It sort of embarrasses Kakashi (and he knows that it will end poorly) but he cannot give her up. He, whose name is known and feared throughout the shinobi world, belongs to a little girl. Worse, he likes belonging to her.
Kakashi likes the way that she cup him in her hands, gently fingers behind his ears, and lets him ride on her shoulders or the top of her head. He likes her scent, her thick pink hair, and the treats that she gives him. He enjoys her scoldings when he (wears and) shreds her things into nesting materials.
Kakashi is a man, cursed and not yet fully grown, but he is a man with his own apartment, a devoted dog pack, and a real girlfriend. He has a life of his own. But Kakashi likes his cozy nest in the girl's shoebox. He likes the little girl, Sakura. Kakashi even likes the bright, silly ribbons that she ties around his neck. (He likes them so much that, when he is human and not a rat, he wears them tied around his wrist.)
Hatake Kakashi is a civilian girl's devoted pet and he cannot find it within himself to care.
It is love at first sight, at least it is for Lee. He sees the pink-haired kunoichi, walking between her teammates and laughing at something that the blond one said, and immediately falls deeply and hopelessly in love. She is just so pretty! And her smile is beautiful.
Lee stalks her, unseen and unknown, and learns that she is Haruno Sakura, genin. She is in love with the Uchiha and is loved by Uzumaki. Her teacher is the Rat. (And, for the first time, Lee dislikes the Rat for more than being a talented, natural born genius.)
When Lee sees the three of them struggling to haul a tree stump out of the ground for a farmer, he knows that his time, the time of the Ox, has come.
"Oh, hey, look!" shouts Uzumaki. "An ox!"
Lee plods straight to Sakura and nuzzles her shoulder. Sakura giggles and pets him.
"Naruto, help me make a harness," Sasuke orders. "Sakura, you're going to make him pull the stump out for us."
Lee kicks the boys when they try to put the harness on him. He lets Sakura harness and lead him. Lee would pull a thousand stumps for Sakura.
Hinata has trouble holding her human shape after her mother's death.
One afternoon, on her way home from an awful day at school, it starts raining. For Hinata, it is simply too much. She changes right then and there. Hinata curls up in her things and waits for the rain to end. She is still waiting, sopping wet and whimpering for a mother that will never come for her, when the pink-haired girl finds her. Hinata recognizes Sakura from her class at the academy.
"Oh! What a pretty kitty!" she coos as she picks up Hinata. Cuddling her close, Sakura takes Hinata and all of her things home with her. She tosses Hinata's clothes in her washer, roughly dries Hinata with a towel, and bakes Hinata's books until they are dry. She ties the wide red ribbon from her own hair around Hinata's neck and gives Hinata a bowl of warm milk.
"I'm going to miss you, Kitty," Sakura says, taking a break from reading the reading assignment aloud. She scratches behind Hinata's ears and rubbing Hinata's tummy. "Come visit me sometimes after you go home."
Hinata rumbles and rubs her chin against Sakura's wrist. Sakura is Hinata's first friend.
Kurenai specializes in deception. As a genjutsu master, she shows people what they want (or fear) to see. As a kunoichi, she pretends to be wildly attracted to wealthy older men and women with interesting secrets or useful information. And, as the Rabbit of the zodiac, she pretends to be a harmless animal.
And she is very, very good at maintaining all three of her roles, simultaneously if necessary. But, of her three masks, Rabbit is her least favorite. For one thing, everyone and their cousin eats rabbit stew. For another thing, rabbit fur-lined outerwear is standard issue when Leaf shinobi are dispatched to cold climates. And children always, always assume that she will let them put their sticky hands into her fur.
Occasionally, however, being the Rabbit has its benefits. No one ever suspects their collared pet of spying on them. Everyone assumes that their beloved rabbit will keep their secrets. And no one ever accuses a foraging rabbit of being a foreign invader or scout. (They are probably too busy thinking about the stew and gloves that they can make from the rabbit.)
Kurenai is one of Konohagakure's greatest, and least lauded, assets. She likes it that way.
Shisui is the consummate shinobi, hiding in the shadows and only emerging to strike. There is a certain inescapable irony in his need for sunlight. But, as a man who occasionally turns into a lizard, Shisui simply cannot do without it.
He is in his lizard form, basking in the sun's heat, when two little kunoichi catch him. The girls pet his pebbled skin, trace his ridges, and stroke his sharp claws. They shriek with laughter at the sight of his flickering tongue.
"We should keep him," the pink-haired one decides. Since she is warm, Shisui is not overly bothered by her suggestion.
"He's not very friendly," the other says dubiously. Shisui recognizes her as the Pig of the zodiac.
"He just needs a snack. I bet he'd like eating Shino's bugs."
Ino snorts. "You're going to keep Shi-- that lizard, just so Shino can't menace you with his insect partners anymore?"
"That's the idea," the pinkette says cheerfully as she collars Shisui with Ino's soft blue ribbon. Excited at the idea of all of those crunchy snacks, Shisui flickers his tongue out.
"This is a terrible idea."
"Or is it a great idea?"
Shisui shakes with silent reptilian laughter.
Sasuke hates the cold. So, of course, Kakashi takes a mission to Land of Snow. Sasuke hates his jonin-sensei a little bit more with every step further north. By the time that he can see his breath, Sasuke thoroughly loathes the damn Rat. Sasuke wears the most cold weather gear of anyone in his group and risks sleeping between Naruto and Sakura.
He still transforms one evening, while gathering firewood. And, no matter what he does to warm himself up or how he tries to force the change, Sasuke is stuck. His only hope is that Kakashi finds him before anyone else happens across him.
Sakura find him. To be more accurate, she find his clothes and weapons and immediately goes still.
"Sasuke?" Sakura asks. "Sasuke, if you're still awake, you have to do something so that I can find you."
Sasuke holds perfectly still.
"I know about the zodiac curse," Sakura says. "It's no big deal."
Sasuke slithers toward Sakura. She yelps and startles at the first touch of his scales against her ankle. But she recovers, leans down, and scoops him up.
"Don't worry, Sasuke-kun," Sakura says as she wraps Sasuke around her waist. "I'll keep you warm."
When he is twenty-one, Itachi is stolen. The kunoichi who steals him, pink-haired and no more than fifteen, obviously knows nothing about horse flesh. If she did, she would have stolen any other horse.
Itachi goes from laying low while Cloud's ANBU searches the countryside to running a cross-country race with a hundred and some-odd pound weight on his back. Once, he ran like the wind (on a really windy day.) Now, Itachi is lucky to stay thirty paces ahead of her pursuers. The kunoichi is a newly-minted chunin and determined to succeed at the Leaf's mission. And, despite everything, Itachi is still a Leaf nin at heart. Helping her nearly kills him.
"Good boy," she says, patting his lathered side. "You did such a good job. We're safe now."
Itachi appreciates hearing that, especially since it feel like his lungs are burning and melting. He thinks that he might die. The kunoichi must think so too, because she presses mint green chakra into his heaving side.
"Your poor lungs," she says. "You've been sick for awhile, haven't you? Don't worry. I can fix that."
If she does, Itachi vows, I'll be the best horse any little girl ever stole.
After Neji's father is murdered, Neji spends the next nine months as a lamb. About three days into the nine months, Hiashi-sama collars him. To spite the Main House, Neji runs away. Hours later, a girl with pink hair and chubby cheeks finds Neji while he is trying to twist free of his collar (and a bush).
"Oh," she says, sounding dismayed. "You're tangled in a bush. Here, let me help."
Ignoring Neji's (menacing!) bleats (and the way he snaps his blunt sheep's teeth at her), she kneels at his shoulder, petting his ears, rubbing his chest, and scratching at his fluffy neck. Against his will, Neji relaxes.
The girl, who declares his collar hopelessly tangled, cuts Neji out of it. Then she grabs a handful of Neji's wool and takes him to her home. She feeds him, pets him, and reads her homework assignments aloud to him. And, after living with her for a week, Neji lets Sakura collar him.
Solely to avoid being mistaken for lamb chops, Neji assures himself as Sakura clips a soft, pink collar around his neck. That he keeps the collar afterwards, and occasionally wears it, is not something that Neji thinks on. Ever.
Ebisu spends nearly two years as an organ-grinding monkey in a sleek red coat, a red hat, and a golden collar. It is not a bad year. When the mission is complete, he kills his 'owner' on his way out of town. He keeps the little coat, hat, and organ, though.
After he gets back to Konohagakure, debriefs, and settles back into his life, Ebisu discovers that his taste in porn has changed. Evolved, perhaps. He still enjoys all of the things that he did before but, now, Ebisu really likes collars. Scenarios in which all of those things happen because someone is wearing a collar, is owned, is ordered to do them get him hopelessly excited. The idea that he could let someone collar him, own him, order him around is a source of endless interest to Ebisu.
When Kakashi starts wearing ribbons wound around his wrist, Ebisu knows exactly what is going on. He shoots Kakashi his filthiest leer.
"It's not like that," Kakashi says weakly. "I'm not..."
"Desperate," Kakashi firmly corrects.
"So, are those Hana's ribbons?" Ebisu asks. He smirks when Kakashi flushes around his lone eye. "Well, if whoever it is wants a monkey..."
When he is younger, Asuma is angry at the world for a variety of reasons, most centering around his father and a couple pertaining to his curse. In those days, Kakashi, who is also angry at his father and his curse and the world, is his everything.
When Asuma is offered a position as one of the Fire Lord's guards, he asks Kakashi to go with him. Kakashi refuses, saying that he must protect 'Minato-sensei's village'. Kakashi asks Asuma to stay. But Asuma, who sees Konohagakure as his 'old man's village', can no more stay than Kakashi can leave.
When Asuma returns, older, wiser, and mellower, it is to find an that picking up where they left off is impossible. They are both different. Kakashi, who wears a mysterious someone's ribbons wound around his wrist, is in love with Hana. They settle on being close friends.
Asuma meets Kurenai when they both pull genin teams during the same rotation. He falls quickly and irrevocably in love with the zodiac's Rabbit. For the first time, Asuma is grateful for his curse.
Asuma loves flying and being able to touch Kurenai. Those two things make being the Rooster of the zodiac worthwhile.
Sakura discovers that Shikamaru is the Dog of the zodiac after she tackles him, intent on taking him hostage. She feels her arms close around a boy's body. Then, poof! Her arms are empty. Sakura lands on the ground, on her hands and knees, crouched over a scruffy black puppy with floppy ears, lazy eyes, and huge paws.
For a long moment, they stare at each other. Then, the puppy whimpers and Sakura's heart melts.
"Awwww," she coos. "You're special like Ino, Shikamaru!"
Shikamaru barks, a high-pitched yip that makes Sakura laugh. Cooing over the sheer cuteness of him, Sakura scoops up Shikamaru. In her arms, Shikamaru makes a sighing sound and snuggles close to her chest, one of his floppy doggy ears pressed to her heart.
Sakura takes Shikamaru's abandoned clothes and distributes them between their two backpacks and Ino's. Then, with Shikamaru in her lap, she sits next to their backpacks. Sakura scratches behind Shikamaru's ears, under his chin, and down his chest. By the time that Ino and Choji get back, Shikamaru is sprawled across her lap, belly up, feet kicking the air, and rumbling a thready groans of approval while Sakura pets him.
"Shameless," Ino declares.
When Ino complains of a backache, Sakura leaps at the opportunity to practice her massage skills. Ino smiles tiredly and lays down on her stomach, her arms folded under her cheek. Sakura looks down at Ino's back, clad in one of the orange jerseys that Ino had always loved as a kid, and is momentarily daunted. Then she straddles Ino's hips, pushes the heels of her hands up either side of Ino's spine, and gets to work.
"Oh, yeah, just there," Ino eventually moans. "Oh-oh yeah, like that. Sakura, at this moment I'm so ridiculously glad that you were born a girl."
"I get a certain amount of benefit from it, too," Sakura says dryly. "But yeah, I've always liked being female. I like being cute and girly."
"You've got a nice ass too," Ino declares then laughs when Sakura pinches the side of her shoulder. "Hey, is it just me or do you have, like, half of the zodiac wearing your collars?"
"They needed a home address?" Sakura hazards.
"In their human forms?"
"I'm not sure that the Monkey is really wearing my collar," Sakura hedges. "And I still use ribbons for the Rat."
"Collector," Ino teases.
Gai loves being the zodiac's Cat. It affords him the greatest opportunity for hard work and growth as a shinobi. And, according to legend, the Cat's Eternal Rival is the Rat. His Eternal Rivalry with Kakashi has been Ordained by the Heavy Hand of Destiny itself. Gai is certain that, despite his cool demeanor and hip attitude, Kakashi too cherishes the Red Ribbon of Fate that binds them together.
(When asked, clever Kakashi says, "Gai, the only thing that I can feel upon us are the two tons of dirt the Rock Nin buried us with. As for what's binding us together? That's be the chains.")
So, it is no surprise to Gai when the Rat's Other Eternal Rival, the Ox, comes under his tutelage. Even better, the boy is a Genius of Hard Work, as befits the zodiac's Ox! Still, Gai worries that his protégé will not find the strength of purpose to challenge Kakashi... until he sees the way that Lee looks at Kakashi's pink-haired kunoichi.
"If you challenge Kakashi for her hand and defeat him," Gai tells Lee. "The youthful Sakura blossom will surely be swayed by such a Beautiful and Manly Gesture of Devotion!"
Konohamaru has a thing about having someone wear his collar. The problem is that none of the right someones will do it. Some of them point blank refuse, citing their dedication to wearing someone else's collar (Hinata, Shisui, Neji, Itachi). Others laugh at his 'joke' (Kakashi, Asuma, Lee, Gai, Shikamaru, Ebisu). A handful of them snarl horrible, graphic threats at the mere suggestion of a collar (Kurenai, Ino, Sasuke). None of the zodiac shinobi even consider changing their lifestyles to accommodate Konohamaru's desires.
Which is totally unfair! He is the god of the zodiac, not whoever got their collar on his animals first! And there should probably be some rule against the zodiac animals brutally murdering their master!
When he complains about it, Moegi sniffs and says, "You can't own a cat, Konohamaru-kun. It stays with you. Maybe zodiac shinobi are like that? Maybe you have to earn their loyalty?"
"Well, that shouldn't be too hard!" Konohamaru says, cheered. "Not for a guy who's going to be Hokage!"
"Naruto?" Moegi teases.
"And if that doesn't work," Udon adds. "You could make collars part of the uniform after you're Hokage."
"Oooohhh," breathes Konohamaru through a surge of lust. "Yes!"
When Ino changes into the cutest, pinkest piglet that Sakura has ever seen, it is obvious that something magical is afoot.
"It's a curse," Ino explains.
"It's pretty cool," Sakura enthuses. "No one'll ever suspect such a cute piglet of being a ninja!"
No one would suspect their come-and-go rat or iguana of being ninja, either. Sakura certainly had not. She had just assumed that Mr. Rat was a brilliant and independent sort of rat. And that her iguana, Mr. Pebbles, was on the trail of something six-legged and crunchy. Sakura eventually decides not to say anything to either the Rat or the Dragon-iguana. She likes them both and, if they like pretending to be her pets, Sakura will go along with them.
When Sakura finds the tiger cub, half drowned and curled up in Hinata's clothes, it is obvious who else is cursed. Not that Sakura says anything, even after the tiger returns her ribbon.
Somehow, Sakura ends up with a whole menagerie of come-and-go pets. It only gets larger as she gets older. Sakura is not an idiot. But, well, if it makes them happy and it does no harm, why not?
Sakura never says anything.