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An Invincible Summer

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When Naruto Uzumaki is five years old he accidentally creates a powerful ninjutsu, which he immediately labels Oiroke no Jutsu.

Three days later, a drunk civilian attacks and mortally wounds the young boy after hearing that he was to begin his education as a ninja at the Academy. When the ANBU arrive at the scene, there's so much blood that the status of the young boy is undeniable. Despite three days spent with Ibiki Morino, the civilian claims he has no idea where the body is. The body is never found.

Six months later, a girl by the name of Natsu Nami applies to enter the Academy.

~

Sarutobi looks down at the small girl standing respectfully in front of him, her head bowed. Her hair is pale blond, almost the color of ash, and the glimpse of her eyes he's managed to get had revealed them to be a blue so dark they'd reminded him of the Uchiha. "Natsu, was it?"

"Yes, Hokage-sama," she says. This is normally one of the joys of his positions, he loves the looks of happiness in children's faces when he admits them.

Ever since Naruto was killed, he's found it very difficult to find joy in anything.

He puffs at his pipe, looking down at the exam with the girl's name scrawled across the top. "You did very well. I haven't seen such impressive scores from a civilian applicant in years."

"Thank you, Hokage-sama."

"However, I do have some concerns," he says, and he tries to be gentle, but the girl flinches. "You claim to be an orphan, and yet there is no record of you ever being at the orphanage."

She swallows, "I was not raised at the orphanage. I was taken in by, well, the Flower District. I was given food, clothing, and training. I have no complaints about my time spent there."

Sarutobi feels his blood boil, because of course he's well aware of the robust economy of the seediest district in Konoha, but Natsu is a child -

"Training?" he repeats softly, and at his tone the girl looks up, dark eyes wide.

"Oh, don't worry Hokage-sama! You don't need to look scary. All - well, most of my training has been theoretical. I can - I mean, I've," she tugs on the end of her long ponytail, looking frustrated, and something comes loose in the Sandaime's chest at her scrunched up face. "I mean, I can cook, and dress, and - oh, like this!" With no other warning, the girl places her hands on the front of his desk and heaves herself up, flipping up her legs so that she's doing a handstand. Just as smoothly she raises herself up a couple extra inches, and Sarutobi is treated to the sight of the girl balancing her whole weight on a single index finger. He knows a few chunin who can't do that without using chakra, and he finds himself smiling as Natsu neatly flips herself backwards so she's standing in front of him again, beaming.

"I see," he says, eyes crinkling at the corners, "You have excellent balance, Natsu."

She blushes, says, "Total control of one's body is required for all things," and that's a prostitute's proverb, but it translates to the life of a ninja seamlessly.

"You do understand that as a kunoichi, you may be required to perform similar duties as a woman of the Flower District?" he asks, because given her background it's almost guaranteed that if she makes it to chunin they'll send her on infiltration missions.

"The pay is better, at least," Natsu says, and the Sandaime coughs to hide his laugh, even as he gives in and signs his name on the bottom of her form.

"You'll have to work very hard, Natsu. Most children start the Academy at five, which means you're three years behind," he says as he hands over her entrance ticket.

She clutches it to her chest, grin and eyes wide. She bows deeply before saying, "I will! I won't let you down, Hokage-sama!"

The eight year old girl runs from his office, and once the door closes he rests his elbows on his desk.

Naruto would be halfway through his first year at the Academy, if he were still alive.

With that thought heavy on his heart, he gets started on the day's paperwork.

~

Natsu sits in the middle of the playground, smoothing her fingers across Sandaime's signature.

She can't believe this is working. The old man knew Naruto better than anyone, and she was so sure that he'd call her out the minute he saw her. But he didn't! And he let her into the Academy! She was still going to fulfill her dream of being a ninja! She knew making Natsu older than Naruto had been a good idea - the old man hadn't even suspected her.

Those two weeks of almost dying were totally worth it. And so were those five months of hanging around Madame Koi's parlor even more than usual, learning more about anatomy and other things than she'd really wanted to know.

She hugs her admittance ticket, so happy she could burst. She almost wants to be angry at the fox inside of her for making everyone hate her. But that same fox revealed itself while she was dying and saved her life, gave her the opportunity to have this feeling right now, so she supposes it's not all bad.

"Hey!" Natsu looks up. A brown haired girl who'd thrown rocks at Naruto and called him a monster is smiling at her. "We're playing tag. Do you want to play too?"

Natsu stuffs the form in her pocket, "Sure!"

Naruto Uzumaki may have died that day, but Natsu Nami is alive and well.

~

Suzume stands in front of the Sandaime, opens her mouth, closes it. She crosses her arms, looks at the ceiling, then looks back down at the hokage. "Is this a joke? A test of some sort?"

He raises an eyebrow.

"That Nami girl. The civilian you granted late admittance."

"Has there been a problem?" he asks, "Is she not keeping up with her classmates? It has only been a few months."

She stares at him like he's an idiot. He hasn't been the focus of such a stare in many years. It's refreshing.

"She's outpacing them," Suzume frowns, "Her genjutsu is flawless, her ninjutsu nearly the same. Have you checked the girl's chakra levels? They're insane. For the first few weeks I thought she was hopeless, just no real control to speak of, but then I had her try to make some jutsus, just to see - she made two bunshins that were pathetic, but then she filled the classroom with one hundred perfect clones. Her biggest weakness is her taijutsu, which is admittedly abysmal, but it's not as if it matters because no one can hit her! She's incredibly strong and flexible, and she simply dodges her opponent with the most ridiculous gymnastic moves I've seen in years. Once they've tired themselves, then she attacks, and maybe she can only reliably land one hit, but one hit is all she needs!"

Sarutobi removes the pipe from his slack mouth before it falls out. "Ah," he settles on finally. "How are her kunoichi skills?"

Suzume snorts, "The girl was raised in a brothel. There's nothing I can teach her in that area."

He rubs his thumb across the wood of his pipe. "What do you believe should be done?"

"Private tutoring," the woman answers immediately, "In ninja history and the Shinobi Rules, as well as her taijutsu and chakra control. Then, if she has advanced sufficiently - which I'm fully confident she will - have her sit the Graduation Exam."

"After only a year?"

"Yes," Suzume says, "she's a genius."

Sarutobi sighs. The word genius is not used lightly. The last person it was applied to was Itachi Uchiha, who'd graduated the academy just after turning seven and was currently a jounin at the age of eleven.

"Very well," he says, a half-plan, half-hope forming in his mind, "Then she will be trained by a genius. Have her report to me tomorrow morning."

Suzume bows. "Thank you, Hokage-sama."

~

Itachi was not in the habit of questioning the hokage's orders. "What?"

The Sandaime wasn't laughing at him, but it certainly felt like it. Before he can repeat his query in a more respectful manner, the door opens, and in walks a little girl a couple of years younger than him. She has on black leggings and a tight, dark purple tunic, and her ash blond hair is pulled up in a bun on top of her head. She closes the door behind her, facing the ground, and shuffles forward. She's twisting the material of tunic in her hands, and her shoulders are hunched up to nearly around her ears.

Sarutobi looks baffled, "Natsu? What's wrong?"

She looks up, and there are tears on the surface of eyes that wouldn't look out of place on his clansmen. "I'm sorry Hokage-sama! Please give me another chance, I'll work harder! I'll read all the boring books and do the stupid katas, and - and - and," she's nearly hyperventilating, pulled between desperation and devastation. Itachi's got a little brother at home; he can't just stand here and watch a kid cry.

He drops to his knees beside her and grabs her hands. She looks down at him and he says, "Nami-san, please calm down. There is no reason to cry." As soon as he's said that it occurs to him that maybe she's crying because she doesn't want to be trained by the scary Uchiha prodigy. He's about to back away when she nods sharply, sucking in a big breath and holding it until her face is bright red. "Let it out," he coaxes, and almost wants to smile at the ridiculous face she's making, but she does as he asks, breathing out in one heavy sigh.

"Now," Sarutobi says, eyebrows drawn together in concern, "what was that about?"

"Please don't kick me out of the Academy!" she blurts, pulling her hands away from Itachi to face the hokage. "I promise I'll try harder, I'll be better, I will. Just - give me another chance."

Itachi looks over at Sandaime, eyebrows raised. The older man at least looks a little embarrassed. "Ah, Natsu, there's been a misunderstanding. I'm not kicking you of the Academy. Just the opposite. You're doing so well that we want to give you private tutoring."

"I'm doing well?" Natsu repeats, dumbfounded. Itachi has the urge to find whoever was in charge of the care of this girl, and ... give them a stern talking to. Terrify them a bit, because he'd never harm a civilian, but they don't need to know that.

"Very well," Sarutobi says warmly, “Well enough that we think you can take the graduation exam at the end of the year, if you study and work hard with your tutor."

"I will!" She beams, "I'll work super hard, and be the best kunoichi ever!"

Sarutobi leans back in his chair, and he looks the happiest he's been since that Uzumaki kid was killed (and that had been another instance where Itachi had needed to repeat to himself that he didn't harm civilians, because that kid had been the same age as his brother, what was wrong with people). "I believe you, Natsu. This is your tutor, Itachi Uchiha."

Natsu turns to him, eyes wide. It seems his name has preceded him, so he bows shallowly and says, "Nami-san, I will do my best to instru-"

"Itachi-sensei!" He's got skinny arms around his neck, and he closes his arms around her on reflex, eyes wide, because besides Sasuke no one touches him. "Thank you so much!" She pulls back so she can give him a clumsy bow of her own. "But don't call me Nami-san, that makes me sound old! I'm only eight!"

"Then I must insist you don't call me sensei," he blinks, and he thinks he might be smiling, "I'm only eleven."

"But you're still teaching me! That makes you Sensei," the little girl argues.

He's definitely smiling, "I'm only teaching you sometimes, so it's not right to give me the full title of sensei."

She glares at him, eyes squinting and hands on her hips. "All right," she declares finally, "I will call you Itachi-senpai."

"In that case, I suppose I will call you Natsu-chan," he says, then winces because maybe that's too familiar for a girl he's just met -

"YAY!" She grabs for his hand, "Can we start right now, Itachi-senpai? Please please please?"

"I suppose," he answers, because it's not like he has anything to do until Sasuke gets out of the Academy, "Can you perform shunshin?" She nods so hard her bun becomes loose. "Meet me at training ground four. I'll be there momentarily."

"Okay!" She's gone in a swirl of leaves.

Itachi turns to Sarutobi. The older man grins, "I take it that you have no objections?"

Well aware he's been manipulated, but not sure why or how, he simply says, "No, Hokage-sama."

"Best get going then. You wouldn't want to keep Natsu waiting."

"Yes, Hokage-sama." He's certain he catches the beginnings of the Sandaime's laughter as he body flickers away.

~

Itachi comes in with his first progress report a month later. His shoulders are loose and the ever present bags underneath his eyes are barely there. Sarutobi feels absurdly pleased with himself.

"Her chakra control is horrifying," he starts off with, "She has so much of it that she can get away with performing most techniques, but that's not a sustainable habit. In fact, I believe much of her success with ninjutsu can be attributed to her chakra stores rather than any real skill on her part. However, I've had her working on water walking, and she's been improving at a slow but acceptable rate. As long as she does not harbor desires to be a medic-nin, I foresee no long term problems in this area. Her taijutsu is also improving - she clearly puts many hours into her training in between our sessions - but her instinct is always to evade and retreat instead of pushing forward. If she cannot retrain this instinct and become more versatile, she will leave herself open to many attacks."

"And her history lessons?" he asks. Itachi winces, and he bites on his pipe to keep from smiling.

"She's trying," he starts off with, and Sarutobi can't wait until Itachi is old enough to have his own genin team. It's the one aspect of ninja life he'd probably enjoy. "She has below average reading comprehension and writing ability for her age, likely due to her upbringing. However, she is a diligent student, and her competence rises every time I see her. She has a good auditory memory, and can recall most facts if I lecture her on a subject instead of having her read about it."

The Sandaime taps his pipe on his desk, "Overall assessment?"

"Her progress is acceptable," Itachi announces, "With proper training, she will make an extremely formidable ninjutsu specialist. I would like to teach her sealing."

Sarutobi blinks, "Sealing?"

"Nami means wave," Itachi frowns, "It’s a common name in the Land of Water, and her bone structure reminds me very much of the ninja of Uzugakure. I believe she may have ancestors there. The village was famed for their sealing techniques; if she turns out to be proficient in the art, it may one day be a - a comfort to her."

The hokage looks at the gentle boy who, for all that he does not seem to enjoy being a ninja, still carries the name Uchiha with pride, and wants Natsu to be able to feel something similar. "That sounds like an excellent idea. Do you need assistance in teaching her?"

He shakes his head, "No, Hokage-sama. I am competent in the basics."

"Very well. I'm satisfied with your progress as Natsu's tutor. You are dismissed."

Itachi bows before leaving in a poof of smoke. Sarutobi leans back in his chair, and thinks that maybe they haven't ruined Itachi.

Or maybe they have, and that's fine. Natsu can save him.

~

"SENPAI!"

Itachi is walking his brother home when he hears the familiar yell. He looks down at Sasuke and says, "Don't worry, she's a friend."

Sasuke blinks, but before he has time to question it Natsu is falling from above, her feet planting themselves firmly on Itachi's shoulders. He's just grateful she's learned to cushion her impact with chakra, "Hello, Natsu-chan." He doesn't bother to look up at the girl standing on him.

"Woah," the girl says, "I didn't know you came in mini size." She slips so she's sitting, and in the same motion falls and twists herself so she's hanging upside down against his chest with her legs thrown over his shoulders. This puts her to roughly the correct height so she can look his little brother in the eye.

Itachi can't help but think it would have been easier for her to simply get down and kneel.

"Outoto, this is Natsu Nami. I've been helping her train. Natsu-chan, this is my brother, Sasuke."

"Hello," Sasuke says, eyes wide, "It's nice to meet you. You're very pretty."

Natsu's mouth falls open, and Itachi has to grab onto her thighs to keep her suddenly slack body from falling to the ground head first. "Really?" she asks, voice quieter than Itachi has heard it in months.

Sasuke nods, solemn, "Really. Aniki doesn't usually hang out with pretty girls, just scary ones."

Itachi quickly edits his chant of 'do not harm civilians' to include 'or big mouthed little brothers.'

Natsu pulls Itachi's hands away so she can flip and land in a graceful crouch in front of his brother. "Thank you! That's really sweet of you to say!"

Sasuke is slowly in the process of turning a dark shade of red. "Natsu-chan," Itachi sighs, "did you need something?"

"Oh, yeah," she stands up and pulls out a scroll, "I want to do some more reading on sealing, but I need a senior ninja's permission to check them out of the library. I thought of asking Hokage-sama, but that seemed like overkill."

"A little," Itachi agrees, mouth twitching as he accepts the pen she hands him, "How is your sealing going?"

"You tell me," she says. For the past couple weeks Itachi has been using sealing scrolls and explosion tags made by her.

He hands the scroll back, and tries not to think about what Natsu could get up to with the information in Chakra Fission and Degradation unsupervised. Luckily, while her practical and theoretical knowledge has advanced enough that she can understand the book, her reading comprehension hasn't. Itachi knows he's going to be spending a significant portion of his free time being stalked by Natsu until he agrees to help her read it. "They've all worked perfectly," he praises, "although I was surprised when the smoke from the explosion tags was purple."

"It's my color," Natsu says seriously. "Anyway, I'm going to go to the library before it closes. Thanks Itachi-senpai! Nice meeting you Sasuke!" She pats his brother's head before she shunshins away.

Sasuke looks up at him, still blushing bright red. Itachi sighs and pokes his forehead, "She's too old for you. Give it a rest for a few more years, for my sake."

"Aniki!" he shouts, scowling and pushing his hand away as they continue to walk home. Less than minute later Sasuke twines their fingers together, though, so he assumes he's forgiven.

~

Natsu knows that being worried about the Graduation Exam is silly. Under Itachi-senpai her chakra control has improved to the point where she can even make as few as ten bunshin, and her taijutsu is even pretty good (Senpai gets this pinched look in his eyes when they spar and says that she needs to learn to face things head on, that she can't always retreat). Her reading is better, although she's well aware it's not good enough, but it's certainly more than enough to take the exam.

She knows all this. There's no way she won't pass. Sitting surrounded by kids that are three years older than her (six years older, really, but she's not sure it really counts anymore when she's been playing at being older for so long, even claiming her ninth birthday to have been a few months ago at the height of summer) she twitches in her seat and tugs on her hair and just wants this to be over.

Two hours later it is, and she hugs Suzume before attaching her hitai-ate and runs screaming from the building. She closes her eyes, feels for the familiar pull and - there! She body flickers away, and it's only when she appears in the hokage's office that's bursting with Anbu and sees Itachi kneeling to accept a porcelain mask that it occurs to her that she maybe should have double checked to see what she was body flickering into.

"Ah," she says, "I'll just-" and disappears.

Itachi's eyes are wide. The Sandaime is holding his head in his hands.

"Uh," the Anbu with a dog mask says, "Isn't it supposed to impossible to shunshin into your office? I mean, I've left it enough times that way - but never quite managed -"

"The chakra barrier is still up," a Hyuuga Anbu confirms, "No one should be able to body flicker in."

"Oh, the things that can be accomplished through ignorance of their impossibility," Sarutobi says, "I suppose we'll have to do some experimenting later."

Itachi twitches. If Sarutobi makes her do something as 'boring' as body flicker in and out of his office for hours on end, he knows exactly who she's going to complain to about it. Suddenly, being promoted to Anbu and sent on a life threatening mission outside the village doesn't seem so bad.

"Hokage-sama, who was that?" the Hyuuga demands.

"Ah, that would be Natsu Nami. It appears that she's passed her graduation exam, if the hitai-ate around her neck was any indication."

There's another long silence. Itachi is almost beginning to enjoy this. "A genin managed to bypass your chakra barrier?"

"Well, she's not a genin until her jounin instructor passes her," the Sandaime says thoughtfully, "So I guess technically she's still an academy student."

And another dumb silence. Itachi side-eyes Sarutobi. The old man is definitely enjoying this.

~

Natsu Name, age 9. Drawn by: jenzwashere

Natsu Nami, age 9. Drawn by jenzwashere

~

Inoichi doesn't want a genin team, he doesn't have the time. The Hokage ignores his protests like he doesn't hear them, and Inoichi finds himself with three files in his hands and not completely certain how he let himself get talked into this.

He sighs and glances through them on his way to meet the brats. He's got the Inuzuka clan heir, Hana, and she's also the Rookie of the Year, which is just great. He has to give the kids at least the appearance of a fair shot or Tsume will kill him, and it's not like an Inuzuka is any stranger to teamwork. Some kid who's fifteen, Kabuto Yakushi, and all his other team members have been promoted to chunin so he needs a new team. He'll definitely know the point of the genin test if he's already passed it. It looks like his only hope of not getting saddled with a bunch of genin is Natsu Nami, a nine year old prodigy and orphan who's graduated the Academy after only attending it for a year, and been personally tutored by Itachi Uchiha.

Inoichi hangs his head. To borrow a word from his dear friend, troublesome.

~

Kakashi's side still aches from getting a sword run through it on his last mission, which is why he's running through katas at a snail's pace in a deserted training ground. If asked, it's also why he'll claim he does nothing to stop the purple and blond ball of fear from slamming into him and knocking him to the ground.

"You have to help!" the girl sitting on his chest says urgently, and Kakashi blinks, dazed, and thinks that if anyone finds out some brat got the drop on him he can kiss his badass reputation goodbye. "Please, Shinobi-san, I need your help!"

"With what?" He pushes himself up, and the kid slides down from chest to his lap. She looks oddly familiar. "You shouldn't attack senior ninja, kid, I could have hurt you."

"You need to say you'll help first, then I'll tell you," she declares.

He stares, "Kid, that's not even close to how this works."

She scowls and hits the flat of her palm against his chest, "Shinobi-san! It's nothing bad, but you can't change your mind after, because I'm screwed."

Kakashi raises an eyebrow at her, and then mourns the fact that keeping his face mostly covered means he's ruined the effect. He flicks her hitai-ate, “You’re a ninja, what do you need my help for?”

“I’m not strong enough, and I need your help!” She scowls and crosses her arms over her chest, “You’re a Konoha ninja too, so you have to help me!”

Kakashi rubs the back of his head. The brat in his lap keeps glaring at him, and he sighs. “Okay, okay. What do you need help with?” If it’s too much of a pain, well, she has to learn that ninja lie some time.

“Him!” She points back from the direction she’d come from. He looks up and sees an enraged Inoichi Yamanaka covered in purple glitter running towards them. The end of the man’s hair is singed and smoking, and about half a foot shorter than when he’d seen the clan head last.

“NATSU!” he howls, “GET BACK HERE!”

“Holy shit,” Kakashi breathes. He swings the kid onto his back and dodges the barrage of kunai Inoichi throws at them. He’s also just realized where he’d recognized her from – it’s the same brat who’d body flickered into the hokage’s office a couple of days ago. “Is this your genin exam?”

“Yes,” she says, arms around his neck, “It was going really well until it wasn’t.”

Kakashi snorts. Inoichi finally stops in front of them, chest heaving. “Kakashi, always a pleasure. If you’d just hand over that brat, that’d be great.”

“Mah, I guess I shouldn’t get involved with a genin exam,” he agrees. However, he’s going to tell this story to literally anyone who will stay still for long enough.

Inoichi lunges for her. Natsu tightens her arms on his neck and whines in his ear, “Shinobi-san, you promised!”

It’s dumb. It’s ridiculous. But for a split second the child on his back sounds like another small, grinning blond, and the thought of his sensei’s son still makes his throat tight and fury lick inside his chest. Which is probably why he ducks Inoichi’s grip, and then twists his body to deliver a powerful kick to the man’s stomach. “I did not promise,” he says, shifting into a defensive stance and trying not to think of bright blue eyes and a room bathed in blood. The one day there hadn’t been any spare ANBU to watch over him -

“It was implied,” Natsu says, smug and delighted in his ear, “Let’s kick his butt!”

Inoichi has gotten to his feet and is eyeing him warily. “Kakashi?”

“I guess I promised,” he says apologetically, and fighting a jounin for some dumb genin definitely does not count as ‘taking it easy’ but will at least be more interesting than stupid-slow taijutsu stances.

The older man glares, but the effect is somewhat lessened by the shimmering purple glitter covering his person. Natsu had honestly earned a hand just because of that. “Very well,” he says stiffly, and then he moves.

Kakashi may be one of the best ninja in the village, but so is the Yamanaka clan head. He’s hindered by the kid clinging to his back, and his side is definitely doing more than twinging as they twist and hit and block each other. They’re both hindered by the fact that they’re not seriously trying to harm each other. Kakashi has started to work up a sweat, and is thinking that maybe he should take up Gai’s offer of training together, when Inoichi ducks under his arm and twists close enough that they’re nearly nose to nose. As their eyes meet, Kakashi knows he’s going to be exposed to one of the Yamanka clan’s special brand of mind jutsu, and the very last place he wants anyone is inside his head, he doesn’t even want to be inside his own head, fuck

“Careful!” Small, soft hands cover his eyes, and it breaks the beginning of the jutsu enough that Kakashi can blindly lash out and push Inoichi to the side, “He knocks people out by looking at them!”

She keeps her hands over his eyes, but calls out, “Right kick, ninety seven degree angle!” He listens, because what the hell, and feels his shin connect solidly with Inoichi’s forearm. “Left punch, three inches right!” and so on, and he hits every time, which shouldn’t be possible because Inoichi knows where he’s going, obviously, so she must be figuring where he’s going to end up before she even calls it, and that’s almost impressive enough on its own that maybe she does deserve her genius label. “Fall back!” she calls, but even as he steps away she’s lifting herself up. She uses his shoulders as a springboard to jump onto Inoichi. Kakashi opens his eye to see the girl slapping an explosion tag onto the older man’s forehead, landing with one foot on top of Inoichi’s head, and jumping away back onto Kakashi. She lands against his chest and dangles against him with her arms around his neck.

“Shit,” Kakashi says, torn, because if a genin manages to blow up a clan head they’re going to be in so much trouble.

Inoichi grabs for the tag. It goes off. Kakashi throws himself to the ground and covers Natsu’s body with his own.

When there’s no heat of an explosion or bloody body parts hitting him, Kakashi shifts to look behind him. Inoichi, perfectly intact, is covered from head to toe in bright purple dye. He’s got a peculiar look on his face which Kakashi interprets from personal experience as I’m still alive, but it might not be worth it.

Natsu wriggles out from under him, and promptly starts giggling. “Why you-!” Inoichi hisses, and takes a step toward them.

“Nuh uh!” Natsu says cheerfully, “If that had been a real explosive tag, you’d be dead. I win!”

Kakashi stands, Natsu still clinging to him like a limpet. She scrambles up so she’s sitting on his shoulders, and he should really tell her to get lost, but he’s still wrapping his mind around a nine year old almost killing Inoichi Yamanaka. He cannot wait to tell Shikaku about this. “You had help, you cheated,” Inoichi says, pointing at Kakashi.

“There’s no such thing as cheating as long as you win,” Natsu says, and the brat’s not wrong.

The clan head glowers, “Well you may have beaten me, but you still don’t pass.”

“What?” she demands, “That’s not fair!”

He crosses his arms, still dripping purple dye. “You may have worked with your teammates in the beginning, but once they were of no use, you abandoned them in order to ensure your own victory.”

Kakashi shifts, uncomfortable, and he knows at nine he hadn’t learned this lesson either, but still –

“I did not!” she glares, “You knocked them out, so I ran away and you followed me! I drew away the threat.”

Inoichi frowns, “You left them passed out on the ground. That’s as good as dead.”

“I did not!” If she wasn’t on Kakashi’s shoulders she’d stamp her foot, “You knocked them out, so I distracted you with the glitter bomb and then tied them up and hid them! Then I ran to get you away, and I found Kakashi-niichan! An ally! I got an ally and we worked together and we won! So I do to pass!”

“You-” Inoichi stops, blinks, and then runs in the direction he came from. Kakashi, compelled by morbid curiosity, follows. Natsu doesn’t protest, just grabs at his head so she doesn’t fall off. When they stop, Inoichi is staring at a tree at the edge of training ground seven. “Kai,” he says softly, the place along the lowest branches shimmers, then shatters. Laying on the lowest branches and tied to the trunk so they don’t fall off are a completely unconscious Inuzuka girl and a boy with grey hair and large glasses. “You pass,” the older man admits, looking a little dazed.

“I PASS!” She wraps her arms around the top of Kakashi’s head, “Thank you so much, Kakashi-niichan! I couldn’t have done it without you.”

“Niichan?’ he repeats. He reaches up and around to pluck Natsu from his back and he holds her in front of him by the back of her tunic.

She nods, “We almost have the same hair, and you helped me even though you didn’t need to. And we worked really well together. So you’re Kakashi-niichan!”

The last time he let himself become attached to a kid, that kid was gutted by an angry, drunk civilian. He should absolutely tell this nosy, presumptuous brat to stick it where the sun don’t shine and leave him the hell alone.

“Whatever,” he rolls his eyes and lets her drop. She lands neatly on her feet and smiles up at him.

~

“Nice color.”

Inoichi looks down into his drink, then looks up at the bartender who has very nicely not been laughing at him, and doesn’t looks at the man sitting down next to him. “I’ll have another.”

The bartender nods, and Shikaku leans his elbow on the bar and drops his chin into his hand, “Come on now, it’s not that bad. It matches your complexion.”

“I hate you,” he says, “I hate you, and I hate the hokage, and fucking Kakashi Hatake, and that stupid brat.”

“Don’t be like that,” Chouza says cheerfully, sitting down on his other side, “Why, I fondly remember my days with my own little genin squad. It’s a time of growth and learning for everyone. It builds character!”

“Chouza,” Inoichi forces himself to say evenly, “Your teachings produced Ebisu and goddamned Gai.”

“Genma’s pretty normal though,” Chouza sighs, “I never could get through to that boy.”

Inoichi drops his head to the table.

"Oh, come on," the Akimichi clan head cajoles, "I've met the little genius girl before. She nearly out ate me at Ichiraku's Ramen stand. Clearly she's destined for great things!"

Shikaku pats Inoichi's shoulder, then grabs the end of his friend’s ponytail to inspect it more closely. “Are you going to redye it, or just leave it like this? Because if nothing else I’m sure your daughter will be thrilled. Purple is her favorite color.”

“Hate,” Inoichi moans, “I’m a fountain of hate.”

~

Hana is furious about her genin exam. She tells her mother what happened, from meeting the gentle and solemn Kabuto and the cheerful Natsu to waking up to find out she’d passed, but only because of the efforts of a little girl younger than herself. She’d been weak and useless, and she’d needed her teammate to carry her.

Her head is bowed as she waits for her scolding, for her punishment, because she is the Inuzuka heir and she should be better than this.

Her mother places a gentle hand on her head, “Don’t be so hard on yourself. Inoichi had no interest in taking on a genin team, and he didn’t play fair because of it.”

“Mom?” she says, uncertain and confused.

Tsume runs her fingers through her daughter’s hair, “He used clan techniques to knock you out when he was supposed to be testing your teamwork. I was honestly expecting to have to petition the hokage to allow you to retake the test with an instructor who wouldn’t sabotage you. I’m satisfied with this outcome, and I’m pleased that you have a teammate who not only prioritizes completing the mission, but ensures her teammates are safe.”

Hana beams and tackles her mom in a hug, which the older woman returns gladly. “Can I invite Natsu and Kabuto over for dinner? Please?”

“Of course,” Tsume says warmly. The Nami girl had dyed Inoichi’s hair purple; she deserved a feast.

When the two enter her home less than a week later, she sees the hesitant and wary way they look around, and that just won't do.

"You must be Kabuto and Natsu," she says when they turn to her. She interrupts their polite bows by grabbing them both in a hug tight enough to strain their ribs and lifting them off the ground. Hana slaps her hand over her mouth to keep from laughing. Tsume settles them back on their feet and ruffles their hair. They both look stunned. "I'm Tsume! I've heard good things about you two. I hope you like barbeque."

"Uh, yes," Kabuto says, blushing a bright red. Natsu is staring at her in a kind of fragile awe, and these two are so clearly alone that it makes her heart ache.

These lonely kids are her daughter's teammates, and Natsu at the very least has shown herself to know the basics of loyalty. Full adult ninja or not, she's not about to let these children be on their own in life, with no people to call their own. "Great!" She steers them into the dining room, her daughter and son trailing behind her, "Tell me about how training is going. Inoichi's such a hard ass, right?"

Natsu laughs, and a good team is a family, is pack, and Tsume will do everything she can to ensure that Hana's team is a good one.

~

Kakashi doesn't really feel like having this conversation with the hokage, who he's pretty sure will laugh at him, so that only leaves him with one other option.

He ends up tracking him down in the library, and Kakashi hasn't been here since he was developing the Chidori. He settles into the chair opposite Itachi. The Uchiha heir closes his book and places it carefully on the table before meeting his gaze. "Yes, Hatake-san? Are we being sent out?"

"No," Kakashi crosses his arms and glares. Itachi raises an eyebrow, and the effect is so much cooler than when Kakashi does it. He sighs, "Natsu Nami."

Itachi almost smiles. "Ah. Yes, she did mention you."

He taps his fingers on the table top, "She roped me into her genin exam."

"She was quite pleased with your assistance," the boy agrees.

Kakashi stares. "She used me as springboard. She stood on me. She dyed Inoichi Yamanaka's hair purple. She called me Niichan!"

"Yes," Itachi blinks.

"What the fuck?"

If Kakashi ever tries to tells this to anyone, they won't believe him, but at that Itachi throws his head back and laughs.

~

Kabuto's not sure what to make of his new genin team. Inoichi clearly would rather stab himself in the eye than train them, but also clearly considers it his duty to ensure they don't get either themselves or anyone else killed.

He's used to being resented for being older, and then for being too weak. He's not, but Orochimaru-sama needs him to pretend to be, and he'll do anything for Orochimaru-sama. But Hana is terrifying and friendly, and is more interested in pestering him to teach her anything and everything he knows about medical jutsus than she is in making fun of him.

Natsu's just a kid, but she's a prodigy, has the likes of Itachi Uchiha as her tutor and is apparently friendly with the freaking hokage as well. She should resent his presence, should consider him the weak link. On a team with the Yamanaka clan head, the Inuzuka heir, and her, she should hate him for dragging her down and holding her back.

She doesn't, or if she does she's hiding it really well. She considers everyone around her to be her personal resting perch, and spends more time balancing on the top of his head by her fingertips chattering on about sealing than anything else. She's eager to learn and to train, and instead of holding her jutus and skills close to her chest she shares them eagerly.

Hana and Natsu are nice and cheerful, and seem determined to drag him along with them instead of leaving him behind.

~

Natsu is on her way home from a day of training, body pleasantly sore but still itching to do something. This is normally a sign to go irritate Itachi-senpai, but he's out of the village on a mission. She's just considering a night spent experimenting with storage seals when she senses a familiar chakra signature. Natsu follows it into the market, which is in the midst of winding down from a busy day. It's been over a year, but she still can't get over the bright smiles and respectful nods she gets in the market these days. As Naruto, he'd gotten chased out with rotten vegetables pelted at him. Which, hey, free food, but still.

She sees her target standing alongside another jounin with a weird haircut next to old lady Kisa’s meat stall.

"Kakashi-niichan!" she screeches, jumping onto his back. His shoulders slump but he doesn't shake her off. She's winning.

"Hey Natsu," Kakashi says. The other jounin is staring at her open mouthed.

"Natsu," Kisa says, relieved, "Maybe you can help these gentlemen out. I'll be back.”

Natsu rests her elbows on his shoulder and plops her chin on top of his head, surveying the fish cuts still left after a full day in market. Kisa doesn't sell substandard meat though, so while it's not great it's not like there are any bad options. "What'cha making Kakashi-niichan? Who's your friend?"

"That's Gai," Kakashi waves a hand at the still gaping jounin, "I don't know. We're hungry, and Gai decided we should cook something, but we don't actually know how to cook, so."

She leans her head close to his ear and whispers so loud it hardly counts, "Is Gai your boyfriend?"

Gai chokes. Kakashi reaches up to flick her in the forehead, "No. Don't be a brat."

She pouts, "Are you really craving fish?" Kakashi looks to Gai. The other man shakes his head. "Then you should get chicken instead. All the best fish is already gone, you have to get here early or put in an order if you want something better."

"What do you make with chicken?" he asks, frowning, and man, he should really learn how to feed himself something other than field rations.

"If you get the ingredients I can make curry!" she tugs on Kakashi's hair, "It'll be fun! Please, it's boring cooking for just one person."

Kakashi's about to refuse, because he doesn't want to encourage her, but at the reminder that she goes home to an apartment as empty as his own he finds himself saying, "Yeah, okay. You better make it really spicy though."

Hours later Natsu is curled up asleep on his couch, and he's trying to work up the will to wake her up and tell her to beat it. Gai comes to stand beside him, drying his hands on a dishtowel. "Thanks for doing the dishes," Kakashi says.

"Thanks for buying all the food," he returns. He hesitates, but says, "Not that I do not find your newfound mentorship to be a most youthful endeavor, but -"

"I don't know," Kakashi interrupts his friend, "I met her while she was taking her genin exam and she, I don't know, adopted me or something. She just keeps showing up."

Gai nods thoughtfully, "Stubbornness is a useful skill to have when trying to cultivate a friendship with you." Kakashi elbows the other man, but doesn't protest besides that. "She's a good cook."

"She grew up in the Flower District. If she hadn't become a ninja, she would have stayed there."

Gai continues staring at the little girl curled up in on herself. Kakashi finally gives in and goes to his bedroom. He comes back with the blanket from his own bed, because he's never needed a spare before. He sits down at the end of the couch and pulls her feet into his lap, carefully sliding off her sandals.

Natsu startles awake. "Niichan?" she mutters, voice rough and slurred.

"Go to sleep," he says evenly, leaning over her to gently pull her hair free from its tangled bun. It's longer than the last time he saw it down, and he wonders if she's trying to copy Inoichi.

"I c'n go," she mutters even as she burrows further down in his couch cushions.

He rolls his eyes and tucks the blanket in around her, folding it under her feet and settling it carefully around her shoulders. "Whatever."

~

"Natsu, give it a rest," Inoichi says, lowering his hands. Both Hana and Kabuto are sacked out on the ground, dirty and sweaty and gasping for breath. Hana's ninken are in no better shape.

The girl shakes her head, stubbornly holding her taijutsu stance, "I can go for longer. Come on."

If Inoichi looks closely, he can see her legs trembling. He crosses his arms, "You've worked enough for one day. You all have," he looks down at the panting genin, "Cool down, go home, and I'll see you tomorrow."

"No!" Natsu stamps her foot, "I want to train more."

Inoichi looks down at the rest of his team, because he is not the one to deal with this. Hana pulls herself up to sitting and says, "Do you want to come over, Natsu? We can play in the kennels."

There's a spot of eagerness in the young girl's eyes, but she still shakes her head. Kabuto rolls over in the grass so he can at least tilt his head in Natsu's direction, "Do you want help working on medical jutsu? You certainly have room for improvement."

Inoichi glares, because he doesn't want her to spend more time training. But Natsu crosses her arms to mirror him and says, "I want to keep working on my taijutsu. It's my weakest."

It is, but honestly Natsu can take down Kabuto in a taijutsu battle, and she's even won over Hana a few times, so it's not like her taijutsu is bad. "You need to rest," he insists, "If you don't heal, you won't get stronger."

Natsu scoffs. She scoops up her ninja pack and attaches it to her thigh in swift, jerky movements. "Whatever, I'll go train by myself. See you tomorrow."

"Natsu," Inoichi says, and he means for it to come out as a warning but it's more like a plea.

She waves her hand, already walking away, "Have a good night Hana, Kabuto, Inoichi-sensei!"

Inoichi sighs. When he looks over both of his remaining genin are staring at him accusingly. "Yeah, yeah," he grumbles, following his wayward student.

"Good luck Inoichi-sensei!" Hana says cheerfully, standing up and pulling Kabuto with her, much to the boy's displeasure.

He shakes his head, following his student's familiar and immense chakra to a section of the training field with logs set out. Natsu is forcing her trembling limbs to execute perfect kicks and punches with enough force behind them that the log cracks with every hit.

He knows that she knows he's there. He moves behind her, and she doesn't react. Inoichi places his hands on her shoulders, and without pause she twists to high kick him. He catches her ankle in his hand and meets her dark, angry gaze. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing," she flips away from him, exhausted past of the point of reason and still every move is controlled grace. "Leave me alone."

"You're such a pain," he sighs. Hurt flashes across her eyes, but before she can yell at him he body flickers forward and punches her in the face. She just barely dodges, his knuckles skimming over the tight bun on top of her head. She runs back, and he follows. She changes direction and meets him head on and leaps, her thighs close in around his throat as she flings him to the ground. His head is still ringing when he rolls away from a stomp that would have collapsed his ribcage. He surges up and slams the top of his head into her stomach. Natsu stumbles back with an oomph of pain, but she ducks under his kick.

She grabs his ankle like he'd done to her, but she uses his momentum to push him off balance. He swings back around, and finally lands a solid hit to her chest. He hopes he hasn't broken her collarbone. Her face twists in pain, but it doesn't slow her down much, and times like these he laments whoever it was that taught her to ignore her own discomfort this well. He drives forward, and her block is too slow so she only manages to slap his arm while he delivers a sharp uppercut to her jaw that propels Natsu into the air and then has her falling onto her back with a painful sounding thud.

He doesn't relax, because he's seen Natsu get ups from some truly heart stopping shit, but she doesn't move. "Yield?" he calls out after a moment.

"...Yield," she says, voice rough, and he sighs in relief.

Inoichi walks over and throws himself down next to her, tucking his hands behind his head. "It's a pity we don't have Shikaku's kid here, he can cloud watch with the best of them."

She's got blood dripping from the corner of her mouth, and it's a good thing he doesn't have anything against hitting little girls, because if he ever hesitated she would destroy him. "I like Shikamaru, he's a nice kid."

"Lazy though," he points out. She shrugs, then winces, and damn, he definitely broke her collar bone. "Are you going to tell me what's wrong now?"

Her eyes close, and she looks more in pain now than she has all throughout training, "Itachi-senpai and Kakashi-niichan were supposed to be back from their mission three days ago."

"Ah," he says. Delays happen, but three days past check in is the point when most ninja start to worry. Officially, he doesn't know that either the Uchiha or Kakashi are in Anbu, and neither does Natsu, but she's smart and she knows those two better than almost anyone, so. "They're the best ninja in the village. Have faith in their abilities."

"I do," she says, and of course she does, those two boys mean the world to her (Kakashi is twenty years old, and Inoichi remembers being twenty, he doesn't give a shit about Hatake's rap sheet, he's still just as much of a brat as Natsu), "I just -"

"I know," he says, "But training yourself to injury won't help anyone."

Her face twists, and he prepares himself for her to start yelling - but she doesn't, just says, "Okay, Inoichi-sensei. I'll be better."

And he didn't mean it like that, damnit. "Come to the flower shop before training," he tries instead, because if she’s causing havoc around him he can at least keep an eye on her. "Ino misses you."

"Yeah, okay," she agrees, and now that's she's stopped fighting, in every sense of the word, her eyelids are starting to droop.

He shakes his head, "If I carry you home, will you beat me up?"

She lets out a long sigh, then rolls over and on top of Inoichi's chest, snuggling into him. He stands, cradling her in his arms as her breaths even out in sleep. He holds her carefully so he doesn't exaggerate any of her injuries, and begins the long walk to her apartment.

~

Shikaku is the smartest person in the village, and likely the most observant. He's not being arrogant, it's just fact, and from the looks of it his son will take up that mantel in addition to clan head. But being the smartest person in the village means that he knows a lot things that he really wishes he didn't. Such as: the hokage's masturbatory habits, his son having a huge crush on the Inuzuka in his class, and that Natsu Nami once went by the name of Naruto Uzumaki.

It's not like he'd paid a lot of attention to the kid, he just observed him like he did everything else. And if Natsu hadn't been put on Inoichi's team maybe he never would have noticed, but -

Naruto had just started pranking when he was attacked and presumably killed. Still, he had a style and that style of attack-retreat-observe-destruction was pretty much the exact same as Natsu's fighting style. They even moved the same, although Natsu's balance was far better than Naruto had ever achieved.

He doesn't know how the kid is managing to pass himself off as a girl three years older than he actually is, because it's not a genjutsu, but he honestly doesn't want to know since the less he knows the more plausible deniability he has.

Because he's not going to tell anyone. He should, at the very least, report it to the hokage. But Naruto had been neglected and borderline abused, hated and feared for something the hokage decreed he couldn't even know about. Natsu is bright and cheerful, a kind and talented kunoichi who's working to protect the village she loves (and how does she love it, he wonders, when it's this village that had been so cruel to Naruto all his life, but against all reason she does) and no one is out to kill Natsu.

That's really why he won't say anything, why he won't reveal that the Kyuubi's container and the fourth hokage's child is still alive: they already killed him once. Naruto and Shikamaru are the same age, they would have been in the same class, and the idea that anyone could want to harm his innocent, precious son makes his blood boil, that someone could gut him and be proud of it almost makes him lose faith in his village.

Konoha killed Naruto, and Shikaku isn't going to be the one to give them the chance to do it a second time.

~

Natsu is a genin, and therefore officially her education as a ninja is completely under Inoichi-sensei's purview. Unofficially, Inoichi-sensei has a clan to run, a business to manage, and regular jounin duties on top of that, so he would never neglect his duties as a jounin sensei, but he doesn't have a lot of free time for extra training. Which is fine for her other teammates, because Kabuto works at the hospital and Hana has a whole clan to learn from, but Natsu has a ton of free time. So to keep her from going absolutely insane, Itachi never really put an end to their tutoring sessions, and whenever he's in-village and has a few hours to spare, he'll grab her and train with her.

These times are her favorite times. Ever since she became a genin and Itachi became Anbu (which she totally, absolutely knows nothing about) she doesn't see him very much, and it makes her sad.

However, they're not really planned, and usually if she's in her apartment and he pops in she's reading or working on her scrolls, or doing one of her ridiculous balancing exercises, like the time he'd walked in on her balancing on a single finger on a chair that was perched by one of its legs on a ball.

He has, in fact, never actually walked in on her doing this before. He's crouched in her window, and she beams when she notices him, "Senpai!"

"Natsu-chan," he greets evenly, sliding into her room and cautiously sitting down on the ground across from her, "What are you doing?"

"My nails," she holds up her completed left hand for his inspection,  "Kurenai does her nails, and I wanted to do mine. It's not the same though."

Itachi twitches. He's heard Natsu sound sad exactly twice, once when he first met her, and then the second time when she'd told him that Kabuto was an orphan too, but not like her because she had Kakashi-niichan and him, but a real orphan, and wasn't that awful? And now Natsu sounds sad about nail polish of all things, and just like Itachi can't fight her own self esteem issues or some genin's tragedy, he also can't fight nail polish, and if Natsu could just have a problem that he could easily fix even once he'd be grateful.

"Oh?" He snags her hand, and the dark purple polish has been perfectly applied, "Why? It looks good to me."

Natsu's smile stretches across her whole face, and sometimes how easy it is to please her just makes him feel old and sad. "You really think so?"

He nods, face serious, "Absolutely."

She looks at her hand in an all new admiring light, but her voice has a trace of longing as she explains, "This is just - normal nail polish, it was a couple ryo at this stall at the market. Kurenai wears nin-polish. It dries extra hard to keep your nails from breaking, and it's made with a diamond base, so it can be used to scratch most surfaces."

"Perfect for someone who's both talented with seals, and is clever enough with them to make them with little to no planning," he says, already thinking of the damage Natsu could do if she could scratch a seal on her kunai on the fly. Making a kunai act as an explosive tag, for one. "That seems like a solid and practical use," he says, because Natsu has never shied away from her hair or her favorite color, but he knows enough kunoichi that are hesitant about enjoying their feminine side that he figures it's worth bringing up.

"It's expensive," she says, and Itachi winces, because he often forgets that money is something that an orphan genin obviously doesn't have a surplus of. "Like, really expensive, and I need more shuriken, and paper and ink for sealing, and-" she looks down at her cheap nail polish and her face darkens, "I probably shouldn't have even bought this, it was dumb."

She roughly screws the cap back on and tosses it aside. Itachi plucks it out of the air, and Natsu looks up, startled. "I think you look very nice with it on," he says gently, and he has no idea what he's doing, this is so far out of his depth, and why can't Natsu ever need him to fight someone for her, he doesn't like it but at least he's good at it. "Here," he ignores her wide eyes and settles her unpainted hand on his knee. He unscrews the bottle, and slowly begins applying the polish.

"Senpai," Natsu says softly some time later.

Itachi hums, but doesn't look up, already working on applying the second coat.

Her free hand grabs his hand that isn't holding the polish, and squeezes. He looks at their clasped hands, but still for some reason he can't make himself look up. "Thank you."

"... You're welcome," he says, and Natsu squeezes his hand one more time before letting go and allowing him to finish.

~

Hana did not expect to like her teammates. She was getting stuck with a boy three years older, and a girl three years younger, and that was obviously a terrific breeding ground for animosity, jealousy, and lazy whining on everyone's side. It absolutely shouldn't work.

Except that it kind of does. Kabuto is actually the best thing that could have happened to her, because whatever it is about him that keeps him from passing the chunin exams, it's not his skill as a medical ninja. He's knowledgeable and patient, and he's teaching her more than she ever would have been able to learn unless she'd taken on a medic-nin apprenticeship. She hates the idea of taking and not giving in return, though, so she grabs Natsu and the both of them train him in taijutsu until he can barely stand and is begging them to let him rest.

Natsu is oddly good at genjutsu. She's - everyone else calls her a genius and cites her genjutu skills, but Hana has been on the receiving end of most them. They're good, they're great, they are exactly like they're supposed to be. But that's the thing - Natsu may have the natural talent in genjutsu to do them effectively, and enough imagination that she's well on her way to becoming the world's most terrifying seal master, but the two never really intersect. So they all know the basics of genjutsu, but no one on the team is terrific at them, and no one on the team is terrific at taijutsu, and Natsu may have the talent and drive to one day be a formidable ninjutsu specialist, but for right now she isn't.

Hana worries about this. A lot. Because they're going to take the Chunin Exams together one day, and honestly at the rate they're progressing it's going to be one day soon. They're all highly competent in the three major areas of ninja arts, but Natsu's true talent is in sealing, and her and Kabuto's is in healing, and overall their team is one best used for retreat and recovery rather than a head on attack. The Chunin Exams, unlike the actual rest of the shinobi world, are all about head on attacks.

Hana sighs and lets her head fall with a thud on her kitchen table top.

"You break it, you buy it," her mother says mildly, and Hana turns her head just enough so she can see Tsume looking down at her with a raised eyebrow.

"Yeah, yeah," she closes her eyes.

Tsume pats her on the top of the head, "You worry too much. You'll all be fine."

"I'm going to be the clan head one day," she points out, "Worrying about everyone is my job."

"Not yet it isn't," Tsume pulls Hana up by the back of her shirt and puts her on her feet, "Go find your teammates and drag them here for dinner."

"Okay," she says brightly, because Natsu's either at home or with that weird grey haired jounin, but Kabuto is definitely at the hospital, and if she's lucky he'll let her lend a hand for a bit.

~

Kakashi likes Itachi, mostly because he gets the lonely genius thing (Gai had suggested that they start a club; Kakashi had suggested that Gai shut the fuck up), but apart from missions they don't really interact much. The exception, of course, being Natsu, who a couple times a month will feel the urge to have her two favorite people in once place and drag them somewhere together.

So when Itachi shows up at the edge of the training ground where he and Gai are doing their best to beat each other up, Natsu-less, alarm bells start going off. "Is she okay?" he asks, holding up a hand to halt Gai. Itachi looks too calm for her to be seriously hurt, but honestly sometimes Kakashi can't really tell with that guy.

Itachi blinks. "Natsu is fine. I apologize, I had not meant to worry you."

"I wasn't worried," he declares. Gai laughs and Itachi raises an eyebrow. He scowls, "Whatever. What did you want?"

"Natsu's tenth birthday is in a week," Itachi says, "and Tsume is holding a small gathering to celebrate. It's a surprise. You are, of course, invited."

"Oh," he says, frowning.

Itachi's stare is deceptively mild, "While I understand that you have many important duties to attend to, Natsu will be very upset if you are not there."

"What? No, I'll be there," he glares, and tries not to think that of how the last time he was at something as mundane as a birthday party was with his sensei, because thinking of Minato leads to thinking of Naruto, which leads to him training until he bleeds or drinking until he passes out.

"Gai-san, you are also welcome to attend," Itachi continues, "Natsu has developed a fondness for you, considering your relationship to Kakashi-san."

"We're not dating," Gai and Kakashi say in unison.

Itachi's carefully blank expression means he doesn't believe them, and Kakashi is going to kill Natsu. Gai says eagerly, "This sounds like a most youthful endeavor. I will bring Anko! She will fan the flames of youth in a our young Konoha blossom!"

Both Itachi and Kakashi look at Gai, horrified. "Please don't," Itachi says weakly, like he knows it'll fall on deaf ears but he has to try anyway.

"Don't worry," Gai attempts to assure them, going into his Good Guy pose, "They will produce youthful flames of feminine excellence!"

"They're going to burn down Konoha," Kakashi says flatly.

Gai's hair and teeth sparkle in the sunlight, and he doesn't attempt to deny it.

~

"Why do you have to do my hair just so I can eat dinner at your place?" Natsu complains, but holds obligingly still while Hana pulls back her hair. "Last time we came to dinner after training and we were all covered in mud and blood and your mom didn't say anything. I don't think she cares about my hair."

"Just shut up and stay still," the older girl says, and Natsu rolls her eyes but does as she's told. Hana snaps the band off from around her wrist and ties off her hair. "There, done."

Natsu looks at herself in the mirror. Instead of her normal tight bun, Hana has taken out and straightened her hair, finally putting it up in one sleek high tail. Natsu turns her head from side to side, and it's weird to feel the full weight of it, but she's finally grown her hair out enough that she kind of looks like Inoichi-sensei, so she guesses it's okay.

"Well," Hana places a hand on Natsu's shoulder and smushes their faces together, "What do you think?"

No one had ever touched Naruto, had spent time with him, and certainly he hadn't had any friends that would have spend twenty minutes fussing about how he looked. "I love it," Natsu says, and has to blink really fast for a few seconds to keep from crying.

"Good!" Hana leans back and tugs on the end of Natsu's ponytail, "Let's go, we don't want to be late."

Natsu doesn't understand at first what all her favorite people are doing in Tsume's living room, and it takes Itachi leaning down and saying quietly, "Natsu, you're ten today. This is your birthday party," for her to get it. And when she does her eyes go wide and her mouth falls open, and she grabs Itachi's arm because she's afraid that she'll fall over without it.

"Oh," she says softly, and she's definitely crying now, and she doesn't want to, but she can't help it.

Gai swoops forward and grabs her into his arms, "Come, my beautiful Konoha blossom! I require your help immediately!" He takes her outside and just holds her for a moment, doesn't say anything.

Kakashi exits the house and walks up behind them. Natsu pushes herself back so she can look at him, still sniffling. He sighs and carefully wipes the tears off her face, "Mah, what's the crying for? It's a party."

"I've never had a party before," she hiccups.

He flicks her forehead, "Well, now you do. Better get inside so you don't miss it, right?"

She takes a deep breath, then nods furiously, "Right!" She hugs Gai before jumping out his arms. Instead of running back in on her own, she grabs Kakashi and Gai's hands in each of her own drags them behind her.

It is, without a doubt, the best day of her life. Inoichi-sensei is there, and so is Chouza and Shikaku. She plays tag with their kids and Kiba, and Ino takes to running her fingers through Natsu's ponytail and says she wants hair just like it one day.

Natsu meets Anko, who's sullen and nervous, and she loves her. "Your hair is amazing," Natsu breathes, because it never occurred to her that she could have purple hair before. The hair she has now looks like a cross between Inoichi-sensei's and Niichan's, and she loves it, but for purple hair it'd almost be worth it.

Anko blinks, and her hand self-consciously raises to touch it, "You think so?"

"Amazing!" Natsu insists, and she grabs the end of the older girl's trench coat, "You're so cool."

"Anko can make a perfect leaf pattern with dango sticks," Gai pipes up helpfully.

The teenage chunin turns to glare at the Gai, because this brat thinks she's cool, and not Orochimaru's reject, and she'd like to hold on to that for a little bit.

"Teach me!' Natsu demands, tugging on her coat, "Oh please, Anko-chan, pretty please? That's awesome, you must be really strong and have really good aim!"

"Sure," she says, startled, and Natsu squeals and hugs her hard around her waist.

Gai is beaming behind them at a job well done. Every other adult in the room is glaring at him (except Tsume, who's too busy laughing her ass off).

The cake is amazing. It's big and purple and chocolate. "I helped make it!" Hana says proudly, a warm spot at her back.

"If by helped, you mean I let you carry the ingredients," Kabuto rolls his eyes.

"You made this cake?" Natsu asks Kabuto, and the older boy blushes and nods, and braces himself to be made fun of. He clearly should know better by now, because Natsu flings herself at him and says, "That's amazing! It looks so good, you're so cool and talented, Kabuto!"

The presents are her favorite part, not because she gets stuff, but because people took the time get her things that they thought she would like, and her life is so different from what it was two years ago that Natsu almost feels the urge to find the man that tried to kill Naruto and thank him.

Anko-chan gives her a brand new packet of shuriken. Chouza, Shikaku, and Inoichi-sensei give her books on sealing, the really nice, expensive books that she's been drooling over and never could afford herself. From Kabuto and Hana she gets a bunch of sealing paper and ink, and from Tsume a set of gorgeous brushes in different styles and angles. Gai hands over a dozen new kunai wrapped up like a bouquet of particularly violent flowers, and Natsu has a hard time saying thank you through her giggles.

She opens the small package from Itachi, and inside are three bottles of nin-polish the exact shade as the normal nail polish she'd bought a couple of months ago. "Senpai," she says, eyes wide.

Itachi raises an eyebrow at her, and curves his mouth up in what someone who's very observant might categorize as a smile, "It's practical."

Natsu launches herself into his arms, and chants "Thank you" until he hugs her back and carefully sets her back on her feet, blushing.

Kakashi is last, and he hands her a flat, wide box in plain brown paper. He scratches the back of his head, "It's not the right size, but you'll grow into it."

She only half hears him as she tears the box open and then carefully lifts up the contents. It's a gorgeous silk tunic. It won't fit her for quite a few years yet, but it's sleeveless with a high collar. The neck dips down and the top half is held together with sturdy rectangular buttons, and it's long enough that it'll go down to her mid-thigh. It's a pale lavender edged in black, and hidden underneath the silk is the lightweight, blade resistant material that Anbu uniforms are made of.

The materials are top notch, and the quality is exquisite. It's also clearly custom made. "Niichan," she runs her hands over the tunic, "this must have cost a fortune."

Kakashi shrugs, "Eh, Icha Icha only costs so much. What else am I going to spend my money on?"

Natsu places the tunic back in its box with trembling fingers, then scrambles over to Kakashi and leaps so she can wrap her arms around his neck and hide her face in his shoulder.

Kakashi pats her on the back and tries to pretend he's unaffected, but it's clear even with the mask that he's grinning.

~

"All right, I'm confused," Chouza admits, taking a seat next to Inoichi at the bar.

"How do you always know I'm here?" he demands.

"I also admit to being confused," Shikaku says from his other side.

Inoichi jumps, then twists to glare at his friend. "You too! The both of you! This is a conspiracy!"

Chouza accepts his drink from the bartender and passes the other down to Shikaku, "Your daughter is performing extremely well in the Academy. The flower shop's business is going well. None of your clan's council have tried to murder each other recently."

"Your genin team is performing very well," Shikaku continues, "Natsu has been maintaining acceptably terrifying genius levels, if Sarutobi's drinking habits are anything to go by. I heard rumors that the head of the hospital is going to petition the hokage to give Kabuto a field promotion to a chunin medi-nin."

Inoichi drops his head onto the counter.

"Ah," Chouza says. "I see."

"I'm going to enter them in the Chunin Exams," Inoichi says, and it only comes out a little muffled, "They should get the chance to do that together."

"Do you not think they're ready?" Shikaku asks, "Because-"

Inoichi shakes his head, which is still pressed to the top of the counter. "No, they'll be fine. They're all scarily talented; I honestly don't understand why Kabuto isn't a chunin already."

"Aw," Chouza pats him on the back, "Are you getting sentimental? Are you going to miss your adorable band of destructive minions?"

"No!" Inoichi says, but he still doesn't lift his head up.

"Good," the other man says, "Because my genin team still shows up at my place to complain about each other and for a free meal, so I'm telling you right now that you're going to spend the rest of your life with Natsu, Hana, and Kabuto constantly getting underfoot."

Inoichi stills, than slowly turns his head so he can squint up at Chouza, "Really?"

Shikaku rolls his eyes, but his former teammate pats the morose man on the back, "Really."

"Oh," he shoves himself up so he's at least leaning on his elbows, "That's all right then, I guess."

"Unbelievable," Shikaku mutters before downing the rest of his drink in one go.

~

Natsu is buried under a Hana's ninken when she senses him passing by. She bursts out of the dog pile and screams, "Kakashi-niichan!"

"Uh, Natsu," Hana looks up from where she and Kabuto are practicing their medic jutsu on one of the Inuzuka dogs who'd been hurt in battle, "No one's-"

"Yo!" Kakashi drops down from the roof. Hana and Kabuto scream.

Inoichi doesn't look up from his scroll, "It appears that your chakra sensitivity is improving."

"Because it was so terrible to begin with," Kabuto groans, letting his head fall into his hands "You almost gave me a heart attack."

Hana holds up her glowing green hands, "Go ahead, I need more practice."

Kabuto glowers, but Hana only giggles in return. The boy's face softens, and he nods toward the dog, "Come on, we've still got work to do."

"Right," Hana nods, focusing once more on the ninken.

Natsu bounds over and jumps onto Kakashi, wrapping her arms around his neck and dangling there. "Where are you going? Your apartment and the training grounds are the other way."

He looks down at her, and his visible eye is curved up so she knows he's smiling, "I have to go to the Hokage Tower to pick up a mission."

Natsu lets go so she drops back onto her feet, "Oh."

"Mah, don't be like that." Kakashi's hand falls hard on top of her head.

"It's just-" she looks down at her feet, "You didn't get back that long ago. And your last mission was so long. And you came back -" limping, but she closes her mouth before that can slip out.

Kakashi doesn't say anything for a long moment, and when Natsu looks up he seems unusually serious, "Why don't you come with me, and then you can see me off?"

"Really?" she beams and turns to Inoichi, "Can I, Sensei?"

Inoichi shrugs, still not pausing in his reading. "While napping under a pile of puppies is important and arduous training, I suppose I can spare you." She runs over and tackles him to the ground. Inoichi flails, "Natsu! Get off!"

"Thanks, Inoichi-sensei!" Natsu runs back and jumps onto Kakashi's back, pushing herself up so she's seated on his shoulders. Everyone knows that Natsu can balance on a single finger atop a rolling wagon, but Kakashi still closes his hands around each of her ankles anyway. Natsu wraps her arms around the top of Kakashi's head. "Bye Hana, bye Kabuto!"

Kabuto is still in the process of waving when Kakashi shoves chakra towards his feet and jumps back onto the roof.

Natsu rests her chin on top of Kakashi's head as they jump from roof to roof, and the sun is just starting to set. It lights up the sky a brilliant orange, and the buildings cast long shadows on the grounds. She sighs happily and drops a kiss on top of Kakashi's head.

"Natsu?" he asks, startled.

"I just," she looks out over her village, and right now it literally looks to be a land of fire, "I love Konoha. So much. It's beautiful." Kakashi jerks underneath her. "Don't you think so, Niichan?"

"I guess," he says, and she rolls her eyes, "I'm just surprised you do."

"Why?" she glares down at him, "I'm a Leaf ninja too! I'll never let anything bad happen here!"

"Natsu, you're from Flower District," Kakashi says carefully, "You've seen the worst of Konoha. You know bad things already do happen here. You know what people are like."

Natsu thinks of the men that came into the Madam Koi's parlor, and the broken, bleeding girls they left behind. Thinks of the life he lived as Naruto, and the drunken old man breaking a bottle on his head, then using it to slice his stomach open.

"The world is a terrible place," she says, and she has to swallow before she speak again, "and it's full of terrible people. But I don't have to be one of them."

"Huh," Kakashi breathes out, and continues their journey as the sun slinks slowly behind the mountains. He's silent until they reach the Hokage Tower. Because one of the Natsu's favorite things is getting a smile out of the old man, she pulls free of Kakashi's hands and pushes and kicks herself up so she's doing a handstand on his left shoulder as he walks into the mission assignment office.

When Sarutobi sees them, his face immediately lights up and Natsu feels a thrill of accomplishment. "Hey Hokage-sama!"

"Natsu," he greets, "I didn't expect to see you today."

"Kakashi-niichan took me with him so I could say goodbye," she explains, and tries not to show how much him leaving on another mission so soon twists her up inside.

The man sitting next to the hokage chokes. Natsu frowns and pushes herself off of Kakashi and lands in a crouch on top of the table and in front of the chunin, her face only inches from his. "Ah, uh - hello?" he leans back, and he's got a scar across his nose and big brown eyes.

"You're cute," she tells him, and Kakashi makes a sound that's something between a groan and a laugh behind her, "I recognize you. You teach at the Academy, don't you?"

"Yes," he blinks, "Oh, you - you're Suzume's student aren't you? Na- uh," he flushes.

"Natsu Nami," she throws her hand up in the victory sign.

"I'm Umino Iruka," he says, "I've heard a lot of good things about you."

"All lies," she says cheerfully, "Kakashi-niichan and Inoichi-sensei call me a menace. Itachi-senpai doesn't but that's only because he's too nice."

"She is a menace," Kakashi insists.

Natsu rolls her eyes. Iruka frowns, "Hatake-san, that's not a very nice thing to say about someone young who thinks so highly of you."

Kakashi scoffs, but buries his face further into his Icha Icha instead of arguing.

Natsu blinks. Looks to Iruka. Looks back at Kakashi. "OH MY GOD!" she yells. "YOU HAVE A CRUSH ON IRUKA! I'M TELLING GAI YOU'RE CHEATING ON HIM!"

Quick as lightning, Kakashi pick her up by the back of her tunic and holds her up so they're eye level. "For the last time, you brat, GAI IS NOT MY BOYFRIEND!'

"You didn't deny you had a crush," she says, sly. Kakashi's eye narrows.

Iruka, bright red, says, "Ah, Nami-san, I don't think-"

"Niichan has a giant, secret crush on you," she informs him. "Don't you Niichan? You think he's cuuuuuuuute." She looks to the mortified Iruka and stage whispers, "You are cute, you should give Kakashi-niichan a chance, he's really nice when he's not being mean."

Kakashi drops her, and she lands nimbly on her feet. "Natsu," he says between gritted teeth, "in the interest of fairness, with you just being a genin and all, I'm going to give you a thirty second head start."

Natsu tilts her head to the side, considers this, and nods, "Bye Hokage-sama! Bye Iruka!" She jumps out the window. Kakashi stands there smiling and exuding murder.

"So Kakashi," the hokage begins causally, "do you have a giant secret crush on Iruka?"

Iruka blanches. Kakashi doesn't flinch, "You know Hokage-sama, I think it's time that Natsu learn the very important lesson that ninjas lie." He then hurls himself out of the window, twenty seconds too early.

Iruka turns baleful eyes on the Sandaime. The old man chuckles and admits, "Natsu's reputation as a menace is well earned."

Iruka flushes and puts aside Kakashi's A-rank mission scroll for when he returns. The idea that someone of Hatake-san's standing, and skill, and reputation could be interested in a lonely academy teacher is ridiculous, but -

Kakashi hadn't denied it.

~

Itachi senses her coming, but continues walking down the road. Kakashi has started twisting out of her way at the last second, and while watching Natsu backflip through the streets is entertaining, last time she took out an orange vendor. "Senpai!" she greets excitedly, jumping off of the roof and landing on his head with only her hand.

"Good morning Natsu-chan," he says, and it probably says something that none of the ninja or civilians even pause at seeing the ten year old balancing on top of him. "How was the Land of Earth?" Team Inoichi wasn't due back in the village for another week, which either means their escort mission went extremely well or extremely poorly.

"Great!" She bends down to look at him upside down, and Itachi can feel that she's not using chakra to stick onto him, and sometimes her balance just isn't logical. "The noble jerk-face got there in once piece, which once he started leering at me and Hana actually became a questionable thing."

"Leering-" Itachi stops so suddenly that Natsu pinwheels and falls off.

She flips mid air and lands in front of him, head tilted to the side in confusion, "Senpai?"

"Natsu-chan, you're ten and Hana is thirteen. It's extremely inappropriate for an adult man to stare at you sexually."

She rolls her eyes and grabs his hand, tugging him until he starts walking again, "You sound thirty when you talk like that, and you're thirteen too. Don't worry, Hana and I can take care of ourselves."

Itachi allows her to pull him forward, "You are both very talented ninja. That doesn't mean men should be looking at you. It is one thing when a man cannot control is eyes around adult women, but in spite of your status as emancipated adult ninja, you and Hana are still children in many ways."

Natsu grins, "Kabuto took to adding poisons to his senbon in front of the guy threateningly. You're both so overprotective; don't worry."

Natsu's teammate is sixteen, a quite competent medical ninja, and Natsu has been able to wipe the floor with him since day one on the team together. Itachi does not consider him adequate protection, but also acknowledges that if Natsu knew that he considered her in need of protecting, she'd cut him.

"Did the mission finish early?" he asks, deciding to drop the subject. If he ever meets this noble, his code of not harming civilians doesn't apply to men who leer at children. "You're a week ahead of schedule."

"Nope! We tested out my new transportation seals though. They work great!"

"Ah," he blinks. "Your what?"

"It's like storage seal and body flicker," she explains, face lighting up as she talks about her favorite subject. "I place one seal in a location - I did my bedroom - and then to return there all I have to do is seal myself into its matching storage scroll. Then with some more added chakra, I pop out the other side!"

Itachi knows it's actually far more complicated than that, but just as he does not tell her minutia of the past shinobi wars in their history lessons, she does not over complicate her explanations of sealing. Usually he's grateful for that, but when she appears to break every known law to sealing and chakra, he's not.

"That's," he blinks and he's not going to tell her it's impossible because it clearly isn't, "new," he settles on.

She nods, "Inoichi-sensei was really impressed!"

Assuming the last time Natsu created a sealing technique is anything to go by, if Itachi feels the need to swing by the bar down by the Academy later (he almost never does because he doesn't drink even if he's technically allowed to) he'll see Inoichi drowning himself in cheap liquor while his former teammates laugh at him.

If dealing with him is anything like dealing with Natsu, then maybe he can understand why he's not the most popular person.

"That's good," he says, and he really wishes Konoha had a sealing master that they could throw Natsu at, "Did anything else of interest happen on your mission?"

"Not really. But guess what! Inoichi-sensei is signing us up for the Chunin Exams! We're leaving for Suna at the end of next week."

Itachi looks down at her, surprised. "That's very exciting," he says, "I'm sure you'll do well. But Suna is a very different land to Konoha; you should make sure to be careful there. I would be upset if anything were to happen to you."

"You worry too much," Natsu repeats, but squeezes his hand anyway.

~

Inoichi had already halfway assumed that Natsu was going to blow something up or cause some sort of diplomatic incident in Suna, so he's not too surprised when he rounds the corner to find her ruffling the hair of a short red haired kid with wide green eyes and a strange tattoo on his forehead whom he happens to know is not only the kazekage's son but the container for the one tails.

"Natsu!" he barks, striding forward with Hana and Kabuto trailing behind him, "What are you doing?"

"Hey, Sensei," she straightens but leaves one hand on the container's head. "I think this little guy's lost. I'm just going to bring him back, and then I'll meet you at the hotel, okay?"

It is not okay, and Inoichi doesn't have a clue on how to even begin explaining why. "I am not lost," the container says, looking at them all warily, "I am on a walk."

"Well it's not really safe for you to be on a walk on your own," Natsu says, frowning, "There are a lot of foreign ninja here for the exams, and they're not all as friendly as we are."

The container is looking at her as if she's insane. So is Inoichi. "... I am not in danger," the container says finally.

"Uh huh," Natsu rolls her eyes, then crouches down with her back to him, "Climb on, I'll take you home." The container takes a step back, green eyes widening even more. "Don't worry," Natsu says, smiling gently, "I won't hurt you, I promise. Hey! It's almost sunset. I'll take you over the roofs, I bet the sun looks really cool from up there."

The kid takes a hesitant step closer. When Natsu only smiles encouragingly in response, he makes it the rest of the way over and slowly wraps his arms around her neck and his legs around her waist. "Natsu," Inoichi says, wanting to stop this but not sure how without starting an international incident himself.

"I know where the hotel is," Natsu stands up from her crouch, "Once I get this kid home," she reaches behind her to bob the container on the nose. If she hadn't been holding on to his legs he would have fallen off in shock, "I'll head right there. Bye guys!"

With one last wave she sends chakra to her feet and jumps onto the nearest roof.

"Ah, Inoichi-sensei?" Kabuto says after a moment, all three of them staring at the spot where Natsu used to be.

Inoichi grunts.

"Wasn't that the jinchuuriki of Shukaku?"

He grunts again.

"Ah," Kabuto says. Pauses. "Itachi is going to kill you."

Inoichi considers the fact that he just let the only person Itachi truly seems to care about besides his little brother go off with a demon container known for killing first and asking questions never.

"Yeah," he sighs.

~

Temari thinks she loves her youngest brother, but she knows that she's terrified of him. She doesn't want to be, but everyone is. He hurts people and kills them, he killed their uncle. Clearly no one is safe from him, and no one can stand him, and he's her little brother and she's supposed to love him, and she wants to, but she just can't.

She's sitting on the roof of their home with her chin on her knees, watching the sun set and wondering where Gaara is and if he's killed anyone today. She hopes not. So she's understandably startled when a girl her own age lands on her roof with her little brother on her back.

"Who are you?" she demands, and she notices the leaf symbol on her hitai-ate, and her dad will kill her if she lets the one tailed demon get taken to Konoha, "Put my brother down!"

"Woah!" the other girl holds up her hands, "Hey, I'm just giving him a ride. I found him out wandering alone. You should keep a closer eye on your brother," the leaf ninja scolds her. Temari watches the other girl slides Gaara to his feet in disbelief. The girl kneels in front of her brother and beams at him, "See, that was fun, right?"

Gaara nods, and Temari has never seen his eyes this wide before.

"Good! I'm glad you had fun." Temari thinks her own eyes are going to fall out of her head when the girl folds her arms around Gaara. Her mouth definitely drops open when the girl kisses his forehead right where his scar is. "Be safe, okay? Don't go wandering out on your own. I don't want you to get hurt."

The girl stands from her crouch, waves at Temari, and turns to leave. Gaara grabs the back of her tunic. Temari's hands clench in to fists, and if Gaara wants to kill this girl she can't stop him, but if they kill a leaf ninja it's going to cause a lot of trouble.

"Huh?" the girl pauses and looks down, "Oh. What's up? Did you need something else?"

Gaara swallows, and Temari hears him talk so rarely that she'd forgotten what his voice sounds like. "Don't leave. Please."

The girl's face softens, and she bends so she can look her brother in the eye. "I have to, my team is waiting for me."

Gaara stares at her for a long moment before nodding and letting go. She doesn't leave though, just bites her lip and meets her brother's gaze. "The written portion of the exam is tomorrow, but I should have a few free hours after. I can pick you up and we can get food, or something? Ooh, how about dango? Anko-chan wanted me to practice on my aim while I was away. I mean, as long as your parents won't mind, or whatever."

"Really?" Gaara takes a half step closer, "You'll come back tomorrow?"

"I promise!" She bops Gaara on the nose, and Temari has to be dreaming, there's no way this is real life. "Are you sure your parents won't mind me taking you out for the day?"

"My father does not care about me," he says easily, and the girl's face darkens, "I can go with you."

"Well, good," she says firmly, "I'm Natsu Nami. What's your name?"

"Gaara," he says, and he's smiling. Temari can't remember the last time she saw her brother smile.

"I'll see you tomorrow," she says, and leans down to give Gaara one more quick kiss on the forehead. "Bye!"

She jumps off the roof to the building over with the type of control and precision Temari is used to seeing in much older ninja. "Gaara?" she asks hesitantly, "Who is that girl?"

All of the softness he'd shown instantly vanishes. "None of your business," he snaps coldly, and she takes a step away from him. Gaara continues glaring at her for a moment before he vanishes inside their home.

Temari has to find this Natsu Nami and tell her what Gaara really is. Otherwise, she'll just end up getting herself killed.

~

Inoichi plans to sit Natsu down and explain to her exactly what Gaara is when she gets back, but the first thing she declares upon entering their room is, "I'm worried."

"Now you know how I feel," Inoichi says automatically before asking, "About what?"

"About Gaara, the little kid from earlier," she throws herself down on one of the beds next to Hana, "He has a seal on him."

Inoichi suddenly has a terrible image of having to relieve the attack of eight years ago flashing through his mind, "Please tell me you didn't tamper with it."

"Sensei, I'm not stupid," she says scornfully. Kabuto scoffs. "But I should. Or someone should. It's not working right, and the demon inside of him is just making it worse." Well, apparently he doesn't have to tell her anything because she already knows.

"What do you mean?" Inoichi frowns, because at ten years old Natsu isn't quite at the level of seal master, but she's still one of best at fuuinjutsu in the village.

She pulls up one of her legs to rest her chin on her knee, "It's - not complete. I almost want to say it's broken, but it was never whole in the first place. I don't know."

"Can you fix it?" Suna has always had more seal masters than Konoha, so if the seal is incomplete that means that's how they want it. International incident or not, the last thing anybody needs is an out of control jinchuuriki.

Natsu doesn't answer right away, tilting her head down so her forehead is resting on her knee and her face is hidden away. Gaara's incomplete seal is the same as her own. And the seal keeping the fox inside of her is hellishly complicated, and she legitimately doesn't understand it. But she also knows that seal inside and out, and even if she doesn't understand it she's pretty sure she can replicate it.

"Yes," she says finally, looking up at her team, "I can fix it. And even if I fail, I won't make it any worse."

"Alright," Inoichi nods, because Natsu has always been brutally honest about her own capabilities and he has no reason to doubt her now, "Then this mission just gained a secondary objective. Not only are you three to do your best to pass the Chunin Exams, but we are also going to fix the seal on the demon container."

"Gaara," Natsu says, glaring.

Inoichi blinks, "What?"

"His name is Gaara, and you should use it," Natsu crosses her arms, and she loves Inoichi-sensei, but she won't budge on this.

"Natsu, I know you like him, but he's a demon container with a faulty seal, and-"

"And he's been holding it back!" Natsu stands so she can stomp her foot, "The seal is - maybe half of what it should be, so he's got half a tailed demon trying to get him to hurt people and kill them, and he's just a kid, a kid shouldn't have to deal with that crap. But he is and Suna is still standing, so he's doing really well, and you should use his name."

Inoichi stares, and briefly mourns that Natsu wasn't around to befriend that Naruto kid. Things might have turned out differently if she had been. "Okay," he says, and Natsu smiles and goes back to sitting on the bed. "So if we're going to do this, we're going to need to find a way get ourselves alone with him, and it's not going to be easy-"

Natsu raises her hand.

Inoichi sighs, "Yes, Natsu?"

"I'm picking him up so we can eat dango together tomorrow after the written exam. I can always bring him here after to fix his seal."

The clan head slaps his hand over his face. Hana and Kabuto burst out laughing.

~

Temari is on the roof again, and is doing the best she can to ignore her little brother who's watching her too closely for comfort. She hadn't told Kankuro what she was going to do, because he either would have tried to stop her or insisted on being here with her. Temari has to do this, and maybe Gaara will kill her for it, but the only thing Kankuro could do if he was with her is get killed by her side.

"Hi!" Natsu lands on their roof with a big smile, and without pause scoops up Gaara in her arms and swings him around, "Gaara! My team passed the written exam! We're moving on to Phase Two! Isn't that great?"

"I am happy that you are happy," Gaara says, and Temari is momentarily struck dumb with the realization that she's never heard her brother say he's happy before.

Natsu hugs her brother, and Gaara puts his arms around her neck and buries his face in her shoulder, like he's soaking up as much human contact as he can. It makes Temari's throat tight, but she has to do this.

"Nami-san!" she calls out, and the girl looks up at her. "I have to tell you - you need to know. Gaara, Gaara is -"

He has to know what she's about to do, but instead of trying to stop her, Gaara clings even more tightly to Natsu. That, more than any threatening move he could have made, stops the words in her throat.

"He's the container of the one tailed demon Shukaku?" Natsu finishes, eyebrow raised. "Yes, of course. You must be very proud to have such a strong and noble brother."

"You know?" Gaara asks, saying the words Temari suddenly can't. He leans back in Natsu's arms to looks at her, and never has Temari seen her brother look so afraid, "And you don't hate me?"

Something dark flashes in the other girl's eyes, but she smiles for Gaara, "Of course not! You're very brave! You're making a noble sacrifice in order to protect everyone around you. There's nothing to hate about you. You're what's stopping the demon from hurting people, right?"

Gaara's grip on Natsu tightens. "Sometimes I do hurt people," he admits, and there's a depth of horror in those mint green eyes.

"That's not your fault," Natsu says, and Temari wonders how she can sound so confident in that assessment when she barely knows her brother. "In fact, we're going to fix that right now. We're going to make it so the only people you hurt are the ones you intend to, and not the ones Shukaku wants, okay?"

Gaara has no real reason to trust this child ninja from another village, but he does, and nods with hope written clearly all over his face.

Natsu leaves, still holding Gaara. Temari stands on the roof alone and wonders if everything she thought she knew about her brother is wrong.

~

Inoichi sits in front of an unopened bottle in the hallway outside of their hotel room, his genin asleep inside. On one hand, he's still technically on a mission, and his kids have the second part of the Chunin Exams to take tomorrow. On the other hand, watching ten year old Natsu apply a seal so advanced it made his head hurt on a snarling and black eyed Gaara was more than enough to give him nightmares. Natsu hadn't even flinched as Shukaku had done everything it could to stop her from sealing him away, and Inoichi hadn't been able to do anything. Every time he or the kids tried to get close the sand would snap and reach for them, and Natsu would say that she could handle it. He sometimes forgets just how staggeringly immense his student's chakra stores are, but watching her use that chakra to near effortlessly pin down a jinchuuriki had certainly reminded him. If she didn't pass this exam, he was submitting his report on this on why she deserved a field promotion to chunin.

The door opens and closes, and Inoichi looks up as Kabuto tiredly sits down across from him. They stare at each other for a moment before Kabuto reaches for the bottle, breaks it open, and starts chugging. He holds out the bottle to Inoichi, and the older man considers it and the sixteen year old for a long moment before accepting the bottle and taking his own healthy swig.

"What the fuck," he says flatly. He passes the bottle back to Kabuto.

The younger man nods seriously, "Fucking shit goddamn."

They stay up drinking until nearly dawn. Those are the only words they exchange.

~

"I'm really proud of you," Kabuto says, and he's said these same words in this same situation before but he was lying. He's not lying now, because against all reason and his best efforts he really does care about these two girls, loves them maybe, because they're the closest thing he has to family besides Orochimaru-sama. "You guys are going to be great chunin."

Neither Hana nor Natsu will look him in the eye. This is how it always starts, this is how they leave him, and Kabuto smiles and pretends that it doesn't hurt.

The crisp, official papers declaring Natsu a chunin crumple in her fist. "I'm so sorry," the little girl whispers. Hana sniffs loudly, and Kabuto is qualified to handle lots of things, but crying girls has never been one of them.

"It's okay! No big deal," he insists.

Natsu rubs her arm across her eyes, "I - you - It's not fair! You're just as strong as we are!"

"Natsu?" he says uncertainly.

Hana nods, finally looking him in the eye. "It's not right! You're an amazing medic ninja, Kabuto. Who cares if your taijutsu and ninjutsu are crap? Not every ninja is meant to go on A-ranks, or to be on the front lines!"

"This is bullshit!" Natsu shouts, and Kabuto's mouth falls open, "You're awesome, you're our teammate! You should be moving up with us, we're supposed to be together!"

All his other teammates were relieved to be rid of him when they passed their chunin exams,  a dead weight they were finally able to drop. He's kept a ball of tight, angry hatred in his chest for so long, but looking at Hana and Natsu's desperate faces he feels it shatter. "It's all right," he says warmly, and he'd forgotten he could feel like this, "I really don't mind. Maybe I'm just meant to be a genin."

Natsu shakes her head. Hana crosses her arms, scowling, and says, "You're not allowed to forget about us!"

"What?" Kabuto blinks.

"You don't talk to your past teammates," Hana continues hotly, "and that's fine, they clearly didn't deserve you anyway. But we're your real team, and you're not leaving us behind!"

"I think it'd be you leaving me behind in this case," he points out numbly.

"We would never!" Natsu swears, "I don't care if you're still a genin when I'm a jounin, you'll always be my teammate and my friend!"

Hana grabs Kabuto's hand in her own, "You're pack, you and Natsu and Inoichi-sensei, and no matter what happens I'm not letting go of any of you."

Natsu grabs Kabuto's other hand, nodding furiously. Kabuto's normally calm face breaks out in the biggest grin they've ever seen on him, "Okay. It's not like I really get much choice in the matter, right?"

"Right!" Hana and Natsu say together, pleased.

Inoichi, who's been watching this exchange the entire time, cannot wait to be there when they all find out Kabuto is being promoted to a chunin medic-nin.

He's probably going to have to hide for a couple days from his scary chunin kids when they find out he didn't tell them, but it'll be worth it.

~

It's nearly sunset when they return to the village, and their very first action as newly minted chunin should be to go the hokage and receive their official commission and their vests, but -

"Go," Inoichi says to her and Hana, "Tell who you have to tell. Meet at the flower shop in a week, and I'll give you your new assignments and your border patrol schedule."

"Thanks, Inoichi-sensei!" Hana chirps, before she swings herself onto the largest of her ninken and bounds off in the direction of the Inuzuka compound.

Natsu hugs Kabuto, then Inoichi, and winks at them both before body flickering away. She can't sense Kakashi anywhere in the village, but Itachi's here. She wouldn't normally bother him at home, but this is important, so he'll forgive her just this once -

She smells the blood first. The scent hits her immediately, thick and cloying at the back of her throat. She sees the bodies strewn around her next; dark Uchiha hair and dead Uchiha eyes meet her horrified gaze.

"No," she whispers, and she runs through the compound, and there are bodies everywhere, children and civilians, all of them Uchiha. But she knows Itachi's chakra, he's still alive, the most powerful clan in Konoha can't be all gone.

She stumbles into the main house, and Itachi stands there, whole and alive if splattered with blood. She can't tell how badly he's hurt, not with all this blood clogging her senses, "Senpai! What happened, are you hurt, oh god -" Itachi turns to face her, and when he moves she sees the bodies of his mother and father cooling on the floor.  She covers her mouth, "No, who - who could have done this, your father is so strong!"

"Natsu," he says, and his voice is dead and cold and she flinches away from it, "Get out of here."

"You're right, we need to go," she takes a step forward to pull him away from the horrific sight, "Come on, we have to tell the hokage-"

"Aniki?" Both Natsu and Itachi spin to see the terrified little boy in the doorway, "Is that-"

"Don't look!" Natsu rushes forward and pulls Itachi’s little brother into her arms. He's almost too big for her to lift, but she's strong, and she wraps an arm under his thighs and uses the other to keep his head bent down inter her shoulder. "Sasuke, don't look, okay? Please."

“Okay,” he whispers, fingers digging into her shoulders.

She drops a kiss on top of his head, and it’s horribly selfish, but if all the other Uchihas are dead, she’s grateful that these are the two who aren’t. “Senpai, we have to go, whoever did this might come back. It’s not safe.”

“I did it,” Itachi says. It comes out rough, and he has to clear his throat before he continues, “I killed the Uchiha Clan.”

“What?” Natsu shakes her head before saying, “Is this like survivor’s guilt, or something? Look, I know this is awful, but it’s not your fault. Senpai, we have to go-“

“I killed the Uchihas,” Itachi repeats, and Sasuke shakes in her arms, “And if you don’t run, I’ll kill you too.”

Natsu blinks. “Bullshit. We don’t have time for this! Itachi-senpai, the longer we wait to report this, the more likely the murderer is to get away!”

“I am the murderer,” he says, and Natus doesn’t know what kind of psychological break this is but he needs to have it somewhere else, “I killed all the other Uchihas, so that the world may know that I am the strongest of us all.”

Natsu stares, open mouthed, because what a giant flaming pile of lies. “Aniki?” Sasuke whimpers.

“Kai,” Natsu says softly, cracking her chakra like a whip, because the longer this goes on the less real it seems to be.

Nothing changes. Itachi finally meets her eyes, and she flinches away from the three tomoe'd Sharingan. “This is no genjutsu,” he says, and his hands raise to form into seals. “I will make you bleed so that you know this world is real.”

If Natsu were on her own, she would stay and fight him. She wouldn’t win, she’s sparred with him enough times to know how hopelessly outclassed she is, but she would stay and do her best to beat some sense into his head. But she’s got Sasuke, and if Itachi hurts his brother in the middle of his little mental breakdown he will never forgive himself.

“This isn’t your fault,” she repeats fiercely. He moves to striker her, but she body flickers away before he can hit her.

She appears in the Hokage’s office, because no matter how he reinforces his chakra barrier her own chakra find a way to worm its way through. The Sandaime is starring at one of the councilman – Dan-something – in horror.

“Someone’s attacked the Uchiha Compound,” she announces, and Sarutobi’s horror filled gaze lands on her. “They’re dead. Itachi is alive, but – I think he’s gone crazy, or something. He keeps on repeating that he killed them, and he tried to attack us.”

Sasuke has started crying silently, she feel the wetness on her skin. She wants to join him, wants to curl up somewhere safe with Sasuke and bawl until the ache in her chest goes away, but she’s a chunin now and she has to be strong.

Sarutobi keeps starring at her, silent, and she stamps her foot. “Hokage-sama! There’s an S-Rank assassin on the loose, one of your Anbu captains has snapped, and a clan with a powerful bloodline limit has nearly been wiped out. You need to do something!”

“I’ll send some Anbu to the Uchiha compound,” the councilman says, eyes gleaming, “They’ll handle it. If you’ll just give Sasuke to me-“

Natsu takes a step back. The hokage finally seems to come back to himself and hisses, “You leave Root out of this, you’ve done more than enough damage already.”

“Why Hokage-sama,” the councilman says evenly, “Root has been disbanded, at your order.”

Sarutobi looks ready to murder the man right there, so when he reaches for Sasuke again Natsu says, “Touch him and I’ll tear your arm off and beat you with the bloody end.”

The councilman pauses. “Vicious little bitch, aren’t you?”

Natsu snarls, and this old man better pray he never finds her in a dark corner.

“Danzo,” the hokage snaps, “that’s enough.” He turns to Natsu and says, “I’ll handle this. Please take Sasuke to the hospital.”

“He’s not hurt,” she says, “I wouldn’t let him get hurt!”

“Natsu,” Sarutobi sighs, and he looks older than he ever has before, “Please do as I ask.”

Sasuke finaly looks up from her shoulder, and his face is splotchy and his eye are red. She presses a kiss to his forehead, says “Okay,” and body flickers away.

~

They won’t let her see Sasuke, “family only,” and she wants to scream because she doesn’t know if they noticed but Sasuke lost all the family he had in a single night.

Itachi is nowhere to be found, and he’s officially been named the perpetrator of the Uchiha Massacre and a missing-nin. She doesn’t believe any of this for a second, because maybe Itachi killed them and maybe he didn’t, but he definitely didn’t do it for a reason as stupid as “proving himself.” Maybe that little act would have worked on someone else, but Natsu knows him, and Itachi’s a great liar, but he’s not perfect.

Hana and Kabuto are quick to believe the worst, and it feels like a betrayal until Inoichi-sensei lays a heavy hand on her head and says, “Itachi never really got close to anyone. You and Sasuke are the only ones who really know him, so it’s easy for everyone else to accept what they’re told.”

“Well, isn’t that convenient,” she glares.

Inoichi blinks, and for a moment he looks calculating before admitting, “Yes.”

“Sensei?” Hana says hesitantly. She’s pale, and she’s gripping Kabuto’s hand so tightly that her knuckles are white.

Inoichi sighs and crosses his arms, “The only one who knows for sure what happened that night is Itachi Uchiha, who claims to have killed his family as a test of skill. It’s very possible that that's in fact what happened. But,” Inoichi frowns, “It seems a little too convenient, and a little too neat. So maybe, maybe Natsu is right and something deeper is going on here.”

“What are we going to do about it?” Kabuto asks.

“Nothing,” he says, and glares at Natsu when she began to protest, “The hokage has declared that Itachi is a murderer and a traitor, and we will not go against the word of the hokage. That being said, there's nothing illegal about keeping an eye or an ear out for what may have actually happened that night. Understand?”

His team nods, faces unusually serious.

When Inoichi brings it up to Shikaku later, his old teammate’s face goes instantly blank, which is really all the confirmation he needs.

“Shit,” he sighs, “Natsu is never going to let this go.”

Shikaku rubs the back of his head, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, and if I did have some extremely probable suspicions about what you’re talking about, I would recommend that you do your best to get her to drop it. For everyone’s sake.”

“Itachi was the first person who ever cared about her,” Inoichi says, “She won’t give up on him. She’ll die first.”

“If she’s not careful,” Shikaku agrees, face dark, and Inoichi rubs the bridge of his nose. He stands up, and as one he and Shikaku head to the bar.

~

Natsu senses his chakra when he enters the village again, so she’s waiting in his apartment when he staggers inside in the middle of the night. “Niichan,” she runs to his side as he stumbles and falls into bed. He still has his Anbu mask on, and his uniform is torn and bloody. “What happened?”

“Lots and lots of kunai,” he rolls his head to look at her, and she reaches over to delicately remove the porcelain dog mask. “What are you doing here? Is something wrong?”

“Yes,” she says, and the uniform’s a goner anyway so she doesn’t hesitate to use chakra to slice it open and peel it off, “But it can wait. I’ll tell you in the morning.”

He reaches a hand over to cup her face and turn it towards him, “Are you hurt?”

“No,” she thinks of what her life would be like if Kakashi hadn’t made it back from this mission, if she had lost both Senpai and Niichan at once, and her eyes burn. “But you are.”

“I’m fine,” he lets his hand drop, but doesn’t protest when Natsu’s hands come alight with green chakra. She’s no good at delicate work, but Hana and Kabuto have drilled the basics into her enough that she can do this.

“Liar,” she accuses softly, and her shoulders ease as she sees the wounds slowly close. She slices off his pants as well, and there’s a nasty stab wound on his right thigh that almost makes her go drag Kabuto out of bed. But she knows Kakashi wouldn’t stand for anyone else seeing him this way, except maybe Gai. So she uses chakra to clean the wound and heal it as much as she can, working her way down until she’s slowly easing off his sandles. The soles of his feet are one huge scab that’s slowly oozing blood. The thought of even standing on that makes her wince. Kakashi doesn’t react as she rips the scabs off so she can heal the tissue underneath, and her hand lingers over his left ankle, which is swollen and tender but not broken.

She goes back to his hands, and three of his fingers are broken. She goes to the bathroom to grab his first aid kit, because tiny finger bones definitely fall under delicate work. She straightens and splints them, which is all she can really do, but she thinks that she can probably get Kakashi to agree to spend a few minutes with Kabuto so that he can heal them properly. She absently heals a deep bruise along his collarbone, but hesitates when she gets to his mask.

“It’s all right,” Kakashi sighs, and his eyes are closed, Natsu assumes to finally stop using the Sharingan. “You can take it off.”

“Are you sure?” she asks, because she just stripped Kakashi to his underwear, but she knows that this is a lot more intimate.

He nods, and she uses chakra to cut the material down the side and slowly slides it off. The mask only hides the details, so his face is just as broad and strong as she’d figured. She giggles, and Kakashi opens his normal eye, “What?”

“Tan line,” she explains, tracing a light finger where his face turns pale. She sobers as her fingers trail against his lips; they’re bloody and almost bitten through. It’s a small thing, but she can’t leave it be, and her chakra briefly flares green. The cuts close, and she uses her thumb to rub the dried blood away from the newly healed skin.

“Waste of chakra,” Kakashi scolds, but his words come out slurred as he’s dragged down into a sleep he’s clearly fighting. “You should head home.”

Natsu blinks, considers, then shakes her head. “Hold on.” Kakashi quirks an eyebrow. Natsu dashes into his living room and then back carrying a large book on battle tactics. She pulls the blanket over him, and carefully tucks it in around his shoulders. “I’ll keep watch, okay? I’ll be right here reading, and if something happens I’ll wake you up. So you can sleep deeply, okay?”

She settles down with her back against the wall next to his bed and cracks open the book. Kakashi pats her head, says “Okay,” in that quiet tone of voice that makes Natsu thinks of her days as Naruto, and closes his eyes.

Natsu hums in satisfaction and reads by the moonlight.

~

In the end, it’s Sarutobi who tells Kakashi about the massacre. For three days Natsu tries to get Kakashi to stop training, to stop hurting himself, and for three days he totally ignores her. This means all her energy is being funneled into irritating the Sandaime into giving her what she wants, which is going horribly.

She glares at the hokage, and he doesn’t even have the decency to glare back. He just looks sad. Sarutobi shakes his head. “No, Natsu, you can’t see Sasuke today.”

“Why not?” she demands, “You can’t keep using the family only bullshit forever, it’s not going to work. You have to release him eventually.”

“Natsu,” he sighs, “I’d wanted to wait to have this conversation. You can’t see Sasuke now, and it would be best, for everyone, if you didn’t see him for – a while.”

“Why?” she asks, “I’m his brother’s best friend!” She’s never claimed that title before, but she knows it’s true.

“Exactly,” he says, “There are already people saying that you knew about the massacre, even that you helped him do it.”

“That’s ridiculous!” she stomps her foot, “I would never! And I still don’t buy that Itachi-senpai would either, by the way.”

 The Sandaime rubs his forehead, “That’s another thing. Your rather outspoken support of a mass murderer isn’t helping matters.”

“He’s not a mass murder!” Natsu yells, “Saying something doesn’t make it true, and I know that Itachi-senpai wouldn’t have done what he did without a good reason. Stop lying to me!”

This is why you can’t see Sasuke,” the hokage says, “The boy’s already lost everything. Why are you trying to make this harder for him?”

“Why are you trying to keep him away from the one person who can understand him?” Natsu returns.

Sarutobi leans his elbows on his desk. “Natsu, the civilians’ opinions are fickle things. It will be very bad if you two are seen together. For now, Sasuke has their sympathy and their support. But if they get it into his head that he was in any way involved, in any way like his brother –“

Natsu closes her eyes and remembers a bottle shattering on Naruto’s head, jagged glass soaked with alcohol ripping apart his skin and his insides, and an old man’s gleeful laugh while Naruto took what he thought were to be his last breaths.

“For how long?” she asks.

“Until he’s a genin would be best,” he says.

Natsu feels despair whip through her, because she’s sure that Sasuke is talented enough to graduate the Academy early, but no way will they let him, because then people will start to draw comparisons with Itachi.

“Okay,” she clears her throat and swallows, “Okay. I won’t approach or interact with Sasuke until he’s a genin on one condition.”

He leans back in his chair, “I’m listening.”

“You take Kakashi-niichan out of Anbu.”

“He’s the best Captain I have,” the hokage argues.

“I don’t care,” she says, “He’s a strong and loyal ninja of Konoha, so he’ll never ask for it himself. But you’re destroying him just like you were destroying Itachi-senpai. You need to stop.”

Sarutobi looks at her for a long time. She doesn’t flinch or look away, because this is important.

“All right,” he says finally, “You agree not to engage with Sasuke until he’s a genin, and I’ll offer Kakashi the option of returning to an elite jounin.”

She holds out her hand, “Deal.”

They shake on it, and Natsu hopes Sasuke will forgive her for this one day.

~

A week later Kakashi swings in through her window, “What did you do?”

She messes up the sealing scroll she’d been working on and curses, “What?”

“I’m a jounin again,” and there’s disbelief and a fearful happiness in that statement. “I figured he’d never let me leave. What did you do?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she says firmly and eyes the scroll. She might be able to mess with that that mistaken line down the middle and turn this into a scroll capable of holding a sealed wind jutsu. She doesn’t actually know any wind jutsus that would be compatible with that type of seal, but she’s willing to learn.

“Natsu,” he says again, this time a warning, but he’s never been able to intimidate her since the day they met so she doesn’t know why he thinks that’s going to work now.

She puts down her brush and meets his narrowed gaze full on, “Yes?”

He glares at her for a minute longer before he sighs. He walks over to ruffle her hair, “Thanks. Maybe I’ll go ask Iruka out to dinner or something.”

She blinks, “Niichan?”

“It wasn’t fair to enter into a relationship with anyone while I was in Anbu. Now, however,” he shrugs.

Natsu beams, “That’s great! Iruka’s really cute. I don’t know how Gai will feel about you cheating on him, though.”

Kakashi rolls his eyes and gently flicks her forehead, “Brat.”

~

Hana and Kabuto’s assignments to the hospital are pretty obvious, but Inoichi’s stumped about what to do with Natsu. In another decade she’ll probably be running back to back infiltration missions, but until then he’s kind of at a loss what to recommend her for that isn’t a giant waste.

He approaches the hokage about it, and the older man admits, “I tried to convince Jiraiya to come back and take her on as an apprentice. His reply letter was a very polite ‘fuck off’.”

“She needs to continue studying seals,” Inoichi agrees, “In a few years, there won’t be anything for even Jiraiya to teach her at the rate she’s going.”

Sarutobi scratches his beard thoughtfully, “If I gave her an ongoing research mission?”

“People will cry favoritism,” he warns, “And she’ll go insane if all you have her do is study and work on seals.”

“I’ll supplement it with C-Ranks,” Sarutobi shrugs, “And people can cry favoritism all they want. Konoha hasn’t had a real seal master in almost ten years. We need her to achieve her full potential.”

Inoichi sighs, then nods, “Do you want to tell her, or should I?”

“I’m not her favorite person at the moment,” the hokage says wryly, “You go right ahead.”

~

“Sorry I’m late!” Natsu calls cheerfully as she ducks into the dango stand a month after receiving her assignment. “I had a little mishap with a seal.” She’s still faintly smoking.

“A little mishap,” Inoichi says, deadpan.

Kabuto grabs her hands and looks at her blistering and bleeding fingers in despair. “How?” he moans even as bright green chakra gathers in his hands and closes the wounds. “Every time we see you now you’re bleeding.”

Hana is systematically banging her head against the table top. Inoichi absently slips his hand underneath so she hit that instead, because Tsume will blame him if her daughter gets brain damage.

“Sealing is hard!” Natsu protests, “I’m mostly just making it up as I go. You can only learn so much from books.”

“Could you maybe learn how not to blow yourself up?” Hana asks, tilting her head to the side to glare at her friend. “Kabuto and I are good, but we’re not quite good enough to put you back together if you tear yourself into a hundred pieces.”

“Actually, explosion seals are relatively easy,” she admits, “It’s the advanced storage ones that you have to look out for.”

Kabuto slaps his hand over his face and Inoichi rolls his eyes. "Is that the one you're working on now?" Hana asks.

Natsu shakes her head, "Gaara's worried that his dad is reading his mail, so I'm trying to work out a seal that's attuned to a person's particular chakra. It's a huge pain."

Inoichi now feels the urge to bang his head against the table top, because 'a huge pain' to Natsu is 'literally impossible' to everyone else.

“Order up!” the waitress says cheerfully as she puts down a truly massive platter towering with dango in front of them, “Hi Natsu! Anko said that she saw your most recent flower pattern in the tree out back and that you’re improving.”

“Thanks!” she says, grabbing a skewer and biting into the meat. The waitress pats her head before walking away.

Inoichi watches his former genin dig in with resignation. “When are you guys going to start picking up the tab? Feeding you all isn’t cheap you know.”

Hana swallows her mouthful, “Sensei, I am but a lone healer’s apprentice –“

“I have been a chunin less than a month,” Kabuto pouts, wounded, “and already you seek to profit-“

“Do you have any idea how much sealing paper and ink costs?” Natsu demands.

“Okay, okay,” Inoichi grumbles, but it’s not very effective considering he’s smiling, “I take it back, jeez.”

All three of his kids eye him suspiciously for a moment before grinning and going back to eating. Inoichi still finds himself disgustingly fond of them all anyway.