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How Team 7 Came to Be

Chapter Text


 

One

 


 

"Oi, Sasuke! Wait up!"

Naruto raced after the raven-haired boy, knowing full well that he wouldn't stop to wait for him. He had to consciously keep up with Sasuke's pace, because otherwise he'd be walking behind him, and that won't do y'know!

-

He remembered whispered words exchanged at night, in places he shouldn't be but was anyway. Chatters of civilians and shinobi alike buzzing all around him at the market, the townsquare, everywhere-

'Every single one of them in one night? Geez, that's insane...'

'Poor boy, I wonder who's going to take care of him now?'

'Serves those scumbags right for being so suspicious-'

He ran.

-

He knew he should feel bad for himself, but honestly, he didn't mind. For all that Sasuke was ignoring him, at least he wasn't pushing him away or worse, looking at him with those...hateful eyes. He had had enough of that from others; to not get anything from Sasuke was...nice.

Gesturing wildly, he rambled on about what he went through that day: extra classes he was scheduled to take starting next month, how Kiba and Chouji helped him get back at their History sensei, the pranks he planned on doing this week (“I'm gonna make it even better than last month dattebayo!”), Ichiraku Ramen and Old Man Teuchi; and Sasuke stayed silent, not stopping him but not engaging in the conversation either.

Naruto thought absently as they neared Sasuke's apartment, that he could keep going on like this.

Even if it might seem like Sasuke didn't appreciate his presence, even if most of his talks were one-sided-

As he walked back to his own apartment, he found that...that he didn't really mind. 

 

000

 

As the leaves started to flutter and the air turned crisper, their dynamic relatively stayed the same. Naruto rattled on without a care while Sasuke listened to him (or not; Naruto's still not sure).

When a group of civilians passed by them, he dropped silent in an instant, unconsciously shuffling closer while trying to make himself seem scarce. His heartbeat raced, his breath shallow, fear tethering just below the surface of his skin. He wanted nothing more than for them to hurry up and-

There was a slight nudge to his side.

Snapping his head to the boy next to him, Naruto stared—his eyes widening as if seeing Sasuke for the very first time. The Uchiha huffed quietly and looked off to the side, his face hidden. Understanding dawned upon Naruto like the rising sun over the horizon, light in his eyes and he grinned.

The next few days, he couldn't stop the huge smile that kept spilling out from him every few minutes. Naruto relished this. His chest felt all tingly and warm and the world looked much brighter and-

The bastard acted like he regretted what he did; but if Sasuke visibly tried to match his pace or he started standing nonchalantly outside the Academy after classes were finished, Naruto only beamed. He didn’t mind at all. He loved it.

 

000

 

As winter started to give way for the cherry blossoms to sprout, the two continued to walk down to Sasuke's apartment before parting. He told him about how Hokage-jiji gave him allowances every month and "I never have any left when he comes back-dattebayo!" And about how nice Iruka-sensei was "and did you know he's an orphan too?!" He talked and talked about everything and nothing, his limbs moving along with his words as the wind played with his hair, rubbing against his exposed skin.

Sasuke offered him a simple "Hn," maybe once or twice and Naruto-

Naruto exploded in laughter, his voice as bright as the fireworks at the night of the New Year.

At least someone doesn't mind his company.

 

 


 

Two

 


 

They started hanging out by the riverside, where a single docking bay sat.

Surprising even him, it was Sasuke who first suggested it, through a jumble of incoherent words and hesitant gestures, eyes pointedly directed away from Naruto.

After much coaxing from the blonde to repeat what he said (Come on, teme. I couldn’t hear what you said!), he brought Naruto to his favorite spot where he liked to just…be. Memories of sleepless nights and silence so loud filled his mind—he shook them away. And now he was sharing it with someone else.

A voice in the back of his head whispered what a huge mistake he had made, what a foolish boy he was if he thought That Man wouldn’t take him away from him too and- But before he could allow himself to sink under its truth, Naruto gripped at his arm, pointing at something he couldn’t see.

“Oh, wow! It looks really pretty from here, dattebayo!” Oh, Sasuke realized in a daze, his mind far away. He's talking about the sunset.

“Yeah,” his voice was faint, as though it was someone else’s mouth, the echo of its tenor too surreal for his ears. For a second he thought Naruto didn’t hear him, until the blonde squeezed his arm.

Naruto pulled him along the river and they sat on the dock watching as the sun set, side by side, until night came.

He forgot about the voice by the time he went to bed.

 

 


 

Three

 


Sasuke trained. And trained.

He trained until his limbs wobbled, until his ears screamed and nearly threw up the content in his stomach. He learned not to eat anything beforehand afterwards.

Sasuke trained, at any given time, every single day.  Because he had to. He had to get stronger, stronger than him; and Sasuke forced himself to forget bright smiles and warm hands because he couldn’t let anything distract him, not even his best friend.

It was only a matter of time before Naruto found out, he reasoned.

Naruto was about to invite his broody friend to eat Ramen with him as usual (even though the bastard said he didn’t particularly like Ramen, he still looked pretty happy when he ate it so, hey! Naruto counted that as a win), but couldn't find the boy anywhere. Racking his brain for any places Sasuke might be in, he opted to check every one of them, wind in his face as he ran. The longer he searched, the bigger the pit in his stomach grew, threatening to swallow him whole and engulf him, spreading and spreading-

Dammit. Where could he be-ttebayo? I left him for one day-

It was at this moment that he found the Uchiha on the ground, gasping for breath; his clothes scorched and battered, a dozen shuriken and kunai spread out all around him.

Naruto stopped and stared.

The Uchiha noticed far too late, and by the time he stepped forward to intercept the blonde, Naruto was already bolting away. Dread and confusion filled Sasuke. Did he scare him away? No. Was he going to tell this to his ‘Jiji’ so he can stop him? No, and no. A terrible feeling coiled around his abdomen and he clenched his teeth. Why then? Should he go after him-?

As soon as he was gone, Naruto reappeared within his line of sight, screaming:

“OI, TEME! HOW DARE YOU TRAIN WITHOUT ME, DATTEBAYO!”

Instead of his regular shorts and t-shirt, he had changed into a more proper training wear, along with a small pouch of what he suspected was his own stash of weapons and Sasuke was-

Sasuke was grateful. He forced down the warmth in his chest and smirked,

“Guess I wanted to get a head start, usuratonkachi.”

 

 


 

Four

 


 

Sasuke enjoyed the silence.

He always had, even before the Incident happened that night. He supposed he was what people call an ‘Introvert’, but he never cared for labels and such. He was…(an Uchiha? An Avenger?) simply a child who somehow was thrusted into all this mess. At least that was what the adults say. At his core, he…still didn’t know.

But one thing he knew for sure was that he thrived in silence; where he wouldn’t hear anyone whisper at him with pity, no one swooning all over him trying to get his attention, where he could escape watchful eyes and forceful empathy, where he could just…be himself. Whatever he is.

Silence was nonjudgmental, uncaring and was neither warm nor cold. To him, it was a perfect place to be everything and nothing.

But sometimes…

Sometimes, even the silence would be too much for him. Too vast. Too loud.

It felt like the longer he stayed in it the sooner he’d be swallowed by it and never return. (And he has to. Itachi had to be killed by him. And Naruto would be all- He stopped. Breathed.)

There was too much time for him to think, and thinking was dangerous these days. It would lead to scenarios he’d rather not consider at all, and contradictions he never wanted to reflect on. (Why was Itachi crying? Was he even crying? Was it a Genjutsu? But why-? WHY HIM-)

Memories of his brother- Itachi (Not his brother, not anymore), of his family (his mother’s kind eyes empty, devoid of any warmth; his father’s towering form limp on the bloody floor- their blood- there’s so much blood-); of moments before his life was flipped outside down by the one person he trusted the most filled his mind.

He suffocated in it, found himself drowning in a silence too loud and inclusive-

Foolish little brother,

if you wish to kill me; hate me, detest me.

And yet survive in an unsightly way.

Run, run-

Down, down, down he went; darkness closing in on him-

“Oi, Sasuke!”

Someone shook his shoulders and his eyes snapped open. Onyx eyes met bright blue ones; too close, far too close- “Remember your space, idiot!” He shoved the boy away from him with more force than he intended, and Naruto rubbed his rear glumly, pouting.

“Sheesh, it’s ‘cause you didn’t answer for so long, y’know…”

Sasuke looked over at the blonde, studying him carefully. He saw a hit of…fear on Naruto's face. Was he…actually concerned? Did he space out that bad? He swallowed the lump in his throat. Lately his nightmares had been…more prominent than usual and, he supposed it was…taking a toll on him.

It didn’t help that he had been visiting That Place more often too.

Something raw and painful clawed at the back of his throat, his vision starting to blur. He realized with growing dread what happened at this time of the year.

He opened his mouth and stopped. What was he going to do, tell Naruto? Tell him about what he has to go through almost every single night?

He couldn’t- that would mean sharing his weakness and he. He had to get stronger. Stronger than him. He couldn’t waste time with, with friendship and emotions.

But Naruto-

He had held his hands, and never let go.

As he continued to observe the blonde, Naruto chattered away, taking Sasuke’s silence as permission to start talking about what happened during extra classes today. His hands moved erratically, pointing at every angle as his bright hair glinted under the sun.

The evening wind sang, lulling his mind into a safe cocoon of emptiness as he took a long, deep breath.

Sasuke let his voice wash over him and remembered warm hands shaking his when he got too excited; casual touches given freely; bad jokes cracked and name-calling after a row of sleepless nights, his eye bags more pronounced than usual; a blinding smile that chased away his demons, promising him to always show the light at the end of the cave. He remembered rare, quiet moments spent watching the sunset and. He decided.

He took a quick breath and started:

“I…”

Distantly, he noticed Naruto stopped what he was saying and moved. The wood under them creaked.

Naruto said nothing and Sasuke dare not look at his face, cursing his cowardly behavior though he was.

Where would he even begin?

“I have…nightmares,” and to his surprise, the words spilled out much easier after that.

He shared with him about sleepless nights and waking up to his demons. About his fear of the silence and how it chased after him, even outside of his home. He told him what day it is and- it took a while for Naruto to understand but when he did, he nodded. He didn’t tell Naruto about That Man. No. Maybe someday. But- but not today.

Throughout all of it, Naruto listened with every fiber of his being and somehow, his hand found Sasuke’s, squeezing. Sasuke squeezed back.

He didn’t talk for very long, but it was easily the most he had ever spoken to someone in a while. (Sasuke ignored how his skin trembled and how his mouth felt like sand paper.)

By the time he was done, he felt utterly tired; every emotion and energy he had in his body sucked out of his very life by every word he had uttered and left behind an empty, lifeless husk.

Everything was silent. (And he found that...he was okay with it.)

If he leaned on Naruto more than he usually allowed himself to; if unshed tears glimmered under the setting sun; if he woke up to the stars bright and glowing with his best friend snoring at his side…well, no one else in the whole damn world needed to know. Itachi doesn’t need to know. He may have robbed him of his whole life but he won’t allow him to take this.

Chapter Text


 

What Spring Brings with Them

 


 

Running into each other was…unexpected.

The class generally know each other; but for Naruto, who wasn’t the most well-liked boy within the class, and for Sasuke, who couldn't care less about his other classmates, it wasn't a surprise that they both had never quite met her.

It didn't help that Sakura herself was a quiet girl and kept to herself most of the time. She already had a problem making friends with the girls, not to mention the boys.

They’re just…so loud and obnoxious. Most of them anyway. The rest are either as shy as her or too absorbed in their own world to pay her any attention.

It wasn’t like she didn’t make any attempts though!

Meeting Ino was probably one of the best things that had ever happened to her (even though it was actually the other way around), and she tried her best to battle how weak and uncool she felt to keep up with her.

“You’re just insecure, dear,” her mother had informed her once, during one of the Haruno’s nightly routine of story time.

Insecure. Sakura decided that she wasn’t that fond of the word as she stored it in her mind.

 

-

 

“Ino’s so cool and pretty, Tou-san!” Sakura proudly told them about the new friend she made. “I wanna be just like her!”

They were having dinner, Sakura’s mouth trying to munch on her food as quick as possible. Mebuki had made sure to cook something delicious tonight, its savory smell wafting through the dinner table as the lamp washed the room in warm yellow. The kettle whistled.

Mebuki smiled in understanding. Ignoring her husband’s warning for their daughter to slow down ‘You’re gonna choke, Sakura!’ Sakura bobbed her head up and down excitedly.

“Oh yeah?” she played along.

“Yea! She even kicked Kayano’s butt! She’s awesome!”

Mebuki pondered while the two talked about her using that phrase (‘You used it once…’ Sakura tiled her head in curiosity. She sighed. Oh, they were definitely having a word later).

“Sakura,” she treaded carefully, making sure she didn’t sound like she was reprimanding her. That was not the route she planned on taking this time.

What her daughter need is a push in the right direction—they would gladly step in to assist her (They knew Kayano’s parents after all; she balled her fist as she thought of the many ways she could talk some sense into them), but this was a battle one should learn to fight. Especially at such an early age.

“You really shouldn’t let them throw dirt all over you like that though.”

At Sakura’s confused gaze, she smiled wrily, “Figuratively, dear.”

Kizashi made a noise of agreement beside her, his voice obscured as he chugged water down his throat.

“Your mother is right, blossom,” he added, a loud burp exploding from within afterwards. Sakura’s burp followed after. Mebuki didn’t even blink, sipping her tea with poise. As long as it’s just within this household she had once said.

Pouting, their little cherry blossom looked down, her tiny hands clutching at the cloth on the table. “But…but they’re just so…” her hunched shoulders were raised in a weak shrug. “…scary.”

Slowly, Mebuki put her hand on her daughter’s head, prompting her to look up at her.

“Sakura,” she said, her tenor firm but not unkind. “There are times when you need to be afraid. Us shinobi survive by listening to our instincts after all.”

Her daughter gave her a small nod, “I know…you told me once-”

But,” Mebuki interrupted her, emphasizing her words by cupping Sakura’s small face in her hand. Their little blossom stared at her in surprise. “There are also times when we need to push through that fear to do what’s right.”

 

-

 

The sun was beating down on them as a group of young shinobi-in training played tag on the Academy’s yard. Another was enjoying the meal prepared for them, while others laughed and joked with their peers. Sakura was…

Sakura was on the ground, tears threatening to spill out of terrified green eyes; her newly acquired book from her parents dangling a few feet away from her.

A voice, deep inside her was screaming at her, yelling about how she should never let anybody treat her that way. It was an odd mix of her mother and Ino’s voice.

There’s no helping it, she meekly thought to herself, even as she tried to stop herself from sniffling.

“G-give it back!”

“No can do, Forehead Girl,” Kayano sneered, swaying her book in front of her mockingly. She put her hand on her chin, feigning an act of thinking.

As if she can even think clearly, the voice muttered. She agreed. Kayano then flicked her forehead, sneering. “Give us your lunch first, or else.”

“B-but…”

Her eyes darted quickly around. No, Sakura realized with growing horror. Ino was nowhere near her. She was still off talking with her other friends about their most recent school project.

She wouldn’t make it and her lunch and precious book will-

Sorry, Kaa-san. I’m not as strong as you think.

“OI! Leave her alone, you jerk!” A shrill voice shouted from behind her bullies, startling everyone at the break area, including Sakura.

Everything happened in a blur.

 

000

 

Naruto saw someone almost knocking some girl’s lunch off of her hands and he moved.

Watching his friend’s silhouette running off into the scene, Sasuke sighed.

“What an idiot…” he muttered, before taking off after him.

Honestly, the Uchiha…tolerated him and all, but all his ridiculous pranking and stupid, stupid instincts were going to get both of them killed one day. He was sure of it.

By the time he got there, the snobby girls were already running away from the scene, likely due to not wanting their sensei noticing what they were doing (Another plus to Naruto’s loud nature, he admitted grudgingly).

Thankfully, only 2 of them gave him the ‘goo goo’ eyes this time—or whatever it was called by Iruka-sensei, as they trotted after their self-appointed leader. Sasuke shuddered.

One of them had the nerve to tell Naruto that ‘boys shouldn’t antagonize girls, idiot!’ as they ran further away. He saw Naruto stuck his tongue out at them and settled on ignoring them.

They weren’t worth his time.

Instead he picked up the shiny new book they left behind, realizing this was probably the pink-haired girl’s.

He held it out in front of her. She just…stared.

It was getting kind of awkward with the pink-haired girl staring openly at them, her mouth slightly ajar as no words came out. Naruto shuffled a little closer beside him and Sasuke coughed.

That seemed to knock her out of the stupor.

The girl blinked in recognition then, almost snatching the book from his hands, hugging it close to her chest. She then thanked them profusely, her little red bow bobbing up and down with her movement.

His eyes stopped trying to follow her—he was getting lightheaded.

The Uchiha contemplated on stopping her before it gets worse, but to his surprise, she was the first to offer her name.

Her voice was quiet, too quiet; he wondered if his ears could have picked the words out on a windy day.

“H-Haruno Sakura…”

Before his dobe could scare the girl even more than she already was, Sasuke extended his hand. She looked at it as if it was a plague (He was definitely not insulted).

“Uchiha Sasuke,” he allowed, as Sakura’s finger slowly but surely rested on his, gentle but firm. “And this dobe here is Naruto.”

Said boy gave a salute, proclaiming: Uzumaki Naruto at your service, dattebayo!

Sakura nodded slowly as he pulled her up, wobbling on her feet as she tried to regain her balance. She dusted off the dirt she collected on her pants and dress-shirt and decided against mentioning that she already knew them.

Who doesn’t? Adults…talk after all. And her parents were definitely in the loop. She just happened to be a very adept listener. So instead she just smiled, because oh dear what does she say now what should-

“Sakura-chan…That’s a perfect name for you-ttebayo!” Naruto suddenly burst out, the whites of his teeth showing.

This caught Sakura off-guard, and a subtle pink dusted her cheeks.

No one…had ever told her that, except her parents and Ino. Soft green eyes looked down as she played with the fabrics of her dress. Sakura lifted her head and gave them a small smile.

“T-thank you again…Uzumaki-san, Uchiha-san.”

A whine escaped from Naruto, his mouth quivering. “No need to be so formal, Sakura-chaan!”

He began giving her one of those kicked-puppies look, to which she did not know how to react. To her relief, Sasuke got him to stop what he was doing, not-so-gently shoving his face away from her. Naruto squawked.

The Uchiha’s eyes found hers and they locked, as if searching. Remembering her mother’s words, she stood her ground under the scrutinizing gaze.

“Pride is the only thing that is truly yours, Sakura,” she had whispered in hushed tones. “If there ever rises a situation where someone questions your worth, protect it.

Green eyes met onyx, not quite challenging but not backing down either. Dropping his eyes with a huff, Sasuke shrugged. Go ahead, he seemed to say.

Sakura tried the words on her mouth, the absence of honorifics making her stomach flutter. She gritted her teeth and pushed through it.

“Ah…thank you…Naruto…Sasuke?”

The smile that answered her was blinding.

It was definitely worth it; she thinks later on.

 

 


 

A Quick Peek Inside The Duo's Life

 


 

 

Initially, Sasuke was against it. With the level of stubbornness that could rival a bull.

“It’s our hangout place,” he had told Naruto, his tone reflecting the desperation in his eyes. I won’t allow more people in my life, they cried out, unspoken. “I’m not sharing it with just anyone, dobe.”

Naruto frowned, his nose scrunching up in displeasure.

“Yeah, but…she’s not just anyone, y’know,” the blonde poked a finger in Sasuke’s chest, right where his heart lied. Sasuke refused to move.

“She’s our friend, teme. We helped her too-ttebayo! And she’s always so lonely-”

Sasuke snapped, slapping away his idiot friend’s invading finger away, his eyes burning hot. “She has Ino! And her parents!” 

A tremor worked its way to his voice. Sasuke pushed through. Even though it hurts it hurts it- “She doesn’t need two orphaned, broken kids like us, idiot!”

A beat.

Naruto stiffened, his blue eyes wide open, shaking- (and Sasuke momentarily forgot his anger, his only thoughts preoccupied by the knowledge that he had made his dear friend cry, because of him—him and his stupid mouth-) but then the Uzumaki’s eyes blazed, a new resolve burning within those blue orbs as well as something else and-

BAM!

Pain shot through his right jaw, and Sasuke suddenly found himself a few feet away from Naruto. Shocked, he touched the bruised area of his face, already feeling it swelling up. Something bubbled within him, his hackles rising. Screw all that.

He surged forward, ignoring the fresh tears dripping down Naruto’s contorted face, his own fists marking the blonde’s cheeks bright red. Everything else didn’t matter right now.

 

After Naruto found out about his training routine, they had trained tirelessly every single day, usually after the Academy.

Ever since that day, if he happened to snap more often—his words clipped and his eyes glaring at everything in his way, Naruto would offhandedly ask if he wanted to spar with him (’Cause I’ve got nothing better to do, y’know!).

Or if during their training he got a bit too aggressive—his eyes glazed over, seeing ghosts of a memory that no longer exist (Not anymore, he thought distantly) and he ended up injuring Naruto more than usual, the idiot would just give his biggest grin, his eyes boring into Sasuke’s and shouted, “Is that all you got, teme?! I can take on a lot more than that, dattebayo!”

(Sasuke was…grateful.)

 

But…this time, it wasn’t just about him.

Today, Naruto had his own feelings to let loose—his own words to say. As his friend, he would take the weight of it and respond with his own. 

If this was how they both were going to vent out their frustrations with, then so be it.

 

 

000

 

 

It was over.

They laid on the ground, side-by-side, their breaths rugged and heavy.

Sasuke let out a series of coughs, each one louder than the last. It echoed throughout the hills and grassland; the whole village probably heard him.

When he finally stopped, Naruto rasped:

“You know, teme…”

The birds chirped above them, rushing to return to their nests as the sun started to tuck into the horizon. A lone sparrow flew by. It felt oddly serene, as creatures of the night crawled out from hiding, filling the void with their song. Grass rustled under him.

Sasuke listened.

“…it’s not that…I don’t, understand what you mean, dattebayo,” Naruto was facing upwards, watching as the sky’s hue fade from gold to lilac.

The sky was silent; the birds long gone. His voice sounded painful even as he said those, tired and beat up as they were.

The Uchiha said nothing. Breathed in. Breathed out.

“It’s just…”

The blonde forced himself to sit up, hissing and flinching and faced away from Sasuke, his head downcast. Clenching his own wrist, Naruto whispered:

“When I complimented her…she actually smiled,” his voice cracked, disbelief coloring his words. “It wasn’t like…those fake smiles the others give too, y’know.

“…No one else does that.”

Purple, indigo; the sky’s colors shifted. The stars were starting to emerge, dusting across the dark sky like millions of tiny glowing senbons.

Closing his eyes, Sasuke took a deep, shaky breath. He let it out. “I know.”

“She even said thank you!”

“I know.”

For a while, they stayed like that: Naruto hugging his knees close to his chest with Sasuke lying on his back beside him, his hands resting on his stomach.

It wasn’t until the moon came out to greet them that Naruto had enough courage to ask, his voice muted. Sasuke ignored how queasy it made him feel.

“Can’t you…give her a chance at least?” Naruto asked, his tone forlorn. “Just one?”

Sasuke watched him from the corner of his eye, or at least what he can see from this angle. Bruises lined his arms and exposed legs, probably some under his shirt too. He noted absently that he must have looked just as terrible, if not worse. Huffing quietly, he said:

“And if I say no?”

Naruto finally faced him, irritation written all over his face. The Uchiha savored however much he could, smirking lightly.

Grumbling to himself, the blonde looked away again before murmuring, “…I’m not gonna like it…but it’s your call I guess.”

And Sasuke knew he meant it.

Even though it was coated with hurt and frustration, he knew Naruto would never do something to genuinely upset him or worse, cross a line. And neither would he.

Sighing at the absurdity of this situation, he stood up from his initial position, though it seemed his body was having none of it.

Naruto’s hand instinctively reached out for him, before he seemed to remember that he was supposed to be mad and went back sulking, crossing his arms over his chest.

Sasuke resisted the urge to roll his eyes.

“Fine,” he said, his fingers racking through his tousled hair.

Man, he was going to need a long, long bath tonight. Better hurry up and prepare hot water when he got back then.

Snapping his head at Sasuke, act of anger all forgotten and replaced, Naruto cried, “What do you mean by ‘fine’, dattebayo?!”

Sasuke stood up (with a lot more difficulty) and held his hand out in front of the fussing blonde, effectively shutting him up. Naruto eyed his hands with suspicion, causing his eyes to twitch. Goodness, is it that weird for him to-

(His mind skimmed through numerous occasions where Naruto offered his hand to him and Sasuke shamefully found that amount of times he had done the same was…a bare minimum)

Ah. Never mind then.

“What do you think?” he said as he pulled Naruto up, both of them supporting the other as they climbed up the small slope towards the open street.

Rolling his eyes, Naruto lightly pushed him, “You and your vague bullshit, I swear, teme!”

Sasuke huffed out an amused noise, biting back a smirk.

“Hn.”

 

 

000

 

 

When they neared Sasuke’s housing area, Naruto realized with dismay that he would have to walk all the way back to his own apartment (which was nearly on the other side of the village) by himself. At night.

That, and coupled with his injuries…weren’t exactly the most ideal situation.

 

He remembered that cold night, a young boy lost on the streets, forgetting the way back to his new home. His very own home.

A warm feeling snuggled its way into his heart even as the air made his breaths visible and his skin shiver.

It was his birthday, and Uncle Teuchi and Ayame-nee chan (He has an Uncle! And a big sister!) gave him his favorite ramen for free as promised! The warmth in his chest intensified with this knowledge.

Unfortunately for him, he did not think to remember his way from the apartment to the town square, and now he was stuck trying to decide between this way or that.

A wrong turn, a wrong street.

That was all it took for his day to turn upside down as a few drunk men started grabbing his arms, shaking him-

“Oh, what do we have here? The demon-kid all by himself!” Someone cackled with glee, the others laughing with him- ignoring even as he cried and pleaded for them:

“It hurts! Stop it!” Fear clawed at his heart, rattling his tiny body.

Before things could escalate further, a couple of masked people (Shinobi? He wondered blearily, his eyes getting heavier and heavier to keep open) arrived on the scene, effectively restraining the instigators as well as his followers.

Someone held Naruto close as his consciousness started slipping, wrapping his cloak around the young boy.

As Naruto’s mind grew more sluggish as the seconds pass by, his savior spoke softly in a tone heavy with remorse and a pain too profound for him to understand:

“I’m so sorry.”

That was the last thing he heard before darkness claimed him completely.

(He would never hear from the drunk men nor the shinobi who rescued him ever again. Little did he know, the Hokage had explicitly made sure of the former.)

 

“-uto? Naruto!”

Naruto's mind snapped into focus, words tumbling out of his mouth, “W-wha— Yea?”

To his right, Sasuke was eyeing him oddly, for once concern openly shown on his face.

“…What’s wrong, you idiot?” he asked, raising his eyebrows. Gulping, Naruto tried to find an excuse even as his heartbeat failed to slow down. Think, think, think- oh.

Laughing, he leaned into Sasuke, “Aaww, are you worried?”

That made the Uchiha boy shut up instantly, gaping like a fish before looking away, sniffing, his cheeks the color of fresh salmon. “Hmph. I have no idea what you’re talking about, usurantonkachi.”

Teasing Sasuke was easy, he thought to himself, even as they kept walking at their slow pace. His chest still constricted at the thought of walking back home that night, and he wondered…

Naruto stole a glance at the boy beside him. Would he…?

Outside, Naruto snickered, his voice echoing throughout the quiet night.

 

 -

 

The walk took longer than any of them anticipated, due to their injuries.

Every few minutes, Sasuke tugged at him, coughing and gasping for breath. They had to stop and take a break before resuming their pace.

This repeated for a couple more times.

And as Naruto propped Sasuke up with most of his body mass, he reflected that the least they could do if- when they spar like that again was to bring medical kit with them.

Some of his wounds were already closing up for some reason, but this broody friend of his couldn’t do the same, y’know!

As Sasuke’s apartment soon came into view, Naruto finally made his mind up.

“Oi, teme…”

The Uchiha inclined his head at him, his eyebrows raised.

Naruto’s lips quivered, his eyes struggling to meet Sasuke’s. Dammit. He didn’t think it would be this hard, but then again it wasn’t like he had ever been invited over by a friend or anything, ever!

It felt like eternity before suddenly Sasuke cuffed his head, making him yelp out in pain.

“OI! What was that for, you bastard?!” Stroking his sore spot, Naruto scowled at his friend.

That was so uncalled for, especially after everything today-

“Guess I’ll have to prepare more water. Tsk.”

…Eh? He watched as the Uchiha boy take out his keys from inside a potted plant and start unlocking the door to his apartment, completely oblivious to Naruto’s shock.

EEEH?!

“Oi, dobe,” called Sasuke from inside, his voice echoing down the hallway. “Stop standing there like the idiot you are and get in here. I don’t want any rodent to get stupid ideas.”

Naruto broke out of his trance, his eyes widening. Did- Did Sasuke just-?

Clumsily, he took off his shoes and closed the door.

“W-wait, Sasuke! Wha- Are you- Did you really mean it, dattebayo?!” spluttered the blond, following the bastard’s voice.

Naruto had to be sure, because his chest felt like it was going to burst at any point now. It was getting hard to wipe the grin off of his face, y’know!

Popping his head out of what appears to be a kitchen, Sasuke looked right at him and deadpanned: “Why would I ask you to come in if I don’t, idiot.”

Naruto broke into laughter, his face lighting up like fireworks.

 

-

 

They ended up sharing a bath because Naruto accidentally pushed them both into the huge bathtub, filled to the brim with warm water dirty clothes and all.

By the time they were done, Sasuke’s whole bathroom was soaked.

The Uchiha swore to never let Naruto in here ever again, completely ignoring the blonde’s tearful attempt at apologizing.

(Naruto offered (demanded) to clean up afterwards though, so Sasuke reluctantly allowed the blonde to look through his stash of weapons before they went to bed.)

After the uneventful tub incident, Sasuke had prepared a simple dinner for them both, emphasizing that he was definitely not having ramen tonight.

Naruto sulked as he ate the heated food the Uchiha had bought a few days ago; but if he ended up eating more than he had expected, Sasuke only watched, occasionally offering him his own:

“Youw syure...?” Naruto had regarded him, hesitant, his mouth stuffed with rice.

“Yeah, I’m not particularly fond it.”

“…if youw shay sho.” That had been the end of it.

To Sasuke's agony, they couldn’t even go to sleep without a bloody argument-

“I always sleep on the middle, dobe,” Sasuke sniffed. “Just sleep wherever you want.”

“But I don’t usually have to pick one! It’s your bed, you chose!”

“For the love of- Stop arguing and pick a damn side!”

In the end, they settled for sleeping horizontally on the bed. Neither cared to talk about the ridiculousness of this arrangement.

 

-

 

When Sasuke woke up, it was 9 o’clock; that was 2 hours past the Academy’s starting time.

They had stayed up much longer against Sasuke’s better judgement, and even though he felt no actual regret as he had beaten the blonde at almost every single game he owned (which wasn’t much, if he was honest), he still cursed Naruto for his current predicament.

Naruto was unsurprisingly still asleep, slobbering all over his pillow. (Ugh, he thought. He was definitely washing that after all this.)

Before Sasuke could panic however, he recalled that it was Saturday, which meant there was no school. He slouched in relief.

After too much contemplating, he slipped off onto the floor, walked over to his bookshelf, picked up a scroll he’d been meaning to finish and hopped back onto the comforts of his bed.

One more hour, he huffed to himself, as he glanced at the yellow mop of hair peeking out of the pillows. One more hour, then he’d wake the damn idiot up.

 

 


 

Spring Brings Hope

 


 

 

Sakura loved Ino.

She practically idolized her, really. Ino was her first friend and that would forever leave an imprint that is hard to forget, especially to Sakura.

But even she had to admit at times, that just because someone was your first and only friend, did not mean you can be with them most of the time.

Ino was the heiress of the Yamanaka Clan—one of the most influential clans of Konohagakure, making the Haruno pale in comparison.

For generations, her Clan had worked together with the Akimichi Clan as well as the Nara Clan, forming the Ino-Shika-Cho formation many feared and revered due to their teamwork and sheer effectiveness.

Sakura knew for a fact it was something she could and would never interfere with.

So when Ino started going home earlier than her after the Academy to train with her teammates (That lazy Nara and far-too-kind Akimichi), she just smiled at her and waved. “See you tomorrow, Ino!” she had said.

Her Inner was cursing and kicking, but she paid it no mind. For Ino, she would be okay. She would support Ino no matter what—because that’s what friends do, right?

So as of late, she found herself gravitating more towards her two other friends.

Was she allowed to call them friends? Have they ever agreed to be her friends?

Panic started to overrun her mind, but it was too late; she had already walked into their line of view, effectively cutting off any possible escape routes. Sakura waved back shyly as Naruto cried out her name, waving his arm at her in the air.

“Sakura-chaaan! Let’s go walk together-ttebayo!”

Sasuke didn’t even turn to look back at her, but he did wait for her to catch up before walking alongside Naruto who was bouncing far too excitedly all over the place. She nodded to herself—that was a good sign.

They went to Ichiraku’s for ramen, much to Sasuke’s palpable dismay.

Sakura was just intrigued—she remembered eating here once or twice with her parents a few years ago, but Naruto’s great show of love suggested the place was more than a place to eat. It was somewhat…special for him. She made sure to remember it.

As they entered the simple but charming restaurant, the sweet smell of broth hit Sakura like a wave. She inhaled deeply, relishing in the pleasant aroma. The pitter-patter of the old man and young lady behind the counter; the clanking of the pots as they prepared the broth and noodles—Sakura took it all in.

“Welcome to- Ah! Naruto, Sasuke—how was school today?”

The old man had greeted, a kind smile directed towards them. Timid, Sakura hid behind Naruto who was already going off about all kinds of things he’d done today to the kind man. Finally noticing her small form, the man looked at her curiously before giving her a warm smile.

“Ah, forgive me! I didn’t see you there, little miss,” he motioned her to take a seat, which she did along with the two other boys. “First time customer?”

Smiling politely, she shook her head. “Ah…no, I think I went with my parents a few years ago,” she flushed. “I can’t seem to remember it clearly though…”

For a second, he focused in on her, looking like he was trying to solve a complex puzzle. Sakura squirmed under the extra-attention, her eyes darting from side-side, looking at anywhere but the strange man. (Her Inner voice was demanding she ask him straight away but Sakura forced her down.) To her left, Naruto was still talking animatedly to the young lady serving him, his eyes shining, and Sasuke was just…lazing around, his arm propping up his head.

“Are you by any chance…Haruno-san’s daughter?”

Her head snapped in the man’s direction, her eyes wide in surprise.

“U-um, yes…I’m Haruno Sakura, sir.”

Hearing this, the man bellowed in laughter. Sakura blinked. How-

“Of course! I would’ve remembered that pink hair anywhere!” Ah…of course. She let out her breath- (When had she held it anyway?) and it was so much easier for her to smile.

Soon after, the nice young lady (Whom she would later know as ‘Ayame-nee-san’) had asked her what she wanted, and looking at what her friends had ordered, she chose the simplest one. “One Regular Ramen, please,” she said graciously.

“One Regular Ramen, coming right up! Sasuke, the usual?” the old man exclaimed, practiced hands preparing the pork and noodles.

The Uchiha bobbed his head, a motion so subtle she was surprised the man- ‘Teuchi-san’ she corrected herself, had noticed. They...must have come here quite often then.

Naruto, the first to order was already digging into his ramen, slurping and gasping as he scarfed down his Miso Chashu Ramen. Steam filled the area, bringing with it the smell of ramen and seasonings; and as Teuchi-san served Sasuke his bowl of Shio Ramen and her Regular Ramen, Sakura’s senses surged to life.

This flavor was something she would definitely never forget, ever again.

(She was starting to see why Naruto loved this place so much.)

After promising to convey their good will onto her parents, she exited the small restaurant with a bounce in her steps, her heart light. Naruto was already in her face, exclaiming:

“See?! I told you Ichiraku’s the best, dattebayo!”

As if immune to his contagious, upbeat personality, Sasuke just sighed; wry but not cold. And he didn’t exactly refute Naruto’s statement either. Humming to herself in content, Sakura simply nodded her head along with him, a smile sealed on her lips. She couldn’t wait to go home.

 

-

 

When they weren’t at Ichiraku’s, they spend their time at the communal park.

It was located right at the heart of the village, so it was easier for all of them to return to their respective homes afterwards. Sakura bit her lip in concentration as she tried to choose the correct formula to answer her problem.

Neee, Sakura-chaan! I don’t understand this question…”

Sakura clicked her tongue. Wrong step. Well, back from the beginning then. “Don’t be so loud, Naruto…I’m trying to focus.”

She didn’t look up from her note as she asked, “What about Sasuke? Can’t you ask him?”

Grunting, the Uzumaki said, “Keh. That bastard won’t even answer me, dattebayo.”

Glancing at the Uchiha beside her, she noted in amusement that he was indeed ‘stuck in a book’, blocking out any and all outside distractions, his head facing away from them. Feeling bad for the blonde, she stood up and sat next to him, dedicating the rest of their time together explaining to him painstakingly about addition, subtraction and the like. Naruto later told her about the extra lessons he got from Iruka-sensei.

"But I still miss out on a lot of things, dattebayo!" He cried, his mouth forming a pout. "At least that's what Iruka-sensei told me..."

Shouldn’t Sasuke have taught him a thing or two about this? She wondered.

She knew that they had been friends even before they met her, so surely Sasuke—who was clearly not lagging behind, would have at least helped his closest friend?

Much later, she found out that he did try from time to time, but…he was just. Really bad at explaining things.

It was honestly almost comical to watch.

Not only that, he also did not have as much patience as her, as he more often than not skipped the most basic step or used a word too complex when explaining a big word. Small things like that that would have made a huge difference to Naruto.

It was almost natural for her to take in the role of Naruto’s tutor by then.

She found that…it was actually quite nice.

 

-

 

The day Naruto (very loudly, accompanied with a slap to his arm from Sasuke “Ouch-! Oi, teme! Whatcha do that for?!”) offered her to hang out with him and Sasuke at their ‘super-secret meeting place!’, they were just exiting from Ichiraku’s after delighting in another serving of their wonderful ramen.

Sakura blinked.

The sun hid behind the clouds, the cold breeze gusting as the leaves turned gold. A sparrow whizzed by them, possibly off to find food as the wind blew against her, hair strands getting tangled. She rubbed her hands together and exhaled, forming puffs of warm air.

She really should have worn a jacket today.

“Your…what?”

To her amazement, Sasuke was the one who answered her.

“There’s…this place we always go to,” he said slowly, refusing to meet her eyes. “A small…dock on Kana River. Naruto wants to know…if you’d like to-”

“If you wanna join us, dattebayo!!” exclaimed the overexcited blonde, his arm slinging across Sasuke’s shoulder; the Uchiha eyed the offending arm with as much exasperation as he could muster.

Understanding clicked into place, and Sakura’s lips curved upwards. A sparrow cawed behind her as another gust of wind whooshed past them. Something glowed in her chest and she loved it.

Her eyes crinkled and her cheeks were starting to hurt as she said, “Y-yeah- Sure. I’d…really like that.”

Naruto took her hand in his and dragged her towards this ‘secret meeting place’, Sasuke walking right beside her. He prattled on a thousand words per second, but Sakura did her best to keep up, her grin still in place.

Ino, she thought to herself, I think I understand you a little better now.

 

-

 

Naruto brought her to their favored training ground.

She should have expected this, but for some reason it just never crossed her mind.

She blamed it on her not being eager to get stronger herself, and with her Inner reminding her just how weak she was to allow a bunch of bullies get the better of her, her face wilted in front of them.

“But…I’m not- that good at fighting,” she murmured, her tone giving way to undisguised shame. Sakura rubbed at her arm. “Ino…does most of the fighting for me…”

She told them how she had gotten better overtime, but compared to them and some other kids, her combat skills were significantly lower.

“Sensei said that I just have a low stamina,” a shrug, green eyes looking down at her feet. Especially compared to you two, was left unsaid.

She had watched as they fought each other at the Traditional Shinobi Sparring, how both of them seemed to know what the other was about to do. The moment she saw them fight, she knew, that they already had a goal in mind to fulfill. Unlike her.

No wonder, she thought wryly, they had been training together for who knows how long.

If she joined them now, she’d just…

“…I’ll just slow you down.” And I don’t want that.

Movement caught her eye and without warning, Naruto was grasping both of her hands, securing them in his. She recoiled at this abrupt change, lifting her head. Their eyes met. Earnest blue eyes bored into green, his brows furrowed in concentration.

That’s why! We’re gonna help you do it properly-ttebayo!” he urged, determination in his voice. “Ino won’t always be there, y’know! And neither will me and Sasuke-teme!”

His head snapped to his right to emphasize his point. “Right, Sasuke?!”

Turning her head towards the Uchiha, who was already practicing kunai-throwing all by himself, she grimaced. She watched as he momentarily paused mid-throw and glanced at her, seemingly assessing her like he did a few months ago.

“If you really don’t want to slow us down,” he drawled, a grim look settling over his eyes. “Then prove it.”

Her mouth moved to say something, but no words came out. She…

“…Why?” she spoke softly, her confused eyes switching to look between them both, the two boys who were still standing tall despite the circumstances thrown at them. The two boys who were willing to accept her, even though she understood nothing of their world. Sakura felt a lump forming in her throat and forced it down.

All she did was embrace them with an open heart, nothing else.

“Why are you…?”

‘Why are you willing to do this?’ She wanted to scream at them. ‘Why let a weak, useless girl like me hold you back?!’ She doesn’t deserve to be helped, not when she never bothered to ask for it herself-

“Because- you’re our precious person, dattebayo!”

Naruto gave her a huge, warm grin that was far too wide and sincere while Sasuke looked away from her, his bangs concealing his face and Sakura-

Her breathe caught, tears pricking at her eyes. The blonde immediately let go of her hands, sensing her need to use them as her cheeks started to wet. Wiping away her tears before more could roll down her cheeks, she met both of their eyes with…something.

(Something she would come to depend and call forth for the rest of her days.)

Her chest burned with it, fiery and alive as she squeezed Naruto’s hands back this time.

Her inner voice was quiet- No. She was her inner voice.

“Alright,” She nodded sharply, her lips pressed together forming a thin line. “Please teach me!

As Sasuke showed her the seals of the Fire jutsu his father taught him, and as Naruto made sure she knew how to block properly and when to strike, Sakura made a promise:

She would never let herself be a burden to them. Never again.

(She owed them this much at least.)

Chapter Text


 

Training

 


 

They trained nearly every day now.

Sakura missed Ino one of these days, but as she deflected the shuriken Sasuke threw at her with her kunai and jumped away from a sneaking Naruto, she couldn’t say she regretted being here instead. Besides, they still spend some time together during their Kunoichi class, or at lunch. Sakura pushed down the twinge of sadness in her heart and diverted her focus towards her opponents, reminding herself that it was okay.

“You’re distracted,” the Uchiha barked, circling her, his hands forming a familiar seal. Her response was almost immediate. Snake. Ram. Monkey. Boar. Horse. Tiger-

Fire Release: Fireball Jutsu!

Her fire was nowhere near as big or powerful as Sasuke’s, but it gave her enough time to use a Body Replacement Jutsu, spiced up with her favorite Explosive Tag. Sasuke cursed, dodging out of the explosive range. The real her was on top of a tree, looking out for the other assailant. That was too close.

Shannaro...I should probably ask the teachers to teach me a different jutsu later,’ Sakura thought sourly as her eyes scanned the area, kunai ready at hand.

The Fireball Jutsu was certainly a powerful technique, but between Naruto’s ridiculous stamina and Sasuke’s chakra level, she wouldn’t stand a chance with it in the long run. She needed something that was…more compatible with her.

Suddenly, the air above her shifted. Sakura moved.

Clang!

Aaww, and I almost got you too, Sakura-chan!”

The two hopped off the tree, pushing against each other’s kunai and landed several feet away from one another. “Well, I guess that’s too bad for you, Naruto,” she said, her mouth curved up in a smile as Naruto sniggered. Her eyes however were already on the lookout for the other boy, who was still in hiding.

An idea struck her. She grinned.

“Say, Naruto…” The blonde—who was looking far too carefree with his hands folded behind his head, blinked at her. Her eyes creased. “What do you say if we…join our efforts against a common foe?”

Looking at her like she had gone crazy, he sputtered. “W-What do you mean, dattebayo?” His head tilted in confusion. “Aren’t you our enemy today, Sakura-chan?”

“Yeah, but…” Sakura couldn’t help it, she giggled. “Don’t you think it’ll be more fun if we switch things up a little?” Naruto still looked unsure, so the pink-haired girl decided to use her secret weapon.

“I mean…he did eat all our Onigiri stash yesterday...” she sighed dramatically.

The ground behind her moved. There. Throwing the kunai in her hands straight into the foliage, she smirked as Sasuke jumped above her and out of the bushes before her Explosive Tags could land and detonate.

As he flipped in the air, a line of shuriken were hurled towards her, forcing her to leap out of the way.

“You promised you wouldn’t bring it up again!” hissed the Uchiha, his face red as a tomato. Sakura laughed.

He landed right beside Naruto (who was watching the whole scene unfold in disbelief), smacking his arm in the process, “You idiot! Don’t let yourself be swayed by her words!”

Naruto growled at him. “Next time, I won’t let it happen again-ttebayo! And speak for yourself, teme!”

Letting them bicker between themselves, Sakura took this opportunity to hide and evaluate her condition.

Her chakra levels were definitely lower, thanks to the Fireball Jutsu, she noted with displeasure. Checking her ninja pouch, she counted three more kunai and a set of shuriken. She expended more Explosive Tags than she would have liked, so that was another minus.

Okay, she nodded in determination. I could definitely work with these.

After checking to see if her two boys were still arguing (and they were- Gosh, how predictable), she started to formulate a plan for a counterattack. Let’s see, Sakura thinks, if I save up my kunai till the last moment-

“Heya, Sakura-chan.”

Shocked, she whipped her head to her right where Naruto was grinning impishly at her, his whispers somehow completing the look. He had managed to sneak up on her, even though- Realization struck her hard and she understood far too late why something looked off when she checked before—the absence of shadow beneath Sasuke, or rather, Sasuke’s clone.

Then the real Sasuke-

Dodging Naruto’s direct blow to her head with her forearm, her eyes hastily scanned the clearing. He’s gone. Sakura cursed.

“Aaww, Sakura-chan, come on. We haven’t sparred at all today, dattebayo!”

Focusing back on the blonde, Sakura gave him an exasperated smile: “You do realize the point of us doing this is for me to not go down or fight back unless I have to, right?”

Her father had proposed the idea to them over dinner when she brought them with her. She was recounting to them what had transpired throughout that day, Naruto adding in all the cool moves he came up with during their usual spar. Unsurprisingly, Sasuke had let them do all the talking, content on enjoying the delicacy he was given.

“Why not have mock-fights where you have two of you go against one?” her father had pointed out after swallowing his food. “If you want to be an effective team, you should be able to adapt if some of you go down!”

“That…would actually be good for you,” her mother had hummed, nodding at the three of them with a curve on her lips. “We’ll definitely supervise you when we’re off mission. Otherwise, try to keep the damage to a minimum, alright you three?”

That was how they ended up doing it almost every time they train.

Naruto grinned, mischievous. “Yeah, but, it’s always fun to fight you-ttebayo!”

Before she could throw any weapons, Naruto lunged at her, knocking out the shurikens from her right hand. He aimed a straight punch to her abdomen and to both of their horror, it collided. Sakura wheezed, air knocked out of her painfully. From the corner of her partially-closed eye, she could see Naruto stop, his hands in front of him as if he didn’t know whether he should help her or continue.

Sakura decided for him.

Naruto,” she grated, flinching even as she placed her left foot further away from her right, raising her fisted hands in front of her face. It was a struggle, but her eyes met the blonde’s, glaring. “Don’t.”

Don’t you dare hold back.

Getting her message loud and clear, the blonde nodded; a short, quick dip of his head, before readying himself into his own stance. Sakura still didn’t know where the Uchiha was, and as she blocked Naruto’s first strike and dipped her body low as his leg swung on top of her head, she figured he would show up eventually.

“You said you wanted a spar,” she grinned, albeit a bit painfully. “Now you’re gonna get one, silly!”

Thankfully, it was just her abdomen, so nothing was seriously ruptured or damaged. It was still an uncomfortable sensation to endure though. Still, as she exchanged blows with Naruto (who was visibly doing his best to avoid hitting the same area again; Sakura allowed this for now), she spared some of her perception to look out for the Uchiha. She found that he especially loved striking from the shadows, in contrast to Naruto’s love of direct confrontation.

True to her observation, a single kunai flew towards her at high speed. She jumped away in time, ending her brief spar with Naruto.

“You know,” she touched down on the ground, her breathing slightly ragged. “I think I’m starting to read you both a lot better now.”

“Then this shouldn’t have happened,” a voice behind her declared. Her eyes widened frantically. When-

A kunai stopped at her jugular, freezing her in place. Sakura cursed for the second time that day. She’s still not good enough no good-

Wait, her eyes widen a fraction, rushing to survey her surroundings. They were currently somewhere in the afternoon. The sun was right behind them, casting shadow to her front and the person beside her and-

There’s no shadow to my right. She had to stop herself from smiling.

“You’re right…I- I’m not good enough…” Putting on her best shaken look, she relaxed her tense shoulders, giving off the illusion of a weaker prey. The kunai on her right didn’t budge.

“You can’t fool me twice, Sakura,” Sasuke scoffed. That was fine.

After verifying that Naruto was still where he was a few moments ago (she refused to make the same mistake again), she heaved a huge sigh. If a part of her actually felt that way—she pushed it away. “I’m not trying to fool anyone, Sasuke. I’m nowhere near your level, and it’s…pathetic.”

Then she started coughing, growing more severe as the seconds passed, tears instinctively forming in her eyes.

“I,” gasped the girl, “I know my own limit…”

In the distance, she knew that Naruto was shouting at her ‘Don’t give up, Sakura-chan!’ but her attention was fixed on the boy behind her.

Come on, come on…

The clone faltered for a flicker of a second and Sakura turned.

“…you wish! SHANNAROO!

Her arm swiped across the clone, effectively wiping it out of existence, while her left hands instantly reached into her pouch. The Uchiha leaped out of the smoke, kunai on his hand—she was ready.

They clashed.

He smirked, “Took you long enough.”

Returning his smirk, she blocked his other hand from landing a hit with an iron grip. “You still fell for it, Mr. Genius,” she said, her eyes glinting.

Using her own kunai, she twisted the weapon out of his hand and threw them away, forcing them into a Taijutsu-oriented fight, much like hers and Naruto’s.

It was quick and almost ruthless—while her fight with the blonde consisted mostly of her figuring out what Naruto’s real intention was and making sure to not fall for his tricks (and he had a lot of those up his sleeves), Sasuke didn’t fancy wasting any movements for distractions or the like, constantly on the lookout for an opening from her.

As expected from an Uchiha, she didn’t say, her mind and body fully occupied on their fight.

It was one of the reasons she loved sparring with them both.

The two might have grown to adapt their method with one another over the years, filling in each other’s blind side while the other shine; but individually, they both have distinct fighting styles. Sparring with them taught her a lot of things, coupled with what the Academy and her parents had taught her.

(Knowing isn’t the same as actually putting it to use after all, she had read somewhere. As she barely dodged another punch on impulse, she couldn’t help but agree completely.)

Sasuke with his no nonsense jabs, leaving no room for the other to recuperate or come up with a counterattack; Naruto with his bigger, wider blows meant to confuse the enemy as to where he would strike next. Both have their respective weaknesses, but when they united, they’re a powerhouse.

Knowing this, Sakura had been trying to find how she fit in with them, if she really belonged there and still-

As Sakura blocked yet another hit, she didn’t see Naruto leaving the field.

The fight continued on until they both started to struggle to keep up with one another, and while she dropped down to avoid a direct punch, Sakura swiftly pulled out an Explosive Tag, slamming it onto the ground. In a second, the two of them jumped away from the spot.

Panting, the Uchiha quipped, drawing his hands close to weave a seal, “Again with the tags, Sakura?”

Oh no, she realized, already moving to bound out of the way. Pivoting and focusing the chakra on her feet, she leaped to her right, narrowly dodging as hot, blistering balls of fire scorched the grass she stood moments before. And he sure loves his Fire justu, she thought wryly.

Before she could counter him with her own retort, she heard a ‘Snap!’ as her feet touched down on the ground and cursed.

Naruto—that sneaky little-

Weapons shot through the air all around her and she acted.

Snatching the rest of her Explosive Tags from her pouch, she tossed and spread them in a wide circle, her other hand flinging her remaining shuriken to the floating papers. The shuriken caught the papers with them, shooting off towards the incoming horde of weapons, away from her.

Right on time, she clasped her hands together with a loud clap, forming the ‘Snake’ seal.

Activate!

The air crackled and sizzled as a chain of small explosions was set off, Sakura using her arms to shield herself from the bright light emitted. Sounds of weapons clattering as they fall down resonated around her. It lasted quite a while, thanks to the amount of Explosive Tags she used.

And those were the last of it too, she lamented, her hands moving to brush her hair away from her eyes.

Taking advantage of the smoke created, she opted to conceal herself and regain her strength back. After her repeated one-on-one fights with the two boys, she was really starting to get a bit run down, pain aching all over her body and her reaction time getting slower. That last stunt she did…really put the cherry on top.

Composing herself, she took a deep, slow breath, leaning on a branch.

What she didn’t expect was for a body to slam into her, trapping her limbs in a lock before she could form a seal. They tumbled down onto the ground, the weight of her assailant pinning her down. She quickly tried to think of a way to free herself and do something—anything-

Shannaro! She gritted her teeth. Not now, not yet-

“Give it up, Sakura,” said the boy restricting her, gradually applying pressure to the points he locked.

She hissed. Ouch. “Alright, fine! I yield!”

Sasuke looked far too smug when he finally let her go, a smirk etched on his face. As she got up into a sitting position, rubbing at her sore limbs, he plopped down beside her a loud sigh. At least…I’m not the only one tired, reasoned Sakura, her shoulders slumping. In a second, Naruto appeared before them, hopping down from the perch he was on.

“Nee, nee, Sakura-chan! That was amazing!” bellowed the blonde, his eyes shining. “How’d you do it-ttebayo?!”

Forcing a smile, she replied, “Ah…a trick Iruka-sensei taught me last week.”

How typical—Naruto’s ability to still jump around even after nearly a whole day of fighting. She knew for a fact she wasn’t the only one who envied it—eyeing the Uchiha on her left, he was scowling at the blonde.

Leaning on the tree behind her, she tilted her head back, closed her eyes and just breathed. It’s okay. Even though she still needed to improve a lot, there’s progress…right? Doubt and fear curled around her stomach and…Sakura didn’t know what to do.

Shannaro…

When Naruto told them loudly that he was going to start gathering their scattered weapons (Sheesh, I can’t imagine what you’ll both do without me-ttebayo!), she opened her eyes blearily and gave him a small, crooked smile, “Alright, you dummy. I’ll…be with you in a bit.”

She knew Sasuke was watching her, but she couldn’t be bothered to wonder what else was on his oh-so-genius mind. Inclining her head back once more, she asked casually, feigning obliviousness, “What?”

The boy didn’t answer for a while, but then he huffed, disbelief and amusement tinting his voice.

“I can’t believe you managed to fool that idiot,” he quipped, the grass under them crunching as he pushed himself closer, resting his back against the tree alongside her.

Wind blew, bringing with it a range of colors—red, yellow, brown. The air tasted crisp and clear, the trees around them rustling in a secret melody only Mother Nature knew. A small squirrel nicked at them curiously before scurrying off, its cheeks round and filled.

It’s…going to get much colder soon, she noted distantly, her eyes not quite gazing at their surroundings. They wouldn’t be able to train as much by then.

“Shouldn’t you be helping Naruto?” she asked instead, letting the chill air brush against her face.

Snorting, Sasuke replied with a roll of his eyes, “We both know he doesn’t actually need us to help, but we still do it anyway. Tch.”

They stayed there for a while, listening as birds flit above them, preparing for a migration. A few leaves started to fall, spreading all over the ground around them. She heard the boy beside her shift and wondered how long he intended to stay.

“You…” he suddenly spoke, his voice soft. “This is how you want to play it, huh?”

She rubbed her hands together, refusing to meet his gaze. “…What are you talking about?”

He clicked his tongue, “Cut the bullshit, Sakura. You know what I’m talking about.” Glaring at her, he continued, “You let yourself open three times today—that’s more than you usually would.”

Silence ensued, the clock ticking by as Sakura tugged at her spoiled attires.

Another gust of wind whooshed by and she closed her eyes. A sigh. When Sakura opened her mouth, her voice was soft.

“Do you think I'll ever…” Her head fell forward, pink bangs covering pained eyes. “…really catch up to you both?”

Biting down her lip to stop her emotion from taking over, she clenched her hands tighter and tighter until they started to bruise.

Anger was better than crying, she had decided once, so she allowed her fire to burn up her tears, blazing hotter and hotter-

“Is that it?”

Snapping her face at the Uchiha, Sakura stared at him in disbelief. Sasuke let out a small huff before moving to stand, pushing against the tree trunk. Frustration burst within her and she gritted her teeth, ready to scream at him. How could he-

But before she could start her tirade, he held out a hand in front of her, saying, “For all it’s worth…”

Her eyes widened, gazing at the outstretched hand of the Uchiha. Dark eyes meeting green as he shrugged:

“I think you’re almost there.”

Something painful and raw gripped at her heart; a part of her burning, always burning, always telling herself that she would never be there with them unless she worked harder but Sakura-

Sakura believed Sasuke.

Naruto might be a bit…protective sometimes, but Sasuke was…always honest with her. Always.

If she made a miscalculation of her timing, he would tell her. If she was a lot clumsier than usual, he would snap at her. It was…really annoying from time to time, but Sakura knew when to listen and keep her mouth shut.

She might excel at lessons and studies, but out in the field was where he surpassed her.

Looking down on her lap, she recalled the first time he had offered his hand to her, years flying by in a blink of an eye.

Time sure flies, she thought as she reached for his hand. Sakura remembered the weak girl needing to be saved by her friends every time; a girl who could only rely on her tears. A girl who was too self-conscious to even consider standing up for herself.

Her green eyes were soft and warm when she felt him squeeze back, a small smile on her face. She closed her eyes.

“…Thanks, Sasuke.”

 

000

 

Several months later, Sakura slammed Naruto to the ground, holding his neck down as her other hand locked his arms to his back, her knees pinning his weight down. They were both panting, sweat dripping down their brows and arms as the match came to an end.

“Ouch, ouch- I yield, Sakura-chan!” cried out Naruto, his mouth curled in a grimace.

Laughing a bit breathlessly, she let him go. “I hear you, Naruto,” said Sakura, a smile on her face.

When Sasuke approached them with a limp, blood on his arms from the trap she had set, she was slightly worried. But then he noticed her winning stance and sent a smirk her way, his teeth showing.

Sakura couldn’t help the huge grin that threatened to split her face.

Her chest was filled to the brim with too much emotion she couldn’t name as Sakura hugged the blonde next to her, catching him off-guard. That lasted only a second as Naruto then hugged her back just as fiercely, despite not understanding why.

“Group hug!” beamed Naruto, his hands waving at Sasuke impatiently. The Uchiha rolled his eyes at this, walking within their range but not participating.

Naruto, his patience lost, had caught Sasuke’s arm and pulled him in despite the latter’s indignation.

It was definitely a day worth celebrating.

 

 


 

 

Family

 


 

Sakura loved reading. She always had.

When she wasn’t training with her boys or hanging out with Ino, she spent her time devouring the books her parents gave her—being the child of a Special Jounin and Chuunin had its perks. Every single book currently available to her was always open for her to access, allowing her to always get one step ahead of her peers in the Academy.

History, chakra, clans, and shinobi ranking—she consumed them all, keeping them in her mind.

She was not prepared for the responsibility that came with it.

 

000

 

The air was hot and humid, the cicada’s song ringing and buzzing throughout Konoha. They had decided to abandon the training ground for now and take refuge in Sasuke’s apartment, his air conditioner blowing blissful, cold air at full power as the ice in their drinks clinked together.

With the graduation exam coming up, they had been focusing more on the academic side of the exam, committing theories of chakra appliance and the history of Konoha to memories.

It's not that hard, Sakura thought to herself as she filled in the practice sheet their sensei gave them a few months prior to the exam with ease.

They were only repeating what they had studied throughout their Academy years after all!

Unfortunately, this wasn’t Naruto’s area of expertise.

She had understood shortly after meeting him that normal means of studying didn’t work well for him—he was the type to understand quickly when he actually did it himself. A kinestetic learner,  she read somewhere? And so she did her best to explain to him, making correlations to things they did in real life to make it easier for the blonde as they did something else and drawing visuals for the more abstract concept.

Sasuke had scoffed at this, saying what a waste of time it was.

But if he didn’t add any deprecating comments when she asked him a favor the next few days, she just smirked and counted that as a win.

She had also made sure to drill in all the Ninja Rules to them, emphasizing on the ones that would surely appear. There was a ridiculous amount of them and Sakura could proudly say she had them all memorized.

“What’s the point of learning all these rules, dattebayo?!” Naruto had asked her, his lower lip jutting out in a pout. They were sitting on the carpeted floor, an assortment of drinks and snacks scattered all around them. A box of mochi she brought from home, sticks of dango Naruto bought on his way here, and glasses of iced tea Sasuke prepared himself.

(To both of their disappointment, he had prohibited them from even touching his bed. “I refuse to clean after any mess you’ll spill on my bed,” he narrowed his eyes, crossing his arms with an air of finality despite their collective effort at puppy eyes. They sighed in unison.)

Smacking him lightly with her book, she huffed, “Because we’re Shinobi, baka. If we want to be good shinobi and reach our goal, we have to follow these rules!”

Seemingly satisfied with her answer, Naruto went back to filling his sheet with a sulk.

 

000

 

AAH! I still can’t make a stupid clone-ttebayo!

They had since moved out of the comforts of Sasuke’s home, against his will.

After Naruto mentioned that he had taken the exam twice and failed the last test—the Clone Technique, consecutively, Sakura had dragged them both into the training ground, arguing that “It’s much cooler now! Sasuke, grab whatever you can. We’re going outside!”

Sakura watched with amusement as Naruto’s clone poofed into existence, its form unstable and twisted before collapsing on the ground in a lump. He groaned.

“See?! I told you, dattebayo!” cried the blonde, his hands pulling at his hair. “I’m never gonna pass the exam at this rate…”

Rolling her eyes, Sakura punched him slightly, saying, “Where’s your spirit, you dummy? The Naruto I know would never give up.”

She ignored his tearful eyes (But Sakura-chaann…!) and hummed to herself. Why? She wondered, her lips pursed. Almost everyone can perform this technique, because it was so simple and basic. It made absolutely no sense for anyone who has chakra to not be able to do it. But she supposed…she understood now why the blonde never used the technique when they sparred.

When she asked him, Sasuke reluctantly told her that he had tried some solutions for the blonde to try, his mouth curling unpleasantly:

“I tried explaining to him in detail how to form one…but he still couldn’t do it. Maybe he’s just…different?”

Different…

Gasping, Sakura whispered, her eyes wide. “Oh…Maybe that’s it.”

The two boys were on each other’s throat, with Naruto screaming (OI! Whatd’ya mean ‘different’, you bastard?!) and Sasuke pushing his face away with a sneer (Not so close, you idiot! You heard what I said!), and they both froze when they heard her.

“Eh?” blurted out Naruto, with the Uchiha looking at her like she had grown a second head.

Sakura dipped her head slowly.

She knew what…Naruto was. Or rather, what was inside him.

He parents never outwardly told her, but between everyone calling him “the Demon kid” behind closed doors and finding out when his birthday was…it was surprisingly easy to connect the dots.

-

One rainy day after the Academy was over, she approached Iruka-sensei with a question in mind.

“Excuse me, sensei…” she asked, head tilted innocently.

Their teacher had blinked in surprise before smiling kindly, beckoning her closer. “Yes, Sakura? Anything you want to ask about?”

Nodding politely, she returned his smile as she stepped forward. Sakura had always liked him, unlike the other sensei who seemed to hold a grudge towards Naruto—he was genuinely eager to help his students and Sakura…really appreciated that.

She had experienced a glimpse of what he had to go through every day with snobby, loud students through her time with Naruto, and even then, her friend was nowhere as annoying as some other kids she knew. It shed a new light of respect for him in Sakura’s eyes.

“I was wondering…when Naruto’s birthday is?” she asked, hands folded behind her back.

Iruka-sensei looked…taken aback. Something flitted in his eyes before disappearing. “Oh? Hasn’t he told you?”

“Not yet…and I want to surprise him!” she had said, giving him the sweetest smile she could offer.

Hearing this, he smiled softly before resting his hand on her shoulder. “It’s on the 10th of October, Sakura. Naruto’s very lucky to have a friend like you.”

The truth was, she already knew—but just to double check, she wanted to ask an adult who had access to their official data. Someone whom she could trust. She would have asked her parents instead, but she found out that they weren’t exactly privy to all the files of the students here.

“Thank you, sensei!” grinned the girl, bowing slightly before running off after her boys.

-

Being friends with the two kids almost everyone talked about made her nervous and maybe…a bit paranoid. She needed to know the truth—not the gossip and lies revolving around the village.

“Only trust your instinct, Sakura,” her father had said one night, right before tucking her in. “People may have many things to say, but that doesn’t mean they’re always right.”

Her instincts told her to trust her teammates, and so she turned a deaf ear on the words and warnings her neighbors tell her. Civilians who knew nothing, shinobi too blinded with loss and hatred, she ignored them all. Her family (because the two of them were family too) and books were the only ones she would trust.

Her parents said nothing as she entered the secret scrolls room in their house at night, always making sure to keep in unlocked when they weren’t out on a mission while they chatted away in the living room.

They stayed silent when she accidentally stumbled upon information regarding…the Vessels of Bijuu. Jinchuuriki, they were called. People chosen to contain monsters for the village. And she-

She didn’t know what to feel about everything anymore.

As if sensing her turmoil, her mother had kneeled down in front of her one night, her face solemn but kind.

“Sakura,” she said, her hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “There are some things…that we, shinobi, don’t question.”

Sakura choked, tears streaming down her cheeks, “b-but…why?

“Unless…” her mother had sighed, as if preparing herself to share a vital, life-changing information. Distantly, Sakura understood that she probably was. “Unless you have the power to, blossom.”

And knowledge is power, Sakura had realized instantly, wiping off any trace of her tears. Her mother had hugged her; a bit longer than she usually did before telling her to water the plants.

(She never saw the tears her mother shed under the mantle of night, or the tightness in her chest as she allowed her daughter to venture deeper into the dark reality of the Shinobi.)

And so she read. And read.

Because if she needed power to help her friends—to protect them; if knowledge was power, then-

Then she would read as much as humanely possible.

(She found out about the Rule the Hokage had decreed. While she understood why, she still- didn’t like it. It’s for his own safety, they had said; and for now at least, she would follow it. For Naruto. Because she wasn’t strong enough—not yet.)

Her parents kept their door open for her throughout all of it—Maybe because they wanted her to prepare herself for the harsh reality of shinobi world, or maybe they knew they couldn’t stop her from finding out the truth either way…she wasn’t sure.

But still, Sakura was grateful.

“Maybe it’s because…you have too much chakra, Naruto?” asked the girl carefully.

Hearing this, Sasuke’s eyes lighted up in understanding. Naruto still looked confused, his hand reaching behind him to scratch his head. “Eh? Why…What’s that got to do with my clones-ttebayo?”

Someone clicked their tongue, and the blonde snapped his head, “Oi! What was that for?!”

The Uchiha sighed loudly, long-suffering. “I can’t believe you…Sakura, go ahead and explain it to this idiot.”

Before the first fist could fly, Sakura rolled her eyes for the second time that day (He’s always so dramatic) and stressed, “Because Naruto, the Clone Technique requires good chakra control.” Her fingers played with the end of her hair, her mouth pressed into a thin line.

“I’m…not entirely sure how good yours is, or any of us really,” she continued, eyes narrowed in concentration. “We should probably test it later. But-”

“That still doesn’t answer my question, dattebayo!” interrupted Naruto, his arms flailing around him.

But,” she glared pointedly at the blonde. “if you hypothetically have more chakra than the average person…it might be harder since you’ll have to control more chakra to make one, let alone three clones.”

A few seconds passed before Naruto nodded slowly, openly showing as gears turned over in his head.

“But…” he scrunched up his nose, turning his head to look at her. “Why do I have so much in the first place-ttebayo?”

She heard when Sasuke commented how it explained why the dobe could go on much longer than them both, why he never seemed to tire; she knew her mouth moved to reply to Naruto (You don’t know…?) but-

He doesn’t know. Her mind screamed and screamed-

He doesn’t know—Why, why, why-

Would you want a little kid to know they have an actual demon inside them? A voice whispered treacherously in her head.

No, she replied, dizzy and detached. No, I wouldn’t.

Everything felt so wrong and she felt sick, bile on the edge of her throat. It felt like someone had punched a hole her stomach and messed her insides around. The ground tilted under her, ripping any semblance of balance of her world. Was this what it felt like to know too much? To know something everyone does when you shouldn’t?

But that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to know.

Something must have shown on her face, because Sasuke was staring at her- no, through her, and Naruto-

Naruto looked worried, his eyebrows creased. Crap. Smoothing out any unsavory quirks on her facial expression, she tilted her head at him, “Hm?”

Chaos brewed in her heart but- Sakura took a slow, deliberate breath, keeping her eyes trained on the blonde—she could pull this off. She will. Naruto watched her uncertainly before rubbing the back of his head, a bit put off as he laughed.

“I’m not entirely sure-ttebayo…hehe…”

She could have dropped the bomb here and now. Thinking back, she probably should have. But as she recalled nights spent talking about families and not-families; to Naruto’s eyes full of longing as he talked about who could’ve been his parents, wondering just how amazing they were, she decided.

“Uzumaki…”

She already knew about Sasuke’s bloody history—not the full story to her everlasting dismay, but enough to understand his anger and drive (I will kill him, he had once said to them, eyes hollow but fierce, his skin pale and cold. They made held his hands and made a promise that day to help him).

What people seemed to never talk about however, was Naruto’s. What happened to his parents? Who were they? Who were the Uzumaki?

Digging around the local libraries as well as her own family’s collection, limited due to her current rank-less status, she managed to piece together a condensed version of the history of the Fourth Great Ninja War, as well as…

…The fall of the great Uzushiogakure—home of the Uzumaki Clan.

Naruto’s family name.

“They have blazing red hair—not unlike your vibrant pink, Sakura” her father had told her with a smile, his eyes closed as though reliving his own memories. Well, she thought then, knitting her brow, Naruto didn’t have red hair but- “Lifespans longer than any other human being I know, and chakra reserves larger than even our current Hokage!”

It wasn’t everything—it barely even touched the surface and Sakura ached for more. But for now…it was enough.

The two boys blinked at her.

“Eh-? Yea?” spoke Naruto, confusion in his voice.

Sakura shook her head slowly. Slowly, adrenaline seeped out of her, leaving behind a mess of emotions and her panic to take over. Not now. She reigned them in with an iron grip.

“No, I meant…your…” she gulped; it was now or never.

“Your clan.”

Silence. And more silence-

WHAT?!

 

000

 

His initial shock gone, Naruto had frantically gripped at her wrist, his pupils dilated and unfocused as he whispered, “S-Sakura-chan…what do you m-mean by ‘my clan’?”

He was trembling so very hard, his breathing uneven. Guilt bloomed in her chest seeing the state her friend was in.

Who knows how worse he would be if I had told him the other thing? Sakura thought, her hand covering his almost tenderly. The cicadas had started to cease their singing, leaving for their fellow insects to fill in the silence. She took in a breath, the air moist and dry, the warm wind blowing in her face.

It brought no comfort to her.

From the corner of her eyes, she noted that Sasuke had recovered as well, settling himself as close as he could to the shaking boy. His hand hovered above Naruto’s back, as though unsure whether he should comfort him or not.

Shannaro, that idiot! She wanted to smack him in the face, but right now her priority was Naruto. Hopefully the Uchiha would know what to do.

“Naruto…”

Gently, she guided the boy’s face to look at her; mirroring what her mother usually did. Blue eyes focused on her and she sighed in relief. Treading carefully, not wanting to upset him any further, she continued, “Would you…would you like to hear about the Uzumaki Clan?”

Tears prickled at his eyes, his jaw clenching painfully as his mouth curved downwards in anguish. “Yes. Please…Anything you know about them, Sakura-chan,” he pleaded, his hands squeezing desperately.

And so she did.

Sakura told him and Sasuke about Uzushiogakure; on how they were Konoha’s closest ally and how they thrived in Fuuinjutsu. She told them what she knew about the Fourth Great Ninja War and the destruction of the great and powerful village, its people scattering like the wind.

Naruto had asked through muffled sobs, his arms tangled in hers and Sasuke’s, if there was anyone else out there. Someone like him. She smiled sadly at his words before resting her fingers on his chest.

“You’re here,” she said quietly, eyes subdued with grief. “So that means others should be too, somewhere, right?”

He dug his face into Sasuke’s sleeves and wept. The Uchiha looked lost—he never…had to do this before. For all that Naruto had always taken his feelings into consideration, Sasuke had never thought they both were quite connected.

Yes, they were both lonely. Yes, they were both broken and in pain—But…

Never knowing his family or his heritage, how could Naruto truly understand his pain? The loss of his parents, his family, his whole life in one night- It was unfathomable, even to him sometimes. Until the image of Him killing their parents flashed in his mind again and again and he realized that it was real, real, all real-

But now, as Naruto’s body shook and clung unto him like a lifeline, his tears soaking his shirt wet, Sasuke thought that…yes, perhaps…they both were suffering from a legacy they never should have shouldered.

And yet he still did—because that was all he knew, all he had to go with.

His eyes met Sakura’s and they begged for her help. Instead of answering, Sakura only wrapped her arms around them tighter, sandwiching the weeping boy between them.

(She felt Sasuke relax under their embrace and knew he understood.)

They stayed that way until the sun gave way to the moon and the stars peeked out from under the inky black sky.

 

000

 

When Sakura got back home, she had missed dinner entirely.

If her parents saw puffy, red eyes adorned with tear streaks under pink bangs as she swiftly went into her room—they chose not to comment, eyes wrinkled in understanding.

They didn’t stop her when she got out out with a small duffel bag, excusing herself quietly (I’m staying at Naruto’s tonight) and Sakura-

Sakura was grateful.

 

 


 

 

Graduation

 


 

Before meeting Ino, Sakura didn’t understand courage. Her parents told her all they know, but the real world wasn’t that easy. Some kids would look at her and sneer, some would even grab her, and others would call her words that she believed to be true, and Sakura-

Sakura let them. She let them because even though a tiny part of her screamed at them in anger, at this injustice, the rest of her knew she was just as they said.

Crybaby. Ugly. Forehead. Weak—Those words looped and looped and Sakura believed, with all her heart, that they were true. So she ran and hid whenever they came, because she didn’t want to be a crybaby, she didn’t want to be weak, she didn’t want to have her ugly forehead! But there was nothing she could do except cry as they took away her snack and taunted her.

Then Ino had come to her rescue like a knight in shining armor; shouting and screaming, her feet planted firmly in front of her, shielding her from her bullies.

“Get lost, you creeps!” she roared at them, her face scrunched up in a snarl. “Don’t you have something better to do?!”

They had looked at her once and shrunk upon themselves, grudgingly scooting away from them with a false bravado (Y-you won’t get away with it next time, Yamanaka!) and Sakura was-

I wanna be like her, Sakura thought, her eyes wide and sparkling. She quickly closed her mouth after realizing she’d been staring for too long.

When the girl turned back to look at her, she flinched, curling in onto herself. If that was how she dealt with her bullies, she didn’t want to know what she would do with a weakling like her-

“Sakura, right?” the blonde girl had said, her voice bright and kind.

Sakura opened her eyes and saw Ino crouching down in front of her, her face adorned with a cheerful smile. She nodded, sniffling.

“I’m Ino!” the girl had told her, a grin on her face. Extending her hand towards Sakura, she added, “Don’t worry, Sakura. I won’t let them near you again. Do you wanna meet my friends?”

Eyes wide, tears dripped down her cheeks as she accepted the extended hand. She wiped them away, nodding her head. “Y-yes…T-thank you…”

 

000

 

After meeting the duo…she understood where Ino’s courage came from.

Whenever Sasuke was clearly bothered by the girls who tried to flirt their way closer to him—them “accidentally” falling in front of him; crowding around him to fight over who got to offer him their lunch, something burned in Sakura’s chest. Hot and churning, it boiled and boiled and she got up from her seat, ending her chat with Ino.

“Sorry, Ino,” she smiled apologetically, her hands clasped together in front of her. “There’s something I have to do, I’ll be right back!”

Ino had looked at her, then Sasuke and blinked in understanding. She smirked, “Got the hots for Sasuke, eh, Sakura?”

Hearing this, Sakura had looked at her in horror. She cried, “No! That’s not-”

Laughing, her friend had waved her away, her eyes shimmering with mirth. “Oh, Sakura! That face you made was just priceless. I’m just messing with you!”

Wryly, Sakura returned her smile before darting off to the Uchiha, bulldozing through the crowd. True to her suspicion, Sasuke was on the edge of his seat, his fingers gradually tapping louder on his desk. He was trying so hard to ignore them and looked outside the window, but it was obviously starting to grate on him.

Sakura acted fast.

“Sasuke!” she called out, pushing against the bodies of young stubborn girls intent on winning his affection. Hearing a familiar voice, the boy cautiously looked over to the crowd, scanning. Sakura knew when he finally noticed her, his body angling slightly towards her. When she got through, her arm immediately linked itself with his.

“Naruto got into trouble again—come on!” she urged, ignoring the snarls and scowls sent her way. Maybe once, she would have been intimidated; but as she pulled the Uchiha out of the circle of bodies, feeling the boy draw closer to her, her arms tightened, returning their glares.

Burning and blazing, fire churning at the centre of her heart.

Ino once protected her, screaming and shouting, and Sakura finally understood where her courage came from.

When they were finally out of earshot, she heard him quietly mutter (You didn’t have to do that) and smiled.

Her fire blazed on steadily.

 

000

 

Sakura was an oddity in her team and she knew it.

Raised as any shinobi-bred child would, she was taught to tame the darkness and find her way through it. Her parents were no one exemplary, a small Clan with a respectable background. Even the Genjutsu-resistance they were known for weren’t anything big compared to other bigger Clans’.

She had no tragic history to remember every single night, nor was she shunned by the whole village for her very existence. Her eyes were never hollow with sorrow, never blinded with an anger no one understood.

Maybe it was because she didn’t understand that they allowed her to be with them. Or maybe because she tried to. Sakura still wasn’t sure.

What she did know however, was that she would do everything in her power to not let them feel lonely again. Never again.

So when Mizuki approached them the day before the Graduation Exam, telling them that he had a solution to Naruto’s incapability of summoning a Clone Jutsu, Sakura had listened. Something seemed off about him, but he was their sensei and one of the only teachers to actually help them—they glanced at each other and nodded.

“Where to find it, sensei?” asked Sakura, burrows furrowed in concentration.

Mizuki replied with a curve on his lips, “It’s in scrolls room in the Hokage Residence. Second room on the third floor, Sakura.”

Sasuke scowled at him. “Why tell us? Won’t you get in trouble for this?” he asked, mouth curling unpleasantly. Sakura had the same thought in mind.

To that Mizuki had smiled, putting his hand on Naruto’s shoulder. He squeezed his shoulder and said, “Because I’d hate to see you fail again, Naruto.”

Her Inner screamed—wrongwrongwrong- but Sakura ignored it. Anything for Naruto to pass with them.

Between Sasuke’s stealth skills and Naruto’s knack for traps, they had got in quite easily. Too easily, a voice whispered in Sakura’s mind. They searched for the thing matching the description Mizuki gave them (A huge yellow scroll that was hard to miss) and when they did, Sasuke stopped Naruto from opening it.

“Wait, dobe!” he hissed, slapping Naruto’s hand away from the scroll. “We shouldn’t open it here.”

“Why not?!” Naruto cried, his hand reaching out for it in impatience.

Sakura sighed before whispering loudly, “Because there might be some sort of trigger we’d set off! Maybe even from the scroll itself.”

She tugged at them hurriedly, nodding at the door. “Let’s take it outside and hide before opening it.”

They snuck outside and ran, finding a small abandoned safe house by the forest. Sasuke volunteered to be on the look-out; he would let them know beforehand if there was anyone near them.

When Sakura opened the scroll with Naruto beside her, she almost shrieked.

“Oh Kami,” she wailed, her hands on her face. “We just stole the Scroll of Sealing.”

Naruto was already reading the content, his eyes skimming over them almost hungrily, not minding what Sakura had just said. It wasn’t like he knew what it was either, y’know! The fear of not graduating rattled him as he quickly read over the first of the Techniques listed.

“Sakura-chan!” he urged, shaking the frazzled girl on his right. “I gotta learn the Shadow Clone Jutsu—you have to help me-ttebayo!”

He didn’t see when Sakura’s eyes snapped open in alarm, fear creeping on her face. Why did…Mizuki-sensei tell us to find this thing? Sakura stole a glance at the offending object. Did he actually expect a bunch of Academy students to-

“Look, Sakura-chan!” the blonde cried out to her, his hands forming a plus sign. In a second, a Clone puffed into existence, holding the exact same pose. Sakura balked.

One of them shouted gleefully, “See? I can do it-ttebayo!” while the other yelled out, “Thanks a lot, Mizuki-sensei!” at the same time and Sakura nearly punched them in surprise. The two Narutos stared at each other before grinning, giving each other a high-five.

Taking a deep breath, Sakura thought of their problematic situation carefully, keeping in mind the inconceivable feet Naruto had accomplished. They were going to get into so much trouble after all this, but at least they got something out of this, Sakura thought wryly. Resolving to worry about Mizuki’s questionable intent later, she turned to face Naruto properly.

“Alright, you dummy,” she said, mouth pressed together in a thin line. “We’ll have to return the scroll soon, but have you memorized the Hand Seals for the jutsu?”

Unbeknownst to the trio, the whole village’s alarm had been raised. Shinobi stormed outside the Hokage Residence, demanding the Hokage issue the order to search and restrain the so-called “Terrible Three”.

“I knew they were a unit, but who would have thought that the Uchiha kid would do this! Not to mention that other girl!” One shinobi had cried out.

Another one added, “That Naruto! I’m not surprised at all—he probably roped them into doing it. Who knows what kind of havoc he would bring to the village! Especially since-”

“Hey! You’re not supposed to say it!” someone interjected.

The Sandaime Hokage sighed, long and weary, puffs of smoke seeping out of his pipe.

Certainly, this was a troubling matter for all parties involved. He wondered privately, who had initiated it in the first place. While the “Terrible Three” were known for following Naruto’s antics and their unwavering bravery over the years, it was too…out of character for them to do such a huge thing. Not to mention the fact that they shouldn’t have known of the location of the Scroll itself, or how it looked like.

With these questions in mind, he huffed. I’m getting too old for this, he thought bitterly.

Electing to stop the chaos that was slowly taking hold of  his shinobi, the Hokage raised his hand, effectively silencing them.

“I understand your concern, my fellow shinobi,” he addressed them, his face grim. “Find them and bring them here. But no harm shall come to them.”

At his last words, some of them appeared to be ready to rebuke, but a small flare of his Killing Intent and they immediately stood in line. The Hokage narrowed his eyes, taking note of those shinobi.

With a swipe of his arm, all the present ninjas scattered. Almost all of them.

Sarutobi Hiruzen breathed in his pipe, smoke puffing out of his mouth.

“Iruka,” he addressed the one shinobi who stayed behind.

Iruka bowed low in an angle, his voice constricted. “Hokage-sama,” he said, “are they really-?”

The Sandaime gave a curt dip with his head and Iruka nodded before disappearing in a flash.

 

000

 

They were in the middle on figuring out just how many Clones he could make when Sasuke burst into the building.

“Someone’s here! Hurry-” He stopped, gawking at the number of Narutos there were in the room. They all stared back at him before disappearing in a puff of smoke. Sasuke shook his head and repeated, already moving to a obscure spot.

“Hide. Now.”

Sakura quickly pulled Naruto down with her, signaling him to stay quiet as footsteps started to resound throughout the old building. Uneasiness built up within her—she had planned on telling Sasuke about their rather…problematic object earlier, but their pursuer had been too fast. And now they didn’t know who it was, nor could Sasuke tell them.

At her right, Naruto tugged at her and pointed at a small opening across from them. Her face lit up seeing it and she nodded at the blonde, eyes determined. They could make it. Now if only they could let Sasuke know…

Cursing both of their bright hair, Sakura tried to take a peak from a small hole to at least guess who was pursuing them. She bit her lip, ignoring the persistent tugging from the boy next to her. When the tugs turned to shakes, she finally turned to him. She mouthed with annoyance, ‘What-’

What she wanted to say died down when she realized who was standing right beside them. Color drained from her face as she turned her eyes towards the towering figure. Her mouth moved but no words came out. Mizuki-sensei.

He was smiling down at them, but it was so wrongwrongwrong- and his teeth were showing and-

Sakura regretted with her whole being not listening to her instincts.

Before he could even say a word to them, his face slowly twisting into something nasty, Naruto kicked the joints of his knees, causing him to collapse momentarily. That one moment was enough for her to snap out of it and shout on top of her lungs, her throat sore:

Sasuke! RUN!”

In one swift moment, she grabbed the Scroll with Naruto next to her and they ran- She knew Sasuke was right behind them and that he’d catch up soon. They needed to get this to the Hokage now.

She had told Naruto about her suspicions regarding Mizuki as they practiced with his newly acquired Technique (A…Forbidden Jutsu, yes. But it worked for him! And if Sakura’s hypothesis was right, his extra chakra…probably had helped? She wasn’t completely sure, but that was what she knew).

The blonde had been uncertain. “Are you sure, Sakura-chan?” he frowned, his nose scrunching up. “I mean…he’s always been nice to us-ttebayo!”

“Sometimes…” Sakura started, trying to find the best way to explain it. In the end, she just shrugged. “Sometimes people lie to get what they want.”

She remembered that day after the Academy and Sakura…didn’t know what to feel. Pushing away the uncomfortable feeling settling on her stomach, she focused on Naruto, her eyes narrowing slightly. The Uzumaki clasped his hands on the back of his head, humming to himself.

“Hmmm…I’m still not so sure,” he shrugged. But then he grinned widely, saying, “but I trust you, Sakura-chan!”

A terrible sensation had coiled around her gut, eating at her from the inside the moment he said those words. Sakura still had a huge secret she was keeping from him. Soon. Soon. Soon- she kept telling herself, but when? Sakura hadn’t even told Sasuke, and they always shared everything with each other. She wished, silently, that she was just as oblivious as them. That she didn’t need to shoulder these secrets.

She shook her head, clearing her mind as she concentrated on running away for now.

After this, she nodded to herself. When this is done, I’ll tell them.

“Duck!” Sasuke yelled, and she complied. A Fuuma Shuriken zoomed by them, nearly cutting her hair off. Mizuki shouted something at them, but she blocked it out of her mind.

“He’s actually trying to kill us, dattebayo!” Naruto shrieked, eyes wide in terror.

Sakura gulped as they leapt from tree to tree, the vegetation hopefully slowing him down (though she doubt it would). She frantically scanned their surroundings, trying to come up with a plan—any plan. Suddenly, an idea struck her. “Naruto!” she cried, “Your clones!”

Sasuke didn’t miss a beat, shouting, “Transform them into us, dobe!”

Her original plan was for him to transform them into Konoha shinobi to overwhelm him as they escape, but she could improvise—confusion it was. Giving a grim nod at the blonde who was slightly panicking, she got ready to take out the Explosive tags she had taken with her out of paranoia. It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough considering their situation.

The other two noticed and got ready too. It was going to be sloppy, but they were definitely getting out of this alive.

Forming the hand seal he had been practicing with, over a hundred Clones popped into existence—much more than what Sakura had expected.

Then, with a bit of strain from Naruto, he transformed them all randomly into them three, creating a crowd of clones. Sasuke signed ‘All at once’ and the clones, including them, all dispersed in different directions immediately.

 

000

 

They finally reached the Hokage Residence after a lot of detours and false leads, breathless and puffing. Naruto collapsed onto the floor, the exhaustion of all his clones finally catching on him. It was his first time using the Technique and he already did such a huge thing too! His friends were just as tired as him for some reason, leaning on the wall of the building.

He was about to ask them what to do now when a puff of smoke appeared in front of them. Forgetting about his fatigue, Naruto immediately bounced to shield his dear friends from whoever it was. They were gonna have to get through him first.

But then the smoke cleared, and it was Iruka-sensei! Naruto squeaked as a hand came crushing down on him, leaving a bump on his head. “NARUTO! What were you thinking?!” yelled the Academy teacher, his wrath shown openly on his face. Rubbing on his sore head, the blonde looked down sulkily.

Iruka-sensei pointed at the two figures behind him, who were trying to shrink out of his view to no avail. “And YOU TWO!” He continued, his eyes burning. “I expected better from you!”

They grimaced and looked down in shame, their tiny forms drooping further down the floor. Before Iruka could continue his scolding however, the Hokage appeared in a puff of smoke, holding an arm out in front of him.

“I believe that is enough, Iruka,” he stated, hands clasped behind his back calmly. The Academy teacher stood quietly before slumping down, bowing towards the Sandaime in respect, “Of course, Hokage-sama.”

“Now then,” the Hokage started, his hands rubbing at his chin thoughtfully. Opening his eyes to gaze at the trio, he asked, his voice allowing no room for excuses, “Who told you?”

They were silent for a second, glancing at each other. Finally, Sakura raised her head, eyes meeting the Hokage’s with certainty. “It was Mizuki-sensei, Sandaime-sama,” she spoke evenly, though her burrows were furrowed. “He told us that- that he knew of a way to help Naruto’s Clone Jutsu. And-”

Naruto jumped in at this moment, unable to contain himself much longer. “And he even said it was because he didn’t wanna see me fail again!” his lips quivered, tears threatening to let loose.

Iruka sighed at this, looking over at them sadly but still maintaining his strict demeanor when he said, “That’s because I don’t want you to pass without proper Shinobi abilities, Naruto.”

Something heavy and painful settled over his expression when he continued, his voice a bit more gentle, “It’s not because I want to see you fail…I just want you to be able to master a simple jutsu before-”

“But he’s different, sensei!” cried out Sakura all of a sudden, much to the surprise of everyone present.

A dark look crossed over the Hokage’s face before he asked Sakura, his voice deceptively calm, “Sakura…would you like to explain?”

The girl flinched at this, shrinking further upon herself. Sasuke narrowed his eyes at her, while Naruto was just confused. Isn’t it because I’m an Uzumaki? He thought, brows furrowing.

Rubbing at her arm in discomfort, Sakura opened her mouth before glancing at the blonde in front of her, and clamped her mouth shut again. This repeated for a few more moments until Sasuke clicked his tongue, nudging at the girl with his elbow.

This seemed to provide the girl with enough courage, as she finally squared her shoulders and looked up at the two adults. Her mouth quivered as she stuttered, “I-it’s because, um, because…”

Sakura gulped, taking a deep breath to calm herself and finally looked at them without hesitation. She declared, “Because Naruto’s a Jinchuuriki.”

A beat, and the Hokage sighed heavily, running a hard across his face. I’m definitely getting too old for this, he lamented.

 

000

 

Naruto was confused. Like, super-duper confused.

What was a…Jin-chuurigi? Jinchunri-ki? He wasn’t sure. But all he knew was that everyone around him (except Sakura) was frozen in time, like the statement had hit a sensitive cord in them. Naruto…didn’t like it. He didn’t like that he had no idea why they were like that and he wasn’t.

“Nee, nee, what’s a Jinchuuriki?!” he cried out, his legs tapping impatiently at the floor as his hands clenched and unclenched.

Nobody had paid him any attention however, all their focus fixed on Sakura—who looked like she would much rather disappear. Naruto…liked that even less. His nose scrunched up in displeasure; he was ready to demand for their attention when someone grabbed him from behind.

Turning indignantly, he yelled, “Wha-?!”

“Zip it, Naruto,” cut in Sasuke, glancing at him for the corner of his eyes. “Now’s not the time.”

The Uchiha was regarding at him with an…appraising? Look, before it disappeared, as if it was never there. More baffled than ever, the blonde had narrowed his eyes at Sasuke. Then he crossed his arms with a ‘hmph!’, turning his head away from the Uchiha.

“Fine,” he grumbled. “I’ll listen to you, bastard. Just this once.”

The hand grabbing him stayed for a moment longer before releasing him.

“…Just listen, usuratonkachi.”

 

000

 

“Sakura…how did you find out?” Iruka asked, his voice strained. He looked close to breaking down more than she was, his face drained of any color. “Did your…parents tell you?”

Sakura shook her head slowly, saying, “No…I…um, connected the dots myself.”

The Hokage seemed to be considering her words, his eyes closed as he continued to stroke on his beard. The terrible feeling in her stomach returned full force now that she was about to face the consequences. She didn’t dare look behind her when her dear friends were definitely looking at her with contempt. She couldn’t. Her heart raced as she started to tremble, her eyes shutting close.

I’m a horrible, horrible friend, she thought as everything started to fall apart around her. Tears started to pool in her eyes as her worst nightmare was coming true. I don’t- I don’t deserve th-

“Sakura,” a gentle, gruff voice called out to her, forcing her to snap her eyes open. She tilted her head upwards only to meet the Hokage’s face. He was leaning forward, abandoning his previously poised and professional stature to meet her eyes more evenly. Seeing this, Sakura had widened her eyes.

He gave her a smile; aged but kind, as he rested a wrinkly hand on her head. Flinching at the first contact, Sakura relaxed when nothing happened, gazing at the man in wonder.

So this was…their Hokage. She had no doubt of his strength, but to see the more humane side of him was…nice. As he took away his hand, Sakura thought that this might be why Naruto was always so fond of him.

She still had…mixed feelings for certain events that had happened under his reign, but she couldn’t help but wonder: What was actually happening under the darkness of the Shinobi realm? Those thoughts evaporated the moment he asked her however:

“Have you told Naruto?”

Gasping, she widened her eyes as horror dawned upon her. Of course, Naruto wouldn’t-

“…No, sir,” she replied meekly, her eyes dropping.

Another sigh and the Hokage gestured at Iruka to move closer.

Iruka was hesitant, approaching Naruto carefully as if he wasn’t sure how to handle him.

When he was ready, he gently put his hands on the blonde’s shoulders, kneeling to his level. Then he explained to him slowly, about what a Jinchuuriki was, what they have inside them, and what those things…did. He told him, after a quick glimpse at the Hokage, about the rule that was set by the Sandaime and why the rule was set.

“It’s to protect you,” he repeated, when Naruto gave him a skeptic look at the Hokage.

“So…the…monster inside me did all those awful things…” mulled the blonde, his nose scrunched up in concentration. Then anguish splashed over his face like cold water, “D-does that mean…I’m the demon Fox-ttebayo?”

To Iruka’s surprise, Sasuke snapped at him.

“You idiot! Of course you’re not,” he rolled his eyes, scoffing. “I’m pretty sure Demon Foxes aren’t supposed to be as dimwitted as you.”

They exploded in an argument until Naruto fell silent, his hand gripping his shirt tightly.

“…Nee, Iruka-sensei,” whispered the blonde, his eyes intent on glaring at the floor. “What happened to your parents…Do you hate me?”

Guilt flashed in Iruka’s eyes before he squeezed Naruto’s shoulder, prompting him to look up at him.

“Naruto,” he spoke gently but firmly, “You are one of my precious students. What happened years ago had nothing to do with you, and I…I care about you very much.”

His mouth curved in a smile as he ruffled Naruto’s hair. “Never forget that.”

Iruka moved to stand up, but before he could, the blonde had jumped onto him, wrapping his small arms around Iruka’s torso. Naruto clutched at this flak jacket and Iruka…Iruka held him there. He stayed until Naruto released his tight embrace, his arms wiping at his eyes. Smiling softly, he stood up and addressed the “Terrible Three”:

“Now then, you three should head back. It’s late, and we all know what day tomorrow is! I will not tolerate tardiness.”

Almost immediately, Naruto had squawked, his arms flailing around his head. “Oh no! I haven’t finished preparing-ttebayo!”

Sasuke pushed himself from the wall, taking a quick glance at their quiet teammate before telling the blond, “Go ahead, dobe. We’ll catch up in a bit.”

Finally realizing Sakura’s unnatural silence, Naruto went to reach out to her but was blocked by Sasuke’s arm. They proceeded to have a glaring contest before Naruto pushed his arm away with a snarl, seizing the girl’s shoulder.

Sakura gasped, her tearful eyes wide as she turned to look at the blonde. Almost as quickly as she did, she turned away from him, her body slouching. Her chest tightened, guilt pooling in her stomach.

“I’m…really, really sorry…Naruto,” she whispered, “I wanted to tell you sooner but…”

Sniffling, she bowed her head as tears started falling freely down her cheeks, her sheer will unable to contain them any longer. “B-but…I-I…” she wiped her cheeks, her tears making it harder to talk. She hated it when this happened, but there was nothing she could do. Crying came almost naturally to her, and try as she might, it was something she couldn't control.

Suddenly, a heavy weight rested on her shoulder, causing more tears to drip down her face.

“It’s okay, Sakura-chan,” the weight whispered, Sakura feeling as his cheeks moved. She was taller than him, so they found that it was easier for him to do this. Sakura cried as she rested her cheek on fluffy yellow hair.

Naruto continued, his voice soft, “I’m not mad at you,” and Sakura let all her feelings drain out from her, not bothering to filter them as she hiccupped and sniveled.

It really was hard to shoulder everything on your own.

She would tell her two boys later on that she would hold “No more secrets,” from them and she meant it.

 

000

 

While his two teammates were opening their hearts out, Sasuke took the abandoned Scroll and handed it to the two adults.

“For the record,” he scowled, “I still have no idea what this is.”

They were too high on adrenaline to actually have a proper talk, and then this had happened, so no--he had no idea what they were actually dealing with.

Iruka and the Sandaime stared at him in shock and disbelief, while the latter was more amused than anything.

“Sasuke,” his teacher said a few moments later, his mouth quirked up in a smile. “That’s the Scroll of Seals.”

His eyes gradually widened.

“…What.

His teammates really were unbelievable sometimes (…most of the time).

And Sasuke wouldn’t have it any other way if he were completely honest.

 

000

 

After leaving the students to their own devices, believing they were stable enough to return home, Iruka had walked into the Hokage Residence, the scroll in his hands. The Hokage was in front of him, his pace at a leisure.

Something…didn’t sit well with him. Oh.

“Excuse me, Hokage-sama…” he treaded cautiously.

“Hm?” answered the man.

“W-what about Mizuki?” Iruka stammered, anxiety showing through. “We spent so long talking with the students-”

At this, the Sandaime chuckled, his gruff voice filled with mirth. “Ah, have no worries, Iruka,” he hummed, hands clasped behind him. “I’ve dispatched the ANBU the moment the students touched down on this building.”

Understanding lit across Iruka’s feature. “Then you’re-!”

Turning slightly to face him, the Hokage directed a small smirk his way. “Indeed. This is simply a Shadow Clone.”

Iruka laughed, albeit a bit awkwardly. Ah well, I never noticed the difference.

 

Chapter Text

The first time they met their Jounin-sensei, Sakura was…annoyed.

After three damn hours, their supposedly-skillful sensei finally decided to appear; peeking into the room to find the three of them surrounding a desk, an open scroll placed in the middle. She had brought a few scrolls with her just in case, and thank goodness she did. They would’ve killed each other in boredom otherwise.

“Huh,” The very-late silver-haired shinobi blinked after a beat of silence. “Not bad.”

Casually, he waltzed into the room. But before he could set one foot inside, it froze mid-air. He looked pointedly in their direction and gave them…an eye-smile?

“Nice try~” he said cheerfully before flickering away in a shunshin. “And meet me upstairs, you three,” his voice carried over to them, echoing throughout the room.

They stared at his empty spot in disbelief.

Smack!

Ouch- Sakura-chan! What was that for?!” cried out Naruto, rubbing at the sore spot on his arm.

Said girl clenched her fist, eyeing the spot their sensei was moments ago with utter contempt. “Shannaro! I told you we should’ve been subtler with the traps,” she muttered hotly. They had been waiting for three long hours, so they had plenty of time to set up a trap. And the scrolls she brought with her weren’t just for reading either, but they were also where she kept their extra weapons and trap-setting equipment in.

The one who first suggested it was actually Naruto; mainly because he couldn’t part from his beloved traps. Before she could tell him how much of a waste that would be, Sasuke had agreed, adding that they might as well store the rest of their weapons inside as a precaution. After much coaxing and convincing, she relented. Might as well, she had thought.

With the help of her parents, they had been prepared and ready. Sakura was glad they did.

“No need to take it out on the dobe, Sakura,” the Uchiha sighed quietly, his fingers laced together in front of him and his eyes closed—the very image of tranquility. “He’s probably just as competent as they said.”

Sakura raised her eyebrow at him bemusedly. “You’re not fooling anyone, Sasuke,” she bit out instead, rolling her eyes as she reached to gather her scroll. For all that he loved to show his unwavering spirit in the face of the unknown, she knew the Uchiha felt just as intimidated as she was, if not more.

“Alright!” shouted Naruto, the literal ball of optimism. He grinned, “Guess we gotta meet with our new sensei now, yea? Even if it was really annoying to wait for him-ttebayo…”

Taking a page out of Sasuke’s book, she sighed as well. Using the table as a leverage, she reached up above them and plucked at an invisible wire, the sound of other wires snapping echoing around them.

“You’re right, you goofball,” smiled Sakura, a bit wryly. “Let’s take out all of these traps and go meet him.”

 

 


 

 

When his cute little Genin finally reached the rooftop area of the Academy building, Kakashi was ready. He was casually leaning against the fence, his Icha-Icha book spread out over his face as he flipped through them with one hand.

Between what he had seen so far and what the Hokage had promised, he…wasn’t disappointed. Quite far from it, if he were honest.

A few weeks before the formation of the Genin Teams, he was personally invited by the Hokage to take a stroll with him through the streets of Konoha. Kakashi had a feeling he knew why the Sandaime had asked him to and seriously debated on simply ignoring his “request” for as long as he could. But as he stared at the picture frame of his old team, their faces gazing back at him, Kakashi…sighed.

Moving to grab his discarded mask, he got out bed and put on his flak jacket.

Another day of doing his best not to fail them.

Kakashi touched the covered eye on his left and breathed: Let’s go, Obito. Rin.

 

 

“Now, don’t look so upset, Kakashi,” the Sandaime bit out, his voice gruff. “I can say with certainty that this new batch of Genin will pique your interest.”

Raising his eyebrows dubiously, “Oh? What gave you the confidence, Hokage-sama?”

Instead of answering, the Hokage only chuckled. “You’ll see for yourself. I’ll be accompanying you to their homes in the meantime—take what you will from it.”

And so they had.

Upon arriving at Uzumaki Naruto’s house, Kakashi felt…something twist painfully within his chest. The last time he had seen the boy was…that night when he rescued him from a group of foolish civilians. And that was years ago. Looking forlornly at the front door, Kakashi burrowed those feelings deep inside where he knew he wouldn’t accidentally stumble upon them.

Again, he wondered why the Hokage decided it was a good idea to assign him as a Jounin-sensei.

Inclining his head at the Hokage, he opened the door with the extra keys they received from the landlord. The keys jingled as his eyes widened, staring at the mess Naruto called home.

“…Ah,” was all he could say. He didn’t know what he was expecting, but it was certainly…not this. Minato-sensei was a very tedious man and this boy…was nothing like him. The Hokage appeared to be oblivious to his woes and walked inside calmly, unperturbed by the chaos. Following the man, his eyes started scanning through the many possessions of Naruto, taking in anything that might be noteworthy.

When they arrived at the kitchen, Kakashi half-expected it to be as cluttered as his bedroom—possibly filled to the brim with dirty dishes and empty cups of ramen that had yet to be disposed; but surprisingly, everything was a lot tidier than he had anticipated. The sink was relatively clean, cups and bowls left to dry on the rack.

What really caught his attention however was a huge magnetic board on the refrigerator, with a few messages written on it in bold red:

Check the expiration date before you eat, you idiot. — S

NARUTO! DON’T FORGET TO DO YOUR DISHES!!!

There were a few other smaller scribbles around them, but Kakashi felt that these two were…the most important. And whoever wrote them must be too. Narrowing his eyes ever so slightly, he calmly approached the fridge and read over the whole board, filing away this interesting quirk in Naruto’s home in his mind.

So he had some friends taking care of him, hm? That was…quite reassuring, he supposed.

When he was satisfied with what he has seen, he gave an eye-smile at the Hokage—who showed no indication that he was going to explain anything else to him. Ah, that was fine. Kakashi had a hunch on who the first one was, though it was…very unexpected. He couldn’t be completely sure until he had more evidence.

The second one on the other hand…he had no idea who it was.

The next quarters they stopped at was Uchiha Sasuke’s. One of the two surviving members of the Uchiha Clan. Brother of Uchiha Itachi. A heavy feelings settled on his stomach when he recalled his ANBU days with the Rogue-Nin, back before all the chaos that followed with him leaving Konoha. Oh, what a chaos it was.

(Kakashi remembered bodies upon bodies littering all across the streets on that terrible, terrible night. Blood splattered everywhere, coloring the Uchiha Compound a vile red that would never be forgotten in history. It was something grotesque right out of a horror story…except he had witnessed it with his very own eyes. That was when he knew he understood nothing about the boy.)

The moment they entered his apartment, Kakashi could say with utmost confidence that Sasuke’s home was a complete opposite of Naruto’s. Tidy and spotless, all his books perfectly organized in an alphabetical order and by categories—it was a far cry from the blonde’s strewn mess of belongings.

“His father, Uchiha Fugaku, was a very strict man,” The Hokage had commented at this, stroking his beard in approval. Nodding silently in agreement, Kakashi picked up a colorful book that didn’t quite fit in with the rest of his collections, placed on top of the long wooden table in isolation. It was a thin, navy blue hardbound book with musical notes and stars printed on the cover. The Ballad of the Moon, the title read. From the weathered edges of the papers, it seemed that Sasuke handled it quite often.

Opening the book, he was greeted by the same handwriting he saw on Naruto’s board, as well as a small doodle of what he suspected was Naruto himself; if the spiky hair and whiskers weren’t obvious giveaways. (Still, it was…a charming work of art, Kakashi had to admit.)

So it was Sasuke, he confirmed.

Caressing the frayed end of the book gently, he said: “His older brother was quite meticulous as well, if I remember correctly.”

“Yes…” hummed the Sandaime, his hand tugging down slightly at his Hokage hat, casting a shadow across his face. “…Indeed he was.”

They stayed silent after that, each of them engrossed in their own thoughts (and regrets) as a sobering peace draped over them like the coming of winter as the first snow touched upon the earth. While he might not know what exactly the Sandaime was remininscing—it was not his place to pry. The man wasn’t the Hokage just for show after all; Kakashi wasn’t blind to the countless other murky things the man had to be accountable for and take responsibility over.

With this in mind, Kakashi carefully returned the book to its original spot before following the Hokage out of the door. Time to meet their mysterious last member, he thought.

When they neared their last stop, the Sandaime spoke. “Unlike the other two,” he said, eyes trained up ahead, betraying nothing, “this kunoichi still lives with her parents.”

“I see,” Kakashi dipped his head in understanding. So not an orphan. He…could somehow see how it all worked out.

“She belongs to the Haruno Clan,” The Hokage said as they climbed the staircase towards the humble abode. Kakashi’s eyebrows shot up a fraction.

The Haruno Clan. While not a huge or well-known Clan, he had experienced their Genjutsu-Resistance firsthand after he was relieved of his duty as ANBU. Having a resistance to Genjutsu might not be the most remarkable thing a shinobi could have, but it was still a valuable gift should the situation arise. To his knowledge, only one family resided in Konoha bearing the Clan crest, and if his memories served him right-

“Welcome, Hokage-sama, Kakashi-san!” a pink-haired man greeted as he opened the door for them, a jolly grin on his face. He was clearly off-duty, as his flak jacket and hitai-ate was nowhere in sight. The blonde woman to his right however was in her full Shinobi attire, minus the headband. She probably had to take an official leave just for today, Kakashi realized.

The woman inclined her head politely at them, smiling kindly. “Sandaime-sama, Kakashi-san—it’s an honor to be graced by your presence.”

The Sandaime nodded curtly while Kakashi gave them a slight bow. “Kizashi-san, Mebuki-san,” he echoed back.

They then ushered them inside, Mebuki offering them tea while Kizashi brought them to the living room. It was a humble setting, with a few family pictures displayed on the tables lining the wall. A few flowers were strategically placed around the room, but otherwise, they tried to be as minimalistic as possible.

“How have you been, Kakashi-san?” the patriarch of the family sent a grin his way. “The last time we saw each other was during the mission we were assigned on together, and that was months ago!”

A bit awkwardly, Kakashi gave him an eye-smile. “Ah…yes,” he said, ignoring the discomfort he felt at how casual the man was, an arm slung across his shoulder. “I’ve been…busy.”

He didn’t tell him how he’d much rather avoid anyone who wasn’t his ANBU associates or Gai, letting the man lead their one-sided conversation.

Coughing, the Hokage gained the attention of all the shinobi in the room.

“We do not have much time to spare, as you might have guessed,” spoke the Sandaime, weary and grim. “So I suggest we get right into the matter at hand.”

All the humor in Kizashi seemed to melted away right then as he gave them a short bob of his head. “Understood,” he said, his wife sitting to attention at his side. The aroma of leaves and jasmine wafted through Kakashi’s mask as he cradled his cup of tea. The porcelain was warm and new; it seemed to rarely be used. They must have taken these out on special occasions only, he noted absently.

“I’m sure you already know the reason for our visit,” the Hokage started, sipping on his own cup of tea quietly. The weather was rather warm outside, the birds chirping as light shone through the windows of their home.

The couple nodded sharply.

“Yes,” Kizashi responded as he clasped his hands, elbows resting on his knees. He inclined his head at the Jounin with a smile, “Kakashi-san will be the Jounin-sensei of our daughter in a couple of weeks.”

Gently putting his cup onto the table, the Hokage added, his voice gruff, “And I’m sure you both are aware of your daughter’s teammates?”

Mebuki smiled knowingly, something glinting in her eyes.

“Naturally,” she said, her hands folded neatly on her lap. Her eyes were closed when she spoke again, “I can’t imagine her being in a team with anyone else, Hokage-sama.”

This caught Kakashi’s attention instantly. Placing his cup back down, the Jounin raised his hand, asking for permission to speak. The Sandaime granted him.

“So this kunoichi…” he said as he leaned back, arms crossed over his chest lazily. His eyes caught the two parents’ and held them. “She’s good friends with the other two, I take?”

Laughter boomed out of Kizashi, loud and clear before his wife slapped his arm in a reprimand. Laughter dissolved into chuckles and he finally replied the stunned Kakashi, a wide smile of his face:

Very good friends, yes.”

Ah, that’s settled then. Kakashi leaned forward, hands held loosely in front of him.

“Now then,” he smiled through his eyes, “anything I should know before meeting them?”

This time however, Mebuki answered, her lips curled in a half-smirk.

“Other than the fact that Sakura loves to read,” she turned to look at him, tilting her head his way, “I think it would be better for you to find out yourself, Kakashi-san.”

After a word from the Sandaime about not disclosing the identity of the teacher to their daughter, the two parents allowed them a brief look at Sakura’s room; opening the door wide open for them to observe from outside. Kakashi immediately took notice of how immaculate it was, though not as painstakingly as Sasuke’s.

Various books lined her walls, ranging from the more historical ones to even fantastical fictions. There was enough book to fit a tiny library and…Kakashi wouldn’t be surprised if there was an actual library in this household.

They…really weren’t exaggerating when they said she loved to read, he thought quizzically.

A frame among the mass of books grabbed his attention. It appeared to contain…a drawing of some sort. Could it be…? He blinked slowly. Mebuki appeared to notice his curiosity, as a warm smile graced her face when she looked at the hung object.

“Ah…that’s from Naruto—” she laughed quietly “—he couldn’t afford a present for her birthday once, so he drew that for her instead.”

An emotion he didn’t know he was still capable of feeling rattled in his chest, growing bigger and bigger as the day went on. Is this…what they call…hope? He wondered, his eyes closing.

Kakashi recalled his own team, how they had fallen further apart ever since Obito was…absent. He remembered himself; how he had spent too long denying them, too long keeping his distance, too scared to allow anyone else close—When he finally realized how important they were, it was already too late.

If only we had more time, he thought, touching his covered eye when no one else was looking.

The shadow of tragedy trailed him throughout his life, everyone around him always end up leaving; always, always, always-

And Kakashi had wondered once—one night where he felt like his life had no meaning, when he couldn’t find the strength to move forward…if he was cursed. Wondered if the price to pay for his negligence was to be the only one to survive, the only one to live every single day while the people he loved die one by one. This team…would it just be a repeat of his?

But as they left the Haruno’s dwelling, his mind pictured reminders left on a fridge, a book that did not belong filled with melodies he couldn’t comprehend, drawing poured straight from the heart among the mass of texts and- Kakashi knew the answer to his own question.

The real question he needed to ask was…

Would this team really have what it takes?

(He secretly hoped they do.)

 

000

 

“The Terrible Three, hm?”

They were back at the Hokage Residence, the Sandaime blowing out of his pipe as Kakashi casually flipped through the files of his candidate students, leaning against the wall. It was customary for the Jounin-teacher to receive important information of their students beforehand, and while Kakashi usually liked to postpone it until a few days just before meeting them, he admitted that this new batch was…different from his previous cases.

Chuckling, the Hokage intoned, “Yes, they were quite popular at the Academy.”

When asked, the aged man had told him as they were walking back towards the Hokage Residence about his reasoning behind putting them in a team together.

“I hope it’s not just because they’re ‘very good friends’, Sandaime,” Kakashi had said, not entirely joking as the sun reflected off his silver hair.

The Hokage had rebuked him, huffing, “I am the Hokage. I would never base my judgements solely off of interpersonal relationships—though it did play a part in supporting my decision.”

He intended for them to be a primarily Frontline team, he had said. A team that deals and take in the most damage, hm? mused Kakashi. That was already a sound plan. Evidently, the Hokage—or known to many as the Professor, had planned way ahead of time. “They’ve already displayed excellent teamwork skills throughout the Academy, almost as good as the next Ino-Shika-Cho formation,” the Sandaime voiced with what he suspected was pride.

Hearing this, Kakashi’s eyes widened considerably. The Ino-Shika-Cho Formation had the best teamwork in the long history of Konoha; to hear the Hokage compare them to even the new generation was…

“Maa, I can see now why you were so certain, Hokage-sama,” he expressed wryly as they neared the Hokage Residence, closing his eyes. The aging man chuckled in response.

Now that he had properly seen the details of their data himself, Kakashi understood why the Hokage had assigned him to this team. If he were to take away the fact that Naruto was the valuable Jinchuuriki of the village or that he was the only one to possess a Sharingan to aid Sasuke later on…the stats from the files already provided ample reasons for him to aid in nurturing these students.

Ninjutsu. Taijutsu. Shurikenjutsu. Intelligence. While individually they might be on the top of at least one of them; together, they pillowed through their class, shining like beacons. Out of every other Jounin teacher he knew, he was the only one capable to provide them the necessary guidance to hone all their skills effectively.

Ah…Sandaime, he let out a breath. I can somehow see the potential you foresee in them too.

Now he just had to see their renowned teamwork in action himself…

As Kakashi eyed the documents in his hands, he would be lying if he said he wasn’t looking forward to meeting them.

When he idly asked the Hokage if they reminded him of any previous team in the past, the man was silent. Kakashi was careful not to leave any suggestions—he would let the Sandaime come to his own conclusion.

“No…I suppose not,” the Hokage answered quietly, a wistful smile of his face. His pipe was placed on top of the table, its fire dim. “But I suspect that might be a good thing.”

Kakashi solemnly nodded in agreement.

Pushing himself off of the wall, he slid the file under his arm and gave a bow to the Hokage.

“I’ll do my best, Hokage-sama,” he stated, the timbre of his voice heavy.

If this was Fate’s way of giving him a chance to redeem himself, of gifting him with a team that Obito- No, not just him. Rin. Minato would be proud of—then he would much rather die before letting it slip through him fingers.

As he clutched the documents in his hands, walking out of the Hokage Residence; Kakashi made a promise:

I refuse to let history repeat itself.

 

 


 

 

They all gawked at him, each with their own little quirks. Sakura balked in disgust before schooling her expression, letting a more curious look show through. Sasuke stared, his face judgmental as he narrowed his eyes. The one who was the most vocal was Naruto, who cried out loud, his blue eyes blown open:

“Eehhh?!”

Beneath his mask, Kakashi was holding back a smile.

After a few seconds, the Uchiha seemed to want to voice his own deprecating opinion, but Sakura signaled something to him with her hand and he immediately clamped his mouth shut. Interesting, he noted. They appeared to have a secret code only they understood, if Naruto’s blink of recognition was anything to go by.

It was like he was seeing a completely different team—the way their entire demeanor shifted, their skepticism fading away as they approached him. The three walked closer to him before moving to sit down on the stairway, the kunoichi taking her place between the two boys.

It still needs work, but for freshly-graduated Genin…that wasn’t too bad, he supposed.

“Nee, nee, you’re supposed to be our sensei, right? Right?” bellowed Naruto, intent on getting as close as he could to his face. Before he could reply however, Sakura smacked the blonde’s arm, earning a surprised yelp from the boy. The blonde casted a miserable look at her, his mouth curled in a grimace, “Sakura-chan! What now-”

“Don’t be so rude to our sensei, baka! Not everyone likes to have someone so close to their face!” barked the girl, her hands planted firmly on her hips. They proceeded to have a banter of sorts about ‘the best way to address a teacher’, their voices getting shriller by the second and Kakashi- ignored them. It was getting tiring to try and listen to everything they said—he already had a theory on what they were doing anyway.

Instead, he shifted his focus to their quietest member, who was watching his two teammates with exasperation. At least, that was what the boy wanted him to believe. When he thought the Jounin wasn’t looking, Sasuke watched him from the corner of his eye.

So his speculation was right. Kakashi smirked.

Time to put an end to this charade, he decided.

As the two continued to argue on one side, he pulled his book away from his face, making sure to look as non-threatening as possible when he said, his voice dripping innocently: “Are you satisfied?”

The three of them froze, stopping what they were doing in an instant. The first to recover was the Uchiha, who immediately glared at his own clasped hands. Sakura looked away, a distraught look on her face as she mumbled, “…Were we that obvious?”

“Aw, maaan,” groaned Naruto. “That was my most convincing one too, dattebayo!”

Kakashi couldn’t help the small chuckle that was slipped at his words. He was just as the Academy teachers had described—loud and obnoxious, not thinking before he acted. Nothing like how Minato-sensei was. But…he decided that was a good thing. (It would be much harder to look at him otherwise.)

“If you thought that should’ve been convincing enough to fool an experienced Shinobi,” he commented, dark eyes boring into the blonde’s. “Then you should consider upping your game, Genin-kun.”

The boy’s cheeks exploded in red, his teeth bared in a growl. “My name’s not Genin-kun-ttebayo! It’s Naruto! Uzumaki Naruto!” exclaimed the blonde, hands flying above his head.

(And suddenly he was reminded of that night; holding a boy far too young to be out on the streets by himself, his body shaking, cold and scaredand Kakashi-)

Closing his cherished book and making sure to mark where he last read it with a finger, Kakashi gestured at the rest of them, lazily pointing in their direction with it. “Since Naruto-kun here already volunteered to tell me his name…who else would love to?” he drawled out, crossing one arm over his chest.

Sakura raised her hand, her mouth pulled down in a frown. Mildly curious at this show of discontent, he nodded at her. “We still don’t know yours, sensei,” she said, Naruto nodding vigorously on her right while Sasuke dipped his chin down further.

Oho? Eyeing his to-be-students craftily, he pretended to mull over this revelation, fingers cupping his chin as he closed his eyes. “Ah…me? I’m Hatake Kakashi,” he said before throwing an eye-smile their way. “And you are?”

He wasn’t surprised when the kunoichi went next. “Haruno Sakura,” chimed the girl, her eyes and back straight, hands curled around her knees. Ah, he could definitely see the attentive top student shining through. Any naivety she showed earlier seemed to evaporate into thin air, her chin angled in a way that shouted readiness. Mebuki-san taught her daughter well, Kakashi nodded in satisfaction before motioning at their last member with his head.

“…Uchiha Sasuke,” the boy narrowed his eyes, sharp as he assessed him, seemingly sizing him up. Expecting him to be a bit…sensitive, Kakashi had responded with a nonchalant tilt of his head, his eyes closed in a mock-smile. If the boy was asking for a fight, then he wouldn’t be giving him any. Not yet anyway.

Darkness lurked beneath those eyes, and Kakashi was painfully reminded of his older brother…and himself. No, he would make sure to always remind him of what’s most important—he would make it his personal goal to ensure that no one else would be like him. That no more tragedy like his would occur.

(It would be better for him to never activate his Sharingan, but…that was unfortunately not his life nor his decision to make.)

Putting away his book into one of his many pouches, he addressed them merrily, “Alright then! Now that introduction’s out of the way, let’s get right to business, shall we?”

He would usually ask about their ambitions and goals—things like that, but Kakashi felt that for this particular team…it would be better to save that until later. Preferably, after he had seen what they were really capable of. It’s looking good so far, he thought as he sat on the railing behind him. Their performance tomorrow however would be the deciding factor.

“They already have a goal in mind,” the Hokage had told him, after he handed him their files. “I don’t know what it is unfortunately…” huffed the man quietly, smoke seeping out his mouth, “though I suspect it is the driving force behind their rigorous training.”

Sandaime said he believed in him, to guide them in the right direction. And although he did not specify the reasoning behind it, Kakashi knew. He remembered Obito’s weight as he threw him out of the way of a falling rubble; Rin’s pained face as his hand pierced through her heart, flesh beneath his skin-

And as Kakashi looked at the three Genin, their eyes reflecting a speck of what his younger self felt all those years ago, more so in the Uchiha’s—he repeated the vow he made:

I refuse to let history repeat itself.

Even if it meant not passing this promising team either.

 

 


 

 

He had dismissed the three Genin with instructions to meet up at the Third Training Ground tomorrow at 5 in the morning and to bring their full Shinobi gear. After quickly disappearing in a puff of smoke and leaves, he reappeared on the streets below, pulling out the object he was forced to part with earlier.

Walking his way back to his apartment, Kakashi didn’t stop even as someone called out- no, hollered his name. He continued to read through his Icha-Icha book, impervious to the stares he received throughout the village. Ah well, the citizens of Konoha should be used to this view by now.

“KAKAASHIII!”

An arm slung across his shoulder, pulling him close. Kakashi didn’t even flinch as he blinked slowly at the man beside him.

“My eternal rival! How did the meeting go?” cried out Gai, a blinding grin on his ever-passionate face. Ah…right. He had told him about his brand new team during one of the few times Kakashi allowed the man to pull him out of his shell of a home for a drink. Slipping the book back to his face, he hummed.

“Shouldn’t you be training with your team by now?” he asked instead, his nose deep in a page.

Laughter boomed out of Gai as he walked beside Kakashi, matching his leisurely pace. “My team deserved a break after all their training yesterday!” chuckled the man. “And besides, I am genuinely curious about your new Genin team, Kakashi.”

Kakashi was silent, the only sound he made were the leaves crunching beneath his feet. Used to his pensive behavior, Gai waited—his friend would tell him in time, he believed so!

“They’re…” started the former ANBU member, his eyes downcast, “…certainly a curious bunch.”

Gasping, Gai gave him a thumbs up, his eyes rounding out like saucers. “OOOHH! Is that excitement I hear?! That was never there before, rival!” he exclaimed, a huge grin on his face.

Exasperation filled Kakashi, along with a warmer feeling he was still getting used to accepting as he glanced at his friend. While many of his peers had avoided him a few years after his recruitment to ANBU, Gai still persisted to reach out to him through his ridiculous competitions or requests to eat dango with his friends, even with his continuous rejections to his offers.

Ever since he was relieved of his ANBU duties, more people started inviting him out too but- he would never forget the one person who never quite given up on him.

Kakashi…appreciated that, though he had never expressed it.

Closing his eyes, he sighed quietly, “We’ll have to see tomorrow.”

 

 


 

 

Wind blew gently against his silver hair, caressing his masked face. No one was there as usual, only ghosts of the past accompanying him at the Konoha Cemetry.

The flowers had wilted, so Kakashi made sure to bring replacements with him today. Placing in place the fresh new lilies he bought on his way, he told Rin quietly about the test he was about to give his students. He told her his woes and doubts—what if they weren’t as good as the Hokage had said? What if it was too good to be true? He talked and talked until his chest felt much lighter, the sun high up in the sky and he had nothing left to say.

Obito’s Memorial Stone would be where the test would be held; and even if his Sharingan wouldn’t be able to watch it directly, he hoped Obito could at least feel as they pound on the ground from below. Or above.

Closing his eyes, he took in a long, deep breath. When he opened them again, a steely emotion gripped at his heart as his gaze hardened. Beneath his hitai-ate, he could feel the Sharingan pulsing along with his emotions.

Let’s go, Obito. Rin.

 

 

By the time he got there, the sun was right in the middle of the sky, the heat beating down on the Earth below.

They appeared to be resting beneath the shade of a tree, Sakura reading a scroll while the other two snoozed away on her shoulders. When he was within their line of sight, Sakura closed her scroll with a snap, waking up the other two; though Naruto seemed to have more trouble coming out of his doze with the girl needing to shake him awake.

Kakashi’s eyes caught the new bruises that weren’t there yesterday and he blinked. So they immediately went to train after he dismissed them, hm? Something started to bloom in his chest but Kakashi- stopped it. He pushed it down for now, because he needed to know for sure.

Sakura looked at him and glowered, her mouth curling downwards. “Sensei…”

“You’re late-ttebayo!” shouted Naruto who had finally noticed him, his hands waving around him wildly.

The Uchiha’s eyes twitched, but he didn’t say a word.

“Maa, maa,” waved Kakashi, giving them an eye-smile. “I just got lost on the track of life, that’s all~”

They still glared at him, not believing an ounce of his words and Kakashi- smiled. That was fine—he never expected anyone to buy it either anyway. “Now then! Let’s start the survival test,” he said, taking out the bell from his pocket and setting up an alarm clock.

“Eeehh?”

Tilting his head, Naruto’s nose scrunched up in confusion. “Whad’ya mean ‘Survival Test’-ttebayo? I thought we’re doing a mission-”

“Is- is this the infamously hard test you give to graduates like us?” interrupted Sakura, stepping forward, her fists clenched on her side.

Kakashi eyed her carefully before chuckling. “Ah…Sakura-kun. You’ve heard the rumors, hm?”

Beside her, Sasuke crossed his arm, his eyes narrowing at him. “So? Is it true?”

Letting the bells jingle in his hands, he hummed. “As I’m sure you’re aware, only a selection of students gets to actually be Shinobi, even after the Graduation Exam.” They nodded slowly at this, eyeing him with trepidation.

“But,” he raised a finger, a dark look crossing over his eyes, “whether those students get to pass or not entirely depends on me. If I deem them unworthy of becoming a ninja…they’ll be sent back to the Academy, or…

“They’ll be dropped out,” his eyes bored into theirs, watching as horror slowly took over their features, “for good.

His harsh words appeared to have woken up something inside them, and after a quick glance at each other, they stood their ground. Sasuke gripped at his crossed arms, Sakura fisted her shirt in her palms, and Naruto looked like he wanted to protest, his mouth moving but he ultimately held himself, his hand falling back to his side. Good, he thought. They know about the consequences. Now then…

Holding up the two bells for them to see, he rattled them together, the bells tinkling resonating throughout the field. “You three will try to get this bell from me before 2 o’clock—that’s three hours from now” he drawled, his half-lidded eyes staring down on the three friends. “And if none of you manage to do it by then…”

Curving his eyes in a false smile, he chirped: “Maa, I don’t think you three would like it~”

Birds twittered and circled above them, the wind and the breeze blowing against the trees. The bell in his hand jingled. Clink. Clank. Clink. Clank-

“So, sensei…” said Sakura after a while, her hand rubbing at her wrist. Her eyebrows drew closer as she glared at the ground, the gears in her mind turning. When she finally raised her head, her eyes met his evenly, fire burning behind them. “There are only two bells, which means…” she trailed off, her mouth pressed into a thin line.

He blinked slowly at her in response.

Kakashi had been mulling over what kind of test he should give them for the past few days—whether using the same tactic as his previous exams was a good idea or not. This team, he knew, was effectively a unit—the Sandaime never failed to remind him from the very first day. Ultimately however, he figured that even though the probability of the team splitting up was very low, it was still an important Shinobi lesson for them to learn.

Shinobi have to look underneath the underneath.

If Sakura’s expression meant anything…he wouldn’t have to worry much about it. The others however…

Watching Naruto’s confused tilt of his head and Sasuke’s half-concealed gasp, he wondered if they would all pull through the first test given to them.

Sandaime…he closed his eyes. Let’s see just how good this team you’re so proud of is.

“Remember, 2 o’clock, you three,” chirped the man cheerfully. Playing with the bells dangling from his hand, he leaked a small amount of his Killing Intent; not to be downright suffocating, but enough to intimidate them as he smiled. The effect was instantaneous; they shuffled closer to each other, forming a triangle before him. Defense formation no. 2, hm? noted Kakashi.

“You can use your weapons if you want,” he said, eyeing them as he secured the bell on his hip, “and unless you come at me with the intent to kill…”

All the humor from his face washed away as his gaze hardened, his voice deadpan as he stated: “Don’t think you have a chance.”

Something shifted in their demeanor as they readied themselves, waiting for his signal. He raised his arm and brought it down:

“BEGIN!”

And they scattered.

Kakashi pulled out his book and waited.

Let the show begin.

 

000

 

The moment Kakashi signaled for them to begin, the three of them jumped into the foliage, concealing themselves from their sensei’s watchful eyes. But that meant they had to flee in totally different directions and—it would take a while before they could regroup. She cursed.

Sakura understood the meaning behind this test, but she bit her lip as she wondered whether her two teammates did too. Sasuke would probably figure it out, but Naruto…

Shaking her head, she resolved to put aside her worries and trust Naruto on this. While that goofball might not be the quickest at figuring out things like these, she knew he wouldn’t think of splitting up either way. None of them would. And contrary to what most people believe, Naruto…wasn’t stupid. Definitely not in the ways that mattered. So…

That’s right, she nodded to herself. I’m gonna have faith in him and focus.

Thanks to the fact that Kakashi didn’t tell them what they were actually going to do yesterday at school, they couldn’t really prepare themselves for today or even try to gauge what it was. When she asked her parents, they had refused to even leave hints for her! But…that was fine—they had been working together for years now, so some things were natural for them to fall back onto. They could do this.

The day after Naruto learned about the Shadow Clone Jutsu, the three of them immediately tried to integrate the technique into their usual formations. It was a struggle at first, but thanks to Naruto’s spontaneity and the nature of the Shadow Clones themselves, it quickly became a vital part in his fighting style and after a lot of beating and bruising, theirs too.

They all knew his forte was distracting his contender—with Shadow Clone in his disposal now, it was almost impossible for them to top this diversionary skill he had. One might even say he used it…a bit too much.

(Sakura grimaced as she recalled what had happened last week. It was…a disaster.)

Considering his enormous chakra reserves, and despite knowing where it came from, Naruto hardly ever hesitated to use the technique, creating clones are clones when he was in a pinch. Sasuke commented off-handedly after their spar once, beat and battered, on how much this addition would change their fighting dynamic, and- Sakura agreed.

“It doesn’t have to be a bad thing though!” She bobbed her head firmly at the Uchiha. They were going to make the most out of this ability—Sakura believed they could do it. Her parents also vouched for it!

“Yeah, teme!” yelled Naruto who was sprawled out on the ground, his chest heaving. The blonde held out his fist in front of him, his brows pressed together as he glared at the boy sitting beside him. “We promised we’re gonna get stronger together, right?!” he urged, shaking his hovering hand. “We’re gonna figure it out—I just know it, dattebayo!”

The Uchiha said nothing for a while; seemingly contemplating over a concept that was almost foreign to them, before he raised his own hand and tapped Naruto’s knuckle with his own. He scoffed, short and familiar, looking off to the side. “Usuratonkachi,” he muttered. “Of course we will…Sakura said so.”

“Yeah! Exact- Wait, are you saying you don’t believe in my words-ttebayo?!”

As the two of them started their usual round of squabbles, Sakura’s mouth had curved up in a smile, warmth spreading within her chest. Yes. They could do this.

And so they spent the next couple of days trying out different ways of implementing the clones. With her parents’ help as well as her own hours spent on research, they finally figured it out. It was a bit…crude, but with the short time they had, it was good enough.

Sakura touched the scrolls inside her ninja pouch and gripped it tightly. If Naruto was going to do what she thought he would, then she needed to start preparing. Now.

 

000

 

Slinging himself onto a tree branch, Sasuke crouched down, observing the Jounin from afar. He looked like he had no care in the world, reading his inappropriate reading material out in the open like that; in the middle of their test. Irritation flared within him, but he dismissed it. Their sensei might seem like nothing much right now—but a small taste of what was unmistakably his bloodthirst proved to him that he was capable of so much more.

Not to mention…what happened yesterday at the Academy.

So this is the infamous student-crusher? Sasuke scowled.

Huffing, the Uchiha laid as low as possible, watching carefully from the shadows. His right hand rested on his holster as a safeguard, but this wasn’t his time to shine. Not yet. There was only one plan he could think of that would work the best right now and it all depended on their obnoxious teammate.

While he had always called that idiot…an idiot (and he was), Sasuke knew that no one should ever underestimate him. Even before he found out about the Shadow Clones, Naruto was already an impulsive force of nature to deal with—no one could guess what peculiar ideas he would come up with. He made a mistake of dismissing it once and had regretted it ever since. Trusting on that ability and all their training, Sasuke settled down on his perch.

It took him longer than he was proud to admit to realize, but common sense gripped him before he could do anything foolish. There was no way a team could work with only two members—he had never heard of it before. That, and coupled with the fact that they already showed him how they worked together…Kakashi probably intended for them to argue over who would give themselves up for the other two or to fight against each other.

Probably.

As if we’d resort to that, he scoffed. Voices whispered in his head but he vehemently pushed it down, deep, deep down. No- he needed to have all his attention on the present now.

Judging from how tranquil everything was at the moment, he doubted he would be moving from this place anytime soon. That was fine…he could wait. He wouldn’t be impatient.

Sasuke refused to be the reason they all failed.

 

000

 

Crapcrapcrap-!

Naruto hid behind the cover of shrubs and bushes, willing his heartbeat to slow down. Glancing through the small gap, he watched as their sensei read his weird book so indifferently. I can’t believe he’s underestimating us-ttebayo! scowled Naruto. They’ve been training for so long and he refused to let it all go to waste!

Besides…he didn’t really understand what he meant about the two bells thing, but he knew they would get it together no matter what. He didn’t know how each of them were going to get one bell each, but that didn’t matter. Later he could ask Sakura-chan or Sasuke-teme, but now wasn’t the time! His brows furrowed as he continued to observe the man.

What do we do now?

Usually, in team fights like these, he would follow Sakura’s lead, or sometimes Sasuke’s if he really had to. But his teammates were nowhere in sight, and trying to find them would be too much of a hassle.

Aw man…he groaned inwardly.

Remembering what they had discussed earlier, as well as their previous trainings, he finally decided. His Shadow Clones were almost second instinct to him by now, and if this was anything like what they usually did with Aunt Mebuki or Uncle Kizashi…Okay, he thought, his mouth pressed together. Nobody had started anything, which meant he had to do something. Because that was what he was good at, y’know! Whatever happened next…he could trust in his teammates.

Crossing two-halfs of a Tiger seal together, Naruto clenched his jaw as he called upon his clones, the wind of his chakra rotating around him as he pictured three more identical copies of his team. We can do it, dattebayo! We’re gonna be Genin together!

 

000

 

Kakashi stole a quick glance at his side and closed his book with a thud.

Ah…they’re finally starting.

As he slipped his book into his pouch, the three of them appeared from behind some bushes, each bearing their own shuriken and kunai. They circled him, throwing their weapons at him at the same time and Kakashi didn’t even need to look as he took out his own. Deflecting them was easy, and he had no need to use his Sharingan. Not that he intended to use it anyway.

While he was affectionately dubbed ‘Kakashi of the Sharingan’ in the world of Shinobi, he didn’t know whether his students were aware of it…particularly Sasuke. There was a high probability Sakura’s parents had told them beforehand, but from how aloof the Uchiha acted around him…he figured that the boy probably didn’t know. Good. They wouldn’t have to breach that topic for now.

Sasuke moved to strike his face while Sakura’s hand reached out towards the jingling bells on his hip and- Too easy. In one swift movement, he grabbed both of their arms and slammed them onto the ground, effectively stopping their collective efforts. Their last member attempted to surprise him from behind, but Kakashi moved, appearing behind the blonde in a gust of leaves.

“Maa, maa, is this all you’ve got?” he said, disappointment seeping through his words. Maybe the Hokage had overestimated their teamwork. He appeared to be especially fond of these three after all—whether that was due to his guilt or genuine affection, Kakashi had no business to venture into his personal matters.

But as his two interlocked fingers moved to subdue the blonde with his ‘secret jutsu’, Naruto spun around towards him, a wide, feral grin on his face as his own hands formed a seal. Kakashi’s eyes widened. That seal-

Shadow Clone Jutsu!

A horde of clones- Shadow clones appeared all around him, encircling him, grabbing onto all of his limbs and pulled him down, preventing him from moving. Naruto shouted-

“NOW!”

And Kakashi’s head snapped to his right as a huge ball of fire appeared right before him, hot and scorching-

Diversion tactics, hm? mused Kakashi. Not bad for a start, you three.

The real him watched from on top of a tree as the chakra-fueled fire burned his substitution to crisps, the clones poofing out of existence. So all of them were his shadow clones, hm? Kakashi held back a chuckle as his eyes scanned the area. They really weren’t holding back against him…he approved of that.

So that was what the Hokage meant when he told him that they "found the Scroll of Seals by accident", huh? Apparently Naruto had managed to make use of the Shadow Clones, and they've put it in a combo with what he suspected was the Uchiha's Fireball Jutsu. It was far too big for any normal Academy student to generate—too much chakra needed; but it wouldn't be the most surprising thing he had ever come across with if he did.

‘But,’ he mused as he ran deeper into the woods where the Fire Jutsu was released, jumping across branches, ‘they just revealed their location’. While he doubted that the two of them would risk staying in the same place after the stunt they pulled, that was more than enough.

What he should really be cautious of was what Sakura was planning—the wildcard in this current situation.

And as he recalled how she had the highest score at the Academy, Kakashi knew her intellect was not something to be overlooked. So far, he still hadn’t spotted her as he zoomed through the thick forestry. Several possibilities were already brewing in his mind and he realized—Why only do one thing when you can do two at the same time? From the positions they both showed, they weren’t that far for each other. That either meant they would converge in the area between them, or…

A deep chuckle reverberated within his chest. Letting all of them meet up seemed to be a better idea, hm?

 

000

 

Navigating through the trees was easy, not to mention that idiot practically just announced where he was. Sasuke ignored how he pretty much did the exact same thing—no time to waste now, considering that their teacher was probably already on his tail. If Naruto was the closest to him…then Sakura was probably on the other side of the clearing.

Counting of the fact that Naruto knew what to do, he continued to leap across the huge trees, making sure to not leave any footprints on the bark. With luck, they should be able to converge soon and-

“Shit! Watch out!” A voice cried out. It was awfully familiar but- Sasuke couldn’t put much thought into it as several kunai shot off towards him, forcing him to lean as far back as he could. Not having enough foothold for his feet to grab onto, a surprised gasp escaped him as he slipped off the branch, his hands reaching up blindly- only to be caught by another pair of hands.

“Sasuke, you moron!” hissed Naruto from the edge, his face contorted as tanned hands held onto his tightly. Warmth spread across his cheeks as he scowled at the blonde. This is so embarrassing. “It’s your fault for being so subtle with your damn traps, dobe!” hissed the Uchiha back. He knew it made no sense, but there was no way he was going to let Naruto have the last say in this. After he was successfully pulled upwards, Naruto looked far too amused for his taste. A quick smack on the head and that smug grin was effectively wiped away.

Before they could start yet another stupid argument, Sakura thankfully touched down on the branch they were occupying, her eyes twitching as she watched them grab at each other’s throat. Wait—he knew that look. His mouth quickly opened as realization struck, moving to save himself but-

“I swear, you two!” she uttered harshly, her fist clenched threateningly at them. Her eyes were almost blazing, glowing green. “If you even think about arguing right now, I’m gonna make you regret it for life!

Needless to say, their dispute was quickly resolved. After directing them to a relatively-safe, hidden spot she found, they all settled down and discussed what to do next.

“I already laid out the main trap we talked about,” Sakura said, motioning behind her with head, her fingers pointing at the direction she came from. He dipped his head in a nod—so that was where they would lead their teacher to.

“What about the rest of our traps?” frowned Naruto. All of their weapons and traps and wires had been promptly taken out of their pouches and spread out in the middle of their circle, making it easier for them to coordinate. Or in Sakura’s case, calculate properly.

After mulling over the options they had, Sasuke suggested: “You and Sakura should go fight him while I set them up around the perimeter—I’ll show up later in a surprise attack. If Sakura doesn’t show up soon, Kakashi would be suspicious.”

“If he isn’t already,” mumbled the girl. He grunted in agreement.

It seemed that the idiot wasn’t too happy with this arrangement, as he started to whine to Sasuke’s dismay, his lower lip protruding out childishly, “But I want to set up the traps! And I’m better at it too-ttebayo!”

“Stop being so selfish, dobe!” snapped the Uchiha. “We need you out there! With your clones we can overpower him-”

“I can have my clones set up the traps too, dattebayo! And it’s not like they’re just gonna disappear,” huffed the blonde. Turning to their other member, he asked with an impatient tilt of his head, “What do you think, Sakura-chan?”

Their lone female member looked down on their arsenal, eyes flitting between them as she clutched at the opened scroll in her hands. If Sasuke hadn’t known her for as long as he did, he would have dismissed this as an act—but years of working with her had proven to him that if they gave her even a few seconds to think, she would have a better grasp of the situation than either of them ever could.

While she might not be on par with a Nara, Sakura was close enough and easily better than he or Naruto was. That idiot might have his unpredictability out in the field and he had his quick thinking, but they needed Sakura’s cleverness as well.

“Well, I do like Sasuke’s idea of a surprise attack…” she said before shrugging slightly, “but I think it would be better for all of us to fight him together from the start. Holding back our manpower would be a disadvantage to us in this situation. What do you say, Sasuke?”

A beat later, and he huffed. “Yeah, you’re right,” he brushed away his dark bangs away and moved to stand up, gazing down at his teammates with a ghost of a smile, “we’ll go with that.”

And so they enacted their plan.

“Um, Sakura-chan…” called out Naruto as they started trekking back to Sasuke’s area where he last saw the Jounin. “Why does he only have 2 bells, dattebayo? I mean…we’re a three-man squad, right?”

Silently, Sasuke listened in to the conversation that was happening a few branches behind him; he knew he had the answer to it but, he- he’d like to hear it from someone he trusted. Someone that wasn’t him.

“That’s because he’s trying to trick us, Naruto,” replied Sakura, her voice grim in a way that only someone confident in their words were. “I think…it was to pit us against each other,” she said before laughing quietly, “but of course that won’t happen with us.”

The voice in his head was more persistent now, much louder and Sasuke-

“But…” he murmured, gaining their attention. “What if-”

He didn’t get to finish his sentence as he heard someone approaching. Fast.

A swipe of his hand and they immediately spread out around the area.

True to his words, Naruto’s clones had been diligently setting up traps ever since they moved out of their hole, following behind them at a slower pace towards their current position and the final destination. If the clones were quick (and Naruto assured them that they were), they should be done soon. They might not necessarily even use all the traps, but it was always good to be careful.

Now they just had to somehow herd their sensei towards the ‘big finale’ Sakura had assembled.

The bigger the bait, the larger the fish caught as the saying went. What was a bait big enough to make him want to follow them?

Sakura, who was on a branch several trees away from him, mouthed: Outside. Just to clarify what she meant, he jabbed a finger in the direction of the clearing and she nodded. Signing back an affirmative, he searched for his blonde teammate and signed the same thing to him. After he was certain that he got it, Sasuke took out his kunai and waited.

Three. Two. One-

A snap of a wire and a huge block of tree came swinging down on their unsuspecting teacher. They moved.

 

000

 

Kakashi easily jumped over the huge block of tree, landing on top of it before he cursed. Explosive tags. He leaped away just in time to a nearby branch, switching with a substitution in place to be caught in the explosion.

Ah…that was dangerous, he thought wryly. When he looked down, his eyes opened wide. Shit.

Almost every branch in the vicinity was covered in Explosive Tags, including the one he was standing on. If he stayed any longer-

Bounding out of the sea of trees and into the glade as a series of explosion was set off, he caught a glimpse of pink between the trees and chuckled. So this was what they planned, hm? The moment he touched down on the grass, the three of them all came at him at the same time, weapons in their hands and he immediately went for a defensive stance. Let’s see…

Sakura leapt up, throwing a bunch of Explosive Tag-attached kunai at an interval towards him, forcing him to jump backwards from each one. Several pair of hands hugged him from behind—Naruto—and held him still as Sasuke appeared in front of him ready to strike a punch in his face.

Not good enough, he reached behind him.

When he reappeared behind Sakura, who was watching a few ways back from the scene in alert, the Uchiha’s punch collided instead with one of Naruto’s clones, causing them to stagger and disappear.

“Maa, did you really think I’d fall for the same trick twice?” drawled Kakashi after swiftly securing the kunai Sakura held to the back of her head. The girl froze, her head turning slowly to look at him in horror and-

She smirked.

Kakashi blinked as her body transformed into a log, along with- An explosive tag, sighed Kakashi, already steering his own body out of the way, landing out of the explosive range. These kids…really won’t give me a break with the tags, will they? he chuckled wryly. Despite saying that however, he was…content.

That feeling he had denied from the day he learned that they were as tight as gum stuck on a cloth; that feeling that was stubbornly, persistently worming its way into his heart throughout meeting them…he finally acknowledged. As he dodged blows against blows, deflecting the shuriken hurled by Sasuke, his body twirling out of Sakura’s reach when the bells were nearly within her grasp, he let it bud into something more.

Hope, as they say, is a fickle thing. It was often too good to be true, leaving behind a bitter aftertaste as the snake known as reality came to bite you back.

But as they somehow returned to the forest, traps upon traps activated around him like a pack of hungry predators, unknowingly directing him to a massive target area surrounded on every angle with weapons, Kakashi- welcomed it. He decided that…he was going to believe in this hope.

In this team.

His hands moved in a blur before slamming his palm into the ground:

Earth Release: Earth-style Wall!

Letting the chakra-enhanced wall take the most of the brunt, he bounded away from the center of the eye as smoke bombs were thrown in his feet, masking both him and his students’ attacks.

Now…to test one last thing.

 

000

 

“Oh? Is this the infamous Terrible Three?” the Jounin taunted from above, standing on a branch. His voice carried over an air of smugness and Sasuke loathed it. “Didn’t you say you want to be proper Shinobi?”

“Shut up!” cried out Naruto, his hair slick with sweat. He was on the ground, scratches littering across his skin, gasping for breath. Exhaustion was finally catching up to the idiot, having deployed a ridiculous amount of clones continuously in such a short period of time to attack their sensei, his chakra nearly depleted. “We will, dattebayo! Just you watch!

They had already tried everything in their arsenal—their kunai and shuriken all dispersed throughout the training ground, stuck on trees or in the scorched ground. Even their master plan wasn’t enough to put more than a few grazes on the Jounin. Sakura was coughing terribly somewhere to his right, having shielded him from a direct blow from Kakashi earlier, her arm part-covered in burns from desperately using a Fire Jutsu.

Sasuke sent a dirty look at their sensei, moving to wipe his mouth with his sleeves before wincing—his own lips were starting to bruise and char from his nonstop use of Fire Release techniques. Dammit. From the way it was looking so far…they wouldn’t be able to get any of the bells. Sakura almost did, but that sneaky Jounin propelled himself back in time before she could grab it. Cursing again, Sasuke cradled his injured arm, trying to come up with something- anything.

Panic started to overrun his mind as he glanced at the alarm that was set—they only had 15 minutes left. At this rate-

The voices whispered louder in his head, clawed at him, insisting that he listened-

Is this how different our power levels were? Is this how weak they were- he was against him?

How was he going to defeat That Man if- if he couldn’t even take a stupid bell from him? And this was after they all worked together—it felt like a slap in his face as he was reminded just how incapable he was as an individual but- but he had to. To be stronger. He needed to be Genin so he could move forward in the ranks. Even if that meant-

Gripping the kunai in his hand tightly, he screamed—Itachi’s words repeating over and over in his head (There is no value in killing the likes of you. Foolish little brother. Live in an unsightly way-) as he ran towards the Jounin, willing his trembling legs to carry him forward and jump. You have to do it, the voices whispered. You have to, you have to-

He didn’t hear as Sakura shouted, “Sasuke, wait-!” nor did he see as Naruto pushed himself off the ground, struggling despite himself to try and stop him. The only thing in his mind was the Jounin, eyes devoid of emotions (like his parents—his dead, dead parents-), an unreadable expression on his face. Red, red—his life was dyed in red since that day. No one was going to stop him, not even this man before him. All he felt was the unquenchable anger and fear of everything going wrong. Everything falling apart and-

I can’t let it happen. I will kill Itachi—no matter what it takes.

Thrusting his kunai blindly forward at the man, Sasuke staggered in place as it missed, his body refusing to cooperate with his will. A hand suddenly grabbed his wrist and without warning flung him away. As his back hit the ground with a loud thud, the last thing he thought before darkness claimed him was:

I’m sorry…

 

 

When he came to, sunlight struck down his face, forcing him to instinctively close his eyes shut. Pushing himself up with his arm (he momentarily forgot about his injured arm and winced—Ouch), Sasuke waited until the black spots in his eyes disappeared and he could actually see what was before him. When his brain started to feel less like it was being attacked by a million tiny senbons, the Uchiha blinked rapidly, rubbing at his eyes as his vision started to clear up. Wait…he narrowed his eyes. That’s-

“Yo,” waved Kakashi, standing a few feet away from him. Yelping, Sasuke shoved himself backwards, only to hit his back against a huge tree behind him. Dammit. He scowled at the man, saying: “What are you planning this time? Play with us some more and-”

He went still as realization hit him like a punch to the gut, dread crawling over his skin. Us. As the man started to answer, holding up his hands (No, no, I don’t have anything up my sleeves as you can see-), Sasuke’s mind raced—his eyes darting frantically around him as they searched for his teammates. Naruto, Sakura. Where-

“…They’re fine, Sasuke,” said the Jounin all of a sudden, his voice low as if privy to his thoughts. He snapped his head at the Jounin, muddled anger and confusion in his mind, questions demanding to be answered on the tip of his tongue. Where are they?!  he wanted to yell. But as he faced the Jounin, storm rolling over the horizon, the words quickly died before they could be freed, like cold water splashed onto his face.

Unconsciously shifting his weight to find a better defensive stance, a shiver ran through his bones as Kakashi eyed him carefully…studying him. Scowling, because that was all he could do right now, he bit out: “What?” and after a moment, “…Where are they?” because he was calmer now, his emotions no longer out if his control—if their sensei told him they were fine then…he would have to take his word for it. (For now.)

As if oblivious to his discomfort, Kakashi waved a hand flippantly, another resting on his hip as he said, “Maa, they’re safe out there—don’t worry about them. But that’s not what I want to talk about.” He started walking forward, closer to Sasuke and he instinctively reached into his pouch, glaring at the man with as much fervor as he could muster.

Seemingly comprehending his message loud and clear, the Jounin held his hand up again where he could see them, this time making sure to move slowly as though it would accentuate his placating gesture. “Alright, alright. I won’t set one more foot towards you,” he sighed, weary but compliant. Sasuke felt himself relax a notch at this, allowing the Jounin to drop his hands to his sides.

“I just want to give you this, Sasuke,” Kakashi said, holding out a closed palm. When he opened them, Sasuke stared. What the-

The bells, dusty but relatively unharmed sat comfortably on his palm, its golden sheen reflecting off the sun for the world to see. Disbelief coursed through him as he balked. “Is this your idea of a joke?” spat Sasuke, eyes narrowing at the Jounin dangerously. Genjutsu? But why? That makes no sense-

“If you think this is an illusion, or worse—a joke, then you’re wrong,” retorted the Jounin, not moving to take the bells away. Frustration flared within him. What was he trying to say then?

Humming, Kakashi played with the bells, letting it jingle in his hand. “I’ve been observing you three since the first time I met you,” he finally said, fingers rubbing against the bells, “and I can say for sure that you’re different from them.”

Different…?

Deep down, he knew what he meant, but still- he needed to know for sure. “Different…how?” muttered the Uchiha, eyes hesitantly meeting the Jounin’s. He…cared deeply for this teammates, he could admit that easier now, but there was always one thing setting him apart. Always. One thing that still made him feel isolated and alone at night sometimes. And although it pained him to still feel this way despite their efforts at making him feel less so, he couldn’t escape the harsh truth of his reality.

(Though he supposed, in a way…that was how he and Naruto could connect easily with each other. They both understood the pain of loneliness—But that was beside the point.)

“I know the look in those eyes,” the Jounin said, his eyes boring into his, leaking something he knew far too intimately. Something he saw in himself when he looked into the mirror, something he feared he would succumb to-

“And I might not know what exactly happened that night…but I do recognize that pain of losing someone. Someone…important.” Kakashi looked away then, facing away from him as his covered side met him instead. It wasn’t the first time he thought of it…but Sasuke couldn’t help but wonder what kind of tragedy could’ve caused him to cover his left eye. What kind of scar he hid underneath the shelter of his headband.

Sasuke wasn’t an idiot like Naruto however, who knew no tact whatsoever—so it would remain a mystery until Kakashi decided it wasn’t. That was fine by him. He knew better than to pry into someone’s past after all—far too well.

“I lost a lot of precious people in my life…did you see that Memorial Stone earlier?” Sasuke nodded slowly, still looking at the man, though with less venom this time. Kakashi continued relentlessly, a sobering look engraved on his face: “That’s the only thing left of them for me to see.”

They were silent, the birds chirping above them as the wind hustled, rustling the leaves on the trees. Sasuke was…

Is that why…he wanted to…? His mouth moved but stopped halfway, pressing itself into a grim line. It still made no sense. There were two bells…even if he gave one to him-

“That’s why,” the man said suddenly, as if hearing his thoughts, “I have an offer for you.”

Gulping inaudibly, Sasuke forced himself to push through his uneasiness at the Jounin’s words, meeting his eyes head on. “What…kind of offer do you have?”

If it meant passing the test-

Kakashi raised one finger lazily, declaring, “If you accept this bell, I’ll let you pass alone and transfer you to a different team. I know there are other students from last year with a skillset like yours.”

Dread filled his chest, spreading to the rest of his body as his breath hitched. Alone? Sasuke bit the inside of his cheek. But…but he got to pass the test. Still- “But I thought-” he said, desperation coloring his voice.

“Well you thought wrong, Uchiha-kun,” huffed the man, his eye twitching in annoyance at him. “Maa, I make the rules here, you got that?”

Sasuke…said nothing. So he could pass the test and advance but…with the cost of…

Clenching his fists tightly, he asked: “…and if I refuse?”

“Then none of you pass,” shrugged the Jounin. The gesture was so casual and indifferent that Sasuke felt anger spark beneath his skin, simmering hotly before he took a deep, deep breath. No. He couldn’t lose his cool now.

This was everything he wanted- and yet…it wasn’t. But he had to.

To be stronger, stronger than him, it was necessary for him to become Genin. Becoming Genin meant that he would finally be acknowledged as a proper shinobi and that meant- A step closer to killing him. A step closer to completing his life-long goal, the one he had set his eyes upon ever since his entire life was murdered in cold blood by That Man. Anger curled in his stomach and burned—it felt dark and gritty, but it burned and burned, images of That Night fueling it bigger and stronger.

He must.

Who would avenge the cries of his nephews and aunts but him? Who else would shoulder the blood shed by the mothers and children that night?

His mother. His father. Their parents’ blood. Who else but him?!

He was left alive for one reason and one reason only, and that was-

To kill him.

And Sasuke would stop at nothing to fulfill this. Not even-

 

Not even…

 

Memories upon memories encircled him before he could lose control, and Sasuke remembered:

Please. Let us help you,” a voice whispered to him; warm, gentle hands holding his cold one close, very close; grounding him. Another held his other hand tight, burning but so unlike his—it felt like the beginning of summer, warm but pleasant and…so very bright. “Yeah! We’ll help you take him down, teme!” the voice cried. And Sasuke-

Sasuke remembered nights spent reading that book—his favorite book, a precious gift, whenever the shadows were too dark, whenever the voices in his head were too loud; he would read it and- and everything went away. His eyes glued to the pages, words after words washing over him as he was transported to a completely different realm where he wasn’t an Uchiha, where he had no obligations, where-

Where he could just be…himself. And anything else he wanted to be.

And Sasuke remembered- dreams shared after sunset, after they finished training. Dreams that weren’t quite his, but he wanted to see it happen. He wanted to see it come to fruition. A world where no one had to suffer like them ever again. It felt like a lie—almost too good to be true, but- he wanted, no, yearned for it. If someday something like that could be reality…

He would want nothing more than to be there. With them.

Sasuke pictured Naruto’s blinding smile and Sakura’s gentle eyes; recalled the promise they made one fateful night, another night, a much better night he would never forget and- he knew.

He knew what his answer was.

“No,” he told their sensei quietly, his voice was as unyielding as a rock. Even if he had to wait for years before being Genin, even if he had to wait longer before enacting his revenge…as long as it’s with them, he thought. Kakashi raised an eyebrow at him, apparently not catching what he said: “Hm?”

No,” he repeated, this time with a sprinkle of annoyance, eyes glaring fiercely at their teacher, “I won’t accept it.”

Kakashi tilted his head back, seemingly contemplating his answer before asking, a gruff texture to his voice, “Why not? It’s not like they’re being dropped out-”

“I’d rather stay Genin forever than part with my teammates, tch,” he huffed, crossing his arms as a familiar warmth colored his cheeks, “I doubt anyone else would be able to catch up to me anyway, even if they tried.”

Waiting for the Jounin to respond, he did not expect a full blown laughter from him. Confusion and embarrassment filled him as he watched the man double over, the bell in his hands jingling with the motion. Wha-

Before he could question the sanity of the man, Kakashi looked right at him in the eye and said happily: “You passed~”

An eye-smile, and he could only cry out a quick “What-” before the whole thing evaporated into thin air. Sasuke scowled as everything clicked into place. Genjutsu, he scoffed as the trees and clouds started to disappear, I was right.

 

 

When he opened his eyes for the second time that day, his hands immediately went to form the correct hand seal as he focused on disrupting his chakra.

Release!

But nothing had changed, and as Sakura’s pink head popped into view, an apologetic smile on her face, Sasuke finally accepted that it was actually reality now. He let his head fall back down with a thump, sighing miserably.

What a day.

“Sorry, Sasuke,” Sakura smiled, her hair framing her face as she looked down at him sheepishly. “I was about to release you, but Kakashi-sensei told me not to…”

Speaking of that crazy Jounin…

After a few seconds, Kakashi appeared within his view as well, albeit a bit further away from Sakura as he was standing up. He had the nerve to give him an eye-smile when he said, “Well, that was quite a delicate Genjutsu I had to prepare, but it’s all worth it now—don’t you think so, Sasuke?”

The only response he deigned to give him was a scowl and a quick throw of a spare shuriken nearby. And as Sakura started apologizing profusely at their sensei, chiding him for behaving so childishly, Sasuke still stood by his belief that he deserved it.

He later found out that Naruto still hadn’t managed to release himself from the Genjutsu—how typical of him. Tch. Guess they still needed to work more on breaking against Genjutsu, especially something like this.

“What kind of illusion are you showing him anyway?” Sakura asked, curiosity shown openly on her face as she moved to disrupt the idiot’s chakra pathways.

“Ah…something he’d like, I’m sure,” dismissed Kakashi, already moving to pick up the nearest weapons. Then that meant…he was the only one the test was really aimed for. Sasuke clicked his tongue, walking over to seemingly help their teacher.

When they were somehow separated from the rest (Naruto was complaining to Sakura that she just ruined his Ramen-filled dream and Sakura, the one with actual common sense, smacked his head for being an ungrateful brat. Goodness, that moron), Kakashi said to him, his voice as casual as one would talk of the weather, “I do hope you understand why I did it, Sasuke.”

There were several ways he could respond to this, but he- settled with a simple, “Hn.” If this happened to piss the Jounin off, then all the better. As they continued their not-so-comfortable silence, questions whirled in his mind—which part were lies? Where they all lies? Were you really-?

But in the end, he opted for the easiest one. “Was it true? About passing me if I agreed,” he clarified as he pulled another kunai off of the ground. Man, they threw a lot of these at the ground. After a while, he thought the Jounin wouldn’t answer him, but then he chuckled, a bit of hysteria in the strain of his voice: “Ah…I was very convincing, wasn’t I? But no, that was a ruse—unless the Hokage specifically ordered it, no teams would be changed.

“But then again…” mused Kakashi, glancing at him from the corner of his eye, “I’m sure you’re quite happy with that, aren’t you, Sasuke?”

Sasuke didn’t bother gracing that with an answer, continuing to gather the discarded weapons on a different side of the clearing. He had said enough in that Genjutsu—no need to shatter his image even more.

When they were done with cleaning, Kakashi cheerfully congratulated them on passing his test (You’re the first one I passed!) and declared that they would start their first mission as a team effectively tomorrow.

“Oh, and we’ll be taking a team photo tomorrow~” he added, his eyes curved in a smile, “so try to look your best for the picture, alright you three?”

 

 

The time to take a photo came, and things almost descended into chaos as they fought over who got to stand where.

“Sakura-chan should be in the middle!”

“No, I insist Sasuke be the focus point!”

“Tch. Just get the dobe in the middle or something. You know I don't like being in the center.”

Kakashi looked extremely tired by the time they reached their fourth argument, finally putting matters into his own hands as he gently shuffled Sakura in front of him and dragged the two boys to his side—making sure they stayed there with a firm pat on their heads.

“Alright, you four. Whenever you’re ready—three, two, one!”

Although Sakura pouted sulkily at the camera first, the moment the photographer started counting, a huge grin broke out of her face and her arms slipped between theirs, bringing them close. Naruto also beamed, giving a big thumbs-up pose at the camera that was so…him. And Sasuke…smiled; it was small and maybe a bit wry, but it was…genuine. And that was all that mattered. Kakashi’s eye-smile was probably the brightest he had ever seen it too.

The framed picture—which was later printed for each of them to have, was placed next to his prized book. It was yet another priceless trinket Sasuke would forever cherish.

 

 

Chapter Text


 

Trust

 


 

A few weeks had passed since they started going on missions, and Kakashi could already tell that his Genin were getting…restless. While D-rank missions weren’t outstanding or necessarily useful in honing a ninja’s overall skills, they were a necessity for freshly minted Genin like his. To their ever-growing discontent.

The fact that they haven’t complained at all was a blessing, Kakashi decided, and he could see from the way Sasuke’s shoulder straightened when their client thanked them for pulling out all the weeds in their garden; from Naruto excitedly pumping out his fist in the air after they finished collecting the rubbish piling up in the river—that the Harunos probably had helped calm them down in some way.

After all, they had personally visited his apartment the night before their first mission, bowing respectfully in front of his door as they asked him to take care of not only their daughter, but also the two orphaned boys.

“We’ve tried to be as much as a parental figure to them as we can,” Mebuki said after politely rejecting his delayed offer to come in, “but I believe that you can be someone more to them. Someone they can…truly depend on.”

Flustered at this sudden show of reverence from the two older Shinobi, Kakashi struggled to find words as his chest constricted, something else sprouting within him. It was warm and strangely pleasant, snuggling in the nook of the mess he identified as emotions.

His father was no longer around by the time he was assigned to his old team—but he supposed…this was what a parent would do before passing on their role to someone else. Someone they trusted. He was…truly honored to be at the receiving end of this gesture.

Making sure to remember the manners that had been drilled into him as a child, he responded with his own bow; his head reaching down to his torso, silver hair falling down his face as he declared: “I’ll do my best to not disappoint you…Mebuki-san, Kizashi-san.”

“You better not!” laughed Kizashi airily, but there was something heavy behind his words and eyes and Kakashi could tell that he meant it. They were the teachers to his Genin before him and had definitely taught them things that he would never be able to replace. Trust was something build with time and patience, he knew.

So if he wasn’t as late as he planned to be the next day to officially receive their first mission as Team 7, he simply ignored the pleased looks his team was giving him and handed Sakura an exclusive book he had received from his sensei years ago. The Subtle Art of Teamwork, authored by an unknown shinobi. 

That was the least he could do.

 

000

 

It wasn’t a part of their ‘itinerary’, but they had stumbled upon Team 8 after another round of manual labor one day.

Kurenai—an old college of his and who was now the sensei of the team, had suggested “Why don’t we all take a break and have Dango together?” with what many had dubbed the ‘big sister’ smile, brooking off no arguments. Before he could even consider her words, his Genin had immediately taken up on the offer, running excitedly to her side.

Interestingly enough, Naruto and Kiba had immediately butted heads upon meeting, each trying to one-up the other as they raced to the stall, ordering a plate of Dango at the exact same time. Sakura had greeted the Hyuuga with a kind smile, asking the rather timid girl about her mission and how she was faring with her team, while Sasuke stood idly by before finally deciding to sit next to the Aburame. He then closed his eyes, seemingly content in simply listening to the conversation between the two girls.

Huh, Kakashi mused. It'll be good for them to interact with their peers, hm?

If his memories served him right (and it usually did), Inuzuka Kiba had been good friends with Naruto ever since their early Academy years; taking part in several of the blonde’s schemes and getting in all sorts of trouble. They saw each other as some sort of rival, he speculated—if the way they try to subtly top the numbers of sticks they’ve eaten were anything to go by.

(He was silently glad the kunoichi volunteered on paying for all of them today, otherwise he would need to spend even more money than usual. His student’s insistent patronage to Ichiraku Ramen every few days was already more than he would usually expend as a lone Jounin.

Maa, he thought wryly, I finally understand how Minato-sensei feels.)

It wasn’t long before Kiba lamented to Naruto about how boring their missions had been, sitting across from him in a slouch, his skewer dangling from his lax hand. “It’s been weeks, dammit! I thought we’d be doing more exciting stuff than catching cats and cleaning houses, tsk,” huffed the Inuzuka, the puppy in his lap yapping in agreement. Naruto mulled this over, biting on a half-eaten skewer.

“I mean…being shinobi isn’t all about doing cool jutsu and stuff, y’know?” he grinned, hands clasped lazily behind his head. Three empty skewer were scattered on the table in front of him, his tea untouched. “Aunt Mebuki said ‘Shinobi is one who endures’—even if that meant doing dull civilian jobs, dattebayo!”

The Inuzuka stared at the blond like he was a complete stranger, head tilted sideways not unlike a confused pup. Then he grinned back, all sharp and glinting: “Whatever happened to that loud bratty kid who said he’d be the ‘bestest’ Hokage, eh?” He nudged Naruto with his elbow, licking on his own syrup-coated fingers as he reached for another skewer.

Shrugging, the blonde nibbled on the empty skewer between his teeth, the round sweets now sitting comfortably inside his stomach and mumbled: “Well…I still do, I guess? But…I dunno, Kiba. I don’t need to be one to protect my friends, y’know?”

The Inuzuka leaned far back on his chair as he took this in, nearly toppling off his seat had Akamaru not caught him by his jacket in time. He growled, ignoring Naruto’s snickers as he continued: “But shouldn’t you—shut up—be like, the strongest ninja to do that?”

And the Hokage was obviously the strongest Shinobi in Konohagakure—everyone knew.

But Naruto was silent—his usual sunny smiles nowhere to be seen as he devoured another skewer of dumplings, lips slanted down in a frown. Then he shrugged again, turning back to Kiba with a bright, feral grin: “Then I’ll just have to be stronger than the Hokage, dattebayo!”

Kakashi, who was listening to the conversation quietly on a table beside them, continued to look at his opened Icha Icha book, taking no notice of the stunned glances Kurenai gave him. Distantly, he heard Kiba laughing, telling the blond “that’s not how it works, you dumbass!”, with the Uzumaki replying just as loud “I’ll make it work, dattebayo! Just you watch!”.

Closing his eyes, he was brought back to when he asked his Genin what their goals were a few days ago. After all, as Shinobi it was important to have something pushing them forward; to have something to work towards.

They already have a goal in mind, and I suspect that is the driving force behind their rigorous training, the Hokage had told him once. And as he supervised their usual training session in the Harunos’ stead, improving offensive stances and showing new maneuvers—he could finally see for himself what the Sandaime had meant. Almost brutal, blood every so often spilled with no one holding back their abilities…he could see now that the nickname they’ve been dubbed with was well-deserved.

(To see them in action against him was one thing, but to see them against each other was…truly something else.)

Trust was something build with time, Kakashi reminded himself as they looked up at him hesitantly, sharing a glance at each other from the huddle they had formed. Eventually, one of them found the courage to speak up:

“What about you, sensei?” asked Naruto, eyes blinking owlishly; so much like his mother. The subtle tilt of his head echoing Kushina when she served him dinner, Minato-sensei managing to successfully blackmail him into stopping by their house one night. And he remembered gentle smiles and a kiss to his head-

“Ah…me?” he said instead, an eye-smile directed at the blonde.

He recalled his own days in ANBU, days spent in a blur of blood and bodies. Red, red, red were his blood, his enemies’ blood, whoever’s blood stained his fingers and nails—the scent of his enemies (and Rin. Always Rin-) on his skin; the tang of iron and copper latching onto him like a leech, tangling with his own as he scrubbed them off, off, off-

(They never left. Not really.)

Those dark days where grief seemed to suffocate him, smothering him every moment he walked in and out of his room- where the night whispered in his ears, inviting him to fall into its embrace and stay- when darkness loomed over his eyes…no. Just his. Obito’s eye was untainted—it looked on, Obito watched on, a reminder of his failures and the promise he made-

I won’t allow my comrades to die. Not again. Never again-

He repeated the words like a prayer, hushed voices echoing throughout the shadow of the night, the weight of his regrets stifling his breath as tears dripped down his damp cheeks, soaking into his mask. Minato-sensei. Kushina-nee-san. Rin. Obito-

He choked.

…Father.

Their names revolved around him, always—even as he could feel the pain ebbing away as the years passed by; friends on his side as his heart started to actually heal-

He could never change what the past entailed. It shaped him into who he was today and would forever leave a dent in his life no matter where he went or what he did—following him, reminding him over and over again.

But he also knew that, what he chose to be afterwards…entirely depends on him.

Kakashi blinked and they were gone. In their place were the three Genin he was entrusted with, the three children now thrown under his care and he-

“My goal, hm…?” he hummed, closing his eyes.

Trust takes time, he knew. And as he recalled Kushina and Minato’s faces bursting with delight and uncontained joy as they informed him of their unborn child; Itachi before the Massacre, quietly telling him about the brother he cherished more than anything else in his life; the Haruno knocking on his doorstep at night and bowing before him as they entrusted him with their precious charges—he also knew that to gain that trust, he needed to offer something in return.

Dark eyes opened, and they were soft—maybe a bit affectionate as he gazed down on the three of them. Wrinkles formed around his eyes when he finally said:

Maa, my goal is to make sure you three grow up into fine and respectable Shinobi—I have a feeling you’ll be a lot of trouble the older you get, hm~”

Naruto squawked in indignation, shouting: “I won’t end up into a perverted old man like you, that’s for sure-ttebayo!” while Sasuke huffed loudly, crossing his arm as he turned his face away from him. Sakura looked surprised a second longer before she beamed at him, eyes shining as she giggled and Kakashi-

He laughed, long and heavy—the burden in his chest lifting up with each breath he took.

 

Later, he would listen as Sakura whispered their dreams and wishes in hushed tones, her arms tucked beneath her chin. To protect our precious people, she said, green eyes burning with determination and an unbreakable promise. That’s why I need to know more, sensei—and be stronger too!

He listened as Sasuke bit out his goals, his tone clipped and raw. I will avenge my clan, he breathed out, and destroy That Man. Kakashi waited with bated breath as the boy gulped, dark eyes flitting between his teammates. Relief washed over him like rain in spring when the Uchiha added quietly, firmly: And…help us achieve our goal.

When Naruto told him his, guilt crushed him like a boulder, forcing him to slump under its weight. I don’t want anyone else to suffer like me or Sasuke…the blonde spoke softly, clutching at his abdomen before he declared much fiercer, loud enough for others to hear, blue eyes gleaming: And we won’t allow a repeat of our Clans, dattebayo!

It was a bold declaration—almost too naïve; but Kakashi thought of his own generation, crusted with war and too many losses, unnecessary deaths scattering throughout the land as battles raged on; children forced to pay for a mistake they never made, a mistake the irresponsible adults before their time failed to prevent.

Two of his students were forced to live as products of this injustice, and he shamefully admitted that he had done nothing in the face of it—that he didn’t try. But now that he was forced to confront what he had spent too long denying in the form of these three…Kakashi knew what to do.

Many would doubt and question their ideals, he was certain of it—no, he could count on it. But as the three of them held each other’s hands, gazing at him with fire behind their eyes, as if daring him to deny them…he decided to do what Minato had done years ago.

To trust in his students.

Sometimes…that was all one needed.

 


 

Ninken

 


Training was the norm for ninjas. Even before meeting him, they had tirelessly trained every day, with or without supervision. That was why Kakashi decided it was a good time as any to call for his…friends.

“We hate you, sensei,” panted Sakura, knees on the ground as she coughed, pink hair a tangled mess around her head. Sasuke had planted face-first on the ground the moment Kakashi signaled for his ninken pack to return, hands twitching as he clawed at the ground—most possibly in anger. Or pain. Maybe both?

Kakashi shrugged. Either way, it sucked to be him.

Naruto was leaning again a tree, coughing just as hard as Sakura though he still managed to stand on his own two feet. Whether it was due to his massive durability or through sheer will, Kakashi didn’t know.

“You’re—” gasped the boy, eyes closed, “—the worst, Kakashi-sensei.”

Humming to himself, Kakashi chuckled as he walked towards his worn out students; hands in his pockets, posture slow and lazy. “Maa, maa—that was to test your diversionary skills as a ninja. You three should be thanking me,” he chirped with too much joy, eyes curving playfully.

Leaning his body to the right to dodge out of the way of a flying shuriken (Ooft), he could see Sasuke glowering from his spot on the ground. “Like hell I am,” he jeered, moving to push himself up with his hands. Clicking his tongue, Kakashi chided the boy, mock-hurt in his voice as he said: “Now, Sasuke…you wouldn’t want to break your poor teacher’s heart now, would you?”

Scoffing, the boy opted to not reply, instead accepting Sakura’s hand as he hoisted himself up to his feet. Kakashi smirked beneath his mask.

After deeming they were sufficiently educated on the arts of basic Taijutsu and chakra control, he had summoned his pack of ninken to…assist in their training even further. He could only teach them so much at this early stage after all.

They found out about Sakura’s proficiency at chakra control, and everyone was pleasantly surprised. Except him. As a descendant of the Haruno Clan, capable to repelling even the strongest Genjutsu due to their innately acute awareness of their own Chakra pathways, it was no surprise Sakura herself had inherited this ability—and by extension, use it to deduce the correct amount of chakra she needed to walk on the surface of water. This wasn’t common knowledge however, thanks to the rather unassuming front the Clan had.

While they weren’t as quick at grasping control over their chakra, the two other boys hadn’t been disheartened, training tirelessly at every chance they had, intent on catching up to the Haruno.

“That’s the spirit, you two,” he chuckled, watching as they kept falling after reaching a certain height on the tree, slashing at the wood with their kunai the further they went.

His students would need to build up more experience and stamina before he could introduce Chakra nature or shape transformations—though with the rate they were going, he expected it to happen sooner than later.

A ninja must always be two steps ahead of the enemy, as the rules had dictated. And it was true.

Even with an extensive offensive and defensive skills at their disposal, if they couldn’t so something simple like concealing traces of themselves from an enemy ninja, their career as a Shinobi was as good as dead.

That was where his ninken came in.

The first time he summoned his pack, it was a fairly sunny day, wind blowing on his face as the birds above sang, no clouds in sight. They were just finishing another D-ranked mission when he waved his students over, gesturing for them to stand to attention next to him.

“What is it, sensei?” asked Sakura, hands clasped behind her; posture not entirely straight nor slouched, resting but still ready to leap into action if need be. Ah, like they had trained. Attentive to her very core indeed.

“More training!” bellowed Naruto, fists pumped in the air as he jumped, ignoring all the rules that commanded ninjas to always be discreet. Ah, he thought, half-lidded eyes watching the hyperactive boy, it’s so NarutoI’m hardly ever surprised anymore.

It hurt a bit, he supposed, like an old would being probed; a bit of his mother showing through whenever he smiled, whenever that verbal tick of his resurfaced (and it happened a lot)—but Kakashi reminded himself that…Naruto wasn’t Kushina. Nor was he Minato. He was…their legacy, and yet, also his own person with his own ambitions.

As memories washed over him, flowing past him in a single current, Kakashi reminded himself that he could do better now. He would atone to the years he missed out on Naruto’s life by being here, now. Always. To help him realize his dreams, his goals. If that would also make his two parental figures rest easier in the afterlife…

Then that would…be enough for him, he decided. And he hoped it would be enough for Naruto as well.

(Privately, he wondered when Naruto would find out about his parents’ real identity and- whether…he would ever forgive him. He resolved to push the thought away for now—one day. The Sandaime had been adamantly clear about it.)

Next to the blonde, the Uchiha’s arms were crossed in a very Sasuke-esque manner, watching him from the corner of his dark eyes. He was…surprisingly different from his brother. Despite them both being analytical, Sasuke’s more prone to yielding to his emotions and lose his cool than Itachi ever was in ANBU. While many would see this as a weakness, Kakashi was…grateful. Sasuke wasn’t a carbon copy of Itachi, not a genius prodigy far too smart for his own good. It was, he supposed, strangely comforting.

I think we’ve had enough of that up till now, he thought wryly, self-deprecation in the edge of his mind.

Kakashi smiled at them, “Maa, just watch, alright?”

Nicking his thumb with the sharp edge of his kunai in one swift motion, blood trickled out as he weaved hand seal to hand seal. A gasp behind him, and he knew at least one of his students knew what was happening. Slamming his bloodied palm to the ground, chakra in his hands, he called his pack to mind-

Summoning Jutsu!

A puff of smoke later and eight dogs of various sizes and builds appeared in a tight formation, the leader of their pack on top of their largest member. It was the smallest of the bunch, with brown chubby limbs and a dark snout, the Konoha hitai-ate tied snuggly around its head. Behind him, he could practically feel Naruto quavering with excitement, bouncing up and down as he let out a squeal that was quickly silenced by who he knew by now was Sakura.

“What do you need, Kakashi?” the dog asked, its voice gruff and worn with age.

That did it.

Sighing as the boy behind him yelled out loud (It talks, Kakashi-sensei?! That’s so COOL!), Kakashi waved a lazy hand at the small dog, apology in the slump of his shoulders.

“Pakkun,” he called out in a greeting, eyes curving innocently, “I want you all to meet my very cute students.”

After quickly introducing them to each other, constantly interrupted by Naruto’s excited jitter as he greeted each of his dog, he had quickly explained what his plan was to them (mostly to Pakkun), telling them that this training regimen would hopefully occur every few days. So you’ll have time to recover, he had said to his students cheerfully. Alarm quickly rose on their faces before it dissipated, like always, determination showing through.

That’s my team, he thought affectionately. Though…he had a feeling they would curse his name to the heavens for this afterwards. (And he was right. Ha.)

“Maa, you three asked for more training,” he chuckled, “so this is what you get. I hope none of you have any complaints, hm?”

Almost simultaneously, they all shook their heads, their faces earnest. Good.

Kakashi raised his hand—the moment he struck it down they would start immediately. “Ten minutes to hide…that’s fair, hm?” he drawled.

Sasuke raised an eyebrow, his mouth slanting downwards. “Won’t they find us either way? Dogs have an enhanced sense of smell, don’t they?” To his right, Sakura gave a curt dip of her head, brows furrowed as Naruto gasped, snapping his head to look at him, a confused noise in the back of his throat.

“Maa,” he blinked slowly, eyes moving across his three Genin, watching them, “take this as a way to…ah, show your abilities to them.” Hearing this, the Uchiha smirked.

Seemingly satisfied with this reply, they all readied themselves, feet apart as they waited for his signal.

His hand swept down, and they fled.

“So they were the students you spoke of last time, huh?” Pakkun said, walking towards him. The dog proceeded to hop on his shoulder, huffing, “Are you sure about this? They’re not exactly you, Kakashi.”

Scratching the underside of the dog’s chin, he hummed, “I’m positive they can take it. You noticed their smell, didn’t you?”

The ninken was silent as he tilted his head, allowing Kakashi to reach his favorite spot. “Well,” Pakkun grunted, “I did smell the slightest waft of Killing Intent from them, if that’s what you mean. Still, it’s not uncommon for Shinobi children to exude bloodthirst at this age.”

Behind him, he could hear his pack starting to approach him as he continued to scratch the dog on his shoulder. “You certainly did,” said the pug gruffly, before jumping off his perch with practiced ease. Kakashi blinked.

“If you say they can take it,” Pakkun said after, moving to sit in front of him, his chin held up in pride, “then we’re ready to go anytime.”

Gazing down at the pug with warm eyes, he spoke, his words sincere: “Ah…I knew I could count on you guys.”

With his pack circling around him, Kakashi then instructed them on what they would do and shared each of his student’s quirks and abilities, making sure to create a training as grueling as possible but still manageable for his Genin to pull off.

“We’ll be focusing on how to avoid the enemy-nin’s pursuit,” he drawled, holding two fingers up, “and to get the enemies off their tail for as long as possible. Sounds good?”

Uhei, the bandaged-red greyhound, giggled, “Yeah, we can totally do that, boss!”

Before his students left, he had told them that they had the whole Konoha as their terrain, widening the scope of their hiding spots and giving the smallest handicap for his ninken.

“So this is basically a glorified version of Hide-and-Seek, huh?” smirked Shiba, his light-grey canine sporting a Mohawk, tongue licking over his fangs.

A deep chuckle reverberated throughout Kakashi’s chest, mirth in his eyes as they looked in the dog’s direction. “Maa, you can say that,” he said brightly. Ten minutes were up before they knew it, and their first joint-training officially started.

 

000

 

To his surprise, his students lasted a bit longer than he had expected.

“12 minutes…not bad,” he droned out, closing his Icha Icha book as he watched Buru march towards him with Sasuke and Sakura by his side, their pace slow. Naruto was dangling from his mouth like a literal pup, donning a nasty scowl on his face. He tried to squirm out of the firm hold the huge bulldog had him in (Lemme go! Dammit!), hands flailing uselessly on his side. The other two, though not as verbal, didn’t look pleased either, glaring off to the side.

Pakkun appeared before him in a flash, the rest following suit in a circle. “That Naruto-kid gave us the most trouble with his clones…” said the pug, “but otherwise, we decreased our speed per your instructions.” He nodded at the three Genin, “They still need to work on their diverting tactics. That’s for sure.”

Shaking his head in disappointment as he walked towards them, he lightly knocked on the two quiet members’ head, forcing them to look up at him from their visible sulk.

“You two in particular,” he sighed loudly, earning a dirty look from Sasuke, “just because Naruto’s excellent with using his Shadow Clones, doesn’t mean you two get to slack off.”

The Uchiha crossed his arms at this, quietly mouthing: “Well, it’s not like we have a gigantic chakra reserves from a fox demon like that idiot…”

Unfortunately, he wasn’t as quiet as he might have thought, because Naruto pulled himself out of the dog’s grip angrily, his body trembling with every step he took. His whiskers seemingly flared with his fury as he hollered, “OI, TEME! Whad’ya mean by that, dattebayo?!”

Instead of backing down, Sasuke squared his jaw and moved to confront the blonde, fingers jabbing accusingly. “I’m right though, aren’t I?!” he yelled back, dark eyes flashing dangerously. “You-”

Before he could utter any more words they would all regret, Sakura swooped in between them, clamping Sasuke’s mouth shut as her other hand stopped Naruto’s advances, palm flat on his chest, pushing hard against him. “Enough, you two,” she snapped, green eyes burning with threat and her billowing wrath as they glared at them both, daring them to continue, “we’re not doing this right now.”

The tension was thick in the air and Kakashi- watched. This was his first time witnessing the Terrible Three get into a serious argument and he doubted it would be his last; and moments like this was when he realized…just how much of an outsider he really was, standing on the sidelines as they worked their issues out themselves. Though his students might have accepted him as their teacher and leader, it would take…much more to fully integrate himself into them.

But as his legs finally moved on their own accord towards his students, hands clapping to direct their attention from each other, he noted that…he was getting there.

My goal is to make sure you three grow up into fine and respectable Shinobi, he had told them once—and he meant it.

With time, this feeling would ebb away; and as Sakura’s eyes lit up at him with gratitude, Naruto and Sasuke finally looking away as a subtle red colored their ears and cheeks, he knew. He knew it would.

 

000

 

Sakura was Pakkun’s favorite.

The pug never said it out loud—oh no, no. Kakashi had taught better manners to his ninken than to verbally say which human they preferred. (Like how he would never tell anyone that he cherished Gai the most out of the other Shinobi in Konoha. Or that Tenzou held a special place in his heart as an irreplaceable subordinate.)

That didn’t mean they wouldn’t show it through their actions, however.

When the pug offhandedly mentioned to her after another training session, “Huh, the smell of your hair is the same as the shampoo Kakashi use to bathe us with,” Kakashi blinked in astonishment, comprehension clicking into place before he laughed.

Ah, how lucky he was to have such cute students and even cuter dogs. Even if the former might be a thorn in his side at times.

Sakura gaped at the ninken, unable to find words to respond to the unexpected comment as she sputtered, “Um…w-what?”

Undeterred by her show of puzzlement, Pakkun moved to make himself comfortable as he sat beside the girl, his head resting on his paws. “You use the one called ‘Floral Green’, don’t you?” he asked instead, ears relaxed, eyes blinking slowly at her.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise to Kakashi, this show of camaraderie—but it was. While his pack was quite cooperative; easily integrating themselves into whatever mission or situation he summoned them too, to anyone he asked them to work with; openly extending friendship to another human was…something they reserved only to him.

Ah…he thought, eyes softening, it was only a matter of time, hm?

A smile tugged at the end of his mouth as he watched them. Silently, he hoped Sakura would see it for what it is and accept his generous offer of companionship.

All of his worries were proven to be pointless however as the girl gasped softly, angling her body towards the lying pug. “Y-yeah! That’s the one!” she smiled, crooked and unsure, but her eyes were bright as she continued to talk about the variation of the brand; their conversation growing easier and Kakashi- left them be.

Instead, he moved on to observe his other students, half-lidded eyes lazily scanning across the pile of dogs around him. Sasuke was off conversing with Guruko and Urushi a few feet to his left about his performance earlier and what he needed to improve, leaning against the larger dog’s abdomen as he absently petted Guruko’s back, stroking his fur back and forth.

It strangely reminded him of how one would pet a cat…then he remembered the Uchiha’s fondness towards the feline family and blinked. Ah.

Without even needing to even see, he could hear Naruto holding an impromptu shouting match with Uhei, their voices ricocheting off the plains and grasses—the red greyhound yelling at the blonde for being unnecessarily reckless in the field before, while Naruto snapped at him to mind his own business, lips jutting out in a pout as his cheeks flushed. Akino slept away beside them, not letting the loud spectacle interrupt his slumber as Buru sat by his side, watching the two quarrel.

Kakashi continued to read through his book as he stroked Bisuke who was snoozing beside him, the warm weight of his dogs around him familiar and comforting. Warm air whooshed past them, the earth singing as the leaves above him rustled and fell, carried off by the breeze. His ninken still had some time left before they had to return to their Summoning realm after all, and they had no further plans for the day…so there was honestly no need to rush.

Closing his eyes, he let out slow breath, warmth in his chest. It really was only a matter of time.

Even his huge bulldog seemed to have a soft spot for the obnoxious blonde—letting him rest on his back when he did something too careless one day and ended up injuring himself far more than usual to walk back on his own, a pained grin on his face. “He gets too cocky just because he has more stamina and endurance,” Uhei had huffed, tail swiping viciously in disgruntlement.

As Kakashi literally lifted the burden off of Buru’s back, holding Naruto by the scruff of his top, he sighed.

“Maa, he’s right though, Naruto,” he admonished, Naruto yelping in shock as he was unceremoniously dropped to the ground, “if you don’t stop trying to do things by yourself, you might seriously get hurt out there.”

Emphasizing on ‘out there’, because in reality…this was all just practice and training. In reality, no one would purposely wait for you to reach a certain distance before hunting you down; no one would stop you when things get far too dire and life-threatening.

He who strikes first decides the outcome.

That was how it was. In the real world, everything was within the realm of possibility.

It was unfair, but that was- simply how the Shinobi world worked. Kakashi understood this, and still he despised it; but there was nothing he alone could do about it. Just like how he was powerless in stopping his precious people from departing from his life, no matter how strong he thought he was. No matter how much he trained with the eye he was left with.

But maybe someday…

Firmly grasping the young boy’s shoulder, he prompted Naruto to look up at him as he urged, “Didn’t you say you want to stop the pain and suffering from spreading?”

Naruto perked up at this, a familiar fire sparking behind blue eyes as he nodded at him, jaws pressed together.

“Then you need to remember,” Kakashi intoned, his voice grim, “that you don’t need to shoulder your burdens alone, Naruto.”

As if on cue, a smack echoed throughout the training ground, Naruto whining pitifully as he tried—and failed to reach his aching backside. “That’s what you get for not consulting in me before doing something stupid,” Sakura appeared from behind him, a hand on her hip as she pointed an angry finger at the blonde.

Her tone was harsh, but there was something crestfallen in the curve of her brows, her eyes dimming as she watched the blonde splutter: “I-I, uh, that’s not- That’s not what I meant to do, dattebayo! Really!”

Not a moment longer, Sasuke showed up, scoffing as he sauntered next to the blonde. “Don’t even try to defend yourself, dobe,” he said as his eyes narrowed. “We were there.”

Before the blonde could conjure up any more excuses, Pakkun had walked up to all of them, stopping in the middle of their tight little huddle. “Listen here, you three,” said the pug, immediately garnering all of their attention with the unusually heavy timbre in his voice.

A few days ago, Pakkun had approached him after their previous training, telling him what had been told to him by Buru.

“That boy talks to Buru a lot,” he had said, sighing as he continued, “and I think he sees him as a safe place to share his troubles with.” Kakashi stopped polishing his kunai, eyes glazing over to the pug as he bit out, “…Oh? Even more than the other two?”

That fact alone raised a big red flag in his mind. They trusted no one else more than each other—to spill his woes to someone else was…

“The kid said that it wasn’t that important,” quoted Pakkun, eyes closing as he rested his head on his paws, “and that he was going to ‘deal with it’ himself.”

Deal with it…he thought, mind racing as he mulled over the words Naruto used. There was a high chance he was just overthinking it, but then again, that was how he got out of many sticky situations and avoid them. His hunches were usually on point.

It…his eyes had widened, suspicion creeping in the back of his mind. Could it be…?

Back in the present, Kakashi could see the array of different emotions passing over each of his students—Sakura blinking as curiosity bloomed on her face, Sasuke lowering his chin, and Naruto staring at the pug with unease.

“Naruto…felt that he has to do more because of the Kyuubi sealed inside him—” proposed the ninken, eyes gazing languidly at the three before he focused in on the now-frozen blonde, “—Isn’t that right, Naruto?”

Said boy flinched as his teammates zeroed in on him, the two of them sharing a quick alarmed look before Sakura reached out, her hand resting gently on Naruto’s shoulder.

“Naruto…” she coaxed, her voice soft, “…is it true?”

Eyes glued to the ground, the Uzumaki bit his lip in frustration, refusing to meet his teammates’ gazes before he exploded. “But I’m right, dattebayo!” he cried out, eyes frantically darting between his friends, hand clutching at his chest, eyes blown wide open. “You and Sasuke can’t do what I can…so the least I can do is-”

You fucking idiot!”

BAM!

“Sasuke-!”

Naruto’s answer was abruptly cut short as he fell to the ground with a thud, hand reaching up to cup his bruised cheek. His eyes were blown wide as he stared up at his friends, at Sasuke, bewilderment and indignation muddled up in his face as he struggled to choose between which.

In front of him, Sasuke sneered, his fists clenched forcefully at his side, face red and fuming.

“What the fuck, Naruto?!” he snarled, his voice rising with his anger, louder and louder- “You were the one who kept telling me we were getting stronger together. And yet-” Arms jerking, reaching out for words and failing, he moved to take a step forward to the Uzumaki, fury in his steps- but then Sakura stopped him, a hand gripping his right elbow firmly.

Kakashi watched as Sakura walked towards the stunned blonde, her face impassive as she knelt in front of him.

“Sakura-chan—” tried Naruto, his voice small and vulnerable, wide blue eyes following the hand that pried his own away from his cheek. The hand stroked the reddening spot, quieting him; Sakura not meeting his eyes as she tilted his head to the side, inspecting the forming bruise.

“You know…” she said quietly—too quietly, taking out a lotion from her pouch and applying it on his face with extreme care. Confusion flitted over the blonde’s face, apprehension as his teammate continued to probe at his cheek gently before covering the area with a bandage.

But then she looked him dead in the eyes, steel in her voice as she grounded out, “I would’ve punched you myself if Sasuke hadn’t.”

Gulping loudly, the blonde looked down again, hands curling around the earth and grass beneath him. His ninken were surrounding them by now, almost forming a protective circle around them. Light waned as the sun started to set, birds rushing to return to their nests. Cherry blossom petals floated around them, falling onto the earth where it would wither and return to the cycle of life.

Kakashi watched as Sasuke look away from them, seemingly regulating his breath as anger seeped out of his body with every breath he released. He watched as Urushi silently stood near the boy, offering his own support, letting Sasuke rest a hand on his head. Watching, because he couldn’t intervene—not yet. They needed to know this, if they truly intend to go forward together. For Naruto to learn himself the consequences of withholding important information from his team—this was important.

His chest felt heavy as he stood there, hands in his pocket, eye shadowed. More. He wanted to do more but there was just- nothing he could do. Not now anyway.

He watched as Sakura leaned forward, arms wrapping around Naruto’s back as she held him close, pink hair entangling with yellow.

“Baka-Naruto,” she whispered, a tremble in her voice as her arms tightened, “why didn’t you tell us?”

Naruto’s eyes were wide as they glistened, orange reflecting off of blue. Finally, his face crumbled, body sagging into Sakura’s embrace as he spoke softly: “I…m’sorry, Sakura-chan…I just didn’t want to bother you both with it, y’know? The Kyuubi’s my problem and- Ow!

Sakura’s eyes were blazing as she pulled at his ears, angry tears threatening to spill as she clicked her tongue. “You really are an idiot, I swear!” scolded the girl, pulling away from him to grasp his shoulders, shaking him viciously. “Since when is a centuries-old monster your own problem to bear, baka?!”

This seemed to throw Naruto off, a weak grin adorning his face as he meekly rubbed the back of his head. “Well…heh…when you put it that way…” said the boy, voice tapering off. He wilted, guilt in his eyes as he stole a glance at Sasuke and Kakashi, standing beside him.

The Jounin tilted his head at him, echoing: “You should know better than to keep things from your teammates.” His lone eye gazed pointedly at the boy as he emphasized, “Especially things they should know.”

Pained eyes narrowed as Naruto hugged his knees close, shame rolling over him. Kakashi stepped forward, intending on reassuring the blonde when he stilled. Silently, surprising him and everyone else, Sasuke glided towards his downed teammates, his bangs covering his eyes as he stopped right in front of the blonde. His earlier anger seemed to have dissolved away into the air, leaving behind a mess of hurt and a betrayed shell of a boy.

Wondering what the Uchiha was planning to do now (Was he going to pull of another hit on Naruto? Will Sakura let him this time too?), Kakashi blinked in wonder as the boy held out a knuckle in front of the blonde, face grim and unwavering, dark eyes challenging as he looked at Naruto.

Something seemed to pass between the two boys—Naruto’s own eyes lighting up as he answered the hovering knuckle with his own, a resounding thud following afterwards.

“I’ll never forget-ttebayo,” said the Uzumaki, his jaws set. Kakashi watched as Sakura’s hands fell over theirs, covering them.

Ah…there it was, he thought fondly. The three of them connected—like always. Pushing together through any obstacles thrown onto them.

Closing his eyes, his mind brought him back to the first time he met these three, the feeling that it had been much longer than it actually was hanging in his conscious; the Harunos bowed heads as he opened his door; the bond keeping him together, reminding him that not everything was set in stone. He recalled how it had only been over a month, but he knew he would do anything to keep them safe.

Trust was something build with time and patience, he knew—and as the three of them gazed back at him expectantly, their posture open and inviting, Kakashi-

Kakashi chuckled, warmth blooming from within his chest, spreading outwards as he walked towards his students. His ninken—sensing that the storm was over had already crowded around the three, mushing them against each other as he put his own hand on top of theirs.

His touch was careful, uncertain—the last time he had deliberately put himself in a situation where he had to show his true emotions in front of others was…a long, long time ago. An old wound, somehow mended with time and his non-existent luck.

This was well outside of his comfort zone; but as Sasuke’s gaze softened, Sakura huffing out a laughter along with Naruto’s weary grin, he decided that…he would be fine. This was fine.