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Why we build the wall

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Kakashi awoke to pitch darkness and pain and the cold knowledge that no-one was coming for him. The air smelt of sea salt and iron and he knew that meant blood, probably his. Stupid, stupid, stupid, why had he let himself get so close? The Konoha nin had been fighting the Iwa nin  in a cave, he should have known to keep his distance. Iwa nin in caves were lethal. But he’d been on an information gathering mission, and the fight had seemed relevant, and he’d always been too bloody curious for his own good.

So he’d gotten in close, tried to keep track of which jutsus both sides were using, tried to work out what their mission objectives might have been. He’d gotten in too close, he realised far too late, the dying Iwa nin had brought the cave down on all their heads in a final act of desperate spite, and Kakashi had gotten caught up in the crossfire.

He was going to die here, alone in the dark, and his death would mean absolutely nothing. It was a sharp cold shock to realise he didn’t want that. He didn’t want to die here. He almost wanted to laugh, years of numb resignation and apathy and it was only now, too late far too late, that something managed to break through. He’d been careless of his own life since his father’s suicide and it was only now, dying alone in the dark, that he found he wanted to keep it.

He let out a ragged breath. It was too dark to see, but the screaming pain from his left eye socket, the slightly deeper flavour of the darkness on that side, made him suspect that last stray kunai might have hit after all. He tried to move and found that he couldn’t, his left leg was trapped under a rock, and he dared not try and move it, for fear of it bringing the whole roof down on him. Kakashi wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or concerned that he couldn’t feel it.

A broken wet coughing sound jerked Kakashi out of his thoughts and he tensed. He was not alone. As though reading his thoughts the other spoke.

“Don’t worry. I’m in no state to pose a threat to you.” The voice was young, no older than Kakashi himself, and there was a sick rasp to it that spoke of pain and irreparable damage. “I’ll be dead before you are.”

“Who are you?” Kakashi demanded, still suspicious. His companion gave a wheezing laugh.

“I could ask the same of you. I don’t seem to recall any Kiri nin in that fight I just had.” He chuckled darkly, “then again I did just suffer a blow to the head, who knows what I’m remembering.”

“How do you know I’m a Kiri nin?” Kakashi panicked.

“I can see your headband. Sharingan. As far as I’m concerned it’s clear as day in here. For all the good it does me.” His black humour gave way to another coughing fit, and the iron and sea salt smell of blood in the air thickened with every spasm. Kakashi relaxed slightly even as he winced in pity. An injured enemy was safer to be around but all the same that was an ugly way to die. Kakashi refused to consider the still uglier slow death by starvation that he was facing. He spoke up, hoping to distract them both.

“So I assume you’re a Konoha nin then.”

“Yep, born and bred. I’m gonna be Hokage one day you know. Or I was, I guess.” The gallows humour of his tone trailed off into a kind of shocked despair. Kakashi didn’t want that. This place was dark enough on its own, he wanted the Konoha nin to go back to making casual jokes about their impending deaths. Somehow, it made the whole thing easier to bear.

“Some Kage. Making nice with an enemy nin like this. That what they teach at your academy Konoha?” Kakashi needled at him, hoping to jolt him out of his misery. It worked.

“I’ll have you know I’d have been the best Kage. I’d end the war, and put more money into education, and make peace between the villages so that no-one would ever have to go to war again.” The humour was gone, but so was the despair, replaced by a bright unshakeable conviction that tore at Kakashi’s heart. He thought of years of blood and war, or so much lost and so little gained, and closed the eye he had left in grief for a future neither of them would have.

“Aaa maybe you would” he sighed. “It sounds nice.” They were both silent for a while after that.

Another bout of wet, blood scented coughing, broke the moment. After he’d finished gasping the Konoha nin spoke again, looking for something, anything to distract him from death’s hand on his chest.

“So, Kiri,” he gasped, “You never did tell me what you were doing here.” And now it was Kakashi’s turn to find the dark humour in the situation.

“Reconnaissance mission. I was supposed to observe what was going on in the area and then report back. I got too close. I guess it was just wrong place wrong time.” He let out a bleak snort of laughter. “After everything I’ve done and survived I end up dying as collateral damage. There's a sort of irony in that I suppose.” He wanted to laugh more but he suspected that if he started he wouldn’t stop, and that would probably  freak out his companion. He couldn’t quite pin down when that started mattering to him.

“So what’s your name Konoha? Seems stupid to sit here in the dark talking without knowing what to call each other.”

“Obito. Uchiha Obito.”

“Nice to meet you Obito. I’m Hatake Kakashi.” And Kakashi smiled with his eyes but not his mouth as he said it. It would probably have looked creepier if his mouth hadn’t been hidden behind his mask, then again, Obito had Sharingan, maybe he could see it anyway. They were silent again for a moment before Obito spoke up again.

“You should move that rock off your leg. The longer you leave it like that the worse the damage will get.”

“I know that, but it’s pitch dark and I didn’t want to risk the structural integrity of our air pocket.”

“Don’t worry, it’s not holding anything else up, you can move it.” Kakashi didn’t move it. “Did you hear me I said…”

“I heard what you said. It’s just…” Kakashi bit his lip.

“It’s just what Bakakashi? You’re going to lose your leg if you don’t get that rock off it.” Obito’s voice was suddenly irritating.

“It’s just that right now that leg is numb and seeing as I’m going to die anyway I’m debating the merits of spending my last hours in the extreme agony that I’m going to start feeling as soon as I move that rock.” Kakashi snapped.

“Oh. Yeah, ok, I can kinda see your point there.” He burst into another coughing fit, before continuing. “Move it anyway.”

“Why?” Kakashi asked baffled.

“Because if you move the bloody rock, you can move over closer to me.” Kakashi tensed at the thought of willingly moving closer to an enemy. Obito sighed, “For fucks sake Kakashi, we’re both dying, what exactly do you think I’m going to do to you.” His voice dropped to almost a whisper, “what harm does it do to die in the company of another human being.” Then a plea, “Please Kakashi. I don’t want to die alone.” Kakashi moved the rock.

It hurt. Fuck it hurt. Like all the pain he should have been feeling with his leg being crushed had been saved up for that one moment when he removed it. He barely remembered to circulate his chakra to filter out the toxins from his newly released limb before they could poison the rest of his body. He didn’t scream, didn’t dare, not when the balance of the rocks that surrounded them was so fragile, but he knew Obito saw the tear escape from his eye. It was a few minutes panting in the darkness before he could drag himself over in the direction of Obito’s voice.

They held hands in the dark, and though Kakashi would never admit it out loud he was grateful for the human contact. They were quiet then, save for the odd murmur of empty reassurance, talking took its toll on Obito and Kakashi couldn’t think of anything more to say. At least they were quiet until Obito spoke up again through the pain. Kakashi was starting to think that silence didn’t come naturally to Obito. He couldn’t bring himself to comment on it though, not when he found it so comforting.

“Say Kakashi.”

“What is it Obito?” Obito's voice was pained but steady as he asked.

“Do you think maybe, if we’d been born in the same village. If I’d been born in Kiri, or you’d been born in Konoha we might have been friends?” Are we friends now? He didn't ask.

“Well if you’d been born in Kiri one of us would have have to kill the other to graduate, so… probably not.” It shouldn’t have been funny but his lips twitched up at the corners anyway, Kakashi suspected that his sense of humour might be getting a bit twisted in his dying moments.

“Seriously. Wow that’s fucked up.” Was all Obito seemed to be able to say on the subject.

“There’s a reason they call us the Bloody Mist.”

“Ok, so not Kiri then. What if we’d both been born in Konoha? Do you think we could have been friends?” And there was a heavy question.

“Nah, I bet we’d have hated each others guts.” But his voice and his words were at odds, and Kakashi knew Obito could hear his real answer behind the banter. I like to think so. He was never so grateful as when Obito rose to his challenge because some things were too hard to say outright.

“Yeah, I bet we’d have been bitter rivals to the end, constantly fighting and making everyone around us duck for cover whenever we were in the same room.” Kakashi huffed with laughter.

“Yeah and you’d always lose our epic battles.”

“Hah, in your dreams. Remember, in that world I’d be Hokage. You’d totally lose all the time.” Their verbal spar was cut short when the worst coughing fit yet, hit Obito. There was too much blood in the air and Kakashi could tell Obito didn’t have long. His heart rebelled at the thought. If Obito died he’d be alone again.

Suddenly they heard an ominous rumble as the rocks above them shifted, and Kakashi clung tight to Obito’s hand as they waited dead still to see if the ceiling would collapse on them. It didn’t. Five minutes later and Kakashi could smell something other than blood and rock dust. Obito felt Kakashi tense.

“What is it?” He whispered, wary of making too much noise.

“I smell fresh air.” Kakashi’s voice was utterly bleak. “I can smell freedom but we can’t get to it. We’re going to die here with escape just out of our reach. I can smell a way out and we're going to die here anyway.” And Kakashi really didn’t want to think about just when they’d become a we, but they had, and he wanted both him and Obito to get out of this alive but neither of them was going to and it was so unfair, they were both still so young.

“We can’t get to it, but you can.” Obito’s voice was steady. “If you can get out of here you should. I’m done for either way, my insides are too fucked up to fix, but if you leave me you might be able to find a way out.” Kakashi just sighed and shook his head.

“Even if I left you behind, there’s no way I’d make it out without crashing into something and bringing the mountain down on our heads. I’m blind in here Obito, and my leg is not in a good way. I can’t make it.” And I don't want to make it alone. He didn't add, although he was sure Obito could see it written all over his face.

“So what, you’re just going to give up.” The anger in Obito’s tone was surprising. “I thought you didn’t want to die. What happened to all that anger at the life you weren’t going to get to live. You're dead either way, staying here will just take a little longer. If you’re given a choice between the risk of death and the certainty of death why not take the risk?”

“Because if I try this and fail then both of us will die alone, and I don’t want that.” Kakashi was aiming for anger but ended up with fear. “I don’t want to die alone. Not when there’s another choice.” Obito fell silent for a moment at that. When he spoke again there was a deep and terrifying resolve in his voice.

“Take my eye.” Kakashi reeled in shock.

“What?”

“Take my eye, use it. It’ll let you see in the dark, maybe find a way out.” Obito’s voice was dead calm, a sharp contrast to the panicked beating of Kakashi’s heart.

“You’re giving me your Sharingan. You’re giving an enemy nin a Sharingan, so that he can escape and continue to pose a threat to your village. Are you insane? What the hell? That’s treason.”

“I’m giving a sharingan to my friend.” Obito said softly. “Besides” he pointed out, “What are they going to do, execute me?”

“But…” Kakashi felt lost.

“Listen Kakashi. If both of us die here I will have died for nothing. Just another casualty in the war, there will be nothing left of me but a name on the memorial stone. Nothing to say that Uchiha Obito lived, that he made a difference. If you take my eye, and you manage to get out, then anything you do from that point on, I will have a part in. I’ll be dead but I’ll still have a part in the future. Do you understand me?” The worst thing was Kakashi could understand. This was Obito’s last chance to have an effect on the world, of course he didn’t want to lose it.

“But what if I fail? What if I die on the way out?”

“Well then, you’ll have my eye, so I suppose, technically, we’d still be dying together.” Kakashi was sure Obito was smirking and this was so fucked up but he found himself agreeing despite himself because fuck he still wanted to live, and if Obito would rather he kept a part of him alive than stayed with him when he was dying then that was Obito’s choice to make.

“Ok. I’ll do it.”

It took a moment to sterilise the area as much as he could. No sense courting infection along with everything else. It took a little longer to remove the remains of his own left eye from its socket, and if his pain sensors hadn’t already been overloaded by the agony in his leg he doubted he could have stood it. As it was he bit through his lip, he could feel the blood slowly soaking through his mask, as he tossed the mangled bits of eyeball away. Now for the difficult bit. Obito had lit a fire in his free hand to provide them with light, but the way it flickered and danced made it hard to focus on what he was doing and in any case Kakashi was no medic nin. He knew enough medical jutsu to make the transplant possible, but there was a world of difference between theoretical possibility and practical success. Still, Obito was right, all they could do try.

“Are you sure about this.” He checked. “If I do this, you won’t be able to see any more. You’ll die in the dark.”

“It will be worth it. You’ll have to see the future for both of us.”

“Ok.” Kakashi moved the knife towards Obito’s eye.

“Wait.” Kakashi stopped. “Before you do it. I want to see your face. I want to know what my enemy/friend looks like.” Kakashi hesitated, then lowered his mask. Soon enough it wouldn’t make a difference, and a part of him wanted Obito to see.

The surgery was… messy, but at the end of it Kakashi had Obito’s eye and it at least worked  well enough that he could see, so he was counting it as a success. Neither of them had dared scream, but if the pain hadn’t been enough the sight of Obito’s mangled eye socket would have been enough to make Kakashi want to.

“I’ll wait with you.” He promised. “I’ll wait until you die before I leave.” Obito just hissed at him.

“Don’t be an idiot. This ceiling could come down at any moment. Go now while you still can.”

“But…” Kakashi tried to object but Obito wouldn’t let him.

“Go.”

“Ok. Is there anything…” Kakashi trailed off.

“No. Well actually. Yeah. There kind of is.” Obito was uncharacteristically hesitant and that was enough to tell Kakashi it was important.

“Name it.”

“It’s just, Rin. Nohara Rin. My teammate, the brown haired girl who was with me. She’s all alone now. Our other teammate died on his first mission and Sensei’s been really busy with the war so…” Obito said teammate but his tone said friend, partner, beloved and Kakashi kept his voice gentle and sympathetic as he asked.

“What do you want me to do?”

“Look. I know you’re a Kiri nin, and you don’t know Rin and you’ll probably never see her again. Just… if you do. If you have a chance to help her, do what you can for her. Do what you can to help her, she’s… kind. She deserves more than this war will give her and I can’t protect her anymore. Please, promise me you’ll protect her, if it ever comes to that.” Kakashi knew he shouldn’t promise, he knew exactly what that promise meant and he knew he shouldn’t make it.

“I swear. On the honour of the Hatake name. If I am ever in a position to help Nohara Rin, I swear I will do so.” And the relieved sigh that Obito made as Kakashi said it made it impossible for him to regret his promise.

“Thank you. Now go, get out of here. Don’t look back.” Kakashi went. He didn’t look back. Not until he reached Kiri, and relative safety. Not until after he’d been to the hospital to get his shoddy transplant and damaged leg fixed. Not until he was safely locked in his apartment and no one could see him break. His tears tasted of sea salt and iron.

Chapter Text

One too many solo missions had left Kakashi injured enough that they stuck him on guard rotation. He didn’t much like guard rotation to be honest. It left altogether too much time to think, and that was never a good thing. There were too many dark places for his mind to wander, and wander it did.

In the dead hours of the morning he found his thoughts drifting back to that day, almost six months ago now, when an enemy, a stranger, a friend, had saved his life. Six months and he’d learnt to fight without depth perception, and be cautious of medics, and use one of the most feared bloodline abilities in the world, and none of that meant half as much as those few hours he’d spent dying in a cave with a boy that should have been his enemy. When an enemy had become a human being and the world had stopped making sense, if it ever really had.

He shook away the haze of thought. Why was he thinking of that now? He paced the corridors of the facility, uncomfortable with the directions his mind had been taking. He wasn’t sure what the place was for exactly. Some kind of holding facility he thought. It was need to know and as far as his bosses were concerned Kakashi didn’t. Curiosity had always been Kakashi’s greatest weakness.

He was alone on the ghost shift, so it wasn’t like anyone would know if he just had a quick look around. If secrecy had really been vital they wouldn’t have left him unsupervised.  Besides, he needed something to distract himself.

He moved, silent as a shadow to the prisoner level, and was surprised to find it so empty. There were dozens of holding cells, none of them occupied. No, he corrected himself after looking again. There was one occupied at the very end, by a small huddle of miserable looking Kunoichi. She didn’t look like much to be honest. Certainly not worth a whole facility plus guards to contain her. Still appearances could be deceiving. He moved a little closer. Brown hair, brown eyes, purple marks on her face. Nothing immediately noticeable but he couldn’t quite shake the feeling he’d seen her somewhere before. She must have heard something because she called out.

“Who’s there? Come back for more already you bastards?” Kakashi decided to make a hasty retreat. It wouldn’t do to get caught where he shouldn’t be.

She was nothing to him, a momentary encounter with an unremarkable enemy ninja, and yet still there was something familiar about her. It nagged at him, preyed on his thoughts for the whole of the following day, and so when he returned for his next shift he found himself back  in the shadows of the detention levels. It was a stupid risk but he hated not knowing. So he lurked, well out of the prisoner’s line of sight and tried to work out where he had seen her before. He had been more cautious in his approach this time so he hadn’t expected her to pick up on his presence.

“I know you’re there you know.” He froze in shock. “I did wonder if I was imagining things that first time, but here you are again. I knew I heard something. Now if you were supposed to be here you wouldn’t have run off like that the first time so I have to assume you were poking your nose where it doesn’t belong. What I can’t figure out is why you came back again.” Kakashi didn’t move a muscle. The kunoichi continued talking and really no-one in her position should be able to sound so put upon. “Come out and talk to me face to face. Otherwise I’ll let my official jailors know someone was poking around.” Kakashi was reluctantly impressed. He stepped out of the shadows in front of her cage, and decided to go on the offensive.

“Why do I recognise you?” He demanded, and he almost missed the way her eyes widened slightly in surprise.

“That’s why you came back?” She said, in slight disbelief. “It could be from anywhere. Maybe we were on different sides of a fight, maybe we crossed paths on a mission, hell maybe we met at the chunin exams. You risked getting in serious trouble just because you couldn’t figure out where you’d seen me before.” Ok so when she put it like that it did sound a little stupid, but still there was something else there, and he needed to know.

“What’s your name?” He asked, and wondered if he wanted an answer.

“Nohara Rin.” She answered and the pieces fell together. He ran then. Ran, and didn’t stop until he’d reached his assigned patrol beat. He completed his shift on autopilot and returned home with his mind still a whirl of panic. A dead man’s voice echoed through his thoughts.

“Rin. Nohara Rin. My teammate… she’s kind… promise me you’ll protect her” Kakashi had promised. He had made a promise to a dying man, on his honour, on the honour of his name. People had killed themselves to safeguard the honour of their family name. He refused to think of Tousan cold and still and so much blood on the blade of the family sword and the floor of the family home, blood of the only family he had left. Honour was a thing made of blood and duty and without it men were less than animals. Kakashi had promised Obito, a dying enemy, a dying friend, that he would protect Nohara Rin.

Fuck, what a mess. And it was a mess of his own making. He’d known it was a foolish promise to make even as he’d made it. He’d done it anyway.

He stared out the window at the village he’d signed his life away to. That he’d fought for, killed for, bled for. At the mist shrouded rooftops and the interlocking network of streets and canals that was uniquely Kiri. This was his village, his home, and even if the taste of fear grew thicker on the air with each passing day, even if mothers no longer let their children play in the streets and people hurried from place to place without catching each other’s eyes, even if clan after clan paid the price for the Mizukage’s madness, it was his home. Kiri was his village and to keep his promise he would have to betray it.

It was too much to ask. Obito had asked him to do what he could, and this he could not do. Loyalty was made of blood and duty too, and for a ninja, the village was everything. He wouldn’t do it. But still his mind betrayed him, reminded him of the sound of Obito’s voice in the dark, of not wanting to die alone, of an enemy that had turned out to be just the same as him, and a part of him wondered. If loyalty to your village was everything, why did that moment matter so much?

The next day he started his shift with heart and soul still divided. He didn’t visit Rin wasn’t ready to face her. Wasn’t ready to choose.

On the fourth day time ran out, for fear and doubt. No more time to weigh up his options, all that was left was to take a leap of faith. On the fourth day he found out exactly what his village planned to do to Rin, and it was wrong.

He’d known something was wrong the moment he’d arrived. The whole facility stank of copper and ozone, and there was enough power in the place to make all his hairs stand on end. He found Rin huddled in the corner of her cell, the closer he got to her the stronger the scent got, and he’d had a very bad feeling. He’d come close to her cell and her voice was raw and vicious in a way it had never been before.

“What do you want?” She’d snarled and stood up, her missing clothes revealing the seals painted all over her body. Kakashi was no sealing expert, but he knew enough to figure out what those seals did. They’d turned her into a jinchuriki, and an unstable one at that and his mind turned blank at the sheer insane scale of the plan. It was brilliant, and unspeakable and wrong, and Kakashi made his choice.

“I’m going to get you out of here.” She had laughed at that, a bitter hollow kind of laugh.

“Yeah I’m sure you will. Right back to Konoha, just in time for the monster you put inside me to destroy everything I love. I’d die first.”

“No. I’m going to get you out of here, and find a seal master to stabilise you, and get you home when you’re no longer a danger.” She stared at him as if he’d gone mad. Maybe he had.

“You expect me to believe you’d betray your own village to rescue me? Nice try.”

“Yes.” And something in Kakashi’s tone must have given her pause because the bitter cynicism was lessened when she next spoke.

“Why.” There was cynicism there, but also a desperate hope, and Kakashi knew she’d let him help her.

“Does it matter?” He asked, as he unlocked the door of her cell.

“Maybe. But we can talk later.” Kakashi was grateful for the reprieve.

As they made their escape Kakashi felt more and more like a passenger behind his own eyes. The shock of what he had done had left him utterly numb inside and he experienced the whole thing as a series of simple steps driven by survival training. Supplies, food, weapons, clothes for Rin, staying in the shadows to avoid raising the alarm, stealing a messenger hawk from the aviary in the hope that Rin could get backup from Konoha, disguising themselves as hunter nin to sneak out of the village, running, running, running, trying to put as much distance as possible between them and Kiri before dawn came and the alarm was raised. It wasn’t until both of them finally collapsed from exhaustion that the full force of his decision hit him.

“You never told me your name.” Rin said. The two of them were sitting in a well camouflaged campsite. Rin was writing a letter to try and send to Konoha, while Kakashi had a very quiet breakdown. Rin’s question jolted him out of his panic slightly, casting his mind back he realised she was right. He never did get around to giving her his name.

“Hatake Kakashi, jounin.”

“Kakashi huh?” She asked. He just nodded. They were both silent for a while, but Rin kept on looking at him as though she wanted to ask something. Kakashi lost patience.

“Whatever it is just ask.” He sighed.

“Why did you help me?”

“I made a promise. I chose to keep it.” Whatever she had been expecting it wasn’t that and the confusion showed in her eyes.

“A promise?” It was clear to Kakashi that she was trying to imagine what kind of promise could have led to this.

“I promised a dying man that I would do whatever I could to protect Nohara Rin.” There was no hiding the dark humour in his voice as he said that. “I guess the debt came due.” Rin looked at him sharply.

“What debt? What kind of debt could drive you to betray your own village.”

“The only kind that really matters of course. Life and death and blood.” He slowly lifted his headband as he spoke, “Nearly six months ago, I nearly died in the dark alone. Only I wasn’t alone, there was someone else trapped under all that rock with me. Someone who should have been an enemy, but when the god of death is breathing down your neck such things seem so much less important. There was someone else there, and we should have died in the dark together, but instead he chose to save my life. He saved my life and asked me to do anything I could to protect you.” He ignored the growing expression of horror on her face as he opened the sharingan eye. “His name was Uchiha Obito.”

“That’s impossible.” She whispered.

“You know it isn’t.” He replied.

“How do I know you aren’t lying?” She demanded.

“Where else would I have got the eye?”

“I don’t know. Maybe you stole it.” She was on the edge of tears.

“He loved you, you know.” Kakashi whispered softly, “More than anything.” She looked down and away.

“I know. I knew. I should have said something but…” She trailed off. Kakashi connected the dots.

“You didn’t love him?” She turned on him viciously then.

 “Of course I loved him. He was my best friend. I just… didn’t love him the way he loved me.”

“He wouldn’t have loved you any less if you’d told him that you know.” Somehow Kakashi felt it needed saying. The way Obito spoke about her, he knew it was the truth.

“I know.” She smiled softly with tears in her eyes. “That’s what made him Obito. He never stopped caring about people.” They sat in silence for a while, until Kakashi sent Rin to get some sleep while he kept watch.

The next few days were a haze of fear and desperation. Running and hiding, and covering their tracks on too little sleep, and too little food, with the hunter nins on their trail. Rin had sent off the messenger hawk that night, and if they were very, very lucky there would be backup when they reached Konoha’s territory. They just had to get there. It would have been three days travel at a straight run, but the hunter nin weren’t stupid, and Kakashi and Rin had already spent six doubling back, and detouring, and trying desperately to shake their pursuers in the wildlands of Kiri. Kakashi was still wounded, and Rin’s seal was wearing ever thinner with each passing day. The time spent on the run was starting to have an effect, and they were both worn ragged at the edges, but still there was a cleanness to it, a closeness, that they’d both been missing.

“Tell me something about yourself”, Rin spoke, and it was only in that moment that he realised that it was the first thing either of them had said in days. They’d both been running on fumes and animal survival instincts and somehow words hadn’t seemed important to Kakashi. It was only when Rin finally used them that he fully registered their absence.

They were sitting in yet another hastily erected campsite, trying to gather their strength. They hadn’t dared light a fire but there was shelter, Kakashi had broken out a packet of ration bars, and Rin had wrapped the blanket around both of them. It was as close to luxury as they could get. Kakashi took awhile to answer, unsure exactly what she wanted from him.

“Well I’m a jounin. I specialise in lightning ninjutsu. They call me a prodigy. I was actually under consideration for Anbu before all this happened…” Rin rolled her eyes.

“No, no, no. You’re telling me about your ninja skills. I want to know about you. I don’t want to know about the ninja that stood guard over my cell, I want to know about the man who chose to save my life.”

“I don’t understand what you want from me.”

“Tell me about your hobbies, your friends, your favourite food. I don’t care. Just something that’s you.”  He just looked at her blankly.

“Hobbies?”

“Yeah. What do you do in your free time?”

“Not much. Sometimes I train, if I think I can avoid drawing attention to myself.” Kakashi answered. Rin sighed in exasperation.

“Training is not a hobby. I mean something you do for fun. Something that’s not related to being a ninja.”

“I read a book once.” Kakashi tried, “It was actually quite good.”

“Yes. That’s what I’m talking about, what was it called?”

“Icha Icha seduction.” She stared at him in disbelief before shrugging.

“Well, I guess it’s not training.”

After that the silence was broken. They still didn’t talk much, with most of their energy taken up trying to keep one step ahead of their pursuers, but in quiet moments, when they stopped to eat, or rest, or catch their breath they no longer sat in awkward silence. Here and there, in bits and pieces they got to know one another. An offhand  comment revealing Rin’s love of animals, that led into talking about Kakashi’s ninken, another day of complaining about ration bars that revealed Kakashi’s preference for eggplant, and Rin’s passion for dango, little things that passed the time. And then, as time passed and strangers became friends, things that weren’t so little, Kakashi’s father’s suicide, the slow poison that killed Rin’s mother, Kakashi’s graduation exam, the way Rin’s academy class had been slowly whittled down until she was one of the only two left, until they were telling each other things that they’d never dared tell anyone. About Obito, about themselves, about how Rin wanted children one day but would never let any child of hers become a ninja, about how Kakashi had sometimes wished he could kill his own superior officers instead of the enemy, about how Obito’s death had made them both question the hidden village system, heart and soul. Somehow, over the weeks they spent running through the backwoods of Kiri, Rin had become the closest friend Kakashi had ever had.

Obito had been right, she was kind. But she was more than that, she was fierce, and determined, and optimistic in a way no ninja had a right to be. Time was running out though. They both knew it. Rin’s seal was growing weaker by the day, by the hour, and the sickly sweet, metallic copper and ozone scent that hung in the air around her was growing ever stronger. Konoha should have sent a sealing master to meet them at the border but that would only help if they could make it in time.

They had just crossed the border when the hunter nin caught up with them. They could run no further, and backup was nowhere to be seen. All that was left to do, was fight. Maybe they’d get lucky, maybe backup would arrive, or the two of them might damage their pursuers enough to escape. Probably not though. Kakashi was still running battleplans through his head when Rin grabbed him, and kissed him lightly over the mask.

“If we’re going to die here, we might as well have one last happy memory to take with us.” she grinned before falling into place behind Kakashi as their enemy arrived.

It was easier than Kakashi could have imagined, to turn on his own comrades for the sake of an enemy ninja. Kirin nin were not friends, couldn’t afford to be friends, whereas somehow, he and Rin were friends. Somehow he’d begun to care about this enemy kunoichi, and it made it terrifyingly easy to strike at his own former comrades with intent to kill. After all he thought with a bleak sort of humour it wasn’t exactly the first time he’d killed a comrade, his thoughts flickered back to his graduation exam, a ten year old’s blood on five year old hands and all his teachers so proud.

It was so easy to fight them, but winning was another matter entirely. Kakashi might have been a genius but there were so many, more than he could fight and with Rin’s seal hanging together by  thread she couldn’t help him. Still there was one move no-one had seen him use because using it required exposing the sharingan he was not supposed to have. He lifted his headband and gathered lightning in his fist.

Time ran out. He felt it when Rin’s seal snapped and the monster started to break free, the whole clearing choking with the sweet metal scent, and power of it. He felt it and saw Rin jump in the path of his strike. There was nothing but deep resolve in her eyes.

The rest of the fight was a blur, he remembered fighting, he remembered killing some of the hunter nin, he remembered collapsing from chakra exhaustion, but no specifics. He woke up in a bloody clearing, with the bodies of Rin and the hunter nin strewn around like broken toys, and he felt utterly numb. He just sat there for a while, beside Rin, still covered in blood and wondered what to do next. He’d failed, completely and utterly. He’d betrayed his village and turned his back on everything he’d ever known, to keep a promise, to protect Rin. And he admitted to himself silently it was worse than that. She’d been his friend, more than anyone else ever had been and she’d used him to kill herself. Knowing why didn’t make it easier. It was still his fault and his failure, maybe if he’d broken her out sooner he could have stopped all this. Now she was dead, and he didn’t know what to do.

Konoha’s Yellow Flash showed up hours later, too late, too late. He looked at the scene, at the dead bodies, at Kakashi, staring blankly into space with Rin’s head in his lap.

“Are you Kakashi?” He’d asked, not unkindly. And when Kakashi had nodded, he’d continued. “Rin spoke about you in her letter. She said you rescued her.”

“For all the good it did her.” Kakashi muttered.

“But you tried. And I suspect you sacrificed a great deal to do so.” Rin’s teacher said softly. “I wish things had turned out differently, I wish I’d got here in time to save her. You tried though, and that means a lot, Rin spoke on your behalf in her letter and there’s a place for you in Konoha if you come with me now.” He held out his hand. Kakashi took it. He had nowhere else to go.

Chapter Text

Life in Konoha was at once achingly familiar, and unfathomably alien. If Kakashi hadn’t already retreated into shock by the time he arrived he might have found that hard to deal with. As it was he experienced his first weeks in his new village through a kind of numb haze, that insulated him from the worst of the culture shock, for what it was worth.

The Yellow Flash had helped. It had surprised Kakashi a little to find that Konoha’s Yellow Flash, Namikaze Minato, mass murderer, and nightmare of Iwa, was kind. It wasn’t what he’d expected, but he was glad of it. Namikaze had spoken for him, had helped ease him through the messy process of changing his allegiance, had given him a place to stay while he found his feet. He’d even helped Kakashi fill out his paperwork, and never once had he pushed Kakashi on the questions he wasn’t sure he was ready to answer. It was… nice, in ways that Kakashi was not entirely used to.

Not that any of it was easy. Defection was always a messy process. It required loyalty checks, debriefings, skills assessments, citizenship exams, assimilating strange ninja into a village was hard. The Yamanaka were able to streamline this process somewhat for Konoha, but still it was not a quick or simple matter. Still no light choice to make. And Kakashi’s defection had been messier than most. Rin was dead by his hand for all that he’d tried to save her, and he’d brought nothing with him but trouble and his own skills, no secret techniques, or battle plans. Maybe if she’d lived it would have gone smoother, a new jinchuriki was a hell of a good faith gift. Probably not though, after all there was still the sharingan, which everyone assumed he’d stolen. Not that he’d tried all that hard to correct them, no need to taint Obito’s memory, by telling them he’d given village secrets to an enemy.

The sharingan. Now there was an issue. The Uchiha were of course furious, and had wanted the eye removed, ideally along with his head, but the rest of the village was hesitant to demand he hand it over. One more sharingan user was more useful to the village than the Uchiha’s pride, provided they could trust him. And there was the rub, they weren’t sure they could trust him. If he’d been a loyal Konoha nin he’d probably have got a slap on the wrist to placate the Uchiha, and then been left to his own devices, if he’d been a straight up enemy nin, they’d have killed him, burned the body and had done with it. As it was he was trapped in a liminal state, and it seemed like every faction in Konoha had an opinion on the subject and an agenda to push. He’d always hated politics.

He hated politics, but that didn’t mean he didn’t know how the game was played. Politics in Kiri were a matter of survival, and Kakashi had survived. It would take more than Konoha’s games to make him lose his footing. By the time it came to tribunal Kakashi was reasonably sure they’d let him keep the eye, if only because ninja villages couldn’t abide waste. Namikaze had spoken for him, which helped, and he’d passed a Yamanaka interrogation, which helped more. In the end the eye stayed where it was and the Uchiha went away unhappy. It was probably the best result he could have hoped for, although he suspected there might be trouble over it later.

In some ways though the legal process was the easiest thing, politics, and bureaucracy notwithstanding. The human side, that was the hard part. Being accepted by the law was one thing, being accepted by the people was another thing entirely. Being accepted by people who’d been his enemies right up until he’d done the unthinkable and betrayed his village. People he’d tried to kill, whose friends he’d succeeded in killing, people who’d tried to kill him in turn. There was a history there, written in blood as history so often is, and it would take more than orders from on high to make him a part of this village.

It was more than that though. Konoha was at once both alien and familiar, and the dissonance of it set Kakashi’s head spinning. Konoha was a ninja village, just as Kiri was, steeped in blood and shadows, and yet… Konoha was not Kiri, was different, in a thousand little ways that left Kakashi utterly disoriented. Kiri was cruel, cruel and merciless, and weakness was like blood in the water. You trained in secret, and trusted no-one, and you learned not to take betrayal personally, because if you took it personally it might just be the thing that ended up breaking you. Konoha though, Konoha confused him, because Konoha was cruel too. Konoha was a hidden village, the oldest hidden village, and cruelty was in the blood and bones of all ninja villages. But Konoha was more than that. Konoha was kind, they took something Kiri had always believed was a weakness and turned it into its own kind of strength, into a weapon in its own right. (Sometimes Kakashi wonders if the contrast doesn’t make Konoha’s cruelty all the sharper)

It was a weapon Kakashi did not know how to use, a game he didn’t know how to play, this game of trust, and loyalty, and camaraderie. Kakashi was born of Kiri and weakness was blood in the water to him, he dared not lower his barriers enough to let them in, he had to hold back words drawn like blades whenever they tried to lower their own. It caused tension.

There had been no outright trouble, his fellow jounin knew better than to let their personal feelings get in the way of the mission and lower ranked ninja knew better than to fuck with a jounin, but the konoha nin felt uncomfortable around him and it showed. They’d avoid him when they could, and they were cautious when they spoke to him. They’d work with him but they weren’t his friends. It was surprising how much that hurt. After all, objectively he was no more isolated than he had been in Kiri. But then, in Kiri everyone was alone, no-one trusted each other. Somehow it was different in Konoha, where comrades were people to be trusted and Kakashi’s isolation stood in sharp contrast to the bonds the real Konoha nin shared.

Not that he blamed them. It was as much his problem as theirs. He may have defected to Konoha, but he was of Kiri, for better or worse, and neither he nor his new comrades can forget that. Kindness is not in his nature, and if history written in blood weren’t enough to set him apart then his own killer instinct would be. It wasn’t something he felt able to fix.

With all of that it had been a bit of a shock when a loud, green clad, almost-jounin had invaded his new apartment to challenge him to a “friendly test of our most youthful prowess in the noble art of combat” which he mentally translated to a request for a friendly spar. It was surreal, but at the same time it awakened a half buried feeling that put him in mind of holding Obito’s hand in the dark, of sleeping back to back with Rin, of Konoha’s Yellow Flash ruffling his hair after he passed his citizenship test. He would like to say he’d agreed out of morbid curiosity, but if he could summon up the courage to be honest, with himself if no-one else, the truth was it was nothing so shallow. He’d agreed because Gai had reached out his hand, and somewhere along the line Kakashi had decided that was important. Maybe the most important thing there was.

The sparring match left them both collapsed exhausted in the training grounds. Gai was good at taijutsu, the kind of good that only came from long hours of training, and absolute dedication. Too good to be a chunin and Kakashi said as much when the both of them battered and bruised and aching, managed to prop themselves up against a tree in training ground seven. Gai’s reaction was… enthusiastic to say the least.

“Yosh, I am deeply honoured by your words of youthful encouragement, I am indeed in the process of taking the jounin exams. If all goes well I shall be a jounin by the end of next week, and if I fail I shall run around Konoha a hundred times on my hands.”

“Maa, there’s no need to get so excited. I was just making an observation.” Kakashi tried in vain to calm him down.

“So hip and cool my rival!” Gai beamed at him. It was hard to get really irritated with someone who was smiling at you like that.

“Of course if we hadn’t been restricted to taijutsu I could have defeated you easily.” Kakashi couldn’t resist pointing out.

“A Challenge. Very well I accept. Tomorrow at midday we shall spar again, and if I fail to defeat you I shall do five hundred press-ups.” Gai gave a thumbs up. Kakashi suspected he may have just made a terrible mistake.

The next day Kakashi flattened Gai in ninjutsu, leading to another challenge. Things escalated from there, and before long Gai had declared Kakashi his eternal rival. Kakashi refused to admit how much he liked it.

Kakashi had been somewhat surprised when Namikaze (now the Yondaime), asked him to join Anbu.  You didn’t offer positions in black ops to people whose loyalties were uncertain. But then Kakashi thought about it some more, and realised that foreign deserter he might be, the Yondaime was surer of his loyalties than many native born nin. Because he was a foreigner he had no affiliation with any of the many internal political factions that the Hokage had to balance, because he was an outsider he had undergone a Yamanaka interrogation, and could be asked to undergo another at any time within the next five years, no questions asked. He had two close associations within Konoha, one of which was the Yondaime himself, and the other being Maito Gai, the most stubbornly politically oblivious ninja in the village. When viewed that way Kakashi realised, he was probably one of the most trustworthy ninja Namikaze had. There was something darkly amusing about that.

He said yes of course. After all he’d been thinking about trying out for Anbu in Kiri, before… everything. He was good at what he did. Even when the whole world seemed uncertain and he couldn’t trust his village, or his comrades, or even his own judgement, he’d always been able to trust his skills. The teenage boy in Kakashi liked the idea of being the best, and Anbu were the best. There was more to it than that of course. The anonymity was another big draw. With Gai’s odd friendship he was no longer as alone as he’d been when he first arrived in Konoha, but he still didn’t belong, was still held at arm’s length by most of the village and the idea of belonging to a group where no-one knew where he’d come from or what he’d done was appealing for obvious reasons. He suspected it might be easier to fit in with Anbu as well. Anbu were expected to have hard edges, behind the white mask his own killer instinct might not seem so out of place, it was a way of thinking that he understood.

He’d joined Anbu and been set to guarding the Hokage’s wife. He hadn’t known Namikaze was married. Apparently neither had the rest of Konoha. And now she was pregnant, and her husband was worried so he’d given her an Anbu detail for her own protection. The woman, Kushina, her name was, didn’t seem too pleased about this state of affairs. Kakashi didn’t blame her. She was clearly a competent ninja in her own right, an Uzumaki if her red hair was anything to go by, and Kiri remembered how fucking terrifying Uzumaki were in a fight, it was perfectly understandable that she resented having to be protected. Still Kakashi could see Namikaze (call me Minato)’s reasoning as well. Like it or not she was in a weakened position, and as the Hokage’s wife she was a high level target, and that was not even considering the suspicions Kakashi had been nursing since he’d caught that trace of copper and ozone in the air.

Kakashi’s posting made sense. Kushina was a target three times over as the wife of the Hokage, as Konoha’s jinchuriki, and as the mother of a child that would most likely become a monster in terms of sheer potential. The child of Konoha’s Yellow Flash and an Uzumaki, Kakashi held back a reflexive shudder at the thought. Kiri scared their children with stories of the Uzumaki, the way they never ran out of chakra, and never ran out of ideas, and never even learned the meaning of the word impossible. Combine that with the Yondaime’s genius and the world would tremble. Then of course there were any personal enemies Kushina might have made over the course of her career, and Kakashi had no doubt there were many. Kushina needed a guard detail, no matter how irritating she might find it. Logically he was sure she knew that too, but Uzumaki weren’t known for being even tempered at the best of times, let alone when pumped up on pregnancy hormones, and her mood had been getting steadily worse as the pregnancy progressed.

Things came to a head about seven months in when she threw an almighty temper tantrum over the absence of ramen in her cupboards, (Kakashi was tempted to put this down to pregnancy cravings, but according to his fellow guards, she was ramen obsessed even when she wasn’t pregnant). It ended with his fellow guards nobly deciding to throw the rookie to the wolves in order to save their own skins, and setting Kakashi to try and calm her down while they raided a 24 hour supermarket for supplies.

She was actually quite good company, aside from being utterly terrifying. Kakashi was from Kiri, he was a year older than Zabuza demon of the mists, he could deal with terrifying. Talking to her was oddly reassuring. She’d only been a few years younger than him when she’d left her home village for Konoha, and she understood in ways that ninja born here just couldn’t. Admittedly her transition had been a bit less… messy than his. It had been an official transfer between allied villages rather than an enemy defection, but she understood the culture shock, the values dissonance in ways that people who’d lived in the same place all their lives just couldn’t.

“When I first came here.” She said, “I didn’t understand why everyone just let me roll over them. They said I was too aggressive, and they didn’t like it, and I thought they were all wimps. I didn’t fit in, didn’t belong, it was difficult.”

“They don’t say anything, but I think they think I’m too vicious.” He replied, “I try to hold back but they aren’t comfortable with me. It’s better in Anbu, but whenever I talk to the regular ninja they look at me like I’m about to eat them.” Kushina snickered a bit at that.

“Like I said wimps. But they’re strong where it matters. My advice to you is to cultivate some quirks. If you can’t be nice be weird, weird is non-threatening, eases tension. That’s why I make such a big fuss about ramen.”

“I just assumed you really liked ramen.”

“Well that too. I mean ramen is the food of the gods no doubt about it, but think about it. That girl who has a ramen obsession is far less intimidating than that girl who punched Mikoto’s lights out in kunoichi class.” Kakashi considered this. It made a surprising amount of sense. The next day he started walking around town with the latest Icha Icha book.

After that Kushina guard duty became less of a chore. She was still a terrifying, hormonal, menace, but she liked Kakashi, so he dodged the brunt of her temper. Most of his shifts were spent talking to her, comparing experiences, commiserating over how weird Konoha nin were. After the fifth time he’d caught them whispering to each other Minato had started giving them worried looks. Kakashi was pretty sure he thought they were plotting against him. He knew his wife, and her love of pranks, and even Kakashi had to admit she was surprisingly good at drawing otherwise sensible people into helping her execute him. His lips were sealed on the subject of the pink dye that had somehow got into the wash with Minato’s Hokage coat, it wasn’t really his style, but Kushina was persuasive.

A few months later everything fell apart again. Honestly he should have been used to it. It was hardly the first time his world had been upended. But it seemed that tragedy wasn’t one of those things that gets easier with repetition. Every loss just seemed to cut him deeper, and any time he started to feel like he’d managed to salvage something good out of disaster, his life would fall apart again.

Everything fell apart again with the scent of fire, of trees burning. Ashes and smoke, and the kind of dry heat that could never take hold in the wetlands of Kiri, he might have mistaken it for a forest fire if it weren’t for the sickly sweet scent of ozone that followed in the wake of the flames.

The Konoha nin reacted quickly he’d give them that, and he was forcibly reminded of what Kushina had said to him. That they were strong where it counted. He’d known that already of course, Rin and Obito had been anything but weak, but still, it’s a reminder, that they weren’t exceptions, that Konoha’s kindness hid a core of steel. They reacted quickly, organising evacuations, knocking down houses for firebreaks, using water jutsu to douse the flames, a well-practiced machine. Fire country is aptly named and the village hidden in the leaves knows what to do when the forest burns, just as Kiri nin know what to do when the rivers flood. Konoha nin are prepared to deal with forest fires, but no-one can prepare for the unleashed rage of a bijuu.

And that’s what it was. Kakashi knows better than most that smell that’s more a taste on the air, a metallic sweetness not unlike the aftermath of a raiton jutsu. The scent that marks a bijuu. The nine tails had broken free, and Kakashi cannot allow himself to think of Kushina. Jinchuriki cannot survive the removal of their burden and Kakashi can’t afford to grieve now.

He had no training for fire control, so he left the Konoha nin to it. Instead he went to fight a monster, with no real hope of winning. Went to die for a village that was and wasn’t his own because he was a ninja, and fighting was all he knew how to do. He went to join the Anbu who were fighting the monster, distracting it, he realised later, so he had a front row seat to the Yondaime’s choice.

That night he saw the Fourth Hokage, the Yellow Flash of Konoha, summon the god of death, and he knew he’d seen a legend being made. That night he saw Namikaze Minato, one of only three friends he had in Konoha, sacrifice himself to save the village, and he knew his world had fallen apart again. He was the first to reach the bodies, he’d say they looked like they were sleeping, but Kakashi has too much experience in telling the quick from the dead for that., Minato and Kushina were deaddeaddead in each other’s arms, he couldn’t deceive himself, and he couldn’t allow himself to grieve, because there was still work to be done. Because there was a newly orphaned baby on the ground beside the bodies, and he owed it to both of them to see their son safe. So he’d buried his grief, and his tears, and picked up baby Naruto, and carried him to the hospital, and watched over him all through that night and into the next morning as the mood of the village turned against him.

He’d cared for Naruto all through that week. The hospital had seen to his physical needs, but Kakashi had been the one to sit with him, and hold him, and soothe him through the grief that he was too young to understand. Naruto was too young to understand what he’d lost but he knew in the way of babies that something important was missing, and he’d screamed and cried and wailed for it. Wailed in the way that Kakashi wished he could, but wouldn’t allow himself to. He’d been the one to take Naruto to the funeral, orders be damned. It was a risk but some things were more important than physical safety. He held the baby tightly as the scent of cut flowers filled the air, life cut short, beautiful and fading. Naruto might be too young to understand but he had a right to attend his own parents’ funeral. Kakashi would not allow them to take that from him, even if they took everything else.

He hadn’t been allowed to keep Naruto of course. He was after all a defector from a foreign village, he might have had the Yondaime’s trust, but the village as a whole was still uneasy with him and giving him care of the village’s jinchuriki was a bridge too far. In any case, even if he hadn’t been who he was, he was still an unstable fourteen year old Anbu with no support network, no social worker in their right mind would have approved him as a guardian for a newborn baby. Deep down, Kakashi could admit they were probably right. The orphanage might be a little impersonal, but the kids there were clean, and fed, and reasonably treated, and the anonymity of it would be an extra layer of protection for a baby that had a target painted on his back since birth.

A part of him was glad he hadn’t been allowed to keep Naruto. Glad that the choice had been taken out of his hands, because it hurt to look at him, to remember Minato, and Kushina, and how they had died. Glad because for all that Kakashi had been a legal adult for years, he didn’t think he was adult enough to be what a child needed, not when he was still so caught up in his own grief. Naruto was safe enough in the orphanage, so Kakashi could afford to bury himself in Anbu, in the comfort of missions, and orders, and work that he understood, could afford to let himself fall apart in ways that someone charged with a child’s care could not. And if he felt a pang of regret for what could have been, he had sense enough to bury it with all the thousand other regrets that lived in his heart.

Chapter Text

Namikaze, Kakashi thinks, would not have asked this of him. The Yondaime had known him too well to ask him to teach children. But the Sandaime understood too little. Or maybe he understood too much. After all he was so much older than Minato ever got the chance to be, with the brutal cunning that marks all old ninja regardless of village. It’s entirely possible he was asking for the exact same reason that the Yondaime wouldn’t have asked.

“I won’t treat them as children.” Kakashi had warned. “I won’t be able to, I don’t know how.” The Sandaime had given a slight nod.

“I know. I’m asking you to take them anyway. Will you at least give them a fair chance?”

“I’ll judge them on their own merits if that’s what you want to know. If they pass my test I’ll teach them what I can. That’s why I’m asking you now, knowing who I am, what I can’t help but teach them, are you sure you want me teaching these genin.” The Sandaime suddenly looked very old and tired.

“Yes. I’m sure.” He smiled humourlessly. “Necessary things. I’m sure you of all people understand.”

Old he might be, but the Sandaime’s judgement was still as viciously sharp as ever. Out of all the teams that graduated that year, team seven is the one he would have chosen. And not just because Minato and Kushina’s son is on it. The other teams were still children, still innocent in ways Kakashi has never had a reference for. Team seven were still children too, but… less so than the others. Out of all the students in that graduating class, those three had the shadows in their eyes that said they’d already learned that the world can be cruel. Out of all of that graduating class, those three were the only ones he understood.

The academy smelled of chalk dust and weapons oil, oddly innocuous scents for a place where killers were trained, but then, Konoha has always been good at making the brutal seem kind. (Kiri’s academy had smelled mostly of blood and stale fear, Kakashi was always glad he hadn’t had to spend more than a year there.)

He turned up late of course. Part of the quirky persona Kushina had suggested he cultivate, at least, that’s the surface reason. Deep down, underneath the underneath, in the carefully guarded parts of his soul where he hates what he is, the orders he lives by, hates the whole shinobi system, that he hates and loves and depends on, for that part of him turning up late is about control, about rebellion, about freedom. He’s a traitor, and a defector, and for lack of a better word a heretic, but still he’s a good shinobi, except in this one thing, he goes where he’s told, and kills who he’s ordered, but always, always in his own time, when he chooses. He’s a jounin, he’s allowed to have quirks and if he uses his to claw back some vestige of control over his own life, well he knows enough to blackmail the Yamanaka into silence about it.

The kids were not impressed. It was a funny combination of disappointment and irritation. He’d feel bad, but honestly it was for the best. Better that they learn early that authority figures would always disappoint them. Better that they develop some cynicism early, rather than having to learn it the hard way when they were faced with the brutal realities of the world they lived in. Besides messing with the brats was actually really funny, they took themselves to adorably seriously.

“My first impression is… I hate you.” And the look on their faces was priceless. “Meet me on the roof in five minutes.” Run little minions run. He suppressed a gleeful cackle. He would say the sadism was just his Kiri roots showing through but… well, he’d met Anko.

He did consider asking them to introduce themselves, but honestly he knew everything he needed to from their academy files, and there was no point humanising the brats until after they’d passed his test. Besides, scaring the shit out of them would be easier if he kept it impersonal.

“So, little genins.” Sakura was feeling more than a little nervous. She wasn’t sure how the jounin was exuding that aura of menace, but she was really starting to wish she’d tried harder to keep Naruto from pissing him off. “You think you’ve graduated, do you.”

“Of course we did. We’re awesome dattebayo.” Sakura resisted the urge to strangle Naruto. He was going to get them all killed. She didn’t want to die, she hadn’t had a chance to marry Sasuke kun yet.

“Hmmm, no you didn’t.” And now the jounin seemed amused, which was in it’s own way even more terrifying.

“Hn, we passed the academy exam.” And now Sasuke kun was trying to get them killed too. She loved him, but she was starting to wonder if she was the only person on the team with any kind of self-preservation instinct.

“Hmm, yes, I read over the academy exams. I wasn’t particularly impressed. Luckily, the jounin sensei’s get to administer their own test to decide whether or not you brats make the cut.” Sasuke actually seemed annoyed at that statement.

“I was rookie of the year. I was the best in the class, I fail to see how I could have done better.” The jounin smiled a bit. It was surprising how an expression that showed on such a small piee of face could be so creepy.

“Oh you misunderstand. I wasn’t impressed with the exam.” Sakura almost forgot fear in favour of confusion. “I looked over it, and well it seemed a bit… soft.” The jounin continued. “When I took the exam, we had to kill one of our classmates to graduate. Kill or be killed, old school, law of the jungle and all that.” He smiled wistfully, seemingly oblivious to the horrified expressions on the genin’s faces.

“Um, I never heard about that.” Sakura wasn’t sure what suicidal impulse had driven her to speak up, and she cringed when he turned his attention on her. Luckily he seemed more amused than irritated at her.

“Hmm, well I guess you wouldn’t. That was in Kiri, of course. Konoha doesn’t do that sort of thing.”  Then he thought about it for a second, before musing, “At least, not where anyone might hear about it.” He shook his head before continuing, “Anyway, I’ve been told I’m not allowed to make you kill each other. Apparently it messes with teamwork or something. And I’m supposed to try and avoid killing you myself if I can.” He paused to consider, “I’m really not sure if I can. I’ve never really sparred with genin, it might take a while to figure out what you can take. Oh well I’m sure I’ll be forgiven if there’s a certain level of attrition. All part of the learning process.” He smiled again. Sakura tried not to shiver, she had the feeling showing weakness to this man could be very dangerous. She noticed the boys were both being uncharacteristically subdued. Good, there were some survival instincts in their testosterone laden skulls. She weighed up the risks  and decided to speak up again.

“So, you said there was another test?” She had a horrible feeling it wouldn’t be a nice safe written test, but knowledge was power and it was better to know than not know. It was. Even if it sometimes felt more like ignorance was bliss.

 “I’m so glad you asked pinky.” He sounded… gleeful, “I can see you’re the smart one. Just for that, you get an extra five minute headstart.”

“Headstart.” She didn’t stutter, she didn’t dare.

“We’re going to play a game of hide and seek. Wait, wait…” he grabbed Naruto by the back of the neck  as he tried to make a break for it, “I haven’t finished explaining the rules yet, orange chan. That’s a very bad habit to get into. What if you were given a mission and ended up assassinating the wrong target because you ran off before hearing all your orders. Now where was I?”

“The rules sensei.” Sasuke answered this time, his face eerily blank. If Sakura hadn’t spent months stalking him she would have missed the nervous tension behind the expressionless mask.

“Ah yes. The rules. Well, rule number one is, you run and hide, and I’ll come after you. Rule number two is when I find you I’ll fight you, rule number three if you die, or have to be taken to the hospital you fail, rule number four it’s not over until all of you fail, or I get bored. The whole village is fair game to run to and I won’t hold back. Now you have ten minutes. Except for pinky, she has fifteen minutes. Run little genins, run.” They took one look at each other and ran.

The kids scattered, and Kakashi wondered if he’d gone too far again. He’d thought he’d learned the limits over the last ten years, but then, he’d spent most of those years interacting with jounin, and Anbu, and the occasional chunin, not genin, not children. The pink haired one had looked just short of a heart attack. He’d warned the sandaime, he didn’t have it in him to be kind to them, not the way Konoha jounin were kind to their students. He wondered idly what Asuma and Kurenai were doing with their new students. Probably nothing this brutal, but Kakashi knew all too well how hard the world could be and he had to know they wouldn’t break. Had to know they wouldn’t let it twist and warp them the way so many of Kakashi’s old comrades had twisted. The ninja world was full of monsters, he refused to help create more.

Sasuke ran. Not too fast, not too slow. Just like he’d learned at the academy. If you ran too fast, too close to your limits you got sloppy, left too much of a trail, and if they caught you you’d have no energy left to fight with, if you ran too slow you’d just get caught.

He dodged between the trees trying to obscure his trail, desperate not to get caught, if this was a test then he wasn’t prepared to fail, he couldn’t afford to fail, not if he was going to kill Itachi. If it wasn’t just a test, if the jounin really was mad enough to make the test lethal, well he could afford that even less. Unless you were living in one of the old spirit tales, dead ninja didn’t get to take vengeance. It wasn’t because he was afraid, it wasn’t.

Suddenly an orange blur crashed into him, dragging them both to the floor. Sasuke scowled as the blur resolved itself into the unfortunately familiar form of Naruto.

“Watch where you’re going dobe.” He snarled, trying to cover up his fear. The idiot had the gall to laugh nervously as he apologised.

“Eh, sorry Sasuke. Didn’t see you there.” Sasuke just grunted.

“Whatever. Did you see where the jounin went?” Sasuke doubted it. From Naruto’s slightly battered and leaf strewn appearance, he’d gone for more of a headlong dash than a calculated retreat.

“Nah. I was a bit too busy trying to get some distance. Just so I could get some space to use my awesome techniques you know.” He looked away, and it occurred to Sasuke that for all Naruto’s bravado he was probably just as scared as Sasuke was, if not more so. After all, Sasuke had been top of the class and he felt out of his depth, Naruto had barely graduated a test that this jounin had dismissed as soft. Despite himself Sasuke found himself sympathising. He knew what it was like to not be good enough, no matter what you did, to have your own limitations leave you helpless and outclassed and afraid. And all of a sudden he was angry because what this strange jounin was doing, to him, to Naruto, to all of them, was exactly what Itachi had done to him and he was sick of it. Before he knew what he was doing he took Naruto’s hand.

“You’re a trap specialist right? I saw your pranks at the academy. How much space do you think you need to set something up?” And he could see his words having the desired effect, banishing the encroaching panic in Naruto’s eyes, replacing it with a familiar mischievous grin. And if the feeling of Naruto’s hand in his, gave Sasuke a slight warm glow in his chest, well who was to know.

“Well if we can get over to training ground twelve I have a couple of ideas.” Naruto was back to his usual enthusiasm. Honestly Sasuke hadn’t expected Naruto to actually come up with a plan, he’d just wanted Naruto to stop panicking. Panic killed, even if they did have good reason to be scared they still needed to keep their heads, the academy teachers had been very sure to try and hammer that through their heads. Still if Naruto actually did have some ideas that was all the better, Sasuke had some vague memories of pranks that had been able to snare their chunin senseis and everyone knew pranks were basically just traps set for comedic effect, so he must have some skill in the area. It was a better plan than running blindly.

They tried to be subtle as they made their way through the woods. Or at least as subtle as a ninja dressed in bright orange could be. Sasuke found himself seriously resenting Naruto’s wardrobe choices, even if the idiot was better at moving silently than his academy scores would indicate. They were making good progress until Naruto saw a flash of pink hair, followed by silver, in the opposite direction to the one they were aiming for. Naruto turned to him and Sasuke had a sinking feeling he knew what he was about to say.

“We have to help her.”

“We can’t. He’s already chasing her, we’ll never be able to get her away without him going after us.” Sasuke argued, but he could tell from the stubborn gleam in Naruto’s eyes that it wasn’t going to work.

“We can’t just leave her like that. She might get killed.” There was no arguing with the determination on Naruto’s face. Sasuke sighed,

“Fine. But we’ve got to be smart about this. If we don’t get away clean we won’t have time to set any of your traps, we’ll have to face him head on and then we’re all in trouble.”

In the end it boiled down to sending a clone out somewhere the jounin could catch a glimpse but couldn’t see it clearly, and hoping that he fell for it. It worked far too well. Sasuke really should have been more suspicious of that, but he was too busy being relieved as Naruto grabbed Sakura by the wrist and furiously whispered the plan as they headed for their destination. She was crying silently, too terrified to argue or cause trouble, which Sasuke thanked his lucky stars for, because they really did not need the sound of an argument to draw their insane jounin sensei down on their heads. He’d honestly thought they’d got away clean, that they’d managed to earn themselves a breather, time to lay some traps and work out their next move.

Then the jounin appeared in front of them in a swirl of cold mist that sent chills down Sasuke’s spine. It was only pure reflex that allowed him to take up a defensive position before the jounin struck, too fast for Sasuke’s eyes to follow. The force of it drove him back into a tree, and the nebulous fear that had been biting at Sasuke since the jounin had first appeared in their academy classroom suddenly coalesced into something very sharp and immediate. Sasuke knew in that moment that this man could kill them all without blinking. He should run. They should all run. If they scattered there was a two in three chance he’d go after one of the others first. He looked over at Naruto’s wide blue eyes, and the shaking pink haired form of Sakura next to him. He remembered Naruto’s hand in his, and Sakura’s frightened tears and he made a choice.

“Run.” He said. “I’ll slow him down. Do the plan, make him pay.” And then there was nothing but a blur of strike, and too slow counter strike, and pain. He thought the others had got clear. He hoped so as the world faded to black.

Naruto snarled as he ran. He’d never felt so angry, or helpless, not even when Mizuki sensei had turned traitor and left Iruka sensei bleeding on the ground. Had that only been one night ago? It felt like he’d been running through those woods forever. He wanted to turn around and rescue that bastard Sasuke, but he doubted anything he could have done would have helped. Besides Sakura’s hand was still in his, and he couldn’t just abandon her either. He snarled because he couldn’t cry, couldn’t afford to fall apart. Sasuke bastard had told him to run, had told him to trap the hell out of that jounin bastard, and Naruto had to make his sacrifice mean something.

He liked to think he’d done a good job of turning training ground twelve into a deathtrap. Well as good a job as he could have done with the limits on time and materials. Sakura had even pulled herself together enough to help, she’d managed to put some pretty clever genjutsus in to disguise the triggers and tripwires, that he’d never have been able to manage.

It wasn’t good enough though. When it came down to it he wondered if anything would have been good enough. The man was clearly a monster, and they were just newly graduated genin. He took comfort in the fact that he heard a couple of the traps go off before darkness fell. He never even saw the man hit.

Sakura dragged a bleeding Naruto with her through the woods. He was clammy, and far too cold and she didn’t know what to do. He could die, and there was nothing she could do about it, his injuries went way beyond what the standard academy first aid course covered. She stopped and propped him up against a tree. If she could get him to the hospital, he’d be fine, failed of course, but alive, and she was increasingly convinced that a passing grade was not something worth dying for. She needed to get him to the hospital, but the hospital was halfway across the village, and he weighed more than she did. There was no way she could make it without the jounin catching them. Even if he wasn’t chasing them she wasn’t sure she could do it, not with how cold Naruto was. He needed help quickly.

She didn’t even like Naruto. He was annoying, and unprofessional, and once he’d dyed the hair of all the girls in the class the same orange as his jumpsuit. That wasn’t the kind of thing pre-adolescent girls forgave easily. But she didn’t want him to die. And he’d helped her, he’d risked getting caught to help her, and he’d dragged her along with him even when she was being utterly useless, and he was going to die in her arms.

She refused to cry. She knew too well that crying wasn’t going to help anything. Instead she thought. She was clever, it was the main reason she’d ended up the top kunoichi in class. If she just thought calmly and analytically, there might be a way to save him.

She heard the jounin off in the distance, still trying to find their trail, and she knew what to do. She stepped out of cover and spoke clearly, in a voice she knew would carry.

“I surrender. Please take my teammate to the hospital.” The jounin appeared and as everything faded to black, she thought she heard him speak.

“Well done.”

When she woke up they were all still on the roof of the academy building with not a scratch on them.

“Genjutsu.” Sasuke snarled, to the jounin’s apparent glee.

“Well spotted Sasuke chan.” Naruto seemed confused.

“So… it wasn’t real.” The jounin raised his hand and tilted it from side to side.

“Hmm, depends on your definition of real really. I mean it was a real test. It didn’t take place in the real world, because I couldn’t push you that far in reality without risking you all getting actually hurt, and that wouldn’t be ideal. But it is still relevant to whether you get to be my cute little genin minions, or sent back to the academy in disgrace.”

“Oh” Naruto slumped, “We still failed then.”

“Actually, you guys… pass. Full marks well done.” For some reason his smile wasn’t nearly so scary this time.

“But we all got caught.” Sakura pointed out.

“Oh my sweet innocent little genin. You need to learn to look underneath the underneath. I’m a ninja. I lied. The point of the test wasn’t for you not to get caught. It was to see if you’d follow your conscience even when you knew you’d suffer for it.”

“Huh?” Even Sasuke looked confused.

“Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Hatake Kakashi, and I was born in the village hidden in the mist.” Naruto and Sakura just stared in disbelief, but Sasuke looked considering.

“So that’s why you used the Kiri shunshin variant, not the Konoha one.” The jounin, Hatake, beamed and ruffled his hair. Sasuke looked like he was trying very hard not to flinch.

“Correct. Now if any of you were paying attention in class you’ll know that they call Kiri the bloody mist. I’ve seen all too many ninja become monsters. I refuse to train more.” This time it was Naruto who seemed to be considering his words.

“So Sasuke passed because he sacrificed himself to let me and Sakura chan get away.” He said slowly.

“Yes. And you passed because you were willing to risk getting caught to try and rescue Sakura chan.” Hatake nodded.

“What about Sakura then.” Sasuke asked bluntly.

“Ah, Sakura chan, well she had both the hardest and the easiest choice to make, didn’t you Sakura chan?” Hatake said softly. Sakura glanced away before setting her shoulders and looking him right in the eye, she was not ashamed of her choice.

“Not so hard. Naruto was dying, so I chose to surrender in order to get him medical treatment.”

“And I’m very proud of you. All of you. So congratulations, you are all now my cute little genin minions. You can call me Kakashi sensei. Training starts tomorrow, and it’s going to be fun.” Sakura wondered fleetingly if maybe she’d have been better off failing.

Kakashi watched as his new genin team dispersed and tried to shake the bleak sense of fear that was creeping over him. He’d tested them and they’d passed fairly, even if he hadn’t wanted them to, and now he had three virtually helpless children depending on him. Tiny little hostages to fate that needed emotional support, and age appropriate training. He wasn’t equipped for this. What if he broke them. He halted his panic and remembered what Kushina had said, “They’re strong where it matters.” He thought of how very brave they’d been under his genjutsu, and he knew those words were as true for this new generation of Konoha nin as they’d been in Kushina’s time. Maybe he could do this. Namikaze wouldn’t have asked it of him, but Namikaze was dead, so all he could do was try and teach these children the things that he’d had to learn the hard way, and hope that they didn’t break.

Chapter Text

Wave country stirred up old memories. The saltwater smell of the ocean breeze was not quite the same as the cool mist that had defined his childhood, but it was still far more familiar to him than the green, earthy scents of Konoha, even after half a lifetime. Maybe it was the nostalgia that drove him to start teaching the kids in earnest. Not the practical stuff, he’d been teaching them that back at the village, but the other things, the important things. The things you couldn’t teach where you might be overheard.

It was traditional with mist jounin. If they really wanted their students to live, there were things they needed to know. About politics, and survival, and how to play the game. But equally those were the very things sensible people didn’t dare talk about out loud. So they had to be taught quietly, on out of village missions. And so it had become unspoken tradition, in Kiri at least, physical training happened in village, where was less chance of being randomly attacked while exhausted from practice, while theory and politics and ideology were taught out of village, where there was no-one to overhear and report back to the military police. Kakashi wasn’t sure how it worked in Konoha, after all Konoha didn’t even have a military police anymore since the thing with the Uchiha. (And if that didn’t have all the hallmarks of a bloodline purge, then Kakashi wasn’t a survivor of the mist.) Maybe Konoha ninja didn’t need to hide their more controversial lessons, maybe they didn’t have any to begin with.

Honestly Kakashi doubted it, Konoha might be kind but it was still a ninja village, and if the bloodstains were hidden under the carpet that only made it more important to know where they were. The Konoha military police might be gone, but the manner of it only served to confirm that there were multiple players, all of whom might take exception to someone airing the dirty laundry.

If Kakashi had to guess, he’d say the Konoha nin explained in plain sight, were subtle, used word games and metaphors and hints, to teach their children the unspoken rules of play. Young genin got allowances in Konoha, while they were still in the process of picking up on what the adults weren’t saying out loud. Honestly he suspected that approach would have gone straight over his genin’s heads. Perceptive they were not.

It was a good thing for them that Kakashi wasn’t nearly Konoha enough to even try and play it that way. He did it the Kiri way, every evening they were out of the village he took them aside and talked to them about the things that shouldn’t be talked about. He taught them all the things his jounin sensei had taught him, so many years ago, about how lying could save their lives, how they should always keep the full extent of their power secret in case one day their own village turned on them. Of how no-one could be trusted or relied upon, and everyone had their own agenda.

But he also taught them the things he’d learned the hard way. That trust was enough to save your life, if you only had the courage for it, that the truth could be like fire burning away the fragile cobwebs of lies, that sometimes people could be kind.

That had confused them. They didn’t like the contradictions. “Why?” Naruto asked, “How? How can all that be true? How do we know what’s right?” Why can’t the world be simple? he didn’t say, but Kakashi heard and answered anyway.

“Because nothing is absolute.” He said softly, with not a trace of the sadistic amusement he usually used on them. “Because there are questions that shouldn’t be answered easily. Because all of those things might be true, have been true before, will be true again. Because you will have to decide for yourselves which of them to believe.” Sasuke looked rebellious.

“Some things are absolute.” Kakashi raised his eyebrow.

“Are they?”

“Yes.” He failed to elaborate, so Kakashi decided to elaborate for him.

“A boy kills everyone he loves, and then flees the village. His little brother survives and swears to kill him. Is that a simple story?” Sasuke flinched, and Kakashi could hear the sharp intake of breath from Sakura and Naruto as they connected the village story to the teammate sitting beside them.

“He has to die.” Sasuke snapped defensively, recoiling from his teammate’s sympathy. Kakashi kept his body language carefully neutral. Surprisingly it was Naruto who spoke up.

“I don’t think it is simple. Stuff’s never that simple. Why did he do it? How did he do it? How will the little brother kill him? What will the little brother be or do or feel when he’s dead?”

“It doesn’t matter?” Sasuke bit back on a snarl, “He killed them. He killed them all and made me watch, and he laughed, and I’m going to kill him.” Kakashi cut through Sasuke’s rage.

“The question you need to ask yourself Sasuke, is, does he want to die?” Sasuke stilled in shock. Kakashi smiled inwardly at the knowledge he’d drawn blood. That was Kiri through and through. Out of all the thousands of things that could be said, find the handful of words that will cut to the bone, and use them. He left it at that. Sasuke would need time to think about what had been said, and in any case they had a long day’s travel to follow.

Wave dragged up memories of Kiri for more reasons than just the sea air. The two mist chunin they fought at the start of the mission were easy enough to dismiss. Kakashi had never known them, and for all they may have been comrades if they had all stayed where they were born, he felt no particular connection to them. Zabuza was another matter. They had never been friends, Kiri jounin can’t afford friends, but there was a history there and that was maybe even more important.

He’d stood and faced Zabuza on the sea shore, and their meeting had carried a weight to it, of shared experience, and choices made, and none of it belonged to a Konoha jounin. So he had unknotted his headband, and turned it over and re-tied it with the other plate, the one so few people knew he still wore, facing outwards. The one with the symbol for mist and a single straight line cut all the way through it, because he was a Konoha jounin, but he was also a Kiri missing nin, the one did not make the other any less true. He faced Zabuza as an equal, as a fellow traitor to Kiri, because to do otherwise would have been the worst kind of self-deception.

It was not an easy meeting. Zabuza was bitter and angry and worn down in a way that Kakashi had never seen him, and he jumped at the chance of someone to take his anger out on. They are dangerous men. They are broken children. Even words are weapons in their mouths.

“Well if it isn’t Traitor Kakashi?” He sneered, his voice was full of venom but his eyes were simply tired.

“You are just as much a traitor to Kiri as I am.” Kakashi pointed out.

“I betrayed the Mizukage, I never betrayed Kiri.” And there was a fierce bitterness in his eyes. “I took a gamble to save my village and failed. You ran away and joined the fucking treehuggers.”

“Konoha offered me a place, and I had nowhere else to go. I didn’t betray Kiri for Konoha’s sake. I did it because I believed it was right.” Even after so long, it still hurt to remember.

“And you think I had somewhere else to go? You’re a coward Kakashi. It was weak, weak and faithless to abandon your home like that. You should have stayed loose until you could fight your way home. If you thought Kiri was wrong you should have changed it, not abandoned it.” Zabuza snarled, he didn’t say, why didn’t you help me? That would mean admitting weakness, and they both knew weakness was blood in the water.

“And how’s fighting treating you?” Kakashi drawled. Used the words that cut deepest to cover up the fact Zabuza managed to draw blood. He didn’t say, would it have made a difference? They both knew it wouldn’t. Zabuza laughed abruptly, dark and brittle.

“I’m sure you know the answer to that, comrade mine.” Kakashi did know the answer, to both the spoken and unspoken questions.

“Aa. I suppose I do.” He admitted. “Shall we fight then?”

“Might as well.” And all the bitterness drained out of Zabuza’s voice as he said it, leaving only weary resignation. In the end neither of their feelings mattered. They were ninja on opposite sides of a contract. The fight was never about them.

They were too evenly matched really. Managed to fight each other to a bloody standstill, that left them both incapacitated for the rest of the week. Maybe that was for the best. Kakashi didn’t really want to kill Zabuza, and with both of them out of commission their students were unlikely to get into any serious scuffles. The longer the waiting game could be dragged out the more likely the situation between their clients would shift somehow, and allow both of them to leave alive. Kakashi played up the chakra exhaustion.

He spent the time telling his students stories about growing up in Kiri. Meeting Zabuza had made them curious and in any case it would probably do them good to learn about how other places were different to Konoha… and how they were the same.

He told them about bloodline purges, and secret police, and always, always having to watch your back. He taught them about words wielded like knives, and secrets hoarded like treasure, and the sheer honest freedom to be found in the fight even when everything else was shrouded in the fog of deceit. He wondered if they were perceptive enough to make the connection, to realize that none of that was true only of Kiri.

He talked to them about the cool fresh mist on the air at dawn, and the sunlight shining off the canals and the sword dances in the town square at midwinter. He told them that it was possible to both love a thing and fear it, to care for it and betray it utterly. He wasn’t sure how much they understood, but he hoped they would at least remember. That when they truly needed it the knowledge would be there.

And then he was recovered, and he was sure Zabuza was recovered too, and the tensions were still building between the townspeople and the cartel. Wave country was a powder keg waiting to go off. Kakashi grew up in the mother of all powder kegs, he knew. The tensions were building but they had not yet sparked, so he and his students did their job and guarded the bridge, and Zabuza and his student did their jobs and attacked the bridge.

He fought Zabuza again. It was such a petty little squabble for either of them to die in, Kakashi couldn’t help but think. It wasn’t either of their fights, and yet it seemed as if at least one of them was going to have to die for it. Sometimes he wondered what would have happened if the two of them had graduated at the same time. They’d both done it early, but Kakashi was a little older and a little smarter, so he’d been a year ahead. A year before Zabuza had killed every single other student in his graduating class, just to make a point. It had worked for what it was worth. It had ended that bloody graduation exam for good. Still Kakashi thought, it was a brutal way to make an argument. If Kakashi had been a little younger, or less skilled they might have killed each other then, and saved themselves the trouble now. This fight was after all as meaningless as that graduation exam. He suspected Zabuza would not respond well if he pointed that out.

His students fought Zabuza’s  student. Haku the name was apparently. His student’s outnumbered Haku, but that was fair enough, because Haku was considerably better than them, older, more experienced, with more training under his belt. It was really only to be expected. He almost froze in shock though when he saw just what kekkei genkai the boy was using.

“Where the fuck did you find a Yuki in this day and age?” He asked Zabuza in disbelief.

“He followed me home. I decided to keep him.” Zabuza shrugged, halfway through a suiton jutsu.

“Orphan?”

“Street kid. He got caught making ice, his dad killed his mum, he killed his dad, there were angry mobs, it’s not a pretty story.” Kakashi shuddered in sympathy, the Mizukage might have started the bloodline purges, but there were more than enough ordinary citizens only too happy to lash out at the ninja clans they blamed for all their woes.

“He’s Aya chan’s kid isn’t he.” Kakashi said softly.

“Probably.” Zabuza nodded, “I can’t think of any other women in the right age range that might have carried that bloodline. Even if it wasn’t active in her it might have been passed on to her kid.”

“It was active.” Kakashi admitted. “That’s why she ran. I warned her the Anbu were on her trail and she made the smart decision.”

“I always did wonder why she vanished. Until I found Haku I assumed she’d been disappeared.” It was an unspoken demand for details and Kakashi found himself complying, casting his mind back to the last time he’d seen Aya chan.

Kakashi sat in Aya’s apartment and tried not to fidget. He really didn’t want to piss her off, not when he’d rather not risk the hospital. The purges had everyone on edge and he had absolutely no intention of finding out whether a stolen Sharingan would be enough to put him on the list. Civilians and low ranking ninja kept their heads down, hurried to work, and hurried home, and dared not tarry in the streets. High ranking ninja trained in secret and kept an ear to the ground. The hospital wasn’t safe anymore, hadn’t been for weeks with the military police running random checks on the wards in the hope of catching people out. The air in Kiri was thick with fear and the scent of blood and the village choked on it.

“You should be more careful”, Aya said. The words might have carried more weight if she’d been able to force genuine concern into it, but these days few people had enough heart to spare for any but kin. Anyone could be an informant, or the next to disappear and either way it was a bad idea to get attached. Kakashi liked Aya, respected her, but they weren’t friends. Kiri jounin couldn’t afford friends, not when they both had their own secrets to keep.

“That should do it.” She said as she tied off the stitches. “Do try and keep yourself in one piece out there. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to keep patching you up and it would be a shame to waste all the work I’ve done so far.” Kakashi gave her a sardonic look.

“I’ll do my best Aya chan.” Kakashi drawled “Try not to draw attention to yourself while I’m gone. It would be such a pain to find a new medic.”

“Ha, that’s more your department isn’t it? Using that eye on non-solo missions. You do know you’re going to get caught one of these days.” She laughed as she turned away.

“I’m not the one using Hyoton in the village.” Kakashi’s voice cut through her biting humour like a knife, and she froze.

“How did you hear about that?” She said, snow soft and deadly. He grinned humourlessly, the smile didn’t reach his mouth.

“Anbu found a tree full of ice senbon a week ago. Don’t worry you’re not under suspicion yet. They know someone did it but they don’t have any idea who. Still if you keep practicing like that one of these days you will get caught.” Aya met his visible eye without flinching.

“What makes you think it was me?” Kakashi snorted.

“The Yuki clan is gone, as are nearly all of those in the village that carried their blood. If your father’s parentage hadn’t been such a scandal, you would be too. I guess being the bastard child swept under the rug can be an advantage sometimes. You are the only person I know of in the village that could possibly be using that technique, so let me say it again, try not to draw attention to yourself.” Aya didn’t ask him where he’d gotten his information, he’d known for a while and she probably knew that, just as she probably knew about the subtle, well hidden Hatake clan bloodline. Without such assurances neither would have dared trust each other, but there was a difference between unspoken understandings and saying things out loud and for him to say it so plainly was a sign he was deeply concerned.

“Your advice is noted.” She gave him a professional smile, and a bottle of painkillers as he left. If she was sensible she’d get the hell out of town while she still could. Now that they were actively looking for a Hyoton user they’d missed it was only a matter of time before they discovered her secret. Still Aya could take care of herself, he suspected she’d already had plans to leave, she’d never have survived this long if she couldn’t read the river’s flow.

Either way he’d need to find a new medic nin.

...

In the end it was Naruto who broke the stalemate. Somehow he’d managed to feed a spark to the powder keg that was Wave country, and suddenly the ninja battles became irrelevant. Gato had showed up and said he wasn’t going to pay the ninja, the citizens had showed up and said they weren’t going to pay Gato, there was a fight between a bunch of hired thugs, and a rabble of angry townspeople armed with pitchforks, and in the end Kakashi and Zabuza hadn’t needed to finish their fight. The contract was fulfilled, the oppressed had been freed, he hadn’t had to kill someone he respected, and Naruto had got a bridge named after him. Kakashi chose to count that as a win.

Chapter Text

The chunin exams came upon Konoha in the haze of high summer. An uncharacteristic wave of activity cutting through the persistent acrid scent of smoke from the summer fires, and the sweetness of the climbing flowers that bloomed when the year was hottest. Konoha soon found itself overwhelmed by a wave of suspicious foreign ninja, bureaucratic screw ups, and desperate posturing. Bloody inefficient three ring circus that they were. They were always more a show of strength than anything else, which was why no self-respecting ninja village would ever refuse to host them, no matter how much paranoid isolationism they were indulging in. The exams were an organisational nightmare, a dangerous security hazard, and a massive disruption to the day to day operations of a ninja village, and no-one could afford not to hold them when their number came up. That would look weak, and that was something no hidden village could afford.

Of course the fact that Konoha was hosting meant they really needed to make a good showing, lots of teams in the running, lots of promotions, lots of crushing of foreign ninja. The theatre of it made Kakashi sigh inwardly. Hardly anyone actually got promoted in foreign chuunin exams, in fact hardly anyone got promoted in chuunin exams at all, unless they were already slated for a promotion. And yet still villages sent teams of genin to prove their strength and try to embarrass the host village on their home turf.

He hesitated before nominating his students, he really did. Promotion exams would always carry the memory of fear and blood for him, of half the class graduating on the bones of the other half, but this was a Konoha exam, a public Konoha exam, they traded a lot on their reputation as the nice village. It wouldn’t be like Kiri, they wouldn’t kill his students. There was no reason to be paranoid.

In the end he did nominate them. None of them was actually up for promotion, but it would be good experience, would put them up against ninja from other villages in a relatively controlled environment. Not safe, genin could and did die in chuunin exams, but not outside what his kids could handle, after all the enemies were only genin, his kids were good enough to fight them on equal terms. And anyway it had been strongly hinted to all the jounin sensei that as long as their students were competent enough not to embarrass Konoha, they really ought to enter them, if only to make up numbers. His kids were still too green for a promotion, but they were tough and had obvious potential, it would be strange not to enter them, when they would be such a good showcase of Konoha’s upcoming young talent.

He hadn’t expected the chuunin sensei to speak up. It was bravely done, if unwise, speaking out of turn in a roomful of ninja stronger and far more dangerous than he was. Yet another Konoha nin showing strength when it mattered. Iruka sensei loved Naruto, loved all his kids, and was willing to challenge his superiors to protect them. It changed nothing of course, but sometimes that wasn’t the most important thing. Kakashi had learned the hard way that sometimes the most important thing was to try.

They should have listened to him, although really no-one could have predicted the clusterfuck that was to come. Still they should have listened.

Sakura knew who Orochimaru was. She knew he was famous, and she knew why, what he was capable of, what he had done, she knew he was enough to give hardened jounin nightmares. She realised who he was and she grabbed Sasuke and ran. For all the good it did them. Kakashi sensei had trained them to deal with killing intent, how to run and hide when most people would simply freeze, but how could they run and hide from someone so much faster, so much better, who had their scent, who wanted Sasuke. She’d run anyway, fallen back on her training when fear left her unable to think. Later Kakashi would say he was proud of her for that, it had been a bright point in a very bad day.

They’d been caught of course, had been trapped by an enemy that smelled of formaldehyde and dry scales, and felt like death. Sakura had never been so afraid. And then Orochimaru had bitten Sasuke in the neck and left a strange mark and then he’d let them go. Part of her, the innocent civilian born part had just been so relieved it was over. But the rest of her, the rest of her had paid attention, had been listening to Kakashi sensei’s lessons in the harsh realities of the world, and Kakashi’s student knew that nothing was ever that simple. If he’d let them go it wasn’t for any reason they should welcome.

When the sound genin had jumped them Sakura had been ready, and she hadn’t been too proud to play helpless victim, right up until she twisted, the way Kakashi sensei had taught her and knifed the closest one in the throat, at the same time as she pulled the thread on the razorwire trap she’d set up. Her first three kills in under a minute. Part of her wanted to break down or throw up or something, but she couldn’t afford to, not when she was the only thing protecting her helpless teammates. So she pushed it down and kept moving, ignored the tacky feeling of the blood drying on her hand, and the choking taste of metal on the air, and the blank, blank eyes of her dead opponents. She remembered Kakashi telling them…

It doesn’t take flashy ninjutsu to kill you know. All it really takes is a decision, that you are going to walk away from the fight, and they’re not. Everything else is just details, you can use a flashy jutsu, or a kunai, or a pointy stick. It doesn’t matter what weapons you use or how strong you are, in the end, almost anything can kill you. The end result is the same. Just so much meat. People die easy.” She hadn’t really understood what he meant until that moment, when she realised she’d killed three ninja who were stronger and more dangerous than her, because she’d been serious and they hadn’t. Now she was a living breathing Kunoichi with blood on her hands, and they were empty piles of slowly cooling flesh and bone. She wished she didn’t understand, but some lessons can’t be unlearned.

Of course his team was in the middle of it all. He didn’t know why Orochimaru wanted Sasuke, he wasn’t entirely certain he wanted to know, ninja with that kind of power could get away with all kinds of perversions simply because they were too strong for most people to stop. All he knew was that in the space of about twenty four hours things had gone from a fairly standard piece of military posturing, to hell in a handbasket. Kakashi was afraid, was sick with it, the sour taste of bile at the back of his throat whenever he thought of  just how wrong everything had gone. And if Orochimaru’s involvement wasn’t enough on its own to give him cold chills down his spine, then the lineup for the combat section of the exams would have done it.

Sakura at least was out of it. Double knockout in the prelims against her Yamanaka classmate. Not the most dignified showing, but Kakashi was well past caring about that. She’d just made her first kill, it was understandable for her to lose her cool. He’d schedule her in for some counselling with the psych nins once she’d had time to process, at least for now she was ok. Upset over her first kill, but no-one ever died from that that he knew of, and for now, until he could find time to talk her through it properly that would have to be enough. She was a brave girl, she would be ok.

Naruto… was probably going to get the crap beaten out of him to be honest, Gai’s student was one of the ones actually scheduled for a promotion, as long as he didn’t do anything stupid, and he was good. Kakashi wasn’t too proud to admit that, he was a year older than team seven, and Gai had trained him well. But a beating wouldn’t kill Naruto, wouldn’t even put him down for long with his nine tailed passenger, and Neiji wasn’t nearly stupid enough to actually kill a fellow Konoha nin on purpose, that was the sort of thing that could kill his career before it started. Naruto would be fine, a bit bruised and humiliated, but honestly he probably needed the reality check anyway. It wasn’t Naruto Kakashi was afraid for.

Sasuke though… Kakashi had seen the kid he was up against. He hadn’t seen that sort of bloodlust on a genin since Zabuza graduated. It had taken weeks for them to get all the blood out of the academy arena, Kakashi had been on one of the genin teams assigned to the cleanup. He’d had nightmares for years after, until the blood he’d spilt himself replaced it in his dreams. Sasuke’s opponent was dangerous. Not just strong, but mad, the kind of mad that would paint the world red and rule it from a throne of rotting corpses. Rabid, as his dogs would put it. He’d seen what the boy had done to Gai’s student, and he’d seen that he would have done worse if he hadn’t been stopped. Sasuke couldn’t beat him, he knew his student, knew his strength and potential, and he knew he couldn’t win. And then there was that seal on Sasuke’s neck, Orochimaru’s work, and Kakashi had no idea what it was doing to his student, but it was yet another bad variable in a fight that was full of bad variables.

He should have just told Sasuke to forfeit, would have done if he’d thought Sasuke would listen, but Sasuke was fairly mad in his own right. Itachi had broken something in him. His survival instinct possibly, or maybe just his ability to back down. He didn’t understand how to face his own limitations, how to recognise a fight he couldn’t win. His fight or flight instinct was permanently stuck on fight. Sasuke wouldn’t forfeit. It was probably going to kill him.

Kakashi wasn’t a Kage, wasn’t a magician, or a god, he couldn’t wave his hand and stop the fight, disappear Sasuke’s opponent, vanquish Orochimaru, fix Sasuke’s head, make everything ok. He was just a ninja, just a jounin sensei. He couldn’t protect his student. In the end he’d never been able to protect anyone, he’d known that when he took team seven on despite his doubts. All he could do was try and teach them to protect themselves, and hope that would be enough.

He dumped Naruto on Ebisu who owed him a favour. He’d have to make it up to him later, but Sasuke needed him more, and anyway Naruto could do with some review of the basics. He dumped Naruto on Ebisu, assigned Sakura some reading to keep her out of trouble, and he took Sasuke out of the village. He couldn’t save Sasuke, but he had a month to try and teach him to save himself, and he couldn’t do that where he might be watched or overheard.

“The thing is.” Kakashi sensei told him, half casual, half serious. “You’re probably going to die.” Sasuke bristled at the implication.

“I’m not weak, I won’t die that easily.” Kakashi sighed.

“I didn’t say you would die easily. But the fact is that Sabaku no Gaara is stronger than you, and he’s rabid. I’ll teach you what I can to try and help you survive this, I’ll train you into the ground for this fight if you want, but in return I want you to think very hard about things worth dying for, and whether pride is one of them.”

“I’m the strongest in my year…” Kakashi didn’t let Sasuke finish, interrupted with a subtle note of anger that Sasuke almost missed.

“You are a genin. A green, new minted genin. Yes you are talented, but mark my words and mark them well there are fights that you cannot win. I am a jounin, I am ex-Anbu, I am a prodigy and a genius, and I’m in the bingo books of all the major villages, and there are still fights I cannot win. If you do not know your limits you cannot hope to surpass them.”

“Teach me then. Help me get stronger.” Sasuke didn’t understand what Kakashi was trying to get him to do. Did he want him to forfeit? But if he did that how could he progress? How could he ever defeat Itachi if he couldn’t even beat one foreign genin. Kakashi sighed again, and tried a different tack.

“Why does this fight matter?” He asked lightly, and if Sasuke hadn’t known better he would have thought him unconcerned. “What do you gain if you win, what do you lose if you don’t? Answer me this Sasuke, is this a battle worth fighting?”

“How weak do you think I am, if I can’t even beat some genin? How am I to grow stronger if I don’t challenge myself?” Sasuke snapped back, defensive for reasons he couldn’t quite articulate to himself.

“You are not a fool Sasuke.” And Sasuke twitched at the way Kakashi’s tone shifted to something as hard as steel and as sharp as the edge of a blade. “You are not a fool Sasuke, so please stop acting like one. Genin that boy might be, but if he is it’s only because he’s too unstable to be trusted. He has power that you will never have and he knows how to use it. There are some people in this world that you shouldn’t fight unless it’s something worth dying for, and I tell you now that he is one of them. So think, is there anything about this fight that is worth dying for.”

“What are you talking about?” Sasuke was missing something, he knew he was missing something. Something he should have seen, something he should have known, and the disappointment in Kakashi’s eye bit deeper than he’d ever expected it to.

“You are not a fool Sasuke. Tell me who your teammate is.” Kakashi’s gaze was deadly serious, in the way it was when he was trying to tell them something cruel and true and important.

“My teammates are you, Sakura and… Naruto.” Sasuke trailed off, there was something in that.  He remembered the aura of the sand genin, chakra that tasted of pure malice, that thickened the air with the scent of electricity and blood. He’d felt it before, he realised, he’d felt it in wave, and instinct told him it mattered. Something cold and sickening trickled down his spine. “Naruto. This has something to do with Naruto.” Kakashi’s eye curved up in a bleak smile.

“Aa.” He said softly, and waited patiently for Sasuke to puzzle it through.

“There’s something about Gaara that’s like Naruto, some kind of power, or bloodline ability. No it’s more than that…” he thought out loud. “The adults all know what it is don’t they?” He asked suddenly with a flash of cold clarity. “There’s something they haven’t told us about Naruto.” He felt as though he was standing on the edge of something, like a cliff or the blade of a knife, on the edge of a realisation he wasn’t sure he wanted, but there was no mercy in Kakashi’s expectant look, so he had to step forward anyway. “What aren’t they telling us Sensei?”

“When is Naruto’s birthday Sasuke?” And with that the pieces that Sasuke had been refusing to acknowledge finally came together. He could tell that Kakashi saw when the truth finally dawned on him. He felt… cold. Kakashi sensei had told them, had warned them what hidden villages were, the lies they were built on, the bloodstains under the carpet, but being told there were secrets was an entirely different feeling to being confronted with one of those secrets, more visceral, more real. He remembered wide frightened blue eyes, a hand in his, a promise of friendship, he remembered the old books in the Uchiha library that he’d read when there was no-one left to tell him what he could and couldn’t read. He remembered reading about jinchuriki, human weapons with monsters sealed inside them. He remembered power that had poisoned the air in wave. Bloodstains under the carpet, and once you know they’re there you can’t forget, no matter how much you might want to. Kakashi nodded in satisfaction as Sasuke tried to process.

“You understand now, why Gaara concerns me.”

“But I can beat Naruto and he’s…” Sasuke spoke desperately but without conviction. He knew the truth and Kakashi confirmed it.

“Naruto doesn’t know how to use the power inside him, from the looks of things Gaara does, that makes a difference. And besides…” Kakashi looked pensive. “I don’t trust Gaara’s seal.” Sasuke blanched.

“You mean the bijuu might escape?” Sasuke had heard the stories of the Kyuubi attack, had seen the nightmares of ninja older and more seasoned than he was. He knew that was no light concern.

“Maybe. I have no proof, just a feeling. But I’ve seen faulty seals before and that boy worries me.” He shook his head free of the dark thoughts that clung to them both, and continued in a more casual tone. “Anyway, enough of that. Your opponent is fast, so I guess we need to work on your speed training.”

“I thought you wanted me to forfeit?” Sasuke asked in confusion. Not that he wanted to forfeit but the about face was disconcerting.

“I think, that there’s a momentum to all of this that isn’t going to be derailed by me knocking some basic self-preservation into your head. I’d like for you to forfeit but on the off chance that things don’t work out that way more training might just save your life.”

“I thought you said that trust would save our lives?” Sasuke quipped, in an effort to break the tension. It wasn’t nearly as funny as he’d intended it to be.

“Lots of things can save your life, just like lots of things can take your life. As a ninja it is wise to be aware of all of them.” There was a dark resignation in Kakashi’s tone that Sasuke didn’t like. He didn’t want to forfeit, but Kakashi sensei had never lied to him, to any of them, had never been other than brutally honest. That deserved a measure of trust Sasuke thought, so he would trust Kakashi’s judgement. He would forfeit.

Chapter Text

Naruto had been… angry with Kakashi sensei, at least at first. Angry and hurt and resentful. The exams were coming up and Kakashi sensei had just left him, Naruto wasn’t good at dealing with being left, with feeling unwanted. He’d had altogether too much of that in his life already, more than anyone could be expected to bear.

He’d been angry at first, it had been such a very easy thing to feel. Anger and abandonment and hurt, were such familiar feelings, feelings he knew better than his own name, old bitter friends that wrapped him in their embrace tight enough to choke. They’d been his constant companions for years and it was so so easy to fall back into their arms.

It was so easy, or at least it should have been, but Kakashi had taught him too well and nothing was simple anymore. He almost resented Kakashi for it. That he couldn’t help but dig deeper, couldn’t help but second guess his first reactions. The truly important things were never easy, no matter how much he wanted them to be, and he couldn’t pretend he didn’t know that, not with the weight of the kyuubi and everything it meant, sitting like a stone in his heart.

He thought about Kakashi sensei trying his best, always trying his best, no matter how hard it was. He thought about the fear in his teacher’s eyes when they were told that Sasuke would fight Gaara. He thought about blood under the carpets, and a monster in his soul, and the way Gaara felt too much like kin, like a warped fairground mirror, himself all twisted up wrong. He thought about all those things and the anger slipped through his fingers like smoke, leaving only the cold bleak fear that had so often followed Kakashi sensei’s lessons, the out of village ones. The ones that left him questioning everything he’d thought he believed in, desperately looking for a place to stand as the foundations of his world were shaken. The anger was easier to stomach, but lying to themselves was something Kakashi had never allowed any of them to indulge in, and he found he was out of the habit.

With the anger lost to him he was left to make what he could of what he was left with. Trust, in the end it all came down to trust. He didn’t know why Kakashi had left him with Ebisu, he didn’t really know Ebisu. He didn’t know why, and he wasn’t Sakura or Sasuke, cool and analytical, able to pull together subtle hints and calculate all the angles of a situation. His talent had always, would always, lie in his judgement of people, in caring, in understanding, in knowing who he could trust. Ebisu wasn’t the heroic mentor children dreamed of, but… Kakashi sensei had said that he trusted him, that he was a good teacher, and when it came down to it Naruto would always give people the benefit of the doubt. That was just a part of who he was. He didn’t know Ebisu, but he knew Kakashi sensei, possibly better than Kakashi sensei realised. And he knew with a bone deep, soul deep knowing, that Kakashi cared about them, all of them. If he was leaving Naruto with Ebisu there was a reason, and Naruto would have to trust it was a good one. Trust after all, could save your life.

So he trusted Ebisu, and found that underneath the slightly stuffy exterior was a genuinely good teacher. He’d been patient, and steady as he’d run through the things that Naruto had never quite learned properly before. It hadn’t been flashy or glamorous, but it had worked, and the way Ebisu smiled, quietly but honestly, as he finally managed to do an ordinary clone jutsu had told Naruto something else. That Ebisu genuinely cared about his students, the way Iruka sensei did, the way Kakashi sensei did, the way that truly great teachers always do. He didn’t know why exactly Kakashi sensei had left him with Ebisu even if he did have suspicions, but whatever the reason, in doing so he’d given him another person who cared, and that was worth more to Naruto than almost anything.

It wasn’t what he’d dreamed of when he was younger, rescuing princesses and being the hero, and being loved for it. Because that was what it boiled down to in the end. He wanted to be loved. But love wasn’t like that. Love wasn’t the adulation of crowds, or a kiss from the damsel in distress, or having a bridge named after him. Love was Sasuke’s hand in his as Kakashi hunted them through an illusory forest, was Sakura surrendering in hopes of saving his life, it was Iruka with a fuuma shuriken in the back telling him to run, and Kakashi sensei watching over them with tired worried eyes, and Ebisu smiling at him and telling him he’d done well. It wasn’t glamorous, or flashy but a part of Naruto was starting to understand it was all the better, all the more real for that fact.

He knew now, with the kind of knowledge that weighed like lead on the soul that being a ninja was nothing like he’d dreamed of. If there was one thing that had been clear in Kakashi’s lessons it was that. There were no heroes. Being a ninja was hours spent cleaning the river, or weeding gardens in the midday sun, was catching a cat and handing it back to an owner that didn’t know how to care for it, without a word of criticism. It was Zabuza and Kakashi sensei doing their level best to kill each other because their clients told them to, was Iruka sensei bleeding with a fuuma shuriken in the back. It was the awful responsibility of the Kyuubi trapped in his soul, the terrible grief in Sasuke’s eyes whenever his family was mentioned. It was Sakura in the forest of death, covered in blood, and shaking, and refusing to fall apart after using her tears to kill.

That realisation alone gave him a new respect for Ebisu sensei’s patient ordinary lessons. They weren’t the stuff legend was made of, but they were what life was made of, and somehow over the last few months Naruto had started to think that maybe that was more important.

He suspected that maybe the toad sage had forgotten that, in fact he suspected he might have forgotten it on purpose. There was only so much grief a man could bear, and it rolled off of Jiraiya san so thick he could almost taste it. Old grief, old shame, old failures, and years of not daring to look too close for fear it might break him. Naruto’s gift always lay in reading people, and Jiraiya’s mask of arrogance and perversion was nowhere near enough to hide from him.

 He wanted Naruto to go with him, to learn from him, and Naruto had considered it. Jiraiya was one of the Sannin, a living legend, and even Naruto knew that it was an honour to learn from him. Whatever Jiraiya taught him would no doubt be the kind of showstopping technique that might even win him the chuunin exams. But… there was Ebisu, who had been patiently teaching him all the things he had never quite learned properly, Ebisu who Kakashi had trusted with him, Ebisu who looked at him like being set aside in favour of a more famous teacher was a foregone conclusion. And so Naruto had a choice to make that he wouldn’t even have seen a few months ago. Naruto wondered if this was what growing up felt like.

Because some things mattered more than power. And so he found himself saying no to the legendary Sannin, because he trusted Kakashi, and Kakashi had left him with Ebisu. Because Kakashi had never once been anything but painfully honest with him, and he could tell Jiraiya was hiding something. Because he knew too much about the nature of hidden villages to blindly trust a stranger, even if he wore a Konoha headband. Because Ebisu cared, and Naruto was starting to understand that he wasn’t the only one who’d ever felt abandoned.

The look of shock on Jiraiya’s face would have been worth recording, but it was the happiness on Ebisu’s face that Naruto would hold in his heart. Being a teacher mattered to Ebisu, having a student choose him over one of the Sannin, was enough to make his week.

Once Jiraiya’s shock had faded Naruto had felt a little bad, because when the man’s mask slipped it was clear that he’d cared more than Naruto thought. That for some reason Naruto mattered to him, and Naruto didn’t like the traces of hurt he’d left in the man’s eyes. But whatever he felt for Naruto it was nothing like Ebisu’s simple support. It was wrapped up in grief, and shame, and old old pain, and Naruto suspected that whoever Jiraiya was seeing when he looked at him, it wasn’t Naruto. Naruto had spent his whole life with people looking at him and seeing someone else, it wasn’t something he wanted from his teacher. He felt a little bad for hurting the man but he didn’t think he made the wrong decision.

The day the chuunin exams dawned Naruto still didn’t feel like he’d made the wrong choice, win or lose he didn’t regret trusting Kakashi sensei.

Once, a long time ago, back when Kakashi had still been a Kiri nin, he’d taken a bodyguard mission in mountain country. While he was there he’d had to escort the client to a bear baiting event. He still remembered the way the crowd had felt, the air thick with a predatory anticipation, the knowledge that blood was about to be spilt for their amusement. At the time he’d been surprised at how much that feeling disturbed him, a jounin of the bloody mist, who’d killed for the first time when he was five years ld and hadn’t stopped since.

Walking into the chunin exams he felt that maybe he understood a little better. It was the bloodlust of those who didn’t know how it felt to bleed, the cruelty of the ignorant, and the sheltered. It was violence as a spectator sport, for people who would never understand the full weight of what they’d seen. His student walked into the ring to face a mad rabid animal, and the crowd cheered in excitement at the blood they expected to see.

Gaara’s chakra flared and twisted, its touch like the desert sandstorms that could strip the flesh from a man’s bones if he were unwise enough to be caught out in them. His eyes were as desperately vicious as a bear chained and brutalised until all it could do was lash out, and Kakashi was almost overcome by a familiar wave of loathing for the whole bloody shinobi system. Nobody got eyes like those by accident, someone had broken him on purpose. Yet another sin to lay at the feet of the endless patchwork of violence that ruled the lands they lived in.

All hell broke loose when Sasuke forfeited. The crowd and his opponent equally angry at being denied the blood they considered their due. He could see the way the village elders were looking at him, angry and judgemental, and he didn’t care. His student’s life was worth more than Konoha’s pride, and if Kakashi had to pay the price for that then he would take the hit gladly. Some battles weren’t worth fighting, some were. He’d decided the day he’d taken them on, his students were worth fighting for.

Then the village was invaded, and the elders’ opinions were the last of their problems. He cursed when he saw Naruto chase after the crazed Suna jinchuriki, cursed and sent Sasuke and Sakura after them, because he couldn’t afford to leave the field, not when he wasn’t truly Konoha. People’s memories were long, never longer than when they were in the grip of grief, and he had to be seen fighting the enemy, or they might just start wondering which side he’d fought on, and that would lead to trouble Kakashi couldn’t fix. So he’d let his students chase down a spirit of destruction and malice, and prayed that Naruto knew what he was doing. Trusted that they were strong and smart enough to live. And he fought.

He’d fought in a whirl of blood and death, that came almost as easy as breathing. He’d twisted, and struck, and reminded the whole world that heart and bone, he was born and shaped in the bloody mist. He brought up the mists and fought blind as all mist nin knew how to. Identifying the sand nin by the dry desert smell of sand that clung to their clothes and hair, and skin, identifying the sound nin by the pervasive scent of rotten leaves and unnatural chemicals that was almost poetic in its appropriateness. After all, sound was Orochimaru’s village, born of a leaf nin turned too rotten and unnatural for even a ninja village to stomach. He brought the mists back down and struck while the enemy was still too dazed to react. He killed with ninjutsu, and kunai, and his bare bloodied hands. Out the corner of his eye he could see Asuma slicing through his opponents like a knife through butter, out his other eye, the one that saw everything all too clearly he could see Gai’s green jumpsuit splattered with red. And he smiled vicious and wild under the mask, he’d forgotten how much he loved war, and hated it, and hated how much he loved it.

In the end Konoha prevailed, his students lived, and Kakashi chose to view it as a victory, because in the end you had to take your victories where you could find them.

He’d almost had to laugh when he’d heard what Naruto had done, though. He had after all, told him to trust his instincts, and Naruto out of all his kids was the one that had listened closest when he told them that the enemy were always human beings in their own right. Somehow, he’d managed to talk the humanity back into a child that had become a rabid animal. Kakashi suspected that warm feeling in his chest might just be pride. It was a comfort in the chaos and grief that had followed the invasion.

The Sandaime was dead and cold in the ground, and the village was grieving. Kakashi had never been especially close to the Sandaime, it was the Yondaime that had taken him in and given him a home, and that grief was an old wound. But the real Konoha nins had lived most of their lives under the Sandaime’s rule, could barely conceive of a world without him, and his death had shattered something fundamental in the village. The Sandaime’s death marked the ending of an era, and while he might not feel much personal grief, he couldn’t pretend it meant nothing. It meant a great deal. Aside from the political implications, Kakashi had respected the Sandaime, and he knew Naruto had loved him, and that was more than enough to make him regret the man’s death.

It wasn’t enough to keep him from worrying about what would happen next though. His position in Konoha had never been solid and this was a dangerous time. The Sandaime was dead, and without a clear successor. There were people in a position to take power who Kakashi would not serve and more than one of them would be happier with him dead than in the village. Changes of regime were always a delicate time, and Kakashi was concerned. He suspected some of his concern must have transmitted itself to his genin because they were sticking unusually close to him. He didn’t chase them away. In it’s own way it was oddly comforting, and it would be good if they were close by if he did end up needing to run. They deserved to hear it from him at least, and make their own choice about whether to follow.

Chapter Text

Kakashi doubted any Leaf nin would ever understand just how much courage it took to refuse Jiraiya of the Sannin when he asked to take Naruto.

It was after all altogether too easy to forget the strength of allies. That was something Kakashi had become increasingly sure of as time had passed. It was easy for people to forget the power of those who had fought beside them and wreaked destruction on their enemies, when that very power helped them sleep sound at night.

It was infinitely more difficult for people to forget the power of their enemies. Those who had rained down destruction on all they held dear, and returned every night to haunt their nightmares along with the blood of their comrades, and the dead dead eyes of their kin.

For the Leaf nin Jiraiya had only ever been an ally, saviour, hero, protector. No leaf nin woke up screaming in fear of the toad sage. It was easy for them to forget, to fall for the persona of a harmless, washed up, old pervert. Intellectually they knew he was dangerous, but the toad sannin was good at his work and it was so very easy for them to see exactly what he wanted them to see.

It was easy to forget the strength of an ally and so the leaf nin had forgotten. But the strength of an enemy is far harder to forget, and Kakashi had spent his childhood as Konoha’s enemy. He remembered. He couldn’t not. The warnings of teachers, and comrades, and bingo books burned into his mind as deep as the knowledge of how to throw a kunai. Jiraiya of the Sannin was dangerous.

And now Jiraiya of the Sannin wanted his student, and Kakashi had to refuse him.

They spoke in private, quietly because some things shouldn’t be said too loud. The kids were a little way off, watching with a studied casualness that proved they were listening in. Good, they probably needed to hear this. Kakashi could scent traces of sealing ink and paper underneath the perfume of the women’s baths that didn’t quite manage to drown out the pervasive blood and metal cent that clung to any ninja worth the name. The ink smell that marked a funijutsu master and to those who knew was a far more frightening scent than the blood. Still Kakashi wouldn’t back down though. There were some things worth fighting for.

“His father would have wanted me to teach him.” Jiraiya argued half angry, half desperate, and Kakashi wondered how he saw him, the foreign interloper that stood between him and his student’s son.

“His father is dead in the ground.” Kakashi had snapped back, aggression to mask the fear. He knew he wasn’t fooling Jiraiya but he couldn’t let the genin see him weak, not when they needed to rely on him. “So it really doesn’t matter what he wants.”

“You don’t really believe that.” Jiraiya hissed, and something in his eyes, old hurt, exhaustion, abruptly drained Kakashi’s fear. Jiraiya didn’t have the strength of will to fight him, he realised and that knowledge reduced the sannin from a nightmare to a man. In the face of that man, Kakashi just sighed.

“I believe that people have a right to make their own choices, regardless of what their parents may or may not have wanted. Naruto wants to stay with me, are you really going to force him away.” Jiraiya looked slightly uncomfortable, but showed no signs of backing down, so Kakashi continued ruthlessly, blood in the water and he couldn’t stop now. “He won’t love you for it you know.” His voice was like silk over razorblades as he said it, and maybe it was cruel to hit so hard, to remind him that Naruto had no reason to love him, that keeping his distance had left him a stranger to his own godson. But Kakashi couldn’t forget, Jiraiya was a dangerous man, and he didn’t dare hold back against him.

Kakashi could see the exact moment when Jiraiya crumpled. It was in his eyes, and his voice, and the lines of his face, and it was strange to feel guilty for hurting someone he once knew only as a nightmare.

“Could I see him sometimes?” Jiraiya asked, with a hopefulness that was all out of place on an S ranked nin, “Maybe help with some of his teaching.”

“Of course.” Kakashi smiled graciously, his mask hiding the teeth the expression would otherwise have shown. He could afford to be magnanimous in victory. As long as Jiraiya didn’t think he had a right to steal one of Kakashi’s students away, it was all to the better to allow him close. He was after all a powerful ninja with a lot worth teaching, and Kakashi would be a fool to turn that away. Just as he would be a fool to unnecessarily anger one of the Sannin when he already had what he wanted. He didn’t want Jiraiya for his enemy.

Jiraiya either didn’t detect the thoughts running through Kakashi’s mind, or more likely, he just didn’t care, because his responding smile was all gratitude. Listening to the man babble his thoughts and plans on things he could teach Naruto, Kakashi found himself wondering cynically how often Jiraiya would actually show up once the excitement wore off. He did after all have a history of neglecting his responsibilities.

Sometimes Kakashi wondered just how Konoha any of the Sannin really were, the Sannin were powerful yes, forces of nature even, but Konoha nin were strong when it mattered, and the Sannin had, each in their own way, broken under pressure. Orochimaru obviously insane and an enemy, Tsunade a wandering drunk who couldn’t bear the sight of blood, and Jiraiya, all dramatic gestures, and honourable intent, and running running running from any hint of someone else relying on him, too haunted by his own failures to bear that weight.

Kakashi might understand, but he couldn’t respect it. Not when he’d seen Iruka sensei speak up against people with ten times his power for the sake of a child most would blame for his parent’s deaths, not when Obito had been dying by inches, and still had the courage to reach out to someone who should have been an enemy. Not when he’d seen such strength from Konoha nin in the very darkest moments. The Sannin were strong, but not where it mattered most, not the way Konoha nin should be.

Jiraiya left to retrieve their new Hokage in a flurry of grandiose promises, and high drama, and Kakashi was forced to warn his kids not to rely on the toad sage.

“Listen to him.” Kakashi said, “He’s smart, and knowledgeable, and very, very, good at his job, so if he tries to teach you something pay close attention. But he’s unreliable. He’s tired, and broken, and his coping mechanism is to run. Expect nothing and you’ll save yourselves a lot of heartbreak.” He looked at Naruto especially as he said it, and was glad to see the boy was listening. Still there were more things than grabby sannin to be worried about with the village missing a Kage, and the council free to act with impunity.

Sakura breathed steadily in and out as the blood roared in her ears, too loud for her to hear what was being said. She hadn’t known she was capable of that kind of anger. No that was a lie, she’d always known she had a temper no matter how hard she tried to keep it buried. She knew she could feel that kind of anger, she just hadn’t expected to feel it here. Not in the heart of her own village, directed at the people she was supposed to trust to lead her. Maybe she should have. Kakashi sensei had tried to warn them all. Blood under the carpets and bones in the foundations of the city walls and the people in front of her knew where and why and who had died.

They were old, and age, she was starting to understand meant something different for ninja than civilians. Old didn’t mean frail, and weak, and the responsibility of the young to care for and protect. Old for ninja meant too vicious to die, too jaded for mercy, too dangerous to ignore. She stood with her team in front of the council and every movement and meaningful glance they gave, screamed predator. There was nothing frail about the elders of their village.

She stood with her team in front of them, and tried to breathe through her anger as they discussed Sasuke’s forfeit in the chuunin exams. They thought he should have fought, said that Konoha had lost face when he surrendered. They blamed Kakashi sensei for his cowardice and in the same breath questioned Kakashi sensei’s loyalty. She could see Sasuke’s nails biting into his palms out the corner of her eye and she wanted to speak out, to shout, and rage, and force them to see reason. But a warning look from Kakashi sensei held her back.

“Bite your tongue Sakura.” He’d told her before they went to see the council. “Bite your tongue and hide your anger. They’re watching to see how you react.” So she bit her tongue and breathed, and was grateful she wasn’t expected to speak because she didn’t think she could keep her rage out of her voice. Gaara had been a monster, mad and deadly in a way that no genin of six months training could ever hope to match and Sasuke could have died. She had killed three people to keep Sasuke alive, and they would have rather thrown that away for pride.

She remembered the things Kakashi sensei had told her, told them all, the things she had hoped weren’t true, things that part of her knew were true, because they were too cruel to be lies. Blood and bones and so much killing, and the forests of Konoha were watered in blood. She looked at her leaders and knew that they could be a threat, and sometimes she wished that Kakashi sensei had been kind enough to lie to them.

If Kakashi sensei was shaken by their accusations it didn’t show. His face was blank and unreadable behind his mask, and his voice carefully neutral and deferential. She didn’t like it. He was polite and respectful as he explained that he thought the village would have lost more face if the last Uchiha had been turned into jam by Suna’s jinchuuriki. Not that he knew those words, but Sakura knew how to read between the lines.

The council said that hadn’t been Kakashi’s call to make, and Kakashi had agreed, and reminded them that it had actually been Sasuke’s call, and then they’d called Sasuke up to speak. For once she was glad of Sasuke’s unwillingness to open up. The council got no more out of him than anyone else had since his family died.

In the end they’d had to let it slide. Kakashi sensei hadn’t technically done anything against the rules, and their team was too high profile to disband without a good reason, and she breathed a sigh of relief after they left that room. Kakashi sensei hadn’t been kind, hadn’t tried to shield them from the truth, he’d told her things she wished she’d never known, and he’d been right to do so. She didn’t want a different Sensei.

If she had wanted a different sensei, she suspected all she’d have had to do was report exactly what kind of books he’d given her to read while her teammates were training for the chuunin exams.

“You’re smart Sakura.” He’d said, as he handed her the books and it sounded more like a warning than praise. “And it’s a dangerous kind of smart so you need to be careful. All of you have your strengths, Naruto is good with people, and Sasuke has a gift for practical skills, but you’re smart the way I’m smart. You’re good with ideas, and ideas… they can be dangerous.” She stared quietly at the books he’d given her. Wrapped up in orange covers to look like copies of the latest Icha Icha books, but she’d opened them, and there was nothing as innocent as pornography in those pages.

“If ideas are so dangerous why are you giving me these books?” She asked.

“Because you need to know. Because people as smart as you can’t afford to be ignorant. Because it’s nothing you wouldn’t figure out yourself given time, and so it’s safer to just tell you, so you know what not to say out loud.” His voice too soft to carry far turned still softer as he added quietly, “and because part of you can’t stand not knowing.”  

He’d been right of course. He was right all too often, and she wondered what it was that let him read her so well. She wondered if she wanted to know.

She’d read the books, all of them, and now she knew that treason smelled like cheap ink and old paper. Treason was histories that didn’t match what they were taught in the academy, was personal accounts of places that had no hidden villages, was manifestos from organisations long since destroyed by figures in bone white masks that came in the night. She knew that if she was caught reading such things then being reassigned to another genin team would be the least of her worries. And yet the sheer thrill of reading them, of knowing that they were forbidden, of knowing what would happen if she was caught, and that hardly anyone else had dared to read them, it was intoxicating, and she wanted more.

Chapter Text

Uchiha Itachi was a broken child. Kakashi hadn’t known him well, but he knew broken children, and anyone who looked could see that Itachi was one. He’d been broken a long time, Kakashi thought, long before he’d killed his clan. Kakashi hadn’t known him well but he knew enough, had seen the boy’s eyes when he thought no-one was looking. He’d seen that look in the mirror often enough  growing up.

Uchiha Itachi was a broken child and Kakashi knew what that meant far too well to think that made him anything but lethal. So when he appeared in the heart of Konoha Kakashi didn’t hesitate, didn’t stop to speak or ask questions, or taunt. He called up the mist with a handsign and a twist of chakra that came as easily as breathing, pumped enough chakra into it to render the sharingan useless, to leave them all equally blind in the haze. Kakashi took the moment’s respite the mist granted him to tilt his headband downwards until it covered both his eyes. Kiri had fought a war with Konoha, they’d learned the hard way not to risk making eye contact with the sharingan, and Kakashi wasn’t about to bet on his single borrowed eye, against the real thing.

Blind he listened, let all his senses except for sight stretch out, for the slightest echo of movement, the smallest shift in air pressure, or the direction of the scents. When a sword suddenly flashed out in his direction he dodged without a thought. It wasn’t just a sword of course, he knew that blade, the hungry malevolent aura of it.

“It’s been a while, hasn’t it Kisame.” He said, softly, conversationally. He really was running into a lot of old comrades of late. First Zabuza, now Kisame, who was next. Itachi wasn’t moving, content to let Kisame take the lead for the moment. Kakashi kept part of his attention on what Itachi was doing as he focused on Kisame. It wouldn’t do to let Itachi get the drop on him because he was distracted by his other opponent.

“Kakashi the traitor.” Kakashi could hear the grin in his voice, could just picture the edged shark teeth, and the gleam in his eyes.

“Coming from you, I’m not sure how much that means. Your headband is as marked as mine.” He replied with just a hint of irony.

“Ha, fair point. Still, you joined Konoha. Signed on with the enemy. I guess that makes you special.” Ah but there was something so comforting about bantering with a fellow Kiri nin, every word sharp enough to cut, every sentence a point scored. This was a dance he knew.

“And you joined the Akatsuki. I wonder which one of us our old village hates more right now?” Kisame’s only response was a flurry of sword blows Kakashi was hard pressed to dodge. He drew his own sword and struck back, careful not to let his blade clash with Kisame’s. His sword was after all only steel, set against Samehada it would shatter in his hand.

They traded blows back and forth through the choking mist, tracking each other by the sounds of their footsteps and the rustling of their clothes. Kakashi could feel Itachi’s presence lurking in the background and knew that he wouldn’t hesitate to intervene if it looked like Kisame was about to lose. He didn’t like it. One of them alone he might be able to beat. They were both dangerous ninja, but he was pretty dangerous himself, dangerous enough to fight one of them on even ground. Two of them though, was a problem. He couldn’t take them both.

But then again maybe he didn’t need to. He heard the familiar sound of Gai’s footsteps as his rival charged into the fray. Gai was not subtle, but when it came down to fighting strength there was no-one Kakashi would rather have fighting beside him. Gai was strong, and he knew how Kakashi fought, knew how to best work with him. Classic Konoha teamwork at its finest, for all that Kakashi wasn’t really Konoha.

Gai wasn’t even slowed by the blinding mist, targeting his entrance to position him against Itachi, and Kakashi was forcibly reminded that Gai was a sensor. And then there was no more time to think as the fighting intensified, as Itachi and Kisame realised they no longer had the advantage of numbers. Both Kakashi and Kisame were bleeding, the scent of blood heavy on the air when they heard a sickening crack off to their left. One of Gai’s strikes had hit home, and Kakashi remembered belatedly that Gai had trained specifically to counter Uchiha. Looked like the training had paid off.

It seemed like Kisame was more attatched to his partner than Kakashi had expected because the dry humour was missing from his tone when he told Itachi to switch with him. He wanted to protect him. It was odd, but maybe not as odd as it should have been. Kisame had graduated after Zabuza made his bloody point, and so he’d never been as broken as Kakashi, or Zabuza, or any of the other older Kiri nin. When he looked at Itachi and saw he was broken, his first thought wasn’t how lethal those broken edges could be. Oh he knew Itachi was dangerous. Everyone knew that. But he saw that lethality, and the brokenness and thought they were separate things, when Kakashi knew that they were not. And so Kisame saw what anyone who cared to look could see, that Itachi was a broken child caught up in adult games, and he felt sympathy, rather than fear.

Kakashi knew better.                                                        

He faced off against Itachi and he knew just how the broken edges of him turned outwards to cut any who got too close. Kakashi released a couple of suiton jutsu’s just to mark Itachi’s reactions. Itachi responded with katon, predictable. Too predictable, Kakashi caught the genjutsu and dispelled it just in time, Itachi was good. And that in itself, revealed Itachi’s weakness. Genjutsu expert, and if there was one thing all genjutsu experts had in common it was that they had to be in control, always. It was a necessary element in controlling other people’s perceptions.

And Itachi wasn’t in control, not really. He was a broken child caught up in the games of old and cunning men, and chesspieces are never in control. But he was a genjutsu expert, a good one, and that meant he thought he was in control, at least a little. Break that illusion, and he might just crumble. Kakashi grinned, wolfish under his mask.

The truth shall set you free.

Before Kakashi could test his theory though, the Anbu showed up, drawn by the fighting, and Itachi and Kisame had retreated, unwilling to play those odds. Kakashi filed the realisation away in his head though. He had a feeling this would not be the last time he had to face Itachi.

The mark crawled under Sasuke’s skin and he didn’t like that he didn’t know what it did. It whispered to him without words, about power, and revenge, and others holding him back, it was seductive enough to make him uncomfortable.

Because Orochimaru offered him power. Power enough to kill his brother, and avenge his family and get everything he’d thought he wanted for the last five years. But Kakashi  sensei had taught him to be wary when people offered him things he wanted too much. That the more he wanted something the less likely he was to see the strings, and the price would always be higher than he was willing to pay. He wanted revenge very much.

So Sasuke went looking for strings. The thing on his shoulder was a seal, and Konoha had the biggest collection of sealing texts on the continent, since Uzushio was razed to the ground. He went to the library.

Eight hours buried in scrolls and old manuscripts and Sasuke found what he was looking for. He didn’t understand all of it, but he’d managed to figure out enough to know there were control aspects to it, bits designed to influence his emotional state, to make him feel drawn to the sealmaker. Kakashi sensei had been right, there were always strings attatched.

He sat and thought for a moment. Thought about the nature of power, about pawns and chessboards, he thought about the other lessons Kakashi sensei had taught them, the secret ones. He was the last Uchiha, and almost anyone would teach him high level techniques if he asked for them. The village loved him, he knew that, and if he wanted to he could take advantage of that. But he didn’t think anyone but Kakashi would take the time and the risk to teach him to be something other than a pawn in someone else’s chessgame.

Both Kakashi and Orochimaru offered power, he supposed, Orochimaru offered physical power, the power to strike down his enemies, straightforward. What Kakashi offered was nothing so simple. He offered the power to choose who his enemies were, and why, to make his own decisions about when to strike.

He remembered Sakura in the forest of death, covered in the blood of three ninja stronger than her, three ninja that Orochimaru had made stronger than her with training, and experimentation, and secret techniques. He remembered what she’d told him afterwards. That she’d made a choice that they would die, and the rest was all just details. Choice was a powerful thing. It had let Kakashi’s student kill three of Orochimaru’s students.

He made a choice. He painted the containment seal he’d found at the back of a dusty, half buried fuinjutsu book, around the cursed seal. Removing it would take more research, but the containment at least helped him clear his thoughts, and for better or worse, he’d chosen to think about his actions. He’d chosen that the moment he forfeited his match with Gaara. Anything that threatened that, was not a power he wanted to rely on.

Tsunade arrived in Konoha in a haze of stale alcohol and fury. She didn’t want to be back in Konoha, that much was brutally obvious, she definitely didn’t want to be Hokage. It was all over the village by sundown. She was only back because Jiraiya had made a bet, and she’d lost, and then he’d drugged her alcohol to keep her from backing out at the last minute. It was not, the most auspicious of beginnings to a Hokage’s reign. Kakashi wasn’t impressed.

But it was Tsunade, or one of the council elders, and at least Tsunade didn’t actively want him dead, so he put his support behind her. And his support didn’t mean nothing. He might not be well liked in the village, might not be trusted, but he was strong, and strength mattered. He was strong enough that if he’d been born a Konoha nin he might well have been in the running for Hokage himself, and so when he supported Tsunade people noticed. And with his support came Gai’s support because Gai trusted his judgement when it came to politics, and Gai was well liked, was trusted. No-one doubted Gai’s sincerity. It was enough. Enough to make Tsunade Hokage, and clearly she was a smart woman despite the booze, because the first thing she did as Hokage was call Kakashi into her office.

“What do you want brat?” She asked impatiently. Kakashi just played innocent.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean Hokage sama.” He was a picture of wounded integrity.

“I’m not in the mood for games. You swung the jounin’s opinion in my favour, and I’m not enough of an idiot to think you don’t want something in return.” She was a bitter old lady but she was sharp. Looked like she hadn’t been such a bad choice after all. Still no need to make things too easy on her.

“I thought you didn’t want to be Kage? Why should I ask for a reward for making you do something you don’t want?” She just levelled him with an unimpressed stare.

“I just thought it would be nice to be on good terms with the new Hokage is all.” She nodded to herself.

“So that’s how it is. It wasn’t about me at all. You just didn’t like the other options.” She snorted. “Well I can’t say I liked them much either. That’s why I played along with Jiraiya’s little games. I assume you want a certain amount of influence.”

“I just want to be left to train my students in peace.” He smiled. Understanding flickered over Tsunade’s face.

“Don’t worry. I won’t break up your team. I suppose I owe you that much. But try and stay out of trouble.”

“I’ll do my best.” He gave her a jaunty half salute as he left through the window. It wasn’t like he wouldn’t try to keep out of trouble. He just doubted it would work.

Chapter Text

“The thing about powerful people.” Kakashi sensei told him once, “Is that they’re used to getting what they want. When they make you offers be careful. They expect you to say yes, they think it’s only their due. They don’t like to be told no, so if you say it, you’d best be prepared to back it up. It makes them dangerous, you never know what lengths they’ll go to, to get the answer they want. But remember, it also makes them weak. People never look as closely as they should at things they expect, and it’s when people aren’t paying enough attention, that they are most vulnerable.”

Sasuke remembered that conversation as he faced down the full squad of monsters Orochimaru had sent after him, loyal, and deadly, and twisted in a way that made his skin crawl. Just saying no wouldn’t be enough that much was obvious. Orochimaru was too powerful to be willing to let him say no and he wasn’t strong enough to make it stick, not against all four of them. He was good, but he was only a genin, only human, and they were monsters, that stank of surgical spirits, and rot. If they wanted to just take him, he wouldn’t be able to stop them, they were stronger than him, they outnumbered him. But he remembered Sakura in the forest of death, remembered tears, and a knife, and three dead enemies. Strength didn’t always mean victory, and there was more than one way to win a fight.

They wouldn’t listen to a no, but, they did want him to say yes. They wanted him to agree. Maybe to make their getaway cleaner, maybe for some kind of mind games, he didn’t know, it was Naruto who had a gift for reading people. All he knew was they wanted his co-operation and that was a weakness he could exploit. If there was one thing Kakashi sensei had made very clear it was that the greatest weaknesses a person could carry were the things they wanted. It was as true of Orochimaru as it was of Sasuke himself. And Orochimaru expected that Sasuke would do what he wanted.

So he gave them what they wanted, what they expected. He fought them and lost, let them prove their strength and then agreed to follow them in exchange for that strength, and it worked. They believed him. It was terrifying to think that had things been different, had he been more reckless, it might even have been true. They left him alone, with instructions on where to meet them and he had to hold back a sudden wave of hysterical laughter when they left. Left him free to move against them, because he lied to them, because he promised them what they wanted, what they expected, and they believed him. Victory in the appearance of defeat, and he’d never known how powerful lying beaten in the dirt could feel.

When he felt able to move again he went to the Anbu, and reported the incident. Told them Orochimaru had tried to kidnap him, that he’d had to lie and agree to meet with them in order to get away, that they were at least jounin level if not higher. He was valuable, he knew that much, the village would fight to keep him, and a smart ninja knew when to let other people do the dirty work.

When the sound four returned, his bone masked bodyguards were waiting.

“You know, Kakashi sensei warned us about you.” Naruto said casually, in a tone he’d learned from too many lessons he half wished he’d never been taught. Jiraiya had swooped in that morning with grand promises about teaching and secret jutsus. Naruto would be lying if the thought of a secret jutsu from one of the legendary Sannin didn’t interest him, but he still didn’t like the way Jiraiya looked at him, through him, eyes full of a grief that had nothing to do with Naruto himself.

Still, he really had nothing better to do, with his team otherwise occupied. Kakashi sensei was off no-one knew where, Sakura was shopping or so she claimed, and Naruto wasn’t going to challenge her on it when he still had his own secrets, and Sasuke was in the library again, they might be getting on better these days but that didn’t make Naruto any fonder of reading. He had nothing better to do so when Jiraiya invited him to tag along for the day, he’d figured why not.

For some reason they’d ended up outside the hotsprings, spying on naked women, the the thick scent of expensive perfume choking his sense of smell. He really shouldn’t have been surprised. He was sure that when he was a bit older he’d probably appreciate the view, but as it was he was bored, and a little annoyed. So he decided to push a little, see how far his instinctive understanding of people could get under the skin of someone who was so strong as a ninja, but, he suspected, weak as a person.

“Oh, and what did he had to say?” There was a studied indifference to his tone that told Naruto, Jiraiya was actually listening very closely. Jiraiya san didn’t trust Kakashi sensei, tha much wasn’t unexpeted. A lot of the older ninja didn’t. Sakura said it was probably because he was from Kiri originally, Naruto thought it was more because he reminded people of things too true to be comfortable, Kakashi sensei said that those were just two sides of the same thing. But Jiraiya wasn’t exactly suspicious of Kakashi sensei either, not the way some ninja were, and it was probably because he saw a lot of the same truths Kakashi sensei saw, even if he pretended he didn’t. Naruto was pretty sure Jiraiya was a lot smarter than he pretended to be.

“He said you were very strong, and experienced, but kind of a flake.” Naruto was paraphrasing, but that was basically what Kakashi sensei’s warning boiled down to, and it would be interesting to see Jiraiya’s response to the analysis.

“Do you really think you ought to be repeating that? Some people might take offense.” The man had a point, and usually he wouldn’t repeat Kakashi’s warnings so carelessly. But as accusations went it was fairly innocuous, and if he was reading Jiraiya right he wouldn’t take offense.

“Nah, it’s fine. If you cared about people thinking you were a flake, you wouldn’t put so much effort into being one.” Naruto grinned wide at Jiraiya’s surprise, it was a common enough reaction. People didn’t expect insight from the dead last. “I’m good at reading people.” he shrugged, in response to Jiraiya’s intent look.

Jiraiya was quiet for a while after that, he pretended to be distracted by the view on the hotsprings, but Naruto knew better than to fall for it. Naruto had put him off balance, and now he wasn’t sure how to respond. He wondered if this was how Kakashi sensei felt, when he managed to utterly undermine people’s expectations.

“What makes you think I put effort into being a flake?” And now Jiraiya was looking at him, trying to read him, and it felt like a victory that the man no longer looked at him and saw a ghost.

“Why else would a ninja of your level let himself get caught spying on women at the hotsprings?” He allowed himself a smug grin.

“Alright brat. You have my attention. Is that what you wanted?” It looked like the legendary toad sage got irritated when called out on his bullshit. Useful, a crack in the mask, if he wanted answers now was the time to push. He might not be booksmart, like Sakura, or Kakashi sensei, but he knew people, and his instincts told him Jiraiya had answers he needed, even if he didn’t know what the questions were.

“I want to know who you’re seeing when you try and look at me.” It was a guess as much as anything, but he wiped all traces of a smile from his face and voice as he asked it, and the way Jiraya crumpled told him he was on the right track.

“You weren’t lying about being good at reading people were you brat?” And there was old old grief in Jiraiya’s eyes, “You remind me of my student in some ways. You look just like him.” Jiraiya sighed then, with a trace of self-mockery “But I suppose in the end you’re different people. Minato could never have broken me down so easily, he was always smarter about jutsu’s than people. You look a lot like him, but you’re not him.  In the end I guess there are no second chances.”

He looked so sad as he said it that Naruto almost felt sorry for pushing but what you didn’t know could get you killed. Naruto had learned that from Mizuki and his hate long before Kakashi sensei had ever said it, and he knew in his bones that this secret was important. Still he’d pushed enough for one day. What Jiraiya had told him wouldn’t be enough for him to piece it together on his own, but Sakura and Sasuke would help if he asked and between them they would manage. Jiraiya looked tired and old and Naruto didn’t want to hurt him any further. So he changed the subject.

“Hey hey, would you teach me a cool jutsu?”

She’d told the boys she was going shopping, on the basis that it would probably keep them from following. It wasn’t exactly a lie. She just hadn’t specified what she was going shopping for. She was looking for useful allies, and she knew exactly where to start. She felt a little bad for lying, but she needed to be subtle, and the boys were not. It wasn’t entirely their fault, Sasuke was the last Uchiha, eyes were always on him, and as for Naruto, there was something the adults weren’t saying about Naruto and he had eyes following him too. She on the other hand, was the genin daughter, of civilian parents, interesting only in regard to her teammates. She wasn’t nearly so high profile and that gave her a freedom to move that they didn’t have. She wasn’t going to waste it.

That was why she’d challenged Nara Shikamaru to a game of shougi. She was losing of course, everyone lost to Shikamaru, but she was losing far less badly than most would, and she could tell she had his attention. He knew she wanted something, probably even had a few ideas what that might be, and that, more than anything was why she’d decided to speak to Shikamaru first. He was smart, she could explain things to him without ever saying them out loud, and some things were dangerous to say out loud.

“Things aren’t quite what I expected them to be when I graduated.” She said softly as she made her move. It was an innocuous enough statement but from the sharpening of his gaze she knew he’d seen it for the opening gambit it was.

“Things rarely are. Promotion is… troublesome.” It was an agreement, a statement of support. It seemed like his chuunin promotion had come with some truths he wasn’t happy with.

“I worry about my teammates.” Careful be careful, just because Shikamaru was willing to talk didn’t mean no-one else was listening in. This might not be Kiri, with its secret police and constant fear, but a ninja village was still a ninja village, and Kakashi sensei had made sure she knew how to be careful.

“They are a rather troublesome pair.” Shikamaru studied the board. “Disaster just seems to follow Naruto around, and we all know what’s after Sasuke. But then, I suppose they are classmates, we have to be supportive.” He knew then, possibly even more than she did, if his hints about Naruto were any guide, and that was a pretty clear offer of support. She wondered though, Shikamaru was smart, but his familiarity with the silent script of things not quite said was more than just instinct. She knew how to talk around things because of Kakashi sensei, who had taught Shikamaru.

“What’s it like training under Asuma sensei?” Sometimes the most obvious solutions were correct. Shikamaru made his move.

“Troublesome. But interesting. Asuma sensei spent a lot of time outside Konoha serving with the twelve guardian ninjas. It gives him a new perspective on a lot of things.” Ah, so that was it.

“Kakashi sensei has an interesting perspective on things sometimes too. Do you know he wasn’t actually born in Konoha.” From the flash of interest in Shikamaru’s eyes he hadn’t known that. It wasn’t surprising. Genin weren’t usually included in the shinobi gossip that was the lifeblood of a ninja village, too young and indiscreet to trust with the truly interesting tidbits, and generally not allowed into the bars or the chunin and jounin lounges that were the heart of the networks.

“Kurenai and Asuma are dating you know.” Shikamaru offered in return. “Our teams train together sometimes. I think you’d like Shino. He’s quiet but smart, and he hears a lot.” That was very interesting knowledge, it seemed all three of this year’s genin teams were getting additional instruction of one sort or another. And if Shikamaru was sharing that kind of information with her it meant he was definitely interested in her support.

“We should all get together some time, have ramen or something, compare horror stories.” And her tone might make it sound like innocent overdramatisation but they both knew horror stories was a truer description than either would like.

“Aa. That would be nice. Ino would certainly like it. She misses you, even if she won’t admit it.” Shikamaru moved again, and she realised she’d lost.

“I miss her too.”  She said softly before standing. “Good game. Same time again tomorrow.”

“Sure. You’re more of a challenge than most people.” And now she felt just a little less like a pawn and a little more like a player. She might not know the shape of the board, or the names of all those playing, but she’d made her move. She only hoped it would play out well.

Chapter Text

“Your genin.” Tsunade said as she fixed Kakashi with an utterly unimpressed glare, “Are a headache.” Kakashi raised an eyebrow, but didn’t interrupt as she continued talking. “Between Akatsuki’s unfortunate interest in Naruto, and Orochimaru’s disturbing interest in Sasuke, and the fact that Sasuke’s brother is a bloody member of Akatsuki, you’re all a walking target. Short of keeping your whole team under Anbu guard, which is not an effective use of resources, I’m really not sure what to do about it. I promised I’d keep your team together, at your request no less, so please, some suggestions would be good.”

She had a point. It was a worrying situation, and the village really couldn’t afford to waste resources driving S rank missing nin away from a team of helpless genin. Luckily he had a solution. It would probably be good for him to get out of the village for a while anyway, while he waited for certain parties to calm down about his part in making Tsunade Hokage.

“There’s a mission to snow country on the books. Estimated minimum time for completion three months, and it’s out of both the Akatsuki’s and Orochimaru’s spheres of influence. As long as they don’t know we’re going there, it would be a good way to lie low for a bit while still bringing in revenue and gaining experience.” Tsunade looked thoughtful.

“That mission is a B rank.” She pointed out. “Technically your genin aren’t high ranked enough for it.”

“Yes but it’s a low B. In fact it’s only ranked that high because Konoha basic survival training doesn’t focus much on cold weather survival. I’m from Kiri, I know how to deal with snow, and I can make sure they can handle it too.” And the fact that it wasn’t supposed to be assigned to genin would make it less likely anyone would suspect that was where they’d been sent. He knew Tsunade understood that, even if they didn’t say it out loud. She nodded, reluctantly.

“Alright. But I’m not sending a team of genin on a long term B rank alone. If somehow Orochimaru or the Akatsuki does figure out where you went, or even if something else goes wrong, it’s a long way from Konoha and you’ll need some proper backup.” Kakashi tilted his head in curiosity.

“What did you have in mind?”

“You work well with Gai don’t you?” He nodded, reluctantly. It wasn’t good to make it too obvious who your friends were, not unless you wanted to make them targets. “I’ll send team Gai with you. That way you’ll have some jounin level backup, and the kids will have someone besides each other to socialise with over the next few months.” She smiled slightly wistfully, the voice of old experience. “Three months alone in each other’s company and they’d probably be ready to murder each other, and they’d definitely be prepared to murder you. If you didn’t strangle the lot of them first. It’s good to have other people there to provide a buffer.”

It wasn’t a bad plan, her points were all solid. And it would be good to have some actual adult company on the trip. It looked like supporting Tsunade as Hokage had been a better decision than he thought. She might be compromised as a medic and an active ninja, but she had the mind for leadership. He nodded in acceptance and she smiled.

“Good. I’ll send you out separately and you can rendezvous in the port of Taku, after they get off the ship. You can take the overland route. Try not to get into too much trouble on the way hmm.” Kakashi gave her his best look of wounded innocence, and she laughed as she dismissed him. He could almost imagine himself coming to like this new Hokage.

“You know, your teammates are very interesting people.” Shikamaru said calmly as he moved his bishop. “There are a rather troublesome number of eyes on them.” Sakura considered her possible moves. This game had already lasted three moves longer than any of her previous matches against Shikamaru, but she didn’t think there would be many more. Still it was proof she was improving. Maybe by the time she was old and grey she would actually manage to beat him.

“That, is very unpleasantly true. Kakashi sensei has decided to take us on a long term mission.” She dropped a rook with an unobtrusive click. “He told us to pack for cold weather.” They were in the middle of training ground fifty three, notable mainly for being the most utterly boring training ground in the village. It was effectively, a large empty field, which made it good for improving long range ninjutsu, and also for holding conversations that were best not overheard. Nowhere for unwanted listeners to conceal themselves. She and Shikamaru had sparred for a while, before settling down to a game of shougi. Partly because it was good practice, partly to make it less obvious they were having clandestine conversations.

“Troublesome.” Shikamaru slid his gold general to one side. “But probably wise. I assume he’s trying to avoid your teammate’s fans. It is a shame though, after all it’s hard to play shougi when you’re out of contact. Is anyone going with you?”

“A team from the year above us. They were in the chuunin exams. Team Gai.” She bit her nail for a moment before shifting her pawn. Shikamaru responded with his knight.

“Hmm. According to my father, Maito Gai is Kakashi sensei’s closest friend in the village. Taijutsu expert, very skilled. Akatsuki work in pairs, they probably don’t want to send your team out without the extra jounin backup.” He paused before adding. “His kunoichi student Tenten, is more skilled than she allows herself to seem. It might be interesting to trade tips with her” She nodded in gratitude for the information, and the recommendation. It was always good to make new contacts.

“According to Kakashi sensei, there are elements on the council not happy with Tsunade’s election.” Sakura offered in return. She clicked her silver general into place, and waited. Shikamaru looked at her, uncharacteristically alert.

“Doubt or ambition?” He spoke quietly as he moved his general again, in a tone that was unlikely to carry. “My father doesn’t like to discuss those who outrank him.”

“Those who have power, are used to getting what they want.” Sakura quoted Kakashi sensei. “They expect certain things as their due.” She moved her king back. Shikamaru nodded as he checkmated her.

“Then I suppose we will both have to be careful. It would be troublesome to cut our games short. Good players are hard to find.” They shared a moment of silent understanding before they parted.

Kakashi breathed in deeply, appreciating the clean scent of pine needles, and the trace of a sea breeze. It had been three weeks since they’d left the village and the oppressive heat of fire country summers had given way to bright days, with a biting chill to the air that never quite faded, and snow on the ground that never quite melted, even in summer.

The kids had never seen so much snow before. Naruto had wasted no time in starting a massive shadow clone fuelled snowball fight that ended with an uncooperative Sasuke getting dumped headfirst into a snow drift. Kakashi smiled softly behind his mask, and pretended to ignore them. It was warm enough that a little play wouldn’t freeze them, as long as they took care to change into dry clothes before the sun set.

They had made good time, barring unforeseen accidents they would arrive in Taku in a couple of days, and they had a week yet before they were due to rendezvous with Gai. It had taken an almost visible weight off all their shoulders, being out of the village, away from the overwhelming forces that lay in waiting to pounce on his students. This trip had been a good decision.

“Hey Kakashi sensei.” Naruto spoke up, eyes still bright from his earlier games. “What exactly are we doing in snow country anyway?”

“Technically we’re spying on them.” Kakashi replied indulgently.

“Cool”. That was Naruto, easily satisfied with a simple answer.

“Why only technically?” And that was Sakura. Always looking for the full explanation. They were both endearing in their own ways.

“Well, we are spying, but we’re not after military secrets, or tactical information, so it’s very low risk.” Kakashi answered.

“What are we looking for then?” And there was Sasuke, straight to the point, always wanted to know the target. He would not be happy if he realised how cute Kakashi found that.

“We are looking, for technology.” Kakashi declared grandly. The world was a hard place, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t be an adventure. It was good to remind the kids of that, before they got too old and tied up in chains of duty and pride.

“Technology?” Naruto was obviously excited, and while the other two were better at masking it he could see their curiosity.

“Aa. Snow country’s technology is currently far ahead of any other country in the elemental nations. We’ve been ordered to investigate, and get hold of blueprints or samples of anything useful. We’ll mostly be infiltrating civilian manufacturing plants. Better to avoid clashing with Snow country nins if we don’t have to. They might not be one of the great nations but they have some nasty tricks up their sleeves.” His students were listening intently, and Kakashi allowed himself to feel a touch of pride, at the way they hung on his words. They trusted him, they believed in what he had to say. There was no world in which that didn’t feel good.

Kakashi sensei woke them quietly, in the middle of the first watch. Sasuke tensed at first, half panicked at the thought they must be under attack, but Kakashi sensei had just shaken his head and smiled before moving to wake the other two. Not a threat then. Maybe there was some kind of night fighting technique he wanted to show them. Although Kakashi sensei didn’t usually teach jutsu outside the village. Still it would become clear soon enough, so Sasuke didn’t make a fuss.

By some kind of unspoken agreement, no one was making noise, so Sasuke followed silently when Kakashi sensei led them up the tree. It felt subtly different, walking up these strange, rough barked, needle leaved trees, the flow of their chakra was different to the broad leaved ancient trees of Konoha. It didn’t have much of an effect on his tree walking, it was just, different.

Kakashi sensei stopped at the top of the tree and Sasuke was just about to ask why when his breath caught in his throat.

The sky was on fire.

Green, and pink, and purple, and blue, arcing across the sky in wild trails of light. Sasuke had never seen anything like it. He couldn’t even find words for it, so he just stood in silence, perched in the branches of the tree with his teammates by his side. He heard Sakura gasp at the sight of it, registered Naruto’s uncharacteristic stillness.

“The Northern Lights.” Kakashi sensei said softly, reverent in a way he never was. “No-one knows where they come from or what they mean. Some think they’re the souls of the dead, dancing in the sky, some say that they are a message from the spirit world, or the trail of the Sage’s tears as he looks down on all the darkness of the world. But no-one knows. I think maybe there is nothing to know. Some things are themselves entire, they don’t need to mean anything. They just are. They just exist, beautiful, and impossible, and utterly unlike anything else in the world, and that is enough.” They were all quiet for a long time after that.

“They’re beautiful.” Sasuke was startled to realise that it was him that had broken the silence. Kakashi just smiled in response, and looked back up at the sky.

“Aa, that they are.” None of them slept again that night. Too entranced by the sight of the sky burning. It was worth the next day’s exhaustion.

Chapter Text

Tenten, Sakura was quickly coming to realise, was an intensely practical soul. It was a refreshingly different perspective. She was very goal oriented, everything she did was measured against whether or not it would help her achieve her aims. Sakura would be entirely unsurprised to find out that Tenten had a carefully colour coded flowchart planning out how to become a legendary ninja in a series of simple, easily achievable steps. In some ways it was quite intimidating. Certainly, it was very different from most of the people Sakura knew. Naruto and Sasuke, each in their own ways, tended to let their hearts rule their heads.  while Shikamaru, and to a large extent Sakura herself sometimes  let themselves get so caught up in theory, in the spinning and weaving of ideas and possibility, that they almost forgot about practice.

But despite the intimidation factor, Sakura found herself rather liking Tenten. She probably wouldn’t have, back in the academy, daydreamer that she was, but the months since graduation had given Sakura a new appreciation for the value of practicality. It hadn’t been hard to connect with her either. They’d bonded over being stuck with ridiculously melodramatic teammates.

It was a good thing they got on really, because after the novelty of being so far from home wore off, the mission quickly became pretty boring, and it didn’t take long before being stuck with the same people day in day out started to wear. She loved her teammates really she did, but if she’d been stuck with just them for this mission, she was pretty sure she would have snapped and murdered one of them the first time they got snowed in. Having new people to talk to provided a very necessary buffer against cabin fever. Given that they were stuck out here until the situation back in Fire country calmed down, that was important.

The thing was, she wasn’t sure things would calm down. Well, she wasn’t sure about the whole Akatsuki situation, she had no idea what was going on with that one except that it was something to do with the Kyuubi, and it had all the older nin nervous enough that Sakura knew it must be bad. But the Sasuke situation, she didn’t think that would calm down any time soon. Because Naruto was good at reading people and he said Orochimaru was nowhere near sane enough to get bored, and Shikamaru had told her that Orochimaru was obsessed with the Sharingan, and Sakura was smart enough to know that it would take more than just distance, and time spent hiding out in the wilderness to put a stop to it.

But given they were stuck in the wilderness for a while Team Gai was a good match for their team. Whoever was in charge of the assignments had done well, because they buffered each other nicely. And it wasn’t just Sakura and Tenten, Naruto and Lee were off to one side babbling enthusiastically about something that they were both clearly very impressed by, and generally being loud at each other. Sasuke and Neiji seemed, well not exactly happy in each other’s company, but at least grateful for a travelling companion that required absolutely no verbal engagement at all. And thanks to Shikamaru, she knew that Kakashi sensei and Gai sensei were already friends, which, did make sense when she paid closer attention to their interactions. They might not be obvious about it, but she’d never seen Kakashi sensei so comfortable in the presence of another adult jounin, and that kind of trust only came from friendship.

 

Sasuke wasn’t sure what to think about Snow country, how to feel about it. Because on the one hand it was good to be away from the memories of grief, and the expectations that had ruled his life since he was old enough to understand what people wanted, but on the other, it was so alien. The trees were few and far between, the sky impossibly wide, and the air tasted of something bitter and acrid. Coalsmoke Kakashi sensei told him when he asked. Part of why snow country was so technologically advanced. The chemical flavour of it lingered uncomfortably at the back of his throat.

He wasn’t sure how he felt about sneaking around in civilian clothes either. He wasn’t stupid, he knew that the mission required it, and that disguises were part of being a ninja, and it was just something he’d have to deal with sometimes. But still, he didn’t really like it. It didn’t feel like him, and the way people just looked through him when he was wearing them, felt uncomfortably like being invisible. And yes he knew, being invisible was kind of the point, they didn’t want these people to recognise them, but there were reasons he’d always worn his clan symbol, made it obvious he was Uchiha, and they didn’t just disappear because he was on a mission.

It was strange though, being ignored not because everyone knew what had happened and no-one knew what to say. Being ignored not because they knew who he was and chose to look away, but because they just didn’t care, because he was just another stranger in worn clothes, looking for work. That was their cover, because in every town there were always people looking to find work in the factories, or the mines, or the railyards, or whatever the local industry happened to be. The easiest way to be invisible, Kakashi sensei said, was to make sure no-one cared enough to look. He was right. Here Kakashi sensei wasn’t the copy nin, master of a thousand jutsu’s, traitor of Kiri. He was just another migrant worker who lost an eye to an industrial accident. Sasuke wasn’t the last Uchiha, the pride of Konoha, he was just a young orphan, looking for honest work. It was nothing like home.

Their method of operation was simple. Upon arrival at a town, they’d break off into pairs, Lee with Gai sensei, Sakura and Tenten together, Sasuke with Neiji, and Naruto with Kakashi sensei, and then they’d wander through and figure out what Konoha might be interested in. Once they’d figure that out they’d regroup, and work out a plan to steal it. Sometimes they took objects and sealed them away in scrolls, sometimes they took blueprints, on a couple of occasions they’d just sneaked Kakashi sensei in to look at the blueprints with the sharingan, rather than risk raising the alarm. Some of the factory owners were paranoid enough to hire ninja to prevent corporate espionage and they couldn’t afford to get caught. Not when Konoha had no business sending ninja into another village’s territory.  Sometimes it was easier than that though. Sometimes it was as easy as a trip to the local shop. It was surprising how far you could get, acting like a law abiding citizen. He and Neiji often got sent on those ones alone, because civilians tended to think Neiji was blind, and give him good deals out of sympathy.

The people of Snow country were in their own ways as alien as the grey and white landscape and the factories that marred the skyline, where he was expecting to see trees. They were thin, in a way that Sasuke associated with years of meals that weren’t quite enough to be filling, and tired in ways that reminded him of himself in the years after his family had died, when he’d woken too early, and stayed up too late training himself into exhaustion in an attempt to banish the nightmares.

Snow country towns were nothing like Konoha, or even other Fire country villages, where families had feuds and alliances going back generations and everyone was known to someone. He wondered if Kakashi sensei had felt this unsettled when he first moved to Konoha, because the anonymity of Snow country was at once alien and horribly familiar. Towns full of strangers, people packed in three and four families to a house, all working to feed the inhuman rhythm of the machinery, and every time he turned around he saw eyes like Naruto’s, like Sakura’s, like Kakashi sensei’s, like his own, utterly alone even in a crowd. And yet, in these towns, where everyone was a stranger, that isolation was unremarkable, the people with those eyes didn’t stand out, not the way he and his team always had, standing apart, in a village where everyone was bound to each other with a tangle of connections tight enough to strangle.

There was something about the mood of the crowd of the town, about the way the people were talking, and standing, and moving, that caught at Naruto’s attention. Naruto knew people, and every instinct he had was telling him these people were angry, the kind of bone deep anger that comes from years of being pushed down and pushed away and ignored when it mattered. He knew that feeling all too well. The people were angry, and the air was fresh and clear as new snow, the factory still and silent, no black smoke spewing from the chimneys, no people inside.

There were people outside though, and it was like all the anger in the town had coalesced in those people, had found expression and direction and purpose in them. Naruto couldn’t help but stare. Couldn’t help but ask.

“What’s happening, Kakashi sensei? What are they doing?” He said, and he knew from the way Kakashi sensei paused to consider his answer that this would be another of the lessons, the village might be happier if he never learned.

“They’re doing what they feel they have to.” Kakashi said softly. “You should pay attention to this Naruto. It’s an important thing to remember. No matter how weak or insignificant someone seems, no matter how helpless, if they are pushed far enough, they will always find a way to push back.”

“But what are they actually doing?” Sometimes Kakashi sensei was too subtle, it worked for Sasuke and Sakura, no doubt both of those would have already grasped exactly what Kakashi sensei was trying to say along with a dozen implications. Naruto was more direct, it wasn’t a weakness, just a different way of thinking, but it did mean sometimes he had to push for the details he needed.

“They’re on strike.” Naruto’s face must have betrayed his confusion because Kakashi continued. “It means they’ve stopped working. It’s like a hostage negotiation with profits as the hostage.”

“But why?” Kakashi gave him a serious look.

“They live hard lives these people. In their own ways as hard as ninja lives. Have you noticed yet? The number of scars and missing limbs, it’s not that far off what you’d see in Konoha. They work too long and are paid too little, and live in fear of getting sick because they can’t afford to take time off work let alone pay a doctor.”

“Shouldn’t we help them then?” The look Kakashi sensei gave him made him feel so very terribly young, but he refused to back down. Kakashi sensei obviously thought the way these people were treated was wrong, and if it was wrong surely they should stop it.

“And what should we do then Naruto? We’re ninja not social reformers. We could blow up the factories if we wanted to, or assassinate the owners, but that would just leave these people with no work at all, leave them to starve. Tell me, what in our skillsets would make this situation better?” Naruto didn’t answer, didn’t know what to say. Kakashi sensei smiled then, sad and resigned. “Not every problem can be solved with jutsus and brute force. Some things just aren’t that simple.”

“But why can’t it be easy? Why can’t it just be simple?” Naruto was angry, with the same helpless anger he felt when parents ushered their children away from him, when shopkeepers refused to serve him, when he first found out a demon had been sealed inside him. Naruto was angry, but Kakashi didn’t flinch. He never flinched. Naruto wasn’t sure he even knew how.

“Because it’s important. Important things are almost never easy.” And that was the heart of all the hardest lessons Kakashi sensei had ever taught them. It always came back to that, to things not being easy or simple. To there being a hundred wrong answers, and no right ones, and nothing being as it seemed. It was true, of course it was true. The things Kakashi sensei told them almost always were, maybe that was why they hurt so much.

“But that’s not fair.” He said and he knew it would change nothing, but it still needed saying.

“Since when has that ever mattered?” Was all Kakashi said, and the answer was never, they both knew that all too well. Life wasn’t fair, had never been fair, and they had to live it anyway.

“So that’s it. There’s nothing we can do to help these people.” Naruto felt abruptly drained. “I just… I wish we could do something.

“They don’t need us to rescue them you know Naruto.” Kakashi sensei said gently. “These people are already doing something. Trust them to fight their own battles, they’re not helpless. Trust that they know what they’re doing.”

“I thought you said they weren’t doing anything.”

 “Sometimes doing nothing can be the most powerful move you can make. The action that looks like inaction. If these people don’t work, the factory stops, industry stops, the economy stops, everything stops. In some ways they’re more powerful than ninja ever could be. Remember that Naruto, the things you choose not to do can be even more important than the things you choose to do.”

Chapter Text

Chemical smoke and cement dust choked the air, visibility cut down to a handful of feet in any direction. It seemed someone had got smart, hired ninja guards for their research department. Kakashi wondered just what it was they’d been working on, that had them so paranoid. After all, they’d only been breaking in for a set of radio design blueprints.

It had perhaps been too much to hope for, that they’d be able to spend months in a foreign country without running into any of the local ninja forces, but Kakashi had hoped. And he knew Gai had hoped as well, for all that his genin were a year older, every one of them already blooded, he still wanted to protect them.

Hope had always been a betrayer though, and so Kakashi was disappointed but not surprised when he and Sasuke found themselves fighting ninja on what should have been a standard civilian infiltration mission. Chuunin he thought, two of them, it was almost an even match, should have been an even match, a Genin and a Jounin against a pair of Chuunin. But Snow country ninja were hard to predict, and hard to counter, and Kakashi found himself deeply missing Gai’s support. But there was no use wishing, Gai was miles out in the wilderness, supervising the sparring sessions the kids needed to stay in shape. By the time he arrived it would be too little too late.

He focused on the situation at hand. Snow country ninja were hard to predict, and that made them more dangerous than most chuunin should be, but then, he was more dangerous than the average Jounin, and he had his own nasty surprises for anyone who expected Konoha tactics from him. And more than that, they thought they had him outnumbered. They hadn’t seen Sasuke waiting in the shadows.

A part of Kakashi half wished it was Sakura he’d brought with him this time. Sakura out of all his genin, was the only one he knew for a fact could kill without hesitating. But Sasuke had needed practice using his Sharingan for information retrieval purposes rather than just combat, and Sakura needed the sparring practice more. And maybe it was for the best, difficult as it made things. After all, it was a bridge Sasuke would have to cross at some point. Better here and now, where Kakashi could pick up the pieces than later on while he was alone.

It was always technology that made Snow nin so dangerous. Meant individual skill was only ever a side note in how dangerous a man could be when there was no way to know what they carried. Their actual fighting skills were nothing special, he knew that much within a few moments of close quarters combat, but their weaponry, that was a problem. It had taken only a moment between their registering his sharingan and them deploying the smoke bomb. He didn’t like the taste of it in the air, didn’t trust it to be merely a visibility countermeasure, his mask would shield him from anything but contact poisons, but Sasuke had no such protections. They would have to move quickly.

He flashed through the handsigns for a Katon jutsu, if in doubt, burning a poison was often a good way to try and limit its effects. Complex compounds didn’t tend to stand up well to combustion after all. Sasuke hadn’t tipped his hand yet. Good. Clearly he had been paying attention when Kakashi told him about choosing his moment. Kakashi shunshined in behind the taller of the two Yuki nin right up inside his guard with a Kunai, and cursed when he hit armour. Something tightwoven, and bladeproof, that at a glance looked like ordinary fabric. To his credit the Yuki nin recovered quickly, managed to fight back and then it was a matter of close fighting, and trying to get a blade in somewhere the armour didn’t cover. By the time he finally managed to cut the man’s throat Sasuke was already standing over the corpse of the other enemy.

A burned corpse, and Kakashi winced a little at the sight. Not an easy way to make your first kill. Not surprising, considering Sasuke’s early training in Katon Justus it would have been more of a surprise if he hadn’t defaulted to fire in a crisis, but still, not a clean way to kill. Upon closer examination, it looked like the finishing blow had been with a kunai, a mercy strike, there was more kindness in Sasuke than he would ever care to admit to, and Kakashi was glad.

The boy was pale and wide eyed, shaking slightly, either from the shock, or the sudden departure of the adrenaline, or most likely both. Kakashi wasn’t especially tactile but an instinct older than words had him stepping across the floor to wrap his arms around Sasuke. He didn’t say a word as he felt the shaking subside while Sasuke pulled himself back together.

They were going home.  Sasuke wasn’t sure how to feel about that, but then, he wasn’t sure exactly how to feel about anything right now. (He kept seeing the fire licking across that man’s face, smoke in his lungs keeping him from even screaming.) Killing had been nothing like he’d expected. He’d thought, well honestly he hadn’t really thought that much about it. It was something he’d always known would happen, he was a ninja, he was born to be a ninja, and ninja killed. He never really thought beyond that. But the reality of it, it hit a lot harder than he’d ever expected. Kakashi sensei promised it would fade over time, but for now he couldn’t quite banish the image from his mind. He wondered if this was how Sakura had felt after the forest of death, just one step removed from reality.

It had been worth it. At least as far as official reckoning went. It turned out there had been a good reason that factory owner had ninja guards. Radios might be their main focus, but in the depths of their research department was something far more dangerous, a device that used similar principles to radios, to track exactly where things were, to scan for unexpected intruders. It was key information, and combined with the risk of an international incident over the deaths of those ninja, it was more than enough to warrant an early recall.

Sasuke wasn’t sure how he felt about returning to Fire country. On the one hand Snow country was strange, alien, and they moved through it like ghosts, leaving no trace upon the people around them. On the one hand, Snow country was the place he’d first killed a man, and that was something he’d just as soon put some distance from. But on the other, on the other there was something freeing about Snow country, about the impossibly wide skies, and the impossibly clear horizons, and the knowledge that no-one knew or cared who he was, what he did. In the face of that, the thought of returning to Konoha was suffocating, claustrophobic, hemmed in by trees, and expectations, and being watched wherever he went.

A year ago he would have kept silent, would have said nothing of his fears. But now there was a voice in his head that sounded like Kakashi sensei, that said that trust could save your life, if you had the courage for it. Kakashi sensei never lied to them about things like that, not the things that mattered, not when he knew no-one else was listening. Trust can save your life and despite himself, there was a small but unshakable part of Sasuke that wanted to believe that.

So he told Kakashi sensei, about his fears, and his doubts, about how the thought of Konoha was all at once both suffocating, and comforting. It was only after that it occurred to him that out of everyone he knew, Kakashi sensei was possibly the best placed to understand that feeling.

“When I’m there.” He said voice faltering, but growing in intensity. “When I’m in the village, it feels like I have to be so many things and none of them is me. The last Uchiha, the pride of the village, Itachi’s brother, Fugaku’s son. People look at me and the only thing they see is my eyes, my eyes and my brother, and I hate it.” The last sentence came out with a force that caught him off guard. He hadn’t realised how much he meant it until the words were already hanging in the air between them. “They’ll hear that I killed a man, and it will be just another expectation fulfilled. Like they are entitled to have me kill for them. Like it was their right.

“It’s understandable.” Kakashi sensei replied, patient, without judgement. “There’s a hungry, empty void at the heart of all ninja villages.” he said, serious and sure. “If you let them, they’ll take and take, and demand everything of you, until there’s nothing left but bones. The village might be made up of people, but it’s not human enough to feel gratitude” And there was nothing but bitter truth in his eyes.

“But in a way it’s easier like that.” Sasuke confessed, voice gone soft with the weight of the admission. “It makes it easier to know what to do, who to be. They all have their expectations, and I’m good at living up to them. It’s so easy to be good at the things they want me to be good at, to want the things they want me to want. Out here, it’s like nothing’s certain, nothing’s sure. I killed someone, and it was because I chose to. Because I completed the mission, and defended myself, and you. I did my job, and that was a choice, it always was. Part of me wants to pretend I never knew that, part of me is terrified I’ll forget.” It took a moment before Kakashi sensei answered, and when he did his eyes were distant, fixed on something long ago and far away.

“In Kiri, before I left. Some days the mists were so thick with the scent of blood and fear you could choke on it. It was a hard, cruel place, not pleasant, not kind.” It was nothing he hadn’t told them before but still the description sent a chill down Sasuke’s spine. “It wasn’t a nice place, and yet, that was its own kind of comfort. It was hard, and cruel, and merciless as an unsheathed blade, and you always always knew what to expect, what was expected from you. Turning my back on that was the hardest thing I ever did.” Then Kakashi fixed him with a look so wild and fierce it barely seemed human. “But it was worth it. That certainty, that comfort, it’s slow poison. It might be so so easy to just do what’s expected, be what’s expected, but it kills you inside, bit by bit.”

A part of Sasuke wanted to shudder with relief at the knowledge that someone understood, the rest of him was just confused. “Are you suggesting I should abandon the village?” That was treason, that was unthinkable, that was… something Kakashi had already done once. Sasuke just couldn’t believe he’d said it out loud.

“That’s your choice. That’s always been your choice, no matter what they might have taught you to believe. Whether you leave or stay, your choices remain your own. Their expectations can only choke you if you allow them to.” He smiled, sharp and fierce at Sasuke’s look of shock. “Why so surprised Sasuke chan. I’m hardly in a position to say you should stay if your heart demands you leave. Konoha took me in when I had nowhere to go. They’ve earned my service, and more than earned it. But that doesn’t mean they have rights over my soul. No-one has that. I took that back the day I turned my back on the village I was born to. I make my own choices.”

“So you do think I should abandon the village.”

“Only if you want to. The important thing is to remember that you could, if you so chose. That no matter what they want or expect, they only have the power you allow them.” And just like that weight on his heart, and lungs, and soul evaporated, left him feeling lighter than he’d ever imagined feeling. He remembered forfeiting the chuunin exams, setting the Anbu on Orochimaru’s followers, he remembered long hours researching in the library until he could lock away the cursed seal. He remembered burning a stranger to death because the mission demanded it, and he knew it was true. For better or worse his choices were his own. Returning to the village wouldn't change that.

Chapter Text

There was a terrible, desolate, beauty to the ruins of Uzushio. Mighty buildings shattered and left in piles of jumbled stone, testament to greatness fallen. The sea and sky impossibly wide, and silent, where once the chaos of humanity ruled, a memorial for the dead. But also wildflowers, breaking through paving slabs, twining over crumbled walls, bright, and sweet, and resilient, proof that life finds a way, even in the wake of disaster.

Kakashi looked at Naruto, and wondered why he found it so disconcerting that Naruto showed no hint of familiarity at the sight of his mother’s birthplace. After all there was no reason for him to feel anything, Uzushio was long since fallen before he was even born, even Kushina had spent most of her life away from it. There was no reason for Naruto to know Uzushio and yet, still it felt strange, to watch the last Uzumaki walk through the ruins of his mother’s village with a stranger’s idle curiosity.

“Why are we here Kakashi sensei?” He asked, with no understanding of the weight of the question, and Kakshi found himself slow to answer. Gai was silent, left Kakashi to find the words.

“There’s a few reasons.” He said eventually. “It’s for the best if we don’t rush back to Konoha, and there is a standing order for ninja who find themselves at a loose end in the area to investigate the ruins for anything that might be useful.”

“It’s not just that though is it?” Naruto pushed, he really was far too god at reading people. Or maybe Kakashi was just getting predictable in his old age.

“No.” He sighed. “I wanted you to see this, all of you. It’s one of history’s lessons to us.” His genin had turned by that point to give him their full attention, and even Gai’s students were listening more closely that usual. “What you see around you is all that remains of the village of Uzushiogakure, once mighty now fallen.” Sasuke’s eyes widened as he looked around, realized the full scale of what must have happened. He had a better frame of reference than most for such things.

“What happened?” Sakura asked, always quick with a question.

“It was destroyed. Uzushio was small, but feared, dangerous. She counted herself Konoha’s ally and so when war broke out Kiri and Iwa struck together and reduced her to rubble.”

“And the people?” Naruto asked softly.

“They died. They fought and they died, and by the end all that remained of the people of Uzushio, of the mighty Uzumaki clan, were the bones in the streets, and a few stray exiles that were elsewhere when the village fell.”

“Uzumaki?” Naruto looked startled. Kakashi answered the unspoken question.

“Your mother’s clan. She was living in Konoha when it happened.” Naruto looked around at the ruins with new fascination.

“I’m from here?”

“Your mother was. She missed it. Sometimes.” Naruto looked back at him then, intense.

“You knew her.” Kakashi inclined his head in agreement. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“It never came up.” Kakashi replied flippantly, he didn’t know what Naruto saw in his eyes then, but he backed down then, and didn’t try to push any further.

Tenten had been looking around them at the destruction wrought by more than time and weather in confusion, and with Naruto silent she spoke up.

“Why destroy it? Why not offer terms for a surrender. Surely a captured village would have been of more use than a destroyed one.”

“Three times, Iwa and Kiri offered terms, three times Uzu refused to hear them. They could have surrendered, they chose to fight instead, to the bitter end, and the streets of this village ran red with blood before the work was done.” Kakashi kept his voice steady, this was old history, important history, they should have known this already bone deep. But hidden villages teach their children useful things, not important ones, and he could tell it was new to them all. “They sold themselves dear, but every man, woman, and child of Uzu died in that fight, for that fight. They would not surrender.” The kids were silent for a moment after that. Surprisingly it was Sasuke who finally spoke up.

“Was it worth it.” And there was something fractured behind his eyes as he said it. “Was it worth dying for? Being able to make their killers pay before the end.” There was a right way and a wrong way to answer that question, but Kakashi refused to lie to his student, not about something o important.

“Only they know that.” He said, eyes on the horizon rather than Sasuke’s face. “Only they can say whether it was worth it in the end, and the dead don’t talk.” Sasuke looked unsatisfied by that answer, but it was the only honest one he had to give. There was silence again for a moment.

“Were you there?” Lee asked suddenly, breaking the tension in a way that Kakashi half suspected might have been intentional, considering just how good the boy’s teacher was at playing the fool. He let his eye crinkle up in amusement.

“Maa maa, Lee chan, I’m not that old.” The other kids snickered slightly at that while Gai smiled at his student in approval. After that it was a simple thing to send the kids off to explore the ruins while he and Gai set up camp.

Sasuke wasn’t sure how he’d ended up alone with Tenten. Not that he particularly minded, she was calm enough not to be disruptive, and months on a team with Naruto had taught him to appreciate moments of peace. But still she was the member of team Gai he’d interacted with least. Quieter and less noticeable than Lee and Gai sensei, and unlike Neiji she hadn’t been assigned as his mission partner all that often. They weren’t especially close but he found her surprisingly good company as they wandered through the abandoned streets, past homes, and shops, and public buildings, left untended. There was a poetic melancholy to it and she was easy enough with slinece not to disrupt it. Maybe she appreciated a moment’s peace as much as he did.

They’d been sent off to explore at their leisure, and somehow the two of them had ended up falling into step with each other. They walked in silence for a while, until they came to what must have once been a training ground, overgrown now with wildflowers in fifty different shades of red and orange. In the rich gold light of the sunset it looked almost like it was on fire.

“Flowers for the dead.” She said softly, and he found himself nodding slightly. There were places in the Uchiha compound that were equally overrun now. Back when his clan lived they would have been considered weeds and pulled up, but Sasuke was one child with little interest in gardening, and he found he didn’t have the heart to clear them. They stood for a moment, appreciating the view, then Tenten spoke up again.

“Do you want to train?” He looked over in consideration, in curiosity. “It would be good to practice with someone who isn’t a taijutsu specialist for once.” She explained, and maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that she’d decided to walk with him.

There was still a small, shattered part of him that wanted to refuse, Itachi’s broken voice at the back of his mind whispering that he could trust no-one, rely on no-one, his brother’s memory cut deep always would. But there were other memories, Naruto’s hand in his as they ran through the forest, Kakashi telling them that trust could save their lives, the Anbu swooping in to save him from Orochimaru’s followers after he chose to let them fight for him. And there they were, surrounded by the crumbling ruins of a greater tragedy even than his own. Uzu had stood alone, fought alone, died alone, and now there was no-one left who could say whether their fight had been worthwhile, nothing but memories to give purpose to empty streets. He looked at the desolate loneliness of a dead village, and knew that he wanted something different for himself. He wasn’t sure what yet, but he wanted something more than memory to hold to.

So he ignored the mad whispering of Itachi’s voice at the back of his mind, and instead smiled politely and told her yes, asked if she could get him started on kenjutsu, and allowed himself to enjoy the evening, to appreciate time spent with a comrade, and think of something other than the past.

Naruto was bothered. Gai could see it in his uncharacteristic quietness, in the way he couldn’t stop glancing around at the worn stone of the ruins as though they held some great truth he couldn’t, quite, decipher. Naruto was bothered and so Gai looked for an opportunity to speak to him alone.

Kakashi loved his students, more than anything. For all he tried to hide it Gai knew him well enough to know. And he was good for them. But sometimes, just sometimes he pushed a little too hard, failed to soften the blow, because softness wasn’t something he understood. And so Gai looked to speak to Naruto alone, to offer the comfort, the reassurance, that Kakashi couldn’t, because that was what friends did.

“You seem troubled, my youthful friend.” He said to Naruto with a cheerful enthusiasm calculated to put him at ease. In some ways they were a lot alike, the two of them, more heart than head, instinct over logic.

When Naruto answered it was a tumble of words and confusion that Gai found all too familiar. Lee was the same way when he didn’t know how to feel about something.

“Why didn’t I know? I should have known. I had a family, a clan, there’s a whole village that I never knew about that I should have belonged to, and I didn’t know, I don’t know, anything about them. There were all these people, people that I should be connected to, but they’re all just bones in the ground longer than I’ve been alive and… I don’t know how to deal with that. Should I be angry? Sad? They were killed by Kiri, should I hate Kakashi sensei for that?” His eyes were wide with a hurt that was nothing to do with Uzu itself and everything to do with the foundations of his world being shaken again, and Gai paused for a moment, to choose his words carefully.

“Don’t worry so much about what you should be feeling Naruto. Your heart already knows, you just have to trust it. What do you feel, not what do other people think you should feel, but what do you actually feel. Everything else follows from that.”

“Lonely.” Naruto looked away towards the ocean as he made that admission. “I’m always lonely. It’s better now than it was, with Sasuke teme, and Sakura chan, and Kakashi sensei, but this, it drags it all back up to the surface. It’s a hungry empty hollowness that lives inside me, and never really leaves. What do I do with that? ” Gai looked at the small orange clad genin, looking lost, and o very small, and he moved.

Naruto squeaked a little as he was suddenly swept up into a tight hug, but he didn’t protest, instead returning the hug with all the hesitant desperation of the touch starved. People underestimated how much good such a simple thing could do for a lonely child. It was why he took every opportunity to do the same for Lee, and why he resented so bitterly the pride, and emotional repression that made Neiji refuse that comfort. The Hyuuga clan had a lot to answer for, and one day Gai would make them pay for all of it. Kakashi would help if he asked.

Naruto didn’t talk anymore after that, just held on tightly to him until it was time for them to rejoin the others, but Gai could tell from the way the tension had bled out of his posture, and the edge had faded from his eyes that it had helped. Naruto was like him, he’d be able to read the unspoken message in the action, that he wasn’t alone, that someone cared, sometimes that was all that was needed.

Chapter Text

If there was a place more unlike the hauntingly lonely ruins of Uzushio, than Tanazaku Gai, then Sakura hadn’t seen it. The town heaved with people, a chaotic, conflicted, force of humanity that Sakura found almost overwhelming, and yet, at the same time, fascinating.

It was a gambling town, mostly, although the other vices were widely represented as well. The brightly clad civilian tourists contrasted sharply, not only with the off duty ninja in their unevenly personalised uniforms, but also with the locals, who favoured darker tones, and smart suits. Market stalls were crammed in wherever their owners could find space, manned by little old ladies with sharp eyes and sharper minds, and guarded by their sullen grandsons, with cheap knives, and the aggression of discontented youth. The scents of spices, and over ripened fruit, and hot wraps of indeterminate content, vied with the stink of sweat, human and animal, and the occasional swirls of perfume from the houses marked by red lanterns. To Sakura, born and raised in a military town, the sheer disorder, made it an alien world.

She could see Naruto’s excitement at the prospect of places to go, people to see, things to do. He’d always loved adventure, and this town offered adventure to cater to every taste. Sasuke was at once both uncomfortable and curious, the sheltered rich kid taking his first good look at the forbidden, an interesting contrast with Neiji’s stiff disapproval. Lee and Tenten, as far as she could see they were interested, but less excited than Naruto, or Sasuke. Unsurprising, they’d been genin for a year already, and it seemed likely they’d been to similar places before.

Kakashi sensei just smiled indulgently at their clear excitement and the pleading looks in their eyes. Nodded and let them loose on the town, with instructions to be back by dawn and not get caught burning the town down. He always did believe in letting them choose their own vices.

They were gone almost before he was done speaking, rushed off to learn about a thousand things the young can only learn about when adults aren’t looking. Naruto leading the way, a bright flash of orange disappearing into the spice market in the blink of an eye. The rest followed him, all but Neiji and Sakura.

Neiji’s disapproval failed to crumble in the face of opportunity, and so he left with Gai sensei to look for clients. No-one tried to talk him out of it. In the end, the only person that could help Neiji, was Neiji himself. They’d learned that the hard way over the course of the mission. His family was in his head, and in his heart, and they shadowed everything he did. In the end it wasn’t the cage bird seal that kept the branch house Hyuuga bound, there was after all, only so much that could be done with a kill switch. No, it was the constant, insidious voice in the head of every member of the clan, that said this is how things are done, this is how things always will be, this is how a true member of the clan behaves. Social programming, Ino used to call it, before she got too old to talk about such things out loud. It was something that only Neiji could choose to break free of.

Sakura had wanted to follow the others, half out of curiosity, half because she didn’t want to be left behind. But she’d been pulled up short by Kakashi sensei’s grip on her shoulder, gentle but unshakable, and she knew he wouldn’t have stopped her without reason.

“Not you Sakura chan” He said softly. “We have somewhere else to be.”  

He wouldn’t have stopped her without reason so she swallowed her half formed protest and followed him. She followed him along a twisting route, down back alleys, and around market stalls, through a riot of colour and scent and life that made it all but impossible for her to keep her bearings. She followed him, and wondered, just which part of her reality he’d be upturning today.

Naruto was alight with fierce curiosity and excitement, that was clear for anyone to see, and Sasuke, couldn’t help but be dragged along by Naruto’s interest. The streets of Tanazaku Gai were chaotic, and energetic, and full of a thousand new things, and if Narutp and Lee hadn’t been dressed so brightly he and Tenten might have struggled to follow them. The thousand scents of the spice markets, cloves, and cinnamon, and a thousand things he didn’t have a name for, came together with the sounds of more people than Sasuke had ever imagined could be crushed into such narrow streets. Truth be told it seemed far more like Naruto’s natural habitat than the empty ruins of Uzushio had been, whatever his family history might have been, and it eased something in Sasuke’s heart, to see his teammate so at home among the living, after the dark memories the ruined city had brought up.

They were young, and free of adult supervision, so of course, simple exploration hadn’t satisfied them for long. By early evening they’d decided to sample the vices the town was so famous for. They settled on the casinos in the end, since Tenten had vetoed the brothels. They went to the casinos and discovered a whole new world of bright lights, and possibilities. People from a thousand walks of life all playing their own games with chance. Sasuke would have needed to activate the sharingan to follow everything going on.

With their headbands on display, no-one was fool enough to try and forbid them entry on the basis of age. Ninja were adults, they had to be, even when their voices had yet to break, and they were still wearing child size sandals, and their uniforms were cut so the hems could be let out. Ninja were adults, and so they could go where they wanted, anything else would have meant admitting they were not adults, and no-one was fool enough to start pulling on that thread, because Ninja needed to be adults.

Naruto was disturbingly, almost suspiciously good at games of chance. Three casinos had already thrown them out on suspicion of cheating, and they’d still managed to triple their starting money. If Naruto weren’t so painfully, embarrassingly attached to the idea of fair play Sasuke would have agreed with them. No-one was that lucky at cards. But Sasuke knew better, he knew that Naruto had the kind of honour that would be the death of him one day, and he couldn’t imagine him cheating at cards. It looked like Naruto just really was that lucky.

How someone unlucky enough to get a bijuu sealed inside them as a baby, could have such good luck at the gambling tables was a mystery in itself. Maybe being made a jinchuuriki, and everything that went with it had been enough bad luck for a lifetime, had left him with nothing but good luck to live by. It was as good an explanation as any, although he doubted the local yakuza would buy it as an excuse.

Sasuke didn’t think the local thugs would be stupid enough to try and make an issue of their winnings. Most criminals knew better than to bother ninja, the costs were too high. But they were only genin, not yet at the overwhelming power level of the really dangerous ninja, and there was a lot of money involved. But then, it was one of the major advantages of being attached to a village, that for all the awful weight of duty villages laid upon their soldiers, they were also a source of protection. No village ninja was ever truly alone, not when there was always someone to avenge the insult of an attack, there was a particular kind of safety in that. Still, Sasuke scowled a little and tried to look threatening, there was after all always the chance some fool would forget that villages didn’t let their vulnerable baby genin out without lethal jounin to protect them.

Sasuke wasn’t sure whether or not he hated being right. He should hate it he thought, he should have been upset that the local organised crime had decided attacking them was worth the risk. But dealing with them had been cathartic, a simple fight, no need to kill any of them, just the familiar patterns of violence, that he knew as well as his own hearbeat. Moving around and with the others as easily as thought because fighting beside Naruto was as easy as breathing by this point, and they’d spent enough time training with Lee and Tenten, that it was easy to fall into the rhythm of the fight.

He stood there, over the unconscious bodies of their enemies, and it was only then, standing there in the aftermath of the fight that he realised, he hadn’t thought once about Itachi all day. Something had relaxed inside his chest, an icy, clawing weight that he’d barely even noticed until it was gone. He thought back over the day and the only thing that registered was the sunlight, and the life, and how it had felt to relax into the presence of his teammates.

The realisation terrified him more than a little. But as he caught Tenten’s exasperated smile, and caught flashes of bright orange and green wreaking enthusiastic, optimistic havoc on the town as a whole, he found, that he didn’t want it to stop.

It was an old bookshop, that Kakashi dragged his most academically inclined student into. Utterly unremarkable from the outside and the paper scent of the air was touched with the bite of old tobacco smoke. Small, and stacked high with slightly worn copies of popular fiction, and battered second hand encyclopaedias. He hid a dark smile behind his mask. Dangerous things so often looked harmless, and few things were as dangerous as knowledge. Sakura was learning that too, but still, he could see her relax, almost involuntarily as they stepped inside. It was obvious Sakura liked bookshops, and even now, even knowing that there was nothing safe about whatever Kakashi had dragged her in here to do, the familiar scent of old paper was enough to settle her nerves.

He waited to make sure the shop was empty before approaching the counter, browsed casually until the other customers were gone, and then he laid out a careful sequence of books on the counter. The shopkeeper’s eyes widened slightly when he realised exactly what signal Kakashi had given him, but to his credit he didn’t miss a beat. Not bad for a civilian.

“And was there anything of special interest you were hoping to see, Ninja san?” The man asked, with the kind of studied casualness that indicated he was waiting for a countersign. Subtle for a civilian, but Kakashi could see the tension in his frame, could smell the fear.

“I was wondering if you might have any texts that offer a fresh perspective on traditional problems.” Kakashi had done this dance before, he knew the right ways to ask. A dance of double meanings, and subtle hints, not exactly code but close enough.

“Oh. Well I have some interesting new treatises on the economics of Iron country, if that’s what you’re looking for.” That offer had some interesting implications, but Kakashi was after something far more dangerous today and they both knew it.

“Hmmm, I was hoping for something a little more general. My young friend here needs something to help her understand the… broader implications.” The shopkeeper tensed and glanced over at his genin sharply, consideringly. Whatever he saw in her he must have approved of, because he looked back at Kakashi with a certain degree of respect.

“The curious type is she?” There was a world of meaning hidden behind that statement. It looked like Kakashi had judged right, the shopkeeper did have what he was looking for.

“Oh yes, and far too smart for her own good. She favours the academic approach. I was hoping to give her something to build on.” Kakashi said. The shopkeeper’s eyes cleared in understanding.

“Ah, I think I have what you need. A foundation text.” Now that was surprising. He’d been hoping for something influential, possibly the Hanzo discourses, or Kurosawa’s “History of the elemental nations” if he was lucky, but if the man was offering what Kakashi thought he was offering. Well it was considerably more than he’d hoped for, and the man behind the counter was braver than Kakashi had thought, to be willing to hold such an item. Men had been killed for far less.

“That would be ideal. I understand such works are hard to come by.” That was saying it lightly. Kakashi had no idea how the man had got hold of a copy. Seeing his mild disbelief, the shopkeeper just shook his head irritably.

“Honestly. You ninja think you have a monopoly on useful contacts. Go upstairs. I’ll bring you what you asked for in a moment.”

Sakura stared at the book in front of her, and tried not to feel like her world had just been knocked off its foundations.

New walls, old wars: A critical analysis of the hidden village system by Senju Tobirama”. It was vicious, it was insightful, it was utterly at odds with everything she’d ever been told about the second Hokage. It made her village a liar in ways that she’d never even thought were possible.

It was the sheer audacity, the scale of the lie, that made it hit so hard. Senju Tobirama  was one of the founders of Konoha, one of the legends, whose reputation the village had been built on. To find out he’d never believed in it at all. It was almost sacrilege.

She remembered history lessons with Iruka sensei. Remembered Learning about Senju Tobirama, the second Hokage, a genius at jutsu creation, and administration alike. That he was responsible for half the systems that allowed the village to operate effectively. That he was his brother’s right hand. That he’d died for Konoha.

The best lies are made of pieces of truth, shaded in a particular light.

That Tobirama had been a genius, that much at least was true, it shone through in every carefully outlined explaination, every razor sharp point, that the book raised. Every page, every line, every word screamed the thoughts of a man who saw far too clearly, and understood far too well, and had never quite learned to lie to himself.

“You understand.” Kakashi sensei said softly, “Just how much trouble you would be in if anyone knew you’d read this.” She swallowed slightly and nodded. The books he’d given her before were dangerous, this, just knowing that this book existed was likely treason.

“Have you read it?” She asked, unsure of what answer she wanted.

“Yes. He saw very clearly. Too clearly I think, for his own peace of mind.” There was no apology in his eyes, no shame. The book was treason to read, that much was clear, but then he’d already committed treason once, what was reading a book to someone who’d already abandoned his village.

“Is it true?” She found herself asking. “Did the Nidaime really believe those things?” She asked if it was true, but already her mind was flashing ahead to a thousand clues she hadn’t known to look for. The library in Konoha had dozens of the Nidaime’s technical texts, some of them were even on the academy curriculum. And yet, none of his personal writings had survived to the present, and now she found herself wondering, what might have been written in them, that had led to their destruction.

“Probably. It’s known, outside of Konoha, that Senju Tobirama wrote questionable books on political theory. Other villages have nothing invested in making him look like a pillar of orthodox ideology, so they don’t suppress that fact. The books are still banned of course, the contents are too dangerous for them not to be, but it’s known that they exist.” Sakura wasn’t sure why she was so shocked. It was just more of the same, just more of the truth that lay under the skin of the village. Kakashi had been peeling that skin back since he first became her sensei.

And yet in its own way this truth was even more shocking than learning about what had been done to Naruto as a baby. Even more shocking than the suspicions that she’d been picking up, about what had happened to Sasuke’s family, those were lies but this... The Nidaime was one of the pillars that Konoha had been built on, and now… Now she knew. He’d never believed in the village at all. His brother had believed the village would bring peace, but Tobirama had seen too clearly, he’d known it would only change the scale of war.

The most shocking thing, other than the fact that the Nidaime would write such a book at all, was the detail, the specifics. The book set out in words as clear and plain as daylight, the fracture lines of politics in the warring clans era. It described how the hidden villages were born of those fracture lines, and defined by them. It said, everything changes but it all ends the same, and every brutal point was backed up with the kind of cold proof only a high ranking ninja could have had access to. It had been written before Tobirama became Hokage, and yet already, the cracks had been showing.

She couldn’t take the book away with her. Too much of a risk, and the shopkeeper wasn’t willing to let it out of the building anyway. But this was important, was something she had to know. So she sat there with it reading through as the candles slowly burned down, and she wondered if lies were the only things holding the world together. Kakashi was sitting at the other end of the table with a different book, also provided by the shop keeper, and when she asked him, all he said was that truth was a dangerous thing, and one day she might need to be dangerous.

Chapter Text

They were going home, back to Konoha, away from the wonder and strangeness of the wide world and back to the familiarity of trees, and walls, and shinobi running every rooftop. The others were excited, Sasuke could see it in the way they looked ahead in the direction of the town they were born to. He could see it in the way Naruto wouldn’t shut up about Ichiraku ramen, and Sakura wrapped and rewrapped the souvenirs she’d got for her parents. They’d enjoyed their adventure, but they were also looking forward to home, to family, and friends, and old familiar haunts. Gai sensei’s team also, he found them harder to read than his own teammates, but he could see they were glad to be going home.

The jounin were harder to read. Kakashi sensei especially, he never showed a thing he didn’t want people to see. Sasuke suspected he might actually have to consciously decide when to have expressions. But even so, from the way Gai sensei kept declaring youthful challenges centred around jounin drinking nights, and Kakashi sensei didn’t argue about it, there must be some fond thoughts of home hidden behind that mask.

Everyone else was happy to be going home, but Sasuke just couldn’t bring himself to feel it. Home was bloodstained walls, and empty houses, and a thousand ghosts that would haunt him for as long as his older brother slept under the same sky as him. Home was being watched, always, with expectations that he would live up to his brother’s brilliance, and fears that he would live up to his madness. Home was secrets that couldn’t be said out loud, and questions that he didn’t know if he wanted answered and was too afraid to ask anyway.

But then, maybe he wasn’t the only one dreading their return. He looked again at Gai sensei’s team and while Lee and Tenten looked happy enough to be going back to Konoha, Neiji looked more like a man walking to his own execution. Hyuuga eyes and ice cold composure made him almost as hard to read as the jounin, but Sasuke wasn’t an Uchiha for nothing. He could see every surpressed flinch, every line of tension in Neiji’s body, and maybe it was a little creepy to be scrutinising his comrades with the sharingan, but it was effective. He could see that Neiji might well be no happier about going home than he was.

He wasn’t sure why he cared. Maybe it was Naruto’s influence rubbing off on him. Maybe it was just that he’d spent enough time partnered with Neiji on missions this last couple of months that he felt a little responsible for him. Or maybe, while they were out of the village and therefore honest with themselves, he would admit it was because the unexpected moment of kinship, of realising he wasn’t the only one afraid to return, made him feel just a little bit less lonely.

“What do you want Uchiha?” Neiji reminded Sasuke a little of a cat actually, all standoffish pride and composure, but it was obvious he secretly liked the attention. Sasuke tried very hard not to think about the fact that Naruto had probably used the same description for him at some point.

“You’re not looking forward to going back to Konoha are you?” There was a time, not too long ago, when Sasuke would have bitten his own tongue bloody before asking about someone else’s feelings, before leaving himself open to them asking him about his own, but things changed, and over the last few months he’d come to believe that sometimes, just sometimes it was worth the risk of speaking out loud the words that usually caught and died at the back of his throat.

“And what would you know about such things.” Neiji’s eyes were unreadable, but Sasuke could hear an edge in his voice that would have been tears in Sakura, incoherent shouting in Naruto, a bitter snarl in himself. He’d hit a nerve.

“I know I’m not looking forward to it either.” Sasuke wondered idly whether he should blame Naruto or Kakashi for his recently acquired streak of brutal honesty. Probably Kakashi, Naruto was just a little more optimistic than Sasuke could ever bring himself to be.

“Oh.” Neiji snarled, with an anger that was the most honest emotion Sasuke had ever seen from him. “What are you saying? That we’re the same? That we’re both miserable to be going home and we should bond over that? You don’t understand a thing. You live alone, what do you know about being afraid to go home?”

“So tell me.” Sasuke couldn’t say why he cared so much except that Kakashi sensei had taught him to push and keep pushing, that sometimes the sharing of a truth could be so much more powerful than the keeping of a secret. He couldn’t say why he cared except that he and Neiji were far more alike than either of them was comfortable admitting, and so watching Neiji break the way he would if nothing changed, would be a little too much like watching himself break.

“When I’m there, it’s like everything I am, any dreams or hopes, or feelings I might have, don’t matter. All that matters is my ability to serve, the use I can be, and the person underneath that dies by inches every day I’m there.” He gave a smile then, as bitter and broken as death itself. “After all, the branch clan don’t exist for themselves. They exist for the main clans convenience, to fight, and work, and die in their places. We don’t need to be people for that. In fact, it’s generally considered better if we aren’t.”

Neiji wasn’t looking away or avoiding eye contact of course, the byakugan saw in 360 degrees, there was no point. All the subtle codes of behaviour governed by the way eye contact was kept or avoided, just passed the Hyuuga clan by. The Uchiha had lived and died by those same codes, it was an interesting contrast. For all that outsiders viewed sharingan and byakugan as broadly alike, there were worlds of experience between them.

Neiji wasn’t looking away or avoiding eye contact, but if he had been anyone else, anyone but a Hyuuga he would have been. No-one but a Hyuuga could have spoken such awful secret griefs without looking away. Just as, if Sasuke had been anyone but an Uchiha he would have been making an effort to maintain eye contact, to make a connection, to make his intent clear. But Sasuke was an Uchiha and to an Uchiha direct eye contact was always a threat, always a challenge, so instead he kept his eyes fixed on a point on the horizon directly over Neiji’s shoulder, as he spoke, truth for truth, grief for grief.

“I live with ghosts.” He confessed. “Angry ghosts that died screaming and won’t let me sleep easy until I kill my brother. I live alone in the heart of a quarter that belongs to the dead. There’s blood on the walls of the house I sleep in, there’s blood on the streets I walk down every day, blood watered the vegetable garden where I grow my tomatoes. Sometimes it feels like their screams for revenge will drown me, will leave nothing but my duty to them, will leave nothing but that revenge.” That seemed to give Neiji pause, because when he spoke again the anger was gone from his voice, replaced by the kind of exhausted despair that belonged on a far older ninja.

“I suppose in a way, family is as cruel, and inescapable as fate.” He said, and it had been a long time since Sasuke had heard someone sound that defeated. That at least was something the two of them didn’t have in common, Sasuke had too much rage, too much of the Uchiha’s fire in him to fall in that way.

Itachi though. The memory came unbidden but Itachi had sounded that way, the day he’d destroyed Sasuke’s world. Sasuke had almost forgotten that Itachi had a water affinity, he might have been born Uchiha, but there was none of the fire that drove Sasuke in his heart, and a part of Sasuke couldn’t help but wonder if that was significant.

Sasuke wasn’t his brother though, and for once that felt more like a strength than a weakness, because Itachi would have let Neiji’s words stand unchallenged, but acceptance wasn’t in Sasuke’s nature.

“There’s more than one kind of family.” He said, with a meaningful glance off to the left, where Naruto and Lee were wrestling in a tangle of bright orange and green while Sakura and Tenten whispered commentary at each other and their sensei’s pretended not to watch. Neiji didn’t answer, but Sasuke could see the shift in posture that meant Neiji understood what Sasuke was trying to say.

Being back in Konoha was strange in ways Naruto hadn’t expected. Everything seemed so much smaller, the horizon confined by the high wooden walls, the buildings packed tight within their shelter. It made Naruto feel restless, and for the first time he could maybe understand why Jiraiya spent so much of his time away from the village.

Almost but not quite, because the familiar scents of tree sap from the Hashirama trees, and the natural dyes they used on Konoha shinobi uniforms, and Ichiraku Ramen, all said home, said his, said streets he knew, and people he loved, and the world outside might be wild, and wide, and exciting in ways he’d never truly grasped before, but Konoha was home, it was where he always wanted to come home to, and Naruto could see clear as day that Jiraiya of the Sannin did not feel the same. Hadn’t in a long time if Naruto was reading him right, and Naruto was good at reading people.

To Jiraiya, Naruto could tell, Konoha was no different to any other place he might stop and rest for awhile, aside from the bad memories that waited ‘round every corner. It made Naruto uncomfortable in ways that were hard to pin down, in ways that Kakashi’s willing desertion of his own village never did.

Maybe it was because, for all that Kakashi was an acknowledged traitor to Kiri, for all that he’d abandoned it forever and sworn himself to its enemy and never faltered, when he spoke of mist shrouded streets, and fireflies on the lake at night, it was obvious that he still cared. There was bitterness there, and grief, and old old regrets, but not indifference, never indifference, not the way Jiraiya felt for Konoha. Kakashi had loved Kiri, still loved Kiri, even if he’d learned to love Konoha too, even if that love hadn’t been enough to hold him there. Jiraiya felt nothing for Konoha, beyond the bad memories and the responsibilities that he’d been running from for longer than most Shinoci got to live.

It made Naruto uncomfortable in ways he couldn’t quite explain, but Kakashi sensei had said it would be a good idea to spend some time with Jiraiya, for a number of reasons, and Kakashi sensei was usually right about that sort of thing.

“See if he’ll teach you some useful jutsu.” He’d said with a sly smile that Naruto knew was permission to make as much of a nuisance of himself as he liked in pursuit of that goal.

Naruto was good at making a nuisance of himself. After a number of increasingly entertaining pranks, and the third time he’d managed to get Jiraiya caught spying on the women’s hot springs, he’d agreed to teach Naruto the ransengan, which according to Kakashi sensei was a big deal and definitely worth putting up with Jiraiya’s unreliability for. After all, it wasn’t like he was trusting Jiraiya to teach Naruto any moral lessons, in village training was for skills and jutsu and other physical stuff, and Kakashi had nothing but respect for Jiraiya’s talents in those fields. He was after all a Sannin.

It was indeed a very cool jutsu, and Naruto was glad to learn it. But he also couldn’t help but feel, that with every step he took towards perfecting it, Jiraiya was seeing him less and less clearly, seeing someone else standing in his place, and a part of him wanted, more than anything, to know just who that person was. Maybe then he’d be able to convince Jiraiya to see him. Naruto had spent most of his life with people looking through him, he didn’t need that from one of his own teachers, from someone who claimed to care.

But then, Jiraiya wasn’t someone to rely on. Kakashi sensei had warned him of that, and there was no sense getting upset when what Naruto had already suspected proved to be true. It was fine, he had other people to rely on. Sakura, and Sasuke, and Kakashi sensei, and Ebisu sensei, and of course Iruka sensei, who had been there for him when no-one else had. He didn’t need Jiraiya, even if a part of him did care about him.

Maybe he should invite Iruka sensei out for ramen sometime, now that he had actual wages to pay with.