Disclaimer: Yeah, Kishimoto still owns Naruto. There are days when I really envy him for it, but he treats it better than I probably would. XD

Tonight, I'm alive
I've watched you all grow up and so have I

--Staind, "Tonight"

Path of No Regrets: Renewal


-4 Months Later-

They were his students, after all. All three of them, although Kakashi realized the situation wasn't exactly conventional. But even so, to him they'd always be his brats, no matter who else they trained with, no matter how much they grew. So while he accepted the reality of having more or less let two of them go, there were still days when, if he was honest with himself, he somewhat resented having to ask permission.

"A team mission?" Tsunade repeated teasingly—teasingly, he reminded himself. "Don't you need a team for that?" She raised a wry eyebrow, and yes, Kakashi did resent it, just a little. But he let it slide off him, and he played along with a smile.

"I guess I do," he replied. "Know where I could find one?"

"Are you asking me if you can kidnap your former students?" Tsunade said, looking amused. Kakashi closed his visible eye thoughtfully as he acknowledged—reluctantly—that he was, in fact, asking.

"I suppose I am."

Tsunade's expression softened a bit. "You shouldn't sound so bitter," she chided after a moment, giving him a glance that made him feel oddly embarrassed. "You're too young for that."

Now he really felt embarrassed. For a moment he wondered at the fact that there were still people around who could do that—tease him, admonish him, as if he were still a child, when his childhood days were long since past and he spent more time than not now doing the admonishing and teasing himself. But the Godaime was one of the few left in his world who wasn't his peer or his junior, but had actually been there before him and whose experience could outrank his. There really weren't many at all left, and the thought was enough to push any ridiculous lingering twinges of resentment out of his mind.

It also had the ironic effect of making him feel anything but young. He smiled helplessly as he scratched the corner of his headband. "I'm plenty old—and getting older every day, with those three."

Tsunade gave a soft chuckle, her gaze thoughtful. "I know what you mean."

She stared off into space for a moment, then seemed to pull herself out of whatever reverie she was getting lost in. "Oh, geez. I'm getting too old." She shook her head, then grabbed a sheet of paper, stamped it, and handed it over to him.

"Jiraiya's off doing some recon near Hidden Rain—or he says he's doing recon; knowing that pervert, who knows if he meant in the traditional sense—but anyway, he's not here, so the kids are all yours." Leaning back in her chair, she stifled a yawn, then winked at the slip of paper Kakashi now held. "That one should be appropriate enough."

His mouth quirked upward as he read the mission details, then nodded. "It should do just fine."

"Don't tire them out too much," she waved as he exited the room. "I'll still need my apprentice back in top form tomorrow."

"Then I'll be sure to tell her who it was that hand-picked the mission," he replied without missing a beat.

She was still laughing as he turned down the hall.

Yardwork was one of those things that was universally hated by teenagers regardless of how eager or talented they were, or whether or not they happened to be shinobi. For that matter, so was being forced to get up early only to wait two solid hours for a teacher who was perpetually late—he couldn't very well let old habits slip just because this was only their second team mission in months.

All in all, Kakashi hadn't exactly expected them to be pleased with him, even after he'd calmly explained that a group of children had asked him to join in their scavenger hunt. Even so, he thought being called a liar for his trouble was a bit unfair. He absentmindedly wondered what the point was in growing old if you never seemed to earn any more respect.

Meanwhile, his students engaged themselves in a vigorous debate over who would get stuck doing the weeding and who would rake the leaves. Before long, the argument had degenerated into a high-stakes game of rock-paper-scissors, and Kakashi was forced to intervene to prevent a brawl when Naruto accused Sasuke of reading his mind with the Sharingan. Intervention was required again when Sakura nearly ripped Naruto in two for diving into the leaf pile (reducing it to chaos), and again when Sasuke decided using a Katon jutsu was more practical than hauling all the leaves over to a compost heap (the resulting blaze nearly killed an innocent owl and set Sakura's scarf on fire).

But things settled down after a while. As Kakashi watched them gradually fall into familiar routine, he found himself wondering at how far their teamwork had come since the day he'd witnessed a spectacularly blundered effort to steal a couple of bells more than a year ago. It was all the more impressive considering that they hadn't had a chance to work together on even a simple D-class mission like this for a good long while.

And it downright defied the odds when he thought about how close they'd come to falling apart just four months ago.

A startled yelp jerked him out of his thoughts for a moment, and he suppressed a laugh as he watched Sakura chew out a thoroughly intimidated Naruto for messing up the tarp onto which they had been raking the growing pile of leaves. But just when he thought he'd have to step in again, Sakura, seemingly fed up with Naruto's sub-par performance, sighed and suddenly switched gears, and a moment later had started working out a detailed attack plan for the rest of the yard that made extensive use of Naruto's shadow clones. Not five minutes after, a group of Narutos set out in organized formation while Sakura, looking satisfied, got back to work on her own pile of leaves.

It was a display of leadership—and strategy—that Kakashi had never seen from her before, and for a moment he couldn't help but marvel at the confidence that training with the Godaime had brought out in her in such a short time. Even Sasuke, who had been carefully maintaining his distance from Sakura since accidentally setting her aflame, looked impressed—something Sakura perhaps noticed, because a moment later she graciously asked him if he would like any help with the weeds. Ah, well, Kakashi thought in amusement; some things never changed.

Naruto (or one of him, anyway), in the meantime, watched the other two out of the corner of his eye for a moment, before smiling and getting back to work. Off in a corner, another Naruto made a very deliberately innocent remark about the size of his leaf pile compared with Sasuke's weed pile. Sasuke very politely replied that it was fortunate he had nothing to compensate for, and Naruto proceeded to offer Sasuke his rake, along with advice about where he could put it.

Not exactly the poster definition of teamwork, but as Kakashi watched them trade insults back and forth with the practiced ease of true professionals, he couldn't help but be amused; part of him hoped that this would never change as well. He knew just how close that odd balance of rivalry and friendship had come to falling apart, and how painstakingly the two had worked to restore it, Naruto especially. He was glad that his students had come through their recent experience unscathed, of course, but in some ways he was gladder still that through that experience, they'd had the opportunity to realize just how precious those friendships were, and how closely they needed to be guarded. It was a lesson that many shinobi didn't learn until it was too late. He, of course, knew that better than anyone.

He found himself watching Sasuke for a moment, and thought, as he had thought many times before, about just how much his younger self was mirrored in him. Sasuke had all the frustrated impatience that Kakashi himself had once possessed, and more. They carried the same weights on their shoulders, and the same defiance toward them, as well as the same need to push everything else away so that they could bear those burdens alone.

But Sasuke had an inner strength Kakashi had never had, a type of resilience that enabled him to push forward, even at his darkest moments, just as long as someone was there to show him which way to go. Kakashi just hoped Sasuke would realize one day that he didn't have to bear that weight all on his own. That he still had what Kakashi had lost; he still had those precious companions. And that it was all right to let them help him, even just a little bit—it was all right to share some of your burdens with your friends, even as you supported theirs in turn.

That, too, was a part of teamwork.

Teamwork. He mused on it yet again, watching a group of Naruto's clones haul a tarp piled high with leaves over to the enormous compost pile at the edge of the yard. He'd be lying if he said he hadn't at times worried that his little team was growing apart, these last few months. Training under different instructors, heading down what seemed to be different paths: one toward revenge, one toward healing, and one toward a dream that some deemed impossible and others knew was inevitable.

And yet, the more Kakashi looked at them, the more he saw them growing not apart, but closer together. He could only suppose that they'd taken that all-important lesson to heart even more than he realized. And he could only hope that as time passed, they wouldn't forget it.

Because the future would bring things that would try to break them again, he knew. There would be new challenges to overcome, and old ones to come face-to-face with once more. They'd come so close to the edge, just a few months ago, that it was miraculous that they'd stayed intact. And from here on out, it would only get more difficult.

But they were strong. And they'd keep getting stronger. He knew it wouldn't always be easy, but he also had confidence that they'd rise to the occasion.

He watched as Naruto tried to stuff leaves down the back of Sasuke's collar, only to be pinned in a headlock, sputtering as Sasuke tried to jam more leaves down his throat. Another of Naruto's clones ran to the rescue as Sakura kicked still more leaves at them both, her "cut it out!" tirade rendered somewhat less effective by the fact that she seemed to be trying not to laugh. Kakashi smiled.

They were his students, after all.


Author's Notes:

Did I say a week? Apparently I meant 17 months. Whoops, well, you know, it happens. XD

So I'll save the ranting about the epilogue itself for elsewhere (though an apology for taking for-freaking-ever to update definitely goes here—sorry) and instead stick with just a couple quick notes for now. One, to be clear timeline-wise, this takes place three months after the previous chapter, one month after Grown Up Orphans, and one month before Stone Skipping. And two, this will be continued in a sequel fic, hopefully to be posted soon; I'd like to get back to the one-chapter-a-week schedule, but no promises this time, cuz… yeah.

Lastly, I'd like to once again thank everyone for reading, especially those who waited patiently for almost a year and a half. Well, here we are at last. ;)