A/N: And we're rolling! Ideas are coming in fast and furious for this story, so I'm going to follow my muse wherever she leads. If I don't, she gets back at me later.

Anyway, this time we see the first meeting between Sasuke and Naruto, while Kakashi and Anko argue about what to do with our favorite blond troublemaker. There will be maybe five or six more chapters for this section of the story, and then we'll skip five years to arrive at Naruto and Sasuke's graduation from the Academy. I've got some big changes in store, and I hope you enjoy them. Happy reading!

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto

Chapter 4: The Fox and the Hounds


Step 1: Don't Be Afraid to Talk About the Traumatic Event

Children do not benefit from 'not talking about it' or 'putting it out of their minds.' You may not have good verbal explanations for what happened, but simply listening and not over-reacting to the subject and then comforting the child will have a critical and long-lasting positive effect.

- excerpt from Caring For Traumatized Children, by Morino Ibiki


Anko and Kakashi faced each other across the dining table, in the little kitchen of Anko's house. Even with his mask and hitai-ite covering eighty percent of his face, Kakashi managed to radiate displeasure. Anko had been on both sides of the interrogation table in her time, and she knew which side this felt like.

"Look here," she said hurriedly, hoping to break the tense silence. "There are a lot of reasons why this is a good idea-"

"Name one," Kakashi broke in. His tone was absolutely even, despite the irritation Anko could read in his uncovered eye.

"It'll start getting Sasuke to socialize again," Anko said promptly. "He can't spend all his time fighting me. I'm awesome, I know, but constant fighting with only two adults for company isn't a childhood. Sasuke needs to spend some time with kids his own age."

"So set up a play-date with the children of some of the clan heads," answered Kakashi. "There are a few in the same year as Sasuke at the Academy, like those Ino-Shika-Cho miniatures or that hellspawn of Tsume's."

Don't do it, don't do it… But it was no use. Anko had no choice.

"Did you just say 'play-date'?" Anko smirked.

She could practically see Kakashi's cheeks redden, even through the mask.

"No."

"Oh. 'Cause I could have sworn I heard you say 'play-date.' But if you didn't-"

"I didn't. Let's get back to the point. Why do we have to take in another child just so Sasuke can interact with other kids? And why, in the name of all the Kages past and present, does it have to be Naruto?"

Anko folded her arms and narrowed her eyes. There was something else going on here, 'underneath the underneath' as her Cyclopic colleague would say, and you didn't need to be an expert in interrogation to figure that out.

"What's so wrong with Naruto?" Anko said, parrying Kakashi's question with one of her own. "With your reputation—leave no teammate behind, and all that—I wouldn't have figured you for a bigot. You don't like the brat because he holds the Kyuubi?"

"Don't be ridiculous!" said Kakashi, with considerable heat. "Of course I don't hold a grudge against Naruto for something he can't control. That's not what this is about."

Anko decided to play her trump card—or one of her trump cards, at least. She tried to always have a few of those ready before walking into hazardous situations.

"And I remember reading somewhere that one Namikaze Minato was your jounin-sensei! What would the Fourth say, if he could see you now? Aren't you ashamed?"

The sudden blast of killing intent told Anko she had hit a nerve. It also scared the shit out of her. She held herself very still, watching Kakashi as a mouse watched a cat. He wouldn't try to kill her in her own home, while they were still on a mission to protect Sasuke… right?

Kakashi's voice was colder than ice and far more deadly. "Don't you dare use the Fourth to try and manipulate me. I remember him every day, and I'm grateful for everything he taught me. But I hold no obligation to Naruto beyond the orders left by the Third Hokage. Taking him in will only create problems, and we'll have enough of those just keeping Sasuke safe."

Anko surprised herself by slamming her hand down on the table. She hadn't meant to get so worked up, but it was too late now.

"You cold-hearted bastard. How can you say that? Don't you know how the villagers and the other shinobi treat the boy?"

"We all have problems," Kakashi shrugged. "If he gets through it, he'll be stronger on the other side. And the Hokage's orders protect him."

Anko was well and truly angry now. "Do you think the only way to hurt someone is by force? I would have thought that you, of all people, would understand how facing social isolation and hatred from your comrades is a darn good way to drive a shinobi to the brink. You want to risk that for Naruto? After your own father-"

Kakashi's killing intent flared again, and Anko cut herself off. But she refused to let him intimidate her when she was just speaking the truth as she saw it. She glared right back at him, adding a 'hmph' for good measure.

Kakashi took a deep breath, visibly calming himself down. "Aren't you getting a bit too worked up over Naruto?" Kakashi asked. "I mean, you're only using him in a half-baked attempt to get Sasuke to open up to someone. Naruto is just a tool to you—worrying about his well-being now seems a bit hypocritical, don't you think?"

"You're not wrong," Anko admitted. "Still, the brat grows on you. He's a regular little ray of sunshine, that one. Don't you want to see if he can get Sasuke past his doom-and-gloom phase?"

"You don't just 'get past' what happened to Sasuke!" Kakashi burst out, driven by Anko's goading to painful honesty. "Something like that stays with you, no matter how many years it's been. You see their faces on people walking by, hear their voices in the wind…"

His gaze dropped to the table, but Anko doubted he even saw it. She also doubted he was talking about Sasuke anymore. Anko gave Kakashi a moment before she spoke.

"Whose faces?" she asked, her voice uncharacteristically soft. "Whose voices, Kakashi? Are you talking about your father?"

Kakashi gathered his self-control like a second mask. "Among others," he said, once again cold and curt. "We've all lost comrades. People we want to protect. And our mission is only going to get more difficult, not less, because of what you're doing."

Somehow, Kakashi's emotionless armor ticked Anko off more than anything else. The flash of sympathy she had experienced shriveled up and vanished.

"How the hell do you figure that?!" Anko snarled. "I'm cutting you some slack because you've obviously got some issues to work through—and honestly, join the club—but there's a limit to the bullshit I'm willing to take from you! Naruto is not a security risk; he's a child!"

"One who happens to contain the Kyuubi," Kakashi pointed out. "Do you think the Village Council will appreciate putting an untrained jinchuuriki under the same roof as the only Uchiha the village has left? They won't stand for it!"

"If the Hokage orders them to get over it, it won't matter if they stand for it, sit for it, or go shit in a bucket—they won't have a choice about accepting Naruto."

"And good luck getting the Hokage to agree!" Kakashi said, throwing his hands up in exasperation. "If he wanted Naruto to have a babysitter, he would have assigned him one by now."

"Well, I'm scratching my head as to why he hasn't," Anko spat back. "The more I think about it, the more it seems like he's creating a bigger threat by allowing Naruto to grow up alone and uncared for. What if he runs into someone like Orochimaru?"

Kakashi started to reply, then snapped his mouth shut and sat back, thinking. "Someone like Orochimaru?" he asked a moment later. "What do you mean?"

Anko winced, kneading her temples with both hands. She felt a headache coming on. "What do you think is the scariest thing about Orochimaru?"

"That creepy jutsu he does with his tongue?" Kakashi guessed. "Jiraiya told me about that once. Scared the chakra out of me."

"Ah… well, yeah. Besides that. The scariest thing about Orochimaru is how he inspires devotion in people. There are more people than you'd think who crave acknowledgment; crave affection. I was one of them. Orochimaru sees that in you, and makes you feel special… even loved. If I had had someone who genuinely cared for me, maybe I wouldn't have been so quick to throw away my life for a murderer. Naruto is no different from me. Believe me, taking him in is the right thing to do. Not just for him, but for Konoha. And you can be damn sure that the Hokage will agree with me, or he's not the man I thought he was."

Kakashi crossed his arms stubbornly, though his uncovered eye looked thoughtful. "I won't agree unless the Hokage gives his permission. And you can damn well get it without my help."

"Fine," Anko huffed. "Then you keep an eye on the brats until I get back. I'll handle the old man."

"What am I supposed to do with a pair of kids?" Kakashi snapped. "Play hopscotch?"

Anko shook her head, a small grin tugging at the corner of her mouth. "I doubt you'll need to do a thing. The two of them are outside, getting acquainted. They'll figure things out in their own way, like children always have. That's sort of why I brought Naruto in the first place, remember?"

In spite of himself, Kakashi felt a twinge of curiosity. How would the last Uchiha react to Minato-sensei's son? And what was Naruto really like—how had he grown up? Kakashi had been far too busy in the last seven years to check up on the boy, but he would be lying if he said he didn't want to know.

"I saw Sasuke's expression when I dropped Naruto off," Anko said over her shoulder as she headed for the back door. "You may actually need to step in… before one of them kills the other."

oOoOo

Anko's front yard was empty, save for two boys facing each other like two gunmen about to duel. They stood five paces away, each sizing up the other. Naruto's expression was guarded, his posture cautious. Sasuke wore his usual scowl, hands in his pockets. You could practically feel the tension.

"So."

"Hn."

"Are you Sasuke?"

"Hn."

Naruto nodded slowly, taking Sasuke's noncommittal grunt in the affirmative. "I'm Naruto… your new best friend!"

Naruto's face broke into a huge smile and he took a flying leap through the air. Horror spread across Sasuke's face, but he was too shocked to avoid Naruto's airborne bear hug. Naruto squeezed with all his strength, until Sasuke knocked him a step back with a swift elbow to his stomach.

Naruto staggered backward. He glared at Sasuke as he gingerly rubbed his ribs.

"Hey, what'd ya do that for? It was just a hug."

From the look on Sasuke's face, you would have thought Naruto had used the most obscene curse word in the dictionary. "I don't hug."

"Then what do you like to do?" Naruto asked brightly.

"None of your business," Sasuke retorted. "Go away."

Naruto's eyes grew wide and he shook his head rapidly. "I can't! I live here now. Anko promised."

One of Sasuke's eyes twitched. "Then I'm leaving. I don't want to live with a weak dummy like you."

"I'm not weak!" Naruto retorted. "I'm gonna be Hokage, the strongest ninja in the whole village. Then everyone will acknowledge me!"

That startled a bark of laughter out of Sasuke. "You? The Hokage? A weakling like you doesn't have a chance."

On the one hand, Naruto didn't want to do anything that would make his new best friend angry. On the other, Naruto had been dealing with people who made fun of his dream for as long as he could remember. No way he was going to let this kid get away with that, best friend or no.

"You take that back!" he roared, shaking a fist.

Sasuke raised an eyebrow, his smirk infuriating Naruto even further. "Make me," he taunted, holding out two fingers in the universal "come here" gesture.

Oh no he didn't. Naruto wasn't about to take that lying down.

"Yaaaaah!" He charged towards Sasuke, preparing to unleash his strongest right hook. But when he swung, Sasuke leaned back just far enough for Naruto's fist to pass harmlessly in front of his nose. Then Sasuke spun in place, generating momentum to lash out with his left leg in a roundhouse kick that hit Naruto square in the stomach.

Naruto flew off his feet as the air left his lungs in a whoosh. He landed in a heap several feet away.

"You're pretty good," Naruto coughed, too honest to lie. That kick had hurt! But he wasn't done yet.

"And you're pretty bad," said Sasuke, turning his back on Naruto.

"I'm just getting started!" Naruto yelled as he picked himself back up. He charged at Sasuke's back. "Turn around and fight, jerk!"

Sasuke didn't move until the last moment, when he shifted fluidly to the right and stuck out his left leg. This time Naruto went flying forward, picking up a mouthful of grass and dirt when he finally hit the ground.

It took a little longer this time for Naruto to get back up. His ears were ringing.

"Ptew!" He spit to get rid of the grass, but he could still taste the dirt as he turned to face Sasuke again. "Is that all you've got?!"

"You can't even touch me," Sasuke sneered, putting his hands back in his pockets. "And you think you can be Hokage? No way."

Naruto balled his fists, wanting nothing more than to smack that superior look off the other boy's face. "Here I come!"

He charged forward faster than before—it was like his anger had given him wings. Sasuke set himself to receive the attack, lowering his center of gravity.

But as Naruto came within a meter of Sasuke and prepared to lead with a flying kick, his foot caught a tuft of grass and he tripped. His momentum carried him forward head-first.

Sasuke, who had been expecting Naruto's kick, was caught off-guard by Naruto's blunder. The blond's forehead caught Sasuke flush on the right side of his face, with all the force of a flying tackle. Sasuke staggered backwards and clapped a hand to his right eye.

Naruto let out a cheer after he untangled his legs and got back to his feet. "Ha! Take that!"

Sasuke brought his hands up in a ready stance, and Naruto's spirits soared at the sight of the beautiful shiner Sasuke was sporting. The area around his eye was already swelling, and in a day or so it would turn into a spectacular bruise.

"Not so great now, are you?" Naruto crowed.

"You tripped," Sasuke pointed out, scowling. "You didn't mean to do that."

"Surprise is a ninja's number one weapon!" Naruto tossed back. He vaguely remembered the Old Man telling him that—sometimes, when the Hokage visited him every now and again, he gave Naruto advice about being a shinobi. Seemed like that bit had actually paid off! Even if he had tripped…

A dark cloud passed over Sasuke's face, and his hands came together to form hand seals that Naruto didn't recognize. "Take this! Katon: Gou-"

Whatever he was planning, he didn't have the chance to put it into action. The ground beneath his feet rumbled and split open, and a trio of furry creatures jumped out at him.

By the time Naruto realized that they were dogs, they had already captured Sasuke. A dog with tan fur, a white snout, and a hitai-ite on his forehead clutched Sasuke's leg in his jaws, while a dog with light gray fur and a crest that looked like a mohawk clung off of his right arm.

Last but certainly not least was the gigantic bulldog with a spiked collar that landed on top of Sasuke and crushed the smaller boy into the ground. Only Sasuke's head and limbs could be seen, with the rest of him hidden underneath the bulldog.

The sight of Sasuke in the middle of a dog-pile was too much for Naruto. He fell to the ground and rolled around, laughing uproariously. Because of that, he was caught completely unprepared when the ground around him split open too.

A tan dog wearing sunglasses trapped Naruto's right leg, and a smaller dog with the kanji for "shinobi" in the middle of his forehead trapped his other leg. Naruto was preparing to reach down and free himself, when a third dog he hadn't even seen landed on his head and drove him face-first into the dirt. For the second time that day, Naruto picked up a mouthful of earth.

"That's enough for now, pups," a deep voice boomed from on top of Naruto's head. "Nothing like a good scuffle, but now's not the time to be playing with fire."

"Mmphscrmph… lemme up!" Naruto demanded, trying not to swallow too much dirt. He hadn't been the one to try to use a jutsu in a simple spar… though that might have been due more to the fact that he didn't know any, rather than any unwillingness to fight dirty.

The dogs holding his legs loosened their grips, and the one on his head leapt aside. Naruto stood up gingerly. He had never seen dogs like this, all wearing blue vests and Konoha hitai-ite. And he certainly had never met a dog that talked.

The dog that had stood on his head was the smallest of them all, a cute pug with a look that said he would tolerate zero nonsense.

"This fight's over," the pug declared in his startlingly deep, gruff voice. "You hear that, Sasuke-kun? Can I tell Bull to get off you, or do you need more time to cool off?"

Sasuke continued to struggle, but the giant Bull wasn't going anywhere. The boy glared at Pakkun and Naruto, but finally gave a short nod.

"Hn."

"Fine," Pakkun said. "Bull, Guruko, Shiba. Let the boy up."

The dog with the mohawk let go of Sasuke's arm and chuckled. "A pity we had to stop that fight. Things were just heating up."

"You're too bloodthirsty for your own good, Shiba," said the tan dog with glasses, who had relinquished his hold on Naruto's leg. "Would you really want to explain to Kakashi that someone was killed on our watch?"

"Don't be such a killjoy, Akino," retorted Shiba. "Let the pups have a bit of fun."

The bulldog finally stood up, allowing Sasuke to free himself. He stalked away to the house, not sending so much as a look over his shoulder.

And good riddance, Naruto thought. What a jerk!

"You're a sucky best friend!" he yelled at Sasuke's retreating back.

The pack of ninja hounds chuckled at that, but Naruto didn't see what was so funny.

oOoOo

From his vantage point on the roof of Anko's house, Kakashi had watched the confrontation as it unfolded, unnoticed by either of the fiery youths. From the moment Naruto had caught Sasuke with his unexpected Bear Hug no Jutsu, Kakashi had been hard-pressed not to give away his position with an ill-timed snort of laughter. Things only got more interesting from there, as Naruto took the best that Sasuke could dish out and kept on coming.

For a seven-year-old, Sasuke's taijutsu was impressive. And while Naruto certainly looked clumsy by comparison, his stamina and determination were both far beyond what most shinobi families would expect of a child that age.

Kakashi had seen Sasuke spar against Anko, but he was a bit surprised at how willing Sasuke was to use a potentially deadly jutsu on a boy his own age. That could be a sign that Sasuke was already starting to value other people's lives less, his ability to empathize damaged by the trauma he'd suffered.

On the other hand, it could just be a side effect of spending too much time with Anko. At least he hadn't picked up any of Anko's creepy tricks meant to unnerve enemies, like licking the edge of her kunai… That one made even Kakashi shiver.

Kakashi was used to analyzing potential enemies by watching them fight, and he had applied those skills while watching Naruto and Sasuke scuffle. But more than personality quirks or fighting styles, what jumped out at Kakashi was the uncanny similarity these boys bore to him and Obito, back in the early days on Minato's team.

Sasuke, cold and surly, emotionally crippled and convinced of his own superiority. His entire family gone, destroyed from within. How much more like Kakashi was it possible to be? And Naruto, so brash and clumsy and earnest. He even shared Obito's dream… and those ridiculous goggles!

Watching the boy actually made Kakashi's heart ache, as the memory of his best friend, never totally gone from his mind, resurfaced with a vengeance. Naruto had Minato's face—minus the whisker marks—and Obito's earnest desire to prove himself. He was quick to anger but even quicker to forgive, and he wore his heart on his sleeve.

Truthfully, Kakashi hadn't held out much hope for Anko's 'grand plan.' He knew only too well how emotional wounds inflicted in childhood could fester in the soul for years afterwards. But Kakashi hadn't held on to his anger at his father; he had learned to accept and honor his father's belief that there was nothing more important than protecting one's teammates.

And it had been Obito who taught Kakashi that lesson.

There was no guarantee that history would repeat itself, of course. Naruto wasn't Obito, no matter what similarities they might share. But in the course of five minutes, Kakashi had seen Sasuke interact more naturally with someone than he had since the massacre. Granted, he had been about to unleash a deadly jutsu on Naruto before Kakashi's ninken intervened… but then, he was only seven. He had a lot to learn.

Maybe, just maybe, Naruto could be the one to teach him?

As these thoughts were running through Kakashi's brain, he was seized also by the memory of what Anko had said to him earlier: "What would the Fourth say, if he could see you now? Aren't you ashamed?"

Of course Kakashi was ashamed. Who wouldn't be, after seeing how pathetically glad Naruto was at the prospect of a friend, even one who treated him like dirt. No child should have to live the way Naruto had, and the fact that he was Minato-sensei's son made it so much worse.

Kakashi didn't know if the Hokage would give Anko his permission to look after Naruto. What he'd told Anko about the Council still held true; they would throw one hell of a fit before letting the jinchuuriki within a whisker of Sasuke. But Kakashi was starting to think that letting them throw that fit might be the best thing he could do: for Sasuke, for Naruto, and for his own conscience.

At the very least, he could get to know the brat a little better.

Kakashi waited until Sasuke had disappeared into the house. Naruto remained in the yard, getting to know the ninken. Kakashi waited and watched, chuckling as the energetic child started a rough-and-tumble scuffle against all six of the ninja hounds. He dodged and whirled as the dogs tried to pin him to the ground again, and the whole time he wore the biggest smile Kakashi had ever seen on anyone's face. It sent a pang through his heart.

Without consciously choosing to, Kakashi jumped down from his perch on the roof to land in the yard. At the same moment, Naruto executed an ill-advised charge towards Bull, who batted him away with a single swipe of his paw.

Kakashi leaped to catch him, letting out a surprised oof as the boy landed in his arms. He put Naruto down gently, suppressing a chuckle as the boy whirled around in surprise.

"Uh, thanks! For catching me, I mean…" Naruto rubbed the back of his neck with an embarrassed cough.

"Don't mention it. Bull hits hard, but he's slow. Next time, feint and try for a follow-up attack. Or just wait until the lazybones falls asleep."

Bull growled deep in his throat while Naruto laughed.

"So you're Naruto, eh?" Kakashi continued. "I'm Kakashi, and it seems you've already met these mangy mutts. Anko and I look after Sasuke. You could say we're his guardians."

"So you're a shinobi too?" Naruto confirmed, looking from Kakashi to the ninken and back.

"Yup. And you're the boy Anko brought back to be Sasuke's new friend."

Like Anko, Kakashi wanted to avoid the term "brother." It was far too loaded with traumatic associations in Sasuke's mind right now.

Naruto looked down with a scowl. "Yeah… but I don't think he likes me much."

Kakashi's smile was, as always, hidden by his mask. "It's not you. Sasuke doesn't like anyone much."

Naruto scratched his head and met Kakashi's gaze. "Why not?" he asked blankly. "I always want to like people…" he trailed off, and Kakashi could read years of isolation and loneliness in those blue eyes.

Sometimes in the middle of a battle, Kakashi would get a gut feeling that told him what to do. Change direction suddenly; throw a kunai in that direction instead of this—many times those intuitions had saved his life, and those of his teammates.

Kakashi was getting one of those gut feelings now. It wasn't necessarily a smart idea, because it might backfire in the future. It would certainly make Sasuke angry, if he were ever to find out. But Kakashi decided to trust his instinct—his instinct, and also a young boy who had lived in a sea of sorrow and come out smiling.

"Can I tell you a secret, Naruto?" asked Kakashi, leaning closer. "Something you can't ever tell another soul?"

Naruto nodded like a bobblehead doll. "Sure! I can keep a secret real good, you can trust me!"

Here goes nothing, Kakashi thought, mentally rolling up his sleeves. If he was going to go along with Anko's hair-brained scheme, he'd better do his best to make it work. Now was the time for a little emotional manipulation… all for a good cause, of course.

"Very well, then. The secret I'm about to tell you concerns Sasuke's family. You see, Sasuke is the youngest son of the head of the Uchiha clan, once one of the most powerful and respected clans in Konoha…"

Kakashi went on, explaining about Sasuke's family and the massacre. He didn't hold anything back, unfolding the details of the massacre down to the numbers of the slain.

"…and the person who killed the Uchiha was none other than Uchiha Itachi," Kakashi finished, watching Naruto carefully to gauge his reaction. "Sasuke's older brother."

Naruto was white as a sheet, his eyes wide and trembling. "His… brother? His brother really did all that? He k-killed… everyone?"

Kakashi nodded solemnly. "No one knows why. But Sasuke saw his brother murder his parents right before his eyes. You can see now, maybe, why he thinks friends aren't important. To Sasuke, everyone he cares about either died… or betrayed him."

Tears began rolling down Naruto's face, and he made no effort to stop them. He cried without making a sound, save for the occasional heaving breath.

Kakashi hoped he hadn't given Naruto too much of a shock, though his strategy did rely on Naruto being shaken to his core by the truth about Sasuke's family. The blond boy was easy to read, and Kakashi could practically see the gears turning in his head as he came to grips with what he'd been told.

For an unloved orphan like Naruto, family was undoubtedly the most precious thing in the world. He had probably longed for one his entire life, building it up in his mind to an unattainable ideal. The idea that someone could willingly, ruthlessly murder his own family had to be among the worst things Naruto could imagine. If there was anything to make Naruto feel sympathy for Sasuke, to want to stay close to him and protect him, it was the truth about Itachi.

Part of Kakashi was telling him that the road to hell was paved with good intentions, and that his cold-blooded manipulation of Naruto's kind heart made him a monster. But another part of Kakashi hoped that with a little nudging, Naruto might become the Obito to Sasuke's Kakashi.

And this time, neither will have to die before they realize that friendship, Kakashi vowed silently.

Such an outcome would make up for a bit of meddling… wouldn't it?

"So try to understand Sasuke," Kakashi said out loud. "He won't open up to anyone for a long time. But that doesn't mean we can't be there for him. And you want to be there for him, right Naruto?"

Naruto nodded seriously, wiping his tear-stained cheeks with a grubby hand.

"Then how about you become one of Sasuke's bodyguards? Maybe bodyguard-in-training, until Anko and I get you whipped into shape. After all, Sasuke will be a target for the rest of his life, and another teammate never hurts. How about it?"

"You really mean it?" Naruto asked, a quaver in his voice.

"I can't promise you'll be able to stay with us," Kakashi said honestly. "Only the Hokage can give permission for that. But until the Hokage says otherwise, you can consider yourself on my squad. I'll protect you to the best of my ability, and teach you what I can. As long as you're on my team, I'll never abandon you."

Tears of gratitude formed in the corners of Naruto's eyes, but he stubbornly refused to let them fall. He held out his little hand, which Kakashi shook with equal solemnity.

Then Shiba ruined the moment by sneaking up behind Naruto and not-so-gently biting the boy's rear end. Naruto jumped a foot in the air and whirled around as the gleefully unrepentant ninken circled for another attack. Naruto charged, while the other five ninken came to Shiba's aid.

Kakashi had to laugh as he watched his sensei's son frolic in the yard with the pack.

Is it well, sensei? Watch over us. I'll keep Sasuke safe, and turn Naruto into a Hokage anyone would proud of. A Hokage like you.

oOoOo

Anko had been to the Hokage's Tower many times, so she knew the drill. When she reached the Hokage's study and found the door closed, guarded by a pair of chuunin, she sat down on the bench and settled in to wait.

She could hear an angry voice coming from inside, but the thick wood of the front door muffled the words. Anko grew bored in under a minute, so she decided to amuse herself.

She caught the eye of one of the chuunin guards and winked at him. He was too well-trained to react overtly, but Anko thought he twitched a bit. She smirked, wondering what it would take to scare him out of his rigid stance.

He's kind of cute, Anko mused, shamelessly looking him up and down. Looks a bit fragile, though. Wouldn't want to break him.

The chuunin was beginning to redden slightly when the door to the Hokage's study opened. Hyuuga Hiashi strode out, making no effort to control the irritation on his face.

He saw Anko waiting and strode past her, not acknowledging her with so much as a cursory nod. Anko glared at his retreating back, wishing his byakugan was activated so he could see her making a rude gesture in his direction.

Hiashi was one of the clan heads who had been in favor of demoting Anko and putting her on indefinite probation after she had been abandoned by Orochimaru. It hadn't been the worst of the punishments suggested at that particular Council meeting, but neither had it been calculated to put the head of the Hyuuga clan in Anko's good graces.

Not that Hyuuga Hiashi likely cared about anyone's good graces; he was a frosty cold bastard. Anko had only been on one mission with him, an A-rank retrieval mission on behalf of Kiri, which had asked for Konoha's help hunting down a few missing-nin on the run with classified information. Anko could still see the corpses of the missing-nin after a few hits from Hiashi's jyuuken. Having your brain explode was never pretty.

The Hokage's voice came from within the study, reminding Anko of the reason she had come to the Tower in the first place.

"Come in, Anko."

Anko did as ordered, wondering idly how the Hokage did that. He always seemed to know exactly who was waiting in line—and he often displayed preternatural awareness of things happening in the village and beyond its borders. It was enough to make Anko think he was a sensor nin, though nothing she had ever read about "the Professor" suggested he could identify personal chakra signatures at great distances.

As she walked past the guards at the door, Anko took the opportunity to pinch the chuunin guard she'd winked at earlier. That did it—he jumped like a frightened rabbit. His partner, a veteran who knew Anko well enough after meeting her in the Tower a few times, chuckled quietly.

Sarutobi Hiruzen sat at his desk, which was laden with paperwork and writing implements. He smiled when he saw Anko and gestured for her to stand at ease.

"It's good to see you, Anko. My guards have had it too easy without you to keep them on their toes."

Anko ducked her head with false modesty. "Just doing my humble best for the village, Hokage-sama. So what's got Hiashi's knickers in a twist? Did the Inuzuka's hounds shit in his clan's compound again?"

The Hokage sighed and steepled his fingers together. "Hyuuga Hiashi is not a patient man."

He did not elaborate, and his expression told Anko not to pursue the subject further.

"I'm guessing you know why I'm here," Anko said bluntly. "Since you stick your nose into everybody's business."

It was hard to read the Hokage's eyes—any number of emotions could have been hiding in their depths. "I do."

"Will you give your permission?"

"It's not just my permission you need," the Hokage replied, with a certain amount of chagrin. "I can authorize you to take in Naruto, but the Council will protest. Do you have the confidence to convince them otherwise?"

Anko nodded without so much as a moment's hesitation. "If you let me, sir. I know this is the right thing to do. But will Kakashi fight me on this? He didn't approve of the idea."

A strange gleam came into the Hokage's eyes, and Anko wondered what he knew that she didn't.

"Be patient with Kakashi," he told her after a pause. "He was close to three people in his early life. One killed himself. Another died saving Kakashi. And the third… Kakashi killed her with his own hand. Can you blame him if he's reluctant to allow new people into his heart?"

"He doesn't need to let anyone into his heart," Anko scowled, a little uneasy with all this touchy-feely talk. Had all that really happened to Kakashi? She thought she was the one who had the screwed-up past! "Just to let Naruto into the house."

"When it comes to Naruto, one often leads to the other." Anko could have sworn the Hokage's eyes twinkled. Was that possible without a genjutsu?

She smiled ruefully. "True. The little brat really grows on you, doesn't he?"

Sarutobi Hiruzen shared her smile, though his was tinged with a deep sadness. "Yes… he does. I will support your decision and offer what aid I can. But in the end, it is the Council we must convince. They will certainly try to reverse my decision. Are you prepared for that?"

Anko bared her teeth. "Honestly, Hokage-sama? I'd like to see them try."

"Then you have my blessing… I only hope you know what you're getting yourself into."

They're just two brats, Anko thought as she bowed to the Hokage and took her leave. How much trouble could they possibly be?