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Early Is On Time

Chapter Text

Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies. ― Edna St. Vincent Millay

The world untwists.

Everything comes flooding on in. The field of stars had never left; Shikako had just been unable to perceive it. But here it is again. Here are her friends, again, and here she is. Here they are, Shikako-and-Gelel.

With two hands that move as one, they reach out. Shikamaru, Naruto, Gaara, Temari, Kankurō, Temujin, Kahiko, Nerugui… they knew them. Shukaku and Kurama, as well, trapped in their seals like fish in an aquarium.

With Gelel, as Gelel, everything was so easy to understand. Everything was so easy to know, and so easy to forget.

Kurama's rage could be understood — of course he'd be angry, who wouldn't be in his situation? — and calmed with understanding in the form of light. This is second time they've done this, peering into the seal, chasing away darkness there to see how important Kurama was/is/will be, even halved and trapped and alone.

Time itself is just another part of the shape of things. It's a gossamer-thin tightrope, a floor to stand on, a speck of dust, a wave, a matter of perspective. Shikako's last hope, her last seal, had been a fishhook for Gelel to reel her back in with. Back to this moment, the best moment, when Shikako-and-Gelel had been safe, and powerful, and forever.

This time, she has seen worse than Gelel. This time, she reached for Gelel and it reached back. This time, she can look at Gelel, and Gelel can look back.

We've been here before, croons Gelel, curiously. Or have we? Here hasn't changed, but we have.

Everything changes, she offers. And: Thank you.

Everything is clear and beautiful. No pain, nothing clawing-ripping-laughing. Why would she want to be Nara Shikako? Nara Shikako was nothing. Nara Shikako was a gut wound and the taste of a friend's blood. Nara Shikako was small, and she had been so powerless.

Then, the note of discord, the shadow where one shouldn't be but where they had nevertheless expected it to be.

You would fight a god? They asked him, curiously.

Yes, came the reply, fierce and bright. Give me back my sister. He pushed and pulled and he was so small and so powerless. Darkness struggling against their vast light, useless, but... true power doesn't lie in any one thing.

Good, they think. That will be indispensable.

She had reached just as Gelel had reached, this time. She lets go easier, knows what waits for her, knows she's going home. The burst of light, wild and beautiful, is just as before. And just as before, Shikako feels strange in her own skin, like she doesn't fit anymore. Shikamaru is holding her, crying, with two flesh-and-blood arms. Things grew all around them, a riot of new plant-life.

Her mouth does not taste of Aoba's blood. There's no pain.

"I made it home," she says to Shikamaru, and then she starts to cry.

She's dragged out of her shock by Naruto, again. Like last time, he scrambles across the distance between them, sounding so young when he cries, "Shikako!" and drops to his knees beside her and Shikamaru.

He looks just the same as the last time she saw him, just the same as he did last time she went through this. Shikamaru, though, he looks different. Younger — kids age so fast, and she and Shikamaru are now almost-thirteen instead of almost-fourteen. He has both arms. He's got tears on his face, and so does Naruto.

"I—" Shikako clears her throat, blinks away embarrassing tears. "I'm safe. We're safe."

Jashin couldn't reach her here. Jashin would never reach her again, had now never reached her, technically. Gelel had saved her and so had Shikamaru. There was no reason to panic or fall apart.

Last time around, Shikamaru's tight grip had been intensely reassuring. Last time it had kept her from flying apart at the seams, pressed her back into her own body. This time — this time his arms feel like a restraint. It hurts, being restrained when she was just so free and safe and powerful. Compared to Jashin clawing its way through her head, Gelel was familiar and comforting.

Being held by Shikamaru is... foreign, at best. As foreign as her younger body.

Shikamaru has just seen her die, though, so Shikako doesn't say anything about the bruises his fingers are probably leaving on her shoulders. It feels good to have someone so close, and when Naruto tangles his hand into the sleeve of her jacket Shikako tugs him closer, too.

Naruto rests his forehead against her shoulder; she can feel his shaking breath. It goes well with the shivering and twitching starting all across Shikako's body. She has the vague impulse to retch, just to make sure that none of Aoba's blood is in her, anymore, but that's irrational. All of Aoba's blood is still inside him, back in Konoha, and it's going to stay that way.

The land finishes rearranging itself. The sound of water and the rustle of foliage is comforting. The natural chakra feels like home, like it belongs to Shikako, although she doesn't dare draw on it.

"We need to finish the mission," Shikako mutters, beginning to extricate herself from Shikamaru and Naruto. Her feelings of being trapped have finally outweighed the comfort of the embrace. She needs to move. She needs to keep moving. If she loses momentum now, she'll never make it back to Konoha.

Anything to keep from thinking about where she just was, anything to keep from remembering what she'd seen of Jashin.

Shikamaru made a harsh, disbelieving sound. "You just died." His voice cracks heavily. "The mission can just—"

"But I'm okay," she rushes to say. She wipes at her eyes with her sleeves. She does not think about how she wasn't dead yet, on that altar. Nope. Shikako isn't going to think about any of it because they are on a mission and now is not the time. She adds: "Please. I'm sorry, but I need... I can't..."

Shikamaru softens and draws back. "Okay. Okay. We'll finish this." He takes a slow breath, putting himself back together. "We'll finish this, then we're going home."

She nods. The two of them stand, and Naruto, and Shikako glances down — there's the huge hole, the new skin. She doesn't want to look at that, or make anyone else look at it, but she's so cold. Being covered in her own blood isn't nearly so gross now as it had been before, although the tacky-warm feeling of the cooling blood is a pretty awful sensation.

"Naruto, can I — it'll get blood all over it, but can I borrow your jacket?" Shikako asks. She feels kind of shitty about this, because she knows he'd give her anything and she knows that he loves that jacket, but she needs it. She adds, "I'll pay for it to be professionally laundered," to assuage her own guilt.

"Yeah," Naruto says, voice unusually hoarse and quiet. He slips the jacket off and Shikako slips the jacket on and the thick orange fabric is more reassuring than any tight hold could possibly have been.

They join the Sand siblings, Temujin, and Kahiko. Haido is, of course, nowhere to be found. Shikako realises for the first time that she doesn't actually know how he died, although she suspects that Naruto, well... kinda vaporized him? His body is certainly nowhere to be seen. She's not totally sure that the Kyuubi chakra cloak can do that, but maybe. Or maybe it was Gelel.

"What have we done?" Temujin murmurs quietly, face ashen.

"Invaded our country," Temari replies, with an ease that belies the impact of her words. "Killed a lot of people. Attacked shinobi of Suna and the Hidden Leaf. Attempted to release some kind of ancient chakra beast." She drums her fingers against her leg and arches an eyebrow. "Answer your question?"

Temari is just as impressive as ever. This conversation went just fine without Shikako last time, and she's content to let it pass her by without comment, sliding her hand into Naruto's and studying the Garden with her eyes and her chakra and not thinking about how 'ancient chakra beast' is, honestly, inaccurate. Not thinking about that, or other ancient-but-not-chakra-beast things, lurking out there, waiting to be released.

No, no, no, no, no.

Eventually, Kankurō jerks his thumb over his shoulder at Shikako and says: "I say we just knock him out, and if we need one of those stones, we could make Sparky over there give it a go."


Shikako laughs, bright and clear. She can't help it. Everyone turns to stare at her. Especially Kankurō — because, of course, he barely knows her, now. He doesn't know that they're friends, yet.

Since they're looking at her, she shrugs. She tells them, "It might work, but I don't think I should give anything a go until I see Tsunade-sama."

"Absolutely," she hears Shikamaru mutter.

Gaara looks away from her, after a pause, goes back to staring at Temujin. Eventually he asks, "If we take you to the stronghold, will you give the order to stop?"

There's more discussion. Gaara gets his way because of course Gaara gets his way.

"Temujin. Tell your fleet to stand down and bring this fighting to an end," Gaara says, which is about when she tunes back in.

Kankurō turns to Shikako, surprisingly. "Hey, speaking of mercy, Sparky," he says. Temari and Shikamaru both choke, for very different reasons.


"When you let us go — thanks, by the way — you quoted something, right? 'The quality of mercy'...? What the hell is that from?"

(Temari groans. Mutters something like, "Seriously?")

Shikako can't tell him about Shakespeare or that it's from a play. Kankurō would never let it go. She says, "It was from an old court transcript."

"What's the rest of it?" Kankurō asks. "There's more, right?"


"It's... pretty long?" she says. But, nope, that's not going to get him off track. Theatre nerd. Right. Also, Gaara is watching. Intensely. Shikako sighs, and tells them: "The quality of mercy is not strained; it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blest; it blesseth him that gives and him that takes."

"Holy shit," says Kankurō. There are practically stars in his eyes. Then, a little suspiciously: "That's not that long, though. There's more."

Well, thinking of The Merchant of Venice is so much better and more distracting than anything else... although she's not sure she can translate the whole thing on the fly, especially the part about Shylock being a Jew. "I'll mail you the full text?" she offers.

It seems like Kankurō is going to argue, but Gaara says, "Enough," and that's the end of that.

Shikamaru has Naruto go get their bags, but he refuses to let Shikako carry hers. "Not until you see Hokage-sama," he mutters. She can't really argue with that.

"Are you sticking around?" Temari asks.

"Yes," Shikako says, immediately. They stayed before. Keeping everything as similar as possible seems important, for now.

Shikamaru huffs, but agrees like she knew he would: "Even if we left now it would still take us three days to return to Konoha, so we might as well stay and see what happens with the rest of the fleet. That way we can give a full report to Hokage-sama about the situation."

Hopefully she wouldn't die in the Hokage's office again... although that gave Tsunade some pretty good political momentum against Danzō, and she came out of it just fine, really, so... she'd probably best just let it happen again.

She's still tired, probably even more tired than last time around, but Naruto's jacket is just as warm as always and it's impossible to feel hopeless with her brother on one side and Naruto on the other, especially with Naruto's cheerful, sunshine chakra blazing right there.

"I could carry you," Naruto suggests, like last time, when they finally get moving. "If you — if you're tired or anything." He bit his lip, looking worried.

"I'm fine," Shikako says, and dregs up another smile, this one small and appreciative. She's missed Naruto.

Temujin leads us into the fortress and calls for all of his friends to stand down. The evacuation of the captured civilians begins, and this time Shikako is not allowed to physically help. She's parked outside to reassure them — which is exhausting in its own way, but her customer service smile from a lifetime ago is ready for the workout.

"You're safe and you're all going home," she tells them again and again. Gaara stays with her and the civilians because people from River might recognize him and would not be reassured to wake up to Gaara of the Desert looking at them. Or, that's the excuse Shikamaru throws out. Shikako is pretty sure he's there to guard her.

Maybe she can nip this protective brother thing in the bud? Hopefully, even.

Shikako goes to talk to Gaara who, like last time, is looking at the Garden.

"There are Suna shinobi on their way," he murmurs, with a quick flick of his eyes towards her to acknowledge her presence..

Gaara's ability to sense in the desert far surpassed Shikako's, of course. She nods. Then, she tells him about Temujin's offer.

"I see," Gaara says, neutral.

"It's up to you, in the end. But, uh, I'm not so sure they should hang around for so long."

He turns towards her. This time, Shikako is struck suddenly by his focus on her, by the way he's clearly giving her his full attention. She hadn't noticed it last time, or hadn't known him well enough to see it, but... he respects her. He wants her opinion.

She explains, like she did before, how having an army hanging around might be bad for Wind. She wraps her arms around herself and worries at the edges of Naruto's jacket's sleeves. The fabric cuffs are soft and thick. She adds, "Just something to consider, I guess."

Gaara nods and turns back to staring out over the land. Shikako waits, and he speaks again. "The Gelel. Is it gone?"

"As much as anything can be gone," she says, and then realizes how strange that sounds, how much sense it doesn't make. Gaara is literally side-eyeing her. She mumbles, "It, uh, scrambled my thoughts a little. It isn't like it was anymore, it couldn't stay together without the mine, but..." Shikako scuffs the ground with her shoe, the newly fertile soil. "Something like that doesn't really go, even if it can't stay. You can feel it, right?"

"It's... peaceful," Gaara says, voice as soft as my own.

"Yeah. Not the Dead Wastes anymore. Not dead at all."

"It's a garden." Gaara nods "Life made from death." He looks pleased. No, he looks relieved. And not about the Garden.

About her. Because she's alive, oh, Shikako had never even thought about that, before, that Gaara would have grieved, for those brief moments she was dead. She had been so focused on Shikamaru, and Naruto... Shikako had thought she and Gaara didn't become friends until after this, really, until Grass, but she was wrong. They're friends now. Already. Maybe since she talked to him on the roof of the hospital.

"Shi Kara Ikioi-en," she agrees, and struggles to keep the sudden emotion from her voice. They're silent for awhile; Shikako gets her sudden rush of feelings back under control. Now isn't the time for that. Now is the time to ask Gaara for something she'd been too out of it to think about last time.

She hesitates, but... "When you're explaining this to the Suna Council," she mutters. "I know you can't lie or anything and I'm not asking that, but.. if you... if you could leave out that I..."

He looks at her again. Gaara is so serious, and at times impossible to read, and he is already her friend.

She hopes she isn't straining that, now. Maybe last time around he and his siblings left it out without her even asking. It's presumptuous; she's... kind of asking him to commit treason, considering that he's not the Kazekage yet. But she doesn't want all of Suna hearing that she came back from the dead like their Garden. She's not sure if it got out last time, but it won't this time, if she has anything to say about it.

Gaara inclines his head, silent. Shikako stands with Gaara and looks at the Garden of Life from Death until it's time to leave.

(When they make camp that night she's exhausted but she brings up the need for secrecy with Naruto and Shikamaru as well. "We're not going to debrief to anyone but the Hokage," she tells them. "Not Dad, or Kakashi-sensei, or the Sage of Six Paths himself. Tsunade-sama only."

"Not Dad?" Shikamaru demands.

"Tsunade-sama can decide if he needs to know," Shikako says grimly. "Tsunade-sama first, no substitutes." Danzo can try to get at them first all he wants, but she makes her brother and Naruto promise, so he's shit out of luck this time. Shikamaru probably won't do anything besides demand to talk to the Hokage this time, to say nothing of Naruto's loud protests.)

Chapter Text

But we survived, didn't we? That makes it an adventure. If you get killed it's a tragedy. ― Garth Nix

It had been July. Now it's August. This seems like a natural progression, one right after the other, but it is not.

Aoba wants to crawl out of his own skin. He wants to shower for days — would the hospital let him use the decontamination showers? — and he's damn lucky that when it becomes August he's alone in his apartment because he doesn't get the benefit of being asleep when it happens. No, the afternoon, he's wide awake, and it knocks him down to his knees, like a punch straight to the brain.

It had been July and he'd been in Land of Hot Springs, in Yugakure —

It had been July and he'd been on an Intel mission with Nara Shikako —

It had been July and the smell of blood had been so thick in that room —

It had been July and they'd both been dying: him, by quick inches but still impossibly slow, like time had stopped; her, on the altar, surrounded by grandstanding priests, arguing to the last —

But it's August, now. Not in the normal progression of things, forward one day at a time into the next month after July, but backwards. Eleven months. The previous summer, the previous August, because Aoba's kitchen table is overflowing with Shiranui Genma's houseplants; he and everyone else had been working double-time, that summer, because of the Sand-Sound invasion, and Aoba's position in Intelligence had made him the only viable plant-sitter Genma could find, although he and Genma had never been particularly close, for all that they'd been at the Academy at the same time.

August, and Aoba is on his knees in the kitchen, hand pressed to his throat, alive, breathing. He flares his chakra to disrupt any genjutsu, on principle, but there isn't one, of course. Insane psychopath cultists aren't going to bother to slap a genjutsu of being home on a dying sacrifice. Time travel of some kind is, frustratingly, the more logical answer.

This, Aoba supposes a little hysterically, is what he gets for going on an S-rank mission with a member of Team Seven. Maybe he should have let Shikako order him back to Konoha and continue on her own... except that, no, dying with her was so much better than sending a thirteen year old teammate to her death, alone. Aoba hadn't managed to keep her safe, but he wasn't a coward.

(And he'd joked about Tsunade-sama killing him for letting her go on alone, but really... it would have been Kakashi.)

He staggers to his feet and finally thinks: where's Shikako? She'd been his mission partner, she'd been impaled, she'd been right there with him, and he has to find her. He has to report to the Hokage, too, of course, but — Shikako first. No one would fault him that. It would be better to report in together, anyway.

First he thinks she's probably with Tonbo... but, no, eleven months back is too far back for that. Nara Shikako is a genin, still. So he checks her team's usual training ground, where he unfortunately doesn't find Shikako but does find Uchiha Sasuke. This is less than surprising; the kid is always training.

"Do you know where Nara Shikako is?" he asks Sasuke, when the kid pauses at his sudden appearance via shunshin. If he and Shikako weren't still genin he probably wouldn't have bothered even asking, but Team Seven are tight-knit and genin usually know where their teammates are, even if Sasuke can't actually leave the village anymore.

"A mission with Naruto," Sasuke says. His brow is furrowed a little, probably trying to place Aoba, and he opens his mouth, probably to ask what Aoba wants with his teammate, but Aoba leaves, straight for the mission desk, to check which mission Shikako and Uzumaki Naruto are on.

Because... Aoba doesn't have the timing of Shikako's missions memorized or anything, but it's the previous August, after the prison break but before that mess with the traps spread all over the village, and Aoba can only think of one mission Shikako took around that time. The one that everyone knows about but no one knows about.

Being with Intel has its perks; the mission desk chūnin recognize him well enough that he can breeze past them to the records room. Of course, it's only once he's in the room and looking through the first of the mission scrolls for Shikako's mission that he remembers that the mission wouldn't be kept here, even this far back — Tsunade-sama selects, distributes, and records any mission Team 7 goes on personally. There will be no record of it anywhere but in her office.

Aoba has seen the date, now, though, on several of the most recently assigned missions. It's August 17th. Shikako is on the innocuous C-rank find-the-ferret mission that had become the mysterious averted-a-foreign-invasion S-rank. The one where Shikako had (probably) died.

'Sword,' he remembers her saying in the bar during their scar-comparing contest, turning around to lift her shirt and show her back, the huge scar there. She'd been facing away from them, hadn't seen the seasoned special jōnin around the table going pale at the sight of her scar. Then she'd turned around, letting her shirt back down and told them, 'I could show you the front, but we'd all get in trouble,' revealing that it'd been a through-and-through.

(Granted, Aoba doesn't know for sure that the sword wound had happened on that mission... but it certainly hadn't happened on any other mission; he had high enough clearance to see the bare minimum of her medical billing records and there was no record of her being treated for any wound in that location or of that level of severity. It hadn't been Tsunade to heal her and it hadn't happened in or near the village. After her return from the C-turned-S-rank, she'd had "investigative surgery" performed by Tsunade, whatever that meant.)

If things go the way they did last time, Shikako will come home in three days and die again on the floor in the Hokage's office because Shimura Danzo was fucking around, trying to undermine Tsunade-sama. It might have helped Tsunade-sama protect others from that kind of abuse of authority, but this is Aoba's kohai. He won't let her die, even temporarily, for the sake of some beneficial political maneuvering.

He needs to see the Hokage immediately.

Of course, Aoba can't just burst into Tsunade-sama's office via window or past her secretary or anything. He's a tokubetsu jounin and he's certainly well-respected, but he's not the head of Intelligence or a Clan Head or Uzumaki Naruto. He has to wait like everyone else.

Her secretary — surely an ANBU in disguise, because Aoba doesn't recognize her and he makes it his business to know everyone — is decently sympathetic to Aoba's tightly-controlled panic, though. "Tsunade-sama will have time for you after this," she tells him, and procures him a cup of tea that Aoba can't bring himself to drink.

It's the longest forty-five minutes of his entire life and when Inuzuka Tsume and Tamashiro Jun exit the office bickering like schoolyard rivals Aoba wants to scream. Normally their arguments are a source of hilarious gossip, but Aoba so does not have time. No matter what it was they needed Tsunade-sama to sort out, there's no way it was as important as what Aoba needs to tell her.

The secretary waves him in; Tsunade looks just as pissed as Aoba feels, although nowhere near as panicked. She's toying with an empty sake cup.

"What's your name and what do you want?" she asks, and Aoba realizes that she's only had the hat for two months.

That may well have been the first spat between Tsume and Tamashiro that she's had to deal with. She hasn't met Aoba yet, because that Very Secret assignment to investigate the chūnin 'Sai' hasn't yet been handed off to him. Being eleven months in the past is going to come with some odd interpersonal consequences.

"Yamashiro Aoba, Tsunade-sama," he says. Because this is a post-mission report, even though she's yet to assign the mission, he stands at rest as he would for any debrief. "Reporting in for myself and my mission partner about an S-rank I've recently returned from."

There's a pause. She's not giving off any kind of Intent, and in fact she barely moves a muscle, but her entire attention is now on him and Aoba is suddenly and inexplicably afraid of Tsunade-sama. He doesn't take back anything he's said, though. It's technically true.

("It's technically true," Shikako had said to him more than once, "which, as everyone knows, is the best kind of true.")

"Very well," she says. She sets the sake cup down and touches some specific point on her desk. Nothing seems to happen, which probably meant she was sending away or summoning more ANBU. Then she touches a second point, and the room suddenly hums with activated privacy seals. So they're probably alone, which Aoba thinks is for the best.

"I know everyone who's supposed to be on an S-rank right now, and you're not one of them," Tsunade-sama says. "But, fine. Who's your mission partner and why aren't they here?"

"Nara Shikako. She's out of the village."

Tsunade-sama leans back in her chair and looks very unimpressed. "Nara Shikako is currently on a C-rank."

"Yes. To find a ferret in the Land of Rivers." And, wow, apparently he wasn't even supposed to know that much, from the way Tsunade-sama's gaze sharpens. Time to bite the bullet.

"We were assigned the mission in July of next year," Aoba says. "We went to Hidden Hot Springs for intel and got caught in... a ritual of some kind." (Here it seems best, for now, to be succinct and skip the proverbial and literal blood and guts of the mission; Aoba doesn't want to talk about dying just yet anyway.) "I woke up in my body eleven months in the past. There's possibly some connection to the mission Shikako is currently on."

"A connection... to the C-rank pet fetching mission."

Aoba nods. "Team 7's curse struck again. The details and the mission were declared S-rank when they returned, but it was generally known that the Nara twins and Uzumaki Naruto helped Suna repel an invasion from some kind of foreign military force."

"And you were read-in on the details?"

"No." Aoba shakes his head. "But I know... she took a sword through-and-through, here—" He gestures at the spot on his chest, high, corresponding to where the scar had been on her back. Draws his finger in a line across where the heart is, the eighth Gate. Where the sword might have missed her spine, but still certainly would have killed her. "—and she was... very injured during the ritual, before I was sent back. Based on the date and travel time, they finished with repelling the invasion today, which was presumably when she got caught by the sword. Around two this afternoon."

"Which is when you... came back in time."

Aoba nods.

Tsunade-sama sighs, and her gaze strays to her empty sake cup. Aoba sympathizes, although at the moment drinking would break his compartmentalization and then he'd probably never stop drinking.

She says, "Fine. I'll humor you, since you do have some information you shouldn't have." She doesn't eye him suspiciously or sound threatening or anything, but boy is the warning clear in her words. "You will tell me everything you can remember about the next few days, especially the mission Nara Shikako is on and definitely anything that might prove you really lived through this all once already. You will submit to the usage of the Holding-Door Mind Transmission as soon as someone is available to do so."

"Yes, Hokage-sama." Aoba gives a brief bow, because that sort of thing is a little more important than usual with how recently Tsunade-sama has taken up the Hat. Also, Aoba is genuinely pretty thankful; she hadn't called him crazy and he's pretty sure she means as soon as someone trustworthy is available — and that probably means Yamanaka Inoichi or Morino Ibiki, both of whom Aoba has no problem letting paw through his memories.

Not that he'd expect his personal comfort to be considered in a situation like this, but with the hijinks that had slowly become apparent to Aoba over the past year, it's very good to see that the Hokage is already aware of possible information security issues and/or internal political jockeying that she'll have to contend with.

Aoba wants his knowledge of the future (assuming it pans out, of course, it is actually possible that he's crazy, however unlikely it seems to him) to be used as a weapon, but preferably one only wielded by Tsunade-sama, for the good of the village.

Chapter Text

Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin. ― Mother Teresa

Yamanaka Inoichi is, technically speaking, not supposed to still be sticking his nose in anything important, which information about anything happening to Nara Shikako certainly would be, so he'll show up eventually... but it would be a waste of resources to jump immediately to pulling in a Yamanaka before trying to confirm Aoba's claims by more mundane means first.

So for now: Morino Ibiki, who generally prefers to do his interrogations without any mind arts.

"Have you considered that you're just crazy?" Ibiki asks.

They're in the depths of T&I, now, in a windowless room that could double for any break room in Konoha. It's to set Aoba at ease, which is unnecessary because Aoba is plenty comfortable with Ibiki, at least in this context: he hasn't done anything wrong, Ibiki is trustworthy, and Aoba has valuable information. Tsunade-sama is probably watching from the next room over... or maybe not. She might be too busy for that — it depends on what's going on at the hospital — but it doesn't really matter.

"The thought occurred to me, but there are too many details. And I was right about where Shikako is and what she's doing."

Ibiki leans forward a little. "You speak of her with a very familiar tone."

"She's — she was — will be? — my kohai. In Intel."

Aoba watches the tell-tale pull of skin that signify Ibiki's eyebrows climb his forehead a little, disappearing even further under his bandana. Almost surely a manufactured expression.

"You don't do that," Ibiki points out. "You're busy. Everyone knows you're busy."

That's true, of course. Aoba prefers to leave mentoring to people with more time on their hands; Shiho would have been a fine senpai for Shikako and it would have saved Aoba a lot of time and stress.

"Tsunade-sama wanted to be very sure she learned all aspects of the department during her three month rotation," Aoba explains.

Ibiki's expression does not get more credulous, which is basically a frank demand for Aoba to actually answer his question.

"Also..." Aoba sighs. "Also, look, you owe at least one favor to Hatake Kakashi, right?"

That gets a real emotional response; an annoyed scowl. "No," Ibiki says, in exactly the tone of voice someone who owes Kakashi more than one favor would use.

"Okay, sure," Aoba says, because he's not going to annoy Ibiki when this is technically an interrogation. Maybe later, though. "The point is, Kakashi started calling those favors in. He asked me to mentor her personally and not just give her the tour and shove her off on someone else."

Ibiki is silent for a moment. Kakashi calling favors in instead of just bullying people into doing what he wants is, much like Aoba not stopping to ask for gossip, a very bad sign. It's on the tip of his tongue to add that Kakashi was village bound, that he spent a lot of time in the hospital, that people were sure for awhile that he was dying of something... but that's not really an urgent problem. Shikako and a few of her other friends did something that involved a lot of medical textbooks on their end and a lot of yelling from Tsunade and then Kakashi was back to his usual annoying habits.

And it's better to let Ibiki lead the conversation, anyway, and he's clearly ready to switch tracks.

"If the mission Shikako is on right now was so classified, how do you know so much about it?"

Aoba explains about doing his research on her: her academy scores, her scores from the first chūnin Exam, seeing footage from her second, and looking into her mission history. He tells Ibiki about seeing the scar on her back and looking into her medical records and then... then he pauses.

"There's something else. Tell me, Aoba."

Aoba's hands clench and unclench. "I think she died," he says, softer than he meant to. It's just that he can't talk about his kohai's death with no emotion. "There weren't enough details, there basically weren't any details... but she was dying before I came back. The mission went really bad." Without him realizing it, his hand has strayed up to his neck. He adds, "I was dying, too," and then realizes his hand is on his throat and he can feel his pulse fluttering with suppressed panic and lets his hand drop.

Ibiki's gaze lingers on Aoba's throat, but he doesn't ask. Not yet.

Instead they go over things Aoba knows will happen in the next few days, everything he's already told Tsunade. Ibiki takes idle notes that Aoba knows he doesn't really need; not only is there surely someone in the next room over taking detailed notes for him, but Ibiki has probably never forgotten anything in his entire life.

Like with Tsunade, he starts with the things that are easy to check: the contents of two coded messages he knows will come in that day; the results of a mission that will be successful except for the sprained ankle, and how the team will come home with one member in piggy back around five; that Shiho will find someone has eaten her lunch from the breakroom; that Ichiraku will discover its usual Tuesday shipment is short on pickled ginger.

Then: Namiashi Raidō and his girlfriend will have a public break up tonight, but they'll get back together by Saturday, the 21st. Gekkō Hayate is having a bad week for his cough, but if Tsunade-sama doesn't miss her appointment with him in the next few days, she'll change his treatment somehow and things will actually get better.

He tells Ibiki about the trapmaster, too. The bombs, eating his lunch at Ichiraku, the forged letter he gave the foreman — Aoba got Shikako to tell him all about their investigation, after it was over, and he knows a fair amount about the investigation from other sources as well.

Aoba has a very, very good memory for information, details, and gossip; it's the reason he went into Intel. Needing to contain it to a three day period that happened almost a year ago to him is a little bit of a strain... but not impossible.

Eventually it slips into about the time for dinner. Aoba last remembers eating with Shikako in Hot Springs, talking about fake plans for a book about local ghost stories. This body probably last ate sometime around mid-morning. But when Ibiki offers to bring dinner back for him, he says, "No, thanks."

He's not hungry — and Holding-Door Mind Transmission is hell on the stomach in the best circumstances, which this situation definitely is not. He'd rather sit alone for awhile and try not to think about anything.

"Sore throat?" Inoichi asks when he comes in, eyes on Aoba's hand.

Aoba's lips twitch down a little and he pulls his hand away from his throat like he didn't realize they were there. "Sure," he says, in a way that means no.

"We're going to use the MRA," Inoichi says, brushing this curiosity aside. Ibiki had mentioned Aoba touching his throat, too, but it's not relevant at the moment; nothing is relevant except making sure that Shikaku's children are safe and that Yamashiro Aoba hasn't lost his mind.

(They've checked several of his predictions and all of them have been true — but you can never be too sure.)

Aoba nods, stands, and follows Inoichi even deeper into the building, to the large room that holds the Mind Reading Amplification machine, a contraption of metal and sealwork shaped like a half-circle that the Nidime created in conjunction with Inoichi's grandfather. Tsunade is leaning against the back wall, talking to Shizune. Ibiki is standing at his place by the MRA already, at the right assistance node. At the left assistance node is one of Inoichi's third cousins, Santa, a jōnin just recently back from the front.

They'd wanted Namiashi Raidō for this, but Aoba's prediction that he and his girlfriend would break up tonight had been unfortunately accurate. Even if they used Tsunade-sama's sobering jutsu to fix his intoxication, he'd be in no state for any of the mind arts.

Santa is no less skilled — he's a Yamanaka; he's better at the technique they're about to do — but Namiashi's clearance is higher. Inoichi is sure of Santa's loyalty and discretion, of course, but Tsunade was less than pleased because she had been planning on having Santa be their third. Instead, Shizune will have to take the third node, despite neither Inoichi or Tsunade being entirely comfortable with her inclusion.

"We can't wait," Tsunade is saying to Shizune while Inoichi settles Aoba into the MRA. "And there's no one else with the clearance. With the device..."

"It's only a supporting role," Shizune agrees. "I'll be fine." Inoichi can hear, in her firm, decisive tone, that she probably has just as many regrets about this being necessary as Tsunade has.

It's not that Katō Shizune can't use Holding-Door Mind Transmission or that she's untrustworthy. She's incredibly skilled at mental and spiritual manipulations of all kinds, like all the Katō were, but she didn't have the chance to learn her clan's bloodline limit techniques before Katō Dan's death. Predisposed already to out-of-body experiences, Shizune's first attempt to learn Holding-Door Mind Transmission threw her first through all of the memories she was trying to access and then out of her body completely. It took two Yamanaka elders and two Nara elders a week to drag her back into her own body.

This could put Shizune out of commission for days. But the seal needs someone at all three nodes and they need to do it now.

Shizune takes her place at the center node. Inoichi snaps the restraints closed around Aoba and politely ignores his uncomfortable shiver at the press of cold metal against him; no ninja worth their salt would be happy with the way the MRA practically engulfs the subject of the mindscan, although having every part of the subject but the head restrained is as much a safety precaution for the subject as it is a security feature; some people thrash or shake under the Holding-Door Mind Transmission and they don't want Aoba to hurt himself.

Otherwise they'd leave the restraints off. They all trust Aoba.

Inoichi faces Aoba and, behind Aoba, standing at the three nodes, Ibiki, Shizune, and Santa. Tsunade-sama is behind Inoichi, watching. Inoichi performs the hand seals at the same time as his assistants and and lays a hand on Aoba's forehead as they each touch their node.

Aoba's mind is dense and tightly knit. Establishing a baseline is important. Inoichi looks at his most recent memory, of entering the room and being restrained.

Aoba was thinking of Inoichi, looking at the Mind Reading Amplification machine, thinking about his first time seeing it, standing at the center node and the feeling of Inoichi's mind and chakra brushing up against his in the technique. He was wondering how this would compare to that, and how it would feel different from the usual Holding-Door Mind Transmission. Aoba was noting that he'd never spoken to Yamanaka Santa before. Aoba was worrying about Shizune.

Inoichi's hand had been coming at him and he had been thinking how grateful he was that Tsunade-sama and Inoichi and Ibiki would all be working together to keep Shikako safe.

There's no time for analysis in the middle of the technique, just the rush of memory and thought. For Inoichi, memories are like sequential animation painted on glass, translucent, one on top of the other and all of them interlinked by emotion and association. Only clear focus and tight control keeps them flickering quickly from one to the next without blurring them all into a kind of unrecognizable mud.

The interview gave them a good place to start, but it will be no use going backwards from the present. Scenes flick by and Inoichi catalogues them: Aoba waiting in the Hokage's outer office to see her; Aoba, earlier that afternoon, in his apartment, looking at a kitchen table full of Shiranui Genma's houseplants; immediately before that, upside down, hot liquid cooling on his neck, dripping off his chin; and before that traveling with Shikako, being assigned a mission — Inoichi goes back and back and back.

Some things stand out to Inoichi, although he isn't looking through the memories so much as registering them as they fly by: The Nara twins release a storage seal that turns every department into a panicked mess while they reorganized — Inoichi catches a flash of Aoba asking why and Shikako leans over a little and explains, "He called Shika stupid." Ino, her eyes still tainted from her tangle with Orochimaru, comes back a chūnin from the Grass exams and so do the rest of her agemates. A scene with Tsunade, eyes serious, asking Aoba to look into a chūnin named Sai. Aoba exiting a file room in the tower and two chūnin are gossiping: "She dropped dead right there, the Nara princess, on the floor of Tsunade-sama's office!"

There's no doubt about the way time has passed for Aoba. Eleven subjective months in Aoba's past, he's in his apartment. Genma's houseplants are on the table again/still. On his plate for that day, besides his regular duties, were plans to solidify the explanation about the illusionary lightning strike on the administrative tower being a drill for an attack by Cloud.

Inoichi begins crawling forward through Aoba's memories carefully, looking at most of them only long enough to get an idea of what the content is before sliding it off to one of his three assistants to view. By necessity, Shizune gets the least-relevant seeming memories: Aoba at the market making small talk, Aoba in the break room listening to Shiho have a miniature and non-threatening emotional breakdown about someone eating her lunch. Likely she'll pick up a good deal of information from them — Aoba is very observant and very well connected — but it's less likely that any of it will be relevant in the next 72 hours.

The first memory Inoichi looks at in full is the memory of Aoba overhearing the chūnin gossiping about Shikako's apparent death.

Ebisawa Michio and Nobira Ennosuke lean against a wall outside the record room Aoba has been buried in for hours. Ebisawa is assigned to front end of the mission desk, handing out information and making payments. Nobira works in client finances and negotiation. They're both about a decade younger than Aoba, and received their promotions through mostly administrative work in the genin corps. Likely neither of them will ever stop riding a desk, but administrative ninja are important and always have the best gossip.

"She dropped dead right there, the Nara princess, on the floor of Tsunade-sama's office!" Ebisawa is saying, punctuating this statement by slapping the back of one hand against the palm of the other, as if to illustrate exactly how dead 'she' had dropped.

Aoba considers this gesture to be kind of gross, but opens with a friendly-but-concerned, "Who?" rather than try and correct Ebisawa. Information is more important.

Nobira and Ebisawa straighten up a little, although neither they nor Aoba seem to note it — people tend to respect Aoba somewhat unconsciously, which is one of the reasons he's so good at gathering and disseminating gossip.

"Nara Shikaku's daughter. Heart stopped and everything," Nobira says. "She and her team came here instead of the hospital and Tsunade-sama — I hear she had to perform surgery right there in her office, on her desk, to bring her back."

Aoba... doubts this. At the very least, surely Tsunade-sama wouldn't bother moving from the floor to the desk if it was that urgent. But the image of the Godaime sweeping her papers and sake off her desk and saving the life of their Jōnin Commander's daughter is a good one, and he won't be looking that gift horse in the mouth. Tsunade-sama has been gone from the village for a long time and needs all the good PR she can get.

"Why didn't they go to the hospital?" Aoba asks. "Isn't Nara Shikako a genin? She can't have had information so important she couldn't give her report in the hospital."

Nobira shrugs. Ebisawa says, "Well, they weren't here looking for Tsunade-sama, she came in after the genin. They were meeting with Councilman Shimura."

Aoba's eyebrows climb, purposefully but not entirely disingenuous. "Councilman Shimura was in Hokage-sama's office without her? That's... irregular."

They both nod. Ebisawa offers what Aoba believes to be the understatement of the century: "Tsunade-sama wasn't happy."

Aoba gathers a little more information from them, like when this happened and who they heard about it from. Then he passes the information he's collected from the record room off to Shiho — he spent the morning up to his elbows in card catalogues for a reason, after all, and all of the mortal danger is either over or being treated by Tsunade-sama in the hospital already. After that... Aoba waves off Shiho's continued complaints about her stolen lunch from several days ago and moves on to investigate more, which mostly looks like slacking off to gossip.

The folks in the Hokage's outer office give him a better idea of when and how things occurred. Tsunade-sama broke two doors on her way through the building to find Shikako, trailed by a young pink-haired genin — Haruno Sakura, Aoba's memory supplies, although Inoichi would have known anyway.

Shikako's sudden medical emergency kept Tsunade-sama from asking Shimura Danzō or the other elders any questions about what, exactly, they had been doing. Aoba raises his eyebrows incredulously a lot, and most of it isn't even feigned. Everyone knows that Councilman Danzō sticks his nose in... well, everything. But this is far beyond his usual old warhawk games. To Aoba... this feels like some kind of powerplay.

He drifts through the market. One woman, buying oranges, tells another about Nara Shikako dying in the Hokage's office. Aoba goes over and inserts himself into the conversation — "Don't worry, it seems like Tsunade-sama got there in time," Aoba says to the shopkeeper and her customer. "She wouldn't rush a corpse to the hospital."

"I can't believe that they didn't go straight to the hospital!" the shopkeeper gripes. "Her brother wanted to, you know, he complained and complained at the gates, that news is all up and down the market."

"Well if she was hurt they should have been allowed to just go to the hospital," says her customer. "We need our ninja in good working order!"

Aoba buys a couple oranges and promises to stop back and tell the shopkeep if he learns anything else he's allowed to share. He heads for the gates.

Kotetsu and Izumo, blessedly, are on break. Aoba throws an orange at the both of them and then passes along most of his collected gossip about Nara Shikako. There's a pause while the two of them look at each other, doing that thing where they have a whole conversation with just some barely-perceptible facial expressions.

Izumo then turns to Aoba and says, "Yesterday when news of that lightshow thing in Wind hit, we also got orders to divert that genin team to the Hokage's office when they checked in."

"'Regardless of their condition,'" Kotetsu quotes. "Which... you know... is against regulation. And stupid."

"Who would even order that? Not Tsunade-sama."

"Someone who doesn't know what our Jōnin Commander is like when he's mad, I guess," Kotetsu says with a kind of vicious grin. "Heads are probably already rolling and we just haven't figured out how yet."

Izumo says, "It was just in the regular notices for the day, like a normal thing. Guess you're right that it can't have been Tsunade-sama, though. She would never."

There's a brief pause where Aoba and the other two all consider exactly how much Tsunade-sama would never in a million years order someone to avoid medical attention.

"We weren't on shift when they came in, but you could check the logbook if you want," Izumo offers. As he does this he finishes up his orange and then performs a small chakra trick with what Aoba is sure is water-natured chakra to clean his hands.

"Yeah, our break's up, c'mon," says Kotetsu. He holds both of his hands out — he's done with his orange as well — and Izumo cleans his hands for him, then waves at Aoba to follow him.

The logbook is where people sign in and out. There's a logbook for Konoha ninja, a logbook for civilian citizens, a logbook for merchants and other civilian visitors, and a logbook for foreign ninja and visiting dignitaries (foreign nin and politicians being of about the same level of risk, all things considered). The only people who enter and leave the village with no written record are people on special assignment — so mostly just ANBU.

For civilians, merchants, and threats, the logbooks have spaces where the people signing in have to provide their reason for coming and going. The book for Konoha ninja only records the date and time of departures and arrivals — the mission desk is charged with keeping track of who's where and why — but there's space for the ninja on gate duty to make notations about the condition of returning teams.

Kotetsu and Izumo take their places and start doing their jobs again, checking in a long string of merchants, and Aoba lurks behind them with the logbook, eyes scanning the last page until he finds Nara Shikako's team. It has the time and date, and all three members of the team — Nara Shikako, Nara Shikamaru, and Uzumaki Naruto — have signed back in. There are two notes from the chūnin who signed them in.

The first says: Orders to report to Hokage's office given; Nara Shikamaru claims they need medical assistance first; no visible injuries.

The second says: Chūnin escort arrived and diverted team to Hokage-sama's office.

Aoba finds out who was on duty — Sotatsu, chūnin, terrible at cards — and tracks him down at his apartment to find out who the chūnin escort was.

"I didn't recognize him, but he was pretty young, so maybe he was recently promoted," Sotatsu says with a shrug, but takes a break from cooking to describe the chūnin using standardized facial-feature rubric used in mission reports: skin tone, shade four; facial structure, type one; eye shape, type four; eye color, black; eyebrows, dark; hair texture, type two; hair color, brown. Outfit consisting of standard chūnin blues, standard Konoha forehead protector worn on the forehead facing forward, equipped with a single kunai pouch and a standard tanto.

"Anything else stick out?"

Sotatsu says no, but then he offers, 'Well, he was rude as fuck, I guess? Like, not very emotive, but you think he'd be sympathetic about genin — well, Uzumaki's a chūnin now, I guess — wanting to get medical attention before reporting in, you know? Instead he just seemed offended they were questioning orders."

"Huh," Aoba says. He thanks Sotatsu and passes on some of his gossip about what happened after Shikako and her team got to the tower ("Shit, I guess they really should have gone to the hospital," Sotatsu says.) and then Aoba leaves him to his meal.

Aoba doesn't know Sotatsu well enough to say how accurate his description is, although Aoba is leaning towards 'bad' because he's made it his business to match faces to names and the chūnin Sotatsu has described isn't familiar at all. Of course, it's always possible that, by pure coincidence, Aoba has never met this chūnin or even heard enough about him to have looked his photo up in the archives. It's possible.

There are various mind arts that would let Aoba view the guy the way Sotatsu saw him, but Aoba also definitely doesn't know Sotatsu well enough to feel comfortable asking him to share a memory of the guy. He also doesn't think that trying to corner Uzumaki Naruto or Nara Shikamaru and convince them to let him take a look is a very good idea: Tsunade-sama is fond of the Uzumaki kid and now would be a very poor time to piss any of the Nara off.

Aoba probably won't find out unless someone higher up decides it's worth a warrant.

He writes up everything he's learned from gossip and witnesses, encases it in a bland folder, and goes to the Yamanaka flower shop. His first choice would be going straight to the Hokage, but she's likely still in surgery. His second choice would be going straight to Nara Shikaku, but as Jōnin Commander he's out at the border dealing with the most recent incident with Cloud. Therefore: Yamanaka Inoichi.

Ino is behind the counter and offers a cheery smile when Aoba comes in. Aoba does his best to smile back. She's still got snake-like slits for pupils from her tangle with Oto ninja. She's still on leave from missions. Aoba has heard almost nothing about her treatment and recovery and hasn't bothered to ask around about it; something Inoichi wants to stay private will be private.

"Looking for my dad?" she asks, nodding to the folder in his hand. She avoids full eye contact with him, although Aoba is careful not to look away from her eyes.

"You got me," Aoba says with a nod. "Hey, uh, you must not have heard — Nara Shikako and her team are back and she's at the hospital getting treated by Tsunade-sama. She dropped during their debrief."

"Oh," Ino says, her smile dropping off. "Thank you for letting me know. I'll go get daddy." She sets the vase of flowers she was about to move back down, takes her apron off, and disappears into the back of the store.

Ino doesn't reappear, but eventually Inoichi — the Inoichi of Aoba's remembered past — emerges from the back room. "Aoba," he says. "Is that work for me? I swear I retired."

"No, it's about Shikako. Ino told you?" Inoichi nods, and Aoba hands the file over, explaining, "They were diverted from the hospital on someone's orders."

"If this is an official report, then you shouldn't be giving it to me," Inoichi says. He opens the folder and starts reading anyway, though.

"I just got curious and started asking around," Aoba says with a shrug. "Tsunade-sama is probably still in surgery, but I didn't want to wait to hand it off to someone who could use the information."

Inoichi makes a vague noise of agreement — understanding, of course, that Aoba wanted to deliver the information straight to someone who would use it — and when he's finished reading he asks, "You didn't recognize the chūnin from the description?"

Aoba shrugs. "Sotatsu-san might just be bad at descriptions. But if he's not..."

Inoichi's lips purse. "Let me find someone to watch the shop and then we can go to the hospital together. It sounds like we'll want to coordinate with Hokage-sama on this."

It's strange for Inoichi, seeing himself do things he knows he's never done on a day that hasn't happened yet and seeing it through Aoba's recollections as they both carefully don't publicly discuss the possibility of some kind of plot to undermine their new Hokage. They wait for her to to be done with Shikako's surgery and then return to her office to talk business while everyone waits for Shikako to wake up.

Tsunade signs a warrant for Aoba to view Sotatsu's memory of the chūnin who diverted Shikako and her team. They're pretty sure it's Danzō — who else would it be, considering who Tsunade-sama found in her office with the kids? — but it's important to know who exactly was involved — it's important to know who supports Danzō, and whether or not Aoba recognizes them.

He doesn't. Aoba even takes the extra step of going through ID photos of people who are about the right age, in case he's just never met the guy, but no dice. When he draws a sketch for Tsunade-sama she frowns. He's not one of the rare ninja who are so deep in ANBU that only the Hokage has met them.

By the time Inoichi has seen what seems to be the complete aftermath of the mission Shikako is currently on, including the spectacular political fallout for Danzō, he can sense that the chakra levels of his three helpers are becoming low, just like his own. They knew going into this that it would take multiple sessions across a long amount of time to see everything they might want to know from Aoba. Inoichi disengages the Holding-Door Mind Transmission, powering the seal down when he feels the others disengage.

The very first thing he does is look at Shizune, who looks back. She blinks a little too slowly, like someone waking up from a strong genjutsu attack, but she nods at him.

Inoichi looks back down at Aoba, who's looking up at him with slightly glassy eyes. The disorientation that comes after such a long session that dives so far back in the memory isn't usually Inoichi's problem because usually he's using this technique to dig information out of an uncooperative enemy. Aoba is neither of those things.

"Aoba, what is your registration number?"

There's a pause, and Aoba swallows hard, but he says, "09744."

"And who am I?"

No pause: "Yamanaka Inoichi."

"Aoba, what day is it?"

"July 29th," Aoba says, and although Inoichi can't see Aoba's whole body he can tell just from the way Aoba's head moves that his whole body has shuddered. Suddenly he says, "Shikako! Shikako, they got her, too, I—"

"Aoba, Shikako is fine. Look at me. She's okay. It's August 17th, 61 years after founding. Nara Shikako is a genin."

Inoichi holds Aoba's gaze while Ibiki works on freeing him from the Mind Reading Amplification machine. Inoichi leads him through a breathing exercise, and repeats the date. He repeats that Shikako is safe and that so is Aoba.

When he's free, Tsunade-sama steps away from checking Shizune over and touches a blue-green hand to Aoba's head. When she pulls away Aoba's breathing has steadied and he's looking around the room with clear eyes.

"Did you get what you need for Shikako?" Aoba asks.

Tsunade-sama looks at Inoichi.

"Yes," Inoichi says. "We saw your whole investigation. We'll take care of it."

Aoba looks satisfied. "Great. Can I go home and pass out?"

"Yes," Tsunade-sama says. "You're relieved from your duties for the rest of the week. Come to the hospital tomorrow for a full physical check up. This technique puts some strain on your brain and spirit, and I want to be sure we won't exacerbate any existing problems by continuing to use it."

Late at night near the northeastern border of Land of Fire, a Konoha messenger hawk comes to the command outpost. Kakashi watches it aim for the base's aviary from his position half way up a tree. He uncovers Obito's Sharingan to watch the way it wings and flutters into the hands of the waiting on-duty chūnin. From the way it flies, it appears to be Konoha's fastest messenger bird that can also fly at night. It was probably released earlier that evening.

Kakashi re-covers Obito's eye and returns to pretending to read his book by the full, bright moon hanging over them, although in truth he's thinking about other things. His students, mostly, and how much he'd rather be spending his time training them than playing chicken with Cloud. He doesn't have much time left to be their sensei, and knowing that they're out on missions without him is driving him crazy.

The chūnin from the aviary shows up minutes later, holding a tightly-rolled message sealed with the Hokage's seal. Kakashi is off duty, but that doesn't really mean anything when you reach the level Kakashi is at; orders are orders. He takes the message and shooes away the chūnin.

Hatake, the encrypted note starts — calling him by his last name, Kakashi has discovered, is Tsunade's code for 'I'm pissed about practically everything right now.' The note continues:

Separate instructions will follow for everyone else out there with you.

You are relieved of your post immediately. You are to proceed directly towards Northern Wind and attempt to rendezvous with the twins and the brat. They will likely be on their way back from the Dead Wastes by the time you get there, somewhere in the northern half of Land of Rivers.

They are most likely safe and uninjured, but intel suggests Shikako might have chakra exhaustion. If she does, proceed directly to Konoha's hospital and do not let her attempt to exert herself.

For most people, the 'immediately' part of this note would have meant "let everyone know, get your things, and then leave." For Kakashi — who never leaves anything behind anywhere on a mission that he can't just abandon there if the need arises, who is absolutely the highest ranking person at the border besides Nara Shikaku, and who would not stop even for death when it comes to protecting his genin — it means "haul ass in the direction of the kids the very minute you finish reading this." In fact, 'haul ass' is probably exactly how Tsunade would have phrased it, if she'd given the order in person.

And, like many orders Kakashi has gotten since Minato-sensei died, this order is given to him because it's exactly what he'd do anyway, given the information at hand. If the orders from Tsunade had just been a general update on the kids — no worries, they're probably safe and uninjured, stay where you are — Kakashi would almost certainly be legging it straight to River anyway. Shikaku certainly wouldn't be able to keep him at the border (not that he'd want to, in this case) and Konoha can't afford to mark him a missing-nin unless Kakashi really goes over the line.

Kakashi tucks away the book he wasn't reading and the note from Tsunade that he'll have to destroy later. He flips through a small handful of seals and Pakkun appears in a small poof of chakra smoke.

"Yo, boss," Pakkun says, raising his paw in greeting. "Sniffing someone out?"

"Not this time," Kakashi says. "I've got new orders and I have to leave. Nara Shikaku is around here somewhere and I don't have time to find him and tell him."

"This is a waste of my talents," Pakkun tells him flatly, but he still straightens up a little and listens to Kakashi's instructions. Since Shikako became his cute little genin, Kakashi has made more of an effort to stay in Shikaku's good graces. It wouldn't do to have his favorite Nara taken away from him.

When that's done, Kakashi sets out across the Land of Fire towards Wind and pushes himself hard. Tsunade wouldn't be sending him after his students if she really thought that they were fine.

Something moves in the hall and Shikaku looks up from the reports he's looking over. A dog wearing a blue vest and a Konoha hitai-ate darts into the room. It's a pug — one of Kakashi's dogs — and it leaps in one smooth bound up onto the only clear space on Shikaku's desk, narrowly missing upsetting his coffee.

"Yo," says the pug, dropping to sit on its hind legs and raising a paw in greeting. "You're down one ninja. Kakashi got a hawk reassigning him."

Shikaku's eyebrows lift. "Reassigning him to where?" There shouldn't be anywhere else for Sharingan no Kakashi to be assigned.

"Something about the pups," says the pug. "Apparently they're almost definitely fine, but simultaneously need an escort home from their teacher."

"Sasuke isn't allowed out of the village."

"Right, my bad, it's your other kid that's with them filling out the team this time, apparently. That seems like information it's okay to share with you."

He thanks the pug and the pug disappears in a puff of smoke. He didn't know that Shikako and Shikamaru had been assigned a mission together. He never knows when Shikako is being assigned a mission, anymore; Tsunade-sama has been taking information security where Team 7 is concerned to new heights, so Shikaku rarely hears that Shikako has left for a mission before his wife does even when he's in Konoha.

Since his students are in trouble, Hatake is probably well away from the border by now. Shikaku can't follow, but in truth he doesn't feel the need to. There's no one who could do a better job of finding and taking care of Shikako and Shikamaru than Hatake Kakashi, and although the uncertainty of not knowing for sure puts ice in Shikaku's veins, logically he knows that if they can be saved and the mission salvaged, Kakashi will do it. And if he has to choose between the mission and the kids, it won't even be a choice at all.

Kakashi would damn the whole world to save his students.

Chapter Text


Nothing is more frightening than a fear you cannot name. ― Cornelia Funke

The further they got into River the more Shikako had begun to feel unmoored, adrift, moving her limbs without feeling any real connection to them, or the ground, or anything except the chakra she can feel. It had all been missing, in the temple, once the ritual had started its final crescendo, and on the long walk out of Wind when Shikako had finally had time to slow down and think about what just happened. She had had to keep careful track of her breathing and the scrape of nature chakra down her throat and into her lungs to keep centered and aware of the present moment.

Waking up in the middle of the night next to their fire in River during what should be shift change, it takes effort not to cough or wheeze, to just lay there for a moment and enjoy the unpleasant sensation as proof that she's alive, that she escaped, that somehow she managed to shut the door against Jashin by flinging herself far back to before the Jashinists had even begun to turn the nob.

She sits up.

"Eh?" Naruto says, voice quiet. Shikamaru's chakra is low and lazy and quiet; he's asleep. "Something wrong?"

Equally quiet, Shikako says: "It's my turn for watch... isn't it?" and is hit all over again by how unreal this all feels, how familiar, how wrong.

"Nuh-uh." Naruto shakes his head emphatically, despite his hushed tone. "You got hurt so you don't have to keep watch tonight. We decided."

"Oh," she says. Right, this had happened last time. She should have remembered.

Shikako sits up a little more, brings her knees up, wraps her arms around her knees, and curls forward. Like someone else is writing the words into her mouth, like this is a pre-recorded sentence, she offers, "Are you sure? I know you must be tired, you used so much of the Kyuubi's chakra..."

There's a pause, Naruto watching her, and... last time around, she'd thought he was trying to decide if he was tired enough to need to take her up on that offer. This time... this time, she sees that the look is more considering. That Naruto is wondering if Shikako needs to take a watch, if this is part of her needing to move forward with the mission, move under her own power, keep going forward to keep from stopping and never being able to start again.

Shikako has really, really missed Uzumaki Naruto.

"Nah," Naruto says, "it's fine."

He looks at her though, still, with worried eyes. Naruto is young, although not much younger than when she last saw him, and Shikako expects the frustration over having to comfort someone again to rise but it never does. Shikako thinks about Naruto's hand twisting in the sleeve of her jacket. About how it had felt, 11 months ago, to have that sword in her chest pulling her down and feel Naruto's chakra tear into the room, strong and warm and safe.

In the morning, she'll have to get up and start walking again. She's not going to let Naruto or Shikamaru carry her. But for now... last time, Naruto had told her about seeing the Kyuubi, but Shikako really doesn't want to repeat that conversation and feel the wrongness of it, like a watching a video where the sound is a few seconds off.

She wants something different. Something better. She wants to be sure that she's here, now, in this moment, far away from Hot Springs, and she wants to be able to stop thinking about Hot Springs.

"Naruto, can I... can we sit closer?" she asks, just as he opens his mouth to probably tell her about the Kyuubi.

Naruto closes his mouth and then, in the same quiet volume but somehow softer than ever, he says, "Yeah, Shikako-chan, we can sit closer," and half-crawls, half-scoots across the ground to sit shoulder-to-shoulder, hip-to-hip with her. His chakra is warmer than the fire, loud and bright to Shikako's chakra senses, like napping outside on a summer day.

She leans her head against his shoulder, unable to stop herself, and after a moment's hesitation Naruto wraps an arm around her. It's like being hugged by the sun. It feels nothing like being restrained.

Thinking about the sword through her chest is actually easy, now that she's using it to avoid thinking about other, worse things. She tells Naruto, "When I was... when you came into the room like that, I knew everything would be okay."

"Even though I was using...?"

"Yeah," Shikako hums. "It's still you, Naruto. And the Kyuubi isn't so bad."

Naruto hesitates, and then tells her about the Kyuubi's name again, and seeing her-and-Gelel in the seal, and it's all so painfully similar to the last time this happened but the weight of Naruto's arm across her back is enough to stave off the worst of the deja-vu.

And then Naruto asks, "Do you remember?" which Shikako is pretty sure he hadn't asked, last time.

For a moment she thinks he's talking about the eleven months she erased, but then — no. The Kyuubi. Kurama.

"Not the way you remember it, I think, it was all just... so much," she mumbles, tired again now that she feels safe, her eyelids feeling glued shut. "We were like a field of stars."

"Stars?" Naruto asks.

Responding just seems like it would take so much effort. Shikako manages an affirmative hum, and then she's out like a light.

Aoba wakes up in the morning with the taste of blood on his tongue, with his head still fuzzy and turned around from the long session with Inoichi. He's on the couch — hadn't even been able to make it all the way to bed — and Genma's plants on his kitchen table across the room help him remember when he is.

He's still heavy with exhaustion, but terror pricks at him. Will Shikako get back to the village alive? Will she drop dead in the Hokage's office again? Will they be able to investigate Hot Springs and stop those monks before they can perform the ritual? Is Aoba really safe, or is that thing they were summoning lurking just out of his perception, watching?

His shower is warm, his soap sudsy, but Aoba doesn't feel anything but grimy and cold still. He skips breakfast and goes straight to the hospital.

Aoba loses time in the waiting room, thinking about Shikako, and trying not to think about her — he knows she's probably having a long, boring walk through River, and that it's most likely that she'll arrive safely. She did last time, after all, and this time Tsunade-sama sent Kakashi after her and her team.

It's just that when he blinks, the image painted on the back of his eyelids is Shikako standing in front of him, unwilling to give up, the smell of burning human from her explosive seal, the white-blue gleam of a barrier seal. Blood on her hands. His blood; her healing jutsu had failed but the seals had worked. Aoba is so weak, and she's still fighting.

A staff twitched through the air. One two three. On four, a staff slamming through her stomach. And what had he said, right before, hadn't that been important? To be a priest of Jashin is to know—! To be a priest of Jashin i — — –

A nurse calls his name.

"Yamashiro Aoba," she says, like this is just another morning, just another check up, like Aoba hadn't — like he —

(Go - to - hell - ! she'd gasped, still standing in front of him. They'd dragged her away. Shikako, on the altar, and Shikako only has eyes for him, like he should be able to help her, but he can't. He can't because — because — )

Aoba stands, follows the nurse. It's a full work-up; the nurse does his preliminary examination (weight, reflexes, that kind of thing; nothing invasive, nothing that even involves using chakra on the nurse's part) and asks him no questions. Aoba doesn't think that most of the questions she might ask would reveal anything particularly classified, but she barely speaks.

Which is fine with Aoba, because he's caught up in trying not to think, trying not to feel, trying to compartmentalized like he should be able to and failing.

What the nurse is doing doesn't reach him.

Nothing happened, and nothing is going to happen, but Aoba still feels... wrong. Unsettled in his skin, and he can't even say if that's an effect of the time travel or if it's left over from the long session with Inoichi.

Aoba lingers in that last moment of hopeless eye contact with Shikako, watching tears well in her eyes. She looks so young, and so old, and so, so far away. He's failed her, he's failing her right now, and on the edge of arriving, imminent, nearly immediate there's something and Aoba can't describe it but it's coming for Shikako and then for him. The priest approaches with the cup, and Aoba can't feel the edge of it press into his throat because he's numb, he's sliding away, and the thing that had been lingering just out of reach is now coiled, waiting to spring.

All Aoba can feel is its anticipation.

All Aoba can hear is its incomprehensible words.

All Aoba can do is nothing, trapped between staying here with Shikako and fleeing as quickly as he can towards death in the hopes that knowing death isn't the same as being able to stop it. Aoba could escape, he's sure he could, the slow creep of death is already a thin gossamer veil between him and the thing, but how could he leave Shikako alone to face it?

It's approaching. There hands are on her mouth. The cup is tilted, blood runs over, and —

Tsunade-sama is in the room.

She's starting up a diagnostic jutsu, hand bright with green medical chakra; Aoba isn't so far gone that the spark of a jutsu being used doesn't pull his attention back to. He's not a sensor, but this close her chakra is clear and clean and cuts straight through the memories.

She's watching him carefully.

"Back with us?" she asks.

He says that he is.

"Do you know where you are?" she asks.

He tells her that they're in the hospital, a private examination room, and is sure of his answer. He hasn't spent a lot of time in there himself, but all Konoha nin recognize the hospital.

"Do you remember why you're here?" she asks.

His tongue gets a little tied. Why is he in front of the Hokage in the hospital? He doesn't feel injured. Is it... was it something about his neck? Was it? He asks that, about his neck, and touches it with light, hesitant fingers, but it's smooth, whole, not even a scar.

"No," Tsunade-sama says. "Not your neck, not really. It's August 18th. You had a session with Ibiki and Inoichi yesterday."

That doesn't sound right. August already, and a session in T&I... had he lost time? What did he do? He asks Tsunade-sama about that, all of that.

Her lips purse. "It's August, 61 years after founding. You gained time, about eleven months." She goes on to say that Inoichi and Ibiki had been verifying his story and retrieving time sensitive information.

Tsunade-sama, he says, I don't think I am back with you

Gathering intel from people... is not Uchiha Sasuke's best skill.

His best skill is probably putting up with Uzumaki Naruto, or maybe telling which tomatoes at the market are at peak ripeness. Other decent skills: shurikenjutsu, setting things on fire, memorization, and other fine Uchiha traditions.

But gathering intel from people, well. Sasuke can navigate the library, eavesdrop, and perform a myriad of other indirect methods of information gathering techniques with proficiency, if not experience. What he can't do is... gossip.

'Desperate times call for desperate measures' is the kind of thing civilians say to each other to excuse ethically problematic or logistically unreasonable choices made in the heat of the moment. Ninja have to do better than that, and the Shinobi Code has a couple of heavy-handed commands on the topic, but Sasuke likes what he's heard Shikako mutter to herself on more than one occasion:

Panic is the enemy.

Some special jōnin showing up out of nowhere and asking where Shikako is doesn't mean that anything is wrong, necessarily. There are all kinds of legitimate reasons someone might want to speak to Nara Shikako, and not all of them are bad. It might be good. It might be nothing.

But maybe it isn't. So Sasuke hasn't panicked, but he hasn't been idle, either.

He'd gone to see Nara Yoshino first. Both Shikako and Shikamaru were on the same mission, and if anything was wrong she'd have heard. She'd invited him in for tea and her forehead had creased a little in worry at his careful question, but she'd shaken her head, sighing, and said, "If there were really something wrong, I'd have heard from the Hokage about it. It sounds like you probably talked to Yamashiro Aoba; he was probably checking up on something she wrote in one of her reports."

And that had almost appeased him, especially with the distraction of Yoshino asking if he wanted to make dinner with her — which he had, because otherwise he'd be going home to eat alone, and she would eat alone, and Sasuke likes Shikako's mom — and then another evening of training.

But by morning Sasuke is unsettled about it again. And he needs more information. And Sasuke sure isn't going to succeed in weaseling information out of anyone about some tokujo he's never heard of before, so the reasonable, rational thing to do is... to ask for help. It's the best allocation of resources. It's much better than pulling a Naruto and just busting into Tsunade's office. Sasuke goes to the florist.

Ino and Chouji are both still recovering from the mission the Rookie Nine took against the Sound Four. Kiba, too. It's a thought that sits heavy with Sasuke, knowing they got hurt on a mission for him, and when he enters the flower shop and Ino looks at him with her newly slit-pupiled eyes, the knowledge that she'll never been the same no matter how much she heals jolts through him, reverberates.

But he tries not to show it. She's still Ino. She came to talk to him every day when they were waiting for Naruto to drag Tsunade home. The only thing she loves more than knowing everyone's business is proving that she knows it.

Before the bell above the door has even stopped ringing, Ino is saying, "Sasuke-kun! Taking an interest in ikebana?" and waving a handful of small, vivid flowers at him that Sasuke can't name.

The tone is cheerful but... it clearly takes some effort. He doesn't know Ino well — has been avoiding getting to know her, specifically, and most people in general for years — but she spent weeks in May and June being forcefully optimistic about Shikako's condition. This has that same edge to her voice, but this time it's Ino herself who's been hurt because of him.

"Ah... no," Sasuke says, stumbling a little for words even though he knows that Ino doesn't seriously think he's here for flower arranging supplies.

Her lips curl, and Sasuke doesn't know Ino well, but he wonders — would that have been a giggle, before? Ino has always been a little slippery, but this expression is a little too... sly and sharp. Or maybe that's in Sasuke's head. Maybe he's seeing changes that aren't there just because her eyes are different.

"I was wondering what you know about a special jōnin named Yamashiro Aoba," Sasuke says, a little rushed, before she can keep poking at him. "Yoshino-san says he's in Intel?"

Ino raises her eyebrows at him. "You asked Yoshino-oba before me?"

"It's not like I was trying to avoid you," Sasuke explains hastily, although he doesn't know if that's really what Ino is thinking and he kind of wasthinking about avoiding her, but — "He asked me about Shikako. He stopped by our training grounds and asked me where she was, and then left as soon as I told him she's on a mission. And I thought that was weird, so..."

"Oh," Ino says, and he can see that she's not interested in teasing him anymore. Her gaze is focused, a little blank, her version of the thinking face Sasuke sees so often on Shikako. "He was my father's kohai, and I've met him a couple of times," Ino says. "He knows everyone. He stops by to see Dad a lot. And.." Now she's frowning, eyes focusing back on Sasuke. "...a runner from the hospital came by earlier to tell Dad that his session with Aoba was postponed by Tsunade-sama."

"Isn't your dad retired?"

"They call him back for important interrogations," Ino says, and now there's a crinkle of worry on her forehead, between her eyes. "I'll see if I can find anything out, okay? But I'm sure it's nothing bad for Shikako, not if Dad is involved."

"Right," Sasuke says, giving a firm, confident nod. "Thanks, Ino." He's more worried now than he was when he came in. Still — at least he's not alone with this.

Lightning had struck the tower only a few days ago, and then Anko was finally assigned something to do again, now that her work with Intel is on... shaky ground until they can prove one way or another whether the piece of Orochimaru inside her cursed seal is self aware enough to be spying on everything Anko sees. And it's kind of a great assignment, if Anko is being honest: Kurama Yakumo isn't too much trouble, yet, and this is probably about as close as anyone will ever let Anko get to being a jōnin-sensei.

(Well... things have been better under Tsunade than they were under the Sandaime, but look: Anko isn't holding her breath. There's still plenty of people who don't want to see her advance, even if Tsunade doesn't seem to care one way or the other.)

Anko is looking forward to the opportunity to prove she can work with a kid. And then late morning on the 18th, a Yamanaka jōnin comes to relieve her from her mission and tells her to go see the Hokage.

"Why?" Anko asks, frowning. She hasn't fucked up. She hasn't even barely had time to fuck up.

The Yamanaka shrugs at her. "Bet the Hokage will tell you," he suggests.

Anko scowls, hands the scroll back to him — snaps it back into his waiting palm with a loud smack — and then takes off for the tower, craving dango but not actually willing to stop and get any before she goes to see the Hokage. She's not going to risk pulling a Hatake on Tsunade.

She gets waved on through to see the Hokage, and stands in front of her, back straight. And... as soon as the door closes behind her, the security seals go up. Yikes.

"I didn't want to take you off your current mission, but you were specifically requested," Tsunade says. "With any luck, you'll be back to your assignment with the Kurama girl in a couple of days."

"Specifically requested?" Anko asks. Who would even request her? It's not like Anko has the kind of reputation that draws civilians. This whole thing is irregular, which Anko hates. Missions that are weird are usually bad.

"By Yamashiro Aoba." Tsunade sets her elbows on her desk, lacing her fingers together. She looks at Anko with a steady gaze. "I asked him who he'd trust to have his back, and he said you."

That — that goes through her like a jolt. Anko likes Aoba, enjoys his company, loves the way he starts talking like he's hot shit when he gets drunk but plays unassuming and humble hard in public. Aoba is a good comrade. Aoba is everyone's friend.

Anko hadn't realized that she was Aoba's friend, though.

"Sure, missions with Aoba are great," Anko says. "Intel mission?"

"Not quite," says Tsunade. She sighs. "The mission isn't with Aoba. It's for Aoba. An in-village assignment."

And that's not just irregular, that's alarming. But Anko is well trained; she only stands a little straighter and listens.

Aoba has had a traumatic experience. The details — anything Anko learns from him or works out on her own or overhears — are considered S-rank, which is why Anko is being assigned babysitting duty: he has information they need, so they can't just leave him alone until he can compartmentalize or go slowly enough to let him process, but Tsunade is "not in the habit of breaking our own people, if it can be helped," so Anko is going to help keep him together.

From the privacy seals to the mission rank to Tsunade's tone, everything about this mission is serious and important and entirely aside from Anko's spiteful desire to prove everyone wrong and be trustworthy and loyal... Tsunade wouldn't have pulled her from the Kurama girl to do this unless it was serious. As much as the Yakumo girl was kind of a fluff assignment while they decided what to do about the new information they've gained on the seal, Tsunade had been clear that Anko's real goal was to turn Yakumo into an asset and that consistency from her babysitter would be important.

Instead: Aoba and his S-rank secret. Tsunade must not be afraid of him letting much slip, since Anko is still a potential infosec security risk.

Before turning her lose to go looking after Aoba, Tsunade gives her some bizarre instructions:

Remind him of the time, the date, and the year.

Remind him that Nara Shikako is a genin.

Assure him that Nara Shikako is alive and well and that Hatake Kakashi is on his way to check on her and her team.

Anko isn't sure what to make of all of that... but it's not her job to make anything of it. Anko's job isn't to dig. Tsunade's got people on that already. Anko's job is to lead Aoba around the holes they leave until everything can be filled back in.

Tsunade dismisses her. Anko goes to buy dango and then hover around T&I and wait for Aoba to be done talking to Ibiki. She'll take him to lunch. She'll knock this mission out of the park.

Aoba spends the whole day with Ibiki — except for a short break at one, when Anko stops by.

"Ibiki could bring you food," she says, practically lounging on the briefing room table, "but he has terrible taste and I can't let you spend literally all day here. So buck up and come eat lunch with me! It's literally my job to make sure you get some sunlight and nutrients."

"I doubt that that was on the mission scroll," Aoba says.

Anko waves her hand dismissively. "Like there was actually a mission scroll! No, you rated verbal instructions only. You're a VIP, Aoba. I'm surprised you're still talking to peons like me 'n' Ibiki."

He doesn't feel like joking, and he doesn't feel like going out and looking at people and places that seem like ghosts, but... Aoba's lips quirk. "I feel it's my duty to give my time to the masses."

That draws a cackle out of Anko and she springs back to her feet. "The masses want to buy you yakitori and dango, so let's go." She holds a hand out to him, impatient.

And, well, who's he to stand between Anko and dango? Aoba is the one who told Tsunade he'd feel most comfortable, out of everyone currently available, with Anko looking out for him, watching out for him when he slips. She would have been near the top of the list even if everyone had been in village.

He holds out his hand, absolutely intending to make Anko haul him out of the chair he's been sitting in most of the morning, since his check up with Tsunade. Instead Anko grabs his whole arm and pulls, then links elbows with him while he's still off-balance.

"Did you really do all that paperwork I saw Ibiki carrying with your sunglasses on?" she asks, leading him out of the room.

It hadn't been paperwork, really, just Aoba writing and writing and writing in between sessions of follow-up questions from Ibiki. Still. "Yes."

"You're so lame. You're not supposed to wear your sunglasses inside," she says.

With good humor — this is an old routine of theirs, comfortable — Aoba shoots back, "Well, Mitarashi, you're supposed to wear more clothing outside, but I wasn't going to say anything about it."

They get yakitori. And dango. It's a day for food on skewers. Anko really does pay for it, and insists they eat it in the park and she tells him all about Kurama Unkai, the acting head of the Kurama clan, and how much she hates him and his gross, wrinkly face.

The last time he lived this day, he didn't go to the park. He didn't hear anything about the Kurama clan, let alone one of Anko's inspired, vicious dissections of why, exactly, this particular old man is the scum of the earth.

It doesn't keep him from checking his throat, it doesn't keep Shikako's voice from ringing in his head, and it doesn't keep everything from feeling slightly less real, but... it's good. It's getting there.

Anko returns him to T&I. "I'm going to go sleep in Ibiki's office or something, but I'll come collect you before you get buried alive in forms required in triplicate," she says, and considering Ibiki would never leave sensitive information in his office and that most people are too afraid to even knock on the door, Ibiki's office is probably the best place in the division to take a nap.

For this round of writing out paperwork, Aoba does actually take his sunglasses off. Eventually Ibiki appears, carrying two hot beverages and wearing his Anko-scowl that means Anko has either flouted common social convention, annoyed him, impressed him, or some combination thereof. One of the mugs turns out to be tea for Aoba.

Mint tea, specifically. Not Aoba's favorite.

Ibiki shrugs at him while he sips his own coffee, unapologetic. "Hokage-sama says no caffeine for at least the next week."

Aoba sighs, but wraps his hands around the mug anyway. It's not really about drinking it, anyway, although it will help clear the phantom taste of blood. It's mostly about the warm, immediate sensation of holding a drink. And the smell. Ibiki has more questions, and he's trying to keep Aoba grounded.

"And what about her foreign bingo book entries?" Ibiki asks, when they've gotten to that part of Shikako's stint in Intel."

"Well, they all still had her as a chūnin," Aoba says, with a good amount of humor. He lists all of the information he can remember from Cloud and Rock's Bingo Books, and when he goes through the skills listen in the Rock book, Ibiki frowns.

A serious frown. Displeased.

"Interrogation?" he asks.

Aoba shrugs. "I guess? I never saw her do it on our missions together."

There's a pause, while Ibiki mulls this over and (coincidentally and not at all to buy himself time, Aoba is sure) takes a sip of his coffee. For something to do, Aoba also takes a sip of his tea. It's fine. A little bitter, probably dried mint steeped too hot, but at least it tastes like something.

"Did I ever call her in for a talk?" Ibiki asks, like it's an idle, inconsequential question.

Aoba's eyebrows jump. He'd never put this together before. "Uh, yeah, the day the Books came out you called her away from her shift for awhile. She... said you gave her a tour. Also, the boys in the aviary swear — swore — would have sworn? Uh, they tried to haze her by having her deliver something to you and you... invited her into the department for a cup of tea."

Frighteningly enough, Ibiki actually looks pleased. Maybe even delighted. He asks, "Did she go to the special jōnin Bingo Book review?"

Aoba feels a real smile steal over his face because: "She did. I got all caught up talking to Tessen so she sat with you. And then, during the scar competition, you made a joke about getting a papercut and she was the only one who laughed. Ibiki, I think—"

At at moment, his mind working on a slightly different tangent, Aoba remembers what came after Ibiki's papercut joke and he... falters. On second thought, Aoba considers, the bitterness of the over-steeped tea really just accentuates the taste of blood in his mouth. He'll have to go back to just... clutching the mug for safety.

He tries to finish up what he was saying despite the small hitch in his words ("—I think you were friends," he manages.) but Ibiki isn't going to let that sort of thing go, of course.

Partially Ibiki is looking for information, but he's also trying to help Aoba work through things, and no one has ever worked through anything by avoiding it.

Ibiki doesn't ask, though, he just... looks at Aoba. He waits. Ibiki is a very good at his job.

"She showed us her injury from that mess with the Sound ninja," Aoba says, eventually, envisioning the way she'd pushed her sleeve up, the way Anko had admired it. "Bone spikes from that Kaguya they fought. Anko had acid spray burns. It came around to her again and... she won."

"She won?" Ibiki prompts.

"She pulled up her shirt in back and showed us where the sword entered," Aoba explains, and helpfully draws a line over his own heart. "A through-and-through. She was — she is thirteen. They were calling her Shikabane-hime, you know, it even made it into the Books. Maybe they won't, this time, if she doesn't drop dead in the Hokage's office."

"Tsunade isn't going to let that happen." Ibiki's tone is almost, almost gentle. Reassuring, but factual.

Aoba nods. "Shikako would probably argue that we should let it happen. She'd say... it had tangible benefits last time that will be hard to reproduce this time, and she came out of it just fine."

"Kakashi isn't going to let that happen," Ibiki says, and his tone is a little more dry.

It lets Aoba look up at him, wry smile covering up a grimace, hand on his throat and agree: "No, he won't. Not even if he has to fight Councilman Shimura himself."

"I think we'd all love to see that fight." Ibiki drains the last of his coffee.

Talking time is blessedly over, for now. Ibiki waves him back to his papers and Aoba goes gladly, writing down pages and pages of information that has nothing to do with Nara Shikako. It's a poor distraction, but it will have to do.

Hours later and after a few more rounds of gentle prying from Ibiki, Anko reappears to drag Aoba home. She talks, and talks, and talks, filling his ears with more gossip about the Kurama and complaints about the stall where she bought her vegetables this week and so on and so forth.

She only asks one question. When the sun is down, and the dishes are done, and Aoba is unearthing extra bedding for her for the couch, Anko takes it... but hesitates. And then she asks, "Do you want me to keep watch?"

Aoba isn't in danger. Aoba doesn't even really feel like he's in danger, except for the knowledge of the thing out there that he just barely escaped. They're in the middle of the village. There's no real reason to have a watch. But the way his room is set up, the best vantage point to keep watch from is the corner of the room that his bed is pressed in to. Aoba would benefit from having a comrade that close when he's falling asleep and waking up. Also, she likely took that nap earlier specifically preparing to offer this.

"I don't need it," Aoba says, honestly. "But it would be... good. If you don't mind."

"It's my job not to mind," Anko asserts. "C'mon." She flounces into his bedroom, the tail end of a blanket trailing out of her arms and fluttering behind her. They don't really need all that extra bedding, but Aoba isn't going to argue. He's so tired, and he needs to sleep somewhere he knows it's safe. Next to a watchful Mitarashi Anko is about the best he can do.

It takes Ino a full day to pull together information, and even then it's not much. Sasuke thanks her anyway, though, because... she tried. And he knows a little more than he knew before.

Still, in the end he only finds Yamashiro Aoba by accident — late afternoon outside a dango stall, he's standing with the proctor from the second round of the exams, Mitarashi Anko.

"I can't just have dango for every meal, Anko," Aoba is saying.

"Sure you can!" Anko says, slapping money down on the counter and placing her order — and probably Aoba's as well; she orders a lot of dango.

(Or, what Sasuke would consider a lot. Sasuke doesn't really like dango, so... maybe it's a normal amount?)

"Okay," Aoba acknowledges dryly, "but I don't want to."

"Tough, you said you didn't have a preference, again, so I got to choose, and this is what's happening."

"I said I didn't have an appetite—"

"—same thing!" Anko turns, hands on her hips, which accentuates things Sasuke tries not to look at. "If you're saying you finally want to make a choice, then we'll go get whatever you want! But if you're just complaining and have only gotten as far as 'not dango' then suck it up. I'm not picking for you again."

Aoba sighs, a ragged aggravated sound. He rubs his throat, which is looking a little red in a way it wasn't two days ago, although it doesn't otherwise look injured. The man behind the counter of the dango shop has their order ready at this point, and gets Anko's attention by clearing his throat.

This seems like a good time to interrupt.

"Excuse me, Yamashiro-san," Sasuke says.

Both of the special jōnin turn to look at him, although Anko quickly turns back to the dango stand to finish her business there. "Uchiha-san," Aoba says. "Can I help you?"

"I want to know why you were looking for my teammate, Nara Shikako, the other day," Sasuke says, firmly but trying to sound reasonable, and not demanding, and like the kind of person you'd want to tell things. "You left before I could ask why you were interested in where she was."

"That's not even any of your business," Anko says, holding her order of dango and leaning around Aoba to peer at him suspiciously. "How come it matters to you so much why someone would want to see her?"

"She's my teammate," Sasuke says.

"So?" Anko counters. "You'll have lots of teammates, kid. Anyway, how do you know it was anything? Maybe she borrowed a book from him or something."

Okay, it's not impossible that Shikako would trade books with a special jōnin. Who knows what she gets up to when Sasuke isn't watching her. But it's unlikely.

"You were in a rush," Sasuke says, directly to Aoba, almost as if Anko hadn't even spoken. "Like something was wrong. She's my teammate. I need to know."

Aoba's hand has drifted to his throat again, and Sasuke doesn't miss that, although he doesn't understand what it means. This close up, he can tell the irritation is probably just from Aoba touching his throat too much.

"You don't need to know," Aoba says.

"I do," Sasuke insists. Not knowing is practically killing him.

"No, you don't," Anko says, flatly, her hand coming down firmly on Aoba's shoulder, as if he needs the support. "Give it up, kid. C'mon, Aoba."

They shunshin away, and Sasuke can't follow.

Kakashi knows how to run. Kakashi knows how to bolt from one side of the country to the other while pacing himself. Kakashi rests only a few hours on his way to the Land of Rivers, and then only a little more when he begins to search for Naruto, Shikako, and Shikamaru.

He knows how Shikako and Naruto would prefer to traverse the northern edge of River, like that Shikako will insist on saying as far away from the border of the Land of Rain as is reasonable, no matter how far north they were in Wind. He also knows the kind of paths Shikaku or Asuma would prefer; Shikamaru has surely picked up their habits. They might also be moving under constraints of chakra exhaustion — if that part weren't likely to happen and important, Tsunade wouldn't have mentioned it — and that narrows things down further.

Naruto probably isn't chakra exhausted unless he summoned Gamabunta or something, and anything that would require that would have gotten a much more alarmed reaction out of Tsunade. So it's probably one or both of the Nara. Naruto has made excellent practice with his summoning contract, but Kakashi is pretty sure he doesn't have the rapport built up with the toads needed to get one of them to carry his teammates(s) for several days straight.

Neither of the Nara would want to be carried by clone for pretty much any distance except in dire circumstances. They must be walking. Kakashi and his dogs check bridges. He finds their trail. He finds them.

Before he even sees them, he knows from Pakkun that they're alive and none of them smell like they're in pain. Shikako really smells like blood, but... well, she's a little more vicious than Naruto and Shikamaru, and they're not exactly clean from this mission either, anyway. The blood is all old blood, though, by about three days. They're safe.

He catches up with them quickly because Shikako senses him coming and they stop to wait for him. it's late afternoon, well before when he'd expect the kids to make camp when they're trying to get home, but they look exhausted. Especially Shikako.

Shikako, in fact, looks terrible. Worse even than she looked after the second round of the chūnin exams. On her feet, still, but it's hard to say that that actually means anything when it comes to Nara Shikako. She walked home on single-digit chakra readings from that mess with the Sound ninja.

"Kakashi-sensei!" cries Naruto, overjoyed. He's missing his jacket — Shikako's got it. Weird. Unsettling.

"Yo," he says. Casually. He's already dismissed the pack; all of them are tired and deserve to rest. "Taking the scenic route home?"

"Shikako-chan is out of chakra," Naruto explains.

He'd guessed it from how she looks, but hearing it confirmed practically gives Kakashi a heart attack, although he doesn't so much as twitch outwardly. How had Tsunade known? What does it mean? These are questions Kakashi can't answer. But he can do as Tsunade has ordered. He can save Shikako from... whatever it is that's wrong, because surely it's not just chakra exhaustion.

She's breathing really carefully, very regularly, like she's focusing on it instead of just letting it happen. On the edge of a panic attack, maybe? It's hard to tell if she's masking her chakra from instinctual panic the way she had the night after the fight on the bridge in Wave or if she's just that low, but the rumors about how low she was when she came walking into the hospital at the end of July are probably overblown.

Shikako is probably hiding again... and now that Kakashi studies Naruto a little more carefully, Naruto looks a little less energetic than usual, too. And there's only one thing that really makes Uzumaki Naruto tired, that makes Shikako hide. Shikamaru's mouth is tense in a manner that on Shikaku means the man is very displeased.

"Because of a C-Rank?" Kakashi prods. "That's strange." But none of the kids rise to the bait and tell him. He's kind of proud, but mostly suspicious. His genin are supposed to tell him things. Maybe Shikamaru is being a bad influence.

(Maybe it was really actually that bad. So bad they can't speak of it. Kakashi understands that.)

"You're strange," Shikako accuses. Her voice is too quiet, like it was when they first met and she was still trying to fade into the background.

"I'm fine," she adds, which is the number one way to tell that she is not fine. Shikako's hunched her shoulders, and is looking a little pale. Her grip on the sleeves of Naruto's jacket looks a little tight.

"She needs to see Hokage-sama," Shikamaru interjects, flatly. He's carrying his own mission pack, and now that he notices that Kakashi sees that Shikako's is missing. Sealed away, probably.

"Well, then we'd better get going," Kakashi says, and smiles a bright smile that he doesn't mean. Shikako is alive, he's gotten here in time, but Kakashi isn't going to save her by half-measures or take any chances. Without waiting for Shikako to respond (argue) or anticipate (plan against) the necessary course of action, Kakashi maneuvers Shikako onto his back in a manner that has her automatically wrapping her arms around his neck and lets him hook his arms under her legs.

Piggyback complete.

(Kakashi learned this maneuver from Gai by having it used on him over and over again. It's impossible to resist. Useless to struggle. Truly the most dangerous grapple in Gai's entire repertoire.)

"Kakashi-sensei, I can walk," Shikako sighs into his neck. She's slumped against him, though, wrung out.

"Nope!" Kakashi says cheerfully, in a way he doesn't really feel. "We'll be moving too fast for you to walk." He turns to Naruto and Shikamaru. "I'm going to get Shikako back to Tsunade as fast as I can. We won't be stopping. If you can't keep up..." He hesitates.

"If we can't keep up we'll stick together," Naruto says, with his usual brand of sudden, surprising conviction. "Shikamaru and I can take care of each other if you've gotta go ahead with Shikako-chan."

Shikamaru nods in agreement and hikes his pack a little higher — except doing that means Kakashi can tell how light it is, and hear the rasp of paper from inside the bag when things are jostled. That's Shikako's pack. Shikamaru's must be the one sealed away.

Kakashi takes off before Shikako can argue anymore. Naruto and Shikamaru try to keep up, an effort that's helped by the fat that Kakashi has been running for days and has to pace himself if he wants to get to Konoha at all, but fall behind eventually.

Shikako falls asleep within a half hour of the run beginning, and Kakashi has to make sure she stays on his back with the careful application of chakra to stick her clothes to him. He's careful to keep his chakra from permeating her clothing, mindful of her hypersensitivity, and moves as smoothly as he can so that she can get some rest.

Chapter Text

God has mercifully ordered that the human brain works slowly; first the blow, hours afterwards the bruise. ― Walter de la Mare

It's only at the gate to the village that Shikako stirs on Kakashi's back, making a quiet sound that makes the chūnin working the gate look at her with amusement. "She's not returning with the team she left with, so if she's capable of pulling out her ID, I really need to see it," the chūnin working check-in had said apologetically to Kakashi only moments before. The unfamiliar voice had woken her up, of course.

"Sensei?" she asks, voice a little whiny, face still pressed against his shoulder.

"Give the nice man your ID so we can sign his book," he prods her.

She grumbles, meaningless exhausted Nara noises. She lets go of Kakashi with one arm and makes a strange motion like she's attempting some kind of sleight-of-hand, but her hand remains empty. She tries it again before looking up half-way through.

"Oh," she says, looking at her hand. It's an empty sound, like she's lost something, and Kakashi is ready to force the issue with the gate guard to get her to the hospital — who's going to tell him that this might not really be his student just because she can't produce an ID? — but Shikako sighs and reaches back into her kunai pouch, pulling her ninja ID out from where she's always kept it. She hands it to Kakashi, who hands it to the chūnin.

The chūnin looks at it carefully, tilting it this way and that, looking at both the front and the back. This is all standard procedure, and to be expected considering Naruto and Shikamaru fell behind hours ago, but it does kind of make Kakashi want to rip the guy's throat out. Shikako needs to get to the hospital. She's clearly some kind of disoriented.

"Alright," says the chūnin, handing the card back to Kakashi who hands it back to Shikako. She pauses, just a little, and then puts it back where it came from. Kakashi is expecting to be waved along but the chūnin glances at a pieces of paper and then says, "I have a memo saying Nara Shikako and her two other teammates should go directly to the Hokage's office."

"Hmm," Kakashi says, because that's certainly a curious change in orders that he's going to outright ignore. "We're going to go to the hospital." He leans forward and fills in his and Shikako's information in the sign-in book

The chūnin nods. "Of course. And, ah... Nara Shikamaru and Uzumaki Naruto — what's their status?"

His pen hovers over the check-in book, ready to make a note: MIA, or body retrieval needed, or search and rescue required... and Kakashi doesn't like the reminder that he's not entirely sure how close the kids came to needing one or all of those.

"They fell behind and we couldn't wait," Kakashi says. "But they should go straight to the hospital as well." That's where Tsunade will be, after all, and probably where Nara Yoshino will be by the time they get in.

The chūnin nods and makes a note. Kakashi proceeds through the gates and into the village. Shikako's chin hooks over his shoulder, watching ahead of them as Kakashi bounces from street level to roof-level and bounces across rooftops towards the center of the village. It's a little rude, a little against common convention to roof-hop before the sun is even up, but it's faster than shunshining through the streets with a passenger would be. Besides, "directly to the hospital" means directly.

Tsunade is waiting at the hospital, fully dressed but also clearly roused from bed — probably by one of the ANBU on gate duty.

"Naruto and Shikamaru?" she asks.

"Shouldn't be that far behind me," Kakashi says.


Tsunade leads them into a private examination room — the private examination room, the one with the best security seals. This is the room Tsunade prefers, but it's also the one she takes sensitive debriefs in when they have to happen at the hospital. Kakashi lets Shikako out of the piggy back straight on to the raised bed.

"I can smell the blood on you, take the jacket off," Tsunade says with an imperious wave of her hand.

Shikako's shoulders slump a little. "It's fine," she asserts and unzips the jacket like she's about to reveal something she's going to get in trouble for.

It's not fine.

Tsunade reaches forward with a diagnostic jutsu immediately, her face grim. Shikako is covered in dried blood. Obviously her own blood; it sticks her shirt to her chest. There's a hole in her shirt, just where her heart is, gaping open a few centimeters like some fabric is missing. The edges of it are strangely clean. Not charred or melted or even frayed, just sheared clean off.

Kakashi saw Yakushi Kabuto do that to a few chūnin during the invasion, with chakra scalpels, but surely the kids would have mentioned a run-in with Orochimaru or his people.

"It's fine," Shikako repeats. "...Mostly."

She should be dead.

Tsunade snaps at her to take Naruto's jacket off completely and Shikako shrugs it off with the motions of someone who's in no physical pain, who doesn't even have the lingering phantom pain of a big healing.

The jacket slumps against the bed behind Shikako. The back of the jacket is crusted with blood just like the front of her shirt. Now that Kakashi is looking for it, now that he has the bright lights of the hospital, he can see that her braid has a fair amount of blood matted into it.

"I need you to take your shirt off, too," Tsunade says to Shikako. "Get out, Hatake."

Kakashi doesn't move.

"I want him to stay," Shikako says. She's a good student, even if she is keeping secrets.

Kakashi looks at Tsunade and Tsunade looks at him.

"You can stay, but draw the curtain and activate the seals," Tsunade says.

All it takes is a spike of chakra into the activation point and the room's walls, floor, and ceiling hum to life. Then Kakashi draws the curtain half-way across the room so that he'll be able to see Tsunade but not Shikako — he wants as much information as possible without violating his student's privacy. Tsunade rolls her eyes at him but doesn't protest.

There's a rustle of cloth from the bed. "Ugh, it's sticking, sorry," Shikako says. Kakashi can imagine that sensation quite well — blood has a way of gluing cloth to your skin.

"Hold still," Tsunade says. Then there's the strange not-burning smell of Tsunade vaporizing the blood between the cloth and the skin, a process most medic nin can only do in small doses to remove cloth from a scabbed wound.

"Ughh, gross," Shikako complains.

"It's your own blood," Tsunade says. The corners of her eyes are tense.

Kakashi can see Shikako's arms peek out from beyond the curtain as she leans forward while sliding her shirt off over her head. The way she twists her arms only makes the holes in the front and the back more apparent. There's a drawer opening and the crinkle of her shirt being thrown away in a biohazard bag.

"This is well-healed," Tsunade says. "Almost no scar tissue past the first layer of skin. I don't think you'll have any problems with mobility as long as you keep up with your stretching for the next few weeks."

"I know," Shikako says, and there's something... strange in her voice.

"I imagine you would," Tsunade says, and Kakashi is aware again that he is missing information and whatever it is probably almost got Shikako killed.

"Can you — will you check my abdomen?" Shikako asks. "Here?"

"I checked all of you, there's nothing there," Tsunade says. She stands and drags a cart on wheels from the corner blocked by the curtain over to the bed — still blocked, but Kakashi can remember from before he drew the curtain that it was a piece of equipment.

A diagnostic chakra sensor, he thinks, and he's proven right when Tsunade says,. "Touch this," and then there's the beep of the DCS turning on and spitting out a number. It's an unfortunately familiar sound to Kakashi, a sound that's only gotten more familiar over the years.

"I could feel the diagnostic jutsu, but... you can look deeper, can't you?" Shikako asks.

"This reading..." Tsunade mutters. There are a few clicks, the DCS being reset, the rustle of soft paper, and then she says, "Here, put this on. And touch this again."

More paper sounds — Shikako putting on a hospital gown — and Shikako says, "I already know what's wrong with my chakra."

"Spit it out, then, because according to this you don't have any. You should be dead."

His student huffs out an annoyed sigh over the sound of her pants being shunted off and hitting the floor. "Throw them out with my shirt," Shikako requests, which Tsunade does — she puts them in the biohazard bag, stands, whips the curtain back to being fully open, and drops the biohazard bag into a chute that will deliver the bag straight into a incinerator.

Then Tsunade turns, hands on her hips, and pins Shikako with a look.

"Because of my hypersensitivity, my body doesn't need chakra," Shikako says. She looks tiny on the hospital bed, in her paper gown. She waves a hand vaguely. "Usually I do without it? But I'm not out of chakra, I have... a thing... blocking my eighth gate."

"We'll have to prep you for surgery immediately. I have a surgery bay and a team on stand-by already," Tsunade says. Her hand lights up with chakra again and she presses it to Shikako's chest, presumably looking for proof of Shikako's claim.

Kakashi knows enough about the Gates to know that it will be a risky surgery. With anyone but Senju Tsunade leading it, Shikako would probably end up a pile of ash on the table by the end of it, burnt up from having the Gate of Death opened for even the fraction of a minute it might take to remove whatever it is that can obstruct the gate without killing her.

"But I need you to check my fifth and sixth gates, too," Shikako goes on, her voice low with the clear desire to not have to talk about this part, though she clearly knows that she must.

"There's no scar tissue there," Tsunade points out.

"There wouldn't be," Shikako says, voice so quiet Kakashi has to strain to hear it even in the small, otherwise silent room. "Tsunade-sama, I need to be sure there's nothing there."

Tsunade's brow furrows, her hand drifting down after a moment's pause to linger over Shikako's abdomen and then over her stomach — the fifth and sixth gates, respectively. The line of Shikako's shoulders is tense, anticipatory.

What did Shikako encounter? What is she afraid Tsunade might find?

"There's nothing," Tsunade says at last.

Shikako's shoulders slowly slump and she gives a long blink of relief, like she wants to just close her eyes and savor the moment. Considering how calm she seems about a block in her eighth gate, this seems... out of place. But neither she nor Tsunade discuss it further.

"Sensei," Shikako says, scooping up Naruto's jacket and holding it out to him. "I promised Naruto I'd get his jacket cleaned and... I don't want my mom to see it. Will you drop it off at that place near the Yamanaka flower shop and tell them to replace the lining if they have to? They don't ask for payment until you pick it up, so..."

Generally speaking, Kakashi doesn't run errands for people unless he's aiming to secure a favor out of them for later. But in this case, well. He doesn't want Yoshino to see that pattern of bloodstains on something Shikako was wearing, either. Kakashi wishes he hadn't seen it.

He takes the jacket.

"Good. Make yourself useful and go get Shikaku and Yoshino, too," Tsunade says. "We'll be in surgery by the time they get here, but they'll want to know."

"Dad's here? Isn't he supposed to be—?"

"I called him back based on some recent intel," says Tsunade.

Not technically a favor — an order from the Hokage to tell the Jōnin Commander something isn't a favor — but being sent to play messenger is usually exactly the kind of thing Kakashi is careful to blatantly, flagrantly avoid, no matter how important. There's almost always someone else to dump the task on, though it will take thinking outside the box on this one to think of someone appropriate.

"Oh, good," Shikako says. "I was worried Shikamaru would have to go home alone. Mom would panic."

So, that strikes the two most likely candidates off Kakashi's list, although that's probably just as well, considering how tired they're certain to be when they get in.

"I'll make sure they know," Kakashi assures Shikako.

She doesn't smile at him, exactly, but the corners of her eyes crinkle, her mouth twitches. She's probably caught on that he's definitely not going to be the one to do it. It's so cute when she lets him have his fun.

Tsunade tells him to get out again, this time actually meaning it, so he does. And he's careful not to look at the diagnostic chakra sensor on his way out. He doesn't need a reminder of the future that's pressing down on him and his students right now, doesn't need to look at an omen of his approaching death.

It's always been coming, and it only seems distasteful now because he let himself get dragged into being a sensei.

"I thought you were at the border," Sasuke says, shoving his feet into sandals, after Kakashi has updated him on the situation.

Kakashi shrugs. "I was." He's slouched against Sasuke's doorjam, his hands free because the place Shikako had wanted to launder Naruto's jacket had been on the way and had been, miraculously, open. Kakashi has never owned a piece of clothing he cared about enough to want cleaned of blood before the sun comes up, but he's probably not in a place to judge other people's eccentricities.

Anyway, it's a good thing that they were open, because Kakashi would have rather thrown the jacket away than bring it near Sasuke in the state it was in.

"I thought they were on a C-rank," Sasuke adds.

"They were."

"Why is it always the C-ranks," he mutters. "Ino says this shit never happens to Team Ten."

"Ino?" Kakashi asks innocently. "Have you been making friends, Sasuke?"

Five months ago, Kakashi is sure Sasuke would have gnawed his own arm off rather than talk to Yamanaka Ino of his own free will. Maybe Kakashi should leave it alone, so as not to embarrass or pressure his student, but where's the fun in that? He's adorable when he scowls. Precious. And if a little needling is going to ruin it, it probably wasn't that great anyway.

"She's fine," Sasuke says grudgingly, which is his equivalent of a glowing review.

"And have you been spending a lot of time with her?"

"She was just trying to help me find out about this Yamashiro guy. Not that we had much luck. Maybe you know him?"

Well. That's an odd fixation. Sasuke hates information gathering.

"Yamashiro Aoba?" Kakashi prods.

"Yeah. Special jōnin. Sunglasses, jōnin blues, vest zipped up. He came looking for Shikako on Tuesday, and Ino says he had at least one session with her dad between then and now." Sasuke's arms are crossed. "He wouldn't tell me what he wanted from her."

...and Shikaku has been suddenly called back to the village. And Kakashi was diverted to intercept Shikako. And Tsunade had a team on standby for a surgery that she really couldn't have known Shikako would need.

And Shikako had nearly died, but Tsunade hadn't asked any questions about the mission — not even whether it had been completed or not — so Kakashi still doesn't know what happened. Shikako had pretty much pointedly not told him.

Whatever the hell is going on, Yamashiro Aoba is as good of a lead as Kakashi's gotten. He usually knows everything about everybody, anyway.

"I see," Kakashi says. "Maybe I should go pay him a visit. Can you go to the Nara clan grounds for me? Shikako will still be in surgery for awhile anyway."

Sasuke nods, although he looks about as awkward as Kakashi always feels about Shikako having a family. It's probably worse for Sasuke, of course, although Kakashi is in favor of forcing him to interact with Shikako's parents.

"Great," Kakashi says. He ruffles Sasuke's hair and darts off to see Yamashiro Aoba.

Yoshino and her husband are roused from sleep in the middle of the night by knocking on their door.

It's not exactly unusual for them to have their sleep disturbed by someone bringing Shikaku a problem that can't wait until morning. Clan emergencies before the sun is up are a little rare, though not unheard of, and the village itself never sleeps. What's more rare is for Shikaku to come back from answering the door and rouse her to get dressed as well.

"The kids?" Yoshino asks, heart in her throat, as she throws on clothing.

Shikaku had come home from the border suddenly, called back only a few hours after Kakashi had been called to retrieve Shikako, Shikamaru, and Naruto from Wind. Intel got news of some kind of invasion, Tsunade had said, but the team should be fine. Yoshino has been on pins and needles since, unable to even enjoy her husband's return.

"Shikako is in surgery," Shikaku says.

As soon as they're decently dressed they're down the stairs. Uchiha Sasuke is waiting by the door, looking much more comfortable than the first time he'd come over for dinner, but significantly less comfortable than he'd looked when he'd been over a few days ago, keeping her company before Shikaku returned.

Yoshino asks him, "How bad is it?"

"Sensei says Tsunade was confident she'd be fine," Sasuke says. "He didn't actually tell me what was wrong or anything, but Shikako was moving under her own power when he found them in River, so..." Sasuke shrugs helplessly. For any other 13 year old girl, for any other genin, 'moving under her own power' would mean Shikako wasn't suffering anything serious at all, but Shikako's tolerance for pain and exhaustion is... a little disconcerting.

"And the other two?" Yoshino watches Sasuke closely, a little anxiously.

Sasuke's eyes widen, but he's making good strides to get over the awkward, gangly nature of being a fresh genin, and doesn't otherwise show any sign of his surprise. He waves a hand vaguely in the direction of the main gate and says, "They'll be here soon. Sensei out-paced them carrying Shikako home. Neither of them are injured at all."

He probably didn't expect her to ask after Naruto, which is both ridiculous and understandable. Someone has to look after that boy, and he spends enough time eating at Yoshino's table that it might as well be her. She still carefully tends the plant he'd brought on his first visit, although it's required some help from Yamanaka Tomomi to keep it alive.

Shikaku grabs his vest and Yoshino grabs her coat and the bag she still hasn't unpacked from the last time Shikako was in the hospital, wishing not for the first time that she were active duty again, that she could meet these threats against her children head-on instead of picking up the pieces afterwards.

They all dart across the rooftops together, towards the hospital, Yoshino's heart in her throat. At least this wasn't like the meatgrinder the kids had gone through against the Sound ninja, at least it sounds like Shikako's life isn't in danger, at least it's over.

At the hospital, the receptionist is useless and can only confirm that Shikako is at the hospital and in surgery. There's a hallway with benches outside the surgical bay where Tsunade is working on Shikako. Shikaku stands. Sasuke leans against the wall.

Yoshino sits, and waits. The anxious boredom is always the worst part.

The warmth of human contact isn't a perfect defense against unpleasant dreams, but it makes stirring awake more pleasant — and Anko is good company at all times of the day and night. She reads in the ambient streetlight coming from the window by Aoba's bed and when he stirs awake from a nightmare she's ready with idle, informative chatter about what she's been reading: Did you know pigs, honey badgers, hedgehogs, and mongoose are all impervious to snake neurotoxin? Did you know there used to be a place called Land of Neck?

Early in the morning on the day Shikako is supposed to get back from Land of Wind, before the sun rises, Anko shifts on the bed beside Aoba, tucking away her paperback and tensing just slightly. Aoba wakes almost instantly. He's laying on his side, facing away from where Anko is sitting up against the headboard, his back pressed against her hip to knee. She's sitting facing the door to the bedroom and the window.

There's someone in the apartment.

For someone who's snuck in, they're being polite: no cat's foot technique here, no chakra to muffle the slight creak of the floorboards, not even any effort to hide their breathing or the sound of cloth moving against cloth as they approach the bedroom.

The intruder pauses near the kitchen table.

"Aoba," says the voice of Hatake Kakashi, "no one told me you'd taken up gardening. Are you using poisons now?" A short while later Kakashi is poking his head into the bedroom and taking in Anko silently for a few seconds longer than actually necessary before he adds, "Ah. Expending past venom, Anko?"

"What the hell are you doing here?" Anko asks, although she's no longer tense.

"I could ask you the same," Kakashi says, tone amused and a little presumptive about what, exactly, Anko is doing in Aoba's bed. Which, well. Aoba pretty publicly never leaves the village for anything more than Intel pickups anymore. There's no reason to assume he'd need someone to keep watch for him.

Aoba — sitting up now — says, "They're Genma's."

"How nice of you to open your home to his plants," Kakashi says. He wanders into bedroom, as casually as most people might join their friends at a tea shop. "I didn't even know you were close with all these people," he goes on, "but that doesn't mean I've heard nothing about you since I got back. I've heard you're interested in one of my cute little genin."

Anko immediately groans, "This shit again?" to Aoba's benefit — because the reply on the tip of his tongue was None of them are even genin anymore!, or maybe She's a special jōnin, for fuck's sake.

Neither of those things are true anymore. Uchiha Sasuke and Nara Shikako are both genin still. Uzumaki Naruto is barely a chūnin.

"Again?" prompts Kakashi.

"Yeah, your Uchiha wouldn't keep his nose out of it, either," Anko says. "What's with your team?"

"Hmmm," Kakashi says, and his eye slides away from her entirely, and his entire bearing shifts to say he's stopped considering her part of the conversation.

Aoba scrubs his hands over his face. He's been asleep for only a few hours. He really doesn't want to have this conversation, and especially not at this hour, but of course there's no way to make Kakashi go away if he doesn't want to go, and attempts will only invite injury or creative revenge. If Kakashi wants to have a conversation with you, you have a conversation with him.

"It's nothing to worry about," Aoba says. He's pretty sure he doesn't give anything away but Kakashi can still tell, somehow, and clearly doesn't believe him. Maybe because Aoba showing up somewhere, asking a question, and then leaving without telling anyone any gossip was once, rightly, suggested at one of the Bingo Book parties as a sign of the apocalypse.

"Now, now, none of that," says Kakashi, so very very pleasantly. His visible eye is crinkled in good humor. "Looking for my student and then spending so much time with Ibiki and Inoichi? I'm sure, whatever it is, it just slipped your mind to come to her jōnin-sensei first."

This is a predictable response, for someone as overprotective as Hatake Kakashi is about his students. Although, well, considering Shikako's entire career, especially the parts that Kakashi doesn't know about yet, Kakashi is actually a reasonable level of protective.

Aoba approves immensely, although that doesn't actually change the answer he can give Kakashi. Aoba has to say: "I can't tell you, Kakashi. You need to take this up with Tsunade-sama."

Kakashi's reaction is subtle but quick — maybe quicker than Aoba had hoped, but... it would figure that Kakashi would spend years frantically dodging and then candidly failing genin teams only to find one he cares about so much he's nearly obsessive.

The reaction is this: a slight pressure in the air and a feeling with no diagnosable source. Focused intent.

It's not the shiver-inducing prickle of killing intent, and in a lot of ways that makes it worse. Hit with it unawares, it's the feeling of being watched by eyes you can't see. It induces paranoia in civilians, increases their suspicion and fatalism. Aoba had gone on a mission to Land of Honey once where Ibiki had managed to drive a lesser noble's embezzling son into a full-on nervous breakdown without ever even looking at the guy.

"I'm talking to you," Kakashi says. He is no longer pleasant or friendly.

The intent is neutral, sure, but it makes Aoba feel like he's about to be casually, carefully, and above all impassively dissected. Kakashi will get his answers. Kakashi will take Aoba apart piece by piece until he finds the information he wants.

"Kakashi, she's not in trouble and neither am I," Aoba says, keeping his voice carefully quiet, just shy of reassuring. "Tsunade-sama needs to decide whether or not you should be read in."

"You should stop talking to him," Anko says. "Get out. Now."

"Not in trouble?" Kakashi leans forward, just a little, and the slimmest spike of killing intent worms its way out into the apartment.

Aoba's breath hitches. His throat — there's nothing wrong with his throat. It's August, and Anko is here, and so is Kakashi. And yet, there's also something else in the room, isn't there? It seems to just be Kakashi's intent, but is it really?

Would Kakashi really use killing intent?

Maybe Aoba never left that temple. Maybe the thing that saw him in the temple never left him, its gaze spanning time and space just waiting to make itself known, to make sure Aoba knows that it hasn't forgotten. Of course Aoba, who now knows death, has never actually escaped his fate.

"She's been under the knife for an hour already," Kakashi goes on, knife-sharp and relentless. There's a reason they call him Cold-Blooded Kakashi and this is pretty much it. As a kid, this had been practically all there was to Kakashi, until death after death had split him open.

"Hey! I said to fucking get out." Anko slides off the bed and onto her feet. Anko is in front of him, chakra high and bright, positive intent crackling off her like bursts of cascading fireworks, hot with anger and ready to burn. Protective, as if she'd have any actual chance against Hatake Kakashi. Against the thing out there that Shikako snatched Aoba away from.

Anko is wearing sleeping shorts and a camisole — they weren't actually expecting any danger, just flashbacks — but she's never cared about being underdressed for an occasion. "Do you get off on this shit, Hatake? If Aoba can't tell you, he can't tell you. Maybe you should be at the hospital waiting to see how things turn out for your genin instead of whatever the fuck you're trying to accomplish here, Comrade-Killer."

Leave it to Anko to go right for the throat when she's trying to deescalate.

Aoba... has never even fucking heard of someone calling Kakashi that particular moniker to his face. Even the Nohara, who came up with it, have kept their tongues around him. It makes Kakashi look away from Aoba, eyes snapping to Anko — which in turn makes Aoba realize that he's been pinned by eye contact from Kakashi for most of this conversation.

It also makes him realize that he's shaking. And his hand is on his throat. He pulls it away, slowly, with all the care of a prey animal in front of a predator, because of course Kakashi has looked back at him just as quickly as he looked away and now he seems to be seeing all of the signs of Aoba's weakness.

"Tsunade-sama will fix whatever's wrong," Aoba says. She had before, after all, and this time Shikako presumably didn't collapse, dead, on the floor of the Hokage's office, so Shikako will probably come out of this better than last time. He hopes. Unless something somehow went more wrong than before on her mission.

Kakashi looks at him for a long moment, like he's considering whether or not to just break Aoba open, like he thinks that might be worth it... and then he's gone.

It's just him and Anko and the streetlight again.

"What an asshole," Anko mutters. Her positive intent is still hanging in the room, coiled and ready to strike. "You want more sleep, or breakfast?"

Aoba is already sliding out of bed. "Breakfast on the way. I want to go to the hospital."

"Uh, shit, really?" Anko asks, and scrambles for her day clothes. "I mean that was bad, but was it really that bad? If it was that bad, should we really stop for food before checking you in?"

"I — no, sorry, that's not what I meant." Aoba stuffs his legs into a pair of pants, movements a little clumsy — he tells himself it's the interrupted sleep and the impatience, not left over from Kakashi's intent. That's over now. It's fine. "I want — I can't really explain why, but — I want to go wait for Nara Shikako to get out of surgery."

"Okay, that doesn't make any goddamn sense, really, but sure," Anko says. "None of my business why, right?"

Akimichi Hironobu's bakery isn't yet open for customers when he and Anko swing by, but Aoba has never in his life let that stop him. The trick to Akimichi — even ones that have married in like Hironobu — is that they love to feed people. Also, Hironobu, specifically, loves to gossip, so Aoba is in good with him.

He taps on the glass door, he and Anko are loaded up with coffee and a box of free day-old items that Hironobu refuses to take money for — "There's always someone in the hospital waiting rooms who needs something sweet!" — and then via hand signals Aoba gets Anko to distract Hironobu while he sneaks money into the man's till.

"I hope your friend comes out of surgery okay," Hironobu says as they leave.

"Tsunade-sama will take care of her," says Aoba, and knows that it's true.

Aoba isn't nervous about the surgery, of course. He's nervous about whether or not Shikako remembers. Desperately, selfishly, Aoba doesn't want to be alone — wants someone else to have seen the thing out there, wants a partner like Shikako to watch his back — but fears what remembering might mean for Shikako.

Chapter Text

“Never miss a good chance to shut up.” ― Will Rogers

“Shikamaru...” Naruto says half an hour after they lose sight of Kakashi-sensei completely.

Shikamaru looks at him, just a glance, to acknowledge he’d heard Naruto say something. He can’t look at Naruto for long, though, because they’re both flinging themselves through the Land of Fire canopy.

Kakashi-sensei had explained that they were close enough to Konoha now that it was safe for him to leave them behind. And then he’d left them behind, because Shikako had been sleeping on his back the whole way and Kakashi-sensei thought she’d better get to the hospital as quick as possible. Naruto doesn’t mind that, but... Shikamaru is flagging. They’ve been running since Kakashi-sensei found them in the late morning and Shikamaru doesn’t have Naruto’s stamina.

“Let me carry you,” Naruto says. “Or, or have a clone do it.”

“I can keep going,” Shikamaru says, exactly unlike a person who can actually physically keep going.

Maybe he feels like he owes it to Shikako to keep running, but... that’s dumb. It’s really dumb and even Naruto knows it.

“Maybe,” Naruto says, because saying Shikamaru can’t will just make him mad. “But then even if we get there without having to take a break, you’ll probably have to be in a bed right next to Shikako-chan.”

Shikamaru looks a little insulted. Oops.

Naruto scrambles for a couple more minutes, throwing out a bunch of reasons why Shikamaru should totally let himself be carried for the foreseeable future. Hesitantly, Naruto even brings up the Kyūbi. Kurama. He hasn’t told anyone but Shikako about Kurama’s name, though, so he says, ‘the Kyūbi.’

“Why would that matter?” Shikamaru asks.

“My stamina,” Naruto replies immediately.

“Ugh,” says Shikamaru.

“Also, baa-chan put me in charge of this mission,” Naruto says. That hasn’t really been relevant at any other point of this mission, but it seems like the kind of thing Shikako would bring up in an argument.

Ugh ,” says Shikamaru.

“And I’ll let you down before we’re in sight of the gate guards,” Naruto says.

So he ends up carrying Shikamaru. And they don’t have to stop and rest.

Benches stretch down both sides of the hospital hallway outside the operating room where Tsunade is doing... something... to fix Shikako up. Kakashi had been very scant on the details and at the time Sasuke had just kind of accepted that if Kakashi didn’t give him more details there probably weren’t too many more details to give, but Shikako’s parents have questions. Of course they do.

No one at the hospital can answer their questions.

No one knows what surgery Shikako is even having.

No one wants to look the Jōnin Commander in the eye when they tell him this.

Eventually they have to just settle in on the benches, Shikaku and Yoshino on one side of the hall, Sasuke on the other. All three of them are a little bleary from interrupted sleep, but Sasuke know he’s got it the worst; Shikaku and Yoshino are old hands at middle-of-the-night wake up calls.

Shikaku just sits still, relaxed, with the same frown Shikako gets when she’s trying to puzzle something out. Yoshino pulls out a paperback, staring at the same page blankly for long moments.

Sasuke doesn’t think she’s actually reading and doesn’t think he could read, either, but he wishes he had a book, too, just for something to do.

Yoshino looks up from her book eventually.

“Do you smell coffee?” she asks.

Sasuke... does smell coffee. Cutting through the hospital smell, wafting down the hallway. Two ninja round the corner, one carrying a bakery box and the other a cardboard box of brewed coffee with a stack of paper coffee cups on top.

It’s Aoba and Anko.

“Is someone else in surgery?” Shikaku asks, glancing at the doors to the other operating room off this hall.

It’s just as quiet as it’s been since they got here, but it’s possible that there’s some kind of really long, quiet surgery. It could be a coincidence.

“We heard about the kid from Kakashi,” Anko says. “Thought you’d want breakfast.”

Shikaku’s expression doesn’t change, as if this highly unlikely explanation is exactly what he expected to hear.

Yoshino frowns. “You were asking after Shikako earlier in the week, weren’t you?” She glances at Sasuke.

“He was,” Sasuke says. Sasuke sincerely doubts Kakashi actually invited these two to wait at the hospital.

“I’m sure that whatever concern you have about Shikako is one I could lay to rest,” Shikaku says.

“That’s what Hatake said,” Anko mutters. She sets the coffee down on the bench on the other side of the hall.

“You were supposed to be briefed in the morning.” Aoba shifts awkwardly. “I can’t tell you much more besides that without Tsunade-sama’s okay, but Shikako isn’t in trouble or anything. I just got... alarming intel.”

Shikaku looks at Aoba for a few more moments, stretched out long and terribly. And then he says, “That’s a box from the Akimichi bakery on Tea Street.”

Aoba says, “Hironobu sends his well-wishes.”

Anko helpfully holds a steaming cup of coffee out to Shikaku. “He was still baking but he made an exception for Aoba.”

Sasuke takes a cup of coffee when offered. It’s not much to focus on, but it’s better than nothing. Better than speculating uselesly about what Aoba might have learned concerning Shikako and if it has anything to do with why she’s in surgery right now.

The gate guard studies their IDs as the night fades into the grey of pre-dawn, birds making an incongruously cheerful riot as Naruto and Shikamaru wait tensely to be let into the village and find out if Shikako is okay.

“Alright, you can sign in,” the gate guard says, and hands the book over to Naruto. She looks at something else behind the desk. “Also... you’re supposed to go right to the Hokage’s office for debrief.”

Shikamaru says, “Will she even be there yet? We were going to go straight to the hospital.”

The chūnin gives them both a once-over. “Are either of you injured?”

Shikamaru scowls. “No.”

The chūnin shrugs. “Then these orders stand. Someone will wake the Hokage and make sure she’s there quickly to take your report.”

Naruto thinks that Tsunade probably wouldn’t mind all too much if they stopped by the hospital to check on Shikako before someone woke her up and she had to drag herself to the office, but she’d told him off good for not acting the way a chūnin should when he had to accept that Sasuke wouldn’t be on missions with them again for awhile and he figures that at the very least he probably shouldn’t argue with the gate guard about it.

Better forgiveness than permission, anyway, like Shikako-chan says.

Naruto goes first to sign the book and notices that Kakashi-sensei and Shikako were some of the last people to sign in. He tells Shikamaru — “Kakashi-sensei and Shikako made it way before us!” — and then squints at the note next to their sign-in.

It says they went right to the hospital and that Kakashi’s “standing order” is that the rest of the team should follow.

“Hey,” Naruto says, turning the book around and shoving it towards the gate guard — although not right into her face or anything, that would probably just make her mad. “Orders from our team leader trumps whatever stupid note you have right?”

You’re team leader,” Shikamaru reminds him.

“Nuh-uh, Kakashi-sensei met up with us,” Naruto says. “I mean, I failed the, uh, test on that stuff—?”

“...Konoha’s command structure?” Shikamaru guesses. His eyebrows have crawled up a little. The gate guard’s, too.

“—yeah, that! Iruka-sensei was real mad.” There had been lots of yelling. “But anyway, a jōnin who was in the field with us and knows the situation has gotta be more important than some note baa-chan sent to the desk yesterday or whatever. And baa-chan’s probably talked to Shikako-chan already!” Naruto nods, confident. “So we should just go to the hospital like Kakashi-sensei said.”

Shikamaru doesn’t exactly look convinced that Naruto is right — Naruto knows he probably technically isn’t so that’s fine — but like Shikako-chan, Shikamaru will use any excuse he can get his hands on to do what he already wanted to do anyway. And Kakashi-sensei will totally back Naruto up on this, for sure.

“Well, whatever,” says the chūnin, waving her hand in a gesture to indicate Naruto should let Shikamaru sign the book now. Oops. “You probably shouldn’t make it a long visit, especially if Hatake-san isn’t there anymore, you know?”

“We’ll be quick,” Naruto agrees, although he doesn’t really think they will be. Shikamaru will want to stay, but Naruto can always report in alone.

They enter the village and start towards the hospital, but just a few feet along a chūnin emerges out of... somewhere... and stops them.

“You are required to go to the Tower for your debrief first,” says this chūnin. He’s not wearing anything special except a boring-looking tantō. He looks boring. And kinda tired, like he’d rather be dead and buried than here talking to them.

“No, we aren’t,” Naruto says.

“You are,” says the dead-eyed chūnin, flatly. “Immediately. You are not permitted to delay by visiting your teammate at the hospital first. I will escort you right now.”

“Baa-chan won’t mind us checking on Shikako and making sure Kakashi-sensei knows we made it,” Naruto says impatiently. “You can follow us if you gotta but we’re following Kakashi-sensei’s standing orders.”

“You must—” starts the chūnin, but Shikamaru isn’t having it.

“You don’t outrank us and you really don’t outrank Hatake Kakashi,” Shikamaru says sharply. “He’s waiting for us at the hospital. Get out of our way.”

The guy doesn’t look happy, but he gets. He gets so well that Naruto doesn’t even see where, exactly, the guy goes, but wherever he went he’s not their problem anymore.

The village is mostly still at rest, although there are always patrols and other ninja going about their business. The Akimichi bakery on Tea Street has only just opened but is swarmed with other early-morning workers, and Naruto gives it a longing look as they pass by, thinking how great breakfast would be. Now that he knows Shikako is safe at the hospital and being taken care of, he’s hungry .

When they go to turn left and take a shortcut across the park by the hospital, there’s an unfamiliar jounin standing there. He’s grandpa-aged but clearly still fit for duty and working, since he’s wearing the standard jōnin uniform and a sword worn upright over his right shoulder.

“This again?” Shikamaru complains.

“Hatake isn’t at the hospital, and your friend won’t be available,” says the old guy. “I understand your concern, but the situation has changed since Hatake came through and you really are needed at the Tower.” He’s got eyes with weird lines in them. Red — like Kurenai-sensei’s.

This guy seems like he’s old enough to be her dad.

Naruto exchanges glances with Shikamaru. Shikamaru sighs in that way that means he wants to call something troublesome but he thinks it might be bad to say it out loud.

“I guess if Shikako won’t even be awake and Kakashi-sensei is busy,” Naruto concedes. “But Baa-chan had better make it quick.”

They turn with the old guy and make their way right, towards the Tower. The old guy grimances.

The guy says, “There’s no excuse for someone of your age and rank speaking of Hokage-sama in such a disrespectful manner.” He uses the same this-is-going-on-your-permanent-record voice the Academy sensei used to.


“How’s it disrespectful?” Naruto asks in his best I-skipped-that-week-of-school voice. The guy seems to be winding up for a lecture either way so might as well get him to really go for it. Easier to tune it out that way.

Shikamaru cuts in, “What did you say your name was?” instead of letting the the guy get all his useless feelings out.

“Yūhi Shinku,” he says.

“You are related to Kurenai-sensei!” Naruto says, excited. “You’ve got weird eyes like her! Hey, hey, do they do anything?”

“My daughter,” Shinku acknowledges. “I don’t believe you actually know her well enough to call her by her first name, however.”

“Okay, whatever,” says Naruto, because sheesh. “So, what about your eyes, huh, how do they work? I never got to ask Kuren... um, Yūhi-sensei.”

Shikamaru cuts in again. “Yūhi-san,” he says, “it’s nice that you came to tell us about Kakashi-sensei, but we can find our own way to the tower.”

“I promised to make sure you’d make it all the way to the debrief with no distractions,” Shinku says. “Also, you should call me Yūhi-sensei.”

Naruto eyes this guy, less and less sure of him as this conversation goes on. “Why?” Naruto asks. “You haven’t taught us anything.”

Shinku and Shikamaru both choke, Shinku because Naruto has offended him or something and Shikamaru because he doesn’t want to laugh in this jōnin’s face.

Shinku isn’t very quick with a reply, so Naruto adds, “Also, if you and your daughter are ‘Yūhi-sensei’ then isn’t that confusing, jii-san? If everyone calls you that, I’m gonna keep calling her Kurenai-sensei so people know I mean the cool one.”

“Listen, Yūhi- san , I think you’re being the distraction right now,” Shikamaru says. “If you have to escort us, then fine, we can’t tell you how to do your job. But we’ve been on the move since almost this time yesterday. Unless you have something mission-relevant to say or more instructions from the Hokage, I think we can all very professionally cut the small-talk and save the inter-personal conduct discussion for later.”

Shikamaru doesn’t get mad a lot , probably because he doesn’t usually care about things enough for that, but when he does... he kinda sounds like his dad. It’s great.

They settle into the hallway after everyone who wants coffee and breakfast gets it and Aoba stares into space and tries his best not to think at all about anything. It’s a new hobby he’s taking up. He’s terrible at it.

The wait is worse for everyone else, surely. Well, except Anko, who Aoba is sure wants things to turn out alright for Shikako but... it’s not as if they know each other. Yet.

Has Shikako already started the Kunoichi Club? Aoba wonders if he can prod Shikako into indlucing Anko as a member instead of just an observer earlier. Last time... Anko had admitted she hadn’t been sure of her welcome for months, because Yakumo had gotten the invite, not her.

Aoba is pretty sure that Shikako and her friends hadn’t thought of it like that, that they just hadn’t invited Anko because when they started it they were all genin with no expectation that a special jōnin would want anything to do with them.

He starts to think about how, if Shikako remembers, Anko might have an even easier time of settling into being a special jōnin under the Godaime, but. That’s counting chickens before they hatch. It’d be nice to help Anko, but Shikako might not remember.

Her seal might have saved Aoba but not herself.

“Hm,” says Kakashi. “It was good of you to bring coffee for everyone, Aoba.”

This is notable because ‘everyone’ had not previously included Kakashi; Aoba looks to his left, away from the spot of wall he’s been staring blankly at, and finds that Kakashi is perusing — but not, it seems, intending on actually selecting — the remaining assortment of pastries. Who knows how long he’s been there, although Yoshino looks surprised, so... maybe not long?

It’s also notable because Hatake Kakashi doesn’t tend to thank people for things. Not that he’s an ungrateful person (well... sometimes, but only to wind people up) but he dodges polite social graces just as much as he dodges things like rules, procedure, and professional deportment.

“It was on the way,” Aoba says, because Aoba doesn’t have the energy to actually hold what happened earlier against Kakashi and brushing off this lesser social grace is as good as telling Kakashi he’s forgiven. Which he is, as long as it doesn’t happen again.

Anko says, “He sweet talked Akimichi Hironobu into selling him this stuff before the bakery was even open.”

So, okay, Kakashi isn’t forgiven by Anko. But that’s very much not Aoba’s problem.

“Speaking of everyone,” Kakashi says. “Shikamaru and Naruto aren’t here.”

“You said they were moving slower than you,” Sasuke says.

“Not that much slower.”

Sasuke frowns. “Maybe they stopped to rest?” he offers.

Think about what you just said, Kakashi’s look seems to say.

Sasuke makes a face back that says he knows he’s an idiot for thinking it likely Uzumaki Naruto would do something like take a break .

“Shikamaru does have pretty poor stamina,” Kakashi muses. He glances at Shikaku and concedes, “Comparatively,” but Shikaku just shrugs.

“Don’t pull your punches on my account,” Shikaku says. “He’s lazy.”

Aoba thinks that this might be less about not caring what Kakashi says about Shikamaru and more about the tight grip Yoshino has on her book. Optimism doesn’t really count for much, but pessimism can actively impede forward momentum.

“I’ll just go check up on them,” Kakashi says with good cheer that he couldn’t possibly be actually feelings.

And then he’s gone, just as suddenly as he arrived. Aoba goes back to staring at the wall.

It’s been awhile since Shikamaru saw Naruto really dig his heels in and try to provoke an adult into doing something drastically unprofessional, like attempted murder. Iruka-sensei had been too likeable and fair for Naruto to aim that sort of thing. Mizuki-sensei, for all that he’d turned out to be a treacherous creep, had flown under the radar.

Today, Naruto had warmed up with Yūhi Shinku. And then they come into Tsunade’s office to find that Tsunade isn’t there. And Naruto does not like that.

“Old man, who’re you?” Naruto demands. “Where’s baa-chan and what are you doing in her office?”

“Shimura Danzō, one of the Hokage’s advisors,”  he says. “The Godaime is still in surgery with your teammate, so I’ll be handling your debrief.”

Shikamaru’s heart clenches. He’d known there was something wrong with Shikako — she’d taken a sword through her chest and then been unable to reach her chakra — but she’d gotten into the village hours ago. It must be a major surgery. He should be at the hospital.

“What!” Naruto stands up a little straighter. His hands form fists. “So you tricked us here with that uptight guy!”

Danzō says, “I merely asked Shinku-san to help me collect two wayward chūnin who were resisting their orders.” His tone is full of mild rapprochement, like they’ve disappointed him, or like he can’t believe chūnin these days would do a thing like that.

Naruto, Shikamaru is pretty sure, has only ever cared about disappointing Iruka and Shikako. And maybe that civilian ramen chef, actually. Missing from this list: old one-eyed geezers. Who Shikamaru suspects might not actually be one of the Hokage’s advisors, because as far as Shikamaru knows the Elder Council is comprised only of Koharu-sama and Homura-sama, the Sandaime’s old teammates.

“We weren’t resisting them, we were ignoring them,” Naruto says. “‘Cause Kakashi-sensei gave us different, better, not stupid orders to go to the hospital. And I bet he was there and that Shinku guy lied!

“This is your mission debrief and your opinion regarding orders is irrelevant, Uzumaki,” Danzō grits out. “There’s no time to waste. Start when you left the village.”

“No!” Naruto snaps. “You’re just some weird old guy camped out in baa-chan’s office.”

“I am the closest you’re going to get to the Hokage until she’s done at the hospital and you’re being insubordinate.” Danzō seems to loom, just a little. It’s not genjutsu, just a sense of presence.

It makes a sweat break out on the back of Shikamaru’s neck but doesn’t actually inspire any trust. Naruto seems completely unaffected, which is typical.

“I’m not your subordinate,” Naruto says. He crosses his arms like that’s the end of the argument.

Shikamaru sighs and slouches a little further. This unfortunately draws Danzō’s attention.

“And you?” Danzō asks.

“Well...” Shikamaru says, drawing the word out like he’s considering it, looking from Danzō’s expectant face to Naruto’s stubborn pout. “Naruto’s CO and he hasn’t dismissed me or given the debriefing. Or maybe Kakashi-sensei is CO, since we met him on the way, but in that case I haven’t been dismissed by him or seen evidence he’s debriefed either.” Shikamaru shrugs. “Guess it isn’t my choice. You’ll have to convince Naruto.”

Danzō looks back at Naruto. Shikamaru wonders if he knows just how impossible convincing Naruto will actually be. Probably not. People always underestimate Naruto.

Kakashi starts with going to the main gate to see if they made it to the village yet. No point in getting worked up before he knows anything.

There really shouldn’t have been anything between where he left him and the village that could have stopped them besides Shikamaru possibly literally running himself into the ground trying to keep up with Naruto. Kakashi wouldn’t have left them behind, otherwise. But once they got to the village... well. Plenty of distractions there.

“Did Uzumaki Naruto and Nara Shikamaru sign back in?” Kakashi asks from behind the two chūnin working the sign-in desk. With dawn brushing the sky, they’ve switched to having two chūnin working at once. There’s always ANBU at the gate so the security level never falls, but during the day the volume of traffic requires more people to work the sign-in.

This used to be a police duty. It doesn’t really make any sense to have ANBU watch the gate and thinking about it always leaves a bitter taste in Kakashi’s mouth.

“You know we’re not supposed to—” starts one of the chūnin, but then she turns around and sees him and stammers, “O-oh, Hatake-san, um.”

“Just Kakashi is fine,” he says, waving his hand like he can wave her respectful tone away. He hates that and makes sure to slouch a little more. “I was acting CO and Naruto is my genin.”

“They did,” she says. “Um, they said they were going to meet you at the hospital? But since you’re asking I guess they didn’t?” She wisely doesn’t point out that Naruto isn’t a genin anymore.

“They did not,” Kakashi confirms.

She tells him about the rude chūnin and the kids getting snappy with him and using Kakashi’s name to pull rank and make him go away. Kakashi is so proud he could shed a tear, although that doesn’t really explain where Naruto and Shikamaru actually are.

Kakashi probably shouldn’t use more chakra today. On the other hand, checking every place that they could have gotten to between here and the hospital sounds like a waste of time. Kakashi summons Pakkun.

“Really?” Pakkun sighs. “Y’know, I thought the next time you summoned us it’d be for treats, Kakashi.”

“Next time,” Kakashi promises. “I’m looking for Naruto and Shikamaru.”

Pakkun mutters, “Again?” but puts his nose to the ground and starts sniffing around. People passing by stare a little — mostly the civilians — and after a few minutes of wandering around Pakkun comes back and says, “They probably talked to some guy whose scent I don’t recognize and his scent comes outta nowhere and then goes away. Real good scent masking on that one, kind of a shame he used it like such an idiot. The kids headed down the street.”

It’s generally considered rude to keep up your scent masking in-village unless you smell so bad it’d be rude not to keep your scent masking up. Turning it off to talk to someone and then back on when you leave the conversation is... suspicious .

Tenzō used to do it.

Pakkun wanders down the street, occasionally having to weave around people and carts but never losing the scent.

They arrive at the park by the hospital. Pakkun stops. Dogs can’t exactly frown, but Pakkun looks immediately displeased when he turns back to face Kakashi. “The trail stops when they enter the park,” Pakkun says. “Did you teach them to hide their scent already?”

“No,” Kakashi says. Of course not. For all that Naruto is a chūnin now, he and Shikamaru graduated the Academy less than six months ago; when would they have learned? Kakashi’s genin are probably the most driven of their year, and Shikako had even specifically asked for escape and evasion training, but there have been many, many more important things to focus on than scent masking.

Pakkun starts circling where the trail ends in a spiral pattern, looking for something to follow. “Aren’t there rules about erasing scent trails in-village?” he asks, tone somewhere between a real question and absent grumbling.

There are, in fact, rules about that. While scent masking is just a courtesy thing — there’s something subtly wrong about someone who doesn’t smell like anything and the Inuzuka especially get twitchy about it — erasing scent trails is an actual security risk.

A crow caws. Pakkun ignores it, but Kakashi looks towards the nearest Hashirama tree. The crow calls again, and this time Kakashi is sure.

“I’ll be right back,” Kakashi says to Pakkun and goes to meet the signaler up in the tree.

The ANBU waiting for him is wearing a mask even older than the Wolf mask Kakashi has stashed away at home. This mask is beaked, a sort of narrow, sharp beak, and the mask has black feathering across the face which has faded to uneven greys.

“Your mask needs repainting again, Crow-taichō,” Kakashi says.

“I’m not your captain anymore,” says Crow.

Kakashi feigns that wounded. “That’s so cold, Crow-taichō. You’ll hurt my feelings.”

Crow had been his captain for only a very short amount of time, the months between Rin’s death and Kushina needing a full ANBU guard because of her pregnancy. His signalling bird call is just the same as always, modeled after a crow summons he’d known personally, although Crow is a Hyuuga and the only crow summoners Kakashi has ever known were Uchiha.

“Yes, I’m sure I will,” says Crow. “You were always so delicate. Are you looking for Uzumaki Naruto?”

Crow had been a very, very good teammate, and sometimes — on the rare occasions Kakashi was willing to admit that Minato-sensei could make mistakes — Kakashi wishes he’d been kept on the man’s team longer. These days he’s still an excellent teammate, and keeps a close eye out for Sasuke when he can, although to Kakashi’s knowledge they’ve never spoken.

“I am,” Kakashi says, “And Nara Shikamaru. They were supposed to meet me at the hospital. Shikaku and Yoshino are worried, you know.”

“I’m sure they are,” Crow agrees.

Kakashi does not rise to this bait. He’s found that denial is a very safe place to be. It is nice that Crow is having a good enough day to tease him, though.

Crow adds, “I would be, too, if I’d seen them leaving this park with Yūhi Shinku.”

Ah, the reason for his good mood. He gets to ruin Yūhi Shinku’s day. Kakashi feels a certain streak of vicious glee at the idea, too. There’s probably someone Crow-taichō hates more than Shinku — Itachi, maybe — but no one he disparages so often.

Gossip in the ANBU canteen flies fast and vicious, a result of being more or less anonymous, and Crow never misses an opportunity to let people know what Shinku is really like. Shinku wants people to fit his idea of them, especially if they’re younger than him or he’s teaching them. Shinku makes his mind up about people and then takes it out on them when reality fails to match his expectations.

Shinku had been assigned to help Kakashi with his genjutsu skills and it had gone... poorly. Crow-taichō had pulled him aside to tell him, privately, that Shinku hadn’t been a fan of the White Fang and hadn’t been shy about letting anyone know, either. Nothing Kakashi ever did would be good enough for Shinku.

“Hm, I hope Yūhi- sensei wasn’t trying to poach my student,” Kakashi says. “They’re kind of a matched set and I don’t think he could handle Shikako-chan.”

Although Kakashi would pay actual money to see what Shikako would do to someone who told her she couldn’t fight because she owed her father grandkids. He’s pretty sure Kurenai had just settled for never talking to Shinku again.

“It’s hard to say what he was up to.” Crow shrugs. “And it would be breaking protocol to tell you he’s buying coffee right now before heading to his first lesson of the day.”

“We wouldn’t want to break protocol,” Kakashi agrees. “But don’t worry, Crow-taichō, everyone knows I’m a very good tracker.”

“And he hasn’t exactly been working on his counter-tracking techniques,” Crow agrees. “I don’t think that bastard has left the village in years.”

“Maybe it’s time the Godaime stop going so soft on him,” Kakashi muses. “And speaking of Tsunade, taichō, maybe you should keep your report about this verbal-only.”

Crow’s body language goes a little stiff. Surprised by the suggestion, Kakashi diagnoses — and it is a strange thing to request, to be fair.

“Should I?” Crow asks. It’s a break in protocol to speak to openly to Kakashi (the kind of break that happens often; ANBU aren’t meant to run any kind of in-village patrol, in Kakashi’s opinion) but just noticing something that happens in-village shouldn’t be dangerous.


“Tsunade will need to know,” Kakashi says. He is not, after all, in the habit of encouraging ANBU not to tell the Godaime things. “But something about it... you know Cat, don’t you? You remember... how he was, where we met?”

Crow nods.

It was Crow who Kakashi had gone to for advice about Tenzō, of course. Everyone else had been dead by then.

Kakashi tells Crow about the railroading he’s come across — the order to report in at the Gate and the rude chūnin and his scent masking. “You haven’t said, but they’re probably somewhere in the tower. I’ll go talk to Yūhi first to confirm. But if they are where I think they are, talking to who I think...”

“I see.” Crow is silent for a moment. “I’ll keep it out of my written report. Please mention it to Tsunade-sama. You’ll probably be reporting to her alone before I am.”

Good. Kakashi sometimes worries he might be the only one to notice Crow’s passing, when he goes, and there’s no reason to give anyone any reason to disappear him. Kakashi has always been too polite to match Crow to his off-mask identity, but he suspects that for a Hyuuga to be so deep in ANBU and spend so much time living in the ANBU barracks, his clan life is probably... bad. There’d be no one there to notice if he didn’t come home.

“I will.” Kakashi says. And then... “It was good to see you, Crow-taichō. Don’t be a stranger.”

Crow is silent for a moment, a long moment. Kakashi wonders if that was too personal — certainly more personal than anything else Kakashi has ever said to Crow — but then Crow says, “Take care of yourself, Wolf,” and fades from sight and smell and touch to rejoin the patrol he’s supposed to be on.

So. That went well. And Kakashi has a new target.

There are only so many places where one could get coffee at this time of the morning. A few of them are out of range of Crow’s Byakugan, but checking the closest first seems prudent. Yūhi Shinku is a lazy asshole at heart, no matter how he tries to hide it, and Hironobu’s does have the best coffee and is only a few blocks back down the street.

Kakashi returns to the ground where Pakkun has sprawled on the dew-wet grass, defeated and frustrated. Kakashi crouches down and explains where they’re going and what Yūhi Shinku looks like so that Pakkun will know who to lead him to. Kakashi doesn’t have anything of Yūhi’s to track, of course, and Pakkun doesn’t know his scent, but that hardly matters.

They practically burst into the shop — although careful not to rattle the doors too much or run into anyone, because Kakashi doesn’t intend to be banned from this bakery, okay — and Pakkun trots right up to Yūhi Shinku’s heels.

“This is the guy,” Pakkun says. Ominously, out of a love of dramatics, he adds, “No blood.” He makes sure to say it loud enough for other bakery patrons to hear him.

Kakashi raises a casual hand to everyone who’s looked over. Some of them wave back; Kakashi likes that.

Shinku turns around. He’s standing at the counter where you can add cream and sugar to your coffee and Pakkun doesn’t move, so Shinku is forced to do some pretty annoying footwork. Pakkun is the best, and once that’s out of the way he salutes and disappears in a poof of chakra smoke.

“Hatake,” Shinku says, flatly, the way most ninja would address a foreign shinobi they don’t respect. As charming as ever.

“Shinku,” Kakashi says with painfully forced cheer, the kind that will grate on the nerves of every ninja listening into this conversation. A red-flag for them, so they know Kakashi isn’t here to waste his time.

“I keep telling you —” starts Shinku. He’s a bit colorblind.

“—There are somethings you could tell me,” Kakashi interjects, still very pleasant. Too pleasant. A special jōnin who was also doctoring her coffee takes a full two steps back out of what is now the Designated Combat Zone because Kakashi doesn’t intend to fight Yūhi Shinku but he’s been wound tight for days and projecting an aura of being absolutely ready to drive Shinku head first through the countertop can only help move things along nice and quick.

“You could tell me about when another jōnin can and can’t override a commanding officer’s orders,” Kakashi suggests. “You could tell me what you were doing in the park by the hospital. You could tell me where my genin are, Shinku, and why they didn’t make it to the hospital where I was waiting for them.”

“You weren’t even at the hospital,” Shinku says.

“I was, but it’s interesting that you think you know I wasn’t there,” Kakashi says. “How much preparation went into this? Is it sabotage, Shinku, or are you just fucking with me? It doesn’t feel like a good day for either .”

The bakery is so quiet that Kakashi can practically hear Shinku’s pulse speed up. Sabotage is a serious charge, especially to level in public, but it’s much milder than treason, which is what Kakashi is actually suspecting this might boil down to.

“They were ignoring orders to report for debriefing at the Tower,” Shinku hisses, voice low like he might somehow avoid more attention. “I know you’ve never met a rule you didn’t break, but direct orders to report—!”

“Aside from the people still assisting the Hokage in surgery, I was the last person to speak to her and she had plenty of time to debrief with Nara Shikako. There was no reason for Naruto and Shikamaru to go to the Tower. Tell me why you made them go there.”

Kakashi pushes his intent into the air. Not killing intent. That would be too aggressive, and it’s a mistake to use killing intent on a jōnin you don’t actually intend to fight. This is the same intent he used on Aoba earlier. He always imagines peeling the person’s skin back when he’s projecting this intent, like he might find the answers he needs lurking right there under the surface and it would be so, so easy to get to them.

It works better than it should on a jōnin of Shinku’s age and experience.

“A favor for the Elder Council.” Shinku scowls. “They are authorized to take debriefs in emergency situations.”

“This wasn’t an emergency.” Kakashi keeps his tone emotionless; clear, blunt, and certainly loud enough to be heard even back in the kitchen, given how quiet everyone else is. “This was you bullying my student and his teammate, wasting their time and mine, and worrying Shikaku and his wife while they’re sitting in the hospital waiting for the Godaime to finish fixing up Shikako-chan. For some kind of power-play, or because you don’t like me, or because you have deeper motives... I don’t care. Stay away from them.”

And then, insult to injury, Kakashi takes Yūhi Shinku’s still-untouched coffee cup and heads for the door.

Kakashi’s not going to drink it, of course — it looks undoctored but who knows who Shinku has pissed off recently. Aburame Shibi had been in the back of the bakery looking as close to gleeful as Kakashi has ever seen, for example, and Shinku will never get another good cup of coffee out of Hironobu’s shop after everything Kakashi just said.

It will be a good prop, anyway. Showing up late to a meeting is a good start, but showing up with a prop is perfect. Especially if it’s still steaming, like the coffee Kakashi is holding, which shows you stopped recently and with purpose, delaying your arrival because it wasn’t as important as a caffeine fix. Granted, Kakashi was pointedly not invited to this meeting, but that won’t stop it from being annoying.

Other, lesser ninja would allow the coffee to cool on the walk to the tower, but the slightest hint of fire chakra pushed into the coffee keeps it at nearly-boiling, with the added bonus of making it a much better impromptu weapon.

Just the sort of thing one needs to go into a meeting with Shimura Danzō.

Chapter Text

“Respect the young and chastise your elders. It's about time the world was set aright.” ― Vera Nazarian

The desk outside Tsunade’s office is still empty. Some days the Hokage would already be here — the invasion has left quite a mess for the Godaime to clean up — but it’s not Tsunade in the Hokage’s office at the moment.

Tsunade is going to be pissed that someone was in her office without her permission while she was busy in surgery, and especially upset that it was Shimura Danzō . Kakashi ponders the best way to arrange a front row seat to Tsunade tearing Danzō a new one as he strolls past the empty desk and trickles chakra into his ears to catch more of the conversation he can hear spilling out of the half-open door of Tsunade’s office.

“You’re outranked,” Danzō is saying.

Shikamaru asks, “Aren’t you retired? ” indicating that he definitely has no idea who he’s dealing with.

Danzō would never retire.

“Look at him, of course he’s retired.” Naruto, of course. Kakashi has missed him. Kakashi can almost see the dismissive gesture that must have accompanied that rude remark.

Kakashi actually hesitates to interrupt, as he so rarely gets to watch Naruto manipulate anyone into anything besides a deep and lasting friendship or at least substantial character growth. Not that the usual isn’t fascinating and enjoyable, but it’s good to get a chance to see his cute little genin use his powers for evil for once.

“You will watch your tongue or I’ll have you dropped to the genin corps, Uzumaki,” Danzō threatens, in his particular this-is-a-promise-not-a-threat old man growl, “and you will tell me what you learned on your mission.”

“Well,” Naruto says. He draws the word out for several long moments. He’s probably squinting like an idiot, as if trying to remember something worth mentioning.

Danzō doesn’t say anything, but Kakashi can hear the implied, Well? in his complete silence.

“Ah!” The sound of hand hitting hand — probably the bottom of Naruto’s fist hitting his palm, like he’s suddenly thought of something good.

Kakashi could die of anticipation. He knows it won’t be real intel, but still. That’s just going to make it better.

“I learned that a group of ferrets is known as a ‘business!’” Naruto announces, cheerfully, as if that was probably exactly what Danzō maneuvered them into the office to learn about.

There’s a brief lull in conversation, but Naruto doesn’t add anything else.

Flatly, Danzō demands: “What.”

Shikamaru takes in a sharp breath, clearly biting back a laugh.

“When you got a buncha ferrets,” Naruto explains, a little slowly, like he’s wondering why Danzō doesn’t understand. “That’s called a ‘business.’ A business of ferrets, y’know, instead of like... a herd or a flock or something? You’re really old, shouldn’t you know this kind of thing already?”

“This has nothing to do with your mission,” Danzō accuses him.

“Sure it does, we were looking for a missing ferret,” Naruto says. “I mean, only the one ferret, but he could have run away to make some ferret friends and join a business. Clear communication in the field is important, so Shikako-chan made sure we’d know what a group of ferrets is called. And speaking of Shikako, old man, we’re going to go to the hospital! The mission went fine and you’re just being weird.”

Naruto has reached critical levels of frustration, it seems. He sounds ready to go through Danzou just to head to the hospital, and that’s definitely not a fight Kakashi wants to see. Yet. Maybe in a few years.

Danzō starts to say something like, “You know perfectly well that I’m asking about the invasion in Wind,” but Kakashi chooses that moment to swoop in, coffee and all, appearing in the middle of the room via shunshin. This happens to position him between Danzō and the kids.

“Sorry I’m late!” he says cheerfully, as if he’d been invited, speaking over Danzō.

Naruto and Shikamaru both turn to look at him. “Kakashi-sensei!” Naruto exclaims. He sounds so happy. It just warms the heart.

“Hatake, this is a mission debriefing,” Danzō says. “Your presence is unnecessary. Wait outside.”

“This isn’t even your office,” Naruto tells him. “ You wait outside.”

Yeah, Naruto is done with this conversation. Danzō probably failed to convince Naruto that he should be respected the moment they met and has been fighting a losing battle ever since.

“I took charge of this team when I met up with them in River,” Kakashi says. “I haven’t even dismissed them to report in yet. They were supposed to meet me at the hospital.”

Danzō doesn’t look like he wants to debate with Kakashi about the rules, no. He looks like he wishes Kakashi would drop dead, but that’s really nothing new. It’s almost a compliment, coming from Danzō.

“This isn’t over,” Danzō says. He likes to feel in control of situations.

“Yes it is. I have command of this team and you have no authority to demand a report of any kind.” Kakashi steps forward and puts Shinku’s coffee on Tsunade’s desk. He doesn’t break eye contact with Danzō. “Anyway, I think you need this more than me,” Kakashi continues, forcing cheer and friendliness into his voice where it certainly doesn’t belong. “I know it can be hard for someone of your advanced years to get up so early. Have a good morning.”

He doesn’t even bother herding Naruto and Shikamaru out of the office — letting them move under their own power would just give Danzō time to argue. Instead he just grabs one kid under each arm and shunshins straight out the window towards the hospital. It’s kind of a waste of chakra that he doesn’t actually have to waste, but he lets the shunshin go as soon as they clear the window sill so it barely counts.

“I hate that guy! I hope baa-chan kicks his ass,” Naruto says, while they’re definitely still within hearing distance of Danzō.

He considers letting go of the kids immediately, but considering how hard they must have pushed themselves to make it back to the village that seems like it might be a mistake. Naruto’s probably already recovered a substantial amount of chakra even if he was almost dry when they got to the village, but he and Shikamaru are both still clearly exhausted and for all Kakashi knows Shikamaru might be totally dry.

No one would be impressed by Kakashi dropping a chakra-exhausted Shikamaru from several stories up, especially Shikaku and Yoshino, who would then have both kids receiving medical attention.

“Uh.” Shikamaru squirms a little under Kakashi’s arm when he lands and starts walking towards the hospital. “Let us down?”

Kakashi gives a negative hum. “You might wander off again. Or get snatched up by some other old man.”

“Ugh, Kakashi-sensei ,” Naruto whines, pulling the word ‘sensei’ out like a bratty Academy student. “How many old men who don’t want us to go to the hospital could there possibly be ?” He flails with more enthusiasm than Shikamaru.

“I refuse to take unnecessary risks,” Kakashi says. “You never know when an overly-involved old man is going to try and meddle in your business. And they tend to work together. Always expect another nosy geezer.”

Shikamaru says, “We did meet two of them today.” He’s gone limp, probably having decided that he might as well enjoy not having to walk somewhere. Lazy Nara practicality.

Naruto struggles for a little longer before giving up when he finds he can’t twist out of Kakashi’s hold. He starts looking around, eyeing anyone who might be elderly suspiciously, and asks, “Hey, hey, what’s the group name for a buncha geezers?”

“A conspiracy,” Kakashi says. “Like lemurs.”

Not long after Kakashi leaves, Tsunade exits the surgery bay. She’s dressed down, her hands freshly scrubbed — “It’s not that chakra won’t get your hands clean, they just don’t feel clean if you don’t wash them, you know?” a field medic acquaintance had once told Aoba over drinks. “Plus that chakra trick dries your skin out but it’d be weird to keep lotion in all the surgery bays.” — and she doesn’t look especially grim or sympathetic, so the surgery probably went fine.

Aoba had known it would be fine, even more so than the rest of the people waiting who’d be going on faith based on Tsunade’s skills rather than future knowledge, but Aoba still finds his shoulders relaxing.

“We won’t know for sure until she wakes up, but Shikako should be fine,” Tsunade says. “Shikaku, Yoshino, please come with me.” Tsunade eyes Aoba and Anko. “Aoba, you too.”

Aoba sets aside his now-cold coffee and stands as well while Anko sighs and stretches out on the bench on her side of the hallway, empty now that Aoba has stood up. She lays on her back, legs crossed at the ankle

“Naptime,” Anko says, with great satisfaction. She folds her hands behind her head. It’s impressive that her coat is well-tailored enough that the action isn’t indecent at all.

“Have fun,” Aoba tells her.

“You know I always do.”

She’s probably asleep before Aoba, trailing after Tsunade, Shikaku, and Yoshino, turns the corner.

Aoba waits outside the secure examination room Tsunade is using to talk to Shikaku and Yoshino. She doesn’t use the security seals, but Aoba doesn’t bother eavesdropping. It’s not really any of his business — unless his kohai wants him to know, assuming Shikako is still his kohai, in which case she’ll tell him herself.

Migaki comes along a few minutes in and Aoba gets to waste time talking to him instead of worrying or losing himself to memories of things that haven’t happened. They swap gossip for a good ten minutes. He learns that Raidō is still bemoaning the meaningless fight that made him break up with his girlfriend. Ichiraku was able to order and received an extra shipment of ginger thanks to the Akimichi. Satō Tōma, the chūnin who’d come back from a mission with a sprained ankle on the 17th, would be back on missions before the week was out.

Aoba finds that his own string of gossip in return is somewhat lacking. Much of the gossip he wants to deliver is 11 months too early. What he does remember from this period of time is less and less likely to be accurate the longer he’s around to change things. And he just... hasn’t been talking to people in the past couple days.

Except Anko, but Anko doesn’t count. She’s Anko.

“Anyway, rounds are about to start and I don’t want Tsunade-sama catching me out here loitering,” Migaki says eventually, eyeing the closed exam room door like it might break cover and attack him. “But, hey, a group of us are going out tonight. You should come! You could even... bring Mitarashi?”

“Bring Anko,” Aoba repeats, trying to parse this phrasing. Not that Anko doesn’t deserve to be invited places, but Migaki’s group really aren’t the kind of people one thinks of as being Anko’s People.

“People keep spotting you with her going out to eat,” Migaki says. “Congrats!” He claps Aoba on the shoulder and leaves.

Anko will probably just find the assumption funny. Anko will probably flirt with him for weeks if he tells her.

Shikaku and Yoshino exit the room not long after and head back upstairs to collect Sasuke (and maybe Anko, although they might let her sleep) and find the waiting room closest to whatever room Shikako is being moved to. Aoba enters the exam room, and Tsunade raises the security seals when he closes the door.

“Shikako remembers,” Tsunade says. “Not that I was really doubting you at this point, but she confirmed what you remember.”

“I guess I’ll have company for my endless debriefs,” Aoba says. He’s relieved, but not sure that that’s the appropriate emotion.

On one hand, the Shikako he’d gotten to know isn’t dead. But on the other hand — coming back hadn’t been easy for Aoba and his life is mostly settled.

It’s good to know she wasn’t killed by that thing , though. She escaped. They both escaped.

“Likely,” Tsunade says. “But it’s doubtful she’ll have Inoichi sorting through her memories. For... medical reasons.”

Aoba raises his eyebrows, but doesn’t protest or ask for detailed. There aren’t a lot of reason to not use Holding Door Mind Transition on someone, especially with the T&I equipment, and none of them are the kind of thing Tsunade will tell him about without a good reason.

“You’ll have fun writing reports together, I’m sure,” Tsunade says. “You can have your reunion when she wakes up.”

It strikes Shikaku as odd that Aoba’s conversation required the security seals be activated even though Tsunade’s conversation with them about Shikako’s surgery hadn’t, indicating that they’d come all the way to the secure exam room for Aoba’s conversation with the Hokage.

Shikaku’s looking forward to finding out what’s going on with Shikako and Aoba that requires security seals and keeping secrets from the Jōnin Commander — and he will find out — but for now he and Yoshino are content with sharing meaningful looks.

They return to the hallway outside the surgery bay where Sasuke is waiting and Anko is sleeping. Sasuke is bent forward, elbows resting on his knees, trying to stare a hole in the tile. He looks up when they turn the corner and come down the hall. His expression is anxious and tense. If Shikaku saw that expression on Shikako or Shikamaru’s face, he’d tug them into a hug ASAP. Unfortunately not appropriate with Uchiha Sasuke, although Shikaku thinks that Yoshino is working on that.

“She’s going to be fine,” Yoshino says. “Tsunade-sama removed an obstruction from her chakra system. The surgery went well. We’re going to move to a waiting room upstairs close to her hospital room. She should wake up in a little bit.”

Sasuke nods. He’s still tense, but Shikaku understands — it’s a relief to hear good news from Tsunade, and no one could doubt her opinion, but it won’t feel like the wait is really over until they actually lay eyes on Shikako, awake and recovering.

Yoshino grabs the box of pastries that Aoba and Anko brought; Sasuke picks up the cardboard box of coffee and frowns.

“It’s almost empty,” Sasuke says.

“Probably cold, too,” Yoshino says. “Just throw it out.”

They both speak quietly; Anko is still stretched out on the benches on the other side of the hallway. Shikaku thinks that Anko could probably sleep through them having a rousing argument as long as no one starts throwing chakra around, but it’s nice for them to try and facilitate her nap. He’s still not really sure why she’s here — even less so than Aoba, since Mitarashi Anko really isn’t the type to wait around outside surgery bays even for people she knows and likes — but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t deserve to take this nap she pretty clearly desperately needed.

(She would probably like Shikako, if they knew each other, but they don’t. Also, maybe Shikaku’s opinion is a little colored by Shikako being his daughter. Maybe.)

“I could go get more?” Sasuke offers.

It’s on the tip of Shikaku’s tongue to encourage Sasuke to stay. Shikako put her team first in her clan vows when she made genin and has very clearly followed through with all of them, but especially with Sasuke. She wouldn’t want Sasuke feeling unwelcome in the waiting room with him and Yoshino. She would want Sasuke to be there when she wakes up.

But then Shikaku reconsiders. They won’t be able to see Shikako immediately once she wakes up — Tsunade mentioned there was still some debriefing to do regarding her mission that they hadn’t been able to do before her surgery. Maybe something with Aoba, maybe not. Either way, more coffee wouldn’t hurt , and Sasuke is probably just looking for something to do.

“Thank you,” Shikaku says. He tells Sasuke where to find them on the third floor when he comes back and to tell Akimichi Hironobu that he or Yoshino will be by to pay for the coffee later.

Sasuke nods, and then glances at Anko. “Should we... wake her up?”

Shikaku shrugs. “Seems like Aoba’s problem, and he knows where to find her.”

“What he means is that we should let Mitarashi-san sleep,” Yoshino says, with an exasperate glance at Shikaku. “She can ask around if she needs to find us when she wakes up.”

That seems to satisfy Sasuke. In the stairwell, Shikaku and Yoshino go up one flight of stairs. Sasuke splits off and takes the stairs down to the first floor.

The waiting room is more comfortable than the hall outside the surgery bay. The chairs are badly padded, but at least they’re padded at all. Yoshino slumps into one of them with relief and Shikaku takes the chair next to her. Trading clan and village gossip acceptable for sharing in public passes the time. Shikaku flags down a passing genin and asks her to stop by his office and let someone there know where he is.

He should probably go into work, but... not until he can see Shikako. And get some answers.

The sun has started to come up when Sasuke exits the hospital. It’s still a couple hours until the morning shift starts, but the streets aren’t as empty as they were when Sasuke went to get the Nara earlier and followed them to the hospital. Akimichi Hironobu’s bakery, when he gets there, is practically packed — but standing in line waiting to order is better than sitting in the hospital at this point, so Sasuke will take it.

As the line crawls steadily forward, Sasuke becomes aware of the conversation going on far to the left of the counter, where an Akimichi woman Shikako has previously called Chinatsu is decorating sugar cookies and carrying on a conversation with the people standing on the other side of the counter. They’re gossiping fast and furious in a way that draws the attention.

The Akimichi who’s not working but is instead dressed in chūnin blues and drinking an elaborate iced coffee beverage of some kind, is telling the other chūnin she’s standing with about a confrontation she saw earlier.

Chinatsu says, “It was so dramatic! Too bad you guys missed it.” She uses about the same tone of voice that Ino had used in the Academy when divulging gossip about a petty fight between two classmates. She’s able to speak clearly to her audience; the glass on the edge of the countertop is only two feet tall, just enough to protect the cookies from anyone watching without impeding gossip. It’s usually the bakery’s owner, Hironobu, who stands there kneading dough or decorating cakes and chatting up a storm, but today Hironobu is working the register.

“It was kind of scary.” The other Akimichi i s younger than Chinatsu, maybe, with the plump, strong stature of an active duty Akimichi focused on combat.

“I wish all my shifts started like that,” Chinatsu says. Whatever it was — maybe Kiba’s mom getting in a fight with that R&D guy again? — it’s probably the most excitement she’s had since she retired, which she definitely has been for several years.

Sasuke had first came to Hironobu’s with a gaggle of classmates, swept along with them after school, unwilling to break off and go sit in his new apartment alone when hassling Naruto was so much more engaging, when Shikako had turned to include him in the invitation to get tea and snacks automatically, as if she couldn’t possibly imagine him saying no. Chinatsu had been around even then, indulgently pointing out which items in the bakery’s display case weren’t sweet.

“Well, the dog was really cute, ” says the younger Akimichi, “ but Hatake-san probably could have been more professional. He was leaking intent.”

Kakashi is supposed to be finding Naruto and Shikamaru. Chinatsu and the other Akimichi have been discussing it like it happened this morning, probably after Kakashi left the hospital — unless this is where Aoba had been when Kakashi had gone looking for him, but Aoba had definitely implied that hearing about Shikako’s surgery from Kakashi is why he and Anko had stopped at Hironobu’s.

“Maybe you and Nobira could tell me what actually happened, instead of dancing around it, Tatsumi,” says one of the other chūnin. Sasuke recognizes him as a mission desk chūnin. Ebisawa, probably. He’s not overly prone to flinching away from or grumbling over the paperwork Sasuke hands in, which makes him less annoying than average.

The last chūnin, who must be Nobira , explains, “Hatake almost snapped and murdered some other jōnin, apparently.” He says this like it’s to be expected of Kakashi.

He says Kakashi’s name in a tone of voice Sasuke might expect to hear from Naruto talking about Mizuki. Sasuke has never before in his life wanted to interrupt a bunch of gossiping strangers, but he wants to know where the hell that tone comes from.

“Don’t say it like that!” Chinatsu snaps. “You’ll give him the wrong idea.”

Nobira shrugs. “Why? You know he would have done it if there weren’t so many witnesses. Mayaso said they call him Comrade Ki —”

They being the Nohara in general, Nohara Daijirou and Mayaso in particular.” Chinatsu i nterrupts Nobira forcefully, speaking over him so well that even Sasuke’s chakra enhanced hearing can’t pick up the tail end of whatever Nobira was trying to say.

She’s pulled her pastry bag away from the butterfly wings she’s been filling in with runny frosting , nailing Nobira with a gaze that could make an Academy student cry . “She should stop listening to him and you should stop listening to her. Cut that out or get out of the shop.”

“Jeez,” says Nobira.

Sasuke doesn’t even know what it was that Nobira was going to say about Kakashi. Nothing good, it seems like, and something that would support Nobira’s opinion that... ah. Comrade Killer, maybe? Shikako would know for sure, and would know exactly how to ruin Nobira’s life immediately so that he never thought that sort of thing about their sensei again.

But she won’t be in any shape for that for any time soon, probably. Hard to ruin lives from a hospital bed, and whatever she’s in surgery for must be serious. Sasuke will have to rope someone else into helping. Not Ino, though. People will start to get ideas. Naruto would prank the guy, but that’s not good enough.

Maybe he could get Naruto to set Iruka on the guy for one of his loud, public lectures on proper shinobi conduct. Or Maito Gai — Sasuke’s certain that he and Kakashi are friends.

Hironobu says, “Sasuke-kun?” and Sasuke looks up and realizes that he’s next at the register.

“Ah, sorry,” Sasuke says. “I need, uh. A box of coffee? Shikaku said he’d come by and pay for it later.”

It’s hard to tear his attention away from Chinatsu and Nobira’s debate about the safety and ethics of shit-talking elite jōnin in public based on a grudge that Nobira apparently “doesn’t even have a stake in.” What grudge? Between Kakashi and the Nohara, apparently, but why?

“Sure, Sasuke-kun,” Hironobu says. “Are you all still at the hospital, then? How’s Shikako-chan?”

“Tsunade said she’ll be okay.”

Hironobu expresses his relief and sympathy and then tells Sasuke that they’ll need to brew a new pot of coffee for the box. He calls Chinatsu away from her argument to make the coffee so that he can see to the next customer in line.

Sasuke loiters by the bakery display — a long glass case set into the counter between the register and the section of countertop where Chinatsu has been decorating cookies and gossiping — and watches Chinatsu pull out a folded cardboard box. She assembles it quickly into the same kind of slope-topped cardboard box that Sasuke had thrown out in the hospital. Apparently the coffee will just.. go in it. Ten cups, the side of the box announces. Sasuke needs to stop staring at the box; no one else seems to think it’s weird.

He wishes someone at the hospital had had information about Shikako’s surgery, so he’d know if she’d want  — if she would be allowed — non-hospital food when she wakes up. He looks down at the bakery case, mostly full of sweet things he’s not inclined to eat and isn’t sure Shikako will be able to have. In the reflection on the glass of the bakery case, Ebisawa looks exhausted. Maybe from the early hour, maybe from the argument about vaguely referenced Nohara vendettas he was just witness to. It seems like Nobira has finished his last point and Chinatsu is focusing on measuring coffee, so maybe the conversation will be informative again.

“Shit, though, sabotage is a serious charge, especially accusing someone in public,” Ebisawa is say ing when Sasuke tunes back in . “Which jōnin?”

Accusing someone of sabotage is one of those things that necessitates an investigation. False, malicious, public accusations get the accuser dropped down a rank. Sasuke hopes no one was enough of a moron to accuse Kakashi of sabotage, but that would explain why he was ready to kill the guy.

“Yeah you never said,” Nobira puts in. He’s apparently been having this whole conversation without finding out even basic facts like exactly who was involved. It’s probably a hint towards why the guy is still a chūnin.

“It was more of a question than an accusation,” Tatsumi says. “He said it could have been incompetence instead. The other jōnin was older, he was wearing a sword like...?” Tatsumi gestures over one shoulder, indicating where the sword hilt would stick up so it could be drawn. “Hatake-san called him ‘Shinku’.”

Chinatsu looks over her shoulder. “Yūhi Shinku,” she says. “Large coffee with an extra espresso shot, room for cream. He’s not welcome in Akimichi establishments anymore.”

Ebisawa makes a sound of disgust, loud enough that several people turn to look at him.

Yūhi-sensei ,” hisses Nobira , like Yūhi Shinku is his nemesis .

At least Sasuke isn’t the only one out of the loop, because Tatsumi asks her fellow chūnin, “You know him?”

“He’s Head Instructor for the Genin Corps,” Ebisawa says. “He’s a nightmare .”

Nobira says, “I’ve changed my mind, Hatake was completely right and is my new favorite jōnin.”

It makes more sense for Kakashi to accuse someone of sabotage than of someone to accuse Kakashi, but not by much. He was supposed to be looking for Naruto and Shikamaru. Maybe Kakashi thought this Head Instructor did something to them, but that seems far fetched.

“At least this kind of explains why I saw Hatake jumping from the Hokage’s office with Uzumaki and the Nara boy under each arm,” Ebisawa says.

At the mention of Naruto and Shikamaru, Sasuke finally has to break into the conversation. It’s awful, he doesn’t want to talk to any of these people, but—

“When was that?” he asks Ebisawa.

The drip machine behind Chinatsu beeps. She turns to pour the coffee into Sasuke’s box, but the other three turn to look at him. They do it slowly, like discovering that he’s standing about four feet away is horrific.

“Uh,” Nobira says. “Hi, Uchiha-kun, I didn’t realize you’d come in.”

Sasuke ignores him, and focuses on Ebisawa. “When did you see them? What the hell were they doing in the Hokage’s office? Why were they being carried?

Ebisawa looks bewildered, but Sasuke doesn’t really see why. So maybe Sasuke is being a little intense, but chūnin should be used to giving quick reports. And of course he wants to keep track of his teammates! They’re all disasters. Equally. And Shikamaru will just go along with anything out of laziness. Someone needs to keep track of them.

“It was just before I came in,” Ebisawa says, looking bewildered. “Maybe they were reporting in?”

“Who knows why jōnin do anything,” Nobira says.

“Maybe they were hurt?” Tatsumi suggests.

Which, thanks; Sasuke had been avoiding speculation on that, but it’s not like he deserves nice things, clearly. Maybe they are hurt, and sensei is rushing them to the hospital. Maybe they were at the Tower looking for Tsunade because it’s urgent .

(A selfish, relieved part of him thinks: if one of them is seriously hurt, it must be Shikamaru. Nothing hurts Naruto.)

“They were supposed to meet Shikamaru’s parents at the hospital,” Sasuke says flatly. “Kakashi rushed ahead to bring Nara Shikako to have surgery under Tsunade’s supervision. There’s no reason for them to have been anywhere but where Kakashi told them to be when the team split up; they were given orders in the field to report to the hospital and they knew Tsunade wouldn’t be in her office.”

“Okay,” Ebisawa says slowly, like he has to process all that information. “I guess that explains why Hatake-san was so pissed off. But Uzumaki was chattering a mile a minute. I don’t think they were hurt. So things must be fine. I’m sure they’re fine.

Sasuke does not find himself reassured.

“Here you go, Uchiha-kun,” Chinatsu says.

She sets the box of coffee down on the top of the bakery display case — the counter is all covered with cookies, and the piece of glass keeping people loitering by the counter from breathing on the cookies or anything would get in the way anyway — and Sasuke snatches it up immediately. The box is basically boiling hot, but a thin coat of chakra protects him from that and lets him hold it much more securely than the cardboard handle on the top would.


“Thank you,” he says to Chinatsu. Then he glances at Ebisawa and, stiffer, thanks him too. He doesn’t glance at Nobira or Tatsumi, who weren’t helpful at all and who he hopes never to meet again.

Sasuke is never speaking to strangers again.

When Kakashi comes back — and he was gone longer than Shikaku had been hoping but not so long that he’d started to worry that Kakashi might have had to start looking outside the village — he’s got one kid under each arm. Yoshino mutters a quiet, appreciative, “Aww,” and Shikaku knows she’s thinking about how Kakashi treats the kids like puppies again.

Shikamaru looks ready to nap right then, right there. He’s probably only being kept awake by Naruto’s endless stream of questions.

“A murder ? That’s so rude!” Naruto is saying when Kakashi plops both kids down in front of Shikaku and Yoshino.

“That’s just how it is. But I’m sure the crows don’t mind,” Kakashi says to Naruto, with an apathetic shrug. To Shikaku and Yoshino, he says, “I found them, they’re late because there was a conspiracy.”

Naruto laughs. Shikamaru snickers.

Shikaku is still trying to work out why Kakashi felt it was necessary to actually carry both boys here himself, since they find their feet perfectly well once he unceremoniously lets them go, and doesn’t really want to try and puzzle out how much Kakashi is joking versus how serious he is. It’s doubtful that asking outright at this point will get any clear answers. He’s clearly set things up so that the kids will interpret it as a joke, which is a clear sign not to bother asking in front of them.

“How are you both doing?” Yoshino asks, looking them both over anxiously. They’re both grubby from their mission, still, and wearing backpacks. The one Shikamaru has on looks to be Shikako’s.

“We’re fine,” Naruto says. “Is Shikako-chan okay? Is she really in surgery?”


“She’s out of surgery but she’s not ready for visitors yet,” Yoshino says. “But she should be fine, Tsunade-sama was confident that the surgery was a success.”

“What did she need surgery for?” Shikamaru asks. He has the same strained, anxious look Shikaku remembers Ikoma having whenever he had to visit Shikaku in the hospital.

It’s weird how the uncle the kids never met shows up in their expressions and body language all the time. Unsettling and reassuring to watch Shikako wrinkle her nose just like Ikoma.

“A minor obstruction in her chakra system,” Shikaku says. Shikamaru doesn’t need to know that it was heart surgery to remove something from Shikako’s eighth gate . Shikako will be fine.

“So she’ll be able to use chakra again now that baa-chan fixed her?”

“She’ll be fine.” Yoshino turns to the seat next to her and picks up the box of pastries from Hironobu’s that Aoba and Anko had brought. Sasuke is still out getting more coffee, but there are still a few items lingering in the box. “Here, breakfast. Sit down. Nothing exciting will happen immediately.”

The boys divvy up the remaining food like starving urchins. They must have run all night; Shikamaru’s stamina has clearly improved since graduation. Shikaku will have to mention it to Asuma.

When they’re mostly through eating, Shikaku pokes at the curious thing Naruto had implied earlier: “Naruto, who told you that Shikako was in surgery?”

If it had been Kakashi, Naruto would have just believed it instead of reaction to confirmation that it was true.

“This dumb old geezer,” Naruto says with a dismissive wave of his hand. “He was awful. Is there some way for baa-chan to force grandpas to retire or something? He should be playing go.”

Kakashi makes a set of hand signals, where no one else can see, indicating that he’ll report later. That just makes this even more interesting, but if Kakashi thinks they really should talk about it away from the kids (and maybe away from Anko and Aoba?) then Shikaku won’t press.

“You should ask her,” Shikaku says.

“I will.” Naruto looks so pleased by the idea that Shikaku almost feels sorry for whoever it is Naruto is going to try to have forcibly retired. Almost .

Naruto finishes his last few bites of pastry and then stands up to throw away the napkin he’d had his food perched on. On his way back to his seat, he pauses by Anko. She’d shuffled upstairs from the benches outside the surgery bay awhile ago, pushed two chairs together face-to-face, and collapsed in to them to resume her nap. Aoba still hasn’t returned, but Shikaku assumes that that’s what she’s waiting for.

“Uh,” Naruto says. He gestures at Anko. “What’s Creepy Snake Lady doing here? Is she okay?”

“She’s just tired,” Yoshino says, although none of them actually know that that’s the case.

There’d been that stretch of time years ago when Orochimaru had been building up Anko’s resistance to common poisons and venom. Then the period when Anko had been inoculating herself against uncommon poisons and venoms.

“Should I find baa-chan or Sakura-chan and make them get her a bed?”

“I’m fine, kid.” Anko has cracked an eye open, although she doesn’t really look annoyed with Naruto. It’s possible she never really fell asleep. “This is just what being an adult is like.”

Sometimes Shikaku worries about the future of the village.

“Can I have a bed?” Shikamaru asks. He’s slumped in his chair, boneless, his food half-finished on the table next to him. He’s always preferred naps over food, although in this case he looks like he really needs both.

“You can sleep anywhere,” Naruto says. “And you slept on the way back. Suck it up.”

Shikamaru grumbles something unintelligible. Probably something that would get him in trouble with Yoshino if he actually vocalized it.

Waking up is an awful, familiar feeling. Grit in her eyes and dry hospital air scraping her throat. At least this time she didn’t embarrass herself by collapsing in Tsunade’s office, she just got put under for the surgery, and Kakashi-sensei’s arrival in River had spared her much of the long, slow walk home so her entirely body doesn’t ache, but it’s not a pleasant feeling, even still.

There’s someone in the chair next to her bed. Not Kakashi. Not, technically, someone who should be here at all. Shikako rolls her head to the side to look at Aoba.

He’s looking back at her. His skin is tight with dehydration, his eyes exhausted like he hasn’t slept in days. She can see the way his eyelids move a little slow. She can see the start of bags under his eyes, the skin there thin and darkening in a way that might be mistake for shadow from the harsh light of the hospital but definitely isn’t. She can see all of this because his sunglasses are in his lap. She’d woken up and caught his attention in the middle of him rubbing his eyes.

Horrifically, Shikako feels the beginning of tears, creeping up on her. It starts in her chest. A terrible pressure, like being pinned down under an enemy. Like a hand around her throat.

They’d broken his glasses, is the thing she keeps thinking. They’d taken his glasses away. She’d never seen him without them before, and now this is the second time—

She pushes the feeling back. She throttles it, stuffs it down. Aoba is clearly fine.

Everything is fine.

“You remember,” Shikako says. Tsunade had told her before the surgery, after Kakashi left.

“I do.” Aoba scoots to the edge of his chair. It’s one of the regular visitor chairs the hospital uses instead of the nice one they dig out of storage for her mom. Her parents must not have been in yet.

She doesn’t try to sit up — why waste the energy? — but she does dredge up a fraction of a smile. “Good, it would have been really annoying to break in my senpai again.”

“You’re the only kohai for me,” Aoba says to her, like a promise. “The best one I could ask for.”

“Am I?” The words well up in place of the tears she’d done away with. “I couldn’t save you.”

She finds herself speaking without much inflection, emotion leached out of her voice. Of course she’s known she could lose a teammate at any time to injury or death. She’s even come close before — Ino against Kidomaru, or Shikamaru in Land of Moon — but this had been different. This had been so much worse. She’d seen the light go out in his eyes. His blood had been thick on her tongue, cloying in her throat, drowning her.

There’s been no time to process since it happened. No time to just shut down and think, or not think, and then move on. Having Aoba here the moment she wakes up is reassuring in a lot of ways, but Shikako still wishes it had waited. She could have done with a do-over of that conversation with Kakashi-sensei.

Aoba gives a shot, humorless laugh. “I was thinking the same thing. And I didn’t even really manage to fight them. But we didn’t die. We made it out. ”

She’d seen him die. She’s sure he did. If he doesn’t know... or if he’s ignoring it, if he doesn’t want to talk about it... she’ll never mention it. Not even in the full, post-surgery debrief she promised Tsunade.

“All I wanted was for you to get out,” Aoba says. His body language has changed. Softened. He leans forward. “You did more than that, you rescued both of us, and not being dead is pretty great, don’t get me wrong. But when you slipped your restraints I was hoping you’d leave me behind, Shikako. I wasn’t expecting you to save me, I just wanted you to live.”

“I couldn’t have left you behind. But I didn’t take you with me on purpose. I’m not even sure exactly how I did it.” Or at least, not sure about any part of it that she can actually tell him about.

“You should have left me behind,” Aoba says.

“I couldn’t —”

“Shikako,” Aoba interrupts. His voice is so painfully, terribly gentle.

Like he knows she doesn’t want to hear what he’s about to tell her. Shikako is pretty sure he’s right. She doesn’t want to have this conversation. Couldn’t they just pretend it never happened?

“Shikako, I wasn’t sent on that mission because Tsunade-sama thought you couldn’t investigate well enough on your own. I was sent on that mission to make sure you’d come back from it. We weren’t prepared for what we ran in to, I couldn’t help you escape, but you should have left without me.”

If a shiver crawls up her spine... that’s just a side effect from the chakra exhaustion. It’s not like this is news to her. It’s not like she didn’t know that this sort of thing must happen, that any good leader has to be able to prioritize their resources and that Tsunade is a good leader.

The Yamashiro aren’t a clan. Shikako’s not even sure Aoba has any family. Tsunade would never throw a life away casually, but as well-liked as Aoba is, there’s no political disaster lurking behind his death.

“And even if Tsunade hadn’t made that clear in my briefing,” Aoba continues, “I promised Kakashi months ago — months from now —  that I’d look out for you. That I’d teach you whatever I could.”

Right. Because Kakashi-sensei had been dying. Is dying, again. Had looked for people to entrust his student to and picked Aoba.

And really, out of the heat of the moment... Shikako is the only one who knows what’s coming. Pein. Madara. She probably won’t make as much of a difference as she wants in the actual fights, but in the lead up? The planning and preparation? There’s so much that need to be done and Shikako is the only one who knows it. Aoba is important to her, but not more important than that.

It hadn’t been a necessary choice this time. Shikako would work hard to always have and take a third option. But it might come up again.

“Okay,” Shikako says. “Okay. But rule one is no dying, okay?”

“Deal,” Aoba says. He leans back a little, the tense moment over, relaxes into the chair again. After a moment, Aoba adds, “Now I have eleven extra months to see if we can do an Intel mission that sticks to procedure,” with good humor in his voice.

Serious talk time is over, thank god.

“We’ve used a procedure,” Shikako says. “The ‘kill it with fire’ procedure. It worked great.”

“I’m going to make you reread the handbook,” Aoba threatens. Not that there’s a handbook.

Serious talk time will probably return soon enough for the after-surgery debrief that Tsunade promised her, but that’s later. Teasing her senpai is now. Being glad they’re both alive is now.

“I’ll rewrite the handbook,” Shikako threatens right back. “I’ll make the storage scroll debacle look like a minor restructuring.”