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don't hold this war inside

Chapter Text

It was all going well up until that point. Sasuke grinned viciously with pleasure at the feeling of his newly awoken Sharingan, the way that everything he saw was suddenly so clear. But before it had woken, both he and Naruto had suffered from various injuries, and there was a long scratch directly above one of Sasuke’s eyes.

A moment was all the fake hunter nin needed.

A moment when a trickle of blood made its way into Sasuke’s eye and he had to blink furiously to try to get it out. He missed where the fake hunter nin had appeared, missed how he was aiming towards where Sasuke was presenting a weak spot.

But Naruto didn’t.

There was a flash of orange at his side and Sasuke wanted to yell at his blond teammate for getting in his way—

Naruto fell heavily against him, needles sticking delicately out of his neck, and all Sasuke could do was catch him reflexively, bear him down to the ground.

“What—?” he started, but it was all too apparent.

“Guess your eyes…aren’t as special as you thought,” Naruto wheezed out, trying to grin up at him.

“Naruto, you idiot,” Sasuke said furiously, but he still held him, and even the fake hunter nin was standing back. “I had it under control!”

“Yeah,” Naruto said, coughing. “We’re even…now. Hunter nins. ‘M not…a scaredy cat.”

“Shut up,” Sasuke hissed, but he could feel himself starting to panic. The fake hunter nin had said that he wasn’t going to hold back anymore, that he was aiming to kill now, and Naruto’s breathing was becoming fainter and fainter as the seconds went by. “You can’t – we’re not even! You have to stay alive, to even the score. I’ve saved you more than you’ve—you’re going to be fine—”

“Was gonna be…Hokage,” Naruto said, looking past Sasuke. He dragged his eyes back with obvious effort. “Least I’ll take…the stupid fox…with me…”

And then he went utterly still in Sasuke’s arms, and he couldn’t believe it.

“Naruto, wake up,” he pleaded. This was like everyone in the Uchiha district, lying still and sprawled out as he came home. Like his parents, freshly killed by his own brother.

“Is this the first time a friend has died in front of you?” asked the fake hunter nin, voice calm and unconcerned.


Naruto was his friend, and he had died for Sasuke.

His death was Sasuke’s fault.

He felt his eyes burn with something like tears and he barely held them back, still staring disbelievingly down at the body in his arms.

Is this the first time a friend has died in front of you?

He was so tired of watching people die.

“This is the way of shinobi,” the fake hunter nin continued, but Sasuke wasn’t interested in paying attention to anything else he said.

All he wanted was for him to burn.

Around him, black flames burst into being.


Sakura ran through the clearing fog towards where that large dome of ice had been. Where Sasuke and Naruto had been.

Everything was over now – Kakashi-sensei had taken care of Zabuza and then turned his dogs on Gatou when the man left the safety of his mob to desecrate Zabuza’s body. The assembled might of the villagers, who had shown up just after Gatou’s death, managed to scare off the mob itself.

Sakura could make out guttering flames, so she knew where the boys of her team were, and as she threw herself into a skidding halt, she could see them, or at least Sasuke, safe within the heart of the flames. There was no way for her to get through, though, because the flames were still burning, however lowly.

And they were black.

She didn’t know what that meant, but it couldn’t be anything good.

“Sasuke-kun?” she called out tentatively. A slight twitch of shoulders was the only response she got. “Sasuke-kun, your flames—”

They abruptly went out even as she said the words, and she could see clearly as she moved closer. Sasuke was kneeling with Naruto’s head resting in his lap, and the blond was lying stiller and more contained than she had ever seen him, even in sleep.

His chest wasn’t rising and falling.

“No,” Sakura said, and even as she shook her head, she felt her eyes filling up with tears. Shinobi rule number 25, she thought to herself, but she couldn’t make herself believe in it or try to stop the tears. “No.”

She may have always thought that Naruto was annoying and too loud and nowhere near as cool as Sasuke was, but that didn’t mean that she wanted him d—

That she wanted him—

Kakashi-sensei was suddenly there, crouching in front of Sasuke.

“What happened?” he asked, and Sakura didn’t think she had ever heard his voice so dark and cold.

“He wasn’t supposed to—” Sasuke said, head still bowed and his body shaking, and at the words, his voice cracked. “My Sharingan was supposed to—he shoved me out of the way, he saw it coming when I didn’t and he, and he—he took the hit for me, he—it’s my fault, it’s my fault he’s dead. I killed him.”

“Sasuke,” Kakashi said, very quietly. “I need you to look at me.”

Sasuke finally raised his head, blood dripping down his face, and Sakura saw that his eyes were not his normal black, but red, with lines traced in them that folded into a six-pointed star.


When Kakashi got to his genin, all he could do was pray that he wasn’t too late. When he saw Naruto lying so still in Sasuke’s lap, he knew that he was.

It was all he could do to keep from flinching at Sasuke’s words, at the way that they echoed Obito’s terrible sacrifice for him. Then he heard the dull finality of Sasuke’s last words, and a dark suspicion filled him.

“Sasuke,” he said. “I need you to look at me.”

The boy did, and Kakashi couldn’t help but recoil.

But almost as soon as he saw it, Sasuke’s eyes faded back to black and slid shut as he fell over. Kakashi barely caught him, laying him down on the bridge more gently than he would have landed, then reached out for Naruto.

Please, please, he thought, feeling desperately for a pulse. Nothing, but the fake hunter nin had made Zabuza seem dead, and maybe, just maybe, he had hit one of those points rather than a fatal one. Please.

Kakashi removed the senbon from Naruto’s neck as delicately as he knew how, well aware that doing it too carelessly could cause damage. He knew barely anything of medical jutsu, but he had sparred with Genma and if the man’s poison didn’t get you, his pinpoint accuracy for pressure points would. Usually removing the senbon was sufficient enough. Combined with the Kyuubi’s chakra, which boosted Naruto’s healing capacity—

Almost a minute, but Kakashi felt a faint heartbeat that was steadily growing stronger, and Naruto took a faint, shuddering breath in his arms.

Thank you, Kakashi thought, not even sure who he was directing it at. He tilted his hitai-ate back over Obito’s eye and let himself relax the tiniest bit. Thank you.


After the massacre, Sasuke woke up in the hospital and had a few moments of peace before he remembered. This time, he didn’t even get that. He woke up and knew that Naruto was dead.

He let himself lie there for a few minutes, keeping his eyes shut, then made himself sit up. There were a few bandages that he could feel under his clothes, and he dully supposed that Kakashi must have dressed his wounds before putting him to bed. He must have passed out from chakra exhaustion.

Despite himself, he found his eyes drifting to where Naruto’s futon had laid during their stay in Wave. He wasn’t sure whether he could deal with seeing it empty, sheets crumpled in the way that Naruto always left it when he woke up—

Naruto was sprawled out on the futon, snoring lightly, and very much not dead.

“Pressure points,” Kakashi said from the door. “Like the fake hunter nin used on Zabuza. He wasn’t actually trying to kill you.”

“He said he was,” Sasuke said, mouth feeling dry. He made himself look away from Naruto. “Naruto stopped breathing. I thought the hunter nin—”

“He’s fine,” Kakashi said, but something about the way that he stood alarmed Sasuke. The jounin’s posture was stiff and there was some kind of indecipherable expression in his visible eye. “I need you to come outside with me.”

Sasuke’s eyes darted back to Naruto, a nervous gesture before he could even help himself.

“Now, Sasuke,” Kakashi said, almost threateningly, but his voice softened as he added, “Naruto’s fine. I promise.”

Reluctantly, Sasuke stood and followed his teacher outside. They walked to a rain barrel, which was filled up to the brim. Their reflections wavered in it.

“You told me you woke your Sharingan during the fight,” Kakashi said, and Sasuke felt a very faint thrum of pride at that, but mostly he was still numb and reeling. “Activate it.”

Sasuke did as he was told, catching his eyes in the reflection. Two tomoe in his right eye, one in his left. It was good that he had finally gotten them, that he had told Kakashi, but why…?

“What do you know,” Kakashi asked, “about the Mangekyou Sharingan?”

Someday, when you have the same eyes as I do…

Sasuke flinched back.

“So you’ve heard of it,” Kakashi said, lone eye narrowing thoughtfully.

“He said,” Sasuke made himself say, “that you have to kill your closest friend. To get it. They questioned him about Shisui. Before.”

Kakashi sighed. “Not entirely accurate. The Mangekyou Sharingan awakens from the grief of watching of someone you care about die and blaming yourself for it. It could come from killing them yourself, but it doesn’t have to. When you thought the hunter nin had killed Naruto on the bridge…”

And suddenly Sasuke could see where this was going, but that shouldn’t even be possible. He just got his Sharingan, hadn’t even got two tomoe in his left eye, and Kakashi thought he had a Mangekyou?

“You’re wrong,” he said shakily. “I don’t—”

“Just think,” Kakashi said. “Think back to what you felt when you thought he had died.”

He could. Easily. It was frustration that he wasn’t strong enough, a terrible and consuming grief that he hadn’t thought he’d ever feel again, the knowledge that Naruto had taken a hit that was meant for him, a deep burning behind his eyes—

“Look in the water,” Kakashi said, and Sasuke’s Sharingan was suddenly different and wrong and he felt his breathing speed up because he had watched Naruto die with his Sharingan blazing and felt his chest stop moving and Itachi had made him watch as he killed everyone in the compound, burned it into his mind with Tsukuyomi, and you must kill your closest friend—

Calm down, Sasuke!” Kakashi shouted at him, dragging him away from the water. Distantly, Sasuke noted that he was shaking and gulping in panicked breaths, but all he could see was the way that Naruto stopped breathing.

“I can still see it,” he gasped. “I can see it, I could see him die, he stopped breathing.”

“Naruto’s fine,” Kakashi said, gripping his shoulders. “But I need you to calm down, Sasuke. Can you take a deep breath for me?”

He made himself take a deep breath, hold it as Kakashi instructed, and let it out slowly. Kakashi made him repeat it a few times before stepping back. He looked very tired.

“I can try to teach you how to use your Mangekyou, along with your regular Sharingan,” Kakashi said. “But I don’t know all the secrets of the Sharingan. You have access to more materials than I ever did.”

“Do you have…?” Sasuke asked.

Rather than directly answering him, Kakashi pushed up his hitai-ate. A fully matured Sharingan stared lazily at Sasuke, before the tomoe shifted into elongated triangles that formed a twisted pinwheel.

Sasuke didn’t ask how he’d gotten it – the eye itself or the Mangekyou – and Kakashi didn’t tell him.

Sasuke wasn’t sure he wanted to know.


Sasuke had been acting weird around him ever since the bridge. He’d been really withdrawn and moody and was talking even less than usual, which Naruto hadn’t even known was possible. And he definitely hadn’t said anything to Naruto – not even a thank you, ungrateful bastard – but sometimes he caught Sasuke staring at him.

Sasuke would be standing in the corner of his vision, apparently just watching him, and Naruto would turn and see him and then Sasuke would look away.

Getting a whole bridge named after him cheered Naruto up for a while, but the walk back to the village was a whole other matter. It was weirdly tense between all of them. For one thing, Kakashi kept dividing his attention between Naruto and Sasuke, like he was afraid Naruto was going to collapse again and Sasuke was going to…well, Naruto didn’t really know what Kakashi thought he was going to do, but he could definitely tell that Kakashi was concerned.

The first thing that Naruto had seen when he’d woken up after the bridge was Kakashi, sitting by his futon. Their sensei had barely cleaned himself up from the fight and he hadn’t even had his book out. It was like he’d just been sitting there, waiting.

Naruto hadn’t been sure that Kakashi cared for him that much, no matter what he said about teamwork, because no one liked Naruto, but Kakashi had sat by his futon for hours on end. And when Naruto had finally managed to get up, even with most of Kakashi’s features covered, Naruto had seen the huge amount of relief that had flooded across his face and the way that his shoulders lost their tenseness.

Sakura had actually hugged him, and she hadn’t hit him at all over the past couple of days. She was almost walking around him on eggshells, which was cool because she cared, like Kakashi-sensei did, but Naruto almost wished she’d go back to how she always acted around him.

And Sasuke…

That bastard was just so weird around him now and Naruto didn’t have a clue what to do about that, so he just glared at the back of his head. Some kind of gratefulness or happiness – if the stuck up bastard could even be happy – that Naruto wasn’t dead would be nice.


Naruto probably shouldn’t have expected anything else.

Chapter Text

They got back to Konoha mid-evening of the third day. The kids handed in their after-mission reports and Kakashi let them leave after telling them when and where they would be meeting the next day. He stayed behind to report to the Sandaime directly. There were some things that needed to be said out loud, not read in a report, and this clusterfuck of a mission definitely qualified.

“It wasn’t a C-rank,” Kakashi said bluntly. Icha Icha was packed away and only years of being an active shinobi kept his hands from curling and clenching in rage.

Sarutobi set down his pipe.

Kakashi gave a quick rundown of the mission, voice tightly controlled, but he couldn’t help but falter slightly when the memory of Naruto lying so still on the bridge came to the forefront of his mind. Like Sasuke, his Sharingan had been open and recording. He would never forget it.

“Sasuke woke his Sharingan during the fight with Zabuza’s associate, and with the coma that Naruto was sent into…he activated his Mangekyou,” Kakashi finished.

Sarutobi let out a deep sigh. “How are they all now?”

“Sakura’s a little shaken up, but no injuries. Naruto – with the Kyuubi’s healing, he’s fine, though I think it might be beneficial for him to get checked over by a medic-nin just in case. Sasuke…” Kakashi had to stop and think about it a bit, mulling over the best way to phrase it. “I made him activate his Mangekyou and he had a panic attack.”

“It’s probably to be expected,” Sarutobi said. “The last time he saw one—”

“I know,” Kakashi said. “He told me some of it. Not very willingly, but it was enough to see the big picture. And I’ve read the reports.”

The Sandaime rubbed a hand over his face tiredly. “Can you teach him?”

Kakashi hesitated slightly. “Probably. But I’m not sure that Obito’s Mangekyou and his are very similar. He killed the fake hunter nin with some kind of black fire, which I’ve never used before. I’m hoping there’s something somewhere in the Uchiha archives that can teach him, because otherwise there’s only so much I can do.” He sighed. “I’m worried about him. I need to talk to him about his first kill, but that’s not all – besides that panic attack, he hasn’t been sleeping and I know that he’s been watching Naruto closely for the past several days. I am…concerned about his mental state.”

“He refused a therapist after the events of the Massacre,” Sarutobi said softly. “We probably should have tried harder to convince him to take the offer, but he wouldn’t hear of it. I doubt that he would accept one now, either.”

So I’m the only option, Kakashi thought, his heart sinking. Great.

 Sasuke pulled himself straight up and out of the nightmare with a gasp, kunai clenched in one hand and Sharingan whirling. It took several moments for his heart rate to settle back down, for his shaking to subside and his fingers to unclench from the handle of his kunai.

“Dammit,” he hissed, hunched over his knees. His free hand pressed against his eyes, trying – futilely – to block out the images.

Dreams about the Massacre had subsided over the years, trickling down to fewer and fewer, but this, everything that had happened in Wave, brought it all roaring back to the forefront of his mind, and only the fact that he hadn’t killed Naruto let him keep his peace.

But even with that reassurance, Naruto was there in his dreams. In the streets with all the rest of his clan, needles still delicately stuck in his neck like some kind of grotesque jewelry. Or cut down like all the other Uchiha. Or Sasuke was back on the bridge, feeling the breath leave his body.

Or sometimes Sasuke was the one to kill him, and whatever he did to Naruto mixed with the images of Itachi cutting down Uchiha, stabbing them and slitting throats and saving their parents for last.

You must kill your closest friend.

“Shut up,” Sasuke whispered.

He stumbled his way to the bathroom and splashed water on his face. In the mirror, he was pale, faint rings starting to make themselves apparent under his eyes. His Sharingan was stark and burning. He thought back to his nightmare and closed his eyes, deactivating his Sharingan before it could shift.

When you have the same eyes as I do…

Sasuke took a deep breath, still holding his eyes shut. He needed to go back to the Nakano Shrine and look at the tablet again. He had tried to face that realization on the way back to Konoha, given Kakashi had pointblank said that Sasuke would probably need to look up a lot of stuff on the Mangekyou by himself, but he hadn’t yet worked up the courage to actually do so, even after being in the village for half a day already. He had retreated into sleep instead.

And look how well that worked, he thought, gripping the sides of the sink.

It was unlikely that he would be going back to sleep tonight, so he returned to his room and pulled on some clothes, then made his way out and started towards the Nakano Shrine. He’d put this off for long enough and he desperately needed an understanding of the Mangekyou if he was going to keep his idiot teammates out of harm’s way.

And hunt down Itachi, of course, but the regular simmering of his hatred for his brother had lessened, drowned out by the icy terror that had hit him at Naruto’s death. Despite how careful he had been, Sasuke had started caring about that idiot, and he grudgingly admitted to himself that he probably cared about Sakura and Kakashi too. The thought of them being taken away from him—

Sasuke shuddered and pretended that it was the cool wind that was blowing.

The Nakano Shrine was much as he remembered it, if dustier for the lack of clan members that maintained it. (There was only so much that Sasuke could do to keep everything up and running, but he would admit that he actively avoided the Nakano Shrine.)

The tablet under the seventh tatami mat was…only partially how he remembered it. Apparently there was more that could be seen once it was viewed with the Sharingan, and then even more when viewed with the Mangekyou, however much Sasuke shook with distaste at having to use the Sharingan’s final form.

Amaterasu. Tsukuyomi. Susano’o.

And power over the Bijuu, like the Kyuubi. With that came brief talk of something called jinchuuriki and something about the fight between Uchiha Madara and Senju Hashirama at the Valley of the End, and what his wife Uzumaki (Uzumaki? Like Naruto?) Mito, a sealing specialist, had done to the Kyuubi.

Something about that teased at the back of his brain, something he could almost recall if he just thought about it hard enough—

Least I’ll take…the stupid fox…with me…

He hadn’t really paid much attention to the words with how frantic he’d been, and later he’d been trying not to think about much of what had happened on the bridge, but the word jinchuuriki…

The Yondaime killed the Kyuubi but – the tablet said Bijuu are essentially just chakra constructs. You can’t kill chakra.

Naruto’s birthday is October 10th.

And everyone in the village hates him…

Sasuke reeled back, pieces clacking into place.

“Shit,” he let out and scrambled away from the tablet, out of the shrine, trying not to think too deeply about what things he had just discovered. But he couldn’t help it, and he felt sick at the thought that someone had done that to Naruto, and the fact that with the Sharingan someone could just reach into his teammate’s mind and control him and the monster that was living inside him and

Sasuke threw up in the bushes outside the shrine.

I’m not that, I won’t be that, he thought, horrified. I will never be someone that would do that.

But someone else with a Sharingan might. He might.

Which meant Sasuke would have to take him out first. It wasn’t just a matter of revenge anymore. Sasuke had to keep his team – especially Naruto, with the glaring weakness of the Kyuubi, holy fuck the Kyuubi was sealed inside Naruto – safe, but what the hell could he do? They were genin, they’d almost died against Zabuza. Sasuke by himself hadn’t managed to get a bell from Kakashi, and even if they had all worked together, he doubted that they would have really been able to beat the jounin. He was never really coming after them with intent to kill.

How the hell could Sasuke protect his team from someone who had wiped out his entire clan with ease?

 Sakura went through the motions of getting ready for the day, but her mind wasn’t focused on that at all. It was far away.

She had always been intelligent. Lonely and lacking friends and coming from a civilian family, but always smart. She had topped the class, beating all the other girls easily and only falling at second in the class rankings because Sasuke was good at both written and practical tests, whereas Sakura was – not.

Was weak.

She had been worse than useless on their mission, only ever getting in the way or ineffectually trying to handle a threat or foolishly crying on the sidelines because one of her teammates had died.

Naruto was alive, but there was also a newly created burning shame centered in her chest.

It turned out that no matter how much Sakura had hit him and yelled at him and looked down on him for being the dead last of their class, he was still braver and stronger than she had ever been. He shoved Sasuke out of the way and was fully prepared to die and Sakura had never even thought about treating him well.

Those who abandon their comrades are worse than scum.

Yeah, and hadn’t Sakura been doing a great job living up to what Kakashi had been telling them since they first became a team?

Sakura stabbed at her breakfast with more force than she meant to and ended up cracking the plate. Even a weak shinobi’s strength was enough for that. It just made her even angrier, though, and for one brief, awful moment, she thought she felt the sting of angry tears.

Screw that! her inner voice yelled.

Sakura pressed her lips together and blinked, hard. She wasn’t going to cry, and it wasn’t because of the shinobi rules that she had memorized and regurgitated on tests like a good little girl. It was because she was going to be stronger than that, dammit.

She dumped the broken plate and the last bits of her breakfast in the trash, then made her way to the training grounds, where Naruto and Sasuke were already waiting for Kakashi-sensei.

She couldn’t help but notice that Sasuke was looking rather run down, almost sick. There was something wild in his eyes. He wasn’t staring at Naruto with that expression he’d had for the past week, saved for when Naruto was looking away but Sasuke was checking on him again. Sasuke had been more upset than Sakura had been at Naruto’s almost-death, and he had to keep reassuring himself that he was alive. At least, that was what Sakura assumed he was doing. And she couldn’t blame him, really.

Naruto, of course, completely missed it. Or at least didn’t understand the reason behind it. The blond was currently glaring at Sasuke, who dipped his head slightly in acknowledgment as Sakura reached them.

That was certainly different.

“Good morning,” she greeted them both.

Naruto mumbled out something grumpily and kept scowling at Sasuke. Sakura resigned herself to a long morning.

Half an hour later, Naruto was still going strong with his glaring, while Sasuke still had that weird look in his eyes, but he pointedly wasn’t returning Naruto’s gaze. And then he finally did something.

“Fight me,” Sasuke said, turning to face the blond.


“What?” Naruto squawked, then shook his head and pointed dramatically at Sasuke. “Fine! You’re on, you creepy staring weirdo bastard!”

The two moved a little ways away from Sakura and shifted into ready stances. A brief glance between the two, and then Sasuke leapt straight into it. Naruto made clones that helped him to hold Sasuke at bay, but Sasuke was quicker and more accurate. The delaying tactics and sloppy fighting of the clones could only do so much.

Sakura had to admit, Naruto put up a good fight. He was excellent at improvising and creating diversions, and he certainly seemed to hit hard enough. But once Sasuke brought his Sharingan into the fight and then started using his fire jutsu, things got vicious and went immediately downhill, until Naruto was flat on his back with Sasuke holding a kunai to his throat.

Sasuke said something she couldn’t hear, and then Naruto shouted, “Fuck you!” as she moved in closer.

“You will die!” Sasuke was almost shouting too now, and Sakura froze in her tracks. “You never paid any attention in class, all your fighting is sloppy, and you can’t even do more than a few basic jutsu—”

“So?” Naruto yelled back. “So I’ll learn more! And I’ll make enough clones to pound you into the ground, bastard!”

“That’s not enough. We barely made it out of Wave alive, even when we were all working together, and you think that with a couple more clones you can overcome everything? That’s not how it works! You’re too weak—”

“Sure didn’t stop me from saving your sorry ass!” Naruto yelled. “But from how grateful you’ve been, maybe I should have died then to save my dead weight from dragging you down!”

Sasuke actually physically flinched back from that, his face blanching. Sakura could see his Sharingan wavering, twisting briefly into that weird new shape before fading to black, and he stumbled away. Naruto sat up and opened his mouth—

“What,” Kakashi-sensei said ominously. “is going on here?”

 Kakashi split them all up, sending them out of earshot of each other. He talked with Sakura first, who looked almost frightened by what had occurred, but pulled herself together commendably to report. Not that she knew it, but he had been nearby and watched the confrontation. He wanted to hear her take on it.

 “Thank you, Sakura,” he said when she had finished, mulling over her observations in addition to his own. “Stay here while I talk with the boys, and then we’re taking Naruto to the hospital to get checked up on, to make sure the fake hunter nin didn’t do any permanent damage.”

“I thought you—” Sakura started, and then bit her lip.

“A medic’s opinion is always best in a case like this,” Kakashi said. “Just to be sure.”

“Right,” Sakura said, her eyes brightening a bit.

So she’s starting to get along more with Naruto, he thought, leaving her and making his way toward Naruto. Good. The divide in the team wasn’t doing them any favors.

“Naruto,” Kakashi sighed when he got to the blond, but that was as far as he got.

“It’s Sasuke-bastard’s fault!” Naruto yelled immediately. “And anyway, he challenged me to a fight, so you should be blaming him. But I don’t care if you’re mad at us for fighting, ‘cause he’s been acting all weird and everything since Wave and he keeps staring at me when he thinks I won’t notice ‘cause he thinks I’m a bad ninja and ‘cause he thinks I’m weak. Well, I’m not! And he’s just mad ‘cause I saved his life right back and he can’t even be grateful for it and he’s just looking down on me, and I’ll beat anyone who thinks like that!”

He was puffed up and looked ready to go into another rant if provoked, cheeks flushed with anger. With a pang, Kakashi remembered how Kushina would always do the same thing with the exact same look on her face.

“You scared him,” Kakashi said quietly, and watched as Naruto deflated a little and stared at him, confused. Oh, Naruto…you really can be quite oblivious.

“Whaddya mean?” he asked. “Is it ‘cause I’m so a—”

“You know he’s an orphan, too, right?” Kakashi cut him off, and he felt a little bad for stating it so bluntly, but he needed to get his point across. At Naruto’s nod: “And the circumstances?”

“Something about a missing-nin,” Naruto said, shrugging.

“The entire Uchiha clan is gone, Naruto,” Kakashi said. “And it was Sasuke’s brother who killed them all.”

“Wha—?” he gaped. “No way…so then, the guy that Sasuke wants to kill…?”

Kakashi dipped his head. “Sasuke has had a lot of people be taken away from him,” he continued. “And then he thought you died saving his life. You scared him, Naruto.”

That sunk in for a few seconds, and then Naruto frowned again. “Yeah, maybe, but that bastard never thanked me or anything and he certainly doesn’t act like it bothers him.”

“Which is why he keeps checking on your health and watching you to make sure you’re still alive, I’m sure,” Kakashi said dryly. “I promise you, even if he won’t admit it out loud, on some level Sasuke considers you a friend.”

“How d’you know?” Naruto asked, crossing his arms grumpily.

Kakashi tilted his hitai-ate up. “This is a fully matured Sharingan,” he said. “The doujutsu that belongs to the Uchiha clan. There’s another level to it, though.”

“Yeah?” Naruto looked unimpressed.

“When someone – a friend, a lover, a family member – you care about dies and you blame yourself for their death, the Mangekyou activates,” Kakashi stated and let Obito’s eye swirl into its final form. Rin, he thought, and the stab of grief was barely lessened by the years. “Sasuke has one now.”

The unimpressed look had faded and Naruto looked vaguely like Kakashi had punched him in the stomach. “Wait…so you mean…?”

“‘My Sharingan was supposed to—he shoved me out of the way, he saw it coming when I didn’t,’” Kakashi quoted, word for word. That, too, was permanently etched in his mind. Sometimes, Obito’s gift truly was awful. “‘and he took the hit for me, he—it’s my fault, it’s my fault he’s dead. I killed him.’” He paused, then said deliberately, “That’s what Sasuke said to me when I asked for a report directly after finding you two.”

“Oh,” Naruto said faintly.

“He doesn’t think you’re dead weight, Naruto,” Kakashi said, softening his voice. “And he doesn’t wish you had been killed on that bridge. You scared him, and he’s still scared, because you’re all genin and newly graduated. I should have stopped the mission as soon as I realized it was misranked, but I didn’t, and you almost died.”

“It turned out fine,” Naruto tried to protest weakly.

“But it very nearly didn’t!” Kakashi snapped, and then made himself take a breath. “You scared me, too,” he admitted, plopping one hand down on Naruto’s head and ruffling his hair affectionately. “Don’t do it again.”

“Okay, Kakashi-sensei,” he agreed.

 Kakashi was smart to have separated them, Sasuke could admit. And he’d made sure that none of them could hear what the others were saying by sending them off to different ends of the training ground. He sat down – not because his knees were weak, not because he could feel himself shaking slightly and was forcing himself to take deep, slow breaths, but because it looked like Kakashi would be taking a while – and watched as his sensei talked first with Sakura and then with Naruto.

Finally, Kakashi seemed to have wrapped up his conversation with the blond and made his way over. Behind him, Naruto plunked dramatically onto the ground and lay out.

“Have you been sleeping?” was the first thing that came out of Kakashi’s mouth, following the quick onceover he’d given Sasuke. His hitai-ate was pushed up, but the scarred eye that held the Sharingan was closed.

Sasuke started to stand up, but Kakashi just shook his head and sat down in front of him.

“Have you?” he prompted.

Sasuke opened his mouth to lie and instead found himself staring down at the ground and admitting, “Not really.” Without meaning to, he found himself pulling up clumps of grass and worrying them, shredding the blades to pieces. “I keep waking up,” he added grudgingly.

“Is that why you decided to pick a fight with Naruto?” Kakashi asked mildly.

“I didn’t pick a fight with Naruto,” Sasuke bit out. “I was—he needed to understand. And I needed to know.”

“Assessing strength, huh?” Kakashi mused. “Bit of a roundabout way to get at it. And one easily misinterpreted.”

Sasuke hunched in on himself and deliberately kept his breathing steady. “I didn’t mean it like—I don’t want him dead, and I don’t think he’s dead weight, but Zabuza and that hunter nin were so strong—”

“You all knew the risks when you signed up to become shinobi,” Kakashi said. “Having to go up against opponents that are stronger than you is a fact of life. It shouldn’t have happened to you so soon, but it will keep happening, which is why teamwork is so important. If you work together—”

“Working together won’t do anything against Itachi if he comes after Naruto!”

Kakashi stilled. “Why do you think Itachi would come after him? Or any of you?”

“He wouldn’t – I – it’s nothing, I didn’t mean—”

Sasuke,” Kakashi said.

“It’s nothing,” he said again, stubbornly, but then knew he had to confess at least part of the reason. He didn’t think he was supposed to know about the Kyuubi, if it really was sealed away inside Naruto. “I just – I keep having dreams. About the bridge. Or about…what he did that night.” He couldn’t keep it in anymore and it all came bursting out. “And sometimes they mix up and blend together and I can’t tell it’s not real until I’m awake, but everyone’s dead around me and now sometimes Naruto is with them and sometimes it’s him that did it, and none of us could stop him, we weren’t strong enough, or, or it’s me, I killed him, he told me to kill him for the Mangekyou and I did—”

“Slow, deep breaths,” Kakashi instructed calmly, like he had in Wave, and Sasuke made his trembling fingers let go of his shirt. He hadn’t even noticed grabbing it. He focused on controlling his breathing and trying to slow down his suddenly racing heart. Kakashi counted slowly to ten out loud while Sasuke calmed himself, then counted back down to one.

“You were working yourself up to a panic attack,” Kakashi said bluntly, once Sasuke had mostly regained himself.

Sasuke scowled.

“When that happens,” he continued, ignoring Sasuke’s expression, “I want you to focus on the fact that you know that your team is alive, and that I’m not going to let anything happen to any of you, and then I want you to try to take slow breaths and count. Up to ten and then back down, maybe, but count slowly, however many times you need to.”

“Fine,” Sasuke said, feeling suddenly exhausted and just wanting this conversation to be over. “I’ll count and sleep and I won’t fight with Naruto anymore or whatever.”

“If you want to be friends with him, you should just be friends with him,” Kakashi said.

“Who said I wanted to be friends with him?” Sasuke bit out.

“You already are,” Kakashi said, tapping under his closed eye. “But getting along with him in real life will be more difficult. It might be worth your while, though.”

Sasuke frowned mulishly. “Who’d want to be friends with that dumbass?” he grumbled.

Kakashi hummed. “He’s a lot like my old teammate,” he said slowly, and seemed to come to some kind of a decision. “You’re all a good bit like my team was. I feel more pity for Minato-sensei every day I deal with you three. And you deal with Naruto in much the same way I dealt with Obito – I didn’t like him and I made sure he knew it. Oh, he was dedicated, and no one makes chuunin that young unless they deserve it, even if we were in the middle of the Third War, but we…had very different personalities, and Obito didn’t agree with some of my ideas of shinobi conduct.”

Sasuke couldn’t help but snort. He could see why this ‘Obito’ person wouldn’t have liked their perverted, perpetually tardy sensei.

“I upheld the rules then,” Kakashi said seriously, and Sasuke wasn’t sure where this was going. “My father broke them on a mission in order to save a teammate, and the village turned against him. I followed them, so I wouldn’t share in his shame. On the first mission I was in command of as jounin, our other teammate Rin was taken by Iwa shinobi. Obito wanted to go after them. I…didn’t.”

“You…?” Sasuke started, but let it trail off, trying to wrap his mind around that idea. That Kakashi would abandon one of his teammates. Kakashi, who had barely let them pass, who had sworn in Wave that he would die before letting them be killed – had just let them take his teammate?

“Do you remember what I told you three when I passed you?” Kakashi asked.

Yes. “Those that break the rules are scum, but those who abandon their comrades are worse than that,” Sasuke said.

Kakashi smiled slightly, bitterly. “Obito told me that,” he said. “And I let him go off alone before following. He got in a fight with one of the enemy nin and while defending him I lost my eye.”

Which answered one question at least, if not where the Sharingan itself had come from—

“The other Iwa nin caused a cave-in after we rescued Rin. I got hit on my blind side and would have died – but Obito shoved me out of the way,” Kakashi said, very softly. The pit of Sasuke’s stomach dropped and he could almost feel again the weight of Naruto crashing into his side.

“The boulder crushed his entire right side,” Kakashi continued clinically. “There was nothing Rin – our medic – could do to save him, but Obito made her give me his Sharingan.”

Sasuke started slightly. So that’s where…

“He was an Uchiha?” he asked.

“Yes,” Kakashi said. “He just woke his Sharingan that mission. Obito was – he was loud, and annoying, and a crybaby. He was late all the time and he came up with ridiculous excuses for why and – he was a better shinobi than I was. He died that mission, Sasuke, to save my life, and I never got to be friends with him. I never got to know if we could.” He rubbed a hand over his face. “Don’t let that happen with Naruto. At least try, because I promise you that if you don’t, if he really does die and you didn’t try, you will regret it.”

Sasuke nodded slowly, so many things about Team Seven’s sensei suddenly making sense. And given that they’d never met anyone else from his team either…

He fought in the Third War.

They were likely all dead, too.

Kakashi stood, offering a hand to help Sasuke up. “Come on,” he said. “We’re going to the hospital.”


“Checking up on Naruto,” Kakashi said easily. “I don’t have any healing expertise, only experience dealing with senbon. He’s acted like he’s fine, but I want a medic’s opinion.”

Sasuke nodded, more firmly this time, and followed behind his sensei as they made their way to the other two on their team, but he knew that Kakashi hadn’t forgotten about him blurting out that man’s name and he could probably tell that Sasuke had held something back.

It was only a matter of time before Kakashi pressed again, and Sasuke wasn’t sure what he was going to do then.

Chapter Text

“You did well, Hatake-san,” the medic said, sweeping one glowing green hand over Naruto’s neck slowly. “I’m not seeing much damage here. Whoever was using the senbon was very precise in their placement – their non-lethal placement, interesting – so your removal of them didn’t cause any harm, other than allowing your student’s chakra to flow freely again. It’s no surprise he recovered quickly, between that and—” He faltered, cutting himself off.

“The Uzumaki vitality, yes,” Kakashi said, but Sakura wasn’t sure that that was what the medic had been about to say. Sasuke stiffened slightly beside her, before relaxing almost as quickly, and Sakura knew it wasn’t worth it to try to get him to tell her what he was reacting to, especially not here.

“Eh?” Naruto asked, face scrunching up as he struggled not to squirm. “Whaddya mean, Kakashi-sensei?”

“The Uzumaki clan were renowned for their healing and longevity, along with their sealing abilities,” Kakashi said.

Naruto has a clan? Sakura thought, slightly startled, and she felt something cold and sad settle in her stomach as what seemed to be the same question flashed across Naruto’s face. And…were renowned. Naruto was an orphan, she had known that, but…

“Your mother, especially, healed quickly,” Kakashi-sensei continued, his eye tilting a little in a smile. “She could shrug off a lot of damage that would put any lesser shinobi down.”

Naruto had a lost expression on his face. The medic was drawing back his hand, reaching for his clipboard to write down his findings, and Sakura wanted to watch him rather than have to see that look on her teammate.

“You knew my mother?” he asked tremulously, hands clenching together in his lap.

“I did,” Kakashi confirmed softly.

Naruto was very quiet.

“You’re free to go,” the medic-nin said to Naruto, handing the papers he had finished working on to Kakashi.

Naruto climbed shakily off the table he’d been examined on, seemingly torn between staring beseechingly at Kakashi-sensei and looking nowhere near him. Sakura bumped his shoulder lightly with hers as they all filed out of the room.

“Why didn’t you tell me you knew her?” Naruto burst out once they had made their way out of the hospital. “Why—I don’t know anything about her, about either of them, and you didn’t—!”

“You’re right,” Kakashi said, slanting a gaze sideways towards the blond. “I didn’t tell you. Because it’s dangerous, Naruto. That goes for all of you. Naruto’s parents made a lot of enemies while they were alive, and if anyone knew…”

Naruto would be a target, Sakura realized, swallowing hard. It wasn’t uncommon. They studied such instances in the Academy, times when foreign nin assassinated clan heirs or children of their enemies. Anyone defenseless, so that they could get their revenge or destabilize the structure of a clan.

Sasuke nodded jerkily beside her, and Sakura knew that he probably understood even better than she did. He had been part of the Uchiha clan and all of its politics. His brother had been clan heir, before…


“The old man told me that too,” Naruto said bitterly. “And he wouldn’t tell me anything more, even though by now I’ve proven I’m good at keeping secrets.”

“Naruto,” Kakashi said, almost warningly.

The blond scoffed. “I didn’t say it, did I?” he said, mouth tilting down in a scowl.

Say what? Sakura wondered, and the commiseration she sought in Sasuke’s dark gaze wasn’t there. Instead, there was an awful comprehension, and for one of the few times in her life, it was Sakura who was the one that didn’t understand. 

“Come on,” Kakashi-sensei said tiredly. “I’ll treat you all to ramen. Celebration for surviving your first A-rank.”

Naruto, for probably the first and last time of his life, didn’t perk up as soon as ramen was mentioned. He just crossed his arms, glaring at Kakashi-sensei.

Please don’t pick a fight with Kakashi-sensei too, Naruto, Sakura thought. I know you must be mad; I probably would be in your situation, too, but please. Don’t.

“You puff up like she did,” Kakashi said, fond but mostly sad. “Naruto, the Sandaime swore all of us who knew to secrecy, and that’s not fair to you. You deserve to know. I’m sorry I can’t tell you her name or give you pictures. But…she pulled pranks a lot. She didn’t put up with bullies. You have her short temper.” He laughed a little. “And her love of ramen. You…can’t imagine how happy she was when she found out she was pregnant. How happy they both were.”

Sakura was pretty sure that she shouldn’t be hearing this. It wasn’t for her ears.

“They died fighting the Kyuubi,” Kakashi said, “but never for an instant doubt the fact that they loved you.”

Naruto turned his face away from them all for a long moment.

“You said something about treating us to ramen?” he finally said, roughly.

“Yeah,” Kakashi-sensei said. “Come on.”

So, Sasuke thought to himself. Seemed like his theories were holding up more and more. He was well aware that normal people simply didn’t heal as fast as Naruto did. Maybe it was a kekkai genkai from the Uzumaki clan, but Kakashi had hushed up the medic-nin pretty quickly.

(And it still blew his mind, the idea that Naruto had a clan, because he knew that the Shodaime had been married to Uzumaki Mito according to the tablet but he hadn’t actually thought it through.)

Sakura caught his eye again and he glanced away. There wasn’t anything that he could tell her, because all he had were suspicions and clan secrets, and besides, he was pretty sure that telling her would be illegal. Very, very illegal.

He probably shouldn’t even know about it in the first place, and that was – concerning. He would have to make sure that he didn’t slip up about his knowledge, like he almost had this morning. He could grudgingly admit that Kakashi’s advice and promises were fairly reassuring, but he was still too weak to do anything and both of his teammates were weaker than him, so they had a lot that they needed to accomplish.

Sasuke was also still reeling a little on the inside from everything else that Kakashi had said, the casual admittance that he hadn’t wanted to go after his teammate on that mission, the fact that his friend had…died for him.

Like Naruto almost had.

He looked away from the blond, because his gaze had moved over to him with the direction that his thoughts were taking, and he stared down at the ground instead. 

After lunch, Sakura found herself wandering towards the Third Training Ground. Kakashi had cleared them for the rest of the day so that they could get their heads on straight, as he put it. Sakura knew they probably needed it.

She moved past the training posts, the middle one where Naruto had been tied up, and stood in front of the memorial stone.

“I’m gonna be on there someday!” Naruto yelled from her memory.

You almost were, she thought, clenching her fists.

The medic-nin had been very clear on that. If the fake hunter-nin had been off by even a few centimeters, Naruto would be, and there wouldn't be anything that anyone could have done. Especially not useless Sakura – couldn't fight, couldn't defend, couldn't heal or do anything at all to help—

Something in that caught at her mind.

Couldn't heal...

But could she learn to?

She turned that over in her head for long moments, looking at different angles of the idea, but in all honesty she didn't know enough about the medical profession to be able to make a solid decision. She would have to research it first to even figure out if it was feasible. Everyone got basic medical courses in the Academy, but if she could build on that and actually become an asset to the team, maybe she would be able to sleep better at night. Maybe she wouldn't have that pit of gnawing guilt and helplessness and shame in her stomach.

That's not enough though, she thought fiercely. Even if she could learn to heal, and that was a big if, she was still useless on the battlefield, and that enraged her. Sakura had always competed with Ino above all others girls in the Academy, but that was mostly for Sasuke's affection, and they never really got into any actual physical fights. Maintaining a high standing in the Academy was easy because of Sakura's smarts, but she had never pushed herself to work on her physical skills because she was so confident that her brain could carry her as far as she needed to go.

Sakura snorted in disgust at herself.

She cast one last look at the memorial stone and then backed away, pulling tape out of her pouch and wrapping her hands the way that Iruka-sensei had taught them.

Naruto always whined when she hit him over the head. Why not see if she could actually make those punches a weapon.

Kakashi's clone watched Sakura a few minutes longer before dispelling, and the real Kakashi, trailing along behind Sasuke as he took a long, meandering path back home, absorbed the memories.

She has a long way to go, and I don't know if her motivation will keep up, he thought critically. But her form is solid, if weak, and there's still time.

Sasuke wavered on his path, veering slightly to the left before he shook his head and continued to the right, toward the Uchiha compound. Kakashi glanced in the way that Sasuke had turned – nothing was that direction except for a few shrines. Mostly Uchiha family shrines.

Makes sense, he thought, but couldn't hide the strange churning in his gut. Something was off about Sasuke, and not just because of the Mangekyou. He didn't know what, exactly, was bothering his student so deeply, but it was something deeper than just upset about Naruto. Kakashi had made his life reading people, and all of his instincts were saying that this wasn't solely the issue that it should be.

"Sasuke," Kakashi said, and the boy twitched as he was reaching to push open the gates of the Uchiha compound.

"Kakashi-sensei," he said, turning, dark eyes trying to conceal a flash of panic.

"Can I come in?" Kakashi asked, tipping his head and curving his eye into a smile.

He could almost see the debate on Sasuke's face before his shoulders slumped the tiniest bit and an arm gestured toward the gate. "Be my guest," Sasuke said quietly, pushing through into the empty Uchiha compound.

It was eerily silent as Kakashi walked behind his student. He hadn't been in the Uchiha district often since the massacre, but he remembered it from before. Everything used to be so busy here, people moving around and talking with each other, children shouting or laughing. Kakashi knew how empty it had felt to be alone in the Hatake home after his father. He couldn't imagine why Sasuke had stayed here. He couldn't imagine why anyone had let him.

Sasuke entered the main house, his body language becoming more and more tense, and Kakashi followed behind him, toeing off his sandals and placing them by the front door.

"Do you drink tea?" Kakashi found himself asking, but Sasuke barely acknowledged the question, just seemed to wind himself up even further before finally giving the faintest of nods. "You might want some for this conversation."

Sasuke lead the way to the kitchen, but he didn’t relax any. Kakashi wondered what his student thought this was going to be about. Much as he wanted to drag it on, to press and see what was wrong with his student, this wasn't the time for it. He could ferret out whatever it was later, but this was something that he hadn't been pondering how to deal with ever since the conversation with the Hokage.

By all rights, he should have had this conversation with Sasuke soon after he had woken up in Wave, but the Mangekyou had driven such thoughts from his mind, and dealing with it on the road was something that he really hadn't wanted to do, not with his two other students there to deal with any fallout that might occur.

Kakashi poured two cups of tea for them, appreciative of the selection of tea that Sasuke had in his house. He vaguely remembered that Kushina had once or twice mentioned something about Mikoto's great variety of tea.

He let Sasuke take a wary sip and set his cup back down before speaking. “I wanted to talk to you about what happened in Wave.”

Sasuke’s fingers clenched around his cup, but they relaxed almost immediately, and the air around him lost some of its edge, fading into edges of relief.

What did he think I was here for? Kakashi thought, but he didn’t show any outward signs of his suspicion.

“We already talked this morning,” Sasuke said stiffly.

“Not about this,” Kakashi said. “Hokage-sama and I figured you would probably refuse to see anyone, so I’m the only option.”

Sasuke watched him with wary eyes, but didn’t say anything.

"The fake hunter-nin," Kakashi pressed on. "Sasuke, I need to talk to you about your first kill."

Finally, some movement again from his student. He flinched, fingers flexing agitatedly once more around his cup.

"I don't—" Sasuke swallowed. "It's—"

Kakashi let him trail off before gently saying, "Do you remember what happened? It's not uncommon for things to blur during combat, and this was an especially traumatic moment."

But Sasuke was nodding jerkily. "He wouldn't – he wouldn't stop talking. About Naruto." Dark eyes darted down to his cup. "He killed him and then he just wouldn't shut up. He killed Naruto and—"

"You don't have to justify it to me," Kakashi said, holding up a placating hand. "But you need to talk about it to someone."

"Death isn't anything new to me, Kakashi-sensei," Sasuke said bitterly, still staring down at his tea. "And we went over all this in the Academy. What we would be feeling, the ways we might react and how to handle it, who to talk to."

"And?" Kakashi asked.

"It's not the hunter-nin's death that's been bothering me," Sasuke said, nearly soundless. "It's not his death that's given me nightmares."

Truth, though Kakashi was willing to bet that it wasn't quite as cut and dry as that. No matter how much the Academy prepared its students, everyone had a reaction to their first kill. If they didn't, or if they had a reaction that might be cause for alarm – there was a reason that they had psych evals.

Ultimately, Sasuke wasn't really in a very good frame of mind, but there wasn't much Kakashi could do about it unless he was willing to open up. And honestly, he seemed fairly stable. He had managed to pass psych evals all through the Academy, even after the massacre, and Kakashi had read the files, including Sasuke’s witness statement. He knew Itachi had placed some kind of torture genjutsu on his little brother, making him relive it. If the kid could get through that and stay mostly together, Kakashi could believe that he was desensitized enough to have made his way through the aftermath of his own first kill.

Standard practice was to talk to shinobi as soon after as possible, but with the aftermath of Naruto's almost-death and Sasuke's panic attack at the sight of his own Mangekyou – he hadn't wanted to push it. He didn't think that Sasuke was one to have a violent reaction, especially given that he had very quietly collapsed in on himself about the Mangekyou instead of exploding outward, but Kakashi had two other kids to think of and didn't want to chance it. And if he'd talked to him on the road back, or even while they were in Wave, and had to knock out Sasuke, he would have had to carry him back to Konoha and put him through a long and thorough psych eval before letting him back on the team.

First kills could break a shinobi. Kakashi couldn't help but be selfishly grateful that it hadn't broken Sasuke, and he could only pray that when it came to the other two, they would stand as strong.

"If you ever need to talk," Kakashi said, a little awkwardly. "about anything, I'm available."

"Right," Sasuke said.

He figured that was about as good as he was going to get, so he drained the rest of his tea and left. Kakashi caught himself looking toward the edges of the district, where Obito used to live, but it was a detached response. It almost didn't seem real now, that Obito had lived here. That anyone had lived here. Obito was with him, was at the memorial stone, and seemed utterly disconnected from this empty compound.

The memorial stone was where Kakashi ended up veering towards, only to find that Sakura was still there. She had moved on from practicing punches to high kicks, but she was still pounding away furiously. Her breath was uneven and labored, but she didn't let it stop her. Kakashi could see that she had also taken a break at some point to practice with weapons, judging by the kunai and shuriken littering the post next to her.

He perched in a tree, interested, and watched her methodically make her way through high kicks on both sides, before backing off and starting to run through the basic Academy kata. Like her punches and kicks, it was accurate but slow, weak, and rigidly memorized.

That will change before the next time we're in a serious fight, he thought, already starting to make plans.

Just then, the clone that he had set on watching Naruto dispelled, sending its memories back to him. Maybe it had been a little paranoid of him to have trailed all of his students as they left Ichiraku's after lunch, but Kakashi had never claimed to be the picture of mental health. In all honesty, he probably – no, make that definitely – wasn't cut out to be a jounin teacher, but the Hokage had commanded him and he had to obey. Though he had slipped around it for a while by not actually passing any of the teams that he'd been given.

And that rested solely on the fact that he knew that this would happen. He knew that he would get too attached, especially when it was this team. There was no way that he couldn't be. Minato's son aside, Sakura was growing on him, and even Sasuke's brooding, revenge-filled outlook wasn't something that he could hold up as something that completely kept him from eventually liking the boy, especially when he could see something of his younger self in him.

So. After that nightmare in Wave, and the blowout fight on the training fields? Yeah, he was definitely following everyone.

Much like Sasuke, it seemed that Naruto had wandered aimlessly for a long while, but he had eventually ended up at the Academy. He didn't go in and instead had circled the perimeter restlessly a few times before climbing a tree that had a clear view of the doors.

Kakashi's clone had waited there, just watching Naruto, because the blond wasn't acting like himself. He had seemed to have calmed somewhat during their lunch, but he was still wound tightly, and even now Kakashi winced at remembering the betrayal in those bright blue eyes.

The Hokage should have let me tell you, he thought, and, I should have been there for you.

Sitting in the branches of the tree, Naruto had his knees drawn up to his chest, his head resting on them. Intellectually, Kakashi knew that the blond could sit still, but he seemed to always be moving and smiling and talking. Seeing him being so still and silent was discomfiting and drove home just how much they had all screwed up when it came to Naruto.

When the Academy let out, Naruto slowly uncurled. He waited until the last of the kids had cleared out and then made his way straight toward the scarred chuunin just exiting the building with a stack of paperwork under his arm.

"Iruka-sensei," Kakashi made out, and the chuunin heard the distress in that tone, read the slump in the shoulders, and swept Naruto into a hug. That was when the clone had dispelled, trusting that Naruto was in safe hands.

Here and now, Kakashi let out a slow breath and cursed himself all kinds of fool and didn't know how the hell he was supposed to fix any of this.

“Naruto?” Iruka said after a few moments, leaning back a little from the hug, but not quite letting his former student out of the circle of his arms. The blond was all kinds of tense, not even letting himself into the hug as much as he usually did. Iruka was concerned. “What’s wrong?”

Naruto took a deep, shuddering breath, the forced type that kids only used when they were desperately trying not to break down and cry. He pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes, refusing to meet Iruka’s.

“Okay,” Iruka said firmly. “We’re going back to my apartment, and I’m going to make you some tea, and you can tell me what’s wrong or not, but you’re coming with me.”

He started walking, keeping one hand on Naruto’s shoulder the whole way, both as comfort and as anchor, and he glared at anyone who looked like they would try to start anything. Generally, the shinobi behaved themselves professionally, keeping any dislike that they might feel hidden, but it was the civilians – especially those that had lost anyone in the Kyuubi attack – that sometimes made things difficult. They had never physically harmed Naruto, not as far as Iruka knew, but the sneers and muttered vitriol were sometimes just as bad as any real pain could be.

He’s just a kid, Iruka thought. It’s not his fault the fox was sealed in him. He’s just a kid.

Iruka keyed open his door and ushered Naruto inside. He dumped his stack of papers on the counter as Naruto sat down at the kitchen table, and then he quickly filled up his kettle with water and placed it on the stove before joining his student.

“Are you hurt?” was the first thing that came out of his mouth, before anything else.

Naruto shook his head slightly, overbright eyes glancing up to meet his for a moment before they darted back down. “They checked me out at the hospital. I’m fine,” he mumbled. His hands flexed where he had laid them on the table.

“You were in the hospital?” Iruka let out, aghast. “It was just for something simple, though, right, you weren’t seriously hurt? I mean, you just got back from a C-rank, it was only supposed to be an escort mission – were there bandits or – ?”

A twist of the mouth, in the most bitter expression that Iruka had ever seen from Naruto, and a quiet laugh that held absolutely no mirth to it. “It was misranked,” Naruto said. “A-rank. Lots of fun. I almost died, it was great—”

“Shit,” Iruka hissed out, standing abruptly from his chair and making his way around to the table to Naruto. He grasped him by the shoulders, making his student look at him.

“It’s fine,” Naruto said, smiling. And it was that smile that Iruka hated, the one that never reached Naruto’s eyes. The one that he pasted on when he was pretending everything was all right and refused to let anything bleed through the cracks.

Iruka pulled him into another hug even as the kettle started whistling behind him.

“You should get that,” Naruto said roughly, shaking off Iruka’s arms, and so he turned and started pouring boiling water into mugs, moving as quickly as he could. He placed one in front of his student and dragged his chair around so that he was sitting closer, setting his own mug down on the table.

“Naruto—” Iruka started, but before he could even get into anything, before he could start to formulate his questions, the genin in question was already shaking his head, cutting him off.

Naruto opened his mouth, closed it, eyes flicking randomly around the room, but nowhere near Iruka’s face.

“Did you know there was an Uzumaki clan?” he finally asked, still not looking at him.

“Oh,” Iruka said. Naruto’s eyes darted straight towards him, already widening in betrayal, and he looked about halfway ready to throw himself up out of his seat and out the door. “Wait, Naruto—hold on. It’s complicated.”

“Complicated.” Flat, bit out with sharp shards of fury, as hands worked themselves into fists.

“It’s out of history lessons,” Iruka said, mentally scrambling to pull all of the relevant details to the front of his mind, and realized that this wasn’t something that they really talked about in the Academy. Which meant that Naruto hadn’t known, because even if he had paid attention all the time, he would barely have heard anything about it. That’s not right, he thought, but continued on. “The Uzumaki were one of the main clans of Uzushiogakure, which was destroyed by Kiri during the Second Shinobi War. There weren’t many survivors, if there were any. It’s always been unclear what could have happened to any that made it out, but there aren’t any in Konoha, unless they changed their name.”

“Except for me,” Naruto said, some of the tension seeping out of his shoulders. “And my mom.”

“Your mother?” Iruka asked carefully.

“Kakashi-sensei knew her,” Naruto said, head canting to one side as his mouth tilted up in a dark grin. “He knew my parents.”

Suddenly, the whole situation was laid bare to Iruka. On top of whatever had happened in Wave – which he was definitely being told at the first opportunity, whether from Naruto himself or by looking through the after mission reports – this had come crashing down on Naruto. Iruka didn’t have any idea of who Naruto’s parents were, but the fact that someone other than the Hokage did and, judging by the blond’s expression, also wasn’t telling him about them was grating and awful.

“It’s too dangerous!” Naruto exploded, knocking over his mug and finally breaking out of the scarily contained shell he had been stuck in. “They had too many enemies out there, like I would go shouting from the rooftops who my parents were, like I can keep secrets about the stupid fox sealed in my stomach but I couldn’t keep it about them, what gives the old man the right?! Why the hell shouldn’t I know who they are when all I have is the reassurance that I got my mother’s last name instead of being just some bastard with a name pulled out of a hat and that they loved me, they wanted me – well, that didn’t stop them from dying against the Kyuubi and leaving me behind and letting the fox be sealed in me, why would they let the fox be sealed in me if they supposedly loved me, and Kakashi knows but the Sandaime swore him to secrecy so he couldn’t tell me—!”

All the pent up rage expired at once and Naruto collapsed, Iruka barely catching him in time as he completely broke down and started crying, clutching at Iruka’s flak jacket desperately. The only thing Iruka could do was rub soothing circles against the shaking frame and stay with him.

“They died – fighting the Kyuubi,” Naruto got out, almost half an hour later, when the harshest of the sobs had tapered off. “Did I kill them?”

“No,” Iruka said, horrified. “No, Naruto, you’re not the Kyuubi, and the Kyuubi’s attack wasn’t your fault. You didn’t kill them. Kakashi said that they were shinobi? Then they died protecting their village, and their son, just like mine did. It was their job, and the Kyuubi was something that no one could control.”

Naruto trembled faintly in his arms.

“It’s not your fault,” Iruka repeated.

Kakashi was dreading their next team meeting.

How many more times will I massively fuck up today? he thought moodily, staring at the Memorial Stone.

“You would be much better at this, Obito,” he said softly. “Certainly you couldn’t be any worse than me.” He blew out a gusty breath. “I really don’t know how Minato-sensei did it. Your kid’s mad at me, by the way, Minato-sensei. And justifiably so.” He ducked his head, shoving his hands into his pockets. “I guess…you’d be pretty mad at me, too. I wish you and Kushina were here. He could really use you.

“If you were here, though, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Would you have assigned these three to me if you were still Hokage? I wouldn’t put it past you. But, Obito,” Kakashi switched tracks again. “Your cousin’s really messed up. I don’t know how to deal with him at all. He won’t talk to me. I never had that problem with you, because I could never get you to shut up.” He laughed quietly, scrubbing a hand through his hair.

“I wish all of you were here,” he finished, tracing names on the Memorial Stone. Then he turned and walked away, to meet up with his current team.

Fortunately, no one was fighting this time. That being said, they weren’t the picture of team unity. Sakura was sitting midway between the boys, likely to try to head off anything that might start happening, but her head was buried in a scroll and she wasn’t paying any attention to either of them. Sasuke was standing, leaning against the railing of the bridge and looking vaguely more put together than the day before, though Kakashi was sure that was mostly a mask. He was lazily twirling a kunai in one hand, eyes fixed on it, though they occasionally darted away to check on his teammates or the perimeter. Naruto, like Sakura, was sitting, but he wasn’t crowding up against his crush or even fidgeting like he usually would be doing. He was still exhibiting that same frightening stillness from yesterday, like he had just shut down completely. He didn’t look as angry anymore, just – disappointed. Tired.

“You three ready for training?” Kakashi asked, forcing the light tone into his voice.

Sakura actually jumped, one hand going for a kunai. Sasuke simply stopped spinning his, catching the handle and pointing the blade down to the ground. Naruto looked up.

“…you’re only twenty minutes late,” Sakura said slowly, disbelieving.

“Despite what you might think, I am actually trying to keep you all alive,” Kakashi said. “That means training and, apparently, not leaving you all to your own devices.” Given yesterday, he didn’t add, but he thought they all knew he was thinking it. “Okay, kids, up the trees. You do all remember how to do that, right?”

Sasuke started off the bridge as Sakura tucked her scroll into her pouch and stood, sticking out a hand to help Naruto up with. The blond ignored it, getting up on his own and stalking past her, pointedly not looking at Kakashi. Hurt flashed across Sakura’s face before she schooled her expression and made her own way to the trees in the training ground.

Wonderful, Kakashi thought, settling in to watch his students start to make their way up the trees. If it’s not one kid who’s upset about something, it’s the other, and no one but me to deal with it. And both of them are outright excluding Sakura or taking it out on her.

And in this case, especially, it wasn’t Sakura’s fault. The blame rested solely on Kakashi’s shoulders.

“Kakashi-sensei, what should we be doing next?” Sakura called down from the top of her tree. The boys were still doggedly making their way up, slower than Sakura because their control was still less precise and they needed to both concentrate more and compensate for the occasional slip up or backslide.

“Go up and down a few times,” Kakashi called back, tipping his head up. “You all need to be very confident with being able to tree climb before we move on.”

Sakura nodded determinedly, already starting her way down. The boys reached the top shortly after and turned around immediately to make their own ways down. As Sakura hit the ground, Kakashi motioned for her to stop and wait.

“You ran up the tree, but you made your way back down it slower. What you should be doing is trying to make sure that you have the same confidence and speed going down as you do going up. You never know when a fight is going to start or make its way into the trees. We’re from Konoha, so we have the advantage of being used to our trees, but all Konoha shinobi need to work at it, in order to be familiar with working in trees during any kind of situation.”

Sakura nodded thoughtfully. “Is that the next part of this exercise?” she asked. “Sparring in the trees?”

“No,” Kakashi said, “but good guess. We’ll be doing that later. I don’t think I want you three sparring again just yet.” Sakura’s gaze slid sideways, but she nodded again. “You have very good precision with your chakra,” Kakashi said, trying to sound more encouraging. “So I know you won’t use up all of your chakra on this – which is good, because you’ll be needing it for the next exercise – but keep in mind that this is an easy way to boost chakra. It works just like building muscles or endurance. After a certain level it becomes ineffective, but for now it should work to help you build up your chakra stores. Just make sure you have someone to spot you, in case something goes wrong.”

“Right,” Sakura said. “Thanks, Kakashi-sensei.”

Kakashi smiled a little. “Best start climbing again,” he said. “See if you can beat the boys another time. They’re starting to get into their groove.”

Sakura tilted her head up to where Naruto and Sasuke had made it down and then halfway back up their trees during their conversation, and she frowned almost mulishly before she was off again.

Kakashi divided his attention between the three of them, checking speed and sensing chakra output, but mostly he was spotting them. From the heights they were working at, a fall could end badly.

“That’s enough!” he called finally, almost half an hour later. The members of Team Seven were all at the tops of their trees, but they headed down at his words. Sakura was the most out of breath, but she was smiling at the way that she had, if not kept pace with her teammates, then at least led them into their speed competition and generally made it up and down the tree with fewer slipups. Sasuke and Naruto weren’t breathing as hard, but they had more stamina and chakra, so even though they hadn’t rationed theirs as well as Sakura had, they still had more leftover.

"You all did well," Kakashi said to them, "but tree walking is easy compared to water walking, which is what we're doing next." He led them over to the river. "Get going," he said, shooing them forward.

The three genin looked at each other doubtfully, before moving toward the river almost in sync. Unsurprisingly, Naruto and Sasuke fell in straight away, though they were fortunately only in shin deep waters. Sakura moved onto the surface of the river slower than them, pressing one foot down and actually standing on the water for one brief moment before her foot splashed down, too.

"Huh," she said thoughtfully, pulling her foot back up and out of the river. She pressed down again, wavering, and then lifted her other foot off the bank and onto the water. "Naruto, Sasuke—" she started, before her feet crashed through the surface and she nearly fell over from her sudden displacement.

But the boys had turned to her, waiting for her to get her bearings, because they had taken her advice in Wave and knew that she could give them valuable information. Sakura lifted her head to see them waiting for her to speak and she looked almost taken aback, before she squared her shoulders and said, "It's different from tree walking. Not only that it's a horizontal surface instead of a vertical one, but because the water itself is a different substance from the trees. You have to approach it differently." She paused, grasping for words. Sasuke was already nodding along, while Naruto had narrowed his eyes, not saying anything, and moved back to the bank. "The way I was using my chakra was different than with the trees, I could feel it, I just can't—I don't know how to say this!"

"What does water do that trees don't, Sakura?" Kakashi asked.

"Move," Sasuke said after a few beats. "Water moves."

"Good," Kakashi said. "Water moves. So, Sakura...?"

"My chakra was moving with it," she said, green eyes widening. "Oh! You have to move your chakra with the movement of the water or you fall through!"

With that, Sakura sloshed back to the bank, letting herself start from a level point, and then stepped out again onto the water, her brows furrowed furiously. This time, she took several wobbly steps before losing control. Sasuke took another method, standing in place and holding one foot on the surface.

Smart, Kakashi thought, watching him. He was figuring out how it felt before putting all of his weight on it. Of course, putting weight on it would feel completely different from simply resting a foot on the surface, but it was a good idea.

Naruto took the option of sheer cussedness, stepping out again and again onto the water, in much the same way he had barreled his way up the trees in Wave. It was working, Kakashi could admit. Every time he splashed into the water, he was learning the ways to not walk on water. And he was markedly staying up for longer each time, even if it was only by half seconds.

Kakashi settled down on the grass and watched them. He occasionally called out encouragement or advice or urged Sakura to pull herself up from the deeper water with her hands, a task to which she took to gleefully and easily.

"Lunch break!" Kakashi finally yelled, good hours later. The sun was shining down comfortably, easing any chill from the water and the genins' soaked clothes as they made their way out of the river. Kakashi pulled out the bento he'd made for each of them and passed them around. "Tuck in," he said. "You've been working hard."

Lunch was surprisingly, almost alarmingly, quiet. Naruto was usually their chatterbox, but with him refusing to speak in favor of maintaining sullen silence, they simply ate without talking. Kakashi found he missed it, and the longer that Naruto's silence went on, the more he knew he needed to do something to fix it.

"Kakashi-sensei," Sakura said near the end of lunch, breaking the stillness. She laid down her chopsticks and stared him straight in the eye. "I was at the library yesterday, looking through various scrolls, and I found Tsunade-sama's proposal that every team have a medic assigned to them. Why isn't that standard practice? It seems like a good idea."

Kakashi set down his own chopsticks, humming thoughtfully. "The main issue is the amount of time it takes to train a medic," he said. "Which, if you were wondering, is an immense amount of time. It's very specialized training and not everyone is suited to becoming a medic, so finding someone who could be good at it is difficult. It takes very fine chakra control, and years of studying and practicing. Tsunade-sama's idea would have saved a lot of lives during the war, but we simply didn't have enough time. My old genin team had a medic with us, but even she was only half-trained. She could still do a good bit, but nowhere near the standards that Tsunade-sama would have imposed were she still around to enforce them.

"Add to that the value of a medic nin. A lot of effort is sunk into teaching them and they are almost invaluable on the battlefield or on missions, but that can make them targets, for killing or capture. Tsunade-sama excelled at being both a medic and a front-line fighter, but not all medics could work that way. They focused more on their healing skills, often to the detriment of their fighting skills." Kakashi sighed. "It was a good idea, though," he finished, thinking of Rin and all she had done for them.

"I could do it," Sakura said. Her voice was firm and strong, her eyes were serious. "Kakashi-sensei, as long as it doesn't interfere with our team's training, I want to learn medical jutsu." She faltered slightly at his blank stare, before rallying. "I'll keep up with all of our training, but I'm the weakest link and we all know it. Progressing—" she winced at saying it, but carried on. "progressing at my rate, it could take months or years before I become fight worthy like Naruto or Sasuke, but I can do this, Kakashi-sensei, I can, I'm good at studying and memorizing and you said it yourself, I have excellent chakra control, I want to help—!"

She had shoved herself up to her feet at this point, fists clenched and trembling. Sakura stared stubbornly down at him, her jaw set, and Kakashi felt himself begin to smile at her conviction, the way that she had finally chosen a path for herself.

"Don't let it interfere with your team training," he said. Sakura blinked, and he said gently, "Yes, Sakura."

Seconds to sink in, then: "Thank you, Kakashi-sensei!" she beamed, looking as if she was about to throw herself at him with joy, but—

"Could I learn?" Sasuke asked quietly, dark eyes widened the faintest bit. "Could I learn to be a medic too?"

Chapter Text

Sakura didn’t slam down any of the books or scrolls that she’d been carrying, but she did set them down more firmly than she normally would. Sasuke was sitting at the other end of the table, reading through a book and taking careful notes while also occasionally consulting an anatomy chart.

“Don’t you already have that memorized with your Sharingan?” Sakura asked nastily, and immediately covered her mouth with one hand. She hadn’t meant to let that slip out. It was something more like her inner voice would say, and though most of her crush had been put out in the aftermath of Wave – and though this had just about completely killed it – Sakura still had told herself that she was in love with Uchiha Sasuke for years.

Sasuke looked up at her, something like uncertainty in his eyes. (And no, those were definitely not Sharingan eyes.) They had been sitting in icy silence for nearly an hour, following their training session.

Kakashi had let out a kind of stunned, confused assent to Sasuke’s request – he couldn’t exactly refuse, having just granted it to Sakura. She knew that, she really did, but her first reaction had been a murderous, blinding urge to punch Sasuke in his stupid, thunder-stealing face.

Healing was supposed to hers, dammit! It was all well and good for a team to have more than one medic, but still. Still. This was supposed to be all hers. This was the one way that she could actually contribute, could actually not feel useless for once in her life.

And Sasuke had to immediately ruin it.

To not even begin to think what would happen once Ino found out. Sakura had thought about it while in the stacks, and realized that to an outside point of view, it might look as if she had followed Sasuke into the medical corps, not the other way around. Nothing she could say to Ino would ever convince her otherwise, and every shinobi would look down their noses at her for being the fangirl that followed her crush everywhere.

What a mess.

I’ll show them, Sakura had thought, hidden from sight in the stacks. I’ll be an amazing medic nin and no one will ever be able to say a damned thing.

Here and now, Sasuke said, “Just memorizing it isn’t enough. I still need to study and work at it, to make sure I actually understand it. Same with jutsu,” he added a little grudgingly. “I technically wouldn’t need to practice, but it would be a good idea before actually trying to use a new one out in the field.”

“But Kakashi-sensei—” Sakura started, interested despite herself. Some of the festering anger sluiced away, swept aside by her curiosity and need to learn.

“Kakashi’s had that eye for years,” Sasuke said dismissively, and Sakura didn’t let herself be surprised at how casually he said it. He’d been so alarmed and angry in Wave when Kakashi had first revealed it, at least until Zabuza had grabbed their attention again. She had read all sorts of things over the years, too curious for her age, and had read about bloodline theft. In short: Don’t. It was a serious crime. And probably especially now, with only one Uchiha left.

Still, Kakashi must have told him something about it yesterday, after that scary fight between the boys. He’d been over there talking with Sasuke for a long time.

“Also,” Sasuke said, breaking through her thoughts, “his nickname’s the Copy Nin. He’s probably familiar with enough jutsu of all types that being able to use one in the field immediately after copying it would be easy. It might not be perfect, but that’s what training is for.”

“So you can’t just regurgitate jutsu immediately?” Sakura asked, half-tempted to start writing down some notes on this.

Sasuke looked down at his notes, evidently weighting whether he wanted to keep talking, deciding how much he wanted to say, but he did eventually look back up. Sakura wondered how much of his cooperation was to get on her good side again, or if he even cared about that, but she couldn’t bring herself to be angry over that calculation in his eyes. She would take the peace offering of knowledge as what it was – though this still in now way completely covered everything owed between them.

“It’s a little hard to explain,” Sasuke said slowly, fingers tapping idly on the table. “I can’t. Not yet. I could try, but it might not work, or at least not work like I want it to – I’m not familiar enough with my Sharingan. I haven’t had it for very long, and it’s not complete, so some things that someone could do with a fully mastered Sharingan aren’t things that I can do yet.”

Sakura blinked. “But your eyes – that black fire—”

Sasuke flinched. “That’s not – normal,” he said jerkily “That’s something – it’s different, and you can’t tell anyone.” His voice lowered to a whisper, intent. “You can’t tell anyone.”

Sakura was nodding before she knew what she was doing, struck by the seriousness of her teammate’s tone.

He leaned back, still with an edge of tension, but the almost manic look – the almost fearful look – had faded away. Sasuke closed his eyes for long seconds before he opened them again, picking up the thread of the conversation.

“Everything slows down for me,” he said carefully, feeling out the words. “Or – I can process what I’m seeing faster, so it seems like it does. With a mastered Sharingan, you can actually predict what someone might do.”

Sakura’s mouth parted in understanding. “So when Kakashi fought Zabuza, that wasn’t an illusion, was it? Or not wholly, at least,” she added thoughtfully. Sasuke looked liked he had been about to interrupt and correct her, but he leaned back instead, letting her continue. “He could predict what Zabuza could do – or might do, at the very least – and he compounded that advantage by using a genjutsu to further confuse Zabuza and control what actions his might take.”

A look almost like surprise crossed Sasuke’s face, and Sakura barely held back her scowl.

I’m smart, Sasuke-kun, she thought fiercely. Maybe I didn’t understand what I was getting into while I was at the Academy, maybe I never took this seriously or knew the cost, but now I do. And I earned those grades back then, and I’m going to keep working hard now and in the future.

“Right,” Sasuke said, sounding vaguely impressed. “That’s one of the huge advantages the Sharingan can give you in a fight, and it boosts genjutsu, too, both casting and breaking. Even if you’re good at genjutsu, it’s harder to break out of one that was cast by someone using a Sharingan.” Something complicated darkened his face momentarily, before he put it aside. “It also enables the user to see chakra flow – though not in the same precision that the Byakugan can – which is what helps to copy techniques, and it memorizes information. While it’s on, I essentially have eidetic memory.”

My memory is almost eidetic anyway, Sakura didn’t tell him. And then she had the chilling thought – Sasuke watched Naruto die. He was using his Sharingan.

Oh gods.

She pointedly didn’t say anything of what she had just realized, but Sasuke must have read something of it in her face, because his body language tensed almost unnoticeably. If Sakura hadn’t spent so many years in the same class as him growing up, if they hadn’t been on the same team for months, if she hadn’t been trained as a shinobi – she might have missed it.

They looked at each other levelly for a long moment, not sure where to go from here, until finally Sakura pulled a book off of the stack she had brought to the table, pushing the others to the middle in a silent offer to share. She flipped it open and started reading, ready to take notes.

Across the table, Sasuke slowly relaxed.

Kakashi walked into a bar the next evening, making a beeline for the large booth in the back that held several of his colleagues. He slumped down next to Genma, who had seen him coming and already poured a cup of sake for him. Kakashi slammed it down immediately and eyed the bottle contemplatively enough that Genma elbowed him gently in the ribs.

“You having fun with your hellions?” he asked teasingly.

Kakashi manfully resisted the urge to bury his head in his arms and just never leave this table. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have to deal with those three anymore.

“If my hair wasn’t already gray,” he said, aggrieved, “they would be making it so.”

Genma laughed while Raidou let out a long, slow whistle, then smirked. Asuma took a sip of his own sake and said, “Don’t laugh, you two. It’s hard.” He stared at his own cup moodily. “You’ve never taught genin teams before. I know how he feels.”

“I’ve taught ANBU rookies, though,” Genma countered. “It can’t be that different.”

“Speaking as the only one here who has done both,” Kakashi said darkly, “I can confidently state that it is. And Asuma, charming as your team might be, I doubt they compare to mine.”

“This year’s rookies are certainly something,” Kurenai sighed from Asuma’s side.

“Yours can’t be that bad,” Asuma said doubtfully, at almost the same time.

Kakashi poured himself another cup, relishing the heat as it went down. It was a pity he couldn’t afford to get drunk tonight, but he really wouldn’t be able to deal with his team tomorrow if he had a hangover.

Today had been another trying day. He had thought yesterday that things were fraught, but at least Sakura had been mostly on the edges of it, not adding anything to his developing migraine. Apparently he’d thought that too soon, though. Sakura had very nearly attacked Sasuke yesterday when he had announced his own impromptu ambition to become a medic nin, and if she had thawed a bit by today, she was still treating him coolly, a complete enough flip from her attitude of only weeks ago that it almost gave Kakashi a headache from that alone.

Fortunately, Sakura’s rage at the whole situation had seemingly motivated her more rather than crushing her completely, judging from the competitive way she’d been pulling up weeds – and putting off a nice strong aura of doom, directed right at her (former?) crush.

Sasuke still looked like he wasn’t sleeping, and he was weirdly conciliatory to Sakura sometimes, as if for once he had managed to connect with his sense of empathy and realize just how mad Sakura was at him, and why. That attitude switched off with checking on Naruto periodically, even though Kakashi had hoped he had been able to put some of that issue to rest.

Apparently not.

But then, the trauma that induced the Mangekyou was severe, and Sasuke already always seemed so fragile, thought it had taken Kakashi a while to realize it. The last Uchiha hid it under that “avenger” façade, but inside, he was still a terrified and lonely boy who had lost his whole family to someone who should have always protected him.

That wasn’t something a few words could fix.

As for Naruto, he was still silent and giving them all an excellent cold shoulder, though it was probably more accurate to say that he was giving Kakashi a cold shoulder and the others were just catching the bits of ice that were falling off it.

Kakashi was pretty sure that this was about the worst that their teamwork had ever been, even compared to the very beginning, during their final exam. For once, Sasuke was the cooperative one, actually willingly trying to help out his team, but neither Sakura nor Naruto were very receptive to it, and over the course of the day his efforts petered out. They were all too wrapped up in their own personal problems and troubles to get anywhere near effective.

In hindsight, Kakashi probably shouldn’t have tasked his team with D-ranks after training today, no matter how desperate he’d been or how good of an idea it had seemed at the time.

“They really can be,” Kakashi said finally, answering Asuma.

Asuma hummed disbelievingly, then said, “Oh, that’s right. Didn’t your lot just take their first C-rank?”

Genma laughed again. “So, Kakashi, is the C-rank curse holding true three for three with this year’s batch?”

“Don’t joke about it,” Kakashi snapped. He had weighed the benefits of going on a C-rank mission for a while before they were assigned to Tazuna and Wave. He knew that the other rookie teams had already taken their own C-ranks, and he’d hoped that it could foster some kind of camaraderie between his students that D-ranks hadn’t yet managed.

It hadn’t worked out at all like he had wanted it to. Even considering all the things that could possibly go wrong, even laughingly believing in the C-rank curse with the rest of them, this had been so far from what he had wanted.

Everyone at the table was looking at him askance, questions weighing their gazes but willing to leave it (and probably dig it up own their own) if he indicated he didn’t want to discuss it.

Kakashi rubbed a hand over his face roughly before saying, “Our client lied about the ranking – it was actually an A-rank. One of my students almost died.”

All the others stilled, taking in that information, but Kurenai was the one to ask, “Are they okay?”

“He’s fine,” Kakashi said. “But it was close. If the fake hunter-nin had actually been aiming to kill, Naruto wouldn’t be here. Sasuke didn’t take it well, so now I’m trying to talk the second most stubborn kid I know through his first kill.”

Naruto wins first place for stubbornness, Kakashi thought tiredly. Which meant that Naruto could and just might ignore him forever if it suited him, and wouldn’t turn a hair.

These kids are going to drive me to an early grave.

“It’s always Team Seven,” Asuma noted, not quite hiding the grateful note in his voice that spoke to how he was glad he wasn’t and had never been on that team. It kind of pissed Kakashi off, but mostly it just forced him not to flinch.

Because it was true, wasn’t it? Team Minato was a Team Seven, and Minato had been on his own Team Seven as a genin, and Jiraiya on his own years before that. And look at the great endings of that lineage. The Sannin were all gone, one a traitor; Minato’s original team was dead in war or fighting the Kyuubi; Obito and Rin were even longer dead than his sensei, so now only Kakashi and his genin team were left.

And it was very nearly not even his full team.

“Nothing’s going to happen to my team,” Kakashi told them harshly, and it was the same tired promise he’d been making to himself for almost two weeks.

I won’t let anything else happen to them, he thought, and tried not to run the numbers of how likely it was that he was wrong about that.

Naruto had spent the last few days in a kind of haze, switching off between furious and crushingly sad. He tried to not look at Kakashi, because that would just spark off another betrayed, cold rage that settled deep in his stomach.

Funny. He’d thought that anger was always hot, like when people laughed at him or ignored him or sneered at him, and his temper sparked and he started yelling. That had always been so warm, warding him against what anyone could say about him. That, and the fact that he never, ever let it show when they were getting to him. He would never give any of them that satisfaction.

But this. It was cold and heavy and settled in his stomach like a leaden ball. It made him tired and confused, and then he would flip back to the other end of the emotional spectrum and he would start thinking about the faceless Uzumaki woman that was his mother and who his father could have been and that he didn’t know anything about them.

You can’t imagine how happy she was when she found out she was pregnant, Kakashi’s voice whispered. Never, for even an instant, doubt the fact that they loved you.

It was so much worse. So much worse, to know that they had wanted him. He almost wished that Kakashi hadn’t told him at all.

The old man had always told him that they had died during the Kyuubi attack, but in some of his darker moments he had wondered if that was a lie, if they had given him up for the same reason that everyone in the village hated him. When he’d found out about the Kyuubi, that thought had crept into his mind more and more. What if…?

He’d mostly tried to ignore those thoughts. He had always been an orphan, whether they had truly died or whether they’d given him up.

But they had died. And they had wanted him, and he kept inevitably thinking that if only they would have lived, they might have looked past the Kyuubi and kept him, would have been as excited and loving as Kakashi seemed to think that they would have been.

It hurt, and he was even angrier at Kakashi for having dangled that impossibility in front of him. He was angry at the Kyuubi, too, which had taken all those possibilities away from him, and for the first time he felt something approaching hatred towards the Yondaime.

Why him? Why did the Yondaime choose him and why hadn’t he stopped the Kyuubi faster and saved his parents and, and, and –

No matter what Iruka-sensei said, part of Naruto still felt like it was his fault that his parents were dead. Everything else was always his fault; why not this too?

The Kyuubi was sealed inside him, after all. It was still alive because he was.

The Yondaime sealed the Kyuubi into the form of a human infant! Mizuki jeered hatefully from memory. You, Naruto!

He shuddered and wrapped his arms around himself. Even safely ensconced in his apartment, months away from that poison, it still stung.

They died fighting the Kyuubi, but never doubt that they loved you.

I can’t tell you her name.

She was part of the Uzumaki clan.

They died fighting the Kyuubi…

Naruto’s eyes went wide. Kakashi wouldn’t tell him and he didn’t know where to even begin looking through the records, if he could even access the right ones, but his parents died fighting the Kyuubi.

They died in the line of duty.

He needed to get to the Memorial Stone.

Kakashi moaned as his alarm went off. He slapped at it, then draped his arm over his eyes. Despite his resolution early in the night, dragging out all the details of that miserable mission had made him drink more than he probably should have.

He wasn’t quite hungover – he’d be fine with some coffee and food in him – but the buzzing of the alarm was unbelievably annoying and the sunlight spilling into the room wasn’t much better.

Also, he just really wasn’t looking forward to meeting up with his team today.

(When had he, the past few days?)

He made it to the training grounds early. With actually having to show up in front of his team earlier than he had enjoyed doing, he had taken to visiting the Memorial Stone earlier beforehand to compensate.

A small blond figure was huddled in front of the Stone.

Kakashi froze in his tracks, and something like a sense of dread flooded him.

“Uzumaki Kushina,” Naruto said softly, not turning to look at him.

Kakashi knew he shouldn’t have gotten out of bed this morning.

Kakashi-sensei settled down next to him with a sigh. Naruto didn’t look at him, not just because he was still angry, but because he was too enthralled by that name.

Uzumaki Kushina.

“How did you figure it out?” Kakashi asked, his own gaze fixed on the Stone. “How did you find her name?”

“I’m not that stupid, no matter what anyone else thinks,” Naruto said, not quite snapping it, but close. “You gave me her clan name and told me she was a real person and that she died in the line of duty against the Kyuubi. It wasn’t difficult after that.”

And it really hadn’t been. Once Naruto had realized that it was right before his eyes, that he wouldn’t have to dig through records upon records in the library or go begging to Iruka-sensei or the Sandaime for help or truth, he had barely slept.

Almost as soon as it was light, he had pulled together his gear for the day as quickly as possible and set off for the training grounds. They always met at the bridge, but the Memorial Stone was right there.

He’d been so close for months and never even known it.

Naruto had scanned through the long list of names, hungrily looking for Uzumaki on it. There were a few higher up, but they were worn and faded, older than twelve years could account for, and some of the looked like male names anyway.

The right time period was surrounding the stark characters spelling out Namikaze Minato, the fourth Hokage. He died sealing away the Kyuubi, so names around his must also come from that night.

And there it was.

Uzumaki Kushina, just above the Yondaime’s.

It was then that Naruto had started crying, for the second time in just over as many days.

They sat there for long minutes, each absorbed in their own thoughts. Kakashi was directing some of them towards the same woman Naruto likely was, and apologizing to Minato, and wishing even one single member of his team were still alive.

He was the first one to move. Naruto was still staring at the Stone – hadn’t taken his eyes off it for a second, his expression so nakedly hungry and longing that Kakashi damned himself for the thousandth time for not taking in Naruto, for not looking after him as much as he should have, besides volunteering for all shifts of his guard detail that he could get away with. It shouldn’t have mattered what the Sandaime said. Maybe that was disloyal, maybe the Sandaime never would have let him take in Naruto, much like he hadn’t let Jiraiya, but damn it all, he should have tried. He owed that to Minato and Kushina, and he owed it most of all to Naruto himself.

“I was going to give this to you today anyway,” Kakashi said, reaching into his pouch. And he was going to. It wouldn’t be enough, it would never be enough, but maybe it could console Naruto a little and buy Kakashi some more time to argue with the Sandaime about actually telling Naruto.

The boy in question had finally looked away from the Memorial Stone, glancing his way, but he obviously wasn’t very curious, eyes already wanting to slide back to his mother’s – and though he didn’t know it, his father’s – name. Kakashi politely pretended he didn’t see the barely dried tear tracks on Naruto’s cheeks, and Naruto made no move to try to wipe them away.

“It was your father’s,” Kakashi said, and held out the book. Minato’s copy, pulled from the wreckage of his and Kushina’s house and carefully stored away at Kakashi’s apartment – he had never opened this copy of it, but he had his own, and he knew just how important this book had been for Minato and Kushina. Naruto stared at it, nonplussed, but something lit his eyes at Kakashi’s words, and he took it. “The Sandaime probably wouldn’t want me to give this to you, but – it was his and if you read it –” Kakashi took a deep breath. “You’ll see. It’s wrong to not tell you, Naruto. You should know everything.”

Naruto traced the title of the book with one finger, eyes thoughtful, and he smiled. A little tremulously, a lot smaller than his usual, but he smiled.

Kakashi suddenly, relieved, felt like everything might actually turn out okay.

Naruto looks happier today, Sakura thought to herself, watching the blond through her lashes as they all ran up and down the river to cool off. She was tempted to let her control falter enough to let her fall through into the water, which had already happened to the boys a couple times today, but her pride wouldn’t quite let her do it, no matter how hot it was or how sweaty and disgusting she felt. Kakashi-sensei seems weirdly chipper today, too.

Which had manifested in the three genin finally being allowed to spar out on the river today, after days of refining their control (in the boys’ cases) or working on stamina (Sakura). It had gone better than Sakura could have hoped. She couldn’t hold her own in a fight against Sasuke or Naruto, but her control was several times better. She didn’t have to concentrate as much to stay balanced and above water, but the boys had to split their attention between that and their spars, which gave Sakura the tiniest advantage.

She used it to punch at Sasuke as hard as she could, whenever she could get away with it. It wasn’t as if she hit very often, and her punches were still weak, but damn it felt good.

Their shared table at the library may now descend into an almost comfortable silence while they both studied, but that didn’t mean that Sakura wasn’t still angry about the whole thing. If she took out some of her aggression by trying to get at him during a spar – who could blame her, really?

Kakashi had commanded them to do cool down sprints on the river, but they were almost done now. Sakura glanced over at the shore and nearly stumbled.

There was another nin standing next to Kakashi-sensei, chatting casually with him. Sakura hadn’t had any idea that he had shown up, and she could have kicked herself for the oversight. Even if they were in the middle of Konoha and under Kakashi’s watchful eye and protection, she should have noticed the new nin.

Looked like she needed to add situational awareness to her training regimen.

She started thinking about ways to do that as she and the boys began making their way over to the two – jounin, yes, the other one was almost definitely a jounin. He had his hands stuffed in his pockets and a senbon dangling from his mouth, which was tilted up in a friendly smile.

“So these are your hellions?” the strange shinobi asked. “The ones you were complaining about yesterday?”

“Go away, Genma,” Kakashi-sensei said, rolling his eye.

“But they’re so cute!” Genma protested. “And anyway, it’s not often you met a team of rookies that could survive that clusterfuck of a mission you went on. Geez, the C-rank curse always hits Team Seven hard…”

“I helped them some,” Kakashi said dryly. “And they’ve been a team for months already, so—”

“Yeah, yeah, okay, you’re trying to get rid of me,” Genma said, waving one hand negligently. “I get it. Touchy.” He rolled his senbon in his mouth thoughtfully, and said, “…Really though. You should think about it, Kakashi.”

Kakashi nodded, and then Genma was gone.

“C-rank curse?” Sakura asked, and she saw her curiosity echoed on the boys’ faces.

“Stretch,” Kakashi-sensei said, and they all started doing so. “The so-called C-rank curse refers to likelihood that whenever a team has their first C-rank mission, it will in some way go truly, amazingly wrong.”

Sakura paused. “You mean that was normal?” she got out, horrified. Unbidden, her mind flashed to Ino. She didn’t know if her childhood friend/rival had already gone on her first C-rank, and she hadn’t heard anything about something happening to her, but they had been out of the village for weeks because of the Wave mission, she could have missed something—

“Relax,” Kakashi said. “No. This was just exceptionally bad luck, and it got turned into an A-rank by the time we met Zabuza. You all handled yourselves very well under the circumstances.” He sighed. “Usually it’s just accidents that could occur to any inexperienced team going on their first mission above a D-rank. Essentially.”

“What was your first C-rank like?” Naruto piped up, speaking for what might have actually been the first time in days. Sakura barely kept herself from jumping.

Kakashi’s head drooped. “Those turtles,” he muttered darkly. “And that damned willow tree…”

Sakura, Naruto, and Sasuke looked at each other and collectively decided that maybe it would be better not to ask.

“Anyway,” Kakashi-sensei said brightly, clapping his hands. “Looks like it’s time for our D-rank mission of the day!”

They all groaned.

Naruto got back to his apartment in the early evening. He placed the book Kakashi-sensei had given him carefully on his table, and put the kettle on to boil for instant ramen before ducking into his bathroom for a shower.

He rinsed quickly, wiping off all the sweat and dirt from the day, and tried not to think about the fact that he couldn’t meet the Sandaime’s eyes this afternoon when they gave their after-mission report. He wasn’t sure what he would do or say when he did.

He dressed in his pajamas and walked out just as the kettle started whistling. He ate speedily, for once not concerned about the taste because he wanted to get to the book.

Just that thought made him shake his head a bit. It was so backwards from every single other moment of his life.

But this book had belonged to his father, and Kakashi-sensei had hinted that there was something else about the book that was important.

The Tale of the Utterly Gutsy Shinobi, Naruto read again. He might not like reading very much, but from the title alone, he would guess that his unnamed father had had pretty good taste.

Suddenly, Naruto was almost nervous to start reading the book. What if he didn’t like it? What if he ruined it somehow? What if – what if Kakashi-sensei took it back later? He’d said it was a gift for Naruto, and he’d sounded so serious and honest, but what if

He shook his head roughly.

Just do it, he thought, and opened the book.

Right inside the front cover was a note, written in nice handwriting, neat and much more solid and graceful than Naruto’s own, or even Iruka-sensei’s. Even if he could tell that it was written quickly, it still managed to avoid sloppiness.

To my bratty little student, it read

You’ve done pretty well, though how you managed to snag a gem like Kushina with your “sissy attitude” I’ll never understand! Congrats on the promotion and good luck.

Best wishes,

your amazing sensei

and then a messy signature that Naruto couldn’t make out, amusingingly sloppy compared to the rest of the handwriting, and Naruto smiled, because he had learned something already that he’d never hoped to get from a book.

Though he really wondered what that whole “sissy attitude” comment meant.

He flipped to the first page of the book and started reading, and it didn’t take him long to figure out the other reason that this book was so important.


His name is Naruto.

Oh gods.

They had named him from this book. It wasn’t from the Sandaime or the orphanage, but from them.

He had to lay his head down on the table for long moments to compose himself before he picked the book up again and continued reading.

It was an engaging book. It was interesting to read and it felt real. Struck by a sudden suspicion, he flipped back to that note on the inside cover, then looked at the author’s name on the front cover, and yeah, the messy signature could conceivably be “Jiraiya,” which – if the guy who taught his dad and the guy who wrote this book were the same, it would make sense that the book pegged being a shinobi.

At any rate, he was enjoying it.


“You can give up trying to make me give up.”

“If there is such a thing as peace, I will find it,” the Naruto of the book proclaimed, and something about that hit him hard. He understood the Naruto in the book, could get behind that confidence and conviction, could see himself in him. He wanted to be like the Naruto in the book, who was so strong and kind and held onto his beliefs—

But something else was nagging at him. It was all well and good to be a strong shinobi, but the Sandaime said that many of the best shinobi always had a nindo. He liked Naruto’s nindo, but there something else he was forgetting.

Softly spoken words…

That pretty boy in the woods!

“Do you have precious people?” he had asked Naruto. “It’s only when protecting someone important to us that we can be truly strong.”

Yes, more than anything, that was what he could defend as his nindo. He wanted to be strong like the Naruto in the book and he wanted peace (a world where people hadn’t hated him for years for something that he hadn’t done, a world where friends didn’t have to die for each other, a world where no one would listen to the kind of conviction that Naruto had in the book and laugh at it instead of understanding), but above all he wanted to be able to protect the people precious to him.

Wasn’t that why he had taken that hit for Sasuke? Wasn’t that why he had faced down Mizuki after Iruka-sensei’s declaration of faith in him?

Wasn’t that why his parents had fought the Kyuubi and the Yondaime had sealed it away and the Memorial Stone had its list of names?

I want to be strong enough to protect my precious people, Naruto thought, determined. Sasuke and Sakura are learning to be medics, but I can help protect them too. I’ll be strong enough to do it!

I wonder what happened to that boy…?

Naruto took a deep breath, centering himself, and started on the book again. When he looked up next, night had completely fallen, and he was finished.

He made to close the book, but as he did, he caught sight of the edge of something at the back cover of it. He flipped the few pages there and saw it was a photograph, taped securely to the back cover. The same messy signature as the inside cover of the book – as well as a small smiley face – was scrawled at the corner of the photo, likely meaning it was Jiraiya who had placed the photo there.

Naruto couldn’t care about that, though. All he saw was the photo itself.

A woman with beautiful, long red hair had her head tipped back with what looked like full body laughter, her arms wrapped over her stomach and her gray eyes squinting up cheerfully just the same way that Naruto’s did. And come to think of it, their cheeks and general facial structure looked similar too. She wore a Konoha hitai-ate proudly on her forehead.


That…must be my mom.

She was leaning a bit into the man standing next to her. He had one arm wrapped around her shoulder and he, too, was laughing brightly. His blond hair stood up in soft spikes and he wore a Konoha hitai-ate on his forehead, paired with the standard jounin outfit beneath a long white coat. His eyes were the same bright blue as Naruto’s own.

The thing was, Naruto knew that face, if without that carefree mirth. He’d seen it a thousand times hanging on the walls of the Sandaime’s office. He’d looked at it through his window for years. He’d painted over it for a prank.

It was Namikaze Minato, the Yondaime Hokage.

Chapter Text

“He needs to know,” Kakashi said firmly, unswayed in his opinion, no matter how the Sandaime looked at him.

“Why now?” the Hokage asked.

“You know why,” Kakashi said, almost accusingly, because the idea that the Sandaime wouldn’t have kept abreast of the whole situation was ridiculous. But even as he said it, he had to concede the point. “Because I slipped up,” he grudgingly allowed, and barreled on before the Sandaime could capitalize on that concession. “Even if I hadn’t, even if he had only heard rumors from another source – it’s eating him up. He has to know.”

He deserves to know.

“The time isn’t right. It’s especially delicate now, with the Chuunin Exams approaching—”

“When will the time ever be right?” Kakashi snapped, uncaring for how rude he was being. “We’re shinobi. Things are always delicate. Hell, he almost died on his first C-rank mission, and he never would have known anything about them!”

The Sandaime narrowed his eyes but let the disrespect slide for now. They were both too emotionally invested in this, and now Kakashi had finally dug in his heels and wasn’t going to let anything stop him from telling Naruto, from trying to make up for everything that he hadn’t done in the years before.

“You think he’s really mature enough to handle this knowledge?” the Sandaime asked slowly.

“As Naruto pointed out to me himself,” Kakashi said, feeling some of the tension knotting him up unwind, “he’s kept the Kyuubi quiet since he found out about it.”

A long silence from Sarutobi, and Kakashi waited patiently. This was important, and nothing he said now to rush the decision could help. He had said all that he could.

And if nothing else, at least he had managed to gift Naruto the book. All things told, it was a pretty innocuous gift, only so important because it had belonged to Minato before making its way eventually to his son. The Sandaime couldn’t object to it if he found out about it.

“Very well,” Sarutobi said at last. “If you truly think it is time – tell him.”

Kakashi bowed. “Thank you,” he said simply, and made for the door. At it, he paused. “Were you going to wait until he was a chuunin?” he asked.

“At the very least,” Sarutobi said.

Kakashi thought back to earlier that day, when Genma had dropped by Training Ground Three. He had stood next to Kakashi for a minute, just watching the genin.

“He really is Minato’s kid, isn’t he?” the tokujo said, almost wistfully.

“He yells like Kushina,” Kakashi said.

“You going to nominate them?” Genma asked, shifting to look at him.

Kakashi thought about it. Before Wave, he had been thinking about doing so if the C-rank mission hadn’t impressed upon them the seriousness of becoming shinobi – or the importance of teamwork.

Now, however, he had a team that did seem to understand that better, for all that they were still incredibly dysfunctional in many, many ways. Despite that, he could see the potential in all of them.

Sasuke was smart and resolute and if he hadn’t relaxed any, at least he was concerned about his teammates instead of completely hiding behind that avenger’s façade and refusing to allow anyone in.

Sakura, too, had grown – was still growing. He could see actual dedication in her now, a yearning to become stronger and to prove herself – and, like Sasuke, protect all her teammates.

Kakashi knew she was still training outside of their team training, plus studying in the library with Sasuke for hours upon end each day, and he made a mental note that he should take the two to the hospital in the next couple of day, to get them signed up for beginning some kind of hands-on experience, if they didn’t do it themselves.

As for Naruto – he really was a fast learner when he put his mind to it. It seemed like he was more of a kinesthetic learner than either of his teammates, which likely hadn’t helped him in the Academy. He might not be book smart, but his heart was in the right place, and he could come up with some interesting off-the-wall ideas that sometimes even worked out – as evidenced by that combination attack with Sasuke to release Kakashi from Zabuza’s water prison.

“Maybe,” Kakashi told Genma.

“For what it’s worth, I think you should,” Genma said. “They seem like good kids.”

“And you can tell this from the few minutes you’ve seen them,” Kakashi said doubtfully.

Genma smiled. “Plus your story last night,” he said lightly. “If they made it through that, they can make it through the exams. Especially if they take it in their own village.”

“You would think so,” Kakashi had said, watching his genin approach.

Here and now, Kakashi said, “I’m thinking of nominating Team Seven for the Chuunin Exams.”

“Are you,” Sarutobi said.

“They’re strong,” Kakashi said, not turning around. His hand still rested on the doorknob. “I think they can do it.”

The Sandaime hummed thoughtfully, but let him leave.

They had just over a month before the Chuunin Exams, so he needed to pack as much training for all of them in during that time period as he could, given he now had the Sandaime’s tacit approval to nominate them. Technically he didn’t need it, but with rookie teams – with that rookie team – it could only help.

But before any of that…he needed to tell Naruto.

He could tell Naruto. He had that freedom now. And yet, he was too much a coward to do it tonight. He was self-aware enough to know how bad he was with children and emotions and dealing with – well, anything. Kakashi would go back to his apartment, gather some photos and mementos, what few things they had pulled from the wreckage, and plan out what he was going to say.

Wryly, Kakashi considered the fact that this was another reason Sarutobi hadn’t told Naruto. After not telling him for so long, it became less and less justified to wait, and Naruto would only be angrier the longer they made him wait for the truth.

Kakashi just hoped that Naruto didn’t hate them all when everything was out in the open.

Sakura walked through the market, making her way home after another after-hours training session. It was difficult balancing studying medical scrolls and trying to boost her stamina, all fitted around team training and missions, but she was making it work. Somehow.

“Forehead?” a voice called, breaking into her thoughts. “What did you do to your hair?”

Sakura found herself reaching for a kunai automatically and then stalled, discomfited by her own reaction. They were in the village, for gods’ sake.

“Ino,” Sakura said, not bothering to return the insult. She still remembered that rush of fear, when she had been convinced she might have missed something happening to her one-time best friend. Then the words computed, and Sakura reached up to touch her hair. “Oh. That.”

“’Oh, that,’” Ino repeated mockingly, leaning the broom she’d been using to sweep the front of her family’s flower shop against the wall and crossing her arms over her chest. “Do you think changing your hairstyle will make Sasuke-kun like you more? Looks like being on his team isn’t getting you anywhere,” she finished derisively, tossing her own ponytail back.

As for Sakura, she was tired and almost stunned by this sheer childishness. She had tied her hair back in a tight plait for training today, because it was windy and she was working hard, and it kept getting in her face. It was annoying. She halfway considered just hacking it all off to save herself from the aggravation, and couldn’t really think of a compelling reason to keep it this long.

For Sasuke? That wasn’t important anymore. That was so far away from her concerns that it almost felt like a different person who had been the one so obsessed with him. Without that constant effort, without all the concern of trying to impress Sasuke, she felt so much lighter. Freer. More settled in her own skin and content with herself than she’d been since that long ago day Ino had handed her a red ribbon and an offer of friendship.

“I don’t want to fight with you any more, Ino,” Sakura said, in the wake of that quiet realization.

And Ino – stopped. Just for a moment, but she stopped and her expression was very nearly vulnerable before she steadied herself and said, “You’re not going to be able to trick me into giving you a clear path to Sasuke-kun’s affections, Forehead!”

A thin thread of uncertainty made its way into her voice as she said it, and Sakura almost smiled. Ino had always been exceptional at reading people – all Yamanaka were, trained but also predisposed for it – and she could tell that Sakura was being honest.

“I’m not going to fight with you,” Sakura said, sure and firm. “I don’t care if you like Sasuke or want to date him or whatever. I just want my friend back.”

“…you’ve changed,” Ino said. She uncrossed her arms, meeting Sakura’s level gaze, and looked entirely unsure of herself.

“I had to,” Sakura said. “I couldn’t keep being that same girl that I was. I can’t. I have to be better than that.” She felt suddenly old and tired, standing there in front of Ino. For all that Ino had grown up in a shinobi family, had been an active shinobi as long as Sakura, had been on her own C-rank mission, she hadn’t been on that C-rank.

She hadn’t felt the purely visceral horror of realizing that one of her teammates had died.

She hadn’t had to take a step back in the aftermath and actually look at her behavior for the first time.

“What happened to you?” Ino demanded, and even as Sakura shook her head, unable to convey what terrible things had occurred and all that she had realized, she smiled. She smiled because this was the friend that she had almost forgotten, the empathetic and admittedly somewhat bossy girl she had called her first friend. What had she ever thrown this relationship aside for?

“I’ve missed you,” Sakura said, her smile tremulous, but nothing even approaching tears made their way to her eyes. She had sworn. “I don’t want to lose you, Ino, not over some stupid rivalry. It can happen so fast…”

Too late, Sakura realized she said more than she meant to. It wasn’t that she thought Ino couldn’t be trusted with the details of their mission or that she would be cruel talking about it with Sakura, but Sakura didn’t want to talk about it, not really, and she wasn’t entirely confident that Ino would understand completely, anyway. It would be hard to put into words those terrible moments, the awful despair on Kakashi-sensei and Sasuke’s faces, the way it felt like the world had dropped out from under her feet because it couldn’t be Naruto, it couldn’t be, he was a strong, boisterous presence in her life, always, he couldn’t be dead

“We’re going out to drink some tea,” Ino said abruptly, turning to the open shop door behind her and repeating her blunt statement at a yell. A vague call of assent drifted up from the back of the shop, likely Ino’s father.

Ino looped her arm in Sakura’s and determinedly led the way.

“It can happen so fast…”

Gods, but the despair in that voice, the bleak, flat look of those eyes. It was worse than protecting Sakura from bullying classmates. Instead, it was like her parents, when they talked about fallen comrades, the brutality of some of the missions they had gone on, some of the things that they had seen or done.

Ino’s parents had doted on her, yes – she was their only child, their daughter, and heir to the clan. But they had always tried to be honest with her, to impress the seriousness of a shinobi’s life upon her.

Maybe she’d never listened to them as carefully as she should have, but she hadn’t thought she would have to. Those kinds of things they talked about – those high-ranked missions were far in the future for her and her agemates, and even more importantly, they were at peace.

Judging from Sakura’s silence beside her, maybe she had been wrong to not heed her parents’ warnings more. It just – it wasn’t supposed to affect them yet.

It wasn’t supposed to affect Sakura.

Ino knew that they’d just returned from a mission – she might not see Sakura much anymore, busy as they both were with their own teams and duties, but she kept abreast of news (gossip) and noticed when the occasional glimpses of Sakura shopping in the market or visiting the library weren’t there for a few weeks.

(They’d been best friends once upon a time. Of course she kept track of Sakura. Maybe a lot of that was wrapped up in Sasuke-kun and their rivalry, always trying to make sure that Ino got him first, but they had been best friends. That wasn’t something that could ever be fully erased.)

Then Asuma-sensei had come to training this morning looking oddly disquieted, taking deeper pulls of his cigarettes than he usually did. When lazily asked by Shikamaru –so he would stop blowing so much smoke on them, if nothing else – he had just muttered something about “the C-rank curse” and left it at that.

Since as far as Ino was aware that only applied to first time C-ranks and there were only two other rookie teams this year, Ino was fairly sure she knew what lay behind Sakura’s blank expression.

Except…it couldn’t have been that bad, could it?

Team Asuma had ended up filthy and disgusted and Ino had needed about five showers to get that muck out of her hair (and way too many cups of tea to avoid murdering her teammates and sensei), but it hadn’t induced anything like what she was seeing in Sakura.

“Table for two, please,” Ino requested, flashing a smile at the hostess and letting them be led inside.

She gave Sakura time to peruse the menu, for their orders to be set, before she leaned forward and asked again, “What happened?”

Sakura smiled bitterly, hands folded demurely in front of her on the table. “Bad mission,” she said lightly, as if that was all there was to it.

“Your first C-rank?” Ino poked at the subject shrewdly.

“You’re the second person to bring up the C-rank curse today,” Sakura said, looking out into the darkening street.

“Easy guess,” Ino said as their teas arrived. She grinned. “Tch. Our first was awful – that damned Shikamaru, and Asuma-sensei was next to useless—” She clawed the air at the mere memory of it, then sighed. “But you had Sasuke-kun on yours, didn’t you? Oh, it must have been so nice. Well, maybe not with that Naruto on it too—”

A sharp, loud crack as Sakura set her cup down hard.

“Don’t,” she gritted out.

Ino blinked, taken aback. “I—”

“Don’t insult Naruto,” Sakura said, running straight over anything she might have said. “You weren’t on that mission.”

“Sakura—” Ino started, but too late. The other girl gulped down her tea, uncaring for how hot it was, and then slipped several bills across the table to her.

“I need to go,” Sakura said, standing. She blew out a breath, tried for a smile. “Look, can we try this again some other time? I meant what I said, I just – I still need some time to sort some things out.”

All Ino could do was nod, because she did believe Sakura, could read the truth in her eyes and her solid stance. And much as she hated to admit it, it was Ino’s misstep that had led to that cold shutdown, even though she had been trying for the very opposite.

“I’ll see you later,” Ino said, willing to give that much. It had hurt to stop being friends with Sakura, and then somewhere along the way that rivalry had become cruel, but it was the only thing that they had left between them. If she could, she would like Sakura back.

Sakura left, and Ino sat there are her tea slowly cooled, trying to figure it out.

What happened on that mission?

The body was burning in front of him, black flames crawling over it, consuming it, and all Sasuke felt was satisfaction because that bastard was dead.

But something was wrong.

The hands peeking out from green sleeves were too tanned, he could see that even in this light, and as the flames reached hair and started curling and smoking over it, he could see that it was too short to be the hunter nin’s, that instead of being a glossy black it was bright yellow—


No no no oh gods no

“Well done, little brother,” a soft voice said behind him, a gentle hand resting on his shoulder. “Now you have the same eyes as me…”

Sasuke screamed and kicked his way out from strangling blankets. He barely made it to the toilet before he was throwing up everything in his stomach, trying to forget the sight of that burning body and that horrid touch.

Just a dream, just a dream, he chanted to himself, rinsing out his mouth and trying to rub some warmth back into his arms. It was just a dream.

Just a dream built of components that he had seen, had heard. Had smelt, because he knew the stench of burning hair and could remember it still; he gagged again just thinking of it.

Kakashi could tell him it was over and they were all safe as many times as he wanted, but Sasuke could never fully believe it. His own brother had killed their entire clan. Naruto had died right in front of him and Sasuke had gained his Mangekyou on what was supposed to be a simple C-rank mission.

Nothing was ever safe.

And his mind kept trying to remind him of that.

I know, he thought, gripping at the edges of the sink. I know, so please let me stop having these dreams.

He might have stretched the truth when Kakashi had been here, asking after him. He wasn’t okay at all. But at least Kakashi had been asking about the disaster in Wave and not about more – in house things.

Sasuke generally tried to avoid thinking about the Kyuubi. Not because it changed anything about the way that he saw Naruto – if anything, it made things clearer – but because it was too much knowledge. It was forbidden knowledge, and it made him angry, and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it.

Useless. Always useless and weak.

That was why he had joined Sakura in training with medicine, though. That was both protection and an edge and something that very few would see coming.

(Including, hopefully, Itachi.)

The bathroom felt too small suddenly. He left it, trailing one hand along the wall as he walked past his room, and he glanced inside just long enough to see what time it was.

Barely two, so he’d only had a few hours of sleep, and Team Seven’s training would begin in what felt like endless hours away.

Sasuke paced around his family’s home. It was too echoing and empty, and he jumped at every unexpected noise that the old house made, sure it was someone coming for him—

“Well done, little brother,” Itachi’s voice sighed from the wind and the trees outside.

Go away, Sasuke thought.

He paused, because his pacing had taken him to Itachi’s room. He hadn’t been in it for years, preferring to close the door and ignore that it was there are much as he possibly could.

Now, Sasuke reached out and pulled the door open.

It was just a room.

It was a room covered in a layer of dust, but it was still just a room, neat and almost impersonal in the way that Sasuke remembered. Itachi’s bed was even neatly made, as always.

He knew that he would be leaving, after – after. But he had always left it like this, whenever he left for missions. More than once Sasuke could recall having snuck into his brother’s rooms while he was away, missing him fiercely and not willing to go to his parents for comfort.

He would curl up in Itachi’s bed, under Itachi’s blankets, and pretend that his big brother was there, just taking comfort in that fact that these were Itachi’s things, and his brother would always be there for him.

(“If only as an obstacle for you to overcome,” he had said distantly, softly, just before the officers came to question him about Shisui’s death.)

Even just after the massacre, Sasuke had almost fallen into the same habits, almost retreated to Itachi’s rooms every time he had been lonely and scared and grieving, but Itachi was the reason he had been that way, the images of it still burned into his brain by Mangekyou Sharingan-induced genjutsu.

Through it all, his brother was dressed in his ANBU armor, like it was some mission he’d been set on, like he wasn’t betraying everything.

(And the worst thing was that even now, buried deep under the terror and disgust and rage, part of him still loved his brother, wanted to run to him and have him make everything be all right again, like Itachi used to do, no matter how it had all been an act.)

Sasuke stepped back from the doorway, out of Itachi’s room, and then he was slamming the door behind him and running. Out of the house, out of the empty Uchiha district. Just trying to get away.

He let his feet take him where they would, and somehow wasn’t surprised to find that they’d led him to Naruto’s apartment. They all had at least peripheral knowledge of where each of the members of their team lived (except Kakashi-sensei, but that really wasn’t in any way surprising), even if they had never been over to each other’s homes before. Although he had wandered by once or twice recently, familiarizing himself with exactly where Naruto’s apartment was.

(Sasuke thought of the silence surrounding him in his own home, the solitude of the training grounds, the dinner table always set for one, and suddenly wondered if his team couldn’t brighten the place up, make it feel more livable, bring some cheer and life into the place again.

He knew he was probably too much of a coward to invite them, to ever let them have such a chance at truly breaking through his barriers, but it was nice to imagine.)

Interestingly, the window that Sasuke knew was Naruto’s apartment was still lit, even at this hour. Sasuke shoved his hands deep into his pajama pant pockets, trying to decide what exactly he should do next. Naruto had been kind of weird recently – though most of that was about his parents and Kakashi’s secrets, and Sasuke distantly wondered who they were, if they had so many enemies Naruto couldn’t even know their names.

And he wondered if they had something to do with the Kyuubi somehow, because Kakashi hadn’t flinched when Naruto had obliquely referenced it, just looked even more tired.

Eventually, Sasuke made up his mind. He turned away and started walking deeper into Konoha, despite the hour and the fact that he was still in pajamas. It wasn’t like anyone would see him.

He just – wasn’t ready to go home yet.

He couldn’t. Not right now.

“Now you have the same eyes as me…”

Kakashi rapped lightly on Naruto’s door the next afternoon after training, taking a deep breath. He was slouching, trying to affect an air of casualness he was in no way feeling as he waited for his student to answer his door.

Naruto had had another of his quiet days today, back to not looking at Kakashi or really interacting with his teammates, but it wasn’t the same angry, icy attitude from two days ago, so Kakashi tentatively had chalked it up as a victory. He’d looked a little tired, and Kakashi hoped all that meant was he had stayed up too late reading the book.

The door opened.

“Kakashi-sensei,” Naruto greeted him.

“Yo,” Kakashi said. “Can I come in?”

Naruto weighed him briefly with achingly familiar blue eyes before he stepped out of the way, allowing Kakashi to walk into the apartment.

It was still the same kind of messy as it had been when he had visited with Sarutobi before giving the team their last test and actually taking them on as his students, the kind of messy that was occasionally straightened up half-heartedly, but mostly divided into zones of clothes and scrolls and various weapons. Which was really all that could be expected from your average twelve-year-old, honestly.

“I talked to the Sandaime yesterday,” Kakashi said, unsure where else to begin. “After training.” Naruto watched him steadily, expression kept impressively blank. “He said – well, he was going to wait until you were a chuunin, but – he said I could tell you.”

Kakashi pulled a scroll out, one in which he had sealed as many of the photos and various memorabilia of Minato and Kushina as he could find. Naruto accepted it, placing it carefully on the kitchen table next to a very familiar book.

“Did you read it?” Kakashi asked as they sat down at the table, a fluttering feeling of desperation prompting him to keep from telling Naruto the truth a few seconds longer.

“Yes,” Naruto said slowly, and picked up the book, finger trailing down its spine. “My mother was Uzumaki Kushina…and you came to tell me this book belonged to Namikaze Minato.”

Kakashi froze.

“So it’s true,” Naruto said softly, looking down at the book, a bitter smile gracing his face.

(Recently, Kakashi realized more and more just how many of Naruto’s expressions were masks as grimly pulled up as the one on his own face, and he hated himself for having taken so long to see it. So much for looking underneath the underneath.)

“How—?” Kakashi got out, and Naruto flipped open the book to the back cover, revealing the photo taped carefully in there. “Oh, gods. Naruto, I—”

And then he didn’t know how to continue, because he hadn’t been sure exactly how he would have broken the news to Naruto, but he hadn’t wanted it to come out like this.

Maybe I should have actually looked through Minato’s copy before giving it to Naruto, he thought, too late.

“Yes,” Kakashi said finally, and he sat down at the table. He grabbed the scroll, carefully unrolling it and unsealing what was inside. He picked up a copy of his own genin team photo, and the extra one that had Kushina squeezed into it as well, an unofficial photo taken later in the same day.

“I want one too, -ttebane,” Kushina had said cheerfully, forcing a nearby chuunin to snap the photo before anyone on Team Minato could do anything other than stare at the camera, surprised. Kushina was grinning broadly in it and Minato had started laughing helplessly in the aftermath, demanding copies of his own.

“Namikaze Minato was your father and my sensei and the Yondaime Hokage,” Kakashi said. “Uzumaki Kushina was your mother, and—” He was going for broke now, forcing himself to say, “She was the second jinchuuriki of the Kyuubi no Kitsune, following the death of Uzumaki Mito.”

Naruto paled, stunned, and one hand went automatically to his stomach where the seal lay, unseen.

“What?” Naruto barely managed to say.

“Uzumaki Mito was the Shodaime’s wife. She sealed the Kyuubi into herself at the Valley of the End, during the fight between Senju Hashirama and Uchiha Madara. Your mother left Uzushio for Konoha when she was a child, just before it was destroyed, and became the second,” Kakashi expanded. He’s heard most of this from Minato and Kushina themselves over the years, and knew how concerned they had been about the seal during Kushina’s pregnancy. He made his voice very gentle as he said, “They maintained the Kushina’s seal all through her pregnancy, but something went wrong during your birth and the Kyuubi escaped. It attacked the village and the only choice they had…” Kakashi shut his eye, already overcome with his own pain and not wanting to see it spread across Naruto’s face. “Was to seal the Kyuubi away again.”

“Me. They – he – sealed it away into me,” Naruto parsed slowly, horror widening his eyes. “Why – why didn’t they – Mom –?”

Kakashi shook his head, remembering that awful scene he’d stumbled upon, Minato and Kushina lying before an infant Naruto’s squalling form, huge and harsh wounds tearing through their bodies, their eyes vacant in death. Kakashi had been numb, unable to believe that the two people that were the closest thing he’d had to parents since Sakumo died were gone, and didn’t protest Sarutobi taking Naruto and putting him in an orphanage until it was too late.

After that, after the pain had abated the shallowest bit, he had convinced himself that it was for the best, that even if he convinced the Sandaime to allow him to take Naruto in, it would have just painted another target on his back. So he’d left Minato and Kushina’s son, only ever watching over him from a distance, even though he of all people knew just what damage the village’s hate could do.

“It was too late for her,” Kakashi said. “For either of them. And -- they had to protect the village, but more importantly, they had to protect you. I think they thought it was the best option, to keep both Konoha and you safe, to make sure you lived."

“No,” Naruto said, almost soundlessly. “No – you can’t just tell me that—!” He stood abruptly from his chair, looking like he was about to bolt, but then his eyes fell down to the table and the photos and the book, and something in his gaze twisted and broke and he collapsed to the floor instead, bent over his knees and shaking all over. Kakashi was kneeling next to him seconds later, hands hovering uncertainly.

"Why," Naruto gasped out. "Why would they do that -- why didn't they stay with me, dammit, why – I hate him. I HATE HIM, I HATE HIM, HE—"

Kakashi gave up and did what Minato had always done for him, something that had never come naturally for Kakashi and something he had hated at the time, but something he had later come to appreciate: he pulled Naruto into a hug. Naruto held himself tense for long seconds, startled into working his way down from that screaming anger, before he buried his head in Kakashi's chest and took deep, gulping breaths, still shaking.

Long hours passed, but if any tears fell, Kakashi couldn’t tell.

Chapter Text

Sakura stared around the hospital curiously. She was following one of the nurses, the first one to offer to show her and Sasuke the ropes when Kakashi-sensei had chivied them towards the hospital this morning. She didn’t know where Naruto was but assumed he was somewhere with the real Kakashi, because it turned out that their Kakashi was a clone that had dispelled as soon as it looked like she and Sasuke were settled.

There had been a kind of odd, quiet stir when Kakashi had said that they were both here for shadowing and tutoring. That was probably because of Sasuke, though, rather than two medics on one team. Sakura wasn’t sure there had been an Uchiha medic before – though there might have been and she just didn’t know it. It was frustrating sometimes, the things that she missed because she came from a civilian background and had no connections to any clans and their knowledge. Ino had said things sometimes offhand, and Sakura would press her for information until she understood, but they hadn’t been friends for just as long as they had; she hadn’t asked Ino anything for several years, afraid it would be a sign of weakness that she could ill afford, and instead threw herself into her studies and paid rapt attention to everything their teachers said in the Academy.

Now she was here in the hospital, being shown the routes that the nurses and medics took, being given a quick rundown of a few of the head medics or nurses and some of the responsibilities that the two of them could expect if they were really determined to follow through with becoming medics in their own right.

Not everyone could do it. There was an intense level of focus and training involved to even be qualified at the lowest level, and your chakra control had to be incredibly precise. Not as inhumanly precise as Tsunade of the Sannin – she was known as the best medic in the lands for a reason – but still very, very good. If you weren’t predisposed for it, you could technically learn to have good control, but that took a great deal of concentration and dedication, and even so, some people couldn’t do it.

“You have very good precision,” Kakashi had said during training just a few days ago. She had been the first one to make it up the tree in Wave – on her first try! –and Kakashi had congratulated her then, too. Though seemingly so that he could make a point to the boys.

Still, Sakura felt a quiet thrum of pride even now, recalling the honest approval in Kakashi’s voice.

“You still interested?” the nurse asked, finished her spiel and smiling, her eyebrows arched almost challengingly in a way that said many potential medics had bowed out at this point, intimidated by the requirements.

The two of them didn’t need that challenge, though. They knew what they were getting themselves into and Sakura at least knew that there was no way she would be giving this up.

Sakura and Sasuke both nodded firmly, resolute.

The nurse smiled again. “We’ll see,” she said. “I suppose Hatake-san did recommend you…well. Follow me. The first thing you need to know when working in this hospital is how to file forms and reports…”

Paperwork, Sakura thought, a little disgruntled, but then she thought it through. Oh.

Yes, it was important to know how to do the paperwork for the hospital, much like knowing how to fill out and submit after-mission reports was an important duty for any shinobi, but it was more than that. It was something that could be given to potential candidates right off the bat that presumably wouldn’t take up too much valuable time from a nurse or medic that might be needed elsewhere, and it could be used to gauge how willing and devoted a candidate was to becoming a medic, to the point of being relegated to boring tasks immediately, because no one liked doing paperwork.

This is another test!

Sakura stood a little straighter and paid careful attention to where they were going, sure that she would be coming here a lot in the next several weeks and months – and years, hopefully.

This is a test I’m going to pass, Sakura thought. It and any others. I’m going to become a medic.

“You’re angry,” Kakashi said to Naruto’s back, watching his student rifle through his cabinets the next morning, likely just to give himself something to do. He’d shoved himself away from Kakashi almost a half hour ago to pace restlessly through his apartment and splash water onto his face to keep himself awake (or wake himself up in the first place, though Kakashi wasn’t sure that either of them had actually slept during the night, other than dozing off for brief moments). Kakashi had settled himself back at the table, keeping in the central point of the room.

“I’m not angry,” Naruto ground out, belying that particular fiction even as he tried to tell it.

“Yes, you are,” Kakashi said.

Fine!” Naruto spat, slamming the doors of the cupboard closed, but he didn’t turn around. “Maybe I am. So fucking what, wanna make something of it?”

“No,” Kakashi said. “It’s fine for you to be angry. But don’t hide it. Don’t try to pretend that you’re fine and hide everything away.”

“Why not?” Naruto asked bitterly. “No one pays attention to me anyway, except to make sure that the monster brat the Fourth gave his life for isn’t—” He cut himself off, shaking his head roughly. “Bastard,” he said lowly.

“Be angry if it helps you, Naruto,” Kakashi said plainly. “But don’t shove it all down inside you. Deal with it. If you don’t – that anger can control you, twist you into someone you don’t want to be.”

Look at Kakashi. After Sakumo’s suicide – Kakashi may have said that he was determined to be unlike his father because he was ashamed of his actions, that he would never sacrifice the mission for his teammates, but he had been grieving deeply and, yes, angry. Angry at the village, for having forced his father to such actions. Furious at his father for leaving him along, for letting Kakashi walk into their home and find Sakumo’s body and become an orphan.

And angry at himself for not having somehow been able to prevent it, to be a good enough reason for Sakumo to keep living.

Couldn’t I have been enough?

Kakashi knew all too well what anger could do to you.

He knew what it could cost you.

Naruto let out a small huff of laughter, insincere. “A monster,” he said. “You think – you all think – that I’m cheerful and play pranks and a shit shinobi, but oh, anger could turn me into a monster.” A mocking lilt to the end of his sentence as flat blue eyes just barely peeked over Naruto’s shoulder at Kakashi. “Too late. The last thing my father did in this world was make me one.”

“You are not,” Kakashi snapped, hands slapping down flat against the table as he stood. “You are not, nor was your mother or Mito-sama before her, and I’d thank you not to say so. You are blood and bone of Konoha and Uzushio, born and raised, so are you a loyal shinobi of this land or not?”

Naruto actually fully turned around at that.

“You swore an oath to protect this village and land and its citizens, so long as you draw breath and your heart beats,” Kakashi went on ruthlessly. “Your parents entrusted you with that duty from the moment you were born, and you’ve sworn to do the same. Don’t disrespect that.”

Naruto had a stunned look on his face, one that slowly melted into thoughtfulness, and it wasn’t much better from that anger, because Kakashi could tell that he hadn’t fully accepted it yet, but it was some kind of progress. That was more than Kakashi could have hoped for a few hours ago. Now he just had to keep Naruto from falling back into the pit for long enough that everything could sink in.

He walked around the edge of the table and ushered Naruto towards the door.

“Come on,” he said, as gentle but firm as he could make himself be.

“Where are we going?” Naruto asked, not quite belligerent, but thrown off balance.

“Training grounds,” Kakashi said. “We’re going to engage in one of the traditional shinobi methods of anger management.” Or refusing to cope with emotions in general, whichever way you wanted to refer to it.

“What’s that?” Naruto asked suspiciously, snagging his kunai pouch off the table just before they were completely away from it, an action that Kakashi approved of.

“Training and/or blowing shit up,” Kakashi said, smiling beneath his mask.

Kakashi-sensei might have been right about the merits of blowing things up, Naruto could grudgingly admit. He hadn’t known any good jutsu for actually doing so, but Kakashi was all too willing to teach him an easy one, a Katon that was less about the fire and more about the boom.

Naruto was learning to appreciate booms.

Even while trying to figure out that Katon, Kakashi had interspersed that training with showing him explosive seals. They had touched on them a little in the Academy – Naruto had actually paid attention during those lessons, because explosions, come on, those were awesome, and he sometimes used smoke bombs for escaping the aftermath of his pranks – but they weren’t actually allowed to handle the explosive tags themselves. They trained with wrapping paper the size of the seals around their kunai handles and then throwing them at their target, being judged by the teachers for the speed and competence of the wrapping as well as still managing to throw the kunai at the target correctly. Naruto had it down, but putting it to practical use was even better.

So yes, lots of booms during this training session.

It was weird, because something in his chest loosened as he spent more time with Kakashi-sensei, working with him one-on-one. Naruto wanted to stay mad at him, to be angry because he and the old man had kept the truth from him, and he wanted to be mad at his parents, but he was suddenly so focused on the training, on trying to perfect the jutsu and the usage of explosive tags that he couldn’t spare energy to pull up angry thoughts. He was even, dare he say it, having fun, when for brief moments he forgot about trying to keep that rage burning.

Kakashi was actually a pretty good teacher when he put his mind to it, carefully coaching Naruto through the steps to the fire jutsu and helping him figure out why it wasn’t working or what exactly he was doing wrong to keep it from being as good as it should be. And when he could obviously tell that Naruto was getting frustrated with the jutsu, he would distract him with something else – oh, those lovely explosive tags; Naruto was getting his hands on more of them as soon as was feasibly possible – until they circled back around to the jutsu.

“You would be good at traps,” Kakashi-sensei said thoughtfully at one point, watching Naruto gleefully toss out kunai tagged with explosives. Naruto looked at him quizzically, and Kakashi elaborated. “In Wave, when you and Sasuke teamed up to force Zabuza away from his water prison – that’s the kind of quick and tactical thinking that’s good for setting traps. And you’ve already had years of working at it,” he added, “what with all your pranks in the Academy. You’re very good at evading jounin and even ANBU when you put your mind to it.”

A soft, pleased feeling rose in Naruto and he turned his face away for brief moments; most of the anger at Kakashi was sluicing away suddenly, at the way that he was giving an honest assessment of his capabilities and didn’t sound at all disparaging about it, simply looking at it to see a way that Naruto could turn something that he had always been shouted at for into something that he could use as an actual, practical thing in the field.

Some dark, nasty part of him really did want to keep up that anger, but he found that he just couldn’t. Naruto had always hid things down, far down, because he didn’t want to give people the satisfaction of letting them know that they got to him with some of their taunts, but most of him – most of him loved people. He loved Konoha. No matter what he found out about it, no matter how he sometimes wanted to scream at the citizens who looked at him with fear and distrust, he still loved his village. It was his home, and Naruto had always been too loving.

When Naruto found something – someone – to care about, he gave it his all. He loved Konoha, fiercely, totally, completely. He couldn’t ever give it up now, not in the least because it contained his precious people.

Hadn’t he just sworn to himself that he would become strong enough to protect them? Hadn’t he just decided that that would be his nindo?

Naruto stuttered to a halt, mid-throw, to follow that train of thought. He had sworn that, and Uzumaki Naruto didn’t go back on his word. He wasn’t sure if that would supersede his dream of becoming Hokage, but he had decided that it would become his nindo, and that was maybe even more important than a dream, because it was the way that he wanted to live his life.

Like it or not, Naruto had been forcing himself to push aside the fact that Kakashi was already one of his precious people. Iruka and the old man and his teammates and his sensei – they were all his precious people. He had to protect them.

He couldn’t hate them.

He could never hate them.

“Oh,” Naruto said out loud, wondering, and felt his world settle back into place. Maybe he still needed to think about his parents, maybe he could still be angry at his father for ages yet, but hatred had never solved anything in Naruto’s life. Loving people and finding people who loved him had always been the things to do that.

It’s only when protecting someone important to us that we can be truly strong.

That was the whole truth of it, and in that moment Naruto made a conscious decision to set aside that anger, that pain, and only use it to defend his precious people, not to hurt them.

For the first time in what had been too many long days, he smiled.

Iruka stared down at the mission report he had finally been able to sneak out of the missions office. He had at least been able to find it, knowing that it had been filed under the A-ranks instead of the C-ranks, and he had gathered copies of all four of the reports, one from each of the members of the team, before he had tucked them away into his usual stack of papers that he took with him away from the missions office and brought them back to his home.

It was no big deal to look at mission reports, though you often needed to be at least a chuunin or even a jounin for some of the most sensitive missions, but generally you were required to at least write down that you were taking them with you. And Iruka had, he had written down on the sheet that he was taking them, but for a long moment he had hesitated, wondering whether he should actually write his name down there or not, and then decided that he would just ask forgiveness from Naruto later if it really bothered him that Iruka had taken the mission reports.

The problem was just that, well – he hadn’t been able to talk to Naruto about it. Other than that breakdown several days ago, Naruto had been busy – or avoiding him, his mind suggested – and Iruka hadn’t wanted to press him, but he was concerned. If he needed to talk to Naruto about it later, he couldn’t wait for his former student to come and tell him about it; Naruto was too good at dodging around things that he didn’t want to talk about, and Iruka felt pretty comfortable in figuring that there were a lot of reasons that Naruto wouldn’t want to talk about this.

An A-rank mission, one that they weren’t supposed to have been on in the first place, one that they had been on instead of their first C-rank mission.

Gods, to jump straight from D-ranks to an A-rank mission…

Iruka pulled himself up, resolute, because needed to know this to have even a fighting chance of helping Naruto.

Then he had actually read the reports, struggling for long moments which one to start with, before beginning with Hatake Kakashi’s, because that would probably give him the most in-depth and clear cut view of everything that had happened. The team leader always pulled from everything that had happened in the mission.

Iruka hadn’t counted on how horrified he would be reading the report. Hatake laid out the stark facts of the mission, how they had decided to press on even when it had become clear that this mission was above the C-rank that it was supposed to be, and Iruka wanted to strangle him for a moment, because was it worth it? Was it worth Naruto nearly dying?

Of course, they couldn’t have known that going on could result in such a thing, but still. Still. They should have turned back then. They should have had Tazuna come back to Konoha with them and renegotiate terms if he needed to; Konoha would surely make a deal with him if they could. If he hadn’t lied to them in the first place, none of this would have happened, because Konoha was known for the fact that they were the nicest – and strongest, so they could afford that kindness – of the Hidden Villages. They would have helped.

They could have helped without Iruka’s surrogate little brother almost dying.

The rest of the report just got worse and worse from there on, and Iruka had to actually stand up and walk away reading the details of Naruto and Sasuke’s fight against the hunter-nin, the way that Naruto had been in a deathlike trance by senbon, how if the senbon had been placed any differently he would be dead now—

He paced around his apartment, taking slow, deep breaths, and then finally returned to the report, making himself finish it and through sheer force of will didn’t immediately break out the alcohol at the end of it.

Iruka stared down at the other reports lying in front of him, the ones from Sakura and Sasuke and Naruto, and he didn’t want to read them. He shouldn’t have taken them with him when he left the missions office; he should have just taken Hatake’s. He didn’t want to see the grief and horror of his former students laid to the page, the truth at the way that they had personally reacted to the whole mess of the situation, the way that Naruto had almost died in words from his peers.

He couldn’t do it, so he was almost relieved when the knock came at his door, but he still pulled his hand sharply back from the reports, just barely startled, before he gathered them up quickly and stowed them away in his desk, under other miscellaneous papers, before he went to the door.

“Naruto,” Iruka said to the boy standing on his doorstep, surprised and also glad that he had taken the moments to hide away the reports in his desk. He stepped aside, offering for Naruto to come in, and took the brief moment as Naruto came in and started talking to assess him. He looked a lot looser, more at peace with himself – if a bit singed and scuffed, which likely meant he had come here from training – than he had the last time he was over, which Iruka was so, so grateful for, but he wondered if Naruto had managed to pull any answers from Hatake. He did rather hope that he had.

Iruka didn’t ask about it, though, or Wave, instead letting Naruto’s chatter and conversation wash over him, contributing here and there, but mostly just listening to it. It was more subdued than usual still, a new and sharper light to Naruto’s eyes than had been there before the Wave mission, but Iruka figured that that was probably always going to be there now, and nothing that he could do would be able to erase it. All he could do was be here and try his best to help.

“Do you want to go to Ichiraku’s?” Naruto asked at the end of a long, involved tangent about something that Iruka wasn’t even sure that he had followed, though there had definitely been a bit about explosions in there somewhere.

“Of course,” Iruka said, smiling softly. “Let’s go.” 

Sasuke wandered the streets in the early evening, his hands shoved in his pockets and his head tilted down to dissuade anyone from trying to talk to him, but his eyes still darted around carefully, so aware of anyone approaching him. He couldn’t really feel safe in Konoha, even though it was his home (though when had someplace being his home ever stopped something terrible from happening?), and it had become even worse after the Wave mission. After gaining his Mangekyou and the nightmares that came with it, though that was truly the fault of his own mind, even if they were cursed eyes.

It had been a long day at the hospital, filing paperwork continuously and trailing behind nurses occasionally as they showed him and Sakura where they would need to be collecting paperwork from and at what times during the day when they were on shift that they should do so. They had been freed for an hour long lunch break before they were thrown straight back into it, and then they were freed at five, told to go home and rest by nurses with amused but approving glints in their eyes as they looked at the two members of Team Seven.

Sakura had immediately headed towards the library, of course, and Sasuke both couldn’t think of anything better to do and acknowledged that it was a good idea, so he trailed behind her, setting up camp at their usual table. He was grateful that he usually tucked his notes away in one of his pouches, because even though he had expected training with Kakashi-sensei instead of training at the hospital today, he had been prepared for studying afterwards, which meant that right now he wasn’t without anything.

That kept the two of them busy for another few hours, but then Sakura had looked up to see the time and packed all of her things away, heading home for dinner. Sasuke finished up his notes slowly, reaching the end of a chapter in his current text, before he slowly moved to put away his own things. It wasn’t like he needed to rush home to be on time for dinner.

No. He didn’t have anyone waiting for him there, just memories and ghosts.

He bought onigiri from a stall and ate it slowly, not really hungry but recognizing that he needed to eat in order to be a good shinobi. He needed to sleep, too, but that was harder for him to actually accomplish. At least food tasted good most of the time; recently, no sleep had been peaceful for him, and sometimes in the dark of the night he wondered if bad sleep was even worth it compared to simply not sleeping at all.

It didn’t matter though. Not yet. It was a few hours still before he would need to be back and trying to sleep, so for now he wandered Konoha, as he had taken to doing recently. So long as he ducked his head and made it clear with his body language, people usually stayed away from him. Occasionally he wondered if it would be worth it to wear plain, nondescript clothes, ones without an uchiwa on the back to so easily announce his presence, but pangs gripped his heart at the very thought of it, and Konoha knew him well enough that it probably wouldn’t work anyway.

He simply had to trust in his generally misanthropic personality to keep people away from him.

Sasuke wandered through streets and down alleys and past training fields until he found himself wandering past the dock overlooking the lake, the one that he had always spent so much time at, and he wasn’t looking at it, not really, but the orange in the corner of his eye caught his attention. It was eye-searing as always, of course, and only one person ever wore that shade.

What was Naruto doing out here?

He glanced over, and yes, it was definitely his teammate, sitting at the edge of the dock with his legs dangling over it, staring down into the water as Sasuke had done so often, and the set of his shoulders seemed oddly forlorn. Sasuke recalled the way that he had been so – distant, upset, the past few days, and before he could stop himself )if he even really did want to stop himself), sparks in his mind had connected and he turned himself towards Naruto, making his way down the hill toward him.

Sasuke stepped onto the dock, his sandals making a very faint sound against the wood despite his efforts, because this dock threw him off balance. It had been such a long time since he had been here; he had stopped coming here pretty quickly, because it was too full of memories for him to stand being here. The wood creaked beneath his quieter steps, older and less forgiving to uncareful footfalls than it had been years ago.

Sasuke was sure that Naruto knew he was there, but the other boy didn’t give any sign of it. He didn’t turn or even twitch, but he also didn’t make any move to send Sasuke away.

He paused a few steps behind Naruto, shoving his hands deep down in his pockets, and wondered what the hell he thought that he was doing. Then he took a deep breath and moved forward those last few steps, settling down on the edge of the dock with his teammate.

It was too familiar, sitting here and staring down at the water placidly lying beneath them. He was old enough now that the tips of his sandals and toes trailed down into the water, and oddly that made his heart clench in his chest. He leaned against the post to his side and didn’t say anything, grieving quietly and waiting for whatever Naruto chose to make of his presence.

“Kakashi-sensei told me about my parents,” Naruto said softly, several minutes later. Sasuke turned his head to look at him, but Naruto was staring determinedly out across the lake. His hands were twisted together in his lap, though, belying the calmness in his voice.

And it was calm. Sasuke had approached him with the thought that he looked forlorn, lost, but this Naruto – he was more centered than the one he had been seeing for the past several days. In all honesty, he might be more centered than any Naruto that Sasuke had ever seen; something had settled in him, whether that was simply the knowledge of his family or something further than that, Sasuke couldn’t say.

“Good news?” Sasuke offered, because he wasn’t sure what else to give. He didn’t know what Naruto wanted from him. He didn’t know why Naruto was telling him.

Naruto huffed a laugh. “It certainly was news,” he said simply, and kept his voice carefully devoid of emotion.

Sasuke didn’t press, just let the silence fill the space between them for several heartbeats.

“I met a boy in Wave,” Naruto continued on, apropos of nothing. “It was while we were training to climb those trees. I fell asleep and he woke me up and said I might get a cold, but we started talking and…he was nice. He was very determined. He said,” and at this Naruto finally turned and looked at him. “He said that you’re only ever truly strong when you’re protecting someone important to you.”

Sasuke’s breath caught in his throat.

“I don’t think I ever thanked you,” Naruto said.

“For what?” Sasuke croaked. “You don’t have anything to thank me for. I was the one who—” let you die. Couldn’t save you.

Naruto smiled, soft and kind. Suddenly Sasuke could see, in the shadows of this moment, the way that Naruto might grow up: resolute, rough around the edges and always pushing forward, but still so unbearably kind, and Sasuke might could even see how Naruto would make his dream come true, because if there was one thing that Sasuke knew, it was that once Naruto found something to stand behind, he wouldn’t let anyone budge it from him for the world. If the Hokage fought to protect those important to him – that would be a good Hokage.

“Thank you,” Naruto said, heartfelt, and Sasuke wanted to scream, to run, because he couldn’t handle this, he couldn’t handle this acceptance of him and the calm look on Naruto’s face that said he knew exactly what he was doing, but he was frozen in place.

You could destroy me, Sasuke knew in those endless moments, staring straight into Naruto’s too blue, too honest eyes. I let you in, so I might be able to hurt you, but you could destroy me like Itachi did, and I would probably let you. Damn you.

“I trust you,” Naruto said, cutting straight to the heart of the matter.

“You shouldn’t.” Sasuke tried to scream it but still he was frozen here, caught between too many emotions, too many choices and decisions. It came out quiet and pained.

“I do,” Naruto said, his voice sure, even with his face becoming vulnerable as he said, “We’re teammates. We’re friends, right?”

This was a precipice. Sasuke didn’t know if Naruto even knew what he was offering. It was one thing to care about his teammates in the abstract, to shove down the way that he could feel himself blunt his edges and ire as he spent more and more time around them, and another to fully acknowledge it. Regardless of the solid proof that he cared about them (him), he had yet to say it out loud, because saying it out loud meant that it could be lost.

Choose, Sasuke, Itachi’s voice whispered in his head, because it was about more than just him. This was the choice between love and vengeance. He could never be fully devoted to both of them.

Naruto had already almost been lost before.

Thank you.

Sasuke chose.

“Yes,” he said, squeezing his eyes shut, because this was truly the point beyond which he was seeking to avenge his family, and the point beyond which he was safe. He had pulled himself back together in the wake of the massacre; he had pulled himself in and away from everyone, to keep himself safe. His heart belonged to him and no one else. He wouldn’t let it belong to anyone else.

It was funny. Even if he had rejected Naruto’s friendship, it would have been too late. His heart had no longer been his since the moment that Naruto fell against him in Wave, dying. Maybe even before that. Maybe it had been coming since they formed a team together, or the day that Naruto had declared himself his rival in the Academy.

In the end, it didn’t really matter. It was done, despite any way he might have attempted to prevent it. His heart didn’t belong to him anymore.

Anyone could destroy him now. Having your heart outside yourself meant it could be too easily attacked.

If it was Naruto, though—

If it was Naruto, Sasuke thought he could put his faith in him, and himself, and keep it safe. Keep him safe.

Sasuke opened his eyes, and met Naruto’s, and allowed himself the smallest, most fragile of smiles.

“Yes,” Sasuke said.

Chapter Text

Naruto almost told Sasuke.

He had been thinking about it since he’d found out about the Kyuubi. Then, it was simply an off-hand thought, wondering if he would ever find anyone that he would trust enough to even consider revealing the truth to. Iruka-sensei and most of the older shinobi in the village knew, but they didn’t count. They all knew. They knew because they had seen the attack on the village twelve years ago. What Naruto wondered was if he would ever have anyone that he would want to know the truth, that he would want to tell.

The fox scared him. The fox had taken his parents from him and made the village hate him and Naruto wanted to hate the demon in his gut too, but more than that, he wanted someone to be able to share it with. Someone that could know why the civilian villagers always looked at him the way that they did, and maybe even someone that would stand up for him anyway.

Sarutobi had told Naruto that the Kyuubi was an S-class secret, but he had also said that as the subject of that secret, Naruto could tell who he wanted, though who he told would still have to keep it in turn. He supposed that the truth of his parentage was still secret as well, but that was because of who his parents were and what his parents’ (father’s) enemies would do if they found out. It wasn’t like the fox.

So here he was. Sitting on the dock beside his friend – his friend – staring up at the stars flooding across the expanse of the sky and reflected beneath their feet in the water of the lake, and Naruto wondered whether he should tell Sasuke about the Kyuubi.

He wanted to. Gods, he wanted to. He figured that he should probably tell Sakura about it, too, while he was at it. He wanted his whole team to know, because when he thought about it, he trusted them. He trusted them with his life and he knew – he had to believe – that they cared for him.

The problem was whether he should tell them apart or separately.

The other problem was working up enough courage to actually follow through on it. Maybe he wanted them to know, but he could say that all he wanted, and the truth of the matter was that he had been ostracized his entire life for something that he couldn’t control, something that wasn’t his fault. Naruto felt that maybe it wasn’t so much as he wanted to tell them so much that he wanted them to know, so at least they would walk away from him while he could still patch his heart together.

If he told them now and they rejected him – who wouldn’t reject him for this? Who would stick by him for having the Kyuubi sealed away in his stomach, that was a huge dealbreaker in any friendship or relationship, especially after the attacks on Konoha twelve years ago? – then he could still heal. He could pull himself back together and stay on the team just long enough to become chuunin before leaving them.

Naruto wanted to trust them, but he couldn’t fully. That hadn’t always led him to good places.

Kakashi had told him about his mother, about how she had been the Kyuubi jinchuuriki before him; it seemed to Naruto that people hadn’t really known about that. It must have been kept a secret. They couldn’t just hate him for the Kyuubi attack; he had been born as it was happening, had it sealed in him to finish it, and if the villagers had known about his mother being a jinchuuriki then they must have severely shifted their opinions very quickly to get to the point that they were at when he was growing up in Konoha.

But what did he know? Maybe it really was that the resentment and pain from the Kyuubi attack was enough to sour anyone’s tolerance of jinchuuriki. Maybe it wasn’t that they hated jinchuuriki in general. Maybe they just hated him.

Naruto didn’t know.

He leaned his head against the pole to his side and stared out into the waters, trying to figure out what to do.

“We should go,” Sasuke said, soft at his side. “We have training tomorrow.”

“Yeah,” Naruto said, but he couldn’t look away from the water just yet. He couldn’t look into the dark eyes that had just promised him that he was Naruto’s friend.

Naruto wanted to trust his teammates. He wanted to trust in their camaraderie with him, the fact that they knew him, but he was scared. He didn’t want them to hate him.

How will those eyes look at me when I tell you what I really am, Sasuke?

Sakura pushed into the Yamanaka flower shop, the bell atop the door ringing cheerfully. None of those working at the shop needed the bell to know when someone had entered – they were all shinobi trained, from a clan of shinobi – but it was cheerful and pleased civilian customers, who were used to such accouterments.

“Sakura,” Inoichi said from behind the counter, surprised. “What brings you here?”

Sakura smiled shyly. She hadn’t been in here for a long time, but the shop was still as welcoming as ever, and she cursed herself a fool for the thousandth time for ever having split off her friendship with Ino.

“I’m here for Ino, actually,” she said, looking around the shop at bundles of flowers so that she wouldn’t have to look at Ino’s dad. It was embarrassing that she had stayed away for so long, and she was sure that Inoichi was privy to all the sordid details of Ino and Sakura’s rivalry. “We’re going for lunch.”

“Ah,” Inoichi said, and thankfully no more. “I’ll go get her then. If you could stand behind the counter for a few moments…?”

Sakura nodded, stepping behind the counter as Inoichi left it to duck into the back of the shop.

“Ino!” she heard him calling out, and then quiet murmurs of conversation before Ino came out of the back.

“Sakura!” Ino said, smiling widely at her. Sakura gave her own smile in return, nodding to Inoichi as she stepped out from behind the counter again and circled around to Ino’s side. “Let’s get going then.”

“I don’t have very long, even though it’s the weekend,” Sakura said apologetically. “But I did say that we should try again…”

Ino’s smile dropped slightly, her eyes troubled as she too remembered that almost disastrous attempt to go out for tea together, half a week gone since then. Sakura had managed to catch Ino in passing on the training grounds a day previously and set up a lunch date for the weekend, when they both were free – or as free as the could be as active shinobi – and wouldn’t have too many pressing duties.

Ino shrugged it off and threaded her arm through Sakura’s, pulling her toward the door of the shop. “Bye, Dad!” she called over her shoulder.

I’m always being dragged places by Ino, Sakura thought fondly, and didn’t struggle as she was led out.

They ended up heading toward a Korean barbeque place. One that, Ino explained on the way, Team Ten ended up at a good amount of the time, because protein was so important for shinobi, and also they all enjoyed the food that they could get there – the restaurant had a surprisingly diverse selection despite primarily advertising itself as a Korean barbeque restaurant. Sakura let Ino's conversation wash over her, enjoying the unbridled enthusiasm and the way that Ino talked about her team and just Ino in general, because it had been too long since they'd been able to do this together. She stuck in the occasional comment, but she wanted to hear all of this from Ino and Ino needed someone to complain and commiserate with, and anyway, they were still relearning how exactly to be friends.

They had both changed since their friendship had begun and been cut off, so in a way, they truly did need to relearn each other. There was only so much that they had been able to pick up as rivals, at a distance from each other, so for now it was a bit of a learning process.

Sakura looked forward to it.

Some things didn't change, though. Sakura had always been the quieter of the two of them. After Ino – and even for a short while concurrently – she had channeled any aggression and anger into her inner self, which probably wasn't the most mentally healthy thing to do, but she had been focused on presenting herself as, if not demure, then at least ladylike, poisoned as she had been between the expectation of her civilian family and the idea of what kunoichi were and did. Which meant not expressing the bouts of anger that she would sometimes find herself wanting to indulge in. If Sakura was being honest with herself, she had learned that anger from Ino.

Because it wasn't just anger. It was learning how to stand up for herself, to get angry at things that were unjust, to fight back against those that wanted to hurt her. It was also wrapped up in pettiness and hormones and first crushes, so it wasn't the best thing in the world, but it was hers. And Ino had shown her how to access it.

Sakura would always be grateful for that.

She had followed Ino everywhere, the girl who had unapologetically decided to become her first friend, who had always stuck up for her, and Sakura was pretty sure that most of the reason she had so long ago decided to become a kunoichi was because her best friend had been deciding to become one too, and she couldn't stand to be left behind by Ino. She had been so inspired by Ino and Ino’s parents that she couldn't leave it alone. Sakura had convinced her parents to let her join the Academy.

Maybe that was shallow of her. Maybe that wasn't the best of reasons to become a kunoichi. She had grown a lot since then.

Honestly, even when she entered the Academy, after a short while there her focus had shifted away from not being left behind by her friend, and instead on to what it meant to be a shinobi of Konoha. She had been so insatiably curious, so dedicated to her learning, that she had begun reading everything about shinobi that she could get her little civilian hands on in the summer before she actually began at the Academy. That, combined with the first few weeks of the Academy, cemented it. She wanted to be a kunoichi because this was her village, this was her home and land, and she couldn't stand to leave it unprotected. She admired all of the shinobi and kunoichi of the past who had gone to such lengths in order to protect their homes, and she couldn't help but admire that. She couldn't help but want to emulate that.

Of course, all too soon strife and boy troubles – gods, how that seemed embarrassing now, when she had finally realized what the true cost of being a shinobi was – had caused a rift and subsumed the real reason that she had wanted to join the Academy and become a kunoichi in the first place (both the shallow and the intensely personal reasons).

So. Listening to Ino ramble on about life and everything that was going on with her teammates? Not something that Sakura was unfamiliar with, though before it had always been in the context of the other shinobi children or friends of the clan that Ino hung around because of their fathers' friendship. In hindsight, Sakura really wondered why Ino had thought that she would make it onto Sasuke's team when the Hokage seemed to have been so hellbent on trying to recreate the InoShikaCho trio of the generation past.

They reached the restaurant and were seated quickly, the both of them perusing their menus and deciding what to order. Sakura was able to buy pretty much anything on the menu without having to worry about expenses, at least for the near future – the Wave mission had been bumped to A-rank, and their pay had been increased accordingly. Partially recompense for genin being sent on an A-rank mission in the first place, partially probably for the trauma, partially simply because that was mostly standard with Konoha. It was only a special situation because Tazuna had lied about the risk of the mission before the start of it; were it an A-rank pushed up to an S-rank or anything such as that, where the client hadn't lied and the enemies had simply been unexpected, it wouldn't have been an issue. Konoha repaid its shinobi fairly for their services rendered.

Sakura ended up ordering beef and noodles – she had just come from a training session, she was hungry and needed the calories – and Ino ordered much the same, though with rice instead. They both ordered tea for the wait and to accompany the meal, and sipped at it casually as they waited for the food to arrive.

"So how have you been?" Ino asked, uncharacteristically cautious. Sakura was sad that she had made her once upon a time friend so careful around her, afraid that she would step on a landmine of emotion, but at the same time she was grateful that Ino would be trying so hard to try to not poke at something that would hurt Sakura. Right now, there were too many things that would.

"I'm fine," Sakura said, shrugging. "Or...I'm okay, I suppose. It would probably be a lie to say that I'm fine."

Ino snorted a little and then looked at Sakura almost cautiously, gauging her response to her reaction. Sakura's lips quirked a little.

"I'm not that sensitive," she said, not quite dry but approaching it. She stared down at her tea, swirling it gently with one hand and breaking up the reflection of her face staring accusingly back at her. "It was just – a sore point the other day. I probably overreacted a bit."

Ino didn't say anything to that, not letting Sakura gauge her own response to that. Sakura forged on nevertheless.

"It was..." Sakura sighed gustily, her bangs drifting slightly with the movement. "A really bad mission. It was supposed to be a C-rank but it got bumped up to an A-rank by the end."

Ino's eyes went wide. "You were on an A-rank?" she demanded.

"Yeah," Sakura said, not sharing in the little enthusiasm that Ino had projected into that question. To her credit, Ino reigned in her awe as she remembered that Sakura had said it wasn't a good mission, easily reading the expression on Sakura's face and the tone that accompanied it.

"We all could have died so easily," Sakura said, not looking at Ino and instead looking down into her tea. She tried to avoid her eyes, but she couldn't swirl the tea anymore, and so instead she was looking into her own bleak eyes rippling across the liquid’s surface as she told the tale. "We met the Demon Brothers of Mist barely a day into the trip, and those two were easy enough to deal with, but that bumped it up to a B-rank, and we decided to go on, and then we met Zabuza of the Bloody Mist--"

Just like that, the story came sluicing out of her. Sakura hadn't realized just how much she needed to talk about it with someone, anyone, in order to the get the festering feelings out of her body and soul, but Ino was the perfect person to talk to. She had been someone that Sakura had trusted so greatly once upon a time, and now she was still in the position of trying to get back together with Sakura as a friend, while still being somewhat of an impartial listener. Ino was possibly one of the best people that she could talk to about this: shinobi born, shinobi raised, and if not already associated with death, at least familiar with it and with what it did to people. Especially because of the clan that she was in.

Not that Sakura had come to her to vent because she was a Yamanaka. Sakura had genuinely valued their friendship when they had it, and she wanted to rebuild it. But she truly hadn't realized just how much she needed to talk about this to someone that wasn't her teammate or her sensei, and so out to Ino it spilled. It wasn't a classified mission, so she was free to talk about it to anyone that she wanted to. She could tell Ino all about it.

To her credit, Ino listened carefully to it, to the whole sordid tale, as carefully as Sakura had listened to her on the way to the Korean barbecue restaurant, if less cheerfully than Sakura had listened to her lighthearted stories and aggravations. This was dark and terrifying and Sakura barely kept hot tears from rolling down her cheeks as she recounted that fear that had filled her in the moments when she had realized that Naruto was probably dead, that he had died saving Sasuke, and that Kakashi had taken too long to explain to her – to them – that Naruto wasn't, in fact, dead. She had thought for too long moments that her teammate was gone, and she had never treated him the way that she should have, what kind of monster was she to have been so cruel to him for so long when he was so much braver than she had ever been—?

Sakura's burst of words came to a halt, suddenly realizing that she had said a fair amount of that out loud. She rubbed her hands over her face, suddenly ashamed. She was a good shinobi, wasn't she? At least, she was supposed to be. She probably shouldn't have been saying all of that out loud. Good shinobi weren't as affected by missions as she was. They wouldn't have displayed such doubt as she had. And out loud, too, in public, to a friend where anyone could overhear it.

Despite all that, though, Sakura wasn't crying. She could at least grant herself that distinction.

She had promised herself that she wouldn’t, and she was holding to that.

Ino reached out and grabbed Sakura’s hand with one of her own, squeezing it gently. Her expression was unbearably kind.

“You made it through that, Sakura,” she said. “You all made it through. You’re all back in Konoha. You’re alive, and anything can happen now.”

Kakashi let the gentle chatter of his students wash over him as they sat together in the training fields, taking a well deserved break. They had graduated – for the time being – from fighting on the water’s surface to fighting among the lower branches of trees around the field. Kakashi was of the opinion that they needed to be exposed to different terrains for fighting before they entered the Exams, and what could be better than a standard backdrop like trees? Konoha nin almost always had the advantage among trees, and especially given the fact that the Exams were in Konoha meant that Kakashi would be remiss in his duties if he didn’t teach them how to properly fight off the ground.

He still hadn’t told them that he was nominating them. On some level he had probably been waiting for a moment that all of them were calm and centered as possible given the past two weeks. He had also wanted to see their reactions as he had steadily been pushing them more throughout the two weeks after they had returned from Wave, and so far they hadn’t disappointed. Team Seven had really been throwing themselves into their training, working hard at it even when they didn’t realize he was going to nominate them for the Chuunin Exams. He wasn’t sure they even knew that it was about to take place.

They certainly would in a few minutes. Today was the day that he had decided to tell them. Kakashi didn’t want to give them too much time before the Exams to stress themselves out about it – they were working hard enough as it was – but nor did he want to spring it on them a few days before.

(Kakashi was honest enough with himself to know that under different circumstances, he was enough of a jackass to do exactly that and laugh at his team’s reactions.)

As it was, he wanted them informed and he wanted to give them a bit of time to adjust to this idea and make their decision themselves. He didn’t want to pressure them into this if they decided they didn’t want to do it, even if he thought they could make it through. He wanted it to be their decision before he brought it up before the Sandaime and all the other jounin nominating their kids. (The Sandaime, of course, already knew, but none of the other jounin did.)

Kakashi sat down his empty bent box and surveyed his students, his chin propped lazily against his fist. They really were so much better of a team than he had thought he had at the very beginning of this venture and they had grown into so much better of one than Kakashi deserved.

“I was thinking of nominating you three for the Chuunin Exams,” Kakashi said, laying it out straight and bunt, his almost casual statement easily breaking through the relaxed conversation.

The genin turned to him as one.

“What?” Sakura and Naruto asked in sync, Naruto perhaps a bit more cluelessly than Sakura. Sasuke didn’t say anything but his furrowed brow expressed his own confusion just as well.

“I was thinking of nominating you three for the Chuunin Exams,” Kakashi repeated, digging the waivers out of a pocket of his flak jacket. “I might have done it even without what happened on the Wave mission, but I can say you have all done much better since then. You’ve grown and you’re taking your duties and training much more seriously. You’ve also come together much more as a team since then.” Kakashi smiled beneath his mask, his uncovered eye crinkling for them to see. “I think you could do well in the Exams.”

He handed a waiver to each of his students. They stared down at them, obviously caught flat footed.

“You also have a home field advantage this year,” Kakashi went on. “It’s in Konoha this year, so you know the terrain and weather better than anyone that would be coming from another land, and you know the training fields around here.”

Team Seven still hadn’t said anything, looking unsurely between the other members of their team and Kakashi and the waiver he had just handed them.

Kakashi stood, the genin automatically joining him. “Think about it for a few days,” he suggested. “There’s still a little over a week before we need to put names up for the nomination, and then a week until the Exams start. Decide for yourselves.” He met their eyes firmly, the clapped his hands together cheerfully. “Now! A little more training and then some exciting D-ranks to round off the day!”

Kakashi wasn’t quire sure what it meant that his students were too off balance to let out anymore than the faintest of groans at this plan of actions, but he chose to take it as a good sign and forged on.

Naruto wandered aimlessly through the streets that evening, the waiver for the Chuunin Exams tucked away in his pouch. He had dropped by his apartment after the day’s missions, heating up some ramen for a quick meal, but then he couldn’t sit still. He was too antsy to stay within the confining walls of his apartment, his thoughts wheeling round and round.

Some part of him wanted to drop by Iruka’s, to ask one of the few familial figures in his life what he should do, but something in him balked at that. He didn’t want to have to depend upon Iruka for deciding what to do; that was no way to become stronger, always concerned with what his brother figure wanted him to do.

And anyway, Iruka had been really concerned about him recently, what with everything that had suddenly been going on in Naruto’s life. He had a feeling that Iruka would try to talk him out of it, and Naruto wasn’t sure he wanted that. He just wasn’t sure he wanted to take the Exams either.

No, the best thing for him to do was to make up his own mind about it. Then, and only then, could he tell Iruka what he had decided. He needed to be sure and firm about this.

This wasn’t something that he could second guess himself about after he made his decision.

Kakashi-sensei thinks we could do it.

He tested that idea, poking and prodding at it carefully. Kakashi had certainly upped their training after they had come back from Wave – he was pushing their limits more than he ever had, pushing for their teamwork to be a solid, uncontested thing despite the varying tensions between all of them in the past couple of weeks, and they were still taking several D-ranks per day even after that training.

An unkind, much abused part of Naruto might have thought, a month ago, that Kakashi was simply trying to get id of them. He certainly hadn’t seemed at all interested in them when he was first assigned Team Seven.

Naruto couldn’t bring himself to believe that now. He had seen just how much Kakashi truly did care for them all. If he said he thought they could do it, he honestly meant it and was trying to do his best by them. He had faith in them. Kakashi wasn’t washing his hands of them, but pushing them toward a challenge he thought they could face. One that would possibly promote them, too.

And if they failed, what was the worst that could happen?

Well, death, but they had almost died on their first C-rank. They were shinobi; death was always more assured than anything else in their lives. Plus, they were going to have to take the Chuunin Exams at some point anyway, unless they wanted to be career genin for the rest of their lives, which Naruto decidedly did not want to be, so why not take it now when, as Kakashi had said, they were safely within Konoha and had the home field advantage?

Why not now, when they had already had such a close encounter with death?

Naruto stopped, realizing he had come to his decision. He felt…he felt good about it.

Even if they didn’t pass the Exams, there were other times to try. Other Exams in other lands

(He hoped he would never have to take one in Kiri. He’d had just about enough of Kiri nin already, and he was only a genin.)

Okay, he thought. Let’s do this!

Naruto looked around, trying to get his bearing so he could head back to his apartment, and suddenly realized where he was.

The high gates of the Uchiha complex stood before him, intimidating and cold. The uchiwa painted on it had faded with time; Naruto could remember running past years ago, and the paint had always been bright.

Naruto was – he sometimes didn’t notice things. He knew that.

He hadn’t missed the sudden absence of every Uchiha in the village, excluding Sasuke, because how could he? They had been the ones chasing after him oftentimes for his pranks; it was only once they were gone that such duties had fallen to random shinobi or even ANBU very occasionally. Whoever happened to be nearest the area and available.

He hadn’t missed the whispers all around the village, either, suddenly not focused on him, and focused on the Uchiha Massacre instead.

But he missed the fine details of it. He hadn’t wanted to know. He heard whispers of missing nin and traitor and the whole clan, gone and he didn’t pay any more attention. He hadn’t really wanted to know about the tragedy of one of his classmates, because it was terrible, because then he would empathize with him and want to be friends with him and—

And Uchiha Sasuke would never be friends with him. No one would ever be friends with him.

Except somehow, impossibly, Sasuke was.

And Naruto had never realized it was Sasuke’s own brother that had killed his entire family.

Sasuke’s had a lot of people taken away from him, Kakashi explained from memory.

It was his brother that had done that.

Naruto crossed his arms, cold simply at the thought. Naruto didn’t have too many precious people. Iruka, the Sandaime, all of Team Seven – that was what he had. Not even memories of his parents.

He couldn’t imagine having a whole family, more than just the piecemeal one he had collected around himself, and then having them taken away from him. Taken away by someone who had been part of it.

It was incomprehensible.

It was terrifying.

He wasn’t sure how Sasuke had ever recovered from that. Naruto knew enough about himself to realize if it had happened to him, especially at the age Sasuke had been during the Massacre, it may have irrevocably shattered him.

Maybe it wasn’t that Sasuke had recovered from it, though. Maybe he had simply refused to let it destroy him, but he had never really recovered from it, and that was why he had always been so cold and closed off. He had tucked away all his broken pieces and never let anyone near enough to help him blunt shattered edges and salvage what they could.

He’d let Naruto in.

That must meant Sasuke trusted him.

Naruto really liked the idea of that kind of trust.

“What are you doing here?”

Naruto jumped guiltily, meeting Sasuke’s dark eyes, only just now noticing that the gates were cracked slightly, enough for Sasuke to slip in and out. He hadn’t been there moments before, Naruto was sure of it, but it was still at least a little embarrassing that he’d let himself be caught so totally unawares.

Sasuke’s dark hair and clothes blended in with the night. His eyes caught the glint of the moon and were for a moment silver.

The after shade, between the light and falling back to darkness, was red.

“I was trying to decide what to do about the Chuunin Exams,” Naruto said honestly, after a beat. He shoved his hands deep into his pockets.

“…what did you decide?” Sasuke asked.

Naruto swept his eyes over Sasuke’s form, wishing that he could read his teammate’s – his friend’s – body language a little better. It wasn’t the night masking his features that made this difficult, because Naruto had good vision even in darkness, and this was a lighter night than most.

No, it was that Sasuke always kept his face in such a chillingly blank look, when he wasn’t scowling instead. His body language was still and concealed, not giving many clues to what he was really thinking.

Naruto knew he wasn’t anything like that, and he didn’t wish to be any more like it. He could do stealth when he needed to, so he was fine being loud and moving. He only wished he could read Sasuke better.

“I want to do it,” Naruto said, confident. “I think we should take the Chuunin Exams.”

Sasuke looked at him, mulling this over or studying Naruto or something, but Naruto didn’t fidget. He waited for Sasuke’s response.

Finally, a slow nod of the head.

Naruto almost cheered. He refrained, grinning wildly instead, and something went soft in Sasuke’s face, such a sudden and unexpected display that Naruto’s grin nearly faltered at it.

“Do you want to come in?” Sasuke said, looking somewhere past Naruto, whose grin really did fall away this time.

In all the time that Naruto had ever even known of him, the time that they’d been on a team together, the short time they’d been acknowledged as friends, Sasuke had never invited anyone into his home.

(Naruto hadn’t either, but if he felt he’d ever had a good enough friend to invite back to his apartment, he would have. Kakashi-sensei had visited him, of course, as had the Sandaime and Iruka, but there were his teachers and mentors. Not his friends.)

Naruto had a pretty good idea of how monumental this moment was. Then, he’d felt like there had been a lot of monumental moments since Wave.

Things were changing.

Naruto could honestly say he loved it.

“Yeah,” he said.

Sasuke stepped back, spinning neatly on his heel and disappearing through the gate in the Uchiha complex.

Naruto followed close behind him.

Chapter Text

Sakura stood by herself the next morning at the training grounds, waiting for the rest of her team to show up. The night before, she had eaten dinner quietly, rolling the idea of the Exams in her head over and over again, trying to figure out if she really wanted to do it, examining all the angles and flaws to the proposal, while her parents talked around the silence of her.

Her immediate, gut reaction to it had been yes. Yes, she wanted to do this, she wanted her prove herself and fight against other genin and maybe even become a chuunin. She wanted the work she’d put into her training recently to be tested and she believed in what Kakashi had told them.

But a small part of her held back. It wasn’t so much fear as it was the kind of caution that had held her all her life. A civilian kind of fear. Sakura had always been that way, always tried to study for everything or hammer out a plan beforehand instead of going off the cuff as she had always watched Naruto do.

It wasn’t a bad thing that she always tried to plan things out. But it could hold her back sometimes; she got too caught up in the plans and trying to be prepared for every situation.

So to immediately want to jump into something actually made her want to do the opposite. Her eagerness made her take a step back and evaluate, as she always did, and this time she thought that thinking it through, planning it out, was what she truly did need to do.

That was what she did that night. Sakura sat on her bed and meditated. She laid out all the pros and cons, the good reasons and the bad, the dangers that they might face and what they about what the Exams might be like, and she evaluated them ruthlessly. She dug into her own emotions about it, and found herself tracing back to the conversation with Ino, the events in Wave, even why she had decided to become a shinobi in the first place.

Sakura opened her eyes again late in the night, slowly stretching and then lying down on her bed, the covers pulled up to her chin.

She still wanted to do it.

Now in the morning, she watched as Naruto and Sasuke arrived together. Sakura watched the boys approach, one hand straying over to where she had the waiver tucked away. Naruto was grinning wildly, arms tucked behind his head in a casual, cheerful pose that was jarring for how infrequently Sakura had seen it since Wave, but it made her smile nonetheless. Sasuke wasn’t smiling, but there was a relaxed edge to his expression, and his hands weren’t shoved so deeply and angrily into his pockets.

They stopped next to her, and Team Seven all looked at each other, not sure of who should speak first. It was like a dam filled to its depths, about to crack and break under the pressure of all the water pushing against it. In that moment, Sakura knew they were all waiting to say the same thing or ask the same question.

“Let’s do it,” Sakura said firmly, pulling the waiver out of her pouch.

Naruto’s grin grew even brighter, and even Sasuke’s lips ticked up a bit at the corners. They withdrew their own waivers.

Sakura dug a brush and some ink out of her pack that was usually used to hold her notes from the library or what she remembered after long hours at the hospital. She signed her name with a flourish, passing the brush over to Naruto, who copied her, and then Sasuke.

When Kakashi showed up, a good fifteen minutes later, they presented him their signed waivers as a united front.

Naruto hadn’t doubted that Sakura would sign her waiver. Not even for a moment. They were a team, a real one now, one whose jounin leader believed in them, one that was getting along so much better than they had previously.

Sakura was really strong and fiercely determined. Naruto wasn’t sure he had ever realized how much. He had recognized it in some sense at the Academy, he supposed, but it wasn’t like it was now. When she had declared her ambition to become a medic-nin –

Well, Naruto had been preoccupied with his own troubles, but he had still seen the bright fire and her eyes.

No, he hadn’t doubted she would sign the waiver.

Naruto shot a look sideways at Sasuke. It was the end of training and missions for the day He knew that neither Sakura nor Sasuke needed to go into the hospital today. Now was his chance.

Sasuke caught his eye and shrugged faintly.

“Sakura, you should come over to Sasuke’s!” Naruto said, bolstered by the encouragement. It was Sasuke’s home, after all, so he couldn’t simply invite anyone over, but when Naruto had enthusiastically started outlining plans for the Chuunin Exams the night before, Sasuke had listened to them all, offering quiet suggestions along the way, and then tentatively offered up the Uchiha district as a base of operations, as it were.

The Uchiha district was huge and isolated; they wouldn’t have to worry about room like they would in Naruto’s apartment or perhaps Sakura’s home, and it was private property with only one inhabitant and no nearby neighbors. Sasuke had also pointed out that they had a dojo within the compound and small clan libraries to trawl through for information.

Naruto had been beside himself with glee at this new factor, because it made several things a lot easier, and even more when he realized Sasuke likely wouldn’t be opposed to the team spending the night, if the way he had easily and immediately offered a spare futon to Naruto was any indication. That had happened simply because Naruto had gotten lost in planning and ideas – the way he always used to when outlining his most dedicated, intricate pranks – and simply talking with Sasuke, as friends, and before he knew it his eyes were drooping and Sasuke was ushering him toward a futon in his room, quickly made up for Naruto to sleep on, rather than sending him back to his apartment.

They’d had to leave a little earlier than Sasuke likely usually left the compound so that Naruto could stop by his apartment to change and grab his gear for the day, but that was fine. Sasuke looked a little less tired than he had recently; he was even smiling!

Here and now, Sakura’s pale pink lashes fluttered as she blinked once, twice, looking between the two of them like she was trying to figure out if the offer was genuine.

“Come on, Sakura,” Naruto wheedled. “Sasuke’s already said yes, right?” He elbowed Sasuke in the side; Sasuke glared at him irritably but obligingly nodded his head. “Come on, come on, it’s more team building! I never see you outside of training and Sasuke doesn’t talk enough but he said there was a dojo we could use in the Uchiha district and there are some clan libraries for research and I know you like reading and—”

“All right!” Sakura said, laughing a little and cutting Naruto off. “That sounds good to me. Let’s go.”

Naruto punched the air and grabbed one of Sasuke’s and one of Sakura’s hands, pulling them along behind him excitedly. Sasuke and Sakura met gazes behind his head. Sasuke was soft and smiling, and Sakura smiled back at him.

It was – better, having his team around. It was better than he could ever have imagined.

They were with him all the time, in his space and the too-quiet Uchiha district and piled together after late nights spent training or going through the many scrolls scattered throughout empty homes. They ate dinners together, and even if Sakura had to return to her civilian parents at night –

"They worry about me," Sakura said, staring up at the low hanging moon one night, paused outside Sasuke's front door. "No one in my family has ever been a shinobi before. And now that I've been sent on C-ranks, now that we've been entered for the Chuunin Exams – they're scared."

Sasuke didn't know what to say to that; he had always known he would be a shinobi. He could understand hoping your family returned safe, but he couldn't comprehend the fear that Sakura painted before him.

Naruto, in a surprising amount of tact, squeezed her hand gently.

—Sasuke wasn't left alone, given Naruto had spent more nights at Sasuke's than he had at his apartment recently.

The first time that Sasuke woke up from a nightmare, he looked to his side, to where Naruto was blearily rubbing at his eyes and sitting up.

"Sasuke?" he mumbled.

"Nothing," Sasuke said. "It's fine."

Naruto's eyes narrowed even as his jaw cracked wide with a yawn. "Liar," he said.

"I'll be fine," Sasuke amended. "Just need some water."

He padded quietly out of the room, and somehow wasn't surprised to see Naruto following behind him. Naruto drifted off at the kitchen table, head propped in his hand, and something warm filled Sasuke's chest at his friend's refusal to leave him by himself.

The nightmares tapered off after that, infrequent instead of ever present, held back by the comfort of another body or two in the same space as him.

Kakashi was still pushing them hard in training every day, on top of having them continue to do D-ranks, and they were all working together. They were getting better and better, and they were going to pull this off. Sasuke believed that.

We’re going to be chuunin.

He didn’t doubt that when they did, they would all still choose to be on the same squad. He knew that he would choose that. He wanted to stay with these people.

(—he wouldn’t be able to bear losing them—)

We’re going to be chuunin.

He couldn’t wait.

Naruto nearly palmed a kunai when he felt someone following him.

Kakashi had lately been having them practice both their stealth and detection skills. Which mostly meant that they were playing hide-and-seek through the training grounds – sometimes without ever touching the ground – but also meant that Kakashi would unexpectedly jump them in the middle of the street.

Because he was an asshole like that.

Not that it wasn’t useful, because being a shinobi was a dangerous life and you were never guaranteed that you’d be able to see an enemy coming so you had to have skills that could save your life, but Naruto just wanted to eat ramen without his teacher showing up to throw kunai at him.

He’d quickly learned to duck. They all had.

Naruto caught Sasuke and Sakura’s eyes, making sure that they would be ready for whatever Kakashi’s sneak attack would be this time, and then he spun on his heel, halfway through the signs for a replacement, to see—

“Rocks aren’t square, Konohamaru!”

The ‘rock’ stayed exactly where it was.

“They don’t have eyes, either!”

“As expected from the Boss!” Konohamaru shouted, tossing his disguise away and standing with the two other kids that were with him.

“Who’s this?” Sakura asked, relaxing as Naruto flashed his hands behind his back to signal that they were all clear.

“Konohamaru,” Naruto said. “He’s—”

“I’m the Boss’ rival and apprentice!” Konohamaru yelled. “And I’ve got my own subordinates – Moegi and Udon!” The two behind Konohamaru waved. Konohamaru’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “Are these two your subordinates, Boss?”

“No!” Naruto said, slightly strangled. He slid a nervous glance Sakura’s way, then said, “They’re my teammates. Sakura and Sasuke.” He gestured to each of them.

Konohamaru’s eyes narrowed even further. “So’s Sakura your girlfriend?”

“No!” Naruto yelped.

“Is Sasuke your—”

Stop talking, Konohamaru!” Naruto all but shouted, slapping his hand over the boy’s mouth. He was very, very fortunate that Sakura just looked faintly amused behind him. Sasuke was absolutely blank faced, but that was about all that Naruto could expect from him in the first place, so he figured it was fine.

Konohamaru licked his palm.

“Eugh,” Naruto said, but didn’t let go. He had dealt with much more disgusting things than a kid licking his hand. It was a good learning lesson for Konohamaru, too; some people might fall for tricks like that, but some wouldn’t.

Konohamaru glared at him until Naruto finally let go.

“Play ninja with us, nii-chan,” he demanded.

“Konohamaru, I’m—” Naruto started.

“Busy,” Konohamaru said, sneering the word slightly. He kicked his foot into the dirt. “You haven’t been around anywhere.”

Because he’d been on missions and training with his team and – avoiding the Hokage. Any chances that Konohamaru might have had to see him by sneaking into the Hokage’s office wouldn’t have worked, because Naruto had been doing his best to not be anywhere near the old man.

He had forgiven Kakashi-sensei for his part in the deception, but a part of him was still irreparably injured by the way that the Hokage had kept the truth of his parents from him. Naruto knew that he should forgive the old man, he just…couldn’t yet. Naruto couldn’t look the old man in the eye and not demand answers for all the things that he’d kept from him.

So he’d stayed away from him instead.

“I’m sorry,” Naruto said, crouching in front of Konohamaru. “I’ll make it up to you.” He looked at his teammates. Sakura still had that faintly amused look on her face. Sasuke – had frozen, something strange making its way into his expression, like it sometimes did in the middle of the night at his house and he woke Naruto (and sometimes Sakura) up with what they all knew were nightmares.

“We don’t have any missions or training for the rest of the day,” Naruto said, hoping his teammates would go along with this. “Do you want to play ninja tag?”

Konohamaru brightened. So did his friends behind him. Then Konohamaru slapped his chest, shouted, “You’re it!” and took off running.

“Hey!” Naruto said.

“You left yourself open for that one,” Sakura said, grinning.

Naruto lunged at her and she danced back, hopping up onto a fence and taking off after Konohamaru and his friends. Naruto spun on his heel toward Sasuke—

Who was already following in Sakura’s footsteps and halfway down the street.

“Get back here, you cheats!” Naruto yelled, but he couldn’t help the laughter that flooded his voice as he followed them.