It was a beautiful fall afternoon.
On his aloof perch atop a sturdy bough, Kakashi removed his ANBU mask and inhaled the green-scented air deeply. After spending the last four months trapped in the sweltering heat of Wind Country, every day besieged by the viciousness of its sandstorm, Konoha’s autumn washed over him like heaven in comparison. A hint of coolness had permeated the air and wafts of lazy breeze tempered the stillness under the thick green canopy.
Crouching next to him, one of his teammates, Yari, shared his sentiment with a sigh and a murmur. “Finally.”
“No place like home,” Koujaku’s soft voice intoned from another tree somewhere to their left.
“Yeah, for us lucky bastards. Imagine if you’re a shinobi from Suna.”
Koujaku’s half-hearted laugh indicated the real extent of his exhaustion. Newest and youngest of the group, Kakashi took no part in the exchange, for the moment content only to listen. The forest was full of sounds—subtle, organic, living sounds, unlike the cruel, high-pitched whine of the desert wind. They flooded and caressed his ears in a way that made his heart clench, and Kakashi wondered if this was what homecoming felt like.
“Once we have arrived in the village, we will deal with our report immediately,” Kaku, their captain, announced from their aft, her landing near-soundless on the leaf-strewn ground. Her beaver mask tilted slightly, as if hunting for bright patches of the cloud-trimmed sky above. “Then it will be a glorious two-week rest, so let’s get this done and over with.”
Kakashi set his mask back in place and forced his weary feet to move, bringing up the rear. Ten minutes later, the road appeared to their left and Konoha’s massive gates loomed in the distance.
At the familiar sight, he felt as if his heart had shrivelled and cowered behind his constricting lungs. Kakashi gritted his teeth, ignoring the slow crawl of tension in his stomach, and fixed his gaze on the wide open gates out of sheer stubbornness.
They made their identifications and slipped into the village, sandaled feet barely caressing bricks and shingles as they leapt from one rooftop to another. The Hokage tower was an imposing centrepiece, glimmering red and majestic amidst a cluster of lesser buildings. Kakashi swallowed a mounting wave of unease as his feet touched solid earth, just before the front door of the tower.
A second inspection ensued, slower, more thorough than the first. None of them missed the irony that even the best ANBU squad in Konoha had to resign themselves to a bodily check by a group of inexperienced Chuunins.
“This is ridiculous,” Yari muttered, earning himself a scowl from the Jounin head guard.
“This is standard procedure,” he retorted.
“Out of every fuckin’–”
“Stop it,” Kaku’s impatient voice cut into the brewing argument. That particular tone never failed to produce its desired effect and Yari retreated with an amused snort, just as Kakashi glimpsed a hint of red behind their captain’s mask. “Please proceed with the inspection,” she continued, addressing the guards who were now staring at her in combined horror and awe. Clearly he was not the only one who had noticed the Sharingan.
Even with the show of force, it was still another five minutes before the inspection was concluded and they were granted entry. That Kaku had also lost her patience was evident when she did not reproach Yari for venting his displeasure to the head guard by purring undisguised threats into his ear.
Kakashi closed his eyes and suppressed a sigh. He just wanted to get this done as soon as possible.
The interior of the building greeted them with grim silence. Their footfalls made a soft, rhythmical echo as they walked to the far end of the corridor, toward the spiral of stairways. Instead of going up, however, they descended into the dark depth of the underground, where the ANBU office was situated. The choice of the location was, in Kakashi’s opinion, utterly ridiculous, not to mention horribly illogical. It was as if the ANBU would rather make sure that they lived up to their dark, enigmatic reputation than to focus on what truly mattered: practicality and efficiency.
The winding steps ended in front of a solitary door, the entrance to their headquarters. Just as Yari reached for the handle, it was opened from the other side.
Kakashi froze. Even the poor lighting in the hallway could not hide the golden brilliance of his former teacher’s hair, or the blueness of his eyes. He barely noticed his captain falling to one knee, followed immediately by his teammates, each with a deferential murmur on her or his lips.
“Oh, for the love of the gods.” He could hear the exasperation in Minato’s voice. “Please, please don’t do that every time we happen to meet. I was just leaving anyway. Rise now, all of you, or I’ll be forced to do something drastic.”
One by one, they rose to their feet, and the frown on the Hokage’s face ceded to a grateful smile. “Much better. I take it that the mission was a success?”
“Yes, sir,” Kaku answered promptly. “We completed everything within acceptable parameters. As for a written report…”
“Don’t worry about it.” Minato waved a careless hand. “Just take your time. I will be in my office whenever you are ready. Now please excuse me.”
Heart hammering wildly in his chest, Kakashi moved aside, grateful for the dimness of his surroundings and the protection of his ANBU mask. He kept his face lowered, hardly daring to breathe as the man walked past them.
“Ah, Kakashi, a moment please.”
But of course his former teacher would recognise him. Kakashi swore silently, blaming the telltale colour of his hair. He remained in his place, rigid and silent, as the others disappeared into the office, leaving him alone with the one man whom he had, resolutely and fastidiously, been trying to avoid for the past eight months.
“I’m glad that you’ve returned just in time.” The obvious pleasure in Minato’s voice plaited guilt into his growing discomfort, and the glittering brightness in those blue eyes was definitely not helping. “Do you have any plan for tomorrow night?”
“No,” Kakashi muttered, trying to ignore the sickening lurch in his stomach.
“Excellent. Kushina told me to ask you if you could come for dinner tomorrow night—that is, if you don’t have any other plan. See? I still remember that tomorrow is your birthday. We can celebrate together.”
It was nothing short like being punched through the chest. The more logical, more impersonal fraction of his brain judged his reaction to be the very quintessence of ungratefulness. It was kind of Kushina-san to remember his birthday, but this show of kindness only served to make him angrier—at himself and at the world in general. There was a reason why he had been eager to go on a series of difficult, lengthy missions for the last few months, and it could be summarised in two words.
To be precise, his married-with-a-pregnant-wife sensei.
“I don’t know,” he finally managed to drag those three ambiguous words from his throat, eyes stubbornly never leaving the floor.
“Well, let me know tomorrow morning, will you?” Minato’s cheerful reply was accompanied with a light squeeze to his shoulder. Kakashi only nodded. He knew precisely what he was going to do, and it did not involve a birthday dinner with a man whose smile was too bright and a woman whose hair was too red.
Hatake Kakashi first met Namikaze Minato at the precarious age of five.
He was a child genius who had terrorised the entire Academy’s teacher squad since his first day as a student in that renowned institution. His brilliance, along with his tendency to use the most complex words in his vocabulary at least once in every given sentence, was mainly responsible for this notoriety. Minato, on the other hand, was a Chuunin prodigy who had recently made a name for himself after leading and completing three A-rank missions, all to the satisfaction of every party involved bar the intended target, and was now staring at a Jounin promotion at the age of fourteen.
They met in a bar, at one in the morning.
Minato, in his defence, was in a mission to locate his jounin teacher, who had been known to haunt the establishment with faithful if unhealthy regularity. Kakashi was there in a similar quest, for a different subject. When he left five minutes later, it was hand-in-hand with his inebriated father, small fingers firmly wrapped around a bigger palm—and Minato had to pause for a second, staring, wondering at the absurdity of the sight, before returning his attention firmly to his own pressing problem.
They met again six months later. By then, Hatake Kakashi was already the son of a traitor who had cowardly taken his own life, and Namikaze Minato was the golden boy of the village with a sterling reputation and a good heart to match. That they had the chance to meet at all was entirely Jiraiya’s fault.
Minato came with him to the Hatake residence and there he saw the boy, half of his face now buried under a black mask, his small back bent over scrolls taller than his height as he strived for a semblance of comprehension over intricate theories of elemental fusion. He looked up as his visitors approached, and regarded them with a pair of carefully blank eyes. Silence and desolation of the abandoned house seemed to swallow him whole—and Minato’s heart went out for the child.
It was an impulsive decision, as his own teacher had loudly pointed out—even near accused—but Minato was fifteen years old and fifteen-year-old boys did stupidly heroic things, like taking a shunned, ridiculed child genius under one’s wing, consequences be damned. Likewise, it was only a fifteen-year-old teacher who would recommend his student to brave all the dangers and lethality of a Chuunin exam at the preposterous age of six.
When he made his recommendation, Minato only smiled complacently under the shocked, open-mouthed stares of his fellow Jounins. He wore the same proud, confident smile when Kakashi blazed through the final test using a complex combination of Lightning-Earth jutsu and thus silenced any further mockery aimed at his person.
Years and years later, Minato would realise that it had been a highly idiotic and reckless thing to do—but at the moment, he was young and it was the young’s privilege to be daring to the point of folly. When two weeks later the announcement came that Hatake Kakashi was to be promoted to the rank of Chuunin, he lifted the boy up on his shoulders, and together they did a victory lap around the village.
He would not realise one other thing until many, many years later, but it was this recklessness, this oblivious, full-hearted display of trust and affection, which had saved the child with a black mask and a pair of too-dead grey eyes.
Kakashi spent his fourteenth birthday deep in the bowels of the forest, away from the village.
Much as he preferred spending the day in the privacy offered by his apartment, basking in the luxury of doing nothing after so long a mission, he knew that it was the only way to avoid his teacher. The dinner invitation sounded too much like a war drum to his wary ears. There could be no question of Minato not noticing his sudden, lengthy absence, or the increasing aloofness of his manner. A confrontation was clearly imminent, but Kakashi still had an array of tactics up on his sleeve to which he could resort in order to postpone the moment as indefinitely as possible.
And so he woke up at the break of dawn and slipped into Minato’s office to leave a note (Can’t come. Must go.) on his horribly cluttered desk, before making his furtive escape toward the vast forest of Konoha. Deliberately avoiding his usual training areas, Kakashi struck east, carving a path through swaying branches and muttering leaves, past silent glades and rippling brooks. He bounded, ran, dove, jumped, soared, rattling and rustling everything within reach, even the very air streaming about him.
The truth was, he tried so hard to crowd his ears with sounds so as not to notice that he was, in fact, alone.
Kakashi had never been alone on a birthday before. There had been his father, once upon a distant time, quiet and calm, his smiles grave and measured. And then there had always been Minato—bright, sky-bound, sun-blessed Minato, who had never been afraid to dream, who had taught him to grasp at stars and festoon night-haunted sleeps with their blinking lights. For all that it was Kakashi’s birthday, there would always be ramen at the end of the day, and Kakashi would not mind, not really, although he would put on a fairly convincing display of frowning and grumbling all the way there.
The tradition had persisted from year to year—only the two of them, celebrating a day which Kakashi would have forgotten had there not been a stubborn sun insisting to force its way into his life—and he had been naïve enough to think that it would always stay so.
Except eight months ago his sensei had become the Hokage and married Kushina-san. Very soon Kakashi had learned that ‘change’ was too small a word, too narrow and lacking to encompass all the changes which had inevitably followed since then. He scarcely knew how to deal with half of them, let alone the entire ocean of differences, big and small, each requiring its own measure of response.
And so he ran: first by becoming an ANBU, then by throwing himself into missions, and now, on this should-have-been-special day, by using the forest’s immensity to blur in and hide. For lunch, he nibbled on some ambiguously-shaped onigiri instead of allowing Minato to display his proficiency in homemade cooking. He spent the rest of the day sparring with as many clones as his chakra could maintain in that precise length of time, instead of trying to land one blow on his demonically fast sensei. Then, as daylight disappeared and yielded to night, he lay down on a bed of soft grass and moss, watching the slow ascent of the moon instead of heading for Ichiraku.
“I hate him,” Kakashi muttered, glaring at the vast spread of the sky and its mocking stars. “I really hate him.”
Unfortunately, constant repetition did not make truth out of words; they would remain just words, with a murmured voice attached to every half-hearted vowel and unwilling consonant. Tired and bowed by defeat, Kakashi surrendered a sigh. At least the day was nearly over. In a little over four hours, his birthday would be a thing of the past, and so would the legitimacy of any invitation. In two weeks, he would be able to grab another mission and disappear.
Kakashi blinked, eyes momentarily losing focus as he sat up and turned around, only to behold the one person he would have given the world not to meet. For a second, he wondered about illusions and how they seemed to follow a helpless mind everywhere. The illusion peered down at him, wearing a stretch of an uncertain smile, and that was when he knew this was not an illusion; the Minato in his head was too bright, too absolute to let anything resembling uncertainty mar his perfection.
“Sensei?” he tried, the syllables knitted close together in a rush of breath. “How– what are you doing here?”
“What are you doing here?”
The question made him stiffen, a barrier rising fast between thoughts and expressions. “I want to be alone,” he replied—aloof, matter-of-fact, defiant.
“On your birthday?”
“Yes.” Kakashi raised his chin, challenging him with a stare. The older man frowned.
“Did anything bad happen in the mission?”
“Yes? So something bad did happen?”
“No,” Kakashi snapped, scowling, belatedly noticing the trap he had fallen into. Now sitting next to him, close enough to disrupt the rhythm of Kakashi’s heartbeat, Minato was grinning.
“Fine, if you say so.” The subject was easily dropped and Minato looked away from his masked face to the sky above. It was almost enough to make Kakashi feel relieved, had the man’s proximity not made it impossible in the first place. Since when the comfortable ease of his childhood had turned into unease was unclear; Minato used to be the only person who could make him feel safe.
“How did you find me?” he asked after a moment’s silence, determined not to be affected by said proximity.
“I wasn’t sure, but…” The Hokage paused, eyes so blue even in the encroaching dark; they were watching him, Kakashi belatedly realised, and it made his heart race and lungs suddenly constrict. “I thought maybe you still kept the special kunai I gave you.”
Of course. Kakashi had to look away as his face burned with embarrassment. That guilty kunai, hidden behind his Jounin vest, directly over his heart. It was foolish sentimentality from his part, but the special kunai was all he had left of his teacher. The man before him now was the Fourth Hokage, another person entirely—or so Kakashi liked to think. Otherwise, the difference between now and then would have been the work of deliberate will, and that was a bitter pill to swallow.
“To be honest, I’m really happy.” Minato was smiling, easily and freely, like the old times. (Kakashi was suddenly reminded why denials never lasted long.) “I was worried that you would just forget me once you made it into ANBU.”
“Forget you? You’re the Hokage. Your face is carved on a damn mountain. I doubt any Konoha shinobi can ever forget you.”
“You know that’s not what I meant.”
Kakashi said nothing. The soft rebuke only buttressed his determination to avoid the point. Instead of answering, he employed his most useful pair of weapons, a glare wedded with silence.
Except he had forgotten, after months of running, that his former teacher had watched him grow up and thus was all too familiar with both so-called weapons to be daunted by yet another example, however formidable.
“Speaking of today, Kakashi,” the Hokage continued cheerfully, clearly undaunted, “what do you want for a birthday present?”
I want a kiss.
The words came unbidden to his mind, a silent, dangerous presence at the tip of his tongue. With only a deep, shuddering intake of breath separating his sanity from the irrevocability of spoken syllables, Kakashi quickly seized the next idea which had popped into his mind.
“Teach me how to use Rasengan.”
Minato’s surprise was evident. “You want me to teach you how to use Rasengan?”
“For your birthday present?”
“You did ask.”
“I’m already regretting it,” the Hokage muttered under his breath. Kakashi could not resist a triumphant smirk, mature or not. Small victories mattered when there was no hope whatsoever of winning the big war.
“Too late. You wouldn’t go back on your own words, would you, Hokage-sama?”
“Look, it’s still far from perfect.” Minato was stalling, trying another angle of argument. “At this point it’s just another jutsu with some destructive power but not much else—and you really don’t need another one of those in your arsenal.”
Kakashi shrugged. “I don’t care. I’m in a two-week break, so I have time to kill. Might as well learn something useful.”
“There’s a reason why a break is called a ‘break’, Kakashi.”
“I want my present.” He levelled the older man with a determined look. “You have promised, Sensei. Please do not set a bad example for the whole village by going back on your words.”
The reluctant smile which broke free from the constraints of Minato’s reserve was small and helpless, but enough to make Kakashi’s heartbeat stutter. “Yes. Yes, I have.” He rose to his feet, offering one hand to Kakashi. “Fine, you won. We can start by discussing the theories over dinner. If we go back now, there’s a chance that we can still get something to eat at Ichiraku.”
Kakashi stared at the waiting hand, for a moment not trusting himself to speak. When he finally did, he settled for the obvious, the clichéd, the traditional. “This is my birthday and we are eating ramen?”
“What’s better than ramen?” Minato grinned, both sly and innocent at the same time. “Or do you have something else in mind?”
“Ramen is fine,” Kakashi murmured, looking at anywhere but his sensei when he accepted his hand. The tug was gentle, deliberate, and Kakashi let himself fall into Minato’s one-armed embrace. It was, he thought, shutting his eyes as the familiar thread of chakra trickled and slithered under his skin, the closest he could ever get to what he really wanted.
When he opened his eyes, they were in the Hokage’s office, shrouded in darkness.
“Great.” Minato’s voice came close from above—too close, a tilt of his head and he could probably kiss the man’s jaw. “I’ll treat you to a super special one. Shall we go now?”
Kakashi only nodded and quickly disentangled himself. It was not until they had sat in front of two steaming bowls, with Teuchi-san’s good-natured chatter in the background, that he realised today had actually ended in the same manner his previous birthdays always had.
And neither of them mentioned homemade dinner, or Kushina.
Kakashi murdered his first man at the age of nine. It was part of a mission and his victim— not much older than him, visibly frightened, almost hysterical, and yet a potential danger—crouched in a dim corner of their target’s bedroom, behind a tall potted plant, and would have compromised their mission if Kakashi had allowed himself even the slightest moment to think.
He had not, and his kunai found its mark before he could blink.
Collateral damage; Kakashi would learn the new term upon his homecoming, but for the time being, he was content to think that he had done tolerably well for his first kill. His sensei, however, clearly had a different opinion. For the entire length of their return journey to Konoha, the Yellow Flash barely spoke a word. Kakashi mirrored his silence mostly because he did not know how to deal with this new, formerly unseen side of Minato. The experience was disquieting to say the least.
But it was not until they had caught a glimpse of the gates of Konoha that Kakashi’s restraint broke. He looked up, at Minato’s grave face, and the words simply tumbled out of his mouth in an anxious rush.
“Are you mad at me?”
A look of utter surprise flashed across his teacher’s face. “Mad at you? No, Kakashi, of course I’m not mad at you.” When the boy continued to stare at him wordlessly, he sighed and ran a hand through his messy blond hair. “Look, what you did back there surprised me. That’s all.”
“It was within the mission’s parameter.” Kakashi struggled to keep his voice calm—not an easy feat, so certain he was that he had committed a mistake, somewhere, somehow.
“Probably it was,” Minato admitted reluctantly, “but I should have taken care of you better. I’m mad at myself, not at you.”
Kakashi frowned. “That does not make any sense, Sensei. While my ability is indisputably inferior to yours, it is to my understanding that teammates are supposed to work together during a mission. To say that one is in need of protection of the other implies certain imbalance which might jeopardise the success of–”
“You’re still my student, Kakashi.” The strain in Minato’s voice was now painfully evident.
“I am also a Chuunin who is fully capable of assisting my team leader in an A-rank mission,” he pointed out, crossing his arms defensively in front of his chest. “Hokage-sama said it himself. Every member of the team must obey his or her leader to ensure the success of the mission. Your direct order for me was to be your support.”
“You’re nine! Do you really expect me to–” A sharp inhalation stemmed the rest of word-tide, and that with difficulty. Kakashi nearly recoiled at the sight of those bright blue eyes, suddenly ablaze, their intensity nailing him to the spot. It was the first time he had ever seen his teacher so agitated. “It wasn’t as simple as that,” Minato continued, slower, a little calmer though the strange light in his eyes scarcely dimmed. “Do you even understand what you did?”
If anything, the new question only made him feel even more perplexed. “I did what I must to support you,” Kakashi muttered, slightly hurt. “At least I thought I did.”
“But didn’t you feel anything?”
Minato held his gaze fiercely. “You just killed someone, Kakashi.”
The words sank into the base of his stomach like relief, warm and heavy. Kakashi almost smiled. If it was about his performance, then they were in a familiar ground. He could handle this. “It is true,” he nodded, all too eager, “that the execution was not as easy as I had expected from my understanding of the basic theory, but I encountered no significant difficulty in the process. I have observed a variety of your techniques closely, Sensei, and I did remember all the pointers you have taken care to mention. First, the best angle of the blade depends entirely on the enemy’s position. He was crouching and his neck was about the height of my hips, so I–”
“Kakashi, stop.” The order was issued through gritted teeth. Kakashi’s eyes widened as Minato unceremoniously sank to the ground. The lush grass cushioned his fall, but his eyes were squeezed shut, and even those were soon hidden in the fold of his arms along with the rest of his face.
Now Kakashi was really frightened. This journey proved to be a trove of firsts, none of which he liked in the slightest. He knelt next to his teacher, uncertainty battling panic for dominance in his chest. “Sensei,” he tried, a faint tremor in his voice, “please, tell me what I did wrong. I know I have disappointed you somehow, but I cannot perceive my error, and perhaps it makes you angry…”
The Yellow Flash looked up sharply. “That is not the point.” He sounded strange, a mix of impatience and desperation spread too thin, strained too far, each word lined by sorrow. “What I’m trying to say is, you shouldn’t take lives so easily. But it’s really my fault. I didn’t teach you… I didn’t teach you properly. You were so brilliant, so smart, and everything came so easily to you. I forgot that you were just a child.” He stared at his linked fingers. “I’m really sorry.”
“I still do not understand.” Kakashi would have cringed at how pitiful he had sounded, but he simply could not bring himself to care.
“It’s the killing, Kakashi. Sometimes yes, it’s our job as shinobi to take lives, but you must be careful. To kill someone means to erase that person’s existence from this world. In short, they die. You have to understand that there are many consequences if you kill someone. One action can affect the lives of many people. For example, if I die, then we won’t be able to talk to each other ever again–”
“I will never allow that to happen,” Kakashi interrupted, fingers curling tightly around his teacher’s sleeve. He barely noticed anything else other than the sudden surge of panic that roared inside him like a wild beast. “I will be the strongest shinobi in the world, Sensei, so I can protect you. No one will be able to touch you.”
Minato’s gaze softened, and so did his voice. “I appreciate that, but you see? Maybe someone felt that way too about the boy you killed. And the worst thing is, you cannot undo death.”
“So despite the circumstances, to kill him was a mistake?”
“I understand that you thought he was a threat to our mission,” Minato said quietly, “and you were right. But there are ways to incapacitate someone without having to kill him.”
Kakashi fell silent as he tried to digest the words. Within his reach was something very important, but it remained elusive, his grasping fingers too small and ineffective, the scope of his understanding too immature. Panic still reigned and his hold involuntarily tightened on what part of Minato’s arm he could cling to. “I give you my word that I will not kill again, Sensei.” His promise was barely a whisper, but it was the most earnest he had ever made, after his father’s death. “Unless, of course, you tell me to do so.”
A sad, painful smile curved Minato’s lips, but the hand that tousled his hair was gentle. “There’s still much for you to learn. For both of us, in fact.”
Kakashi maintained a contrite expression on his face. It seemed to be the best thing to do under the circumstances, even if he barely understood half of what the Yellow Flash had spoken.
“I tell you what,” Minato said again, rising to his feet and pulling Kakashi up with him, “I think I’ll submit the report later. Now we’re just going to wind down a bit and have some tea and dango. How does that sound to you?”
“Does that mean,” Kakashi peered at his teacher uncertainly, “that I am forgiven? You are not mad at me anymore?”
Minato sighed. “Seriously, Kakashi, have you ever seen me mad at you?”
“Not exactly,” was the mumbled admission.
“And the reason for that is actually because I’m never mad at you. Not even once.”
Kakashi could not help it, the smirk quivering on the thin curve of his lips, behind his mask. “Not even when I thoroughly but unintentionally destroyed your kitchen?”
His teacher’s responding laugh was enough to erase the rest of his doubt. “That was a close call, but no. So, dango?”
“Sure.” Kakashi shrugged and together they walked toward the entrance of the village.
At least everything was well, for now.
Only a genius could birth a genius, and Kakashi had been surrounded by geniuses his entire life. His first teacher was his father, a man with kind eyes but little speech and such burdens weighing down his bowed shoulders. Through his guidance, Kakashi familiarised himself with weapons and seals, sharpness and speed.
Minato was different. He was a boy of no bloodline, of no privilege but what his own genius could earn—and still this boy stood in front of the entire village, glaring down his elders when any of them dared pour scorn on his new student. The word ‘bravery’ did not even cover it, and neither did ‘compassion’. When Kakashi looked at him, he saw so much more.
Twelve months into their curious partnership, only very few among the ranks of Konoha shinobi had not heard of their names. Minato and Kakashi, the paired geniuses, the partnership that broke all rules. Curious eyes scrutinised them warily as they walked the streets of Konoha after a vigorous training or a successful mission, one smile bared, the other hidden. Wind-borne rumours followed their climbs, both in skill and estimation, until deeds proved their worth and erased old prejudices. It was a slow process, but eventually suspicious glances gave way to indulgence, even admiration.
When the candidacy for the Fourth Hokage was announced, no one was surprised to find Kakashi standing exactly between his sensei and one of the legendary Sannin, his unblinking stare defiant.
Orochimaru smirked at this barefaced display of audacity, and for a splinter of a second, his likeness to a snake was even more pronounced. “Relax, kid,” he drawled, sharp sibilants dragging from his lips. “No one is going to touch your precious teacher.”
“No, Orochimaru-sama,” Kakashi answered politely, but stiffness scarcely left his posture. It was only after Minato had dissolved the tension with a light laugh and a few good-natured remarks, his fingers a comforting presence on the back of Kakashi’s shoulder, that he breathed more easily.
Kakashi learned two important things on that day. First, his teacher would become the Fourth Hokage and not even the most infamous shinobi in Konoha could stop it from happening.
Second, this would forever be his place, in front of Minato, directly in danger’s way. (Not at his side—that place belonged to a woman whose long, red hair strangled his grey to shame, whose bright grin eclipsed everything Hatake Kakashi had ever been.)
Twelve hours later, he got his ANBU tattoo.
End Chapter 1