Good things come to those that wait.
Inoichi settled back in his chair. The satisfied smile on his face was entirely genuine as he watched Gaara sit and chat with Tsunade about her grandparents, Mito Uzumaki and Hashirama Senju. Gaara had read about them in his books throughout his time with T&I. Inoichi would put money on Gaara asking about Madara and Tobirama, too, if given enough time.
And yet, in the twenty minutes they'd spent waiting for the Suna emissaries to arrive and pick Gaara up in the oversized and overdone conference room, Gaara hadn't asked about his father or his siblings or the state of his village. Not even once.
Shikaku watched the whole exchange with a somewhat baffled look on his face.
Leaning sideways so that his mouth was right up against Shikaku's ear, Inoichi said, "Wishing you had stopped by to watch some of those sessions, old friend?"
Shikaku scoffed. "Not on your life," he muttered back. "Mind fuckery is your lane, not mine. But I'll give you this one—I owe you a drink for the good mood this'll put Tsunade in for the next week."
As if she heard the exchange—which she probably did, as they weren't trying that hard to be quiet—Tsunade skewed her gaze over Gaara's shoulder towards Inoichi, both eyebrows raised. Danzo, from his spot among the rest of the council, looked less impressed with them, but Inoichi wasn't sure anything impressed somebody like Danzo Shimura, so he found he didn't particularly care about that.
What mattered was that his Hokage and Jonin Commander were impressed. And for that, Inoichi was going to make damn sure Kurou got a promotion for his work on this case.
Baki was the first of the Suna camp to enter the conference room. As the acting Kazekage, he was the most important person of his entourage. He carried himself as such. His posture was all stiff shoulders and a proud tilt to his chin, just enough so that he looked down his nose at everybody around him.
Gaara's sister came next, and his brother right after. Not that Inoichi would have guessed they were related from how the two stared at Gaara, like mice approaching a cat at dinner time.
But Gaara lit up at the sight of all three—as much as Gaara could light up, at least. Inoichi caught how his eyes widened and he leaned towards them and away from Tsunade.
"Hello," Gaara said, his voice soft and raspy. "It is good to see you."
Gaara might as well have smacked his brother between the eyes, from the startled look on his face.
His sister was more perceptive of the two. Her bright green eyes snapped from Gaara and landed right on him and Shikaku. Sharp as a whip, that one was. But young. She either didn't bother to hide her scrutiny and skepticism, or she lacked skill at doing it.
It would do her good to study Baki, who gave away nothing with his expression.
Inoichi watched the rest of the encounter unfold impassively.
There was a short conversation between Tsunade and Baki, formalities and the like that were more Shikaku's realm than his. His realm, the 'mind fuckery' as Shikaku had so eloquently put it, was watching the way that Gaara's siblings shared an entire conversation in looks that went above Gaara's head. Neither of them seemed to know what to make of their brother.
That was to be expected. Reports on Gaara's behaviour in Konoha during the exams said enough about how he acted under the influence of his beast's chakra. Cruel and violent were the first two words that came to mind. He had, after all, crippled one of Konoha's most promising Hyuuga without hesitation.
The Gaara they now sat beside was not the same person. He wondered how long it would take for them to fully realize that, and how much longer it would be before they adjusted their opinions and behaviours to account for it.
Truth be told, Inoichi saw a lot of promise in this new Gaara beyond what he could do for Konoha in a few years. Because Gaara would do good work for Konoha in a few years.
Baked into the negotiations between the village was that Gaara would be the one to succeed his father as Kazekage once Gaara turned fifteen. It was what made negotiations so contentious—Suna smelled something foul in the clause. They may not have realized what Konoha's T&I had done with Gaara (Inoichi wouldn't try and act like what they did was anything less than brainwashing. He knew what his work was), but they understood that something was up.
They had good reason to fear. From how they treated him, all Kolly had to do was give Gaara a cookie and a pat on the head to beat out Sunagakure.
But aside from all that business, Inoichi had a genuine interest in seeing how Gaara developed as a person over the next few years. His colleagues struggled to see past the beast in Gaara's belly, and Inoichi didn't blame them for that. In one attack, Gaara took many lives, including their Hokage's. The Sandaime was well-loved and a good man. He would be missed for years to come. And Inoichi had been hit by his death as hard as the rest. He could, however, also see the child Gaara was now with a mind untainted by poison, and he had a hard time blaming Gaara for what he did any more than he could blame Naruto Uzumaki for the Kyuubi's rampage all those years ago.
He saw a kind soul sitting inside Gaara. With the right attention and setting, Gaara could become a force for good in the Elemental Nations.
Inoichi just hoped that Suna gave him that chance.
"Can I ask you something?"
Maen made a noise from his spot on the couch, his eyes shut.
My grip on the sketchbook, displaying one of the few pictures where I'd drawn Mama and Papa together, tightened.
It was one of my better early drawings. Not overly detailed, but crisp and clear. They stood together out in the fields, the farmhouse visible in the background. They looked happy. Of course, I always drew them happy. My sharpest memory of Mama was how she laughed at something Papa said in the seconds before a kunai sunk hilt-deep into her throat, and of Papa, as he held my shoulders with blood-soaked hands and told me to run. But I always drew them with smiles on their faces.
"Did anybody ever go back for my parent's bodies?"
There was a sharp inhale.
Slowly, Maen sat up. He threw his legs off the couch and settled his elbows on his knees, his chin rested on his joined hands. Black eyes narrowed as they flitted over my face. "Somebody went back for the body of the guy who trailed you and attacked us, and that person was instructed to look for your parent's bodies as well," he finally said. "They couldn't find your parents."
I nodded absently, my eyes stuck on the page. "Was a big area."
Maen had his hair loose, where it hung down to his collarbone, and I saw him run his hand through it in the corner of my eye. "I didn't say nothing was found."
My head jerked up.
"You know there was a second guy who followed us?" he asked.
"They think he probably looped back around after he realized he couldn't get to you and dealt with the bodies. A tracker was able to follow the scent trails back to where your mother's body should have been, and there was nothing but ash. When he found the trail from your father, he said that there were signs that they took off with his body."
In a small voice, I said, "Oh."
Maen frowned. "What brought this on?"
I tossed the sketchbook onto the table. Maen pulled it towards him and spun it around. "This is pretty old, isn't it?" he asked, tapping a finger on the page.
"From when I was eight, I think."
His hand scratched at his chin, where bits of stubble shadowed his jaw. "Sounds about right," he said. "That was when I started to think you might actually have a bit of a knack for it."
"Was when I started to get decent."
"True. But it was how you got decent," he said. "Eight was when you started to branch out more. It wasn't just the usual suspects. I'd catch you drawing chairs and books and other dumb shit, and when I asked what you were doing, you'd say 'I'm widening my perspective'."
I scoffed. "Yeah."
I reached behind me and grabbed a pillow off of the chair. It was ratty, with loose threads and scruffy fabric. My arms wrapped around it, hugging it against my chest, and my fingers dug into the black fabric. The threading stood no chance against my nails. I forced my grip to loosen when I felt the start of a tear form, but I didn't let go entirely.
"I used to draw them all the time. Like, I remember drawing other people. You, Naruto, Cho, Shika. Flowers every once in a while. But it was mostly Mama, and Papa, sometimes." I shrugged. "I drew Mama while I was in Wave, but that was the first time I'd drawn her in a while. But I haven't drawn either of them since. And I noticed, while I was looking through all the sketchbooks, that they were in the later ones less and less. Papa is hardly in any of them."
My eyes found Maen's. "Why did I stop?"
"You never talked about it."
"I never thought about it. Fuck, I didn't even… realize I'd done it until…"
"Some people would say it's a good thing you stopped."
I gave him an incredulous look.
"You grieved," he said. "And after a few years, the wound scabbed over. I always figured you drew to cope. Once it stopped feeling like something you needed to cope with, you stopped putting as much energy into doing it instead of staying fixated."
"It wasn't just coping," I said. "I just… I didn't wanna forget."
The clock ticking away filled the silence. Maen picked up the picture and examined it under the light provided by the mid-afternoon sun. His attention fixated on it like it was a puzzle for him to solve and not a relic from a life that hardly felt like it was ever mine in the first place.
"There's not much of a distinction to draw between that."
The pillow chafed against my cheek as I buried my face in it. "Guess not."
Maen groaned as he hauled himself up from the couch, his joints cracking. He ambled over and planted himself down beside me. I leaned into his side. In response, his arm wrapped around my shoulder. The movements felt automatic after this long.
"What did you do to cope?" I asked. "When your parents died."
"Acted like an asshole. Smoked a lot, slept a lot, and took a lot of missions."
"So nothing's changed."
He flicked me in the ear. "This is a moment," he said. "Don't be a brat." He paused. "Besides, I dated a lot then, too. And, you know."
I scrunched up my face. "Ew?"
"You'll get there one day."
I tossed the pillow into his face, and he yanked it out of my hands and smacked me in the head with it. I tried to grab it back. With his height advantage, he held it out of my reach, dangled above my head.
We scuffled over it for a few minutes.
The result had the pillow on the other side of the living room and me in his lap, Maen leaned back against the couch. My head was right over his heart. His heartbeat echoed in my ear, and I listened to it, the steady and insistent thump of it.
"Was that why you joined ANBU?" I asked.
His heartbeat jumped. "When my parents died?"
"The spiral from it caused me to end up there, yeah."
"How… old were you?"
"I had just turned sixteen."
"Post-war recruitment," he said. "War had been over for a little while, at that point. Almost a year. But the ANBU ranks never quite recovered—hard to refill ranks like that." He smirked. "I'm not sure Shikaku ever quite forgave Lord Yondaime for that."
"What would you do if I joined ANBU at sixteen?"
I knew damn well he was right. Still, I asked, "Think so?"
"Yes," he said. "You've got shit going on, but it's nothing compared to what you gotta be dealing with to throw yourself into ANBU."
"Not to mention that you'd lock me in the house if I tried?"
"That goes without saying."
And wasn't that hypocritical. Here he was, taking the ANBU missions left and right, but God forbid I ever consider it. Not that I would, like I said—I didn't have a death wish or a desire to strain my sanity. It was the principle of it.
"Does that mean you're still trying to cope?" I asked, feeling just a little petty.
I regretted it instantly, realizing that poking that wound went beyond petty and straight into giant dickishness, but Maen took it with his usual level-headed patience.
"'Cause I'm still taking the missions?"
"No," he said. "I… don't think I've been trying to cope since you came along."
I tilted my head so I could look up at him, but his gaze was a million miles away.
He brought his hand up to card through my hair. "Having you around gave me a reason to get my life together."
It was the first time Maen had ever talked about his life before me, and any remnants of my frustration over his ANBU situation leaked away.
I got snippets here and there, from Shikaku and Yoshino more than Maen. Maen had told me his family was dead when I was seven and he took me with him to the memorial stone for the first time. With Shikaku and Yoshino, it was more offhanded comments that when pieced together formed a grim picture of somebody who had been run over by a semi that decided once wasn't enough and hit reverse, going back over him again for good measure.
His past was something I never asked Maen about—it felt like territory I couldn't tread.
But this was as close to an invitation as I was ever going to get.
"What was your family like?" I asked.
Maen chuckled, a sound that reverberated in his chest like a base note through a speaker. "Mom was real quiet, but when she spoke, she was sharp. The kinda person you stopped and listened to. Could silence a whole room with a single word," he said. "But she was one of the kindest people I've ever known." He scratched at his chin with his free hand. "Can't say the same about Dad. He was always a bit… harsher. Was pretty strict about my training and education, even if he encouraged me to slack off right along with Shikaku after the war started. Wanted to keep me from getting sent out too early—I always knew he cared, like that. But he was a bit distant. Especially after Masiji."
"Shikaku told me that he and Masiji grew up together."
"Yeah. They were more brothers than cousins," Maen said. "Hit him pretty hard when Masiji died, too."
"You look a lot like him."
"Spitting image. Shikaku show you a picture?"
"Nah. Found it in one of the old albums Shika and I were looking at one time. There were some pictures of you as a baby, too. You were pretty ugly."
Maen scoffed. "Shikaku said I looked a bit like a dried plum."
"I can see that."
Maen fell silent, and my gut twisted. I asked, "You… don't really remember him, do you?"
"Only a little. He was gone for a while, during the Second War. I remember when he came back. Not well, but I remember his face. Vaguely remember what his voice sounded like."
But he didn't know who his brother was. Only what he'd heard secondhand. What Shikaku and his parents had taught him growing up, the photographs and stories.
The bitter part of me was jealous that he'd gotten that much, when all I had were the shaky memories of my parents, but I quashed those thoughts with prejudice. His brother died. No part of that situation deserved to be envied, no matter where I was coming from.
I wrapped my arms around his torso, and he let out a long, gusty breath. "Thanks," I said. "For telling me about them."
A few minutes passed in comfortable silence, and I was pretty sure both of us were on the verge of falling asleep.
Then there was a knock on the window.
"... fucking shit," Maen muttered.
"I'm not getting off."
So he hooked his free arm under my knee and brought me up with him as he stood. There was another knock, more insistent.
Maen groaned. "Fuck off, I'm coming."
The backslider was drawn open to reveal an ANBU operative, their white frog mask stark against the night. Maen glared at them. I felt a bit bad for the operative—it was a classic case of 'don't shoot the messenger', except this time, it was more 'don't stab and/or maim the messenger'.
"I've been tapped three times in the last month," Maen said. His tone was clipped, moreso than I usually heard it. "I'm on my grace period. A week. It's only been three days."
"Something urgent has come up."
"Tell Badger to find somebody else."
"Lady Tsunade has personally requested you for this mission, sir."
Another mess of curses left Maen's mouth, and I turned my face into his shirt, my eyes squeezed shut.
It was a bit harder to rationalize my frustration when Tsunade personally got involved because, at that point, there wasn't anything he could do. There were few circumstances where you could turn down a mission given to you by your Hokage. And even before he started taking the missions full time again, every once in awhile, he'd get pulled by Hiruzen for an ANBU mission. It couldn't be avoided.
But I couldn't will away the sour taste in my mouth.
"Fine," Maen said. "I'll meet with Lady Hokage in a few minutes."
There was a rush of wind as the ANBU operative shunshined away, and Maen sighed.
"It's fine," I said. I hopped down. "Nothing you can do."
He pinched the bridge of his nose. "You don't actually believe that."
"Yeah, I do—you can't turn down Lady Tsunade. It's your job."
There was a sharp edge to the evening air. It was the middle of September; summer was on its way out, and the weather was starting to show it.
I ignored him and went back inside, straight to the couch.
Maen ducked into his room and grabbed the pack that he now kept at the ready. When he came back out he was in his uniform, with his owl mask sat on the side of his head.
He stopped by the couch to drop a kiss on my forehead on his way out. "I'll be back as soon as I can," he said. "Alright?"
He stared down at me. I waited to see if he was going to say anything else, but he just shook his head, flipped the mask down onto his face, and took off into the night.
It was his job. It wasn't my place to interfere.
I wouldn't say anything to him about it.
But if that ratty pillow from earlier somehow ended up ripped to shreds and tossed in the garbage later on, who was I to say.
The next morning when I woke up, a dog was taking up half of my pillow, its scruffy grey butt mere centimetres away from my nose. It was a butt I knew well.
"Budge off my pillow, Shiba," I muttered, pushing him off.
He whined and tried to scoot closer.
"If you don't get off the pillow I'm pushing you off the bed."
With a pathetic pout that he made sure to flash in my direction, he got up and relocated to right up against my stomach, bunched up in the excess blanket. That was when I caught sight of the note stuck to the back of his shirt, right over where the henohenomoheji was.
A massive yawn wormed its way out of me, and I raised a hand to cover my mouth as I reached for the torn, muddy piece of paper, covered in a scrawl that I knew was too neat to be Kakashi's infamous illegible chicken scratch. His writing was the stuff of desk-chunin's nightmares. But this much neater handwriting was far more familiar to me.
The small note read: Gone for a month. Sorry. Will start you on poisons when back to make it up to you. Take these books from the library if you want to start early, bug Inohara if you have questions.
There were five books listed, each sounding like they were designed for building background knowledge around plant types and poison theory.
The note was signed 'Your Asshole Guardian'.
My head fell back with a sigh.
As much as I didn't like Maen being pulled away like this, I was well aware that these missions weren't his first choice either. A lot was going on. The ninja population was spread thin from the invasion. There were only so many ANBU captains to go around, and Tsunade would need every able hand on deck while she got her bearings and brought the village back up to snuff.
It wasn't an easy choice for Maen to make—his obligation to the village or me.
I wanted him around. I wanted him off of the high-risk ANBU missions and back to being around for more than four or five days out of the month. But that wasn't fair to him. Simply holding my thoughts in wasn't enough because even if I didn't say what I wanted to, I still resented him for taking the missions, and that wouldn't help matters. I had to make up my mind. Either I was going to confront him about it, or I wasn't. Either it was going to matter, or it wasn't.
Hitting this weird middle ground wasn't helping either of us. Whatever I did, I needed to commit, or there was no point.
I didn't have to stop feeling lonely each night I sat alone at the dinner table, or scared when I thought about the million and one ways he could be killed in action on these missions, but I needed to let go of the frustration that buzzed in the back of my head each time the conversation came up, for good this time.
He was doing his best; I needed to do better.
I'd taken enough from Maen. He'd given up so much for me, more than I could ever understand. And I didn't want to take his duty from him, too. No matter how much it sucked for me. He deserved this.
I blindly groped for the sketchbook I kept on my bedside table. Once I had it in hand, I slid the pencil out of its bindings and flipped over the note to the blank side.
Toss your cigarettes while you're at it and you're forgiven. Like I said—not your fault you got called, it's okay. I'll get on the reading. Update me weekly, and stay safe. I paused, then tacked on, Love you.
I signed the bottom 'Your Asshole Kid' and pinned it back onto Shiba's shirt, then settled in for another couple hours of sleep. "You can have another hour, but then you gotta take that back, got it?"
One month passed in a flurry of reading and training.
It was the last week of October when Maen finally came back, a week late, a little banged up, and a lot exhausted, but he came back in one piece and without a single cigarette to his name.
I called that a win.
Kakashi flipped the page of his Icha Icha book and lazed back against the sill of the only window in his wonderful, peaceful, cozy apartment. The window to his right had a perfect view of absolutely nothing—well, nothing by most people's standards. It faced another building of apartments, lined up with their windows as well, a prime voyeurist opportunity ripe for the taking. Which was why his window was full of seals to prevent anybody from seeing in.
Most of his neighbours, being civilians, didn't have the same luxury. And so Kakashi could sit back and dine on his porn and for desert, peek in on the couple right across from him as they got into fight number seven-hundred and eighty-nine over whose turn it was to do the dishes. If he got lucky, they might even start throwing said dishes at each other again. What a marvel that would be.
From his spot perched on Kakashi's knee, Pakkun said, "So we're really back to this, huh?"
Kakashi hummed. "You're being vague and unhelpful again."
A paw rested on the top of the book. Kakashi felt Pakkun push down on it, and just to be petty, Kakashi pushed the book up a little higher, enough to block out Pakkun entirely.
"Oh, don't be such a little weasel."
"Do you happen to see a freshly slaughtered clan? Because I don't."
Pakkun slid down Kakashi's leg and wiggled his way under the book. "Cut it out. This whole edgy bravado bullshit hasn't worked on me in years, and I really don't appreciate you trying it."
Kakashi stared down at Pakkun, expressionless.
Pakkun said, "Sitting around doing nothing when you aren't taking every single mission you can get your hands on. It's not helping anything."
"If you've got an issue with me being a ninja, we might be in trouble."
"I don't got an issue with you being a ninja. I got an issue with you turning yourself into a lifeless husk again."
"That's not your business."
"Oh, yeah. 'Cause Gods forbid I happen to care about you."
Kakashi quirked an eyebrow.
Pakkun walked up Kakashi's chest, all the way until Kakashi could smell fish from the dinner he'd fed his ninken a couple of hours ago. Pakkun raised a paw and smacked it against Kakashi's nose. "Bad."
"Ow," Kakashi said because that did actually kind of hurt.
"Stop being such an ass."
Kakashi got another smack on the nose. He blinked. "I'm not a puppy for you to train."
"You're right," Pakkun said. "Any puppy I train has a basic sense of loyalty that you're clearly lacking."
Slight as it was, Kakashi couldn't hold back a flinch.
In a cold, firm voice, Kakashi said, "We're not talking about this again."
"Yes, we are. We're gonna keep talkin' about it until you pull your head out of your ass."
Kakashi swatted Pakkun off his chest like he might a fly and pulled his book right up against his face. It was too close to read it, but it wasn't as if he spent even half the time the book was out actually reading it in the first place.
"You're being selfish," Pakkun said.
"And you're being a pest."
He heard Pakkun sigh. "I get it, you know. Got a lot of time sectioned off to this whole 'self-loathing' and 'brooding' business. Real busy guy."
"Don't forget Memorial Stone time. That's very important, too."
"Kakashi." Pakkun trotted over and plopped down on the ground at the foot of the sill. "You owe this kid, after all the shit you've put her through."
"I know. That's why I'm staying away."
"You are not about to pull the self-sacrificial card."
"I just did."
"Well, here's a novel idea," Pakkun said. "How about you just ask her what she wants?"
"Because I don't trust her judgement."
"Yours isn't exactly top-notch either."
"I guess that's why I've kept you around for so long."
Pakkun set his paws up on the bottom of the window sill and dropped his chin onto it. "You're dead set on letting Minato down, aren't you?"
There was nothing slight about the way Kakashi flinched, this time. His chest ached, and he let his head fall back against the wall.
"You're better than this. You deserve better than this, and so does she. Get over this isolationist coping shit and go talk to her. I know you think you're a walking bad luck charm, and as long as you're around her, everything's gonna go sideways. But I don't think you're giving her or yourself enough credit. And, honestly? All you're doing at this point is hurting both of you. This is counterproductive, doing more harm than good, you know. So grow a pair and deal with this, before I have to go and tell a thirteen-year-old whose already been deserted by the rest of her team that the one person who's supposed to stick by her side is ditching her, too, because you're too chicken shit. Minato never would have done this to you—he didn't do this to you, not after both of his other students died. He didn't walk away, and you shouldn't either."
And in an annoyingly soft voice, Pakkun added, "I get that you're scared, Kakashi. But most things worth doing scare us a little. Don't be a coward about this. I know you'll regret it, especially if something does happen to her down the line and you gotta live with the fact that you weren't there when she needed you."
"Rousing speech," Kakashi mumbled. "Thanks."
There was a puff of smoke, and Pakkun was gone.
Kakashi let the book drop into his lap. His gaze went skywards. At this point, he'd almost rather Minato wasn't watching over him. Almost. Like Pakkun had said, Kakashi was selfish—he got too much comfort from thinking that maybe, just maybe, Minato was up there and keeping an eye on him, even if he knew that Minato wouldn't be seeing anything that would make him proud. Disappointing Minato was a foregone conclusion.
Pakkun made it sound so easy to do otherwise, but Pakkun was always full of shit. So, Kakashi didn't have to listen to him. At all. Not for a second. No credit given. He absolutely, definitely, without a doubt did not have to ignore the voice screeching in his head about how everybody around him always seemed to die and go crawling back to Kasumi. Never. And he really didn't need to recognize that if he put in some effort, he could be a half-decent teacher and that she was a least better off with something instead of being left to the wolves.
In the corner of his eye, Kakashi saw a dish zip across the room of the apartment across from him, and he gleefully abandoned this entire train of thought in favour of watching the show.
It wasn't his problem, right?
"Uhm, well, I…"
"It's alright, you can speak up. What's wrong, Hinata?"
"With th—th… with how chakra, uh, forms. I'm having a—a—a… having a hard time balancing my yin and yang chakra when I channel it."
"Oh," Kabuto said. He tapped his pencil against his chin. "Hyuuga techniques are primarily yang based, right?"
"I see. No wonder it'd be harder for you to get used to balancing the two, especially with how exact you need to be for this." He blinked and straightened. "Ah!" he cried. "Not that your chakra control isn't good already—it's quite good! I just—well, if you're used to mainly channelling your yang chakra, it might be hard to channel the two together."
Hinata gave him a small, hesitant smile.
Kabuto cleared his throat. He dug through his books a little and pulled out a pad of paper that he set down in the middle of the table. Ino and Sakura both leaned in a bit more, too, so they could get a good look. "So, when you're channelling, you want to…"
And right along with the others, I stood up from my chair and leaned my elbows against the tabletop without a thought. It put me right by Kabuto. His hand was less than a foot away from me. It should be too close for comfort, but I didn't even think twice about it until I was already there.
We were on the sixth meeting of our little medical jutsu tutoring sessions, and a part of me was starting to relax around Kabuto. At no point did I forget that he was dangerous—I couldn't ever forget that. One glance at his signature was enough to remind me of why I felt so apprehensive about him.
At the thought, I started to zone out what he was saying—information that didn't pertain to me, as I could already form the Mystical Palm Jutsu—and focus more on the feel of his signature.
It was different from how it was when I first encountered him at the start of the exams.
Chakra signatures were not constant. They were made up of somebody's yin chakra, and so when a person's personality changed and they grew as a person and all of that, it would be reflected in their chakra signature. Kabuto always had that razor-sharp, ice-cold signature.
And it hadn't dulled. If it were an actual knife, I'd hesitate to push my finger against the blade. It just wasn't a freshly sharpened kitchen knife anymore. The edges were more jagged, rounded, like a steak knife instead. It was hard to say one way or another if it had warmed, too. The feeling of it this close still sent chills down my spine. At most, I would say that instead of a glacier, it was more like a chilly winter morning.
But there was a difference, I was certain of it.
Done with his explanation, Kabuto pushed the diagram closer to Hinata. "Does that clear it up a bit?"
"A lot… th—thank you."
He treated her to a warm smile that just… didn't feel fake to me.
The whole 'harmless and uncertain' schtick didn't fool me. It was manufactured, I had no doubt; the stutters and hesitations and jumbled words didn't strike the chord.
But that smile? It got me.
It was how he smiled when he was able to help one of us, or when one of us asked him a question that got him going on a topic and he rambled on, eager and invested. Those were the moments where I found myself in the same position as I was now, right up in his personal space, guard down, listening with as much focus as Sakura and Hinata and Ino.
It triggered all kinds of alarms in my head, flashing bright red and blaring like foghorns because I couldn't tell if I was falling victim to his ruse or if the ruse was starting to crack and reveal the shades of truth that lay underneath.
"Do any of you guys have questions?" he asked us.
"I do, actually," Sakura said.
Kabuto turned his attention to her and she flushed bright red. Ino rolled her eyes.
"I can't seem to get the chakra to like… affect the inside of the fish," Sakura said. "If there are any abrasions on the outside of the fish I can heal those! But to keep the fish alive, I can't really… seem to get it."
"I see!" Kabuto said. "Though, being able to heal anything at all is quite good progress. You're doing quite well."
If Sakura got any redder, she might have burst into flames.
That entire mess wasn't a hot potato I wanted to get burned on. At this point, I had no idea if I'd rather her crush on Kabuto or Sasuke. Both had their unique form of weird.
Kabuto ripped out the top page and handed it to Hinata, then started drawing a diagram for Sakura, explaining as he went. This time I did tune in because that was a bit of an issue I'd had myself.
"This is just about learning how to project your chakra," Kabuto said. "It's a skill that's actually kind of unique to medical jutsu, as in most other cases when you project your chakra like this, it's in the form of the desired jutsu. But the Mystical Palm Technique is essentially just a transformed version of your chakra gathered with enough concentration to become visible."
He drew a picture of the fish with hands on either side. "When you're learning, this might be a good way to help," he said. He drew little arrows, creating a circle around the fish. "Having one hand on either side makes it easier to properly circulate your chakra inside the fish."
"Won't that kill the fish?" Sakura asked. "Like, exposing it to that much chakra over its whole body."
Kabuto chuckled nervously. "Probably?"
"Aren't we supposed to be… not killing the fish?" Ino asked. She scrunched her nose. "That sounds a little counterintuitive."
"I know, but, uh. Trust me. It's necessary sometimes. Getting the sensation of properly cycling the technique a couple of times will make it easier to do it from only one point of contact—it's the kind of thing you have to feel to replicate. Once you get a feel for it, you can go back to only one point of contact, and start working towards targeting just its lungs. But I'd say for right now, just try and actually reach its lungs. Figure out how to move your chakra through its lungs and use your chakra to keep its heart beating. Then work on control."
Before I could stop the words, I asked, "What do you do to project your chakra? Do you like, visualize it?"
I tamped down the urge to smack myself.
Kabuto's face lit up. "Ah, yes! I do, actually!" he said. "It's all in the willpower, right? Like with all jutsu. It's as much mental as anything else. I imagine something, uh. Kind of like the diagram. Actually. I imagine my chakra moving through its skin towards its lung, and imagine what my chakra might look like as it circulated through the diagrams I saw of a fish's lungs."
"I'm going to try that when I get home!" Sakura said.
Ino nodded. "I will, too. That sounds like it might help."
Kabuto looked like a kid whose birthday had come a few days early, and my stomach rolled.
I wondered if I was wrong about Kabuto.
I didn't think I was, but this behaviour wasn't something I could reconcile with the Kabuto I knew from the show or the Kabuto I first met in my hospital room over a month ago, even knowing it could all be a part of his act.
Worst was that I didn't know what scared me more: the old Kabuto or the potential new Kabuto. With the old Kabuto, at least, I could count on him doing whatever he did in the interests of Orochimaru, and go off of there. A new Kabuto was a complete wildcard. Would he stick it out with Konoha? Properly get invested, make meaningful life connections, and continue working in the hospital? Or would he go off for hin interests, maybe turn into an Orochimaru 2.0 and start his round of experiments on poor, unassuming children?
I blinked. "What?"
Kabuto smiled at me, one corner of his lips twitching up. "I was just making sure you didn't have any more questions before we wrap up for today."
I almost laughed.
God, what a shitty question. And worse was that I had no idea how many layers deep it went—his cards were held so close to his chest and his poker face was rock solid.
"Alright, then." Kabuto packed his stuff back up. "It was a good session, everybody! At this rate, you'll be able to start trying this on actual people within a few months!"
Sakura groaned. "That's so far away!"
"It's actually… quite fast," Hinata said. "According to th—th—th… according to brochures on medic apprenticeships, most apprentices don't work on humans b—before six months."
Ino grinned. She poked her elbow into Hinata's side. "Been looking at apprenticing, Hinata?"
Hinata went bright red. "Well, I…"
"Hey, that's awesome!" Sakura said.
"I think you would do quite well, Hinata," Kabuto said. "With a bit of practice, you'll get it in no time."
"A—ah, well, I… uh… I. I a—a—a… Father said that I cannot."
I breathed a sigh of relief.
Not that I didn't think Hinata would make a good medic, or that I didn't want her to do what would make her happiest—I was just relieved that there was one less massive ripple effect like that in play.
"I'm sorry to hear that," Kabuto said.
"Yeah." Ino pulled a face. "Ninja clan people can be real dicks."
"Ino," Sakura hissed, frowning.
"It's true! Some of the Yamanaka elders get a stick up their butt sometimes. And don't even get me started on what I've heard from Choji about the Akimichi elders."
"I didn't realize you were so interested in being a medic, Hinata," I said.
"I have been since… since what happened to Neji."
Ino and Sakura both looked down.
'What… happened?" Kabuto asked. His eyes went wide. "Oh, sorry. That was… very nosy of me."
See, that? That was undoubtedly fake Kabuto. I could feel it in the way his chakra rippled at his words like somebody smacked the knife against a rock and it was reverberating angrily in response. His mask was always convincing—he had the expressions, the tone, and the mannerisms all down pat, as one would expect from somebody like him who melted into identities as his main line of work. But there was only so much somebody could do to control their chakra responses once I knew what to look for.
"My cousin, he… uh. His arms. One was a—a… uhm, he lost it. Th.. the other is damaged." Hinata looked down at her hands in her lap, fidgeting. "It's a bit silly of me, but I… would like to—I would like to try and fix them."
"Is that—" Sakura cut herself off, gnawing at her lip.
"I see," Kabuto said. The smile he gave was different—this, too, was not the genuine smile. This one was calculated, put on with intent. "I'm sure if you work hard, you'll get there one day."
The way his signature buzzed at his words was so intense that I felt it in my bones.
There was the kind of movement in his signature that indicated a lie, but there was something more to it. Something I couldn't pair with any specific emotion yet. But the combination rang through my skull like a stricken tuning fork.
I didn't quite smother a flinch. Neither Hinata or Sakura saw, both of them still looking down, but it seemed like both Ino and Kabuto caught the movement. Ino might not know what to make of that reaction. Kabuto, though, might be able to tease out some information from it. And that meant it was my cue to leave.
I checked the clock on the wall and said, "Oh, shit. I gotta go. Sorry! I promised Maen I'd, uh. Help him. With something."
Ino crossed her arms over her chest and scoffed.
Kabuto smiled at me, his eyes sharp. "Ah. Good thing we're done, then."
"Oh, actually, uh—if you don't mind?" Sakura said. "I just remembered, I have one more question."
Bless you, Sakura.
Kabuto dragged his attention off of me and said, "Of course. What's up?"
And so with that, I fled, making sure that Hinata at least saw me wave to her on my way out because while I felt like a bit of an asshole for ditching after that, I couldn't bring myself to care enough to hang around.
Kabuto had a way of seeing through me that set me off-center. People saw through me a lot—this whole 'I can't lie for shit' situation had been going on long enough that I was used to it—but it was different with Kabuto. Most of the time when people saw through me, it wasn't to exploit what they found.
It was like comparing a game of paintball with your friends to an actual sharpshooter aiming at your exposed back.
At least, that was how I always saw it. Except that Kabuto hadn't shot at me. And it was taking more and more effort to remember to check over my shoulder. Maybe he hadn't gotten the opportunity yet and was still trying to find his position. Maybe he was waiting for a clearer shot.
Maybe he was just somebody with a paintball gun instead of a sniper rifle.
And the worst part was that I wouldn't know until the game was over and I was either dead on the ground or covered head-to-toe in paint.
Tsunade strode through the hospital, checking her previous appointment off her list. Only three more to go for the day, then she would be back to working through that ridiculous stack of paperwork Shizune had dropped on her desk that morning.
Maybe she'd do an extra lap of the hospital after her appointments. Just for precaution's sake.
Medics bowed to her as she passed and scurried away, off to do their duties. The smell of cleaning supplies and latex lingered in the air. Chatter so loud that Tsunade could hardly hear her thoughts echo in her head. Ninja and civilians filtered through the white-walled rooms in equal measure.
More and more as each day passed, this hospital was starting to feel like home again for her. It was a good thing, she knew. Weird. A bit horrifying. But good. It was her village, now—it sure as hell better feel like home.
Tsunade shook herself.
Barely audible over the fifteen or so discussions going in their general vicinity, Tsunade could hear the set of footsteps that trailed along behind her. She glanced over her shoulder. "How've you found things so far, Yakushi?"
Kabuto perked up. "It's been very informative, Lady Hokage!"
"Good to hear," she said. "You've been a good help."
His cheeks flushed a bright red. "Ah… thank you!"
Tsunade hummed, flipping through some of the sheets on her clipboard until she found the notes for her upcoming appointment. Her eyes scrolled over them, but she wasn't reading them. Her attention was more on the boy wandering along behind her.
"How would you feel about working as my assistant for the next little while?" she asked. "Things have calmed down a bit, so right now, we've got enough medics in the rotation that they can spare you."
Well, that was a bit of a stretch. The medics on rotation could certainly make use of somebody with Kabuto's level of skill. But her interest in him took priority.
"Are—oh, wow. Are you sure, Lady Hokage?"
"Yes," she said. "Otherwise I wouldn't offer."
"Of course! I, ah. Sorry, Lady Hokage."
She waved him off.
"I would be honoured to work as your assistant."
And yes, of course he would. Whether he was a spy of some sort or truly just an incredibly skilled medic, he had things he can learn from being so near to Tsunade for so many hours of his day. There was no way he was going to turn down such an offer—it would look suspect in even the best of lights.
She planned to keep him very close.
The best-case scenario for her was that he was exactly who he said he was, and in spending so much time around Tsunade, she could help nurture his skills. There wasn't a shred of doubt in her mind that he could become a more skilled medic than her in a decade if he was given the right encouragement. And if he was a Konoha nin, that potential was invaluable.
But if he wasn't who he claimed, having him this close gave her that many more opportunities to catch him slip up. He would be right under her wing. And tucked under there, his eyes would be within pecking distance of her beak. Should he prove to be a threat to the village, to her home, then she'd peck his eyes out, and she'd do it sooner rather than later.
Tsunade smiled to herself.
It was a win-win situation. Whether or not he realized it, she had him right where she wanted them. And he wouldn't be leaving until she had what she wanted.
A little piece of paper fell in my lap, and I glanced up from my book.
Maen dropped down onto the couch beside me. He leaned back against the cushion and tossed his feet up onto the table, his eyes screwed shut. Nasty dude B.O. wafted off of him, heavy and pungent, to the point that I half wondered if he'd taken a page out of my book and decided to go train with Gai.
I dangled the page between my thumb and forefinger.
My eyebrows drew together and my nose wrinkled, more confused than surprised at this point. "Kakashi?"
"When did he—" I blinked. "Were you on a mission this morning?"
Maen hesitated, his back stiffening. Then, "I can't answer that."
I tossed my book over onto the coffee table. "That's what you're going with?"
"Is it going to work?"
He sighed. "No mission."
"Coulda just started with that," I muttered. "When did he give this to you, and why didn't he just give it to me himself or send Pakkun?"
"Kakashi does what he wants."
The scowl on my face deepened. It didn't matter that he couldn't see it—Maen had the whole freaky sixth sense thing going on that most caretakers got at one point or another, where he could just sense when I did stuff like that. He called it his 'brat-sense'.
Not that he cared. He stayed right where he was, unbothered, even though the question dodge was so unsubtle a two-year-old could have picked up on it.
Another hesitation. And this time, "We… were training together."
I was willing to get over myself for the ANBU thing, because at least on that end, Maen had his commitment to the village pushing him to take the missions. That was an important obligation. But this was a whole other ballpark. This was Maen digging in his heels in my business, even if he was doing it for the right reasons.
"What? After you spent so long telling me that he was such an asshole—"
"I never said he was an asshole."
"You came close enough."
Maen cracked an eye open. "You've called Sasuke an asshole more times than I can count, and yet you're still training with him every week."
"But I've never sat here and tried to tell anybody that they should or shouldn't—" But I guess I had, hadn't I? Maybe not with the same fervour, but I could remember months ago, telling Ino that she could find somebody more worth her time than Sasuke.
I swallowed anything else I was about to say, firmly booted off of my perceived moral high ground, and muttered, "Fuck it. Whatever."
His eye fell closed again and he draped his arm over his eyes, sighing. "Awesome."
I unfolded the little slip of paper. "Training Ground Fourteen, ten tomorrow morning."
"Ominous," Maen mumbled.
"What the fuck." I stuck my foot into his side. "What did you say to him?"
Maen batted my foot away. "Nothing."
"Like hell. You want me to believe that he suddenly changed his mind after some mysterious training session with you?"
"He brought the note with him, first of all. But I learned my lesson last time," he said. He followed it up with a scoff. "Maybe the dogs got to him."
The dogs. "Holy shit."
I dropped the piece of paper. It fluttered to the ground and landed somewhere under the couch.
Pakkun did it. Somehow, someway, he did it. Him and the rest of the boys.
I jumped off of the couch, headed towards the door. I threw my hair up into a messy ponytail on the way and shoved my feet into the first pair of shoes I saw. My coin purse sat on the table where Maen kept his house key, and I scooped it up, already running through the list Konoha's pet stores in my mind.
"What're you doing now?" Maen called after me.
The first thing I did when I saw Kakashi that morning—a full hour and a half after he was supposed to be there, and only about fifteen minutes after I got to the training grounds—was throw said bag of dog treats at his head. He plucked it out of the air and stared down at the pawprint-patterned plastic bag tied with a palm-sized lilac bow, deadpan.
"For the boys," I said. "But you can have one if you want."
Kakashi slipped the baggy into his vest and settled his hands in his pants pockets. He tilted his head, watching me with all the cool collected-ness I expected from him. His signature, though, was more agitated. It hummed with static, and in my head, the image of a Tesla coil popped up. Something that seemed benign enough from far away. A little weird, maybe, in the way it could put a charge in the air and give you that metallic tang in your mouth. But when you stretched your hand towards it and found ten thousand volts of electricity arced at your fingertips, that was when you knew what you were dealing with.
I cocked a hip and settled my hand on it, cautious. "What made you change your mind?"
"Pakkun can be very persuasive when he wants to be."
"In his own way. He reminded me of some things, you could say."
"What kind of things?"
"Mah, so nosy."
I shrugged. "I feel a bit entitled, after the mess you put me through."
"Think of it as an exercise—I was training you after all. I made you put those tracking lessons to use, and I taught you the value of patience."
I scowled at him, and I could tell that under his mask, he was giving me a disgusting little smile in return. The asshole.
But I supposed that I couldn't care much for the details. I did, mind you. I wanted all of them. But I would never get them.
I had my questions. I would always have my questions. Why did you run away from me, especially that day in the market? What kind of emotional weak points did Pakkun have to play piano on to cajole you into this? Generally speaking, what the fuck was your problem?
That said, this was Kakashi, and Maen was right about Kakashi doing what he wanted. If he didn't want to give me these answers, then he wasn't going to. I wasn't Pakkun; I didn't have the dextrous fingers of a pianist, even if I could guess what keys he had to hit to twist Kakashi's arm into doing this.
So the details couldn't matter, at the end of the day. They'd only drive me insane.
There was one thing I wouldn't budge on, though.
"Just…" I chewed the inside of my cheek. "One question I want a straight answer to, alright?"
"How do I know you're not going to just ditch me again if things get tough?"
Because they would get tough, again. We had all of the Akatsuki to fight, Orochimaru, Madara and Kaguya, Danzo, and probably still Kabuto somewhere down the line because as much as I was starting to think that maybe he wasn't bullshitting to the nth degree, I had my doubts.
If Kakashi was just going to tuck his tail and run again, I didn't want to get back into this. I didn't have the emotional budget big enough for the massive chunk Kakashi took out of it.
And this time, Kakashi sobered. He straightened his back and pulled his hands out of his pockets, letting his arms hang loose at his side instead. The gaze he locked on me sent chills down my spine. Tight and intense, his eye bore into mine.
"I won't," he said, and it was the most honest I'd ever heard him.
That was it. That was all I needed from him.
I nodded. "Okay."
The tension snapped like a twig and Kakashi's entire demeanour shifted.
All hints of seriousness were gone, replaced with a cheeriness that was disconcerting, borderline terrifying. He clapped his hands together. "Good!" he said. "Now that that's settled…"
His hands dropped onto the ground and all of the boys appeared in their slobbery, fluffy, smelly glory, a halo of dogs that surrounded Kakashi like the sea around an island.
"You have a five-minute head start before they'll come after you! I think the usual rules will do—no blood limit or weapons, weights stay on, and the whole forested section of the training grounds is fair game."
When I didn't immediately spring into action, he smiled at me. "Four minutes and forty seconds, now. Chop, chop."
So without another word, I sprinted into the trees to the right of the training grounds and threw myself forward, wanting to put as much distance as possible between myself and the boys. I knew I was about to spend the next three hours getting chewed on, spit on, and full-body tackled, but I didn't have a single complaint. In fact, I had a painfully large grin on my face.
Things felt right again. They were different—and not perfect—and they would be for a while. But having this back? It was enough to kindle the fire in my chest.
And that was worth all of the shit I had been through for it.