Kakashi strode through the village, mad as hell and not caring who he mowed over in his pique. He’d just gotten out of a meeting with Tsunade, where he’d been given the worst of all possible news. “I’m giving you fair warning, brat, so don’t give me any grief,” she’d said after he sat down in front of her desk, and was supposedly at a safe distance. Tsunade was smart enough to know that Kakashi was fully capable of throttling her and making a run for it. Her words fell with all the subtlety of a mallet striking hot iron. “This meeting is to inform you that I’m hanging up the Hat in three years, and I’m giving it to you.”
“Oh, no, you’re not,” Kakashi growled, rising from his chair. Throttling was definitely an option. “I don’t want that stupid thing. I’m either going to die in glorious battle or in bed doing unspeakable things with Iruka, definitely not behind this godforsaken desk. Give the job to somebody who actually wants it. Give it to Gai, he’d be good at it.”
Tsunade snorted impatiently. “Sit your ass down and use your brain, brat. I’m not giving the Hat to Gai. He’s a wonderful man and one of the best fighters we have, but the first time he started talking about passionate youth in a kage summit, he’d get his skull caved in. No, we need somebody like you warming the seat while Naruto finishes growing up. Konoha needs somebody a little growly and intimidating so that none of the other villages act up and try to start something. You’re smart, Hatake, loathe as I am to admit it, and you aren’t mired in baseless traditions. You actually have a vision of this village as something other than a war machine. You’re the one for the job.”
“Asuma,” Kakashi suggested. “It’s in his blood, he can do it.”
“Nope,” Tsunade shot him down with no mercy. “He’s too good a teacher to pull from the jounin-sensei ranks.”
Now Kakashi was offended on top of being terrified. “Then why am I getting yanked out? Don’t I have just as much value as a sensei as Asuma?”
Tsunade laughed heartily. “You’re a good teacher, Kakashi, but it isn’t your calling. Even you should be able to admit that much. You did a damn fine job with Ino, Shikamaru and Chouji. That’s been proven over and over again by their excellent service records. Ino is on track to take over the Psych Division once her old man steps down, Shikamaru is already a jounin and quickly becoming our top strategist, and Chouji has applied to teach at the Academy. You should be very proud of them, and of the job you did. I know I am. But I don’t think you were totally happy teaching.”
“I’m never happy,” Kakashi protested, “so why would you think being Hokage was the answer?”
“You’re happy with Iruka,” Tsunade said quietly. “Face it, Kakashi, you know you want to be home with him more. I’m not saying that this job doesn’t require a lot of late nights, but it’s a damn sight better than being gone for months at a time on missions.”
Kakashi was silent at that, and then slowly sat back down in his chair. She was right, but that didn’t mean he had to be so foolish as to admit it. He still hoped he could wiggle out somehow.
“Think about it, brat,” the hokage continued, smelling a victory. “The face of this village, and of the world, is changing. If Naruto and his jinchuriki buddies have their way, the whole shinobi profession is going to undergo a massive upheaval. There’s a strong generation of ninja taking leadership positions. Outside of your Ino-Shika-Cho kids, there’s Neji and Hinata revolutionizing the Hyuuga clan, Sasuke is probably going to be running Anbu within the next year or two, and Shino is making us the entomological capital of the world. Not to mention Rock Lee kicking ass wherever we send him, Tenten blowing shit up for the hell of it, and Kiba raising every kind of service dog that anyone could possibly imagine. Even the next group of kids, like Hanabi and Konohamaru, are almost ready to be on their own.”
“Don’t forget Sakura,” Kakashi admonished.
“No one can ever forget Sakura,” Tsunade grinned. “They’d never live to tell the tale. You know that she’s already started bugging me to let her run more of the hospital? I’m tempted to do it, too. But my point is that you don’t have to be out protecting our backs anymore. And if that holds true, then what will you do with your life? You can’t be in bed with Iruka all day every day. He’d probably kill you, to say nothing of the chaffing.”
“You underestimate me.”
“Underestimation is not one of my flaws, brat, so don’t flatter yourself,” Tsunade snapped. “You’re getting the Hat and I don’t want to hear another word about it. And don’t even think that you might be saved by the Daimyo, because Shikaku and I have been building you up to him for months now and he thinks you’re the best thing since non-rusting kunais. Honestly, you act like this isn’t one of the biggest compliments and honors a person could have. Most people would be falling over themselves to be sitting in your chair today.”
“Kurenai. Tenzou. Shikaku!” Kakashi suggested desperately.
Tsunade grinned. “Nope. You.”
“Jiraiya!” he blurted.
With that kind of suggestion, Kakashi probably shouldn’t have been surprised that Tsunade proceeded to throw him out the window, but he still felt that it had been uncalled for and thoroughly unprofessional of her.
Still brushing window glass off his sleeves and muttering angrily under his breath, it took Kakashi a minute to notice the orange meteor that was currently streaking directly for him. By the time the sight registered in his brain, he barely had time to brace his feet before Naruto had tackled him. “I’m home, Kakashi-nii!” the young man shouted directly into his left eardrum. “Did you miss me?”
“I always think I do,” gasped Kakashi, winded, “right up until you come back and find some new and exciting way to knock me over with your youthful enthusiasm.”
Thoroughly unrepentant, Naruto just grinned. “Aw, cut it out, nii-san,” he said. “I know you get lonely when I’m gone.”
Mostly recovered, Kakashi put his hand on the back of Naruto’s neck and shook him a little. “You’ll never hear me admit it, pipsqueak. How did everything go with Bee?”
Naruto’s eyes gleamed in that special combination of mischief and joy that only he could achieve. “I really think we’ve got it now. I think we’re done. We persuaded the last jinchuuriki, Han, to come and train with us. It was so cool! We all exchanged pieces of our chakra, so that we’re all equally powerful. And we all swore to never fight against the other.”
“The reasoning being if the jinchuuriki don’t fight, the governments won’t either,” Kakashi concluded. “I’ll admit that I never thought you’d pull it off, but it looks like you have.”
“It took a couple of years, but it wasn’t so hard in the end,” Naruto protested as he started to walk beside Kakashi, heading in the direction of their house. “Bee and Gaara were already on my side, so I wasn’t starting from scratch or anything. And the other jinchuuriki are all nice people, once you talk with them a little.”
“I imagine that the reality is closer to your having talked at them, otouto,” said Kakashi, having been on the opposite end of Naruto’s fervent reasoning enough times to know how devastating it was. He and Iruka referred to it as Naruto’s talk no jutsu in private. It was the most devastating technique either of them had ever seen, far and away more effective than Kakashi’s chidori or Gai’s gates.
“That’s what Shikamaru said, too, but I don’t see it,” Naruto said, puzzled. Kakashi smiled. When the jinchuuriki began to meet with Bee in order to train and better their connections with their bijuu, they had agreed that each person could bring one companion with them. Gaara had brought his brother, Kankuro, having left Temari in charge of Suna. Bee had brought his good friend, Motoi. And Naruto, of course, had taken Shikamaru.
On their meandering way home, Kakashi and Naruto passed the park when Kakashi had frequently brought Naruto to play as a little boy. In the very sandbox where he had sat with Sasuke and built a miniature Konoha, five year old Mirai sat making a rather fanciful castle, while a younger little girl with jutting black pigtails watched in outright admiration next to her. The girls’ mothers, Anko and Kurenai, sat nearby on the bench Itachi and Kakashi had shared so long ago, the women chatting amiably about poisons.
No one had been surprised when Anko had dragged Ibiki to her house and installed him there as her romantic partner. Those two had been dancing around each other for years, and Kakashi was of the firm opinion that Ibiki was the only person that was truly capable of understanding all of Anko’s quirks. What had been surprising was Anko and Ibiki going to the orphanage that Itachi now ran. Of all the people in Konoha that had been hurt by Itachi’s actions, Anko seemed to find it the hardest to forgive. Kakashi remembered how she had wept on the morning after the massacre, cradling the body of a baby close to her chest. He didn’t think he had ever seen a person so broken as she was that day. Unable to have children of her own, she viewed every child as precious beyond measure.
But then baby Chihiro had been brought to Itachi, orphaned by an illness that had swept through the civilian sections of the village. Biting her anger down, and fearfully allowing herself to hope for the first time since all the agency over her body had been ripped from her by Orochimaru, Anko had gone to the orphanage.
Itachi seemed to understand instinctively everything she was unable to say, and had placed baby Chihiro in Anko’s arms with no further comments. The baby had been crying almost constantly since her mother had kissed her for the last time, and she kept crying for the first few minutes as Anko held her and panicked. “This isn’t going to work,” she told Ibiki, her eyes huge. “I told you this would happen. She’s going to know that I’m not a mother, that I can’t take care of her, that I don’t know how…”
“Shhh, dearest,” Ibiki said in his deep, gentle voice. “Just give it a minute.”
As he was in most things, Ibiki was right. The crying continued for a time, and a piece of Anko’s heart that she had kept carefully locked away so that it couldn’t be hurt anymore, withered and seemed to die. Despite all her wounds, all the times she had been tortured or poisoned or bit by her snakes, Anko had never felt so much pain. And then, after a few minutes, Chihiro seemed to take a deep breath in between sobs, and gazed up at Anko. She looked confused for a minute, and gnawed on her thumb consideringly. Then, whether due to some gaseous event or a miracle, the baby lifted her wet, slobbery hand up to Anko’s cheek, and smiled.
“Oh, Ibiki,” Anko breathed, and the tears dripped messily down her nose.
“She’s ours,” he replied, overcome. “Let’s take her home.”
On their way out the door, clutching her new daughter close to her chest, Anko looked back at the silent Itachi. “You can’t trade one baby for another, you know,” she said quietly. “This doesn’t erase what happened.”
“I know you can't forgive me,” Itachi replied. “I know how you feel. I can’t forgive myself. All I can do is do what I can to make this village a better place. And I can give Chihiro a wonderful family. I know that you will treasure her as she deserves. That’s all that matters to me.”
“And you’ve given me back a piece of my soul, a part that I didn't think I’d ever have again,” Anko said. “I won’t forget that, either.”
To see Anko now, quietly confident as a mother while still being the badass she always was, Kakashi was helpless not to smile. Anko had set aside her Viper mask upon Chihiro’s adoption, and she now taught kunoichi lessons at the Academy, while also imparting her more deadly skills to specially selected jounin and Anbu operatives. She ate dango by the pound, cussed lustily, and wore age inappropriate outfits, and no one had ever seen her so happy.
Naruto shouted a greeting at Itachi as they passed by the orphanage, and Itachi waved a black nailed hand back even as he carefully supported a watering can for a rather wobbly three year old. The old Uchiha clan compound was a much different place than it had been in Naruto’s youth. Instead of apartment buildings and stern eyed Uchihas buying fruit in the market, there was a beautiful white house sitting in the middle of the compound. There the few village orphans that hadn’t yet been adopted were housed comfortably, each with their own small room that had a comfortable bed, clean clothes that fit, and plenty of stuffed toys to cling to. The backyard was bursting with swings, slides, sandboxes and jungle gyms, where the children shouted and played until the watchful eye of an attendant. A garden was bursting with life in the far northern corner, and each child had their very own plot where they could grow their favorite fruits, vegetables and flowers, guided by Ino’s helpful green thumb. (There was, however, a large bed of tomato plants for whenever Sasuke was home.) A bunny hutch sat against another wall, where small fuzzy creatures could be cuddled and fed carrots and celery. The rabbits had to be well protected, for the whole compound was crawling with cats, Itachi’s favorite creatures. There wasn’t a single cat in Konoha that had to live hungry and cold, not while Itachi was around.
From the ashes of the greatest disaster Konoha had ever known arose a place dedicated to love, kindness, and healing. Itachi was often bothered by nightmares of the past, but it gave him the ability to empathize with the small, wounded little children that were placed in his care. If he suffered in the pain and darkness of his past, the present helped him to heal, too.
Kakashi and Naruto turned on to their own street, and Naruto shouted again when he spotted Iruka. His old teacher was sitting comfortably on the front porch with a book and a cup of tea, Pakkun and Kasi curled up at his feet. Iruka looked up at the noise and leapt from the porch, running barefoot down the road until he could pull Naruto into a hug. “Naruto-kun, when did you get home?” he asked, the joy in his voice clear.
“Just a little while ago,” Naruto replied. “We came straight here, though, so don’t yell at Kakashi-nii.”
“If I didn't for that, I’m sure he deserves it for something else,” quipped Iruka, ruffling Naruto’s hair. “Go see the ninken. Bull especially has been asking for you.”
Naruto ran into the house, yelling for the elderly bulldog. Kakashi and Iruka followed him in more slowly. “So? What did the Hokage want?” Iruka asked quietly.
“Oh, only the very worst,” Kakashi moaned. “This is a fate worse than death, Iruka.”
“Ah, well,” Iruka said philosophically as he slipped his arm around Kakashi’s waist. “I’m sure we’ll get through it, whatever it is. We always have before.”
“You won’t say that when I tell what she wants me to do,” Kakashi said, and proceeded to do so.
From inside the house, Naruto stopped scratching Bull’s ear as Iruka’s screeched, “She wants you to be what now?” floated through the walls. “What do you think that’s about?” Naruto asked Pakkun, who was standing nearby impatiently waiting his turn for scratches.
“I’m not telling you anything,” the pug replied. “You’ll just yell, too.”
Shikamaru and Naruto had arrived back in Konoha just in time for the Obon festival. It had been a long time since they and all their classmates had been in the village for this particular time, and all the young chunin and jounin were a little more animated upon seeing each other than was perhaps appropriate. Still, no one had the heart to hush them.
“How are things going at the hospital?” Naruto asked Sakura as they watched the dancers on the stage. The medic nin was looking particularly devastating in a red kimono, and the seal in the middle of the forehead just made her eyes look brighter.
“It’s going really well,” she replied, flashing a grateful look at Ino, who was wearing something very little and very purple. “Ino has been so helpful in getting my new mental health clinic going. Itachi has been bringing his kids by for therapy, and he says he’s seeing a lot of improvement in their behavior. I’m very excited about it. Tsunade-sensei said she might be giving me more responsibility at the hospital soon, too. I hope I don’t let her down.” She bit her lip a little.
“Not possible,” Ino said loyally. “Oh, look at Tenten and Neji!” she squealed, pointing at the stage. Naruto and Shikamaru turned just in time to catch the young couple float by among the dancers. Neji’s hair was pulled back to proudly display the clean and unbroken skin of his forehead. Hinata, upon reaching the age of sixteen, had begun a whole new war inside the Hyuuga clan, and just a short year later she was seeing unprecedented success. Iruka had helped her remove all the Caged Bird Seals, and the family was now run by a council with democratically elected representatives from every branch.
Neji, finally free to make his own choices and live his own life, had promptly moved out of the compound and into a tiny shoebox of a house with Tenten. Naruto and Shikamaru were planning to do the same now that all the training with the other jinchuuriki was complete.
“Everybody’s pairing up,” Sakura sighed. “Even Tsunade-sensei! I went to her office the other day, and she was in there with Jiraiya! They were kissing right on top of her desk! I couldn’t believe it!”
“That’s been coming on for a long time, though,” countered Shikamaru with a shrug. “It shouldn’t have been a surprise.”
“It wasn’t,” Sakura said, flushing hot pink. “It was the fact that they were naked that gave me pause.”
“Get some, Tsunade-baa-chan!” Naruto cheered, punching the air. “Maybe she won’t be so grumpy all the time, now that all that sexual tension has been resolved.”
“I highly doubt that,” said Ino. “I think grumpy is just how she is.”
“Naruto,” Iruka said softly as he and Kakashi approached. “We brought the lanterns. Are you coming with Kakashi and I, or do you want to go on your own to the graveyard later?”
“I’ll come with you,” Naruto said, waving goodbye to the girls. As he moved away, he saw Ino grab Sakura by her obi and drag her up to the stage to dance with her. “Get some, Ino!” Naruto muttered under his breath, grinning. Shikamaru mumbled something beside him about everyone being such a drag, but he was smiling, too.
With all the music and dancing now behind them, Naruto, Kakashi, Iruka and Shikamaru slipped into the cool quiet of the graveyard. They stopped before the monument that had been erected to the Yondaime and his wife, Kushina, and the family bowed to them as one before moving to the riverbank. Iruka and Shikamaru stepped back, and allowed Naruto and Kakashi a moment alone as they spoke to the darkness and the ghosts.
This had always been a precious time for the two brothers who were not brothers, bound by choice and heart and not by blood. Naruto formed a hand sign and a tiny flame appeared at the end of his finger, which he used to light the lamps. “You first,” Kakashi said, as he always did.
Naruto cradled the lantern between his hands and began to speak. “Hi, mom,” he said. “Hi, dad. I’m twenty now, did you know? I’m all grown up. Well, mostly. Iruka-nii says I might grow a few inches more. I’m already taller than him and it makes him mad. I finally learned how to complete the Rasengan, dad. I bet you would really like to see it. Jiraiya said not even you could do it, but I did. It was really hard, though, and I can only do it when I’m in Sage mode, or it eats up my arm. I better not say anymore about that, though, or mom’ll worry. Mom, Kurama and I are really good friends now. We share powers and we talk a lot and he’s actually really cool. He talks to me about you, sometimes. He liked you. I mean, eventually, he didn’t like you all that much at first, but I can’t blame him for that. He thought you had...what does he call yet? Spunk. I think that just means he thought it was funny when you punched people, though. His sense of humor is a little twisted sometimes.
“Shika-kun and I are looking for a house to live in, just him and me. I’m really excited about it. We have all these great plans for cooking ramen in our kitchen and growing a garden that has carrots in it for me and broccoli and tobacco for him. We want to have a yard where Bisuke can sleep in the sun, since he’s getting kind of old now and I don’t like to take him on missions with me anymore.
“The only hard part is leaving Kakashi-nii and Iruka-nii. They’re my family, just as much as you guys are. I don’t think anybody could have taken care of me like they did. I don’t want to be apart from them. But...but I think I want to make a family with Shika, too. And maybe someday we can give a home to somebody who needs it just as much as I did. I think that would make you guys really happy. I know it would make me happy.” He wiped away a tear that was dripping down from his eye. “Anyway. I still miss you guys, and I want you to remember how much I love you. I’m looking forward to meeting you, but I hope it’s a really, really long time from now. Because things are pretty great here, too, and I want to see what’s next. I’ll be here next year to see you again, though. Believe it!”
With that, Naruto knelt down and placed his lantern on the water. He held it in place, though, and looked up at Kakashi. Kakashi smiled, then looked at his own lantern and began to speak. “I think he said it all, Minato-sensei and Kushina-chan. But just in case you were wondering, even when he moves out and starts his own family, I will always take care of Naruto,” Kakashi promised, and shared a significant look with Naruto. “Neither of us will never know what it is to be alone again if I can help it. Moving in with Shikamaru doesn’t give him less family; it gives him more. Wherever he goes and whatever he becomes, Naruto will always be my pipsqueak, my boy.”
“I know,” Naruto murmured.
“There are some big changes on the horizon,” Kakashi said, addressing Minato, Kushina, Obito, Rin and his own father. “Life is expecting more of me than I ever thought it would. I can hear you laughing, Rin. You always said that I was too good to be able to hide, and I guess you were right. Damn it. Mediocrity just looks so peaceful. But good things have happened, too, things that I never would have thought I would be capable of. I was given Naruto, and you all know what he’s been to me.
“Then Iruka came along. I read it in a book once, something about how certain people can be an incomparable solace. I’ve had a lot of grief in my life. I’ve lost so much. But somehow, Iruka soothes. He doesn’t make up for the people I’ve lost. That would be unfair to him and you. But he completes me in a way I’ve never known before, and he takes away my pain. We’re married now, you know, and it’s the hardest work and the best thing I’ve ever known. I know that he’ll be with me for the next part, no matter what happens. Iruka, Naruto, and Shikamaru. We’re a family, somehow. And I’m so glad.”
Kakashi leaned down to put his lantern on the dark water with Naruto’s. Shikamaru stepped to Naruto’s side and Iruka to Kakashi’s, and they did the same with their own lanterns. A moment later, four lanterns drifted out into the darkness, bearing all their love for the ones who had gone before.
“I wonder who will be here with us next year, and the year after that,” Naruto said, leaning his head on Shikamaru’s shoulder.
“I don’t know,” Kakashi replied, one hand on his boy’s shoulder and the other held by Iruka. “But I sure can't wait to find out.”