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
Dictionary: (for the names of Kakashi's ANBU teammates)
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The moment he saw the small, tawny bird alighting on his windowsill, Kakashi knew that something was terribly wrong. Between the white, barren walls of his apartment, its soft twitters invaded the afternoon’s silence and sent a strange shiver down his spine. An ominous echo lingered even after it had sunk into a sombre silence, now watching him with a pair of black, listless eyes.
Kakashi slipped into his ANBU uniform in less than twenty seconds, fingers following habitual paths across metal and fabric. It took him half the time to reach the Hokage Tower and climb five flights of stairs. A maelstrom of morbid excitement and increasingly familiar dread rose inside him with each soundless step. Three days had elapsed since his birthday, and he had spent at least one hour every evening in the company of his former teacher to honour the promise made between them—an extravagant favour, considering the Hokage’s demanding schedule and the existence of his heavily pregnant wife.
Even after three successive occurrences, Kakashi still did not know whether to feel ridiculously happy or ridiculously miserable. The birthday promise he had so impulsively exacted from Minato had been his constant source of distress. Learning the mechanisms of Rasengan meant spending more time together, a situation which Kakashi still found confusing for the presence of two opposing armies at once—bliss and anguish, each in such magnitude thus far unprecedented even in the course of his tumultuous life. Until now, he had greatly favoured the latter by long bouts of disappearance.
And now, a new opportunity to distance himself from all these complexities seemed to present itself. A new S-rank mission usually required at least a week, often a month, after the last one, but at this point, Kakashi was eager enough for any chance to get away.
What he did not expect was to see his captain waiting in front of the Hokage’s office with her arms crossed in front of her chest. Uchiha Naegi, better known as ‘Kaku’ within the ANBU ranks, had her face bared instead of masked for once, the blackness of her eyes matching that of her hair.
“I want to talk to you before we go in.” As usual, she struck directly to the point. “Our new mission involves one of your former teammates. I want to make sure that you are capable of working with an objective mind.”
Kakashi felt ice speared his insides. “Rin?”
“That’s the name.”
“What happened?” he asked, the words faint and dry on his suddenly heavy tongue.
The quiet intensity of her eyes never left him; behind the mask or not, Kakashi still felt hideously inferior. “You’ll hear more of the details inside. What I want to know is whether I can trust you to follow my orders no matter what. She might be your friend, but I’m your team leader and I don’t want any emotion getting in the way of our teamwork. It can jeopardise the entire mission, not to mention the lives of your teammates.”
“I will do anything to save her.”
“That is not what I want to hear,” she stated, her cool, deep voice unchanged despite the sudden glint in her eyes. Kakashi met her calmness with tremendous effort, suppressing an impulse to simply abandon the conversation and started looking for the only teammate he had left.
“You can trust me,” he managed at last, squeezing the expected words past his teeth.
“Very well.” She raised her mask and fastened it to cover her face, all skins shed but that of a trained killer and an obedient tool. Kakashi stared at the erect line of her spine as they entered the Hokage’s office. Yari and Koujaku were already inside, standing at attention with hands clasped behind their backs. Sitting behind the cluttered desk, shoulders squared and mouth a thin line wrought with tension, the Hokage wore his own mask, his own brand of gravity.
“Thank you for coming so quickly,” he began at once, eyes sweeping across the four of them. “I know you guys are supposed to be on break, but there is no other team available at the moment and this is an emergency.”
“We are ready,” Kaku answered without hesitation.
The Hokage nodded. “Your task will be to support Team Hamaki who is currently in a mission in Nichi Town, at the border of Fire and Wind Country. Their objective was to gather information pertinent to the town’s ruling clan. Their client was a rebel faction led by an opposing clan, equally powerful if not for a series of bad luck in the last few years. The situation should have been fairly straightforward, but about one hour ago, I received an urgent report from Mimura Hamaki that their situation had deteriorated to such extent that more back-ups were needed. The rebels are prepared to pay for five times the normal rate of an A-rank mission, but at the moment we simply do not have the kind of manpower they ask.”
He paused, fingers interlocking on top of strewn papers. “I know this isn’t the kind of mission usually assigned to ANBU teams, but Hamaki also mentioned that the opposite side appeared to have hired several squads of shinobi from Sunagakure. Their exact number is still unknown, but our four-man team is definitely not a match for them. Your team specialises in stealth and blitz attack. Both qualities, I hope, can help turn the tide to our favour.”
“We shall not disappoint, Hokage-sama,” was Kaku’s quiet reply.
“There is one other thing. One member of Team Hamaki has fallen in battle.”
Kakashi felt his blood run cold. “Who?” the question left his mouth in a frantic rush. Minato’s eyes flicked over to his direction.
“Omura Aki.” He kept his voice steady, detached almost. “The remaining members are Yuuhi Shugo and Rin, beside Hamaki himself. Your primary task is to assess the situation and to support them to the best of your ability. Our legitimate contract is for information gathering, so try not to overstep boundaries unless you really need to.”
“Understood, Hokage-sama,” Kaku answered.
“I wish you all good luck.” His eyes lingered on Kakashi for a moment, but he said nothing else.
Kakashi first met Obito and Rin at the age of ten, and lost one of them at thirteen.
The Sharingan was an unwanted gift, but there was little else he could do before Obito’s dying wish. The Uchiha Clan raised a great uproar when they found out that one of their own had died, his treasure stolen. In a hidden village, clan secrets were guarded as jealously as one’s own wife, often much more; now an outsider stood in their midst, his grey stark amidst seas of black hair.
Kakashi could do very little in his condition. The Sharingan was a benign parasite at best, a ruthless, life-draining fiend at worst. It rebelled against the unworthiness of a non-Uchiha as badly as Kakashi’s own body fought against it. Trapped between hazy wakefulness and spells of roaring nightmares, it was all he could do to remain on his feet and not cling to his sensei’s arm.
He had expected the Yellow Flash to defend him; what he did not expect was to see, through mist-wreathed eyes, Rin’s small back and spread arms as she took her stand in front of him. Her strangely high-pitched voice pierced the curtain of noise droning at the back of his head, and he listened as she announced, before the most powerful clan in the village, that she would never allow anyone to undo her work, to disobey Obito’s last wish, to break their team.
“You will have to kill me first,” she decided, her words clear despite the tremor blighting her voice.
Kakashi stiffened, hand reaching out for the only teammate he still had. The idea of losing another so soon terrified him, but before he could convince himself that she was still there, the Sharingan shrieked.
The last thing he saw before blissful oblivion claimed him was Uchiha Fugaku’s pale, livid face, frozen in a mask of mute rage.
“We will take a break here.”
Kakashi opened his mouth to protest, but his captain already shed her mask and sank to the forest floor, seeking refuge from the unceasing gale behind a moss-layered outcrop. This far, the trees were young and sparse, as much a victim to the brewing storm as they were. His teammates followed suit, eager for repose after twelve hours of speedy journey. Only Kakashi remained standing, his feet itching to continue. Restlessness had given them wings and every minute wasted was every minute not knowing of Rin’s fate.
“Dawn is two hours away,” he pointed out, struggling hard to keep annoyance out of his voice. From her crouch, Kaku threw him a blank look.
“Exactly. Two, perhaps three hours are all we have, so use them.”
“We can do better than this,” Kakashi insisted, arms crossed in front of his chest. “We were trained better.”
“We need rest.”
“Not at the cost of–”
“Just get some sleep, you bastard,” Yari snapped at him, his voice rising loudly above the howling wind. “I’m not going to carry your ass if you suddenly faint from exhaustion or something.”
“Then I will make sure not to faint in front of you.”
“Yeah? Better make sure to watch your mouth too or–”
“Be quiet.” Their captain’s voice was colder than ice, her Sharingan flaring brilliantly in the dark, both aimed at Kakashi. “If you don’t want to sleep, then you can take the first turn. Wake me up in half an hour.”
Pursing his lips, Kakashi nevertheless settled down to wait under a tree. He watched heavy clouds march in the dark sky, begrudging them their progress while he was shackled by something as trivial as words, a simple promise to obey. He closed his eyes for a moment and pretended that the wind’s restless moan was the voice of his own frustration.
When he opened them, the sky was a bright blue firmament and sunlight was streaming past green canopy, warming his face. The others were already awake, stretching their backs and chattering softly among themselves.
“Good morning.” Koujaku was the only one who shot him an apologetic smile. Yari’s smirk was impishly unrepentant and Kaku regarded him coolly from under her mask.
“I apologise,” she said, and yet her voice echoed no remorse, “but you were being difficult.”
That was when Kakashi realised that he had fallen under her genjutsu—without a fight.
Obito’s death was a milestone in countless ways and the most obvious was this: It was the beginning of an end. Team Minato was nothing if not a three-man team under a golden sun; once robbed of a limb, no amount of time could make a limping creature whole again. Slowly but surely, he and Rin began to drift apart, carried by the silent waves of each private loss.
Then their sensei was made Hokage and the rift was complete. Kakashi joined the ranks of ANBU while Rin was reassigned to Team Hamaki, her abilities much too precious to be buried in the village’s hospital during that time of need. Their tentative friendship was reduced to chance meetings in the village’s main avenue, sometimes a short, awkward conversation over tea and dango if neither of them was too busy.
Until one evening, under a glorious sunset, he found her standing in front of the memorial stone, lashes wet with glittering tears. At her feet, a single white flower nestled in a bed of dried petals. He stood by her side for a long time, daunted by grief so like his own but not—and it was then, between one indeterminable second and the next, that she turned and looked him in the eye.
“I like you.”
A pair of eyes widened—one Kakashi’s, naked and nervous, the other Obito’s, hidden behind a black curtain that nevertheless could never mask its presence. Before Kakashi could formulate a response, Rin had already spoken again, her soft voice ringing loud and clear in the silence. “I know. You already have someone so deep inside your heart. No matter what I do, you will never see me because I don’t have a chance to begin with.”
He stared at her. “Then why?”
“Because I don’t want to live with regrets and what-ifs.” She made a heroic effort to smile, fresh tears brightening her eyes. “At least now I can pat myself in the back and say ‘what’s next’.”
Kakashi’s hands curled tightly into fists, as if the force alone could stem the sudden bloom of guilt inside his chest. “I’m sorry,” he murmured, gaze lowered to where black granite met thick grass. He could not bear to look at her—with Obito’s eye, before the proof of his death, now mere letters carved into a lifeless rock.
“Don’t be sorry for me.” Somehow, despite the quiver in her voice, Rin managed to sound cheerful. “It’s you who gets the worse deal in this department. You can’t even tell him.”
Kakashi’s gaze snapped back to her face. He stared, open-mouthed, as her faint smile slowly grew into a likeness of its former glory, in a time before her bloodied hand had gouged out a friend’s eye.
“How did you know?” his voice was faint, strangled by shock and mortification both.
“Let’s just say, instinct.”
A burst of warmth tingled on his cheeks. Kakashi met her kindly eyes by means of sheer willpower alone, playing deaf to the demands of every muscle in his body which screamed for flight in the face of embarrassment.
And he had thought it was a well-kept secret.
“Is it that obvious?”
“A little.” Her laugh echoed sweetly, a beautiful sound tinged with resignation. “Maybe it’s because I have known you for some years now. But I think I can sympathise. Sensei being sensei, it’s difficult not to fall in love with him a little, isn’t it? And you… you have known him for such a long time…”
He watched her smile falter during the speech and disappear with the last of her words. For a moment he wished, wished so fervently that he could have returned her feelings instead of torturing himself with fruitless pining.
“I’m still sorry.”
Rin flashed him a small, tearful smile. “Thank you,” she murmured, and they stood there side by side, she with her soundless tears and he his silent guilt, until the last tendril of light disappeared from the mourning sky.
Once upon a time, there was a boy who hid his face behind a mask and a girl who healed wounds with smiles as well as touch.
Between them was a boy who died. Together, they weaved the oldest love story ever told—that of a triangle and lines that did not meet.
But when the boy who died died, he left a promise which bound the other two. Love, his carved smile whispered, like reciprocity, belonged to the living. He would be the ghost who watched them from an ageless sky, immortalised in memory; it was them who must toil and weather life’s unceasing storm, and for that, they needed each other.
The boy with the mask kept his promise, and so did the girl. As in many of those timeworn tales, love triumphed over every adversity in the end. Through lingering guilt and aching loss, age grew into maturity, and when they married each other, it was the boy who died who smiled the widest, who clapped the hardest, even though the sound was lost through the distance between one realm and another.
They would live happily ever after, and somewhere over the rainbow, he would be happy for them.
(Except none of these ever happened, and it was Obito who held Rin’s trembling hand as Kakashi wept over her dead body.)
They were too late.
A second morning had just reclaimed the sky when they finally arrived, only to find that there was no longer any battle left to fight—merely streets empty of people in the harrowing wake of a civil war. The rebels had been overrun. A sudden influx of shinobi from Sunagakure swallowed them whole with tricks and illusions against which no regular person could hope to stand. The victor was clear.
They found Rin in a forest just outside the town, along with the rest of Team Hamaki. Clad in autumn raiment, the trees made a spectacular funereal shroud for the dead. Red and gold showered upon their bodies, a touch of brilliance against the paleness of death and ugliness of blood.
For a long time, none of his teammates dared speak, as if waiting for his cue. Kakashi remained frozen, silenced by guilt, numbed by shock. Failure was one thing, but at least it would mean that he had tried; this, however—the utter futility of this…
Yari’s shout shattered his moment of stupor. The next thing he knew, he already had Rin’s cold, lifeless body pressed against his back as he fled from one branch to another, his teammates on his heels. The hum of Kaku’s genjutsu was sharp on the edge of his consciousness, terror and blackness unfolding swiftly to deter their pursuers. Obito’s Sharingan blazed in response, rising to the threat.
He remembered the rest of the journey mostly in slices, snapshots of a given moment. Their long way home. Three corpses between four of the living. The cloud of failure. The dismal silence. The constant burn behind his eyelids.
But even in the midst of the blur, his guilt stood clear above the rest. For all his promises, for all his genius, he did not even have the courtesy to see Rin die before his eyes. Before Obito’s eye.
“Are you okay?”
Somewhere, in another world, in a perfect world of sunshine and flowers and fulfilled hopes, he would have been able to look up and smile, for his troubles would have been no more than a scraped knee or a minor fight with a loud, irritating, incorrigible—but very much alive—Obito.
In this one, he could not even begin to think of an answer.
Rin’s mother received her daughter’s body with a broken moan and a silent stream of tears.
She had been a kunoichi herself, one of their best trained assassins, until the demands of single parenthood put an end to her career. Rin, Kakashi knew, was her life; what he delivered was nothing less than her death sentence.
Rin’s body weighed almost too little in his arms. Inside the small, three-roomed apartment, they laid her on the worn tatami floor, her head cushioned by a soft pillow. A certain shade of paleness had set in, and she no longer looked as if she was only asleep. Every line on her face spelled death, every absence of expression its marked footsteps.
Droplets of fresh tears splashed on her pale cheeks, and Kakashi quickly took his leave.
His next stop was the memorial stone. He stood before the array of names, head bowed, shoulders shaking, to receive Obito’s judgment.
The ever-spreading silence was punishment enough.
That afternoon, the Hokage received a team of three, not four.
“And her body?” Minato asked after he had listened to their report. He was careful enough to meet Kaku’s solemn gaze, not a single visible chink on his armour.
“Ryouken said that he would take the body to the morgue,” was her answer.
“Said,” he deadpanned, frowning.
Kaku did not respond immediately. She shifted, and a different kind of tension gripped the set of her shoulders and straightened her spine. “According to regulations,” she spoke carefully, her eyes never leaving him from behind the rigid white mask, “the body of every deceased shinobi are subject to a thorough inspection, a procedure carried out by officially appointed medic-nins in order to strip his or her body of all secrets, lest they fall to any outsider’s hands.”
“Indeed.” Minato closed his eyes, and for a moment focused on simply breathing. The effort helped to distance himself from the crushing weight of his grief. “Well, I’ll see to that later. Thank you for your report. Dismissed.”
The silence left in their wake was scornful, riddled with accusations. He thought of his illustrious career, his formidable title, and scoffed at the futileness of both.
Two down, one more to go.
Kakashi did not stir from beneath Obito’s accusing eyes until night had sunk its teeth deep and the village was fast asleep. Only then would he leave the pall of his private grief and go to confront the Hokage.
His soundless feet landed on the open window of the tower. There was no light coming from inside, but Kakashi needed no light, not when he was already so familiar with a person to require neither eyes nor ears to feel him.
“You should have sent more than one team,” he declared to the silence, his voice low and hoarse from crying.
The slumped figure of the Hokage sat unmoving behind the desk. It neither stirred nor responded to Kakashi’s presence, and the silence poured more oil into the slow-burning flame inside his chest. Disappointment had birthed this small crackle, quick to build into a towering inferno with the slightest provocation from this one person. It was so easy to be angry at someone you loved, as if by loving them then you had the right to do everything to them.
“It has only been a year,” this time his voice lost its equilibrium, trembling around the words, “since Obito’s death.”
The two-word apathy sent his anger spiralling out of control. In the span of one second, Kakashi reached the desk and the man, his numb fingers grasping at an achingly familiar white coat. “Look at me!”
The Hokage did look at him, and Kakashi flinched. The sight of his teacher’s tear-stained face checked the rest of his tirade and he felt, suddenly, the world he had known tumbling off its axis.
“I did what I thought was best.” Minato’s voice was tight with suppressed fury. “You’re not the only one who has just lost her, Kakashi.”
“You don’t lose her like I do,” he hissed the words without thought. Loss hummed sharply in his ears, in the shallow space under his ribs. There had always been Rin once—Rin who had clapped and laughed in pleasure when he had landed his first blow on their teacher; Rin who had held his hand when a member of the Uchiha clan threw sarcasm right to his face; Rin who had watched him with sad smiles and even sadder eyes as they shared their first taste of sake, soon after the news that Kushina-san was with child had reached the village grapevine. The memory of that evening was painfully fresh, when they had sat by the Naka River, only the two of them and an endless sea of blinking stars.
He thought he could have loved her, slowly, with time.
Minato sounded defeated, like a man he should never have been. Kakashi stared, numbed now that shock could leave no more mark on him. A teacher, a Hokage had no right to sound like that. But guilt carved too deeply for even the Yellow Flash to care. It was his order, his words, his voice which had sent his people to their death.
“Sensei.” The word formed at the back of Kakashi’s throat, slipping out as a breathless plea. His coiled fists loosened when Minato drew him into his arms, and Kakashi climbed to his lap as he had done so often many years ago, when the gesture could have been nothing more but an innocent quest for comfort.
“You are right to blame me.”
“No.” The word choked him, but he still continued. “I was the one who promised Obito. I failed him. I failed her. And I failed you.”
Minato’s arms came around his shaking frame, at least a tangible presence if not exactly a comfort. “Don’t we make a perfect pair of failures,” he murmured, the words muffled against Kakashi’s hair. Kakashi pressed himself closer, desperate for assurance.
“Are you going to leave me too?”
In a different time, flanked by different circumstances, the promise would have been a hollow one. Right now, Kakashi did not care. He tilted his head, lips finding, tracing the shape of a collarbone.
“Promise me,” he whispered.
“Kakashi.” Minato’s voice had a strange, choked quality to it. His body had suddenly gone rigid, but Kakashi knew that he had taken one step too far to stop now.
“Sensei,” he breathed that word against warm skin, savouring its taste like he had never allowed himself before. “You’re the only one I have left.”
“I’m not going to leave you,” Minato told him, discomfort not yet leaving his posture. “But not like this. You don’t know what you’re doing.”
“I do,” Kakashi hissed. “Don’t treat me like a child.”
“Then think about what you’re doing.”
“Do you think I don’t? I’ve been thinking about this for years.”
“Kakashi.” This time it was stronger, a threat instead of a warning. “I will leave if you don’t stop right now.”
Kakashi whipped his head up. The ice-cold fear which straddled his chest and shook his limbs quickly gave way to anger, vicious and searing. “Fine,” he spat, all jealousy and ugliness roaring to the surface. “If that’s what you want, then I’ll leave you alone. I know you don’t care anymore. She’s the only one that matters to you now.”
“That’s not true.” Minato’s voice was thick with pain, his eyes curiously bright. “You matter to me, Kakashi, more than you know.”
“Prove it,” Kakashi challenged, crushing dread beneath his soles. “Kiss me.”
“I knew it.” The snarl would have been an exit, but Kakashi found himself anchored, held tight against the man he hated more than anyone else at the moment. He thrashed and struggled against his prison—this was not what he wanted and he was not about to give in to such a miserable substitute—but Minato was too strong for him. Kakashi roared, words screaming inside his head (I love you I want you I’ve wanted you for so long why can’t you understand Sensei Sensei Sensei), Chidori singing in his right fist. It would be so easy, this close, his teacher this defenceless. He knew, more than anyone, how cleanly his lightning could cut. One strike to the heart and his misery would end, the person causing it dead.
But Minato did not budge. His arms remained a clamp around Kakashi’s smaller frame, until the chirping sound died a sharp, sudden death. He continued to hold him silently, as steadfast as a rock, as loving as a lover.
Kakashi did not think he had ever loved—or hated—anyone more.
“Don’t leave me,” he whispered, tears in his eyes, a helpless prayer on his tongue. He was weak, shattered, afraid.
“I won’t,” Minato vowed.
The touch of his lips on Kakashi’s temple burned.
And even that, of course, was a lie.
Kakashi took a slow, deep breath to calm his restless impulse, to loosen his rigid limbs. He was standing at the fore, heading a group of wide-eyed, nervous children, surrounded by a circle of blank-faced guards. Kurenai’s father was among them, expounding how important they were to the future of Konoha and why they must not die tonight. From the restless hum which penetrated the group, Kakashi could tell that he was not the only one deeply unhappy by this arrangement.
In the distance, a mighty, inhuman roar rent the night’s veil of silence. Both protectors and protectees ceased talking at once, trading fearful looks with each other. Kakashi gritted his teeth to prevent the birth of a frustrated yell. He could only think of one person, who would certainly be standing at the front line before that rampaging Nine-Tailed demon, while he was trapped here only because he was fucking fourteen.
Wait—inside his head, reason spoke sternly to passion—and think. There must be a way. If only enough commotion occurred, then he would be able to slip past the guards. (The word was a complete joke. They were a handful of Chuunins and Jounins while he had an ANBU tattoo on his left arm. He alone could do more harm to them all combined than they could to him.)
“I know what you’re thinking, eternal rival.”
Kakashi gave the boy standing to his left a sharp, almost hostile look. “Really? Are you suddenly a genius now?”
The sharp jab did nothing to Gai’s self-assurance. “I don’t have to be a genius to know. And you will not succeed, by the way.”
“What, are you trying to stop me?”
“No.” The older boy seemed genuinely surprised. “Why would you think that?”
“Never mind,” he mumbled, clenching his fists. One of the jounins was staring at him suspiciously and Kakashi met his gaze with a scowl. The Hokage must have mentioned him—and the potential trouble he might be causing—to these so-called guards. ANBU or not, it would certainly make his escape attempt thrice as difficult.
“There are times when even great rivalries must be put aside for the sake of greater good,” Gai continued, oblivious to his inattention. “I will help, but only if you promise me that you will come back in one piece. We still haven’t concluded our twenty-sixth match.”
Kakashi glanced at the other boy, both wary and astonished. “Why are you doing this?”
“You said it yourself, anyone who abandons their friends is worse than trash.”
“Those words aren’t mine.”
“It doesn’t matter!” Somehow, even in a low, whispered tone, Gai still managed to convey the impression that he was shouting. “You articulated them with such conviction and vigour of youth! Of course I will help! Besides, this is about the Fourth, right?”
Kakashi did not answer. He stared into the murky depth of the forest, which vastness hid the man he would gladly die for. Ice-cold fear gripped his heart as another earthshaking howl answered his silent longing. Kakashi forced himself to return to the present.
“I cannot make any promise,” he told Gai frankly. “Because this is the Kyuubi we’re talking about and my teacher is fighting against that demon right now. I will come back only if he does.”
“Such honesty!” For a moment, Gai looked as if he was about to embrace him. “You are truly worthy of being my rival! To honour your candour, I shall certainly lend you my aid!”
“You should not doubt our bond, rival!”
Kakashi awkwardly put his arms around the other boy’s frame. “You’re a good friend, Gai.”
Gai grinned, bright and blinding. “But of course. So, do you have a plan?”
And Kakashi told him.
Hatake Kakashi had never dreamed of rivers of blood. Or hills of charred corpses. Or sprawling, rotting scenes of carnage.
He dreamed, instead, of endless golden fields under a pale, dead sun. He dreamed of a colourless sky and a shower of light entirely without warmth. He dreamed of infinite despair and the useless, voiceless work of his throat, for every sound would be swallowed by such vast, empty expanse.
He dreamed of eternity spent in solitude.
In that bleak realm of dreams he roamed every night. Wind’s soft weeping, he learned, was the loneliest sound in the world. No matter how far he walked, no matter how hard he cried, there was never any other answer but its mournful moan.
In his worst nightmares, Kakashi was alone.
It took him thirty-six minutes and a hundred times as many worst-case scenarios whirling inside his head during that exact time span to finally reach Minato.
“Kakashi.” The Hokage was looking straight at him, his eyes the sharpest blue Kakashi had ever seen. The array of many flickering torches in the hideout had turned his hair into burnished gold. A plethora of small cuts marked his skin and tore at his clothes, but on the whole, he remained largely unharmed, especially for a man who had decided to challenge the strongest tailed demon in existence.
The slow trickle of joy inside Kakashi’s heaving chest burst into an explosion of searing heat. “Sensei,” he breathed that word like a prayer—a prayer fulfilled. “I have come to help.”
Minato’s face darkened. “You shouldn’t be here,” he said stiffly—and yet, for all the pain writ on his face, there was not a dash of surprise. He did not need to ask why his one remaining student had gone through fire and destruction only to find him. Behind his tall build, his wife watched in silence, with their softly-crying baby cradled in the crook of her arms.
Kakashi was careful not to look at her.
“I have come to help,” he repeated, unwavering.
“No.” Minato stepped closer, but the look on his face was stern and his voice no less so. “This isn’t your fight. Yours will come later—much later, when you’re older. For now, you will have to stay alive. Konoha needs you.”
“And Konoha doesn’t need you?”
“I am the Hokage. It is my duty to protect the village.”
“And I am a shinobi of Konoha,” Kakashi retorted sharply, unflinching. “Which makes it my duty to protect the Hokage.”
“One of many duties. Your foremost is still to the village.”
“I disagree. Loyalty is won, not decreed. Only I can choose to whom I will swear my allegiance.”
“Kakashi, listen to your teacher–”
“No!” The word was wrenched from his throat by despair’s mindless hands. Wetness sprung to his eyes and Obito’s Sharingan shrieked in its socket as his control slipped. “Now it’s your turn! Listen to your student for once!”
Minato stared, surprise robbing him of speech and action both. Kakashi returned his gaze, still shaking, and yet his voice was calm enough when he continued, “I will not leave. You will have to kill me if you want me to go, Sensei.”
Minato’s lips tightened into an angry line. The sight of it made Kakashi tremble, but he knew he was right and no amount of intimidation would stir his feet. Not even the presence of his sensei’s wife.
His gaze slid past Minato’s frame, resting briefly on the red brightness which had been the source of his misery for years. Her eyes caught his; it was one glance, and yet, in that briefest of instants, she read him like no one else had read him before.
I will not abandon him. If he is to die here, then I will too.
A ghost of a smile, pained yet proud and sad, touched the pale curve of her lips. In that instant, he also read her better than he had ever read anyone before—and the irony would have made him laugh, had he not been staring at danger in the face.
“Please come near me, Kakashi-kun.” She was the one who spoke first, softly, the usual exuberance of her voice much diminished. Kakashi obeyed as if spellbound. The smell of blood grew stronger as he approached, and it bathed his heart with dread; he could not determine if it came from the delivery or a gaping wound.
The baby ceased its—his—crying when Kakashi knelt down before them. Two blind hands reached for his mask, too small and too short, and Kushina smiled, a mother’s delight erasing all traces of agony from her dirt-streaked face for a fleeting second.
“He seems to like you.”
Kakashi could find no word to answer. He stared at the tiny, curled fists, amazed by this incredible image of beginning, the stirring of life in so small a living thing, in this place and time which could only birth death and despair. How strange it was that he, who had despised weakness for the entire length of his life, could feel drawn to something so utterly helpless.
But then again, Minato’s blood flowed in this baby’s veins.
If I survive tonight, the thought came unbidden to his mind, startling him with its sincerity, I promise that I will teach and protect you, just as your father did me.
“I know why you’re doing this,” Kushina said quietly, a whisper intended only for his ears. “Also why you’ve always hated me.”
“It isn’t hate,” Kakashi forced himself to admit, the words clinging to the weak, brittle threads of his voice. He dared not look up and meet her gaze forthright. What a contrast her kind understanding would make against the ugliness of his envy.
“Still.” The tips of her trembling fingers brushed his gloved hand lightly. “I’m really sorry.”
Kakashi shook his head, a sharp, jerky movement that echoed the fluttering pain in his chest. “No. It’s my own fault, but I couldn’t help it. I still can’t. I’m sorry.”
A small, wistful smile flashed across her face. “Ah. Then we are more alike than you know.”
Kakashi stared at her. “I don’t understand.”
“It doesn’t matter.” She closed her eyes and the lines on her temple were a proof of her private battle. “It could have, once, and the knowledge of it would probably destroy you—and despite all that, you would love him still, more wildly, more passionately than before, and it would break you even more. So maybe it’s a good thing that you don’t know, and never will.”
And that was when he noticed the drawing on the baby’s stomach, the enduring blackness of blood its ink.
A world of understanding shattered upon him, heavy and ruthless. Kakashi suddenly felt cold, the gathering tension in his limbs sharpening into ice. Sealing techniques were not his forte, but he had studied enough to recognise what this one meant—what it would mean, soon, if he did nothing to stop it.
“This is madness.” He whipped his head up, meeting his teacher’s expressionless gaze. “Sealing the Nine Tails inside your son? You cannot do it.”
“It’s the only way,” was Minato’s mechanical answer.
“No, it isn’t.” Kakashi rose to his feet, hands coiled into taut fists. “You forget that I’m here. Use me instead of the baby. Seal it inside me.”
The silence which followed his declaration was strained, awkward, filled with enough tension to make Kakashi realise that the execution of his proposal would not be truly unwelcome. Crushing the stirring pangs of hurt under his heels, he seized the chance to press on. “I want to do this,” he declared, taking one step closer to Minato. “I’m stronger than your son, Sensei. The fox will not defeat me that easily.”
But it was Kushina who broke their heavy silence. “You don’t understand, Kakashi-kun.” She spoke in a low, pained voice, as if every word was an effort. “The odds are actually worse because you are older. There is a reason why a Bijuu is always sealed inside a newborn baby. For this particular sealing technique, the younger the vessel, then the better the chance for he or she to survive.”
“I can do it,” Kakashi persisted. “Even if I can’t, then I will make sure to bring that demon to the depth of hell with me. It will never return to Konoha.”
A pair of teardrops cascaded down her cheeks. “Naruto has a big chance to survive,” she reiterated, white fingers clenching the chequered blanket wrapped around her baby. “You, I’m not so sure.”
Gritting his teeth, Kakashi spun around to face his teacher once more. He would readily wield barb if plea failed to serve. “Will you seal that thing inside your son? What kind of father are you?”
“Hokage-sama,” he snapped, making the older man flinch. “I’m an ANBU. Use me.”
He had used every weapon in his arsenal and still Minato remained unmoving, unmoved except for the world of pain pooling in his eyes. There had been a time, not too long ago, when Kakashi would have traded the world for those eyes to look at him in that way. Now, he recognised his role in this dance of three, and it was to die, so the other two could live.
He knew it, he wanted it, and he would not let anyone take that choice from him.
Armed with this new determination, he turned to Kushina. “Kushina-san, please tell him–”
The rest of his plea deserted him as soon as he felt the gentle touch at the back of his neck. Numbness spidered down the length of his spine, and Kakashi cursed himself to hell and back for his moment of carelessness. Because in that space of one breath, the Yellow Flash had robbed him of control and movement both, as swiftly, as ruthlessly as he had robbed Kakashi of his heart.
“I’m sorry, Kushina,” Minato’s voice was rough, weak, its edges broken; for a man so cruel, he certainly could sound desolate. “He is my only remaining student—and I still have my promise to his father. I cannot let him do this.”
Through the wetness of her tears, the red-haired woman smiled. “Well, you said it yourself. Naruto is our son. Of course he will survive.”
“Yes, he will.” The conviction of that answer blinded Kakashi with fury, but he could not move, could not give voice to any of the despair crowding his chest. He had been reduced to a spectator, even more useless than the baby gurgling softly in Kushina’s arms.
And then there was Minato, kneeling down, placing his hand on top of Kakashi’s head as he had done hundreds of times, as if this was simply a conclusion to another well-executed mission. “I’m sorry,” he spoke softly, with just enough sincerity, just enough sorrow, to make this nightmare all too real. “I know I’m a bad teacher—I keep breaking my promises to you. But still, I’m very proud of you, Kakashi.”
Then his lips brushed Kakashi’s cheek and it was the sting of a thousand goodbyes. “You’re going to be a great teacher,” he added, smiling—because he could not hear the sound of Kakashi’s heart breaking. “Please take care of Naruto.”
He turned around, toward the roar of the demon outside, and Kakashi could only watch as the only person he ever loved, the only one he had left to call his own, marched to his death.
No, he screamed, voiceless, mindless. You have taken everything from me. But not this choice. Not how I choose to die.
His brain worked frantically. He had experienced Minato’s binding jutsu enough times to recognise its intricacy—and the futility of a reckless, thoughtless effort against its many traps. Even for Kakashi, eight years of experience still proved too few to loosen, let alone unravel, the invisible rope.
The difference was, now he had the Sharingan. Finding a weak link would not be impossible.
And it was not. Kakashi broke free the moment Minato began. The Sharingan hummed. His hands moved, following the rapid sequence, one after another. The Yondaime had yet to notice, his entire concentration spent in holding back the hell storm that was the Nine-Tail’s chakra. Kakashi copied each seal perfectly, and at the tail-end of this accomplishment, he could not help let a brief, triumphant smile flicker across his lips—for this was a proof, solid and incontestable, that even Obito would not let their sensei die.
That was when Minato noticed him. The horror, the anguish flooding his eyes was the only confirmation Kakashi needed to know that he had succeeded. But the euphoria was fleeting; the demon had noticed him, its flame-riddled eyes focused on Kakashi’s smaller frame. He was the weaker one, the seal feasting on his life, draining his chakra in mere count of heartbeats.
The demon roared. Kakashi fell to his knees, a scream forming in his throat as countless, tiny pinpricks burned his Sharingan. Fire singed his flesh from within, carving the mark of the Nine-Tails into his veins. Each lungful gasp was its own purgatory, and Kakashi wept without noticing that he did.
It was then that he realised he would die. The world was spinning out of control, sharp and blinding one second, dark and mute on the next. Colours slowly faded from his eyes, bleeding into shades of grey only to sharpen into painful intensity when he attempted a semblance of focus. Death was a riot of senses—and approaching fast.
And it would find Kakashi waiting, ready, with purpose at hand and resolve in mind. Maybe life had made a tragedy out of him, but he would never let its shadowy sister to have him on any other term but his own. This would be his choice, for the person he had chosen, and there his final victory would burn, vibrant and lasting, the explosion of a thousand stars.
Kakashi would have smirked, would have laughed in the demon’s face despite the onslaught of pain battering every inch of his body. But Death had indulged him long enough; ice rippled sharply across his back, spreading, poisoning, down to farthest ends of his limbs. The spread of its wings was deadly.
His last coherent thought was, so this is what triumph feels like.
“There is only one reason,” Kakashi spoke, slow and steady, “why I decided to join the ANBU. Can you guess, Sensei?”
Minato watched him, disapproval writ clearly in the furrow of his brow. Kakashi returned his gaze unblinking, every splinter of hurt, every fragment of agony concealed. Never had the silence of his teacher’s apartment fallen so heavily in his ears, grave and aloof, speaking of absence through presence. The inaugural ceremony was still three weeks away and already a rift was growing between them.
The tattoo on his left arm pulsed, an evil, alien presence.
“Can you guess?” he repeated, more softly, this time a challenge.
“Fine.” His teacher’s retort was as sharp as a knife, and just as brutal. “If you want to join them, then by all means, do what you want. You’re a Jounin. You don’t need my permission.”
“But I do.” Kakashi swallowed through the thickness in his throat, fingers clenching around the bunched fabric of his forehead protector. “Without your permission, I cannot have a name.”
Minato’s frown deepened, now almost a scowl. “That tattoo comes with a name. Sandaime should have–”
“I want it from you.” The words left his mouth in a rush, and yet they were firm, unshakable. “Only you. Not anyone else.”
The jolt of surprise—and something very much like pain—slackened anger’s hold on the older man’s expression. Kakashi took it as an opening; he leant in, close enough to feel his heartbeat stutter, the world narrow, and let a lifetime of longing destroy the rest of his restraint.
“Please,” he pleaded, mask lowered, Sharingan bared. “Name me, Sensei.”
The faint, breathless whisper withered into silence. The cerulean blue of Minato’s eyes burned bright even as he stubbornly maintained his silence. Kakashi waited; he had never felt more exposed, more vulnerable in the near fourteen years of his life.
Then it came. A gentle touch from a calloused hand carefully uncoiled his fist, digit by unyielding digit. The fabric slid free, and Kakashi held his breath as it unfurled, black canvas with a flash of silver and leaf at its centre. Minato still said nothing, and it was this silence which finally made Kakashi surrender to the first caress of tremors. Then there was the glide of his fingers across Kakashi’s cheek, a butterfly’s kiss as the black cloth fell, like a curtain, over his Sharingan. It traced a familiar path around his head, and ended in a firm knot at the back of his skull.
Silent, rigid in the circle of Minato arms, Kakashi closed both eyes and prayed for the moment to last.
“Ryouken,” the whisper came, caressing the shell of his ear and sending a shiver down his spine. It was a contract, a binding oath, for loyalty was more than an obligatory vow repeated by every Academy graduate, more than a coincidence of birthplace, under the shadow of the same mountain.
Because I will die for you, he would have said, eyes shut, hands curled against Minato’s vest—but neither loyalty needed a voice. It was innate, deep-rooted, self-evident in ways that not even love could hope to match. It was in his blood, in each of his stuttering breaths, in his newly-acquired name.
Ryouken, hound, sword and shield alike.
Kakashi smiled. It was the name he would wear dying.
End Chapter 2
So that's the end of Radius, the first part of the Sunburned series. The next (which probably won't appear for a long time because I haven't finished writing it orz) will deal with our lovely pairing in post-Kushina time.
Btw ryouken means hound.
Thank you for reading. Comments are very much appreciated :D