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Roots and Wings

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“There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One is roots and the other is wings.”

  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

 

Deep thankfulness was all that was in Kakashi’s mind as he slogged back into Konoha, covered head to foot in stinking mud. His porcelain Hound mask kept slipping down his face from the moisture from his sodden face mask, which wasn’t doing his chakra reserves any favors from the frequent jolts from his Sharingan.

 

His Anbu team had been sent out to try and stop one of Orochimaru’s supply lines, but had instead been hit by a team of six missing-nin from Sand. Kakashi, Tenzo and Itachi were the best team Anbu had ever had, but even they had had more than they really wanted to deal with on this mission. There had been a particularly nasty water user that had led them on a merry chase for a couple of hours, but her body was now in a storage scroll along with her five other companions. None of the missing-nin had been willing to surrender, and they had been too dangerous to allow to escape. Still, the vest pocket that held the storage scroll seemed to weigh down Kakashi’s right side, as well as his soul. He admitted to himself that he was tired, and that didn’t happen often.

 

On his left, Itachi was limping as he ran from a hastily healed broken ankle. Kakashi could see from the exaggerated straightness of Tenzo’s back that even his irrepressible kohai was exhausted. Once they were through the gates, Kakashi made hand signals for Tenzo and Itachi to report directly to the hospital for evaluation. They peeled off silently as he made his way to the Tower to report to the Hokage. He hoped the Sandaime didn’t mind a little mud on his expensive carpets. He could have gone home first to change and then made his report, but a part of Kakashi enjoyed complicating the Hokage’s life whenever possible.

 

As he darted across the rooftops, Kakashi was already fervently hoping that the Hokage wasn’t in one of his more whimsical moods. The last thing he wanted to do right now was trade riddles with the old man. He wanted a shower, food, and bed. Then he wanted to wake up, give his respects to the monument, and check on Naruto at the orphanage.

 

Naruto was three years old already, and he had Minato-sensei’s face and Kushina-chan’s temper. Kakashi smirked, remembering the utterly glorious fit that Naruto had thrown the last time Kakashi had gone to see him and then had to leave before Naruto was ready to say goodbye. Despite his attempts to keep his distance from the boy, he and Naruto had grown fond of one another. He wished he could do more than just visit the orphanage sporadically, but with his Anbu duties, it was all he could handle. He thought of how much more Jiraiya would have been able to do for Naruto and had to fight away the burn of bitterness.

 

A part of Kakashi ached with pain every time he saw Naruto. His sensei’s son deserved better than being chucked into an orphanage, unacknowledged and hated by the village. Despite the little boy’s perpetual brightness, he knew that Naruto was lonely.

 

Kakashi landed on the windowsill outside of the Hokage’s office and made the hand signs that would allow him entrance through the wards. Once he was inside, he was surprised to see the Sandaime sitting at his desk, fully vested and regarding him solemnly. Usually the Sandaime was doing logic puzzles or otherwise fooling around to the utter dismay of his assistant. He didn’t like to do the serious village leader thing unless he absolutely had to.

 

“Hound-san, report,” the Sandaime ordered, his fingers steepled before his face.

 

Kakashi drew up to attention and gave his report mechanically, paying only half of his attention to the Hokage’s questions and responses. There was something about the Tower’s atmosphere that he didn’t like. Outside the Hokage’s office, he could hear various shinobi moving back and forth at a faster clip than normal. Something on the back of Kakashi’s neck tingled, a sensation he had learned to never ignore. Somehow, he had a feeling he wasn’t going to be getting his bath and bed anytime soon. He handed over the scroll that contained the bodies of the missing-nin, then stood quietly, his report complete.

 

“Thank you for your hard work, Hound-san,” the Sandaime said blandly with a click of his long fingers. At the sound, a cloaked Anbu appeared from a shadowed corner of the office, took the scroll, and body flickered away. Normally this is when Kakashi would have beat a hasty retreat too, but he waited it out this time. The old man would break before he would.

 

Knowing he was beat, the Sandaime sighed and relaxed, becoming again a weary man that would honestly prefer a pipe and a book rather than dealing with a ninja village. “Hound-san, I won’t belittle your intelligence and pretend that you haven’t noticed heightened activity at the tower.” Kakashi nodded blandly. “Naruto disappeared from his orphanage two days ago. We have been unable to locate him.”

 

Killing intent starting leaking from Kakashi’s very pores and he curled his fingers into a fist. A fist was better than reaching for his katana, which is what he really wanted to do. “What has been done to recover him?” he growled.

 

The Sandaime rubbed his face. “We’ve been combing the village from top to bottom. I sent a few teams of Anbu to check outside of Konoha as well. There’s been no sign of him anywhere.”

 

A vision of Naruto as he had last seen him flashed across Kakashi’s mind, the little whiskered face scrunched up and teary as Kakashi had walked away. Kakashi shoved that aside, feeling a vital part of himself growing cold, as it did before an assassination. “I’ll take care of this,” he growled, stalking back to the window. Why the hell hadn’t Anbu been watching Naruto? That was their job. He’d have a few questions for them once he found Naruto. No ifs. He would find his sensei’s legacy.

 

It wouldn’t help to kill the Hokage right now, no matter how he felt. It wouldn’t .

 

Kakashi landed on the ground outside the tower. He swiftly performed a water jutsu to wash the worst of the mud off of him, then a modified fire jutsu to dry off. He didn’t have time for a proper wash, not when he didn’t know if Naruto was even alive. Kami, Minato-sensei would be so disappointed in him for not watching out for Naruto better.

 

Kakashi slid into an alley, nicked his thumb and summoned his ninken. Pakkun, Bull, Urushi, Shiba, Akino and Uuhei seemed to catch the tenor of Kakashi’s chakra instantly and didn’t give him any shit for once. “What’s up, boss?” Pakkun asked, his hackles raised high against his back.

 

“Naruto’s missing,” Kakashi said shortly. “He’s been gone for two days already. You know his scent. Start at the orphanage. If you don’t find his scent there, spread out and find his trail. Howl for me once you do and we’ll all converge on your position.”

 

Pakkun growled. The pack had met Naruto on multiple occasions and they all liked him (once they got past his strong fox smell). “We’ll find the pup,” the pug promised. Smoothly, the pack pulled away and headed towards the corner of Konoha that housed the orphanage, Kakashi running with them. “What are you going to do while we’re looking for the pup, boss?” Pakkun asked from his position beside Kakashi.

 

Behind his mask, Kakashi smiled. It was not a nice smile. “I’m going to have a word with the orphanage director. Find out how a three year old boy goes missing on his watch.”

 

Pakkun winced. He did not want to be in that guy’s sandals today.

 

Kakashi strode into the orphanage entry way with all the subtlety of a battering ram. The Anbu get up was terrifying to civilians, and it was something he wasn’t afraid to use to his advantage. He looked at the cowering receptionist and growled, “Director. Now.” She jumped up and scurried away with a muffled eep as the pack started sniffing around.

 

The director came trotting out from a back office, the receptionist obviously having decided that discretion was the better part of valor in the face of Kakashi’s clear disdain and stayed away. “May I help you, Anbu-san?” the squirrely man said as he eyed Kakashi nervously.

 

“Yes,” Kakashi said pleasantly. “You can tell me how Uzumaki Naruto disappeared while in the care of your orphanage.”

 

The man rolled his eyes and it was all Kakashi could do to keep from stabbing him in one of them. “That brat is more trouble than all the rest of the boys here put together. He’s always going where he isn’t wanted, stealing from the kitchen and shouting in the yard. When he didn’t show up for a couple of meals in a row, we decided we’d better report it.”

 

“Wait,” Kakashi said, not believing that anybody could be this callous. Or stupid. “You mean he could have been missing longer than two days?”

 

The director shrugged. “I guess. Nobody really noticed.”

 

Pakkun saved the director from certain death by howling, “We’ve got the scent boss! It looks like the pup left with three other men.” He sniffed again and sneezed. “Kiri-nin, from the scent of it.”

 

As one, the pack turned and dashed out of the building. Kakashi scowled at the director. “This isn’t over,” he ground out between gritted teeth, then he followed the pack.

 

They ran for longer than Kakashi cared to remember. He found himself hoping that somebody was at least carrying Naruto, that he hadn’t been forced along this distance on his little legs. They passed over the border of Fire and Kakashi gulped down a soldier pill to keep going.

 

Finally, finally, Pakkun stopped short. “We’re close,” he whispered to Kakashi. “I can smell the pup and those Mist bastards.”

 

Kakashi used a few quick hand signals and the ninken obediently fanned out, disappearing into the undergrowth. He damped down his chakra as much as he could in case the Kiri-nin had a sensor, then stalked forward until the Mist camp was in view. There were three Kiri, Anbu level from the masks they were wearing. He’d have to work quickly while he still had the element of surprise. He was good, but three Anbu level opponents would be rough. He was grateful the ninken were there.

 

Having taken in the shinobi part of the equation, Kakashi looked for their captive next and found him quickly, spotting a shock of yellow hair directly in the middle of the camp. Naruto was alive and Kakashi felt his shoulders relax in relief. Naruto had been staked to a metal post like a goat, a chain wrapped tightly around his reddened ankle. He didn’t look hungry or thirsty and he wasn’t crying, but it was the look on Naruto’s face made Kakashi’s heart ache. He looked absolutely hopeless, like he knew no one would come for him. The boy slumped against his post, dejected, defeated. Kakashi wondered how much of the indomitable spirit Naruto had always shown him before was simply an act, a mask like the ones that Kakashi wore.

 

Kakashi opened his Sharingan and drew in a slow breath when he realized that the ground underneath Naruto was sealed to explode if he was moved without the proper precautions. Well, that would be fun to deal with. So much for body flickering in, grabbing Naruto, and flickering out again, which had been his original plan.

 

One of the Kiri-nin drew up close to Naruto and Kakashi tensed, ready to spring forward. The Kiri-nin leaned over and shot a bit of fire jutsu through the chain around Naruto’s ankle. Naruto whimpered as he was burned ever so slightly; Kakashi saw now that his ankle was reddened not from friction as he had previously assumed, but from this cruel trick. The Kiri-nin laughed at Naruto’s soft cry and made the hand signs to do the jutsu again.

 

He never got the chance.

 

Kakashi burst out of the undergrowth. He tossed a poisoned senbon at one of the Kiri-nin on the perimeter, then thrust a handful of lightning through the chest of Naruto’s tormenter with a shout of “ Chidori!” The pack converged on the third nin with a mask like a grouper. The first nin, whose mask was of a shark, deflected Kakashi’s senbon and came after him. Kakashi leapt in front of Naruto and led the fight away from the boy, his katana sparking against Shark’s ninjato. They fought furiously, blades slashing too quickly for either of them to form hand signs for jutsu.

 

Inside a blur of teeth, claws and fur, Kakashi heard Grouper suddenly shout, then fall silent. The ninken turned to help Kakashi, and Shark realized that he was vastly outnumbered. He turned to run, but Kakashi body flickered to land directly in front of the nin, then caught him a genjutsu with his Sharingan. He was able to stop then, panting. “Thanks, guys,” he gasped to the ninken. He staggered for a moment from the sudden chakra drain from his Sharingan.

 

“Better seal him up quick, boss, you look like you’re ready to fall over,” Bull advised solemnly. Kakashi took his advice, and in minutes all three Kiri-nin were sealed inside another scroll that was tucked into Kakashi’s vest.

 

The area secure, Kakashi turned and dashed over to Naruto, who was sitting wide eyed and trembling at his post. Naruto looked up at Kakashi as he approached and shrieked, “No hurt Naruto!” before huddling to the ground, his hands covering his head protectively.

 

Kakashi stopped short, irrationally hurt, before he suddenly realized that Naruto had never seen him in his Anbu uniform before. He must have looked similar to the Kiri Anbu, and naturally that would frighten a small child.

 

It was a hard and fast rule that an Anbu was never supposed to remove their mask around civilians, but in the face of a teary little boy with shocky blue eyes, Kakashi could not honestly give less of a shit. He shrugged off his mask and it fell from his fingers to the ground with a soft clink. There was a heaviness to the mask as it fell that Kakashi knew he would examine later.

 

Naruto’s whole face brightened when he saw Kakashi’s more familiar masked face. “‘Kashi-san!” he crowed, reached his chubby arms out to Kakashi.

 

Kakashi wanted nothing more than to gather Naruto up in his arms and run him straight back to Konoha, but first he had to take care of the barrier underneath him. “Yo, Naruto,” he said casually with a flick of his fingers. “You’re okay now. Sit still for just a minute more, okay?”

 

Naruto pouted, but as he was chained to the ground, he couldn’t exactly disobey. Kakashi examined at the barrier with his Sharingan. Thankfully, the seal was fairly rudimentary, especially to a student of Namikaze Minato. Kakashi found the seal’s weak point and fed a needle of chakra into it. The whole seal lit up blue, then faded away. Naruto clapped in joy at the brief light show and Kakashi found himself smiling genuinely for the first time in days.

 

Kakashi broke the chain around Naruto’s ankle, thought fuck it to himself, and cuddled Naruto up in his arms. Naruto wrapped his arms around Kakashi’s neck and buried his face into the material of his face mask, breathing deep. Kakashi felt a noise escape his throat which if he’d been younger would have been a sob. “Are you okay, Naruto?” he whispered.

 

Naruto grumbled. “Mean men grab me,” he complained. He pointed to his ankle. “Ouch.”

 

Kakashi nodded. “Yup. Ouch. Hang tight, I’ll fix that.” He molded healing chakra in his hand, then ran it over Naruto’s burned ankle. He wasn’t able to completely regenerate the damaged skin, but judging from Naruto’s relieved sigh, he’d at least lessened the pain. The Kyuubi should take care of the rest fairly quickly now that the burn wasn’t constantly being refreshed. “Any more ouch?” he asked awkwardly.

 

“No, no more ouch, ‘Kashi-san,” Naruto said with a shake of his head. He leaned heavily against Kakashi’s chest. “Tired.”

 

“I know,” Kakashi said kindly, some forgotten impulse from his childhood pushing him to ruffle Naruto’s hair lightly. “I’m taking you home now.”

 

“Home,” Naruto repeated, his tone bemused. “What’s home, ‘Kashi-san?”

 

Shuddering, Kakashi found himself promising fiercely, “You’ll find out soon enough.”

 

……………………………….

 

As much as he wanted to carry Naruto home himself, Kakashi was simply too exhausted. He carefully tied the sleeping boy to Bull’s back, put his Hound mask back on, and then put every ounce of his strength into making it back to Konoha. When he crossed over the border of Fire, he felt an Anbu team fall in to flank him and he felt a part of himself relax. He’d have back up if he was attacked now.

 

The Anbu team led Kakashi and the ninken straight to the Hokage’s office. The old man was standing in front of his desk, looking relieved as they filed in. He eyed Naruto. “Report. How is the boy, Hound?”

 

Kakashi was already carefully untying Naruto and then cradled the small boy in his arms as he turned to answer. “He’s fine now, Hokage-sama. I can’t say the same for the Mist Anbu that abducted him, though.” For the second time in his recent memory, he pulled a scroll holding bodies from his vest and tossed it onto the Sandaime’s desk.

 

The Hokage nodded. “Thank you, Hound-san. We have classed this situation as an S-rank mission and you will be compensated accordingly. We’ll make sure Naruto is returned to his orphanage safely. You are dismissed.”

 

An Anbu stepped forward to take Naruto from Kakashi’s arms. Before he could think it through, Kakashi had stepped back to gain some distance and growled at the Anbu. Pack, his blood sang. Mine. “No,” he said. “He’s not going back there.”

 

Sighing, the Hokage started to say, “Hound-san, it’s the safest place for him, the only place for him-”

 

“That’s not true,” Kakashi interrupted. “He wasn’t safe there. They barely cared enough to report him missing.”

 

“Which is something that will be addressed,” the Sandaime said, frowning. “What else could I do? None of the clans would foster him.”

 

“I’ll take him,” Kakashi said. He felt like he was having an out of body experience as he slowly walked forward, and placed his Hound mask on the Hokage’s desk. “I have served this village as a shinobi since I was five years old. I have been a member of Anbu for four years. I will continue to serve as a jounin, but I can no longer be this village’s strong arm in the shadows.” He glanced down at the burden in his arms and felt the utter rightness of it. “This child needs me more. He’ll be safe with me, and my sensei’s legacy will live on in comfort, as he has always deserved.”

 

Gravely, the Sandaime considered Kakashi. “Are you absolutely determined on this path? There may be repercussions that you don’t understand.”

 

Kakashi stared at the Sandaime dead in the eyes. He knew his absolute conviction would be visible. To protect Naruto, he would even scratch through the leaf on his hitai-ate and become a missing nin. No price was too high. “Yes, Hokage-sama.”

 

“Very well.” The Hokage stepped behind his desk. “Hatake Kakashi, on behalf of the village of Konoha, I thank you for your service. From this day forward, you will be known as a jounin shinobi. However, I do not release you from Anbu. Your mission until I tell you otherwise is to protect Uzumaki Naruto from harm. He is your responsibility from now on. Do you accept?”

 

“Yes,” Kakashi said, his heart lighter than it had been in years. “I accept.”

 

…………………

 

It was all well and good making grand declarations before the Hokage, but it became clear pretty damn fast that Kakashi didn’t have a clue as to how to raise a very rambunctious three year old. He had taken Naruto with him back to his small room in the Anbu dorm and had crashed...only to be awoken a scant few hours later by a completely recovered Naruto, who was hungry and absolutely not interested in further sleep. Kakashi had wearily scraped together a quick breakfast of toast and an only slightly brown banana, then started to plan.

 

First on the list was a new place to live. Kakashi couldn’t raise a child in the Anbu dorm, Naruto would be be stuck full of pointy objects the first time he woke someone up after a mission. The obvious solution was the abandoned Hatake compound, but Kakashi just couldn’t face that. Too many ghosts, too many memories. Thanks to all of the S-class missions he’d been taking for the last decade, his bank account was sizeable. Why not buy a new place altogether? Someplace quiet, with a yard for Naruto and the dogs, someplace easy to defend? They both could use someplace...unburdened.

 

Cheered by the notion, Kakashi got himself and Naruto cleaned up, which was just a whole new kind of adventure as Naruto had somehow managed to get banana in his hair . Kakashi put on a jounin uniform, pleased with being able to roll up the sleeves and slouch. He never could in the Anbu uniform; they always had to look aggressive, intimidating, straight backed and solemn. Naruto didn’t have any fresh clothes, and Kakashi would be damned if he took him back to the orphanage to get whatever pitiful possessions he had there, so he tossed the boy into one of his t-shirts and marched off to the store.

 

A clearly amused worker at the store helped him pick out the basics of what Naruto would need (three year olds apparently still needed diapers occasionally? Fuck. ) while he tried to keep Naruto somewhat corralled and away from anything orange. He remembered the Yellow Flash and the Red Hot Habanero and wondered if the orange thing had been passed down in utero somehow. He managed to put on a pair of blue shorts and a white t-shirt with an orange sun on the front (apparently, three year olds had to be negotiated with, or there were copious amounts of tears) on Naruto’s wriggling body and counted it a win. They left the store with Naruto clutching a fuzzy stuffed frog to his chest. Kakashi had faced down missing-nin, enemy jutsu of all sort and freaking Orochimaru, but apparently he wasn’t badass enough to say no to a little boy holding a plushie and looking up at him hopefully.

 

He had a feeling that he was setting a bad precedent for the future, but he pushed that thought aside. One thing at a time.

 

The rest of the day, Kakashi and Naruto were traipsing all over Konoha, looking at vacant apartments and houses, with frequent stops at food carts to fill Naruto’s seemingly bottomless stomach. The little boy’s face was streaked with soy sauce and a grin when Kakashi handed over a stack of cash to an ecstatic real estate agent, purchasing the small three bedroom house he’d found. It was located conveniently to the Academy and Hokage Tower, and already had a tall fence around the property that Kakashi knew he could easily get warded. The house itself was small, but there was plenty of yard, enough for a garden if he ever got the time to put one in. Even better, the house was already partially furnished. He and Naruto camped out that night on their new living room floor in a cozy nest of blankets and pillows, the pack fanned out around them protectively. Kakashi woke up the next morning with a small boy asleep on top of his chest, and knew that he had done the right thing.

 

Maybe Minato-sensei would be proud of him after all.

 

……………..

 

Kakashi thought Gai’s enthusiasm would deafen him when his so-called eternal rival discovered him grocery shopping with Naruto. He knew he was deaf for sure when Gai then heard of his leaving Anbu and Naruto’s adoption. “I wouldn’t have expected anything less from such a Youthful and Hip Comrade! I know that you will conquer this challenge with aplomb, as you have all others, Kakashi!” Gai leapt on top of a display of cantaloupes and blinded a few irate shoppers with the power of his smile.

 

“Thanks, Gai,” Kakashi said weakly as he held a crying Naruto. “Now lower the volume, will you? I’ve got a kid here.”

 

Gai apologized (as quietly as he was capable of), and then made up for it by bullying all of the jounin and chunin he had ever met in his life into helping Kakashi get the new house set up. Suddenly there were pots and pans in the kitchen, bookshelves in the spare room, and a shower curtain with little kunai being hung in the bathroom. Kakashi was sickened to find Kurenai and Yugao cooing while putting up cartoon frog wallpaper in Naruto’s room. When had frogs become a thing? He hadn’t signed off on that. Dogs were much better. When he dared to express this viewpoint, however, he was pelted with Naruto’s alarmingly growing collection of plushies and ejected from the room altogether.

 

The moving in turned into a raucous housewarming party that evening, as such things tended to do when shinobi like Izumo and Kotetsu were around. While Kakashi longed to boot everyone from his house as this was more social interaction than he’d had in the last five years put together, he had to admit that it did warm something deep in his belly to see his friends celebrating his new life, passing Naruto around for snuggles and toasting everything in sight.

 

His friends. Huh. Where had that come from?

 

He stepped outside at one point for a breather and found another runaway from the festivities. It was a chunin that had arrived with Asuma, his ponytail high and his vest crackling from newness. He was carefully walking the borders of the fence and drawing squiggles and lines in a little notebook with a dolphin on the front. He looked up at Kakashi as he approached and the jounin was reminded strongly of a startled deer. “Yo,” he said casually, trying to keep the chunin from bolting.

 

Worse, the chunin bowed respectfully. “Good evening, Hatake-san. I am sorry to impose, but Asuma assured me that it was all right for me to come along.”

 

“Maa, if I know Asuma, he didn’t assure you of anything,” Kakashi drawled, leaning against the fence. “He probably just dragged you here by the ponytail and expected you to be happy about it.”

 

The chunin snorted and quickly covered his scarred nose with his hand. Adorable. “Got it in one,” he admitted. “I think he’s been hanging around Gai-san too much on missions. Personal liberties don’t seem to register with him.”

 

Kakashi nodded toward the notebook in the chunin’s hand. “So you decided to thank him with impressionistic drawings?”

 

“Oh, no!” the chunin said, horrified. “I was actually drawing up some ideas I had on some barriers that you might want to put in here. Wards, seals, barriers, traps...they’re my specialty. I doodle on them whenever I get a break.” He glanced back towards the house, his eyes shadowed. “A lot of people would like to take what you have here, Hatake-san,” he said quietly. “You’ll need to take precautions.”

 

Kakashi stepped closer to take a better look at the notebook and was surprised to see a rather clever rendition of a five seal barrier. He studied the chunin’s slight changes and noted that anyone who tried to cross the barrier without approved chakra would be...was that the symbol for lightning? His eyes gleamed. He had to know more about this particular shinobi. “Oh, that’s nasty ,” he said admiringly. “What’s your name?”

 

The chunin grinned, and it changed his whole demeanor. “Iruka. Umino Iruka.”

 

“Iruka,” Kakashi said, grinning back. He took Iruka’s elbow in his hand so that they could walk together. “Show me what else you’ve got in that creative little notebook of yours.”

 

……………………..

 

Finally, late that night, everyone had trickled away until only Asuma, Kurenai and Tenzo were left, drinking sake in the living room and snacking on spring rolls. Kakashi slipped away to put Naruto to bed. He poured the drooping little boy into fuzzy orange footed pajamas with little foxes printed on them. He even pulled up the hood with the tiny felt ears in a fit of whimsy. (Kakashi had absolutely not purchased these pajamas; he was relatively certain Anko was to blame. She had a twisted sense of humor.)

 

Gingerly, feeling somewhat like holding a sleepy little boy was akin to handling an exploding tag, Kakashi rolled Naruto into bed and pulled the covers up over his pliant body. Pakkun hopped up and curled next to Naruto, while Bull snored thunderously from the corner.

 

“‘Kashi-san?” Naruto asked muzzily, pulling his stuffed frog closer. “Is this home?”

 

Kakashi put his hand over Naruto’s little foot, that feeling of pack rising in his chest again. “Yes,” Naruto-kun,” he said, his throat thick. “This is home now.”

 

“Good,” Naruto said with a sigh. “It’s nice. G’night, ‘Kashi-nii-san.”

 

Kakashi swallowed. Big brother. This was about more than protection, now. It was devotion. “Goodnight, Naruto. Sleep well...otouto.”

 

Chapter Text

There were a lot of things that Kakashi was expecting when he’d adopted a three year old boy. For one, he’d expected a considerable amount of inconvenience, which was certainly true. He couldn’t exactly run out for beers with Asuma whenever he felt like it, or accept ridiculous challenges from Gai that would take him away from the village. He’d also expected messes, and boy, he got them. For having never owned toys before, Naruto was a pro at leaving them absolutely everywhere, especially in the ideal place where a sleepy jounin could trip on them on his way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. There were some toys that felt sharper than shuriken when stepped on and how was that even possible?

 

However, that didn’t even begin to cover the shit that he hadn’t been expecting, and that was the sort of thing that tended to kick him in the ass.

 

For example, while he had heard before that small children could be a lot of trouble, he had no idea that that translated into “having the uncanny ability to get into absolutely everything.” Or maybe it was just this particular child, he wouldn’t be surprised. He certainly couldn’t picture Hyuuga Hinata crawling around forbidden places. Somehow, Naruto had gotten into the warded box of senbons under Kakashi’s bed, where he’d (somewhat stupidly, in hindsight) assumed they’d be safe. He had no idea how a child that couldn’t mould chakra yet could release a seal, but he was pretty sure that somewhere, Minato-sensei was very proud. And probably laughing his ass off at Kakashi’s consternation.

 

Kakashi had confiscated the senbons, made his first embarrassing parent/child trip to the hospital to have the poison from Naruto’s pricked finger neutralized, and then put everything deadly up on high shelves. He fervently hoped that Naruto wouldn’t learn how to wall walk in the near future, but he wouldn’t put it past the little squirt. The kid was wily. Kakashi supposed he should be grateful that Naruto had found his senbons and not his porn.

 

Another thing he really hadn’t counted on was how damaged Naruto was from his first three years of life. While he had known that Naruto hadn’t exactly been nurtured at the orphanage, what he slowly discovered after a few weeks of living with the boy brought out levels of anger in him that he hadn’t felt in, well. A long time.

 

First, there was the bathing thing, which had happened the day after they’d moved into the new house.

 

Naruto had been happily playing in a freshly cleared flowerbed in the backyard as Kakashi wrestled with an out of control rose bush that was intent on world domination. When he finally stopped, victorious albeit scratched to hell, he turned around to face his foster son. “Naruto,” he sighed, “how did you get so muddy so quickly? You’ve only been sitting there for ten minutes! And where did the water even come from to make the mud in the first place?” he asked, bewildered. Small children were even more resourceful than Anbu.

 

Naruto grinned up at Kakashi, unrepentant. There was dirt between his teeth and Kakashi really didn’t want to contemplate that one too much. “Dirt fun, ‘Kashi-nii-san! Come play!” he crowed.

 

“I already played plenty,” Kakashi said ruefully, glancing over at the bush that had almost defeated him. Mr. Ukki had certainly never treated him like this. He stepped to Naruto’s side, leaned over and checked on a dawning suspicion. “Yup, just as I thought. You even got mud in your ears. And is that an earthworm in your hair? Urgh.” Kakashi popped his back and groaned. “C’mon, it’s bath time.”

 

“Noooo,” Naruto whined, shrinking from Kakashi’s hands. “Don’t like baths!”

 

“Tough,” Kakashi said unsympathetically. “You look like something that’s oozed out of the Forest of Death. Now march.”

 

With the air of a martyr on the way to his doom, Naruto stood up from the flowerbed as slowly as possible, unfurling from his crouch as gradually as a budding flower. Kakashi watched admiringly. This kid was going to fuck with people for the fun of it when he got older, he was sure of it. But to his surprise, Naruto didn’t turn to go inside. Instead, he walked around the exterior of the house to the side yard. Kakashi followed him, curious. Was this a new form of passive resistance? Was he avoiding the bathroom by pretending like he didn’t remember where the door was?

 

Naruto stopped at a seemingly random spot and suddenly stiffened, pulling his elbows into his sides, closing his eyes tight, and holding his breath. “Naruto,” Kakashi asked patiently, holding back a laugh. “What are you doing?”

 

One of Naruto’s blue eyes opened and he looked at Kakashi impatiently. “Waiting for bath,” he said. Kakashi was sure that if he’d been a little bit older, the obvious duh would have immediately followed.

 

“This isn’t the bathroom,” Kakashi said, now genuinely confused. It was a sensation he was becoming uncomfortably familiar with the longer he was around small children.

 

Naruto didn’t bother to reply. Instead, he pointed to the garden hose beside him with a chubby finger, then hunched up again and held his breath.

 

Kakashi was a universally acknowledged genius, a prodigy, feared by one and all of Konoha’s enemies. It still took him a few seconds to process Naruto’s gesture. Then he understood, and drew in a hissing breath behind his mask. Those bastards at the orphanage had never given Naruto a bath. They’d sprayed him down with a hose.

 

Before he could process the movement, Kakashi had swooped down and scooped Naruto up in his arms, hugging the boy tightly to his chest, getting mud all over his front. Naruto squawked in surprise, but he never turned down affection. Kakashi had already learned that he was absolutely starved for it. Kakashi got a hold of himself and slowly pulled Naruto away so that he could look him straight in the eye.

 

“Naruto,” he said gravely, “You are in for quite the treat. Today, you are going to discover the wonder of bathtimes.”

 

And Naruto did. Muddy clothes, earthworm and all, Kakashi marched them to the nearest store and bought four kinds of bubble bath, sponges shaped like animals, little floating boats, and even a rubber duckie. He ignored the haughty sniffs of the sales staff at Naruto’s mud and kept piling things on the counter. Kakashi may not have had a normal childhood, but for the few years he’d had before service to the village had taken over his life, his dad had still done typical childhood things with him. Through a haze of bloodshed and death, he vaguely remembered swings and popsicles and long bubble baths, and Naruto was going to have the same experiences if it killed him.

 

When they got home, Kakashi filled up the tub with water that was just the right temperature. He dumped in an ungodly amount of blueberry scented bubble powder, frothed it all up with his hand for good measure, and popped a confused Naruto into the tub. He took in Naruto’s pleased face at the feel of the warm water and struggled to hold back his rage. It could wait.

 

It took the kid a few minutes to get with the program and Kakashi fervently hoped that nobody could see him pushing a bright green boat across the bubbly surface of the water as he taught Naruto how much fun baths could be. He’d also prefer it if the image of him squeaking the rubber duck died a quiet death.

 

As he watched Naruto slowly come around to all the possibilities a bath could bring, he was suddenly strongly reminded of when Akino had joined the pack. The dog had had a contract previously with an abusive shinobi who had run Akino ragged from the time he was a pup. When the shinobi was barred from having any further contact with nin animals, Pakkun had patiently convinced a wary Akino to sign on with Kakashi instead. The first time Kakashi summoned the pack and started tossing a stick with them, Akino had cowered and whined piteously. He didn’t know how to play. Between the pack and Kakashi, they had slowly brought Akino out of his shell. Now he was the first to run to grab a stick, but it had taken time.

 

While Naruto made burbling noises at his boats and quacked at the duckie, Kakashi gently shampooed his hair, smiling as it slowly became golden again instead of brown with mud. He piled bubbles high on Naruto’s head and the boy laughed with glee. Kakashi may or may not have stealthily taken a picture. He reasoned that he’d need blackmail material in the future, but that was a crap excuse. The kid was just really cute, okay?

 

Naruto looked wary again when Kakashi picked up a cup to rinse him off, and Kakashi just knew that an asshole had choked him on water at some point. He bit down his anger and slowly, carefully, ran warm water over Naruto’s head in a gentle stream, using a hand to cover the boy’s eyes. He let Naruto play until his fingers started to prune, then lifted him out of the tub, dried him off, and wrapped him up in a terry cloth yukata.

 

Naruto’s whole body relaxed against Kakashi’s as he sat down on the couch, and the trust in the room was tangible. “‘Kashi-nii-san?” Naruto mumbled, half-asleep.

 

“Hmm?” Kakashi hummed back, enjoying his clean scent and the surprisingly solid weight against his shoulder.

 

“Can we do baths like that next time, too? No hose?”

 

“You bet, kiddo. No more hose for you, ever again. Unless we decide to play with a sprinkler; that’s a whole different animal.” Reluctantly, he stood up from the couch and set Naruto on his feet. “C’mon, let’s go get some dinner. I think we’ve earned it after our busy day.” Naruto nodded and padded on bare feet toward the kitchen while Kakashi muttered under his breath, “And once you’re asleep, I’ll be having a friendly chat with the Hokage about his shitty excuse of an orphanage…”

 

………………………………………..

 

The next hurdle happened a week later, and thankfully Kakashi was on the alert, so he was slightly more prepared. He had given Naruto some sliced carrots with his lunch, and raised his visible eyebrow when he noticed Naruto just pushing them around the plate. “Naruto, eat your carrots,” he said mildly. “You’ll like them. They’re sweet. And orange!”

 

“Don’t like ‘em,” Naruto muttered mutinously, giving his carrots a fairly impressive stink-eye.  

 

He had learned by now that sometimes children didn’t like things simply because they didn’t like them. In general, though, Naruto was enthusiastic about absolutely everything he encountered, and he definitely could never be considered a picky eater. Kakashi couldn’t imagine why he wouldn’t be all over something that was both sweet and orange. “Why don’t you like carrots?” he asked, the back of his neck tingling.

 

Naruto looked up at Kakashi and pouted. “Because they ouch.”

 

Bingo. “Where do they ouch?”

 

Naruto opened his mouth wide and pointed directly at his tonsils. Despite the questionable anatomy, Kakashi got the idea. He peered into Naruto’s mouth and saw some definite black spots on the boy’s molars. This should be fun. “Naruto, have you ever been to the dentist?”

 

Naruto blinked and Kakashi groaned internally. Perfect. He’d be sending another strongly worded note to the Hokage, this one on the topic of childhood oral hygiene.

 

The next day, Kakashi was sitting in a dental waiting room watching a clearly nervous Naruto play with some blocks. He’d called on Umino Iruka the night before and gotten the name of a dentist that was known for being good with children. Iruka was working as a student teacher and seemed to know absolutely everyone in the village from either there or his work at the mission desk. Meeting Iruka had been a huge bonus, if only for the referrals alone. Not to mention that the wards he’d put into Kakashi’s fence had been both creative and deadly and kinda made Kakashi want to dirty, dirty things to him. He acknowledged a previously unknown capability kink and turned his attention back to the situation at hand.

 

A nurse came into the waiting room and called Naruto’s name. Kakashi had thought that he would stay in the waiting room while Naruto was treated, but then the kid had turned those damn watery blue eyes on him and just...ugh. He couldn’t. Kakashi put away his book regretfully, and followed the nurse back to an exam room, Naruto trotting anxiously behind him. He lifted Naruto up into the long dental chair and sat down beside him. Naruto looked at Kakashi, panic evident in every part of the kid’s body. “Don’t worry, Naruto,” Kakashi said, trying his best to sound soothing. “The dentist is nice and is going to help your teeth.”

 

Naruto whined pitifully, “My teeth. Mine.”

 

“Yes, they’re yours, and they still will be. The dentist is just going to help them ouch less.” Kakashi winced internally. He needed to spend some time around adults soon or he feared for his vocabulary. Naruto still looked highly suspicious, and Kakashi added desperately, “The dentist is like a tooth ninja! She’s going to hunt down all the bad guys that live in your teeth.”

 

Strangely, that reasoning seemed to work for Naruto, who calmed down and even managed not to come across as a wild animal when the dentist walked into the room. Iruka’s recommendation was proven to be a wise one as the dentist had obviously overheard Kakashi’s statement and was nice enough to play along. Her hands were gentle as she worked with Naruto and she explained everything she was doing in a calm, even voice, telling him all about the enemy shinobi that were living in his teeth and the “jutsu” she was using to put them in jail. Kakashi still ended up sitting in the exam chair and holding Naruto in his lap when the dentist had to use a drill, but he had honestly been expecting far, far worse. After all, he’d never been all that fond of the dentist himself.

 

They ended the day with a healthy, sleepy Naruto, who was looking at the plastic ring he’d been given as a reward for good behavior proudly. Once his teeth stopped hurting, he also became a carrot fiend, but Kakashi figured that that could only be a good thing.

 

……………………………….

 

The days and weeks flew by and soon, Naruto was turning four. Kakashi had been taking the odd mission here or there to keep his status as a shinobi active, generally leaving Naruto in the care of either Gai or Kurenai. He blamed Gai bitterly for the short but intense phase Naruto went through of proclaiming “Yosh!” loudly every ten seconds, but in general Naruto did well with his temporary caregivers. Once he turned five, though, it would be time for the boy to enter the temple school, and Kakashi wasn’t nearly as sanguine at that turn of events. School meant other children and worse, their parents.

 

A good portion of the village still treated Naruto with suspicion and fear, although a lot of that shit had died down once Kakashi had adopted him. Nobody messed around with Sharingan No Kakashi if they could help it. The first time that Kakashi had taken Naruto to the park and parents starting gathering their children to them like there was a rabid dog on the loose, Kakashi had planted himself in front of Naruto, whistling and sharpening his deadliest looking tanto. The message was received and ever since then, everyone had mostly acted like human beings.

 

Still, despite the fact that no one was openly abusive to Naruto, there was still a lot of petty unkindness. The worst offenders were other children. Kakashi knew they were picking up on their parents’ feelings, because children weren’t naturally unkind. They had to be taught to be that way. Kakashi didn’t want to throw Naruto to the sharks if he could help it, so he started making a concerted effort to take Naruto the park often, so that he could adjust to other children before he started school. Perhaps if the village kids saw Naruto playing normally, they would accept him. It’s hard to be mean to a boy that you play hide and seek with on a regular basis.

 

On a particularly beautiful day, Kakashi was at the park with Naruto. He was sitting on a bench peacefully reading a book with Pakkun at his feet while Naruto built towers and hills in the sandbox. Kakashi glanced up at some movement on his right and saw Uchiha Itachi entering the park with his little brother, Sasuke, at his side. Itachi waved when he saw Kakashi and came over to sit beside him on the bench. “Kakashi-senpai, how are you?” he asked warmly while keeping an eye on his brother, who was swarming over the jungle gym.

 

“Maa, Itachi-san, you don’t have to call me that anymore,” Kakashi said lazily. He gestured at Naruto. “I’m not your captain. I’m just here with the kid.”

 

Itachi smiled. “Speaking of which, Naruto looks well; healthy and happy. You’ve done an excellent job with him. I know it can’t have been easy for you.”

 

“Harder than an S-class mission on some days,” Kakashi admitted wryly with a shrug of his shoulders. “But it’s worth it. He’s a good kid. He just needed some attention.”

 

His eyes gleaming, Itachi said, “Being a big brother is the most fulfilling relationship I’ve ever had. I’m glad you get to experience it, Kakashi-senpai. Come to think of it, you look happy too.”

 

“Shut up,” Kakashi grumbled. “I have to maintain my cool and aloof persona.”

 

They both watched as a bored Sasuke jumped off the jungle gym and eeled his way over to the sandbox, looking askance at the other boy already sitting there. Naruto peered up and asked brightly, “Wanna play?” while temptingly waving a red shovel.

 

In the age old tradition of childhood, Sasuke responded, “Sure,” and boom. Instant friendship. The two boys were soon engrossed in building a whole town of sand towers and Kakashi and Itachi both surreptitiously took pictures to document the cute.  

 

The moment was interrupted by shrill screeching coming from two small girls a short distance away. Kakashi glanced over and saw one little girl, obviously a Yamanaka judging by the blonde hair and pupil-less eyes, fighting with another little girl with pink hair and a surprisingly broad forehead. Kakashi looked around, but he didn’t see any adults that obviously belonged to the girls, so no one was breaking up the quickly escalating fight. He sighed. When had the parental instinct become so ingrained? He motioned to Pakkun to keep an eye on Naruto, then mosied over to the altercation that showed sure signs of turning violent soon. “Maa, what’s all the screaming about?” he asked, speaking just loudly enough to be heard over the yelling.

 

Both girls froze and blinked up at Kakashi, looking slightly intimidated. After only a brief moment of silence, though, they started screaming at once, just at him instead of each other. Kakashi saw Pakkun huff and put his paws over his ears at the decibel they were reaching and fervently agreed. Kakashi gave a loud whistle and the girls stopped screaming again. “One at a time,” he said pleasantly. “And speak quietly. You’re going to deafen someone.”

 

The Yamanaka sniffed. “Stupid Sakura Forehead thinks Sasuke-kun likes her more than me. It’s not true. He’s mine!”

 

“He does so like me more, Ino-pig!” the pink haired girl screamed, her face as red as her dress.

 

“Let me get this straight,” Kakashi said, incredulous that he had been reduced to this. He had been Anbu! He was fierce and deadly and terrifying! “You two are screaming at each other over who a boy likes more. A boy, I might add, that is not even looking at you, but playing with someone else entirely. Is that right?”

 

The girls looked ashamed and the one named Sakura had the grace to scuff her feet. “Yes,” she admitted unwillingly. “But Ino broke the rules! I liked Sasuke first, so he’s mine!”

 

Kakashi sighed and crouched down to their level. “How long have you two been friends?”

 

The Yamanaka looked up. “I dunno. Forever.”

 

“Forever is a long time,” Kakashi said. He put a hand on each of their shoulders. “Listen, kids. People who break the rules are scum. But you know what’s worse than scum?” The girls shook their heads. “People who betray their friends. And that’s what you’re doing right now. You’re betraying your friendship to each other by getting all worked up over a boy. Does that seem like a smart thing to do? The shinobi thing to do?”

 

“No,” the girls said hesitantly, glancing at each other.

 

“Exactly. You girls have plenty of time to worry about boys. Now isn’t that time. Do you really want to lose each other as friends over something this silly?” He looked at the Yamanaka. “Ino? Do you want to stop being friends with Sakura?”

 

She looked stricken. “Of course not! Sakura-chan is my best friend in the entire world!”

 

He turned to Sakura. “What about you, Sakura? Do you not want to be friends with Ino anymore because of Sasuke?”

 

“No!” Sakura screamed, tears rolling down her face. “I would miss her too much!”

 

“Then it’s all settled,” Kakashi said, standing back up. “Let Sasuke be Sasuke. You two are best friends and that’s much more important.” He turned and walked back to his bench, leaving behind two little girls that hugged, then moved away to start picking flowers together.

 

“Nicely handled,” Itachi said under his breath as Kakashi sat down again.

 

Kakashi grunted and turned his attention to Naruto. Much as he liked Itachi, he wasn’t the Uchiha he wanted sitting beside him right now. Obito’s eye ached for the first time in a long while and he fought down the urge to rub it. Instead, Kakashi turned his attention back to Naruto, who was helping Sasuke stabilize a wobbly sand tower. It helped.

 

…………………………………………………………………..

 

When Naruto was almost five, the festival of Obon came around again. Kakashi hadn’t taken Naruto to any festivals yet, wanting the people of Konoha to become used to seeing the two of them together first. This quiet time seemed like a good place to start.

 

Two weeks before, Anko had come back from a mission to the Land of Tea bearing a box that she awkwardly shoved into Kakashi’s arms. She growled, “Not a word, Hound,” before promptly scurrying away towards the dango shop. Kakashi opened the box and found a child sized silk kimono tucked between layers of tissue paper inside. It was dark blue with a gorgeous orange sunset on the back and he knew that Naruto would squeal happily over it. He doubted that Naruto had ever owned anything so nice, considering the rags he’d worn back in the orphanage.

 

The day of the festival, Kakashi put aside his jounin uniform and carefully dressed in one of his father’s kimonos. It was dark red with white lightning bolts embroidered along the cuffs and hem and it still smelled of his father’s favorite eucalyptus incense. Once he was ready, he corralled Naruto and helped the boy into his own new kimono, despite Naruto’s many protests that he, “could do it by myself, Kakashi-nii-san!” Once he was finished, he showed Naruto their reflections in the bathroom mirror. Naruto gasped. “We look awesome! Don’t we, nii-san?”

 

Kakashi nodded. Yes, he supposed that they did look pretty awesome. He stood up and held out his hand to Naruto, already uncomfortably aware of the fact that Naruto might not want to hold his hand for too much longer. “Come on, otouto. There’s lots to do and see.”

 

“And eat!” Naruto added gleefully.

 

First they visited the memorial, which was a very busy place during Obon. He and Naruto made their bows and stood in silence for a moment. Kakashi had brought Naruto here several times before and the boy was always quiet and respectful. They left fairly quickly, wanting to make space for the people that hadn’t gotten to pay their respects yet. They wandered over to the park where food booths and a dancing platform were set up, and Kakashi bought himself and Naruto some treats to snack on as they walked around.

 

Asuma and Kurenai came over and greeted them, Asuma flicking away his cigarette hastily at Kakashi’s dark look of censure. Kakashi noted the too-careful distance between the two shinobi and smirked behind his mask. Asuma rolled his eyes and turned his attention to Naruto, who was proudly showing Kurenai his new kimono. “And it’s brand new and it’s all for me!” the boy cried. “Believe it!”

 

“I do believe it,” Kurenai said with a laugh. “You look very handsome, Naruto.” As one, the group moved over to the small stage where the Bon Odori dance was being performed. Kakashi nodded at Gai, who shot him back a thumb’s up, then flicked his gaze to a nearby rooftop where he could feel Tenzo watching the dancers from behind his Cat mask. With Naruto at his side and his friends surrounding him, Kakashi felt more at peace during this festival than he usually did. He didn’t feel alone.

 

Later, Naruto and Kakashi made their way to the graveyard, which had a river flowing through it. They found a secluded bend in the river and Kakashi knelt, drawing Naruto down with him. He produced two paper lanterns and swiftly folded them together. “Do you know what these represent, Naruto?” he asked quietly as he worked.

 

Naruto cocked his head like a curious puppy. “Represent?”

 

“What they stand for,” Kakashi clarified. “Once we light them, these lanterns represent the souls of our families and friends, the ones that have gone before us. There’s one for you and one for me. When I light mine, I think of my father, my mother, my sensei, and my teammates.”

 

Tears filled Naruto’s blue eyes. “But I don’t have a family, other than you, Kakashi-nii-san. And I don’t want you to die!”

 

Kakashi’s heart ached and he reached out and pulled Naruto into his side. “Lighting this lantern doesn’t mean I’m going to die, Naruto. And you do have a family.” Flipping the bird at his mental image of the Sandaime and his moronic edicts, Kakashi continued. “My sensei was your father, Naruto-kun. He was a very kind man, wise, and one of the strongest shinobi I’ve ever known. He could appear out of nowhere in a flash, like that!” He snapped his fingers and Naruto giggled, entranced. “Your mother...well. Your mother had the worst temper in the world to go with her red hair, but she loved your father and you very much. I remember she used to make these incredible peanut butter cookies, and she’d sneak them into our packs before all our missions.”

 

Naruto grinned and snuggled closer. “I like peanut butter cookies, too!”

 

“Yes, you share that with your mother. And your temper!” he said, flicking Naruto in the nose playfully. “They never wanted to leave you, Naruto. You should always try and remember that they loved you and they wanted the best for you.”

 

“But...but what happened to them, Kakashi-nii-san?” Naruto asked, his voice trembling.

 

Kakashi sighed. “That’s a story for another day. And you can’t talk about them to anyone else, okay, Naruto? I’ll tell you about them, but they have to stay between us. They’re our secret.”

 

“Okay,” Naruto agreed easily. Kakashi knew that it wouldn’t always be that way, but he took the win wherever he could. Using a weak fire jutsu, Kakashi carefully lit the wicks in both the lanterns. He handed the smaller one to Naruto and led him over to the river’s edge. “Put the boat down on the water and think of your family,” Kakashi instructed softly. “Think of your love for them, and know of their love for you. Then tell them goodbye for now, but that you’ll see them again next year.”

 

Naruto nodded and then carefully set the lantern down. He smiled and started speaking to it. “Hi, mom and dad. Dad, I’m glad that you were so cool and such an awesome ninja. Mom, thank you for liking peanut butter cookies and being nice to Kakashi-nii-san. He takes good care of me.” Kakashi started at that, but stayed quiet. “I like living with him, you know. He’s nice to me and gives me carrots and is never, ever mean or hits me when I forget to put away my toys. So, you don’t have to worry about me.” Leaning down, Naruto brushed a kiss across the top of the lantern. “I love you, mom and dad. See you next year.” Gingerly, he pushed his lantern away so that it entered the slow moving water.

 

Kakashi smiled and bent his head over his lantern. He thought of his father, the mistakes he’d made and the price he’d paid for it. He thought of his mother, the warmth he remembered feeling in her arms when he was even smaller than Naruto. He remembered Minato with his wise understanding and Kushina with her fiery passion, and thanked them for the gift of their son. He sent his regret and love to Obito and Rin, and hoped that they were together and happy. Then he pushed his lantern out to join Naruto’s, and they watched as the flickering lights slowly faded away to the gentle sound of the water.

 

Silently, Kakashi and Naruto made their way out of the graveyard and back into the streets of Konoha. As they walked, Kakashi glanced down and saw that Naruto was looking at another family longingly. A father and mother were walking side by side, their little son sitting on the father’s shoulders. Kakashi stopped, reached down, and picked up Naruto and placed the boy on his own shoulders, his eyes crinkling at the sound of Naruto’s happy crow. He couldn’t be Naruto’s parents; they were irreplaceable. But he could hold Naruto up in his own way.

 

Together they walked home, Naruto safe and the evening still.

Chapter Text

Kakashi had experienced a pretty screwed up childhood. It was something that had taken him a long time to realize, because his father had been loving and his sensei was kind. He hadn’t been hit in anger or treated badly, so technically, his childhood had been a good one...right? After some careful thought, though, and after having taken on the responsibility of raising Naruto, he started seeing cracks in his memories.

 

When he was growing up, he couldn’t understand why all the other children around him were so slow and...and silly , for lack of a better term . After all, he was a genin while most of his peers were just beginning their training at the Academy. His father had taught him taijutsu from the moment he could crawl. He was more comfortable with shuriken than he was with chopsticks. He killed his first man when he was six and vividly remembered walking home while children his own age played tag in the schoolyard.

 

He’d been proud of that. He was a shinobi of Konoha, trusted with the lives of his comrades. He was important, a prodigy, a credit to his village and clan. He had worth.

 

With distance and time, he realized that while his father and teachers may have had the best of intentions, what they had done amounted to some form of abuse. He understood that they rationalized his meteoric rise as being due to the war, but he and his talents had been taken advantage of, pure and simple. He’d never been allowed to simply be a child. He was a weapon to be used and discarded if necessary.

 

Kakashi was determined not to do the same by Naruto, but the problem was that he wasn’t sure how to avoid it. The only childhood he was familiar with was his own, and possibly Gai’s, and neither of them were shining examples of normalcy. When he considered his other close friends, it didn’t get much better. Anko had been experimented on by a Sannin and subsequently connected with snakes better than she did with people. Tenzo had been literally grown in a fucking jar, and Itachi, well. Itachi came from a loving, “normal” family and he was still an Anbu assassin before his voice had changed.

 

Privately, Kakashi had quite a few concerns over child-rearing principles in a shinobi village. Things needed to change, and he knew that the best place to start was in his own home. But how?

 

Casting about desperately, Kakashi finally landed on a solution: he would simply copy everything Nara Shikaku did. Shikaku was an unmitigated badass, but Kakashi had observed him carefully and knew that Shakiku treated his son as more than just another soldier in the making. He saw Shikamaru as something precious, something to be nurtured. Shikaku prepared his child for the future, but he didn’t push. Despite Shikamaru’s more troubling tendencies to waste entire days watching clouds and moaning about work, the kid seemed well adjusted and happy. When Shikaku signed his son up for temple school at the age of five, Kakashi confidently did the same for Naruto.

 

He also may or may not have broken into the school office to ensure that the two boys would be placed in the same class, as well as guaranteeing that a certain ponytailed teacher would be their sensei. Kakashi didn’t even bother to feel guilty about it. He knew Iruka would be moved to teach at the Academy as soon as there was an available spot on the faculty, and he wanted Iruka to be Naruto’s teacher for as long as possible. That way, Kakashi knew he wouldn’t have to put up with any narrow minded bullshit about Naruto’s being a jinchuuriki. Iruka’s parents had been killed by the Kyuubi, but to his credit, he had never seemed to view Naruto as being anything other than a very enthusiastic little boy. He could be exasperated, but never cruel.

 

Not to mention that Iruka being Naruto’s teacher would surely be good for at least a few parent/teacher conferences. Oh, the possibilities...

 

Actually, having Naruto in school for a couple of hours each day would free Kakashi up for his latest projects, the first of which was to train his Mangekyou Sharingan. He hadn’t messed around with it much since Rin’s death had awakened it, firstly because he was busy with Anbu and couldn’t afford to be chakra depleted, and then because of Naruto. He wasn’t one hundred percent sure what his eye could do and the last place he wanted to figure it out was in front of a small child. He was also planning to add another ninken to the pack, and that ate up some of his time as they all learned to work together.

 

On Naruto’s first day of school, Kakashi got up early and packed a bento box with fresh grilled fish and steamed rice, along with a veritable mountain of carrot sticks. Naruto’s bento box had little frogs stamped all over it and Kakashi had surreptitiously bought another for himself with dogs on it. (One of the best parts of being a parent was the merchandise. The worst part was that he couldn’t read Icha Icha in public at will anymore.) He prodded Naruto awake (which was unfairly difficult, the kid slept like the dead), got him dressed and herded him out the door.

 

Hand in hand, Kakashi led Naruto the short distance to the temple school connected to the Academy, Naruto chattering the whole way about all the friends he was going to make and the things he was going to learn. Kakashi just listened and made the appropriate noises in the few pauses in the conversation, content to see Naruto’s excitement. He kept his worries about Naruto’s reception from the other students to himself.

 

They got to Naruto’s classroom and Kakashi went to the trouble to look shocked that Iruka was standing in front of the blackboard. “Why, Iruka-sensei! You’re going to be Naruto’s teacher? What a surprise!” he gushed, blinking guilessly.

 

Iruka walked forward with an sardonic smile. “Yes, isn’t it?” he said with an expression on his face that totally called Kakashi on his shit. “Up until last week, I had been assigned to class C, but then all of a sudden I had class B instead. Some mix-up in the paperwork, no doubt.”

 

“No doubt,” Kakashi echoed, his one visible eye a happy arch. He turned to Naruto. “Look, Naruto, Iruka-sensei is going to be your teacher. Isn’t that great?”

 

In typical Naruto fashion, the boy flung himself into Iruka’s arms with a happy squeal and Kakashi didn’t bother to intercept him. Iruka looked like he could use hugs sometimes, and Kakashi wasn't at the point where he could offer to give them himself. Yet. “Um, Naruto, I think you’re supposed to bow to your teacher, not tackle him,” Kakashi drawled.

 

“We’ll work on that,” Iruka gasped, the wind knocked out of him. He did, however, return Naruto’s hug for a minute before gently pushing him away and turning back to Kakashi. “Naruto’s desk is in the second row. Get him settled and then get out, Hatake-san. We have a lot to do today and I don’t have time to coddle weepy first time parents.” He smiled to take the sting out of his words.

 

Kakashi sketched a casual salute and did as he was told. It only took a minute to show Naruto where to stow his bento box and get him seated properly at his new desk, pen and ink at the ready. “Okay, otouto, be good for Iruka-sensei and learn as much as you can,” Kakashi instructed, trying desperately to sound responsible and adult in front of a smirking Iruka. “I’ll be back to pick you up this afternoon. If something happens and I can’t make it, either Gai or Kurenai will be here for you.”

 

“Okay, nii-san!” Naruto chirped. His grin grew even wider when he saw Sasuke being escorted into the classroom by a clearly proud Itachi. Kakashi frowned, wondering where the boy’s parents were. “Sasuke-kun!” Naruto bellowed while gesturing wildly at the desk beside him, “sit here! Come sit with me!”

 

“Naruto,” Kakashi sighed, exchanging a glance with Itachi, “being good means attempting to be quiet.”

 

“Oh,” Naruto said, paying absolutely no attention to Kakashi. He was too busy watching Sasuke obediently make his way over to the desk beside him.

 

Kakashi shook his head and left the classroom, passing Shikaku and Shikamaru in the hallway as he left. Shikaku looked at Kakashi sharply, but merely heaved a deep sigh and kept walking. Kakashi grinned behind his mask, delighted that Shikaku had clearly seen through his shenanigans with the classroom assignments, but obviously didn’t care enough to do anything about it. That likely meant that Shikaku wouldn’t stand in the way of any friendship between the boys that might develop. Naruto could do worse than to be allies with the son of the jounin commander.

 

When Kakashi picked Naruto up that afternoon, his covered eye aching from the strain of training with it, Naruto spent the entire walk back telling Kakashi every tidbit from his day. Apparently, Iruka-sensei was the best teacher in the entire world, Naruto could already draw two kanji and count to twenty, Choji could eat even more than Naruto, Shikamaru fell asleep at his desk…

 

Kakashi listened carefully, but Naruto never mentioned that anyone had been unkind to him. Maybe everything would be alright, after all.

 

………………….

 

Kakashi had spoken too soon. Fuck.

 

He’d been working a leisurely shift at the jounin staff roof (which basically just involved playing cards and shooting the shit with whoever else was on call, which today was Asuma) when he’d received a message to go immediately to Naruto’s school, specifically to the infirmary. The genin that had delivered the message gasped as Kakashi body flickered away with an aggressive pop. Asuma just sighed and started gathering up the papers that had been scattered by Kakashi’s wind, his expression worried.

 

Kakashi landed in front of the infirmary, heard shouting coming from inside, and burst through the door prepared for battle. The first thing he saw was a forlorn Naruto sitting on an exam table, his legs twitching restlessly in the air. He had a bruised eye that was already turning black and a cut on his arm that was slowly oozing blood. Naruto was obviously trying to be brave, but was rapidly losing the battle judging from the tremble of his bottom lip.

 

At least the yelling was coming from a friendly souce. Iruka was standing with his feet spread apart in a fighting stance, his hands on hips, shouting at another teacher. Kakashi didn’t recognize the man from his earlier reconnaissance of the school, which made him nervous. The teacher was standing protectively in front of another student that looked to be at least nine years old, far too old to still be enrolled at the temple school.

 

“What happened here?” Kakashi barked, already reaching for Naruto. The boy gave up the battle to be stoic and leapt into Kakashi’s arms, choking on sobs.

 

Iruka’s shoulders relaxed with Kakashi’s entrance, while the other teacher took in the expression on the jounin’s face and started to look very, very nervous. “I assume you are Uzumaki Naruto’s guardian, then?” he said haughtily, obviously having decided to try to bluster his way through the situation.

 

“You assume right,” Kakashi growled. “Now somebody had better tell me why the fuck my kid is hurt and fast.” He pried Naruto away from his chest just enough to get a hand on Naruto’s injured arm and run chakra over the cut. The bleeding stopped immediately and the line turned pale pink with the healing jutsu. Naruto’s sobs softened a little, but he still shuddered hard enough to rattle Kakashi’s teeth. Worried that the boy was going into shock, Kakashi held him even closer to his chest for warmth.

 

“This is all being blown way out of proportion,” the other teacher said, ignoring Iruka’s derisive snort. “The children had a playground argument, nothing to be concerned about, it happens all the time…”

 

“Respectfully, that’s bull and I plan to tell the principal the same thing,” Iruka cut in, his brown eyes blazing. “I’ll even take it to the Hokage if I need to. I saw the whole thing and it was no simple playground tussel. Your student is a pre-genin at the Academy, for crying out loud! He climbed the wall between the two schools, dropped down, and went right for Naruto.” Iruka turned to Kakashi and addressed him instead of his fellow teacher. “This boy pulled Naruto off the swings and started hitting him. Naruto had been playing nicely with his own classmates the whole time. He wasn’t bothering anyone and certainly couldn’t have provoked a fight.”

 

Kakashi felt killing intent start spilling from him and didn’t bother to fight it down. He turned to the older student, who was standing sullenly against the wall. “You,” he spat, “what’s your name?”

 

“Fukuda Kaito,” the boy said unwillingly.

 

“Okay, Fukuda Kaito,” Kakashi snarled. “Why did you attack Naruto? What could he have possibly done to you?”

 

“It’s because of what he is!” the student retorted, as if it should be obvious. “He’s a monster and he shouldn’t be allowed out in public!”

 

“Enough!” Iruka roared, bravely putting himself between Kakashi and Kaito. “That’s not true, Fukuda-san. Naruto is a boy, just like you. He’s never hurt anyone, despite what you may have heard elsewhere.”

 

The older student rolled his eyes and Iruka put his hand on Kakashi’s arm to keep him from lunging forward. “Whatever you may think, we cannot have fighting here,” Iruka continued, more quietly. “Fukuda-san, you have acted dishonorably in attacking a fellow student, especially one that is so much younger than you. You will be punished. Please wait in the hallway with your teacher while I contact your parents. Your principal is already on his way.”

 

“Whatever,” the kid said rudely as he shoved his way out of the door. “My dad will be proud of me. I don’t care what you do. It was worth it.”

 

Kakashi thought seriously about beating the utter crap out of the kid and whatever misbegotten father he had, but he was distracted by Naruto saying softly, “Kakashi-nii-san, my eye hurts, too.”

 

“Sorry, otouto,” Kakashi apologized, getting himself under control. He ran a glowing hand over Naruto’s purpling eye as the other teacher let himself out of the office as well, looking relieved at his escape.

 

Iruka stepped closer and rubbed Naruto’s back soothingly. “I’m sorry it hurts, Naruto-kun,” the teacher said sympathetically, scanning Naruto’s limbs with sharp eyes. “Are you in pain anywhere else?”

 

Naruto shook his head, seemingly too upset for words. Kakashi knew how he felt. “Do you need us for anything else?” Kakashi asked Iruka, wanting to get Naruto home where he felt safe.

 

Iruka shook his head. “No, I’ll handle it from here. The principal won’t need to talk to Naruto, just me. I’m so sorry this happened, Kakashi-san. I should have stopped it before it started, but I couldn’t get there fast enough. A child should never be hurt on my watch. I promise that nothing like this will happen again.”

 

“No, it won’t,” Kakashi said. “I’ll see to that. But you’re not the one to blame, Iruka-sensei, so don’t apologize. I appreciate everything you’ve done for Naruto. We’ll talk more later.”

 

A polite knock came on the door and Iruka opened it. Shikamaru was standing there, holding Naruto’s school bag and bento box. He looked up at Naruto in Kakashi’s arms, his dark eyes open wide and missing nothing. He looked like his father. “I thought Naruto might be going home, Iruka-sensei, so I brought these,” he said in explanation, holding out his burdens. “Is he going to be okay?”

 

“Yes, Shikamaru-kun, so don’t worry,” Kakashi said, dredging up a smile for the boy. “You’ll see him back in class tomorrow. Now please excuse us, I need to get him home.” Kakashi juggled Naruto into one arm and took the bags with his other hand. He nodded at Iruka and body flickered away.

 

Shikamaru gazed up at Iruka. “Why would a big kid go after Naruto like that, Iruka-sensei?” he asked, looking as if he was trying to solve a difficult math problem. “He didn’t do anything to hurt him.”

 

Iruka rested his hand on Shikamaru’s shoulder and sighed. “No, he didn’t. Sometimes there’s more going on in a person’s life than we know, Shikamaru-kun, and we should try to be understanding. However, nothing excuses violence like that, especially against a comrade.”

 

Frowning deeply, Shikamaru said quietly, “I’ve never seen Naruto like that before. He’s always happy. It’s usually troublesome, but I think a sad Naruto will be even more troublesome. He’s not built for moping.”

 

Iruka tried his best not to smile. “You’re right, he’s not that kind of person. Tomorrow, I think we should all try to be Naruto’s friend until he he’s happy again.”

 

Shikamaru nodded solemnly and left to go back to the classroom, his face creased in thought.

 

……………………...

 

That night, after Naruto had been fed, bathed and put to bed, Kakashi stepped into the backyard and breathed deeply, his hands clenching. The primal part of his soul that knew that Naruto was more than family, was pack , wanted nothing more than to track down that asshole of a kid and mete out some justice.

 

Not for the first time, he thought that Minato-sensei had done a very cruel thing to his son, in making him a vessel for the Kyuubi. He’d set Naruto up for a lifetime of hatred and pain.

 

Pakkun padded out of the house and sat down at Kakashi’s feet, whining softly. “You better tamp down on that killing intent, boss, before you get dragged off to see Ibiki. I’m sure all the Anbu from here to Sand can sense you,” he said, scratching his ear with his hind leg.

 

“Aren’t you supposed to be with Naruto?” Kakashi asked severely, glaring down at his second.

 

“Bull’s with him,” Pakkun answered. “Besides, I’ve been deputized to speak with you.”

 

“About what?” Kakashi said, paying only half his attention to Pakkun. The other half was busy making plans for breaking into the Hokage’s files to find out where the Fukuda family lived. He was brought sharply back to the present by Pakkun nipping his ankle. “Hey! What was that for?” he yelped, rubbing the sore spot.

 

“Pay attention to me,” Pakkun growled with a huff. “I don’t like biting you, you taste like saury and regret. We have an idea on how to help the kid.”

 

That grabbed Kakashi’s attention. “Really? What?”

 

“It’s pretty obvious,” Pakkun said slowly, as if he despaired of Kakashi’s intelligence. “Somebody needs to protect the pup until he learns how to take care of himself. You can’t be with him all the time. He’s gonna get killed one of these days by one of those feline-fuckers that think he’s nothing but a demon if we don’t do something about it first.”

 

Kakashi made an impatient gesture with his hand, still not understanding what Pakkun was getting at. Pakkun sighed and said, “Get the pup his own ninken. You’re already about to add Guruko to the pack. Why don’t we check at the same time and see if there’s anybody willing to be Naruto’s partner? He’s old enough to sign the contract if you help him with the chakra part.”

 

Kakashi nodded slowly, thinking it through. The more he considered it, the more he liked Pakkun’s idea. Inuzuka Kiba was in Naruto’s class, so there was already precedent in place. Kiba was working with one of his mother’s older ninkin, and would be given his own partner dog once he graduated to pre-genin. Kakashi knew that Iruka wouldn’t mind Naruto having a summons with him in the classroom.

 

A ninken would protect Naruto while also being a constant friend, something Naruto could definitely use, if today was any indication. Naruto may have made inroads with children his own age and with Kakashi’s fellow jounin, but that still left a large proportion of Konoha that resented him. If a mere pre-genin was willing to climb a wall and attack Naruto in broad daylight, in full view of several teachers, what could other people be planning? Kakashi’s paranoia reared its ugly head and he resolved to do some spying around Konoha before he took the time to mess around with his Sharingan again.

 

“Okay,” Kakashi finally said. “It’s a good idea.”

 

“Try not to sound so surprised,” Pakkun grumbled as he stalked back into the house. Kakashi had a feeling that most, if not all, of the ninken would be curled up on Naruto’s floor tonight, not in Kakashi’s bedroom as they usually did. They had all been angry when they’d smelled blood when Kakashi had brought the boy home, and he had been hard put to keep them from setting out to hunt.

 

…………………..

 

The next morning Kakashi was standing at the stove stirring a pot of miso soup when Naruto wandered in yawning, gingerly worrying at his eye. It was still a little red and puffy from the day before, so Kakashi left the stove, sat Naruto down at the kotatsu, and ran his hand over it again.

 

“Nii-san,” Naruto said timidly as Kakashi worked, “is what that boy said yesterday true? Am I a monster?”

 

“No,” Kakashi said, with more vehemence than he’d really intended. Naruto shrank back and Kakashi cursed himself for frightening him. “No,” he said gently as he crouched down in front of Naruto. “You are not a monster, Naruto. What that boy said was wrong. He was angry and confused and was talking about things that he doesn’t understand. Okay?”

 

“No,” Naruto whimpered as a tear slid down his cheek. “It’s not just him. Other people call me that, too. They whisper at me in the street and in the store. They say I’m a demon, that I’ve killed people. I don’t remember ever killing people.”

 

Kakashi swore to keep an even closer eye on Naruto when they were in public in the future.

“That’s because you haven’t, so put it out of your mind.” The boy looked at him skeptically and Kakashi sighed. “Naruto, do you trust me?”

“Of course I do!” Naruto cried.

 

“Then trust me when I say that you’re not a monster or a demon. I know you don’t understand right now, but I promise it’ll all make sense someday. You’re a great kid and you’re my otouto. That’s all you need to know. Got it?”

 

Naruto nodded, wiping his cheek. Kakashi squeezed his shoulder and went back to the stove. “I was thinking,” he said a few minutes later as Naruto slurped down his breakfast. “After school this afternoon, why don’t we have your very first taijutsu lesson? I think it’s time we got started.”

 

“Yeah!” Naruto cheered, punching the air with his fist. “I want to be a real ninja, just like you!”

 

“No, you don’t,” Kakashi muttered under his breath, and forced himself to only wash his hands once.

 

Even though Kakashi trusted Iruka implicitly as Naruto’s teacher, he still found a tree that looked over the temple school and Academy grounds and unashamedly spied on Naruto’s class throughout the day. He pretended to read his Icha Icha while constantly checking the chakra of all the people nearby. A particularly handy jutsu let him listen in to Iruka’s classroom and he found that he enjoyed Iruka’s creative description of chakra points. He couldn’t remember any of his teachers being that interesting. He might have stuck around in school longer if he had.

 

During the class’s lunch break, he noted that several of the children closed rank around Naruto, as if they were guarding him. Shikamaru gazed blankly up at the sky, but made sure to face the wall that the pre-genin had climbed the day before at all times. Sasuke had a senbon hidden in his sandal, obviously thinking himself to be terribly clever; Kakashi would bet money that Itachi had given him that senbon. Choji gave Naruto a cupcake, saying that his mother had packed too many for him to eat by himself. Kakashi snorted. An Akimichi couldn’t pack too many cupcakes, it was practically a bloodline limit.

 

Suddenly a commotion coming from the schoolyard of the Academy grabbed Kakashi’s attention, and he turned to see what all the fuss was about. A...creature, for lack of a better term, burst out of the main doors, howling. Kakashi cocked his head as he tried to process what he was seeing. What appeared to be a giant chicken was running around the schoolyard, screeching and cursing and shedding feathers with every step. Finally, Kakashi realized that the mutant poultry was none other than Fukuda Kaito. The pre-genin had been covered in black paint and white feathers and seemed to be feeling incredibly irate about the situation.

 

Kakashi heard chuckling and looked down. To his surprise, Iruka was standing on a lower branch of the tree, peacefully watching the show. He cut his eyes up at Kakashi and said slyly, “I don’t like bullies and I especially don’t like cowards. Now all of Fukuda Kaito’s friends see what a chicken he is, to have attacked a child. I doubt they’ll ever let him forget it.” Then, with a wink that made Kakashi’s heart beat faster, Iruka calmly strode back to his students.

 

Kakashi watched as the teacher left, dumbfounded, then burst out laughing so hard he was in danger of having an accident.

 

……………..

 

Over the next few weeks, Kakashi slowly and methodically taught Naruto how to defend himself. He spent a good deal of time on the fundamentals; Naruto had a tendency towards clumsiness, and he learned best by concentrating on one thing, then repeating it over and over again until it was mastered. Kakashi wanted to make sure that he was solid on the basics before he moved to the more difficult forms of taijutsu. He did, however, teach Naruto some of the quick and dirty stuff, maneuvers that would keep him alive in a tight spot. Naruto loved every minute of their lessons, although it was always a battle to get him to focus. Once he started seeing results, though, Naruto worked harder than anyone Kakashi had ever known, including Gai. If he kept training like this, Kakashi would have no fears when he eventually went into the field.

 

As Naruto improved, Kakashi started to take him into the forest for further training. After all, Naruto would be a shinobi of the Leaf, and the trees were their home. They trained in all kinds of weather and temperatures as the year passed, and Kakashi looked forward to the day when he could start teaching Naruto how to tree and water walk.

 

On one occasion, they were caught in a violent storm, too far away from the village to make it back before the storm broke. Kakashi was worried that Naruto would be frightened by the flashes of lightning and the loud booms of thunder, but he’d obviously forgotten just who he was dealing with. Instead of being afraid, Naruto laughed in delight and cheered on the storm, standing on a low branch clutching Kakashi’s leg for balance. Kakashi smiled and rested his hand on Naruto’s head as the rain poured down his back. He felt clean.

 

Despite his leaps and bounds with taijutsu, Naruto had too much chakra from the Kyuubi to work with it easily. Kakashi knew that that would be an uphill battle for him. He was having enough trouble learning how to draw chakra into his hand, let alone mould it into anything useful. Kakashi doubted that Naruto would ever have enough fine chakra control to do any genjutsu, but he had all the potential in the world to be a ninjutsu powerhouse. He had chakra to burn, so it was hard to imagine any jutsu being beyond his strength.

 

After Naruto had successfully formed chakra in his hand a few times, Kakashi pulled out a dusty scroll from its hiding place at the top of his closet and showed it to Naruto. “Naruto, do you know what this is?” he asked, waving the scroll around to disturb the dust before unrolling it across the kotatsu.

 

Shaking his head, Naruto leaned over the scroll and painstakingly read out of a few words in the fancy script. “Contract for...for...summons? Is that right, Kakashi-nii-san?”

 

“Yes,” Kakashi said. “My dogs are my summons. You know that they’re more than pets, right, Naruto?”

 

“Yeah!” Naruto shouted, a grin splitting his face. “They’re way more awesome than regular old pets! They fight and track and can climb trees and do all sorts of awesome things!”

 

“You bet your ass, pup,” Pakkun grunted from his warm spot under the kotatsu, looking proud. “Your big brother would have been dead a long time ago without us.”

 

“He’s not wrong,” Kakashi confirmed with a shrug. “We’ve been thinking, Naruto, that you might like to have a ninken of your own. What do you think?”

 

Naruto’s eyes were huge. “You mean it, Kakashi-nii-san? I could have my very own ninken, like Pakkun or Shiba or Bull?”

 

“Yes,” Kakashi said, “but think it through before you say yes. Having a ninken is a big job. Not only do you have to take care of them by feeding them and making sure that they always have water and medical attention, but you have to be prepared to fight with them. You will hold each other’s lives in your hands. You are responsible for them.”

 

Naruto rubbed Pakkun’s ears as he thought hard, and Pakkun’s hind leg hit the floor in a steady tattoo. “I think I could do it, nii-san, if you helped me learn how to do it right,” he finally said seriously. “You’re a good teacher. I wouldn’t mess it up that way.”

 

“Of course I would help you. If you’re sure, I’ll show you how to sign the contract. Then we can see about getting you a summons.” Kakashi drew the contract over, and gave Naruto instructions on pricking his finger and making his mark below the one Kakashi had placed there so many years before. With his guidance, Naruto gathered chakra and sent it through the paper. “And that’s it,” Kakashi said, rolling the paper back up. “You have just made a contract with the ninken. Tomorrow, we’ll see about finding you a partner.”

 

Naruto ran off, shouting his joy to the entire world, while Kakashi slumped in relief. He hoped they could find a dog like Bull for Naruto, something big and intimidating. Yeah, that would definitely be the way to go.

 

……………………

 

“Absolutely not,” Kakashi said firmly, unable to believe they were even having this conversation.

 

“But he’s soooo cute,” Naruto said, cuddling a fluffy puppy to his chest. He looked up at Kakashi, who was suddenly very angry with himself for caving to those eyes all the time in the past. His past weakness made it hard to resist now when it was important. “Please, Kakashi-nii-san? Bisuke will be an awesome partner, believe it!”

 

Kakashi grabbed the wriggling puppy by the scruff of the neck and held him up, examining the runt. “Look at his paws, Naruto,” he said, exasperated. “He’s only going to be ten or fifteen pounds by the time he’s full grown. He won’t be any good as a fighter.”

 

“I’m tougher than I look,” the puppy yipped, offended. “See how scary my teeth are?” He growled, lifting his upper lip to display tiny fangs that couldn’t kill a dust bunny.

 

“I’m terrified,” Kakashi deadpanned.

 

“I’m a great tracker, too,” Bisuke said eagerly. “And my howl is feared by dog and man. Just listen! Awoooo!” he demonstrated.

 

Kakashi handed Bisuke back to Naruto, disgusted. “I don’t think you could scare a butterfly with that howl,” he muttered. “But I suppose you could fetch one of the pack if there was ever a problem, at the very least.”

 

“Oh, I could, I sure could!” Bisuke said, wagging his tail. “I’m awfully fast. Please let me be paired with Naruto, he smells like fox and it’s delicious! So much better than being paired with a smelly old shinobi!”

 

“I smell like a fox?” Naruto asked, intrigued.

 

“Okay, fine,” Kakashi said quickly, eager to derail that particular subject. “I guess we can give it a try.” He glared at Bisuke. “Do you swear to look after Naruto, to be a member of his pack and protect him...as much as you can?” he couldn’t help adding.

 

“Yes!” Bisuke barked. “We’ll be great, believe it!”

 

“Fantastic,” Pakkun moaned. “Now there’s two of them.”

 

……………………..

 

Things calmed down once Bisuke joined the pack. Kakashi focused on teaching the puppy and Naruto together, showing them formations and tactics. Naruto was turning into quite a good little fighter for his age, scrappy and creative. He wouldn’t be taken down so easily in the future, especially with Bisuke glued to his side. Kakashi even felt confident enough in them to start taking Naruto to the training grounds instead of sticking to the backyard and the forest.

 

While they were working on paired taijutsu one day, Naruto looked up at his name being called. “Kiba-kun!” he shouted joyfully, spotting his classmate. “Did you come to train, too?”

 

Kiba dashed over, followed by the monstrous old dog he had been partnered with, Aomaru. “Hi, Naruto-kun, Hatake-san!” he said with a bow to Kakashi. “We’re planning to work on the Four Legs Technique. You and Bisuke want to join us?”

 

“That’s an Inuzuka taijutsu technique,” Kakashi interjected quietly. “You can’t share that with Naruto unless you have permission from your clan head, Kiba.”

 

“No, Kakashi-san, it’s all right.” Kakashi turned and saw Inuzuka Tsume walking up to their group, one-eyed Kuromaru at her side. “I appreciate your hesitation, but I gave Kiba permission to work with Naruto. It will do them both good to train with someone their own size.”

 

Kakashi raised an eyebrow, but shrugged. “If it’s all right with Tsume-san, then it’s all right with me.”

 

The boys cheered and ran off with their barking dogs at their heels. Kakashi turned to Tsume and bowed respectfully. “Thank you, Tsume. It’s kind of you to allow Kiba to train with Naruto.”

 

“There’s no kindness about it,” Tsume said with a wave of her sharp-nailed hand. “With Hana a chunin now, there’s no one for Kiba to train with, and most children don’t understand dogs. I can trust any child of yours with that, at least.”

 

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Kakashi said wryly.

 

“I didn’t like it, their being friends, you know,” Tsume said bluntly, smiling enough to show her fanged teeth. “Not at first. I lost my sister in the Kyuubi attack. She was supposed to be the Clan Head, not me. I was going to be the family jounin, the one who fought and took orders and died gloriously in battle. I never expected to have to continue the line, to have pups and make decisions. It’s been hard going without her, learning how to lead, and I resented Naruto for it.”

 

Kakashi nodded. He’d been aware. Tsume wasn’t exactly subtle with her feelings about anything. “What made you change your mind?”

 

Tsume turned to look at the boys, her gaze thoughtful. “I considered telling Kiba to stay away from Naruto, but Kuromaru told me I was being as stupid as a wet cat. He said that he liked Naruto’s smell. You can learn a lot from a person’s smell, you know. I took Kiba to school one day and checked out all of his classmates. It turns out that Kuromaru was right. Naruto doesn’t smell like anger, the way the air did the day of the attack. He smells like joy and eagerness. And like...” She lifted her nose and sniffed, her face wrinkling. “What is that, anyway, sweet potatoes? It’s been driving me nuts.”

 

“Carrots,” Kakashi said ruefully. “ So many carrots.”

 

“That’s it!” Tsume said with a snap of her fingers. “Anyway, I knew from the smell that while Naruto may hold the Kyuubi, he isn’t the Kyuubi. And if I accepted that, I had to accept the fact that he was just a kid like my Kiba. I couldn’t hate him for what was done to him as a child.”

 

“Kiba-kun was unhappy the day that Naruto was attacked,” Kuromaru interjected. “Getting the pup a ninken was a wise choice, even though I can’t say that that particular ninken is all that helpful to him right now,” he observed, looking at Bisuke doubtfully.

 

“He’ll grow,” Kakashi said. “And the important thing was the bond.”

 

Tsume nodded. “I assume you’ll be going on more missions now that Naruto is in school and protected, Kakashi? He and Kiba will be starting at the Academy within the next few months, after all.”

 

“I don’t want to leave him,” Kakashi admitted, scowling. “But according to the Hokage, the village needs me.”

 

“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about,” Tsume said. “If you ever need to leave the village for longer than a day, Naruto is welcome to stay in the Inuzuka compound with us. He can learn with Kiba, and you know he’d be safe with a strong clan around him.”

 

“That’s very generous of you, Tsume,” Kakashi said, surprised.

 

“The dogs like him,” Tsume replied with a smile. “I trust them more than I trust myself.”

Chapter Text

Kakashi blinked at the Hokage in disbelief when he was in the old man’s office receiving his next S-rank mission. You had to be a rare bird to make small talk and dispense death in the same breath. It was a level of detachment that Kakashi hoped to reach one day in order to infuriate Gai in his more enthusiastic moments. “So, Kakashi, Naruto starts the Academy soon, does he not?” Hiruzen asked casually, puffing away at his pipe.

 

Kakashi accepted the assassination mission scroll and sealed it into his vest pocket, scowling at the Sandaime under his mask. The old man knew very well that Naruto was starting at the Academy. Hell, he probably knew what Kakashi had given him for dinner last night. He didn’t like these little games. “Yes, Sandaime-sama,” Kakashi bit out.

 

“Very good,” the hokage said, leaning back into his chair. “According to my sources, he is progressing well with his taijutsu. And he’s already learned to summon?”

 

“Yes,” Kakashi said, looking at the door longingly. “He and Bisuke are learning how to work together. Bisuke is ridiculous as a fighter, but he has the makings of a first class tracker. That can be even more useful.”

 

“If Naruto learns to harness his chakra correctly, he could turn out to be a sensor type,” the Sandaime said, tapping his chin with his pipe. “There’s evidence that Uzumaki Mito could sense negative energy by using the Kyuubi’s chakra. With the proper training, perhaps Naruto could do the same. Tracking would go well with sensing. Excellent thinking, Kakashi-san,” the hokage praised. “You’re doing a fine job of raising the boy for Konoha.”

 

Before Kakashi could protest that he was raising Naruto for Naruto , and certainly not for the village that had been cruel to him, the hokage stood up abruptly from his desk. He’d likely sensed that he’d stepped too far and wanted to save himself the trouble of dealing with an assassination attempt. “Now, I believe my next appointment is here. You are dismissed. Good luck on your mission.”

 

Kakashi gratefully turned to the door, already making plans to visit the records room before he left the Tower. “Oh, and Kakashi?” the Sandaime called out right as Kakashi’s hand touched the doorknob. “Do try and remember that while he is indeed an excellent teacher, Iruka-sensei needs to remain with the class he was assigned to teach by the principal. It will make Naruto more well rounded if he has a variety of teachers, don’t you think?”

 

His plans for thus forgery foiled, Kakashi grunted rudely in response and pushed his way out of the office, thoroughly annoyed. That political assassination was definitely still on the table.

 

He stopped when he saw that Itachi, dressed in his Anbu uniform as Crow, was waiting outside the door to see the Hokage. Kakashi took in his former teammate’s tired stance and muttered, “Okay, Crow?”

 

Itachi shrugged his slim shoulders and said quietly, “All’s well, senpai.” His deep voice was muffled behind his porcelain mask, but Kakashi frowned as he caught the troubled note in it. Before he could say anything else, Itachi had stepped into the Hokage’s office and shut the door firmly behind him.

 

Kakashi walked out of Hokage Tower with his hands deep in his pockets, turning his concerns over in his mind. Itachi was still so very young, only fifteen. He had been leading his own team of Anbu for a few years now, and Kakashi was intimately familiar with that particular burden. Kakashi was still technically considered an Anbu operative, so he had been able to keep track of his former teammates. Tenzo had also been given his own team upon Kakashi’s reassignment, but he had had unprecedented success at keeping them all alive. His was the most highly demanded team to serve on in the village. Itachi’s team, however, had already gone through several personnel changes as members were reassigned or killed in the line of duty. None of the losses had been Itachi’s fault, but that didn’t make the grief any easier to bear.

 

He’d keep an eye on the young Uchiha. If someone like Itachi ever cracked under the strain, there was no telling the kind of damage he could do. The Sharingan alone...

 

Sighing, Kakashi turned his thoughts to other problems. This new mission from the Hokage was particularly ill timed. He would be gone several weeks and would therefore miss Naruto’s first day of school at the Academy. He was disappointed to miss any major day in Naruto’s life, but to have to do it because he was ordered to kill someone was a particularly bitter pill to swallow. He hadn’t been given any kill orders since Naruto’s adoption. He was out of practice and it turned his stomach to consider what he’d be doing in the coming days. He’d gotten used to life being simple.

 

He stopped at the Inuzuka compound to speak to Tsume to see if it would be all right with her if Naruto stayed in her compound while he was gone on his mission. Tsume had yet to turn him down, but Kakashi never wanted her to feel that he was taking her kindness for granted. “Of course Naruto-kun can stay with us,” she said warmly when Kakashi spoke to her. “The boy fits in surprisingly well, and Kiba works harder when Naruto’s here. A little competition is a healthy thing, I’ve found.”

 

“Thank you, Tsume-san,” Kakashi said, relieved. He preferred for Naruto to have some kind of stability and he hated to have him stay with anyone other than the Inuzuka clan.

 

“Actually, the timing for a longer visit is perfect,” Tsume mused. “Kiba will be receiving his first ninken pup tomorrow, and it’ll be helpful to him to have Naruto and Bisuke around for training.” She grinned a sharp-toothed smile. “The boys can all scream and bark at each other and leave me in peace. Hopefully.”

 

Kakashi rather thought that was wishful thinking, but he certainly wasn’t going to point the folly of it out to Tsume. He thanked her again and then left before she could change her mind.

 

His next stop was at the Academy. It was closed up for the summer, but he was still able to slip through an upstairs window and access the records in the office. The Hokage may have forbidden him from ensuring that Iruka would be Naruto’s teacher, but that didn’t mean that Kakashi couldn’t do some spying to get an idea of what he would be dealing with in the upcoming year. He found Naruto’s class list and saw that the assigned teacher was somebody named Mizuki.

 

Kakashi tapped the corner of the file on the desk, thinking. He didn’t know much about Mizuki, somewhat to his chagrin. They had never even been on the same team before. He knew that Mizuki had been a classmate of Iruka’s and Anko’s and that he was considered to be a capable shinobi by the Sandaime. Whenever his name came up, though, Anko always looked like she’d stepped in something particularly disgusting and changed the subject. Kakashi seemed to recall having heard that Mizuki had attempted both the Jounin Exam and the Anbu tests, but hadn’t passed either. There was no shame in failing, of course. Only the best could pass. But it did show that Mizuki was dissatisfied with being a chunin; teaching wasn’t his first choice of career. At the time, there were whispers that Mizuki hadn’t passed the psych evaluations for the higher ranks.

 

Now that he thought of it, there were also rumors that there had been some kind of  nastiness involving a failed mission early in Mizuki’s career. Something about a suspicious death. He’d have to look into that. He was surprised that a man like that was allowed to become a teacher; the Sandaime must have really trusted him.

 

Overall, he wasn’t pleased with the notion that this man would be Naruto’s teacher. There was too much rumor, not enough fact. It made him nervous.

 

Next he ran his finger down the list of Naruto’s classmates, and was made much happier. He was relieved to see Shikamaru’s name there, along with Kiba’s, Sasuke's and Chouji’s. He smiled when he saw two other names that he recognized: Yamanaka Ino and Haruno Sakura. Hopefully the girls had stopped fighting since he’d last seen them. Ah, and it looked like the Hyuuga heiress was in Naruto’s class, too. An unusually large crop of future clan heads, then, all with their powerful family jutsus and bloodline limits. Naruto would definitely be challenged by this group.

 

A noise came from the front doors of the Academy as somebody entered the building and started walking towards the office. After a quick scan, Kakashi recognized the chakra that was closing in on him and didn’t bother to hide.

 

He was sitting in the principal’s chair, his feet up on the desk, when Umino Iruka entered the room. “Kakashi-san,” Iruka said with a start. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that you’ve broken into a locked office and are helping yourself to what I assume are classified files.”

 

Lifting a shoulder in a half-hearted shrug, Kakashi drawled, “If the school really cares about keeping people out of their secrets, they should use more complicated seals. I’m pretty sure Naruto could have undone the one on this file when he was four.”

 

Iruka swiped the file from Kakashi’s hands. “That’s because I’m not the one that did the seals. You’d never have gotten in if I had,” he said with a smirk. “I suppose from your presence that you’ve seen fit to assign me to Naruto’s class, then? Even though I’ve been preparing lesson plans for the year two class all summer?”

 

“No,” Kakashi grumbled. “The Hokage inferred that bad things would happen to me if I pulled that stunt again. He’s got somebody named Mizuki assigned to Naruto’s class. I don’t know much about him. Weren’t you in the same class as him when you were a student?”

 

“Yes,” Iruka said, smiling, although his eyes were shadowed. “Anko and I both were. He’s a friend. I think Naruto will do well with him. At least, I’m pretty sure he will.”

 

Kakashi blinked. “You’re overwhelming me with your confidence.”

 

“No, sorry,” Iruka said, shaking his head. “I didn’t mean it to sound like that. Mizuki’s a good teacher; he qualified right after me. He can play favorites sometimes, but it’s a trap all teacher fall into occasionally, even me.”

 

“I don’t want Naruto to be anybody’s favorite,” Kakashi scowled, throwing his feet off of the desk and leaning his elbows on his knees. “I just want him given a fair shake, and that can be ridiculously hard to come by in this village. Especially for him.”

 

Iruka hesitated, but then stepped around the desk and slowly put his hand on Kakashi’s shoulder, as if he was afraid a sudden movement might provoke some kind of killer instinct. “I know why you feel that way, Kakashi, but I promise that Mizuki is a professional. He wouldn’t have been made a teacher if the Sandaime didn't believe in him. I don’t think he’ll give Naruto any trouble as long as Naruto is respectful. At the very least, I’ll be teaching in the classroom right next door. You know that I’ll keep my eye on him for you, as much as I can.”

 

Sighing, Kakashi raised his hand and placed it over Iruka’s on his shoulder. With a small squeeze of his gloved fingers, he said, “Thank you, Iruka, I appreciate it. Knowing that you’ll be here eases my mind a little.”

 

Iruka blushed and stepped away quickly, muttering something about needing to set up his classroom before he left Kakashi alone in the office again. It didn’t matter. Kakashi had already seen that delightful red color spread across Iruka’s tan cheeks and was utterly charmed. He knew he would be dwelling on it repeatedly over the next few weeks as he made his way through the coming mission.

 

Naruto was disappointed when Kakashi told him that he would be leaving on a long mission, but he was also a pre-genin and knew the realities of living in a shinobi village. “I bet I’ll have learned all kinds of awesome jutsu by the time you get back, nii-san,” the six year old said bravely, tilting his chin up. “I bet I’ll be good enough to kick your butt soon!”

 

Kakashi pulled Naruto into his side and gave him a noogie. “You think so, huh?” he said, amused. “I may surprise you. I’m the famous Copy-nin, after all. I always have something up my sleeve.”

 

Naruto scoffed. “Please. You’re not that tough. The only reason you wear that mask is so that people can’t see what a softie you are. I’ve seen you crying over those lovey dovey books you think I don’t know about.”

 

Well, that did it. Kakashi squawked in outrage and playfully wrestled Naruto to the floor, rolling back and forth. Bisuke barked in excitement and nipped whatever bits of flesh he could find with his sharp puppy teeth, mostly Naruto’s ears and Kakashi’s nose. Pakkun rolled his eyes at the noisiness of pups and went to lie down under the side table to gnaw on a bone, safely away from their mess of flailing limbs.

 

After being trapped in a gentle headlock, Naruto collapsed into giggles in Kakashi’s arms. “Uncle,” he laughed, tears rolling down his cheeks. “I said uncle!”

 

“Let that be a lesson to you, pipsqueak,” Kakashi gloated as he let Naruto go, his smile drawing his mask tight across his face. “I told you that you couldn’t defeat me!”

 

“You just wait,” Naruto shot back, his grin even bigger than Kakashi’s. “Someday I’ll be Hokage and you’ll be the one in the headlock. Believe it!”

 

“I have no doubt, especially if you keep learning as fast as you have been,” Kakashi said. He glanced over at the framed picture of his own genin team, taking in Minato’s proud grin. “Besides, that kind of thing tends to run in the blood. Look at Hashirama and Tobirama. You’ll be an excellent Hokage someday if you choose to be one. Your dad was the best of them all, in my opinion.”

 

“Better than the Sandaime?”

 

“Don’t tell him I said so,” Kakashi said with a wink, “but yes. Better than the Sandaime. Minato-sensei was more...hopeful. Less jaded.”

 

Naruto stood up and gently traced the tip of his finger around his father’s spiky golden hair in the picture. “Kakashi-nii-san,” he said, his voice quiet, “I’m sad that you won’t be here when I start school. But, I’m also sad that my mom and dad can’t be there either. Is that weird? To be sad about someone I’ve never met?”

 

“No, otouto,” Kakashi said as he got up off the floor and went to stand by Naruto. “I know what you mean. I miss my mother, and she died when I was very small. I barely remember her. But you should remember that your parents are always with you. In fact, I have something for you. I wanted to give it to you on your first day at the Academy, but that won’t work now. Wait here.”

 

He walked down the hallway towards the back of the house. Entering his bedroom, he reached up onto the top shelf of his closet and brought down a box. He folded his mask low enough to blow dust from the top of the box, recovered his face, and returned to the living room, where Naruto was sitting on the couch expectantly.

 

“Your father gave me this when I became a jounin,” Kakashi said as he sat back down. He opened the box and pulled out a kunai, showing it to Naruto. “Do you see this line of writing on the hilt, here? That’s a special seal. It was developed by the second hokage, Tobirama, and your father perfected the technique even further. He could place this seal on anyone and anything, and then use it to transport himself directly to them.”

 

“Seriously?” Naruto asked, awed.

 

“Seriously. It’s why he’s known as the Yellow Flash. He could cover an entire battlefield in seconds, faster than the eye could see. He could take out whole squads on his own that way. The seal never faded away, either, not even after he died. Here.” Kakashi took Naruto’s hand and held it on the kunai’s handle over the seal. “Close your eyes and reach out with your chakra. What do you feel?”

 

Naruto’s whiskered face scrunched up as he concentrated. “It’s...warm,” he said slowly, his voice filled with wonder. “And kinda familiar, like a memory, like something that happened a long time ago.”

 

“That’s your father’s chakra,” Kakashi said, pleased. “He marked this kunai so that if I ever needed him, he could be at my side. I think he would want you to have it now, so that you know he’s always near.”

 

Naruto rubbed his face with his forearm. Bisuke whined from his place beside him on the couch, leaning his head comfortingly against Naruto’s knee. “Thanks, Kakashi-nii-san,” Naruto whispered. “It’s nice to know what he feels like, at least. I wish I had something of mom’s, too.”

 

Kakashi smiled ruefully. “Your mother wouldn’t be happy that I gave it to you. I wouldn’t be getting peanut butter cookies from her for at least a month; she certainly knew how to punish us. If she were here now, she’d worry that you’d poke your eye out or something, and then she’d probably hit me upside the head. That woman could hit harder than an Akimichi!” Naruto giggled at the thought and Kakashi stood up again. “Now go put the kunai away someplace safe and get to bed. I’ll take you to the Inuzuka compound tomorrow before I leave. Tsume-san has invited you to stay with them while I’m gone.”

 

“Yeah!” Naruto cheered, his earlier tears already forgotten. He ran down the hall to his bedroom, but Kakashi was pleased to see that he was at least holding the kunai so that the blade was pointed away from him. He could only imagine what the Hokage would say if the village’s only jinchuuriki stabbed himself by tripping, which was just the kind of thing that Naruto would do. It would serve Hiruzen right, Kakashi thought bitterly. He really had wanted to see Naruto start school.

 

Early the next morning, he dropped Naruto off at the Inuzuka compound. Kakashi was glad to escape quickly, his sensitive ears already ringing from Naruto’s and Kiba’s shouts of joy over Kiba’s new ninken, Akamaru. He didn’t envy Tsume for having to put up with it over the next few days. She’d certainly looked frazzled when she opened the door for him that morning.

 

He made his way swiftly toward the Land of Earth, but eventually stopped to set up camp for the night. He reached into his pack to pull out his bedroll, but stopped when his fingers hit something thin and plastic. He hadn’t packed anything like that. He activated his Sharingan, but didn't see anything suspicious.

 

Slowly, he pulled the item out of his bag, only to find that he was holding a small pouch that was filled with peanut butter cookies. It looked like Naruto had given him something of Kushina’s, since he had been given something of Minato’s. Kakashi smiled and took a bite, savoring the sweet saltiness of both the treat and his memories.

 

……………..

 

A few weeks later, Kakashi slogged back into the village. It seemed as if the kind of missions that demanded his particular talents never did run smoothly, and the assassination he’d been assigned had been much messier than he’d anticipated. He was exhausted, chakra depleted, and grouchy. Noting the time, he saw that Naruto would still be in school. He sent Shiba to the Inuzuka compound to let Tsume know to send Naruto home after class, then collapsed on his couch. He was too tired to even bathe. Thankfully he’d managed to avoid being doused in mud this time, which happened uncomfortably often, so he wasn’t too smelly. He’d submit his report to the Hokage later.

 

The next thing he knew, there was the sound of a door hitting the wall violently and then all fifty pounds of Uzumaki Naruto landed directly on his stomach, knocking all the air out of him. “Kakashi-nii-san!” Naruto sang, bouncing up and down on Kakashi’s middle in delight, “you’re finally home! I missed you!”

 

“Hi, Naruto. Get off me,” Kakashi wheezed, trying to get his breath back.

 

Naruto flopped over so that he was wedged between the back of the couch and Kakashi’s body. “Sorry, nii-san,” Naruto said, his eyes huge. “I thought you would catch me. You always have before.”

 

Kakashi rolled his eyes, but ruffled Naruto’s hair anyway. “I was asleep, kiddo. Don’t worry about it. It was just a long mission and I’m not at my best.” He stretched out, popping his back, but he didn’t make Naruto move. Instead he wormed his arm under Naruto’s shoulders and drew him closer.  After the mission he’d had, he wasn’t going to argue with getting in some snuggles, although he’d rather Chidori himself than admit it aloud. “Tell me all about school. How’s it been going?”

 

Naruto lit up. “It’s great! My desk is between Shikamaru’s and Sasuke’s, and Kiba is right behind us. We’ve been learning about the First Shinobi War in class, and Shikamaru and I think that Tobirama was a badass!”

 

Kakashi considered censoring Naruto’s language, but he couldn’t help but agree. Senju Tobirama was, in fact, a badass. “Has your teacher been helping you with your taijutsu?” he asked instead.

 

“Not much,” Naruto hedged, looking everywhere but at Kakashi. “I’m already pretty good, thanks to you. Mizuki-sensei works with Sasuke-kun the most, even though Sasuke doesn’t need the help either. His brother taught him like you taught me. The one that really needs help is Sakura-chan. Her parents are civilians, so there’s no one to teach her at home. She tries really hard, but she’s already behind the rest of the class. Even Hinata can beat her, and Hinata can’t stand to step on ants, let alone hit someone.”

Kakashi frowned. “Is Sakura being ignored by Mizuki-sensei?”

 

“Nooo…” Naruto said slowly, considering the question. “He helps her when she asks for it right out, but he always seems sort of cranky about it. So she’s shy about asking because Mizuki-sensei can be kinda mean when he’s grumpy.”

 

Making a mental note to check on Sakura, Kakashi then asked, “What about ninjutsu? Have you learned anything yet?”

 

“We’re working on henges,” Naruto said with a pout. “I’m awful at them. My chakra squirms and gets away from me and I always end up looking like a potato instead of the Hokage or whatever we’re supposed to be turning into. Mizuki-sensei gets cranky about that, too.” He sighed gustily. “I miss Iruka-sensei. The only time he got cranky was when we misbehaved, never when we didn’t understand something. Do you think he’ll ever be my teacher again?”

 

Kakashi stood up and started walking to the kitchen, troubled. “I hope so. Maybe he’ll be your teacher next year. We’ll just have to see. And I’ll help you with your henging tomorrow. You may have to do it a different way from how Mizuki-sensei is teaching you, that’s all. Everybody’s chakra is different, and no one method works for everyone.”

 

“You think so?” Naruto asked, looking relieved. “I’m not stupid, then?”

 

“No,” Kakashi said. “You’re not stupid.” It sounded like he’d been right to be concerned about Mizuki. He didn’t like the tension in Naruto’s back and voice.

 

He went to the sink to get a glass of water and suddenly shrieked, making Pakkun jump and bump his head on the underside of table. “What’s all the commotion, boss?” he groused, rubbing his head with a paw.

 

“Mr. Ukki! What happened to you?” Kakashi wailed, looking at his potted plant in horror. He held it out so Pakkun could see it. “Just look at him! It’s a disaster!”

 

Naruto leaned around Kakashi. “He looks sorta...dead,” Naruto hedged, poking the pot. “His leaves are all brown and crispy. What happened to him?”

 

“It’s all my fault,” Kakashi mourned, eyeing his beloved plant. “I forgot to take him to Gai before I left. I’m a terrible parent.”

 

“Maybe we could try taking him to Ino,” Naruto said thoughtfully. “I think her family has a plant shop. Maybe they have something that could save Mr. Ukki.”

 

Kakashi blinked for a minute, stunned at the sheer brilliance of the idea, then swooped down and picked up Naruto, spinning him around the kitchen. “Great idea, kid!” he crowed as Naruto giggled. “If anyone can save Mr. Ukki, it’ll be a Yamanaka. Let’s go!” He set Naruto back down on his feet, snatched up Mr. Ukki, and ran out the door. Naruto hurried to catch up, Bisuke barking as he followed them down the road and into the village proper. They passed Gai along the way, who was walking on his hands. “Beloved rival!” the jounin called. “You have returned! I challenge you-”

 

“No time, gotta go!” Kakashi yelled as he zoomed past, Gai sputtering in his wake. Dashing into Yamanaka Flowers, Kakashi slapped Mr. Ukki down onto the empty counter. “Somebody help! It’s an emergency!”

 

“What in the world?” Inoichi came out from the back of the store, rubbing his hands on an apron to remove a layer of dirt from his fingers. “Oh, it’s you, Kakashi. I might have known. What’s all the screaming about?”

 

“I forgot about Mr. Ukki while I was on a mission,” Kakashi said, gesturing wildly at his plant. “You have to save him, or I’ll be guilty of murder, and I don’t need any more of that on my shoulders than I’ve already got!”

 

Inoichi snorted. “Don’t be so dramatic. Here, let me take a look. What did you do to that poor thing, anyway?” He leaned over Mr. Ukki, examining the leaves and the soil, and made a face. Kakashi winced, but Inoichi didn’t say anything else. He pulled out some bottles and powders from underneath the counter and went to work.

 

Pacing, Kakashi fretted over Mr. Ukki’s fate. The plant had been a gift from Kushina on his tenth birthday and he was very fond of it. He glanced over to make sure that Naruto wasn’t causing mayhem while he was distracted, and smiled when he caught sight of the boy gazing at all the plants in obvious awe. “So many colors,” he heard Naruto mutter reverently, reaching out to feel the fuzzy underside of a fern leaf.

 

Bisuke tentatively sniffed at a lily and sneezed. “Too many smells for me,” the puppy whined, pawing at his eyes. “How can you stand it?”

 

“I like it,” Naruto said, going to examine a table full of succulents. “All of them are different. Some bright, some spiky, some furry, some dark. But they’re all wanted. Look, they all have their own pots and everything. They’re taken care of.”

 

Kakashi swallowed. Naruto knew what it was like to be unwanted.

 

Ino came out of the back room then, obviously looking for her father. She brightened when she saw Naruto. “Hey, Naruto! I’ve never seen you in here before,” she said as she walked over to stand by her classmate. “What’s going on?”

 

Naruto shrugged his shoulder at Kakashi, who waved weakly at the kids. “Kakashi-nii-san just about killed his plant. Your dad is helping him save it.” He looked around, gesturing wildly at all of the foliage around him. “Do you get to see all these plants every day?”

 

“Yes!” Ino said, bouncing on her toes. “Aren’t they the coolest? We even have a whole separate greenhouse just for the poisonous ones! I’m not even allowed in there yet!”

 

“Whoa,” Naruto breathed, looking eager. “You helped grow all of these in here, though?”

 

“Yup,” Ino said proudly. “We have four greenhouses in our family compound, and we’re thinking about building another soon, just for the orchids.”

 

“That must be so cool,” Naruto said longingly. “I wish I could grow things like this.”

 

Ino cocked her head. “Why can’t you? Do you have a yard or a balcony at home?”

 

“Yeah,” Naruto enthused, “a big one! A yard, I mean. Do you think I could grow things there?”

 

“I don’t see why not,” Ino said. “You could probably grow your own vegetables and some flowers, depending on how much space you have and the type of soil.”

 

Naruto visibly staggered. “You mean...you mean I could grow my own carrots ? As much as I wanted?”

 

“I doubt any garden would be capable of growing all the carrots you wanted, Naruto,” Kakashi interjected, smiling at the kids. “But I bet we could cut down on our grocery bill at the very least. As long as you leave plenty of room in the yards for the dogs and for training, I have no objection to you having a garden. I always meant to put one in, but I never had the time. You’re old enough to look after one now, even if I have to be gone on missions.”

 

Naruto shouted with glee and tackled Kakashi with a hug. “Thank you, nii-san!” he sang. Turning to Ino, he bowed respectfully. “Yamanaka Ino, will you help me with my garden?”

 

“Sure,” Ino said, looking touched that he’d asked her. “We should ask Aburame Shino and Hyuuga Hinata for help as well. Shino knows all about the insects that pollinate plants, and Hinata is a great gardener, too. We can talk to them about it at school tomorrow. In the meantime, let’s plan out what plants you want to have.” She took Naruto’s hand in hers and began to tow him around the shop.

 

“Anything but lima beans!” Kakashi called after them, shaking his head. Turning his attention back to Inoichi, he said sorrowfully, “I’m not going to have any peace until that garden’s in, am I?”

 

“With my daughter involved? Nope,” Inoichi said cheerfully as he put away his watering can, Mr. Ukki verdant and healthy once again. “I’m pretty sure she could bully a rock into giving her what she wanted, and it looks like she wants Naruto to have that garden. Ino is a great believer in the healing power of shrubbery. Here’s your plant back, good as new. Don’t kill it again or I’ll sign you up for psychiatric evaluation. Now that I think of it, you’re probably due for your regular check-up...”

 

Kakashi wasn’t even ashamed of the way he ran out of that shop, callously leaving Naruto behind to fend for himself. Inoichi didn’t have to laugh that hard, though.

The following weekend, what seemed to be a significant portion of Naruto’s class showed up to make a garden. Kakashi had already tilled the ground with a handy earth jutsu; he was afraid of what an army of six year old pre-genin could get up to with picks and shovels. Then he found a nearby tree and made himself comfortable with a book, keeping an ear tuned to the children in case somebody started screaming.

 

Ino quickly took charge of her pack of minions in a way that Kakashi frankly admired. Under her direction, Naruto and Shikamaru were set to carefully making small holes in the ground with trowels. Shikamaru was consciously maintaining the illusion that he’d just stumbled across all this activity and was only helping out of the goodness of his heart, instead of being genuinely interested. Kakashi wasn’t fooled.

 

Behind them came Sasuke and Shino, who were placing seeds in each little hole. Next, Hinata and Sakura came and gently pulled the earth over the seeds, patting the dirt into place. Ino came last of all, carefully watering each little hill. It was an efficient system and everything was planted within an hour.

 

Chouji had been sitting in the shade of an elm tree the whole time, drawing amazingly realistic pictures of vegetables and flowers on waterproof paper. He attached a sharp wooden stake to each sign as he finished drawing. Naruto drove each little sign home into the dirt reverently, saying how much he wished he could draw like Chouji. Chouji beamed at the rare compliment. All of the students watched in awe as Shino called bees and butterflies to the garden, and cheered as the little creatures got busy pollinating.

 

Somebody came to the base of Kakashi’s tree and he looked down, spotting Kurenai watching the fun. “Hey, Kakashi!” she said in her gentle voice, her red eyes gleaming with humor. “A lot of activity at your place, isn’t there?”

 

“Apparently we just had to have a garden,” Kakashi said, leaping down to join her. “I strongly suspect that three quarters of it will be carrots. Never mind the fact that there are other people living here that enjoy a nice bowl of steamed broccoli every once in a while.”

 

Laughing, Kurenai said, “Let me know if Naruto branches out into snow peas. They can be hard to find. I’ll pay top dollar.”

 

She turned to go, but Kakashi put a hand on her shoulder to stop her. “Actually, Kurenai, I’m glad you came by. I have something I wanted to talk to you about, if you have a second.”

 

“Sure, what is it?”

 

“See that girl with the pink hair?” he asked, leading her into the house. “I think she could use some help, and you’re the kunoichi to do it.”

 

He was pleased when Naruto reported a month later that a lady jounin had taken an interest in Sakura and was helping her with her taijutsu and ninjutsu. Apparently after only a few lessons with Kurenai, Sakura had put Sasuke flat on his ass during a spar. Mizuki-sensei had been so stunned that he had stood speechless for thirty solid seconds. Naruto had counted. He also said that nobody teased Sakura about her forehead anymore; she was too scary.

 

…………….

 

Kakashi couldn’t find Naruto, and it was annoying. Usually all he had to do to find his charge was to follow Naruto’s excited yelling; he only got louder as he aged, to Kakashi’s chagrin. School had let out a couple of hours ago, though, and Naruto still hadn’t come home. He’d checked the schoolyard, the Inuzuka compound, Yamanaka Flowers, and the training grounds, all of which were empty of blond, shouty six year olds.

 

Sighing, he bit his thumb and summoned Pakkun. Pakkun appeared in front of him and shook himself, his hitai-ate rattling. “What’s up, boss?”

 

“I can’t find Naruto,” Kakashi said with a fierce scowl. “Track him down for me, please?”

 

Pakkun huffed. “I remember the days when my tracking skills were used for more than locating naughty pups…”

 

“Just shut up and help me find him,” Kakashi snapped. “Now isn’t the time for philosophical musings on our lives’ direction. The last time he disappeared like this, Mist almost got a new jinchuuriki.”

 

Pakkun huffed, but obediently started sniffing around. “I’ve got him,” he said after a few minutes. “Follow me, he’s this way.” He trotted off to the eastern corner of Konoha, Kakashi slouching after him. If Naruto was still in Konoha, there couldn’t be anything seriously wrong.

 

The dog led Kakashi to a once familiar stall where he used to meet Kushina-chan for lunch occasionally. There were glorious smells wafting down the street and the sound of soft conversations were drifting from inside. Kakashi ducked in and raised an eyebrow when he spotted his wayward kid. Naruto was perfectly safe, perched on a high stool at Ichiraku’s Ramen right next to Iruka.

 

Kakashi thanked Pakkun for his help, then slid onto the stool next to Iruka’s seat. “So what are we having?” he asked, startling both the child and the teacher with his silent approach.

 

“Kakashi-san!” Iruka said apologetically, glancing out at the sun. “I’m sorry, you must have been worried about Naruto. We lost track of time, I’m afraid.”

 

Naruto looked as if he was having a religious experience. “Nii-san, have you ever had ramen?” he asked, gazing at his bowl reverently. “It’s even better than carrots!”

 

“I find that difficult to believe, coming from you,” Kakashi intoned gravely. “I’d better check to be sure.” He swiped Naruto’s bowl and slurped up the last of the salty, savory broth, ignoring Naruto’s howls of protest. “You know, I think you just might be right, Naruto. This is better than carrots.”

 

“Aww, why’d you have to do that?” Naruto moaned, his head thumping down heavily onto the counter. “Iruka-sensei said I couldn’t have any more bowls after that one.”

 

“How many bowls did you have, anyway?” Kakashi asked, eyeing the mound of dirty dishes that Ayame was scrubbing at the sink.

 

“Four,” Iruka said wearily, putting money on the counter. “I have no idea where he even puts it. I’m a grown man and I’m full after two.”

 

Together, the three ninja left Ichiraku’s and started wandering back to the part of the town where they lived. “What was with the impromptu ramen date?” Kakashi asked Iruka quietly as Naruto bounced ahead of them to peer into the window of a mask store.

 

Iruka sighed. “Naruto had a bad time today at school. He couldn’t henge the way Mizuki wanted him to, so Mizuki made him write lines all afternoon. He was sitting on the swing alone after school, looking all pitiful. I took him with me to get some ramen to cheer him up. I had no idea he’d go so crazy over it.”

 

“But Naruto has been doing better with his henges,” Kakashi said, confused. “I showed him a new way that worked better with the limitations of his seal. He’s been doing very well with them ever since then. Mizuki shouldn’t have had any complaints.”

 

“That’s the point,” Iruka said, frowning. “He wasn’t doing it the way Mizuki taught him, so it wasn’t good enough.”

 

“Do I need to have a conversation with that guy?” Kakashi growled. “Any shinobi should know that it’s the result that matters, not the technique. No two ninja are the same.”

 

“Which is what I’ll point out to Mizuki when I talk to him,” Iruka said firmly. “I don’t think your brand of conversation would work in this case. Naruto doesn’t need a pissing contest, he needs two functional adults working together to give him a good education.”

 

Kakashi kicked a rock in his path petulantly. “I’ve never been accused of being a functional adult before,” he groused.

 

“I wasn’t talking about you,” Iruka smirked. “I meant me.” He dodged Kakashi’s playful swipe and ran off towards his apartment, waving to Naruto as he passed.  

 

Naruto trotted back to Kakashi’s side, Kakashi aiming them in the direction of the training grounds instead of the house. If Naruto had spent a good portion of his afternoon writing lines, he likely had energy to burn, and Kakashi would prefer him to do it constructively. By, you know, blowing shit up in a controlled environment instead of in their backyard. He glanced down at Naruto, who looked troubled now that his ramen high was gone. “So, henges, huh?” he asked awkwardly, wishing he was better at this kind of thing.

 

Naruto sighed heavily. “Yeah. Henges.”

 

“Sucks.” Eloquent, Kakashi.

 

“Yeah. I can do them fine when it’s just you and me. I don’t get why Mizuki-sensei won’t let me do them my way. His way is just so...twisty. It doesn’t make sense to me.”

 

Kakashi knew that the mature, parental thing to say in this kind of situation would be something like, “you need to respect your teacher and do as he tells you.” But he wasn’t very mature and seriously, fuck that noise. “Don’t worry about it too much, kid. You can henge just fine, and when graduation comes around, nobody will care how you do it as long as you can do it.”

 

“I can,” Naruto said, looking fierce. “Believe it!”

 

Before Kakashi could reply, he was interrupted by shouting. There was a small scuffle at the stall next to them, and they saw that a man was being arrested by a grim faced Uchiha police officer. “Get off me!” the man shouted as he was shoved roughly down the road. “I didn’t do anything wrong!”

 

“Shut up,” the Uchiha said coldly, not offering any explanations.

 

“You think you’re so powerful with that Sharingan! So high and mighty, stepping on us regular people!” The arrested man’s shouts faded as he was hustled towards the police station.

 

Naruto looked up at Kakashi. “That’s been happening a lot lately, hasn’t it? Everyone being mad at the Uchihas?”

 

“Yes. I’ve noticed it too,” Kakashi scowled.

 

“But why? The man must have done something wrong, to be arrested.”

 

“I’m sure he did,” Kakashi said. “The Uchiha was just doing his job. Has Sasuke said anything lately about his family?”

 

“Nothing other than singing Itachi-san’s praises, like always.” Naruto rolled his eyes. “I’m pretty sure he thinks Itachi craps rainbows and makes the sun rise in the morning.”

 

“I bet Sasuke wouldn’t say that if he’d ever been on a mission with his brother,” Kakashi muttered, too softly for Naruto to hear. “ So much gas when he runs…”

 

…………..

 

Things with Mizuki didn’t improve. Naruto continued to come home with his hands smeared with ink from writing lines, scowling and frustrated. Kakashi knew that if he got involved, things would escalate quickly to murder, so he hesitated to step in. Naruto would have to learn to fight his own battles sometime, and there was no better place than in the relatively safe environment of the school. Naruto hadn’t come to Kakashi yet asking for help. He’d stay out of it until then.

 

Close to the end of the school year, Naruto finally did break, but he didn’t ask Kakashi for help after all. He took matters into his own hands. Kakashi was in the backyard battling with his mutant rose bush that seemed to grow twice its size overnight, and overhead a conversation between Shikamaru, Kiba and Naruto that made him ridiculously proud.

 

“I hate Mizuki-sensei! I just can’t make that guy happy!” Naruto moaned, flopping down in the side yard. He rolled around with Bisuke for a minute, like he was trying to shake off his anger. “What does he have against me, anyway?”

 

“He is troublesome,” Shikamaru said, sitting down next to Naruto and looking up at the clouds. “Why does it matter how you do things, as long as they get done? Isn’t being a ninja about adaptability?”

 

“We should give him a taste of his own medicine! Make him just as frustrated as you are!” Kiba said viciously with a punch to his fist for emphasis. Akamaru, perched on top of his head, sneezed as if in approval.

 

“But how?” Naruto blinked. “Should I dump a bucket of ink on his head or something?”

 

“You don’t want to be that obvious,” Shikamaru said silkily, sounding just like his father. “The idea is to both teach a lesson and not get caught. Otherwise you’re just compounding the problem. Do you want to be in detention on top of writing lines?”

 

“No! But what can we do to pay him back?” Naruto asked, ripping up blades of grass. “I want to make him just as miserable as he’s made me. This has been a rotten year, and it’s all thanks to him being a jerk.”

 

“Revenge isn't really about emotion, Naruto. It’s all about resources,” Shikamaru explained, drawing his fingers together into a circle. “What is something that’s easily attainable but not traceable back to you?”

 

Kiba and Naruto were quiet for a long moment, neither being particularly cunning. Eventually, though, slow, evil smiles spread across their faces. “We do have lots of something, something gross,” Naruto said, cutting his eyes at Kiba, then looking at Akamaru and Bisuke.

 

“I wondered when you’d see it,” Shikamaru said, his own evil grin firmly in place. “Now let’s figure out how to utilize it. Are either of you any good at traps yet?”

 

On the last day of school, a delicious rumor swept quickly over all of Konoha. It seemed that a teacher at the Academy had fallen into a deep pit concealed on the school grounds. The pit had been filled three-quarters of the way full with rotting dog shit. Mizuki’s screams had been heard all the way at Hokage Tower; the Sandaime, reportedly, was not impressed.

 

Naruto, Kiba and Shikamaru had looked smug for weeks afterward. Kakashi took it to his grave that he had witnessed Iruka giving Naruto a book on traps the week before the trick took place. It seemed that the legend of Umino Iruka would live on.

Chapter Text

When Kakashi’s old Anbu tattoo started burning on his arm in the middle of the night, he immediately sat up and dressed himself in the dark. The Hokage wouldn’t call him in like this unless the situation was critical. Something was very, very wrong.

 

The pack, which had all been curled together in a pile in a corner of the room, sat up and watched him with bright eyes, ready for orders. “Stay with Naruto until I know what’s going on,” he whispered as he slipped his tanto in its holster. “I’ll call if I need you. Be ready. If I’m still gone by sunrise, don’t let Naruto go to school. Keep him here and inside the house at all costs. Don’t let anyone in, no matter who they are, unless it’s Gai or Iruka.”

 

“Got it, boss,” Pakkun said. “We’ll take care of the pup.” He moved to the front door to take up a defensive position there, Shiba doing the same at the back door. Bull stood and padded silently down the hallway, laying down again in front of Naruto’s bedroom door like a stone guardian. Guruko and Uuhei leapt out of Kakashi’s bedroom window to patrol the property outside. Akino and Urushi lay back down to rest, so that they’d be ready when they were called.

 

Kakashi slung his katana across his back in one smooth motion and then reached for his porcelain Hound mask, hesitating only for a moment before he put it on. He hadn’t worn it since the day he’d rescued Naruto from the Kiri-nin, and he definitely hadn’t missed it. It took him a minute to remember how to breathe through the added pressure against his face, to fight down the claustrophobia. He felt a little silly about it; after all, he wore a cloth mask every day and preferred it. But this was different. Maybe you had to be damaged to wear this mask. Maybe the past few years with a home and Naruto had made him too whole as a person. It was something he knew he’d think about later.

 

He shook himself and finished wrapping his shins, then slipped tags and kunai into his vest pockets. He didn’t like the bare arms the Anbu vest called for; he felt too exposed. He missed his usual jounin uniform. Slipping his feet into his sandals, he was ready. After listening carefully to make sure that Naruto was still asleep, Kakashi leapt out the door, shimmied up a convenient store front, and started jumping across the rooftops to get to Hokage Tower. He slid into the Hokage’s office from the window only a few minutes after the initial summons and found the place in pandemonium. Shikaku was pale as he called out orders, Anbu were flickering in and out of the room like fireflies, and the Hokage appeared to have aged another twenty years since Kakashi had last seen him.

 

“Hound, thank you for coming,” the Sandaime said tiredly, beckoning Kakashi to come closer. “I’ve learned that something terrible has happened. Uchiha Itachi has gone rogue and slaughtered the Uchiha clan.”

 

Kakashi was glad that he was wearing both of his masks then; he needed them to cover his shock. Bewildered, he thought of Itachi’s recent exhaustion, his slumped back and tired eyes. Could he have done more to help his former teammate? What had pushed him to do this? Then, Kakashi’s heart clenched as he thought of Sasuke. Sasuke, who loved and worshipped Itachi. Sasuke, who Itachi cared for like a son. What had happened to Sasuke? Was he still alive? Would Kakashi have to tell Naruto that one of his best friends had died tonight? It would break the kid’s heart.

 

“I need you to go to the compound with Cat and check for any survivors,” the Sandaime said over Kakashi’s growing panic. “You’re the only one left now in Konoha with a Sharingan. If Itachi is still in the area, you are the one shinobi we have that could conceivably go up against him.”

 

Well, that was laughable. Kakashi bit back the rude snort that wanted to force its way out of him. Uchiha Itachi could take Kakashi apart as easily as yawn. Oh, Kakashi would give him a hell of a fight, but still. His Mangekyo Sharingan wasn’t nearly developed enough yet to defeat someone like Itachi. “Yes, Hokage-sama,” Kakashi replied instead with a bow, biting back what he wanted to say. The Hokage needed obedience, not facts at a time like this. Still, Kakashi could very easily be going to his death right now. He was glad that the dogs were with Naruto, and that he had carefully filed his will a few years back. If anything happened to him, Iruka would take good care of the boy.

 

He spied a uniformed Tenzo waiting quietly in a corner and gestured to his friend to follow him. They slipped out into the night, running to the corner of Konoha where the Uchiha clan had been sequestered ever since the Kyuubi attack. “Danzo?” Kakashi signed at Tenzo as they ran. Tenzo just shook his head. They had both been out of Root for too long. They didn’t know what Danzo was up to anymore.

 

Still, Kakashi knew better than to think that someone like Itachi had just snapped and killed his entire family for shits and giggles. No, he would have been pushed somehow. Kakashi would be willing to bet his entire Icha Icha collection (including the ones that he’d conned Jiraiya into signing for him) that the bruises on Itachi’s back were from Danzo’s fingers. It was more than time to do something about the Shadow Hokage, whatever the Sandaime thought or felt for his former friend.

 

When they reached the Uchiha District, Kakashi and Tenzo cautiously entered through the gates, scanning for either survivors or enemies. For a long time as they paced the silent streets, all they saw was blood and death. Everywhere they looked, it was just an ocean of bodies. Could one man, even a man like Itachi, really do this alone?

 

Kakashi occasionally knelt down and examined the wounds, wondering. All of the Uchihas he had seen so far been killed cleanly. None of them had been hurt unnecessarily. It was almost...kind? Compassionate? Surgical, perhaps, was the better word. Whatever it was, this crime had not been one of passion. Uchiha Itachi hadn’t simply snapped. He had been controlled, precise in all of his movements. The massacre had happened fast, too. There were virtually no defensive wounds to speak of.

 

It didn’t add up. Kakashi smelled a rat as big as a bijuu.

 

As the light of a new day slowly spilled golden across the horizon, more shinobi came to assist in the search of the compound. The search then turned to body recovery. First another Anbu squad arrived, then a group of upper level jounin. Kurenai bit her lip until her teeth were bloody when she first caught sight of the carnage, but then she started to cover the dead with blankets that she removed from a pack on her back. Gai and Asuma jumped down from the wall surrounding the compound, exchanging stricken looks with their Anbu comrades. Gai was absolutely silent for once as he checked for a pulse on an elderly man’s wrist. Asuma chewed viciously on an unlit cigarette as he gently closed the eyes of a deceased woman, her shopping basket still hooked neatly on her arm. Kakashi found that he was staring at the ripe cherries that had spilled out of her basket and mixed with the red, red blood on the ground. He looked away again, feeling sick.

 

Anko, in her Anbu disguise as Viper, sobbed quietly as she held the limp body of a baby in her arms. The baby could have been asleep except for the small bloodstain in the middle of her pink romper. Kakashi, knowing from a drunken conversation years ago that Anko was unable to have children due to Orochimaru’s experimentation, stepped quickly to her side. “It’s okay, Anko,” he murmured, his hands shaking. He didn’t know how to help her. He didn’t know how to hold her together through this.

 

“It’s not okay,” she whispered brokenly. Tears were flowing from underneath her mask. “It’s not okay. How could he do this? Just leave her here all alone to die? She wasn’t a threat to anyone. He could have spared her.”

 

“I don’t know. It doesn’t make sense, none of it.” Gently, so gently, he took the baby from her and laid the body down on a soft blanket on the ground. He stood up and put his arm around Anko’s shaking shoulders. “She’ll be taken care of, I promise. She won’t be alone anymore.”

 

“You’re always alone when you’re dead, Hound. That’s the whole point,” Anko spat. She shrugged Kakashi’s arm off her shoulders and stalked away to clear the next building. Kakashi watched her back, feeling useless in the face of her pain.

 

“To me!” Gai shouted then, his voice shattering the air like the breaking of a seven years bad luck mirror. “I need assistance! This child yet lives!”

 

Kakashi dashed over, Tenzo at his heels, and took in a shuddering breath of relief. It was Sasuke, thank fuck, and he was clearly breathing, if breathing slowly. “Give him to me,” he said to Gai, reaching for the boy. “He need to be checked out at the hospital, then taken to the Hokage. He’ll have questions about what happened.”

 

“I will take this responsibility upon myself,” Gai said solemnly, standing with Sasuke cradled in his arms. “You are needed here, beloved rival, should the traitor return to the scene of the crime.” Turning, he leapt away before anyone could protest further. Kakashi knew that Sasuke was safe with Gai, and turned back to his task.

 

Sadly, though they looked carefully everywhere, there were no more survivors. Uchiha Sasuke was the last of his clan, save for a single missing-nin.

 

……………….

 

After checking the Uchiha compound thoroughly and watching to make sure that all the bodies were being taken care of respectfully (i.e., that Danzo wasn’t sticking his nose in around all those neglected Sharingans), Kakashi went back to the Hokage’s office to give his report. He felt as if he had been awake and working for at least a week instead of just a few hours. He felt dirty to his very soul and yearned to stand under a hot shower for at least an hour, preferably longer. He hadn’t seen carnage like that since the Third Shinobi War. Had Itachi really dealt so much death alone? It didn’t seem possible. Maybe it wasn’t possible.

 

Shikaku, Gai, and the Sandaime were the only people in the Hokage’s office when Kakashi slipped in through the window. “There you are, Hound. Any sign of Itachi?” Shikaku asked wearily as Kakashi landed on his feet more heavily than his wont.

 

“None,” Kakashi replied, internally thankful. “I even had Pakkun try to track him. His trail leads away from Konoha, towards Wind. He didn’t double back, but that’s all we could tell. The scent just slowly faded away.” It would have been better for Konoha if Itachi had been found, but it would most certainly not have been better for Kakashi. He really hadn’t felt like dying today, and that’s exactly what would have happened if he’d come across Itachi. Running his hand through his sweaty hair, he wished desperately that he could take off his Hound mask. It wasn’t like everyone in the office didn’t already know who he was. With that in mind and an internal screw it, he took the mask off and let it hang from his fingertips. The Sandaime narrowed his eyes, but made no comment.

 

“Small favors, I suppose. Hopefully he won’t come back to Konoha for a long time, if at all,” Shikaku said, collapsing into a chair. He looked at Gai. “How is the boy?”

 

“The most excellent healers at the hospital pronounce him to be in shock and chakra depleted, although he has no external injuries,” Gai reported, his face looking empty without its usual wide smile. “He will need to stay there for a few days for observation. He has not yet awoken and is currently unavailable for questioning.”

 

“I suppose I’ll need to arrange for his belongings to be collected and taken to the orphanage,” the Sandaime said, shaking his head. “That’s the only place for him now.”

 

“Absolutely not,” Kakashi stated firmly, wondering if the Sandaime had finally gone senile. “He’d never be safe at the orphanage. There’s no way to make a place like that secure. Didn’t we learn anything from Naruto?”

 

“We would assign the child an Anbu guard, of course,” the Sandaime said weakly, looking at Shikaku as if he thought the jounin commander would back him up. Shikaku stayed silent, watching Kakashi shrewdly.

 

“Maa, and have them look the other way when a foreign Anbu team showed up to grab him,” Kakashi said, exasperated. “Do you think honestly anybody in this village is going to trust an Uchiha ever again, including Anbu? Itachi was the leader of Anbu, after all, and look what happened. It was bad enough for the Uchiha clan after the Kyuubi attack, but now that one has seemingly gone rogue, the rest of Konoha will be expecting Sasuke to do the same. Nobody will want to stick their necks out to protect Sasuke. Worse, who will want him around their children? It’s Naruto all over again. We can’t react the way you want to, Hokage-sama, it won’t work.”

 

“What do you mean?” the Hokage growled, clenching his pipe between his teeth.

 

Encouraged by Gai’s subtle nod of approval, Kakashi kept going. “Sasuke is the last Uchiha, Sandaime. Every hidden village in the world is going to want to kidnap him for his Sharingan. Not to mention the fact that taking a traumatized child, removing him from his home and slinging him into an atmosphere like the orphanage would likely destroy him. We’d just be right back here again in a few years, and Konoha might not survive it.” He honestly couldn’t believe that we was having to explain all of this. Wasn’t the Sandaime a parent himself? Where was the man’s compassion, his empathy for a young boy like Sasuke? Although, judging from Asuma’s increasingly frequent escapes to the Daimyo’s Court, perhaps being a father didn’t mean all that much when it came to the Sandaime.

 

The Hokage rolled his eyes and dropped into his desk chair, looking petulant. “Well, then, perhaps he can stay on in the Uchiha district. We could ward that fairly easily, and give him a living allowance. He wouldn’t have to leave his home then.”

 

“That’s an even worse idea,” Kakashi said bluntly, his patience finally gone. “That place is going to haunted forever. You can’t ask a boy to live where his entire family was slaughtered, it’s inhumane. It would be like asking me to sleep in my father’s bedroom. It would twist the kid even more.”

 

Shikaku finally spoke up. “What do you suggest we do then, Kakashi?”

 

“Sasuke is going to need a lot of support, support that he won’t get at an orphanage,” Kakashi said, trying to keep his frustration out of his voice. “He needs guidance, family, or he’s going to come out of this damaged for life. Well, he still will be, but with the right support structure, maybe it won’t be so bad.”

 

“Then surely you are the logical choice to take care of him, Kakashi,” the Hokage said, brightening. He finally lit his pipe and drew smoke from it like a drowning man breathing in oxygen. “You have the Sharingan, after all. He’ll need training with it as he grows older.”

 

Kakashi shook his head, exasperated. “Sasuke is more than just his Sharingan. I can’t give him what he really needs, which is my undivided attention. Naruto is all I can handle right now, and he’s my first priority. We all know that his seal is going to start to degrade at some point. The more he works with his chakra, the faster it will happen. It’s a crucial time for him and he’s going to need all the attention I can give him. Putting Sasuke with me wouldn’t be helpful. Both boys would be neglected and that’s a recipe for disaster.”

 

“I will take him,” Gai said quietly.

 

“What?” Shikaku and Hiruzen said together, shocked. The Hokage nearly swallowed his pipe. Kakashi just grinned behind his mask. He’d had a feeling that this would happen and it served Hiruzen right.

 

“I will take Uchiha Sasuke,” Gai repeated firmly. “I do accept this responsibility.”

 

“But...but why?” the Hokage sputtered.

 

“I have witnessed the great change in my beloved rival as he has raised Uzumaki Naruto over the past few years. Obviously, having the honor of nurturing youthful passion is a most rewarding challenge, and I must confess that I have yearned to do the same,” Gai said with a nod at Kakashi. “Now, my moment has arrived and I will not allow it to pass me by. It would be my great honor to accept Uchiha Sasuke into my home.”

 

“But Gai, this is so much more than just teaching,” Shikaku said weakly. “We have no idea what Sasuke witnessed last night. The psychological damage alone could be severe. I don’t think you truly understand what you’re getting yourself into.”

 

“All the more reason to accept the challenge!” Gai said with a confident thumbs up. “Despite what you believe, I know that the coming trial will not be an easy one. Caring for the Uchiha under these circumstances would be an all but impossible task for any other shinobi. But there is one thing I know above all else, gentlemen.” He stood up straight and tall, his face set with determination. “You see, I never give up. It is my creed, my Ninja Way. No matter what the boy does or feels, I will not swerve in my devotion to his care and recovery. With support such as this, the boy cannot help but begin to heal from the dreadful wounds he was dealt this night. He will once again enter his Springtime of Youth.”

 

The Hokage turned to Kakashi in exasperation. “Just look at what you started, Hatake. It’s not bad enough that I lost my best Anbu when you took in Naruto, now I have to lose my taijutsu specialist, too?”

 

Strangely, Kakashi didn’t feel in the least bit sorry about this. “Hokage-sama, Gai is right. Sasuke needs a foundation right now, and there’s no firmer foundation in the world than one built by Maito Gai. Sasuke will be safe with him, and that’s what’s most important.”

 

Turning to Shikaku, the Sandaime complained, “I suppose you’re going to gang up on me, too?”

 

“I agree that Gai is more than capable of keeping Sasuke safe,” Shikaku said carefully, the scars on his face drawing tight. “I think we should let him try. We can always reevaluate later, if it doesn’t go well.”

 

“I have no doubt that there will be problems at first,” Gai declared, “but I shall not be swayed from my duty.”

 

The Hokage sighed. “So be it. When Sasuke is released from the hospital, he’ll come to stay with you, Gai. Now all of you get out of my office before I have you charged with insubordination. My taijutsu specialist becoming a foster father, honestly …”

 

The three jounin made their escape eagerly. Shikaku clapped Gai on the shoulder. “Good luck, Gai. You have no idea what you’ve gotten yourself into, but I’m going to enjoy watching you deal with it.” He left in the direction of the Mission room, shaking his head.

 

Gai turned to Kakashi. “Beloved rival, can I count on your support in the coming days with my new endeavor?”

 

Kakashi let Gai see his eye smile before he slipped back on his Hound mask. “Always, Gai. Always. Just let me know what you need and you’ll have it. You did the same with me and I'll never be able to repay you.” Then he left, feeling the need to check on Naruto. Gai left too, heading in the direction of the hospital.

 

When Kakashi got home, he was greeted by a frantic Naruto and the anxious barking of the pack. “What happened, boss?” “Where have you been?” “The pup was worried that you weren’t here, he wanted to go to school!” “He wouldn’t play fetch with us or anything!”

 

“Quiet down, all of you,” Kakashi said wearily, dropping his gear in a heap by the floor. He gave the hated Anbu mask a kick as he went by and collapsed onto the couch, groaning in relief.

 

“What happened, Kakashi-nii-san? Why couldn’t I leave the house?” Naruto asked as he danced around on his toes. “Shiba nipped me when I tried to go outside to work in the garden!”

 

“Don’t be mad at Shiba, she was just following my orders,” Kakashi said. It was making his eyes cross to watch Naruto flutter anxiously about the room. He nabbed Naruto’s thin wrist and pulled him down beside him on the couch. “I’m sorry about that, though. I had to leave in a hurry and I wasn’t sure what was going on. I wanted you to stay home where it was safe.”

 

“I would have been safe at school,” Naruto protested. “With Iruka-sensei being my teacher this year, no one would have bothered me. Besides, I can take care of myself. I can fight and I have Bisuke.”

 

“Still,” Kakashi said, not wanting to have another argument on Bisuke’s relative usefulness. “Listen, Naruto, I need to talk to you. Something really bad happened last night.” Slowly, carefully, he gave Naruto a censored version of the massacre. He had to all but sit on Naruto to keep him from storming the hospital and only calmed him down by promising to take him by later to visit Sasuke. He warned Naruto that Sasuke might not be the same. He might be angry, or sad, and might draw away from Naruto because of his pain.

 

Still, he knew that however Sasuke reacted, Naruto would be there for his friend. He didn’t know how to give up any more than Gai did.

 

…………….

 

The next day, Kakashi was waiting outside the school when classes were dismissed. Iruka and Naruto met him in the yard, and together they walked to the hospital. Naruto darted ahead of the two adults, eager to see Sasuke. “Any word on Itachi?” Iruka murmured to Kakashi as they followed behind Naruto more slowly.

 

“Nothing so far,” Kakashi replied, scowling. He’d been imagining what would happen if he reached out and took Iruka’s hand as they walked, and wasn’t pleased to have his fantasy interrupted. It had been a long couple of days, after all, he needed the escape. “The Hokage has Anbu teams out looking for him, but if Itachi doesn’t want to be found, he won’t be. I guess I taught him too well. Let that be a lesson to me.”

 

“I just don’t understand it.” Iruka shook his head, his ponytail bobbing distractingly. “I mean, I get that there’s probably a lot that the Hokage isn’t telling us, but nothing about the story we got even fits. I saw Itachi with Sasuke; he truly loved that boy. Why would he do this horrible thing and leave Sasuke alone? And then, why would he spare Sasuke if he’d really snapped and lost control? It doesn’t make sense to me.”

 

“None of it makes sense,” Kakashi said darkly. He kept his suspicions to himself, though. He wanted to keep Iruka out of the seedy underbelly of Konoha as much as possible.

 

They reached the hospital and asked the receptionist for Sasuke’s room number. Together, the group climbed the stairs and found the room at the end of the hall being guarded by Viper and Tiger, an Anbu Kakashi had never worked with in the past. Tiger didn’t want to let them into the room, but Anko rolled her eyes behind her mask and waved them to go through the door. To his credit, Naruto knocked twice politely before barging in.

 

Gai was sitting in a chair at the foot of Sasuke’s bed, snoring with his head tipped back to the ceiling. His neck was going to be painful when he woke up. Kakashi could see that Gai obviously hadn’t left the boy’s side since he’d spoken with the Hokage, his clothes crumpled and his face shadowed by stubble. Sasuke, however, was awake and staring blankly at a wall. He didn’t turn around to look at the visitors upon their entrance.

 

Naruto, cowed by the heavy silence of the room, stuffed down his usual shouts and stepped gingerly over to Sasuke’s side. Kakashi could see his hands trembling in the pockets of his orange shorts. “Hey, Sasuke-kun,” Naruto said hesitantly. Gai startled awake at the sound, but he didn’t shoo Naruto away, instead watching with troubled eyes. “How are you feeling?” Naruto winced as soon as the words left his mouth. “Sorry, that's a stupid question. I’m sure you feel terrible. I don’t know what to say.”

 

Sasuke made no reply. He just kept staring at the wall.

 

“I’m really sorry about what happened,” Naruto said, persevering, tears starting to roll down his cheeks. “I know it hurts an awful lot. I know how sad I get when I remember my mom and dad, and I didn’t even know them like you knew yours. But even though you’ll always miss them, Kakashi-nii-san says it gets easier. He says that my parents are always with me, and I know that your parents are the same. Right?”

 

“Naruto, maybe that’s enough for the day,” Kakashi said, exchanging worried glances with Iruka.

 

A little hysterically, Naruto ignored him and rushed on. “Do you think you’ll be back at school soon, Sasuke? Everybody misses you. Even Shikamaru. He says you not being there to distract me is troublesome. And Sakura wants to spar with you again.”

 

Sasuke was stone. He hadn’t even blinked.

 

Iruka stepped forward and starting speaking softly to Sasuke while Gai reached out and drew Naruto gently to his side. “Your brother student has had a trying few days, Naruto-kun,” he said quietly, squeezing Naruto’s shoulder. “Perhaps you could come back to visit him at another time? I am sure that Sasuke would appreciate your youthful and hip company then.” Naruto nodded, but his sobs only grew louder. His heart was broken for his friend.

 

Kakashi stepped up and drew Naruto into a tight hug, physically aching at Naruto’s suffering. He wanted so badly to tell him that everything was going to be okay, but he didn’t want to lie to Naruto, not now. All he could do was hold the boy close and hope that everything he couldn’t say would get across somehow through his touch.

 

On their way home, a silent Naruto darted into Yamanaka Flowers. Kakashi waited for him outside, wondering but patient. Naruto came out again with a single packet of seeds clutched tightly in his fist. He worked all afternoon under the hot sun in the garden, digging a fresh row right next to his beloved carrots. Kakashi watched him carefully tilling the soil until it was rich and smooth, exactly as Ino had taught him. The seeds disappeared into the earth, and Naruto slowly walked into the house, his hands dirty, but his whiskered face determined.

 

…………………..

 

Over the following weeks, every day after school Naruto faithfully made the walk first to the hospital, then to Gai’s new little house where Sasuke now lived. Gai had been able to find a house only two streets over from Kakashi’s, close to the Nara compound. Kakashi grew to admire Gai and Naruto even more than he had before during that period for their constancy. Sasuke remained catatonic, but Gai never lost his patience. Gently, he fed and cared for the boy as if he had always been in Sasuke’s life. He anxiously consulted with the healers to be sure that Sasuke was receiving the correct nutrition, and read him books recommended by Iruka. He went alone into the silent Uchiha compound and brought out the posters that had hung on the walls in Sasuke’s old room, along with other treasures.

 

Naruto was just as tireless. Before he trained or ate ramen or played with his friends, he visited Sasuke and talked to him. He learned to blithely ignore Sasuke’s silence and would chatter on about anything and everything he could think of, telling Sasuke what their class had learned that day in school and what jutsu they were being taught. As a consequence, his grades (which were already higher under Iruka-sensei’s wise guidance), only improved. Teaching made him a better student. Kakashi noticed that Naruto was becoming quieter, more mature. Part of him missed Naruto’s little boy enthusiasm, but he admired the person he was becoming.

 

Finally, the day came when Naruto ran home, shouting and jubilant for the first time in weeks. He had been talking to Sasuke, telling him the minutiae of his day and giving a play by play of a conversation between Ino and Sakura, when Sasuke had blinked, rolled his eyes and told him to shut up already, dobe. Naruto was absolutely thrilled.

 

Kakashi was glad to hear that Sasuke had finally snapped out of his malaise, but he also worried. He had a feeling that now that Sasuke was “awake,” he would be dealing with a lot of anger. Gai was in for a rough ride.

 

Kakashi really, really hated it when he was right.

 

…………..

 

It took awhile for things to come to a head. Sasuke for the most part utterly ignored Gai’s existence over the following weeks, which Kakashi found rude but understandable. After all, having your guardian switch from an inscrutable dark genius like Itachi to a man that lived in bright green unitards, leg warmers and talked like a two hundred year old philosopher? Unfathomable. Kakashi didn’t blame the kid for being irritable.

 

Sasuke returned to school and attacked his work with the same single minded determination that he employed to ignore the whispers that swirled around him everywhere he went. He barely spoke to anyone, and his favorite word became a dismissive “hn.” Taijutsu, ninjutsu, no matter what was being taught, Sasuke had to be the best at it, and damn anyone who got in his way. It was easy to see why. Revenge radiated from his skin like mist over a pond in autumn. Naruto stayed close to his friend, but he watched him carefully. No one wanted to risk the uneasy balance they’d found and tip Sasuke over the edge.

 

The class was having taijutsu sparring matches close to the end of the school year when it finally happened. Naruto had already fought Chouji, and had easily won his match. Sasuke had been set to fight Shikamaru, and he attacked the other student brutally. Shikamaru’s usual lazy indolence disappeared as he was forced to defend himself against vigorous attacks. His eyes went cold and cunning and his limbs flashed as he deflected Sasuke’s moves seemingly before the other boy could make them. After all, he had studied each of his classmates closely when he had been bored in class, and was familiar with all of their fighting styles. Nothing ever surprised Shikamaru.

 

Iruka could see the frustration building in Sasuke’s eyes and was considering calling the match when Shikamaru landed a solid kick right to Sasuke’s solar plexus, knocking the wind out of him. Shikamaru immediately stepped back and started to bow respectfully to his gasping opponent, assuming the fight was over.

 

Instead, Sasuke jumped to his feet, shaking with rage. “You think you can beat me that easily, huh, Nara? You think you’re better than me?” he screamed at Shikamaru, raising his hands in a boar sign. “Beat this, then!” The signs for horse and tiger swiftly followed the boar, and Sasuke took in a deep breath before shouting, “Fire Release: Great Fireball Jutsu!”

 

Shikamaru reacted quickly and ducked to avoid the wall of flames that came shooting from Sasuke’s mouth. He rolled and started making hand signs himself as the flames went roaring over his head and lit up the school’s walls. “Shadow Imitation Technique!” he said as he stared hard at Sasuke, using his family’s jutsu for the first time in battle. Sasuke went to draw a shuriken from his weapons pouch, but was stunned to find himself paralyzed. “What did you do?” he shrieked. “Let me go!”

 

“No way,” Shikamaru said, sweating from both the heat of the fire and the strain of holding the enraged Uchiha still. “You’ll just go crazy again. What’s wrong with you, man? It was just a spar!”

 

“It’s never just a spar,” Sasuke spat between gritted teeth as he struggled. “Don’t you get it? We’re never safe! Every day is a battle, dobe!”

 

Shikamaru’s shadow bind gave Iruka the time he needed to react. He herded the rest of the class away to safety, then used a water jutsu to put the fire out. Other teachers streamed from the building and joined him. Part of the wall crumbled away as it cooled, smoke rising to the sky. An Anbu appeared out of nowhere and bound Sasuke by the wrists, allowing Shikamaru to sit back on his heels, panting from exertion. Naruto, eyeing the unfamiliar Anbu warily, dashed to Shikamaru’s side, checking to make sure that his friend was unhurt. He spotted a smoldering cinder on the back of Shikamaru’s shirt, and quickly patted it out with his hand, ignoring his singed fingers. He was a fast healer.

 

“What’s going on here?” Everyone turned and saw the Hokage arriving, obviously drawn from his office in the Tower by the pillar of smoke.

 

“A bit of a training incident, Hokage-sama,” Iruka said grimly, pouring water on the last of the flames. “Things got out of hand during a spar. Apparently, Uchiha Sasuke is quite proficient with the fireball release.”

 

“I can see that,” the Hokage said, glancing at the damage done to the school. “Iruka-sensei, please see that Maito Gai is summoned to the school at once. This calls for some discussion.” He turned to the rest of the class, who were standing in groups around the school’s training ground, shocked and whispering. “The rest of you students, go home now. There will be no more school today. Your parents will be notified soon as to whether classes will be back in session tomorrow.”

 

The kids all scampered away except for Naruto, who was watching Sasuke with a troubled look on his face. Iruka stepped over to his student and put his hand on Naruto’s shoulder. “Go home now, Naruto. There’s nothing you can do here to help him.”

 

Naruto looked up at his teacher, biting his lip. “Will Sasuke-kun be okay, Iruka-sensei? He didn’t mean to hurt anyone, I know it.”

 

Iruka didn’t know how to answer, so he didn’t. He pointed Naruto towards the gates of the school, then followed the Hokage and the Anbu holding an irate Sasuke back into the school.

 

Gai arrived a few minutes later and immediately dashed to Sasuke’s side. “My young comrade, are you well? Are you injured?” he asked, patting the boy down and ignoring Sasuke’s squawks of resentment.

 

“Sasuke is unhurt, Gai,” the Hokage said wearily. “I can’t say the same for the school building.”

 

Gai blinked. “I noticed. It appears most unyouthful. What has happened here?”

 

Quickly, Iruka gave both the Hokage and Gai the condensed version of what had happened during Sasuke’s spar. “Obviously, what we’ve been doing isn’t working,” the Hokage said once Iruka was finished. “The boy is angry and completely out of control. He will be removed from Gai’s home immediately and placed in a different situation. Perhaps the orphanage is the best place for him after all.”

 

“No!” Gai shouted, stepping forward and placing his hands on Sasuke’s shoulders. “Forgive me for my exuberance, Sandaime, but that cannot happen. The boy is troubled, understandably so, but I cannot think that changing his living situation now will do him any good. More change is the last thing he needs. I beg you, Hokage-sama, do not remove him from my care. I will do more to make him comfortable, work harder than ever to be a teacher to him, I swear it.”

 

Sasuke blinked, shocked out of his bad temper. Gai wasn’t going to kick him out? But...he’d practically burned down the school! He was dangerous, unbalanced, a menace to society, that’s what they all said. Gai shouldn’t want to have anything to do with him now. That was partly why he’d lost his temper in the first place. He’d been frustrated by Gai’s continual kindness, his eagerness, his...his passionate shouting at all hours of the day or night. In return, Sasuke was rude to him, ignored him, intentionally made his life as miserable as he could. Why wouldn’t Gai take this opportunity to be rid of him?

 

“I agree with Gai-san,” Iruka said quickly, seeing the sudden confusion on Sasuke’s face. “The orphanage is the worst place in the world for Sasuke.”

 

“The boy burned down the school!” the hokage said, throwing his hands up in the air. “Obviously, something must be done.”

 

“He didn’t burn it completely down,” Iruka contradicted weakly, “just...one wall of it.”

 

Gai sighed. “Perhaps I acted too hastily and erred in my eagerness. It occurs to me that nobody has asked Sasuke for his opinion on any of this. It’s all my fault.” Sasuke started, and Gai turned to address him, looking him dead in the eyes. “Sasuke-kun, we all have your best interests at heart,” he said quietly. “I have enjoyed having you in my home and was hoping that we could learn to live together as passionate comrades. You have been very deeply hurt, though, and I acknowledge your pain. What would make you happiest? I promise to help you, no matter what you choose.”

 

Sasuke stared at Gai, blown away. No one had asked him for his opinion. Worse, ever since the massacre, almost everyone had ignored the fact that he was grieving. People spoke of him in whispers, then drew back as if his pain would smudge their clothing. He missed his brother. He hated his brother. He both wanted to go home and never see it again. His life was perpetual confusion. Only Naruto, Iruka and Gai cut him any slack as he mourned the loss of everything he’d ever known. Gai was ridiculous, but at the very least, he was kind. Sasuke doubted that kindness would be found in any supply at the orphanage. He couldn’t believe what he was about to say. “I would...prefer to stay with Gai-san,” he said, keeping his eyes firmly pointed to the floor. “Please, Hokage-sama, let me stay.”

 

“Are you sure?” Gai asked, his face hopeful.

 

“Hn,” Sasuke responded. “It’s better than the orphanage and...you can be cool, sometimes,” he added unwillingly.

 

“Thank you, Sasuke-kun,” Gai said, his tense shoulders lowering. “I am overwhelmed. You may, of course, continue to stay with me.” The Hokage started to protest, but Gai held up a finger to show that he wasn’t finished. “However, some things must change.”

 

“Yeah, I figured,” Sasuke groused.

 

“First, there must be no more burning down of buildings,” Gai said emphatically. “If you wish to practice your fire jutsu, I will find you an appropriate place to do so. Are we agreed?”

 

“Hn.” At Iruka’s sharp look, Sasuke hastily added politely, “Yes, agreed, Gai-san.”

 

“Good. You must also begin to contribute to the household by performing necessary tasks for its upkeep. You must be courteous to your classmates and to me. An impolite air is most unhip,” Gai continued.

 

“So, I have to do chores and mind my manners?” Sasuke said. “I can do that.”

 

“Excellent!” Gai cheered, grinning. “Finally, I was hoping that you would agree to begin training with me. There is much that I can teach you.”

 

“That would be...okay,” Sasuke said, trying to hide the light that had sprung into his eyes. Gai was a dork, but he was also famous in the village for his skills. Whatever he taught Sasuke could help him bring down his brother someday.

 

“Then we have an accord,” Gai said. He held out his hand, and after a brief pause, Sasuke shook it, looking hopeful.

 

“Why did I bother coming, if I was only going to be ignored?” the Hokage muttered viciously, standing up. “I’ll just see myself out…”

 

Gai and Iruka exchanged gleeful smiles, and even Sasuke’s lips quirked up at the edges.

 

That afternoon, Sasuke was working on his very first chore by raking leaves in Gai’s backyard. He looked up when he heard cheerful whistling drawing close, and saw Naruto and Shikamaru walking to the house, a heavy planter balanced in the air between them as they shared the weight. “What’s that?” Sasuke said rudely, before remembering his promises to Gai. “Sorry. I mean, hello.”

 

“Hi back, fireball,” Naruto said cheerfully. “How did it go with the Hokage?”

 

“He wanted to toss me in the orphanage,” Sasuke said bitterly. “Can you believe it? Gai stuck up for me, though. I get to stay here as long as I behave myself.”

 

“I remember the orphanage a little.” Naruto shuddered, and Shikamaru watched him with troubled eyes. “I lived there when I was a baby. It was always cold and the grown ups yelled and there was never enough food. They hit me sometimes, too, when I cried. Trust me, you’re better off here,” he said as he looked admiringly at the neat house Gai had bought. “Gai-san is really nice, you know. I mean, yeah, he can be weird sometimes, and he shouts, but it isn’t ever in a mean way. He just gets excited and can’t help himself.”

 

“How do you know?” Sasuke asked, intrigued.

 

Naruto shrugged. “Gai-san used to watch me a lot when Kakashi-nii-san was gone on missions, before I got Bisuke and started to stay with the Inuzukas. He’d always play games with me and tell me stories and give me carrots even though he hates them. He cares. You can tell it’s the real thing, too, not like when people pretend to be nice but really aren’t, like Mizuki-sensei.”

 

“Hn,” Sasuke said, kicking a leaf petulantly. “Gai’s okay. It could be worse. I guess I’ll stay, and see what he teaches me. He’s promised to start training with me.”

 

Shikamaru raised one dark eyebrow. “Then you’re really lucky. My dad says Gai-san is one of the best jounin we have, next to Kakashi. He’ll have a lot to teach you.”

 

“Yeah, I know,” Sasuke moaned. “He’s really good. If only he just wasn’t so... Gai .” The boys all laughed, even Sasuke, to his surprise. It sounded a little hoarse, but it was there. “Sorry about before,” he said awkwardly to Shikamaru. “I went too far.”

 

“Don’t worry about it,” Shikamaru said with a wave. “It gave me a chance to use my shadow jutsu. It was fun to knock you on your ass.”

 

Sasuke sniffed, but wisely ignored the insult. “What is that, anyway?” he asked, pointing at the potted planet.

 

Naruto’s cheeks flamed redder than Sakura’s tunic. “Er. It’s a tomato plant.”

 

Sasuke blinked. “What.”

 

“A tomato plant,” Naruto repeated. “I know they’re your favorite, so stop pretending already. My house didn’t really feel like home until Kakashi-nii-san let me plant my garden. He lets me grow all the carrots I want, and he never makes me grow gross stuff, like lima beans. We both hate those. It’s fun to watch things change from a seed to something you can eat, or something pretty, like a flower. I thought, maybe having something that you love would make it easier for you to live here. You don’t even need to plant this in the yard if Gai-san doesn’t want a full garden,” he rushed to add. “There’s plenty of room in this pot for the roots. All it needs is a trellis for the vines to climb up and you’re all set. There are more growing back at my house, in case something happens to this one.”

 

Sasuke turned his back on Naruto and stood still as stone. Having both Gai and Naruto do things to make him happy in one day was too much for his bitterness to maintain its stronghold. He felt the ice around his heart melting, just a little. It hurt, but felt better all at the same time. After a long pause, he turned around again and thanked Naruto quietly. Together, the three boys lugged the enormous pot over to a sunny corner of the yard, then started planning the trellis it would need.

 

From the kitchen window, Kakashi and Gai were watching. “Naruto-kun is a credit to you, Kakashi,” Gai said, manly tears streaming down his face.

 

Kakashi shook his head. “That selfless love thing he has going on, it didn’t come from me. That’s pure Minato-sensei. The shouting and the gardening he gets from Kushina. Now, the killer taijutsu skills, that’s all me.”

 

“You don’t give yourself enough credit,” Gai argued, looking stubborn. “I can only aspire to be half the teacher you have been, beloved rival.”

 

“Gai, I have every hope in the world that between the two of us, we just might make one functional parent,” Kakashi said, throwing a napkin at Gai’s face.

 

Gai laughed, mopped up his tears, and moved to the door to join the boys. It seemed that they had a garden to dig.

Chapter Text

Gardens were blooming all over Konoha. Despite Inoichi’s initial concerns to the contrary, Yamanaka Flowers had actually never been so busy. The entire Yamanaka clan was kept hopping, advising civilians and ninja alike on soil types and seeds and fertilizer. (It gave everyone else in the village a blessed breathing spell from the constant psych exams that tended to happen whenever one shared a room with a Yamanaka for more than thirty seconds. It was a problem.)

 

In Hatake Kakashi’s backyard, Naruto’s garden was slowly encroaching on the designated training area despite Kakashi’s stated wishes. Among the plethora of plants were berries bursting red and purple from the vines, a green mist of carrot tops that hovered silkily over the ground, and hills of potatoes that tripped up anyone so unwary as to walk among them. Then there was the crowning glory of the garden: a long line of sunflowers towering as high as the walls surrounding the property. (Kakashi thought about protesting, but then he remembered that sunflowers had also been Kushina’s favorite flowers and kept silent. Even if he did kind of wish that Naruto were growing something prickly and hard to eradicate as an additional line of home defense instead of cheerful yellow flowers.)

 

At the home of Maito Gai, a much more orderly garden marched neatly in rows down the side yard of the little white and green house. Tomatoes hung red and juicy from trellises while dark green cucumbers the same shade as a certain infamous unitard battled for space beside them.

 

At the Aburame home, the flowerbeds were bursting with a riot of honeysuckle, dill, fennel, and milkweed. The butterflies and bees feasted appreciatively. A mischievous Kiba grew catnip in spades, lurring sparring partners in for his ninken to try and catch. A row of pots lined Kurenai’s apartment balcony, all filled with sweet snow peas. Recently, though, a pot of hot red peppers had migrated over from the Sarutobi compound to join them there.

 

Even the Nara compound had a few rows of flowers growing next to their more traditional medicinal herbs. Gentle deer nibbled on these new additions gratefully, savoring the varying tastes and textures. In this garden, though, weeds sprouted haphazardly between the blooms, as if the gardener had been distracted by some particularly fluffy clouds.

 

As the plants grew, the bonds between Konoha’s pre-genin also blossomed. On this sunny Saturday, they worked and played in groups and apart, growing slowly into the shinobi of the future. At the village training grounds near the forest, the newest generation of Ino-Shika-Cho worked with their patient fathers, learning each other’s patterns and styles. “Oh, c’mon, Chouji,” Shikamaru pleaded tiredly, lifting anguished eyes heavenward. “How am I supposed to spar with you if your hands are covered in peanut butter?”

 

“But I'm hungry!” Chouji wailed, glancing at Ino anxiously. He knew well that anything peanut butter was her greatest weakness, and damn anyone that stood between them.

 

He was right to be concerned. “Peanut butter? Give it to me!” Ino screeched, leaping onto Chouji’s broad back with reckless abandon. Chouji squawked and tried to shake her off his back in such a way that she wouldn’t be hurt, but that was impossible. Ino was out for blood and she would not be kept from that delicious peanut butter. Shikamaru shook his head and tried to discreetly escape the madness. After all, he was missing prime cloud watching weather. He started edging away towards the forest, hopeful of a discrete exit.

 

Inoichi, Shikaku and Chouza all sighed at the chaos and stepped forward to subdue their offspring. The peanut butter candy disappeared into Chouza’s pocket, Ino was extracted from Chouji’s back, and Shikamaru was plucked from the tree he had leapt into in a desperate bid for freedom. Deprived of their distractions, the children sat back down again to listen to Shikaku explain battle tactics, grumpy that their fun had been ruined. Shikamaru idly wondered what Naruto was up to and thought that this was all very troublesome.

 

Not too far away, Hyuuga Hinata and Haruno Sakura were in the otherwise empty schoolyard, sparring together under Kurenai’s watchful eye. “Great, Hinata!” Kurenai encouraged when the shy Hyuuga finally managed to hit Sakura solidly on the arm. “THat’s the way to slip under her guard. Now see if you can do it again!”

 

“She can,” Sakura said, wiping a bead of sweat from her forehead. The girls leapt for each other with renewed vigor and Hinata did, indeed, do it again. Her smile lit up the entire block.

 

Iruka, who was up in his empty classroom preparing lessons for the next school year, glanced at the girls out the window and smiled. They really were progressing. It was amazing what kind, thoughtful teaching could do. He couldn’t imagine that Hinata got any of that in her family’s compound and scowled at the thought. Then he saw the joy in Hinata’s pale eyes and was content. There was more than one kind of family, after all.

 

Near Ichiraku Ramen, Kiba was hiding behind a wall and giggling into his arm, waiting for Shino to stumble into the paint tag bomb he’d set up in an alley as a joke. Shino casually skirted the tag, having already been warned of the trap by his chakra insects. He smirked into the lining of his jacket as Kiba’s wail of disappointment drifted to his ears. “Better luck next time,” he said solemnly as he passed Kiba’s hiding place. Akamaru howled in distress from his place in Kiba’s hood, and Kiba rubbed his ears soothingly. “Don’t worry, boy,” he promised. “We’ll get him someday!”

 

At the city walls, Maito Gai was gesturing wildly at a bored Kakashi and Sasuke and at an enthusiastic Naruto. “Comrades, if I fail to do five hundred wind sprints this day, I will run up and down the stairs of Hokage Mountain two hundred times!” he shouted, pointing triumphantly to the sky.

 

“Gai, we’re supposed to be teaching the boys how to fight in pairs,” Kakashi drawled, his shoulders slumped. “Why on earth would we be doing wind sprints instead?”

 

“Hn,” Sasuke agreed fervently, spreading his feet so that he couldn’t be easily moved. No one would be forcing him to do wind sprints against his will.

 

“For the glory, my beloved rival! For the challenge! For our improvement!” Gai declared, glancing at Naruto to see if the jinchuuriki would back him up.

 

Five hundred was an awfully big number and Naruto didn’t know if he could actually do it. If he couldn’t do five hundred wind sprints, then there was no way he could run up all those stairs two hundred times afterwards. They’d have to scrape him up off the ground. He’d really wanted to practice his taijutsu, and to get to do it with all of his favorite people on top of that? He hated to miss out on it for something as mundane as cardio . But he respected Gai and hated to see that sad look on his face.

 

Never let it be said, though, that Naruto had ever backed down from a challenge. Bravely, he replied, “Wind sprints won’t hurt us, and I guess we could always spar afterwards, right, Kakashi-nii-san?” Swallowing, he tried not to look disappointed.

 

Kakashi took pity on Naruto. “No, we wouldn’t have time for both today,” he interrupted, “and sparring is more important.” At Gai’s pout, he asked himself just when he had become such a wimp and said consolingly, “I’ll take you up on your challenge another time, Gai.”

 

“I accept your amended proposal with great excitement, my glorious rival!” Gai cried, the black clouds over his head fading away. Naruto sighed in relief. “Now, my honorable students, the youthful Kakashi and I would like us to pair up for a glorious spar. We will switch partners after a while so that you must adjust to a different skill set and fighting style. Naruto, why do you not begin fighting with me, and Sasuke, you can fight alongside my eternal rival?”

 

“Hn,” Sasuke agreed with great excitement, stepping to stand by Kakashi.

 

“Yes, Gai-san!” Naruto shouted, punching the air, and leapt to the Green Beast’s side, dancing with eagerness.

 

“Ready?” Kakashi asked, still standing slouched with his hands in his pockets. “Begin.” As one, he and Sasuke leapt for Naruto and Gai, who met them in mid-air.

 

They fought for a while, Gai and Kakashi being very careful to push the boys to their limits, but no further. They didn’t want to see the children hurt due to carelessness. They exchanged glances between blows, pleased with Sasuke’s and Naruto’s progress. Both boys were fighting intelligently and cleanly, their prowess well above the level expected for their age. If the adults weren’t careful, the boys could both be made genin before they were mentally or emotionally ready. It was something to be concerned about in the coming days.

 

It was after they had switched teams and Kakashi and Naruto were fighting together against Gai and Sasuke that it happened. The air around them was suddenly writhing with black figures, at least twenty full grown shinobi leaping to attack Kakashi and Gai. The interlopers’ faces were covered with blank porcelain masks, and they were all armed to the teeth. Acting as one, Gai and Kakashi pushed the boys behind them and started fighting in earnest, Gai immediately opening the first gate and Kakashi pushing up his hitai-ate to reveal his Sharingan. This wasn’t a normal attack by foreign mercenaries or missing-nin.

 

Kakashi recognized their opponents. These fighters were Root.

 

“What do you want?” Kakashi growled at the ninja he was fighting, driving off another two with an exploding tag. The ninja didn’t reply, just body flickered away and appeared behind Kakashi, near the children. Sasuke and Naruto were standing back to back, and Sasuke had a kunai in his hand. He swiped at the ninja and missed, and Naruto backed him up by aiming a neat kick at the shinobi’s back. The ninja dodged and plucked Naruto out of the air, hauling him over his shoulder.

 

Before he could go more than two steps, Kakashi had thrust a handful of lightning through his chest and grabbed Naruto as he twisted to the ground. “Run,” he ordered the boys, turning and parrying the blows of two more ninja. “Get help!”

 

The boys turned obediently to run, but three enemy shinobi cut off their escape route, one already reaching for Naruto and another lunging for Sasuke. Gai was preoccupied with three separate opponents and only Kakashi saw what was happening. He ran faster than he ever had before, but he knew with a sick lurch in his stomach that he’d never reach them before the boys were caught.

 

Right as the Root soldier’s hand was closing around Naruto’s wrist, a red blur darted between them. The next second, Chouza Akimichi was slamming the black clad figure so hard into the ground that he left a crater in his wake. Shadows wound sinuously around another group of four Root soldiers, and then Inoichi was sweeping the children away to safety, throwing a shuriken at a nin who tried to block his path.

 

The battle turned quickly after that, and soon there were bodies littering the ground. Shikaku was still holding some of the Root-nin immobile so that Inoichi could tie them up when Kakashi slit the last throat and ran up to Naruto, Gai hard on his heels. “Are you okay?” he panted, falling to his knees to check Naruto for injuries, Gai doing the same with Sasuke.

 

Naruto leapt into Kakashi’s arms for a hug, but quickly pulled away again. Someone had given him a kunai, and he held it confidently in his small hand. “I’m okay, nii-san, don’t worry,” he said firmly, his eyes frightened, but still strong and ready for anything. Kakashi was so damn proud of him in that moment. “What was that about? Why did those men attack us?”

 

“I don’t know,” Kakashi lied as he turned to watch Inoichi sealing the enemy nin into a scroll, “but I’m going to find out.” He held Naruto close to his side, trying to fight down the battle fever, the whine of pack in his chest that made him want to fight , to protect , to rip and tear .

 

He shook himself and turned to the Nara leader, who was walking up after being freed of his prisoners. “Shikaku, I don’t know where you three came from, but I can’t thank you enough.” He bowed respectfully to show his gratitude. “There were too many of them, and they were trying to take the boys. I don’t know if Gai and I could have stopped them.”

 

“We weren’t too far away training our kids, and we heard the fight,” Shikaku explained, his forehead wrinkling with concern. “I’m just glad we got here in time. They were rather...single minded, and it made it easier to sneak up on them.”

 

Ino, Shikamaru and Chouji appeared then, followed closely by the guards from the nearby gatehouse. Naruto and Sasuke darted over to speak with their friends, and while everyone was distracted, Shikaku drew closer to Kakashi and Gai and murmured, “It was Root, wasn’t it?” He kicked at one of the blank porcelain masks.

 

“Yes,” Gai said, slumping as the strain from opening two gates hit him. “This attack was most cowardly and unyouthful of them; I have never known them to attack their own comrades before. Something must be done, that much is clear. We cannot allow this insult against our children to stand.”

 

“Yes,” Shikaku scowled, “but the Hokage won’t do what needs to be done. I’ve tried. He can’t get past his old friendship with Danzo. He knows what Danzo is, but he just chooses to ignore it. It’s Orochimaru all over again.”

 

“If Danzo were to succeed in nabbing Naruto and Sasuke, the result would be disastrous. Not just for Konoha, but for the world,” Kakashi said, rolling his shoulders anxiously. “We can’t let that happen. Danzo knows that he could control the Kyuubi with the Sharingan; that’s why he kept the Uchiha penned up for so many years. He wouldn’t hesitate to kill Sasuke to get a Sharingan of his own. Then, Naruto would be his personal weapon for the rest of his life, no better than a slave. Danzo could topple whole ninja villages with that kind of power. The Kyuubi attack from eight years ago would be nothing in comparison. Gai’s right. It’s past time to do something about Root.”

 

Shikaku saw Ibiki approaching and said quickly under his breath, “We’ll discuss this later. This isn’t the time or the place.” Gai, Kakashi, Inoichi, Shikaku and Chouza all walked over to give Ibiki their report on what happened, but the whole time they were talking, Kakashi’s mind whirled. If the Hokage wouldn’t do anything about Danzo, he’d have to do it himself. He didn’t mind that, of course, but he’d have to handle it in such a way that he wouldn’t be forced to go missing-nin when he was done. It was going to be tricky.

 

Gai glanced at Kakashi and knew what he was thinking. “Whatever you do, my friend, you do not do it alone,” he said quietly while Ibiki was distracted. “My young ward is also threatened and I will do what I must to protect him.”

 

Kakashi nodded, reassured. There was no one he trusted more in the world than Gai. Well, other than Tenzo, and he had a feeling that soon Tenzo would be involved as well. He had his own score to settle with Danzo and with Root.

 

……………………….

 

In the end, it was relatively simple. A war meeting was held at Kakashi’s house while the children were at school. Shikaku, Kakashi, Gai and Tenzo sat down and made their plans. It was decided that Danzo would meet with an unfortunate “accident,” and upon his death, they would convince the Hokage to sweep Root’s headquarters and gather evidence of the Shadow Hokage’s crimes. They needed to act quickly, though. They didn’t know when Root would strike again to try and kidnap the boys; every moment that Danzo was alive to scheme, Sasuke and Naruto were in jeopardy.

 

Iruka had been warned of the potential for danger to his students and upon his advice, Kurenai was also told. She and Iruka decided that it was time to teach his class a unit on genjutsu, which would give the kunoichi an excuse to stay in Iruka’s classroom. Kakashi felt better knowing that a jounin of Kurenai’s caliber would be there in case something should happen during school hours.

 

He was already reassured by Iruka being Naruto’s teacher for another year. If Mizuki had been in charge, he likely would have taken Naruto out of school entirely and hid him until Danzo was dead. Iruka had taken Kakashi aside and shown him the truly ridiculous number of wards and seals on his classroom, and then he added a few more for good measure. Anybody that tried to break in by force would definitely regret all the life decisions that had led them to that moment.

 

It had been all Kakashi could do to keep from grabbing Iruka and dipping him into a decadent kiss that would even shame Jiraiya with its thoroughness and attention to detail. This crush he had on the schoolteacher wasn’t going away, as he’d somewhat vaguely hoped. He needed to do something about it at some point, or he just might spontaneously combust at an inopportune moment. He felt his body warming at the very thought of just what “doing something” could entail, and had to force himself to focus on the problem at hand. It didn’t help when Iruka blushed in pleasure at Kakashi’s praise of his sealwork, and he wondered if the teacher was an all over blusher. Something to contemplate in his quieter moments.

 

Pakkun had also had a serious conversation with Bisuke, who was now fully grown and bigger than him, a fact which Pakkun chose to ignore. “Your boss is in danger,” the pug said gruffly. “It’s up to you to protect him while Kakashi is away taking care of the problem.”

 

“Who wants to hurt Naruto-kun?” Bisuke yipped, little growls coming from deep in his chest. “Just let them try it. I’ll rip ‘em apart, I’ll piss on their graves, I’ll...I’ll...I’ll stick my cold nose in their elbows! That’ll show ‘em!”

 

“Never you mind who it is,” Pakkun said with a derisive snort. “You just keep your eyes and ears on Naruto and make sure that nobody tries to hurt him. And don’t let him wander off to Ichiraku’s after school anymore! He comes straight home, no stops, no meandering.”

 

Bisuke looked anguished. “Just how am I supposed to stop him from running around with that shadow kid, then? They’re always wasting time together after school and calling it training.”

 

“That won’t be a problem,” Kakashi interrupted, knowing that Shikaku would keep Shikamaru close to home until Danzo was stopped. “Shikamaru won’t be lingering after school for a while either.”

 

“His pop will keep him on a short lease, huh? Poor pup,” Bisuke sympathized, scratching his ear and shuddering. He hated leashes. “Okay, you can count on me.”

 

On a dark night, Kakashi sent Naruto over to Gai’s house, ostensibly for specialized training with Gai and Sasuke. In reality, while Gai wanted to be involved in handling Danzo, assassination really wasn’t his specialty. Kakashi had gently told him that he would be of most use watching over the boys while he and Tenzo did what they did best. Gai didn’t argue. He had never been Anbu for a reason, and there was a part of Kakashi that wanted to protect his oldest friend. He didn’t know if that bright part of Gai’s smile and soul would stay the same if he were forced to become what Special Ops needed him to be.

 

Kakashi, however. Kakashi already had a darkness to his soul. He didn’t like it, but it was useful. He’d use it now to protect his pack.

 

Dressed in black and calling on all their combined experience, Kakashi and Tenzo infiltrated Root’s headquarters. They found Danzo asleep in his room, guarded by two of his handpicked shinobi. Kakashi and Tenzo each took a guard and killed him silently. Then Kakashi closed the door behind him while Tenzo stepped to Danzo’s bedside, a slender poisoned senbon in his hand. The lightest touch with the weapon was all it would take; Danzo’s heart would stop instantaneously.

 

It was time for the Shadow to be brought into the light.

 

………………..

 

The village erupted when word spread that Danzo had died in his sleep of an apparent heart attack. Despite his grief at losing his old friend and adversary, the Hokage acted quickly upon the encouragement of his jounin commander. Squads of Anbu and high level jounin raided Root’s headquarters. The nin that refused to surrender were quickly killed while the few that did give themselves up were taken straight to Ibiki and Inoichi. Kakashi privately wondered which fate was worse, death or interrogation by those two. It wasn’t a position he ever wanted to find himself in.

 

It was a long exhausting day, but the search eventually bore fruit. “Look at this!” Asuma called, holding up a fat scroll in his hand triumphantly after ripping up the floor in Danzo’s private office. “There are so many seals on this scroll, I’m kind of surprised that I still have hands. It must be important.”

 

“We’ll take it the Hokage,” Kakashi ruled, exchanging loaded glances with Tenzo. “He’ll want to see whatever Danzo was hiding.”

 

Far more disturbing than scrolls was what Kakashi found in the basement when he searched it with Gai and Tenzo. There was a full medical laboratory down there, and Kakashi saw Tenzo fight down a shudder at the sight of the bubbling tanks. The whole thing screamed Orochimaru, and kami only knew what Danzo had been up to. They journeyed down even further and found a heavily reinforced cell with an enormous metal gate standing at least fifty feet tall. There were seals on every inch of the cell, and Kakashi squatted to read the lines on the floor with his Sharingan. He went still and Gai laid his hand on Kakashi's shoulder. “What have you found, my friend?” he asked quietly.

 

“This room was built to contain a bijuu,” Kakashi said, his tone carefully casual. “See these marks on the seals here?” He ran chakra through the seal so that the writing would be visible to Gai. “They would cause whoever was imprisoned to experience nerve shocks if they touched the walls. It would be unspeakably painful, like lightning burns. And see these iron rings welded into the walls here? Those are for chains.” Danzo had obviously meant to keep Naruto in this cell far underground, and was prepared in case the Kyuubi escaped its prison in the boy’s body. Kakashi found himself rather dizzily thinking of Naruto’s sunflowers. Naruto would have died down there in the darkness. It would have broken him.

 

“Come, my friend,” Gai said, drawing Kakashi up. “This room will never fulfill its purpose, and it’s intended occupant is safe. You have done this for him, and you can take pride in knowing that the monster will never disturb any of Konoha’s citizens.”

 

“Yeah,” Kakashi said, wishing that it were possible to kill Danzo again. They’d done it far more humanely than the man had deserved.

 

Tenzo was the first one through the door of the next cell, and he stopped in shock. Huddled in the back corner and peering out from under a dirty grey blanket were two boys, one with dark hair and the other with gray hair. They were both impossibly pale and Tenzo wondered if they had ever seen the sun. He didn’t have time to wonder anything else, as both boys had leapt up and took up defensive positions against the back wall. The gray haired boy pushed the other, smaller boy behind him. “Who are you?” he asked, his voice surprisingly steady. “Where is Danzo?”

 

Tenzo stepped forward, his hands held up to show that he was unarmed. “I’m afraid Danzo is dead,” he said softly. He reached up and pulled off his Cat mask so that the boys could see his face. “Don’t be afraid. My name is Tenzo. Who are you?”

 

The boy’s eyes darted everywhere, like he was looking for an exit. “I’m not supposed to speak to outsiders. I’m not supposed to be afraid, either.”

 

“Everyone’s afraid, even if they pretend they aren’t,” Tenzo said. “There’s no shame in it. I would be very afraid if someone burst into my room, the way I have to you.”

 

The smaller boy poked his head around his protector. “You would be afraid?” he asked in a high, clear voice. “You don’t look like you’re ever afraid of anything.”

 

“But I am,” Tenzo said gently, slowly putting his hands down. “I was very afraid when I was about your age, and Danzo found me. I was Root for a long time.”

 

“You were?” the little boy chirped, his eyes lighting up. “But you’re not anymore? You mean, you don’t have to be Root? I thought I didn’t have a choice.”

 

Tenzo shook his head. “No, you don’t have to be Root if you don’t want to. Not anymore. What would you like to be?”

 

The answer was immediate. “An artist. I like to draw and paint. He says I’m good at it,” the boy said, jerking his thumb at his gray haired protector.

 

“I’m sure you are.” Tenzo stepped forward and knelt before the boys, putting a hand on each of their shoulders. “What are your names?”

 

“We don’t have names,” the older boy murmured sadly. “We’ve just always been here.”

 

“We’ve come to take you away, to a place where there is sunshine and choices and names,” Tenzo said, his heart squeezing. “Will you come with me?”

 

The older boy bit his lip, glancing down at his younger companion. “If Danzo is dead and there is no more Root, I would like to have a name,” he said after a long pause. “We’ll go with you, Tenzo-san.”

 

Tenzo smiled, took each of the boy’s hands in his own, and led them out of their cell. Kakashi smirked as he watched them go. He had a feeling that the Hokage was about to have a really bad afternoon.

 

………………

 

“What do you mean you quit? ” the Sandaime screeched, throwing his hands up in the air.

 

Tenzo stood stoic in the face of his leader’s anger. “Sandaime, the two boys that were rescued are orphans. They have no memories of their families, and they don’t even know what village they came from. Danzo appears to have stolen them as infants. They don’t even know their own names. It’s going to take them a very long time to assimilate into this village, and they will need help doing it. I have been where they are and I know that I can guide them through this difficult time.

 

“I have also learned from the healers that the oldest boy is suffering from an illness within his bones,” Tenzo continued while the hokage muttered. “They can heal him, but it will take months of careful nursing. He can’t go to the orphanage, and the younger can’t be without him. They must stay together. I wish to care for them, and to guide them into becoming productive citizens of Konoha. As soon as the elder boy is well, I will begin serving this village as a jounin.”

 

“Why do we even have an orphanage if none of my shinobi will let it be used?” fretted the Sandaime, glaring at Kakashi, who was standing prudently in the corner out of the way. “I blame you, Kakashi. You started this whole thing with Naruto. Why couldn’t you leave well enough alone?”

 

“I couldn’t because it wasn’t well enough, Hokage-sama,” Kakashi said, trying to be respectful and failing only a little. “Naruto was dumped into a cold orphanage as an infant after his parents had paid the ultimate price for this village. He was neglected and despised. Why in the world would you dislike your shinobi showing the Will of Fire in caring for this village’s future? Tenzo wants to care for the boys, to nurse them back to health, to see that they receive all the care they’ve been denied for their entire lives. It’s a good thing.” Kakashi felt strongly that he shouldn’t have to explain this.

 

The Hokage’s face was very, very red and Kakashi idly wondered if a medic should be called. “My top Anbu...gone. My taijutsu specialist...gone. Now my Anbu leader wants to play happy families!” he sputtered before collapsing into his chair. “Tell me what else you found at Root before I have a heart attack.”

 

Shikaku stepped forward and bowed, handing the scroll Asuma had found over to the Sandaime. “I had to bring in Umino Iruka to unseal this scroll, Hokage-sama. It’s...revealing, to say the least.”

 

“Just tell me what it says. I’m sure Danzo was up to unspeakable things beyond all our imaginations,” the Sandaime said tiredly.

 

Shikaku’s black left eyebrow crept toward his hairline. “That’s putting it mildly, Sandaime. In the scroll we found the blueprints for the cell intended to hold the Kyuubi, as well as medical documents of various experiments. It seems that Danzo intended to steal multiple Sharingans, not just Uchiha Sasuke’s. We found documentation that suggests that he attempted to steal several Uchiha bodies from the morgue after the massacre, but thanks to the close watch insisted upon by Hatake Kakashi, he was unsuccessful.”

 

“Multiple Sharingans?” Hiruzen said loudly. “What in kami’s name could he want with those?”

 

Shikaku cleared his throat. “There was considerable research into the Uchiha clan’s use of Izanagi in the scrolls. I can only assume that he wanted multiple Sharingan so that he could use the technique an unlimited amount and keep his sight.”

 

“And you stopped him by having the morgue guarded,” the Hokage concluded, looking at Kakashi. “What made you do that? I don’t remember it being discussed with me.”

 

“Nothing about the massacre made sense, and it still doesn’t,” Kakashi said, leaning casually against the wall now that the hokage’s anger seemed to have abated somewhat. “I think there’s still a lot to learn about what happened that night. I didn’t like the idea of all those Sharingans sitting around, available for the plucking. It was the type of opportunity someone like Danzo or Orochimaru would hate to miss. It looks like I was right.”

 

“I would have hoped that Danzo wouldn’t go this far in his zeal to protect Konoha,” said the Sandaime heavily, “but I suppose that hope would be naive. I’m not pleased that you acted without my authority, Kakashi, but I understand why you did. I let my fondness for Danzo cloud my judgement. In fact, it seems that I have erred in many ways.”

 

“Hokage-sama?” Shikaku prompted when the hokage was silent for a long time.

 

“I think it is time for me to step down as the Hokage of Konohagakure,” Hiruzen finally said. “Kakashi is right. I have lost sight of my own Will of Fire. I have been tired and I have done that which is easy instead of that which is right.” Then he looked petulant. “And I am still can’t help but be annoyed at losing my best jounin to families and healthy living! No, that attitude ultimately isn’t what this village needs.” He stood up, his face clearer than it had been in years. “Shikaku, bring me my writing utensils. It seems I need to write an urgent letter to an old friend.”

 

After leaving Hokage Tower, the day’s dirty business finally over, Kakashi picked up Naruto from Gai’s house and took him home. He spotted a kunai in Naruto’s belt, and was proud and saddened at the same time; proud that Naruto was prepared for the future and sad that it was necessary. “Is it over now, nii-san?” Naruto asked once they were sitting together in the kitchen.

 

“Yes, finally,” Kakashi said, kicking off his sandals with a groan.

 

“I’m sorry I couldn’t help more, when they attacked us,” Naruto said as he stared down at the table, wringing his fingers in his lap.

 

Kakashi cocked his head. “What do you mean? You stood up and fought. You weren’t taken by surprise and you listened when I gave you instructions. You did everything right.”

 

“But they still almost grabbed me,” Naruto said, his blue eyes so disappointed. “I shouldn’t have let them get so close.”

 

“Naruto, those were Anbu level opponents,” Kakashi said as he drew the boy into his side. “You’ve done very well with your training and I’m proud of you, but I don’t expect you to be able to stand up against shinobi like that yet. That’s my job. You’re still just a kid.”

 

“But you were a chunin by the time you were my age,” Naruto said. “Shikamaru told me.”

 

“Yeah, I was,” Kakashi admitted. “But I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing, and it’s not what I want for you. I didn’t get to have a childhood, Naruto. I got tossed into the field when I was six years old and I never got a chance to decide if that’s what I actually wanted. You deserve better than that, and I’m going to make sure you get it.”

 

Naruto’s nose wrinkled. “But I’ll have to fight someday.”

 

“Only if you choose to,” Kakashi said firmly. “If you decide you want to be a ramen chef or a gardener instead, I’ll make it happen. But if you do decide that you want to be a shinobi, it won’t be a minute before you’re ready, understand?”

 

“Yeah,” Naruto said with a relieved sigh. “I understand. Although I’ll never be a shinobi if I have to do genjutsu. I’m rotten at it. Even Kurenai-sensei looks tired when she looks at me.”

 

“Genjutsu just isn’t your gift,” Kakashi shrugged. “There’s nothing wrong with that. Gai is horrible at it, too, and he’s still one of the best jounin this village has ever had.”

 

“He is?” Naruto said, delighted. “Then that’s okay then. I won’t worry about it anymore.”

 

Kakashi gave into temptation and pulled Naruto close for a hug. That cell had thrown him more than he cared to admit. “Don’t worry about anything unless you have to. And let me worry with you if you do. Worries are lighter when friends help you carry them.”

 

…………………………

 

Still feeling twitchy and paranoid the next day, Kakashi casually made himself comfortable in the tree that looked over the Academy. (He might or might not have spent the night camped out in the corner of Naruto’s bedroom, watching to make sure that nothing happened. The pack had been sworn to silence, but only after they had laughed themselves silly over Kakashi’s foibles. In any case, Kakashi was somewhat delighted to find that Naruto still slept with his stuffed frog every night. It was adorable.) After a day of observation, he was forced to confirm Naruto’s suspicions. He was, in fact, truly awful at genjutsu.

 

What was surprising was to discover that Haruno Sakura wasn’t. She and Sasuke were Kurenai’s best students. The Haruno girl’s chakra control was truly extraordinary for her age, and Kakashi had the shrewd suspicion that she would be training as a medic-nin in the coming years.

 

For all that Naruto’s genjutsu skills were horrible, though, he more than made up for it with his taijutsu and ninjutsu. He had a much better grasp of his chakra now and was able to pull off any ninjutsu Iruka taught him with aplomb. Kakashi knew that he would soon have to start teaching Naruto to recognize the Kyuubi’s chakra and felt tired at the thought. That was going to be a long, hard conversation.

 

In the following months, the whole village felt lighter after Danzo’s passing. Tenzo’s new charges had selected Sai and Shin as their new names, and both were doing well physically. Once Shin was feeling better, Gai and Kakashi started bringing Naruto and Sasuke over regularly, letting the boys gain socialization. They had both been taught by Danzo to not have emotions, so they were often cold and distant with Naruto and Sasuke. Sasuke was unbothered by this and was just cold and distant back, but Naruto seemed to feel pained by their reticence and tried all the harder to make them his friends. Kakashi caught him sneaking out of the house one night with a shovel and some seeds and had to convince him that gardens, while wonderful, couldn’t actually fix everything.

 

That avenue taken from him, Naruto started organizing regular troops of pre-genin to visit Sai and Shin, which then evolved into huge groups of shinobi students all training together in the schoolyard after hours. If gardens couldn’t bring these children into the fold, pointy objects would be sure to do the trick. Of course Sai and Shin had been trained by Root since babyhood, so they were more than capable of keeping up with their peers.

 

Despite Naruto’s efforts, though, it was Chouji who found the key to gaining Sai and Shin’s trust.

 

Everybody was pairing off to spar, but Chouji could see from the rankings that he would likely have to fight a girl, something that made him feel sick and weak down to his toes. He liked all the girls in his class. Sakura was so strong and determined, Hinata gentle and kind, and Ino was smart and confident. He didn’t want to have to try and hit any of them. Intellectually, he knew that the girls were training to become shinobi and that they could probably all kick his ass. He just, you know, didn’t want to test that.

 

So he did his best to disappear by finding a tree and sitting behind it. If only he wasn’t so big; it made it harder to hide. Sighing, he pulled out his sketchbook, knowing that it would only be a matter of time before Shikamaru or Naruto called for him to come and spar. Neither of them knew what it was like to want to hide. They couldn’t understand it when he did.

 

“What are you doing?” Chouji looked up and saw Sai peering down at him, his strange pale eyes eagerly devouring the lines and curves on Chouji’s sketchbook.

 

“I’m trying to learn how to sketch in scale,” Chouji explained shyly, hurrying to cover the page with his hand. “Don’t look, I’m not very good.”

 

“No, you’re not,” Sai said bluntly as he crouched down and ruthlessly lifted Chouji’s hand so he could examine the drawing underneath. “But I can see what you’re trying to do. Have you tried drawing on graph paper first, just until you get the hang of it?”

 

Chouji blinked. Nobody had ever tried to help him with his art before. “No. Can you show me?”

 

Sai sat down and pulled a notebook from the pouch hanging on his belt. “Sure. See, if you follow the lines like this…”

 

Shin looked over twenty minutes later and saw that Sai and Chouji were completely immersed in their art, their hands covered in ink instead of chocolate in Chouji’s case or blood in Sai’s. Shin smiled, pleased. Perhaps these people were good after all. Perhaps Danzo-sensei had been wrong all along and Konoha didn’t truly need to be cleansed. He was glad to see it. He had grown fond of these people, especially Tenzo-san, and he hadn’t liked the idea of their being hurt.

 

Glancing back at the rest of the children, he saw Hinata watching the current spar happening between Kiba and Shino, her eyes troubled. She was doing better since Kurenai and Sakura had started training with her, but she still struggled with putting power behind her blows, with confidence. Shin had never been allowed to be hesitant, and he found it fascinating to observe. Ultimately, though, he knew that indulging Hinata in her fears was not truly helpful. She seemed determined to be a shinobi, but she would surely die quickly out in the field unless she improved. Perhaps he could help her. After all, he had helped to train Sai. Perhaps he could find worth outside of killing, and would teach instead.

 

Rising, he went and sat down beside the quiet girl, and smiled at her when she peeked at him shyly through her purple-black hair. He’d do what he could to help.

 

………………………………

 

It was almost summer again when Kakashi could hear Naruto screaming from the backyard. It wasn’t his “something’s wrong and I’m going to die” scream, so Kakashi didn’t hurry to go and rescue him. Instead, he leisurely strolled through the house and could only start discerning individual words in Naruto’s howls as he reached the back door. What Naruto said made his blood run cold.

 

“Kakashi-nii-san, you gotta see this! The entire backyard is crawling with frogs!”

 

Oh, fuck . Kakashi ripped open the back door and saw that for once, Naruto wasn’t exaggerating. The backyard with seething with frogs. They were examining all the plants in the garden, ribbeting from the gutters, and hopping around the training equipment.

 

“What does it mean?” Bisuke yipped, running everywhere to sniff the different colored amphibians and suppressing the urge to mark them all. “Where did they all come from? They smell so weird!”

 

“It means that the new Hokage is here,” Kakashi groaned, flopping down onto the step as the life drained from his body. “God help us all.”

 

“The new Hokage likes frogs? That means he’s awesome!” Naruto crowed. He started a silly game of leapfrog with a particularly large specimen. The frog blinked at him, unimpressed, and refused to budge from his cozy spot under a cabbage leaf.

 

“No, the new hokage isn’t particularly fond of frogs so far as I know,” Kakashi said wearily. “But her friend is, and it looks like he came along for the ride.” He let his heavy head fall into his hands. He was so not ready for this shit.

 

“I’m still not seeing the problem here,” Naruto said, puzzled. He grabbed Bisuke and held him under his arm when he noticed the little dog giving into temptation and starting to lift a leg. Bisuke’s intended target gazed up at Naruto adoringly.

 

“Oh, trust me. You will soon,” Kakashi muttered. He got up and went inside to get a drink, leaving Naruto to the frogs. Jiraiya was back, and that definitely called for some sake.

 

Chapter Text

On the day when Senju Tsunade became the Godaime Hokage of Konohagakure, the best that could be said of Kakashi’s mood was that he was thrilled to finally be seeing the last of the Sandaime. (He was pretty sure that the Sandaime agreed with that sentiment; he looked nothing but relieved to be stepping down.) Other than that, though, he was fairly pissed off. Not even the sight of Naruto in his formal white clothes for the first time could cheer him up.

 

Ever since Jiraiya had rolled into town hanging onto Tsunade’s less than age appropriate pigtails, there were frogs fucking everywhere. Everybody in the village had to look where they were stepping at all times, but it was even worse for Kakashi and Naruto. The were frogs leaping about in their backyard, yes, but they were also perched on Naruto’s classroom’s window sill, they were stationed at Kakashi's favorite grocery store, and he even caught them poking around at the fish stall he frequented. One of them had sneezed on the last saury available, which was totally unforgivable. Kakashi had even found a tiny purple frog hidden in Urushi’s shaggy fur. Urushi had been deeply offended to be so used and had required several bloody steaks as bribes before he would promise not to hunt down Jiraiya and bite him in the ass. Kakashi sympathized deeply.

 

Kakashi knew for a fact that Jiraiya’s summons were spying on him and Naruto, and his patience was just about at an end. If Jiraiya really wanted to know his godson, he could reach down deep inside his stomach cavity, locate whatever pitiful excuse for balls he had left, and do it himself. Jiraiya had run off after Minato’s death all those years ago and callously left Naruto alone to rot in an orphanage without a word. He never sent the kid letters or food or even asked about him in passing. He never sent any money for Naruto’s support. Did he really think that there weren’t going to be consequences? It was Kakashi’s firm opinion that Jiraiya didn’t deserve a minute of Naruto’s time. Looking down at the boy beside him, seeing what a kind, caring person he was becoming, Kakashi also thought that Naruto didn’t deserve to have a man like Jiraiya thrust upon him either.

 

If it weren’t for the fact that Minato-sensei had been fond of his old teacher, Kakashi honestly thought that he could have happily slit the sannin’s throat. It was possible that he had some unresolved rage...

 

Despite the veritable frog apocalypse that he was currently living with, Kakashi didn’t actually see Jiraiya in person until Tsunade’s swearing-in ceremony. Then from his position on the ground with the rest of Konoha, he could see Jiraiya’s tall, bulky form beside the slender, preternaturally young Tsunade on top of Hokage Tower. Jiraiya’s ridiculous white hair appeared to be blocking out the sun and Kakashi sighed behind his mask at the sannin’s dramatics.

 

As if he had heard the tiny sound, Jiraiya’s eyes tracked to Kakashi, and then moved over and down to where Naruto stood beside the jounin. Kakashi growled and deliberately wrapped his hand around the back of Naruto’s neck. To anyone else it would be seen only as an affectionate gesture, but Kakashi knew that Jiraiya would get the message.

 

This boy is my pack, Kakashi was saying. Don’t mess with him. He’s mine.

 

With a short nod, Jiraiya looked away again.

 

Even without the Jiraiya thing, Kakashi would have been uncomfortable in a crowd like this on the best of days. There were too many people who moved around far too much, too many noises, too many smells. Kakashi couldn’t track them all and it was making him paranoid and irritable. If it wouldn’t have been seen as unforgivably rude, Kakashi would have grabbed Naruto and made a run for the hills long before Tsunade had strapped on her new Hokage hat.

 

Then a familiar scent moved beside him and Kakashi automatically relaxed, feeling safe. He had trusted help at his back. He had pack . “Sorry for being late, the cat escaped out the back door again. What did I miss?” Iruka whispered as moved to Kakashi’s side. “You look angry. Did the Sandaime do something stupid?”

 

It said a lot for how well Iruka knew Kakashi by now that he could read the jounin’s emotional state from the small sliver of his face that was actually visible. “No. Look who came along with our new Hokage,” Kakashi muttered, jutting his chin at Jiraiya.

 

Iruka took in the situation at a glance and drew in a breath. “Oh, I see. Well, that certainly explains the frogs.” Then he did something that absolutely boggled Kakashi’s mind. Iruka deliberately stepped around Kakashi and stood on Naruto’s other side, protecting the boy from both directions. His posture subtly changed from “casual observer” to “shinobi on alert” as he started sweeping the crowd and the Tower with his eyes, helping Kakashi keep track of everyone and everything.

 

Kakashi was blown away. Iruka had taken in the situation, had innately understood that the crowd’s size and noise on top of Jiraiya’s presence was making Kakashi anxious for Naruto’s safety, and had immediately stepped in to help him. Everyone in Konoha usually assumed that he was the famed Copy-nin, Sharingan No Kakashi, the Hound, and that he was capable of handling almost any situation. Well, he was, but that didn’t mean he didn’t appreciate or need help every once in a while. That Iruka would understand this, that he would do what he could to ease Kakashi’s mind, was more consideration than he was used to receiving. His chest swelled with an emotion that he couldn’t quite name. It was similar to what he felt for Naruto, but...different. Wilder.

 

Was this love?

 

Kakashi realized that his hand had lifted from Naruto’s neck and was now reaching out behind the boy’s back. A second later, his fingers were closing around Iruka’s. He didn’t squeeze once and let go, like he usually did when he wanted to thank Iruka for something. He held on. He caught his breath and watched Iruka out of the corner of his eye, waiting to be rejected. He didn't know how he would stand it if he was.

 

Iruka looked over Naruto’s head at Kakashi, his warm brown eyes shining with some bright emotion. His fingers tightened around Kakashi’s, and he didn’t let go either. Kakashi breathed again and smiled behind his mask.

 

They stood together like that for the rest of the ceremony, holding hands. Kakashi had never been so full of feeling in all of his life. How could such a simple touch suddenly mean everything ? He almost forgot to watch Jiraiya, but that suddenly didn’t bother him as much anymore. He knew that a confrontation with the sage was probably coming, but he also knew something now that he hadn’t really before.

 

He would have back up, whatever came.

 

……………

 

To Kakashi’s extreme disappointment, Iruka had been dragged away by Anko immediately after the ceremony to get some dango with her, so it was just him and Naruto. He was somewhat comforted by the fact that Iruka had looked as if he was seriously contemplating Anko’s slow and painful murder for separating him from Kakashi.

 

“Kakashi-nii, who was that big white haired guy that was standing with the new Hokage during the ceremony?” Naruto piped up as they made their way home, looking deeply disturbed. “He kept looking at me in this creepy way. It was kind of pervy. Should I kick him in the nuts if I see him again?”

 

Kakashi smiled, amused. “He wasn’t looking at you like that, Naruto, although it would be hilarious if you called him a pervert to his face. That was Jiraiya, the third member of the legendary sannin. He was there to support Tsunade-hime. They were teammates as genin, and worked together a lot even after that.”

 

“If he’s not a pervert, then why was he looking at me instead of at the old lady?” Naruto asked suspiciously.

 

“That’s a very long story for another time,” Kakashi replied, rubbing his eyes wearily. “I don’t want to talk about it right now, but I promise I’ll tell you about it later, okay? Maybe tomorrow.”

 

“Okay. What do you think of the new Godaime, then?” Naruto asked as they made their way home. “I don’t know all that much about her. Have you met her before?”

 

Kakashi forced himself to stop obsessing over his still tingling fingers and thought about how to answer the question fairly. “Yes. I worked with her on a couple of missions with my sensei when I was a chunin. She’s a very strong shinobi,” he said carefully. “All of the three sannin are, of course, but I always admired Tsunade the most of them. She was raised at a time where kunoichi weren’t as common as they are now, you know. She had a bit of a break being the Shodaime’s granddaughter, of course, but that also meant that everyone was watching her all the time and waiting for her to fail. She never really did. Instead, she changed how we do things in this village, and they were changes for the better. It’s because of Tsunade that every shinobi team has a medic, which is a rule that has saved my life on multiple occasions. She pioneered medical research, and special chakra control techniques, and she doesn’t take any crap from old men. I’ve never heard of her backing down from a fight.”

 

“You still don’t sound all that happy,” Naruto observed.

 

“That’s because I’m not,” Kakashi said, uncaring of the vividly blue amphibian that was currently following him and would undoubtedly report this whole conversation to Jiraiya. “I like her personally, but like everyone else in the world, Tsunade-hime has faults. She drinks and she gambles and she loses her temper at the drop of a hat. That’s okay, of course, she’s free to do whatever she wants as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. But she’s a leader now, and that changes things. All of our lives are in her hands. We have to be able to trust her to make the right decisions, and I don’t know that we can.”

 

Naruto frowned. “You don’t think…” He stopped talking and shook his head, his eyes suddenly frightened. “No, nevermind. It’s probably stupid.”

 

“What?” asked Kakashi absently, wondering if he could catch up to Iruka and if Anko would try to stab him for taking her companion away.

 

Naruto just shook his head again, though, and Kakashi realized that this was serious. He stopped walking and gave Naruto his full attention. “You’ll probably feel better if you just ask me, you know,” he said gently.

 

“Sasuke and I...and Sai and Shin...we’ve all been talking at school. At lunch and stuff. This is a new Hokage and she’s sure to want to change things. We were wondering...we’re afraid...dammit. She won’t send us all to the orphanage, will she?” Naruto asked in a rush, clutching the handle of a kunai in his pocket for comfort. “Because we don’t want to go. We all like our homes. We don’t want to leave.”

 

“Oh, kami, no, ” Kakashi said emphatically. He wished that Naruto hadn’t had that last growth spurt; he couldn’t kneel down and gather the kid up like he wanted to. He was growing up too damn fast. He still stopped and put his hands on the boy’s shoulders and looked him straight in the eyes.  “Naruto, I promise you on my life, you will never go back to that orphanage. Gai and Tenzo would say the exact same thing to Sasuke, Sai and Shin, and I’ll make sure that they do. You’re my otouto and nothing can ever change that, not even the Hokage. We’re a family and we belong to each other.”

 

“But..” Naruto started to say, his tone anguished.

 

“Maa, no buts,” Kakashi interrupted. “Tsunade is a smart lady. She knows that if she ever tried anything like that, she would have an all out revolt on her hands.”

 

Naruto laughed a little at that, his whiskered face relaxing. “Aw, c’mon. Nobody would revolt for us. We’re just kids.”

 

“Yes, they would,” Kakashi said firmly. “All of the chunin and jounin and pre-genin in the village would rise against her in rebellion and she’d have quite the fight on her hands. It’d be her worst nightmare, too, because I’d be leading the pack. So let that be the last of your worries, okay? You’re not going anywhere.”

 

“I’ll try. It’s just…” Naruto scuffed his feet and started walking again, twitching with nervous energy. “That orphanage. I know I was really little when I lived there, but I still remember it. I dream about it sometimes. I remember how cold it was and how loudly the adults yelled at the little kids, especially me. They called me demon and monster and I don’t think I did anything to deserve it. Nobody hugged me or read me stories or did any of the things you do with me. I remember being hungry a lot.” He swallowed. “I’ve never been hungry with you, Kakashi-nii.”

 

“And you never will be,” Kakashi promised, hoping that the damned frog was taking notes to take back to Jiraiya. Let him learn what he’d sentenced Naruto to when he’d run away with his tail between his legs. Kakashi sighed and ruffled Naruto’s hair playfully. “C’mon. It’s been kind of a rotten day. Why don’t we go get ramen for dinner at Ichiraku’s, instead of cooking at home? It’s not like we have any saury to make.”

 

“Really? Yes!” Naruto cheered, leaping up into the air. Bisuke, who had been quiet all through their conversation, caught the mood and barked excitedly as he ran around their ankles, nearly sending Naruto to the ground. “I bet I can eat six bowls this time! Believe it!”

 

“Yeah, kid,” Kakashi said as he watched Naruto running down the street towards Ichiraku’s stall. “I believe it.” When Naruto was far enough away, Kakashi turned and addressed their frog stalker directly. “You. Wanna take a message to your sage for me?” he growled. It wasn’t really a question.

 

The frog shrugged. “Sure. That’s what he asked me to do in the first place, if you asked.”

 

“Good. Tell him to stay the hell away from Naruto. If Jiraiya wants to see him, he’ll have to talk to me first. That kid has been through a lot and I won’t have him messed with by a selfish pervert. Understand?”

 

“Got it,” the frog ribbeted, and then hopped away in the direction of Hokage Tower.

 

“Kakashi-nii! Aren’t you coming?” Naruto howled from further down the street, waving his hands wildly. “Teuchi-san said he won’t make me any ramen until you get here and prove you have money!”

 

“Coming!” Kakashi called back. He jogged down to meet his excited kid, and they entered into an intense discussion of what kinds of toppings they would have with their ramen as they walked into the stall side by side.

 

………………..

 

Kakashi knew better than to think that Jiraiya would wait very long to come barging in on him and Naruto, so he knew that the time for a difficult discussion had come. Tsunade had asked for him and Naruto to come to the Tower for a meeting with her and he didn’t want to take the chance of her blurting out something about Jiraiya before Naruto had been properly prepared.

 

The day before the meeting, after he had checked the house thoroughly for frog invaders, Kakashi called Naruto to join him in the kitchen. It was a safe place for the both of them. They had spent many hours sitting at the table together, doing homework, reading, and peeling mountains of carrots. Pakkun and Bisuke both settled underneath the table, with Bisuke draped across Naruto’s bare feet. The clock ticked contently on the wall, and there were steaming cups of chamomile tea at each place. Everything was as calm as Kakashi could make it.

 

“Okay, Naruto,” Kakashi said, with the stoic mien of a man going into battle. “You wanted to know about Jiraiya, right?”

 

“Yup,” Naruto replied he fidgeted in his seat, looking both curious and hesitant. “Why do you hate him so much?”

 

Kakashi thought about saying that he didn’t hate Jiraiya but, well. He kind of did. He wanted to be fair and give Jiraiya a chance to have a relationship with Naruto, but he also wasn’t going to lie for him to make it easier. It was a hard line to walk, and it just gave him one more thing to resent the sannin for dumping in his lap. “It all started back before you were born, when your parents were kids,” he began. “When your father graduated from the Academy, he was put on a genin team with Jiraiya as his teacher. I believe Jiraiya saw how good your dad was with seals and wanted to teach him more, since that’s his specialty as well.”

 

Naruto gawked. “My dad’s sensei was a sannin?”

 

“Don’t be so impressed,” Kakashi admonished, taking a sip of his tea. “The sannin are shinobi just like the rest of us. It’s true that they are very talented and are to be respected, but they aren’t gods.”

 

“It’s still cool,” Naruto muttered stubbornly as he stirred far more sugar than was necessary into his tea.

 

Kakashi bit down his usual warning about cavities; he had bigger fish to fry. “Anyway, your father was very close with Jiraiya, and they stayed friends even after Minato-sensei became a chunin, then a jounin, and finally Hokage. When your mother became pregnant with you, your parents even decided to name you after a character in one of Jiraiya’s books.”

 

Naruto grinned his brightest smile and wiggled around in his seat. Bisuke nipped at his toes playfully. “Wait, you mean there’s a book out there about a boy named Naruto, just like me? Was he awesome? Was he the best shinobi ever?”

 

“Well,” Kakashi said wryly, “he was certainly gutsy. I have a copy of the book if you want to read it. I think you’d like it. I do, and so does Iruka-sensei.”

 

“I will!” Naruto beamed. “But Kakashi-nii, none of that explains why you’re so angry with Jiraiya. What did he do to you?”

 

“He didn't do anything to me, exactly,” Kakashi said uncomfortably. “Listen, Naruto, this all happened a long time ago, and I’m sure that Jiraiya had reasons for everything he did. I’m not sure that I’ll ever agree that they were good reasons, but I know that he had them. You see, your parents didn’t just name you after Jiraiya’s book. They also made Jiraiya your godfather.”

 

Naruto’s bright smile slowly died as that fact sunk in, and Kakashi winced internally. “But...but that doesn’t make sense. When Haru-chan’s mother died last year, her godparents brought her to live with them at their house,” Naruto said, referencing a classmate. “Haru didn’t have to go to an orphanage. If Jiraiya was my godfather, why did I have to go live at an orphanage? Why didn’t I go live with him instead?”

 

“I don’t know,” Kakashi said quietly, looking intently into his cup. He wished that the tea leaves would give him some guidance. “Jiraiya left the village right after your parents died, and this is the first time he’s ever been back. Judging from the rain of toads we’ve had around here lately, though, I think he wants to get to know you now.”

 

Kakashi had been expecting emotions from Naruto when he learned this story; the boy had a bright heart, but he felt everything so deeply. He had expected tears, perhaps some bitterness. He honestly hadn’t been expecting the anger that came instead. “You mean...you mean he just left me?” Naruto seethed, his hands curling into fists. Bisuke shot out from under his chair, frightened by the sudden anger that was peppering the air. Just as quickly, Pakkun darted under Kakashi’s chair in case he needed help. “My mom and dad were dead and he just left the village? Didn’t he care about what happened to me?”

 

Alarmed, Kakashi stood up from the table and reached out for the angry boy. “Naruto, calm down! Like I said, he had his reasons-”

 

“Whatever those reasons are,” Naruto spat, his voice unnaturally deep, “they aren’t good enough! There is no good reason for abandoning a baby to be yelled at and called names and starved!” He whipped around to glare at Kakashi and Kakashi’s immediate thought was oh, shit. Naruto’s eyes were no longer their usual bright blue. They were angry, orange slits. The Kyuubi’s chakra was leaking. Kakashi had to calm Naruto down now , or the seal could break. Naruto picked up his nearly full tea cup and threw it against the wall, sending shards of porcelain and sugary tea raining to the floor. Bisuke fled the kitchen, howling.

 

Acting quickly, Kakashi dodged the bits of broken tea cup in the air and reached over to pull Naruto into his lap, wrapping his arms around the boy and hugging him tight. Naruto struggled against the hold, but Kakashi just held on even tighter. Pakkun gripped the edge of Naruto’s orange sweater and held it in his teeth to keep him still, and the rest of the pack crowded in the doorway, wanting to help but not knowing how.

 

Suddenly, all the fight seemed to leak out of the boy and he went limp. Something wet splashed against Kakashi's wrist, and he smelled that the liquid was salt, not sweet. “Didn’t he love me at all, Kakashi-nii?” Naruto whimpered in a broken voice. “My parents trusted him to take care of me. Why did he leave me all alone?”

 

“I don’t know,” Kakashi said softly, weak with relief. He pulled Naruto up and looked him in the eyes; they were blue again, but they were so sad. He sighed and tucked Naruto’s head under his chin. “I don’t know why Jiraiya did what he did. But I can tell you what I do know, and it’s that I love you. I’ve always loved you and I will never, ever abandon you. Do you believe me?”

 

“Of course I do,” Naruto cried, burrowing into Kakashi's arms like he was three years old again. “You’re the one that’s always been here. You got me out of that place. You would never leave me if you could help it.” The anger left the air completely, and the dogs stepped carefully over the glass to pile around Kakashi’s chair, whining softly.

 

Naruto leaned his hand down and gently rubbed Bisuke’s ears. “Sorry I scared you,” he murmured to the dog. “I didn’t mean to. I just got mad.” Bisuke licked Naruto’s hand in forgiveness, but didn’t say anything.

 

“You’re allowed to be angry,” Kakashi interjected. “But you can’t let it take over you, okay? Give Jiraiya a chance to explain what happened. Try to keep an open mind. He’s hurt you, nobody can deny that, but maybe he’s sorry and wants to try and make it up to you.”

 

“He can’t,” Naruto said sadly. “But I’ll hear what he has to say. My dad loved him, so he can’t be all bad, right?”

 

“Right,” Kakashi said, hoping that it wasn’t a lie.

 

Naruto looked around and seemed to realize what he’d done for the first time. “Oh, wow. I made a mess, didn’t I? I’m really sorry, Kakashi-nii. I’ll clean it all up, I promise.”

 

He tried to slip out of Kakashi’s lap to stand up, but Kakashi just moved him back to his own chair. “Don’t get up, otouto, you have bare feet and there’s glass everywhere. I’ll sweep it all up, and then you can mop the floor and clean the walls. You just had to add all that sugar to your tea, didn’t you? It makes everything so sticky, and even worse-”

 

“I know, I know,” Naruto said wearily. “It also gives me cavities.”

 

While Kakashi monitored the clean up to make sure that none of the dogs (or Naruto) ended up with sliced paws, he was also thinking rapidly. The Kyuubi’s seal was starting to weaken, as he’d always known it would. Like it or not, he needed to talk to people who knew more about seals than he did. It was time to bring in Iruka...and, for better or for worst, Jiraiya.

 

…………………..

 

“YOU SICK BASTARDS! GET OUT OF MY OFFICE! EVEN BETTER, GET OUT OF MY VILLAGE BEFORE I SHOOT YOU SO FULL OF POISON, YOUR GREAT-GRANDKIDS GET THE SHITS!”

 

Kakashi and Naruto were standing outside the new Hokage’s office waiting for their appointment with her, and Kakashi’s left eyebrow was currently raised so far, it might as well have taken up residence with his ear. Who was Tsunade screaming at like that? He raised his nose and sniffed the air, getting back a whiff of denture cream and plots. Oh. Them. Good for Tsunade; she certainly hadn’t let the grass grow under her feet.

 

“DO YOU THINK I’M KIDDING? YOU THINK JUST BECAUSE MY UNCLE WAS YOUR SENSEI THAT I’LL LISTEN TO YOUR DISGUSTING IDEAS? SHIZUNE! BRING ME MY SENBON! THE POISONED ONES!”

 

The double doors of the office slammed open so hard that one of the doorknobs punched right through the wall. Kakashi was absolutely delighted to bear witness to Mitokado Homura and Utatane Koharu hiking up their robes and hauling ass out of Tsunade’s office.

 

“Just you wait,” Koharu panted over her shoulder as she ran by. “You’ll be sorry for treating us like this, hokage or no!”

 

“I highly doubt that. Don’t let me catch you back here again! You’re both officially retired as of this moment!” Tsunade roared in return. She followed the two shinobi out of her office and stood in the doorway, her hands braced on her hips, obviously greatly enjoying the sight of them running from her.

 

The two council members disappeared from sight around a corner, and Tsunade huffed and wiped her hands dramatically, exuding satisfaction from every pore. “Good riddance to bad rubbish. You can cancel the senbon, Shizune, they scampered like the miserable little fleas they are.” A pig wearing a rope of pearls around its neck appeared at Tsunade’s feet and oinked fervently in agreement.

 

The new Hokage turned to look at a pleased Kakashi and a stunned Naruto, and Naruto swallowed hard and spread his feet as if he was expecting a fight. He stood alone; Bisuke had been frightened by the yelling and was currently pretending to be a plant in a large vase in the corner. “Hatake! Uzumaki!” Tsunade said jovially, her eyes twinkling. “Thank you for waiting while I took care of the trash. Come in, come in!”

 

Naruto cocked his head. “Wait. Aren’t you still mad, Tsunade-hime?” he asked.

 

“Nope,” Tsunade said with an impatient snap of her fingers. “Those two thought that they could boss me around like they did the Old Man. They know differently now, and I’m done with them. I might get mad again, though, if you don’t come in like I asked you to. I don’t like to repeat myself.”

 

Naruto zoomed inside the office so fast, Kakashi checked to make sure that there wasn’t any burned rubber on the floor from his sandals. He followed Naruto into the office more sedately, pausing to bow to Tsunade as he passed her in the doorway. “Godaime-sama,” he drawled, sugary sweet, “welcome to Konoha. How may we serve you?”

 

“Oh, shove it, Hatake,” Tsunade said, clapping Kakashi on the back so hard that he almost fell over. “You know I wouldn’t be here at all if the Old Man hadn’t begged me on hands and knees to take over, so let’s not kid ourselves. Go sit down.”

 

Kakashi did as he was told and flopped into one of the chairs placed in front of Tsunade’s desk, Naruto doing the same a second later. Bisuke shot through the door right before it closed behind Tsunade and laid down under Naruto’s chair, trying to pretend that he hadn't basically pissed himself a few minutes before. The be-pearled pig passed him on its way to Tsunade’s desk and sniffed in disgust.

 

“Kakashi, you brat, it’s good to see you again,” Tsunade said as she took her seat behind the massive wooden desk. “You’re all grown up! How long has it been?”

 

“Around twelve years, I think,” Kakashi said, frowning as he tried to remember. “It was just before you left to to go the Slug Forest.”

 

“Yeah, that’s right,” Tsunade nodded. “I lost track of time there, learning sage arts and making this,” she tapped the seal in her forehead, “more powerful. It shocked the hell out of me when the Old Man contacted me and said that it was time for me to stop messing around and become Hokage like he’d always wanted me to. I thought I’d have more time before I got trapped here again with you lot.”

 

“I’m glad you came anyway,” Kakashi confessed. “This village needs some changes.”

 

“Yeah, I can see that,” Tsunade said as she glared at the door. “For example, I thought those two cadavers would be dead by now, but no, here they were, still stinkin’ up the place with their stupid, stagnant traditions.” She made a rude noise in dismissal, then turned to Naruto. “I left Konoha before you were born, kid, but I remember your parents well. Your dad was impressive, of course, but your mom! She was one hell of a shinobi.”

 

“Shisu, the boy’s parents - that’s supposed to be a secret!” a nervous Shizune protested from the corner, where she had a small desk of her own.

 

Tsunade rolled her eyes. “That’s one of the stupid rules those fools were trying to tell me about earlier. Apparently, the Old Man thought that the kid didn’t deserve to know who brought him into this world. With a dad like that, it’s no wonder that Asuma is practically living at the Daimyo’s Court these days. It was a crap idea five minutes ago and it’s still crap now. I’m giving that rule all the consideration it deserves, which is none.

 

“Besides,” she said, glancing at Kakashi, “I’m sure that Hatake, having more than the usual brain cells generally given to a man, already came to the same conclusion and told the kid all about his folks long ago. Right, brat?” Kakashi saluted lazily in response. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. It would have been a disappointment otherwise, and Kakashi doesn’t tend to disappoint me.”

 

Naruto had perked up when Tsunade had mentioned his mother. He’d learned a lot about Minato from Kakashi, but he hadn’t heard as much about Kushina. “You knew my mom, Hokage-sama?” he asked hopefully.

 

“You bet,” Tsunade grinned. “We used to train together all the time. She had a punch that rivaled mine. If you ask me, the wrong parent got made Hokage. Stupid, backwards village. Your dad was a real professor type, like my uncle, always figuring out new jutsu and messing around with seals. Your mom, on the other hand, she was a fighter first and foremost. She wasn’t afraid of anything, would fight anybody that pissed her off. Must have been the red hair. Then she’d turn around and bake like the little woman. Deceptive as all hell. I admired it. You remember her peanut butter cookies, Hatake?”

 

“Vividly,” Kakashi said, his eye arching happily. “I’ve told Naruto about them.”

 

“I’d give a lot to have one now, and to have her around, too. She’d whip this village into shape,” Tsunade said, her eyes soft. “Anyway, much as I enjoy reminiscing, that’s not why I brought you two here. Hatake, I’m sure you’ve noticed that Jiraiya is in town.”

 

“You can’t walk three feet anywhere in Konoha without stepping on one of his frogs,” Kakashi complained. “He’s hard to miss.”

 

“Yeah, Jiraiya doesn’t really know the meaning of the word ‘subtle.’ Orochimaru was the same way. You can imagine what it was like being on the same genin team with them. Bunch of drama queens,” Tsunade said wryly. “Anyway, he wanted me to ask you if he could start training with the kid. He says he has a lot to teach him and-”

 

“No,” Naruto said.

 

Tsunade turned to examine Naruto, her eyebrows raised in surprise. “Excuse me,” she said. “What did you say?”

 

“Sorry, Hokage-sama, but I have to agree with Naruto on this one,” Kakashi said. He reached over and put his hand on Naruto’s shoulder to keep him calm. “Naruto won’t be training with Jiraiya, not until he’s older, and not ever if he doesn’t want to. It’s his choice either way.”

 

“Can I ask why not?” Tsunade said coldly.

 

“Because he just abandoned me!” Naruto shouted as he jumped up from his seat. “What kind of a teacher does that to a kid? My mom and dad died and he left me behind to be tossed into an orphanage. I don’t want somebody like that teaching me. I want Kakashi-nii and Iruka-sensei to teach me.”

 

“Naruto,” Tsunade said soothingly, “Jiraiya was very upset when your father died, and-”

 

“So was Kakashi-nii, and he was really young and sad and everything, but he stayed. That’s the kind of teacher I want,” Naruto said stubbornly. Kakashi focused on not bursting with the love that seemed to be swelling alarmingly in his chest.

 

Tsunade sighed, then came around her desk and put her hand on Naruto’s arm. “I can see that this is something Jiraiya is going to have to discuss with you himself. I told him he was being a chicken shit when he asked me to to bring you in to talk about it, but that’s nothing new. Okay, Naruto, I won’t make you train with Jiraiya if you don’t want to. Just see that you keep working hard at school and with Kakashi, all right?”

 

“I work hard and I don’t give up,” Naruto said, his blue eyes blazing. “That’s what Kakashi-nii’s taught me. I don’t run if things get tough, not ever. I’ll be the strongest shinobi this village has ever seen someday, maybe even Hokage like you and my dad. Believe it!”

 

Tsunade grasped the necklace hanging around her neck. “I’ve heard that before from other people, and it never worked out for them,” she said softly. “But somehow, I do believe it coming from you. Hang on to your dream, kid. Stay alive until you’re Hokage. You’ll probably be a much better one than me.”

 

Impulsively, Naruto threw himself into Tsunade’s arms. “I think you’re a good one already, Tsunade-baa-chan,” he said.

 

“Ugh, don’t call me that,” the Godaime snapped. She still waited a minute to enjoy the hug before she pried Naruto off of her. “Now get out of my office. I have to straighten out Anbu next, and that’s going to be one ungodly mess.” She looked at Kakashi, her eyebrow raised in question. “Don’t suppose you’d be willing to run it for me, would you, brat?”

 

“Not on your life,” Kakashi grinned. “One mask is enough for me now.”

 

“One mask is still one too many,” Tsunade groused, waving her hand dismissively. “You’re a drama queen, too, don’t even try to deny it. Now get out of here. And take that ridiculous excuse for a dog with you, he looks like he’s about to take a shit on my rug and that’ll really make me angry.”

 

They were halfway out the door when Kakashi stopped and looked over his shoulder. “Oh, Godaime-sama, I meant to tell you. If Jiraiya really wants a student, I have the perfect person for him.”

 

Tsunade looked interested. “I’m listening.”

 

………………

 

After Naruto had gone to bed, Kakashi left Pakkun in charge and walked to Iruka’s apartment building. He knocked politely on the teacher’s door, enjoying the feeling of Iruka’s chakra in the wood from all the layers of wards he’d woven into it. The chakra felt like it was brushing against his, purring. Iruka opened the door, already smiling and barefoot. “Kakashi! Is everything okay? You’ve never come over this late before.”

 

Kakashi swallowed. Iruka was wearing his hair down and it was severely interfering with his ability to focus. “I need your help. It’s Naruto.”

 

Iruka held open the door wider. “Come in. Of course I’ll help.”

 

Kakashi stepped through the door and slipped out of his sandals. He leaned down and scratched Iruka’s cat behind her ears, and she rubbed against his legs in appreciation. “I told Naruto about Jiraiya yesterday. It...didn’t go well, to put it mildly.”

 

Iruka winced and led the way over to the kotatsu. “I can imagine. He probably felt very betrayed. I know I would be, if I were him. Would you like some tea?”

 

“Please,” Kakashi said as he sat down. “You’re right, he did feel betrayed, but that came later. He got angry first. Really angry.” He shifted uncomfortably in his seat and Iruka turned from the stove to look at him curiously. Kakashi sighed. “Like, his eyes turned orange angry.”

 

“Oh,” Iruka breathed, looking stricken. “I was afraid of that. I’ve been studying Naruto’s seal as much as I can, and from the little I’ve been able to learn from the books in the library, it’ll start to break down as he gets older. The kyuubi’s chakra will leak into Naruto, and every time it happens, the seal will crack a little bit more. Eventually, if he doesn’t learn how to control both kinds of chakra, it’ll break and the Kyuubi will be released.”

 

“Maa, sensei, you know as much as I do, then,” Kakashi said, resting his head into his hands. “I just hoped that it wouldn’t be this soon. I’ve been teaching Naruto as much chakra control as I can in the hopes that it would help, but it’s so difficult for him to learn.”

 

“Maybe it will help,” Iruka encouraged as he sat a cup of steaming tea in front of Kakashi, then took a seat directly beside him. Kakashi couldn’t help himself from leaning into Iruka’s warmth, and felt even better when Iruka didn’t pull away. “I haven’t said anything about it to you yet because I wasn’t sure it would work, but I’ve been doodling around with a temporary solution. It’s a small seal that should disrupt all of Naruto’s chakra flow for a few minutes, including the Kyuubi’s. If it works like I think it will, it would give Naruto a chance to calm down and get in control again.”

 

Kakashi seized Iruka’s hand. “Iruka,” he said solemnly, “I think it’s quite possible that you are a genius beyond even Senju Hashirama. That’s an amazing idea!”

 

Iruka blushed and squeezed Kakashi’s hand back. “Don’t celebrate too much yet. We don’t know if it’ll work. There’s nobody else in the village that specializes with seals, so I can’t ask for help. I’m pretty much on my own.”

 

“Well,” Kakashi said hesitantly, “that’s not necessarily true anymore. Jiraiya’s here now, and he taught Minato-sensei a lot about seals. He could probably help you.”

 

Iruka wrinkled his scarred nose. “Ugh. I knew you were going to say that. Let me live just a little bit longer without that particular pleasure in my life.” Iruka leaned his head on Kakashi’s shoulder, and Kakashi wished fervently that it was possible to live an entire lifetime in a single moment. “Let’s just be us, if only for a little while.”

 

“Okay,” Kakashi agreed hoarsely, and laid his head against Iruka’s. He felt Iruka’s long hair tickling his ear, smelled Iruka’s familiar scent of books, chalk and sandalwood, could even hear the gentle thumps of Iruka’s heart. It was perfect and he couldn’t understand how he deserved it.

 

They sat together for a long while, sharing breaths and warmth in the peaceful silence, until finally Kakashi stood, thanked Iruka for the tea, and went home.

 

It was a long time before he slept.

 

………………………

 

Kakashi and Naruto were in the woods practicing kenjutsu with their tantos when a loud croaking sound announced Jiraiya’s approach. Kakashi sighed and stood up from his crouched position beside Naruto, feeling both disappointed and relieved. He and Naruto had been having a good time together, but he would be glad to get this confrontation over with once and for all. He motioned for Naturo to stay put and approached Jiraiya alone. He slid his tanto back into its holster as he walked so he wouldn’t be tempted to use it. Naruto nodded at Kakashi’s directions and stayed back. He was shaking a little, and Bisuke pawed comfortingly at his feet.

 

“Keep your temper, boss,” Pakkun advised from his place padding beside Kakashi. “It won’t do anybody any good to kill him, not to mention that you’d never get another Icha Icha book.”

 

“Yeah, but it would sure feel good to push this tanto through his heart,” Kakashi groused back, then nodded at Jiraiya, waiting for the sannin to speak first.

 

“Hatake,” Jiraiya said gravely with a nod in return. He rubbed the back of his neck. “I suppose I ought to start with thanking you. I’ve been spoken to...well, it’s more accurate to say I’ve been yelled at by a lot of people since I’ve been back. The weird guy in the green tights, that fiery little teacher you told Tsunade about, even Teuchi at the ramen stand - they all say what a great job you’ve done raising the kid. I owe you one.”

 

“You don’t owe me anything,” Kakashi growled. “You owe Naruto first, and then Minato-sensei and Kushina-chan. They trusted you to look after their son. They died thinking that Naruto would be shown mercy and love, that he would be taken care of, and they were wrong. I honestly don’t know how you live with yourself.”

 

“Not very easily,” Jiraiya admitted. “I could give you my reasons for leaving all day long and I know that you wouldn’t hear them, not really. And you’d probably be right. Nothing can excuse it. All I can say in my own defense is that I’ve been doing some damn distasteful things for this village while I’ve been away, things I wouldn’t have liked to have seen put on your shoulders, and they were necessary. I’ve done all I can alone, but now I need help, specifically your help. There are things going on right now in the world that are too big for only one man to deal with on his own. That’s why I came back with Tsunade. And okay, I admit it, I wanted to see the kid.” He looked over at Naruto longingly. “Damn, but he looks exactly like his father. It sure takes me back. That hair! He’s Minato all over again.”

 

“Until he loses his temper,” Kakashi said. “Then he’s all Kushina. And something else, lately.”

 

Jiraiya looked at Kakashi sharply. “The seal, huh?”

 

Kakashi nodded. “Yes. It’s starting to crack. I don’t like it either, but it looks like I’m going to need your help, too. I won’t kill you now, but if you do anything to hurt Naruto, I’ll slit your throat and find another seals expert. I don’t care how far I have to go, or if I have to go missing-nin to get him who he needs, I’ll do it. Do we have an understanding?”

 

Jiraiya reached out and shook Kakashi’s hand. “Yeah, kid, I hear you. I won’t hurt him if I can help it, I promise. Can I talk to him now?”

 

“Be my guest.” Kakashi waved him over, curious to see how Naruto was going to react, and a little nervous that the Kyuubi’s chakra would leak out again.

 

Jiraiya walked up to Naruto and smiled awkwardly. “Hi, Naruto. It’s nice to finally meet you. I’m-”

 

Before Jiraiya could say anything else, Naruto had jumped up, twisted in the air, and landed a powerful roundhouse kick right to Jiraiya’s genitals. Jiraiya fell to the ground like a sack of potatoes, moaning in agony. “What the hell?” he rasped, tears streaming down his face. “What was that for?”

 

“Okay, pervy-sage,” Naruto said as he landed, looking smug. “ Now you can talk to me.”

 

Kakashi had honestly never been so proud in his entire life.

 

………………………….

 

“Jiraiya, what is so deadly serious that you couldn’t tell me about it back in Konoha? And at a decent hour?” Kakashi was annoyed, to say the least. Jiraiya had shown up at his house in the dead of night and summoned Kakashi away. He wouldn’t even let him bring the ninken. They had run out of Konoha, almost across the border of Fire to Wind, when Jiraiya had yanked Kakashi into a tiny old excuse for a bar in a village that didn’t deserve the name. Kakashi glanced around suspiciously.

 

“Stop your whining, Hatake,” Jiraiya snapped. “You’ll understand everything in a minute. You just have to promise me that you’ll hear out the person I brought you here to meet with first. He’s the reason I came back to Konoha to get help, and he’s got quite the story to tell. You can’t just kill him out of hand, okay?”

 

“No promises,” Kakashi muttered, which caused Jiraiya to turn and glare at him. “Ugh, fine, I’ll give whoever’s here ten seconds to explain themselves before I start killing, okay?”

 

Jiraiya held Kakashi’s gaze as he replied, “I’ll hold you to that.”

 

“Good grief, who is this anyway, Orochimaru?”

 

Jiraiya didn’t bother to answer. He just steered Kakashi to a table where a cloaked and shadowed figure was already waiting for them, sipping a cup of fragrant green tea. “Hello, Crow. Thank you for meeting us on such short notice,” Jiraiya said warmly while watching Kakashi for any sudden movements.

 

Kakashi was immediately gripping the kunai that had been hidden up his sleeve. “Crow?” he said in disbelief.

 

The person with the tea lifted a pale hand and pushed back his hood, revealing a tired, handsome face that Kakashi knew very well. “Hello, Kakashi-senpai. I do hope you were serious about those ten seconds,” Uchiha Itachi said with a shy smile.

Chapter Text

“What. The. Fuck.”

 

“I swear to you on my life, Kakashi, every word is true,” Jiraiya said, still keeping a weather eye on Kakashi’s hands, like he hadn’t completely ruled out the possibility of him killing Itachi. Kakashi honestly hadn’t ruled it out yet, either. “If you doubt me and Itachi, which I wouldn’t blame you for under the circumstances, you could ask Hiruzen. He knows everything and can confirm the whole story. He’s planning to debrief Tsunade within the next couple of days on the situation. Danzo’s death has changed things, accelerated our plans. I believe we have you to thank for that.”

 

“I should have known that Hiruzen would have been in up to his beard with this insanity,” Kakashi snarled, ignoring the comment on Danzo. “The Sandaime never did have the sense the gods gave a koi. None of this never would have happened if Minato-sensei...” He stopped, shaken, and whipped his head around to pin Itachi down with the force of his one eyed glare. “This is unbelievable.”

 

“I assure you, senpai, I’m not lying…” Itachi started to say.

 

Kakashi kicked a chair impatiently. “It may be true, but that’s not what I meant. I simply can’t believe the ball-shriveling stupidity of all this. You’re honestly telling me that you, Uchiha Itachi, a genius and a prodigy, a boy that I taught myself, couldn’t come up with a better resolution to the problem than wholesale massacre? You really thought that killing everyone was your only option? Seriously?”

 

Itachi spread his hands and shrugged. It wasn’t a flippant gesture; it was the expression of a beaten man. “I was stuck between my family, the village, Danzo, the Hokage, and Uchiha Madara, senpai. I was given my orders. What else could I do?”

 

“Literally anything other than what you did! For starters, you could have asked me for help!” Kakashi growled. He stood up and started to pace, and Jiraiya watched him warily. “Dammit, Itachi! Why in the world wouldn’t you have trusted me to help you? Me, Gai, Tenzo, Kurenai, Asuma… We all would have helped you, maybe been able to prevent all this suffering and death. You didn’t have to stop a war alone. That’s a burden no one should have to bear. And now, Sasuke is alone. You broke him, Itachi, do you understand that?”

 

“I know,” Itachi said woodenly. “My greatest hope now is that one day, Sasuke will be skilled enough to kill me and avenge the Uchiha clan. That will reestablish his honor in the eyes of the village and give him the retribution he needs to heal.”

 

Kakashi blinked and visibly fought down the urge to tear his own hair out by the roots. “That’s quite possibly the most idiotic thing I’ve ever heard in my life. What good would that do anyone? In your supposed ideal future, Sasuke would be a murderer. It wouldn’t fix anything. You know what, it’s more than idiotic, it’s just plain selfish. You’d be taking the easy way out and forcing your brother into yet another impossible situation. Your greatest hope should be to bring down Konoha’s enemies and then fix as much of the damage as you can. You owe Sasuke that much and more.”

 

“You think it can be fixed?” Itachi asked, a bit of light in his eyes for the first time.

 

“Of course it can’t,” Kakashi said harshly, and took bitter joy in watching the hope in Itachi’s face die. “You’ve killed children and babies , Itachi. That’s unforgivable.” He sighed, feeling far older than his years. “But for however much it’s worth, I do believe that matters can be bettered. For one thing, we can take down the Akatsuki and Madara. Sasuke could at least have the comfort of knowing that his brother wasn’t truly a traitor then. Still a murderer, still stupid , but not a traitor to Konoha.”

 

“You said we ,” Jiraiya stated. “Does that mean you’ll help us?”

 

“Of course I will,” Kakashi said, “just like I would have if Itachi had used whatever brain cells he had left to ask me in the first place.” He held up a finger for silence. “But I want to make it clear that I’m not doing this for you, Itachi. And I'm sure as hell not doing it for Konoha. A village that orders one of its citizens to commit wholesale slaughter doesn’t deserve to be saved.” He shuddered. “I’m doing it partly for Sasuke, but mostly for Naruto. I can’t let the Akatsuki find him, or any of the other jinchuuriki for that matter. The one in Wind is just a boy, too, you know, the same age as my boy. He doesn’t deserve to be hunted down for what his village has asked him to bear any more than Naruto does. They deserve the chance to grow up and become themselves. Maybe they can save these shitty excuses of villages. If that’s even possible, which I doubt.”

 

“Thank you, Kakashi-senpai,” Itachi said humbly. “I am grateful for your help.”

 

“Don’t call me that,” Kakashi spat, heading to the door. “I’m not your friend or your captain. I don’t even know who you are anymore. Maybe I never did. If it weren’t for Naruto and your brother, I would kill you where you stand and sleep all the better for it.”

 

“I understand,” Itachi said, his eyes on the table.

 

“You can contact me through your crows or through Jiraiya,” Kakashi finished shortly. “I don’t want to see you if I can help it.”

 

He turned around to go, but stopped as Itachi’s anguished whisper reached him at the door. “Please, Hatake-san, how is my brother? He’s not in the orphanage, is he?”

 

Kakashi halted, but he didn’t turn around. Part of him wanted to deny Itachi the information he wanted, just to hurt him. He wanted Itachi to hurt, to be in pain, to suffer.

 

The part of Kakashi that had once cared about Itachi, the voice in the back of his head that always sounded a little like his kind, idealistic sensei, won out after a struggle. “Sasuke’s angry and sad and wounded, but he’s finally starting to heal. No, we didn’t let him go to the orphanage, even though that’s what the Hokage wanted initially. Gai has him instead. Sasuke is being well cared for in a loving home. He has friends, people that truly care about him. He’s surviving. That’s the best we can ask of him, considering the cruelty he’s suffered.”

 

Without waiting for a response or for Jiraiya to follow him out, Kakashi left the little bar behind and went back to Konoha, his mind so jumbled that he almost ran into a tree several times. He was so disgusted and betrayed and hurt that he was honestly amazed he didn’t paint the whole way back to the Leaf with vomit.

 

What an unholy quagmire of a mess. Kakashi had a feeling that Tsunade was going to agree with him on that point. He highly doubted that any of her office windows would survive her conversation with Hiruzen. If there was any decency in the world, she’d toss Hiruzen out of one of them altogether and save everyone else the aggravation of dealing with him and his twisted legacy.

 

…………………

 

Kakashi didn't sleep at all that night. He wanted desperately to clean his mind, to wipe away the images of death in the Uchiha district that his meeting with Itachi had reawakened. The pictures behind his eyelids dripped red, blood and sharingan. His own eye was dry and aching while Obito’s eye weept. He ended up staring sightlessly at the ceiling, trying to cover the red of his memories with the white of the drywall. He knew instinctively that he needed to get away from Konoha, if only for a few hours, or he was going to explode.

 

Subsequently, it was very early the next morning when he pulled an unwilling and grumbly Naruto out of bed, threw clean clothes in the boy’s face, and then herded him into the kitchen. Working together, they packed a brown wicker picnic basket with sandwiches, carrot sticks, and the last of a batch of spicy cookies that Yugao had dropped off earlier in the week.

 

By that point, Naruto was largely awake and capable of (mostly) coherent speech. “What’re we doing, nii-san? Aren’t you going on a mission today?” he slurred, yawning so widely that Kakashi could see his tonsils. He wondered if it would be possible for Naruto to yawn hard enough for him to see the Kyuubi somewhere in the boy’s stomach. He shook his head. Obviously, the lack of sleep was getting to him.

 

“We are getting out of this village for a little while, before nii-san has to kill someone,” Kakashi replied sweetly. He reached into the cabinet under the kitchen sink and pulled out a red checked blanket that Kurenai had given him once as a joke, because the idea of Hatake Kakashi going on a picnic was apparently hilarious to her. Calmly, he added, “It is your responsibility, Naruto, to keep everyone I hate or find so much as mildly annoying out of my way until we’re outside the gates, or we may both have to go missing-nin. That would be tiresome and Tsunade-hime would yell at us, so it’s best to avoid the problem entirely. Understood?”

 

Naruto blinked sleepily, totally unbothered, before he reached over the table and patted Kakashi’s arm. “Don’t worry, nii-san,” he sympathized in a surprisingly adult tone. “I have days like that too.”

 

Kakashi stopped shoving kunai into his pouch and peered at Naruto. “And just who, might I ask, has pushed you, the boy made out of sunshine, to consider murder?”

 

“Hey, he may be my best friend,” Naruto said defensively, “but Sasuke-kun can still be a real turd-butt sometimes. There are days when I think if I hear him grunt ‘hn’ one more time, I’ll rip out his ridiculous duck wing hair and use it to fly away.”

 

Kakashi choked. “Now that’s a mental image that’ll linger. Uchihas,” he sighed, shaking his head. “No wonder Tobirama was more than a little off at the end. I have a feeling his niece is about to go the same way.”

 

“What?” Naruto blinked. “Why would Tsunade-baa-chan...”

 

“Forget it. Come on, let’s get out of here.” Kakashi shot a warning glance at Pakkun, who rolled his eyes and prudently covered his ears with his paws. “I was thinking today might be a good day to teach you and Bisuke how to tree walk.”

 

“Really?” Naruto whooped noisily and leapt across the kitchen in a single bound. “Not even Shikamaru or Sasuke can tree walk like a real ninja yet! I’ll be the first in the whole class! Come on, slow-kashi, let’s go already!” Bisuke at his heels, he threw open the door and raced down the street.

 

Kakashi quickly sealed the picnic basket and the blanket into a scroll and warded the door behind him. He eyed how far down the street Naruto was, then body flickered to land directly in front of him, causing the boy to skid on his heels as he braked hard to avoid a collision. “Hey, what gives?” Naruto protested as his arms pinwheeled for balance. “The gate is that way, porn-brain!”

 

“The gate may be that way,” Kakashi said as he firmly turned Naruto around by the shoulders to face a different direction, “but Iruka-sensei’s apartment is this way. I thought he could maybe use a picnic too. Why don’t we go ask him if he’d like to come with us?”

 

Kakashi squinted as the sunlight bounced off of Naruto’s blazing smile. Between him and Gai, Kakashi really needed to start walking around wearing sunglasses all the time, like Aoba. Though sunglasses would look pretty silly with his mask. And his hitai-ate. And his sharingan. Maybe the sunglasses were best left to Aoba after all. “Kakashi-nii-san, sometimes I think people are lying when they call you a genius because they’re afraid of you,” Naruto said, interrupting Kakashi’s train of thought as the eager boy turned to run to the chunin dorms, “but other times you just prove me wrong. This is one of those times.”

 

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Kakashi said dryly. It was hard to saunter casually towards Iruka’s apartment when he was just as eager as Naruto, but he managed it. “Knock gently ,” he advised once they reached Iruka’s door. “It’s still early. He might be asleep.”

 

“That didn’t stop you from tossing me out of bed like a lump of laundry this morning,” Naruto muttered as he obediently tapped on Iruka’s door.

 

“Just a minute!” they heard Iruka call from inside his apartment, and Kakashi was thankful for the mask that covered his wide grin in that moment. Nobody would ever let him live it down for being so mushy.

 

Iruka cracked open the door part way to keep the cat from slipping out between his feet, and peered at his visitors curiously. Despite the earliness of the hour, he was already dressed and, Kakashi was sad to note, his hair was pulled up in his usual ponytail. “Kakashi-san! Naruto-kun!” Iruka said, obviously pleased. “What are you doing here so early in the morning?”

 

“Kakashi-nii said that he was going to kill somebody if he didn’t get out of the village, so we’re going to go on a picnic instead and he’s going to teach me how to tree walk, Iruka-sensei, and we want you to come, too!” Naruto blurted out in a rush. “You can help teach me, right, sensei? You don’t have any other plans for today, do you?”

 

“Tree walking, huh?” Iruka ruffled Naruto’s hair affectionately and winked at Kakashi. “I guess I can be persuaded to come along, if only to prevent a murder. It would be considered a service to the village, after all, and would be a lot more fun than mopping the floors, like I’d planned to do this morning. Let me just put my shoes on and we can head out.”

 

Iruka closed the door and they heard him crooning softly to his cat, Kasi, telling her to be a good girl and that he would be back soon. Then the door opened and Iruka stepped out and joined them. “So where are we going to teach you to tree walk, anyway?” the teacher asked Naruto as he stood at Kakashi’s side.

 

“I was thinking that the Forest of Death would be the best place,” Kakashi quipped. He started towards the gate and his companions followed him eagerly. “He’ll have to learn quickly to avoid being eaten by a giant centipede. Fear is an excellent motivator, I’ve found.”

 

“Kakashi-nii…” Naruto whined as he rolled his eyes. “Be serious.”

 

“I will have you know that I’m always serious,” Kakashi said with great dignity. “I’m the most serious shinobi in this entire village. Ask anybody.”

 

Iruka snorted. “I don’t know… I think Ibiki may just have you beat.”

 

“Oh, well, if you’re going to bring Ibiki into the equation,” Kakashi groused. He glanced around and, seeing that no one was paying them any attention, he reached over and took Iruka’s hand in his. Iruka blushed fiercely, but he squeezed Kakashi’s hand in return and didn’t let go, so the jounin called it a win.

 

The trio was soon out the gate and into the forest proper. Despite Kakashi's threats to the contrary, they ended up at a spot in the forest well away from any of the village training grounds, including the Forest of Death. Kakashi didn’t feel like sharing Iruka and Naruto with anyone today, and this was as isolated a spot as he could think of. The familiar green light filtering through the tree canopy soothed his soul almost as much as Naruto’s happy chatter, Bisuke’s yips of excitement, and Iruka’s steady voice. The leaves whispered. The whole world softened.

 

For the first time in weeks, there weren’t any frogs following them around, either. Jiraiya appeared to understand that he had finally pushed Kakashi to the breaking point and had let up on the constant surveillance. In the mood he was in, Kakashi really thought that if he had seen any amphibians tagging along on his day with his precious ones, he would have stepped on them and kept going without an ounce of remorse. So maybe it was really just self-preservation on Jiraiya’s part. Either way, it was showed a remarkable amount of tact on the part of the Toad Sage.

 

Once they reached a compatible area of the forest, Kakashi and Iruka sat Naruto down and explained to him how he should push chakra into his feet. They both knew that explanations wouldn’t be able to help Naruto much; he learned by doing. As soon as they had taught him the basics, they aimed him at a particularly sturdy looking tree and let him go. His eagerness now tempered with determination, Naruto patiently ran up the tree trunk, going higher and higher before falling back to the ground with a slightly softer thud each time as he started to get the idea.

 

Kakashi and Iruka sat down to watch him, offering advice when asked but letting the boy learn in his own way and at his own speed. Bisuke was busy running up his own tree, while Pakkun watched him dismissively from his perch at the top of a tall pine.

 

Still smiling at Naruto, Iruka said softly under his breath, “Are you okay, Kakashi?”

 

“I am now,” Kakashi sighed as he cracked his neck. It felt like the tension was slowly oozing out from deep inside his bones, giving his marrow room to expand. It was a strange sensation; he didn’t know when he had last been so relaxed. “It’s been a rough couple of weeks, between Jiraiya, Tsunade and everything.”

 

Iruka’s brown eyes gleamed with intelligence. “And everything?” he prompted.

 

“Sorry, sensei,” Kakashi murmured. “There are some things I can’t tell anyone, not even you. I only wish I could, but I can’t.  I can tell you that it looks like I’m going to be leaving Konoha fairly regularly for a while. I’m sorry. I won’t be around much, not until I get something handled.”

 

Iruka sighed, but nodded. “I understand your lifestyle, even if I can’t fully understand your burdens, Kakashi. You know I’ll watch out for Naruto as much as I can while you’re gone. He’ll be safe.”

 

“The prospect of being gone wouldn’t bother me much, except for Mizuki being Naruto’s teacher again this year,” Kakashi confessed. “I know he’s your friend, but there’s something rotten there, deep down. I can see it in his eyes.”

 

“Are you sure you just aren’t smelling the remnants of the dog crap Naruto bathed him in a few years ago?” Iruka cracked, before sobering. “I know what you mean, though. There is something off about Mizuki, I won’t argue that. Over the past few years, I’ve realized that he isn’t truly my friend. I was someone convenient for him, someone available. But I’ve always known that if I needed him in return, he wouldn’t be there. Not like Anko or Asuma or...or you.”

 

It was still faintly shocking to Kakashi that someone like Iruka felt that he could depend on him for something other than murder. It made him feel warm. Like there weren’t gaping pieces of his soul missing. “You’ll be busy too, won’t you? Isn’t Jiraiya going to teach you more about seals?”

 

Iruka snorted. “Yes. He came to see me a few days ago. He’s going to be popping in and out of the village for a while, it seems, but he’s eager to teach a student what he knows when he has a spare moment. If Jiraiya were to die without passing his knowledge down to someone else, everything he learned from the Uzumakis and the Whirlpool village and the toads will be lost forever. I want to learn all that I can from him, in case Naruto wants to learn his family techniques one day.” He sighed. “It’s going to be a trial, though, not to strangle him. I had a five minute conversation with him last week, and by the time he left he’d stolen my best bottle of sake and leered at two separate women in the street. He’s worse than a pack of six year old pre-genin.”

 

A slow grin spread across Kakashi’s face, and he knew that Iruka could see its outlines through his mask. “Well, sensei,” he purred, “I have every confidence that you’ll be able to amend his behavior somehow.”

 

“A misplaced trust for certain,” Iruka shot back, “since I’ve known you for years now and you certainly haven’t improved for the better.”

 

“Maa, sensei,” Kakashi said as he leaned in closer, watching Iruka’s lips with all the attention of a predator, “you should have known from the start that I’m a hopeless case. Especially when it comes to you.”

 

Iruka leaned closer, too, a look of hunger clear in his eyes. Kakashi was just reaching up to pull down his mask when Naruto’s happy cries grabbed his attention. “Look, Kakashi-nii! Look at me! Isn’t it awesome, Iruka-sensei?” Both adults looked up and saw Naruto standing horizontally on the tree trunk, held firmly in place by his own chakra.

 

“Hey, Naruto, look at you!” Iruka cheered. “You learned that so quickly!”

 

“Good job, Naruto,” Kakashi said. “But can you hang on even when you’re distracted?” As quick as a flash, he whipped a shuriken out of his vest pocket and threw it straight at Naruto.

 

With a squeal, Naruto started to fall, but to Kakashi’s surprise, the boy kept his wits about him. His hands flashed through a set of seals, faster than Kakashi had thought him capable of doing. With a sound of displaced air, a block of wood appeared up in the tree with a shuriken stuck in it while Naruto was crouching on the ground, ruffled but unharmed. He stood up and scowled at Kakashi. “That was not nice, nii-san,” he complained.   

 

“Maybe not, but that was a perfect use of the replacement jutsu, otouto,” Kakashi praised as he pulled Naruto into his side for a quick hug. “Now get back up there and try it again.”

 

For the next hour, Naruto ran up and down various trees while Iruka and Kakashi lobbed pointy objects in his direction. By the time they stopped for lunch, he was sticking reliably to the bark, even using his own kunai to fend off their missiles, showing that he was confident in his feet staying in place while his mind was busy. Kakashi was proud, but a little disappointed that Naruto had picked up on the technique so quickly. He’d been hoping to have an easy excuse for more picnics in the future.

 

Iruka seemed to feel the same way. “While we’re out here…” he said slowly, shooting a significant look at Kakashi, “why don’t we let him try water walking?”

 

“Why, sensei,” Kakashi approved, “I think that’s a brilliant idea.”

 

The sun was setting in a blaze of orange and gold when a soaking wet Naruto led the way back through the forest to Konoha. At one point the boy glanced back and saw Kakashi and Iruka holding hands. Kakashi winced, expecting Naruto’s enthusiasm to wash over them violently in a series of squeals and damp hugs. Once again, though, he was surprised with his charge’s maturity. Naruto’s face did light up, but all he did was say hopefully, “Do you think we could stop at Ichiraku’s for dinner, Kakashi-nii? All three of us together?”

 

“Yeah, kid,” Kakashi said, his heart full as he ruffled Naruto’s bright, soggy hair. “I think you’ve earned it. Besides, ramen will go a long way towards warming you up.”

 

Iruka frowned at that. “You must be freezing, Naruto.” He glared at Kakashi. “Adding ice to the water was cruel.”

 

Kakashi shrugged, unrepentant. “Motivation, sensei. It’s a tried and true method of instruction.”

 

Bisuke, nearly as wet as Naruto, growled at Kakashi and sneezed emphatically, so that they were all laughing as they walked through Konoha’s gates.

 

Iruka raised an eyebrow when they passed Hokage Tower and saw that all the windows in the upper floor had been blown out by some great force. Izumo was out front, sulkily using a broom to scrape up all the shards of glass. “I wonder what set off Tsunade-hime?” the teacher said aloud. “I’ve never seen her angry enough to break all her windows at once like that before.”

 

“Trust me,” Kakashi said as a shadow fell over his mind once more, “you don’t want to know.”

 

……………………….

 

“Achoo!”

 

“Karma,” Naruto said, all smugness as he threw a box of tissues at Kakashi’s feet. “This is payback for you dunking me in an icy pond.”

 

“That was weeks and weeks ago. Karma should have forgotten all about that by now. Shut up and go to school,“ Kakashi moaned as he huddled further into his nest of blankets on the couch. “Just leave me to my doom.”

 

“Don’t be so dramatic,” Naruto returned with a roll of his eyes. He raced around the room gathering books and pencils and showing absolutely no respect whatsoever for Kakashi’s throbbing head. “You’re not doomed. You’ve just been spending way too much time in Mist on missions, that’s all. People come back from there with colds all the time. You’re nothing special. If you’d just suck it up and go see a healer, you’d be well in a snap and spare me all your whining.”

 

Kakashi aimed a particularly wet and hacking cough in Naruto’s direction, just out of spite.

 

“Quit that! You know it won’t work on me, thanks to my partner.” Naruto thumped his stomach meaningfully, and Kakashi spared a moment from his suffering to be glad that they had finally reached the point where they could joke about Naruto’s bijuu.

 

Not long after the picnic in the forest, Jiraiya and Kakashi had sat Naruto down and told him all about his seal, the Kyuubi, and the different chakra that was within him. Jiraiya had been primed and ready with one of the new seals that he and Iruka had made in order to suppress the Kyuubi’s chakra, but they didn’t end up being needed. Naruto hadn’t lost his temper.

 

Instead he slumped, looking as if his worst nightmare had come true. “So I am a monster, then,” he said, very quietly. His hands were still. “All these years, they were right. Everybody that called me monster and demon and murderer was right. I hurt people. I’m responsible. Even Iruka-sensei’s parents-”

 

“No, Naruto, that’s not true!” Kakashi interrupt, unable to stand the loss of all of Naruto’s inherent joy. “You are not responsible for what the Kyuubi does, not then, not now. You are…” he stopped, fighting down the lump in his throat. How could he make this boy, his boy, understand? “You are light, Naruto. You’re quick and loving and kind and there’s absolutely nothing monstrous about you, do you hear me?”

 

“How can you be sure?” Naruto didn’t look at Kakashi; he kept his gaze firmly trained at the ground. “How do you know I won’t turn into a demon one day? How do you know I won’t hurt someone?”

 

“I’m sure because I know you, otouto,” Kakashi said. He put his hand out and gently tilted Naruto’s head up so that he could look the boy straight in the eye. Naruto’s blue eyes were hurt, but Kakashi could tell that Naruto desperately wanted to believe him. “I raised you, I’ve taught you, and I’ve prepared you. More than that, I trust you. You always do the right thing, no matter how hard it is, no matter how long it takes. That’s why your father gave this to you, because he knew that you would have the strength to carry it. He believed in you, and so do I. That’s why I believe that you’ll be the first one to make something good come from this burden.”

 

Jiraiya said softly, “We know from your mother’s family, the Uzumakis, that the Kyuubi can be spoken to, reasoned with; even its chakra can used for good sometimes. We’d like to teach you how to meditate, to see if there’s some way for you to come to an understanding with the Kyuubi. Would you be willing to try?”

 

Naruto smiled. It was a pale shadow of his normal grin, but Kakashi was glad to see it anyway. “Will it make me a better shinobi, ero-sennin?”

 

Shrugging, Jiraiya said, “If you can come to a compromise, I believe it would.”

 

“Then I’ll try,” Naruto declared. “Maybe if I make friends with the fox, it’ll stop him from being so angry. That way he won’t hurt anybody else.”

 

“Maybe so,” Kakashi said, resting his hand on Naruto’s head, like a blessing. “If anybody can do it, it’s you.”

 

“I will, then,” Naruto said, his whiskered face determined.

 

After working with Iruka and Kakashi for countless hours after school and on weekends, Naruto had eventually learned to quiet his mind enough to enter the cell where the Kyuubi was contained. After what felt like a ridiculously long time to Kakashi as he sat anxiously on the ground beside the boy, Naruto had blinked open his eyes. He looked tired, but satisfied. “Boy, he’s mad,” he said emphatically. “My head’s killing me.”

 

“He?” Kakashi questioned, curious. “You actually talked to the bijuu?”

 

“Yeah,” Naruto said, shaking himself like a wet dog, as if he was throwing off the experience. “He’s not an it, you know, he’s a person. His name is Kurama. And I wouldn’t say that we talked, exactly. He yelled a lot and I listened. He calmed down when I didn’t try to interrupt him. I don’t blame him for being pissed off. I mean, he’s been stuck inside a kid for years and years that didn’t even know he was there. He couldn’t talk to anyone or do anything. He must be bored and lonely.”

 

“I hadn’t thought about it that way…” Kakashi said.

 

“Yeah. I don’t think anybody did. It’s kinda mean of us, really, expecting him to be all cooped up in a body and be happy about it.” Naruto stood up and stretched before making his way to the back door, no doubt to spend some time in his garden. “I’ve got a lot of work to do! I told him I was coming after all that anger inside of him. I can make him my friend. Believe it!”

 

Naruto setting a glass of orange juice on the table by the couch brought Kakashi’s attention back to the present. “There’s soup on the stove, more blankets at your feet, and your next dose of medicine is already measured out and sitting on the kitchen counter,” the boy instructed seriously. “Drink plenty of fluids and try not to die while I’m gone, okay, nii-san?”

 

“No promises,” muttered Kakashi, though he made sure Naruto saw his smile peeking out from under the pillow. He wasn’t wearing his mask. He hardly ever did around the house anymore, and he certainly didn’t feel like wearing it while he was sick. Snot and cotton really, really did not mix. “Pay attention in school. And don’t you dare send a healer here, either!” he called at Naruto’s back.

 

“No promises!” Naruto parroted, and then the door slammed behind him and the sounds of his footsteps faded away as he darted to Gai’s house to meet up with Sasuke.

 

Kakashi sighed and closed his eyes, relieved beyond words to be in his own house, behind his own wards, home with his kid. He hadn’t been in Mist, after all, not that he could tell Naruto that. Mist actually sounded like a vacation compared to where he’d really been.

 

The past few months, Kakashi had been in and out of the Land of Rain, spying on the Akatsuki with Jiraiya and having uncomfortable, awkward meetings with Itachi. It had been devilishly tedious, tricky work, and the constant dampness combined with his dependence on toads as a means of transportation and disguise meant that Kakashi had been soaking wet for at least a week by the time the cold had finally laid him low. Between his and Itachi’s hacking and snorting, nobody could get any rest. At one point, he’d almost been caught by that creepy puppet user when he couldn’t quite contain his coughs.

 

Thankfully, the toad Jiraiya had sent with Kakashi was fairly intelligent and started croaking loudly enough to shake the leaves on the trees, effectively covering the sounds of his hacking. The puppet user had shook his head and moved along, leaving Kakashi safe for another day.

 

The work in Rain was frustratingly slow. Itachi, Jiraiya and Kakashi were slowly unraveling the bonds between the gang members, and learning their secrets and methods for the day when they would have to be fought. Their biggest breakthrough had come when Jiraiya had finally spied the elusive, orange haired Pein, and realized that the Akatsuki’s origins lay with the war orphans he had once taught, long ago.

 

“If you ever see me trying to teach a child again,” Jiraiya had moaned to Kakashi that evening, drunk as a skunk and sour with it, “just kill me. I always muff it when it comes to kids. The only one that turned out decent was Minato, and I think that was due more to Kushina than me. I left three kids behind in a fucking war zone, and then I abandoned Naruto when he was just a newborn baby. What good am I to anyone, anyway?”

 

Kakashi wasn’t in the mood to be comforting. He was feverish and angry with Jiraiya’s irresponsibility. “You have value to the village and to the shinobi world,” he said sternly. “Start there. You know Yahiko and Konan. Only you can turn them from their path. Think, Jiraiya! What’s the end game? What do they want? What is Madara holding over them as a motivation?”

 

Jiraiya had burped noisily in response, but he also looked thoughtful. It felt like progress, anyway.

 

Kakashi was sound asleep when he felt a polite pinging sensation against his wards. Someone wanted entry, someone familiar...ah. He smiled and made a boar sign with his hands, allowing the visitor to open the door. “Hello in there,” Iruka called softly from the doorway. “It’s just me.”

 

“Follow the sounds of agony,” Kakashi rasped in response, then sneezed helpfully.

 

Iruka came into the room, his soft steps a balm. “Naruto told me you were sick when I saw him at lunch,” the teacher said, eying the mound of discarded tissues on the floor beside the couch. “He wanted to go train with his friends, so I said I’d stop by and check on you. How are you feeling?”

 

“Oh, what’s a little death to a ninja like me?” Kakashi quipped cheerfully. “I’ve died many times in service to my village, after all.” He blew his nose with a noise like thunder.

 

Rolling his eyes, Iruka went into the kitchen and came back with a trash bag. He started cleaning up the room, and Kakashi fell in love with him a little bit more. He never had been able to stand messes. “Must you always be dramatic, Kakashi-san?” Iruka asked while he worked. “You should be the one to write those trashy books, not Jiraiya-sensei.”

 

“Ah, sensei, wasn’t it my sparkling personality that first drew your heart to mine?”

 

“No,” Iruka shot back ruthlessly, “it was when you admired my wards and I knew that you could appreciate true genius. It’s basically all been downhill from there.”

 

The room now clean, Iruka sank down to the floor beside the couch, and Kakashi wrapped his fingers around the teacher’s wrist, just to feel the echo of his heart beating. “It’s been that long? That you’ve liked me, I mean?” he asked, his own heart thundering. He had never felt so unsteady, like a pre-genin.

 

Iruka ducked his head. “It has been for me. And you?”

 

“I think it was the same for me,” Kakashi murmured. “I saw how your wards were written to electrocute the shit out of someone, and knew that you were special.” Iruka laughed in appreciation, but Kakashi added, “No, honestly. You told me that day that I needed to have security on this house, that I had someone precious to protect. You saw Naruto as a little boy, even though you knew his history. You were special. You’ve always been special. And then, before I blinked twice, you were more than just special in general; you were special to me.”

 

“So are you,” Iruka returned, “even though I knew you don’t believe me. You’re special in every way.” He cleared his throat. “Although it seems as though the Hokage agrees with you about my skills.”

 

“What do you mean?” Kakashi asked.

 

Iruka smiled, a little rueful. “I got a message from her two days ago. I’m being made a tokubetsu jounin, for my work in seals with Jiraiya.”

 

“But what about your teaching?” Kakashi said, alarmed. “You’ve always said that you didn’t want to become a jounin, because then you would have to leave the school.”

 

Iruka waved his hand. “Tsunade said that I could stay a teacher, if I wanted. I don’t have to take missions anymore, or even work at the Mission Desk if I don’t want to. I can use that time to do more seals research.”

 

“Maa,” Kakashi said, between coughs. “That’s great news then, Iruka. Congratulations!”

 

“I never thought I’d make jounin,” Iruka frowned. “Doesn’t being a jounin mean I’m a little crazy now? I thought insanity was a prerequisite.”

 

“Absolutely,” Kakashi said, surrendering to his illness and closing his eyes. “We won’t let you in the super secret clubhouse without a note from a Yamanaka swearing to your instability.”

 

“That’s what I thought,” Iruka sighed. “Go to sleep, Kakashi. Feel better.”

 

“I already am, with you here,” Kakashi slurred as he dropped off, soothed by the feeling of Iruka’s fingers carding through his hair.

 

………………………………

 

Near the end of the year, Naruto slammed out of the Academy, spitting like a cat. Mizuki-sensei had kept him after school yet again, this time supposedly for “private instruction” on clones. Except there wasn’t really any instruction from the teacher, just veiled taunts and insults on Naruto’s supposed stupidity.

 

Naruto was frustrated and hurt. Clones required a deftness of chakra molding that he just didn't have yet. He’d get it eventually, he always did. He could henge and tree walk and do any number of jutsus. Why couldn’t Mizuki-sensei just give him time to figure it out? It frustrated him that he couldn’t explain that he was trying to work around his seal, that he wasn’t allowed to be open about Kurama.

 

He’s scum, grumbled Kurama’s deep voice. Let me out. I’d take care of him.

 

No, Naruto returned tiredly. You can’t just kill everybody you hate.

 

Why not?

 

Ugh, I’m not having this conversation with you again. Naruto stopped in the middle of the path and leaned his head into his hands, his eyes throbbing with his heartbeat. When he was angry, it was harder to ignore Kurama’s more bloodthirsty opinions, and Mizuki-sensei seemed to have the uncanny ability to jump on every single one of Naruto’s nerves. He was so tired.

 

“Naruto?” A voice interrupted the monologue in Naruto’s head and he glanced up through his fingers. Shikamaru was leaning against the wall, apparently waiting for him. “You okay?”

 

“No,” Naruto grunted, straightening up and trying to smile at his friend. “I’m going to find some dog shit. Wanna help?”

 

Shikamaru snorted, unfooled. “I don’t think that’s the answer, as tempting as it is.” He pushed off the wall and came to stand beside Naruto, his hands in his pockets. He looked at Naruto’s face, his dark eyes missing nothing. “What was Mizuki-sensei’s theme this time?”

 

“Variations on my stupidity, as usual. It’s incredible. For such a limited topic, he can be amazingly creative,” Naruto said ruefully. He popped his neck and sighed. “It’s fine. I’ll get the hang of clones eventually and then he’ll have to find something else to nag me about, which will be irritating for him. That’s the only revenge I can have at this point.”

 

“You’ll prove him wrong. You always do.”

 

Naruto smiled at Shikamaru’s easy belief in him, warmed. He didn’t feel quite so tired, and even Kurama snorted and was silent. He was about to suggest that they take the afternoon off of training and go look at clouds instead, when another voice interrupted their conversation.

 

“Why do you allow that worm to demean you?”

 

Shikamaru and Naruto turned, and saw a small, misshapen figure standing in the shadows of the Academy gates. Then the figure stepped forward into the light, and they saw that it was a boy about their age, burdened with a large jar on his back. His eyes were ringed from lack of sleep, and his face was hard. “I heard what he was saying to you,” the boy seethed in an unnaturally deep voice. “That is no true teacher, and no true shinobi. You should not allow his foul treatment of you to continue. You should eliminate him.”

 

“What is with everybody wanting to commit murder today?” Naruto asked the universe, baffled. “And who are you?”

 

“I am Gaara of the Sand,” the boy replied. “And I am glad to finally meet you...brother.”

Chapter Text

“Brother?” Naruto said, utterly confused. “I don’t have a brother.”

 

“We are not brothers in blood, but in burden,” Gaara clarified. He stepped closer, and out of the corner of his eye, Naruto saw Shikamaru slowly shift his weight, moving from his usual lazy slouch into a fighting stance.

 

Shukaku, Naruto heard Kurama murmur in the back of his mind. The fox actually sounded mildly pleased.

 

Who?

 

My brother of sorts. He of the one tail. I can sense him there, within the boy. Be careful though, kit. Shukaku was always a little...unstable. His host likely will be, too. From the feel of his chakra, I don’t think he was sealed as well as I was in you by your father. That kind of influence on a small child can be damaging.

 

Coming from Kurama, this was more than slightly alarming to Naruto. “Brother, huh? So you have one, too?” Naruto asked the visitor, trying to keep from saying too much in front of Shikamaru.

 

“Since moments after my birth. He has always been within me, the voice in my head and the anger in my veins,” Gaara growled. “But when he told me that another bearer had awakened, I sought a way to meet you. You are closer than any of the others. I came to Konoha with my father, and then tracked you here by your chakra.”

 

“Naruto,” Shikamaru interrupted, glancing quickly back and forth between the other two boys, “does this kid have a bijuu too?”

 

Whirling around to face his friend, Naruto sputtered, “Wait. What? You knew about me? How? I didn’t even know about me!”

 

Shikamaru snorted. “Of course I knew. I’ve known for years.” At Naruto’s incredulous look, Shikamaru shrugged and explained, “It’s easy enough to figure out when you’re observant; nobody in Konoha is exactly subtle.” He started ticking off reasons on his fingers. “To start with, you never get sick. You heal from injuries faster than should be possible. When we were little, people called you names and whispered and avoided you. A lot of that stopped when Kakashi-san took you in, but I remember. You never did anything to deserve cruelty, so it had to be about something else. Besides, your eyes have started to turn yellow when you’re angry. I saw them a couple of weeks ago when Mizuki-sensei was being particularly disgusting, and that really settled it for me.”

 

“And you don’t care that I have a demon inside me?” Naruto asked softly, his fingers twitching like he was suppressing the urge to reach out. “Aren’t you scared of me?”

 

“Of course not,” Shikamaru said, a smile lifting his eyebrows. “You’re you.”

 

“This is all very touching,” Gaara said, “but what are you planning to do about that teacher of yours? He must be punished.”

 

Naruto turned away from Shikamaru reluctantly. “Thanks for your opinion, but I’m not planning to do anything to him. Mizuki-sensei is a jerk, but I still have to deal with him. He’s my teacher. Besides, you can learn something from anyone, even jerks.”

 

Gaara’s eyes narrowed. “Then you are weak. I find that...disappointing.”

 

“Is it really weakness?” Shikamaru asked, his voice dangerously quiet. “It takes a different kind of strength to be silent under scrutiny, to learn what you can, and wait until a better time to respond. There will come a day when Mizuki will have to answer for his actions, and I believe that Naruto will be ready on that day. I think that’s very wise of him.”

 

Gaara was quiet for a long moment. “Perhaps you have a point, Leaf-nin. I have been taught all my life that the only way to survive is to strike first. Maybe things are different here in the trees than they are in the Sand.”

 

“His name isn’t Leaf-nin, it’s Shikamaru,” Naruto sighed, sounding as if he had rather run out of patience, “and he looks like he’s hungry. I know I am. Keeping my temper is exhausting, even though I’ve been getting loads of practice lately. I could eat a cow. Or a whole herd of cows. Are you hungry, Gaara?”

 

“I...I don’t eat much…” Gaara said, looking startled at the sudden change of subject. Hadn’t he been about to kill someone? “I’m rarely hungry…”

 

“I guarantee you, one sniff of Ichiraku’s will change that,” chirped Naruto. “Do you like ramen? Of course you do! C’mon, I’ve got some money that Kakashi-nii gave me. Let’s go eat!” He wrapped one hand around Gaara’s wrist to guide him out of the schoolyard (away from Mizuki; Naruto thought it would be better to remove Gaara from temptation) and into the village.  A wisp of sand looked like it was going to come between the boys for a moment, but it slowly faded away as Naruto used his other hand to grab Shikamaru and haul both boys towards the spicy smells of Ichiraku’s stand.

 

“This is all very undignified,” Gaara protested weakly as he trotted along to match Naruto’s quick clip.

 

Shikamaru shook his head, but allowed himself to be dragged willingly. Besides, he didn’t want to leave Naruto alone with a boy with a creepy jar. And had the jar rattled when Naruto had touched him, or did he just imagine it?

 

As they zoomed by, none of the boys noticed Tsunade and Rasa coming out of Hokage Tower. “Hokage-sama. Is...is that my son?” the Sand Kage said, his eyes round with disbelief. “Is he actually with other children? Are they touching him? And they’re still breathing?”

 

Tsunade threw back her head and laughed at the sight. “Looks like it to me. It’s those damn blue eyes of Naruto’s. Nobody can resist them.” She clapped Rasa familiarly on the shoulder. “Don’t worry about your son, Kazekage-sama. Naruto and Shikamaru are two of the best kids in the village. Gaara won’t come to any harm with them. Likely they’ll return him after they’ve stuffed him full of ramen.”

 

“Temari and Kankuro will never believe this…” Rasa shook his head. “But if you’re not concerned, I suppose I shouldn’t be either. Now then, Tsunade, I believe we were discussing the upcoming chunin exams?”

 

………………………..

 

Waking up in the middle of the night to a coughing Uchiha was becoming a way of life, somewhat to Kakashi’s chagrin. He was even able to sleep through it for the most part, his brain finally assigning the sounds as white noise. Itachi had continued to choke and hack and spew mucus from every conceivable orifice long after Kakashi’s own months-long string of colds had come to an end.

 

(Which, it must be said, only happened after Iruka’s seemingly bottomless well of patience had finally run dry in the face of Kakashi’s nasally whining. The teacher had subsequently dragged him kicking and screaming to see Tsunade at the hospital for treatment. Naruto, the little shit, hadn’t come to Kakashi’s aid and had instead cheered on his beloved Iruka-sensei. The Godaime had first hit Kakashi upside the head hard enough to see stars, then had healed his lungs and given him supplements to keep him well in the future. Kakashi had blushed only a little when she called him a brat affectionately, and sent him on his way again. Kakashi had snubbed Iruka on principle for a couple of days afterwards, but finally stopped when he figured out that he was only hurting himself.)

 

Kakashi had somewhat coldly offered Itachi some of his own medications after he was finally back in good health, but Itachi had refused them, saying that they probably wouldn’t do him any good. Miffed by the refusal and still furious with Itachi for his actions, Kakashi hadn’t argued the matter any further. Let Itachi suffer. He deserved it.

 

The rather motley group of three continued to work together in Rain, uneasily but productively. Kakashi thought that it would be possible within the next year to launch a full scale attack on the Akatsuki and bring the group to its knees. Already they had prevented the kidnapping of two Jinchuriki from other villages.

 

On the surface, they were an effective team. They were getting things done. Kakashi just...wanted Itachi to die. A lot. It gave him something distracting to think about when he was missing Naruto and Iruka so badly that he couldn’t breathe, and during the nights when he thought if he had to listen to rain hitting the roof for another second more he would scream.

 

He regretted his lack of compassion when the usual nighttime noises changed and became, well, more liquid. Kakashi sat bolt upright in bed in time to see blood pouring from Itachi’s mouth, before the Uchiha collapsed unconscious amongst his mountain of blankets. “Fuckin’ hell,” Kakashi muttered as he leapt to Itachi’s side and pushed him upright so that he wouldn’t aspirate. “Jiraiya!” he shouted at the still insensate sannin, “wake the hell up! Itachi’s dying or something.”

 

“Wuhhh?” Jiraiya slurred, hungover and apparently barely alive. He attempted to sit up in bed, fell over, and looked as if he didn’t intend to try again.  

 

Kakashi responded with a well aimed shuriken that whistled past Jiraiya’s ear and embedded itself in the wall. “I mean it! I need some help here.”

 

Jiraiya fumbled out of bed obediently and immediately sobered when he saw Itachi’s pale face and the small pool of blood on the floor. His hands started to glow green with chakra, and he began to run them over Itachi. “I’m not very good at this sort of thing, but Tsunade taught me a little when she could spare the time and patience,” he explained as he examined Itachi, “which, to be fair, wasn’t very often.” After a minute, he shook his head. “I don’t know, Hatake. It’s not just a cold, I can tell that much. His lungs are very congested and his heartbeat is way too slow.” He glanced up at Kakashi. “I think he’s going to die if we don’t get him help fast. There’s no choice. One of us has to take him back to Konoha.”

 

“You can’t leave,” Kakashi quickly reasoned. “Your frogs are the only reason we’ve gotten the intel that we have. My dogs wouldn't blend in. Besides, you need to keep monitoring Yahiko and Konan and find out where Nagato is hiding. I’ll go.” Kakashi leapt to his side of the room and quickly dressed and sealed up all of his belongings.

 

By the time that was done, Jiraiya had wrapped Itachi in some warm blankets and had packed another scroll with food and medical supplies for the journey back to Konoha. Kakashi hauled an unresponsive Itachi onto his back, driven silent for a moment by a strong sense of deja vu. How many times had he and Itachi brought one another home after Anbu missions? Before the massacre, they had always trusted one another with their lives. How had it all gone so horribly wrong?

 

Shaking off his memories, Kakashi nodded at Jiraiya and then started running through the rain and trees as fast as he could. As he listened to the wheezing, infrequent breaths coming from Itachi, he silently prayed that he would be fast enough. Today couldn’t be Itachi’s day to die. The Uchiha had so much more to do if he was truly to rest in peace someday. The softer part of Kakashi couldn’t help but want whatever redemption that was possible for his old comrade.

 

He ignored the cold and the wet and pushed as hard as he possibly could, choking down a soldier pill at the halfway point. After running all through the night and far into the following day, Kakashi finally arrived in Konoha, and to his great relief, Itachi still breathed. He slipped into the village using the secret Anbu passage that led underground directly to the hospital. One of the Anbu approved healers, Horse, was waiting for him there. “We’re going to need Tsunade for this one,” Kakashi panted as he handed Itachi over for treatment. He had worked with Horse throughout his career, so the healer didn’t argue with his recommendation. She simply nodded in agreement and sent the Anbu that was always on guard outside the treatment room running for the Hokage.

 

Tsunade arrived moments later and immediately leapt into action, shouting for medications and IVs and running her hands over Itachi’s still form. After stepping into the hall to change into dry clothes, Kakashi came back into the treatment room, some old instinct driving him to stay near his teammate. He leaned against the wall, kidding himself for only a moment that he just needed a break, before giving up and slowly crumbling into a cross legged position on the floor. He couldn’t remember the last time that he’d been so exhausted. Horse spotted him and kindly brought him a cup of hot tea when she had a moment to spare; Kakashi gulped it down gratefully. There must have been an extra something that Horse had slipped into the tea, because Kakashi was suddenly awake and felt energy coursing through his veins again. No longer feeling in danger of imminent collapse, he unsealed his rations scroll and ate a bread roll and some cheese.

 

Finally, Tsunade stepped back from Itachi’s side and sighed as she turned to face Kakashi. Her hand was trembling slightly as she pushed back tendrils of sweat soaked blonde hair that had escape from her low pigtails and fallen into her face. “He’ll live,” she told him bluntly, “but it’s going to be a long recovery. He has the same illness Shin had, although Shin’s case wasn’t quite as advanced. Both of Itachi’s lungs are badly damaged by the disease, and it’s in his kidneys now, too. He must have been hiding the extent of his illness for a very long time. He won’t be able to go back to Rain with you, Brat, not for a while. He’s going to need a lot of rest and careful nursing. He won’t be able to spy or fight for months, if not years.”

 

“That’s not good,” Kakashi responded as he peered up at Tsunade from his spot on the floor. “Itachi is our inside man with the Akatsuki. You can’t patch him up enough for him to go back, even for just a couple of days so we can set something else up?”

 

Tsunade shook her head, her face troubled. “You don't understand. He was maybe five minutes from away being dead when you brought him in. Did you also know that he’s more than half blind? I’m amazed he could get dressed in the mornings, let alone see at night.”

 

Kakashi groaned. “No, but it doesn’t surprise me. He’s been using his sharingan a lot. He never said anything.”

 

“Nor would he,” Tsunade said shrewdly. To Kakashi’s surprise, she came and sat down beside him against the wall. “No matter what happens, Itachi will never stop punishing himself. He probably knew exactly how sick he was and saw it as some kind of karmic punishment for the massacre. There’s a large part of him that wants to die. Stupid of him, really. The only way he’ll ever have peace is to bring down the Akatsuki and keep his brother safe, and he can’t do that if he’s blind or dead.”

 

“The Uchiha clan has never exactly been a shining beacon of mental health,” Kakashi dryly stated.

 

“Neither has the Senju, so I can’t exactly criticize. My uncle probably had a lot to do with the Uchihas going sideways,” Tsunade said as she stood up, popped her back, and then hauled Kakashi to his feet companionably. “Go home, brat. There’s nothing else you can do here for Itachi. I’ll send a message to Jiraiya so he’ll know handle things in Rain for a bit. You’ve earned a rest. Besides, isn’t it Naruto’s birthday next week?”

 

Kakashi perked up at the thought. “You’re right. He’ll be eleven. I was afraid I’d miss it.”

 

“I don’t see why you should, since you’re home now. All evidence to the contrary, Jiraiya’s pretty damn smart. He’ll figure something out without you there to hold his hand.” Tsunade glanced at the clock. “Hey, look at that. Naruto should be getting out of school soon. Why don’t you kill two birds with one stone and go wait for him there? I’m sure several people will be delighted to see you.”

 

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” Kakashi said with great dignity. Tsunade rolled her eyes, but was kind enough not to laugh as Kakashi left the room.

 

Despite the stimulant, Kakashi was tired, and on a purely basic level the last thing he wanted to do was hang out in a tree in the schoolyard for half an hour. It was all worth it, though, when Naruto came out of the school building and Kakashi was able to drop down behind him and scare the shit out of him. “Kakashi-nii!” Naruto shouted as he threw his arms around his older brother. “I didn’t know you were coming home!”

 

“I didn’t exactly know myself, pipsqueak, but my mission ended up changing,” Kakashi said, ruffling Naruto’s spiky hair. “The Hokage has given me leave to be home through your birthday, if you’re okay with having an old guy around.”

 

The joy on Naruto’s face was answer enough, and Kakashi felt warmed to be so obviously wanted. “We can have a party at Ichiraku’s, if you’d like,” he found himself promising rashly, wanting that happiness to never leave his boy’s face. The cost of feeding a horde of famished pre-genin would be worth it.

 

Iruka’s face shone almost as brightly when he’d stepped into the schoolyard and spied the reason for Naruto’s shouts of excitement. He came over to the pair, his brown eyes twinkling. “Welcome home, Hatake-san,” he said, ever formal in front of his students.

 

“Thank you, Iruka-sensei,” Kakashi said, his voice a caress.

 

“Kakashi-nii, are you okay to go home by yourself? I want to see you, but I’d already promised Sasuke-teme and Shika-kun that I’d meet them for taijutsu practice after school,” Naruto said, glancing over at the two dark haired boys waiting for him at the gate.

 

“I think I can find my own way home, Naruto. I’m probably just going to fall asleep anyway. You go and have fun. Don’t forget to keep your guard up!” Kakashi said, aiming a playful punch at Naruto’s head that the boy easily guarded.

 

“Thanks, nii-san!” Naruto yelled as he ran off. “Oy, Sasuke! You ready to get your butt kicked?”

 

“Hn,” Sasuke groaned, rolling his eyes. Shikamaru just smiled fondly at Naruto’s enthusiasm. The group headed towards the training grounds, and Kakashi turned back to Iruka. “Walk me home, sensei?,” he said, only a little suggestively. “I am awfully tired, after all, and I’m liable to get lost or fall over.”

 

“We can’t have that,” Iruka murmured. “I’d better escort you home, just to make sure you get there safely.”

 

The walk to Kakashi’s house was calm on the surface, but there was an almost audible buzzing underneath their quiet words about Iruka’s cat and Kakashi’s questions about Naruto’s lessons. It was like the moment just before Kakashi formed the chidori in his palm, a frisson of lightning that went from his head to his toes. Iruka stood patiently while Kakashi removed the wards on the door of his house. “Well, here you are, safe and sound,” the teacher said, sounding a little breathless for the first time. “I’ve fulfilled my mission. I hope you rest well.”

 

“Maa, sensei,” Kakashi said as he leaned into Iruka’s personal space, their noses almost touching, “I don’t know that I will. I’m so keyed up from my mission, after all. I think I need to do some exercises, just to really wear myself out so that I can sleep.”  

 

“I can help with that,” Iruka growled, right before he grabbed Kakashi and yanked him into the house.

 

Kakashi soon had reason to be extremely grateful for the wards that soundproofed his little home, as Iruka tirelessly and thoroughly made sure that he would be able to sleep.

 

A few hours later, Naruto clattered into the house, sweaty and enthusiastic from his training...and then immediately burst back out the front door, wailing in agony, “My eyes! My eyes!”

 

Iruka looked down at a naked Kakashi, sound asleep beside him on the living room couch. The Copy-nin snored lightly, utterly unbothered by the din of Naruto’s shouts. Iruka smirked, pleased with himself. Then he hooked a throw pillow from the floor with his toes and pulled it over his head to block out the noise, and went back to sleep with his lover.

 

……………………………



Squinting at a measuring cup, Kakashi glowered at the recalcitrance of flour and the idiosyncrasies of baking in general. Every year would set out with the best of intentions to bake Naruto’s birthday cake on his own. And then every year, Kurenai would magically appear right when he had lost all hope and was lying in a puddle of powdered sugar and his own tears and rescue him.

 

This year, though, Kurenai was stuck at home with some illness that Kakashi strongly suspected had its origins in Sarutobi Asuma. He imagined what Asuma’s father would have said about losing his genjutsu expert to “ babies and motherhood ” and snickered at the thought. He was glad for his friends, and proud to see their legacies live on in their child. However, he did (somewhat selfishly, he admitted) wish that their little miracle had happened a few months later so that Kurenai could have helped him with this cake.

 

“You don’t look so good, Hound,” came a derisive voice from Kakashi’s kitchen window. He turned and was unsurprised to find Anko sitting there casually, swinging her legs and munching on an enormous stick of dango. “Domestic goddess doesn’t exactly fit the rest of your murderous persona,” she commented airily.

 

“Tell me something I don’t know,” groused Kakashi. He crankily lobbed a peach at her, which she delicately snatched out of the air and took a giant bite out of. “Now would you stop heckling me and come down here and help me out with this? You’re good at poisons and stuff. Surely that kind of skill transfers.”

 

Anko looked at his mess disdainfully, still not moving from her perch. “What are you making, anyway? I can’t decide between bombs or cake.” She slurped at the peach some more just to be annoying, and some juice ran down her chin. Having finished her treat, she tossed the pit into Kakashi’s kitchen sink and rubbed the juice off her face with her forearm. “Personally, I’m hoping it’s bombs. Nobody deserves to have to eat whatever you’re attempting to make over there.”

 

“I’m making a carrot cake for Naruto’s birthday. Kurenai usually helps me, but she’s not feeling well right now,” Kakashi said as he peeled yet another carrot.

 

“Not feeling well my ass, she’s obviously up the spout,” Anko muttered. She ate the last two pieces of dango in one gulp, somehow managing to look elegant about it, and then hopped down to join Kakashi. “Fine, I’ll give you a hand. You’re so helpless, it’s disgraceful. Why isn’t Iruka here helping you instead of Kurenai?” she asked as she swept off her long trench coat and laid it over a chair. “Aren’t you two just best friends now?”

 

Kakashi narrowed his eyes at the barely hidden threat in Anko’s voice. “Are you here to give me the shovel talk?” he asked incredulously. “You realize that if I ever hurt him, Iruka could kill me as easily as blinking and nobody would ever know it was him, right?”

 

Anko stared Kakashi in the eye. “I do know that,” she said softly, “because I would be right beside him getting rid of the body. Get the picture, Hound?”

 

Kakashi sighed and rolled his neck simply because he knew she hated it. Anko wrinkled her nose in disgust at the popping noise, but to her credit, she stood her ground. “I get it, Anko, okay?” he said when he hadn’t succeeded in frightening her off. “You and Iruka have been friends since grade school. I understand that you feel protective of him.”

 

“I don’t think you do,” Anko said. She wrapped her arms around her middle, and Kakashi found himself suddenly listening to her with his whole body, because this was important. “It’s true that Iruka and I have been friends as long as I can remember, but it’s more than that. After Orochimaru...well. After that fuck up, Iruka kept me steady and sane during my darkest hours. I don’t know that anybody else could have done it. I almost killed myself more times than I count, and he always talked me down and told me that things would get better. Sometimes that promise was all that kept me going.”

 

“Ah,” Kakashi said, his heart aching for her. He wasn’t sure what to say.

 

“He’s more than just a friend, Kakashi. He’s my brother, just as much as you are Naruto’s. Iruka is kind and good and there’s not enough of that in this rotten village.” Anko’s arms dropped from their defensive pose, and her eyes burned. “So date Iruka. Take care of him and show him that he is special to you. He deserves that, and I honestly think you do, too. However, you should remember this: you may be the best shinobi this village has seen since the Yondaime, but I swear to everything sacred that if you ever hurt my precious one, I’ll find a way to make you hurt. Do we have an understanding?”

 

“Yes,” Kakashi said seriously, his voice a little hoarse with emotion. “I promise, Anko, I won’t hurt him. I would die first.”

 

“That’s all I ask.” Anko nodded, seeming satisfied, and then nabbed a peeler from the counter. “Hand me that bunch of carrots, crybaby, and get back to work. Cakes won’t make themselves and kami knows Naruto deserves some sort of award for putting up with another year of you. For crying out loud, sift the flour, you lout! And cream the butter and sugar together first! What, were you raised in a cave?”

 

“No, on a battlefield,” Kakashi shot back, before he started sifting obediently. “And show up to Naruto’s birthday party at Ichiraku’s tomorrow, okay? For some unknown reason, the kid wants you there. It certainly can’t be for your personality. Have you been bribing him with ramen or something lately?”

 

“No,” Anko replied angelically, “but he has been asking me an awful lot of questions about poisons. Maybe he’s finally lost patience with that cretin, Mizuki. Heaven knows I would have murdered him in his sleep long ago if he was my teacher. It was bad enough just being in the same class with him.”

 

“Ah. Well, that should be interesting.”

 

“Don’t worry,” Anko said with a wink. “The only thing I gave him was a ridiculously strong laxative. I hope he uses it, too. On a day when I am far, far away.”

 

Wondering vaguely if this was one of those times when he should step in and do something parental, Kakashi ultimately decided that Naruto was fairly mature and would come to him for help if he needed it. Besides, a healthy case of the runs never hurt anybody. Not for long, anyway.

 

With that settled in his mind, he spent the rest of a surprisingly pleasant afternoon baking with Anko. The cake came out a little lopsided, but delicious. As they were getting ready to decorate it, Kakashi had caught Anko tipping a suspicious liquid into the icing. He had suspected something dastardly, but upon further inspection, it turned out to be an expensive brand of vanilla. “Really, Anko?” Kakashi said, exasperated.

 

“What?” she shrugged. “The kid deserves the good stuff.”

 

The party at Ichiraku’s ended up being everything Kakashi had expected it to be: noisy, expensive, fragrant, and fun. Naruto had competed with Chouji to see who could eat the most bowls, and both boys were stunned when quiet Hinata beat them soundly. She giggled on her stool beside Shin, her lavender eyes dancing as Naruto groaned at his defeat.

 

Iruka stumbled over to Kakashi after being drawn into a quiet chat in the corner with Gai. He was pale and  looking a little hunted. “I think I was just given the most polite, subtly threatening shovel talk in the history of the world,” he whispered. “I mean it, Kakashi! He was so calm and quiet and it was still inferred that if I ever hurt you, even going missing-nin wouldn’t save me.”

 

Kakashi burst out laughing and hugged Iruka into his side. “Don’t worry about it. It’ll never happen, so it’s a moot point.”

 

“I had no idea Gai could be so terrifying,” Iruka gulped. “I mean, I know that he’s more than capable, of course, but he’s normally just so goofy.”

 

“Well, they don’t call him the Green Beast for nothing,” Kakashi said cheerfully. He glanced over Gai, who gave him a solemn thumb’s up. Kakashi eye-smiled back, a little touched by Gai’s protectiveness.

 

Iruka walked with Naruto and Kakashi home, Naruto moaning all the way over his stomach aching from ramen and cake. “You were the one that just had to compete with an Akimichi,” Iruka said philosophically. “Actions have consequences, Naruto.”

 

“But sometimes those consequences seem so disproportionate to the crime…” Naruto whimpered. “Somebody carry me!”

 

“You’re eleven years old now, Naruto, you’re getting too big to carry,” Iruka started to say. He stopped when Kakashi reached over and pulled Naruto onto his bag into a piggy-back hold. Naruto laughed, delighted.

 

At Iruka’s pointed look, Kakashi shrugged, jostling Naruto on his back a little. “Family helps us bear consequences,” he said simply.

 

He didn’t tell the truth, even though he knew Iruka would have understood, perhaps better than anyone else could. He didn’t want to put voice to the fact that Naruto was old enough to be a genin now. Someday he would leave Kakashi’s house to join his own team and fight his own fights. Kakashi wanted him to have everything he wanted, and Naruto truly wanted to be a shinobi. But Kakashi also wanted to enjoy Naruto being a child, just for a little bit longer. And if that meant carrying an admittedly heavy boy home on his shoulders, well. It was an easy burden to carry.

 

……………………………….

 

That spring, Naruto’s timing was somewhat less than exemplary when he came home from school one day to tell Kakashi that he wanted to take the genin exam.

 

Kakashi had just learned from an irate Tsunade that Itachi had slipped out of the village right under the noses of his Anbu guards and was on his way back to Rain and to the Akatsuki. The tactical part of Kakashi agreed with what Itachi had done. Jiraiya’s messages had become increasingly panicky in tone as he tried to conduct surveillance into the terrorist group without Itachi’s help. Kakashi helped as much as he could, but the fact remained that they needed Itachi. The Uchiha, however, was still very ill. Tsunade had privately told Kakashi that if the Akatsuki weren’t taken down soon, Itachi would likely die before it was over. His disease was speeding up all their plans, but there was no help for it.

 

Naruto asking to potentially speed up his own ninja career didn’t help Kakashi's mood. “You want to do what now?” he said incredulously, hoping that he had heard wrong.

 

“I want to take the genin exam this spring,” Naruto repeated stubbornly.

 

“But why?” Kakashi said, baffled. “I don’t want you going into the field for at least another year, preferably. Thirteen is a good age to become a genin. You’re too young now.”

 

“Let’s ignore the fact that you were a jounin by the time you were my age, you fluffy-haired hypocrite,” Naruto shot back. “I don’t actually want to pass it. Or, well, I do, but I’m not planning on leaving school yet. I just want to take the exam to see where I am, what I should be improving on.”

 

“Oh,” Kakashi said, feeling his heart rate falling. “That’s actually pretty smart of you. What made you think of it?”

 

Naruto blew a raspberry impatiently. “That dumb Mizuki-sensei keeps failing me on tests, even when I know I’ve done everything right. I don’t even know where I need to improve anymore, because apparently I do everything wrong. I figure the genin exam will show me if that’s true or not.”

 

“I’m running out of reasons not to assassinate that guy,” Kakashi growled.

 

“Eh, he’s not worth the trouble,” Naruto sighed. “He just a narrow-minded bigot that can’t see past these,” he said, brushing the whisker marks on his cheeks. “I don’t mind the pettiness and the name calling too much anymore. I don’t even really hear him when he speaks. I just want to know that I’m making progress, and it’s hard to tell when he’s my teacher.”

 

“That’s all well and good, but Mizuki may be one of your proctors for the exam,” Kakashi warned. “So you could be going through all this for nothing.”

 

“Yes,” Naruto said creamily, “but then whoever else is proctoring the exam will see Mizuki judging me unfairly. So there are only a couple of possible outcomes, and in all of them I end up ahead. I’ll either pass fair and square on my own, which is definitely ideal. Or I’ll be good enough to pass and Mizuki will show his ass and fail me, making it clear that he’s the jerk. That kind of thing tends to get back to the Hokage, too, so I could maybe even get him fired. Or I’ll fail honestly, which is fine because then I’ll know what to work on. It’s a win-win-win situation.”

 

Kakashi chuckled. “There’s some good reasoning in there, pipsqueak,” he said admiringly.

 

“Hang around a Nara enough, and the relentless logic starts to rub off, even on a blockhead like me,” Naruto said with a smirk. “Anyway, do I have your permission to take the exam now or not?”

 

“You do,” Kakashi said. “I like how much thought you’ve put into this. And I do think there’s a good chance you’ll pass on your own merits. You've trained hard, Naruto, and you’ve done exceedingly well, especially when you add in the challenge of working with two chakra natures. The only major skill that you still need to work on is clones, and that should sort itself out on its own eventually. So have confidence and try to enjoy the exam. I’m proud of you no matter what happens.”

 

“Thanks, nii-san!” Naruto crowed, dropping to the floor to roll around with Bisuke. “Don’t worry. Even if I pass, I’m not going anywhere yet. There’s a lot more ninjutsu I can learn in two years, things that’ll make me even stronger in the field. I know I wouldn’t do a jounin-sensei much good as I am right now. I don’t want a babysitter when the time comes, I want a teacher.”

 

Well, after good thinking like that, Kakashi could probably be forgiven for stuffing the kid with cookies for dinner. He’d earned it. He just hoped Iruka didn’t find out.

 

And then Naruto failed the exam. He hadn’t even been tested on clones, just henging, and Mizuki still torpedoed him.

 

“You can’t kill him,” Iruka said pragmatically as he watched Kakashi stalking in a rage around the living room. “Tsunade would be furious right back, and then she’ll kill you, and then there would just be a whole killing spiral that helps no one.”

 

“Naruto passed that exam fair and square,” Kakashi growled, eyeing the door that Iruka was standing prudently in front of to make sure that Kakashi couldn’t leave.

 

“I know he did, you know he did, and even more importantly, the Hokage knows he did,” Iruka replied. “I observed the whole test. Afterwards, I immediately sent her a formal letter detailing exactly what I saw. Naruto’s henges were excellent, his taijutsu was far above his age level, and even though he’s hopeless in genjutsu, that doesn't really matter. This’ll turn out all the worse for Mizuki, just you watch. Mizuki may have had an advocate in the Sandaime, but he won’t find one in Tsunade. I can guarantee you this: he won’t be Naruto’s teacher next year. That’s for certain.”

 

“If that’s the case, I can live with it,” Kakashi said as he collapsed in a heap on the couch. Bull walked over, sighed deeply, and sat down with his head on Kakashi’s foot. Kakashi rather suspected Bull of trying to keep Kakashi from leaving, but he appreciated the sentiment. He reached down to scratch the dog’s enormous ears, and Bull groaned in appreciation. “Naruto was prepared to fail,” Kakashi said more quietly. “But he was so disappointed. He acted like he didn’t care, but I could see he was just trying to be brave.”

 

Iruka came and sat down by Kakashi, wrapping his arm around the Copy-nin’s shoulders. “You should be proud of him. He showed a lot of maturity in all this. Yes, he’s disappointed. But I think all in all, it’ll be a good thing in the end. He’s learned a lot through dealing with Mizuki, and I think it’s made him a better ninja and a better person.”

 

“Hmph. He’s already a good person. I would have preferred to not have him hurt in order to confirm what I already know,” Kakashi groused.

 

Iruka sighed heavily. “I can see that you’re not going to let this go. I suppose I'll just have to distract you somehow.”

 

Kakashi laughed, surprising even himself. He drew Iruka closer. “Okay, sensei. Do your worst.”

 

…………………………………………………

 

It was mid summer. The air in Rain was soupy with humidity, and Kakashi felt like he was choking.  It didn’t help that he was anxious.

 

He stood in front of a troop of heavily armed jounins and Anbu, Jiraiya at his side. Itachi was with the Akatsuki, laying the last of a series of booby traps and seals. “We know why we’re here,” Kakashi said to the assembled force. “We are here to bring down the greatest threat to Konoha since the last Great War. I won’t kid you; this will be the hardest battle many of you will ever fight. Our enemy is talented and versatile. But we have years of intelligence, a comprehensive plan, and the element of surprise on our side. We are prepared. We are determined. And we will win. Are you ready?”

 

“Hai!” shouted the unit as one.

 

“Okay, then. Let’s go.” The troop melted into the trees obediently, and as Kakashi made his way to his assigned position, he wondered if he would ever see Naruto become a genin or see Iruka’s bright, wicked smile again.

 

He waited and waited and waited. Finally the appointed time arrived, and Kakashi gave the signal to Tenzo, who was standing ready next to him.

 

The battle against the Akatsuki began.  

Chapter Text

While battles raged far away, Shikamaru and Naruto were busy patrolling the village. Nearly all of the jounin and Anbu were with Kakashi in Rain, leaving only a skeleton crew in place in Konoha in case of attack. The village was being guarded largely by the chunin force, a few jounin senseis, and Tsunade’s patented glares of aching displeasure.

 

Genin teams were guarding the city walls and running messages, and even the pre-genin from the Academy had been pressed into service. They had been sent out through the village streets in pairs, and were to sound the alarm if anything happened.

 

Konoha was somber and silent. It was listening.

 

“This is spooky,” Naruto said, cowed enough by the tension in the air to whisper. Bisuke snorted in agreement, and leaned against Naruto’s calves for comfort.

 

Shikamaru slung his arm around his friend’s shoulders. “Yeah. You can even hear the leaves in the forest rustling. Creepy.” He glanced over and saw Naruto’s worried frown, and shook his head. Naruto didn’t look like himself without his usual bright grin; Shikamaru didn’t like it. “Cheer up, though! That means if anybody were to try and attack, we’d definitely hear them coming first. That’s something, anyway.”

 

“Did your dad go with everybody else?” Naruto asked, brushing off Shikamaru’s attempts to lighten the mood. “Wherever the hell that is, anyway.” His voice was uncharacteristically bitter. He knew better than to think Kakashi would tell him anything, but. Well, he’d hoped that his brother would treat him as a future shinobi, not as a child. Kakashi had a thing about not forcing Naruto to grow up too quickly, though, so it was probably a foolish hope.

 

Shikamaru scowled and kicked at a rock in his path. “Yeah, dad went with them. Tsunade wanted Ino-Shika-Cho there. Whatever they’re doing, it must be big . My dad’s team hasn’t been sent out like that since the last great war. They usually want to keep Dad and Inoichi near the Hokage, and where they are, you can generally find Chouza. I don’t know, Dad looked worried. It’s unusual for him to have an actual expression. What’s worse, my mom didn’t even yell at him when he said goodbye. She just kissed him and told him if he died, she’d hit him so hard his ghost would feel it. That’s unprecedented tenderness, coming from her.”

 

“Wow. I didn’t know your mom ever talked like that.” Naruto perked up as a thought struck him. “Did your dad tell you anything about what they’re doing before he left, by any chance? Or maybe tell your mom anything and you overheard?”

 

“Psh. Of course not,” Shikamaru chuckled. “Tsunade-sama would’ve kicked his ass if he had told me anything. I’m just a kid, remember? Besides, the old man expects me to figure these things out for myself. He respects my intellect. It’s troublesome.”

 

At a cross street, Shikamaru and Naruto ran into Shino and Sai, who had just finished patrolling along the market. “Any trouble?” inquired Naruto eagerly, hoping for news of anything from a squad of enemy jounin armed to the teeth to a lowly purse snatcher. He wanted desperately to punch something, just to break up the tedium and the silence.

 

Sai barely looking up from where he was sketching the deserted storefronts in a notebook, leaving the normally reticent Shino to respond for them. “Nothing. Everything’s quiet,” he said. “The only thing we saw was the fishmonger sneaking some guts to Iruka-sensei’s cat. She must have escaped out his back door again. We took her to his apartment, and then we ran into you. What about you guys? Have either of you seen anything?”

 

Huffing, Naruto replied, “No. It’s been quiet. I think everybody knows something’s up, and they’re laying low.”

 

“Let’s hope it stays that way,” Shino said, eyeing Naruto’s twitchiness wryly. “Remember, the goal is for there not to be any trouble.”

 

“I knoooow,” Naruto whined. “It’s just hard. I hate not knowing what’s going on. Kakashi-nii-san looked so serious when he left. He usually jokes around with me before he leaves on missions so I don’t worry about him while he’s gone, but I don’t think he could this time. Do you think it’s another war?”

 

Shikamaru and Shino exchanged glances, and Bisuke whined. “I hope not,” Shino finally said. “If it is, our graduations will be moved up for sure, and we’ll be part of the fighting force before we could blink. None of us are ready for that yet, not even you or Sasuke. Still, I think if it was a war, there’d have been something big and visible to set it off. An assassination or something. We would know.”

 

Naruto wasn’t comforted by this logic in the least. Kakashi had been gone a lot the past year, and Naruto wasn’t convinced that he’d actually been in Mist, as he’d claimed. What if Kakashi had assassinated somebody? He was more than capable of it. That could, as Shino said, have set off a war. Would kids really know if something like that had happened?

 

“Tenzo-nii went with them,” Sai piped in, visibly deciding to focus on the positive. “So the army should be fine no matter what happens. He can handle way more than most people can. He used to be the leader of Anbu, you know.”

 

“That’s true,” Naruto conceded, finally brightening. “And Kakashi-nii is awesome . Add him and Tenzo-san to Ino-Shika-Cho and all the other jounin like Gai-san and Asuma-san, and they should be unbeatable. You’re right. They’ll be fine.”

 

“Of course they will,” confirmed Shikamaru, his arm still around Naruto’s shoulders. “Come on, we’d better keep moving. If Tsunade-sama hears that we were standing around talking instead of patrolling like we’re supposed to, she’ll kick our butts right to the Land of Wind. And then I’d have to hear about it from my dad, and when he was finished, my mom would start in on me. That’d be the worst of all.”

 

Shino’s lips quirked ever so slightly, and he wordlessly moved on, Sai sticking close to his side. The faint sound of buzzing that always followed Shino left with them.

 

Naruto and Shikamaru were passing by the tobacco shop when they heard whispered voices coming from the nearby alley. Shikamaru made the hand signs for listen and quiet at Naruto, and the two boys crept closer to be able to distinguish the words. Bisuke was absolutely motionless; he had been well trained by Pakkun in stealth. There was no reason for anybody to be out on the streets right now, and even less for clandestine meetings that required lowered voices.

 

When they got close enough to identify words in the murmurs, Naruto turned and raised his eyebrows at Shikamaru. They both knew one of the voices very well. It was Mizuki.

 

“I have to do it now,” his old sensei was saying to his companion. “Ever since that demon brat’s genin exam, I haven’t been trusted by anyone, damn him. I’ll never have another chance like this again.”

 

“Mizuki, come to your senses!” a female voice urged. “I don’t know why you think taking the scroll is necessary. You’re better than this. Please, don’t do it! You’re going to get caught. You could get thrown in prison, or even be killed!”

 

Scoffing, Mizuki snapped, “You obviously don’t have any faith in my abilities, Tsubaki. Don’t you understand? Everyone’s gone on this big hush-hush mission, including most of the Anbu. The Tower is all but empty, and even Tsunade is busy at the hospital. I’ll be able slip in and out again right underneath their noses. Then everyone in this rotten village will see how short sighted they were to deny me both jounin ranking and an Anbu assignment. He’s counting on me, don’t you see? He’s the only one to ever believe in me.”

 

“I believe in you,” the woman, Tsubaki, said sadly. “I wish that was enough for you. You’re throwing away this village’s trust and my love in one bad decision. We’ll never be able to get married if you get caught and thrown in prison. Please, Mizuki, you’re a good man. Please let this dream go. Let him go. Aren’t I worth that sacrifice?”

 

“You’re important to me,” Mizuki said silkily, “never doubt that. But that scroll is important, too. I’ll have both it and you in the end. And then he’ll come and the demon brat will be handled as he should have been all along. I’ll be higher up than Iruka, higher than that bastard Kakashi. I’ll be acknowledged as I should have been all along. Just you watch.”

 

“I see. This is goodbye between us, then,” Tsubaki whispered. Naruto and Shikamaru heard the shuffle of her feet as she turned to leave, and they moved deeper into the shadows to stay out of sight. “I hope you come to your senses before you ruin everything for your ambition. If you give him that scroll, I’ll give you back your ring. That’s a promise. I’m no traitor to Konoha. But I won’t betray you either, not unless you force me to.”

 

“We’ll see who’s right by the end of the day. You will both be mine.” With a dark promise lingering in his voice, Mizuki leapt to the rooftops and moved away swiftly. Tsubaki walked slowly towards the marketplace, her face wet with tears.

 

When the coast was clear, Naruto turned to Shikamaru. “What in the hell was that about? What guy was he blathering on about? What scroll?”

 

Shikamaru’s face was white. “The Scroll of Seals. That has to be it.”

 

“What’s in it?” Naruto questioned urgently. “What can he do with it if he gets it?”

 

“It’s a scroll from Hashirama Senju’s time,” Shikamaru explained quickly. “My dad says there’s all sorts of forbidden jutsus and seals inside of it. If Mizuki got it that would be bad enough, but it sounds to me like he wants to pass it on to someone else. It could be a missing-nin, Uchiha Itachi, anyone! We have to stop him before that happens. Somebody could destroy Konoha with something that powerful.”

 

“He’s probably taking a longer route to the Tower in case someone is following him or gets suspicious,” Naruto reasoned. “I’ll go straight there and head him off, and I’ll try to get to the scroll first. Bisuke, you run to the guard shack at the gate and get help.” Bisuke yapped and ran off as fast as his little paws could take him. Naruto turned to Shikamaru. “Shika, you go get Tsunade or anybody and meet me there. I’ll slow him down as long as I can.”

 

“Be careful,” Shikamaru urged, already moving toward the hospital where Tsunade was working. It was closer than the wall where most of the guards were posted, so he’d get to his destination faster than Bisuke would get to his. Konoha had been prepared for enemies without, not enemies within.

 

Naruto now had reason to be thankful that Kakashi had prematurely taught him to wall walk. Like his erstwhile teacher, he leapt quickly to the rooftops and sped to the Tower, running faster than he knew he could. He’d planned to alert any Anbu that happened to be on guard duty, but he didn’t see anyone as he took the shortest route possible.

 

He ran up the stairs of the Tower and burst into Tsunade’s office, hoping that she was there instead of being at the hospital as Mizuki had claimed. Unfortunately, neither she nor Shizune were there. Frantically, Naruto started throwing open cabinets and drawers, trying to find anything that looked important.

 

In a cabinet hidden under Tsunade’s desk, Naruto slid open a drawer and found a huge scroll nestled inside, right next to multiple bottles of alcohol and a book of sudoku puzzles. “Well, that’s got to be it,” he said to himself. “This sure looks like Tsunade-baa-chan’s secret stash.” He looked around, tempted, then cracked open the scroll for a peek. He saw a likely heading that read “kage bunshin no jutsu” and read quickly, his eyes widening with glee. It looked like there could be an answer to all his problems within this book.

 

A moment later, just after he’d finished reading and rolling back up the scroll, the door slammed open. The entrance was filled with gray hair and a seriously bad attitude. “You demon brat!” Mizuki screamed. “What are you doing here?” He spied the scroll peeking out over Naruto’s shoulder and his eyes got even bigger. “I knew it! I’ve caught you red handed! I knew you would betray Konoha in the end!”

 

“Save it, Mizuki-sensei,” Naruto shouted back, his tone withering. “Shikamaru and I heard everything you said to your girlfriend in the market. I know you were planning to steal this scroll and betray the village.”

 

“Yeah? And who’s going to believe you?” Mizuki slunk into the room, and Naruto stepped further away from him toward the windows, the massive scroll slung protectively across his back. “Shikamaru, that lazy good-for-nothing brat? You, the demon fox’s container? Or me, an honored chunin and a teacher, someone above reproach?” He laughed hollowly. “No, the truth is that no one will believe you. You, my dear student, will be tossed in prison, as you should have been from the moment you were sealed with that abomination. I’ll be a hero, as I’ve always deserved. Not even Kakashi can save you now.”

 

“Kakashi-nii-san could lose three of his limbs and be chakra depleted to death and he would still beat you at your best,” Naruto declared loyally, still cautiously moving further away from his irate teacher. “And don’t talk shit about Kurama! He’s a good guy and he didn’t mean to hurt Konoha, which is more than I can say about you.”

 

Thank you, kit. Now destroy him while you have the chance. That clever new jutsu…

 

I don’t want to use that unless I have to, Naruto thought back quickly. I’m not supposed to know it, remember?

 

In the split second that he was distracted by Kurama, Mizuki had reached behind his back and pulled out a huge fuuma shuriken. With a scream, he lobbed it straight at Naruto, who was already moving to duck behind Tsunade’s desk. He wasn’t sure he was going to be fast enough, though, and he heard the low whine of the huge blade with a sick twist in his stomach as it rotated closer and closer. If he got hit by that…

 

Suddenly a blur had inserted itself between the shuriken and Naruto, and the weapon clanged noisily to the floor after meeting with a kunai. “Get the fuck away from Naruto, Mizuki,” growled a furious Umino Iruka. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

 

“So I get to be rid of two nuisances in one blow,” Mizuki sneered as he eyed Iruka, a strange, mad fire burning in his eyes. “Perfect.” He leapt at Iruka, who took the time to shove Naruto the rest of the way behind the desk before moving to defend himself.

 

The two former classmates fought furiously for only a few seconds, before there was a loud cracking sound and Tsunade appeared in a storm of leaves. Even her blonde pigtails looked like they were sparking with the strength of her rage. She didn’t bother asking any questions. She simply reared back and slugged Mizuki so hard in the face that he bounced against two walls like a billiard ball before crashing to the floor, a broken mess. Iruka danced over and slapped a seal on Mizuki’s chest, binding his chakra and paralyzing him. The fight was over almost as fast as it had begun.

 

“You scum,” Tsunade spat at Mizuki’s prone form. “You’re going to wish you’d never been born. Just wait until Ibiki gets his hands on you.” She turned to Iruka and Naruto. “Umino, kid, are either of you hurt?”

 

“No, Hokage-sama,” Iruka panted. “We only fought for a minute before you showed up. Naruto was distracting him admirably when I heard him from my position on the roof and came down to investigate. Naruto, how about you? Are you okay?”

 

“I’m fine. Stupid Mizuki-sensei never even touched me,” Naruto said as he crawled back out from under the desk. “Boy, am I glad to see both of you. He went nuts. Did Shikamaru tell you about what we overheard, Tsunade-baa-chan?”

 

“He gave me the high points,” Tsunade said as she aimed a petulant kick at Mizuki’s ribs. “Enough to know that this cretin was planning to betray us. You, Iruka, and Shikamaru will all need to sit down with me and Ibiki at some point and give us your reports on what happened. We need to figure out who Mizuki was working for, although it’s possible that Mizuki’s fiance will know. She’s in trouble, too, for not reporting him. And Naruto, I’ll need that back from you now,” Tsunade finished, eyeing the scroll across the boy’s back pointedly.

 

“Oh! Right, sorry. I forgot all about it.” Naruto obediently handed over the scroll, although he was wishing now he’d had the chance to peek inside just a little more. If what he’d learned in just a moment of reading was so valuable, what else might be contained in those pages? Maybe even his father’s Flying Thunder God technique!

 

Tsunade rolled her eyes heavenward. “You forgot all about the priceless treasure of this village that was literally on your back. Typical. Never change, kid.”

 

“Hey,” protested Naruto heatedly, “don’t blame me. Mizuki-baka-sensei was insulting Iruka-sensei and Kakashi-nii! And...and other people!” ( I’m a people? Interrupted Kurama. Shut up, of course you are, Naruto snapped between breaths.) “That made me mad. People are more important than scrolls. He’s a teacher, he should have known that already.”

 

Bursting out laughing, Tsunade drew Naruto to her side and ruffled his hair affectionately. “You’re right, kid, I’m sorry. You did a good job and I’m proud of you. And you don’t have to call Mizuki sensei anymore. He’ll never be your teacher again.” Naruto arched his back like a cat, enjoying the praise. Tsunade shoved him playfully to the door. “If you’re not hurt, scamp, go get back on patrol. The day isn’t over yet and we need everybody in their places. We’ll send for you when Ibiki is ready to talk to you. And for heaven’s sake, go calm down that Nara kid! He was as frantic as I’ve ever seen him.”

 

Naruto saluted and skipped away, eager to go reassure his friend. Tsunade shook her head at him as he left. “That kid’s going to have my job one day if he doesn't blow himself up first,” she said ruefully to Iruka.

 

“I think so, too,” Iruka replied. He bowed, then flickered back up to his position on the roof.

 

Part of Iruka was saddened as he heard Mizuki being carried away to Ibiki for interrogation. He wasn’t sad for Mizuki , necessarily. He had made his bed and now he would have to lie in it. Iruka was sad for what might have been. If things had been different, perhaps Mizuki would have been a good person, a good friend. Now they would never know. The potential was gone forever.

 

However, he wasn’t as sad as he might have thought he would be. Had Mizuki felt remorse for his actions it would be worse, but Iruka hadn’t seen a hint of that in his eyes. Just rage and jealousy.

 

It was over for Mizuki. Iruka bowed his head as he faced towards Rain and started the same mantra that had been in his mind ever since Konoha’s forces had left the village.

 

Let Kakashi be okay. Let him live.

 

……………………………………….

 

In Rain, the battle was raging fiercely, but it was a controlled burn. Everything so far was going according to plan. Gai, Anko, Ebisu, and Tenzo were systemically taking down the multi-heart system of the Akatsuki with the strange masks on his back, Kakazu. Ino-Shika-Cho had just finished dismembering Hidan, the follower of Jashin, and were already moving to assist Asuma and a squad of Anbu with the puppet user. Itachi had personally slain his old partner, Kisame, while Kakashi’s eye was aching from having sent the detonation specialist’s bombs to another dimension with the help of Genma.

 

The Akatsuki and their troops were fighting hard, but it was a losing battle. They were vastly outmanned, and thanks to years of surveillance work by Itachi, Jiraiya and Kakashi, all of their techniques were known and planned for by the Konoha nin. The Leaf shinobi were steadily working their way into the heart of Rain.

 

Kakashi could see the fine tremors in Jiraiya’s hand as he dispatched a Rain jounin that got in his way. This was a very emotional day for the Toad Sage. They knew that the greatest challenge still awaited them: Konan, Nagato, and the various incarnations of Yahiko known collectively as Pein. Not to mention possibly Uchiha Madara himself.

 

“Are you ready for this?” Kakashi muttered to the sannin during a brief lull in the fightning.

 

“I’m getting drunk tonight, come what may,” Jiraiya groaned. “Tsunade will slug me for it, of course, but it’ll be worth it.”

 

“Bear up,” exhorted Kakashi, casually breaking a femur and burying a shuriken in the owner’s chest. “Time to tie up this loose thread of your past.”

 

“Pretty sure that thread’s gonna be a garrotte, but you’re the boss,” Jiraiya said as one of his toads spat venom into his enemy’s eye helpfully.

 

Eventually, there was that dead, unearthly silence that Kakashi had only ever known on the battlefield. He glanced around to check on the situation as he fought to regain his equilibrium. His comrades were panting as they cleaned their weapons and checked on the wounded now that the battle was at a temporary lull. Thankfully, there weren’t too many casualties. The Konoha nin had lost two Anbu in the initial onslaught with Sasori, and then two other jounin had been fatally burned by one of Deidara’s explosions. But in the main, they were lucky.  

 

Anko had taken a poisoned kunai to the leg from the fight with Kakuzu, and was being put on Genma’s back to be carried to Konoha for treatment. She was ghostly pale, but was swearing creatively at Genma for jostling her and asking for sake, so Kakashi figured she’d make it.

 

Asuma had blood trickling down his cheeks from a cut on his forehead, but he was smoking peacefully and didn’t seem too troubled by it. Kakashi glanced at him nervously. Kurenai had issued certain threats to him regarding Asuma’s safety, and he certainly didn’t want to cross her, especially now that she was only days away from her due date. She had always been terrifying, even when they were kids, but she had reached whole new heights since getting pregnant. Kakashi remembered the same thing happening with Kushina when she’d been carrying Naruto, and he certainly didn’t want to bring Kurenai’s wrath down on his head. There was a good chance he wouldn’t survive. Kakashi saw Inuzuka Hana making her way over to check on Asuma’s head, and sighed in relief. A medic of her caliber would have him as good as new in seconds.

 

While the area was being cleared and the wounded cared for, Jiraiya and Inoichi sat down in a clearing. Inoichi placed his hands on Jiraiya’s head and closed his eyes, his face blanking as he opened his own mind to his surroundings. Kakashi and Tenzo guarded them warily. As they had previously planned, Jiraiya went into his bastardized Sage Mode and began to search for Nagato’s location. They knew that he never stayed in the same place as Pein for security reasons. With Jiraiya’s heightened sensing abilities added to Inoichi’s mental scans, they were fairly certain they’d be able to find him.

 

After a few minutes, Inoichi’s face cleared and he sat up. “Got him. He’s on the east side of the village being guarded by Konan. No one else is near their positions. The way appears to be clear.” He looked troubled. “Unfortunately, I can’t find any trace of Madara. I don’t think he’s here. He must have gotten away.”

 

At Inoichi’s words, Shikaku moved to stand next to Kakashi. He looked grim, but then, that was his default expression. “We’ll have to deal with him later, then. With the Akatsuki gone, he won’t have a support system. Right now, we need to concentrate on them.” He turned to Kakashi. “All the minor wounds have been tended to by the medics, the buildings in the immediate area have been cleared by Gai and the Anbu, and the dead have been sealed into a scroll. They are being taken back to Konoha with Genma and Anko. No other major injuries. We’re now ready for phase two.”

 

“Copy,” responded Kakashi. He checked his weapons pouch to make sure that he still had a good supply of exploding tags, as well as the extremely clever seal that Iruka had made him, then made the motion for the force to move out. Half of them moved around to come at the Akatsuki’s fortress from the back, to cut off the enemy’s escape; Asuma was leading that team. The other half, led by Shikaku, moved to directly confront the remaining enemy. Itachi was with that team as well, and he looked grave and exhausted. Even worse, his eyes didn’t seem to be focusing properly.  He was standing stiffly in the way that Kakashi knew well; it meant he was holding in more body-shattering coughs. Kakashi hoped that he would hang on through one more fight. He knew he didn't have a prayer of convincing Itachi to stand down. The former missing-nin would rather die than be safe.

 

Kakashi, Gai, Tenzo, and Jiraiya didn’t go with either team. Instead, the four of them moved as a pack towards Nagato’s location. Kakashi hated to have so many strong fighters out of the battle with Pein, but if Nagato and Konan chose to fight, he and Jiraiya would need all the help they could get. Jiraiya was murmuring urgently at the two elderly toads that were perched on his shoulders, telling them to be ready for when he needed them. Just behind the sannin, Gai was running, a kunai ready in his hand. He wasn’t smiling or shouting with enthusiasm, and that alone made Kakashi nervous. Tenzo was the only one that looked entirely calm, and he stayed close to Kakashi’s side. It was comforting.

 

Kakashi took a moment as he ran to think about Iruka and Naruto and wonder what they were up to back in the village. Hopefully they were bored out of their skulls. He hated to think of there being any problems back home while he was too far away to help them.

 

Jiraiya led the group to the base of a tower. Kakashi briefly uncovered his Sharingan and swept the building, looking for traps. “I don’t see anything. I don’t think they expected to be found,” he said when he was done. “They’re on the fourth floor of the building, in the second room on the left from the stairwell. Jiraiya and I will enter from the main floor. Gai, you and Tenzo get up to the roof and meet us in the middle. Be quick and be precise. We can’t make any mistakes now when we’re so close to finishing this.”

 

“Yes, senpai,” Tenzo with a nod. Gai shot Kakashi a thumbs up and then moved to the wall. Together, he and Gai walked up the exterior of the building and then leapt onto the roof out of sight.

 

Kakashi glanced at Jiraiya as he moved toward the door. “Here we go,” he said, only a little fatalistically. Jiraiya didn’t answer, his face as white as his hair.

 

Carefully, the two shinobi made their way up the various floors of the building, checking all the way for traps, seals and anything nasty that could give them problems. Kakashi had the sense even as they searched that none of it really mattered. Konan and Nagato would know exactly where they were, and would be more than ready for them. Their only chance to avert all out battle with the two powerful shinobi was Jiraiya, and the sannin knew it. Everything rested on his ability to call Nagato out of his rage.

 

Tenzo and Gai met them at the door of the room where the Akatsuki leaders were waiting, and signed that they hadn’t had any problems. Jiraiya dithered for a moment at the door, then stopped and got a hold of myself. “No need to be dramatic about this,” he said to himself, and then he opened the door and stepped inside. Tenzo, Gai and Kakashi exchanged loaded looks and followed him.

 

Inside the large gallery type room, the severely emaciated Nagato was encased inside some sort of metal cocoon at the end of a long wooden aisle. Black chakra rods were punctured all over his body. He looked like death. Kakashi was reminded viscerally of Kushina by the sight of the man’s vibrant red hair. Surely they were related somehow. It was too bad that one of the remnants of the Uzumaki clan, Naruto’s family, had become this shadow of a person. Naruto could have learned a lot from him, had things been different.

 

The ever faithful Konan was standing at Nagato’s side, her expression blank. “Hello, Jiraiya-sensei,” she greeted, her melodious voice ringing out to shatter the heavy silence. “It’s been a long time. And how kind of you, to have brought so many friends with you. You should have given us more warning. We could have given you a more proper welcome then.”

 

Jiraiya swallowed hard. “Hello, Konan-chan, Nagato-kun,” he returned, and Kakashi could see that there was a part of him that was genuinely glad to see these former students once again. “I am sorry to invade your privacy like this, but unfortunately you made it necessary.”

 

“Strong defense is necessary in the face of tyranny, Jiraiya-sannin,” Nagato said coldly. “You see us as we have been forced by circumstance to become. Circumstances-”

 

“Wait.” Jiraiya held up his hand, surprising Nagato into silence. “Please. Please let me say something that I have needed to say for years now.”

 

Then, to everyone’s confusion, Jiraiya got down on his knees and bowed, his head touching the floor, as if to an emperor. Into a horrible, loaded silence, he said, “I offer you both my sincerest apologies. My greatest regret is that Yahiko isn’t here to hear my words as well.” His voice cracked, and he took a moment to get himself under control. “My years with you three were the best of my life. We taught each other so much, and somehow, despite our histories, we became a family. We fished together and fought together and kept each other warm. You became, in a sense, my children.

 

“And then I left you. I left you to your fates in a war torn land and never returned. My actions then were reprehensible. I thought that you could change the path of Rain, but it was a burden that should have never been placed on your shoulders. Yahiko’s death is ultimately my responsibility. I failed you in every way that matters. I don’t ask for your forgiveness, because I don’t deserve it. You have every right to be angry with me and to be angry with the world. I’m sorry. I don’t have any greater truth than that. I’m so sorry.”

 

Kakashi held his breath. Konan’s eyes flicked quickly between the two that seemed to be bound in a personal bubble of conviction and sorrow. The pressure in the room was terrible, and none of the Konoha shinobi dared to move a muscle.

 

Please let this work, Kakashi prayed. Let him hear us.

 

Finally, Nagato spoke. “Are you in pain?” he asked Jiraiya, his voice quiet.

 

“Yes,” Jiraiya replied, simply.

 

Nagato nodded. “It is as I have believed, and as I’ve taught for years now. It is only through pain that people can truly understand one another. The pain of Yahiko’s loss unifies us. Don’t you agree?”

 

“Yes, pain can bring people together,” Jiraiya hedged, “but so can other things. Joy, for example. Peace. Laughter. The four of us were from different nations and had experienced great personal loss at our different governments’ hands. But we were able to draw together in unity, and it usually wasn’t through pain. It was through frog costumes and cheers over successful jutsu lessons. It was patching up accidental taijutsu wounds and falling into ponds. We cared about where each other was; we didn’t let anyone disappear.”

 

“And yet, through all that joy and laughter that you remember,” argued Nagato, “we fell apart. Clearly, the bonds forged through the manner that you describe are not strong ones. Pain is the greatest unifier. I will end this world in pain and rebirth it anew. That is the only way to ever find peace.” He paused, and it appeared to Kakashi that Nagato was listening for something. “It seems that ultimately you agree with me, sensei. Your comrades are now attacking mine. You did not wait to see if your lofty words of peace and love would sway me from the path I have chosen. More violence, as I had suspected.”

 

“I am protecting those I love,” Jiraiya growled. “Your merry little band of S-class criminals were planning to capture all of the world’s jinchuriki, most of whom are innocent children. They are blameless, Nagato! Please, stop this. All you’re doing is continuing the violence that you profess to hate!”

 

“It must end,” Nagato said, his face creasing with the strain of operating his Six Paths of Pein while speaking to Jiraiya. “I will end it, whatever it costs me. Birth is always violent, Jiraiya, but it ends in new life. That is what I will bring to this world. I will force this world to its knees.”

 

Jiraiya was clearly losing the thread of the conversation. Kakashi saw Gai’s hand go to the pouch at his waist. Tenzo shifted his weight subtly, readying himself to spring forward. Konan was holding a handful of paper in her hand, primed for action. This was going to deteriorate into all out war if they couldn’t divert Nagato. “I don’t think either of you get the point, honestly,” Kakashi said, somewhat to his own surprise.

 

“What?” said Jiraiya and Nagato together, looking as if they had forgotten anyone else was in the room with them. It would have been funny under other circumstances.

 

“You’re both right to a degree,” Kakashi explained, grateful for the temporary reprieve. He had that same emotion that he remembered from childhood, when he knew every answer to a test he was given. It was heady and gratifying and he felt hope. “People can be unified through pain and joy, yes. But ultimately, true change isn’t found in forcing people to the gallows and seeing how they react. That’s resignation, not growth.”

 

Nagato stared unblinkingly at Kakashi. “What is your answer, then, to what the world has become? Surely you agree that this world is deeply flawed and must be changed.”

 

“Of course I see it. I’m raising a young boy,” Kakashi said, smiling a little as he thought of Naruto. “I know exactly what a mess the world is, especially the shinobi system. I don’t want him to have to live my life. I don’t want my burdens to be visited on him. All the same, I don’t think what you’re proposing is the answer. Don’t you see? Change happens in the struggle. Think about the butterfly. If you were to take the chrysalis and open it with your knife, force the insect into a new life, it would die. The pain of pushing through on its own is what makes it strong enough to survive.

 

“You can’t just wipe out humanity and hope that that gives us a fresh start. You would have lost everything that had gone before, all the progress that had been previously made. We are what our past experiences have made us. All we can do is have hope, and keep trying. I will do everything in my power to make this a better place for my boy to live. Then he, in his turn, will do the same for his children. Just because change is gradual doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. It’s just more organic.”

 

Indecision was sweeping across Nagato’s face now, and he glanced at Konan. She had an expression on her face that Kakashi couldn’t quite read. It was a mix between stubbornness and pleading. “But during that slow change you advocate, people will be losing their lives!” Nagato said desperately.

 

Jiraiya took over now. “Yes, people will die,” he said, his voice rumbling even as the sounds of the battle with Pein drifted up from the streets below. “It sounds callous, but that’s life. It is far better to have a slow, organic change that lasts than a temporary disruption that ultimately solves nothing. I have lived a long time, my boy. Things have changed for the better just in the years that I’ve been around. I truly think that the world you long for is coming. We just have to wait for it, and to be ready for it.”

 

Nagato’s hair was slowly changing from Uzumaki red to white from the strain of holding on to his Six Paths and to his beliefs. His breath came in quick pants, as if his heart was beating too quickly. “If I let this go,” he whispered, looking at Konan, “everything will have been for nothing. Everything we’ve worked for since Yahiko’s death will be meaningless. I don’t think I can change. I don’t know how.”

 

“I know,” she said, speaking for the first time since her greeting. “Doing the right thing is always hard. I think that’s how we know what to do when we’re confused.” She knelt at his side, gently took his hand, and held it to her heart. “Please, Nagato. For Yahiko. Do the hard thing. It’s time to let go.”

 

With a long sigh that seemed to come from the depth of his soul, Nagato nodded. He looked at Konan and then at Jiraiya. “Until we’re together again,” he said. Then he slumped in his chair. The black chakra rods that were embedded in his body loosened and fell. The sounds of fighting below them abruptly stopped.

 

Tears dripping off her chin, Konan held her fingers to the side of Nagato’s neck, then shook her head. “He’s gone.” She stood up, looking very alone. “I hope he’s found the peace he was looking for, in the end.”

 

“So do I,” Jiraiya said hoarsely. He walked up to Konan and held her, as he must have done many times in her childhood.

 

After he released her, Konan slowly stripped off her black Akatsuki cloak and dropped it to the floor. “The battle should be over now,” she said. “Your companions have no one else to fight. I truly hope that none were injured.”

 

“What about you? What will you do now?” asked Jiraiya, looking concerned.

 

Konan’s face turned fierce, and she clenched her fists. “I’m the only one left now. The people of Rain need a leader, and they know me and trust me. I will stay here, and give the rest of my life to their protection and betterment. I will make Nagato’s dream come true, but,” she smiled a little bitterly, “I will see it come true more slowly.”

 

“I think you are the leader that this land needs, Konan. And Konoha will help, if you’ll let them,” Jiraiya said softly. “I will help you.” He glanced over at Nagato’s body. “Can we help you now? Do you need assistance with the arrangements?”

 

“No,” she said, gently carding her slenders fingers through the white hair of her lost friend. “This is something I need to do on my own. I need to take him home myself, so that he can be at rest. But thank you.”

 

Jiraiya nodded. “I hope that we meet again one day. Be assured that if you call for me, I will come.”

 

Konan smiled, but said nothing else to her old master. She seemed beyond words, and it was true that there was really nothing more to be said. The Leaf nin turned and left the new kage of Rain to her grief.

 

Outside, they surveyed the damage of the battles with the Six Paths. Bodies littered the streets, but Kakashi only saw three vests that belonged to his team. None of the faces were those of his friends, though, and he felt bad for how relieved he was at that. Shikaku saw him and came over. “We had defeated four of the Peins when the other two suddenly stopped fighting and fell down lifeless,” he reported. “Is it over?”

 

“Yes. Nagato is dead,” Kakashi said shortly. He spotted a flurry of activity around a body in the distance and frowned. “What’s going on there?” he asked as he moved in that direction.

 

“It’s Itachi,” Shikaku said, jogging beside him. “He took down two of the Peins on his own; I’ve never seen anything like it. He manifested a full susanoo. I don’t even know how many of our lives he saved; he fought like the devil. Any time one of our men was threatened, boom! He was there, taking the brunt of the attack. As soon as the battle was over, though, he collapsed. We need to get him back to Konoha.”

 

“Let’s wrap this up and be on our way, then, as fast as possible,” Kakashi said. “There are a lot of people waiting for good news at home. Let’s take it to them.”

 

“I wonder who gets the fun job of telling Sasuke that his brother’s back?” Shikaku said idly.

 

Kakashi shuddered. Heaven help them all.

 

………………………..

 

“You stole what from the Hokage’s office?” screamed Kakashi as he gazed down in bewilderment at a clearly smug Naruto upon his return.

 

“Let’s just say that I’m going to be just fine the next time I take the genin exam and they ask me to make a clone,” Naruto said, before smiling his radiant grin. “Believe it!”

 

……………………………



There was a great deal of discussion on how to handle the Uchiha situation in the following days, involving everyone from the Hokage to Iruka to Kakashi and Gai. For the first few days after the victorious army’s return, it wasn’t even certain that Itachi would live. His lungs had been almost completely destroyed. Part of Kakashi wondered if perhaps it would be for the best if Itachi did die. Sasuke would finally be able to grieve and move on.

 

Eventually Itachi did pull through, but then it was discovered that he was totally blind. Itachi’s eyes were destroyed from overusing his Sharingan in the battle against the Peins.

 

Tsunade had hesitantly offered Itachi the use of some of the Sharingans that had been sealed in stasis scrolls after the Uchiha clan’s massacre, but he had looked ill at the thought and refused. “There’s a poetic justice to it,” he told his Hokage fatalistically. “My eyesight is a very small price to pay for my crimes, in the end. Besides, I have lived in darkness for years now. I have become accustomed to it. Thank you for your kindness, Hokage-sama, but I decline. All I want now is to be reunited with my brother, and to try and become worthy of his forgiveness. It will take me a lifetime, if it’s possible at all, and I wish to begin.”

 

In the end, it was decided that Gai was the best choice to speak to Sasuke. In the years that they had spent together, the two had become close, as close as Sasuke was capable of becoming to anyone. Gai looked a little faint at the thought, but as was his creed, he did not shy away from hard work.

 

He sat Sasuke down and told him the whole story of Itachi’s “betrayal” and recovery. He told the boy everything, sparing no details to pretty up the tale and making no excuses for anyone. “The Hokage says that your brother is still in a very delicate phase of his recovery,” Gai said as he finished, eyeing the stone faced Sasuke warily. “He will need attention and care for some time yet. I had thought,” he said hesitantly, “to offer to allow him to come and stay with us. I will be busy with my new genin team, of course, but a home would be far more comfortable for him than the hospital. It would also allow you two the chance to begin to heal your bond. What do you think?”

 

“I don’t care what happens to him,” Sasuke said, his voice frozen. “I don’t care if he lives or dies. Do whatever you want.”

 

“Sasuke-kun, that’s not how this works,” Gai said as he put his arm around Sasuke’s shoulders. “We are a family, you and I, and that will not change. This is our home and you get a say in what happens in it. You must remember that my first instinct will always be for your health, happiness, and comfort. But I have to remember that Itachi-san is your brother, too. He has made many mistakes, but I believe he is doing everything he can to pay for them. And despite everything, he does love you.”

 

“Whatever. Invite him or don’t invite him. Just leave me out of it. I don’t care what happens to him.” Sasuke stood and slammed out of the house, headed in the direction of the training fields. Gai had a feeling that he’d be getting another bill soon to replace whatever equipment Sasuke destroyed in his rage and sighed. He knew that deep down inside Sasuke was the little boy that had adored and idolized his older brother. Gai hoped that that person could still be reached. He did not envy Itachi the job of making amends.

 

After six weeks of care at the hospital, during which time Sasuke destroyed unprecedented numbers of training dummies, Itachi was finally deemed well enough to be moved. He was brought to Gai’s little house, and it was there that the brothers met for the first time in five years.

 

Despite his blindness, Itachi was able to use chakra to get around, and he turned his head in Sasuke’s direction as he was carried through the door. He was crying, but he smiled ever so softly, hopefully. “Hello, Sasuke,” he said, his voice very quiet.

 

“Hn,” growled Sasuke, refusing to look at his brother.

 

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” Itachi whispered. The smile was gone.

 

Sasuke said coldly in reply, “You killed my mom. You can never be sorry enough. I wish you were dead.” Then he turned and went to his room and closed the door firmly behind him.

 

Gai gripped Itachi’s shoulder. “Courage. It will take time.”

 

“I have all the time in the world now,” Itachi replied. “But I don’t know if it will be enough.”

 

Gai sympathized with Itachi, but he had his own problems. He had been given his first team of genin, and they had passed his exam in personal endurance. Now he had to train them, and that was turning out to be far more... interesting than he’d hoped.

 

Gai had initially been faintly alarmed at the notion of Tenten being a member of his team. He was, in general, not successful with women. However, he had decided to treat her as an honored colleague, much as he did Anko and Kurenai. Tenten seemed to understand that he respected her, and worked hard in return. Gai was troubled by Tenten’s deep desire to be like Tsunade, though. From what he had observed, her skills did not lie in the healing arts. Instead, she was a formidable weapons mistress, able to pick up any items and use it with aplomb. Gai was considering starting her on some elementary seals. If Tenten combined seals with her weapons, she could find enormous success. She just had to let go of the impossible dream to be able to do great and possible things. He wasn’t sure how to guide her to that conclusion, though, and it kept him awake at night sometimes, worrying.

 

The second member of his team was Neji, a cousin of Hinata’s from a branch of the Hyuuga family. He was undeniably talented, the most diversified individual to come through the Academy in years. Neji as also, undeniably, a brat. He had an inferiority complex the size of the Land of Wind that was unhappily paired with a strange preoccupation with fate and destiny. Knowing what he did of the Hyuuga clan, Gai couldn’t blame the boy for being messed up psychologically. All the same, it was a lot for him to handle. Neji would do as he was told, but he was pessimistic in the extreme. And he did not respect a teacher that couldn’t do ninjutsu or genjutsu.

 

Neji’s pessimism clashed regularly with Rock Lee’s enthusiasm. Gai saw a lot of himself in Lee, and could justly be blamed for the crime of favoritism. Lee had no talent for either ninjutsu or genjutsu, just like his teacher. All he seemed to have was taijutsu and a well of patience that never ran dry, and Gai knew he could work with that. Konoha could use more taijutsu specialists, and Gai truly believed that it was an area where Lee could excel. But, as with all of his students, Lee’s talents were weighed against some serious faults. He was overly sensitive to failure, self-critical to a harmful degree, and he didn’t seem to have a strong support system at home. With his uncanny perception, Gai sensed that Lee was desperately searching for something to believe in. He only hoped that his teaching could provide what Lee was looking for, somehow.

 

Sasuke took to spending a lot of time at the training fields once Itachi was living in Gai’s little green house. He couldn’t stand hearing Itachi’s labored breathing or his pitiful attempts to conversation. Shikamaru and Naruto always seemed to know when Sasuke was reaching his breaking point, and were kind enough to magically appear in order to give him a distracting spar when he most needed it. Coincidentally, they were able to get to know Gai’s team as the jounin-sensei put them through their paces.

 

Sasuke would never acknowledge under the grimmest torture that the sight of Gai gave him a sense of security, but that didn’t stop him from feeling comforted at being in the same place as his guardian. And where Sasuke went, so went the rest of his class now out of solidarity. That meant they were all present the day Lee showed up to training with messily shorn hair and a haphazardly dyed green unitard.

 

“Lee!” gasped Sakura. “What did you do to yourself?”

 

Lee looked a little off balance without the familiar weight of his braid, but he said stubbornly, “I cut my hair. I want to look like Gai-sensei. He’s so amazing and powerful and I want to be just like him.”

 

“What are you wearing, though?” Kiba questioned, looking a little queasy. “Did you dip that in mud or something?”

 

Naruto considered Lee. “Did you know that you have really bushy eyebrows?”

 

Ino shoved Naruto impatiently. “Leave him alone, stupid-face.” She turned to Lee and said, far more gently than was her wont, “I think short hair suits you, Lee-kun, but you didn’t get the cuts very even. Would you let me trim it for you?”

 

Lee’s face softened. “I would be most appreciative, Yamanaka Ino. Thank you.”

 

“Come on, then. Let’s leave these boys to their bashing around. We’re going to get you fixed up.” Ino grabbed Lee by the wrist and started to tow him away with her back towards the village. “Sakura! Hinata!” she called behind her at her friends. “You’d better come, too. I might need some help.”

 

Obediently, the two kunoichi stood up and followed in Ino’s wake, chattering about hems and feathering. Naruto turned to Sasuke, Shikamaru and Kiba. “Girls. Who can understand them?” he shrugged. “Come on, let’s go spar. Kakashi-nii-san wants to show me some new ninjutsu tomorrow and I want to be ready for him.”

 

At the Yamanaka compound, Ino handed Lee a bathrobe to change into. Once he had, she shoved him down into a seated position in her bathroom. “I’ll trim this hair up for you, Lee-kun. Sakura and Hinata, see what you can do with that.” Ino sniffed dismissively at the lump of uneven green cloth that Lee had taken off.

 

Sakura and Hinata disappeared back into the village for a few minutes while Ino rinsed Lee’s hair. She then hummed and snipped carefully with a sharp pair of scissors, turning it into a neat bowl cut to match Gai-sensei’s.

 

Upon their return, Sakura was holding a green unitard that exactly matched Gai’s, just smaller. She sat down on Ino’s bed and carefully began to hem the sleeves and ankles. Hinata curled up in an armchair, pulled her knitting needles out of her bag, and got busy with some orange yarn the exact shade of Gai’s leg warmers.

 

“Thank you,” Lee told Ino’s reflection in the mirror, seeming overwhelmed. He glanced as well into the bedroom where the girls were working peacefully. “Thank you all. No one has ever been this kind to me before.”

 

“Then I think it was about time someone was,” Sakura said firmly. Hinata made a soft noise of agreement that was a gentle counterpoint to the fast clicking of her needles. By the time the afternoon was over, Lee was a perfect miniature Maito Gai, and the girls had made a firm friend for life.

 

When Lee went to work on the training grounds the next day, Neji rolled his eyes at his teammate. But then that was business as usual, so Lee didn’t take it personally. However Shin, working nearby with his own genin team, shot him a thumbs up. Naruto, Kiba and Shikamaru all told him how badass he looked, Sasuke made a grunt that sounded vaguely approving, and Gai-sensei gave him his very first set of leg weights. Lee counted his new look a rousing success. He had a feeling that this was a new beginning for him, and he couldn’t wait to see how far he could go.

 

……………………………….

 

Sasuke was ready to explode. Now that he was feeling better, Itachi seemed to be everywhere, and it was making Sasuke crazy. His older brother was endlessly patient, forever penitent, and humble to an extreme. He took all of Sasuke’s snide remarks and dirty looks without complaint. Sasuke’s anger seemed to be boiling underneath his skin, and no amount of training could expel it from his body. No matter how hard he worked, how much he sweat, his rage was a constant companion.

 

“Sasuke,” Itachi said one afternoon in his trademark soft tones, “how was school today? Would you like some help with your schoolwork?”

 

“Hn,” Sasuke growled. He sat down at the kitchen table and started working through his math problems alone, ignoring Itachi utterly as he puttered around the kitchen.

 

A few minutes later, Itachi set a plate at his elbow. “Here, Sasuke. I made you a snack.”

 

“Hn,” Sasuke replied, a little more aggressively. He refused to eat the food, even though it was his favorite, sliced tomatoes on wheat bread.

 

When he had finished his homework and put his books away, Itachi asked, “Would you like to spar with me this afternoon, Sasuke? Tsunade-sama said I could start working with my chakra again. I would appreciate your help.”

 

And then it happened. All of a sudden, Sasuke couldn’t say “hn” and dismiss Itachi anymore. It had been months and months, and Itachi was relentless. “No!” he screamed, shocking Itachi. “Don’t you understand, you bastard? I don’t want your help. Or your company. Or your apologies! Leave me alone! It’s what you’re good at, isn’t it?” He spun away and ran out of the kitchen, out of the house entirely. He didn’t even know where he was going. He just wanted to be away.

 

So he ran, blinded by the tears streaming down his face. He hadn’t cried since that night. He hadn’t known he still could.

 

After a long time, Sasuke looked up and realized he was standing at the gates of the Uchiha clan compound. No one came here anymore. Already there were stories going around the village of the ghosts that lived there and howled at night for pity or for revenge. He gasped for breath, broken, and in that moment, Itachi appeared silently at his side. For once, he didn’t say anything. He didn’t apologize. He just waited.

 

“Everybody keeps telling me how hard you’re trying,” Sasuke said, his voice broken by sobs. “They say that you were pushed into a corner, that you did the best you could, that you were only acting under the orders of the Hokage, so you weren’t really a traitor. And I get that, really, I do. But what they don’t understand is that doesn’t matter to me. It’s easier for them to remember the good and to forget that you killed my family that night, Itachi. You killed my mom and my dad and I had to find their bodies. You were my best friend. You were always there for me. And then you left me alone. If it hadn’t been for Gai...I don’t know what would have happened to me.” He looked at the buildings that had once been home to him and felt cold. “This ground is soaked with their blood. It’s haunted and I don’t know how to set them free. I don’t know how to move on, or how to forgive you.”

 

Itachi was silent for a long time, his shoulders bowed. Finally he looked sightlessly into Sasuke’s eyes. “You’re right. This land will never be what it was again, and that’s my fault. It’s not your responsibility to fix my mistakes, Sasuke. That is my burden, and I will spend every day of the rest of my life trying to make something good come from this tragedy. And this is the first step on that path. We must set their spirits free.” Itachi then made a series of hand signs that Sasuke knew very well - boar, horse and tiger - and flames sprung from his brother’s mouth.

 

Sasuke knew he should have been furious as he watched his brother set fire to the Uchiha compound, but he wasn’t. He understood, suddenly, that this is what had needed to be done. It should have been done long ago, but he hadn’t been able to see it for his grief. Slowly, his hands formed the three signs as well, and then his fire joined Itachi’s. Together they set their past ablaze and watched it burn.

 

They stood side by side for a long time, watching the sparks disappear into the sky. Sasuke imagined he could feel the land being swept clean, and his family being released to their rest. Other shinobi came, drawn by the heat and the smoke, but they didn’t interfere. Instead they stood back, away from the last of the Uchiha clan, and watched the inferno rage.

 

“What will we do with the land, brother?” Itachi said, his voice barely audible over the roar of the flames. “It’s still ours to use as we wish, according to the council.”

 

“I don’t know,” Sasuke replied. “But I guess that’s something we can figure out later.” He looked at Itachi. “I don’t forgive you, you know.”

 

“No,” Itachi said. “It’s fine if you never do. We can never be what we were again, I know that. But perhaps we can start here. Maybe we can have a new beginning.”

 

“Hn,” Sasuke said, and Itachi’s heart started to fall. Then the younger brother added, very quietly, “Maybe so.”

Chapter Text

Kakashi was not a fan of this year. Not at all. He paced back and forth in his living room one day while Naruto was out with his friends, just stewing over it.

 

This year Naruto would be turning thirteen, and he would undoubtedly be taking the genin exam again. Kakashi knew all too well that this year, Naruto would pass easily. That scum Mizuki was stuck in jail, and Naruto’s current teacher, Daikoku Funeno, was a kind man whose jovial face hid some serious skills. He was exactly who Naruto needed as a teacher in his final year.

 

On top of that, Kakashi and Naruto had trained in secret with the shadow clone jutsu, and Naruto was capable of truly insane things with the forbidden technique. The jutsu was perfect for someone like Naruto, who had a virtually limitless well of chakra available for his use.

 

Logically, Kakashi knew that there was no reason in the world for Naruto not to become a genin. He was smart, mature, and skilled beyond his years. Whoever ended up being his jounin-sensei would be lucky to have him.

 

But...there was a part of Kakashi that still saw a blonde haired baby when he looked at Naruto. A baby wearing fox footy pajamas and cuddling a stuffed frog close. A toddler gazing in wonder at a thunderstorm or crowing with delight over a warm bath. A small, loud boy getting muddy in the garden or staring seriously at his pudgy fingers as he tried to form the rat hand sign. An older boy, still loud, but with determination in his eyes as he struggled to henge. A boy who loved ramen and carrots and his friends. A boy who was always ready with a smile or a hug or a small prank that distracted but did no harm. A boy who, after spending his first years neglected and alone, learned to love even the demon inside him.

 

This was the boy that Kakashi had raised, and he was so proud and so sad all at once that he didn’t know how to stay in his own skin. This was the boy, his boy, that would soon be spending nights under the stars with his team, instead of snoring safely in his own bed under Kakashi’s roof. He would be getting in fights, lots of them, winning some and losing others. He would be getting hurt. He would lose comrades, friends. He would learn hard lessons and experience heartbreak and there was absolutely nothing Kakashi could do to protect him from them. And dammit, Kakashi was grumpy about that. He wanted Naruto to become his own man, of course, but he wished there were a way to keep his boy safe and happy always.

 

Sighing, Kakashi threw himself onto the couch and decided that he was going to sit there and be grumpy and angsty for the rest of the day and nothing could stop him. He was a parent. He had a right to be sulky about his kid growing up if he wanted to. So there.

 

Of course, he wasn’t counting on one Umino Iruka. “Why the long face?” the teacher asked as he let himself into the house.

 

“My kid’s growing up,” Kakashi whined. “Who told him that was allowed?”

 

Iruka rolled his eyes and then collapsed on top of Kakashi. Kakashi nuzzled into Iruka’s neck, and he took comfort from that warm, sandalwood-and-books scent. “You’re a very powerful ninja, Kakashi, but not even you can stop time,” Iruka scolded as he nuzzled back. “Besides, you wouldn’t want Naruto to be a child forever, not really. For example, I seem to recall some very fervent rants on the evils of diapers when you first brought him home.”

 

“They weren’t so bad…” Kakashi hedged, convincing no one. Iruka shot him a withering look. “Okay, okay, you’re right, they were like a bog and a tar pit wrapped up in tissue paper and despite all the people I’ve killed, even I didn’t deserve having to deal with them. Still, I wouldn’t have minded if Naruto had been a little guy forever. He was awfully cute at six and seven, all knobby knees and shouts and stained shirts.”

 

“Yeah, he was,” Iruka said fondly. “Still, it’s been even better watching him grow up. He’s a good boy, Kakashi, and he’s going to be an even better man. I think he’ll be a lot like his father and,” he said, poking Kakashi in his side, “a lot like his brother.”

 

“Ugh, don’t curse him like that,” Kakashi groaned. “He’s got enough demons to carry. Literally.”

 

“You know I’m right,” Iruka said as he gently bit Kakashi’s chin. “Just give up and admit it.”

 

In a quick move that made Iruka squawk in protest, Kakashi flipped their positions so that he was on top. “Okay, sensei,” he purred, “I admit it. You’re right, as you usually are. I am being a useless, weepy lump. Let me make it up to you.”

 

“What is it with you and the couch?” Iruka complained, before pulling Kakashi into a deep kiss.

 

………………………………

 

“Don’t look now,” Shikamaru murmured to Naruto as they left the Academy to go to the training grounds, “but I think we’re being followed.”

 

“Yeah,” Naruto confirmed as he looked heavenward in exasperation. “They’ve been dogging me for the past two days. Pack of three, right?”

 

“Right. Want to lose them?” Shikamaru snickered as a little girl with the most vibrant orange hair he’d ever seen ducked behind a trash can in an attempt to avoid detection. However, she neglected to compensate for the height of her hair. This had the unfortunate result of making it look like the garbage can had sprouted pigtails. Her companions, meanwhile, a literal snot nosed boy and another boy with a blue scarf, were hidden marginally better in a hedge.

 

“Nah,” Naruto waved. “They’re harmless. They saw me working on ninjutsu with Kakashi-nii-san and started sticking to me like burrs. I did the same thing to Iruka-sensei and Gai-san when I was a kid. They don’t mean any harm. Still, I better do something about them now before they follow me somewhere they shouldn’t and get hurt. I don’t need the grief from Iruka-sensei.” He turned around and whistled at the kids. “Oi! Wouldn’t you guys prefer to follow me from up close rather than hiding in the garbage? It can’t smell all that fresh in there.”

 

Sheepishly, three young children stepped out from their hiding spots. “You saw us, huh?” the drippy-nosed boy said. “I told Konohamaru you would!”

 

“Shut up, you did not!” howled the scarved boy. “My Cloak of Invisibility Technique has never failed, you know that!”

 

“Don’t get in a fight over it,” drawled Shikamaru when it looked like the boys were about to leap at each other. “That’s far too troublesome. What are you kids doing, anyway? Don’t you have someplace better to be?”

 

Konohamaru scuffed his feet and looked mutinous. The little girl sighed and answered for him. “We’re supposed to be learning from Ebisu-sensei right now, but he’s mean and was yelling too much, so we ran away.” She looked at Naruto adoringly. “Please, let us come with you instead? We think we could learn a lot from you, even just from watching. We saw you training with that scary one-eyed jounin with the mask and it was so awesome.”

 

Naruto and Shikamaru exchanged glances. “I guess it’s okay with me,” Naruto said slowly. “We’re supposed to be working with Sakura on chakra control today, and I don’t think there’s any way you can get hurt from that. I’ve met Ebisu-sensei before and he’s a jerk. I wouldn’t want to work with him either.” Naruto turned around and started walking again.

 

“Are you guys coming or not?” Shikamaru said over his shoulder as he walked at Naruto’s side. The kids squeaked and hurried to catch up.

 

“Hi, Naruto-kun! Hi, Shika-kun!” Sakura greeted when they arrived at their reserved training field. Sakura had specified that they have the field with the ponds, but Naruto wasn’t sure why. They could all three already water walk. “Who’s the fan club?” Sakura asked with a wink at the blushing little girl, who looked up in utter adoration at the older kunoichi.

 

“I actually have no idea,” Naruto admitted, flushing from embarrassment. He turned to the kids. “Okay, you guys, sorry for not asking first. Sound off on your names, ages, and favorite food. Let’s start with you,” he said, pointing at the little girl.

 

She gulped and turned an even brighter red at being recognized. “Kazamatsuri Moegi. I’m eight. And I love sata andagi.”

 

“Good, good,” Naruto approved. “You next.”

 

The little boy sniffed noisily and adjusted his glasses. “Good afternoon. My name is Ise Udon, and I’m also eight years old. I’ll be nine in April, though. My favorite food is takoyaki.”

 

Naruto grinned at the kid’s solemnity. “Good to know. Nice to meet you. Now you,” he said, pointing at Konohamaru.

 

Squaring his feet defiantly, the boy shouted, “I’m Sarutobi Konohamaru. Yeah, my grandfather is the Sandaime, but don’t ever call me Honorable Grandson! I’ll be nine before either of these guys, in December, so I’m the boss! Oh, and I like ramen.”

 

“Me too, boss,” Naruto replied, shooting Konohamaru a thumbs up. “Ramen is the best food in the world. You have good taste. Oh, and nobody will call you Honorable Grandson here. That’s not who you are, after all. You’re yourself, not your grandfather, and your job is to be the best you possible, right?” Konohamaru gasped at being so easily understood, but Naruto didn’t appear to notice it. He rubbed his hands eagerly as he turned his attention to Sakura. “Okay, Sakura-sensei, what are we going to work on this afternoon that’s going to help us become good and mighty warriors of Konoha?”

 

Sakura groaned. “Honestly, Naruto, must you always be so enthusiastic?”

 

Naruto shrugged. “It’s my nature.”

 

“Whatever. Anyway, I thought today we could work on some beginning healing jutsu. It’s technically too advanced for pre-genin, but we’ll be genin in less than a year, hopefully, so I figured we could get a headstart.” Sakura pulled a thick book from the pouch at her waist. “Look, I checked this out of the library. I’ve done a few of the techniques already, and they’ve worked well for me. It should be good practice for you in chakra control.”

 

“Lead on, Sakura-sensei, you’re the expert. Kids, come sit with us so that you can watch, too. You won’t be able to do these things yet, but it can’t hurt to learn the theory now.” Naruto collapsed in an ungainly heap on the ground, Shikamaru folding himself far more gracefully beside him. Moegi very deliberately sat next to Sakura where she could see everything the older kunoichi did.

 

Konohamaru, eschewing the more polite manners of his friend, squeezed in beside Naruto, knocking Shikamaru over in his zeal. The boy’s eyes were gleaming with a new found fanaticism when he looked at Naruto. “Hey, kid, settle down,” Shikamaru complained goodnaturedly as he righted himself. “There’s more than enough Naruto to go around for everyone.” Udon sniffed at his companion’s rudeness, and then pointedly perched next to Shikamaru. Sasuke suddenly appeared out of some pocket of folded space that only he knew, nodded at the new additions without any further comment, then kneeled on the ground with them. He waited for Sakura to begin respectfully.

 

Sakura, showing unusual patience, waited for everyone to be settled, and then began to explain chakra points to the younger members of the audience. It wasn’t anything that Naruto, Sasuke and Shikamaru didn’t already know, but they took in the wonder in the kids’ eyes and listened to the old information without complaint. After all, it wasn’t so very long ago that the shinobi world was new to them, too.

 

After Sakura had explained the theory behind molding chakra into healing energy and pouring it into wounds, she reached into the pouch at her hip and removed a kunai. Quickly and ruthlessly, she drew it across her own forearm. Moegi gasped at the sight of the red blood dripping down Sakura’s fingers. “Oh, Sakura-sensei, are you all right?”

 

Sakura laughed. “I’m fine. A little cut like this should be nothing to a kunoichi like you and me. Pain is an opportunity for healing. See, watch.” Sakura lifted up her other hand, and green healing chakra began to glow along her palm. She delicately ran the energy across her cut, her nose wrinkled in concentration. After only a moment, she released the energy and the green light faded away. Beneath the blood, her cut was gone.

 

Naruto had been watching his friend closely. When she was done, he sat quietly for a moment with his eyes closed, visualizing the path of the chakra. Why do you need to learn this, kit? Kurama said from deep inside him. Naruto might be wrong, but he thought the fox actually seemed a little hurt. You have me to take care of things like that.

 

Yes, Naruto said, and he hoped his voice sounded as fond as he felt. But you know I want to learn everything I can. Someone I care for might be hurt someday, and I want to be able to help them. It’s not all about us, Kurama. Naruto’s eyes flicked first to Shikamaru, then to Sasuke and Sakura.

 

Selfless pup, Kurama groused, but he was quiet after that.

 

One by one, the older members of Sakura’s little class made small cuts on their forearms and healed them, although none of them picked it up as quickly as she had. Sasuke quickly got impatient and watched Sakura demonstrate a second time, this time using his sharingan to trace how she manipulated her chakra. He was then able to reduce his gash to a pink, mostly healed line. He was roundly called a cheater by his companions, but he smirked at the criticism and said that having special skills could never be called cheating. After three tries, Shikamaru healed his cut easily enough, but said that he much preferred working with his shadows.

 

It took Naruto more than fifteen minutes to figure out how to balance his chakra correctly, how to filter it to only contain healing energy. After much growling, curses, and grunts of effort, he finally succeeded in reducing his cut to an angry red slash across his pale skin. The line was raised and not nearly as neatly drawn together as the edges of Sakura’s cut. Still, he was pleased. Being able to stop bleeding was a valuable skill to have under any circumstances.

 

Pride sparkled in Sakura’s eyes when Naruto looked up from his wound. “Good job, Naruto!” she praised. “That level of chakra moulding is hard.”

 

“Psh,” Naruto snorted. “You can do much harder stuff. I bet you’ve been working on something much cooler in your spare time.” He nudged Konohamaru beside him. “Ask her what she’s been learning,” Naruto egged on the younger boy in a loud stage whisper.

 

“Oh, Sakura-sensei, have you been learning other things? Things even harder than this?” Moegi interrupted, bouncing around and nearly poking Sasuke in the ear with her spiky pigtail. His sharingan was still active so he dodged her easily enough with an annoyed snort, but his lips quirked up at the ends.

 

“Maybe I have, maybe I haven’t,” Sakura hedged, teasing. Naruto could see from the sparkle in her green eyes that she was flattered by the attention. “I guess I can show you guys something that I think is pretty neat, if you’re that interested.” At their encouragement, Sakura reached back into her pouch and pulled out a scroll. She casually released the rudimentary seal on the scroll, and a dead fish landed on the grass in front of her.

 

“What’s that for, sushi?” Shikamaru asked lazily. “It doesn’t smell all that fresh.”

 

“It’s not,” Sakura snapped, rolling her eyes heavenward as she visibly asked a higher power for patience. “Which makes it all the better when I do this.” She placed both hands over the fish and closed her eyes. Her palms began to glow green again, and she ran them along the fish’s dull scales.

 

For a moment nothing happened, and Naruto held his breath, willing for this to work with all his heart. There were times, very rarely, when he felt an indescribable sense of knowing , as if he were traveling down a twisting road and could just see around the bend. He didn’t know if it was because of Kurama that he felt these premonitions, or if it was something that all ninja could do and just didn’t openly discuss. It was what he imagined having a sharingan was like for Sasuke. The first time he could remember it happening, he’d been alone in an enemy camp, with a chain wrapped around his ankle. A tall figure had approached him, and he’d been afraid at first, thinking that this person would hurt him, as everyone else always did. When the figure had pulled off its mask and revealed his beloved Kakashi, though, Naruto had somehow known that after this, everything was going to be changing for the better. He would finally be safe. And he’d been right.

 

This was one of those times. Naruto knew, as he instinctively knew when a carrot was ripe, that this had to work for Sakura. Sakura, whose hands were so strong and whose heart was so kind, deserved to have her own place in Konoha, and she hadn’t found it yet. Naruto knew, in that spot in the brightness of his heart that knew unknowable things, that this could be her place.

 

At first he thought his eyes were playing tricks on him when the fish shivered jerkily, as if it had been shocked. Naruto shouted his delight to the sky when the fish began to flop in earnest, the cloudiness fading from its eyes and the gills working desperately for air. Moegi squealed in disbelief, but Sakura was calm as she scooped up the wriggling fish and tossed it lightly into the pond a few feet away from where the group was sitting. Naruto understood then why she had chosen this particular training ground. They saw the flap of the fish’s silvery tail as it leaped into the air, then a glimmer of sun on scales as it darted beneath the surface. Then it was gone, with only wavering circles on the water proving that the fish had been there just a few seconds before.

 

Naruto leapt over and swung Sakura around in his arms, laughing. “That was amazing!” he yelled over Sakura’s giggles.

 

A rare smile crossed Sasuke’s face. “Good job, Sakura,” he praised, causing his friend to glow bright with pleasure. “That’s a really high rated technique.”

 

“YOU THERE!”

 

A voice suddenly boomed from the nearby pathway, and all the children froze absolutely still as Senju Tsunade herself suddenly clomped over to them, a meek Shizune following in her wake. Tsunade came to a grinding halt right in front of Sakura, and the pink haired girl gazed up at her hokage in astonishment, the delighted smile falling like raindrops from her lips. “Where did you learn how to do that, kid?” Tsunade asked Sakura sharply, her strong hands balled up like boulders on her hips.

 

“F-from a book, Tsunade-sama,” Sakura answered. To her credit, her voice wobbled only very slightly. “Was I not supposed to do it without permission? I’m so sorry!”

 

“Never mind ‘should have’ or ‘supposed to,’ what matters is that you did it,” Tsunade snapped. Naruto, who knew her better than Sakura, could tell that the hokage was far from annoyed. Actually, he thought she looked rather pleased with what she’d witnessed. It was almost the same expression she’d worn when she’d come across several Naruto clones exercising Kakashi’s ninken and weeding the garden while the real Naruto had reclined on a hill cloud-watching with Shikamaru. Naruto had expected to be punished for using a forbidden technique that he’d obviously stolen from the Scroll in her office, but surprisingly, Tsunade hadn’t yelled at him. She’d just smiled a secret sort of smile that spoke of hope for the future and walked away.

 

“Is that the first time you’ve revived a fish?” Tsunade asked Sakura now.

 

“No, Tsunade-hime,” Sakura replied, still looking as if she expected to be tossed out a window any second. “The fourth.”

 

Tsunade eyed her, tapping her chin with a long manicured nail. “You’re Haruno Sakura, correct?” Sakura nodded, her voice finally failing her. “Yes, I thought so. I remember you from your teachers’ yearly reports. Excellent chakra control, which is obvious. Top grades, efficient taijutsu and ninjutsu, genjutsu above average. Very impressive, as I recall.”

 

Sakura went from being pale with fright to being flushed as pink as her hair at the secondhand praise from her teachers. She went back to looking on the edge of fainting when Tsunade concluded, “I think I’ll keep my eye on you, Haruno Sakura.”

 

“Kami! Way to be all foreboding and scary, Tsunade-baa-chan,” Naruto complained loudly, successfully drawing the attention away from the ashen Sakura. Suddenly the atmosphere was light again, and Sakura shot Naruto a grateful look as everyone laughed, even Shizune giggling nervously behind her hand.

 

Tsunade ruffled Naruto’s bright hair, only a little harder than was strictly necessary. “Shut up, brat. All evidence to the contrary, you kiddos will be qualified shinobi soon. If I intimidate you that much, heaven forbid your reactions to a squad from Mist.”

 

At that, Sakura’s back stiffened and she looked Tsunade straight in the eye.”I’ll make you and Konoha proud someday, Hokage-sama!” she swore.

 

“I know you will,” Tsunade said kindly. She turned to leave, but suddenly whirled around and pointed her finger at Konohamaru. “And you, brat,” she growled, “pay attention to your elders! They have a lot to teach you. And for the last time, stay out of my office! If I find one more tack in my seat, you’re going to get extra taijutsu lessons for a month. From me.” With that threat lingering heavily in the air, Tsunade swept away again.

 

“Aw, rats,” Konohamaru groused as everyone looked at him in disbelief. “I didn’t think she knew it was me that was breaking in. I wonder if I can figure out a way to put slime in her pillows instead?”

 

With a squawk, Naruto tackled the young boy to the grass and playfully rolled him in the dust. Konohamaru didn’t seem to mind all that much, though, judging from the laughter.

 

………………………………………………….

 

The weather was turning colder, and on one particularly nippy morning, the pre-genin met at the training field to practice their kunai throwing. To Naruto’s surprise, Itachi had tagged along with Sasuke.

 

Konoha was still uneasily adapting to the changed circumstances of the former missing-nin, and Itachi didn’t go out in public very often. A few people still held anger for Itachi’s actions, and addressed him with suspicion and disdain. Most people, however, treated Itachi with a sort of distant pity, as if his blindness was an acceptable price to pay for his actions. In private Tsunade had raged at the idiocy of the decision making that went into the massacre, and Hiruzen had had to be treated for a burst eardrum in his right ear. In public, however, Tsunade was supportive of Itachi and made sure that he wasn’t treated with suspicion. That went a long way towards smoothing his relations with the rest of Konoha.

 

Despite the support, Itachi was currently existing in a strange kind of limbo. Because of his blindness, he could no longer be an active shinobi, even though he was still one of the most powerful ninjas in the Land of Fire. He had perfected a chakra technique that allowed him to get around and fight with ease within Konoha, but it made leaving the familiar bounds of the village awkward and uncertain. With the Uchiha clan funds, he was wealthy enough to never need to work again. As a consequence, nobody knew quite what to do with him.

 

Iruka, observing Itachi’s gentleness and patience, had gone to him to suggest that he teach at the Academy. “I’m truly honored that you would suggest it to me, Iruka-sensei,” Itachi replied, bowing respectfully. “I know how much you value the school and how careful you are to protect this village’s youth. But I have other plans for my future. Sasuke and I have had a lot of discussions of what to do with the Uchiha clan compound, and we think we have finally settled upon an appropriate solution. I actually meant to come to you for help, once our plans were a little further along.”

 

“Of course, I would be happy to help however I can,” Iruka said, confused. “But why would you need me? To redo the boundary wards?”

 

“Yes, that is one reason,” Itachi nodded. “I understand that you are particularly gifted with wards and seals, and I would appreciate your help. However, Sasuke has spoken to me of your great prowess as a teacher. He believes you are the best instructor in the village, and believe me, I am well aware that Sasuke is not given to empty praise. With that in mind, I was hoping you would help me with another aspect of my plans.”

 

“Which are?” Iruka prompted, inwardly touched by Sasuke’s good opinion.

 

“It has come to my attention that what this village truly needs is a place for abandoned children to be well cared for,” Itachi replied, some passion entering his soft voice. “The orphanage that exists now is a shamefully neglected and cold place. I shudder to think what would have happened to my brother if he’d been forced to live there, what he would have become if Gai-san hadn’t been so kind as to take him into his heart and home.” Itachi smiled, so sadly that Iruka ached in sympathy for this broken man. “I have made grievous mistakes, Iruka-sensei. I wish to dedicate my life to atoning for them. It seems to me that there can be no higher calling than raising the children that are left alone in the world through no fault of their own. They deserve better than what they currently receive.”

 

Iruka felt his heart leap in tentative hope. He and Kakashi had had many anxious discussions on this very topic, but hadn’t seen an obvious solution. Could Itachi really take on such a massive project? Even more importantly, could he be trusted to raise a new generation of children? “That’s truly admirable, Itachi-san. But I’m curious. What sort of establishment would you hope this place would be?” His support would largely depend on Itachi’s answer.

 

“I want more than just a place where children can be fed and sleep under a dry roof,” Itachi replied. “Those things are important, of course, but there is more to providing true care than providing the bare essentials. You see, sensei, I want to raise children that are comfortable in their own skins, confident in their talents, and supported in their weaknesses. I am also determined that no child that passes through my home will be forced against their natures to become shinobi. I will be just as proud of raising a good and compassionate shopkeeper as I am of producing a powerful shinobi. Each child will be given therapy to help heal their internal wounds, and careful teaching to become the best versions of themselves. That is my dream now.”

 

Iruka’s shoulders relaxed. “Then I share that dream, Itachi-san,” he said warmly. “Back when Kakashi first took in Naruto and discovered the depth of the orphanage’s neglect of him, the Sandaime was hard put to keep him from burning the place down. But the orphanage isn’t the larger problem, not really. The problem is a society based on warfare. We both want to see this village become a place of peace. Ultimately, that means that the need for shinobi will lessen. What will that mean, then, for all the children currently being raised as warriors? We have to do a better job. We have to teach our children that there is more to the world than war.”

 

“Who would know that better than Kakashi-san and I?” Itachi agreed. “We all have a responsibility to leave the world a better place than we found it. Kakashi-san did his part by raising Naruto. I failed with Sasuke. The person he becomes won’t be due to me, but will be because of the people that stayed and invested in him. I have to live with that failure. I won’t fail with this.”

 

Iruka stepped forward and clasped Itachi’s forearm. Itachi jumped; no one ever touched him willingly these days, not even Sasuke. It was if they were afraid of the sin of the past staining their clothes. His eyes filled with tears at Iruka’s ready compassion. “Tell me how I can help,” Iruka said.

 

While Konoha existed in an uneasy truce with Itachi, Sasuke’s relationship with him was, of course, even more complicated. Itachi had wisely realized that what he was doing wasn’t working and had backed off quite a bit after Sasuke’s meltdown at the Uchiha compound. He found that it was a little like taming a wild cat. The less attention he paid to his brother, the more Sasuke started to orbit around Itachi again. The trust had been disrupted, but the nostalgia for the relationship they’d once had remained buried in Sasuke’s heart. The trick was to coax it into the light.

 

With Gai’s surprisingly deft social sense smoothing the way, Sasuke slowly began to address his brother again, politely if not warmly. It took quite a while, but the brothers were finally to the point where they could have surface conversations on what the other had done each day. Gai stopped worrying that there was going to be a homicide in his house, and Sasuke’s shoulders came down from around his neck. Itachi didn’t click his lacquered fingernails against every surface with anxiety, and Konoha’s citizens were able to walk past the little house without nudging one another with a whispered, “That’s where he lives, you know. Him.

 

So on this winter day, Itachi was pleased when Sasuke stood awkwardly in front of him and said to his own sandaled feet, “I’m gonna go train. You could come with me, if you want. I don’t care either way.”

 

“Thank you, Sasuke,” Itachi said, careful to sound bland and not like he could burst with joy at the grudging invitation. “I’d be glad to come.”

 

When they got to the training grounds, every pre-genin eye widened with shock at Itachi’s presence beside Sasuke. But thanks to Naruto’s wildly flailing arms that demanded silence, nobody made a comment. Instead, they all removed their gloves and started heaving kunai and shuriken at the targets, carefully adjusting their aim to account for wind direction and the chill in their fingers.

 

Naruto finished his turn and came to stand beside Itachi. “Brrr, it’s cold!” he shivered. “Did you ever go on any missions in the snow like this?”

 

Itachi smiled, warmed by Naruto’s casual acceptance of him. “Many times,” he answered, “and often with your nii-san. He did better in the cold weather than I did, though. He had the advantage of many summons that were more than happy to huddle with him for warmth.” He laughed softly. “There Kakashi was, the terror of the Land of Fire, snuggled up in a puppy pile. It made me laugh every time.”

 

Naruto guffawed. “That sounds about right! Although now he gets snuggly with Iruka-sensei more than he does with the dogs. They pretty much stay in my room with me and Bisuke. Dogs aren’t prudes, but that doesn’t mean they want to see everything that Kakashi-nii and Iruka-sensei get up to in there.”

 

Itachi blinked for a minute, thrown off by that particular mental pictures. Best to not consider it too much. “I’m glad he’s happy,” Itachi replied. “Kakashi-san deserves it. Iruka-sensei is a credit to the village, and even better: he’s a genuinely good man. He’s been very kind to me, since my return.” At the sound of a kunai pinging off a target, he looked up and frowned. “Do none of your classmates use any other bladed weapons than kunai and shuriken, Naruto-kun?”

 

Blowing like a dragon on his cold fingers to warm them, Naruto huffed, “I don’t think so. I mean, I know how to use a tanto pretty well. Kakashi-nii has been training me in that for a long time now. But I don’t think anybody knows how to use a full katana.”

 

“Hmmm,” Itachi hummed. “Do you think any of them would be interested in learning kenjutsu? It’s something that I could teach…”

 

Before he could even finish his sentence, Naruto had leapt away towards his classmates, howling happily, “Hey, guys! Itachi-san’s going to teach us to use swords! Sakura, Ino, Hinata, I bet you’d be awesome at it! Believe it!”

 

Before he really knew what was happening, a thoroughly bemused Itachi was leading a group of enthusiastic pre-genin in kenjutsu katas. At some point Moegi, Udon, and Konohamaru had slipped into the class as well, but nobody shooed them away.

 

As they were walking home after a successful first lesson, Itachi felt the need to apologize to his brother. “I’m sorry, Sasuke,” he said quietly. “I didn’t mean to interrupt your practice. Naruto was just so enthusiastic…”

 

Sasuke, to Itachi’s surprise, snorted in amusement. “That’s Naruto,” he said fondly. “He wouldn’t know subtlety if it bit him in the ass. Don’t worry about it.” He peered up at his brother, blinking a little mistily. “Unless you don’t want to teach us.”

 

Itachi sputtered and choked in his rush to reassure his brother that of course, he wanted to teach them, how could he think otherwise? It took him a minute to realize that Sasuke was actually laughing at him. He hadn’t heard Sasuke laugh in years.

 

“You little shit,” Itachi found himself saying, just like he used to when Sasuke had teased him as a boy. “I guess you being a brat hasn’t changed, anyway.”

 

“Nah,” Sasuke responded with more than a trace his old, wry grin. “And it probably never will.”

 

Despite his initial misgivings, Itachi’s kenjutsu classes soon became the most popular way to spend an afternoon for the pre-genin crowd. Naruto, having already learned a good deal with Kakashi, made a surprisingly efficient assistant for Itachi. With his clones he was everywhere at once, encouraging even the most timid learner to greater proficiency.

 

Shikamaru groaned about all the extra work, but seemed to absorb the skill like a sponge whenever you didn’t happen to be looking directly at him. Sasuke, of course, was casually brilliant with his katana, as he was at everything except social skills. Shino was surprisingly lithe and graceful, economical as he was in all of his movements. Kiba didn’t care for kenjutsu as he preferred to fight with Akamaru, and Ino never rose above barely competent despite how hard she worked, but Sai and Hinata both had a surprising talent for it. Sai had also talked with Itachi and Iruka about some rather surprising ideas he had for using his art as a weapon. Combined with his swiftly growing talent as a swordsmen, everyone knew that Sai would be a formidable shinobi in the coming years.

 

Hinata had been training one-on-one with Shin for several years, on top of her regular practices with Sakura under the watchful gaze of Kurenai, and her peers were surprised now to see the strength in her limbs, the determination in her eyes, and the power behind her strikes. She didn’t hide from anything, not anymore. In her daily life, the Hyuuga heiress was still gentle and soft spoken, always the first to offer a helping hand or a kind word to anyone. When it came time to get down to business, though, Hinata became steel. She knew just where to hit to cause maximum damage, and she took no quarter. Nor did she ask for it. If she was beaten, she got up and tried all the harder.

 

Hinata had a chance to prove it in the spring when the pre-genin were paired up once again, sparring. Itachi hadn’t arrived yet to teach them anything new. Several genin teams were there as well, doing their own training, Team Gai among them. Hinata was fighting the weaker Ino, and was going easily on her partner to give Ino an opportunity to practice the basics.

 

It must have been that hesitation that caused Neji to leave Tenten and Lee and stride up to his kin. “Cousin,” he said coldly. Hinata stepped back momentarily, as if she had slipped on ice. “Why do you persist?” he asked, apropos of nothing.

 

Hinata set her feet firmly, automatically taking a defensive position. “What do you mean, cousin?” she questioned, her lavender eyes watching Neji’s every move.

 

He began to circle her, a wolf on the hunt. “You must know. Everyone knows. You are weak, Hyuuga Hinata. It is your destiny to be weak and frail, a drain upon your clan, while those who are strong fight for you. Why do you persist in your aspirations of becoming a shinobi? You aren’t suited for it. You’re an embarrassment.”

“Hey!” Ino shouted angrily, already moving to step in between Hinata and Neji.

 

Before she could, though, Shin appeared out of nowhere and held the irate kunoichi back with a firm hand. “Wait,” he advised softly. “Let her stand up for herself.”

 

“Neji’s so strong, she can’t-” Ino started to protest.

 

“She can ,” Shin replied.

 

“He’s right,” Sakura said as she joined them, Naruto at her heels and looking eager. “Just watch.” A bloodthirsty smile creased her lips, for which she could probably be forgiven. Sakura had taken quite a few lumps from Hinata over the years during their training with Kurenai. She would unabashedly enjoy watching somebody who richly deserved it getting beaten by her fellow kunoichi.

 

And everyone could suddenly see that Shin and Sakura were right. Hinata didn’t cry or weaken. Her voice was still soft, but it was strong and resolute. “It is not my destiny to be an embarrassment to my clan, because I don’t choose it to be so,” she replied. “We are what we make of ourselves, not what our stars appear to foretell. We are not bound to one road, but can  choose to walk any path.”

Neji laughed bitterly as he activated his Byakugan, signaling his intention on moving the confrontation into a fight. “That’s the kind of thing that a pampered princess of the Main Branch would think. We are all of us trapped, even you. We’re nothing more than caged birds to fate. I want you to stop pretending otherwise and to accept your own destiny.”

 

“You’ll have to make me, then,” Hinata said, changing her grip on her katana. “I will never willingly believe as you do. It is to accept defeat, and Neji, I never quit. That’s my ninja way.”

 

The rest of the pre-genin all wisely took a step back. Shin, Sakura, and Naruto, having an even better idea of Hinata’s skills, took two.

 

Neji moved first, expecting Hinata to be easily overwhelmed. Before he could blink, she had activated her own Byakugan and was swinging her katana in an elegant arc towards his shoulder. He blocked the blow with a kunai, and the battle was on.

 

Palms flashing and weapons striking, the two Hyuugas moved too quickly to be seen, except by Sasuke. He had activated his Sharingan out of curiosity.  When Naruto elbowed him in the side, the Uchiha grudgingly began to call out the action in a soft drone. “Eight palms trigram. Strike to the arm, deflected. Uppercut to the jaw. Didn’t land.”

 

“Stop fighting and accept it!” Neji’s voice bellowed from inside the storm. There was a note of fear in his tone.

 

“Never!” The steel was back in Hinata’s voice. “We are the authors of our own stories, and I’ll prove it to you!”

 

Suddenly, the whirling and flashing stopped. The air seemed to crackle from the abrupt silence. When the dust cleared, Neji was lying in the dirt, a shallow cut from Hinata’s katana across his chest. Sasuke could see that several of his chakra points were closed as well. It was a devastating defeat for the prodigy.

 

Hinata stood over her opponent, barely breathing hard. “You always say there’s no point in fighting fate,” she said, and her words wrote themselves on Neji’s heart. “You say all we can do is accept what destiny has given us. But you’re wrong, Neji, and you already know it, deep inside yourself. You care so much about destiny and about being worthy because you feel your own destiny deprives you of recognition from the clan. Do you think I don’t know about your seal, about the oppressions of the Branch families? You think I’m that pampered and blind to the suffering of others? You’re wrong. I see you and I see your pain. I recognize you, and I do not submit to the shackles of our family. You can control what happens to you, Neji. You don’t have to bow.” She reached down and offered her cousin a hand. Stunned, he took it and was pulled to his feet. “Let’s change things, together.”

 

“Do...do you think we can?” Neji asked, his voice breaking.

 

Hinata smiled, and began to run a glowing palm along his bleeding cut. “I know it. And you know it, too. You just,” she said, looking at Naruto with a smile, “have to believe it.” Tears began to roll down Neji’s face, and Hinata’s hand wiped them away.

 

It was at that moment that Itachi arrived, coming up to stand beside Sasuke. “Do I even want to know?” he asked wryly, his eyebrow raised.

 

“Suffice it to say that there was a difference of opinion regarding life philosophies between the members of the Hyuuga clan,” Shikamaru drawled.

 

“Also, everybody knows now that Hinata can kick ass with that katana,” chirped Naruto. He exuded satisfaction from every pore.

 

Itachi shrugged. “Ah. Well, if everything’s settled now, perhaps we should begin our practice?”

 

“Yes, Itachi-sensei,” the group chorused angelically as they took their places on the field. Tenten, having been greatly impressed by what she had just witnessed from the quiet Hinata, hurried to join them. Rock Lee was hard on her heels.

 

As Hinata helped Neji sit down against a tree, she flashed quick smiles of glee at Naruto and Sakura. But her deep bow of gratitude and love went to Shin.

 

………………………………………

 

“Would you please stop that?” Iruka’s annoyed voice floated to Kakashi’s ears from his backyard, and he shook his head as he approached the house, smiling. He had offered his backyard to Iruka and Jiraiya as they worked on a new seal together, and while he enjoyed having them around, the quiet he’d used to enjoy was long gone. When he’d initially offered the space to the unhappy pair, his reasoning was that his backyard was more secure than the training grounds, and had more room to offer than the Academy, despite the encroaching boundaries of Naruto’s garden. While the partnership between Iruka and JIraiya was unquestionably productive, it was also uneasy. He’d come home to shouting several times now, somewhat to his neighbors’ chagrin.

 

“Are you blind, Umino? How can you ignore a nice pair of legs like that- yeow!” Jiraiya’s lascivious musings were interrupted by a howl of outrage. “Put that away! I’m not a cat!”

 

“I beg to differ,” Iruka growled, unrepentant. “You’re much, much worse than my cat when she’s in heat. At least she’s capable of some dignity.”

 

As Kakashi turned the corner into the yard, a comedic tableau greeted him. Jiraiya was perched on top of the high boundary wall that surrounded Kakashi’s property, gazing down hungrily into the nearby marketplace. It no doubt made the perfect platform for his neverending trawl for women. A thoroughly ruffled Iruka stood directly below him, and in his hand was a spray bottle filled with water.

 

“Now that the blood is back in your brain instead of in your balls, could I have your attention, please?” Iruka said as he slung the bottle back on his belt in a well practiced motion. “If even one small notation on this seal is wrong, the whole village could be blown to bits. I think that’s slightly more important than appeasing the demands of your geriatric libido.”

 

“Harsh,” Jiraiya grumbled as he jumped down from the fence, simultaneously wiping the water from his face. “I’m amazed that Tsunade lets you anywhere near children, with a mouth like that.”

 

“I’m not the problem,” Iruka retorted hotly. “You have the singular gift of bringing out the absolute worst in everybody you meet.”

 

Jiraiya looked as if he was going to argue, considered it further, and then shrugged. It’s not like Iruka was wrong or anything.

 

“Another productive afternoon, I see,” Kakashi drawled as he came upon the pair.

 

Iruka lit up at Kakashi’s appearance, and he leaned in and placed a quick kiss on Kakashi's lips over his mask. “Welcome home,” he said warmly. “How was your mission?”

 

“It was fine,” Kakashi said as he wrapped his arm around Iruka’s waist. “Up until I got home and found this waiting for me at the Mission Desk.” He lifted up his hand to show a signature blue envelope. Everyone in the village could recognize it, even at a distance. It was the paperwork for appointing the recipient as a new jounin-sensei.

 

“Oh, kami, no,” Iruka said in mock horror. “Doesn’t Tsunade-sama know you well enough to never willingly put you in charge of impressionable young ninjas?”

 

“You would think so, but apparently not.” Kakashi sighed heavily. “When I tried to protest, though, she told me that the graduating class this year is unusually large and unusually talented, and a lot of jounin were being made into senseis. Then she threw sake bottles at me until I left her office.”

 

“Cheer up, Hatake,” Jiraiya said, clearly trying to be consoling. “Nobody can be as bad at teaching as me. So the bar is set pretty low for you.”

 

“That’s true,” Kakashi said, his eye arching in humor. “Although even you deserve some credit, Jiraiya. After all, you taught Minato-sensei.”

 

Jiraiya waved that objection aside. “I didn’t have much to do with Minato’s success. I’ve never met a more naturally gifted and good individual in my life. You couldn’t even hate him for it; he was that genuinely nice. I taught him sealwork and improved his aim with a kunai and set him loose. He did the rest on his own.”

 

“I suppose there’s a lesson in that,” Kakashi mused. “A wise teacher repairs weaknesses and guides a student towards those techniques that best accompany their strengths. Perfect. Easy. Except it’s so not.”

 

“Hiruzen-sensei certainly never tried to teach with a mind towards my strengths,” Jiraiya said mournfully as he cast glances back at his perch on the boundary wall. “For example, he never encouraged my outstanding skill with the ladies-”

 

Before he could finish his statement, Kakashi had grabbed the water bottle from Iruka’s belt and shot Jiraiya directly in the face with a stream of stagnant water. “Bad Jiraiya,” he said sternly as Jiraiya choked and sputtered. “ No. Being a pervert is wrong. Or so Iruka tells me.”  

 

Leaning over with his hands on his knees, Jiraiya peered up at Iruka, who was standing at Kakashi’s side absolutely cackling. “You two deserve each other,” he rasped, before leaving the yard in a huff.

 

“I think he’s probably right about that,” Kakashi commented as he guided Iruka back into the house. “In fact, I think what I deserve is to have you move in with me. Just so you can make me into a halfway decent teacher.”

 

“Kakashi,” Iruka said patiently as he surveyed the fridge for dinner ingredients, “that’s not a reason to move in together.”

 

“It’s not? Huh.” Kakashi closed the fridge and crowded Iruka back against the door. “Okay, what about this? You, Umino Iruka, are a paragon of all the virtues, a wildcat in bed, and I never seem to get tired of being with you. I’m about to be forced to spend a considerable amount of time with impetuous young shinobi that will no doubt do their level best to get me killed. I would like it very much if you would consent to move in with me, so that whatever time I have at home, I can spend it with you. Because you and Naruto are my home.” He leaned in closer, enjoying the hitching in Iruka’s breath. “How’s that?”

 

“It’s acceptable,” Iruka said, leaning in closer. Suddenly his eyes widened and he jumped back a little, something which did not make Kakashi very happy. “What about Kasi, though? Will she be okay with your dogs? I don’t think I’ve ever seen them around a cat before.”

 

Kakashi shrugged. “We’re pretty smart. We’ll figure it out. And at the worst, we’ll set her loose on the village and she and Tora can start their own clan.” Iruka sputtered at that, but Kakashi quickly covered his protests with his lips.

 

……………………………….

 

After years of a devastating terror campaign on the Land of Fire, increasingly unethical human experimentation, and being acknowledged as an incomparable villain by the world as a whole, the capture of Orochimaru ended up being somewhat anticlimactic.

 

The sannin was apparently running out of time in his current body, and was getting desperate. Only age related senility or some kind of catastrophic cerebral breakdown could excuse him for being dumb enough to try and kidnap Uchiha Sasuke right in the middle of a katana practice with all his classmates and Itachi. When Orochimaru appeared at the training fields with a cadre of high ranked missing-nin in his wake, the students didn’t hesitate to leap to action.

 

By the time Tsunade, Kakashi, Jiraiya, and a considerable force of Anbu had arrived at the scene, the battle was already over. Orochimaru certainly didn’t suffer from a lack of drama, and his supporting cast were all colorful in the extreme. Nevertheless, they were unable to stand against the united pre-genin.

 

A woman who had played a rather beguiling flute had been punched into a crater by Sakura (who was clearly looking to Tsunade for guidance in more than just medicine), and then was bound up in a thick web of Shikamaru’s shadows. A pair of vicious twins had been taken down by Kiba, Akamaru, Sai, and Shino. Chouji, compassionate, hesitant Chouji, who had been inspired by Hinata’s decisive victory against Neji, had fought against his own nature and single handedly brought down an enemy shinobi who used his monstrous strength and merciless speech to intimidate his opponents. Once the nin had been subdued, Ino had quickly trapped him in a quagmire of genjutsus. Neji and Hinata, who had apparently reached an understanding, were standing victorious over a ninja that had been so foolish as to think that some bits of chakra wire would be enough to take down the flowers of the Hyuuga clan. Sai had that shinobi well and truly pinned under an impressive ink tiger.

 

Together, Naruto and Sasuke had stood against a shinobi who had a queer bone kekkei genkai. Naruto had quickly formed hundreds of perfect shadow clones, all ruthlessly wielding katana. Sasuke, feeling a sense of competition with his friend, used the occasion to form his first susanoo. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was effective. The battle had lasted only minutes before the bone shinobi was on the ground, gasping on his own blood.

 

Greatest of all was the contest between Orochimaru and Itachi. If the sannin had thought that Itachi was hampered by his blindness, he soon came to regret that line of thinking as he was casually pummelled by a full susanoo, and then burned by Amaterasu. Itachi stood quietly as Orochimaru howled in agony, not even ruffled by the encounter. Once Jiraiya and Iruka had thundered up, he extinguished the flames so that Orochimaru could be taken into custody. The two seal masters used their new technique to seal away Orochimaru for good, and something in Kakashi’s body eased at the sight. Maybe now, people like Anko and Tenzou could find a little peace.

 

“Maa,” Kakashi said rather weakly as the pre-genin congratulated one another on their first real battle. “I suppose that’s that.”

 

Naruto laughed and leaped into Kakashi’s arms, crowing, “Did you see my clones, Kakashi-nii? Weren’t they amazing? Sasuke and I, we kicked ass! We were so awesome! Believe it!”

 

“I saw,” Kakashi laughed. “And I’ve always believed it.”

 

“Oh, is it over already?” A slow, bored voice came from the nearby path. Naruto looked up and squealed Gaara! before racing over to greet the new arrivals.

 

Gaara pretended to be unphased by the exuberance of Naruto’s greeting, but Kakashi could see that he was pleased. He was flanked by a girl who bore an enormous fan on her back, and by a cowled boy with a puppet. “We received intel that the Land of Sound was preparing an attack,” Gaara said, addressing Tsunade. “My father sent us to warn you, and to help if we can.”

 

“As you can see,” Tsunade replied as she gestured at the smug pre-genin behind her, “we have things well in hand. I’m afraid you’ve wasted a trip.”

 

“Not necessarily...” the boy at Gaara’s side said. “Gaara said something about this village having the best ramen he’s ever had. We would be interested in seeing if that’s true.”

 

“Yeah! Ramen! Let’s go, everyone!” Naruto cried, leading a surge of hungry, amped up pre-genin in a charge to Ichiraku’s. Even the villagers from Sand looked eager. Kakashi sighed, thinking of the upcoming hit to his wallet.

 

“Don’t worry, brat,” Tsunade said, seeing the look on his face. “I think the village can spring for the ramen just this once. It’s a small enough reward for what should have been an S-ranked mission.”

 

“You may have cause to regret that,” Kakashi moaned as he followed the crowd towards the spicy smells emanating from Naruto’s favorite stall. “I don’t think you’ve ever seen my boy eat, not to mention Chouji and Hinata. The village will be bankrupt in two hours.”

 

“Ah, well,” Tsunade said, lifting her hands a little helplessly. “So be it.”

 

………………………………….

 

On the day of the genin exam, Kakashi joined the crowd of people that were waiting anxiously outside the Academy doors. Kakashi, however, was calm. What was there to be nervous about? Nobody in their right minds would fail anyone in Naruto’s class. They had accomplished way too much to be held back now. Someone came to stand beside Kakashi; he glanced over and saw that it was Tenzou. “Waiting for Sai?” he asked his old friend.

 

“That and more.” Looking bemused, Tenzou held up a blue envelope, identical to the one Kakashi had received a few weeks ago. “I’m mostly waiting for my doom,” he said with a ghost of a smile.  

 

“Tsunade got you too, huh?” Kakashi laughed as he clapped Tenzou on the back. “Typical. I guess we’ll struggle through together, just like we always have. Do you know which kids have been assigned to you?”

 

Tenzou cut his eyes at Kakashi. “I’m not sure you’re going to like this or not,” he said as he handed his letter to his former captain to read. Tenzou had been assigned to be the jounin-sensei of Naruto, Sasuke and Kiba, should they pass all the tests.

 

“Fuck,” Kakashi said with feeling. “That’s quite a batch of personalities, especially Naruto. You’re going to have your hands full.”

 

“You don’t mind, then?” Tenzou asked as he shifted on his feet.

 

“Mind? Of course not,” Kakashi said. “I think it’s smart, actually. Naruto’s on good terms with his bosom buddy, but should something ever go wrong, you’re the only one that could contain him with your mokuton. I respect that reasoning. Not to mention, I know you’ll do everything in your power to keep him safe.”

 

“Of course I will,” Tenzou said quickly. “But I don’t think I’ll have to do all that much. He’s a good fighter, your kid. I’m lucky to have him. As for the rest of the team, I suppose it’s not so bad. Sasuke isn’t nearly the pain in the ass that he has every right to be; I have Gai to thank for that. I was originally supposed to have Sakura instead of Kiba for the third team member, but the Hokage pulled her from the list. Seems she wants to teach Sakura herself.”

 

“Poor Sakura,” Kakashi said, shaking his head.

 

“You mean poor Konoha, having those two feeding into each other on a daily basis. I only hope the Tower survives,” laughed Tenzou. “I bet we’ll get a top-notch medic nin out of it, though. I think my squad will be pretty balanced overall. Kiba’s a good kid; he’ll help balance our Naruto and Sasuke’s more dramatic character traits. The worst part for me will be running around on a team with two dog summoners. There’s a reason I was called Cat back in Anbu.”

 

Kakashi laughed, remembering Tenzou’s less than enthusiastic interactions with his ninken. “Who got Sai?” he suddenly thought to ask.

 

“He’s going to be on a squad with Shino and Hinata, if he passes. Which I have no doubt he will,” Tenzou replied. “He’s been doing some very clever things with his art and seals lately. Iruka’s been kind enough to help him whenever he has a spare moment. That group has been assigned to Asuma. Who did you get, senpai?”

 

“Ino-Shika-Cho,” Kakashi groaned. “I better keep Naruto’s little boyfriend alive, or I’ll never hear the end of it.”

 

It was at that moment that a cloud of shiny new genin erupted out of the Academy doors, all of them rushing with screams of victory to show their new hitai-ates to their families. Kakashi was hard put not to be knocked over by an exhilarated Naruto. “I did it, Kakashi-nii-san!” he cried, his smile brighter than the sun. “I’m a genin!”

 

“Of course you are,” Kakashi said, trying hard not to step on an overexcited Bisuke. “I never doubted it for a second. I bet you’ll be a jounin before you know it.”

 

“I will!” Naruto said. “I’m going to take care of this whole village, just like how you took care of me. I’m going to be the Hokage someday. Believe it!”

 

“Yeah, you will,” Kakashi conceded. “You’re going to do a lot of wonderful and challenging things. And just think, you won’t be coming back to school here again.”

 

Naruto’s smile faded as he looked at the beloved building where he had spent so many happy years. “That part wasn’t so bad,” he said slowly. “A lot of good things happened here. Over there is where Shika-kun and I dumped Mizuki-baka into dog shit. And there’s the training yard where we saw Sakura knock Sasuke on his ass for the first time.” He looked up at the second story of the school. “And right up there is the classroom where Iruka-sensei hollered at us and helped us with our history and our ninjutsu. It’s right next to the tree where you used to watch over us and I would pretend like I hadn’t noticed you. It always made me feel safe, knowing that you were there. And that swing,” he stopped, his voice cracking a little. “That’s where you used to play with me after school.”

 

“You’re right,” Kakashi said softly. “It’s a good place. But you’re going to experience a lot of good places now, Naruto. You’re going to see the whole world.” He reached into his pouch and pulled out a hitai-ate. “I know you got your very own hitai-ate today, otouto, but I thought you might like to wear this one instead.” He placed the forehead protector into Naruto’s hands. The blue fabric was a little faded, and there were some scratches that couldn’t be buffed out of the silver metal, but the symbol for Konoha stood out straight and true. “This belonged to your mother. I know you already carry your father’s kunai with you wherever you go. I thought it might be a nice if you mother continued to protect you, even when you leave Konoha for missions.”

 

Tears rolled down Naruto’s face. He carefully placed the hitai-ate he’d earned into his pouch, and then tied Kushina’s around his head. “I’d like to have Mom with me,” he said. “How do I look, nii-san?”

 

Kakashi’s voice was gruff. “You look like your father. But you also look like yourself.”

 

……………………………...

 

The next morning, Kakashi stood in his bedroom and slipped two bright silver bells into his pocket. He was struck by a sense of continuance. What had been would happen again. But he was also struck by a sense of hope. This generation was special, he could feel it in his bones. Led as they were by his own bright, exuberant boy, maybe they could do what no one had been able to do before in this world: find peace.

 

“Go easy on them,” Iruka mumbled sleepily from their bed. “You already know they have teamwork. There’s no need to be too sadistic on their first day.”

 

“I’ll take that under advisement,” Kakashi said as he stepped over and dropped a sweet kiss on Iruka’s temple. “Go back to sleep. Some people are lucky enough to have a break, while others just slog away in the trenches.”

 

“My heart bleeds,” Iruka replied, already mostly asleep again. His soft snores drifted to Kakashi’s ear as he gently shut the door behind him, and he couldn’t help but smile.

 

Kakashi opened the fridge to grab the bento box he’d prepared the night before, and then noticed a small plastic bag sitting on the counter top. For Kakashi-nii, a hastily written note in Naruto’s slapdash penmanship proclaimed. Kakashi opened the bag and found that it was filled with soft peanut butter cookies.

 

He immediately crammed a whole cookie in his mouth, groaning at the salty sweetness of the treat. With a twist of pain in his heart, he remembered Kushina shoving a bag just like this into his pack, telling him to be careful and for kami’s sake, don’t get killed! The memory hurt, yes, but it was a sweet pain. He would never stop missing Kushina and Minato, and that was okay. He had been true to their memories and raised their son. He didn’t have to live in shame. He’d left that behind when he’d taken off his Hound mask.

 

His treat thus consumed, Kakashi noticed that there was another note folded up inside the bag. It wasn’t immediately visible, dusted as it was by by crumbs and granulated sugar. Unfolding the note, Kakashi saw that it was only one word.

 

Thanks .

 

Smiling, Kakashi shook his head. He and Naruto had always understood one another, and he understood everything that his otouto was trying to say now. He picked up his bento box and quietly left the house, accompanied by the soft chime of the bells in his pocket. They seemed to speak to him as he walked towards the training field with Pakkun at his heels, only four hours late. They spoke of future, of change, and most of all, of hope.

 

Approaching the training fields, Kakashi found that his new team wasn’t idle as they waited for him. They had chosen to spar to chase off their boredom. Chouji swung an enlarged fist at Ino, who easily ducked him as she reached to tap Shikamaru’s forehead, trying to draw him into a genjutsu. Before either of them could move, shadows had wrapped firmly around about the kunoichi and the wild haired boy. “I win,” Shikamaru said smugly as he released his teammates. “What is that, three times?”

 

“Yes, and I’ve only won twice,” Ino complained, pushing sweat soaked blonde hair out of her face. “Let’s go again!”

 

“I think not,” interrupted Kakashi, flickering in to land directly in front of them. Chouji jumped, but Shikamaru just muttered “So troublesome…” under his breath.

 

“Oh, you’re finally here, sensei,” Ino said witheringly. “We’ve been waiting for hours now! Where have you been? You told us to be here at dawn! And we’re hungry!”

 

“Maa, you know how it is,” Kakashi responded airily. “I got lost on the road of life for a while.” He reached into his pocket and removed the bells, jingling them at his new team. “Shall we begin?”

Chapter Text

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.”