A/N: Sorry for the slow update! I've been sick on and off and have had trouble keeping up with a lot of work, so thanks for all your support and patience :D
The Nara Clan Compound
Guilt gnawed at my stomach. I needed to tell Kakashi-sensei about my plan, but I wasn't sure how to broach the topic. If he refused, then of course I wouldn't force him (not that I could). The trouble was, I knew that he'd never say no when it came to this. In this way, I held the power – the choice lay not in his response, but whether or not I asked in the first place.
The sad reality was we were all born playing the game – a 'game' that wasn't even a game, just one massive steeplechase that inevitably ended in death. Where the goal wasn't to win the race, but to be the last one to finish, except that was harder than it looked because the entire track was a giant treadmill that moved you forward whether you liked it or not, and all you could do was continually shove people in front of you to delay that moment when you finally fell off.
Most people went on with their everyday lives, being unwitting pawns in everything they did, blissfully oblivious to the manipulations of men more powerful than they were, attributing their misfortunes to uncontrollable, mysterious powers like fate or bad luck or the gods, never knowing that the true monsters were flesh and blood just like them.
"What are we going to do about Sasuke?" I asked instead. "We can't simply not tell him, but if we do tell him, it will certainly destroy him."
"At this point, it is still unproven why such actions were taken regarding the corpses," my father said, "though it suggests that the clan was massacred for a more sinister reason than simply an overpowered, arrogant child prodigy losing his mind. Even if that were the only reason why, however, it would still mean someone had taken advantage of this moment for personal gain."
I thought about this. "Perhaps it is for the best, that we never learn why Itachi Uchiha murdered his family. If we have plausible deniability over this knowledge, we can spin it to focus solely on the corpse disposal, which, by itself, is an egregious breach of personal property rights. But we have to prove that this was linked with ROOT. If we can just push all the responsibility on some fringe group, we might be able to spare the rest of Konoha from blame."
The rest of Konoha. How I envied them. Envied the people who could willfully remain ignorant of the total lack of control they had over their own lives and somehow accept it.
Maybe those people were wiser than I was. Maybe those people, the faceless men and women who could live in quiet humility for the rest of their lives, those people who could accept the futility of their lives and be okay with it (as if!) that were the wisest of them all.
But that was not the case for me. I knew too much, and now that I knew I could not stop or rest. It was like every time I tried to read an extremely interesting book – once I saw even a tiny glimpse, I had to know more, keep knowing, keep reading, until I reached the end. It was the poison of knowledge. I always wanted more. I never had enough. Even deadlier than a greed for gold, because while it was possible for a man to be the richest person in the world, it was impossible for a man to be the smartest person in the world.
If a wealthy man met a poor beggar, and saw that the beggar had a single coin, well, that was one coin he didn't have, but what did it matter? A coin was a coin, and the wealthy man still had more than the beggar. But if a fool possessed just one bit of information that a smart man did not have, one tiny skill he could never understand – then the fool was more intelligent than the smart man, at least in that regard. A gross amassing of knowledge was different from a gross amassing of wealth, for every bit of information in the world was different.
All the infinite wisdom in the world could not make a man immune to the wiles of others. A single pickpocket had thrown the plans of the world's greatest thinkers into disarray, had ripped their schemes to shreds. Foolish as that street rat had been, he had possessed the one skill that none of those men had expected, and then – there went the lives of hundreds of men.
Again, the curse of being too aware reared its ugly head. Now that they had given me a little bit of the truth, they could not expect me to docilely remain in this half-state of knowing and yet not. But even worse than the curse of knowing and yet not, was the curse of knowing and being completely unable to do anything about it.
"Perhaps. I do hope you will be able to maintain your control over the technique I taught you. Danzo is a slippery man. As in, capable of resetting reality slippery."
"Capable of resetting – what?"
I sought to remedy that problem.
They said knowledge is power. That was not quite true. Knowledge was not power. Knowledge only made men crave it. Orochimaru craved jutsu, and so did I, to a certain extent, because a little extra strength couldn't hurt in our world. But what was the world's greatest warrior against the people commanding him? Being the strongest did not mean everything. Sakumo Hatake was proof enough of that.
I should like to say I was not so selfish or cruel. Dominating other people was not my ultimate goal. I only wished to command myself. I only wished to protect those dear to me, to prevent those who wished them harm from controlling them. But that, too, was a paradox. The world was too complex for any one man to be the sole master of his fate.
"A technique I saw him use, last time we fought. The mere existence of Izanagi and Izanami were but rumours, even when the Uchiha clan was still intact. You understand, then, why the missing corpses of the Uchiha clan are so important. Regular attacks cannot touch him while he is in that state."
I had a sickening vision of lying dead on a cold metal exam table while a masked figure rooted around in my skull with a scalpel. Fingers jamming themselves into my sockets and scooping out my eyes with soft squelching noises. My father, selling his soul to the shadows for a peek past the veil of reality into which Danzo Shimura had slipped.
"And the Akatsuki?"
My father toyed with his ink stone. "Thus far, our information on their identities and abilities are solely reliant on Jiraiya's information as well as whatever we got off the mission report from your team and Team 10."
I opened my mouth and then closed it again. How was I supposed to explain anything? How was I supposed to explain that the technique he specifically warned me against using had happened without my conscious control?
And yet I had to do it. Trust did not come naturally to me – to any of us. But I had to trust my family, and my team, because without trust, I'd just be someone like Orochimaru, alone and adrift in the world until someone strong enough to kill me finally caught up with me. And it was then that I realized, I'd rather die then live that way.
"Drawing from my experiences in fighting the member of the Akatsuki known as Black Zetsu, I have reason to logically conclude that your technique, while independently created, is not entirely original."
My father's pen snapped in his hand.
I watched as his blood dribbled down onto the polished wood of his desk, the ink from the pen mixing and swirling black against the bright red like it was the Kagemane choking to death. His fingers jerked in an aborted movement towards the tissue box, as if he'd decided that watching the patterns form was a more advantageous course of action than getting his finger wrapped and cleaning up the mess. I say this because I was thinking the same thing in that time, and thus was just as paralyzed in fascination.
"Well, then," he whispered, "all the more reason for you to master it."
The Yamanaka Clan Compound
"Like I said before, and have been saying," Fuu yelled over the din, "I am only here to assist Ino in her new position. She is young and inexperienced and cannot possibly take on such a monumental task all by herself."
Ino should have been offended at his smug, condescending tone, except – and this was the saddest thing of all – he wasn't being smug and condescending. It was almost as if he was reciting lines from a book.
He probably was.
"Awww…That's so sweet of you," Ino said,
"I don't think you understand how difficult the task of being clan head is, Ino-chan. A clan head has many responsibilities. Even more so, as head of the Yamanaka. You realize, with your father's passing, there is a vacancy in ANBU Intelligence, one that must be filled by a skilled mind reader. A Genin cannot run a clan."
Ino pointed to the law book he had plonked in front of her. "So what does being my regent – proxy – what's this word mean? Law is stupid. I hate big words. They're dumb," she whined, making pouty lips and batting her eyelashes.
"Ew. He's your cousin," said one of her cousins.
"Yeah, but he's my first cousin − "
Fuu, still completely lost and taking everything literally, interjected, "Actually, I'm your second cousin; you have no first cousins – "
" – so you have your cousins, and then you have your first cousins, and then you have your second cousins – "
"Excuse me, we were talking about proxies?"
Ino began to fake-cry. "Stop using that big word! I don't like big words!"
"Being your proxy only means that I will be signing agreements in your name, and take over your position as an ANBU Interrogation consultant until you are ready."
"…What's 'consultant' mean?"
"It means we provide our assistance and advice. The Yamanaka clan has many secret techniques that other clanless shinobi within ANBU Interrogation cannot perform."
"…What's 'interrogation' mean?"
"It means extracting information from an enemy."
"…What's 'extracting' mean?"
"It means – "
Ino's mother pinched the bridge of her nose. "Okay, that's enough, Ino."
"So why can't I nominate Santa over there?" Ino asked, twirling one of her bangs.
"Because I am more closely related to you than he is."
"But why does being more closely related make it have to be you?"
"Because that's the rules."
"Why is that the rule?"
Fuu evidently hadn't learned from his previous exchange with Naruto, because he was still looking at them like they were all idiots. "To keep usurpers and civil wars from fracturing the clan in the case of an inheritance dispute."
"Wait," Ino asked, "Isn't my mother my closest relative? Why can't she be my regent?"
"Because it is determined by relation to the previous clan head, not the current one, and your mother is not in the line of succession at all because she is not related to your father!" Fuu explained for what must have been the sixth time.
Ino paused to consider this. And then she opened her mouth and asked,
"…What's related mean?"
It was a testament to Fuu's level of skill and training that he did not explode on the spot.
Luckily for Fuu, one of her other relatives took pity at that point and clarified, "Family member, Ino-chan. It means family member."
"But isn't my mother family member to my father then?"
"Not genetically! Genetically means by blood! Not by blood! Your mother is not related to your father genetically! She married into the clan; she was not a member of the Yamanaka clan originally! Therefore she cannot be a regent!" Fuu's knuckles were white against the dark cloth of his trousers. "Ino. I am clearly the next best choice for you. Just sign that paper, and then we can be done."
Tell him he's wrong, Kakashi-sensei whispered over their mind link.
Ino pulled out a pocket mirror and began putting on makeup. "You're wrong." What?
Oh, you're gonna love this, Kakashi-sensei said. Even the Hokage couldn't argue against it. See, the branch of ANBU he is from is ROOT. ROOT was supposed to have been disbanded a long time ago and therefore does not exist in official records. And he's been in there his whole life.
Ino blinked. Holy…So this means –
Fuck yeah. This was going to be FUN.
Fuu, having no idea what he was about to be in for, simply frowned in frustration at their refusal to cooperate. "It is a general rule to all clans across Konoha, not just ours, to prevent clan heads who are too young for full training to have to shoulder the burden themselves. In the case of the Yamanaka clan, a clan head must, in addition to the regular duties, be available to offer their skills at any moment to ANBU intelligence, as part of our contract with Konoha. As such, in order to be fully realized as clan head, you must have already completed your basic ANBU training and the full suite of our clan's secret techniques. You have done neither. I am the most qualified to assist you in rectifying that."
"Oh, I understand the rules. When I said you were wrong, I meant the part about you being the most qualified," Ino said sweetly. "After all, you're not a ninja."
"Excuse me? I most certainly am a – "
"See? The fact that you're saying you're a ninja out loud makes you not a ninja."
"He could be trying to use reverse psychology," Naruto said. He'd snuck into the room a long time ago, but blended in easily among the sea of blonde. "Maybe he expects people to think that a true ninja will always lie about not being a ninja, and so he says he is a ninja because people will then assume he isn't, thus making the opposite of the inverse of the converse of the contrapositive true."
"Oh!" Ino nodded. "I see what you mean. But he never didn't say he wasn't not not a fake ninja, at least not in this non-context, notwithstanding. Therefore the contrapositive of the converse of the inverse of the opposite must not necessarily be false, and the answer is E, all of the above."
Fuu blanched. "…What?"
"Ino, have some mercy on his poor soul," her mother sighed, stifling a grin.
"Oh, all right," Ino huffed. "The point still stands, Fuu. You're not qualified to be my proxy for anything clan head or ANBU-related."
"And why not?"
Ino gave him her best wolf-smirk, and let the bomb drop. Hallelujah, Kakashi-sensei. "We ran a background check on you, cousin dearest. Imagine our surprise when we realized your name was missing from the past years' Academy roster. And the Chunin, Jonin, and Tokubetsu Jonin registers. Why, you're not even in the official ANBU files…"
For the second time that day, Fuu's face completely imploded.
That was a dick move, Naruto told Kakashi-sensei, substantially impressed.
Don't blame me; blame the bureaucrats, Kakashi-sensei grinned. According to them, he doesn't even exist.
Ino wholeheartedly agreed. "Don't worry, Fuu-kun. Out of my love for you, I will do my best as the head of this clan to make the proper arrangements for you to finish your education. Of course, if you are denied from the Academy because you are too old, who am I to break Konoha's laws?"
The Hokage's Office
"And, Hokage-sama, for the entire time period that Fuu Yamanaka is mysteriously unable to be promoted to the proper rank he needs to gain administrative control over the clan I promise to do all of my mission reports in pen."
Hiruzen snorted. "Seems like a lot of trouble for such a small reward."
"Legible pen," Kakashi stressed. "They'll look like the reports I wrote when I was a Chunin. Just close your eyes and imagine it. Handwriting so neat and uniform, it looks like it was typed, as far as the eye can see. And all you have to do, is, after months of denying him entry into the Academy on account of his age, keep coincidentally putting him on a squad of idiots always guaranteed to fail a Jonin sensei's test."
Hiruzen could feel his resolve slipping. Sweat dripped from his brow. "But I would still have to make arrangements with the Academy teachers and the leaders of the Genin Corps to prevent him from passing. I am not sure I want to be known as a purposeful saboteur of a capable shinobi over private interests, just for some…neater paperwork that should have been neat to begin with. It would get suspicious after many six-month cycles."
"If you so insist," Kakashi said, deliberately staring at his forehead, the fucker. "I, of course, hold no responsibility if tomorrow you wake up and everything in this room has been rotated slightly to the left. Or if the cap on your favorite inkwell suddenly no longer fits, so it all dries up. Who knows; some devious soul might even sneak in here and put a teeny tiny 'X' in permanent marker on a single random page in your private special-edition Icha Icha collection, and not tell you which one. And it's on your conscience, knowing you could have prevented this. But sure. I'll leave you to your own devices."
The Sandaime glared at Kakashi. "I can delay his promotion for, at best, four cycles. At half a year for each cycle, that's two years. By then Ino will be older than sixteen, and the block you have on her Chunin promotion will expire."
"Ah, yes. The promotion. You know, it would be such a great tragedy if all of Team 7's promotion files suddenly went missing. Without those papers, we can't mark down their rank advancements at all," said Kakashi, blatantly rotating his perfectly positioned ashtray slightly to the left as if he wouldn't notice.
"It is," the Sandaime said, rotating it back, "especially since giving Ino a rank advancement might solidify her position – put that back, you overgrown child − as a clan head better than anything. The Nara and Akimichi might treat her well, there is only so much respect the others will afford a teenage Genin."
Kakashi scoffed. "Hiashi Hyuga isn't that bad. I bullied him into worse things when I was half her age."
"I might have been unnecessarily cruel at times. They never did manage to remove that stick from his arse."
Hiruzen tried his hardest to suppress a smile, because this was serious, dammit. "She was never as bad as you."
Kakashi considered this. "You're right; she's worse."
Somehow, even with his mouth completely obscured by his mask, Kakashi's grin looked exactly like a shark. "If there's one thing the Hyuga care about, it's appearances, and she runs a successful gossip column spanning several countries."
Hiruzen coughed. "Wait, that trashy rag is hers?"
"That trashy rag that you have surreptitiously hidden in your robes to read during your boring finance meeting later, yes."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Hiruzen insisted. "And stop changing the subject. Ino Yamanaka cannot be a Genin forever. You've held onto that damn Chunin promotion scroll for ages. Now is as good of a time as ever to relinquish that promotion block." Can't you see, Kakashi, that your attempts to protect her will be disadvantageous to her in the long run?
The Sandaime had Kakashi trapped, he knew. Backed into a corner of logic and common sense. Of course, a cornered shinobi was one that fought back hardest, and it was here that Kakashi decided to use his last resort, not that it would help much..
"…But I don't wanna!"
"You sound like a five-year-old who doesn't want to go to sleep."
"That was the point, yes."
"Usually the five-year-olds in those stories end up falling asleep ten minutes later anyway."
Kakashi snorted. "I didn't."
"Because you were a Genin."
"Worked out pretty nicely, didn't it?" Kakashi threw himself into the chair and crossed his arms and legs so tightly Hiruzen wondered if they would ever untie themselves. In other words, the classic body language among five-year-olds for 'if you do not give in to my demands I am going to throw the biggest tantrum on earth and then hold my breath until my face turns blue and you won't stop me in any other way except by giving in to my demands'.
The Sandaime normally didn't negotiate with terrorists, but Hiruzen would make exceptions for children, even the overgrown twenty-years-too-late ones. "Come on, Kakashi. I know you taught all of your kids the ANBU codewords and signs within a month of their Academy graduation. By now they've basically gotten all the basic skills down, save for the desensitization training."
"Ino's an interrogation consultant, not an assassin or hunter-nin," Kakashi insisted.
"Yes, you've made that clear." To tell the truth, anyone on Team 7 could make an assassin or hunter-nin and do a very good job at it. Kakashi had, however subconsciously, beaten that into them since the very start.
"Oh, good, so we're on the same page, then."
The only difference between the training he'd given them, and the training ANBU normally gave to its new recruits, was the alarmingly fierce emotional bond between teacher and student.
The ANBU drill instructors always maintained a professional distance, to make the work look even meaner and scary than it already was. As Kakashi had been working with his Genin, he was constantly giving off an attitude of everything being perfectly fine and normal. Which, by his standards, might have been. The results were odd – children who were the most effective ninja Hiruzen had seen in a long time, more mature than most but also not yet completely gone, simply with different standards of childhood. In the same situation, Kakashi's kids and the average ANBU might perform similarly, but with the kids taking things less seriously, simply because they were conditioned to think such things were the average experience for most shinobi.
It wasn't anything deliberate on Kakashi's part, for he had been, too.
"Will making her Chunin really change that at all? People of lesser rank still treated me as a child even when I became Jonin," Kakashi pointed out, making obviously subtle sniffling noises. "What sorts of important decisions was Inoichi Yamanaka involved in that they might leave her out of now?"
Hiruzen cursed his traitorous nose, which also began to feel runny. "That's what I'm worried about. I don't know."
"Huh," Kakashi said, in a tone that sounded very much like, I do, but I'm not telling.
"Missions are the least dangerous thing they have to worry about," said the Sandaime. "They've survived things that would kill most people. They faced Orochimaru twice and lived; they've won against incredible numerical odds; they've assisted in killing two S-ranked criminals and crippled a third. It's not an escalated mission rank that would harm them, but the circumstances leading up to said rank escalation."
"Yes, I know," Kakashi said, now staring at his ear.
Hiruzen's eye twitched. The Sandaime folded his hands across his desk and tried to pretend that all of the annoying little passive-aggressive things Kakashi was doing to screw with his mind weren't working. "Because of the situation your team is in thanks to Naruto, I'll make sure to give them special consideration when assigning missions to them, all right?"
Kakashi gave a noncommittal grunt. "Okay."
"Will you stop being a complete child about it?"
"Don't push me, Kakashi," the Sandaime warned.
"Oh, let me have my fun." Kakashi craned his neck and shifted his left shoulder, where the curse mark still lay, slightly forward. "While it lasts," he added.
"Look, I'm not a big fan of promoting barely-teenagers to Chunin either, but you cannot deny that this will definitely lend her more legitimacy to her inheritance," the Sandaime cut in. "As it did for you – or must I remind you of how Minato Namikaze also had the power to block your Chunin promotion but didn't for the same reasons we have now?"
"I have to go. My dog is stuck in a tree. He went up there to hide after he chewed a hole through one of my socks."
"We live in Konoha. We don't own socks – "
But Hiruzen was speaking to an empty room.
A/N: It's been a headcanon of mine that part of the reason why Kakashi was kicked up the promotion ladder so young (apart from: wartime necessity, the skills being clearly there, and the kid being a nightmare to deal with when bored so just give him the rank already) was to show that he was capable of living independently, so that no one would take advantage of his father's death to gain power over him.
Despite everything, Sakumo Hatake was an accomplished ninja and would have left behind a decent amount of money upon his death. (It's like a million ryo for an S-rank. The Jonin of this village must be fucking loaded.)