"I thought you might try something like that," he said.
She twisted around and glared up at him. "For a dead man you're still fast, Kakashi."
He smiled down at her. "I'm very alive for a dead man, too." He gave her a thoughtful look. "You grew your hair out again. I didn't think..."
She did something too fast to be visible, and then she was out of his grip. "You didn't think about anyone in Leaf for the past twelve years, apparently. Or you might have tried doing something to help."
Kakashi blinked. It was the first time Sonmei had seen him look genuinely surprised. "Sakura, I should--"
"But maybe you shouldn't have," she continued. "Maybe you'd have messed that up as badly as you did everything before." He opened his mouth to speak again, but she whirled on him, her eyes bright with anger and something less recognizable. "Don't say anything!"
Her steps rang out as she strode from the room.
"My wife certainly has a temper on her," Shikamaru drawled from another entrance. "You'd know that, right, Kakashi?"
Kakashi regarded Shikamaru levelly. "Your wife."
"It's a little complicated," Shikamaru said, "and I'm not going to get into--"
"No," Kakashi said, and then he smiled. "I think I understand."
"I'm not going to expect you to believe that there was love involved, but..." He paused, looking at Kakashi oddly for a moment, then shrugged. "I guess you would understand. Not many people still alive know her better than you do. But don't assume you know that much. I've been married to her for almost twelve years, and sometimes I think I barely know her." He turned and started to walk away.
"Why did you do it?" Kakashi asked quietly.
"I know why she married you," Kakashi said. "You're the only one who can handle all the scheming and planning the situation requires. I don't know why you agreed."
Shikamaru didn't reply for a long moment. Sonmei held his breath; he had a sense of being invisible. His father was about to give up a great secret, and he had the chance to hear it.
"It's the closest thing I could get to a normal life," Shikamaru said. "That's always been my dream."
Kakashi looked after him, his expression unreadable, for a long moment. "Didn't you find something better than a normal life once?"
"...she's dead now."
Shikamaru did not look back before walking away.
There was a woman in a jounin's outfit standing at the door. Between the mask she wore (much like Kakashi's, but colored an orangey-pink to offset her blue eyes, and patterned tastefully with faint flower shapes) and her hitai-ate, very little of her face was visible. Old scars streaked the visible skin like spattered paint, but wisps of her blond hair had been artfully styled to draw attention away from that part of her face. Somehow, her jounin clothes had been arranged so as to best accentuate the curves of her fit figure, and even their colors had been tweaked to have a more attractive flair to them. Her vest was even patterned to match her mask.
Shikamaru brushed past her on his way out. She glanced at him, concern flickering through her eyes, and reached for his shoulder. He let her touch him, but looked down. "Later," he muttered. Then he shrugged off her hand and walked out.
Kakashi stopped as he caught sight of the woman. Sonmei, at his side, saw his eye widen just a little, so that he looked slightly less likely to fall asleep at any moment. "Ah," he said. "Excuse me, why are you here?"
"Ino-san," Sonmei said, "this man is going to be helping Tenten-sensei teach me." Kakashi made a tiny, barely audible noise of surprise, and Sonmei suppressed a satisfied smile. He had no intention of letting this strange ninja displace Tenten.
Ino stared for a moment longer. Then she said, "I'm Sakura's best friend and Shikamaru's surviving teammate. You're her former sensei, who has been dead for the past thirteen years. I think I'm the one who should be asking you that."
Kakashi gave a soft chuckle, his visible eye squinting shut. "Sorry," he said off-handedly.
"So long as that's clear," Ino said. "I need to talk to Sakura."
"Why?" Sonmei asked.
She gave him a brief, startled look, not used to him questioning anybody. But then, he wasn't used to getting answers. This time, though, she obliged him. "The Hokage needs to speak with her. Sand has sent word that they're ready for peace talks."
"I don't remember teaching her to be a diplomat," Kakashi said mildly.
"From what she says, you didn't teach her much of anything."
He turned his head away slightly. "How harsh." But he was smiling. "Why don't you go talk to Sakura now? She's further inside. I'm sure she can see the Hokage when I'm done."
Kakashi walked right past Ino without giving her time to respond. After a minute, once Ino had gone in search of Sakura, Sonmei put on his invisibility genjutsu and followed Kakashi.
He'd had to tweak the genjutsu over the years. The problem was that eventually, people figured it out. Not most people--they assumed such a jutsu was beyond his grasp--but the ones that knew better. His mother and father. His sensei. Ino. The Hokage. The ones that mattered. He was clever, but eventually, they always figured him out.
Most kids would have given it up by this point, but Sonmei sometimes felt like invisible was his natural state. Everyone planned about him, but never with him. The village ignored him except for the occasional whispers and snickers. It was only fair he take advantage of this.
On the worst days, he felt like parts of himself were invisible even to him. But he had the feeling that if he learned enough, it would appear before his eyes. Nobody was willing to tell him these things if he asked, so he had to go invisible to find out. It wasn't like he was really tricking them--he was just returning to his natural state.
Still, he didn't actually go inside the Hokage's office. She was too good at spotting him. Instead, he crouched at the bottom of the door once Kakashi had gone inside, his ear to the space between the door and the floor.
"You're back," the Hokage said. There was no shock or even surprise in her voice.
"Sorry I was late," Kakashi said. For some reason, there was a certain deadpan amusement in his voice.
The Fifth made a small "hmph" noise. "Nobody else gets lost on the path of life like you do, Kakashi. It can't be that bad."
There was a silence in which Sonmei imagined Kakashi smiling in that cryptic way of his.
Then the noise of papers being shuffled reached him. "So," the Hokage said, "Thirteen years." Something liquid splashed into a glass or bowl. "Sake?"
"Something stronger, then?"
"I don't usually drink in company."
"Pity," Godaime said, a sage familiarity with the topic in her voice. "Drinking alone is never a good idea."
"I'll keep that in mind the next time I do it," Kakashi said.
She gave a resigned little sigh. "I hope you have good news for me if you've bothered coming back now."
"Sound is gone," Kakashi said.
"But it doesn't seem like the Akatsuki needs them any longer."
"There was an Akatsuki member there?"
Kakashi paused. Then he said, "My former student."
Sonmei pressed himself more tightly against the door.
"Sasuke was there. And you didn't do anything?" The Hokage's voice was sharp, although not yet angry.
Kakashi exhaled slowly. "Tsunade," he said (it was the first time Sonmei had ever heard anyone address the Fifth without any honorific), "he is not my student anymore. He's been studying forbidden jutsu for at least the past fifteen years. You know the chunk of Orochimaru's power he stole when he reversed the immortality jutsu? That may have weakened Orochimaru enough for us to take him out--"
"At cost," the Hokage said quietly.
Kakashi paused for a moment, then continued, "But Sasuke still has that power and a number of new tricks. I would have died there. Maybe the boy, too."
Sonmei gritted his teeth. He was always the boy.
"Although--" Kakashi stopped. Then he said, "He's not going to kill Sonmei yet."
"I hope you're right about that," Tsunade said. "He's killed a lot of other people, even if it wasn't always direct."
"Thirteen years," Kakashi said, and he sounded very tired. "For thirteen years, you, me, and Gai have been all that's left."
Nobody had ever told Sonmei about the jounin massacre. What he knew of it he'd amassed on his own power. Much to his frustration, it wasn't all that much. He knew that nearly all the elite jounins and above had been killed that night. Tsunade and one other (that must be Gai) had survived. Apparently (and here Sonmei adjusted his ideas of the event a bit) Kakashi had survived as well.
There was a strained silence from the Hokage's office, and then the sound of her pouring herself another drink. Then another.
"Should I have brought that up?" Kakashi asked.
The Fifth sighed. "Rock Lee died on the same mission as Hyuuga Neji. A month later, Gai didn't come back from a mission of his own."
One beat. Then, "But they never found a body?"
"No, Kakashi." Her tone was sharp now. "Don't start with that. There was a body. It was in pieces."
The silence that followed lasted a lot longer. Sonmei leaned on the door just a little, as if he could find a way to hear Kakashi's expression.
"Ah," Kakashi finally said, his voice as bland as ever, "I'm not sure we should be discussing these matters with the Uchiha boy listening."
Sonmei glanced to his side automatically, searching for another eavesdropper. By the time he'd registered that there was nobody else around, he'd already figured out that Kakashi was referring to him. He took a split-second to consider his options, and then he stood up, dropped his genjutsu, and opened the door.
Kakashi, sitting before the Hokage's desk, was as expressionless as ever. Sonmei was getting the feeling that this was the norm for him.
"Hello, Hokage-sama, Kakashi-san," Sonmei said.
"You've got to learn not to do that, kiddo," the Fifth said. "Or to do it better."
"I never stop trying, Tsunade-sama," he said solemnly.
Something about his words sent an instant of pain flickering through her eyes, but then it was gone, and she just arched a brow at him. "You'll get plenty of opportunity to try when your mom leaves for the peace talks with Sand later this week. You get to make sure your father doesn't permanently merge with the couch."
It was unbelievably infuriating how they'd just glossed over that name Uchiha. Sonmei opened his mouth to demand a return to the subject.
"Ah," Kakashi said.
The Hokage looked at him sharply. "You're not seriously saying you and the kid should go with the delegation."
"I don't think we have any choice," Kakashi said. "The Akatsuki has something planned, and I'd be more useful there than here."
"You would be useful here," Tsunade said quietly. Sonmei gave her a puzzled look, but she did not elaborate on the subject.
Kakashi tipped his head slightly to one side, smiling a little ruefully. "You'll pull through."
"And the boy?"
Sonmei could have screamed, but he had the feeling that throwing a fit would not help matters right now.
"The boy is my student," Kakashi said calmly, as if that excused everything.
Tsunade looked at him for a long moment, and then, as if that did excuse everything, she said, "You know him better than I do. If you think--"
Kakashi merely tipped his head slightly and smiled inscrutably, and Tsunade went quiet. Sonmei wanted to ask how in the world Kakashi could know him better than Tsunade did--not that either of them knew him well, because nobody did. Instead of saying as much, though, he just said, "I'm curious..."
"That's normal for a boy your age," Tsunade said.
"I'm curious," he said, "about whether I get any say in this."
There was a beat of silence. Then Kakashi smiled far too brightly and said, "What makes you think you don't?"
Sonmei opened his mouth, then closed it.
"You have the very important choice," Kakashi continued, "of staying home, safe, and ignorant, or coming to Sand and beyond and learning everything that's always been kept from you."
Sonmei stared at him.
"I wouldn't dream of making that choice for you," Kakashi said.
Sonmei wondered if he'd turn into an asshole when he grew up like all the adults he knew. He thought of asking if it was a prerequisite, but then the door flew open.
It really flew. He was surprised it didn't blow right off the hinges. That happened sometimes in his home--often enough that he recognized who had just come into the Hokage's office without turning around to check.
"You always told me to knock first, Mother," he said reproachfully.
"Don't talk back to me," Sakura said, and before Sonmei could reply Actually I talked first, she'd moved on to Kakashi.
She grabbed the chair out from under him and, pulling him up by his collar, threw him into the wall, where she held him by a palm against his chest. "Putting aside the fact that you vanished for over twelve years, letting everyone think you were dead so that you could run away instead of defending Konoha--" She took a swift, rough breath. "You're wasting Tsunade-sama's time when she needs to be meeting with me."
"How inconsiderate of me," Kakashi said softly.
"Don't get me started on the other things," she said. "Like surviving while better ninja and better people died."
"Sakura," Tsunade said, warning in her tone.
She was silent and still for a moment. Then she pulled her hand back and turned away. Kakashi slid to the floor. "When do I leave, Tsunade-sama?"
"The day after tomorrow." Tsunade pulled a couple scattered papers back into place in front of her and looked down at them. "Your official bodyguard is ANBU captain Hyuuga Hanabi."
"'Official' bodyguard," Sakura repeated warily.
Tsunade sighed, propping her elbow up on the desk and her chin in her hand. "Your unofficial bodyguard is ex-jounin Hatake Kakashi."
"What?" That was Sakura.
"Ex-jounin?" That was Kakashi.
Tsunade took up the latter question. "You left, Kakashi. You had to, but you still left." She paused. "Look, we're only technically allowed to send one jounin-or-ANBU bodyguard to the talks. They expect us to try to circumvent this rule, but we have to at least pretend to follow it, all right?"
"I see," Kakashi said mildly, but he looked oddly unhappy about it.
"Isn't this a little too important to let someone like him screw it up?" Sakura asked. There was that edge in her voice, the one she only got on certain subjects. Sonmei heard it sometimes when she talked about him, his past and his future--and the much rarer occasions when she talked about her past and the people that had populated it.
Tsunade rubbed at the bridge of her nose. "Sakura, if you don't shut up, I'm going to rip his page out of the bingo book and tattoo the contents on your hands. I don't care what you think he did to you. He's the best shinobi still alive in the Five Countries. Period."
Sonmei gave his new sensei a startled look. Sakura gritted her teeth. Kakashi himself merely said, "Aside from you and my students."
The Hokage eyed him thoughtfully, but did not contradict him. After a moment, she looked down and seemed to see Sonmei for the first time in several minutes. "Get out of here, kiddo. The adults have some talking to do. Go pack or something."
Sonmei paused. He waited for his mother to say something, to protest that he should stay home. Instead, she glanced down at him and said, "Do what Godaime-sama says."
So he did, but at least he scowled and sulked and muttered to himself while doing it.
After his chaotic day, sleep crept up on him with little warning. Sonmei dozed off in an old armchair with his bags (neat and compact as befits a ninja going on a mission) at his feet. His dreams were fitful and strange.
Sometime late at night, he found himself skating along the edge of wakefulness when a very soft tearing noise brought him all the way there. He cracked one eye just a tiny bit open.
The light was golden and hazy through his eyelashes, but he could make out his mother's form. She had a kunai in one hand, and she held it up near the back of her neck. He would have been alarmed if he wasn't half-convinced that this was a dream.
She was missing something.
Sonmei didn't realize what it was until he looked down around her feet. There was the form of the chakra sword she normally kept consigned to the wall--but it was nearly buried in pink strands. Now that he focused, he could see more of the strange threads still floating down through the air, like petals in a stiff spring breeze.
Even after the events of the past two days, the sleep-fogged sight of his mother's hair falling into a pink snowdrift at her feet was still the strangest thing Sonmei had seen in a very long time.