Hatake Kakashi woke up and did not want to be alive.
He wished this morning was anything but normal. Anything but soft grey barracks walls, the comforting scent of rice porridge, and the strong steady beat of his own heart.
There was incense burning before a photograph. This was irregular, but not unusual. Just another photograph he didn't need because his mind would always supply, in perfect lines, the face he longed to see animated and aging and anywhere but in his own memories.
"Name? What's her name?" begs Naruto, hands staining crimson from where they touch Kakashi's hands, pressing with him over the place where there should be a pulse but instead there is skin and muscle and arteries split and spilling. He crawled to them. Crawled quivering and crying, anxiously circling nin-hounds whining and pushing him away, away from the dead, but he wouldn't stop. Wouldn't stop until he was there, touching her, crying for her, trying to wake her.
If Kakashi stayed away, Naruto would grow up better. He could still tell himself that. Naruto was pure and proud and shining and determined—of course he was, he was theirs. Kakashi was something else entirely. Something wrong. Something deathly.
Kakashi lets the small hands reach, press, grasp. He doesn't know what else to do. Naruto's hands are getting bloody, bloody from trying to hug a corpse, and that is wrong, but what can he do? What can he do?
Sensei's son didn't ask about the traitor. About being nearly-murdered. What sort of kid was he, to only ask for a faceless ANBU's name? He wasn't supposed to be aware of his shadowy guardians, though Kakashi harbored no delusions on that front. He knew all along that Squirrel was engaging beyond mission parameters. Was coming back to life as she bent, even broke the rules. Which was why he kept assigning her that particular mission. She was the last he trusted, after Itachi—
Medics arrive, pull them apart, wrap Naruto in a blanket, try to give Kakashi a blanket. He tries not to see how Naruto reaches for her. Screams and writhes until Kakashi remembers what the kid wanted, begged and pleaded and demanded for, and decides: this, I can do. He twists out of reach of his medic, who is under the mistaken impression that he needs some sort of seeing-to, and appears next to the bellowing bundle that is Naruto. They have just taken a blood sample, to test for residual levels and possible additives to the sedative the chuunin, Mizuki, successfully subdued a jinchuuriki with. Making sure they can safely administer more, if it is deemed necessary.
There was no one left. And he couldn't do it himself.
"Tsukushi," he tells Naruto, bloody handprints smearing the boy's soft cheeks where Kakashi cups them to capture his attention through the twisting and screaming, the shock and pain and fight-or-flight. "Her name was Tsukushi. Can you remember that?"
Then he turns away, because those blue eyes are impossible to meet.
"Tsu..ku..shi," is whispered into the sudden silence behind him. Relief filters through the clearing, softening battle-ready chakra. They will have everything under control by now. Naruto is quiet now. There is nothing more Kakashi can do.
Kakashi woke up and did not want to be alive. He never wanted to be alive in the mornings. He was fit company only for the dead, so to the dead he went. To the same spot he was dragged away from less than four hours ago, but maybe their answers had changed? It wasn't as if he had anywhere else to go. Meetings, missions... they would wait. They could always wait.
He didn't feel at ease until he could see his own one-eyed stare gazing grimly back from polished black stone, the dark outline of his reflection drawing a careful boarder around all the names of the loved he'd lost. There was a space, just above his right hip, where Tsukushi's name would go.
As usual there is nothing he can say, even to the dead, that will accomplish anything. He wants to be done, to go where they've gone, but no matter how recklessly he fights or how much chakra he drains through Obito's eye there are always more mornings.
Obito gave him this, gave his life for Kakashi's life. Rin too—not just of Kakashi, but for Konoha, for her shinobi way. And Sensei. Sensei gave everything. His life, Kushina's life, Naruto's life, though Naruto was left behind. Just like Kakashi.
"You failed me first," Kakashi whispered, and let the lie settle over his shoulders, to hang comfortably with the loss and guilt draped eternally there.
"Are... are you going to let me in?" wondered Sakura, hopping from foot to foot on the boys' doorstep in time to her internal balance swinging from timidity to irritation and back again. Sasuke seemed to be equally indecisive, leaning into the doorjamb and clinging to the handle as he was, but why he couldn't make his mind up she had yet to determine.
Sasuke was cool. He watched everything and understood most things and was really good at anything he tried. She wanted to be like him.
But not mean like him. Sasuke was mean to everyone but Naruto—well, he was mean to Naruto, too, but Naruto never reacted the way you're supposed to when someone is mean to you, so it didn't seem to count that Sasuke was mean to Naruto.
In that way, she wanted to be like Naruto.
"...Are you guys contagious?" she pressed. Things were really wrong here, she knew. The boys had been absent or strange for almost a week but no matter what she did or how she asked she had yet to get any answers.
"No," snapped Sasuke, and then scowled like he wished he'd lied and said yes instead.
"Then I can come in."
He didn't move.
"Naruto's not okay. If he was okay, he would be here opening the door by now. I know he's at home 'cause Iruka-sensei said he would be. I'm going to help him."
That made Sasuke angrier for some reason. "Why should you be able to help him?"
"Naruto likes me."
Sasuke tried to shut the door. Again. Sakura was glad he hadn't noticed the kunai she was holding in place under her shoe. It would really hurt, the way he was trying to crush her foot in the doorjamb, if the metal wasn't bracing it instead. She frowned harder at him. "Plus I'm good at taking care of people. My mama says so."
She immediately felt bad for mentioning her mama, seeing the way it made Sasuke drop his eyes to the floor. Usually she was careful and didn't say things that made him look like he wished he was allowed to cry.
Maybe she should come back another day.
"Fine," he grunted, and moved away. He didn't open the door any wider in invitation, but he wasn't blocking it anymore. "If you make him worse..."
Sakura discreetly scooped up her kunai and followed the hanging threat down the hallway.
Iruka was spying.
Not on fellow ninja who could be expected to defend themselves and their secrets, either. No, he had fallen low enough to spy on second year academy students, all innocent ignorance and gleefully thrown-open bentos, entirely unshielded to a harsh and exploitive world.
It was the bentos he needed. Bentos gave so many clues to what happened to a child when he was out of sight of school and society. Hints of over-indulgence or neglect, discipline or disregard... it was all there to read between the lids and bottoms of the ordinary lunch box.
Akimichi Chouji was his first target of interest. The boy brought truly spectacular victuals—not just in the astounding quantity of food they contained, but also in the tantalizing aroma drifting on the breeze and the aesthetically pleasing layout that seemed so impractical for artwork that would be devoured in less time than it could be admired it. It was clearly the work of a master chef, someone who took pride and pleasure in the time- and skill-intensive tasks necessary to its creation.
That someone could certainly not be Chouji. Chouji's mother was a far more likely candidate. And not, to Iruka's great chagrin, a viable one. It couldn't be anyone adult. Or adult-sized.
Yamanaka Ino was briefly taken into consideration. Half of her lunch looked to be the work of a child chef, and still very edible. Iruka's theories were proven when she shared with her friends, and his hopes disappointed when she answered their praise with a scornful tirade of how hateful the task of making her own bento was and why, why did she have to be born to such merciless parental slave-drivers?
Oh, little Ino-chan, answered Iruka silently. If you only knew the value of the gift you live. If you knew that you reject more acts of love on any given day than other children receive in an entire childhood. If you knew that your parents are wise, beyond wise to make you learn how to prepare your own food as soon as you could safely do so.
Just like Iruka's parents had done.
Several of the children had store-bought bento of varying quality, which was an acceptable option under many circumstances but certainly wouldn't help him now. Aburame Shino had a well-crafted, perfectly nutritionally-balanced bento that he had probably made himself, but a main course of dry-roasted mealworms seemed a bit... counterproductive.
How Iruka wished he could just solve this problem himself. He could cook. He was famous among the chuunin, and even select jounin, for his culinary prowess. And he knew how to teach children. So when Sakura brought him her concerns about Sasuke and Naruto's eating habits—and apparent complete lack of kitchen know-how, he sighed (but didn't really mind) and added meal prep to the already tightly-packed schedule of his 'volunteer' hours with Sasuke and Naruto: everything from grocery shopping and the names and uses of kitchen tools to food storage. And, of course, his favorite easy-to-prepare busy-day recipes. Naruto's return from the hospital seemed like the perfect opportunity to distract them all from recent horrors with just the thing to cheer the kids up: good company and good cooking.
Except Naruto didn't trust him anymore.
Naruto didn't trust any adults anymore. Even Hokage-sama mentioned that the child was worryingly watchful, wary even around the one person to have played a constantly benign role in his life. Every second Iruka spent in the boys' apartment had the younger of the two winding tighter and tighter with stress and tension, trying to hide overwhelming fear behind wretched parodies of a perfected look-at-me-I'm-perfectly-okay-damn-you grin while keeping a room's length between them at all times—and that was when the kid would even get out of bed. Which he seemed to do only because even if he was barely eating he still had to pee, and because it was easier to pretend that he was just like he always was than to face Sasuke's threatening care for what it was.
(Why, Mizuki...? came the thought, and Iruka had to shut it down (again) with every bit of mind-mastery he'd gained in every T&I training he'd ever had.)
And there it was. The Perfect Bento.
Created with tiny-but-skillful hands, nutritionally-balanced, not overly difficult or time-consuming to make, and... super cute. The person who made it must make one like it every day, and possibly several at once, he deduced from the regularities in shape of the rabbit-faced rice balls. And look at those side dishes! Here was someone who not only appreciated vegetables, but might even achieve what he had barely hoped was possible: make Naruto appreciate vegetables.
There were other things he knew about this child, and some of them might become serious problems, but for now it was time to drop the genjutsu. And walk loudly. One had to be circumspect with this one.
"Hi, Hinata-chan," he greeted, once she had registered his presence and had a couple seconds to remember to breathe. "There is someone really special who really, really needs your help. Yes, yours, you are the only one who can do this, so you will need to be really, really brave..."
She had been talking for a while before Naruto realized whose voice he was hearing: Sakura-chan must be here.
Her voice hurt his ears. Which was kinda funny, because before, he thought that it was a really nice voice, well, it was when she wasn't mad anyway, and he'd always thought Sakura-chan was so pretty.
She sounded really worried. Maybe Sasuke was giving her hard time.
There was this buzzing in his ears, it wouldn't go away, it never went away, and Sakura-sounding-worried was making it worse.
Blood blood lots and lots and lots of red redredRED
"You're making it worse—" That sounded like Sasuke, except really hissy, kinda like a snake sliding snake sliding red, red grass red river red someone was touching him and he didn't want anyone touching him even though the little ball of cold and lonely that was always somewhere in his belly had grown so big that even his toe-tips were cold and—
"I'm going to get Iruka-sensei!" Sakura again, high, scared, why? Was there something scary here? That moaning was kind of scary—but that was him making that sound, and he wasn't scary—well—when Mizuki-sensei was on top of him he was scary—
"No, no, that makes it even worse—fine, go ask for him, he'll tell you—"
Footsteps were going away. Good. He didn't like it when people saw him cry.
"Nnngh. Look, Naruto, I'll be right back—I just gotta make sure—" Sasuke. And now Sasuke's footsteps, going away.
That was good too. He could breathe better now. But it was really, really, really cold now that he was alone.
Sasuke's voice drifted down the hall, angry and urgent. "Don't tell anyone else! They will take him back to the hospital!"
The hospital. He didn't want to go back to the hospital.
"He needs help."
"Then Hokage-sama will help him. You got someone better than the Hokage?"
When he opened his eyes, the light hurt them, so he kept them closed.
"Fine. Just... lie there. I'm going to study for the test we have to pass."
He stayed there for a while, standing somewhere behind Naruto's back, and Naruto tried to think about the test and maybe getting up to follow him in to the kitchen table and trying to read something because it used to be important but the buzzing in his ears and the aching in his chest just wouldn't stop and what was a test? A test didn't matter, a test couldn't change anything.
After a while there was a noise that didn't sound angry or impatient like Sasuke usually sounded. It was something Naruto didn't recognize, and Sasuke left.
Sunset painted the colors a boy in a bed should have been, and Kakashi watched.
The day of the memorial service, the day Itachi's little brother and Naruto walked home together from the hospital, Kakashi assigned himself routine security sweeps and watched them settle back into their apartment between runs around the village.
They were doing a little too well. They bickered over what to eat for dinner and ended up with crackers and tomatoes, though Naruto didn't eat the tomatoes. Naruto watched TV instead of going to bed and Sasuke stayed with him, until Naruto yelled at him for watching him instead of the screen and stalked off to his room.
The next day they set out with a pink-haired kid Kakashi vaguely recognized as an academy attendee, and practiced throwing spreads of shuriken. Naruto was pale-faced and irritable—hungry and tired, Kakashi diagnosed—but fought to keep up with Sasuke.
He seemed okay. Kakashi had expected something else, something like Kushina, Kushina who couldn't kill an ant without remorse and felt the force of every human tragedy with an intensity that made everything, everything personal. Every ally and every enemy (and she fought fiercely and bravely and had more than most) was a possible brother or sister and could have been beloved and was mourned accordingly.
Her empathy had dazzled, confused, and irritated Kakashi. How she managed to complete any missions ever when she was such an emotional wreck all the time was a mystery he never solved. Sensei loved her for it though.
Maybe... maybe Naruto was more like him. Like Sensei.
He'd entertained the thought for all of two seconds before Naruto exploded into trauma and chaos. It happened when the Uchiha pulled a kunai from his pouch, waving it in front of the girl, Sakura, in a demonstration of the difference in wrist movements when releasing a kunai from its ring versus releasing a shuriken from its center. There was nothing sudden or threatening about his movements, but the moment Naruto caught sight of the kunai in his peripheral vision, every facet of his control shattered.
Kakashi flexed from relaxed crouch to shunshin-ready in half a heartbeat as Naruto threw himself at the other boy, a wordless bellow ripping itself from the blond boy's throat. He could see the dilated pupils, the subtle shaking of muscles, the too-wide eyes seeing things that weren't really there—all the signs of post-traumatic stress manifesting in a seven-year-old child. He might have to intervene.
The Uchiha caught the initial attack with a short cry of shock, and let Naruto wrestle the kunai from his hand without going on the offensive. The girl fell back, scared and uncertain, as the two fell into a grappling match that seemed almost rehearsed, the moves were so habitual. Except that Naruto couldn't stop screaming and Sasuke couldn't keep his fear and confusion from showing and the other kid had started crying her eyes out and kept running a few steps away, maybe to go for help, before changing her min and running back to beg the boys to stop.
It ended with Naruto curled on his side in a ball, shaking and bawling and not responding. His two small companions clearly hadn't the slightest idea how to react, and Kakashi wasn't much better off. There were shinobi protocals for this... when dealing with fellow shinobi. Second-year academy students probably shouldn't be handled quite the same way.
Perhaps an academy sensei? Considering the that the source of the trauma had been an academy sensei... perhaps not.
Kakashi was late, of course, in coming to any sort of decision. It was Itachi's otouto who hauled Sensei's son to his feet, suddenly silent but still shaking, and dragged him off to the apartment they shared. Kakashi followed them, and found it difficult to drag himself away. There were times he had to leave. He had a full complement of ANBU to command. Dead teammates to honor. Food and hygiene needed to be included in there somewhere. But every time he left, he returned to the same scene playing out on repeat: the kid Uchiha, increasingly desperate, trying to take care of Naruto, who continued to spiral downward.
The sky was red now. Deepening depths of purple and blue shadowed the vast sweep of space surrounding him, but it was the burning band of crimson flaring defiantly on the horizon that drew his eyes. It reflected from the window, obscuring its occupants, but still Kakashi watched. He knew that color.
Kushina-san, Kushina-san, he pleaded, sick with helpless emptiness, Kushina-san, do you see your son?
Slamming the Phoenix Flower scroll to the table, Sasuke shoved out of his chair and down the hall, ripping the second door open hard enough to wrench it off its track.
"Enough." The harshness of his own voice sounded so much like his father's that he cringed from it, but that didn't lessen the heat in the glare spearing the fetal form on the bed.
"Dobe. Useless. Stupidhead. Usuratonkachi. Get up."
Blank blue eyes stared at the wall.
"Don't make me poke you with my kunai." He wasn't carrying one, but it's not like Naruto was looking. Or listening. Or anything. Sasuke wasn't completely sure the lump on the bed was even breathing. His heart stuttered with fear; he voiced it as anger.
"Look, you may be used to failing, but there is no way I am going to let you ruin everything now. Get up. Get up! Get up!" His control was slipping with every word, and angry steps marched him closer and closer to the unmoving boy on the bed until his knees were sinking into the mattress and Naruto's shoulders were in his hands and twisted to the side to force the empty (too pale, too pale!) face to see him. Naruto closed his eyes.
"SO SOME ANBU DIED!" roared Sasuke, infuriated. "I WATCHED MY ENTIRE FAMILY DIE! DO YOU HEAR ME, DOBE?! I WATCHED MY ENTIRE FAMILY DIE! EVERYONE! GONE!" He dimly realized that he was hitting something, and was distantly relieved that it wasn't Naruto. Plaster and paint crumbled from the wall. Blood welled beneath the calluses covering his knuckles.
Sick to his stomach, Sasuke pulled away, injured hand curled to his chest.
There might be a hole in the wall.
Naruto's eyes finally found him.
"It's not like you saw her face," Sasuke mumbled into his chest, picking bits bloody plaster off his fist. "It's not like you knew her name."
The backhanded slap that came next stung more from shock than physical force.
"You had a family," said Naruto. His voice was hoarse and the words sounded like it burned his tongue to say them. The hand he'd hit Sasuke with clenched into a fist. "All I ever had was ANBU."
"So what," growled Sasuke, but he felt a little better to see Naruto sitting up. "So what. Get up."
Naruto slumped back onto his pillow, stared red-eyed at the ceiling. Bits of paint and plaster clung to his hair. His expression was hollow but there was something different to the set of his jaw. He said something that Sasuke didn't quite hear over the rush of blood in his ears.
"Her name. Tsukushi. Her name was Tsukushi."
"...Okay. An ANBU named for a weed. We can remember that." Suddenly listless, Sasuke let himself fall back until his head rested at the end of the mattress and his foot nudged the dobe's shoulder. His gut lurched with hope when he heard Naruto make a sound that was almost like a chuckle. Or maybe a sob, quickly swallowed as Naruto stopped breathing, holding that last bit of oxygen in. The silence stretched until Sasuke felt the other body on the bed tense up and shudder, and a gasp for air that sounded painful.
"Hey. Hey, Naruto."
He was shaking again. Sasuke could feel it through the shoulder his foot rested against. He kicked it.
He had to stop this before it got worse again. So he said, "Tsukushi, right?"
Naruto nodded, streaking more tears over the arm he'd thrown over his eyes. "Ca...Captain Inu said it... w-was a good name for her. 'Cause she was...like a weed. You know. Super tough."
He was talking, that was good. Sasuke couldn't think of anything to say in response so he just made a noise to show he was listening and looked at the ceiling and tried not to think all the things that were churning around and around inside him.
Sheets shifted, and suddenly a scarred and tear-stained face was too close to his. Sasuke frowned at it, but the hand he tried to shove it away with was caught by the wrist and held to, tight.
"Was it your fault." The blue eyes were staring, too wide and too intent.
"Get off. Naruto."
"Was it because of you. That they died. It wasn't, right? You didn't do that, right?"
Sasuke's throat was closing, his vision distorting in panic. "How... how... how could it be my fault—"
"It wasn't." Naruto leaned back, but kept his grip on Sasuke's arm. "It definitely wasn't your fault. That they died." He turned his face toward the other wall, the one without a hole in it, but his eyes kept skittering sideways to watch Sasuke. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry they died."
He sounded so young, like the little kid Sasuke was... before. When Itachi was still aniki.
Naruto dropped Sasuke's hand, gripped his own forearms til they bled. "But Tsukushi-san was my fault. It was all because of me."
"How could you know that? Dobe."
Naruto said nothing.
"She was shinobi. She was on a mission. That's how."
Naruto shook his head. Couldn't stop shaking it.
"No... hey, Naruto. Don't. Stop. Don't start this again."
All of Naruto was shaking. Crumbled plaster sifted from his hair, dusting the sheets and Naruto's quivering shoulders.
Sasuke punched him. Tackled him. Wrapped all his limbs around him. "Stop it," he commanded, or begged, he couldn't even care—"stop it, idiot, they'll take you back to the hospital—come on, Naruto, come on, you'll be okay, we'll remember that ANBU, okay? Just stop—"
Naruto was moaning something. Sasuke stopped smothering him so he could hear him better.
Why. He was asking why.
To measure my capacity, hissed Sasuke's Nightmare. He jerked away from Naruto, disentangled all their limbs, and tried to breathe around the aching lump chafing his throat.
"Don't know. You have to be okay. You have to, Naruto. So... so. You'll be okay."
The silence of the room swallowed them, and Sasuke lay still with his skin prickling with sweat and tried to breathe and listened to Naruto breathe and felt when Naruto wasn't trembling anymore.
"You'll be okay," he said again, a little more confidently this time.
He still wasn't sure either of them believed it. Sasuke wasn't okay. Sasuke wasn't ever going to be okay. It had been days since Naruto got out of the hospital and he wasn't approaching anything close to okay.
But when they woke up (when had he drifted off to sleep? He didn't remember going to sleep—) when they woke up, they stumbled into the kitchen, and Naruto ate the eggs scrambled with bits of vegetables that were somehow both burned and half-cooked at the same time that Sasuke made when he was trying to make an omelet.
A/N: You guys. YOU GUYS. 500+ reviews. I'm kind of in love with you. I can't help but keep writing even though there is no space for writing in my life right now. Thank you. Next chapter coming up as soon as I can possibly swing it.
Also... this chapter. I'm worried. Things are much angstier and Squirrel much deader than I wanted her to be. Just... let me know what your reaction was, please?