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A Family

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Sakura and Ino are here. This is unexpected.

“I thought you two were working,” he says as he drops out of stealth besides them, definitely not smirking as Sakura drops into an offensive stance. You’d think she’d be used to it by now, but no. It keeps being ridiculously easy to catch her off guard.

Ino, on the other hand, skillfully turns the defensive stance she’d been halfway through taking into a natural movement that makes it seem she already knew he was there.

“I thought you were doing the same,” she counters while Sakura halfheartedly tries to smack him for startling her. He leans out of the way of her hit, this time allowing his smirk to break free.

To no surprise, Sakura replies with another punch. This time it isn’t a halfhearted one. He dodges the worst of it but she still grazes a rib hard enough to make him want to wince.

He doesn’t of course. Wincing after goading her on would mean admitting defeat.

“You thought wrong. I was training,” he says to Ino in a tone that implies she’s a moron for assuming otherwise. She isn’t, he was working and training at the same time, but it's work that Ino should know nothing about. Not that this has ever stopped her before.

Ino replies with an indulging look that tells him she’s well aware he’s spouting bullshit.

“Don’t you ever get tired of being an asshole?” Sakura asks with more amusement than annoyance, the usual frustration caused by his appearance already fading away.

“Don’t you ever get tired of being so violent?” he returns.

Sakura puts her fist on her hip and lets out a haughty sniff, telling him that him being unable to handle her awesomeness is his problem, not hers. He replies by giving her a patronizing look. In that case, her crappy awareness skills are her problem, not his.

“Let’s just agree that the both of you are walking disasters, shall we?” Ino says in a way that tells them she’s clearly the only sane person present. He and Sakura grin, and it’s enough to make Ino join in.

“Any idea why Tsunade-sama wanted us to meet here?” Ino asks, returning to the matter at hand.

“Wait, Shisho wanted us to meet?” Sakura asks, slow on the uptake as always. It never stops surprising him how she can be so brilliant in some ways and so oblivious in others.

“Yes and I have no idea,” he answers Sakura and Ino respectively.

It’s kind of worrying that he doesn’t know what Tsunade-sama is planning. The random street she send them to doesn’t reveal any clues either. Whatever Tsunade-sama is planning isn’t bad, that much was more than clear from the amusement she showed when she ordered him to come here. Still, given that Tsunade-sama’s sense of humor is as twisted as Sakura’s, he feels perfectly justified in being worried. That’s not even mentioning the fact that the universe has it out for him and Sakura.

“You didn’t do anything to piss off Shisho, did you?” Sakura demands with warning. He gives her an unimpressed look. Why does she always assume it’s his fault when people are angry? It doesn’t happen that often.

“Don’t give me that look, it’s a valid question. You can’t help being an asshole.”

“Remind me why I’m friends with her again?” he direct at Ino. Who doesn’t even have the decency to hide how entertained she is by him getting roasted by Sakura. And they call him an asshole.

“She’s good target practice.”

Well, he can’t argue with that.

Sakura hits Ino. Ino could have dodged the blow completely, Sakura wasn’t aiming to hit her for certain, but he and Ino both know that the easiest way to mollify Sakura is to let her hit you. He usually doesn’t give her that satisfaction, but Ino does. She also doesn’t contain her grimace when Sakura’s fist grazes her arm. Even when limiting the damage as much as possible, Sakura’s hits always hurt. Pointedly so.

Sakura, of course, celebrates her “victory” with a smug smile.

“But seriously, you didn’t do anything to annoy her?” she asks him because of course she does. He rolls his eyes, not amused by the accusation. He hasn’t done anything to annoy Tsunade-sama. He thinks. He’s pretty sure at least.

“Did you?” he counters with a valid question of his own.

“Of course not,” Sakura says like she doesn’t regularly piss off Tsunade-sama.

“I don’t think either of you did something. This time.”

Given that Ino is usually right about these things, this is a relief to hear.

“Then why–”

“I’m baaack!”

The shout makes Sakura fall silent and Ino’s eyes go wide and his own heart is skipping a beat and the voice was different, so much deeper than he’s used to but he still recognizes it, all of them do despite the fact that is wasn’t even that audible, coming from a distance away but it also came from within the village.

He takes off as fast he can, jumping onto the roofs and activating his Sharingan as he races in the direction that voice came from. Sakura is right besides him while Ino follows in their wake, unable to keep up with their speed and normally he’d slow down but right now he can’t because his heart is racing and a painful amount of hope is rising and his eyes are darting around, desperately searching –

And there he is. Standing on top of a power pole, all but glowing to his enhanced sight. Bright golden hair, back covered in sealing scrolls, clothes that would’ve looked fine if not for the eye searing orange it contains, and a smile that outshines the sun itself.

“Naruto!”

Sakura’s yell makes Naruto’s head snap towards her with recognition and joy, before he braces for impact as he processes just how fast she’s moving. He’s just in time to keep himself from being knocked off the pole when Sakura slams into him with a hug. Moving with the hit, he embraces her back and spins her around, wonderfully familiar laughter filling the air.

“Sakura-chan!”

Sasuke realizes he’s stopped moving when Ino halts besides him but he keeps being unable to do anything but drink in the sight of his best friend.

Naruto has gotten taller. Which is a ridiculous thing to focus on, of course he’s gotten taller. It’s been two years, seven months and three days since he last saw the idiot. Even so, his height is what trips up Sasuke the most out of all the changes there are.

And there are many changes. His cheeks are leaner, the baby fat gone, and his jaw has gotten a lot stronger. His hair is longer, though it’s still the same wild mess it used to be. His chakra reserves have actually gotten even more enormous, making him literally glow to his enhanced sight now that he’s so near. His shoulders are broader, his muscles more defined, he has calluses he didn’t have before, and so much more. His Sharingan picks up every single change down to the slightest detail and compares it to the last image Sasuke captured of him, when he went away on his training trip with Jiraiya. That image is still as clear as the moment he activated his Sharingan, the memory preserved for all eternity.

This memory will forever be preserved as well.

He watches as Naruto stops spinning around and beams up at Sakura, holding her steady in his arms, her own entwined around his neck. A weight he hadn’t realized was so heavy falls away.

He’s missed the idiot so much.

“I’ve missed you!” Naruto yells, loud as ever even with the changed voice. It’s beautiful to hear. “How are you? Did you finish the thing? Oh, and you’ll never guess what happened! I...”

Naruto trails off with confusion and rising awe, his eyes rapidly flickering over Sakura’s face as he consciously processes her changed appearance for the first time. Then Naruto blushes. It’s not just any blush, oh no. The dilation of his pupils, the way his pulse speeds up, the tension in his body as he suddenly becomes excruciatingly aware of all the places Sakura’s body is touching his. The involuntary glance he gives her cleavage.

Naruto thinks Sakura is hot.

Oh this is just perfect. Even better, Sakura is starting to blush as well! She’s actually flustered by Naruto’s reaction to her!

From the corner of his vision he sees Ino’s warm smile transform into a delighted grin, a mirror to the one he’s wearing himself. They’re going to have so much fun with this.

“Sakura-chan... you look really pretty.”

“Are you saying I wasn’t pretty before?” Sakura quips with a teasing smile that does nothing to diminish the actual bashfulness she feels. Not much, but it’s definitely there.

Naruto’s awe is drowned out by horror as he realizes what he just implied.

“No, you were! You’ve always been pretty! I just didn’t notice anymore, mostly didn’t notice because I still thought you were pretty but you were always pretty so it was normal and now it’s not–”

Naruto stops digging a hole to crawl into, his blush now caused by embarrassment as much as arousal. Sakura herself is watching him with a soft smile, basking in the babbling they haven’t heard in years.

“You look really pretty, Sakura-chan,” Naruto finishes lamely, wearing a wry smile that shows he’s well aware of how awkward he sounds.

Sakura, however, doesn’t think he sounds awkward at all. Her faint blush returns, flustered all over again by Naruto’s appreciation of her looks.

“You look pretty handsome yourself, Naruto,” she says, her own words making her observe Naruto in a way she didn’t before. The slight dilation of her pupils and the subtle tension in her body reveal that her words are completely sincere. She genuinely thinks Naruto looks hot, in a way she never has before.

This just keeps getting better.

Naruto turns into a tomato, hilariously stunned and flustered by having his appreciation returned. Sasuke is so happy he’s going to remember this moment forever.

“She’s right,” Ino says, making Naruto and Sakura remember that there exists a world beyond the two of them. “You’ve gotten hot, Naruto.”

It’s true, he has. Weird to think of Naruto as hot, but that doesn’t change the fact that he is.

“Ino!” Naruto cheers and it’s all the encouragement Ino needs to leap forward. Naruto and Sakura quickly adjust their position so he can hold her steady with one arm, his other catching Ino as she joins in on the hug.

“I’ve missed you,” Ino breathes into his ear, embracing him like her life depends on it. Naruto hugs her back just as tightly.

“I’ve missed you too,” he returns softly, choked up in a way he wasn’t before. It makes Sasuke’s own throat tighten because Naruto is really here. The loud, hyperactive idiot he calls his best friend is finally back.

He’s finally home.

Ino keeps hugging Naruto a moment longer, before she pulls herself together and leans back so she can meet Naruto’s gaze. She’s wearing a smile that’s about twenty percent teasing, one hundred percent pure joy.

“So, what about me? Am I still pretty as well?”

Naruto’s smile turns foxy, the sight making him even more choked up. He’s missed the idiot so much. So has Sakura, watching Ino’s and Sakura’s reunion with misty eyes. His own eyes are starting to sting as well, but there’s no way he’s going to ruin this memory by blurring it with tears.

“Don’t be silly, Ino. You aren’t pretty. You’re fabulous.”

“And don’t you forget it,” Ino says with a flip of her hair, pleased with the validation of how amazing she looks. She becomes even more pleased when Naruto looks her over with genuine appreciation, consciously processing the changes the past years have brought. Though his appreciation is platonic in a way it wasn’t with Sakura.

“You look even better than Rukia now,” he declares.

“Don’t let her hear you say that,” Ino says, shamelessly posing on his arm to show off her best angle. And to show off her distinctive grey coat. Naruto had already noticed it of course, but her pose draws his attention to it again, as Ino intended. She's as proud of her position in T&I as Sakura is of her own position in the hospital.

“I’m not an idiot,” Naruto says and the opening is impossible to resist.

“You really are.”

His words make Naruto focus on him. The way he lights up makes Sasuke feel ridiculously mushy.

“Sasuke! You’re still a bastard!”

Naruto is utterly delighted by this.

“He’s gotten even worse since you left,” Sakura happily informs him. Ino smirks with agreement.

“He’s gotten more extra as well,” Naruto says with a mischievousness he’s waited so long to see again. “Seriously, the whole point of a shirt is to cover up your chest, not flaunt it. Even little kids know that.”

“That’s rich coming from a guy who still thinks bright orange is a good color to wear,” he retorts with a grin he couldn’t contain even if he wanted to. Naruto laughs, and he swears the world brightens even further than the Sharingan always causes.f_

“Well, bastard?” Naruto says with a cheekiness the years haven’t changed one bit. “Aren’t you going to give me a hug?”

If he insists.

Naruto’s eyes widen and he starts adjusting his stance as he realizes what Sasuke is about to do, Sakura and Ino realizing and reacting at the same time.

“Wait don’t–”

Too late.

Sasuke slams into the three of them hard enough to make Naruto lose his balance and fast enough to get a decent hold on all of them. The benefits of having his Sharingan on.

They topple off the pole with satisfying yells from all three. It takes effort but he manages to prevent Naruto from recovering his balance, Ino from slithering out his grip, and he even manages to keep Sakura trapped in his embrace as well. That last is the greatest accomplishment of all.

They hit the roof with a glorious smack, the sound complimented by various sounds as all three of them have the wind knocked out of them.

Sasuke, on the other hand, had his landing cushioned quite nicely. The three of them make for comfy pillows.

Naruto laughs and it’s enough to make Sakura and Ino join in. Sasuke feels his grin grow even wider as he looks down at the idiot squashed beneath him, so happy he doesn’t know what to do with it all.

“Welcome home, Naruto.”

Naruto beams up at him and crushes him, Sakura and Ino together in a hug. Not that Sasuke is complaining.

“It’s good to be home,” he says softly, showing a happiness that Sasuke is so grateful to engrave into his mind for the rest of his life. He shifts his hold on Sakura and Ino so he can better include Naruto in his embrace. Sakura and Ino join in on the group hug and Sasuke’s breath hitches as he’s overwhelmed by joy. Two years, seven months and three days, but Naruto is finally back where he belongs. Two years, seven months and three days, but the four of them are finally back together.

Konoha better watch out. When the four of them are together, there’s nothing in the world that can stand in their way.


 

Three Years Ago

Ino isn’t on their team.

He knew all of them couldn’t be on the same team of course, it’s a miracle he got placed with Naruto and Sakura both, but...

But Ino isn’t on their team. She isn’t going to go on missions with them. She’s going to go on missions with other people instead.

They’ll no longer be together.

It’s always been the four of them. Even Before, she, Naruto and Sakura were his best friends. They only grew closer After.

And now they’re on different teams.

He supposes he should be grateful. When he heard they’d be placed on three-men teams, he started bracing himself for the worst. He expected the four of them to be placed on different teams all together. Even at best, he thought he’d be placed with one of them at most. Having Naruto and Sakura on his team is more than he dared hope for.

But Ino isn’t on their team.

He isn’t the only one feeling conflicted. Naruto and Sakura had cheered when they heard the three of them are on the same team, but they soon realized what that means for Ino as well. Sakura is the most affected, watching Ino with glassy eyes and biting down her lip, on the verge of crying. All four of them are best friends, but Sakura and Ino are like him and Naruto. They’re best best friends.

And Ino isn’t on a team with any of them.

Ino is looking at them with a brave smile, trying and failing to hide how affected she is. She’s happy for them, she really is, but she’s also hurt.

This isn’t fair.

Sasuke pays attention to Iruka-sensei again when he says Ino’s name. She’s on a team with Shikamaru and Choji. That’s... okay. Ino is friends with them. Not as close as she is with him, Naruto and Sakura, but they’re friends. And their clans are close. So, her being on a team with them is okay. It is.

It has to be.

When Iruka-sensei dismisses them for lunch, the four of them waste no time in going to their usual planning spot.

“This isn’t fair!”

Sasuke scowls. Hearing Sakura say it makes it impossible to deny that this is not fair. It’s also stupid. Why can’t the four of them stay together? Who even thinks that teams need to be three people instead of four? Morons, that’s who.

“It’s fine–” Ino tries to assure them while hugging a now crying Sakura, but Naruto cuts her off before she can finish.

“No it isn’t! You need to be on our team, not boring Shikamaru’s. We’re awesome! It’s stupid to split us up!”

It is.

“We need to tell Iruka-sensei to put you on our team.”

That’s a great idea. Why didn’t he think of this? Iruka-sensei put the teams together. He can change them as well.

Their plan cheers up Sakura as well.

“Yes, we do! And if Iruka-sensei says no, we’ll make him say yes.”

They will. If Iruka-sensei thought their ambushes were bad before, he’s going to get a nasty surprise.

Naruto agrees completely. He’s wearing a mixture of the shifty expression he gets when coming up with a plan of attack, and the stubborn look that means he’s going to succeed no matter what.

“We’re going to make him put you on our team no matter what, dattebayo!”

“No.”

Sasuke frowns, confused. Did he just hear what he thought he heard?

Judging from Naruto’s and Sakura’s own confusion, he did.

Ino keeps giving them a stubborn look. She still looks like she want to cry a little, a lot even, but the stubbornness is real in a way her previous brave front wasn’t.

“You’re not going to try to make me change teams.”

“Why not?” Sakura demands, hurt by Ino’s refusal. Sasuke is hurt as well. Doesn’t Ino want to be on their team?

“Because it won’t work!” Ino bursts out, angry in a way that makes only confuses him further. It also really annoys him. Why does she think it won’t work? Sure, it won’t be easy, but the four of them can do anything. They can get Ino on their team as well.

Except Ino doesn’t think they can.

“Genin teams are always made up of three people.”

They are? He knew they always work in teams, but always in teams of three?

“It’s been like that forever. They won’t change it just for us. And they definitely won’t change my team. We’re Ino-Shika-Cho. Our clans are made to work together. Not putting us together would be stupid.”

Just like that, Sasuke realizes.

“You knew.”

Ino’s flinch reveals that he’s right. She knew. And she didn’t tell.

“Knew what?” Naruto asks because of course the idiot doesn’t get it. And of course Sakura doesn’t either, watching him and Ino with the same confusion Naruto is feeling.

“She knew she was going to be put on a team with Shikamaru and Choji!” Sasuke snaps, so angry and hurt because Ino knew. Why didn’t she tell them? They’re friends!

Ino becomes more guilty and that’s good! She should feel guilty! And she shouldn’t feel hurt because she knew and she didn’t tell. She has no right to feel hurt.

“What?” Sakura yells and jerks out of Ino’s embrace, as betrayed as he is. “Why didn’t you tell us?”

“Yeah, Ino, what the hell?” Naruto demands, also betrayed because of course he is because Ino should have told!

“I suspected I was going to be put on a team with them,” Ino has the nerve to try to defend herself. “I didn’t know for sure.”

That’s a load of crap. Ino definitely knew for sure. She wouldn’t be feeling so guilty if she didn’t.

“Yes you did,” Sakura snaps, just as aware as he is what a load of crap Ino’s excuse is. Sasuke only becomes more angry when Ino’s mask crumbles and she looks like she’s about to start crying. She has no right to feel bad when she knew and she didn’t tell.

“I hoped I was wrong.” And then Ino starts crying and that makes him feel even worse and that only makes him more angry and this isn’t fair.

Naruto immediately hugs Ino, because the idiot never stays angry for long. Not even when he really should.

“Shh, it’s okay, Ino. We’ll still be friends, I promise.”

Wait, what? Why does Naruto need to promise that? Of course they’ll still be friends.

Won’t they?

“But what if we aren’t?” Ino wails and now Sasuke is starting to panic because what’s going on, why is she acting like this, why does she think they won’t be friends anymore? “You’re going to go on missions without me and I won’t see you anymore but you’ll still see each other and what if you won’t want to meet anymore and then we won’t talk anymore and you won’t want to be my friend anymore!”

That... is the stupidest thing he’s ever heard.

“That’s stupid!” Naruto yells, taking the words right out of his mouth. “We’d never abandon you, Ino. You’re our friend!”

“And you’re my best friend,” Sakura says, flying forward and giving Ino a fierce hug, her anger gone as fast as it appeared. “I’m not ever leaving you.”

Of course she won’t. None of them will. Ino is being stupid.

To his relief, Ino’s crying lessens. Hopefully she realizes she’s being stupid too.

“You promise?”

Ino does not realize she’s being stupid. Seriously, did she not hear Naruto before?

“I promise,” the idiot repeats anyway, hugging her even more tightly.

“I promise too,” Sakura says and then they all turn to look at him. Naruto and Sakura with expectation, and Ino with fear and hope. He gives them a scowl that lets them know exactly how annoyed he is.

“I don’t have to promise anything.”

Ino actually has the nerve to look like she’s about to start crying again.

“Obviously we’re staying friends.” Why does he even need to say this? And to Ino of all people. He’s used to Naruto and Sakura being stupid, but Ino is supposed to be the smart one.

“Don’t be a bastard, bastard.”

He’s not being a bastard. If Naruto wasn’t such an idiot, he’d know that too.

“Promise her.”

He lets out a annoyed sigh, so fed up with this whole stupid thing. But Naruto will keep harassing him until he gives in. So will Sakura. Even more than Naruto, because she’s giving him the glare that means he better give in, or else.

Seriously, Ino is smiling now. She no longer needs him to promise the obvious, which means he shouldn’t have to do this.

He does it anyway.

“I promise too.”

Okay, maybe it was worth saying it. Ino’s smile is bigger now and her tears are completely gone. She wipes her cheeks dry and lifts her chin in that stubborn way of hers.

“I promise too,” she says, because why not have her state the obvious as well. “The four of us are going to be best friends forever.”

Sakura squeals and smothers Ino in a hug, while Naruto laughs and embraces them both. Then Naruto gives him the mischievous look that never spells anything good. Before Sasuke can decently brace himself, Naruto’s hand lashes out and grabs hold of his arm.

He’s dragged into the group hug with a startled yell that’s definitely not a squeak. He scowls at them all, crossing his arms and refusing to hug them back because this whole thing is just ridiculous. Still, as the other three laugh like morons, he feels himself smile a little as well.

Ino isn’t on their team. But she’s still their friend.

She always will be.

After the ridiculous drama is finally over, they go find Shikamaru and Choji and have lunch with them. They’re Ino’s teammates after all. They should get to know them better. Not that they don’t know them, they’ve been classmates for years. But it’s different now. They’re Ino’s teammates. They need to know them better.

They also need to warn them that if they let Ino get hurt, they are going to destroy them. Ino can take care of herself of course, but the warning still needs to be delivered.

It’s pretty satisfying to see Shikamaru and Choji become a little scared. A lot scared even. Good.

Ino pretends to be annoyed by them threatening Shikamaru and Choji, but it’s obvious she’s pleased by it. Naruto pretends that they’re only joking even though they really aren’t.

He and Sakura don’t bother to hide that they definitely mean it.

Still, aside from the lingering unease at Ino not being on their team, lunch is mostly fun. Naruto, Sakura and Ino chatter like crazy, as is normal. Shikamaru and Choji being included is less normal, but it isn’t bad or anything. Though Shikamaru doesn’t say much. As little as he does, in fact. But Choji talks more, and he’s happy to trade some of his snacks as well.

When lunch ends, they go back to class to wait for their teachers.

Team Seven is picked up first.


 

“You almost damaged the roof.”

The voice makes them look up. Apparently Tsunade-sama thought their reunion was missing someone.

She was correct.

Naruto beams.

“Sensei!”

Yamato-sensei, perched on a roof higher than their own, gives them a wave that’s just a touch awkward, though it’s only noticeable to someone who knows him well. Sensei is overjoyed to see Naruto of course, that’s more than clear just from the smile he’s wearing. But he’s unsure if Naruto will be as happy to see him as he is to see Naruto.

Yamato-sensei can be insecure about the most ridiculous of things.

Naruto wastes no time in putting Sensei’s fears to rest. Scrambling out from beneath them, he, Sakura and Ino all getting out of his way, Naruto jumps up and tackles Yamato-sensei with a hug.

“I’ve missed you!”

Sensei hugs Naruto back, his small smile becoming even more radiant. A lot of the time Yamato-sensei’s expressions are deliberate, but right now it’s all natural. Sasuke savors the sight a moment longer, before turning off his Sharingan and tucking the memory away to revisit whenever he’s feeling down.

Shaking off the usual sense of the world suddenly becoming too dull, he jumps up and lands next to Naruto, needing to stay close to him. Sakura and Ino feel the same way, landing on Naruto’s other side.

“You’ve gotten taller,” Sensei says instead of saying that he missed Naruto as well, because Yamato-sensei sucks at talking about his feelings.

“Nah. You’ve just gotten shorter, Yamato-sensei,” Naruto quips with a cheeky grin. Yamato-sensei lets out the huff of air that passes for his form of laughter.

“I’m not your sensei anymore,” he says while letting go of Naruto, apparently recovered enough from Naruto’s return that he feels the need to correct the way Naruto addressed him. Like Naruto is going to listen any better than him or Sakura. Sensei really should just give in to the inevitable.

“You’ll always be my sensei, Sensei.”

Yamato-sensei gives Naruto a rueful look, well aware that trying to get him to change his mind is a lost cause. Doesn’t mean he’ll stop trying, though.

Honestly, Yamato-sensei is acting like he wouldn’t be incredibly disappointed if Naruto, or he and Sakura for that matter, ever stopped calling him Sensei.

“You done with the mushy stuff yet, brat?”

The question makes him glance down at the street where Jiraiya is standing, but his eyes are almost immediately drawn back to Naruto when he lets out a dramatic yell.

“Never!”

The exclamation is followed by Naruto snatching his and Sakura’s hands with unexpected speed before he yanks hard enough to nearly make him twist free on instinct. He manages to catch the reflex in time.

Naruto smothers all of them with another hug.

“Team Seven is finally together again!”

Sasuke couldn’t stop smiling even if he wanted to. He hugs Naruto and Yamato-sensei as well, feeling Sakura’s arms cross his as she does the same.

“Get ready to get your asses handed to you.”

Ino sounds way too smug.

“We are going to destroy you,” Sakura vows, because even among their group of competitive overachievers, Sakura makes the rest of them seem positively moderate.

She’s right though. They’re going to destroy Ino’s team. It’s high time they put the win-loss ratio back to where it belongs.

“Spar later,” Jiraiya interjects. “I need to borrow your teacher for awhile.”

“I’m not his teacher anymore,” Yamato-sensei says with a bite that was missing before. He, Naruto and Sakura might be able to get away with “wrongly” addressing Yamato-sensei, but woe be any other who tries. Even if that other is one of the legendary Sannin.

“Kid, that brat hasn’t once stopped comparing me to you. You’re his teacher.”

Yamato-sensei frowns, half because he’s annoyed by Jiraiya calling him a kid, half because he’s wondering if Jiraiya is messing with him. The implication that Naruto found Jiraiya of the Sannin lacking when compared to Yamato-sensei couldn’t be more clear after all.

Naruto has no trouble confirming this implication.

“He’s right, I never shut up about you. You’re a much better teacher than Pervy Sage.”

Yamato-sensei’s eyes widen the slightest bit, in a way they only do when he’s completely caught off guard. The curve of his lips reveals that he’s caught off guard in a very good way.

But then, being told that you’re better at something than one of the Sannin is an amazing compliment.

Jiraiya grumbles something that pointedly sounds like ungrateful brat. Naruto’s smile turns cheeky. He lowers his voice to a conspirative whisper that just happens to carry to where Jiraiya is standing.

“Pervy Sage doesn’t like being told that someone is better at something than he is. It’s a great way to get him to put in more effort.”

“I heard that!” Jiraiya says like that wasn’t the whole point of Naruto’s antics.

“Yamato-sensei is still a better teacher than you!” Naruto retorts without missing a beat. The fact that he’s bantering doesn’t diminish his sincerity in any way. Yamato-sensei is very flattered. “But you’re a good teacher too, Pervy Sage,” Naruto adds, because Naruto doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. Well no, he does, but it takes a lot to trigger it.

Jiraiya lets out an unimpressed sound that’s belied by how pleased he looks.

“Let go of your perfect teacher, brat. I need to borrow him and go see Tsunade.”

“But I don’t need to go?” Naruto asks while letting go of them, the rest of them following his example. Sasuke is genuinely surprised that he got the implied message from Jiraiya’s words. Seems Naruto isn’t as big an idiot as he used to be.

It’s an oddly uncomfortable realization.

“Thought you’d want to go home first.”

The way Naruto lights up reveals that Jiraiya thought right.

“Is she home?” Naruto demands while looking at him.

“She is.” Or she should be at least.

“Then let’s go!”

Naruto has barely finished speaking before he dashes off, running over the rooftops. Sasuke shares a helpless smile with Sakura and Ino. Naruto might no longer be quite the idiot he was before, but he’s still a rude, hyperactive mess.

It’s a comforting realization.

“Meet me at Training Ground Three in two hours,” Yamato-sensei tells him and Sakura.

“All right. See you then, Sensei,” Sakura says before catching up to Naruto with a Body Flicker. Ino gives Yamato-sensei a friendly wave of farewell before doing the same. Sasuke follows their example after nodding his own farewell.

Naruto’s gaze darts towards them when they catch up, but that’s the only sign of acknowledgement he gives. Sasuke is honestly surprised that he doesn’t just Body Flicker home. He clearly wants to waste as little time as possible.

The reason for the delay is revealed by the way Naruto’s gaze keeps darting around. He isn’t searching for anything in particular. Just drinking in the sights he hasn’t seen in years.

Sasuke foresees a lot of wandering through the village in Naruto’s near future.

When they start nearing their home, Naruto loses all interest in his surroundings. He speeds up, nowhere near his or Sakura’s top speed, but it’s still an impressive display.

They cross the gate without any attempt to hide their approach or identity. Naruto halts in front of the door, all but vibrating in place with excitement. And with nerves. He runs his hands through his hair in a futile attempt to tame it and straightens his clothes as best he can. It’s both amusing and oddly endearing. Sasuke can’t remember the last time he saw Naruto act like this.

Naruto flicks off the dust clinging to him with a relatively small burst of chakra, and then he actually starts going over his clothes by touch to see if he missed anything. Sasuke rolls his eyes and gently kicks the idiot’s ankle. He’s even nice enough to not dirty Naruto’s clothes when he does.

“You look fine.” Not that this matters. Naruto could roll around in a dumpster and still be welcomed with open arms.

“You don’t think I should change?” the idiot asks Sakura and Ino, because why should he take Sasuke’s word for it.

“You look great,” Sakura assures him, clearly biting back the urge to tease him about his uncharacteristic self-conscious behavior.

Hilariously, Naruto gains a faint blush, the compliment hitting him in a way it never has before. No wait, it has. Back when they were kids and he had that huge crush on Sakura. That was so long ago as to be forever, though.

Still, even with Sakura’s word holding weight as it hasn’t in ages, Naruto keeps being nervous.

“Very handsome and mature,” Ino lies. The handsome part, sure, he’ll give him that, but Naruto definitely doesn’t look mature. Older, but not mature. Sasuke resists the urge to point this out though. For once, his teasing wouldn’t be appreciated.

Naruto gives Ino a grateful smile, comforted by her talent to say exactly what you need to hear when you need to hear it. He takes a fortifying breath and straightens his shoulders, looking at the door like he’s preparing for battle.

“Right. Here goes.”

He rings the bell. It doesn’t take long for familiar footsteps to come closer, the sound making Naruto’s breathing deepen like he’s expecting an ambush. He’s wound so tight that Sasuke half expects him to rupture a muscle any moment now.

The door opens.

Meiri’s eyes widen with shock and her jaw drops, mind blank as she looks at the sight she can’t believe is real.

Naruto, ruining all his efforts to look mature, smiles bashfully and gives her a nervous wave.

“Hi, Nee-chan.”

Meiri stops breathing. Then she all but throws herself at Naruto, hugging him like he’ll disappear if she doesn’t.

“Naruto,” she breathes, unable to believe he’s really here. Her reaction causes Sasuke to become overwhelmed all over again.

Naruto is home.

All of Naruto’s tension rushes out of him the moment Meiri embraces him, his arms coming up to embrace her back.

“Nee-chan,” he breathes just as softly, sounding like he’s about to cry. It makes the situation even more mushy. Sakura and Ino are just as affected, linking arms as they look at the sight of Naruto finally being home again.

The mushiness doesn’t distract from how strange it is to see Naruto and Meiri hug like this. It used to be that Meiri had to kneel down or pick up Naruto in order to hug him like this. No more. It makes the weirdness of Naruto’s height hit him all over again.

Meiri laughs, the loud sound she only makes when she’s overwhelmed by joy. She’s on the verge of crying, that’s how overwhelmed she is.

It makes Naruto hug her even more fiercely, slight trembles running through him as he loses the battle against his tears. Which makes Sasuke’s briefly lose his own battle as well. Sakura and Ino aren’t doing any better.

Ino and Sakura step closer to him and Sakura links their arms as well. Today is turning out to be a very mushy day.

He’s definitely not complaining.

Meiri pulls back enough that she can meet Naruto’s gaze.

“Oh, look at you,” she breathes while cupping his cheeks, her thumbs stroking over his whiskers. “You’ve gotten so big.”

“I’m not a brat anymore, Meiri-nee,” Naruto says with a smile that’s twenty percent cheeky, one hundred percent pure joy. Meiri’s own smile becomes even bigger, threatening to split her face. She lays her forehead against Naruto’s.

“You’ll always be my brat.”

Judging from the way Naruto sniffles and beams even brighter, he’s perfectly content with being her brat forever. A few more tears escape Meiri as well. She seems incapable of taking her hands off Naruto, stroking his cheeks, combing her fingers through his hair, tracing his ears. All the while Naruto keeps holding her like he’s never going to let her go again.

“Sasu-nii!”

Sasuke bends down and picks up Obito when he races over like always. Obito plants a kiss on his cheek, because kissing is how you show you care. Sasuke obligingly kisses him back and discreetly flicks the saliva off his cheek. Obito's kisses are often of the wet variety.

Obito’s arrival draws Naruto’s gaze and awe rises as he sees just how much Obito has grown. Doesn’t take long for his gaze to return to Meiri though. With a brief detour to Kakashi and Rin as they join them in the hallway. Rin, comfortably held by Kakashi, is watching Naruto half with a suspicion someone so tiny shouldn’t be capable of, half with an intense desire to touch his flashy hair.

Kakashi is watching Naruto with a warm smile, just as happy as the rest of them to finally have him back home. Naruto himself becomes even more awestruck when he sees Rin. She’d only been a month old when he left, and the difference is even more staggering than it is with Obito. It takes a moment before he can tear his eyes away from her and meet Kakashi’s gaze, but when he does, he actually manages to beam even brighter.

Sasuke hands Obito over to Ino when he calls her name and starts reaching for her. Obito thoroughly wipes his lips before kissing her, because Ino and drool aren’t compatible in any way.

Meiri keeps touching Naruto, part of her still unable to believe he’s really here. When Naruto meets her gaze again, her smile becomes even bigger and she nuzzles his nose.

Naruto nuzzles her back and closes his eyes, all but melting as he basks in her affection. Then he opens his eyes and his smile becomes mischievous.

“You know, Nee-chan, there’s a really neat thing about being bigger.”

“And what’s that, brat?” Meiri returns, her smile turning into a grin. More than willing to play along with literally anything Naruto has in mind.

Naruto’s smile turns foxy.

“This.”

Shifting his hold on her faster than Meiri can process, Naruto lifts her up and spins her around. Her laughter is startled and delighted, encouraging Naruto to spin around faster, though he’s careful not to spin so fast that Meiri will become dizzy. Sasuke watches the scene with a smile, happier than he can remember being.

He hopes that Naruto will stay home forever.


 

Three Years Ago

“–and that’s when he said we have to do another test! That’s stupid! We passed, we’re real ninja now. We don’t need another test.”

Sasuke agrees completely. They trained, they studied, they passed. Having another test is just stupid. And unfair. Ino didn’t get another test.

“Ino didn’t get another test,” Naruto continues, taking the words right out of his mouth.

“Jounin teachers get to choose for themselves whether or not to give another test,” Kakashi says, having way too much fun with this whole stupid thing. There’s nothing funny about this. “Apparently Asuma felt that Ino didn’t need to be tested further.”

Because she’s better than you.

Sasuke glares, so not amused by the silent addition. An untrue one. Yeah, Ino is better at some things, but they’re better at others. And in direct combat, he beats her more often than not. And his overall grades are better.

Naruto’s scowl deepens, just as annoyed by Kakashi’s “teasing” as he is.

“Stop being a bastard, bastard,” Meiri says and her support does make him feel a little better. Even if she does look like she’s having way too much fun as well.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Kakashi lies. “I’m simply explaining why they’re getting another test.”

Sasuke rolls his eyes, Naruto doing the same.

Meiri gives Kakashi a warning look that would be a lot more comforting if she’s stop smiling. There’s nothing to smile about.

Kakashi’s responds by pulling her closer and nuzzling her hair. He’s always touchy-feely with Meiri, but it’s gotten so much worse since she got pregnant again.

“Really, you’re acting like you aren’t going to pass,” Kakashi continues with false innocence, the insult coming through loud and clear. Sasuke glares, even more annoyed than before. It only becomes worse when Kakashi ignores Meiri’s warning look, a lot stronger than the one she gave before. Kakashi can be such an asshole.

“Don’t be stupid,” Naruto snaps, as unimpressed with Kakashi’s behavior as he is. “Obviously we’re going to pass.”

“Damn straight you will,” Meiri says, making him feel a little better. At least Meiri is being nice about this whole stupid thing. Mostly nice.

Naruto smiles, cheered up by Meiri’s encouragement as always.

“Yeah, we’re going to kick ass!”

“We’re going to kick his ass,” Sasuke adds with all the viciousness Yamato’s stupid test deserves. Then he scowls at Kakashi when he has the nerve to chuckle. Does he think they can’t do it? They’ll show him.

“Remember that he’s a Jounin.”

So?

“He’s a bit out of your league.”

The way he says it makes it clear that Kakashi thinks Yamato is a lot out of their league. Asshole.

Naruto’s smile transforms into another scowl. He crosses his arms and gives Kakashi a look that shows him exactly how done he is with his behavior.

“We aren’t going to fight him alone, Nekonin. It’s three on one.”

Kakashi looks even more entertained. It’s incredibly insulting. Okay, fine, they can’t beat him even when it’s four on one, but Kakashi knows how they fight. Yamato doesn’t.

“Who says you need to fight him?”

Meiri’s question makes him falter. It’s obvious that they need to fight him. Isn’t it?

Naruto tilts his head and squints at nothing in a way he only does when he’s thinking about something very deeply.

“...Huh. You’re right. He never said we have to fight him.”

“He said it was survival training,” Sasuke counters but he sounds uncertain even to his own ears. It had seemed obvious that “survival training” meant some kind of sparring, but now that he’s thinking about it... it could mean something else. Maybe they need to evade Yamato instead? Or they need to show they can survive without his help?

“Surviving doesn’t mean fighting,” Naruto points out and okay, hearing it out loud does make it obvious that those things aren’t the same.

“It really doesn’t,” Meiri says, the weird tone making Sasuke refocus on her. Meiri is still smiling, but it kind of looks like she wants to grimace as well. She’s been looking like that a lot ever since they graduated a week ago.

She’s been worrying a lot since they graduated.

She shouldn’t. They’re going to be fine.

They’re no longer weak.

“Fortunately, you two are smart enough to know that,” Kakashi says while stroking Meiri’s arm. Sasuke feels himself straighten with pleasure. It takes a lot for Kakashi to compliment them and he never does it unless he means it. Yeah, he said it to comfort Meiri, but Kakashi wouldn’t have said it unless he really believed it. It makes him feel proud. It makes Naruto feel proud as well.

It also makes him certain that Meiri is right. There are good odds that the test won’t involve sparring.

Meiri lets out a sigh closes her eyes while leaning further into Kakashi’s embrace. It’s more than just worry, she’s tired as well. Sasuke is only a little surprised by this. Meiri got tired a lot the last time she was pregnant too. Still, Kakashi didn’t run away this time. He thought that meant it would take longer before she started getting tired again.

“You are,” she says and it makes him even more pleased. Meiri’s compliments are much easier to earn than Kakashi’s, but it’s still nice to hear.

“Don’t worry, Nee-chan,” Naruto says with a bright smile. “We’ll protect each other.”

Obviously.

Meiri’s smiles in the way she only does for Naruto, cheered up by him like always.

“And you’ll run away if a fight is hopeless,” she still says firmly, making him roll his eyes. She’s only said that a million times ever since they graduated.

“And we’ll go get help,” he finishes before she can, giving her an unimpressed look to show that they know. She doesn’t need to keep repeating it.

Meiri grins, pleased with his reaction. Hopefully that means she won’t tell them this again. Today at least.

“So have you thought about what you’re taking with you tomorrow?” Kakashi asks.

“Everything,” Naruto answers immediately. Sasuke nods his agreement. Yamato said they should take with them everything they think they need to survive. They intend to do just that.

He’s betting Yamato has no idea what they consider “everything” to be. Yamato is going to regret telling them this.

“Will you help?” Naruto asks Kakashi, already knowing what the answer will be.

“I suppose I could give some pointers.”

“And you’re having breakfast,” Meiri adds firmly, surprising him.

“But Nee-chan, Yamato said we’d throw up,” Naruto reminds her.

“And if you don’t have breakfast, you’ll faint.”

...That’s a good point. Training takes energy. They won’t have energy if they don’t eat.

“I wouldn’t faint,” Naruto says like it’s supposed to be obvious. Which it is. Naruto wouldn’t faint, but that’s because Naruto is weird. It takes ridiculously much just to make him get tired, and he always recovers ridiculously fast as well. Sasuke is so jealous of that. “But I guess I’d get tired pretty soon,” the idiot finishes like it’s supposed to mean something. Sasuke rolls his eyes. Pretty soon for Naruto means something completely different for normal people.

“Why did Yamato tell us not to eat if it would be bad for us?” Sasuke asks Kakashi.

“Why did he indeed.”

Sasuke narrows his eyes at the answer that answers nothing at all. Kakashi often does that, but he always does it for a reason. Specifically, he does it because he wants them to figure out the answer for themselves.

So why would Yamato do this?

...Oh. Oh, of course!

“This is part of the test.” Yamato wants to see if they follow orders blindly, of if they actually think about what they’re told to do. Sasuke doesn’t know if he’s annoyed or impressed.

Naruto is definitely impressed.

“That’s actually really sneaky.”

It is. Who expects a teacher to give them bad orders? Well, a good and a bad one. It’s a good idea to bring all their equipment for survival training. It’s a bad idea not to eat before a test.

Kakashi’s eye is crinkled in a proud smile. While he doesn’t compliment them out loud often, he does it a lot silently.

The smile also confirms that they’re right. This is part of the test. And they just passed it.

Take that, Yamato.

“We need to tell Sakura-chan,” Naruto says. He’s right, they need to go tell her. She definitely won’t have figured this out herself. Sakura is crazy smart in some ways, but she’s strangely stupid in others. Like Naruto.

“Let’s go,” he says, getting off the couch. Naruto jumps off as well.

“Be back for dinner,” Meiri tells them. Sasuke nods his agreement while Naruto runs over and gives her a quick hug.

“We won’t be long, Nee-chan.”

Meiri ruffles his hair, before she gives Kakashi a questioning look when he lifts his arm from her shoulders and gets to his feet.

“Obito is awake,” he explains, patting Naruto’s head when Naruto gives him a quick hug as well.

The news is surprising. Obito usually naps longer than this. But that’s not important right now.

“Already?” Meiri asks while looking at the clock with surprise, but Sasuke is focused on more important matters.

“Let’s go, idiot,” he repeats, impatient to get to Sakura. She needs to know this.

“Chill out, bastard,” Naruto says like they don’t need to leave right now. “We’ve got time.”

Sasuke lets out an annoyed sigh when Naruto, on purpose, takes his sweet time saying goodbye to “the peanut” as he calls Meiri’s baby bump. Even worse, Meiri is playing along and dragging it out even more. The playful smile she gives him reveals that she’s doing it just to mess with him.

Kakashi pats his head with mock compassion when he passes him on his way to Obito’s crib, looking way too entertained.

Sasuke is just about to snap and drag the idiot out of the house by force when Naruto decides that he’s done messing with him. After a final kiss to Meiri’s stomach, he bounces over. Finally.

“Well, bastard? What are you still standing around for?” the idiot has the nerve to say while bouncing past him. Sasuke is going to kick him as soon as they’re outside.

Naruto looks over his shoulder with the foxy grin that means he knows exactly what he’s thinking.

“Race you!”

Oh that cheating cheater! He has a head start! This isn’t fair!

Doesn’t stop Naruto from running out the door first. Sasuke really wanted to tackle him while he was putting on his shoes, but the rule is no fighting inside the house.

He chases after the idiot, determined to win. And okay, maybe he isn’t that annoyed by the cheating. He’s done it himself. A lot.

It isn’t cheating when he does it. He’s just being clever.

If Naruto thinks that “being clever” is going to stop him from winning this race, he has another thing coming. Good ninja win no matter what and Sasuke is going to be a great one.

The others will just have to keep up if they want to be great as well.


 

After Naruto and Meiri separate, Naruto continues his trail of hugs with Kakashi. It’s a testament to how much Kakashi has missed him that he hugs him back instead of just patting his head.

It’s ridiculous how moved Sasuke is by Naruto still calling Kakashi a ninja cat. Kakashi isn’t doing much better.

And then Naruto introduces himself to Rin.

“Hi, Karin-chan,” he says with a warm grin, completely unaware of the mistake he just made.

Rin informs him of his mistake with a glare.

“My name is Rin.”

As Naruto should have known. They always refer to Rin by her nickname in their letters, and they even explained why they do. Namely, Obito used to have trouble pronouncing her full name and shortened it to Rin, and somewhere along the way, Rin decided that this is real her name instead of Karin. As they discovered when Rin started talking. She wasted no time in correcting them when they called her the “wrong” name.

“Hi, Rin-chan,” Naruto amends without missing a beat. “I’m Naruto.”

Rin clutches Kakashi’s shirt while she looks over Naruto from head to toe, even more suspicious than before. Sasuke truly doesn’t understand how someone so tiny can be so distrustful. It started a few months ago and it’s only gotten worse since then. Obito never acted like this.

But then, Obito and Rin are very different from each other.

Obito, who’s finished greeting both Ino and Sakura, now runs over to Meiri to give her a kiss as well. It’s clearly been far too long since he let her know that he loves her.

“I don’t know you,” Rin says to Naruto like it’s the most heinous crime he could possible commit.

“Karin,” Meiri says while bending down so Obito can smooch her cheek, one of only two people allowed to use Rin’s full name. Even then she and Kakashi are only “allowed” to use it when Rin is misbehaving. Which includes being rude.

Rin lets out a dramatic sigh. Aware that she’s being rude and annoyed at having it called out. Well, she's being exceptionally rude. It would be hypocritical of Meiri to call her out for anything less. 

“Hello, Naruto. I don’t know you.”

Well. That’s the best they’re going to get.

“Hello, Naruto!” Obito repeats after her with a wide smile and an enthusiastic wave, his reaction the complete opposite of his sister. “I also don’t know you!”

Ouch. It’s normal that Obito doesn’t remember him of course, he was barely two years old when Naruto left. But it still hurts to hear.

Naruto grimaces, real grief rising at Obito’s lack of recognition. But he soon shakes it off, determination rising instead.

“Hi, Obito,” he returns with an answering wave and grins when Obito waves at him even more enthusiastically. Then he returns his attention to Rin, deciding to finish winning her over first. Or try to at least. “You might not know me, Rin-chan, but I know you.”

“No you don’t,” Rin says promptly, convinced she’s in the right. Naruto bites the inside of his cheek as he resists the urge to coo over how adorable she looks. Good call.

Obito, already distracted again, runs over to Sakura and asks to be picked up so he can play with her hair. One of the few things Obito and Rin have in common is a love for flashy hair.

“Yes I do,” Naruto says to Rin and holds up his hands. “I knew you when you were just this big.”

Oh, bad move. Rin hates being baby talked to.

Rin informs him of his mistake with another glare.

“No, you didn’t,” she insists, because obviously she remembers things from when she was just a few weeks old.

“He did.”

Kakashi’s statement makes Rin falter. To Rin, Kakashi is the reason why the sun rises and sets every day. If he says Naruto knew her when she was little, it must be true.

“...Is he a nice person, Daddy?”

Just like that, there’s actual progress in getting her to like Naruto. Kakashi’s next words seal the deal.

“He’s a very nice person.”

With that stamp of approval, all of Rin’s mistrust melts away. She holds out her arms and gives Naruto an impertinent look.

“Carry me.”

With a blinding smile, Naruto obeys. Rin rewards him by sticking her hands into his hair. And promptly lets out an awed gasp, her eyes going wide with wonder.

“Bito-nii, come feel,” she says softly, but having his sister say his name is enough to draw Obito’s attention as always. “It’s so soft.”

Obito demands that Sakura put him down and runs over to Naruto to test the softness of his hair for himself. Naruto, delighted by having the attention of both kittens, swoops up Obito with a spin that makes Obito laugh. Naruto is careful not to dislodge Rin’s hands while he spins around, and he’s rewarded by keeping hold of Rin’s undivided attention, her hands running through his hair over and over again. Obito follows her example and is promptly awed as well.

Sakura better watch out. Naruto might just offer some real competition in the hair toy department. Kakashi's spot as the favorite is in no danger whatsoever though.

Meiri is watching the three of them with her heart on her sleeve, as happy as can be. He steps closer to her and gently bumps his shoulder against hers. It makes Meiri give him a warm smile, and she grabs his hand and gives it a gentle squeeze.

“Come on, let’s go inside,” she says and the whole gang obeys. Naruto, still having his hair petted, marvels over the living room, checking out every little thing that’s changed. Which, Sasuke suddenly realizes, is more than he realized. There are the obvious things, like the couches having been replaced, but it’s also the little things. Drawings and artwork Obito and Rin made, different toys than there used to be. New books, new plants. New pictures that don’t have Naruto in them. It all adds up.

It’s still mostly the same, though. And seeing Naruto here, seeing him inside their home, causes a renewed wave of joy.

Naruto clearly wants to familiarize himself with every nook and cranny of their home again, but not as much as he wants to chatter their ears off. He also wants to give them souvenirs. Each of them gets a storage scroll filled to the brim. Each of them also gets at least one joke item. In his case, a mask shaped like a snake. Which, really? That’s Naruto’s idea of being witty? And he wonders why Sasuke calls him an idiot.

For the most part the gifts are thoughtful, though. Sometimes exceptionally so. The chokers with his clan symbol on them hit him right in the feels.

Meiri gets some novels, notebooks from all over the world, and various knick knacks Sasuke already knows will get a place of honor around the house. Kakashi gets a cooking book for dummies, making Meiri snort with laughter while Kakashi looks at Naruto with complete exasperation. Kakashi, like everyone but Meiri, gets a variety of gear as well, among which is a really nice kunai set. Meiri has a moment where she remembers that she’s the only civilian among ninja.

Kakashi also gets a copy of Jiraiya’s latest Icha Icha novel, one that isn’t in print yet. That gift inspires a lot of delight from Kakashi and Meiri both.

To Sakura’s delight, she gets some obscure medical texts. She’s even more delighted by the notebook filled with every single control exercise Naruto encountered on his travels. Ino, on the other hand, adores the rare and exotic seeds she gets. They're a mixture of flowers that have no purpose beyond being pretty, and ingredients for poison. Because Ino clearly doesn’t have enough poisons already.

Meiri has a moment where she remembers that she’s the only civilian among ninja.

As for Obito and Rin, they get an army of plush animals. They’re bright, colorful and sinfully soft, and they win over Obito and Rin completely. Naruto just became their best friend for at least a few days. That’s before he adds in the puzzles, coloring books, action figures, and various other toys.

“How on earth did you get enough money to pay for all this?” Meiri asks with incredulity.

“I’m lucky,” Naruto says with a grin, pleased with the reaction his gifts have inspired.

Meiri raises a brow at him, telling him some elaboration would be nice.

“I went gambling.”

Sasuke lets out a startled chuckle, amused and more than a little impressed. Naruto’s luck in games of chance is ridiculous, but he hadn’t expected the idiot to actually take advantage of it by going gambling.

“Those poor casino’s,” Ino says with a grin, though she doesn’t look away from the flowers she’s drawing on Obito’s arm. When Obito discovered markers that glow, he wasted no time in begging Ino to make his hands look pretty. She does it best after all. Ino obligingly started drawing flowers on his hands. 

Rin, on the other hand, has built herself a throne of plushies and grabbed the most complicated puzzle she could find. Which was a puzzle meant for him, not the kids, but Rin couldn’t care less about that. Progress is slow going, this is too advanced even for her, but Rin isn't letting that stop her. She doesn't believe in silly things like not being able to do something.

Naruto is frequently glancing at her progress, slow but undeniably there. He's as incredulous as he is impressed. It’s one thing to know that Rin is a prodigy. It’s something else entirely to see it in person.

“I’m surprised you didn’t get kicked out,” Sakura says, only half joking. Naruto gives her a foxy grin, looking ridiculously pleased with himself.

“I know when to quit.”

“You really don’t,” he says without thought, Sakura and Ino voicing the same sentiment just as reflexively.

“I know when to quit when it comes to gambling,” Naruto amends without missing a beat, his grin growing even wider. Delighted by their synchronized roasting of him. “But I didn’t just buy them,” he continues and gives a nod at the small chest filled with spools of wire that Sasuke is examining. Enough to last him for a pretty decent time, depending on how careful he is with it. “That was a gift from Himura, a really cool old guy from the Land of Iron. His family has been smithing for ages. There was this evil samurai dude that was forcing him to make weapons by threatening his family, but he was, like, sneaky evil, you know? So no one knew that this guy was forcing Himura to make him weapons.”

It’s almost comforting to see that Naruto is still just as affected by Team Seven’s particular brand of “luck” as the rest of them.

“Obviously me and Pervy Sage stopped him.”

Obviously.

“And Himura was really grateful and said I could pick out any weapon and he’d make it for me, but I’m good with just kunai. Which I blow up, so it seemed like a waste to have him make some for me. But this was around the time you were telling me about that saber thingie Nekonin got you.”

Kakashi looks physically pained at having his father’s sword referred to as that saber thingie.  Sasuke knows he looks exactly the same and he lays a protective hand on the saber’s hilt. The Chakra Saber is one of the most valuable swords in the world for very good reason. And Naruto is talking about it like it’s no more special than any sword you can buy in a random weapons shop.

“And you were saying how much you love the channeling stuff, so I figured, why not have the same kind of wire?”

What.

He quickly examines the wire again. He’d noticed the metal wasn’t standard of course, but does Naruto actually mean...

He picks up a spool and sends chakra through the metal.

The metal glows.

Holy shit.

“You got me wire made out of chakra conducting metal? ” How the hell did Naruto manage that? How did the blacksmith manage that? This kind of metal gets so much harder to treat the less there is of it, and to make wire out of it? He didn’t even know that was possible!

Tenten is going to be so jealous.

“You like?” Naruto asks like the answer isn’t obvious.

“I love.” He’s testing this out as soon as possible. Will have to be careful using it in real battle, wire is one of the easiest things to destroy. But he’s absolutely going to be using this as much he can.

He wonders how it’ll react to elemental chakra. Normal wire only allows him to send low level flames down the metal, or cause some minor shocks with lightning chakra, but with this...

Definitely testing this out as soon as possible.

“Great. Let me know how it performs, Himura was really curious about that. He’s never made ninja wire before.”

Of course he hasn’t. Who even thinks of making chakra conductive wire? Naruto, that’s who.

Wait a minute.

“You got this for free?” Yes, he said that, but Naruto got this for free? This is worth a fortune!

“What family does Himura belong to?” Ino asks before Naruto can answer, an excellent question. There’s no way this HImura is just a random blacksmith. There’s no way he’s “just” a great one. This displays a mastery no Hidden Village would let go unmonitored. The Land of Iron might have samurai instead of ninja, but Sasuke can’t imagine them reacting any differently to skill like this.

“That’s kind of the definition of a gift, bastard. And he's part of the Seijuro family.”

The name niggles at the back of his mind in a way that means he once saw it with his Sharingan. He’s pulling up the relevant information when Kakashi lets out a strangled noise, confirming that Seijuro Himura definitely isn’t just any blacksmith. This is further confirmed by the information he pulls up. He’s encountered that name in all but one book containing information of the Land of Iron, and it’s always mentioned in the same way. Namely, the Seijuro are renowned for their mastery at creating chakra conducting weapons.

Given how little information there is about the Land of Iron, the Seijuro being mentioned practically every single time shows just how influential they are.

“You know him?” Naruto asks, half genuinely curious, half pretending to be ignorant of what Kakashi’s reaction means just to mess with him.

“In a way. The Seijuro are renowned as the most talented blacksmiths in the Land of Iron.”

Translation, they’re undisputed Master Smiths. As in, the kind that definitely wouldn’t be allowed to take commissions without the General’s or the Shogun’s permission. Or rather, shouldn’t be allowed.

Naruto’s luck really is still exactly the same.

“Yeah, the old guy is really amazing,” Naruto says like he’s talking about a random guy he met on the street. “You should’ve seen his house, it was full of weapons I’d never even heard of. Tenten would’ve loved it.”

Sasuke listens with helpless amusement as Naruto talks about his meeting with a Politically Important Person like it’s no big deal. The idiot hasn’t changed one bit.

Sakura, competitive as always, shares some of her own meetings with ridiculously influential people. Naruto knows about the most important ones already of course, but that still leaves a lot of “minor” absurdity for her to share.

Sasuke, not to be outdone by his teammates, adds in some of his own tales. He can’t share as many as them, a lot of the ridiculousness he’s gone through is classified, but he still has a number of stories to share.

Kakashi, Meiri and Ino share a look of complete agreement. Even after all this time, they keep being incredulous over the sheer absurdity of the messes his team keeps stumbling into. There’s a reason people believe Team Seven is cursed.

Really though, they don’t set out to end up in these situations. Things just tend to happen wherever they go. What are they supposed to do, ignore it? Yeah right. Even if they wanted to, most of the time they literally can’t.

The final victim of Team Seven’s curse soon joins them. Yamato-sensei told them to meet at their usual training field, but there’s still over an hour left when he shows up at the door.

Naturally, Naruto has a mountain of souvenirs for him as well. Yamato-sensei is especially delighted by the seeds and cuttings he gets. Unlike with Ino, these are all pretty plants Naruto encountered that he thought Yamato-sensei would enjoy.

Yamato-sensei enjoys them a lot. 

The remaining time is filled with more talking, teasing and laughing. It’s loud and chaotic, and Sasuke feels content in a way he hasn’t in ages. He wasn’t unhappy while Naruto was gone or anything, but Naruto’s absence was always at the back of his mind.

It no longer is.

He takes a few pictures with his Sharingan, ensuring he’ll remember this reunion forever. Once, he sees Kakashi lower his headband back over his own Sharingan, though of course he doesn’t see the actual taking of pictures. While Kakashi doesn’t mind letting them know what he’s doing, he never lets them actually see him capture happy memories, because Kakashi sucks at expressing his feelings even more than Yamato-sensei does. In some ways at least.

Meiri gets out the camera and joins them in taking pictures. Naruto won’t be absent from the timeline displayed in their house for much longer.

When the two hour mark nears, Sensei starts herding them out the door, because punctuality is very important to Yamato-sensei. Normally Sasuke agrees with him but this time he wouldn’t have minded being a little late. A lot late even.

Yamato-sensei, merciless as ever, ensures they’re ready to go with ten minutes to spare. A true accomplishment, given that Naruto and Meiri are dragging out their goodbye as long as possible. Honestly, Meiri is acting like Naruto is about to disappear for another two years. The feeling is understandable of course, but she’s still overreacting.

They reach the training field with less than a minute to spare.

“So what did you bring us here for, Sensei?” Naruto asks like the answer isn’t obvious. The cheeky grin he gives Yamato-sensei reveals he’s well aware of what that reason is. Good. If Naruto had actually been unaware, Sasuke would have honestly feared that he contracted some type of brain damage during his trip.

Yamato-sensei gives them a grave and serious look that definitely isn't masking a smile.

“You’ve been gone for over two years, Naruto. It only makes sense to see how much you’ve improved.”

“And just how are you planning to test his improvement?” Sakura asks with a smile, already knowing what the answer will be. Under these circumstances, there’s only one thing that would fit.

Yamato-sensei reaches into his vest and confirms their expectations.

He takes out two bells.


 

Three Years Ago

“No.”

The refusal escapes him without thought, still reeling from the most ridiculous, most unfair, most stupid thing he’s ever heard.

“No?” Yamato returns in a voice that doesn’t reveal anything at all, his expression still as unreadable as before. Like he didn’t just give them a complete bullshit test.

“No, we aren’t doing this!” Naruto yells, angrily waving his hands around and trying to skewer Yamato with his glare.

“All of us pass or none of us do,” Sakura joins in, clenching her fists in a way that means violence is about to happen. Sasuke crosses his arms to prevent himself from doing something he shouldn’t. Like punch Yamato in the nuts.

Yamato lowers the hand that’s holding the stupid bells and looks at them like he’s trying to figure out how serious they are. Sasuke makes his glare even fiercer, letting Yamato know that he’s dead serious about this.

“You can take your stupid test and shove it up your ass,” Naruto snaps with a glare as fierce as his.

“And by test, he means the bells,” Sakura says with the sweet smile that means she’s got murder on her mind.

Yamato doesn’t react to the threat in any way. It pisses him off even more.

Naruto’s scowl grows even deeper and he crosses his arms. Biting back the urge to keep cursing out Yamato.

Sakura, on the other hand, is fighting the urge to punch that infuriatingly calm expression from Yamato’s face. Sasuke understands completely.

None of them give in to their urges. Doing so would feel too much like admitting defeat.

Despite that, it gets so much more difficult to stay in control as the silence stretches. Seriously, what the hell is Yamato thinking? Giving them a test where one of them is guaranteed to fail? That’s bullshit. It’s like they’re being punished for graduating and that makes no sense at all. All of them deserve to graduate.

His respect for Yamato had already been low to begin with, but this has made it hit rock bottom. In fact, he wants to fail. Repeating their year is worth it if it means they get another teacher than this asshole.

“I wasn’t expecting a reaction like this,” Yamato says, breaking the silence at last.

“That seems like a pretty big oversight on your part, sensei,” Sakura says with another murderously sweet smile, the title delivered in the most insulting way possible. Annoyingly, Yamato doesn’t seem bothered by her words in any way.

Sakura scowls, as frustrated by the lack of reaction as he is. She takes out her frustration by stomping down the earth hard enough to crack it. Again, Yamato doesn’t react beyond glancing down at the damage she did.

“Yeah, that’s real stupid of you,” Naruto goads, trying to break through Yamato’s aggravating calm.

Yamato ignores him as easily as he ignored Sakura. He looks at the three of them like he’s considering his next move.

“...Why do you think I’m giving you this test?”

“Because you’re an asshole?” Naruto asks sarcastically but Sasuke is far more focused on Sakura’s retort.

“There’s an actual reason?”

Yes. Yes, there actually is.

“You’re testing our loyalty.” It makes sense, it makes so much sense. Of course this isn’t about getting the bells. This is about seeing whether they’ll work together no matter what. It’s to see if they’ll protect each other no matter what.

It’s to make sure none of them are like That Man.

“He’s testing our what now?” Naruto asks with a frown.

“Of course,” Sakura says at the same time, wide eyes meeting his own as she gets it as well.

“He’s testing us to see if we’ll turn on each other,” he explains to the idiot, most of his attention on Yamato. Yamato didn’t react to his words but Sasuke knows he’s right. He can’t even be mad about being tricked like this.

Not when it lets him prove that he isn’t like That Man.

“Wait, so if we agreed to take the test, we would’ve failed?” Naruto’s eyes widen to saucers before he clasps his hands together and looks at Yamato like a hopeful puppy. “Does that mean we pass?”

“No.”

“What? Why not?” Sakura demands, taking the words right out of his mouth. “We proved our loyalty. We pass.”

Or else.

Once again, Yamato is completely unaffected by her threat.

“That isn’t the only reason for this test.”

It isn’t?

“What’s the other reason?” Naruto demands, no longer angry, just very excited.

He’s no longer worried that they’re going to fail. Which, obviously they aren’t. They might not have finished the test yet, but they’ve figured out the most important part. Now they just need to figure out the rest.

So what’s the other reason Yamato has for doing this? Reasons? He never said there was only one other reason after all.

“If I tell you, it ruins the purpose of the test,” Yamato explains to the idiot, but Sasuke is more focused on figuring out the remaining reasons. The most important reason was to make sure they aren’t like That Man. What else?

“Not just our loyalty...” Sakura mutters, chewing her bottom lip as she tries to figure it out as well. Naruto squints at nothing and joins them in brainstorming.

“This is supposed to be survival training,” Naruto says slowly, apparently having an idea of what the solution might be. “Did you want to see what we think survival means?”

“Yes.”

The lack of anything more reveals that there’s still at least one other reason for the test.

“It’s supposed to simulate a survival mission,” Sakura emphasizes, convinced that she’s figured it out. Strangely, she looks a lot less excited than she should be. There is some excitement, but mostly she looks... solemn. “Sometimes you get a mission you know you won’t survive.”

What.

“That’s stupid,” Naruto says, taking the words right out of his mouth.

Sakura rolls her eyes, losing her unnervingly grave air.

“I’m not saying we’re going to die. I’m saying we might get missions where people think we’re going to die.”

“What will you do if that happens?”

The questions draws their attention back to Yamato. Yamato still looks unreadable, but just the fact that he asked means that Sakura is on the right track.

“If you’re given a mission where you’re told one of you is guaranteed to die,” Yamato continues in that voice that reveals nothing at all, “what will you do?”

“Take it of course,” Naruto replies without hesitation, completely catching him off guard. Why would Naruto take a mission like that? “There’s no way any of us would die.”

Ah. That makes a lot more sense.

“Arrogance will get you killed,” Yamato says, still without any sign of what he's thinking. It’s really annoying.

Sakura puts her fist on her hip and gives Yamato a smug smile.

“It isn’t arrogance if it’s true.”

No it isn’t. But she still sounds pretty arrogant. Yeah, they’re no longer weak, but they aren’t strong enough yet either.

“And just because people think we’re going to die, doesn’t mean we will,” Naruto repeats her previous words, putting his hands behind his head with a cocky grin. “It just means we have to be more sneaky.”

“What if you aren’t sneaky enough?” Yamato counters. “What if you’re faced with the choice of losing a teammate or failing the mission?”

“We fail the mission,” Naruto says before he can. Sakura nods her agreement.

“Even though you’ll cause problems for Konoha if you do?”

“We can fix that later,” Naruto says with a dismissive wave of his hand. “But we can’t fix someone if they’re dead. So, save our teammate first, fix our mess later.”

Sasuke nods his own agreement and lifts his chin with defiance when Yamato looks at him. This time Yamato isn't unreadable. Instead he's giving off a disapproving air.

When Yamato turns his disapproval towards Sakura, she flips her hair like Ino normally does, silently telling him she agrees with Naruto as well. And if Yamato doesn’t like it, he can go shove it.

“You pass.”

They what?

Naruto recovers from his shock first, jumping into the air with a whoop of joy.

“Yes! We did it! We passed, we really did, we passed, dattebayo!”

Naruto grabs Sakura’s hands and drags her into a victory dance. Not that Sakura is complaining. She’s laughing loudly and gleefully joins him in jumping around.

Sasuke, on the other hand, is torn. Yes, he’s happy, overjoyed even, but...

“Why do we pass?”

He thought Yamato didn’t like that they’d choose to save their teammate instead of completing the mission. Was he wrong? Was it another attempt to trick them? That... would fit with the rest of test, actually.

“Because we’re awesome!” Naruto cheers, bouncing over and slinging his arm around his shoulders, but Sasuke is more focused on Yamato.

“Because teamwork is the most important thing to a shinobi,” he says, making Naruto and Sakura pay attention again. “Yes, you must do all you can to complete the mission, but you must do so together. A lone root cannot support a tree.”

“But a lot of roots can,” Naruto says with a huge grin, still giddy with victory.

Yamato smiles. It’s not a big one or anything, but even a small smile is really weird to see after him being neutral for so long.

“Yes, they can.”

Naruto laughs and shakes him by the shoulder, too excited to stay still.

“We passed!”

With that, he and Sakura resume their victory dance. This time Sasuke gets dragged along as well, both of them grasping his hands. He doesn’t jump around like the two idiots are doing, but he doesn’t pull away either, a giddy smile growing as it starts to sink in that they passed. They’re real ninja now. No one can ever take that away from them.

“You won’t always be able to save your comrades,” Yamato says and Sasuke knows that what he’s saying is important, but it’s hard to pay attention when the idiots are still cheering like crazy. “But it’s important that you try.”

“Because those who abandon the rules are trash,” Naruto says, leaving it to him and Sakura to finish the saying.

“But those who abandon their comrades are worse than trash,” they chorus and then Sakura bursts out giggling. Naruto, of course, starts laughing like a loon as well. Sasuke doesn’t join in the laughter, but he’s grinning very hard.

They passed.

After a few moments, Yamato breaks up their party.

“I still need to test your combat skills.”

“But we passed, right?” Naruto immediately demands, needing to know for sure. Sakura gives Yamato a warning glare that means the answer better be yes. Sasuke does the same, despite being mostly sure that Yamato won’t go back on his word. Mostly.

“Yes,” Yamato says and it gets rid of his returning tension. Naruto and Sakura relax as well. “But I still need to evaluate your skills. I can’t teach you unless I know what you can already do.”

That makes sense.

“So we’re going to spar?” he asks, amused that Meiri turned out to be wrong after all. Well no, she wasn’t, the actual test didn’t involve any sparring. But they still need to show Yamato that they can fight.

Yamato’s smile becomes friendly. He lifts the hand still holding the bells and makes them jingle.

“We are. The goal is to get both bells from me.”

Naruto’s grin turns wicked, while Sakura cracks her knuckles in the way she always does when she’s about to kick ass. Sasuke knows his own expression is, as Meiri puts it, way too predatory for someone so tiny.

Yamato told them to get the bells.

What kind of ninja would they be if they refused to follow orders?


 

“You sure you want to do this, Sensei?” Naruto asks with a cocky grin. “We aren’t kids anymore.”

“You’re right, you aren’t,” Yamato-sensei says and Sasuke feels himself straighten with pride, Naruto and Sakura doing the same. This isn’t the first time Sensei has said something like this, but for some reason it feels different. Maybe because he’s saying it to all three of them instead of just him and Sakura. “Which means I won’t hold back this time,” Sensei finishes.

“Pretty sure that isn’t going to save you, Sensei,” Sakura says with a smirk and a crack of her knuckles.

She’s right, it won’t save him. They’re already evenly matched when it’s just him and Sakura. Adding Naruto in the mix means that their victory is guaranteed.

Yamato-sensei gives them the friendly smile that means he’s got an ace up his sleeve. It makes his excitement grow. This is going to be great.

“It wouldn’t if I was alone.”

Which begs the question. Who’s teaming up with him?

“Sorry I’m late.”

Oh shit.

“I had to make sure a couple of kittens were looked after,” Kakashi says, sauntering past them like he was there all along and didn’t drop out of stealth without warning.

“You’re teaming up with Nekonin?” Naruto demands with horror, his previous confidence dust in the wind. Sakura’s expression shows just how royally screwed they are as well. Sasuke knows he looks exactly the same. Kakashi kicks their ass more often than not even when it’s two on one. Hell, even adding in Ino doesn’t guarantee them victory. And now he’s teaming up with Sensei? This is completely unfair.

“I am,” Yamato-sensei says calmly. He’s laughing so hard at their reaction.

Yamato-sensei throws one of the bells at Kakashi. Who catches it without ever losing his cheerful smile. Having just as much fun with their reaction as Sensei is.

“The spar would be a bit unfair otherwise,” the sadist says like his participation doesn’t obliterate their chances of success.

“And this isn’t unfair?” Sakura demands incredulously, taking the words right of his mouth.

“Life’s a bitch,” Kakashi quips without a shred of compassion. Yamato-sensei watches them with the serene air that means they have no chance in hell of getting him to change his mind.

They’re actually going to do this.

The thought snaps him out of his shock.

They’re going to do this. The two of them are teaming up against him, Naruto and Sakura. And they’re convinced that they’re going to win.

Screw that.

Sasuke shifts his stance to a battle ready one, activating his Sharingan and drawing the Chakra Saber. His reaction is enough for Naruto and Sakura to get their head in the game as well. They take on their own battle stances and ready their chakra. Unlike Sakura’s subtle display, Naruto becomes a bonfire. Sasuke can actually see his chakra course beneath his skin, that’s how much there is. It’s genuinely distracting how bright he is. Something to watch out for in the spar.

“Well. Seems like you’re all taking this seriously,” Kakashi says with a smile that does nothing to diminish the calculation he’s watching them with. Letting them know he isn’t fooling around either.

Yamato-sensei takes on his own battle stance, his expression turning blank in a way it only does in a life or death situation. He wasn’t kidding about not holding back.

“Guess that means I better get serious as well.” With that, Kakashi lifts his headband and opens his Sharingan because of course he does. Him and Sensei working together clearly doesn’t put them at enough of a disadvantage already.

“We are going to destroy you,” Sakura vows softly, her resolve helping him get rid of his pessimistic attitude. What does it matter that Kakashi is going all out? They’re still going to win.

“Arrogance will get you killed,” Yamato-sensei says and Sasuke is suddenly and vividly reminded of the first time he ever said that.

Unlike then, Naruto is the one who answers him. And he does it with a grin that’s all teeth.

“It isn’t arrogance if it’s true.”

“That sounds like a challenge to me,” Kakashi says while taking on his own battle stance. Sasuke feels a wild grin grow, his blood rushing and his every nerve set alight.

He was right. This is going to be great.

“It’s a promise,” he says, taking up the gauntlet Kakashi has thrown down.

“Ready?” Yamato-sensei asks in a lethally soft voice. It makes the tension infusing the air even greater.

They’re going to win no matter what.

“Go.”


 

Three Years Ago

“Clone Technique!”

A sea of Naruto’s spring into existence, all rushing towards Yamato. The idiot can’t make a single clone to save his life, but he can flood an entire field with them no problem. Naruto is weird.

That’s all the thought Sasuke can spare before he finishes the Transformation Technique and turns into Naruto. Running with the clones, he closes in on Yamato. Yamato can probably pick him out of the illusions, Kakashi always can, but the point isn’t to hide.

The point is to create an opportunity for Sakura to get the bells. Her chakra control is absurd, and it lets her replace herself with things way smaller than any of them can manage. Like rocks in Yamato’s blind spots.

She has the best chance at getting the bells. They only need to give her an opening.

The clones are helping to set up this opening by trying to grab the bells. They can’t of course, they aren’t solid, but they’re conditioning Yamato to ignore it when a Naruto goes for the bells.

Reaching Yamato, he aims a punch at his stomach, ready for the block Yamato performs. Ignoring the breaking of his transformation, he uses Yamato’s arm as a launch point, jumping up and trying to kick Yamato in the head. He isn’t surprised when Yamato avoids it with ease. He is, however, surprised when the hand not trying to grab his leg suddenly lashes out and catches the wrist of one of the many Naruto’s reaching for the bells. Sakura, who replaced herself with something in one of Yamato’s blind spots, the move hidden by the sea of Naruto’s.

“Summoning Technique!” he hears Naruto yell while he finishes dodging Yamato’s hand and goes low, sweeping out a leg in order to force Yamato to leap over it. Giving Sakura the opportunity to break his hold on her wrist.

Except while Yamato does leap over his leg, he throws Sakura away in the same movement, ruining her attempt to break free. Sakura lets out a startled yell that sounds really weird when she looks like Naruto, her transformation stable as ever. Then Yamato lands behind him and Sasuke is forced to throw himself in a back flip in order to avoid having his own arm grabbed. The brief moment he takes his eyes off Yamato lets him disappear. Damn it.

“Release!” he yells so Naruto knows his clones are now hindering instead of helping, eyes darting around before they shoot down as he feels the earth shift beneath his feet – he’s yanked away by the back of his shirt, fast enough that he needs a moment to process his new position.

“Hey, pup,” Akino says but Sasuke is more focused on the sight of Yamato shooting out of the ground, now Naruto free. Bull’s head pops out right after him, his teeth snapping closed on empty air.

Yamato is airborne.

Naruto and Sakura are already throwing kunai at Yamato while Sasuke races through hand seals and molds his chakra as fast he can. Yamato grabs a kunai himself and deflects the projectiles while he finishes his jutsu and lets it fly.

"Fire Release, Great Fireball."

His haste means that the fireball is incredibly sloppy, but that’s a price he’s willing to pay if it means getting Yamato.

Except Yamato, hand seals quick and precise, says “Water Release: Water Bullets.”

He spits out a big enough ball of water that his fireball disappears in a burst of steam, smaller bullets flying everywhere at the same time. Sasuke is forced to focus on dodging, absently aware that Akino is doing the same while staying near him, but he still hears the distinct sound of a summon dispelling. Damn it!

“Don’t think you’re going to win this,” Akino says like he’s commenting on the weather, because Akino is an asshole.

“Shut up and help,” he snaps while grabbing some shuriken and watching as Uhei, Bisuke and Sakura, no longer disguised as Naruto, launch an attack on Yamato. They’re trying to herd Yamato to traps they laid earlier, in the trees surrounding the field. The three of them met up half an hour before Yamato said they should, and they spend the time well.

Unfortunately, Yamato isn’t letting himself be herded to where they need him to go. Does he know about the traps? If it was Kakashi, the answer would be a resounding yes. Better assume that’s the case here as well.

“Rude,” Akino says before blurring forward and grabbing Sakura by the back of her shirt, yanking her away from Yamato. Who’d been about to grab her arm, Sasuke absently realizes, but he’s more focused on the suddenly lethal force Yamato is displaying. Yeah, it was already obvious that he was holding back, he moved a lot faster against the pack than he did against him and Sakura, but now he grabs a kunai and dispels Uhei with a merciless strike to the stomach. Bisuke himself is barely agile enough to avoid a dispelling blow, and he isn’t agile enough to avoid being kicked away.

Before Yamato can do anything else, Urushi and Bull pop out of the ground and bite down his ankles. Sasuke quickly throws his shuriken to take advantage of Yamato being grounded, Naruto joining his assault with with his own projectiles. Sakura starts racing forward to try to get the bells while Yamato is distracted, but she halts when she sees something very important.

Naruto’s kunai have explosion tags attached to them.

Sasuke half expects Yamato to perform a replacement, but instead he forms the snake seal and slams a hand down the ground. Whatever technique he uses makes Urushi and Bull let go, and Yamato leaps into the air to avoid the weapons they threw. He also grabs Naruto’s kunai in the process and throws them at Urushi and Bull.

The last he sees before the explosions dispel them is Urushi’s annoyed expression and Bull’s proud one. Which, proud? Never mind, not important. What’s important is that they’re screwed.

Naruto lets out the whistle that means the pack needs to keep their target busy, and Sasuke wastes no time in running towards him. Sakura, further away than him, arrives first by performing a replacement with a ridiculously small rock. Which is just showing off. Yeah, the Replacement Technique isn’t chakra intensive, but she could’ve just run over instead.

“We’re screwed,” she says while he skids to a halt besides them.

“So screwed,” Naruto agrees and yeah, they really are. Only Akino and Bisuke are left – did the water bullets take out Shiba, Guruko and Pakkun? Or does Kakashi have someone watching Meiri and Obito? – and while they’re skillfully tag teaming Yamato, Sasuke is pretty sure that the only reason they haven’t been dispelled yet is because Yamato wants to see what they’ll do next.

In that case.

“Light him up?”

His suggestion is greeted with wild grins. Sasuke feels a wild grin of his own grow.

Yamato did say he wanted to evaluate their combat skills.

They take up position and Sakura starts preparing her genjutsu, while Naruto gets ready to cast his wind jutsu. Sasuke prepares another Great Fireball, this time not rushing through it. The opposite. He needs to time his attack with Naruto, and Naruto isn’t exactly the fastest at molding chakra.

It’s a shame Ino isn’t here. Two genjutsus are a lot better than one.

Then again, this might be better. They don’t want to actually kill Yamato.

When Naruto is ready, Sakura casts her illusion.

“Yin Release, Vestibular Disruption,” she chants softly, reducing the odds of Yamato overhearing what the genjutsu will do. She could have cast it silently, but without Ino casting in time with her, the odds of the illusion failing to take hold are already big enough even with her casting it as best she can. Yamato, as this spar has forced him to admit, is a Jounin for a reason.

If Yamato is anything like Kakashi, the genjutsu will only have an effect if he lets it.

He really wishes they could wait and see if the illusion took hold or not. But if Yamato did fall for it, they can’t afford to give him the chance to dispel it.

“Fire Release, Great Fireball.”

This time his fireball is large and precise, no flames spilling everywhere. Most important of all, the core is as hot as he could make it.

Sakura lets out the whistle that means the pack needs to disengage right now.

“Wind Release, Concussive Gale!”

Naruto might not be the fastest at molding chakra, but he makes up for it by the sheer amount he stuffs into his techniques. Bad when it comes to techniques that need a set level to work, great when it comes to techniques he can just keep overloading. Like this one.

The roaring winds rush forward and hit his fireball.

The fireball explodes.

Sasuke has already lifted a hand to shield his eyes from the expected flare, feeling the heat even with the air rushing away from him. The fireball doesn’t really explode of course, but that’s what it looks like. The sphere bursts into a tornado of fire, scorching everything in its path.

He can’t actually see whether or not the attack hits Yamato, but he’s assuming it doesn’t. They weren’t really aiming to hit him. They’re just showing him what they can do.

“Did we get him?” Sakura asks anyway.

“Probably not,” Naruto says. Sasuke tries to spot Yamato through the smoke their attack left behind.

“Cutting it a bit close, pups.”

Akino’s voice right behind them makes them spin around. Sasuke, after realizing how vulnerable they are, quickly positions himself to cover some of their blind spots. Naruto and Sakura complete the formation more on habit than anything else, most of their attention still on Akino.

Akino looks unflappable as always. However, Bisuke, seated next to him, is giving them an annoyed look. He turns his flank and points his nose at a very small patch of singed fur.

“Yeah, this? Not cool. You three owe me big time,” he says like he couldn’t have dispelled himself to avoid having his fur singed.

Naruto grins and opens his mouth to reply but then something bursts out of the ground behind him and Sasuke has just enough time to realize that it’s Yamato before he’s flat on the ground, his back hurting and all the wind knocked out of him. Judging from the breathless noises he’s hearing, the same thing happened to Naruto and Sakura.

“Never assume your opponent is down until you’ve inspected their body,” Yamato says, sounding a lot like Akino for all that their voices have completely different pitches. “But overall, you fought well.”

That’s good?

He hears Naruto heave himself upright. With a groan, Sasuke forces himself to do the same. So does Sakura

He rubs his wrist, the limb aching in a way that means Yamato must’ve grabbed it to slam him down the ground. When Sasuke looks up at Yamato, he’s surprised to see that he’s smiling. He’s pleased? Why?

“We lost,” Sakura says, rubbing her own wrist and scowling fiercely. Hearing the words make him scowl as well.

They lost. They failed to get the bells –

The bells are no longer attached to Yamato’s belt.

“Did you?” Yamato asks while Sasuke wonders where the hell the bells went to. Did Akino get them? Did Bisuke?

“Yo.”

The greeting is accompanied by a jingling sound that makes all three of them snap their heads towards the source.

Pakkun lifts a paw in greeting. The bells are hanging from his mouth, the strings securely held by his teeth.

No way.

“You got the bells,” Naruto says, stunned.

“Yes!” Sakura cheers, throwing her arms into the air with victory. “We got them! We won!”

Naruto whoops with joy, his own hands flying into the air as well.

“Pakkun, you rock!”

Pakkun, in that bored couldn’t-care-less way of his, looks very pleased with himself. He trots over and plops down Naruto’s lap.

“Got a reward for me, pup?”

Naruto laughs and wastes no time in petting him in all his favorite places. Pakkun closes his eyes and his tail starts wagging.

“What are we, chopped liver?” Bisuke complains. Sakura laughs as well and scrambles over to him, pulling him in her lap and petting him in all the ways he likes while she thanks him for his help. Bisuke’s annoyance melts away in an instant and he basks in the cuddles he’s getting.

Akino trots over and sits down next to him, his head tilted in a telling way. A silent demand to be petted as well. Sasuke feels a helpless smile grow and obligingly lifts a hand to scratch behind his ears. The spot Akino can, in his own words, never scratch quite as well as human nails can.

Yamato keeps watching them a smile and it makes Sasuke’s own grow even bigger.

They didn’t beat him. In a real fight, Yamato would’ve kicked their asses no questions asked. But they accomplished their mission. They proved that they aren’t weak.

They’re only going to get stronger from here on out.


 

“Summoning Technique.”

Seals race out from beneath Kakashi’s hand. Naruto aborts his own summoning now that Kakashi has beaten him to the punch.

“Oh that’s–” not fair, is what he’d been about to say, but that’s when Sakura punches the earth with her signature control and shatters the ground in front of them. Preventing the pack from diving into the earth and forcing all ten of their opponents to find new footing.

Naruto falls silent, his jack slack and his pupils blowing up. This is hilarious.

That’s all the thought Sasuke can spare before he finishes replacing himself with one of the boulders, landing behind Pakkun and swinging his saber to take him out. Pakkun is by far the most dangerous of the pack, but that doesn’t mean he can afford to ignore the others. Which is why he channeled chakra through the blade, a wave of fire following the momentum of his strike.

Not needing to perform hand seals to perform high ranked elemental attacks is without a doubt the Chakra Sabre’s biggest benefit. Still needs to work on wind, water and earth, but his fire and lightning is definitely up to par.

“Why always fire?” Bisuke complains while taking cover behind one of the branches now slithering between the boulders, Guruko, Urushi and Shiba doing the same. Pakkun twisted out of the way of his strike, and Akino, used to fighting without sight, is already launching an attack. Bull and Uhei are right behind him, their eyes closed to avoid his Sharingan.

Unfortunately for them, Sakura joins him with a replacement and dispels both Bull and Uhei with a well placed punch and kick. Sasuke himself avoids Sensei’s attempts to skewer him with branches and blocks Kakashi’s attack on Sakura, his saber clashing with a kunai coated in chakra, preventing him from just slicing through. He needs to buy Sakura time to get rid of the pack. Her ability to dispel them with even a graze while also preventing them from diving into the ground means that she’s best suited to take them out.

Unfortunately for him, that means he’s up against Kakashi and Yamato-sensei alone. Fighting Kakashi at close range while Yamato supports him is not a good position to be in. Oh sure, Sensei is splitting his attention between Kakashi and the pack, but given that Kakashi can take him out all on his own, even a little support is overkill.

Now would be a really good time for the idiot to step in.

“Summoning Technique, Triple Threat!”

Five toads appear, one as big as a person – heavy armor, katana, highly developed muscular, senjutsu enhancing his physical abilities even further. Close combat specialist – the rest small enough to hold – no armor, no weapons, build for speed and agility, water natured chakra. Two extremely skilled at senjutsu. A pair of ninjutsu specialists and a pair skilled at breaking illusions – The big one unsheathes his katana and launches forward, his eyes closed – sensing his surroundings through senjutsu – as he offers Sasuke some much appreciated aid. The ninjutsu specialists go after Sensei, darting around with impressive speed and agility while they aim minor but lethal water techniques at Yamato-sensei. It isn’t enough to put Sensei in any real danger, but it occupies him enough that Sakura can take out Bisuke and Shiba.

Unfortunately, they did it on purpose, and their sacrifice gives Pakkun the opportunity to dive into the ground. Urushi and Akino occupy Sakura long enough for Pakkun to get some much needed distance from her. Kakashi and Sensei prevent him from performing an earth jutsu to flush out Pakkun as well.

The remaining pair of toads have planted themselves on Naruto’s shoulders – are they really bickering over who’s turn it is to go shopping? – and Naruto, both his thumbs cut open and his hands glowing brightly – preventing his healing factor from getting rid of the cuts – slams his hands down the ground.

"Summoning Technique, Fire Storm Combo."

Familiar seals race over the ground. They’re more refined and far more complex than they used to be, but he’d recognize that mixture of chicken scratch and misshapen pictures everywhere. Seems they’re finally going to see Naruto’s own summons in action. More specifically, they’re about to see a lizard and an eagle, though he doesn’t have the time to analyze why his Sharingan came to that conclusion.

Even with the support of the toad, Kakashi has them on the defensive. The only good news is that the other two toads are occupying Sensei enough that Sensei has decided to limit himself to supporting the pack. Or rather, supporting Urushi. He’s the only one left, and he’s changed his tactics from attacking to retreating. Yes, Sakura could allow him to get away and go after Sensei, but allowing any of the pack to prepare a sneak attack is just asking to be taken out at the worst time possible. It’s bad enough already that Pakkun got away.

"Wood Release, Four-Pillar Prison Technique."

Sakura replaces herself just in time to avoid being trapped, and another quick punch to the earth prevents Ururshi from diving into the ground. She quickly closes the distance again, but Yamato-sensei slows her down just enough for Ururshi to avoid getting taken out yet again.

Fortunately, Naruto decides to fix that. He summons a lizard as big as his torso – no armor, no weapons, build for speed, fire nature. Mid to long range support – and the lizard takes a deep breath while Naruto’s second summon appears – large eagle, no armor, enhanced talons, wind nature, used to carrying Naruto. Long range with close combat capabilities – The eagle flaps her wings just as the lizard spits out a ball of what seems to be almost liquid fire, enhancing the lizard’s attack and forcing Yamato to take cover.

Kakashi, still having the upper hand on him and the toad, manages to disengage long enough to get rid of the two toads still assaulting Sensei through a combination of earth jutsu and impeccably thrown kunai. Sakura, finally able to get rid of Urushi now that Yamato-sensei is no longer supporting him, hones in on Sensei and ensures he can’t start supporting Kakashi. Sensei creates four wood clones right before she’s on him, but he doesn’t send them in yet.

Sakura has noticed two of them.

“Four clones!” he yells while he catches up to Kakashi and engages him again. Sakura doesn’t bother wasting energy by acknowledging his words, well aware that isn’t necessary. The Sharingan is awesome like that.

Naruto summons two tigers – armored, enhanced teeth and claws, skilled at Yin Release, more used to fighting together than alone. Close quarter genjutsu specialists – and they waste no time in joining Sakura against Yamato-sensei, their chakra warping their appearance and hindering Sensei’s ability to take aim at them. The illusion goes deeper than just the visual, Sensei is having trouble determining their movements through his chakra sense as well. Combined with the need to avoid Sakura’s every hit, Sensei is suitably occupied.

Except then Sensei sends in his clones to keep them busy and joins Kakashi in his assault against him and the toad, unsealing his sword and meeting the toad's katana. The sudden support means that Kakashi can get rid of the toad, before he disengages and hones in on Naruto, deciding that he’s the biggest threat. Which, given that Naruto has just summoned another ally – wolf, enhanced claws and teeth, build for speed, lightning natured. Close combat specialist – is not an inaccurate assessment. Seriously, he knew that Naruto was signing contracts left and right, but just how many summons does he have?

If this wasn't a spar, he could call up that information, as well as all the information he's shared about his summons in his letters. Unfortunately, he doesn't have any attention to spare. Not only is he busy fighting Sensei, but he needs to keep an overview of the battlefield so he can warn Naruto and Sakura if they miss something.

He sends out a wave of raw chakra when Sensei creates a flower that releases a wave of knockout gas, agitating the air and blowing it away before it can affect him. The lizard and eagle combine their natures for another fire storm, but Kakashi dodges by taking to the earth. Crap.

The wolf joins him against Sensei, moving with literal lightning speed – so that's how you need to manipulate your chakra – and he takes the opportunity to warn the lizard.

"Lizard, he's gone underground!" 

Instead of heeding his warning, the lizard actually stays in place and gives him an insulted look.

"Lizard? I'm–"

Dispelled by Kakashi bursting out of the ground and ramming a kunai into his vulnerable underbelly. Great.

Luckily, the wolf's lightning manipulation means his own speed is boosted enormously – it's so simple now that he knows the correct way to do it – and Sensei is barely keeping up with their combined assault. Sensei is trying to create some distance but Sasuke won't let him, and then the wolf manages to bite down Sensei's arm and yes – Pakkun shoots out the ground and bites down the wolf's throat, dispelling her and allowing Sensei to dodge what would've been a game ending strike. He does at least manage to wound Sensei's arm, putting him under a noticeable penalty, though his healing factor means it won't affect him for long. He also uses his newfound speed to get rid of Pakkun. No more surprise attacks from him.

Kakashi has engaged Naruto in close combat. It immediately became clear that while Naruto’s taijutsu has improved greatly, he’s nowhere near his or Sakura’s level, and definitely nowhere near Kakashi’s. Even the support the toads on his shoulders offer isn’t enough to balance the scales. The toads might be preventing him from being affected by Kakashi’s Sharingan – that is a very intriguing use of senjutsu – but that isn’t enough to put Naruto on his level by far. As Kakashi demonstrates by grabbing both of Naruto’s sleeves and swiping his palm over Naruto’s thumbs with a surge of chakra, disrupting Naruto’s trick to keep his healing factor from kicking in. The small cuts are gone in an instant and Kakashi finishes his plan to take out Naruto’s ability to summon by flicking off every drop of his blood. 

The idiot responds with an indignant squawk and a sloppy attempt to break Kakashi’s hold on him.

All right, it isn’t sloppy. But it isn’t skilled enough either. Not against Kakashi. 

The toads help Naruto mold his chakra into a Rasengan, but that doesn’t solve his main problem. Namely, that Kakashi is dodging all his hits.

It’s ironic that Kakashi is known for his ninjutsu when his greatest skill is actually his taijutsu. Having Gai as an Eternal Rival will do that.

He’s just about to signal Sakura to go help the idiot when Sakura, having taken out three clones, sensibly decides that taking out the last one is no longer a priority. She gives the idiot some urgently needed aid with a quick replacement, her appearance forcing Kakashi to abort what would have been a game ending strike on Naruto.

The eagle tries to take advantage of his dodge by diving down and attack him with her claws. Not a good idea. 

Kakashi's Sharingan catches her eyes and he wastes no time in casting a genjutsu. The eagle doesn't even notice when he starts subtly messing with her perception. Crap.

"Eagle is under a genjutsu!" he yells, startling Naruto a dangerous amount. Double crap.

Fortunately, Sakura ensures Kakashi can't take advantage of Naruto's distraction. She does,'t however, manage to keep Kakashi from staying near enough to Naruto that he can't start summoning again.

Naruto grabs a kunai, an explosion seal blooming beneath his touch – low charge, triggering mechanism unknown – but he doesn't detonate it because of Sakura's proximity. Idiot. Sakura is more than capable of protecting herself against a minor blast like that.

"Just blow him up!" Sakura yells, and Naruto hesitates only for the briefest of moments before throwing his kunai. Kakashi was about to catch it, confident that he could throw it away fast enough to avoid the explosion, but Naruto's sense of victory warns him that catching it is not a good idea. He dodges it instead. Naruto scowls.

The eagle dives down for another attack, her flight path off. Then, with absolutely no warning, something that startles him enough that Sensei almost manages to give him a penalty, one of the toads hops onto her talon – how did she do that? There was literally no warning – and breaks the genjutsu she’s caught in. The eagle startles violently but manages to adjust her flight path in time, though the attack is still easy for Kakashi to dodge. Kakashi doesn't bother casting another genjutsu, despite meeting her eyes. The toad would make that a waste of chakra.

Sasuke processes all of this while fighting Yamato-sensei. Using lightning chakra to boost his speed means he can't use any other natures, not without giving up that speed, but the support of the tigers covers that weakness. They're preventing Sensei from using any large scale techniques. Sensei is on the defensive.

In fact...

Grabbing the wire Naruto got him, he manages to ensnare Yamato-sensei and pulls the wire taut while sending chakra through it.

He almost shocks himself, the metal glowing as Sensei replaces himself with a hastily formed wood construct.

The wire slices through the wood like it isn't even there and the voltage is actually powerful enough to make the pieces explode.

Oh he loves this.

Yamato-sensei gets rid of one of the tigers while Sasuke stops boosting himself with lightning. Snapping his wrist so the wire will twist together like a whip and attaching it to his saber, he throws it at Sensei with a surge of fire chakra.

It sets the blade ablaze beautifully, forcing Sensei to dodge or risk getting some nasty burns.

Kakashi molds his chakra, too fast for him to do more than realize what’s about to happen and then he’s body flickering towards his saber and reaching through the flames and Sasuke is already snapping his wrist to get his saber out of Kakashi’s reach but he’s too slow and oh shit, they’re so screwed – Sakura saves all their asses with a lightning fast replacement and an even faster punch, preventing Kakashi from getting his hands on his saber. Her attack is so rushed that she almost gets taken out by Sensei in the process, and she earns an injury to her ribs that significantly hampers her mobility.

Kakashi gets rid of the remaining tiger with a well placed Chidori and goes after Sakura full force, planning to take her out by taking advantage of her injury and Yamato’s support.

“Experiment later, kick ass now,” Sakura orders while dodging both Kakashi’s Chidori and a root trying to skewer, punching another root and turning it to tinder. The only reason she isn’t glaring at him is because she can’t afford to take her eyes off Kakashi’s feet.

Sasuke has already yanked his saber back, boosting his speed again while putting the wire away and racing forward. Sakura won’t last long against Kakashi and Sensei both.

His saber clashes with a kunai coated in chakra. Kakashi’s Sharingan catches his own and Sasuke unravels the probes he sends before they can take hold, not bothering to launch any illusions himself. He isn’t the greatest at genjutsu. Normally the Sharingan neutralizes this weakness, but against Kakashi that doesn’t matter one bit. Kakashi himself isn’t expecting to catch him in an illusion, but just unraveling the probes takes up enough of his focus to put him at a disadvantage. Even his newfound speed isn't enough to give him the upper hand.

Fighting Kakashi one on one sucks. Fortunately, Naruto has bitten open his thumbs again. He summons three bunnies – no armor, build for speed, very sharp teeth. More used to fighting together than alone, but lacking real combat experience – The bunnies hit the ground and dart forward with impressive speed, joining him against Kakashi just in time to prevent Kakashi from giving him a penalizing strike. Sakura has engaged Yamato-sensei in taijutsu and has managed to graze his ribs, putting Sensei under a significant penalty. Naruto starts summoning three toads, and he already knows two of them. Gamakichi and Gamatatsu.

Yamato-sensei, well aware that fighting Sakura at close range won’t end well for him even with her injury, replaces himself with a wooden construct right before Sakura would have taken him out, the wood turned to tinder by her punch. Sakura takes the opportunity to get rid of her injury.

The toads appear. Gamakichi and Gamatatsu are much more skilled and much larger than last he saw them. After a brief moment to assess the situation, they start assaulting Sensei with a combination of ninjutsu, one of them spitting oil while the other sets it alight.

However, the unknown toad – small, build for speed, genjutsu specialist. Exceptionally skilled at senjutsu, though not as much as the toads on Naruto and the eagle – doesn't move at all.

Naruto’s reaction makes clear this is not what she’s supposed to do.

“Really, Tsuyu?”

The toad doesn't say anything, but her serene air is very pointed. Naruto becomes more annoyed and exasperated, but he isn't surprised. 

 

“Wood Release, Wood Locking Wall.”

Yamato-sensei takes cover from the fire. Sakura finishes getting rid of her injury and goes after him again, but given that the last time she fought together Gamakichi and Gamatatsu they were small enough to hold...

 

He glances at her and sends a probe. It’s not a true genjutsu, that she would shrug off on reflex. Instead he’s tapping his chakra against her own in a distinctive pattern, sending a signal Sakura knows by heart.

With a quick glance at him to prepare for the position she’s about to be in, Sakura replaces herself with him, taking on Kakashi. Sasuke goes on the offensive against Sensei, weaving between the techniques the toads are throwing around with all the ease granted to him by his Sharingan, coordinating with Gamakichi and Gamatatsu in a way Sakura can't. The final toad Naruto summoned finally moves, darting forward and settling herself low on Sakura’s spine, on top of her Sixth Gate. She injects her chakra into Sakura, Sakura almost fighting her on reflex but she catches herself just in time.

Oh this is perfect.

"You can look at his Sharingan!" he yells with a grin. Sakura's eyes widen with shock but then she lifts her gaze from Kakashi's feet and meets his Sharingan.

The toad protects her from being caught in an illusion.

Sakura's grin is wild and fierce.

 

The fight continues, and by all rights, they should have taken out either Sensei or Kakashi by now. Naruto’s summons give them a literal army of allies. 

Kakashi and Yamato-sensei keep holding their own instead. While the summons are definitely pressuring them, they manage to get rid of them fast enough that they don’t get overwhelmed. Kakashi through a combination of taijutsu and impeccably timed ninjutsu and genjutsu, and Yamato-sensei by throwing around A-rank techniques like they’re candy. Sensei’s reserves might pale in comparison to Naruto’s, but compared to everyone else, they’re enormous. If Sasuke threw around jutsus like that, he'd already be down for the count from chakra exhaustion. Hell, even Sakura’s control would be nowhere near enough to compensate for the loss in chakra.

The worst part is that Kakashi and Yamato-sensei’s teamwork is better than theirs. Even with the three of them doing their best to keep Kakashi and Sensei apart, Sensei changes the landscape in such a way that it benefits Kakashi, and Kakashi supports him at key moments, either ruining an attack that would’ve taken Sensei out, or enhancing Sensei’s attacks and forcing them into too hasty maneuvers or risk getting taken out. As the fight continues, there are more and more cases of the latter.

This is ridiculous.

“I’ve got an idea,” he sees Naruto rush out while trying and failing to get away from Kakashi, who’s gotten rid of his ability to summon again. Sakura’s help is keeping him from being taken out, but Kakashi is still preventing Naruto from gaining enough distance to summon another ally. Bad, given that only the three Sharingan neutralizing toads and a goat are left – seriously, how many? – and the goat is about to be taken out by Yamato-sensei as well.

“Better be a good one,” Kakashi says cheerfully, ducking under Sakura’s hit and aiming a kunai coated in lightning chakra at her stomach, forcing her to dodge and giving him the opportunity to close in on Naruto.

Naruto’s wicked smile reveals that his idea is a very good one indeed.

“The main character–”

All of them realize what Naruto’s plan is at the same time. Sensei with dread, him and Sakura with glee, and Kakashi with utter horror.

And then, instead of risking not being able to shut up Naruto in time for him to spoil the ending to the new Icha Icha, Kakashi aborts his strike to put his hands over his ears, block all sound with a surge of chakra and he closes his Sharingan.

Sakura wastes no time in taking him out. Not only does she score a direct hit at last but she manages to grab Kakashi’s bell in the same movement, that’s how wide open he is.

Kakashi, never opening his eyes or lowering his hands, twists around so he’ll land on his feet. Sakura’s punch send him flying but it didn’t do any real damage. It doesn’t have to. Her skill at adjusting her chakra output means that any direct hit from her counts as lethal.

In a real fight, Kakashi's torso would've splattered all over the ground.

Yamato-sensei finishes taking out the goat before he allows himself to react to what just happened. Sasuke puts some distance between them instead of taking advantage of the opening. As Yamato-sensei expected him to do. He never would’ve acted like this if he didn’t.

Sensei knows him so well. Of course he’s going to take a moment to savor this. This was glorious.

Sensei’s reaction only makes it better.

“Kakashi-san,” he says with utter betrayal as soon as Kakashi stops blocking his hearing. Kakashi opens his usual eye and makes everything even more wonderful by giving Sensei an incredibly defensive look.

“He was going to spoil the ending,” he says like it’s supposed to mean something. Yamato-sensei is not impressed. He keeps looking at Kakashi like Kakashi just stabbed him in the back, making Kakashi turn even more defensive.

This is beautiful. Sasuke is so happy he’s going to remember this forever.

“Hey, Sensei?” Naruto calls with another wicked grin. He takes out a kunai and spins it around on one finger. An explosive seal blooms beneath his touch. “I don’t think the odds are in your favor anymore.”

Sakura agrees with a predatory smirk and an ominous crack of her knuckles, the sound enhanced with a threatening display of control. Sasuke, wearing a smirk of his own, joins the display by sending fire chakra through his saber and giving it a slow spin.

Sensei clearly doesn’t think the odds are in his favor anymore either. But he’s going to try his hardest to win anyway.

He doesn’t win.

To be fair to Sensei, he does put up a good fight. But without Kakashi, he’s no match for the three of them.

It doesn’t take long before they take him out as well.

Naruto yells with joy, while Sakura cackles like mad and lifts the hand holding both bells into the air with victory. Sasuke feels himself grin like a loon, high on victory as well because they did it, they beat Yamato-sensei and Kakashi!

“We are awesome,” he says while slinging his arms around Naruto and Sakura, unable to believe they actually did it! Yeah, it was a spar and Naruto’s trickery wouldn’t have worked in a real fight, but that doesn’t matter one bit. They won!

“Hell yeah we are!” Naruto, slinging his arm around him as well and shaking him almost too hard from sheer excitement.

Kakashi and Yamato-sensei are watching them with warm smiles. Their pride only makes him feel even more giddy.

“Imagine how much better we’ll be with Ino,” Sakura says with a wild grin and she’s right, she is so completely right. Adding Ino’s illusions and poisons to their skill set? The four of them would be unstoppable.

It’s taken them years, but they’re finally strong enough. They’re finally capable of facing whatever life throws at them.

They’re finally capable of protecting each other no matter.

Sasuke vowed he’d become a great ninja. On his own, he isn’t yet. But together they are. Together, there’s nothing in the world that can stand in their way.

Not even his brother.

Itachi’s days are numbered. They’re coming for him.

The only thing they need is an opportunity to take him out.


 


 

Three Years Ago

“You did well.”

His words make Tenzo smile cutely. Kakashi gives in to the urge to mess up his hair. Tenzo’s new haircut means that the effect is both greater and lesser than it used to be. His hair sticks up all over the place in a hilarious way, but it no longer tangles on the way down.

“Thank you, Kakashi-san,” Tenzo says while bringing up his hands to put his hair back in order, polite as ever. Even knowing Tenzo still thinks of him as his senpai, he kind of misses hearing it. “You trained them well.”

“Training them is going to be your job from now on, Yamato-sensei,” he teases, the code name rolling off his tongue smoothly. Tenzo will always be Tenzo to him, but Kakashi knows how uncomfortable he gets when not addressed properly.

Tenzo’s smile fades and he hunches his shoulders a little. A finger starts tapping his leg, near his kunai holster but not too near to register as a threat. Expressing discomfort and uncertainty. Kakashi, in an admittedly sentimental mood after seeing the brats utterly demolish the bell test, is so proud of how reflexive these little gestures have become. It used to be that Tenzo had to actively remember to signal what he was feeling, but now he does it almost without thought.

Kakashi, both because of his sentimental mood and because he wants to put Tenzo at ease, messes up his hair again. Tenzo relaxes, returning to the neutral body language he still finds most comfortable to take on. Forever will, in all likelihood. It’s no longer inhumanly blank though. Just neutral.

He’s so proud of his cute little Kohai.

“You’re going to do just fine,” he says, making sure Tenzo knows he truly believes that.

Tenzo signals that he believes Kakashi believes it.

He doesn’t believe it himself.

“I’m not like you, Kakashi-san,” he says like this is supposed to be a bad thing. “I don’t know how to teach someone.”

“What gave you the idea that I do?” he counters, genuinely surprised by Tenzo coming to this conclusion. The way he said it made clear he isn’t talking about combat skills. He’s talking about teaching important life lessons. That can’t be called Kakashi’s strong point in any way.

“You taught me.”

Well. That lands hard. In bad and good ways.

He’s blaming his reaction on Meiri’s pregnancy. It brings out a host of feelings he normally doesn’t have to deal with.

“You weren’t exactly a rookie,” he says, deliberately misinterpreting Tenzo’s meaning. A signal to steer the conversation to safer waters.

Tenzo ignores it.

“I was in all the ways that matter. You taught me a lot, Kakashi-san.”

And now he feels an even greater urge to come up with a crappy excuse and take his leave. Even worse, Tenzo lowers his gaze and taps his leg again, signaling insecurity. Needing to be reassured, something that Kakashi is in no way qualified to do even at the best of times.

“I don’t think I can do the same.”

“You can,” he says, forcing himself to deliver the words sincerely instead of offhandedly. Tenzo wouldn’t be in this situation if it wasn’t for him after all. “You’re already off to a great start.”

He really is. Not only did he skillfully handle the outrage the bell test inspired – an outrage he’s still so proud of – but afterwards he went over the spar and pointed out what the brats could have done better. Kakashi just lets the brats sort that out among themselves, only speaking up when they come to a conclusion wrong enough to have significant long term consequences. Even then, he prefers pointing out the flaws in their reasoning by using it against them in their next spar.

Tenzo also went over the traps they set up, asking them after their reasoning, complimenting them on their skill, and then demonstrating the flaws in them by triggering them. Then he gave advice on how they could be improved.

Tenzo is going to be a far better teacher than he could ever be.

“The three of them already like you,” he manages to add before the need to ruin things becomes too great. “Avoid introducing yourself to Meiri for the next week, though. She wasn’t pleased with the mortality talk you gave.”

To put it lightly. But she’ll be fine once she has a few days to cool down and hear all about the danger free D-ranked missions the brats are doing. And she’ll forgive Tenzo when she realizes who he is. Though he’ll need to give her a few unsubtle hints for her to figure out that Tenzo is Cat.

Or rather, he used to be Cat.

Tenzo frowns, the worry that was eased by his first words returning with a vengeance. As Kakashi knew would happen, but he’s not exaggerating when he says he is awful at being emotionally supportive.

“Should I not have done that?” Tenzo asks like Kakashi’s experiences are any better to draw on than his. The reasons might not be the same, but his own view of what’s appropriate for Genin to know is as skewed as Tenzo’s.

Having said that, he does know how far these particular brats can be pushed, physically and mentally. Tenzo came nowhere near to pushing too far.

“You didn’t do anything wrong. They need to be prepared for what they’re going to face.”

Not anytime soon, hopefully, but life has a way of sucker punching you when you least expect it. Better have them prepare for that too soon than too late.

It doesn’t mean that Meiri is wrong. The’re still children. All of them, even Sasuke, are sheltered in a way his teammates no longer were at their age, never mind himself.

They graduated. They’re shinobi of the Leaf.

They need to be ready to face the reality of what that means.

His words make Tenzo relax. Good. Part of Kakashi might want to break out in hives at how much Tenzo looks up at him, but it also means that he doesn’t have to do too much to be supportive.

“I still don’t know why you chose me,” Tenzo says, apparently needing to be reassured some more. Great.

Kakashi gives him a cheerful smile and, light hearted and casual, he tells Tenzo the truth.

“Because they’re Meiri’s brats.”

Part of him, a large part of him, still wants to be their team leader himself. Unfortunately, he’s too emotionally compromised to lead Naruto and Sasuke in the field. Same with Sakura, though to a far less extent.

If he becomes their team leader, he’ll shelter them to a dangerous degree. Yes, they need to be protected, but they also need to be given the freedom to grow. He can’t give them that.

Which means he had to find someone else to do the job. The number of people he trusts with the safety of Meiri’s brats is very small indeed. Only consists of two in fact, and Gai already has his own students. So, Tenzo it is.

And the part of him still hurting over the loss of Wolf, the part of him still angry with Tenzo for his involvement in it, takes vicious pleasure in doing to Cat what Cat did to him. But that part is minor and irrelevant. He chose Tenzo because he trusts him, not because he wants to hurt him.

“You could’ve become their teacher yourself,” Tenzo says, fishing for more reassurance. Unfortunately, Kakashi has just about hit his limit.

He gives Tenzo an wry look and, in a voice full of fake humor, he points out the biggest flaw in that argument.

“Meiri is pregnant.” Again. Suffering through this once apparently wasn’t enough. Kakashi shouldn’t be surprised by how awful his luck is, yet just thinking of the fact that she got pregnant again makes a fresh wave of incredulity hit him. Both of them have always been careful, and they only grew more careful after Obito happened. Yet somehow, despite all their precautions, despite the odds of it happening being so astronomically low even he didn’t worry about it, she got pregnant again.

He had a vasectomy done as soon as he found out. Societal conditioning might have kept the thought from occurring after the first time, but there’s no way in hell he’s going through this a third time. It took a few days before he could arrange things so it happened discreetly, but Kakashi wasn’t complaining. It gave him the time needed to work through the worst of his initial reaction.

Meiri’s overwhelming relief at his return was pushed to even greater heights by the news he brought. They love Obito of course, and they’ll love their daughter just as much, but a third child might actually drive them insane. Him with worry and her with the inability to put up with his worsening anxiety.

So no, even without adding in the fact that he’s emotionally compromised, he can’t be a teacher to the brats. Right now, not even the Third can make him leave Meiri’s side. Which means he’s working closely with Shikaku and improving internal organization with single minded focus, ensuring he’s more useful inside the village than out of it. No reason to force the Third’s hand.

He’ll start taking external missions again after their daughter is born. But for now, all his work is internal, period.

Tenzo, receiving the message that Kakashi has given about all the reassurance he’s capable of loud and clear, tries to comfort him instead.

Tenzo is a far better person than him.

“You’re taking it better than you did last time,” Tenzo tactfully understates. The first time was a disaster from start to finish. In comparison, this can almost be called easy.

It really can’t.

Part of him so desperately wants to run away. Part of him wants to cut all ties with Meiri so his presence won’t get her and their daughter killed. But it’s manageable this time. While he does sometimes feel like clawing off his own skin with pure panic, he doesn’t need to keep his distance as he did before.

He no longer fears he’ll do to Obito what his father did to him. Doesn’t fear he’ll do it to their daughter either. Which is more than just good, it’s necessary. Unlike last time, Meiri doesn’t have the strength to put up with his baggage.

Not on top of her worry for Naruto and Sasuke.

This pregnancy really came at the worst time possible. Because her being pregnant clearly isn’t awful enough all on its own.

“There’s still half a year left for me to screw up,” he quips like the unavoidable doesn’t matter. He might no longer fear that he’ll do to his children what his father did to him, but the fact remains that Meiri is pregnant. He worries enough about her even on a good day, but now he has to worry about their unborn daughter at the same time. It’s maddening. That’s without adding in his worry over Obito. Combined with Meiri’s own worry over Naruto and Sasuke and the physical toll the pregnancy is starting to take on her, tempers are strung high. Yes, in many ways his worry will only grow worse after their daughter is born, but at least Meiri will be able to stub her toe again without sending him into a panic attack. And she’ll have had time to get used to Naruto and Sasuke being active shinobi, further reducing her stress. Which means she’ll return to being able to handle his screw ups with relative ease. Unlike now.

They’re going to get through this. But he’s going to screw up along the way. A lot. So will Meiri, but compared to him, her mistakes are all but irrelevant.

“You won’t screw up. I believe in you, Kakashi-san.”

The words are as touching as they are horrifying. No one should have that kind of faith in him.

His son has that kind of faith in him.

The need to escape what has suddenly become a genuinely distressing situation is almost impossible to resist. He’d been doing so well too. Meiri being pregnant brings out the worst in him. But Tenzo really does deserve more reassurance than the scraps he gave before. No matter how hard it is to do.

So.

“And I believe in you,” he forces himself to say instead of running away. “You’re going to do just fine.”

He somehow manages to find the strength to pat Tenzo’s head. Tenzo’s answering smile is deeply relieved and utterly adorable, and it makes him want to run even more. Fortunately, Tenzo turns the conversation to safer waters before the urge can win, asking for his input on the spar he observed from the sidelines. Kakashi follows his lead gladly, offering his own assessment and telling Tenzo about the bad habits he has to watch out for. He gave Tenzo their profiles already of course, but it’s different now that he’s sparred with them. For being complete rookies, the brats are good, but they all have things they need to work on. While their flaws are relatively minor and the worst will be cured with experience, that doesn’t mean Tenzo can’t already take his own shot at correcting them.

Kakashi feels the worst of his tension fade as Tenzo keeps acting like this is a mission debrief, intent and focused and determined to succeed no matter what. Meiri’s brats are in good hands. And teaching them is going to be good for Tenzo as well. They’re going to grow on him like the inescapable fungus they are and worm their way into his heart whether he likes it or not. Unlike him, Tenzo won’t mind that. The opposite, he’ll enjoy it.

He’ll keep them safe. He’ll teach them how to protect themselves, and he’ll watch over them until they’re strong enough to stand on their own. Then he’s going to keep watching over them anyway, because once you go down that hole, there’s no going back. Meiri’s brats – need to be – are going to be just fine.

As for Ino, well. He doesn’t worry about her in the same way he does about Naruto and Sasuke, or even Sakura, but he’s more than a little fond of her as well. Another visit to Asuma to emphasize how displeased he’d be if anything happened to her wouldn’t go amiss.

If anyone had told him even three years ago what his life would be like today, he would have called them insane. Even having lived through it, part of him still can’t believe – he hasn’t lost anyone yet – this is actually his life.

He has a son. He has a son and a daughter on the way. He is a father. His life is more terrifying than he ever expected it to be.

He’s happier than he ever expected to be. It can’t last of course, nothing good in his life ever does. But he’ll enjoy it for as long as – his family survives – it does.

He won’t regret having these memories even when it all goes wrong.

In the end, isn’t that all anyone can hope for?