Shikaku is not sent out into the field often these days. But there are missions and there are D- and C-ranks and those differ enormously when it comes to risk as well as time spend away from the village.
After the previous events, the Hokage had quietly asked him to temporarily take on Team Seven while they 'evaluated' the situation. The Sandaime was right to worry about the legendary Copy nin taking an interest in the jinchuuriki, or the fellow Sharingan user, and both of them were far too valuable for Konoha to lose, so Shikaku sighed and muttered a 'troublesome' but agreed to keep an eye out on the brats, though he had never aspired to have a genin team.
But, since the Copy nin was not someone Nakamura could face, the charge of the team quietly changed hands. In part, the Nara is sure, because the Hokage is far too fond of Uzumaki to leave him with a sensei like that.
Of course, it's not like Shikaku can be certain of coming away as the winner against an S-rank shinobi either, especially not with a handicap as large as three vulnerable genin. But he's a shadow user, a strategist, and someone at least somewhat familiar with Kakashi Hatake's strengths and weaknesses. He will have a far better chance of getting away than Nakamura and there are very few jounin more capable then him. Jiraiya would have been a better choice, someone who could face off against such threats confidently and has a history with Hatake beyond his own, but the spymaster is not in the village, so for now it falls to Shikaku to watch over these genin.
So here he is, taking these brats temporarily in his care on a C-rank, a nice little messenger mission outside the village because having to go after that damn cat again and again is getting so very tiresome.
This mission turns out more troublesome than that dratted cat ever could be, though. It starts with another team from Otogakure crossing their paths. He manages to capture one, kill another with the last running away, Shikaku unable to give chase with new genin in his care. Then, on their way back to Konoha, it ends with them face to face with Orochimaru.
This team's luck is terrible and impressionable youths or not, Shikaku curses out loud.
He's used to having reliable jounin fighting by his side and to be able to utilise their strengths to work into a strategy. All he has now is a trio of children in need of protection and a legendary ninja he needs to keep back. Not a battle he can win, but he'll delay the inevitable as long as he can anyway – just in case another opportunity presents itself.
Whatever skills these genin have, they are negligible against an S-class enemy, so he tells them to back away and allows the traitor to toy with him. It's an untenable situation, so he is actually relieved when a familiar form launches itself out of the foliage with the chirping sound of an assassination technique and goes straight for the Snake Sannin.
Fighting alongside a missing nin is not ideal, but he'll take this particular nukenin over Orochimaru any day.
"Shikaku-san," the Copy nin greets affably, not taking his focus off of the Sannin for a second.
And, of course, the genin are far too happy with this nukenin's arrival, "Kakashi-sensei!" both Naruto and Sakura call out with a cheerful relief - as if the mere arrival of the Copy nin is enough to decide the battle in their favour. These kids really have no idea of the gravity of the situation.
"Maa, maa, kids. Stay back now," Hatake returns easily. Despite his casual voice, the nukenin is taking this seriously enough that he had unveiled his Sharingan before even joining the battle. The Nara wonders how Sasuke will react to that, but the thought is relegated to the back of his mind because there are far more immediate concerns.
"Kakashi-sensei, are you going to kick ass again?" Naruto asks, and are genin always this hopelessly oblivious? From his own experiences he didn't think so, but then the only kid he ever spent a large amount of time with was his own son. And Shikamaru is a Nara to the bones.
Orochimaru laughs, "Well if it isn't the Copy nin – I would ask what brings you here, to side with the village you betrayed, but frankly, I don't care."
The Sannin moves, sword in hand and Hatake moves just as quickly, shoots out a fire jutsu to force the other ninja at some distance and then summons his pack of dogs. "Guard the pups," he orders them before landing uncomfortably close to Shikaku.
"What's the plan, jounin-commander?" the question is whisper soft, but well-meant and that startles Shikaku enough that he drags his eyes away from the bigger threat to try and read the covered face and body language of the man next to him. His former comrade has his Sharingan eye focussed on the snake summoner, - attempting a genjutsu? – but the way his body is positioned shows that he's paying attention to Shikaku's slightest movement as well.
He wonders if this will work, if he can work together with a missing nin who was once a comrade, but it turns out to be surprisingly easy. The Kakashi at his side isn't markedly different than the jounin he had worked with before – except for the fact that he has several new techniques, is faster, and is, of course, a traitor who abandoned Konoha.
But in the ways that matter most in battle Hatake is the same; the way the man moves, the ANBU hand signs, how he seemingly has no trouble understanding and adapting to Shikaku's changing strategies and the fact that he follows the jounin commander's lead flawlessly.
They manage to beat the Sannin back – they force a legendary ninja to flee from them and he's not sure he could have done that even with his own team at his side.
Hatake has become even more dangerous, more powerful than Shikaku remembers – he had clearly not stopped improving during his years as a missing nin and that is worrisome because the Hatake Kakashi from back then was already a considerable threat.
He isn't sure how happy he is about the fact that this shinobi can stand up to the likes of Orochimaru.
And yet, Shikaku doesn't feel as if he's in danger. The ex-ANBU had, purposefully, been as non-threatening as possible towards him so far.
The Nara sighs, knowing that if he survives this encounter (current indications make him consider those chances to be pretty high), the puzzle that surrounds this missing nin will likely keep him occupied until he figures it out.
"That was awesome!" comes, predictably, from the blond who recklessly rushes towards the S-class nukenin, "I'm going to become just as awesome, you'll see."
"Hmm… You're going to have to be, to become Hokage," the jounin non-committedly replies as he slants the headband back over his swirling red eye.
This casual remark, surprisingly, tempers the usually over-enthusiastic boy, and Naruto is actually calm, serious, when he nods and informs Hatake, "I'll train hard then, and get strong enough to protect my precious people and become Hokage."
The older ninja meets the boys eyes, nods and says, "Good."
Shikaku carefully moves closer, hand fingering his kunai pouch, and wonders if he will need to try and fight the nukenin off. The most obvious reason for humouring the jinchuuriki, for winning his trust, is not good for Konoha.
The ex-ANBU marks his movements out of the corner of his eyes, reads the threat in them and backs off, physically taking a step back, which allows the Nara to slide in between the two and force Naruto back. It isn't much, especially considering that Kakashi's ninken are still surrounding them, but he hopes that it at least indicates a sign of good-will.
He can't exactly depend on the good-will of a nukenin though and in his mind plans and strategies are constantly being re-evaluated as the players in them shift their positions.
The ninja shrugs and waves happily at the other two. "Yo, kids."
The Uzumaki pouts behind Shikaku and Sasuke glares darkly at the Copy nin, "Where did you get that eye? That eye belongs to the Uchiha – the Sharingan."
It's more an accusation than a question and undoubtedly rude. There is a moment of silence that follows this and Shikaku expects the ninja to goad the boy, or to tell him it's none of his business - to say it's because of 'reasons' or something similar.
Instead, to the Nara's surprise, the other man tells a genin who should be completely insignificant to him the actual truth – something that had always been notoriously difficult to drag out of the closed-off jounin when it came to things that mattered to the man.
"My teammate-" The Copy nin explains quietly, "Uchiha Obito. In battle, I lost my eye and he lost his life. Before he died, he gave me this eye, so that we may see the future together."
"How did he die?" Sakura asks, too curious and too young to realise how dangerous it is to delve into such sensitive waters with any high-level shinobi, let alone a nukenin – who are generally not the most mentally stable of their kind.
Kakashi looks at her for a very long moment while Shikaku stands there, tensely waiting.
Thankfully the other shinobi doesn't move from his spot and finally answers, "I failed him."
Sakura's eyes widen and then fill with an innocent, empathic grief, "I'm sorry, sensei."
The word rolls of her tongue so easily. It isn't just Naruto who the nukenin had ingratiated himself with – even Haruno, book-smart and one to follow the rules to the letter calls Hatake 'sensei' without a second thought.
Hatake nods in a sort of acknowledgment and, as if a switch is flicked, shifts the mood easily by eye-smiling and changing the subject entirely, asking casually, wonderingly; "So, whatever happened to Nakamura?"
Naruto shrugs and it is Sasuke who answers with a hint of satisfaction, "He was reassigned."
Kakashi smirks at the dark-haired avenger, who smirks back, "Hmm. Such a pity."
"Yeah, but now we're stuck with this guy instead," Naruto says as disrespectfully as he always is. And it's troublesome and he doesn't actually care, but he is supposed to be teaching these brats so he leans in closer and lightly swats the boy's head.
"Maa, maa, Naruto-kun," Kakashi scolds too cheerfully, "That's the jounin commander you're talking about. He was my superior too, you know."
"Really?" Sakura asks, and Shikaku can see the Uchiha mentally re-evaluating him. Troublesome.
The silver-haired jounin nods easily, seemingly completely unconcerned with the situation.
"Hatake," Shikaku greets calmly, taking this as a cue to join the conversation, "Your help was appreciated."
"Well, I couldn't let my cute little students get hurt, now could I?"
He stares at the ex-ANBU Captain and wonders to what extend this man is messing with him and what part of him is serious. Clearly the ninja has, somehow, gained a soft spot for children but the sensei/student thing… what is he playing at? What is he hoping to achieve?
The other ninja curls his only visible eye, giving the impression of utter ease and friendliness; "I don't suppose I could borrow them for a day or two?"
It's a ridiculous request, they both know it, but Naruto jumps up, cheering enthusiastically and even Sasuke and Sakura look interested.
"No," Shikaku replies in his hardest, firmest voice, stepping closer to the ninja and more solidly in-between his charges and the possible threat, "No, you can't."
"Ah, but Shikaku-sensei," Naruto whines, "I need to get stronger. Why can't Kakashi-sensei train us again?"
"Because he's a nukenin, Naruto-kun," the Nara explains, as if it actually needed to be said. With the Uzumaki, you never knew – they sometimes miss the obvious, especially this newest incarnation.
The boy purses his lips, looks thoughtfully at Shikaku for a moment before switching his gaze to Hatake, "Right," he finally nods determinedly, as if coming to some conclusion, but the usually loud-mouthed brat says no more. Strange. He would have expected more protests from the boy.
"Well, I suppose I should leave then," the missing nin sighs dramatically – and Shikaku is starting to suspect a mental breakdown had happened shortly before or during Hatake's defection because the man switches between the cold, serious ANBU Shikaku had known and this easy-going dramatic personality too haphazardly for it to be entirely an act, "Though since I helped and all, well, Konoha is still about teamwork isn't it? Surely you could lend me a medic-nin to see to the wounds I sustained in defending your team?"
The Nara raises his eyebrow, wondering where the shinobi is going with this.
Hatake shrugs, "It's really hard for a missing nin to get medical care, you know," he explains without explaining anything.
Shikaku's eyes narrow. "We don't have a medic-nin with us, unless, of course you want to come back to Konoha with us?"
Hatake Kakashi waves the offer away, "Maa, maa, I'm sure Sakura-chan can do a good enough job."
"Me, sensei?" the girl in question gasps in surprise, "But I'm not… I can't… I'm not very good at…"
The man eye-smiles, pretends to ignore Shikaku's presence entirely (though he is certain the man keeps careful track of his movements) and strolls up the pink-haired teen. "A little more practice never hurt anyone."
He flops down near the young girl, in a way that would have left him foolishly vulnerable to the Konoha shinobi if he didn't have several of his ninken at the Nara's back.
The man opens one of his scrolls and hands over a small medic-nin kit to Haruno who accepts it gingerly without even looking to her official sensei, and ranking officer, for approval.
Shikaku mentally notes this and keeps careful watch as Hatake takes off his green vest and then his long sleeved shirt, leaving him in a sleeveless undershirt attached to his mask – and revealing several cuts on his now bare arms. One of them is a bit deeper than the others and still bleeding steadily, but it's not something that would be considered a significant wound by any jounin's reckoning.
"Just do the best you can," he tells the girl cheerfully.
The boys crowd around while the missing nin coaches Sakura through calling up a medic's green chakra and the man doesn't show any surprise when the girl actually manages it. She doesn't actually close the wound entirely, but it was a good attempt and she uses the bandages from the small kit to cover it further. Then she turns to the smaller wounds and, with a look of intense concentration on her face, she manages to mend the skin.
Kakashi seemingly considers the results, flexes his muscles and the small wounds burst right back open.
"Oh no," the girl calls out in dismay.
"Maa, it was a good first attempt, Sakura-chan," he gently pats the girl on the head as he stands up, "you just need to control your chakra tightly enough to go beneath the surface area. It'll take some practice."
"I can try again!" she says determinedly, despite looking rather tired.
"Another time, my cute little student, healing takes a lot out of a person and chakra exhaustion isn't very fun," he scratches his head sheepishly, "Take it from someone who knows."
Haruno shakes her head, not dissuaded in the least and she almost looks like an actual medic-nin in her stubbornness. "Then at least let me bandage them!"
She boldly takes Hatake's arm and the Nara readies himself to call upon his shadows. Haruno tugs the S-class missing nin back down. "Sit down, shinobi-san."
The ex-ANBU seems to soften, somehow, at this uncharacteristic determination and Shikaku can see the unexpected fondness in his face even through the mask. Perhaps, he muses, the girl reminds him of his own teammate: Nohara Rin had been a budding medic nin as well.
The Nara relaxes his tense muscles slightly when Hatake gamely settles down and lets the girl bandage up even the smallest of his wounds - at least the ones she is aware of. Hatake sported other injuries from their fight, Shikaku had seen him take a kunai to the tight and observes a corresponding wet patch on his clothing but neither jounin mention it.
This is clearly about training, not healing, and while the Nara wonders at it, he doesn't doubt it. So they let the girl continue until she is satisfied and Kakashi is allowed to stand up this time.
"Thank you, medic-san," the S-class nukenin says politely to the pink-haired genin.
Then he turns to the boys, glances at Shikaku for a moment and crouches in front of the two. "Be careful and train hard. Orochimaru is a Kage-level shinobi and he isn't likely to go back on something he wants. In this case – you, Sasuke."
"Me?" the dark-haired boy asks, "Why would he want me?"
Hatake sighs, looks up into the distance for a moment, before settling his dark eye back on the Uchiha, "Because of your eyes, your potential. He failed to get them from your brother and - well, he's not likely to get my eye either. That leaves only you, Sasuke-kun."
The dark-haired boy clenches his hands tightly, reminded of dark memories and Kakashi doesn't say anything comforting but remains right where he is, a solid presence crouched in front of the boy while he pulls himself back together. Naruto opens his mouth, but Hatake halts the boy with a 'stop' gesture – one that the unquenchable blond heeds.
Everyone waits silently, patiently, until Sasuke lifts his head up again and makes eye-contact with the silver-haired jounin in front of him. "Well, he can't have them."
"No," Kakashi agrees, both solemn and fierce, "no he can't."
The two nod at each other in something that seems to be both an agreement and a promise. It wouldn't have been all that odd, he supposes, if it hadn't been between a young genin and a rogue, powerful jounin.
Then Hatake stands up, and turns to the jinchuuriki. "What was it, Naruto-kun?"
"Uh. Nothing," the blond says, scratching the back of his head, "Damn right he can't have Sasuke-teme's eyes, though."
"Grow strong quickly, then, Naruto, Sakura, Sasuke - because your teammates will need you. And those who abandon their mission are trash-" he looks at Sakura expectedly and she blushes but finishes, "-but those who abandon their teammates are worse than trash."
The thing is, she doesn't say it as a question, not in the way that her voice tends to trails up in tone when she's waiting for confirmation that she got the answer right. No this time she's still shy but not hesitant. There's a confidence there that he hadn't seen from the girl before.
"Ah," the shinobi nods with approval, "Ja ne, my little genin."
With that and a deep nod to Shikaku he dashes off, his ninken on his trail. Naruto waves and yells, "Bye, Kakashi-sensei."
"Dobe," the Uchiha says with a shake of his head, but there is a determined glint in his eyes that hadn't been there before.
Sakura stares after the jounin, grips the medic-nin kit tighter in her hands and steps closer to the boys, claiming her spot between them.
And yes, Shikaku can see it now, that somehow the missing nin is, in fact, Team Seven's sensei. It's not just Naruto, not just the three genin even; no it's Hatake Kakashi himself as well, who is acting like a jounin-sensei in truth.
Yet the man hadn't taken them away – hadn't even asked his three young students to come with him. So, why win their trust and not act on it? There is very little even Shikaku could have done to stop him. Not without causing the misguided genin true harm.
None of it made any sense. Not strategically, in any case. The Nara considers that perhaps he is out of his league here – he's good with strategies, can figure out motives from many actions but this is a missing nin that may have had some sort of mental break at some point.
This man is clearly reluctant to do harm to his former comrades – Hatake had helped them, fought alongside Konoha ninja multiple times now with no apparent reward.
He's starting to think that this might be Inoichi's area of expertise more than his own.
Because there is something more going on than the nukenin setting out to win the trust of a group of genin. Shikaku may not be as sharp as his teammate when it comes to body language and behaviour, but he is no slouch at it either. So he had noticed the barely hidden fondness for Sakura and the unfeigned, fierce protectiveness in the nukenin's stance when he informed Sasuke that Orochimaru is hunting the boy.
He had seen that Hatake had not just been humouring an enthusiastic boy when he acknowledged Naruto's dream to become Hokage.
It's undoubtedly strange, worrying and, above all, immensely troublesome.
They survived, though, despite the improbability of it. He comforts himself with that thought as he hustles the foolish genin back to Konoha. It's something, at least.
The rest of it, though, is still a puzzle. And Shikaku is prepared to pick it apart until he finds an answer that satisfies more than the presumption that all of this can be explained away by an unstable mental state.
But Shikaku would much prefer to work it out in front of his Shogi board instead of while standing between a genin team and one of the Sannin.
Surely he's much too valuable to the Hokage as strategist and commander to be chucked into the role of jounin sensei for long? He really can't wait until he can hand the whole troublesome mess over to someone else.
Admittedly, he is a bit intrigued – but it's not worth the hassle of shepherding three ridiculous children with the strangest luck.
A.N. It's a bit of a lame ending, I admit. But yeah. I ran into the wall of having no plot again.
I may at one point pick this story back up again, though, but for now it's finished.