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Part of the Pack

Chapter Text

Kakashi wanted to puke. Why does he have to have His eyes?  

 

Kakashi shuddered and tore his gaze away from the pair of empty blue eyes that stared back. 

 

Fighting to look anywhere except the baby’s face, Kakashi took stock of the situation. The nursery was plain to the point of being sterile. There were no toys, not in the crib or around the room. It was quiet. The only sound was the soft whisper of wind through the cracked window and the distant birdsong. The baby lay on his back in the crib with only the shifting shadows for entertainment.

 

Kakashi couldn’t claim to know much about babies, but he was fairly certain that they were supposed to have things to play with. And people to talk to them. And people to cuddle them. And people to change their diapers.

 

The baby clearly hadn’t been changed in some time, but he wasn’t complaining. He wasn’t really doing much of anything. Again, Kakashi wasn’t sure if that was normal, but he thought babies tended to be wiggly, noisy things.

 

Kakashi sighed and looked back over the baby. This time, he was able to see past his dead mentor’s eyes. The baby was skinny and a bit pale. Nothing about this looked or felt right. 

 

Kakashi had watched the house for days before daring to sneak in. 

 

It wasn’t hard to find the civilians who had been saddled with the Ninetail’s vessel, or as they liked to call him, the Demon. The husband liked to complain loudly when he got drunk, which was often.

 

Kakashi had been staking out their house in his spare time. 

 

Which is how he knew, no one had bothered to check on Naruto since he was fed early that morning and if patterns held, they wouldn’t be back until evening. 

 

Some caretakers… Kakashi grumbled to himself. He must have made an audible noise because Naruto started and turned to look at him. 

 

The baby grinned up at Kakashi, all wide eyes and gummy smile. 

 

Without even thinking, the young shinobi stepped closer and reached into the crib. He gently ruffled the baby’s blond hair and found himself grinning back when Naruto made a happy little gurgle.

 

Then, realizing the number of rules he was breaking, Kakashi snatched back his hand. 

 

The baby didn’t cry, but his face fell and he shifted, trying to reach for Kakashi, but too small and too weak to actually do anything.

 

Kakashi wished the baby would cry. It’d justify doing something. As it was, he couldn’t do anything. He’d been specifically ordered not to do anything. 

 

No one was allowed to seek out the Fourth’s son and Kakashi had been explicitly forbidden from trying to interact with the child. The order had come with some long winded explanation involving a unique and potentially unstable seal and fear of what a child jinchuriki aware of their powers could do. 

 

Kakashi had nodded along, but he hadn’t really been listening. He’d still been digesting the idea that his mentor’s son had survived. Minato was gone. Kushina was gone. And so many other. But the baby, Naruto, had survived.

 

Kakashi pressed his forehead to the rail of the crib and closed his eye. Not for the first time, he wondered what he was doing here. There was no closure to be found here, not in those empty blue eyes. It was as simple as the Third and the Anbu made it sound. Minato sensei was dead and all he’d left behind was a monsterous weapon. 

 

Kakashi shuddered at the thought. He knew what was hidden in the baby, but seeing it-- seeing him-- all Kakashi could see was a baby. 

 

Kakashi forced himself to leave. He walked home without paying attention to the village around him. People stepped out of his way. Between his reputation and the dark expression on his face, no one dared bother the copy-nin.

 

At his empty house, Kakashi flopped on the couch and stared up at the ceiling. It’d been six months since Minato Sensei died saving the village. Six months since Kakashi lost the last of his family. 

 

Kakashi had thought he was past grief. He’d shed enough tears and lost enough people that he’d expected to just feel empty. Instead, his chest ached day and night and it felt like someone was driving a kunai through his skull. He was lost and miserable and had no idea how to ask for or accept help. He’d tried talking to Jiraya Sama and had been brushed off. The man hadn’t even understood that Kakashi was trying to ask for help.

 

That was another thing to miss about Minato Sensei. He’d always been good at seeing through Kakashi’s masks, even the ones that weren’t physical.

 

Now, Kakashi was really alone.

 

I could just disappear and no one would notice until they needed me for a mission, Kakashi mused. 

 

The sound of claws on hardwood jolted Kakashi out of his misery.

 

“Well?” Pakkun asked. The little dog jumped onto the couch by Kakashi’s feet and clambered over the ninja until he was sitting on a Kakashi’s chest.

 

Kakashi scratched the dog’s head and didn’t answer.

 

Pakkun leaned into the petting. “Did you find any answers?” Pakkun pressed.

 

Kakashi sighed. “No. I feel worse now,” he admitted.

 

Pakkun shifted to nuzzle Kakashi. He didn’t know how to help his young master and he was worried. The sadness that clung to Kakashi was terrifyingly similar to the one that had taken Sakumo.

 

“He’s just a baby,” Kakashi said. “I know he’s not just a baby, but he’s just a baby.” Kakashi was frowning. “He’s all alone in the room. They aren’t taking good care of him and I don’t think they’re even feeding him enough.”

 

Pakkun whined and pressed his nose to Kakashi’s cheek. 

 

“No one deserves to grow up like that. It’s like no one even sees that he’s a person. It’s like they don’t remember he had two parents who… who loved him so much… they…” Kakashi’s voice faded as he choked back a sob. He hugged Pakkun and squeezed his eye tight.

 

Someone watching wouldn’t have realized Kakashi was fighting tears. His face was impassive. Only Pakkun could feel the way his young master trembled. 

 

“You could talk to the Third. He could find other caretakers,” Pakkun suggested when Kakashi stopped shaking.

 

“Do you really think it would make a difference?” 

 

“Probably not. People are afraid of the fox.”

 

“I’m not,” Kakashi growled. “He’s not the fox. He’s got a name, even if no one uses it.”

 

“The Third already told you to stay away from the kid,” Pakkun reminded.

 

Kakashi snorted. “I bet I could take Naruto and it’d be at least a week before the Third found out.”

 

Pakkun raised an eyebrow at that, but didn’t bother arguing.

 

The pair lapsed into silence. 

 

In the silence, Kakashi dozed off with Pakkun on his chest and the dog let him sleep. The teen hadn’t been sleeping enough and Pakkun was happy to put up with being cuddled if it meant his master finally got some rest.

 

When Kakashi came home from grocery shopping the next day with a library book on childcare, Pakkun resigned himself to another of Kakashi’s hairbrained schemes. 

 

The dog swore it must be Obito’s influence rubbing off on Kakashi. Since the Uchiha’s death, Kakashi had become odd. Pakkun had even caught his master making jokes and snorting at stupid puns, but that was all before Rin and Minato.

 

Kakashi was sent on several missions back to back after his first real visit with Naruto. Missions helped ease the ache in his chest and if he worked himself to exhaustion, he could fall into bed at night and the headache and the nightmares couldn’t touch him. 

 

Weeks turned into months since, but in his quieter moments Kakashi kept finding his mind back on his Sensei’s orphan. Naruto’s happy little grin seemed to be painted on Kakashi’s eyelids and he found himself preferring that to the usually figures that haunted him.

 

When Naruto turned 9 month old, Kakashi went back to check on the baby. He brought a small, stuffed dog that he’d picked up on a mission in Suna.

 

When Kakashi slipped in the window and saw Naruto, the toy hit the floor.

 

The baby was way too skinny. He was laying on his back in the same crib, in the same spot, staring silently at the ceiling. His hair was dull and his eyes were empty and glassy.

 

“Hey,” Kakashi called. Without hesitating, he reached in and ruffled the baby’s hair. Naruto barely reacted. Kakashi’s stomach dropped. He didn’t need to know anything about babies to realize this was really bad. “You poor thing,” Kakashi murmured. He forced the words out around the lump of anger in his throat. “You can’t just lay here all the time.” 

 

At Kakashi’s voice and the continued physical contact, Naruto seemed to come back to life a bit, leaning into Kakashi’s touch, like Pakkun did when he wanted more ear scratches.

 

In that instant, Kakashi made a decision. They could fire him from the anbu and take his forehead protector for this, but he didn’t care. 

 

Kakashi scooped up his sensei’s son and cradled Naruto to his chest the way he’d seen in the books. 

 

Naruto just stared up at Kakashi with those wide, innocent, blue eyes. 

 

Kakashi found himself babbling to the baby as he puttered around the nursery and packed a bag of supplies.

 

“We’re going to go get you some sunlight and some good food,” Kakashi promised. “You’ll feel better with the wind on your face and food in your stomach.” It was the same thing Pakkun had been telling him for months. 

 

In the end, Kakashi decided to leave a note. Not leaving one would have given him more time before someone came looking for Naruto, but it would also put this squarely in the kidnapping category. 

 

Leaving a note meant Kakashi could claim he was just babysitting right?

 

If Pakkun was surprised to see Kakashi come through the front door with a baby, he didn’t show it.

 

Kakashi held Naruto with one hand and pulled one of the couch cushions onto the floor with the other. He settled the baby on the cushion and turned to Pakkun, “Watch him while I figure out how to make a bottle?”

 

Pakkun nodded and trotted over to the baby.

 

The good news was Naruto wasn’t a fussy baby and he took to Pakkun like a dog to a bone.

 

Kakashi came back with a bottle and found Naruto with one of Pakkun’s ears tight in his little fist and grinning away.

 

The bad news was books on childcare really don’t prepare someone for a baby.

 

Feeding Naruto was easy enough. It only took a little experimenting to figure out how to hold the baby and the bottle and get an angle that worked. The problems started when Kakashi didn’t know to keep Naruto from chugging the bottle and kept building though a disastrous burping attempt and diaper change.

 

“That’s definitely not how a diaper is supposed to go on,” Pakkun commented.

 

Kakashi sighed. “He’s covered. Isn’t that good enough?”

 

Pakkun snorted and nosed Naruto who was back on his couch cushion and already looking better despite his inexperienced caretakers. The baby had some color back to his face and his eyes were alert. 

 

“Can you watch him?” Kakashi asked.

 

Pakkun settled on the pillow beside Naruto as an answer. 

 

Kakashi went to work cleaning up vomit and disposing of a diaper that had been way past needing changing.

 

When Kakashi got back from taking out the trash, Naruto was sound asleep curled around Pakkun.

 

Kakashi couldn’t help but grin at that. He decided that the two of them had the right idea and grabbed another pillow off the couch before settling on the floor beside the baby and the dog.

 

Kakashi fed Naruto again three hours later, careful to go slower this time. 

 

And so started their routine. 

 

Kakashi made Naruto a bed out of couch cushions and an empty drawer and set it beside his own bed. 

 

Kakashi was up every three hours whether Naruto cried or was awake. The kid never had to wait to be fed or changed. 

 

Sometimes, Kakashi woke up just to watch Naruto sleep, his little nose crinkled as he dreamed. Kakashi wondered if the baby was having good dreams or bad dreams. In case, Kakashi stayed awake, stroking Naruto’s hair until the baby’s face relaxed.

 

Kakashi didn’t know when the Third Hokage was going to show up at his door, but he was determined that Naruto was going to be better than he was when Kakashi decided to start babysitting.

Chapter Text

By the start of the third day with Naruto, Kakashi knew he was in over his head. The diaper changing was becoming an issue. Naruto definitely had some sort of a rash and he’d suddenly become fussy. Nothing Kakashi or Pakkun did seemed to please the baby and Kakashi was at his wit’s end. 

 

“We’ve got to ask someone,” Pakkun said. He sounded as tired as Kakashi felt. Neither of them had really slept the night before.

 

“I know.” Kakashi hauled himself off the floor and frowned down at Naruto who was sleeping fitfully at last. “I have an idea. Can you watch him?” 

 

Pakkun nodded, but he looked worried.

 

Kakashi slipped out of the house in his anbu clothes, minus the ceramic mask. He needed to fit in at the training grounds. 

 

While leaping from roof to roof, he mentally prepared himself for the conversation he was about to have.

 

Itachi Uchiha hadn’t been on Team Ro long and he didn’t talk much outside of mission business, so he was a pretty big unknown. The one thing Kakashi knew for sure about the youngest anbu of all time was that he had a 10 month old little brother that he adored. There was a picture of baby Sasuke taped to the inside of Itachi’s gear locker. It was the only personal effect in any of Itachi’s gear.

 

Itachi was leaving the anbu training grounds when Kakashi appeared beside him.

 

“Captain,” Itachi said it like a greeting.

 

In the sunlight, facing Itachi, Kakashi found himself fumbling for words. It hit him how ridiculous the whole situation was. He knew next to nothing about the dark eyed shinobi in front of him and he was about to ask Itachi to help him technically commit treason. 

 

It was obvious to Itachi that Kakashi had come looking for him. Kakashi had approached too fast for this to be a casual chat and Itachi didn’t like the way his captain was staring at him. “Do we have a mission?” Itachi asked.

 

“Um, no,” Kakashi said. Itachi’s question jolted him out of his indecision. Kakashi shifted to run a hand through his silver hair and gave Itachi one of the famous Kakashi smiles, crinkled eyes and a twitch of the mask. “Nothing serious. I just have a favor to ask.”

 

Itachi let himself relax at that. His shoulders dropped slightly and a hint of a smile dance on his lips. “Tenzou Senpai told me I should be careful of that sort of a request coming from you.”

 

Kakashi winced. “Probably a fair warning.”

 

Itachi snorted and turned to go. 

 

“But this isn’t anything stupid. I seriously need a favor and you are the only person I know who can help.” Kakashi danced forward a couple steps to catch up and almost grabbed Itachi’s shoulder. He stopped just short remembering he was dealing with another anbu and an anbu was an anbu regardless of their age. Grabbing Itachi would have come off as an attack. 

 

Itachi turned back to Kakashi. The Uchiha was frowning again. He didn’t like the sudden seriousness in Kakashi’s voice. It was the sort he usually reserved for missions.

 

“Can we talk somewhere else?” Kakashi asked, jerking his head towards the village, away from the still crowded training grounds.

 

Itachi shrugged. It wasn’t like he could really say no to his captain.

 

Which is how Itachi found himself walking through the village with Kakashi. People cleared out of the two anbu’s way. Kakashi didn’t seem to notice, but it unsettled Itachi. I wasn’t use to the reputation yet.

 

“May I ask what’s going on, Captain,” Itachi pressed. His voice was low enough that no one but Kakashi could hear.

 

“I have recently found myself in charge of a baby,” Kakashi started. His voice was soft and serious, matching Itachi’s.

 

Itachi stopped in his tracks and narrowed his eyes at Kakashi. His mouth was open to say something, but no words came out. His brow was wrinkled in confusion.

 

It was more emotion than Kakashi had seen Itachi show at any other point and time and Kakashi interpreted it to be the Itachi equivalent of “what the f*ck, Captain?”

 

“Look, if I don’t give you details, you’re not responsible for any of this. I just need some help figuring out what’s wrong with him and you’re the only person I know who spends time around a baby,” Kakashi said with a weary sigh.

 

Itachi nodded slowly. “Okay.” he started walking again, following Kakashi.

 

Kakashi wished Itachi would show some sort of emotion or say something. The kid was impossible to read walking beside him. Is this what everyone thinks when they’re with me? Kakashi wondered. He shook the thought off and focussed on hurrying home. What if the Hokkage came?  

 

The worry was for nothing. Naruto was still dozing beside Pakkun.

 

Itachi raised an eyebrow at the whole setup-- pillow on the floor for a bed, mostly naked baby (only wearing a very questionably put on diaper), apparent Ninja hound for a babysitter. “Yeah, you need help.”

 

Kakashi winced. 

 

“Grab him and whatever supplies you’ve got. We’ll go back to my house and Mom can help,” Itachi ordered.

 

“I don’t think that’s a good idea. Can’t you just show me?” Kakashi argued. It was one thing to involve Itachi who was an anbu and didn’t know who the baby was. It was a whole different situation to bring the Nine-Tailed Fox into the Uchiha compound. Whether Danzou was right about an Uchiha being involved in setting the Fox free or not, it would look very bad that Kakashi stole the new jinchuuriki and brought him to the Uchiha.

 

“I’m not going to ask where you got a baby from, but it’s obvious it wasn’t a good place. He looks sick and skinny and that diaper is definitely on backwards. You need more help than I can give.” Itachi explained. His voice was level and calm, the opposite of Kakashi who appeared to be chewing on his bottom lip beneath his mask.

 

Kakashi groaned. “Fine.” Technically he’d already committed treason taking Naruto. Might as well go for the big treason. He grabbed his backpack of baby supplies, scooped up Naruto, and looked to Itachi to lead the way.

Chapter Text

Mikoto Uchiha knew exactly who walked through her door the moment she laid eyes on the anbu trailing behind Itachi. 

 

While the boys kicked off their shoes, she settled a napping Sasuke in his bassinet and motioned for Itachi to follow her to the kitchen.

 

Itachi and Kakashi tiptoed past the sleeping Sasuke. 

 

Kakashi couldn’t help but stare at the littlest Uchiha. Sasuke was a perfectly happy looking baby, chubby, with his dark hair sticking up in a little cowlick. In his sleep, he shifted, rolling onto his side and let out a little sigh.

 

Meanwhile, Naruto whimpered in Kakashi’s arms and threatened to start all out crying, but held himself together until they were in the kitchen and the door was shut.

 

“Mother,” Itachi started. “This is my anbu Captain, Kakashi Hatake.”

 

Kakashi stepped forward and bowed as best he could while holding a squirming, and now crying Naruto. “I’m sorry for intruding. I wasn’t sure who to ask for help.”

 

Mikoto smiled at the silver hair teen. “Poor thing,” she murmured, talking to both the baby and Kakashi who appeared to have not slept for a few days. The bags under his one visible eye had bags of their own. “Let me see the little guy.” 

 

Kakashi only histated for a heartbeat before handing Naruto to Mikoto who obviously knew what she was doing. A few gentle bounces and some humming later and Naruto was staring at her with wide eyes.

 

“That’s better,” Mikoto said. She brushed the tears from Naruto’s cheeks and smiled at the baby.

 

“Magic,” Kakashi breathed.

 

Itachi and Mikoto both snickered at that. 

 

“No. Just practice. My Sasuke is a fussy one. This little guy seems pretty mellow. He’s just not feeling well,” Mikoto explained. She laid a blanket on the kitchen table and settled Naruto on it. 

 

“Itachi, please go get the first aid kit,” Mikoto asked.

 

Itachi hurried off, leaving Kakashi alone with Mikoto. 

 

Kakashi fought the urge to adjust his forehead protector more securely over this covered eye. He could feel Mikoto watching him from the corner of her eyes. It was no secret that Kakashi wasn’t exactly welcome in the Uchiha compound.

 

Mikoto undressed Naruto. Kakashi was suddenly very aware of the spit up staining the baby’s onesie. It was the best of the three Kakashi had taken from Naruto’s previous caretakers and Kakashi hadn’t wanted to carry a naked baby through the village. 

 

Mikoto set the spit up stained onesie off to the side and looked the baby over with a practiced eye. If she was surprised by the seal on his stomach, she didn’t show it. 

 

Kakashi had a sinking feeling she’d already known. 

 

Her eyes narrowed and pursed her lips at the rash on his legs and his skinniness.

 

“I only got him a few days ago. He was alright until last night,” Kakashi explained. “I’ve been feeding him formula,” Kakashi scrambled to get the can of powder out of his bag. “The books talked about diaper rash, but it doesn’t look like that in the books and the salve didn’t seem to help.”

 

Mikoto’s face softened. “It’s not your fault. You seem to be doing everything right except the diaper.” 

 

“Oh.”

 

“It is diaper rash, but it looks like it’s gotten infected from wearing dirty ones for too long. It’s not something that happened in the last few days.”

 

Kakashi nodded.

 

“He’ll be fine. I’ve got some antibiotic cream that will work better than salve. As soon as Itachi gets back, we can get Naruto patched up and then we can talk,” Mikoto explained. She smiled as Naruto grabbed her finger and babbled.

 

“How did you know?” Kakashi asked.

 

“He looks just like his dad.”

 

Kakashi sighed. He couldn’t disagree there.

 

“I’m shocked the Hokage let you take him. The Third seemed pretty determined to keep anyone who knew Minato or Kushina away from Naruto,” Mikoto said it like a question.

 

Kakashi ran his fingers through his hair and shifted from foot to foot before answering. “I may have decided to ask forgiveness rather than permission.”

 

Mikoto raised an eyebrow at that. 

 

“Don’t worry, I left a note,” Kakashi said quickly. “I didn’t just take him. In theory, the Hokage knows he’s not at the caretakers’ anymore and that he’s with me.”

 

“In theory,” Mikoto repeated.

 

Kakashi just shrugged.

 

Itachi came back with the first aid kit. 

 

Mikoto showed Kakashi how to actually put on a diaper. Then Naruto dozed off while she rocked him. His little face was really relaxed at last and a knot in Kakashi’s stomach that he hadn’t realized was there released.

 

With Naruto back in Kakashi’s arms, they settled in the Uchiha’s living room. Kakashi and Mikoto sat on the couch while she gave him a crash course in baby care. 

 

“... You need to hold him up a bit more when you feed him. Don’t tip the bottle all the way up. You want to feed him slower.”

 

The longer he was there, the more Kakashi relaxed around Mikoto. There was no judgement in her eyes.

 

Itachi smiled at Kakashi’s laser focused expression. He was hanging on Mikoto’s every word like it was an S-rank mission briefing. 

 

Sasuke woke up and announced it to the house by letting out a shriek. 

 

In an instant, Itachi was at the bassinet fussing over Sasuke. Itachi dangled a toy in front of Sasuke and poked at his forehead, but the baby didn’t quiet until Itachi relented and picked him up.

 

“Naruto doesn’t cry like that,” Kakashi said. In his arms, Naruto was now awake, just watching the world with those big blue eyes.

 

Mikoto’s heart ached. This was a baby who’d learned there was no point to crying. “Give him some time and he’ll be just as noisy. More if his parents are anything to go by,” she said with a false smile. Who knew what effect 9 months of neglect would have on Naruto long term.

 

Kakashi seemed put at ease by Mikoto’s false confidence.

 

“How far behind is he?” Kakashi asked after a minute of watching Itachi on the floor playing with Sasuke.

 

Mikoto sighed. “Sasuke’s a bit older, but he’s starting to try talking and walking. He’s mastered crawling.”

 

Kakashi nodded. Very behind seemed to be the answer. At best Naruto made little gurgles and he hadn’t seemed at all interested in being mobile.

 

Mikoto put a hand on Kakashi’s shoulder. “You keep doing what you’re doing and he’ll start picking things up fast. Babies are good learners.”

 

Kakashi left the Uchiha house with his backpack far more full than it had been when he’d arrived. Mikoto had insisted on making sure he had diapers, cans of baby food, pacifiers, and a whole stack of baby clothes. 

 

Kakashi had tried to argue, but Mikoto swore Sasuke had outgrown everything and they’d received far too much when he was born. The clan had gone a bit overboard with presents for the head family’s youngest. 

 

Mikoto didn’t tell Kakashi that most of what she’d given him had been meant for Naruto from the beginning. Mikoto and Kushina had been close friends. They’d joked about how much they were going to spoil each other’s children, how they were going to grow up together. It all changed the night the Nine-Tails got loose. Kushina didn’t live long enough to dress her son in those outfits and the Hokage had denied Mikoto’s request to take in the orphan.

 

“You and Naruto are welcome here anytime. If you need help or someone to watch him for a bit, don’t even hesitate,” Mikoto ordered from the front porch.

 

Kakashi nodded and followed Itachi back out of the Uchiha compound. 

 

The change in Itachi as they left the privacy of his home was startling. His face became a neutral mask and he stood straighter, on edge, ready for a fight at any moment. He looked like an anbu and nothing like the gentle, older brother Kakashi had been watching for the last few hours. Itachi had taken his mask off and let Kakashi see everything underneath. It wasn’t something an anbu did lightly.

 

“Thank you,” Kakashi said. 

 

Itachi nodded. He knew Kakashi wasn’t just talking about the help with Naruto. 

Chapter Text

On the seventh day since he’d taken Naruto, the baby rolled over. He’d been laying on a blanket on the living room floor. Pakkun was watching him while Kakashi cooked dinner and Naruto was trying to grab Pakkun’s ear while the dog danced out of the baby’s reach.

 

“Hey Boss,” Pakkun called. “Looks like the pup is getting more mobile.”

 

Kakashi had grinned and spent the rest of the evening trying to bribe Naruto into rolling over again. 

 

On the tenth day, Kakashi woke to a mission summons. Pakkun watched as Kakashi carefully packed up Naruto’s bag of supplies and bundled the sleepy baby in a blanket. Kakashi was careful to pick Naruto’s favorite blanket, the green one with a frog on it that Naruto always slept the best with.

 

“You think leaving him with the Uchiha is a good idea?” Pakkun asked. 

 

Kakashi shrugged. “I trust Itachi to watch my back and I trusted Mikoto already.”

 

“Yeah, but you won’t be there to keep an eye on Naruto this time,” Pakkun pointed out.

 

Kakashi shouldered Naruto’s bag and frowned at Pakkun. “We really don’t have choice. At the least I’ll be gone until tomorrow night and you can’t watch him on your own for that long. You don’t have thumbs,” Kakashi argued.

 

Pakkun just sighed. 

 

Kakashi was glad it was early and the streets were empty as he hurried through the village. An anbu black-op in full gear carrying a baby would surely have attracted a host of stares and questions.

 

Kakashi took off his animal mask before knocking on the Uchiha’s door.

 

Mikoto didn’t seem surprised to find Kakashi and Naruto at her door before sunrise.

 

Kakashi bowed quickly. “I’m very sorry for waking you Mikoto-san,” Kakashi apologized.

 

“Nonsense,” Mikoto brushed aside Kakashi’s apology and waved him into the house. “I was up with Sasuke when Itachi got the summons, so I was expecting you.”

 

In the living room, Mikoto took Naruto and had Kakashi leave the baby’s bag by the couch. “Do you know how long you’ll be gone?” she asked. Sasuke was dozing in a playpen in the corner.

 

“We’ll likely be back tomorrow night.” Kakashi said.

 

“That early?” Itachi asked from the doorway. He was wearing his anbu uniform with his katana strapped to his back. His anbu mask was in his hand, but he was already wearing his other mask. Itachi’s face was impassive and cold. His voice was indifferent.

 

“Worst case, the next morning. It shouldn’t be a complicated mission,” Kakashi said.

 

Itachi nodded. He paused on his way to the door to look down at his little brother and gently poke the baby’s forehead. Itachi’s lips twitched in a smile and then his face was back to that emotionless mask that anbu wore so carefully.

 

“Ready?” Itachi asked Kakashi. He put on his animal mask and headed for the door without waiting for an answer, leaving Kakashi and Mikoto in the living room.

 

Kakashi hesitated. He looked at Mikoto and Naruto. The woman looked tired and there were prominent worry lines on her face.

 

“Don’t worry. I’ll take good care of him,” Mikoto promised.

 

“I’ll do the same,” Kakashi replied. 

 

Mikoto smiled at that. “I’m glad he ended up on your team.”

 

Kakashi didn’t know what to say to that, so he put on his animal mask and followed Itachi out of the house.

 

Kakashi and Itachi met Tenzou at the village main gate. 

 

The third member of Team Ro cocked his head when the others arrived together, but didn’t say anything. 

 

The mission was simple. A group of rogue shinobi had been chased out of Kiri and were causing problems in the small villages on the edge of Fire Country. Team Ro had been tasked with assassinating the leader and disbanding the group however they saw fit. 

 

The three went over mission briefings while they ran. None of the rogues were ranked above gennin, but the leader had caused enough problems to earn a spot in the bingo book.

 

They spent the night camping outside a small village and tracked the rouges down the next morning. 

 

Team Rho launched their assault with the morning sun at their backs.

 

The fighting was bloodier than Kakashi had expected. Though they had limited training the rogues fought well together. In the end it was for naught though. The leader died with Kakashi’s fist through his chest. The last thing he saw was Kakashi’s sharingan glowing an unearthly red. 

 

The other rogues fell easily without a leader. Team Ro had decided these shinobi fought too well together to be allowed to continue roaming. For the safety of Fire Country, they would die.

 

Itachi’s katana was a blur of deadly silver in the sunlight and his eyes glinted red. 

 

Those who tried to run found the very trees themselves blocking any escape route. Their corpses settled beneath roots. The trees here would grow well for years to come.

 

The sun was sinking when the fighting was done. 

 

Kakashi pulled his forehead protector back down over his sharingan. 

 

Itachi sheathed his sword.

 

Tenzou stood back to admire his handiwork. The trees were all settled back in their places. There was no evidence of the massacre that had happened.

 

“Anyone hurt?” Kakashi asked.

 

“All good,” Tenzou said.

 

“Fine,” Itachi agreed.

 

“Good,” Kakashi said. “Let’s head home.”

 

They didn’t make it home that night. Kakashi and Tenzou had burned through a lot of chakra and exhaustion caught up to them halfway home.

 

The trio set up camp in a clearing. The night was warm and the sky clear, so no one bothered with tents.

 

Kakashi was taking his watch shift by the fire when Itachi crawled out his sleeping bag and made his way towards the fire.

 

“Your watch doesn’t start for another hour,” Kakashi whispered. Tenzou was sleeping not far away.

 

Itachi sat down beside his Captain. “You were reckless today,” Itachi said. 

 

Kakashi blinked in surprise. It’d been a long time since someone called him out on that.

 

“Chidori is a reckless jutsu to begin with and then you went straight for the leader, right in the middle of all his men. You were totally exposed,” Itachi admonished. “One of these days surprise and speed aren’t going to be enough and someone’s going to put a kunai in your chest.”

 

“I’m not charging blindly,” Kakashi replied. His fingers brushed across his hidden eye.

 

Itachi let an exasperated sigh. “The sharingan isn’t infallible. Besides, it doesn’t do you any good to see an attack coming if you can’t dodge and I know you can’t dodge well while using chidori.”

 

Kakashi didn’t answer that.

 

“Why are you so reckless?” Itachi asked. “Since they put me on your team, I’ve watched you throw yourself into fights without any regard for your own life. You regularly use yourself as a human shield and would rather risk yourself taking on a whole enemy team than share the risk and fight with your team. Why?”

 

“You should be careful,” Kakashi said. “It almost sounds like you’re worried about me and that’s the first step towards caring. You don’t want to get caught caring about a friend killer.”

 

Itachi narrowed his eyes in annoyance. “I heard you promise to look out for me.”

 

“It’s my job. I’m your captain.”

 

“Is that why you stepped between me and a kunai today? A kunai you knew I could dodge? Is that why you always make Tenzou run support and defense, despite his skills being equally suited or better suited to all-out offense?” Itachi challenged.

 

“Leave it alone, Itachi,” Kakashi’s voice left no doubt that this was an order.

 

“No,” Itachi snapped back. “I’m sick of you hiding all the time. You wear so many damn masks, do you ever take them all off?”

 

Kakashi stood up and glared down at the younger anbu. “Since you’re so awake, with all these burning questions you can takeover watch now.” He didn’t give Itachi a chance to say anything else, walking away and curling into sleeping bag.

 

Itachi stared at the shadowed lump of his captain and frowned. Itachi’s eyes were good, but even they couldn’t quite see what made Hatake Kakashi tick.

 

They made it back to the village as the sun was rising over Hokage rock.

 

Itachi immediately split off and headed towards the Uchiha compound.

 

“Would you file the initial report for me?” Kakashi asked Tenzou. 

 

Tenzou gave Kakashi a withering stare.

 

“I promise I’ll do the final report. And I’ll make dinner if you just handle the initial one. I’ve got something I need to take care of,” Kakashi promised.

 

Tenzou relented. “Fine. I’ll be over for dinner at 6.” Then he was gone.

 

Kakashi headed towards the Uchiha Compound.

Chapter Text

The first thing Kakashi noticed when he entered the Uchiha compound was the yelling coming from the head family’s home.

 

Kakashi ran.

 

In the courtyard, Mikoto Uchiha was standing toe to toe with the Third Hokage. 

 

“How dare you come walking into my house and accuse me of that,” Mikoto spat.

 

Behind her, Itachi hesitated in the doorway, watching. 

 

The three anbu behind the Hokage seemed equally uneasy.

 

“What’s going on?” Kakashi interrupted before the Hokage had a chance to say anything else to the furious Uchiha.

 

Mikoto’s eyes flickered to Kakashi and back to the Hokage. Her sharingan glowed red and angry. “They walk in here and demand that I hand over Naruto. Then, when they see him, they have the gall to threaten to press charges for kidnapping, child abuse, and treason.” Mikoto all but growled. “They think I’ve been starving him as a way to break the seal.”

 

Kakashi could practically feel the righteous anger rolling off Mikoto and his own hands were balled into fists with rage. This was all escalating too fast and he was exhausted from the mission. Kakashi knew he needed to defuse the situation as quickly as possible for everyone’s sake. 

 

Kakashi very carefully stepped around the Hokage’s guards and positioned himself between Mikoto and the Hokage.

 

Kakashi bowed to the Hokage. The teen took a deep breath and when he spoke, still bent at the waist, his voice was surprisingly emotionless. “Hokage-sama, please forgive Mikoto-san. This is entirely my fault. When I asked her to watch Naruto, I told her I had permission to take him from the caretakers.” Kakashi waited, still bent at the waist for the Hokage to say something.

 

“When did you take him?” the Third asked.

 

“12 days ago now.”

 

“Stand up,” the Hokage ordered. 

 

Kakashi did as he was told. 

 

“Why?” the Hokage asked.

 

“Because the caretakers weren’t taking care of him,” Kakashi’s tone left no room for argument. “I believed that if I left Naruto there, he was going to be dead before he turned one. He’s underweight and sick from being left laying in his own mess. He doesn’t know how to play or babble. I don’t think he really even knows how to cry, because he’s been alone so much. I know he’s not just a kid, but he is a kid. No kid deserves to be that alone. Everyone deserves to grow up with someone who cares about them and will do anything to take care of them.” 

 

Kakashi put it all out there. His voice wavered. He was too tired to fight back all of his emotions. All of his rage at the treatment of his sensei’s son, of an innocent baby came pouring out. For the first time in a long time, Kakashi lost his cool. His voice rose until he was yelling at the third Hokage. “You can punish me however you want, but I’m not going to just let Naruto be shuffled from one place to another alone and unwanted. I’m not going to let him grow up thinking he’s an unlovable monster.” By the end, Kakashi was spitting out the words.

 

The Hokage frowned at Kakashi. Hiruzen wasn’t used to being yelled at. He took a minute to evaluate the shinobi in front of him. Kakashi was young, still a teenager, but he’d proven himself a skilled leader and loyal member of the anbu. He’d lived alone since his father’s suicide and seemed to become an adult by the time he was 8. That didn’t mean Kakashi was fit to raise another child. Kakashi looked half dead on his feet. What little of his face was visible was pale. There were bags under his eyes and his anbu uniform was covered in dried blood. But Kakashi’s eye flashed with determination and anger.

 

Hiruzen knew that look. Minato had always made that same expression right before he did something bullheaded and stupid. Like mentor like student.

 

“And you think you are in a position to raise and care for a child?” the Hokage asked.

 

“I’m certainly in a better position than his last caretakers.”

 

The Hokage’s face softened. “Kakashi, I know you feel a loyalty to Naruto because of Minato, but that doesn’t mean you need to do this. I can find a better home for Naruto. I’l let you can keep an eye on him.” It was a compromise and a concession. That was as close as Hiruzen would come to admitting he’d made a mistake in placing Naruto with civilians and trying to keep Kakashi away from the baby.

 

“No,” Kakashi folded his arms and leveled the Hokage with a hard glare. Six months ago, he might have accepted that solution, but not now. “I sat through the first round of meetings. No one wants the risk a jinchuuriki brings.”

 

“Raising Naruto isn’t just about taking care of him or loving him. His development is critical to the safety of the village. It’s a bigger job than you even understand--”

 

“Am I a good shinobi?” Kakashi interrupted.

 

Hiruzen wanted to say no, not right now. Good shinobi weren’t supposed to disobey orders and argue with their Hokage.

 

Kakashi used the silence to press on. “I have more completed missions than anyone within 5 years of my age. I’m an anbu captain. I’ve been trained by the village’s best. Everything I’ve done has been for the village. I’ve never questioned an order and I’ve never refused to make a sacrifice for the good of the village. I will make sure Naruto grows up to be the best shinobi,” Kakashi’s voice was hard. 

 

Hiruzen sighed. Kakashi wasn’t totally honest. He’d disobeyed orders a handful of times, all in regards to saving a friend or comrade, but the sentiment held. 

 

“Alright,” the Hokage relented. “I will check on Naruto regularly. When you come to your senses, let me know and I will have another caretaker lined up.” 

 

Kakashi’s jaw dropped. He hadn’t actually expected the Hokage to give in.

 

The Third and his guards vanished in a swirl of wind and all the fight left Kakashi’s body. He let out a deep breath and turned to face Mikoto.

 

Mikoto and Itachi had been watching Kakashi and the Hokage closely. 

 

Mikoto was ready to intervene as needed. 

 

Itachi wasn’t sure what he would have done if things had gotten physical, probably tried to put himself between the hokage’s anbu and his mom and Kakashi. It wasn’t like Itachi could hurt either party.

 

“I’m sorry for involving you in that,” Kakashi apologized.

 

Mikoto waved the apology away. “He purposely waited until you were on a mission and he knew exactly where to find Naruto.”

 

Kakashi sighed. It figured. The Hokage had wanted to avoid dealing directly with Kakashi.

 

“Would you like to stay for breakfast?” Mikoto asked. “I was just starting to cook.”

 

Kakashi shook his head. “I think I’d better just take Naruto home.”

 

Getting Naruto proved trickier than Kakashi expected. He was sharing a crib with Sasuke who seemed to have decided that the blond was his new favorite toy. 

 

Sasuke gripped the front of Naruto's pajamas and screamed at any attempt to pull the other child from his grip.

 

Naruto didn’t seem particularly bothered by Sasuke’s shrieking and just smiled up at Kakashi.

 

Kakashi stopped trying to pick up Naruto everytime Sasuke opened his mouth. Mikoto had been nothing but kind, but Kakashi figured there had to be a limit to how far her kindness would extend if he kept making her son cry, especially after she’d been harassed by the Hokage on his behalf. So Kakashi sat back on his heels and frowned at the two babies.

 

Mikoto thought it was hilarious. The anbu captain had been defeated by a fussy baby. After several minutes of hiding a grin behind her hand at Kakashi’s failing attempts to reason with or bribe Sasuke, Mikoto finally relented and scooped up her youngest son. She ignored the baby’s rage. Kakashi could finally grab Naruto. 

 

“Shush silly boy,” Mikoto soothed. “Your friend has to go home now, but he’ll come back and play again.” 

 

Kakashi nodded. He had no doubt they’d be back.

Chapter Text

Kakashi carried Naruto back through the village without caring who saw them. People whispered and pointed. Kakashi heard the word “demon” several times. He held Naruto a little tighter, but didn’t give anyone the satisfaction of walking faster.

 

From the shadows, the Hokage’s guards watched. They noted the way Kakashi held his head high and dared everyone to say something to his face. Privately, the guards were starting to question the Hokage’s assertion that this would be a short lived arrangement.

 

Kakashi and Naruto made it home without incident.

 

Pakkun was on the two of them before Kakashi could even get the door shut. The little dog sniffed at Kakashi’s pant leg and danced around the pair, all while bombarding Kakashi with questions.

“Are you okay? Are you hurt? Who’s blood are you covered in? Is Naruto okay? You look terrible? What happened?” 

 

It took a moment for Kakashi’s brain to catch up to Pakkun’s frantic questions. “I’m fine. Naruto’s just peachy. The blood isn’t mine. I didn’t sleep last night,” Kakashi fired back once the door was closed and locked behind him.

 

Kakashi moved to set Naruto on his usual couch cushion while Pakkun anxiously sniffed both of his boys. 

 

“And before you ask, I’m sure I stink of fear because I just yelled at the Hokage,” Kakashi added.

 

Pakkun froze. He was midway through checking Naruto over and that left his ears within easy range of Naruto’s grasp.

 

Pakkun yelped when the baby pulled. 

 

Kakashi snorted as Pakkun danced away from a giggling Naruto.

 

“Better get used that,” Kakashi warned Pakkun. “Naruto’s here to stay.”

 

Kakashi hadn’t expected Pakkun to throw his head back and howl with joy at the news. 

 

Pakkun had a howl much bigger than his body. Everything was eerily silent in the house for two heartbeats after Pakkun finished. Then Naruto let out a blood curdling scream and grinned.

 

Kakashi flinched. Pakkun burst out laughing.

 

The dog put a paw on Naruto’s head and looked up at Kakashi. “I think the pup’s going to fit in just fine.”

 

Kakashi just smiled.

 

-------

 

Kakashi left Naruto with Pakkun and went upstairs to shower. The baby was practicing his new rolling over trick and Pakkun was trying to bait Naruto into crawling by teasing the baby with his soft ears.

 

The wooden stairs creaked beneath Kakashi’s feet. As he made his way to the second floor, the smile slipped from Kakashi’s face and the past few days hit him. 

 

Kakashi was stiff and sore. He was mentally and physically exhausted. The rogues’ blood had soaked Kakashi’s uniform. Dried, it left the cloth stiff and when Kakashi sweated, the dried blood became sticky again.

 

Kakashi’s senses weren’t as powerful as an Inuzuka who was directly bonded to their ninken, but his sense of smell still far exceeded a normal man’s. The confrontation with the Hokage had left Kakashi feeling gross and smelling like blood, sweat, and fear. 

 

Kakashi decided he could take the time to shower and then relax for a bit in the bath. The large wooden bath would take some time to fill and heat, so Kakashi started it first. 

 

Then, following his usual routine, Kakashi stripped down and looked himself over. With the adrenaline and stress of a mission, it was easy to miss minor injuries. Kakashi could almost hear Rin’s lecturing him on the dangers of letting a minor cut become infected. 

 

There were a few nicks and scratches on Kakashi’s upper arms. He couldn’t say if they were from tree branches or the barest brush on an enemy’s kunai. Kakashi cleaned them with an antiseptic solution before climbing in the shower. The bath was only half full and Kakashi couldn’t stand the feel of blood beneath his finger nails any longer.

 

Kakashi showered quickly. The water was cold with all the heat diverted to the tub and he hated to see the red swirl of blood running down the drain.

 

Kakashi didn’t bother to grab a towel between the shower and the bath. He’d mop up the puddles later.

 

After the cold shower, the tub was blissfully warm. Kakashi settled himself with just his nose above the water and leaned against the edge of the tub. The heat stung his scratches, but soother his aching muscles.

 

Kakashi let his eyes drift closed and his mind wander, lulled most of the way to sleep by the warmth and quiet.

 

The nagging sensation of blood and grime beneath his fingernails dragged Kakashi back from sleep. He frowned at his blood covered hand. His exhausted mind struggled to figure out why the blood was fresh as the water around Kakashi turned crimson. “Wake up sleepyhead,” Rin said. She was standing beside the tub with a gentle smile on her face and a gaping hole in her chest.

 

Kakashi jumped to his feet. Water sloshed onto the floor, soaking Pakkun who’d come upstairs to wake up Kakashi.

 

“Hey!” Pakkun protested, shaking himself dry.

 

Kakashi blinked in confusion. His hands were clean. The bath water was now only luke warm, but it was as clean as his hands. 

 

“You sleepwalking or are you up?” Pakkun asked. He was still glaring at Kakashi, unhappy about the surprise bath.

 

Kakashi groaned and rubbed his eyes. “I’m awake,” he muttered. “Bad dream.”

 

Pakkun made an understanding noise and dragged a towel from the other side of the bathroom into Kakashi’s reach.

 

“Then I won’t apologize for waking you up,” Pakkun said. “The pup is getting fussy. I think he’s hungry.”

 

Kakashi nodded. “I’ll feed him the last of the food Mikoto sent and then we’ll go shopping. I promised Tenzou dinner tonight and there’s no food here.”

 

Pakkun nodded and left to go watch Naruto while Kakashi finished getting ready. The little dog didn’t say anything, but he was immensely pleased that his young master wasn’t going to be alone anymore. 

 

---

 

Shopping with Naruto was a new experience. Kakashi made sure the baby was well fed, with a clean diaper, and dressed in his least stained outfit. Kakashi was determined to show everyone that the two of them were doing just fine.

 

The first stop was the bank. 

 

The streets were quiet in the late morning. Kakashi tried different ways of holding and carrying Naruto. He’d hoped that the baby would doze off and be content to sleep with his head on Kakashi’s shoulder. 

 

Naruto had no interest in sleeping. He stared at the world with his wide blue eyes and babbled softly. 

 

Kakashi finally settled on carrying Naruto against his side, so that the baby only occupied one arm and could look around unhindered. The only downside was that it put the baby in Kakashi’s blindspot with his sharingan covered, but carrying Naruto on the other side would make his head block part of Kakashi’s already limited field of vision.

 

The bank was a big, cream building situated between the Hokage tower and the mission office. Inside, Kakashi waited in line, ignoring the whispers and stares directed his way.

 

At the counter, Kakashi traded his mission slip for cash. The rogues had been an A ranked mission due to their number and reputation. Killing them paid well. 

 

When the woman handed Kakashi the money, he slipped it into his pocket and grunted his thanks, before turning to leave.

 

“Wait,” the woman stopped him. 

 

Kakashi tilted his head and frowned at her. 

 

The bank teller looked uncomfortable. Her eyes were flickering between Kakashi’s uncovered eye and Naruto’s face. “That’s Naruto, isn’t it?” the woman mock whispered. She said the boy’s name with a mix of disgust and fear.

 

Kakashi held Naruto a bit tighter and leveled the bank teller with a glare that few lived to tell about. “Yes, this is Naruto Uzumaki,” Kakashi’s voice was level and polite. “Say ‘hi’ to the nice lady,” Kakashi ordered Naruto. He tickled the baby, making Naruto squeal and grin. All the while, Kakashi kept his death glare up. The line behind Kakashi was starting to thin out. People were slipping out the door as quietly as they could.

 

The bank teller looked ready to faint. All the color drained from her face and she took a half step back from the counter. “Would you like to pick up his welfare money now? The Hokage’s aide had us change you to his legal guardian this morning,” the woman stammered.

 

“Sure. Thank you for being so helpful,” Kakashi replied. His voice oozed niceness that didn’t match his stare.

 

The woman swallowed hard and scrambled to get Kakashi the money and then get him out the door.

 

----

 

On the sidewalk, Kakashi sighed. He finally knew why the civilian family had agreed to take Naruto. The money was substantial. 

 

“Guess we’ve got the money to buy you a real bed AND a new wardrobe now,” Kakashi told the baby. He’d been planning to wait until after the next mission to buy actual baby furniture, since Naruto wasn’t overly mobile yet. With the extra money, there was no reason to wait.

 

“I hope you’re ready for a major shopping trip,” Kakashi mumbled.

 

Naruto gurgled in response and tugged on a strand of Kakashi’s hair. The teen took that as a yes.

 

---

 

Shopping with Naruto had its perks. They didn’t have to wait in line at the grocery store and the furniture store had to set a record for fastest customer service trying to get Kakashi and Naruto out of the store. No one wanted to be trapped in close quarters with the Nine-Tailed Fox.

 

On the downside, the more time Kakashi and Naruto spent walking the streets, the bolder people were getting. 

 

Whispers behind hands turned into outright jeers. 

 

“Look at the way he carries that thing around like it’s actually a baby.” 

 

“Who would even let a monster like that out in public?”

 

“I bet they gave it to an Anbu so he can kill it if it goes crazy.”

 

They were turned away from two stores selling baby clothes. 

 

“We don’t carry anything for demons. That thing should be wearing a warning, not a onesie,” the shop owner said.

 

Kakashi walked away from the second shop with his held high and jaw clenched tight to keep from unleashing on the shopkeeper. He forced himself to take three deep breaths and keep walking. This was deep into the civilian part of the city. Even if rumors of Naruto’s identity hadn’t made it to the shop before Kakashi, there was a good chance Kakashi would have been turned away for being a shinobi.

 

While Kakashi was reigning in his indignation, a civilian, emboldened by the shopkeepers’ disrespect, stepped in front of Kakashi on his blindside.

 

The man spit on Naruto. The glob of saliva hit the baby’s forehead. It startled Naruto and he started crying. 

 

Kakashi’s head whipped around. He saw the spit sliding down Naruto’s face and heard the man laughing.

 

There was a kunai in Kakashi’s hand and before he realized what he was doing, he was dangerously close to the man. 

 

The civilian froze. Kakashi’s face was inches from the civilains and his kunai glinted in the afternoon sun. The fact that Kakashi was a full 6 inches shorter than the grown man didn’t even register. Everyone knew Hatake Kakashi, friend-killer, the copy ninja, jounin, anbu. His reputation preceded him. He wasn’t someone you wanted in your space, especially not when he was angry and armed.

 

“What the hell?” Kakashi growled.

 

The man’s mouth moved, but no words came out.

 

“That’s what I thought,” Kakashi hissed. “If you ever make Naruto cry again, I’ll kill you.” If these stupid people couldn’t to look at Naruto and see a sweet, innocent baby or the 4th’s son or the future protector of the village, if they couldn’t see that Naruto was someone worthy of love, affection, and respect… Then Kakashi would make sure these people were too scared to hurt the boy.

 

“The only reason I’m letting you go today, is so that you can spread the word. Uzumaki Naruto is under my protection and anyone who hurts him will have to face me.”

 

The man nodded frantically.

 

Naruto was still crying.

 

Kakashi smiled. His cloth mask pulled tight across his mouth. At this distance, the civilian could make out the impression of Kakashi’s teeth. The canines were a bit too prominent. “Glad we came to an understanding. Now get out of here.” Kakashi’s voice was once again, sweet and polite. 

 

The man scrambled away from Kakashi and bolted down the street.

 

---

 

 By the time Kakashi had gotten Naruto calmed down and cleaned up, all the shops in he and Naruto’s vicinity had closed up. Kakashi had no choice but to head back towards the more shinobi oriented parts of town. Finding baby clothes there was going to be a challenge.

 

After a disappointing couple of hours, Kakashi finally ducked into the clothes shop that specialized in Anbu gear. As a still growing Anbu, Kakashi went through uniforms regularly and the seamstress knew him well.

 

Takechi Megumi was a severe, older woman. She wore her gray hair in a tight bun and her face always reminded Kakashi of the Anbu’s hawk masks. Rumor had it, her husband had been anbu and killed in the war before the last war. She’d opened the shop to make sure he would always have good gear.

 

When Kakashi and Naruto walked in, Mrs. Takechi was behind the counter reading the newspaper. She didn’t bother to look up. “You aren’t due for a new uniform for two more months. Don’t tell me you had another growth spurt,” she muttered.

 

Kakashi walked up to the counter and gently set Naruto on it. “I’m not here for me.”

 

Mrs. Takeshi set down her newspaper and eyed the baby on her counter. She used one finger to lift Naruto’s chin and stared into his eyes. “He looks like his dad. I hope you don’t expect me to dress a baby in mesh armour,” she told Kakashi. There was a glint of humor in her eyes.

 

“At this point, I’m not going to be picky.” Kakashi shrugged. Somehow he wasn’t surprised that Mrs. Takechi was the first civilian to not shy away from Naruto. 

 

Mrs. Takeshi laughed. 

 

Naruto started and blinked up at her. 

 

“Shame how people are so quick to forget their debts and replace them with resentment. In another era, every seamstress and tailor in this village would be tripping over themselves for the chance to dress the Hokage’s son.”

 

Kakashi just shrugged.

 

Mrs. Takechi scooped up Naruto and stepped from behind the counter. “Let’s see what I’ve got. I’m sure there’s enough in the scrap bin that I can cut down for someone his size.”

Chapter Text

Tenzou arrived at Kakashi’s house as the sun was setting. From the garden, he could smell something cooking. It seemed like his captain might actually keep his promise, of dinner at least.

 

Kakashi was surprised by a knock at the front door and even more surprised when he opened it to find Tenzou looking shockingly civilian.

 

The anbu had traded his usual uniform for a pair of gray pants and black shirt. His long, brown hair was loose and his only visible weapons were the kunai holstered on his thigh.

 

Kakashi couldn’t remember the last time Tenzou had been in public without a mask on. 

 

Apparently Kakashi spent too long standing in the doorway staring because Tenzou frowned.

 

“Did I do something wrong?” Tenzou asked. His face scrunched up in worry.

 

Kakashi shook his head and grinned at his kohai. “No. Just surprised that you used the door.” He quickly stepped out of the way and invited Tenzou in.

 

“You told me that it wasn’t polite to keep climbing in people’s windows,” Tenzou said as he kicked off his shoes.

 

“I didn’t think you’d actually listen,” Kakashi said with a snort.

 

Tenzou shrugged. “I always listen to what you say.” 

 

Kakashi didn’t know what to say to that.

 

Tenzou straightened up and gestured at his outfit. “You said I should work on blending in with everyone else and building a life outside of the anbu.”

 

“Huh,” Kakashi said. “I must really be some sort of hypocrite.”

 

Tenzou snickered. “Yeah, I figured that was one of your do as I say not as I do moments, but the advice seemed reasonable.”

 

At that moment, a baby started to cry.

 

“Is that---?” Tenzou started, but Kakashi was already gone dashing off to the kitchen.

 

Naruto stopped crying as soon as he saw Kakashi. 

 

Kakashi frowned down at the baby now grinning up at him from the new, portable playpen. “I think the Uchiha is being a bad influence on you,” Kakashi told Naruto. He scooped up the baby and turned to face a startled Tenzou who was standing in the doorway with wide eyes.

 

“That’s a baby.”

 

“Yes. Very observant. I can see why you’re an anbu,” Kakashi replied. He crossed the room and held Naruto out to the other teenager. “His name’s Naruto. You hold him while I finish dinner. If I set him back down he’ll probably start fussing again.”

 

Tenzou scrambled to get a grip on Naruto before Kakashi let go of the baby and ended up hugging Naruto to his chest like a sack of potatoes.

 

Kakashi chuckled. “It works best if you put one hand under his butt and another on his back.”

 

Kakashi went back to the stove and stirred a pot of stew bubbling there.

 

Tenzou fumbled for a minute before getting Naruto settled. He stared at the baby and Naruto stared back. Neither was quite sure what to do with the other.

 

After a minute of a silent staring contest, Tenzou stuck out his tongue at the baby and Naruto burst into giggles.

 

Tenzou grinned and looked over at Kakashi, who was focused on dinner. Tenzou moved closer to lean against the counter near Kakashi. “So who’s baby did you steal?”

 

“You can’t tell?”

 

“No? Should I recognize him? I guess there was that one family in Suna, but how’d you get a baby from Suna?” Tenzou absently pulled faces at Naruto between questions, keeping the baby giggling.

 

Kakashi shook his head. “His name’s Uzumaki Naruto. Ring any bells?”

 

“I thought there were no survivors from Uzushiogakure.”

 

Kakashi groaned and shook his head. “I forget how sheltered Root kept you. That’s the Yondaime Hokage’s son. His mother was Uzumaki Kushina who left Uzushiogakure as a child. She was the previous host of the Nine-Tailed Fox. Now Naruto is the jinchuuriki,” Kakashi explained.

 

Tenzou blinked and then narrowed his eyes at the baby in his arms. 

 

Naruto made a happy gurgle and reached his little hands towards Tenzou’s face.

 

“Is that why you wanted me to come over?” Tenzou asked. His voice was flat and emotionless. He sounded like an anbu. 

 

Kakashi paused his stirring and turned to frown at Tenzou. 

 

The dark haired shinobi was no longer leaning against the counter. Instead, he stood ramrod straight and stared blankly at the baby now squirming in his slightly too tight grip. 

 

Kakashi didn’t know what had caused the change in his kohai, but he didn’t like it at all. 

 

“I just wanted you to meet Naruto. He’s going to be living with me from now on. And I figured I owed you an explanation for why I bolted as soon as we got back in town.” Kakashi’s voice was carefully calm and even. He watched Tenzou’s face and hands, ready to intervene if the other anbu moved to hurt the baby. Kakashi didn’t think Tenzou would, but he didn’t know what sort of standing orders the former Root member might have in regards to the jinchuuriki. Kakashi kicked himself for not thinking of that earlier.

 

“Oh.” Tenzoun let out a deep breath and relaxed. He held Naruto closer and more gently, as if he were apologizing to the baby for whatever misunderstanding had just happened.

 

Kakashi relaxed too and went back to dinner. He pulled the pot off the stove and got two bowls out of the cupboard. There was a fresh loaf of bread already on the table and a bowl of baby food that smelled like bananas and was the color of way too old carrots was waiting in front of a new high chair. .

 

Tenzou set Naruto in the high chair and ruffled the baby’s hair.

 

Kakashi brought the bowls of stew to the table.

 

Dinner was a quiet affair. Kakashi took turns feeding himself and Naruto. The baby was not thrilled about his new, nutritionist approved baby food. Kakashi figured it probably had too many vegetables in it for anyone related to Minato to stand. 

 

Tenzou barely looked up from his bowl.

 

When they were done eating, Tenzou grabbed the dishes and washed them without a word.

 

Kakashi was frowning at Naruto who yawned in response. Kakashi figured there was more baby food on the baby than in the baby. “Give me a couple minutes to clean Naruto up and put him to bed. Then we can go over the mission report and I’ll do the final writeup.”

 

Tenzou just nodded and reached for the pot to scrub it clean.

 

Naruto was asleep in Kakashi’s arms before the silver haired teen had finished cleaning him.

 

Kakashi settled the baby in his new crib, next to Kakashi’s bed, and tucked him in with the green blanket. Kakashi stayed for a minute, just watching Naruto’s chest rise and fall.

 

As an afterthought, Kakashi summoned Pakkun to watch Naruto. Instead of Pakkun, the whole pack appeared. The eight dogs crowded Kakashi’s room, with Bull and Pakkun appearing on Kakashi’s bed.

 

“Sorry, Boss,” Pakkun said, sounding not remotely sorry. “Everyone wanted to meet the pup.” 

 

Kakashi shook his head, but he was smiling. “Great, then you guys can watch him while I finish mission reports.”

 

Pakkun rolled his eyes. “Like that wasn’t why you were summoning me in the first place.”

 

Kakashi just shrugged. He was guilty as charged and headed for the door. “Just try not to wake him up or drool on him,” Kakashi said with a wave over his shoulder.

 

Bull jerked his head back from where he’d been peering over the edge of the crib, just in time for a drop of drool to drip onto Kakashi’s pillow instead of the baby.

 

Paukkun winced and then shrugged it off. It wasn’t like that was the first time one of the ninken had drooled on Kakashi’s bed and it would hardly be the last.

 

Back downstairs, Kakashi leaned against the doorframe and watched Tenzou put the last of the now clean dishes away. “Do we need to talk about whatever you thought I was asking you to do with Naruto?” Kakashi asked it gently. It had been obvious Tenzou was upset by whatever he’d imagined.

 

Tanzo didn’t look Kakashi in the eyes when he shook his head. “No. You’ll only lose sleep and respect for me,” Tenzou murmured.

 

Kakashi’s stomach dropped. It was definitely Root related. “You know that’s not true,” Kakashi said. He stepped into the kitchen and stopped an arm’s length from the younger shinobi. “You know I don’t hold you responsible for anything that happened while you were with Root.”

 

Tenzou’s hands were balled into fists at his sides and he bit the inside of his cheek so hard he tasted blood. He swallowed all his usual questions. At this point, Tenzou knew there was no point in asking why Kakashi was so forgiving or gentle or caring. Just like there was no point trying to convince Kakashi that having a Root member for a friend, even a former Root member, could only lead to tragedy.

 

The wooden floorboards beneath Kakashi’s feet began to sprout tiny branches that twisted and wound their way around Kakashi’s ankles. He could have pulled free from the twigs, but didn’t. Tenzou didn’t seem to even realize what he was doing. His eyes were locked on Kakashi’s left shoulder, still determined to not meet his captain’s eye.

 

“Supposedly talking helps,” Kakashi offered.

 

Tenzou snorted at that. It was a humorless sound. He finally met Kakashi’s gaze. 

 

Tenzou’s mouth was a hard line and his dark eyes were haunted by memories. “You’re being a hypocrite again,” he said.

 

Kakashi sighed. “Yeah. I guess I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours.”

 

Tenzou nodded slowly. “Like the little kids game. I’ll show you my biggest scar if you show my yours.”

 

Kakashi facepalmed. “Tenzou, I hope you’re aware that you did not have a normal childhood.”

 

The other anbu shrugged. His face seemed to say “no shit.”

 

Tenzou moved passed Kakashi to the living room and the couch. Kakashi pulled his feet free of the miniature branches. He’d have to trim them and sand the boards back down flat when Tenzou was gone. It wasn’t the first time this had happened. Kakashi considered it one of the quirks of having a semi-traumatized mokuton user for a best friend.

 

“You know the first hokage used his mokuton to control the Nine-Tails and seal it in the first jinchuuriki…” Tenzou started.

 

---

 

It was midnight by the time Kakashi sent Tenzou home. 

 

Tenzou seemed much more relaxed now that Kakashi had made it explicitly clear that he would never ask Tenzou to hurt any kid, let alone Naruto, and that if the village wanted to remove the Nine-Tailed demon from Naruto, that’d have to do it over Kakashi’s dead body. 

 

The mokuton user had been afraid the Kakashi had asked him over as part of a mission to extract the demon and place it in a more useful vessel-- killing the baby that was its current host. It wouldn’t be the first time Tenzou was ordered to kill a child. Hell, Kakashi had been a child when Tenzou, then Kinoe, had been sent to kill him and take the sharingan.

 

Root members, like any other weapon, weren’t supposed to have emotions or morals. Unfortunately for his mental state, Tenzou still had both despite being raised in Root.

 

Talking seemed to have helped Tenzou. He left Kakashi’s house with lighter steps and had even let Kakashi ruffled his hair without flinching.

 

Kakashi on the other hand felt sick. Every detail of Root life that Tenzou shared made Kakashi want to vomit. It was only because of his anbu training that Kakashi had managed to hide his anger and pity, behind an understanding smile. Kakashi wanted desperately to punch Danzou in his smug face.

 

Then it had been Kakashi’s turn to talk. They’d sat in silence for several long minutes while Kakashi decided where to start and how to say it. 

 

“I didn’t think it would hurt when Minato and Kushina died and it didn’t really until after the funeral. I thought I was already at the point where no matter who else I lost, the pain wouldn’t get any worse. Turns out the heart has a greater capacity to feel pain the human body,” Kakashi started.

 

Tenzou nodded solemnly. Torture training taught you that there was point at which the body could no longer feel anymore pain. No one talked about the emotional pain though. Anbu weren’t supposed to even feel that.

 

“It caught me off guard and I guess I flinched,” Kakashi continued. Unlike Tenzou, Kakashi kept eye contact while he talked. He knew that if anyone would understand how he felt, it would be Tenzou, but that didn’t mean Kakashi was ready to let the other anbu see how broken up he really was.

 

Talking about Minato and Kushina made Kakashi want to puke. Puke or breakdown in hysterics. Kakashi refused to cry in front of someone. Especially Tenzou, who seemed to be clinging to some sort of idealized Kakashi he’d dreamed up-- a Kakashi who balanced his emotions and his job and possessed some sort of healthy coping mechanism.

 

In the end, Kakashi was glad that Tenzou already knew about Obito and Rin. Had Kakashi had to explain their tragedies, he wouldn’t have made it through the night without shattering Tenzou’s perception of the perfect anbu captain.

 

As it was, with Tenzou gone, Rin and Obito’s ghosts seemed to press in on Kakashi. He could almost hear Rin urging him to finish the mission report and go to bed. He could almost see the smirk on Obito’s face, saying Kakashi had asked for the extra work, always showing off and being an arrogant bastard.

 

It was well into the early morning hours when Kakashi finished his report. It only took him ten minutes to run it over to the mission office, slide the scroll into the after hours drop box, and then make it home.

 

As Kakashi forced himself up the stairs, he swore he felt a hand ruffle his hair and felt a brush of Minato’s chakra.

 

Kakashi shook off the feeling. It was probably just the result of talking with Tenzou and sensing Naruto’s chakra in the house.

 

In his room, Kakashi surveyed the sprawl of dogs across the bed and floor. Naruto was sleeping soundly with Pakkun beside him in the crib. 

 

Kakashi felt a smile tugging at his lips looking at all of them. The pressure in his chest faded. The crushing loneliness Kakashi felt whenever he thought about everyone he’d lost was driven off by the reminder that he wasn’t really alone.

 

Sometimes family was a mom and dad. Sometimes family was a dad and a grumpy pug. Sometimes family was a 3 man cell and their sensei. Sometimes family was a couple emotionally stunted shinobi, a demon baby, and 8 ninken.

 

Kakashi crawled into the bed and curled up beside Bull, where they could both watch Naruto sleep. The pillow was a bit damp, but Kakashi didn’t mind. 

 

Kakashi dozed off warm in the middle of a dog pile to the gentle sound of breathing. For the first time in a long time, Kakashi slept the night through without a nightmare.

 

When Naruto woke up at sunrise, the baby looked around with his big, blue eyes, taking in all the dogs and Kakashi’s silver hair in the mix. 

 

Pakkun snuggled closer to Naruto and the baby willingly went back to sleep.

Chapter Text

In the Hatake family, every child received a photo album on their first birthday and it was updated every year from then on. Kakashi’s hadn’t been updated since his father’s death and was stored in the attic along with his father’s book and all the other things too painful to look at. 

 

As Naruto’s first birthday neared, Kakashi began thinking more and more about the family photo books. 

 

Naruto turned out to be a very resilient baby. By the time his first birthday rolled around, he was unrecognizable as the baby Kakashi had sort of stolen.

 

It was a milestone that Kakashi decided needed to be marked. 

 

Kakashi bought a big, leather bound photo album and filled the front couple pages with every picture he could find of Minato or Kushina. 

 

It was a bit disappointing that all the pictures Kakashi had were from after Minato had been assigned to lead Kakashi’s team, but Kakashi didn’t have any idea where else to get pictures. He didn’t know what had happened to all of the Uzumakis’ things after the Nine-Tails attack.

 

The rest of the book, Kakashi figured he could fill in with pictures of Naruto as he grew up. 

 

The leather bound photo album sat on the table in the living room, tied up with a black ribbon, waiting for Naruto’s birthday.

 

Pakkun was on babysitting duty in the living room while Kakashi baked a cake. Kakashi hadn’t really celebrated a birthday since his father died. Things like sugar had been hard to come by during the war and money had been tight. 

 

The village was at peace now though and Kakashi was determined that Naruto’s first birthday would be celebrated. 

 

The baking also took Kakashi’s mind off the other anniversaries the day brought. 

 

“KA!” Naruto screamed.

 

Kakashi flinched and dropped the spoon he was using to mix the batter. Batter splattered on the counter, but Kakashi was already gone.

 

Crocodile tears ran down Naruto’s fast and he pushed away Pakkun’s paw with a chubby little hand. “No Pa,” the baby sobbed. “Ka ka.”

 

“How long did we make it this time?” Kakashi asked Pakkun.

 

The dog sighed. “40 minutes?”

 

Kakashi nodded. “That’s almost a record.”

 

When Naruto heard Kakashi’s voice, his tears stopped and he reached his arms up. “Ka,” he called.

 

“Yeah. Yeah. I’m coming,” Kakashi promised. He scooped up Naruto and carried the baby back to the kitchen. 

 

Naruto sat in the high chair and munched on some dry cereal while Kakashi put the cake in the oven.

 

“How am I supposed to surprise you when you won’t let me out of your sight for more than 40 minutes?” Kakashi asked Naruto.

 

The baby made an unintelligible coo around a mouth full of cereal. 

 

“Oh?” Kakashi cooed back. “I see. You wanted to learn how to make a cake. A very worthwhile pursuit.” Kakashi began narrating the process of making frosting from scratch.

 

By late afternoon, everything was ready. Naruto dozed in his bassinet in the living room, the cake was decorated and waiting on the kitchen table, and dinner was in the oven to warm.

 

Tenzou arrived exactly on time, as usual, and Kakashi smiled when he opened the door.

 

Tenzou was holding a paper box and a stack of files out in front of him when Kakashi opened the door. 

 

Kakashi’s eyes widened. “You didn’t have to bring anything.”

 

Tenzou pushes the box and folders into Kakashi’s arms as he stepped inside. “I know. I thought you might want some more stuff for Naruto’s photo album and there’s pictures of Minato and Kushina from their academy days on in their official records,” Tenzou explained. He slipped off his shoes and followed the scent of food to the kitchen. “The other thing just seemed cute.”

 

Kakashi blinked in surprise. Now he was really curious. He didn’t think he’d ever heard Tenzou describe something as cute before. 

 

The second knock on the door came a few minutes later. Kakashi opened the door to find most of the Uchiha head family dressed in their civilian best. Mikoto’s arms were full of bags and her eyes said she wasn’t going to put up with Kakashi insisting she was spoiling Naruto. 

 

Itachi stood behind his mother, carrying Sasuke. Silently, he mouthed, “Sorry.”

 

Kakashi wasn’t sure whether the apology was for being two minutes late (a terrible offense in Itachi’s mind), or for his mother.

 

The youngest Uchiha seemed to be too enthralled with the sleeves of his brother’s kimono to fuss for once.

 

Kakashi welcomed the Uchihas inside and directed them to the kitchen. 

 

When Kakashi decided to celebrate Naruto’s birthday, it had only seemed right to invite the Uchihas to share in the celebration. Kakashi was well aware of how much he and Naruto owed them. But Kakashi hadn’t actually expected any beside maybe Itachi to come. 

 

As Mikoto stepped inside and glanced around for a place to set the bags she had brought, Kakashi was very glad he’d taken the time to clean and straighten the house that morning. At the same time, he was painfully aware of the half dead plants on the windowsill and the well worn furniture he’d never felt the need to replace.

 

Naruto has woken up at the second knock on the door and his face lit up in a grin when he recognized the Uchihas. 

 

Kakashi released Naruto from the bassinet and set him on the floor with his toys. 

 

Itachi set down Sasuke and Sasuke immediately headed for Naruto.

 

Mikoto giggled as Sasuke grinned at Naruto and the blond babbled a greeting.

 

“Dinner smells wonderful, Kakashi. Thank you for inviting us,” Mikoto said. 

 

Kakashi smiled back. “Thank you for coming.”

 

“Father asked us to send you his regards and well-wishes for Naruto. He is meeting with the Hokage and other clan heads today and unable to attend,” Itachi added while his mother slipped into the kitchen.

 

Kakashi didn’t know what to say to that. Last time he checked, the head of the Uchiha clan just barely tolerated Kakashi’s existence in honor of Obito’s sacrifice.

 

“Hello. You must be one of Kakashi’s friends,” Mikoto greeted Tenzou.

 

The brunet Anbu almost shushinned out of the kitchen when Mikoto walked in, but caught sight of Kakashi shaking his head frantically from the doorway behind Mikoto. Instead, Tenzou tried to remember his manners and held out his hand to the second most powerful person in the Uchiha clan. “You can call me Tenzou. Kakashi and I have been teammates for the last few years.” 

 

Kakashi groaned internally. Bowing would have been more appropriate. 

 

Mikoto shook the offered hand and if she noticed the way Tenzou hesitated over saying his name, she didn’t comment.

 

Dinner was an interesting affair.

 

Mikoto was a blessing. She knew exactly when to ask a question or change topics to keep conversations moving, and had a sixth sense for knowing when someone was uncomfortable. She wanted to hear all about Naruto’s progress and her stories about baby Sasuke and Itachi had even Tenzou snickering.

 

Itachi tried to tune out his mother’s retelling of his first attempt at making breakfast for Mother’s Day (eggs everywhere, there was still a stain on the ceiling), by playing with Sasuke and Naruto. 

 

From babies, the topic shifted to plants. Tenzou’s face lit up when Mikoto mentioned her garden. Tenzou didn’t have space for a garden, he lived in Anbu housing, but his apartment was full of plants. The two could discuss the finer points of fern cultivation for hours. 

 

“I rotate Kakashi’s houseplants,” Tenzou said with a smirk. “When they start looking more dead than alive, I take them home and bring back something else that can handle a few weeks of his abuse.”

 

Kakashi frowned. “I take good care of my plants. They just don’t like me,” he insisted. 

 

Tenzou snorted and rolled his eyes. “You overwater literally everything.”

 

“I don’t want them to dry out while I’m on a mission.”

 

“Half of them are cactuses! They like the dry.”

 

Mikoto just laughed.

 

Beneath his mask, Kakashi smiled. It was nice to sit at a full table and talk about nothing. The banter came easily and, even if it was at his expense, eased the ache in Kakashi’s chest as he thought about who wasn’t at the table.

 

After dinner, Mikoto insisted Naruto, with Kakashi’s help, open his presents. She’d all but bought the baby a new wardrobe. Out of the stack of clothes, Kakashi grabbed a hat with a puppy face to put on Naturo’s head and Mikoto beamed.

 

The Uchiha also brought pictures to add to Naruto’s scrapbook. Most of them featured Kushina and Mikoto, although Minato popped up in a handful. They ranged from two little girls braiding each other’s hair to the two women posing with baby clothes and giggling. Each picture was meticulously labeled on the back.

 

Kakashi didn’t know what to say. Thank you wasn’t enough. “I don’t know how to thank you,” Kakashi started.

 

Mikoto cut him off with a hug. 

 

Kakashi only flinched a little at the sudden contact.

 

Mikoto noticed the way Kakashi flinched, but also the way he didn’t try to pull away. Not for the first time, she wished Kakashi had ended up on her doorstep years earlier. “You don’t need to say thank you. You and Naruto are family at this point,” she murmured in Kakashi’s ear.

 

When Mikoto let Kakashi go, she pretended not to see that his visible eye was a little too bright even in the fading evening light.

 

Next, Kakashi helped Naruto open Tenzou’s gift.

 

When they lifted off the paper lid, Kakashi couldn’t hold back his laughter. “A plush kunai,” Kakashi cackled. It was so perfectly Tenzou.

 

Tenzou grinned. “There’s a shuriken too.”

 

Naruto pulled a plush kunai as long as his chubby little arm out of the box and waved it around. 

 

Kakashi was laughing so hard tears were running down his face.

 

“See, he’s a natural,” Tenzou added.

 

“Terrifying,” Mikoto supplied.

 

Itachi just shook his head, but he was smiling.

 

The night ended with cake. It was a bit lopsided and the frosting wasn’t beautiful, but it tasted great and the sight of Naruto and Sasuke with frosting smeared all over their grinning faces lit up the room.

 

Kakashi sent Tenzou home with leftovers. The brunet Anbu nodded his thanks. 

 

Mikoto watched over the two tired babies while Itachi helped Kakashi pick up.

 

They were elbow to elbow in the dishes when Itschi spoke up. 

 

“You know those toys are supposed to help kids get comfortable around weapons,” Itachi said it like a question.

 

Kakashi shrugged. “I figured there was some sort of bullshit like that involved.”

 

“And you’re okay with that?” Itachi asked. He was frowning down at the dishes.

 

Kakashi shrugged again. 

 

Itachi stopped and set the plate he was holding on the counter. He watched Kakashi closely, his mouth a tight line. “I hope Sasuke doesn’t end up a shinobi. I never want him to have to look death in the eyes,” Itachi’s voice was low, barely audible. He said it like he was sharing a dark secret.

 

Kakashi gripped the fork in his hands tighter. His knuckles stood out white. “Naruto doesn’t really have that choice.” 

 

Itachi nodded and let out a deep sigh. Kakashi thought the Uchiha looked far older than his 11 years. 

 

“I guess Sasuke doesn’t really have that choice either. No Uchiha does,” Itachi admitted.

 

Kakashi shivered. He wanted to ask what exactly Itachi meant. Had Itachi not been given a choice? The Uchiha prodigy had risen through the shinobi ranks with a seemingly single minded passion. 

 

Standing in Kakashi’s kitchen, dressed like a civilian, with dish soap bubbles up to his elbows, Itachi looked like a child. A haunted, heartbroken child.

 

Kakashi gently nudged Itachi’s shoulder with his own. “It’s no use worrying about things we can’t change. All we can do is fight like hell to make sure they grow up in peacetime and know how to protect themselves when we’re gone.”

 

Itachi nodded and picked another plate out of the sink.

 

The Uchiha family left shortly after sunset.

 

In the sudden quiet, the house felt too big and empty. 

 

Kakashi picked up Naruto and settled on the couch with the baby and the photo album.

 

The pictures from Tenzou and Mikoto were tucked loose inside the front cover.

 

“Hey buddy,” Kakashi murmured, nudging the dozing baby tucked against his side.

 

“These are your mom and dad,” Kakashi said. He pointed to a picture from their wedding. Kushina was giggling in a traditional Uzumaki kimono, blue with a whirlpool pattern stitched around the bottom. Minato was fiddling with his collar. Kakashi could all but hear his Sensei complaining about it being “itchy.”

 

Naruto followed Kakashi’s finger with wide, blue eyes as Kakashi went through all the pictures. 

 

Kakashi finished putting the new pictures in the photo sleeves and closed the book. He looked at the clock on the wall. It was almost 11. 

 

Kakashi ran a hand through Naruto’s mop of blond hair.

 

Naruto sighed and snuggled closer to Kakashi’s side.

 

“Happy birthday,” Kakashi whispered as he wiped away the tears threatening to fall from his good eye.

 

One year before, at 10:37 PM, Naruto had taken his first breath. At 11:17, Minato and Kushina had taken their last, sealing the demon fox inside their son to save everyone.

 

Kakashi tucked Naruto into his crib and made sure the baby was sound asleep wrapped in his green, frog blanket. Then, he summoned Pakkun. 

 

The dog looked at Kakashi curiously.

 

“Can you watch him for a bit? Kakashi asked. “If the others want to come, I saved everyone some cake. It’s carrot,” he offered to sweeten the deal.

 

Pakkun sighed. “Just don’t spend all night moping. I will send Bull to haul you back here.”

 

With Naruto down for the night and the dogs keeping watch, Kakashi slipped out of the house. 

 

The graveyard was empty. Kakashi was almost surprised. Sure, there’s been a memorial for the Fourth that afternoon (Kakashi was baking a cake at the time), but Kakashi had half expected others to linger at the grave.

 

Minato and Kushina were buried side by side. 

 

Kakashi sat down on the grass in front of them.

 

“It doesn’t feel like it’s been a year,” Kakashi told the silent stones. “Naruto is doing well. He’s crawling and babbling. He pulls himself up on the table and Mikoto says he could start walking any day now.”

 

The only reply was the soft rustle of wind across the grass.

 

Kakashi rubbed his eye. “I’m doing alright. I miss you. But I’m doing alright. I have Tenzou and Itachi and Mikoto. And I have Naruto.”

 

Tears ran down Kakashi’s face, soaking his mask.

 

“He’s such a happy baby. He smiles at everyone. Even if they’re yelling horrible things at us, Naruto just smiles and coos.”

 

Kakashi was sobbing now. 

 

“I promise I’m going to take good care of him. I’m going to make sure he knows he’s never alone. He’s going to know that you love him and he’s going to know that I love him.”

 

The wind ruffled Kakashi’s hair.

 

When the tears on his face had dried, Kakashi hauled himself to his feet and headed for home. He felt drained and empty, but the sight of Naruto sleeping soundly curled around Pakkun managed to coax a smile onto Kakashi’s face.

Chapter Text

“It’s just for the day,” Kakashi pleaded. “Itachi’s on the same shift as me and Mikoto and Fugaku took Sasuke to visit a family friend outside the village.”

 

“Kakashi, I am not qualified to watch a child,” Tenzou said.

 

“Naruto is easy. He’s literally entertained by everything. You could show him how to water plants or something,” Kakashi was getting desperate. With dignitaries from the Fire Dynamo in the village, the Anbu has doubled the hokage’s guard around the clock. Kakashi and Itachi’s shift was due to start in 15 minutes and Kakashi couldn’t find anyone willing to watch Naruto for the 6 hour shift.

 

Tenzou was still frowning and shaking his head. “He’s only two and a half. He can’t lift a watering can. He’s too small.”

 

“Give him a little cup. He’ll keep himself occupied the whole day,” Kakashi cajoled. 

 

Tenzou sighed. He really couldn’t say no to Kakashi. “Fine, but you owe me.”

 

Kakashi grinned. “You get off your shift at noon tomorrow, right?”

 

“I’ll be around for lunch.” Tenzou could always be bribed with food, especially home cooked food.

 

Naruto insisted on holding Tenzou’s hand on the walk from Kakashi’s house to Tenzou’s apartment in the Anbu housing.

 

Had Kakashi been around, he would have been shocked to see Naruto so quiet. The little boy was being shy.

 

Tenzou was a frequent guest at the Hatake house, especially when Kakashi was cooking, but he didn’t talk much. In Naruto’s mind, Tenzou was the cool, aloof uncle he wanted to impress. Toddlers aren’t very good at recognizing when someone is uncomfortable or awkward.

 

“Big house,” Naruto said, staring up at the concrete behemoth that was the Anbu housing.

 

Tenzou nodded. “Yeah. Lots of people live here and some of them are sleeping, so we need to be quiet.”

 

Naruto squeezed Tenzou’s hand and smiled up at him. “I be quiet. It’s ninja practice.”

 

From there, Naruto was silent as they went into the lobby, climbed two flights of stairs, and made their way through the halls. 

 

As soon as the door of Tenzou’s apartment closed behind them, the quiet ended. Naruto had been storing up his questions and they all came tumbling out. “Why did you show the man papers? Why are there so many doors? Why are people sleeping now?”

 

Naruto didn’t wait for answers. He was going through the one room flat as quick as his little legs could carry him.

 

Tenzou tracked the boy with his eyes and frantically went through a mental checklist. The cabinet he kept his weapons in was locked. The new roll of explosive tags he’d been issued were on top of the fridge, well out of reach. The jars of poisons were in a locked box in a locked cabinet. The really poisonous plants were on the counter, out of a child’s reach. The rest of the plants that covered nearly every flat surface and all but blocked the sliding doors to the balcony were harmless.

 

As he explored, Naruto tossed more questions over his shoulder to Tenzou. “Why are there so many plants? Why are the cupboards locked? Why is the knife in the table? Can I hold it?”

 

The last two were directed at a kunai lodged in the side of the rickety dining room table Tenzou had salvaged from a dumpster when he first moved into Anbu housing. He’d come home after his last mission to the table collapsed under the weight of too many plants and had been too tired to use his wood style jutsu. The kunai was a temporary fix pinning the leg in place until Tenzou had time and energy to reattach the leg.

 

“Hey,” Tenzou moved quick, gabbing Naruto by the shoulder and redirecting the boy back to the plants and away from the knife. “Want to help me water the plants?”

 

Naruto’s face lit up and he nodded enthusiastically.

 

Tenzou figured out a system. Naruto pointed to a plant and Tenzou told him it needed x number of cups of water. While the boy went back and forth from the sink with a drinking cup, Tenzou told him all about the plant. It kept Naruto physically busy and mentally occupied. 

 

Tenzou had lots of plants and many of them came from far away places. Naruto was enthralled by the stories of far off jungles and a desert oasis filled with flowers that glowed under moonlight.

 

Tenzou relaxed as the day wore on. Plants were one thing he could talk about forever and the fact that Naruto seemed to share Tenzou’s fascination or at least appreciation for plants, put the kid at the top of Tenzou’s list. 

 

With his Mokuton, all it took was a sample— a twig or even a leaf— to get a plant started. Kakashi used to tease his kohai about pocketing twigs during missions

 

“This one!” Naruto declared, pointing to a flower with big dark leaves and delicate purple flowers on a soaring stem.

 

“That’s an orchid. You can give it one glass of water.”

 

Naruto set off for the sink.

 

“Orchids like this one grow in the Land of Waterfalls, but I bought this one at the flower shop here,” Tenzou explained. “Everyone stays they’re hard to keep alive, but they’re actually really tough plants, just a bit picky. They can go weeks without water if they need to and their blooms can last more than a month, but they don’t like water on their leaves.”

 

As Naruto went to pour the water into the pot, Tenzou waved his hand and the Orchid lifted its leaves out of the way.

 

Naruto whipped around, sloshing water. “It moved!” he yelled, eyes bright with his discovery.

 

Tenzou snickered. 

 

“You moved it?” Naruto asked, narrowing his eyes. 

 

“Yeah.”

 

Naruto thought for a minute and then smiled. “That’s cool. Not as cool as moving plants.”

 

Tenzou laughed out loud at that and found himself ruffling Naruto’s hair like he’d seen Kakashi do. “Yeah. Moving plants would be pretty awesome.”

 

“Why do you have so many plants?” Naruto asked, looking up at Tenzou.

 

The Anbu shrugged. “They’re my friends. I don’t have any family and it gets lonely.”

 

Naruto grabbed Tenzou’s hand again and squeezed it. “If you get lonely, you can come play with me.”

 

On impulse, the Anbu scooped up Naruto, so they were eye to eye. “I do. That’s why I come and visit you and Kakashi all the time. I’m just not very good at playing games.”

 

“I can teach you!” Naruto squealed.

 

Tenzou nodded. “I’d like that.”

 

“Can we go to the park?” Naruto asked.

 

Tenzou hesitated. Kakashi was very good at handling people who were frightened of Naruto. Between the silver haired shinobi’s reputation and his arsenal of threats, bribes, and soothing promises, problems rarely got out of hand. Naruto’s sunny disposition had even begun to win people over with Kakashi’s help.

 

Tenzou wasn’t Kakashi. He didn’t have a public reputation and he wasn’t good with people. If something went wrong, Kakashi would never let Tenzou babysit again and suddenly that sounded like a very bad thing.

 

“How about we go to a secret park instead?” Tenzou suggested.

 

Naruto’s mouth dropped open. “A secret park for ninjas?” He whispered.

 

Tenzou nodded, rolling with it.

 

“Are there swings?”

 

“Sure.” Tenzou figured he could handle that.

 

Tenzou took Naruto into the forest and then off the beaten path. When he was sure they hadn’t been followed, Tenzou stopped in a clearing and rubbed his hands together.

 

Naruto looked around and frowned. He was wondering if maybe Tenzou didn’t know what swings were, after all, he said he wasn’t very good at playing.

 

Then, Tenzou clapped his hands and one tree began to shift. It’s branch stretched out over the clearing and a series of vines wound themselves into a pair of swings. Another tree twisted and bent, it’s back became silky smooth to the touch and a slide took shape. 

 

Naruto clapped in excitement. “Bigger slide!” he cheered. “Monkey bars!”

 

Tenzou broke a sweat and used way more chakra than he’d planned, but the look of absolute delight on Naruto’s face made it worth it.

 

They played for hours. When the playground became old, they moved onto tag and hide-and-seek. Tenzou even created a couple wood clones to make the games more fun.

 

The afternoon was getting late and Naruto was ready for a nap even if he didn’t want to admit it. He plopped down beside Tenzou at the base of a big oak tree and leaned against the anbu’s side. 

 

The day was pleasantly warm. Wind rustled high in the branches, nearby a steam gurgled over rocks, and birds chirped.

 

Tenzou absently fiddled with a stick, shaping it almost like clay until it was a little doll with a passing resemblance to Naruto, whiskers and all.

 

Naruto watched Tenzou’s hands and his blue eyes drifted closed.

 

When Tenzou returned a dozing Naruto, the boy was clutching a crude little wooden doll and barely stirred as he went from Tenzou’s arms to Kakashi’s arms and then into his bed.

 

“You really tuckered him out,” Kakashi said. He was impressed.

 

Tenzou shrugged and smiled. “We had fun. He is good at watering plants.” 

 

Kakashi laughed.

Chapter Text

“Let me do it!” Naruto squealed. He pushed away Kakashi’s hands and snatched up his little sandals from their spot by the front door.

 

Kakashi sighed and sat back.

 

At 3 years old, Naruto was a stubborn and determined little thing. Kakashi was learning to pick his battles and stop mother hen-ing as Mikoto called it. Sometimes that meant they went grocery shopping with Naruto’s shoes on the wrong feet.

 

Today, the toddler pulled the sandals on the right feet. Kakashi liked to think it was because he was starting to figure out right and left, but chances were it was just luck.

 

“Nice job,” Kakashi grinned as Naruto waggled his feet, showing off. “Now grab your bag. We don’t want to be late. Aunt Mikoto is making lunch.” 

 

Naruto nodded. He slipped on his little green backpack and grabbed Kakashi’s hand.

 

“Bye house,” Kakashi called as they stepped out the front door.

 

“Bye-bye house,” Naruto echoed.

 

The two walked down the street hand in hand. It was slow going. Naruto’s legs were short and he wasn’t in any sort of hurry. This wasn’t an issue today, Kakashi had learned to plan for questions and detours when going anywhere with Naruto.

 

As they neared the center of the village, Naruto frequently tugged on Kakashi’s hand and stopped to stare.

 

“What’s that?” Naruto asked, pointing with his free hand to a stand selling exotic fruit. 

 

“I don’t know,” Kakashi admitted. “But we can ask.”

 

The fruit seller was shifting uncomfortably on his seat and he wouldn’t meet Kakashi’s eyes, but he didn’t seem likely to lash out. 

 

So Kakashi, gently nudged Naruto towards the man. “Ask nicely,” Kakashi reminded.

 

Naruto nodded as he toddled to the stand. His head barely reached the table.

 

“ ‘Scues me,” Naruto started. “What that?” Naruto asked. He was pointing to a leathery looking greenish-yellow, elongated fruit.

 

The fruit seller hesitated, caught sight of Kakashi’s glare, and then gave the toddler a tight lipped smile. “It’s called a star fruit. They come from the land of waterfalls. I don’t get them in very often,” he explained.

 

Naruto frowned. “It doesn’t look like a star.”

 

The man snorted. “Not until you cut it.” He motioned cutting the fruit along its smaller diameter. “The slices are shaped like stars.”

 

Naruto’s mouth dropped open and he bounced on his toes. “Kakashiiii,” Naruto called, breathless in his excitement.

 

“We’ll take 2,” Kakashi told the merchant.

 

When the man handed Naruto a brown paper bag with the two star fruit Naruto was grinning from ear to ear. “I’m going to share with my Aunty and my friends,” Naruto told the man.

 

Despite whatever he thought about Naruto, fruit seller was smiling genuinely by the end of the transaction. Naruto’s charm and the extra bill Kakashi slipped him and won the man over.

 

“What do you say?” Kakashi prompted Naruto.

 

“Thank you,” the toddler said.

 

“You are very welcome. Have fun with your friends.”

 

Naruto waved as they walked away.

 

By the time they made it to the Uchiha compound, Naruto was lagging behind.

 

Kakashi had already relieved the kid of the star fruit and was now eyeing the backpack. It was small enough that he’d figured Naruto couldn’t overload himself, but perhaps he’d underestimated the kid’s packing abilities.

 

“What toys did you bring?” Kakashi asked.

 

Naruto shifted his backpack and grinned up at Kakashi. “Sand dog and frogger and the tree family.”

 

Kakashi sighed. That’s why the bag was heavy. For his third birthday, Tenzou had gifted Naruto with a box of wooden figures. Kakashi had gone through them and recognized stylized versions of villagers, from the third Hokage to Tenzou in his Anbu mask. 

 

From then on, everytime Tenzou visited, he brought either a new figure or a little wooden building. 

 

One of the spare rooms in the Hatake house was basically it’s own miniature village at this point. Naruto could spend hours in there making up stories and rearranging his own little village.

 

On the rare occasions when Kakashi returned the favor and had Sasuke over for an evening while his family was engaged in clan business, the two boys spent most of the evening in opposite corners of the room. They built their own villages and occasionally Kakashi had to help them negotiate trade agreements (sharing is not a natural skill for 3 year olds, but Naruto was a fast learner).

 

The only issue was that the wooden pieces were heavy. Tenzou had shaped them from sort of extremely hard wood. They were durable and had a silk smooth finish that remained unmarked despite being dropped downstairs, carried off by dogs, and occasionally being buried in the backyard.

 

“I can carry your bag the rest of the way,” Kakashi offered to Naruto.

 

The little boy shook his head. “I can do it.”

 

“I know you can, but I’m offering so you don’t have to. I don’t want you to be too tired to play,” Kakashi explained.

 

Naruto sucked in a breath and puffed up his little chest. “I am never too tired to play.”

 

Kakashi managed to suppress his snicker, but just barely. He ruffled Naruto’s hair and nudged the boy to keep walking.

 

Kakashi knocked on the head Uchiha family’s door and Itachi answered. 

 

Kakashi knew something was off as soon as he saw Itachi.

 

Itachi was standing straight and stiff and his expression was carefully composed into the passive, polite mask he wore for diplomatic missions.

 

“Please come in,” Itachi said. “Father is joining us for lunch today.” He motioned for Kakashi and Naruto to come in and leave their shoes at the front door.

 

Naruto needed help pulling off his sandals. Kakashi took the opportunity to whisper in Naruto’s ear, “We need to remember our manners today. Say please and thank you. The Uchihas are being really nice inviting us over.”

 

Naruto nodded and grinned at Kakashi. “Mission: Manners is a go.”

 

Itachi hid a smile behind his hand and motioned for the duo to follow him.

 

The Uchiha’s had a formal, traditional dining room. It was not a place Kakashi had spent time in on his previous visits and he expected Naruto had never eaten at a traditional table. The table sat low to the tatami mats and the head of the Uchiha clan was seated on a cushion at the head of the table. He was reading the day’s newspaper and didn’t look up as his guests arrived. 

 

Most of the food was already laid out. 

 

Itachi motioned for Kakashi to sit to Fugaku’s left. The seat to Kakashi’s left was stacked higher with extra cushions for Naruto. 

 

Kakashi tugged Naruto down and settled him at the table.

 

Kakashi could see the questions already to tumble out of Naruto’s mouth. 

 

Kakashi gently shook his head. This was not the time or place to explain the politics of tradition and wealth to a 3 year old.

 

When Itachi came back with Sasuke, Kakashi relaxed. Naruto was thoroughly distracted.

 

Itachi and Sasuke sat across the table from Kakashi and Naruto.

 

Sasuke waved shyly at Naruto and sat nicely on his stacked cushions.

 

Naruto bolted before Kakashi had a chance to react. The blond was around the table in an instant, hugging Sasuke like they hadn’t seen each other in months.

 

Sasuke giggled and hugged Naruto back.

 

“I’m sorry. He gets excited—“ Kakashi started.

 

Fugaku just waved off the apology. “I am well aware how kids get around that age. The number of times I had to pry Itachi off of distant relatives and strangers…” the clan head shook his head. 

 

Itachi blushed. 

 

Kakashi couldn’t help, but snicker. It was such an absurd image. “Naruto isn’t really a stranger hugger, but if you let him, he’ll talk your leg off.”

 

Which was exactly what Naruto was doing with Sasuke. He was telling him all about the star fruit from the Land of Waterfalls and how he thought the trees must grow from fallen stars.

 

“Stars aren’t plants,” Sasuke argued. “Itachi says they’re made of fire.”

 

Naruto’s eyes widened. “I wonder if star fruit is spicy then?”

 

By the time everyone was done laughing at childish innocence and curiosity, Mikoto appeared out of the kitchen with the main dish.

 

Kakashi managed to call Naruto back to his seat.

 

Mikoto sat at the opposite end of the table from her husband.

 

The food was delicious (lightly breaded pork with a sweet sauce, a variety of vegetables cooked in oil and salt, and fresh dango for dessert). Mikoto has sliced up the star fruit and laid it out on a tray with a bit of sugar sprinkled on top.

 

Both Naruto and Sasuke were enthralled by the star fruit. 

 

Naruto only glanced sadly at Kakashi when the silver haired shinobi set a clump of vegetables on the boy’s plate. 

 

Kakashi nudged Naruto under the table, his way of saying “eat the veggies and I’ll make it up to you.”

 

Across the table, Itachi was slipping his tomatoes onto Sasuke’s plate and Sasuke was devouring them as quickly as he could. 

 

Mikoto rolled her eyes at her boys.

 

Fugaku pretended not to notice.

 

“I noticed he calls you Kakashi,” Fugaku said. He watched Kakashi out of the corner of his eye.

 

Kakashi nodded. Naruto was busy chattering back and forth with Sasuke and not paying attention.

 

“Naruto had a Mom and dad who loved him very much. I don’t want to take their place. Naruto knows his parents died protecting both him and the village. We have pictures of them around the house,” Kakashi explained.

 

Fugaku nodded. “So does he go by Hatake or Uzumaki?”

 

Kakashi shrugged. “I was going to leave that up to him when he’s old enough to really understand. For now, I’ve been writing Uzumaki-Hatake on all his paperwork.”

 

“You’ve done a good job with him. He’s a sweet kid. Clever too.”

 

Kakashi was floored by the compliment. He hadn’t really thought about Fugaku interacting with Naruto.  He always assumed Mikoto watched over the two little ones while Kakashi and Itachi were off on Anbu missions. 

 

The head Uchiha was often out of the house dealing with clan business, but as much time as Naruto spent at the Uchihas’ it made sense that at the very least the Fugaku had seen him around the house. Now Kakashi was wondering if Fugaku had ever played with Naruto or put up with his endless string of “why” questions.

 

Kakashi tucked his head in a half bow. “Thank you. I’ve had a lot of help and he’s naturally an easy kid.”

 

Fugaku hummed at that and the conversation drifted to work, missions, and clan politics.

 

Being an Anbu captain, Kakashi was fairly aware of, if not directly involved in, much of the village politics. Fugaku was a rare sort who could keep opinions out of a discussion on politics. Dinner conversation became an exchange of information and stories.

 

Kakashi mentioned the new age restrictions on Anbu members. “I had to go and specifically ask the third if my whole team was going to be reassigned as jounin or if we were being grandfathered in. I’m pretty sure he forgot that all of Team Rho is under 18.”

 

Fugaku let out a bark of laughter. “I would have loved to see that conversation.”

 

“The council of elders were the ones with the funny expressions.”

 

“This is what I miss when the clan heads meet,” Fugaku said with a sigh. “Everyone is afraid of offending someone or saying the wrong thing, so we talk in circles and nothing gets done. When your father was around, he always brought a level of common sense and directness that no one else dared.”

 

Kakashi shrugged. “The Hatake clan didn’t have much of a stake at that point. Now, we’re not even legally a clan anymore.” They’d lost that status before Kakashi was ever born. Clans needed at least 5 members by blood and marriage. Hatake Sakumo was the only one of 3 siblings and 6 cousins to survive the Second Great War. All had died young, unmarried, and childless.

 

“I wasn’t aware you knew my father well,” Kakashi said.

 

Fugaku smiled. “We were in the same academy class. He was always a man worthy of respect despite his unique view of the world. Perhaps I can go through my things and see if I have any pictures from our academy days.”

 

Kakashi found himself nodding along even as he wanted to say no. He didn’t want to look at pictures. He had pictures. In the attic. Where all the things Kakashi didn’t want to deal with went. He didn’t want to hear how much he looked like his father or how, even then, everyone knew Sakumo would fail as a shinobi because his heart was too big.

 

With lunch done, Fugaku excused himself to his study. He had work to do, but he wanted Kakashi to stick his head in before he left.

 

Kakashi helped Mikoto wash the dishes. Naruto then insisted on helping. He could carry dirty dishes in from the dining room one heavy, nice stone plate at a time. 

 

Sasuke insisted on helping then too. He wasn’t one to be outdone and made a point of grabbing two plates. 

 

Naruto didn’t notice the unspoken challenge, but Itachi was smothering his laughter with his fist.

 

Mikoto made a point of thanking both of the little helpers. The two boys preened.

 

Itachi, Mikoto, and Kakashi had tea while the boys played. 

 

Naruto was showing off his newest little figures (a portly baker that Team Rho has encountered outside Suna and a whole handful of miniature ninken).

 

Seeing the two boys playing drove off the unease Kakashi felt whenever someone brought up his father. The situation and the emotions Kakashi felt were complicated. He much preferred thinking about easier things, like the economy of a town that sold only ramen and tomatoes— separately mind you, mixing the two would ruin both according to the boys.

 

Kakashi told Naruto to start packing up his things and left him under Mikoto’s watch while Itachi showed Kakashi to Fugaku’s study.

 

Kakashi knocked and Itachi left him to speak to the clan head alone.

 

Fugaku called for Kakashi to come in. The Uchiha was seated at a large wooden desk. He had a pair of reading glasses balanced on his nose and stacks of paper spread out in front of him.

 

“Sit down,” Fugaku said with a wave towards an arm chair opposite the desk.

 

Kakashi sat, but didn’t relax. He was acutely aware of the power dynamic here. Beneath his forehead protector, Obito’s Sharingan throbbed.

 

Fugaku took off his glasses and sat them down with a heavy sigh. “You can relax,” he said.

 

Kakashi thought the Uchiha looked exhausted. The easygoing facade he’d worn during lunch was obviously just that, a facade.

 

“I am sure it must be uncomfortable for you to spend time around my clan. Many of them were very vocal about their displeasure at you receiving Obito’s Sharingan.”

 

Kakashi fought the urge to shift in the seat. Obito was another uncomfortable topic. Kakashi suspected Fugaku knew that.

 

“I want you to know that I believe Obito made the right choice. You are a credit to the Sharingan and have become a good friend to the clan.” 

 

For the second time that day, Fugaku paid Kakashi a significant compliment and again, Kakashi dipped his head in a bow to hide his surprise behind a show of gratitude.

 

“I know you look after Itachi on missions. He complains about it often, but Mikoto and I are grateful,” Fugaku explained.

 

“Itachi is an excellent shinobi and I consider him a friend,” Kakashi replied. The fact that he ascribed to his father’s ‘unique world view’ in regards to friends was left unspoken.

 

Fugaku smiled at that. “Just so long as you know you and Naruto are always welcome in our home.” Then the head of the Uchiha clan slid a paper across the desk to Kakashi and nodded for the teen to take it.

 

Kakashi didn’t manage to hide his surprise this time. The paperwork was an acknowledgment of Kakashi’s legitimacy as a member of the Uchiha clan by basis of shared blood. It was signed by Fugaku as head of the Uchiha clan and witnessed by a lawyer in the hokage’s office. All that was missing was Kakashi’s signature.

 

“I don’t do this to pressure you or to gain prestige for my clan. No one else is aware that this document exists and I will keep it that way as long as you want. I have seen how difficult it is to be a shinobi without a clan, especially one involved in politics. With Naruto being a jinchuuriki, there may come a day when you need the influence of a clan,” Fugaku explained.

 

Kakashi just stared. “I don’t know what to say,” he admitted.

 

Fugaku snorted. “I don’t expect I’d know what to say either if our roles were reversed. Again, it’s your choice whether you want to sign it and file it with the hokage’s office. It’s a standing offer for whenever you need it, if you ever need it.”

 

Kakashi nodded.

 

After several rounds of thanks and goodbyes, Kakashi and Naruto made it out of the Uchiha compound. Kakashi had tucked the paperwork from Fugaku in Naruto’s backpack.

 

Naruto was exhausted. Playing city has devolved into a game of tag and then a game of chase Itachi.

 

Outside the Uchiha compound, Kakashi knelt down. 

 

Naruto immediately climbed onto Kakashi’s back and wrapped his little arms around the teen’s neck. 

 

Naruto fell asleep on Kakashi’s back.

 

Kakashi smiled to himself listening to Naruto’s soft breathing and took the long way home, down quiet streets and the village gardens.

Chapter Text

Back home, Kakashi tucked Naruto in for a nap and then sat at the kitchen table retreading the paperwork from Fugaku.

 

Kakashi tried to look at it from every angle. 

 

On one hand, integrating Kakashi and Naruto into the Uchiha clan would do wonders for the clan’s reputation with outsiders. They’d have the youngest Anbu captain in history who was also Kohona’s legendary copynin and through Kakashi, they’d be able to claim the jinchuuriki son of the 4th Hokage. Both Hatakes would be valuable assets on paper. 

 

In reality, it’d be a nightmare for Fugaku. At best a third of the Uchiha would prefer Obito’s eye came back to someone of Uchiha blood and weren’t quiet about their opinion. At worst it was the majority of the clan who felt that way, but some remained quiet and Kakashi was left alone solely because of Fugaku’s orders. Adopting Kakashi would piss off a lot of Uchiha’s. 

 

Then there was the Hokage and the village perception to contend with. There was a decent portion of the village, including people of influence, who believed the Uchiha were behind the Nine-Tail’s attack. Putting Naruto in the Uchiha’s hands would scare a lot of people. The Hokage wouldn’t be able to allow it without taking a stand to defend the Uchiha from allegations of their involvement with the 4th’s death. Hiruzen had very carefully and purposely avoided getting involved in that debate for years. 

 

Chances were, if Kakashi signed and submitted these papers, Hiruzen would try to take Naruto away. If Kakashi made a fuss and Fugaku followed through in his promise to help… 

 

Kakashi rubbed his face and sighed. It was clear Fugaku was trying to do something good. Kakashi didn’t really understand why the head Uchiha had suddenly decided to be compassionate and caring towards an outsider, but there was no other explanation for this. It was political suicide for Fugaku to give Kakashi, and through him Naruto, the Uchiha name. Kakashi could come up with at least two different, realistic scenarios where this led to either a civil war within the Uchiha clan or all out civil war within the village.

 

Kakashi carefully folded the papers and tucked them in the fireproof safe where all his other important documents lived. As long as Hiruzen was the Hokage and the Uchiha remained under the village’s scrutiny and suspicion, Kakashi couldn’t sign those papers.

 

But, they were a handy insurance policy, Kakashi admitted to himself. The mere existence of those papers could be enough of a threat to buy time if anyone ever tried to take Naruto.

Chapter Text

Kakashi’d always loved bookstores. Something about the quiet and the soft, dusty smell made him feel safe. On the worst days of his life, Kakashi turned to books.  It was arguably his healthiest coping mechanism. He considered the ability to lose one’s self in a story a crucial skill for a shinobi. Which is why Naruto was driving Kakashi up a wall at the moment.

 

“Can we go yet?” Naruto whined. He tugged on the hem of Kakashi’s vest and gave him a pleading look.

 

Kakashi blinked in surprise. Naruto had been begging for a new story, something about someplace new. The kid loved Kakashi’s collection of myths and folklore from around the world, but Naruto had started complaining that you can only hear the same bedtime story so many times. 

 

Now, he just seemed to want to get out of the bookstore as quick as possible. 

 

Kakashi sighed, set down the paperback he’d been considering, and crouched down so he was eye to eye with the four year old. “Don’t you want to get a new story?” Kakashi asked, trying to figure out why Naruto had gone from wide eyed and excited to sullen and grumpy in a matter of minutes. It wasn’t like the usually sunny kid.

 

Naruto shifted from foot to foot and his eyes flickered around the store. “The kids’ books are boring,” Naruto muttered.

 

Kakashi frowned. “I know, but remember I said we’d get a couple books. We need to get some that you can practice reading and you can pick a new one for me to read to you before bed.” It was their running deal. Naruto loved stories, but reading didn’t come easy for him. 

 

“We have enough books. Let’s just go,” Naruto pleaded. “Sasuke doesn't read any better than me, so it’s not a big deal.”

 

Kakashi narrowed his eye at the little boy. “It doesn’t matter how well Sasuke reads or anyone else for that matter. You should always try to be the best you can be,” Kakashi said. 

 

Naruto huffed and dragged his foot across the floor. He didn’t look at Kakashi,  just kept glancing around the room.

 

“Besides, you’ll need to be able to read without sounding out the letters before you can start at the academy and it’s a lot easier to start learning now rather than trying to learn it all the month before class starts,” Kakashi explained patiently. 

 

Naruto squirmed for another moment and then met Kakashi’s gaze. “Please can we just go. People are staring.” He said it as no more than a whisper, but the words hit Kakashi like a slap in the face.

 

A quick glance around revealed that the six other people in the little shop were indeed staring and keeping their distance. Kakashi was used to that sort of behavior, even before he’d gotten Naruto the general population gave the copynin a wide berth. The staring today wasn’t any worse than normal, but it seemed that Naruto had final noticed. 

 

Kakashi ruffled Naruto’s hair and smiled at the boy. “Just ignore them,” he said. “They’re just being rude. Apparently no one ever taught them that staring is impolite.” Kakashi said it loud enough for the other patrons to hear. They had the good sense to look embarrassed and either keep their eyes on the shelves or leave.

 

Naruto nodded, but he stepped closer to Kakashi and grabbed the anbu’s hand.

 

Kakashi scammed the shelves quickly. He grabbed a beginning reader with a dog on the cover. The dog looked kind of like Pakkun, so Kakashi figured Naruto wouldn’t complain too much about reading it. Then, he picked up the book he’d been looking at a minute earlier. It was some fantasy piece about a lost prince trying to save his kingdom and Kakashi was sure it’d be painfully cliche but he was equally sure Naruto would love it.

 

Kakashi went to pay and had to take his hand back from Naruto in order to grab his wallet. 

 

Naruto hung close to Kakashi, all but pressed against his legs. 

 

The clerk didn’t say anything as she passed Kakashi a paper bag with the books and his change. She just frowned.

 

Kakashi gave her his best smile. “Thank you.”

 

“Don’t hurry back.”

 

Kakashi kept smiling as he led Naruto out of the store.

 

They were halfway down the block and Naruto was starting to relax walking beside Kakashi, when someone called after them.

 

“Excuse me.” The woman was a civilian. Her blonde hair was showing the first streaks of gray and Kakashi thought she’d be the picture of gentle maternity with her round face and laughter lines, if only she weren’t scowling at them like she was trying to curdle milk.

 

A small, blond boy, maybe a year or two older than Naruto stood beside his mother.

 

“Can I help you?” Kakashi asked. 

 

“I know you’re doing your best to teach that thing how to act like a person,” the woman said with a wave towards Naruto. “But don’t you think carting it around like this is an unnecessary risk?” The woman set a hand on her son’s shoulder. “There are actual, human children around. At the very least I’d think you should muzzle that monster.”

 

Kakashi opened his mouth to reply, but Naruto beat him to it.

 

“The ninken don’t like muzzles,” Naruto said. He wasn’t sure why the lady was upset, but he knew people sometimes muzzled dogs that bit. “But it’s okay. They don’t bite.” 

 

Naruto took a step forward and smiled at the other boy. “My name’s Naruto. What’s yours?”

 

The woman’s grip on her son’s shoulder tightened.

 

Naruto took another step forward. He could tell that something was off, but Kakashi always said the best thing to do when people were mean was to smile through it. “Would you like to be friends?” Naruto held his hand out to the other boy.

 

The woman jerked her son backwards. “I’m not talking about muzzling a dog, you stupid freak. I’m talking about muzzling you!” she snarled. “If nothing else, it’d keep people from mistaking you for a human.” 

 

Naruto froze. The smile slipped from his face and he took a half step back in the wake of the woman’s fury.

 

The woman then turned her attention to Kakashi. “I appreciate the sacrifice you are making for the village by raising that monster, but it really should be leashed or muzzled in public.” Then she turned on her heel and towed her son away behind her.

 

Naruto stared at them until they were long lost in the crowd. 

 

Kakashi stepped up beside Naruto and ruffled the boy’s hair. “Let’s go home,” Kakashi said. His voice was soft and gentle.

 

Naruto shuddered and turned to bury his face in Kakashi’s pant leg. Sobs shook Naruto’s little body.

 

Kakashi held Naruto tight to him and let the boy cry. 

 

Passerbys stared. Some whispered to each other, but no one said anything to the pair. 

 

After a minute, Naruto shifted and looked up at Kakashi with tears and snot streaking his face. “Go home?” he whimpered.

 

Kakashi nodded and wiped the tears off Naruto’s cheeks. “How about a piggy back ride?”

 

Naruto gave him a watery smile and Kakashi knew the kid was going to be alright.

 

Kakashi crouched down and let Naruto climb up onto his shoulders. 

 

All the way home, Naruto hid his face in Kakashi’s hair and Kakashi tried to come up with a child appropriate way to explain the Nine-Tailed Fox. He’d been putting it off until Naruto was old enough to understand. He didn’t want the kid to panic at the whole idea of being a jinchuuriki.

 

Kakashi wasn’t sure Naruto was old enough to really understand, but was old enough now to know people treated him different and old enough to start thinking that meant something was wrong with him. 

 

Kakashi was determined to cut that off here and now. He wasn’t going to have Naruto end up too self-conscious to show his face. One Hatake with an aversion to social interaction and deep seated trust issues was more than enough, thank you very much.

 

Back home, Kakashi set Naruto down. “How about I put the new books away and you go up stairs and get your scrapbook?” Kakashi suggested. “I have a story I want to tell you.”

 

Naruto’s eyes lit up. “About Mom and Dad?” he asked.

 

Kakashi nodded. “And other people.”

 

Naruto was already off and running up to his room as fast as his little legs could take him.

 

“You’re going to tell him?” Pakkun asked from the backdoor. “He’s still just a pup.”

 

Kakashi dropped onto one end of the couch and cradled his head in his hands. “I know. I don’t want to do it yet, but if I wait much longer someone else is going to blab and they’re going to make him hate himself.”

 

Pakkun crosses the room and pressed his wet nose to Kakashi’s exposed ankle. “Can I help?”

 

“I wouldn’t say no to moral support.”

 

Pakkun chuckled. The little dog moved to make himself comfortable on the other end of the couch, leaving Naruto the middle.

 

Naruto came back with his photo album and hopped onto the couch. He snuggled in close to Kakashi’s side and balanced the book on Kakashi’s knee.

 

Kakashi ran a hand over the leather cover of the photo album. It was holding up just fine, despite the wear of near daily use. At three, Naruto had started asking why other kids had a mom and dad and he only had a Kakashi. 

 

Kakashi had sat the kid down and explained how his parents were heroes who had given their lives to save everyone. 

 

Naruto went through the photo album before bed almost daily. He liked to say good night to his mom and dad. Even though Kakashi got the kid’s favorite pictures framed, Naruto still went through the photo album regularly.

 

There was even a drool stain on the cover from one of the times Naruto had fallen asleep with the photo album.

 

Naruto was staring expectantly at Kakashi while the shinobi tried to think of where to start.

 

“This story actually starts a long time ago, back before the hidden villages were founded and the world was full of chaos,” Kakashi started.

 

Naruto nodded. “The clans used to fight each other all the time, right?” He’d heard the story of Kohona’s founding many times. It was one of Kakashi’s favorites to tell.

 

“Mmmhmm… It was a dangerous time and not just because of the wars. During this period powerful creatures walked the world with no restraints. We called these creatures the tailed-beasts and they were made of uncontrolled, living chakra.”

 

Naruto’s eyes widened. 

 

“There were 9 tailed-beasts that roamed the lands. When angry, they could destroy mountains and level whole forests. They could summon hurricanes and sandstorms and set mighty fires. People lived in fear. They had no way to talk to the tailed-beasts and no way to stop them.”

 

Naruto presses closer to Kakashi. “What happened to the tailed-beasts?” he sounded uneasy.

 

Kakashi shifted, putting an arm around Naruto’s shoulders and hugging him close. “Shortly after the founding of Kohona, one very brave, clever, and skilled kunoichi learned how to both contain and communicate with one of the tailed-beasts. Her name was Uzumaki Mito.”

 

Naruto gasped. “She has my name,” he squealed.

 

“She and your mother came from the same clan,” Kakashi explained.

 

“How did she stop the tailed-beast?” Naruto asked. He was excited again now.

 

“Mito used a special kind of jutsu called a seal to trap one of the tailed-beasts inside of her. Following this strategy, other hidden villages captured the other tailed-beasts and sealed them into their own shinobi. Mito and the others discovered that they could draw strength from the tailed-beast and legend has it, they could even speak with them. We call these shinobi jinchuuriki and they are some of the strongest shinobi to ever live.”

 

“What happened to all of them?” Naruto frowned. 

 

Kakashi shifted again and ran his fingers through Naruto’s hair. “When one jinchuuriki dies or if their seal is broken, the tailed-beast inside of them is set loose unless it can be transferred to a new shinobi. The jinchuuriki aren’t gone, the new generation of them is still young.”

 

“Who’s our jinchuuriki?” Naruto demanded. “I want to meet them.”

 

Pakkun snorted, but didn’t say anything.

 

Kakashi plowed on. “The tailed-beast we have in Kohona is the Nine-Tailed Fox and according to legend, it is the strongest of the tailed-beasts. After Mito passed away, another Uzumaki became the new jinchuuriki. Uzumaki chakra mixes well with the Fox’s. That Uzumaki was your mother.”

 

Naruto’s mouth dropped open. “Wow,” he breathed. “Mom was awesome!”

 

Kakashi smiles at that. “Yeah, your mom was awesome. She was kind, smart, funny, and very strong. I heard, she was so determined and stubborn that she actually made friends with the Fox. Which is why when her seal broke, the Fox went crazy with grief. You see, a jinchuuriki can’t survive if the tailed-beast is removed from them.”

 

Naruto wanted to ask questions, but Kakashi didn’t give him the chance.

 

Kakashi kept going with his story. It was like taking off a band aid. Slow and gentle just didn’t work. “The night you were born, your mom’s seal failed. The Fox attacked the village. A lot of people got hurt and some people died. Your mom and dad saved us that night. They gave up their lives, your mom used the last of her strength, to seal the Fox into a new jinchuuriki.”

 

Naruto was staring up at Kakashi with so many questions burning in his blue eyes. 

 

Kakashi brushes his thumb across Naruro’s cheek, tracing the whisker marks there. “Your parents loved you more than anything. They wanted you to grow up brave and strong and kind. When your mom was pregnant, she used to talk about how excited she was to watch you grow up. She knew you were going to be special. The last thing she did in life was make sure you would always carry a piece of her love with you and have the power to take care of yourself since she wasn’t around to protect you.”

 

“Am I the jinchuuriki?” Naruto asked. He had one hand pressed against his stomach where his skin was stained black with characters and shapes he didn’t recognize and the other hand on his face over the whisker marks.

 

Kakashi met and held Naruto’s gaze. “Yes.” He could see the understanding in Naruto’s eyes as the kid put the pieces together.

 

“That’s why people stare. That’s why people are mean. Why are they mean? You said jinchuuriki are strong shinobi who protect their village.” 

 

Kakashi sighed. “People are scared of the Fox.”

 

“And when people are scared, they become mean. They even start to hate,” Pakkun added. He leaned against Narruto’s other side, figuring the kid needed the moral support.

 

Tears were welling in Naruto’s eyes and he looked ready to break.

 

Kakashi rubbed Naruro’s back, trying to soothe the boy. “But it’s not just that. Every powerful shinobi makes people nervous. People like you and me, Itachi, Tenzou, and even the Hokage have to prove to people that we can be trusted. We have to prove that we will use our strength for good. That’s what a Hokage is. They’re a powerful shinobi who loves their village so much that they devote everything they have to caring for their people,” Kakashi explained.

 

Silence stretched.

 

“Are you scared of me?” Naruto asked. His voice was small and he trembled against Kakashi’s side.

 

“No. I love you. I have always loved you and no matter what anyone says or what you decide to do in life, I will always love you,” Kakashi promised.

 

Naruto took a deep breath and scrubbed at his eyes with his fists. “Okay then. I’m going to be the best jinchuuriki ever. I’m going to make friends with the Fox and I’m going to get strong so I can take care of the village just like you and Mom and Dad, and I’m going to become Hokage!”

 

Kakashi blinked in surprise. This was not how he’d expected Naruto to handle the information, but then again the kid was resilient. He always seemed to bounce back stronger and more determined every time something tried to knock him down.

 

Kakashi took Naruto out for dinner. 

 

Naruto wanted ramen. 

 

Maybe the chef didn’t recognize Naruto and Kakashi in the dim of the evening and the steam of the ramen shop, but he greeted them with a smile and wanted to know how their day was going. Naruto told the man that he’d decided he was going to become Hokage.

 

The chef laughed and when he served their ramen, he gave Naruto an extra big bowl because hokages in training needed to keep up their strength.

Chapter Text

“Did you lay out your clothes?” Kakashi asked.

 

Naruto nodded. “Yup.”

 

“Did you pack your bag?”

 

“Yup.”

 

“Is your lunch box at the front of the fridge?”

 

“Yup.”

 

“Do you have enough--”

 

Naruto cut Kakashi off. “It’s okay. Everything is ready. Stop worrying. It’s time for stories.” He poked Kakashi with the hardcover book he’d been trying to hand to Kakashi between questions.

 

Kakashi frowned. “Tomorrow's your first day at the academy. It’s important. I just want to make sure you’re ready.”

 

Naruto sighed. “You’re a worry wart,” he waved his hand at Kakashi. “But you could double check everything if you want.”

 

Kakashi took a deep breath and forced his shoulders to relax. “No. It’s okay. I trust you and I know you’re going to have a great first day.” He took the book from Naruto.

 

Naruto beamed and hopped on the couch, patting the space next to him until Kakashi sat down and lifted his arm for Naruto to snuggle close.

 

Kakashi did most of the reading, but every few paragraphs he’d pause and have Naruto read the word. The kid was getting faster, but Kakashi still ran a finger beneath each line as he read it, helping Naruto keep up. 

 

They read for almost an hour. By then, Naruto’s eyes were starting to drift closed.

“Bedtime,” Kakashi ordered. “You have an early morning tomorrow.”

 

Naruto pouted, but didn’t argue. 

 

“Go get ready and I’ll be up to tuck you in,” Kakashi promised.

 

Naruto hopped off the couch and made his way upstairs. 

 

Kakashi watched the kid go. He wondered if he’d been that small at 5. Naruto wasn’t quite four feet tall and weighed only 45 pounds. The bulk bags of dog food were bigger than Naruto.


Kakashi rubbed his face and sighed. He figured he must be getting old and soft if he was looking at academy students and thinking them too young to hold a kunai. He’d been a genin at Naruto’s age.

 

Kakashi slipped up the stairs. He paused at the door of Naruto’s room and took a moment just appreciate the scene.

 

Naruto was sitting on the edge of his bed, facing away from Kakashi, with his photo album on his lap. The kid was talking to the pictures.

 

“Hi Mom. Hi Dad,” Naruto said with a grin. “I start at the academy tomorrow. Kakashi is nervous, but I’m not. I can’t wait to meet everyone and start training.” Naruto paused as if he was waiting for a response. “I know Kakashi’s been training me, but that’s different.” Naruto ran his hand across the photo and hummed. “I’m going to do my best!” he promised.

 

Kakashi smiled and knocked on the wooden doorframe.

 

Naruto shut the book and twisted on the bed so he could see Kakashi. “You can come in. I was just saying goodnight to Mom and Dad,” Naruto explained.

 

Kakashi stepped into the room, carefully navigating the model building occupying the middle of the room. 

 

“Don’t step on the academy,” Naruto said with a giggle.

 

Kakashi glance back at the building and sure enough it was a model of the academy. He smiled and plopped on the bed beside Naruto. 

 

Naruto shifted closer and Kakashi pulled him into a hug. “Your parents would be really proud of you.”

 

Naruto leaned into Kakashi. “I may have lied a little,” he whispered. “I’m kind of nervous.” Naruto rubbed his cheek, like he could wipe away the whisker marks there. “What if people don’t want me in their class?”

 

Kakashi squeezed Naruto tighter. “Then that’s their loss and they can get over it. You’re going to do great. I’m proud of you.”

 

Naruto hummed. “Do you have any last minute advice on making friends?”

 

Kakashi snorted. “That’s not my area of expertise.”

 

Naruto rolled his eyes and poked Kakashi’s side. “You have the best friends. Uncle Tenzou and Itachi are awesome.”

 

Kakashi thought for a minute. “Just be yourself,” he said at last.

 

“That’s a copout,” Naruto whined.

 

“Yeah, but it will work for you and it’s a lot shorter than trying to remind you of all the little things that you already do,” Kakashi argued.

 

Naruto stared up at Kakashi with an unimpressed look.

 

Kakashi relented. “There’s going to be things you’re really good at and things that you’ll struggle with. Don’t let people drag you down. Don’t be arrogant when you’re the best and don’t be jealous when you’re the worst. Offer to help others, ask for help when you need it, don’t judge people without getting to know them, work hard, don’t pick fights, say please and thank you, be nice to your teacher, keep smiling, and do your best.” It was all the little things, Kakashi had been teaching Naruto since he was small. The kid had a good heart and he was a people person despite everything. Naruto was going to make friends with people whether they wanted him for a friend or not.

 

Naruto nodded. His blue eyes were serious and his mouth was a hard line instead of his usual smile.

 

Kakashi ruffled Naruto’s hair. “You’re a good person and you’re going to be a great shinobi. It might take a while, but people will see that and gravitate towards you. In the end, you’ll have all sorts of friends.”

 

Naruto smiled at that. He squirmed in Kakashi’s grip until he could return the hug. “Thanks,” he murmured.

 

Kakashi smiled beneath his mask. “Anytime, kiddo. You know I’m always here and if nothing else good for a pep talk.”

 

Naruto giggled. He let Kakashi tuck him in and turn off the lights.

 

Kakashi stayed in the doorway, hidden in the shadows, watching as Naruto drifted off. Kakashi looked around the room and felt a rush of pride. 

 

The walls were decorated with pictures of Naruto and his adopted family. He had a box of toys that often spilled onto the floor. He loved to draw and tell stories. He’d picked his own bed spread (green with little animals stitched along the hem). By all accounts, 5 year old Naruto was a perfectly happy and mostly normal kid and Kakashi considered that a bigger achievement than any anbu mission.

 

The soft click of a dog’s nails on the hardwood announced Pakkun’s arrival. “The pup ready for his first day?” the dog asked.

 

“I think so,” Kakashi said. “He’s a little nervous about how the other kids are going to treat him.”

 

“Hmmm,” Pakkun made a noise of consideration. “There will probably be some brats in the mix, but not everyone. Kids aren’t naturally mean.”

 

Kakashi nodded. 

 

“Besides, if anyone causes a problem, I’ll take Bull and we’ll sort them out.”

 

Kakashi snorted. “No terrorizing children,” he ordered.

 

Pakkun gave Kakashi a baleful look. “Sometimes, there are some kids who need terrorized on occasion for their own good.”

 

“I don’t remember you terrorizing me.”

 

The dog shook his head. “I’m going to sleep with Naruto tonight.”

 

“And you say I coddle him.”

 

“I’m his god-dog. It’s in my job description.” Pakkun trotted into Naruto’s room and hopped up on the bed without disturbing the boy.

 

Kakashi listened to the two of them breathing for a moment. The sound eased his soul. He went to bed and managed to sleep the night through without a nightmare.

 

The next morning, Naruto woke Kakashi hours early by flinging himself onto his sleeping guardian. 

 

Kakashi jerked awake, grabbing for the kunai under his bed, but flopped back down when he recognized the blue eyes inches from his own.

“I need help putting on my mesh,” Naruto said. 

 

Kakashi groaned and covered his face.

 

Naruto prodded Kakashi in the ribs. “Please.”

 

Kakashi turned to see the clock. “Naruto, it’s 4AM. School isn’t for another 4 hours and you don’t need to wear mesh until you start doing combat and missions. Go back to bed.”

 

“But I want to be prepared. You always say, ‘a good shinobi is ready for anything,’” Naruto complained.

 

Kakashi knew he was beaten as soon as Naruto quoted him. “Fine, but you need to get off of me and go brush your teeth. Your morning breath is worse than Pakkun’s.”

 

Naruto rolled his eyes. “Your’s is worst.” But he climbed off Kakashi and headed for the bathroom.

 

Kakashi dragged himself out of bed and into Naruto’s room. Pakkun was curled up on the bed, still sound asleep. Kakashi grabbed a stuffed animal off the floor and hurled it at the dog. “If I have to be awake, so do you,” he said in response to the dog’s glare.

 

Pakkun grumbled and burrowed deeper into the blankets Naruto had discarded.

 

Kakashi looked around the room and saw the clothes Naruto had laid out on his desk chair. On top was the mesh shirt. The tightly woven wire acted as a flexible, light chainmail and was meant to protect against lethal cuts from kunai, shuriken, and some swords. It wouldn’t stop a broadsword, but it was still an indispensable part of a shinobi’s gear. 

 

Kakashi had been surprised that Mrs. Takechi had mesh sized for a child. “Found it in the back. Must be a leftover from the War,” she explained. Kakashi had doubted that. Back then, he’d had to have his mesh custom made. More likely was that this mesh had been made for someone specific who didn’t live long enough to pick it up.

 

Kakashi tore himself away from that line of thinking. The village was at peace. Most of the world was enjoying a period of peace. Naruto didn’t need the mesh. He wasn’t even going to be wielding a sharp kunai until his second year in the academy, let alone fighting on the front lines.

 

Underneath the mesh, Kakashi could see a lump of awful orange fabric and he fought back a groan. The tracksuit was Naruto’s favorite on account of the sheer excess of pockets it hid. Mrs. Takechi had let Naruto go through her spare fabric bin and the kid had absolutely fallen in love with the vibrant orange. The anbu seamstress had been equally delighted.

 

Kakashi tried to argue. He’d even played the whole, “Ninja don’t wear bright orange,” card.

 

Naruto had pouted. Mrs. Takechi had argued. “Well it’s in my shop, so clearly some ninja did wear it and I only make clothes for the best.”

 

In the end, Naruto had gotten his orange track suit with all the pockets a 5 year old could ever hope to fill. Pakkun’s reminder of all of Kakashi’s questionable fashion choices killed any remaining arguments. After all, someone who wore a bright red winter scarf year round for 3 years wasn’t in a place to judge fashion.

 

“You should close your eye,” Naruto said. He’d managed to sneak up on Kakashi. “You’ll drain all your chakra.” His arms were folded and he stared up at Kakashi with the same expression he received when he was doing something stupid.

 

Kakashi snorted. “You sound like Pakkun.” He ruffled Naruto’s bedhead. “Don’t worry about me. Let’s get you ready and then I think we’ll have plenty of time to make a good breakfast before school.”

 

Kakashi liked to think he was well adjusted, that for a shinobi he had healthy coping mechanisms and was more or less unshakable at this point in his life. But, life had a way of reminding him, every time he started getting confident, that he as a 20 year old soldier who’d been on the battlefield since he was 5 and had buried the entirety of his first two families excluding the ninken. Today, was one of those days.

 

When Naruto came downstairs after finishing getting ready with a pair of goggles on his forehead, Kakashi dropped spatula he was holding. 

 

Naruto blinked in surprise. Kakashi wasn’t normally clumsy.

 

“Where did you get those?” Kakashi asked. His voice was tight.

 

Naruto pointed up at the goggles.

 

Kakashi nodded.

 

“I found them in the attic. They were in one of the boxes you said had your old genin stuff. You said I could go through them,” Naruto explained.

 

Kakashi licked his lips and forced himself to tear his gaze away from the dark haired boy his eye was trying to superimpose over Naruto.

 

“Maybe you shouldn’t wear those,” Kakashi started. “The other kids might make fun of them.”

 

Naruto narrowed his eyes and Kakashi knew he’d chosen the wrong strategy. “Then they’ll be silly. Goggles are a valuable tool and they look cool.” He adjusted the goggles on his head and plopped down at the table.

 

Kakashi just stared. He’d never really told Naruto about Obito and Rin. All the boy knew they were Kakashi’s teammates, Minato’s students, and that they’d died during the last war. Kakashi didn’t talk about them and Naruto didn’t really ask. 

 

After an uncomfortable minute, Kakashi picked up the spatula and served breakfast. He felt like he was eating breakfast with a ghost. He was hot and cold and kept catching glimpses of a dark haired boy out of the corner of his eye. Beneath his headband, Obito’s sharingan ached.

 

Kakashi walked Naruto to school. All the other parents were dropping their kids off near the gate. Kakashi stopped a bit back from the others. He went through the motions, hugging Naruto, wishing him luck, and promising to meet him there after class. When he ruffled Naruto’s hair, his fingers bumped the goggles and Kakashi flinched.

 

Naruto didn’t seem to notice anything wrong. He left Kakashi with a wave and a smile. 

 

When Kakashi got home, he curled up on the couch and squeezed his eyes shut tight. Still, the ghosts danced behind his eyelids. He could see Obito laying beneath the bolder. He could hear Rin crying, like she was next to him. Kakashi shuddered. He curled his hands into fists, begging for the sensation to ground him in reality. 

 

Instead, Kakashi saw Minato standing in front of him. “I’m sorry. This is all we found.” There were a pair of goggles in his hands.

 

Rin had taken them first. She meant to leave them on Obito’s empty grave, but never had the heart to let go of the only piece of him they had left. Kakashi found them on her dresser when he cleaned out her apartment after…

 

A crushing weight slammed down on Kakashi, jerking him back to reality. Bull shifted slightly, giving Kakashi room to breath, but the massive dog kept him pinned.

 

“Seriously,” Kakashi grumbled.

 

From beside the couch, Pakkun replied. “You didn’t answer when I called your name, so I called in reinforcements.”

 

“He found Obito’s goggles. He insisted on wearing them.”

 

Pakkun sighed.

 

Bull leaned down and licked Kakashi’s face.

 

“I don’t think Obito would mind. If anything, he’d think it was hilarious that after all the grief you gave him, you ended up raising another goggle wearer,” Pakkun replied.

 

Beneath his mask, Kakashi’s lips twitched towards a smile, even as his eyes watered.

 

“It’s not that,” he muttered. “I never realized how much he reminded me of them. He’s got Obito’s optimism and Rin’s kindness. All I could see today was them when I looked at him. I’d gotten used to seeing Minato and Naruto doesn’t really act like Minato, so that’s not so weird, but this…”

 

Pakkun sighed. “You raised him well. You made sure he got the best parts of all the people you admire. It makes sense that you’d see them in him.”

 

Kakashi sniffled. 

 

Bull nuzzled his master’s chin.

 

“I’m 20 years old and I’m acting like a child,” Kakashi whimpered.

 

“No. You’re 20 years old and you’re acting like a 20 year old shinobi. Everyone has bad days. You’re entitled to time to cry and be sad.

 

Kakashi didn’t respond.

 

“You know what I see when I look at Naruto?” Pakkun asked the shivering lump beneath Bull. “I see a brilliant little boy who wants nothing more than to make people smile and learns like a sponge. He always had a good heart, but you made sure he never lost it growing up. You taught him to have Rin’s kindness and Obito’s optimism, you gave him your sense of responsibility and loyalty, he’s got Tenzou’s appreciation for the little things in life and Itachi’s dedication to family. Where he got his stubbornness, that’s a toss up. There’s lots of options.”

 

Silent tears ran down Kakashi’s face. “I think the stubbornness is genetic. He definitely got it from his mom.” Kakashi laughed even as the tears came harder.

 

Pakkun nodded. He had a feeling Kakashi was going to be alright.

Chapter Text

Naruto walked into the academy with his held high. There were some whispers and stares as he passed, mostly from the older students, but it really wasn’t so bad.

 

In class, Naruto bowed to the teacher and found a seat in the middle of the room. He smiled when other kids walked in and glanced at him.

 

Slowly, the room filled up. The seats around Naruto were noticeably empty. Naruto didn’t let his disappointment show. Maybe no one sat by him today, but there was always tomorrow and the day after. Kakashi said it might take time to win everyone over and although patience wasn’t one of Naruto’s virtues, he was willing to wait as long as it took for this.

 

As class was about to start, a familiar boy slipped into the classroom.

 

Uchiha Sasuke hated being late. Yes, the bell hadn’t rung yet, but the plan was to be there early. It was Itachi’s fault, so Sasuke couldn’t really be mad. Itachi had insisted Sasuke eat breakfast.

 

When he walked into the classroom, Sasuke’s eyes swept the rows of desk, looking for empty seats. A gap in the middle of the room drew his attention. A blond boy smiled back at Sasuke from the middle of the empty space. Sasuke recognized the Naruto and made his way towards the blond.

 

As Sasuke stepped into the middle row, a boy a row back caught Sasuke’s sleeve. “You don’t want to sit by him,” the boy whispered.

 

Sasuke tilted his head to the side in a silent question. 

 

“He’s… you know…” the boy whispered.

 

Sasuke frowned. 

 

The other boy dropped his voice even lower. “He’s the demon kid.”

 

Oh, Sasuke thought. He tugged his sleeve out of the boy’s sleeve and smiled. “It’s okay. He’s not scary unless you are afraid of people who chew with their mouths open,” Sasuke whispered back.

 

The other boy stared at Sasuke in confusion.

 

Sasuke kept walking. He slid into the seat next to Naruto as the bell rang.

 

Naruto was practically vibrating in his seat. Since Itachi got promoted almost a year before, Tenzou and Pakkun had taken over primary Naruto watching duty. It’d been ages since he’d seen Sasuke. 

 

“Hi,” Naruto whispered.

 

“Shhhh,” Sasuke murmured. “Class started.” His eyes were fixed on the teacher who was writing his name on the blackboard, but he smiled at Naruto. 

 

The teacher smiled at the class. “Welcome to the academy! I’ll be your homeroom teacher. Before I introduce myself, I’d like to give everyone who’s been getting ready for class a chance to show off. Can anyone read my name on the blackboard?”

 

Sasuke’s hand shot straight in the air. 

 

Naruto’s hand followed an instant behind along with a little more than half of the class.

 

The teacher smiled wider. “That’s great! I’m so glad so many of you are already reading. How about you all introduce me on three? One. Two. Three.”

 

“Iruka Sensei,” most of the class chorused. There were a variety of pronunciations, but they all got the jist of it. 

 

“How about we go around real quick and introduce ourselves? We’ll be spending a lot of time together until graduation.”

 

One-by-one the students stood to introduce themselves. 

 

Naruto did his best to remember names and faces, but quickly got overwhelmed. 

 

For some kids, the class muttered after their introduction. Naruto frowned, trying to figure out the pattern.

 

“There’s someone from almost every major clan here,” Sasuke whispered.

 

“Is that why everyone is excited?” Naruto whispered back.

 

Sasuke nodded. “That one’s a Hyuga. Their eyes have a special jutsu in them,” Sasuke said, nodding towards a girl with dark hair and startling white eyes. “That one is an Inuzuka. They all use a ninken.” This time he gestured towards a boy with wild brown hair and tattoos on his face. As Sasuke spoke, the boy’s hoody wiggled and a puppy stuck it’s head up from the boy’s hood.

 

Naruto’s eyes lit up. He was definitely going to try talking to the Inuzuka. Maybe he could pet the puppy.

 

“What about him?” Naruto asked gesturing at a boy with dark hair and sunglasses.

 

Sasuke narrowed his eyes. “I can’t tell.”

 

“I think he said his name was Aburama or something?”

 

“Aburame. They use bugs in their jutsus. I don’t really know how it works.”

 

Naruto made a face. “That’s terrifying. What is they have a jutsu that just throws lots of spiders at you?”

 

Sasuke giggled and then quickly covered his mouth. 

 

It was too late. Their teacher noticed. “Since the two of you in the middle seem to be having trouble staying quiet, how about you go next.”

 

“Yes Sensei,” Sasuke said. “Sorry Sensei.” He stood quickly and bowed. “I’m Uchiha Sasuke. I look forward to having class with everyone.”

 

Sasuke sat down and nudged Naruto. Everyone was still whispering after Sasuke’s introduction.

 

Naruto bowed and then gave the room his best smile. “I’m Uzumaki-Hatake Naruto. I’m really excited to meet everyone.” 

 

The room went dead silent. 

 

Naruto sat down quickly.

 

“Guess I’m not nearly as exciting as you,” Naruto whispered to Sasuke. The blond smiled and adjusted the goggles on his head.

 

Sasuke shook his head. “People are weird about clans. My brother says to ignore it,” Sasuke whispered back.

 

Introductions continued, but the energy of the room had dissipated. People weren’t talking anymore and Naruto could feel all the eyes on him.

 

The morning was full of academics. Iruka Sensei had them practicing reading and math. Then they moved onto history. 

 

Reading wasn’t terrible. Naruto didn’t have any issues with the beginning readers. He even had the chance to show off reading The Stubborn Puppy (one of the books Kakashi taught him to read with). But Sasuke was already reading chapter books (small chapter books, but still, they didn’t have any pictures).

 

Math was awful in Naruto’s opinion. Judging by the groans, he figured he wasn’t alone.

 

Naruto decided he loved history. It was basically storytime and Iruka Sensei was a good storyteller. He had the voice for it.

 

The whole time, Sasuke frantically scribbled down notes. Meanwhile, Naruto lost himself in the story.

 

When class got out for lunch, Sasuke bolted for the door with a promise to find Naruto outside. Sasuke hadn’t packed a lunch and didn’t want to get stuck with the worst of the cafeteria food.

 

Naruto hung back until he was one of the last in the classroom. On his way out the door, he smiled at the teacher. “You’re a really good storyteller. History was fun,” Naruto said.

 

Iruka’s face softened from his stern-teacher look. “I’m glad you like it. Understanding history is an important part of being a shinobi.” Iruka ran a hand through his hair. “I bet you’ve already heard that though, from Kakashi.”

 

Naruto’s eyes widened. “You know Kakashi?” 

 

Iruka nodded. “Everyone kind of knows Kakashi. We were in the academy at the same time, but he was a class ahead of me.”

 

“That’s so cool!”

 

Iruka blushed. “You better get to lunch.”

 

Naruto nodded and headed out. 

 

Everyone was eating outside.

 

Sasuke was at a picnic table, frowning at his tray of cafeteria food. A handful of other students were sitting with him, but there was still space. 

 

Naruto approached with a smile. “Mind if I sit here?” he asked sliding into the bench opposite Sasuke. 

 

Two boys and a girl got up and left immediately. A dark haired boy and two girls, one blonde and the other pink haired, stayed.

 

The dark haired boy appeared to be asleep with his head on the table. The two girls were chatting about their dresses and giggling. Naruto wasn’t sure if they even noticed him.

 

“What’s wrong?” Naruto asked Sasuke.

 

“Everything is sweet,” Sasuke muttered. 

 

Naruto frowned at the Uchiha’s tray. Sweet buns, chocolate milk, and a cookie. Naruto thought it looked pretty good, but Sasuke clearly disagreed.

 

“Want my salad?” Naruto offered. “I don’t really like vegetables.”

 

Sasuke gave Naruto a withering stare. “You need to eat your vegetables and I’m not going to take your lunch.”

 

Naruto rolled his eyes. “I have other food, but if you’re so worried about it, I’ll split the salad with you.”

 

Sasuke hesitated and then relented.

 

Naruto opened his lunch and split the salad. He managed to slip Sasuke all the tomatoes. He had a vague memory of being convinced to take a bite of a tomato like it was an apple after watching Sasuke do the same. Naruto did not share Sasuke’s love of tomatoes.

 

Sasuke munch happily on the salad while Naruto looked around. 

 

The girl with pink hair was staring at him. “Hi,” Naruto said. “I’m Naruto. What’s your name?”

 

“Sakura,” the pink haired girl reintroduced herself. 

 

“That’s a pretty name. I like your dress,” Naruto said with a smile. 

 

Sakura blushed and smoothed her hands down the front of her pink, ruffled dress. “Really? It’s not very good for fighting, apparently.”

 

“Don’t worry,” the blonde girl said. She clapped Sakura on the back. “I’ll help you find something cute that you can kick people in.” She glanced at Naruto and then held out her hand. “Yamanaka Ino.”

 

Naruto shook the offered hand. “Nice to meet you. Can I recommend cargo shorts? They have lots of pockets.”

 

Ino pulled a face. “No self-respecting kunoichi would be caught dead in cargo pants.” She turned to Sakura. “See? This is why boys are useless.”

 

“Uhhhhgggg,” the sleeping boy groaned. “If we’re so useless, why don’t you go talk about dresses somewhere else?”

 

Ino glared at him and then stood up and stroad away from the table. Sakura hesitated and then followed her friend.

 

The sleeping boy turned and frowned at Naruto and Sasuke. “What a drag,” he muttered and then closed his eyes again.

 

Sasuke leaned across the table and whispered. “He’s Nara Shikamaru.”

 

Naruto nodded like he knew what that meant.

 

They ate the rest of lunch in comfortable silence.

 

After lunch, was physical education. They ran an obstacle course, practiced throwing kunai, and went through taijutsu forms (learning the basics of blocking and striking).

 

Naruto, again, was in the middle of the pack. He didn’t have the fastest time on the obstacle course, that was the Inazuka-- Kiba. But he also was better than Shikamru who they had to wake up in order to get on the course and Sakura who only made it halfway before having to stop because her dress wasn’t meant for climbing.

 

When it came to throwing kunai, Sasuke led the class. He grinned with pride at Iruka Sensei's praise, but didn’t boast. Naruto surprised the class by nearly matching the Uchiha kunai for kunai in terms of hitting the target. Sasuke’s grouping was tighter and therefore worth more points.

 

As they continued to practice, Naruto made eye contact with Sasuke and winked. Soon, they were throwing kunai as fast as they could. Class was winding down and it was an impromptu competition to see who could land the most hits on the beleaguered wooden targets before Iruka Sensei called time.

 

Iruka turned his back on the two boys who seemed to know how to use a kunai to help correct Sakura’s grip on the knife. When he stood back up, he found the rest of the class gathered around Sasuke and Naruto, cheering as the boys hurled the dull, practice kunai at the targets for all they were worth.

 

Iruka winced. Competition was healthy, but this seemed early and excessive. With a sigh, he moved to break up the crowd and slow the boys down before a betting racket formed.

 

At the end of the day, Iruka Sensei sent everyone home with a reading assignment on the founding of the village, a handful of math problems, and orders to practice with either kunai or taijutsu forms. 

 

As the kids trickled out of the room, some of the girls hugged Iruka goodbye. Some of the boys paused for high fives. Iruka took it all in stride until Naruto was suddenly in his space raising his hand for a high five. Iruka flinched back and someone pushed Naruto from behind, so the blond stumbled past Iruka.

 

Naruto kept moving, but glanced back over his shoulder. He’d noticed Iruka’s hesitation and for an instant, his face fell and the hurt showed in his eyes.

 

Iruka saw Naruto’s face fall and realized what he’d done. The shinobi mentally kicked himself. The kid had done well that day. He’d been friendly, eager to please, and was obviously trying his best even if he occasionally stared into space or got all the math problems wrong. The kid had deserved a high five and instead, Iruka had basically told the kid it didn’t matter, he was still an outsider.

 

Iruka had been mentally preparing for months to have Naruto in class. He’d been determined to treat the boy just the same as the other students and he’d already failed. In close proximity there was an unmistakable edge to Naruto’s chakra and Iruka had frozen. 

 

The first time teacher swore he wouldn’t make that mistake again. He wasn’t going to treat Naruto like a monster. Then, Iruka shifted his focus back to the rest of the students vying for his attention on the way out of the door.

 

Naruto met Kakashi outside the academy gate. Kakashi was talking with Itachi. Sasuke was already standing beside his brother. Itachi and Kakashi had serious faces on, but Sasuke waved at Naruto with a grin. 

 

Naruto ran up to them. 

 

Itachi smiled at Kakashi and then excused himself and Sasuke. They were expected at a clan dinner.

 

Kakashi and Naruto walked home hand in hand. Kakashi watched Naruto out of the corner of his eye. With the sun shining in his golden hair and his blue eyes glittering, Obito’s ghost faded. 

 

“So how was school?” Kakashi asked.

 

“It was really good! Iruka Sensei seems nice. He’s a good storyteller, but not as good as you.”

 

Kakashi blinked in surprise at Iruka’s name and then he smiled. “I know Iruka. He’s a good shinobi. If he’s your teacher, you’re going to do great.”

 

Naruto nodded. Maybe he’d misunderstood Iruka Sensei at the end of the day. “I sat by Sasuke and during physical education we had a kunai throwing competition.”

 

“Oh?” Kakashi raised an eyebrow at that. “Who won?”

 

Naruto shrugged. “Dunno. Iruka Sensei didn’t let us count.”

 

Kakashi snickered.

 

“There’s a lot of cool people in my class. I had lunch with Sasuke, Ino, Sakura, and Shikamaru. I think we’re going to be friends. Ino says I have no sense of fashion.”

 

Kakashi burst out laughing.

 

-----

 

Life settled into a new routine. After a week, Kakashi let Naruto start walking to and from school on his own. 

 

Naruto met Sasuke at the edge of the market and the two walked the rest of the way together. 

 

The empty seat on Naruto’s right stayed empty, but the others in the row filled up. 

 

Ino and Sakura sat to Sasuke’s left and a chubby boy took the seat next to the empty one.

 

Slowly, Naruto began to grow on people. He kept on smiling. When he fell off the climbing wall or blurted out the wrong answer, he laughed at himself along with everyone else.

 

The chubby boy was named Choji and on the third day of class he punched another boy who called him fat. As punishment, Iruka Sensei made Choji stay in for lunch and clean the classroom instead of eating. 

 

That afternoon, Naruto could hear Choji’s stomach growling from feet away. Naruto thought it was pretty unfair to make Choji do physical education without eating. What if he got dizzy and fell off the climbing wall? 

 

While they waited in line for a turn on the obstacle course, Naruto edged closer to Choji. Naruto always kept snacks in one of his pockets and he was determined to covertly pass it to Choji. The only issue was that for every step Naruto took towards Choji, Choji took one away. 

 

After five minutes of this, Naruto was getting frustrated. He pulled a granola bar out of his pocket, secrecy be damned, and hurled it at Choji’s head.

 

Choji stared at the granola bar by his feet. It’d bounced off his head and landed there with a soft thud. Choji picked it up and looked around. He saw Naruto mouthing, “Finally!” 

 

Choji pointed at the granola bar and then at himself and cocked his head to the side.

 

Naruto nodded and mouthed back. “Duh.”

 

Choji’d heard the rumors about the kid who was supposedly possessed by an evil demon that wanted to destroy the village. He’d seen the way the kid went a bit crazy during physical education, laughing as he threw kunai or got knocked on his butt by Kiba during sparring. It had been enough for Choji to decide to steer clear of Naruto. The kid was at least a little off.

 

Choji stared at the granola bar for a second, considering. Then he shrugged. It wasn’t like a sealed granola bar would be poisoned. Choji unwrapped the granola bar and took a bite. Anyone who was willing to share snacks couldn’t be all bad, so what if they were a bit odd and smiled too much. The rest was just rumors. 

 

When Nartuo edged closer again, to offer Choji a bag of fruit snacks, Choji didn’t shy away. Facts always trumped rumors and the fact was, in Choji’s mind, that Naruto was nice.

 

---

 

After Choji, Naruto made friends with Kiba. He managed to corner the Inazuka at lunch one day and asked to meet his ninken.

 

Kiba narrowed his eyes at Naruto. The blond smelled funny, like burnt ozone and the forest after a rain. 

 

“Please?” Naruto asked again. “My--” Naruto search for the right word. “Kakashi has a summon contract with a bunch of ninken. They’re always hanging around our house, but none of them are puppies.”

 

Kiba relented. He lifted his dog off his head and set the puppy on the ground in front of Naruto. “This is Akamaru,” Kiba said.

 

Naruto bowed to the dog and then held out his palm for Akamaru to sniff. Pakkun had advised Naruto that even if the Inuzuka’s ninken couldn’t talk, he still deserved the respect of any other shinobi. “Hello Akamaru. My name’s Naruto. You might smell another dog on me. His name’s Pakkun and he’s one of my best friends.”

 

Akamaru sniffed at Naruto’s hand and then butted his head against it, asking for petting. 

 

Naruto scratched behind Akamaru’s ear and beamed up at Kiba. “He’s so soft. He’s wonderful.”

 

And just like that, Naruto won over the Inuzuka. The blond treated Akamaru with respect and loved dogs. He couldn’t be all bad.

 

Kiba smiled back. “I don’t get what the big deal is about you,” he said. “I mean foxes are basically dogs, right?”

 

Naruto paused in his petting. “You know about that?” he asked.

 

“Everyone does, but we’re not supposed to talk about it. Some people are scared of you.”

 

“Oh,” Naruto didn’t know what else to say. His smile faded. It made sense that the other kids would know and it explained why they didn’t like to sit by him, but he’d hoped...

 

Akamaru flopped onto his side and begged for belly rubs. Naruto went back to petting the puppy.

 

“I’m not scared of you,” Kiba added. “If Akamaru likes you, you must be fine. Dogs are good judges of character. That’s what my mom always says.”

 

Naruto nodded and his smile slowly returned.

 

---

 

Shikamaru was the easiest to befriend. Naruto sat down by him and the other boy was too lazy to get up and move. After a while, they started talking and Shikamaru decided Naruto wasn’t too much of a drag, sometimes he was even funny.

 

---

 

Ino and Sakura weren’t really friends, but they didn’t try to avoid Naruto. 

 

After a few tries, Ino gave up trying to improve Naruto’s fashion sense (he was too attached to the goggles and the orange). 

 

“Why won’t you wear a jewel tone? It would bring out your eyes. You look like a carrot.” 

 

Naruto just laughed along with everyone else and earned an exasperated smile from the other blonde.

 

---

 

Hinata lingered on the edges of Naruto’s circle. She sometimes smiled at him if she thought he wasn’t looking, but would duck her heard if he looked at her. Ino said it was because she liked him. Naruto shrugged. He thought Hinata was odd, but he wasn’t going to complain if her being odd meant she was a sort of friend.

 

---

 

The first time Shino used his bugs during physical education, Naruto’s mouth dropped. 

 

It was an accident. Shino’d gone to retrieve his kunai from his target and someone had bad aim. The knife was headed for Shino’s stomach and no one would have been able to intercept it in time. 

 

Suddenly, it was like the kunai hit a wall. A dark, swirling wall. 

 

By the time the kunai hit the ground, the bugs were already mostly hidden away again under Shino’s clothes.

 

That night, Naruto asked Kakashi about the bugs and how that jutsu worked. Was it a summon?

 

Kakashi said he should ask Shino, so the next day Naruto did.

 

Shino was sitting alone after lunch, waiting for physical education to start. Since the bug incident, some of the other students were uncomfortable around Shino and he didn’t have many friends to begin with. All Naruto really knew about him was his name, he had bugs, and he wasn’t much of a talker.

 

Naruto plopped down in the grass beside Shino. “Hi. Sorry if this is a weird question and you can totally say no, but can I see your bugs?” 

 

Shino stared at Naruto and then he smiled.

 

It turned out that Shino did like to talk, but mainly about bugs. Naruto got a crash course in Aburame physiology (which he promptly deemed creepy, but wicked cool and made Shino blush) and in introduction to each of Shino’s insects. They all had names and personalities and Shino swore it was easy to tell them apart.

 

Naruto couldn’t tell Shino’s bugs from the normal garden variety and from that day on he lived in fear of accidentally squishing one of Shino’s tiny friends. Naruto quickly became the kid who volunteered to get a cup, catch the bug crawling on someone’s desk (usually Ino or Sakura), and take it outside.

 

It was never one of Shino’s bugs, but the Aburame appreciated the gesture.

 

The rest of the class never really came around to Naruto, but that was okay. He never had to eat alone and there was usually someone around to talk to or hang out with.

 

Sasuke remained popular despite his friendship with Naruto. As the weeks wore on, he and Naruto began to move in different social circles, but they didn’t drift too far apart. They had their walks to and from school to talk and during school, the two liked to compete, especially in physical education.

 

It was fun and Naruto was happy.

Chapter Text

The moon was high in the sky and the blackest part of the night clung to the village. A faint breeze caressed the rooftops. Itachi brushed his hair across his face and he shifted so that he faced into the breeze. 

 

Itachi had come to love the night. When he was small, the darkness had been a canvas for his fears. With the awakening of his sharingan, the dark couldn’t hide any secrets from Itachi and the young shinobi was able to appreciate the night for the quiet it brought. 

 

Itachi often slipped out his window and spent the dead of the night on his family’s roof. He liked to watch the village, cloaked in the peace of sleep. It reminded him of what he was fighting for. 

 

Tonight, Itachi couldn’t seem to grasp the clarity he usually found under starlight. Itachi stared at his mission orders with glazed eyes. He’d already memorized them, but holding the scroll kept him grounded. 

 

Below, a handful of Uchiha moved through the shadows, breaking the illusion of restfulness and tranquility. They didn’t see Itachi tucked between the peaks of the roof like a gargoyle.

 

Itachi’s eyes sharpened as his sharingan spun to life. He could see the emblem of Kohona’s police force emblazoned on the Uchihas’ jackets. He could see the weapons they wore and those they carried, wrapped in cloth to muffle the sounds. There was no mistake, the clan was preparing for war. Itachi had his orders and a choice to make.

 

Itachi flopped back on the roof, staring up at the nearly full moon. 

 

“What do I do?” Itachi asked. 

 

The night sky didn’t answer.

 

A rush of anger surged through Itachi and tossed him from the roof like a gust of wind. Itachi was running before his feet hit the ground, blind with rage at the foolishness and injustice of the world.

 

The Nakano River seemed to boil on the rocks below. Itachi snarled down at the rapids. “What am I supposed to do?” Itachi growled.

 

The river didn’t respond. It didn’t care about Itachi anymore than it had carried about Shisui.

 

“What the HELL AM I SUPPOSED TO DO?!” Itachi screamed. He knew no one would hear him over the rushing water. 

 

The Nakano surged on, impassive. It didn’t care about the village nestled on its banks. It didn’t care for their squabbles or their blood. The Nakano would outlive them all.

 

Itachi fell to his knees and sobbed. He’d held his emotions in check through the years of escalating tension, the years of killing and rising through the shinobi ranks, the years of playing a spy for both sides, the hours leading up to Shisui’s death, and the days since his heart was broken on the Nakano’s rocks along with Shisui’s body. Now, all the sorrow, grief, despair, and rage came pouring out.

 

Itachi cried until he felt hollow and empty. Darkness still clung to the village, but the moon was past it’s zenith. 

 

Itachi forced himself to his feet and scrubbed his face on the sleeve of his pajamas. Then, he forced himself to start walking.

 

No one noticed the heir to the Uchiha clan as he slipped through the shadows, a gray ghost in the night. Years in the anbu had taught him to wear the darkness like a cloak.

 

The Hatake house was dark when Itachi arrived. He almost turned around and left, but the silence of the night was driving him mad. He had questions and he needed answers.

 

The lock on Kakashi’s front door was easy to pick. Itachi found out why the older shinobi didn’t bother with a better lock when he nearly stepped on one of Kakashi’s ninken.

 

“Shhh. I’m a friend of Kakashi’s,” Itachi whispered.

 

The dog narrowed it’s eyes at Itachi, but didn’t bark. 

 

Itachi wondered if he’d met this dog before. It was hard to tell in the dark and he’d never been a big dog person, so he’d didn't spend much time with Kakashi’s hounds. “Would you please get Kakashi for me?” Itachi asked. “I don’t want to wake Naruto.

 

The dog, Bisuke, regarded Itachi with suspicion for another moment before deciding the disheveled child in front of him must be one of Kakashi’s pups and going to wake up the master.

 

Kakashi stumbled into his kitchen at 4AM to find Uchiha Itachi in gray pajamas, with his hair loose and tangled, making tea.

 

“I’m sorry,” Itachi said. He turned around and Kakashi flinched.

 

Itachi’s face was raw from scrubbing away tear tracks and his nose was red from running. The bags under his eyes were deep and puffy from extensive sleep loss and his recent meltdown.

 

Kakashi served in war and he’d been in the anbu long enough to recognize a shinobi who’d been pushed too far. Pain and emotional turmoil were written on every line of Itachi’s body.

 

“I know you’re not my captain anymore, but you’re the only one I know who will understand,” Itachi said. He set a mug of tea on the table in front of Kakashi and then settled himself with a cup opposite.

 

Kakashi nodded. He carefully sat down and sipped the offered tea. “Old job or new one?” Kakashi asked over the rim of his mug.

 

Itachi gave his former captain and mentor a sad, water smile. Tears threatened to spill from his dark eyes. Itachi scrubbed them away with his pajama sleeve. 

 

Kakashi waited. Itachi would say what he’d come for sooner or later. Pushing him would only make the teen clam up.

 

“Shisui’s dead,” Itachi said.

 

Kakashi nodded. “I heard he took his own life. Were you close?”

 

“I loved him. He was the older brother I always needed.”

 

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Kakashi said. His voice was soft and gentle. “You can’t blame him though. We all have breaking points.” It was a lesson that took Kakashi years to learn. 

 

Itachi’s grip on his tea tightened. His knuckles stood out white. “I know. I don’t blame him. It still hurts.” Itachi chased the words with a gulp of tea.

 

Kakashi was reminded of how young Itachi was. Stripped of his physical and emotional armor and masks, Itachi Uchiha was nothing but a skinny 13 year old. A skinny, broken 13 year old. “I wish I could tell you the pain goes away. It doesn’t, but you learn to live with it. You fall in love with new people and they don’t fill the void, but they counter the pain.”

 

Itachi nodded once, quick and birdlike. “I don’t think I’ll ever love anyone new,” Itachi replied.

 

Kakashi shuddered. He didn’t like the sound of that, it bordered too close to Root philosophy or the confession of a dying man. 

 

“I’m sorry,” Itachi said again. He ran his finger along the rim of his mug and didn’t look at Kakashi. “I didn’t come here to talk about my personal life and here I am wasting your time with it.”

 

“Itachi--” Kakashi started.

 

“I have an ongoing mission,” Itachi interrupted. “It has raised moral questions, things I would ask Shisui.”

 

“I’m no Shisui,” Kakashi apologized. 

 

“I know. But you’ve always tried to look out for me and you fought hard to give me a home and a family in the anbu. I respect your opinion and I know you don’t follow orders blindly.”

 

Kakashi swallowed hard. He knew he’d failed Itachi the day the Uchiha accepted Danzou’s promotion to anbu captain. Kakashi could see the full consequences of his failure sitting across the table. Itachi looked beaten, lost, and desperate. “I’ll do my best to offer advice, but the best advice I have is to follow your own heart,” Kakashi promised.

 

Itachi nodded. He could accept that. “Would you do anything to protect the village?” he asked. There was an edge of steel to his voice now. He sounded like an anbu.

 

Kakashi blinked in surprise. “Yes,”  he answered with only a heartbeat of hesitation.

 

Itachi’s eyes narrowed and his mouth twisted into a scowl. “Liar,” Itachi snapped. 

 

It was like he’d slapped Kakashi in the face.

 

Itachi didn’t give Kakashi a chance to argue. “Would you sacrifice your precious comrades for peace?” he demanded.

 

Kakashi flinched at the use of his own words. “That’s not a choice. Peace is meaningless if it comes at the cost of all we hold dear. I’d find a different way.”

 

“There is no other way when you love a traitor!” Itachi spat. 

 

Kakashi sat in stunned silence while Itachi sipped the tea like he was wishing for something stronger.

 

“Who?” Kakashi asked at last.

 

Itachi shook his head. He couldn’t say. Kakashi would interfere if he knew what was going on. “Is there anything you wouldn’t do to save Naruto? Any line you wouldn’t cross or sacrifice you wouldn’t make for him?” Itachi’s voice had lost its edge. It was hollow and empty again, like when he’d spoken of Shisui.

 

Kakashi closed his eye. “No.” The word was barely a whisper. He opened his eyes to see Itachi nod.

 

The Uchiha relaxed back into the chair and finished his tea with a sigh. “That’s what I thought.” 

 

“Will you tell me what’s going on?” Kakashi asked.

 

Itachi shook his head and smiled sadly at Kakashi. “I can’t. I’m under orders.”

 

“Let me help you,” Kakashi pleaded.

 

“You can’t help me with my mission. I have my orders and they are very explicit about not involving anyone else.”

 

Kakashi’s eye darkened. “Turn down the mission. It’s tearing you apart. You’re a mess. If you had a physical and a psych eval tomorrow, you’d fail both.”

 

Itachi just kept smiling at Kakashi. “Don’t worry about me. I already told Danzou and the hokage that this is my last mission with the anbu.”

 

“Good.”

 

“You should get out too,” Itachi said. “You’ve got too big of a heart for this work.”

 

Kakashi snorted. “I’ve thought about it,” he admitted. “But I need to stay in Danzou and Hiruzen’s good graces. They want Naruto to grow up with an anbu presence. Danzou is convinced it will make the kid a better weapon. Hiruzen never argues with Danzou. I’d prefer that the only anbu involved in Naruto’s life are Team Rho.”

 

“Danzou dissolved Team Rho when he promoted me.”

 

Kakashi shrugged. “You, Tenzou, and I will always be Team Rho to me.”

 

The two shinobi sat in silence. The minutes stretched. The clock on Kakashi’s kitchen wall ticked.

 

“Can I ask a favor?” Itachi asked.

 

“Shoot.”

 

Itachi fiddled with the hem of his pajamas. “Can Sasuke come back here with Naruto after class today? I’d feel better about my mission if I knew he was somewhere safe.”

 

Kakashi didn’t hesitate. “Sasuke’s always welcome here. Same as you,” Kakashi replied.

 

Itachi smiled just a bit wider. “Thank you. I should probably get going.”

 

---

 

Itachi waited outside his own front door. The sun was just peeking over the rooftops, giving the world a golden tinge. The air was still and it promised to be a warm day. 

 

The sounds from inside carried easily through open windows and the still air. 

 

Itachi could hear Sasuke saying goodbye to their parents. 

 

Fugaku was promising to practice fire style jutsus after school. Sasuke was excited. He bounced a bit as he walked, making the wood floor squeak. Itachi could practically picture Sasuke’s face breaking into a wide grin. 

 

Mikoto stopped Sasuke from darting out the door without saying goodbye by grabbing the boy, scooping him up in a hug, and twirling them in place. Sasuke’s high pitched laughter broke the morning quiet. He tried to protest that he was too old for something so childish, but the way he kept giggling said otherwise.

 

A minute later, Sasuke came bolting out the front door with his backpack half on. He was behind schedule and Naruto would be waiting for him.

 

“Sasuke!” Itachi called. 

 

Sasuke stopped and looked over his shoulder. He hadn’t noticed his brother lingering in the shadows. Itachi was wearing his anbu gear, minus the mask, and carrying his go bag. Sasuke’s face fell.

 

Itachi caught up to Sasuke and smiled down at the boy. 

 

“You have a mission,” Sasuke said. It wasn’t a question.

 

Itachi sighed. “Forgive me Sasuke.”

 

Sasuke didn’t even try to dodge as his brother poked him in the forehead. “How long will you be gone?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

Sasuke nodded. He’d learned long ago that there was no use complaining about Itachi’s missions. Itachi was an important shinobi. The village needed him. Sometimes, they needed him more than Sasuke did and Itachi had to go away for awhile. 

 

“Can I walk you to school today?” Itachi asked. 

 

He looked sadder than usual, Sasuke thought. Sasuke gave his brother a small smile and grabbed his hand.

 

The two set off down the street hand in hand. 

 

Itachi didn’t say anything else until they were outside of the Uchiha compound. “How is school?” Itachi asked. “Everyone says you’re the top of the class.”

 

Sasuke’s face brightened. “It’s really good. I have lots of friends and Iruka Sensei is a good teacher.” He launched into a story of he and Naruto’s most recent competition, daily races on the big rock wall, usually reserved for students getting ready to graduate. Neither of them had made it all the way yet, but Sasuke was sure he’d do it this week.

 

Itachi listened with a smile. 

 

When they got to the market, it was crowded with the morning rush and Naruto was already gone. 

 

Sasuke knew he’d be late for class, but he didn’t complain. He walked slower, trying to stretch the time with Itachi.

 

They were just down the block from the academy when Itachi stopped and pulled Sasuke into the park across the street. Itachi crouched down, so he could look his brother in the eyes.

 

“I’m sorry you’re late, but this is important,” Itachi said.

 

Sasuke’s eyes were wide and he nodded dutifully. 

 

Itachi stared at his brother. Sasuke was wide-eyed and trusting, sweetly innocent and young. He’d do anything Itachi asked. Itachi almost changed his mind then and there. He didn’t want to hurt Sasuke. He’s going to get hurt no matter what , Itachi reminded himself. 

 

“I need your help on a secret mission,” Itachi said. He held out a sealed scroll.

 

Sasuke took the scroll and held it to his chest.

 

“Tonight, you’re going to go home with Naruto and stay with him and Kakashi until I come and get you. After dinner, you need to give Kakashi that scroll,” Itachi instructed.

 

“What about training with Father?” Sasuke asked with a frown. His brow wrinkled in confusion.

 

Itachi sighed. “Mother and Father don’t know about this mission. I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone else, but I really need help and you’re the only one I can trust.”

 

Sasuke clutched the scroll tighter. “I’ll do it,” he promised. His little face was set with determination. “I won’t let you down.”

 

Itachi smiled and ruffled Sasuke’s hair. “I know. You’re going to be an amazing shinobi one day.”

 

Sasuke blushed at the praise. He took off his backpack and stored the scroll inside. 

 

“I might be gone for quite a while,” Itachi admitted. He didn’t look at Sasuke as he said it.

 

Sasuke wrapped his arms around Itachi and buried his face in his brother’s shoulder.

 

Itachi held Sasuke close and whispered in his ear, “Remember that no matter what, I love you and I’m proud of you. Follow your heart and trust your friends. Together, there’s nothing you can’t do or overcome.” Itachi wanted to say more. He wanted to cling to his brother and beg for forgiveness. 

 

Itachi let go of Sasuke and pulled away. He stood and smiled down at Sasuke. There were tears in Itachi’s eyes. He knew he couldn’t say anymore. Sasuke wouldn’t understand and it would only hurt him worse in the long run. 

 

“You need to get to class,” Itachi said. “I’ve made you late enough as is.”

 

“It’s okay,” Sasuke murmured. His voice was choked with tears he was holding back. “Promise you won’t leave me,” he whispered.

 

Itachi’s heart broke. He knew what his brother meant-- don’t die, come home. “I’ll always be looking out for you,” Itachi promised. It was the only thing he could guarantee. If there was a heaven or hell, Itachi swore a long time ago that death wouldn’t keep from his job as a big brother. He would claw his way back from the afterlife and walk the earth as a lonely spirit if it meant he could keep watching over Sasuke.

 

Sasuke smiled through his tears. He’d take that promise. “Love you,” he said and hugged Itachi one last time before taking off at a jog for the academy. 

 

Itachi stood and watched long after Sasuke had disappeared from sight. With a world weary sigh, Itachi slipped on his anbu mask and disappeared among the morning shadows.

 

Inside the academy, Sasuke apologized for his lateness and quickly took his seat next to Naruto. 

 

Naruto immediately noticed Sasuke’s puffy eyes and wanted to know what was wrong.

 

Sasuke brushed off Naruto’s whispered concerns and tried to lose himself in Iruka’s math lesson. 

 

---

 

At the end of the day, Sasuke followed Naruto home. That morning, Kakashi had told Naruto that they were having Sasuke over and Naruto was excited.

 

Naruto practically skipped home. He chattered on about the dogs and dinner (Kakashi promised ramen) and what sort of games they could play.

 

Sasuke smiled and tried to match his friend’s enthusiasm, but the scroll in Sasuke’s backpack weighed heavy on the Uchiha’s mind. He wanted to tell Naruto about Itachi leaving and the secret mission he’d given Sasuke, but then it wouldn’t be a secret anymore.

 

At the Hatake house, Naruto called a cheerful greeting as he held the garden gate for Sasuke.

 

Pakkun came running at Naruto’s “Hello house!” The little dog circled the two boys, sniffing at their shoes. “How was school? Did you make it to the top of the big climbing wall?”

 

Sasuke jumped back and frowned at Pakkun.

 

Naruto snickered.

 

“I take it you don’t remember me,” Pakkun remarked. He gave the littlest Uchiha an amused look. “I’m Pakkun. Ninken. Tracking specialist.” Pakkun held out a paw to Sasuke.

 

Sasuke crouched down, so he could shake the offered paw. “I vaguely remember meeting you when I was little, but I thought it was a dream. I’ve never met another ninken who could talk,” Sasuke explained.

 

Pakkun snorted. “All dogs talk. The question is whether or not you can understand.” Then Pakkun trotted off, leaving Sasuke confused and Naruto amused.

 

“Did I offend him?” Sasuke asked, eyes wide with concern.

 

Naruto waved away the question. “Don’t worry about Pakkun. He likes to say stuff like that and be dramatic.”

 

Sasuke nodded slowly and followed Naruto into the house.

 

Kakashi was in the kitchen finishing dinner. He had the boys sit at the kitchen table and do their homework. The deal was if they finished before dinner, then they could do whatever they wanted afterwards.

 

Sasuke helped Naruto with math and Naruto explained the finer points of the instigating incidents that lead to the First Great War. It devolved into a debate of morals and Kakashi did his best not to laugh. 

 

Six year olds had a pretty basic view of the world and most of it consisted of things they’d picked up from the adults around them. Kakashi could practically hear Itachi behind half of what Sasuke said. He also realized he needed to be more careful when he talked politics with Tenzou, because Naruto was pulling up phrases and conversations that he should have been in bed for.

 

Over dinner, they talked about the academy. The boys swapped stories and giggled over the antics of their classmates-- the girls were especially silly in their mind. 

 

“What do you want to do tonight?” Kakashi asked. He looked at Sasuke first since he was their guest.

 

Sasuke pursed his lips and thought. “Father was going to practice fire jutsus with me tonight,” he said hesitantly.

 

“Well, I can’t help with that, but we can practice taijutsu for a bit if you want?” Kakashi offered.

 

Sasuke smiled and nodded. 

 

Naruto cheered.

 

Kakashi clapped his hands. “Alright then. You two can go out back and start stretching while I get dinner cleaned up.”

 

Naruto was out of his seat and headed for the door in a flash. 

 

Sasuke hesitated. He stopped at his backpack first and grabbed the sealed scroll. “Itachi wanted me to give this to you after dinner,” Sasuke said as he held the scroll out to Kakashi.

 

Kakashi took the scroll. “Okay. Thank you.”

 

Sasuke nodded and ran off after Naruto. He was glad to have the weight of the scroll off of him.

 

Kakashi waited until he heard the backdoor shut behind Sasuke before he opened the scroll.

 

---

 

“Dear Kakashi,

 

If you are reading this, I’m done with my mission and the alarm should have been raised. I hope you won’t blame Sasuke for giving this to you too late. He was only doing as I asked. This was my mission and I needed to do it alone. 

 

I was ordered to keep my mission secret, but as I’m no longer a technically shinobi of the hidden leaf and I know I can trust you to use the information for the good of the village…” 

 

The letter went on to detail a horrifying tale of warmongering, prejudice, anger, resentment, betrayal, and the child soldiers caught in the middle of it. 

 

Danzou had antagonized the Uchiha, pushing them to give him a reason to order their destruction. The elder didn’t trust the clan to use their powers for the good of the village, he believed an Uchiha to be responsible for unleashing the Nine-Tailed Fox, and he coveted the sharingan. Danzou had been stealing Uchihas’ eyes when and where he could for years. He was responsible for Shisui’s death.

 

Despite his prejudice, Danzou’s mistrust wasn’t completely unwarranted. The clan eventually planned a coup d'etat that they viewed as self-defense. They were proud and they’d been pushed to the breaking point. In addition, it was an Uchiha who killed Naruto’s parents, but not one who called the village home. The rogue had approached Itachi with a deal. He knew Itachi had been ordered to eliminate the Uchihas in the name of preventing war. He would help with the massacre if Itachi was willing to pledge his loyalty to the rogue Uchiha’s cause. 

 

“...I tried to find another way, but if it existed my eyes couldn’t see it. Each way I looked there was a war on the horizon. Danzou and the Third offered me a way to save Sasuke. I took it, because it’s like you once said, all we can do is fight like hell to make sure those we love grow up in peace. Perhaps now there will be peace within the village. 

 

The blood on my hands isn’t solely Uchiha. I did what I had to in order to protect Sasuke. I expect if we cross paths again, I will be your enemy. I understand and expect no mercy. 

 

I am going to join my mysterious cousin’s Akatsuki. He believes that I have lost all respect and love for my village. He is wrong. I will always call Kohona my home and it will always be a place worth protecting. I will do my best to steer Akatsuki away from the village from the inside. If I am right about them and about my cousin, they may be a serious threat.

 

I have no right to ask another favor of you, not with the blood on my hands, but I am going to ask anyway. 

 

Please watch over Sasuke and, when he’s old enough, help him understand. I believe Hiruzen will honor our bargain because Sasuke is truly innocent, but there will be others who won’t see it that way. And, I fear my cousin has his eyes on Sasuke too.

 

Thank you for everything. You were a good captain and a better friend. 

 

-Uchiha Itachi of the Hidden Leaf ”

 

As Kakashi read the last line, an alarm sounded across the valley. 

 

The last time the alarm had been raised, the Nine-Tailed Fox was freed from its seal and destroyed most of the village. The alarm indicated an imminent threat to the village. An anbu on a rampage definitely fit that bill.

 

Kakashi dropped the scroll and sprinted for the backyard, calling Sasuke and Naruto as he ran.

 

In the backyard, Sasuke and Naruto stopped in their play fighting as the quiet twilight was shattered by a deafening, shrieking alarm. They stared at the sky darkened and a barrier blazed to life around the village. Neither boy heard Kakashi calling them.

 

Kakashi sprinted into the backyard and grabbed a boy under each arm. He didn’t look back as he ran. They were over the back garden fence and down the street before Naruto and Sasuke realized what had happened to them.

 

Kakashi’s mind was moving a million miles an hour. Itachi’s letter had said the blood on his hands wasn’t all Uchiha. He’d purposely stashed Sasuke outside of the clan compound with Kakashi, on the edge of the village. If Itachi had broken and gone on a rampage, there was a real possibility he was coming to take Sasuke and in his rage no one would be safe, not even Sasuke. It wouldn’t be the first time a traumatized shinobi mistakenly killed a loved one.

 

Kakashi ran to the only place he knew Itachi wouldn’t dare go or wouldn’t be able to fight his way inside, the anbu compound. 

 

Instead of using the front door, Kakashi scaled the side of the building. The anbu who saw him recognized Kakashi. No one got in his way. They had bigger things to deal with than whatever Kakashi was up to this time.

 

Kakashi stopped on Tenzou’s balcony. He set down the boys and banged on the glass. Tenzou wasn’t home, so Kakashi picked the lock and shoved the boys inside.

 

Kakashi locked the door again behind them. 

 

The boys were both crying. They were scared. 

 

Kakashi couldn’t worry about them yet. He summoned his whole ninken pack. 

 

Pakkun heard the alarm and bristled. “What’s going on?” he demanded.

 

The whole pack was on high alert. They remembered the last time this siren had sounded. Pakkun even remembered the time before that, when enemy ninja crossed the border and marched towards Kohona.

 

Kakashi’s eyes flickered to Sasuke. “An anbu’s gone on a killing spree,” Kakashi said. His voice was tight and under his mask he licked his lips.

 

Pakkun nodded. “What do we need to do?” he asked. 

 

Kakashi hesitated. They were safe for the moment. His whole focus had been getting the boys out of the house and securing their position. He didn’t have the next steps mapped out.

 

Kakashi ran through scenarios and tried to call back Itachi’s letter. He’d said he trusted Hiruzen to hold up his end of the bargain. That meant Itachi didn’t intend to kill the hokage, which was good. With Hiruzen in charge, Kakashi could guess at the other outcomes.

 

If Itachi was captured, he’d be charged with treason for the non-sanctioned kills and possibly expose that the village had conspired to eliminate an entire clan. It’d be war for sure if the clans found out that the Uchiha massacre was a sanctioned mission. The village couldn’t risk that.

 

Chances were, Itachi would either escape or be killed. The original plan would probably have been for the anbu to put up a show and let him go, but he'd gone off mission. He’d be considered a liability and the anbu would have orders to kill on sight.

 

Anyway it went down, Itachi wasn’t going to be a factor for long. Dead or fled, he’d be marked a traitor and Sasuke would be the lone survivor of a massacre and the brother of a rogue shinobi.

 

Kakashi knew in his bones what would happen to Sasuke. With no clan to advocate for him and village that would fear him becoming his brother’s successor, he’d be placed under the watch of an anbu. Kakashi had no doubt that Sasuke would disappear into the ranks of anbu’s Root. It wasn’t something that Kakashi would allow.

 

For a heartbeat, Kakashi considered taking the boys and making a run for it. With all the focus on Itachi, they could slip through the barrier and be halfway to water country before another tracking unit could be raised. 

 

Kakashi discarded that idea almost immediately. The village wouldn’t let its jinchuuriki and the last two sharingan users just disappear. They’d be hunted across the world and any village that offered them asylum would only do so in the hopes of turning the boys into its own weapons.

 

It was better to stay here, where Kakashi had a reputation and some political pull. At least here, he knew the lay of the political landscape.

 

Kakashi kicked himself. The political landscape was about to shift so far it’d be all but unrecognizable. He didn’t have enough pull to legally hang onto Sasuke. It’d take some sort of blood relation to do that.

 

Kakashi’s blood ran cold as an idea took shape. “I need you to go back to the house,” Kakashi told Pakkun. “In the safe in my closet, there’s a set of papers with the Uchiha crest on them, I need you to get them. Take them to hokage’s office, but don’t give them to anyone. When the alarm is lifted and the barrier goes down, I’ll meet you there.”

 

Pakkun nodded. He knew the papers Kakashi was referring to and had a sinking feeling he knew who the alarm was for. Bisuke had told the rest of the pack about Itachi’s early morning visit.

 

Kakashi let Pakkun out into the hall and locked the door behind the dog. The other ninken took up positions around the small apartment, ready to defend it.

 

Kakashi finally turned his attention to the boys. He knelt down to their height and pulled them both into a hug. “It’s going to be okay,” he promised. “You’re safe. I’m not going to let anything happen to you.” He hoped he wasn’t lying.

Chapter Text

Tenzou came home in the early hours of the morning, two hours after the alarm stopped. He’d been on duty when the alarm sounded and ended up helping with the barrier. 

 

When Tenzou opened the door, he froze. Standing in the doorway was a monster of a dog. Sitting, his head was level with Tenzou’s chest and he probably weighed double what the anbu did.

 

The dog pulled back its lips and Tenzou thought that he’d met his end. 

 

Instead, the dog leaned forward to lick Tenzou’s chin.

 

“Is it over?”

 

Tenzou’s eyes flickered from the dog to the source of the voice. He spotted Kakashi sitting on the floor, leaning against the kitchen counter, surrounded by Ninken, with a child curled against each side of him. Kakashi had a set of kunai laid out in easy reach and his sharingan was uncovered, glowing red in the dark.

 

The dog sniffed at Tenzou’s jacket and moved to lick him again.

 

“Bull,” Kakashi hissed. “This is not the time to make friends. Leave him alone.”

 

The dog ducked its head and trotted back to Kakashi, giving Tenzou the space to step into his apartment and close the door.

 

Tenzou stepped closer and froze. He recognized the second, dark haired boy on Kakashi’s right. “Is that Sasuke?” Tenzou whispered.

 

Kakashi nodded. He picked up a kunai and absently spun it between his fingers. “Was it Itachi?” he asked.

 

Tenzou stepped over and around the ninken until he was standing beside Kakashi, looking down on Naruto. He leaned against cabinet and slid to the floor on Naruro’s other side. Tenzou tilted his head back and stared at the ceiling. He was exhausted down to his bones and it wasn’t all physical

 

Kakashi waited in silence.

 

“It’s over for now,” Tenzou said at last. “How’d you know it was Itachi?”

 

“He showed up at my house at 4AM yesterday. He was a mess over some mission and a dead friend. Said something about loving traitors and needing to protect both the village and Sasuke,” Kakashi explained. He kept his voice barely a whisper. “He asked if I could watch Sasuke after school yesterday. I had him when the alarm went off.” Kakashi didn’t mention the letter. He needed to know what exactly Itachi did, what all Tenzou knew of the situation, and where Tenzou stood on the whole issue. The last thing Kakashi wanted to do was put the anbu in a position of choosing between loyalty to his friends and his village. 

 

“He killed them all,” Tenzou breathed. His voice was emotionless. “There was so much blood. We assumed Sasuke was dead too.” He’d stopped at the Uchiha compound on his way home. He’d needed to see if the rumors were true.

 

Kakashi shifted slightly, so that his head rested on Tenzou’s shoulder. With Naruto between them, clutching Kakashi’s arm like a teddy bear, it was all Kakashi could do.

 

Tenzou sighed and let himself relax a bit more. His shoulders sagged and his eyes were heavy. He knew he couldn’t sleep yet and that he’d regret sleeping sitting on the floor when he woke up, but still he was tempted.

 

The only sound for several long minutes was breathing. Naruto snored softly and Sasuke sounded like he might be getting a cold. The dogs all had their own rhythm. Kakashi was nearly silent, like a good anbu.

 

“Danzou’s dead,” Tenzou said.

 

Kakashi jerked in surprise. Sasuke pressed himself tighter to Kakashi and Naruto didn’t seem to notice his pillow jump.

 

Tenzou licked his lips. “Itachi tore through root. He didn’t kill any of them, but the genjutsu he used…” Tenzou shook his head. “Who knows when they’ll wake up and if they’ll even be the same.”

 

“Are you sure it was Danzou?” Kakashi asked.

 

Tenzou nodded. “I saw the body. Itachi left him in the middle of the Uchiha compound.” Tenzou’s voice was still emotionless.

 

“Are you okay?” Kakashi asked.

 

Tenzou snorted. 

 

Kakashi frowned at the younger man. 

 

Tenzou shifted under his captain’s stare and sighed. “I don’t know. He made me what I am. I spent a lot of years thinking of him as my father. When I got out of Root, I hated him. I spent a lot of years resenting him for stealing my life and making me into a monster.” 

 

The wooden floor in front of Tenzou seemed to remember that it had once been a tree and sprouted little branches and leaves. 

 

Tenzou continued, “I recent years though, I made peace with what I am and how I came to be. My feelings around Danzou are complicated. He’s done terrible, unforgivable things, but he did them for the good of the village. I have no doubt that he and Root have saved the village in secret more than once. I don’t know if the good outweighs the bad. I don’t know if you can even do that math. Does one good cancel a bad one?”

 

Kakashi nodded. “I get that.”

 

Tenzou let out a deep breath. “You need to go see the Third. He needs to know what Itachi said to you and that Sasuke is alive.”

 

Kakashi nodded. “I was planning to go as soon as I knew it was safe.” 

 

They lapsed back into silence, neither willing to move just yet. Moving would mean facing the world.

 

“Did they catch Itachi?” Kakashi asked.

 

Tenzou snorted. “What do you think?”

 

“No?”

 

“He’s Uchiha Itachi. He was probably long gone before we ever raised the alarm. He genjutsued a few anbu on his way out of town. They’re the ones who raised the alarm and then sent everyone else on a wild goose chase around the village after the illusion he left in their heads.”

 

Kakashi shrugged. “He’s always been good and the anbu training didn’t hurt in that regard.”

 

Tenzou made a noncommittal grunt. “Give me 10 minutes to rest and I’ll go with you to the hokage.”

 

If Kakashi responded, Tenzou didn’t hear it. He was already asleep.

 

---

 

Sarutobi Hiruzen had just finished sending the last of his hunter teams after Uchiha Itachi when there was a knock on his office door. He didn’t want to answer. The sun was going to rise soon and when it did he needed to know what he was going to tell the village. 

 

“Sir,” a guard called through the closed door. “It’s Hatake Kakashi and he has Uchiha Sasuke with him.”

 

The pen slipped out of Hiruzen’s fingers and clattered against the desk. “Let them in,” the hokage said.

 

Kakashi stepped inside. He was carrying a sleeping Naruto with one arm. The blond’s head was resting on Kakashi’s shoulder and he seemed oblivious to the world. Kakashi’s other hand was occupied by Sasuke. The Uchiha was gripping Kakashi’s had so tightly that Kakashi had already lost feeling in three of his fingers.

 

Hiruzen was on his feet in an instant. “Where did you find him?” he demanded.

 

Kakashi shook his head. “He’s been with me since after school yesterday. Itachi asked me to babysit.”

 

“Oh,” the hokage dropped back into his seat. “I think we have a lot to talk about. I can have someone watch the boys. I keep a guest room set up down the hall for last minute dignitaries and…”

 

Kakashi waved away the offer. “Tenzou is outside waiting. I wanted you to see that Sasuke was alright and now I’d like to send both of them home with Tenzou.”

 

The hokage nodded slowly. “If Tenzou is alright with that.”

 

“He and Naruto are close. Tenzou is fine with watching them.”

 

Kakashi slipped back outside. He shifted Naruto to Tenzou’s arms. The boy grumbled for a minute before dropping back to sleep. 

 

Sasuke didn’t want to let go of Kakashi’s hand. “I want to know what’s going on,” Sasuke said. His dark eyes were determined and his mouth was a hard line despite the way his chin quivered. 

 

Kakashi ruffled Sasuke’s hair and gave the boy a smile. “I promise you’re going to be okay with Tenzou and when I get back, I’ll explain everything. It’ll only be a couple hours. I know you’re scared and confused, but you’re doing a really good job. You’re acting like a real shinobi.”

 

Sasuke swallowed and willed his chin to stop trembling. He fought back tears and exhaustion to keep his voice from trembling. “Okay. I’ll wait,” he said. Then, Sasuke let go of Kakashi’s hand and took Tenzou’s offered one.

 

With the boys taken care of, Kakashi put his fingers in his mouth and whistled. 

 

Pakkun appeared a minute later with a wad of papers in his mouth. “I brought a pen, too. Thought you might need it.”

 

Kakashi took the papers and sent Pakkun after Tenzou. 

 

Back in the hokage’s office, Kakashi took a seat in front of the hokage’s desk. 

 

Behind the desk, Hiruzen rubbed his face and sighed. “I take it you spoke to Itachi recently?”

 

“He came to my house at 4AM yesterday and he was a mess. He said a lot of things that didn’t make a lot of sense at the time, but do now,” Kakashi started.

 

Hiruzen frowned and shifted on his seat. He didn’t like where this was going. He couldn’t tell if Kakashi was fishing for information or hinting that he knew more than he should.

 

“Itachi was struggling with the morals behind loving and killing traitors, he was grieving his best friend, and he was trying to find some way that he could protect his little brother and his village,” Kakashi continued. He met and held the hokage’s gaze. Beneath his forehead protector, Kakashi’s sharingan smoldered. 

 

“Kakashi,” Hiruzen started. His voice was gentle. 

 

Kakashi cut off the hokage. “The Uchiha were planning some sort of a revolt, probably your assasination. Danzou ordered Itachi to kill them. You signed off on it, because by the time you saw how bad the situation was it was too late to de-escalate.”

 

“You’re not wrong, but you don’t know the whole story. The Uchiha had gone mad. I thought Itachi had escaped the Curse of Hatred, but clearly I was wrong.”

 

“You’re wrong,” Kakashi said. His voice was hard. “The Uchiha didn’t go mad or succumb to some genetic hatred. They were a proud clan and they were treated like shit for a crime they were never found guilty of. Danzou used it as an excuse to steal their sharingan.”

 

Hiruzen slammed his fists on the desk. He sound echoed through the room. In the quiet after, his voice was a dangerous hiss. “Do not talk about Danzou like you know him.”

 

Kakashi leaned in and lowered his voice to match. He knew he was playing a dangerous game, but if he folded now he would lose everything. “I think you’re the one who didn’t know Danzou. Did you ever look underneath those bandages of his?” Kakashi challenged. “I got to see after I survived his assassination attempt and decided to ask why he wanted me dead.”

 

The hokage’s eyes widened.

 

Kakashi reached up and carefully pushed his forehead protector up until he was staring down the hokage with one dark eye and one glowing red. “Sharingan. He’s been collecting them for years. He didn’t trust the Uchiha to use them for the good of the village. He didn’t trust me either, but it's harder to make a hokage’s student disappear under their nose and then I proved my worth in the anbu.”

 

“I can’t believe that,” Hiruzen said, but his voice cracked and his eyes had a faraway look in them. 

 

Kakashi snorted. “Fine. Don’t believe me. Check for yourself. Do a DNA test. I know one of those eyes will belong to Uchiha Shisui who I know was working with you and Itachi to figure out an alternative to a massacre.”

 

Hiruzen closed his eyes. “I will check.” He sounded exhausted.

 

Kakashi waited. 

 

After a minute, the hokage opened his eyes, stood up, went to the door, and ordered his guard to go look beneath the bandages on Danzou’s body.

 

“How much do you trust that anbu?” Kakashi asked when the hokage sat back down.

 

Hiruzen sighed. “I know who are my people and who were Danzou’s.”

 

They waited in silence.

 

When the guard returned he entered the office and whispered to the hokage.

 

“Run genetic testing on every eye,” the hokage ordered. “I want to know who all he killed. Have the anbu burn the Uchihas remains, keep a close watch on Root, and if any of the corpses are missing their eyes, I want to know immediately.”

 

The anbu nodded and left.

 

The room descended back into silence.

 

Kakashi waited.

 

“Are you going to gloat?” Hiruzen asked.

 

Kakashi shook his head. “I would rather have been wrong about everything. It would have been easier.”

 

“Were you in my place, what would you tell the village?” Hiruzen asked. He watched Kakashi closely. 

 

Kakashi hesitated and chose his words carefully. “The truth would tear the village apart, but there are things that have come to light that won’t be easily buried. Itachi lost his best friend. He watched him die and both the Uchiha and Danzou were responsible. The Uchiha were provoked, but that doesn’t change the fact that they were planning to start a civil war. Itachi was in a vulnerable place and he was desperate to save his little brother from the same fate as ShisuI.”

 

Hiruzen nodded slowly. “You would paint Itachi as emotionally compromised and desperate, but well intended and throw the rest of the clan’s memory to the wolves?”

 

“No, I’d make sure the village knew that the coup wasn’t unprovoked.”

 

Hiruzen nodded again. In the first light of morning, for the first time, the third hokage looked his age. “Sasuke will fall under suspicion. In this story, he’s the son of traitors and the brother of a man who snapped and committed a massacre. That doesn’t change no matter how sympathetic you make Itachi or the clan. If I place him with an anbu, that may help, but…”

 

Kakashi shook his head again. “Sasuke is staying with me. I’m an anbu, so that will ease some fears. I have the sharingan, so if he awakens his I can teach him. I’m good with kids and he is comfortable with me.”

 

Hiruzen smiled sadly at that. “You have a big heart Kakashi, but that’s not good enough to convince the council to give you custody of both of the potential most powerful shinobis of their generation.”

 

“I thought you might say that,” Kakashi said. He set the papers he’d had Pakkun bring on the hokage’s desk. “I’m making a blood claim for custody. As the last Uchiha of legal age who is fit to be a guardian, it’s my right to take in Sasuke.”

 

Hiruzen unfolded the papers. Kakashi’s signature was fresh, but the other signatures were older with lightly faded ink. “How long have you been holding onto this?”

 

Kakashi shrugged. “Long enough. I’m not stupid. I knew the mess this could cause. It was an insurance policy. Fugaku meant for me to use it to protect Naruto. Ironic isn’t it that instead, I end up using it to protect Sasuke?”

 

Hiruzen stared at the papers. Everything was above the board. By all the laws of the village and by the laws of common sense, Kakashi had every right to keep Sasuke. It would definitely upset some of the elders. They’d say they were putting too many eggs in one basket-- a basket with known tendencies towards questioning orders, caring too much, and having morals.

 

Hiruzen handed the papers back to Kakashi. “Alright. I guess you have all the cards here.”

 

Kakashi stuffed the papers back in his pocket. “I didn’t come here thinking of it as winning or losing. I’m doing my best to do what’s best for the village. Itachi didn’t have the support he needed. I should have seen the pain he was in and gone digging. I failed him as a friend and captain. I won’t fail Sasuke.”

 

“I hope not.”

 

Kakashi shifted under the hokage’s stare.

“What will you tell Sasuke?” he asked.

 

“I won’t contradict what you tell the village,” Kakashi promised. He wouldn’t undermine the hokage and certainly wouldn’t expose Itachi’s orders and undermine the whole village.

 

Hiruzen leaned back in his chair and glanced out the window. The sun was peeking above the rooftops. “I’ll follow your story. It won’t all be released to the press at once. I don’t want them thinking it was rehearsed and planned. In the end, everyone will know that Danzou was the instigator, the Uchiha’s response posed a threat to the whole village, and Itachi was caught in the middle when he decided to take matters into his own hands. The murder of Uchiha Shisui may have been a factor, but with Itachi missing we may never know for sure.”

 

Kakashi let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. 

 

“Would you have me step down?” Hiruzen asked.

 

“No,” Kakashi said without hesitation. “You’re a good man. You had a blindspot concerning your friend. That doesn’t make you unfit to be hokage. Danzou hid what he was from more than just you. What you do after everything comes to light will decide whether the village still trusts you.” 

 

The way Kakashi saw it, despite everything, Hiruzen wasn’t a bad man. He let himself be backed into political corners and tended to be conservative in his policies, because he wanted peace between the clans. That didn’t stop him from slipping extra money into Naruto’s welfare check whenever Kakashi was between missions and money might be tight. It didn’t erase the relief Kakashi saw in the man’s eyes when he saw Kakashi had a valid claim to Sasuke. 

 

At this point, Kakashi knew where he stood with Hiruzen and he had a pretty good idea of how the Hokage would respond to incidents. It was a major advantage in the political arena that Kakashi just jumped headfirst into for Sasuke. With the two boys depending on him, Kakashi needed all the advantages he could get. He’d prefer Hiruzen stay Hokage at least until the boys were old enough to protect themselves from those who would use them like soulless weapons.

 

Kakashi left the hokage’s office feeling like he’d just survived a fight to the death. The adrenaline in his system made him shake and he leaned against the wall in the hallway for a full minute before he dared try running home.

 

With Kakashi gone, Hiruzen began making arrangements. There was a lot to get done if he wanted to maintain peace and control within the village. It was time to orchestrate a coverup and clean up his house. Root needed to be reined in and Hiruzen needed to know what else Danzou had done under his nose. It might not be too late to repair other damage. He’d been complacent his second term and the village had paid a price in blood. It ended now.

Chapter Text

Kakashi found Tenzou and the boys sitting on the couch at the Hatake house. 

 

Tenzou was in the middle, Naruto was on the right, and Sasuke was on the left. Tenzou nodded when Kakashi walked in. Naruto was fighting to keep his eyes open and was leaning on the anbu’s shoulder. Sasuke was staring straight ahead with a blank face.

 

Kakashi shivered. He wondered how much Sasuke had guessed.

 

“Thank you,” Kakashi said. His voice was low and he sounded exhausted. 

 

Tenzou nodded. He shifted Naruto, so the boy was leaning against the couch arm and stood up.

 

Kakashi trailed Tenzou towards the door. 

 

“Well?” the brown haired anbu asked once they were out of sight and earshot of the boys.

 

Kakashi put a hand on Tenzou’s shoulder. “It’s complicated. The important thing now is that Sasuke is staying with me.”

 

Tenzou’s eyes widened. “How the hell did you manage to sell that?”

 

Kakashi shook his head and rubbed his face. “Will you accept a promise to explain tomorrow?”

 

Tenzou looked his captain over. In the bright light of morning, what little skin Kakashi left visible was ashen. The dark circle under his visible eye was prominent and his shoulders sagged. Tenzou’d seen Kakashi like this a handful of times and it worried him. “I’ll settle for you telling me if you’re okay or if I should stay?” Tenzou countered.

 

A ghost of a smile flickered across Kakashi’s face, just a slight wrinkle at the corner of his eye and a softening of his forehead. “I’m okay. Just tired and dreading the conversation I need to have.” He nodded back towards the living room.

 

Tenzou did something he’d never done before. He grabbed Kakashi’s hand, still on his shoulder, and pulled the older man into a hug. 

 

Kakashi tensed and then put his arms around the other shinobi. 

 

“You’re not alone,” Tenzou whispered. “If you need me, you know I’ll be here in a heartbeat.”

 

Kakashi’s squeezed his friend a bit tighter and then let go and pulled away. “Thank you,” Kakashi murmured.

 

Tenzou let out a shaky breath and wiped away the tears clouding his vision. He was a bit embarrassed at what felt like an over the top emotional display for someone trained to have no emotions.

 

“We’re going to get through this,” Kakashi promised. He sounded more sure of himself now. 

 

Tenzou smiled at that. “Of course we are. We’re shinobi and, more importantly, we’re Team Rho. Together, we’ve never been beaten.”

 

Kakashi stayed in the doorway, watching the morning traffic start, long after Tenzou was gone. When he finally got up the strength to face the last Uchiha, Kakashi found Naruto sound asleep and Sasuke pressed against Naruto. Sasuke was wide awake with a dull, practice kunai in his hand. 

 

Sasuke leveled Kakashi with a hard stare. “Is it safe now?” he asked.

 

“Yes,” Kakashi promised. He approached slowly, until he was standing right in front of Sasuke. Kakashi held his hand out to the little boy. 

 

Sasuke offered Kakashi the hilt of the kunai.

 

Kakashi shook his head. “You can keep that with you if you like. I just want to go talk.” A kunai couldn’t ward off bad news and you can’t fight grief with a blade, but Kakashi knew from experience the weight of a weapon in your hand eased the fear that followed.

 

Sasuke immediately pulled back the kunai and clutched it to his chest with one hand. With his free hand, he took Kakashi’s hand and let himself be led to the kitchen.

 

Sasuke sat in one of the wooden chairs at the dining room table. His feet didn’t touch the floor and as he swung them back and forth anxiously. Kakashi was hit by how small the boy was. The practice kunai that he still clutched looked comical in the boy’s hand.

 

Kakashi made a pot of tea and pulled a box of pastries out of the fridge. He set a mug of camomile and the box of pastries in front of Sasuke. “You should eat something. Talking on an empty stomach sucks.” Kakashi didn’t feel guilty about stringing the boy along. He doubted Sasuke would be willing to eat after they talked and it gave Kakashi more time to figure out how to say what he needed to.

 

Sasuke took a scone out of the box and nibbled it. He wanted to ask for something else, toast or eggs. He wanted to say that he didn’t like sweet things, but his mom always said not to be picky when you were eating at someone else’s house.

 

Kakashi sat next to Sasuke and sipped his own mug of tea.

 

When Sasuke was mostly done with the scone, Kakashi started. “Naruto says you’re the top of the class.”

 

Sasuke nodded. He didn’t understand where this was going.

 

“You’re smart. Probably smarter than adults give you credit for being. I bet you’ve known for a while that something isn’t quite right.” Kakashi closed his eye. He remembered being just a bit younger than that and trying to ignore the way people whispered when he went out with his father or the way Sakumo would lock himself in his room for a whole day at a time. Kids were smarter than adults liked to think, especially child prodigies.

 

“Everyone is angry,” Sasuke whispered. “Aunts, uncles, cousins. They all come to see Father in his study. He locks the door, but I can hear the shouting. And they don’t talk to the neighbors anymore. Sometimes, I can hear Mom and Father talking early in the morning. Itachi takes me outside to practice with shurikens if he knows I’m awake. He says I don’t need to worry, but Mom always looks like she’s been crying when we get back. Itachi is mad at Mom and Father and he got in a fight with our cousins. No one will tell me what’s wrong.” Tears welled up in Sasuke’s eyes and Kakashi brushed them away with his thumb.

 

“Your family loves you more than anything else in the world. That’s why they didn’t tell you anything. They were trying to protect you,” Kakashi soothed.

 

Sasuke pushed away Kakashi’s hand. “What happened?!” he yelled. “You’re still not telling me anything!”

 

Kakashi stared at Sasuke. The boy’s face was contorted with anger and tears ran down his cheeks. Kakashi knew why everyone had lied to Sasuke. He was just a kid. He didn’t deserve to have to carry this weight. 

 

“Your family is gone. Last night, they were killed.” Kakashi felt like he’d dropped a rock on the child in front of him. 

 

Sasuke froze. His mouth opened, but no sound came out. 

 

“I’m sorry,” Kakashi murmured. “I’m so sorry.”

 

“What happened?” Sasuke’s voice was high and thin, on the edge of cracking and breaking into a wail.

 

“It’s complicated,” Kakashi said. He reach out again, taking Sasuke’s hand. “I need you to understand that sometimes the world isn’t divided into good and bad and good people do bad things for good reasons.”

 

Sasuke squeezed Kakashi’s hand tighter. His other hand had a white knuckled grip on the kunai.

 

“The village was scared of the Uchiha clan and when people are afraid, they do bad things. The village didn’t treat the clan fairly. It’s why there were so few Uchiha in the anbu and government, why the compound was moved to the outskirts of the village, and why Uchiha shinobi weren’t allowed to go on important missions.”

 

Sasuke’s face darkened, but he didn’t say anything. He’d seen the prejudice already. Kakashi wasn’t saying anything Sasuke hadn’t overheard or witnessed. 

 

“Your family were planning a coup de eta. They were going to start a war with the village in the hopes of taking control and building a better world for the next generation. A lot of people would have died in the fighting.”

 

Sasuke’s face shifted from anger to disbelief and horror. His eyes were wide and he shook his head frantically. “No,” he whispered. “No.”

 

Kakashi swept his thumb across Sasuke’s knuckles, like he was trying to brush away the pain. “I’m sorry.”

 

“Itachi wouldn’t hurt the village,” Sasuke argued.

 

Kakashi nodded. “Itachi knew the clan would lose a war against the village and when they did, the village would punish every Uchiha, even the ones who didn’t fight.”

 

Sasuke clung to Kakashi’s hand. “Am I going to die too?” he whispered.

 

Kakashi shook his head. “No. No one else is going to die. Itachi made sure of that.”

 

Sasuke stared at Kakashi with tears running down his face. “I don’t understand.”

 

“Itachi left you with me, so that you’d be safe. Then he killed the rest of the clan and he killed the man who convinced the village to fear the Uchiha.”

 

Sasuke broke. The sob started as a whine and then burst out of his throat. He flung himself into Kakashi’s arms and the kunai clattered to the floor.

 

Kakashi held Sasuke close, rubbing the boy’s back and humming softly. 

 

“Why?” Sasuke wailed. His whole body shook with sobs. “Why would he k...kill mo...mom and Father?” He gasped for breath and shoved the words out between sobs.

 

“Itachi is a genius shinobi, but he’s still a kid. He was caught between his loyalty to the village and his loyalty to your clan and this was the only way he could think of to protect you from all of it.” Kakashi winced. It was all so much more complicated than that. He knew he’d have to go over this again, when Sasuke was older.

 

“Where’s Itachi?” Sasuke whimpered.

 

“He left the village. The man he killed was part of the council of elders and one of the anbu leaders,” Kakashi explained. “Itachi had to leave or the village. He committed treason by killing a village leader and would have been charged with murder for killing the clan.” Kakashi hated how emotionless his voice sounded. He was tearing apart Sasuke’s whole world and he sounded like he was reading the morning news, but if he let his emotions out now Kakashi knew he’d break down too. Sasuke needed Kakashi to be strong and fearless.

 

Sasuke trembled in Kakashi’s arms. He buried his face in Kakashi’s shoulder and cried until there were no tears left.

 

Kakashi held Sasuke through all of it. 

 

“It’s not fair,” Sasuke whimpered.

 

Kakashi smoothed Sasuke’s hair. “I know. It’s not fair at all.”

 

“I hate Itachi,” Sasuke sobbed. 

 

Kakashi squeezed Sasuke a bit tighter. “No you don’t,” he said.

 

Sasuke whimpered. He could see Itachi’s sad smile as he said goodbye outside the academy. He’d said he loved him no matter what. Sasuke shuddered. He felt hot and cold all at once. “I don’t hate him, but I do.”

 

“Me too,” Kakashi murmured. “Me too.”

 

Sasuke cried for the better part of an hour. By the end of it, he’d run out of tears and his sobs faded to tremors. Kakashi’s shirt was soaked with tears and snot, but he didn’t seem to care. 

 

When Sasuke seemed to be back under control, Kakashi scooped up the boy and headed for the stairs. Sasuke was limp in his arms.

 

Kakashi slipped into his room and tucked Sasuke in the bed. His eyes were closed tight and Kakashi thought he’d cried himself to sleep until Sasuke grabbed Kakashi’s sleeve and refused to let go.

 

“What happens to me?” Sasuke asked in a small voice. 

 

Kakashi sat on the edge of the bed and ruffled Sasuke’s hair. “You’re going to stay here with me and Naruto.”

 

Sasuke nodded. “Please don’t leave,” he whispered.

 

Kakashi relented. Naruto could wait a bit longer. The shinobi laid down beside the boy and held him until he drifted off to sleep.

 

Kakashi slipped out of the bed, careful not to wake Sasuke and summoned the ninken. “Keep an eye on him. If he wakes up, I want to know,” Kakashi said.

 

The dogs nodded and as Kakashi was leaving, he saw Bull climbing onto the bed.

 

Downstairs, Naruto was sitting on the couch. He had a pillow clutched to his chest and his face buried in the fabric.

 

Kakashi dropped onto the couch beside Naruto and put an arm around Naruto’s shoulders.

 

Naruto pressed himself against Kakashi’s side and looked up at him with a tear streaked face.

 

“How much of that did you hear?” Kakashi asked.

 

“All of it,” Naruto said. His voice was raw from holding back sobs. “Did Itachi really kill everyone? Aunt Mikoto? Fugaku-sama?” 

 

Kakashi sighed and nodded. “Yes. He was trying to protect Sasuke and prevent a war.”

 

Naruto whimpered. “There had to be a better way.”

 

Kakashi pulled Naruto closer. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “I wasn’t in Itachi’s shoes. I don’t know everything he knew. Maybe there was and maybe there wasn’t. I don’t know.”

 

“He could have asked for help,” Naruto sobbed. 

 

Kakashi shuddered. He’d been thinking the same things since he read Itachi’s letter. 

 

Kakashi’s mask felt damp and he realized he was crying too. “I don’t know,” he whispered. There were too many maybe’s in his mind. If he’d known how bad it was, maybe he could have helped diffuse the tension. Maybe he could have saved Itachi. Maybe…

 

Kakashi cut himself off from that line of thought. He’d drown in a sea of maybes if he wasn’t careful. 

 

“All we can do is play the hand we were dealt,” Kakashi said. “We’ve got to do our best with what we have.”

 

The two Hatake’s stayed still for a long minute, holding each other and grieving for lost and broken friends.

 

Eventually, Kakashi wiped the tears off his face with his mask and brushed Naruto’s from his cheeks.

 

“What happens to Sasuke?” Naruto asked.

 

“He’s going to stay with us. I know it’s going to be a big change, but right now he needs--”

 

Naruto interrupted Kakashi. “Good. He needs us.”

 

Kakashi blinked in surprise. He looked down and met Naruto’s gaze. The boy’s blue eyes were full of fire and his face was set in a determined line. With his whisker markings, Naruto looked fierce. “We won’t let anyone hurt Sasuke. He’s our family now,” Naruto declared.

 

A slow smile spread across Kakashi’s face. Beneath his mask, he bared his teeth. The Hatake clan had always been described as wolfish, teeth a bit too sharp and eyes just a little too bright. They were legendary for their loyalty and fierceness. “You got that right,” Kakashi agreed.

 

---

 

While Sasuke and Naruto slept, Kakashi went to work. 

 

There were two bedrooms and a bathroom on the second floor of the house. The third bedroom was actual the master and it was on the ground floor, off of the living room. The master had its own bathroom and sliding doors that opened into the back garden. Kakashi hadn’t been inside in years.

 

Kakashi stood at the door to the master bedroom, key in hand. The last time he’d been in his father’s room was when 3 year old Naruto had wandered in. The room had been locked since.

 

Kakashi unlocked the door and stopped there. He pressed his forehead against the wood of the door and focused on breathing. The world was spinning and it felt like there wasn’t enough air. 

 

Kakashi tugged down his mask, gulping in air. He growled at the door in frustration. Get it together Kakashi. You’re 21 years old. There’s nothing in there that can hurt you, Kakashi thought. 

 

Before he could lose the courage, Kakashi opened the door and stepped inside. The door swung shut behind him. 

 

It was eerily quiet. The air felt heavy. Kakashi stood in silence for a moment. In the stillness, memories fought to overwhelm Kakashi. He walked further into the room, trying to shake off the sound of Itachi’s voice as he spoke about loving traitors.

 

Kakashi’s feet kicked up a cloud of dust and without his mask on, Kakashi doubled over coughing. His eye watered and he fell to his knees. Kakashi felt like he was choking, drowning in dust and tears.

 

In the silence, surrounded by his father’s ghost, Kakashi finally let himself fall apart. Tears ran down his face and dripped off his chin to puddle on the hardwood floor. 

 

Kakashi curled into a ball and held himself as he sobbed. 

 

So many friends gone. So much blood shed. And for what? To buy a brief period of peace. What sort of a village did this to their own people? Every moment of peace had been paid for with blood. Was it really worth it? Kakashi didn’t have an answer to the bitter voice in his head. All he knew was that Itachi had deserved better. All of the Uchihas had deserved better. 

 

On the floor, covered in dust and tears (not all his own) Kakashi decided that Danzou had deserved worse.

 

With a shuddering breath, Kakashi reined his emotions back in. He wasn’t his father, he wouldn’t let grief and failure cripple him. He wiped the tears off his face and looked up, straight into a mirror.

 

Kakashi flinched. The face staring back at him was almost alien. 

 

Kakashi preferred to avoid mirrors when his mask was off. The face underneath never felt like his own. 

 

Kakashi raised a hand to touch his own cheek. The reflection mirrored him. 

 

As a child, he’d shared his mother’s high cheekbones and beauty mark. There were days his father couldn’t look at him without crying. He’d started wearing high collars and scarves then.

 

When Kakashi got older, he looked like his father. Contrary to the rumors, it wasn’t shame that made Kakashi switch his high collars and scarves for a mask. It was too hard to look in the mirror and be reminded of the parents he no longer had.

 

Then there was Obito’s eye. 

 

Kakashi pushed his forehead protector off, letting it clatter to the ground. His reflection stared back barefaced, a mix of people he’d loved and lost. 

 

Kakashi stood up and walked to the mirror. He tilted his head back and forth, watching the way his reflection shifted over the mirror’s discolored patches. 

 

“What am I supposed to do now?” Kakashi asked the mirror. “What would you do, Dad?”

 

Sakumo’s ghost didn’t appear and Kakashi shook his head at his own foolishness. 

 

Kakashi knew the dead wouldn’t answer and even if they did, none of them would be able to give Kakashi an answer he didn’t already have. There were two boys upstairs, counting on Kakashi to give them a home, to teach them and love them and protect them. What Kakashi was supposed to do now was take care of his kids. Priority one was getting Sasuke settled in and making sure he felt welcome and safe.

 

Kakashi hoped that giving Sasuke his own room right away would help the boy realize he wasn’t just a guest or a burden. 

 

That meant, Kakashi needed to make the third bedroom habitable. He turned away from the mirror and surveyed the room. 

 

First, Kakashi pulled open the curtains to the windows in the backyard. Light came pouring in.

 

Next, Kakashi turned his attention to the chest of drawers and the closet. He filled boxes with his father’s clothes and carried them to the attic. 

 

Next went the bedding-- stripped, bundled, and carried off to the laundry room. 

 

On his hands and knees, Kakashi scrubbed the room. The smell of cleaner burned his nose and his fingers were raw by the time he finished the room. 

 

Kakashi stood and surveyed his handiwork. The room looked barren and spartan, but clean. With sunlight through the windows, it wasn’t so dreary. 

 

Whether or not Kakashi could stand to spend the night in here… well Kakashi decided to take it one battle at a time.

 

Kakashi pulled his mask back on and went to check on the boys. 

 

Naruto was snoring softly in his own bed with Pakkun keeping watch from the rug.

 

In what had been Kakashi’s room, Sasuke was pressed against Bull with his fingers curled in the dog’s short fur.

 

Kakashi watched from the doorway as Sasuke whimpered and Bull nuzzled the boy. Sasuke sighed and slipped back deeper into sleep.

 

Satisfied the boys were okay, Kakashi went back to work. He finished the laundry and remade the master bed. 

 

Kakashi was exhausted. Adrenaline had long since left his system. He’d done the whole crying and demanding answers from the universe bit. The overwhelming urge to seize control of an uncontrollable situation by cleaning was finally satisfied. All that was left was exhaustion. 

 

Kakashi stared down the master bed. He could practically feel the nightmares already.

 

On instinct, Kakashi  went back to the living room. He grabbed a picture of Tenzou, Naruto, and himself at the park off of a shelf. On his way back into the bedroom, he propped the door open. Next, Kakashi set the picture on the nightstand and opened the windows.

 

With sunlight and birdsong drifting into the room on a gentle breeze, Kakashi felt himself relax. He crawled into the bed and laid down facing the picture on the nightstand. 

 

Kakashi fell asleep and didn’t dream. 

 

When Sasuke woke up crying in the late afternoon, it was Naruto who came running in his pajamas.

 

Pakkun went downstairs to wake Kakashi

 

Naruto took the crying Uchiha by the hand and followed Pakkun downstairs.

 

---

 

Kakashi woke up in the early hours of the next morning feeling vaguely trapped and overly warm. His sharingan glowed in the dark and let him make out the shape of two boys in bed beside him, Pakkun on the pillow next to his head, and the rest of the ninken split between the bed and floor.

 

Kakashi closed his eyes and went back to sleep. Tonight, all was peaceful and tomorrow’s problems could wait for tomorrow.

Chapter Text

It was the morning sun that woke Kakashi. He blinked up at the ceiling, but didn’t move. He didn’t want to wake up the dead weight draped over his right arm. 

 

Sasuke was sandwiched between Kakashi and Naruto. 

 

Bull was sprawled across the foot of the bed, pinning Kakashi’s legs. 

 

Kakashi shifted his legs, nudging Bull off of them. The dog let out a sigh and moved.

 

Kakashi was sure he’d wake up the Uchiha when he pulled his arm out from under the boy, but Sasuke just rolled over.

 

Kakashi motioned for Bull to take his place beside Sasuke and made his way out of the bedroom. 

 

It was late in the morning. Clearly everyone was sleeping off the previous day and night. 

 

Everyone except Tenzou who was in Kakashi’s kitchen reading the newspaper. 

 

Kakashi walked in and pulled up a chair across from the other shinobi. “You could have at least put on some tea,” he grumbled.

 

Tenzou snorted and turned the page. “I didn’t want to wake you up.”

 

Kakashi mumbled something unintelligible and heaved himself out of the chair. He put the kettle on. “You want food?”

 

Tenzou shook his head. 

 

Kakashi decided against cooking anything for himself then. He’d make breakfast when the boys woke up.

 

Kakashi fished tea  out of the cupboard. He set two mugs on the table and watched as the kettle began to steam. 

 

Tenzou continued to read his paper in silence.

 

When Kakashi poured the tea and settled back in the chair, the other shinobi finally set down the paper.

 

Kakashi realized Tenzou was wearing his anbu gear. His mask was on his lap. “Mission?” Kakashi asked.

 

“I don’t know. The Third asked to see me this afternoon.”

 

Kakashi sipped his tea and considered his next move.

 

“I thought you might be going after Itachi,” Kakashi said at last.

 

“Like we’re going to catch him,” Tenzou dismissed. “He’s gone unless he decides to come back on his own.”

 

Kakashi had to agree, but if anyone stood a chance of bringing Itachi back it would be the two of them. 

 

“Do you want to go after Itachi?” Tenzou asked.

 

Kakashi shook his head. “It’d be counter productive.”

 

That made Tenzou raise an eyebrow. 

 

Kakashi waved off the unspoken questions and left the room. He came back with the scroll Itachi had left behind. 

 

Kakashi held the scroll out to Tenzou. “I trust you and you deserve to know what you’re walking into with the Third.”

 

Tenzou read the scroll three times before rolling it up and handing it back. “That could start a war,” he remarked. His face was impassive.

 

Kakashi held up his hands. “Don’t give me that look. I am well aware what making the fact that the village sanctioned the assassination of an entire clan general knowledge could do. I don’t want a war anymore than you do or Itachi did.”

 

Tenzou relaxed and reached for the mug in front of him. “Does the Third know that you know?”

 

Kakashi nodded. He launched into the barebones version of his talk with Hiruzen.

 

Tenzou’s eyes just kept getting bigger. “I knew you had guts, but that went way beyond gutsy. You basically blackmailed the hokage!”

 

Kakashi laughed. “I don’t think he minded all that much in the end. He seemed glad to have a legitimate reason to give me Sasuke.”

 

Tenzou let out a relieved sigh. “I don’t know what I’d do if both of my friends ended up enemies of the state. I don’t really have any to spare.”

 

“You’ve got other friends.”

 

Tenzou made a noncommittal noise. He didn’t bother to point out that Kakashi was the only person whose house he was welcome to just walk into or that Kakashi the only one he’d trusted with the secret of his mokuton. “What are we going to do about Itachi?”

 

Kakashi shrugged. “Not much we can do now.” 

 

Tenzou shook his head. “Not what I mean. The story you and the Third worked out is well and fine. It’ll protect Sasuke and if Itachi’s captured it might keep him from getting the death penalty, assuming he survives being captured. We’ve got to do something or someone, probably a Root anbu, is going to kill Itachi. He followed orders and is still working on protecting the village. He doesn’t deserve to die for either of those.”

 

Kakashi rubbed his face and sighed. “Do you really think there’s anyone who can find and then beat Itachi?”

 

“Alone, maybe you or I would stand a chance. Against a group, even the sharingan has its limitations.”

 

Kakashi leaned back in the chair. He knew the hokage was going to call off the search for Itachi, put him the bingo book as an s-rank rogue, and declare a flee on sight order for all leaf shinobi. Kakashi assumed that would be enough to protect Itachi. He hadn’t accounted for Root or anyone else with a personal grudge. “What are you suggesting?”

 

“People know you and trust you. If you ask the other jounin not to go after Itachi, they’ll listen.”

 

Kakashi narrowed his eye at Tenzou. “What in the world gave you that impression?”

 

Tenzou shifted in his seat and looked anywhere except Kakashi. 

 

Kakashi folded his arms and glared at the younger shinobi. “I literally just shared highly classified intel with you. Are you seriously not going to share whatever gossip you picked up in the anbu lounge?”

 

Tenzou fiddled with his hair. “It was actually at a bar. You’re the only one who really talks in the anbu lounge.”

 

Kakashi face palmed. “Just spill it.”

 

“I was more or less cornered by a group of jounin who expressed concerns about your wellbeing following Itachi’s betrayal. I told them you were handling it alright and they tried to swear me to secrecy.”

 

“The usual suspects?”

 

Tenzou nodded. “If you asked it as a personal favor, I’m sure they’d make sure the jounin left Itachi alone.”

 

Kakashi sighed. “I guess it’s been a while since I hosted dinner.”

 

“The regular anbu will follow the hokage’s orders, and I will keep an eye on Root. If it’s just Root going after him, Itachi stands a chance. There aren’t as many of them as there once were,” Tenzou finished.

 

Tenzou left soon after for his meeting with the hokage, leaving Kakashi to plan a meeting with the jounin he knew best.

 

Kakashi stayed in the kitchen. He was thinking. He didn’t have guests over often and had neglected his relationships with friends outside the anbu. Naruto made them nervous and Kakashi knew the day he took the boy in that it was going to strain relationships. Kakashi also knew the day he took Naruto that the boy was going to be the priority. 

 

In his planning, Kakashi scanned the newspaper Tenzou had left. 

 

The morning after the massacre, all that had been reported was a list of the dead, Itachi as the killer, and the measures taken to protect the village.

 

In today’s paper, Danzou’s theft of the Sharingan and his involvement in Shisui’s death were confirmed along side speculation that the clan may have been planning retribution for Shisui’s murder. The papers were already picking out the narrative planned by Hiruzen. Whatever action the Uchiha clan took against Danzou would have brought the village to the edge of civil war.

 

Kakashi sighed. All the pieces were coming together. He’d bet tomorrow confirmed the Uchiha coup, classify Itachi as not an immediate threat to the village at large, and issued a flee on sight order for Itachi.

 

Sasuke wandered into the kitchen late in the morning. He rubbed his eyes and stared at Kakashi.

 

“Hungry?” Kakashi asked.

 

Sasuke nodded. 

 

“What do you like to eat?”

 

Sasuke frowned and looked away from Kakashi. “I like eggs. I can cook them though.”

 

“How about omelets? I’ve got bacon and veggies and stuff,” Kakashi suggested.

 

Sasuke nodded. “I don’t know how to make omelets. Just eggs. Itachi taught me.” Sasuke stopped suddenly and balled his fist up, tugging on the hem of his shirt. “I shouldn’t say that anymore, right?” He looked at Kakashi with heartbreak on his face.

 

Kakashi motioned for Sasuke to come closer and crouched down so he could look Sasuke in the face.

 

Sasuke dragged his feet, but eventually stood in front of Kakashi.

 

Kakashi ruffled Sasuke’s hair and smiled sadly at the boy. “I know you’re sad and angry. I am too. But, I also care about Itachi. I’m not going to judge you for feeling the same way or not knowing how you feel. Emotions are hard.”

 

Sasuke nodded. “Will you teach me how to make omelets?” he asked in a small voice.

 

Kakashi beamed. “Of course. What do you want in yours?” He stood up and reached for the fridge.

 

“Tomatoes,” Sasuke said.

 

---

 

Kakashi tucked Naruto and Sasuke into their respective beds and put the ninken in charge of watching the boys. Bull had decided that Sasuke was his pup. 

 

“It’s because of the hair,” Pakkun whispered to Kakashi. “Bull is convinced they look alike.”

 

Kakashi snorted. “Doesn’t hurt that the kid isn’t scared of Bull.” 

 

Sasuke lifted the covers, so that Bull could curl up under them. The massive dog licked the boy’s face as thanks and pressed himself against Sasuke. He didn’t mind when the boy’s fingers burrowed into his fur.

 

“Bull may have promised to eat anyone who threatens the kid,” Pakkun added.

 

Kakashi rolled his eyes. “Sasuke can’t understand anyone, but you yet.”

 

“Sometimes you don’t need words to get the point across.”

 

Kakashi stuck his head into Naruto’s room and found Naruto talking to his parents’ pictures.

 

Kakashi waited until Naruto closed the photo album before stepping in.

 

Naruto patted the bed beside him and Kakashi sat down. 

 

“How are you doing?” Kakashi asked.

 

“I’m alright. I wish I could help Sasuke more,” Naruto replied. He’d spent most of the day trying to entertain the other boy. They’d gone on a full tour of the house, explored the back garden, and played with all of Naruto’s toys. Kakashi had read them stories.

 

Sasuke had moments where he engaged with them, but mostly he let himself be led from place to place by Naruto like a ghost.

 

Kakashi was impressed by the Uchiha. He seemed to be coping fairly well-- no hysterics, no violent outbursts, and he even ate when prompted. Overall, much better than Kakashi had been after his father’s death.

 

Kakashi hugged Naruto. “You are helping. Just keep being kind. He’ll come around eventually.”

 

Naruto nodded against Kakashi’s shoulder. 

 

“Do you think you can go to school tomorrow?” Kakashi asked. “I’d like to see if I can get Sasuke some of his things and take him shopping. He can’t borrow your clothes forever.”

 

“You’re not going to make him go to school yet are you?” Naruto frowned.

 

“Sasuke doesn’t have to go back to the academy until he’s ready. He doesn’t have to go back at all if he doesn’t want to. There are other important jobs in the village besides being a shinobi,” Kakashi explained.

 

“You don’t think he’ll quit the academy?” Naruto looked horrified. “Sasuke’s my best friend. I don’t want to go to school without him.”

 

Kakashi sighed. “I don’t think he’ll quit, but it might be a while before he’s ready to face everyone. It’s complicated and there will be people who don’t understand.”

 

Naruto didn’t have anything to say to that. He knew complicated. He lived complicated. 

 

“Maybe if you bring home Sasuke’s assignments, the two of you can work together in the evening and he won’t fall behind,” Kakashi suggested.

 

Naruto nodded. 

 

The two talked for a bit longer before Kakashi tucked Naruto in and turned off the light.

 

---

 

With the boys asleep, Kakashi checked on the food warming in the oven. He had beer in the fridge and tea on the stove. Everything was ready.

 

The knock on the door 20 minutes early didn’t surprise Kakashi. Neither did the shinobi in a green bodysuit on the front step. Guy was always early. 

 

Kakashi stepped to the side and waved Guy inside. “You eat dinner yet?”

 

Next to arrive were Asuma and Kurenai. Anko wasn’t far behind. Last to arrive was a Iruka.

 

Asuma and Anko took a beer. Kurenai took tea. Guy and Iruka both accepted dinner and drinks.

 

It was an awkward gathering. The only one who seemed totally at ease was Guy who sprawled on Kakashi’s couch and happily ate two plates of food. 

 

Kurenai and Asuma kept glancing up the stairs to the second floor and sat close together on the opposite end of the couch from Guy. 

 

Anko lingered in a corner, leaning against the bookcase and nursing her beer. She didn’t say much, but watched everyone with dark eyes. 

 

Iruka and Kakashi sat in wooden chairs, dragged in from the kitchen, finishing out the rough circle.

 

Out of all of them, Kakashi thought Iruka looked the worst. His uniform was rumpled and there was a far away, haunted look in his eyes that Kakashi didn’t like.

 

“So,” Asuma started. He was never one to beat around the bush. “It’s been years since you’ve had us over and months since you last went out with us. What’s going on?”

 

Kakashi frowned. There was an edge to Asuma’s voice. “I don’t invite you over because I know you aren’t comfortable here and if I invite you you’re going to feel obligated to show up. I’m not a dick,” Kakashi said dryly.

 

Asuma snorted. “So then, this isn’t just a social gathering. What a shock.”

 

Kurenai punched Asuma in the shoulder. It didn’t look all that gentle. “What Asuma means is we’re worried about you. Whatever is going on, we want to help.”

 

“I heard you were worried,” Kakashi remarked.

 

“Kakashi…” Kurenai started. 

 

Kakashi cut her off. “I appreciate the concern, but I promise I’m alright.”

 

From her place in the corner, Anko laughed. “You’re a good liar,” she sneered. “Don’t forget, you’re not the only one here who found out someone they trusted was a homicidal maniac. Alright isn’t the right word.”

 

Kakashi bristled at the comparison she was making. “Itachi is not Orochimaru.”

 

Anko shrugged off the obvious anger in Kakashi’s voice. “Maybe not, but the point stands. If you’re alright then something is seriously wrong with you.”

 

Kakashi rolled his eyes. “Look I didn’t invite you here to talk about my feelings. I have a favor to ask.”

 

Anko grinned at that. “Then I guess we’re going to have to insist that you talk before we consider your request.”

 

Kakashi considered arguing, but Asuma and Kurenai agreed with Anko (they really were worried about Kakashi), Iruka appeared to be asleep with his eyes open, and Guy wasn’t arguing around the food in his mouth.

 

“It sucks,” Kakashi said quickly. He kept his voice light, betraying none of his emotions. “If you want to know how I feel, it sucks that the village allowed the situation with the Uchiha to escalate to the point of risking civil war. It sucks Itachi was torn apart by his loyalty to his family and his village. And it sucks they he didn’t feel like he could trust anyone to help. Itachi should never have even been in the anbu, because he’s a literal child. Now we’ve got a dead clan, a dead elder, and an emotionally compromised, genius shinobi on the run. What do you want me to say? I’m angry. I’m sad. It’s nothing new. Sometimes the shinobi world is a horrible, dark place and all we can do is try to leave it brighter and better than we found it.” He finished with a smile.

 

Guy was the one to break the silence that followed Kakashi’s answer. “Well said. Not that I expect anything less from my rival. We can only change what we can change.” He set his plate on the floor and grinned at Kakashi. “So what’s this favor you need?” 

 

Kakashi was grateful that Guy didn’t give any of the others a chance to keep grilling him. 

 

Kurenai looked like she wanted to keep pushing. 

 

Kakashi knew they meant well, but he wasn’t in the mood to have his guilt and grief analyzed. He also knew he couldn’t answer all of the questions they would have. Sharing the full truth with Tenzou was one thing, but there were too many different motivations and perspectives in this room for a secret to stay secret.

 

“It’s about Itachi,” Kakashi started. 

 

Kurenai’s face fell.

 

Anko’s lit up. “We going after him?” She licked her lips and fingered the kunai on her belt.

 

Kakashi shook his head. “The opposite. I wanted to ask that you help me put out the word to other jounin. They shouldn’t try to fight Itachi unless they’re in a big group and if the choice is between killing him or letting him get away, they should let him run.”

 

“What?” Shock and outrage came from all sides.

 

Kakashi held up his hands to placate everyone. “Look. I can’t tell you everything, but none of this was unprovoked. Itachi did a terrible thing, but he’s a kid. What sort of people are we if we kill a kid? A broken, hurting kid? And then there’s the other side of things, I don’t want anyone else getting hurt by Itachi. I was his captain. I know what he’s capable of and when the Third puts a flee on sight order on Itachi, it needs to be followed.”

 

Asuma was the first to argue, just like Kakashi expected. Asuma was laid back under ordinary circumstances, but when it came to protecting those he considered precious he would draw a hard line. “So what keeps Itachi from hurting more people outside of the village or coming back here?” Asuma asked. “I get that he’s still a kid. I don’t like the idea of killing him either, but I aren’t we responsible for every life he takes if we let him go.”

 

Kakashi rubbed his temples and winced at the building headache. “If Itachi kills anyone else, that’s on me. If he’s a problem, I will find him and handle it. The best bet against someone with the sharingan is someone else with the sharingan.”

 

Kurenai stood up and approached Kakashi. She lifted his chin and stared into his visible eye. “You don’t have to take the blame for what he did,” she said softly.

 

Kakashi pulled away from Kurenai’s touch. “I’m not. What he did to the Uchiha and Danzou, that’s on Itachi. What he does from here on out, I’m willing to take the guilt for if it means no one goes out trying to hunt him down.” Kakashi explained. “I’m that confident that killing Itachi is an unnecessary risk.”

 

“And you can’t explain why?” Kurenai confirmed.

 

“Right,” Kakashi nodded.

 

Kurenai just kept staring at Kakashi’s face, like she was trying to read the answers in his one visible eye. She frowned softly and worry was obvious on her face.

 

“Is this some anbu thing?” Anko pressed.

 

Kakashi shrugged. 

 

“Does the hokage know everything the anbu know?” Asuma asked. 

 

Kakashi wondered briefly if Asuma would report this back to his father and then decided it didn’t matter. Kakashi nodded confirmation. “That’s how I know there’s going to be a flee on sight order issued.”

 

“Then why isn’t the hokage ordering everyone to ease up?” Anko demanded

 

Kakashi groaned. “Probably because Hiruzen is smarter than I am. Everything is more complicated than it seems and trying to protect Itachi makes it even more complicated.”

 

Asuma’s lips twitched into a smile at that. “Sounds about right. If anyone would go out of their way to make things harder in the name of protecting a friend, it’d be you.”

 

Kakashi raised an eyebrow at Asuma, a silent question.

 

“Yeah, Yeah,” Asuma pushed himself to his feet. “I’ll follow the flee on sight order unless he’s causing trouble and I’ll make sure everyone I’m with does the same.”

 

Kurenai nodded. “If Itachi comes near the village again, all bets are off, but I won’t go hunting him.”

 

Kakashi nodded his thanks. 

 

Asuma and Kurenai left without another word, but Kurenai glanced back as they left. The look she gave Kakashi told the silver haired shinobi that this wasn’t going to be the end of his friends’ interference. 

 

Kakashi turned his attention to Anko. 

 

The kunoichi sighed. “I get where you’re coming from. I would have done the same thing for Orochimaru when he first left. I hope you know Itachi better than I knew Orochimaru. The guilt isn’t easy to carry.” She left with a wave and Kakashi relaxed.

 

With those three on board, he expected the other two to follow suit.

 

Guy eyed Iruka who still stared at the wall without seeing. 

 

Kakashi cleared his throat and addressed Guy. “Thanks for not letting them interrogate me and thank you for getting them here,” Kakashi said.

 

Guy nodded. “It wasn’t all that hard. We’re all worried about you. They mean well and you know talking does help.”

 

Kakashi’s face softened. “I know. When I figure out what I want to say, I’ll let you know.”

 

Guy accepted that. He stood up and offered Kakashi a handshake. “We still on for our Wednesday challenge?”

 

“Loser buys lunch?” Kaksashi suggested.

 

Guy smirked. “Sounds like a plan. It is, after all, my turn to pick the challenge.”

 

Kakashi waved off Guy’s confidence. “I’m not worried.”

 

Guy hesitated in the doorway. “You know, it wouldn’t kill you to hangout with people your own age once in a while,” he said. “Anbu missions and raising a kid are both important, but we’d like to see you more. We’ve got a poker game thing going on every Friday. It rotates houses and I’m sure not everyone has figured out that you count cards. If you ever want in, just let me know.”

 

Kakashi nodded. He didn’t trust his voice. The loneliness hit suddenly. It had been too long since he’d really spent time with anyone other than Naruto and the anbu. Kakashi resolved himself to do better. His friends deserved better.

 

With Guy gone, it was just Kakashi and Iruka.

 

Kakashi leaned back in his chair. “So why are you here? You’ve obviously got something on your mind.”

 

Iruka shook his head like he was trying to clear his mind. “I’ve been trying to figure out what to do since I heard the news. I’m worried about Sasuke.”

 

“He’s going to be okay,” Kakashi promised. He put a hand on Iruka’s shoulder. 

 

Iruka frowned. “I’ve gone through the system. You have too. It’s not good. He’s older than we were. He’s not going to get placed with another family. They’ll probably put him back in the house his parents died in, give him a welfare check, and say he’s doing fine as long as he doesn’t die.”

 

Kakashi opened his mouth to explain, but didn’t get the chance.

 

“They’ll turn him into another child soldier. Think he’ll break Itachi’s record and disappear into the Anbu in the next year or two?” Iruka’s voice was bitter. “Don’t try to tell me they won’t do it. I watched them put that mask on you before they’d even buried your team. I tried to petition the hokage for guardianship of Sasuke, but it was denied without any explanation.”

 

“That’s because I beat you there,” Kakashi replied.

 

Iruka’s mouth dropped open. 

 

“It helped that Fugaku filled out the paperwork to integrate me into the Uchiha clan years ago as a favor to me and an insurance policy to protect Naruto. As Sasuke’s last living and arguably sane relative, there was no way to keep me from claiming him. Like you said, the system is broken. I wasn’t going to let Sasuke disappear into it,” Kakashi explained.

 

Iruka’s face broke into a wide, relieved grin. “Thank the gods. I thought I was going to have to kidnap him from some anbu training camp and then I was going to have to go on the run and they’d let Anko teach my class or something. She really shouldn’t be left in charge of children and I know nothing about taking care of a kid outside of a classroom.”

 

Kakashi burst out laughing and clapped Iruka on the back. “You sure we’re not related?”

 

The two men stayed up late into the night talking. 

 

Before he left, Iruka peaked into Sasuke’s room. 

 

“I’m glad he’s safe. If there’s ever anything I can do to help, let me know. They’re good kids. Both of them.” Iruka said it with a stubborn determination that Kakashi recognized. Naruto might scare Iruka shitless, but if Kakashi asked Iruka’d babysit Naruto, he’d do his best to make sure the kid had a good time.

 

Kakashi clapped Iruka on the back. “Just keep doing what you’re doing. From what I hear you’re doing great things at the academy.”

 

“Amazing what happens when you standardize curriculum and teach everyone the same regardless of what clan they come from,” Iruka muttered.

 

Kakashi hummed in response and sent the Iruka home.

Chapter Text

Kakashi woke up with Sasuke and Bull in his bed again. Today, he didn’t manage to sneak out of bed without waking Sasuke.

 

“I didn’t want to wake you up,” Sasuke apologized. His hair was a mess and voice was raspy with sleep. “It was too quiet in my room.”

 

Kakashi ruffled Sasuke’s hair. “You can wake me up whenever you need me. It’s not a big deal.”

 

When Kakashi got out of bed and headed to the kitchen to make tea, Sasuke trailed behind. The two of them drank tea in silence, watching the sun rise over the garden.

 

Naruto came downstairs dressed for school and still half asleep.

 

Sasuke helped Kakashi make breakfast while Naruto fumbled around downstairs trying to pack his backpack.

 

Sasuke watched Naruto leave for school with longing on his face.

 

Kakashi put a hand on Sasuke’s shoulder. “I know you’d rather be going to school, but in the long run it’s better to take some time.”

 

Sasuke sighed. “I feel better when I’m busy.”

 

“I know,” Kakashi said softly, “But you can’t just bury all your emotions forever. You need to take time to work things through before they fester.”

 

Sasuke didn’t say anything to that. 

 

The two of them stood side by side, watching the world go by outside of the kitchen window, for several long minutes. “How about you go get ready and we’ll see if we can get you some more clothes?” Kakashi suggested. Sasuke wasn’t ready to talk yet, might as well keep him busy until he was. 

 

Sasuke came back downstairs wearing Naruto’s clothes. Naruto was a few inches taller than Sasuke and a bit bulkier across the shoulders. The shirt hung off Sasuke’s shoulders and he tugged at it with a frown.

 

“I don’t want a crest on my clothes,” Sasuke said. 

 

Kakashi nodded. “Okay. Any other requests?” If the kid wanted a mask, Kakashi had already decided that was where he would draw the line. Anything short of that was fair game.

 

Sasuke shrugged. “I like pockets and blue.”

 

Kakashi clapped his hands. “I can work with that.”

 

Sasuke wasn’t nearly as picky about clothes as Naruto was. He also lacked Naruto’s eclectic fashion sense and Kakashi decided it was easily the simplest shopping trip he’d been on in years.

 

Without the Uchiha crest on his back, no one recognized Sasuke and since it wasn’t yet public knowledge that Kakashi had taken in the last Uchiha, they had a blissfully peaceful trip. No one stared. No one said anything. 

 

“We can check clothes off the list,” Kakashi said.

 

Sasuke nodded and gave Kakashi a small smile.

 

“What else do we need for your room?” Kakashi asked.

 

Sasuke shrugged and didn’t look at Kakashi.

 

Kakashi reached down and took Sasuke’s hand. “Is there anything you want out of your house?” Kakashi asked gently.

 

Sasuke squeezed Kakashi’s hand tighter. “I don’t want to go back.”

 

Kakashi squeezed back. “You don’t have to go back. I can have someone bring whatever you want.”

 

Sasuke didn’t answer.

 

“I’m going to have everything put into storage, so nothing gets ruined or thrown away. It’s all waiting when and if you want it,” Kakashi explained. “There’s no pressure.”

 

“Okay,” Sasuke whispered. “Can we go home?”

 

Kakashi hesitated. He didn’t want to let Sasuke become a shut in, but he also didn’t want to push the kid too far too fast. Pakkun always said sunlight and fresh air helped, so Kakashi decided to try pushing it a bit. “Would you mind if we ran another errand first?” he asked.

 

“Okay,” Sasuke relented.

 

First, they stopped by a flower shop. 

 

Sunlight filtered through the vine covered windows and the light, sweet scent of cut flowers hung in the air. Soft music was playing. Kakashi relaxed as soon as they stepped in off the street and he noticed Sasuke do the same. The boy was looking around with wide eyes.

 

“I need to get Tenzou something. What says ‘thanks for letting us crash your apartment and sorry my dog scared you?’” Kakashi asked Sasuke.

 

Sasuke giggled and it was so unexpected that Kakashi almost jumped in surprise. 

 

“Did he think Bull was going to eat him?” Sasuke asked, grinning like he’d stumbled on a great joke.

 

Kakashi shrugged. “Probably. I keep telling people Bull is on a strict kibble diet. He doesn’t eat people food and he certainly doesn’t eat people.”

 

Sasuke giggled again. “I like Bull. He’s sweet.”

 

Kakashi smiled. “Should we buy Bull something too?”

 

Sasuke shook his head. “Dogs don’t like flowers.”

 

“Ahh… Then just for Tenzou I guess.”

 

Sasuke pointed to a bouquet of gerbera daisies, all different bright colors. “Those look happy.”

 

Kakashi nodded. “Yeah, they do look happy. I bet Tenzou will love them.”

 

Sasuke grinned at that.

 

Kakashi paid for the flowers and put down Tenzou’s address for delivery.

 

“Is Tenzou your boyfriend?” Sasuke asked as they walked out of the shop.

 

Kakashi shook his head in amusement. “No. He’s just my best friend.” Kakashi said. Sasuke wasn’t the first person to ask that question.

 

Sasuke frowned. “I’m pretty sure you don’t send flowers to your friends.”

 

Kakashi snorted. “Normal friends, probably not. Tenzou’s a bit odd. He really likes plants, they always make him smile, and it’s nice to make a friend smile.”

 

Sasuke nodded thoughtfully. 

 

“Want to get lunch while we’re out?” Kakashi asked.

 

Sasuke hesitated. 

 

“There’s a cafe that serves all different sorts of miso soup. I want to try the eggplant, but everyone says the tomato is the best,” Kakashi cajoled.

 

Sasuke relented.

 

The soup was good and Kakashi was relieved to see Sasuke eat more than a few bites of something. Is this how Pakkun felt with me? Kakashi wondered, thinking back on all the days the dog harassed him to eat anything. I owe him an apology

 

After lunch, Sasuke seemed to perk up even more. “Can we go to the bookstore?” he asked.

 

Kakashi beamed. “Of course.”

 

They ran into their first problem in the bookstore. 

 

While Sasuke browsed the shelves, one of the employees came by to stock the new releases. She was young and pretty with light brown hair and friendly green eyes. “Hey kiddo,” she smiled at Sasuke. “No brother today?”

 

Sasuke’s face fell. He opened his mouth to answer and nothing came out. He ended up just staring at the woman in horror and terror.

 

Kakashi was by Sasuke’s side in a heartbeat. 

 

“Did I do say something wrong?” the woman asked. She was terrified that she’d somehow hurt the little boy in front of her. “Is he okay?”

 

Kakashi pulled the book out of Sasuke’s hands trembling hands and passed it to the woman. “It’s not your fault,” Kakashi assured her. 

 

Sasuke’s chin quivered and his eyes filled with tears. 

 

Kakashi could see Sasuke silently pleading for them to leave, now, before he lost it. Kakashi scooped up the Sasuke and strode out of the store.

 

Sasuke buried his face in Kakashi’s shoulder and wailed. 

 

Kakashi did his best to comfort Sasuke. He rubbed the boy’s back and walked quickly through the market, turning down each quieter street that he found. 

 

They ended up in a small park on a rise, at the base of the stone faces. The park was empty and there was a bench that looked out towards the village. 

 

Kakashi settled on the bench and held Sasuke close. 

 

Sasuke whimpered and clung to Kakashi. 

 

Kakashi rocked from side to side and hummed softly. 

 

They waited out the emotional storm together. 

 

“I’m sorry,” Sasuke whispered in Kakashi’s ear.

 

Kakashi rubbed comforting circles on Sasuke’s back. “You don’t need to apologize. You’ve been so strong and brave through all of this. It’s okay to cry,” Kakashi soothed. 

 

Sasuke shook his head with his face still pressed to Kakashi’s shoulder. “Shinobi don’t cry. Shinobi don’t show weakness.”

 

The words hit Kakashi like a gut punch. He’d said them himself, used them like a mantra for years. Regret, sorrow, and anger welled up inside of Kakashi. He choked back a sob. Listening to Sasuke, Kakashi kept hearing himself. 

 

Kakashi thought back on all the damage those words had done. The years of trying to bury his emotions and keep people from getting close had left Kakashi with a scarred heart. It was only in the last few years that he’d started to open up and let others in. Trusting was hard and he felt fragile, like every time he opened up he was handing someone a way to tear him apart. It wasn’t a good way to live life. He couldn’t watch Sasuke go down the same path.

 

Kakashi shivered and forced himself to remember what it felt like to be Sasuke’s age, alone and grieving, trying desperately to be the perfect shinobi. He thought about what he needed someone to say and do then. He thought about how Minato had made it through his barriers and put him back on track. Kind words weren’t enough. Actions spoke louder. 

 

Kakashi took a deep breath and let the emotions swirling in his chest wash over him. He knew he wasn’t going to drown in them. It’d taken years, but he had learned to cope and to use his ties to others as lifelines. 

 

“Hey,” Kakashi called. He tried to pull away from Sasuke, but the boy clutched the back of Kakashi’s jacket tighter. “Look at me,” Kakashi ordered.

 

Reluctantly, Sasuke let go of Kakashi and shifted so he could look Kakashi in the eye.

 

Tears were running down Kakashi’s face and he smiled, sadly at Sasuke. “It’s okay to cry,” Kakashi whispered. “It doesn’t mean you’re weak. It means you care.”

 

Sasuke’s lip trembled and he flung himself back into Kakashi’s arms. 

 

They held each other for another long minute until Sasuke’s sobs turned to sniffles. 

 

“Why are you crying?” Sasuke asked. His voice wavered as sobs threatened to swallow the sound. 

 

Kakashi remembered asking his father the same thing years before. Sakumo hadn’t answered. Kakashi took a shuddering breath. “I miss family and I’m worried about you,” he said. “You’re sad and that makes me sad because I care about you.”

 

Sasuke hugged Kakashi tighter. “Where’s your family?” he asked in a small voice. 

 

Kakashi licked his lips and hesitated. He didn’t want to burden Sasuke with more sadness. 

 

“They’re gone, aren’t they?” Sasuke murmured. “That’s why you always know how I feel.”

 

Kakashi sighed. “You’re too smart, you know that?”  he murmured back. “I lost my mom when I was born and my father when I was about your age. My friends became my family. I’ve lost a lot of them too.”

 

Sasuke mirrored Kakashi now, patting the shinobi’s back. “It’s okay,” Sasuke said. He tried to copy Kakashi’s soothing voice. “You’ve got Naruto and me and Tenzou.”

 

Kakashi laughed through his tears and hugged Sasuke tight. “Thank you. I know. Sometimes I just get sad and miss them. Having family like you makes it better.” Kakashi pulled away from Sasuke’s grip and wiped the tears off Sasuke’s cheek with his thumb and then scrubbed away his own tears. 

 

“Your turn,” Kakashi said. “Why are you sad?”

 

Sasuke shifted so he was sitting beside Kakashi, tucked under the shinobi’s arm. “I’m lonely. Even when there’s other people around.” He clutched at his chest. “It still feels like there’s something missing. It hurts. I keep thinking about all the things they aren’t going to be here for.”

 

Kakashi nodded. “It takes time for the heart to heal, but it will heal. It goes faster if you let other people in.”

 

Sasuke sighed. “I don’t want to forget them, but everyone else wants to.”

 

Kakashi brushed more tears off of Sasuke’s cheeks. “You don’t ever have to be ashamed of who you are. You’re smart and you’ve got a big heart. It might take a while, but eventually everyone will see that you aren’t just your clan or your brother.”

 

Sasuke shook his head. “But I am them. I don’t want to stop being Uchiha Sasuke.” He whimpered and swallowed a sob.

 

“No one can take that away from you. You’ll always be Uchiha Sasuke and someday, people will look at you and see all the best parts of the Uchiha clan. You’re a talented shinobi, you’re loyal and brave, you’ve got a good heart, and you want the best for people. You should never be ashamed of who you are.” They were the words Kakashi would have killed to hear at Sasuke’s age. 

 

Sasuke’s eyes widened and he wiped away the last of the tears with the back of his hand. He leaned against Kakashi and the two of them watched the village go about its day.

 

“Kakashi?” Sasuke asked.

 

“Hmmm?”

 

“Could I have the pictures from my house?” 

 

Kakashi ruffled Sasuke’s hair. “Of course.”

 

The two walked home hand in hand. 

 

Kakashi couldn’t help but think of how small Sasuke’s hand was or notice the way Sasuke clung to him like Kakashi’s grip was the only thing holding him together. Kakashi knew that he’d handed Sasuke his whole heart in the same way he had given it to Naruto the day he stole him from an unwatched crib. 

 

Part of Kakashi was scared by how easily he’d fallen in love with the boys. Kids are fragile things. You never know what they’re going to grow up to be or what hand the universe will deal them. But, Kakashi didn’t regret trusting his boys. They were good kids and Kakashi was happy to fight for them with everything he had.

 

---

 

An anbu delivered a box of pictures to the Hatake house that afternoon. Kakashi offered to go through them with Sasuke, but the boy had shook his head and carried the box up to his room.

 

Kakashi peeked in every few minutes, checking on Sasuke. The boy was on the floor surrounded by pictures. Sometimes Kakashi caught him crying.

 

“Want company?” Kakashi would ask.

 

Sasuke would shake his head. “Not right now.”

 

Kakashi would leave with a reminder that he was just downstairs. He’d check on Sasuke a bit later and find the boy smiling at some memory with a picture clutched close.

 

In the end, Sasuke packed most of the photos back in the box. He sat on his bed holding the one he’d decided to keep out.

 

Sasuke ran his fingers across the glass of a framed family photo, lost in thought. In the picture, he was just a toddler still learning how to walk. Everyone looked happy. Fugaku had his arm around Itachi’s shoulders and they were both smiling.

 

Sasuke set the picture on his dresser. Looking it hurt, but the hurt wasn’t as bad as it had been. 

 

Sasuke gave the picture a little wave as he walked out of the room.

 

Kakashi wasn’t downstairs. 

 

Sasuke’s heart sped up. “Kakashi?” he called.

 

The stairs creaked behind Sasuke and Kakashi appeared holding a much more ragged and dusty box than the one Sasuke’s photos had come in. “Sorry about disappearing,” Kakashi apologized as he set the box on the coffee table. “How are you doing?”

 

Sasuke paused, thinking. “I’d like some company now,” he said after a minute. “I think I feel better. It doesn’t feel quite like they’re all the way gone.”

 

Kakashi nodded. He motioned for Sasuke to join him on the couch. The boy hopped up beside Kakashi and looked at the box in front of them with open curiosity. 

 

Kakashi ruffled Sasuke’s hair. “It’s nothing exciting, just pictures from when I was little. I haven’t had the heart to go through them.”

 

Sasuke’s eyes widened. “Can I see? Or do you not want company?”

 

Kakashi smiled. It was funny how quick Sasuke picked up emotional things. Naruto had a heart of gold, but the concept of space and alone time were beyond his grasp. “I think some company would be nice,” he told Sasuke as he opened the box. 

 

Kakashi pulled out the top picture. It was the only photo he had with both his parents. His mom was beaming down at an infant Kakashi while Sakumo hugged her close. Sakumo’s face was streaked with tears and he was smiling from ear to ear.

 

Sasuke stared. “Your mom was an Inazuka?” he asked. The woman in the picture had dark hair and the same facial tattoos as Kiba. 

 

Kakashi nodded. “Yup. Actually, Bull was her partner.” Kakashi set the picture down and fished out another where his parents posed with their respective ninken. Kakashi’s mom was dressed wearing a flak jacket and Bull stood at her side in a spiked collar. They looked fierce, especially standing next to a grinning Sakumo who was holding Pakkun up proudly. “They met during a tracking mission,” Kakashi said.

 

Sasuke looked between the picture and Kakashi with a frown. “You look like your parents,” he said.

 

Kakashi smiled. “Yeah. I like to think I got the best parts of both of them.” He didn’t mean just physically.

 

Kakashi set the picture back in the box. “How about we get dinner going? When Naruto gets home we can go through more pictures if you want.” He knew Naruto would be as curious if not more so than Sasuke. Plus, Kakashi needed to take a break. He hoped Sasuke didn’t notice the way his hands shook when he set the picture down.

 

Sasuke hopped off the couch. “What’s for dinner?”

 

Kakashi frowned. “Do you eat fish?”

 

Sasuke nodded. “Will you show me how to cook it?”

 

“Of course.”

 

---

 

That night, Naruto came home to Sasuke and Kakashi in the kitchen humming happily as they worked together on dinner.

 

Naruto grinned. He was happy to see two of his favorite people happy. “Smells good. Who's going to help me with algebra?”

 

After dinner, they went through Kakashi’s box of pictures and Sasuke helped Naruto with his homework. 

 

Naruto picked a few photos to put up around the house. The one of Kakashi with his parents and one of Team Minato went up on the bookshelf beside the picture from Naruto’s parents wedding and a picture of Kakashi, Tenzou, and Naruto in the back garden. 

 

Sasuke hesitantly offered one of his family pictures for the collection and Kakshi added it to the shelf without hesitation. That made Sasuke relax.

 

“We should get a picture,” Naruto announced, looking at the collection of pieced together families. 

 

Kakashi smiled and ruffled Naruto’s hair. He would give Sasuke some time to settle in first, but he had no doubt that they would be adding more photos in the future.

Chapter Text

Sasuke stayed home, with Kakashi for two weeks. He was basically Kakashi’s shadow. 

 

Kakashi put in for temporary leave from the anbu and was immediately granted all the time off he wanted. It was a weight off of Kakashi’s shoulders. He didn’t feel comfortable leaving Sasuke and Naruto alone under the care of the dogs. Even if he could get Tenzou to watch the boys, Kakashi’s parenting books said that stability in the home was crucial while a fostered or adopted child was settling into a new home. Not having to worry about being called away on a mission in the middle of the night let Kakashi sleep easier.

 

Life settled into a routine. In the morning, Sasuke and Kakashi cooked breakfast and lunch. Naruto hauled himself out of bed early, so that he could help. 

 

Naruto’s cooking skills were improving slowly, but he was mostly assigned non-burnable jobs like making tea or packing lunches. He didn’t mind. It was fun to decorate the rice balls with seaweed faces.

 

When it was time for school, Naruto would leave with a wave.

 

Sasuke and Kakashi would spend the morning working around the house. The garden needed weeding and something always needed cleaning. 

 

For lunch, they’d take a packed lunch and eat somewhere outside. They had their favorite parks, but if it was crowded they would leave the village and eat in the forest.

 

Sasuke preferred to avoid crowds. 

 

As more of the story became public, everyone had an opinion on the Uchiha Clan, Danzou, and Itachi. No one had been foolish enough to voice their opinion to Sasuke, yet. 

 

Kakashi’s reputation for protecting his own was well known. 

 

Still, Sasuke wasn’t used to being stared at and he hated the condolences everyone wanted to offer.

 

Some days, Tenzou would join Kakashi and Sasuke for lunch. The anbu didn’t talk much and he always showed up in his mission gear. 

 

Kakashi knew Tenzou had been assigned a mission somewhere in the area around the village, but the brunet had yet to share any details. It didn’t worry Kakashi too much. Tenzou was still smiling and though he didn’t talk much, he asked Sasuke and Kakashi lots of questions and seemed generally happy.

 

In the evening, Naruto would hurry home. Kakashi and Sasuke would help with homework. Even when Sasuke got too far behind to be any help, he still joined them at the kitchen table and listened to Kakashi’s remedial lessons on algebra and politics.

 

Sometimes they would go out for dinner, but most of the time Kakashi cooked while the boys played or read.

 

After dinner, they’d all go do something together. 

 

Kakashi took the boys fishing and hiking. They took over the training ground’s obstacle course or stayed in and played board games (Pakkun made a good fourth even if he got a bit of slobber on the cards and had a tendency to cheat).

 

Every night, Kakashi read a book to the boys before bed.

 

Some days Kakashi woke up with a bed full of kids and dogs, but those days were becoming fewer and further apart.

 

Sasuke didn’t say anything when he decided to go back to the academy.

 

One morning, while Naruto was eating breakfast, Sasuke slipped upstairs and came back down dressed with his backpack in hand.

 

Naruto stared and started to say something, but Kakashi shook his head and Naruto shut his mouth. Instead, the blond just grinned.

 

Kakashi waited in the doorway until the boys were out of sight and then he took off at a dead run across the rooftops for the academy.

 

Iruka’s office was on the third floor of the academy. He kept the window open most days. He loved the view and the breeze. Before class, he’d sit in his office, eat breakfast, listen to the village waking up, and go over his lesson plan. Iruka’d once had a sparrow land on the window sill, but the bird hadn’t been interested in an office. Since then, he didn’t worry about anything coming in his window.

 

Kakashi saw Iruka’s through the open office window and decided on a shortcut. It was a short drop from the roof to the ledge outside Iruka’s window. “Yo,” Kakashi called as he dropped onto the ledge.

 

Several things happened all at once. Iruka shrieked and hurled the papers in his hand at Kakashi. 

 

Kakashi flinched and realized the ledge was way narrower than he’d first thought.

 

Kakashi fell off the ledge and Iruka, still unsure if he was under attack or not, rushed to the window with a kunai in hand.

 

Iruka leaned out the window, ready to hurl a kunai at a retreating enemy, and found himself staring at a very disgruntled looking Kakashi.

 

Kakashi hadn’t fallen far. It only took a second to twist and get his feet against the side of the building, so he could anchor himself with chakra. 

 

“Watch where you’re pointing that,” Kakashi said, eyeing the kunai and not liking the angry look on Iruka’s face.

 

Iruka lowered the kunai and glared down at Kakashi. “What the hell are you doing? You gave me a heart attack,” he snapped.

 

Kakashi folded his arms and smirked at the younger shinobi. “I’m pretty sure Naruto said you were studying sneak attacks. What’s the old saying, ‘a shinobi must remain vigilant even in times of peace if peaceful times are to stay that way?’”

 

Iruka groaned and stepped back from the window. “Just get in here already. If the kids see you hanging out there like a gecko, they’re going to want to try it. I don’t need anyone breaking a limb.”

 

Kakashi chuckled and climbed in the window.

 

“So are you here for a reason or did you just happen to be passing through and decide to have some fun?” Iruka asked, still irritated.

 

Kakashi rolled his eyes. “I don’t why everyone thinks I like pranking people? I swear I didn’t mean to scare you.”

 

Iruka scoffed at that, but relaxed. He really couldn’t be mad at Kakashi. Now that his heart wasn’t racing so much, Iruka had to admit the whole thing was pretty funny. “I won’t tell anyone you fell out a window, if you don’t tell anyone I screamed like a little girl,” Iruka offered with a smile.

 

“Deal,” Kakashi agreed. “But for the record, I’ve heard little girls scream and they typically sound significantly more ferocious. I’d put whatever noise you just made in the same vicinity as a civilian on the wrong end of a stink bomb.”

 

Iruka just shook his head. “Seriously though, why are you here? I’ve got class in 30 minutes and I now need to reorganize my lesson plans.” He crouched down on the floor and began collecting said lesson plans from where they’d flown while being hurled at Kakashi.

 

“Sasuke’s coming to school today,” Kakashi said. “I thought you’d like a heads up. He just sort of decided this morning.”

 

Iruka smiled and then frowned. “Is he ready to come back to class?”

 

Kakashi shrugged. “He seems to be doing well all things considered. He has bad days and good days just like you’d expect, but he’s coming to terms with everything.” Kakashi moved to help Iruka pick up the scattered papers. “I think staying at home is driving Sasuke crazy. He’s a smart kid who gets bored. He misses class and his friends.”

 

They finished collecting all of Iruka’s lesson plans. Iruka sat back on his heels and frowned at Kakashi. “I just don’t want to push him.”

 

“From what I’ve been reading, it’s good for him to start getting back into a normal routine and engaging with the rest of the world,” Kakashi argued.

 

Iruka relented. “Okay. Thank you for the heads up. I’ll do my best to keep an eye on him and the other kids.” 

 

Kakashi smiled. “Thank you. I appreciate it.”

 

Iruka nodded and ran his fingers through his hair. “I wish I’d know yesterday. I could have told the class and made sure they knew what was appropriate behavior.”

 

Kakashi snorted. “Like telling kids to play nice actual works,” He waved off Iruka’s concern. “It’ll be fine. Naruto’s going to stick pretty close to him.”

 

Kakashi stood up and headed for the window.

 

“Use the door,” Iruka ordered.

 

Kakashi just laughed as he jumped out the window.

 

---

 

Sasuke was quiet on the walk to school. He clutched the straps of his backpack until his knuckles turned white and stared straight ahead with single minded determination. Beside him, Naruto chattered on.

 

Naruto was used to people staring and seemed unphased by the way a hush fell on the market as they passed or the way people hurried to clear a path for the two boys.

 

Sasuke noticed and he was phased. He bit the inside of him cheek and fought the urge to duck his head under the gaze of so many strangers.

 

“...and then Iruka Sensei kicked Shikamaru’s chair, but it was Akamaru under a transformation jutsu, so when Sensei kicked the chair Shikamaru turned into a dog. Sensei freaked out! He was all like ‘Where is Shikamaru?! This isn’t funny!’ It was totally funny.” Naruto was giggling at his own story.

 

Sasuke blinked a few times as the words started to sink in. The sheer absurdity was enough to pull him out of his overthinking. “Wait, why did Sensei kick Shikamaru and why was Shikamaru Akamaru?”

 

Naruto rolled his eyes. “Shikamaru wasn’t Akamaru. Akamaru was Shinkamru. Shikamaru snuck out during morning break and Kiba transformed Akamaru to look like Shikamaru, so Shikamaru wouldn’t get in trouble,” Naruto explained.

 

Sasuke narrowed his eyes. “But Akamaru can’t do math.”

 

Naruto nodded. “Yeah, that’s why Akamaru was pretending to be Shikamaru by sleeping on his desk. Sensei finally got fed up with Shikamaru sleeping during class and kicked his chair.”

 

“But it wasn’t actually Shikamaru. It was Akamaru in disguise,” Sasuke finished.

 

Naruto snickered again. “Yeah. Sensei’s face was great.”

 

“So where did Shikamaru go?”

 

“That’s the big let down. He was just napping on the roof and watching the clouds,” Naruto sighed and shook his head. “It had the potential to be such a great prank, but he didn’t do anything with it.”

 

Sasuke relaxed slightly and smiled at Naruto’s indignation. They were out of the crowded market and almost to the academy. “Shikamaru should have been disguised as Akamaru. That would have been funny.”

 

Naruto beamed. “See! You get it. That sort of comedy would have been worth three days of detention. A nap is just a waste.”

 

Sasuke shook his head. He wasn’t nearly as committed to making everyone laugh as Naruto. It wasn’t worth the detention.

 

Naruto looked up at the sky and took a deep breath. “Today’s going to be a good day,” he announced and skipped forward a few steps. “The sun is shining. The birds are singing. We’re learning clone jutsus. Kakashi’s making ramen for dinner. Everything is great!”

 

Sasuke copied Naruto’s deep breath and smile. “Yeah. It’s going to be a good day,” he agreed. Kakashi’s advice echoed in his mind. Sometimes you have to fake it until you make it.

 

“Race to the gates?” Naruto challenged with a glint in his eyes.

 

Sasuke took off at a dead sprint without bothering to answer. 

 

Naruto laughed and chased after him.

 

A flock of pigeons scattered before the boys and a woman jumped aside, nearly spilling a basket of laundry. “Watch where you’re going!” she yelled.

 

Sasuke called an apology over his shoulder and ran harder. Naruto was gaining on him, but the gates of the academy were in sight.

 

Naruto just laughed. Neither of them would have hit the woman. If she was grouchy, that was her problem.

 

Sasuke skidded to a stop in front of the academy. He was breathing hard and his cheeks were flushed with exertion, but he’d beaten Naruto. 

 

Sasuke looked back, grinning, and ready to tease Naruto about being slower than a turtle. Instead of Naruto, he found himself face to face with a group of kids from their class. Among them were the kids Sasuke had made friends with-- clanless or the children of civilians. They’d never seemed to treat Sasuke any different because of his family and potential kekkei genkai. It was why he’d gravitated towards them in the beginning.

 

Sasuke’s smile wavered for a moment, but he forced himself to keep grinning. These were his friends after all. “Hi,” Sasuke said with a little wave.

 

The other kids either stared through Sasuke and kept walking like he didn’t exist or looked down their noses with judgement in their eyes.

 

Sasuke’s face fell.

 

Naruto arrived just in time to see the incident. His eyes widened and a low growl started in his throat.

 

Sasuke shook his head frantically. It wasn’t worth starting a fight over. He’d expected some people to act that way, but those kids had been his friends.

 

“Screw those assholes,” Shikamaru said, jumping down from the tree he’d been sitting in. 

 

“Damn straight,” Kiba added, walking up with Akamaru on his head. “Like seriously, who do those guys think they are acting like that?”

 

A smile crept back onto Sasuke’s face as Kiba slung an arm around his shoulders. “Don’t let the dumbasses get you down. It’s good to have you back,” the Inuzuka declared.

 

Shikamaru nodded. “Bunch of wannabes. Can’t think for themselves,” he muttered.

 

Behind Sasuke, Naruto gave Shikamaru a thumbs up and Shikamaru smiled. Friends had each other’s backs. 

 

In class, the first thing Sasuke noticed was the way Naruto’s friends closed ranks around him.

 

Sasuke and Naruto took their usual seats in the middle of the classroom. Ino and Sakura sat on Sasuke’s other side. 

 

Shikamaru had moved into the empty seat between Naruto and Choji.

 

Kiba and Akamaru took up the two seats in front of Sasuke and Naruto while Hinata and Shino sat behind the boys.

 

Iruka noticed the change in seating arrangement immediately. He made eye contact with Naruto and nodded his approval. Then, Iruka smiled at Sasuke.

 

Sasuke smiled back and relaxed back into his seat. 

 

When they started class, Naruto opened his notebook and put it between him and Sasuke.

 

Sasuke’s eyes widened. Naruto didn’t usually take notes and when he did, it always devolved into a scrawl of doodles. These notes were different. It was Naruto’s chicken scratch handwriting and the margins were full of caricatures of Sensei, but most of it was actual notes. 

 

While Sensei talked about long division, Naruto pointed at his notes and whispered background. 

 

Tears threatened to overwhelm Sasuke. Naruto hated math, but he’d obviously gone out of his way to try helping Sasuke. The gesture meant a lot, even if Naruto’s notes were only about half legible and a good portion of what he was saying didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Between the notes and the way Naruto’s friends had welcomed him back, Sasuke could have cried from happiness. He wasn’t alone. He still had friends. He still had a family, because sometimes family was a bunch of eccentric ninjas in training.

 

By lunch, Sasuke was back into the rhythm of class. He’d missed a lot of lessons and the challenge of trying to catch up demanded his whole attention. It felt good to lose himself in the mental work.

 

When class dismissed for lunch, Sasuke didn’t move. He fished out his math book and the lunch box he’d helped pack.

 

Naruto frowned. “It’s lunch,” he reminded.

 

Sasuke nodded. “I want to try to get caught up. I’ve got a lot of homework to do.” He didn’t say that he was scared to go outside. He wasn’t sure he could handle so many people all at once.

 

Naruto frowned at Sasuke. If the way he narrowed his eyes and pursed his lips were anything to go by, Naruto wasn’t buying Sasuke’s story. “I guess that means I’m staying in too,” Naruto announced. “Algebra is hard and the book doesn’t explain it very well at all.” Naruto dropped back into his seat and grabbed for his backpack.

 

Twenty minutes later, Sasuke and Naruto were squabbling over math problems and the proper way to solve for two variables. Naruto was right. The book made no sense, but neither did Naruto and Sasuke told him so.

 

“Excuse me?” Sakura interrupted the bickering. She had a tray of food from the cafeteria and neither boy had heard her come back into the classroom. “If you want, I can help,” she offered.

 

“No. Thank you.” Sasuke said at the same time Naruto said, “Sweet! Yes!”

 

Sakura blinked in confusion. “I didn’t mean to interrupt,” she said to Sasuke and turned to leave.

 

Naruto punched Sasuke in the arm. “Idiot,” he hissed.

 

Sasuke turned and grabbed Naruto by the shirt collar. “What was that for?” he demanded. It shouldn’t have been a big deal, and Sasuke knew it, but he shaking from rage and couldn’t seem to stop.

 

Naruto rolled his eyes, not intimidated in the slightest. “Sakura’s the top of the class in mathematics and you just turned down her help. I’ve been making up about half of what I’m saying about algebra and am clinging to a C in math. If you want to get caught up, you shouldn’t say no to the people who can actually help,” he explained. 

 

Sasuke blinked twice and let go of Naruto. The sudden surge of anger was gone as quickly as it had come.

 

Standing a few feet away, Sakura let out a breath she’d been holding and fiddled with her hair. “You guys really are rivals,” she said with a smile, trying to diffuse the awkwardness of the situation.

 

Naruto elbowed Sasuke. “Apologize,” he whispered.

 

Sasuke bowed to Sakura. “I’m sorry for being short with you. I’d really appreciate your help.”

 

Sakura smiled and waved off the apology. “No biggie.” She looked between Naruto and Sasuke, “Where should we start?”

 

The rest of lunch went quickly. Sakura was a good teacher. She had a knack for explaining things, was patient when she needed to be, and could out snark Naruto. 

 

When the bell rang, the three of them packed up their books and headed outside for physical education.

 

“Do you want to keep working after school?” Sakura asked. “I don’t have anything going on.”

 

Sasuke hesitated and glanced at Naruto. He wasn’t sure what the guest policy was at the Hatake house. He hadn’t really seen them have any visitors.

 

Naruto grinned and laced his hands behind his head as they walked. “You could come over to our house and we could work. Kakashi always makes way too much food for dinner, so you’d could even stay for ramen,” he offered.

 

Sasuke nodded in agreement.

 

Sakura smiled. “Great. I bet we can get both of you caught up in a day or two.”

 

---

 

Kakashi didn’t quite know what to do with the house to himself again. He considered using a transformation jutsu to keep an eye on the boys, but decided against it. He trusted Naruto and Iruka to take care of Sasuke.

 

Kakashi spent the first two hours cleaning and weeding the garden. There wasn’t much to do and he ended up on the couch staring at the ceiling. He groaned. They didn’t even need groceries. He’d gone shopping with Sasuke the day before.

 

Kakashi rolled off the couch and ducked into his room for his gear. He hadn’t had a chance to train since they took in Sasuke. Maybe there’d be someone at the training grounds to spar with. If nothing else, he could beat up some practice dummies.

 

The training grounds were situated between the edge of the village and the surrounding forest. At first glance, the wide, grassy open wasn’t much to look at. You wouldn't notice until you were close the way the grass grew in strange patterns, outlining arenas and dividing the space up into different areas. 

 

A small trickle of chakra could transform part of the training grounds into an arena or an obstacle course. The terrain could be reshaped to mimic different environments with a with the wave of a hand. The jutsu was set into the earth itself by the village founders.

 

Practice dummies and targets were set up under the eaves of the forest and a bit deeper into the trees was another obstacle course that took runners across rivers and up the nearby mountain. It wasn’t uncommon to find shinobi teams having mock pursuits through the forest and you always had to be alert for traps.

 

Kakashi strolled onto the training grounds and looked around for familiar faces. 

 

A bellowed “RIVAL!” was all the warning Kakashi got before a green blur came barreling into his space.

 

Kakashi ducked and rolled out of the way, popping to his feet and shoving his forehead protector out of the way as Guy skidded to a stop a few feet away.

 

Guy was grinning like a fool. “Where’s the kids?” he asked.

 

“At school. It’s Sasuke’s first day back,” Kakashi said. He kept his weight on the balls of his feet, ready to dodge another charge. His sharingan glowed red.

 

Guy nodded. “Got bored without anyone around to entertain?” he guessed.

 

Kakashi shrugged. 

 

“I happen to know the best cure for boredom,” Guy said with a glint in his eyes.

 

Kakashi scoffed. “Are you actually going to make it an interesting challenge this time? Shuriken throwing last week wasn’t much better than weeding the garden.” He smiled at Guy’s mock outrage.

 

Guy stepped out into a fighting stance and motioned for Kakashi to come at him. “If it’s a challenge you want, a challenge you’ll get.”

 

Kakashi drew a kunai and lunged.

 

Guy blocked the strike with his own kunai. The metallic clang of blade on blade echoed under the trees. 

 

With their knives locked together, Kakashi shifted, trying to sweep Guy’s legs. “Any rules you want to set now?”

 

Guy danced away from Kakashi’s halfhearted leg sweep. “Nope. You wanted interesting, so anything goes.” 

 

Kakashi lunged again, aiming for Guy’s ribs with the butt if his kunai. The other shinobi had his arm up, tantalizingly high and his ribs were just asking to be whacked.

 

Guy’s foot moved in a blur as he twisted and nearly caught Kakashi with a hook kick.

 

Kakashi only managed to dodge because of the sharingan.

 

This time, Guy pressed the offensive. 

 

The two clashed, trading kicks and punches in a flurry.

 

Neither could break the other’s defenses. 

 

The sharingan let Kakashi see where Guy’s strikes were coming and the forewarning cancelled out Guy’s superior speed.

 

For his part, Guy knew better than to meet Kakashi’s eyes. He focused on his rival’s feet and let years of experience and training in the highest levels of taijutsu guide him.

 

The match dragged on and a crowd gathered.

 

Kakashi managed to land a blow on Guy’s kidneys at the cost of catching a roundhouse kick to the ear. 

 

They both staggered back, catching their breath. The real match was just getting started.

 

Guy tugged the weights off his wrists and let them drop to the ground. 

 

Kakashi grinned behind his mask and drew a kunai. Lightning chakra gathered around the blade, chirping and sparkling. 

 

Kakashi threw the blade and the lightning chakra shattered it mid air. Normal kunai weren't built to handle chakra.

 

Guys ducked and rolled faster than a man had any right to move and charged Kakashi.

 

Lighting crackled in the air around Kakashi. He lunged forward to meet Guy’s charge. 

 

Guy registered the metallic smell of Kakashi’s jutsu and slammed his fist into the ground. A wall of earth reared up between them and Kakashi’s lightning dissipated when his hands hit the dirt. 

 

“What was that?” Guy asked.

 

Kakashi grinned back. Sparks danced along his fingertips as he poured more chakra into the jutsu. “Something I’ve been working on. It’s a weaker version of chidori. Great for stunning and immobilizing. You like it?”

 

Guy snorted. “Very sparkly.You know me-- big fan of glitter.”

 

Kakashi laughed and lunged without warning.

 

Guy retreated. “As pretty as it is, I think I prefer not being electrocuted.”

 

The match ended in a stalemate. Kakashi couldn’t catch Guy and Guy couldn’t hit Kakashi while lightning chakra crackled and raced across Kakashi’s skin.

 

In the end, Kakashi ran out of chakra and flopped down on the grass. He waited for Guy to proclaim victory.

 

Instead, Guy flopped down on the grass beside Kakashi. “Thank the gods. Chasing around those kids has kept you in peak, youthful shape.”

 

Kakashi snickered. “You have no idea. I don’t think I’ve been so tired or slept so good for years. Naruto got stuck on the roof the other day. I still don’t know how he even got up there. He can’t chakra walk yet.”

 

Guy laughed. “He’s good for you. Keeps you from getting complacent.”

 

Kakashi managed to pull a bit more chakra out of his reserves and used it to zap Guy with a jolt of lightning chakra.

 

Guy punched back and they both dissolved into laughter.

 

After sparring, Kakashi was in a good mood. He whistled as he walked home and even stopped in the bookstore. If he had the house to himself again, he’d be able to read trashy romance novels again without fear of little eyes over his shoulder during steamy bits or ridicule from Naruto who thought if it didn’t involve slaying or taming dragons a book was boring.

 

Back home, Kakashi read for bit and started cooking dinner. He hummed to himself and swayed to the beat of an imaginary song while chopping carrots. It was shaping up to be a good day.

 

---

 

Kakashi was in the kitchen when the boys arrived home. Naruto was describing some sort of mischief he had planned with Choji at full volume.

 

It wasn’t until Sakura giggled that Kakashi realized there were three kids piling into the kitchen table.

 

Kakashi turned around and raised an eyebrow at Naruto.

 

The blond waved. “We’re home. This is Sakura. She’s in our class and helping us with math.”

 

Kakashi set the knife down and gave the girl his best smile. “Nice to meet you Sakura. I’ve heard you’re the top of the class. Are you staying for dinner?”

 

Sakura blushed at the attention and shook her head. “No, but thank you. My parents will worry if I’m home too late.”

 

“Another time,” Kakashi offered. He hadn’t expected the boys to bring home a friend, but he certainly wasn’t going to be upset about it. 

 

Kakashi went back to cooking while the kids worked, trying to give them space. He listened without commenting and after a bit the kids seemed to forget he was still there.

 

Sakura clearly knew what she was doing. She could talk Sasuke through the theory behind the math problems and was even able to get through to Naruto by drawing pictures and coming up with practical applications.

 

Kakashi was impressed. She was going to be one to keep an eye on with that sort of analytical mind and those communication skills. The diplomatic corps might just steal her at graduation.

 

It was starting to get late when Sakura packed up her things. 

 

“Want to come over again tomorrow?” Naruto invited. “We could work on math and if you stay for dinner we could practice with shuriken or something after,” he offered.

 

Sakura hesitated. She glanced at Kakashi. 

 

“Kakashi doesn’t mind,” Naruto promised. “It’s nice to study together isn’t it,” he added with a glance at Sasuke.

 

Sasuke nodded. He was feeling very relieved that Sakura had offered to help. Had it been just him and Naruto, they’d have ended up working in circles for hours and not learned anything. Privately, Sasuke thought Sakura might be a better teacher than even Kakashi when it came to this sort of stuff. She kept the explanations simple and didn’t try to teach everything all at once.

 

Sakura smiled. “Alright. Sounds like a plan.” 

 

Sakura left the house skipping. She couldn’t wait to tell Ino about the evening. Kakashi had seemed like a cool parent. Naruto was a goof, but he was funnier than she’d given him credit for being. Sasuke was quiet and distant, but no one could blame him for that. When he smiled it made Sakura’s heart do a flip and the way he said thank you all but made her squeal. He was all big, dark eyes and sweet, shy smiles.

 

Over dinner, Naruto and Sasuke talked about school. Naruto did most of the talking, but Sasuke added details when Naruto got too caught up in storytelling and started skipping parts. They didn’t mention the way some of the kids now avoided Sasuke or the fact that Sasuke almost decked Naruto. By the time bedtime rolled around, Sasuke had half forgotten about the morning’s rocky start.

Chapter Text

The second time Sakura followed the boys home, she stayed for dinner.

 

Kakashi was happy to sit back and listen as the three kids discussed the politics of the school yard. The big drama of the day was that one of their classmates left the academy. Kiba has kicked his ass during sparring and sent him home nursing a few bruises. He was the son of two merchants and rumor had it his parents pulled him out of the academy because they didn’t like him getting hurt.

 

Privately, Kakashi could see where the parents were coming from.

 

Naruto laughed with a mouthful of rice. “Stupid. What do they think happens when shinobi fight?” 

 

Sakura glared at Naruto. “Sometimes conflict is inevitable, but a skilled shinobi solves more problems with their words than their fists.”

 

Kakashi his a snicker behind a cough. The diplomatic corps was totally going swipe Sakura straight out of the academy.

 

“You just say stuff like that because you don’t like fighting and you can’t stand to actually hit people.” Naruto fired back.

 

Sakura was on her feet in an instant. Her face twisted with sudden anger. The chair scraped the floor as she shoved it backwards. Naruto flinched

 

“I’ve had about enough of your constant belittling,” Sakura snapped. “Just because I lost my last couple of matches, doesn’t mean I can’t fight or shouldn’t be a shinobi.” 

 

Naruto was nodding frantically, anything to calm Sakura’s wrath.

 

Sakura smiled then and Kakashi shivered. There was a glint in Sakura’s eyes that looked like trouble. “I distinctly remember Shikamaru catching you in his shadow possession jutsu today. You yielded awfully quick when he started making you do the chicken dance. I’d think that someone who wanted to be Hokage would have put up more of a fight,” Sakura added, sweetly.

 

Naruto was on his feet then too. “I’ll show you,” he hissed. “I’ll show everyone. One match doesn’t mean anything. Next time, I’ll break his shadow possession.”

 

Sasuke just looked between his two friends and kept eating. “They do this all the time,” he whispered to Kakashi.

 

Kakashi nodded. The two were still staring daggers at each other. “Practice tonight should be interesting…”

 

After dinner was done and cleaned up, the three headed for the backyard. 

 

Naruto and Sakura still weren’t speaking. 

 

Sasuke ignored them and set to work dragging the practice targets out of Kakashi’s shed.

 

One by one, Sasuke positioned the targets around the yard. He used rocks to prop some at different angles and counted off the steps between each target.

 

Kakashi just watched curiously. He’d been picturing a couple targets set up straight ahead like they usually used at the academy. This looked like something he’d see a jounin or Anbu set up at the training grounds. He wondered if Itachi had taught Sasuke on a similar setup.

 

“Can I go first?” Sasuke asked.

 

Kakashi glanced at the other two. They were both looking at the mess of targets, entirely overwhelmed.

 

“Go for it,” the jounin said.

 

Sasuke checked his kunai pouch and started with three knives in his hand. He got a running start and threw the first three kunai while on the move. He pulled more kunai from his pouch while flipping off the tree trunk and threw the first one while he was in the air over the target.

 

Kakashi has to admit he was impressed. Sasuke hit all 10 targets. Not all of them were centered hits and he’d had to pause or slow down a couple times, but for an academy student it was impressive.

 

Naruto was trying not to look impressed. 

 

Sakura wasn’t trying. “That was awesome!” She cheered.

 

Sasuke blushed at the praise.

 

“I’ll go next!” Naruto declared. He was already running at the target course. 

 

Naruto hit the first three targets near the outer edges, struggled with the flip, and missed that target. Two steps later, he stumbled and missed another target. The finally tally was 8 targets hit and no bullseyes.

 

“Not bad,” Kakashi said. He hadn’t expected Naruto to hit that many. They hadn’t worked much on moving targets or hitting stationary targets while moving.

 

Naruto just frowned. “It wasn’t very good.”

 

Kakashi shook his head. “Hey, Sasuke, how long have you been practicing with setups like this?”

 

Sasuke shrugged. “Forever. Itachi taught me how to throw kunai and he’d take me training with him. I started with just a couple targets and added more when I got those down.”

 

Naruro eyes lit up with understanding. He’d been humbled a bit, but he wasn’t as far behind the learning curve as he’d been afraid he was while watching Sasuke.

 

Kakashi nodded to himself, pleased with the way things were working out. Naruto needed his ego checked a bit and Sasuke needed the confidence boost, this setup was accomplishing both.

 

Kakashi then turned his attention to Sakura.

 

Sakura stared at the mess of targets and frowned. She turned to Kakashi and he was surprised to see tears in her eyes. “I’m sorry. Maybe just Naruto and Sasuke should practice. I’m not good enough. I don’t even know how to start.” Sakura said it with a smile on her face and the lightness in her voice didn’t betray the tears in her eyes.

 

Kakashi shook his head. “Nonsense. You can do it. Just take it one step at a time.”

 

Sakura didn’t look convinced, but she let Kakashi adjust her grip on her kunai and walk her through hitting a stationary target while moving. 

 

“Keep your focus on the center,” Kakashi said. “Try just walking past the target. When you get that down, you can try jogging and then running and then add another target.”

 

While Sakura practiced that, Kakashi helped Naruto and Sasuke with throwing multiple kunai. There was a trick to holding three kunai at once and throwing them at 3 different targets, especially when you were dealing with six year olds’ tiny hands.

 

Within 20 minutes, Sakura was running at full speed past the target and hitting it dead center. 

 

Kakashi had her join the boys.

 

Naruto quickly decided it wasn’t fair that Sakura had already had a growth spurt. With a bit longer fingers and a more stable center of gravity, she picked up throwing multiple kunai quicker and her flips were far prettier.

 

Together, Kakashi walked the kids through the footwork and how to pick a path between targets. 

 

Sasuke had spent years following Itachi through target courses without knowing the logic behind the route.

 

Seeing the understanding in Sasuke’s eyes made Kakashi grin. 

 

Naruto looked confused and Sakura was staring at the target layout with narrowed eyes.

 

“Make sense?” Kakashi asked Naruto.

 

Naruto shook his head. “Not really, but if I do enough of these it’ll make sense eventually.” Naruto was definitely a visual and physical learner. 

 

Kakashi clapped his hands. “Fair enough. Let’s walk through the course slow, focusing on footwork, and see if it makes more sense.”

 

“Umm “ Sakura started and then ducked her head, embarrassed to have interrupted.

 

“Got a question?” Kakashi asked her.

 

Sakura fiddled with her hair for a second before blurting it out. “Isn’t this the wrong order to hit the targets. Based on your explanation, we should go from the first 3 targets to the sixth target. The way we’re doing it now, you leave your back exposed to the sixth target while you deal with 4 and 5.”

 

Kakashi positively beamed. “You are dead right. An excellent observation. It’s that sort of thinking that separates great shinobi from good shinobi.”

 

Sakura stood a little straighter and held her head a little higher. In her eyes, she’d earned her spot here with the boys.

 

They spent the rest of the evening going through the target course slowly, focusing on footwork and eliminating hesitation prior to throwing the kunai.

 

Naruto gave up his pride and asked Sakura to explain the target order again while Kakashi was helping Sasuke with the flip.

 

Sakura smiled and didn’t tease. She recognized how hard it was for Naruto to ask for her help.

 

When Kakashi glanced back at the two, Sakura had a stick and was drawing diagrams in the dirt for Naruto.

 

The four ended the night as the sun started to set. 

 

Sakura left the Hatake house at a steady jog, trying to make it home before full dark. She waved over her shoulder and there was a skip in her step.

 

The next day, Sakura and Naruto tied for the second most points during kunai throwing. Naruto had more kunai in the target, but Sakura had a tighter grouping. Sasuke was only a dozen points ahead of them.

 

Just like that the rivalry went from a one-on-one situation to a three way free for all.

 

——

 

Kakashi sat in the kitchen and watched out the window as Sasuke, Naruto, and Sakura went through their taijutsu forms. It’d been 2 weeks since Sasuke returned to the academy. Life was relatively settled. 

 

Kakashi went back on active duty after Sasuke made it through a week of class, but the Hokage made a point of only assigning Kakashi anbu work around the village. Babysitting dignitaries and guarding village secrets was boring as hell, but it put Kakashi home in time to make dinner and spend the evening with his boys.

 

Sakura had become a semi permanent part of the Hatake house routine. At least 3 days a week she came home with the boys and trained until dark. 

 

Some days, other kids came too.

 

The Inuzuka, Kiba, had stopped by to study for a history quiz. Pakkun and Bull had insisted on playing with Akamaru and the evening had devolved into a game of tag in the backyard featuring boys vs ninken.

 

Then there was the time Kakashi came home to find a distraught Aburame in his kitchen. There were bugs all over the kitchen table going to town on a package of raw hamburger Naruto had set out for them while their host sobbed in a wooden chair.

 

Naruto was trying to console Shino. “It’ll be okay,” Naruto promised. He put a hand on Shino’s shoulder and looked at him with an earnest expression. “Your bugs understand that you don’t want them to get hurt, but they love you and they know being a shinobi is dangerous. That’s why they are willing to give their lives to protect you.”

 

Shino sobbed harder.

 

Kakashi just stood in the doorway and stared, unsure what was happening and what he should do about it.

 

“Shino lost some bugs during sparring practice.”

 

Kakashi nearly jumped out of his skin when Sasuke appeared beside him in the doorway. Kakashi still wasn’t used to the way Sasuke moved around the house. Where Naruto walked like he was part elephant, the Uchiha was like some sort of jungle cat.

 

“Apparently he can feel them die and he can feel when they’re missing,” Sasuke added.

 

Kakashi nodded. “Aburame have a symbiotic relationship with their insects. Neither does well without the other. I’ve heard the link between host and insect described as psychic. Makes sense that losing bugs would be an unpleasant thing.”

 

Sasuke shuddered. “Shino’s nice, but he kind of scares me,” he whispered.

 

Kakashi nodded again. “Aburame are a different sort. They seem to pick up quirks from whatever kind of bugs they host.”

 

“Can you imagine a spider Aburame?” Sasuke whispered, eyes wide with the horrifying possibility.

 

“It’d be great. We’d never have to fight any wars because all the other nations would hear about the spider people and decide we are too scary to fight.”

 

Sasuke giggled at that.

 

Kakashi scratched his head. “But in all seriousness, do I need to go in there and help or call the kid’s family or something.”

 

Sasuke shrugged. “Naruto’s pretty good with Shino. I think he’s got it covered.”

 

Kakashi breathed a sigh of relief.

 

After Shino calmed down and went home, Naruto apologized for feeding the bugs all the hamburger. “When Shino’s upset, his bugs get upset, and when his bugs get upset they get bitey,” Naruto explained.

 

Kakashi waved off the apology. He preferred the bugs eat hamburger over nibbling on anyone else.

 

Choji and Shikamaru stopped by on the weekends to pick up Naruto. The three of them had become good friends. As long as they didn’t get themselves into too much trouble, Kakashi didn’t mind that the boys disappeared for most of the day and occasionally got in trouble for pranking shopkeepers in the civilian district.

 

Choji and Shikamaru always invited Sasuke along, but the Uchiha preferred to stay out of mischief and pranks.

 

Kakashi wished Sasuke would lighten up a bit because more time with friends would be good for him. But, the jounin couldn’t complain much. He’d been a total rule follower too at that age.

 

The end of year exams were approaching. While the exams didn’t prevent anyone from moving onto the next year at the academy, they did determine class rankings and aptitude for different ninja specializations. The first year exams weren’t a big deal in the long run, but for the kids the first set of exams were an intimidating prospect.

 

When Iruka passed out study material two weeks in advance of the exams, Sasuke had been back at the academy for almost a month. 

 

The number of kids at Kakashi’s house after school increased. Who showed up depended in part on whose parents were off on missions, but it wasn’t all that uncommon for there to be 9 kids crowded around the living room trading math help for new vocabulary words and history facts.

 

Kakashi took it all in stride. He cooked extra dinner and helped when the kids asked. 

 

If it was just the boys, Kakashi helped them on their ninjutsu. First year students only learned the simplest of jutsus, as they were mainly focused on gathering chakra and controlling the gathered energy. Naruto was struggling with gathering his chakra and improvements were slow going.

 

On one of the busy nights where the house felt crowded, Kakashi was in the kitchen cleaning up the dinner mess and Tenzou slipped in the window.

 

The anbu was in his full gear and when he dropped his mask on the counter, he looked half dead on his feet.

 

Kakashi pointed Tenzou at the leftovers and kept cleaning. He knew Tenzou would talk when he was ready.

 

A plate of food and a mug of tea later, the two anbu were sitting at the kitchen table and Kakashi thought Tenzou looked much better.

 

The sound of squabbling kids echoed through the house, occasionally broken by laughter or a barking dog.

 

“How do you do this?” Tenzou asked. He gestured to the living room.

 

Kakashi shrugged. “Bonding between teammates is important. The relationships built in the academy help a shinobi their whole life. Friends are important. If they eat everything in the house, it’s a small price to pay.”

 

Tenzou groaned and put his head down on the table. “I said how, not why. How do you make all these strangers relax in your house and trust you and trust each other?” He demanded.

 

“Ummm… I feed them?” Kakashi wasn’t sure where this conversation was going.

 

Tenzou huffed and closed his eyes. For a minute, Kakashi thought he’d fallen asleep.

 

“I got promoted,” Tenzou said after a minute.

 

Kakashi raises an eyebrow at that. He hadn’t heard anything and as Tenzou, apparently former, superior Kakashi should have been notified.

 

“I’m still on your team technically and we will still go on missions together, but while we are in the village I have a permanent assignment,” Tenzou started. His voice was muffled against the table.

 

Kakashi grinned. A permanent position was a good step towards a leadership role and gods knew the anbu could use a leader like Tenzou.

 

“Stop smiling,” Tenzou ordered. “I can literally feel you grinning and this is not something to smile about. I’m in over my head and I want to sleep for a month.”

 

Kakashi stifled a snicker with his fist, but not well enough because Tenzou lifted his head and glared.

 

“The Third put me in charge of Root the day after the massacre,” Tenzou said.

 

Kakashi’s jaw dropped. That was more than just a promotion.

 

“The goal is to dissolve Root in the next 3 years. By that point all Root members need to be integrated into society or institutionalized if they aren’t stable enough to function as anything except Danzou’s killing machines,” Tenzou explained. “It sounds simple. Do some psych evaluations, figure out who needs the most help adjusting to a post-Root life, move those who are in okay shape into the regular anbu where they can learn from their peers, and focus on those who struggle.”

 

Kakashi nodded. “Simple on paper.”

 

“Yeah. The problem is there are no okay people in Root. No one passed the psych evaluation. These people were raised to be emotionless killing machines. They don’t have civilian identities. They don’t really even have names. They can’t stand to be seen without their mask on and they can’t express an opinion about what they want to eat, let alone an actual thought. Everything I try causes them anxiety. I’ve had two freak out and attack me because I showed them their files and pointed out that they had a name and a life before Danzou took them.”

 

Tenzou buried his face in his hands. “I want to help them. I want to save them so bad it hurts, but I don’t know how. I think the Third picked the wrong person for the job.”

 

Kakashi sighed. He got out of his chair, walked around the table, and ruffled Tenzou’s hair. “Look at me,” he ordered.

 

Tenzou complied. His eyes were red and he looked defeated.

 

“Think about when we first met. You didn’t trust me. I know these guys are further into the Root training than you made it, but still you know how they’ve been made to think. What made you trust me?” Kakashi’s voice was gentle.

 

Tenzou closed his eyes and thought. “You trusted me. You were willing to sleep while I kept watch. Then you took care of me and didn’t ask for anything in return. In Root, a hot home cooked meal is payment for something. Same with new equipment, warmer clothes, and other creature comforts.”

 

Kakashi nodded. “So start there. Show them that you trust them. Earn their respect by taking care of them the way a team leader should.”

 

“How do I do that? All things I’ve come to appreciate in a leader, they won’t accept. I try to ask them for opinions on missions and let them choose what jobs they take and who they work with. They won’t make those choices, let alone talk about who they’re doing after a mission,” Tenzou is was nearly in tears. “I’ve never been a leader before. They won’t even talk to me about anything but mission details. The other day, one of them asked why I was pretending to be so weak because I admitted that assassination missions made me uncomfortable.” 

 

Kakashi sighed and resisted the urge to hug the younger man. At the moment, Tenzou needed advice, not comfort. 

 

After a minute of thinking, Kakashi answered. “If the only part of their identity they’re comfortable with is being a shinobi, then start there. Ask them what they need to be better shinobi. If they won’t answer, give them the better equipment anyway. Tell them you want them to make it home after their mission. From there, start giving them those creature comforts they’ve been missing and offering them choices in low risk scenarios.”

 

Kakashi wracked his brain for concrete examples, “Feed them. I don’t know what Root housing looks like, but I’m guessing it’s not nice. Maybe move them to regular anbu housing or give them money to spend on their home. If they want to buy a shit ton of blankets or more kunai or whatever, don’t question it. They made a choice for themselves. That’s a baby step in the right direction. Get them to respect you as their leader first and then start trying to undo the Root training.”

 

Tenzou’s eyes narrowed. His mind flickered back to all the little things Kakashi had done when they were younger. Tenzou had moved from the Root barracks to the anbu apartments when he left Root with only the clothes on his back and the standard issue anbu gear. It’d been Kakashi who declared Tenzou’s new anbu housing too empty and took him shopping. It’d been Kakashi who saw Tenzou eyeing a market stall selling plants and bought him one for the apartment after Tenzou refused to admit he even wanted a plant. Tenzou thought of all the times Kakashi had brought two lunches to the training grounds or insisted on taking him to dinner after a mission to celebrate a job well done.

 

Kakashi continued. “Then choose your battles. Not being comfortable without a mask isn’t a big deal. If it’s wear a mask and be able to talk to people in public or don’t wear a mask and be a social recluse, I think the choice is pretty obvious.” Kakashi gestured to his own mask with a sad smile.

 

Tenzou nodded. “It’s slower than I remember.”

 

Kakashi snorted. “It took you years to use my front door and be comfortable giving me shit when I do something stupid. Don’t expect them to be any faster than you. 3 years isn’t all that long, but they don’t have to be perfect just passable and our village accepts a lot of weirdness.” Kakashi thought about the boy who had bugs living under his skin and the girl who regularly possessed people. They were both sitting in his living room and accepted by their peers as perfectly normal.

 

Tenzou sighed. “Thank you. I needed a voice of reason.”

 

Kakashi patted Tenzou’s shoulder. “Anytime. I’m sure you’re doing great. You care about them and it shows. You’re the sort of person who will accept people as they are without judgement. That makes you perfect for the job.”

 

When Tenzou left and the kids were all sent home, Kakashi put his boys to bed and stayed up late thinking. The village was changing. The Third seemed to be keeping his promise of cleaning house.

Chapter Text

On Sunday night before the start of academy exam week, Kakashi received a mission summons.

 

Kakashi read the scroll three times before he closed it and rubbed his face. It looked like his grace period of light duty work was up. 

 

The mission was simple on paper. An emissary from the Land of Fire needed to cross the Land of Rain on his way to renew a treaty in the Land of Water. He had permission to bring a single bodyguard across both borders. Because of the instability in the Land of Rain, the mission was A-rank. Depending on who was in charge of the Land of Rain’s small shinobi village, Ame, at the time the emissary crossed the border, they might have an easy trip and a full escort across the country or they might be pursued and attacked by the local shinobi. The situation could even change during the two days it would take to cross the Land of Rain. 

 

Kakashi hated escort missions. Worst case, they could easily end up exceeding A-rank depending on who you and your esortee managed to piss off.  Best case, they would turn out to be a C-rank mission that any genin could handle. You never really knew what you were getting into.

 

Kakashi knew he’d been chosen for his reputation and his versatility as a shinobi. It was a high compliment that didn’t make the mission anymore appealing.

 

The timing was shitty for both of his boys with the stress of exams just around the corner, it was a higher risk mission, and he’d be gone for a t least a week.

 

But, an A-rank mission paid well and this mission would buy Kakashi favor in the hokage’s office. It also was shorter than most out of town anbu missions. If Kakashi took this job, he’d have more freedom to turn down the next mission that would likely take him away for longer.

 

Kakashi signed the mission summon and sent it back to the mission office with Pakkun.

 

The boys took the news better than Kakashi expected. 

 

Naruto was used to Kakashi having to take at least a handful of out of town missions every year and Sasuke understood from Itachi’s time in the anbu.

 

By sunrise, Kakashi was gone. 

 

The boys got themselves ready and made it to school on time without an issue, mostly thanks to Sasuke. 

 

After school, Tenzou was waiting outside the academy. He waved Naruto over and Sasuke followed the blond.

 

“Hey,” Tenzou said with a smile. “Looks like you guys are going to stay with me while Kakashi is out of town.”

 

Naruto punched the air. “Yes! Ramen for dinner!”

 

“Sure, but not every night. You guys can take turns picking dinner,” the anbu said. “But you have to promise to do your homework.”

 

“We don’t have homework,” Naruto said. “It’s exam week, so we just have tests everyday.”

 

Tenzou raises an eyebrow. “Doesn’t that mean you need to be studying?”

 

“Yup,” Sasuke said despite Naruto’s frantic head shaking.

 

First, the three made their was to the Hatake house and the boys packed their bags. 

 

Then, on the way to Tenzou’s apartment, they picked up dinner at Ichiraku Ramen.

 

Tenzou’s apartment wasn’t really made for more than one occupant, but the boys were young enough that the idea of sleeping on the floor was still a novelty. 

 

With all of the plants, it did feel kind of like camping without the bugs and weather. There were vines winding along the rafters and exotic trees growing from pots against the walls. The blueberry bush on the balcony had berries and for dessert, Tenzou sent the boys to pick them for ice cream toppings

 

Later in the evening, Tenzou laid out camping mats in the living room and even found a lantern for the middle of the floor. 

 

With the three of them sitting cross legged on their sleeping bags, Tenzou quizzed the boys for their history exam on Friday. Both boys had their textbooks at the ready for questions they didn’t know. The first one to get the right answer got a chocolate chip tossed their way. Naruto was good at catching them in his mouth. Sasuke not so much. 

 

“Founder of the village?” Tenzou asked.

 

“Senju Hirashima,” Naruto blurted out.

 

Sasuke shook his head. “Trick question. It was a joint decision between Senju Hirashima and Uchiha Madara, but Uchiha Madara later left the village.”

 

Tenzou tossed the candy to Sasuke who caught it in his hand and added it to a neat pile on the edge of his sleeping bag.

 

Naruto glared. History was supposed to be his specialty. 

 

The night wore on and the boys were evenly matched. Naruto had a head for history, they were stories after all. Sasuke grew up in the head family of one of the village’s oldest and most prestigious clans. He knew his history and had an understanding of village politics.

 

Tenzou thought it was cute how competitive the kids were.

 

“You guys sure you don’t want me to make up some math problems for you to practice?” Tenzou offered. 

 

Both boys shook their heads. If they did one more math problem before the exam the next morning, they were sure they were going to explode. 

 

“When are your other tests?” Tenzou asked.

 

“We have the obstacle course tomorrow afternoon, the reading exam Wednesday morning, kunai throwing Wednesday afternoon, history on Thursday morning, sparring Thursday afternoon, and ninjutsu on Friday.” Sasuke explained, counting them off on his fingers.

 

“Reading is easy,” Naruto said with a dismissive wave. “And we’re the top of the class I kunai throwing.”

 

“Us and Sakura,” Sasuke corrected. “You better watch out or she’ll beat you.”

 

Naruto glared. “You’re the one who better watch out. You’ll be fighting her for second place.” 

 

Sasuke just smiled and Naruto narrowed his eyes.

 

Tenzou clapped his hands and interrupted before the verbal sparring could escalate. “Do you know who you’ll be paired with for sparring?”

 

Both boys shook their heads. Secretly, they were hoping for each other. Iruka has never let them spar each other, their competitive relationship made him nervous, and Kakashi always put extra rules on their backyard matches.

 

Tenzou smiled. “You guys are going to do great. I wish I could come watch. It sounds like fun.”

 

“Tests are not fun,” Sasuke disagreed.

 

Tenzou shrugged. He couldn’t help, but compare the boy’s’ exams to the ones he’d participated in while with Root.

 

A timid knock on the door stopped any other questions. Tenzou was on his feet and at the door in an instant. He glanced through the spy hole in the door before opening it.

 

A woman in an anbu bird mask and pajamas stood on the other side. 

 

“Is something wrong?” Tenzou asked.

 

The woman shook her head. She fiddled with the end of her long, dark braid.

 

“Do you want to come in for tea?” Tenzou asked. “You’re welcome, but I do have other company.” He opened the door wider so she could see the two boys in the living room.

 

Naruto and Sasuke were staring.

 

“I’m watching them for Kakashi and it’s exam week at the academy so I’ve been helping them study,” Tenzou explained.

 

The woman nodded and stepped inside. Her bare feet made no sound on the hardwood flooring of Tenzou’s apartment as she walked to the dining room.

 

Tenzou shut the door behind the woman and motioned for the kids to come say hi. Then, he went to the kitchen for mugs.

 

Naruto was the first to approach the woman. “Hi,” he said with a grin. “I’m Uzumaki-Hatake Naruto. It’s nice to meet you.” He held out his hand the woman shook it.

 

Sasuke bowed to the woman and then offered her his hand. “Uchiha Sasuke. It’s nice to meet you.”

 

The woman shook Sasuke’s hand. Her grip was firm and her hand was calloused from using a sword. 

 

Sasuke figured her for an older member of anbu from the way she held herself stiff and alert despite the situation and the muscles that rippled beneath her thin, cotton pajamas.

 

“You can call me Megumi,” the woman said. Her voice didn’t match Sasuke’s expectation. She was soft spoken and sounded young, Tenzou’s age at the oldest.

 

Tenzou blinked in surprise in the kitchen. It was the first time he’d heard the woman name herself. 

 

Tenzou shoved aside the grin that threatened to overwhelm his face and ducked out of the kitchen with mugs, 3 types of tea, and hot chocolate.  “The water will finish boiling soon. I can also put on a pot of coffee if you want,” he offered.

 

Megumi watched the boys each grab a mug. Naruto dumped hot chocolate powder in his and Sasuke chose chamomile tea.

 

Megumi hesitated still. She shifted to face Naruto. “Is it good?” She asked

 

Naruto frowned slightly. “Hot chocolate?” He clarified.

 

Megumi nodded. “I haven’t had it before.”

 

“Ummm… Yeah. It’s good. At least I think it is, but I really like sweet things. Sasuke doesn’t like a lot of sweet, so he doesn’t really think hot chocolate is all that good,” Naruto explained. “Do you like sweet things?”

 

Megumi shrugged and poured a packet of hot chocolate mix in the mug closest to her.

 

Naruto considered asking how someone lives so long without trying hot chocolate, but was distracted by the whistling tea pot.

 

“What are you studying?” Megumi asked while Tenzou poured the hot water.

 

Megumi had lots of questions about the academy and seemed to enjoy the stories the boys told. She stayed for an hour, before setting down her mug and standing up. “You should go to bed since you have an exam tomorrow. Sleep is important.”

 

Naruto swore he could hear a smile behind her mask.

 

“So did you like hot chocolate?” Naruto asked.

 

Megumi cocked her head to the side and thought for a second. “Yes. I liked how sweet it was.”

 

Naruto beamed. “Next time you should put marshmallows in it.”

 

Megumi nodded.

 

Tenzou followed Megumi into the hallway. He knew the Root anbu wouldn’t just show up at his door for no reason. “Do you need anything?” He asked in the quiet of the hallway.

 

Megumi shook her head. “No. I couldn’t sleep. It’s quiet in my apartment. I miss hearing the others’ breathing. The quiet sounds like death.”

 

Tenzou nodded. “I felt the same way when I first moved here from the barracks. Are you comfortable opening your window? I found that the wind helps.”

 

Megumi shook her head again. 

 

“Okay. How about running a fan by your bed?” Tenzou suggested.

 

“I don’t have a fan.”

 

“I have one you can use. See if it helps and then you can buy your own if it does,” Tenzou said it like an order. If he left room to argue, Megumi would. None of the Root anbu liked to accept help without being told the cost upfront. “Like you said, sleep is important. I need you to be sharp and on your game, because we never know when we might be needed,” he reminded Megumi. 

 

Megumi’s shoulders relaxed slightly at that. There was a limit to how much unexplained kindness should could handle at one time. 

 

When Tenzou returned with a box fan, Megumi accepted it without hesitation, but she lingered in the hallway. “The kids aren’t like us,” she said at last.

 

Tenzou snorted. “Yeah. I told them their exams sounded like fun and then realized I couldn’t really explain the sort of exams I had when I was their age.”

 

“It’s good. They won’t grow up like us. I just hope they aren’t too soft as shinobi,” Megumi agreed. “And even if they do end up softer, I think their way is still better.”

 

“They’ll grow up soon enough and then life will make them harder. It’s nice for now though, to get to watch them be kids.”

 

“Thank you for letting me interrupt,” Megumi said with a half bow.

 

Tenzou smiled. “Anytime. I’m your team leader. I’m here to help you.” He hesitated and then decided to push it a little bit. “I like Megumi.”

 

Behind her mask, Megumi hummed softly. “I picked it out of a book.” Then she turned and padded off down the hallway.

 

Tenzou shook his head and grinned at the retreating anbu. He felt like he’d just made a huge breakthrough. Even bigger than moving all the Root members into standard anbu housing, because that had more or less been an order.

 

Back in Tenzou’s apartment, the boys were washing the mugs and yawning. 

 

Tenzou took the dish rags from the boys. “Head to bed and I’ll finish these in the morning.”

 

——

 

It was a quiet couple days. The exams left everyone feeling burnt out. Naruto would have preferred to take a nap after class, but Sasuke and Tenzou wouldn’t let him. The evenings were spent studying and training. 

 

Tenzou took the boys to the anbu training grounds and let them practice throwing kunai on the different target layouts. 

 

Sometimes, another anbu would join them training or for dinner. 

 

On Thursday, the boys were both up early. 

 

Tenzou made breakfast and called out history questions while the boys got ready.

 

Naruto pulled on his mesh armor.

 

Sasuke checked over his kunai again. 

 

After the history exam was the sparring test. Jutsus and weapons were allowed.

 

It was eerie how quiet the classroom was during exams. All Sasuke could hear was the sound of pencils on paper and soft breathing. 

 

Occasionally, Kiba growled at the paper.

 

Sasuke thought it was a bit of an overreaction. The questions were pretty basic and most of them were multiple choice.

 

The last question required a short essay explaining the founding of the village and Sasuke was hurrying through the other questions so he would have time for the essay.

 

“List the 7 current major clans of Kohona.”

 

Sasuke answered without thinking. “Uchiha, Nara, Yamanaka, arutobi, Akimichi, Inuzuka, Hyuga, Aburame,” he wrote. 

 

Sasuke moved onto the next question and then stopped, something wasn’t right. He went back a question and read it again. It asked for 7 clans.

 

Sasuke’s stomach lurched. There was no Uchiha clan now. Just like the Senju, they were gone.

 

Tears welled up in Sasuke’s eyes and he frantically scrubbed them away. His chin quivered, but he refused to start crying during an exam.

 

For several minutes, Sasuke stared at his paper, unable to make out the words through his tears. He could feel Naruto next to him staring and shook his head. There wasn’t anything the blond could do to help. The last thing Sasuke wanted was for the two of them to get accused of cheating because they were talking.

 

Slowly, Sasuke reined in his breathing and wiped his nose and eyes on the hem of his shirt. He erased “Uchiha” from his answer and moved on.

 

For the rest of the exam, Sasuke’s hands shook and he felt lightheaded. 

 

As soon as he was done with the essay, Sasuke handed in his test and bolted out of the classroom. He didn’t even bother to check his answers.

 

Sasuke found a quiet spot outside, underneath an oak tree, to sit. He hugged his knees to his chest and let himself cry. 

 

He wished he hadn’t erased “Uchiha” from his answer. Even if it cost him a point, Sasuke didn’t want to let everyone just forget the Uchiha. 

 

For the first time since the massacre, Sasuke wished he had his family’s crest on his back. The Uchiha helped to found the village and for generations they had served as its protectors. Sasuke was still here and he was determined to honor the name he carried. The Uchiha weren’t gone no matter what the village wanted.

 

Even after he was done crying, Sasuke stayed beneath the tree. He watched the other kids come running outside with their lunch boxes.

 

Naruto eventually found Sasuke. The blond was carrying both of their lunches.

 

Naruto didn’t say anything as he dropped to the ground beside Sasuke and passed the dark haired boy a bento box.

 

Sasuke accepted the food in silence. When he opened the lid, a new wave of tears came rolling down his cheeks. There was a big, beautiful tomato that he hadn’t packed tucked inside.

 

“On our way out here, Choji saw a guy heading towards the market with a cart of veggies and said the tomatoes looked good, so I went and bought one. It’s why I’m late,” Naruto said. He smiled and ran a hand through his hair, brushing it back from the goggles he still insisted on wearing.

 

“Thank you,” Sasuke whispered. He gave Naruto a watery smile and bit into the tomato. It was good.

 

When they were done eating, Naruto stood up and stretched. “Sensei said he’d post the sparring matches during lunch. Want to go look?”

 

Sasuke nodded and together the two boys set off across the school yard.

 

Iruka had just hung up a sheet of paper with the students listed in pairs outside the front door. There was a big crowd around the list, but Sasuke didn’t see any of he and Naruto’s friends in the mix.

 

Naruto pushed to the front while Sasuke hung back. He wasn’t in a hurry to find out who he was paired with. It wouldn’t really change anything.

 

“Hey! Uchiha,” someone yelled. The group of students parted and assume found himself staring at Hagiwara Hikaru. Hikaru was the son of a chuunin kunoichi and a merchant father. He’d been one of Sasuke’s closest friends, but they hadn’t spoken since the massacre.

 

Hikaru grinned. “Looks like we’re matched up.”

 

Sasuke smiled back and bowed slightly. Hikaru was taller than Sasuke, but his shoulders were narrower and Sasuke felt good about being matched together. “It will be fun.”

 

Hikaru laughed. His usually warm brown eyes were hard and cold. 

 

Sasuke was acutely aware of the way the other kids were still shuffling backwards, clearing the space between him and Hikaru. Something was wrong. 

 

“Oh, it’ll be a lot of fun,” Hikaru said. His smile morphed into a sneer. “I can hardly wait to beat the shit out of you. It’s an absolute disgrace that they even let a traitor like you attend the academy. Everyone knows it’s only a matter of time until you try to kill everyone just like the rest of your family. You Uchiha are so inbred it’s no surprise that you all end up going crazy.”

 

Sasuke froze. Whatever else Hikaru said was drowned out by the blood roaring in Sasuke’s ears. He was shaking and his fists were balled up tight, but he held still as a board. 

 

Sasuke knew if he lashed out, he’d just prove Hikaru’s point, so he forced himself to take a deep breath and shove aside the anger boiling in his stomach.

 

Naruto didn’t have Sasuke’s control.

 

The blond threw himself between Sasuke and Hikaru with his teeth bared. “Leave Sasuke alone,” Naruto snarled. “You don’t know anything about him and his family.”

 

Hikaru laughed again. He walked forward until he was in Naruto’s face. “Of course you’d defend him. He’s the only was crazy enough to be friends with a monster like you.” Hikaru’s fist slammed into Naruto’s stomach.

 

While Naruto was doubled over, Hikaru stepped around the blond and locked eyes with Sasuke. “If you aren’t a chicken, how about we settle this now? No reason to wait for Sensei and all his rules.” 

 

Sasuke narrowed his eyes. “Why are you doing this?”

 

The rest of the class was dead silent except for Naruto who was still fighting to get his breath back.

 

Hikaru drew a kunai and took another step towards Sasuke. “Because I don’t want to end up being a shinobi beside you, waiting for the day you put a knife in my back.”

 

“I’m not my brother or my family. You haven’t even given me a chance to prove myself,” Sasuke replied. His voice was deadly calm despite the way his whole body was shaking.

 

“I am giving you a chance to prove yourself. Run away now and don’t come back,” Hikaru hissed.

 

Sasuke shook his head and folded his arms. He held his head high. He was proud, but not stupid. He wasn’t going to escalate the situation. “I’m not fighting you. I’ll spar with you for the exam, but that’s it. And I’m not leaving the academy.”

 

“Then I’ll make you leave, even if I have to kill you.” Hikaru lunged at Sasuke. His kunai was level with Sasuke’s throat.

 

Sasuke’s blood ran cold. He could see the knife glinting in the sunlight as it hurtled towards his face. He knew he wouldn’t be able to block it in time. His arms were folded and Hikaru was too close. Sasuke raised his arms anyway.

 

The instant before Hikaru’s kunai sliced into Sasuke, an orange blur crashed into Hikaru’s shoulder. He and Naruto hit the ground in a tangle of limbs and wrestled for control. 

 

The kunai slipped out of Hikaru’s hand, but he managed to end up on top of Naruto.

 

“Leave him alone,” Naruto hissed. 

 

“I’ll kill you too!” Hikaru screamed. He slammed his fists down on Naruto’s chest over and over again. 

 

Something in Sasuke snapped. He felt like the ground beneath his feet shifted and the sun was suddenly too bright and Naruto’s blood was too red.

 

The other kids were screaming now. Some ran for the school. Others just stared in horror. No one actually thought Hikaru would do more than try to scare Sasuke.

 

Naruto spat a mouthful of blood at Hikaru and growled.

 

Hikaru grabbed another kunai from his holster.

 

Sasuke saw Hikaru move in slow motion. He knew what the other boy was reaching for the second Hikaru’s fingers twitched. 

 

Sasuke was moving instantly. 

 

Sasuke caught Hikaru’s wrist as he raised his hand to plunge the kunai into Naruto.

 

Hikaru twisted to face Sasuke and gasped. A look of pure terror flickered across his face.

 

Sasuke dragged Hikaru off of Naruto and let the other boy fall to the ground. 

 

Hikaru didn’t move, so Sasuke turned his attention to Naruto.

 

The blond was sitting up, wiping the blood off his lips. 

 

Sasuke knelt beside Naruto and his hands hovered just off of Naruto. He didn’t know how to help. Tears were rolling down Sasuke’s cheeks. 

 

Naruto was in bad shape. His lip was split, both eyes were swelling, and he probably had broken ribs since we was coughing up blood.

 

All Sasuke could hear was his heart beating out the words “my fault” over and over.

 

“Look out,” Naruto slurred, but it was too late.

 

Hikaru’s kunai slipped into Sasuke’s back, between his ribs.

 

Sasuke screamed and blacked out. The last thing he heard was Naruto howling.

 

—-

 

Something cool was pressed against Sasuke’s forehead. He blinked open his eyes and found himself face to face with Sakura. Her green eyes were wide and she’d obviously been crying.

 

A sharp pain lanced through Sasuke’s back and chest as he breathed. It was almost enough to make him blackout again.

 

Sakura patted his cheek. “Stay awake,” she ordered.

 

“Can we move him?” Ino yelled.

 

Sasuke shifted. He could see Ino and Shikamaru standing nearby. Both of them had their kunai out and were standing ready to use them.

 

“Can you stand up?” Sakura asked. She pulled the wet napkin off of Sasuke’s forehead. “We need to get somewhere safe.”

 

Sasuke couldn’t seem to get enough air to answer, but Sakura pulled him to his feet anyway. 

 

Sasuke could feel the kunai still embedded in his back as he moved. He sagged in Sakura’s arms but didn’t blackout.

 

The scene in front of them, made Sasuke’s blood run cold.

 

Naruto was out of control. A bloody, orange chakra surrounded the blond with the shape of a three-tailed fox.  He paced across the grass snarling. There were craters in the grass and most of the students had scattered into the building or ran off school grounds. 

 

Sakura had grabbed Ino who had grabbed Shikamaru and the three of them had managed to drag the unconscious Sasuke out of Naruto’s path of destruction.

 

“He went nuts when you passed out,” Sakura explained. 

 

“We thought you were dead until Sakura saw you twitch,” Shikamaru added without taking his eyes off Naruto. Shikamaru had just been coming outside when he saw the fight start. Sakura and Ino had heard the screaming a minute later from the bathroom and come running.

 

“It’s a good thing that not everyone was outside,” Ino muttered. “Less people to evacuate. Naruto doesn’t seem to recognize anyone.”

 

Sakura muffled a sob. She was shaking against Sasuke. “He hasn’t hurt anyone yet, but I’m scared,” she whispered.

 

Naruto paced closer to the playground.

 

Hikaru, apparently not one to give up or realize when he was outmatched, launched himself off the top of the slide with a kunai in each hand. 

 

One of Naruto’s chakra tails slammed into Hikaru midair and sent the other boy tumbling.

 

Naruto snarled in triumph and stalked towards the boy.

 

Sasuke shoved off Sakura’s hands and forced himself to move. He could see it all crystal clear. Naruto meant to rip apart the other boy. Sasuke wouldn’t let it happen. He wouldn’t let Naruto become a monster trying to save him. Sasuke wasn’t going to lose another family.

 

Sasuke made it just in time. He staggered to a stop between Naruto and Hikaru. 

 

Naruto was still charging forward with his chakra claws extended.

 

Sasuke looked up and met Naruto’s gaze. The blond’s face was contorted with rage and pain. His teeth were barred in a silent snarl.

 

 “Stop,” Sasuke said. He knew it was too soft for Naruto to hear. “He’s not worth it.”

 

Naruto’s face shifted. His eyes widened and he stumbled to a stop just a foot in front of Sasuke. 

 

Slowly, the chakra around Naruto vanished. “I’m sorry,” Naruto said. His voice was soft and tight as his eyes struggled to process the damage around him.

 

“You didn’t hurt anyone,” Sasuke soothed.

 

Naruto nodded. Then his eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed forward.

 

Sasuke tried to catch Naruto and they both ended up falling. 

 

Sasuke’s vision went black as they hit the ground.

Chapter Text

Naruto woke up in the hospital. He opened his eyes and took stock of the situation.

There were bandages around his ribs, his eyes were puffy and swollen, his whole body ached, and his skin felt raw and blistered.

In the bed next to him was Sasuke, still unconscious.

In the chair by the door was Tenzou, dozing lightly with his chin on his chest.

The clock on the wall said it was 3AM.

Naruto shifted, hoping to lessen the ache in his ribs. It didn’t help, but the rustling woke Tenzou.

The anbu stood and stretched before walking to Naruto’s bed. “How are you feeling?” Tenzou asked.

“Bad,” Naruto croaked out. Even his teeth hurt. “Sasuke?”

Tenzou sighed and glanced at the other bed. “He’s lucky. They were able to repair his punctured lung and he didn’t lose too much blood. He’ll be fine.”

Naruto nodded. “Did I…?” He trailed off and looked at Tenzou through a veil of tears.

Tenzou shook his head. He sat down on the edge of Naruto’s bed and ruffled the blond’s hair. “No. Everyone got lucky yesterday. You didn’t hurt anyone. You got control in time.”

Naruto whimpered. He clutched his ribs, but couldn’t stop the tears from sliding down his face. “I’m a monster,” he sobbed.

Tenzou stared for a minute. He didn’t know what to say or how to disagree. He didn’t know how to comfort a child. He barely remembered even being a child. But Kakashi wasn’t here. He’d be gone at least a couple more days, so Tenzou needed to do something.

Tenzou gritted his teeth and made himself start talking. “You aren’t a monster. The Nine-Tailed Fox is a monster, but you are Uzumaki-Hatake Naruto and you’re the furthest thing from a monster that I’ve ever met.”

Naruto looked up at Tenzou with wide eyes. He desperately wanted to believe the anbu.

“I know what it’s like to think you’re a monster because you can’t control the power inside of you,” Tenzou admitted. He grabbed a wooden tongue depressor off the nightstand and held it out to Naruto as the wood began to sprout leaves. “You have enormous power inside of you and finally tapped into it. That’s not a bad thing. It means you’re getting stronger and one day you could be the strongest shinobi in the village. The bad part is that you let that power control you instead of controlling it.”

The stick in Naruto’s hand wrapped its new branches around Naruto’s wrist and squeezed on the edge of painful.

“You have a big heart and you care about your friends. That’s also not a bad thing, but you need to learn to control your emotions or you risk hurting those you love. The Fox doesn’t love your family. It doesn’t love anyone and it will kill them all,” Tenzou warned. He could feel the power of the mokuton beneath his skin in the same way he imagined Naruto felt the Fox. The mokuton was always reaching out and wanting to reshape the world unless Tenzou held it in check. The anbu remembered anger hot in his veins as vines twisted tight across the chest of a silver haired shinobi. Tenzou had been lucky that day, same as Naruto.

Naruto cried harder. He knew how close he’d come to killing Sasuke. What if he’d regained control only to find his hands covered in his friend’s blood?

The branch on Naruto’s arm loosened its grip and settled on his wrist like a bracelet.

Tenzou brushes the tears from Naruto’s cheeks. “Shhhh,” he soothed. “You proved today that you’re stronger than the Fox. No one got hurt and now you just need training.”

Naruto leaned forward and pressed his forehead against Tenzou’s shoulder.

The anbu hesitated for a heartbeat and then wrapped his arm around Naruto. Tenzou held the boy until the next round of painkillers kicked in and Naruto slipped back to sleep.

Tenzou laid Naruto back down and watched the boy sleep. Naruto had no idea how lucky he really was.

It hadn’t been just Sasuke’s injury that triggered the Fox’s chakra.

One of Naruto’s broken ribs had nicked an artery. Naruto had been bleeding out and the Fox’s chakra stopped it. By the time Naruto wrestled control back from the Fox, his injuries were all half healed. They were still healing faster than they should. Had Naruto been killed, the Fox would have gone on a rampage again.

Tenzou stared down at his hands. His mokuton could in theory stop a tailed beast, but he lacked the power of a natural born wood-style used. Tenzou had a feeling that permanently containing the Nine-Tailed Fox would take everything he had and maybe more. If Naruto died or his seal failed, it would be the end of Kohona.

—-

Sasuke kept seeing the fight in his dreams. Every detail of Naruto’s beating and rampage was burned into Sasuke’s mind. He begged it to stop. He didn’t want to keep watching Naruto suffer. He didn’t want to keep seeing the fear on Sakura’s face.

Sasuke woke up with tears in his crimson eyes.

—-

On Saturday, both boys were released from the hospital and Tenzou took them back to the Hatake house. The anbu housing was too close to the city for comfort, but Kakashi’s home was on the edge of the village and no one bothered them there.

Tenzou knew he was in trouble. Naruto refused to talk or eat, even when Tenzou brought home ramen.

Sasuke ate a little and answered when asked questions, but he didn’t sleep.

In the early hours of Sunday morning, Sasuke paced the house.

Naruto woke up to a pair of glowing red eyes in the dark. “Are you scared of me?” Naruto asked the dark silhouette at the end of his bed.

Sasuke blinked and the red glow of his Sharingan momentarily vanished. “Are you scared of me?” He asked back.

When Naruto shook his head, “no.” Sasuke could see it perfectly despite the dark. He could also see the fading bruises on Naruto’s face and the defeated slump of Naruto’s shoulders.

“I’m not scared of you,” Sasuke said. “We’re both monsters with powers we can’t control.”

“You didn’t almost kill anyone,” Naruto said. His voice was bitter and he hung his head in shame.

Sasuke shrugged. “But I wanted to. When he was hitting you, I wanted to hurt him. You didn’t do anything to deserve that.”

“I’m going to run away,” Naruto said it so softly that Sasuke barely heard.

Sasuke cocked his head to the side in confusion. “What about your dream of becoming Hokage?”

“I’m not going to leave forever. I just need time to train and learn to control the Fox. In case I lose control again, I need to do it away from the village so no one gets hurt,” Naruto explained.

“Can I go with you?” Sasuke asked.

Naruto hadn’t expected that. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

Sasuke shook his head. “You didn’t hurt me last time and with these eyes, you won’t even be able to touch me.”

Naruto let out a breath and his shoulders relaxed. “The company would be nice.”

Tenzou woke up at 6AM to a tapping on the kitchen window. He was off Kakashi’s couch and out the front door before the blanket he’d been using even had a chance to hit the floor.

“Which way?” Tenzou asked the tree in the front yard.

The oak pulled its branch back from the kitchen window and pointed down the street.

Tenzou took off at a run.

—-

Kakashi had been running all night. He’d safely delivered the emissary back to the fire dynamo Saturday night, declined an invitation to dinner, and set himself a hard pace all in the hopes of making it home in time for breakfast with his boys.

Kakashi was exhausted, dirty, and in need of minor medical attention when he saw the village gates through the trees, but he picked up his pace anyway.

Cuts and scrapes be damned. He was almost home and there was time to shower before the boys woke up.

Kakashi could have cried when the anbu at the gate stopped him and redirected him to the hokage’s office. It was an order, not a request.

Kakashi declined an escort and turned his feet towards the Hokage’s office instead of home.

Hiruzen was waiting for Kakashi. He’d received word late the night before that Kakashi had completed his mission and was heading home. The sleepless night had given Hiruzen time to think and prepare what he was going to say.

Kakashi entered the hokage’s office when prompted and gratefully accepted the offered seat and water.

“You can take off your mask. Your mission is over,” Hiruzen prompted.

Kakashi had almost forgotten he was still wearing his ceramic, anbu mask. He pulled it off and set it on his lap. “I wasn’t sure if this was another mission summons.”

Hiruzen shook his head. “It’s about Naruto and Sasuke.” He saw panic flash across Kakashi’s face and cut it off. “Everyone is okay, but there was an incident at the academy.”

Kakashi took a deep breath and shoved down his panic. He nodded for the Hokage to continue.

“One of the students threatened and then attacked Sasuke. Naruto intervened and was injured. It is my understanding that Naruto’s injury awakened Sasuke’s Sharingan. The fighting continued and Sasuke was then injured and lost consciousness. Naruto thought Sasuke was dead and lost control of the Fox.” Hiruzen kept it to the bare facts.

Kakashi sagged in the seat. “How bad did he lose control?”

“Chakra cloak with 3 tails.”

Kakashi rubbed his face. “It was only a matter of time before Naruto started pulling the Fox’s chakra. We have a training plan in place.” He wasn’t sure who he was trying to reassure, the Hokage or himself.

Hiruzen nodded. “I know, but this wasn’t the way we expected the Fox’s chakra to manifest. I’m worried about Naruto’s seals.”

Kakashi sat up straight and stared down the Hokage. “Naruto’s seals are fine. I’ve kept an eye on them. He just needs training. I’ll take him and Sasuke out of the village for a while. They’ll both need the space and time to figure themselves out after this.”

Hiruzen smiled sadly. “Kakashi, I have to have someone check Naruto’s seals for everyone’s peace of mind.”

“Fine. Have them do it now. As soon as I’m cleaned up, we’re leaving.” Kakashi moved to stand.

“We aren’t done yet,” Hiruzen corrected.

Kakashi day back down. He knew an order when he heard one.

“Naruto needs you more than ever. With your anbu commitments, I think it’s time we talked about moving Sasuke. Iruka offered to take him and would be a good guardian—”

The clack of a ceramic mask being slammed on the wood desk interrupted the Hokage.

Hiruzen blinked in surprise.

“If you think I need to spend more time with the kids, then consider this my resignation from the anbu,” Kakashi said. His face was set. This wasn’t a bluff. “I’m the only one who can teach Sasuke to control his sharingan. Both of those boys are mine and I will give up everything to protect them. You can have my forehead protector too, if that’s what it takes. I can always get a civilian job.”

Hiruzen picked up Kakashi’s mask. The ceramic was painted like a stylized dog. The Hokage thought it was fitting.

Hiruzen chose his next words carefully. “As Hokage, I am upset by your resignation. You have been an invaluable asset to the anbu. As a father and grandfather, I’m proud of you. I think with you looking out for them, those boys stand a chance of growing up to be something besides weapons. I’ll have the seal expert meet you wherever you plan to train. When you come back to the village, I’ll have another position ready for you.”

Kakashi’s jaw dropped. “You’re letting me keep them just like that?”

Hiruzen laughed. “The only way I’m going to take those kids is over your dead body. It’s in the best interest of the village to keep the three of you together. They trust you and you’re best equipped to train them.”

The Hokage didn’t expect Kakashi to break into a wide grin and shunshin around the desk to hug him.

Hiruzen awkwardly patted Kakashi’s shoulder. “Good to know that I haven’t managed to make you hate me at this point. If you sit back down, we can finish ironing out the details…”

In the end, Naruto was suspended from the academy pending an appeal before the start of class for his second year. If the appeal succeeded, Naruto would be able to rejoin his classmates in time for the start of their second year. That gave Kakashi a good 6 weeks while the academy was on their yearly break to help Naruto control the Fox before the appeal.

The boy who attacked Sasuke was expelled. A shinobi who attacked their own could never be trusted.

That surprised Kakashi. He’d never heard the Third draw such a hard line before. For better or worse, Danzou’s betrayal of trust had changed Hiruzen.

“Where will you take the boys?” Hiruzen asked.

Kakashi hesitated. He had a lot of ideas and it took him a minute to settle on one. “There’s a little town with no name at the base of Ishi Peak. My family has a cabin in the woods nearby.”

Hiruzen smiled. “I’ve heard of the place. They have hot springs right?”

Kakashi nodded. After the gold mines in the area ran dry, the hot springs kept the little town afloat.

“I will have the seal expert meet you there. That’ll make him happier than coming back here.”

Kakashi narrowed his eyes. “Who are you sending?” Kakashi had mentally gone through the list of everyone in the village who could possibly be considered an expert in seals and they were all in the village and accounted for. The only reason he could think of that an unknown seal expert would be outside the village was if he was an anbu on an undercover mission.

“We only have one shinobi with any experience in Uzumaki seals,” Hiruzen said.

Kakashi’s face fell.

Hiruzen frowned back. “Jiraiya is the most qualified person and he’s Naruto’s Godfather. You can’t keep him away from the boy forever.”

Kakashi snorted. “Some Godfather. It’s been almost 7 years and he’s never visited.” He stood up and bowed to the hokage. “I appreciate your confidence in my parenting. We’ll be waiting for Jiraiya. If you could maybe ask him to tone down the pervy gimmick around the boys, I’d appreciate it.”

Hiruzen nodded. This time he let Kakashi leave.

Hiruzen stared at the door long after Kakashi had left. He’d accomplished his goals, but the final outcome was yet to be seen.

Kakashi should never have been recruited to the anbu and, at this point, the young man was well aware of it.

Everyone who knew Hatake Kakashi well enough knew that being in the anbu was going to kill Kakashi. He was never able to harden his heart enough to keep the work from tearing him apart, but the fact remained that Kakashi was a phenomenal shinobi and any attempt to remove Kakashi from the anbu would have been met with stiff resistance from the Council of Elders, the anbu leadership, and Kakashi himself.

The only way to protect Kakashi was to make him quit. Kakashi wasn’t a quitter and he was fiercely loyal to the village. He knew he was valuable as an anbu. The only thing he would give up his anbu position for was his boys.

Hiruzen hoped Kakashi would forgive him for forcing that choice. Maybe one day, Kakashi would understand that he was more valuable to the village alive and whole than he was as a broken shell of a man behind a ceramic mask.

---

Kakashi stopped halfway home in a back alley and leaned against the rough brick. “What did I just do?” he asked the air. In the moment, he’d been so wrapped up in Hokage’s praise and the idea that he wasn’t going to have to keep fighting for the boys that he hadn’t thought about what he was paying for it.

The anbu had been Kakashi’s whole life between Rin’s death and his foray into the world of kidnapping. Even after he took in Naruto, it was a defining piece of Kakashi. What was he going to do now? What was he going to tell Tenzou? Who was he if he wasn’t an anbu?

Kakashi gasped for breath and realized he was crying.

In the same instant, Gai’s smiling face flashed through Kakashi’s mind. He’d once promised Gai they could do a mission together when they were both jounin. Gai had been a chuunin then and Kakashi had meant it as an insult, like when pigs fly. Gai took it as a genuine promise. By the time Gai made jounin, Kakashi actually considered him a friend, but they never got to go on that mission. Kakashi was already in the anbu and anbu didn’t go on unnecessary missions.

Kakashi took a shuddering breath and let himself consider the doors that were now open rather than the one that had closed.

Overhead, a swallow dove and twisted through the air, the sun was bright, and the sky was a vivid blue.

Kakashi took another breath and for the first time in years, it felt like his lungs were really full. Sure he felt lost and his hands wouldn’t stop shaking, but he also felt like he was no longer holding the weight of the village on his shoulders. Kakashi wondered if this is what Gai felt like when he dropped his ankle weights?

Half giddy, Kakashi considered stopping to ask Gai how he kept from floating away.

By the time Kakashi made it home, he felt a bit more grounded. The idea of getting out of the village for a while sounded more and more appealing with each step. Kakashi decided the space and peace would do him as much good as they’d do the boys.

Kakashi walked in the front door totally unprepared for the mess inside.

Tenzou was sitting in the middle of the couch holding a bag of frozen peas to the swollen goose egg on his forehead. Naruto and Sasuke were sitting on each side of Tenzou, although sitting was a generous description. Both boys were bound from the nose down in thick vines.

“Oh, Kakashi, you’re back,” Tenzou mumbled when he caught sight of Kakashi.

“What happened?!” Kakashi demanded.

Tenzou nodded. “Well, first we studied history and then we had tea with Megumi. You’ve met her a couple times. Wears a bird mask. Doesn’t talk much. Anyway. Then the kids had a math test or maybe a reading test, I can’t really remember...”

Kakashi stepped closer and took the bag of peas from Tenzou’s hands. The younger man stared up at Kakashi with vacant eyes. “Sorry. I think they got expelled, but no one died.”

“Mmmhhmmm,” Kakashi hummed, not really listening. He held a finger in front of Tenzou’s face and moved it back and forth. Tenzou tried to track it, but couldn’t. “You have one hell of a concussion,” Kakashi said.

Tenzou blinked and sighed. “Two kids is too much. They come up with bad ideas and just encourage each other.”

Kakashi gently prodded the knot on Tenzou’s head and they both winced. “I won’t ask you to babysit them both again,” Kakashi promised.

Tenzou tried to stand and wave off Kakashi’s promise.

Kakashi had to catch the brunet ninja when his legs gave out.

“It’s okay. I like them. They’re good kids. Not like some other kids,” Tenzou insisted.

Kakashi settled Tenzou back on the couch and ducked into the kitchen. In the drawer next to the knives, he kept a scroll with a basic healing jutsu sealed inside.

The healing jutsu took care of Tenzou’s concussion. Within a few minutes, he was back to his usual self.

Kakashi waved off the backstory. “I’ve already met with the hokage. It’s all okay, no one is in anymore trouble or under house arrest. You can let them go.”

Tenzou sheepishly undid the mokuton holding the boys.

Sasuke immediately dropped to his knees and put his forehead on the floor at Tenzou’s feet. A steady stream of apologies tumbled out of the boy’s mouth.

Tenzou all but pried the Uchiha off the floor and muffled the continuous apologies with his hand. “It’s okay. Seriously. You were upset and everyone lashes out when they’re upset.”

Sasuke started crying and Tenzou physically handed the boy to Kakashi.

Naruto just stood off to the side staring down at his feet. He didn’t say a word or look at anyone.

Kakashi decided to focus on Sasuke first. The kid was a bit big and heavy, but Kakashi kept holding him. “Hey, it’s okay,” Kakashi promised. “Tenzou once broke all of my ribs because he was scared and angry. We’re still best friends, so I promise he’s not going to hold it against you.”

Tenzou snorted and shook his head. “I didn’t break all of your ribs. Two of them only had hairline fractures.”

Kakashi rolled his eyes.

Sasuke eventually stopped sniffling and buried his face in Kakashi’s shoulder and was asleep immediately. He didn’t even rouse when Kakashi settled him back on the couch under a blanket.

“He hasn’t slept since he woke up in the hospital on Friday. He’s had his sharingan active on and off pretty much constantly,” Tenzou explained.

Kakashi nodded. Physical exhaustion paired with chakra exhaustion could knock you out.

Kakashi turned to Naruto. “Can you please watch Sasuke for a minute?” He asked. “He needs to rest or he’s going to make himself really sick.”

Naruto nodded and went to stand beside the couch.

Kakashi gently tugged Tenzou into the kitchen. “What happened to you?” he asked as soon as they were out of earshot.

Tenzou rubbed his head where the goose egg had been. “They got it in their heads that they needed to leave the village and learn to control themselves where they can’t hurt anyone.”

Kakashi made an “ehhh” noise. It was a more reasonable decision than he’d expected the kids to come to.

Tenzou glared. “They decided to run away and the only reason I caught them is because the trees along the road they picked are observant. I may have spooked them and Sasuke went on attack mode. With his sharingan he’s lethal.”

“What’d he hit you with?”

Tenzou sighed. “One of those stupid rocks civlians like to put in their gardens.”

Kakashi snorted. “Excellent.”

“They came willingly enough when they realized who I was,” Tenzou added. “What happens now?”

“We’re going to leave the village for a while, so they can train in peace and Naruto can show everyone he has control of the Fox before he has to sit out next school year,” Kakashi said. “I love the kid and I could probably homeschool him just fine, but it would be better if he went to school with his friends.”

Tenzou’s jaw dropped. “You’re just leaving? Just like that?”

Kakashi nodded. “Also, I sort of also quit the anbu. Sorry.”

Tenzou raised an eyebrow.

“Apparently the Council or the Third or someone decided that I could handle being an anbu and having one kid, but not two. It was an impulse decision,” Kakashi swallowed a lump of emotion. The sudden guilt was threatening to choke him. What had he been thinking? How could he be excited about leaving the anbu when it meant leaving Tenzou? “I’m sorry,” Kakashi whispered. He looked up and found Tenzou beaming.

Tenzou grabbed Kakashi and pulled him into a tight hug. “I’m so happy for you. You’re going to be so much happier.”

Kakashi frowned. “I didn’t think I was unhappy?”

Tenzou snorted. “Your favorite missions are the ones where you get to help people and those are precious few in the anbu.” He looked Kakashi dead in the eyes with an earnest expression. “You’ll be missed in the anbu, but we’ll just end up hiring two or three other people to do your job and we’ll be fine. You can do a lot more good when you aren’t being kept on reserve for anbu missions.”

Kakashi hadn’t thought of it that way. “I’m going to miss working with you.”

Tenzou shrugged. “We were bound to get separated eventually. The Root work is taking more and more of my time. This doesn’t mean we aren’t going to see each other. I’m still going to show up and eat all your food. I’m still going to try to keep your poor houseplants alive. And who knows, I might get out of anbu once Root is gone.”

Kakashi let out a deep breath and let himself smile.

“Besides,” Tenzou grinned back. “You and I will always be Team Rho.”

It was hard to say goodbye to Tenzou. Despite what the younger man said, Kakashi knew when he came back to the village, things would be different. He tried to hold onto Tenzou’s optimism. Maybe, it would be better.

Once Tenzou was gone, Kakashi turned his whole attention back to the boys.

Sasuke was still sleeping and Naruto was still watching him.

“What happens now?” Naruto asked in a small voice.

Kakashi smiled and stretched. “It’s vacation time. We’re going to get out of town for a while.”

Naruto’s eyes widened. “I’m not in trouble?”

Kakashi shook his head. “Nope. In fact, I’m proud of you. We can get ramen before we head out of town and we’ll stop for ice cream sometime before dinner.”

Naruto’s face was a mess of confusion that spilled over into tears. “But...but… I hurt someone,” he wailed.

Kakashi scooped Naruto up like he used to do when Naruto was small. “Do you remember my number 1 shinobi rule?” Kakashi asked.

Naruto whimpered. “In the ninja world, those who break the rules are scum, but those who abandon their friends are worse than scum,” he whispered and rubbed his face.

Kakashi nodded. He bounced Naruto lightly. “Did you break any rules?” he asked

“I attacked another student.”

“Why did you attack another student?”

“He hurt Sasuke. He was going to kill him. I thought he did kill him,” Naruto hugged Kakashi and hid his tears in Kakashi’s shoulder.

Kakashi hummed and rubbed Naruto’s back. “It doesn’t really matter how you attacked the other kid, you got in a fight. That’s not good and you need to avoid that if you can. These kids could be your teammates someday. That said, I’m never going to be mad at you for protecting yourself or your friends. Got it?”

Naruto nodded slowly.

“You kind of went overboard on the protecting this time, but hey it happens. We’re going to figure out how to control the Fox and next time you won’t be trying to do the chakra equivalent of filling a bucket from a waterfall.”

Naruto nodded again. “Where are we going?”

---

Kakashi insisted Naruto nap before packing and the jounin used the time to shower and steal some sleep himself. In the end, the three of them didn’t hit the road until evening.

They got ramen to go and Kakashi paid a farmer who was heading the same way as them to let them ride through the night in his cart.

As the village faded into the night, Kakashi told the boys about the place they were going and the summers he’d spent there as a little kid.

The boys fell asleep to the sound of Kakashi’s voice and the swaying of the cart.

Chapter Text

It took almost 2 days to get to the hot springs. Kakashi hired a ride as often as he could, but they walked a good chunk of the way and finished the journey on foot once their trail branched off the main road.

 

Naruto and Sasuke were both quiet. 

 

Kakashi filled some of the silence by telling stories or pointing out trees and plants that were useful to a shinobi.

 

Sometimes, they walked with just the birdsong for noise.

 

They village at the base of the Mt. Ishi was small, just a handful of homes, a few stores, an inn, and the spa.

 

Kakashi promised they’d be back in the evening to buy supplies, but he wanted to check out the cabin first.

 

Naruto and Sasuke both stared at the little village with wide eyes. It was so different from Kohona. All the homes were wood with little yards carved from the forest underbrush and sunlight filtered down onto the dirt paths between pine needles. No one was in a hurry and everyone nodded to the newcomers with a smile.

 

A woman was hanging out her washing on the line when Kakashi and the boys passed by. She waved at them with a smile. 

 

Naruto ducked his head and waited for her to recognize them.

 

The woman giggled. “Cute kids,” she called.

 

Kakashi nodded back. “Yeah. They’re pretty cute, just a bit shy.” He ruffled Naruto’s hair.

 

The blond cautiously lifted his head and waved back at the woman. 

 

She beamed. “No need to be shy here. Guests are always welcome!”

 

Kakashi thanked the woman and they continued on their way.

 

It was only a 10 minute walk from the village to the cabin, but it took them another 10 minutes to actually find the cabin.

 

In the years since Kakashi’s childhood, the forest had reclaimed the path and begun work on the cabin. The small clearing around the building was now half full of blueberry bushes, but Kakashi could still hear the stream running behind the house, so the land couldn’t have changed too much.

 

The boys looked at the log house with its crumbled chimney with open skepticism. The bushes on either side of the door nearly overwhelmed the house.

 

Kakashi just grinned and clapped his hands. “Looks like we’ll be doing some chores before we get settled in,” he announced.

 

Naruto groaned. “It’ll take a lot more than some chores to get this place in shape. No offense, it’s kind of a dump.”

 

Sasuke rolled his eyes at Naruto, but privately he had to agree.

 

 Kakashi clutched his chest and sighed, over the top dramatic. “You hurt me. You haven’t even seen the inside.”

 

“Fine. Fine,” Naruto muttered. 

 

Kakashi fished a key out of his pack and unlocked the door. The cabin was pitch black inside.

 

Naruto shook his head. He wasn’t going to be the first one to go in.

 

“I’ve got it,” Sasuke said. He stepped forward and surprised Kakashi by calling a flicker of fire chakra to the palm of his hand. 

 

Kakashi stepped aside and invited Sasuke to take the lead.

 

The inside of the cabin was eerie. Weak sunlight filtered through green leaves. Every step sent up a cloud of dust. Somewhere, a mouse or squirrel scrambled into hiding.

 

Inside the door, was a small living room. A faded couch crouched against one wall and a wood burning stove filled the opposite corner.

 

Kakashi motioned for the boys to wait and headed through an open doorway to the kitchen. An old kerosene lamp was sitting on the rickety table, just as it had been left the last time Kakashi was here. 

 

Kakashi returned with the lamp to find the two boys pressed back to back. Naruto had a kunai in his hand and Sasuke was holding the ball of fire high.

 

“Something’s in here,” Naruto hissed.

 

The scratch of claws on hardwood made the boys jump. Naruto hurled his kunai and Kakashi laughed.

 

The kunai stuck in the wood floor a couple inches in front of an indignant looking squirrel.

 

“Didn’t know you were scared of squirrels,” Kakashi said dryly. “A kunai is probably overkill.” 

 

The squirrel recovered its wits enough to chatter angrily at his new housemates and scamper away. 

 

“We’ll figure out how to evict him eventually.” Kakashi shrugged. “For now, let’s get some more light in here and start cleaning.”

 

Kakashi went outside to clear the windows and left the boys with the lantern, a broom, a bucket of soapy water, and two mops.

 

Kakashi used a kunai to scrape the vines off of the glass panes and peered in the window. 

 

Naruto was using the broom to fling dust everywhere, but mostly at Sasuke.

 

Sasuke sputtered and grabbed a mop. It wasn’t quite as effective at flinging dust as Naruto’s broom, but it worked well enough.

 

Kakashi could hear them both laughing and the knot in his chest loosened. Kakashi felt in his bones that coming here was definitely the right decision.

 

It took most of the day to get the main floor clean.

 

Once Naruto and Sasuke finished covering each other head to toe in dust, they actually swept and Kakashi helped mop. 

 

With the three of them running passes back and forth across the wooden floor, it went faster.

 

Kakashi put Naruto on his shoulders, so the boy could reach with the broom to knock down the spider webs in the corners of the ceiling.

 

Midafternoon, they broke for lunch. 

 

Kakashi fished instant ramen out of their bags and Naruto broke into a wide grin. 

 

Sasuke rolled his eyes, but scarfed down a cup of noodles without complaint.

 

After lunch, they headed upstairs. 

 

The second floor was all one room. It’s sides sloped up to a peak with the roofline and the remains of three straw mattresses were the only furniture.

 

“Those need to go,” Kakashi said. He’d slept in some pretty questionable places during missions, but he still had to suppress a shudder at the thought of sleeping on rotted straw and squirrel droppings.

 

Hauling the mattresses back downstairs and outside meant they needed to re-clean part of the downstairs. 

 

In the end, Kakashi laid out three sleeping mats and their sleeping bags. If it worked for sleeping on the road, it’d work here.

 

The trio stood around to survey their handiwork. 

 

Late afternoon sunlight filtered in the windows and the light from the wood stove danced along the walls merrily. The old couch wasn’t so bad now that it had been cleaned and both boys sank onto the couch like it was the most comfortable thing they’d ever encountered. Kakashi  plopped down on the old woven rug in front of the fireplace and sighed with contentment. Though sparsely furnished, the cabin felt cheery and homey.

 

This high in the mountains, night brought a chill. Kakashi figured they’d need to run the stove from evening to morning, so chopping wood needed to be added to the list of chores. He’d found enough wood outback to last them through the night, but that was it. 

 

For a while no one spoke. The flames in the stove danced and the wood crackled merrily. 

 

The quiet was interrupted by Naruto’s stomach growling. Naruto clutched his stomach and glared down at it as if that would silence it.

 

Kakashi chuckled and stood up. “How about we go down to town? We can have a hot bath and dinner?” 

 

Both boys were on their feet in an instant.

 

The walk to town was pleasant. The birds were singing and the scent of pine hung heavy and fresh in the air.

 

Kakashi hummed softly and Naruto thought he hadn’t seen the man so relaxed in ages.

 

Sasuke’s eyes scanned the underbrush off the path and was the first one to see the deer. He tugged on Kakashi’s vest and pointed. “They’re a lot bigger than the Nara’s deer.”

 

Kakashi nodded. “Yeah. They’re a whole different species.”

 

A smile crept onto Sasuke’s face. It finally sunk in that they weren’t in Kohona anymore.

 

At the bathhouse, the trio showered and scrubbed the dust out of their hair.

 

Kakashi was done and made his way to the hottest of the springs. He left his forehead protector on his towel, but kept his mask in place. There were few other patrons and no one bothered to question his mask.

 

Kakashi sunk into the water until just his nose and eyes were above water. He closed both eyes and let the warmth wash away all the aches and pains. It was the first time since he’d left on the escort mission that Kakashi had a chance to relax.

 

Naruto and Sasuke both stepped out of the showers and stared. The 5 hot spring pools were big enough to swim laps in. The ground between them was sandy and soft between toes, but the pools themselves were rocky. A shelf had been carved out underwater for sitting. They could barely see Kakashi through the steam in the air.

 

Sasuke was the first one to venture out of the shower building. He stuck a toe in the pool Kakashi was in and promptly jerked it back out. The water was nearly boiling. Sasuke moved onto the next pool. He tested all of them before deciding on the middle pool.

 

Sasuke dropped his towel and slipped in without a splash. 

 

Naruto followed behind and hesitated at the edge of the pool.

 

Sasuke floated to the surface and raised an eyebrow at Naruto. “Going to stand there all night?”

 

Naruto chewed on his lip and looked around. There was no one else in this pool. At a cooler pool, a couple younger kids splashed around under the watch of an old man. There was another person in the hottest pool on the opposite side from Kakashi. No one seemed to be looking Naruto and Sasuke’s way. 

 

Naruto dropped his towel and jumped in. There was a splash and he surfaced to a glaring Sasuke.

 

“Seriously?” Sasuke asked. “Why do you have to always be so loud? It’s peaceful here.”

 

Naruto glared back. “I didn’t want anyone to see my seal,” he hissed back at a whisper.

 

Sasuke’s eyes widened. 

 

“No one here knows who I am. They aren’t scared of me and it’s really nice. I’d like it to stay that way as long as I can,” Naruto added more gently.

 

Sasuke nodded. He understood that.

 

The two boys relaxed in the warmth for a while. They sat on the ledges and watched the steam spiral into the sky as the sun set and the stars began to appear.

 

Too soon, Kakashi was at the edge of the pool calling for the boys to get out. “I don’t know about the two of you, but I’m starving!” the jounin declared.

 

Sasuke immediately swam to the edge of the pool and climbed out. 

 

Naruto trailed behind, trying to figure out the best way to get out of the pool. 

 

Sasuke grabbed Naruto’s towel and tossed it to the blond. 

 

With the towel around his waist, Naruto climbed out of the pool and followed Sasuke and Kakashi back into the changing area.

 

Kakashi was the first dressed and promised to wait outside for the boys.

 

When they were both almost dressed, Sasuke broke the silence. “Naruto?” Sasuke asked.

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Can I see your seal?” There was genuine curiosity in Sasuke’s voice.

 

Naruto balked. He whipped around and stared at Sasuke. He searched Sasuke’s face for any sort of emotion, but there wasn’t any of the disgust, anger, or fear on the Uchiha’s face that Naruto had come to expect from people.

 

Sasuke could see the discomfort on Naruto’s face. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” he added quickly.

 

Naruto licked his lips. “It’s okay. Just people usually prefer to pretend that I’m normal. They don’t like it when I remind them I’m not.” He pulled up his shirt and looked away from Sasuke. He didn’t see Sasuke’s eyes spin red as the Uchiha considered the seal and all that it meant.

 

“It’s kind of pretty,” Sasuke said after a few seconds.

 

Naruto pulled his shirt back down and shook his head. “I used to think it was before I knew what it did.” 

 

“Crazy that something so simple can contain something so powerful,” Sasuke muttered. 

 

Naruto hugged himself and shivered. He didn’t like thinking about what lived inside of him, even less so now that he’d had a taste of how powerful the Fox was.

 

Sasuke stopped his foot suddenly and Naruto started. Anger wrinkled Sasuke’s face and his eyes glowed like coals. “It’s not fair,” Sasuke snapped. “It’s not fair that people treat you the way they do.”

 

Naruto blinked in surprise. Then he smiled. “It’s okay. Really. It is. They’re just scared. Someday, I’ll show them they don’t have to be afraid.”

 

Sasuke’s sharingan faded away, but he still frowned. “None of it’s fair. I see the way people in the village stare and whisper behind their hands. They do it to you and Kakashi and me. I’m sure they do it to others too. They count on shinobis and our abilities to protect them and then treat us like freaks for those same abilities.”

 

Naruto put a hand on Sasuke’s shoulder. “Strong people are always scary. It’s up to us to prove that we’ll use our strength for good. That’s why I’m going to become hokage.”

 

Sasuke shoot his head and shrugged off Naruto’s hand. “What even is a hokage?” he muttered. “I’ve never seen ours do much good.”

 

Naruto frowned at that. “I don’t know much about the Third, but Kakashi talks about the Fourth sometimes. Kakashi says the Fourth loved the whole village, even when they didn’t believe in him. He always saw the good in people and as hokage he was able to protect that good and bring it out. The village was a better place under the Fourth.” A grin worked its way onto Naruto’s face. “That’s the sort of hokage I’m going to be.” 

 

Sasuke looked at Naruto and his eyes widened and his face softened. “I guess my heart isn’t as big as yours. I can’t love that many people. You’ll be a great hokage though.”

 

Naruto’s stomach rumbled, cutting off the rest of the conversation.

 

“Come on Mr. Future Hokage. Let’s get some dinner,” Sasuke said.

 

After dinner, the main store was closed, but Kakashi managed to buy some breakfast supplies from the inn. They’d need to pick up actual groceries tomorrow.

 

That night, the boys were asleep as soon as their heads hit their pillows.

 

Kakashi laid awake for a while longer. It was quiet at the cabin, even quieter than his home on the outskirts of the village. Darker too.

 

With darkness as its canvas, Kakashi’s sharingan painted memories. Tonight, for once, it chose happy ones-- dinner with the Uzumakis and Rin, fishing with Minato Sensei, Bisuke as a puppy, Naruto’s first steps, and a Tenzou’s face when they stopped at the Fire Dynamo’s gardens on the way home from a mission.

 

Kakashi relaxed further into his sleeping bag and let sleep claim him.

Chapter Text

The giggling woke Kakashi. He opened his eyes to 2 faces inches from his own and nearly jumped out of his skin.

 

Naruto rocked back on his heels and let out a sigh. “Woooh. We thought you were in a coma or something,” Naruto said with a grin. 

 

Sasuke rolled his eyes and smirked. “Only Naruto was worried.”

 

Kakashi sat up and rubbed his face. Both boys were dressed and their sleeping bags were neatly arranged. “What time is it?” Kakashi asked groggily.

 

“Almost 10,” Sasuke said. 

 

Kakashi blinked in surprise. He hadn’t slept that late in years, but without windows up in the loft his internal clock seemed to have failed.

 

“Sasuke’s been up since 8 and he woke me up just after that,” Naruto complained.

 

Sasuke grabbed a nearby pillow and threw it at Naruto. “You were talking in your sleep and it was annoying.”

 

Naruto sniffed and glared.

 

Kakashi knew he needed to work fast if he wanted to avoid a full on pillow fight. At this close of quarters, there was no way he wouldn’t get caught in the crossfire. “You guys want breakfast? I’ll make pancakes and eggs.”

 

Naruto cheered and Sasuke grinned.

 

Sasuke volunteered to do the breakfast dishes. He hummed softly to himself as he worked.

 

Kakashi quietly pulled Naruto into the other room.

 

Naruto looked at Kakashi with curiosity. 

 

“Do you think you’d be comfortable keeping yourself busy today?” Kakashi asked.

 

Naruto shrugged.

 

“We can’t start your training until we know that your seal is alright. I’m sure it’s fine, but the hokage insisted,” Kakashi started.

 

Naruto nodded. They’d already gone over that.

 

“I’d like to start helping Sasuke with his sharingan,” Kakashi continued. He touched his forehead protector where it slanted over his own sharingan. “I think Sasuke would be more comfortable if he didn’t have someone else watching his training until he had the basics down.”

 

Understanding bloomed in Naruto’s eyes. “I get it. I don’t like when people watch over my shoulder either. I’ll stay out of trouble.” He said it with a smile, but Kakashi could see a hint of sadness in Naruto’s eyes.

 

“As soon as this seal expert gets here and you’re cleared to train, we can take a day and just you and I work,” Kakashi promised.

 

Naruto brightened immediately. He was doing his best to not be jealous about having to share Kakashi, but it would be really nice to have Kakashi to himself just for a bit.

 

Kakashi ruffled Naruto’s hair. “I’m really proud of you, you know that right? You’re a great friend.”

 

Naruto leaned forward and hugged Kakashi. “Love you,” Naruto mumbled.

 

“Love you, too.”

 

The two separated and Kakashi pulled out his wallet. “How about you go into town for a while? You can explore and get yourself lunch. Maybe bring home some more supplies. The big store should be open today.”

 

Naruto nodded eagerly. “I can do that!” He grabbed the offered money and bolted for the door.

 

“Be back in time for dinner,” Kakashi ordered.

 

Naruto just waved as the door closed behind him.

 

---

 

Sasuke wasn’t sure what he expected being trained by Kakashi to look like, but this wasn’t it.

 

They were laying in the meadow behind the cabin, just watching the clouds drift across the blue sky. It’d been 30 minutes, and Kakashi showed no signs of talking or moving. Sasuke would have thought the ninja was asleep if his uncovered eye wasn’t open.

 

Just when Sasuke was about at his patience’s end, Kakashi broke the silence.

 

“How are you doing?” Kakashi asked. He didn’t look at Sasuke, just kept watching the clouds.

 

Sasuke frowned. He wasn’t sure what that had to do with training and he said so.

 

“Do you know what causes the sharingan to manifest?” Kakashi asked.

 

“Training?” Sasuke said it like a question.

 

“Nope. That’s the Hyuga’s byakugan. Most people think the sharingan is the same because it’s rare for younger children to manifest it, but that's mostly coincidence.”

 

Sasuke frowned.

 

A bird flew overhead and Kakashi followed the path of a bumblebee with his gaze. “Your emotions triggered your sharingan to active,” Kakashi explained. “Uchihas don’t usually talk about how they awaken their eyes, but I got Itachi to talk about it once. Intense fear, anger, or guilt are usually the triggers, but any strong emotion can do it. So I’ll ask again, how are you doing?”

 

Sasuke sat up and regarded Kakashi cautiously. The boy’s expression was guarded and he seemed to be picking his words carefully. “I was scared. I thought Hikaru was going to kill me and then I thought he was going to kill Naruto. I was scared and I was so angry, because it wasn’t fair,” Sasuke hesitated and fidgeted with the grass beside his knee. “But I was also happy that Naruto stood up for me and that made me even angrier when he got hurt. I don’t even know when my eyes changed in the fight.”

 

Kakashi nodded. “And how about now? How do you feel?”

 

Sasuke picked at the grass beside him, piling the blades into a little mound while he considered his answer. “I’m not angry or scared now. I’m still happy that I have friends like you and Naruto and I’m happy to be here,” the frown on Sasuke’s face contradicted his words. Sasuke licked his lips and pressed his hand to his chest, “but I can feel all that anger and sadness just under the surface.”

 

Kakashi nodded again. “You’ll have to learn to master those emotions in order to master the sharingan.” Kakashi pushed his forehead protector up and sat up. He met Sasuke’s questioning eyes with a mismatched stare. “I guess I got the easy way. My sharingan is always active. Because it’s not actually mine, I have limited control. If I don’t cover it, it’ll consume all of my chakra and kill me.”

 

Sasuke’s eyes widened. He’d been wondering why Kakashi always kept that eye covered. 

 

“It’s my understanding that your eyes will shift in and out of the sharingan depending on your emotions until you have control. Once you have control of your emotions, you can control your eyes by directing your chakra to them or away from them,” Kakashi finished.

 

Sasuke nodded. “How do I get control?” he asked. “I feel like I’m always standing on the edge of a cliff and all it takes is one little thing to push me over the edge. I get angry so easy and all I can do is pretend I’m not.” Tears were welling up in Sasuke’s eyes.

 

Kakashi sighed. “I don’t have a good answer for you. You’ve been through a lot and it will take time for your heart and mind to heal. Bottling everything up isn’t good though.”

 

Sasuke frowned. It wasn’t the answer he’d been wanting and Kakashi could see that on Sasuke’s face.

 

“Itachi used to mediate before mission. He talked about focusing on an idea or an objective rather than his emotions as a way to take control,” Kakashi added.

 

That made sense to Sasuke. When he focused on something other than the anger clawing at his stomach or the fear squeezing his throat, it was easier to keep moving and functioning. It made sense that the sharingan would work the same way.

 

“Do you know how Itachi awakened his eyes?” Sasuke asked.

 

Kakashi sighed, deciding whether the truth or a lie would be kinder.

 

He’d heard the story once.

 

It’d been after one of his last anbu missions with Itachi. The mission had been unpleasant and when the backcountry inn they stopped at offered the anbu team alcohol, none of them had said no. Itachi had been slightly tipsy. 

 

Itach and Kakashi were sitting at the bar when Itachi leaned over and asked Kakashi, “Do you ever dream his memories?”

 

Kakashi had frowned, confused. “Who’s memories?”


Itachi tapped Kakashi’s hidden sharingan. “Obito’s.”

 

Obito’s name had hit Kakashi like a gut punch. It was so unexpected. He choked on his drink and Itachi patted his back. 

 

“I suppose you might not. Obito only awakened his eyes just before he died, so most of the memories you have in that eye are your own.” Itachi said. He sipped his drink. “It’s still kind of weird though. I always dream about the day my eyes opened. Usually that’s burned deep into them.”

 

That’s when Kakashi’s nightmares made sudden sense. Fighting from the wrong position and then being trapped, pinned helpless and dying.

 

That night was one of the only times in his life that Kakashi over drank. It was also the only time Uchiha Itachi ever answered direct questions about the sharingan and himself without hesitation.

 

Kakashi decided to tell Sasuke the truth. If it would help the kid understand in the same way it had helped Kakashi, it was worth the weight of a little more sorrow on Sasuke’s narrow shoulders. “Itachi’s genin teammates were killed on a mission. It happened fast and there was nothing Itachi could do to save them. He always said they were his first real friends.”

 

Sasuke closed his eyes. He wasn’t so different from his brother after all. Fear of that same loss had opened Sasuke’s eyes. “Thank you,” Sasuke said after a minute. “Thank you for telling me the truth.”

 

Kakashi scooted closer and ruffled Sasuke’s hair like he did to Naruto. “You’re a smart kid and you deserve the truth.”

 

Sasuke opened his eyes and met Kakashi’s sharingan with his own. “I think I’ll get the hang of this pretty quick,” he said as his eyes faded back to black.

 

Kakashi grinned. “I figured you would.” He pulled his forehead protector back down over his own sharingan. “You should try to use your eyes outside of battle too,” Kakashi added.

 

“Isn’t that a waste of chakra?”

 

Kakashi shrugged. “Yeah, but it’ll save your sanity. Those eyes record everything they see and they have a tendency to replay those memories in your dreams. It’s a lot nicer when they have something to recall beyond fighting.”

 

Sasuke still didn’t look convinced.

 

“Your body was made to use the sharingan, so the drain on your body will be a lot less than what I feel especially as you train and get more efficient in your chakra use. Plus, you’ve got a naturally big chakra reserve and the more you train the bigger that will get. Trust me, it’s worth it.”

 

Sasuke nodded. His eyes shifted and he flopped back in the grass. “This wouldn’t be a bad place to dream about all the time,” he said.

 

Kakashi smiled. “My thoughts exactly.”

 

The two of them spent the rest of the morning relaxing in the meadow and exploring the nearby forest. 

 

Sasuke’s eyes stayed crimson as he smiled and waded into the creek after a big frog.

 

After lunch, Sasuke helped collect kindling while Kakashi chopped firewood and then Kakashi put him through his taijutsu exercises.

 

Sometimes, with the distractions, Sasuke would lose his grip on his chakra and his sharingan would fade away. He was too happy here for it to linger without intentional activation.

 

Sasuke was always quick to reactivate his eyes when his control slipped.

 

Kakashi was impressed. He hadn’t expected Sasuke to figure it out anywhere near so quick, but if nothing else Sasuke always seemed to have impressive self-control.

 

The sun was sinking down behind the slopes of Mt. Ishi when Kakashi called it quits for the day. He suggested they head towards town and see if they could meet up with Naruto to help carry groceries.

 

Sasuke covered a yawn and followed Kakashi to town. As they walked, he released his sharingan and relaxed. He was tired, and he knew he’d sleep well that night. 

 

---

 

After poking his head in all the shops and deciding which ones he was going to come back to, Naruto spent the morning following different trails into the forest.

 

Midmorning, he stumbled onto a clearing where the deer had been bedded down for the night and were now grazing on grass and wildflowers.

 

Naruto stood frozen as the deer regarded him with cautious eyes and then went back to grazing.

 

A breeze ruffled Naruto’s hair, but still he didn’t move. Naruto didn’t want to scare the deer off. He’d never been this close to one before and they were beautiful with their rich brown fur that turned gold in the sunlight. 

 

Everything about the scene felt like a beautiful dream. he sun was bright and the flowers in the meadow seemed to glow.

 

The deer went about their business with no fear.

 

From the middle of the herd, a doe made her way towards Naruto with her spotted fawn close behind.

 

The doe stopped a few feet from Naruto and watched him with brown eyes like warm honey.

 

Naruto smiled. “You’re beautiful,” he whispered.

 

The doe tossed her head and her baby stepped closer to sniff at Naruto’s pant leg.

 

The herd let Naruto wander the meadow with them. Naruto wondered if the deer could sense the Fox inside of him. He wondered if they thought he was some sort of kindred spirit, wild and not totally human at heart. Or maybe they just didn’t consider him a threat.

 

Suddenly, the deers’ ears flickered. It was all the warning Naruto got before the herd took off running. One of them had decided it was time to move onto greener pastures.

 

Naruto hesitated as the deer surged past him. The fawn danced around him and pushed at him with its muzzle. Naruto laughed and broke into a wide grin. “Okay, I’m going,” he said.

 

Naruto ran with the deer. 

 

A fallen log blocked their path and Naruto jumped it just like all the others. A wild laugh tore itself from the boy’s lips. It felt good to run for the sake of running. It felt good to be outside. It felt good to have no one’s eyes on him. 

 

It wasn’t long before the deer left Naruto behind, dusty and grinning. Naruto waved and yelled after the deer, “Thanks for the race!”

 

Noon found Naruto wading in a stream, with his pants rolled up past his knees, and trying to scoop up minnows. The fish were fast, but they glittered in the sunlight and Naruto wanted to get a better look at their scales.

 

Hunger finally drove Naruto back towards town. 

 

On the way, he spotted a clump of the most beautiful, bright pink flowers he’d ever seen. Naruto wished Tenzou were here to see them. 

 

On impulse, he picked a single blossom and tucked it in his pocket. Even if it was all the way dried out by the time they went back to Kohona, maybe Tenzou could still grow a new plant from it.

 

Naruto arrived back in town covered head to toe in dust from running with the deer. There was mud on his shoes from the stream bank and his hair was full of twigs and pine needles. 

 

When he caught sight of his reflection in a store window, Naruto winced. There was no way the inn would let him eat lunch there looking like this.

 

Naruto opted for a trip to the hot springs first. Breakfast had been large and he could wait a bit for lunch.

 

There were more people in the pools today, but no one seemed to be watching closely and no one questioned it when Naruto didn’t take off his towel until he was in the pool.

 

For a bit, Naruto sat on the ledge, content to watch the steam dance in the gentle breeze.

 

After a while, Naruto got bored and started watching the other patrons. They were mainly young children with their parents and a handful of elderly.

 

A few kids much younger than Naruto splashed in the coolest pool. A handful of people were laying on towels beside the pools. One man was even reading.

 

It was an older man that finally caught Naruto’s attention. He was in the middle pool with Naruto, but he was at the far end of the pool, by the wall that separated the men’s and women’s bathing areas. The man was floating facing the wall with his arms and chin resting on the edge of the pool.

 

Naruto swam closer to investigate. He thought the man might be asleep, but as he got closer he could see the man’s eyes were open.

 

The man didn’t look like anyone Naruto had seen before. He had long, white hair like Kakashi’s father had in some pictures and he had narrow streaks tattooed down his face beneath his eyes kind of like the Inuzukas’.

 

“What are you doing?” Naruto asked.

 

The man jumped and scrambled back from the edge of the pool.

 

Naruto cocked his head to the side and watched as the man’s mouth opened and closed a few times without any sound. 

 

Jiraiya was having a nice morning. He’d decided to take a day to relax before worrying about tracking down the Hatake cabin somewhere up on the mountain and dealing with that whole complicated situation. Breakfast at the inn was nice and the hot springs were perfect. He’d just found the perfect spot to do some research when some little kid had to interrupt.

 

Jiraiya whipped around, intending to tell the kid to get lost and go bother his parents, when he found himself face to face with Namikaze Minato’s ghost.

 

Naruto frowned at the man and then glanced at the wall where the man had been staring. There was a crack and the women’s bathing area was visible. Naruto’s eyes narrowed further. 

 

“What are you? Some sort of pervert?” Naruto demanded, hands on hips, full on glaring at the still sputtering man.

 

“No. I’m not a pervert. I was just doing research. You see I’m a---”

 

“I’m telling!” Naruto announced. 

 

He turned to go and Jiraiya grabbed him by the arm. “I swear I’m not a pervert. I’ll do whatever you want, just don’t make a fuss. I’ll leave right now if you want.”

 

Slowly an evil grin spread across Naruto’s face. “Okay. You can buy me lunch and promise to quit being creepy.”

 

Jiraiya nodded quickly.

 

Four bowls of ramen later, Jiraiya wasn’t sure he’d made the right choice. The boy, he eventually introduced himself as Naruto and wasn’t that just like a sucker punch, was like a bottomless pit.

 

Jiraiya himself had no appetite. It really felt like he was having lunch with a ghost right down to the way the kid chattered with the waitress.

 

“Where’s your dad and brother?”

 

“They’re training. I get the day off,” Naruto replied.

 

“Oh! That’s nice. And you even get to spend it with your grandpa.” The waitress smiled.

 

Naruto shrugged. “He’s not actually my grandpa. He’s some sort of pervert I met at the hot springs, but he promised he’d buy me lunch if I didn’t make a fuss.”

 

Naruto’s words took a second to register with Jiraiya who quickly grabbed the boy in a head lock and ruffled his hair. “Kid’s got some imagination, huh?” he beamed at the waitress.

 

The waitress didn’t look convinced, but she didn’t argue, just walked away quickly.

 

Jiraiya let go of Naruto and breathed a sigh of relief. 

 

Naruto tried to straighten his hair and glared at Jiraiya. “Well, thanks for lunch.” he hopped off his seat. “Remember, you promised to stop being creepy. Next time I’ll tell and you’ll be in so much trouble.”

 

Jiraiya nodded. He wasn’t really listening. His eyes were on the seal just visible between the hem of Naruto’s shirt and the waistband of his pants when the kid moved.

 

Naruto left with a wave over his shoulder and a cheeky grin. 

 

Jiraiya watched the kid go. The legendary sage felt like there was a rock in his stomach. Around the main seal, which looked like classic Uzumaki work, was a second seal that should never have been there.

 

Jiraiya paid and left quickly. He had actual research to do now.

 

---

 

Kakashi and Sasuke met Naruto halfway between the cabin and town. Naruto was taking a break from lugging a heavy backpack of supplies. 

 

Kakashi looked between the two boys. They both looked exhausted, so he waved off their offers to help carrying the supplies and shouldered the backpack.

 

As they walked, the boys talked about their days. Sasuke seemed excited about how quickly he was gaining control of his sharingan. He went on and on about the way he could see everything with his eyes, even the pollen on a honeybee or the individual feathers on one of the birds overhead.

 

Naruto regaled them with stories of friendly deer, rainbow fish, and a free lunch.

 

As Naruto described the “weird, pervy old guy” Kakashi had a sinking feeling in his stomach. How many men could fit Jiraiya’s exact description?

 

After dinner, both boys went to bed early. 

 

Sasuke found himself dreaming of the meadow and the mountains. It was like he was flying through the endless blue sky like one of the clouds.

 

Kakashi couldn’t get to sleep. Finally he gave up.

 

A quick check showed the boys were out cold.

 

Kakashi left them sleeping and slipped out of the cabin.

 

---

 

Jiraiya was right where Kakashi expected him to be, sitting at the bar in the inn. 

 

The Legendary Sannin was sipping sake and staring at the hardwood bar top without really seeing.

 

Kakashi dropped onto the stool beside Jiraiya and waved down the bartender. “One beer please.”

 

Jiraiya flinched at Kakashi’s voice, he shifted to look at his new neighbor and for the second time that day felt like he was looking at a ghost. “Last time I saw you, you weren’t old enough to order a beer,” Jiraiya said. His voice wasn’t as slurred as Kakashi expected.

 

The bartender set down a bottle in front of Kakashi and took payment with a polite nod.

 

Kakashi took a long drink and resisted the urge to grimace. He hated beer, but it was that or sake here and he wasn’t looking to actually get drunk. “You know I was actually thinking this might not go to badly,” Kakashi commented.

 

Jiraiya frowned. “What do you mean?”

 

Kakashi took another drink and set his bottle back down with an audible clunk. “I thought that maybe you’d have grown up in the last 7 years, that you’d show up, do your job, and then leave us alone. Or maybe you’d introduce yourself, do your job, and offer to stick around for a bit and tell Naruto more about his parents.”

 

Jiraiya winced. He opened his mouth to explain. He had meant to do that. He hadn’t meant to run into Naruto at the pool.

 

Kakashi didn’t give Jiraiya a chance to say anything. “Instead, you show up here acting like your same old creepy self and decided to take Naruto out to lunch and play grandpa.” Kakashi turned and looked Jiraiya in the face for the first time. Kakashi’s one visible eyes smoldered. He was pissed.

 

Jiraiya put his hands up in surrender. “Look. It wasn’t my plan. It just kind of happened. I got caught off guard when he was suddenly just in my space. He looks exactly like Minato did at that age.”

 

“You’d have known that if you bothered to check on him in the last 7 years,” Kakashi growled.

 

Jiraiya’s mouth opened, but again Kakashi cut him off. 

 

“Do you even know how he ended up with me? Do you know those people who took him after Minato and Kushina died neglected him? Do you know he spent the first 9 months of his life alone, wasting away, in a crib?” Kakashi demanded. His voice was low and deadly.

 

Jiraiya shook his head. 

 

“He didn’t even know how to cry when I took  him in. He’d been ignored for so long that he’d learned crying didn’t matter because no one was coming for him.”

 

Jiraiya swallowed hard. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I should have checked on him, but I couldn’t stand to come back to the village.” 

 

The bartender set another bottle of sake beside Jiraiya and the Sannin took a big gulp straight from the bottle. 

 

Kakashi waited for the other man to continue with his excuse.

 

“It was just too hard to be there knowing Minato wasn’t. I couldn’t stand looking at the stone faces and the council asked me to take his place as hokage and I just had to get out of there,”Jiraiya explained. “Minato was like a son to me.”

 

“Yeah,” Kakashi snarled. “And he was like a father to me. He was the only family I had.”

 

Jiraiya’s mouth made a little ‘O.’

 

“I tried to talk to you after the funeral. I thought that if anyone would understand how I felt, it would be you. I asked if we could talk about Minato and you told me to get lost. I believe your exact words were, ‘Go screw yourself. I’m grieving and that’s something a friend-killing anbu could never understand.’”

 

Jiraiya’s heart sank. He vaguely remembered that conversation. He’d been drunk and was trying to pack his bags when Kakashi appeared on his windowsill. At the time, Jiraiya thought Kakashi was looking for a new shinobi mentor. It had pissed Jiraiya off that Minato was barely buried and the kid was already trying to replace him. What sort of heartless, little shit would do that? Jiraiya didn’t remember the exact words he used, but he remembered the gist and what Kakashi said fit. 

 

The Sage never even considered that Kakashi had been looking for emotional support. It didn’t fit with the facade the Hatake presented to the

 

While he watched Jiraiya’s face fall, Kakashi sipped his beer. “Don’t get your panties in a bunch. It all turned out fine without you. I’m fine. Naruto’s fine. Should an emotionally stunted and depressed 16 year old orphan have been trusted to raise a baby? Absolutely not, but it all turned out alright. I worked hard to put myself back together and give Naruto a good life. He’s a smart, kind, and all around good kid. He’s happy and he’s healthy.”

 

Jiraiya nodded. “I understand. I have no right to just show up and act like I’m someone to him--”

 

Kakashi cut Jiraiya off for a third time. “You don’t understand. I’m not going to keep you away from Naruto. Your his Godfather and you knew his parents better than I did. I want him to have the chance to learn from you.” Kakashi finished his beer and set the bottle down hard. “But if you hurt him in anyway, I’m going to kill you.” There was no more anger in Kakashi’s voice or face. This wasn’t an angry threat. It was promise and from Kakashi’s expression, it  was one he was 100% confident in his ability to follow through on. 

 

Jiraiya nodded. Without his smile and bravado, he suddenly looked older than before. Life as a wandering sage had obviously not been easy and Kakashi suspected it had been painfully lonely. Kakashi almost felt bad for the Sannin. Maybe, if he hadn’t spent so many years undoing the damage the man had helped do. 

 

It took years for Kakashi to think of himself as anything but friend killer and even more to realize that he needed to address his emotions. 

 

He was still struggling with separating himself from the anbu identity. 

 

Hell, it took Kakashi 9 months to do something about Naruto, because it took that long for Pakkun to convince Kakashi that he was capable of loving someone else after Jiraiya’s grief and alcohol fueled rant.

 

Kakashi stood up and tossed money on the counter. “His drinks are on me,” Kakashi told the bartender with a head jerk at Jiraiya. To Jiraiya, Kakashi said, “I’ll be waiting for you at the cabin tomorrow afternoon. You can check the seal and I’ll make dinner. The boys will probably want to pester you with all sorts of questions, so try not to be too hungover.”

 

As Kakashi walked out of the bar, Jiraiya frowned. Had he said ‘boys?’

 

---

 

The night air was cool on Kakashi’s face. It leached all the leftover anger from him and left him feeling light. 

 

For a minute, Kakashi wondered if he’d been too harsh on the Sannin, but decided the conversation had been long overdue. If Jiraiya wanted to step into Naruto’s life, Jiraiya needed to know exactly what he’d walked away from 7 years ago.

 

Kakashi tilted his head back and let out a deep sigh. His breath hung in the air and overhead the stars glittered. Behind his mask Kakashi smiled. 

 

After all these years, Kakashi was willing to move on. He wouldn’t forget and it would take more than words to make Kakashi forgive, but, for his own sake, Kakashi was willing to let go of the anger he’d been carrying. He was willing to give Jiraiya one chance to prove himself.

 

There was a lightness in Kakashi’s step as he slipped through the shadows and back into the cabin.

 

The boys were sleeping soundly and Kakashi was finally able to join them.

Chapter Text

The two boys hovered in the doorway to the kitchen, unsure if they should go in and greet their guest or not.

 

“So this is the seal expert?” Sasuke edged closer to Naruto and stared at the man currently downing black coffee at their tiny kitchen table. 

 

Kakashi leaned against the kitchen counter with fresh coffee at the ready and just watched. He hadn’t said much since Jiraiya showed up on their doorstep late morning, very hungover.

 

Naruto shrugged.

 

“And the weird pervert from the pool?” Sasuke clarified.

 

Naruto shrugged again. “I guess. Kakashi also said he was some sort of legendary ninja.”

 

Sasuke shook his head. “I don’t buy it. He smells like the town drunk. I’ve read about the Legendary Sannin. This guy can’t be one.”

 

Kakashi poured Jiraiya another mug of black coffee and then retreated from the table again. 

 

Jiraiya chugged the coffee and set the mug down with a groan.

 

“Would you like to take a nap first?” Kakashi offered. “You can use the couch.”

 

Jiraiya waved off the offer. “No. Let’s just get started.”

 

“Are you actually one of the Sannin?” Sasuke couldn’t keep the disbelief out of his voice.

 

Jiraiya jumped and twisted in the chair to see the two boys lurking in the doorway. He frowned and glanced at Kakashi. “Please tell me there are two of them and I’m not hallucinating a second kid?”

 

Kakashi snorted. “Jiraiya- sama, meet Uchiha Sasuke. Sasuke, meet Jiraiya-- wandering Sage, student of Sarutobi Hiruzen the Third Hokage, mentor of Namikaze Minato the Fourth Hokage, and one of the 3 legendary Sannin.”

 

Sasuke raised an eyebrow. “Who is also a drunken pervert?”

 

Jiraiya winced. “I swear I’m not a pervert. I was just doing research for my next book. I’m also a highly successful author.”

 

Sasuke rolled his eyes and leaned against the wall. “Do you know him?” he asked Kakashi.

 

Kakashi shrugged. “We’ve met a few times. I know him well enough to know he’s who he says he is.”

 

“Tch. Guess this is why you should never meet your idols. This guy hardly lives up to his titles,” Sasuke said.

 

Jiraiya looked like he’d been slapped across the face.

 

Naruto snicker and Sasuke smirked.

 

“Alright you little punk. That’s just about enough out of you,” Jiraiya snapped. “You’re lucky I think you’re funny and I don’t hit kids, but you should be careful or that mouth of yours is going to get your ass kicked. Not everyone stronger than you is going to be as nice as me.”

 

“Tch.” Sasuke shook his head and walked away. “I’m going to go train in the meadow.”

 

Naruto looked between the front door that Sasuke had disappeared out of and Kakashi.

 

“You better stay,” Kakashi said. “I think Jiraiya is about ready to get started.”

 

The sage nodded. “Yeah. Hopefully this won’t take long.” he motioned for Naruto to come closer. “Step one is to get a good look at your seal,” Jiraiya explained.

 

Naruto hesitated until Kakashi nodded and then Naruto pulled off his shirt.

 

Jiraiya frowned. The seal was visible, albeit faint, but it shouldn’t be visible unless Naruto was actively using the Nine-Tails’ chakra.

 

“Does it always look like this?” Jiraiya asked.

 

Kakashi nodded. “More or less.”

 

“Sometimes it’s darker and sometimes it’s almost gone,” Naruto added. “But mostly it looks like this.”

 

“You mind if I try something?” Jiraiya asked.

 

Naruto narrowed his eyes at the sage.

 

“It won’t hurt. I just want to see if the seal will react to my chakra,” Jiraiya soothed.

 

“Okay, Naruto relented.

 

Naruto fixed his eyes on the window over Jiraiya’s shoulder while the sage put his hand over the seal and directed a trickle of chakra at it.

 

Kakashi on the other hand watched Jiraiya closely. He was fairly sure Jiraiya wouldn’t hurt Naruto, but he wasn’t going to risk it. Kakashi uncovered his sharingan for a better look at what the sage was doing.

 

After a minute, Jiraiya pulled his hand back and frowned. “You can put your shirt back on. I’ve got a pretty good idea what we’re dealing with now.”

 

Naruto was quick to comply. 

 

“Why don’t you go play with your friend for a bit? I’ve got to check your seal against some of my notes on Uzumaki seals and then we’ll be good to move on to the next test,” Jiraiya suggested. His voice was light and easy. 

 

Naruto relaxed and nodded. He didn’t need to be told twice and darted out the front door.

 

“So what’s wrong?” Kakashi demanded as soon as the front door shut.

 

Jiraiya gestured for Kakashi to take a seat at the table.

 

Kakashi sat down reluctantly. He pulled his forehead protector back down over his sharingan.

 

“Good news is the seal didn’t react to my chakra which means it’s not something that can be broken by any shinobi with a basic knowledge of seals,” Jiraiya started. “The bad news is that there’s more than one seal there and one of them is affecting the others.”

 

Jiraiya pulled a scroll out of the bag he’d brought. “This is the main seal and it’s actually made up of 2 Four Symbol Seals. In theory, this is called  the Eight Trigrams Sealing Style. I say in theory, because I’ve never actually seen it done. Because the 2 Four Symbol Seals don’t overlap, the Tailed Beast’s chakra is able to mix with the host’s. As the symbiotic relationship develops, the seal weakens and will eventually need to be replaced,” Jiraiya explained.

 

Kakashi looked over the scroll. The seal depicted was very similar to Naruto’s. “Is it already weakening?” he asked. “Why does Naruto’s seal have an extra ring around it?”

 

“Naruto’s seal is years away from weakening. As far as I can tell, there’s no Nine-Tails’ chakra currently mixing with Naruto’s. His seal is almost brand new.”

 

“That’s good then,” Kakashi said. He sounded relieved.

 

Jiraiya shook his head. “It’s actually not good. There should be at least a small amount of mixing occurring naturally. His seal should show some wear and tear from that process happening for the last 7 years, but it doesn’t. Which is where the third seal comes in. Someone has added an extra seal over the Eight Trigrams Seal that is completely cutting Naruto off from the Fox’s chakra and any of his own chakra that is naturally tainted by the Fox.”

 

Kakashi’s eye widened.

 

“Kid have trouble gathering chakra, maintaining chakra levels, and controlling the chakra he does manage to scrape together?” Jiraiya asked.

 

Kakashi nodded. 

 

“That all fits then.”

 

“Who added the extra seal and why did they add it?” Kakashi asked.

 

Jiraiya shrugged. “They were probably scared and it was put on as an extra precaution because of the more experimental nature of the Eight Trigrams Seal. It wasn’t a terrible idea at the time this seal was added. It’s only slightly newer than the Eight Trigrams.”

 

Kakashi scoffed. “Not a bad idea other than it impacts his ability to function as a shinobi by restricting his chakra.”

 

Jiraiya made a noncommittal noise. “Were the seal done well, the kid would eventually adjust and as he learned greater chakra control, he’d be able to remove it without an issue. The problem is whoever put the extra seal on did a shitty job.”

 

Kakashi didn’t like the sound of that. “Can you fix it?”

 

Jiraiya shook his head. “No. All I can do is remove it and that presents a serious risk to Naruto’s health.”

 

“What?” Kakashi demanded.

 

“Removing this seal suddenly will put Naruto at risk of being consumed by the Fox. If his will isn’t as strong as the Fox’s, it will take over Naruto’s body and the only option we will have is to redo the seal properly and permanently. It’ll sever Naruto’s connection to all of his chakra,” Jiraiya explained.

 

“So why not just leave the seal?”

 

“Because it’s failing. That’s what happened at the academy. When enough of the Fox’s chakra builds up, it bursts through the seal in an uncontrollable surge. If the seal fails totally, the fully formed chakra cloak that is produced will kill Naruto and free the Fox. As he is, the kid’s a ticking time bomb.”

 

Kakashi sat back in his chair and rubbed his face. “How is the seal breaking any different than the seal being removed?”

 

“Think of the Fox’s chakra as a massive reservoir and the 3 seals as a dam. The Eight Trigrams Seal is a dam with a spillway that lets some water through in a controlled process. The third seal is a plug in the spillway. If we remove the plug and let the water out through the dam, there will be a bit of a surge, but it’ll be manageable assuming Naruto’s got the willpower to match the Fox. If we don’t remove the plug, the dam is going to burst and the flood it unleashes will definitely overwhelm Naruto.”

 

Kakashi sagged in the chair. “This isn’t a choice I can make. It has to be up to Naruto.”

 

Jiraiya nodded. “Is the kid mature enough to understand?”

 

Kakashi didn’t know. “If you end up having to redo the seal, you’ll be signing Naruto’s death warrant.”

 

Jiraiya snorted. “That’s a bit dramatic. There’s plenty of excellent shinobi who don’t use ninjutsu. Pretty sure your ‘eternal rival’ would agree with me.”

 

“Sure, Gai is an excellent shinobi, but he’s not jinchuuriki. The village will not waste the Fox inside someone who can’t use its power. They’ll want to remove the Fox from Naruto and put it in a functional jinchuuriki,” Kakashi countered.

 

Jiraiya opened his mouth to argue that Hiruzen wasn’t that cruel, but the words didn’t come out. In his travels, he’d seen and heard many things. The world was not as peaceful as it seemed. The Hidden Sand had created a new jinchuuriki. Only the Three-Tails remained unsealed. Kakashi could very well be right. The village may not be able to risk having a non-functional jinchuuriki.

 

“Could we wait a while? Give Naruto more time and training, so that when we remove the seal he is in the best position to handle the Fox?” Kakashi asked. There was desperation in his voice. “He’s only 7. He’s just a kid.”

 

Jiraiya shook his head. “When I say he’s a ticking time bomb, I mean it. It wouldn’t even take something major to break the seal. Stubbing his toe or having a nightmare could do it and then everyone in the area is dead.”

 

Kakashi squeezed his eyes closed. He felt like the walls were closing in.

 

“I know you don’t trust me. You have no reason to, but I’m asking you to trust me anyway. I know I’ve been a terrible Godfather, but I do care about Naruto,” Jiraiya’s voice dropped low and gentle. “We can’t wait, but If I have to reseal Naruto, I won’t send him back to the village. I’ve got connections in Ame, the Hidden Rain Village. I could take Naruto and disappear. You and the Uchiha could come too.”

 

Kakashi’s eyes widened. For a heartbeat, he could imagine himself free from the weight of his reputation and mistakes, Sasuke free from the tragedy of his clan and the expectations of his bloodline, Naruto free of the Fox’s influence and the village prejudice. What could they become with a clean start? 

 

In the next heartbeat, Kakashi shuddered. Leaving the village would mean leaving behind the rest of his friends, the rest of his family. Whatever flaws the village might have, Kakashi would always be loyal to his homeland and the people there. It might be easier to build a life elsewhere, but Kakashi would rather fight to change his current home and build a life there among his friends.

 

“I appreciate your offer,” Kakashi said. For the first time, he looked at Jiraiya kindly. “But I don’t think any of us would be willing to leave Kohona.”

 

Jiraiya nodded. “I know how you feel. No matter how far I travel. No matter what I do, my heart always pulls me back to the familiar forest.”

 

Kakashi stood up. “I want to talk to Naruto and explain the situation. It’ll be his choice whether or not to remove the seal, but knowing him, he’ll agree that it’s the best plan. How long do you need to prepare for the removal?”

 

“I’m already ready.”

 

Kakashi found the boys behind the house sparring. 

 

Sasuke’s eyes glowed red with the sharingan and Naruto was growling in frustration at his sudden inability to hit Sasuke.

 

Kakashi just watched for a minute. 

 

Both boys were progressing. For the moment, Sasuke had a distinct advantage as his control of his eyes improved. Naruto though, appeared undeterred.

 

Kakashi whistled and the boys stopped their play fighting.

 

Kakashi waved for them to come closer. “Can you do me a favor?” Kakashi asked Sasuke. 

 

The dark haired boy nodded quickly. 

 

“Would you run into town and pick up some more supplies before the store closes? Jiraiya has a couple more tests he needs to do on Naruto’s seal and the store will be closed before we’re done.”

 

“Sure,” Sasuke said. He took the short list and money that Kakashi handed him and took off towards town with only one backwards glance.

 

Kakashi had a feeling Sasuke knew he was being sent on a meaningless errand.

 

Naruto fidgeted in front of Kakashi. “Something’s wrong with my seal, right?” he asked.

 

Kakashi sighed and explained the problem as simply as he could.

 

Naruto tugged on the hem of his shirt and chewed on his lip. “So if I don’t remove the seal, it could fail at any time and hurt everyone around me?” he clarified.

 

Kakashi nodded.

 

“And if I remove the seal, the Fox is going to try to take control of my body and if it wins, you’ll have to take away all of my chakra?” Naruto’s voice was higher than normal and he looked pale.

 

Kakashi nodded again. “I know it’s an impossible choice, but I can’t make it for you. This is your life and your body. You’ve had enough people make impossible choices for you as is.”

 

Naruto shivered. The sun was sinking behind the mountains, leaving behind a chill. Evening came early in the mountains.

 

“Do you think I can control the Fox?” Naruto asked.

 

Kakashi hesitated and chose his words with care. “I think you are your parents’ son. If anyone is prepared to control the Fox, it’s you.”

 

Kakashi thought of Naruto’s stubbornness and his kind heart, both would help here. The distinctly Uzumaki chakra flowing through Naruto’s system and the specialized Eight Trigrams Seal didn’t hurt either.

 

Naruto nodded. “Let’s get rid of this seal. I’m tired of fighting with one hand tied behind my back and I don’t want you or Sasuke to get hurt by the Fox.”

 

---

 

Kakashi hesitated at the front door of the cabin and looked back over his shoulder. He could see Jiraiya and Naruto sitting on the living room floor. They were cross legged, meditating. 

 

Jiraiya had insisted that Naruto take a minute to settle his mind before they removed the seal. The sage had also insisted that Kakashi and Sasuke not be in the area when the seal was removed.

 

Kakashi was going to meet Sasuke on the road and wait with the Uchiha, but Kakashi’s feet refused to take the final steps out of the house.

 

Naruto sighed. “Go. I’m going to be fine,” the boy called after Kakashi. “I always said I was going to make friends with the Fox.’

 

Kakashi couldn’t help, but smile at Naruto’s optimism. He forced himself to take the final step outside and close the door behind him. He had to have faith in Naruto now.

 

---

 

“Just tell me when you’re ready,” Jiraiya instructed.

 

Naruto nodded. He took one last deep breath and let it out slowly. 

 

Jiraiya was surprised to see Naruto smile. The boy’s blue eyes flashed and a shiver of anticipation raced up his spine. 

 

“I’m ready. Let’s do this. I’ve been waiting for years to meet this Fox,” Naruto declared.

 

Jiraiya grinned back. “That’s the spirit!” The sage pressed his hand to Naruto’s seal and released a pulse of chakra. The outer seal faded and for a heartbeat, nothing else happened.

 

Then, Naruto’s eyes rolled back in his head and he went limp. 

 

Jiraiya made the hand signs for the new seal and situated himself beside the unconscious Naruto, ready just in case.

 

---

 

Naruto felt like he was falling. The world was dark and wind rushed over his skin. All around him he heard a deep laughter echoing.

 

In the distance, a glowing red ember loomed out of the darkness. The red light got larger as Naruto continued to fall. 

 

Naruto plunged into a lake of blood red chakra. I shocked his system like an icy lake and threatened to drown him.

 

Naruto looked up through the water and saw the Fox leering down at him. The laughter became a feral growl that Naruto felt in his bones. 

 

A force tugged Naruto deeper. “Give up child. Stop fighting me. You can’t hope to win,” the voice filled Naruto’s mind, immense and impossible to argue with.

 

Naruto stop swimming.

 

“That’s it. Just relax. Give me control. I will take care of us. We will be unstoppable. Together we will tear apart all those who have hurt us. The rivers will run red with their blood. Never again will we hurt. Never again will we be caged.”

 

Images of destruction flashed through Naruto’s mind and a familiar rage bubbled in his chest. This is what he’d felt fighting Hikaru. 

 

“Yes,” the voice soothed. “We were strong them. We will be strong again. No one will stop us this time.”

 

The voice supplied a picture of Sasuke’s body, bloody and destroyed by the Fox’s claws. “Even the Uchihas won’t control us.”

 

That was enough to break Naruto out of the trance. “I won’t let you hurt him or anyone one else,” Naruto thought back.

 

With a growl of his own, Naruto clawed his way to the surface and found himself sprawling on solid ground before a massive gate.

 

Every muscle in Naruto’s body ached and his skin stung like he’d been burned. He gasped for breath with lungs that felt too small and looked around frantically for the Fox.

 

“Over here,” a voice hissed.

 

Naruto looked back to the gate and found himself face to face with the Nine-Tailed Fox for the first time. “You’re bigger than I expected,” Naruto said.

 

The Fox laughed again and bared its teeth at Naruto. “Strange then that you’re so small.”

 

Naruto shrugged. “I’m not small. I just haven’t hit my growth spurt yet.”

 

“So tell me, Little One, why are you here now? Have you come to bind me in more chains and leash me like your pet? Should I call you Master?” The Fox’s voice was deep and mocking. It paced behind the gate. Its tails twisted and lashed the air, dancing like the flames of a forest fire.

 

Naruto found himself standing and stepping closer to the gate for a better look. The movement of the tails was hypnotic. “No. No more chains,” he said. 

 

“Hmmmm,” that seemed to genuinely surprised the Fox. “Then why are you here?” A red mist of chakra rolled off of the Fox and over Naruto. It pulled the boy closer still.

 

Head buzzing with power, Naruto almost missed the Fox moving. He jumped back just in time to avoid a swipe of the Fox’s paw between the bars. 

 

“You’re stronger than I expected,” the Fox said with a grin.

 

Naruto shook his head and crossed his arms. He stared down the Demon. “You’re not trying all that hard. I thought you’d be more interested in eating me than this.”

 

The Fox chuckled. It laid down and pressed its nose against the gate. “Humans are foolish. They forget so much so quickly. Why would I want to kill you? We are stronger together.”

 

Naruto blinked in surprise. 

 

“I could show you if you open this gate.”

 

Naruto shook his head. “I might not be a genius, but I’m not stupid.”

 

The Fox snickered. Then it yawned. “You’ll open it one day. When you realize that the humans have abandoned you, that they will never see you as anything but a monster, you’ll come back. When you realize that I am the only person in the world who understands you and won’t leave you, you’ll open my cage. I’ll heal your aching heart and we will exact our revenge together.”

 

Naruto scoffed. “Yeah right. You sound just like all the stupid people back home. I’m going to become hokage and prove everyone wrong. I’ll win over the village and I’ll win over you.”

 

The Fox raised an eyebrow. “How’s a weakling like you going to become hokage?”

 

Naruto glared. “I’m not a weakling.”

 

They lapsed into silence, eyes locked in a staring contest.

 

“Perhaps we could come to an agreement?” the Fox said at last. “I am bored locked in the darkness and you seem more reasonable than the others who have caged me. You already removed one seal.”

 

Naruto shifted and narrowed his eyes at the Fox. “What kind of a deal?”

 

The Fox smiled. “Do you see at the bottom of the main gate, there’s a smaller door?”

 

Naruto saw it and nodded.

 

“Opening it will increase the amount of chakra that I can supply to you. The bargain is simple, I will lend you my strength in times of need in exchange for more freedom.”

 

Naruto shivered he didn’t like the way the Fox’s eyes glittered in the dark, they were hungry and full of so much anger.

 

“I want to see perceive the world as you do. Let me see through your eyes and use your senses,” the Fox was trembling with excitement. 

 

Naruto still frowned. “How do I know you won’t try to take over my body again?”

 

“I can’t escape through the little gate and you can close it at anytime, ending our bargain.”

 

Naruto wasn’t convinced.

 

“My last jinchuuriki would open it once in a while in return for my help. We were a good team, but she didn’t listen to me. Had she listened more, maybe she wouldn’t have died,” the Fox added.

 

“Can you tell me more about her? Your last jinchuuriki?” Naruto asked.

 

The Fox nodded. “And more.”

 

Naruto nodded. He stepped forward and undid the small gate’s latch.

 

The Fox’s paw swiped out and pinned Naruto to the ground. 

 

Naruto’s blood ran cold. He couldn’t shove off the paw. It was too heavy. The Fox could drag him into the cage.

 

The Fox laughed and released Naruto. “You really are a child, so naive and innocent. I will keep our deal and I will enjoy watching you learn that the world is not what you have imagined. Someday, you will release me of your own free will.”

 

Another wave of chakra washed over Naruto, sinking into his body. Naruto shook his head, part to clear it and part to disagree. “I’m never going to think like you. I’ll show you that you’re the one who’s wrong about the world. Mr. Fox, you and I are going to be friends someday.”

 

The Fox chuckled again and retreated from the gate, disappearing into the darkness.

 

---

 

Naruto returned to consciousness soaked in sweat and gasping for breath.

 

Jiraiya was standing over him with a relieved expression. “How are you feeling? I thought were going to lose you a couple times. The Fox’s chakra was just rolling off of you.”

 

Naruto sat up and rubbed his head. “He was trying to tempt me into undoing the other seals, but it didn’t work.” Naruto decided not to mention the little gate. He could always close it again.

 

Jiraiya grinned. “That’s what I like to hear.”

 

Naruto’s stomach growled.

 

Jiraiya laughed. “You were out for almost 3 hours. You’re probably starving. I’ll go get Kakashi and Sasuke and we can make dinner.”

 

“How about we just go into town?” Naruto asked. His stomach growled again. “I don’t think I can wait for Kakashi to cook.”

 

Jiraiya nodded. He offered Naruto a hand up and waited while Naruto pulled on a shirt and finished getting ready.

 

It was full dark when Naruto and Jiraiya set off down the road. 

 

The wind tossed Naruto’s hair and brought with it the fresh, clean scent of the pines. Overhead, the stars glittered like a million gems and the crescent moon hung low. 

 

Naruto buzzed with energy. When he and Jiraiya rounded the corner ad spotted two figures on the roadside, Naruto grinned and took off at a sprint.

 

The sound of rapid footsteps was all the warning Kakashi got. He was halfway turned when Naruto slammed into his back and wrapped him in a hug. 

 

“The Fox isn’t nearly as tricky as you had me believing,” Naruto declared.

 

Kakashi smiled and hugged Naruto back. Over Naruto’s head, he saw Jiraiya shaking his head with a smile.

 

Sasuke looked relieved, but didn’t join in the celebrating until Naruto let go of Kakashi and hauled the Uchiha into a group hug. 

 

“Whoo!” Naruto cheered. “Here’s the number 1 jinchuuriki of the leaf, one step closer to becoming hokage.”

 

Kakashi laughed and ruffled Naruto’s hair. “Alright Mr. Number 1. You ready for dinner?”

 

“YEAH!!!”

 

---

 

It was late, but Naruto couldn’t sleep. 

 

After dinner, they’d left Jiraiya at the inn. The sage promised to stick around for a few more days, just to keep an eye on things and Kakashi had invited him to breakfast the next morning.

 

Back at the cabin, Kakashi and Sasuke had insisted on a blow-by-blow of meeting the Nine-Tailed Fox. Again, Naruto left out the part about his bargain with the Fox. For some reason, it felt right in his gut. 

 

The relief on Kakahsi’s face as Naruto describe blowing off the Fox and leaving it fuming in the cage, told Naruto that no one would understand his decision to grant the Fox more freedom.

 

It’d been hours since they all laid down for bed and Naruto still hummed with energy. He was blaming the 8 bowls of ramen he’d had for dinner (a lot even for Naruto) and considered sneaking out to run laps around the cabin, but decided not to risk waking Kakashi. 

 

Instead, Naruto sat up in his sleeping bag and crossed his legs into a meditative stance.

 

It wasn’t hard to find the Fox’s cage inside his mind.

 

“Back again?” The Fox asked. It was laying down just behind the gate.

 

“I can’t sleep,” Naruto said.

 

The Fox huffed. “I gathered that.” There was amusement in its voice. “I’m surprised they let you wander this far from the village.”

 

Naruto shrugged. “I think they wanted me to leave for a while after I lost control at the academy. We scared a lot of people.”

 

The Fox sighed and shifted so it could see Naruto better. “This place feels good. It’s still wild. The whole world used to be like this.”

 

Naruto tilted his head to the side. “How long ago was that?”

 

“Back when I last ran free. Long before the hidden villages were created.”

 

Naruto nodded he decided to take a risk and sat down in front of the gate. “Can you tell me more about your last jinchuuriki?” he asked.

 

The Fox nodded. “Why are you so curious?”

 

“She was my mom.”

 

The Fox barked out a chuckle. “That explains so much. You have no idea.”

 

Naruto smiled. “Kakashi says I’m stubborn like her.”

 

“She was stubborn and fierce. Her temper rivaled mine, but she also had a kind heart. She got herself into all sorts of trouble trying to protect those she considered precious,” a note of fondness crept into the Fox’s voice. “She never wanted to be a jinchuuriki, but she was a good shinobi and did as her village asked. She once told me she felt like she had no choice. Despite that, she treated me well enough.”

 

Naruto’s face fell slightly. “Was she sad?”

 

The Fox snorted. “I don’t know that I can really answer that. We didn’t talk like this often. When she was young and her emotions got the best of her, we spoke and I tried to convince her to free me. She never did. As she grew, we spoke less, but she still visited on occasion and she seemed content with her life. On the days that she permitted me more freedom, I enjoyed the life she showed me.”

 

Naruto nodded. He stretched out on the ground and relaxed. “Why do you hate humans?”

 

The Fox closed his eyes and Naruto thought for a minute that it wasn’t going to answer. “They call me a monster,” the Fox said, “But I never chose to be evil.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“I am no more evil than the fire that sweeps the forest or the storm that rolls across the plains. I am destruction. But I am also the great balancer. Like the fire that clear the way for new growth or the raging storm that brings needed rain. I am neither good or evil. I am chakra incarnate. ”

 

Naruto frowned. He didn’t get it. 

 

“Humans are the real monsters. They can choose what they become and they choose to become bringers of destruction. Everything they do is in pursuit of power. Whole villages are slaughtered. Children are made to fight and kill. They consider life’s only worth to be measured in power,” the Fox continued. His lips curled up in a snarl. “They ripped my last jinchuuriki from her home and family in order to make her my cage. They cared for her only as a weapon, just as they only care about you for your power. When you aren’t needed they would rather you ceased to exist. You aren’t welcome among the humans.”

 

Naruto shuddered. He could see the eyes full of hatred that had followed him his whole life.

“You are the village’s tool and when the time comes, you’ll be happy to be used because it means attention,” the Fox said. “Your whole existence is a testament to the cruelty of humanity.”

 

“Is that why you tried to destroy the village before they sealed you inside of me?” Naruto’s voice was small.

 

The Fox sighed. “No. I didn’t have a choice. I was ripped from your mother and made to destroy the village by a man with crimson eyes.”

 

A series of memories flashed through Naruto’s mind and he knew they belonged to the Fox.

 

Naruto felt the Fox’s anger and horror at being ripped from Kushina. He felt the way the Fox mourned Kushina as they were separated. He felt the Fox settle on revenge. The Fox would rip this interloper from limb to limb and feast on his blood for this. Instead, the Fox had come face to face with the sharingan and the swirling tome had consumed the Fox’s will.

 

Naruto whimpered and the Fox ceased the flow of memories. “I respected your mother. She may have been my prison, but she was also the first human to ever call me a friend. Perhaps, they are right to call me evil now. With her needless death, my hatred for humanity was cemented.”

 

Naruto sniffled. He looked in the Fox’s eyes and saw beyond the anger there was a great sadness and loneliness.

 

Naruto stood up and ignoring all his common sense approached the gate. He reached between the bars and stroked the side of the Fox’s muzzle. 

 

Tears streamed down Naruto’s face. “You must have been so alone in here all these years.” Naruto hiccuped and choked down a sob. “I know you hate humans, but maybe I can convince you not to hate me. I know what it’s like to be alone and I don’t want anyone else to ever feel that way.”

 

The Fox considered twisting around to bite off Naruto’s hand. It would serve the brat right for treating an all powerful tailed beast like a dog. Instead, the Fox leaned into the child’s touch. “I don’t hate you,” the Fox grumbled. “You aren’t really human. You are as much me as I am you. We are one, such is the fate of a jinchuuriki. As long as we live, we suffer together.”

 

Naruto smiled then through his tears. “Things aren’t so bad. We aren’t alone. Kakashi loves us as we are. He promised he always would. Sasuke cares about us too. He doesn’t say anything, but he does show it. Then there’s Tenzou and Iruka Sensei. And all of the kids at the academy. They’re friends even though they’re scared. And then there’s mom and dad who put us together so that would never be alone and we would always be strong enough to protect ourselves.”

 

The Fox shifted out of Naruto’s reach. “You should rest. The chakra I gave you will wear off soon and you’ll be exhausted.”

 

Naruto pulled back his hand and nodded. “Okay. Goodnight Mr. Fox.” He waved and moved to leave the meditative state.

 

“It’s Kurama. Not Mr. Fox.”

 

Naruto beamed. 

 

---

 

Long after Naruto fell asleep, Kurama resisted the tug of his own version of sleep. He didn’t know why he’d given the child his name. It’d been centuries since he’d even used the name. None of his previous jinchuuriki had known it, but none of them had ever stopped by just to chat and certainly none of them had ever pet him.

 

Kurama drifted off thinking how strange this child he’d been saddled with was. Perhaps this life would be better than the others. At the very least, it was going to be more interesting.

Chapter Text

I don’t trust the Uchiha , Kurama’s voice was low and rough in the back of Naruto’s mind. It startled him so much that he dropped the plate of toast he was carrying.

 

“You okay?” Kakashi asked. Naruto had seemed a bit odd all morning.

 

Naruto nodded and picked up the toast. It didn’t look dirty, so he set it back on the plate.

 

Kakashi returned to cooking scrambled eggs.

 

Kurama? Naruto thought. He felt a sense of correctness in his chest, so he continued. Sasuke isn’t like the Uchiha who controlled you. He’s my friend, Naruto insisted.

 

Hmmfff. He’s just a child yet. Give him time and he’ll show his true colors. Twice now I’ve been manipulated by those eyes. Kushina didn’t listen to my warning.

 

Sasuke is a friend, Naruto repeated.

 

Just keep your eyes open, Kurama grumbled, but retreat from Naruto’s mind.

 

The Fox didn’t speak again through all of breakfast. If he had any judgements about Kakashi or Jiraiya, he kept them to himself.

 

As the day wore on, Naruto relaxed as the Fox seemed content to let Naruto live his life in peace.

 

Jiraiya spent the day at the cabin. At Kakashi’s prompting, he told stories about Minato before he’d become hokage. Both boys listened with wide eyes.

 

Sasuke had known Naruto’s father was named Minato and that the Fourth hokage was named Minato, but somehow it had never occurred to him that they were the same person.

 

Naruto almost seemed to think of his father as two different people, Minato (who had been Kakashi’s teacher and Jiraiya’s student) and the Fourth Hokage who had died protecting the village. 

 

Jiraiya’s stories bridged the gap between Naruto’s two versions. He had the boys giggling over Minato’s minor blunders while transitioning into the role of hokage. Like the time Minato was told he needed to wear special ceremonial clothes to a meeting with the noble family of a remote country and accidentally chose women’s clothes because he liked the color better.

 

“So you get your fashion sense from him,” Sasuke remarked with a glance at Naruto’s orange hoodie and goggles.

 

Naruto stuck his tongue out and that just made Sasuke laugh harder.

 

Kakashi was hiding his laughter behind his hand and Jiraiya didn’t bother. The sage laughed along with Sasuke.

 

“You guys are just jealous because you could never pull off a color as awesome as orange,” Naruto fired back, but he couldn’t say it with a straight face either and snickered. There was a warmth in his chest and for the first time since the incident at the academy, Naruto was totally at peace.

 

In the afternoon, Kakashi and Jiraiya worked with the boys on chakra control. 

 

Naruto bounced around the meadow, cheering and whooping, when he managed to transform into Kakashi without any issues.

 

Kakashi and Jiraiya shared a knowing look.

 

“He’s going to start improving fast,” the sage said.

 

Kakashi nodded. “Thank you for your help.”

 

Jiraiya shook his head. “You don’t need to thank me. It was my job as a leaf shinobi and a godfather.”

 

The two lapses into silence.

 

Naruto and Sasuke were chasing each other through the grass with dull, practice kunai. 

 

Sasuke grinned and his eyes glowed crimson. 

 

Sasuke didn’t seem to notice the way Naruto moved faster today and was inches closer to catching the Uchiha. 

 

Kakashi noticed. “He’s already using the Nine-Tails’ chakra to increase his speed and endurance.”

 

“And he doesn’t even know he’s doing it.” Jiraiya looked impressed. “You know I’m jealous of you.”

 

Kakashi blinked twice and frowned at the sage.

 

“You’ve made a good life for yourself. You’ve got two brilliant boys, friends who care about you, and a place to call home,” Jiraiya stared into the distance with a wistful expression.

 

Kakashi wondered what the older man could see just beyond the horizon.

 

Jiraiya smiled sadly at Kakashi. “I know it can’t have been easy to move past all the trauma and tragedy you’ve suffered, but somehow you did it. I look at you and you’re at peace. I’ve spent years trying everything to find even a fraction of that peace and the only way I seem to find it is in a bottle.” 

 

Kakashi looked Jiraiya over with an appraising stare. The man wasn’t young anymore and the years on the road hadn’t been gentle. Jiraiya’s face was well lined and his trademark white hair was shot through with nearly transparent, silver strands. The wrinkles on his face spoke of hard work and a nearly permanent scowl. 

 

Kakashi wondered how long the sage could even stand to stay in one place before the ghosts of his past caught up. Kakashi figured Jiraiya was at his limit already. The bags under his eyes gave the sage a haunted look.

 

“Nice to know that it at least looks like I’ve got my life together,” Kakashi said at last. “There are still days I don’t want to get out of bed. There are still nights I can’t sleep, because the ghosts won’t shut up. I worry about the boys, a lot. The thought of sending them out into the world just adds to my roulette wheel of nightmares.”

 

Jiraiya sighed and his face fell. It was really too good to be true. No shinobi could ever really know peace.

 

Kakashi winced. It seemed he really had fooled the sannin with the same persona he fooled Tenzou and in breaking the illusion, he’d ripped away some shred of hope. “But I do have a good life and I’m generally happy. The bad days keep getting fewer and further between.” Kakashi added quickly. 

 

Jiraiya nodded, but he looked unconvinced.

 

“Naruto is the best thing to ever happen to me. He gives me a reason to get out of bed on the bad days. He brings sunlight and happiness wherever he goes.”

 

“Like I said, I’m jealous,” Jiraiya said. There was no malice in his voice, just a wistful edge.

 

Kakashi shrugged. “You could wander closer to Kohona more often,” he suggested. “Dinner at my place is at 6 and I always make enough to feed an army because occasionally an army drops by.”

 

Jiraiya’s jaw dropped. “You’d let me just show up?”

 

Kakashi snorted. “Yeah. I’ve already got a bunch of anbu and academy kids who drop by randomly, what difference does one more make?” Despite everything that had happened between them in the past, Kakashi was truly grateful to the sage for helping Naruto. In addition, it was obvious that Jiraiya wanted desperately to be a better man. For both of those reasons, Kakashi found himself offering the sage a second chance.

 

“Wandering sages eat a lot,” Jiraiya said with a spark of humor in his eyes.

 

Kakashi rolled his eye. “Not as much as the Akamichi. You’re Naruto’s godfather. I want him to have a relationship with you.”

 

“As long as I don’t hurt him,” Jiraiya’s added.

 

“Bingo.”

 

The two lapses back into silence, but now Jiraiya was smiling slightly.

 

There was a loud splash as Naruto tripped and landed in the stream. 

 

Sasuke’s laughter echoed through the air until it was cut off abruptly by another splash and Naruto’s victorious whoop.

 

Kakashi shook his head and jogged towards the stream to play referee.

 

Over dinner, Kakashi and Jiraiya talked about the village and world politics.

 

Sasuke and Naruto only half listened. They were locked in an unspoken competition for most bowls of stew eaten.

 

After dinner, Kakashi sent the boys outside to play and he and Jiraiya shared a bottle of sake. The sage only drank in moderation and Kakashi was impressed. The man beside him seemed to be entirely different from the one he’d met a few days earlier. Something had pulled the sage out of his apathy and despair and Kakashi had a few guesses about what it was.

 

“Have you considered taking on students again?” Kakashi asked suddenly. The alcohol burned his throat and made his words bolder.

 

Jiraiya shrugged. “Not since the 3 orphans in Ame. I don’t exactly have a good track record.”

 

Kakashi raises an eyebrow at that.

 

“I know one of the Ame kids was killed shortly after I left and I haven’t heard from the other two in a few years and then there’s Minato.” Jiraiya said it with a false lightness, pretending the losses didn’t weigh on him while his eyes said otherwise.

 

“You trained powerful shinobi during during a Great War. No one was safe then, least of all skilled shinobi. They weren’t the sort to shrink from dangerous missions. Things might be different now. The world is a lot more peaceful now,” Kakashi argued.

 

Jiraiya just shrugged. “Maybe. I’m probably going to keep working on my books for now, but I’ll consider it.”

 

“You know there was more to getting my life back on track than just being around Naruto’s happiness, right?” Kakashi said.

 

The sage shrugged again. “Of course.” He swallowed a gulp of sake. “You’re a stronger man than me. I figured that out a while ago.”

 

Kakashi smiled beneath his mask. “I’ll take the compliment, but that’s really not it. It’s not about being strong.”

 

Jiraiya set down his glass and stared at Kakashi. “Alright genius. I’ll bite. What’s the secret?”

 

“First, you have to decide if you want to keep living and, when you decide the answer is yes, you have to figure out why. Then you hold onto that why with everything you’ve got.”

 

Jiraiya nodded. “So what’s your why? Naruto?” 

 

Kakashi sipped his drink and rolled the alcohol around on his tongue before swallowing. He wasn’t drunk yet, but he was on his way there. Words wanted to slip off his tongue and holding them back was like trying to hold a fish underwater. The younger shinobi knew he needed to be careful what he said to Jiraiya. Even this far from the village, they were both still players in the political game.

 

“You’re partly right. Naruto and Sasuke both need me. And there’s others who’d be hurt if I were gone,” Kakashi admitted. “But I never really found peace until I started choosing selfish whys. I can’t live my life for other people.”

 

Jiraiya’s eyes widened and the pieces clicked into place. Everything he’d done since Minato’s death and a good bit of what he’d done before snapped into focus. He’d spent years wandering and serving Kohona’s interests to please Hiruzen, make up for Orochimaru, and honor Minato’s memory. 

 

Jiraiya had trained his students to fulfill a prophecy he no longer really believed in, because he was told it was his duty. The Ame trio needed a parent, not just a teacher. Jiraiya had filled both roles for a time, but he’d left as soon as his job as a teacher was done. To stay longer would have been selfish. He’d left them to go back to wandering in Kohona’s name, looking into some trouble Orochimaru was causing in Grass country for Hiruzen.

 

Jiraiya couldn’t remember the last time he made a decision without considering what someone else would say. Some days it was his sensei’s voice in his head urging him to balance his heart and his duty. Some days it was his students urging him to help them chase the dreams they’d died without fulfilling. Other days it was his teammates and worst of all were the days those he’d failed to save came back to offer their criticisms and opinions. 

 

Unless choosing to get drunk counted (and Jiraiya didn’t think it should count) Jiraiya couldn’t remember the last time he’d decided to do something based purely on his own interests or morals. Just like he couldn’t remember ever living without a nagging sense of unfinished obligations hanging in his gut.

 

“I don’t know if I remember how to be selfish without reverting to a useless drunk,” Jiraiya admitted.

 

Kakashi nodded. He knew the feeling. “Doesn’t have to be big things. You can choose to live for the little things. Like the adrenaline of sparring a rival or the beauty of a sunrise or the simple pleasure of a cup of tea.” 

 

Kakashi held back a tumble of words. Jiraiya didn’t need to know the way Tenzou’s rare smiles and Gai’s wild yell of “RIVAL!” made Kakashi’s heart surge with joy. He didn’t need to know that Kakashi first found peace watching the sunset from the top of the stone monument or that Kakashi’s greatest joy was in seeing his found family happy, that their trust and affection meant more to Kakashi than anything else in the world.

 

Jiraiya nodded slowly. His mind conjured up its own list without urging: enjoying a good meal at a full table, listening to Tsunade’s laughter, the annual festivals, the lights of a village twinkling in the gathering dark. Just thinking of them brought a sense of calm and longing.

 

Kakashi grinned. He could see that the Sage finally got it. 

 

The two of them finished their drinks talking about unimportant things, just enjoying the quiet of the evening on the mountain and the company of another person.

 

Jiraiya left the next morning. He stopped by the cabin to say goodbye and Naruto gave the sage a big hug. 

 

Sasuke wasn’t a hugger, but he waved goodbye with a smile. “Next time, you’ll have to show us some sort of jutsu, I’m not totally convinced you’re actually one of the Legendary Sannin.”

 

Jiraiya rolled his eyes. “Yeah, sure. Keep working on your chakra control and next time I’ll teach you guys something cool.”

 

Kakashi offered Jiraiya his hand and the sage shook it with a smile. 

 

“Glad to see you doing so well, Kakashi. Take care of the kids and I’ll stop by next time I’m in the area.”

 

Kakashi nodded. “Take care of yourself. I hope you find what you’re looking for out there.”

Chapter Text

Exam Results

Just in case anyone was wondering how our favorite shinobi in training did on their exams. Scores for the students who eventually dropped out of the academy aren’t recorded.

 

Tuesday

Mathematics : students were tested on a variety of mathematics concepts using both equations and word problems

99– Haruno Sakura

99– Nara Shikamaru

95– Uchiha Sasuke

94– Hyuga Hinata

90– Yamanaka Ino

87– Aburame Shino

83– Akimichi Choji

76– Uzumaki-Hatake Naruto

74– Inuzuka Kiba

All pass.

 

Obstacle Course : first year students are tested on the short course as they do not have the chakra control to manage the full sized course

5:42.7– Inuzuka Kiba

+.10– Uzumaki-Hatake Naruto 

+.13– Uchiha Sasuke 

+1.01– Yamanaka Ino

+1.21– Aburame Shino

+1.87– Hyuga Hinata 

+2.23– Nara Shikamaru 

+3.01– Haruno Sakura

+4.11– Akimichi Choji

All pass. Times were all within 5 seconds. The examiner would like to note that this is an excellent indicator for the future of the whole group.

 

Wednesday

Reading : students were tested on fluency, speed, and comprehension over a variety of texts from different genres and reading levels

98– Uchiha Sasuke

98– Yamanaka Ino

98– Haruno Sakura

96– Nara Shikamaru 

92– Uzumaki-Hatake Naruto

91– Hyuga Hinata

87– Aburame Shino

87– Akimichi Choji 

85– Inuzuka Kiba

All pass. It should be noted that Nara Shikamaru sleep through the first 40 minutes of the rest and then completed the exam in the remaining time. Had he utilized the full exam period, the examiner believes his score would have been higher.

 

Kunai Throwing : first year students are tested on a stationary setup with variable distance to the target

100– Uchiha Sasuke

99– Uzumaki-Hatake Naruto

99– Haruno Sakura

96– Yamanaka Ino

95– Inuzuka Kiba

94– Nara Shikamaru 

94– Hyuga Hinata 

92– Aburame Shino

91– Akimichi Choji

All pass. Class is above proficient hitting a stationary target from a standstill from a variety of distances.

 

Thursday

History : first year students are responsible for studying the founding of the village, the main clans of Kohona, and basic geography of the elemental nations

99– Uzumaki-Hatake Naruto 

98– Uchiha Sasuke

98– Yamanaka Ino

98– Hyuga Hinata

93– Aburame Shino

93– Nara Shikamaru 

89– Akimichi Choji

89– Inuzuka Kiba

89– Haruno Sakura

All pass. 

 

Sparring : students are paired randomly and graded on technique, control, stamina, creativity, and ability to read an opponent’s moves. A loss is not an automatic failure.

94– Hyuga Hinata

91– Akimichi Choji

91– Aburame Shino

89– Yamanaka Ino

88– Nara Shikamaru

83– Inuzuka Kiba

80– Haruno Sakura

0– Uchiha Sasuke

0– Uzumaki-Hatake Naruto

It should be noted that Uchiha Sasuke and Uzumaki-Hatake Naruto did not participate in the sparring exam.

 

Friday

Ninjutsu :

96–Yamanaka Ino

96– Hyuga Hinata

92– Akimichi Choji

92– Aburame Shino

92– Nara Shikamaru 

90– Inuzuka Kiba

85– Haruno Sakura

0– Uchiha Sasuke

0– Uzumaki-Hatake Naruto

It should be noted that Uchiha Sasuke and Uzumaki-Hatake Naruto did not participate in the ninjutsu exam.

 

Chapter 28

 

AKA how everyone else spent their summer vacation

 

After the ninjutsu exam, the academy students all worked together to clean up the classrooms and get everything ready for break. Three students were noticeably absent and the rest of the class was unusually quiet.

 

Sakura and Ino worked together sweeping and dusting the cubby area. They had to use a stool to dust on top of the row of wooden boxes that students stored their bags in during the day. 

 

“Sasuke and Naruto both have stuff in their boxes,” Ino pointed out. She pulled Naruto’s orange track jacket and both boys’ bookbags out of the cubbies. “What do you think we should do?” She ignored Hikaru’s things still in his cubby. The little creep could figure that out on his own as far as Ino was concerned.

 

Sakura chewed on her lip and thought. “We could take them to their house?” she suggested half-heartedly. After the day before, Sakura wasn’t in a hurry to face Naruto.

 

Ino shook her head. “My parents said to stay away from them until they get permission to come back to the academy.”

 

Sakura frowned. “You don’t think they’ll actually expel them. They didn’t start the fight.”

 

“I don’t think they’ll expel Sasuke. He’s one of the top students and he didn’t hurt anyone. Naruto on the other hand…” The blonde trailed off and shrugged.

 

Sakura hugged her chest. “I know it’s stupid, but I hope Naruto doesn’t get in too much trouble.”


Ino surprised Sakura by nodding in agreement. “Yeah. It’s not really his fault. Even if he’s dangerous, he doesn’t mean to be.”

 

“I hope that they let Sasuke move on with us even though he didn’t finish the exam,” Sakura added with a little smile. She blushed slightly.

 

Ino opened her mouth to agree and then stopped and narrowed her eyes. “What’s with that look on your face?”

 

Sakura blushed a bit harder. “Nothing. My face always looks like this.” She ran her fingers through her hair and brushed the silk ribbon holding her bangs back. The ribbon had been a gift from Ino years before.

 

“I know you’re lying,” Ino said in a singsong voice. “You always play with your hair when you’re uncomfortable. It’s just like when you were trying to hide that forehead of yours.”

 

Sakura shook her head and quickly pulled her hand away from her hair. She didn’t want the other girl to tease her.

 

“Come on. Spill it Sakura!” Ino insisted.

 

Sakura said nothing, but her eyes flickered to Sasuke’s backpack in Ino’s hand.

 

Ino’s eyes widened and she groaned. “Do not tell me you have a crush on Sasuke,” Ino said.

 

Sakura’s face was practically fluorescent pink. 

 

Ino sighed. “You and everyone else.” 

 

Sakura blinked in surprise. “Everyone?”

 

Ino nodded. “Except maybe Hinata, but she’s kind of odd so she doesn’t count.”

 

“Oh,” it was all Sakura could think to say.

 

Suddenly Ino smiled. “Guess this means we’ll just have to wait and see who wins his heart.” She tossed her hair over her shoulder and put the boys’ things back in their cubbies. “I heard Sasuke likes long hair.”

 

Sakura’s eyes widened again. Ino’d been growing her hair out for the past few months and it was well past her shoulders now. Sakura was still wearing hers short like a little girl. “I guess we’re rivals then,” Sakura announced. “Because I’m not going to lose to you.”

 

Ino grinned wider. “Sounds like a challenge, Billboard Brow.”

 

Sakura winced at the old nickname. She shoved aside the sting and quickly matched Ino’s grin. If this was how Ino wanted to play, she was in for a surprise. Sakura wasn’t nearly as tender hearted as she’d once been. “Oh, it won’t even be a challenge Ino-Pig. You don’t stand a chance.”

 

Ino glared at her new nickname and nodded sharply. It was on.

 

---

 

As the last of the kids trickled out of the academy, Kiba was making plans to meet up with Shikamaru over the weekend. 

 

When the pair walked out the front gate, Akamaru let out a low growl. Kiba paused and sniffed the air. “I smell it too,” the boy said.

 

Shikamaru raised a curious eyebrow. 

 

“It’s nothing important,” Kiba said. “I just forgot I was supposed to ask Iruka Sensei something. Go on ahead without me.”

 

Before Shikamaru had a chance to argue, Kiba and Akamaru were running back towards the academy. 

 

Shikamaru shrugged and kept walking.

 

Kiba found what, or more accurately who, he was looking for just inside the main hall.

 

Hikaru was the only one in sight when Kiba opened the door and the Inuzuka grinned wolfishly.

 

“I’m pretty sure you got expelled and that begging isn’t going to get you back into class,” Kiba called down the hall.

 

Hikaru stopped walking. He turned to face Kiba and waited while the Inuzuka jogged to meet him. 

 

“I’m not here to beg. I’m just grabbing my stuff from the classroom,” Hikaru said.

 

Kiba snorted. “Good. Although it would have been fun to see Iruka Sensei laugh your ass out of his office.”

 

A red spot appeared on Hikaru’s cheeks as he bit back a retort. 

 

Kiba considered it a victory.

 

Akamaru sniffed at Hikaru’s shoes and the boy kicked the dog away.

 

Akamaru was light on his feet and danced away from the brunt of the blow. 

 

Kiba narrowed his eyes and stepped closer to Hikaru. “You better watch yourself,” Kiba warned. “You don’t have any friends here.”

 

“That’s because you’re all a bunch of idiots,” Hikaru spat. “Can’t you clan dipshits see that you’re going to school with actual monsters. Naruto’s possed by a demon and Sasuke is a monster in his own right. Did you not see his eyes? I guess you’re too stupid to even care about your own survival. I bet you get yourself killed on your first real mission. Looking at this class, the village is---”

 

Kiba’s fist slammed into Hikaru’s face, cutting off the boy’s tirade. 

 

Hikaru staggered back holding his face. “What the hell?! I never touched you,” he howled.

 

A teacher came running out of a nearby office at Hikaru’s yelling. 

 

Kiba stepped back and put his hands up. A smile danced on the Inuzuka’s face. “In my family, we have a saying: ‘Talk shit. Get hit.’”

 

Hikaru’s face flushed with anger.

 

“Plus, you know, you kicked my dog and attacked my teammates,” Kiba added. 

 

The teacher was on the boys before Hikaru could even consider retaliating. After checking that Hikaru wasn’t seriously injured, she ordered Kiba to Iruka’s office and led Hikaru away towards the classroom to grab his things.

 

Kiba held Hikaru’s eyes until the other boy looked away and stared into his back until Hikaru was around the corner. Then, Kiba sauntered away, still smirking. This was definitely worth the grounding he was going to get. The little shit was totally going to have a shiner.

 

Iruka was expecting Kiba when the boy arrived. He glared at Kiba’s defiant smirk and shook his head. “Seriously. You came back onto school grounds to pick a fight with another student?”

 

Kiba shrugged. “He’s not a student here anymore. I’d never hurt one of my classmates.” He stressed the ‘I.’

 

Iruka groaned in frustration and motioned for Kiba to take a seat. “You can wait here until your family comes to collect you,” Iruka ordered. He glanced at the clock. In 30 minutes, he’d be off duty for the summer. Please just don’t get into any more trouble for 30 minutes, Iruka prayed.

 

---

 

Hikaru left the academy with his bag in hand and an escort to the front gate. His eye was already swelling shut. 

 

As he passed through the gate, Hikaru never noticed one of the shadows detach itself from the others.

 

Shino was supposed to meet his dad outside the academy. They were leaving the village to check on the rumors of a rare insect swarming in the southern swamps of Fire Country. But when he saw Hikaru, it was too good of an opportunity to miss.

 

Shino dogged Hikaru’s footsteps until they reached the market. 

 

With the crowd for cover, the Aburame made his move. All it took was bumping shoulders with Hikaru to transfer a clump of bugs onto the boy’s clothes. 

 

Shino took advantage of the blindspot created by Hikaru’s black eye and Hikaru never even saw Shino.

 

“Watch it!” Hikaru snapped, but whoever had bumped him was already gone.

 

Shino’s grin was hidden beneath his high collar. “That’s for hurting Naruto,” Shino whispered. His only regret was that he wouldn’t get to see his plan unfold. 

 

Back by the academy, Aburame Shibi was waiting for his son. “Ready to go?” Shibi asked when Shino appeared.

 

Shino hummed happily and nodded. His backpack was full of specimen jars and pheromone samples. A fine mesh net protruded from the top. 

 

“You’re in a good mood,” Shibi remarked. “It took you longer to get here than I expected. Did you forget to pack something?”

 

“I had another errand to run first,” Shino said. He changed the subject quickly. “Do you think I’m ready to take in a second species of insects yet?”

 

Shibi smiled. “From your test scores, it looks like you have the chakra control to handle it and your control of your kikaichuu is nearly perfect, so we’ll just have to see what we find.”

 

“I was thinking something poisonous might be nice,” Shino remarked. “It would open up a lot more offensive options.” 

 

Shibi shook his head. “That’s what everyone says, but it’s a big responsibility. You have to have perfect control of every insect and that sort of control becomes increasingly difficult to achieve when you host multiple species. Maybe save that for after you finish at the academy.”

 

Shino shrugged. “I guess. I just thought it’d be nice to be able to train with Torune.”

 

Shibi sighed and ruffled his son’s hair. Torune used highly poisonous rinkaichuu in addition to the kikaichuu that all Aburame had a symbiotic relationship with. “We’ll see. We may not even find any chakra compatible insects.”

 

---

 

Sakura made it three days into summer break before she caved and went looking for Ino. 

 

Ino was working in her family’s flower shop and she smirked when Sakura walked in. 

 

“Can I help you find anything Billboard Brow?” Ino asked as she watered an orchid.

 

Sakura took a deep breath and let out her frustration with it. “No. I was wondering if you’d like to train together today. We are rivals afterall.”

 

Ino’s smirk shifted into a genuine smile. “I guess, but it’s got to be something other than shuriken or taijutsu practice. I need a break from getting beaten up for a while.”

 

Sakura grinned back. “We could practice our disguises and go exploring. I heard there’s a new dress store in the civilian part of the city. They might even have something to fit a Pig.”

 

Ino snorted. “Point to you Billboard Brow. That was a good burn. We can go as soon as I finish watering everything. You bring your makeup stuff? I just bought this new concealer that just might help your situation.” The blonde gestured at Sakura’s face with her watering can. “I’ll let you try it.”

 

Sakura just rolled her eyes and picked up a nearby watering can. “Which ones have you already done? At the speed you work, we’ll be here all night.”

 

---

 

Shikamaru met Choji at the Ramen shop.

 

“No Kiba?” Choji asked through a mouthful of noodles. He slurped the juice out of his bowl and frowned at Shikamaru.

 

“Nope. He’s grounded for the next two weeks and won’t say why, but it has to have been something big to get two whole weeks of poop scooping duty,” Shikamaru said with a grin.

 

Choji set down money next to his empty bowel and followed Shikamaru out onto the street. “So what are we going to do today? Get some snacks and find somewhere to watch the clouds?”

 

Shikamaru smiled. “Choji, my man, you know me so well.”

 

Three days after his one-sided fight with Kiba, Hikaru was having a rough time. His eye was swollen shut and he was covered in strange bug bites. On top of that, it seemed that everywhere he went swarms of creepy crawlies followed. Hikaru had a guess as to who was to blame for the bugs, but no way to prove it.

 

So Hikaru had to grit his teeth, smash the spiders, and try to go about his day.

 

Hikaru was in the market looking for a summer job. Everyone saw his black eye and immediately labeled him a troublemaker. No one wanted to hire a troublemaker. 

 

Choji and Shikamaru left the supermarket with their arms full of snacks. There was a sale on potato chips and Choji had insisted on loading up. 

 

“I swear if you eat all of these, you’re going to have a heart attack from sodium overload,” Shikamaru said.

 

Choji rolled his eyes. “Pretty sure that’s not how it works.”

 

Shikamaru snorted. “Whatever. Lets go to the Northern Park. I found the perfect tree last week. No one can see you from the ground and the branches are wide enough you can stretch out and not worry about falling.”

 

Choji grinned and nodded. “Great. I’m avoiding chores, so that sounds perfect.”

 

Shikamaru smiled and shook his head. He was also dodging chores.

 

As they walked through the market, a familiar figure caught Shikamaru’s eye. He nudged Choji with his elbow.

 

Choji’s eyes widened and he glanced at Shikamaru. “Do you want to do something about it?”

 

Shikamaru hesitated. “Getting in trouble for fighting would be such a drag.”

 

“And there’s no way we wouldn’t be caught with all these people around,” Choji added.

 

Still Shikamaru hesitated. 

 

“I feel like we should do something,” Choji said, reluctantly.

 

Shikamaru nodded. He was already thinking through the options. Slowly, an evil grin spread across Shikamaru’s face. “Which one of the food carts wouldn’t sell to us last time?” Shikamaru asked.

 

Choji pointed to a cart selling meat kabobs run by a fierce looking old man with eyebrows like caterpillars. “He wouldn’t sell to me because I’m an Akimichi. Made some stupid comment about needing to have food to sell to his regular customers. Even called me a fat, bottomless pit,” Choji’s face was dark with suppressed rage. 

 

Shikamaru passed his armload of snack to Choji. “Go stand by the lamp post. If I use it and your shadow I can reach Hikaru from here.”

 

Choji’s eyes widened and he beamed. 

 

“Don’t look at me like that. We might still get noticed, so be ready to run,” Shikamaru ordered. Getting caught using one of his clans special jutsus on something like this would be a major drag. His mom would ground him for the whole summer.

 

Choji moved into position and Shikamaru tried to blend into the crowd while he made the sign. 

 

“Shadow possession,” Shikamaru whispered under his breath. His shadow lengthened and narrowed, darting through other shadows. Shikamaru made a point of only using fixed shadows. It would be bad to lose control halfway through the plan because some shopper moved to the next stall.

 

With Choji’s shadow and the lamppost, Shikamaru’s shadow was able to reach Hikaru’s.

 

Shikamaru smirked when Hikaru froze midstep. Now, it was time to work fast. 

 

Shikamaru fixed his eyes on Hikaru and walked the other boy back towards the kebob stand. 

 

Hikaru’s mind was racing. He had no control of his body and he didn’t know why. He tried to struggle, but none of his muscles were listening. All he could do was watch as his body tried to steal a stick of meat off a nearby kabob cart. 

 

Hikaru wanted to scream in frustration, but his lips wouldn’t move. Whoever was controlling his body wasn’t a very good thief. He grabbed one stick and managed to knock over a whole stand of meat skewers in the process.

 

The stand owner looked over at the noise and saw a boy with a skewer of high priced lamb in his fist and the rest of the skewers on the ground. The boy looked like a deer frozen in front of a wolf. “What the hell?!” the man yelled.

 

Shikamaru released the jutsu and took off at a run through the crowd. Behind him, he could hear the merchant screaming for help catching a thief.

 

Shikamaru laughed and slowed his run to a walk. Now, he just needed to blend into the crowd and rondevu with Choji.

 

Choji found Shikamaru on a bench at the Northern park. The dark haired boy was sprawled on the bench watching the leaves of the nearby oak tree dance in the breeze.

 

“That was brilliant,” Choji said. He plopped to the ground beside Shikamaru’s bench and opened a bag of potato chips.

 

“Did they catch him?” Shikamaru asked.

 

Choji shook his head. “Nope, but the veggie stand man threw a tomato at him and it splattered all over his back. He didn’t even think to drop the kebob. He was so focused on running.” Choji chuckled. “And that stupid man doesn’t have anything to sell his precious regulars.”

 

Shikamaru sat up and glared at Choji. “Please tell me you didn’t help yourself. The goal was to not get caught.”

 

Choji glared back. “I”m not as stupid as I pretend to be. The homeless man on the corner helped himself to everything during the commotion. I followed him and saw him passing them out to the other guys who panhandle in the market.”

 

Shikamaru relaxed. “That’s perfect. Worked out even better than I planned.”

 

Choji grinned. “Yeah, that was pretty perfect.” He offered the chip bag to Shikamaru who took a handful.

 

 “Good start to the summer,” Shikamaru agreed. 

 

---

 

Sakura and Ino were having a good day. 

 

Sakura in particular couldn’t stop smiling. Their infiltration was successful and she felt like a real kunoichi when a shopkeeper referred to her as a beautiful young lady rather than wrinkling his nose and suggesting she try the shinobi shop down the road for more appropriate attire. 

 

When she caught sight of her reflection in a shop window, Sakura preened. Wearing makeup always made her feel fancy and special, between that and the dress she was wearing (a flowery pink thing that was not suited to shinobi work whatsoever) she felt beautiful. The kunai pouch strapped to her thigh, beneath the layers of a ruffled skirt, made her feel powerful. 

 

Every now and again, Sakura brushed her fingers against the slit in the side seam that would let her draw a kunai unhindered. She had sewn it to look like a pocket and was very proud of the modification.

 

Ino was similarly dressed. He long hair hung loose and her eyeliner thinned to a delicate point. A straight blue dress complimented her eyes and she had no shame about batting her eyelashes to get what she wanted.

 

The new store was everything Sakura had hoped, full of dresses and blouses from other countries. There was shimmering silk from Suna and gossamer gowns from Kiri. 

 

Ino’s eyes lit up when she spied a winter dress from the Land of Snow. It was a soft blue and trimmed with a warm drown fur that felt like down under her fingers.

 

“Would the young ladies like to try anything on?” a pretty, young clerk asked. She gave the girls a knowing smile. “I can make some recommendations if you have anything in particular you like. I’m partial the ermine fur as well.”

 

Sakura stared in the mirror. The dress was without a doubt the fanciest thing she’d ever worn. It was floor length and fitted with a slit in the side that showed off the muscles in her legs. Sakura wouldn’t have picked a black dress, but with it on she wondered why she’d never considered black before. Cherry blossoms were embroidered from the hem to the waist, growing denser the further down you looked, like Sakura was standing in shower of pink petals. 

 

“Open the door and let me look,” Ino insisted, banging on the changing room door.

 

Sakura opened the door and her jaw dropped. Ino looked like a princess in a royal blue dress that could only be described as a ballgown. The skirt was covered in innumerable sequins and the bodice was sewn with gleaming rhinestones. 

 

“You like?” Ino asked as she twirled in a circle. The skirt spread around her, the sequins catching the light like fallen stars.

 

“You’re beautiful,” Sakura breathed.

 

Ino beamed. “And so are you. That dress suits you really well, but it’s not something you can hide while wearing. Not so long ago, you couldn’t have worn it, but you’ve become a lot more confident recently.”

 

Sakura blushed at the compliment. Her mind flickered to the days she spent at the Hatake house and her smile faltered. It had been Kakashi’s praise and patient teaching along with Naruto and Sasuke’s example that helped Sakura see herself as a kunoichi for the first time. 

 

For a moment, Sakura’s heart ached. She hoped Naruto and Sasuke were alright.

 

Ino frowned at Sakura, concerned by the sudden change in the pink haired girl’s demeanor.

 

Sakura shoved away her thoughts and smiled again. She shook her head, silently saying it wasn’t worth talking about. 

 

Ino nodded and relaxed again.

 

When some actual customers walked in the store, Sakura and Ino thanked the clerk for letting them try on the dresses and made their exit.

 

The clerk waved at them. “We get new things in every other week. Feel free to stop by anytime and ask for Akari. I’m always working,” she offered. 

 

Fitted silk didn’t hide kunai holsters well. As Akari moved to help the next customer, she glanced at her desk and photo of a 20-something woman in a forehead protector. 

 

Akari’s sister had always loved pretty dresses. When she graduated the academy, that didn’t change. These days, she picked ones that showed off her muscular shoulders and cinched at the waist, so she could wear her sword belt.

 

Akari couldn’t wait to tell her sister she’d met her mini-me’s. 

 

---

 

Back on the street, Sakura couldn’t stop thinking about Naruto and Sasuke.

 

Ino could tell Sakura’s mind was elsewhere and was content to walk beside her friend in easy silence.

 

Lost in thought, Sakura had to do a double take when Hikaru walked past. She thought at first that her mind was playing tricks on her, but no. That was Hikaru underneath the black eye, bug bites, and splattered tomato. He looked pissed and snapped when an old woman pumped him.

 

The blood roared in Sakura’s ears. “Hey!” Sakura yelled. 

 

Hikaru turned, took one look at the death glare he was being given, and bolted down the street shoving anyone in his way.

 

Sakura took off after Hikaru.

 

Ino stared after them, trying to figure out what had just happened. With a sigh, she slipped off her heels and raced after Sakura. Whatever trouble Sakura was getting into, she might need some backup and what sort of rival doesn’t help their rival out a tight spot.

 

Hikaru had no idea who the pretty girl the pink dress was or why she looked like she wanted to kill him, but after the last few days he wasn’t going to stop and ask.

 

After two minutes of running, Hikaru took a wrong turn and ended up in a dead end alley. 

 

Sakura didn’t even come to a full stop. She launched herself towards Hikaru, foot raised for a flying sidekick. 

 

She caught the boy straight in the gut with a ferocious yell, “Shannarou!”

 

Ino skidded to a stop at the mouth of the alley and raised an eyebrow.

 

Sakura was standing over Hikaru in a fighting stance. Her hair was wild and her face was flushed from the run. Her eyes flashed with absolute rage.

 

“Well, I would say I’ll take a shot at him, but I think you hit hard enough for both of us,” Ino said. 

 

Hikaru gasped for breath like a fish on land.

 

Ino stalked forward and stared down at him, her face a mask of disdain. “Or maybe I could hit you in a different way.” She raised her hands and Sakura recognized the sign for a mind transfer jutsu. “I’ve been wanting to practice this on someone for a while.”

 

Hikaru went pale. Everyone knew the horror stories about what a Yamanaka could do to your mind. Some said they could drive you mad or erase your whole mind or even change your personality.

 

Sakura grabbed Ino’s wrist and shook her head. Even in her anger, she knew not to go too far. She’d pulled her own blow just short of breaking Hikaru’s ribs. “I don’t think you want in his head,” Sakura said. “I’m sure it’s a mess.” 

 

Ino lowered her hands and nodded. “Fair, but if he ever comes near one us again I’m willing to get my hands dirty.” She smiled icily at Hikaru. Ino knew the stories the same as everyone else and while most were just superstition, Hikaru didn’t know that. “I’ll leave you thinking you’re a chicken for the rest of your life.”

 

Hikaru whimpered. 

 

Ino turned to Sakura. “That’s fitting, don’t you think? For a coward who stabs people in the back.”

 

Sakura caught Ino’s plan and nodded back. “Sounds good to me.”

 

With that, the two kunoichi in training turned and left Hikaru to catch his breath and limp home.

 

---

 

Hinata wasn’t a fan of break. Break meant she had no real excuse to avoid home and no excuse to see her friends. 

 

By the time the first week was over, Hinata was a nervous wreck. 

 

Outside the house, the other Hyugas stared at Hinata. Everyone knew that her father had given up training her in favor of her younger sister, that none of the main family had been the same since the deaths of Hizashi and Hiashi’s wife.

 

People whispered that the clan heir was broken. They said Hinata had become timid after being kidnapped and her gentle heart had been shattered by her mother’s death. They said because of this, her eyes were poor and her chakra was weak.

 

Hinata tried to not let the whispers and rumors get to her, but the words seemed to bury themselves beneath her skin like slivers.

 

Inside the house, every tense, silent family dinner wore on her nerves. It’d been over a year, but the table still felt too empty without her mother.

 

Hinata tiptoed around the house, so as not to interrupt her father working on clan business or her sister’s studying. 

 

In the evenings, Hinata snuck out of the house and went to train in the furthest corner of the Hyuga compound, out of sight of her father and little sister. Even there, she could feel the eyes of the clan on her.

 

To top it all off, Hinata couldn’t sleep. She kept dreaming about Naruto. Nightmares of his limp body kept her awake and while she was awake, she worried that he wouldn’t be able to come back to school. 

 

10 days after school let out for break. Hinata’s father asked her to go into town and pick up groceries and Hinata could have hugged the man had he not been the source of most of her anxiety.

 

Everytime her father looked at her, Hinata found herself waiting for him to start yelling like he had when he was training her. He didn’t yell anymore, but Hinata still found herself flinching whenever her father opened his mouth. She knew her flinching hurt him, because she could see his face fall whenever she did it. The two of them had been walking on eggshells around each other since the last time they trained together, 9 months earlier.

 

That last training session was another source for Hinata’s nightmares. The clan elders had been watching, judging her too slow progress. 

 

After getting knocked down for the fifth time, Hinata had stayed on the floor fighting back tears. “Open your eyes!” Hiashi had screamed at his daughter. “Are you a Hyuga or not?” 

 

Hinata had squeezed her eyes shut tighter, trying to hold back tears. She heard a gasp and Hanabi scream.

 

When Hinata opened her eyes, her father’s hand hovered over her heart and chakra was visible in his eyes.

 

“An enemy would have killed you,” he said, coldly. Hiashi stepped back, giving Hinata room to stand. “Get up,” he ordered.

 

Hinata had tried to stand, but her legs were too weak.

 

In real life, Hiashi had walked away and left Hanabi to look after Hinata while he spoke with the elders. 

 

In Hinata’s nightmares, she stood back up and didn’t survive the next clash.

 

The sun was shining when Hinata slipped out of the clan compound. Her nightmares were far away and for the first time since the start of break, she couldn’t feel eyes on her. Hinata was finally able to relax.

 

Hinata’s first stop was the Hatake house. She’d made up her mind days before that the first excuse she had, she was going to go check on Naruto and Sasuke. Maybe if she saw they were okay, she would be able to sleep easier.

 

The house was dark and with her byakugan, Hinata could see that the house was empty. The mail was stacked on the kitchen table and Hinata’s heart sank.

 

“Oh.”

 

Hinata started at the sound and found herself looking at a man with long, brown hair.

 

“Can I help you?” he asked.

 

Hinata blushed and looked away. “I go to school with Naruto and Sasuke. I just wanted to make sure they were okay,” she explained softly.

 

The man grinned and held out his hand to Hinata. “I’m a friend of Kakashi’s. I’m watching the house while they’re out of town, but I’ll make sure they know you stopped by.”

 

Hinata nodded and shook the man’s hand. “I’d appreciate that. I’m Hinata.”

 

“Nice to meet you Hinata,” the man said. He expected the girl to bolt, because she looked so uncomfortable talking to a stranger, but instead she lingered.

 

“Ummm,” Hinata started and hesitated. “Are Naruto and Sasuke okay? Do you know when they’ll be home?” she asked after a pause.

 

The man’s face softened. “They’re both alright. Kakashi took them on a trip, so they’d have time away from the village to relax, train, and get ready for next year.”

 

Hinata’s shoulders sagged like she’d set down a heavy weight and could finally relax. She breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank you.”

 

Then she bolted.

 

Tenzou smiled. He hadn’t seen Hinata around Kakashi’s house before, but it was obvious she was a good friend to at least one of the boys. She’d been really worried.

 

Hinata was so caught up in her relief that on the way to the store, she ran smack into Hikaru without noticing. 

 

Hikaru was talking with three other boys from the academy when someone crashed into his back. He whipped around, ready to fight and found himself face to face with Hinata.

 

Hikaru relaxed. Hinata wasn’t a threat. She was too nice.

 

An apology died on Hinata’s lips when she saw who she’d run into.

 

“Oh, hey Hinata,” Hikaru said. “Having a nice summer?”

 

Hinata nodded stiffly. 

 

Hikaru smiled at her. “So rumor has it that you’re not going back to the academy next year. I always knew you were the smartest one in the class. I mean, of course you’re also too nice to actually be a shinobi, but I’ve still got to give you credit for you self-preservation instincts.” Hikaru laughed and the other boys joined in.

 

Too late, they noticed Hinata’s posture shift and her eyes widen as chakra flowed to them.

 

Hinata’s palm connected with Hikaru’s stomach and he staggered back and vomited. “You shouldn’t underestimate me,” she hissed and pressed her advantage. She caught Hikaru’s chin with the heel of her palm and he fell backwards unconscious.

 

One of the other boys moved to hit Hinata in the back and she whipped around in time to catch him on the ribs with an open handed strike. A surge of chakra had him puking as well.

 

Hinata adjusted her stance and even these clanless children recognized the gentle fist style of the Hyuga clan. When Hinata leveled her byakugan at them, they flinched.

 

Hinata didn’t say a word, just waited for them to make the next move.

 

One of them grabbed Hikaru and they all made their escape. 

 

Hinata didn’t chase them. She had groceries to buy and it was getting late as it was. She didn’t want to get in trouble.

 

A smile tugged at Hinata’s face the rest of the day, even after she returned home with the groceries.

 

“Did you have a good day?” Hiashi asked his older daughter. She’d tried to hide her smile in her lap, but he’d noticed.

 

Hinata hesitated. “Yes, father,” she said.

 

Hiashi nodded. “Was your trip to the market eventful? You were gone longer than I expected.”

 

Hinata knew she couldn’t lie. She answered without looking up at her father. “I went to see if Naruto and Sasuke were out of the hospital,” she admitted. 

 

Hiashi raised an eyebrow at that. “I wasn’t aware you were friends with either of them.” The skepticism in his voice was obvious.

 

Hinata fiddled with the hem of her shirt. “Naruto is nice and I know he isn’t the top of the class, but he tries really hard and it makes me…” Hinata trailed off, mortified that she’d said so much.

 

The room was silent. 

 

Hinata dared a glance upward. Her father was watching her curiously and her little sister was looking between the two of them with interest.

 

Hinata took a deep breath and looked up at her father. “Seeing Naruto work hard and keep trying even when no one believes in him makes me want to work harder and get better,” she finished.

 

Hiashi’s eyes softened slightly. “So this is why you’ve been sneaking out to train.”

 

Hinata ducked her head again and waited for him to lecture.

 

“I can’t say I’m overly fond of you being friends with Naruto, but if he’s the reason for the progress you’ve been making I won’t argue,” Hiashi said. “Let’s just not make it common knowledge. It would only worry the elders.”

 

Hinata’s eyes widened. 

 

“You still have a long way to go, but you are making progress. I don’t have time to train both you and your sister, but I could assign you a tutor or perhaps you and Hanabi could train together in the evenings,” Hiashi added.

 

Hinata nodded. Unsure if she should take her father’s words as a compliment or reminder that her little sister had already far surpassed her.

 

The three Hyuga finished their meal in quiet and Hiashi left to work on paperwork.

 

Hinata and Hanabi did the dishes and cleaned up. 

 

Hinata spent the rest of the evening in her room, reading.

 

Before bed, Hanabi slipped into Hinata’s room and sat on the floor of her sister’s bed.

 

“Father’s proud of you,” Hanabi said softly. 

 

Hinata nodded and set down her book. She sat up beside Hanabi.

 

Hanabi bumped her sister’s shoulder. “I mean it. He has someone watch you while you train and yesterday he even went to see for himself.”

 

“Really? I thought I wasn’t worth the time,” Hinata whispered back. There was no bitterness in her voice, only sorrow and acceptance.

 

Hanabi sighed. “He can’t really say anything because the elders are stupid about tradition, but he’s really proud of you. The elders thought you would quit the academy, but you didn’t. Instead you scored the highest in your class in sparring and ninjutsu. Then, the elders thought you’d never be able to master the chakra control for gentle fist fighting style, but Father says you figured it all on your own.”

 

Hanabi’s eyes were bright and she was grinning up at her big sister. 

 

Hanata couldn’t help, but smile back. “I still haven’t caught up to you.” She brushed a strand of hair back from her sister’s face. “But I’m doing my best.”

 

Hanabi nodded. “I’m proud of you too,” she added. “You know he only pushed you so hard because he was worried for you.”

 

Hinata sighed. They both knew that tradition dictated only one of them would be allowed to remain a member of the main branch. Whether it would be Hinata because of birth order or Hanabi because of her talent was yet to be decided.

 

“It’s okay,” Hinata said softly. She hugged her sister close.

 

Hanabi leaned into the hug. “I really would like to train with you.”

 

“I’d like that too,” Hinata said.

 

The two lapsed into silence for a while. 

 

“So what’s Naruto like?” Hanabi asked. “I’ve heard rumors, but never met him. How’d you guys become friends?’

 

Hinata smiled at the memory. “We don’t look like children from the other clans and sometimes other kids use that as an excuse to be mean,” Hinata started. She tapped her cheek beside her eye. “When I enrolled in the academy, there was a group of older boys who liked to pick on anyone who was different.”

 

Hanabi nodded. Every Hyuga knew those sort of people. They usually left you alone once they learned that the Hyuga’s unusual eyes weren’t just pretty. 

 

“Naruto didn’t even know me, but he tried to defend me. They beat him up instead of me,” Hinata explained.

 

“I’m sorry,” Hanabi said.

 

Hinata shook her head. “No one picks on me anymore. I have friends now and I can hold my own. I might not be a prodigy, but neither are the school bullies.” There was a note of pride in Hinata’s voice.

 

Hanabi grinned. “You totally beat someone up didn’t you?”

 

Hinata shrugged and steered the conversation away from that topic. She was still the big sister and she had an example to set. Getting into a fight in a back alley wasn’t exactly the example she planned on setting. “You wanted to know what Naruto was like. He’s loud and stubborn. He plays pranks on Iruka Sensei and gets into trouble, but he’s also the first person to help when someone is in trouble and he is always smiling. He never gives up and always tries his best. He’s trying to prove himself to the whole village and to himself. He’s the sort of person who makes everyone else want to be a little better.”

 

“He sounds like a good person to have for a friend, but not someone the elders would really approve of,” Hanabi said.

 

Hinata laughed. “Oh no. The elders wouldn’t like Naruto at all. He asks too many questions and has too many opinions.”

 

“Maybe the clan needs someone like Naruto in it. Maybe it’s time to start asking more questions,” Hanabi’s voice was barely a whisper.

 

Hinata squeezed her sister closer. “It’s late. You’re supposed to train with Father at sunrise, and you need a good night’s sleep.”

 

Hanabi sighed and stood up reluctantly. “You’re right. Love you. Good night.”

 

“Love you too,” Hinata said with a smile and a wave.

Chapter Text

Tenzou stood on the catwalk and surveyed the practice arena that had been converted into a temporary barrack.

 

Below, were beds for 21 children from the age of 4 to 13. They were a mix of boys and girls. From the files, Tenzou knew they all had some sort of unique ability and he had a sinking suspicion that not all of them were even from Fire Country.

 

The children were going about their morning routine, making beds and going through a series of stretches and exercises. The older ones kept the younger ones on track.

 

“Danzou kept busy,” a voice remarked.

 

Tenzou glanced over his shoulder, not terribly surprised to see a familiar bird masked Root anbu. 

 

Megumi leaned against the wall and surveyed the scene in front of her.

 

“I knew there would be kids, but I didn’t realize there would be this many,” Tenzou said. His shoulders sagged and he looked exhausted. Everywhere he looked in Root, he found some new atrocity and it drained him.

 

Megumi shrugged. “16 untested trainees and 5 who received their masks in the last round of testing. Danzou was trying to expand Root.”

 

“He was building an army,” Tenzou said.

 

“What are you going to do with them?” Megumi asked. There was no emotion in her voice, but the way she leaned towards Tenzou told him she was curious.

 

Tenzou sighed. “I’m going to evaluate them. Maybe some of the younger ones aren’t in too deep and I can just send them home.”

 

Megumi hummed doubtfully. “And the older ones and the ones who don’t have a family to go home to?”

 

“If they’re not in too deep, I will find them a home outside the anbu,” a spark of anger glittered in Tenzou’s eyes. “Kids deserve to be kids.” 

 

Megumi thought it was probably a good thing that Danzou was already dead. Had Tenzou known about the recruits, Megumi had a feeling he wouldn’t have sat idly by. 

 

“The older ones will need someone to help them cope with their training. Maybe I can pair them with anbu or jounin,” Tenzou was thinking out loud. “I’m not going to just leave them to their own devices. They might be trained killers, but they’re still kids.”

 

Megumi nodded. “And the 5 who have already earned their place in Root?”

 

“They’re still kids,” Tenzou repeated.

 

“I would take one of them,” Megumi offered.

 

Tenzou’s mouth opened, but he was so surprised that no sound came out.

 

Behind her mask something resembling a smile tugged at Megumi’s lips. “The only people who will understand them are other members of Root,” she explained. “Besides, it’s not like we can really mess them up any worse than they already are.” She didn’t mention the little sister she’d had back when she had a different name and didn’t wear a mask. 

 

Slowly, Tenzou nodded. “That’s a good idea.” He had already noticed that given freedom, the Root members tended to stick to their own and it took less than Tenzou had expected for them to start creating bonds with each other. Shared trauma and history were powerful. 

 

Tenzou nodded again. His mind flickered back to Kakashi. Kakashi was the first person Tenzou had managed to bond with after Root. He had been a captain, mentor, and friend. The relationship had been good for both of them. 

 

“Will you reach out to the others for me and see if anyone else is interested?” Tenzou asked. He phrased it as a request, not an order, as he often did outside of missions. 

 

Megumi nodded. “Of course, Commander.” She recognized the not-order and Tenzou’s attempt to give her control. “I’ll have a list for you in the morning.” Then she vanished with a teleportation jutsu.

 

Tenzou smiled at the place Megumi had been. She seemed to be the most open to leaving behind Root’s ideology. The world beyond Root at the very least intrigued her. Tenzou had never meant to pick a second in command, but Megumi had just naturally slotted into the role. She’d become his right hand and was the only one who knew that Root’s days were numbered. 

 

Tenzou called for another of his Roots. The man wore a boar mask and stood stiffly at attention. 

 

“I could use some help getting the kids organized for evaluations,” Tenzou started.

 

The man nodded sharply. “I accept the mission, Commander. Should I prepare another arena for physical exams?”

 

Tenzou quickly shook his head. “That won’t be necessary. I’m going to set up in the medical office. I need you to send me the trainees one at a time starting with the youngest. While I’m doing evaluations, I need you to make a list of supplies the trainees need and see to it that they are secured. I want these trainees in top shape with all haste.”

 

The man nodded. “Understood, Commander.”

 

Tenzou headed to the medical office. He knew he had a long day ahead of him.

 

The boar Root watched Tenzou go. Beneath his mask, the man was frowning. The new commander was very different from Danzou-sama and on the one hand the change of expectations was unnerving, but on the other the new commander’s methods were showing positive results.

 

Since Tenzou had been named Danzou’s replacement, they hadn’t lost a single Root member. Mission casualties were down and so were illnesses. There had been no unexplained disappearances. They had completed more missions in the time under Tenzou than they had in any other equal time period. Being able to choose teams and missions had encouraged the formation of more efficient teams.

 

So Boar didn’t voice his concerns. He did as he was told and watched for any indication that Tenzou’s methods were damaging the village’s defenses. The new Commander wore his emotions far more openly than any other Root and his kindness was easy to mistake for weakness, but as long as he continued to strengthen the village’s forces through his leadership it didn’t matter.

 

Tenzou’s Notes:

Clan Name

First Name

Age

Gender

Abilities

Assessment Notes

 

Aiko

4

F

Sound based genjutsu

Untrained, no known family, to be placed with Kohona family

Saito

Botan

4

M

Sensor

Untrained, family in Hiasu, to be returned to family

 

Chiasa

5

F

Unknown

Untrained, no known family, to be placed with Kohona family

Nakamura

Hachiro

5

M

Unknown

Untrained, family in Fujiha, to be returned to family

 

Akina

5

F

Fire Chakra Control

Minimal training, to be placed with Kohona family

Watanabe

Arata

5

M

Unknown

Untrained, family in Kusava, to be returned to family

 

Daisuke

6

M

Shuriken

Halfway through training program, no known family, needs to be placed with a shinobi family

 

Sai

7

M

Chakra Infused Ink

Fully trained and tested, needs to be placed with a Root member

Suzuki

Fujita

7

M

Enhanced Flexibility and Body Modification

Fully trained and untested, family killed in border skirmish, needs to be placed with a jounin or anbu, related to Manzo-- place together if possible

Tanaka

Ito

9

F

Genjutsu

Halfway through training program, family in Janato, to be returned to family with anbu support

 

Jun

9

F

Swordsmanship

Halfway through training program, no known family, needs to be placed with a shinobi family

Suzuki

Manzo

9

M

Enhanced Physical Strength and Body Modification

Fully trained and untested, family killed in border skirmish, needs to be placed with a jounin or anbu related to Fujita-- place together if possible

 

Nobu

10

M

Swordsmanship and Tactics

Fully trained and untested, no known family, needs to be placed with a jounin or anbu

 

Kyoko

10

F

Trap Making

Halfway through training program, no known family, needs to be placed with a shinobi family

 

Mai

11

F

Poison and Herbalism

Fully trained and untested, no known family, needs to be placed with a jounin or anbu-- would pair well with a medic

 

Hiroshi

11

M

Tactics and Assasination

Fully trained and tested, needs to be placed with a Root member

 

Kaori

12

M

Infiltration

Fully trained and untested, no known family, needs to be placed with a jounin or anbu

 

Nori

12

F

Information Extraction and Disguises

Fully trained and tested, needs to be placed with a Root member

 

Rei

12

M

Assasination

Fully trained and untested, no known family, needs to be placed with a jounin or anbu

 

Kana

13

F

Infiltration and Swordsmanship

Fully trained and tested, needs to be placed with a Root member

 

Namiyo

13

M

Barrier Jutsu and swordsmanship

Fully trained and tested, needs to be placed with a Root member



Tenzou stared at the list he’d made without seeing it. His eyes refused to focus on the paper. He was mentally exhausted and emotionally drained. Talking with the kids brought the memories Tenzou usually tried to forget floating to the surface of his mind. He could hear Danzou’s voice whispering in his ear, “This is necessary.” He could feel the ache of injuries long healed. 

 

Tenzou shoved Danzou’s ghost from his mind and tried to focus on the task in front of him.

 

Most of the kids didn’t know where they’d come from and he doubted the name they gave him was the one they were born with. 

 

The younger kids squirmed under Tenzou’s gaze and flinched when he moved too fast. They had yet to receive shinobi training, but it was obvious that they’d received a fair bit of discipline training. 

 

It was only through good old fashioned bribery that Tenzou managed to get them talking about their training. Mumbling around sticky rice candy, they told stories of harsh discipline, rampant illnesses in the barracks (which is why they’d been relocated to the arena), and other trainees who simply vanished. 

 

Tenzou knew they would have nightmares for a while, but that they were young enough to bounce back. He could place them with a sympathetic civilian family or return them to their family provided they had one.

 

The kids in the middle age group were the ones Tenzou had the hardest time reading. They had been broken down emotionally and psychologically to the point that Danzou deemed fit to start Root’s shinobi training. This meant they were compliant and quiet. 

 

When asked, they described the horrors of their training without flinching. But, when Tenzou looked at them with undisguised sympathy and promised he wouldn’t let anyone hurt them like that ever again, they broke down crying. Tenzou decided he could place them with a shinobi, but not a civilian family.

 

There was a large portion of the group that had been fully trained by Danzou, but were untested. They’d suffered through the brutality of Root training, but they’d never killed before. 

 

None of them passed a standard psychological evaluation, but Tenzou decided to place them with either jounin or regular anbu members anyway. Having been spared the graduation exam, he had hope that they would be able to integrate back into society with some work and guidance. Some of them even admitted to having friends in their training group, which Tenzou took as a very good sign.

 

The ones that worried Tenzou the most were the 5 who had been fully trained and tested. He stared into their eyes and saw nothing. They were like empty shells. Danzou had succeeded in turning them into his perfect weapons. The names they gave were all code-names and they would answer to whatever Tenzou called them. All they cared about was learning the details of the mission they assumed they’d been selected for.

 

Tenzou decided to place one of the girls with Megumi. Kana shared an infiltration specialization with Megumi, so he assumed they would have gone through similar training. 

 

Tenzou considered training under someone older and experienced in maintaining their sanity through extensive undercover missions was an absolutely necessary part of surviving life as an infiltration specialist. Megumi was noticeably saner than the other infiltration specialists Tenzou had worked with.

 

Tenzou knew he’d need to place the other kids who had been tested with Root members as well. They needed to be with someone who would understand and accept them.

 

One of the kids stood out. He was the youngest to have been tested, only 7 years old. He looked at Tenzou with dead eyes and had brought his go bag to the interrogation with him. He was the only one to have done that and it caught Tenzou’s interest.

 

“Do you mind if I see what you packed?” Tenzou asked.

 

The boy stood stiffly and dumped his canvas pack on the desk. It was mostly standard gear-- kunai, shuriken, food pills, first aid kit, etc-- and painting supplies. 

 

“You specialize in infusing ink with chakra, right?” Tenzou checked.

 

The boy nodded.

 

In the pile was a small, book. Tenzou picked it up and thought he saw fear flicker across the boy’s face, but it was only there for a heartbeat.

 

Tenzo flipped through the book. Depending on which cover you started from, it showed a shinobi fighting his way through enemies one by one. The middle of the book, where the two shinobi would meet, was blank.

 

“Your painting is beautiful,” Tenzou said. He held the book out to the boy and the boy didn’t hesitate to snatch it from Tenzou’s grip and hug it to his chest.

 

Tenzou smiled at the boy, but his eyes filled with tears. One shinobi looked like the boy in front of him and he could guess who the other one was supposed to be. Despite everything, the boy was still clinging to the last good thing in his life. Danzou’s ultimate training plan had failed to completely crush this child.

 

Tenzou knew the boy would need more help than any of the others. Tenzou knew how much pain that last shred of humanity could cause. Guilt was a heavy burden to bear, especially that young. Tenzou had failed his exam, failed to kill Kakashi, and he still struggled with the guilt of trying to kill his only friend. This boy had passed his exam.

 

With all of the kids back in their makeshift barrack, Tenzou checked on Boar. 

 

Evening had come and gone and outside night was falling.

 

The Root was up on the catwalk, watching the kids. “Commander,” Boar greeted with a tip of his head.

 

“How is it going?” Tenzou asked.

 

Boar nodded. “My mission is complete. They have new weapons and clothes. I saw to it that they all received sufficient rations and all injuries and illnesses were treated.”

 

Tenzou smiled. “Thank you. I appreciate your hard work and efficiency. I won’t keep you here any later. You can go.”

 

Boar nodded and accepted both the thanks and dismissal.

 

Tenzou lingered a bit longer, just watching.

 

---

 

Tenzou didn’t sleep much that night. Instead, he drafted letters to be sent on behalf of the Root trainees to potential families. He obsessed over the wording and how to make a stranger see all the potential these kids had. They needed love and patient care, but they weren’t just things to be fixed. They were brilliant and creative, each unique and special in their own way. 

 

How was he supposed to convey the sweetness of little Aiko’s hesitant smile or the quiet strength that would one day make Daisuke a leader in whatever field he chose?

 

An hour before the morning meeting, Tenzou left his apartment and headed for a nearby bakery. He picked up sweet buns and coffee and headed for the Root headquarters with his arms loaded.

 

The Root headquarters were hidden in the mountain below the stone monument and the main entrance was disguised as a small office building.

 

What Tenzou had taken to calling the conference room was a tactical planning room under Danzou. The large table was a map of Kohona and the surrounding terrain. 

 

Tenzou had his suspicions about why there were routes marked from Root to the Hokage’s office and home, but he kept them to himself. Whatever Danzou had been planning, those plans died with the man.

 

The other members of Root trickled in. Megumi arrived in deep conversation with the other Bird. 

 

Bird was one of the younger members, 3 years Tenzou’s junior. She had a sweet voice and with her golden hair, the comparison to a song bird was obvious. Looking at the petite woman, one would never take her for Root’s top interrogation specialist. Her mask was painted with red as opposed to Megumi’s blue.

 

Next was to arrive were Boar, Deer, Bear, and Hound. The four men entered in silence and took a seat without a sound. 

 

Bear dipped his head to Tenzou as a greeting and Tenzou nodded back.

 

The bulk of Root arrived exactly on time, in a clump of 15. 

 

Rabbit, Blue Cat, Green Cat, and Pig came in a few minutes late.

 

Monkey was the last to arrive, out of breath with an apology on his lips. “I’m sorry Commander,” Monkey said with a deep bow. “There was a commotion in the market this morning. Some sort of a thief.”

 

“It’s alright. We didn’t start without you,” Tenzou assured the young man. Monkey was the only one who had opted to live outside of the Anbu housing. He had returned to his childhood home. Though his family was long gone and the forest had made a valiant effort to reclaim the house, the foundation was strong and the walls were sturdy, so Mokey stayed.

 

“I brought breakfast and coffee. Feel free to help yourself,” Tenzou invited.

 

About half of them did. Tenzou considered that an improvement from the first time he’d brought food to a meeting and they took it as an order to eat.

 

The first order of business was a presentation of the mission request Root had received. 

 

As a group, they decided which missions to take and which ones to kick back to the regular anbu. It always went faster than Tenzou expected. 

 

The Roots were intimately familiar with their team’s unique strengths and, in the absence of selfish interests, they chose missions that demanded either their specific skills or Root level discretion.

 

From the 15 mission requests Tenzou had received in the last week, they took 9. 4 were S-ranked, 4 were A-ranked, and one was B-ranked. 3 of the S-ranked, 2 of the A-ranked, and the B-ranked mission were outside of Fire Country.

 

Tenzou didn’t particularly like sending so many of his team abroad at one time, but none of the missions were long term, so he didn’t argue.

 

Cat in particular seemed excited about the prospect of getting out of the village. “I would like to request the A-rank in Waterfall Country,” she said quickly.

 

Tenzou nodded and passed her the scroll with mission details. It was a diplomatic mission. It was time to renew the treaty with Waterfall and someone needed to carry the new Treaty to Waterfall for a signature. 

 

Normally the mission wouldn’t warrant Root attention, but Waterfall had played hard during the negotiations and the emissary would have to cross Cloud Country which did not have a standing treaty with Kohona. If anything went wrong during travel or in Waterfall Country, a Root operative had the skill to escape conflict and disappear without unnecessary escalations.

 

It went on like that for a while. Some Root expressed mission preferences openly, but most waited for Tenzou to request them on a certain job. When he asked, none of them said no, but he always gave them the option.

 

The last order of business was the newly tested Root members.

 

Megumi, Red Bird, Monkey, and Bear had all volunteered to take one of the fully trained and tested kids.

 

Tenzou jotted them down and requested that they stay after the meeting to discuss the logistics. He needed one more, but it wouldn’t be good to pressure another Root into taking on the responsibility. An alternative was taking shape in Tenzou’s mind.

 

“Does anyone have any announcements or points of discussion pertaining to Root and the village?” Tenzou asked.

 

Hesitantly, Red Bird stood. 

 

Tenzou nodded for her to speak. 

 

“My announcement isn’t business related, but I would like permission to speak after the conclusion of business,” Red Bird said.

 

Tenzou nodded again. “Seeing no other business, this officially concludes our meeting. Go ahead Bird.”

 

Red Bird clasped her hands behind her back and stood straighter. “I have chosen a new name for myself. You may call me Seiko.” 

 

Tenzou broke into a wide grin. “It’s a pleasure to meet you Seiko.”

 

Seiko nodded and sat quickly after that.

 

Monkey stood up next. “If I may also speak about something that is not business…” he glanced to Tenzou.

 

“The meeting is over. It’s okay to just talk,” Tenzou said. Have more coffee and pastries if you want them. At this point, we’re just colleagues hanging out.”

 

Boar immediately went for another pastry and the room relaxed slightly. A few trickled out. 

 

Monkey waited for the room to settle again before continuing. “I went out without my mask last week. It’s the first time I’ve been barefaced without any sort of a disguise since before I joined Root.”

 

A ripple of excitement passed through the other Roots. “And?” Megumi demanded. 

 

Monkey shrugged. “It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, but I did it early in the morning and I only went to the tea shop closest to my house. There weren’t a lot of people around which I think helped me, because I knew for sure no one was staring and no one tailed me home.”

 

Megumi nodded and fiddled with her own mask. She’d been trying to work up the courage to actually start building a civilian identity, but was unable to bring herself to leave her home without her mask.

 

“And, a family moved into the house next door to me. I’m going to go over an introduce myself just as soon as I settle on a new name,” Monkey rubbed the back of his head. “Then, I’ll really have a civilian identity I’ll have a name and a face people recognize. I’m only a little terrified by it.” Monkey sat back down and relaxed into his seat.

 

“How are you planning to explain your work?” Seiko asked with a note of genuine curiosity.

 

“I was thinking of saying I was a traveling merchant,” Monkey replied. 

 

Tenzou fought the urge to roll his eyes. That was the standard excuse that anbu used and everyone knew it. It wasn’t hard to figure out that the perpetually armed guy who didn’t own a shop wasn’t actually a traveling merchant. But, people would assume Monkey was a regular anbu and it would keep them from asking too many questions.

 

The other Roots were nodding like Monkey had come up with a brilliant plan. 

 

“I acquired a cat,” Deer said. He was a tall, thin man with a soft voice. “One of the counselors who did my last psych eval suggested that an animal companion may help reduce stress and anxiety.”

 

Heads nodded and people murmured. Tenzou decided not to ask what Deer meant by “acquiring” a cat. He also wondered if that was why Kakashi kept adding to his pack of ninken.

 

“Would you like to see a picture?” Deer asked.

 

Heads nodded again, and he pulled a picture from his pocket. 

 

Tenzou thought the orange tabby had a mean look with it’s missing eye, shredded ear, and underbite, but Deer seemed pleased. 

 

The not-meeting continued to devolve from there. The Roots discussed the challenges of adjusting to Tenzou’s gentler leadership and different expectations. They shared tips and tricks for coping in a world that Danzou had built them to not fit in. It was everything from teas to help with sleep and how to properly cook chicken to how to speak with children and pick the right clothes size.

 

Tenzou offered his own advice when asked directly, but otherwise let the rest of them work through things together.

 

Tenzou couldn’t help but think of how far his team had come in under a year. Sure, none of them were able to pass a psych eval yet, but they were all actively and willingly working towards it. His mind flickered back to the first time he had stood in front of all of Root and explained his plan to do away with the isolation of Root shinobi.

 

Most of them thought he was crazy. It took revealing his whole history and proving his skill as a shinobi and leader to win them over. “Look at my mission records and tell me I’m weaker than you,” Tenzou had challenged. “My worst performance was when I was under Danzou’s control.”

 

The Roots had shifted in discomfort at that. They were supposed to be the strongest shinobi in the village. That leaving had made Tenzou stronger was a scary idea. It threw into question everything they had been taught.

 

“Outside of Root, I learned to draw strength and conviction from the bonds I shared with my teammates and the village. As a member of Root I was willing to die for the village without hesitation, but I didn’t know the value of my life or the value of this village,” Tenzou had continued. 

 

“In living amongst my fellow villagers, I learned what I was actually fighting for-- who I was fighting for-- and it wasn’t Danzou or even the hokage. Because I love this village and the people who call it home, I can fight longer and harder. I know the power of my life and I will give every moment of my life to the protection of this place that is precious to me,” Tenzou had explained. “That makes me far more powerful than I was.”

 

The tally of completed missions Root was able to rack up under Tenzou’s leadership spoke for themselves. Once he had proven that his kindness didn’t indicate weakness, the Root members began to accept their new leader’s gentler treatment and new methods. Tenzou’s compassion and sympathy endeared him to his subordinates. They were eager to please and eager to find the sort of strength Tenzou claimed came from forging bonds.

 

The last of the pastries finally disappeared and all that was left of the coffee was the dregs, when the rest of Root began to disperse.

 

The 4 who had volunteered to take in the last of Danzou’s recruits lingered.

 

Tenzou passed them files on the recruits. “I have some ideas on who would pair well with who, but the final decision is up to you.”

 

“What about the fifth child?” Megumi asked.

 

“I’ll take them,” Tenzou said. I’ve watched Kakashi with both Naruto and Sasuke. I should be able to handle on kid, he thought.

 

Megumi took Kana, Seiko took Nori, Monkey took Namiyo, and Deer took Hiroshi. 

 

That left Tenzou with the youngest, the chakra painter, Sai.

 

Tenzou had a feeling that he was jumping into a river without knowing how deep the water was or if the current was powerful. He hoped the others couldn’t tell and that the 5 of them would be able to handle this task without being swept away.

 

Over the next week, the temporary barrack inside the arena emptied. 

 

Tenzou worked nonstop to find good homes for all of the kids. A surprising number of people had offered to take in one of the kids. Tenzou personally met with all of the prospective guardians at least twice and when he placed one of the kids, it was under the condition that he would be checking on them regularly.

 

The people Tenzou chose weren’t all the sort that a civilian orphanage would have chosen. They weren’t stereotypical families, but Tenzou was confident the kids would be loved and cared for.

 

Among the guardians Tenzou chose were a handful of older single shinobi, a civilian from the Hyuga clan, and an Inuzuka who had been a chuunin before losing her leg on a mission.

 

Tenzou was even able to put the two brothers together with a man from the Akimichi clan. 

 

Akimichi Gako had lost his wife in the last war. She had been a member of the medical team on the front lines. Gako unofficially retired from shinobi work after the war ended. Thought still recognized as a jounin, he hadn’t taken a mission in years and he only used his jounin rank to get into the training grounds to practice with his nephew. 

 

“The house has always been too big and quiet, even for me,” Gako said with a smile as he patted his generous stomach. “I volunteered with the medical division after the war. I know what that sort of violence does to kids and I’m experienced in working with young, traumatized shinobi.”

 

With the rest of the kids safe, Tenzou turned his attention to his new charge.

 

Sai sat across the Tenzou’s kitchen table from the older shinobi.

 

The boy was small, even smaller than Naruto and Sasuke despite being roughly the same age. His feet barely touched the ground.

 

Sai’s go bag was sitting beside his chair. He seemed unwilling to let it out of his sight and Tenzou suspected it was because of the book inside.

 

Sai had been unable to tell Tenzou what he liked to eat, so Tenzou had made ramen. In his limited experience with kids, none of them ever objected to ramen.

 

Sai picked at the food and watched Tenzou with dark eyes.

 

On first entering Tenzou’s apartment, the boy had taken stock of entrances, exits, and possible weapons. He had noticed Tenzou’s plant collection and the way the older man kept his things tidy, but not up to Danzou-sama’s standards. There were dirty dishes in the sink and dust had been allowed to settle on the top of the tall cupboards. Sai filed the observations away for further analysis later-- perhaps they would tell him more about what the new Commander wanted from him.

 

“I only have one bedroom, but I put in for a move to a two bedroom apartment and it should be approved within the week,” Tenzou explained. 

 

Sai nodded. “That seems to be a lot of trouble for you,” he observed. “It would be easier to place me in a single occupant apartment, would it not? Or I could sleep on the floor here? I don’t have any possessions and I slept worse places on missions.”

 

Tenzou tried to smile gently. He hoped it didn’t look like a grimace. In addition to being unable to express any sort of an opinion or emotion, Sai seemed incapable of understanding that he was a child. “Sleeping on the floor will make you stiff. That’s no good for anyone. As for living on your own, you’re young and there’s a lot you have left to learn.” Tenzou framed his argument around Sai’s ability to function as a shinobi, just like he’d done in the beginning with the adults.

 

“Could I be placed in a nearby unit?” Sai asked. He had noticed the unit across the hall didn’t have a name beside the apartment number.

 

Tenzou hesitated. “Would you rather live alone?” he asked.

 

“I have no preference. I am a tool to be used by Root. I will stay wherever you deem me most useful.”

 

Tenzou could have groaned in frustration. Sai acted like he was a veteran of Root rather than a barely initiated child. 

 

Tenzou met Sai’s emotionless gaze and tried to decide what to do. It was clear the kid wasn’t going to participate in this decision. 

 

“I’ll see if I can get you one of the neighboring units. If not, we’ll move into a two bedroom unit,” Tenzou said. If Sai was across the hall, he wasn’t really any further than he would be in a two bedroom apartment. Plus, the older Root member had responded well to having their own space. Since Sai seemed to have more uncommon with an adult than the other kids, maybe he would do the same.

 

Sai nodded. He accepted Tenzou’s decision without any emotion. “You have a lot of plants,” Sai remarked.

 

Tenzou nodded. “Yeah. I find that taking care of them relaxes me and they don’t make for bad company.” He couldn’t help but smile fondly at the plants around them.

 

Sai’s face remained impassive. “Plants cannot provide companionship. They aren’t sentient,” he pointed out.

 

Tenzou winced. Yeah. He’s not like Naruto.

 

When dinner was done, Sai helped to clean up in silence. 

 

Tenzou went to work making the couch into a bed. Sai watched in silence.

 

“There we go,” Tenzou announced. He stood back and smiled at Sai. Yes, it was the couch, but it was undoubtedly more comfortable than the cot Sai was used to and there were plenty of soft blankets available.

 

“I make you sad,” Sai said.

 

Tenzou’s heart ached, but he forced himself to keep smiling. “No. You don’t make me sad.”

 

“You’re a good liar,” Sai said. He stepped past Tenzou and sat on the makeshift bed. He kicked off his shoes and laid down.

 

Tenzou hesitated to walk away. “Do you want another blanket?” he asked.

 

“I’m fine,” Sai said. He stared up at the ceiling. “You shouldn’t waste your energy caring about me. I don’t think I have emotions. I don’t feel sad or happy or discontent or anything else.”

 

Tenzou’s shoulders sagged and his smile fell. “It’s okay to feel things,” he said softly. “I know Danzou taught that emotions are useless, but he was wrong. As long as you can control your emotions, they can make you stronger. They’re a valuable weapon.”

 

Sai closed his eyes. “I suppose that diminishes my value then. I feel nothing. I have no emotions.”

 

“It’s okay,” Tenzou whispered. He wasn’t even sure if the boy could hear him. “Get some rest. If you need anything, wake me up.” He made it an order, but tried to keep his voice gentle.

 

Sai nodded, but didn’t open his eyes.

 

Tenzou retreated to his bedroom. He buried his face in his pillow and cried. More than ever, Tenzou was glad Danzou was dead. More than ever, he wished Kakashi were in the village so they could talk. 

 

But Kakashi was off taking care of his boys and now Tenzou needed to do the same.

Chapter Text

Kakashi and his boys stood under the first boughs of the forest. Home was ahead, but their eyes were fixed on where they’d come from. Any further down the path and they would lose sight of the little cabin that had been their home and refuge for the past month and a half.

 

The meadow bore the marks of shinobi training and family bonding. Justus had left deep furrows in the ground and the trees were scratched from kunai and shuriken practice. In a few spots, the foliage was singed from a combination of poorly constructed fire pits (Kakashi’s fault), poorly cooked marshmallows (Naruto’s fault), and well executed fire style jutsus (Sasuke’s contribution).

 

The house looked better than ever. The roof was patched and a new layer of cement between the logs blocked out the drafts. Wood was piled neatly in the shed and the pantry was stocked with nonperishable food. Everything was ready for the next stay.

 

Kakashi had considered taking the picture of his family with them, but instead decided to leave a second picture of the new family he had built beside the original.

 

All that was left was the hardest part of the trip, saying goodbye.

 

“I don’t want to go,” Naruto said what they were all thinking. His voice was small and for once he wasn’t smiling.

 

Kakashi reached out and ruffled the boy’s hair. “I know, but we can’t stay here forever. There are people waiting for us back in Konoha.”

 

“Are they really?” Sasuke asked. Something dark flickered across his face. He didn’t finish his thought out loud, Wouldn’t they be happier if we didn’t come back?

 

Kakashi sighed. 

 

Naruto’s face said he agreed with Sasuke’s skepticism. Afterall, he’d nearly killed his friends. How could any of them want him to come back?

 

“Look, I won’t say there aren't people who would prefer the three of us just disappeared,” Kakashi admitted. For a moment, he looked weary and older than his age, but then his face hardened. “But that’s their problem, not ours. We all have friends and people we care about in Konoha and that makes it our home. No one can take that away unless you let them.”

 

Naruto nodded, but didn’t look convinced. 

 

Kakashi sighed. They’d talked at length about what would and could happen when they returned to the village. He thought they’d worked through the worst of the anxiety, but it seemed leaving brought it all back to the surface.

 

Kakashi decided to change tactics.

 

“Do you care about your friends in the academy?” Kakashi asked Naruto.

 

Naruto nodded quickly. “Yes, but what if they don’t--”

 

Kakashi cut Naruto off. “Do you remember what I told you it means to be Hokage?” he asked.

 

Naruto frowned. “A hokage is a powerful shinobi who loves their village and does everything they can to protect their people.” He wasn’t sure how this fit in.

 

Kakashi nodded. “What did I tell you it takes to become hokage?”

 

Naruto’s eyes widened. “You have to prove that you can be trusted and that you’ll use your strength to do good things.” 

 

Sasuke watched the exchange curiously, trying to piece together a conversation he hadn’t witnessed.

 

Naruto’s shoulders dropped and he stared at the ground. “I didn’t do a very good job of that.” He look heartbroken.

 

“No. You did a pretty good job,” Sasuke interrupted.

 

Naruto and Kakashi both looked at the Uchiha in surprise. 

 

Sasuke met Naruto’s stare. “You protected me. You used your strength to save me from Hikaru and even though you lost control, you didn’t hurt me,” Sasuke explained.

 

Behind his mask, Kakashi smiled.

 

“And now that you’ve had a chance to practice, you’ll be able to show everyone that you can protect them too, only without losing control now, Sasuke finished. 

 

A tiny smile wormed its way onto Naruto’s face.

 

“It might take some time, but your friends will come back around,” Kakashi added.

 

Sasuke nudged Naruto’s shoulder. “You’re an idiot, but for some reason everyone who gets to know you loves you.” 

 

At that, Naruto broke into a full grin. 

 

Naruto didn’t realize this was Sasuke’s way of apologizing for sparking old anxieties. Sasuke’s comment had been about himself, not the blond or Kakashi. Sasuke knew Naruto and Kakashi had people back in Konoha, but all the people he really cared about were currently with him. Konoha was only important to Sasuke because it was where Naruto and Kakashi lived.

 

The thought of going back to the village full where everyone looked at him with at best sympathy and pity and at worst outright hate, made Sasuke’s stomach churn. He’d fallen in love with the anonymity and freedom of this backwater town. For the first time since the massacre, Sasuke had felt at home. He’d felt like he was a part of a family again and he was scared that when they returned to the village that feeling would disappear again.

 

Sasuke did his best to bury his emotions behind a mask of indifference. To say anything else would only upset Naruto and Kakashi.

 

Kakashi cast one last glance at the cabin and turned to face down the path. “I guess it’s settled then. Let’s go home.”


The boys followed Kakashi down the path.

 

From the shadow of the forest, the deer watched them go.

 

---

 

The first night, they made camp beside a river and boiled water for instant ramen over a campfire.

 

Naruto chattered on about how great it would be to be able to go to Ichiraku and begged Kakashi for stories.

 

Kakashi filled the quiet night with old legends about shinobi so powerful they reshaped the very landscape.

 

Sasuke only half listened. 

 

Kakashi saw the faraway look on Sasuke’s face, but waited for the kid to speak up. Sasuke usually said what was on his mind when he was done deciding what exactly it was.

 

When Naruto had dozed off and the fire was just a pile of coals, Kakashi found Sasuke staring at him.

 

Kakashi motioned for Sasuke to follow him closer to the river. The running water drowned out their voices and would give Sasuke some privacy.

 

Kakashi sat on a log and Sasuke sat beside him. In the faint moonlight, Sasuke reminded Kakashi of a wandering spirit from the old tales— pale skin, dark hair, dark eyes, haunted look.

 

They sat in silence for a long minute. 

 

Sasuke interlaced his fingers and stared down at them in the dim light. “I was happy at the cabin,” he said at last.

 

Kakashi nodded. “I could tell.”

 

“I’m not like Naruto. I don’t make friends like he does and I can’t just ignore all the bad things,” Sasuke continued. He stopped and tried to come up with the right words to explain the crushing loneliness and anxiety in his chest.

 

Kakashi gently put an arm around Sasuke’s shoulder. “I’m not like Naruto either,” he admitted.

 

“How do you do it?”

 

“I’m not good at making friends, but other people are. When one of them decides they want to be my friend, I let them.”

 

Sasuke snorted. “You make it sound that easy.” But even as he scoffed at the idea, his mind flickered back to the other academy kids. Sakura had gone out of her way to help him catch up in class. Ino and Shikamaru had protected him from the Fox. Maybe it was actually that easy. He just had to keep from pushing them away.

 

“And, I focus on the bad things I can fix. If you let them, all of the world’s problems will drown you.”

 

Sasuke nodded slowly. The tightness in his chest had eased slightly. 

 

Kakashi ruffled Sasuke’s hair and stood up. “You should get some sleep, we have a long way to go tomorrow.”

 

That night, Sasuke dreamed real dreams instead of sharingan memories. 

 

Naruto became hokage and Sasuke was beside him every step of the way. They were like two halves of the same coin. The optimistic dreamer and the realist. The light and the dark. 

 

Naruto’s stubborn faith in people and Sasuke’s ability to pick out problems worth solving made a potent combination. Together they reshaped the village into the place they’d both thought it was before they were old enough to see the ugly truths. 

 

For some reason, there was also a giant duck just wandering around, but that’s just sort of how dreams go.

 

--- 

 

Sasuke woke up the next morning feeling lighter and more at ease than the day before. He smiled slightly over breakfast.

 

“Good dreams?” Naruto asked.

 

Sasuke shrugged. “I guess, but all I remember is this weird duck.”

 

Naruto snickered. 

 

The trio set off just after sunrise. Kakashi kept the boys entertained with little challenges-- things like shuriken throwing, races, and plant trivia.

 

By midday, they’d made good progress and decided to stop in the next town for lunch. Kakashi figured they’d still be able to make it back to the village before dark.

 

The cafe was a lively little place with lots of windows and planter boxes overflowing with blossoms.

 

Kakashi left the boys at a table and went to use the bathroom. He came back to find them in deep conversation with the waitress.

 

The waitress looked around Kakashi’s age. She had red hair like the autumn leaves and green eyes that flashed in the sunlight. She looked between Kakashi and the two boys with a smile. “You must be Kakashi,” she said.

 

Kakashi stared at her face, trying desperately to remember where they could possibly have met before.

 

“We don’t get a lot of people from out of town, so I was just asking your boys what brings you through. They were telling me about the hotsprings you were visiting,” the waitress explained. “I’m Naomi.”

 

Kakashi relaxed and smiled back. “Nice to meet you Naomi.”

 

Naomi took their orders and checked on them frequently.

 

She also asked a lot of questions. 

 

“So how old are your boys?”

 

“6”

 

“I bet it was nice to have a boys only trip.”

 

“I guess. All of our trips are boys only. It’s just the 3 of us.”

 

“Wow it must be hard being a single parent?”

 

“Not really. They’re good kids.”

 

“They seem like it. It’s a shame you guys aren’t staying in town for a while. I have a little sister their age and I think they’d get along great.”

 

Kakashi shrugged. “Maybe we’ll be back through again, but we really do have to get home. I have work.”

 

“What sort of work do you do? You’re a shinobi right?”

 

“I take whatever missions the hokage assigns me.”

 

“That’s so exciting, but it must be hard to balance work and parenting. You’re so admirable.”

 

It just kept going and she kept brushing Kakashi’s shoulder as she walked by.

 

“Your boys are so cute. It’s obvious they take after you.”

 

Sasuke kept his head down and his mouthful, staying well out of the conversation. Naruto on the other hand expanded on each of Kakashi’s answers and the jounin swore the kid was in cahoots with the waitress.

 

Eventually, Kakashi left more than enough money to cover their bill on the table and dragged the kids out while Naomi was in the kitchen getting someone else’s order. 

 

Outside, Kakashi breathed a sigh of relief. “Some people are too friendly,” Kakashi muttered. “I swear she would have talked all day. And what a ditz. Who would look at the 3 of us and actually think we’re all blood relatives?” He shook his head.

 

Naruto and Sasuke both stared at Kakashi like he’d sprouted a second head.

 

“You don’t think…” Sasuke trailed off and gave Naruto a curious look.

 

Naruto narrowed his eyes at Kakashi. “I don’t know…”

 

“But he reads all those trashy romance novels.”

 

“Hmmmm…”

 

Kakashi rolled his eyes. “What are you two going on about?”

 

“I think he really doesn’t know,” Sasuke said in genuine surprise. He reached up and patted Kakashi on the arm. “It’s okay. She was just flirting with you and you were being really oblivious.”

 

Kakashi sputtered. 

 

Naruto laughed. “Jeez Kakashi. You need to read better romance novels.”

 

“Yeah. She was totally fishing to see if you were married,” Sasuke added.

 

Kakashi groaned and was very glad most of his face was hidden. If the boys could see the way he was blushing, he’d never live it down. “You guys are too young to know anything about flirting,” Kakashi declared.

 

Both boys rolled their eyes at that. “Ino and Sakura flirt with Sasuke all the time,” Naruto said with a smirk. “They’re even more obvious than that waitress and Sasuke totally leads them on.”

 

Sasuke elbowed Naruto. “Do not!”

 

“Do to!”

 

“At least I don’t act like a love sick baby. You have a crush on Sakura and it’s so obvious.”

 

Naruto blushed. “Do not! I just think she’s nice.”

 

Kakashi shook his head and started walking. “Please stop growing up so fast,” he muttered. “I’m not ready to deal with that sort of drama.”

 

The boys followed him, still teasing each other.

 

---

 

They reached the village gates just as the sun was setting. The guards recognized the trio immediately and quietly welcomed Kakashi home. 

 

Both boys felt the guards’ eyes on them as they moved further into the village.

 

They stopped for dinner at Ichiraku Ramen and at least one person was glad to see the three of them. Every bowl of ramen was bigger than it was supposed to be and between serving customers, Teuchi listened to Naruto’s stories. 

 

Sasuke and Kakashi let Naruto do the talking, both content to eat and listen. Naruto’s storytelling wasn’t exactly linear, but his excitement had a way of conveying all the good parts despite the lack of narrative.

 

It was late when the three finally made it in their front door.

 

A fine layer of dust had settled over everything, but the mail was stacked neatly on the table and all of the house plants were alive. Kakashi made a mental note to thank Tenzou.

 

“We’re going to have to do some major cleaning, aren’t we?” Naruto said with a groan.

 

Kakashi nodded. “But not tonight.”

 

It was good to sleep in a real bed again.

 

---

 

Kakashi woke up early and decided it was because it was too quiet. He was alone in the master bedroom for the first time. No kids, no dogs, no wind through the trees, no rain on the roof, just the stillness of early morning.

 

With a groan, he rolled out of bed. The floorboards were cold beneath his bare feet. The first chill of autumn came early in Konoha because of the elevation, but this felt particularly early.

 

Kakashi brushed aside thoughts of a brutal winter. 

 

He had much more immediate things to worry about, mainly a meeting with the clan heads concerning Naruto and Sasuke’s suspensions from the academy and a meeting with the Hokage to discuss his new assignment now that he was no longer an anbu.

 

Kakashi took his time getting ready. 

 

The bath wasn’t the same as a hot spring, but it still soothed the aches of travel and as steam filled the bathroom Kakashi relaxed.

 

Kakashi took the time to trim his hair. It came out a bit lopsided as always, but Kakashi had learned long ago that it wouldn’t be noticeable when it dried and fluffed up. 

 

He shaved a few days worth of stubble and made sure to select a clean mask, not stained with sweat or food. The cloth was soft and felt almost like a second skin.

 

In the mirror, Kakashi’s sharingan glowed. He traced the scar that split his eye with a gentle finger. “Wish you were here,” Kakashi said softly. “I feel like you would have got a kick out of me arguing with all the important people.” He could practically see Obito’s smirk. 

 

Kakashi pulled on his forehead protector and covered the sharingan. He slipped on his jounin flak jacket and strapped his kunai holster to his thigh. His meeting with the clan heads wasn’t until 10:00AM, but he wasn’t going to risk being late.

 

In the kitchen, Kakashi found Sasuke and Naruto going through the cupboards.

 

Sasuke was on Naruto’s shoulders, trying to check the top shelves, and Naruto was wobbling dangerously.

 

“Please don’t fall,” Kakashi said.

 

At which point, Naruto flinched and Sasuke went tumbling.

 

On Instinct, Kakashi caught Sasuke and set the boy down.

 

Both boys looked winced. 

 

“Sorry. We were going to make breakfast,” Naruto said.

 

“But there’s really not any food here,” Sasuke added.

 

Kakashi smiled. “I appreciate the effort anyway. Why don’t you go get groceries while I’m at my meetings? You can grab breakfast somewhere on the way,” he suggested.

 

The boys nodded. They were both staring at Kakashi.

 

It dawned on him that neither of them had seen him dressed as a regular jounin before. 

 

“When I get home, I’ll help clean.”

 

Naruto and Sasuke nodded.

 

They watched out the kitchen window as Kakashi left and disappeared into the morning rush of people.

 

---

 

Kakashi was the first one in the meeting room, which was a novel experience. 

 

The meeting room was one of several in the hokage’s building and was normally used for mission briefings. THe room was rectangular with a door in one end, windows at the far end, and a single, long table that dominated the room.

 

Kakashi picked a seat near the door with a good view of the window, a force of habit, and waited.

 

The clan heads arrived shortly. Kakashi nodded to each as they entered.

 

Hyuga Hiashi, Nara Shikaku, Akimichi Chouza, Yamanaka Inoichi, Aburame Shibi, Inuzuka Tsume, and Sarutobi Asuma represented the 7 major clans of Konohagakure. Together with Iruka as the academy’s representative and the Hokage as a representative of all non-clan shinobi and civilians, the group would decide whether Naruto and Sasuke were able to return to training at the academy or if they would need to be moved to private training.

 

Iruka gave Kakashi a small smile as he claimed a seat and it made Kakashi relax a bit. It was good to know that at least one other person in the room was on his kids’ side.

 

Everyone stood when Sarutobi Hiruzen entered and sat when the third hokage took his place at the head of the table.

 

“Let’s get this started,” Hiruzen declared. He gestured for Kakashi to begin.

 

Kakashi stood and faced the rest of the assembly. “If it is agreeable, I would like Uchiha Sasuke and Uzumaki-Hatake Naruto’s suspensions to be considered independently,” Kakashi began.

 

The hokage nodded. “Are there any here who oppose that motion?” he asked.

 

No one dissented, so the hokage motioned for Kakashi to continue. 

 

“I would like to start with Sasuke’s suspension.”

 

Again, there was no dissent, so Kakashi launched into the speech he had been preparing for the last several weeks.

 

“Uchiha Sasuke actively tried to avoid confrontation with Hagiwara Hikaru even after the other student insulted the Uchiha bloodline and threatened to kill Sasuke. Sasuke only engaged in combat when Hikaru attempted to kill their fellow classmate, Uzumaki-Hatake Naruto. Even then, Sasuke utilized non-lethal measures and refused to directly fight Hikaru, still treating him as a classmate,” Kakashi looked around, searching for any sign that this sequence of events was going to be challenged. No one argued.

 

“Uchiha Sasuke comported himself like a model academy student. He has met and continues to meet the standards to which all academy students are held. He demonstrated a love of his fellow villager and dedication to protecting the peace and prosperity of the village, he has demonstrated both the physical and mental capacity to endure the hardships of shinobi training and shinobi life, and he is of sound mind and body. Based on this, I request that Uchiha Sasuke’s suspension be lifted and he be allowed to return to the academy with his classmates.”

 

Kakashi swallowed hard. He’d read the academy guidelines until he could recite them from memory word for word and he had gone through every similar case. Kakashi was confident the only thing that would prevent Sasuke from returning to the academy was prejudice against the Uchiha Clan and now was the time that any prejudice would become apparent.

 

Nara Shikaku stood up and glanced at the hokage for permission to speak.

 

Hiruzen nodded.

 

“It is my understanding that Uchiha Sasuke was struggling to some extent with grief prior to the incident at the academy and that he awakened his sharingan during the incident,” Shikaku looked to Kakashi for confirmation.

 

The silver haired shinobi had to nod in agreement.

 

“Taking into account your experience working with other Uchihas and your experience with shinobi who have suffered extreme trauma as children, do you believe that Uchiha Sasuke is mentally and emotionally stable enough to serve as a shinobi?” The head of the Nara clan leveled Kakashi with a piercing glare.

 

Kakashi had the distinct feeling that his every movement was being analyzed. He chose his words carefully and fought the urge to lick his lips beneath his mask. “I think it would be a mistake to judge Sasuke based on his clan or to assume that he responds to trauma in the same way as any other shinobi.”

 

Shikaku snorted at the non-answer and frowned.

 

Kakashi continued quickly. “That said, I believe Sasuke is stable enough to continue training and eventually serve as a shinobi. The sharingan comes with a cost. What is seen with the sharingan cannot be forgotten and I am confident that this has the potential to lead to instability, but I am also confident that there are effective strategies for managing the cost of the sharingan.” Kakashi touched his forehead protector where it covered Obito’s eye. “I worked extensively with Sasuke over the last 6 weeks and his control over the sharingan is already very good. His bloodline will not be his downfall.”

 

Shikaku nodded and sat back down.

 

“And what about the impact of losing his whole family?” Inuzuka Tsume asked. “Has he had a chance to process his grief?”

 

“Grieving isn’t something that can be finished in a set time frame. Sasuke is still working through his emotions, but it hasn’t impacted his training. He is coping better than I expected and I would happily bring him in for a psychological evaluation if that would ease fears,” Kakashi offered. He was pretty confident that Sasuke would pass and he could coach the kid just to be sure.

 

Tsume shook her head. “The offer is assurance enough.” She sat back down. 

 

No one else stood.

 

The hokage nodded. “It appears there are no other concerns in regards to Uchiha Sasuke returning to the academy. Unless there is dissent, I move to lift Uchiha Sasuke’s suspension.”

 

There was no dissent and Kakashi breathed a small sigh of relief. 

 

“Now, the question turns to Uzumaki-Hatake Naruto. Who would like to speak first?” Hiruzen asked.

 

Kakashi moved to stand, but Inuzuka Tsume beat him.

 

Tsume flashed Kakashi a quick grin. “Sorry for stealing your turn, but I need to say something that matters more to me than any training Naruto may have received during his suspension.”

 

Kakashi nodded and sat back down. His heart was racing and his stomach felt like it was on the ground by his feet.

 

“To start with, my youngest, Kiba, is in Naruto’s class. They became friends early on and have been a bad influence on each other from the start,” Tsume said.

 

Kakashi’s heart sank.

 

Tsume smiled. “Kiba’s never had a friend like Naruto. Sure, Kiba’s spent more of the last year grounded than not, becuase of stupid pranks. But he’s also been happier than I’ve ever seen him. It’s not always easy to be an Inuzuka. We have a bit of a reputation,” Tsume barred her pointed teeth. Everyone could guess what those reputations could be-- dog brained idiots, smelly, flea infested, brutes. 

 

“Naruto accepted Kiba immediately and took an interest in our clan’s culture. He’s gotten in trouble on Kiba’s behalf plenty of times and is fiercely loyal. The whole academy incident was a demonstration of Naruto’s loyalty. I have no doubt he would have done the same thing if it was Kiba being threatened or any other student. In Inuzuka terms, Naruto is bonded with wolfdog. He’s powerful, but still struggling for control. It takes a big heart and a strong will to being a wolf to heel, but as far as I am concerned Naruto has plenty of both and should be allowed to return to the academy.”

 

Tsume sat down and nodded to Kakashi.

 

Kakashi stood, but it took him several seconds to gather his thoughts. Tsume hadn’t gone where he’d expected and he wasn’t sure how to follow that. Tsume just smiled at Kakashi.

 

“Going back to the Academy admission requirements, I think we can all agree that Naruto meets the first two. His love of and loyalty to the village isn’t in question. As Tsume said, Naruto would do anything to protect his classmates and by extension his village. Neither should Naruto’s ability to endure shinobi training mentally and physically be brought into question. While not a stand out student academically, Naruto scored well on all his exams,” Kakashi paused and considered his next words. 

 

Iruka was nodding in agreement. 

 

Kakashi took a deep breath and pushed on. “Naruto’s status as the jinchuuriki of the Nine-Tailed Fox requires we reevaluate what being healthy in mind and body means exactly. While Naruto’s mind is sound and he has had a long time to come to terms with what it means to be a jinchuuriki, his body hasn’t had the same time to adjust…” 

 

Kakashi explained the issue with Naruto’s seal just as Jiraya had and detailed the process of breaking the extra seal. He went on to detail Naruto’s immense progress in chakra control and manipulation over the rest of the summer.

 

“Because of the experimental nature of the eight-trigrams seal, I can’t guarantee that Naruto will never lose control again, but I trust the Fourth Hokage and Uzumaki Kushina’s work. Based on Naruto’s progress in controlling the Fox’s chakra and the fact that even with the third seal’s interference he was able to regain control during the academy incident without hurting anyone, I request that Naruto’s suspension be lifted.”

 

Silence hung in the air. Every face wore a similar frown, but no one stood.

 

Hiruzen looked around the table. “Hiashi?”

 

The Hyuga stood. “My clan has concerns about the experimental seal. They would prefer Naruto be trained individually.” Hiashi glanced down at the table and hesitated for a moment before continuing. “Personally, I have been impressed with Naruto’s loyalty and kindness. I would like to see him given an opportunity to prove himself. Perhaps we could vote again on the suspension in a few months after more of us have a chance to observe Naruto’s training. He could potentially rejoin the class at midwinter.”

 

Hiashi sat down. The elders wouldn’t be happy that he didn’t advocate expulsion, but he owed Naruto for the kindness he’d shown Hinata.

 

“Shikaku?” Hiruzen prompted. 

 

Shikaku shook his head. “It’s a delicate issue. Like Hiashi I would like a chance to observe Naruto’s training, but I’m not sure that delaying a decision will benefit anyone. Stringing this out isn’t fair to Naruto or Kakashi. My son speaks highly of Naruto, but a decision shouldn’t be made based on friendships. The good of the village has to go first.”

 

“Chouza?” Hiruzen asked.

 

The Akimichi stood. There was a dark look on his face and he glared at Shikaku. “Everyone of us in this room possess a unique ability. We have strengths and powers that are not immediately obvious to a casual observer and it took us time to develop and hone those skills. A multi size jutsu can get out of control and bring down a building, the shadow bind jutsu is perilously close to the shadow strangle jutsu, and the dangers of a poorly executed mind transfer jutsu are well documented. How are any of our children different from Naruto? At the very least, he lost control trying to protect a friend. It could have easily been my son Naruto lost control while intervening on behalf of. He’s stood up for Choji on plenty of occasions. My vote is to send Naruto back to the academy where he can hone his skills alongside his peers.”

 

Yamanaka Inoichi stood next without prompting. “I propose Naruto be expelled from the academy and trained individually. He could benefit greatly from the individualized training in both academics and jinchuuriki related skills.” He sat down without further elaboration.

 

Aburame Shibi stood up and regarded the room from behind his glasses. “Those of you who know me well know that I’m not one for idle talk,” Shibi began. “I had hoped I would not need to say anything beyond my vote, but I feel that I may be able to put this situation in a different perspective.”

 

Hiruzen nodded for Shibi to continue.

 

“I don’t believe any of you beyond Sarutobi-sama are aware that I have two children. My youngest, Shino, is one of Naruto’s classmates. My oldest wasn’t born mine. I took him in after his parents died serving the village. His name is Torune, although he doesn’t answer to it anymore.” Shibi glanced at Hiruzen, but the hokage wouldn’t meet Shibi’s gaze.

 

“Torune is host to a particularly rare breed of insect called rinkaichuu. Their poison is lethal and can be spread through skin to skin contact or as an airborne gas. As a child, Torune struggled to control his insects. I decided not to enroll him in the academy inorder to give him time to develop further control,” Shobi paused and took a deep breath. “It is my greatest regret as a father. I isolated my son. His only friend was Shino and when Danzou came to me wanting to recruit another Aburame to Root, Torune volunteered to protect Shino,” Shibi stared straight at Hiruzen as he spoke.

 

A shiver ran down Kakashi’s spine. The similarity between Torune and Naruto was obvious. Both boys received immense power that they couldn’t fully control from to another entity that shared their body. Kakashi had a feeling he knew where this story was going and it wouldn’t be a happy ending for Torune.

 

“Torune used to be a kind and peaceful boy. He dreamed of being the first Aburame to earn the title of Hokage and using his skills to protect both his younger brother and the village they call home.” Shibi’s hair rustled as his insects moved, agitated by their host’s emotions. It was the only outward sign of Shibi’s anger.

 

“Following Danzou’s death, there have been changes in Root. What exactly, I don’t know, but Torune came home for the first time a month ago. He doesn’t talk much and he doesn’t answer to his name. The child I raised is gone. He was turned into a cold-blooded killer and it’s as much my fault as Danzou’s. By isolating Torune, I made him vulnerable to Root’s training. Torune serves the village because it’s his duty. It’s all he knows to do now. He is a fantastic weapon, but he doesn’t love the village or anyone in it. If you expel Naruto from the academy, you will be doing the same thing to him that I did to Torune.” Shibi’s eyes swept the room, trying to gauge if the others understood.

 

“I have no doubt that Naruto could excel with personalized training. He would be an excellent weapon, but he would not be the sort of jinchuuriki the village needs. If you want a jinchuuriki who protects the village, you need to give him a reason to want to protect the village. The bonds Naruto forms with his classmates are the foundation of his relationship with the village and they need to be protected. Furthermore, when Naruto loses control, if he loses control, we know it isn’t an instant death sentence for everyone around him. Had Torune been in that situation. I would have sent him to the academy without hesitation.”

 

Shibi glanced at Shikaku and Inoichi. “I have to respectfully disagree with my colleagues. Friendships should most certainly be a factor in our decision.”

 

Shibi then nodded to Kakashi and sat down without looking at Hiruzen. 

 

Tsume stood up. “You already know my feelings.” She sat down.

 

Asuma stood when his father nodded. “I don’t have a child in the academy, so my stake in this is smaller than others,” he admitted. “But I have to say I find Shibi’s comparison compelling and I trust Kakashi to have trained Naruto well. I would vote that Naruto’s suspension be lifted with the condition that if he loses control again during the academy, he is automatically expelled.”

 

Iruka was the last to speak. “I lost my family to the Nine-Tailed Fox. I won’t lie, there are times Naruto scares me,” Iruka cleared his throat and smiled apologetically at Kakashi. “But everytime I shy away from Naruto or watch him closer than the other kids, he makes me feel like an ass. Naruto is a good kid with a good heart. He’s never done anything to warrant my scrutiny or fear. Even during the incident, he didn’t hurt the other kids. If anyone deserves a second chance, it’s Naruto. I would be happy to have him back in my class.” Iruka sat back down.

 

Kakashi looked to the hokage and held his breath.

 

“By a vote, we have 5 in favor of ending the suspension, 2 in favor or extending the suspension, and 1 in favor expulsion,” Hiruzen announced. There was no emotion in his voice. “Based on the vote and the testimonials given, Uzumaki-Hatake Naruto will be allowed to return to the academy alongside his peers. In the event that he loses control of the Nine-Tailed Fox again during his academy years, this council will reconvene and a new decision will be reached.”


Kakashi could have cheered or cried from relief. He didn’t know which. He felt hot and cold all at once.

 

The council dispersed quickly.

 

Kakashi and the Hokage lingered. “Are we still meeting today to discuss my new assignment?” Kakashi asked.

 

Hiruzen hesitated. “Would you be willing to wait a couple days? I’ve had a few other things come up.”

 

Kakashi nodded. “Of course Hokage-sama. Let me know when you are free.”

 

---

 

Outside the meeting room, Aburame Shibi was waiting. He fell into step beside Kakashi and the two men walked out of the building side by side.

 

Out in the sunshine, away from prying eyes and ears, Kakashi whispered a soft thank you.

 

Shibi just shook his head. “I only told the truth. It’s nothing worth thanking me for.”

 

The two walked in silence for a minute. Kakashi waited. He knew Shibi had to have something else he wanted to say.

 

“Do anbu ever recover from their time behind the mask?”

 

Kakashi understood. “There’s a big difference between Root and regular anbu.”

 

Shibi nodded. “Of course. I just thought you might have experience. Hiruzen let your name slip when was pressing him for help for Torune. I apologize for wasting your time.”

 

“Wait,” Kakashi grabbed Shibi’s arm as the man started to turn away. They both froze and Kakashi quickly let go of the other shinobi. “I’m not Root. I never have been, but I had an ex-Root on my anbu team. When we first started working together, he was very similar to the way you described Torune. It took a lot of time and patience, but he did recover. The best advice I can offer is to just be kind and patient. Any little thing you can do to show you care or remind him he’s human will help. Where Torune wasn’t raised by Root, I think he has a better chance than most. Reminding him of his old life might help.”

 

Shibi nodded. “Thank you. It helps knowing that there are others who have escaped their conditioning.” Then the Aburame slipped into the flow of traffic and left Kakashi standing alone.

 

Kakashi came home to a clean house and stocked kitchen. His meeting had run long and the boys had been consumed by a fit of nervous energy.

 

By the time Kakashi walked in the front door, they were both asleep on opposite ends of the couch.

 

“Up and at ‘em,” Kakashi hollered and clapped his hands.

 

The boys jerked awake and Naruto rolled off the couch.

 

“We’re going out to celebrate! Neither one of you managed to get expelled.”

 

Naruto let out a whoop and surged up off the floor to hug Kakashi. He even dragged Sasuke into the hug.

Chapter Text

“Are you guys sure you’ll be okay?” Kakashi asked for what had to be the fiftieth time in the last 2 hours.

 

The two boys on the couch both groaned.

 

Sasuke rolled his eyes and didn’t bother to answer..

 

Naruto was more patient. “We’ll be fine. We’ll order delivery for dinner and watch a movie. If anything goes wrong, we can call you at Guy’s house. His number is on the fridge.”

 

Kakashi nodded. “I know you’ll be fine, but you two have a tendency to find trouble.”

 

“Don’t need to worry about us,” Sasuke chimed in. “But you do need to worry about whatever is in the oven. It’s starting to smoke.”

 

“SHI--!” Kakashi bolted for the kitchen.

 

Naruto stifled a snicker and Sasuke smirked.

 

Kakashi let out a sigh of relief. He hadn’t burned the cheese dip. 

 

10 minutes later, Kakashi was all but shoved out the door by his boys. He had fresh bread and a ceramic pot of cheese dip in his arms and was dressed in his jounin flak jacket. 

 

“Don’t watch something scary or you won’t sleep!” Kakashi called back over his shoulder.

 

Kakashi set out down the street and almost tripped over his reluctant feet. 

 

4 days ago, friends and poker sounded like fun. Now, it sounded like an emotional hassle. Kakashi’s mind was moving too fast. What if after the academy incident, the others didn’t want him around? He’d made his stance pretty clear-- Naruto and Sasuke came before everyone else. The three of them were a packaged deal. What would the others say about him leaving the anbu? How would he explain that? 

 

Kakashi was so lost in his worries that he didn’t even notice where his feet had taken him until he almost slipped on the damp grass. 

 

It was dinner time, and there was no one else at the Memorial Stone. 

 

Kakashi sighed. He was grateful that no one was around to see him. How could he explain why he was standing in a graveyard with rapidly cooling cheese dip?

 

“Hey,” Kakashi said. 

 

Only silence answered. 

 

Kakashi shifted from foot to foot. He needed to leave soon if he was going to go to Guy’s, but he couldn’t really leave without saying anything.

 

“I didn’t really mean to come here,” Kakashi admitted. “I was so caught up in worrying that I lost track on my feet. Pretty silly of me huh?”

 

Obito’s ghost didn’t decide to manifest, but Kakashi could almost hear the Uchiha’s laughter.

 

“Classic Bakashi, right? I’m supposed to be on my way to dinner with friends and end up in a cemetery holding cheese dip of all things.” A slight smile tugged on Kakashi’s lips. “Guess I just wanted you to know I still miss you and wish you were here. I’d totally kick your ass at poker.”

 

A breeze ruffled Kakashi’s hair and he bowed his head and closed his eyes to say a quick prayer for the lost. Hopefully, they had found peace in the afterlife and were watching with amusement. Another option was too sad to consider.

 

Kakashi only ended up being a few minutes late and the cheese dip was still warm when he worked up the nerve to knock on Guy’s door.

 

Guy threw the door open and burst into a wild grin. “Kakashi!” He grabbed the silver haired shinobi by the shoulders and hauled him inside. The door slammed shut behind them.

 

In Guy’s living room, everyone paused and stared.

 

“I bought food,” Kakashi said.

 

Guy let out a whoop and everyone went back to what they’d been doing.

 

Kurenai came and grabbed the food from Kakashi. “I’ll put these in the kitchen with the rest of the food. Glad you came.”

 

Kakashi nodded and looked around the room. 

 

Guy had darted off to retrieve another guest. 

 

Iruka was shuffling a deck of cards at a well worn dining room table and gave Kakashi a lopsided grin.

 

Asuma was lounging on the couch and talking with Kotetsu and Izumo. Asuma gave a casual wave in Kakashi’s direction, but kept talking.

 

Genma appeared from the kitchen with a plate of food and nodded to Kakashi. 

 

Mizuki and Ebisu were lingering near the back door which was open to allow for the evening breeze. Neither of them seemed to notice Kakashi’s arrival.

 

Kakashi stuck to the edges of the room, unsure where he fit in. He was about to go join Mizuki and Ebisu when Anko arrived and interrupted.

 

Anko came barrelling in with a case of beer under each arm. “Alright losers! It’s a real party now,” she announced with a wicked grin. “Who's ready to lose?”

 

There was a general uproar and heckling.

 

Guy stood behind Anko and shook his head with a smile. 

 

When everyone had a plate of food and a drink, they all piled around the dining room table. The couch was pushed closer for extra seating and that’s where Kakashi found himself squeezed between Anko and Izumo.

 

Anko was already a bit tipsy. She nudged Kakashi with her elbow. “I like the jacket,” She grinned.

 

Kakashi smiled back. “Thanks. It was time for a change.”

 

Anko grinned wider. “I’ll drink to that. Anbu are too damn stuffy.” She clinked her glass against Kakashi’s and then took a gulp.

 

Kakashi shrugged and drank too. The beer was a bit on the warm side, but at least it wasn’t the cheap shit they’d made do with back when they were all chuunin and too young to really be drinking.

 

“So does this mean you’ll be back in the mission rotation?” Izumo asked.

 

Kakashi shrugged. “The third said he has an assignment in mind for me, but I haven’t got anything yet.”

 

Izumo nodded. “I’ll take that as a maybe. If you get bored waiting, Kotetsu and I are keeping pretty busy. We just got cleared to take B- rank missions and we wouldn’t say no to another set of hands on any mission.”

 

Kakashi grinned. “Good for the two of you! B-rank is where things start getting fun.”

 

Izumo laughed. “I think you and Kotetsu have very similar definitions of fun.”

 

Just like that, everything Kakashi had been worried about was over. A weight lifted off of Kakashi’s shoulders as he realized he fit just fine. Time with the anbu and time away from the village hadn’t changed much at all in terms of these relationships.

 

Kakashi pushed in a handful of chips for the blind bet along with everyone else. Behind his mask, he was smiling. It was going to be a good night.

 

They were playing with small coins. No one was here to make money.

 

When first hand was dealt and Kakashi could have groaned. A 3 of spades and a 6 of hearts weren’t going to do much good.

 

To be fair, Kakashi didn’t intend to cheat. With his sharingan covered and a slight buzz from the alcohol, he wasn’t counting cards or over analyzing anyone.

 

But, four hands in, Kakashi was almost out of chips and realized he was possibly the only one not cheating.

 

Cards were tucked in sleeves and wrapped around beer bottles. Anko was using her clean plate as a mirror to see Mizuki’s cards. With all the dishes on the table, Izumo and Kotetsu were using the cover to swap cards.

 

Kakashi leaned back against the couch and grinned beneath his mask. If they were playing shinobi style, he might as well join in. Doing his best to be casual, Kakashi adjusted his forehead protector so that he could glance around with his sharingan without really uncovering the eye.

 

With the sharingan, Kakashi was able to track most of the cards being shuffled around the table through trades and tricks. From there he made guesses based on body language. The sharingan excelled at noticing tells.

 

Kakashi’s playing improved drastically.

 

The game went far longer than a game of poker had any right to and the amount of cheating going on was definitely to blame.

 

Somewhere around the 8th hand, Guy discovered the cheese dip Kakashi had brought and proceeded to eat the whole bowl with a spoon while everyone either laughed or stole their neighbor’s cards.

 

As the night wore on and everyone went from buzzed to tipsy, the cheating became more and more brasin.

 

It all came to a head when Iruka thought he was being stealthy swiping one of Guy’s chips to replenish his own diminishing stack.

 

Guy punched Iruka in the arm. “You really think I’m that bad at this?” he asked, voice full of mock anger that was ruined by Guy’s inability to keep a straight face.

 

Iruka just smirked back.

 

“Considering he’s gotten away with it the last four or five hands, maybe?” Kurenai said.

 

Guy blinked in surprise and stared at his chips, trying to remember how much he’d bet, won, and lost the last few hands.

 

“Gah!” Guy groaned. “I swear you are all the worst cheaters I’ve ever met.”

 

The table erupted into laughter.

 

Kotetsu threw a chip at Guy’s head and the night devolved rapidly.

 

By the end of the night, the food was all gone and everyone was sprawled around Guy’s living room talking and drinking.

 

Kakashi found that he fit in easily. He ended up playing a few hands of go fish of all things with Genma, Ebisu, and Kurenai. Kurenai kept trying to use her genjutsu to make little goldfish swim across the floor and then getting distracted. The fish would disappear when she lost her focus and then she’d blame Kakashi for getting rid of her genjutsu.

 

Genma used the opportunity to try cajoling Kakashi into going on a mission the next morning.

 

“There is no way in hell I’m going to go on a mission tomorrow,” Kakashi said with a chuckle. “I’m not getting out of bed until noon.”

 

“Really?” There was a note of disappointment and disapproval in Ebisu’s voice. He’d been nursing the same drink the whole night and with a mission in the morning, that suddenly made sense. “I would have expected someone with your reputation to be prepared for a mission at anytime.”

 

“I just got back from 6 weeks of training in the middle of nowhere. I think I’m entitled to a day off,” Kakashi fired back. “Besides, I get to choose my missions now and I’m not going to choose one that requires me to leave at 6AM on Saturday.”

 

Ebisu glared. “I don’t offer much sympathy for self-inflicted wounds.”

 

“You’re just jealous because you were stupid enough to volunteer to leave at 6AM on Satuday. And, until you have kids, you don’t get to judge me.”

 

Ebisu shifted and looked Kakashi in the face. “I’m actually thinking of taking the specialization test for tutors. I think I could handle 2 kids without needing a day off from work.”

 

Genma rolled his eyes.

 

Kakashi smirked. “Well, if you’re so confident, when you get back from your mission, you could take Naruto and Sasuke out for a training session. It’d probably be good for them to have someone else check over their techniques,” he offered, “And it’d give you practice before the specialization exam.”

 

Ebisu paled. “I’m really not qualified yet. I’m just starting the training--” He trailed off and the apologetic look he gave Kakashi made the silver haired jounin laugh.

 

“I’m giving you shit, Ebisu,” Kakashi clarified. “I’m totally using the kids as an excuse to be lazy tomorrow.”

 

Genma snorted and Kurenai laughed. 

 

Kakashi waved off their laughter. “Just so you know, the offer stands. I promise if you can handle the two of them, you can handle any kid that gets thrown your way.”

 

Genma frowned. “Are they really that hard?”

 

Kakashi shook his head and rolled his eye. “No. They’re good kids. You just have to know how to handle each of them individually and then how to handle the way they feed off of each other. Naruto is excitable and not so great at listening to instructions. Sasuke sometimes sulks and pretends to ignore you. He also refuses to ask questions when he really needs to. They’ve also got this rivalry thing going that makes them both even more stubborn than normal.”

 

Genma snorted. “Yeah. I’m not specializing as a tutor or teacher. Kids are not my gig.”

 

Kakashi shrugged. 

 

Ebisu rolled his eyes. “I’m sure I could handle them just fine, but I would prefer to finish my training as a tutor first.”

 

Kakashi nodded and sipped his drink. He might just take Ebisu up on that someday. It’d be entertaining at the least to see the strict and usually stoic Ebisu with Naruto’s goofy antics.

 

Asuma was the first to leave. He wanted a smoke and was too polite to do it in the house.

 

Kurenai followed soon after.

 

Then the others trickled out.

 

Kakashi was the last to leave. He helped straighten furniture and pick up wayward trash.

 

As Kakashi was leaving, Guy clapped Kakashi on the shoulder and his grin turned serious. “I’m glad you came.”

 

Kakashi patted Guy’s hand. “Me too. This was fun.”

 

Guy beamed. “You looked like you were having fun. I don’t see you like that often enough.”

 

Kakashi shrugged. “With luck, I’ll be able to be around more now.”

 

Guy nodded. “You look better in green. It really seems to suit you.”

 

Kakashi laughed. “Of course you would say that.”

 

Kakashi returned home to find the boys huddled under a pile of blankets with every light in the house on.

 

They both flinched when Kakashi walked in.

 

Kakashi looked between the boys and the very suspiciously off TV.

 

“What’d you guys watch?”

 

“Nothing.”

 

“Some documentary.”

 

Kakashi grabbed the remote and turned on the TV. The tail end of a horror movie was playing, something cheesy with brain eating aliens.

 

Kakashi snorted and turned the TV off. “You can sleep in my room if you want.”

 

Both boys nodded rapidly. 


“It came out of the closet and ate this one guy’s whole head,” Naruto whispered.

 

Kakashi sighed. “Yeah. That only happens in movies.”

Chapter Text

Kakashi had thought he’d experienced the peak anxiety that having kids in the academy could produce. He’d thought sending the boys back for their second year would be easier than sending Naruto off to his first day or Sasuke to his first day back.

 

Kakashi was wrong. The three days leading up to the boys’ return to the academy for their second year were three of the longest days of Kakashi’s life. 

 

Naruto became more and more withdrawn and quiet as he struggled with his self-esteem. What if no one wanted him to comeback? What if he was alone again?

 

Kakashi did his best to gently coax Naruto out of the seemingly endless downward spiral of anxiety. Gentle didn’t work well.

 

On the eve of class starting, Naruto had stopped eating, talking, and making eye contact.

Finally, Kakashi managed to corner Naruto alone in the kitchen. He grabbed Naruto by the shoulders and forced the boy to meet his gaze. “I know you’re freaking out even though you’re trying really hard to hide it.”

 

Naruto tried to shrug off Kakashi, but the jounin held him firmly. 

 

“I’m not letting you go until you actually take a deep breath and listen to me,” Kakashi said. “You’re going to be okay. It’s all going to work out.”

 

Naruto made a sound half whimper and half dismissive snort.

 

“If they didn’t want you back at the academy, they would have expelled you instead of lifting your suspension. Your friends are the reason they didn’t expel you, so stop worrying and just be yourself.”

 

When Naruto tried to pull away again, Kakashi let him. He could see the gears turning in Naruto’s head. 

 

Naruto stared at his feet and chewed on his lip. “My friends?” his voice was small and uncertain.

 

Kakashi sighed. “Yeah, dummy. Your friends and their families vouched for you.”

 

Naruto’s mouth opened, but no words came out. 

 

Kakashi’s face softened. “Just relax, okay. You need to eat something and get some sleep tonight. Second year isn’t like first year. You won’t be playing get-to-know- you games on the first day,” Kakashi ‘s voice had just enough steel in it to make Naruto understand this was an order.

 

Naruto nodded again. He still looked uncertain, but when Kakashi steered him to the table and set a plate of  grilled trout and rice in front of him, Naruto picked at the food and ended up eating most of it.

 

While Naruto’s insecurities were easy to pick out, Sasuke was harder.

 

He wasn’t really any quieter than usual and he was still eating, but something Kakashi couldn’t quite pin down was off. There was a slight hesitation before Sasuke spoke or moved, like he was dragging his feet everywhere he went and trying to stall the next morning.

 

Kakashi waited for Sasuke to say something, but the boy seemed determined to put on a brave face and deal with his anxiety on his own.

 

When Naruto was tucked in bed with Pakkun watching from the foot of the bed, Kakashi went to check on Sasuke.

 

The Uchiha was sitting on his bed with Bull pressed against his hip and a mess spread out before him. He was so focused on what he was doing that he didn’t notice Kakashi in the doorway.

 

Sasuke had a black shirt on his lap and the remains of a red and white shirt on the bed. The nearby pair of scissors explained why the two shirts were shredded to scraps.

 

Sasuke was holding a sewing needle like he knew how to use it well enough to get himself in trouble. His tongue poked out between his lips and he was frowning in concentration.

 

Kakashi watched in silence as the boy worked. He couldn’t see what Sasuke was doing, but he could guess.

 

Kakashi stepped closer, purposely hitting the squeaky board.

 

Sasuke didn’t look up, but he titled the black shirt so Kakashi could see the roughly cut and stitched Uchiha emblem on the back.

 

“I don’t care what anyone says. I’m not going to pretend to be someone else just because it makes other people feel safer,” Sasuke muttered.

 

Kakashi sat down on the bed beside Sasuke, opposite Bull. He could see Sasuke’s hands trembling as he tried to hold the scrap of white fabric still and when tears started to fall and darken the cloth, Kakashi wasn’t surprised.

 

Gently, Kakashi pulled the sewing out of Sasuke’s hands and set it on the nightstand.

 

Sasuke looked up at Kakashi with glowing red, tear filled eyes. “You don’t think I should wear it.”

 

Kakashi sighed. “I didn’t say that.”

 

“But you were thinking it.” Tears ran down Sasuke’s cheeks.

 

Kakashi used his thumb to brush away the tear tracks. “I was thinking how proud your family would be of you.”

 

Sasuke’s chin trembled and he lunged at Kakashi, burying his face in the shinobi’s chest.

 

Kakashi rubbed Sasuke’s back as the boy cried. “I think you’re picking the harder road, but that’s part of who you are. I think you’re very brave and smart and I know it’s not the same, but, for what it’s worth, I’m proud of you too.” 

 

Sasuke clutched at Kakashi’s shirt and nodded. “Thank you,” he whispered.

 

Kakashi just held onto the Uchiha a little tighter.

 

---

 

Standing in the bathroom door and watching Naruto and Sasuke get for school, Kakashi decided, was a bit like watching an anbu get ready for an S-rank mission, Kakashi thought.

 

They were meticulous in packing both kunai and school supplies.

 

Both boys wore the grim expressions of battle hardened veterans. Kakashi shuddered, thinking of how hard the world was to have put that look on their faces so young and in a time of supposed peace. 

 

Sasuke’s face was a mask of defiance. His home stitched crest was bright against the black of his shirt. 

 

Naruto’s face was emotionless. It reminded Kakashi of Tenzou and Kakashi wondered if the kid had picked it up from the anbu. He didn’t consider the more likely possibility, that Naruto had picked it up from him. 

 

While Sasuke had gone loud and proud in his wardrobe choices, Naruto had done the opposite. He was wearing a white shirt with the fire country emblem and a pair of cargo shorts-- no orange and no goggles. His hair hung in his face, almost like he was hiding. 

 

Kakashi sighed and ordered the boys downstairs to eat. When he came down a few minutes later, he tossed Naruto a familiar pair of goggles. “Just be yourself,” Kakashi ordered. 

 

Naruto turned the goggles over and a slow smile spread across his face. “I thought you hated me wearing these.”

 

Kakashi snorted. “They are a fashion disaster, but they’re you.”

 

Naruto settled the goggles on his forehead. “You wouldn’t know fashion if it attacked you. That’s why all you wear are uniforms.”

 

Sasuke snorted into his breakfast and Kakashi rolled his eyes. “There’s the Naruto I know.”

 

As the boys walked out the front door, Kakashi kept his anxiety off his face. 

 

When the door shut behind the boys, Kakashi shook his head and glanced in the direction of the Memorial Stone. His mind flickered between Obito, who Naruto reminded him of in all the best ways, Minato, Kushina, and the Uchiha clan. “If any of you are still watching. I’d appreciate it if you kept an eye on those two.” 

 

---

 

Naruto and Sasuke walked onto the academy grounds with their heads held high. Naruto was grinning, but the way he fidgeted with the hem of his shirt told Sasuke the blond was nervous.

 

On the grass in front of the building, the students milled around, waiting for the opening bell. 

 

As Naruto and Sasuke walked up, a hush fell over the crowd and the other kids turned to stare.

 

Naruto stopped walking.

 

Sasuke glanced at the blond.

 

Naruto was positively beaming and there was a familiar gleam in his blue eyes.

 

Sasuke smiled to himself and kept walking. Naruto was about to do something knuckleheaded.

 

Naruto took a deep breath and then yelled, “Hey everybody! My name’s Uzumaki-Hatake Naruto and I’m a second year and all you knew guys better remember my name, because I’m going to be hokage.”

 

Sasuke choked down a laugh.

 

In the crowd, Shikamaru shook his head and Kiba groaned. “Same old Naruto,” Shikamaru muttered.

 

Hinata smiled.

 

Shino nodded. “Good.”

 

Ino and Sakura walked onto the grounds together in time for Naruto’s speech and they spotted Sasuke at the same time. “Sasuke!”

 

The Uchiha flinched and his eyes flared crimson when the two girls crashed into him and wrapped their arms around him.

 

Sasuke squeezed his eyes shut, will the sharingan to fade, and took a steadying breath. “Personal space?” he muttered.

 

The girls let go and Sasuke caught a flicker of disappointment on their faces, but it didn’t last long.

 

“It’s so good to see you again!” Ino gushed. She batted her eyes at the Uchiha and was still standing solidly in his space.

 

Sasuke nodded and fought the urge to take a step back.

 

Sakura smiled and stepped back a bit, pulling Ino with her. “We were really worried about you. We went to check on you at the hospital and the nurse said Kakashi had already check both you and Naruto out.”

 

“Oh.” Sasuke wasn’t sure what to say to that. He hadn’t thought they would actually have cared that much.

 

“Anyway, we’ll see you in class,” Sakura finished, cheerily. She all but dragged Ino away. The blonde was sputtering about something not being a fair fight and Sakura hogging all the attention.

 

When they passed Naruto, Sakura gently clapped him on the shoulder. “Good to have you back too.”

 

Naruto gave Sakura his first real smile of the day and the crushing pressure around his chest eased.

 

---

 

Iruka Sensei started class without any fanfare. Right off the bat they were working on algebra and studying human anatomy.

 

Naruto felt like he was lost within minutes, but everyone else seemed to be doing fine. They were all frantically scribbling down notes, so Naruto kept scribbling. Notes gave way to doodles and Naruto knew he was going to have to just try to follow the textbook or beg Sasuke and Kakashi for help.

 

---

 

When class was dismissed for lunch, Iruka stood at the door and waved all of the kids out. When Naruto came by, Iruka held out his hand for a high five.

 

Naruto grinned and gave his teacher a high five. Maybe everything really was going to be alright.

 

Things took a downturn when Naruto and Sasuke stood on the lawn with their lunches. Every set at a table was suddenly full of either a younger student or a bookbag. 

 

Naruto shrugged and made his way towards the tree in the corner of the yard. He didn’t mind eating on the ground and the shade would be nice.

 

As the boys passed, some of the other students stared. A couple smirked and sneered, but no one had the guts to say anything. Most looked away as soon as they realized they’d been caught staring. It wasn’t until the boys were sitting down that Sasuke realized his eyes had shifted. No wonder no one had dared start anything. 

 

“Mind if we join you?” Choji asked. Shikamaru, Kiba, Shino, and Hinata were all standing behind him.

 

Naruto patted the grass. “All the cool kids are eating over here now.”

 

Shikamaru rolled his eyes. “Hate to break it to you, but I don’t think we’re the cool kids.” But he sat down anyway.

 

“So what did the two of you do all summer?” Kiba asked. He handed Akamaru half of his sandwich and bit into the other half.

 

“We went up into the mountains with Kakashi and trained. There were the most amazing hotsprings and the village was so friendly. At night, you could see every star in the sky. Then there were these deer…”

 

Sasuke let Naruto do the talking. He half listened while scanning the school yard. Hikaru was noticeably absent along with a good chunk of the other kids in their grade.

 

Shikamaru caught Sasuke looking and guessed why. “Hikaru’s gone. His family moved out of the village about a month ago.”

 

Sasuke’s eyes widened.

 

Kiba snorted. “Yeah. That was totally worth getting grounded all summer for.”

 

Naruto looked questioningly between Kiba and the others who were all nodding in agreement. 

 

Shikamaru shook his head. “We’re not talking about that. Some of us didn’t actually get themselves grounded and would like to stay that way.”

 

Naruto looked even more confused.

 

Shino changed the topic. “You know I could teach you some of the meditation methods the Aburame clan uses to control their insects,” he said to Naruto.

 

Naruto smiled. “I appreciate the offer, but I don’t know that meditation will help. I kind of just needed time to work things out.”

 

Shino shrugged. “You might be surprised. Our techniques are very advanced and powerful. They have to be to keep our insects from devouring us, swarming, and devouring the whole village.”

 

All other conversation ground to a halt as everyone stared at Shino.

 

The Aburame didn’t seem to notice. He took a bite of his lunch like he’d said something normal.

 

Naruto sighed. “Sure. I’ll give it a shot.”

 

Shino hummed happily and continued to eat his lunch.

 

“Just so you know, you are terrifying in the best way possible,” Kiba said.

 

Shino nodded. “Also, I know you’re on strict orders to stay out of fights, but if anyone tries to start something I can have my bugs eat them,” he offered.

 

Naruto and Sasuke glanced at each other, unsure if Shino was joking.

 

“The bugs leave no trace,” Shino added.

 

The awkward silence was broken by Hinata’s giggle.

 

Then Naruto joined in laughing and so did the rest of the group, including Shino. 

 

“Damn,” Kiba laughed. “Maybe it's not just Naruto and Sasuke who are scaring people into dropping out.”

 

Shikamaru smirked. “Yeah. Poor things got stuck in the same year as a lot of clan shinobi and they think we’re all nuts.”

 

The rest of the day was uneventful and the boys went home with a stack of homework.

 

They were greeted at home by a whole pack of ninken, dinner, and a curious Kakashi.

 

When Sasuke went upstairs to lay out his clothes for the morning, he found a whole stack of shirts with the Uchiha crest sewn neatly on the back.

 

Sasuke smiled and wiped away the tears in his eyes. Maybe things were really going to be alright.

Chapter Text

It took three weeks for the hokage to summon Kakashi back. Three, excruciating weeks during which Kakashi tried in vain to keep busy enough while the boys were at school. He’d tried focusing on training, but the body could only handle that for so many hours a day.

 

Kakashi knew he was at the end of his rope when he found himself wandering around the civilian part of the city for no particular reason for the third day in a row. People were flashing him wary looks and between the stares and the boredom, Kakashi’s nerves were shot. He was on the edge of lashing out or banging his head on the nearest brick wall.

 

The messenger bird was like a gift from the gods when it came spiraling out of the bright, midday sun. Kakashi could have wept when it landed on his shoulder and offered him the scroll on its back.

 

When Kakashi arrived in front of the Hokage’s tower, Kakashi was intercepted by a grinning a grinning Might Guy.

 

“No need to go up. The Third is in meetings the rest of the day,” Guy said. He held a scroll out to Kakashi. “Since you’re still in between positions, you’ve been requested on a mission.”

 

Kakashi narrowed his eye and stared down his self-proclaimed eternal rival. When Guy made to move to issue a challenge or pull the scroll away, Kakashi reached out and took it.

 

Guy just rolled his eyes at his friend’s paranoia. “You know I don’t joke about missions.”

 

Kakashi didn’t bother to respond. He stepped out of the way of the door and popped the seal on the scroll.

 

Guy lingered, still grinning.

 

Kakashi read the scroll three times and then closed it and tucked it in his pocket. “So there’s trouble at the Yamahana Mine?” he mused.

 

Guy nodded. “Yup,” he popped the ‘p,’ “The last 3 shipments of raw iron didn’t make it to the smiths. A chuunin team checked the road and the mountain pass and saw no sign of bandits.”

 

Kakashi nodded. “So the issue has to actually be in the town and the mine.”

 

“And anyone with the resources to subdue a whole village, even a small one, is jounin level threat.”

 

“I take it you requested me?”

 

Guy’s grin shifted to a smirk. “I do believe you owe me a mission.”

 

Kakashi snorted. “I suppose I do.” He turned to leave. “I’ll meet you at the gate at sunrise.” And then Kakashi was gone in a swirl of wind and street dust.

 

Guy stared at the place Kakashi had been and shook his head. He was excited to be working with Kakashi. There was no one else Guy trusted so completely to have his back and with as little information as they had, Guy wanted the best. 

 

But, Guy was also looking forward to having the chance to see how Kakashi was doing. Passing conversations and competitions had been the bulk of their relationship for the last few years and it would be good to have a chance to talk and evaluate Kakashi without any interruptions.

 

--- 

 

Kakashi told the boys he was leaving over dinner.

 

Naruto and Sasuke exchanged glances. 

 

“Good,” Sasuke said.

 

Kakashi blinked in surprise. It wasn’t the response he’d expected. 

 

The Uchiha smirked. “You’ve been acting a little stir crazy the last week or so. Itachi used to get that way when he had nothing to do for too long.”

 

Naruto was nodding along in agreement.

 

Kakashi looked both boys over carefully. Neither seemed upset or anxious. Naruto was shoveling in food as usual. Sasuke wasn’t quite smiling, but he wasn’t glaring into his plate and he didn’t even hesitate or fumble over Itachi’s name. They both seemed okay. Kakashi relaxed.

 

“That obvious I make a terrible civilian?”

 

Naruto laughed so hard he choked on a mouthful of rice.

 

Kakashi took that as a yes.

 

---

 

Kakashi planned to leave the house before the boys woke up. They’d said their goodbyes the night before.

 

When Kakashi bent to tug on his sandals, he noticed a dark shape sitting against the wall by the front door.


Sasuke was dozing half in front of the door. His mouth hung open slightly and his neck was bent at an uncomfortable angle.

 

Kakashi knew the kid would be stiff when he woke up.

 

Kakashi moved to scoop up Sasuke and take the boy upstairs, but before his hand touched Sasuke’s shoulder, the Uchiha’s eyes opened and flashed crimson. He had his hand around Kakashi’s wrist before the jounin could react.

 

“I wasn’t really sleeping,” Sasuke muttered. His voice was thick with sleep. He let go of Kakashi’s wrist and blinked the sharingan out of his eyes.


“You should be in bed and failing that, we have couches.”

 

Sasuke rolled his eyes and heaved himself to his feet with a groan. “If I was on the couch, you would have just slipped past me.”

 

Kakashi had to admit the kid was right. “You okay?”

 

Sasuke hesitated.

 

“You’re thinking about the last time I left?” Kakashi guessed.

 

Sasuke shook his head. “No. Things are better now than they were then.”

 

Kakashi kept waiting.

 

“I know you have to leave, but I don’t want you to.”

 

“I’ll be back.” Kakashi reached out to ruffle Sasuke’s hair, but Sasuke shifted away from the touch.

 

Sasuke’s face darkened. “Itachi said the same thing. He lied.”

 

Kakashi crouched down, so he could look Sasuke in the eyes. “You’re right. I shouldn’t make promises I might not be able to keep.’

 

Sasuke nodded. Then he launched himself at Kakashi and wrapped his arms around the jounin.

 

Kakashi held Sasuke close and murmured in the boy’s ear. “I promise I will do everything in my power to come back.”

 

“I can accept that,” Sasuke mumbled. He pulled away and Kakashi let him. “I know the village needs you and you can’t just stop being a shinobi. Just remember that we need you too.”

 

Kakashi felt like he’d been kicked in the chest, but he kept his face an emotionless mask. “I won’t forget.”

 

Sasuke stepped out of the way of the door. “Good luck.”

 

Kakashi nodded and then he was gone.

 

---

 

Working with Kakashi wasn’t what Guy had expected. He didn’t know what exactly he expected, but this wasn’t it. 


They were moving through the forest in a defensive formation with Kakashi in front and Guy behind and slightly off to Kakashi’s blindside.

 

Kakashi had called for the formation as soon as they left the gates and that was all he’d said in the six hours since.

 

As the sun passed its zenith, the shadows lengthened. It became harder to distinguish shadow and branch, especially as the two shinobi moved further from familiar territory.

 

“Kakashi,” Guy called softly.

 

Kakashi raised a hand, flashed two fingers, and then a closed fist. It was an acknowledgement and command to stop in 2 jumps.

 

Guy landed lightly beside Kakashi on a wide branch. The silver haired jounin motioned for them to tuck back in closer to the trunk where the late afternoon shadows were thicker.

 

“I don’t know about you, but I’m not comfortable keeping up this pace as it gets darker and I don’t want to approach the village at dusk,” Guy said.

 

Kakashi nodded. “I know.” His eyes flickered past Guy in the direction of their objective. “We’ve made good progress so far. It’s testing fate to keep going much further.”

 

In another life, Kakashi would have insisted on moving forward and trying to enter the village with the crowd of people returning home with the sunset. It was a reckless strategy that had paid off in the past. 

 

Kakashi tried to shrug off his annoyance at stopping. Things were different now. He didn’t have Itachi’s genjutsu to fool anyone observant enough to notice a stranger. And, his promise to Sasuke was echoing in his mind.

 

“You’re right,” Kakashi muttered. “Let’s find a place to set up camp and we’ll finish the trip in the morning. It’ll make reconnaissance easier.”

 

Guy nodded and his shoulders relaxed. He’d been half afraid Kakashi was going to insist on moving forward.

 

They set up camp in a clearing where the forest floor naturally dipped like a shallow bowl. It offered protection from the rising wind and the dense underbrush formed a functional wall that would keep out most everything except a shinobi, or a disgruntled raccoon.

 

Kakashi hurled a kunai at the rustling bushes, his heart in his throat. The clearing made for nice camping, but it trapped them in as much as it kept others out.

 

The kunai disappeared into the underbrush and a large racoon came barreling out, teeth bared and chattering angrily.

 

Guy dropped his pack and bent double laughing. 

 

Kakashi sighed and rolled his eyes, but he noticed the kunai Guy slid back into its holster as he laughed. They were both on edge.

 

When the racoon was done giving Kakashi an earful, it turned tail and disappeared back into the brush.

 

Kakashi went back to laying out his bedroll with as much dignity as he could still pretend to have.

 

“No fire?” Guy asked.

 

Kakashi nodded. “We’re only about an hour from Yamahana. I don’t want to risk anyone coming to investigate.”

 

The other jounin nodded in agreement. He tossed his bedroll down beside Kakashi’s and sat down.

 

Overhead, the first of the stars were beginning to appear. It promised to be a clear and cold night. 

 

Guy pulled out a pack of ration bars and offered one to Kakashi who took it with a grunt of thanks.


They ate in silence.

 

The scent of pine and blooming berry bushes hung heavy in the air.

 

“How’s it being back in the field?” Guy asked. He laid back on his bedroll and stared up at the sky.

 

Kakashi didn’t speak for a long minute.

 

Guy, didn’t push. He knew Kakashi was considering the question.

 

“It’s different now,” Kakashi said at last.

 

“Oh?”

 

“Different teams with different skill sets. I got used to my anbu squad.”

 

Guy nodded. 

 

“And in the quiet moments I keep thinking about my kids,” Kakashi said it quietly, like an admission of guilt.

 

Guy snorted. “That why you were so hell bent on putting distance between us and the village? Trying to convince yourself you’re still an emotionless killer?” his voice was half teasing and half curious.

 

Kakashi threw his crumpled ration bar wrapper at Guy’s head. “I’ve been on plenty of missions since I got Naruto. I learned how to compartmentalize. I had to, because the minute I think about home during a fight I’m not going to be going home.”

 

Guy nodded again.

 

Kakashi picked at the grass beside his bedroll. “It’s different now that I have Sasuke and it’s not just that there’s two people counting on me coming home. I don’t have a backup plan for the boys. Before the massacre, the Uchiha clan were my backup plan. I knew they’d take care of Naruto and I trusted them.”

 

Guy made a surprised sound at that. He sat up and looked at Kakashi questioningly.

 

Kakashi shrugged and gave Guy his version of a sad smile. “There were good people in the clan. Now, if something happens to me, the boys are old enough that they’ll be left to their own devices. I have a friend in the anbu who would try to help, but he’d also keep his distance, because we both know that the best thing for those boys is to keep them away from the anbu life.”

 

Guy nodded again. “I get it. It’s not the same thing, but there’s this kid at the academy. He’s older than your boys, but he’s like me and we’ve been training. I worry about what would happen to him if I didn’t come back. He doesn’t really have anyone else.”

 

Kakashi sighed. “Kids,” he muttered. “They’ll get to you.”

 

Guy flopped back down. 

 

“You don’t need to worry about my ability to watch your back tomorrow,” Kakashi added. “I compartmentalize well when people are trying to kill me.”

 

Guy laughed. “I wasn’t worried. I know you’ll have my back. That’s part of being eternal rivals. It doesn’t work very well when one of you is dead.”

 

Kakashi snickered. It was the sort of slightly morbid joke he didn’t expect from Guy.

 

“You want first watch?” Guy asked.

 

“Yeah.”

 

Guy was asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.

 

Kakashi smiled down at his rival and marvelled at Guy’s ability to sleep anywhere. Then he pulled out a dog-eared copy of Icha Icha Paradise Volume 1 from his pack and scanned the pages by the light of the half moon.

 

Kakashi didn’t need to read the words on the page. He’d memorized them long ago, but the weight of the book and the soft edges of the pages were comforting. The book had belonged to Rin. Kakashi had teased her for it. When she was gone, Kakashi found comfort in the happy ending. Since then, it had gone everywhere with him-- like he was carrying a piece of her.

 

When Guy and Kakashi traded off their watch at midnight, it took Kakashi longer to fall asleep, but he eventually dozed off and dreamed that he was a genin again. It was the best sleep he'd had on a mission in years and he credited the good company and the good book.

Chapter Text

Sunrise brought birdsong and an overly enthusiastic Guy.

 

Kakashi mumbled half a dozen curses at the lack of coffee and the presence of Guy’s cheerful grin.

 

“Chin up,” Guy ordered. “You’re grumbling like an arthritic old man.” He jogged in place and launched into a series of stretches while Kakashi packed up his bedroll and his book. 

 

“So you’ve been in the area before?” Guy asked as Kakashi led them through the thicket of the rapidly thinning undergrowth.

 

Kakashi nodded. “Once. During the 3rd War. It doesn’t seem to have changed much.”

 

Guy hummed in response.

 

Through the trees, the screech of metal on rock split the morning silence.

 

Both shinobi flinched.


“There’s not a lot of cover around the mine, but with all the loose shale and tailings from the dredge, it’s not safe to scout in the dark,” Kakashi explained. “We can use the sound of the mining to cover and sound we make and if we stick to the shadows we should be able to go unnoticed.”

 

They arrived at the tree line and Guy’s eyes widened.

 

They were standing on the side of a mountain overlooking a massive crater. Loose rock lined the pit and was piled in large mounds all over the crater floor. Tunnels burrowed into the mountain at all directions. 

 

A dirt track wide enough for two teams of mules side by side led out of the pit, through a small village, and disappeared into the forest.

 

The village was dwarfed by the mine.

 

“Well we know it wasn’t a mine collapse that stopped production,” Guy remarked.

 

Carts of material were being loaded down below.

 

“I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing,” Kakashi muttered. 

 

“So what’s the next move? Do we follow the carts and see who’s stealing all the iron or do we go poke around the village?”

 

Kakashi glanced at Guy and hesitated.

 

Guy groaned. “You want to split up.”

 

Kakashi shrugged. “You take the carts and I’ll take the village?”

 

Guy nodded. “Meet back here at sunset?”

 

“I’ll go make a distraction so you can get to the carts.” Then Kakashi was gone in a swirl of dust and leaves.

 

When a segment of shale began to slide further down the pit, Guy grinned. A dust cloud rolled over the whole mine and the sound was deafening. That’s one heck of a distraction.

 

 Guy scrambled out of his cover and made a dash for the edge of the pit. When his feet hit the loose rock, it began to slide.

 

Guy focused his chakra to his feet and fought to stay upright as he skidded down the slope. The wind and dust had him half blind. It was like trying to run across the ocean. Guy laughed, his voice lost in the other noise.

 

Then Guy’s slide hit the bottom of the pit, Guy jumped and rolled to avoid the rock coming down behind him ending up on top of him.

 

Sprawled on the ground, Guy tried to catch his breath. The dust was thick enough to choke and visibility was only a couple feet at best.

 

Through the haze, a man’s silhouette appeared.

 

Guy froze and waited for a sign that the man had spotted him. The miner just kept walking. He was close enough for Guy to reach out and touch his ankle.

 

As soon as the miner was past, Guy rolled to his feet and moved towards where he thought one of the rock mounds was. He stepped lightly, trying to minimize the noise, but moving over the loose rock wasn’t a quiet process, so Guy traded silence for speed.

 

He dashed from the cover of one rock pile to the next until he found a nearly full cart.

 

A strange gust of wind was the only indication the miners had of a shinobi in their midst and no one thought anything of it. Air currents were always a bit strange in the pit.

 

The dust cloud was beginning to dissipate. Beams of sunlight pierced the brown air, turning the dust particles golden. Guy knew his time was running out. He needed to be securely hidden on or in a cart before the visibility increased much more. He could hear people moving all around him.

 

Guy krept closer to the cart. 

 

One of the mules laid its ears back and bared its teeth at Guy.

 

Guy murmured soft apologies to the animal. “Easy. I’m sure I smell like a stranger, but I’m not going to hurt you.”

 

The animal continued to give Guy a skeptical glare, but stopped threatening to bite him.

 

Guy slowly reached out and stroked the animal. It’s fur was short and prickly. Dust clung to half dried sweat along its flank.

 

The mule leaned into the touch and tossed it’s head, nudging Guy to scratch higher.

 

Guy grinned. “See I’m not such a bad guy.” He could feel fresh cuts, undoubtedly from a whip, along the mule’s sides, but no scars. Something had caused a formerly kind driver to turn to the whip to squeeze out more work. “If you don’t mind, I’m going to hide in your cart. I promise I’ll bring you an apple if you don’t kick me or bite me.”

 

Guy could see the miners around him as well defined shadows. Any minute, they’d be able to recognize that he was a stranger. It was time to go.

 

Guy crawled under the cart while his new friend watched curiously. 

 

Beneath the cart, Guy was able to grab onto the axle supports and wedge himself in place. It wasn’t going to be a fun ride, but he would manage.

 

A gust of wind ripped away the last of the dust cloud and Guy saw a set of feet approach. The cart lurched slightly as the driver climber on. A whip cracked and they were off.

 

---

 

Kakashi used the force of his shushin to trigger a rockslide and shushinned away again in an instant to avoid being caught in the rocks.

 

Kakashi re-appeared at the front gates of the little village in a cloud of dust, hacking up a lung.

 

The two guards were so shocked at the sudden appearance of a shinobi that they hesitated.

 

The moment of hesitation was enough for Kakshi to push up his forehead protector, unveil his sharingan, and catch both men in a genjutsu.

 

With both men staring into the distance, their eyes skipping over Kakashi, the jounin went back to coughing dust out of his lungs. Kakashi was no real Uchiha when it came to casting ocular genjutsu, but these guards weren’t exactly shinobis. They would never remember seeing Kakashi.

 

When he had his breath back, kakashi used a transformation jutsu to mimic the younger of the two guards-- a skinny man in his early thirties with the scraggliest beard Kakashi had ever seen.

 

Kakashi strolled down the main street, hiding his unease behind an emotionless expression. The town was small. All the buildings sat one after another on the same road. There were no more than a dozen houses, a rough looking inn/restaurant/bar, and a general store.

 

Everything was gray with a healthy coating of dust, including the handful of people Kakashi spotted. The road was cobbled with slabs of shale, but years of heavy cart traffic had left it grooved and uneven.

 

A woman walked quickly down the street with her head down. Her hair might have once been blonde, but between the turning of the seasons and the stone dust, it was as gray as the shale of the road. She refused to meet Kakashi’s eyes and shied away as she passed him. 

 

Kakashi got the feeling that he wasn’t impersonating a local.

 

Two men limped towards Kakashi. They were supporting each other and their clothes were smeared with blood.

 

“Was it the slide?” Kakashi asked. His gut tugged with guilt. He hadn’t meant to hurt these people. His sharingan had showed the area he sent the slide into was empty.

 

One of the men shook his head. He looked at Kakashi with a mix of confusion and suspicion. “No Sir. Cart we were loading slid backwards. The animals are getting too tired to pull the big loads. We can’t keep working night and day like this.”

 

The other man elbowed his partner. “Ignore him, Sir. He gets grouchy when he’s hurt. We’ll meet the quotas.”

 

Kakashi nodded. “Get yourselves looked at. We need all hands to make those quotas.”

 

The men relaxed and Kakashi stepped out of their way. He watched them half drag each other into the inn.

 

Definitely not a local. 

 

Near the end of the road, two more guards stood at attention outside one of the houses.

 

An elderly woman, bent with age, stood in the street with a basket on her hip. She seemed to be talking to the guards and as Kakashi got closer he could make out the words.

 

“We already told you. No one in or out until the day’s quota is on the road to the buyer,” a heavy set man with a thick beard snarled. He fingered the hilt of the short sword at his waist.

 

“Please,” the woman begged. “They need food. Yesterday they didn’t get any. Just let me set the basket inside.”

 

The other guard, an average built man with a hooked nose and cruel eyes sneered. “Well yesterday, you lot didn’t meet the quota. Maybe if you’re so worried about your kids you should go see if they need another set of hands in the mine.”

 

The woman bowed her head. Kakashi could see the tears running down her face to drip in the dirt. “Please,” she whimpered. “Please.”

 

The big man just laughed.

 

The other guard strode off the porch and kicked the woman’s basket, sending loaves of bread and canteens of water into the dirt. “Go one! Get out of here before I make you!”

 

The woman turned and fled.

 

Kakashi followed her and caught up to her near the inn. He glanced around quickly to confirm that no one was watching, and pulled the woman into the space between the inn and the store.

 

The old woman rammed an elbow into Kakashi’s side and he released both her and the transformation jutsu.

 

“Easy,” Kakashi breathed.”I’m a shinobi. I’m here to help.”

 

The woman stared at Kakashi with narrowed eyes. “I suppose only a shinobi would dress like that.”

 

Kakashi shrugged. 

 

The woman relaxed. “I knew Konoha would figure out something was wrong. What took you so long?”

 

Kakashi sighed. “You guys are pretty isolated up here. I guess it took a while for word to get out that something was up. Anyway, can you fill me in on what’s happening here?”

 

The woman’s face scrunched up with rage. “What’s happening is that these ruffians walked in here, beat up half the town, rounded up the children, and declared that we were working for their boss now. They’ve had the mine running day and night for 16 days straight. They’re holding the children hostage to keep control. We’re running out of food and medicine. People are dying from exhaustion and injuries in the mine.” She spat the words at Kakashi like kunai.

 

Kakashi held up his hands to slow the woman down, but there was no stopping her.

 

“What’s happening is that for 87 years we’ve supplied the bulk of the iron for your weapons and you forgot about us. You left us unprotected and let this happen!”

Kakashi winced and motioned for the woman to be quieter. “I’m sorry. I’m not involved in politics and I can’t do anything right now about what happened before today, but I can help now. I just need more information.”

 

The woman nodded sharply. “Fair enough. You’re just a soldier after all. What do you need to know?”

 

---

 

Kakashi, now disguised at the old woman, Hanako, loitered in the shadows across the street from the house where the children were being held.

 

At noon, the guard changed. Two more scruffy looking men, half drunk on cheap beer, came swaggering down from the inn to take over the post.

 

While the men were talking, laughing at the bread still spilled in the street and now soiled by passing carts, Kakashi shushined into the house. 

 

The house was quiet. Sunlight filtered through the faded red curtains, casting everything in a pink twilight. 

 

The wooden floor creaked under Kakashi’s feet as he stepped into the kitchen.

 

The shovel came out of nowhere and would have taken off Kakashi’s head if it weren’t for his sharingan.

 

Kakashi ducked the shovel and twisted to grad the person wielding it.

 

He found himself pinning a teenage girl to the wall by her shoulders.

 

The girl growled and struggled. She was stronger than Kakashi had expected and managed to rip herself out of his grip. She dove for the shovel.

 

Kakashi dropped on top of her, using his weight to pin her to the floor.

 

“NO!” the girl screamed. “I’ll kill you!”

 

Kakashi scrambled and managed to cover her mouth and muffle her next scream.

 

The girl bit Kakashi.

 

Kakashi didn’t even flinch when her teeth broke skin. He was too busy listening for the sound of the front door opening and the guards coming running.

 

All was quiet outside of the kitchen. 

 

The girl released Kakashi’s hand and bit again.

 

“Stop biting me!” Kakashi hissed. “I’m here to help you.”

 

The girl paused her struggling, but she still had a bulldog grip on the meat of Kakashi’s palm. 

 

“My name’s Kakashi. I’m a shinobi from the Village Hidden in the Leaves. If you’ll stop biting me and stop screaming, I’ll let you go and show you my credentials,” Kakashi growled. His hand was throbbing and jolts of pain were dancing up the nerves in his arm. 

 

The girl let go and Kakashi rolled off of her. He popped to his feet, cradling his hand and ready to dodge another attack.

 

The girl sat up and spat blood on the floor. She stared up at Kakashi with hard, dark eyes. Her long, black hair was a tangled mess and there was a fading bruise on her cheek. She was muscular, but on the skinny side. With Kakashi’s blood on her face, the girl reminded him of a half feral pup he’d brought home years earlier. 

 

Kakashi pointed at his forehead protector. “See? I’m a shinobi.”

 

The girl nodded and ducked her head. “Sorry. I thought you were one of the guards.”

 

“Clearly,” Kakashi muttered. “Probably for the best that I wasn’t. If you’d killed one of those thugs, the rest would have taken it out on you and everyone else in the village.”

 

The girl’s eyes flashed and she glared up at Kakashi. “So I should just let them keep tormenting me and the other kids?”

 

Kakashi groaned. He recognized the stubborn set of the girl’s chin and the fire in her eyes.

 

He crouched down so he was eye level with her. “No, but you shouldn’t launch an offensive without a plan.”

 

“You got a plan?” 

 

Beneath his mask, Kakashi grinned. 

 

The girl’s eyes widened as the man in front of her changed. His red eye glowed brighter. It looked hungry. He leaned forward and the muscles beneath his shirt rippled. He reminded the girl of the wolves that stalked the forest.

 

“That depends, where are the other kids and are any of them as scary as you?”

 

---

 

Guy’s arms were killing him. He’d been hanging beneath the wagon for hours. Evening was rapidly approaching and they showed no sign of stopping. Soon, Guy would have to decide whether to miss his rendezvous with Kakashi and stay with the cart or leave the cart and make it back in time to meet Kakashi.

 

Guy decided to stay with the cart. They needed to know who they were up against.

 

When I get back, I’m going to make 50 laps around the village on walking on my hands. I shouldn’t be so tired already.

 

---

 

Kakashi sat on the floor of the attic while the girl who’d tried to smack him with the shovel bandaged his hand. Her name was Risa, but Kakashi kept thinking of her as Urushi, after his ninken. 


Around them, a ragtag pack of 15 other kids watched in silence. They ranged from teenagers like Risa all the way down to a baby.

 

The good news was that other than being hungry, all the kids were in pretty good health. The older ones were well muscled and determined, just like Risa. Kakashi liked them. They’d work well for his plan.

 

Kakashi watched the sunset through the curtains. He hoped Guy wasn’t at the rendezvous point worrying.

 

The plan was simple. The villagers outnumbered the thugs 3 to 1, but they lacked training, weapons, and leadership. 

 

Kakashi could provide 2 of those. Shovels and picks in strong arms were as deadly as a sword. Life in an isolated mining village had made these people strong and sturdy. If they followed Kakashi’s orders, they’d be a force to be reckoned with. He just had to trust that Risa’s instincts weren’t an anomaly. In another life, she would have been a great shinobi.

 

“You know the signal?” Kakashi asked.

 

Risa nodded. It was the fifth time he’d asked. “Sunrise and 3 blsts on the steam whistle.” She had her shovel balanced lightly on her shoulder. The other teams were gathered behind her, similarly armed with tools Kakashi found in the basement.

 

“You bust out of here and clear a path for the younger ones. If it looks like the fight isn’t going our way, you head for the woods and take the younger ones straight south to the next town,” Kakashi repeated the plan, again.

 

Risa nodded again. 

 

“And you remember how I showed you to block a strike with that thing?” Kakashi pointed at Risa’s shovel.

 

At that, the girl sighed. “Yes. We practiced for hours, all afternoon.”

 

Kakashi held his hands up in a placating gesture. “Just making sure.”

 

Risa rolled her eyes. “You’ve got kids don’t you?”

 

Kakashi blinked.

 

Risa grinned. “You act like such a dad.”

 

Kakashi wasn’t sure whether that was a compliment or an insult.

 

When night fell, Kakashi slipped out the attic window.

 

His first stop was a smaller house closer to the forest where Hanako lived. 

 

The old woman was waiting when Kakashi knocked on the door. Her small living room was full of people. Kakashi looked around, evaluating the crowd. Most had seen too many winters. A few had twisted legs or lungs that rattled with infection. These were the non-combatants.

 

“So what’s the plan?” Hanako asked. “Are the kids okay?”

 

“The kids are okay. I’m evacuating the younger ones, but the older ones are hellbent on fighting.”

 

“The same goes here. I’ve arranged for the sickest and the injured to be smuggled out of town, but the rest of us want to stay and fight. This is our home and this is our family.”

 

Kakashi winced. He’d had a feeling this was coming. “Alright, but you can’t fight on the front lines. The kids are going to need cover to make it into the forest. You think you can do that?”

 

Around Kakashi, everyone nodded with grim determination.

 

Within the hour, it was set. Those who were old, injured, ill, and too stubborn for their own good would wait between the houses and provide cover for the evacuation of the younger kids and then they would fall back into the forest with the kids.

 

Kakashi moved on. 

 

The mine was still a flurry of activity. Kakashi slipped through the shadows and matched his movements with the miners. It was dark enough his clothes didn’t stand out. 

 

Kakashi found the head of the mining operation looking over plans and calling out orders near the biggest of the mine shafts. Kakashi sidled up to the man. “Don’t say anything. I’m a shinobi and I’m here to help. The non-combatants are being evacuated and the rest of the villages is gearing up for a fight. Can you get your men ready?” Kakashi’s voice was low and calm in the man’s ear.

 

The man didn’t pause in his writing, just nodded. 

 

“Get the word out that they should arm themselves with whatever they can. The signal to start trouble is 3 blasts on the steam whistle. Sound it at sunrise.”

 

The man nodded again. “We’ll be ready.” The words were so soft, Kakashi barely caught them.

 

Kakashi clapped the man on the back and slipped back into the darkness. He had other preparations to make. There was ale to be spiked with sleeping powder and other mischief to be had.

 

In his planning, Kakashi forgot to even factor in Guy. The other shinobi wasn’t at the rendezvous point. He’d either join the fighting in the morning or, if the fight went in the village’s favor, Kakashi would do looking for him afterwards.

 

---

 

The cart ground to a halt as the sun sank behind the mountains.

 

It was a good thing no one was listening closely and the pack animals were noisy, because the last bump was too much and Guy dropped onto the dirt with a dull thud.

 

“...Akatsuki are expecting another three cartloads tonight,” a man snapped.

 

“They’re behind me. I swear,” another man promised.

 

Guy narrowed his eyes. So it seems there’s a new player in the game. Wonder who this Akatsuki fellow is working for. The name sounds kind of Kiri-ish.

 

Guy decided it was time dor some straight answers. He rolled out from under the cart and hopped to his feet.

 

Guy got his first glimpse of the driver, a scrawny man with beady eyes, and the middle man, a brutish looking scoundrel with a much larger and newer looking wagon.

 

“Excuse me,” Guy started.

 

Both men whipped around to face Guy. Their eyes widened and the driver went pale.

 

“Who are you?” the middle man demanded.

 

Guy grinned. “Glad you asked. “I am Konoha's Sublime Green Beast of Prey, Might --”

 

“MINE DEMON!” the driver’s scream cut off Guy’s introduction.

 

The driver bailed off his seat and took off at a dead sprint into the forest.

 

Guy just watched the man run. He turned and leveled a glare at the middle man. 

 

Riku considered himself a tough guy. He’d trained as a shinobi in the Land of Wind and gone into business for himself after not being selected to participate in the chuunin exams. He’d managed to earn a place in the bingo books in the years since.

 

But, he’d also heard the locals whisper about the mountain spirits who rose with the moon to hunt those who desecrated the mountain. They emerged from unconsecrated mineshafts and took their shape from the remains of the men lost during caveins. 

 

Riku had half listened, afterall in Suna they had a sand demon in a teapot. Maybe there was some truth to the mountain demons. 

 

The creature glaring at Riku definitely looked like a demon. It wore the shape of a man, but it’s body was made of earth. The whites of its eyes glowed in the moonlight like the mountain’s metallic ore.

 

“So I guess that means you’re the one who’se going to tell me about this Akatsuki fellow,” Guy remarked.

 

Riku’s eyes rolled back in his head and collapsed on the bench of his wagon.

 

Guy sighed. “Sometimes, it’s a pain to be so well known.”

 

Guy used rope from the middle man’s bag of supplies to tie him. Then, cut loose the friendly mule and draped the middle man across the animal’s back. “I don’t have that apple yet, but I promise I’ll get you a whole bucket of them if you help me out.

 

The mule tossed its head and let Guy lead it back down the road in the direction of the village.

 

As much as Guy’s body called for rest, he had a feeling he was needed back in the village. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end and the crows were flying overhead, like they too could sense a coming fight.

 

Guy picked up his pace. If they ran through the night, they’d make it by sunrise and if Kakashi was still Kakashi, whatever nonsense the jounin had planned would start while the enemy were blinded my the morning sun and allies were hidden in the long shadows. Guy may have missed the rendezvous, but he wasn’t going to miss the fight. 

 

---

 

“SHWOOO! SHWOOO! SHWOOO!” three loud steam blasts echoed through the mountains. 

 

Every miner paused in their work and looked up. 

 

The sun was just beginning to crest over the mountain top.

 

There were 15 thugs guarding the mines. Most had some shinobi training. All were armed. All were smart enough to realize there’d never heard the whistle sound in that pattern before, but not all of them were smart enough to realize it in time. They got a shovel to the face.

 

The mine erupted into an all out brawl. 


Pickaxes against spears. Rocks against shuriken. Fists against fists. The desperation of someone defending their home against the greed of a well-paid mercenary.

 

Kakashi watched form the hillside, waiting to see where he was needed.

 

The smartest of the thugs were making a run for the house where the kids were being held. Kakashi figured they were hoping to regain control by holding the kids hostage, maybe killing some as a show of force.

 

Kakashi knew they were already too late. With his sharingan, he saw the front door of the house fly open.

 

The lead teannager burst through the door holding a shovel like a bow stave, blocked a sword strike and then swund the shovel into the swordsman’s gut. 

 

Kakashi grinned. 

 

The battle was far from over, but the villagers had the advantage of surprise and they were making good use of it.

 

The tide shifted quickly. More mercenaries had escaped the mine than Kakashi expected. He figured, they must not have drank as much of the tainted ale as he expected. They’re reflexes were still sharp and they were more than a match for kids and the Hanako’s stubborn reinforcements.

 

Kakashi shushined into the fight.

 

He blocked a kunai meant for an old man’s chest and hurled his own blade into the back of a man raising a club to strike one of the kids.

 

Everything dissolved into a flurry of activity-- strike, strike, block, duck, dodge, throw.

 

Kakashi wove through the crowd, trying to protect everyone. He felt like he was balancing on a knife’s edge. There were too many enemies and too many untrained allies.

 

Where is Guy? Kakashi wondered. It was his last coherent thought before he was so lost in the rhythm of battle that he couldn’t afford to think of anything else.

 

Kakashi found himself beside Risa and a couple other kids.

 

Kakashi called commands and they followed. For a minute, the 5 of them held the mercenaries.

 

Then Risa stumbled and they were forced to fall back.

 

Kakashi could see them losing. He growled. There wasn’t enough room for any of his lightning jutsus. He’d be just as likely to hit a friendly as an enemy.

 

As a last ditch effort, Kakashi created two shadow clones. It was all he had left after using the sharingan all night and most of the day before.

 

The clones didn’t last long.

 

Kakashi shoved the kids behind him and drew a kunai in each hand. His sharingan spun blood red and he snarled at the mercenaries. The closest one hestated and Kakashi cut his throat before the man could strike.

 

It wasn’t enough. There were too many of them.

 

Kakashi took a deep breath. If he charged the knot of mercenaries, it might give the kids time to get away. 

 

Kakashi realized he was shaking. Ge gripped his kunais tighter. His hand throbbed where Risa had bitten him. The pain steadied him. He wasn’t an anbu anymore, but he still carried their training and the obligations that came with it. He had a job to do. He’d sworn an oath to protect the people of the Land of Fire. Nothing would change that. Kids didn’t deserve to die like this.

 

“RUN!” Kakashi screamed and hurled himself at the mercenaries in a flash of steel.

 

At the other end of the fight, someone screamed, “DEMON!”

 

The mercenaries parted as Kakashi tore a path through their ranks. He found himself in the middle of another fight. A mud caked figure drop kicked a mercenary while an apparently very angry mule nipped another on the backside.

 

“You’re late,” Kakashi growled at Guy, but he grinned all the same as relief washed over him.

 

Guy laughed. “I didn’t expect you to start the party without me! Your impatience is very youthful.” 

 

Kakashi rolled his eyes. “Less talking, more fighting.” He moved to stand back to back with Guy and the two of them tore through the remainder of the mercenaries and thugs like a tornado.

 

It was strangely silent in the aftermath of the battle. The last of the mercenaries were either killed, captured, or run off.

 

The evacuees returned quickly, they hadn’t gone far, and they brought medical supplies with them.

 

The wounded were treated. There were less casualties than Kakashi expected. The fiercest fighting had been around him and he’d done a good job protecting his teammates. 

 

Risa was getting her arm stitched up. She gave Kakashi a thumbs up as he staggered past. She was still holding her shovel and grinning like the cat that got the mouse.

 

Kakashi covered his sharingan and found a wall to sit against. He was exhausted, but adrenaline still raced through his veins.

 

Guy dropped to the ground beside Kakashi. “I missed the rendezvous last night. I’m sorry.”

 

Kakashi nodded. “I know. It’s okay. You had my back when I needed you.”

 

“That was one hell of a fight,” Guy sighed. He leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes.

 

The laughter came suddenly. Kakashi couldn’t stop it and it bubbled in his chest until he was bent double in hysterics.

 

Guy opened his eyes and raised an eyebrow at Kakashi. “Did I miss something?”

 

“We beat them with shovels,” Kakashi gasped. “We beat a bunch of A and B ranked, bingo book worthy rouge shinobi with shovels. Did you see their faces?”

 

Guy smiled slightly. “Definitely something you don’t do everyday.”

 

Kakashi just kept laughing. 

 

Guy shook his head. Adrenaline and the endorphins that followed a fight were a potent combination. “Those kids were impressive. Looked like someone gave them some lessons,” he remarked and poked Kakashi in the ribs.

 

Kakashi nodded and grinned. “They were something else.” He held up his bandaged hand and then pointed at Risa. “That one bit me and almost took my head off with a shovel when we first met.” He broke down into giggles again and then the laughter turned into tears.

 

Guy clapped Kakashi on the shoulder and then pulled him into a half hug. Kakashi shuddered in his grasp. “You did good. Take a deep breath.”

 

“I don’t know why I’m acting like this,” Kakashi mumbled. He scrubbed the tears from his face and shook his head, but didn’t shift away from Guy. 

 

“High on life,” Guy said.

 

Kakashi snickered. “Life’s one hell of a drug.”

 

Guy laughed along with that. “I’ve been trying to tell you that for years.”

 

The two of them lapsed into silence, leaning against each other in the shade of a house. 

 

“You know you should think about taking on a genin team,” Guy said suddenly. “You’re good with kids.”

 

Kakashi mumbled something unintelligible in response, something about kids giving him ulcers. He was already half asleep. 

 

Guy let Kakashi doze as the sun climbed higher. Soon enough they’d have to round up the prisoners and make the trip back to Konoha, but for the minute they could both relax.

 

---

 

The village gave Kakashi and Guy a sendoff party. There was beer for everyone and with mine production halted temporarily, a hunting party brought back a couple deer to roast over the fire.

 

Kakashi met Risa’s family. Her parents hugged him and her little brother, one of the evacuees begged Kakashi to show him the moves Kakashi’d taught Risa.

 

Kakashi laughed and promised fighting lessons if they ever visited Konoha.

 

Guy challenged Kakashi to a drinking contest and neither of them remembered who won. They were both so exhausted it didn’t take much to put them out of it.

 

Guy apologized again for being late.

 

“I knew you were coming,” Kakashi lied. 

 

“When you get yourself in over your head, I’ll always come,” Guy muttered. “That’s what rivals are for.”

 

A warmth spread through Kakashi’s chest. He might not be an anbu anymore, but he still had comrades to watch his back. He still had friends he could trust with his life.

 

The trip home was better, despite the addition of 3 very disgruntled mercenaries.

 

Guy had taken a back and finally managed to convince them he wasn’t a demon, so they didn’t fight too much.

 

The sun was shining and they moved at an easier pace, although Kakashi kept moving faster the closer they got to home.

 

Kakashi smiled more and talked more. He wanted to hear all about the kid Guy had been training. 

 

“I’m going to offer to lead his genin team,” Guy said.

 

Kakashi made a surprised noise. “Is that why you suggested I consider taking a team?”

 

Guy smirked. “As my rival, I expect you to rise to my challenge.”

 

Kakashi laughed. “I’ll give you the point for that one. I don’t think I could ever lead a team of kids. Too much drama and too much anxiety.”

 

Guy shrugged. “I think you should consider it. You were pretty proud of that Risa girl.”

 

Kakashi grinned. “Yeah, she was really brave and she’d have made a great shinobi if she wanted to be one.” He didn’t tell Guy that he’d offered Risa the chance. She turned him down. Her father was the engineer in charge of designing safer mines. She was training to take over the job.

 

“So can I snag you for missions more often?” Guy asked. They were nearing the gates.

 

Kakashi nodded without hesitating. “Anytime, but maybe next time it's A-rank we take along a third. That was cutting things a bit closer than I would have liked.”

 

Guy winced. “Yeah, but you have to admit it really makes you feel alive.”

 

Kakashi just laughed. Home was in sight, the mission was done, everyone was safe, and it had felt indescribably good to do that sort of good again outside of the anbu. The shadows of desperation were banished by the late summer sunlight.

Chapter Text

“Give it one more shot.”

 

Naruto scowled at Iruka Sensei. They’d been working on the clone jutsu for the better part of 2 hours. All the other kids had either moved onto practicing other skills or gone home for the day. With the graduation exam only 2 days away, the schedule was flexible.

 

Iruka glanced between Naruto and the vaguely humanoid lump on the ground. Without enough chakra to sustain them, clones could either fail to appear or appear misshapen and useless. This one was so close to being functional that Iruka felt bad for Naruto. The kid had been struggling for months with finetuning his chakra control and he’d made progress, even if he didn’t see it.

 

The question was would Naruto have a breakthrough in time to graduate with the rest of his class, or would he need to repeat the year. As close as Naruto was, Iruka couldn’t in good conscious pass him. 

 

Naruto seemed to know it too. His scowl deepened and he made the signs again.

 

For an instant a clone appeared next to Naruto, like a perfect mirror, but before the smoke could even dissipate the clone began to swell and lose its human shape.

 

Iruka reacted without hesitation, knocking Naruto to the ground and covering him with his own body.

 

“HEADS!” Iruka yelled just before the clone exploded in a blast of chakra.

 

The rest of the kids on the training grounds didn’t even flinch. They’d lost count of how many times this had happened. 

 

Either Naruto produced a lump or a time bomb.

 

In the distance, Sasuke paused in his shuriken drill and glanced towards Naruto. The Uchiha’s eyes spun red and Naruto and Iruka snapped into focus.

 

Iruka rolled off of Naruto and checked the blond for injuries. 

 

Naruto appeared unharmed, but he stayed sitting on the ground. His shoulders were slumped and his face was strangely devoid of emotion. All of the frustration, anger, disappointment, and worry were gone.

 

Sasuke released his sharingan and sighed.

 

“What’s up?” Shikamaru asked. He’d noticed Sasuke’s eyes.

 

The Uchiha shook his head. “Naruto’s still struggling. He’s got his Kakashi face on.”

 

Shikamaru raised an eyebrow at that. “The creepy death stare?”

 

“It’s more of an emotionless mask, but I guess it does kind of look like a death stare.”

 

“So what’s that mean?”

 

Sasuke shrugged. “He’s getting frustrated and he doesn’t want anyone to know.”

 

“Can’t Kakashi help him? He’s a jounin and he coaches the chuunin before their jounin exams right?”

 

Sasuke shifted. He didn’t like talking about home. It was one of the few things about his life that was private and he knew Naruto and Kakashi felt the same. “Kakashi works with us, but at this point it's really on Naruto to figure out his chakra control.”

 

Shikamaru nodded. He laced his fingers behind his head and let out a world weary sigh. “What a drag. After everything he’s been through to get this far, he might not get his headband.”

 

Sasuke shook his head and turned back to his shuriken drill. “You shouldn’t be worrying about Naruto. Your barely ranked above him in the class standings.”

 

Shikamaru narrowed his eyes and frowned, but didn’t say anything. There wasn’t much he could say. He’d been lazy lately, skipping classes and sleeping, and his grades showed it.

 

“At least I know I can pass all the tests,” Shikamaru muttered at Sasuke’s back.

 

Sasuke was too focused on his drill to hear. It was probably a good thing.

 

Iruka looked down at Naruto and tried to hide his own frustration behind a mask of concern. He wasn’t as good at hiding his feelings as Naruto.

 

“You okay?”

 

Naruto’s face brightened suddenly. He wiped a bit of dirt off of the goggles he wore in place of a forehead protector and grinned up at Iruka. “Of course I’m fine. I meant to do that. It’s a new jutsu I’ve been working on. Kind of like explosive tags, but even better for a surprise attack.”

 

Iruka’s own fake smile faltered. The shift in Naruto’s outward emotions was unsettling as always. If Iruka hadn’t been working with Naruto for the last 2 hours and seen the kid run the emotional spectrum of frustration, desperation, disappointment, anger, and despair he would have believed Naruto was just being a little shit and doing this all on purpose. 

 

“That’s pretty creative,” Iruka said. There was hesitation and his voice.

 

Naruto nodded and started to make the hand signs again.

 

Iruka interrupted, grabbing Naruto’s hands and forcing the kid to look up at him. “I think we better call it a day. You’ve done a lot of work. We can pick back up tomorrow, okay?”

 

Naruto shrugged off Iruka’s hands and rolled his eyes. “Sure, but I was just getting warmed up. Tomorrow I’ll really show you something cool.”

 

“I look forward to it,” Iruka promised.

 

As soon as Naruto turned away, Iruka’s shoulders slumped in exhaustion. He was bruised and exhausted.

 

Naruto jogged over to join Sasuke for shuriken practice. The blond didn’t wait for Sasuke to pause, just hurled himself onto the practice course beside Sasuke. 

 

Sasuke rolled his eyes and elbowed Naruto when their paths closed. “I was using the course,” he muttered.

 

“Yeah? Well you were moving so slow I thought you were just passing through,” Naruto tossed back.

 

Sasuke snorted and caught a glimpse of Naruto as the blond tried to dart past Sasuke and steal the next target.

 

Sasuke put on a burst of speed and Naruto laughed.

 

The two of them moved through a target course in perfect tandem, racing but neither able to definitively outdo the other. 

 

Iruka watched from the distance. Were Naruto not what he was, Iruka would have passed Naruto on his taijutsu alone, but Iruka had his orders from the hokage. As a jinchuuriki, Naruto needed to be able to demonstrate at least a minimum of chakra control before he could safely operate as a shinobi.

 

“How are the recruits doing?” 

 

Iruka turned and spotted Mizuk leaning against the academy wall.

 

Iruka shrugged. “At least half of them will pass. The clan heirs all show promise and some of the civilian kids too. It’s going to be fun matching up kids into teams and pairing them with a jounin.”

 

Mizuki ran a hand through his white hair and sighed. “And the Fox? I saw you practicing.”

 

Iruka shifted in discomfort. He knew a loaded question when he heard one. “He’s improving.”

 

Mizuki snorted. “He’s almost killed you half a dozen times while I’ve been watching and I haven’t been watching long.”

 

Iruka just shook his head.

 

Mizuki pushed off the wall and stode forward to stand beside Iruka. “You’re a better man than me. I don’t think I could stand to be so close to that thing, especially if I had your history with it.”

 

Iruka swallowed hard. “My history with the Fox is not my history with Naruto.”

 

Mizuki’s eyes widened. “So he doesn't know?”

 

Iruka didn’t say anything. He kept his eyes fixed on the training grounds. 

 

Naruto and Sasuke had finished their loop on the shirken course and were wrestling in the dirt. It didn’t look any more violent than their usual skirmishes, so Iruka had no excuse to leave Mizuki and check on them. He half wished he did.

 

Mizuki clapped Iruka on the back. “Again, you’re a better man than I am. It makes me feel better knowing that we aren’t going to actually set that thing loose out in the world. Imagine if he lost control on a mission. It’s really the best thing for his safety and the safety of whoever would have been on his team.”

 

Then Mizuki walked away, back towards the school. He smiled as he walked away. Iruka was so easy to read. He really hadn’t changed much since they were children. He wore his heart on his sleeve and it was easily tugged one way or another.

 

---

 

“So did I pass?” Kurenai asked. The dark haired kunoichi crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow at Kakashi.

 

Kakashi paused, considering. He looked around again. His mind knew they were in the center of the training grounds, but his uncovered eye was convinced the grassy field had been replaced by a tangled mass of vines that pinned him in place and blocked any chance of escape. The only other visible feature of this false reality was Kurenai.

 

Kakashi frowned. The genjutsu was good. The longer he kept the kunoichi waiting, the tighter the vines around his torso became. He could feel little thorns digging into his side.

 

Kakashi tried again to dispel the genjutsu with a surge of chakra, nothing happened.

 

Kakashi nodded. “It’s good. I’ll give you that.”

 

A flicker of a smiled danced on Kurenai’s lips. “You can’t break it this time?” she asked, a hopeful note in her voice. They’d been training together for 3 days and Kakashi had always managed to break her genjutsu.

 

“Don’t go getting ahead of yourself,” Kakashi warned, his voice was light and teasing.

 

Kurenai rolled her eyes and waited.

 

Kakashi tossed his head and his forehead protector loosened enough to slide down and settle at his neck.

 

Kurenai’s eyes widened. She’d only seen Kakashi’s sharingan twice and never like this. It was one thing to watch him fight or fight beside him. It was a totally different game to stare into his face.

 

Kurenai had always thought her own eyes were deceptively close to the Uchiha’s, but when she met Kakashi’s gaze she realized anyone who had met an Uchiha would know the difference immediately.

 

The sharingan was a vibrant, bloody red that seemed to pierce her soul.

 

Kurenai swallowed hard and shifted her stance, ready to counter whatever attack Kakashi launched when he broke her genjutsu.

 

In Kakashi’s vision, the world blurred as he opened his sharingan. The vines became transparent and Kakashi could see the distant forest through them. His hand inched towards his kunai pouch.

 

Kurenai saw Kakashi’s hand moving, but she couldn’t feel an attack on her genjutsu. She narrowed her eyes and put another surge of chakra into the illusion. This is the power of the sharingan. It doesn’t have to break an illusion, it doesn’t even see the illusion.

 

Kakashi froze. Even with the sharingan, the vines were an impenetrable fortress. He tried channeling more chakra to the jutsu, but his vision didn’t clear. He could see the sweat trickling down Kurenai’s neck. They were locked in a contest of chakra reserves. THe sharingan was swallowing what was left of Kakashi’s chakra in greedy gulps.

 

Kakashi closed his red eye. “That’s enough.”

 

Kurenai released the genjutsu and Kakashi pulled his forehead protector backup to cover the sharingan.

 

Kurenai dropped to her knees and then flopped onto the grass. She was breathing hard, but after a minute, she rolled onto her back and grinned up at Kakashi. “So are you going to recommend the Hokage test me?” she asked.

 

Kakashi nodded. “You’ve got a good head for tactics and leadership. You can hold your own in a fight and your genjutsu skills are in a league of their own. If you really want to be a jounin, I’m sure the Third will agree that you’re more than ready.”

 

Kurenai grinned. “I can’t believe I beat the sharingan.”

 

Kakashi offered her a hand and she took it, letting the jounin pull her to her feet. “You beat my sharingan,” he reminded. “I’m not an Uchiha.”

 

Kurenai waved off the reminder. “All the same, I’m pretty proud of myself. Let me buy you a drink to makeup for running you ragged these last few days?”

 

Kakashi snorted. “You know that’s kind of my job. I’m supposed to put chuunin through their paces and weed out the ones who aren’t ready to become jounin before they waste the Hokage’s time.”

 

“Felt a little bit like I was putting you through your paces,” Kurenai teased.

 

“That’s how I know you’re ready,” Kakashi fired back. 

 

Kurenai grinned. “So how about that drink?”

 

“I’ll have to pass. I promised to help the boys get ready for their genin exams.”

 

“Can’t argue with that.”

 

Kakashi turned to leave. “Why don’t you ask Asuma to grab that drink?” 

 

Kurenai blushed, but didn’t say anything.

 

Kakashi smiled beneath his mask. Good for them , he thought. He made it two steps before stopping. “Almost forgot,” Kakashi waved for Kurenai to walk with him. “I’m supposed to ask why you want to be a jounin.”

 

“I want to train a genin team.” The response was immediate and without hesitation.

 

Kakashi raised an eyebrow at that.

 

“It’s a long story, but the short eversion it that I met a kid who needed me. I started training her and I don’t want to turn her over to just any jounin. She’s special.”

 

Kakashi nodded. “I know the feeling. You’ll be a good sensei.”

 

Kurenai punched him lightly in the shoulder. “You’d make a pretty good one yourself.”

 

Kakashi didn’t answer. He knew the rumors going around, but he hadn’t agreed to take a team yet. He hadn’t even been asked yet and he wasn’t sure he would say yes if he was. 

 

The last few years had been good on the work front. Kakashi enjoyed helping the chuunin sharpen their skills, putting together training groups, taking said training groups on missions, and getting to work with his friends. He wasn’t sure he wanted to walk away from that and he wasn’t sure he would be able to handle the anxiety and memories leading a genin team would bring. 

 

Chuunin could take care of themselves. Genin, not so much as personal experience had taught Kakashi.

 

---

 

The next two days passed in a blur. 

 

On Kakashi’s recommendation, the Third promoted Kurenai to the rank of jounin. 

 

Sasuke and Naruto spent all of their spare hours practicing for the genin exam.

 

Kakashi did his best to help, but there are some things you can’t cram for.

 

The night before the exam, Kakashi finished the dishes and helped Sasuke with some last minute math study guides. 

 

When the sun set, Kakashi sent the Uchiha upstairs to bed and went looking for Naruto. He found the blond curled up in the grass in the backyard.

 

The grass was burned and a couple bushes were flattened, evidence of Naruto’s continued struggle with producing a clone.

 

Naruto was sound asleep.

 

Kakashi sighed and his chest went tight with emotion as he stared down at the boy.

 

Naruto looked small and young. He’d had another growth spurt, but not quite enough to fit the horrible orange tracksuit he’d found in a bargain bin somewhere. His hair was a mess and there was a smudge of dirt on his face.

 

Kakashi knew there was a good chance Naruto wasn’t going to pass the exam. He knew it was going to break Naruto’s heart and the next year in the academy was going to be miserable, but there was a very guilty feeling part of Kakashi that was glad the kid wasn’t going to trade in Obito’s goggles for a forehead protector just yet.

 

It meant Kakashi could keep protecting at least on his kids for a little bit longer.

 

Kakashi scopped Naruto up and the boy barely stirred. “Time for bed,” Kakashi soothed.

 

Naruto just snuggled closer and made a sleepy little sigh.

 

---

 

Kakashi saw the boys off to school. “Just do your best,” he ordered.

 

Sasuke was all cool and collected with a cocky little smirk on his face.

 

Naruto was a bundle of poorly disguised nerves. He laughed at Kakashi’s order and ran a hand through his hair, brushing his fingers against the goggles on his forehead.

 

When the boys were gone, Kakashi lingered on the front step, watching the sunrise. Things were going to change when the boys came home. None of them would really change by the end of the day, but the circumstances of their lives would be forever altered. 

 

Then, with time, the boys themselves would change. The life of a shinobi wasn’t easy. It made you grow up fast, especially if you were exceptional in some way. Kakashi knew that first hand. 

 

The messenger bird that dive bombed Kakashi’s head jolted him out of his anxious thoughts.

 

Kakashi realized the bird had probably been trying to get his attention for several minutes and resorted to dive bombing when he didn’t respond. He held out his arm and the bird landed immediately.

 

Kakashi accepted the scroll off the bird’s back and sent it back on its way. A summons from the hokage was something you answered in person.

 

---

 

The written exams went without an issue of either of Kakashi’s boys. The taijutsu, shuriken, physical, and tactical exams were equally uneventful.

 

They did the ninjutsu exam in the classroom. 

 

Mizuki joined Iruka for the scoring. 

 

When Naruto was called forward, half the class set their book bags on the desk as a sort of makeshift shelter.

 

Naruto shifted uneasily. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Sasuke watching. The Uchiha nodded encouragingly and silently mouthed. “Not too much. You can do it.”

 

Naruto put on his trademark grin and faced the instructors.

 

“You can begin whenever you are ready,” Iruka said gently.

 

Naruto made the hand signs. 

 

He was close. So close that Iruka visibly winced. The clone was stable, no fading into nothing and no explosion, but it was useless. It sprawled on the floor with its slightly off proportions and coloring.

 

Some of the class giggled. Most were just relieved that Naruto hadn’t blown anything up.

 

“Fail,” Iruka announced. He didn’t look at Naruto. He didn’t want to see the wave of horror and disappointment wash across the blond’s face.

 

Naruto stared down at his feet. His vision blurred, but he didn’t let the tears fall-- another trick he’d learned from Kakashi. There were times and places to cry, but this wasn’t one.

 

Mizuki smiled sympathetically at Naruto. He nudged Iruka gently. “Maybe we could let him pass. He did make a stable clone and everyone else passed.”

 

Naruto looked up quickly, a flash of hop in his eyes.

 

Iruka shook his head. “All the others made at least 3 stable and usable clones. He’ll just have to try again next year.”

 

Naruto’s lip trembled as he nodded, but when he spoke his voice was steady and cheerful as always. “I understand. I guess I’ll see you next fall.” He gave Iruka and Mizuki a cocky little salute and walked out of the room without another word. 

 

Every eye in the room followed Naruto. 

 

The other kids whispered. “What a gutsy brat?” “Can’t believe he just left.” “He sounded so cocky for someone who can’t even make a clone.”

 

---

 

The hokage called Kakashi into his office and motioned for the jounin to have a seat in front of the desk.

 

Sitting, Kakashi could barely see the Third over the stacks of papers and scroll.

 

The hokage moved a stack from the desk to the floor. “Sorry about that. The combination of the anbu restructure, the genin exams, and some diplomatic visits have me a bit afloat in paperwork.”

 

Kakashi just nodded.

 

“You know why I called you here?” the third asked.

 

“I can guess.”

 

“It is my understanding that Uchiha Sasuke is expected to pass the exam today. He will need someone to help him master his eyes and reach his full potential as a shinobi.”

 

Kakashi nodded again. “Kurenai.”

 

Hiruzen’s eyes widened. “What?”

 

“I’ve put a lot of thought into it. While she isn’t an Uchiha, her ocular genjutsu is as close to an Uchiha’s as I’ve ever encountered. Far superior to mine. Sasuke could learn a lot from her. Plus she has the patience to teach him and the fire to earn his respect.””

 

Hiruzen blinked a few times and then sighed. “Kurenai already has a team assignment. It’s a specialized tracking unit. Hyuga, Inuzuka, Aburame.”

 

“Oh,” Kakashi felt his blood run cold. He scrambled, trying to remember who else he had heard was interested in taking on a genin team.

 

“I know it is a highly unusual situation, but after speaking with my advisers we decided that Uchiha Sasuke and, assuming he passes, Naruto should be under your supervision,” Hiruzen said. “You learned from the best and with your abilities and experience you are the best equipped to train them to their full potential.”

 

“Isn’t is a risk to put your two heavy hitters on the same team?”

 

“Not if it's set up as an offensive cell.”

 

Kakashi swallowed hard. “This is peace time.”

 

Hiruzen’s tired expression gave way to one of exasperation. “Peace doesn't last forever, especially if we don’t protect it. Keeping Naruto and Sasuke together is about checks and balances as much as it is about their potential as teammates.”

 

The pieces clicked together. Sharingan to control an out of control jinchuuriki. The power of a jinchuuriki to subdue a rogue Uchiha.

 

“You can have your pick of the others that pass for your third and if you need it, your second.” The hokage said it like a dismissal. There was no room for further argument.

 

---

 

The other kids were celebrating with friends and family. 

 

Naruto slipped out of the academy grounds. He walked quickly with his head down. 

 

The blood pounding in his ears was loud. He nearly missed Mizuki calling out his name.

 

The shinobi jogged to catch up to Naruto. 

 

“I don’t need your pity,” Naruto started before Mizuki could open his mouth.

 

Mizuki shook his head. “No pity. I promise.”

 

Naruto eyed the teacher suspiciously. He’d never spent much time with Mizuki. He taught the kids a year younger than Naruto, but he seemed like a good guy. Kakashi had never talked about Mizuki to Naruto, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything.

 

“Look, I know you’ve been working really hard and just because you can’t use the clone jutsu doesn’t mean you aren’t ready to be a shinobi.”

 

“Tell that to Iruka-sensei,” Naruto grumbled.

 

Mizuki winced and gave Naruto a hesitant smile. “Walk with me?” he asked.

 

Naruto and Mizuki wound their way through the village while Mizuki talked. 

 

“Iruka doesn’t mean to pick on you. He holds you to the same standard he holds himself. You know he sees himself in you. He lost his parents when he was young. Just like you he’s had to live his whole life with everyone watching him, whispering behind their hands. Everyone was waiting for him to fail, to break down, cry, and give up. But he didn’t. Just like you.”

 

Naruto kicked a rock and shuffled his feet. He didn’t know Iruka was an orphan too.

 

“Don’t be mad at Iruka. He just wants you to be the best you can be.”

 

Naruto nodded. “I am doing my best. I just wish it was good enough.”

 

Mizuki ruffled Naruto’s hair. “Iruka’s a bit of a traditionalist, but there are other jutsus you can demonstrate instead of the clone jutsu to earn your forehead protector.”

 

Naruto’s face lit up. “I’ll try anything,” he said, his face set with determination.

 

Mizuki smiled.

 

Naruto didn’t notice the way Mizuki jerked his hand back away from Naruto and wiped it on his pants. He didn’t notice the way Mizuki’s smile didn’t reach his eyes.

 

---

 

Kakashi stood to leave the hokage’s office. He would have his choice of team members to the hokage the next afternoon.

 

The door burst open and a frazzled looking jounin ran inside. “Hokage-sama! It's the scroll of forbidden jutsus. Naruto stole it.”

 

“WHAT?! HOW?!” Kakashi and the hokage both demanded answers.

 

The jounin shook his head. “He slipped in the side door to the archive and used a bunch of unstable clones to cause a distraction. Then he escaped out of the hole the clones blew in the wall.”

 

Kakashi dropped his head into his hands and groaned.

 

“Send out search parties. Find him. He didn’t decide to take the scroll on his own.”

 

---

 

Iruka watched the search parties disperse from the roof of the academy. He’d intended to join the search, see if he could help keep any over zealous shinobi from hurting Naruto, but then he’d spotted another figure slipping away from the crowd.

 

Iruka lost the figure in the tangle of shadowed streets. Night was falling fast.

 

Iruka hesitated. He could try to meet up with a search group or he could go on his own.

 

The young shinobi closed his eyes and tried to remember everything he knew about Naruto, tried to think of where the kid would go.

 

Vaguely, Iruka remembered Naruto telling a story about camping with Kakashi and Sasuke not far from the village. There was a clearing. It was where Naruto had finally managed to match Sasuke in kunai throwing.

 

Iruka turned and headed for the western forest.

 

Night fell quickly in the forest where the branches blocked the faint moonlight.

 

Iruka spotted Naruto easily. He stood out silver in the moonlit clearing.

 

Iruka leaped into the clearing. “NARUTO!” he snapped.

 

Naruto jumped, twisted to face Iruka, and promptly fell on his butt. His hair was spiked with dirt and he grinned up at Iruka, exhausted. In his arms was a large scroll.

 

“Where you training?” Iruka asked, more confused than angry now.

 

Naruto scratched his head. “Yeah. You caught me. And I only got through the first jutsu on the list.”

 

Iruka sighed. “Naruto, why? Do you have any idea what you did?”

 

Naruto’s smile faltered. “Mizuki-sensei told me about the second test, the other way to graduate.”

 

Iruka scowled. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

 

The laughter and the kunai both came out of the dark. 

 

Iruka shoved Naruto aside and faced the forest.

 

Naruto’s eyes were wide, fixed on the blood dripping from Iruka’s shoulder where one of the kunai had caught him.

 

“Damn you,” Iruka growled at the dark.

 

Mizuki stepped out of the gloom. “Nice job Naruto,” he grinned. “Give me the scroll now. Then you’ll be a shinobi.”

 

Naruto didn’t act like he’d heard Mizuki. He was still staring at Iruka.

 

“Don’t give him the scroll,” Iruka ordered. He stared down Mizuki. “It has forbidden jutsu in it. If it falls into the wrong hands it could destroy the village.” His voice was rough with pain.

 

Mizuki’s lips twitched and for a second his lips curled in a snarl before returning to a smile. “Do you want to be a shinobi or not?” He took a step towards Naruto who finally tore his eyes away from Iruka. “Because if you listen to him, you’ll never be one. He hates you. You killed his parents.”

 

“MIZUKI” Iruka screamed.

 

Naruto staggered back, a look of horror on his face. 

 

“Yeah, you monster,” Mizuki sneered. “No one really loves you. They just tolerate you so you don’t kill them. Everyone will be better off when you’re dead.”

 

Naruto didn’t even flinch when Mizuki hurled a massive shrunken at him.

 

At the last second, Naruto clutched the scroll a bit tighter and squeezed his eyes closed. He was thrown to the ground, but the pain never came.

 

A drop of something wet fell on his face and Naruto opened his eyes.

 

Blue eyes met dark ones.

 

“Iruka?” Naruto whispered. 

 

Blood trickled out of the chuunin’s mouth as he used his body to shield Naruto from another volley of kunai.

 

“Don’t listen. You’re not a monster. You haven’t hurt anyone. I’m so sorry. I should have told you the truth years ago, but I didn’t want you to carry that burden. I know how heavy guilt can be. The Fox killed my parents, but they went to fight to protect me. It's not either of our faults. I know you probably don’t believe me, but that’s not your guilt to carry anymore than it was mine. You’re a good kid and you don’t deserve to be treated like a monster. I--” Iruka’s rambling was cut off by his scream.

 

Mizuki pulled the large, wind shuriken from Iruka’s back. “Why don’t you die already?” he hissed.

 

The blood pounded in Naruto’s ears. Tears ran down his face and mingled with Iruka’s blood.

 

“I’ll try to buy you some time. Just run and don’t look back,” Iruka whispered.

 

Mizuki praised the shuriken.

 

“Why?” Naruto whimpered.

 

“Because you’re my precious student and part of my family.” 

 

Iruka shoved himself off of Naruto and sank a kunai into Mizuki’s thigh. 

 

Mizuki howled in pain, but it didn’t stop the arc of his shuriken.

 

Naruto’s chakra surged and his hands flew.

 

The shuriken destroyed the clone it slashed, but didn’t reach Iruka.

 

Mizuki stared around in horror. Hundreds of Naruto’s filled the clearing.

 

“Kami,” Mizuki breathed. “These can’t be real.”

 

The clones cracked their knuckles and grinned, a wild, feral grin. Their teeth were a bit too sharp and their whisker marks were a bit too prominent.

 

“Looks like I get to test out my jutsu after all,” the real Naruto said. “Multi Shadow Clone Jutsu-- a thousand kicks!”

 

Mizuki tried to run and he tried to fight, but he didn’t last long.

 

The real Naruto stayed close to Iruka while the clones fought. 

 

Iruka looked like he was unconscious. “I’m sorry,” Naruto whispered. “I hurt someone. And I think I might be at least part monster.” In his mind, Kurama laughed.

 

---

 

The search party arrived to find Naruto sitting with Iruka’s head in his lap, talking softly to the unconscious shinobi. “It’ll be okay. We’re safe,” Naruto kept promising even as the medics pulled Iruka from his arms.

 

Mizuki lay across the clearing, also unconscious. 

 

Naruto hugged the scroll while everyone worried about Iruka and Mizuki. 

 

When someone ushered Naruto back to the village, he went without an argument.

 

In the hokage’s office, Naruto let the hokage take back the scroll and he let Kakashi fuss over him.

 

Kakashi searched Naruto for injuries. The boy was covered in blood. “It’s not mine,” Naruto kept insisting. “Iruka saved me. Mizuki hurt him. He was going to kill us.”

 

In time, the full story was told and Naruto was sent to the hospital with Kakashi for a full checkup. He fell asleep in a bed while the nurse was taking his blood pressure.

 

---

 

Naruto woke up slowly. Sunlight was streaming in the window and the hospital blanket was scratchy. 


Something lay heavy across Naruto’s head.

 

Curious and still sleepy, he reached up to feel it. His fingers met cool metal.

 

“You awake?” a familiar voice asked.

 

Naruto turned and spotted Iruka in a bed next door. The chuunin was heavily bandaged, but he grinned at Naruto.

 

“You’re okay,” Naruto said and then he promptly burst into tears. “I thought you were going to die,” he sobbed. “I just found out you care and then I was going to lose you.”

 

“Easy,” Iruka soothed. “It’s okay. We’re safe. We’re alright. And it’s all thanks to you.”

 

Naruto just cried harder. The thing on his head slid down to cover his eyes and he pulled it out of the way in frustration.

 

Naruto was about to throw the thing away when he realized it was a forehead protector in his hand. Tears turned to confusion.

 

Iruka laughed even though it felt like he was being stabbed all over again. “Congratulations! You definitely passed your exam.”

 

Naruto climbed out of bed-- monitors be damned-- and hugged Iruka.

 

That’s how the nurses and Kakashi found them; holding each other, sobbing hysterically while monitors screamed at being yanked loose.

Chapter Text

Beams of sunlight slipped through the window, illuminating Iruka’s hospital bed. The shinobi was sitting up and his lap was covered with papers. He frowned slightly, thinking.

 

A soft knock on the doorframe startled Iruka. He looked up and spotted a familiar figure in the doorway.

 

“Kakashi, I was hoping you’d stop by,” Iruka said. He motioned for the other shinobi to come in.

 

Kakashi stepped in and shut the door behind him. He grabbed the chair from the corner of Iruka’s room and pulled it closer to the bed. 

 

Iruka fished a small scroll out of the pile of paperwork on his lap and passed it to Kakashi.

 

Kakashi winced. He could see the hokage’s broken seal on the scroll. He knew what was inside, but he checked anyway-- 4 names.

 

Kakashi glanced back up at Iruka. The brunet raised an eyebrow. 


Kakashi shrugged. 

 

“Seriously?” Iruka demanded. “All I get is a shrug?!”

 

Kakashi sighed. He couldn’t very well say he hadn’t been allowed to say no.

 

“Those boys think of you as their dad, whether they call you that or not. Why the hell would the hokage let you be their jounin sensei? Why the hell would he put them together for that matter? We don’t put siblings on the same team or let parents mentor their kid as a genin for the same reason we don’t typically let married shinobi go on missions together. It’s distracting. It gets people killed.” Iruka’s eyes were dark with anger and his cheeks were flushed red.

 

Kakashi tried to interrupt, but Iruka didn’t let him.

 

“It’s selfish. This whole thing is just selfish and I wouldn’t have thought you’d be that sort.” He leveled Kakashi with a hard stare, daring the jounin to argue.

 

“It wouldn’t have been my first choice either,” Kakashi admitted. “You’re absolutely right that relationships can be a distraction in the field, but even if you put strangers together, they’ll eventually become friends. Bonds can be as much of an asset as they are a liability.”

 

Iruka was still frowning, so Kakashi kept talking.

 

“There’s more to the team assignment than what it looks like and I am very aware of what it looks like, but I can’t share all of the details with you. You’ll just have to trust that the hokage knows what he’s doing, same as I am.”

 

Iruka made a frustrated noise and the fight went out of his shoulders. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have snapped at you. I should have known this was bigger than you.”

 

Kakashi shrugged again. “Again, you’re not wrong. It’s an unusual team in every sense of the word.” His lips twitched slightly beneath his mask in the ghost of a smile. “How are the other team assignments going?”

 

“Easy. Pretty much all of them were arranged by someone else, so all I have to do is put together the final evaluations and send them to the new senseis.”

 

Kakashi nodded. With the number of clan shinobi in this year’s graduating class, it wasn’t surprising that most of them were arranged on teams already. “Any teams you don’t agree with?”

 

Iruka shrugged and shuffled his paperwork. “Not out right. I mean Ino-Shika-Cho is always reliable and the three of them will work together just fine given time, but I would have liked to pair Nara Shikamaru with Inuzuka Kiba. Their abilities are complementary in the same way that a Nara and an Akamichi’s are, but Kiba challenges Shikamaru’s lazy attitude where Choji doesn’t. I think Choji, Ino, and Hinata would have worked well together. It would have been a balanced team and personality wise more stable and mild.”

 

Kakashi nodded. “The teams are definitely not balanced this year. From what I’ve heard around the hokage’s office, you’ve got a tracking team, an information retrieval team, and an all out offensive team.”

 

“I suppose. It just feels safer to put them in balanced groups-- ranged attacker, close combat specialist, and either a defensive or genjutsu specialist. That’s the way we’ve been doing it the last few years.”

 

“Things are strangely peaceful now. We aren’t sending genin teams into warzones anymore, so maybe we can afford to specialize training teams. Besides, they all have very capable jounin looking out for them.”

 

Iruka smiled. “Capable jounin like yourself?”

Kakashi rolled his eyes. “No. Certainly not me.”


The two lapsed into silence. Kakashi shifted uncomfortably. He never liked hospitals and he liked asking for favors even less, but he hadn’t come here to explain himself or chitchat.

 

“I have a favor to ask,” Kakashi said, breaking the quiet.

 

Iruka raised an eyebrow at that. 

 

“It’s something that I don’t want you to say yes to unless you actually want to say yes,” Kakashi added.

 

“Just spit it out. The suspense is killing me.”

 

Kakashi pulled a folded paper out of his vest. “I know the boys are old enough that if something happens to me they’ll be left to their own devices, but I also know they won’t do well on their own.” He handed the paper to Iruka. 

 

Iruka stared at the paper. It granted him guardianship of both Naruto and Sasuke in the event of Kakashi’s death, disappearance, or inability to carry out the role of guardian. All that was missing was Iruka’s signature.

 

“How did you get the hokage to approve this?” Iruka asked.

 

“It was one of the two conditions I made for training a genin team. You offered to take Sasuke not so long ago and you and Naruto have a good relationship.”

 

Iruka fished a pen out of his paperwork, signed the form, and handed it back to Kakashi. He didn’t hesitate. “You know I’d do my best, but I’m not you, so you better not die.”

 

Kakashi chuckled. “I’ll do my best.”

 

 “So what was the other condition?”

 

“We get Sakura,” there was a note of pride in Kakashi’s voice.

 

Iruka snorted. “That can’t have made the diplomatic corps happy.”

 

“Or her parents,” Kakashi added. “But the hokage said I could have my pick of a third.”

 

“So why Sakura? Not that she isn’t going to grow up and be a great kunoichi, but she isn’t exactly on the same level physically as Naruto and Sasuke.”

 

“Someone’s got to be the brains of this operation.”

 

Iruka grinned at that. “I’m pretty sure that’s supposed to be you.”

 

Kakashi rolled his eyes again and stood up. “Well, I’ve got other errands to run and you’ve got reports to finish. I’m looking forward to getting my 3.”

 

“Hey! Kakashi,” Iruka stopped Kakashi halfway to the door. “You better not be too hard on them. You don’t need to overcompensate for your relationships.” 

 

Kakashi looked back over his shoulder and smiled. There was a mischievous glint in his eye. When he kept walking, Iruka noticed the soft chime of a small bell and noticed for the first time the 2 bells tied to Kakashi’s waist, next to his gear pouches.

 

Iruka shook his head and smiled. “Kami look over the 4 of you,” Iruka whispered as the door to his room slipped shut. “You’re all going to need it.”



---

 

When one of the younger teachers read off the team lists, Naruto was so excited he nearly missed his own name being said. He was finally going to be a real ninja.

 

A sharp elbow to the ribs jolted the blond out of his euphoria. “Stop grinning like an idiot,” Sasuke hissed. “Today’s our first day as shinobi and we need to make the right impression when we meet our sensei.”

 

Naruto blinked in surprise. “Wait, our? I didn’t hear anything after Sakura’s name.”

 

Sasuke groaned and rolled his eyes.

 

“Wait, I get you and Sakura?! This is the best day ever!”

 

“Be quiet! They’re still calling names.”

 

Even Sasuke’s hand over his mouth couldn’t muffle Naruto’s laughter. 

 

A few rows away, Sakura watched the boys squabble with a slight smile on her lips that didn’t reach her eyes. Her heart was beating too loud and too fast and she was pretty sure it wasn’t just because she’d been assigned to the same team as Sasuke.

 

With all the teams read off, the newest genin began to disperse. Some sensei’s came to collect their team. Others sent instructions with a meeting place.

 

Naruto and Sasuke were both getting anxious, although Sasuke hid it better. “Stay put. Your sensei will be here shortly,” wasn’t what they had wanted to hear. 

 

Naruto shifted constantly in his seat and muttered about the suspense being killer.

 

Sasuke stared straight ahead, trying to overthink the situation.

 

Sakura was so lost in her own thoughts that she didn’t notice Ino until the other kunoichi tapped her shoulder.

 

“Don’t think that you won just because you’re on his team,” Ino whispered with a wink. 

 

Sakura nodded, that same small, fake smile on her face.

 

Ino’s face fell. “What’s wrong Billboard Brow?”

 

Sakura shook her head and forced a bigger smile. “Just picturing you in a bridesmaid dress,” she replied.

 

Ino scoffed, shook her head, and followed Shikamaru out of the room.

 

Eventually, team 7 was left alone with their thoughts.

 

What happened to the diplomatic corps? Sakura wondered. Her mind flickered back to the last few years of training, to watching Naruto and Sasuke spar, seeing their power during the incident with Hagiwara, and the yearly rankings. I’m not like them. What if I can’t keep up? What if they have to keep saving me? It wasn’t that the thought of being saved by Sasuke was bad necessarily, but Sakura would prefer that it be an even sort of deal-- you save me and I’ll save you sort of situation. Afterall, no one wants to always be the damsel in distress.  

 

What if I’m just a liability? Sakura’s mind supplied an image from the textbooks. A single shinobi grieving over the bodies of his fallen teammates. 

 

Sakura shivered she glanced back at the boys. 

 

Naruto was now pacing the classroom and peering out all the windows.

 

Sasuke was staring straight ahead with so much intensity that Sakura half expected their mysterious sensei to appear there in a puff of smoke like a summon.

 

I won’t let them get hurt for me. I’ll quit before I let that happen , Sakura silently promised herself.

 

Naruto made his way to the front of the classroom, grabbed an eraser from the chalkboard, and propped it in the doorframe.

 

“Really?” Sasuke muttered.

 

“It serves them right for keeping us waiting,” Naruto argued.

 

Sakura snorted. “Like a jounin is going to fall for that.”

 

At that moment, the door eased open and the eraser fell in a puff of chalk dust on Kakashi’s head.

 

Kakashi scanned the room, spotted a grinning Naruto, and raised an eyebrow at the blond. “Hey guys.”

 

“What are you doing here?” Naruto asked. “I can’t believe you fell for that.”

 

“I was thinking about important things,” Kakashi said with a dismissive wave of his hand. He strolled into the room and plopped down in the seat next to Sakura. “Care to join us?” he asked the boys.

 

Sasuke and Naruto glanced at each other, shrugged, and made their way to stand behind Sakura.

 

“So why are you here?” Sasuke asked.

 

Kakashi smiled back. “I forgot how small these chairs are. This really isn’t a comfortable place to sit, so why are you here?”

 

Sasuke sighed heavily and folded his arms. Kakashi was looking far too self-satisfied for comfort. The last time he’d seen Kakashi like this, he’d  challenged Guy to a lawn trimming contest and spent the morning napping in the backyard while the other jounin did all of the gardening in the front yard.

 

“Well?” Kakashi asked.

 

“We’re waiting for our jounin sensei,” Naruto said. “They’re super late, but could get here at any minute, so we can’t really talk now.”

 

Kakashi nodded. “Of course. You want to make a good impression, seem grown up and serious, right?”

 

Naruto smiled and nodded. His smile faded as Kakashi continued to sit in the chair and grinned at the three of them.

 

An awkward silence stretched while Naruto tried to figure out how to tell Kakashi he needed to leave. 

 

Both boys glanced at each other and shared a look of confusion.

 

Sakura narrowed her eyes and looked Kakashi over again. Besides the chalk on his shoulders, his uniform was neater than she’d ever seen it. His vest was neatly pressed and his gear was all in order like he had an important mission or meeting to attend.

 

“I think I know why you’re here,” Sakura said.

 

Sasuke and Naruto stared at Sakura.

 

“What was that Sakura?” Kakashi asked.

 

Sakura took a deep breath and met Kakashi’s gaze. “I think I know why you’re here, Kakashi Sensei?”

 

Kakashi beamed and petted Sakura on the head. “Excellent. I knew you were the smart one.”

 

Naruto and Sasuke’s jaws both hit the floor. 

 

“No way,” Naruto whispered.

 

After a minute of surprise, Sasuke nodded. Should have guessed that , he thought. His eyes flickered across Kakashi’s face and settled on the sharingan hidden beneath his forehead protector.

 

Kakashi stood up and clapped his hands together. “How about we go somewhere more comfortable and chat?”

 

Three heads nodded and when they left the classroom, Kakashi wondered how long it would be before he stopped feeling like a mother duck.

 

---

 

They settled in the park across the street from the academy. Kakashi plopped down on the grass and the three genin made a half circle in front of him.

 

Kakashi surveyed his team. Sakura was sitting neatly, legs crossed, back straight, and face attentive. Not a hair was out of place, but he could see the way she pressed her palms tight to her thighs, probably hiding a tremor. He wondered what Sakura had to be nervous about.

 

Naruto had a goofy smile on his face, like several of his long held dreams had just come true. Kakashi couldn’t really begrudge him that since it was basically what had happened. Soon enough Naruto would figure out that not all dreams are all rainbows and sunshine.

 

Sasuke looked calm and mostly emotionless, like a real shinobi. The effect was ruined when he fiddled with his arm guards and the barest hint of a smile flickered across his face.

 

Kakashi nodded to himself. They were kids. They still fit in the tiny academy chairs, they still had faces round and soft with baby fat, they were still innocent and easy to read. Nervous, happy, excited, hopeful, and everything else a kid should be. 

 

Kakashi was tempted to uncover his sharingan and record the image forever. Konoha may not be at war anymore, but the life a shinobi would still make them grow too fast.

 

“Alright, let’s get this party started,” Kakashi mumbled. He fished a well folded scrap of paper out of his vest pocket and opened it up. “Let’s see…” He scanned the paper. “Let’s start with some introductions.”

 

“But we already know each other?” Naruto said.

 

Kakashi frowned at him. “I feel like they used to teach genin to listen to their sensei in the academy. Maybe things have changed, but I highly doubt that.”

 

Naruto scowled, but didn’t argue. 

 

“Let’s start with everybody’s likes, dislikes, hobbies, and dreams for the future or something like that.”

 

When no one started talking, Kakashi sighed. “I guess I’ll go first. I’m Hatake Kakashi. You should all call me Kakashi Sensei when we’re training and on missions. I know that might be weird for some of you, but it’s important we establish a chain of command. Whether or not you respect and listen to my commands could make the difference between your life or death on a mission.”

 

Naruto started to roll his eyes, but stopped and paled at the end.

 

Kakashi’s heart sank a little. He hated the understanding that settled on Naruto’s shoulders.

“As for my likes and dislikes, that’s really not anything I want to share and my dreams are… Yeah… And my hobbies are… mmmhhmm,” Kakashi finished quickly.

 

Naruto snorted and a smile returned to his face. Classic Kakashi. Guess I’ll go next.  

 

Naruto stood up and ran a hand through his hair, brushing his forehead protector.

 

“I’m Uzumaki-Hatake Naruto. I like ramen, especially the kind from Ichiraku Ramen or that Kakashi Sensei makes,” he stumbled slightly over the sensei and smiled a bit wider. “I dislike waiting 3 minutes for instant ramen to cook.”

 

Kakashi fought the urge to roll his eyes.

 

“And my dream is to become the hokage!”

 

And that’s Naruto in a nutshell , the three other shinobi around the circle thought.

 

Sasuke went next. He didn’t look at anyone else when hs spoke, just stared into the distance. “I’m Uchiha Sasuke. What I like and don’t isn’t important. I don’t have a dream per se. It’s more of an ambition… I’m going to become the strongest shinobi in the world inorder to restore my clan’s honor and protect those who are precious to me.”



Kakashi glanced at Sakura. She was staring at Sasuke like he’d just said the most profound an inspirational thing she’d ever heard.

 

“Ummm… I’m Harano Sakura. The thing I like is… Well it’s more of a person. I don’t like annoying people. And my dream for the future is…”

 

Kakashi waited to see if Sakura was going to pick back up where she trailed off. She didn’t.

 

“Okay,” Kakashi clapped his hands. “I think we’ll call that it for the day. I have other errands to run today and we’ll start our shinobi duties tomorrow morning. Meet me at the eastern training grounds at sunrise.” Then he was gone in a puff of smoke-- leaving behind 3 very confused genin.

Chapter Text

Naruto and Sasuke waited at home well into the evening, but Kakashi didn’t come home. 

 

Naruto sat in the kitchen, watching the road out the window. 


Sasuke packed his bag and checked over his shinobi tools. He was determined to be ready for whatever shinobi duties Kakashi Sensei had planned. Periodically, he detoured to the kitchen. The road was perpetually empty and Naruto was slumped over on the table, staring dejectedly ahead.

 

It was after sunset when Sasuke stopped fiddling with his kunai-- they were more than sharp enough-- and went back downstairs to Naruto.

 

“It’s getting late, we should make dinner,” Sasuke said.

 

Naruto nodded without looking away from the window. “I thought we were going to celebrate tonight.” His voice quivered slightly.

 

Sasuke sighed and put a hand on Naruto’s shoulder. “Kakashi wouldn’t just disappear if it wasn’t for something important.”

 

Naruto nodded again. He turned away from the window and stood up, shrugging off Sasuke’s hand. “I know,” He gave the Uchiha a watery smile. “What do you want to make for dinner?”

 

“I think there’s stuff for rice bowls.”

 

“Sounds good.”

 

---

 

Naturo and Sasuke worked together to clean up the dishes. They’d made a plate and left it in the fridge for Kakashi. 

 

Up to his elbows in dish bubbles, Naruto sighed. “I just hope we get a chance to talk before tomorrow.”

 

“What about?” Sasuke asked. He took a cleaned plate from Naruto and dried it.

 

“I know things are going to change now, but…” Naruto trailed off. He didn’t know how to explain the tightness in his chest, like he’d just run a mile, and the unsteadiness of his legs, like he was stumbling down hill instead of walking across flat ground.

 

Sasuke caught a glimpse of Naruto’s distorted frown in the plate he was drying. Sasuke set down the dish.

 

Naruto glanced over in surprise. 

 

Sasuke hopped up on the counter and motioned for Naruto to do the same. He waited to speak until Naruto had dried his hands and taken a seat on the counter.

 

“I just didn’t think things would change this fast,” Naruto mumbled.

 

Sasuke shook his head. “Things are going to change, but it’s not going to happen in an hour and not everything is going to change. Kakashi’s always going to be Kakashi and he’s always going to care about us, but when he’s our Sensei, especially on missions, he won’t show it the same as he does.”

 

“I don’t get it.”

 

Sasuke nodded. “We’re all shinobi now. And while Kakashi believes the bonds of friendship and family are advantageous, most shinobi don’t and it’s for a good reason. The people you love can be used to hurt you. It’s why they don’t typically put siblings, parents, and couples on the same teams. Do you understand that?” Sasuke’s voice was uncharacteristically gentle, no mocking sting, or teasing eyeroll.

 

Naruto took a deep breath. “Kakashi’s going to be careful not to show how much he cares because that tells enemies that we’re his weakness?”

 

Sasuke nodded. “And that puts a target on our backs. Where some enemies might ignore a genin team and focus all of their efforts on the jounin sensei, if they know who he is to us, they’ll go after us.”

Naruto shuddered. “So why would they put the three of us on a team together?”

 

Sasuke shrugged. “I’ve been wondering that myself. I had a feeling I might end up with Kakashi, but I don’t know why they put you with us.”

 

Jealous, angry words died in Naruto’s throat when he glanced over and saw Sasuke’s eyes crimson with his sharingan. “You mean because he’s the only one who can teach you to use your eyes?”

 

“We’re going to have to learn to work together as a different sort of team when we go on missions,” Sasuke said, ignoring Naruto’s question and letting his sharingan fade.

 

Naruto slid off the counter. “We should finish the dishes and get to bed. Who knows what Kakashi Sensei has planned for tomorrow.” He stressed the new title with a little smile, watery. 

 

When Naruto’s feet hit the ground, he felt more stable. Whatever changes were coming he wouldn’t have to face them alone.

 

---

 

Kakashi slipped in the dark house without a sound. It was late.

 

Silently, Kakashi made his way upstairs. He found both boys asleep.

 

Naruto was sprawled almost sideways in the bed, clinging to the stuffed kunai Tenzou had given him all those years before. 

 

Kakashi lingered in the door, listening to Naruto’s soft snoring. This time, with no one to see him being sentimental, he uncovered his sharingan. 

 

Sasuke was curled up on the edge of his bed. His clothes and gear were neatly laid out on the other edge of the bed. Kakashi smiled at the sight. The Uchiha was sleeping peacefully, something that hadn’t been a given those first few years.

 

Kakashi was again struck by how small the boys were. His mind flickered to his earlier meeting, the reason he’d been late to meet his team. 

 

Sakura’s parents hadn’t been happy about their daughter’s assignment. They’d been told she was going into the diplomatic corps only for her to end up on the wild card of genin teams. 

 

2 hours of talking hadn’t changed their minds. They didn’t want Sakura on Team 7. They didn’t think she was safe with her teammates, they didn’t trust Kakashi, and they didn’t see their daughter’s own strength.

 

Kakashi had left them with the team assignment bearing the hokage’s seal and told them to take it up with the 3rd. 

 

Looking at his boys, Kakashi knew exactly why Sakura’s parents were so angry. He’d felt the same thing when Iruka passed Naruto after Kakashi had relaxed, thinking he had another year to get ready to send Naruto into the shinobi world.

 

These three were just kids. Someday, they’d grow into the forehead protectors they wore. Until then, it was up to Kakashi to protect them. 

 

Kakashi wondered if Minato had felt the same weight on his shoulders when he took on the last Team 7. Kakashi had been younger then than Naruto, Sasuke, and Sakura were now. 

 

Kakashi shook off the thought. These were the cards they’d been dealt. All they could do was play the hand to the best of their ability and for Kakashi that meant he’d be using that legendary poker face of his and stuffing extra cards anywhere he could.

 

---

 

The boys woke up to an empty house and a note on the kitchen table. 

 

“Sorry I was in late last night and out early. See you at the training grounds. -K”

 

Naruto did his best to swallow his disappointment and match Sasuke’s poker face.

 

The first rays of light were peaking over the mountains when the two boys stepped onto the empty street. The bags on their backs were packed for any adventure the day might bring, their forehead protectors were tied in place, and sharpened blades clinked softly in their pouches.

 

Naruto hesitated in the door for a heartbeat.

 

“Come on. Today isn’t the day to be late,” Sasuke said.

 

Without warning, Naruto’s face split into a wide grin. His hand drifted to the goggles tied to the strap of his pack. “It’s our first real day as shinobi.”

 

Sasuke rolled his eyes, but returned the blond’s smile. 

 

The pair started walking. The predawn air was still and cool. The cobble was wet with dew.

 

“So what’s up with the goggles?” Sasuke asked. “I thought the whole point was to replace them with a forehead protector when you graduated.”

 

“I was going to leave them behind, but it didn’t feel right. I guess they’re sort of a lucky thing now.”

 

“Hm.”

 

“So I was thinking,” Naruto started.

 

“Dangerous,” Sasuke mumbled.

 

“What?”

 

“Nothing. What were you thinking?”

 

“Well, Sakura really likes you, but you don’t really like her…”

 

Sasuke frowned. “I like Sakura fine. She’s a skilled kunoichi and I think she’ll balance our team’s abilities well.”

 

Naruto groaned. “That’s not the kind of like I meant, idiot.”

 

“So?” Sasuke shrugged.

 

“I was thinking you could help me impress her.”

 

Sasuke snorted. “Funny. No.”

 

Naruto’s shoulders sagged. “Seriously? Whyyyyyy?

 

“Because that’s a whole nother shuriken set of drama and trouble we don’t need. Our team has enough as is.”

 

Naruto pulled a face at the back of the Uchiha’s head, but didn’t say anything. If Sasuke wouldn’t help, Naruto figured he could handle this on his own.

 

---

 

Kakashi was already waiting at the training grounds before either of his boys woke up. He knew he was early, found a seat on a tree stump, and thumbed through his well worn novel, pretending to read.




Kakashi couldn’t say he was surprised that Sakura arrived first. He was surprised when she plopped down in the grass and started fiddling with weeds. 

 

When the first real rays of light burst free of the mountains' shadows, Kakashi glanced up to check on Sakura. She’d been oddly quiet.

 

Sakura was sitting in the grass nearby. She’d been there for a while and was surrounded by little strands of woven together wildflower blossoms.

 

Kakashi winced internally. A shinobi should take moments like this to stretch or check their weapons, instead she was making flower crowns or wreaths or bracelets or something. 

 

They weren’t raised in war , Kakashi reminded himself. 

 

“Here Kakashi Sensei.” Sakura startled Kakashi out of his thinking.

 

The girl was holding out a small wreath of flowers-- red kunai blossoms, blue shinobi tears, pink broken hearts, and golden dandelions. There was a hesitant smile on her face. 

 

Without thinking, Kakashi accepted the flowers. 

 

Sakura smiled a bit wider and went back to her seat in the grass.

 

Kakashi looked over the wreath, running his fingers along the braided stems. Clever fingers , Kakashi mused. I wonder if she knows the meaning behind these flowers?  

 

“I just wanted to say thank you for talking with my parents,” Sakura said.

 

Kakashi nodded. Of course, the academy teaches the code of flowers to its kunoichi. Great for passing covert messages to and from undercover operatives. Kakashi brushed his fingers over the fuzzy point of the red kunai blossom, a symbol of a shinobi’s readiness to fight. The faint bitter scent of the shinobi tears, a symbol of a shinobi’s dedication to their cause, was a gentle compliment to the sweet smell of pink broken hearts, traditionally an acknowledgement of civilians in the war path. 

 

The dandelions gave Kakashi pause.

 

“I know they aren’t tradition,” Sakura said. “Dandelions are kind of an inside joke with my friend Ino. Because people call them a weed, they get overlooked even though they are just as pretty as the other wildflowers. Plus, they can grow anywhere and they’re hard to kill. Ino says that in itself makes them beautiful.”

 

Kakashi nodded again and bit the inside of his cheek. Over the cover of his book, he watched Sakura braid a few blossoms around the red headband she wore. She was humming softly. She just declared herself ready to fight and die for the village no matter the heartbreak it may cause. She took a kunoichi’s oath on her first day as a shinobi.

 

Kakashi tucked the wreath into his pouch and made a silent promise in return. This was one little girl who wouldn’t die on a battlefield so long as he was still breathing.

 

The boys arrived as the full light of dawn broke.

 

Naruto came bounding up to Kakashi and Sakura with a wide grin. “Good morning.”

 

Sakura sighed and stood up. She dusted off her dress and glanced around. The sour look on her face softened when she saw Sasuke approach.

 

The Uchiha was glaring at Naruto. Kakashi guessed it was for challenging Sasuke to race after he’d already started running, which was typical Naruto.

 

Kakashi clapped his hands and grinned at his new charges. “Glad you all made it. Welcome to your final exam.”

 

It took two heartbeats for his words to sink in.

 

Sasuke winced.

 

Sakura opened her mouth and then closed it.

 

Naruto lacked Sakura’s restraint or Sasuke’s ability to quietly roll with the punches. “WHAT?! Is it at least multiple choice?”

 

Kakashi couldn’t hold back a snicker. 

 

“Hey, If you don’t tell us what to study, the least you can do is make it multiple choice,” Naruto snapped.

 

Kakashi shrugged. “I guess you could consider it a multiple choice test in a way.” He pulled  bells off of his belt. “It’s really quite simple, no studying needed. This is your chance to apply everything you learned at the academy in a hands on way and prove that you have the skills and the instinct to carry out shinobi mission.”

 

Naruto relaxed.

 

“All you have to do is get one of these bells from me before sundown and then you pass.”

 

“That doesn’t sound too bad,” Naruto mumbled.

 

“What if we fail?” Sasuke asked. The look on his face made it clear he didn’t agree with Naruto’s assessment of the difficulty.

 

“You’ll go back to the academy.”

 

This time, all three of their jaws dropped.

 

Sakura looked like she wanted to argue, but instead she pointed out “There’s only two bells,” in a far calmer voice than Kakashi had expected.

 

“Which is why it’s a sort of multiple choice test. Based on the results, I will pass one or two or none of you.”

 

Sakura’s mouth snapped shut and her face hardened. Kakashi had fought for her to have a place on this team and she wasn’t going to let him down. She also wasn’t about to lose her place beside Sasuke.

 

Sasuke nodded, there was a hint of a smile on his lips. He didn’t know why Kakashi was playing this game, but he intended to win. He needed to get stronger and the only way to do that was to play for real stakes. If his winning meant the least capable of the others didn’t get tossed into danger, that was a bonus.

 

Naruto’s mouth was still open. He was still working through all the implications.

 

“Any rules or restrictions?” Sasuke asked.

 

“Nope,” Kakashi popped the ‘p’ at the end. “If you want to stand a chance, you’ll need to come at me with everything you have. Strike like you mean to kill.”

 

Sasuke’s eyes spun red and he smiled as he hurled three kunai at Kakashi.

 

The jounin vanished in a puff of smoke and the game began in earnest.

 

---

 

Sasuke scanned the nearby treeline with his sharingan, growled, and took off at a run.

 

Sakura hesitated long enough to draw a kunai and then she jogged after Sasuke.

 

Naruto stood there frozen. Different possibilities flashed through his mind.  He saw Sakura’s heartbroken face-- “I knew I wasn’t good enough.” He saw Sasuke’s face twisted in anger-- “How could I not be strong enough.” He saw Sasuke and Kakashi leaving without him for a mission, one where they didn’t come home.

 

“It’s not fair,” Naruto whispered. “We were going to do this together. I had it all planned out.”

 

With a heavy sigh, Naruto jogged towards the forest. It wasn’t fair and he didn’t like it, but when was the last time anything in his life was fair? It hadn’t stopped him before and it wasn’t going to stop him now. “Get ready Kakashi SENSEI , I’m going to be hokage someday so you won’t fail me that easy!” he yelled.

 

Kakashi grinned behind his mask and deflected a barrage of kunai from Sasuke.

 

With those eyes, he might actually be a challenge . Kakashi thought. At which point, Sasuke stumbled on a root he hadn’t noticed, giving Kakashi an opening to knock the kid on his butt with a kick to the ribs.

 

Sasuke grunted, but didn’t hesitate to go for his shuriken pouch.

 

Kakashi stamped his foot and the ground swallowed the Uchiha to his neck. “No going to be that easy,” Kakashi said with a wink.

 

Then he disappeared into the underbrush.

 

Sakura nearly tripped on Sasuke’s head.

 

“Watch it!” Sasuke snapped. 

 

Sakura screamed-- TALKING HEAD!!!! -- and kicked. 

 

Kakashi winced and kept moving.

 

By lunchtime, all 3 genin were dirty, bruised, and exhausted.

 

Naruto had managed to find ever net and pitfall trap in this corner of the training ground. Kakashi couldn’t even take credit for setting most of them.

 

Sasuke was sporting a black eye from Sakura’s kick.

 

Sakura was wrapped in anxious knots trying to apologize.

 

Sasuke just looked done with both of his teammates, but he hadn’t lost his temper on either of them yet which was better than kakashi figured he would have done in this situation at that age.

 

“We can take a break for lunch,” Kakashi offered. “Or you can tap out at any time.”

 

“NO!!!” Three kids yelled at the same time.

 

Sasuke and Sakura both threw kunai and Naruto charged Kakashi.

 

It might have been a good plan is Sasuke’s aim wasn’t off from having one eye swollen shut and if Naruto had charged to the right instead of the left. As it was, Sasuke clipped Naruto’s shoulder, Kakashi slipped away, and Naruto lunged at Sasuke.

 

“Why are you trying to sabotage me?” Naruto demanded. 

 

“I’m not! You idiot! My vision’s all messed up!” Sasuke yelled back, dodging Naruto’s punch and responding with an elbow to Naruto’s kidney.

 

“Kakashi does just fine with one eye,” Naruto spat back. 

 

“Which is probably why he’s the jounin!” Sasuke yelled.

 

“Oh.” The fight went out of Naruto and he dropped to the grass. 

 

Sasuke relaxed out of his fighting stance. 

 

Naruto looked up at his two teammates. “How are we supposed to beat Kakashi? He’s a jounin. He was in the anbu. He lead whole teams of shinobi in the last war.”

 

Sasuke sighed and sat down across from Naruto.

 

Sakura hesitated before doing the same. It felt good to sit and relax for a second.

 

Sasuke rolled a blade of grass between his fingers. “He’s got more experience than we do. His chakra reserves and physical stamina are clearly greater than ours. We can’t out think him, we can’t overpower him, and we can’t outspeed him.”

 

“But we do have an advantage,” Sakura said.

 

The boys both shifted to stare at her. 

 

Sakura shifted, choosing her words as a plan began to form. “There’s only 1 of him and there’s 3 of us.”

 

“But there’s only 2 bells,” Naruto snapped.

 

Sakura held up her hand to stop him. “Just for a minute, pretend there’s 3 bells. Kakashi’s trained all 3 of us, but he’s never sparred with all 3 of us. We have 2 advantages. One, we have numbers on our side. Two, Kakashi knows strategy, but he doesn’t know our strategies so we can be unpredictable.”

 

Sasuke narrowed his eyes, thinking. “But Kakashi can fight off 3 opponents easy.”

 

“But not 30,” Naruto said. 

 

The other two genin watched as the blond stood up, summoned a swirl of chakra, and filled the field with 26 copies of himself.

 

Naruto stumbled, but caught himself before he hit the ground. “That’s the last of my chakra, so what’s the plan?”

 

Sasuke looked at Sakura. His non-swollen eye was crimson. “I’ve got enough chakra for 3 fireballs.”

 

Sakura nodded. “We hit him together, all out. We don’t go with any real strategy because he knows all the strategies. We divide up our areas of attack, so he’s pinned down and do whatever it takes to get the bells.”

 

Sasuke stood up. “Sounds like a plan. Better that 2 of us pass than none of us.”

 

Sakura grinned. They were both looking at her. They were both trusting her. It felt good and right. Sakura’s heart beat faster. She liked this.

 

“It’s only one year back at the academy. We can keep training together, so the third doesn’t get left behind,” Naruto added.

 

All three nodded, but thought, It won’t be me .

 

---

 

Kakashi didn’t like how quiet the forest was.

 

A swig snapped and the tattletale sound of a net whooshing through the air made Kakashi sigh. He turned, expecting to see Naruto dangling from  a nearby branch, but the net was empty.

 

A wave of kunai came flying out of the underbrush.

Before Kakashi could leap to the side, a stream of fire blocked his path and 3 Narutos dropped from overhead.

 

Kakashi grinned. They’d finally figured it out. Now this is the challenge I was expecting .

 

Naruto was the only one left standing, barely, but his eyes wouldn’t focus and his body felt too heavy to move.

 

By the strange feel of Naruto’s chakra, Kakashi had a feeling Naruto was still standing thanks to some help.

 

Sasuke was on his hands and knees with a kunai he couldn’t see to throw clutched in his grip. The Uchiha was out of chakra and thoroughly beaten.

 

Sakura was still laying on her back where one of Kakashi’s kicks had knocked her.

 

The two bells were still on Kakashi’s belt, but there was a scratch on his shoulder where a kunai cut his sleeve, the exposed side of his face felt sunburned despite the shade, and he’d have a bruise on his forearms from blocking a kick. 

 

Kakashi surveyed his kids one more time. Naruto swayed on his feet and his unfocused eyes slid past Kakashi. None of them were in any shape to keep fighting.

 

Kakashi relaxed his stance and clapped slowly. “Congratulations. You figured out how to work as a team, even when I did everything in my power to turn you against each other. You’ll make a great shinobi someday.”

 

Naruto dropped to the ground and hung his head. “That wasn’t fair, Kakashi. We can’t beat you. That’s why you’re supposed to teach us.”

 

Kakashi stepped forward until his was standing over Naruto. He could see the tears in Naruto’s blue eyes. “Consider this lesson 1. You are always stronger together. The strength of the pack is greater than the sum of its members. I think you learned that pretty well today.”

 

Naruto nodded. 

 

“But the three of us couldn’t do it,” Sasuke said. His voice was rough with exhaustion. “The 3 of us aren’t strong enough.”

 

Kakashi nodded. “Not yet you aren’t, but that brings us to lesson 2. How many people are on a genin team?”

 

“3 genin and 1 jounin sensei,” Sakura mumbled. She pushed herself up to a seated position, still sucking in the air that Kakashi had knocked out of her.

 

“Right. Team 7 isn’t just Naruto, Sakura, and Sasuke. When you undertake missions, more often than not, you’ll be registered at Team Kakashi for a reason. You’re a part of my pack. If you trust me and follow my orders, our team will succeed and there will be a day that you don’t need me. Then you’ll go on to lead your own teams,” Kakashi explained. He held his hand out to Naruto and pulled the boy to his feet.

 

Kakashi helped his three kids back up. If a weak healing jutsu glowed faintly on his fingers as he brushed the hair out of Sakura’s face and steady Sasuke, Kakashi wasn’t going to admit it.

 

“Let’s call it a day. I’m beat,” Kakashi said brightly.

 

He was met with a chorus of disgusted moans and grunts. “Oh come on, where was that enthusiasm from this morning? We have our real first day of missions tomorrow.”

 

“That’s basically what you said yesterday,” Naruto grumbled.

 

Kakashi just laughed.