A/N: Thanks to my beta, Kilerkki:) And thanks to all my reviewers!
After the nominations were finished and the details of the exams sorted, Sandaime called out, "Orochimaru-san and Namikaze-san stay behind. The rest of you are dismissed." Minato pushed through the disappearing crowd of jounin to join Orochimaru at the front of the room. Had it been anyone else, he would have said hello, but he had discovered a long time ago that Orochimaru liked to pretend that his teammate's favorite student didn't exist.
Sandaime settled in his chair and took a long draw on his pipe, studying the two of them. "Orochimaru, I've sent Jiraiya on a fact-finding mission to Hidden Rock."
Jiraiya-sensei didn't look like the type to be a good spy, but that was the point. He had an uncanny ability to get the information he needed. Even if most of that information did come from every tea house and brothel in the Five Countries.
"I have reason to believe that Hidden Rock and Rain have formed an alliance that centers on this exam. Jiraiya is under orders to uncover their purpose, but I'd like you to go as well, Orochimaru. Your ways of obtaining information may be useful." Orochimaru's ways made other nin shudder.
"Yes, Sarutobi-sensei. I'll tell Jiraiya you sent me to help." Orochimaru was always respectful to his former sensei, but Minato had no doubt he'd be taunting Jiraiya about needing support.
"That's not all. You're to stay in the area, and send back regular reports. When Minato-san arrives near Hidden Rock, you're to brief him, and offer him any help he needs." It was the first time he'd ever used Minato's first name, Minato noted with a hint of pleasure at the honor.
He looked over at Orochimaru. Minato suspected that the other ninja wasn't happy with his orders now, but the sannin's expression didn't change.
"What is my mission, Hokage-sama?" Minato asked.
"Your mission has two parts, Minato-san," said Sandaime. "The first is to become familiar with Hidden Rock. Any information you can learn will help us in the future. I'll expect a full report when you return."
"As a foreign jounin, they'll be watching me closely," Minato pointed out.
Sandaime nodded. "It was to be expected. I suggest you do your best to appear harmless. You have yet to make your reputation outside Konoha. You can also use Kakashi-san as your shield."
"Shield?" Minato repeated, frowning. He didn't like the idea of putting his student in even more danger.
"Kakashi-san will be the youngest genin to ever take a chuunin exam. They will be underestimating him."
Minato's thoughts were grim. Now that Sandaime pointed it out, he could see how Kakashi could be used. A foreign jounin in a forbidden area would be killed without questioning, but a lost six-year old, even if he was a genin, could hardly be a threat. They would assume Kakashi passed the first two exams due to his teammates, and by the time Kakashi showed his real skills in the final fights, it would be too late.
It wasn't a certainty though. Kakashi could easily encounter a shinobi who would kill a child in cold blood and there was surely some in Hidden Rock who would want revenge on the White Fang through his son. He resolved not to use Kakashi that way unless he had to. Minato could appear harmless and stupid. According to most that was how he'd spent the first half of his life.
"Do I have permission to inform Kakashi of the mission?"
"Tell him what you need to," said Sandaime, dismissively.
Minato gave a small sigh of relief. He could prepare Kakashi then. Getting his student to act young and innocent would be a challenge, but Kakashi was always a fast learner. Kakashi hated when people didn't acknowledge him, but that could only work to his advantage on this mission.
"The second part of your mission is to thwart Hidden Rock's plan for this exam. If you can find a way to destroy the alliance between Rock and Rain, all the better."
Minato blinked. That was a lot of responsibility.
"I cannot give you any specific orders without more information, so I'm leaving the mission details to your discretion. You will hopefully know more when you reach Hidden Rock. Orochimaru will be at your disposal, as will Saburou-san."
"One question, Hokage-sama. Do you expect me to fail or succeed?" asked Minato.
Sandaime inclined his head to acknowledge the question. "Jiraiya claims you're one of the most inventive and resourceful ninja of our time."
It was shocking to hear. Jiraiya's idea of praise was to scold you for being a stubborn blockhead.
"Your rasengan is a remarkable original jutsu. I need resourcefulness on this mission."
"So you expect him to fail then?" asked Orochimaru suddenly. Minato gave the other jounin a startled glance. It didn't do to forget Orochimaru was there, yet he had. He focused his gaze back on the Hokage. He had also allowed the crafty old man's praise to distract him from his first question.
"I expect him to do his duty." It was another non-answer. The Hokage stared at him and Minato met his eyes steadily. They stood there for a long moment, until a faint smile graced the old man's lips. "In truth, I expect nothing can avert this coming war, but I would be a pessimistic old fool not to try."
The candid admission brought a smile to Minato's face. "From one fool to another, Hokage-sama, I don't mind trying."
Leaving headquarters, Minato was disconcerted to find that someone was walking beside him. One startled beat of his heart, and he recognized Hatake Sakumo nonchalantly keeping pace with him. The tall, masked-man didn't say anything, and Minato would almost have thought that it was a coincidence except for the fact that the other man continued to shadow him even when he left the building.
Minato nodded at the other man, but Sakumo didn't respond. The lack of greeting was typical of the elder Hatake. Sakumo on duty was a cold professional. With friends and teammates he was apparently a lot more relaxed, but since Minato wasn't a friend or teammate and was from a completely different generation, he had never seen the human side of Sakumo. No, that wasn't true. Sakumo genuinely cared about his son.
That was perhaps why Minato wasn't close to Kakashi's father. Minato was Kakashi's commanding officer. Sakumo understood what that meant more than anyone. He was a genius too, after all.
It was surprising to see the other man approach him. Minato had gotten the impression that Sakumo arrogantly and correctly assumed Kakashi's achievements spoke for themselves. Up until now, their exchanges had been limited to polite greetings and farewells. When he first became Kakashi's sensei, Minato had meant to ask the elder Hatake what exactly he had taught the boy over the years, but his first meeting with the other man had been intimidating. It wasn't the older ninja's power or reputation. Minato had trained with one of the legendary Sannin, and he knew all the Sannin well enough to know they were human, though perhaps Orochimaru was less so. No, Sakumo was intimidating because he appeared to be exactly what everyone claimed he was – the perfect ninja.
Part of Minato was aware that perfection came with a price, and that Sakumo couldn't possibly be as perfect as he seemed, but the rest of him was in awe. The White Fang had never failed a mission. Never lost a teammate. It was easy to see why Kakashi idolized his father, even if Minato was fairly certain he could take the older ninja in a fight. He grinned faintly at the idea. Maybe some sparring would be a good way to get to know his student's father better.
"I have the next week free," said Sakumo, breaking into his thoughts. Minato noted that the other man hadn't spoken until they were alone on one of the back streets that ran towards his and Kakashi's usual meeting spot. "I'd like to teach Kakashi something for the exam when his team can spare him."
There was no point in asking what he was going to teach him. Kakashi would tell his sensei readily enough later unless it was a clan secret. "I'm sure that can be arranged, Hatake-san." He smiled at the other man. Kakashi would be pleased to spend more time with his father.
"It's good that he'll be with a team for once," said Sakumo, awkwardly continuing the conversation. Minato tried to keep the surprise off his face. He had been under the impression that Sakumo was either unaware or unconcerned about Kakashi's isolation. Considering the way he turned everything the boy ever did into a lesson…
"Teamwork is important, Hatake-san. I hope Kakashi-kun will learn that too."
His answer had been sincere, but Sakumo seemed upset by it. Now that he looked, there was something odd about the normally stoic ninja.
"We all do our duty."
It was a near surreal answer. Minato was frustrated that, unlike his son, Sakumo's mask really did hide his emotions. "I know," he said finally. It was apparently the right thing to say, since Sakumo nodded and turned away.
"Hatake-san!" Minato called after him. Sakumo had to be worried about Kakashi. He waited until the other man turned. "Kakashi-kun is my teammate. I will always protect him."
Sakumo's eyes were cold, and Minato knew it had been the wrong answer to a question he hadn't even known the other man had asked. "No, you won't. Everyone fails."
He felt a sharp flare of anger. "What do you know about it? You never fail!"
"Everyone fails," Sakumo repeated flatly, but this time Minato caught the flash of sadness in his eyes. He watched the other ninja walk away. The other man's depression was contagious. He hoped that neither of them ever failed Kakashi.
Ten days passed quickly, and Minato found himself waiting patiently for the last of their group to arrive at the meeting place before they left the village. Both their teams were missing a member – Yoshino-san and Kai-kun, but it was only five minutes past six, so there was still some time before he and Saburou needed to worry.
Ume-san was pacing. For someone who appeared to dislike her teammate, she seemed rather worried. By contrast, her other teammate, Arata-kun was sleeping on the ground, his head pillowed on his pack. Masuyo was playing with his wires, while Kakashi stood stoically a few feet away.
His temporary team was a bit rough around the edges. Kakashi had been quieter than usual, which meant the boy was communicating almost solely in one word sentences. Minato hadn't been able to talk to him alone yet and figure out why. Kai and Kakashi, at least, worked together with their usual efficiency. The two boys had an unusual friendship that seemed to be based around their enjoyment of quiet and solitude. Unfortunately, this meant that the older Masuyo with his constant sarcasm and his unconscious need to be near other people appeared even more abrasive than he would have normally.
Minato knew the reasons behind Masuyo's behavior, and was willing to be lenient. The young man had been relatively well-behaved since that first meeting with Kakashi, but the true test of their teamwork would be during the exam, and that was the one place Minato couldn't protect them.
Not that he would have much time for anything other than the mission on this trip. Sandaime's comment on inventiveness had inspired him, and his spare time had been spent developing and testing his latest jutsu. It was a good jutsu. Once the groundwork was laid for it, he would be in the perfect position to spy on all of Hidden Rock. No matter how he looked at it though, he would need Kakashi's help.
For Minato, acting harmless wasn't hard. He had learned that a smile did more to disarm a person than any type of jutsu. It worked even better on ninja. Ninja weren't supposed to show emotions, therefore a ninja who showed emotions couldn't be a very good ninja. He could always follow his sensei's example when they reached Hidden Rock and flirt shamelessly too.
But Kakashi hadn't done any infiltration training. Would the kid be able to understand the value of misdirection, even when it made you look like a fool? There was only one way to tell. He would have to spend this two day trip training his student.
Yoshino-san and Kai-kun arrived at almost the same time. Yoshino-san was immediately accosted by Ume-san who started scolding her about some boy. Minato exchanged a glance with Saburou and decided he didn't want to know. Kai's arrival was even louder.
"Kai! You have to bring me a present too!" Kenchi was Kai's fraternal twin, though you could be forgiven for thinking they were identical - if you disregarded their completely different styles and personalities. "Just because Cho asked you first doesn't mean you can ignore me!"
Kenchi was also the only person who could get Kai to loose his patience. "You would never have asked if she hadn't asked me to pick up the shuriken." The look of annoyance on Kai's face was so entertaining, Minato had to look away so the boy didn't notice his grin.
"Not true! I was going to give you a list," said Kenchi with a conniving smile. He was probably taking out his frustration at failing the chuunin exam and not being nominated again on Kai.
Kai gave him a blank stare. "You get one item."
"Caltrops. Good quality ones."
Minato stared at Kenchi. Just what did the boy want with those? Hidden Rock had a lot of mineral resources, so it only made sense that they had a fine trade in metal weapons on the side, but caltrops were not a favored weapon here in Konoha.
"Fine," said Kai. "Will you let us leave already?"
"Sure," said Kenchi. "Oh yeah, good luck. Come back with some good scars!" He ran off, which was good since Kai looked like he was going to punch him.
Minato clapped his hands together to get everyone's attention. "Let's get going! Kakashi, you're on point with me." He ran, heading for the gates, knowing that Kakashi would follow.
An hour later, Minato and Kakashi had settled into a walk. They were far enough ahead that no one would overhear them, and both were on alert for the unlikely chance of ambush. Minato debated bringing up his student's quietness or the mission first. The mission would certainly be easier to deal with.
"The Hokage assigned me an additional mission for this trip. I'm not going to be able to train you much." He was sorry about that. Kakashi already had the basic skills to make chuunin, but there was no such thing as being over prepared. Minato would also have loved to teach Kakashi something flashy so he could show off at the exam.
"Okay," said Kakashi.
Minato spent several long seconds waiting for Kakashi to continue, then sighed. He was getting sick of one-word answers.
"You want to talk?" There were a number of things that could be bothering his student and there was no point in guessing if Kakashi was willing to tell him.
"No," said Kakashi, and quickened his pace.
That was it. "Too bad."
Kakashi really did have the coldest glare he had ever seen on a six-year old. "You can't make me!"
"I'm your commanding officer," Minato reminded him gently. "This mission is more important than the exam, and I need you to be focused."
"You need me?" Kakashi never looked younger, or more lonely.
They walked onwards, and he gave Kakashi a few moments to think. He sometimes thought the reason Kakashi didn't speak much was because the boy spent so much time formulating the perfect question or considering the consequences of saying something that he missed his opportunity to speak. Of course, when Kakashi did speak without thinking he tended to be a brat, so perhaps he should encourage this thoughtfulness.
"What do you do when you're alone?" Kakashi asked finally.
It wasn't the question that Minato had been expecting, but he answered readily enough. "You shouldn't have to be alone. You can rely on your teammates. Your friends."
"What if they die?"
"You grieve. You remember them, and you make new friends." These questions should have been difficult, but they were basic thoughts that all ninja had to consider at some point. Minato had already found his answers, and he hoped Kakashi would accept his until he found his own.
Kakashi glanced at him. "Is that all right?"
"What?" He suddenly felt like he was getting a head start on acting stupid on this trip.
"To grieve," said Kakashi, as if it was obvious. "Ninja aren't supposed to show emotion."
"You don't have to show an emotion to feel it." Someone had told Minato that a long time ago. "Grieving helps you remember a person, and to say goodbye."
"But it makes you so weak…" said Kakashi softly. Minato had a feeling he had finally hit the heart of Kakashi's problem.
"Would you believe me if I said it's okay to be weak sometimes?"
"No," said Kakashi after a moment's thought. Minato felt a surge of affection for the stubborn boy walking next to him. He messed up Kakashi's hair, then left his hand on his head. Kakashi unconsciously leant into the hand as the boy elaborated. "When a ninja is weak, people die. The ninja dies."
"Do you know any ninja who are always strong?" Minato half-expected Kakashi to name his father but…
"No." There was a hint of despair in Kakashi's voice.
"So what's the answer?" Minato asked softly.
"To be stronger than everyone," Kakashi whispered.
Minato wanted to tell his student that it wouldn't work, but he doubted Kakashi would listen. Minato certainly hadn't listened all those years ago. Kakashi would learn, and hopefully the lesson wouldn't be too painful. In some ways, it was comforting to know that Kakashi still had a ways to go before he matured. He stared down at Kakashi's determined face. It was time to cheer the boy up.
"The Hokage recognized your strength when he suggested I include you in this mission."
As expected, the thought that the strongest ninja in the village had acknowledged him, brought a new light to Kakashi's eyes. "What are my duties?" Kakashi asked.
"To act as harmless and innocent as possible. You might have to cover for me as well." Kakashi looked uncertain, so Minato hurried to give him the details of the mission, only briefly touching on the second part of the mission to stop Rock and Rain's plans.
"Both of us have to convince Hidden Rock that we're not a threat. That's why I can't train you during the exam. I'll be the dumb jounin from Konoha, and you'll be the six-year old who's only being entered to impress the other villages and the world."
"Is that why I was entered?" asked Kakashi. He didn't sound upset by the implication, just curious.
Minato chuckled. "I expect you'll impress them when you make it to the final rounds. That's why I nominated you."
"I'll win them too," said Kakashi determinedly.
Maybe he would, if luck was on his side. "Good, but until the final exams, it's important that you act like a child." Minato winced internally at the irony, but Kakashi didn't notice.
"Well…" said Minato, stalling a bit. Kakashi wasn't going to like this. "First, you should take off the mask."
"Why?" Kakashi asked in a low, dangerous voice.
"Because you look younger with it off." Not to mention adorable, but he wasn't going to be the idiot who told Kakashi that. "If you take it off now, we can practice looking innocent." Reluctantly, Kakashi pulled down the mask.
"Okay," said Minato. "Have you ever seen the face a child makes when they're begging for a cookie?"
"How about a dog begging a treat?"
Kakashi nodded. It'd probably been one of his father's dogs.
"Okay. Imagine you're asking me for a treat and try the same expression."
Kakashi gave him a dubious look. "With my tongue hanging out?"
Minato blinked, stunned into silence for a moment. "No. Here, stop walking for a second and try giving me the look."
Kakashi looked up at him, moving his mouth into a sort of grimace before giving up entirely. He was also looking at Minato as if his sensei was insane.
Minato sighed. "Like this, see." He did his best begging face. The one he used when he was trying to get Tsunade-hime to let him borrow medical supplies.
"You look stupid."
"That's the point," said Minato in exasperation. He took a deep breath. "Try pout– frowning." Kakashi had lips that were going to make him the envy of many girls someday. Even at this age, his pout would make all but the stoutest of hearts tremble. "Okay. Widen your eyes and let your lower lip tremble. Good. Now ask me something."
"Sensei, can you teach me a new jutsu?" Wide grey eyes stared up at him out of a face still chubby from baby fat.
"Ye- wait!" He glared at Kakashi who looked quite pleased with himself. He was creating a monster, wasn't he?
"If you ever find yourself in trouble at Hidden Rock, the first thing you do is give them that look and tell them you're lost. Ask them to bring you back to wherever we're staying."
"Okay. Next expression. Let's see you smile."
Kakashi's smile was tentative, but surprisingly genuine.
"Wider," Minato commanded, surveying the result. It wasn't bad, but the smile didn't reach his eyes now. "Try closing your eyes when you smile." Yes, that was it. With his eyes closed, you couldn't see the seriousness and intensity that no six-year-old's eyes should have.
"I can't see," complained Kakashi.
"Leave your eyes slightly open when you smile," suggested Minato. He could faintly hear the sounds of the rest of their team catching up. "Let's start walking again while you practice."
Kakashi nodded, and began walking with Minato easily keeping pace beside him. He smiled fondly at his student, who was taking this training to look innocent and happy as seriously as learning any new jutsu. He couldn't help but think that Hidden Rock was making a big mistake letting him and Kakashi into their village. He fingered the tools for his new jutsu in his pouch. Yes, a big mistake.
A/N: Next chapter: Lollipops! No, really.