Author's Notes: Sorry it's been so long since the last update. I've been getting ready to make a lot of life changes, which means less writing time, but never fear! I don't leave stories unfinished, no matter how long it takes. This is another sort of transitional chapter, but really fun to write!
Spoiler warning, as usual.
Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto and am making no profit from this fan fiction.
Turn of Blade, Twist of Fate
Chapter Eleven: Glimpses of Youth
Yuugao's gaze was steadily fastened on the trio before her as they took turns walking up tree trunks using only their hands. Between the two boys, one a spot of loud sunshine in the shade of the leaves and the other a perfect molding of the shadows, a world of difficulty could be witnessed rotating them into frustration. Only the pink-haired girl showed any indication of imminent conquest, further tackling the new challenge with every scrape her chakra-powered palms took.
The ANBU kunoichi had never seen a more mismatched group. This was the renowned Team 7?
"Yuugao-san." She was not surprised that Kakashi had performed his usual materialization behind her on the edge of the training field, but Yuugao's expression was quizzical as she turned to face him. "Your reputation has grown so much in ANBU," Kakashi explained, a crease of a smile evident in his mask. "I thought you deserved a formal greeting."
Replied Yuugao, "I don't, of course, senpai." She recalled briefly the night they had met in her own yard and Kakashi had asked she leave off formality. Receiving it from him after years of working together was an absurd notion. "Please don't give me one."
"What brings you here?" asked the copy-nin with a slight nod to affirm his agreement.
The severe set of her mouth softened a little as she turned to look again at the Genin in the distance. "I had to come see it for myself; the famous Team 7 who took down Momochi Zabuza. I admit, I was surprised when I first heard you had finally accepted a team, Kakashi-sempai."
"Were you?" His tone was polite, but Yuugao detected the underlying amusement. "I thought I made my criteria fairly plain when I trained you."
"They...they get along then?"
Even now, the blond boy was shouting at the solemn other whose eyes gleamed less indifferently than perhaps he thought while the girl stood by in wide-eyed alarm. Her hands were clasped to her chest, but she looked ready to interfere should the situation get out of hand.
"Say that again, Sasuke, you bastard!"
"I said, 'A drunk dog has better balance than you,' idiot."
"Naruto...S-Sasuke-kun, maybe you should just..."
Yuugao lifted both eyebrows at the display. "Really?"
"Certainly," insisted Kakashi without missing a beat. "Oh, they have energy, I guess. That's good in its way. I wouldn't let them enter the Chuunin Exams if they didn't."
"The Chuunin Exams!" It would have been an exclamation if Yuugao were accustomed to speaking less quietly. "Those three? But they're just twelve-year-olds!"
"You passed at thirteen," he reminded her. "Are you jealous?"
Yuugao set a hand on her hip and gestured toward Team 7 with the other. "It's dangerous. The three of them look like they'll explode on each other any minute. You want to send a prepubescent Uchiha, the Fourth's hyperactive son, and some girl with no ninja background into the Chuunin Exams at twelve?"
Kakashi's responding chuckle was not reassuring. "Aren't you unusually concerned for three children you don't even know, Yuugao?" Stepping forward to stand beside her, he surveyed his team using his uncovered eye. "They balance each other well. They've come a long way since the day I took them on. Much like yourself."
She stowed the rare praise away to be remembered sometime when she wasn't busy criticizing Kakashi's quality as a sensei. "And you're sure this has nothing to do with the fact that Gai-senpai's team is entering the Exams this year?"
"Well," he prevaricated honestly, "it'll be very interesting, don't you think?" His voice rose. "Hey! Naruto and Sasuke! If one of you throws a punch, neither of you will ever eat ramen on me again! And Sakura will get your share!"
In that threat, Kakashi effortlessly managed to terrify Naruto, irritate Sasuke, and embarrass Sakura. Yuugao began to feel less concern and more pity for the budding ninja. At least Yuugao had been forced to deal with Kakashi after the tumult of adolescence.
"Still liking your cell?" asked Kakashi after making sure his students went back to their own trees and resumed training.
"It's been three years, and I have no complaints. Yamato broke his ankle not long ago, but he'll return to work next week. Hayate and I have been doing smaller jobs in the meantime." She turned her head to look at him and found Kakashi's eyes already on her. His pleasant look had gone, replaced by a studious glance. She supposed he was unused to seeing her in civilian clothes, her hair pulled back in rebellion against the breezy day. The training field was a change from their encounters at Rin's grave as well.
Kakashi's face slipped back into easy amusement before a second had passed. "You're on your way to meet him?" At her nod, he added, "Say hello for me. It's been a long time since I saw him."
She promised to do so before turning, stealing another look at his team as she did. "They're in good shape, anyway." She offered him with the slightest of quirks to her colored lips. Observant as she was, Yuugao didn't notice the way Kakashi's eyes followed the sway of her ponytail as she left.
Hayate approved of her long-skirted tunic and the leggings she wore beneath it for convenience. She mentioned her visit to Team 7's training session as they walked to the blacksmith. The metal plate of Hayate's hitai-ate had been scarred on their last mission, and its repairs were due.
"He's even permitting them to enter the Chuunin Exams," she said, still bewildered.
"I know," said Hayate with a smile behind his fist as he finished a cough. "I'm proctoring the third test."
"The tournament? You are?"
He took her hand, considerately with the one he hadn't hacked all over. "Would you please try not to sound so shocked in front of anyone else?" He afforded her a small grin. "After what I do regularly, do you think watching some Genins fight each other will be any real strain?"
"I didn't mean to sound like that," she told him in true backpedal form. Yuugao formed her next words carefully. "I just meant that if you take time off to proctor in the Exams, who will replace you for the duration?"
"No one. You and Yamato are ordered on vacation until after the Exams are over."
Hayate gripped her hand more tightly and pulled her to the side of the street, where they stopped. Busy Konoha residents continued on their way without noticing them. "Yamato's ankle could still use some time. I know you don't like breaks, but I think it's nece—" He coughed into his sleeve. "Necessa—" A longer bout of coughs kept her waiting. "You need it," Hayate finished when he could.
"I don't," she argued shortly. "We were going to be sent to Grass while they had Chuunin in the Exams. I was hoping to..." Before she could finish, Hayate lifted the short sleeve of her tunic to reveal the three-inch width of bandages wrapping her right shoulder. A missing-nin's jutsu had cut her nearly to the bone. The wound, as Hayate knew, was three weeks old and still healing.
"You do," he ascertained. "We all do. And you like the Exams. You told Yamato last year it's like a free festival."
"That was before the festival was keeping me from fighting while kids get to do it instead."
Staring down at her over the half circles beneath his eyes, Hayate took a step out of his usual reserved character. He bent to press his soft smile to Yuugao's frown and kept it there until both smile and frown were erased.
"There," Hayate told her. "I've shown you public affection, and you are now embarrassed. You can fight me later until you feel better."
The pink in her cheeks wasn't from embarrassment, and the thoughts Hayate had inspired in her hardly suggested fighting, but she returned a faint smile of her own anyway. "All right."
At the blacksmith's, they were told to wait while some finishing touches were made to Hayate's hitai-ate. Having spent so many hours here seeing to the weapon repairs Yuugao could not manage on her own, Yuugao would have known the place blind. But, she inwardly noted as Hayate discussed payment with the blacksmith's assistant, she had never seen the teenage girl there before.
Her hair, parted into two buns, was browner than chocolate and just a shade lighter than her huge eyes, currently fixed upon a display of throwable weapons at the shop's eastern wall. She tapped all ten fingertips against the edge of the display stand, impatient and yet indecisive as her eyes roved the shining blades in rapture.
At her side waited a boy her age, not close enough to touch her but near enough to keep at least part of her attention at all times. Everything about him, from his spotless gi to the straight fall of his black hair, was no less than immaculate. "We'll be late for evening training, Tenten," he said to his companion.
The girl snapped back without lifting her eyes from the array. "I've spent months saving from all those stupid D-rank missions, Neji. Don't rush me."
"Do you even have room for something new in your scroll?"
"I'll make room." She said this as though her companion should have known her better than that. "But do I want the rope dart or the chain coil?"
Yuugao was walking toward them before she even recognized the impulse to do so. Peering at the display as the pair of Genin turned to see her approach, she intoned, "I like the rope dart better. It springs back to you with faster reaction time."
The young girl named Tenten stared up in confusion at Yuugao while the boy watched with narrowed, white eyes. A Hyuuga, Yuugao noted. That explained the commanding tone of voice. She wished she'd had such an enviable partner on her team rather than the useless shinobi that had fallen through the cracks since those days. Tenten's face split with a smile as she asked, "But is this one made of good material? I don't want the rope to fray too soon!"
"It won't," Yuugao assured her with minimum vocal inflection. "You'll get at least four months' use out of it, if you alternate between other weapons. When it needs replacing, try leather instead of hemp. That won't cut as easily."
Enthusiastically thanking her and evoking a slight smile from Yuugao, Tenten turned to hastily gather her choice of the rope dart so she could make her purchase.
"That was very nice of you," commented Hayate when she rejoined him. He turned around so she could tie his cap at the base of his head for him. "Starting to feel like you should give back to the youth?"
"Do you think I've gotten old?" She only said it to watch the corners of his eyes crinkle as he laughed and dared her to prove otherwise on the training grounds. The truth was, Tenten reminded her very much of herself nine years ago. Yuugao followed him out the door, overhearing the two Genin once more.
"We're officially late. I hope you like that thing enough."
"Oh, lighten up, Neji. You don't even wanna see Lee or Gai-sensei. I guess you're just not feeling very youthful today."
To Be Continued...