“What were you thinking?!” Yuuki hissed through the crack between the bathroom door and its frame.
Inoichi gulped, still riding a bit of an adrenaline high but slowly unthawing back into the half-rational human being he was during most of his life. He scratched at his cheek – hopefully the toddler wasn’t diseased (could he even catch any human illness?) – and pressed his temple to the doorframe.
He could see a slice of his lovely wife bathing what had previously looked like a ball of grime, but now had resolved itself into a tiny boy. Inoichi had known his father. Had been a – thank Izanagi only – passing acquaintances with his mother. And he was many things, among them an elite jounin and the Head of the Torture and Interrogation Department, but none of that amounted to him being soulless.
This was a child of his village, of his comrades, out in the street at night, looking like he had literally crawled out of a gutter.
When Inoichi spotted him, his thoughts went somewhat like: Oh, poor little blond child, look at those cerulean peepers, obviously you’re a lost relative of ours. Come to the bosom of the Yamanaka Clan! It was better than the alternative: They already sacrificed you twice, why does this village keep sacrificing people? I won’t let you die.
And… maybe he was not as okay as he pretended to be. The grief still choked him at odd times. And the guilt – he couldn’t have done anything for Hizashi, and he couldn’t do anything for Neji, but that didn’t make the feelings go away.
So, he had to do this.
“Wha’s ‘at, Ba?” asked the child.
Yuuki’s attention was redirected so swiftly it looked like Inoichi hadn’t ever been its subject. He watched his wife lean down to the boy standing up in the bath, wet golden (too yellow, they would have to do something about that) hair darkened and plastered to his head by water, eyes like saucers.
“It’s a rubber ducky, Naruto-chan,” said Yuuki.
“Ducky!” exclaimed the toddler, waving the orange toy around in the air. “Yosh!”
And whatever dark and twisted things people might have said about the greatest offensive imitator of their generation, Inoichi did not doubt for a second that Yuuki would never let this child out of her grasp.
Konoha was full of orphans in the wake of the Kyuubi event. It wouldn’t be that odd if Inoichi had picked one out in the street; the physical resemblance suggested he might have been a lost clan member, and… well, once anyone would think to look into a questionable adoption, years down the line, the boy would be already too integrated for anyone to touch him.
“Wha’s at, Ba?”
Yuuki sighed. She loved the boy’s inquisitive spirit, but she was taking care of two children now, and hearing ‘wha’s at, ba?’ every thirty seconds got old fast.
“A book,” she said. “It’s for reading.”
“Uh?” The boy was looking up at her, eyes wide and incomprehensive.
Of course. Of course his development had been completely neglected, just like his appearance and his hygiene. It had taken Yuuki a couple of weeks to get the child reasonably house-trained.
“Reading,” she repeated, then suppressed another sigh and put away the stack of evaluations. She patted the sofa cushion next to her and, just like a pet, Naruto hopped up to curl in the indicated spot. Yuuki took the book from him. “I will read you one of the stories in here, but then you have to promise to go do your exercises.
“Yosh!” exclaimed the boy. This was the second most frequent thing to come out of his mouth.
“Once upon a time,” Yuuki started, “there lived a brave little shinobi called Takashi-kun.”
The story unwound, so familiar that she might have well recited it from memory. She let her eyes drift over the lines, and thought wistfully that Ino was already reading hiragana by herself, and had since started learning her kanji.
Naruto-kun was behind. Fortunately, he could start learning now – she didn’t want to imagine what would have been of the boy if no one had taught him anything until he started at the Academy. If he even would.
They had entrance exams to weed out the too weak, those unable to focus, those incapable of chakra manipulation and the illiterate.
For better or worse, circumstance had put the task of preparing this boy into Yuuki’s hands, and she was going to do her best by him.
“Naruto-kun, you remember the people you were with before?”
The boy’s face scrunched up in what would have been a fearsome scowl on a grown man. It was not quite cute, but only because there was genuine fear behind it. “Yeaap.”
Inoichi took a deep breath and promised himself that in this case the end justified the means times ten. “Those people are going to come for you if they find out you are here. They will take you back, and I will not be able to stop them.”
“Ba?!” Naruto yelped, fearful.
“She won’t, either. No one will be able to stop them.”
“We want you to stay, but we have to make sure nobody knows this boy-” He pointed his finger at Naruto. “-is Naruto. You will have to pretend you are somebody else, all the time, in front of everybody. Can you do that?”
“Not Naruto stay?”
“Yes.” Inoichi prayed to Izanagi it would be enough. That they would somehow pull this off and manage to hide the jinchuuriki in plain sight.
“Yosh!” the toddler punched the air so hard he almost upended himself. “I promise!”
“Very well. Now, let’s start with the name. What is your name?”
“Naru- uh. Um.” The boy blinked. He mimed a tentative punch. “Yosh?!”
Inoichi shrugged. Why not? It was perfectly serviceable. “Your name is Yoshi? Well, that is a very nice name, Yoshi-kun.”
He glanced over at Yuuki who was supervising from afar. Her face betrayed nothing. Inoichi steeled himself, even though he wanted to chew on his hair with the phantom of future frustration.
This would take a lot of training.
“No!” Ino screamed. And threw herself onto the floor. She tried to play dead – or possibly unconscious – for a moment, then gave it up and started punching and kicking her soft, fluffy carpet.
Yuuki and Inoichi shared a look. It was a quietly resigned and entirely unsurprised look.
“I thought she grew out of this a year ago,” Yuuki pointed out.
“Only because she learnt that it didn’t work,” Inoichi replied, “and apparently this is the time for the truly desperate measures.”
His clever daughter had caught the exchange and cottoned onto the fact that she was shit out of luck with the performance. She knelt up, clasped hands in her lap, and made the biggest pair of wide, sad, puppy eyes that Inoichi had faced in his life. There was brightness in them that hinted at future tears.
“Da-daddy… Daddy, please…”
Inoichi raised an eyebrow. This one was new.
“Daddy, Mummy… please send him back?”
“I want to give her a cookie,” Yuuki admitted, torn between pride and exasperation.
“Oh.” Inoichi had an idea. He hoped his smile wasn’t as bloodthirsty as it felt, because he didn’t mean to frighten his family. “How about each of us four has a cookie, and we introduce the concept of sharing?”
Ino’s pleading eyes were replaced with a thunderous pout. “He don’t belong here! I don’t want him here! He’s a new-sense! A… a something we toss away. Like trash!”
“If she says this to us, she will say it to him, too,” Yuuki muttered, worried.
Inoichi nodded. She absolutely would. A psychological abuse campaign against someone who had already been abused? Ino could take an untrained peer apart. His princess was only four, but she had already manifested excellent social instincts.
“Ino-chan, if you are mean to your new brother, he might be sad. He might even feel like we don’t want him to live here with us, and want to leave.”
Ino’s whole countenance shone with eagerness.
“If that happened, darling, your Mum and I would just have to try so very hard to convince Yoshi-kun that we really like him, and really want him here. Why, we might have to give him lots of presents. And sweets. We might have to spend a lot of time with him, doing the things he enjoys, to make sure he believes us.”
Ino’s pout of doom returned, and so did the tears of frustration. Ino stood up, stomped very hard (on the soft, fluffy carpet, so this had very little actual effect) and threw herself on top of her bed, where she proceeded to bawl her eyes out at the terrible injustice of the world and her heartless, beastly parents.
Shikaku crawled out of bed, remembered that it was Saturday, and attempted to crawl back in.
Yoshino kicked him in the hip hard enough to bruise, and then glared through one eye from under an unholy mess of hair. “Conditioning day,” she growled.
Shikaku shuffled off to the bathroom and then downstairs in hopes that some solicitous clan member would have brewed a pot of coffee for any poor, benighted passing Clan Head to find.
Two hours later he was sitting, hunched over, in the corner of the gazebo. They were surrounded by trees – deep enough within Nara grounds that they couldn’t be seen or heard from outside without some heavy duty chakra techniques – because it was his turn to host the ‘conditioning day’, as Yoshino called these meetings.
She used to spit the words, as though they were acid, but these days she said them with resignation.
Two generations of clansmen proved Ino-Shika-Cho to be a great team, so it made sense to repeat the combination, but Shikaku admitted that Yoshino did have a point when she protested boxing their son in before he even started the Academy.
Shikaku looked up and mustered a smile for Chouji-kun, who was running forward like a scout ahead of his team. He waved. “Hello, Chouji-kun. Where did you leave your parents?”
Chouza rolled his eyes, stepping out of the trees, arm in arm with Mayu, despite being about two heads taller than she.
“They right there!” Chouij reported enthusiastically, waking up Shikamaru who had taken the opportunity to nap.
“Welcome,” Shikaku said to the Akimichi family, and pointed his thumb over his shoulder at the spread on the picnic table. Let it not be said that the Nara could not be proper hosts. Even if this whole production was such a pain in the arse.
And, for all his enthusiasm, Chouji wasn’t half as loud as Ino. There was a reason why the deer weren’t anywhere around. They would have come out if Shikaku were here alone, or with Yoshino in one of her calmer moods, or even with Shikamaru (who hadn’t changed much from his baby self, and still spent most of his time asleep, with little breaks thrown in for eating).
“Can I have a moshi, Daddy?” Chouji hopped on the spot. “Can I? Can I?”
Shikaku cast a hopeful gaze in the direction of his house, but he knew Yoshino would be a while yet. She didn’t outright boycott these occasions, but she did everything short of that to make it clear how ardently she disapproved.
“We don’t have to do this,” Mayu said quietly, sitting next to him.
Shikaku scratched at his goatee. Yoshino was the most outspoken out of the Sinister Three, but that didn’t mean Mayu or Yuuki disapproved any less. They were just quieter about it.
“Yes, we do,” he replied under the negotiation for sweets before lunch that Chouza was conducting with his (hilariously tiny in comparison) son. “We do, because they will be Ino-Shika-Cho, and of course everyone will expect them to be a great team right away. People won’t remember it took Inoichi, Chouza and me years and a war to get there. They won’t remember the first Ino-Shika-Cho team wasn’t even meant to be a team – that they were just the leftovers of other slaughtered teams who came together in a crisis and survived by a fluke.”
Mayu stared at her happy four-year-old lardball. “Wish that I could have more.”
Yes, the terrible curse of the life of shinobi parents – knowing how high was the likelihood that you would have to bury your child. Better to have a few spares around to fill that hole. And yet – look at them. Three Clan Heads with only children, each family for their own reasons.
“So we’ll keep doing this,” Shikaku concluded, “and give them all the headstart we can scrounge up for them.”
“I see,” grumbled Shikamaru, rubbing his eyes with his fists.
“When did you wake up?” And why hadn’t Shikaku noticed? This wasn’t a conversation he would have wanted his son to overhear.
“Hello, Ba-san,” Shikamaru said instead of an answer. He slid off the bench and went to say hi to their other visitors. Which was wildly out of character for him, and probably inspired by the bomb Shikaku had just unintentionally dropped on his little head, damn it.
“Pekopeko!” Chouji yelled.
For being about knee-height, Shikamaru managed to mimic Yoshino’s long-suffering expression astoundingly well. “I’m not food,” he complained, but it didn’t seem to matter to Chouji, who was hugging the stuffing out of him.
“Shikaku,” Yoshino said in a things-had-gone-pear-shaped voice, “I’m seeing double.”
Shikaku obediently followed the direction of her look. He let his chopsticks fall and jumped to his feet. He looked about as alarmed as Yoshino felt. This was… wrong. What was going on?
Yuuki walked lightly across the expanse of grass, carrying a monkey-like Ino in her arms.
Half a step behind her walked Inoichi, carrying in his arms a monkey-like… not-Ino.
Did Inoichi spawn again and keep it secret? No, Yoshino would have known if Yuuki had been pregnant, and she knew that if the pregnant woman hadn’t been Yuuki, Inoichi wouldn’t be alive today. Cloning, then? she mused fancifully.
She left the formulation of realistic hypotheses to her husband.
“Mummy?” Chouji was asking somewhere behind them. “Where do brothers come from? I want one, too!”
“Troublesome…” muttered Shikamaru and then, yet more quietly: “Me too.”
“It’s not fair!” Chouji was crying. “Why Ino gets one and I not?!”
“‘cause she’s a girl?” suggested Shikamaru. “Some clans don’t let girls be heirs, so they have to have children until it’s a boy-”
“I’m sure that is not the case here,” Mayu cut in, trying to placate the two boys, although there was an underlying question in her voice.
“Introductions?” Yoshino suggested dryly. Her right hand was on her hip; her left hovered (with heavy implication) around her tag pouch.
Inoichi sported a pained expression, aware that this confrontation was coming and that he was going to have to come up with some really good explanations. “This is Yoshi. He’s my ward, right now, but Yuuki and I are looking to adopt him.”
The boy weathered the attention of six big (some of them extremely big) adults with very little nervousness; he seemed to be fine as long as he could chew on his necklace.
“Oh, is he a cousin?” Mayu inquired, coming closer, watching the boy with the same intensity as the boy watched her (all big blue eyes and zero fear). “I… haven’t heard you’ve lost anyone? Condolences…”
Inoichi shook his head. “Years ago. Per his parents’ wishes, Yoshi-kun was placed with guardians outside of the Clan, but I have recently found that they were unsuitable.”
“I gots to live with Ba and Ji!” the little boy informed them solemnly.
Yoshino heard Mayu breathe out an ‘aww’, and was extremely proud of herself for managing not to do the same. The boy could have been Ino’s brother just as easily as her cousin – the same flaxen hair, even though his stuck out like the short section of Inoichi’s, blue eyes just a shade darker, the same wide grin, the same future of breaking hearts wherever he went.
Shikaku groaned and went straight for the sake – which Yoshino had brought for herself and the ladies, but he was willing to fight for it, kami-damn it!
“Yoshi, huh?” said Chouji. “Like Shika’s Mum. He seems nice-”
“I hate him!” yelled Ino, tugging on her pink dress so hard a seam came loose. She turned her back to where the adults were all admiring the new boy.
“Why?” asked Shikamaru, chewing on the edge of his sleeve.
“He wants to steal Mum and Dad! He steals everything! He’s a stealer!”
“Thief,” Shikamaru corrected, and then frowned. “What did he steal?” That shiny necklace, maybe?
“Oh… uh… stuff,” Ino said unconvincingly.
“If you don’t want him,” said Chouji, “give him to me. I want a little brother, but Mummy says I don’t get one.”
“Me too,” Shikamaru said, and it came out all garbled, because his sleeve got in the way. He spat it out. “Me too. If you don’t want him, I’ll take him.”
“Humph!” said Ino. “I hate him, but he’s mine.”
“Years ago. Per his parents’ wishes, Yoshi-kun was placed with guardians outside of the clan, but I have recently found that they were unsuitable,” Shikaku quoted, even mimicking the tone in which Inoichi had said it.
He had been sitting on this one since lunch, and it was now long after dinner, children had been packed off to their respective beds, and when Shikaku signaled Chouza to retreat under the guise of getting more alcohol, he finally got his chance to corner his lying best friend. “You’ve got to have picked him up a while ago – he’s well-coached.”
Inoichi crumpled down into an armchair and buried his face in his hands. “Should have known better…”
Shikaku thought that for a blond, he hadn’t done so badly. He made two definitive statements, both hundred percent true, both a little too vague to allow for investigation of the claims, and diverting the attention far, far away from the identity of the child.
“How do you keep the-” Shikaku mimed three lines down his cheek, “-hidden?”
“The necklace,” Inoichi said, muffled, into his hands. “Seal. Locked genjutsu. It’s a risk, but short off scraping off his skin and letting it heal anew-” and possibly disfiguring him terribly, not to even speak of the pain and the emotional aspect of inflicting such damage on a toddler, “-it was the best I could do.” He looked up. “Please, Shikaku? Please! You didn’t see him – like the last gutter rat in the village, like a wild animal… please…”
Shikaku had not even considered reporting Inoichi for this, but now that the idea was planted, he couldn’t help but think of all the risks. The team personally weren’t all that touchable, but their children… if Inoichi and Shikaku made powerful enemies, their kids would be the ones targeted.
Shikaku sank into the armchair opposite Inoichi’s. And bit his tongue, because it took inhuman effort not to say how much of a pain of his arse this whole situation was.
“Hokage-sama, I came to inform you that I have taken guardianship of a previously misplaced clansman, and petition to officially adopt him.”
After a day of politicking and administrating, this appointment was almost refreshing. What dismayed Hiruzen was the – for his Head of T&I so uncharacteristic – amount of bullshit. And, given that this was indeed his very competent Head of T&I, Hiruzen was absolutely sure that the man had asked for the graveyard slot on the Hokage’s schedule on purpose, just so he could unload this shit while Hiruzen was too tired to rake him over the coals for it.
Well, in the name of Konoha’s values and the standing good relationship of the Hokage administration with the clans… “How nice of you to tell me.” It was, Hiruzen found, one of the silver linings of old age that you could be sardonic inside your head and still come off as sage on the outside.
Inoichi flinched. Not much, but there was a movement around his eyes.
“And who is this newly discovered clansman?” Hiruzen asked, so mildly that the ANBU guard in the corner squirmed.
Inoichi blinked, all innocent surprise at why should the Hokage be interested in that particular detail of such a banal story.
“An orphan,” Inoichi said without answering. “It is important to take care of all members of the Clan regardless of how they are related to the Clan Head-”
Hiruzen raised his hand before he got truly irritated. Silence reigned for a moment; then Inoichi’s teeth clacked as he shut his mouth.
“If I understand correctly,” he mused, “you are not in possession of the documentation for this child – we are speaking of a child, right? Or is this guardianship to serve as protection from some enemy?”
“A child, yes,” Inoichi admitted.
“So nice. How old would you say?”
Inoichi had the temerity to say: “A small one,” with a shrug that implied he was not good at estimating the ages of children and, honestly, the topic was of little interest. Which might have held water, had he not been the father of a four-year-old girl.
“What is his name?”
“Yamanaka Yoshi,” said the jounin readily. “I have had him added to the Clan records, even though we suspect he might be illegitimate.”
“He was not in your records, and you are unaware of how he is related? How can you be sure that he is truly a member of your clan?”
Inoichi drew his shoulders back. “He is blond and blue-eyed, Hokage-sama!”
Hiruzen was rarely stumped.
He was stumped now.
‘Blond and blue-eyed,’ he repeated to himself, lips moving soundlessly. What could he answer to that? There were so many possible responses, ranging from calling Inoichi on his contempt for the Hokage to attacking that pile of nonsense with logic to a comeback that was as witty as it was true.
(In no way had Hiruzen been going spare for almost four months since Konoha’s jinchuuriki disappeared. On the other hand, given that said jinchuuriki disappeared because the orphanage lost him – intentionally, it turned out, and there was for once pleasure in seeing heads literally roll – and he could have been picked up by anyone – hence the aforementioned going spare… Inoichi might have saved everybody’s life. It was a dilemma.)
But the hour was late, willful ignorance had been the best policy for years, and so Hiruzen pulled out his pack of tobacco and his pipe, and started stuffing it. “Well then, I truly don’t see how this is a matter for the Hokage office. It is not every day an esteemed Clan Head such as yourself chooses to foster an orphan; it does you credit. Indeed, I know that you and Yuuki-san will be the most diligent parents to both your children."
Inoichi barely moved, but the ‘oh fuck’ look in his eyes was a sight of beauty.
Hiruzen waved his hand with the still-unlit pipe in it. “Congratulations, and all that. Now, time has gotten away from us, and we both have homes to get back to.”
“What did he say?” asked Shikaku.
Inoichi shrugged. “Pretty much the same thing you did: I never said anything to him, he doesn’t know shit, but there’s no need to panic about the village losing a you-know-what.”
Chouza, the silent guardian shadow towering over them, nodded. “Lateral thinking, huh? Your favourite.”