Sizheng: Dedicated to my beloved wife, Checkerbloom, because sonnets and limericks aren't payment enough for her love.
As Time Goes By
A Naruto fanstory by Zhang Sizheng
Jiraiya was twenty-four, and knew that the kid was going to be fucking screwed in the head when he peeked over into the rush bassinet and saw a tuft of light hair buried in a mismatched pile of puppies.
The look he'd given Sakumo had been so eloquently ironic in its disbelief and so simply un-Jiraiya that his friend had actually felt the need to defend himself from its accusation. "I have to take Fuyuzora on this mission; her litter would get cold without her."
Jiraiya had shaken his head. "What about the kid?"
A blank look. "Who, Kakashi?"
Rolled eyes. "Yes, your son, the bit of blood and flesh and bone your beloved wife gave birth to two weeks ago. Why isn't he in the hospital? Why's he bedding down with your dogs?"
"Because he'd get cold, too, Jiraiya—don't patronise me, not about Kakashi, and not about Haruka."
Jiraiya remembered staring after his younger friend's retreating, ramrod-stiff back before returning his attention to the puppy pile where a half-dozen sets of ears and eyes and comically disproportionate, flailing paws made up a nightmarishly cute mishmash of warm, greyish bodies. Safely ensconced in his mad little nest, Jiraiya's new charge glared accusingly at him and bared pink gums in what Jiraiya supposed passed for grins in changeling kids raised like dogs.
The young jōnin whimpered. Damn if kids didn't frighten the shit out of him and this one was less than a month old and already more lucid than most yearlings he'd met. Which demonic ritual did his friend perform to pick up this little freak?
"Damnit, Sakumo," he muttered, scattering the mewling contents of the bassinet hither and thither before clearing a space large enough to slip his large hands in and around the kid's pudgy waist. Grabbing the now squalling infant, Jiraiya stomped off to find him a diaper—Hell, a handkerchief that he could fashion some sort of loincloth from—all the while cursing Sakumo and his but-we've-been-friends-for-so-long-and-wouldn't-you-like-to-meet-my-sonny-boy shite.
One thing was for certain: Jiraiya was never falling for that Hatake smile again.
"Thank you, Jiraiya, I mean, this was all so last-second that I couldn't get a hold of Sōku-chan, and…"
Three years after his first and last stint as a jōnin-class babysitter, Jiraiya wondered at the lack of power in his oaths, and vowed that the next time Sakumo lowered his mask to pout at him—yes, pout, what sort of a man pouts like that?—he was leaving Konoha as fast as Gamabunta would carry him.
"So where's the brat?" he sighed, leaning against the side of the house, careful not to place too much pressure on the slim wall.
"In the training grounds," was the pleased answer. "I'll leave him to you, then." A flash of what could've been guilt or ma-a-aybe a slight chill of the toes. "And Jiraiya-kun, if you ever have kids of your own—"
"The day after never, Sakumo-chan. Go quickly and return five minutes ago. I have more pressing matters to attend to than wasting my time on your whelp."
The flicker of amusement across Sakumo's masked face surprised Jiraiya—and then the younger shinobi was gone and Jiraiya found himself floundering about as he realised he'd need to search roughly five hundred acres of heavily forested land for a glint of silver hair and demonic toddler.
He groaned, and set off. It took him a half-hour, all told, to find the kid. Though, really, the kid found Jiraiya, leaping labouredly from tree to tree before executing a more graceful flip and landing, cat-like, on all fours before him.
Jiraiya suddenly wondered, quite ludicrously, if Sakumo had maybe nursed his son with a litter of kittens after his bedmates-the-puppies had grown, because the kid's grace was inhuman. Even he'd been twice the kid's age before being able to think of executing acrobatics like that without the very splendid possibility of breaking his neck.
The fostering-with-cats theory did have some merit—after all, where else could the kid have learned to look down his nose at someone well over twice his height?
"You're the Toad summoner," the boy informed him, so gravely that Jiraiya almost felt like saying 'Oh, really?' and meaning it. He caught the impulse as it lashed out, stuffed it quickly back behind his eyes and puffed out his chest.
"I am," he confirmed a touch ironically, and squatted so he was almost at eye level with the wisp of dog-cat-boy that stood, languidly insolent before him.
"What's the use of toads? While it's good that they can swim and blend into an environment, not all species are indi… indi… indijenuss," the kid enunciated carefully, "to many of the locations you'll want them to be in, so they'd make pretty poor spies sometimes. They're not as powerful as dogs, just about everything eats them and I can't think of very many ways they'd be very helpful in battle." The whelp crossed his arms and glowered impressively. "So why toads?"
Jiraiya stared. Then forcibly suppressed the urge to whip out his summoning scrolls and summon one of Gamabunta's larger sons to squash the brat for its impudence and disrespect towards the Toad clan. Then, slowly, harshly, he began to laugh, until a small, sandaled foot in his teeth put paid to his amusement. Clearly, Kakashi liked being laughed at about as much as Jiraiya liked a face full of mud, and the two spent the first few hours of real acquaintanceship playing a perilous game of chase in training area forty-two.
Eventually, Jiraiya did end up summoning a toad, but it was one that could fit in his palm, and the two spent the rest of the afternoon at a dango stall in companionable debate about summons.
When Sakumo returned, bloodstained and with darkness and death staring out of his blue-grey eyes, he smiled at Jiraiya, and Jiraiya—mindful not to wake the sleeping pile of child and dogs sprawled over his lap—threw his geta, one after the other, at his grinning friend.
Watching Minato, fourteen, and Kakashi, six, had made Jiraiya's heart clench somewhere. Minato was frighteningly prodigious, powerful in a way that made the Council sweat. He would be greater than all of them, one day. Why, he had barely seen his fourteenth birthday and had already been nominated to jōnin status by Sarutobi-sensei—Sandaime Hokage, by that point.
Kakashi, though… he'd already graduated the Academy after blowing its curriculum out of the air, only slowed by the time it took for him to learn to read and write.
Of course, no one had expected him to pass, and no one would allow him to progress to genin status without undergoing a test given by a jōnin-sensei. And no jōnin-sensei would take the son of the disgraced White Fang.
Minato had been furious, and demanded to see this unappreciated prodigy. Jiraiya had watched the cogs turn in his prized student's head for the entire afternoon that the two had spent together, thick as thieves, and could only conclude that not only was Minato enamoured of Sakumo's brat, but that Sakumo's brat returned the interest just as keenly.
He expected the declaration, really, but it still brought a frown to his face.
"I'll take him."
"You're barely jōnin-ranked yourself, kid." 'The Council's got its eye on you, and the village will, too, if you foster Sakumo's son.'
"He's been a genin for six months and without a steady teacher for that long. Left alone, he's just going to hurt himself." Minato looked so fierce and stubbornly set in his decision that Jiraiya had given up right there and then, and reflected that perhaps the two would be good for one another. He'd never seen Kakashi take to someone so quickly, or Minato so impressed.
Perhaps it'd all work out in the end. Perhaps it'd all fall to pieces.
And for a while, it did and it didn't. Then it didn't, and did. Then…
"Jiraiya-sama," he snapped, intent on his task.
"…Jiraiya-san. I got promoted."
Jiraiya squinted harder through the knothole, forcing his hands to unclench. "I heard." 'I was there, watching you when you took out a kid larger and stronger than you by drowning him in a glob of water you drew from the air, you little nutjob.' He hadn't known it'd been possible before watching a six-year-old do it. Neither had the judges, apparently—the chūnin promotion scroll was proof enough of the impression the young Hatake had made. 'Minato almost had a heart attack. He hadn't known why you wanted those tips on chakra control and elemental fusion.'
There was a faint shuffling noise, then a muted sigh. "You could at least look at me, you know. I'm sure the girls on the other side of that peep-hole would like to know there's an old man perving on them."
"Who're you callin' old, you little snot?" Jiraiya whirled around, furious and indignant and just a little proud. "And are you trying to blackmail me?"
"Maybe," was the glib reply. "I'm still trying to figure out the difference between blackmail and extortion."
Six years old. This little shite is six years old.
Jiraiya stared at him for a moment, then folded up his spyglass and stood fluidly. "Fancy a dango, boy?"
Kakashi turned his nose up at him, the same way he'd been doing since he'd turned three. "I'm too old for sweets."
"Well, I'm not," Jiraiya snapped, and forgot all about the girls in the onsen, concentrating instead on shoving Kakashi back into the mould of a happy, carefree six-year-old.
Later, he'd reflect if maybe it'd all been too little, too late.
Glancing at the tall, upright figure by his side, Jiraiya wondered where Kakashi found the strength to stand when he looked so broken.
It wasn't that the kid looked particularly torn by Minato's death, or all that affected by the sheer number of bodies being interred into the ground that day. That, Jiraiya thought with pity and a hot, almost painful surge of affection for Sakumo's boy, was precisely why he looked so dead.
"Come," he said, when everyone else had been gone for hours and Kakashi continued to stare blankly at the fresh soil of hundreds of new graves. "Come," he repeated, more irritably this time, because sometime over the last few years, he'd become unaccustomed to having to repeat himself, least of all to an emotion-impoverished orphan who had lost everything and gained nothing but blood and blood and more blood…
Kakashi didn't move, and probably didn't feel the blow to the back of his neck that knocked him out. Jiraiya looked down at the limp body in his arms, and might have shed a tear or two before wiping his eyes and pressing a savage, tender, chaste kiss to the kid's blood-matted forehead before trussing him up and delivering him to Sarutobi-sensei.
Jiraiya left Konoha as soon as he saw his boys—Sakumo's and Minato's—would be taken care of. Snake-bastard traitors didn't find themselves, after all, and he'd only been back for Minato's… well, when they laid him to rest. Him and loud, wild, laughing Kushina, who'd been a mother for only three hours, and would be a mother for long after her lineage faded to dust.
He liked that line. Maybe it would make an appearance in his next book.
Jiraiya loved women. He loved their softness, their tenderness, their ability to sooth away the cold and violence and hatred with a good night's romp.
Feeling a similar tenderness for Sakumo's boy always bewildered him, since the brat was… a brat. A brat, in bone-white armour and red-streaked porcelain mask, colder than Jiraiya and too numb already to hate.
His inability to understand this always irritated him, so he attempted to keep his blood pressure low by avoiding the kid like the plague. Out of sight, out of mind, or so they say.
Except that the whelp never seemed to know when he was wanted and when he wasn't. Jiraiya glared out the window at where he knew the kid to be—although his eyes didn't see Kakashi, his senses could never fail to pick out the unique, ozone-flavoured killing intent that the kid—fuck, ANBU captain at fourteen—seemed to exude.
It told volumes about Sakumo's boy that he seemed unable to stifle his natural killing intent without effort. Jiraiya wondered if Kakashi's assassination targets didn't just drop dead over in the next country before he ever came within fifty leagues of them.
The white-hot presence of lightning and earth dissipated slowly, and Jiraiya wondered when he'd begun to hold his breath. He wasn't naïve enough to think that Kakashi had gone—just that he'd realised he'd been spotted and had hidden himself more cleverly.
Stupid kid. Stupid, foolish, cunning, smart, brilliant, genius Hatake.
Jiraiya snorted and wondered what Minato would have thought.
He probably would have cried.
He next saw Kakashi ten years later, walking about in a standard-issue jōnin's vest and his masked nose buried in one of Jiraiya's novels.
Kakashi didn't see him, but a tiny, miniscule weight lifted in Jiraiya's heart, knowing that the kid had stopped killing so much.
After a while, it sorta got to you, with the screaming and the guilt and the nightmares and waking up at night to realise you'd bitten clean through your tongue with the horror and—
He left Konoha again with a nod to the bathhouses and a fresh idea for a book.
No need to say hello, or goodbye.
"You're a lousy teacher," Jiraiya snarled.
For a moment, Kakashi looked defiant, then younger than his years, then older than Jiraiya.
"I know," he said.
And Jiraiya left Konoha two days later,
(it's always about leaving why is it always about leaving)
with an eager Naruto in tow and wondered how he could have thought of taking on another yellow-haired brat and feeling his heart twinge as it remembered that silver-haired kid who used to tag after him whenever they used to visit and grew up to be a lousy teacher.
'You can't have it all… you can't be a genius and be able to teach that genius to others,' he thought, smiling down at the beaming blond and, for a brief, shining moment, seeing someone else altogether.
Maybe… just maybe, it said something good about Kakashi, that he was shit at teaching other kids to be
(a killer a murderer his feet ghosted over the ground and his hand flashed steel and chirruped with a thousand birds and he was a lousy teacher, a shit teacher, really)
like him. It said nothing for Kakashi's judgement, but maybe, just maybe, Jiraiya had been right—and he'd been so scared he was wrong before, so scared—and Kakashi was a good person. Somewhere in there.
Or maybe Kakashi really was just a useless fuck and Jiraiya didn't know why he held such liking for him, but he did.
The transition Kakashi made in Jiraiya's mind—the gradual shift from "Sakumo's boy" to simply "Kakashi"—occurred so subtly that he couldn't quite pinpoint when it'd happened. He knew it'd happened sometime in the ten-year-gap… sometime. Maybe when he'd been fucking Kiko-chan with the beautiful, beautiful, chrome-hued hair and remembered a time when Kakashi's smile had been sweet rather than wry, or poisonous, or sarcastic, and Jiraiya had reached completion without anyone's name on his tongue, though it had taken nearly biting it clean through to hold Kakashi's inside.
He'd been so accustomed to thinking of the kid as "Sakumo's boy", "Sakumo's whelp", "Sakumo's brat", Sakumo's, Sakumo's, Sakumo's…
He hadn't even recognised the name that had given him a wound in his mouth or difficulty in eating for the next few days. But now… he knew.
And he wondered what Kakashi's old man—it's Sakumo, dumbass, don't forget your friend's name in favour of his brat's—would have thought.
It made him laugh, but only after he'd shed a few tears and scribbled a few pages about a man in love with his best friend's son and was haunted by his friend's ghost and gutted himself from the shame.
He is an old man, now, has been for years, and sits quietly by Kakashi's hospital bed. The kid has exhausted himself again, silly, silly, and Jiraiya has brought him some reading material. The look of gratitude Kakashi sends him uncoils something warm in his belly, but Jiraiya clamps down on it, and asks if Kakashi would like him to read to him (since that borrowed eye seems so sore and swollen, and both eyes are haggard and Jiraiya realises with shock that Kakashi's body is finally aging to match his mind).
But Kakashi hesitates, and Jiraiya wonders if he's overstepped his boundaries before kicking himself for caring about the opinion of someone two-dozen years his junior—
Then Kakashi slides over in his bed and Jiraiya climbs in beside him, Kakashi's head is on his lap and Jiraiya's hand is buried into the canine-stiff strands of silvery hair.
And Jiraiya is at peace, at least until Naruto and Sakura burst in.
Damn, Kakashi, he says above their sputters and shouts, can't you do something about your kids?
And he thinks that's a good ending, or at least a good beginning. It's just good, and it's even better when Kakashi smiles at him.