Disclaimer: Naruto belongs to Masashi Kishimoto.
Warning: I hesitated at posting this for a long time (well, it also took me forever to write), because this has been a primarily gen story, but the epilogue has a lot of references to pairings, one of which is so odd it probably couldn't be worked out except under these circumstances. So if you were here to read gen, and have no interest in pairings, you might want to stop here. All you'll miss is some politics and fighting.
"Kai" means forgiveness (at least
according to the name site I used), and breaking the strap on a
wooden sandal like Jiraiya's is considered bad luck.
For the first few years, Kakashi was not contacted for hunternin duty. Not many were sent out after the first month, when Tsunade had finished weeding out the anbu whose motivations she was suspicious of by assigning them to the task; and only one came back.
But, four months and a week after the five missingnins had abandoned Konoha, the Cloud village was contacted by the lord of the country, on behalf of the remains of an onmyouji clan that was connected to his household. The clan had been desiccated by what--if the half-hysterical stories of the surviving members could be believed--were two teenagers and a variety of impossibly-sized snakes. The Cloud shinobi had spent over two weeks trying to piece everything together, but finally were forced to give in to the lord's pushing and contact the best-known (legitimate) snake trainer in the alliance, Mitarashi Anko of the Leaf.
Anko had no sooner arrived in the small village around the Shakuhachi clan's household before sending back word that Kakashi should come to the site under whatever pretense necessary.
He was escorted to the front courtyard of the house by a Cloudnin, where Anko was waiting.
"They cleaned up a hell of a lot of this place before I got here," was the first thing she said, once they'd effectively dismissed the Cloudnin, "but I managed to keep this preserved," and she gestured to a brief set of tracks that had torn up the ground before shoving her hair away from the side of her face. When she let her arm drop again, the netting of her shirt caught briefly on the fang-made scars along her collarbone.
(Anko's body had been found by a border patrol group of the Sand, with the ingredients and instructions to create antidotes to the venoms in her blood attached to her. She'd been brought in, healed, and sent out again without any comment or appearance from Gaara.
A second letter had been attached to her, so heavily sealed that there was no risk of anyone having opened it before Temari delivered it to him.
Gaara never told anyone what was in that letter, but in the following months his siblings noticed that there was sometimes a near-calm in his expression that had been absent since Sakura told him Naruto was dead.)
Kakashi crouched by the area and studied it for a few minutes, and then figured out that it was two separate tracks from two separate jutsus, running side-by-side. It was hard to tell at first glance, but there was a straight, extended seam down the middle of the tracks which didn't match the wide groove on the right or the erratically zigzagged markings on the left.
"Ah," he said.
"Did you ever try using the chidori with that brat's attack?" Anko asked.
"Rasengan," Kakashi replied. "Once, with my teacher . . . but it didn't mesh as smoothly as this."
Anko snorted and looked over to the far wall, where there was clear evidence of repatching. "Now they start working together."
He glanced at the wall as well, noticing that there were other patches covering unfamiliarly small holes near the worst damage. "Do you have any suspicions why they did this?"
"He had to pay the snakes back," Anko said simply. "The reason there's still survivors is probably because they realized they were doing him a favor by taking this place out."
Kakashi avoided the issue of how much Anko knew about summoned snakes out of posthumous courtesy to Sarutobi, who had called her in for a discussion after Orochimaru abdicated and then allowed her to continue her rise through the ranks with no opposition. "'A favor'?" he repeated, raising an eyebrow questioningly.
"Ask one of them about the daughter of the clan head who disappeared several years ago, after being passed over as heir," Anko replied. "Then ask for a description of the man who was seen speaking to her a couple weeks beforehand."
". . . ah," Kakashi said again, and looked back at the tracks.
The occasional hunternin was still being sent whenever undeniable information came in, until the day Tsunade realized the Hyuuga clan had been sending their own search parties and then blaming the deaths on the scrimmages tied to Waterfall. They were no longer able to cover things up when Neji dragged himself into Konoha using a large branch from a species of tree that only grew in the small islands to the south of Water Country. Sakura had healed him enough that he could return, but not chase after them, and he had to go back under surgery once he'd returned for the damage he'd done to his knees with such a long walk.
"One of the main house members attempted to activate Hinata-sama's curse seal," he replied when asked why the gouges down his chest had been so deep.
Tsunade didn't speak to the elders of the clan. Instead, she had Hanabi brought to her office for a private meeting, and explained to the twelve-year-old seriously but without condescension that what the clan had been doing was the equivalent of clandestinely using and disposing of resources that were the property of the Leaf. Tsunade didn't want to imagine Konoha without the Hyuuga clan, and if Hanabi thought that there were any members of her family who felt otherwise, then it was her responsibility as the head to have the situation quickly brought to attention.
Hanabi was a girl more than intelligent enough to pick her battles.
It helped that with Neji's return, she had mostly achieved what she'd wanted.
After Neji was out of the surgery and had rested for a night, Tsunade and Jiraiya visited him in his room so he could make an official report.
From the way he chose his words when describing the attack, it was hard to tell whether Hinata had betrayed her clan by revealing the byakugan's blind spot or if the others had figured it out themselves--after all, Lee had been his teammate for nearly five years, and could have noticed the weakness during any of their missions together. He described efficiently and with little change in tone the way the other members in his group had been killed, until Lee and Sakura had finally pinned Naruto down long enough to return to himself. Hinata had drawn Naruto away from the fight while the other three covered them and Neji dragged himself back onto his feet.
It was then, near the end of his description, that the report grew complicated.
"Wait," Jiraiya said with a frown, "you're saying he summoned a clone that looked like Hiashi?"
"No, sir," Neji replied. "Uchiha performed a rapid succession of seals, and while I was dodging Rock and Haruno's attacks, he summoned a rectangular box larger than an average adult male. It was when the lid of it fell away that I saw Hiashi-sama," and Neji then went on to describe how Hiashi had spoken like himself up to the point that Sasuke, still protected by a wall of the remains of Naruto's clones, had driven a kunai with a tag hastily written in blood attached to it through the back of his skull. While he had still been battling Hiashi, someone--he suspected Sakura--had landed a blow with a sharp, drugged weapon to his blind spot. When he regained consciousness, he had found himself in the care of a small fishing family that denied any acquaintance with the people who had left him there.
"I see," Tsunade said finally, folding her arms. "When were you attacked with the mangekyou?"
". . . Never that I remember," he replied. "But I dreamed that I woke up while the five were in-route somewhere. If that wasn't a dream, it would have been then."
Tsunade nodded. "What happened?"
"Uchiha asked me if I had anything I wished to say to Hinata-sama," Neji replied. "I said no."
"Did you try to attack him?"
"No. I thought I was dreaming."
She nodded again, once. "Is there anything else you want to add?"
"That's everything I observed," Neji replied.
Tsunade didn't say anything further, and didn't move. After a minute and fourteen seconds, Neji said, still dispassionately, "I had thought I'd proved my loyalty to Konoha. However, if you disagree, that is an issue that should be taken up with my clan head."
"I didn't question your loyalty," Tsunade replied. "You're sitting here, after all."
Tenten had been waiting around the corner; two minutes after Jiraiya and Tsunade left, she came in.
"Gai-sensei's supposed to be back from his mission tomorrow afternoon," she said, opening the package of fruit on the nightstand that had been sent by Hanabi.
Neji nodded once.
"He's broken his left forearm," he said several moments later, after ascertaining that there was no one outside the room in earshot. "Badly enough that the bone still had marks after Sakura's work."
Tenten made a quiet, not entirely surprised noise, and set the package back on the table.
"They drove Kiba and Shino out while you were still in surgery," she said. "Is there anything for me to tell them, or were the bugs here?"
"They were," he replied. "But tell them that she's healthy, and pregnant. And they shouldn't talk about it."
Tenten's eyes had widened slightly with his middle sentence, but when he reached the last one, she shook her head slightly.
"If you're insulting people's intelligence,
you're fine," she said with a half-smile, and left.
Neji didn't mention to anyone the long conversation he had had with Sasuke about the Hyuuga's garden, coded so that Hinata would understand all the news he wanted to pass along.
He also didn't mention that he had told Sasuke Hanabi had requested an early wedding present from her sister, in the form of a drug that would survive the six-plus years and leave her barren after her first child. She didn't trust anyone in the village not to spread the news, even if they could create it in the first place.
The drug was sewn into the back of his weapons pouch, behind the rings to hold kunai. Lee had correctly guessed that Tenten would take Neji's accessories and hold them for him when he was put in the hospital, thus securing it from the clan's eyes until it was in Hanabi's possession.
While Neji had been describing the Impure World Resurrection jutsu, Tsunade and Jiraiya had exchanged looks.
(The looks were based on how it would be difficult to phrase the attack in the written report, however, and not on the fact that Sasuke knew one of Orochimaru's worst jutsus. They had already been aware of that, from the time that Jiraiya had hunted down Naruto.
He'd met the teenager halfway to the place they'd been tracked; the frogs had decided not to answer to either of them when they fought, and Gama Bunta had informed Jiraiya and Naruto personally, which had subsequently given Naruto an advance warning. Sasuke and Sakura had gone with him; Sasuke had summoned Orochimaru while Sakura healed her burns from the fox demon's chakra and then carried Naruto off.
Jiraiya was alive because Sasuke had given Orochimaru specific orders not to murder him, because there had been one second and one breath when Naruto had the opening to kill Jiraiya and couldn't do it. It helped that Shizune--who'd been sent by a panicked Tsunade to follow him, after the older woman learned that Jiraiya had broken the strap of his wooden sandals the night before leaving--had reached him in time to heal his wounds, none of which were fatal but all of which would have killed him before he made it to civilization.
Orochimaru had always been a master of finding loopholes; some things never disappeared no matter what the circumstances.)
For nearly three and a quarter years after that, no more shinobi were sent to hunt Konoha's five missingnins. The only contact that the village had with them afterward was a team of chuunin which ran up against Naruto and Sasuke when the two separate jobs crossed wires.
All the members of the team came back alive, if heavily wounded; it was tacitly assumed this was because Ino had been among them.
When Kakashi came to the assigning room like usual to receive his next mission, the only people in there were Tsunade and Shizune. That was all he needed.
"There's been a rumor that a pink-haired woman and a dark-haired young man brought in another man for medical treatment," Tsunade said, not looking at him but instead putting together the assignment for the person who would be coming in after him. This mission wouldn't be recorded unless he came back. "The second man had severe damage to his skeleton; bone fragments were littered throughout it."
Tsunade finally put the papers down and looked at him.
"One of the first things I taught her, when she was ready, was how to do the surgery for Rock if he ever used that jutsu again," she told him. "If she wasn't capable of performing it, something is wrong."
"The top priority is Naruto," Tsunade went on, pulling over another file and focusing her attention on it. "The Hyuuga have requested that Hinata be brought back to stand trial, given her record before; but if this creates a compromising situation, ignore it," and by that she was telling him Give no mercy, because they'll use it to their advantage.
Kakashi nodded again.
Tsunade gave him the coordinates of the hospital that the news had originated from, one located on the second largest island in Lightning County's waters, and dismissed him.
Kakashi had seriously doubted that they were living in the same place the hospital was located at, and he'd been right. It took him under a week to track them down to a different island, the one that was largest and closest to Lightning.
The intelligence he'd gathered had directed him to a small rice farming village in the higher ground, but early in the morning he found Sakura shopping in the fishing town along the route to it first. There was a young child with her, with glossy blue-black hair like Hinata's. The child looked around two; Kakashi wasn't close enough to estimate whether it would have already been conceived when Neji fought them or not.
It was easier to ascertain why Sakura had shied away from performing the chakra-heavy surgery on Lee--she was pregnant, and in either her sixth or seventh month. Her stomach muscles were still holding out, but it wouldn't be long before she began to show strongly. In addition to the basket she was carrying, there was a slightly battered pack slung over her back, with inner bulges that matched the contents of medical supplies.
Once a doctor, always a doctor, Kakashi thought, and remembered that the fastest way to catch the rare medicnins who turned missingnin was to poison or subterfugely injure a civilian and wait for the medic to be called to their aid.
That had been attempted on Sakura, twice, when they'd had estimates of locations; but each time she'd been intelligent enough to spot the trap and kunoichi enough to let the patients die while she fled.
Sakura tugged on the girl's sleeve, urging her away from a display of shell jewelry, and began heading down the road, away from him. She called a brief greeting into a restaurant as Kakashi pulled up his forehead protector and carefully slipped along behind her.
Paranoia was an inescapable part of a missingnin's life; Kakashi knew Sakura had caught his presence when she shifted the child so that it was walking in front of her, and was protected from any direct attacks.
Sakura only took a few more steps before coming to a halt. Kakashi walked up to her, stopping when two meters' distance remained between them. He checked that Sakura wasn't making a move toward her gloves.
"Hello, Kakashi-sensei," she said, and turned around. She kept a hand against the girl as she did, so that he wasn't able to get a glimpse of her face. He was more focused on Sakura's, however, especially when he realized that his eyes hadn't been failing him before: Sakura was nineteen, but she looked twenty-three. She had a faded but well-cared for scarf tied across her forehead, holding her bangs back from her face and concealing the teardrop mark of Tsunade's jutsu gone wrong.
(Sakura simply told the people in every town they passed through that she'd once had an angry patient who had scarred her badly, varying the details from time to time to keep the story from being traceable.)
"Hello, Sakura," he replied.
"You should have waited until I was out of the village," she said.
"I suppose so," he replied.
The girl was struggling to get a glimpse of him; Sakura kept pushing her back behind her legs and trying to hold her there without giving him too much of an advantage.
It was odd behavior, even for the situation; Kakashi shifted his foot slightly, Sakura tensed, and the girl managed to get underneath her hand. Kakashi felt a narrow line of tension go through his shoulders as he saw why Sakura had wanted to hide her from him: the girl's eyes were neither white nor blue like he'd expected, but black.
From the side of his vision, he saw Sakura's expression go hard and blank, and shifted to face her directly again.
". . . It was the hospital, wasn't it?" she said a moment later, after she'd pushed the girl behind her again.
"Yes," he replied.
Sakura let out an exhale that didn't move enough muscles to be a sigh. "Sasuke said we should kill those doctors, but. . . ."
She didn't finish the sentence, and instead refocused on his small movements. He did the same.
"What happened that Lee had to resort to using the Extreme Lotus?" Kakashi asked, in case an extended conversation would make her drop her guard slightly.
It was apparently the wrong thing to say, however--Sakura's expression turned angry and then colder.
"It's not the Leaf's concern any more," she replied tightly.
Kakashi found her phrasing odd, but doubted she would comment further on it. So far, the best opening she'd given him was the arm she had behind her, protecting the little girl's back.
"You're putting yourself in a difficult situation," he mentioned, glancing briefly to her arm.
Sakura just looked at him.
"She's barely a child," Kakashi said. "I'm not going to kill her."
"You should," Sakura replied harshly. "Do you think you could take her back to the Leaf? After everything Sasuke and Ita--that man did? It'd be the cruelest thing."
Kakashi couldn't deny the wisdom in that.
"Hm," he said, and looked back at her arm. "There might not be as much trouble," he suggested, "if the byakugan and sharingan canceled each other out."
"They didn't. She'll gain the sharingan."
"Not all the Uchiha managed to activate the gene."
"She was born blind," Sakura said. "I rearranged the genes when I did the surgery to make the sharingan dominant. She will."
Kakashi knew enough of medicine that he didn't bother to keep the impressed tone out of his voice, even knowing what she'd been capable of before. "Ah." He glanced at Sakura's arm again, but she had managed to keep the girl almost completely hidden behind her, so he stopped wasting the effort. "I guess that's why they felt they could take the risk?"
"I," Sakura started, and then said something else. "I don't know what they were first thinking. I guess. Hinata di--."
She paused again, and then apparently decided it was safe to tell him. "Hinata-chan didn't know enough about the byakugan medically for them to feel that comfortable depending on me, but she told me it was better than dragging another woman into our life."
"Ahh," Kakashi replied, and moved his head in the faintest version of a nod.
". . . I was against it," Sakura went on, shifting the hand behind her as if checking that the girl couldn't hear. "You know Sasuke," she continued. "But Hinata-chan said that--."
Sakura hadn't been his closest student before, but every abrupt break was an unpleasant reminder of the choices between him and his team now.
"They get along better than I expected," Sakura continued. "Even if it's weird how formal they are between each other. I'm glad I'm not from a clan if that's supposed to be normal. And then with Naruto--"
Another stop, but this one made him raise an eyebrow. "With Naruto?"
". . . ." Sakura's lips pursed slightly.
And then, for a brief second, she finally dropped her guard.
"Augh!" Sakura burst out. "They were stupid boys and they're stupid men and if I were Hinata-chan, I would smother them in their sleep and be done with it already!"
He curled the edges of his mouth up slightly. "I'm sure they're grateful you aren't."
"Not grateful enough," Sakura muttered, having recovered her stance. Kakashi nodded twice in sympathy.
"I'll take your advice, then," he added.
It took Sakura a moment to attach the statement to what she'd said earlier; when she did, her arm trembled briefly. When she spoke again, she wasn't completely able to remove the emotion from her voice. "Why did you come?"
"You three are my responsibility," he replied.
"Kurenai-san didn't come," Sakura said, and added meaningfully: "Gai-san didn't come."
"That's different," he answered.
"It isn't," Sakura retorted. "You were like a father to him."
"I don't think it was quite like that," Kakashi replied, and then closed his normal eye. "And I didn't have the permission to refuse."
Sakura didn't reply to that, maybe catching on to what he'd been attempting, maybe not feeling there was anything more to say, and instead watched him guardedly.
Killing a toddler in a foreign civilian village while he was still wearing his forehead protector would cause some trouble later on, but there was no way for Sakura to defend her back while also trying to protect the girl. Unfortunately, there also wasn't much of her back that he could hit without potentially harming the fetus.
He was still considering the best move to make when Sakura's eyes flicked, just briefly, just barely, to something past his shoulder before rapidly focusing on his own again. A second later, he heard someone throw something large at him.
Kakashi caught it without turning from her--A pot, he thought, sliding his fingers rapidly from their weak grip on the side to a much firmer one over the rim--and then heard the air whistle as something else, something smaller, was thrown much too quickly after the pot to be civilian reflexes.
He turned half to the side, saw the dull glint of metal in the light, and blocked the knife with the pot. The man behind him threw a second one that Kakashi caught as Sakura yanked the girl off her feet and fled, and before he could make a move after her, the man was running at him.
Kakashi grabbed his arm and knocked his feet out from under him, noting that it was too easy--the man wasn't good enough to be challenging him head on, especially not when Kakashi had the sharingan. And from the look in the man's eyes as he tried to catch himself with his free hand and feet before his back hit the ground, he was aware of the difference in their levels. He was attacking suicidally to give Sakura the chance to escape.
He had surgical scars along his forearms.
Sakura's work was very precise, Kakashi thought to himself as he slammed a knee down into the man's stomach, making him hack violently. He then twisted the arm in his grip around until he could break it at the elbow more easily, and stood up. The man curled in around his arm; Kakashi took off in the direction Sakura had fled, following her scent.
Sasuke's first thought as he dropped the hoe he'd been using was Not him even though he'd been waiting for it for the last four years.
Naruto was already slogging across the other rice field he'd been working in, calling to him. Sasuke used chakra to shove his feet onto the surface of the water and took off for the edge, no longer caring about the villagers they were surrounded by.
Naruto followed his lead, shoving chakra into his feet and screaming over his shoulder for Hinata. It wasn't necessary--she was already coming out of the house in the distance, because even if she didn't recognize Kakashi's chakra, Sakura was using her own as an obvious warning.
For one second, Sasuke didn't know why Naruto was telling her to come--it was their teacher, their fight, and someone needed to throw their stuff together and help Lee--and then he remembered that Sakura had taken their daughter shopping with her.
Then he remembered his plan, and skidded to a stop even while slamming his hands through the seals to transport. Naruto stopped as well, scraping his hand through the dirt as extra ballast and swinging around to stare at him.
"I'll catch up, go!" Sasuke snapped,
and disappeared before Naruto could demand anything.
Once Sasuke was gone, Naruto didn't wait.
He shoved himself back out of the crouch and tore off in Sakura's
Sasuke appeared thirty-three seconds later, on a tree branch slightly ahead of him. Both of his sleeves were pushed up, and an arm guard was dangling by a strap from the left one. He was holding the second guard between his teeth. Sasuke started tightening it even as Naruto reached him, and they continued running toward the point where Kakashi was catching up with Sakura.
"Clones," Sasuke managed to say half-clearly enough that Naruto understood him.
"Sent 'em already," he replied.
Sasuke finished with the first guard and yanked the other one free of his teeth, shoving it on.
"What'd you get those for?" Naruto asked as they cut right when they felt Sakura's chakra cut left.
"Hinata's still behind," was Sasuke's incongruent reply.
He sensed Naruto and Sasuke closing in, assumed the third chakra was Hinata's, and didn't manage to catch Sakura before they all reached each other.
Hinata was both the weakest one--blind in one eye and never the best of her generation--and the most dangerous: the one he hadn't trained, the one whose basics he didn't know. She was also the one he didn't have to worry about, because as soon as Sasuke made the opening, she'd grabbed the little girl and fled, her back protected from Kakashi by Naruto's chakra and half a dozen of his clones.
Naruto used the fox demon's chakra far, far more easily than anyone who'd fought it nineteen years ago could be comfortable with, even if things hadn't been what they were. It wasn't so much that he openly relied on it, as that it bled over into even the smallest tactics he used--afterflickers of chakra a red that was half-indistinguishable to the sharingan's followed all his movements, feet and hands. Kakashi had difficultly pushing back the instinct not to let Naruto out of his sight in order to fight Sasuke and Sakura properly.
But he was their teacher, and he did have more life experience over them, and he was the one who'd been training in a large ninja village while for the last four years they only had the five of them and the occasional ninja they came across during jobs to practice against. It also helped that the frogs hadn't been answering to Naruto since Jiraiya nearly died, that Sakura had never even tried to summon slugs since leaving, and that Sasuke had apparently decided Kakashi was not Anko and therefore he wouldn't call the snakes against him. Kakashi had refrained from summoning his dogs as well, partly because he didn't want to see them massacred by the fox, and partly because he had been making several mistakes since seeing Sakura in the market and this was only one more.
All in all, even at three to one, the fight had been pretty even-handed right until the moment that Kakashi slammed his fist into Sasuke's chest.
Over the last two years, Sasuke had practiced taijutsu and fighting while wearing arm guards and a chest plate that he'd taken from one of the hunternin, until he'd memorized how he moved in them. Kakashi had gotten a hit to his right arm and seen a wire cut through his sleeve to the guard on the other, and assumed that the younger man was wearing the chest plate due to his movements. Sasuke had shoved his hand just up enough to save his heart.
Kakashi's reflexes were good enough that he stopped as soon as he realized it was flesh and not alumina ceramic beneath the shirt, but the ribs he'd aimed between were shattered and it felt like he'd scraped Sasuke's left lung. A breath later, Sasuke hacked violently, coughing up red-tinged saliva, which confirmed it.
Kakashi rejected the bodily reaction to swallow, and swung his free hand up even as Sasuke gripped a fist around his trapped wrist tight enough to make the bones grind together. All he needed was to get a hold on Sasuke's spine, and then there would be one less missingnin, the one less the one that knew him better than the others.
But he moved too slow, again; another mistake.
Naruto, snarling so loud that it obscured whatever Sakura was shouting, grabbed Kakashi's arm and wrenched it behind him, dislocating the shoulder in the process, even as Sasuke used the hand not around his wrist to claw at his mask until he'd yanked Kakashi's head down enough to glare into his eyes.
Sasuke's sharingan was in the mangekyou.
Shit, Kakashi thought, and didn't manage to look away before the colors of the world inverted themselves.
It was the same clearing they had been fighting in; the only differences were that Naruto and Sakura were no longer there, Sasuke was standing a meter away from him, and there was no bloody saliva on his mouth or chin.
Sasuke pulled the glasses he'd been wearing off and folded them, before hooking one of the stems over the chain of his brother's necklace.
"You won't die," he said. "In here, if I do. And Sakura won't let Naruto kill you."
"That's good," Kakashi replied.
"It was the hospital, wasn't it."
"Mm-hm," he replied. "What happened?"
"Akatsuki's still after Naruto," Sasuke replied, and Kakashi's blood stilled. "We cau--. . . ran across them during a job."
". . . Ah," he replied, and wondered whether the rephrasing was a cover for a mistake of one of the others or a lie.
"What's her name?" he asked a few moments later, after all Sasuke had done was fold his arms and glare at a point somewhere to the left of Kakashi's shoulder.
". . . Kaimi."
"Kaimi . . ." Kakashi mused. "Who named her, Hinata or Naruto?"
Sasuke started to say something, and then stopped. When he did answer, he was slightly redder than before. "Hinata."
Kakashi nodded, unsurprised; wordplay wasn't something Naruto had been interested in before, and Sasuke had never been one fond of forgiveness, for others or himself.
"I taught someone else the chidori," Sasuke said, abruptly, because all his confessions to Kakashi were abrupt.
"Ah," he repeated. "Who?"
"A student of mine. From Oto," Sasuke added unnecessarily. "The one who helped us escape that night."
"I see," Kakashi replied. "It won't be any use to them without the sharingan."
"I know," Sasuke replied, and that brief statement made Kakashi suspect that there was an undercurrent to things that he wasn't aware of; he thought back to the ninja in the other village, and wondered what had happened to his arms that had required surgery in the first place.
"Leave us alone," Sasuke said. "We haven't even entered Fire Country since then."
"You know it's not that simple," Kakashi replied.
"No one came after us for three years."
"After you killed over a dozen members of the village's best clan."
Sasuke almost replied to that, but then changed his mind. "They should have abandoned Hinata," he said instead, flatly. "We're not your responsibility. We made our own choices."
"As long as I have this eye, you are," Kakashi answered.
Sasuke only stared at him after that, and the mangekyou didn't permit Kakashi to read his face, if there was anything there in the first place.
"Don't follow our scent," he finally said, and added: "She won't heal you enough for you to be able to."
"I have my orders."
"You could have killed Sakura before we knew you were here," Sasuke replied, finally calling him on it, "if you'd tried. It's permissible for a hunternin to kill a missingnin in public. You could have killed me before Naruto reached you."
It was Kakashi's turn to simply watch him, showing no emotion.
The world around them was starting to disintegrate--the trees in the distance were blurring together, growing lighter in this place of opposite colors--and while Sasuke was still giving away nothing, his jaw was tense and his hands were hidden in the crooks of his elbows. Kakashi wondered if one of them were dying, and decided to hope it was Sasuke. He would never hear the end of it from Obito if he died so painlessly.
The line of fading trees had encroached closer when Sasuke finally jerked his gaze and his head to the side, spitting out "Keh" under his breath.
"I mean it, don't follow us," Sasuke said, looking back to him. "I'll, we'll--hurt you if I have to. I'll protect them."
Kakashi tilted his head slightly.
"It's good to see you've grown," he said.
Sasuke started to answer, then cut himself off again and looked to the side.
More of the trees faded pale, until there wasn't much beyond where they were standing, and Sasuke wouldn't look at him again.
"I never could like you," he said quietly. "You always reminded me how stupid and young I was."
Kakashi gave him a small, sad smile that Sasuke couldn't see through the mask and that he kept out of his eyes, and the last of the trees went.
When he regained his mind, he was on the ground with his head tilted awkwardly to the side, and his arm was still painfully dislocated and very wet. Kakashi recognized it was blood as soon as he realized that he shouldn't be so dizzy from the mangekyou alone. He didn't have time to react, because his attention was focused on the chakra burning his back and the knee Naruto was digging into his spine, and on Sakura, who was kneeling by Sasuke with her hands against his chest. The area of her pants along her upper thighs was stained, which he noticed because it oddly wasn't discolored enough to be blood.
"--the trapezius!" Sakura was calling, without looking away from Sasuke. "Count six vertebrae down from the top, the left side, and don't push in too far!"
Naruto had one clawed hand digging into the nape of his neck; his mask had been ripped down enough to bare it. There was the faint tap of a needle against the bones of his spine that caused Kakashi's instincts to flare, as Naruto counted. He hesitated when he reached the sixth.
Naruto bent down slightly, knee digging further into Kakashi's spine and the muscles beside it as he did, until he was close enough to the older man's ear that he could speak and Sakura probably couldn't hear, not concentrating on Sasuke as much as she was.
"If he dies . . ." Naruto whispered, and the hand on Kakashi's neck tightened convulsively, drawing blood. "If any of them. . . . Leave us alone. Leave us alone. If you don't, I'll . . . tell Tsunade I'll--"
His voice cracked. It was still shaking as he said to Kakashi: "If you don't I'll go back and finish what it started. Tell her."
He didn't get a chance to reply; Naruto shoved the needle in immediately after, a little harder than necessary.
When he woke up, he was in a small house that bore the signs of being recently ransacked. A few mats were still thrown to the side.
He tracked them to a stream running through the woods on the opposite side of the village. But though Sakura had generously healed his arm and popped his shoulder back into place, his right leg felt as though she'd broken the main bone and then fused it back together off center--even the brief walk forced him to put nearly all his weight on the left. He could pick their scent up again, but he'd never be able to catch up.
Kakashi studied the water for a minute, then turned around and hobbled his way back to the house.
As he passed through the village again, the people were quieter than normal and went about their work self-consciously. Children were conspicuously absent.
The house turned up more than he'd expected--some clothes, the bedding he'd been placed on, cooking utensils, a few letters to people in Konoha. It looked like they'd been living in the place for several months, an impressively long period of time for five missingnin to go without being exposed. Kakashi picked up two shuriken from one of the hidden pits dug under the mats and tucked them into his pack beside the letters and his torn mask.
He made his way back to the fishing village and arrived a little before dusk. He wasn't that surprised to see that the ninja whose arm he'd broken was no longer in the street, though he was a little disappointed--the treaties forbid him from doing anything other than speaking without threats to the civilians without a shinobi from whatever village they were protected by present, and while that rule was commonly neglected, Konoha had been having more and more trouble with Waterfall of late and didn't need another problem on a different border. Questioning a missingnin raised its own issues, but only if the village he'd gone missing from found out.
He stopped at the restaurant Sakura had passed by for dinner. The service was quick, but not very cordial. He read the letters while waiting.
Naruto's was written to Iruka, the handwriting made sloppier by the speed, and a few places were solidly blacked out. Kakashi supposed none of them had ever told him the man died in Akatsuki's attack, and then decided it was for the best. The letter also indicated, most likely by accident, that the five of them were in the habit of splitting up at times and then meeting back together again, which explained why Konoha had never received as much news as it should have if all five of them had been traveling in a group for the last four years.
Hinata's letter was two in one. The first sheet of paper was to her team, saying that she was fine, with a note to Shino about a strange species of ant in Earth country and another to Kiba about an interesting mixed-breed dog she'd seen in Bird. The second was unaddressed, which was a safe way of ensuring it would reach Hanabi's hands without implicating her, and was a little poem with oddly-chosen kanji that Kakashi couldn't decipher--it could have been coded news, a congratulations that presumed Neji and Hanabi had forced their marriage through the disputes of the clan elders, or a recipe for a local stew, among several other things. Kakashi half-hoped that it was one of the more innocuous options, for Gai's and Hanabi's teacher's sake and because Neji was in the pre-selection process for the anbu and it would be a shame to lose his talent.
The letter to Gai was in Lee's words and Sakura's handwriting. It began with the statement that he and Sakura had finally properly married, having had to wait another two years since the age for civilian villages was eighteen rather than the sixteen of shinobi ones. It asked Gai to give his apologies to his mother for not inviting her to the ceremony, and also asked the man to accept his apology for not requesting he stand in for Lee's father. Kakashi put the letter away without reading farther than that.
Sakura must have thought Ino or her parents would throw away their letters without reading them, because she'd written nothing. Neither had Sasuke.
"Whose son is that man whose arm I broke?" he asked, when the owner, an older woman, came to take his dishes.
Her shoulders stiffened slightly before she answered, "No one's. He was a drifter that came in here a couple years ago."
"No he wasn't," Kakashi replied pleasantly. "His arms would have been too damaged for him to be able to hold a job unless someone had a responsibility to employ him. Sakura was only here half a year at most."
She hesitated for several seconds, and finally said quietly: "His mother--died a few years before he returned from Rice Field country. We took him back in because he was just a stupid little boy when he left. But he never talked about where he'd been to anyone, and I don't know where he went, he just . . . ran into his room and ran out again with a bag and disappeared in the middle of the street."
That must have hurt, Kakashi thought, and nodded once. "That was wise of him," he replied. "He would have been brought back to my village and tortured for information on those missingnins he prevented me from collecting if he'd stayed."
The woman left.
She'd still been lying about the first part--she'd glanced to the bottom left--but the rest seemed true. The fact that the man had been a Soundnin raised some questions about Sasuke and why Sakura had healed him in the first place that Kakashi didn't like.
After he made it back to Konoha and was resting in the hospital after having his leg rebroken and healed correctly, he handed over the letters and mentioned all his suspicions to Tsunade, except for those about how much Neji had conversed with the five missingnins years before. The poem spoke for itself, and he considered it Gai's problem, anyway.
"Why did you let them catch up to her?" Tsunade asked him, sitting in a chair at the foot of the bed, arms folded under her chest.
"Sakura was visibly pregnant," he answered. "I was trying to find the best way to knock her unconscious without damaging the child."
Tsunade didn't reply for a few minutes, and then finally exhaled and glanced down at the report he'd written while still sluggish from painkillers. "You noted possible damage to her legs, but the stain wasn't blood-colored?"
"If she was past twenty weeks, that might have been the amniotic fluid." She glanced to Shizune, standing beside her.
The other woman hesitated before speaking. "If it's a premature birth, they won't have been able to go very far. We can hunt for hospital records or police records of an abandoned stillborn, but . . . with what Uzumaki said. . . ."
Tsunade nodded once, slowly, before looking back to Kakashi.
"Do you think he was serious?" she asked.
"Yes," he said simply.
Tsunade nodded again and said, "Shizune, look for the records personally."
"Tsunade-sama. . . ."
"We have to try," she replied, "if Akatsuki is still involved. Exterminating the fox demon's vessel before they can take it is my duty as Hokage."
Shizune nodded once, glanced at Kakashi from the side, and left.
Tsunade let her arms drop and stood up. "You should be ready to sign out in another day," she told him, before departing herself.
Leaving the hospital was not something he looked forward to; it meant the worst was still to come.
The letters had already been analyzed and handed over to their respective parties by the time Kakashi signed himself out. Kurenai would have the patience to bump into him when they were both in the area around the tower tomorrow evening; Gai was waiting for him in the hospital lobby.
Ino stomped up to his apartment two days later, when the news had trickled down to her level. She banged on his door for a full twelve minutes before Kakashi decided she wasn't going to assume he was in the shower like the Hyuuga representative--one of the few family members that Hanabi considered trustworthy enough to come in her stead--had the day before. Konohamaru attempted and failed to ambush him in the street, but Kakashi spoke to him anyway. Sakura's father took five days to come by his apartment for a brief and uncomfortable conversation.
It was about a week before he could walk around the village comfortably, sure that everyone who wanted news had already found him. It was a week after that that he felt he had regained enough anonymity to visit the memorial stone.
The stone had been turned partly, so that the side Konohamaru had scrawled Naruto's name on was in the back, facing the trees. The marker lines had eroded years ago, but no one had bothered to return it to its original position.
Kakashi slouched in front of the memorial and wondered how things might have gone if Naruto's name had been carved on there for real.
But wondering like that opened up too many possibilities, from what could have happened if he'd failed them all that day to what might have happened if Itachi had been accused of insubordination in the field and assassinated like several of the anbu had been murmuring about a few days before Shisui's death. And he knew that brooding over things like that was pointless--choices made couldn't be changed. Even if the actions were mended, the intentions lingered.
Sasuke, Sakura and Naruto seemed to have learned that from him, at least, though he still wished they hadn't applied it the way they had.
Kakashi stood in front of the memorial stone for a few more minutes, hands in his pockets; and then he nodded at it once and left.