, fine, but if he won’t then look for a time we can take him without getting anyone on our trail." His mouth curled. "I suppose taking an unwilling host is distracting for a while. We should be polite and not lead any of Leaf back to Orochimaru-sama’s doorstep."
"From Kabuto?" Tayuya asked, suspicious.
"Mm. I think, perhaps, we should go back and confirm our orders, if there isn’t an opening soon."
The four of them looked at each other and nodded. No sense getting killed for it if this was really a scheme of the damn doctor’s. And surely the Uchiha kid wouldn’t be much harder to take, even if they waited a bit.