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Of Harrowed Hearts

Chapter Text

 

Naruto has been hearing it for as long as he can remember.

It’s not a voice or anything, just a growling rumble that fluxes in pitch and intensity, a dark, hateful sound that brings to mind bared fangs and the color of blood. He’s curious, despite being mildly terrified, about where it comes from.

It doesn’t go away.

Naruto knows better than to talk about it. No need to be a bigger pariah than he already is. It’s the worst at night, when the deep roar raises like a howl, full of fury and pain and something Naruto knows very well. Something like loneliness.

He doesn’t sleep much on those nights. He doesn’t sleep much at all anymore.

 <>

He’s seven when he tries to talk to it for the first time. He’s the dead last, the failure at everything, so he doesn’t actually expect to succeed.

Let alone get it on the first try.

It’s one of those dark, lonely nights again. He’d failed a taijutsu history test today. The words had made his head hurt and his body jittery again as he read them, and he’d ended up drawing stick figures in the margins on the last page and turning the test in mostly blank. Iruka’s look of disappointment had hurt. He’s usually good at taijutsu.

He’s lying on his bed, running his eyes along the cracks in his ceiling, when he thinks- what the hell.

Naruto closes his eyes, reaches back into his own head, and thinks; “Hello?”

There’s no response, but the growling stops, slows to something like a rumble. After minutes pass with no other response, Naruto opens his eyes, sighing.

But he’s not looking at his bedroom ceiling.

He’s not in his bedroom at all. He’s suddenly standing, knee deep in filthy water in a cavern so huge he can’t see the ceiling through the murk. An enormous metal gate, thick ornate black bars stuck with a paper seal, seals off an entire section of the place.

“Hello?” Naruto repeats.

Something dark and enormous shifts within the cage, uncurling from the dark, but still moving in the shadows.

“Hey, I can see you, ya know. I know you're there.”

The massive shape stills, growling softly. Something swishes, several somethings, sweeping through the air and sending ripples across the dark water. The shape moves forward into the sparse light of this place, and Naruto gets his first glance at his internal tennant.

The creature is massive, all sharp teeth and cruel eyes, tails flicking back and forth restlessly in the dark. He’s the color of bright blood, though faded and dingy, giving the rough bristled fur an orangish tint. It looms over him, sharp, black wreathed red eyes regarding him with disdain and annoyance.

Yeah, Naruto’s seen that look before, giant monster thing or no.

“So you’re the voice in my head?” Naruto asks. Some part of him acknowledges that he should probably be terrified, but for some reason he knows the enormous creature can’t hurt him.

The big fox– because it clearly is a fox, Naruto may be an idiot but he at least knows that much, multiple tails or no– tilts its massive head slightly.

For a second Naruto wonders whether or not the thing can actually understand him, but then it speaks.

Its voice is so low and deadly it’s like a seismic wave against Naruto’s eardrums, dark and powerful and heavy.

~You can hear me already, little meat sack?~ The fox grumbles, it’s voice tumbling rough and abrasive to fill the space with its vibration. Naruto fights the urge to rub at his ears.

“Yeah, I can hear you. What are you? What are you doing down here?”

The fox growls ferally, like Naruto’s pinched an unseen nerve.

~Go back to your world, petty human. I have no patience for your kind. Get out.~

A push of dark and powerful energy, and Naruto finds himself flung back into his body, back into the dark emptiness of his apartment. For a moment Naruto entertains the idea of it all being a dream, but he can still feel the dark power pulsing restlessly beneath his ribs and decides that no, he hadn’t just imagined it.

<> 

 

The next day is just as bad as the last, but this is nothing new to Naruto. The hateful looks, the distrust, the disgust in some cases, he’s used to it now. Things like Sasuke beating him in a spar and then not acknowledging him for the rest of the day, Sakura and Ino looking annoyed with every word out of his mouth– they’re all things Naruto has dealt with before and will again. It doesn’t matter. He still loves this village, loves these people despite their hate. They’re good underneath it, and he has Iruka and Jiji. His life could be far worse.

That night, as he looks into the cool darkness of the night sky through the window, he does it again.

Closes his eyes and dives backwards.

<> 

 

Every night after that, he lets himself fall back into his head, finds himself in the filthy, dark cavern of the Fox’s prison. For the first week or so, the fox sends him right back out the second his metaphorical feet hit the ground, but Naruto is nothing if not impossibly stubborn, and so he just keeps showing up.

Eventually, the Fox stops kicking him out of his own head and starts to study him; like he’s a particularly oddly behaving insect. Naruto finds that the louder he is, the more likely the Fox is to eject him, so he does a lot of looking around and asks benign questions instead of the ones that have been nagging at him.

The relationship that results is… strange to say the least, and not really what Naruto had been expecting. The fox mostly ignores him, curling into the corners of his prison either to nap or do whatever it is that giant fox creatures do instead of sleep. Naruto talks, mostly to himself, about his day or whatever comes to mind, and so long as he doesn’t raise his voice too much or ask any probing questions, the creature lets him stay. Naruto isn’t sure exactly what the fox gets out of it, but Naruto gets a place to go when he can’t sleep, and even though the fox never listens when he speaks, it helps sometimes to talk to him instead of to himself.

Naruto might be imagining things, but he thinks the fox has stopped howling so much at night.

It goes on like this for a long time, and for the most part it stays the same, except for that sometimes instead of sleeping through his presence, the fox will watch him with intense eyes, blood red irises searching for something Naruto’s not sure he has. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does Naruto just keeps talking like nothing has changed, except he actually talks directly at the fox instead of at the walls.

After the first few exchanges of harsh, snarled words, the Fox doesn’t speak for six months.

Naruto goes about his normal life. Iruka-sensei is awesome and takes Naruto out for ramen all the time now, and Teuchi and Ayame are always nice to him, so it’s not so bad compared to what it could be. He talks to the fox about them a lot, but he leaves out being kicked out of the Korean barbeque place and the takoyaki stand. It doesn’t matter so much anyways. Not anymore. Naruto still doesn’t sleep much, but it’s for a different reason now, something less exhausting.

And somewhere along the line, the Fox ends up staring at him more often than he sleeps. The angry howls are gone entirely.

More months pass by like this, a standstill brought about by the combination of Naruto’s stubbornness and the creature’s refusal to acknowledge him. That’s okay though, Naruto is used to being ignored, and he knows how to make sure he’s noticed.

Then, suddenly and without warning, that changes.

Naruto knows something’s up the second he settles back in his head for the night. Normally the fox is tucked into the corner someplace, steadfastly pretending that Naruto doesn’t exist, but not this time.

This time the creature is waiting for him, closer to the bars of his prison than he’s ever deigned to be before, bright red eyes glowing with intent sharp enough to cut steel.

Naruto is all of seven and a half and very stubborn about it, so he glares right back, refusing to be cowed by the giant creature behind bars.

~Why?~ The fox demands immediately, the first word it’s spoken in more than half a year. It’s voice is the same as Naruto remembers, low and rough, but unless Naruto is hearing things there’s a second tone underneath the aggravation that hadn’t been there before.

Something like confusion.

And it shows a little on his face too–his ears are tucked a little more, his eyes aren’t quite so narrow, his fur is bristled along his snout.

Naruto blinks dumbly, taken aback. “Why what?”

~Why do you do this? Insist on returning here night after night. You will gain nothing from it. There is nothing for you here.~

The creature hasn’t raised his voice though– it’s still low and strangely thin despite its harshness.

Naruto makes a face. “Who says I have to get anything out of it?”

~You mean to say that you would converse with a monster on a whim?~

The last word is growled and spat like a curse, and oh yeah, Naruto knows that emotion like he knows his own heartbeat, no matter how hard the giant fox creature tries to hide it.

Hurt.

And that’s it suddenly. It makes sense in Naruto’s messed up head now. Because if there’s one thing that Naruto knows, it’s pain, the inside kind, the kind that comes from loneliness and loss and fear and anger. And it’s so easy to see how all that hurt can produce all that hate.

“You’re not a monster.” He says, with all the confidence and stubbornness in his little body. Because monsters are made, not born, and people are afraid of what they don’t understand. Naruto isn’t, but according to most of the village, he isn’t a person anyway.

The creature snorts, tails lashing behind him.

~And how would you know that?~

It says harshly, but the confusion is still there, underneath the rage and hate and hurt. But Naruto knows that fury and loathing and disdain are only really bodyguards for the deepest and ugliest of wounds.

“I just do!” Is what he says though, because Naruto has never been good with words.

~You don’t know anything.~ The creature insists, but the conviction in its words just isn’t there anymore.

<> 

~What do you think you’ll get out of this?~

The fox asks again a long time later. Naruto is sitting, legs crossed, in the six or so inches of water that floods the fox’s prison. The water is linked to Naruto somehow– he isn’t sure why, but the worse his day is, the thicker and more sludge like the water becomes. Today had been awesome though– Iruka-sensei had let him get an extra portion of ramen at Ichiraku, because he’d actually had to make Sasuke work for his win in sparring today. The water is cool and clear as a result, and despite the Fox’s usually sour mood, he seems to be enjoying a reprieve from the muck.

“Why do I have to get something out of it?” He repeats, leaning back on his arms to stare at the fathomless ceiling above him. “It’s so quiet here, how do you stand it?”

~I find myself missing it more and more.~  The creature growls.

Naruto ticks his head to the side and kicks his feet a little. “But don’t you get lonely?”

The question seems to take the enormous being off guard.

~What would you know of loneliness?~  It snarls, but Naruto doesn’t rise to the bait, even though a year ago he might have wanted to.

Instead he looks up, smiles, and lies right through his teeth.

“Not much.” he says easily.

The fox’s ears twitch and his eyes narrow.

~What is your name, little human?~

Naruto smiles with less teeth. “Naruto, Naruto Uzumaki!”

The fox’s ears go all the way up at that, his crimson eyes widening fractionally.

~Uzumaki, you say?~

The fox mumbles, almost to himself.

Naruto nods and rocks forwards to put his hands on his knees. Something changes in the air, enough of the tension leaves the atmosphere that Naruto feels brave enough to ask his own question.

“So, what’s yours?”

The fox pulls its head back from the bars abruptly.

~What is my what, exactly?~

“Well you have a name, don’t you?”

The fox freezes instantly. The tails still mid swish and the little world around them suddenly goes very very quiet.

Just when Naruto begins to think that he probably said something wrong the stillness breaks- the fox's tails start up their soft swish again, and the fox speaks. Low and clear.

~My name… is Kurama.~

<> 

“So what even are you?” Naruto asks one day, when Kurama seems in a good enough mood to answer questions. He’s lounging easily, tails swaying idly back and forth, colossal head resting lazily on crossed forepaws. The fox lifts his ears a little.

~You mean you don’t know, fishcake?~

Naruto shakes his head, brows furrowing at the odd nickname. “Nope. Nobody talks about it.”

Kurama doesn’t answer immediately, instead he regards Naruto for a long moment with keen crimson eyes.

~I am the bijuu of Nine Tails.~

He says eventually.

That means nothing to Naruto, and he says as much.

“What the heck is a bijuu?” Because he’s noticed the nine tails thing already, and figures Kurama will elaborate anyways.

~Humans call us Tailed Beasts. We are beings of living chakra, and have existed far longer than your little shinobi villages.~

Living chakra? Whoa… does that mean you’re like, really really strong then? Iruka-sensei says chakra is why Chunin and Jounin ninja are so strong.” Naruto babbles.

Kurama just snorts through his nose harshly.

~Like ants before dragons. I am the most powerful being you are ever likely to meet.~

“Out of all of you?” Naruto asks, horribly curious. “You did say us, right? How many bijuu are there?”

~...We are nine.~ The Kyuubi says with some reluctance. ~I am the eldest.~

“Are the others foxes too? Like you?”

Kurama shakes his head.

~We are all different. Gyuuki, for example, is an Ushioni. A bull demon.~

“How many tails does he have? What does he look like?”

Kurama blinks, clearly not expecting his enthusiasm, so Naruto tries to tone it down a little, sits on his hands and makes an effort to be still. It’s hard.

~He’s the bijuu of Eight Tails.~ Kurama allows. ~And I suppose if I had to describe him to a human, he appears as a mix between a bull and an octopus...~

 

Kurama tells Naruto about his siblings in only cursory detail, and Naruto has never had a brother or sister before, but Kurama makes it sound like it’s simultaneously the best and worst thing in the world. He seems sad when he talks about them, but Naruto doesn’t ask.

<> 

Shortly after that comes one of the worst days of his life.

He’s not exactly sure how it happens, it’s all a freaking blur, but there’s screaming and anger and fury and even more hate than Naruto is used to, a man with a wide red face practically spitting at him, Ayame yelling somewhere in the background.

He doesn’t even really remember what the man had said, but he remembers it hitting all the parts inside him that already hurt. He was running before he even managed to start breathing again, doesn’t hear Ayame’s furious outrage, and doesn’t notice the powerful stranger that materializes around the corner–he just bolts. He doesn’t look where he’s going, doesn’t care, because the man’s words are still rattling around in his head, the equivalent of all the cold hateful stares he’d ever been given voiced aloud.

Monster. Demon. Worthless. Should never have been born.

And he knows he should be used to it by now, but it hurts like nothing he’s ever felt, to be so easily disregarded, so easily told that his existence means nothing. Nothing at all.

And so he runs until he can’t run anymore. And by the time he realizes where he’s going, it’s too late.

Naruto has heard of the Forest of Death before, on the tongues of Jounin and Chunin alike, but he’s never seen it, never thought that it might look like enormous dense trees and a canopy so thick it turns day to night. Never thought to heed the warning calls of ravens overhead or the hissing sound of swampy ground between the gargantuan roots. By the time he realizes he’s made a mistake he has no idea where he is, no clue how to get out of this dark place.

He’s lost.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Kurama has been alive for a very long time. He’s lived so much, and at the same time so little. He’s watched villages fall and battles rage, land torn asunder by old primal chakra and stitched back together the same way. He’s watched human lives go by from behind sealed bars for centuries now, watched his freedom bleed away to nothing and hated for it.

He’d hated his jailors most of all.

He still remembers Mito with blinding clarity, in perfect memory. She was strong and stern, loved deeply and exclusively, was a beacon of strength and hope for the humans that had locked him away.

And he remembers the way she would look down her nose at him through the bars of his cage, the empty toneless cell he had been forced into, like she would live in spite of him, like he was some colossal burden she had been left to bear, like a warden.

He remembers Kushina better though, and hated her less, but even she still thought of him as a burden, thought herself a warden, saw him as a weapon.

But this shit? This is something else entirely. And Kurama has no fucking clue what.

Never, from the moment of his creation to that very second in time, never in his incredibly long and powerful life, has someone ever asked him his name.

This kid, this child, in one question, has shown Kurama more consideration and respect than any being since the Sage himself.

Everything Kurama knows about humans, about jinchuuriki, is based on a solid faith in their petty, hateful ways. And this little brat has the gall to shake that faith to core with one fucking question.

This kid’s stubborn and continued presence in the seal space had been one thing– easy enough to write off as idle curiosity except for the fact that– despite Kurama’s obvious distaste at his presence and the fact that there is nothing down there of interest whatsoever– the kid kept coming back every night.

But this? This? What the hell is Kurama supposed to do with this?

There’s something strange and warm forming in him, small but determined and entirely foreign. It grows, little by little, night after night, each time the little golden haired brat sits in the dark dank cold of his prison and never looks as miserable as Kurama expects him to become. Each time the kid recounts his day, speaks with such fondness about senseis and ramen vendors and Kurama knows that it’s because they are the only people in the entire village that have shown him any kindness, even if the kid never says so. When Kurama had snarled about loneliness, the potency of the lie in the response he’d been given had sent Kurama reeling.

He’d told the brat about his parents, told him how he’d killed them in cold blood when they’d tried to reseal him, tried to elicit some kind of familiar fear or hatred. But it had only made him sad, aggrieved, nothing like Kurama had intended, and for a fraction of a second, Kurama had hated himself for doing it and he had no idea why.  So he’d told the brat about his parents when he’d asked, in some kind of recompense, and grudgingly admitted that he remembered little of his siege against Konoha but for the strange and lingering impression of blood on his tails and broken Uchiha eyes.

And the forgiveness had been instant. Foolish. Unconditional and without thought.

Idiotic. Or maybe wise beyond years. Kurama truly cannot tell.

 

In the midst of this inner turmoil, in this chaos of unfamiliar feeling that Kurama is still trying to snuff, something happens.

A rending surge of hurt and sorrow sweeps deep through the seal space, calling Kurama’s attention up instantly.

Impossible.

Kurama cannot feel his Jinchuuriki’s emotions unless he makes a conscious effort to sense them, but this is powerful and clear, uncontrolled, and so very clearly the brat’s. Even at her most distraught Kushina’s emotions never reached down to touch him like this, and never with such force.

Something begins to mix with the pain and sadness. The acrid tang to the air speaks of fear.

Kurama reaches through what he can of the seal, syncs his vision with that of the brat’s.

Fire country tigers come into view, prowling in a pack of three. He senses pain of the physical kind now, deep gashes along the kid’s arm from shoulder to elbow. Kurama’s chakra is doing it’s job, bloody steam already curling from the wound, but the kid isn’t fighting back, he just keeps backing up, terror rising high as the animals stalk closer.

What the hell kid? They’re just cats, fight back. He thinks, as Naruto continues to retreat, terrified. And then it hits him.

He has no idea how to mould chakra, even if he can draw on my reserves, he has no clue how to use it.

And what the fuck are they teaching him at that stupid academy if not how to use fucking chakra? Arts and crafts?

One of the tigers attacks again, tearing through the fabric of Naruto’s jumpsuit and sending fresh waves of agony across his chest. Kurama can heal it, of course, but now his Jinchuuriki is backed up against a tree’s wide trunk, nowhere to go, as cornered as a rat.

And that little something deep in Kurama’s chest, that spark he had been trying so hard to smother, suddenly flares to life all at once. Powerful and electric, it surges forward, and Kurama acts. Instant and foolish, unconditionally and without thought.

For the first time, it is Kurama who reaches.

He sends his chakra flooding through the seal, pushes as much of himself as he can with it. But there is no instinct to escape, to corrupt, to control.

Only to Protect.

Because something deep inside him knows that whatever this kid is, human or not, Uzumaki or not, he’s different, and Kurama will not let that slip away before he knows what it could be. Not without a fight.

The Shade rushes through the brat’s chakra and coalesces, an aura of purest wrath shielding him like a cloak, and Kurama roars.

The shockwave is so powerful it sends the tigers skidding backwards. Kurama’s aura does the rest, and the overgrown cats scatter to the wind in fear.

Naruto staggers, his back hits the tree trunk and he slides to ground, the tears still streaming hard down his small face. Kurama curls his chakric form around him in some instinct he’s never felt and doesn’t understand. Naruto’s clawed hands scrub at his eyes, now as bloody a red as his own, and it confirms something he’s long suspected.

In altering the seal used to imprison Kurama into his son, Minato Namikaze inadvertently removed the chakric safeguards that had been present on every seal before it. As a result, there is no barrier between Naruto’s chakra systems and Kuramas, no buffer– the chakra enters the boy’s pathways in it’s raw form. The healing properties of his chakra are more potent as a result, can cause physical transformation, but he knows for a fact that his raw chakra burns harsher than any acid.

Kurama stays anyway, wrapped around him even though this form is not a physical one, until the brat’s sobs die down.

He steadfastly ignores the feeling in his gut that tells him something has just changed for good.

<> 

Kurama leads Naruto out of the Forest of Death. It’s nothing so obvious as giving him directions or anything like that… just a sensation he gets in his chest that urges him to go a certain way. The fox feels… different within him, like something's shifted. Two steps back from what it was before. Or maybe forward. He can still feel the hate curling in the beast’s chakra, but no longer is any of it directed towards him. It’s an odd feeling. Alien. But he doesn’t mind. Quite the opposite– the strange feeling of acceptance calms his nerves and torn heart in ways he’s incredibly grateful for.

He ends up heading in the general direction of Shikamaru’s clan forest, though he’s never been there this way before. Naruto likes Shikamaru. He talks to Naruto just the same as he would anybody else, and he always looks at the people who treat Naruto badly like they have some sort of mental disease and he's debating whether he should try and fix it or push it as far away from himself as he can as to not get infected. His parents apparently hadn’t put the same stigma on playing with Naruto that most had.

He likes Kiba for the same reason, though Naruto knows the dog-ninja only first started playing with him to make his mom mad.

 

The woods outside training ground forty four are still thick and sharp and matted together, so the first chance he gets he hops down onto a swiftly flowing river peppered with flat rocks. The forest is just as thick on the other side, so he moves up river instead of risking his already torn up jumpsuit on more briars.

The river is more like a creek– wide and shallow and only a few feet down at it’s deepest. It winds very little, rolling over the steps of soft rapids as it curves gently southeast. After ten minutes or so of following it the banks open up into a clearing; a circular stretch of thick grass and low ferns penned in by towering redwoods. The little river cuts crosswise through the glade, curling into the basin of a cascade at its far end.Water runs in clear ribbons over a steep and rocky cliff face, framed on one side by the biggest willow tree Naruto has ever seen, so big that it’s branches dip to cover the whole basin in tendrils of green. He gravitates towards it without really thinking, tired and aching, and he immediately feels safer behind the arbor curtain, like a soft shield against the outside world. He thumps down to sit between it’s roots, scrubbing hard at his eyes again with the back of his sleeve.

It makes his eyes sting more, not less, and when he actually gives the sleeve a good look he finds it covered in blood and grime, the orange fabric torn to nothing but thin strips in places. He grits his teeth and pulls the jumpsuit angrily from his person, ripping at the zipper and yanking the thick orange turtleneck off his shoulders. He leaves it half off, pooled around his waist, and drops his head into his arms, crossed over his knees.

He just can’t stop crying, and it’s stupid and weak but the more frustrated he gets at himself the more he cries and he just can’t make it stop.

When the hiccups slow down and Naruto finally finally manages to halt the waterworks, he feels the burning rush of chakra again. He knows now that it’s Kurama, stirring up from his seal. The hurt in the burn is familiar, like how muscles feel when worked into failure, like nerves feel when rubbed raw.

Kurama had...protected him. Naruto is used to the dark power and wrath that radiates from Kurama’s chakra. He isn’t used to having it rise in his defense.

He feels the same surge he’d felt then but softer, slower, as Kurama’s chakra moves through him. It starts as vaguely reddish haze that rises off Naruto’s skin in waves. Then in condenses, becomes more solid as more chakra floods the shape, and then materializes into the form of the Kyuubi. Compared to Kurama’s true size it’s tiny– little bigger than a horse.

“I thought you couldn’t leave your seal.” Naruto says, his voice barely above a raspy whisper.

The fox curls his body around him, tails flicking back around for Kurama to rest his paws on. He’s sort of see through in the middle but more solid around the edges, like a drawing that hasn’t been shaded right.

~I cannot. This is just a shade, brat. Only chakra.~

The fox says, just as quietly.

Naruto’s eyes start to well up again. “I’m sorry.” He says miserably, babbling, burying his face back in his elbows. “I should have been watching where I was going, I should have noticed when I crossed the fence–”

~Easy.~ Kurama cuts him off smoothly, almost gently, and isn’t that a kick in the teeth– Kurama of all people comforting him. A single chakric claw tucks under his chin–not entirely solid, but not entirely ethereal either– and tips his head up.

~Did you know that man, kid?~ Kurama asks.

Naruto shakes his head.

~Was he important to you? Like your Teuchi, or your Ayame, or your Iruka-sensei?~

Naruto shakes his head again.

~Then why does what he says matter to you?~

Naruto blinks, not understanding.

~Does your Iruka-sensei think you’re a monster?~

Another head shake.

~Then who are you going to believe?~

The tears stop, his eyes go wide as he looks as Kurama. The fox looks tired and sad, so different from what Naruto has become accustomed too that the shift alone makes Naruto readjust his view. Why had it mattered? The man hadn’t been Jiji, or his sensei, or anyone precious, just a man whose face he can’t even remember.

And it… works. If he thinks of it like that, he can shove it back and away, make it matter less up against the warm existences of those precious to him.

“You’re pretty smart, Kurama.” He says, wiping the last of the tears from his eyes. His head hurts and his nose is still runny, but he doesn’t feel quite so much like he’s drowning. “I bet you’re not scared of anything.”

Kurama looks at him for a long moment.

~...Untrue.~

Naruto tips his head to the side. “What could scare a bijuu?” he asks, half curiosity half concern.

Kurama cocks his head, almost in mimicry, crimson eyes pinching in what might be disbelief, might be confusion, might be pain.

~Do you remember when I told you of my siblings?~

Naruto nods. “Mhm. Matatabi and Saiken and Kouko and all of them?” Kurama dips his vulpine head in affirmation. “What about them?”

~It would seem I am losing them.~

Naruto’s eyes widen to saucers. “What do you mean? What happened? What do you mean ‘losing them’?”

~ As the eldest of the bijuu, I posses the ability to sense my Kin. Their locations. Their states of being. Over the last few years, one by one, they have been vanishing from my senses entirely.~

“But… but isn’t that impossible? You can’t be killed, right? And aren’t you even stronger than Kages like Jiji?”

Kurama shakes his head, and Naruto’s stomach drops into his sandals.

~Our existences depend on those of our Jinchuuriki. If they were somehow killed, our life would be snuffed out with theirs. Likewise, removing a bijuu from their Jinchuuriki pulls the soul of said Jinchuuriki from its mortal shell along with it. And if enough power is brought to bear, it is possible to subdue even us. It is how we ended up imprisoned in human beings in the first place.~

“Are they dead?”

Kurama’s ears flatten.

~I’m not sure.~ He admits. ~ I can still sense their chakra, but it’s weak. Constricted somehow. I cannot tell if they are merely imprisoned, or if chakra is the only thing left of them.~

Suddenly all of Naruto’s problems seem very, very small. He’s never had a family, but he tries to imagine what it would feel like to lose Iruka-sensei and not be able to do a thing about it.

He finds the mere thought makes him sick with grief.

“Who…” Naruto starts, but can’t bring himself to finish the thought.

~Who did I lose?~ Kurama asks, because he’s smart like that.

Naruto nods.

~Son Goku, Isobu, and Matatabi.~

So the monkey, the turtle, and the cat, if Naruto remembers right. He settles his cheek against his elbow. “Tell me about them?”

Kurama’s eyes go wide for a moment, but then they soften in resignation.

And he does.

 

Later Naruto learns that the civilian man was a drunk, had accosted Naruto for some imagined slight against his person as he walked along the street towards Ichiraku. Ayame had heard the shouting and come to his defense, small and slight and impossibly ferocious, shouting the man down right back.

What he never learns, is that before the man can even turn his hate on Ayame for defending a monster, a tall ninja with bone white hair and a crooked hitai-ate –so obviously a Jounin he practically wears the rank like a cloak– wraps a single hand painfully tight around the man’s shoulder, powerful fingers digging into muscle and nerve with pinpoint precision.

The man drops to his knees with a cry, curling inward like a dying insect against the pain, but the pressure remains perfectly steady, unrelenting and unremorseful. He crouches down next to the man, the move deceptively easy, enough so that passersby could easily misread it as someone comforting a nauseous stranger. But up close the tension in the the man’s body is painfully clear, and he uses the motion as cover to dig down to the bone. He leans close, his voice low and nonchalant except for the deadly undercurrent of dark fury that sobers the man so quickly he sees stars.

“That was poorly done of you.” He breathes, his tone smooth and toxic. “Consider this your first, and final, warning. If you ever so much as come near that kid again...well.” The man’s single steel-sharp eye curves in false amusement. “I’m sure you can use your imagination.”

~<>~

 

Later that night, Kurama’s brat sits, legs crossed before his prison bars. He’s thinking so hard Kurama could swear there’s steam coming out of his ears. It would be funny, if Kurama’s mood weren’t already so sour.

“Who would be able to do it though? Hunt bijuu?” They’re still on this topic hours after they should have been off it, and it’s starting to grate on the Kyuubi’s nerves. If there’s nothing he can do, it’s the last thing in the universe he wants to talk about.

~Shinobi, I would imagine.~ He growls shortly, but Naruto doesn’t seem to notice his temper. Not surprising, since it’s usually far worse.

The brat is uncharacteristically quiet after that. Kurama might be relieved, except that he can sense that something’s up. He sits, wrists on his calves, staring into empty space. Deeper in thought than any eight-year-old has a right to be. He’s so tiny, so fragile, but suddenly he looks up at Kurama and his eyes are iron.

He tells Kurama, on no uncertain terms; “I don’t care who they are. I’m going to stop them.”

Kurama barks out a harsh and humourless laugh. But despite the close proximity Naruto doesn’t start, doesn’t relax the steel in his small face.

~And what could you do, little brat? The shinobi hunting my kind would be like gods to you.~

‘I’ll get stronger then.” The kid says the words calmly, like he’s stating a fact; like the sky is blue or the grass is green or blood is red. “I’ll get stronger than everyone.”

Kurama stops laughing.

He presses his nose against the bars of the gate, washed gold in the new light flooding through the chamber. The kid doesn’t flinch, doesn’t move away, even when Kurama’s enormous snout moves between the columns to rest practically in the kid’s lap. He meets Kurama’s eyes unwaveringly, will adamant. Something dangerously close to confidence flickers in those cerulean eyes.

He means it.

~You would make that kind of promise, kid?~ Kurama rumbles softly.

Naruto shrugs like the question is obvious. “I need to get strong enough to be a Kage anyway, in order to protect the people I love.” He grins. “I just need to be strong enough for this too.”

He means every damn word out of his mouth, with every bright corner of his being. Kurama can practically see it gleaming in his eyes.

Kurama asks, already knowing the answer; ~Whatever that takes?~

Naruto just smiles wider and, to the great fox’s complete disbelief, places a hand on the fur of his snout, small fingers curling in the short strands. “Believe it.”

Kurama does.

The bijuu huffs a soft breath, enough to ruffle golden hair. ~Then I might be able to help with that.~ He says, because this little boy may be weak, may be naive; but with his bright soul, unwavering will, and powerful spirit, that is something Kurama can easily fix.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Naruto wakes up with fire in his chest and voltage crackling in his blood from toes to fingertips. Because Kurama had promised to train him. Like a real ninja.

He looks down at his hands, breathless smile on his face, and closes his fingers into fists. Kurama had warned him that it wouldn’t be easy, that it would take time and dedication and it would exhaust parts of him he didn’t know existed. But that, if anything, makes him thrill more, not less.

His dream is suddenly that much closer to not being a dream at all, and donating his blood sweat and tears to training seems like a small price to pay.

“Can we start now?”  he asks, because he’s so far from sleep it’s not even funny.

~Now? It’s not even three in the morning.~ Kurama responds grumpily. Naruto gets the impression of him cracking open one crimson eye.

“Please?”

Kurama harrumphs, a terribly put upon noise that Naruto doesn’t buy for a second.

~I suppose we can start with the boring stuff.~ he agrees.

“Can training even be boring?”

~It depends on the type, believe me.~ He warns. ~Exercises in patience, for example.~

“Hey!” Naruto grumps back, because he’s fairly sure he was just insulted, or at least his attention span was. Kurama ignores his outburst.

~Do you remember when I told you we were starting from the foundations?~ he asks instead.

“Yeah.” he answers, a little confused. He’d just figured he meant the basics.

~The true basics of building strength and ability have nothing to do with jutsu, and everything to do with simple skills and knowledge. Basic life lessons.~

“Life lessons?”  

There’s a long, hesitant pause.

~Like things your parents should have taught you.~

There’s a subtle apology in those words, and Kurama never apologizes, not for anything. Naruto figures calling him out on it would be unappreciated, but it makes something warm and achy eat at his chest regardless.

“What, you mean like cooking and cleaning and things? What does that stuff have to do with being a ninja?”

~Don’t dismiss something just because it seems menial. The same skills required to cook are useful when mixing poisons like the paralytics Jounin use on senbon. A clean and organized system makes it easier to get to things you need faster, be it medicine or books stored in a cabinet or weapons stashed around an apartment.~

Naruto blinks, takes a moment to consider this new idea.

“I never thought about it like that.”

~Ninja are able to turn any type of skill to their advantage. Usually the only difference between a menial skill and a deadly one is how you use it.~

Naruto nods, hops up from his bed and looks around.

“What do I do first then?”

~Clothes, first and foremost.~

“What’s wrong with my clothes?”

~You don’t want me to answer that.~

Naruto huffs indignantly, but moves over to his closet anyway. What greets him is the sorry sight of his jumpsuit, muddy, bloody, and mangled like a war veteran. Or like it was sent through a blender. One of the two.

“Dammit…” He says aloud, because how the hell is he supposed to fix that?

~Lost cause, I’m afraid.~ Kurama says without provocation. ~Do you own anything that isn’t the color of a citrus fruit?~

“What’s wrong with orange?”

~Nothing, in moderation. But it’s very… conspicuous.~

“Con- what now?”

~Noticeable.~

“Oh. Yeah, I know.”

~It’s all got to go.~

“What?! Why?”

Kurama sighs heavily through their connection. ~You’re trying to be a ninja, right? Ninja clothes have to blend in and be practical. Almost all of the stuff you have here would get in the way of both stealth and motion.~

Naruto holds up his jumpsuit, his favorite article of clothing, and grimaces forlornly at the red spiral on the back. “Aw man.”

He feels Kurama’s attention sharpen suddenly and gets a weird image of the big fox’s ears coming up.

~Hey, brat. Do you know what that symbol means?~

Naruto shakes his head, even though it means very little to Kurama.

“Nope. I just liked it, and it was on all the Jounin vests. Why?”

~It’s Uzushio’s village symbol.~

“Uzushio?”

~Hidden Whirlpool. It’s where your clan originated. Where your mother was born.~

“My mom was… wait, my CLAN? I have a clan?!”

The emotion Naruto gets through the connection is practically sheepish. ~Not exactly.~

Naruto can sense a long story coming, so he crosses his legs and sits down on the floor.

“Okay, go.”

Kurama deliberates for a bit before he seems to settle on a place to start.

~Uzushio was a sort of… sister village to Konoha, from what I understand. I remember that Mito married that sappy weirdo that was your first Hokage. Hashirama?~

“The one on the monument with the long hair and the dopy downturned eyes?”

~That’s the one.~

“I painted fat spirals on his face.”

Kurama dissolves into yipping laughter. ~Ha! I knew there was a reason I liked you, kid.~

Naruto is glad someone finds it funny. It makes getting yelled at by Iruka-sensei for two hours straight totally worth it.

“Who’s Mito?” he asks.

Kurama wipes an imaginary tear from his left eye. ~She was my first Jinchuuriki. She was an Uzumaki too. Like you, and like Kushina before you. She was the matriarch of the Uzumaki clan, when it existed.~

“What happened to it?”

~Uzushio itself was wiped out during the one of the Shinobi World Wars. The third, I think. I remember because it happened right after Kushina left the village. She was so upset she made herself nauseous.~

“Why did she leave Uzushio then?”

~She became a Jinchuuriki. Hated or no, Jinjuriki are considered powerful weapons. In order to maintain the balance of power in the elemental countries, each major village is supposed to have at least one. Suna and Konoha only have one, because of all the bijuu Shukaku and I are the strongest, but the rest of the villages have two.~

Something doesn’t seem right about that, so Naruto does the math in his head. One for here and Suna, two for Kiri, Kumo, and Iwa… “Hang on, that’s only eight bijuu.”

Kurama snorts.

~Well technically, some backwoods village in Waterfall Country has Chomei, but don’t ask me how the hell that happened.~  

Naruto giggles a little at that out loud. The shadows in his room are thick and soft, catching the sound as it echoes against the walls. The dark isn’t the obstacle to his eyes it once was– ever since Kurama had pushed his chakra through Naruto’s system, his night vision has been incredible. That’s not the only thing either– for the first few second afterwards he’d been hyper aware of everything, colours, sounds, the tree against his back and the damp, scent charged air in his lungs. He could feel the grit of the bark clear through his sandals, could see motes of dust and spores as they wafted through the moist air, could smell the leaf matter and clay churning in the mud pits dozens of feet below. He could hear heartbeats like they were drums and could tell which was the tiger’s and which was his own. And, for a fraction of a second, he had felt Kurama within him, felt not just the great beast’s power, but everything else too– bone and skin and muscle, and a beating heart not unlike his own.

The sensation had dimmed, but never entirely faded. His senses are sharper as a result, altered permanently somehow. He can see through most shadows now like they aren’t there. He can smell the fire elms outside his apartment like the leaves are changing under his nose, even though the window is hardly open a crack. He can hear wolves howling just outside the village, cries that remind him a little of how Kurama used to sound at night. He can sense heavy clouds coming in by how the breeze feels against his skin through the cracked sill, can tell there’ll be a storm tomorrow.

He wonders if better senses will help him be a better ninja. He hopes so.

“If Uzushio was wiped out so easy, I guess that means they were pretty weak, huh?”

He asks, a little disappointed. It would have been amazing if he came from a strong clan too, but a village that got wiped out in one battle can’t be very strong, and that just adds to the evidence that he really is a loser.

Kurama guffaws, like the answer is obvious. ~Are you joking?~

Naruto flinches at the inflection, at that little bit of hope dashed, but Kurama isn’t finished yet.

~Uzushio was a tiny village in a tiny country, barely big enough to occupy the island it was founded on...~

And… ouch. That kind of hurts even more than Naruto thought it might–

~... And it was still strong enough to go toe to toe with any elemental country, and then come around again for round two.~

Naruto’s head snaps up from where it had been sagging. He can feel Kurama grinning, but it’s not mocking, it’s excited.

“What?”

~Don’t get me wrong kid, I hated Uzushio’s guts probably more than anyone else's, but just because I didn’t like them doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate sheer tenacity in human form. It’s why I can stand you.~

“They were strong, then?”

“You kidding me, kit? In the wars prior to it’s downfall, seeing an Uzushio-nin on the battlefield meant run for cover. One Uzushio team running in sync was worth more than entire squadrons of average ninja. The Ido-Senshi could decapitate a man without even touching them, a single Chunin level Kurogane clansmen could send out chakra scythes that left enemy ranks in tatters, the Kikan could lay down barriers that stopped any A-Rank jutsu in it’s tracks.~

Kurama’s grin is so manic that Naruto can’t help but mimic it. He rocks forward, hanging on every word.

~And the Uzumaki.~

Naruto’s eyes go wide, because Kurama says it like it’s the cherry on top, like it’s the point, like all the amazing things he’s been talking about up till now were only leading up to this.

~Kushina had chakric chains that she could manifest at will, unbreakable, and capable of being sword and shield at once. Fresh off a fight with Minato? Fueled by my chakra? She could turn a warzone into a graveyard faster that you can say Red Hot Habanero.~

“WHAAAAAT?” Naruto practically shrieks, but the fox only laughs. “My mom was a BADASS!”

~The definition of.~ Kurama cackles,

“Did my dad have a clan too?” And he has to know, because there’s no way his old man can be near as cool now that he knows how freaking awesome his mom was.

Kurama shakes his head. ~Naw kit. Your pops was a genesis. I remember that much.~

“A what now?”

~A ninja born of non-shinobi ancestry.~ Kurama answers easily, and Naruto loves that about Kurama. He always explains everything in a way that makes sense to Naruto’s hyper brain, and he never makes Naruto feel stupid for asking.

~It’s pretty rare, but sometimes chakric abilities just… pop up out of nowhere.~ He continues. ~Most clans start out that way– with a single powerful genesis that simply passes down a specific chakra trait through generations.~

“So like Hinata and Sasuke’s clans?”

~That's a little complicated. More like your Shikamaru's clan and your Inuzuka. What’s his name? Kira?~

“Kiba.”

~Sure.~

“What about the Uzumaki? Were they geni-whatever or were they ‘complicated’?

Kurama comes up short at that and scowls.

~Ugh, kinda? The Uzumaki themselves were originally a genesis clan, but somewhere along the line they ended up merged with the remains of the Senju clan. So… both? Both.~

“Was my dad cool too though? Do you know?”

Kurama thinks on that for a long moment before he answers, resting a vulpine cheek in a clawed paw.

~I mostly just remember that he was kind of an idiot. He worshiped the ground Kushina walked on, which mostly pissed her off, so I remember that the clearest. He was popular in a way Kushina wasn’t though. They called him a ‘prodigy’ and a ‘prophetic child’ and other such nonsense. He could use seals almost as well as Kushina could, and he could teleport I think, but I remember another ninja that could do that before him, so that’s not so impressive.~

“Mom wasn’t popular?”

Kurama shakes his head. ~She was bullied, kit. Especially when she first came to the village.~

Naruto blinks and scrunches his nose, because he can’t quite reconcile the picture of this amazing Kunoichi with a fearsome temper and fiercer heart with some kid getting kicked around or ignored on the playground the way he was.

“But… why?”

Kurama snorts. Bitter.

~For the stupidest reason you can imagine. Kushina was picked on for the colour of her hair.~

“The colour of her hair?” Naruto repeats, because he still can’t imagine it.

~Kushina’s mane was redder than a fire country sunset.~ Kurama explains. ~Beautiful, but it was an Uzumaki thing, a clan trait. And no one outside of Uzushio or Kumo had hair quite that red. So y. Kids bullied her. Just because she was different.~

Kurama growls and spits the last word like it’s a curse. And Naruto isn’t imagining it– Kurama is speaking in his mother’s defense.

“Did you… like my mom, Kurama?”

~No.~ The fox answers truthfully. ~But of all the humans I’ve ever known, I think I hated her the least.~

And that’s probably the highest praise Kurama is capable of giving. Naruto’s mom wasn’t just badass, she was amazing too.

“I wish I could have met her.” Naruto says, without meaning to.

The fox is quiet for a while, but Naruto wasn’t expecting an answer anyway. After a few more minutes of sitting in the dark though, Kurama speaks again.

~You’re a lot like her, you know.~ He says quietly.

“Huh?” Naruto asks, surprised, because the way Kurama talks about his mother, that’s blatant praise, and well… Naruto just isn’t used to that. In any form, let alone from a grumpy hateful bag of fur and chakra.

~I mean, you have Namikaze’s colouring, but the fire? The temper? The willpower? The stubbornness? That’s all Kushina.~

Naruto’s face gets hot under the esteem and something warm and giddy wells up in his chest that makes him feel so light he might float off the ground. “Really?”

~Really. Only one big difference.~

“What’s that?”

Kurama doesn’t answer immediately, and there’s abrupt and inexplicable tension in the air now. Whatever it is it’s hard for Kurama to say– Naruto can practically hear him grinding his fangs around it. So Naruto waits in rapt attention, uncharacteristically patient.

~One big difference.~  The fox repeats, but this time the words are heavy with gravity, mean something greater than the air on which they’re spoken.

~You kit, I actually like.~

<> 

“Why didn’t we protect them?” Naruto asks some time later, after the atmosphere has cleared a little and both he and Kurama have regained some of their emotional footing.

Naruto had been floored, to put it mildly. Kurama didn’t even like his mother, he’d said as much very clearly, and his mom had been awesome, which he’d also said very clearly. So why would Kurama like him? Naruto is still a nobody right now, and while he’s going to see to it that changes, he has no idea how he earned that regard.

But Kurama hadn’t explained, and Naruto hadn’t asked.

~Hm?~ is Kurama’s response.

Naruto has spent the last hour or so sorting through his stuff, putting it in piles to either throw away or find a better place for. His jumpsuit, unfortunately, is in the former pile. It hadn’t required a lot of intervention on Kurama’s part. If Naruto wasn’t sure what pile to put something in, he just sent a sort of vague askance in his direction, and the fox responded with either a warmer feeling positive or a cooler feeling negative, to keep or toss respectively. The toss pile is getting distressingly large, but Naruto trusts Kurama’s judgment, even if it’s sometimes grudgingly.

“If Konoha and Uzushio were so close, why didn’t we protect them?” Naruto clarifies.

~I don’t know.~

“We should have.” he says adamantly. “If I were Hokage, I would have made sure we did.”

~I believe you, kit. But the past can’t be changed. Only learned from.~

Naruto takes a moment to think about that, putting a particularly gnarly looking pair of socks in the Toss pile and his picture of himself and Jiji at the summer festival in Keep. Something strange occurs to him.

“We never talked about Uzushio during our history lessons. I would have remembered.”

Kurama seems to know what he’s asking even before Naruto tries to explain.

~Humans don’t like being reminded of their failures. Iwagakure and Kirigakure teamed up at the beginning of the war, just as it was breaking out. Uzushio was the real threat if all out war developed, because while Konoha had the numbers, Uzushio had the skill, and they were the reason Konoha had won every war before that. So they surprise attacked them with enough shinobi to overwhelm them, and Konoha failed to come to their aid in time. By the time Konoha got there to chase Iwa and Kiri out, it was too late.~ Then he adds, almost an afterthought; ~Kushina was inconsolable for weeks.~

“They attacked them because they were afraid of them?” Because that’s what Naruto is getting out of this, and he’s starting to see a pattern he doesn’t like.

~That about sums it up, yeah.~

“Kind of like people are afraid of you?”

Kurama pauses, obviously surprised, because Naruto is angry in a way he hasn’t been in a long time and Kurama can clearly feel it.

~Yeah, kit.~ Kurama affirms. ~Exactly like that.~

“Why would people destroy something just because it’s strong?”

~Fear.~ Kurama responds immediately, because he would know. ~People always fear what they don’t understand.~

Naruto doesn’t, but if that makes him not a person, if that makes him a monster, then he’s fine with that. He’s fine with being a demon if the alternative is being afraid.

“You know what Kurama?”

~Hm?~

“I hate that.”

~You know what, fishcake?~

“Yeah?”

~I think we have that in common.~

<> 

When Naruto finishes with the main room and has everything from his Toss pile packed up in trash bags, Kurama directs him towards the kitchen. Naruto goes, opening the refrigerator first. He immediately wrinkles his nose.

The milk has gone sour again, yet another thing he'd forgotten about. He doesn’t even need to open the lid to check.

Kurama makes a disgusted growl at the state of the shelves.

~How the hell you feed yourself, brat? It’s practically empty. And from what I’m getting through your olfactories, what is there spoiled over a week ago.~

“Hey, that’s not my fault. I usually just eat with Iruka-sensei anyways.”

~Is ramen the only thing you ingest?~ Kurama asks, horrified.

Naruto has to think on that for a second.

“Iruka-sensei makes me curry sometimes?”

~Toss it.~ The fox barks.

“But–”

~All of it.~

Naruto huffs indignantly, but grabs another trash bag and starts to clear everything into it.

“Why are we doing this again? It’s not that big a deal what I eat, is it?”

~Wrong, fishcake. There is nothing more important to training than being healthy.~

“I’m perfectly healthy!” Naruto squawks.

~Oh I am starting to seriously doubt that. First big lesson, brat. Pay attention.~

Naruto snorts, but stays quiet.

~The body runs off food like a fire runs off fuel. The body needs all different kinds to function properly, especially when it’s under stress when training. Eating the same kind of food all the time will make you tired a hell of a lot faster than eating something balanced will.~

“Whaaaaaat?” Naruto whines. “Nobody told me that!”

~Human’s sometimes say the same thing using the words; ‘It’s good for you.’

“Ugggggh.” Naruto says aloud. “I owe Iruka-sensei an apology. Or seven. I just ate what I wanted when I was hungry. I didn’t think something that tasted so good would be bad for you.”

~And why ramen?~

Naruto pauses with his hand over the trash bag, Ichiraku take-out cup pressed against his palm. The question is odd, if only because it feels like Kurama is fishing for a specific answer. Naruto’s not sure how to respond, so he figures he might as well be honest.

“Teuchi and Ayame were the first store owners not to kick me out.” He admits. When Kurama doesn’t respond, Naruto adds, “Besides, ramen is amazing.

Kurama blows air harshly through his nose.

~Must be hereditary.~

Naruto finishes with the fridge and moves on to the pantry. “Does this mean I have to learn to cook?” He wonders.

~Afraid so.~ He replies, and it’s not even sarcastic.

Naruto groans obnoxiously. “I don’t suppose you know anything about that?” he asks, tentatively hopeful.

~I’m made of chakra, brat. I don’t need to eat.~ he pauses then, thoughtful. ~Kushina was a good cook though, I might remember some things.~

Naruto sighs with relief. “Okay, good. Because the last time I tried to cook anything I set off the smoke alarm four times and the sprinklers twice.”

Kurama snorts again the way he so often does, but it’s his amused snort. ~You don’t give up easy, do you?~

“No way. Believe it.”

~I do, kit.~

And it’s weird, having someone that does. Someone that has faith in him, even when he doesn’t have it in himself. It’s different than having Jiji and Iruka-sensei. Iruka-sensei believes in him in a way that’s half true kindness and half duty, and Jiji likes him, sure, but he doesn’t believe in him the way he pretends he does, and sometimes the old Kage looks at him and his eyes go straight through, like Naruto isn’t even there.

He knows now that it’s because Naruto makes him see ghosts.

But Kurama believes in Naruto, not as some extension of Kushina or Minato, but as himself, and that faith in him gives Naruto faith in himself. And faith in himself is all that really matters, right? It just matters that he gets stronger, not that the village sees him do it.

Kurama seems to sense his thoughts, his change of heart, because he speaks, out of nowhere.

~Village idiot my everliving ass.~

Naruto isn’t sure how to respond to that, so he doesn’t. Kurama had said it like he was talking to himself anyways.

<> 

It’s something like six thirty in the morning when he finishes cleaning out his apartment. Kurama had been nonverbal for the most part, only really piping up to complain about the grime on his countertops or make disgusted noises whenever he pulled something out from under his bed that used to be edible. When he’s finished, having wiped down every conceivable surface and sacrificed several washcloths to do so, ninety percent of his apartment is wrapped up in plastic bags and the other ten percent is vaguely shiney.

He stares forlornly at the closest garbage heap, where his ruined jumpsuit is visible through the cloudy plastic.

~Did you make that, Fishcake?~ Kurama asks, curious.

“Yeah.” He responds miserably.

~You can sew then?~

“I had to fix my stuff a lot.” he confirms. “It’s one of the few things I can do okay”

~The Eye Bleed Orange Ensemble was a bit much, but the Uzushio symbol? You could stitch that on practically anything.~

That… makes him feel a lot better actually. And he can put it on more than his clothes if he thinks about it, like his scrolls and his packs. It’s his clan symbol anyways, he might as well act like it.

He’s hauling his first heap of junk out the door when Kurama interrupts his thoughts again.

~How do you get money, kit?~ he asks, like the thought just occurred to him. ~You’re not a Genin yet, so you don’t get paid.~

“Well no, but Jiji pays for my apartment, and orphans get a weekly stipend.”

~How much?~

“2,000 ryo.”

~...That’s not much is it?~

“It’s enough. And it can go a long way if I stretch it.”

Kurama's ears go up and his eyes narrow suspiciously. ~You know how to manage money?~

Naruto blinks, not sure what he did to deserve the scrutiny. “Uh, yeah. I have to do it all the time.”

~You’re barely eight.~ Kurama says accusingly.

“...So?”

The bijuu grumbles something that sounds suspiciously like stupid petty humans, but Naruto ignores him since he’s fairly sure it’s not directed at him.

“Why?” He prompts instead, as he heaves the last of the trash bags into the dumpster next to his complex.

~You need supplies for training.~  Kurama responds automatically. ~Actual food, too. How much do you have right now?~

Naruto isn’t actually sure about that. “Hang on, lemme check.”

He ducks back inside and heads for his bed, feeling underneath his mattress for Gama-chan. The fat frog purse is reassuringly heavy when he manages to yank it from it’s hiding place and flip through the bills and coins inside.

“12,800 ryo.” Naruto tells Kurama proudly.

~You saved all that from a 2,000 ryo stipend?~ Kurama seems… bewildered? Naruto isn’t sure what’s so surprising about it. He’d had more before he’d blown some on new sandals and dango last week.

“I like saving.” He defends. “Besides, I had to go hungry for a couple days after I bought all my academy supplies, which sucked, so I’m never doing that again.”

Kurama makes an angry noise at that.

“So, groceries and training supplies? Do I need anything else?” Naruto asks in an attempt to distract Kurama from his hateful brooding the way Kurama had distracted him from his darker thoughts earlier. He’s pleased to find it works.

~New clothes and paper barrier seals.~

Naruto grabs an ink pen from his bedside table and scribbles it down on his arm so that he doesn’t forget. He’s dreading it already, but maybe if he has it all written down he can get it over with faster.

“I hate shopping.” he growls.

~I can imagine why.~ Kurama trails off with a hum, thinking. ~Can you use transformation jutsu?~

Naruto grimaces as he caps his pen. “Not well.”

~Then take a seat, brat, and get down here. We’ll see if I can’t drill something useful into that stubborn skull.~

“Grumpy old fox…” Naruto mumbles, but does as he’s told.

<> 

“Well that was the weirdest crap I’ve ever done, hands down. And it was easy! Iruka-sensei always made it sound so complicated.”

~You learn different. Kushina was the same way– she got in arguments with her instructors all the time.~

Naruto grunts, kicking open his front door and readjusting his bags around his arms to free his hands. He forms a quick sign to release the transformation–he’d imitated Sasuke, just for kicks, and boy had that been a trip, no wonder the asshole thinks everyone’s a simpering idiot– and dumps his current load of stuff on the countertop to join the rest. There’s a lot.

Thirteen bags in total– four of groceries, two of clothes, four of ninja supplies and three more of non-ninja supplies.

Naruto isn’t exactly broke, but it had been close. The ordeal has left Gama-chan distressingly skinny.

He puts the ninja stuff and clothes on his bed and starts going through the other bags, yanking out all the kitchen supplies he never thought he would need–a knife block, soup pot, rice cooker, cooking chopsticks– and sets them aside to deal with later. He unloads the groceries next. Kurama had insisted on getting a little bit of everything, and Naruto had listened because he has no idea what he might like outside of ramen, curry, and dango. Kurama had been particularly enthusiastic about the meat choices for some reason, so Naruto had gotten several kinds; tuna, salmon, beef, chicken, and some pork belly. He turns a package of Tofu in his hands.

“Is this supposed to be a meat or a vegetable?” He asks absently.

Kurama does a mental shrug. ~No idea.~

Naruto puts it with the rest of the meats anyway, because he’s found it refrigerated so it should probably stay that way. He sorts through the fruits and actual vegetables next, stashing away cucumber and eggplant and daikon along with apples and oranges and dragon fruit. He comes across a small bag of red, berry-like vegetables and rolls one around on his palm.

“These are the asshole’s favorite food, I think.”

~Tomatoes?~

“Yeah, I remember Sakura talking about it.”

~By ‘asshole’ you do mean the arrogant Uchiha, yes?~

“Yup.”

~And Sakura is the pink one?~

Naruto snickers. “Soooo pink.”

~Do you like her, fishcake? Outside the pretending?~

Naruto pauses for a minute before he resumes loading the refrigerator. He considers pretending like he doesn’t know what Kurama is talking about, but the fox always knows when he’s lying, so he doesn’t bother.

“I do like her.” Naruto defends, because he does, especially when she’s not fawning over Sasuke, or when she drops her perfect sweetheart Kunoichi facade to yell at him for being a moron. It’s rare to see, but there's a strong personality underneath all the fluff and sparkle. But the urge to be more than friends just isn’t there like it should be.

Kurama raises a skeptical eyebrow.

“I do.” He repeats. “Just… not the way I think I’m supposed to? I don’t know. That doesn’t make any sense does it?”

~It makes more sense than you might think. And don’t worry about what other people think you should do. They can’t know you the way you know yourself.~

Naruto nods to himself and finishes putting the noodles and rice away in his little pantry. When he’s finished, he gives his arm a cautionary sniff.

“I need a shower. I think I still smell like sour milk.”

~I’d be surprised if that’s all you smelled like.~

“Jerk.”

~Fishcake.~

<> 

By the time he gets out of the shower it’s almost eight. Only an hour before classes. He’s sitting on his bed in a new pair of black boxers, looking over the long sleeve black top he’s gotten from the ninja supply store around the corner.

“So this is standard shinobi stuff?”

~Yes.~

“You sure about the size? It’s at least one too big for me.”

~With the rate you’re growing, Kit? I’d be surprised if it lasts you a year.~

He pulls on the long sleve and the loose black sweats. The pants hang a little low and the shirt is a little baggy around his elbows, but other than that they fit fairly well, despite being a little long on all fronts.

~You have the wraps, Fishcake?~

“Mhm.” Naruto picks up the black roll of soft, gauzy cloth. “Where do I put it?”

~Arms, wrists... anywhere there’s too much fabric.~

Naruto nods and gets to work on the problems spots, mostly above his knees and elbows, but also a few loops to tie back the too-long sleeves and hems.

“Breakfast?”

~I think we start simple. Rice omelet?~

“Can you even taste things?”

~I can see through your eyes and smell what you smell. What makes you think I can’t taste what you taste?~

Naruto stretches to test the movement of his new clothes and finds them comfortable enough. He places the two sets of spares in his now mostly empty closet and puts his hands in his new pockets before wandering back into his kitchen.

He yanks a cookbook of simple recipes from one of his shopping bags and starts to gather what it says he needs.

~Kushina always said that cooking was a lot like sealing.~

“Sealing?”

~Fuinjutsu was the specialty of Uzushio, why they were so strong. They used seals like shinobi here use clones or substitution.~

“Like the seals on scrolls and exploding tags?”

~A poor imitation, but yes. Seals are difficult to master, but Uzushio had them down to such an art form it was practically in their blood. They could use them for anything from transportation to combat.~

“How is cooking like sealing then?”

~She said it was because both are composed of many pieces that, when pressed or mixed or moulded together, creates something greater than the sum of it’s parts.~

“Is it weird that that makes a lot more sense than I thought it would?”

~It means you learn like an Uzumaki.~

<> 

With Kurama’s help and new hope that he may not actually be a total idiot, Naruto makes a whole rice omelet while only ruining two eggs and setting off the smoke alarm once.

Turns out Naruto does like rice omelets.

“So what’s next?” He asks as he clears away his dishes. “Please say some actual training.”

“Patience, brat. First things first, I’m teaching you about chakra. As a being made of it, your education on that front is severely lacking. But after class. Right now you need to get going before you get late.~

“Aw craaap.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Naruto isn’t late to class for once in his life.

Sasuke would find it strange, if he cared about that sort of thing.

He doesn’t notice something is truly different until first break, when after several unusually quiet lessons, Kiba leaps over the benches to sit on the desk in front of Naruto.

“Hey dude, what the heck happened to your jumpsuit?” Kiba asks.

Sasuke does turn around at that, subtly as not to be noticed. It actually takes him a second to find Naruto, because without the bright flash of color that he wears like a banner, he looks very different. Instead of that horrendous orange thing he usually wears around, Naruto’s in a set of standard issue shinobi wear, black sweats and a matching high necked long sleeve shirt. The getup is about two sizes too big on him, but before Sasuke can conjure up something to say about that, he notices that the excess fabric had been tied back with black wrapping above his elbows and at his wrists.

...Surprising practical.

Naruto makes a face at the Dog-nin that’s halfway between upset and aggrieved. “It got gross and too torn up to fix, so I had to throw it out.”

Kiba pulls a sympathetic expression. “That sucks, I’ve never seen you without the thing. Had to have been your favorite to keep it around as long as you did. I’m not surprised it crapped out on you though.”

Naruto grins up at him, a little bit wry, pulling a hand through his blond hair. It looks brighter against the black than it should be. “Yeah, no kidding. I held onto it because Iruka-sensei helped me make it. Losing it kinda blows.”  

“That stuff's got to be easier to move in, though.” Shikamaru drawls from behind him, head pillowed boredly on his arm. Sasuke would have assumed he was asleep if his eyes weren’t open.

“Much.” Is the Dead-Last’s reply, shifting his arm as if to demonstrate. “Just wish I didn’t have to get new stuff, ya know?”

Shikamaru nods, barely perceivable with most of his face hidden in the crook of his elbow. “I feel you man. I hate shopping. What a pain.”

Made it with Iruka-sensei? That’s why he wore that stupid thing around all the time? Sasuke wonders.

But Sasuke jerks his attention back to the front of the room when Sakura or Ino or someone calls his name, and goes back to pretending like Naruto doesn’t exist.

It doesn’t work like it normally does though, and even though he keeps his eyes on Iruka-sensei for the remainder of class, he feels some sort of strange gravity churning at his back.

Curiosity and… something else.

The strange sensation that something has shifted, and he can’t tell what.

 

<><><> 

 

Naruto is so excited about training after he gets out of class, that he nearly forgets about something almost as important.

Food.

~Lunch, brat. You need to eat before we start this.~

Naruto stops with a hand already halfway to his bags of supplies by the kitchen table and groans.

“I totally spaced.”

~I noticed.~ Kurama drawls sarcastically. ~I’m teaching you about chakra, so you’re going to need your strength. We can go over your supplies while we eat.~

 

Naruto burns his rice on the first attempt and accidentally makes pudding with it on the second, but the third try is palatable and he does okay with the miso soup and salmon, which is only a little charred. He sets everything down on the table and pulls his equipment out of his bags with one hand while he eats rice with the other.

A brand new set of twelve Jounin-grade Kunai, three packs of assorted shuriken, two bundles of senbon, a fuma shuriken, a steel tanto, twelve regular seal-grade scrolls, two large storage scrolls, fifty paper tags; fifteen exploding, ten flash-bang, ten smoke bomb, and twenty-five blank; and twenty paper seals, half blank and half barrier.

“What am I gonna need anyway?”

~Just the barrier seals for now. And chew your food kit, you’re going to choke.~

Naruto has to make a concentrated effort to eat slower– he feels a little like he swallowed a lightning bolt. He taps the barrier seals with one finger as he swallows a bite of salmon.

“So these are what seals look like?”

~Extraordinarily basic ones, yes.~

“How do they work?”

~Patience brat. You can’t do anything with those until you learn to mould chakra properly.~

Naruto tries not to pout.

“Oh fine.”

~A lesson for another time. We’ll get to it.~

“Soon?”

~Soon.~

Naruto finishes his food and tucks the seals into the wrappings on his thigh.

“Where are we going?”

He gets an impression instead of an answer, a set of images and sensations and sounds. The sun filtering through willow branches, the sound of water crashing against rocks, a memory of solace in pain.

“Gotcha.”

He clears his dishes and heads east from his apartment, aiming for the outskirts of the village proper. He crosses a river on the outer edge of training ground nine, following it as it curves further from the village until the sound of rushing water gets louder. Here the trees get close and the branches weave together, making the path more and more difficult for him to find his way around. He remembers having ran this way at full tilt, remembers how the branches had caught at his clothes and hair and skin as he bolted through them. This time’s he’s careful to avoid them as he comes close to the rapids.

He abandons the forest for the sharp juts of rock protruding from the river. It’s slow going, since he has to be careful about not losing his grip and falling in. After a bit the area opens up and Naruto can spot the waterfall on the other end of the clearing.

The glade looks different in the afternoon than it had at dusk– the willow is more green now than gold, and the water in the basin shines like a mirror under the sunlight.

~Alright, fishcake. Stick the barrier seals around the perimeter. As evenly spaced as you can.~

Naruto hums his ascent and goes about his task. It takes a couple tries, but Kurama is patient, and by the fourth attempt he’s satisfied that the seals are in good places.

“There.”

~Good. They’re not true shielding seals, but they should keep anyone from noticing any chakra you end up throwing around. Have a seat.~

Naruto plops down among the roots of the willow, jittery and excited. He’s never been so hyper to learn something in his whole life.

He feels Kurama’s chakra, old and feral and familiar, scorch up through his system. A shade materializes in the air, the same size as the first one. It seems to be about all the chakra Kurama can currently squeeze through the seal. The fox settles so he’s eye level, vulpine paws crossed, his tails swishing lazily back and forth.

“Can you teach me how to use chakra now?” Naruto whines. “Please?”

~That was the plan, kit.~ Kurama reminds him patiently. ~So, what do you know about chakra already?~

Naruto racks his brain. He doesn’t come up completely empty, when he thinks about it. “There are five types? And what kind of affinity you are determines what kind you can use best.”

Kurama huffs and shakes his head. ~This is worse than I thought. Wrong. No offense to your Iruka-sensei, he’s close, but most humans have the wrong idea.~

“About the chakra types?”

~About ‘affinities’.~

“You mean people don’t have affinities?”

~I mean that just because someone has a place they are more comfortable drawing their chakra from, does not mean that they possess only one kind of chakra.~

Naruto shakes his head, forehead scrunching. “I don’t get it.”

~Let me start from the beginning then.~

The fox reaches up, gently pinching off the end of a willow branch.

~Chakra, in it’s most basic form, is the energy generated by existence. It’s in everything–grass, stones, the air you breathe and the water you drink. Most things do not produce enough chakra to even sense, but powerful living beings, like shinobi or sage animals, are capable of creating it in an amount great enough to mould.~

A soft pulse of energy and the branch dissolves into white light. Kurama flicks it into the air, and it settles obediently between them.

~For the most part there are seven types of chakra. Nature is balanced by the first five forms; Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, and Lightning.~ As he speaks, Kurama drags from the chakra flare five different spheres of energy as big as fists. The first is greenish grey like old stone, the second cobalt and clear as crystal, the third is bright with flickering shades of red, the fourth is twisted and fast moving but otherwise colourless, and the last is a crackling ball of onyx and silver flashes. They orbit the space left by the central flare in a lazy spiral. ~Each of these forms can be drawn from the parts of the body in which they rest.~

“Rest?”

Kurama nods. ~Each of the elements that balance nature also balance living beings. They saturate and hold dominion over certain systems. The chakra in these systems remains dormant, for the most part, until someone attempts to draw on chakra for the first time.~

“Okay, hold up.” Naruto holds up his hands for a time out. Kurama pauses, obviously amused. “So you’re telling me that everybody has all five of these kinds of chakra, in the same amount, but people only use one kind? Why?”

            ~Most human shinobi are born with one of these pathways already open, or find one kind of pathway easier to open up than all the others. This is where I can only assume the idea of affinities originally came from. In truth, using only one kind of chakra throughout your life can cause the other pathways to atrophy.~

“Atrophy?”

~Disintegrate, become useless. The same thing can happen to unused muscles. They just… stop working.~

“That sounds really bad.”

Kurama nods gravely. ~That’s why I’m going to teach you how to open all five pathways before we even start you on moulding chakra. Keep in mind.~ Kurama holds up a claw to snag Naruto’s attention. ~Training all five of these chakra sources means that it will take five times longer for you to learn, not to mention all the other training I’m putting you through. Are you okay with that?~

“Will it make me stronger?” Naruto questions, because that’s really the important part.

~It will exhaust you. You’ll be tired and run down six days out of seven, and you’ll constantly feel like there aren’t enough hours in those days. For a while, training will be your whole life.~

Kurama pauses. Naruto remains silent, waits him out, because he can feel the ‘but’ coming.

The bijuu grins, all fangs. ~But it will make you stronger in ways you’ve never dreamed of. You prepared for that, Fishcake?~

Naruto sends a toothy grin of his own right back. “Believe it.”

Kurama chuckles. ~That’s what I thought.~ he sticks the first orb on his index claw, the one that looks like a mossy mountain rock.

~Now, you know that technique you use to talk to me through the seal?~

Naruto nods.

~Do that now, but instead of reaching into the seal, reach into yourself instead. I’m going to give you a taste of the kind of chakra you’re looking for and where it comes from, and you need to find it in yourself and try to draw it forward, wake it up. Think you can do that?~

That sounds complicated, but Naruto is nothing if not persistent. “I can try.”

~Let me know when you’re ready.~

He shifts his shoulders to ease out the tenseness, slows his breathing and closes his eyes. When he can hear his heartbeat clear in his ears, he nods.

There’s a sound like rolling gravel as he senses something move to hover over his chest. The energy pulses just shy of his skin, and he can feel the not-quite solid touch of Kurama’s claw against his sternum. Kurama’s voice echoes strangely.

~Earth chakra is the seat of strength, and is defined by its endurance and stability.~ the ball of chakra tingles as it's pushed into his chest. ~It rests in the bones.~

The power suffuses through him, just a touch of foreign energy that rolls slowly out across his ribs. The energy is heavy and dense, rolls through him at it’s own slow pace. Naruto tries to memorize it as best he can, and then does as Kurama says and tries to find the same energy in his bones.

There’s nothing at first, just emptiness, and he’s about to complain to his bijuu that it’s not working like it’s supposed to, that he doesn’t feel anything– let alone something that resembles the heavy sensation of earth chakra– when he notices… something. It’s not chakra, at least not that Naruto can feel, it’s more like… the potential of it, something sleeping in the spaces between his ribs.

He reaches for it, tries to draw it from its hiding place, but it remains burrowed, stubborn, entrenched thoroughly in his skeleton. Instead of trying to force it like he would normally, Naruto stops to think. Patience kit. He can imagine Kurama saying. Look at it differently, you might see something new.

Chakra is alive, in it’s own way. Kurama had said as much. So it wants something, wants him to do this a certain way. If he wants to draw on it, he has to work with it, not against it.

Strength Kurama had said. The seat of strength.

So how would he draw strength? He tries to remember sparing with Sasuke, to remember how it felt when he pulled up energy he didn’t possess, made muscles move that shouldn’t have just because he couldn’t lose, not again. And he recalls the sensation, how it clawed up from inside him, how he’d had to dig deep.

So Naruto dives, comes at it from underneath, and pulls on it with all his might the way he would if he had nothing left but needed more anyway.

And like crunching rock or breaking bone, something cracks open. Something wakes up. With a rumble that echoes in his ears like the rushing of blood, vibrations roll through him that shake him down to his marrow like an earthquake. It pushes outwards, rushing to his fingertips and through his senses. He smells fresh turned earth and tastes stone dust on the back of his tongue, feels like his bones have turned to mountain granite and that all the force in the world couldn’t move him.

~First try. That was pretty impressive, Fishcake.~

Naruto opens his eyes slowly and stares at nothing for a few seconds, bewildered. “What was that?” he asks, flexing his fingers and neck experimentally. Even as the strange power recedes, he still feels… steady in a way he never has. It’s like he's found footing that won’t shift underneath him, strength he can be sure of.

~You, without any prior chakra training, have just woken your earth chakra system.~

Naruto blinks up at him, both in confusion and an attempt to clear his suddenly shaky vision, because if Naruto didn’t know him better, Kurama almost sounds proud.

“That was weird.” he says, because he feels the need to voice that sentiment aloud. “Not hard… but weird.”

… And Kurama starts laughing at him.

A sharp short dissolves into yipping coyote-like chuckles that Kurama’s obviously trying to hide behind a paw but is failing miserably.

“What? What did I say?” he demands. Kurama makes an effort to control himself but doesn’t quite manage it the first time, another slew of snickers escaping through his claws.

~You do realize that it can take fully mature shinobi years to activate chakra pathways they weren’t born with? You did it in fourteen minutes.~

And it probably takes another fourteen minutes for that to actually sink in, because he’s never been good at anything, not really good, but Kurama makes him sound like some sort of…

~Prodigy.~ Kurama says, grinning so wide all his fangs are showing. ~I believe that’s the word you’re looking for.~

That makes Naruto entirely breathless in a way that has nothing to do with earth chakra.

“What’s next?” Naruto blurts. “Water chakra right?” Once can be a fluke– but if he does it twice, three times? He might actually believe it.

Kurama huffs affectionately, heavy enough to ruffle his hair. ~You and all the energy.~ he says, but takes hold of the second sphere anyway, the one that looks like melting crystal. ~But alright.~

Naruto drops back into light meditation and waits.

~Water chakra is the seat of understanding, and is defined by its adaptability and flow.~ Kurama presses the second sphere to the left of the first, into the space over his heart. ~It rests in the blood.~

This power is heavy too, but it’s quicker, fluid, harder to grasp. He gets his sense for it, his taste, and focuses his attention on his blood. First he tries to focus on his heart beating, but he gets a different flavor of power from it, tangled and dense, one that doesn’t match what he’s looking for. So instead he tries to sense the energy in the rush of blood further from it, lower in his chest and higher in his throat. He does find a match there, hiding in the space between beats, but it slips through his metaphorical fingers when he tries to grasp it, avoids him the same way earth did when he sought it out.

Understanding.

But what kind of understanding? Of water? Of chakra?

Of himself?

That question resonates somewhere in his vessels, like a hint.

Close.

What does he understand best? He understands fighting, even if he’s not good at it. He understands Kurama, because Kurama is like him in a lot of ways. But he never tried to understand those things… he just did.

But maybe that’s it though. Maybe to understand something, you have to let it come to you?

It’s worth a shot, so instead of seeking out the power at all, he waits, leaves himself open, and lets the energy come to him when it wants.

It starts as a trickle, the first sign that something’s changing, and then it’s like the energy can no longer stand the confinement and bursts forward all at once. It crashes through him like a flash flood, pressing against his veins until the pressure grows so high it’s nearly painful. It tastes like sea air must, salty and crisp, smells like the petrichor that comes off the sidewalk at the start of a storm. He tingles all over like a rushing river as the chakra washes through his insides.

He feels a little like his apartment had looked that morning, clean and cleared out, like he’s been stripped of all those things he didn’t want or need but didn’t quite know how to throw away.

The sensation, combined with the steadiness still lingering in his bones… it’s a strange and heady feeling, and now he gets the sense he’s missing pieces of an even greater sensation.

Kurama whistles low. ~The rate at which you’re getting the hang of that is mildly disconcerting.~

“Hey, Kurama…” Naruto asks, blinking his eyes open to look at the fox, who seems inordinately pleased with himself. “Are we doing them in this order for a reason?”

Kurama’s eyes widen a bit, but then he just grins again, chuckling some more. ~Clever clever fishcake. Yes. There is a method to the madness. Each of the natural elements of chakra have what you could call… an order of stability. Earth Chakra is something of the foundation, which was why I had you wake it first.~

“Like the foundation of a building, right?” Because he’s starting to get it, really get it. He’s not only understanding what Kurama is saying, he’s starting to discover what it means for himself. “It’s the most stable, so it’s the best to build on top of so that everything else doesn’t crash down around it, right?”

Kurama starts snickering again. ~Alright smart guy. If earth is the foundation, then what is water?~

Naruto thinks about that for a moment, scratching absently at his chin. “It’s the stabilizer?” He says, because that word fits best. “Or the buffer? It keeps balance, anyways, makes sure one element doesn’t override the others.”

~How do you figure?~

“Because water can stop fire or lightning or wind in its tracks the way earth can’t, and can keep them from interacting badly with each other? It can’t stop earth that way, but it doesn’t need to, so that’s why we did earth first, so water can rest on top of it without being confined and stuff?”

Kurama laughs again, a warm sound, and plops a chakric paw down on Naruto’s head to ruffle his hair. Kurama is solid enough that it makes blond go everywhere and stick out like dandelion fluff. Warmth swells so hard in Naruto’s chest he almost chokes on it.

~Why all the question marks, Kit? A+.~

Naruto has to take a couple of slightly shaky breaths before he feels comfortable talking without actually bursting into tears. He scrubs his eyes to double check that salt water didn’t well up when he wasn’t paying attention.

“I got it right?” he says, and even though the words don’t shake, his voice is far from steady.

~Sure did.~ Kurama confirms, pinching his nose between his claws to mess with him. Naruto huffs and flails indignantly, and Kurama just laughs some more. Naruto likes it when Kurama laughs like that. ~Water chakra is known as the arbiter, the same way earth chakra is the foundation. It protects the more volatile elements from each other and ensures that all five work in harmony in the system. Of all the elements, water is the only one that is in constant touch with the other four, the same way that blood touches every system in the body.~

“What about the other three?”

Kurama pokes him gently in the forehead with one claw, a soft admonishment.

~Find out for yourself. You’re on a roll so far, think you can keep it up?~

Naruto nods, because he really has no words for that, and wonders if this is what it feels like to have an older brother.

“Next is fire?” He asks, and he’s proud that his voice doesn’t waver this time.

Kurama dips his head in a nod, scooping up the flickering crimson orb in one claw. Naruto takes the cue and drops back into himself again.

He can feel the warmth of the sphere saturate the material of his shirt, lower than the first two–over his navel this time.

~Fire chakra is the seat of will, and is defined by its passion and intensity. It rests in the gut and throat.~

This energy is strange– it’s warm, but weirdly empty, and without Kurama to sustain it, it vanishes faster through his system than the others did. He gets enough of a feel for it to know that that it’s missing something. He looks for the warmth he felt, but doesn’t find it. Instead he finds a cold shadow, something dark and dormant.

Willpower huh?

Kurama had called it intense, but he finds none of that here, just empty chill. But fire needs fuel right? A spark to start it up.

So what feeds will?

And suddenly it’s easy. It desires desire, so what does he want more than anything else?

He wants friends, sure, wants family, but what he wants far more than that is the ability to protect them, power enough so that once he has that family, no force in the world could take it from him.

So he takes that desire, and yanks it together into one place, and feeds the fire.

The energy sparks in his stomach, flares fast to life, and roars up to sear his throat until he feels like he could cough up fireballs. It expands like a supernova, pushing heat into every cell. He tastes gunpowder on his tongue and every inhale brings the scent of a forest fire with it.

It makes him feel like he could run for miles, like he should, like any obstacle he could face would be worth it. Combined with the clarity in his blood and the solidity in his bones, he feels like he could take on the world.

He huffs, laughs, shakes his head like a dog shedding water as he comes out of it.

“Whoa, it’s like a generator! Or a motivator? Whatever, it gives stuff energy, right?”

Kurama snickers. ~Very good, fishcake. Fire chakra is the amplifier. It’s responsible for pushing chakra outwards and increasing the energy that lies dormant in most chakra.~

“Is that why it’s in the middle?”

~Yes it is.~

“Cool.” Naruto almost wants to train now, to skip the rest and jump right into getting stronger, but he has two more pieces missing, and the idea of missing out on more because he’s too impatient to finish this part drowns out the idea. “Wind now?”

~You know the drill.~  Naruto pulls into meditation again and waits for Kurama to give him the fourth sphere. ~Wind chakra is the seat of change, and is defined by its swiftness and unpredictability.~ He presses this orb to the opposite side of his sternum from his heart, at the same elevation. ~It rests in the lungs.~

This power comes to him easy, far easier than the others, twirling in familiar spirals through his system. He hardly needs to go looking, hardly needs to think about it and the answer comes to him. Change is movement, the unexpected, and Naruto likes the unexpected, likes surprises, likes not quite knowing what comes next but rolling with the punches instead. It’s how he’s gotten through life this far.

It answers the second he calls it up, with the urge to jump when others might stay put, to fall into the abyss just to see what might happen.

It bursts through him like a hurricane, pulling everything around up to dance with it. It sweeps in curling zephyrs of chakra that leave the taste of summer wind on his tongue and air rich with the scent of a coming storm in his lungs.

Combined with the sureness, clarity, and incentive of the previous three elements, he feels like he could stand at the edge of any precipice and fly where others might fall.

Kurama huffs, bringing Naruto out of his head.

~Well that figures.~

Naruto stretches his arms above his head and breathes out a heavy breath. He feels like there’s too much air in his lungs. “That one pushes on stuff, makes it move, right?”

Kurama nods again. Naruto really is getting the hang of this.

~Correct. Wind chakra is the dynamo. It shifts everything into motion around it, helps chakra flow the way it’s supposed to.~

“Why was it so much easier than the other three?”

~Because it was your ‘affinity’ so to speak, which doesn’t surprise me. Both your parents were that way as well, but just because it’s easier doesn’t mean you can slack with the other four.~

“Yes Kurama.” Naruto drawls, half sarcasm half promise, because he knows. “Lightning now, and then I can learn how to mould it, right?”

Kurama shakes his head. ~Hold a second kid. This one isn’t like the others.~

Naruto blinks and looks up at the flickering sphere of black and white where it orbits in circles like an angry moon. “Huh? Why not?”

Kurama brings the orb down so it hovers only a foot or so away from Naruto’s nose. It’s like looking into a storm, only without the obscuring black of the clouds around it. It seems angry and lost, directionless, thrashing madly to get free of what confines it.

~Lightning chakra is the pinnacle chakra. It is the hardest chakra to master because it possesses the most dangerous properties of all four other chakra types, as well as a nasty property of it own. Most people who claim to have mastered this type of chakra only really know how to mould it and let it loose. Rare is the individual capable of channeling it properly. It is as unpredictable as wind, as damaging as fire, as adaptable as water, and as unmovable as earth. On top of these things, it is capable of stopping life it it’s tracks with a touch, capable of stopping a heart, and in the right hands, restarting it.~

Naruto stares at the angry energy, arcing against the borders of the sphere like flashes of a blade, there and gone in an instant. “So it’s the strongest then?”

Kurama nods. ~And the most unwieldy. That’s why I’m giving you a leg up. Before, I let you determine the nature of the elements yourself in order to better understand them, but this one will not give you two chances. If this gate is forced open, your own body’s electrical current could be knocked out of alignment. The rhythm of your cells relies on electricity. One stray discharge could stop your heart.~
           
Naruto swallows hard. “Yikes.”

Kurama’s nose ducks in to poke once at his stomach, right over his seal. ~Don’t worry kit. I can stop it if that happens, but to do so I would have to shut down your lightning chakra pathways, which would damage them, and I’d rather not have to do that, and I’m sure you’d rather not have that happen.~

Naruto nods. If it’s the most powerful kind of chakra, he’s going to need to know how to use it. And four out of five would leave a bad taste in his mouth. “So what is it? Where does it come from?”

~Lightning chakra is the seat of power, and is defined by chaos, and by serenity.~

Naruto scratches his jaw. “But wait, aren’t they opposites? How can something be both at the same time?”

~That is the question isn’t it? That’s what makes it so tricky– the duality. Most understand one part or the other, but not both. But without peace the chakra cannot be controlled, and without wrath there is no force behind it. The point of greatest power lies between them, without both, true power cannot be obtained. Do you understand?~

Naruto looks down at his hands. He curls one into a fist, angry and tight and ready to strike, but leaves the other open skyward, relaxed against his knee. Anger is easy, he’s known rage for as long as he can remember– rage at the village, at his place in the world, at himself. He’s known peace too, wrestling with Kiba or talking with Shikamaru or sitting next to Iruka-sensei at Ichiraku. So he pulls up the fury and tries to mix it with what he felt when he was at peace. For a while he gets nothing, just conflicting sensation, but then something pangs against a familiar ache and a memory from not so long ago comes to mind.

The memory of when he’d run here, tired and afraid and angry and so very very lost. He remembers what he felt when Kurama had asked him why a stranger’s hateful words had mattered, remembers how something had shifted inside him, focused down to a few seconds of perfect clarity.

He had still been angry, but he’d been something else too.

“I think I get it.” He says, and Kurama doesn’t ask him if he’s sure. He just floats the sphere of chakra towards him across the short space as Naruto closes his eyes.

~This chakra is known as the catalyst.~ Kurama murmurs, as the sphere sinks into the skin at the base of Naruto’s throat. ~It rests in the spine.~

This power flickers, dances in a flash barely long enough for Naruto to get a reading before it’s gone. It’s strong, a little goes a long way, and what he manages to grab hold of gives him more than enough of a sense for it. He focuses on the energy lying dormant beneath his vertebra. He gets the feeling somehow that this chakra’s allegiance is not easily given, but he has the key already, and like the others, he knows what it wants.

This time, when the chakra bursts forward, it doesn’t flow through him, it rages, with him and against him all at once. It crackles and surges, spinning static in fractal patterns along his nerves, leaving them raw and overwrought. He feels the wrath in it, but tempered with the calm it becomes honed like a blade– deadly and sharp. It rips through him with so much force it’s painful, tears a gasp from his lungs, but when it’s through he feels like a waiting thundercloud, dark and dense and charged with power. He opens his eyes to Kurama nosing around him like he’s attempting to stiff out injury.

~You okay kit?~ He asks, halfway to a demand.

Naruto nods quickly, because he is, but…

“Does that Chakra always respond so well to pain?”

Kurama sighs, pulling away, but doesn’t go far. ~Unfortunately, the things that bring us pain, also tend to bring us strength.~

“Is that why you’re so strong?”

The fox’s eyes widen, but then soften again to something sad.

~It’s why you are.~

It’s an evasion, one that doesn’t make any sense. “But I’m not strong. Not yet.”

~That’s not the kind of strength I’m talking about.~

But before Naruto can ask him what the hell he means by that, Kurama sways to his feet and tucks around him, nudging his half-solid snout into his back. ~Enough of that kit, I thought you wanted to train. Up up up.~

“Hold on a sec!” Naruto squawks, tripping to his feet and turning on his bijuu. “I thought you said there were seven types of chakra? Remember? What are the other two? Hey!”

Kurama huffs, curling back around to face him. ~And here I was sure that had slipped right by you.~

Naruto crosses his arms. “Spill.”

Kurama chuckles. ~Don’t worry, brat. It’s easy. Remember how I said nature was balanced by the elemental chakras?~

“Ya.” his tone tacks a duh onto the end of the statement. Kurama flicks him in the forehead for his attitude.

~Well, smart-ass, living beings are balanced by another two. Yin and Yang chakra are active in your body whether you like it or not, so no need to go looking for them. They flow throughout your central chakra system and are the types of chakra most ninja rely on.~

“But what do they do? What are they like?” Naruto demands, hopping from foot to foot as he follows Kurama’s lazy stride towards the more open part of the clearing.

~Fundamentally, even though they use the same chakra system, the two are very different. Yin chakra is the seat of the spirit, and is defined by emotion. Yang chakra is the seat of the body, and is defined by reality. They’re the basis for the use of genjutsu and taijutsu respectively, the same way elemental chakra is used for ninjutsu.

Naruto nods. “I think I get it. Yang chakra works with the body, so fighting and stuff, and Yin works with mind and emotion, and messing with those things, so genjutsu.”

~You understood more about that than I’d hoped.~

Naruto makes a face. “I’m really bad at genjutsu.”

~We’ll work on it.~ Kurama murmurs, nudging Naruto forwards again.

“Wait! One more question.”

Kurama sighs again. ~Make it quick, while we still have daylight.~

“What chakra rests in the heart?”

Kurama freezes, bewildered. ~Why would you ask that?~

Naruto rubs the back of his head in nervous habit. “Well, I kinda noticed it first when I was going through the water chakra pathways, and then again with lightning. It kinda feels different, but I sensed chakra there too, just not any there that matched any elemental chakra.”

~Fishcake, are you telling me that you accidentally sensed your heart’s chakra pathways?~

Naruto blinks. “Uh, yes? Maybe? I don’t know.”

Kurama taps a knuckle against his chest. ~The heart’s chakra system doesn’t match any type you know because it doesn’t just have one type.~

“Huh?”

~The heart, when it pertains to chakra, has another name. The Nexus. It is the one place in the body through which all chakra passes. The pathways seemed strange to you because instead of one system of chakra vessels, the heart has half a dozen. These pathways are smaller and thinner, but have thousands more branches that overlap and weave together.~

“That makes sense. So it doesn’t have it’s own resting chakra, because the chakra in it is always moving?”

~Mhm. There’s something else about the chakra pathways in the heart you’ll find interesting. Unlike your normal pathways, which are set in stone, the chakra pathways in your heart are capable of growth.~

“Like how tree roots grow? To let more chakra through?”

Kurama fixes him with a halfhearted glare.

~You are entirely too good at this. I was going to save this lesson for another day, but I may as well tell you now. Might put things in perspective anyways.~ He draws a circle with his claw over Naruto’s heart. ~The more you manage to open into your chakra systems, the more power you’ll be able to draw from those systems. The more power you draw, the more strain you put on the vessels in your heart. This prompts those vessels to grow to accommodate the strain. With me so far?~

Naruto nods. Strain makes muscles stronger too– that’s how training works, so it makes sense.

~If you grow each of these systems enough– earth, water, fire, wind, lightning, and central– it allows for you to push two types of chakra through at once.~

“Wait wait wait.” Naruto crosses his arms in a dramatic X. “You telling me it’s possible to use a bunch of elements in one jutsu?

~Well it’s a hell of a lot more complicated than that, there are elements that aren’t compatible with one another and other things you’d have to learn, but yes. Essentially.~

“Can we train now?”

~Oh, now you want to train.~ Kurama drawls sarcastically, but nudges Naruto towards the open space by the water anyway.

<> 

 

 

Chapter Text

Kurama is a good teacher. He’s patient and he listens and he doesn’t mind explaining things in different ways when Naruto doesn’t quite understand. He praises him when he deserves it and berates him when he lets it go to his head even for a second, but he’s a good teacher.

In training? He’s a goddamn tyrant.

~Remember about resonance, brat. We talked about this.~

Naruto wobbles precariously on the water, the surface flexing and rolling underneath him like a funhouse mirror. This was so much easier in the trees; at least up there nothing was moving.

Kurama says that his chakra stamina is fantastic but his control is shit, so he’s spent the last half hour learning to walk on trees and rocks with chakra. There are craters all over as a result of his screw ups. The sun is starting to set, and he’s already exhausted from training his balance and strength and endurance and all sorts of things he didn’t know he should train. But he’d gotten the tree climbing mostly down, so next had been water.

“I know already you grumpy old fox, but the water’s rhythm keeps changing.” he grouches, glaring daggers at the bijuu’s shade, which is sitting calmly on the surface of the water like it’s the easiest thing in the world, which for him I might as well be.

~Then change the frequency to match.~

Naruto tries to do as he’s told, but his water chakra is still unwieldy and tends shift either too far or not far enough, which so far has left him very frustrated and very wet. “What do you think I’ve been doing–” but he doesn’t finish the sentence because his energy sways one way and the water sways abruptly in the other and all the windmilling of his arms in the universe doesn’t keep him from going down.

He plunges into cold water–again–sinking though blue in a cloud of bubbles. But before he can even register the fact or get his bearings, fangs nip into the back of his shirt and Kurama pulls him from the water like disgruntled puppy by its scruff.  

He deposits Naruto back down on the water’s surface, and he automatically reaches for yang chakra instead of water when he lands– which is easy by the way. Yang chakra makes him feel like he’s standing on a pane of thick glass instead of shifting gelatin, and the water flows around his feet instead of underneath them, taking the path of least resistance.

“Why do I have to learn it this way again?”

~Because moving with the natural resonance around you will attune you to the flow in things. Mastering it will allow you to slide with or push against the water in a way you wouldn’t be able to do normally. The strongest Kiri-nin can ride tsunamis using this method. Now again, and this time monitor both rhythms, not just your own.~

And that’s the thing about training with Kurama. The fox demon knows what he’s doing wrong before he does, knows when he’s actually tired and when he’s faking it to get a few more breaths of rest. But he can also sense when Naruto is wavering, sense when he’s about to go through the water or faceplant off the rock he’s been using for balance training. When he does, he’s always there to yank him out of the cold water of the basin, or nudge him back in the right direction before he tips over. Even though he pushes relentlessly, his corrections are gentle, not reprimanding, and whatever frustration Naruto feels doesn’t last long before he gets back up and tries again.

<> 

Naruto stumbles back into his apartment physically exhausted, mentally exhausted, and all kinds of chakra exhausted. Earth chakra makes his bones hurt, water chakra makes his muscles hurt, fire chakra makes his throat hurt, wind chakra makes his chest hurt, and lightning chakra makes his hurt hurt.

He’s also soaked, and filthy, and cold.

Freaking slave driver fox.

~I heard that.~

“Good!”

But even if his limbs are sort of tingly numb and he can’t really see straight, he’s secretly glad of every torturous minute. Not that he’ll tell that to Kurama.

The sun is dipping low and red over the fire country forests, dusting the streets in orange and yellow. He casts a look at the bloody sun, remembering what Kurama said about his mother, about her hair being as red as a Konoha sunset, and wonders if he can make her proud if he never knew her. He shakes the thought from his head and shoulders through his door.

Long way to go.

He heads straight for the shower, first thing, casting a stray glance at the clock on his microwave as he breezes past it.

Five hours.

He’s never spent that long on any one thing before in his life. Granted, it hadn’t felt like just one thing. There had been at least six different kinds of everything, and Naruto hadn’t known there were so many ways he could be stronger.

He yanks his sopping uniform off and turns the shower on full blast, which to be honest, is still pretty shitty. But it’s hot, and that’s really all Naruto cares about right now. He spends only enough time under the spray to warm his bones and strip the dirt and leaf matter from his hair, because he starts dozing standing up and he really should be horizontal before he actually passes out.

He steps out and towels off, scrubbing his face hard with the rough cotton to try and force energy into his limbs he doesn’t have, just enough to move him out of the bathroom and into sleeping clothes. He manages sweats and sleeveless top, but that’s apparently as far as his dying brain is willing to go before he collapses face first on top of his covers and is snoring in under a minute.

It’s the best sleep he’s had in months.

He wakes up at some ungodly hour of the morning. The sun isn’t even a thought in the sky yet, just a feathered grey idea beyond the edge of the eastern horizon, and oh god he’s starving.

He rolls off his quilt with about as much grace as a cat in a tube sock, because his muscles aren’t all that sure what moving is anymore, and they clearly need to relearn how to hold his weight from scratch. He sways to his feet, which is a challenge all itself, because he feels like his legs consist of red bean mochi instead of the stuff they’re usually made of.

But his stomach is cramping like it’s been tied in triple knots so he makes his jelly-legs move and stumbles into the kitchen. Healthy food be damned, he goes right for the electric kettle and instant ramen. Kurama can yell at him later– he’ll make some real food when he can think around the pit in his gut. Four minutes later he’s through not just one but three instant ramen meals, empty styrofoam cups and his burnt tongue the only evidence they were there at all.

~Well good morning sleeping beauty.~ Kurama jeers with a yawn as Naruto heads for the fridge to dig up something more to scarf down.

“Ugh, what time is it?”

~A few hours before dawn.~

Which means he only slept about six hours. Crap.

But now he has food in his stomach and sleep is a far away concept, so he whispers “Screw it.” to himself and starts making breakfast. He ends up making three omelets and a massive pot of miso, because he knows he’s going to be hungry later, dammit, so he’s planning ahead. He really needs to figure out how to make curry soon, so he can just make a giant thing of it and not have to cook six times a day. Ramen was so much easier.

He’s most of his way through the first omelets and a mango, because he’d felt like something sweet, when Kurama snags his attention.

~Is there some place you can get jutsu scrolls from?~ He asks, tapping his claws against his maw pensively.

Naruto swallows his tongue against his immediate response of not really, because that’s not quite true. He knows where he can find a ton of scrolls on jutsu, he’s just not exactly supposed to know that.

“There’s a jutsu library at the back of the academy, on the other side of the Hokage’s office. But no one under Chunin is allowed in.”

He’d spied it on accident when he was visiting Jiji, and he’d been staking it out before the whole training thing with Kurama. He hadn’t actually been planning to break in, he’d just wanted to understand what it was and if it was important to being a ninja. But now…

~You know how to get in.~

It’s not even accented like a question, because Kurama knows him well enough by now. Naruto runs through what he knows about the archives in his head.

“Hardly anybody uses it, and the only people I ever see go in there are Jiji and the teachers, maybe a Jounin or two. There’s a Chunin librarian, but just one, and he locks up and goes home around midnight, and gets in about an hour before classes with the rest of the teachers. There might be chakra alarms though, I think some of the stuff back there is classified.”

~I can sense the traps. Will they notice if things go missing?~

Naruto grimaces around a mouthful of egg. “I think so. The librarian does an inventory every morning and night. I can’t take anything without him figuring it out within twelve hours.”

Kurama growls something unpleasant. ~I can’t teach you shinobi jutsu, I just don’t know any. Bijuu don’t need things like hand signs to focus chakra. I can only teach you if we both have something to go off of.~

A light goes off somewhere in Naruto’s head and he swallows the last of his omelet in one go before shoving back from his little table and rolling to his feet. He digs through his bags of shinobi supplies, still sitting by his closet where he left them. It’s not an ideal solution exactly, but…

~Kit?~

Naruto pulls out the triangle shaped package from the bottom of the second bag. Six blank scrolls, strapped together by a band of waxed paper. He dips back into the sack and comes up with a small set of calligraphy pens and ink.

~You sure that’ll work? Don’t they have safeguards against that kind of thing?~

Naruto looks at the clock. Less than three hours before the teachers get in. If he wants to go, he has to go now. “Only if I use chakra to try and copy the stuff down, I’m pretty sure.” he sighs. “It means I have to take everything down by hand though.”

~That’ll take a while.~ Kurama grumbles. ~But better than nothing. Best move your ass then.~

Naruto is already pressing the stuff into his pack as he says it though, because he needs those scrolls to get stronger, and if he’s going to do this he needs to do it before his nerves get the better of him.

He’s almost out his front door when Kurama stops him.

~Windows.~

Naruto stops, does a 180, because if he takes the streets someone will see him, duh, and he won’t be able to avoid the nighttime patrols if he doesn’t know where they are. He has plenty of practice with that at least– most of his pranks involved slipping around the night watch. So he leaves his door locked and goes out his bedroom window instead.

The whole running on vertical surfaces is still hard, especially when he’s trying to be quiet and not accidentally channel too much chakra into his feet and leave craters in the plaster. But he’s been running on rooftops since before he had any idea how to do it with chakra, so, piece of cake really, in comparison to most of the crap he’s done today. Or yesterday. Whatever.

He slips through the window into Jiji’s office, because he knows the old man always leaves it open in case of Jounin sized emergencies. Thankfully even the Hokage isn’t enough of a workaholic to be in his office this late (or early, whatever) and the chakra traps on the walls recognize Naruto, so they don’t go off. He slips to the door, pulling on Kurama’s burning power to sharpen his senses.

There’s no one in the hallway, but there are two people in one of the rooms off of it. It’s in the opposite direction of where Naruto needs to go though, and one of the ninja is snoring anyways. He ducks into the correct corridor and comes to a stop at the inconspicuous double doors. There are a couple of potted plants hanging from the ceiling, and Naruto carefully climbs the wall to get at the one on the left. He finds the spare key at the base of it, covered in soil and moss. The Chunin who is the librarian isn’t supposed to have it, he knows. The spare keys for all the rooms that connect to the Hokage’s office are supposed to be locked in a case in one of Jiji’s desk drawers.

He hops down, using chakra to make the landing silent. He dampens the click the lock makes as he turns the key with the same method–it was one of the first things Kurama taught him. He slips inside and locks the door behind him, just in case.

The archive is one big, low ceilinged room with long shelves that run the entire length of it. The librarian’s desk is tucked into one corner, but the rest of the space is all shelf, barely far enough apart for two people to walk side by side between them. He scans the kanji labels on the short ends–he hadn’t bothered turning on the lights, too risky– but the moonlight coming through the windows combined with his night vision is more than enough to read by.

The sections go by level, and then by type, so he heads for the cases labeled D-Rank. There’s only one full shelf, divided into nin-, gen-, and taijutsu, with the ninjutsu section is further divided by element. He starts there, since he clearly doesn’t have enough scroll space for everything, and he only has so much time to copy.

He spends the early hours of his morning like that, several small scrolls unrolled in front of him, one of his own larger ones draped across his lap like a snake skin as he pens in jutsu after jutsu. It’s boring, but the info in the scrolls actually sticks– the more he writes the more he gets the phases involved, and the more he understands the complex hand signs and what they’re really used for. He notices patterns he otherwise would never have cared to see; almost all Katon jutsus have a rat sign in them somewhere, the Fuuton use a lot of bird and ram signs, and the dragon sign is almost exclusively used in Raiton, at least in the low level jutsu.

He gets so into looking for patterns in hand signs that Kurama has to snap at him to get moving when the sun starts to creep up on the horizon, and he barely makes it out before the building starts to come to life with sluggish morning activities.

<> 

He has a test later that day on chakric properties. He fails it spectacularly.

The weird thing is he actually knows about the properties now, more or less, but the questions are worded funny and he second guesses himself, and it doesn’t help that he’s so exhausted by the end of the test he’s not even sure if he finished it or not. Kurama sleeps through more of class than Naruto does.

<><><> 

Iruka has never been the most patient of people. He knows this, his colleagues know this, and his students definitely know this. What most people don’t know is that Iruka’s true patience, which knows few limits, is reserved almost exclusively for those he holds dear. So when he’s bolting down for the night, getting ready to lock up his classroom and head home to grade papers only to turn to find all three stacks of them missing from his desk– well. He stares at the corner of his workspace next to his empty coffee mug, where the smart stacks of tests had been resting seconds ago, and only sighs. He goes back to collecting his things and dropping them into his bag, pulling it closed and throwing it over his shoulder.

He strides easily towards the door, stopping once to tap a sandal back into place and rub tiredly at the back of his neck with one hand. When he pushes through into the hallway, he levels a ready glare on the Jounin waiting outside, leaning carelessly against the wall with Iruka’s tests folded carefully under one arm. He doesn’t make a move to take them back– not that he could, dammit. He knows from experience that Kakashi Hatake won’t do anything to make him mad directly, and only stole his papers as a convoluted way to get his attention, but he also knows Kakashi won’t relinquish them until he’s gotten what he wants.

Iruka ignores him for a moment as he turns his back to lock his classroom door, and wonders absently how often such a moment has meant someone’s death. Few dare turn their backs on someone like The Hound.

But Iruka has no fear of such things, not even in what could be considered healthy amounts.

When he turns back again Kakashi has moved, is leaning against the wall next to him instead of across from him, and is holding out a pen that had nearly fallen from his bag. He doesn’t speak, but Iruka isn’t really expecting him to. He just takes the pen without a word, slips it more securely into his pack, and starts his meander down the hallway like it’s any other night. Kakashi follows him, a few steps behind him to his right, an unconscious move that allows him to view all the exits even with his visual handicap.

He’d never say so, but Kakashi is one of the main reasons Iruka chose not to pursue a Jounin rank. He prefers being able to walk down a street in his own village without a biological imperative to map out a tactical vantage point every third step, thank you very much.

Once they’re out of the building and Iruka is fairly sure no one is looking their way, much less listening, he sighs. “I heard about the little ‘incident’ in the marketplace. That was you, wasn’t it?”

Kakashi doesn’t answer right away– for whatever reason his usual devil may care attitude seems difficult to pull to the surface. Even when he does manage, it’s weak at best.

“Maa, Iruka-sensei, I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.” His voice is low and entirely too steady for the strange veil of unease the Jounin is projecting, and Iruka stops suddenly in the middle of the street, turning to look Kakashi in the eye. The silver haired ninja stops as well, meeting Iruka’s gaze levelly, but the uncomfortable air around him doesn’t shift. If anything the atmosphere thickens.

“You’re going to catch hell from the Hokage, you realize.” he says bluntly, because Kakashi hadn’t expected him to buy the hedging words in the first place, and the strange aura around the Jounin is starting to make him uncomfortable.

Kakashi doesn’t answer, because he knows, but he’d done it anyway. Iruka looks at his single silver eye and sighs again, giving in. He keeps walking, Kakashi keeps following, and when Iruka passes through his apartment door, he leaves it ajar behind him.

He puts his bag down as he hears the door close, waits until the sound of the test papers hitting his coffee table reaches his ears, and then turns. He hooks an arm around Kakashi’s neck, the closest thing the Jounin will allow to a hug, and pulls the idiot towards him, pressing Kakashi’s masked face into his shoulder.

Thank you.”

Kakashi doesn’t return the embrace, Iruka doesn’t expect him to, but he feels the brush of Kakashi’s eyelashes against his neck as they close, and knows he needed this, needed to know that what he’d done had not been wrong in any way.

“I almost killed him…” Kakashi confesses, so softly Iruka can barely hear him. And Iruka knows, has felt the same impulse enough times he’s familiar with the dark urge, and can’t imagine what it must have been like for Kakashi, who isn’t used to needing to suppress those instincts.

Because for all that Iruka loves Naruto like a brother, it is Kakashi who knew the boy’s parents so dearly; it is Kakashi who is not allowed near the only thing that remains of the last people on earth he ever loved.

Iruka hadn’t known Kakashi, not before, has never seen the kind of man he used to be. But Iruka alone knows even the faintest part of Kakashi’s heart, knows how much of it is dead already. He alone knows the full extent of Kakashi’s fury when something he holds even remotely dear is threatened. And he doesn’t even know Naruto, the Hokage had made sure of that, made it an order, because Hiruzen, perhaps justly, believes that Kakashi and the others who knew Minato and Kushina would not be able to keep the secrets they need to around the boy if given any leeway at all.

Iruka has no idea how bad a reaction might be if something truly dear to Kakashi was ever put to harm.

They’d bonded over it, this urge to hurt those who hurt what was close to them, and now Kakashi comes here when there is nowhere for that impulse to go, when he needs some place to let down the mask and breathe.

Naomi-san down the street thinks they’re lovers. Iruka sometimes wishes the truth were so simple.

He’s not sure exactly what their relationship is. They’re not friends, that’s not intimate enough a word, but lovers implies something is happening that isn’t, and that there are emotions here that Kakashi is no longer capable of. Iruka has never been capable of them, not in that context anyway, but it’s easier to let people believe what they want than it is to try to explain what’s actually going on.

What’s actually going on is far too simple and far too complicated to explain in any words.

Kakashi breathes.

He leans into Iruka and takes one breath after another, a hand gripped around his upper arm, not to restrain, just to anchor. Iruka doesn’t speak, just breathes as well, a steady base tempo for Kakashi to pace his own breathing against, one inhale for Iruka’s every two.

Because Iruka has something Kakashi can’t touch through barriers of duty and loyalty and rules rules rules, and it’s killing him inside in all the ways he’s not already dead. To watch the people of this village mistreat the gift Kakashi’s mentor and surrogate mother died for.

“You need to see Genma.” Iruka tells him maybe an hour later, when Kakashi can breathe like a human being and not the animal he suddenly wants to be. Kakashi nods against his shoulder. Genma knows about Kakashi’s animosity in a way that Iruka doesn’t, the same way Iruka knows about his humanity in a way Genma does not. The human part of Kakashi needs calm, but the animal part has always needed blood, and Genma knows how to deal with those monsters better than most, in ways Iruka is incapable of.

Anbu squads tend to be well acquainted with their collective demons, and know how to draw strength from them in a way no stable ninja could understand.

 

No matter how hard Iruka tries to convince him to do otherwise, Kakashi sleeps on the floor. On nights like this he seems incapable of allowing himself comfort in any form, and so he lies on the tatami past the foot of Iruka’s futon, facing the window, and doesn’t move for the rest of the night.

In the morning he’s long gone, off bowing before a carved stone and praying to phantoms. Iruka wonders, of all the ghosts he speaks to, which specter is the one that took Kakashi’s soul with it.

He shakes his head, clears it of questions he’ll never know the answer to, and gets up to grade the tests he’d abandoned on the coffee table. As he flicks through the papers with a red pen and the ease of long practice, he comes across Naruto’s name in the stack. With a soft cringe he starts marking, wincing with every X he has to cross. When he gets to the end, something catches him off guard.

The last three questions on Naruto’s test… are correct. Normally this wouldn’t surprise him, Naruto isn’t a complete F student, and he knows that, but these questions… They were trick questions he’d drawn from advanced material and put on the test in an effort to trip up his more know-it-all students, kids like Shikamaru and Shino and Sakura. He’d planned to make them extra credit when he calculated the grades. So far none of the tests he’d graded have had any correct answers, (he always sets Shikamaru’s tests aside so they don’t screw with his grading curve) so he’d been prepared to cross them out when he came to them.

But… they’re right. The questions on chakra resonance and antiresonance that he’d stolen from a sensory jutsu journal, the one on the physical manifestations of Yang chakra in taijutsu vs. Yin in genjutsu… all correct. The responses aren’t thought out– some of the words are spelled wrong and most of the sentences are stream of consciousness, but they’re the right answers.

Chapter Text

It’s two months into his training when Naruto notices it first. It takes another four before he figures it might mean something’s wrong.

It’s one of his rest days, when it first happens. Kurama insists on having them once a week to let Naruto recuperate from the hell he’s put through regularly, but that doesn’t mean they’re not training. Kurama had seen one of the Tokubetsu Jounin on training ground nineteen spitting senbon with the speed and force of gunshots at terrified Chunin, and he’d asked if Naruto wanted to start his inner strength and breath training early during rest days.

And Kurama, the sneaky demon, had known he’d say hell yes after watching what it could do in action.

So he’s sitting on a rock by the waterfall in his impromptu training ground, and… breathing, essentially. But Naruto is starting to get where the strength part is coming from, steady inner power, and is exploring how it seems to work when he sort of loses track of time.

It’s dark when he opens his eyes, which is weird, he hadn’t thought he’d been at it for that long, and Kurama hadn’t warned him when it was getting late like he usually did.

He sends a soft askance through the seal, a hint of a question. He gets no response.

Sighing, he drops back into his head, landing with practiced ease in the clean blue water of the seal space. It’s so different from how it had been nearly three years ago, dark and oppressive and so much like the inside of a sewer. There’s actual light now, though Naruto couldn’t say where exactly it comes from. The pale gold glimmers in sideways like the rays of a sunset after a storm, refracting off the obsidian cage bars in spider webs of fractured light. It gives the air a dream-like quality, the sensation of dozing lightly in a warm room on a lazy autumn evening. The water, crystal clear and mountain spring cool, reflects the golden sunrays in waves across the smoky opaqueness of the walls, stripes of shining dust motes that wink softly as they float about.

The shafts illuminate the sleeping beast within, gilding Kurama’s coat at the ends and making it look more like fire lilies and less like blood.

“Kurama?”

The word echoes softly like a call in a canyon, but the bijuu doesn’t move.

The fox is lying close enough to the bars for Naruto to touch him, so he reaches up to run his hand softly over the fur of Kurama’s snout just above his canine nose– a familiar gesture nowadays.

Kurama’s crimson eyes blink open, dazed and unfocused, far from their usual keen stare.

~Kit?~ He murmurs. ~What time is it?~

An odd question, since Kurama usually knows the time better than Naruto does. “Nine-ish, I think. You fell asleep.”

Kurama scrunches his nose a little, like he finds it hard to imagine how that happened. ~So it seems.~ He mumbles, shaking his head once like a dog as if to jostle away the fatigue. ~Did you finish your exercises?~

Naruto makes a face, but it’s more put out than actually offended. “I promised I would, didn’t I? I keep my promises. Even if the whole ‘just breathing’ thing was dumb at first.”

~I know you do, fishcake.~ He says sleepily, already starting to doze again. Naruto doesn’t try to keep him awake; instead he just strokes Kurama’s fur some more until the beast’s breathing evens out again.

It’s a little weird, sure– Kurama needs considerably less sleep than he does usually, but if Kurama needs rest Naruto’s not going to bother him. He stays in the seal space a little while longer, suddenly overwhelmingly grateful to this creature of blood and chakra that has become his family, has become yet another precious person. He hasn’t told Kurama that little tidbit, isn’t sure the great fox would appreciate it, but he holds the knowledge close and tucks it deep inside him. Another place to draw strength from.

He’s got a long way to go.

But he keeps his promises.

<> 

Kurama sleeps all the way through the night into the next day. Naruto doesn’t blame him, he does the same thing– only when he does it he gets an earful from Iruka-sensei, again, and Kurama gets to snore through the lecture.

But this time Iruka-sensei corners him after class too, and asks him with far more serious concern if he’s getting enough sleep. Naruto grins sheepishly and apologizes again for dozing off, sincere and everything. It’s worth the way Iruka-sensei smiles, exasperated and fond, and reaches down to ruffle his hair.

“Ramen, kiddo?” he asks, and Naruto grins bright.

“Is that even a question?” he declares, and it makes Iruka laugh.

He lets Naruto get shio ramen with extra pork belly on top, which is awesome, and asks Naruto how he’s been doing like he does every week. Naruto tells him he’s been training, which is true, he just neglects to mention how.

Kurama wakes up when Naruto’s halfway through his food. ~Really brat? More ramen?~

“Oh go back to sleep you grumpy old demon.” He shoots back, but it reminds him of something.

“Hey, Iruka-sensei?”

His teacher swallows a bite of his shoyu and egg ramen, glancing over. “Yes Naruto?”

“Will you teach me how to make curry?”

Iruka blinks at him, surprised. “Of course.” He says easily, and then grins. “I’m glad to see you taking an interest in something other than ramen for once.”

Teuchi smacks a ladle down suddenly on the counter, making Iruka start. Naruto just snatches up his bowl and holds it close to save it from the wrath of the ramen vendor. Iruka’s isn’t so fortunate, and broth sloshes over the side at the impact and splatters all over the counter. “You trying to chase away my best customer, Umino?” he says accusingly.

Iruka holds up his chopsticks in surrender. “No, of course not! I wouldn’t dream if it, Teuchi-san.”

Naruto giggles, setting his own ramen safely down. “Couldn’t chase me away if you tried!” he insists, and Teuchi favors him with a grin.

“You better not. My sales would drop threefold.”

Iruka winces. “My poor salary.”

<> 

Kurama doesn’t have another narcoleptic episode for two weeks. By the time it happens again, Naruto is so focused learning and memorizing new sequences for the C-ranks he’s been okayed to start on that he doesn’t tie the two events together at all. It’s only when it starts happening once a week that Naruto really starts to notice– and worry. Though nothing seems terribly wrong except for the intense lethargy that overcomes the bijuu without rhyme or reason. Kurama insists it’s nothing to lose his fishcake brain over, but Naruto suspects that Kurama is not only wrong, but he’s lying too.

Naruto is given irrefutable proof early one morning, two days before the end of the school year and two weeks shy of his birthday. He’d just fallen asleep, having gone over his ‘acquired’ scrolls about an hour prior. Deep in the recesses of his dreams, he hears a rumble like the starting of a flash flood, and then the precision-like crash of something shattering. A few moments later he’s jerked from sleep, hard, goes from dozing to completely aware in less than a second.

Something is burning across his abdomen, sending scorching pain from below his navel clear up into his ribs, and when he tears his blankets off to grip his stomach, he’s surprised that he’s not actually on fire.

The skin over his seal is a hot and angry red like it’s fighting an infection, only the infection is eating through his shirt; a soft hissing sound accompanies the volatile energy as it chews through the fabric of his sleeveless top over where it was pressed against his seal. He rips it off fast, hurling it to the other side of the room for good measure.

Despite the obvious danger of doing so, Naruto presses a hand to his seal, visible in dark black against the tan skin of his torso. The chakra is Kurama’s, but… wrong, vicious and lost and in pain, and fighting, though with what he can’t tell. He tries to dive down into the space but is instantly rebuffed– Kurama’s chakra flavors half with fear and half with protective instinct and snaps him right back out.

Kurama hasn’t done that for almost three years.

Naruto goes from worried straight into Oh Shit DEFCON 1.

He tries again, forces his way through the raging energy Kurama is throwing off in waves, and drops down into a place very different from the pocket of ease and peace that Naruto has grown used to. The water at his feet isn’t water anymore– it’s scalding hot and viscous and the color of a bruise– bubbling like a cauldron and spewing dark choking miasma into the air of the seal space. In the center is Kurama, thrashing and tearing around, tails slicing through air thick with fumes.

“KURAMA!” He shouts, trying to make himself heard over the din of hissing smoke and roiling tar and retching painful coughs, throwing up an arm in an attempt to shield his eyes from the stinging fog.

The bijuu looks up. Noxious sludge is dripping in nasty gobs from his open maw, coating his normally pearlescent fangs in slime reminiscent of congealed blood. Kurama blinks, dazed, and is suddenly overtaken by another series of racking coughs. He shakes all over like he’s trying to throw off an attacker, and then he turns abruptly to vomit more muck the color of busted blood vessels.

Naruto tries to force his way through the bars, tries to get to him, but the unseen forces that govern the seal space won't let him through, and Kurama isn’t close enough for him to reach out.

But Kurama looks like he’s dying, and Naruto can't just stand here, can’t just do nothing–

Before he can so much as call Kurama’s name again, the Kyuubi looks right at him, reaches out, and swipes a clawed hand through the air. The chakra that pushes him from the seal this time is more familiar, more like Kurama’s, less like the rotten sensation he’d felt at first.

He finds himself suddenly back in his body, and Kurama must have slammed shut some kind of door behind him, because now Naruto can’t find his way back in.

So ya. Sue him. He panics.

He spends probably a whole ten minutes just freaking out. Because what the hell? Kurama is a bijuu, the Kyuubi no Kitsune, and everything Naruto knows about what that means tells him that Kurama can’t get sick, can’t die, can’t even really be truly damaged.

Then what the hell is going on?

The more he thinks about the more he realizes that it has to be chakra– everything Kurama is begins and ends with chakra. The stuff Naruto can feel roiling inside him feels rotten, spoiled.

Rancid chakra?

Naruto has no idea what that means, and has even less of a clue about how to deal with it, but he has no time to think. Class starts in twelve minutes and even if Naruto tries to ditch, Iruka-sensei will notice and come track him down afterwards, both to make sure he’s alright and to give him a good lungful of lecture. Naruto knows this from experience, so he makes himself breathe through the fear.

Think idiot, think.

He can’t go to class with sick bijuu chakra eating through his clothes. The acidity factor of the chakra seems to be calming down somewhat, but it’s still enough to make his hand hot and itchy if he holds it over the space for too long. It also isn’t moving much outside the seal, merely saturating the air directly above it.

He pulls his med kit out of his closet, ransacking through for the adhesive bandages until he finds one large enough to cover his stomach. He slaps it over his seal and wraps it with as many layers of gauze as he can conceal safely under his shirt, which he leaves untucked as he pulls the spare over his head.

He has no clue if it will be enough, but he doesn’t have time for anything else.

It’ll have to be.

<><><> 

 

Sasuke has begun to note the days when class is quiet.

It’s an irritating thing for his brain to latch onto, but he finds himself incapable of truly ignoring the abnormal hush that settles over the classroom whenever Iruka pauses for breath. It’s instinct now that his senses stretch, that he listens for changes in the air that might indicate the doldrums will pass, but more often than not, on days like this, they don't.

Naruto is quiet.

He’s not sleeping either, though Sasuke refuses to look behind him to check. Naruto has slept through class for the last three weeks solid, and that’s an entirely different kind of quiet– soft and easy and normal in a way this deafening silence is not.

The first time it happened was the day after the one he came in sans obnoxious jumpsuit– he’d been so quiet that the black shinobi clothes had seemed like mourning attire instead of a uniform. This quiet is different though, he feels that something isn’t right, and the tension in the air is too tight for that feeling to be a coincidence.

The second he gets a chance, as soon as Iruka leaves them for lunch break, Sasuke–as covertly as he can– casts a glance at the dead last.

What he sees startles him.

There are bags under Naruto’s eyes that speak of exhaustion– the kind that sleep can’t fix– potent and arduous and born of tortured sleepless nights. His eyes are downcast, weary, even his hair is far tamer than it usually is– which is standing in all directions after no doubt only just rolling out of bed. Instead he looks like he hasn’t slept at all, like he’s spent the night battling demons only to find them still there as the sun rose.

Sasuke’s seen that look before.

After long nights of terror and nightmares of bonds and brothers and blood, he’s seen it in the mirror.

Sasuke’s not the only one that’s noticed.

“Do you think he’s okay?”

He whips his head around, momentarily mortified at being caught staring at an idiot that shouldn’t hold his attention at all, only to find Sakura there, sitting next to him.

Doing the same.

He scoffs and turns his head away. “What do I care?” he snaps.

Sakura blinks, a pathetic look of hurt flashing across her face. But then the hand she’s holding clasped over her chest tightens, and something else flashes through her eyes, so fast Sasuke nearly misses it.

Something ferrous.

She turns from him, which alone is startling, and walks up the steps to the rows above them. For one terrifying moment Sasuke fears she’s going to talk to Naruto, and something in him panics just a little, because no, stop, it’s not the kind of pain you can console, it’s the kind of pain that when confronted turns angry and defensive, and Sakura won’t like what she sees if she tries.

He’s not sure why he’s worried about Sakura. He’s even less sure how he knows the way it would end.

But thankfully Sakura doesn’t turn to Naruto– she bypasses the row he’s sitting in, both seats beside him empty, and instead goes one row up to sit on the side of Shikamaru that isn’t occupied by Choji. Sasuke can’t fathom what she wants from the dozing shadow-nin.

She looks to Choji first, oddly, a question in her eyes, and Choji nods, his hand buried in a bag of fried pork skins.

Like she’s been given permission, Sakura jostles Shikamaru’s arm gently. The Nara blinks awake, turning his eyes to Sakura with alarmingly razor focus for half a second, before his gaze relaxes back into it’s normal lazy stare.

Sasuke eavesdrops shamelessly.

“Ya?” Shikamaru yawns, not bothering with a more complex sentence.

Sakura points at the back of Naruto’s head. “What happened? Do you know?” She murmurs softly.

That hits Sasuke kind of sideways. What would Shikamaru know about Naruto?

Shikamaru favors Sakura with one long blink, eyes sliding between Naruto and Sakura as if debating which one was more trouble.

Sakura levels him with a glare Sasuke didn’t know she was capable of. “And don’t tell me you don’t know, Nara. I may be no genius but I’m not stupid.” She growls, though she keeps her tone soft and low as not to attract the attention of the blond below them. Sasuke figures she needn’t bother– Naruto’s eyes are clouded like he’s looking in instead of out. The view is inordinately disturbing.

Shikamaru sighs heavily, disproportionately harassed for what’s been asked of him. He looks down at Naruto again, his eyes lingering, assessing, on blonde hair. Sasuke isn’t expecting the pinch of worry around Shikamaru’s eyes, or his own response to it.

Irritation.

Frustration that Shikamaru knows something about Naruto that he does not.

Sasuke moves to shut the emotion down, as violently as he can, but his anger only rises when he finds the sensation can’t be quelled.

“He’s sick, I think.” Shikamaru responds.

Sick?

That brings him up short again. Naruto doesn’t look sick, he looks in pain. The signs on his face speak of stress, not ailment.

Sakura seems to come to the same conclusion, because her forehead scrunches and she frowns. “That doesn’t make any sense. He’s never been sick.”

She’s… right, now that Sasuke thinks of it. In all the years at the academy that he remembers, Naruto’s never presented with so much as a sniffle.

“That’s not the kind of sick I’m talking about.” Shikamaru corrects, and the concern in his lazy eyes becomes more apparent. He tears the corner off his notebook– a prop, since he has an eidetic memory– balls it up and flicks it at Kiba.

It hits the dog-nin in the back of the head, and he cuts off his conversation with Hinata to glare at the culprit. He’s clearly surprised when his eyes land on Shikamaru. “Shika?” He asks. “Somethin’ the matter?”

“You remember that...thing you heard happened outside Ichiraku a while ago?”

Kiba’s eyes dart immediately to Naruto, a terrible tell that whatever Shikamaru is talking about obviously involved him, and then flick back to Shikamaru. “I remember.”

‘A while ago’ could mean anything, but Sasuke gets the sinking feeling that it has something to do with the day Naruto came to class without his jumpsuit.

“Has anything like that happened since?” Shikamaru asks vaguely.

Kiba shakes his head. “No idea. I only found out about the first time on accident because my sister has a big mouth.” His eyes flicker to Naruto again and back. “Did you hear something?”

Shikamaru shakes his head, even as Hinata leans forward.

“What are you talking about? Is something wrong?” She asks.

Kiba smiles back at her, reassuring and false. “Nothing, don’t worry about it. So your idiot brother did what now?”

Hinata flushes angrily and becomes so busy defending Neji that she fails to notice the strain that crops up on Kiba’s face.

What the hell is going on here?

“Shikamaru?” Sakura asks, her expression uncertain.

The shadow-nin waves his hand as if to disperse her wariness. “Just… leave him be. I’m sure he’ll be fine.”

Sakura doesn’t look convinced though, and neither does Shikamaru.

 

<> 

 

The problem is that Sasuke can’t stop thinking about it.

Not the fact that something’s wrong with Naruto or the fact that he was acting strangely today, but the fact that something in him needs to know why. Naruto’s an idiot, a failure. He shouldn’t so much as catch Sasuke’s attention, let alone hold it in a vice the way he does, and without even trying.

Sasuke’s instincts are running wild, and trying to sort out the barrage of impulses and intuition is like trying to categorize a hurricane– like trying to differentiate wind from rain and rain from flailing debris. It’s not just one thing; it’s too many little things.

Naruto sleeps through almost all of class now in a way he hadn’t before, but clearly his grades haven’t dropped enough to warrant being kicked out. So where is he getting the information? He can’t be absorbing it the way Shikamaru seems to be able to, or else he wouldn’t be the Dead Last, yet he somehow passes every test by the skin of his teeth.

What’s worse is that he comes to class obviously exhausted, but when it’s time for spars and they’re pitted against one another Naruto doesn’t fight any worse than he used to– in fact he fights better. And sometimes, when Naruto’s far too weary to really even be considering spars, or Sasuke is inches away from victory in them, something changes. Sometimes, deep in Naruto’s eyes, something switches on like an instinct or a reflex, and suddenly Sasuke is forced back by strength the idiot shouldn’t have, and all the ground he’d gained is lost in moments. He still wins, but it makes the victories seem hollow, makes that strange sensation throb in his chest– the one that tells him he’s missing something.

The more he interacts with the idiot, the more a very specific instinct in his hurricane gains credence. Because even before these strange things started happening, Sasuke has always had the feeling that somewhere in the core of both of them, somewhere buried deep, is the same kind of pain.

And that makes him hopeful and furious all at once, because Sasuke, ever since that night, has defined himself by his misery. The idea that Naruto might feel the same pain and can still find joy and meaning in the smallest of things– it makes him furious. Once upon a time Sasuke might have said that his indifference made him the stronger one, that Sasuke’s ability to disregard everything between him and his revenge gave him power.

But the painful thing is that he’s not sure. And because he’s not sure, there is a fraction of a chance that Naruto is the stronger of them both.

 

That night he thinks himself sick about it; lies cold in his too large bed in his too large house in a complex filled with ghosts and tries to use their torments to school his thoughts into order. Vengeance for those who died here, for his mother and his father and dammit for the memory of his brother, the one he used to know. That ghost is by far the loudest; the wraith of who his brother used to be screaming across the house in echoes of why why how could you why?

But the idea of his strength against Naruto’s sinks its claws into him until he can practically feel blood welling up in his throat.

He hates nights like this.

But more painful are the nights when he’s flooded with ideas of how things could have been, when he dreams of having a family again only to have it ripped from him again and again until he’s left in nothing but pools of Uchiha blood that only grow and grow and grow.

So he lies awake and tries to hate for it.

He succeeds less and less these days.

 

<><><> 

 

 

Chapter Text

Naruto finally gets back to his apartment, after what feels like thousands of reassurances to Iruka-sensei that yes, he’s fine, he just needs some sleep. He feels bad for lying, mostly because he has no intention of sleeping tonight at all.

Right now, he’s merely infinitely grateful that prolonged use and familiarity with Kurama’s chakra has acclimated him to constant chronic pain. The burn radiating from his seal is worse than what he’s used to, but he is used to it, and if he were any less used to it, sitting still through class would have been impossible.

He hadn’t heard a word of Iruka-sensei’s lecture though, even if he had been awake for it this time. He’d been far too busy trying to figure out what the hell he was going to do.

And he had.

It’s a long shot, but in the closed off section of the archives, the room meant only for the eyes of Jounin or the Hokage, are copies for every medical ninjutsu the village knows– it had been in the librarian’s logs. Even if they don’t have something that can fix Kurama’s ailment, they might have something that could tell Naruto what the hell is wrong. Either way, it’s his only choice.

Figuring out that part of the plan had been easy, it was the rest of it that had required more thought, because knowing where the scrolls are and getting to them are two entirely different things. Naruto already has the hardest part handled purely by chance– the door to the inner part of the archives requires two chakra-laced keys. The first key, which is carried by any active jounin, opens the door itself. The second, carried only by the Hokage, goes to a hidden lock that deactivates the chakra alarms– that way even if someone managed to steal a Jounin key to open the door, the alarm would still go off and alert every Anbu within a five mile radius.

But Naruto doesn’t even need a Jounin key, because Jiji, on top of having the key to the alarm, also has a key to the box in his desk that carries the spare Jounin keys, Naruto just has to get them both off Jiji.

Which would be a problem for everyone but Naruto. Not only is Naruto keyed into the chakra alarms on Jiji’s office, but he also knows that Jiji keeps all his important stuff in a compartment on the underside of his shodo easel.

The biggest hitch is that he needs more time with whatever scrolls he can find, so he can’t go in the small hours of the morning like he usually does– and worse, he’ll have to slip by the Chunin librarian while he’s still on duty.

There’s one saving grace, however. Naruto is one hundred percent positive that the inside of the library has no bathroom whatsoever. The Chunin in question also has a fondness for sweet black tea, given the bottles of the stuff Naruto keeps finding both left on his desk and cluttering the waste bin behind it.

Naruto had done him the favor of leaving a case full on his porch as soon as he’d gotten free of Iruka-sensei’s concern. Now he just has to wait until Jiji leaves his office.

He sits outside the window in the branches of one of the big oaks, close enough that he can see the old man, but far enough away not to get in the way of the patrols going past. He uses the time to practice the one skill he’s going to need if he’s going to pull this off.

Chakra resonance.

He remembers Kurama’s lessons on it clearly, and he remembers how it pertains to stealth.

Most high-level ninja rely more on their chakra sense than their eyes when it comes to detecting threats. Kurama had told him. Match your internal resonance with the ambient chakra around you, and even the most skilled shinobi will walk right past you.

He practices matching his resonance to that of the tree around him, and when he thinks he’s got it handled, he tests it by sitting out on one of the branches close to the patrol and waiting for it to pass. The Jounin on duty don’t even slow down.

He’d be more proud of himself, only the pain in his abdomen threatens his focus every time he loses sight of what he’s trying to do, and every burning aching throb reminds him of the dire straights Kurama is in right now.

Kurama is precious to him. For almost a year now Kurama has raised him, and he will not let Kurama suffer if he has anything to say about it. So he draws from that strength, that will of fire, and razors his focus.

Ten minutes later Jiji stands up from his deck, rubs his back like the old man he pretends he’s not. He knocks twice against his desk, a signal for his Anbu escort, and immediately the two guards that had been standing outside his door appear beside him– Rabbit and Falcon judging from the masks, which is normal. He waits a good fifteen minutes after they’ve left, until the patrol passes him a third time and the candle Jiji had snuffed at the edge of his desk is no longer trickling smoke. Then he slips through the window, moving silently to the shodo easel. He feels along the underside of the wooden frame until his fingernails catch against abnormal grooves, and then pushes against it.

A soft click as the panel gives a little, and when Naruto releases it a drawer pops forward at the easel’s base, shallow, but as long and deep as Naruto’s forearm. He pulls it open, eyes scanning the compartment for the key he needs, when his gaze catches on something else.

It’s a set of picture frames. The first is old and oak and rough around the edges. Featured is a young picture of Jiji, his hair brown instead of grey, no age spots in sight. He’s flashing a cocky grin Naruto has never seen on the reserved Hokage, standing behind three kids Naruto doesn’t recognize. They’re all older than him, but not by much; the boy to the furthest left of the picture has jagged white hair and is wearing a grin of his own that almost matches the once gracing Jiji’s face. The boy in the middle has smooth black hair, pale skin, and strange slited eyes in toxic green-gold. The girl, the one on the right, has long blonde hair four shades lighter than Naruto’s own, smooth and tied back on a smart pony tail, and her eyes are the color of warm and creamy coffee.

It looks like a picture of a Genin team, but Jiji has never mentioned having Genin, and Naruto would remember if he’d seen these faces around the village, even if they were older.

There’s a picture underneath it, and despite the urgency of the situation Naruto can’t help but take a peak, lifting the first picture frame gently by the edge as to not leave any fingerprints on the glass. The second frame is newer, polished mahogany, but the bottom corner of the frame is dented and the glass above it is cracked, like it’s been dropped or thrown against something.

Naruto’s breath catches.

The picture is of a man and a woman, again standing behind three kids. The man is ruffling the silver hair of a young boy with a mask over his face, who is glaring at the dark haired boy across from him. The woman has an arm around said boy’s neck and is giving him what must be an excruciating noogie considering the look on his face. A sweet looking girl stands between them, giggling, the square clan markings on her cheeks crinkling as she laughs.

The man has gold-blonde hair and blue eyes, his smile kind and soft and obviously besotted as he gazes over. The woman has hair as red as a Konoha sunset, grown down almost to her ankles, pinned back from her eyes. The look on her face is playful and smug as she rubs hard against the boy’s hair, her eyes glinting with mischief. Her skin is dark in a way the man’s is not, but in a way that Naruto’s is.

A picture of his parents.

His hands are suddenly shaking, and he puts the picture down before he accidentally drops it. They look exactly like Kurama had had said they would, but seeing them is somehow different, somehow more real.

He looks so much like his father that it’s no wonder Jiji sees phantoms around him, but the shape of his face and the tone of his skin are clearly his mother’s, who even in the stillness of a photograph looks as fierce as Kurama described her.

A pulse of contaminated energy in his stomach reminds him painfully why he’s here, that he has a parent here and now, still breathing, that needs him.

He puts the frames back carefully where he found them and picks up the key ring nestled next to the frames. He picks the one off the top that he’s seen Jiji use to open the spares box, and runs a finger over the others keys until he finds the one radiating chakra. He counts the number of keys before it, and then lifts it carefully from the ring and shuts the drawer. He goes to the bottom drawer in Jiji’s desk, using the key to pop open the reinforced metal box he finds inside. He goes to the row of keys labeled ‘Archives: Spare’ and snags the first in the row. He closes and locks the box behind him, just in case a wandering shinobi peeks inside.

He ducks into the hallway, clear of Anbu now that the Hokage is not longer here to protect, and walks silently down the hall to the door to the Archives. He tucks himself into the corner of the door syncs his chakra to resonate with the subtle rhythm of the wood and plaster of the wall.

It doesn’t take very long for the door to click open and the chunin librarian to exit, a prim shinobi with dark hair and wide set eyes. He yawns, exiting the short hall and turning down the corridor towards the restrooms. Naruto slips inside before the door can close completely.

The classified jutsu room is at the far back behind the shelves on B-rank Taijutsu, and he navigates the maze of books and scrolls with practiced ease. He has two minutes to get inside. Three tops.

The lock for the Jounin key is obvious, it’s in the door, but Naruto has to move a small bookcase over to get at the second one, which makes an unfortunate amount of noise he can’t help. He does it fast, wincing at the groan and scrape of the wood against the wall, and puts Jiji’s key in the slot as soon as he’s uncovered it. A twist and a chirping noise, and the chakra alarm is disabled.

He pulls the shelf back into place and slips the Jounin key into the lock on the door, letting out a sigh of relief when nothing screeches or blows up in his face, but immediately curses again as he hears the scrape and click of the library door being opened. He darts in fast, waits, and when he hears the doors start to close he shuts his own door at almost the same time, and hopes to every deity he doesn’t believe in that the Chunin didn’t hear it. He waits, ear pressed against the door, for a full heart-pounding minute, but he hears no footsteps coming towards him.

He hears almost nothing, actually. Even with his keen ears, the room is eerily quiet.

Soundproof. He realizes.

He lets out a breath, loud in his own ears.

He turns, surveying the room before him. It’s not as small as he originally figured it would be, both walls lined with tall bookshelves laden with scrolls. There are no windows, so Naruto will have to rely on his internal clock to tell him when to get going. He has about seven hours to dawn, and ideally he should be out in six.

No time to waste, he tracks down the shelf of medical ninjutsu and pulls down the entire layer of scrolls and texts, laying them out on the floor, and gets to work.

<> 

It takes him nearly an hour, but he finally finds something that sounds like what he’s looking for. The book he finds it in is old, the leather spine cracked and the ink faded on frayed pages. It’s some kind of journal listing chakric ailments, and one of the chapters reads Chakra Corruption.

He reads it with more focus than he would a jutsu, committing everything it says to memory.

 

Chakra Corruption

Definition: Alteration and disruption of chakra’s nature due to outside forces, resulting in a sickness of chakra vessels. This can be a primary or secondary affliction, depending on if the disruption is peripheral or central.

Symptoms: Severe lethargy, inability to keep conscious for long periods of time, soreness radiating from point of contamination, fever, blood toxicity, and inability to properly mould chakra. In severe primary afflictions of the central chakra system, symptoms can also include nausea and vomiting of coagulated chakra. Cases this severe must be treated immediately as prolonged suffering of this affliction can result in death.

Causes: Certain rare poisons have the ability to cause this condition, but it is most commonly caused by repeated chakra exhaustion followed by the over imbibing of artificial chakra pills. As a result this condition is also known as Campaign Fever. In rare and often unrecorded cases, extreme emotional turmoil or upheaval has been known to cause this condition, particularly in those inclined to Yang energy or with poor Yin control.

Treatment: The only known treatment for Chakra Corruption is transfusion. First, as much of the corrupted chakra as is safe should be drained from the patient. Once this is done, stable chakra should be fed into the patient’s system slowly over the course of several days. The most severe symptoms should abate immediately, though lethargy and fever may persist for one to two weeks as the chakra system rids itself of remaining corrupted chakra.

 

No.

This can’t be happening.

This can’t be it.

Naruto throws the book to the ground, feeling the prickling sting of tears threaten the corners of his eyes. He lets them come, because he’s tired and devastated and in pain and there's no one around to hear him. All this, and Naruto’s useless.

All this only to find out that Naruto can’t even help. Worse, Kurama’s condition is probably his fault.

Extreme emotional upheaval.

It was the only thing that made sense. Kurama doesn’t need chakra pills, can’t be poisoned. And the only thing he knows that Kurama has any emotional attachment to is Naruto.

Goddammit.

He cries until he can’t see, because he can do nothing. The one thing Kurama needs, the thing that Kurama has given him without reservation, is the one thing Naruto can’t give back.

Chakra.

His seal, Kurama’s prison, won’t allow it.

As tears fall onto his knees, darkening the fabric over his legs, he tries to reach, tries to find Kurama in his seal. But whatever door Kurama slammed is still shut, and the burn against his stomach hasn’t abated.

He can’t let this happen. He can’t. Kurama is a creature of chakra; Naruto has no doubt that this could kill his bijuu if he lets it.

He can’t let it.

He puts a hand over his seal, feels the heat radiating off it even through the layers of bandages. Suddenly something fires in his brain, synapses connect, and hope flares.

The seal.

The seal is the problem. If he can alter it, change it somehow so that he can feed chakra through it…

He vaults to his feet, starts tearing through the shelves in search of anything he can find on Fuinjutsu. His frustration mounts and mounts as he tears through scroll after scroll and finds nothing that could help him, nothing more complicated than storage scrolls or barrier tags. He knocks over the chair tucked in the corner, the only furniture in the room, and is only absently glad the room is soundproofed. He leans back against a tall bookcase, staring despondently at the mess of scrolls and open books he’s left behind, and sees it.

Behind the chair he’d knocked over, tucked along the edge of one of the bookshelves, is a keyhole. It looks the same as the one Naruto used to disable the alarms.

He moves over to it, not daring yet to hope. It could respond to Jiji’s alarm key, but it could also require an entirely different key that Naruto doesn’t have. If that’s the case, if an alarm goes off and the Anbu find him, then Naruto would be expelled from the academy. He would never be a ninja, not in Konoha.

But if he doesn’t try and there’s a chance, then Kurama will die and it will be all Naruto’s fault.

And that makes the choice easy.

He slips Jiji’s key into the slot, sends a desperate quiet “Please.” to any being that might be listening, and turns the key.

A click, a whir, the working of mechanisms he can’t see, and suddenly the bookcase beside him swings open a crack.

No alarms go off. No Anbu crash through the door.

What the hell would Jiji say?

“Thank the seven gods of luck.” Naruto murmurs, feeling old just saying it, but he feels it’s necessary both for the situation and in homage to the old man.

He opens the secret door, which swings on heavy, creaky hinges. It leads down a short staircase into a small dark room filled with stacks of files and reports piled on the floor. There are kanji seals painted all over the walls, presumably to prevent intrusion from outside the library.

Naruto slinks down the stairs, leaving the bookcase ajar behind him. There’s no jutsu scrolls save for one massive one sitting atop a desk at the back of the room, nearly as long as Naruto is tall. Nothing else that could potentially tell him how to alter a seal as complex and powerful as the one holding Kurama.

He takes a deep breath, and drags the giant scroll off the desk.

<> 

Kinjutsu. Forbidden techniques. Naruto swallows heavily as he continues to read through the Jutsu. The scroll paper is thick and heavy; the ink scrawled across it is disturbingly simple for it’s contents. Naruto reads it end to end, copying the things he knows he won’t remember. He has no idea what he might need later, what might help. There’s instructions for a shadow clone technique that doesn’t make sense because it makes too much sense, details about a chakric security system around something called the Shrine of Masks, and descriptions of a technique that uses a flying thunder seal, whatever that is. Towards the end, he finds something very familiar.

His seal is marked down in extraordinary detail under the name Seal of Eight Trigrams. According to the notes scribbled onto all side of the thing, it’s a hell of a lot more complicated than anything else in here. He has no idea what some of these terms mean; fasteners, distribution curves, dimensional pocketing? And there’s nothing inside that gives even a hint as to what they could be. Kurama had taught him some things, basic constriction, enough to make his own storage scrolls and a few types of customized barrier tags, but nothing near this complicated.

He copies down every word anyway, pens each scrawl of notes in excruciating detail, and tucks that specific scroll not in his pack but in one of the hidden pockets inside his shirt. It’s a start, but there’s not enough information, not enough for him to go on. He needs more help– a seal expert to teach him or something, but he doesn’t know any.

...Except that he does, just not any that are alive.

He rolls the scroll back up and turns his attention to the stacks and stacks of files.

Four hours left. Better hurry.

He starts flipping through the files, careful not to disturb their order. They’re alphabetical, so it’s not hard. As he flips by the Ts into the category he’s looking for, his eyes catch on a different file, four folders up from the one he needs.  

The Uchiha Incident.

Naruto’s mind flashes unbidden to Sasuke, to images of the massive empty compound Naruto has seen him heading towards after school. Through some instinct he doesn’t understand, he pulls out the file. There’s a strange symbol on the front, the Kanji for the word ‘root’ in bold strokes above the formal kanji for ‘copy’. He flicks it open with his thumb.

Nausea rolls sharply through his gut at the sight of the pictures inside. He reads quickly, his hand at his mouth, horror rolling through him at the thought of doing something like that to another human being, let alone family. A few sentences stand out over all the others.

Root issued.

Mission Complete: Single survivor

Mission Assignment: Uchiha Itachi. Status: Missing nin. Control Prerogative: Failed

At the back of the file, in Jiji’s handwriting, is a note.

 

Never again. Danzo has crossed a line. Root is to be disbanded effective immediately. Under no condition will he be allowed to operate without my direct supervision, not after this mess. I will see to it that the boy is protected. It was Itachi’s last wish.

 

Underneath it is more writing in unfamiliar script.

 

Funerals were seen to as you asked, but you should know – eyes missing.

 

Naruto has no idea what the hell that means, and he’s starting to resent the feeling. Something doesn’t feel right though; something’s off, so he takes a copy of this file too. He slips the folder back where he found it, shaking his head like it’ll help banish the horrors from his thoughts, and moves on to the file beneath it, the one he was after to start. It’s thicker by far, filled to the brim with reports and photo paper. It reads Uzushio: Destruction

The smell of mildew greets him as he opens it, the scent of forgotten reports and decade-old shame. He scans through, the pages seeming fragile in his touch as he thumbs through sheet after sheet of writing and pictures. Most of its nonsense and even more of it’s useless, the only exception being a set of maps detailing troop movements. The reports aren’t parallel, contradict each other, and again he finds the Kanji for root stamped on every other page.

One report seems different– it’s written on different paper, crinkled with water stains and small tears like it was written in the field. The first part of the page is illegible, but Naruto can just make out the end.

 

–All dead or missing. Cannot tell Kiri and Iwa nin from Uzushio shinobi. Too many of both, far more former than later. Repository not found by either parties, Storm is forcing back both Kiri-Iwa and Konoha forces. Unable to continue search.

 

Repository? Something seems off about the way it’s written, like a proper noun. Kurama had taught him enough script and he’s read through enough history and jutsu to know that isn’t normal. Storm is written in the same fashion. When Naruto flips the page over, he finds a disturbing note scrawled on the back.

 

The Island doesn’t want us here.

Whatever hospitality or tolerance it once offered has been rescinded with our failure.

We cannot even bury the fallen.

Only the Uzumaki could calm it’s wrath, and the Uzumaki are dead.

 

<> 

 

By the time he’s finished cleaning up the mess he’d made in the in the upper room and securing all the doors, it’s only an hour before the building starts to flood with early risers. He makes it out of the library and down the main hall without a fuss, and he’s almost home free when he turns the corner towards Jiji’s office and physically smacks right into a shinobi.

He flails and jolts back, swinging a hand up to grip his nose where it had impacted the ninja’s ribcage with eye watering force.

Smooth dumbass.

His brain registers several things at once– guy, senbon, Tokubetsu Jounin,– before panic sets in and it’s all just a jumble of shit I’m gonna be expelled and Kurama’s gonna die and shit shit shit.

But then the man releases a pained breath and Naruto looks up, his freak-out temporarily stalled.

The Tokujo looks familiar, though Naruto can’t put a finger on why. He’s got jaw length honey hair pulled loosely back from his face, eyes the color of caramel syrup, and there’s a senbon grit between his teeth. Other than the clench of his jaw and the pained hiss of breath Naruto is sure he heard, there’s no sign of the pain the man is clearly feeling– but Naruto can practically sense it coming off him in waves.

Dammit.” The man hisses vehemently, pulling a hand through his hair where it’s falling out of it’s loose tail, but he schools his features easily enough and looks down at Naruto. “Hey, what’re you doing here kid? It’s godawful o'clock.”

Naruto fumbles for a second because he’s a shitty liar and he knows it, but stops rooting for an answer when he senses something other than pain rolling off the man before him.

Guilt?

Naruto has no idea how he knows that– the only emotion showing on the thirty-something’s face is boredom.

Naruto’s instincts seem sure of it though, and when he stares up at the man for a moment, blinking, the feeling intensifies until he starts to see it surfacing in the back of the shinobi’s eyes. Naruto rubs at his face and the Tokubetsu seems to misinterpret the action in junction with his red and watery eyes.

He’s instantly and obviously uncomfortable, and he puts his hands up like Naruto is some kind of mine he accidentally stepped on and if he shifts the wrong way he’ll blow his leg off. “Where the fuck is Iruka when you need him.” He mutters under his breath, low enough that if Naruto’s hearing were any less keen he wouldn’t have caught it.

“What are you doing here?” He asks harshly, his voice a little rough, because the man looks more in the spotlight than Naruto feels. The guilty tang to the air intensifies so that Naruto can practically smell it– acrid and lingering like vinegar and missed opportunities. Naruto rubs at his nose where it impacted bone. The man offers a smile that’s more like a grimace, but doesn’t answer his question.

“You okay, kid?” he asks back.

“I could ask you that.” The words are out of Naruto’s mouth before he can overthink them, and are softer than he intended them to be because sue him, he’s exhausted, and now that he bothers to take a good inhale through his poor battered nose, he can smell the metallic tang of blood underneath the shinobi’s clothes. “You need a medic or something?”

The forced smile drops right off of the man’s face and his senbon clicks audibly against his teeth as his jaw goes lax, the shinobi’s eyes narrowing and his forehead wrinkling in confusion.

Naruto just blinks up at him, confused by the scrutiny. “What?”

“How do you figure?”

“Uh, because you’re injured?” Naruto says, because that’s kind of obvious.

Except maybe it’s not, because the ninja’s eyes widen again for a fraction of a second and then suddenly cloud. The man sways, snaps an arm up to brace against the wall. The facade crumbles at the edges in a breath hissed between teeth and a pained slouch of shoulders, like air released from a balloon. “Shit.” He croaks. “Sorry kid, but I don’t suppose your sensei is about?”

It’s Naruto’s turn to be confused, because what has that got to do with anything? “Iruka-sensei? He won’t be here for a while, I don’t think. Don’t you need to be in a hospital?”

The man shakes his head. He’s gone from pale to sickly in under a minute, and clammy sweat is building on his forehead as he struggles to keep himself upright.

“No… hospitals…” He mutters, and then he’s falling forward.

Alarmed, Naruto moves to catch him, bracing his shoulder against the shinobi’s chest as the man slumps forwards. He’s heavy, heavy enough that Naruto almost drops him, and just like that Naruto’s stuck with seventy-five kilos of unconscious shinobi he didn’t ask for.

“Aw come on…” He groans at no one in particular.

For a second he debates just dropping him in front of the shinobi wing of the ER, but he discards the idea almost as soon as he thinks of it. Iruka-sensei’s house isn’t far– it would be just as easy to drag him there than it would be to haul him to the hospital. He just hopes he won’t get in trouble.

 

Chapter Text

Iruka brings his second cup of coffee for the morning to his mouth and takes a swallow, flipping through mission reports at his kitchen table while he debates on the merit of a third dose of caffeine. He figures another mug decreases the likelihood of him actually strangling Kotetsu to death at the mission desk, but also increases his chances of being too nice to Anko on accident and having to deal with her unsubtle harassment/flirting all day.

Just as he decides against it, figuring more caffeination would be worse for both his health and his sanity, there’s a soft, hesitant knock on his door.

Iruka freezes immediately, his mug halfway to his mouth.

Not a single person Iruka could be considered friends with would ever knock like that. Only two people he knows would bother knocking at all, the first being Hayate, who is chronically polite, and the second being Gai– whose pounding usually startles Iruka’s neighbors and occasionally breaks his door. The rest either just barge in or are overly paranoid Jounin who tend to fall through his window late at night.

Iruka scoots his chair back and gets to his feet. He’s not dressed yet– he hadn’t planned on going in early today so he’s still in his civs– a pair of grey sweatpants and a navy longsleeve, hair loose around his shoulders. He pulls a kunai out from under the table and slips it into the waistband of his pants, covering the handle with a tug of his shirt.

He’s prepared for a lot of things when he eases the door open, but the last thing he expects to see is the familiar swath of blond hair belonging to his favorite student, hunched beneath Genma’s sorry unconscious carcass.

Blue eyes blink up at him, entirely too red and exhausted for Iruka’s liking, but the bright smile offered to him is genuine, if tired. “Hi, Iruka-sensei.”

He swings the door open immediately. “Naruto?” He asks, dipping down to relieve his unconscious idiot of a friend from his student’s small shoulders. “What’s going on? What happened?”

Naruto leans out from underneath Genma’s weight as soon as he’s able, an oddly graceful bend for an almost ten-year-old. “Uh, I think he’s mostly okay, but he passed out in the hallways outside Jiji’s office.”

Outside the Hokage’s office? What the hell was Genma doing there? Unless…

“You moron, Shiranui…” he growls softly, throwing the other shinobi’s limp arm over his shoulder, looping his own around the man’s waist to haul him upright against his side. Naruto hovers nearby, looking uncertain. Iruka can’t help but smile a little. “Think you could help me with this idiot, Naruto? Knowing him he’s going to need stitches, do you remember where I keep my med kit?”

Naruto nods smartly and ducks past Iruka into the apartment, vanishing around the corner into the bathroom. Iruka drags his friend to the couch and begins undoing his jounin vest; eyes searching for the red he knows must be beneath the thick fabric of the flak jacket. He finds the pooling stain of crimson over the flesh of Genma’s right side, a long swath of it visible in the underside of the jacket like a slash of red paint. The blood is invisible against the standard shinobi longsleeve, so Iruka will have to get him out of it before he can see the extent of the damage. The shirt is otherwise clean and untorn, which raises Iruka's blood pressure because it means the idiot literally went home and changed before he thought of seeking out medical attention. He wants badly to punch the stubborn moron, for that and for apparently passing out on one of his kids, but it will have to wait until Genma is conscious for it.

He puts two fingers to the Tokujo’s neck to check his pulse, just as Naruto reappears with Iruka’s med case in tow, worry apparent on his young face. “Is he gonna be okay?”

“He’s going to be fine.” Iruka replies, and is relieved to be able to say so with confidence; Gemma's pulse is throbbing evenly beneath his fingers and even though it’s not as strong as he would like, it’s not weak either. He looks up at his student, eyes tracing in a cursory check of the boy’s current state.

There are still bags under Naruto’s eyes that would put Ibiki’s raccoon mask to shame, dark bruise-like crescents beneath his bright blue irises. There’s more life to them now than there was yesterday at least, a strange stubborn sort of drive that’s gained foothold since Iruka last saw him.

“What were you doing in the academy building so early? Looking for Sarutobi-sama?”

Naruto gives a delayed little nod, averting his eyes. “I… ah… couldn’t sleep.” his voice quiets to nearly a whisper. “Was having nightmares.”

Iruka doesn’t ask. He can only imagine what kind of things might be rattling around in the poor kid’s head at night. “Why didn’t you take him to the ER?” He asks to keep himself from prying. “I’m sure it would have been easier. Did he say something?”

Naruto nods. “He said he didn’t want to go to the hospital, and he asked me where you were, so I figured if he was looking for you anyway it would be okay.” The blond pauses for a moment. “I don’t think he wanted anyone to know why he was hurt.”

That makes sense to Iruka, he’s more than familiar by now with Genma’s tendency to cover up just about anything in order to avoid having to explain himself, but the fact that Naruto came to that conclusion about a man he’s hardly met is… startling.

Iruka gives the kid as bright a smile as he can, reaching up from where he’s crouched at Genma’s side to ruffle gold-blond hair in an effort to relay some kind of comfort. “I’m sorry you had to do this. He must have startled you.”

Naruto shakes his head, but his eyes are brighter. “I think I might have scared him, not the other way around.” He says sheepishly.

Iruka chuckles a little at that. He can imagine how his friend might have reacted, having run into on accident the one person in the village he’d been told, like Kakashi, to avoid, but he finds it humorous mostly because Genma’s inability to deal with children is hilarious on the worst of days.

“Could you get the needle and thread out for me please?” he asks, using a soft chakra flare to cut through the fabric of Genma’s top. Naruto does as asked with a more enthusiastic “Ya, sure.” than Iruka was expecting, considering how tired he must be. To Iruka’s knowledge, Naruto’s never been much of an early riser.

Iruka peels the blood soaked layer back to reveal three parallel gashes along the length of Genma’s ribs. The cuts are long, running the upper edge of the obliques before curving inwards toward the navel, the length of Iruka’s hand from wrist to fingertip. The wounds are clean and unmistakable; too thin for kunai, too deep for shuriken, too uniform for ninja wire. There’s a small red line even with the gashes where a fourth weapon grazed the dip behind Genma’s ribcage.

A fourth finger.

<> 

To Iruka’s surprise, Naruto insists on watching over his shoulder.

He doesn’t seem at all squeamish of the blood and pull of tissue as Iruka works, stitching the edges of the wound together. When he’s finished, he makes a sequence of hand signs he wishes weren’t so damn familiar, and crosses his palms over Genma’s wounds.

“Medical Art: Energy Stitch.”

A soft turquoise glow envelops his hands, the warm hum of chakra seeping into the skin beneath his touch.

“Whoa…” Naruto says in his ear. “I didn’t know you were a medic, sensei.”

Iruka chuckles. “I’m not a true medic, but I do have a specialty in field medicine, which this moron here seems to think is the equivalent.”

Naruto blinks curiously. “What’s the difference?”

Iruka shrugs, toning back on the chakra as the wounds begin to pull closed around the deeper stitches. “A true medic-nin wouldn’t need stitches at all. My chakra control isn’t quite good enough to properly heal damage deep enough to cut into muscle, but a real medic can not only heal deeper wounds, but also damage to bones and chakra vessels.”

“That’s awesome…” Naruto marvels, crossing his arms over the back of Iruka’s shoulder and resting his chin on them. “My chakra control is sucky though, so I probably wouldn’t be any good at it.”

And that won’t do, that won’t do at all. Iruka finishes his patch job a turns to look his student right in the eyes. “You know what I think, Naruto?”

“Hm?” the young blond answers, eyes still on Genma’s newly healed wounds.

“I think you could be whatever you set your mind to.”

Naruto’s eyes widen, and for a second he’s the same vulnerable little boy Iruka almost tripped over outside Ichiraku, the one that still flinched when Iruka put a hand on his shoulder. Iruka smiles warmly over his shoulder at him. “There’s no doubt in my mind that if you really wanted to, you could be a brilliant medic, chakra trouble or no.” Iruka’s smile curves sideways. “But I also think that that isn’t quite what you want, is it?”

“What?” Naruto asks, obviously off balance.

“You seem to me more the kind of ninja that would prevent your comrades from being hurt in the first place.” Iruka states softly, tilting his head. “Am I wrong?”

Naruto shakes his head. “Do you think I could do that though?”

Iruka snorts a soft laugh. “I think you’d be good at it. More than that, I think it’s your Will of Fire.”

Naruto makes a kind of adorably frustrated face. “Jiji keeps talking about that but he won’t tell me what it means. It’s all ‘you’ll understand when you’re older’ and stuff.”

“That because it’s different for everyone, kiddo. Not everyone has the same kind of fire because not everyone is driven by the same thing. Your will of fire is the thing that drives you further than anything else, the fuel you use to do things other people wouldn’t manage in your shoes.”  

“Like protecting precious people.”

The answer is so immediate and sure that Iruka is a bit incredulous of it, but then something clicks into place in Iruka’s head like a puzzle piece, a fragment he’s been missing that changes his view of the blonde boy in front of him, a subtle shift, but a powerful one.

For an instant, reflected in Naruto’s bright eyes, he sees terrifying potential.

Iruka has seen potential before, it’s his job to scout it out, pull it from hiding places, ensure that his kids know full well what they can be if they put their effort forward. It’s easy in students like Shino and Tenten, kids that already have an idea of who they are and what they want to be, an idea of how to push themselves forward. It’s harder in students like Shikamaru or Choji, whose potential either sleeps the day away, or is buried under layers of doubt. Iruka had, mistakenly, placed Naruto in the later category.

By the look in those eyes, Naruto knows how strong he can be, and even if he isn’t fully aware of it, something in him is, something in him knows what he’s capable of given opportunity and means.

And from the sliver of it Iruka can see, the latent possibility is bottomless.

An idea is forming in his head out of nowhere, summoned by this newly completed picture.

Naruto tips his head in animal curiosity at his silence, clearly waiting for whatever Iruka is thinking of telling him.

And how did I overlook instincts like that? Iruka wonders.

Naruto’s not exactly a tactical thinker, but with senses like he’s been displaying, he obviously doesn’t need to be. Iruka hadn’t been looking for it, because intuition like that, animal intuition, is something Iruka hasn’t seen outside the Inuzuka.

Or Kakashi. His brain supplies as an afterthought.

“Do you know what the definition of specialization is?” Iruka asks. The boy shakes his head and sits down on the edge of the coffee table. Iruka makes himself comfortable as well, leaning back against the base of the couch and pulling a knee up to rest his hand against. “A specialization is a set of skills outside of the normal range of abilities ninja are taught. I have a Chunin level specialty in field medicine– most teachers are required to have some kind of non-combative specialty, in case of emergencies.”

“Like a Tokujo?” Naruto asks.

Iruka nods, inclining his head towards Genma. “Tokujo like this idiot gained their rank through a Jounin level specialization, or two, in his case. It’s a lot easier than becoming a full rank Jounin. Have you ever thought about what you might want to specialize in? As a Chunin or as a Jounin?” Because now Iruka is thinking about it, is curious to see what Naruto might choose to become.

Naruto shakes his head and rubs the back of his neck, looking suddenly uncertain again. “Not really. I’m not actually sure how all of it works.”

Iruka nods and stands. He’d assumed as much. Normally he wouldn’t be talking about these kinds of things with a student who hasn’t yet graduated the academy, but for Naruto, it’s obviously not a question of if he’ll graduate, only when.

“Why don’t we have some breakfast and I’ll tell you all about it? I could use another cup of coffee, I think.”

<> 

A shinobi never wakes slowly. There is no soft transition into awareness through soft hazy light and absent thought, no easy surfacing from darkness. For Genma it happens in an instant, hardly a second from one state to the other, a snap straight from unconsciousness into perfect clarity. He doesn’t open his eyes, doesn’t let them flicker, does not allow his body to tense. Habit born of long practice in the field transformed into an instinctual tick he couldn’t break if he tried. He’s perfectly still, not even a hiccup in his breathing from one state to the next, but apparently that doesn’t matter.

“I know you’re awake you moron.”

Genma blinks his eyes open warily, wincing at the headache that greets him by way of the glaring midmorning sunshine and large amount of blood he probably lost. He hates anemic hangovers. They’re almost as bad as the actual thing.

But the pain he’s currently in has nothing on the pain he’s about to be in, if the look on Umino Iruka’s face is any indication.

“Please tell me that’s your third cup of coffee.” Genma whines. He’s not proud of it.

Iruka drums his fingernails against his ceramic mug with for too much cheer to be anything but homicidal. “Fifth, actually.” He says with a tight-lipped smile, and ya, Genma’s fucked. Raidou will be finding bits of him in Iwa.

Ibiki had warned him too– ‘Don’t be friends with Iruka’ he’d said. ‘Bad for your health’ he’d said. God sometimes he wishes he’d listened. Anyone who could tolerate hanging out with Anko had to be batshit.

But it’s so easy to be friends with Iruka; he’s smart, he’s funny, you never have to worry about him hitting on your significant other, and he’s afraid of literally no one on the face of the planet. He egged Danzo Shimura’s house when he was fourteen. How could Genma not be friends with him?

In fact the only time Genma has seen Iruka afraid is when it’s for someone, and usually the second he’s not afraid for you he’s pissed, usually at you for doing something stupid enough to get you hurt. Considering Genma hasn’t quite been eviscerated, he figures he only gave Iruka a mild start.

He tries for a smile that lands far too close to a grimace to be convincing. “Uh… how much trouble am I in exactly?”

Iruka narrows his eyes, so that was obviously the wrong thing to ask. “You bled all over my favorite student.”

Genma cringes visibly, the memory coming back to him in flashes. “Shiiiiit.” He groans, pressing the heel of a palm to his eye and rubbing hard. “Is blondie okay?”

Iruka’s ire calms visibly and he sets his mug down. “He’s fine, he’s a tough kid. He was more concerned about you actually. I gave him something to eat and sent him home to sleep.”

Genma nods, remembering the dark rings circling red and watery blue eyes. “Ya…the squirt didn’t look so good.”

“He said he’d been having nightmares.” Iruka says pensively, staring down at his mug on the table. “He was looking for Sarutobi when you smacked into each other. Probably after someone to talk to.”

“He should have parents for that.” Genma growls before he can help it. The words are bitter and sting like acid on his tongue, but he won’t take them back.

The look Iruka gives him is sympathetic and exasperated all at once. “Now you sound like Kakashi.”

Genma sighs, letting the anger drain out of his expression, but not his blood. “It wasn’t Kakashi’s job to protect one of them.”

“Don’t.” Iruka says softly. “There was nothing that you could have done, any of you. We’ve all failed before.”

“Not like that.” Genma counters fiercely. “Not with these consequences.”

Iruka cedes that point with a tilt of his head, and then says, completely off topic, “I’m going to flay Inoichi.”

Genma blinks, momentarily thrown. It’s not like Iruka doesn't threaten to murder Jounin rank ninja every day, he threatens the Sandaime about every ninth breath, (The God of Shinobi pulls the ‘too old for paperwork’ card a lot, from what Genma hears through the walls), but he can’t think of anything in the last few days Yamanaka senior has pulled that might warrant Iruka’s wrath.

“Something wrong with Ino?” Genma guesses. It’s usually a safe bet– nothing gets on the Chunin’s nerves quite like someone messing with his kids. Even if the culprit is a parent.

“She told me she was on a diet, yesterday.” Iruka says scathingly.

Whoops. Inoichi better haul ass for cover, because that means he’s been spending too much time out with Choza and not enough time making sure Ino doesn’t emulate her mother.

Genma should probably check how much time he spends with Iruka, since it’s apparently enough to be up to date on the schoolhouse gossip mill.

“Civilians.” Genma groans, knowing Iruka will catch his meaning. Genma not-so-subtly hates most of them, and sure, Ino’s mother is a strong elegant woman with a fierce protective instinct, but she also forgets that her daughter is a ninja and needs to be treated like the warrior she’s shaping up to be.

“That’s not the kind of mindset any ten-year-old should have, much less a ninja.” Iruka growls. “And it’s starting to get to Sakura. It’s contagious.”

Genma laughs, which was clearly Iruka’s goal because his lips quirk up at the corners and give him away. “Sneaky.” Genma chuckles, wincing when the movement of his ribs pulls at the fresh stitches in his side. He puts a hand over the bandages on his bare side, catching sight of the sorry remains of his shinobi top lying in tatters next to the coffee table Iruka is sitting on. “That was a brand new sleeveless you know.”

“Then maybe you shouldn’t have put it on over fresh injuries.” Iruka snaps back. “What were you thinking, walking around that injured?”

“I was thinking if I could make it to your classroom I could pass out behind your desk in peace. Didn’t account for a tiny blond smacking into my open wounds.”

Iruka looks like there’s a reprimand itching to jump out from behind his teeth, but he swallows it and stares Genma down for a long moment instead. “Kakashi doesn’t know does he?” He asks after a long moment, inclining his head towards the wound.

Genma sighs heavily. “No. He thinks he missed me.” When Iruka raises an eyebrow at that, he shoots a glare back. “He wasn’t exactly all there at the time.”

“How bad?”

“No worse than usual.”

“That doesn’t reassure me, given the circumstances.”

Because Genma is a mature adult shinobi with A-rank Kill-on-Contact warrants in three countries, he doesn’t stick his tongue out at Iruka. Raidou would be proud.

Iruka must sense his petulance anyways because he snorts and sways to his feet. “Come on. I still have some breakfast left over.”

Genma rolls off the couch so fast he almost pulls his stitches. Iruka’s cooking is not something one turns their nose up at, mortal wounds or no. Iruka laughs at him the whole way to the kitchen.

<> 

“Who makes curry for breakfast?” Genma asks, even as he stuffs his face with Iruka’s leftovers. Iruka’s kitchen was warm and homey in a way most people wouldn’t associate with a shinobi, covered in colourful drawings and little souvenirs of his students, taped and stacked on every conceivable surface. There are new ones since Genma was here last– an ink drawing of koi with Hanabi Hyuuga’s name signed in the corner, a little glazed clay figurine of a bumblebee that could only be from Shino.

“Naruto wanted to learn how to make it, it was as good a time as any.” Iruka remarks as he flips through a report, another cup of coffee by his elbow. “And chew your food, you’re an assassin not a four-year-old.”

Genma swallows reflexively and reaches for his mug of black tea to help wash it down. As expected it’s fantastic, not too heavy but also not too thin, with enough spice to set a lesser man on fire. “Did you give this to the brat?” he asks, wondering at the heat level.

“No, we made two pots. Naruto’s was tamer– he took it home with him.”

Genma glances at the clock. 10:34am, which means Iruka called in a sick day to take care of him.

“Umm, you sure the School’s not gonna blow up without you?” He asks around a spoonful of scalding curry, unwilling to stop eating long enough to speak without his mouthful.

Iruka raises his eyebrow around his coffee cup, and doesn’t deign that with a response. Instead he stares down at Genma’s nearly empty curry bowl with ill-disguised amusement “Does Raidou not feed you?”

Genma stops for a fraction of a second, swallows so hard it makes his chest hurt. “Are you insinuating something Umino?” he asks, planting his elbow on the table and leveling a playfully suspicious glare at the schoolteacher.

Iruka laughs and swats Genma’s arm out from under him for his bad manners. “You insinuate plenty all on your own. Plus, you have a thing for scars. It was only a matter of time.”

I do not.” Genma sputters. “Lies and slander. Besides, I thought you didn’t care about that kind of thing.”

And the proof of that is obvious enough– Genma knows he’s hot. He’s known it since before he’d hit puberty. But he’s been shirtless this whole time and Iruka hasn’t so much as looked him over. He never has, at least not in a way that didn’t have to do with checking for injury.

“Just because I don’t have a libido doesn’t mean I don’t have eyes, Shiranui.” Iruka drawls, dry as a Suna dessert. “Besides it figures the one person you fall for for good is the only one immune to your charms.”

Genma smirks, puts his spoon down in his empty bowl and tucks his senbon back between his teeth.

“Other than you of course.” He says with a wink.

“Get out of my house Genma.”

Chapter Text

When Naruto gets back to his apartment it’s late morning. The knot in his gut is a heavy weight, but he’s not anxious about getting caught. He’d cleaned up, wiped down his fingerprints, left all the keys in their respective places. This weight is something constant, a singularity in his chest that gives him vertigo.

What he’s thinking of is crazy.

Insane.

He’s never been that far out of the village before.

But he’s desperate, and he’s scared.

So scared.

Kids who haven’t passed the academy exam aren’t even allowed outside the city limits by themselves, and Naruto failed it. Twice.

But Iruka’s words are still bouncing around in his head. Faith he hadn’t expected gives him hope that this might not be as impossible as it seems.

“I think it’s your Will of Fire.”

The pain in his stomach is spreading, chasing up to tongue along his sides, though the intensity of it has subsided somewhat. When he goes to change the bandages he finds that almost all the gauze has been eaten away, leaving the cloth as nothing more than powdery ash pressed against his skin by the final layer of gauze.

He tests his seal one more time, finds the door open.

Dread rising like bile in the throat, he dives down.

He opens his eyes knee deep in muck, but instead of being angry and boiling it’s cold and slimy, thick like mud or tar. It smells horrible, like sulfur gas and rotting tissue, but the air no longer chokes him as it burns down his throat. The space is darker than it’s ever been– the only ambient light seems to be coming from Kurama himself. It radiates from the bijuu’s middle, a warm reddish gold glow pulsing out in soft bursts that radiate along the fox’s limbs and down his tails. It’s steady and slow and comes in twos, like the beating of a heart.

Kurama is still, body motionless just beyond the bars. The inner light falters the further out it goes, flickering and dying towards the tips of his tails and the ends of his claws. In contrast Naruto can see purplish veins encroaching beneath the Kitsune’s red fur, corruption given form. He wades forward, reaches out for the bijuu, running his fingers along the fur of Kurama’s nose in that familiar gesture.

Tears threaten his eyes when some of the lush crimson fur, now darkened to burgundy, comes off in his palm.

“Kurama?” He asks, pleading. “Come on you stupid fox, wake up.”

But it’s no use, Kurama remains unconscious, his breathing slow and labored, and Naruto is alone again. He rubs his face against the chakra fur, tears pouring down his face. “Please…”

But no matter how hard he cries or how much he begs, the Kyuubi’s eyes stay closed. Naruto’s not sure why he thought it might be different, crying has never solved anything for him, never turned so much as a pitying glance. So when his tears have run dry he just sits, indifferent to the disgusting toxic feel of the rotten chakra around him. He keeps a hand in Kurama’s fur, and lets a different emotion replace despair.

He calls up every memory he can, from every corner of his mind.

A warm nose on his back, nudging him away from a fall.

Tails curled around him, comforting and protective, as he’s told stories of powerful creatures and old battles and the family he never knew.

Red eyes that warm from cold and callous to keen and mischievous.

Gentle corrections and grudging affection.

Intention surges up Naruto’s spine, his jaw tightens, his eyes flash to diamond hardness, and he makes up his mind.

He has work to do.

<> 

 

He wakes to the smell of rain trickling in through the open window. He levers himself up, shakes the last of the weariness from his bones, and goes to check his packs.

The wind picks up as he throws his old bag over his shoulder, fingers of cool wind pulling through his hair. He takes a deep breath of it, letting the cool chill his lungs. He’s always loved the smell of rain.

He leaves his note for Iruka-sensei on the counter. He hates lying to his teacher, but he’ll be back before he can be missed.

He hopes.

Outside a soft drizzle is soaking the earth and grass. The sunset is both gorgeous and dangerous, shafts of rich red and purple light emboss the dark clouds ahead with a colourful warning.

The rain may be light now, but it won’t stay that way.

By the smell and feel of the wind and air, Naruto knows the coming storm will be massive. He can feel it in the charge that’s building in the atmosphere, in the pressure against his skin as it starts to drop, in the hush that’s fallen over the usually noisy forests.

And he’s headed right for the middle of it.

He has no idea if he can do this, no idea if he’d make it under normal circumstances, let alone with this monster monsoon on the horizon.

No time.

No choice.

 

The rain helps conceal him as he dodges the patrols on his way out of the village proper. The forest outside Konoha is dark and maze like, but Naruto’s eyes are sharp enough to cut through the inky darkness.

He forms a concentration seal and starts to body flicker, darting up into the trees to leap from branch to branch. He feels tension snap tight in the air, feels the atmosphere grow heavy, and the storm breaks overhead.

In only a few minutes it goes from a sprinkling to a shattering, every drop slicing like needles, stinging his skin and ripping leaves off trees. Branches smack and drag against his arms, the bark of the trees becomes slick and hazardous. He loses sight of the path he’d been following almost immediately, but he knows, instinctively, which way is east.

So he forges his own.

He draws his chakra up with Kurama’s. The bijuu’s power is heady and toxic, but chakra is still chakra, and if he mixes it with enough of his own he keeps the true acid burn of the rancid energy at bay. It keeps him moving, and has the added benefit of draining some of the sickness from the bijuu’s blood and slowing the corruption. He thinks.

He hopes.

 

Time starts to bleed together. The storm is like a living thing around him, swirling wind and pelting rain, blinding lightning and roaring thunder. His central chakra runs dry and he grasps for anything he can use, forces earth chakra into circulation because it’s the first thing he can grab. The sensation is different, the wood beneath his feet and hands rumble at his touch as the power rips forth along empty channels, surging along his limbs and filling him with undaunted strength. It feels almost the same as when he first drew it forth, but the feeling is fuller now, rumbling energy that turns his bones from granite to steel.

When that strength bleeds away he draws on the next, pulls water chakra through in earth’s place. A burst, a moment suspended in time, and the rain stills against his skin, shielding him for a moment from further downpour as it races through his system to give him the energy he needs. His blood sings in his veins with it’s passing.

He draws fire up through him next, feels it scorch along his throat as he pants into the damp air, temporarily confused by the flashes of warm light he sees out of sync with the lightning strikes until he realizes he’s literally breathing fire.

He draws on wind when fire dies and feels the gales around him twist to whirl around his feet and launch his steps further than he’s usually capable of.

He saves lightning for last, the strongest of his chakra, and of all the elements it answers the most readily. It burns along his skin and through his veins with such potency it sears away some of the corruption, allowing him to breathe through the burning again as the electricity replaces that pain with it’s own.  It turns the rain to vapor the second it touches his skin, leaves his footprints charred like lightning strikes, his breath charged like a thundercloud.

The darkness of the sky doesn’t subside, the rain doesn’t let up.

Only when he notices the trees beginning change and drift apart does the rain ease from cold shearing to warmer fatter droplets. The soaking softens further to a drizzle and then a sprinkle, and then the dark clouds pull apart and light filters through the cracks as if through stained glass– in vibrant reads and regal golds– and Naruto stops in his tracks.

It’s a sunrise.

Colours spill like water paints across the landscape below him, shining against tall grass, moving to dip and smudge over a cliff face that drops sharply into a swirling sea.

The coast?

Everything he’d read told him that it would be at least two days before he would reach this far. He’s only been traveling for one night.

He drops down into the soft plant life beneath him. Aching and cold as he is, the sunlight is a balm on his skin. The sea wind grabs at his sodden clothes, wiping droplets of rain from his hair. He walks to the edge of the cliff, gazes down a perilous drop towards bright reefs and sharp rocks. Other than the inherent danger of a fall, the edge is shielded by thick trees on all sides. A safe enough place to rest.

 

He pulls his clothes over his head and hangs them to dry on a branch in the sun. As he does he looks down to see spiderwebs of black veins crisscrossing his skin from fingertip to shoulder. They pulse uncomfortably, like there’s too much pressure in his blood, but the more of it in his system the less in Kurama’s, and the more time be buys himself. He does his best to ignore the creeping ache of the corruption and pulls something to eat out of his pack. He’s starving.

He spends the rest of the day napping on and off at the cliff’s edge, recuperating from his rabbit race away from Konoha. He knows to go north from here, but that’s all he does know– he has the crude map he drew based on the ones he found in the archives, but he’s no artist, so it’s a rough estimate at best.

He's not sure what drives him to sleep right at the line of the bluff, but something about the sight of the ocean calms him down, eases some of the lingering anxiety and soothes his frazzled nerves. He sleeps there until he feels like himself again, until he can stand with confidence in both body and chakra. He scrapes to his feet, stooping to pick up his pack, and stands toe to toe with the precipice. He takes a last fortifying breath to chase the fog from his eyes and arm him against the pain, and turns to go.

As he does, something in the wind changes, softens from the regular ocean gusts to something that whispers across his cheek like a greeting. He turns his head, but the wisp of feeling is gone as fast as it came.

Just my imagination.

 

He runs north as the sun reaches its zenith, chasing the gales that rise off the water. The land begins to change from dense forest to steep river valleys, and the sight of ocean currents whirling across rocky shoals marks the end of Fire country and the beginning of Whirlpool. He sees no people, but every once in awhile he’ll catch a glance of abandoned villages through the thick, bright greenery or across the ravines at a river’s edge. They’re simple and small; clusters of wooden houses overgrown with saplings and ivy. He gets the feeling he’s the first human being to be here in a long time.

As the day winds down into afternoon, he comes across such a village, nestled into a small bay pressed against the cliffside. He stands on a small ledge overlooking the array of crumbling houses, dark mossy browns offset by the cobalt brilliance of the sea beyond. It looks like a fishing village, or maybe a port– extensive docks lie stretched across the harbor in disrepair.

He slides down the steep incline towards it, oblivious, through the ache in his veins and the wonder in his eyes, of the easy grace in his movements now.

He’s unaware of the grace and confidence of his movements as he leaps from stone to stone when the drop becomes too steep, heedless of how readily his chakra answers his call on even the barest of instincts, how it rises to his aid the moment he has need of it. It lies ready in this time of crisis, prepared now to do whatever he asks of it.

He skids to a halt at the edge of one of the larger buildings, a barnlike structure with most of the roof caved in. The ruin is all sharp broken edges softened by the crawl of nature over the debris, taking back what’s hers. He walks the ruined docks carefully, moving slowly in case some of the planks don’t feel like holding his weight. It’s surprisingly solid construction for a bunch of wooden boards suspended over water. Something feels missing though, absent among the remnants. He leans over the edge of one of the docks, scanning the crystal water.

It’s the boats…

More specifically, the fact that there aren’t any.

Through all the ruin and rubble, there’s no sign of anything that might have once resembled seacraft. For all the obvious care that was put into constructing the docks, there isn’t so much as a broken dingy– in the water or in the debris of the village.

Now that I think about it, I don’t remember the reports mentioning Uzushio having ships.

He’d just assumed that they’d be like Kiri, that they’d have the same kind of armadas Kurama had told him were a staple of the Hidden Mist infantry. But he sees no evidence of masts or curved planks that might have once made up a hull, just draped sheets of old and torn fishing nets.

Standing at the edge of the dock, he finds himself captivated by the sea again. The warm sun of afternoon has turned it from the cool greyish blue of early morning to a warmer tropical cerulean, hinted with greens as it winds along the shallows and deepening to a darker navy as it marches off towards the horizon.

Naruto reaches down, leans over the edge and drags his fingers through the water. It parts like ribbons around his fingers, warmer than he’d thought, swirling in tiny whirlpools against his palm. The water flows back against him as he pushes through it, an odd little current that swirls up around his wrist for a soft moment before sloshing back to normal level.

Another strange, elemental hello. Maybe he hadn’t imagined the first one.

What is going on here?

Like some kind of chain reaction, the wind kicks up suddenly around him, twisting to whirl around him once, twice, then chase past him in a playful glide, dancing off along the surface of the water.

Something pulls at him, tugs sharply at some kind of old instinct in his chest like a chain yanking taught at a place just below his heart. Something deep.

Something animal.

It draws like a magnet to north, fixes his attention across the sea. He takes a step off the docks onto the water, and if this was part of the ninja village then it suddenly makes sense that Uzushio didn’t have any ships. They hadn’t needed them.

 

The sapphire sea is warm and clear and teeming with hundreds of colourful fish. They dart beneath him as he races over their coral homes, chasing his sandals, flitting this way and that beneath his shoes. Naruto wonders if they’re used to this, if once upon a time they chased dozens of shinobi across the surface of their sea.

But the ocean is empty now, not a boat or soul in sight across miles and miles of uninterrupted water, stretching on and on until the blue of sea meets the blue of sky.

The wind comes out to play again, fluttering impishly, practically daring Naruto to chase it. He’s never been one to turn down a challenge, so he bolts after it, bounding over the swells to move with it. Something bright and spontaneous wells up in him, something that numbs the ache in his veins and chest as he leaps over the waves in twirls and twists, bouncing across the water and laughing.

His chakra wants to join the fun, so he lets it switch from Yang to Water, feels the texture of the sea beneath him change under his feet. He starts to ride the waves instead of running over them, sliding up to crest the surges and then pushing off from the top, twisting like a gymnast on the way down.

The wind and water respond to him– the breeze tucks into little whirlwinds around him, cradling him as if to slow his descent. The water joins in on the game, reaching up to meet him as he falls and rising up to aid him when he leaps again. The ocean steals his sandals and he doesn’t even notice, giggling madly as the sea tosses him again and the wind pulls at his fall, caught up in the strange feeling of camaraderie and welcome as the wind and water greet him like old familiar friends.

An island grows out of the distance like the back on an enormous turtle, a dark shape cresting over the horizon.

His companions turn from playmates into guides, urging him onward towards the shape. The pull in his chest gets tighter, a sense of foreboding warns him to be prepared for whatever he finds. The chakra in the water and wind is a tangible thing now, living things that grasp at his ankles and shirt, pulling him closer to what they must know is his mother’s home.

The ocean pulls as his calves, an askance to veer south. He does as asked, following a broad curve across water that grows more and more still the closer he comes to the island. Most of the island is ringed by sharp cliff faces adorned with strange stone columns formed in the shape of hexagons. The reports he’d read called them ‘basalt columns’ though Naruto’s not so sure what makes them special.

They halt their march to curve inward and form the entrance to a sheltered bay, which the wind herds him towards as soon as he notices it. He bounds over the threshold onto the glassy lake-like surface of the bay and something in the air changes, goes as still as the water beneath his feet.

Naruto can’t sense anything wrong exactly, but it feels like he’s somehow walked into the past, like the entire island is frozen, suspended in time. The only movement comes from the water and wind around him, and only then when it’s practically touching him, like his mere presence is waking up something that’s been asleep for a long time.

Decades.

He steps off the water onto the beach, a long crescent of sand black as pitch, as stark against the pale basalt stones as an ink spill on parchment. The sand ripples out from the touch of his bare feet against the warm granules, a pulse that leaves an imprint like a rock thrown in still water. The world around him is still and silent but for the subtle rush of air and lap of waves. Nothing moves or breathes; no lizards skitter and no birds sing, just empty quiet.

Yet the chakra in the bones of this place is palpable. It sings in the air, the water, the sand beneath his feet, and yet it seems to hold its breath.

As if still in mourning.

Naruto gets the feeling that he’s been given some kind of honor he doesn’t understand.

Breath held tight in his chest, he moves up the bank. The sand marks his passage across the beach, little ripples that erase his footprints as he walks. The columns are natural stepping stones, and he climbs them quickly, moves to stand at the crest of them. When he reaches the top, he understands.

The broken ruins of Uzushio lie stretched out before him. What must have once been beautiful towers of golden stone lie shattered across the valley like clay pots. Brilliant red tiled roofs caved in over the husks of buildings, warm cobblestones the color of butter lie cracked and upturned in heaps. No growth has occurred here. No new trees sprout between cracked walls, no moss crawls over upturned stone, no mold flecks wooden beams. Nature has withheld her reaching fingers. No new life has touched this place.

Out of fear, or out of respect? Naruto will never know. Either way, he can sense them, the reasons why he’s been guided here.

The bones beneath the rubble.

 

Chapter Text

It takes two days. Two days of moving the broken stone and wood of buildings, two days of digging through rubble and river silt, two days of gathering remains. Because he won’t leave them here to rot. He won’t.

He only stops once, the first time he finds the bones of a child, younger than him. He cries himself almost sick, because these were people once, left here to degrade until their skeletons were bared and bleached in the sunlight.

There are other bones too, but they’re fragmented, like they’ve been trampled or torn apart by animals. Whatever force protected the bones of Uzushio, its grace had not extended to their enemies.

As he works, toiling to uncover person after person with hands sore from moving rubble and making hand signs, he gets the distinct feeling he’s being watched. It doesn’t make much sense– the entire time he’s been here he hasn’t seen hide or hair of so much as a mouse skittering through the brush, and just when he’s starting to wonder where all the animals have gone, he finds out he’s not as alone as he thought.

Uzushio was a city in a way that’s nothing like the scattered buildings of Konoha clustered around the Hokage Mountain. It was far smaller and far more complex– that much is obvious by what Naruto can gather sifting through the pieces of its civilization. The entire place was built around the river, from the point where it the valley widens to the river’s endpoint, where it pours into the sea. The buildings had been crafted to move with the land instead of against it, conforming to the elongated bowl of the valley from the western bay to the upward rise of the hills in the east. The river divides everything into north and south portions, and there are heavy stones and treated wood along the banks of it, indications of bridges that might have once crossed water’s breadth.

He hisses as he bends over to sink his hands into the silt, thigh deep in river water in a quest for the bones he can sense buried under his feet. The cuts and scrapes on his knuckles and the blisters on his palms sting like mad, but he’s worked his way through far worse pain than that in the last few days alone. He needs to use some more chakra soon– he can feel the seeping crawl of the corruption pooling again in the seal– he just wishes he weren’t quite so exhausted of his own. The crawling pressure of the rancid energy is starting to make him sick to his stomach.

As he’s digging through the soft muddy silt a shadow flashes past him through the water, a dark shape as long as his arm and stark against the river rocks. He catches a glimpse of something shining too before it’s gone again, lost against the currents of the river upstream. Just as Naruto’s about to write the encounter off in favor of getting back to work, the shadow swings back around, curves to flick a graceful figure eight around his legs before settling to hover just shy of Naruto’s arm, still frozen in the water. A lean and beautiful fish idles past Naruto’s elbow, close enough that he could easily reach out and touch it.

It’s a… koi. Naruto knows the species from watching them in the decorative pools outside the Hyuuga complex, but this one is twice as long as any he’s seen, and other than the sleek carp body, it doesn’t look anything like the red and white variety that Hinata had been feeding when he asked about them. He immediately wishes he’d paid more attention to the informative little lecture she’d given him on the different varieties, because he’s not exactly sure how to classify a fish that looks more like a piece of jewelry than an animal.

He remembers that she’d called the ones she had been tending to ‘Kohaku’ Koi, and pointed out a few special ones that were all white but for a red dot on their foreheads, which she’d called ‘Tancho’. But this one is mostly black– no white whatsoever, with golden ridging down it’s back that looks like armor plating. It’s fins are long and flowing like ribbon, encrusted with more metallic gilding along the edges of the pectorals and the trailing ends of it’s tail like the trim on a silk dress. The fish’s scales shimmer like hundreds of tiny jewels, the golden accents stark against the inky black body. He remembers Hinata saying something about decorative breeding and black or metallic colouring being rare– this fish has both, and Naruto wonders what meticulous and selective care created this creature, and what the heck it’s doing swimming free in a river. The shining colours would be a beacon to predators, and Naruto has no idea how something so beautiful hasn’t been eaten yet. Maybe he was right, maybe there are no animals here but for this strange shining exception.

The fish looks at him expectantly, it’s big black and grey eyes alarmingly intelligent. Naruto doesn’t move, afraid that the slightest movement might startle it. All the koi in Hinata’s ponds had been afraid of him and had bolted at the sight of him. The young Hyuuga heir had commented offhand that they weren’t usually skittish creatures, and that she was sure that Naruto’s sudden appearance had only startled them, but the fish had kept their distance until he’d left.

This one doesn’t seem remotely fearful of him. Even when Naruto eventually straightens to pull his hand from the water, the koi flits closer, not away, its fins waving back and forth like ornamental fans to keep its place in the flow of the river. It seems to be waiting for him to do something– tail swishing back and forth exuberantly as he moves back towards his pack, and then he gets it.

It’s waiting for me to feed it.  

Hinata had been giving her koi little chunks of melon and strips of lettuce, and the fish had gathered around her in a swarm to compete for her attention and her goodies. He has some cubed honeydew in his bag, now that he thinks of it, so he wades to the edge of the river, casting a glance back at where he’d left the fish.

For a fraction of a second he’s convinced it’s darted off, until he sees a flicker of gold much closer than he expected and discovers that the koi has followed him, and is swimming back and forth in the shallows by his ankles.

“Huh.” he mutters, fishing the little bento tub from his bag and opening the lid with his teeth. He plucks out a square of green fruit, grateful for the break from picking through ruins in search of corpses. The fish flutters back excitedly at the sight of it, its tail swishing behind it a soft rush of gilded ink.

Naruto plops the melon piece in the water and pushes it out towards the strange koi. “There ya go, eat up.”

The Koi looks at the food floating on the surface, but doesn’t go for it. Instead it watches as it begins to float downstream, fins flitting curiously, before it loses interest entirely and turns it’s attention back to Naruto, staring intently at the box in his hand.

Naruto makes a face at it. “What? My food not good enough for you?”

The fish does a strangely graceful little wiggle, an almost playful undulation of its sleek body from side to side as if responding to the sound of his voice. It swims forwards a little, and when Naruto doesn’t move it swims forward some more. In a sharp motion the fish bops its head against Naruto’s left shin, the one closest to it, and then backpedals to its original position to continue staring at the box of fruit.

An askance for something else.

...Which displays a lot of intelligence for a fish.

Unsure what exactly it wants, Naruto crouches down a little further, studying the koi closely. It stares right back, the odd expectancy in its gaze still present. Naruto plucks another cube from his box and the fish flaps excitedly again. It clearly wants it; it just seems to have an issue with his method of delivery.

Feeling a little silly for it, Naruto maneuvers the melon chunk so that it rests on his palm in the soft cage of his fingers, and dunks his hand underwater before him, holding it out this time instead of letting it float. The likelihood of the fish coming right up to him is–

But before he can even finish the thought the koi darts forward with a graceful swish of its sleek body and wriggles it’s head between Naruto’s fingers to get at the morsel trapped there, sucking up the treat before Naruto can even think to pull his hand away. Naruto watches with bewildered fascination as the fish gobbles up the goods. Once it’s finished it flits around his hand, nibbling playfully at his now empty fingers. Naruto giggles and sits down in the shallows, wiggling the fingers of both hands to divide the fish’s attention between them. The koi darts happily around in response to the attention, chasing the movements of his hands and darting between his wrists to chase the currents he stirs to life. He winces a little when all the movement aggravates the splits over his knuckles, prompting soft wisps of blood to twine from the wounds. The fish pauses in it playful darts, watching the smoky curls of red spiral up to dissolve in the river’s current.

It swims forward slowly, as if the Koi is afraid of startling him and not the other way around, closer and closer until it’s head is nearly pressed against his hands, resting the water between his knees, first knuckles touching.

He nearly jumps when he feels the unmistakable hum of chakra radiating over his hands, building until a soft golden shine begins the glimmer in the water. The glow rolls softly over his skin, seeping into the cracks and the crevices between his fingers like a balm. It rests there for a few moments before it sinks beneath his skin, the light vanishing entirely.

Left in it’s wake is clear unbroken flesh, the only sign of damage remaining at all the vine-like crawl of corruption streaking up from the chakra points in his wrists. When he looks up the Koi has vanished, the only clue of its presence remaining is a streak of golden chakra leading upriver.

 

This encounter is the first, and in the end there are five.

<> 

The second comes late that first night, when he finally stops to rest after pulling skeleton after skeleton from the southern half of the city, Uzushio nin and civilian alike, out from underneath debris and silt and the powdered bone of enemy shinobi. He figures the chakra reaching out to him from their bones is the result of some kind of seal, a power that calls to kin. He’s been lying them down in the only clear portion of the city he’s found, the only place not littered with destroyed buildings or earth upturned in some kind of attack. It’s a shopping plaza or a city circle or something, a round stretch of pale stone with a mosaic of a whirlpool in dark gray stone lain over it. The mosaic itself is cracked and broken, entire sections of it missing completely, but the pale stone beneath is whole and unblemished, not so much as a split in its surface.

Each time he lies another body down in the plaza he gets an impression, a flux of memory not his own that gives him an idea of who they were. A blacksmith, a chunin teacher, a hunter nin, a shopkeeper. With each one he begins to piece together what life must have looked like before the attack– Genin teams running drills across the water of the bay, civilians standing on the bridges and waving at shinobi walking across the river below, strange people in robes that aren’t shinobi, but aren’t civilians either. He knows that the broken building of wood and glass at the far end of the valley next to the waterfall used to be an aviary, knows that the tower that lies shattered across the river used have the Arashikage’s office at the top, knows that this plaza was used for ceremonies of all kinds, festivals and funerals alike.

He sits on a hill just outside of it, overlooking the circle of stone, and tries not to be overwhelmed by all of it; the grief, the loss, the pain. Because they’re not just corpses anymore. He knows them now in small pieces and flashes, knows what they could have been and what they never were, and it’s so much worse to know. Their spirits weigh heavy on him atop his own burdens, and now that he’s stopped to rest, he’s finding it very hard to breathe against it. His hands are the only things that don’t hurt him now, as if that strange koi’s blessing still lingers there, even the ache of the rotten chakra in his blood seems dulled.

He knows he needs sleep, but has no idea how he’s going to manage it with spirits racing through his thoughts, hundreds of moments from hundreds of lives never lived. He takes a deep breath against despair, because there is not just and pain and loss in the moments he’s seen. There’s life and light and pieces of souls, and maybe if he can’t push these moments and memories away he can bring them in, make sure that he remembers what no one else will ever know, make sure he can recall what Uzushio was, not what it is now.

Maybe he can hang their moments on his heart and remember for them.

And so he leans back against the broken wall behind him, stares up at the stars beginning to peek through the dim light of dusk left by the sunset, and makes room for their pieces with his own.

<> 

A crack and a rustle jolt him from his head much later, when the stars have turned from scattered pinpricks to a river of light streaking across the sky. He turns and blinks, one hand planted on the brick at his back in preparation for fight or flight. At first he sees nothing but the expanse of the forest, oak and yew and the occasional willow, brush overflowing between the trunks. But then he blinks away the echoes of starlight on his retina and his eyes adjust to the wind of shadows cast by the wood.

An enormous stag stands between the thick trunks of two yew trees; it’s rack of twelve-point horns almost invisible against the winding branches. Naruto freezes, remembering Shikamaru’s words about how an aggravated stag can be just as dangerous as any predator– capable of lashing out with sharp scything horns and bone crushing kicks.

The stag doesn’t seem agitated though, and the only movement comes from its cupped ears as they twitch in response to the sound of Naruto’s feet against the grass and his hand against the bricks. The stag’s eyes are a bright mossy green that stands out from the charcoal grey of its coat like peridot stone, unnervingly steady and abnormally wise. For long moment it’s a staring contest– Naruto’s bright and startled blue eyes locked on the great hart’s soft emerald ones. Eventually the creature tips its massive head, its horns dipping with the movement, and steps out from the shelter of the trees. As the horns tilt they catch the starlight and flash golden, bright and out of place with the surroundings, unmistakably similar to the golden armor of the koi. Naruto gets the sense he’s being sized up and evaluated by this being of the wood, a being that, no matter how much it looks like deer and acts like a deer, isn’t one.

The hart steps forwards again when Naruto doesn’t move, its head dipping as it moves closer, taking a heavy breath through its snout. Its gaze shifts, flows from suspicious to curious, and it takes another few long strides forward until it’s eye to eye with Naruto, who is still crouched barely breathing against the broken wall. The hart exhales in a snort, it’s breath rushing past Naruto’s ear as the beast looks at him sideways, head dipping even closer until Naruto can feel the disturbance of the air above his head where the enormous rack of antlers sway with each of the hart’s smallest motions.

Then the creature ducks even closer, bumps a nose into Naruto’s chest and presses softly. A long moment of barely-there breaths, a long moment of trying to decide whether he wants to be freaked out or confused or anxious or all of the above, and then the strange motion changes. The odd press turns abruptly into a friendly nuzzle, a rub of rough warm fur against his sternum and an affectionate huff.

Naruto feels abruptly like he’s just passed some sort of test.

Hesitantly he reaches out to run a hand softly over the beast’s neck, stroking the warm course pelt as the creature nuzzles around Naruto’s torso.

Though the fur color is different and the texture isn’t right, Naruto is reminded immediately and painfully of Kurama. His eyes well with tears before he can blink them back, and the next thing he knows they’re coming down his face in streams, his body beginning to shake with the effort of holding back sobs. The stag withdraws, blinking it’s large wide eyes, and for a while just watches him. Naruto doesn’t look away, there’s no point, no reason for him to hide.

The hart stamps a foreleg and chakra kicks up under it’s hoof, bright green like new spring growth, curling up around the beast's leg and sinking into the earth beneath. The hart shakes its head and stamps again, the chakra rising up brighter and fiercer as the ground begins to vibrate and the creature takes off at a run.

Naruto follows it, bewildered, into the thick of the forest, watching with awe as the trees bend and part to make way for them as the hart darts between the trees and across outcroppings of rock with a grace that belies it’s size. He skids to a stop at the foot of a ravine and watches disbelieving as the stag continues to run, climbing the nearly sheer surface with the same ease as the soft slant of the valley.

Naruto channels more chakra, feels the acid-like burn of Kurama’s rancid chakra scorch through him in the absence of enough of his own to counter it, but he pushes through the pain and exhaustion and climbs anyway.

He reaches the top with knees scraped from sliding on the loose rock. The blood that runs down his shins is a shade to dark to be healthy, and his chest feels like it’s been the victim of a rockslide. The hart waits for him at the edge of the summit, watching him with wise keen eyes as he pulls himself to his feet.

He stands at the edge of a ruin that must have once been some kind of temple. The wind is strong here, rushing off the ocean at speeds high enough to sting his eyes. He throws a hand up to shield them, staring at the broken tablets and mosaics that circle a set of stairs leading higher up the slope. His eyes travel along the length of the steps, widening at the expanse of them as they wind across the cliffs. When he turns he can see the ruins of Uzushio below him, curled in the safety of its valley on the island’s eastern edge.

The moon shines down on him now, no longer hidden by these very cliffs, washing the sparse grass and jagged rocks a silvery pale. In the distance at the end of the stairs he can see the outline of another temple, smaller than the ruin of the one he stands in, perched perilously along the narrow cliff’s highest point, far above the rest of the forest.

There’s a nudge at his back as the stag buts him softly between the shoulder blades to urge him forward, stepping around to shield him from the worst of the wind coming off the sea. Naruto twines his fingers the beast’s dark grey fur for comfort and stability, and they walk the steps side by side.

Naruto isn’t sure exactly where the creature is leading him or why, but his instincts are telling him that he’s safe here, that he has nothing to fear. His instincts have gotten him this far. He’s going to trust them now.

The path is long and winding, and by the time he reaches the end of it he’s being pulled towards two different kinds of exhaustion– the kind that’s telling him to drop where he is and sleep for a month, and the kind that’s telling him that rest is the last thing he needs.

This temple, unlike the other, is almost entirely intact; the only signs of wear being the erosion of time. The temple itself is little more than a gateway, the dark stone of the roof barely wide enough to be shelter in a rainstorm. It’s also old, far older than the other ruins here, and it’s decorated with beautiful if worn engravings of a massive tree whose branches and roots curl in twining knot-like patterns.

His companion snorts and steps back, nudging him forward again and urging him through the gateway to the edge of the winding cliff. Though Naruto waits, the stag doesn’t follow, seemingly unwilling to cross the threshold with him. Instead it folds its legs under itself and lies down on the other side of the gate to wait for him.

The edge of the cliff sticks out like a long flat needle with a rounded point, all grassless pale stone not unlike the kind that makes up the plaza.

Suddenly memories not his own flood through him, flashes of a pilgrimage, a journey to the precipice, people in long robes kneeling in the circle that represents the very center of the island.

The heart tap. The convergence of world chakra. Something is supposed to be here that isn’t. Something far below.

The words flow from deep in a memory not his own, an old secret, an answer when he doesn’t know the question.

He steps out onto the circle of stone and peers over the edge.

Far below him is a lake as wide as a village, filled with dark water gleaming under the moonlight like a mirror. It’s deep, so deep Naruto can’t even imagine a bottom; like a hole drilled so far into the earth it might as well be bottomless. Chakra hums in the air, dark and fluid and oddly comforting. It’s so potent that Naruto can feel it whispering across his skin and ringing in his ears, can practically see it rippling through the air like the heat off a hot sidewalk.

At first he kneels like he’s seen the monks do in his memories, but it seems wrong almost as soon as he does it, so he shifts his legs so that they’re crossed instead. It’s the same kind of stance he uses when he managing or monitoring his chakra or talking with Kurama when he’s awake, a kind of stance used for meditation, not prayer. He rests his hands open on his knees, shifts his shoulders, and evens out his heartbeat.

As he calms himself something starts to change– the nearly empty expanse of Naruto’s chakra vessels seems to react to the energy around him, a strange sort of pull on the outside energy. The odd phenomenon is easily disrupted; every time Naruto shifts or fidgets or even breathes too deeply the process grinds to a halt, separating the two energies immediately until Naruto settles again and it all starts over.

Naruto never thought complete stillness could be so hard, but the urge to shift or test muscles or flutter his eyelids is stronger than he realized.

But each time he tries he manages a little longer.

At first he can’t even hold it for a full minute, but then he can hold it for two, then five, then twelve. After that he stops counting the seconds and the minutes, stops measuring time entirely and instead focuses on the pull and push and flow of the chakra around him.

The emptiness in his chakra vessels seems to create some kind of negative space, a space that exerts a kind of gravity on the chakra around him, like an empty cup dipped straight down into a stream. But moving seems to have the effect of turning the cup sideways downstream– the water flows more around the cup instead of inside of it.

But the longer he manages to keep himself still the easier the outside energy flows in, and the more he can feel his chakra levels rising. Eventually he senses equilibrium– no more negative space, no more flow. And when he opens his eyes and lets out a deep breath, he feels stronger than he has in days.

Now he doesn’t feel tired at all.

 

Even though the coming sunrise has already begun to turn the horizon from dark navy to soft grey, the hart is still waiting for him on the other side of the gate, steadfast and patient. It accompanies him down the steps the same way it did up, but this time it doesn’t bother shielding Naruto from the harsh wind. He doesn’t need the protection now.

The descent is quieter; the only sounds the clack of hooves on the hard stone and whistling wind overhead. Naruto strokes the stag's neck in thanks, but no longer needs to hold on to be sure of his footing. In response the beast tucks its head over Naruto’s small shoulder, careful not to clip him with gilded antlers, and stays that way for the rest of the hike down.

<> 

His third encounter comes is the form of an attack on two fronts.

The first is a sneak attack, launched while he’s distracted with the last few sets of bones mid afternoon on his second day in Uzushio. The only warning he gets is a shadow out of place among the grass on the far side of the fallen Kage’s tower, a dark rush through the tall blades of green waving in the breeze. He stands, turns, and only barely manages to roll sideways before a flash of black and white streaks past him.

He bird coasts high, feathers gleaming golden around the edges against the glare of the sun overhead, and dives again before Naruto can get a better look. It lets loose a long screech that immediately tells him it’s some kind of raptor, though not any kind that Naruto has seen circling the nests in Konoha’s redwoods. The bird dips and circles, dives again, this time so close that Naruto is almost positive he can feel the swish of talons on the back of his neck.

Another caw, this one offended, and the enormous bird turns a wide circle above his head. He gets a good look at it while it does, noting stark black and white plumage as the strong wings ride the coastal winds. The flash of yellow wasn't just the sun though, and Naruto can see now the lining of familiar gold along the bird’s primaries and the fan of it’s tail, a flash of more gilding shining at him from the crest of it’s head.

Twice might be coincidence but three times is a pattern, and the other two animal spirits of the island had no intention of hurting him. So this time when the bird dives, Naruto doesn’t duck or roll away. He holds his ground.

The raptor hurtles towards him in a long graceful dive, but even as it get’s close it keeps it’s razor talons tucked close to its body, and Naruto knows he has nothing to fear.

True to his instincts the bird pulls the dive last minute, raising its massive wings up to fan in a powerful backstroke that halts its forwards momentum half a meter from his face. It caws high at him, and in an instinct born from memory not his own, he hold his arm out in front of him.

More memory comes to him in flashes as the beautiful bird extends it talons to grasp his forearm, and he knows what kind of bird this is. It’s an osprey, the pride of the Uzushio aviary, prized for it’s precision fishing and hunting skill and used to carry the most sensitive of Uzushio’s information. The talons that grip his forearm are incredibly gentle for what they’re capable of– he knows full well that they could shred his arm to ribbons at even the slightest pressure.

“Hey there.” He says to it softly, turning his head to give the bird a few curious blinks. “You here to tell me something too?”

The bird tucks its head a little, the feathers on the back of its neck fanning slightly and then smoothing out again. It really is gorgeous– its feathers are a layered medley of black and white crested with gold at the edges, it’s head mostly white on a black neck but for two symmetrical streaks of black across its eyes like a bandit mask. It looks at him curiously with round yellow eyes, it’s head tipping back and forth. It lets out a soft kee and takes off again, gliding to perch of the bottom portion of the remains of the tower. He approaches and the bird leads him further down the ruin, towards the broken edges of what used to be it’s peak.

Naruto isn’t quite sure why it wants him to go there– Naruto had already pulled all the people left inside from it’s shattered depths just like he had with all the other buildings– with doton jutsu and by hand. He follows it though like he had the others, trusting the spirit of the island that seems to have manifested itself in the shape of these animals.

The osprey leads him to one of the few rooms in the fallen tower still relatively intact. Naruto recognizes it instantly.

It’s where he found the body of the Arashikage, along with the bodies of nearly a full dozen of her Anbu guard. Throughout the whole of the tower though, none of the bodies Naruto found were civilians. Naruto knows it’s because she gave her life to a teleportation seal of some kind, a Kinjutsu that transported more than a hundred civilian lives to safety. She was an Uzumaki, like him, but he has no idea how closely they were related. Her hair had been darker than his mother’s, the color of garnets and blood, and her eyes had been topaz.

The soft swoop of the osprey’s flight draws his eyes to the corner of the room, where a shelf lies fallen over a short ornamental table. It alights on the floor beside the small space between the shelf and the floor and sticks its head into the hole. The bird is far too large to fit though, so it sticks its head back out and caws at him again impatiently. Naruto huffs, stepping over the rubble to get to it. “I’m coming I’m coming.”

The osprey hops sideways to make room for him as Naruto slips his fingers under the shelf and pulls. It’s dark oak and heavy, so Naruto channels chakra into his legs and upper arms to pull harder. Even that much chakra use though almost makes him sick– even though he has enough chakra to dull the ache of the corruption to ignorable levels, he can still feel it pooling in his veins and lodging in his joints each time he uses more of it. He no longer remembers how it feels to not have too much pressure in his chakra vessels and his lungs.

A groaning lurch and the shelf moves, scraping across the rubble and the opposite wall. He hears the osprey give a happy kee as it dives underneath, and then scraping sounds as it roots for something buried in the plaster. After a few too long minutes the bird darts back out and Naruto lets the shelf drop again, planting his hands on his knees as he fights the urge to hurl.

The osprey flaps its wings and perches atop the shelf in front of him, bobbing its head excitedly. There’s something shining in its beak, something that jingles slightly as the raptor tips it’s head back and forth.

“Whatcha got there?” He asks when he can manage to stand up straight. The bird doesn’t answer, obviously, and Naruto laughs at himself. “Fine, don’t tell me. I hope it was worth it though.”

The osprey’s only response to that is to tilt it’s head again curiously as Naruto starts to pick his way back across the rubble and out from underneath the shadow of the broken tower so that he can get back to work. He only has one more body to place in the plaza, and he can sense it’s nearby.

But the second he’s outside of the confines of the tower the bird dive bombs him again without warning, swooping to land on Naruto’s shoulder just as he turns. It ducks its head at him, shaking the shiny trinket in its beak. Naruto holds his hand out, and the bird drops it into his open palm.

It’s a piece of jewelry of some kind, though he’s never seen anything quite like it before. There’s a curled cuff like a small half-formed ring in some kind of shiny black metal. Both parts of the ring on either side of the gap bear an etching of a golden spiral, the symbol of Uzushio. The curved side is connected to two lengths of thin gold chain, each of which attach to a separate rounded stone with a needle-like point on the back. One is almost the size of the tip of his pinky finger and is some kind of rippling luminescent gemstone; the colours inside range from blue so dark it’s almost black to a bright purplish shine and every brilliant shade of rich blue imaginable in between. The gemstone itself seems to change as it moves, reflecting different nebulas of colour in ribbons and shards as he examines it dangling from his fingers. The other stone is entirely black– onyx, or maybe jet? – except for a soft etching of gold in the familiar shape of a tree with branches and roots twisted like knots.

“You want me to have it?” he asks, and the bird gives him a happy kee of agreement, leaning forward and using its sharp beak to preen a few stray strands of Naruto’s hair out of his eyes and tuck them behind his ear.

Naruto folds the odd piece of jewelry into the inner pocket of his shirt, right beside the scroll containing Kurama’s seal.

<> 

Just as he’s placing the last of the bones of Uzushio with its fellows, Naruto spots a thief.

He looks up from settling the last body just in time to see the burglar crouching at his bag– a long lean wildcat with a coat of marbled black and gold, teeth clamped into the strap of his old pack. There’s a moment of total silence as the cat stares at him, eyes mischievous.

“Don’t…” Naruto mutters, rising as slowly as possible, but the cat’s eyes just sparkle as it shifts its shoulders in a playful wiggle. “It’s not funny, don’t do it… –shit!” The cat takes off with a lithe bound and Naruto tears off after it like a thing possessed. That bag has not only all of his sealing scrolls and changes of clothes, but it also has his last container of Iruka-sensei’s curry and there is no way he’s letting that end up anywhere but in his stomach.

The cat doesn’t go outside the plaza, instead it’s playing some screwed up game of cat and mouse as it darts around, slipping away each time Naruto is sure he has the stupid thing. It goes on until Naruto clips his foot on a section of the plaza and almost takes a header into a broken piece of mosaic, and when he rolls over a looks up the thing is standing right there staring down at him. The wildcat licks its chops smugly and Naruto is reminded for an odd moment of Sasuke right after he’s just won a spar. In fact the similarities are uncanny. It leans back on its haunches as he sits up, batting his pack towards him as he crosses his legs beneath him.

He glares at the pack, not trusting it for a second. “So what do you want from me?” he asks, and the cat trots over, it’s fur rippling like a lava flow. It stops over a portion of pale stone where the whirlpool mosaic has been ripped up, just to the right of the chunk he almost smacked his head on. There's a long curved line underneath it, out of place with the natural circles of stone, but the cat doesn’t call attention to it, instead it places a clawed foot over the stone, and when it’s sure Naruto is watching, it lets loose a pulse of chakra and lifts its paw. Underneath it, scorched in the stone in fiery lines, is a symbol of a moon twined together with a sun.

When he looks up the cat is gone, much like all the other spirits, and when he looks down again so is the symbol.

<> 

That evening, Naruto pulls broken branches and leaves from the brush to use for kindling. He could have done this as soon as he found the last body, when the sun was still relatively high in the sky, but it had felt wrong somehow to just get it over with like that.

So he’d waited for the sunset.

Warm reds and buttery golds paint over the dust and old blood, cleansing the ground beneath the bones if only for a moment. He sets the tinder between the bleached frames, careful not to place any over the bones themselves. When he’s finished he sits before his makeshift pyre and makes four exhausted hand signs; snake, dragon, rabbit, tiger.

Katon: Dragon Fire.”

Fire rolls, soft and seeking, across the inhabitants of Uzushio. It catches green first, then deepens to blue, heat furling from the blaze across Naruto’s face to make his eyes burn.

But he doesn’t turn away.

He watches until the bones are reduced to ash, watches as that ash is whisked away by the wind as it stirs out of the stillness. When the last of the bones have been rendered to dust the wind whips up, whirling the flame into a spiral, a firestorm that burns white hot for a spare few seconds, searing his eyes before it vanishes entirely.

Naruto looks down from the phenomenon, blinking flashes of white from his eyes, and his heart stops dead in his chest.

Before him, standing only a few feet from where the center of the pyre had been, is a wolf.

It’s enormous and black as pitch, it’s fur long unbroken ebony from nose to tail. It watches him steadily with unnerving eyes of pure silvery white, pupiless and luminescent.

He scrambles to his feet, and even that amount of motion is enough to make his vision blur and his stomach roll– the corruption is taking it’s toll now, and he’s nearly at his limit. If the wolf is planning to attack him, then there is nothing he could do to stop it.

But the wolf doesn’t move, makes no shift to indicate aggression. It merely waits, and stares.

Something connects, brings that old instinct in Naruto forward again, that animal sense of true north. His instincts haven’t lead him astray yet, not with Uzushio and not with Kurama, so he trusts them, gives into the feeling and trusts the animal part of himself more than the human.  

Tired and damaged as he is, when he can barely stand let alone take another step forward, he meets the force in the wolf’s eyes with a challenge of his own.

This time the wolf does move. It shifts powerful shoulders, leans back on its hunches, throws its head back, and howls.

The sound rings in Naruto’s ears, powerful and haunting, and the entire island starts to quake. The air shakes with vibration as whatever spell that had held the island suspended shatters, as the curse of stillness breaks.

Like a first breath taken after so long without air, life surges through the earth on a gasp.

Sound roars to life around him, trees rubbing together in the flood of wind that races through the valley, water crashing through the river as if let from a dam. Naruto turns, watching movement dance across this once still pocket of the world.

A crunch, a crack, a resurgence of dormant chakra singed the air with its intensity as Naruto turns again to the wolf.

Light is splintering through the stone at the beast’s feet, flooding though unseen lines in the form of a looped five pointed star. It runs along unseen lines like liquid starlight, filling groves with chakra so concentrated Naruto can hardly stand to look at it. Another crack and a pattern unfurls along the entire breadth of the plaza, vaporizing mosaic pieces and debris as it twines into an unbelievably massive seal.

The wolf’s eyes catch his again, lightning cracking against the creature’s fur in cracks of light that split the air in the new chaos that breaks around them as clouds begin gathering dark overhead.

He tries to move forward but even a single step is too much for him now as nausea rolls from his stomach up his throat. He falls to his knees, hand snapping to his mouth, but it’s not enough and when he manages to turn his head it’s to vomit rancid chakra.

His head is spinning and his vision cuts out, but he can still feel the urgency building in the atmosphere, can still sense the storm that’s converging over his head, unnatural and angry.

Naruto senses a crackle of energy too close as teeth nip into the fabric of his shirt and yank him forward, forcing him to stumble upright in order to keep his balance. He blinks vision into his eyes again and finds the wolf has come to him, eyes bright and intent. Like the other spirits before it comes to his aid, tucking underneath Naruto’s arm to lend it’s strength to his.

It drags him to the center of the massive seal, to the point at the center of star. He expects the chakra raging in the seal to at least burn him, but the energy doesn’t harm him as he passes through it. He’s unsure if it’s because of the nature of the chakra or if it’s because the spirit of the wolf is protecting him.

When he reaches the center he finds only a tangle of lines that don’t make any sense– random curves and slashes that have no real order to them at. But he remembers Kurama’s teachings, remembers that great power sometimes lies in opposites, that true balance sometimes lies in contradiction, so he looks for order in the chaos.

If he hadn’t been given a hint he would never have seen the method in the madness, but in the odd swishes and half circles, he finds it. A moon and sun. Yin and Yang.

Another memory floods through him, the Arashikage’s memory–

The defending storm is calmed by the blood of the eldest.

Naruto bites into his thumb, allows the blood to well against his finger and drip down his palm, dark and diseased, but still Uzumaki. He finds the center of the symbol, the place where the tines of the moon meet the center of the sun, and slams his hand down over it.

A boom echoes like a struck drum, a cleansing force sweeps from beneath him and the air clears of anger and tension, the clouds above his head disperse. Energy floods him, more than he can stand, a reaching power that pushes through him, sinks its claws into that space below his heart, and pulls him under.  

Chapter Text

The rain has been an insistent thing, heavy and oppressive, for days now. Sasuke watches it fall through the window of his room, eyes scanning the dark blanket of clouds still swollen with rain even after nearly three days of ceaseless torrents. Konoha hasn’t seen a monsoon this large in years.

It’s kept even the most hardened of shinobi from venturing outside for anything short of A-rank missions and runs to the grocery store, and as Sasuke knows firsthand, the downpour is capable of soaking through any number of layers in seconds. According to his alarm clock it should be dawn by now, but the dark layer of clouds has turned the day into a lasting midnight, not a ray of sun to be seen filtering through the roiling cover.

Frustration builds as he runs his hand through his hair roughly. He’s getting so sick of trying to train indoors. He’s been using the compound dojo to train these last few days, but the memories that lurk in the corners there ambush him when he least expects them to, flooding him with renewed pain and memories of his brother and father. His mother’s presence haunts the garden just outside the structure, where she used to tend flowers and poisonous plants, making that entire part of the compound a minefield of emotion.

Just as he’s resigning himself to staying in and thus another night of painful memory, his keen eyes spot something through the rain outside his window.

The mostly deserted street suddenly has a single occupant– a tall lean man with white hair and a crooked hitai-ate, a lone shinobi walking easily across the flooded pavement. Sasuke looks for indications of a rank but sees none– the man is wearing only a standard black sleeveless top with a custom mask attachment, pulled all the way over his nose, and regulation pants of the same standard shinobi variety. Other than a pair of bicep length reinforced gloves and a band of cloth wrapped around the upper part of his left arm, the man isn’t wearing anything else– no flack jacket and no cloak to protect from the rain. He walks through the downpour like it isn’t even there, no urgency in his step and no tenseness in his body language that might indicate discomfort.

He tells himself that he goes outside because he needs to go shopping fairly badly, he’s low on vegetables for stir-fry– nevermind that he forgets his wallet on his dresser.

In reality he’s curious– the man looks like a specter pacing an easy and familiar path, a ghost walking a pilgrimage.

Only when he makes it to the street does he realize he’s lost sight of the man entirely, the curtain of water cloaking any sign he might have left behind. The rain soaks through his overshirt in seconds, running down the lines of his neck and falling from his hair in fat drops. He grunts in disappointment and turns back– he has enough food to last him another day at least, when he hears a soft splash and turns to see the man standing behind him.

The tall shinobi looks at him sideways through a single silvery eye, the other covered by his lopsided hitai-ate. “Where are you going during a storm like this, Uchiha-san?” The man asks, his voice neutral and low.

Sasuke isn’t surprised the stranger recognizes him, most all of the village knows his story and by default his face. What surprises him is the complete lack of pity or curiosity or anything noticeably recognizable as an emotion on the man’s face.

“I could ask you the same.” Sasuke snaps, not extending the same honorific, but the shinobi only blinks, unperturbed by Sasuke’s complete lack of manners. The man must only be a Chunin, Sasuke decides. Any Tokujo or Jounin worth their rank would have at least tried to put him in his place.

The man hums thoughtfully. “Apologies. My reasons for being out are private ones, you understand.”

That knocks Sasuke a bit sideways. The man isn’t talking to him like the academy student he is, but like he’s an adult on the same footing, with the same understanding.

“Then you’ll understand if I keep my reasons to myself as well.” he responds, a little scathingly to cover his surprise.

Again the shinobi doesn’t react, he merely inclines his head in concession to his point. “Fair enough.” He murmurs softly, turning to continue on his way. “Your ghosts are your own, after all.”

Of all the things he’d expected to come out of the shinobi’s mouth that was nowhere on the list.

“What is that supposed to mean?”

The man shrugs a lean shoulder carelessly, not bothering to turn back. “Whatever you’d like it to mean, Uchiha-san.”

That little statement does nothing to assuage the creeping feeling that for a moment the man had seen right through his walls and into the graveyard of half-buried pain he keeps bricked up behind them.

“Wait.”

Sasuke isn’t sure what prompts him to speak out, but it probably has something to do with the old familiar pain he’d seen lurking for a spare few seconds behind the elder man’s eyes.

The man stops and turns, and Sasuke sees it again, a flash of an unnamable ache behind strange silver irises.

“What would you know about ghosts?” he asks.

The man tilts his head, considering the question. “Enough to know that being haunted has nothing to do with the presence of the dead, and everything to do with the memory of the living.”

The words strike him like a blow to the chest.

He’d never considered someone might know, that someone might have lived through loss like he had, let alone this stranger. He finds he can’t muster the breath to speak a response.

The man regards him calmly for a long moment, then turns to the side, his body language open.

An invitation. Take it or leave it.

<> 

He follows the shinobi stranger across the expanse of training ground three, through dripping trees and grass swamped with rainwater. Eventually they come to a clearing slightly raised above the ground surrounding it, a dark monument at the center.

Sasuke has never seen the mirror-like gem that is the Memorial Stone himself. His own family is buried in the Uchiha cemetery just outside his family complex, so he’s had no reason to until now. He knows that the memorial was erected for those who died in service to the village, and more specifically, for those whose bodies were never recovered.

With all the names written on the reflective surface Sasuke can’t tell which one the man’s eyes fix on, and for some reason he doesn’t want to know. It seems too private, too personal, and he doesn’t even know this man’s name. He’s not even sure why he’s here.

After minute upon minute of silence it becomes clear that the man doesn’t intend to speak unless spoken to, more than content to stare at the same point unblinking. He’s so at ease here in this solemn place that it’s unnerving.

“You come here often.” It’s not a question, Sasuke has his pride, but it’s spoken softly enough not to be an accusation or an insult, not that he thinks the man would care if it were.

“You could say that.” Is the man’s response, and the way it’s said, wry and slightly sarcastic, tells him often is an understatement.

Sasuke’s not too stupid or stubborn to understand that such behavior speaks of catastrophic loss. To visit the same name countless times, so often it becomes ritual and routine– well.

Sasuke knows what it’s like to be hollow inside, even if it’s not to this extent. He’s filled the void in his life with anger and hurt and drive to vengeance.

This man has left it empty.

“They meant a lot to you.” It’s not a question either, but Sasuke flinches almost as soon as it’s left his mouth.

Way to state the obvious.

“Everything.” The man replies, with the same casual air as one commenting on the weather. It’s a statement of fact, not of sentiment.

“What happened?”

“A mistake.” The shinobi says immediately. “One made in arrogance. I chose the wrong path, a path I believed to be the right one, and by the time I realized my mistake, it was too late.” He reaches up to brush a thumb over a name, and Sasuke has to turn his head away. “He died saving my life. And like the fool I am, I didn’t realize what I had until I lost it.”

<> 

Kakashi slides through Iruka’s living room window just in time to see Kotetsu and Izumo roll screeching across the carpet like a couple of manic tomcats, knocking over a lamp and jolting the coffee table sideways until they thump into Ibiki’s shins, after which Ibiki kicks Kotetsu in the nose and Izumo in the side and sends them rolling apart again.

Kakashi takes a moment to absorb the fact the Iruka’s hardly medium sized apartment is filled with shinobi; Raidou comes around the corner munching on rice crackers, Hayate and Asuma are playing Go at the small table across from the kitchen, and Anko is sitting on the floor skillfully painting Aoba’s fingernails turquoise. Almost all are either in their civs or nothing but towels.

“I missed something.” He states to the room at large, not truly expecting any response. Raidou harrumphs and gives him one anyway around a cheekful of cracker.

“You haven’t been back to your apartment all morning, have you?”

Kakashi blinks for a moment before his overwrought brain catches up to the implication, and then he scowls behind his mask. “The whole building?” He growls, because the only thing that every person in this room has in common is the fact that the all live in the same block of shinobi apartments, the one on the other side of the Hokage’s tower.

Aoba nods grimly from his seat on the floor, tilting his wrist so that Anko has better access to his thumbnail. He’s in a pair of loose sweats and nothing else, his dark spiky hair wilted down with water. “Lightning strike took out the main water pump. Hiruzen-sama sent someone to fix it, but they won't be able to get at the machinery until the weather clears up a little.” He shrugs, then winces when Anko kicks him in the shin for squirming. “Hence the get together.”

“You do realize there are showers in the standby stations, right?” Kakashi remarks mildly.

Anko scoffs and brandishes the nail polish brush at him. She’s still fully clothed, which Kakashi finds surprising. “That water pressure is so shitty it might as well not exist! Those showers are barely fit to rinse off mission grime, how am I supposed to fucking wash my hair with that?” She whirls around, barely managing to keep turquoise polish from dripping on Iruka’s carpet, leveling a glare at Raidou. “Speaking of which, when the hell is your peacock boyfriend going to be done in there? It’s my turn next and I’ve been sitting here for twenty goddamn minutes!”

“I don’t know.” Raidou says mildly, holding a cracker loosely between his fingers “When are you going to finish those mission expenses I asked you for a week ago?”

Anko blanches a little and scowls, grumbling about stupid squad leaders and soul-sucking paperwork as she fishes a clear topcoat out of the round case at her thigh.

Kakashi finishes sliding all the way through the window, pulling it shut behind him as he tries not to jostle the bag in his hand. Kotetsu and Izumo’s wrestling match rolls them into the wall with a crash, knocking a painting off its nail with a thud. Iruka’s voice sounds from just outside the kitchen.

“If you two have so much goddamn energy you can go outside and heat more water for the tank!”

Ibiki snickers when the two fling their hands in the air and call ‘not it’ like absolute children, Kotetsu a hair faster than Izumo. The later growls and shoves his compatriot in the shoulder.

“That’s not fair Ko, I went last time!”

“A shinobi’s life is never fair, Zuzu.” Kotetsu says smugly, and gets a bloody nose for the hated nickname.

Iruka appears around the corner, a vein pulsing threateningly in his temple that spells disaster for anyone in his path. “NOW.”

Both Chunin scramble to their feet and are gone so fast that Kakashi swears they leave a dust cloud in their wake. Iruka then turns to level his gaze on Kakashi, who holds his takeout bag up like a shield.

“I come bearing tribute?” he says hesitantly.

But Iruka just sighs with relief and comes forward to take the bag out of his hand. “Please tell me that’s Ichiraku.”

“Shoyu with extra egg and green onion.”

Kakashi probably shouldn’t have said that so loud, because suddenly about six sets of eyes have fixed on the little plastic bag.

“Get your own, you vultures.” Iruka snaps, and waves Kakashi into the kitchen. The only other person in the room is Kurenai, and there's a good reason for that– she’s fast asleep at the kitchen table, arms folded under her head, a mug of tea forgotten by her elbow. Kakashi would find it strange that a Jounin would fall asleep in any house not her own, especially one so loud, but Iruka, and by proxy his home, have always given off a sense of safety that somehow reaches even the most hardened and paranoid shinobi.

Iruka lowers his voice to a whisper as he pulls his takeout from the bag, somehow managing not to rustle the plastic. “You here for a shower too or did you want talk about something?”

Kakashi busies himself with finding a bowl and chopsticks for both Iruka’s food and his own. “I saw one of your students this morning.” He says quietly. “Sasuke Uchiha.”

“Sasuke?” Iruka says, surprised. “What was he doing out in this mess?”

“Wanted to get out of his house, I think.” Kakashi says mildly.

“That compound isn’t good for him.” Iruka whispers, handing Kakashi his bowl and settling against the counter with his own.

“Too many ghosts.” Kakashi agrees. “But it’s not as if anyone could make him leave it.”

“Was he all right?” Iruka says as he eats.

“No.” Kakashi says honestly. “But we… had a conversation. Not sure what he got out of it though, if anything.”

Iruka raises an eyebrow. “Oh really?” Kakashi glances away and Iruka sighs. “Fine, I won’t ask.”

About three minutes later Kakashi watches with some amusement as Iruka glances at the clock, seems to realize something, and sets his half finished ramen bowl on the table in favor of storming towards the bathroom. Kakashi eats quickly while he’s distracted, only barely managing not to scald his tongue when he hears Iruka’s voice vibrate through the walls.

Get your ass out of there right now Shiranui or so help me YOU WILL BE DOING REPORT PAPERWORK FOR A MONTH.”

Several bangs and an undignified screech later Genma comes around the corner with a red welt on his forehead in nothing but a towel wrapped haphazardly around his waist.  Kakashi follows him back out into the living room, a fuming Iruka behind them both.

Kakashi perches on the back of the couch across from Ibiki as Iruka leans tiredly in the doorframe. “Your turn, Anko. Don’t forget your conditioner, you left it under the sink.”

Anko points a finger at Aoba as she stands. “Low flame for two and a half minutes. No more, no less, capiche?”

Aoba gives her a two fingered salute and goes through a couple hands signs, careful of his still tacky nails, until his palms glow with orange fire that he moves steadily over the fingers of his right hand, then his left.

“Hey Rai, where are my sweats?” Genma asks, only to take said pants to the face when he turns towards his partner. Genma glares, and Raidou continues not-so-innocently eating his crackers.

Genma flips him off as he pulls his pants on, rubbing the now free towel over his hair. He sits down in Anko’s vacated seat on the floor, looking curiously at the nail polish case as Aoba finishes flash drying his nails.  

“She got any good purple in there?”

Aoba runs his fingers over the bottles. “You want lavender, violet, royal, or mauve?”

 

<><><> 

 

The first thing Naruto sees when he opens his eyes is nothing at all.

He’s awake, he knows he is– no dream he’s ever had has hurt like this. His eyes are open, he can feel the flutter of his eyelashes against his cheeks as he blinks, but his eyes don’t seem to have caught onto the memo because all he can see is smooth endless black.

He draws his hands up under him, palms sliding over unnaturally smooth stone, and attempts to lever himself up. He doesn’t quite manage vertical the first time, since he underestimates how much effort it takes, but he manages to shuffle into a sitting position, one leg folded under his opposite knee. He still sees nothing but inky black, but it doesn’t alarm him quite so much as it probably should.

He hurts all over, from the skin of his arms and the back of his neck, all the way to the densest parts of his muscles. But this is a good ache, a healing ache– any sense of the creeping dull pressure of rancid chakra is gone entirely. So is most of his regular chakra actually.

He feels… different. Subtly so, like the corruption has left a mark behind, an imprint in his system, one his body seems intent on remembering. He feels stronger for his pain.

Naruto crosses his legs, placing a hand over his seal. The caustic burn is gone from what he can feel, so if the corrupted chakra has been purged from his system, then maybe...

He settles into a meditative state and drops into his seal.

After long moments in darkness even metaphysical light makes him squint, but when he blinks the splotches out of his eyes he finds he hardly recognizes his own head. The ever present water and dark prison bars are still there, but the flood of chakra seems to have given life where there otherwise was none, and the water overflows with greenery. Winding vines and aquatic plants bloom from water once toxic, curling up around the gate bars and floating in the shallows at Naruto’s feet. Blue lotus flowers bloom all around, like the kind from the pond in Jiji’s garden, a familiar and comforting sight so far from home. A mound of grassy earth rises from the water beneath Kurama, who lies across the knoll the same way he had when Naruto last saw him.

He’s not awake.

Naruto knows it was probably too much to hope for, but his heart sinks all the same. The fox looks better now though– his fur is too bright now instead of too dark, and the light pulsing out from his center along his tails looks steadier.

But he’s also emaciated– there's hardly any meat on his chakric bones, ribs stark steps along his sides, his face thin at the cheeks.

Naruto sits down in the water and takes a minute to compose himself. The corruption may be gone but that’s hardly half the battle– now Naruto has to find a way to return what Kurama has always freely given him. Now he has to find a way to give chakra to the Kyuubi no Kitsune.

He pulls back out of his head, opening his eyes to darkness again.

This time instead of searching for light, he makes his own, pulling a little of what fire chakra he’s managed to regain into his hands as his fingers flick through hand signs; Rat, Tiger, Ram.

“Katon: Flickerflare.”

A flash of yellow sparks and cobalt flame fills the bowl of his palm, casting haunting shadows across an expanse of glittering black stone. He pushes to his feet, holding the flare up against the wall and watching as blue light reflects in speckled patterns across the skin of his arms.

The fire in his hand dims suddenly when he steps too close, sputtering and dying until Naruto pulls his hand away and the fire flares back to life. It triggers a memory from the collective wisdom of Uzushio that’s hidden itself inside him, calling up details from a construction log from long ago.

Void stone. Chakra absorbing. To protect against sensor nin and chakric tunneling.

He turns away, making sure to keep the light of his fire away from the walls, and moves forward through the dim. The cavern narrows into a hallway long enough he can't see the end of it yet, a ceiling closing over the top where there hadn't been one before. There are recesses built into the walls on both sides of the hallway about three feet up. He investigates the one on his left and finds that the recess is lined with a different kind of stone, pale like the stone of the plaza, and filled with small translucent yellow rocks about the size of his fingertips. He plucks one from its fellows and examines it curiously, sensing a soft pulse of familiar chakra. The substance is too tacky to be glass or gemstone, and smells strongly of tree sap.

Chakric Resin. The back of his mind tells him. Flammable.

He drops the crystal back into the basin and brings his flaming hand to the recess. It catches instantly, roaring to life and racing off into the dark, lighting the path ahead as it goes. He lights the other and watches as it chases after the first, casting amber light across gleaming black. He follows the fire, watching the flames race until they split off somewhere ahead of him and disappear from sight. He follows the hallway until it opens up into an enormous cavern, big enough to hold his entire apartment tenfold under its ceiling. Lines of fire curl like ribbons around the dome, filling the cavern with warm light. Water circles the platform in the center, a mosaic of a giant stylized spiral.  

Lining the edge of the platform are thirteen rashomon style gates, each one bearing the crest of a different Uzushio clan at the top and leading into another chamber. The gate directly across from him is twice as wide as all the others, and the crest at the top is that of a spiral circled by curved tines, transforming it into a sun. The Uzumaki clan symbol.

The Uzushio Repository. Holding place of all Uzushio’s treasures, knowledge, and artifacts.

If there’s a way to alter his seal, Naruto is sure he’ll find it in there.

Chapter Text

Naruto is starting to understand that the Uzumaki were a lot more than just Uzushio’s largest clan.

They were the first clan, the founding clan of Uzushio, the ones that first settled on this island and started constructing the city that now lies ruined over his head. They were also considered the primary protectors inside the village; they handled internal disputes between the ninja population, were responsible for seeking out chakra talent among civilian families, and one of their primary duties was to protect Uzushio’s civilian population in times of war. In truth the Uzumaki weren’t that much bigger than the rest of Uzushio’s clans– most of the space in the Uzumaki section of the repository that made it seem so much larger is actually reserved for the contributions of ninja with no clan to call their own– those born either from civilian families or from shinobi ones not large enough to be considered clans by themselves.

The walls are lined with alcoves filled with jutsu scrolls and books and artistic diagrams, all under dozens of names engraved into the stone banners above them. The actual Uzumaki portion of the room is in the center towards the back, a circle of shelves filled with jutsu and odd artifacts.

Naruto ignores all of it in favor of the slanted mahogany shelves filled with tomes on sealing theory.

Within moments the floor of the repository is a disaster; open books lie scattered in a haphazard circle around him, long rolls of dark paper containing sealing diagrams in bright ink overlap each other on the stone floor as Naruto scours through their contents.

Like before, the collective knowledge of Uzushio remains out of reach until the moment he needs it, hidden right up until he comes across a symbol he doesn’t know or a term that doesn’t immediately make sense. Knowledge floods him in those moments and he begins to understand the different lines and symbols, how they’re used to direct and transform energy within a seal. He begins to understand the laws that govern different types of seals, their limits and the purpose of their designs, until he can look at a seal he’s never seen before and understand at a glance what it might be for, how it might work when chakra is added or subtracted or changed.

At the center of his chaotic circle, the scroll that holds the copy of Kurama’s seal lies unfurled.

Below it, just past Naruto’s crossed legs, a new one is forming.

The central construction of the seal has remained the same. Even if Naruto knew how to remove the seal– which he doesn’t, he’s come to understand that doing so would be a pretty terrible idea– one that would likely get him killed. The inner part of the seal is responsible for creating a dimensional space– a sort of pocket within the life force of a person in which a second life force is sealed. The intermediate portion of the seal is responsible for keeping the two life forces separate from one another. The outer portion of the seal is responsible for enforcing one life force over the other, in a sense closing the dimensional pocket and keeping the imprisoned life force sealed inside. Naruto’s seal is somewhat altered from the original– the intermediate portion of his seal, which deals with the negative space between the inner swirling part and the jagged outer part, is too wide to properly keep Kurama’s energy separate from his own. There’s also a small portion of it missing– a kind of barrier that might have prevented certain parts of Kurama’s energy from moving through the seal at all. But those filters are gone from Naruto’s seal, which is good, because otherwise he would have had to try and remove them in order to manage altering the seal the way he needs to.

Now all Naruto really needs to do is add.

The eight pyramids of scripture that ring the seal and make up it’s outer portion are responsible for the gate construct– the part of the seal that divides Naruto’s half of the seal space from Kurama’s. If Naruto adds a counterbalance, a seal segment of the same design and potency but with an opposite spin, he can turn the two parts of the seal into a shared space, one where both his energy and Kurama’s can exist without one holding precedence over the other. After that it’s only a matter of altering the seal’s law to allow chakra to be moved back and forth instead of just one way.

…Which is a lot more complicated than it sounds.

In order to manage it, Naruto needs to create a set of seal extensions known as Lines of Transgression. The Lines themselves are pretty straightforward, but have a great deal of rules and additions in order to get them to work.

So far, Naruto has it broken down into four stages.

After the addition of the counterbalance he needs to create a series of sixteen ‘bridges’ to cross the seal’s intermediate space, connecting the inner portion of the seal to the outer portion. They’d appear as little more than short lines crossing the seal’s negative space, but they would allow Naruto to connect his own energy directly to the seal space, and thus Kurama.

Second he would need to place ‘tapping points’ along the primary pathways of his chakra. They would serve as guides and anchors for the Lines, allowing them to move and draw energy and chakra from along the whole of his body. They’d be placed by a series of symbols that would brace the spaces where the Lines would appear. They’d be the most intricate part of the seal addition, and the most important, as the locations of the anchors would dictate where and how the Lines would move chakra. They would number in the hundreds, starting on either side of his neck and moving down along his arms to the backs of his hands, branching to move along the curves of his ribcage and down the planes of his back, tracing down his legs to the tops of his feet.

The third part would be the Lines themselves, which would, by far, take the most energy to place. He’d need to go slow, starting at the most far reaching of the anchors, the ones on his neck, wrists, and ankles, and then slowly add equal amounts of chakra to all five points until the Lines filled out the skeleton set by the tapping points.

The final part would be the bracers, circular seals that would lock the Lines in place and cause the tapping points and Line edges to merge, activating the movement of chakra through the central seal.

 

By the time he’s worked out all the kinks in his additions, drawn out all the minutest of details, he’s been working nearly a full day and hadn’t even noticed but for a stiffness in his legs and the painful rumble of hunger making itself known from a stomach too long ignored.

So he pulls out his container of Iruka-sensei’s curry and goes over his diagrams one last time. He needs some materials still, some ink and a transfer map, but the hardest part is done.

Iruka-sensei’s curry does a lot to help get his energy back up, and eating gives his brain a welcome break from all the work and helps relieve some of the headache from staring at ink on a page all day. It also makes him a little homesick.

Even though it’s only been a few days, he misses Iruka-sensei and Jiji and his bed and Konoha in general. But more than anything he misses Kurama, misses his constant presence and his rumbling laugh and his rough-around-the-edges affection.

So he finishes his curry, takes another deep, fortifying breath, and goes in search of the last few items he needs.

 

He finds the transfer map in a stack of paper rolls that when unfurled are longer than he is tall. They’re thick, almost like they’re made of canvas, and each one holds the outline of a person, each side bearing the front and back respectively. He mostly needs it because he’s on his own– there’s no one around to help him place the tapping runes on the places he can’t see or reach with an ink brush, like his back for instance. It allows him to place the runes where they need to be on the map, and then use chakra to transfer those runes to the correct places on himself. Some of the maps already have diagrams drawn on them, so he searches through the stack until he finds a blank one.

The only other thing he needs is ink– he doesn’t have enough in his bag to properly detail the whole map. Something tells him he won’t find any in here though, so he wanders back out into the main chamber of the repository.

He does a quick turn, his eyes scanning the clan symbols above the doors until they catch on one in particular, the symbol of a tapered droplet pieced by crossed senbon.

Clan Sumiran. His mind tells him.

As he ducks inside their section of the repository, he finds himself unsure of what exactly he’s looking at. There are shelves of scrolls and books, which he expected to see, but there are also shelves filled with row upon row of strange glass bottles, all filled with odd assortments of dark powders and bright liquids. He plucks one of the smaller bottles off the top of the shelf to examine. The smaller bottles, each about the size of a canteen, are the ones filled with liquids, ranging in colour from molten gold to luminescent cobalt. The one he’s holding is glistening amber, and when he tips it forward he sees a containment seal carved in the cork stopper. The yellowing label reads:

Entropic Tree Sap

Class 4B Reactant

All the small bottles have the same word written at the top of their descriptions. Catalyst.

The jars of powders that line the floor and lower shelves are larger, almost half his height, and though all the powders are the same charcoal black, each one reflects differently under the flickering firelight, shining around the edges in greens and purples. All the labels read Ink: Unmixed.

The largest container stands just to the side of the shelves of bottles, a huge glass amphora that nearly comes up to Naruto’s shoulders. It’s filled to the brim with some kind of clear liquid that shines silvery despite the warm light. The label on it reads Organic base: Pure.

All this for ink? He wonders, stepping around the shelves until he almost trips over a stack of ink stones of varying sizes, some the same size as the one Jiji uses to sign documents, some bigger than Naruto’s head.

As confused as he is he doesn’t have time to look around too much– he just needs regular old ink to set the transfer map, but with all these bottles and mixtures he’s not even sure where to look.

Eventually he finds a container of ink powder that doesn’t seem to reflect any strange light– in fact it doesn’t seem to reflect any light at all– and drags it from the shelf. Foreign muscle memory takes over from there, knowledge that he doesn’t so much think as feel.

He lifts one of the larger ink stones from the stacks, finds a stirring rod tucked in a stack protected with silk cloth. It like he’s doing this for the hundredth time instead of the first as he mixes the base with the powdered ink until the consistency is right and there are no lumps or pockets of air.

When he’s finishes he brings the ink stone back into the Uzumaki portion of the repository, careful not to slosh any, and gets out his brushes.

Preparation takes another hour, if only because Naruto double and triple checks literally everything. Any misstep or tiny rune out of line and things can go very differently than he needs them to, and since Naruto doesn’t have the key necessary to lift parts of the seal, any alterations he makes now will be permanent. He can’t make any mistakes. Kurama’s life is on the line.

So Naruto, the dead last, the failure, has to do this one thing completely perfect.

He should be terrified of screwing up.

But he finds the only thing he’s scared for is Kurama, wasting away if he does nothing about it. Well this is him doing something about it, and he can’t be scared, he has to be sure, because if he thinks about the what-ifs and the maybes he freezes up, and he can’t afford to. Not even for a second.

He has the first part down.

The counterbalance had been pretty easy, just a matter of inverting and copying a piece of his own seal and placing it against the outer part. The bridges had required some more delicate maneuvering, but he has them done too, sixteen short lines across the gap in his seal.

Now the hard part.

The transfer map sits in front of him, detailed with all the tiny symbols that will form the tapping points. He’d trashed six of them before he’d gotten it perfect, every little circle, curve and curl in their proper place.

Well, now or never.

He places his hands on the edge of the canvas and channels his central chakra, Yang and Yin, to the surface of his fingers.

A low hum fills the air as chakra flows along the contours of the map, alighting each of the symbols in turn. The runes come to life and begin to flow off the paper, drawing towards his fingertips like a line of ants towards sugar. They crawl across his hands, winding up his arms to tuck beneath his sleeveless shirt. He feels them move across his skin like the flutter of hummingbird wings, soft and vibrating with energy as they settle into their places. After a moment they still, and then two by two release concentrated bursts of chakra that feel like needle punctures, burrowing into the main lines of his chakra vessels. When the pain subsides into a steady thrum of energy Naruto crosses his legs across the floor and goes still, folding his fingers in his lap and concentrating.

Energy, soft and seeking, pulses along his limbs and down the line of his throat, steady bursts of chakra along the spaces created between the anchors. Lines, solid black and two finger widths wide, grow between the anchors with every chakra pulse, painting across his skin until they converge at the center of his abdomen, merging there to circle the central seal.

As soon as they converge Naruto makes a series of hand seals– Snake for movement, Tiger for force, Ox for stability, and Dragon for balance– and dips his hand in the ink stone. He touches two fingers to the top of his throat and feels the bracer lock in a band of black around the tops of the Lines there. He goes through the hands signs and repeats the process for his wrists and his ankles, feeling the power of the bracers locking the Lines of Transgression and the anchors together, merging the whole apparatus into one final seal segment.

Sweat breaks out over Naruto’s skin like a broken fever, causing his skin to prickle with goose bumps as the change settles into his chakra systems. He waits as long as he can stand, just until the new changes seem stable, and then he dives back into his head in search of his friend.

The process is different; it feels less like falling now and more like taking a step back, like the little world is closer to the surface than before.

The black bars that separated the seal space are gone. The relief Naruto feels is so overwhelming that he needs a minute to catch his breath.

Other than that the space is much the same as when he last saw it, with the soft grassy hillock in the center of the water, surrounded by blooming blue water lotus, his bijuu lying across it.

Even from inside Naruto can feel his chakra now, humming all around the space, ready for him to draw on it when he chooses to. He has no idea how long it will take– Naruto’s resting chakra isn’t nearly enough to replenish what Kurama lost, not all at once, but he’ll keep giving for as long as it takes.

He makes himself comfortable in the water just shy of the earth mound and begins to pull his chakra into the seal space. He’s going to be here a while.

 

<> 

 

The first thing Kurama becomes aware of, after so much time dreaming of nothing but black, is a sensation he can’t ever recall having felt before.

There are very few things that he can claim never to have felt. Until recently protective had been one, the desire to guard something from the things that might harm it. His siblings had never needed protecting, and until a few years ago there was nothing he cared about enough to try and protect. This is something else though; strength flowing into him from some outside source, a familiar source, but Kurama can’t put a finger on why it’s familiar.

If he didn’t know better he’d say it was chakra, which is ridiculous. Kurama is a tailed beast. Even with only half of his energy Kurama has as much latent chakra as Shukaku on a good day. He has never needed more of it.

But then he remembers.

He remembers his insides rebelling against him, remembers forcing it down so his kit wouldn’t see, which only made it worse because it was his fault, his mistake and his hate that made him hurt, and the more he grows to care the more unbearable that becomes, and the more he begins to feel the one thing he swore he never would. Regret.

Kurama regrets the deaths of Minato Namikaze and Kushina Uzumaki.

Not because he cared for them in any fashion, but because their deaths meant that his kit never had a family, never had a home, never had people to teach and guide him and care for him the way he deserved to be cared for.

He may not have liked Kushina, Minato even less so, but he knows they would have loved his kit more than anything because how could they not?

 

He’s not sure why he’s coming back to consciousness now, with how much chakra he threw up he wouldn’t be surprised if he was in hibernation for years, if he ever woke up at all.

But now his senses are becoming clearer and yes, that is chakra he can feel, trickling through him slowly but surely. Not just any chakra but his kit’s chakra.

Which Kurama is pretty sure is very solidly impossible.

He blinks his eyes open, which takes more effort than it should, making his chakric gaze focus.

The air feels different, warmer and more open. Kurama is so accustomed to stagnation that the soft movement of wind around him startles him, almost as much as the distinct smell of greenery in air that should only smell of water and iron.

When his eyes adjust to the light the first thing he sees is his kit, sitting in the water just shy of the bed of earth he’s curled on, which he can’t remember having been there before. For one heartrending moment Kurama is reminded of the Sage of Six Paths, meditating on the jagged rocks at the old nexus of the world. The little blond brat is sitting there, hands clasped and eyes closed, sealing lines running down his body that Kurama knows weren’t there before.

There is no gate. The cage bars aren’t open, or unsealed, or left ajar– they are gone entirely.

The brat looks tired, looks older, and Kurama wonders whether he’s not still dreaming, maybe truly dead, even.

~Fishcake?~  He asks, to be sure that this isn’t something he’s imagining.

The brat's eyes fly open and fix on him, wild blue irises red rimmed and exhausted. He blinks for a second, astonished, and then those eyes start to look dangerously wet. The first thing that crosses Kurama’s mind is oh shit not the waterworks, and then the kit is on his feet with record speed and comes crashing into Kurama’s snout with all the force of a tiny hurricane. He curls an arm around the kit on collision to keep him secure, but it turns out the brat doesn't need the support– he’s stronger than he was, more solid, and how the hell did that happen?

~Easy Kit. What’s going on?~ he says tiredly, looking around at the strange new place he finds himself in, no longer anything like the prison he remembers. He leans back, takes in the new lines running up and down the brats arms and neck and the change in chakra around him, and changes his question. ~What did you do?~

Naruto smiles wide and rubs the back of his head in that little nervous tick of his. His eyes are still wet. “It’s kind of a long story.”

Kurama extends a claw to brush the tears out of his kit’s eyes, not liking them there. ~Start from the beginning then.~

Naruto takes a deep breath and does.

 

By the end of the tale, surprised is the least of what Kurama feels. He’d known his Kit was something else, known he was capable of things that most other shinobi would never be capable of, but this? If Kurama weren’t able to see the truth in every sentence out of the brat's mouth as he rambles on about storms and spirits and collecting bones, he wouldn’t believe a word of it.

But then again, this brat has always had a talent for surprising him.

~Okay let me get this straight, kid.~ Kurama interrupts as Naruto’s reaching the tail end of his explanation. ~You broke into the Anbu section of the Konoha Archives without getting caught, ran to Uzushio on foot in a monsoon, gained the allegiance of the island by burning the dead, opened the Uzushio repository by yourself, and reformed a class S seal without any help whatsoever.~

The brat has the nerve to blink at him, like it doesn’t make sense when he says it all at once like that, and then shrugs. “I guess.”

Kurama narrows his eyes. ~You guess?~

And before Naruto can so much as come up with an answer Kurama scoops the little brat in up a tumble, eliciting a shriek as Kurama rolls through the water with him, kicking up leaves and grass and lotus petals.

~What the hell you little pipsqueak! You go through hell and back and the only thing you have to say about it is I Guess? You’ve never been more than a mile outside the village limits in the whole decade you’ve been alive!~

The kit laughs and wriggles loose enough to thump Kurama on the neck. “You scared the crap out of me, asshole!” Naruto grumbles. “And I missed your stupid grumpy demon butt, sue me.”

And when Kurama looks down at this kid, this brat, smiling bright and still scrubbing tears from his ten-year-old face, all Kurama can think is treasure.

Maybe this is it. He wonders. All that talk of Kushina’s about love and family. Maybe this is what it feels like.~

If it is, he understands now why she was willing to fight for it. To die for it. To raze the world to the ground for it.

It’s the least of what Kurama would do. That’s for damned sure.

 

 

Chapter Text

Naka River 2:34am

Night of the Uchiha Massacre

 

From the view off the edges of the canyon, the river below winds like a serpent, carving through the land in graceful sweeps as it rolls ever onward in its quest for the sea.

Somewhere far upstream, the water is being stained with blood.

The dark man standing on the edge casts his keen single-eyed gaze across the river’s surface, searching for any shift in the shadows of the water. His companion crouches at the edge beside him, a spiraling construct of wood and chakra in the shape of a man. “I saw him go off the edge, little brother. From that height the water would be hard as stone. He’s most assuredly dead.”

“We need to be sure.” The man insists, his eyes scanning for the slightest ripple out of place. “We cannot afford to be otherwise.”

The spiral shaped man only nods, lending his own senses to the effort, even though the man beside him hardly needs his help. “Shiro says it’s just started. The Old Man will be busy a few hours yet.”

The dark man nods, but doesn’t respond.

The silence stretches for long moments, a dozen minutes go by with nothing.

And then something.

The man’s gaze shifts, catching on a dark shape too large to be driftwood. He makes out the mould of shoulders, of an arm, the stain of red that follows in its wake. Too much red for a heart that isn’t beating.

A single powerful flex of muscles and the man launches himself from the edge, twisting midair in a graceful arc to land against the cliff’s vertical face, only to push off again and launch himself to the surface of the water. He stoops down even as he lands atop the river, dipping to hook his arm around the young man drifting through the water. As soon as the boy is secure in his grasp he leaps to shore, alighting on the thin strip of gravel beach that tumbles across the river’s edge. His companion is by his side instantly, though the man spares him no acknowledgement as he lays the boy on his back and takes account of his injuries.

Both eyes are empty sockets, blood-black and hollow. His left arm has been torn clean from his shoulder by something sharp and jagged, perhaps one of the cliff hugging trees that cling to the edges of the riverbanks, judging by the shards of wood buried in the wound.

“Eyes are missing. Not a good sign. Think someone got to the corpse before us?” The White Zetsu comments, taking a step around the man’s side to get a better look. The dark man’s eyes catch on the boy’s left eye, and he shakes his head.

“No. The wounds indicate he removed at least one himself. And he isn’t dead.”

The Zetsu blinks, bewildered. “What do you mean ‘he isn’t dead’? He took a header to the equivalent of cement at two hundred meters.”

“A cliff cedar broke his fall.” the man states, gesturing two fingers to the boy’s missing arm. “And dead men don’t breathe.”

True to word, the boy’s chest is rising and falling in short starts and stops, almost imperceivable, which means he must have been conscious until only recently, at least enough to keep the water from his lungs. He’s showing no signs of succumbing to shock from his wounds, which displays an impressive will to live for a boy that jumped off a cliff.

“Best put him out of his misery now then.” The Zetsu says reluctantly.

The dark man doesn’t move.

After a long moment of stillness, the Zetsu narrows his eyes in confusion. “Little Brother?”

The man is suddenly in motion, pulling a kunai out of thin air to cut the black fabric of the boy’s shirt away from his mess of a shoulder. “Get me my creeper seedlings.” He demands, bundling the fabric of the shirt up and tossing it in the river. “Now.”

The spiral Zetsu responds to the order without hesitation or thought, unfurling his hand and pulling a sealing scroll from the hollow cavity of his arm. He unrolls it as he refurls his hand into a solid appendage again, forming a concentration sign over the seal within. A puff of smoke and a small seed appears in the center of the seal, a teardrop shaped seedling sporting half a dozen sprouts of thin vermillion vines.

The dark man pulls the wooden splinters from the boy’s wound with a soft tug of jutsu, the shards following his will easily as they work their way out of tissue to get to him.

The Zetsu scoops up the tangled cluster of vines and holds his palm out to his leader obediently. He takes the mass by the seed with two fingers, and even that amount of contact makes the vines start to writhe with life, seeking to grow and twine their way around him even at this slight touch.

“Shhhh.” The man whispers, calming the seedling with a comforting pulse of chakra. The vines still, but continue to grow and curl around his fingers. He presses the seedling into the bloody mess of the boy’s shoulder and channels his chakra into a more focused pattern as he directs the seed to grow. Mokuton, for him, has never required a hand seal.

The sprout gets to work, ready and eager to obey, vines seeking out major nerves and arteries, stitching some closed and healing over others, quickly moving to spread like a thick layer of skin over the boy’s wound, covering damage it can’t heal to prevent infection.

“Are you sure this is wise, brother mine?” The white Zetsu asks, eyeing the boy with trepidation as his eyes flutter. “A blinded Uchiha is still an Uchiha. If Yami finds out…”

“He will not. Enough have died tonight. If he was strong enough to make it through all this alive, he deserves to stay that way.”

The Zetsu nods in deference. “If you say so.”

The dark man casts as suspicious glance at his lieutenant. “If you find fault with my decision, Guruguru, say so.”

“It is not your decision I find fault with, only its implications towards your safety.”

The man scoffs. “I can take care of myself.”

“That was never in doubt.” The Zetsu defends, but sensing his commander’s irritation at being challenged on this matter, he bows to dismiss himself. “I’ll go make sure Shiro isn’t getting in over his head.”

“You do that.”

In an instant the Zetsu is gone, leaving the man alone with the prone form of the young Uchiha. The dark man sighs to himself, his mind whirring through possibility and probability, necessary precautions for an unnecessary choice, a choice he’ll make regardless.

The boy’s breath is coming in hitching, sobbing gasps now, and the man knows that unconsciousness for him is a relief– the pain of losing an entire limb is like no other pain. To lose a whole part of yourself that will never be yours again.

He leans forward and scoops the boy up with one arm, careful of his missing limb, tucking the boy's head into his shoulder to secure him against his side. Thunder rumbles distantly overhead, an omen of rain to come.

Fitting, for all the blood that needs washing away.

The man walks up the bank, keeping his strides smooth and steady as not to jostle the injured boy in his arms, and begins to body flicker, leaping into the trees Fire Country is so famous for, movements just as rhythmic and steady to avoid aggravating the still vulnerable injury. Just because the boy hasn’t gone into shock yet doesn’t mean he won’t , and shock can be just as deadly as any fatal wound. Most adult ninja are strong enough of mind that such dangers are negated, but this boy, whatever rank he may be, can’t be older than fifteen.

He wakes just as soft rain begins to filter through the canopy, blinking sightless eyes and gripping the fabric over the stranger’s arm with surprising force as he comes to. The dark man senses the boy’s brief moment of panic, a spare half second of full bodied tenseness in preparation for fight or flight. But then shinobi conditioning kicks in, response over reaction, and the boy calms noticeably, taking in his surroundings through what senses he has, noticing the distinct lack of ill intent resonating from the stranger. The man’s hold is supportive, not restrictive– the boy could break free if he so chose.

“Where am I?” The boy mutters, his voice hoarse around the pain. “Why can’t I see?”

“You are in the wilderness of fire country.” The man responds evenly. “You cannot see because you do not have eyes.”

The boy shifts around, and the stranger has to adjust his hold as not to drop him. The teenager isn’t exactly small, even if he doesn’t seem to have finished going through adolescence just yet. He’s lanky and unwieldy, even one limb short.

The boy’s breath starts to come faster as he seems to realize that his eyes aren’t the only thing he’s missing, and the dark man almost loses his grip on him when he lunges with his one working hand to grip the empty curve of his shoulder.

“Easy…” The man growls. “Or I will drop you. And it’s a long way down.”

“It’s gone… what… what happened to me?”

“What do you remember?”

The boy pauses, taking deep shaking breaths against the pain and gripping the stanger’s shirt hard to steady himself. At least a Tokujo then, the dark man thinks, if not a higher rank than that. It takes a great deal of fortitude to manage pain so severe.

“Falling.” He decides. “I remember falling. Then pain, and then water…”

“Anything before that?”

The boy shakes his head, gripping harder. “Just grey. There might have been a voice, just before I fell… but nothing else.”

The stranger nods to himself. He had expected as much; the sharingan are deeply linked to the memory centers of the brain. The kid is lucky the only thing he seems to have lost is his past.

For a long while neither of them speaks, the only sounds the pater of the rain on the leaves in the canopy and the rush of air as the dark man leaps from tree to tree. Then the boy speaks abruptly.

“You saved me.” It’s not a question.

“I found you.” The man corrects.

“Liar.” The boy shoots back.

The man snorts. “Look, twerp. The only reason you’re here is because you possess, or rather possessed, a kekkei genkai that could cause trouble for me in the wrong hands.”

“I heard you talking with that man on the riverbank. He wanted you to kill me. You didn’t.”

The dark man grits his teeth. “Don’t read too much into it.”

It’s the boy’s turn to snort. There’s another pause before the boy asks; “Where are we going?”

“Lightning country.”

“Why?”

“You need medical attention I can’t give you, and I have things to do that don’t involve babysitting”

“You’re going to pass me off to someone else?”

“Yes.” The man says immediately, unrepentant. “You’re a target on my back as you are. Besides, the Creeper Patch on your shoulder is a temporary fix, you’ll need a long period of healing, which you won’t find under my watch.”

The boy doesn’t talk for a long while after that.

Instead he waits, and assesses what he can.

The arm that holds him fast to the man’s side is an uncommonly strong one. He’s not sure how he knows that when he can’t so much as remember his own name, but he trusts his senses where he can’t trust his memory, and they tell him without a doubt this man is stronger than most. He holds him in place as if it’s easy, as if he weighs nothing at all.

The skin of he man’s arm is also odd in texture, too hard to be true flesh, with strange shallow striations that curve up from his elbow towards his shoulder. It reminds him, oddly enough, of scar tissue.

A burn maybe?

But that doesn’t feel quite right; the lines are too perfect and the texture too consistent– the man’s voice interrupts his thoughts.

“We are crossing out of Fire Territory. Quick word of advice, keep your mouth closed. Unless of course you’d like to bite your tongue in half.”

Before he can conjure a response to the man’s odd statement there’s a whirling sound and the entire world shifts around him, gravity pulling apart and twisting away beneath him, leaving his stomach in knots as his equilibrium tumbles off kilter and leaves him breathless. The entire process only lasts a few seconds, and when it’s over the air feels different on his skin, dry and warm but for the steady wind that raises goosebumps across the damp skin of his arms.

That was Jikukan Jutsu . He thinks, more than a little dazed, and not necessarily from the jump through space-time.

The man hadn’t even made so much as a handsign.

The blood loss must be getting to my head . He decides. There’s no way…

But the blood loss has apparently gone to more than his head, since his body seems unable and unwilling to expend the energy needed to truly right his equilibrium again, and he finds his senses growing dim. The last thing he’s aware of is the arm around him tucking tighter, and the the chest against his dipping with a put-upon sigh.

<>

 

Shizune's mood is understandably dour as she steps outside her room at the inn and slides the shoji door closed behind her, leaving master Tsunade snoring on her fuuton, a now empty shochu flask still gripped stubbornly between her fingers.

200,000 Ryo.

Two. Hundred. Thousand . Ryo.

They’ve been here a day .

Tonton looks up at her from her place cradled in Shizune’s arms and oinks forlornly.

Shizune sighs. “I know. You’d think I'd stop being surprised at this point.” She puts her nin pig down in the hallways softly, careful of the sound of her hooves on the hard floor in relation to late hour. Once righted Tonton’s hooves make no noise at all, even when she stomps a little and turns her head down the hallway pointedly.

“Of course.” Shizune says easily. “Go find yourself some of those truffles these woods are so famous for. I need some air anyway.”

Tonton scampers off and Shizune takes a moment to compose herself, taking a deep breath and running a hand through her short dark hair. She makes her way down the hall opposite the way Tonton ran off, running her hands through the hidden pockets in her sleeves. By the time she makes it out to the small garden adjacent to their room she’s found what she’s looking for, an innocuous looking silver case that could easily be mistaken for a pill box. She opens it as she leans against the wall, pulling out a cigarette and lighting it with a quick hand sign to light the air above her thumb ablaze.

She takes a deep drag and lets the nicotine settle her frazzled nerves and douse the frustration that’s been building in her all evening.

A handful of minutes later, a rustle not far from her almost makes her jump out of her skin. Her eyes lock unerringly on the pool of shadow beneath the cherry tree in front of her, and her hands go immediately to the wired shuriken in her sleeve, the half smoked cigarette dropping to smolder at her feet.

“What do you want?” She demands. Knowing the pulse of chakra when she feels it, though it’s not of a texture or consistency she’s ever felt before. It’s dark a fluid like a river at midnight, but there’s a sort of static she can’t fully interpret, like the taste of ozone on the air before a thunderstorm, like a natural disaster on a leash.

The man that materializes out of the dark is tall and lean, his face covered by the coil of a dark traveling scarf and the drape of a cowl over his head. He’s holding a bundle against his side with his right arm, and the one eye she can see is a dark and burnished ebony.

“Your assistance, madam Shizune.”

Chapter Text

Naruto watches the backs of his arms with interest as the bold rune-lined ink painted across his skin sinks away, invisible now that he’s no longer actively channeling chakra into the seal space. Kurama claims that rest alone should be enough for him to regenerate the remainder of his chakra now that he’s out of the danger zone, so Naruto leaves him to it. He has a bit of a puzzle to sort out anyway.

“What the heck am I supposed to do with all this?” He asks, running his eyes over the stacks of books and shelves of strange artifacts looping around the room. A fresh little wave of relief washes through him when he gets an immediate answer, Kurama’s voice and presence slotting back into his consciousness like a missing puzzle piece.

~You said you activated a blood seal to get in here, right?~

“Mhm.”

~That seal was likely the only thing protecting this place from raiders. Now that you’ve opened the box, so to speak, it’s likely that protection is gone for good.~

Naruto looks around at the plethora of treasures and knowledge strewn about in this section of the repository alone. The thought of any of it being torn apart or carted off by bandits is physically painful.

“What do I take?”

~This is your legacy kit. Uzushio let you in here for a reason. Best not leave anything behind.~

“How the hell am I supposed to get all this back to Konoha?”

~You puzzled your way around an elite level seal in little more than a day. I’m sure you’ll figure it out.~

He ducks out into the main portion of the chamber again and repeats his circuit of the room, scanning the clan names and digging for some kind of internal clue, something that will lead him in the right direction.  

He’s not disappointed. His eyes catch on a clan symbol on the opposite side of the room from clan Sumiran, a partially unfurled scroll with three spirals tucked together on its surface. The longer Naruto looks at the spirals the more they appear to be moving, curling deeper and deeper into stone in some kind of hypnotic optical illusion. Clan Kikan.

Inside he finds a few shelves of books on several different kinds of theory, most having something to do with dimensional spaces or the dynamics of barrier jutsu, but almost the entire space is dominated by dozens of enormous scrolls, some that come clear up to his shoulders, much like the Kinjutsu scroll Naruto had found Kurama’s seal in. The similarities, however, end there.

These scrolls are ornate things, rolls of dark steel grey and shimmering silver and burnished gold. They’re organized by their size and their colours differ depending on how large they are. The smallest scrolls are a dark earthen brown like tanned hide and about as long as his forearm, the size up from that is steely grey and the length of his whole arm from wrist to shoulder, the second largest of them are bright silver trimmed in blue and come up past his hip, and the largest are brilliant darkened gold like a low hanging sun, trimmed in inky black along the edges, and are tall enough that the ends tap his collarbones standing up. There are exactly thirteen of these huge golden scrolls, and Naruto doubts that’s a coincidence.

~Clever.~ Kurama rumbles. ~That’s a contingency plan if I’ve ever seen one. Must have taken decades to draw up cargo scrolls that strong.~

Naruto picks up one of the smallest scrolls and rolls open the canvas-thick length of paper, eyes tracing the twisting lines of seal script inside.

“Whoa.” He murmurs aloud. The seal lines are so precise and intricate it makes his head spin– he can’t imagine how many hours it must have taken just to ink in the structures, let alone channel the needed lattices of chakra at the same time. Naruto doesn’t have the patience, much less the chakra control, to pull off even a portion of it.

“These look like they were made to seal specific stuff.” Naruto judges, based on the lock and key mechanisms he can see woven into the design. “Paper?”

~Books and non-chakric scrolls, I would guess.~ Kurama remarks.

Now that Naruto thinks of it the leathery scroll does look a bit like it was hewn from the bindings of books, like a hundred tome covers stripped off and stitched end to end.

“So like some kind of library scroll?”

~That’s certainly one way to put It.~

He places the scroll back on a stack of its fellows and reaches for one of the dark grey variety, longer and thinner than its smaller cousins. He unrolls the layered vellum and scans the contents.

The library scroll’s storage seals had been elaborately linked and tiny. These are larger with sharper lines and deeper curves, and the structures vary in clusters, separated by blank space. One of these clusters brings the distinct image of a sword to mind, while another reminds him faintly of shuriken.

“Weapons?”

~Likely. Arranged by type. If the pattern continues, the big silver ones will be for artifacts.~

Naruto refurls the grey scroll and reaches for one of the metallic silver ones lined in cobalt, rolling it out on the floor in front of him. This one flexes like a thin sheet of metal and the seals within are carved instead of inked, the lines filled with some kind of black lacquer. Kurama is right it seems; the seals inside are large, singular and intricate, cordoned off from one another by dividing wards meant to keep any chakra in the seals from mingling together.

He rolls the silver scroll back up and looks over at the large gilded ones.

If the little ones are for books, and the grey ones for equipment, and the silver for clan artifacts, then what…

He doesn’t finish the thought. He strides towards where the golden scrolls are leaning against the far wall on delicately carved wooden stands, glinting in the firelight. For the first time he notices the clan signs painted on the end of each one, and the fact that some of the golden scrolls are thicker than others– the one with the Kikan clan symbol is only about as wide as his spread hand, while the one bearing the Sumiran symbol is nearly twice as thick.

~What did you tell your sensei when you left?~ Kurama asks as he rolls out the golden Kikan scroll and starts going through the tomes nearby for instructions on how to work them. Naruto freezes, guilty.

“I uh… didn’t.”

~What?~

“I left him a note! What was I supposed to say? ‘Hey Iruka-sensei, I won’t see you for a while, I’m going to whirlpool country to alter my jinchuuriki seal.’ He would never have let me go!”

~I wouldn’t have blamed him, kid. It was reckless.~

“I don’t care.” Naruto insists stubbornly, a book on dimensional stacking theory open in his lap.

~I know, kit. All the more proud of you for it, really.~

Naruto ignores the surprised flush that warms his cheeks and tries to focus on the words and diagrams on the pages that detail mass capacities and chakra nets.

~So what did the note say?~

“I said I was going to be gone a week for training. I’ve done it before, so Iruka-sensei shouldn’t find it too strange. And he’s the only one that bothers checking up on me.”

~We don’t have much time left then. You figured it out yet?~

Naruto nods. “I think so. The library and equipment scrolls just have a weight limit, and the artifacts scrolls are keyed into specific objects so I just have to match them up. Also…” Naruto scans the scrolls, counting as he goes. “I’m pretty sure there’s exactly enough scrolls to fit everything, if I load it all right.”

~Best get to work then, brat. We need to get back before you’re missed.~

<> 

Thirteen golden scrolls, thirteen repositories. He starts with the Uzumaki, the largest and thus the most difficult. It’s like the world’s most annoying puzzle game; the gold scrolls have specific storage seals for a set number of brown, grey, and silver scrolls, and Naruto has to figure out what fits where and with what and how much and it sucks. Naruto isn’t the most organized of people on a good day, and after all the time he’s spent sitting still his hyperactive energy is coming back in full force to the worst effect.

He finds out about halfway through sorting stacks of books to go into the leather scrolls for a third time because they fit in the first two but not in the freaking third, that his attention span obviously will not cooperate if there’s not some kind of crisis.

So hell, he invents some. He starts giving himself imaginary time limits for certain sections, which mostly works because he does need to hurry. It helps, a lot, and instead of it taking a whole day to do one repository, like he thought, it only takes him a couple hours.

~You function best under pressure, kit.~ Kurama comments offhand. He’s been sleeping on and off the whole time, really only surfacing from slumber to quip at Naruto as he darts back and forth around the room with stacks of books that go past his head and armfuls of weapon packs topped with rolls of strange serrated ninja wire. ~Not all that surprised.~

He does the Kikan clan next because it’s the easiest and he needs a break, before moving on to reassess the Sumiran clan’s section. By now he’s got it down to an art; he drags all the containers of powdered ink together and sets the catalysts down in neat rows beside them, occasionally checking back on the golden and silver scrolls for a reminder of what goes where. According to the seal sections on the golden scroll he can tell he needs six library scrolls, one equipment scroll and two artifact scrolls, all of which he unfurls close to the entrance to the room so he won’t trip over them until he needs them.

He’s so tempted at times to sit down and flip through some of the descriptions of the ink ingredients or the elemental effects of mixing in catalysts, but he doesn’t have the time– he has maybe a day and a half before Iruka-sensei starts to get worried, if he hasn’t already, and if Jiji discovers he’s been gone at all he’s in for a whole lot of trouble.

As he begins to clear the room, filling seal after seal with inkstones and jarred liquids and powders, he notices a strange chest in the back of the room. It’s relatively unassuming at first glance, a dusty black lacquer box that comes up to his knee. He kneels in front of it, giving the lid and experimental tug. It doesn’t budge. He smears a hand through the grey coating of dust in the top and starts when the entire box vibrates under his hand.

Gilded seals twist in clockwork patterns across the surface of the chest like the mechanism of some enormous two-dimensional lock. They spiral and rotate until one by one they click into place with audible snaps and the lid jerks upwards.

Wary now, Naruto lifts the lid slowly, crinkling his nose against the strong smell of pinewood and musty leather.

The entire inside of the box screams Kinjutsu.

Containment seals are carved on every flat space available, wards against whatever rests wrapped in leather at the bottom. Never one to be cowed, even when he probably should be, Naruto reaches inside to pull the bundle from its resting place. The leather is warm and supple, odd considering how old it must be, and lighter than he expected. He sets it atop the closed chest and slowly unravels the length of hide. The wrapping itself is also sealed, chakra containment wards of some kind painted on the inside.

Within is a macabre array of wickedly sharp needles, far too long and thick to be senbon. There are five sets in varying sizes, each one carved with odd seals Naruto doesn’t recognize and each set hewn from a different substance. One set seems to be made of bamboo, another looks like it was carved from bone or ivory, and another looks to be made entirely from volcanic glass.

“Hey, Kurama.”

~Hmm?~ Kurama mumbles sleepily, not opening his eyes.

“What are these supposed to be?”

Kurama does crack an eyelid at that, and Naruto can feel him peering at the world from behind his retina. ~Well what do we have here?~ he drawls softly, and Naruto ducks his head back a little so that Kurama can see the whole of the array through his eyes. ~If I’m not mistaken, those are tattoo needles.~

“Tattoos? For what?”

~For placing permanent seals on living skin. Seals that could not be undone through the work of chakra alone. Dangerous work, that.~

“So it is Kinjutsu.”

~Yes. Powerful stuff. Best keep it locked up until we know more, okay kit?~

Naruto nods and folds the needles carefully back into the leather before tucking the bundle into the chest and closing the lid. As soon as the lid shuts the gear-like seals lock the lid to the body of the chest with another cacophony of clicks and snaps. Naruto hauls it up and sets it down beside an artifact seal, only to find that there’s no more space in the scroll, and even if there was, none of the seals seemed to be keyed to this particular box. He checks the other silver scroll, just to be sure, and is starting to contemplate checking the equipment scroll as well when an image flashes to mind, another piece of Uzushio’s memory.

It’s a pair of scrolls, smaller than even the library scrolls. They’re jet black and metallic and strapped shut with sealed leather and metal clasps, one trimmed in silver, the other in gold.

Instinct guides him back into the Kikan clan repository, now bare of its treasures, where he pulls the carved wooden stand that had held the golden scrolls back from the wall. Naruto feels along the wall with both hands, searching for the warm pulse of chakra that would give away the cloaking seal…

He finds it at the base of the wall near the floor; a small compartment that becomes visible as he breaks the subtle cloaking seal with a sharp burst of chakra. A little too much chakra apparently, if the way the wall heats up and cracks is any indication. He pries the compartment open, hissing when it burns a little at his fingers, and pulls the two scrolls from their clever hiding place.

They’re extremely heavy for their size. Like lead ingots. He flicks open the clasps on the one lined with gold, unfurling it slowly. Like the golden and artifact scrolls, the substance that makes up this one is less like paper and more like sheet metal, the seals within carved across the surface and then filled in with gilded lacquer. This one in particular contains thirteen seals crafted with broad, powerful strokes, keyed into each of the thirteen golden scrolls.

I was wondering how the hell I was going to drag those things out of here. He muses, re-rolling the scroll and clasping it shut again. The seals within the platinum lined scroll are the complete opposite of the broad lines in its gilded twin, thin silvery lines that spiral in fractal patterns meant to control and direct stray chakra. For sealing Kinjutsu.

Tools in hand, he returns to his task.

<> 

Uzushio’s clans obviously prided themselves on their ninja niches. The jutsu and usage of seals he finds from clan to clan are varied and specific– one used seals only for mediation and sensory training, another worked only in in seals that generated or disrupted genjutsu.

The Tsubasa clan was known primarily for their work with ninja animals, a little like the Inuzuka clan back in Konoha, and they developed seals meant to bond living beings to one another and even some kind of jutsu meant for swapping eyesight. The most interesting portion of their repository is an enormous sealed glass case containing four massive blood contract scrolls as large as a full-grown man. Each one is bejeweled and decorated in vibrant colours and strange symbols; one is dark twilight blue covered in elegant golden patterns, another is amethyst with stylized designs of fire in bright vermillion, one is white and striped with azure like a tiger’s back, and the last is the colour of a bloody sunset covered in geometric shapes cast in eye searing turquoise. Below this case is another one, longer, and filled with nearly a dozen more summoning scrolls, equally decorated and as big as Naruto’s torso.

The Komorebi clan was a sort of sister clan to the Sumiran, and their treasures came in the form powerful medicines and poisons, herbal cocktails that could keep you from death even if you were at the brink, and soft clear toxins that could keep you paralyzed indefinitely without the cure. They had maps and diagrams that detailed every nerve, bone, and muscle fiber in the human body, and detailed Fuinjutsu meant to hone chakra flares down to a knife-like point.

The Kurogane clan were skilled blacksmiths, capable of pounding sealwork into steel and silver, folding chakra into everything from swords and kunai to rings and bracers. Old and musty diagrams detailed the art of producing forge fires hot enough to sear together metal and chakra, and their Kinjutsu came in the form of a set of strange tools that Naruto can’t touch at all lest they burn his skin to the bone.

The Ido-Senshi were the most interesting, in Naruto’s opinion. They focused almost entirely on the art of Taijutsu, and their katas fell into five categories detailing a set of distinctive styles– Tiger, Dragon, Crane, Leopard, and Snake. Their training implements consisted of things like bands that restricted blood flow to the limbs and fabric so heavy that a single hand’s worth weighed as much as a slab of stone.

The Kinkoro clan ends up being the… hardest for Naruto to deal with, personally. This particular clan was home to ninja who made their living through trade– guarding shipments or moving goods important to the welfare of the village or securing trade agreements with other villages. Some of the clan weren’t classically trained ninja at all, they preferred the business of commerce and chose that trade over the militaristic life of a ninja. The clan was known for their wards and trap seals, but mostly, they were known for being the treasurers of Uzushio’s wealth.

A great deal of it isn’t even ryo, so much of it is art and jewelwork and great scroll paintings depicting foreign landscapes in rich colour. Standing amidst the gold and wealth, Naruto feels like a thief.

~It’s your inheritance, kit.~ Kurama assures from out of nowhere. ~If Uzushio didn’t agree, she would never have let you down here.~

Naruto doesn’t answer, at least not aloud. But when he swallows hard and takes a step forward into the vault, it’s answer enough.

<>

Getsuga. Sozo. Tenrai. Hansha.

He folds the last of the Ryokosha treasures into their respective seals, feeling both humbled and deeply tired all at once. He rolls up both the black scrolls and seals them shut with final sounding snaps. He’s finished.

They feel even heavier now as he straps them to his hip, and he can’t help thinking about how so much can be folded up and sealed down into something so small.

Instinct and memory pull at him and he lets himself be lead back down the long corridor and into the circular room where he first entered. He notices for the first time the intricate sun and moon symbol carved into the floor and the slanting grooves in the walls that spiral upwards in a corkscrew. He pricks his thumb with his canine until blood pools in his palm, kneels down, and presses his hand over the seal, bringing his chakra to bear.

A long high tone echoes over the walls like a wrung bell, and the circular panel of the floor lurches upwards, spinning upwards on the carved tracks. Below him, he can see the chakric fires of the repository dying out. Light of a more natural kind starts filtering in from overhead, and Naruto starts to feel tiny droplets of rain filter down to mist his face with water. The platform locks into place in the center of the plaza and Naruto steps off into a thick soupy fog that casts everything in grey except for the stubborn greens of the forest. Rain drizzles lazily overhead, and all around plant life blooms at its touch. Thick vines prickled with pale orange blossoms wind over the once desolate buildings, new pines and elm trees peek up from between heavy stones, the grass as far as he can see is coloured with wildflowers.

He takes a deep breath, lets the cool air chill his lungs. He walks down the hills, across the black sand beach, and steps out onto the water of the bay. When he turns back to tell the island goodbye, he’s being watched. A dark shadow appears through the white ribbons of fog and the wolf emerges from the gloom at the tops of the basalt columns, looking down at him with keen, unblinking eyes.

Naruto faces the dark beast, tucks his left fist into his right hand, and bows low. When he straightens, the wolf tucks a foreleg, ducks its head, and bows back.

<> 

By the time he reaches the outskirts of the village, it’s past midnight. He’d slept the afternoon away in a redwood once he’d gotten far enough back into fire country, and hadn’t woken until late evening. Kurama is still asleep.

He’s crossed back into the village proper when it hits him like a blow to the chest. He feels suddenly like a part of him is being ripped apart, like some wound cord anchored deep within him has been wrenched free. It’s not until a pained and feral roar thunders through his head that he realized the pain isn’t his.

Sorrow and anguish flood him from Kurama’s seal, followed quickly by a frustrated guilt that is entirely his own. They mix and fold together, nothing to separate them, and Naruto is knocked breathless by the sheer power of the emotion. Tears burn his eyes and he lists sideways, clutching at the bark of the tree beside him so had that splinters drive through his palms as the wood cracks under his hand.

Another tailed beast has disappeared. Another of Kurama’s siblings is gone.

“Who was it? Who did we…” Naruto can’t finish the thought because he’s not quite sure how to end it. Lose? Fail? Both would work.

~Kokuo~

The word is no more than a pained moan– Kurama isn’t even fully awake.

Naruto stumbles into the street. He has no idea where he is and doesn’t have the presence of mind to care, practically tripping over himself until he finds himself standing at the edge of the street in the sallow lamplight, staring off in the direction the pain had come from.

He doesn’t move for a long while.

<><><> 

 

Sasuke wrenches himself from the grip of his nightmare so violently he nearly falls out of bed. Cold sweat pools, clammy and unwelcome, between his shoulder blades as his lungs heave for air they don’t need in preparation to run from terror that isn’t real. Itachi’s sharingan eyes spin across his vision, dark and mocking where they had once been bright and kind, and it is that transition that haunts Sasuke more thoroughly than any ghost.

Why?

His stomach rolls and he swallows hard against the urge to vomit, cold prickling against his arms and down his back like the tips of frozen knives, cold that has nothing to do with temperature.

He braces himself up off the tangled sheets with one arm, pressing a hand over his mouth.

Get ahold of yourself, this is pathetic.

He takes another hard breath but his heart refuses to be calmed and his stomach roils with another bout of nausea. Sleep is far away now. His clock reads 1:40 am.

A walk to calm his nerves then.

It’s become so common that his walks through the village in the shittiest hours of the morning might as well be a routine. The route is always different but the purpose is always the same– a reprieve from his ghosts.

“Being haunted has nothing to do with the presence of the dead, and everything to do with the memory of the living.”

The strange shinobi's words have been chasing across his mind for days now. What mistake could have been so terrible as to cause such pain? Whose loss could be so devastating it left such scars? Sasuke had lost his entire family, a brother he’d loved dearly, but somehow that man knew even greater loss. Somehow the loss of a single life had left a deeper crater than the loss of a clan.

He passes the Yamanaka flower shop, swiping a hand carelessly through the damp misting of humid dew across the broad windows. The monsoon had left the air stifling with humidity, even at night.

He turns the corner and stops dead in his tracks.

Naruto is standing on a street corner less than half a block away. Sasuke hasn’t seen the blonde boy in nearly a week and the thought of him hadn’t even crossed his mind until yesterday, when Kiba had run by the training grounds looking for him. According to the dog-nin, no one had seen hide or hair of the Uzumaki since before the storm set in.

He looks… different. It’s subtle, but the blonde boy seems stronger somehow; the perpetual hunch in his neck from tucking his head down is gone, and he holds his head higher and rests his shoulders further back.

The closer Sasuke looks the further his eyes widen.

Sasuke has seen Naruto cry only once before, long ago when they were both very young. He’d been sitting on the swings not far from the academy, practically bawling, and no one has so much as stopped to look at him.

This is very different.

He’s standing painfully still, eyes fixed on some vague point in the sky just above the treeline. He’s not sobbing, in fact Sasuke isn’t entirely sure he’s even breathing. The sorrow’s only tell is the stream of tears leaking steadily from the corners of his eyes, tracing simple paths along his cheeks to collect in droplets along his jaw. Naruto makes no move to wipe them from his face, no effort to disguise his pain. It’s a different kind of sadness from that of loneliness, from that of abandonment. Sasuke knows this brand of sorrow well enough to recognize it on sight.

Grief.

Sasuke doesn’t understand it. He stands, transfixed, eyes darting along what he can see of Naruto’s expression, as if that might give him some clue to solving this enigma. But it gives him no answers, only more questions– Naruto’s face is disturbingly steady, and the grief is written in the corners of his eyes, but nowhere else.

The sound of a shutter snapping shut, a light turning off at just the wrong time, and the moment is shattered. Naruto turns, catches sight of Sasuke standing in the shadow of the flower shop, and his eyes widen to saucers.

Another half a second, another moment of a deer caught in a spotlight, and Naruto’s expression grinds and shifts, turns from sorrow to frustration to fury in the space between Sasuke’s heartbeats.

And just like that, he takes off like a shot.

Sasuke’s brain must not be functioning, fried somewhere between the grief and the anger on Naruto’s face, because his body moves without his permission.

He gives chase.

He tears through the trees on the blonde’s heels, eyes tracking golden hair in the dark. Naruto is fast, nearly faster than Sasuke, and it’s starting to look like his instincts were right– Naruto has been holding back in class. Anger chases surprise through his system, because that means every spar, every fight, every win that Sasuke lorded over him was hollow.

Naruto is difficult to track in the darkness and someone with eyes any less sharp would have lost him between the trees within seconds. But even without an active sharingan, Sasuke's eyes are still keener than any Jounin’s.

He almost loses him anyway however, when Naruto leaps into the trees like a goddamn jungle cat, and Sasuke almost takes a header into a briar in an attempt to follow him. But he senses chakra at work, has seen Chunin walk up trees like it’s nothing, so he channels chakra into his feet and leaps after him.

The first few steps turn the wood and bark beneath his feet to pulp, but Sasuke has always been a fast learner, especially under pressure, so he dials back the charge and keeps going.

Naruto is darting about in zigzag patterns, flashing back and forth through the woods like a flitting bird, gaining ground on Sasuke fast.

Shunshin. He realizes. Body flicker technique.

That’s definitely not something they were taught at the academy, but Sasuke calls what he knows of it from his personal studies and forms the correct hand sign. He almost crashes into an elm the first time when he overshoots how much chakra he needs, but it puts him that much closer to Naruto’s speeding form.

The blond darts left so sharply at one point that Sasuke shoots past him and is forced to backtrack, chasing him through a grove of trees so thick that the branches rip entire chunks off of Sasuke's overshirt. He pulls it off with a frustrated growl and keeps moving, wincing as the branches rake across his now bare arms.

Naruto seems to know this area far better than Sasuke, which is becomes obvious when he cuts sideways off a blind turn to land unerringly on one of the rocks jutting out from the river rapids, leaping from stone to stone up the creek with grace Sasuke knows Naruto hadn’t possessed a week before. He follows blindly, unwilling to let the Uzumaki out of his sight for even a second, tracing Naruto’s path over the river stones.

The woods widen out suddenly and only the adrenaline in his system and his hard honed instincts keep him from running headlong into what’s waiting on the other side of the curtain of trees. Out of the dark comes Naruto’s voice, a harsh growl that rumbles deeper than should be possible for their age.

“Doton: Crashback.”

Before he can even contemplate how the hell Naruto knows a C-rank earth jutsu of all things, a crash of rock slashes in front of him, missing his right shoulder by a centimeter. He barely has time to leap over the first point of rock before the second comes surging up behind him and the two just of stone smash together with force enough to shatter bone.

He lands in a clear split down the middle by the river’s origin, winding from a waterfall basin pressed up against the far cliff. Naruto stands on the opposite side of the river, breaths panting out around teeth a tad too sharp to be normal. The red scrapes on Naruto’s face and arms are already fading, some kind of unseen chakra bleeding steam into the air as the cuts close and vanish. The sharp sting on Sasuke’s own arms only serves to sharpen his focus.

They stand in a deadlock, blue eyes fixed on black. Fury rages unchecked behind cerulean irises and Sasuke shifts his stance.

The spell breaks.

They lunge at each other, all power and no grace. Neither of them have any physical weapons, but their bodies crash and glance off each other like they themselves are the blades, each parry and clash shooting magnetic sparks into the air between them, drawing them back together harder, faster. Jutsu neither of them are supposed to know as academy students fly through their fingers, and even though Sasuke’s jutsu classes are more powerful, he’s still only capable of spitting fire.

Naruto is something else entirely.

His jutsu are all C or D-rank, but he fires off one element after another with hardly a pause between them, and the landscape around them starts to change rapidly as a result. They go at each other full throttle, no hesitation, no holds barred.

And something in Sasuke starts to thrill.

Naruto like this is more than a challenge, he’s a goddamn equal, some bizarre perfect match, and he’s affronted and enthralled by the idea in equal measure. Sasuke lands more strikes, but Naruto's ability to roll with the punches exceeds Sasuke’s ability to do so, so every hit Naruto lands is worth two of his own. Naruto’s brazen attitude and unrestricted passion is still in every move he makes, but’s it’s honed down to a blade-like edge instead of the forced bluntness Sasuke is used to, and his usually inept energy has turned from aimless to deadly.

For the first time in his memory, Sasuke is forced to up his game just to match him. He can feel himself running low on chakra, but Naruto doesn’t seem to be having the same issue. Even as Sasuke shifts to rely more on taijutsu, Naruto lets another ninjutsu fly that sets his hair on end.

“Raiton: Sparkshot!”

An array of electric needles launches into the air between them, and Sasuke has to twist through the air and away from the river to avoid being electrocuted. It’s the first time Naruto’s used a Raiton and something in the atmosphere pulls taught, the unseen tension in the air comes to a head.

They clash again, even harder than before, and this time it’s Sasuke struggling to keep up. Naruto flights like an animal in human skin, quick and feral and brutal. Sasuke’s only saving grace is that the more rage and power he puts into his strikes, the less coordinated he becomes.

He lands a blow to Naruto’s solar plexus, hard enough to damage trees, and hears Naruto’s lost breath go past his ear. It barely slows him down though, and an elbow cracks across Sasuke’s temple in turn, making red explode across his eyelids and forcing them apart again.

They stand across from one another, that strange spell holding them still again as their eyes lock across the water. Sasuke feels blood, warm and wet, start to drip down his brow. Naruto stands straighter, spits blood into the grass and wipes his mouth on the back of his wrist.

Something changes.

The hostile charge in the air seems to clear and dissipate, leaving only that strange tension holding the atmosphere tight. It sits on a fulcrum, capable of tipping one way or another.

Then a small, sharp smile cuts the corner of Naruto’s mouth, a little wry, a little feral.

Something jumps into existence under Sasuke’s breastbone from nowhere at all, pushing hard on his throat so that a soft breath forces it’s way out between his teeth.

He feels a tiny smirk curve his lips entirely against his will.

Naruto’s sharp smile cuts wide into a grin that’s all teeth, into something potent enough to be a weapon all it’s own. The blonde shifts his leg forward, quick and abortive, but it makes Sasuke tense automatically. The smile reaches Naruto’s eyes, turns teasing.

A feint. A playful one.

That something in Sasuke’s chest swells, pushes his stomach and lungs out of the way to make room for itself dangerously close to the vital pulsing muscle beneath his ribs. On reflex he tries to squash whatever it is out of existence, tries to reach for his indifference and calculated anger in an attempt to exorcise this strange new sensation. He finds both are oddly absent, and in their place is a strange new energy that eaves him feeling both giddy and tense.

He feints back without thinking. Plays the game.

And just like that, it turns from a brawl to something else.

It’s not quite a spar, something closer to a dance, and a far cry from anything Sasuke has ever done. They fight with holds and twists, more showing off than actual fighting. Their blows are meant to be glancing, to bruise instead of break bones, all grace and no power.

They go on like this until they’re both exhausted, of chakra and of stamina, and to Sasuke’s annoyance, he realizes that Naruto’s reserves of both are deeper than his own, and the only reason they’re even is because Sasuke had been far more conservative with his energy than Naruto.

Sasuke’s muscles are burning by the end of it and they're both dripping in sweat. The fight has gone out of every cell, leaving them breathless and boneless with exhaustion when they finally finish how they started- standing feet apart with fire in their eyes.

For the first time, Naruto speaks.

“Crazy asshole.” He breathes, but it's without heat, without that strange fury that had gripped him so completely not long ago.

“Idiot.” Sasuke fires back, but it different from all the times he’s said it before. It carries with it the end of something, or maybe not an ending.

Maybe a beginning.

 

 

Chapter Text

When Sasuke had woken from his nightmare, when he’d wandered out onto the streets in search of a deep breath, this is the last place he would have expected to end up.

But here he sits, leaning against the worn bed in Naruto’s tiny apartment, staring pointedly at the far wall as he grudgingly allows Naruto to apply bandages and simple salve to the cuts on his arms. Naruto has been pretty quiet so far, which is strange; he hasn’t asked after Sasuke’s reason for chasing him down, something Sasuke is incredibly grateful for given that he still has no idea what the hell was going through his head, what stray synapse had misfired and sent him careening into motion.

In return, Sasuke hasn’t asked after the cause of the strange grief and potent fury he had been witness to. The result is an odd kind of hush made all the more glaring coming from Naruto, who, in Sasuke’s experience, never shuts up. But for all its strangeness the quiet is an easy one; he finds he has no desire to disrupt it.

Sasuke watches out of the corner of his eyes as Naruto works, trying to keep his mind off the other question he hasn’t asked. Here he is being bandaged for slashes and scrapes, and yet the only evidence of their battle on Naruto’s body is a scattering of already fading bruises, wisped away by unseen energy like so much smoke.

Is it some kind of Kekkei Genkai?

He wonders to himself. It’s none of Sasuke’s business if it is– outside of battle Bloodline Limits are private things, and Sasuke doesn’t know the blonde nearly well enough to ask about it. The only thing he does know, without question, is that Naruto is an orphan.

Sasuke casts his gaze around Naruto’s little apartment as a form of distraction, taking in the details. He notes that it’s surprisingly clean, if rather cluttered, mostly, oddly enough, with scrolls. Small and large, sealing and scribing, they’re tucked into every corner, piled up on the tables and stacked in neat pyramids along the floor.

“Didn’t realize you were this into reading, Dobe.” he remarks, plucking a scroll off a stack near him with his free hand while Naruto finishes tying off the bandage on the other.

“Ya ya, yuck it up.” Naruto grumbles, “I don’t get things well when people just talk at me, so I started looking things up myself. It works better.”

“Clearly.” Sasuke drawls, rolling open the scroll to find instructions for a C-rank wind jutsu, Great Breakthrough. “Are these from the archives?” he asks. Academy students aren’t allowed in the jutsu libraries, and definitely not allowed to check out C-rank scrolls.

Naruto winces faintly. “Technically no. They’re copies though.” He tilts his head and narrows his eyes like a suspicious animal, and for the first time Sasuke notices just how deep the dark bruises around his eyes are– the Uzumaki looks like he hasn’t slept in days.

If he was this exhausted when we fought, how strong would he have been fully rested?

Sasuke finds he doesn’t like his own answer–because it means that without the subtle tip in his favor, it is very possible Sasuke would have lost that strange battle entirely. Unacceptable.

“You gonna tell on me, Teme?” Naruto asks lowly.

Sasuke snorts and hands the scroll to Naruto. “Not if you share.” The information stored in these scrolls is not a resource Sasuke is willing to pass up lightly, not if they can make him stronger.

Apparently Sasuke’s stomach has decided it’s quite done being nauseous, because it reminds him loudly of its presence right then, and of the fact that he hasn’t eaten anything since lunch yesterday. “You got anything to eat in this dump?” he asks without thinking.

“Hey.” Naruto snaps on reflex, but he looks more thoughtful than offended. “I might have some stuff for curry though.” He says as he stands.

Sasuke ticks and eyebrow to his hairline. “You cook?”

Naruto scowls at him. “I do live by myself, you know.”

“And eat food outside of Ichiraku takeout?”

“Oh, shut up. Are you hungry or not?”

“Depends, are you actually going to make something edible?”

Naruto snorts, offended. “If you’re so worried about it, why don’t you make it?”

 

Which is how he and Naruto end up squabbling for twenty minutes over the curry pot, about whether curry is supposed to be savory-sweet or vinegary-sour. The answer is sour, obviously, but both of them are too tired to put any real effort into arguing, so they end up making far too much of something in the middle. It’s not terrible, and at this point Sasuke is too tired to care, still bone deep exhausted from their fight earlier, if what they’d done in that clearing could be summed up in a word that simple.

He doubts it.

 

<> 

 

The next morning is chaos incarnate, and sets the stage for much of Sasuke interactions with Naruto from that point forward. Before Sasuke is even fully conscious Naruto is a blur of noise and motion out of absolutely nowhere, darting this way and that in a panic while Sasuke rubs a rather horrible kink out of the back of his neck.

“The hell is the matter with you, Dead Last?” He growls, pressing his fingers into the muscle where his neck meets his shoulder to try and smooth out the knots that have formed there. He’d passed out against the base of Naruto’s bed, by the looks of it.

Naruto freezes with a longsleeve halfway over his head to glare at him. “Class, asshole.”

Sasuke rips his eyes open all the way and tears his gaze around the room in search of a clock. “What time is it?”

Naruto finishes shoving his shirt over his head all the way. His hair is wet, now that Sasuke bothers to look, like he showered but didn’t bother drying off at all. “Eight forty-five.”

A drop of ice cold panic slides down his spine. He’s never been late for school. Never.

Sasuke forces himself upright, clipping his shoulder on the doorframe because his legs feel like they’re made of poorly layered rice paper. “I’m using your shower.” He declares venomously. He feels disgusting, with sweat dried in all the wrong places, his hair stuck to the side of his face with it. There’s no way in hell he’s going to class like this.

“The pressure is shit!” Naruto warns as he ducks into the kitchen, a roll of limb wrap between his teeth.

Somewhere in the back of his mind Sasuke knows this should feel much weirder than it does. Outside school he and Naruto were practically strangers, right up until last night, when nearly every assumption he’d ever had about the idiot had been turned on it head.

All but one, really. Sasuke had been right about one thing. They both know pain beyond their years, he was sure of that now.

 

<><><> 

 

~That was way too close for comfort.~

“You’re telling me.”

He’d made it to class with maybe twelve seconds to spare, right on Sasuke’s heels, and the sneaky bastard had managed to avoid Iruka-sensei entirely, slipping by while Naruto got the lecture of a lifetime for not telling Iruka about his little ‘trip’ in person. Thankfully, Iruka-sensei seems to be under the impression that he took off after the storm hit, not before.

Shikamaru seems to know better though.

While Iruka sensei is busy detailing the stages of a genjutsu up on the board, Shika shuffles a little further forward on his desk behind Naruto’s seat. “Hey, you okay?” He mumbles, his tone as disinterested as always, but underneath the lazy demeanor Naruto can sense genuine concern, and feels guilt wash through him. He hadn’t told Shikamaru or Kiba where he was going, hadn’t even thought to.

He looks back at the Nara out of the corner of his eye. It’s kind of pointless to lie to Shikamaru– so Naruto doesn’t usually bother. “Better now.” He says truthfully.

The shadow nin watches him through lazily hooded eyes for another long moment, but then accepts his response with a barely-there nod and pillows his cheek against his arm again.

As he turns back to the front of the room, Naruto’s eyes land unerringly on the back of Sasuke’s head. He’s currently being fawned over by Ino and another Kunoichi-in-training that Naruto doesn’t know, who have him sandwiched on either side. Usually even Sasuke’s fangirls aren’t quite that annoying, since Sasuke has a tendency to get pissed when someone even thinks of invading his personal space, but the fact that he came to class sans navy overshirt seems to have garnered more attention than usual.

Their fight from last night has been dogging his thoughts, along with the shift in their relationship from mostly strangers too… something else. Naruto wouldn’t call them friends exactly, not yet, but he’s starting to think that there might be more to the Uchiha than his broody exterior lets on.

~He’s a good match for you, physically.~  Kurama grumbles.

“You don’t sound very happy about it.”

~I’m not. Historically, Uchiha are mentally unstable at best.~ The Kyuubi growls between his teeth. ~But you need a sparring partner that can keep up with you, and I must admit you have an interesting… dynamic.~

That’s one way to put it. Naruto thinks. The way they’d clicked together as they fought, brought out the best and worst in each other all at once. Naruto had been so angry, with himself, with the world, but Sasuke had taken that anger in stride and come back at him with a good deal of his own, a cocktail of emotions that in that state of fury, Naruto could practically smell on the air. Hurt, frustration, rage. But of all the things Naruto had sensed that night, none surprised him quite like the loneliness, potent and aching and terribly familiar. He’d never thought about it before then– surrounded by people like he is, you’d think there wouldn’t be room for Sasuke to feel alone. But Naruto knows what it’s like to feel stranded in a crowd, and in the end, Sasuke goes back to an empty house in an empty compound and is very much alone.

Naruto is startled out of his thoughts when he realizes that Sakura is looking at him, her eyes boring a hole in his skull from two seats to Ino’s left.

Unsure what she wants or what he’s done wrong, he tries for a smile that probably ends up looking nervous. To his surprise her expression actually softens, which is freaky, and she turns back to Iruka.

 

Naruto’s life definitely starts to get more interesting after that. For a couple of weeks Sasuke attempts to maintain the pretense that he only comes to Naruto’s tiny ass apartment for access to his scrolls, but after a while he starts turning up at Naruto’s glade at strange hours of the night when he seems to know Naruto will be there, and they fight.

It’s too intense to be considered sparring, but a lot of the animosity that was present in their first fight is gone now. On nights like these, it’s Naruto’s apartment that they go back to in order to lick their wounds, Naruto’s kitchen they make midnight dinners in, Naruto’s floor they sleep on.

Sasuke spends less time in an empty house and more time studying katas with Naruto on the unmade bed and arguing with him over a the stovetop and testing new jutsu with him in the clearing. They still fight, a lot, but it’s different now, more camaraderie and less rivalry. Spars at school become little more than a game, play wrestling compared to what they do outside of class, and with this sparring on top of Kurama’s regular training, Naruto’s never felt more confident.

 

<><><> 

 

After a month of training with Naruto, it’s strange that it’s the little things that make him seize up the way he does. Naruto is a tactile person, and with how much time he’s been spending with the idiot lately, shoulder bumps and playful jabs against his side are things Sasuke is used to now. The problem comes with another kind of touch entirely. They’re rarer things, thank god, and usually only happen early in the morning or late at night, but still, they happen. The worst part is that Naruto doesn’t even seem to realize what he’s doing, warm careless touches like a hand on his shoulder or arm early in the morning when they need to get up for school, shoulders and necks stiff from sleeping on the floor with blankets and old cushions.

The worst one happens when Sasuke shoots awake in a cold sweat, but instead of the ceiling of his room he sees the cracked plaster of Naruto’s, because they’d fought and trained last night and he’d slept here like he usually did. He rolls over, trying to pull breath quietly back into his lungs as not to wake the Uzumaki sleeping next to him.

He should have known better really, because despite the fact that Naruto can sleep through a fire drill and not crack an eyelid, Sasuke breathing wrong is apparently enough to wake him up. Naruto mumbles sleepily and rolls over, still mostly out of it, and pushes a hand across Sasuke’s back like it’s the most normal thing in the Elemental Countries.

It’s not like Sasuke’s never felt warmth from touch before, he has, in glancing brushes and the remembrance of his mother’s hands on his shoulders and his brother’s fingers against his forehead.

But this is different.

Somehow the warmth of this sinks deeper, rooting in his bones and warming his marrow. It was just a simple touch, careless in its affection. Stupidly open.

But it shakes something in him, jostles his foundations hard enough to loose debris. Dust and cobwebs of accumulated hate and grief shake free from this life he’s built on revenge, not enough to threaten collapse, but enough to rattle timbers.

And Naruto, the oblivious idiot that he is, just rolls over again and goes right the fuck back to sleep, uncaring of the turmoil he’s just stirred up in Sasuke’s soul, unaware of how Sasuke’s arms are still shaking, but it’s with a very different kind of fear.

 

<> 

 

The next event happens on an inconspicuous fucking Sunday.

Sasuke’s day has been shitty from the start– he’d woken up sweaty and disgusting and more exhausted than when he’d gone to sleep in the first place. The air was hellish and humid, the worst Fire Country has to offer.

By the middle of the day he’s cranky and exhausted, he’d been up training with Naruto until almost three in the morning, so he makes the decision without even really thinking about it, turning the corner around Ichiraku ramen with a bag full of curry-making supplies looped around his arm in case he needs an excuse to barge into Naruto’s apartment. He doesn’t bother using the door, doors are for civilians anyway, and they way things are going Sasuke and Naruto are practically ninja already.

It’s not the first time he’s come through Naruto’s bedroom window uninvited, not by far, but it is the first time Sasuke shows up and Naruto doesn’t immediately shout at him to get the hell off the already cracked sill. Sasuke doesn’t care; he likes the window open anyway.

But there's no shouting, no noise whatsoever, but Sasuke can feel the steady pulse of Naruto’s chakra inside, so he lets himself in.

Apparently he’s not the only one who thought a nap might be a good idea– Naruto is passed out on the still unmade bed, fully dressed, limbs akimbo. This alone isn’t what startles Sasuke, it’s what’s lying next to the bed that does.

A brand new futon, glaringly white against the warm colors of Naruto’s apartment, is spread out next to the bed.

Sasuke freezes in place.

Until now, Sasuke’s been entertaining the idea that this whole arrangement is temporary. Once he gets stronger than Naruto, once he learns all he can learn here, he’ll leave, search out other avenues of gaining strength, move along on his path.

But this rattles him again. It jolts him harder this time, and for longer, leaving him shaking at the window frame like he’s standing in a blizzard. The feeling shudders the framework on his house of pain and hate, building like a seismic wave that cracks walls and loses plaster. Something is stirring, deep beneath concrete foundation. Something powerful.

And that doesn’t make any sense. Whatever this is, this feeling of camaraderie and safety that he finds here, it’s supposed to be a weakness. Attachment, warmth, friendship even, it’s supposed to be an obstacle, a hazard, an anchor that will only drag him down, make him weak.

So then why the hell does it feel so strong? Strong enough to upheave everything he’s ever known if he lets it.

He should go.

The should push away this subtle welcome made with his pride in mind, should throw it back in Naruto’s face and forge his path alone.

But he’s so tired of frigid rooms and empty houses with too many hallways, he’s so tired of nights filled with old pain and older ghosts.

He’s so tired of being cold.

Naruto radiates warmth like he’s made of it. Surely he can spare a little for Sasuke, just for a while. Just for a moment to catch his breath.

He’ll hate him for it later.

<><><> 

 

Naruto’s been spending a lot of time with Sasuke lately, so he really shouldn’t be surprised when he get’s shanghaied by Sakura before class one morning, her unnaturally strong fingers fisted firmly in the back of his shirt as she drags him off to stand behind the training dummies.

“Okay, whatever I did I’m sorry please don’t kill me–” he babbles, right up until Sakura slams a hand over his mouth.

“Shut up.” She growls, looking around like Ino might be standing over he shoulder. “You and Sasuke came to class together this morning.”

Naruto blinks and pries her hand off his mouth. “So?” He asks, genuinely nonplussed.

“This is the fourth time this week.” She says accusingly.

“He doesn’t like his house, okay? Would you want to live in a place where your entire family was murdered?” He defends without thinking. “Why else would someone willingly stay in my shitty apartment?”

“That doesn’t explain why he’s staying with you specifically.” She presses.

Naruto grimaces. “We, uh, had a fight I guess.”

Now it’s Sakura’s turn to blink at him. “A fight?”

Naruto shrugs. “Ya, a fight. And now we’re sort of friends and stuff… Why are you looking at me like that?”

She’s staring at him like he has brain damage, which, if he does, is her fault, anyway. She doesn’t pull her punches. Ever.

“You guys have never gotten along. Ever.” She accuses.

Naruto shrugs again, slipping his hands into his pockets. “We still kinda don’t, to be honest. Not all the time anyway.”

Sakura just stares at him, and keeps staring at him, long enough that he starts to get uncomfortable and begins to edge around her slowly like one might skirt the presence of a feral bear. “Well anyway, we should probably get to class–”

Sakura grabs him by the arm and hauls him back around. “Will he be with you after school today?” She asks.

This time it’s Naruto who narrow his eyes. “Ya, its Friday. We have curry on Fridays. Why?”

Sakura folds her hands primly behind her back and pulls up the sweetest, fakest smile Naruto knows her to be capable of.

No.” He says firmly.

“Oh come on! Just once? Plus its curry, Naruto, and I know you learned how to make it from Iruka-sensei. I heard Daikoku-sensei saying that his curry is the best.”

“Ya, but you don’t want food, you want to rub time with Sasuke in Ino’s face.” Naruto counters.

“So? Look, I’ll even buy all the stuff to make it. And I’ll get chicken to put in it too. Please?”

Naruto taps his foot, debating. His food budget has been running low lately, and it is his turn to buy ingredients…

“Fine.” He declares. “But no fawning, and you have to tell Sasuke you’re coming. No surprise attacks.”

 

Which is how Sakura ends up at Naruto’s apartment after class, perusing some of the scrolls Naruto had left on the kitchen table while he and Sasuke have their customary sweet/sour debate over the curry. She’s kept her promise to keep the fawning to a minimum; apparently the draw of lording the whole experience over Ino’s head is enough for her to keep the fangirl in check.

“Energy Stitch? What’s this?” she asks, peering over one of the scrolls. She hasn’t asked where they came from, to Naruto’s relief, and doesn’t seem to care overly.

“Medical ninjutsu.” Naruto answers. “Iruka-sensei says it’s for field medics. I’ve watched him do it, it’s pretty cool.”

She looks up at him, obviously surprised. “Really? Can you do it? Did he teach you?”

“No, his chakra control still sucks too much.” Sasuke cuts in, earning him a hard elbow in the ribs.

“You can’t do it either asshole. And that’s too much vinegar.” Naruto snaps.

“Not enough vinegar, if you ask me.”

“Well I didn’t ask you, did I?”

They promptly dissolve back into their argument, unaware that Sakura is watching them now with disbelief and rising ire, right up until she stands up, shoves them both apart and shouts; “You idiots, it’s supposed to be spicy!

Naruto and Sasuke both leap back as she snatches a spoon from Naruto’s hand and a kitchen knife from Sasuke’s, then promptly commandeers the stovetop.

Sasuke is still gaping as Naruto bursts into laughter, shaking with mirth as the Uchiha just stares on, dumbstruck. Eventually he turns his eyes to Naruto.

“Does she get like this a lot?”

Naruto swipes a tear from the corner of his eye. “If you piss her off enough, ya.”

 

 

Chapter Text

It starts out small, which is exactly why Sasuke doesn’t see it coming. Little things, things that don’t mean anything right up until they do.

A book forgotten on the table.

An extra pack of shuriken on the shelf.

His spare kunai stashed beneath the bed.

Then a spare set of clothes in the closet.

His towel in the bathroom.

His best tanto by the door.

Then a whole duffle of supplies by the dresser.

His favorite oolong in the pantry.

His favorite foods in the fridge.

His goddamn toothbrush .

It hits him one night when he and Naruto are going over their training regimen for the week– he still remembers how surprised he’s been when Naruto had put his usual training routine down on paper for Sasuke to look at, for the given definition of routine. Some of the training Naruto had been doing were in things he hadn’t even considered, things like breathing and balance and fine motor control, and almost no two types of exercises were the same. Naruto has been training every part of himself, not just the parts that would be useful to battle or being a ninja, and Sasuke adopts the idea wholeheartedly. Any strength is better than no strength at all, and never before has training made him feel quite so strong before, sore in muscles he’s never used, drawing power from parts of himself he didn’t know were there.

He misses what Naruto is saying, something about flexibility and chakra control training, chopsticks halfway to his mouth. They’re eating a late night dinner of Ichiraku to replenish the calories they lost during training today, like they do almost every night. Sasuke is fairly convinced that Takeuchi says open this late just for them, specifically, just for Naruto.

It’s routine. Normal.

Sasuke has a chair at the tiny dining table. It’s his chair. He sits here every day. Naruto hasn’t bothered putting his futon away in the morning for longer than Sasuke can remember now. They take turns buying groceries every few days. It’s Sasuke’s turn to pay.

He hasn’t even seen his house in weeks.

Because he lives here.

“Oi, asshole. Are you even listening to me?”

And even that insult out of Naruto’s mouth sounds more endearing and exasperated than any curse word has a right to be. The blond tilts his head and blinks, confused. He knows Sasuke isn’t usually one for zoning.

“You have carrot in your teeth.” Sasuke says, to cover his momentary lapse in brain function. “We’re doing flexibility on Thursday?” he continues quickly as Naruto runs his tongue reflexively over his incisors, glaring when he realizes said carrot is nonexistent.

“Wednesday.” He corrects. “That way we can put it between endurance and strength training and not die, maybe.” he says dryly.

He’s been spending too much time with Shikamaru. Sasuke decides. This time next year his sense of humor is going to be dryer than Wind Country.

“Fine.” He agrees. “How is Sakura’s line up, though? Is she caught up yet?”

“Almost.” Naruto mumbles around a mouthful of pork belly. “She still needs work on her chakra reserves, but her control is already way better than either of ours. Plus, she’s been trying to harass Ryouta-san at the hospital into giving her anatomy lessons.”

That thought is terrifying. While Sasuke is glad that Sakura seems to have shaken herself out of the worst of her fangirl phase after actual prolonged contact with him, he’s not entirely sure what kind of monster they’ve created by introducing her to the idea of medical-ninjutsu.

She needs to hurry and catch them up so that they can start training in a group formation. She has specific talents that both he and Naruto lack and bringing her into regular training will give them some experience as a unit before the actual selections at the end of the school year.

Sasuke has plans for that too, and has spent the last few weeks trying to manipulate events in his favor. If everything goes to plan, they won’t be separated anytime soon.

<>

He wasn’t exactly planning on telling Sakura what he was up to, but it becomes necessary Friday morning, when she starts balling up a piece of paper to throw at Naruto’s napping head two rows back. Sasuke catches her wrist, stopping her arm mid swing.

“Don’t.” He growls. “Let him sleep.” Sakura glares at him from her now permanent residence in the seat to his left, much to Ino’s continued confusion and indignation. Sakura preens under her frustrated attention most days, which Sasuke has discovered is very like her.

She pulls her wrist out of his hand but drops the projectile, looking put out. “But he’s done nothing but sleep during class lately!” She hisses. “Even if he knows the stuff in theory, he’ll fail the test if he doesn’t know at least some of the technical jargon!”

“That's what I’m counting on.” Sasuke mutters, and she stares at him like he’s grown a second head.

She glances back at Iruka-sensei for a minute to make sure he’s still turned away from her. “What the hell is that supposed to mean? You want him to fail?”

She’s pissed now, which is bad news for Sasuke and his perfect record if it gets out of hand, so he sighs. “Look, you’re top Kunoichi right now, right?”

She straightens a little, pride evident in the little smirk that pulls across her face. “Ya, so?”

“And I’m currently top Shinobi, right?”

Her eyes narrow at that, confused now. “Obviously. But what’s that got to do with anything?”

Sasuke goes silent as Iruka walks their way, feigning indifference to the conversation until the Chunin sensei paces back down to the other end of the classroom.

“It’s an unspoken rule that the top Kunoichi and top Shinobi from each graduating class is placed in a team with the lowest scoring student in order to even out the distribution of talent.”

Sakura’s eyes widen a little as understanding dawns. “And Naruto is the current underdog.” She finishes for him, shooting a glance at the snoring blond behind them before leveling her emerald gaze back on Sasuke.

Sasuke nods minutely, tucking his mouth behind his steepled fingers to hide his determined smirk. “I’m going to make sure he stays that way.”

Sakura makes no effort to conceal her grin, leaning in conspiratorially. “I’m in. What can I do to help?”

“You can tutor Kiba for starters.” Sasuke mutters. “Dog-breath is cutting it close.”

 

<><><>

 

“You do realize this is considered stalking don’t you?”

“It’s reconnaissance, jerk.”

“It’s stalking.”

“No one asked you, Shika.”

“Then why the hell are we here?”

“I need a scapegoat.”

“Great. Thanks for that. Troublesome… and you're a traitor.”

Choji shrugs his shoulders, uncaring. “She gave me dango.”

“Oh, did she now? She just dragged me here by my ankles.”

“There’s no point in trying to bribe you.” Ino says with some venom. “And shut up, I’m trying to concentrate.”

Shikamaru rolls his eyes so hard Ino can practically hear it from where she’s crouched in the bushes, eyes trained on the hospital’s front door. Shikamaru lounges with his usual lazy grace against the tree behind her, nestled so fully in the shadows of the branches that Ino has to concentrate to see him all the way. Choji is settled on the ground at his feet, absently rolling the empty dango skewer between his teeth.

Ino knows that Sakura has been coming to the hospital lately, right after school in some cases, but what she doesn’t know is why . She’s is more than a little miffed that billboard-brow has somehow managed to worm her way into Sasuke’s good graces, but more irritating than that is the fact that afterwards she seemed to drop all the fawning, all the worship, and now she and Sasuke whisper to each other in class like they’re the best of freaking friends and Ino has no idea how it happened.

There has to be a trick to it. She’d decided. She has to know something I don’t.

When she’d asked Shikamaru for advice about it, he’d told her to ask Naruto of all people, and when she’d expressed her confusion about why the hell she would ask the class clown about Sasuke Uchiha , he’d given her the weirdest look.

“You really don’t know, do you? I thought you were supposed to be head of his fan club or something.”

Shikamaru won’t tell her what the hell he’d meant by that, so in retribution, Ino had hauled him into her stakeout. She’d grabbed Choji too, mostly because he didn’t whine about her odd behavior so long as she bought him snacks.

She hisses for the boys to hush when she sees a flash of pink rounding the far corner of the building, even though they hadn’t really been speaking in the first place.

Sakura has her hair pulled up from it’s normal straight flow into a high tail bound with leather cord. She looks tired and flushed, like she just came from sparring practice, but there’s also a triumphant semi-permanent smile on her face that Ino has never seen before, something self satisfied and proud. It makes Ino’s blood boil.

Sakura waves to a medic-nin taking a break to the side of the entrance and the older woman waves back, even going so far as to swing open the door for the young Kunoichi and offer her a reserved smile as she leaps by.

“The hell?” Ino mumbles to herself. The Konoha Shinobi Hospital staff are a notoriously stone-faced and unimpressed bunch of both current and ex-ninja.

“She comes here almost every day. Of course the staff knows her.” Shikamaru pipes up in response to a question she never actually asked.

“What the hell for though?”

“Rumor has it she’s been trying to bug Ikari-sensei into giving her lessons about being a field medic.” Choji says easily, rummaging around in his pack for one of his ever-present bags of crisps.

Ino blinks and straightens out of her hiding spot without thinking. “Ikari Ryouta? ” She squeals. “Is she insane ?”

“Possibly.” Shikamaru comments blithely. “But if he hasn’t scared her off yet, I doubt he ever will.”

At the head of the Konoha ninja hospital is Ikari Ryouta, top surgeon, ex-jounin, chief of staff, and possibly one of the angriest and most unapproachable human beings Ino has ever had the displeasure of meeting face to face.

She’d seen him exactly once four years ago, when her father had come back from a mission dangling from Choza’s arms, his leg severed from the knee down and the missing limb swathed in Shikaku’s protective shadows to preserve as much tissue function as possible. Inoichi had spent the next six and a half hours in surgery, Ino curled crying in her mother’s lap as they waited.

When Ikari had emerged at last, sweaty and obviously chakra exhausted with a scowl on his face, he had ignored Ino and her mother entirely. He’d turned straight to Shikaku, eyes hard and teeth grit. “He’s off missions for one month, pending regular healing sessions. No exceptions. If I see his name on a duty roster before that, I’ll chop his goddamn leg back off myself.” he’d growled, and then stalked off without another word, not even a glance in their direction.

Ino blinks at Shikamaru when he suddenly stiffens minutely, an eyebrow raised, staring over her shoulder.

“You guys aren’t talking about little old me, are you?”

Sakura’s voice comes from disturbingly close to her ear, and Ino can’t help it– she leaps and screeches, jumping forward so fast that she almost trips over Choji.

And Choji Akimichi is perfect, no one will ever tell her otherwise, because as she’s about to stumble and fall over herself in a ridiculously embarrassing fashion, Choji loops an arm around her legs to straighten her out, and doesn’t even complain when she uses his head to right herself, he just continues munching on his crisps.

Sakura stands up straight, her hands in the pockets of her sweats, completely unladylike and completely uncaring about it, a smug sparkle in her eye. Ino flushes to the roots of her hair in embarrassment.

“N-not everything has to do with you, billboard-brow.” Ino stutters, trying to steady herself both mentally and physically.

Sakura doesn’t rise to the bait. Instead she just smiles, knowing and carefree, and Ino is floored by it.

Who the hell are you? Ino’s brain asks, because this isn’t the Sakura she knows, the little girl crying on benches when people poked fun at her forehead or her hair color. This Sakura has her hair pulled all the way back from her face, fringe braided back into her ponytail to keep it securely out of her eyes. She’s wearing simple grey sweatpants and a dark blue tank top, no dress, no skirt, nothing eye-catching about her ensemble at all. But Ino finds herself staring anyway, because all the sudden Sakura looks freaking intimidating, confident and self-sure and what the hell .

Ino feels a deep green monster come to life in her gut, envy surging bitter at the back of her throat.

“Okay.” Sakura says easily, like Ino didn’t just insult her, and points across to the boys. “Can I borrow Shikamaru for a second?”

Shikamaru blinks, confused, and answers when Ino’s tongue fails to articulate an effective response.

“Need something, Haruno?”

“Coffee advice. Have you started drinking it yet?”

Shikamaru tilts his head, considering. “Ya, a little. But this is for Ikari-sensei, right?”

Sakura nods. “He’s being stubborn. One of the secretaries said he has a weakness for special blends.”

“You’re gonna wanna talk to my old man, then.” Shikamaru advises. “If anyone knows what’ll butter up old salt-of-the-earth, it’ll be him. You can come over after school tomorrow if you want, he’ll be back from Suna by then.”

Sakura grins and gives him a wink and a grin. “You’re the best. You’re coming over for curry this week, right? I get to pick the flavorings this time!”

Shikamaru makes a pained face. “Can you promise it won’t turn my mouth to ash?”

Sakura snorts and sticks her tongue out at him. “Baby. But since you helped me out, I’ll tone it down just for you.”

“Curry?” Choji pipes up, suddenly interested.

Shikamaru looks down at him with a fond quirk of his mouth. “I’ll bring you some when I get the chance, big guy.”

Sakura’s smile gets softer at the gesture. “We’ll make extra so you can take some back with you.” She offers. She looks up then, clocking the sun’s position in the sky. “Got to go. See you tomorrow Shika! See you later Ino! Bye Choji!” she yells behind her as she runs off down the path again, and Ino just stares, and stares, and stares.

<><><>

 

Kakashi turns around the corner of his apartment building and almost gets mowed down by an academy student, a young Kunoichi with hair the color of cherry bubble gum that clips his shoulder at high speed, barely stopping to shout an apology before she’s tearing off towards the training grounds, throwing off energy like some kind of overcharged battery.  

What does Iruka feed those kids? He wonders absently as he Body Flickers towards Genma’s apartment. He only half expects to actually find the Tokujo there– it’s a crapshoot as to where Genma will be on an off day, but he hadn’t been at the standby station, which leaves only a handful of places the Shinobi would go for a post-mission cool down.

Kakashi knows Genma isn’t in his apartment the second he lands on the balcony– Genma's chakra signature there is so faint it’s unlikely he ever went home in the first place. That leaves two options; either Genma has gone to Iruka’s flat for food and R&R, or he’s at Raidou’s loft.

Kakashi has no intention of checking Raidou’s loft.

 

Thankfully, Genma does end up being at Iruka’s, through Iruka himself is oddly absent.

“Yo.” Kakashi calls from the living room window, eyeing the Tokujo as he lounges on Iruka’s couch.

“Yo.” Genma returns tiredly, without moving the arm he has thrown over his eyes.

“That bad, huh?” Kakashi says softly, rolling to his feet and making his way over. He leans against the wall next to the Tokujo’s head, out of his line of sight, and runs his eyes down Genma’s form. Almost the entirety of the man’s chest is swathed in bandages, and his right hand is secured in a chakra-mesh cast to keep it immobile. By Kakashi’s estimation he should still be in the hospital, but saying as much would make him a hypocrite, so he keeps his mouth shut.

“Two casualties.” Genma says slowly, tongue darting out around his senbon to wet chapped lips, his only nervous habit. “Chunin. Newbies. Ambush. Could have been worse, really.”

“Could have been better, too.” Kakashi says honestly. He’s never been one for false words or comfort in moments like this. That would also make him a hypocrite. “I would have thought you’d be with your partner.”

“Too banged up.” Genma growls, finally removing his hand from his eyes to pull his fingers restlessly through his hair. “Plus, Rai is still with the Sandaime. He doesn’t know.” He cranes his head around to look at Kakashi, amber eyes narrowed. “If you were hoping to go rounds, I’m afraid you’re SOL.”

Kakashi shakes his head. His demons have been quiet lately; he hadn’t come here looking for a fight. “Where’s Iruka?”

Genma shrugs, wincing when the movement pulls at whatever wounds he has hidden under the bandages. “Not exactly sure, I remember him shouting about how he was out of bandages, but he’s been gone too long for a supply run. I’d bet real ryo that he’s giving the old man an earful.”

“Sucker bet.” Kakashi drawls, slipping his hands into his pockets. “My name’s in the draw pool for Jounin-sensei again.” He says randomly, which draws a snort from Genma.

“You’d think they’d learn. How many brat packs have you failed now? Four?”

“Six.”

“Ha! When’s graduation?”

“Two weeks.”

“Poor kids.” Genma chuckles. “Asuma’s in the pool now too. I can’t wait to see how he deals with genin .”

Before Kakashi can answer that the door bursts open and Iruka comes through the door with Raidou on his heels. The man stops in the living room entryway eyes locked on Genma’s bandaged chest, and his scarred face pulls into a grimace, the worry in his eyes all but undetectable to someone who didn’t know him.

“God dammit Shiranui.”

Genma lets out a nervous chuckle and Iruka rolls his eyes. “He’s your idiot now, Namiashi.” Iruka says mildly, dropping a bag of med supplies on the countertop. “Get him off my couch.”

Raidou does as instructed, ignoring Genma’s indignant squawks as he loops his partner’s good arm around his shoulders. “Thanks Umino.”

“Don’t forget to change his bandages.” Is Iruka’s only comment, barely heard over Genma’s growl of “I’m right here you assholes!”

Raidou only nods as he drags a grumbling Genma out the door, leaving Kakashi alone with Iruka. Only then does the teacher acknowledge his presence, turning to him and rolling the sleeves of his uniform shirt up to his elbows.

“Kakashi. Is something wrong?”

Kakashi smiles, letting it reach his eyes. “Just the fact that I no longer have someone to whine to about being picked for Jounin instructor again this year.”

“You can’t honestly be surprised.” Iruka comments, tugging the tie out of his loosening ponytail so he can pull it up more firmly. “You’re one of the strongest Jounin in the village, maybe even the strongest. Your number was up for sensei the second you pulled your name from the Anbu roster.”

Kakashi glares at him. “Me? In charge of kids?

Iruka chuckles. “I didn’t say it was a good idea. Just a logical one.” He leans back against the wall opposite, posture easy and loose, and Kakashi wonders for a moment how the hell he stays so calm all the time. Kakashi has spent almost all his life with Anbu, and the only person he’s ever met cooler under pressure than Iruka is possibly Shikaku, and the man is Jounin commander for a reason.

“You going to fail this group too?” Iruka says, disapproving.

“Probably.” Kakashi says lightly.

Iruka sighs heavily, casting his gaze out the window, and doesn’t speak for a long moment. Then a fond smile unfurls across Iruka’s mouth. “It looks like Naruto is going to pass this year.”

Kakashi ticks his gaze back up from where it had drifted in the general direction of the kitchen floor.  “Really?”

Iruka nods. “It might be close– he’s still failing the occasional test, but his physical training scores are high enough that it might not matter.” the small smile grows bolder. “And all test scores aside, I know he’s going to be a fantastic ninja.”

Kakashi takes a heavy breath, forcing down old memories that don’t belong in this moment. “I hope you’re right.”

<><><>

The night before the selection, Naruto hardly sleeps. Sakura had been over until late and they’d stayed up talking about jutsu and how Sakura had started goading Ino into spars outside of class and how Kiba and Sasuke no longer wanted to kill each other regularly. No one had mentioned the selections and Naruto hadn’t wanted to bring it up, all too happy to talk and squabble and wrestle playfully around the apartment until they either got tired or something broke.

Now it’s the middle of the night, and the selections are all he can think about.

“What if I end up with people who hate me?” He ask Kurama when it’s apparent he’s not going to get to sleep. “What if they get their assignments and they don’t want to hang around me anymore?”

~You’re an idiot,~ Kurama rumbles, ~If you think that little Uchiha and the Genesis are leaving your life anytime soon. You’re an idiot for even suggesting it. Actually, you know what, get down here.~

Naruto doesn’t even think twice about it, he just closes his eyes and steps back, alighting easily in the water of the seal space, his legs crossed.

It’s been more than a year since his frenzied trip to Uzushio to save the life of his bijuu, and Kurama looks healthier than ever. The golden tint to his crimson fur has become permanent, and his eyes have warmed from the colour of blood to a richer amber. The Kyuubi sets his muzzle immediately in Naruto’s lap, sending the water around them rippling softly as Naruto scratches above his nose.

“But seriously though.” Naruto mutters. “What’s going to happen when we get our assignments? How can you be so sure we won’t just…drift apart?”

Kurama snorts, moving back a little so he can tap Naruto’s forehead with a claw. ~First of all, you are way to stubborn to let go of anything you love. Friends especially. You remember what you did for me, don’t you?~

Naruto makes a pained face. “That was different.”

~Was not, and you know it.~ Kurama fires back. ~ And second of all, I think you’re vastly underestimating the deviousness of Uchiha. And while I may not like it, this one seems stuck to you for good.~

Naruto’s face scrunches in confusion. “What the hell does Sasuke have to do with it?”

~You’re kidding right? That brat has been plotting something for weeks now. And the Genesis is in on it. I’m pretty sure they want to hold onto you just as much as you want to hold onto them.~

Kurama smiles at him then, all sure, toothy grin, and Naruto believes him. “Thanks, you grumpy old demon.”

~Anytime, fishcake.~

<>

 

They get assigned to the same team. All three of them. They are team seven.

Sasuke doesn’t even bother trying to look surprised. The only emotion he’s radiating is smugness.

“You planned this, you asshole.” Naruto growls as he sets an eraser trap above the door. Their new sensei is late. By an hour . He’s lucky it’s not a bucket of paint.

“How could I have planned this? Everyone knows the assignments are random.” Sasuke says with false casualty, but Naruto can feel the excitement building under his skin from here. Sakura is giggling, swinging her feet on the desk, a full body tenketsu map open over her legs. She’s ecstatic about finally bribing the head surgeon at the hospital into giving her basic medic lessons, which she managed with some kind of River Country coffee blend that when brewed looked like rich hot tar. He knows because he's helped her brew the stuff at five-thirty in the freaking morning.

“Bull.” Naruto snaps, leaping back down to ground level. “You could have just told me.”

“It was more believable when you didn’t know.” Sakura explains, eyes still on her tenketsu map.

Naruto stares at her hard for a moment before throwing his hands in the air. “Never mind, I don’t want to know.”

The sound of the eraser falling alerts them to the door being opened, and they all turn at once to see a man standing in the doorway, staring, bemused, at the eraser on the floor. Naruto feels Sasuke freeze next to him, but can’t fathom why his friend is suddenly so nervous. Naruto has never seen this Jounin before in his life.

He’s tall and lean, a lazy hunch to his shoulders, and a black mask pulled up over most of his face. His hitai-ate is pulled crooked to cover his left eye, and he reaches up to brush chalk dust from strange silver hair.

You ?” Sasuke says harshly, obviously caught off guard.

The Jounin just gives them a counterfeit smile with his eyes. “Me.” He agrees. He straightens a little, addressing all of them instead of just Sasuke. “My name is Hatake Kakashi.” The man says mildly. “And I will be your Jounin instructor.”

Chapter Text

Iruka is grading papers at his kitchen table during his first day off in months, going over the work of his new batch of first-year students over a cup of oolong.

There’s a sudden swish, a thud, a crunch that sounds suspiciously like the bottom frame of his window cracking, an Kakashi Hatake appears around the corner of Iruka’s bedroom, single silver eye wild. “I need your help.”

Iruka gives him a few stunned blinks, temporarily dumbstruck, taking in Kakashi’s obviously less than critical distress before he remembers what day it is.

“Oh my god you passed them, didn’t you?”

Kakashi slides down the doorframe with a defeated groan, dropping his head into his hands.

Another thud, the scratch of nails on his wood floors, and Pakkun comes around the corner as well, leaping onto the kitchen table with a skittering hop. “You gotta help us, teach. Boss can barely remember to water his plant, how is he supposed to take care of pups?”

Kakashi makes some sort of inarticulate noise halfway between a whine and a growl. “I’m not having this argument with you again.” He snaps as he raises his head. “They’re not cubs, they’re Genin.

Pakkun snorts through his short nose, giving his ear a couple of careless swats with his back leg. “You seem to think there’s a difference.”

“There is a difference. Legally they’re adults.” Kakashi growls, but he sounds more like he’s trying to convince himself more than anybody else.

Iruka reaches forward to absently scratch the ear Pakkun’s been kicking and the ninken rumbles contentedly. “So let me get this straight. You, Hatake Kakashi, have passed a Genin team? Who did you get?” Iruka asks. He hadn’t been the teacher in charge of the assignment this year, so he’s uncharacteristically out of the loop. He figures they would have placed Sasuke with Kakashi, by virtue of a shared Kekkei Genkai, but outside of that he has no idea.

“Uchiha Sasuke, Haruno Sakura, and Uzumaki Naruto.”

Iruka freezes, tongue balled up in the back of his throat for a long stretched out second, but then he can’t help it anymore. He bursts into inappropriate uncontrolled laughter, the kind that makes your lungs sore and your eyes water, the kind that has him wrapping an arm around his middle a pressing a hand to his mouth in an effort to stifle his mirth. Kakashi’s glare sharpens but that only makes him laugh harder, wiping the tears from his eyes with the heel of his hand.

“Did you know they were absolute fucking terrors?” Kakashi hisses. Iruka doesn’t actually respond verbally, he’s still laughing too hard to speak, but he does hold his hand up flat and seesaws it back and forth in a ‘sorta’ gesture. Kakashi groans. “I don’t even know where the hell to start. Normally the beginning of training is based on building a fluid team dynamic, but it’s a little obvious they skipped that part entirely. I thought that teams outside Ino-Shika-Cho weren't supposed to be predetermined.”

Iruka manages to get himself under control at long last, occasional hiccups of laughter still escaping from his throat. “They’re not, but I may or may not have accidentally told Sasuke about the Rule of Two-Thirds. For academic purposes, of course.”

Kakashi doesn’t actually call him on the bullshit, but his gaze says he’s not convinced. Iruka sighs as Pakkun curls up under his arm. “Why don’t you start from the beginning?”

~<Four hours prior…>~

 

Kakashi stares openly at his three new trainees on the green of training ground three, studying each of them individually. He knows the Uchiha already, or at least he should, but he can’t help but notice that the dark haired boy looks very different from when he’d last seen him.

Uchiha Sasuke’s eyes had been cold and jagged like sheet ice that night in the rain, cutting and fragile, broken and hiding it under layer upon frigid layer of hate.

These eyes hardly look the like they belong to the same person in comparison. It’s like they’ve hardened and softened at the same time, burning instead of glacial, like some kind of inner fire has been melting down the ice and it’s revealed nothing but iron underneath, ferrous metal rusty with disuse, but strong nonetheless.

He remembers Iruka saying some time ago that Sakura was something of a fangirl, an enamored duckling trailing in Sasuke’s shadow in search of scraps of affection. This can’t be the same girl he’d been talking about, this fiery-eyed Kunoichi hopping back and forth on the balls of her feel like she can’t wait to get moving, get working, a serrated smile daring him to look down on her.

The only one of the three that Kakashi expected iron from had been Naruto– the boy has always been stronger than most people see, Kakashi knows this, but it’s not just more iron that he sees in Naruto’s eyes, it’s confidence, surety, like he knows his worth now, and not a person on earth will be able to tell him otherwise.

So far? Definitely not the green little academy graduates he’d been counting on. Right off the bat he makes three mistakes.

Kakashi’s first mistake was evaluating them separately.

His second mistake was assuming they’d play by his rules.

His third and most forgivable mistake? Assuming they would perform at an academy graduate level.

As soon as the skirmish starts it becomes very clear that these brats have been practicing techniques at a very not academy level thank you very fucking much, especially Naruto, who was supposed to have graduated with the lowest academy grades, who throws a Chunin level wind jutsu at him right off the bat.

His first bell gets snagged off his person a mere twenty minutes into the conflict, much to Kakashi’s chagrin, by Naruto and Sasuke working in tandem, more in synch with each other than Kakashi has seem most strike teams, so much so in fact that even though he’s sure Naruto is the one who snatched the bell off him, it ends up dangling in Sasuke’s hands and Kakashi can’t call them on it because he hadn’t actually seen the switch.

He only pauses to glare at them for a mere few seconds, but it’s yet another mistake on his part because Sakura, the sneaky brat, promptly swipes his second bell while his back is turned and Kakashi’s brain does a field conditioned reboot and reassess.

These are not Genin, these are little monsters.

Kakashi has done this test before, he’s failed academy student after academy student. None of them know what it means to look outside themselves, that the world means nothing without comrades at your back and friends at your side. In the first few minutes of his test, these three twelve-year-olds have demonstrated teamwork and ingenuity that could show conditioned Chunin teams a thing or two.

They’d planned this, Kakashi can see it in their eyes; the way Naruto is trying and failing not to smile the same way he would when he’s pulled a prank he knows he’ll get away with, the way Sasuke is glaring and grinning at the blond boy in turns like they’re having a conversation with just facial expressions, the way Sakura puts her hands behind her back and gives him a smile so sweet and false it makes his teeth hurt.

He ties the blond brat to the post because he can’t prove they’d broken his rules and tells them to break for lunch, minus Naruto, even though it’s hardly eleven. He’s floored again when the only person that pulls out any lunch is Sakura, and she comes out of her bag with not one bento, but three. She passes one to Sasuke and sets the other next to her, assuring Naruto that he can eat it later, patting the grass beside it reassuringly. When Naruto starts to whine about being starving anyway, Sasuke growls something that sounds like ‘idiot’ and starts giving Naruto bits out of his own lunch. Sakura catches into the loophole quickly and starts offering some of her own as well, and Kakashi gives up right around the time that Naruto wiggles an arm out of the ropes to take an offered rice ball.

There’s something very unfair about this. Kakashi decides. He can’t fail them now, even if he wanted to.

More surprising is the fact the he doesn’t want to. The iron in their young souls is so painfully obvious, but for all its strength the metal is rough– untested and untried.

Unforged.

He’s never seen more potential before in his life than he does now, staring at three twelve-year-old academy graduates sharing lunch together on the thick grass of training ground three. More than that, he sees a chance to break repeating history, a chance to make sure that this team never ends up like his did.

“I expect to see you three bright and early tomorrow morning.” He tells them at the end. He doesn’t bother mentioning that they passed. By the look in their eyes, they know.

“You gonna be late?” Naruto asks.

Kakashi smiles a little, hidden behind his mask. “Maybe, maybe not.” he says casually.

He will be.

~<>~

 

“I have no idea how to deal with them. Any idea I had about training went out the door this morning. They already know how to work their chakra and how to cloak their presence, and Sakura threw a punch today that almost broke a sapling.”

Iruka doesn’t seem to be sympathetic to Kakashi’s distress; he’s mostly just beaming proudly at the tale. “I thought Naruto might have been holding back in practice.” Iruka muses. “Looks like you have your work cut out for you.”

Kakashi glares at him again. Pakkun just rolls over for a belly rub, the traitor. “How am I supposed to know how to train them? This isn’t a case-by-case prodigy assignment anymore. They’re a team now.”

“You’ll just have to start from scratch then.” Iruka says simply, like the answer is easy.

“From scratch?” Kakashi mutters. He’s used to there being guidelines, expectations, rules to follow. He knows how to give orders not… nurture, not teach. That’s Iruka’s area of expertise. That’s why he’s here.

“They’re people just like anyone else.” Iruka explains. “They have weaknesses and strengths, doubts and dreams. They’re yours now, like it or not, so if you don’t know what they need to grow, you’ll have to find out.”

“But how?” Kakashi asks, pressing a palm into his unmasked eye. “Asking them?”

“You were an Anbu Captain, right? Watch. Assess. Find out where they’re strong and where they need strength.” He runs a hand down Pakkun’s back as the ninken starts to doze. “And when they need a helping hand or a push, give them one.”

Kakashi sighs, planting an elbow on his knee and running the other hand through his hair. “You make it sound so easy.”

“It’s not easy.” Iruka says bluntly. “But it is more simple than you might think.”

Kakashi mulls that over for a long moment, wondering how he’s going to organize ability tests that won’t be too much for Genin– he’s used to training mature shinobi, Anbu, women and men who know already what’s expected of them. In comparison Genin seem so fragile.

Or maybe not.

He’s known these three kids for only a few hours, and they’ve already given him a run for his money. He’s oddly eager to find out what they can do when pushed.

“There’s another thing, Kakashi.” Iruka says suddenly, and the tone of those words make him still; they’re soft and serious, said with the same quiet intensity that he’s heard the Hokage use when issuing an assassination contract. Kakashi’s single eye fixes on him immediately, taking in how Iruka’s eyes have drifted sideways, unfocused. Uh-oh.

He waits.

Iruka seems to be contemplating how exactly he’s going to word what he’s about to say, and the trepidation building in Kakashi’s gut grows.

“There will come a point in time where these kids are going to need you for more than just training. It might be a week from now, might be a year. But you've gotten a group of kids that have been through more than most shinobi twice their age, two of which don’t have parents, and one of which grew up with civilians. At some point in time every one of them is going to need you to be there for them, and you can’t cut and run.”

Iruka’s words strike raw and deep, make his chest ache over unhealed wounds. He keeps quiet.

The Chunin’s dark eyes flit up and catch his, sharp and sad at once, more intense than most would think him capable of. Kakashi is reminded, not for the first time, that Umino Iruka is a very dangerous individual, strong in a way that has nothing to do with chakra.

“It doesn’t have to be right now, but sometime soon you are going to need to choose if you are going to let yourself care for these kids or not. You need to decide if you’re going to see Sakura as more than a promising Kunoichi, see Sasuke as more than the last Uchiha, see Naruto as more than a remnant of Kushina and Minato.”

The words are another hard punch to the chest, another ripple of pain over his ribs, but he keeps quiet. He waits, and he listens, because Iruka would never pull at his pain like this if the words didn’t need to be said.

Iruka holds his gaze for the entirety of his speech, never so much as blinking. “You can’t do this by halves, Kakashi, that’s not how it works. Either let them in, or shut them out, but you need to choose.”

At that he stands and moves to the kitchen, a snoozing Pakkun tucked securely in one arm, and busies himself with brewing something, leaving Kakashi to his thoughts. Even though the sun has set and the room had been washed in darkness while they talked, Iruka doesn’t turn on any lights.

Kakashi’s grateful for it.

 

When Iruka comes back, he sinks to the floor next to Kakashi, Pakkun still curled to his chest, and presses a warm cup of coffee into his numb hands. Sugarless with a splash of whole cream, just the way he likes it. Iruka turns his head away politely while Kakashi takes a long drink, turning back only when he places the half empty mug on the floor between them. He reaches across, gripping Kakashi’s forearm firmly, grounding.

“There’s a lot more left in you than you seem to think, Kakashi.” Iruka says softly. “Don’t make a decision you’ll regret just because you’re afraid.”

The silence hangs for a long moment, but Iruka’s grip below his elbow remains steady. Slowly, carefully, Kakashi leans into his side. He doesn’t say thank you.

With Iruka, he doesn’t need to.

<><><> 

It’s nowhere near Friday when the assignments come to a close. They have curry that night anyway.

“Guys.” Sakura says wistfully as she passes Sasuke some chopped flank steak to stir into bubbling pot of curry base. For once they’re not fighting over flavorings, too giddy with accomplishment for petty arguments. “We’re a team now. We passed. Hatake Kakashi passed us.”

“Of course he passed us.” Sasuke says archly, but Naruto can tell he’s preening under the arrogance.

“Did you see his face when Sakura knocked that tree over?” Naruto snickers, adding more ground spice to the pot. “Priceless.”

Sasuke hums in agreement and Sakura flushes proudly.

He hears the window smack open and Naruto, by virtue of having his hands free, ducks around Sasuke, placing a hand on the Uchiha’s shoulder as he moves so that they don’t accidently bump into each other and send ingredients flying. It’s happened.

He turns the corner into his bedroom just in time to see Kiba thump to the floor on his back with a dreamy look on his face, literal drool pooling at the corner of his mouth. “What the hell kinda sorcery are you guys working in here? I can smell your flat from four blocks out.”

Shikamaru materializes on the sill over him, raising an unimpressed brow at the dog-nin. “You,” he drawls lowly, “Are a mess.”

“Gimme a break Shika, I’m starving.”

The Nara rolls his eyes. “You look alright to me.”

Naruto laughs and offers Kiba a hand up. “Don’t worry dude, we ended up making three pots. Where’s Akamaru?”

“With my mom.” Kiba explains, taking the offered help up. “He got sick off something he ate yesterday, so he’s on lockdown until he gets it all out of his system.”

“That sucks.” Naruto says sympathetically, and then turns his head back towards the kitchen once his friend is upright. “Jerks are here!” he calls happily.

“Good! Tell Kiba to get his ass in here and taste this!” Sakura calls. Naruto doesn’t say anything because before he can even open his mouth Kiba has already hightailed it into the kitchen, a bit too exuberantly if Sasuke’s growl of ‘watch it, dog-breath’ is any indication.

Shikamaru leans his weight against Naruto’s side after he saunters inside, stifling a long yawn against his hand. “This whole ‘ninja’ thing is going to be a pain. I can already tell.” he mutters. “I don’t suppose you have any coffee lying around?”

Naruto makes a disgusted noise in the back of his throat. “Just that really dark River Country stuff that Sakura bought, if you’re okay with drinking sludge.”

“Perfect.” the Nara mutters, pushing upright.

The five of them cram into Naruto’s little kitchen as bowls are passed around, laughing and snapping and talking over the three pots, each one made to suit their three individual tastes. Kiba takes a bowl of Sakura’s first and then goes back for a bowl of Naruto’s, then Shikamaru surprises them all by taking one serving of each and mixing them together in the same bowl as an experiment.

It turns out being the greatest thing Naruto’s ever tasted, and he’s not the only one who thinks so. Halfway through the round of tasting Sakura gets up and pulls out the deepest pot Naruto owns, a giant cast iron monstrosity that usually holds at least a dozen other pots nested in one another, and dumps all three curry concoctions together.

After everyone has been back for seconds (and in Kiba’s case, thirds), Sakura packs a tub up for Choji and they all make themselves comfortable on the floor of Naruto’s bedroom, both Sakura and Shikamaru nursing small mugs full of coffee. Sakura at least had watered hers down a little with milk and a good helping of sugar, but Shikamaru’s cup is undiluted and black as pitch.

“How do you even have taste buds?” Kiba asks, staring into the darkness of Shikamaru’s coffee cup like it might hold secret of immortality, or maybe just the trick to keeping the stuff down.

“It’s an acquired taste.” Shikamaru says mildly, taking another sip. Naruto is still surprised the stuff hasn’t turned his mouth black.

“How was the test, Kiba?” Sakura asks, grinning from ear to ear. “I hear you got put in a team with Hinata.”

Kiba flushes, switching immediately and predictably to defensive mode. “None of your business Haruno. Besides, I also got stuck with bug boy, who is a jackass.”

“Shino’s not that bad.” Naruto defends.

“Have you been in a room with him for more than twenty minutes? He spent the first half of our test correcting my grammar.” Kiba pauses, jumping trains of thought. “Kurenai-sensei is amazing though.”

“We have Asuma, but that was to be expected.” Shikamaru adds, taking another sip of his toxic mud.

“Ya, plus you already knew who you were going to be in a team with, so nothing was a surprise for you.” Kiba growls, before whipping around to face the rest of them. “Speaking of predetermined assignments, how the hell did you three swing this dream team?”

“Ya Sasuke,” Naruto drawls sarcastically. “How’d ya swing that?”

“Hn.” Is Sasuke’s only response. Sakura giggles.

“Speaking of which, Uchiha, it looks like you’re down another fangirl.” Shikamaru says with a grin.

“Finally.” Sasuke mutters, with real relief.

“Oh?” Sakura pipes up, looking far too smug to pull off her attempt at innocence.

Shika narrows his eyes. “Oh don’t act like you don’t know. Ino dragged me out of bed yesterday morning again, only this time it was to train instead of stalk you. I’m losing more sleep by the day and it’s your fault for getting her so riled up.”

Sakura grins, unrepentant.

<> 

Sasuke doesn’t notice Naruto going quiet until Shikamaru pipes up, sometime after he’s drained the last drop from his coffee cup.

“Something on your mind, Uzumaki?”

Sasuke looks up immediately at Shika’s words, eyes focusing in on the blond across from him.

Naruto’s gaze is downcast, and a wrinkle has formed across his brow that says he’s thinking deeply.

“Dobe?” He asks, and the word comes out gentler than he intended.

Naruto looks up immediately, but only meets his eyes for a bare second before his gaze flickers down again. “I…” he starts, but then he cuts off, chewing his lower lip in an uncharacteristic show of uncertainty.

“Whatever you have to say doesn’t leave this room if you don’t want it to.” Shikamaru assures, voice oddly soft, his eyes supernaturally keen. Sasuke’s missed something.

Suddenly the room goes quiet and Kiba leans over, eyes uncertain but smile comforting.

“Ya, dude. Whatever it is, our lips are sealed.”

It’s clear Kiba doesn’t actually know what’s happening or what Naruto and Shikamaru are talking about, but Sasuke has never been more grateful for the dog-nin than his is right then, offering his loyalty blind without so much as a clue to what’s going on. Sasuke appreciates this part of Kiba more than he’ll ever admit aloud.

Sakura blinks back and forth between the three of them, occasionally casting her gaze sideways to Sasuke in an attempt to put the pieces together. She’s not the only one lost, but Sasuke’s eyes never leave Naruto.

The blond sighs and finally looks up, cerulean eyes holding Sasuke’s for a long second before he turns his gaze to everyone else. “Do you guys remember inter-term break last year?” he asks.

Sakura leans forward to brace her elbows on her knees. “You mean the one where we had the huge storm that swamped the main road for days?”

Naruto nods.

“Ya, you disappeared for like a whole week.” Kiba murmurs. “Shika and I thought you died in a ditch somewhere.”

Naruto winces, guilt flashing across his face as his gaze turns apologetic. “Ya. Sorry about that.”

Shikamaru doesn’t say a word, only waits silently for him to continue. When he doesn’t speak up, Sasuke does.

“Where?”

It’s the only word he says into the long silence, but the question is clear, and Naruto knows what he means.

“Uzushio.”

Sasuke doesn’t miss the way Shikamaru’s eyes widen. “By yourself?” the shadow-nin asks, tone neutral, but Sasuke can see genuine surprise in the back of his burnished eyes.

“I don’t understand.” Sakura interjects. “What’s Uzushio?”

“Wait a minute, Uzushiogakure?” Kiba asks, incredulous. “Like the old village of the seal masters, Uzushio?”

Naruto nods again, wiping sweaty palms on his thighs before leaning back on his hands.

“Why?” Sasuke asks, another too-deep single-word question, and Naruto’s eyes dart back up to his.

For a fraction of a second Sasuke can see familiar discord swimming though the jewel tone blues, the same volatile mix of grief and frustration that Sasuke had been witness to one year ago. When Naruto doesn’t answer, Shikamaru does.

Uzumaki.” the Nara sounds out the word in a long breath, stressing the first syllable of Naruto’s last name to highlight the similarity. “It’s where you're from, isn’t it? Or one of your parents anyway.”

“My mom.” Naruto agrees quietly, and somewhere in the back of his head Sasuke is aware of Sakura’s too-fast intake of breath and the hiss of air between Kiba’s teeth.

Naruto tosses his head side to side as if to shake off the unwanted pity in their gazes. “Anyway, I found some things while I was there, things I want to share with you guys if you’ll let me.”

“You don’t have to do that, Naruto.” Shikamaru says suddenly, uncharacteristically fierce.

“Can someone please explain for those of us without inherent knowledge or 200 level IQs?” Kiba growls.

Shikamaru has the decency to look vaguely chastised, but he looks to Naruto first with brows raised, asking silent permission. Naruto sweeps his hand out in front of him in a gesture to go ahead. “Uzushio was a sister village to Konoha from its founding right up until it was destroyed in the third shinobi world war by an alliance of Iwa and Kiri.” Shikamaru says stiffly. “As far as we know, no Uzushio shinobi managed to survive the incursion.” he turns back to Naruto. “That’s all I know for sure, but I would guess that means the Uzumaki were one of their clans.”

Naruto nods to confirm. “I found out last year. My mom moved here just before the village was destroyed.” he pauses, casting his gaze sideways towards the window. “Not sure about much more than that.”

Sasuke’s brain catches somewhere around the word clan, and he promptly loses his train of thought.

Naruto, the intuitive idiot, picks up on his hiccup almost immediately, sending a halfhearted glare in his direction like he knows exactly what he’d thinking.

“Don’t compare, jerk,” he warns softly. “My clan was dead way before I was born. It’s not the same.”

The moron has the audacity to use air quotations marks around the word ‘clan’, like that somehow makes the word mean any less.

“Don’t make it into a joke, idiot.” Sasuke growls.

“If this is a joke it’s not a funny one.” Sakura says angrily. “You left the village limits to go to another country without permission? Naruto, if you’d been a ninja at the time, that could be seen as treason.

Kiba gets up suddenly, striding quickly across the room to shut and lock Naruto’s only bedroom window. He comes back, sits down heavily, and turns around the room, pointing to and making eyes contact with everyone but Naruto. “Not a word outside this circle.” He says levely. “Capiche?”

“Obviously.” Sakura snaps.

“Of course, don’t be stupid.” Sasuke says lowly.

Shika only nods.

Naruto looks taken aback by the sudden seriousness in the room, looking both incredibly flattered but also more than a little annoyed.

“Can I finish my point now?” he grumbles.

Nods all around.

He takes another breath. “So anyway, I found some stuff there that was really important to their village.” He leans forward again, voice softer now. “So long as everything does stay between us and all that, I wanted to share it with you guys.” He looks to Sasuke and Sakura respectively. “I would have told you about it earlier, but I wanted to wait until we were all officially ninja.”

Sakura nods in understanding, but Sasuke just keeps staring.

It’s clear from the look in Naruto’s eyes that this is not just something he found lying around in a ruin. Whatever it is means a great deal to him, enough for him to drag up thoughts of parents he never knew, enough for him to trek across countries to find it.

Sasuke feel suddenly unworthy of whatever it is.

“Shikamaru is right, idiot.” Sasuke finds himself saying before he can stop. “Whatever it is, it’s yours to keep.”

Naruto eyes go from soft and uncertain to diamond hard in less than a second, a stubborn surety locking down inside them that tells Sasuke he'd have an easier time moving a mountain than changing his mind.

“And so are you guys.” Naruto states as fact. His tone invites no argument. “You are my friends, like it or not. And that’s exactly why I want to share this with you.” There’s an unspoken ‘got a problem with that?’ tacked on to the end of the sentence, directed right at Sasuke, and he swallows hard around the sudden lump in his throat.

Because this is just how Naruto is. Stubborn, relentless, determined, unconditional. He doesn’t do anything by halves. You are his, or you are not, and if he has decided to be there for you, it is through hell and back, and back again, to the end of time. He is Naruto’s whether he likes it or not, and by default that means that from this point forward, he’ll never be alone again.

Because that’s just the way Naruto is, and that fact would be no easier to change than forcing the sun to set in the east.

Naruto doesn’t waste any more words explaining himself; instead he sways to his feet and movies over to the nightstand, pulling open the disused bottom drawer. From within he sets aside a worn blanket and draws from beneath a dark cylinder trimmed in gold, as long as Naruto’s forearm and twice as thick.

“Is that a scroll?” Sakura asks as Naruto returns and sits back down, holding the strange object in both hands.

“That’s not like any scroll I’ve ever seen.” Shikamaru muses.

No kidding. Sasuke thinks.

The scroll is a glimmering black that reflects the light like polished obsidian, trimmed in shining gold and circled with two leather straps secured with metal clasps.  

“It’s a mass freight scroll.” Naruto explains, flicking the clasps open with small twin bursts of chakra. As the clasps separate, patterns of light flare across the metal for a moment before going dark again. He carefully unrolls a foot of the shining black scroll, revealing a blooming design etched in shimmering gold lacquer across the surface. It practically radiates chakra; Sasuke can feel if from where he’s sitting.

“Almost everything I found is sealed in here.” Naruto says, tapping the back of a knuckle on the furled portion of the scroll.

“You can actually work these?” Shikamaru marvels, peering over the broad curling lines of script and curves of symbols.

“It’s in my blood, apparently.” Naruto says, smirking as if at some private joke, and that’s a non-answer if Sasuke’s ever heard one.

“What’s inside?” Kiba asks.

Naruto smiles wide. “Too much to show you guys right now, since we have training in the morning, but tomorrow? After training? I do want to show you.”

<> 

That night, after Sakura waves her goodbyes at last, long after she should have already been home, Sasuke asks the question he’s been holding behind his teeth since after dinner. Since last year, if he’s honest.

After a long moment of silence and in a too soft voice, Naruto tells him about Uzushio.

 

 

Chapter Text

Sasuke wakes to the soft light of predawn filtering through the cracked shades of the window, casting a silver filter over the shadows of the room. Even though he knows he’s only been asleep for a few hours at most, right now he’s never felt more awake.

Naruto’s story lingers in his ears, and he’d spent the night dreaming about what it must have been like, reading the pain and drive between the lines of Naruto’s story, imagining how it would have forged him. That night they met on the street makes so much more sense now, now that Sasuke knows the force behind the fury.

Naruto is lying on his stomach on the bed above him, his arm thrown carelessly over the side so that his knuckles brush the floor by Sasuke’s futon. Sasuke curls his own hand just shy of the blond idiot’s fingertips, and even though they’re not actually touching, Sasuke can still feel the warmth radiating off the idiot’s calloused hand.

The hell. He’s like some kind of furnace.

Sasuke figures it must have something to do with his metabolism; from what Sasuke has seen, he eats enough and often enough to put away more food than a couple of grown shinobi put together. The only other person Sasuke knows with that kind of appetite is Choji.

Deciding he’s lazed around enough, Sasuke pushes to his feet and stretches his arms over his head, gratified with the handful of pops that crack up his spine. Sneaking around is more likely to wake Naruto than any kind of morning stumbling, so Sasuke doesn’t bother being stealthy as he pads into the bathroom. The floor next to the sink is littered with jars and bottles with plastic caps, the result of Sakura’s experiments with different soaps and shampoos. Her finished products line the thin shelf to the left of the shower, about a dozen jars and bottles labeled with surgical tape and swirling red pen. He runs his fingers over the labels until he finds the ones he’s looking for, a scentless shampoo and a mostly empty bottle of off white conditioner labeled ‘Sakura’s special formula’. As stupid as the name is, the cream is light enough that it doesn’t weigh down his hair and is scented only lightly with sandalwood and cherry blossom oils, enough to be pleasant, but not enough to last long or give him a headache.

He starts Naruto’s shitty shower and waits for the water to warm up. How long it takes is a crapshoot on the best of mornings, anywhere from five minutes to twenty. As he waits he goes in search of a bar of soap that doesn’t smell like a field of flowers, another product of Sakura’s more than periodic stay-overs, growling when he discovers that they’re out of his usual pine-scented stuff. He settles for stealing a bar of Naruto’s, the kind that smells mostly like lemongrass and faintly of jasmine.

By the time he rises the shower is billowing with steam, so he strips and steps in, wincing at the too hot water and adjusting the temperature.

 

Naruto is awake by the time he steps out again, having tucked the futon back under the bed so that he can do morning stretches in the cleared space. He’s just finishing up when Sasuke throws Naruto’s obnoxious orange towel at him but otherwise doesn’t speak, and Naruto responds with a yawn and a lazy wave of his hand, standing up and slipping past him into the now vacated shower.

It’s not routine, exactly, it’s usually half and half odds, which one of them will be up first, but it’s easy and comfortable in a way few things in Sasuke’s life have ever been.

He’s almost done with his own stretches when Sakura bangs too loudly on the door, stirring a disgruntled shout from the old civilian man that lives downstairs. Sasuke doesn’t bother getting the door, and a few seconds later Sakura lets herself in, carrying a triad of bentos under one arm.

“Hey, jerks. I brought breakfast.” She calls, but this time keeps her voice low so as not to upset old man Yamada.

Sasuke finishes his stretches and stands, rolling his shoulders as he ducks into the kitchen, whistling at the spread she lies out on the table.

“You must have been up early.” He remarks, pulling open the utensil drawer to retrieve their chopsticks.

“Didn’t really sleep, to be honest. You?” she asks, pulling out Naruto’s chair and taking a seat.

Sasuke shakes his head, handing Sakura her chopsticks and sitting down with his own. He leaves Naruto’s at the edge of the table. As an unspoken rule, last one to breakfast eats standing– there’s no room in the tiny kitchen for another chair. “We got a couple hours apiece, I think, but it’s no excuse to skip morning exercises.”

“Agreed.” Sakura says easily around a sweet omelet roll. “What time did Kakashi-sensei say he wanted us at ground three? I forget.”

“He said nine on the dot, but I doubt he’ll be on time if yesterday says anything.” Sasuke muses darkly.

Sakura hums in agreement, and then shoves abruptly to her feet. “I’m making coffee. Want any?”

Sasuke makes a face. “Doesn’t that stuff stunt your growth?” He grumbles, spearing a cherry tomato with one chopstick and popping it into his mouth.

“Ikari-sensei says that’s just an old wives tale.” Sakura says, brushing off his concern and rummaging through Naruto’s pantry for the dark bag of coffee beans.

Naruto comes into the kitchen then, still rubbing at his wet hair with a towel, and spots Sakura by the coffee pot. He makes a face. “I’ll never understand how you stomach that stuff.” he mutters, scooping up his chopsticks and snagging a bento off the table before cocking his hip to lean against the counter.

“Come on.” Sakura whines. “You have to try it at least once.”

“No I don’t.” he counters, popping a piece of fried shrimp into his mouth in defiance.

Sakura ignores him, pouring three mugfuls of hot caffeine anyway, though she does have the decency to load Naruto’s with cream and sugar. She shoves the mug into his hand in such a way that Naruto has to either grasp it or lose his favorite amber ceramic cup to the linoleum.

<> 

Sakura lopes into the hospital waiting area, clutching her warm covered mugs of bribery close to her chest. She honestly doesn’t understand Naruto’s problem with the stuff– it’s not so overwhelming once you get used to it, and the bitterness is easily counteracted by a bit of sugar and cream.

She skips up to the counter, still pleasantly giddy and tired from morning sparring with the boys, and plants her elbows on the counter.

“Morning Shiki-san!” she chirps, pushing one of the steaming mugs across flat surface “I brought you a pick me up!” The secretary looks up, glasses flashing in the fluorescent lights, and takes an audible breath through his nose.

Shiki Senri is the lone secretary for the Shinobi hospital and registered Tokujo, a tall, lean man in his early thirties with amber-blonde hair and dark blue eyes. He reminds Sakura a little of Iruka-sensei sometimes, in that all his power hides behind a genuine smile and a mild go-with-the-flow personality. But also like Iruka-sensei, cause trouble in his domain and Shiki-san can make grown-ass Jounin feel like toddlers.

“Are you trying to butter me up, miss Haruno?” Shiki asks mildly and with a soft smile, taking the cup with greedy fingers.

“Is it working?” Sakura asks, grinning.

Shiki takes a long drink before responding, and by the relieved sigh he gives as he sets down the mug, Sakura got his preference right. Half a spoonful of sugar, no cream.

“I’m ashamed to say it is.” Shiki admits with conspiratorial smirk. “Here to see the old grump, I imagine?”

“Is he free?” She asks politely, though she knows the answer. Barring specific emergencies, Ikari-sensei spends the first few hours of his morning holed up in his office with paperwork. It’s really the only time he’s free to teach her anything.

“He is.” Shiki-san says, gesturing up and to the right with his pen. “Third floor down the hall, last door on the left. You know the way. Don’t dawdle, and don’t bother the patients.”

“Yes sir!” She says brightly, giving him a two-fingered salute and taking off towards the stairs.

“See if you can get him to finish signing his discharge papers before I die of old age, will you?” he calls after her, and she throws him an affirmative thumbs-up before she rounds the stairs. She darts keenly through the maze-like hospital corridors, staying well out of the way of the doctors and nurses and waving to the ones she knows as she passes by. She comes to a stop in front of Ikari Ryouta’s office, pausing to take a solid breath before giving the door three firm knocks.

“This had better be good.” a deep voice from inside growls, and Sakura opens the door a crack, just wide enough for her to stick her arm through to wiggle the remaining cup of coffee where the cranky head of surgery might see it.

There’s a sharp sigh and a shuffle of papers that precedes another heavy growl, though this one decidedly less grumpy than the last. “Oh get in here, squirt. I don’t know why you even bother knocking anymore.”

Sakura hip checks the door open, ducking into the dark office. The head of surgery leans sideways haphazardly in his desk chair, a file balanced on one knee, which is thrown over the chair’s arm. Ikari Ryouta is an ex-Jounin, (Sakura secretly suspects ex-Anbu), with dark skin and darker hair, face split brightly with steely blue-grey eyes. He’s only thirty-five, but the dark lines under his eyes and the semi-permanent scowl on his face give him the appearance of someone in their forties.

“Morning Ikari-sensei.” Sakura singsongs.

The man only grunts in response, not looking up, and holds his hand out expectantly as he chews the end of a pen. She presses the still warm cup into his hand and steps over the pile of binders to get to the windows.

“Shiki-san says you’re behind on your paperwork?” she comments as she hunts for the buttons that hold the curtains shut, balancing on one foot so that she doesn’t knock over another stack of files.

The surgeon doesn’t respond until he’s drained a good third of his coffee, relaxed for a handful of seconds before he puts the cup down with a clack on the mahogany desk and is instantly scowling again.

“He’ll get the discharges when I’m done with them, and not a second before.” he growls, wincing when Sakura finally finds the fixtures holding the curtains closed and proceeds to throw them open, revealing a pleasant, rolling view of training ground two. “Who said you could open those?”

Sakura turns on him, planting one hand on her hip and stuffing the other in the pocket of her sweats.

Even Ryouta has to admit that the girl’s glare is impressive, for a twelve-year-old. He would probably have never let her in his office otherwise.

“Don’t be a hypocrite, sensei.” she admonishes, the nerve. “Didn’t you spend a good half hour lecturing Aburame Shibi about how his vitamin d deficiency was due to a lack of sunlight?

“Not sure how that applies.” he mutters, finally catching sight of the hitai-ate hanging around her neck. “About time you made Genin. Who’s the sorry bastard that got you for a student?” He pointedly ignores the irony of his statement, but by the wicked gleam in the new Genin’s eyes, Haruno doesn’t miss it.

“Hatake Kakashi.”

Ryouta snorts. “Couldn’t have happened to a better jackass.”

Sakura tilts her head, hopping back over leaning paper towers to the front of his desk again. “Do you know him, Ikari-sensei?”

“That idiot is the second worst patient I’ve ever treated.” he growls.

“Who’s the first?”

“Shiranui Genma.” Ikari snaps without hesitation, and Sakura snickers.

Ikari sits up out of his lazy slouch with a grunt, slapping his file down next to his coffee cup. “I suppose, now that you’re an official ninja and all that, you’ll be wanting to learn some actual jutsu.” he rumbles, surveying her with narrowed eyes.

Sakura flashes a cocky grin, completely uncowed. “You know it!”

Well she’s got guts; he’ll give her that.

<><><> 

 

“This is stupid.” Sasuke growls, voice dripping with venom, teeth on edge and mouth set in a frustrated frown.

“Well this isn’t going well.”

~It’s going about as well as can be expected.” Kurama muses. ~He spent so much time and energy developing his fire pathways that I’m not surprised his system is off balance. It would probably be worse if we hadn’t saved water for last.~

“We could take a break?” Naruto says aloud. They’re sitting cross-legged on the water of the Glade’s basin, willow branches twisting between them in the soft breeze, the tips trailing through the water like idle fingers.

“No!” Sasuke snaps, his eyes flicking open to catch Naruto’s unimpressed gaze. It’s not the first of Sasuke’s angry outbursts Naruto has been witness to, and it won’t be the last. Naruto understands actually– this is probably one of the only areas of training where Sasuke’s natural ability doesn’t factor in, the only place he really struggles.

Naruto waits him out, not rising to the ire, and thinks oddly that his experience dealing with Kurama’s anger is useful in dealing with Sasuke’s as well.

Sasuke sighs, calming visibly and changes his answer. “Ya, fine. Whatever.”

~He’s doing better than he was.~ Kurama says idly as Naruto gets to his feet.

“It’s still giving him a lot more trouble than the other three.”

~Water is the natural counter to fire. It’s natural it would challenge him more than the others.~

“But Sakura didn’t have this much trouble with earth. How is it different?”

~The pink one’s inherent stubbornness helped her over that hurdle.~ Kurama explains. ~Water chakra relies a great deal on introspection and inner peace, and something tells me that your Uchiha has trouble with the ‘peace’ part.~

Naruto pauses as he stands, a new thought piecing itself together in his head.

“I think I have an idea.”

~Oh, I’m gonna like this one, aren’t I?~

Naruto waits until Sasuke is mostly to his feet, the prankster in him watching for the precise moment when the Uchiha’s guard will be at it’s lowest…

Suiton: Flash Geyser.”

Sasuke’s reflexes aren’t quite so slow that the spout of water actual hits him in the face, but he does swing back and lose his balance on the water, careening under the surface with an echoing splash.

Kurama dissolves into laughter in the back of Naruto’s head and it’s so contagious that Naruto bends over with mirth too, their amusement feeding off each other until Naruto quite literally has tears in his eyes and an ache in his chest.

Sasuke hauls himself out of the water, expression nothing short of murderous, eyes narrowed with all the indignant fury of a drenched cat. The look in his dark eyes promises swift revenge.

 

Half an hour later, soaked and exhausted, Naruto tells him to try his meditation again.

“What, now?” Sasuke asks, incredulous, but this is the Sasuke Naruto had been after– tired and relaxed, at ease in a way he rarely lets himself be, limbs loose and eyes soft around the edges.

“Ya. You might be surprised.” Naruto assures.

The Uchiha shoots him a skeptical glance, but listens anyway and crosses his legs, dropping into meditation after a few moments of controlled breathing. Naruto watches him all the while, waiting for any indications that Sasuke’s figured it out.

He’s rewarded for his patience when the lines around Sasuke’s eyes tighten and loosen in turns, the harsh set of his mouth smooths out, and he blinks his eyes open, not in frustration, but in wonder.

“Got it?” Naruto asks, tilting his head and grinning because he knows the answer.

Sasuke snorts, but his mouth curves up in a little half smile, half smirk. “Ya, idiot. I got it.”

<><><> 

 

Kakashi fully intends on being at least an hour late to his first training session with his brats. Best to teach them patience early on, he reasons, but it’s also a subtle form of revenge for yesterday, petty as it may be.

He fully expects to spend his morning wandering uselessly around the open market after he finishes his daily memorial stone visit, but looking back, he really should have known better.

Because the last thing he expects after he rounds the corner onto the market road is to be ambushed by three twelve-year-olds on a mission.

He’s learned his lesson this time though, has clocked their individual chakra signatures and memorized their movement patterns enough to not only to see their ambush before they make it, but to act in kind as well.

Naruto hurtles past him, missing him by a handful of centimeters at most, coming to rest crouching on a bakery balcony.

“Late!” he shouts, hands cupped around his mouth like Kakashi can’t hear him from around the block.

“Oh really?” Kakashi says with faux innocence. “I must have lost track of time.”

 

They chase him across town.

It’s starts out as a hassle, and at first he does generally try to shake them off, and even succeeds a couple times, but instead of running off he lingers nearby watching the three Genin come together to go over strategy and plan.

Watch, assess. The memory of Iruka’s voice tells him. Find out where they’re strong and where they need strength.

So Kakashi starts to evaluate them. He judges their speed and coordination, power and agility, reflexes and response times. He finds out that Sakura hits hardest but also gets tired quickest, that Sasuke is fast but needs to hone his physical strength, that Naruto’s endurance is off the charts but his economy of motion needs work.

And then finds himself actually, legitimately, enjoying himself. He finds the brats are far easier to talk to when everyone’s in motion, even though in typical settings that’s usually the opposite of how things work out.

He finds out that the reason Naruto and Sasuke move so well together is because they live in the same dingy apartment, close enough that if they didn’t anticipate each other's movements they would run into one another constantly.

He finds out that Sakura has been spending her mornings taking anatomy and healing lessons from one of the angriest shinobi Kakashi knows of, and gives her personal bonus points for both cunning and nerves– even Kakashi has trouble dealing with Ikari when he's whole and uninjured.

He finds out that all three of them train together most mornings, and that they eat together most nights, and that even though Naruto’s apartment is by far the cheapest and smallest of all their homes, it’s the one they spend the most time in.

It’s like he’s inherited a family in the making, a set of siblings born, by some flaw in fate, to separate families. They’re each outcasts in some way, but they’ve found grounding and acceptance in each other, and even at this point Kakashi can tell they’re going to be so so strong.

Choose Kakashi. Iruka’s voice says again in the back of his head, but there is no choice, not really, and some part of him wonders if Iruka knew that from the start.

Probably. He thinks. In Kakashi’s experience, there’s very little that Iruka doesn’t know.

By the time he lets them catch him, it’s almost evening. Kakashi would have tried to stop the game earlier, but, to be honest, he hadn’t wanted to.

He takes his new brats out for ramen. It’s the least he can do.

<> 

Genma drags him out for drinks later than night, with much complaining on Kakashi’s part. Something about the new teachers drowning their sorrows in good old-fashioned sake binging. Kakashi is fairly sure he’s just doing it to piss off Raidou– the Tokujo had spent that entire morning loitering in the standby station looking like he’d just taken a bite out of a rotten lemon. Kakashi figures they’re just having a domestic spat– they’ve been arguing about Genma moving in for weeks now, not that Kakashi will admit to knowing that.

If he starts being loose tongued with gossip, Iruka will stop telling him things.

They all meet at a dark booth in the shinobi only section of the establishment, Genma, Anko and Hayate on one side, so that they can laugh and make fun as a unit, and Kakashi, Kurenai, and Asuma on the other, for solidarity.

He’s seen this kind of thing go down before. He expects complaints, whining, grousing, the whole nine yards. This is the most Genin to graduate at once in over a decade, and with all the clan heirs and such involved, he expects the moping to be spectacular.

That's… not what happens.

It turns into a teaching technique swap almost immediately.

Kurenai is the first to hound Kakashi about it, demanding any ideas he might have on training more physical kids– she has both an Inuzuka and a Hyuuga in her lineup, and both clans are known for being heavily taijutsu reliant– Kurenai has always leaned towards genjutsu. She gives him tips in exchange on basic genjutsu properties and underlines that his kids need to understand theories like reality fragmentation, and Kakashi takes vigorous mental notes. She gives Asuma the same tips on coaching his trio, the latest incarnation of the Ino-Shika-Cho formation. Apparently he’s having the most trouble assessing Shikamaru, no surprise there, since the boy would rather cloudwatch than participate in training. Hayate is the first to mention that playing shougi always focused Shikaku when he got lazy with his work, and it sort of devolves from there.

Kakashi walks away from the night only mildly tipsy instead of smashed, and with a plethora of knowledge to use in training his brats; ideas on out-of-the-box ninjutsu from Asuma, kenjutsu and taijutsu tips from Hayate, a list of agility and speed exercises from Genma, stealth and infiltration assessments from Anko.

He’s actually entertaining the idea of going to Gai for even more ideas. He must be out of his mind.

Maybe though, it’s a good thing.

 

 

Chapter Text

The glade is quiet, the atmosphere still, the only sounds the soft rush of the creek winding through the grass and the rustle of the breeze tangling the branches of the willow. Even the crickets seem to have quieted their song to a pleasant background hum, and Shikamaru hasn’t heard the shrill caw of a crow since he got here.

He likes it here. It’s peaceful, calming, easy. The green branches of the willow paint a gorgeous picture against the backdrop of the slim waterfall, the grass is long and soft under his fingers, and the clearing gives him an unrestricted view of the sky.

This is Naruto’s place, and Shikamaru can’t even be envious– the Uzumaki had opened it to him and Kiba with a careless offering, like the magic of this glade wasn’t something to be coveted and hoarded close.

Shikamaru would have hoarded it.

He would have kept this peace and isolation all to himself given the chance, soaked it in night after night if he’d been the one to find it first. Naruto is too generous for his own good, and this isn’t the first time Shikamaru has had cause to think so.

So he and Kiba have an unspoken code when it comes to him. If Naruto won’t be selfish, they’ll be selfish for him.

It’s why Kiba hasn’t told his sister and Hinata about the Glade, it’s why Shikamaru hasn’t told Ino that he knows where Sakura disappears to so early in the morning, and why Choji only knows where to find him in an emergency. They’re selfish with Naruto's secret.

Sakura likes the secluded freedom the Glade offers, and she has no desire to share it more than she does already.

Sasuke is possessive of this place for a different reason, so far as Shikamaru can tell. A reason that has little to do with the place itself and everything to do with the person it belongs to.

 

Shikamaru had come here early to soak in some alone time, unbothered by teammates and senseis and expectations. There are several places in the Nara forest where he could theoretically do the same thing, but his father knows how to find him there and none of those groves have quite the same view of the clouds.

He folds his arms behind his head, scanning the wispy stratus clouds and the patterns the waning light weaves between them, tucking colour into grooves like dye seeping through pulled cotton. First day of training had gone better than he thought it would, though Shikamaru had purposefully kept his expectations low. Asuma seems like a decent human being, even though sometimes Shikamaru gets the impression he’s trying a little too hard.

He lets his eyes slide closed, enjoying the feel of cool, clear air in his lungs and the soft petrichor tang to it that flavors the atmosphere when night approaches. He feels the shadows stretch across the glade, can see their contrast against the low sunbeams in his mind’s eye.

His peace is interrupted by a high bark that signals the end of his alone time, and his eyes flutter open to Akamaru bursting through the trees, sans ninja partner. The ninken lopes right at Shikamaru, unfortunately, sliding to a stop to give his cheek a long thorough lick. Shikamaru grunts in disgust, pressing a palm to the excited dog’s chest to prevent further slobbering kisses.

“Well I see you’re feeling better.” he mutters, giving Akamaru’s ear a grudging scratch.

The ninken yips happily, tail lashing back and forth, and then jumps over the bar of Shikamaru’s arm to land jarringly square on his chest, giving the shadow-nin’s other cheek a lick as though to even it out.

Shikamaru scrubs his forearm over his face to clear away the dog slobber. “Kiba! Come get your ninken off me, he doesn’t listen.” he growls when Akamaru tries to maul his face again despite his protests.

“Hold your horses Nara, I’m coming.” Kiba shouts as he makes his way up the river and through the final layer of brambles. “Akamaru! Here boy!”

The dog’s ears perk up and he yips in answer before bolting off Shikamaru’s chest to leap into Kiba’s jacket. Kiba zips it after him to keep the ninken secure, and Akamaru’s head pops out of his collar with a shake and another bark.

Kiba laughs at the disgruntled look on Shikamaru’s face. “It just means he likes you, Shika, don’t look so scandalized.” he plops down across from the Nara, and Shikamaru folds his arms back behind his head.

They don’t talk for a while, and Shikamaru is grateful for the quiet as Kiba feeds Akamaru biscuits produced from somewhere under his hoodie. The dog-nin breaks it though, after the ninken is stuffed and dozing curled on Kiba’s legs.

“You been thinking about what’s in that scroll?” he asks, rubbing a hand absently over Akamaru’s back.

“Mhm.” Shikamaru affirms, but doesn’t open his eyes.

“Kept me up last night, thinking about it.” Kiba muses.

It had kept Shikamaru up too, but he keeps that little fact to himself. Kiba can be annoyingly overprotective when he wants to be, and he knows that Shikamaru requires more sleep than most people.

Kiba freezes suddenly and lifts his head, giving the air a few cursory sniffs. “Sasuke’s here.” he announces.

True to word, a few seconds later the dark-haired dark-eyed Genin ducks through the growth, brushing leaf matter from his shoulder.

“Hey Uchiha.” Kiba quips.

“Hey dog-breath.” He says amicably. “Hey Akamaru.”

Akamaru yips at the acknowledgment and rolls over in Kiba’s lap for a belly rub. Kiba complies, and shots Sasuke the necessary scowl. “Where’s the rest of the pack?” He asks, sniffing the air again as though he expects to find Naruto and Sakura’s scents on the wind just behind him.

Sasuke drops down onto the grass on Shikamaru’s other side, propping himself up with one arm and slinging the other around a raised knee. He’s wearing a low-necked quarter sleeved top, mission grade, and a pair of sparring sweats in Uchiha navy. Shikamaru hasn’t seen that crested overshirt of his for at least a month.

“Sakura is still at the hospital.” he explains with a sigh. “A bunch of Chunin got injured in a border skirmish with Kumo and she stayed back to help. Naruto just ran home to get the scrolls. He’ll be here soon.”

“He tell you what’s in that thing?” Kiba asks.

Sasuke shrugs. “Yeah...” he says lowly, and Shikamaru would have interpreted the word as careless if he hadn’t seen the way Sasuke’s fingers curled tight in the grass. “I know the way he was talking last night made it sound like he’d only picked some things up out of the rubble of the city but…” Sasuke shakes his head. “Truth is, it’s more like he’s got an entire culture stuffed away in those scrolls.”

“That's the second time you’ve made that plural.” Shikamaru states, leaning up on his elbows. “There’s more than one scroll?”

“There are two.” Sasuke agrees, flashing a peace sign to emphasize his point. “The one he showed you guys has most of what he found in it– the second one is specifically for Kinjutsu.”

“Spooky.” Kiba mumbles. “He’s bringing both?”

Sasuke nods.

A crash and a rustle sounds from behind them. “Gez, who died? You three look like you just came from a funeral or something.” Naruto shoulders through the brambles, the two shining scrolls strapped to his hip. “We’re gonna have to start without Sakura. By the looks of the hospital, she’ll be there a while.” he announces.

He plops down on the grass and unhooks the gold trimmed scroll, unrolling it with practiced efficiency. He’s wearing a high necked long-sleeve despite the muggy weather and worn black mission pants, the hems of both wrapped flush up to his elbows and knees.

Naruto tucks himself next to Sasuke, close enough that their knees brush, but the Uchiha doesn’t seem to mind it as Naruto spreads the obsidian scroll across the grass. There are thirteen seals in all, each one marked at the top by a different symbol. Clan symbols.

“Which one is yours?” Shikamaru asks, eyes scanning the intricate lines and quietly marveling at the beauty of the chakrawork.

Naruto hesitates as if surprised by the question, like he hadn’t expected anyone to care enough to ask. The response, however small, makes a familiar dark anger stir in Shikamaru’s chest. It’s that same burning he feels when he sees Choji eating by himself on the academy training grounds, or when he catches Ino frowning at her own reflection. It’s a frustrated emotion born from being unable to change something all at once, from the fact that there is no easy or simple fix for certain kinds of hurts.

He has to remind himself that change is rarely easy and never instant, that the best thing he can do is be present and be patient, and only speak when he knows he can make his words count.

At least in this battle, he’s far from alone. Sasuke’s seemingly easy lean into Naruto's side is a testament to that, even though the blond’s mental hiccup only lasts about a second. Naruto traces his finger along the scroll to tap the centermost seal, one marked with a spiral stylized into a sun.

Shikamaru allows himself a small smile. “Let’s start with that one.”

<><><> 

When Sakura walks into the Glade and hour later than she’d hoped to, stressed out and exhausted of chakra, she has to blink a couple times to fully take in the scene before her.

The boys are pouring over scrolls and notes and talking over each other with energy and drive that would allude more to some kind of war meeting than it would to a show-and-tell.

“Kiba, pass me those genjutsu notes.”

“Fine but I want that Tsubasa clan Jutsu if you can find it. The one with the perception stuff.”

“Here. Who has the Ido-Senshi katas?”

“Give me a second, I’m still looking them over. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen these concepts somewhere before…”

Sakura snorts to announce her presence. “Gez, you four sure got into it without me.”

Naruto looks up, completely ignores her statement, and throws a scroll at her face. “Sakura, take a look at that. The Komorebi clan archive is filled with stuff like it. Maybe you can make some sense of it all.”

She catches the scroll easily and rolls it open, wedging her way between Naruto and Kiba to make room for herself in the circle of chaos. She scans the contents of the scroll, eyes catching on certain words and phrases as she deciphers its use. “Is this a medical scroll? For enhancing chakra precision for some kind of acute emergency treatment?”

“Dude, you tell me.” Naruto mutters, trading a long grey scroll with Sasuke for an earth brown one. “I’m not sure what half the words on that are supposed to mean.”

“Uzumaki,” Kiba says loudly. “The hell is a Chaos Wheel?”

“A sealing symbol meant to concentrate and redirect chakra in rainfall patterns.” Naruto answers automatically, and Kiba scribbles something down in a blank book by his thigh, muttering about asking his sensei about inherent chakra properties and about needing another notebook for this shit.

Shikamaru is quiet, eyes eating up the pages of a thick tome that looks older than Sakura’s father. Sasuke is mumbling under his breath as he organizes weapon sets, varying from strange looking senbon and shuriken to long hooked scythes that he has to lay sideways so that nobody accidentally nicks themselves on the wicked sharp blades.

“I need all the katas for the weighted chains.” He announces suddenly without warning, and the boys stop what they’re doing to hand him a dozen or so scrolls that he rolls up and lies next to the aforementioned weapons. It’s all alarmingly efficient.

“What do you need me to do?” She asks Naruto, folding up the scroll she’s holding.

The Uzumaki leans back behind him, grabbing hold of a huge golden scroll and scooting back in the circle so he can set it over his knees without poking anyone in the eye. “We’re reorganizing and cataloguing everything by type so that it’s easier to find and use.” he explains. “Each big gold scroll has the contents of a particular clan’s legacy. Silver scrolls have artifacts, Grey scrolls have equipment, and Brown scrolls have books and non-storage scrolls. I was kind of in a rush so it was all really terribly put together when I sealed everything.”

“That’s putting it mildly.” Sasuke quips from his other side. “Who stuffs history and weapon katas into the same scrolls?”

“I didn’t actually have time to open them, jerk!” Naruto defends, and then turns back to Sakura. “We’re going through the paper stuff mostly right now. Scrolls and books and things. Anything sealing related goes to me, give Shika the theory and history stuff, Kiba gets the jutsu scrolls, Sasuke’s in charge of katas, any kind of non-jutsu training and, more recently, assorted pointy shit.”

Sasuke smacks him in the arm with the flat of a tanto blade. “Idiot.”

Naruto laughs. “Anyway,” he scoops up an assortment of scrolls and books that had been resting on the grass next to him and deposits them in front of her. “We saved you everything with medical jargon in it.”

Sakura squeaks in excitement. “Aww, you shouldn’t have!” she chirps eagerly, pressing a careless and obnoxious kiss to her friend’s cheek before digging into the font of information he’s placed in front of her.

“Weirdo.” Naruto mutters, rubbing his cheek, but the word is fond.

<><><> 

Late that night, as they pick up after themselves in the Glade, Naruto puts one of his gold scrolls down and gestures to Shikamaru.

“Hey, can I talk to you for a second?” He asks softly, and Shikamaru raises a single eyebrow. They’re a good distance away from everyone else, picking up some papers that had blown loose from a folio.

“Something wrong?” He asks, clocking the subtle worry and tension drawing itself across tan features.

“Maybe.” Naruto mutters, glancing back to where Kiba and Sasuke are putting equipment together for Naruto to reseal. Shikamaru very carefully continues picking up papers, albeit more slowly than before, as not to make it obvious that they’re talking about something serious.

“What is it?”

“Something that’s maybe very classified.” Naruto says without preamble, and Shikamaru does freeze at that.

“How classified are we talking, here?” Shikamaru asks carefully, already sifting through possibilities and plans without really thinking about it.

“Like file-from-the-black-ops-section-of-the-archives classified.” He murmurs.

Shikamaru shoots him the most unimpressed look he can muster. “Really, Naruto?”

Naruto makes a pained face. “Will you help me out or what? Yes or no question.”

The answer is yes, obviously. The reason why Shikamaru only has a couple of friends is because he’s willing to do just about anything for the ones he has. That Shikamaru will keep what he hears to himself is a natural given.

Shikamaru just nods, casual as can be. “It’s about Sasuke?” He asks conversationally. Naruto relaxes visibly.

“Yeah.” he says softly, bending down to pick up another paper scrap. “It’s about his brother. The massacre.”

Shikamaru nods again. “What exactly do you need?”

“To make sure it’s valid.” Naruto says, even quieter than before. “I’m not… I can’t tell him unless I know for a fact that it’s not…” he seems to be struggling with words so Shikamaru finishes for him.

“You want me to make sure the information is genuine. That all the facts add up.”

Naruto nods.

“Where’s the file exactly?” Shikamaru asks.

Naruto reaches under his shirt and pulls a thin folder from one of the hidden pockets. He hands it over, and Shikamaru tucks it quickly into his own shirt. It’s obvious the Uzumaki has thought this through.

“I’ll see what I can do.” Shikamaru promises.

Naruto nods, eyes warm with gratitude. “I owe you one. Anything you need, anytime, just name it.”

Shikamaru nods back, pressing a hand to the file in his shirt. He’s pretty sure he knows where to start.

 

<><><> 

Chasing down their sensei for everyday training has become something of a team 7 morning chore. They give him fifteen minutes, because Sasuke had said something about Kakashi visiting the memorial stone most mornings and they’re not heartless, but after that he’s fair game.

But even though finding Kakashi-sensei isn’t all that hard, catching him is something else. Kakashi-sensei is the fastest shinobi Naruto’s ever met– it’s scary almost how close the three of them can be to catching up to him, and then the Jounin will just straight-up vanish, appearing a few meters away to lecture them on their form.

“Efficiency of movement, Naruto.” Kakashi singsongs at him when he lands too hard on a tree and cracks the branch he’s standing on. “That jump required half as much energy as you gave it.”

Naruto grumbles, but does his best to adjust. Kakashi pushes them hard though, which Naruto appreciates, and doesn’t patronize them outside of occasional teasing. They’re still stuck doing D-ranks, which sucks, but they’re doing more a day than all the other teams, according to Sakura, which is enough to placate him.

Mostly. That’s not to say he doesn’t still complain about the myriad of ‘missions’ they’ve been doing that could be qualified, at best, as chores.

~It’s below your skill levels. All three of you.~ Kurama grouses, but it’s an old argument and Kakashi-sensei knows Naruto’s opinion on the matter. And Sasuke’s. And Sakura’s. He seems to enjoy annoying them, but he gives them harder workloads in training to compensate, so Naruto can’t complain that much.

At lunch a two weeks into training, Kakashi-sensei throws it into casual conversation over ramen while Naruto’s mouth is full.

“You three have the rest of the day off training.” he says, easy as can be. “I’m signing you up for a C-rank tomorrow, so no all-nighters.”

Naruto chokes on his soft-boiled egg and ends up coughing so bad that Sakura spends the next few minutes slapping his back.

“About time.” Sasuke mutters. “What kind of mission will it be?”

“That depends on what’s available, brat.” Kakashi says happily in response to Sasuke’s attitude. “But I’m hoping for something long and arduous like a border crawl or something.”

“Senseeeei, don’t be an ass.” Sakura gripes. “We can do a real mission, you know we can.”

“I do, but learning skills and applying them in practice are two different things. I want you to be prepared.”

Naruto swallows down the last of his coughs, but anything he might have shouted before gets caught in his throat. In Kakashi-speak, asking them to be prepared is pretty much the same as asking them to be careful, and as low key as it is, Naruto can sense the salt and citrus tang of worry radiating from him.

“Whatever mission we get, we’ll be prepared.” Naruto says earnestly. “We’ll take it seriously, sensei. Promise.”

Kakashi looks down at him, and Naruto feels the worry ease a bit. “Good.” He says, pushing his untouched ramen across the counter towards Naruto. “Go ahead, you’ll need it more than I will.”

<> 

~Don’t forget to go over your equipment tonight. You have everything you need, right? You took what you could use out of the scrolls earlier? You bought enough rations? Made enough exploding tags?~

Yes, Kurama, we bought everything we need. We went over it twice before we checked out.”

~What about the little Genesis? Does she have everything? Did she buy her rations?~

“Kuraaaama.”

~What? I’ve put a lot of work into you three brats. I’m not about to let you twerps get stabbed by some missing-nin or stranded in enemy territory.~

“It’s a C-rank. It’s not like we’re going off to war.”

~A lot of things can happen on a C-rank.~ Kurama insists.

“You’re a worse worrier than Iruka-sensei.”

~Lies.~

A knock brings both Naruto and Sasuke’s heads up from their weapon check. “I got it.” Naruto says, shifting to his feet. By the time he makes it to the kitchen he can feel the chakra on the other side of the door, so he doesn’t hesitate swinging it open.

Sakura shoulders in with a stormy expression and nothing resembling a greeting. “I’m staying here tonight.” she states crossly, stalking over to rummage through the pantry. She’s got nothing on her, no pack, no waist pouches. She’s in a pair of soft ratty civilian sweats and a tea-green t-shirt, like she’d been about to go to bed.

Naruto watches for few seconds as she storms around the kitchen, opening and closing cupboards and doors with no obvious purpose, before scooting stealthily over to the shitty coffee maker and starting it up.

Eventually she seems to run out of steam, plopping down into Naruto’s chair at the kitchen table and dropping her head into her hands. Naruto opens the fridge to pull out the carton of milk and pulls the sugar across the counter to fix Sakura a cup of sweet, creamy coffee. He doesn’t try to comfort her, she’s too stubborn for that, so he just leaves the coffee cup in front of her and exits the kitchen.

Sasuke is leaning on the other side of the wall next to the doorframe, obviously eavesdropping. “She okay?” he asks in a whisper.

“Give her a minute.” Naruto whispers back.

Sasuke nods, and they go back to the main room where they’ve been cataloguing the equipment they might need tomorrow.

A few minutes later Sakura comes in and settles herself between them, her back leaning against the front of Naruto’s shoulder and her legs sprawled over Sasuke’s lap. Her eyes are red, but neither of them mentions it.

“Parents can be so stupid sometimes.” She mutters, sipping at her coffee. “Civilian parents especially.” She corrects.

“We wouldn’t really know.” Sasuke says blithely, tucking an arm over her knees but otherwise not looking up.

Naruto snorts, wrapping his own arm around her side, and starts to divide everything into thirds instead of halves. Who needs parents anyway? They’re team 7. They have each other.

They’ll be fine either way.

 

 

Chapter Text

It’s still dark when Kakashi perches on Iruka’s window frame, maybe an hour or so before sunrise, but the kitchen light is on so he lets himself in, unsurprised to find the Chunin’s bed unoccupied. He knocks softly on the wall in respect to the hour.

“Come on in!” Iruka calls from kitchen.

Kakashi slips inside and finds he’s caught the academy sensei in the middle of his morning routine, a set of senbon and a couple of kunai set out on the table next to a roll of limb wrap, a kettle boiling merrily away on the stove. Iruka is in the process of tying up his hair, his flak jacket draped over a kitchen chair.

“Morning.” Kakashi greets, lingering in the doorway.

“Morning. Tea?” Iruka asks back.

“If it’s not too much trouble.”

Iruka turns to the cabinet and pulls out a tin before fishing in the cabinets for mugs. “You’re welcome to a rice ball if you’d like one.” Iruka offers, a little too cheery.

Kakashi takes a seat at the table and helps himself to a salmon one while the Chunin’s back is turned, humming in thanks.

“I wasn’t actually expecting you to be up this early.” Kakashi says after he’s finished, and when Iruka turns around his smile is week at best. “Did something happen?” he asks.

Iruka rubs his temple with a knuckle, letting his smile fall to a frown. “Someone tried to take a kinjutsu scroll from the archives last night. Got caught by the chakra alarms. I have to go in early to help sort the whole mess out.” Iruka grumbles.

Kakashi tilts his head to the side in confusion. “Why you? Surely the on duty Anbu can handle it, let you sleep.”

Iruka sighs heavily and sets one of the steaming mugs in front of Kakashi, curling a hand around his own cup. “It’s not that simple. The offender was a teacher.”

“Who?”

Iruka grits his teeth. “Mizuki.”

Kakashi sucks a sympathetic breath between his teeth, but Iruka glares at him before he can say anything.

“Don’t start. I should have seen it coming. His behavior has been off for months.” Iruka chides himself, grabbing a roll of limb wrap and setting about looping it over his shins, tucking senbon into the folds.

“You two were friends as kids though, right?” Kakashi says, taking a sip from his tea while Iruka is preoccupied with the wrappings.

“We grew pretty far apart as we got older.” Iruka explains. “I don’t think he ever got over the fact that I’m not attracted to him, or–” he stalls, waving his hand absently like he’s searching for an appropriate word.

“People in general?” Kakashi finishes.

“Exactly.” he affirms, reaching for a few freshly sharpened kunai and slipping them into the pouch on his thigh. “Anyway, what brings you here so early? I doubt your Genin will appreciate the pre-dawn wake-up call. I know for a fact that a certain Uchiha doesn’t take that very well.”

“I am perfectly aware of Sasuke’s tendencies to react violently to specific… surprises.”

That startles a laugh out of Iruka. “You are such an ass, you know that?”

“I probably have bruises somewhere to prove it.”

Iruka snorts at that, but his mood seems to have improved already. “So what are you up for, if not to torture your Genin?” he asks.

Kakashi hums. “Just… finishing my morning routine early. The brats have their first C-rank in a few hours. I figured I’d get a head start.”

The fact is that Kakashi hadn’t slept much last night at all, wondering if this decision was the right one. It’s not as though he’s that worried about the mission, C-ranks can be arduous, but there’s usually no real combat involved with anyone but common bandits. The issue is he knows that this is the end of harmless D-rank missions for good– once his brats know what an actual mission feels like, they’re not likely to want to do anything else.

There goes all his free time.

“Normally I’d say it’s too early to send a team so green on a difficult mission so soon, but I’m not actually worried.” Iruka says easily. “It’s well within their abilities, and if anything does go wrong, there’s no one I’d trust to protect them more than you.”

Of all the responses Kakashi had expected, Iruka’s easy acceptance had not been on the list– Umino Iruka is usually a champion angry worrier, and Kakashi had been counting on a lecture at least.

“Well.” Kakashi drawls, carefully not acknowledging the last part of Iruka’s statement. “That was less violent than I expected.”

Iruka throws a shuriken at him to make up for it.

<> 

Later, when Kakashi pauses at the threshold of another window, a smaller window, he’ll wonder at the small something growing in his chest, wonder at the new warmth creeping through his cold bones.

Naruto’s apartment is even smaller than he thought, nothing more than a triad of small rooms; a main area that is both bedroom and living space, with only a bed, nightstand, small shelf, and closet within, a short hallway leading to a tiny square kitchen and a shut door that likely leads to the only bathroom. It’s hardly enough room for one person, let alone the three Genin sleeping curled together like a mismatched family of alleycats, tucked under each other for warmth. Their heads are pillowed on travel packs and each other, limbs flung and folded haphazardly.

Sakura is still in civilian pajamas, a telltale redness to the corners of her eyes and her nose that says she’s been crying. As if in response to her vulnerability, Sasuke and Naruto are curled around her like barriers against an invisible threat, lying opposite directions like a symbol for balance. Like Yin and Yang.

These kids are something else.

<><><> 

 

Naruto wakes when Sakura’s knee lodges particularly painfully in the small of his back, blinking his eyes open to grey predawn light. His stomach rumbles.

~Breakfast time, kit. Also, your sensei came by while you were snoozing and left something on the table.~ Kurama tells him absently, yawning widely.

“Kakashi-sensei was here?” He asks, rolling to his feet and extracting himself from the nest of limbs on the floor.

~About a half an hour ago.~ Kurama affirms. ~Sneaky little shit, that one. I almost didn’t notice him.~

Naruto wanders over to the kitchen table, and sure enough there’s a note and a plastic grocery bag resting there that definitely hadn’t been there before they’d passed out, and Naruto rubs his eyes, squinting down at the sharp scratchy writing.

 

Meet me at the mission desk by 9:30. Your assignment is an escort mission across country borders, expected one week in length. Pack accordingly.

Naruto; pack lunches may not consist of instant ramen. I’m expecting down time during the journey, so don’t forget any study materials or jutsu you three may want to work on. Sasuke; remember the equipment for kenjutsu practice and check that Naruto does not pack any instant ramen. Sakura; the change of clothes is for you, make sure the boys don’t forget anything important and that everyone has their emergency supplies.

 

The note is signed with a Henohenomoheji, an arrangement of hiragana characters made to look like the faces school kids put on scarecrows. The play on Kakashi’s name, scarecrow, makes Naruto roll his eyes. He peeks into the bag, noting the dark clothing inside and then promptly leaving it alone– it’s for Sakura, he’s not going to dig through it.

He takes a quick shower and then starts breakfast, counting on the smell of rice and salmon to wake his teammates before too long. While he works he goes over supplies in his head, trying to remember if he has the scroll for that bone repair jutsu Sakura had been working on or if she took it home with her.

Sasuke is up first, and comes into the kitchen rubbing the skin over his hip. “She kicks in her sleep.” He mutters crossly.

“I noticed.” Naruto responds with a sympathetic wince. He goes back to the fish searing away in the pan, and Sasuke checks the rice and stirs the miso pot without being asked. They work in companionable silence for a while and Sakura must well and truly be out of it, because even when breakfast is finished and the smell is rich throughout the entire apartment, Sakura still doesn’t stir. Last night must have taken more out of her than he thought.

“Is there some kind of rule against ninja punching civilians?” he asks absently.

Sasuke hums as they sit down, taking a bite of his breakfast before he bothers answering. “The actual law is long and unnecessarily complicated, but it pretty much amounts to ‘don’t’.” he drawls, but the low-key frustration in his eyes tells him Sasuke understands where he’s coming from. That’s the thing about Sasuke– his eyes usually say what the rest of his face doesn’t give away.

~Hey kit.~ Kurama calls, when he’s most of the way through his meal. ~When you’re done, we need to talk.~

Naruto pauses with his chopsticks halfway to his mouth. Kurama’s tone is soft and serious and sets Naruto’s gut on rolling into knots. He has a feeling he knows what Kurama wants to talk about.

“Dobe?”

The insult-turned-nickname draws Naruto’s attention immediately up and out of his own head, and his eyes meet the confused borderline concern in Sasuke’s. It’s a dangerous look, that one. The last time Sasuke had looked at him like that, Naruto had turned around and straight up spilled his guts about Uzushio. He suddenly has to go, has to get out of this room before those eyes coax a far more dangerous secret out of him.

He clears his throat and breaks their gazes, making a show of rubbing at his eye as he sets down his chopsticks. He’s no longer hungry. “Sorry. Headache.” He hedges, pushing up from the table. “I think I’m gonna go see if I can meditate it off before we go. Come get me before 9:00?”

Sasuke blinks, bemused. “Of course.” he says automatically, and Naruto heads out the door before he can say anything else.

<><><> 

When Sakura walks into the kitchen, rubbing at slightly swollen eyes, she finds Sasuke staring at the door, her blond idiot nowhere in sight.

“Where’s Naruto?” She asks, wandering into the kitchen to stand next to him.

Sasuke doesn’t take his eyes off the door. “He went to go meditate.” he says oddly.

That’s not exactly strange– Naruto meditates a lot, it’s a training habit he quickly passed to them, and useful for sorting out chakra flow and analyzing physical or mental catches. “So?” she says, because judging from the look on Sasuke’s face, that’s not all that happened.

“He said he had a headache.” Sasuke says, again in that strangely intense tone.

“It’s happened before.” Sakura reasons.

“He lied.”

That does catch Sakura’s attention. Naruto by his very nature is the most honest person she knows. He’s a terrible liar, even with stupid little white lies, so he never bothers, especially not with his friends.

“Why would he lie to you?” Sakura asks, disbelieving.

Sasuke shakes his head, looking lost. “I don’t know.”

<><><> 

 

When Naruto gets to the glade, he makes sure to re-energize the seals set into the trees along the space, something he hasn’t needed to do in a while, and sets a chakric proximity alarm too, just in case. He can’t risk someone finding him on accident.

He takes a deep breath and strips off his loose fitting overshirt, leaving him in his regular sleeveless undershirt. He takes off the wrapping on his shins and folds his pants up over his knees, slipping out of his sandals. The water of the basin is cool as he steps over it, the willow's branches sweeping past him as he makes his way to the waterfall. In a chakra enhanced leap he alights on an outcropping halfway up the cascade, clear and well worn by his presence and the presence of his friends. Here, the water crashes off the rock, sending its spray in all directions before it continues its downward journey. The stone is slick and smooth as a result, so he’s careful as he settles under the rush of the water.

The roar drowns out everything outside of him until the only sounds he’s aware of are the ones within– the thumping of his heart, the dull rumble of the minute movements of his muscles, and finally, the whisper of chakra through his cells. He steps back inside his head, and all other noises cut out but these.

The water of the seal space is abnormally chilly with Naruto’s unease, cold against his legs as he opens his eyes. Kurama is right in front of him, something that might have startled him if Naruto hadn’t sensed it already.

Kurama’s fur is bright and brilliant amber, soft looking in the sunshower light. His eyes look more and more gilded every day, a ring of rose hued gold around the edges of his irises. Even now, months and months from that terrifying rush to Uzushio, it’s a relief to see his bijuu so healthy. He looks even better now than when Naruto first met him, alive and brimming with energy and chakra. When Naruto had commented on it, Kurama had merely told him it was his fault, and hadn’t said anything else.

Kurama immediately tucks his nose into Naruto’s chest, and Naruto presses his head against the nine-tails’ muzzle for comfort. As another result of the shared seal space, the line between his emotions and Kurama's has become fuzzy and blurred, allowing them to draw and fold together when they become too strong. Kurama can sense his anxiety in the same way Naruto can sense the bijuu’s frustration or unrest, and sensing the cause of these things is even easier.

Kurama knows without him saying that he’s afraid, so afraid, of his friends finding out what he is. It’s not that he’s ashamed of Kurama in any way, or ashamed of what he is, but years and years of discrimination and hate doesn’t come from nowhere, and his friends mean so much to him that the thought of them hating him for being a jinchuuriki is something he can hardly stomach thinking of. But he can’t keep this secret forever, can’t hide what he is from Sasuke and Sakura. He doesn’t want to.

He tells Kurama as much, even though his bijuu already knows.

By the end of it he has tears in his eyes that he refuses to let fall, and the light has dimmed to a pale filter across the water. Kurama curls around him as he speaks, enclosing Naruto in a cavern made from his amber tails, forelegs looped around where he sits, nose settled past his knees.

~In my not-so-humble opinion, squirt, I don’t think you have anything to worry about.~ Kurama rumbles when he’s finished, lifting a claw to push some of Naruto’s hair out of his eyes. It’s been getting long– enough so that he can push parts of it behind his ears.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” he grumbles, angrily wiping the wetness from his eyes.

Kurama chuckles a little, a sound that moves through the spaces in Naruto’s chest, banishing some of the overcast. ~I never thought I’d say this, but I don’t think you’re giving them enough credit.~ Kurama ducks his head closer and pulls his forelegs tighter so that Naruto can feel the press of his fur, warm and supportive, against his back. ~And I do know this. If they do find out and suddenly decide to label you a monster for something you had no control over? Then they never deserved you in the first place. That’s fact.~

And goddammit Naruto just stopped feeling like he was going to cry, and now fresh salt water is welling up in his eyes.

~Not only that, but if they did hate you, and you decided to run from here, off into the unknown with no one at all beside you, then know this;~ Kurama’s words are iron with conviction and soft with affection, and Naruto’s still not sure what he did to deserve that, to deserve a friend, a parent like Kurama, and his last sentence makes the tears spill over in earnest. ~You will have me until the end of time. No matter what.~

Naruto lets himself cry for a minute or two, but now he’s laughing though the tears, and the stormy sunlight floods the seal space again in force. The water warms in a rush, swirling as if stirred by an ocean current, rushing to fill the air with warmth.

He wipes his eyes and looks up, speaking as soon as he finds his voice. “Hard to argue with that.”

~I’m usually right.~ Kurama boasts. ~You should listen to me more often.~

Naruto laughs again. “I always listen to you.” He counters.

Kurama smiles, fangless and soft. ~Then listen to me on this, kit. Don’t worry about what your friends will think if they know. If you need me, if you need my strength to protect what’s yours, promise me you won’t hesitate.~

Naruto nods, looking up into the amber eyes of his bijuu. “I promise.”

~Good.~ Kurama rumbles. ~On a less serious note, even if you did decide to run off into the sunset, I’m pretty sure your friends would drop what they’re doing to follow you anyway.~

Naruto blinks, taken aback. “What? No way.”

Kurama huffs. ~Well maybe not your Shikamaru or your Inuzuka, they have too much binding them here, but the little Genesis and the baby Uchiha? Definitely.~

“How would you know that?” Naruto asks, suspicious that Kurama might just be telling him things to make him feel better.

Kurama snorts, and the breath rustles Naruto’s hair. ~Because you don’t give yourself enough credit either, brat. They can’t help it. It’s a matter of gravity.~

Naruto makes a face. “You're talking in riddles again, Kurama.”

The bijuu chuckles at that. ~It’s alright kit. It’s probably best you don’t know, anyway.~

<> 

Kurama kicks him out not long after that, ordering him to actually meditate before their mission so that he’s in top form. He opens his eyes, watching as the long seal lines on his arms and legs fade away again. After a long moment, he curls his hands together on his calves and slips into true mediation, focusing on systematically smoothing out his chakra flow.

The proximity alarm alerts him to Sasuke’s presence a full half hour before Naruto expects him, startling him out of his task. The alarm is a buzz of vibration against his arm over the anchor seal he’d set there, and he deactivates it as soon as he senses that the presence is Sasuke’s, clearing the chakra pattern from his skin with a swipe of his palm.

He feels instantly guilty for running off and hiding, and it occurs to him that Sasuke had probably seen through his headache ruse as soon as the lie had left his mouth. Naruto has always been a shitty liar, especially when it comes to his friends, and Sasuke knows him better than anyone.

He swallows as the Uchiha appears through the trees, making his way slowly across the grass to stand at the edge of the waterfall basin by Naruto’s discarded shirt and sandals. Naruto expects the question any minute, the accusation, and steels himself for it.

It never comes.

Instead, Sasuke casts a glance down at Naruto’s shirt and shoes and pulls off his own overshirt, stepping out of his sandals and onto the water, pausing to fold the hems of his pants neatly up his calves. He hops up into the outcropping and doesn’t say a word other than to tell Naruto to shove the hell over.

It’s weird and tense for about half a second, but then Naruto relaxes again, settling back into his head to resume his internal check-up. It’s even easier now with the Uchiha’s shoulder pressed lightly against his own– Sasuke’s presence has always been a calming one, an easy match to Naruto’s sometimes over-rampant energy.

When they both surface about twenty minutes later, ducking out of the falls to dry off, Naruto murmurs an apology under his breath.

Sasuke just nudges his shoulder with his own, a companionable shove that speaks volumes coming from the Uchiha. “Don’t be stupid.” he mutters, and they don’t talk about it for the rest of the day.

<><><> 

 

In Sasuke’s less than charitable opinion, Tazuna the bridge builder is a cranky senile old civilian that doesn’t deserve their presence let alone their protection. He calls them children and brats and the only person in the universe that is allowed to call Sasuke a brat is Kakashi-sensei, because when he says it it’s more of a teasing nickname than anything else, and the very idea that this stupid civilian think’s he superior to them because of his age makes Sasuke’s skin crawl.

But this is their first C-rank mission so he keeps his mouth firmly shut, teeth grit around the biting insult that wants to roll off his tongue, glaring every time the old man’s eyes even drift his way.

Sakura is grumbling under her breath next to him about stupid civilian mannerisms, and an obvious twitch has started to set into her jaw every time Tazuna speaks. She looks murderous and they haven’t even left the Hokage’s office yet.

This is the first time he’s seen Sakura in true ninja dress and he has to say it suits her; her ensemble consists of a chakra laced mesh long-sleeve under a sleeveless top of thick black material ribbed with pouches along the sides for senbon and shuriken. The top pulls low over dark Kunoichi leggings with sewn in kunai pouches below each hip, ending tucked into matching sandals with reinforced ankle straps. Kakashi’s care package had also included a pair of fingerless gloves and a fitted field medic belt, lined with pouches and leather hoops meant to hold vials of medicine or poison.

But the most obvious change by far is her hair– that morning, after she’d showered and brushed out the rosy strands into a damp curtain, she’d given her long hair a lingering, calculated look, and asked Sasuke to get the scissors.

She’d had him sheer off a whole twenty centimeters.

Her hair, which now rests just past her shoulders when left free, is pulled up into a smart tail that no longer brushes her back. She’d parted it so that all her fringe fell to the right side of her face, and then braided the loose hair back in three thin plaits and tucked them into the rest of her ponytail.

Sasuke is both proud and slightly embarrassed to say that she looks more mature than both he and Naruto combined, and resolves to drag the Uzumaki equipment shopping as soon as they get back.

Speaking of Naruto, he’s been surprisingly quiet after the first round of defensive growling he’d snarled in old man Tazuna’s direction. As they escort the bridge builder out of the village, Naruto’s glare becomes more wary than affronted.

“What’s up?” Sasuke asks as they pass the outer village gate, eyeing the bridge builder to make sure they are far enough away that he can’t eavesdrop.

“The old-timer is hiding something.” Naruto murmurs, his nose scrunched up the way it gets when he’s genuinely confused. “Not sure what though.”

If Sasuke knows anything at all about Naruto it’s that his instincts are usually spot on, so if he thinks there’s something fishy happening, there’s a good chance he’s right.

Sakura slants a surreptitious glance Tazuna’s way. “Should we tell Kakashi-sensei?”

Naruto shakes his head. “Nah, he probably already knows.”

 

They spend the next few hours talking; taking turns exploring around the path and watching the bridge builder suspiciously. About halfway through the day, not long before they plan to break for lunch, Naruto’s head snaps up suddenly and he casts his gaze around.

Just as Sasuke is about to ask what’s wrong, he catches movement out of the corner of his eye, a shadow out of place in the trees. Sakura blinks hard a couple times as she spots a patch of water in the path, and all three them know something’s wrong in under a minute.

“Kakashi-sensei.” Naruto calls.

“Good senses, Naruto.” Kakashi replies cheerily. “I feel a learning opportunity coming, I think. How about it? You three feel up to it?”

“Anything to break up the boredom.” Sasuke drawls, keeping his senses cast wide and listening for any more signs of enemy movement.

“We can handle it.” Sakura assures, stretching her arms above her head. To anyone watching it looks like an idle motion, but Sasuke knows better– the movement pulls at muscle fibers and tendons to ready them for sudden and explosive movement.

Kakashi hums idly. “I’ll leave it to you then.”

Old man Tazuna is staring at all four of them in obvious confusion, looking back and forth between Kakashi and the three Genin that have begun to bracket him in a subtle protective formation; Naruto and Sasuke slightly ahead on either side of him, Sakura trailing behind and making a show of skipping absently and studying passing flora.

Just because the old guy is a jerk doesn’t mean they won’t do their jobs.

<><><> 

 

Tazuna is aware of the fact that when he contracted this mission, low as his funds were, that he wasn’t going to manage to secure very much in the way of protection.

But he’d been hoping, at least, for more than children.

Three twelve-year-old brats and their lazy sensei is what amounts to his escort, and Tazuna is going to need a lot more than luck if he’s going to make it all the way to Wave like this. He’s going to need a goddamn miracle.

Part way through the first day’s trek though, something shifts in their demeanor.

It's something Tazuna wouldn’t have noticed if he weren’t sandwiched right between the kids, a tension in the air and in their small forms that hadn’t been there before. He hears the blondie call out to his teacher, walking a few meters ahead of them, but can’t follow the conversation they’re having.

A few minutes later there's a shift in the air, a rush of motion, and suddenly the two boys in front of him are nothing but blurs. He has just enough time to recognize two extra bodies, masked dark-eyed adults, before the tiny pink haired little girl behind him grabs ahold of him by the back of his shirt and yanks him backwards like he’s made nothing but of paper mache, tucking him behind her as the two boys, little more than gold and black smears in Tazuna’s eyes, slam two full grown men to the ground with relative ease.

One of the enemy ninja, and they are ninja, Tazuna can see that now, swings a whip-like chain weapon high as he goes down beneath the blonde brat, arcing it towards his dark haired companion. The razor edge of the weapon never gets close to its mark though– blondie swings his arm to the side, kunai in hand, and knocks the weapon off course at it’s base, pulling the end of the thing wide of the dark haired brat’s back. Said brat then twists around, uses his own Kunai to loop through one of the holes in the weapon’s links, and drives the bladed chain home to loop around his own assailant’s neck. The other one is pinned beneath the wicked sharp edge of blondie’s kunai, both arms pinned under the brats’ legs.

A slow clap and a low whistle come from their sensei, who ambles over lazily. “Good job, you two. Very quick work. Sakura, would you do the honors of making sure our friends here don’t go anywhere?”

Tazuna stares as the little pink haired girl chirps a happy “Sure thing, sensei!” and proceeds to pull a few lengths of rope from nowhere at all and tie two full grown and disoriented men up to a nearby tree. The dark haired boy and the blond slap palms with triumphant smirks.

Their sensei laughs. “Alright you three, settle down. Now, Naruto, you’re the one that sensed them first, what method did you use?”

The golden haired brat smiles sheepishly and rubs the back of his head. “I just sensed their chakra. They weren't being very subtle about throwing it around.”

Their sensei nods. “Very good. You’re getting better at developing your chakra sense. Sasuke?”

The dark haired boy shrugs. “I clocked their movements outside the path.”

The silver-haired Jounin hums approvingly. “Keen eyes, even though cloaking jutsu. Good. Sakura?”

“Puddle.” the little girl says blithely. The Jounin laughs and both boys groan.

“How the hell did we miss that?” The blonde mutters.

“It hasn’t rained in weeks.” the dark haired boy agrees darkly.

Maybe Tazuna’s not as down on his luck as he originally thought.

<> 

When they manage to break for lunch the Jounin sensei, Hatake Kakashi is his name, corners him just outside the clearing they’ve settled down in.

“I believe you and I need to have a talk, Mr. Tazuna.” the man says lowly, and the intensity beneath the seemingly benign words tells Tazuna it’s not actually a request.

“Yes?” he responds, trying to keep his voice steady and inflectionless. He doesn’t have much experience dealing with ninja, never knew what all the fuss was about, but he’s starting to see the dangerous edge to the man before him that tells him any laziness he’s perceived has been a ruse.

“Those men back there were ninja from the Hidden Mist, Chunin in rank, and while I would normally be willing to give you the benefit of the doubt about whether those men were after you or not, I’m afraid in this case I must be frank.”

Suddenly all pretense of pleasantry has dropped right off the man’s face, his single grey eye sharpening from it’s lazy curve into a gaze keen and pointed enough to cut.

“If you have willingly endangered my team by lying about the nature of this mission to the Hokage, and you continue to be silent about any dangers you are aware of, I will take my kids and leave you here in the wilderness to fend for yourself. Are we clear?”

Tazuna swallows hard, feeling sudden cold sweat bead on the back of his neck. “Y-yes.”

Hatake straightens out of his space then and the facade is back, the false cheer and ease returning to his posture and what Tazuna can see of his face. “Good. Now, do you have something to tell me Mr. Tazuna?”

<><><> 

 

Team 7 spends the rest of the day playing the ninja version of capture the flag– with Kakashi as the referee and old man Tazuna as the flag. Naruto’s not sure how to feel about their seemingly benign C-rank suddenly jumping to a B-rank, but he’s never been one to do something halfway and the bridge builder’s cause seems just enough.

They take turns playing the attackers and the defenders, and play chakra-less as per Kakashi’s instructions. He wants them to save their strength in case they’re attacked again, and no one argues.

“Do you three always train like this?” Old man Tazuna asks him when it’s his turn to play protector, eyes and senses scanning the trees for any sign of his teammates.

“This is more like a game than actual training.” Naruto admits honestly. “I’m pretty sure Kakashi-sensei is just having us do it because we tend to get into trouble when we’re bored.”

Tazuna looks at him oddly, but Naruto is too busy watching the trees to dissect the expression with any real focus.

 

Naruto calls for a break a while later, when he and Sasuke are the attackers and Sakura is the guardian, after watching Sasuke rub at his eyes for the third time in as many minutes.

“What’s wrong, Jerk?” he asks as the settle to walk together, checking his friend’s eyes for signs of injury. They look fine on the outside, if a little red from rubbing. “Did one of those stupid demon brothers get sand in your eyes?”

Sasuke shakes his head, pressing the heel of his palm into the orbit of his left eye. “No, it’s… I think there might be something wrong with my sharingan.”

That catches Naruto’s full attention. “Wrong? Like how wrong?”

“Well I’ve been feeling it coming all week, right?”

Naruto nods; Sasuke had told him that much.

Sasuke sighs and blinks a couple times, hard. Now that Naruto looks closely his eyes do seem kind of off. Inside the normal shiny ebony of Sasuke’s irises Naruto can see strange striations and reflections, wine-red flickers of light out of place with the evening sunshine.

“Everything my clan has written on the activation of the sharingan says that it’s supposed to come in stages, one or two tomoe at a time until it completes at six. But according to the writings, my first couple of tomoe should have surfaced already, at least.”

~What’s this about stages?~ Kurama cuts in suddenly in the back of his head. Naruto doesn’t answer because Sasuke starts to speak again.

“They also say that it’s supposed to burn to the surface, that the buildup is supposed to feel like fire, but all I feel is pressure.”

“Really?” Sakura asks, instantly concerned. “Does it hurt?”

Sasuke shakes his head again. “That's the thing, it’s supposed to, but it doesn’t. It’s just pressure; uncomfortable, but not painful.”

“Can I see?” Sakura asks, skipping forward a few steps to walk closer beside him. “Just check if maybe it’s not something else?”

Sasuke hesitates for a second, but then nods, and Sakura reaches up to start the hand signs for a simple diagnostic jutsu.

“Kurama? Do you know what’s going on?”

~No, but from what I know of the sharingan, it’s not supposed to occur in stages and it’s definitely not supposed to cause pain.~

“So I don’t need to worry or I do need to worry?”

~I’m not sure.~

Naruto resists the urge to groan.

 

<><><> 

 

As Zabuza peers down at the group of young ninja below him, he resists the urge to groan. Kids? Has Konoha’s Fire Shadow finally gone senile? This should be a Chunin level mission at least.

He’s about to drop down and get this over with, but he pauses when he catches sight of the Jounin sensei.

Oh he’d recognize that silver hair anywhere, with that masked face and that covered eye– this particular ninja has a place honor in his old Kiri Bingo Book, a monster in his own right, just like Zabuza himself.

As though summoned by the thought, the Jounin stops mid stride and looks up into the trees, eyes landing unerringly on Zabuza’s cloaked form.

“Sakura, Naruto, Sasuke.” the man says softly, “Defensive formation.”

To their credit the brats don’t hesitate, jumping into a triad around the bridge builder, kunai raised. Some part of Zabuza had hoped they’d be cowards– he really hates killing kids, Genin or otherwise.

Oh well, nothing he can do about it now. He’s a tool in another’s hands now, a monster on a leash. He needs the bridge builder dead– once he’s finished with the copy-nin, he can make the brat’s death quick.

<> 

Midway through the fight, Zabuza is forced to reassess his position.

Those are not Genin.

They can’t be, not with the way they move. The dark haired one is fast enough to rival Haku, which is impressive for a ninja of any rank. The girl’s raw strength had taken him completely off guard when she’s not only countered his attack on the bridge builder, but also completely destroyed his footing with a chakra-enhanced strike to the ground beneath his feet.

And then there's the golden haired little shit.

Zabuza is forced to leap back from their protective formation, rubbing his jaw from where the brat had struck him. His face is numb from where the kid’s fist had made contact, and the skin around the area is buzzing with some kind of chakra that keeps him from channeling any of his own energy to the skin there.

What the hell did that little peon do to me?

He doesn’t have much time to think about the answer, because he quickly learns that it was a bad idea to ignore the Jounin to go straight for his target, in an effort to lure the Copy-nin into making a mistake.

He feels the cold press of a kunai against his jaw almost as soon as he leaps back to the water he’d conjured to put the terrain on his side, the icy edge of metal resting just shy of his carotid. He’s already preparing for a substitution when Jounin says something he doesn’t expect.

The Konoha-nin’s voice drops low with dark genuine fury, so low that Zabuza himself barely hears the words even when he’s the one they’re directed at; “Try to touch my kids again, and I’ll tear your spine out through your throat.”

Zabuza knows threats. He’s familiar with threats. This is not a threat.

This is a promise.

<><><> 

 

So.

Kakashi-sensei is a badass.

Naruto had known, sort of abstractly, that Kakashi was a Jounin and thus one of the top ranked ninja in the village as a result.

But knowing that and seeing his sensei match a powerful missing-nin move for move and then beat said missing-nin at his own game, is something else to see.

He watches as two jutsu roar to life at the same time, dragons formed out of roaring twisting water. But even though the hand signs had been identical and the activation perfectly mirrored, Kakashi-sensei’s water dragon decimates Zabuza’s, crashing faster and harder and sending the Kiri-nin staggering back.

“How is he doing that?” He asks Kurama. “All the movements were the same, why is Kakashi-sensei’s stronger?”

~It’s the chakra.~ Kurama answers, watching keenly through Naruto’s eyes. ~I think your sensei might be a Paragon.~

“What does that mean?”

~It’s a phenomenon that occurs when someone resonates very powerfully with a particular type of elemental chakra. When this occurs, said element’s pathways can begin to spread to encroach on the pathways of the other elements, so that the paragon element bleeds into the whole of that person’s chakra. If you look closely, you can see elements of lightning even when your sensei is working with water– the flow is faster, the strikes harder.~

Naruto does as instructed and watches, and just like Kurama says he can see the subtle change in the chakrawork, can even see the occasional spark in the rippling water.

“Whoa.”

~Indeed. You father was a wind Paragon I think.~

“Is it hereditary?” Naruto asks. Being a paragon sounds awesome.

~Not as far as I know, kit. But your mother was an Anomaly and you did inherit that. It’s another type of phenomenon that deals with the nature of a person’s chakra composition. Your mother’s chakra was extremely dense and concentrated, and yours is shaping up to be similar– though spending nine months sharing the same space with me altered it a little to be less… tame.~

“Sweet.”

~Only if you can control it, brat.~ Kurama chastises lightly. ~Which you still have trouble with.~

Naruto tries not to pout.

<> 

After a particularly nasty battle, Zabuza ends up beating a hasty retreat, cradling a broken sword arm. Kakashi-sensei admits he needs a bit of a rest before they continue on, and they find sanctuary with old Tazuna’s daughter and grandkid while he recovers from the slightly overzealous use of his sharingan.

And speaking of sharingan…

“How’re your eyes?” Naruto asks Sasuke over the dinner Tsunami-san had graciously offered them, speaking lowly.

“Even closer to the surface than before.” Sasuke says, pressing a knuckle over the bridge of his nose. “And still no burning.”

“Maybe that’s a good thing.” Naruto says softly, trying to tread lightly on the sensitive subject that is Sasuke’s clan. Unfortunately for both of them, Naruto’s not exactly good at sensitive.

“An entire legacy of clan elder teachings says otherwise.” Sasuke grumbles.  

“Who says a bunch of old guys know everything?”

“Naruto.” Sasuke warns, and Naruto sighs.

“Look, all I’m saying as that you’re a hell of a lot stronger and smarter than a bunch of over privileged old geezers. Who's to say they’re right about anything? Maybe they’ve been wrong for years and you’re the first person to get it right?”

Sasuke sits there frozen as Naruto finishes his mini-rant, expression unusually slack and eyes a little wider than usual. Then he seems to shake himself out of it, going back to his food with more zeal than before.

“Hurry and finish eating, idiot.” He says instead of responding to Naruto’s statement. “We’re sparing after this.”

<><><> 

Tsunami watches the two ninja boys leave after they finish their food, blinking at them as they slide past her and make their way outside.

When she asks their young Kunoichi teammate about it, the girl gives her a carefree smile.

“Oh, don’t worry about them.” she says easily. “They tend to fight when they’re stressed.”

Tsunami casts a worried glance outside, but that just makes the young woman laugh. “Oh no, not like that. They just spar, train against one another, that sort of thing.” she assures.

Tsunami nods, and starts to clear the boys’ abandoned dishes. Ninja sure are strange.

<><><> 

 

Zabuza wakes to Haku reapplying bandages and salve to the cuts on his arms and sides, working around the sling to get at the nastiest of the kunai slashes, courtesy of his own idiocy underestimating Sharingan Kakashi’s black haired brat. The bones in his forearm are mostly healed thanks to Haku’s attentive medical ninjutsu, so the bandaging of his other wounds is his apprentice’s version of restless busy work.

“We’re going after them again tomorrow.” Zabuza says without pretense.

Haku nods, ever obedient. “Of course. Can’t let the whip-master get impatient, can we?”

The passive aggressive jab causes Zabuza to tick up an eyebrow. “That’s enough, Haku.”

The boy purses his lips, which on him is a sign of extreme distaste. “Gatou is a common thug. We’ve been reduced to serving tyrants. Have we fallen so far?”

Zabuza says nothing for a while. Secretly he agrees with Haku’s stance, but this is the safest option for them right now. Gatou’s influence is enough to keep even the most irritating of Kiri hunter-nin at bay, and Zabuza plans on exhausting that protection for as long as possible. He remembers the look on the Copy-nin’s face, the controlled yet feral fury that rose to the surface when Zabuza had directly threatened the Genin, and can’t help but think of Haku.

He hadn’t expected that protective drive to strike him as deep as it did.

“It’s the best option we have right at the moment.” Zabuza insists, hoping he’s making the right choice. “Now, when we go after the bridge builder, I need you to be cautious. The Copy-nin’s brats are a lot stronger than they look, and you can’t afford to underestimate them.”

Haku snorts. “I think I can handle the Genin.”

“I’m dead serious, Haku.” Zabuza growls lowly.

His apprentice pauses at his tone. “I’ll bring my best paralytic then.” he concedes. “You’ll be careful against Hatake? It would be a shame if you died on me now.”

Despite the careless lilt to the words, Zabuza can sense Haku’s worry is real. It takes a powerful ninja to overwhelm one of Kiri’s seven swordsmen, and Zabuza plans on taking their next confrontation much more seriously.

“That’s a given.” He tells Haku. “Just make sure I can swing my sword with both hands.”

<><><> 

 

When they head off to the bridge to defend the old man from the likely imminent attack, Naruto volunteers to stay behind and protect Tazuna’s family from Gatou’s thugs. Sasuke is far from happy about it, in fact he wants to grab Naruto by his stupid collar and drag him with them whether he likes it or not, but Naruto had bonded with the little twerp Inari sometime when Sasuke wasn’t looking and he cannot, in good conscience, leave Tazuna’s admittedly tolerable family to fend for themselves.

He and Naruto almost get into an argument about it anyway, but Sakura, always the reasonable one, grabs him by the back of his collar, and tells Naruto to be careful or he’ll regret it.

 

As soon as they get to the bridge, he instantly regrets not dragging Naruto with them by his ears. He feels abruptly and alarmingly exposed, like he’s suddenly been deprived of his hearing or his peripheral vision, like he’s missing a limb instead of missing a teammate.

By the look on Sakura’s face she feels the same way, nervous and antsy in a like she hasn’t been since they first started training as a team. She has a triad of senbon tucked between the knuckles on one hand and is flipping a shuriken with the other, a nervous habit she doesn’t normally indulge in.

Sasuke has been compulsively checking his weapons about once every five to ten minutes, trying not to look as paranoid as he feels. It only now occurs to him that Naruto is very much the center cog that their team dynamic hinges around, that while Sakura and Sasuke are capable of working well together, it’s nothing compared to the force they become when all three of them are present.

He just hopes the idiot gets here before that crazy swordsman Zabuza shows up.

<> 

 

He is, of course, not that lucky.

Sakura is the best defender they have, so she stays with Tazuna while Kakashi deals with Zabuza and Sasuke deals with a new player on the field– Haku, Zabuza’s apprentice. Things are going fine right up until Haku makes use of a strange and powerful Kekkei Genkai, that boxes him in away from where Sakura can get to him in an emergency.

The stupid Demon Mirrors are a pain. He’s only barely managed to avoid the masked ninja’s senbon so far because he’s faster than Haku, but Haku is capable of reforming the ice mirrors nearly as fast as Sasuke can melt them down with fire jutsu. If only he could activate his own Kekkei Genkai…

But his sharingan have been playing hide and seek with him since the fight began. One minute they’ll be so close to the surface of his eyes he can practically feel them bleeding into his irises, and the next the feeling will return to nothing but pressure, lurking behind his pupils. It’s like he’s missing something, some kind of catalyst to push his bloodline limit into existence.

He sends a wind jutsu at the masked ninja to knock him off course, but he just slips right into another mirror, vanishing before rematerializing at Sasuke’s 10:00, hurling another round of senbon too fast for him to dodge this time.

There’s a crash, a blur of motion, and Naruto is suddenly there, catching the senbon in the shoulder before flicking his hands through half a dozen signs.

“Fuuton: Violent Gale!”

A curl of wind fashions itself into a whip and cracks hard against an entire row of Haku’s demon mirrors, sending them crashing apart and forcing the masked ninja to retreat temporarily.

“About goddamn time, idiot.” Sasuke huffs.

Naruto chuckles, grunting as he pulls the senbon out of his arm. “Sorry I’m late, jerk.”

Haku’s mirrors are already reforming from the blow, and Sasuke wonders how the hell that guy has any chakra left.

Then Naruto suddenly stumbles, swaying uncertainly, and Sasuke grabs his arm without hesitation. Naruto touches a hand to the wounds on his shoulder. “Shit.” He mutters. “Poison, fast-acting paralytic…”

Sasuke grabs Naruto around the middle and hauls him sideways, out of the way of another cascade of senbon. Sasuke can see it now that he cares to look, a thin film around the steel needles that shimmers in a rainbow spectrum like spilled oil.

Haku throws again and again Sasuke leaps sideways with Naruto pressed against his side, and he can’t let this happen, can’t let Naruto die for protecting him like the idiot he is–

And there. Right there. That’s the catalyst.

Chakra roars like a let dam in his blood, surging to fill the veins and arteries and nerves of his eyes, pressing, changing, spreading through the tissue and setting the cells alight with power. He can feel nerves realigning, new chakra pathways blooming out from his optic nerves, can feel a new complex in his eyes rotating with fervor, and can feel the hard dark formation of the tomoe.

Sasuke’s sharingan eyes surface fully formed, all six tomoe spinning in sync, and Sasuke can suddenly see absolutely everything. He can see the chakra radiating off the Demon Mirrors, cyan blue and pulsing like a heartbeat– can see that the pulse matches Haku’s heartbeat, and can see the ties of chakra linking into the masked ninja’s form. He can track Haku now no matter how fast he tries to move, and everything slows down. Time crawls like it’s being dragged through mud, and as each second passes Sasuke can analyze the way Haku’s muscles tense and pull, can see each move before he even makes it.

Sasuke ducks forwards, back, and even as his body tires his mind remains as sharp as a guillotine, dodging senbon by inches. And when he’s no longer strong enough to dodge them completely, he catches them and throws them back, pulling them from the air like they’re moving through molasses.

But he slows, falters, his body failing him, and takes two senbon in the upper chest.

Naruto wasn’t kidding about it being fast acting.

It shoots through his system, forcing muscles to contract against his will, and he trips, stumbles, falls to his knees. Naruto hits the ground on his other side, and Sasuke can’t tell if he’s conscious or not, but he can see his heart beating and that’s something of a small comfort.

As Sasuke lists to the side, it takes him a minute to realize why the fall isn’t as jarring as he expects it to be.

Naruto’s arm catches him around the shoulders, tense and shaking but somehow still strong enough to hold his weight.

It’s only been a few seconds and Sasuke can’t even muster the energy to clench his hand into a fist, how the hell is Naruto moving?

Haku is saying something, about weapons and tools and how they’re all monsters in human skin anyway, why hate the leash?

Suddenly the tremors in Naruto’s arms vanish. Slowly, carefully, he lets Sasuke’s back rest against the ground, and though Naruto isn’t looking at him, Sasuke can see something in his face, in his eyes.

Something animal.

“You keep calling yourself a weapon.” Naruto says slowly. He’s disturbingly, unnaturally calm, a soft rumbling tremble in his voice that cloaks something dark and terrible. “You keep calling yourself a monster.” The word is spat with a disdain Sasuke didn’t think Naruto capable of, and then he’s suddenly standing, no trace of tremble or strain in his form as he plants himself firmly between Haku and Sasuke.

There’s something roiling underneath Naruto skin, something wrathful that starts to burn away the fabric of his shirt at his arms, rising like miasma to eat away at the fabric, burning through all but the reenforced undershirt as it rises over his torso.

Chakra.

So dense and darkly powerful that Sasuke doesn’t need his sharingan to see it.

As the power rises in intensity dark markings roll across Naruto’s now exposed arms, long lines framed by strange symbols that trace from the backs of Naruto’s hands all the way up to his neck. As he watches the power starts to literally change him– his nails elongate into curved and wicked looking claws, his eyes sharpen and become ringed with black, and the odd whisker marks on his cheeks draw clear back to his jaw.

“You want a monster?” Naruto says with supreme and deadly calm, his voice dipping to an octave so low it shouldn’t be obtainable with a human throat. “I’ll show you the meaning of the word.”

 

 

Chapter Text

This is impossible.

Haku has fought difficult odds before, gone up against stronger ninja than he and still come out on top. But this, this chakra, this boy, is unlike anything he’s ever seen– the paralytic in Haku’s senbon should have left the boy helpless for more than a day, but he’s standing as if there were no poison at all, as if the red lotus toxin Haku had slathered across his senbon couldn’t stop a charging bull elephant in it’s tracks.

Where the hell is all that chakra coming from?

A shining amber shroud of it drapes and curls around the boy’s shoulders like a cloak, twisting in rings and spirals down his limbs. It’s visible, impossibly visible, glimmering like blood stirred with molten gold. It radiates an angry potent pressure on the air itself, pressing in on Haku’s lungs and making it hard for him to draw a deep breath. Dread and primal fear pulse deep in his gut, and only years and years of conditioning keep him from succumbing to the desire to freeze or flee.

Haku isn’t stupid. He’d seen the power the dark haired boy had pulled from seemingly nowhere at all, sees now the dark determination that pulses through the golden-haired boy’s sharp and animal eyes. He knows this kind of strength, the kind you drag from the deepest darkest parts of you to protect what is yours. These boys are precious to each other, it’s painfully obvious now, and Haku had not counted on that, had not counted on the lengths they would go to protect each other, on the extent of their buried strength.

He had not anticipated what monsters they would release to defend their precious people.

Against this overwhelming power, against the uncaged animal in this strange boy, his shallow-sea eyes now dyed a gilded ruby; Haku knows his chances are slim. The chakra in the air alone tells him that.

But they’re not the only ones who have something to protect.

If he fails here, Zabuza will be overwhelmed, and he can never let that happen. He will not let his teacher die.

He dips his hand into the pouch at his hip, taking hold of the last of the pills resting there. He almost hadn’t brought them, hadn’t thought it necessary against Genin, but now it’s obvious that these Konoha-nin are far more than mere Genin, and without them Haku would have lost this fight already.

He pops the artificial chakra pills into his mouth, all four of them at once, and swallows hard.

<><><> 

Naruto hasn’t used Kurama’s chakra uncorrupted since before his mad rush to Uzushio, back before he’d shifted the seal and meshed their energies together in order to save him. Since then, most of Naruto’s chakra interaction with Kurama has been channeling his own to the bijuu to help him recover from the massive deficit the corruption had left him with. His friends aren’t stupid– any more and he would have exposed himself.

This is not what he remembers.

Before, it had been a burning rush through chakra vessels half empty, the pull of ancient and wild chakra tearing through his system in familiar torrents.

Now, instead of burning through his chakra vessels like acid through blood, it saturates his every cell, the burn radiating through him until that’s all he feels– the intense and feral energy twisting through his own chakra in sync. Instead of drawing from bijuu’s power like pulling the plunger on a syringe, he feels Kurama rise up through him, using his body as a medium to bring his chakra to the surface. His fury is Kurama’s fury; their anger and their strength are one and the same.

~We need to make this quick, Kit.~  Kurama warns, his consciousness so close to Naruto’s that he feels the words more than he hears them, Kurama’s voice almost indistinguishable from his own thoughts. ~The little Uchiha’s heart is still beating, but given the strength of the poison, it might not stay that way for long.~

“Sakura. She has a cleansing serum in her pack. He won’t die, not a chance.”

Naruto feels Kurama’s animal grin, all fangs and no humor. ~No need to hold back then.~

The entire exchange takes place in less than a second, a flow of thoughts so fast it’s over with in the space between his breaths. He looks to the mirrors, to the plethora or reflections of Haku’s form in their depths. Only one of them is real, and if he want’s to break up this jutsu, it’s the original he needs to tear apart.

His eyes will only hinder him here, so he slips them shut, gives himself over to the strange sixth sense Kurama’s energy allows him, and feels instead.

The chakra pulses around him, interlocked and uniform; the mirrors are identical, carbon copies of each other. Naruto rolls his muscles from shoulders to fingertips, lets the animal override the human being, and waits.

Sure enough Haku makes the first move– he hears the whistle of senbon fly through the air from four different sources, and raises an arm.

No hand sign needed, Naruto slashes a clawed hand through the air and chakra follows, racing along in its wake to create a whirlwind strong enough to make the mirrors groan. The senbon scatter as their momentum is inverted, clattering to the ground gracelessly or embedding themselves in the ice of the mirrors.

A rush, a charge, a flash of presence, and Haku is fast but with Kurama’s chakra searing through him Naruto is faster still, and when Naruto spins, hand wide and claws spread, he makes contact.

Naruto’s strike hits Haku in the lower chest, right under his sternum, claws digging five bloody points into flesh even through layers of cloth and body armor. The Kiri-nin reels back towards his mirrors with the force of the blow, but Naruto follows after almost as soon as he’s finished the strike, leaping to run him down before the missing-nin can get his breath back.

To Haku’s credit, he rights himself fast.

But not fast enough.

<><><> 

In the soupy grey mist created by Zabuza’s signature jutsu, Kakashi lets his senses stretch, listening for any tiny sound in the fog that will give the swordsman’s presence away.

“You doing alright, Sakura?”

A snort sounds from somewhere in the soup behind him. “I got this. Go kick his ass, sensei.”

Kakashi can’t help the huff of laughter that escapes him. He’s not sure what he expected her to say, but who is he to turn down good advice?

So he straightens, dips a hand into his pouch to ready a string of shuriken, and dives into the mist.

Zabuza is a sneaky bastard, he’ll give him that, but Kakashi has more than one trick up his sleeve when it comes to a hunt. Besides he prides himself on being the sneakiest bastard around. He’s not about to let a washed up Shichinintai steal his title.

But he’s stalled mid step by a ringing in the air, the roar of a chakra signature that even now, after all these years, makes his stomach drop through his sandals. It’s been more than twelve years since Kakashi last felt the angry ancient power of the Nine-Tailed Fox, but it’s radiation in the air is unmistakable– nothing else could be this potent, this dense.

His stomach instantly rebounds, hurtling from his feet all the way up into his throat.

Naruto.

Purpose momentarily forgotten, Kakashi takes an instinctive step in the wrong direction, towards the release of chakra, ready to abandon Zabuza to go to his Genin’s aid and leave the bridge builder to his fate. But he stops again when the energy hits him full on, and forces himself to rein in his first instinct to rush to Naruto’s defense.

He remembers that night as if it were a day ago instead of a decade; the lash of chakra had lit the night sky a bloody red, fury had permeated the air like deep-sea pressure, and the hate in the atmosphere has been so sharp and thick it choked.

This power is the Fox’s, no doubt about it, but it’s not the same as it was in Kakashi’s memory, and his memory is flawless. All the jagged edges have been smoothed out, it flows instead of rages, and the emotion that rings in the air, while furious and intense, is not hate.

The Nine-Tailed Fox in Kakashi’s memory had been nothing but hate.

This power is just as potent, but it’s curled tight, controlled somehow, not the unstoppable tide it would be had the seal been stretched or broken. Whatever this is, whatever strength of the Kyuubi’s that has come unleashed, Naruto is in command of it.

Pulling his mind back to the fight at hand, Kakashi pulls a well-loved scroll from his belt. He hadn’t planned on using his trump card so soon, but if things are this bad, he needs to move up his timetable. Tucking the scroll into the fold of his vest for quicker access, Kakashi flicks his fingers into a sequence of hand signs.

Katon: Lotus Pyre.

Haunting blue light bursts to life and scatters, casting dancing shadows into the smoky darkness created by the mist jutsu. The cast shadows twirl and spin like playing children dancing to the tune of an unheard nursery rhyme, half ninjutsu, half genjutsu. Kakashi watches through the ashy fog, searching for the shadow out of place amongst its fellows.

A low chuckle resonates around him. “Very clever, Hatake.” Zabuza mocks, voice echoing in the cover of the ashy fog. “That’s a Kumo scout special, if I remember right. Do you even have a single technique you can call your own?”

“Not many, no.” Kakashi remarks cheerily, deliberately raising his voice, and dives to the side when Zabuza flashes forward from behind him, spinning his sword down hard. Kakashi uses his momentum to swing sideways, slipping his fingers through curled strands of ninja wire, and arcs his rigged shuriken net wide like a deadly spider’s web. It wraps around Zabuza’s non-dominant arm, pulling tight and cutting deep lacerations from wrist to bicep.

Zabuza snarls, heaving his sword from the valley it had cleaved in the earth. But Kakashi twists to unravel the wires before Zabuza can fully slice through them, pulling a few of the bloodied shuriken back to him as he leaps into the cover of the mist again. That much scent is plenty.

Kakashi’s hounds have tracked on less.

<><><> 

How anti-climactic. Haku can’t help but think to himself. A monster indeed.

The golden haired boy had kept his word.

A shame that Haku hadn’t managed to keep his own.

Zabuza will die now, because he was weak. Useless. Pointless.

A clawed hand curls around Haku’s throat, talon-like fingernails only centimeters from digging into his veins and ending his life. Haku can’t bring himself to care; he’s dead already, dead to Zabuza, and dead to himself as well by default. So he closes his eyes and waits for this golden-haired amber-eyed animal to tear out his throat.

He doesn’t.

For a long moment Haku doesn’t open his eyes, doesn’t dare to breathe. But then something shifts around his neck, and Haku’s flutters his eyelids up reflexively.

The eyes looking back at him are blue now, the same shallow-sea tone that Haku had seen before his change. This isn’t the monster, this is the human being; the amber hue still lurks around the edges of his irises, but it’s held at bay by pure, powerful cobalt.

“Why?” the boy asks, eyes bizarrely curious.  

“What?” Haku chokes. There’s blood welling in the back of his throat from where he’s bitten his tongue, but he gets the word out, of only barely.

“You want me to kill you now.” The Genin accuses. “Why?”

Haku snorts at the question. “I am of no use to Zabuza now. Broken tools should be discarded.” he rasps.

The words draw a reflexive tension to the muscles of the boy’s arm and confused anger flits across his young face. For a second Haku is sure he’s about to do it, about to kill him for his response, but how the boy reacts is unfathomable.

He lets go.

The golden-haired Genin releases him and draws back, rising to his feet in a single fluid movement to glare down at him.

“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” The boy says frankly, remorselessly and with conviction.

It startles a mad laugh out of Haku that cuts off into a choking splutter. He turns, tips his head to the side and spits dark blood across the grey stone. “What would you know about it?”

“I’m not sure about this whole tool bullshit,” The boy growls, “But that Zabuza guy is precious to you, isn’t he?”

Haku freezes. He doesn’t ask how the boy knows that, because he can’t know– it’s something Zabuza himself isn’t really aware of, something Haku has kept close to his chest all his life as not to let his attachment appear as weakness. But there’s no point in trying to hide it now, he supposes, not when this golden-haired boy so obviously does know, somehow.

“What of it?” he asks.

“If he’s precious to you, who the fuck cares about useful? If you love something, protect it. Period. End of story. This whole tool and monster nonsense you’re spouting sounds a hell of a lot like an excuse.”

Haku’s eyes widen and snap up to the boy, but the golden-haired Genin is already turning away from him.

Haku tries to sit up, coughing as the blood goes the wrong way down his throat. He has broken ribs, at least four, but he pushes through the pain anyways, because the brat can’t just say that, can’t drop words like that down Haku’s throat and walk away.

“What? Where the hell are you going?” Haku coughs, struggling to sit upright.

“Screw you.” the boy snaps over his shoulder. “I have more important things to protect than your messed up sense of honor. And you know what? So do you.”

And just like that he’s gone, at his friend’s side in an instant, leaving Haku sitting on the hewn stone reeling over those last three words.

So do you.

<><><> 

Tazuna startles from behind Sakura when the jutsu mirrors shatter, practically leaping into the air. “What the hell was that?”

“Shut up.” Sakura snaps at him. “I need to hear.”

Foreboding crawls around in her chest like a restless nest of hornets, worry making her temper sting-sharp as she closes her eyes and attempts to discern what’s going on through sound and sense alone. She may not have Naruto’s gift for chakra sensing but she knows her idiots; she has the chakra compositions and signatures of her teammates memorized down to the molecule by now, and could pick them out of any crowd no matter how much stupid water chakra is hanging around in the air like smog.

Tazuna is still jumping at shadows, even though Sakura has told him multiple times not to worry about Zabuza– Kakashi-sensei can more than handle the Kiri-nin with compensation issues. Even if Zabuza does try the same tactic he had on the path and attempts to attack her and Tazuna from under Kakashi’s nose– which Sakura doubts, Zabuza strikes her as many things, but stupid isn’t one of them– Sakura will see him coming long before Tazuna could hope to.

Sakura isn’t scared, not remotely. She is, however, pissed. The next time someone suggests she take civilian babysitting duty, she’ll punch them in the throat.

She straightens when she senses movement nearby, but relaxes again immediately when she registers it’s Naruto. The mist parts around him strangely, clearing away like morning fog burnt off by rising sunlight. His chakra is behaving oddly, Sakura can see that now that he’s close, and there's another signature wound in with it that Sakura doesn’t recognize.

To her relief he looks relatively unharmed, though his overshirt is gone and parts of his shinobi pants are burned and scuffed in places. Her relief is short lived however, because she spots Sasuke unconscious on Naruto’s back, and her mind starts whirling into diagnostic mode.

“What happened?” she demands.

“Paralytic poison.” Naruto says immediately, dropping down to a crouch to lay Sasuke between them.

Sakura makes a mental note to buy Ikari-sensei a new coffee machine with the money from this mission as she digs into her pack for one of the vials he had given her, a cleansing serum he’d developed from the secretions of some of the Aburame clan’s insects, and an extremely potent antitoxin.

“Sit him up and expose his arm.” She commands as she preps an emergency syringe with careful practiced hands. Naruto obeys without a word, expression disarmingly solemn. Naruto leans Sasuke up against his chest with an arm looped beneath his shoulders and pulls his sleeve up, uncoiling the limb wrap from his wrist so that Sakura can work unhindered.

“Stupid jerks, the both of you.” Sakura mutters under her breath as she presses the end of the needle slowly into Sasuke’s arm. “Taking on stupid missing-nin by your stupid selves, leaving me to watch the stupid civilian while you go off to be morons.”

Tazuna opens his mouth like he wants to be offended by that, but then he seems to remember that she can lift his body weight with her pinky finger and shuts his mouth again.

She’s tucking the syringe away when the sound of the clash between the two jounin in the mist meets an unseen climax; in a rush of cold wind the mist around them is dispersed, along with the phantom fires that had been dancing in it’s depths. Before them their teacher and Zabuza become visible again through the dissipating gloom, and it’s pretty clear which one of them turned out to be top dog.

No pun intended.

Zabuza is pinned down by the collective teeth and claws of eight ninja dogs, ranging in size from loaf-of-bread to full-grown-man.

“You’re right, Zabuza.” Kakashi-sensei is saying. “I don’t have many jutsu of my own making, and really only one I ever use. But since you asked and all, it would be rude of me not to show it to you.”

Kakashi-sensei shifts, a dangerous sway as he lifts his left hand high.

Suddenly the air is filled by the eerie hum of what sounds like thousands of chirping finches. Light, blindingly white, streams and cracks from Kakashi’s fingers like he’s clutching an angry star, energy flitting out between his knuckles as the atmosphere begins to crackle like the inside of a thundercloud.

Zabuza’s eyes widen and he attempts to struggle harder, but the hard clamp of the jaws around his extremities and shoulders keeps him almost entirely immobile as Kakashi readies for the killing blow.

<><><> 

The feel of Kakashi’s Chidori in his hand is an unwelcome familiarity. It’s resonance with his body and chakra is a grim one, a preparation for loss, for pain. The technique has only ever had one purpose, and to this day it has performed that purpose flawlessly.

To kill. To end a life.

He doesn’t have to worry about hitting his dogs, he never does– they can sense the electricity in their fur and know exactly when to drop.

They do, but as his ninken pull away from Zabuza a second, faster presence jumps forward, and Momochi's apprentice, the dark-haired, pale-skinned Haku, materializes between them.

The shift of emotions across Zabuza’s face happens so fast that if Kakashi’s sharingan hadn’t been trained on him so closely, he’d have missed it entirely.  The man’s expression shifts very briefly to confusion and then jumps head-first right into blind instinctive panic– the kind that registers so fast there’s no way to conceal it, the kind that comes from the overwhelming dread that you are about to lose something close to you.

Kakashi is very familiar with that dread, and when Zabuza moves his wounded arm as if to shove Haku aside, he recognizes the protective instinct for what it is. Kakashi too, upon seeing his own desire to protect reflected back at him through Zabuza’s eyes, acts on instinct.

He pulls his weight to the side last moment so that instead of driving his hand through Haku’s chest, it goes right through the flesh of Zabuza’s left shoulder.

 

 

Chapter Text

By the time Sasuke’s eyes flicker open, all the mist and ice on the battlefield has cleared. He’s leaning between his teammates, back pressed against Sakura’s side and Naruto crouched beside him, both their eyes cast riveted on the scene before them.

Silence permeates the area, thick and cloying, heavy with a meaning Sasuke has yet to grasp. Kakashi stands several meters back from Zabuza, who is heavily injured and bleeding profusely from the top of one shoulder, his sword crossed protectively in front of Haku.

“I have a question, Zabuza.” Kakashi asks lowly. “Since it seems the two of us aren’t so different after all.”

Zabuza barks a humorless laugh. “Shoot.”

“Why are you working for a common thug like Gatou?”

Zabuza flexes his hand around the hilt of his sword, eyes narrowing like the question surprises him.

“Easy money.” Zabuza snaps reflexively.

Naruto stiffens. “That’s a lie.” he says sharply. Not an accusation, but a statement of fact.

Zabuza’s eyes flit to Naruto, and then back to Kakashi.

“It’s for protection, isn’t it?” Kakashi states, deceptively mild. “From Kiri hunter-nin.”

Zabuza huffs, and beneath the bandages Sasuke can almost swear he makes out a smile. “Well I don’t suppose someone with your reputation got all this way by being an idiot.” he allows. “Yes. Gatou may be a Class-A prick, but he has connections even the good old Bloody Mist wouldn’t touch with a twelve story pole.”

They continue talking, oddly sedate, something about a coup maybe, but Sasuke stops listening. He shifts, attempting to right himself and grunting with the effort. As soon as he does two sets of worried eyes flash immediately to him, one seafoam green, the other cerulean.

“There you are.” Sakura sighs. “You scared us, you ass.”

Sasuke gives her forearm a hard squeeze to reassure her, but his eyes immediately lock on Naruto. The Uzumaki flashes him a weak smile, but doesn’t move towards him, keeping a careful meter of distance between them.

There's something depreciating and scared lingering behind Naruto’s eyes that is unacceptable.

“Naruto–”

“Uh-oh, looks like the cavalry has arrived.” Naruto chirps, so obviously false it’s painful. It’s also the shittiest deflection Sasuke has heard in his entire life, even if Gatou’s band of thugs has managed to appear in the battlefield.

Sasuke only catches the tail end of the conversation that occurs between the Jounin and the Tycoon, since he’s too busy trying to convince himself that shaking Naruto by the shoulders is not something that will help matters, but he does manage to make out the words you’re fired.

That’s probably one of the stupidest things he’s heard come out of someone’s mouth, and he lives with an idiot.

And if that isn’t civilian ignorance in a nutshell– trying to fire a ninja like they’re some kind of underachieving employee. Sasuke’s not even the one being insulted and it rubs him the wrong way, and it’s saying something that he can actually see Kakashi-sensei’s hackles go up.

Kakashi and Zabuza immediately straighten out of their defensive postures. Zabuza turns and gives Gatou and his thugs a look so dry it seems to sap the excess water from the air.

The grim atmosphere breaks open when Haku honest-to-god giggles, a hand over his mouth and an arm around his chest to support his ribs as laughter spills out from between his fingers. A snort and Sakura joins in from behind him, snickering in Sasuke’s ear. From there is spreads like wildfire, even breaking through Naruto’s dark mood and coaxing a few low chuckles from Kakashi-sensei himself, which he presses against the backs of his knuckles.

“Funny you should say that.” Zabuza drawls, taking in the threatening posture of Gatou’s goons with the disdain it deserves. Even half dead, any shinobi is still worth more than a handful of poorly trained civilians.

Gatou hesitates, fat face flushing with indignation at the still rolling snickers. Sasuke sees Haku cast a long glance at Naruto, and the dynamic between them changes immediately.

“Need any help?” Kakashi offers.

Zabuza seems only mildly surprised by the offer. Without conflicting interests resting over their heads, the two Jounin are much more amicable, and seem to share some kind of unspoken understanding.

“If you’ve got nothing else going on.” Zabuza remarks easily, lifting his sword with his mostly uninjured arm. He casts his gaze between his apprentice and team seven as Sasuke starts to stand, Naruto and Sakura rising with him. “What do you think, Haku?”

The young man is still looking at Naruto, whose stance in front of Sasuke is still slightly defensive. But Naruto shoulders seem to relax after a moment, and he flashes Haku a sharp grin.

“I think it’s been a long time coming, personally.” The teenager says sweetly, and ducks under Zabuza’s raised arm when the Jounin turns around to face Gatou full on.

Needless to say, Gatou’s men don’t last very long.

<><><> 

Haku turns out to be all right, in Naruto’s book.

Tazuna calls them all batshit that night when they camp together on the bridge, watching over the builders as they work into the night with renewed vigor, aided by heavy strobe lights. He seems to find the shift from hardened enemies to neutral parties– maybe even tentative allies– completely baffling.

Naruto wonders aloud why they should hate each other for simply trying to do their jobs, and Tazuna doesn’t seem to have a response for that. He merely grumbles something that sounds like shinobi madness and goes back to work.

Haku gives Sakura the actual counter serum for his poison, which helps give Sasuke more of the feeling back in his legs, and to everyone’s surprise Haku and Sakura strike up an instant and intense conversation consisting of at least sixty percent medical ninjutsu jargon. Kakashi and Zabuza hold a sedated conversation on the edges of the camp in hushed tones, leaving Naruto mostly alone with Sasuke.

There’s an uncomfortable silence as neither of them speak, one that stretches long and unwelcome between them.

Naruto jumps when Sasuke reaches over without preamble and takes hold of his wrist, pulling it closer to himself so he can look over the skin on the back of Naruto’s hand. He watches as Sasuke drags his thumb over his forearm, tracing the now invisible lines of his seal. “Not a Kekkei Genkai, then.” Sasuke says softly, not meeting Naruto’s gaze.

Naruto swallows and takes a heavy breath to steady his nerves. “No.” he agrees. “I did inherit it from my mother, though.”

Sasuke does look up at that, his dark eyes searching. Naruto wonders if they can sense his vulnerability, if they can see just how much of Naruto’s fragile hope rests on how this conversation ends.

There’s more silence as Sasuke returns his gaze to the back of Naruto’s arm, absently tracing the symbols of Naruto’s seal with his thumbnail from his now perfect memory.

“I told you those old men didn’t know what they were talking about.” Naruto murmurs quietly. “Did those old writings tell you how many Uchiha activated their whole sharingan all at once?”

“No one.” Sasuke says, almost disbelievingly. “Not even my brother.”

“Can you activate them any time you want now?” Naruto asks, eager to keep the topic of conversation off himself as long as he can, but also genuinely curious about Sasuke’s new ability.

Sasuke’s eyes swirl alive with colour in answer. The three sharply hooked tomoe are a stark black against a deep and fluctuating wine red. The irises swirl with fractal curls of sunset purple, blooming with yin chakra. Another blink and the dojutsu deactivates, and the look in his friend's eyes tells him he’s not about to let Naruto change the subject. He grips Naruto’s forearm like an anchor.

“What aren’t you telling me, Naruto?”

Naruto sighs heavily, his pulse banging away in his throat. Oh well. Now or never.

“Do you know when my birthday is, Sasuke?”

Sasuke blinks, taken aback by the question. “October. You never told me the exact date.”

There’s a reason for that.

“It’s October tenth.” Naruto continues, before he can lose his nerve. “Do you know what else happened on that day?”

“The fourth Hokage died.” Sasuke recites. It’s a history lesson they all know, the day the fourth Hokage was killed defending the village from a monster.

“Doing what?” Naruto prompts, even though he doesn’t really need to. Judging by the look on Sasuke’s face understanding is already dawning, his eyes widening and his mouth dropping open around a sharp exhale.

“I was born on the day of my parents’ death.” Naruto states before Sasuke can speak, “My mother was the second Jinchuuriki of the Nine-Tailed fox, and he was released when her seal broke as I was born. She was killed protecting me, her and my father both, and as they died they sealed the Kyuubi inside me, making me the third Jinchuuriki of the Nine-tails.” Naruto smiles grimly, little humor in the gesture, and keeps his eyes on his knees. “I started talking to him when I was around seven. We were friends by the time I was nine. Turns out he’s not the monster everyone makes him out to be, at least not to me.” Naruto shrugs, casting his gaze off to the side, further away from Sasuke. He doesn’t yet have the courage to look at him. “That power you saw was his– well, ours.”

Dead silence. Other than his breathing, Sasuke makes no sound, not even to shift.

Another second of silence. A third. A ninth. Then finally he speaks.

“This is why, isn’t it?” Sasuke says lowly. There’s unmistakable fury in his voice, and it takes all of Naruto’s willpower not to cringe. “This is why they all… that’s it?”

There’s a strange new tone to Sasuke’s voice that draws Naruto’s attention up, but Sasuke isn’t even looking at him– he’s staring into the dead space between Naruto’s knee and the bridge, anger drawing the lines of his shoulders and the tendons in his knuckles taught. Suddenly Sasuke’s voice bursts out of him all at once. “This is why that idiot shinobi at the supply store tries to give you defective shuriken? Why that old woman we pulled weeds for ‘accidentally’ dumped fertilizer over your head? Why your only friend besides Iruka-sensei until two years ago was the goddamned ramen vendor?”

Sasuke’s face is turning a rather alarming shade of red very fast, his sharingan active and swirling with his rage. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Naruto hears Kurama’s laughing bark of ~I told you so.~

“Uh…” Is Naruto’s predictably intelligent response.

Sasuke’s eyes snap up to his, tomoe spinning angrily, new sparks of purple firing off in the red. Naruto leans back instinctively, even though he knows now that Sasuke’s fury isn’t really directed at him.

Except maybe it is, because suddenly Sasuke’s sharingan eyes narrow dangerously. “Why, exactly, am I only learning of all this now?

Naruto flounders, at a loss for words as Sasuke leans threateningly into his personal space. “I-I don’t know, I just thought…”

“You thought what? That I was going to think any less you just because you had a twenty story chakra demon stuffed inside you at birth?”

And yeah, okay, it does sound pretty stupid when he puts it like that, but old habits die hard, and until recently Naruto had no reason to think that people wouldn’t care. He shrugs nervously, which is obviously the wrong response because, judging from Sasuke’s expression and the spin in his eyes, he goes from dangerously upset to absolutely livid and lunges at Naruto with a snarl. “Fucking idiot!”

They dissolve into a wrestling match as Sasuke attempts to put him in a chokehold, rolling away from the camp. Something heavy and warm lodges under Naruto’s ribs, and the truth hits him squarely in the gut. He doesn’t care. He thinks with no small amount of astonishment. I was raised by the demon living in my chest cavity and he couldn’t care less.

He can’t help it. He starts to laugh.

It’s warm, and bright, and bubbles up his throat like a cloudburst, clear strong and unexpected, and Sasuke freezes over him, staring down with wide, startled eyes. His arm is still barred across Naruto’s collar and his other hand is still pinning down his bicep, but Naruto makes no move to get up and Sasuke makes no move to let him go.

Naruto looks up at Sasuke and sees the tomoe in his eyes spin almost in confusion. “Sorry for being an idiot.” Naruto tells him, with all the honesty he can muster, his tone too soft with the meaning. Something vulnerable crosses Sasuke’s eyes, evaporating the anger there and draining away the red until there's nothing left but the original ebony.

“Well.” Sasuke says, voice a hair too rough to be steady. “Try not to make a habit out of it.”

Naruto grins. Yeah right. Like he’s ever going to doubt Sasuke again after this. “I can do that.”

<><><> 

“You sure you’re not going to get in trouble for this?” Zabuza asks, drawing Kakashi’s attention away from Sasuke and Naruto, who have just started to stand. Zabuza’s not so bad, Kakashi’s found, when one isn’t threatening what’s his. The man has an air about him that Kakashi recognizes, a man hardened by a life on the run, a man that will do just about anything if it means he and his will survive just a little bit longer.

Kakashi used to have that drive. Still does maybe, somewhere. He’d once thought that particular instinct dead and buried, like so many parts of him stuffed into the poorly tended graves around his heart. But these three brats are starting to prove alarmingly proficient at raising the dead.

“Kiri and Konoha may not be at war right now, but that doesn’t mean that they’re friends by any stretch of the imagination.” Kakashi responds. “Besides, I’ve gotten away with stupider things. So long as the mission was complete, my Kage won’t care.”

“Strange how different they can be, Kages.” Zabuza murmurs, but doesn’t elaborate.

“Mhm.” he hums back. “You should get that taken care of.” he adds, gesturing to the chuck he’d taken off the top of Zabuza’s shoulder.

Zabuza shakes his head. “I’ll have to wait. Haku took too many chakra pills fighting your brats. He’ll be too drained for any kind of jutsu for a while.”

Kakashi tilts his head, considering the wound. The one good thing about his Chidori is that it tends to cauterize the wounds it leaves, which means Zabuza hadn’t lost too much blood. But the chance of infection is still high, and given the placement of the wound, there's a chance of permanent damage if it goes untended.

He turns towards his third Genin, still deep in conversation with Haku, surrounded by a good majority of Kakashi’s ninken. Shiba in particular seems to have taken a particular liking to Haku, and is lying at his side with his head in the young ninja’s lap. Bisuke, the spoiled pup, is tucked entirely into Sakura’s arms, enjoying a very thorough head scratch.

“Sakura, how are your chakra reserves?” He asks.

The kunoichi turns and glares at him. “You’re joking, right? Come on sensei, I watched a civilian the entire fight, you jerk, I practically have chakra coming out of my ears. ”

That startles a sharp laugh out of Zabuza. “Where did you get these kids, Hatake?”

Kakashi doesn’t answer, but he does allow himself an indulgent smile, carefully hidden behind his mask.

“Enough to give the murderous missing-nin a hand?” Kakashi asks Sakura.

Zabuza snorts. “Pot and kettle, Copy-nin.”

“Only the first part.” Kakashi says back cheerily.

Sakura hops to her feet, stepping carefully over Akino, and tells Haku to sit the hell down and rest when he starts to get up, making her way over through the maze of canine bodies curled around her. “Sure thing, sensei.” she chirps, depositing Bisuke on Kakashi’s lap as she passes.

The brown-blond ninken looks up at him through solemn hooded eyes. “She gives great scratches, boss.” Bisuke informs him gravely. “Can we keep her?”

Kakashi balks at the question. “She comes in a set, you realize.”

Bisuke looks over towards Sasuke and Naruto, who are having a conversation about summons with Uhei while Urushi and Guruko nap on a Genin apiece, Bull curled around them both. “That’s acceptable.” Bisuke says, accompanied by a tail wag that tells Kakashi it’s more than just acceptable.

Bisuke then looks at up at Zabuza, looking over the various bite marks on his person as Sakura works without fear on Zabuza’s shoulder, at ease enough you wouldn’t guess that only hours ago they had been bitter enemies. It’s such a shinobi-like sensibility that Kakashi wonders how she came from civilian parents.

“Sorry we had to bite you.” Bisuke says, only mildly apologetic.

“I did start it.” Zabuza rumbles, and then looks up to Sakura, who’s prepping parts of Zabuza’s wound for stitching, carefully stripping away the charred flesh with a low-acidity chakra flare. “You’re pretty good at that for your age, Hellcat.” he says.  Kakashi wonders if he’s talking about the medical attention or the chakra control, because both are impressive.

Sakura grins at the praise. “Thanks. I know I am.” She responds easily. “Keep still please, I’m about to start stitching.”

Zabuza grunts in affirmation, looking over to where Haku has migrated to sit next to Naruto. “This Konoha of yours must not be a total hellhole.” he remarks to Kakashi, and he hums again, giving Bisuke a scratch behind the ears.

“Every village has its problems.” Kakashi admits. “And these three know that better than most.”

Zabuza’s gaze turns grudgingly curious. “Orphans?”

“Naruto and Sasuke, yeah. Sakura has civilian parents she’s currently not on speaking terms with.”

The kunoichi growls at that. “And I won’t be until my dad pulls his head out of his ass.”

“You’re going to stay with Naruto until then?” Kakashi asks. “That apartment is too small for all three of you.”

“We’ll work it out, sensei.” Sakura assures, pulling tight another stitch. “Don’t worry about it.”

“Right, like any guardian stopped worrying about something because they were told to.” Zabuza remarks sarcastically.

Sakura huffs indignantly and pulls harder than necessary on her next stitch, making the Jounin wince slightly. “Well what would you suggest?”

Bisuke digs his claws into Kakashi's thigh to draw his attention and looks up at him with big pleading puppy eyes. Kakashi feels a bad idea coming on.

<><><> 

Naruto really likes Kakashi-sensei’s summons. They’re intelligent and cool and fun to talk to, like awesome friendly ninja that have the added benefit of being fluffy. Bull is huge, so big that he doesn’t even mind letting the three of them ride on his back, so long as it’s only one at a time. Akino is the coolest–he wears sunglasses, so cool– and Uhei is the smartest. Guruko is sedate and easygoing, Urushi is pleasantly funny and vicious, and Shiba has some adorably intense attention span issues and goes from being perfectly calm to running in spastic circles around the whole pack. Bisuke, who hasn’t left Sakura’s arms in over an hour, is a sweetheart that looks sad and serious but is actually nicer than almost every human he knows. They’ve all seen Pakkun before– he’s Kakashi-sensei’s primary errand summons, and has been sent to fetch the three of them on several occasions before this one. He sits lazily on Bull’s head, dozing absently as they walk.

They’d parted ways with Zabuza and Haku that morning. Naruto gets the distinct feeling this won’t be the last time they meet, not by a long shot.

Naruto told Sakura what he’d told Sasuke, with less dramatics and hesitation, and gotten another smack upside the head for even entertaining the idea that she was going anywhere you moron.

Telling Kakashi-sensei is different.

They settle down away from the others on their first break of the day, and Kakashi asks him quietly just how long he’s known about being a Jinchuuriki.

He doesn’t speak while Naruto tells his story, he just listens intently, face unreadable. But even so Naruto can read the subtle fluxes in his emotional state. Guilt is fairly precedent, for the most part. Pain too. The old, half-healed kind. Naruto has known for a while that Kakashi knew his parents and that he, for some reason, wasn’t allowed to talk about them– Naruto had recognized him, even decades older, from the picture of his parents the first day he’d walked into the academy and introduced himself.

He goes very still when Naruto talks about the fact that Kurama hadn’t been aware of what he was doing when he’d attacked the village, and freezes up even more when Naruto admits that he’d left the village for Uzushio in order to protect Kurama.

“So how much trouble am I in, exactly?” Naruto asks when he’s finished, eyes downcast, because Kakashi may not have been their teacher for all that long, but Naruto has respect for him that matches his respect for Iruka-sensei, and counts him among one of his precious people without a doubt.

Kakashi breaks from his silent stasis with a headshake. “You’re hardly in any trouble, Naruto. At least not with me. But I think it’s best you don’t mention anything of what you just told me to the Hokage.”

Naruto nods. He loves Jiji, he does, but the Sandaime’s responsibility is to the village before all else, and he’s not sure the old man will understand.

He starts a little when Kakashi’s hand comes down on his head, ruffling his blond hair affectionately. “Don’t worry too much about it, Naruto. Let Iruka and I figure out what to tell Sarutobi. Is it alright if I tell him what you told me? I assume he doesn’t know.”

“Yeah.” Naruto assents, and then winces. “But if you could play down the whole ‘ran off to an island over interim break without saying anything’ part, that’d be awesome.”

Kakashi chuckles softly, and Naruto can make out the smile beneath his mask. “I’ll see what I can do, but prepare for a lecture anyway.”

Naruto nods and beams. He hadn’t expected Kakashi-sensei to be quite so understanding, and senses that it might have something to do with the guilt and subdued anger Naruto can feel mixing with the genuine relief and affection.

His teacher hums, contemplative. “I do have a question though, Naruto. About the Kyuubi.”

“Yeah? What is it?”

“Do you trust him?”

Naruto swallows down his first and immediate answer of obviously. His sensei is obviously looking for a thought out response, so he mulls it over. “With my life, absolutely.” Naruto decides. “But probably not with anyone else’s.”

~Accurate.~ Kurama quips. ~Though your little trio has grown on me.~

Kakashi stares at him for a long time, satisfied with his answer, if unsure what to make of it. “That’s good enough for me.”

<> 

The rest of the way home, he’s barraged with questions about his bijuu. He tells Sasuke and Sakura about the promise he made, about Kurama’s siblings and what he knows of their abilities.

“How does it feel though?” Sakura asks, walking backwards to face him, Bisuke still hanging in her arms. Sasuke walks beside him, hands in his pockets, Akino on his other side and Uhei striding carefully between them. “I mean, it’s gotta be strange having another living thing inside you, even if it is made of chakra.”

Naruto shrugs. “I wouldn’t really know. It’s been this way for as long as I can remember. I don’t know what it feels like not to be a Jinchuuriki.”

“The steam.” Sasuke asks. “The healing. That’s the Kyuubi’s chakra?”

Naruto nods. “Yeah. Kurama’s. All bijuu have a method they use to protect their Jinchuuriki, his is regeneration.”

“Kurama? That’s his name?”

“Mhm.”

“What about the lines I saw?” Sasuke wonders, tapping his knuckles against Naruto’s still bare shoulder.

“Oh, you mean the Lines of Transgression? They’re extensions of my seal.” Naruto lets a bit of Kurama’s chakra flow through his system in demonstration, holding out his arm as black floods along his limbs.

“So that’s what those were!” Sakura marvels, grabbing his arm by the wrist and pulling it closer to her face. “How come you can’t always see them?”

“Because they only show up when he’s actively channeling Kurama’s chakra.” Sasuke speculates. “Natural passive chakra flow doesn’t set them off, or I would have seen them before now.”

“They’re so intricate…” Sakura muses, surveying the lines of scripted symbols that frame the bold rivers of black. “I didn’t know seals could be so pretty.”

Naruto flushes, half with pride and half with embarrassment. “I don’t know about pretty. I mean, my handwriting has never been that good and I was kind of sleep deprived–”

“Wait, what? You put these here? These aren’t part of your original seal?” Sakura squawks, looking back and forth between him and the lines on his arms.

Naruto blinks. “Uh… no. I had to add them when Kurama started going through a chakra crisis– something he calls the Sin of Regret? I don’t know what it was really, all I know it that he lost almost a full third of his chakra to corruption, and I needed to figure out how the hell I was going to feed him chakra when the original seal laws wouldn’t allow it. It’s the real reason I went to Uzushio in the first place.”

“Where is the original?” Sasuke asks, his head tilting curiously.

Naruto lifts his shirt briefly to show him, revealing the jagged swirling pattern of the center seal in stark black across his abdomen.

“Whoa now.” Akino rumbles, ducking his head around Sasuke’s legs to look. “That’s some real complicated chakrawork.”

“Indeed.” Uhei remarks, lifting his head to sniff at the swirling center of the seal. “As powerful as it is complex.”

“It’d have to be to seal a bijuu.” Bisuke drawls, tail wagging when Sakura strokes her hand down his back.

“Seals,” Sasuke wonders. “Can they be used in combat?”

Naruto tucks his undershirt back into his pants. “Oh hell ya. I haven't worked out all the theory yet, but the uses for seals are just as varied as the uses for ninjutsu, and probably have more applications.”

Sasuke blinks, bemused, and then smirks. “Careful, Naruto. You almost sounded smart for a minute there.”

Sakura laughs and Naruto punches him in the arm. “Whatever, jerk. Just don’t be surprised when I use my cool new seals to wipe the floor with you.”

“You and what army, dead last?”

“Boys!” Sakura snaps. “We’re technically still on mission, morons. Spar when we get home.”

The two of them grumble, but don’t protest. Even though Sakura's arms are still full of dog, it’s not worth the risk.

<><><> 

When they arrive mid morning back in Konoha, Kakashi leaves them to go report to the mission desk and tells them they have the next two days off. After they’ve bathed and changed, Sakura sticks her head out of the bathroom, expression despondent.

“Uh, guys?”

Sasuke and Naruto look up from where they’re putting equipment away. “What is it?” Sasuke asks.

“I um, don’t have a change of clothes.”

Now that Sasuke looks, he sees that she’s thrown her leggings and ribbed top back on, which are both still marred with road grime.

“Naruto and I have to go shopping anyway. There’s nothing left in the fridge.” Sasuke admits.

Naruto nods. “We’ll go get your stuff for you.” he assures. “Or we can just get you new stuff. It’s your choice.”

Sakura looks floored by the offer. “You sure you guys are okay with that?”

Sasuke sends her a dry look. “Between my inheritance and the entire Uzushio treasury, I think we can splurge and get you some new clothes.”

She beams at them. “I’ll make a list. Could you run to the apothecary for me too? I was going to go today, but I think I’d rather nap.”

She’d had last watch, so Sasuke doesn’t blame her. “I don’t see why not, but we get to pick what’s for dinner then.”

“Deal.”

<> 

Sealing scrolls are a gift from the universe, Sasuke believes this wholeheartedly. There’s nothing more annoying than lugging around a dozen bags from half a dozen stores when you have a lot of shopping to do, and Sasuke is grateful that Naruto had thought to draw up a low mass transport seal on one of their blank scrolls.

They’re getting all the chores out of the way now, because once they get back, Sasuke plans on passing out for at least 24 hours and not moving for anything other than food and possibly another shower. They’ve hit the grocery store, the weaponsmith and the rather dinky sealing supply store behind it, the open market, and the general market. That leaves the kunoichi and shinobi equipment stores, the civilian clothing shop, the apothecary, and Sakura’s house.

Sasuke isn’t really looking forward to that last one.

“I haaaate shopping.” Naruto grumbles as they duck into Mantis– one of three kunoichi oriented equipment shops in the village. It stocks things meant for Kunoichi that specialize in ninjutsu; the other two, Viper and Tigress, are for those who specialize in genjutsu and taijutsu respectively.

“Suck it up Dobe, we’re barely halfway through. And once we go home I’m not going out again until our off days are over.”

Naruto huffs but doesn’t protest any further, looking up when he spots Aburame Shino in the corner of the shop surveying some ballistic jackets. “Hey Shino!” he calls amicably.

Shino looks up, noting Naruto first, then Sasuke. “Hello.” he replies, voice its usual unreadable tenor. “I would say good morning, but it is nearly noon. Are you two here for Sakura?”

“Yeah. You?” Naruto asks, making his way over. Sasuke follows reluctantly, looking around for whatever he could imagine Sakura wearing. Just because Naruto is friends with just about everyone doesn’t mean Sasuke is by default– he and Shino have never really interacted do their shared hatred of menial small talk.

Shino doesn’t seem to mind talking to Naruto at all though– but then again Naruto has always been an exception to the rule.

“I’m here for a teammate as well.” Shino says, his tone almost pleasant. “Hinata’s birthday isn’t far off and I’m searching for a suitable gift.”

Naruto blinks, “Is it December already?” His confusion is valid– Konoha, given where it’s located in the heart of Fire country, doesn’t have winter and summer so much as it has a wet season and a dry season.

“Not quite. But I thought I’d get it out of the way before things get too hectic.” Shino turns his gaze from Naruto to Sasuke. “Did you just come from a mission?”

“Yeah. Our first C-rank.” Sasuke says mildly, eyes still scanning for things that would suit Sakura’s fighting style. He has several prospects for inspection.

“Already?” Shino asks, though he doesn’t seem very surprised. “I’ll have to ask Kurenai-sensei about stepping up our missions.”

“What’s Kiba getting Hinata?” Naruto asks. “Do you know?”

“A new calligraphy set, I believe, though I will no doubt have to remind him several times to actually purchase it. I hoped to get her something more practical, although I am starting to wonder if Tigress would not be a better place to find something.”

Sasuke taps Naruto’s arm and leaves him to talk with Shino, and Naruto nods minutely before continuing his end of the conversation. Shino watches the exchange oddly, but makes no comment on it.

<> 

Their time in Mantis reminds Sasuke that he and Naruto also need new equipment, and he doesn’t even have to drag Naruto at that point– the blond is out of overshirts and what mission pants he does have are practically in threads.

He opts for a reinforced variety of limb wrap for his arms that won’t dissolve so easily in Kurama’s chakra, and forgoes looking for overshirts entirely, instead focusing on finding decent chakra mesh shirts and shinobi pants of the right length. Sasuke finds a few of the male equivalent of Sakura’s ribbed sleeveless shirt and decides he wants ten, but Naruto, ever frugal, argues him down to three and buys a few for himself. They get themselves new thigh pouches and belts, Naruto gets a few harnesses designed for carrying scrolls of varying sizes, and Sasuke gets an array of armored gloves in different lengths meant to conceal anything from senbon to whole kunai.

The regular clothing shop is a pain, if only because it’s run by civilians and Naruto has to keep him from murdering every one of them that sends Naruto a hateful glance. At least the fucking shinobi know better than to make it obvious.

In the end, the hardest part of getting their civilian clothes is finding someone crazy enough to check them out while Sasuke’s stands there breathing fire. Figuratively, unfortunately. He’d love to burn the whole stupid place to the ground and every blind ignorant civilian in the area with it.

He’s so pissed off he doesn’t notice Naruto smiling the entire time.

<><><> 

“You sure this is the place?”

Naruto double checks the address and rough map scrawled on the back of Sakura’s list. “Pretty damn sure, jerk.”

The ‘apothecary’ Sakura had been talking about looks more like a witch doctor’s hut, a tilted wooden building located closer to the forest of death than Naruto is entirely comfortable with. The place is painted with a reddish brown and a dark purple that reminds him of barely healed scabs and poison, dangling with charms and strange artifacts and wind chimes that look to be made of bone.

“I’m not going in there.”

“Yes we are. You’re out of conditioner.”

“Shit.”

Naruto steps forward first, lifting up the curtain that falls over the doorway. “It’s supposed to be the best herbiary in the village.”

“It’s also where half the Jounin in Konoha get their cigarettes.” Sasuke shoots back, eyeing the interior of the shop warily.

The inside of the apothecary is dim and Naruto wrinkles his nose at the strong smell of incense, smoky and thick and tangling in wisps against the ceiling. It’s obviously a poor attempt to cover up the musk of tobacco ash that seems to have seeped into every crevice of the place, mixed in with the perfumes from the dried herbs and fragrant oils.

Naruto takes one step inside and steps right back out, his hand over his nose and mouth. “On second thought, fuck it. Let’s go.”

Sasuke shoulders him inside anyway, pushing him into the gloom of the shop despite his protests. The atmosphere is notably creepier once inside, the normally bright Konoha sunshine dimmed by heavy curtains and old yellowed windows. “Oi! Anybody home?” He calls, tucked mostly behind Naruto’s back, the coward.

“Whaddya want?” The words come muffled from behind the counter at the back of the room, and Naruto makes out somebody leaning in a chair behind it, a thin book draped over their face.

Before either of them can answer, there's a rustle and a pounding and a voice sounds from somewhere in the back. “Go back to sleep you old coot. And stop being rude to the customers!”

“I’m twenty nine you little prat!”

A girl bursts through the back curtain with a rattle of beads, a younger than the two of them by a couple of years at least. Her hair is dark violet and chopped short, styled into a bob with the exception of a couple of long thin braids that drape over her shoulder. Her eyes are big and bright and butter-yellow, and she smiles up at them sweetly. “Hello. Ignore Gin, please. He gets a little cranky this early in the morning.”

“It’s 2:30.” Sasuke states.

“Try telling him that. I’m Ayame. If you’re looking for something specific, I can help you.”

Naruto pulls the folded piece of notepaper from his pocket and hands it to her. She looks it over, scanning the complicated list of herbs, extracts, and concoctions. She reaches the bottom and her eyes go wide.

“Oh, I recognize this handwriting, you must be Sakura-chan’s brothers!” She chirps.

Naruto and Sasuke share a glance, and Sasuke shrugs.

“Um, yeah.” Naruto replies. “She’s sleeping off a mission.”

“Kin of the firecracker, huh?” The man behind the counter rumbles suspiciously, lifting up the book over his eyes. He has a tall, thin frame and platinum blonde hair, his pale red eyes rimmed with dark circles and angry lines. “Tell her that her poisons permit went through, but she needs to pass the Chunin exam before I even think about clearing her for neurotoxins.”

Sasuke inclines his head in affirmation. “Noted.”  

“I think I have most of these in stock.” Ayame hums thoughtfully. “Let me check. Feel free to look around in the meantime, burn salves are half off today!” She disappears around the corner and Gin puts the book back over his face.

<><><> 

“That was easily the most awkward twenty minutes in my entire life.”

“And you walked in on Asuma and Kurenai-sensei playing tonsil hockey by the standby station.”

“I thought we agreed never to talk about that.”

“I remember you ordering me not to talk about it and I remember not listening.” Naruto quips, pausing on the end of the street. “At least her dad wasn’t home.”

“Small mercies.” Sasuke grumbles, a bundle of clothes tucked under his arm. “You could cut the tension in there with a kunai.”

“Well if they can’t get over themselves then they don’t deserve her. She can stay with us, period.” Naruto defends in his very Naruto-like fashion.

“Shit, we forgot to pick up another futon.” Sasuke remembers.

Naruto shrugs, readjusting his own armload of Sakura’s stuff so he can get out his sealing scroll.  “We’ll figure it out.”

They’d taken more out of Sakura’s room than her mother may have been strictly aware of– she’d been under the impression that they had only come to get things for a few nights at most.

Too tired to bother to use chakra, they walk together down the streets of the civilian district. The afternoon sun slants through the trees, casting soft edges of shadow across the buildings and the cobblestones. In this light Naruto’s hair shines like a ten ryo coin, catching sun like it’s been spun from pyrite. Sasuke reaches out to tug absently on a strand of it, which has grown almost down to his jaw.

“You need a haircut.” He observes.

Naruto blinks at him, eyes catching in the strange light and flaring sapphire. “Huh? Oh, yeah.” He reaches up to pull a hand through the strands. The length is choppy at the ends, evidence of Naruto’s previous attempts to cut it himself. “Maybe I’ll ask Sakura when we’re done sleeping for a week.”

Despite the words Naruto doesn’t look all that tired, no more than Sasuke feels anyway. They don’t need sleep so much as they need rest, a few hours to spend doing nothing at all.

As if reading his mind, something that’s becoming more and more common these days, Naruto asks him if he wants to sit for a while. He nods and they find a hill off training ground five that’s flooded with sunlight, gilding the grass and the edges of the trees. Sasuke sits and Naruto stretches out next to him, folding his arms behind his head, and they spend a few long moments just soaking up the warmth and enjoying the rare bliss of doing nothing for more than a few minutes at a time.

“You haven’t talked about being Hokage for a while.” Sasuke comments, watching the shadows shift with the swaying of the trees. “Is that still your dream? To wear the hat?”

He half expects Naruto to answer with a disgruntled ‘of course it is’, but Naruto is quiet, contemplative, and gives real thought to his answer.

“Being Hokage would be awesome.” He says eventually, eyes fixed on the horizon despite the harsh shine of the sun. “Kages are amazing. The great shadows that protect whole villages and all that; the strongest shinobi of their kind. I respect them a hell of a lot for what they do.”

Sasuke senses deeper reasoning behind the statements, senses that Naruto is saying one thing and yet another all at once. “But?” He queries, catching the soft uncertainty in the Uzumaki’s voice.

“But… It’s not enough.” He says softly. “Not anymore.” Naruto turns and looks right at Sasuke, expression intense. “It’s not enough to follow in other people’s footsteps anymore.” he says as he sits up, leaning back on his hands. “I want to be something more than all of it, I want power enough to protect what’s precious to me from anything, even the Kages and the villages.” He casts his gaze back to the horizon. “Villages can go bad, like Kiri. They can fall, like Uzushio. I want to protect what I love from all that, my friends, my comrades,” he glances to Sasuke again, his eyes on fire. “My family. Even if I have to protect them from the village itself. So in that case I don’t really think I could ever be Hokage. I’ll always put my precious people above the village. Always.”

Sasuke’s eyes go wide. He feels like a hole has been punched somewhere in his chest, opening up a barrier that has long walled up some deep part of him. It tears awake a sudden awareness, and despite his weariness Sasuke’s perception of the world is suddenly blindingly clear. He remembers Naruto’s words from Tazuna’s house, his disregard for Sasuke’s clan legacy and his powerful regard for Sasuke himself, all that trust and faith in him as an entity separate from his clan and his legacy and his pain.

He could be anything.

Right now, with Naruto right here, rules and legacies and clan names mean nothing, are just shackles that can be broken and moved beyond, if only they can be strong enough.

Here, with Naruto at his side, Sakura as a grounding force and Kakashi as a guiding hand, not only does he feel strong enough, he feels the potential to be even stronger.

Something shatters somewhere in the back of Sasuke’s mind, echoes of a trauma now old and frail with neglect breaking apart like so much glass. The presence and pressure of Itachi’s cold hateful eyes crumbles like collapsing walls. The house of hate he’d made so long ago, now fragile from abandonment, disintegrates entirely, and for the first time since before the massacre, he feels like he can see the sky.

“Sasuke?”

Naruto is looking at him with worried cobalt eyes, entirely too close, his head tilted in that animal confusion and curiosity.

Sasuke laughs once, short and disbelieving.

What did I do to deserve this idiot?

“It’s just like you to want that, Dobe.” Sasuke says, his voice low in attempt to conceal the warmth in it. But it’s true; it’s just so like him, all of it, and so Sasuke holds tight Naruto’s belief in him, his convictions, and comes forward with a little faith of his own. He leans forward, keeping their eyes locked, and lightly touches their foreheads.

He’s not one to be outdone, after all.

“Like none before, then.” he says quietly, a promise and a challenge all wrapped up together, and Naruto’s answering smile is blinding. He leans forward even more, pressing their brows together more firmly.

“Like none before.” He swears.

<> 

When Sakura finds them, hours later, the sun has nearly set. They’re lying side-by-side, practically asleep in the last dredges of evening light, and her expression goes straight from irritated to terribly fond.

“Come on idiots.” She murmurs quietly, holding both her arms out for them take hold of, helping hand and anchor all at once. “Let's go home.”

 

 

Chapter Text

“You want to what?”

“I know you heard me Shiranui. I’m not repeating myself.” Kakashi replies, unimpressed.

Genma looks him up and down. He doesn’t look like he’s sustained significant head trauma, but with Kakashi it’s sometimes hard to tell. He is acting… jumpy though, or as jumpy as an ex-Anbu captain is capable of acting.

“But why?

Kakashi looks away tellingly. “My pack needs more space to run around in.” He hedges.

“Bullshit. You run them outside the village at least twice a day, and even if they were complaining, that’s still not enough of a reason for you to crack open this particular can of worms.” Genma pauses mid thought, reanalyzing Kakashi’s wording, and another idea slots into place, painting a clearer picture. “Unless you’re not talking about your dogs.”

The copy-nin looks distinctly uncomfortable at that, detectable even underneath the mask.

Bingo.

“You haven’t told Iruka yet, have you?” Genma guesses.

“I don’t think I could handle the ‘I told you so’ right now.” he admits.

“It’s been like, what, four months? Did they really worm their way into your life that fast?”

Kakashi raises an eyebrow. “You haven’t met them, have you?”

Genma shrugs. “I met blondie for like thirty minutes.”

“So, no.”

He waves off Kakashi’s dry response. “Still, this isn’t something I ever thought you would even consider after… well, everything.”

A slight pinch of pain creases the corner of Kakashi’s visible eye, an old tender wound that never fully healed over. “I’ve been running from that particular demon for long enough, I think.”

Genma huffs. “Well hell, Kakashi, did you honestly expect me to say no? Your clan lands are yours and always will be, so far as I’m concerned. I'll have to ask Rai where I put the damned paperwork, since I never thought I’d need it again, but after that it’s all yours.”

Genma sees relief smooth out the tension in Kakashi’s shoulders. “Thank you.” he says softly.

The Tokujo snorts. “Don’t thank me yet, I may have the land part but Iruka still has the assets. You’re gonna need to talk to him at some point.”

Kakashi laughs wryly and scratches at his masked chin with one finger. “I’m still not really sure how I’m going to start that kind of conversation.”

Genma shrugs. “My advice? Rip it off like a bandage. Waiting around will only make it worse, and you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you if you want to get that place up and running, so the sooner the better.”

The copy-nin nods. “True.”

Genma jostles the Jounin’s shoulder with his own, grinning wide around the senbon between his teeth. “Get going then! I have to go get Rai from the standby station. I’ll bring the papers by Iruka’s tonight, so go!”

“Pushy pushy.” Kakashi complains, but he complies, taking a few long strides before hopping out the third floor window of the Hokage tower with a lazy wave.

Those kids are good for him. Genma muses, and heads for the standby station.

<><><> 

“The what now?

“You heard me Kiba, I’m not gonna say it twice.”

Team seven plus one Inuzuka and one Nara sit circled in the glade, the high midday sun streaming down and warming the long grass. They’d spent most of the last day and a half sleeping on and off, piled together on the only futon. Naruto doesn’t mind so much. He’s gotten so used to sharing space with his teammates that sometimes they don’t even feel like separate people– especially early in the morning when none of them are fully awake, navigating around spaces and each other with barely open eyes. They’re still not all the way coherent– Naruto is the only one supporting his own weight, since he can generally operate the best on little to no sleep. Sakura is leaning with her whole back against Naruto’s side, and Sasuke is half asleep with his head pillowed on Naruto’s opposite knee.

“The Nine-tails, huh?” Shikamaru says contemplatively, his jaw resting in his hand. “That explains a lot, actually.”

Naruto blinks at him, tilting his head in case he heard wrong. “It doesn’t bother you?”

Shikamaru has the gall to actually look confused by the question. “Why would it bother me?”

“No one who actually knows you gives a shit, Dobe.” Sasuke growls, his eyes still closed.

“I give a shit.” Kiba counters. “How come you never told us before now? You made friends with a freaking bijuu. That’s awesome.”

Sakura laughs at that. “See? Even Kiba knows better than to judge you for something stupid like that.”

“Speaking of secrets though…” Shikamaru interrupts. “There is a reason I dragged you three out of bed.”

Taking that as the cue it is, Naruto gives Sasuke’s shoulder a gentle shake. “Hey, jerk. You’re gonna want to be awake for this.”

Sasuke’s eyes flicker open all the way, ebony gaze narrowed in confusion. “Me? Why?”

“Do you remember when I told you I went through the black ops part of the archives looking for something to help Kurama?”

Sasuke nods. “Yeah. Before Uzushio.”

“Well I found something else. Something I didn’t want to tell you about until I was sure it was accurate, in case I dug up skeletons for no reason. I asked Shika to see if he could validate it.”

Sasuke blinks the sleepy daze out of his eyes and sits up quickly. “Skeletons… my clan?”

Naruto shakes his head. “Your brother.”

To Naruto’s surprise, Sasuke only freezes at the statement for about half a second before he takes a deep breath, obviously calming himself. “What about him?”

Before Naruto can respond, Sakura leans over. “If this stuff is dirty laundry you'd rather not air in front of us, Kiba and I can go.”

Sasuke shakes his head. “Don’t be stupid. You’re team 7, and dog breath can keep a secret if he has to.”

Kiba holds up both hands. “Hey, I know all about stupid siblings, even if none of mine are homicidal. My lips are sealed.”

Shika smirks. “I figured it would end up being a bit of an open secret anyway.” He pulls the file Naruto had given him out of the pocket of his shirt, notably thicker now than it had been when Naruto had handed it over. He flicks it open with his thumb, drawing out a small folio and handing it to Sasuke. “This is the original file copy Naruto gave me. Just looking at the front sends up all kinds of black op red flags already.”

“What kind of red flags?” Sasuke asks as he reads through the folio, eyes widening as he goes to open the file.

“Its got Root literally stamped on the cover, for one. By the looks of it, this ‘operation’ was carried out just before Root’s supposed disbanding.”

“Root?”

“A specific set of Anbu squads run solely by Danzo Shimura. My dad complains about the asshole a lot.”

Kiba nods. “I’ve heard my mom talk about him, but I’ve never met the guy in person. He apparently fancies himself as some kind of ‘Shadow Hokage’ and spent a lot of time trying to run the village under Sarutobi’s nose. The old man let it slide for a while since he and Danzo were old war buddies or something, but recently the Sandaime has had a lot less tolerance for his shit. At least openly.”

“They were trying to… recruit my brother? After the massacre?” Sasuke speculates.

Shikamaru shakes his head. “It’s not very clear in there, so I dug around a little. The problem with black op and old Root operations is that there’s never any evidence of them left over. So instead of looking for what was there, I looked for what wasn’t. Daily reports with timestamps missing, patrols that never checked in, messages that went out and never came back with responses. Everything points to some kind of deep dark operation, and it corresponds with the date and time of the Uchiha massacre.”

“So what do you think happened?” Sasuke asks. “Besides the obvious mass murder?”

Naruto is a little surprised about how level headed Sasuke is being about it all, but his friend seems to be able to separate himself from the event now in a way he couldn’t before. Naruto leans closer for support anyway, just in case. Sasuke presses their shoulders together gratefully.

“I’ve gone through a lot of possibilities, and I have three that seem the most likely.” Shikamaru states, setting the folder between them. “First, there’s always the distinct chance that there was some event or circumstance that drove your brother mad– a loss or a defeat or something of the like. Second, there's also a high probability that the entire thing was… orchestrated somehow, that your brother was only a tool used to commit the atrocity.”

“You think someone planned it?” Naruto snarls. “Who could do that?”

“It’s a short list for sure, but that’s just inside the village, ruling out an outside influence. Danzo is one, but that doesn’t rule out anyone on the council. Also, it’s unlikely that anyone, even someone as skilled as your brother, could take out an entire two-line clan without some kind of help.”

“The Uchiha clan was two-lined?” Kiba asks, surprised.

Sasuke nods. “There were two main groups of descendants. I’m the kin of Izuna, who became the ruling line and the clan heads. Those of the other line were descendants of Kagami, who became the clan protectors. Itachi had a designated protector as the next clan head, like my father before him, and my grandmother before that.”

“You said three possibilities.” Naruto interjects at Shikamaru. “What was the third?”

Shikamaru takes a deep breath before he speaks. “The third and mostly likely is a combination of the two. The more I think about it, the more likely it seems to me that Itachi was… manipulated somehow. With Kiba’s help–” Shikamaru jerks a thumb in the dog-nin’s direction. “I managed to get a peek at Itachi's old personnel files.”

“Is that why you asked me to pants Ibiki over by T&I? Because I wouldn’t have complained so hard if I knew this was what it was for.” Kiba admits.

Sakura’s eyes go wide and she dissolves into snickers. “How the hell are you not dead?

“Akamaru and I are very fast when properly motivated.” The nin-dog in nestled in Kiba’s jacket yips at the sound of his name. “Some half dressed purple-haired Tokujo came by the next day with a fruit basket too.” Kiba continues. “It was all really weird.”

“Did you take the basket?”

“Of course I took the basket. I don’t have a death wish.”

Anyway,” Shikamaru says pointedly, and Kiba and Sakura both shut up. “From what I saw, Itachi was a shining example of a loyal shinobi. Not even minor marks for any kind of insubordination. He followed orders to the letter, all except for one instance.” Shikamaru pulls out a sheaf of papers that look like handwritten notes; Shika’s given the handwriting, and flips them so that they’re facing Naruto and Sasuke. He points to a section halfway down the last page. “Here, there was in incident just before the massacre where Itachi doubled back from what was supposed to be a team oriented mission. The only reason his CO could state for the sudden withdrawal was that Itachi ‘felt something was wrong.’ I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the two occurrences were so close together, and it’s possible that this is the event that triggered his spiral.”

Sasuke sits back and runs an agitated hand through his hair. “It can’t all be a coincidence. But why the hell would someone inside the village want to destroy one of its strongest clans? That doesn’t make any sense…”

~I think I have something to say about all this.~ Kurama comments from the back of Naruto’s psyche. ~Mind if I cut in?~

“Let me check.”

“Guys?” Naruto interjects Shikamaru and Sasuke’s intense conversation. “Kurama has some input on this whole thing. You mind if I let him say his piece?”

Sasuke stops short and blinks at him. “You can do that?”

Naruto nods. “Sure can.”

“Hell yeah, I say go for it.” is Kiba’s input.

“I don’t care, obviously.” Sakura states. “He’s free to talk when he likes so far as I’m concerned.”

“Of course.” Sasuke agrees.

Shikamaru nods. “I’m all ears. Anything an immortal chakra being has to say is probably worth listening to.”

Naruto nods and closes his eyes, letting Kurama push up through him.

The shade materializes in wisps of gilded red chakra, winding and folding together into a solid shape. It’s a lot smaller than the shades Kurama usually prefers, only about the size of a small dog instead of a large horse, but it also looks much more concentrated– barely even see-through.

Kurama drapes over his shoulders like a furry chakra shawl, stretching lazily like a contented cat.

~Ahh It’s good to see outside again.~ the fox rumbles, curling his tails over Naruto’s shoulder. ~Nice to meet you all in person, I suppose, even if you are humans.~

“Be nice.” Naruto chastises, giving Kurama’s mostly solid snout a scratch.

~I am being nice. These little humans are yours after all.~ Kurama rumbles.

Shikamaru blinks at the bijuu, the only sign of surprise on his face. “Somehow not what I’d expected.” He drawls.

“So you’re the Nine-tailed fox, huh?” Sasuke mutters. “I thought you’d be taller.”

Kurama puts his head in a clawed paw and stares over at him. ~Very funny Uchiha. You’re lucky you’re precious to my kit or I’d swallow whole, sharingan or no.~

“You don’t seem very capable of following through with that threat.”

“Hey.” Naruto interjects. “Let’s not get off topic here. You said you had a thought on this whole Uchiha massacre mess, right Kurama?”

The fox nods easily and turns back to Shikamaru. ~I believe the Nara is mostly correct, but you’re missing one key element.~

Shika ticks up an eyebrow at that. “And what might that be?”

~When you’ve lived as long as I have, you become adept at sniffing out all the telltale signs of human deception. And this entire Uchiha mess stinks of a conspiracy.~

“What do you mean conspiracy?” Sasuke asks.

~You have the tip of the iceberg, which by itself is...impressive I must admit.~ Shika allows himself a small smirk at that. ~But you are not looking far enough back. From what I remember through Kushina’s eyes, tension between the Uchiha clan and the rest of the village had begun to grow steadily after the end of the third shinobi war. I recall the fear being thick in both the clan and the outside village.~

“Tension? What the hell kind of tension?” Kiba asks.

“Wait, fear?” Naruto interjects. “Of the Uchiha as a whole?”

Kurama nods. ~It started with the segregation of the Uchiha to a special district, I believe.~

“Segregation?” Sasuke mutters, shaking his head. “That’s not how I heard it.”

“‘For the protection of the village’ I would guess.” Naruto theorizes. “Haku said that’s how the persecution of Kekkei Genkai started in Kiri. People were afraid of them and they were eventually hunted down and killed.”

“Haku?” Shikamaru asks.

“A missing-nin we met on our mission.” Sakura explains. “It’s a long story.”

Shikamaru tilts his head in acknowledgement and doesn’t press any further.

“My brother… he always claimed to love the village more than the clan.” Sasuke says softly. “But still that’s no reason for him to murder them all!” Sasuke’s voice rises in volume as emotion begins to leak into his voice. “An entire host of people, dozens of families!” He stops short when Naruto grips his forearm briefly, giving at a soft squeeze. Sasuke's voice lowers and he takes a deep breath. “It’s not forgivable.”

~No one is saying that it is, little firebrand.~ Kurama soothes. ~You are well within your rights to hate him for everything he’s done. But hating him gives the act power, and makes you a slave to your emotions. Do not let it rule you.~

Sasuke breathes deep again. “Don’t worry about that.” he assures. “He has no power over me. Not anymore.”

Kurama makes a pleased and contemplative rumble. ~Your kind have always felt more deeply than most humans are capable of. It is… refreshing to see an Uchiha that does not let fear or hatred rule him.~ Kurama then turns back to Naruto. ~I take back what I said, kit. He’s alright for an Uchiha.~

Sasuke scowls. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Naruto shrugs. “Kurama had a bad experience with a broken-eyed Uchiha. One of them manipulated him into attacking the village and killing my parents on the day I was born.”

“Manipulated?” Shikamaru asks. “How?”

“Under certain conditions, fully evolved sharingan are capable of controlling tailed beasts. Not indefinitely, at least not in Kurama’s case, but long enough to wreak havoc.” Naruto elaborates.

“Broken sharingan? How can a sharingan be broken?” Sasuke demands, leaning forwards to rest his elbows on his knees so he can more easily see Kurama.

~Quite easily apparently, if the entire Uchiha line is anything to go by.~ Kurama quips. ~In fact, you're the only Uchiha I know of that hasn’t screwed theirs up yet.~

“You mean since Indra.”

~I mean at all.~ the fox stresses.

“Can you two argue about this sharingan crap later? I thought we were talking about a conspiracy.” Kiba barks, obviously confused with all the dojutsu and bijuu jargon flying around.

“Kurama is trying to say that he thinks someone backed the Uchiha into a corner on purpose.” Naruto explains, stroking a soothing hand down Kurama’s chakra in an attempt to calm him back down.  

“If someone wanted a powerful clan out of the picture, it wouldn’t be difficult to stir up unrest against them, especially after the war.” Shikamaru agrees.

Sakura nods, humming thoughtfully. “The more they were persecuted, the angrier they got, and the easier it was to convince people they were a threat. Not only did someone probably orchestrate the massacre itself, but the events leading up to it.”

~This is likely correct, little genesis.~ Kurama agrees.

“There are still some things that don’t add up though.” Shikamaru interjects. “Even if unrest started inside the village, that doesn’t rule out the interference of an outside party. We also don’t know Root’s role in all of this.”

“This Danzo guy has some shit to answer for, that’s for damned sure.” Sakura growls.

Kiba shakes his head. “Unfortunately for everyone involved, the asshole is untouchable. Accusing him would actually be harder than accusing the Hokage– not only is the dude an ex-council member, but status notwithstanding he’s still so entrenched in political red tape there’s no way to get at him.”

“I knew that, but how did you?” Shika asks. “I know your mother talks to your sister about a lot of things, but not about anything classified.”

“Yeah well, she rants to Kuromaru in the yard too. Akamaru gets some of the juiciest gossip, don’t you boy?”

The ninken yips in affirmation from the depths of Kiba’s sweatshirt.

“If he did do it, and the evidence is pretty damning, we can’t just let him get away with it.” Naruto growls.

“Exactly.” Sasuke grits out. “If he’s behind all of it, then his hands are just as bloody as my brother’s, if not more.”

“And that’s if the massacre was all he was behind.” Kiba adds. “Who knows what other kinds of crap he’s pulled under Sarutobi’s nose? The village could be rotting away under our feet and we wouldn’t even know it. That is assuming the third doesn’t actually know about it. He may have covered it up to prevent a civil war or something. The other clans wouldn’t have stood for it.”

“I think we’re jumping to conclusions here.” Shikamaru interjects.

“You think he didn’t do it?” Sakura asks.

Shika shakes his head. “I didn’t say that, but I think we need more information. A lot of this is all theory, speculation. We need evidence.”

Naruto blinks, and Sasuke stills. “Shikamaru?” Sasuke asks, disbelieving. “What exactly are you saying?”

Shika sighs. “If Danzo Shimura is responsible for the massacre, this proves he’s a master of the long game. If you want to back him into a corner and prove him guilty, we’ll need to beat him on his own board, with his own pieces.”

“You’re offering to help us go after this guy?” Sasuke questions.

Shikamaru smiles, soft and wry. “Obviously. If I don’t help you, you three will run into this blind and deaf and then where will you be?”

Naruto chuckles nervously, mostly because he may or may not have been thinking just that.

“Oh hell, I’m in.” Kiba crows. “They won’t even see us coming. Who suspects a bunch of Genin, anyway?”

“We have your back.” Sakura assures, reaching over to grasp Sasuke’s shoulder.

“Are you sure we can’t just go beat the crap out of him?” Naruto asks, and Sakura elbows him in the ribs.

“Don’t be stupid.”

Sasuke looks more than a little stunned. “Wait a second– you're serious.”

~Of course they’re serious.~ Kurama rumbles, flipping a tail to swat as Sasuke’s hair in mild admonishment. ~Did you honestly think you were alone in this? I thought you smarter than that.~

<><><> 

Shikamaru has a battle plan in the works. This conspiracy with Danzo can cause nothing but long-term trouble for Konoha, and he has a lot to protect here. The plan has stages– the first of which involves a lot of waiting and watching. There isn’t a lot the five of them can do as they are right now, but while they wait, Shikamaru can set a strong foundation and contemplate the thousands of moves and angles in the meantime.

They migrate back to Naruto’s apartment for a long overdue lunch. Shikamaru takes a needed nap while food is made, which is helpful for further mapping out moves, counter-moves, and contingency plans.

Sakura wakes him up gently to press a bowl of curry into his hands, a familiar and calming food nowadays. Naruto and Sakura had no doubt made it with Sasuke in mind.

Shikamaru rolls his shoulders and takes a pair of chopsticks from her gratefully.

“Extra helping.” Sakura says warmly. “Choji says you need it when you’ve been thinking too much.”

“Thank you.”

She hops up next to him on Naruto’s bed while he eats, watching Sasuke play tug-of-war with Akamaru while Naruto goes through some of his Uzushio scrolls. They seemed to have opted to let him sleep instead of waking him as soon as the food was done, which Shikamaru appreciates more than he can say. All the talking and organizing and strategizing had taken more out of him than he thought.

“Did you know there was a time when you couldn’t even mention Itachi or the Uchiha clan to Sasuke without him getting defensive and angry?” Sakura says, her spring-water eyes soft as she tucks her chin against her knees. Shikamaru doesn’t answer; Sakura doesn’t seem to be expecting him to. “Did you know that Naruto used to flinch every time someone touched him,” she continues. “Even on accident?”

Shikamaru does know these things, has seen the evidence of Sakura’s words in thousands of interactions and small gestures. He is adept at seeing all the little things his friends do to hide their pain, and all the little things that give that pain away.

“You know I do.” He says eventually, and takes another bite of his curry. Odd, how the flavors never seem to be the same. There is no recipe for team 7’s curry, no guidelines and no measured rules, but it somehow always manages to taste fantastic.

“They’re good for each other.” Sakura says, almost sadly.

“You’re as good for them as they are for each other.” Shikamaru counters, wiping a bit of sauce off his lip with his thumb. “When they go too far outside themselves, it’s you they trust to draw them back to earth again.”

Sakura laughs like it’s been startled out of her, a flush drawing across her cheeks at the compliment. “You really do know just what to say to people, don’t you Shika?”

“Not everyone.” Shikamaru denies. “Just people I don’t care to lose.”

Sakura beams and slings an arm around his shoulders, jostling his chopsticks. “You’re such a good friend it’s scary, you know that? Be it chakra demons or crazy conspiracies, nothing scares you off, does it?”

“Please don’t let that get around.” Shikamaru grumbles.

She laughs again, bright and carefree. “Kiba’s the same way, but for him it’s all instinct– protecting the pack and all that. The blind loyalty is something else, but you? You know everything that’s going on, every catch and hardship, and still here you are.” She leans in, rests her head on his shoulder. “Don't ever let anybody take you for granted, okay?”

A soft ache blooms somewhere under Shikamaru's ribs, and he swallows hard. “Okay.”

She pulls him close in a one armed hug, a little too tight to be comfortable, but Shikamaru finds he doesn’t mind. “Good,” she chirps.

“Speaking of being taken advantage of,” Shikamaru digresses, suddenly eager to change the subject. “Naruto mentioned in passing that you had a fight with your parents? What was it about, if you don’t mind my asking?"

“Oh, that.” Sakura says darkly, pulling back a little. “It’s okay, it’s not like it a secret or anything. My parents are civilians right? When they entered me into the academy, they did it because I had shown chakra talent and that was village policy. I don’t really think they ever expected me to want to be a ninja the way I do now. We’d been arguing about it for a while before it actually blew up– my dad wants me to quit being a ninja and do something ‘safe’ and ‘suitable’ for a living.” She spits the two words out like they leave a bad taste in her mouth, her face twisting with frustration and disgust. “It really only got heated when they found out I was going on my first C-rank mission. They tried to stop me from going, we argued, and I stormed out. When my dad tried to stop me from leaving, I almost accidentally broke his wrist.” She flexes her hand, as if remembering the moment. “The thing that sucks is that I know they care, but they think they know what’s best for me and they are so wrong. I love this life, I love being part of a team, I love being a ninja, and no matter how much they wish differently, I won’t give it up. Not even for them.”

“A wise choice, in my opinion.” Shikamaru murmurs. “Parents should help lift you up, not hold you back. And if they do love you, they’ll come around in the end.”

“I hope so.” Sakura muses. “They’re still my parents, even if they can be idiots.” she jostles him playfully in the side. “Thanks for letting me rant. Sometimes it helps to talk to someone I’m not already attached to at the hip.”

“OH CRAP.”

They both jolt when Naruto’s voice interjects loudly from the other end of the room as the Uzumaki tears into his pack of scrolls. Akamaru yips and dives under Kiba’s knee and the dog-nin rubs at his ears. “Geez, dude, warn somebody.” he grumbles.

“I forgot about the summoning scrolls!” Naruto exclaims as he digs through the pile of brown library scrolls stacked by the window.

“What summoning scrolls?” Sasuke demands.

“The Tsubasa clan Treasure jutsu!” Naruto explains. “Gotcha!” he shouts as he pulls out one of his black scrolls, the one lined in platinum. He sets it in his lap, flicking open the clasps and unrolling it. “I remembered them when we were talking with Uhei about summons and contracts. Kurama promised to teach us about them when we got back, but it completely slipped my mind.” Naruto runs a finger along the intricate silver patterns of the seals, obviously searching for one in particular. He stops when he comes across a seal marked with a curled feather. “Here it is.”

“Wait, I thought everything in that scroll was kinjutsu.” Kiba reminds him.

“Some of it is yeah.” Naruto agrees. “But the Tsubasa clan’s Treasure Jutsu has two sets of summoning scrolls. I think only one set is actually forbidden.” Naruto places a hand on the seal, and after a moment of concentration and a hum of chakra, he pulls from its depths a glittering decorative scroll as long as the Uzumaki’s torso from hip to shoulder. “Make some room, will you?” he asks. “I’ve got eleven more of these.”

 

Chapter Text

True to word, Naruto produces eleven more long and ornate scrolls from the depths of the Tsubasa clan treasure seal. The Nine-tails, or Kurama, Shikamaru recalls, materializes again as he sets the last one down across the floor, stretching into existence out of Naruto’s body in a swirl of chakra. This shade is larger, about the size of Kuromaru, and he tucks in a crescent around Naruto, resting his vulpine head on the Uzumaki’s thigh.

“That’s still so cool.” Kiba comments. “It’s gonna take me a bit to get used to the fact that there’s an actual god-demon thing that lives in your chest and sasses you regularly.”

“It’s like having an angry, overprotective, built-in parent.” Sasuke muses.

~I’ll show you angry you little twerp.~ Kurama snarls, and actually seems to grow in size for about half a second before Naruto smooths a hand down the shade’s back, much like he did in the glade, and the bijuu’s hackles drop visibly.  

It is, quite frankly, incredible to watch. The Nine-tailed fox, arguably the most dangerous and wrathful being ever to walk the earth, ceding to the wishes and influence of a twelve-year-old Konoha Genin with a too bright smile and his heart in his eyes.

“You’re doing that on purpose, jerk.” Naruto accuses, calling out Sasuke’s poorly hidden smirk.

“Maybe.” the Uchiha admits.

“They’re all so pretty. They don’t look much like Kakashi-sensei’s pack scroll, that’s for sure.” Sakura comments as she peers down at the line of colorful scrolls. Each one is decorated in different arrays of colours and patterns, some cast in vibrant jewel tones and rimmed with gold or silver, some rendered in more subdued hues and trimmed tastefully in black or grey. One particular scroll catches Shikamaru’s eye, a scroll decorated with dark leafy patterns like the forest at night, ringed with metallic grey and edged with gold filigree.

“They don’t have seams.” Sasuke notices, reaching for the scroll closest to him and turning it back and forth. He’s right; Shikamaru can’t see a place on any of the scrolls where they can be opened.

~That’s because they’re locked shut.~ Kurama explains, reaching forward to trail a chakra claw over the metallic rings on either end of the scroll in Sasuke’s hands. ~These are sage animal scrolls, locked with live-linked blood seals.~

“What the hell is the supposed to mean?” Kiba asks.

Naruto rubs the back of his head. “How to explain it… they check for resonance, I guess, is the best way to put it. It analyzes blood and chakra composition, and if you’re ‘suited’ to the summons the scroll is linked to, the lock pops open and allows you an initial contract summon.” Naruto sounds oddly like he’s quoting parts of his response from somewhere, like he’s reading from an imaginary book.

“So the scrolls may or may not open depending on if we’re compatible or not.” Sasuke clarifies.

~Exactly.~ Kurama affirms. ~But be warned, bonding with sage summons is not something to be taken lightly. They can be finicky, proud, and they will not necessarily obey you immediately. Whereas normal summons are contracted to be loyal to their summoner, a sage contract only guarantees that you can call the beasts, not that you can control them. To command larger or more powerful summons, you need to earn their respect first, and that is not always an easy task.~

Kiba huffs, grinning. “Well what the hell is worth having that isn’t hard to get? I don’t think I’d have it any other way, to be honest.”

“How do we start?” Sakura asks, shifting with energy and leaning forward precariously over the edge of her bed. Shikamaru resists the urge to anchor her shoulder with an arm like he would with Ino. “I’m so excited! I hope one picks me.”

Kurama laughs. ~I don’t think that will be a problem, little Genesis. If anything, you should be worried about having to choose.~

“Do we need to take this outside though, that’s the question.” Naruto says. “Is summoning gonna break my apartment?”

~Doubtful.~ Kurama assures. ~Initial contracting summons are usually pretty small and force you to work your way up. Best go one at a time though, just in case.~

“Naruto should go first.” Shikamaru states. “They are his scrolls after all.”

Naruto shrugs and starts to reach for a scroll, but Kurama stops his hand with a nudge of his snout. ~Actually kit, I has something else in mind for you. Let the little Uchiha go first; he’s had a bit of a hard day.~

Sasuke glares at the bijuu, but scans the line up of scrolls with a considering eye. ~Pick a few that appeal to you, and we’ll go from there.~ Kurama suggests when he doesn’t immediately make a decision.

Finally, he selects first a dark blue scroll decorated with patterns resembling feathers and trimmed with bright silver. Then almost as an afterthought, he also picks up a scroll with a winding pattern of indigo and aquamarine, bracketed in black.  

Shikamaru can see the reservoir for the blood seal now that he cares to look, a subtle thumb-shaped indent on the upper ring of the scrolls. Sasuke brings his thumb to his mouth and bites down, letting blood well up along the digit before pressing it into the groove of the second scroll.

After a long moment there’s a soft hum of chakra, like the scroll itself is contemplating the offering, before it lets out a set of ringing chimes like small bells or wind chimes. Nothing else happens.

Kurama stretches over and gives the scroll an exploratory sniff. ~Hmm. That’s a no, if a reluctant one. Pass this one to the Genesis, I’d like to test a theory.~

Sasuke looks mildly disappointed but passes the shimmering blue spiral scroll to Kiba, who in turn passes it to Sakura. The kunoichi takes it happily. “I was actually going to pick this one when it was my turn,” she marvels, turning the beautiful scroll back and forth to observe it from all angles. “It looks like an ocean, don’t you think?”

Sasuke actually looks a little concerned at that. “If you wanted it, you should have said. I only grabbed it out of curiosity.”

Sakura waves him off. “We’ll it worked out, didn’t it? Now check the other one!”

Sasuke shrugs, and places his still bloody thumb into the reservoir of his first choice. Again, the scroll begins to hum, but this time it only takes half as long for the scroll to emit a sound. It’s low like someone’s pulled the longest string on a harp, and with a snap the rings on the outer edge of the scroll flick open, pulling up the outer seam of the scroll with them so that it can be unraveled. Sasuke unrolls it, revealing a painted mural-like interior depicting several species of birds of prey. In the center is a blank space, left white and unblemished.

“Whoa.” Naruto murmurs. “Raptors, huh?” he muses as he looks over the colorful renderings of hawks and falcons and eagles. “That actually really suits you.”

Unless he’s seeing things, Sasuke actually goes a little red at that, something that Shikamaru doesn’t ever recall him having done before.

“What now?” Sasuke asks Kurama, after clearing his throat.

~Dip each finger in blood and fingerprint the blank space, then sketch the kanji for your name above it. The scroll should perform the initial summon for you, and after that you should be able to summon at will with the proper hand sign sequence.~

Sasuke does as instructed and everyone in the room watches intently as he touches each finger to his bleeding thumb and then presses his fingertips to the scroll’s open space. He then uses the inside edge of his thumbnail to write the kanji for Uchiha Sasuke above it.

The paper absorbs the imprint as if drinking in the blood, and as the red disappears the blank space floods black. With a crack reminiscent of a firecracker going off, the air in front of Sasuke floods with a cloud of glittering sand-like smoke. A rush of wind and the sound of beating wings follows, tips of a creature's feathers just visible through the cloud before another wingbeat sends the veil scattering like dust as the summon alights on the scroll.

It’s a sleek bird about the size of a falcon, mostly white with golden brown accents and a sharp hooked beak. It looks like a normal enough at first, even if its plumage does seem a little reflective, but when it tips its head to the side, the light catches on a round pale blue gemstone set into its forehead, and when the creature hops a bit to shake out its primaries, a second set of wings becomes visible tucked beneath the first.

The raptor peers at Sasuke curiously, readily ignoring the rest of the room in favor of its summoner. Its eyes are keen and golden and ringed with soft black markings, making them shine even brighter in the soft light of the room. “Greetings.” The creature says politely. “I am Kikri, of the Roc.”

The Roc? Like the mythical bird kings? I didn’t think those actually existed.

Shikamaru resists the urge to say so out loud, not wanting to disturb what is likely a critical moment between summons and summoner.

“Uchiha Sasuke.” The ninja replies, a little bemused, but he inclines his head in greeting anyway. The summons seems to appreciate the gesture greatly, the subtle show of respect, and bows back, fanning it’s four wings behind it.

“Pleasure to meet you Sasuke-sama.” The Roc says genuinely, rocking forwards to hop up onto Sasuke’s knee, eyeing his shoulder almost hopefully. It seems reluctant to try and take flight in such a confined space, but unhappy so close to the ground. Seeming to sense this, Sasuke offers Kikri an arm. The raptor steps carefully onto his forearm, mindful of its sharp claws on the Uchiha’s unprotected skin, and hops to his shoulder when Sasuke raises his arm. The bird nestles comfortably there, tucking its head beneath its first set of wings to preen a few secondary feathers on the second. The wings are staggered slightly, the second set positioned slightly more ventrally than the larger first set, which is a bit farther back towards the spine than it would be on a normal bird. It means the creature can likely beat both sets of wings entirely independently, making it far more fast and agile than any regular bird.  

“Do you have any questions, Sasuke-sama?” Kikri asks eagerly, tilting it head expectantly.

Sasuke contemplates this for a second. “If you would tell me about yourself and your kind, I would appreciate anything you can share.”

The polite, somewhat formal tone Sasuke is using seems to be scoring him some serious points with the creature, and Kikri flutters excitedly. “Of course, of course. I am Kikri of the Roc, as I said. I am three years old, nearly four, and will be fully mature when I am twelve. I am a female Gildedwing, one of three clans of the Roc, Council of Wings messenger second class, first hatching of my clutch.” The summons puffs her chest up proudly at that last part. “We Roc are the Lords of the Sky, Queens and Kings of all predatory birds. We have three Elders, the representatives of each clan, the largest and oldest of their kind. We are not clan restrictive in our summoning, you may call from any of the three.”

Are all the summons in these scrolls of a similar level? Shikamaru wonders. Because it’s no small advantage to have creature like those aid you in a fight.

As Kikri finishes her description of herself and her kind, she looks up at Sasuke hopefully, hopping a little closer on Sasuke’s shoulder. “Would you be so kind as to tell me about yourself, Sasuke-sama? It has been a rather long time since the Roc have had a contractor. I admit to being quite curious.”

Sasuke blinks, surprised. “I suppose that’s fair.” He admits.

While Sasuke talks lowly with his new summons, Sakura nudges Shikamaru in the side.

“Come on Shika, your turn.” Sakura chirps, still holding her scroll with both hands. “I think I want to save mine for last.”

Shikamaru nods in acceptance and bends over, reaching for the scroll that had caught his eye earlier. He expects the metal and lacquer to be cold in his hands, but it’s actually quite the opposite, warming his palms with some kind of inner heat from tips of his fingers to the middle of his arm. He slips to the floor so he can set the scroll on a flat surface, and Kiba swaps spots with him to make room, nestling next to Sakura with Akamaru in his arms. Sakura gives the ninken’s chin a scratch, and he flops over into her lap for a belly rub.

Shikamaru bites into his thumb and presses a bloody print into the receptacle. It reacts the same way Sasuke’s second attempt had, with a few seconds of chakric humming and then a low sound of approval as the locking rings snap open. He bloodies his fingertips as he unrolls the scroll, and realizes as he gazes at the painting within why this particular scroll had drawn him in.

The design that surrounds the blank contracting space bears in eerie similarity to the paintings on the fusuma panels all throughout the Nara main house, traditional depictions of forest trees and running stags. Only the deer depicted in this painting appear to be trailing wisps of light and fog like phantoms.

He fingerprints the summoning space and sketches the kanji for his name above the marks, watching as the space floods back.

The sound that accompanies the summoning is haunting, like a long draw on a single string of a violin, which precedes a burst of silvery mist that swirls across the space before him. As it dissipates it reveals a young fawn, a little bigger than the ones Shikamaru has tended to in the forests, lying across the scroll with its legs tucked beneath it. It’s a male judging by the horns that are just beginning to sprout behind it’s wide expressive ears– assuming that the does of this species of summons do not also possess horns. The fawn’s fur is weapon-metal grey and speckled with glowing white spots that flicker all along the length of its back. The wisps of grey and white smoke that trail off its fur seem to be permanent and give the creature a blurred, ghostlike appearance.

The fawn blinks it’s entirely pale and eerie white eyes at him, ears flicking curiously, and without a word begins to stand. It’s legs are still a little unsteady if the way it wobbles on the way up is any indication, and once the creature is on it’s feet it practically falls into his lap, gangly legs everywhere, its head on Shikamaru’s knee. As it falls the wisps coming off of it’s fur flare upwards, tickling Shikamaru’s arms even though his shirt.

“Hello.” the creature says blithely, like it hadn’t just tripped on top of him. “I am Veylan.”

“Shikamaru,” he introduces dryly.

“I’ve always wanted to meet a Nara,” it comments easily, and Shikamaru feels his eyebrows touch his hairline.

“You know my clan?”

The fawn lifts its shoulder blades in the deer equivalent of a shrug. “Kind of. Our last contractor was a Nara, though that was a really long time ago.” With a twist of a long neck Veylan turns to look at Shikamaru properly. “I am a Wraith Hart, in case you were wondering. Our kind are pretty capable. We can manipulate chakra into both elemental forms and illusions, we are very fast, and we can even run on water,” the fawn informs him. “Oh, and my horns will be sharp when they grow in all the way,” Veylan tells him, like that’s the most important part.

Shikamaru can’t help but laugh a little, leaning down to rub the spot between the budding horns like he would do for the adolescent bucks of his clan’s herd.

The touch of the fawn’s fur on his bare skin tingles a little, but Veylan gives a pleased hum at the attention, setting his head back down on Shikamaru’s knee. “I am hungry,” the fawn announces after a moment. “Do you have any flowers?”

“Ugh…” Shikamaru hedges, looking over towards Naruto.

The Uzumaki shrugs. “We have kale in the fridge?”

Vaylan hums thoughtfully. “I have never had that before. Is that a kind of grass?”

“It’s a long leafy vegetable.” Shikamaru explains.

“That sounds filling,” the fawn says agreeably. “Yes please.”

“I got it.” Kiba volunteers, hopping up off the bed and darting into the kitchen, coming back with a bag of dark green leaves for Vaylan to munch on. The summons nibbles experimentally, and then begins to methodically devour the entire bag.

“My turn then!” Kiba yips

Sasuke stands to switch places with him, taking his refurled summoning scroll with him, moving careful to avoid jostling the summons still perched on his shoulder. Naruto seems reluctant to move, though as entrenched by Kurama’s shade as he is Shikamaru doesn’t blame him.

“You pick one, Akamaru,” Kiba tells his ninken, and the pup barks in affirmation, leaping out of his arms to sniff his way along the remaining nine scrolls. He stops at several, giving each one a long thorough inspection, until he reaches a black scroll speckled and spattered with dark reds and golds, trimmed in ivory white. Akamaru barks and grabs the end of the scroll with his teeth, dragging the heavy thing towards his ninja partner. “Good pick, bud! I like that one too,” Kiba chuckles, reaching forward to relieve his friend of the heavy burden.

The scroll opens for Kiba immediately, and Shikamaru wonders if maybe the scrolls themselves have a specific draw towards certain types of ninja, because so far all of their first picks have been compatible.

The painting on the inside of Kiba’s scroll depicts several dark furred canines running across a dry plain with a scattering of tall trees, chasing some kind of invisible prey. After he prints his fingers and  sketches his name, the summon tumbles into existence with a pop of red smoke and a sound like crashing symbols, rolling head-over-hindquarters right into Kiba’s chest with a smack.

Akamaru barks indignantly when the dark mass of fur almost lands on top of him, leaping up into Kiba’s jacket to avoid any further collision.

“Sorry, sorry!” the summons yelps wriggling around to right itself in Kiba’s lap. “I didn’t mean it or anything, I wasn’t watching where I was going!”

The creature closely resembles a wolf or a coyote, with short soft-looking black fur spattered with dark red and golden-tan patches. “Hi!” The cub says excitedly, tucking in a hyper circle in Kiba’s lap. “I’m Shasa!”

“Whoa.” Kiba marvels, reaching down to stroke the pup’s ears. “I’m Kiba. Your fur is really cool.”

The summons preens. “Thanks! I’m a Blood Jackal, so I can charge it with electricity or even set it on fire if I want. It’s also chrakraproof!”

“Super cool.” Kiba agrees.

Akamaru barks, and he must be asking some sort of question because the summons responds.

“Well, I can see even in pitch back, and I’m pretty fast and agile too. My sisters are bigger than me, so they’re better at one on one combat than my brothers and I. My mama is the biggest. She’s really scary.”

“Moms are pretty scary.” Kiba affirms with a laugh. “Good to meet you Shasa.”

<><><> 

When Sakura’s scroll pops easily open, she honest to god giggles. She’s been watching the boys go through their scrolls with ill concealed envy, each one unveiling a sage creature with unique abilities and personalities that becomes more apparent as the apartment fills with more of them.

Kikri is now fluttering around the small room inquisitively, apparently confused as to how Sasuke can live in a space so small, and indignant that her summoner doesn’t live in some kind of palace. Shasa is playing with Akamaru in the small amount of space available in the main room, having a three-way conversation with both Kiba and his ninken. Vaylan seems a little bit wary of all the predators in the room, and hasn’t left Shikamaru’s lap.

They’ve all been practically perfect for their summoners so far, Shikamaru even got his literal clan animal, and Sakura can’t help but wonder what kind of creature has chosen her.

A sting of pain as she bites into her thumb, the rolling wetness of blood as she sketches her name and fingerprints the space beneath, and she finds out.

With a burst of mist-like steam the room is filled with the smell of tropical rain and sea salt, misting Sakura’s face with tiny dewdrops of water as the cloud parts. Wound in the center of the scroll is a small shining serpent, long and lithe, scales shining like hundreds of glittering sapphires. It’s sleek rounded head rises up above it’s coils, large emerald eyes peering at Sakura curiously; eyes that match the frills of feathers that adorn either side of the serpent's neck. The feathers don’t stop there– about a third of the way down the summons’s body is a set of furled emerald wings, it’s feathers as bright and reflective as it’s scales.

~Ah, that explains it.~ Kurama rumbles across from her as the summons continues to examine her unblinkingly through its slitted gem-like eyes. ~The Zotl are matriarchal vassalistic. They will only respond to female summoners.~

“Hello.” The serpent murmurs softly, in a voice that sounds like water moving over rapids. “You are my mistress?”

Sakura smiles. “I’m Haruno Sakura. Pleased to meet you.”

The serpent ducks its head and fans out its sparkling wings in a bow. “I am Ravia, of the Ocean tribe of the Zotl.” it says quietly, again lifting its head and flutters its wings a little, swaying forward a little as if to touch her arm. “May I?”

“Oh, sure.” Sakura says, lifting her arm in invitation. Ravia tucks their wings and slides up Sakura’s arm, the creature’s smooth scales surprisingly warm against her skin. The summon slithers over her shoulder and then winds a little ways down her other arm, and Sakura feels a soft and subtle tone of chakra buzz against the creature’s scales.

Ravia hums, forked tongue flitting in and out. “You are very strong, Mistress Sakura. Is it a clan trait?”

Sakura shakes her head, surprised the summons would think that. “No, my parents are civilians.”

The summons blinks, eyes going even wider and more curious than before. “You mean to say that you are a Genesis? The first of charka talent in your line?”

“Mhm.” She hums. “My parents are plain old civilian merchants, and I don’t have any siblings unless you count those that aren’t blood related.”

“All the more impressive.” Ravia states. “I am honored to be your summons, mistress.”

Sakura’s chest swells with pride. “Well I’m honored to have you.” She responds. “Can you tell me about yourself Ravia?”

“Of course.” The snake trills, feathers fanning on either side of its head. “I am male, one of two main tribes of the Zotl. Though there are a few other tribes that do exist within your summoning range, the Ocean and Mountain tribes contain the bulk of our kind. As a Zotl of the Ocean Tribe, my specialty is in my venom and my chakra augmentation. I am admittedly young for a summons, but I expect to grow a great deal under your care.”

Sakura preens, rubbing the back of her fingers down Ravia’s scales. “That’s sweet of you to say.”

The creature hums, indulging in her body warmth, and fans his wings across her shoulders. “May I stay a while?” he asks. “Your thermal energy is pleasant.”

Sakura laughs. “Stay as long as you like.”

Kiba snickers from the other side of Shikamaru. “This is becoming quite the party isn’t it? Hey Naruto, do we need to keep these guys on the DL for a while? My mom might ask where I got summons more awesome than my sister’s pack.”

Naruto turns from where he’s letting Sasuke’s summons eat some raw flank steak out of his hand. He shakes his head. “Nah. Kakashi-sensei will have told Jiji what he could about me going to Uzushio already, so you don’t have to worry about keeping the secret anymore.”

“I doubt he told him everything.” Sasuke counters. “But probably enough that telling your parents about a few summoning scrolls shouldn’t raise any red flags.”

“That’s good.” Shikamaru murmurs, rubbing the backs of his knuckles over the space between Vaylan’s small horns. “It would be pretty hard to keep something like this from my father.”

“Kakashi-sensei is a little overprotective.” Sakura says in response to Sasuke’s statement. She doesn’t say ‘of us’ or ‘of Naruto especially,’ because Sasuke knows that already, even if Naruto himself probably doesn’t. Kakashi-sensei is loyal to the village, of course, but he’s also not above fibbing to the Hokage to keep Naruto from getting into trouble. Sakura is sure of that.

~Alright Kit.~ Kurama yawns with no pretense. ~You’re up on the summoning front.~

Naruto grins his sunbeam grin and leans back, planted his palms behind Kurama's chakra flank to that the bijuu’s shade is tucked between his back and his arms. “Okay then, you old grump, what did you have in mind?”

Kurama snorts haughtily. ~As my jinchuuriki, it’s only right that you get my summons, obviously.~

You, have summons?” Naruto asks, bewildered.

~In a sense. Are you aware that the each of the tailed beasts were created in the image of the nine strongest Youkai?~

“Youkai? You mean like spirits?” Shikamaru asks.

~Spirits. Demons. It’s all semantics really, but yes.~ Kurama agrees, dipping his head in Shikamaru’s direction in acknowledgement. ~We were made to represent the greatest of the old spirits; the Tanuki, Nekomata, Kappa, Saru, Irukauma, Namekuji, Kabutomushi, Ushioni, and Kitsune respectively.~

Naruto ticks off his fingers one by one as he recites them. “So, Shukaku the raccoon dog, Matatabi the magic cat, Isobu the turtle spirit, Son Goku the monkey king, Kokuo the water horse, Saiken the sacred slug, Chomei the armored insect, Gyuuki the bull demon, and you the spirit fox. Are you saying these spirits are linked to you guys somehow?”

~We are highly respected by our own kind, even seen as gods I would guess. I am unsure if that regard holds though, since I have not had much contact with the outside world in the last century. I can still, however, create a contract between you and the Kitsune, as could any bijuu with their respective spirits.~

“So you want my summons to be spirit foxes?” Naruto clarifies.

Kurama nods, tucking his head closer to Naruto’s stomach. It’s an oddly sedate motion, soft and just the tiniest bit vulnerable, and it sort of… hits Sakura right then, the gravity of it all.

When Naruto had told her he’d made friends with a giant angry chakra demon that had once almost destroyed the entire village, the first thing she’d thought was well, that's a very Naruto thing to do.

But it’s more than that, so much more, it has to be. Because the way history talks about the Nine-tailed Fox is like a scary story you tell kids to keep them from being bad, like the whole ‘don’t play outside after dark or the fox will get you’ kind of deal. Except this story terrifies grown and battle hardened ninja instead of children, a cautionary tale even Kage take to heart. The tailed beasts can destroy whole villages, the stories would say. They can burn countries to the ground, tear apart everything you know, and the Kyuubi no Kitsune is the worst of them all.

But it’s almost impossible to equate that hateful creature, that monster she’s only ever heard about in stories, to this docile being, lying here across Naruto’s lap, that so obviously cares about Naruto that it’s almost painful to watch.

But then she remembers.

She remembers how Sasuke slowly started disappearing after class and would come back the next mornings with actual life in his eyes instead of that dead, concentrated stare. Remembers how he stopped hunching his shoulders and seemed less and less pale, how he stopped snapping at the people around him when they tried to talk with him. And she remembers when she’d confronted Naruto about it, how Naruto’s first and most powerful reaction was to jump to Sasuke’s defense even though Sasuke had never acknowledged him before that.

She also remembers how he’d made space for her over time, in his home and in his heart, leaving the door unlocked when he knew she’d be over, making extra portions of dinner for her when it was his turn to cook until Sasuke started doing the same. She remembers how the both of them had carved a space between them for her when she’d fled her house, angry and hurting, and gone to the only other place in the world she’d ever felt safe. She remembers most of all the quiet but powerful acceptance, the creamy coffee he’d left at her elbow and the arm he’d pulled around her side and squeezed when she’d sat down between them.

When she remembers that, the idea that Naruto had managed to gain the friendship and acceptance and adoration of a creature that was supposed to be made of anger and hate, well.

That doesn’t seem so strange to her at all.

~I would feel better if you had my own kind at your back.~ Kurama admits. ~Kitsune are stubborn and proud and sometimes obstinate, but once you’ve won their allegiance it’s yours for life.~

Even Sakura can sense the double meaning in Kurama’s words, as light as he’s trying to make them sound, and by the look on Naruto’s face he understands as well.

He grins, soft genuine, and it creases his eyes. “Wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Kurama grins back, fangs just barely visible, eyes soft like he expected that answer, like he keeps testing a theory and it keeps proving correct. ~Alright kit. Youkai aren’t like sage animals, once you summon a spirit, they are bound to you and your chakra. From that point on they will grow as you do, and the stronger you get the more spirits you will be able to summon. Got it?~

“Got it.” Naruto affirms. “What do I need to do?”

~Blood your fingers like you would to sign a regular contract, and I’ll do the rest. Any flat surface will do for the summoning, and you won’t need to sign your name.~

Naruto does as told, biting into his thumb and coating each finger with blood. Kurama closes his eyes and seems to be concentrating, his chakra rippling strangely, and then he opens his eyes again.

~Alright kit, when you’re ready.~

Naruto pushes some of the scrolls in front of him out of the way, exposing a decent sized chunk of the floor, and presses his hand to the surface.

Spidery lines of runes and symbols rush out from the space in a spiral, curling to touch in a perfect circle before erupting into the air in a cloud of glittering black smoke and a rush of heat.

Suddenly the room is filled with the sound of snarling and screeching, and out of the smoke roll two fighting balls of fur, one dark blue and the other solid black, tumbling over each other in a blur of raised hackles and ivory teeth. Shasa leaps into Kiba’s lap next to Akamaru to avoid the conflict, and Ravia look up with his feathered ruff raised to observe the proceedings with interest.

The growling blurs of fluff are startled out of their fight when Kikri caws indignantly after they almost ram into Sasuke’s shins, and the single furry mass separates to become two separate creatures. The foxes are still snarling at each other, hackles raised and teeth bared viciously. One is dark evening blue like the sky at sunset, it’s feet socked in dark grey and the ends of its fur tipped in metallic silver. The other is solid inky black but for a diamond of vivid indigo right in the middle of its forehead.

“Take it back Kuran.” The blue one snarls, fur bristled to such a point that the metallic ends of the little fox’s fur look like hundreds of tiny senbon.

“Make me, princeling.” The black one growls back, and the little blue ball of fury looks ready to do just that when Kurama stands fluidly behind the little fox, leans down, and snatches the kit up by its scruff.

~That’s enough of that.~ He declares around his mouthful.

“Put me down, put me down!” The fox screeches, its twin tails thrashing angrily side to side as it claws at the air. The black one stiffens, eyes going wide as they fasten on Kurama.

“Renge!” The black fox snaps. “You need to calm down!”

Don’t tell me to calm down!” The little thing shrieks, but then seems to notice the look on his companion’s face when Kurama clears his throat pointedly. The blue fox freezes, and Sakura has to put her hand to her mouth to stifle a giggle. The fox turns to look at its captor, and Sakura can’t imagine the creature gets a view much wider than the Kyuubi’s white fangs and sharp eyes. Kurama raises an eyebrow.

~You sure have a lot of energy, considering you’re not even old enough to spit foxfire.~

The fox chuckles nervously. “Sorry?” he says uncertainly, baring his tiny needlelike white teeth in something that could be a smile but is probably something closer to a grimace.

~Can you be calm now?~ Kurama asks dryly. ~Or are you two going to go at each other’s throats again when I set you down?~

“Yes sir. I-I mean, no sir. We won’t fight, sir.” The kit babbles, and Kurama sets him down slowly.

The fox scrambles away as soon as he’s free, scampering over to sit next to his dark-furred companion. True to his word, the kit doesn’t attempt to start another fight.

~Hm.~ Kurama rumbles, striding back over to curl himself around Naruto once more. Said Uzumaki is laughing, and only now do the two foxes seem to notice the humans in the room, sitting in a circle around them.

~I didn’t honestly expect you to summon two at once, but I have a feeling this involves extenuating circumstances.~ Kurama drawls to Naruto and then turns to address the two foxes again. ~Do you know who I am, and why you are here?~  he asks.

“You’re Kurama of the bijuu.” the blue one says immediately. “You’re the Nine-Tailed Fox.

~That answers the first part of my question. Now can you answer the second?~

“We’ve been summoned.” the black one answers. “But not by you?” he looks up at Naruto, glancing back and forth between him and Kurama’s shade.

Naruto laughs, planting an elbow on the knee Kurama’s head isn’t occupying and setting his cheek in his hand. “They don’t miss much, do they.” Naruto chuckles, not unkindly.

“I don’t understand.” The black fox says, shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot, tails curling around lean legs. “Where are we? What’s with the humans?”

~This is my human.~ Kurama declares, nudging Naruto’s chest with his head in indication, as if the way he’s draped protectively around the Uzumaki wasn’t indication enough. ~He summoned you through me.~

“If you’re the real Nine-Tailed Fox, why are you the size of a four-tails?” The black one asks, and the blue one whirls on him, growling.

“Don’t you know anything? Kurama-sama was sealed away a whole century ago. All the tailed beasts were!”

The black fox bares his teeth. “Not all of us have fancy lessons all day, princeling. Some of us actually have to hunt for our food instead of having it brought up on a silver tray.” The kit then gets up and walks over towards Naruto, eyeing him quizzically. The blue fox stares after him like he’s crazy, skirting over towards Kurama’s shade and as far away from the humans in the room as possible.

The black fox doesn’t seem to share the blue one’s fear though, because he puts his paws right up on Naruto’s shins. The two spirit creatures are only about the size of a loaf of bread, and the only difference Sakura can see between them and actual foxes are the multiple tails and the slightly ethereal quality of their fur.

“I am Kuran-kha.” the black kit informs Naruto. “If you are Kurama-sama’s human, does that mean you’re a jinchuuriki?”

“Mhm.” Naruto affirms. “Since I was born. I’m Naruto, Naruto Uzumaki.”

“What are you doing, Kuran? He could be dangerous!” The blue fox hisses, earning him a wry look from Kurama.

The black fox rolls his eyes. “Ignore him.” He tells Naruto. “He’s never been outside the Sacred Forest so he’s never seen a human before.”

“Oh what, and you have?” The blue one snaps.

“Of course I have, where do you think the hunting grounds are? There are humans all over outside the Far Trees.” the black fox informs his companion haughtily. He then turns back to Naruto again. “Although none of the ones I’ve seen could use chakra. Can you use chakra?”

Naruto nods. “Everyone in this room can use chakra.” He tilts his head curiously. “The Sacred Forest? Is that where you’re from?”

Kuran-kha hops up onto Naruto’s legs, treading carefully to avoid Kurama’s resting space on Naruto’s thigh. “Yes. It’s pretty deep in the sage lands, on the other side of the Bone Marshes at the foot of one of the Sacred Mountains.”

“Don’t tell him that!” The blue fox snarls.

Kuran-kha flicks his tails imperiously. “And why not? He’s our summoner now.”

“I’m a Celestial Fox.” the blue kit snarls. “We don’t get summoned.”

~Evidence speaks to the contrary.~ Kurama mutters boredly with a flick of one ear.

Kuran-kha wiggles a little and then leaps up lithely onto Naruto’s shoulder, sniffing experimentally at his hair, and then sits down on his precarious perch, looping his tails around Naruto’s neck for stability and looking around curiously at the room. He spots Sasuke sitting off to Naruto’s right, who is watching the whole ordeal with amusement and a little curiosity.

“Who are you?” Kuran-kha asks.

“Sasuke.” He introduces.

The fox turns back to Naruto, ears spread wide in curiosity. “You are close, but he is not your blood sibling. Is he a part of your Earth?”

Naruto blinks. “My what?”

~Kitsune have many words for family. Those who hunt together are members of a skulk, those born together are members of a clan. Earth in this case means ‘those close in bond over blood’, chosen family.~

“Oh, then yeah.” Naruto says easily.

“I want an Earth of my own someday.” Kuran-kha admits softly, and then seems to remember the blue fox still hiding over by the flank of Kurama’s shade. “Now you’re just being rude, Renge.” he accuses.

The blue fox snorts aggressively, but he does nose out from underneath Kurama’s shadow.

“I don’t bite.” Naruto promises with a smile, and the fox’s ears go up a bit.

“I am Renge-kai.” the kit admits hesitantly. “If you did summon me, then it is my intention to uphold the contract.” He ducks his head, tails swishing to curl around him. “It is an honor to meet you.”

“Such a princeling.” Kuran-kha mumbles.

Renge-kai bristles immediately. “Stop calling me that!”

<><><> 

 

Iruka stares for a long moment at the emotionally stunted mess of a Jounin in front of him, perched so precariously on the edge of his bed he’s practically being held up by willpower and sheer force of awkwardness.

“The asset papers.” Iruka states. “For your clan inheritance. The ones you made me sign after a three week long argument in April four years ago, the only argument with me you’ve ever won, and you expect me to believe you want them back ‘just because’?

Kakashi winces. “...there may be a bit more to it.” He admits.

“To put it mildly.” Iruka states. “What brought this on, Kakashi? It’s not like you to poke at old wounds without a damn good reason.”  

The Jounin folds his fingers together and lets them hand between his knees, staring intently at the lines on his palms. He doesn’t answer, but Iruka senses that Kakashi’s lack of response is due more to an inability to name what’s on his mind than any kind of refusal.

Iruka sighs, bending down to undo the wrappings on his thighs and ankles in preparation for changing into his civs. He feels this is going to be a long conversation, and Kakashi had caught him right after his last shift at the mission desk. When he’s finished stripping off the most hazardous and uncomfortable parts of his equipment, he sits down next to Kakashi at the foot of his bed.

“My Genin are all living in Naruto’s apartment.” Kakashi says out of nowhere. “Three of them all packed into that tiny space.”

“Sakura too? I thought only Sasuke was staying there?”

Kakashi shakes his head. “She hasn’t been back to her parent’s house since before the mission. And even if she did reconcile soon, I doubt she’d be content going back to live there. She’s too independent now, and after living with her teammates something like that would be suffocating.”

“Three Genin with strong personalities living together in that small of a space?” Iruka remarks with confusion. “I’m surprised they haven't killed each other already.”

“They work very well with what little they have.” Kakashi states, an emotion strong in Kakashi’s voice that Iruka can’t quite pinpoint until he realizes that it’s admiration. “You should have seen them on the mission.” he continues. “It’s like they’d been working together for years instead of months, and they rolled with every punch and shift circumstances threw at them. It should have been a B-rank mission–with Zabuza’s involvement maybe even an A-rank assist– and they worked together flawlessly. Imagine what they could do if they spread out, had more room to grow than a tiny apartment on the bad end of the shinobi district?”

He’s rambling, and Kakashi doesn’t ramble. He’s always been the epitome of cool under pressure, aloof and set-apart, but these words are tumbling uncensored through his throat from right out of his heart and Iruka hadn’t thought he’d had enough of a heart still beating to speak through.

“Kakashi,” Iruka asks slowly. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”

The Jounin looks to the side, finally casting his silvery eyes up to meet Iruka’s chocolate ones. “The pack is wondering why they don’t see the cubs outside of training. They don’t seem to understand that my apartment is hardly large enough for them, let alone three Genin, and that they might not even want to–”

Iruka cuts him off soundly. “Kakashi. You’re offering to open up your old clan lands, your ancestral home, that old bloody trauma, so that your Genin can have a safe place to rest and grow?”

Kakashi flexes his hands, like he’s itching to grip a kunai or a scroll or something else of comfort. “It’s not like it’s being used for anything. I… I would feel better having them closer; it would be easier to protect them. It’s just an offer, anyway. They’re adults, they can chose for themselves of course.”

Iruka beams, shaking his head in disbelief, and stands up. “Don’t move.” He orders. “I think I left the paperwork under a stack of Konohamaru’s drawings. It may take me a few minutes for me to find it.”

 

 

Chapter Text

“Summons?” Kakashi-sensei drawls, an eyebrow raised at his three impossible little Genin. “I leave you alone for two days and you manage to acquire summons?

“Well technically we had the scrolls the whole time, we just chose to use them now.” Sakura reasons.

“Semantics, cub.” Kakashi counters. “Summons are no joke, you three. Holding a contract is a defining part of a shinobi’s life. You need to take it seriously.”

“Yes, sensei,” the three of them echo.

They sit in the heart of training ground three, taking a break from morning exercises. They’re all progressing fantastically on their basic skill sets, the bread and butter of shinobi fighting techniques. “Don’t practice until you get it right,” Gai always says “Practice until you can’t get it wrong!” It’s good advice despite its source, and Kakashi has always put a high value on being able to react to any situation, to adapt to any variable.

He’s found the best way to get them to focus, to get the most out of every minute of training, is to make it all a game. So he takes some of his most advanced team training techniques, (originally designed for those of Chunin rank or higher, since anything less wouldn’t be a challenge) and dresses them up with competition and rivalry and reward. It’s been working so well that he’s started doing it with as many techniques and training regimens as he can, all molded after their first morning training sessions. The tradition had held, and almost all their mornings now start with what is essentially ninja tag. They play until the cubs get exhausted and give in, but they get closer and closer to catching him each time.

It’s good for keeping Kakashi on his toes, if nothing else.

It’s clear living together has resulted in a few notable changes, even after only a few days with all three of them crammed together. They’re getting better and better at communicating without words, and Sakura has become more thoroughly entrenched in their team dynamic. All that’s really left is smoothing out the kinks and teaching new techniques and formations.

There are also the changes that are more obvious at first glance– like how Sakura regularly and obviously steals Naruto’s dark orange sweatpants and how some of the shirts Sasuke comes to training wearing have a little orange spiral stitched on the back somewhere. The opposite is true as well if the Uchiha crest Kakashi can see sticking out of Naruto’s collar is any indication.

Kakashi shoves a hand into his pocket and flicks his Icha-Icha closed, tucking it back into his pouch. “Alright then, change of plans. We’re playing Three Monkeys, and then we’re going to start training with your new summons.”

“What rotation?” Sasuke asks, already moving to stand. They’ve been questioning him less and less lately, and the lack of backtalk is starting to freak Kakashi out a little. Sure, they still sass him about everything from morning exercises to what they order for lunch, but they listen to him– all the time in combat and most of the time outside it.

He wasn’t sure it was a good or a bad thing, that these kids and their strong personalities and drives have started following his orders and instructions almost unconditionally, by when he’d mentioned it to Iruka he’d just laughed and told him that he’s already in way over his head.

He’s afraid what Genma would have to say on the matter, or worse, Gai, so he’s kept the questions to himself.

“Weaknesses, today.” Kakashi answers.

There’s a unanimous groan.

“Now now, don’t give me that.” He chastises. “It will get you into the mindset of adapting to uncomfortable situations. Summons are a big part of combat and you need to be adaptable with them to form unique fighting bonds and formations. Now come on, handicaps.”

This particular game is one Kakashi developed using ideas from the Anbu sensory deprivation training he remembers from his younger days, a combination defensive and adaptive training.

Each of the three brats are deprived of either speech, hearing, or sight for the duration of the game. The goal it to get from point A to point B without getting ‘killed’ or tagged by Kakashi. They have two main rotations of the game, playing to ‘strengths’ and playing to ‘weaknesses’. Weaknesses deprives them of their greatest asset, and strengths deprives them of superfluous senses to hone those assets.

“This version always stresses me out.” Naruto whines, going through the minor hands signs for the shinobi equivalent of earplugs.

“Ugh.” Sasuke agrees, but finishes his hand signs and closes his eyes, allowing the jutsu to seal them shut.

Sakura doesn’t respond, but when she’s finished her hand signs she taps her throat to let Kakashi know her own jutsu is in place.

Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. Jiraiya would be proud of the allegory.

He begins to count down, both out loud and on his fingers, and the three of them spring into motion. There are three places that the brats are allowed to use as their goal safe zones; Iruka’s apartment, Iruka’s academy classroom, and Ichiraku Ramen. The three form a near equilateral triangle just shy of the Hokage tower and administrative buildings, and each one has a different set of advantages– Ichiraku is almost always filled with people and it’s easier for the brats to lose him in the crowds or the marketplace at certain times of the day, Iruka’s apartment has open roofs and close-cornered alleys to cut and dodge around, and the academy has both crowds and close hallways that make tracking difficult. The last is the obvious choice, but it also happens to be the farthest away.

He tucks his final finger back into his palm and cracks his knuckles. He wonders who’ll win this particular match for a moment, but then figures it doesn’t really matter. He wins either way.

<><><> 

“Oh come on, Shikamaru. We’ve only been at if for a few hours!”

“Leave him alone, Ino. We can take a break, can’t we?” Choji groans, casting pleading puppy eyes over towards Asuma.

Their teacher sighs around his cigarette, eyes tracing between the angry blonde, the hungry brunet, and the Nara napping under the tree. “I suppose.” he allows.

“But sensei, how are we going to get better if we don’t train?”

“‘How am I going to catch up to Sakura’ you mean.” Shikamaru mumbles.

Ino flushes. “That is not what this is about.”

“Good, because you don’t need to compare yourself to her anyway,” Shikamaru mutters under his breath, and then by all appearances rolls over on the grass and goes back to sleep.

Ino freezes for a second, momentarily stunned, but then she shakes the surprise off like a bird shaking out its feathers and with a bewildered half-smile she sends a playful glare at his back. “Do you always have to make your compliments sound like insults?” she grouses.

“I’m not complimenting you,” he says drowsily, interrupting himself with a yawn. “I’m just stating fact.”

Before Ino can come up with an appropriate response to that, there’s a rustling behind her in the trees, just a few soft steps that crunch the undergrowth enough to announce a presence. Asuma looks up and raises an eyebrow at the intruder.

“Shiranui? What are you doing clear out here?” Asuma asks, and Ino turns around to see a tall Tokujo standing in the shade of an elm, light shining in his copper hair and glinting off the senbon tucked between his teeth.

“Recruiting.” The man says without preamble. “You up to anything pressing at the moment?”

Asuma gestures to Shika Ino and Choji as his answer.

“You can bring your brats. In fact I’d prefer if you did.” The Tokujo admits, ticking the senbon in his mouth up and down so that it flashes in the light. “The more hands we have the better.”

Asuma narrows his eyes and stands. “What’s this about exactly?”

“Iruka will explain once we have enough people, but let's just say it has something to do with everyone’s favorite emotionally stunted Jounin.”

Asuma huffs, amused. “I know about half a dozen people who fit that description, but I’m going to assume you’re talking about Kakashi.”

The Tokujo nods, grinning widely. “So, are you in or not? We have to get this done while he’s distracted by his kids or we’ll never pull it off.”

Asuma looks down at his three Genin. “Your training session, your choice.”

Shikamaru sits up and sways to his feet, all trace of laziness gone. “I’m in, sounds more interesting than training anyway.”

“Will there be snacks?” Choji asks hopefully. “I’m starving.”

<><><> 

“One more time Konohamaru, you’ve almost got it.”

The little brunet nods, shaking out his hands and flicking his long blue scarf back over his shoulder. He makes the hand signs again; still a little clumsy for his young fingers, but this time the clone that puffs into existence looks virtually identical Konohamaru, if a little pale.

“Much better.” he praises, giving Konohamaru’s messy brown hair a pat. “We’ll work on the timing and the chakra moulding speed, but for now, well done.”

Konohamaru beams and whoops, punching the air in victory, and Iruka tolerates the display with a patient smile and nudges the boy back towards his peers.

He’s about to beckon his next student forward when the window across the room bursts open and three bodies fall through it, sprawling over each other and the floor with groans of pain and relief in equal measure. Every eight-year-old head in the room swivels at the intrusion, fixing on the pile that is team seven, rolling around and extracting limbs from under torsos and other limbs.

Iruka only breathes out a put upon sigh and raises an eyebrow. “Is this going to become a regular thing with you three?”

Naruto rolls to his feet, shoulder to shoulder with Sasuke as they both haul Sakura up after them. He flicks his fingers through a few hand signs and then scrapes his fingers over his ears, undoing a deafening jutsu. “Sorry sensei, what was that?”

“Our apologies, Iruka-sensei.” Sasuke says as he rubs a similar sensory deprivation jutsu out of his eyes.

“I just don’t know why you three insist on using my home and workplace as safe zones for training.” Iruka mutters.

“Isn’t it obvious, sensei?” Sakura chirps. “You scare all the Jounin, even Kakashi-sensei!”

“Especially Kakashi-sensei.” Naruto corrects.

The squad of kids at Iruka’s feet all turn and look at him with some kind of surprised awe, and Iruka grimaces.

“Well, while you three are here, you might as well make yourselves useful. Class, this is Haruno Sakura, Uchiha Sasuke, and Uzumaki Naruto. They graduated from the academy last year.”

Naruto and Sakura chirp hellos, but Sasuke just leans against Naruto and gives a lazy wave of his hand.

The kids are instantly captivated. They start peppering them with questions, about training and graduation and missions. Naruto and Sakura answer most of their questions, with Sasuke throwing quips in every now and then. The girls in his class seem to be equally captivated with both Sasuke and Sakura, for very different reasons, but all the boys are eagerly eating up Naruto’s abridged story about their mission to Wave. Iruka lets it go on for a few minutes before he calls the class back to attention, to the boos and whining of many.

As he does he senses a presence at the window again, and when he looks up, he catches sight of Kakashi sitting on the sill, chin in his hand, watching the proceedings. Iruka allows himself a small smile at Kakashi’s obvious attachment to his kids, but doesn’t announce his presence.  

“Alright, alright, settle down now. We’re going over clones today. Would any of you three care to give a demonstration? I think they’re tired of seeing the plain old version of it from me.”

He says the words to the three of them but he looks right at Naruto, and the blond boy smiles and leaps forward.

“Sure! Just one clone?”

“As many as you can make without breaking my classroom.” Iruka allows. According to Kakashi, Naruto’s multi-shadow clone jutsu is something to see these days. Iruka is inordinately proud of him, since it was the plain illusion version of the same jutsu that had forced Iruka to fail Naruto the first time he’d applied to graduate.   

The kids watch in awe as Naruto channels his chakra and Sasuke and Sakura step pointedly backwards. In a burst of smoke the room is full of a dozen Naruto look-alikes, perched on the ceiling and the walls and some of the desks. The original smirks as the kids look around in awe and immediately start jabbering at him, pestering him with more questions.

He’s nearly attacked by a swarm of little fans when he sheepishly explains that it’s only about a fifth of his normal clone capacity, and Sasuke is forced to snag Konohamaru by the back of his shirt when he starts trying to climb Naruto’s arm.

The third’s grandson glares hard at the Uchiha for separating him from his idol, and Sasuke glares right back, igniting a crackle of animosity.

Kakashi’s laughter from the window turns the heads of all three Genin and by default the rest of the class, and Kakashi sways to his feet.

“Sorry Iruka-sensei. I hope they haven’t disturbed your routine too much,” He says blithely.

Iruka huffs. “What’s a shinobi’s life without a little of the unexpected?”

There’s a peppering of more whispered questions from his class.

“Who’s that?”

“Is that their sensei?”

“Like a real-life Jounin?

Iruka hushes them again as Kakashi gets closer. “It’s rude to whisper.”

“We won, so can we do our summons training now?” Sakura asks.

“That was the deal, cub,” Kakashi agrees. “But that’s something best done outside your dear teacher’s classroom, I think. Training ground 18 now. Off with you.”

The three Genin take off with hardly a word of assent, and Iruka watches them go with an indulgent smile.

“Alright, class dismissed!” He calls. “Don’t forget to practice your taijutsu for tomorrow’s spar.”

The kids scatter in a flurry of papers, dulled shuriken, and raw energy, leaving the room empty in moments.

“I can tell them to pick a new safe zone, if they’re too disruptive,” Kakashi assures him.

“I honestly don’t mind,” Iruka says easily, moving behind his desk to shuffle his papers together. “Besides, it’s good to break up the monotony, keep the kids on their toes. Have you told them?”

Kakashi shuffles from his right foot to his left. “Told them what?”

“Don’t play dumb with me Kakashi.”

“But I’m so good at it.” The Jounin jokes.

Iruka sighs. “The paperwork went through this morning, you know. The lands are officially open again.”

“That doesn’t mean it’s ready to move into,” Kakashi reasons. “It still needs to be cleaned and the rooms sorted out… and they still might not…”

“They could help you with that, you know. They would be glad to.”

Kakashi looks doubtful.  

Iruka puts a hand to his forehead, patience running thin. “Oh my god you’re such a moron,” he mutters under his breath. “Look, Hatake. Those three brats are some of the most stubborn, obstinate, and independent kids I’ve ever taught. They’re opinionated, intelligent, curious, and pretty much impossible to control on a good day.”

“Yes?” Kakashi says uncertainly. “What’s your point?”

“Do you know why they listen to you?”

“They have to?” Kakashi guesses, and Iruka wants to take his glass paperweight to the side of his stupid head.

“They respect you, you moron.”

“Well, ya, a little,” Kakashi admits.

“No, not a little,” Iruka counters. “They respect me, to some extent, because I taught them for years. You’ve only been their sensei a few months and they respect you more than anyone. Probably even the Hokage.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“No, it’s terrifying.” Iruka states, but then sighs. “Look I’m not going to give you a lecture. I just want you to know that you’re freaked out about something you really shouldn’t be worried about. Just tell them.”

Kakashi shifts again and meets his eyes, but Iruka clearly hasn't gotten through his thick head just yet because the doubt in his eyes is still prevalent.

“I’ll let them know that it’s an… option. Soon.” He hedges, backing up towards the window. “I should make sure they didn’t break anything on their way across the village. See ya.”

Iruka smirks to himself as the Jounin disappears out the window. He’d expected Kakashi’s emotional stall, counted on it actually, but it had been worth a shot to try and talk some sense into him. Oh well. Genma should be done acquiring enough help by now; he should go check on his progress now that class is out.

Poor Kakashi. He thinks. He’s not going to know what hit him.

<><><> 

“Oh my god, are our senseis dating?”

“I believe they are attempting to be subtle about it. Perhaps you should keep from screaming it from the hilltops.”

“Come on you two, please don’t start a fight.”

Kiba casts Hinata an apologetic glance. “Sorry Hina. We’ll behave, promise.”

“I will endeavor to be… less antagonistic. Apologies,” Shino adds.

“Seriously though,” Kiba asks Shikamaru, who’s nestled into the shade of a tree like he’s about to melt into it. “How long has that been going on?”

“Two months, give or take a week,” the Nara mutters, eyeballing the two Jounin on the other side of the small path, leaning just a hair too close together to be considered polite for company. Asuma has his arm braced high on the tree trunk he’s leaning against and Kurenai has her shoulder propped just beneath it, her arms across over her chest and her hair tucked back. Definitely not platonic body language. “How much longer are we going to be sitting here? Because if it’s much longer I’m going back to my nap.” Shikamaru complains.

“Genma-san said he’d be back in twenty minutes. It’s been sixteen,” Choji informs him helpfully.

“I’m back you guys!” Ino calls, jogging up the rough-hewn path, ducking under hickory branches to keep from snagging her fine hair on any of the leaves. She has a takeaway bag tucked under her arm that she cradles close as she leaps up the steep incline.

The path is an overgrown one, so reclaimed by nature that it can hardly be considered a path at all, the shallow groove carved into the earth is overgrown and covered with mossy stones, shoots of new trees sprouting up along the edges. No one’s walked this path in a long time. Decades at least.

Kiba takes a deep breath through his nose, cataloging all the scents. Cedarwood, undergrowth, a bit of the fog that found sanctuary from the fire country sun beneath the thick canopy of branches overhead. More potent are the smells of his friends so close by; Shino’s clean and earthy smell, the scent of Hinata’s jasmine shampoo, Choji’s constant aura of fried food. As usual, Shikamaru smells of deer and sandalwood, and Ino’s normally floral scent is overpowered by the smell of the barbecue she’d volunteered to go get for Choji, and the Akimichi stares at her like she’s some kind of messiah.

“You’re the best Ino,” He babbles, making grabby hands at the food. Ino laughs and hands him a to-go box, then fishes out a folded paper bag.

“I brought some wontons, too, in case anyone else was hungry.”

Nothing brings people together quite like food, and within a few seconds Ino has passed her goodies out into eager hands until she has only two of the crunchy snacks to her name. She then sits down and lies back against Shikamaru’s legs, handing him a wonton before she begins to tear hers delicately into fourths. Kiba watches as Shikamaru tears his apart into fourths as well, and then starts to hand them one at a time back to Ino, keeping only one for himself and smiling a little when Ino happily scarfs them down.

Shiranui Genma treks up the path a few minutes later, laughing at their little camp, Iruka-sensei behind him.

“You ready to get this show in the road?” he asks the eight of them at large, finally drawing Asuma and Kurenai’s eyes away from each other.

“I don’t even know what we’re doing,” Kiba complains, feeding Akamaru the crunchy ends of his wontons.

“Lets consider it a mission for now,” Iruka says, brushing leaf matter off his flak jacket. “Top secret. Are you six up to a little espionage?”

<> 

“A few more drills and we can call it a day, I think.” Kakashi looks down at Pakkun, who is giving his three cubs his usual bored stare as they flit through the trees above their heads, flashes of fire and cuts of wind and water glinting off scales and fur and feathers. “How do you think they’re doing so far?”

“Difficult to say this early.” The pug admits. “They’re still clumsy, but that’s to be expected adding new factors like summons into combat dynamics. The summons suit them well, though, and they’re already fostering respect for one another, so it’s off to a healthy start.”

“I agree. Sage summons are problematic to master, but not impossible, especially when you have the initial presence of mind to treat them as equals. Turns out I worried for nothing.”

“Boss.”

“Hmm?”

“Are pups supposed to be this strong this young?” He asks, watching as Sasuke’s young Roc wrestles with Sakura’s Zotl, and Naruto’s fox summons wrestle with each other.

“It’s not unprecedented.” Kakashi reasons. He himself was a prodigy, and while the word could apply to his brats, he also feels like the truth is somewhat more complex.

“You sure? Because I’m not.” Pakkun grumbles, and then suddenly cuts himself off to bark up at the kids. “Stop messing around up there! Next formation, come on now!” There’s a slightly embarrassed laugh and a vaguely irritated huff, but then training is back in full swing.

“You’re not just talking about strength or skill are you?” Kakashi guesses.

Pakkun huffs through his short nose. “That too.” he admits. “But usually skill like this comes at a mental or social cost– isolation, mental health problems or ticks, personality issues, even god complexes if we look at some of the crazier ones. But other than being stubborn little shits and possibly some codependency issues, the pups are almost alarmingly healthy in that regard.”

“And I’m glad for it.” Kakashi say firmly. With the hurdles the three of them have been forced to overcome, he isn’t surprised that they found that extra needed strength in each other. And if that stability comes at the cost of them being a little too dependent on each other, then Kakashi has no problem with it. He has a feeling they’ll grow out of it with a little nudging, and even if they don’t, there are worse weaknesses to have.

Their conversation is interrupted when Naruto’s summons dissolve into a fight again, Kuran-kha and Renge-kai if he remembers their names correctly.

“And we’ve lost them again.” Pakkun grumbles. Kakashi just laughs.

“Alright alright. How about a lunch break?” Kakashi calls.

“Can we shower first?” Sasuke complains, alighting on an oak branch and eyeing the bluish toxin on his clothes with distaste. “Ravia spat venom everywhere.”

Ravia flutters from Sakura’s shoulders. “You are lucky I did not aim for your eyes.”

“I’ll meet you three at Ichiraku in an hour then.” He agrees.

“Come on you two, break it up.” Naruto grumbles, prying Kuran and Renge off each other by their scruffs.

“He started it!” Renge snarls, diving into Naruto’s arms for shelter. After a few hours of training the little fox had finally decided that Naruto wasn’t half bad and had grown rapidly attached. He seems a bit pampered for a summons, in Kakashi’s opinion, and he tends to tuck himself into Naruto shirt or the crooks of his limbs when he’s upset.

The dark-furred Kuran leaps into his favorite spot curled around Naruto’s shoulders. “Liar.” He counters, but calms down when Naruto gives him a scratch behind the ear.

“Give it a rest will ya?” Naruto grumbles at them both, and they grudgingly settle back down.

“That was very bracing.” Kikri chirps. “I quite enjoyed it.”

 

Kakashi grins behind the safety of his mask and Icha Icha when they part ways on the street outside the training ground, watching as a couple of Chunin stall on the sidewalk across from them to gawk at the three Genin and their summons.

He gives the memorial stone a quick visit on his way home, talks with Obito’s memory for a while about the cubs and their progress.

“You’ve turned into such a sap.” he can imagine Obito telling him. “What happened to that aloof little asshole I knew?”

He died when you did. Kakashi thinks sadly. I won’t make the same mistake I made with you. I will never again take something I love for granted.

He wonders what Obito might think of him now, a Jounin-sensei, guiding his own brats through the motions of shinobi life the way Minato had guided them. He likes to imagine that Minato-sensei would be proud of him, that Kushina would ruffle his hair too hard like she had when he was young, when she was still alive.

He wonders if they would forgive him for leaving Naruto alone for as long as he did, Hokage’s orders or no.

He’s not sure, but he’s still a long way from forgiving himself.

 

He’s practically at his doorstep when he senses Sasuke, Naruto, and Sakura leap over the rooftop behind him at full speed, and when he turns he sees they’re still in their old clothes.

“What’s the matter? Did something happen?” he asks when they land out of breath on his porch.

“All our stuff is gone!” Sakura declares wrathfully.

“We’ve been freaking robbed!” Naruto affirms. “Someone took all our things out of the apartment, my Uzushio scrolls were in my bag!”

What?” Kakashi growls, wondering who could be stupid enough to steal from his cubs, and then feels a sudden sense of foreboding and turns to his own apartment. He disarms his chakra alarms and opens the door.

Sure enough, even from the entryway Kakashi can see that all his things are gone. The pack is missing, even Pakkun, who’d been dismissed a mere half-hour ago. His weapons are gone from the shelves in the living room, his dresser drawers are open and empty of their contents, and Mr. Uki is missing from his place on the windowsill. He suddenly knows exactly what’s happened.

“Goddammit Iruka.” he mutters.

“Sensei? What’s going on?” Sakura asks, leaning sideways to peer past him into the apartment. “Is there a serial burglar around?”

A burglar wouldn’t know the key sequence to the traps in my flat.

“No.” he answers. “Just a sneaky academy teacher.” he closes his apartment door with a fatalistic smack. “Come on, you three. I think I know where your things are.”

<><><> 

The path Kakashi-sensei leads them to runs up through the hills deep into the woods at the edge of the village proper, a steep overgrown incline that looks like it hasn’t seen foot traffic in years. In their panicked rush, the three of them had yet to actually dismiss their summons, so Renge-kai is still tucked into Naruto’s arm, and Kuran-kha remains draped over his shoulders.

Renge pokes his head up from where it had been tucked into Naruto’s elbow, giving the air a cautious sniff. “This place smells like wolves.”

Kuran nods, tipping his head to glance up at his summoner. “Are you sure it’s okay for us to be here? This whole place screams direwolf territory, even if I can’t sense any around.”

“Kakashi-sensei wouldn’t lead us somewhere dangerous without telling us.” Naruto assures them.

Kikri looks around from her perch on Sasuke’s shoulder, hopping sideways so that she’s teetering almost on the edge of his bicep. “This is exciting. Is this the way the thieves went?

“More like pranksters, probably.” Sasuke reasons. “But yes.”

Ravia hisses. “Pranksters or not, that was incredibly rude.”

“I’m sure it was harmless fun.” Sakura soothes.

“Sorry about this cubs.” Kakashi says as they reach the end of the incline. “Here we are.”

As they exit the forest the trees part around a field of thick grass, tall enough to brush Naruto’s knees. It’s split here and there with tall rocks before it gives way to a set of sprawling buildings, old and overgrown with vines and other greenery. They’re beautifully crafted underneath their cloak of plant life, old traditional architecture with carved doorways guarded by statues of wolves.

“Where are we?” Sasuke asks.

“These are my old clan lands.” Kakashi explains, and in his tone Naruto can sense a trace of sadness followed by the bitter earth-and-rust smell of old pain. “They haven’t been in use for a long time, since I don’t need the space.”

“This whole place is yours?” Sakura marvels, taking in the rolling space and the painstakingly crafted buildings. “Is that a dojo?

“You have a clan?” Sasuke asks softly.

Kakashi turns to look at him and smiles with his eyes. “‘Had’ would probably be a better word, but yes. My clan declined heavily during the shinobi world wars though, so it’s just me now.”

Sasuke doesn’t say anything in response, but Naruto knows him well enough to see that his view of their sensei his changed.

“Why would someone take our stuff here?” Naruto wonders.

Kakashi grimaces strongly enough that it’s visible a little underneath the mask. “I, uh, had this place reopened recently. Just in case of emergencies, or if you three needed more room, I suppose.”

And that’s stress and a little bit of embarrassment that Naruto can sense coming off him in waves, and is Kakashi saying what Naruto thinks he’s saying?

“ABOUT TIME HATAKE.”

Kakashi turns his gaze to narrow his eyes across the green at the purple haired kunoichi stalking towards them from the main house. “Anko? What are you doing here? And why are you wearing an apron?”

The kunoichi in question is in fact wearing a short black apron covered in grey and white smudges, her hair tied back with a black bandanna.

“What the hell does it look like? Spring cleaning, jackass. You really let this whole place go to hell, you know. You better be grateful Iruka knows you better than you know yourself.”

“I- what?” Kakashi says, confused.

“Whatever.” Anko dismisses. Hurry up then. We’re almost done.”

<><><> 

When Kakashi ducks into his old childhood home, he almost trips and smacks his head on the doorframe when he comes face to face with Genma in a bright fuchsia apron decorated with yellow sunflower patterns.

“What?” Genma grumbles, flicking his senbon crossly. “It was my mom's.”

“I didn’t say a word.” Kakashi defends, holding up his hands in placation once he has his balance back.

He pauses again once he gets a look at the main room past Genma’s eye searing cleaning-wear, and finds he hardly recognizes the place. It’s been stripped of all the old furniture but for a few of the fur rugs he remembers, which have been rolled up and set in the corner. Everything has been scrubbed down to a spotless shine, even the dusty old carvings over the doorways and the corners. All the traditional elements of the house have been left where they are, the statues and the wall scrolls, but all the personal elements of the house that Kakashi had been afraid of tripping over emotionally have been either discarded or moved somewhere else.

“I put a lot of things in storage.” Iruka says as he comes around the corner from an adjacent room, as if reading his mind. “You should have listened to me Kakashi. If you’d have told your kids about this in the beginning I wouldn’t have had to take such drastic action.”

Kakashi groans and leans against the doorframe dramatically. “Was this really necessary?”

“Yes.” Genma snaps at him.

His kids had been accosted at the gates by Kurenai’s Genin and the Ino-Shika-Cho trio, where Kiba and Shikamaru admitted to breaking into the apartment and grabbing their things with the help of Shino and Choji, and Ino and Hinata told Sakura they’d gotten even more of her things from her house, including a snow globe that nearly got Ino bowled over for how happy Sakura was to see it.

“Gai was here earlier, but he said he had to get back to his students. You actually just missed him.” Genma informs him.

“Thank god.” Kakashi mutters. “I mean, too bad.” He says louder, but Genma is already laughing at him.

“Sensei!” he hears Sakura call, and he turns without thinking as she appears around the corner. “Yes, cub?”

He regrets the word almost as soon as it leaves his mouth then he sees Genma still in the corner of his vision, a hand coming up over his mouth.

“Which room is ours?”

Kakashi’s brain stalls at that, puttering out until he manages a quick reboot. “What?”

“Was that offer to stay not serious, sensei?” Sasuke asks, appearing over Sakura’s shoulder.

“It was.” Kakashi manages, still bewildered and blinking.

“Okay, because Naruto is wondering if the big room on the far end is yours.”

Kakashi’s brain abruptly stalls again, memories of his father’s blood painting the floor of that room, silvery in the light shining through the shoji doors– he shakes his head to clear away the memory. “No. If you three are staying in the same room, then it’s best you have that one, I think.”

Sakura makes a shout of triumph and Sasuke disappears down the hall quick as a flash, already shouting at Naruto to set up their things.

“Told you.” Iruka says easily, and then Genma bursts into laughter.

Oh my god.” he gushes. “The great Hatake Kakashi, the feared Copy-nin, is a parent.”

“Please shut up.” Kakashi groans, but doesn’t contradict him.

 

 

Chapter Text

It gets old when you talk to the sun,

In a tongue understood by no one.

Can it be that I hear what he’s saying?

Is there a reason why I’m still awake?

 

Obito wakes from death with pain searing through his body so hot he cannot breathe. He is on fire, every cell alight with foreign chakra that crawls along his veins like a million microscopic spiders, tearing along the tissue in a frantic fight to move, move, MOVE.

He wrenches upright in a panic but only half of his body obeys, the other half dead and leadened and pulling him back down like it’s still being crushed under the boulders of Kannabi bridge, still pressed on by ton upon ton of broken stone. Kakashi’s face is seared into his mind’s eye, that stunned broken look branded to the inside of his single working eyelid.

He feels like lightning is coursing through his every nerve, and he focuses on that because it’s easier than the burning, more familiar, even though the pain of both are nearly equal, fighting back and forth for dominance over his body. His chest feels like there’s an anaconda curled around it, so hard that despite his pain he cannot pull in enough breath to scream.

The two pains battle themselves out, the crawling angry red and the sharp crackling blue. Eventually the two begin to cancel each other out, smoothing together into an aching pulse that radiates over his bones and through what must be the mess of his muscles and skin. When he manages to open his eyes the world is tinted navy, not the bloody red that he’s used to accompanying his sharingan. The world calms, the two pains still swirling together inside him, burning and piercing in turns, but Obito can gasp a breath around them now, bring air into his shattered chest enough to clear the darkness from the corners of his eye.

The world around him smells heavily of rich earth and moss, the air laden with the scent of recent rain. The sounds of his gasps echo strangely in his ears, bouncing around unseen obstacles as Obito gets his bearings. It’s still dark, but it’s a softer darkness than the pitch of unconsciousness, and out of the corner of his eye Obito can make out the glow of firelight.

“Do not move.” An roughened old voice intones from outside Obito’s line of sight. “I spent a great deal of time and chakra putting you back together. I would prefer you not undo my work so soon after I’ve finished.”

“Where am I?” Obito manages, so rough and breathy that the words are hardly distinguishable at all. The stranger seems to hear him though, because he answers readily.

“We are in the Mountains’ Graveyard, resting place of the Deva and the Elder Demons. Between the land of Waterfalls and the land of of Stone.”

“Waterfall country?” he rasps. “Why–” he cuts off when he runs out of breath, and takes a moment to snatch it back into his mangled lungs. “Who are you?”

There’s a rustle as the man moves, followed by a strange sound like something dragging over the stone. An elderly man comes into view, a ninja by the way he holds himself despite his age. His hair is long and thick and bleached silver by the years, his eyelids sunken and closed. Strange chakra seems to glow from the sockets, moving like spotlights along the inside of his eyelids– some kind of artificial sight, if Obito had to guess.

“I will answer all your questions in a moment. But first, how are you feeling?” The man asks as he moves towards some kind of console to Obito’s right, an apparatus hooked up to several long IV lines attached to points all along Obito’s body.

“Like I’m on fire.” Obito replies truthfully, though he leaves out the second, stranger pain that is coursing through him, unsure of how to describe that feeling in words.

The man seems pleased with his response regardless, nodding as he observes the readouts from the console. “That is to be expected. Almost thirty percent of your body was beyond salvage, a great deal had to be replaced with cultivated tissue. Had your body rejected the transplants, you would have surely died.”

Obito looks as far sideways as he’s able without actually moving his head, noting the strange white patches of foreign tissue stitched along the length of his arm and over the right half of his torso. “Why did you save my life?” He asks, swallowing hard to try to banish some of the roughness in his voice so that it sounds less like a whisper. “And how did I end up in Waterfall country? I was in Grass…” The question is asked in no fewer than three parts, since every few words Obito is forced to stop for breath.

“The right place at the right time. My Zetsu we scouting in the area, and they saw fit to bring you to me when they found you.”

“Zetsu?”

“Step into the light so that he may see you.” the man commands, and from the edges of the dark room a pair of strange white beings come into Obito’s line of sight. One looks mostly human in shape but for a mutated and warped right half, a dozen spikes curling out from its barklike skin. A single moss green eye fixes dully on him from dark grey scalera, dead and lifeless. Obito can’t even really see the eye in the other one– its body seems largely to be a human-shaped spiral, centered around a single right eye socket.

“You saved me?” Obito asks them, and they look at him strangely, as if surprised he’s addressing them directly.

“We pulled your broken body through the earth to here, yes,” the spiky one answers.

“Thank you.” Obito says genuinely.

The spiked Zetsu blinks, eye brightening a little in surprise. “What?”

“They are only pawns, imperfect clones of a fool I once knew. There is no need to thank them,” the old man says, turning back to him.

That doesn’t seem right. Obito thinks. Despite their strange appearances, they seem human enough to Obito, though he doesn’t quite understand why he’s so sure of that.

“They will be aiding you through your recovery,” the old man continues, running a hand laced with a diagnostic jutsu over patchwork portions of Obito’s body.

“You still haven’t told me why you helped me,” Obito reminds him with strained breaths. “Not that I’m not grateful.”

The man pauses, mulling over his answer, the spotlight flickers behind his eyelids cast downwards. “I too know what it is like to be left for dead. Abandoned by those once close to you.”

But they didn’t abandon me. Obito thinks, wondering at the twisting of words. I died for them. I died for him.

He closes his eyes at the thought, swallowing hard against the emotion in his chest, pressing it down. It is a private thing, something he can indulge in within the safety of his own thoughts and nowhere else. He’s never let it show before, and he won’t now.

The old man misinterprets his moment of weakness, his expression softening into something almost sympathetic. “Apologies. The wound must still be raw, I did not mean to aggravate it so soon.”

“It’s fine,” Obito murmurs.

“You should rest,” the man tells him, almost tenderly. “Getting you back on your feet will be a long and arduous process, you will need all the strength you can muster. I have matters to attend, but should you need anything, the Zetsu will aid you.”

“Thank you,” Obito replies.

The man nods and turns away, and for the first time Obito sees the cause of the dragging sound– cables are attached in intervals down the length of the stranger’s spine, winding chords that snake off into the darkness, humming with thick, unnerving chakra.

When he vanishes down the hall, Obito turns to the strange white beings standing at his side.

“Thank you for helping me,” he tells them, watching as once again their eyes flicker with a bit of strange brightness.

“You said that before.” The spiral Zetsu reminds him, voice a bit warped in a way that Obito can only guess comes from a lack of mouth.

“It seemed worth repeating,” Obito says softly. “Without you two I’d still be flat as a rice cracker, the way I understand it.”

“Madara-sama was the one who replaced your damaged tissue,” the spiked one states.

“Is that his name?” Obito asks, wondering about why it sounds so familiar.

“It is,” the Zetsu allows.

“Well what are your names?” Obito asks.

“Our names?” The spiked Zetsu asks, balking at the question, that strange light flashing in his eyes again.

Obito blinks. “Yes, your names. You’re assigned by the creepy old man to look after me while I’m an invalid right? I should know what to call you.”

“We are Zetsu,” the spiral one states sharply, clearly just as unnerved by Obito’s question as his companion. “What else would you call us?”

Obito narrows his eye in confusion. “You’re kidding me, right? The way it sounds, Zetsu is what you are, not what you’re called. You wouldn’t just call me ‘human’ would you? My name is Obito, you’d call me Obito.”

The Zetsu don’t quite seem to know what to make of that but when they turn to one another, seemingly discussing something without words, but their body language eases, making them look less like mannequins or walking corpses.

“We don’t have names then,” the spiky one admits.

Obito wishes he could sit up to get a look at the two of them properly, but even the smallest movements of his torso sends pain rushing through his body in breathtaking waves, so he keeps still and beckons them forward with his uninjured arm instead.

“Well come here then. I’m not just going to call you Zetsu #1 and Zetsu #2.” The spiky Zetsu approaches, looking more than a little bewildered, the spiral one following close behind. He stops at the edge of the cot and Obito looks him up and down, thinking.

He reaches up with his good arm and pokes the Zetsu in the head with one knuckle, the way he used to do to Kakashi to tick him off when they were having a moment. “Shiro.” He decides, going off the pearlescent scales Obito can see like armor on the Zetsu’s spines now that he’s close, casting bright white reflections on the stone around him.

“Shiro?”  The creature repeats softly, head tilted in befuddled curiosity.

“That’s what I’ll call you from now on,” Obito states firmly. He draws the kanji for white on the creature’s plaster-like skin. “When spelled like this it means ‘White’ or ‘Pure’.” He draws another kanji. “And when spelled like this it means ‘Castle’ or ‘Fortress.’ You can choose which one, I feel like either would fit.”

That strange light floods back full force, the darkness clearing from the edge of the creature’s earthy gaze, and something deep inside of Obito, some strange new sense or force, sits up and takes notice.

Unsure of exactly what he’s done, the Zetsu blinks once, hard, the eyelashes of his single eye fluttering as if waking from a dream or a genjutsu. His pupil dilates to the point where it’s nearly swallows the green of the iris, and then abruptly shrinks to the size of a pinprick. Another blink and it’s back to normal, and the Zetsu looks at him with some bizarre kind of awe.  

“I don’t think you were supposed to do that,” the creature says quietly, and Obito snorts, grinning with the half of his face that he can make work. It probably looks terribly creepy. He figures the Zetsu is probably right, that they were meant to be mindless servants of some kind and Obito just ruined it, but a person is a person as far as Obito is concerned, and that strange force he can feel in his chest very much agrees.

“Don’t care,” Obito declares. “If you don’t want the old creep to know, don’t tell him.”

The spiked Zetsu, Shiro now, blinks at him like the thought never occurred, and then grunts as he’s suddenly shouldered aside by his spiral shaped companion, who points a twisted finger at himself.

“My turn now, right?” he insists. “What’s my name?”

Obito blinks, a little taken aback by the sudden enthusiasm, but then he manages a weak and breathy chuckle. “How about Guruguru?” He says, reaching forward to trace the lines of the swirl that makes up the Zetsu’s face. “‘To whirl or spiral outward’”

Again that flash of awareness, that strange light flickering. “It’s so long though.” The Zetsu complains, edging even closer and earning himself a glare from Shiro.

Obito hums, gives a cough when the vibration irritates his still damaged chest cavity. “What about Tobi, then? As in ‘to leap forward.’”

The Zetsu shivers a little, as if suddenly cold, and brightens even further in Obito’s senses. “I like that one better.” The Zetsu decides.

Obito tries a smile again, and this time he manages to get most of his face to agree with the expression. “Glad you like it. Now would you two help me? I want to see if I can still stand on the leg that works.”

 

<> 

 

And he says “I’ve got you written, in a back book, by the railroad track.

You see I know your fate.”

And I said. “You've got to listen, I’m a songbird with brand new track

You underestimate.”

 

Obito recovers slowly. It’s not unexpected, he lost nearly half of his body to the compression jutsu on the night he nearly died– in fact, according to Shiro, he actually had died for a few minutes. But with Obito’s recovery comes… something else.

The world feels different.

From the places where Madara stitched his patchwork body back together with cultivated cells and ancient chakra, a strange pulsing has been spreading– part sensory, part energy– throughout his body. He can sense more than chakra now, he can sense life, the tiniest flickers from the canyon mice that skitter through the passages beneath the Mountains’ Graveyard, the great echoes of it still clinging to the bones of the colossal creatures above them.

It is because of this strange sense that he does not trust the black Zetsu. Not as far as he can throw him as the invalid he currently is.

He claims to be a manifestation of Madara’s will brought into existence though the Statue of the Outer Path, but through this strange new energy flowing through his body Obito can sense that he is something else.

Something far older.

And it’s not the only thing he can sense.

“Hey, Guruguru.”

“Not my name, little brother,” Tobi reminds him in a singsong tone. Shiro is off coordinating with the other Zetsu, a pack of which just returned from Kiri. Shiro tells him things about the outside world when he can get away with it, when Madara and the Black Zetsu are out doing whatever it is that they do. The old man normally can’t travel far from the Demonic Statue, but combining his strength with that of the strange black formless creature tends to give him enough energy to travel outside the Graveyard for a few days at a time, provided the dark Zetsu himself stocks up on the statue’s chakra before departure. Any longer than that though, and the absence of the Statue's strange chakra would kill him.

Obito tries not to worry when he goes off, but doesn't always succeed. The man saved his life, and even if Madara trusts the dark creature with his life and his chakra, Obito does not.

“Was there something wrong with my heart when the old man was patching me up?” He asks his friend.

Tobi blinks, looking up from Obito’s daily health readouts. “Your heart? No, the damage only made it as far as your sternum. You right lung was pretty mangled, but your heart was out of the way by at least a few inches. Why?”

“There’s something there that wasn’t before. It’s faint though, and I’m… not sure what to make of it.”

Tobi stands up from where he’d been seated on the cavern floor next to Obito’s cot and comes over to him. Obito’s single sharingan eye tracks him easily in the dark, and even now having the complete eye is strange, odd in its fluctuations and fractals and blue tints. It’s like dying had woken up something buried inside of it, something that had spent far too long asleep. “Let me do a chakra echo,” the Zetsu insists, going over to the medical console’s semi-permanent place beside his cot.

Obito leans back, already resigned to the plethora of tests that his paranoia will no doubt garner– Tobi would never admit it, but he can be nearly as big a mother hen as Shiro sometimes. It’s better them than Madara though– if the old man even suspects Obito might have a cough, or, god forbid, a fever, he’ll end up on bedrest for another week at least. Obito is massively sick of bedrest, and despite the old man’s prideful and stern demeanor, he’s a champion coddler.

...Not that Obito would ever say that to his face.

The cool touch of the resonance device on his sore chest starts a hiss from Obito, causing Tobi to snort.

“Don’t be such a baby. If you hadn’t insisted on ignoring Shiro’s advice on pushing yourself too far, you wouldn’t be in so much pain.”

“Whatever Guruguru,” Obito huffs back.

“Huh,” Tobi grunts, moving the chakric reader back and forth over the left side of Obito’s chest “It looks like there is something.”

“What is it?”

“I’m not sure,” Tobi hums. “Inorganic, chakra based, embedded in the top portion of the septum,” he lists. “It seems benign though– I’m not reading any tissue damage or chakra leakage. Do you want me to alert Madara-sama?”

Obito grimaces and shakes his head. “Yeah, no thanks. If it starts hurting me or something sure, but no need to bug him if it’s not causing me problems.” Despite how he’s making it sound, Obito isn’t just keeping this secret because he fears Madara’s oddly maternal wrath– the strange and faint pulse of chakra that Obito can sense in his chest is setting off all kinds of foreboding warning bells in that strange new sense of his, the one he has yet to tell even Tobi or Shiro about. For all that Obito respects Madara, for however much in debt he is to the old man, Obito isn’t stupid.

The old man is hiding something, something big, and until Obito knows what it is, he’s going to keep his cards close to his chest.

“If you’re sure, Outoto.” The Zetsu allows. “How are you feeling otherwise?”

“Boooooooored.” Obito groans without hesitation, startling an echoing laugh out of Tobi.

“Of course you are. When are you anything else?”

“When the hell am I going to be able to do some training, at least?” Obito whines. “I feel like I'm wasting away here.”

“You should be up for basic muscular training soon?” Tobi tries.

“Ugh.”

“What are you two groaning about now?”

Obito looks up to see Shiro materialize out of the wall to his left, white form pulling out of the earth until he steps whole into the cavern, brushing clay dust off his arms and from between his spikes. Unlike Tobi’s form Shiro’s has altered somewhat in the time Obito has known him. The spikes are no longer disorganized shoots sprouting from every direction, they have a curling sort of organization to them now, each one stretching out from his left side and reaching upwards across his body like a curled cage. His right arm has been freed from the strange mangled growths on his right side, though the fingers of that hand are still too thick and clumped to be dexterous, and the limb still sprouts a half dozen long armored spines that curl up and back to cup the air over his shoulder blade.

“Little brother here still wants to be up running around,” Tobi tattles.

Shiro hufs and shoots Obito a disapproving look. “Didn’t you just finish doing exercises not long ago?”

“Yeah, this morning. Can I at least get up and walk around a bit?”

“I guess,” Shiro allows. “But only if we go with you.”

Obito groans again. “You jerks are as bad as the old man.”

 

<> 

 

I’ll give you something to believe in.

Burn out that basement full of demons.

Realize you're a slave to your mind, break free,

Now give me something to believe in.

 

Despite Obito’s groaning and complaining, it takes him nearly another month to be able to stand for a decent length of time without feeling drained or pulling at any of his patchwork seams. His recovery is starting in earnest now. He’s managed to coax friends out of a few more of the Zetsu, mostly the runners who come by to give information or orders to Shiro. The hive mind connection means that kind of thing doesn’t happen often, but enough that he has started having to actually think up good names to keep them all straight.

Shiro and Tobi remain his closest friends though, and have become something of his right and left hands respectively. They seem to have grown inordinately fond of him lately, and Shiro will sometimes bring him news on the outside world before he even goes to see Madara, telling him tales of the growing conflicts across the nations, the battles waged over land belonging to both shinobi and civilians. He’s the most in-tune Zetsu of all of them to the hive mind, and so he’s become the central node through which almost all their information is passed. Tobi hardly has a connection to the hive mind at all though, and had trouble sending even the most basic of impressions through.

Sometimes, in whispered tones like he’s imparting a secret, Shiro will even tell him of his sensei– of Minato’s decimation of forces far and wide, and of Kushina, who is still apparently a terror both on and off the battlefield. Apparently his impromptu parents have managed legendary wanted status– the first ninja in decades to be marked in the ‘Flee on Sight’ category.

Obito misses them terribly, misses Minato’s stupid parables and stupider jokes– he even misses the too-hard noogies Kushina would harass him with when he was being a brat, and the leering looks should would send at their sensei when she knew they were looking. He misses Rin’s tender heart and kind hands, how even when he was acting his strangest or most naive, on purpose or not, she always had such unending faith in him.

He says as much to his caretakers during a night of weakness, knowing Shiro will have to share what he knows with Madara and his black Zetsu pet, but not really caring. He keeps his remembrance of Kakashi fondly antagonistic though, out of both habit and reflexive reservation.

Sure enough, Madara asks him about it a night later over a meal of lotus root and pork soup– a common food for them since both lotus ponds and boar are plentiful in the area, or so Shiro tells him.

Kakashi is an achilles heel he’s been protecting for as long as he can remember, so when he asks Obito if there is anyone back in Konoha that he holds particularly dear, answering Rin’s name is immediate.

It’s not even really a lie– Obito loves Rin, loves her charm and wit and kindness and strength, just not in the way he’d lead her and Kakashi to believe. A subtle shift, but enough to hide the truth of his weakness. Because Obito is an Uchiha, and despite how much his mannerisms differ from those of the rest of his clan, it means that Obito’s love is a powerful weakness, and like any weakness, Obito had sought to hide it from view.

The warm comforting thing he feels for Rin is potent and calming, a light that guides him through darkness and pain, hands that set him straight when he steps too far. But trying to compare that to what he always feels for Kakashi… it can’t be done. They don’t even fall into the same category of emotion.

What he feels for Rin is soft and intangible, what he feels for Kakashi is something knotted into his bones like a cancer. Their bond is something rough and unexplored, dangerous and heavy, powerful in a way that Obito wasn’t ready for, still isn't ready for, something that if left unchecked could no doubt kill him. Even when they were still in the academy Kakashi saw him in a way no one else had, saw underneath the carefully crafted guise of the village idiot, not all the way, but enough to trip his sharp instincts and make the wolf wary.

Obito’s only option had been to shut the feeling down completely, hide it, cover it in rivalry and foolish doting over a girl that would never love him back. Kakashi would never accept him, much less love him, and so at the first sign a bond was forming Obito had hedged his bets and cut his losses, kept Kakashi at arm's length whenever he could.

Not that that always worked.

Sometimes, despite his best efforts, when they were collapsing under the pressure of anger or abandonment or just feeling, their bond would slip out in the place Obito couldn’t keep it from.

Fighting.

Obito had balled up and hid as many of the good parts of himself as he could, so as a result their fights drew out the absolute worst in both of them, and they would tear into each other, rip and mangle until Kakashi could rake clawed fingers over the bitterest of his anger and insecurities and Obito had Kakashi’s suffering animalistic heart by the throat.

The weeks after Sakumo’s death had been the worst.

He still has the faint veinlike lightning scar to prove it, a ghostly hand of jagged lines that curls over his shoulder and cuts up the side of his neck, barely visible even in the harshest of light. The number of times he’s run his fingers over those invisible markings in the dark of night, as an anchor in the mind-rending storm of his pain, is beyond count.

 

“Do you feel up to doing the resonance testing tomorrow?” Madara asks him after a long silence, lifting another bite of stew to his mouth with a practiced efficiency of movement that makes Obito a little envious. His hands still shake a little as he eats, and Madara is technically into his two-hundreds and can still move like the fourty-something he was when Hashirama won their little spat. Obito hasn’t asked about it at all, he likes his head attached to his shoulders, thank you, but he knows the history and is pretty adept at clocking emotional triggers after so long going out of his way to try and step on Kakashi’s.

It seems to Obito that there was more going on between Hashirama and Madara that a clan spat, if the whole centuries-long grudge is anything to go by, and if the scowl Tobirama’s name brings out of him is any indication, he had something to do with it too.

“I think so. I just have to sit really still and let the Zetsu poke me with probes like usual, right?”

Madara chews and swallows his mouthful before speaking, always so formal. “It will require you to channel and sustain chakra flow for an extended period of time. If you do not feel as if you can comfortably do so yet…”

“Old man, I’m practically crawling with chakra right now, after all the sitting around I’ve been doing. I’ll be fine, I promise,” Obito assures him, and the old Uchiha patriarch huffs, half aggravation, half strange fondness.  

“I only say this because I will not be here for the testing. Your Zetsu will have to conduct it in my absence, and since I will be gone for a few days, it would be imprudent to wait to conduct it until I returned.”

Madara has taken to calling Tobi ‘Obito’s Zetsu’, since his spiral patterned friend tends not to leave his side for very long, for any reason. Given Tobi’s poor connectivity with the Zetsu hive-mind, a connectivity that is getting poorer and poorer, Madara had even gone so far as assigning him to Obito permanently.

“He can do it,” Obito replies, scrapping at the dredges of his soup with his spoon to get at the last bits of pork. “And if anything happens there are other Zetsu around. I’ll be alright.”

Madara inclines his head in agreement, and the conversation ends.

 

The next morning Tobi wakes him up and has him sit in the testing chamber while he sets things up for the resonance assessment, which should tell him how much of Hashirama’s jutsu Obito has gained control of through the old Hokage’s cells. According to Madara, it could be anything from 30%, the amount of his body replaced by Hashirama’s cultivated tissue, to somewhere around 60%. The old man himself has about a 74% resonance according to Shiro, and the highest known is some kid in Konoha with 91%– though Obito isn’t sure he wants to know how that happened.

Obito peers into the clear, slightly silvery liquid that fills the resonance basin set into the floor, framed on all sides by cables designed to measure chakra output, composition, and biological impedance. It starts to flicker with energy as Tobi charges it with natural chakra from the command station at the head of the pool.

“How’s the hive-mind, Guruguru?” Obito asks to make conversation while the Zetsu double checks the specs for testing.

“Farther and farther away every day, weirdly enough,” Tobi mutters.

“Does that bother you?

“A little,” the Zetsu admits. “But less than I thought it would. Here.” He hands Obito a breathing mask. “Hop in and start channeling.”

“Bossy,” Obito teases, but straps on the mask and slides into the basin. The liquid is cool against his skin and a little odd against the newly forming nerves on his right side, but other than that the feeling is almost pleasant. He begins to channel his chakra, letting it run laps through his system as the liquid around him starts to vibrate with energy.

He keeps it up until the energy dies down and takes that as the cue that the test is over, rising from the water and pulling the mask down. Tobi is staring frozen and unblinking at the chakra console, hand poised just above the readout.

“What’s the matter Guruguru?” Obito prods. “You look like you just swallowed a snail.”

Tobi shakes himself out of his stupor. “Uh, I think I screwed something up. You mind going under again?”

Obito blinks his singular eye and tilts his head. “Okay… if you say so.” He shrugs and straps the mask back on, sinking once more beneath the cool liquid of the basin. He waits as the process repeats, keeping up a steady flow of chakra around his body the best he can while the energy of the sensors thrums around him. Again he rises when the humming of the energy tapers off, but this time he waits until all trace of the vibration is gone before he surfaces.

He slips the mask off, dark hair dripping into his eyes until he runs a hand through it to brush it back. He looks up at his companion, who still seems to be frozen over the readings.

“Can I get out now?” he grouses, but then pauses his complaining.

The solid mask-like nature of Tobi’s face normally makes it difficult to distinguish any kind of expression, so the Zetsu mostly conveys moods and emotions through expressive body language or varying (and sometimes over-dramatic) alterations in the tone of his voice. Right now he’s disturbingly still bent over a printed sheet that supposedly holds the result of his test.

“Tobi?” he asks, concerned.

“That can’t be right…” The Zetsu mutters, practically to himself, but then he looks up again. “Just one more time, I promise. Then you can stop being cold and wet.”

“Third time better be the charm, Guruguru,” Obito warns. “I don’t have enough chakra reserves right now for anything more.”

They repeat the process and this time when surfaces he goes right into pulling himself out of the basin before his strength abandons him.

“Have you been keeping things from me little brother? Because this reading doesn’t make much sense.”

“What are you talking about Tobi?” Obito grumbles.

The Zetsu moves to sit beside him, crossing his legs over the stone and holding out the long strip of paper. Obito trains his eyes on it, reading through the scrawled words and symbols. Most of it is nonsense to him, jargon more familiar to the Zetsu than most living men, but a set of numbers at the bottom paint a very clear picture of what Tobi is talking about.

Obito takes hold of the bottom of the paper to bring it closer to his eye in case the lack of depth perception is screwing with his vision. “That can’t be right.”

“I got the same number on all three tests. I checked the equipment twice over. It’s not a technical error, the machine is running perfectly,” Tobi insists.

At the bottom of the page, tacked on before a percentage mark, is the number 300.

“That doesn’t make any sense. The 100% mark is Hashirama himself, right?” Obito wonders, going up through the other readouts in case there’s something there he missed that explains it.

“Yes. It was the original level of the Mokuton jutsu and the unique chakra within Hashirama when he died, as attuned by Madara-sama. It should be the highest threshold.”

“You’re sure the machine is working right?”

Tobi huffs indignantly. “Absolutely sure. I wouldn’t have redone the tests otherwise.”

Obito is quiet while he reads through what he knows of the symbolism and the technical terms on the page, searching for patterns that might indicate something is out of place. Obito has always been good at seeing patterns, manipulating them even, but he finds nothing off about the report.

“‘Once you’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever is left, however improbable, must be the truth.’” Obito mutters, running through idea after idea in his head, searching for pieces and analyzing what he knows, contrasting it with ideas about what Madara might be hiding from him, or what the Black Zetsu might be keeping even from the old man.

“Where is that from?” Tobi asks, stirring Obito out of his musings with a start. Rin had always called it ‘daydreaming’. Obito doesn’t blame her for making the assumption. In fact he’d intended it that way.

“It’s something my sensei used to say to get us to think outside the box.” Obito muses. He looks up into his friend's face, chewing his lip as he thinks. “That tree that holds up the Demonic Statue, what do you know about it?”

Tobi blinks. “It came from Madara-sama’s clone of Hashirama.”

“Other than that.”

Tobi sets his chin in his hand and thinks. “I know it keeps the Statue… calm, in a sense.”

“Calm? Calm how?”

“Their chakra signatures are similar, I believe. They resonate, and it keeps the Statue’s chakra flow stabilized. Shiro would know more about it than me, though. I haven’t been attached to the collective knowledge in some time now.”

Obito tilts his head and puts the paper down. “Why do you think that is?”

“If I had to guess?” Tobi ponders. Obito nods. “A lack of interest in the bond, for one. I am more… independent than Shiro and many of the other Zetsu. I am unsure why. For another, prolonged exposure to you.”

That brings both Obito’s head and attention up. “Me? Why me?”

“You are… brighter in my senses than any other presence. Normally, for most Zetsu, the brightest presences are the Demonic Statue and Yami– the Black Zetsu. But to Shiro and I, you’ve always outshined them quite a bit. Did I never mention that?”

Obito lets out a bit of a nervous chuckle, suddenly uncomfortable– that had sounded dangerously close to a compliment and Obito is very much not used to those. “Uh, no. You left that out.”

Tobi shrugs. “Either way, extended time in your presence seems to affirm my own presence, and thus that same sense of independence. I can only assume Shiro is not experiencing something similar because his duties as the central node take him away so often.”

Obito swallows. “So, theoretically, if you wanted to keep a secret from the hive-mind, could you?”

Tobi sits up straighter, looks Obito in the eye directly. “If I am careful, and I would be, I could safely keep several.”

“Can you tell me about the Demonic Statue? Not what it does, but what it is? I know the Black Zetsu– Yami, whatever, has told you not to.”

“Ordered, more like,” Tobi mutters, and swallows hard, his voice dropping to a whisper like the walls might have ears, even though both Madara and Yami are currently in Kiri for reasons unknown. “It’s not like I know much anyway, just vague impressions.”

“Impressions of what exactly?” Obito asks, lowing his tone to match his friend’s.

“A woman? Or maybe it was a girl, with white hair and eyes. And then the tree.”

“Tree? What tree?”

“Enormous. A massive thing as old as the earth, with bark so thick and dense it shone black, and leaves that glittered like gemstones. There were orbs too, fruit I think, but that’s all I remember from the black before Yami brought Shiro and I into existence.”

Obito turns the words over and over in his head. “Is it possible the chakra that fuels Mokuton and and the Demonic statue of the outer path came from the same place?”

Tobi shakes his head. “Maybe, but why would Yami not inform Madara of this?”

“Oh the blob monster has been keeping secrets from day one,” Obito informs him, waving it off.

Tobi mutters ‘blob monster’ to himself in bewilderment before he responds. “How would you know that?”

Obito scratches a scarred cheek sheepishly. “Probably because I’m a pretty great liar myself. Once you know how to fool people, it’s easy to see when other people are doing it to.”

“That… explains a few things.” Tobi mumbles. “You are very good at pretending not to be intelligent. It’s very confusing sometimes.”

“I like to hold my cards close, is all,” Obito hedges.

“So in keeping with the metaphor, you’ve never tipped your hand?”

“Once,” Obito admits. “A long time ago with a too-perceptive smug little bastard. And I didn’t so much tip my hand as throw my cards across the room,” he shoots his Zetsu a wry smile and changes the subject, tapping at the resonance report to bring attention back to it. “Anyway, if this says what I think it does, I’d rather not let Creepy Black know. Any way you could fudge the results a little?” he asks, handing the report sheet back to Tobi.

The Zetsu hums, looking over the paper. “I’m fairly sure I can make one of the zeros go away.” he muses. “A subtle problem with the scribe portion of the machine, easy enough to rig. I will need you to take the test again though.”

Obito huffs and grins. “You’re the best.”

“Obito.” Obito stops his slide into the basin, looking up at Tobi. The simple atonement of his name is low and serious, and out of character for his normally bright personality.

“Yeah?”

Tobi doesn’t answer immediately, but Obito waits patiently as the Zetsu gathers his thoughts. Eventually he speaks. “You know that I’m with you, right?”

Obito blinks. “Of course I know that.”

“I don’t think you do.” The Zetsu counters. “I am on your side before all else. Shiro too. While Yami still holds a little sway over us, it is nothing we couldn’t shake off if we wanted to. If you were to walk out of this place, turn your back on everything here, we would follow you.”

Obito feels the unexpected hot prickle of tears suddenly threaten, and he turns his head away before Tobi can see. The Zestu don’t lie. They don’t see the point of it, it’s not in their programing, so every word Tobi speaks is nothing but truth.

Obito needs a few seconds to compose himself, he’s never been good at dealing with gushy emotions like faith or acceptance or loyalty, he just doesn’t have a lot of experience with it.

Thank you.” He says eventually, and whether or not Tobi was ever human Obito can tell he understands.

 

Chapter Text

Kakashi wakes when pre-dawn light slats across his face at an unfamiliar angle, jolting him right into sudden awareness until memory reasserts over base instincts and he remembers where he is.

He is not in the tiny spartan apartment he’d spent most of his life in after Minato and Kushina had died, with the tight rooms and familiar sharp corners softened only by the tiniest of personal touches. For the first time in two decades, Kakashi wakes in the first place he ever called home. For the first time in twelve years, he wakes and the morning isn’t empty.

Even in the quiet the air feels somehow fuller, brighter with the dormant life of the three Genin still sleeping down the hall.

“Boss?” Pakkun yawns, curled on the pillow beside him, still half asleep. Kakashi doesn’t blame him for being drowsy– they’d been up settling in until the small hours of the morning, shuffling around training scrolls and equipment, necessities and precious trinkets, arguing about how close the futon should be to the window.

Kakashi rubs his knuckles over Pakkun’s head to lull the pug back to sleep and slides out of bed, stepping carefully over Shiba and side-stepping Bull’s sprawled bulk. He eyes the shower contemplatively, but decides it can wait until he’s checked on his charges.

He slides the shoji door open softly and steps out into the hallway, taking a moment to admire the soft glow of dusk on the stretches of tall grass that march all the way to the cliff’s edge. In the soft morning breeze the blades shift in waves of pale green, moving as one like ocean tides. Kakashi’s room is one that– as far as he remembers, was once used as a guest room. It lies across from his old room, which Kakashi had been more than willing to let his cubs convert into a study.

It’s also strategically sound– Kakashi chose the room primarily because it lies between the old master suite and all the major entrances, and is close enough that he can hear trouble before it starts.

He pads silently down the hall, smiling softly to himself when he hears Sakura’s soft snores and Naruto’s sleepy rumbling. He eases the door open, and is unsurprised to find all three of them curled up on one side of the large futon, still sprawled in their civs with hands buried under pillows or arms thrown over one another. They seem to have developed a system for sleeping on futons meant for one– Naruto and Sasuke lie parallel and Sakura sleeps upside down between them, conserving space and likely protecting the boys’ poor ribcages from the menace of Sakura’s elbows. Even in sleep the boys seem to gravitate together, heads tilted just above Sakura’s toes so that their foreheads are mere centimeters apart.

The sight makes something pang hard in Kakashi’s chest, a reminder of an old raw pain anchored into his chest by older regrets, actions never taken due to anger and wariness and foolish, foolish pride.

The hurt softens into something bittersweet– Sasuke and Naruto show no signs of making the same mistakes, and they are already older than Kakashi had been, already stronger. Even so, Kakashi will do whatever he can to make sure they don’t trip over the same obstacles he did. If their bond is as strong as he thinks it is…

He allows himself one last indulgent smile and slides the door closed again, slipping back into his room and heading for the shower. He reviews his mental to-do list as he goes through familiar motions, stepping under the spray before it fully warms to clear the last of the drowsy cobwebs from his mind. A great deal of the main house is still closed off and has been even since Kakashi was a child– it had been a big house for a single shinobi father and a kid still in the academy, and from what he remembers a great deal of the rooms had been cordoned off for being either superfluous, dangerous, or both. But Kakashi has three cubs just coming into their skins, and he plans to give them all the room they may need and more if possible.

The dojo needs some fusuma panels replaced and a fresh coat of paint, and then there’s the old building by the cliff edge that he might be able to whip back into some semblance of functionality, maybe as a surprise…

When he steps out of the bathroom, tucking his mask up around his face again and still toweling off his hair, he finds that his entire pack has gone missing. Blinking bewildered at his suddenly empty room, Kakashi pads out the door and peers down the hall.

Sure enough, the door to the cub’s room has been nosed open, and as he approaches he finds every one of his dogs nested around the kids; Bull curled around Naruto and Sasuke’s heads, Bisuke wriggled underneath one of Sakura’s arms, Pakkun tucked into the small of Naruto’s back, and Uhei sandwiched between Sakura’s legs and Sasuke’s torso.

“Traitors,” Kakashi mutters, and Urushi gives him puppy eyes from where he’s nestled under the crook of Naruto’s arm.

“The bed got cold, boss,” he reasons, soft enough not to wake the exhausted Genin, and that’s something else because Urushi has always been the loudest and least caring of his summons.

“Sure it did,” Kakashi murmurs sarcastically. “If they wake up before I get back, let them know I went out to run errands.”

“Should we start them on morning excercises?” Uhei asks softly.

Kakashi raises an eyebrow. “They’re adults. I’m sure they’ll start them on their own.”

“But we can help, right?” Uhei insists, a tail wag giving away his enthusiasm.

“You’re all terrible,” Kakashi informs them all with a rub to the bridge of his nose. He can hardly blame then for being attached though– that would make him a hypocrite. “Have them train with their own summons as well, then,” Kakashi instructs with a roll of his eyes, and slides the door shut again behind him.

<><><> 

Genma wakes, easy and slow, to a calloused hand drawing through his unbound hair. The way he wakes tells him immediately where he is, since in Raidou’s arms is pretty much the only place Genma has the luxury of easing into consciousness.

“Is there a reason why you’re coaxing me into a false sense of security?” Genma mutters, not opening his eyes, tucking his head up under his partner’s chin with a pointed bop. Raidou chuckles, one of Genma’s favorite sounds, low and warm and deep in his chest, flavored with fond exasperation and that rare hint of indulgence.

“I have border patrol soon. I have to leave in a few minutes,” Raidou intones lowly, pressing a tender kiss to the edge of Genma’s left temple.

“What border patrol?” Genma demands sourly, noting with distaste as he opens his eyes that Raidou is indeed already outfitted in most of his traveling gear, leaning over him from his seat at the edge of the bed.

Their bed. Genma remembers after a heartbeat. Even after a week the novelty of that has yet to wear off, and the feeling of being smothered that he’d been expecting has yet to rear it’s ugly head. Genma has never liked feeling confined, in any way, and that phobia of being stifled had been the source of a great deal of their arguments within the last month about whether or not Genma would be moving in.

It had been Raidou’s declaration of fine, I’ll move in with you then that had jolted Genma into actually considering it, because he’d yelled don’t be stupid my apartment is a wreck and Raidou had responded with well so are you sometimes and that hasn’t scared me off to date.

Raidou is an idiot, but he’s Genma’s idiot, and that had been the deciding factor.

“The border patrol I told you about last night. And three times before that,” Raidou reminds him patiently.

“I only remember a few very specific things from last night and you telling me about a border patrol in not on that list.”

Gemna is gratified by the soft red that skates Raidou’s scarred cheeks for the space of a few heartbeats, but is even more gratified by the kiss Raidou leans down to give him, molten and slow. Genma feels no remorse when he scrapes his fingernails up his partner’s neck, tracing the pulled lines of the scars there until he can grip the back of the squad captain’s neck and pull him in closer.

Raidou falls into him for a few long seconds, cupping his jaw with a large calloused hand to slant their mouths more firmly. Eventually though he pulls away with a groan, much to Genma’s displeasure, parting them with a soothing stroke of his thumb against Genma’s cheekbone.

“I’m going to go now,” Raidou tells him firmly. “Before you start something I can’t finish”

Genma snorts. “Speak for yourself,” He rumbles, leaning up to steal another kiss before Raidou can sway out of range. “You can be a little late can’t you?” he reasons, pushing into a second deeper kiss.

Raidou breaks away with a wry laugh. “Not that late,” he counters, leaning intelligently up and out of Genma’s strike zone. “I’ll be back tonight late, barring any bad skirmishes.”

Genma huffs and leans up so that he’s almost vertical, tapping their foreheads together briefly. “Keep your head on your shoulders,” he demands.

“Sir yes sir,” Raidou murmurs with a fond smile not seen on his face outside of these tender moments between them, brushing a chaste kiss over the bridge of Genma’s nose in goodbye.

He flops back into the pillows when Raidou pulls away, watching as he shoulders his pack and vanishes out the window.

Genma takes a long moment to stretch before he bothers rolling out of bed. He doesn’t have any planned missions until midnight tomorrow, so he’s going to take the rare opportunity to be lazy for as long as his Anbu trained body will allow.

When he does get up to start his morning breakfast of coffee, coffee, and maybe some more coffee, he finds that Raidou has strategically left a plate of onigiri and between him and the coffee machine, wrapped in plastic and stuck with a vindictive little note.

No, Shiranui.

Sneaky bastard knows him too well.

Just to be contrary, Genma sets the plate aside and starts his first cup of coffee before he deigns to unwrap the goods, nibbling on a single rice ball until his stomach discovers it actually is hungry and he devours two more in quick succession.

After that and a second cup of coffee Genma feels vaguely human enough to actually shower and dress, throwing on a sleeveless shinobi top and a pair of Raidou’s ratty old sweatpants for comfort, tucking his hair into a short pony tail. It’s been a while since he’s just taken a walk, and he figures the sunshine can only do him good– the sun is just coming up, so he tapps on his sandals and heads out the door.

 

He’s only been soaking up the vitamin D for about half an hour when he spots a familiar shock of silver hair outside the the market circle. “Oi, Hatake!” he calls. “I thought today of all days you’d be sleeping in.”

Kakashi turns from a little stand selling assorted belts and harnesses. He has a bundle of bamboo slats and a thick roll of rice paper under one arm, and a long weapons duffle with an emblem stitched across the side that Genma recognises as being from Bone– a high end blacksmith in the center of the primarily Jounin sector of the shinobi district.

“I had a few things to get done.” Kakashi admits with a careless shrug, and Genma raises an eyebrow, ticking his senbon at the complementary katana bag.

“Uh-huh. Those kids have been living under your roof for less than a day and you’re already spoiling them.”

“It’s necessary equipment for kenjutsu.” Kakashi defends.

“A-grade chakra enforced steel for Genin is a necessity?”

“They’ve earned it.” Kakashi states firmly, then tilts his head with and awkward eye-smile. “Though in truth, at this point they’re Genin in name only.”

“So Iruka keeps telling me.” Genma allows with an inclination of his head, striding up to stand beside Kakashi. “Looking for harnesses to go with?” he asks, peering over the array of of leather harnesses, wrist guards, sheathes and hip holsters. He blinks a couple times, somewhat astounded by the quality, and even more alarmed by how low the prices are in comparison.

He looks up at the vendor in astonishment, a dark skinned young man with short bluish-black hair. He’s clearly not a native– his colorings speaking more of Kumo or Taki than anywhere in Fire country. “You’ve got to be joking with me on these prices, kid. Where did you get these?” he demands.

The young man smiles awkwardly. “So this gentleman was telling me.” the young man laughs, answering the first part of his question and inclining his head towards Kakashi. “I am sorry if the item pricing is a little skewed, I spent most of my life as a hunter, and I’m a bit new to the trade.”

“I caught him just as he opened.” Kakashi murmurs to Genma. “The cubs already have some decent harnesses, the basic stuff for scrolls and kunai, but–”

“But this stuff is premium.” Genma finishes for him, patting his pockets. “Shit, I forgot my wallet.”

“I’ll spot you, if you help me figure out what I should get my cubs.”

Genma is so grateful that he doesn’t even make fun of the whole ‘cubs’ thing, already eyeing a new wrist pouch he could easily rig to carry a whole pack of poison senbon. “Kakashi, you’re still a lazy asshole, but I take back everything I ever said about you being a selfish one.”

Kakashi offers him a crooked but genuine smile just visible beneath the mask, and turns back to the young vendor. “Would I be alright if I payed you for what I believe the goods are worth, so long as it’s above the listed price?”

The poor kid looks taken aback, as if confused by why Kakashi would offer such a thing. “I suppose…”

“Oh, great.” Genma chirps, snatching the thin graceful wrist pouches off the table and ignoring the little folded paper in front of them with the price on it. Together Genma and Kakashi start a debate over functionality value vs. luxury value, discussing sums easily two or three times the listed price. The boy gapes at them as they agree on a solid number, and Kakashi hands the stunned young man a bundle of ryo while Genma happily straps them on to test them out.

“Where did you get this leather?” Genma asks.

“I-I get it from hunting. It’s a hobby, mostly.” The boy admits with a stutter. “Those particular guards came from the hide of black deer up in the Kofun mountains, southern Lightning country.”

“Quite the journey they’ve taken.” Kakashi marvels.

The young man shrugs. “I take mostly untrodden roads to avoid bandits. They sometimes lead me to interesting places. I don’t understand though– the blacksmith out towards Grass country told me they weren’t worth much at all…”

Genma growls. “I hate civilians. Look kid, this here is Shinobi grade stuff– what are you doing selling to backwoods nobodies?”

“I’ve never actually been to a ninja village before.” The kid admits. “A wandering shinobi tradesman told me to come here.”

“This is good work.” Kakashi says firmly, enforcing Genma’s statement. He reaches forward and selects a belted harness with an attachment meant to go up over the shoulder, one that could easily be rigged to carry scrolls.

“For Naruto?” Genma guesses. “Better than the standard stuff you’d get. And it would be more resistant to wear…”

 

An hour or so later they’ve cleaned out half the poor vendor’s stall, leaving him with more ryo than he probably knows what to do with and a recommendation to visit Shinta at Bone and get his stuff appraised– with any luck the kid and his goods will stick around for a while. Genma had taken the construction material off Kakashi’s hands so they could carry everything, and readjusts the roll of rice paper on his shoulder as they head back towards Hatake clan lands.

“Oh, I was going to ask.” Kakashi says suddenly. “You don’t have any missions today, right?”

“Nope.” Genma affirms. “I’m free and clear until tomorrow night. Why?”

“Could you run some drills with my team while I work on one of the buildings on my compound?”

Genma snorts. “Are you asking me to babysit, Hatake?”

Kakashi grimaces. “Nothing so easy, unfortunately. My kids can be… obstinate. Consider it repayment for the wrist guards.”

“Done.” Genma agrees, ever the cheapskate. “If you're looking for some cheap labor to help you out, Kotetsu and Izumo are off mission today too.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Kakashi muses. “Thank you.”

 

<><><> 

 

By the time Sasuke manages to drag himself into wakefulness the sun is already streaming golden through the windows, which on any other day would be a red flag that he’s late for something. But on this particular morning he squashes down the urgency and settles contentedly back down into a half sleep. Judging by the smell of dog fur and the extra warm bodies piled around him, Sasuke guesses that the ninken had filtered into their room sometime while they were asleep.

Judging by the buzzing chakra signature next to him he can tell that Naruto is awake, if only barely.

“Is Kakashi-sensei gone?” he asks, face still half buried in his pillow, one forearm lost underneath it.

“Urushi says he went to run errands.” Naruto responds drowsily, the words followed by a jaw-cracking yawn.

Sasuke turns his head and cracks an eyelid, noting Naruto’s face not far from his own. The Uzumaki is lying on his back and rubbing his eyes with the back of one hand, the other stretched above his head. Urushi is snoring on his ribcage and Shiba has tucked himself against the Uzumaki’s side. “We should get up, shouldn’t we?”

“Probably.” Naruto agrees sullenly, lifting his hand from his eyes to stroke Urushi’s back.

Sasuke rolls onto his side, careful not to disturb Uhei. Naruto rolls his head towards him at almost the same moment, causing their foreheads to slide together in an accidental brush. It surprises a warm, slightly sleepy chuckle out of Naruto, a sound that makes Sasuke’s chest swell unbidden. The gesture is a reminder of their promise, of that oath made in the last dredges of evening sunlight as the day dipped into night.

“Promises to keep.” Naruto murmurs, almost as if reading his mind, and Sasuke allows himself a quicksilver smile.

“Promises to keep.” He agrees, shifting to sit up.

Naruto shakes Urushi a little to wake him, and the ninken yawns widely before hopping off his chest, landing carelessly on Shiba’s flank. Sasuke gives Sakura’s arm a jostle, nimbly dodging the elbow she automatically attempts to bludgeon him with.

“Come on, “ he urges. “We’ve slept enough.”

Sakura grunts unhappily but pushes upright, not bothering to unhand the still sleeping Bisuke as she stands, cradling her favorite ninken in the crook of her arm.

 

It’s the start of a brand new morning routine.

At first it’s strange, because suddenly they have all this space that wasn't there before, and they’re not tripping over each other with every third step, all elbows and knees and tight spaces. It lowers the number of morning squabbles they have significantly, though the space between them is now filled with the scrabbling paws of their sensei’s ninken, leaping this way and that, both to help and to hinder.

The kitchen is huge compared to Naruto’s tiny space,  a long open line of counter space and appliances along one wall, outlined by a large L-shaped island that cuts the  kitchen off from the main living space. The windows over the countertops have a view of the woods that lead back to the village proper, and on the opposite end of the room are a set of sliding glass doors that lead out to a patio, and then into what was probably once a garden, now wild and overgrown. Beyond that lies a series of jagged stone outcroppings, which drop off sharply at the cliff line.

Naruto has thrown the doors wide open, allowing a breeze to chase through the freshly cleaned house. It’s still brisk despite the sunshine, but Sasuke finds he doesn’t mind. It seems fitting for a new start to a new day.

“You three should invite your summons to breakfast.” Bull rumbles, trailing after Sakura with a bag of ninken food in his maw.

“All of them?” Naruto asks from the countertop.

“I don’t see why not. “ Uhei reasons. “It’s good for bonding.”

“We should have enough food.” Sasuke decides with a shrug, opening the fridge to check. “Iruka-sensei is the one who stocked the pantry.”

So they lie out plates of raw meat cut into various lengths and chunks as soon as they finish filling the ninken’s bowls and putting together their own breakfasts.  Naruto summons first, since his summoning limit is still two, and as usual the two kits appear snarled up in each other’s throats, in a fight once again.

“Oh man. Knock it off already.” Naruto grumbles, reaching down with practiced ease to snag the kits by their scruffs. They’re bigger now than when when Naruto had first summoned them, about Shiba’s size, and after a week of gorging on Naruto’s chakra, are each sporting three tails instead of two. As a testament to their new rank, the foxes can now manifest Foxfire; which would be great if they could control it at all.

Sasuke sighs as Sakura puts out the fire roasting merrily away on the floor with a low level Suiton jutsu. The strange flames that the kits are now capable of manifesting from their mouths and around their feet and tails seem to have the ability to set alight almost anything– from the waxed bamboo floors to the side of the refrigerator. Sasuke snuffs that particular fire with a fuuton vacuum.

The foxes’ hackles flatten though at the offer of food, and Sasuke takes that moment of calm to summon his roc. In a puff of glittering sand-like smoke Kikri alights easily on his shoulder, her gilded ivory plumage glittering in the morning sunbeams. She leaves behind two rather befuddled looking roc, both of which are quite a bit larger than she is. The smaller of the two, an adolescent gildedwing with bronze plumage about the size of a large eagle, is Krell, an associate of Kikri’s from her clan, born one clutch before her. Beside him, nearly twice the size of his companion, is the sleek dark form of Valkra, a stormwing of similar age.

Sakura summons Ravia and his twin Saveri, both of which are substantially larger than when Sasuke first saw them– though they still both tend to hang off Sakura’s arms like long scaly scarves.

Both of Sasuke’s relatively new summons look at him expectantly, awaiting orders, but he given them none, instead taking a seat at the island and starting on his breakfast. Kikri, experienced with the nuances of human behavior by now, and more particularly Sasuke’s behavior, hops onto the counter by his elbow with a click of talons and primly selects a dish of thinly sliced raw meat from the array of goodies to call her own.

“Good morning.” She greets Kuran-kha, who has his head buried in a dish of rabbit the ninken had thoughtfully offered up when Naruto was raiding the fridge and freezer. It’s odd though, Sasuke hadn’t thought that ninken were ones to share food readily.

“Mornin.” Kuran replies around his mouthful, swallowing and licking at his bloody maw before digging back in.

“You, are a barbarian.” Renge informs him from his right, eating his chunked rabbit in dainty bites. “Good morning Kirki.” he adds politely to the raptor.

Kikri kees softly at the pleasantries and digs into her meal, pausing to turn her agile head over the bulge of her upper wings to glare at her fellow summons.

“Well? Don’t just perch there. Sasuke-sama has offered quite the meal, it would be rude not to partake. Sasuke smirks a little when the two roc immediately flutter forward, as if spurred into action by the mere idea of being rude.

Naruto sits down beside him with a laugh, having just finished setting all the ninken up with their breakfast, and slides a plate of tomatoes and pickled cucumbers towards him for him to eat off of. Looking down at the the stupidly simple gesture, it’s alarmingly easy for Sasuke to think home.

 

<><><> 

 

Anko and Genma can not, without stretching the term obscenely far, be considered friends. Extraordinarily antagonistic co-workers would be closer to the mark, so when Genma shows up on her balcony, smelling of ozone with one sleeve mostly on fire and says; “I need your help,” Anko finds it well within her rights to blink at him, eyes tracking back between the Tokujo’s damp hair and his merrily smouldering overshirt, and wonder if she’d fallen asleep over Ibiki’s paperwork again.

“Say again?”

Genma rolls his eyes and pats out his sleeve. “Look, you can either help me for the next few hours, or I can tell Inoichi that you were the one who threw up on his flak jacket two weeks ago.”

Anko sits up immediately, knocking over her empty coffee mug in her haste. “That wasn’t my fault! I caught that stupid demon flu in Tea country and it was that or Ibiki’s report folders!” She defends with a snarl.

“Whatever, are you coming or not?”

She is, but not because she’s afraid of Inoichi, but because of her very healthy fear of Shikaku. Despite their lazy calculating natures, Nara men can have protective streaks that are outmatched by absolutely none, and the Jounin-commander is the first place Inoichi would go cry too if he finds out she’s the one who almost ruined his favorite vest.

“Fine. What is it? You piss of the Anbu lieutenant again?” She demands, getting to her feet from her seat in front of her coffee table and reaching for a tank-top.

“I can run from lord stick-up-his-ass. I can’t run from this.” Genma mutters crossly

Anko raises a grudgingly interested eyebrow, her trouble senses tingling. “Alright Shiranui, you have my attention.”

<><><> 

“AOBA! HAYATE!”

Aoba is not proud to say that he jumps so bad he drops his shogi piece, startling raspy laugh out of the sickly ninja across from him. Hayate abruptly stops laughing however when Anko comes around the corner soaking wet and covered in stone dust, her dark hair sticking up at all angles.

“What the hell–” Aoba starts, but cuts himself off with a squawk when Anko snags him by the back of his shirt and begins to drag him bodily out of his seat. It has been a perfectly nice day, and he’s just wanted to relax outside with a nice strategy game with one of his few nice friends, but noooo.

“You’re being conscripted.” Anko declares wrathfully. “You too, Hayate, if you can breathe today.”

“I’m coming, I’m coming.” the Tokujo agrees, seeming to find a humor in the situation that Aoba really doesn’t see.

“Where the fuck are you draggin’ me you crazy kunoichi!?” he snarls, trying to regain his feet, but Anko keeps him on the diagonal with another vicious tug to his collar.

“There’s a war on.” she growls in answer. “We need every able-bodied soldier.”

<><><> 

“A little more to the right! You missed a spot in the top corner!”

“I did not! That corner is flawless.”

“You’re blind. It’s missing at least two coats!”

“Bulshit.”

“It is! Look at it!”

“I am looking at it jackass, you’re out of your mind!”

Kakashi sighs to himself, leaning against the doorframe. As helpful as Izumo and Kotetsu are, they’re not exactly efficient workers. The dojo is done at least, with only a little blood shed in the process, and the fringe building Kakashi had hopped to get working is starting to look promising.

A rustle, a shift of shadow out of place, and Kakashi turns immediately to greet Shikaku before he fully materialized from the shade of the nearby pines.

“Something I can do for you, Jounin Commander?” he asks, perfectly polite in the borderline sarcastic way that he knows grates on people’s nerves.

Shikaku just hums at him, amused. “Are you aware that your kids have started a firefight with half the Tokujo currently on standby? Pretty much literally?”

“Already?” Kakashi muses, glancing up to check the position of the sun. “It’s only been an hour.”

Shikaku’s chuckle is smokey and rough. “They’ve gotten my son and his team involved apparently, as well as Kurenai’s young ones. They’re proving astonishingly good at working as a unit to terrorize my ranks.”

“They’re something else.” Kakashi agrees readily. “But you didn’t come all the way up here just to tell me what I already know.”

“No.” Shikaku admits readily. “I’m actually here to ask you something.”

“Oh?” Kakashi replies mildly, raising an eyebrow.

“How long has Naruto known about his heritage?”

Kakashi’s eye narrow immediately. “Is this a question from you, or from the Sandaime?”

“Easy, wolf. It’s a question from me, so I can let the old man know just how badly he fucked up.”

That wasn’t the response Kakashi had been anticipating, but he lets the automatic hackles drop. He has to force himself to remember that Shikaku has something to protect here too– Naruto and Shikamaru are close, and Kakashi forgets sometimes that such a bond automatically makes the young Uzumaki a part of the Nara extended family– not that such a thing is obvious with the Nara. With the Nara, very little is obvious.

“The Kyuubi told him. Probably when he was very young, seven or eight.”

If Shikaku is alarmed by the ‘kyuubi’ statement he doesn’t let it show, his only sign of incredulousness the tick of a single scarred eyebrow. “Shikamaru said it was attached to him, after he made me admit that I knew. He said that it listened to him. Is that true?”

“It is.” Kakashi admits. “He befriended it, somehow. Years ago probably, I’m still unsure how he managed that, but I can no longer say I’m surprised.”

“That Shimura bastard can’t know, then.” Shikaku says firmly. “He’s always had an unhealthy obsession with the beasts. And if he thinks the boy has a way to control one…”

“A bad idea, to say the least.” Kakashi agrees.

Shikaku laughs suddenly. “Though there's not much the old warmonger could do even if he did know. Sidelining the Sandaime’s protection, there are a lot of people looking out for him now.” There’s a subtle statement in the words, like Shikaku is unintentionally including himself in that number, except that nothing Shikaku does is unintentional.

Kakashi inclines his head in both thanks and agreement, and peers over at the portion of the building Kotetsu and Izumo are busy perilously painting.

“Is it just me or is the right corner missing a coat?” He mutters blandly, and Kotatsu promptly shrieks and falls of his ladder.

 

 

Chapter Text

Smoke floods the spaces between the trees, trailing from half a dozen banked fires, turning the air hazy near the canopy. Several craters dot the landscape, crackling with ozone, framed by unnatural outcroppings of harsh rock and pools of water that sink into the cracks between them. Movement flickers in the shadows, flashes of metal glinting in the light.

This is war.

Both sides have pulled reinforcements, bolstering ranks and adding to the chaos.

Naruto hasn’t had this much fun in ages.

~Come on, kit. We’ve caused enough havoc here, time to rendezvous with your team.~

“Yeah, I think we need a war council.” He agrees, body flickering back into the depths of training ground 31. With the ease of long practice Naruto reaches out with his senses, seeking familiar chakra signatures in the mess of energy they’ve turned the area into. As usual it’s Sasuke he finds first, the familiar cool sharpness of his chakra a beacon against his senses. By the dark smooth texture of the chakra signature nearby, he’s with Shikamaru. He finds them hunched together in conversation in an alcove covered by a curving wall of natural granite, the entrance blocked mostly from sight by a pair of wild cherry trees. Naruto lands nimbly on the low branches of one, just as he hears Sasuke call; “About damn time. Get in here.”

“So grouchy,” Naruto laughs, swinging into their little camp. They have a couple of scrolls open between them, new jutsu by the look of them, along with a surprisingly detailed map of the area drawn into the soft clay.

Sasuke grabs him by the arm and tugs him in, and they hunker down over the map.

“Where are the others?” Shikamaru asks, a smoothed-out tree branch held loosely between his fingers. He doesn’t take his eyes off them map.

“Not sure where Kiba and Choji got off to after they clashed with Anko and got separated, but last I saw Ino and Sakura were giving Aoba hell around here, before Genma almost cornered me by the river rise and I had to book it,” Naruto informs him, pointing out the place on the map where he’d last seen the girls. “Where’s Hinata? I thought she was with you two.”

“She was, but she went off with Shino to grab Choji and Kiba,” Shikamaru mulls, rubbing his jaw as he ponders the map. “We have to get everyone together and regroup or this is going to dissolve out of our favor quickly.”

“This site will be compromised soon,” Sasuke adds. “We disengaged from Hayate too close to here for it to be undiscovered for much longer.”

Shikamaru nods. “You two find Ino and Sakura, break them off of their fight if you have to. I have a good lock on Choji’s location– I’ll go get him and everyone else.” He taps the end of his stick at another spot on the map. “We’ll meet here by the springs in training ground 27.”

“Sounds good to me,” Naruto chirps, and Sasuke scoffs but follows him as he stands, a tiny smile lurking at the corner of his mouth.

They honestly hadn’t meant for it to escalate quite this badly. But Genma had just been so much fun to mess with, and it had been his idea to pull in crazy lady Anko to even the odds.

Things had just kind of devolved from there.

None of the Jounin instructors have gotten involved yet, which is probably a good thing– especially if they’re anything at all like Kakashi-sensei.

Right now though, Naruto is liking their odds.

 

They find Ino and Sakura fuming on the river, obviously aggravated about having lost their prey.

“Aoba give you the slip?” Sasuke asks Sakura as they land at the bank.

Sakura growls and aims a kick at a river rock so hard that part of it splits in half and goes hurtling through the air, missing Naruto’s head by a couple centimeters max. Naruto sends her an annoyed look and doesn’t flinch– even when angry Sakura’s control is close to flawless, and Naruto has pretty solid faith in that control, whatever her emotional state.

“Slippery asshole,” she snarls.

“We’ll get him,” Ino insists. “He can’t have gone that far, body flicker or no.” She looks towards them from where she had been scanning the trees, flaxen hair swaying in the light and catching it. It’s a little bit singed on one side and her bangs are uneven lengths, but she doesn’t seem to be that upset about it at the moment.

She spots Sasuke and waves. “Hi, Sasuke-kun!” she calls, and Naruto has to give her some credit–it’s only a little bit dreamy.

“Ugh,” Sasuke grunts, and then very pointedly maneuvers himself so that Naruto is planted firmly between them.

Naruto snickers a little as Sasuke’s discomfort, earning himself a jab in the ribs. Naruto knows that it’s not actually the attention that bothers him– at least that’s not all of it. He hates people who are in love with the idea of him, and that’s not just fans– it’s well wishers too, and the strings that come with a stranger’s pity. Naruto doesn’t blame him one bit.

“We’re falling back for now,” Naruto informs them. “Shika’s got a plan in the works.”

“Rodger,” Sakura says brightly, bumping arms with Ino. “Come on blondie. We’ll get him back for the haircut later.”

“We’d damn better,” Ino growls, but follows after readily, trailing behind Sakura as they leap up into the trees.

 

On the way to their meeting spot Ino eyes him strangely, gaze flitting back and forth between him and Sasuke before she sidles up to him, leaping side by side with him through the branches. “So…” She starts vaguely. “You two are pretty close, huh?” The way her eyes keep tracking towards Sasuke’s back make it obvious who she’s talking about.

Naruto blinks at her for a few seconds before his gaze turns suspicious. “Why?” He doesn’t actually answer her because the answer is obvious, and she smiles slyly at the unspoken acceptance of her statement.

“I’m curious how you managed it, is all,” She says with false casualty, waving her hand as if to dismiss his suspicions. “Any advice you can give would be welcome. Care so share?” She asks sweetly, and now Naruto’s bullshit sensors are going off in earnest– something is up, and for some reason he gets the feeling that Ino isn’t asking for herself.

“No,” he says firmly. Eyeing her warily.

For some reason that only seems to encourage her, a mischievous glint firing off in her periwinkle peepers that makes Naruto feel like he’s stepped on a trip wire. “Oh really? Not even one word of wisdom?”

And Naruto has no idea what her game is, but that protective instinct in him is flaring again. “I don’t fall all over him for being someone or something he’s not, if that’s what you’re asking,” he says lowly. He doesn’t mean it as an insult, but he doesn’t like what she’s implying either.

She doesn’t look hurt, but the syrupy sweet smile she’d been sporting drops away into something surprised. “Wow. You two really are close,” she observes.

Naruto shrugs. “It’s not that odd. Are you not close to Shikamaru and Choji?”

“That’s different. Our parents have been friends for forever. We were practically raised as siblings,” Ino counters, leaping a little farther ahead of him so she can face him as they travel. Her spacial sense must be almost as good as his– she hardly has to look around her to know where the branches will be.

“We’ve been friends for two years. Why are you just now asking about it?” Naruto wonders.

“Because you two aren’t just friends. You’re friends with Kiba, but that doesn’t mean you two read each other’s minds. I saw you and and Sasuke thrashing Genma together; do you click like that with all your friends?” Ino demands, her gaze probing. “Because that was something else to watch.”

Naruto is shaking his head before she’s even finished. “That’s different.”

“How so?” She asks, genuinely intrigued, and Naruto makes a face.

“You honestly want me to try and explain that?”

“Can you not explain it?”

Naruto grimaces again. “What’s with the grill session here? I’m bad with words, okay?”

Ino holds her hands up in placation. “Easy big guy. I’m just curious, is all.”

“You get really curious really fast then,” Naruto grumbles. “Look, it’s just different. He’s different. We just… sync, I guess.”

“Sync?”

“Yep. And that’s all I’m going to say about it.”

“Alright, alright. So defensive.” Ino sidles up next to him again, but drops the subject, instead going into the topic of mixing up styles– she’d gotten a look inside Aoba’s noggin for a couple of seconds and even though the Tokujo’s head had been heavily compartmentalized (a byproduct of being a spy apparently) she’d gleaned enough off the surface to know that he was starting to clock the patterns in their movements and it was time to switch things up.

“Shikamaru was probably thinking the same thing,” Naruto agrees.

Ino snorts delicately. “I’d be surprised if he hasn’t already figured out how to wrap this tiny war up in a neat little bow. He’s been crazy on point lately as far as the strategies go.”

<> 

“Waiting? What kind of tactic is that?” Naruto asks, curious rather than accusatory.

“A psychological one.” Shikamaru replies lazily, hip cocked against a boulder at the edge of the springs tucked deep into training ground 27. “Let them worry themselves sick about tracking us down while we rest up and change strategy. And lick our wounds in Kiba’s case.”

“It’s a scratch,” the Inuzuka growls, leaning back against a fallen tree trunk with his legs crossed over the forest floor. He’d stripped out of his fluffy jacket and has his mesh shirt pulled up over his chest as Sakura mutters over the gouge in his side. It’s a nasty wound mostly because it tapers in a jagged arc from over his hipbone to curl up over his lower ribs, flared at the edge like the teeth on a saw.

Shino leans down to watch the proceedings with interest, eyes fixed on Sakura’s hands as she pulls energy back and forth, channeling chakra in concentrated streams to stitch tissue and focus healing.

“Fascinating.” He murmurs. “Your chakra control is prodigious. I don’t suppose you’d be willing to teach me a few of your first aid techniques? I feel that keeping this idiot on his feet is going to be a full time job.”

“Screw you, bug boy.” Kiba mutters amicably.

Hinata stands hovering nearby, twisting her hands together nervously. “You’re sure he’ll be okay?”

Sakura laughs shortly. “He’s fine. A stubborn idiot, but fine.”

“I don’t suppose you have a cure for that?” Shino asks blithely, swaying out of the way when Kiba takes a swipe at him.

Sakura pins his shoulder back against the tree crossly. “What about ‘sit still’ was so hard to understand, dog breath? Don't. Move.”

Kiba winces at the shove and gives her a nervous lopsided grin– as if reminded suddenly that Sakura could crush the bone under her hands with vey little effort. “Yes ma’am.” He says sweetly, and then turns his head to Akamaru. “Sic’em boy.”

With an affirmative yip Akamaru leaps, springboarding off Sakura’s back and launching himself full throttle at Shino’s chest, knocking him back into the dirt with a grunt. Kiba snickers, and smiles wide when the antics startle a smile and a giggle out of Hinata.

~Quite the bunch you’ve gathered here.~ Kurama muses, curled contentedly in the back of Naruto’s thoughts.

Naruto hums in agreement, his attention called up when Sasuke comes out of the surrounding trees and sits beside him on the warm boulder he’d claimed as his own.

“Traps are set.” He says with a huff.

“How’s the burn?”

Sasuke holds up his arm instead of answering– other than a slim streak of red the burn he’d gotten from their fight with Genma is practically gone.

“Sakura’s getting good at that.” Naruto muses, and Sasuke narrows his eyes.

“You got that flashfire jutsu worse than I did.”

Naruto shrugs. “Side-effect of the mach-nine healing factor. My burn was gone in a few minutes.”

“Seems like cheating to me.” Sasuke mutters, but he’s not actually cross about it.

“And having super sight that can practically predict the immediate future isn’t a cheat?” Naruto ribs good-naturedly, and Sasuke bumps their shoulders.

There it is again, that click, that synchrony. Naruto suddenly remembers Ino’s words about their friendship being strange, but that’s the thing– nothing about this feels strange. Sasuke just slots so easily into his life, like there’s a place carved out in Naruto’s spirit made just for him. It hasn’t always been that way, obviously– there had been so much emotional debris and fractured pride in the way at first, old hurts left unhealed and festering, too much of a mess of dark feelings to be room for much else.

But once they’d cleared everything out, washed light into the cracks of their dark places and dealt with their demons, everything had settled. Naruto wonders sometimes if they hadn’t accidentally swapped pieces of themselves in the confusion, in those first few months of pain and conflict where they’d raged and crashed against each other. It would explain the way boundaries and thoughts start to blur when they sit alone together, it would explain why their body language tunes in a fight or even just standing still, it would explain why he can tell what Sasuke is thinking just by the way his eyes crease at the corners.

“Do you think this is weird?” he asks quietly.

“Hmm?” Sasuke questions, eyeing a scratch on the blade of his tanto with distaste.

Without really thinking about it Naruto pulls one of his storage scrolls off his belt and unrolls it, trailing his fingers across the seals until he finds what he’s looking for. With a quick flick of his fingers and a pulse of chakra he unseals a whetstone and hands it to Sasuke, who takes the tool with a soft nod of thanks and goes to work on his blade.

“This.” Naruto murmurs, tapping a knuckle to Sasuke’s chest and the gesturing between them.

Sasuke looks up, brows furrowed for a moment of confusion. But then blue eyes meet black and Sasuke blinks a few times, his expression smoothing out into understanding.

He snorts, a little slice of a smile flashing the white of his teeth. “I have no idea.”

Naruto laughs at that. “Me neither.”

<><><> 

 

“I’m going to string Kakashi up over the Hokage tower by his intestines.”

Anko looks up at Genma’s dramatics from where she’s wringing out her vest. “Cry me a river, Shiranui.”

“What the hell are they teaching those Genin?” Hayate asks, still bent over a little, his breath coming too shallow to be good for Aoba’s blood pressure.

“Forget that.” he growls. “What the fuck is Hatake feeding those three monsters of his? The pink one hit me with a earth-water combo most Chuunin couldn’t pull off. Not to mention those twin demons got the drop on you.”

Aoba directs the last part at Genma, who scowls and clicks his senbon against his teeth. “I’ll tell you one thing. I’ve seen a lot of pair fighting in my life, taken down my fair share of dual acts; good ones too.” Genma takes the senbon out of his mouth gingerly, like the way one might hold a cigarette, and points it towards the edge of the lake that had been their battleground. “And I have never seen that before.”

The span of the bank at the lake’s edge looks like ground zero for a natural disaster. The ground has been upturned, charred, electrocuted, flooded, blown up and pounded down until it’s nothing more than a cracked black mess of broken earth reminiscent of a meteorite crater. Aoba had seen the first half of the fight but missed the tail end of it when the she-devils had gone for his throat. Literally.

It had been pretty surreal to watch Genma, The Flashfire, wanted man and cold blooded assassin, struggle to take down a couple of pre-teens.

Then again, Aoba hasn’t seen a couple of pre-teens that strong, not since Kakashi himself. And two powerful pre-teens that could flow together like old partners? Never.

Genma grunts and rubs the back of his his neck in frustration. His left eyebrow is doing that twitch thing that it does sometimes after really long missions or dealing with Gai too much, his eyes slightly wild as he scans through the trees for any sign of the nine ninja brats. “I’m supposed to be watching Kakashi’s kids, not hunting for them through the woods like this is a B-rank tracker mission.”

“Relax, Genma.” Hayate soothes as he takes a seat on one of the upturned boulders. “Knowing Kakashi, he probably knew something like this would happen.”

“They don’t listen.” Genma growls. “How the does Kakashi wrangle these little shits regularly?

“Kakashi doesn’t have this kind of trouble with his brats.” Anko cuts in. “It must just be you they don’t like.”

“Oh they like us just fine.” Hayate counters. “The Uchiha even asked me to show him some kenjutsu while we fought. I just don’t think they see us as authority figures.”

“We outrank them.” Aoba whines.

“Only on paper, apparently.” Anko mumbles, pulling off one of her long boots to shake the rock dust out of it. “Why the hell are they still Genin again?”

“The exams aren’t for another few months.” Hayate supplies helpfully.

“You proctoring that?” Aoba asks.

Hayate nodds.

Genma checks the position of the sun and grimaces, cracking his knuckles in preparation. “Come on. I don’t know about you three, but I’m not letting a bunch of Genin catch me unaware.”

 

<> 

 

They catch him unaware. The Tokujo lose the war.

Kakashi stares down at Genma as he lies scowling over the grassy ground, hand placed suspiciously over his masked mouth. Genma flips him off.

“I hate you.”

Kakashi does laugh at that, low chuckles under his palm. “I did tell you they could be obstinate.”

“Unless obstinate is some kind of code for demonic, that was not an appropriate disclaimer.”

Kakashi laughs again, which is weird since Kakashi’s quota for real laughter usually never exceeds a maximum of twice every month or so. “To be honest, I didn’t actually expect them to get the entire graduating class involved,” he defends.

“Get it off, get it off, GET IT OFF!” Anko shrieks from nearby, hopping about and waving her arm wildly like it might send the seal etched on her skin flying if she just shakes it hard enough.

Kakashi raises a dry eyebrow at her. “It’s a seal, Anko. Not a spider.”.”

“GET IT OFF.” she demands viciously. “I CAN’T. CHANNEL. MY. CHAKRA.”

Aoba curses colourfully from halfway up the pine tree he’d been shadow possessed into. Judging by the difficulty he’s having getting down, he still hasn’t managed to break the genjutsu he’s under.

“To the left, Aoba. Left.” Hayate directs. “No, no your left.”

“Fuck it, I’m jumping.” Aoba declares, and before Hayate can gainsay him otherwise Aoba leaps, obviously aiming for the loudest thing he can use for direction, which in this case happens to be Anko. They go down snarling and striking like cats, cursing and hissing.

Hayate sighs, rubbing the bridge of his nose with the back of his thumb.

“A couple tents short a full circus.” Kakashi drawls.

“Just help me up, jackass.” Genma growls. He’s still out of breath from where he took Choji’s expanded fist right to the diaphragm, not to mention dizzy from the combo platter of Yamanaka mind altering jutsu– which had swapped his sight with Hayate’s, he’s pretty sure even Inoichi can’t do that consistently– and Hyuuga taijutsu that he got caught up in when he was paying too much attention to the Inuzuka brat.

Kakashi readily offers a hand and pulls him up slow and easy, so that Genma’s already rattled neurons don’t shake anymore than they already are. “It’s not like you let someone catch you unawares.” he comments offhand.

“Well excuse me if I wasn’t expecting Genin to use guerilla tactics.” he snarls.

Kakashi claps him on the shoulder amicably. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that underestimating them is a bad idea.”

“Did anybody clock where they went?” Aoba asks after he and Anko have managed to extract themselves from each other.

“Oh hell.”

Genma turns around at the low voice and smell of smoke to see Asuma alight at the edge of the clearing.

Kurenai appears not long after, tucking a bright laugh behind her curled fingers. “I think we’ve created a monster.”

Asuma rubs the back of his head wearily. “It’s not like they needed much encouragement.”

Kakashi hums, casting his gaze up into the trees. “Okay you three, come on out. Fun’s over for today.”

“Aww.”

Kakashi’s three brats drop out of seemingly thin air, followed not long after by teams 8 and 10.

Asuma looks thoughtfully up into the trees where the brats came from, noting the strange composition of the illusion that had been cloaking them. It’s not a genjutsu– Genma would have noticed a genjutsu. Asuma’s eyes then track immediately to Shikamaru, who has his hands stuffed low in his cargo pants and a bland expression on his sharp Nara features. “How long have you been keeping that little trick up your sleeve?” he asks his charge.

Shikamaru shrugs. “Couple weeks.”

Asuma hums approvingly, but doesn’t say anything more.

“Asuma-sensei! I figured out the cross perception jutsu!” Ino chirps, dancing over towards her teacher.

Asuma ticks an eyebrow up with a smile. “Did you now?”

And then suddenly the air is filled with the sound of chattering twelve-year-olds as they talk over each other to tell their Jounin-senseis what they learned, and Genma watches with no small amount of fascination as the three strong willed little brats that had been giving him so much trouble practically clamor for Kakashi’s attention. And he gives it– crouching down to listen and respond as they ask questions and show him hand signs and tell him theories and ideas, even reaching forward to gently correct a sequence of signs for one of Naruto’s jutsu that didn't quite go right.

To his right Kurenai is ruffling Kiba’s hair with both hands and praising hinata for her ingenuity at the same time. She then reaches over as Shino starts to speak coolly as well, adjusting his hood fondly and nodding as he recounts his use of her teachings in illusions to disrupt Aoba’s special senses.

Asuma is laughing as Choji recounts his courage against Genma and Anko, rubbing the Akimichi’s head with his knuckles. Ino practically hangs off his arm and chatters in his ear all the while, adding her take to Choji’s story and telling her own tales in between. Shikamaru doesn’t talk other than to clarify a few things, but softens his rigid stance when Asuma rests a hand on his shoulder.

...Well shit. Genma finds his sour mood evaporating quite against his will, bringing a reluctant smile to his face. Anko harrumphs from behind him and drapes herself over his shoulders, leveling an accusing finger at Naruto.

You.

And the kid has nuts, Genma will give him that, because he has the nerve to blink and look around, as if to imply who, me?

Anko nearly lunges, but Kakashi steps in before she can get too fired up.

“She has a mission tomorrow, cub.”

Naruto sighs dramatically “Oh fine,” and squeezes between his teammates to go over to Anko and Genma, unafraid, and hold his hand out expectantly. Anko eyes him suspiciously but hands over her arm. The kid makes a few hand signs, including one Genma doesn’t even know, and then touches two fingers to the center of the seal on Anko’s upper arm.

With a flash of white-hot chakra and a sound like breaking glass the seal dissolves right off her skin. Naruto, job done, hops back over to his sensei and settle next to his partner in crime again, the dark haired Uchiha swaying out of his way to make room for him without thought.

Kakashi laughs and straightens, turning to the Tokujo as they pick themselves up and crowd behind Genma. “Well we did inconvenience you all day.” he allows. “How about we make it up to you with an early dinner?”

“Food?” Aoba asks, focus instantly captured.

“Oh! We can make curry! Our curry is the best.” Sakura claims with feeling.

“We have enough room now, I suppose.” Sasuke reasons.

“Can everyone come?” Naruto asks Kakashi.

Kakashi tilts his head. “Of course. It’s as much your home as mine.”

“Did I hear curry?” Choji demands.

Asuma laughs. “Now you’ve done it.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Kakashi wonders sometimes what he was thinking, hesitating the way he did.

He had been so afraid of the dark emptiness of this place, never really full even when he lived here as a child, too expansive for a too-smart kid and a worn down veteran. After his father’s death it had grown impossibly colder, emptiness seeping into the walls the same way Sakumo's blood had seeped between the floorboards. He’d been afraid to bring his team here, afraid that the empty cold that he remembered haunting the rooms would weigh on their bright souls as they slept.

He hadn’t counted on the reverse being true.

Any cold that once tried to linger here has been chased off with force; Naruto’s warmth and energy diffusing into every corner and crack and lingering in whatever space he occupies, Sakura’s bright determination and strength a bastion against whatever ghosts may yet have lingered, even Sasuke’s quiet resolve hides the strange subtle burn of devotion that banishes any chill that might be lurking in the seams. These little ninja have pushed themselves into every cranny and nook, transformed every chakra enforced wall and piece of furniture, and now Kakashi hardly recognises his own home.

And even if there had been any emptiness stalking around between the walls, it’s sure as hell gone now.

“Easy Aoba, don’t spill.”

“If you want this endeavor to go smoothly then you should tell your brats to stop darting past my shins!”

“You’re a Tokujo for gods’ sakes you should have better balance.”

“Blame the  Bug Brat, I still can’t see straight… ”

“Ino, honey. Come here and let me see your bangs. We’ll see what we can do about the singed bits.”

“Iruka-sensei! We need a taste tester!”

“Coming, coming. Don’t shout inside Naruto, it’s bad manners.”

“Soooorry.”

“Genma-san, do you know if anyone has any allergies?”

“No peanuts for Anko, kit-kat. It’s not that bad, but it makes her face puff up.”

“Don’t say it like that.”

Kakashi watches from against the partition that separates the kitchen from the larger half of the main room, hiding his observations behind the easy guise of his Icha Icha. He’s comfortable enough with the company to be a little dressed down– his Jounin vest and overshirt are gone and he’s changed out of his mission pants into dark grey civilian sweats, since he’d managed to get both paint and chakric plaster on the former.

He’s not the only one in less than standard clothes– almost all the Tokujo had run home to change before taking Kakashi and his kids up on their offer for free food, Asuma has stripped out of his vest and Kurenai had used one of the spare rooms to change into black mission pants and a matching tank top earlier, and Iruka had been in his civs when he arrived.

It’s almost cozy enough to make Kakashi uncomfortable.

And speaking of uncomfortable…

"Well isn’t this quite the trainwreck.”

Ikari Ryouta stands glaring and smoking in the open doorway, his hands deep in the pockets of his standard shinobi slacks. Kakashi raises an eyebrow at the grouchy surgeon, and the man huffs out a breath laden with smoke.

Sakura materializes around a corner with a bright smile, a streak of curry sauce on her cheek, no doubt from kitchen shenanigans. “Ikari-sensei!” she chirps, and Ryouta’s posture relaxes a bit.

“There you are, short stuff. Shiki said something about free food?”

“It’s not done yet, but it will be soon. Did you finish your paperwork?”

Ryouta chuckles wryly. “What are you, my secretary? And what the hell is that on your face? You’re training to be a medic-nin not a slob.” He rubs the streak of curry spice and beef bullion off her cheek with his sleeve until she wriggles away with a laugh and swipes the rest away herself.

“Come on in, we have snacks!” she chirps, and then darts back into the kitchen.

Ryouta looks up and meets Kakashi’s eyes again, his glare falling right back into place from where it had slipped to something close to fondness. “Calm down Hatake, I’m not going to give you a shot in the hallway.”

Kakashi lets his eyes curve up in a taunt of a half smile. “You say that like you haven’t done it before,” he counters.

Genma takes the moment to walk back into the main room from the kitchen, take two long blinks at Ryouta, and walk right back out again. Ryouta rolls his eyes and goes to sit down next to Hayate, who offers him a bowl of wasabi peas.

Kakashi returns to his pretense of reading, unease crawling around under his skin again. It’s tempered easily by the warmth around him, simple enough to ignore. It would be rude to leave now, even for him; he can wait until the everyone leaves to go settle his nerves.

But just as the thought crosses his mind there's a rustle and a soft step and Sasuke appears by his elbow, apparently finding a body flicker easier than actually walking to him from the kitchen.

“Something wrong?” he asks.

Sasuke shakes his head, his eyes oddly intent. “You should go.”

Kakashi blinks at the non-sequitur. “What?”

Sasuke huffs and looks pointedly at the group of Jounin and Tokujo nearby, as if suddenly irritated with their proximity. “You haven’t gone to the memorial today yet, right? Naruto can tell it’s bugging you.” Sasuke says so softly that the sound barely carries, like it’s a secret. It’s not, Sasuke knows that, but he also knows that Kakashi doesn’t exactly appreciate drawing attention to it.

Kakashi can’t help the fondness in his smile and the calming bloom of warmth in the normally chilly space of his chest from the consideration alone. Out of all three of his Genin Sasuke by far is the one who hates emotions the most, and coming from him the thought is that much warmer.

Unable to help himself he sets a hand on the Uchiha’s head and ruffles his dark hair. “I’m alright, cub. I can go later.”

Sasuke indulges the attention for a few seconds before he ducks away, looking a little miffed like Kakashi missed his point entirely. “Curry is going to take another hour, sensei. It’s fine, really.” And then Sasuke looks up at him, determined but also a little bit vulnerable, like he understands, and Kakashi realizes that he probably does. “Go.” he repeats.

Kakashi looks at him for along moment, but then, eventually he nods. “Alright then. Make sure the Tokujo don’t break anything while I’m gone, yeah?”

Sasuke, the brat, rolls his eyes with a derisive, obviously, and flickers back into the kitchen.

Kakashi takes a deep breath and pushes off the partition.

Iruka sees him go, but doesn’t say anything, much less attempt to stop him. He just smiles a little, eyes soft with compassion but never pity, and makes a shooing motion with one hand before turning back to the stove, settled as in intermediary between Sasuke and Naruto’s customary flavor debate.

Genma notices, because of course he does, but instead of drawing attention to him, he covers his escape by yelling too loudly at Anko stop chasing Kiba and Hinata around indoors because you’re going to break shit goddammit what are you even doing.

Kakashi wonders what he did to deserve them.

<> 

It doesn’t take him long to get to the memorial stone. He doesn’t plan to stay long since it’s only a matter of time before even his brats start to miss him, and he’d be shunned out of his own house if he missed curry. But even as he approaches he feels his nerves begin to calm, the monster of grief pacing restlessly back and forth in his chest stilling for now.

He doesn’t talk much to anyone but Obito this time around, and the words flow easy once he starts, soft and fond as he talks about Naruto’s rising and terrifying penchant for sealwork that’s looking to overtake even Minato’s skill, about Sasuke’s adaptability and skill with a variety of different weapons and his growing fondness for kenjutsu that is starting to become contagious, about how Sakura’s monster strength and cleverness are turning her into a kunoichi to be feared already and how he’s a bit worried about her glee in discovering that certain aspects of medical ninjutsu could theoretically be weaponized.

He talks about the upcoming chunin exams, asks theoretical questions about what missions he should take them on in the interim, how best to help them overcome their weaknesses and develop their strengths as individuals as well as their strengths as a team. He swears sometimes that he can feel warmth in his chest that isn’t his, contentment and maybe even relief blooming under his ribs in approval or pleased surprise that isn’t his.

Maybe he’s going mad. It wouldn’t be the first time he’s thought so.

He feels a great deal better by the time he’s finished, even though it took him longer than he thought, and by the time he heads back his chest feels lighter for once instead of heavier.

<> 

When he returns he finds Ryouta loitering outside the fringe building on the grounds, the one he’d spent the day working into some semblance of order. Kakashi approaches warily, through Ryouta seems far too interested in the building to even really notice him, his cigarette burning merrily away at the corner of his mouth.  

“Something I can do for you Ikari-san?” he asks, as much to announce his presence as to ask a question– it’s never a good idea to sneak up on ex-anbu. He would know.

But Ryouta just hums absently and reaches up to take his cigarette from his mouth, eyes never straying from the the dark painted walls and carvings that make up the building’s face.

He gestures forward with his cigarette. “Is this what I think it is?”

“It depends on what you think it is.” Kakashi says blithely.

Ryouta’s contemplative expression sours. “Don’t get smart with me, Hatake. This is a Black Temple, isn’t it?”

Kakashi shrugs, can find no reason to lie. “Yes. It’s in poor shape still, I’ve managed to get it’s most basic functions up and running, but nothing else.

Ryouta huffs, still staring intently at the shrine-like facade. The dark chakra paint is finally starting to set, darkening from a matte grey to deep black as the sun bakes it’s energy into the surface. As the moon rises the heated chakra in the paint will crystalize, transforming into a smooth lacquer-like polish.

“I don’t get it.” The surgeon grunts.

Kakashi ticks an eyebrow up skeptically. “What’s not to get?”

“I’ve seen the Black Temples in the Aburame clan lands, the Nara, the Inuzuka. Hell, I maintain the one behind the hokage’s main house. I’ve even seen the old massive pair, perched on the edges of the Hyuuga complex.”

“So?” Kakashi mutters, through he already has an idea where this is heading.

“So why is this one older.”

“Because it was the first.” Kakashi answers blandly.

Ryouta does finally turn to look at him, eyes narrowed. “Are you trying to tell me that the first Black Temples were built by the Hatake?”

“Yes and no.” Kakashi allows. “This is more a… prototype to the traditional healing temples. If you were to drag an old Hatake clansman from the grave they’d tell you that the ones spattered around the clan lands aren't true Kuro Tera at all.”

Ryouta  takes a final drag from his cigarette before stubbing it out on his sandal, turning to give Kakashi his full attention at last. “I don’t follow.”

“The Black Temples around the clan lands are for advanced healing, recovery from intense missions that are draining physically mentally, and chakra wise.”

“What else would they be for?” Ryouta grumbles, but Kakashi has his full attention, gaze fixed in him like a hawk.

“Well, in true Hatake tradition,” Kakashi says drolly, “The Black Temple was developed for healing second and strengthening first. They have similar processes, but not the same.”

“So it was created during the first war, then.” Ryouta surmises. “A way to turn broken soldiers back onto the field faster.”

“That is a very kind way of putting it.” Kakashi says wryly. “The chakra network and symphony lines are still disabled, but I was planning to let my team lay into it, turn it into whatever they wanted.”

“Something to keep them busy?” Ryouta guesses.

“That too.”

Ryouta rubs his jaw, giving the building another once over. He seems conflicted for a few minutes, his expression rotating through concentration, consternation, and anticipation in turns. “This whole thing is a recipe for disaster, you realize.” he says suddenly.

“I’m sure they can refrain from blowing it sky high.” Kakashi defends, a sarcastic lilt to the statement. He has no idea if that’s true– Naruto alone would easily be capable of that kind of destruction.

“Not what I meant, Hatake.” Ryouta counters. “You have no idea what you're doing here do you?”

Kakashi’s stomach dips low at the statement. Despite the way his kids are clearly gowning and maturing, doubt still festers, cold and bitter, low in his chest. He has no experience in this, and somewhere in the back of his head he’s sure he has to be doing something wrong.

Kakashi’s body language only shifts a little, so long training in Anbu dulling even the most reflexive shows of emotion, but he’s not the only one here Anbu trained, and Ryouta catches the practically microscopic stiffening of his shoulders and tightening around his visible eye.

“No, no, not like that.” he says quickly, grimacing and rubbing the back of his neck hard. “You do just fine by these kids, and that’s the whole issue here.”

“I’m afraid I don’t follow.” Kakashi replies easily, keeping his tone reserved.

Ryouta huffs and leans against one of the carved pillars, digging around in his pocket for his cigarette case. “The ninja world works on a pretty well defined system. Weaker ninja are placed on less heavy missions, raised more or less normally, and are allowed to develop decent emotional reserves and maintain mental stability. Higher level ninja, gods forbid prodigies, develop lopsided; all form and function but usually lacking emotional stability or capability, riddled with ticks and maladaptive personality traits. It keeps things balanced more or less, because the strongest ninja are typically the craziest, and manifest personality weaknesses that can be exploited if not properly accounted for.”

He's talking like an Anbu, in a kind of tone that Kakashi is conditioned to pay very close attention to. Kakashi sees his point– and Ryouta would know more about high level shinobi psychology than most.

“And how does that apply here?” he questions, though he thinks he can see where Ryouta’s train of thought is leading.

“I talked to your brats. Kakashi.” He says crossly, like that should explain everything.

Kakashi narrows his eyes. “You mean you performed field psych evals on my Genin. Without my permission.”

Ryouta waves him off. “That’s not the point. What I’m saying is that aside from some clear codependency issues, I can count their psychological problems on one hand all together.”

“What psychological problems?” Kakashi demands, momentarily sidetracked.

Ryouta shrugs, crossing his arms and waving one hand in absent circles as he recalls. “Uchiha is still coming out of severe emotional repression, likely a result of clan orientation, trauma, and extended emotional isolation all wrapped up together. The fact that he’s coming out of it at all is frankly astonishing, though the reserved quality of his personality is likely permanent. Uzumaki shows some signs of contact based stress trauma, a result of spending his formative years without any kind of physical contact, though it’s only really noticeable if you sneak up on him. Sakura and the Uchiha are exceptions to the rule as far as I can tell, which is a good sign. Sakura is still kicking out the last of her inferiority complex, but other than that and some temper issues, she’s right as rain.”

Kakashi nods along with Ryouta’s diagnosis. He was aware of most of that already. In the ninja world, much more detrimental quirks have been considered normal, and he’s glad to see that what he gleaned from their behavior was the extent of it.

“I don’t really see the problem, Ikari-sensei. Given the way they grew up, things could be far worse.”

Ryouta rolls his eyes, exasperated. “You are raising a handful of Genin with already strong baseline skills, that are honing strengths past the Chunin level of ability already. They are emotionally stable. This means that they will not be prone to burnout or psychological pitfalls. They are stubborn but reasonable, proud but not arrogant, and they chafe under authority.” Ryouta finally succeeds in lighting his cigarette and takes a long drag before he continues. “It’s a godsdamned powder keg. You give them the room and the support and they will grow completely unchecked. That kind of power attracts a lot of attention from unsavory places, a lot of things become possible that weren't before, and it’s going to piss a lot of people off.”

Kakashi, nods. “The best of us find that the greatest source of adversity is mediocre minds.” he agrees.

“A quote of the Yondaime’s.” Ryouta acknowledges. “You prepared to protect them from that?”

“Of course.” Kakashi says immediately, without even the slightest of hesitations.

Ryouta snorts. “Spoken like a Hatake. Not even sure why I asked.”

He stares at Kakashi for a long moment afterwards, jaw flexing, letting his cigarette smolder past the ends of his fingers. He’s making a decision of some sort, picking a side maybe– Kakashi isn’t sure– but eventually he brings his half wasted cigarette up to his mouth and take a drag, before huffing out out the smoke in a long breath of grey-flecked white.

“Alright wolf.” He says at last. “I’ll give you and your brats access to the spare materials for the Black Temples that I have access to, reserves and all. In exchange, your other two Genin see me at least thrice a week for combat medic lessons.”

Kakashi blinks, taken aback. “That's… generous of you.”

“Your brats are going to be World-Wreckers, Kakashi. One way or another.” Ryouta grumbles. “They need responsibility with that power or it’s going to run out of their control, and if they're going to learn how to take a human being apart, they damn well better know how to put one back together.”

“Fair enough.” Kakashi allows, though he’s fighting a grin. “Looks like Sakura almost has that covered already.”

Ryouta levels an accusatory finger at him. “Don’t get me started. She’s putting my nurses out of a job.”

 

<><><> 

 

“How come this stuff tastes different every time I eat it?” Kiba asks no one in particular as he shovels curry in his mouth with an absence of manners that makes Ino cover her own mouth reflexively. Hinata, bless her gushy little heart, just giggles at his enthusiasm.

“I think it’s evolving.” Shikamaru rumbles dryly, taking another bite himself.

“It’s quite delicious.” Shino appraises. He’s taken off his jacket entirely as not to get any of the messy curry on the pale fabric, and Ino can’t help but notice how different he looks without the heavy outer layer. She can see the tiny lines of holes in his skin down the length of his bare arms, the little burrow holes of his symbiotic insects. She hasn’t seen any of them poke their heads out though, and when she’d asked about it Shino told her that they spent most of their time hibernating unless he was actively channeling his chakra. She finds it weirdly fascinating.

They’re circled on one of the flat boulders that dot the long grass of the Hatake property, perched close to the cliffs. Ino peers over the side of their stone seat, settled like an island in a waving sea of pale grasses. The cliff slopes harshly away into the Konoha wilds, thick emerald trees with branches woven into a verdant mat that filters the light chlorophyll green.

Ino starts a little when Sakura plops down beside her without warning, her own bowl of curry in hand, and tugs softly on a thick strand of her bangs. “Kurenai-sensei did an awesome job with damage control. It looks good.” she hums, surveying the spot on her head where her hair was singed off by Aoba’s renegade Incendiary Shot.

Ino touches the spot reflexively where it’s been sheared short. It’s not a large area, just a square bit past her temple where Kurenai-sensei had clipped away the damaged hair and then styled it to match everything else. Her hair is parted entirely to the other side of her head now, no effort made to conceal the short, admittedly stylish buzz on the side. She had been a little upset at the time, but she thinks the style might be growing on her.

“You’re sure it doesn’t look strange?” She asks, trying not to sound as self-conscious as she feels.

Sakura only beams and shakes her head. “Not at all! I think it suits you, personally. Gives all that soft gold an edge.”

“Really?” Ino questions. She hadn’t real thought about it like that. Her mother had always told her that a woman’s hair is sacred, that she should always be the first thing she cares for in her appearance. But Kurenai had warned her that long hair could be impractical in battle and could be used against her if she wasn’t careful.

She looks up at Sakura’s ponytail, eyeing the short, sharp swish of pale pink. It’s hardly half the length it was before she’d left on that strange C-Rank the three Genin of team seven seem reluctant to talk about.

“Did yours get clipped during the mission?” Ino asks, gesturing to her ponytail.

Sakura blinks a little, surprised, her springwater eyes flashing turquoise in the light filtering through the trees, then she shakes her head with a smile, reaching up to trace one of her thin fringe braids with two fingers.

“No, I just felt like I needed a change.” She says easily, like the decision is that simple. Maybe it is.

Ino leans her cheek against her palm and looks at Sakura sideways. “So you really gave up on him? Sasuke I mean.”

To Ino’s surprise, Sakura snickers at that. “If you mean I’ve stopped falling all over someone I don’t know very well, then yes.” She replies easily. “But I know him now. Sasuke? The real one? He’s a jerk, a picky eater, terrible at getting up in the mornings, stays up too late sharpening kunai, is still too fire-heavy with his jutsu, and cheats when we play capture the flag.” Sakura turns her head to meet Ino’s pale sky eyes with her shining liquid green ones. “He’s family now. Sure, I gave up on a dumb crush, but I’ll never give up on my brother. Either of them.”

Ino blinks hard, and stares, and stares and stares. Sakura sounds ten years older than she is, mature in ways Ino has been envious of for months. She just sounds so damn sure of herself all the time and Ino wants to know where she can get some of that confidence for herself.

Without thinking about it, Sakura’s words ringing in her head, Ino glances to her side, where Choji and Shikamaru are sitting together talking lowly over their curry bowls, and all she can think is; oh hell, she’s got a point.

 

<><><> 

 

Kakashi-sensei shows them the building after everyone has left. Naruto can sense the chakra in the walls even as he steps foot in the place, the echoes of old chakra constructs dormant within the walls and beneath the floor.

“What is this place?” Sasuke asks.

“This is a Black Temple.” Kakashi answers readily. “They were made for internal strengthening and recovery during the first shinobi world war. It’s been broken down for as long as I can remember, and a great deal of it functions on now extinct forms of jutsu.” Kakashi stops to look down at Naruto. “But I figure, since we already have one expert here on extinct jutsu, you three might be able to figure something out.”

“I’ve seen something like this before.” Sasuke cuts in. “There's a similar building on the Uchiha compound.”

“Most clans have a more refined and specialized version of a Black Temple on their grounds, to speed up recovery from damage on missions that might require long term healing otherwise.” Kakashi clarifies. “This one is a little different, as I’m sure you’ll discover.”

“What do we do with it?” Sakura wonders, peering down across the open floor of one of the rooms, circled with a dozen oval shaped basins set into the floor like the numbers on a sun dial.

“Whatever you like.” Kakashi allows. “Consider it a project you three can work on between missions, if you like. I have a feeling it will help with your training for the Chunin exams I’ll be signing you up for in June.”

“Sweet!” Naruto shouts. “Does this mean we’ll be going on more C-rank missions now?” he demands.

“As much as you can stomach, twerp.” Kakashi says fondly, dropping a hand down to ruffle his gold hair. “Also, in exchange for raw materials to help with you little project here, you and Sasuke will be seeing Ikari-sensei between missions for training in field medicine.”

“Oh?” Sasuke quips. “We probably would have done that anyway.”

“Speak for yourself.” Naruto grumbles. “My chakra control is still shit.”

Sakura leaps sideways to put her sibling in a headlock. “How the hell are you supposed to get better if you don’t practice, idiot.”

Naruto flails when she gives him a squeeze that threatens his bone structure. “Alright, alright! Now stop trying to kill me!”

Kakashi-sensei laughs at them, herding them back outside. “Alright. Evening stretches you three and then get some sleep. I’ll see what kind of C-ranks are available in the morning, now off with you.”

 

 

Chapter Text

“You’d better hurry and finish calibrating those alarms Naruto, we’re going to be running late as it is.”

“I know sensei.” Naruto calls back and promptly curses as the seals spark at him again for his momentary inattention. “These things are harder to tune than I thought they’d be. I’ve only got a couple signatures left.”

“Yes, but you also have to move your treasure scrolls down into the vault before we leave.” Kakashi reminds him patiently from the kitchen where he’s handing bowls of breakfast out to the ninken.

“Craaap.”

“I’ll do it, Idiot.” Sasuke calls, swallowing his own breakfast and hopping down off the counter where he’d been multitasking taking weapon inventory. “You finish programming.”

~Remember kit, open negative space, place imprint, and close the space before you charge the circuit.~

“I got it, I got it.”

~Just do the Nara’s now, kid. He wanted to work on the Black Temple, right?. We can calibrate everyone else in when we get back.~

“Hinata and Ino wanted to look too. I have to add them in at least.”

~Alright, alright, just do it quick or we really will be late.~

“I know okay?”  Naruto grumbles.

He arches back a little more, curving from his perch on the wall above the doorway to get at the proper seal placements on the ceiling.

The last few months have been the definition of hectic, a rapid fire back and forth of training and missions as the three of them try to work through as much of Naruto’s Uzushio scrolls and jutsu as possible and Kakashi-sensei squeezes in field experience and practical application wherever he can.

He and Sasuke have managed to get Ikari-sensei’s basic stamp of approval for practicing medical ninjutsu in the field, while Sakura has already been pre-licensed as a medic-nin, which is as far as she can go without actually passing the chuunin exams.

Friday, which has been eternally dubbed Team 7 Curry Night forevermore according to Kiba and Choji, has become a communal sort of sparring day where teams 7, 8, and 10 all come together to laugh and fight and show off. Kakashi-sensei claims not to mind even though they always end up breaking something in the Dojo, and says that what they get out of it is worth a little property damage.

He doesn’t think they’ve even remotely slowed down for over a month, and he’s tired and aching most days.

He also kind of feels like he could take on the world most days, but he figures that’s an acceptable side-effect.

He finishes the seals in record time thank you very much Kurama, and from there the whole house is a mess of running feet and shouting that tends to be normal when team 7 has early missions. Today they’re heading out for the far end of Tea country, a trip to the very edge of the peninsula to pick up a delegation from one of the island nations for some kind of meeting with the Fire Daimyo.

Kakashi-sensei does an automatic headcount as they go through the front door, a kind of reflex Naruto finds both reassuring and a little embarrassing as he taps a hand on each of their heads as they exit the Hatake main house before sealing the door and locking the alarms and traps behind them.

They head for the Hokage tower with speed, and they don’t bother taking the stairs– they bolt right through the upper window, landing one-two-three Naruto-Sakura-Sasuke in front of the mission desk with Kakashi perched on the window right behind them. If their reflexes were any less sharp they would have landed right on Shikamaru and company– as it is Sakura has to springboard back off Asuma’s hip to avoid crashing into him headfirst. The Jounin-sensei just laughs.

“Running late again, I see.” Jiji drawls from the head of the table, voice fondly exasperated around the rush of smoke and the end of the pipe held loosely between his teeth. “Just what are you teaching these children, Kakashi?”

“Too much, from where I’m standing. And let’s be honest, pops, I don’t see any children in here. Do you?” The words are Asuma’s, heavily amused, and Jiji concedes with a chuckle.

“No, I suppose not. Now if only they could learn to stop breaking my village and traumatizing my Tokujou.”

“You three on your way out, too?” Naruto asks Shikamaru, whose hand is still a steady weight on his shoulder from where he’d placed it when Naruto had tumbled in and nearly knocked him over. The only one of them who’d gotten out relatively unscathed had been Sasuke– who had broken his momentum with Naruto.

“Just got back, actually.” Shika corrects. “Short border trip, we were only gone a day.”

“Conserving energy for the Chunin exams?” Kakashi asks Asuma, who chuckles.

“That was the plan, Except for the fact that even the laziest of my kids seems unable to sit still these days.”

Shikamaru snorts derisively like he’s just been personally insulted, shoving his hands deep in his pockets. “It’s just common sense.” He defends. “There needs to be at least one reliable medic-nin in every unit and I have the best chakra control of the three of us.”

Sakura shrieks happily and throws an arm around Shikamaru’s shoulders, nearly knocking him off balance for the second time in ten minutes. “Awesome! Are you going to see Ikari-sensei, then?”

Shikamaru accepts the tackle-hug tolerantly, tucking an arm around her waist to give her a half-hug back. “He is the best, asshole or no. Besides, you softened him up for the rest of us.”

“I’m going with him and Shino too.” Ino adds, coming around to Shikamaru’s other side and bumping his shoulder with hers. “I’m not going to take it as far as specializing though.”

“Oh?” Sakura hums. “Then what are you specializing in?”

Ino grins, feral and catlike. “Hayate-san has offered to teach me nagamaki kenjutsu.

Naruto gets the mental image of Ino twirling a sword longer than she is tall, and is surprised by how much it suits her. He laughs, jackal-like. “That’s awesome.” he declares with feeling. “You’re gonna be terrifying.”

Choji laughs deep in his chest. “Right? And Genma-san is going to to teach me how to use his breathing techniques with my family jutsu.”

“Yes.” Asuma drawls. “So as you can see, Hatake, whatever brand of crazy it is that fuels your brats, it’s contagious.”

“I’d like to state in advance that I am only barely responsible for them.” Kakashi disclaims happily.

There are a handful of ninja also stationed at the mission desk, and every one of them is staring at them with a wary sort of bemusement, as if unsure if they’re supposed to break them up or not. They keep sending Jiji looks as if searching for answers, but Jiji only chuckles and pulls out a scroll to wave in Kakashi-sensei’s direction. “Just take it and go before they damage my office.” He demands, and Kakashi retrieves the scroll with a half-assed two-fingered salute.

“Naruto keyed you guys into the Black Temple on the complex in case you guys wanted to work on it.” Sasuke informs Shikamaru before they turn to leave.

Naruto nods in affirmation. “Kiba's.”

Shikamaru tilts his head and nods back. “I think I’ve figured out those Ido-senshi katas, so come find me when you three get back and we’ll see if we can get them down before the exams.”

“We will.” Sasuke affirms.

“For sure!” Sakura reinforces, reaching forward to give Ino a side-armed hug and jostle Choji amicably with her shoulder.

Ino blushes a little and hugs her back, and Choji laughs and waves as they head off. Shikamaru bids them all goodbye with a fond; “Troublesome.”

<> 

A few minutes later the door to the office is thrown open and Iruka-sensei enters bearing a stack of papers under one arm and a tripod of scrolls tucked into his elbow. He takes one look at the dumbstruck ninja flanking the Hokage and the weary smile on the man’s face coupled with the grin on Asuma’s.

“Aw, I just missed them, didn’t I?”

“By a hair.” Asuma confirms. “They were in a hurry though. Running late.”

“Who’s running late?” Grumbles Ryouta as he comes up behind Iruka. He’s nearly a head taller than the Chunin, practically Kakashi’s height, so he has no trouble peering over the Iruka’s shoulder into the room, eyeing team 10 and their sensei. “You twerps just get in?”

“Day trip.” Asuma explains. “Or night trip, I guess. 12 hour run.

“Then lessons can wait until afternoon.” Ryouta informs team 10 in particular.

Shikamaru scowls. “Why?”

Ryouta huffs. “Because I know how you Nara get when sleep deprived. They can wait a few hours while you and your team take a cat nap.”

“Grumpy has a point, kiddo.” Asuma agrees. “Come on you three. Bed.”

Team 10 takes off grumbling, and Sarutobi chuckles out a breath of smoke with a fond smile, reaching up to take the pipe from his mouth.

“So,” he huffs. “Did you need something Ikari-san?”

“We both had something to discuss with you actually.” Iruka states, his tone a tad too formal to be entirely friendly, and Sarutobi’s smile drops away. He dismisses the two other ninja at the desk and waits until they’ve left before dropping his elbows on the table in front of him and lacing his fingers together.

“Is something the matter?”

“Yes” Ryouta growls, at the same time Iruka says; “No, not at all.”

The Chunin elbows Ryouta hard in the ribs, up and under and right into the diaphragm so that he’s forced to exhale all at once. “We’ve had this argument already, Ikari-san.” Iruka growls behind a smile bared like a bite. “Do you honestly want someone else to have the position?”

“There is no one else.” Ryouta returns harshly. “All the other surgeons have air for brains. And Shiki is still on active duty so it’s not like he can do it.”

“Would either of you care to inform me of what’s going on?” Sarutobi asks with worn patience.

“We have some legal documents that need to be approved and that need your seal as well.”

Hiruzen sits up straighter, wincing when his back cracks in several places it really shouldn’t. He’s too old for this. He was too old for this ten years ago. “Legal forms?”

“Guardianship.” Iruka clarifies. “And designated physician.”

“For Naruto, I presume?” Sarutobi guesses. “I assumed Kakashi would have been the one to approach me about this.”

“Naruto and Sasuke both, actually. And technically these are Kakashi’s forms.” Iruka corrects.

“Then shouldn’t he be the one bring them to my attention?”

Iruka snorts. “They already have all the necessary signatures, he’s just being a coward about it. He also made the mistake of putting my name down as the secondary, so I have just as much right to bring them in as he does.”

Sarutobi manages a laugh. “Hardly surprising. Though this is very unlike you, Ryouta.”

“They grow on you.” The surgeon growls. “Like parasitic fungus.”

Iruka chuckles. “He’s just mad because they’re constantly ruining his reputation as a hardass.”

Ryouta actually smirks at that. “Yeah sure, the new nurses stop taking me seriously when they realize I regularly teach a tiny pink-haired Genin and her brothers, and then they realize she can cave their skulls in without even channeling chakra and they generally shut up.”

Hiruzen flips through the papers Iruka sets in front of him, him, flicking his eyes past the repetitive legal script to the places where the names need to be signed. The forms are filled out impeccably of course, and he stamps each form with his seal readily. “The physician forms are for the whole of team seven, I presume.”

Ryouta nods and sets his own smart stack of files at the Hokage’s elbow for him to sign off on. Sarutobi blinks at a set of papers out of place with the others.

“Jutsu non-disclosure agreements?” he wonders allowed.

Ryouta blinks. “Well yeah. Pretty standard, right?”

“For Tokujo and above maybe.”

The surgeon just shrugs. “Consider it preemptive then.”

“...Fair enough.”

 

<> 

 

“So the blonde brat has his mother’s chakra.” Ryouta tells Iruka quite out of nowhere as they’re walking back down the halls of the Hokage tower.

“Beg pardon?”

Ryouta sighs. “Uzumaki Naruto has inherited all the chakric qualities of Uzumaki Kushina.” he repeats slowly. “His chakra is three and a half times denser than normal. And, just like the fourth Hokage, it possesses double the energy output.”

“How do you know that?” Iruka questions.

At that Ryouta sighs again, and recounts a day three weeks prior.

~<>~

“I don’t get it.” Ryouta mutters to himself as he stares down at the Uzumaki brat, flanked as always by his menacing little Uchiha shadow.

If Ryouta didn’t know any better he would say the dark haired brat looked bored, sitting on one of the wide window sills in his office and glaring at his practice work, but by now he’s learned that it’s really just his face.

Uzumaki has a hard furrow in his brow from concentration, but he has yet to mend any of the pork bones they've been using for practice, and Uchiha is already halfway through.

“So you have no issues waterwalking or flash channeling chakra in your jutsu?”

Naruto shakes his head. “Not even a little.”

“And no problems bending the chakra in those squiggly little seals of yours?”

“Nope.” he replies unhesitant, cheekily popping the ‘p’ in the word.

Ryouta grumbles, leaning sideways and bending a little around a stack of binders on his office floor to get at the top drawer of his desk, skimming his fingers over the contents until he finds the jagged shape of the object he’s looking for. He yanks from the drawer’s depths a chunk of chakra laced quartz, as long as his palm and half as wide, and drops it into Naruto’s palm.

“Charge that with chakra for me, kid. And just yours, none of your demon friend’s.”

The brat shrugs and does as he’s told, pressing the hunk of crystal between his palms. The quartz changes from foggy and colorless to clear sapphire in seconds, a deep rich blue so potent that it seems to cast it’s own light.

The Uchiha stops what he’s doing, leaving a pig femur half cracked to lean over Uzumaki’s shoulder and eye the crystal with interest. “Is chakra supposed to be that colour?”

“Plain unfiltered central chakra is typically light blue.” Ryouta says in answer, reaching out for the crystal.

Naruto drops it back into his hand and Ryouta is surprised when the thing is several times heavier than it was when he first handed it over, like it’s made of lead instead of crystal quartz.

“One sec.” He tells his impromptu students, and then gets up to go yell down the hall.

“SHIKI.”

“WHAT.” his secretary shouts back, voice echoing from inside one of the Jounin grade patient rooms at the end of the wing.

“GET OVER HERE.”

“I’M WORKING, IKARI. UNLIKE SOME PEOPLE.”

“JUST GET OVER HERE I NEED A PROFESSIONAL OPINION.”

Senri relents with a sigh Ryouta can hear clear down the hall and ventures from the room, tapping his clipboard crossly against his hip. “Get one of the other surgeons to help you then. Why are you bothering me?”

“I need a sensor-nin’s opinion.”

Shiki blinks, looking at him skeptically over the bridge of his glasses like some sort of cross librarian that’s just caught him trying to smuggle old jutsu books into his bag, and Ryouta is reminded vividly of the first time they met. “What the hell for?” Shiki mutters.

Ryouta rolls his eyes. “Just get over here, will you? It’ll only take a second.”

Shiki just glares and taps his foot in agitation for another long second, but then he gives in and heads down the hall. Ryouta tosses him the crystal when he gets close. “What do you make of that?”

Shiki blinks down at the bright blue crystal as he walks, flicking his glasses up to sit atop his head as he turns the corner into Ryouta’s office.

“Dense.” is the first word out of his mouth as he turns the crystal back and forth in his long fingers. “Three fold and then some the density of regular chakra. High rate of energy enrichment, starburst patterned emission, high yang concentration, 2:1 ratio against yin.” He looks up and catches sight of Naruto and Sasuke sitting together on the floor and raises an eyebrow. “Yours, I take it?”

Naruto nods. “What’s wrong with it?”

Shiki turns back to Ryouta. “You’re teaching him medical-ninjutsu?”

“Osteo repair, specifically.” Ryouta affirms.

“There’s nothing wrong with you, kiddo.” Shiki tells the young Uzumaki. “You’re having trouble because you’re trying to channel a waterfall through a sink faucet.”

“Um… what?”

Shiki cocks his hip against the wall and holds the chakra charged crystal up to the light. “Most medical-ninjutsu requires you to condense chakra down into a fine point before putting it to use. In your case, you’re trying to press something dense into an already smaller form– like trying to force more water through a sink faucet already turned on full blast.”

“So if he skips the condensing step, it’ll work?” The question comes from Sasuke, who had up until that point been quiet.

“In theory.” Shiki agrees. “Though you might still have to tune the density by smaller measures to get the consistency you want.”

“Oh, well that’s easy.” Naruto exclaims, already flicking his fingers through the hand signs of the jutsu to try again. “I have to tune consistency all the time in seals.”

Shiki grins. “Then you should have no problem then.” He turns to Ryouta. “Can I go back to work now?”

“When have you ever asked my permission for anything?” Ryouta points out.

Shiki just rolls his eyes and turns to leave.

“Thanks, Senri.” Ryouta adds quietly as he leaves.

“Yeah, yeah.”

~<>~

“I had no idea.” Iruka mutters. “That's why he had so much trouble with genjutsu– his chakra is too heavy.” He tilts his head, stops in the middle of the hallway to face Ryouta. “Why are you only telling me this now?”

The surgeon shrugs. “You’re his secondary guardian now, officially, so you should know. It’s also a health concern if he ever needs a chakra transfusion, as unlikely as that is given the presence of the Kyuubi. There’s also another thing you should know– you and Kakashi both.”

“Is something wrong?” Iruka has to ask– Naruto has always been family to him, and he and Sasuke have been through quite enough as it is…

“Not wrong, not necessarily, but something of possible future concern.”

“What is it?” he insists, not liking Ryouta’s change in body language from idle to serious.

“Well, after the issue with Uzumaki’s chakra, I ordered chakra composition tests on all three of the brats. Naruto and Sasuke’s chakra both share some… disturbingly similar traits.”

“What kind of traits?”

Ryouta hums and rubs his fingers together as if searching for a place to start. “There are a handful of markers that… reflect one another. Naruto’s Yang-Yin chakra ratio is 2-1. Sasuke’s is 1-2. Naruto’s chakra is high density, low emission; Sasuke's is low density high emission. Sasuke’s outward flow tends to rotate clockwise, Naruto’s counterclockwise. Little things like that.”

Iruka blinks. “Is that a problem? Couldn’t that just be a result of training in such close proximity all the time?”

Ryouta shakes his head. “Maybe if it were just a single, isolated set of traits, but this is too much to be a coincidence.” Ryouta pauses and meets iruka’s eyes firmly. “Now this is just a guess, mind you, but I think they might be Kindred Markers.”

Iruka blinks a few times, then scoffs out a disbelieving laugh. “Kindred? As in Kindred Pair? That’s a myth.

“Namikaze Minato and Uzumaki Kushina were a Kindred Pair.” Ryouta informs him, completely serious, not even a hint of mirth in his eyes, no sign of teasing.

Iruka stops laughing. “You’re joking.”

Ryouta shakes his head. “It wasn’t widely known, but those close to them knew. Kakashi knew; and the old man.”

“But isn’t a fully developed Kindred Pair a–”

“Yeah.” Ikari interrupts him softly. “A Futari no Guntai. An Army of Two.”

Iruka remembers suddenly the reports from the third war, the way a single man and woman struck absolute terror into the hearts of entire armies worth of hardened shinobi. “That… actually makes disturbing amounts of sense.”

“Well, nothing is for certain yet.” Ryouta reminds him. “I just thought you should know that it’s a possibility. It’s impossible to know for sure until they’re older.”

“I’ll keep an eye out if you will.” Iruka promises.

Ryouta manages a smile. “Deal.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Sakura drums her fingers restlessly on the thick railing of the Knife Runner , a large elongated ship as pointed as it’s name, and gazes out at the docks and through the colourful packs of Tea country merchants and noblemen in search of the distinctive heads and backs of her teammates.

“Take a breath, Sakura. You’re wearing ridges in the ship.” Kakashi-sensei chastises from behind her.

Sakura starts a little, lifting her hand from the railing, and finds she has in fact left rather deep divots in the mahogany the precise size and shape of her fingers. “Sorry, sensei. Just restless.”

“Not to mention bored.” Kakashi muses. He’s leaning against the foremast with his face buried in his social barrier of cheap porn. Sakura has to admit that the ruse works well– not a single shiphand or nobleborn passenger has had the nerve to approach him yet, though if anyone actually bothered to look, they would notice that he hasn’t turned a page in over an hour.

“They’re stupid late.” Sakura whines. “And I’m starving .”

Kakashi gives the sky a contemplative glance. “The delegation should be here soon. If they don’t hurry, the ship is going to leave before they get back.”

Sakura slumps against the railing dejectedly. “I just want my pork buns and dango.” She grumbles.

“I’m sure they won’t be much longer.” Kakashi assures her, though he must be just as hungry as she is if not more so– at least she’d had breakfast before they’d left, Kakashi-sensei had been too busy feeding both them and the ninken to manage the same for himself.

“They better not be.” She growls, her stomach rumbling again for her attention.

The four of them have only been in Tea Country for a day and a half and Sakura doesn’t exactly hate the place. Tamakai city houses the largest port in the whole of the country, curling out into the pale green of the shallow sea that frames Tea Country on all sides. Its broad plazas and lanes host a wide array of shops and parlors, all selling goods from across the sea. As one of the rare neutral zones, Tea country is free to trade with most of the major elemental countries, and as a result boasts everything from fine silks and textiles to exotic cuisine. Protected by a rotation of contracted ninja that changes every few months to ensure equality and reduce the chances of corruption and espionage, Tamakai is terribly peaceful.

And terribly boring.

“Sakura.” Kakashi-sensei says her name soft and sharp, a call for her attention, and Sakura turns immediately, directing her gaze to match the focus of her sensei’s. There’s a ship coming into harbor, an elaborate construct of painted wood in rich red and deep dark navy. It’s sails are thickly waxed and layered paper instead of cloth, reinforced by horizontal bamboo slats. It’s a type of ship common to the far south, and now that she gets a good look at it she can tell why the delegation had chosen to change ships at dock– unlike the Knife Runner , this elaborate ship has few defences, and those it does have are ill equipped to deal with the kind of assault it’s likely to find in ninja-controlled waters.

It had been decided before they were even assigned the mission that the delegation would take ship almost the whole way to fire country– a ship at sea is far easier to defend from attack than a caravan on land, and the trade agreements that the delegation is apparently carrying are worth a great deal to the fire daimyo– as well as any major elemental country that could get ahold of them.

“Well isn’t that pretentious.” She mutters.

“Best not say that in their company, cub.” Kakashi reminds her. “They are guests of the daimyo after all.”

“And obviously used to being treated like royalty.”

Kakashi just gives her a look , and Sakura sighs.

“Oh fine, I’ll keep my snark to myself.” she concedes.

“Only while they’re in earshot.” he assures her amicably. “Though this does mean that the boys are officially ‘stupid late.’”

“What is taking them so long? They stopped to go shopping I’ll bet you. Sasuke’ll blow our whole budget if left unchecked.”

“Not with Naruto there he won’t.” Kakashi disagrees, standing straight and snapping his book shut. “Either way we don’t have time to wait for them. Come on.”

Sakura sighs and follows Kakashi over the ship railing and onto the dock to greet the ship as it pulls in. Deckhands swarm the riggings of the ship, scampering over the netting and up along the yardarms, pulling in the sails and gliding the opulent ship into harbor. Now that the people aboard no longer look the size of ants, Sakura can see that the delegation has arrived with a company of soldiers, a dozen men in fancy-ass lacquered armor that screams private guard .

“They do realize that’s not going to do them any good, right?” Sakura mutters.

“The Yucheng archipelago and it’s dynasty operate too far south into the Jade sea to have any real interaction with the elemental countries.” Kakashi explains. “They’ve recently expanded a great deal north, and are here to offer these trade agreements in exchange for Konoha’s protection against Kiri raids.”

“And their contact with actual ninja?” Sakura asks.

Kakashi laughs. “Minimal.”

“Great.” she grumbles.

“Consider it an exercise in patience.”

Sakura is halfway to some kind of witty comment, but snaps her mouth shut before she can voice it.

The ship slides to a stop before them, settling into dock with a rush of parting water, and a gangplank descends to rest on the boards a few meters in front of them.

Almost immediately a pint sized rocket comes barreling down the ramp, dark haired and blue cland and giggling madly. He’s followed immediately by two armoured guards shouting expletives and clomping at the kid’s heels.

“Young master!” shouts the first down the ramp, an older man with thinning hair and a pointed goatee, but the speeding boy pays him no heed, giggling madly and spinning in circles across the dock like a mad windmill, uncaring of the thin breadth of the dock and the fact that if he spins much further he’ll take a header right off the edge and into the water.

He does however have the good fortune of whirling right past Kakashi, who is used to reacting to and wrangling up much rowdier brats than a hyper four-year-old. He snags the kid by the back of his dark blue embroidered changshan tunic with two fingers, pulling him from the edge and setting him safely back on the planks.

“Bohai!”

The little kid whips around to face another form standing at the top of the gangplank, a young man in a golden tunic with the same dark hair and pale green eyes, no more than a handful of years older than Sakura.

“Apologies, young lord.” The elder guard sounds exasperated, like it isn’t the first time this has occurred. “We only took our eyes off him for a moment.”

“You can’t take your eyes off him at all .” The young man growls as he stomps down the gangplank. “A moment is all it takes. Bohai, come here.”

The kid shrieks “GEGE!” and bolts back up the gangplank to meet who must be his brother halfway.

“You must be Jinhai.” Kakashi states as the young man lifts his little brother onto his hip, and Bohai entertains himself by playing with his brother’s dark hair, spinning it into messy braids.

“I am,” the young man replies, looking the faintest bit uncomfortable. “And you are Hatake, I presume. I was told there would be more of you.”

“The rest of our team will be back soon.” Kakashi assures. “Their absence will not interfere with the departure time.”

Jinhai nods, looking vaguely confused as his eyes track from Kakashi to Sakura and back up again. “Very well. We will need an hour or so to transfer our supplies, after which we may depart.”

<><><>

 

“Sakura is going to kill us.” Naruto mutters, but doesn’t look away from the shop window any more than Sasuke does.

“She’ll thank us later.” Sasuke insists. “We’re not going to get another chance to come back here until after the Chunin exams.”

Tamakai is a treasure trove of non-native goods, and includes several shops selling items native to the other four elemental countries– rugs and textiles from Suna, silks and art from Kumo, metals and jewelry from Iwa. So far they’ve found Sakura a pair of elegant scale metal cestuses and a set of crystal edge scalpels they plan on saving for her next birthday. They’ve gotten Shikamaru a new set of simple obsidian and gold earrings capable of chakra storage (he’s not vain enough Sasuke, they have to be useful ), Kiba some thick leather Katsu armbands, Ino some abalone hairsticks meant to hide half a dozen senbon apiece (It’s subtle Naruto, I don’t expect you to understand the concept), Choji a set of shinobi cookbooks with recipes to boost stamina and improve muscle mass, Shino a pair of metal insect chakra constructs that can be used for surveillance, and Hinata an elegant silk and steel black obi, embroidered with pearlescent Hyuuga white and thick enough to stop a kunai.

Sasuke has not-so secretly been looking for something that suits his idiot– ideally something protective that’s going to be useful for the upcoming exams, but so far, even with all the abundance of Tamakai, he’s come up short.

“We can’t be out much longer or the freaking ship is going to leave without us.” Naruto reminds him for the third time in an hour.

“We’ll catch up to it.” Sasuke argues. “Come on, this way.”

“Jerk…” Naruto mutters as he’s yanked down another side street, but at this point it’s a token resistance at most.

“If we’re getting something for literally everyone we know then we’re getting something for ourselves too.” Sasuke mutters as they enter another shop.

“I don’t see the point.” Naruto counters. “Besides, we still need to get things for Iruka-sensei and Kakashi-sensei. And it’s impossible to shop for Kakashi-sensei. Not to mention that if we don’t actually get Sakura her pork buns she will actually kill us.”

Sasuke just huffs, blowing a strand of his raven hair out of his eyes with the breath. “Details.”

<><><>

“Something I can help you with?”

The irritated snap of a sentence startles Jinhai out of his idle staring– he had been looking around for the white-haired man, the shinobi , and lost track of his thoughts trying to wrap his head around the pink haired girl leaning easily against the starboard railing. Surely someone had screwed up with the missives somewhere, because Jinhai doesn’t understand how a girl several years younger than himself could be part of the team responsible for the entire vessel while in enemy waters. Though despite her age and stature there is iron in her eyes and sureness in her body language that confuses him– surely someone so young could not have so much steel in their spine.

“I was looking for your commander.” Jinhai admits after a long pause.

“Commander?” She questions with a tilt of her head. “You mean Kakashi-sensei? He was talking to the captain last I saw. I think we’re shipping out here in a minute.”

Jinhai blinks at her. “So soon? We only just got settled. And are we not still short half your team?”

The girl dismisses his worries with a negligent shrug. “The boys will catch up. Besides, it’s best to leave as soon as possible. The longer we sit here the longer your delegation has a target on their back.”

“Catch up? How on earth–”

“ANCHORS AWAY! ALL HANDS TO SAILS.”

Jinhai is startled out of his sentence by shouts and flurries of movement as the deckhands swarm the rigging and masts, going through the motions of pulling the ship from dock. One of the deckhands waves over at them, one arm tangled in the rigging and both feet planted on the side of the mast.

“Miss Sakura! Would you mind giving us a hand with the main lines? We can shave at least twenty minutes of fumbling with your assistance!”

The girl gives the man a quick cut smile. “Sure thing Sato, I’ll be right up!” she then turns back to Jinhai and points towards the back of the ship. “Kakashi-sensei is aft. If you need anything else, best ask him.”

She doesn’t so much as hesitate for a reply before she’s bounding away, there and gone so quickly it leaves Jinhai blinking after her.

He stops to check on Bohai before heading that way, mildly comforted to find him absorbed in chasing wooden dice and thoroughly interfering with his men’s gambling. His guard captain gives him a diligent nod after noting his presence, and then returns to watching the youngest of the royal family steal all his winning rolls.

He finds the shinobi commander right where the girl said he’d be, leaning casually against the aft rail and speaking lowly with the older woman that Jinhai knows to be the ship’s captain. The white-haired man’s single visible eye flicks to him once and then flicks back to the captain without breaking conversation or focus, so quickly that the captain herself doesn’t seem to notice the momentary division of attention at all.

“We’ll have the tahou cannons armed and ready before we reach full sail into the gulf.” the captain is saying.

“Thank you, though it should be an unnecessary precaution.” the commander responds with a respectful nod.

The woman shrugs. “Helps calm my nerves if nothing else.” At that moment the woman turns her head and notices Jinhai over a well muscled shoulder. She gives a small nod, though Jinhai can’t tell if it’s and idle motion or something directed at him, and then turns back to Hatake. “I’ll let you get back to it. Holler if ya need anythin’.”

“Noted. Thank you captain.”

The woman waves off the pleasantries and strides away in the direction of the foresail, already shouting orders and expletives at the deckhands, her feet sure on the already swaying deck.

“Lord Jinhai.” The man addresses politely. “It there something I can help you with?”

“I wanted to formally apologize for my mother’s inability to travel here in person. I’m aware this could… complicate things.”

The shinobi tilts his head, meeting his gaze levelly. “And why is that?”

Jinhai blinks up at the man, taken aback. He has always been tall and lanky for his age- even at sixteen he can match most of his guardsman centimeter for centimeter, but this man seems to tower over him, even if the true difference in their heights isn’t that great. “Excuse me?”

“If you are expecting your age to bother me, it does not. So long as you prove to be competent, things should go quite smoothly.”

Jinhai finds himself standing even straighter despite the words. “That is an… uncommon philosophy to have.” He finds himself saying after a moment.

“Not at all.” Hatake disagrees. “You’ll find it’s a common one in the elemental countries. Though I’ll admit I was not expecting you to bring a four-year-old along for a diplomatic mission that could potentially place you in danger.”

Jinhai grimaces. “I’m afraid there wasn’t much of choice. Our mother is not capable of caring for him in her current state of illness, and Bohai has a… talent for escaping his caretakers.”

“So I’ve begun to notice.” Hatake drawls. “In fact I’m surprised he hasn’t yet managed to get himself hurt.”

“Yes well, along with having uncanny energy, Bohai also happens to have the luck of the devil.”

That startles a soft laugh out of the shinobi. “Well I hope that luck holds. And speaking of the devil.” The man lifts a hand to point over Jinhai’s shoulder, and when he turns his stomach drops clear through the deck.

Bohai it walking along the portside railing, arms outstretched on either side of him, giggling each time he wobbles in his steps.

“BOHAI!”

Before he can bolt across the deck a firm hand grips his arm. “Calm down. He’s not in any danger.” Hatake tries to assure, but Jinhai is already panicking.

“What do you mean not in danger!? He’s– Bohai!”

But it’s too late, Bohai wobbles too far, his tiny chubby arms flapping for balance, and he’s too far, Jinhai won’t make it–

This time when he lunges forward Hatake lets him go, and he sprints across the deck as fast as his legs can carry him, throwing his torso over the railing to search the water for Bohai’s blue tunic. But he sees nothing, only wave upon wave of clear turquoise water, not a wisp of navy or flash of gold.

For several heartbeats he can't even move, can’t even breathe, and then suddenly he does see gold– not in the water but at the corner of his eye, and–

“Um, somebody lose something?” says a voice out of nowhere, followed by a high-pitched giggle Jinhai knows very well.

He turns and finds a young man perched on the rail, soaked to skin and sitting casually back on his haunches. He has golden hair and eyes like jewels, and he also has Bohai draped casually over one shoulder, laughing maniacally.

The boy shifts Bohai so that he falls forward, checked only by the wrap of an arm around the four-year-old’s knees at his shoulder. Bohai, obviously convinced this is some kind of fun new game, shrieks in delight as he’s tipped upside down. “This yours?” the boy asks dryly.

Much to Jinhai’s embarrassment, the first words out of his mouth is not a question as to his brother’s safety, or even an exclamation of surprise, instead he asks– “How on earth did you get here when we’re at full sail?”

“We walked.” The boy says as if that’s a perfectly reasonable answer. “Or ran, I guess. We’re kind of running late. You seen our teammate? Angry? Pink hair? Sorta hard to miss?”

“She’s helping the deckhands… I think.” Jinhai responds in a daze, just as Bohai squeaks out an enthusiastic; “Gege!”

Jinhai takes his baby brother from the young man with some rather awkward maneuvering, just as another boy lands beside the first. This one is dark where the other is bright, with back hair and black eyes and a dark expression as he jostles his companion enough to almost send him overboard again. He’s noticeably dryer than his friend, and is carrying several bags filled with something savory that Jinhai can smell from where he’s standing.

“Hurry up idiot.” The dark one growls. “There’s not enough room here for two.”

“Well no one asked you to land right up here with me.” The bright one snaps back.

YOU JERKS!

As one the two boys freeze where they are with their eyes fixed somewhere over Jinhai’s head. When he turns he sees the pink haired girl so visibly livid Jinhai could swear she’s steaming, and he only barely has the presence of mind to duck before she launches herself over the railing and tackles both boys back down into the water.

<><><>

 

“I hope we’ve learned a valuable lesson from this experience.”

“Sensei, if you’re going to say something about ‘not being late’ I’m going to call you on the hypocrisy right now.”

“Of course not. But leaving your teammate to starve while you went shopping was poor judgment.”

“We brought like six extra servings of pork buns, and apologised, and dango .” Naruto counters.

Despite this Sakura still hasn’t spoken a word to them since they returned, in fact she hasn’t even stopped stuffing her face with meat buns since they sat down. She’s halfway through Naruto’s portion already, but he’s not stupid enough to say anything until she’s finished.

Kakashi-sensei has eaten his portion already, as usual while everyone had their backs turned or were otherwise occupied. “What were to two up to, anyway?” he asks.

“That’s classified.” Sasuke tells him seriously, and Kakashi-sensei throws his hands up in placation.

Naruto leans around Sasuke’s back to send a glare at Sakura. “Come on, you can’t stay pissed at us forever.”

She just takes another vindictive bite out of one of Naruto’s pork buns and glares right back. “Watch me, Uzumaki. Three hours. Three .”

“We apologised . And brought you four flavors of dango.”

Sakura narrows her eyes and peers hesitantly at the bag just past Naruto’s knees. “Did you get the sweet red bean kind?”

Naruto snorts. “Of course I did, what do you take me for, some kind of heathen?”

“... You can have your pork buns back.”

 

They get attacked by pirates like, twelve minutes later.

Sakura is still cranky enough about the pork buns to break their ship with her bare hands.

Kakashi-sensei says it’s better that she break an enemy ship with a chakra charged right hook than the one they’re currently standing on, and Naruto is inclined to agree.

 

<><><>

 

Shikamaru sits cross-legged in the center of the room, his hands steepled in front of him, forefingers pressed against his mouth in concentration as he thinks. The Black Temple seems finished, for all intents and purposes. The walls are riddled with the elegant tracework of Naruto’s seals, improvements to the chakra flow and regulation systems already built into the walls by old masters that predated the second Great War. Shikamaru has learned a great deal from this room over the last few weeks alone; it has five rooms in total, the main room in which he is sitting, and four smaller ones that flare out in the cardinal directions, each one named for one of the Four Heavenly Kings of buddhism.

The first room, just past the entryway to the east, is the Jikoku room, which they’ve taken to calling the White room. It’s a place of purification and cleansing, a sauna-esque chamber ment to purge contaminants and impurities from mind, body, and chakra. The second room going clockwise is the Zojo-ten room to the south, also known as the Blue room, for setting growth and conditioning. The third is the western Komoku-ten room, or Red room, for improval of the fives special senses. The fourth is the northern room of Bishamonten, the Green room, for improval of the spatial and chakra senses.

The central room, the one in which he’s sitting, is simply called the Gold room, a wide circular space host to twelve deep oval basins sunken into the floor, arranged in a flowering pattern consisting of an inner and outer ring. Each basin serves a specific function, only five of which Shikamaru has been able to work out so far, all in the outer ring.

He’s musing over the sixth when a sound brings his attention away from his thoughts, steady steps through the entranceway and the soothing support of a chakra signature Shikamaru knows very well.

“You still stewing over this puzzle?” Choji asks with a laugh, stepping around the outer ring of basins towards him.

Shikamaru huffs a breath and drops his hands into his lap. “Something about this room is bothering me.” He admits to his friend. “I feel like I’m missing something.”

“Well take a brain break, yeah? I brought lunch.”

Choji takes a seat in front of him and produces a bag of takeout that Shikamaru recognizes as being from a kebab place on the market square. It only takes one deep inhale for Shikamaru to realize he’s starving.

“You’re a lifesaver.” He says with feeling as Choji hands him a carton. “How’s Ino doing?”

“Still swinging her giant cleaver around. I think she’s in love.”

“Whatever makes her happy.” Shikamaru mutters, mostly to himself, and reaches for a skewer.

He’s halfway through a kebab before he has the self-awareness to notice Choji staring at him. He immediately checks his mouth in case he’s gotten sauce on his cheek or something, but he finds no evidence of a mess and Choji is still staring. “What?”

Choji just shakes his head, a weird little half-grin on his face, and says “Nothing.”

He goes back to inhaling a steak kebab and Shikamaru doesn’t question it further.

“So,” Choji asks when they’re finished. “What’s tripping you up about this place now? You got the side rooms figured out pretty easily.”

“Naruto helped. And the directional rooms weren’t as complex.” Shikamaru explains. “I think they all feed into this room somehow, but I’m not sure how, or why.”

“What about the basins you got working?”

Shikamaru leans back on his forearms, eyeing the Ivory basin on his left. “I managed to figure out that some of them are meant to help regenerate and strengthen certain types of tissues; bone, tendon, muscle, that kind of thing. The inner six might have something to do with chakra, but I’d need the sharingan to get a read on the components in the walls.”

“Then we wait for the monster triad to come back.” Choji suggests easily. “Most of it is working right? The rest can wait until after the exams.”

Shikamaru sighs and rubs a knuckle between his brows. “You’re right.” He admits. “How was ‘breathing practice’?”

“Genma-san’s a hardass.” Choji complains, flexing a hand. “But you can’t argue with the results.”

“No you can’t.” Shikamaru agrees. Choji looks sturdier, more muscle and less pudge, though still with the healthy heft of his Akimichi energy stores. Combining the natural force of Choji’s hits with the calm power and rhythm of the breathwork has turned even his regular punches into a force of nature.

Shikamaru finishes his meal and Choji waits patiently as he does, since his portion has already been reduced to the pointed skewers the Akimichi is currently using to absently clean his teeth.

“Is team 8 In-village currently?” Shikamaru asks, packing up the trash from their meal back into the bags for easy disposal.

“Got back yesterday.” Choji answers. “Smash and grab on the Grass country border, I think.”

“Good, I’ve been sitting too long. I think I’ll have it out with Kiba before we meet up with Ino for gift shopping.”

“We should have time.” Choji assures him, chewing absently on the end of one of his skewers, probably still hungry if Shikamaru had to guess, which he really doesn't. “Ino won’t be done for another few hours. Why Kiba? I thought you and Shino have been sparring lately.”

“Shino’s endurance and mine are about the same. I need to work on it, and Kiba’s got more reserves.”

“Hinata’s reserves are better than Kiba’s.” Choji points out.

“Yeah, but she’s been dealing with clan shit all week, so I’m not going to bother her. Plus, taijutsu on taijutsu Hinata would kill me.”

Choji gives a hearty laugh at that. “I don’t know, brother. You’re still a hell of a lot faster.”

“Yeah well she only has to catch me once for me to be dead .”

Choji dissolves into laughter and Shikamaru rolls his eyes to cover the fond quirk of his lips.

He leans back and away and clears a space on the floor. Then he sinks a canine into the side of his thumb, flicks his fingers through a handful of signs, and presses his hand to the smooth polished floor. A low haunting hum and a swirl of misty silver later Veylan stands before him, eye to eye, large cupped ears flicking side to side. She’s lost a few of her spots already and has grown into her long limbs a little, but for the most part she’s still a fawn, hardly three feet at the shoulder. Despite her age and size she’s as quick as a dart and as agile as any feline, capable of cutting corners and scaling cliff faces just as fast as Ino’s squirrelly little leopard things, the Zheng. But Veylan suits him just like the Zheng suit Ino and Choji’s Nian suit him– large, plate armoured, bearlike, and sweethearts right up until you corner them or something they care about, and then you end up as a neat red smear on the pavement.

“Shikamaru-sama!” Veylan greets cheerfully, tucking around him to nuzzle her nose against his temple. He strokes a hand down her neck, with the grain of her soft fog-like fur.

“Hey kiddo. Can you do me quick favor?”

“Of course.” Veylan agrees readily. Whipping around and shifting restlessly foot to foot, awaiting orders.

“Can you run down Kiba for me? You remember Kiba.”

“The jackal boy with the red fang markings? Yes I remember. Would you like me to bring him a message?”

“Tell him to meet me on training ground nine if he’s not busy or exhausted.”

“Are we sparring? ” The young wraith hart questions excitedly. “I love sparring.”

“Sure are. Let’s give Kiba and Shasa a good run around, yeah?”

“Oh absolutely .” Veylan agrees with a lot of predatory glee for a herbivore. “I’ll find you on the training ground!” She’s gone then in a puff of greyish smoke, and Choji is chuckling.

“So much energy. All her brothers and sisters are so calm.”

“She’s still just a kid, she’s allowed to be excited about little things.” Shikamaru defends as he stands.

“True, true.” Choji agrees and follows. ‘I’ll probably go train with Ino for a bit. I’ll come get you when we’re done.”

“Sounds good, we should be long finished by then.”

<><><>

Kiba and Shikamaru are not done sparring by the time Choji and Ino find them on training ground nine. Ino has her shiny new nagamaki balanced against her shoulder, and she hasn’t stopped talking about it since Choji came to pick her up.

“I just love the balance of it! It’s got all the heft and grace of a naginata with twice the blade, and it just, works , you know? I don’t know what I was thinking not picking one up before now, and Hayate-san is an awesome teacher, even if he has to take breaks every now and then…”

Choji has always prided himself on being a good listener, and so long as that smile stays bright on Ino’s face, he’ll sit here and listen to her talk about steel quality and aerodynamics for the rest of the day.

They both have to duck as the enter the training ground when Akamaru goes flying over their heads, a tiny white ninken leading a pack of vicious looking blood jackals anywhere from two to four times his size.

“I see Kiba upped his summons count again.” Ino comments blithely.

“He’s not the only one.” Choji points out, gesturing to the trees around them. If he concentrates he can spot the myriad of dark ghostly harts and hinds darting back and forth in the trees, outrunning and cutting around the jackals. Even though the jackals do still outnumber the wraith harts, several of Shikamaru’s summons are almost fully grown, with racks of wicked sharp horns and hooves capable of denting steel.

Shadow ripples and flexes to their right and Shikamaru materializes as though stepping out from behind a curtain. He has a wickedly long trench knife gripped in each hand– the right protects Shikamaru’s knuckles with a serrated cage, and the left is equipped with a sword-breaker extension on the handle, which, with the right application of angle and force, can shatter steel and disarm kunai.

He touches down for maybe half a second before he bounds away off into the dark again, pulling shadow up around him once more, slipping it on like a familiar coat and vanishing inside it. Seconds later Kiba crashes through the brush and lands on all fours with a snarl, head on the swivel. He’s in full beast mode, eyes slit-pupiled and fingernails curled into thick razor claws.

“Slippery bastard.” He growls, voice a hair too low for human vocal chords, but he sits still long enough for Choji’s wave to actually catch his attention.

The Inuzuka blinks at him and Choji can practically see the mental backtrack out of Hunter Mode; his pupils expand to normal human width again, his ragged chakra softens and smooths, the hair on the back of his neck drops from its bristle.

“Oh. Hey Choji. Ino. What’re you doin here?”

“Here for our Nara.” Ino informs him. “We’re gift hunting.”

“Gift hunting?” Kiba questions with a doglike tilt of his head. “For who?”

“The monster trio.” Choji answers.

Kiba perks visibly. “That’s not a bad idea. Sasuke gave me some of their modified shuriken and I’ve been meaning to pay him back.”

“Wanna come? We can make an evening out of it.” Ino suggests, twirling her nagamaki and then settling it against her opposite shoulder.

Before Kiba can open his mouth to reply Shikamaru drops out of nowhere to land feet first on Kiba’s back, knocking the breath out of his chest with a grunt and pushing him face-first flat into the grass.

“Watch your back, Inuzuka.” Shikamaru chastises with small cut of a smirk.

Kiba’s first response is an unintelligible string of rumbling snarls, and his second is a very clear mutter of “Stupid sneaky Nara.”

Shikamaru looks up at his teammates boredly, not bothering to relieve his weight from Kiba’s back. “Don’t forget we should get something for Asuma-sensei too.”

Kiba turns his head enough to glare up at Shikamaru. “If you’d get off me, I could get Hinata and Shino and we could all go together .”

“Magic word?”

Now .”

Shikamaru’s smirk flashes wider in amusement but he straightens out of his crouch and steps off Kiba’s spine, just as Akamaru comes flashing through the trees with his pack of jackals. He runs up to Kiba and gives his face a long lick, and Kiba laughs wryly as he pushes himself up out of the dirt.

“Little late for a rescue, bud. But good try.”

Akamaru yips and dives into Kiba’s sweatshirt, dark grey trimmed with red and relatively new, a gift from his sister when he ruined his old one. Shasa skidds to sit at Kiba’s heels, tail on the wag, followed closely by six of his siblings– four brothers around his size and two sisters twice that.

Shikamaru’s summons also step to the Nara’s side, the first of which is Ravain, a dark coloured hart that is the largest of Shika’s current summons– a reserved male with charcoal fur trailing ghostly smoke in iridescent green.

He’s also the only one of Shikamaru’s summons to bear a full rack of dagger-sharp horns, branching in curled points above the beast’s head. He’s a bit taller than Shikamaru, and he dips his large head over the Nara’s shoulder for a neck scratch, which Shikamaru obliges.

“Are we finished for the day?” He asks his summoner, and Shikamaru nods.

“You’re free to go. Thank you.”

“Of course. If you need us again don’t hesitate.”

“Of course.” Shika parrots, and the wraith harts dismiss themselves in a puff of silver fog.

Kiba’s blood jackals wrestle with him a little and then dismiss themselves as well, leaving him covered in mismatched fur and red on the arms from play-bites and scratching.

 

They pick up Shino from the jutsu library and Hinata from her family compound. Choji waits outside the property line with Shikamaru and Ino while Kiba and Shino run in to get her. By the frustrated look on Hinata’s face and the way Kiba and Shino have her sandwiched between them, the process was not a smooth one. Choji doesn’t ask, it’s not his business, but he does buy her a stick of tri-color dongo from a stand when they get to the marketplace. It’s worth the surprised smile she gives him in return, and Shino mouths a ‘thank you’ at him behind her back over the collar of his jacket.

Choji has always been a fan of the little things.

 

<><><>

 

Kakashi spends the morning before the chunin exams drinking coffee in Iruka’s kitchen and being a general nuisance as Iruka goes through all the prep work of the procter rosters and the candidate screenings.

And fusses. He might also be fussing.

“Did they get enough sleep?” Iruka asks as he sorts through a messy stack of files.

“You asked that already.” Kakashi informs him as he walks around the table, stopping to study one of the many knick-knacks dotting Iruka’s countertop.

“No I didn’t.”

“You asked me if they were fully rested thirteen minutes ago.”

“It’s not the same. They could be physiologically rested and still not have gotten enough sleep for psychological well being–”

Iruka .”

What .”

Kakashi cocks a hip against the table and idly opens the fridge. “If you fret any harder you’re going to strain something. And I can’t believe I’m the one telling you to calm down.”

“The Chunin exams are no joke, I’m allowed to be worried about my own kids dammit and get your hands off that daifuku Hatake or I will take them off your wrists.”

Kakashi snaps his hand away from the plate of mochi sweets. “Touchy, touchy.” he mutters, but doesn’t reach for them again.

Iruka sighs. “Look, I just want to be sure they’re prepared. That’s all.”

“They’ve been prepared for months now.” Kakashi reminds him patiently, wandering over towards the coffee maker again. “I’ve been thinking of setting up extra parameters during the test just to make sure it’s even challenging.”

“It’s the Chunin exams, Kakashi. There’s still a lot that could go wrong.”

“And they’re prepared even if things do go south.” The Jounin insists, and wanders back over to the table to set a steaming cup of coffee by Iruka’s wrist.

He takes a sip from the offered mug without really thinking– Kakashi knows how he likes his coffee and isn’t stupid enough to mess with it– and looks up when he registers the unfamiliar weight and shape of the cup in his hand.

“Whose mug is this?” he asks as he twists it in his hand. It’s pinwheel colourful, a striped twist of three colours painted vertically up the ceramic and glazed in something silvery.

“Yours.” Kakashi answers blithely, flipping through some of Iruka’s exam memos.

“I don’t own a mug like this.”

“You do now. Look closer.”

Iruka turns the mugs slowly, examining each of the three swirls of colour. One is fuchsia and bears little designs of cherry blossoms etched out in pale turquoise, the second is dark blue with a pattern of down-facing crescent moons, or perhaps fans , and the third is dark orange and covered in trailing black spirals.

“The kids made this?”

Kakashi nods. “It’s sealed and strengthened so that you could shoot it out of a cannon and it wouldn’t even crack. Look at the bottom.”

Iruka takes a long drink of his coffee to reduce the risk of spilling and then holds it high so he can see the underside. Two rows of cramped scrawl read;

 

‘To the World’s Greatest Teacher; For putting up with us.’

 

For about a quarter of a second Iruka is certain he’s going to tear up. It’s a whiplash onset of emotion, the combination of the source of the gift the sentiment of it, and the obvious thought they put into making something with him in mind. Iruka has never been a fan of expensive or ornate gifts, but gifts like this one, packed with meaning and sentimental worth, have always been his favorites.

“Those brats.” He manages around a lump in his throat, and Kakashi smiles at him from beneath his mask.

“They went on a shopping spree in Tea country when I wasn’t looking. Turns out the whole of the Rookie Nine had the same idea.”

“The Rookie Nine?”

Kakashi shrugs. “Teams 7, 8, and 10 collectively. They’re all taking the Chunin exams right out of the gate, so Genma took to calling them that and I suppose it stuck. They all had a little gift exchange last night.”

“But they didn’t buy this.” Iruka counters. There are little imperfections in the ceramics and the glaze, fingerprints in the painted clay and bubbles in the glass that all say hand-made .

“You and I are special, apparently.”

Iruka places his new mug back on the table and makes a note to throw out all his plain white ones. “What did they get you?”

Kakashi reaches for the equipment scroll at his hip and unfurls a little of it. With a quick hand sign he suddenly has a long and heavy drape of fabric flooding over his arms to nearly scrape the floor. Kakashi holds the piece of clothing up by the shoulders and shakes it out for Iruka to see.

It’s a traveling cloak, thick black and trimmed with something silvery, a swath of soft grey fur ringing the collar.

“That’s gorgeous.” Iruka marvels as he reaches for the hem of it. “And heavy .”

Kakashi chuckles. “I’m starting to think the cubs doubt my ability to protect myself. So far I’ve counted six different kinds of anti-chakra seals that are Naruto’s handiwork, weapon sheathes of Sasuke’s doing hidden in just about every seam, and Sakura sewed in an entire layer of lightweight chainmail. Then of course there’s this.”

Kakashi holds the collar of the cloak towards him and Iruka makes out three little symbols sewn into the inside edge, an Uchiha fan, and Uzumaki spiral, and a Sakura blossom.

“The little cretins just dropped it on my head on the way out the door this morning, not so much as a word in edgewise, and asked me to take that with me when I came here.” Kakashi continues, gesturing to the mug Iruka is now clutching with both hands.

“That is very like them.” Iruka laughs. “Also, I’ve been meaning to ask you. I know Ryouta gave the kids a pre-exam checkup yesterday, but when I asked him about it he just walked off cursing about needing to clear his emergency ward in preparation for the ‘apocalypse.’”

“Oh, that. Sakura is starting to develop a Kekkei Genkai.”

Iruka almost spits out his coffee. “A what?

Kakashi has the nerve to shrug and wave his hand dismissively. “I’m not sure why it surprised him so much. Sakura’s chakra has always interfaced oddly with her physiology. It’s not the first time something like that has manifested in someone without shinobi parentage. I mean Minato-sensei–”

Kakashi .” Iruka interrupts. “What kind of Kekkei Genkai?”

Kakashi blinks for a second. “Oh, so far she can harden her skin and reinforce her bone structure with chakra latices. But that’s relatively new. It turns out she’s been reinforcing her muscle fibers that way for months now without doing it consciously.”

Iruka sighs and lets out a high, semi-hysterical laugh. “You’re right. I shouldn’t be worried about them at all. I should be worried about the Sandaime’s blood pressure when the village becomes collateral damage.”

Kakashi just shrugs again. “Details.”

 

<><><>

 

Shikamaru’s dad corners him during one of the rare moments of the morning that he actually bothers standing in front of a mirror. He’s almost completely ready for the exams; he has on the reinforced cargo pants Ino had bought him, extra pockets packed with Choji’s new compact energy bars, some strings of rigged and modified shuriken and his assorted seal tags. His shirt is one of the heavy black steel latticed long-sleeves that Naruto had cut him from his rolls of Ido-senshi armour silk, the same material all nine of them are wearing into the exams in some form. He has Asuma’s gift clipped around his waist, a thick utility belt with kunai and senbon pouches, as well as holsters for his knives and pockets for his field medicine equipment. He has on his reinforced fingerless gloves and bracers, his hitai-ate banded tight around his upper arm, and his totem necklace looped around his neck.

The last was his gift from team 8, a set of four chakra carved jade beads separated and secured by thin metal bracers on a length of black cord, made for the intent purpose of detecting and breaking even the most delicate of genjutsu. Shikamaru strongly suspects that Kiba got the idea from Kurenai.

Now he’s just having minor trouble with the earrings.

“You have to chakra imprint them first.”

Shikamaru doesn’t jump, but he does pull in a breath too fast.

“Can’t you knock, old man?”

Shikaku snorts from where he’s leaning against the bathroom doorframe, like he’s been there for hours instead of seconds. “Door was open, brat.” He tilts his head at the minimalistic jewelry in Shikamaru’s palm with interest, and then holds out a hand. “May I?”

Shikamaru shrugs and drops the black and gold hoops into his father’s waiting hand. “Knock yourself out.”

Shikaku tilts them back and forth in the light, expression softening to thoughtful. “Not really something you would get for yourself. A gift?”

“Team 7. They’re from Tamakai port.”

“Work like this is pretty rare. Capable of storing a half-body’s worth each of chakra when fully charged.” Shikaku comments as he returns the hoops to Shikamaru. “Keep care of them.”

“That goes without saying.” Shikamaru mutters back, “And not just because they’re useful.”

Shikaku hums but otherwise doesn’t respond as Shikamaru sends a soft pulse of dark chakra through the hoops and they pop open. He’d charged them earlier, but he hadn’t counted on jewelry this small having a lock and key system.

He’s just managed to get them in when his mother shouts from the kitchen.

“Shikamaru! Choji and Ino are here! Get going!”

“I”m going, I’m going.” He calls back, turning around to slide past his father and out of the bathroom.

He’s surprised into stopping by an uncharacteristic move on his dad’s part– Shikaku plants a hand on his shoulder and squeezes firmly once. “Knock ‘em dead, kid.” He murmurs, just loud enough for Shikamaru to hear, and then lets him go.

“That’s a given, old timer.” Shikamaru calls over his shoulder, over the soft swell of new confidence in his chest, and Shikaku is still laughing when he turns the corner towards the front room and heads out the door.

 

Ino and Choji are waiting just outside, and they both look ready for war. In the still faint light of the 5am sunrise Ino’s hair reflects silvery, bangs plaited back from her eyes and the rest tucked into a practical bun accented with her new abalone hairsticks, both packed with poisoned senbon. Her high necked armour silk top sits under a chakra laced mesh three-quarters, tucked down into dark shinobi pants with armour plating up the sides. Her nagamaki is absent, likely stored in one of the three storage scrolls harnessed to her hip alongside her kunai packs.

Choji’s armour silk is invisible beneath the lacquered segments of his family’s signature paper armour, red lacquered and thick enough to easily stop the full-heft slice of a katana no matter how fast or how hard it’s moving. His shinobi pants are armoured on all sides, though with smaller and less flamboyant plating than Ino’s. Over his armour he’s wearing a leather bandolier packed with his essentials, including his homemade rations and his family’s chakra pills in case of emergencies.

Ino whistles as he slides out the door. “You cleaned up nice. Combat gear looks good on you, Shika.”

“Speak for yourself.” Shikamaru fires back, and Ino giggles, leaning forward to throw an arm over his shoulder. “Hell, Choji. You look like a walking tank.”

Choji flushes happily and turns, showing off the red shine of his armour and the Akimichi clan symbol in broad black strokes across his back. “Isn’t it awesome? Mom made it for me early. It fits like a glove.”

Ino tugs Shikamaru in the direction of the street. “Come on slow poke. We don’t want to be the last ones there, do we?”

 

They’re the second team to reach Ichiraku Ramen, and they walk into the stall while Naruto and Sasuke are in the middle of a heated conversation that may or may not actually be an argument. They’re discussing several chakra condensation theories and Shikamaru hears the words ‘chain’ and ‘hard seal’ several times but he has no idea where it might be leading or what it’s really about in the first place.

All three of them are dressed head to toe in Ido-senshi armour silk, base clothes of high necked sleeveless tops and long shinobi-style pants wrapped down at the ankles and thighs. That’s where the similarities stop however; Naruto’s arms are covered shoulder to fingertip in chakra reinforced arm wraps that shine softly with seal lines when the light hits them right. He has a similar talisman to Shikamaru’s necklace tied around his left wrist in bright blue that serves the same purpose, and has four medium-sized dark grey scrolls cross-strapped around his waist, two on each hip. With the exception of a set of thigh strapped kunai pouches he isn’t otherwise armed, though Shikamaru gets the feeling that whatever is in those scrolls is more dangerous than any obvious weaponry.

Sasuke’s upper arms are bare but for the the spiral traces of several seals that he hasn’t bothered to cover, some of which vanish beneath his shirt at the shoulder. His forearms bear dark leather bracers that could easily conceal two full kunai or a handful of shuriken, and he has two small scrolls harnessed to his right hip. The most obvious thing however is the katana-tanto set he has strapped to the small of his back, handles facing opposite directions.

Sakura is wearing a utility belt much like Shikamaru’s, though hers is clearly meant solely for medical supplies and kunai. At one hip is a medium sized red scroll strapped in a vertical style meant to allow access to the scroll without detaching it from it’s harness. At the other is the pair of chakrams that Ino had insisted on being their gift for Sakura; they’ve been modified somewhat, and there are seals carved into the handle that match ones carved into steel bands around her wrists just past her brutal looking armoured gloves. She too has seals along her arms, through hers are more concentrated around the forearms, and her upper arms bear thick bands meant for concealing shuriken.

She’s the one who spots them and waves them over, standing up with a laugh to give Ino a spine cracking hug. The Yamanaka doesn’t seem to mind though, and returns the hug hard.

Naruto and Sasuke stop their argument to greet them, Naruto laughing and nudging at Choji’s new armour with interest, and Sasuke asking about how Shikamaru’s new chakra reservoirs are working.  

“We honestly thought you guys would be here last.” Naruto laughs, leaning and arm on Shikamaru’s shoulder. “What with how Ino normally needs to drag you out of bed by your toes.”

“I was up at 4am thank-you-very-much, Uzumaki.” he gripes, and then waves for Takeuchi’s attention. “One bowl of shio with scallion, one shoyu hold the egg, and three bowls of tonkotsu with extra pork belly, please.” He rattles off, and Teuchi nods with a grin.

“One Ino-Shika-Cho coming right up.”

He sits down on Naruto’s left and Choji plops down beside him, while Ino trails to the other side to sit on the last booth next to Sakura. By the looks of it Naruto is already halfway through his second bowl, with Sasuke only now finishing his first.

“You guys were up even earlier than we were.” Shikamaru surmises.

“This idiot’s stomach woke us up at 3:45.” Sasuke grumbles, smacking Naruto in the arm.

“Yeah well we went to bed at like, 6, okay? We usually eat two more times after that.”

“I swear sometimes that you eat for two.” Sakura comments. “I think Kurama gets half your calories.”

“Or he just has a metabolism like a shrew.” Sasuke suggests.

“Hey, you eat just as often as I do.”

“Yeah, at half the meal sizes.”

“Aw man, are we late to the party?” Kiba cuts in, ducking into the stall with Shino and Hinata close beside him. Like the six Genin at the ramen bar team 8 is decked out in battlefield dress, all hard steel and dark reinforced fabric, all except for Hinata, whose Hyuuga robes and black-on-white steel obi make her seem like a spirit among devils.

“Naw, we only just got here.” Choji assures as Kiba plops down next to him and waves down Teuchi to take his order.

“Everyone appears as ready as they can be.” Shino muses. “I have a hard time believing it won’t be enough.”

“If that’s your roundabout way of saying we can’t lose, then that something we can agree on.” Kiba chuckles, slapping his teammate on the back.

“Don’t jinx it, you two.” Hinata warns.

“True enough.” Shino agrees. “We should still be ready for anything.”

“You've got a point, bug boy.” Kiba agrees mildly.

“Okay, now you guys are freaking me out.” Hinata chuckles. “You usually have ten fights before this time of day.”

“We could argue about something if you like.” Shino offers. “I’m sure there are still some buttons to push.”

 

For the next two hours they eat and talk, trading ideas and strategy and speculation as to what challenges the exam will present. The ideas get more and more outlandish as the morning progresses until they’re all trying to outdo each other with outrageous speculation. Shino wins the argument by suggesting the the exam is actually a 200 page written test designed to measure a ninja’s potential resistance to mental torture.

The look identical of horror on Naruto and Kiba’s faces is a priceless image Shikamaru is taking to his grave .

Chapter Text

An hour before the exams start, Kakashi finds himself taking up a whole couch in the Jounin standby station across from Asuma and Kurenai, his book draped most of the way over his face so no one else will try to talk to him. He doesn’t mind Kurenai and Asuma’s soft conversation, even if he does have to endure the pair’s unsubtle flirting in between speculation about the exams.

“I don’t think Ibiki’s question will trip them up. Kiba and Shino may fight, but only the way siblings do. They’re loyal where it counts.” Kurenai is saying. They’d all gotten a summary of the current test parameters, and after looking through it, Kakashi had scoffed and set his on fire.

“They’ll be fine. They’ve got strong bonds going into it. They’ll make the right choice.” Asuma assures.

“You’re right. Of course you’re right.” Kurenai assures herself, and sends a narrowed look at Kakashi. “You’re awfully calm about this, Hatake.”

“Of course I am.” Kakashi agrees easily.

“You’re not worried? Not at all?”

“Not remotely.”

“Not even about them getting disqualified for disobeying superiors?” Asuma asks. “Your brats aren’t exactly known for being rule-followers.”

“They know to listen when it counts.” Kakashi defends. “I’d like to think I’ve taught them that much.”

“Yes well that’s not all you’ve taught them.” Kurenai counters. “Genma tells me that all three of them have ‘inherited your electric personality.’ I think I’m more worried for the proctors than I am for the students.”

“I did give them limitations before the test started.”

Asuma tilts his head in confusion, eyes narrowing. “What kind of limitations?”

“I’m sure you’ll find out.” Kakashi mutters boredly from underneath his book, his arms crossed over his chest.

Kurenai is about to say something else when she visibly stalls, eyes tracking to somewhere over the back of the couch Kakashi is camped on. A second later he finds out why– Gai’s chakra is abrasive on the best of days, and sticks out like a sore thumb just like the man himself.

“WHAT A WONDERFUL DAY FOR THE YOUTH OF KONOHA!” He bellows, and Kakashi lets out a long drawn-out groan low enough to be mostly lost under the echos Gai’s voice sends bouncing off the walls. “Three teams, fresh faced and still filled with vigour!” He laughs and comes to stand at the end of the couch by Kakashi’s feet. “Isn’t it glorious, my friend?”

“Yes Gai.” Kakashi responds dryly, with patience he doesn’t actually possess. “Glorious.”

“Bets!” Genma calls as he comes around the corner into the lounge area. “Speak now or keep your ryo to yourself!”

The room is instantly flooded with Tokujo and a couple of Chunin that really should be in here, along with every Jounin in earshot.

“What a splendid idea!” Gai chortles. “I will place 1,000 on my team reaching the final stage of the test.”

Asuma actually laughs– Gai has been gone for the last month training his Genin out-of-village, and was never really involved in the joint training sessions he Kakashi and Kurenai all put their brats through. He has no idea what he’s up against, and Asuma clearly plans to use that to his advantage. “I’ll put the same on team 10 all walking out with a Chunin rank.”

Gai, predictably, looks surprised. “I admire your faith, my friend, as unlikely as it is to be wise.”

“Same bet on my team. 1,000.” Kurenai adds without missing a beat, and Genma nods, writing her bet down.

“Interesting.” Gai muses, turning to Kakashi, who has yet to remove his book from his face. “Are you going to make a similar bet, my friend? This is the first of your Genin teams to pass your test.”

Kakashi doesn’t answer him, instead he raises a hand so that he can wave at Genma over the back of the couch and murmurs, boredly; “5000 ryo on team 7 taking the entire exam by storm.”

 

<><><> 

 

Ibiki, as a general rule, likes to think himself a pretty decent judge of people. He can look at a ninja, and after a few interactions or a handful of minutes assessing their behaviour, he can usually get a good read on their mettle. He’s seen hundreds of candidates come through the Chunin exams, most of which fail in the first section of the test, this section of the test.

And none of them have ever look quite so bored.

Out of the dozens of candidates that line the seats of the Chunin exam’s first portion, Ibiki had clocked about eighteen of them as having enough potential to reach the end of the exams. Three times the usual number.

And there are nine in particular that stick out.

If he didn’t know better, he would assume they were his own Chunin plants– except for his plants would be better actors.

He recognizes a great many of them as either clan heirs or members of head families, including the Ino-Shika-Cho triad. Both Shibi and Tsume’s boys are here as well, with the Hyuuga heiress herself parked between them. He gives Kiba an appropriate evil eye– he still hasn’t forgotten the pantsing incident, but the Inuzuka has the nuts to counter his normally withering glare with a careless grin and sticks his tongue out in taunt.

Ibiki’s temper flares and Kotetsu, one of his actual Chunin plants, has to cough to cover his snicker.

The balls on these kids. He thinks. No respect for authority.

Which reminds him of the strange little warning Anko had given him this morning.

“Do not take your eyes off Kakashi’s brats. Seriously. Don’t.

To be honest Ibiki had thought it was a joke– Hatake Kakashi, with Genin? The idea is so ludicrous he’d dismissed it outright, despite the other Tokujo’s whispers of a trio of terrors being trained under the ex-anbu’s wing for the last handful of months. He has access to the man’s psych profile– the parts of it that aren’t slathered in Anbu black-out ink, anyway, and he knows Kakashi to be the epitome of a socially inert loner– no loved ones to speak of, friends he can count on less than a full hand of fingers, and no desire to forge new bonds outside of mission requirements.

A man like that mentoring kids? If the rumors were true, Ibiki would almost feel bad for them.

But while Anko is a lot of things, a liar isn’t one of them, and her warning had been uncharacteristically serious.

Ibiki doesn’t know much about the Genin team line-ups on purpose– he prefers to judge teams and potentials with in-person snap assessment in order to prevent colouration from outside sources, but now he wishes he’d paid a little closer attention.

By process of elimination, he knows which brats must theoretically be Hatake Kakashi’s, which just fucking figures.

He knows two out of three of them already– one is the infamous survivor of the massacre, the last of the Uchiha, and the other is the Kyuubi container and orphaned son of the last Hokage. The third he doesn’t recognise; a pink-haired kunoichi with steely green eyes and body language more reminiscent of a twenty-year old than a twelve-year-old.

They’ve been pinging some deep rooted warning bell in the back of Ibiki’s head since they walked in– normally he would mentally dock them points for being unprepared; each of them is only minimally armed with the typical shinobi tools of kunai and shuriken and have no visible survival supplies on their person.

But there are sealing scrolls on each of them that don’t look anything like the regular store-bought variety that he himself uses, and all but the blond jinchuuriki have some kind of specialized weapon on their person.

They’re also dressed disturbingly like Jounin, which is what started Ibiki’s double-take. Minimalistic clothing and equipment, most real supplies hidden or tucked neatly out of all range of motion, almost carelessly calm. At least the other six are showing some form of restless tick after sitting still for so long (excluding the Nara of course).

It takes fifteen additional minutes for the other applicants to figure out what the nine clocked within the first sixty seconds– that cheating on the test is not only necessary, but expected. It all progresses quickly after that, and as soon as he sees that most of the clued in students have gotten at least a few answers down he calls time.

Time for the true test of the evening.

 

<><><> 

 

What the fuck is wrong with this test? And is there a fucking dress code I didn’t know about?

Temari has only been in Fire Country for a handful of days and she already hates it here. It’s not the disconcerting amount of green everywhere, or the bugs, or even the vicious wildlife. No, of all the things that had hammered her Suna-born dislike of Fire Country into hate, it had been the humidity.

She wipes the back of her neck with a hand again, and resists the urge to snarl aloud in the half-quiet of the testing room. Her back is sticking to the stupid plastic chairs though her mesh shirt, her hands are clammy against her pencil, and this test is stupidly hard. If it weren’t for Gaara’s sand eyes, she and Kankuro wouldn’t have managed to answer a single question.

What’s worse? Their team seems to be the only one around them struggling.

She sends a glare at the back of the Konoha-nin’s head two seats in front of her, a boy with dark hair tied in a severe tail, who seems to have fucking already finished.

He’s lounging back in the uncomfortable chairs like he’s fucking bored, and he’s not the only one. The blonde girl to his right is drumming her fingers restlessly against the table, her test turned face down so that the Kusa-nin on her other side can’t lean over and peek. The bigger boy to his left has his test covered in the wrappers of no less than four energy bars.

And they all look different, stick out from the rest of the new hopefuls like an oasis stands out from barren desert.

They’re all in black for one, which is pretty ballsy. Tan and green blends in and fades into backgrounds, but these ninja seem to have forgotten that basic survival tidbit and are covered in deep black or, in the case of the larger boy on her left, vibrant red armour.

Morons.

But they're not the only ones who seem to have forgotten the tactic, and Temari counts at least six other Konoha-nin in similar garb.

Temari hates being stuck in enemy territory.

To top things off Gaara has been antsy since they got here– something about this village makes him uneasy, and whatever had caught his attention when they crossed through the gates holds it still. When Temari had worked up the nerve to ask, Gaara had only vaguely mentioned something about ‘strange energy’ and hasn’t spoken since then, not even to Baki.

Temari hates this kind of mission. Too many things that can go wrong.

<> 

Answering the final question is easy, since leaving the test– for her and the rest of her team– is out of the question, and after a few minutes the room clears out.

The first portion of the test is over and fifty-four candidates remain, her team included.

Half of the eighteen remaining teams are Konoha, including the three teams dressed in black. The other nine consist of her team, a team from Kusa, one from Taki, and two teams each of Kumo, Kiri and Oto.

They’re directed out of the building after that, to congregate deep in the woods at the edge of the village outside a section of trees penned in by fences and seals.

Their proctor stands with her hands on her hips at the edge of the fence, dark purple hair pulled up into a tail and sharp eyes tracing over the crowd of Genin. When she’s satisfied with her headcount she nods to herself, popping her gum, and addresses the rabble.

“Welcome, poor unprepared sods,” she shouts cheerily. “And Rookie Nine,” she adds absently, “to the Chunin exams part two!”

“Rookie Nine?” Kankuro asks Temari lowly, painted eyes narrowed, “You don’t think she means…” Kankuro makes a sweeping gesture in front of him with the back of his hand, including five of the nine black-clad Konoha-nin in the motion.

“Maybe.” Temari allows. “Must mean this is their first time taking any kind of Chunin exam.”

“Maybe.” Kankuro echos, but he doesn’t sound entirely convinced.

“Now!” The Kunoichi proctor announces. “My name is Mitarashi Anko and this;” she gestures grandly to the fenced in wood behind her, “Is training ground 44, fondly known around these parts as the Forest of Death. To you? It’s the battlefield for this portion of the exam.”

With a single swift motion, Anko unhooks two small scrolls from her hip and sends them whirling into the air, catching both in the same hand and holding them up for all to see. One is pale gold with the symbol for heaven stamped on the front, and the other is dark blue with the symbol for earth.

“At the beginning of this exam, each team will be given either a heaven scroll or an earth scroll to protect. Your goal is to reach the tower in the center of this forest with both a heaven and an earth scroll in your possession. If you do not make it to the tower within the five day limit, you fail. If you do not possess both scrolls upon entering the tower, you fail. If you attempt to look inside either the scroll you are given or the scroll you obtain, you fail. If any member of your team dies before reaching the tower, you also fail.”

“Now.” Anko says sweetly. “You have one hour to prepare, after which I expect to see you all lined up at this gate.” She jerks a thumb over her shoulder at the gate set into the sealed metal fence. “If you’re late, guess what? You fail.”

 

Kankuro turns to Temari just as the Konoha Tokujo leaps off the rock she’d been using as a soapbox. “If every team only gets one scroll, that means they’re thinning the herd. Only half of us will make it.”

“I’m not worried.” Temari dismisses, looking around the other teams. “There are plenty of weaklings to pick off, from what I can see.”

Kankuro nods, but it’s hesitant. “Fair enough, but I say we give the guys in black a wide berth.”

Temari ticks an eyebrow up skeptically. “And why is that?”

Kankuro just shrugs and crosses his arms behind his head, but his eyes are serious where is posture isn’t. “Call it a feeling.”

 

<><><> 

 

“What the hell are we supposed to do for an hour? Just sit here?” Sakura whines, shifting her shoulders and tapping her foot irritably.

“I don’t think they expected us to be prepared for a five day stint in the forest of death.” Naruto reasons.

“It’s not going to take us five days.” Sasuke counters.

“Not us, no.” Naruto allows, and plops down in a sunbeam filtering against the trunk of a nearby elm, tucking his arms behind his head. The seals woven into the black fabric of the bandages flicker warm gold and cool sapphire in the light, glittering with chakra.

“I think we probably over-prepped.” Sakura says as she sits down on Naruto’s right, legs stretched out in the opposite direction of the blond’s and her arms braced behind her. Sasuke makes himself comfortable on Naruto’s left, settling himself cross-legged in the elm’s shade.

Sasuke is aware that this test is supposed to be a big deal, that it determines their future and he should take it more seriously, but then he has moments like this; the world seems to quiet, time seems to slow, and even though it’s only for a moment, the peace he feels is bone deep.

He’s never really been sure of anything in his life, but right now, more than anything, he’s sure that this is where he belongs.

Naruto and Sakura talk a little over strategy and avoiding giant centipedes, but Sasuke is content just to listen, eyes closed, to the sound of their voices, and to let the familiar rush of their chakra wash against his senses.

This test doesn’t stand a chance. He thinks to himself. And neither does anyone who stands in our way.

 

He’s interrupted from his pleasant moment by an unpleasant shuffling and the patchwork flicker of still-developing chakra systems. He groans, mood already soured, and turns his head a bit in Naruto’s direction.

“Your fan club is here.” He hisses lowly, nearly a growl with all the irritation he’s holding behind his teeth.

Naruto’s shift and sideways glance tells him he’d already noticed. “I don’t know why they bug you so much.” He mumbles back.

“They’re annoying.” he returns, and this time it is a growl. “Especially their little snot-nosed leader.”

“What’s wrong with Konohamaru?”

“I’m not answering that.”

Sure enough, a minute or so later Sasuke spies them slithering unsubtly over the uneven ground toward them beneath a chakra sheet set to look like a granite boulder– glaringly out of place with all the sandstone gravel.

Sakura bursts their bubble as soon as they wander within reach, snatching the sheet off their collective heads with a playful grin, revealing the messy tops of Moegi, Udon, and Konohamaru in all his snot-nosed scarf-dragging glory.

“Awww!” Konohamaru whines, stomping his feet back and forth like a civilian brat about to throw a tantrum. “How did you catch us?”

“You’re kidding me, right?” Sasuke mutters derisively, and Naruto sends him a glance that is half pleading half admonishment.

Sasuke rolls his eyes with a whispered “Fine,” but leans a little closer into Naruto’s space anyway so he can keep a sharp dark eye on the twerp.

“Iruka-sensei said you had your big test today!” Moegi says brightly. “We thought we’d surprise you and say good luck!”

“Doesn’t look like we surprised anyone though.” Udon adds.

“We appreciate it, guys.” Naruto says kindly. “But you know you’re not supposed to be out this close to the forest of death, especially not during the exams.”

“And especially not you, Konohamaru.” Sakura adds. “Where exactly did you three leave poor Ebisu?”

Konohamaru grins and rubs the back of his head sheepishly, a tick he picked up watching Naruto, Sasuke notes sourly.

The three twerps bicker with each other and Sakura equally while Naruto laughs at them and encourages them in turns. For a while Konohamaru is held at bay from his idol by Sasuke’s presence and occasional glares, until he seems to scrounge up enough courage to brave Sasuke’s temper for Naruto’s attention.

“Hey, hey, what are the bandages for?” he asks, hoping as close as he dares, scarf dragging like a ratty blue snake behind him.

“I don’t see how that’s any of your business, twerp.” Sasuke rumbles, keeping an eye on the brat as he leans against Naruto’s shoulder and forces some of the tension out. Like hell he’s going to let the little shit ruin the whole of his mood just with his presence.

Konohamaru is about to open his mouth, probably to squeak something furious and incoherent, when Naruto adds; “Tactical secret, bud. Can’t tell ya.”

Sasuke’s not sure how that’s much different from what he just said, but the kid eats it up, nodding and snapping his mouth shut.

“What are you three doing here?” Comes a hiss from just on the other side of the cluster of trees team seven is resting in, and Anko stalks towards them, ducking under a maple branch, and leveling a finger at Konohamaru’s team. They all freeze like a couple of startled deer and Sasuke snorts.

“Academy students are banned from all areas regarding the exams.” Anko continues. “I know Iruka told you little shits that.”

The mere mention of Iruka makes all three of them jump, and Naruto snickers. “Uh-oh.”

Anko chases the academy students off with the threat of informing their teacher of exactly what they’ve been up to, and then turns to team seven.

“Hey, you little monsters. I’ve got some instructions from your sensei.” She growls, hands jammed pointedly on her hips like she resents being used to deliver a message.

Sasuke opens both eyes as Naruto perks up from his slouch, and Sakura pulls her legs in so she can straighten her back all the way.

“Kakashi-sensei?” Sakura questions. “What’s up?”

“More parameters for your test, apparently.” Anko says with a disinterested wave of her hand. “He says he told you this might happen?”

“He wants the exams to challenge us.” Sasuke says by way of explanation, and Anko barks out a harsh laugh.

“Yeah, good luck with that.” She says seriously, throwing up a hand, sharp fingernails painted with shiny black polish. “Anyway, Hatake is a cryptic bastard, so I’m just going to tell you exactly what he told me; ‘You three may participate as a team, but you must pass as individuals’ whatever the fuck that means.”

Sakura blinks, looking over at the boys. “As individuals? Do you think he means…” She makes a vague gesture like she’s weighing an object in each hand that goes right over Sasuke’s head but that Naruto somehow interprets more or less correctly.

“You mean two scrolls?” He questions.

She nods.

Sasuke catches up to what they're talking about fairly quickly and shrugs. “It’ll take longer, but it shouldn't’ be too hard. It means we can cast a wider tracking net too.”

Anko is blinking, looking down at them with wide wary brown eyes as she tries to follow even a single train of what the hell they’re talking about. They seem to come to consensus, and then they all nod at the same time and turn back to her.

“Thanks for telling us Anko nee-san.” Naruto adds brightly, and Anko blinks again, mostly because the ‘big sis’ tacked into the end of her name is weirdly endearing and she’s still trying to hold a grudge about that one time the little shit sealed up all her chakra.

She settles for a grudgingly fond “Yeah yeah,” before she stalks off to continue overseeing the foreign teams.

 

Sasuke hums contemplatively after she leaves, a sharp smile creeping onto his face. “So…” He murmurs. “Six scrolls instead of two.”

“There are a weirdly high number of applicants this year.” Sakura adds. “It’ll help weed out the teams who aren’t really ready for this stuff before the test gets dicey. Third stage is supposed to be the hardest.”

“If we’re handed a scroll at the start of the test…” Naruto muses. “Then that’s five teams to take out. Assuming each one has the exact scrolls we need.”

“Excluding teams 8 and 10, that’s fifteen to choose from.” Sasuke points out, and Sakura grins, shark-like.

“Odds say we can’t lose.” Sakura agrees. “Even with the time limit and our restrictions, I say it takes us two days, max.”

“Less than one.” Sasuke counters.

“T