Chapter 16


Somewhere in the Land of Fire, lies a village hidden in the leaves. It was the first of its kind. It has weathered many wars, survived heavy losses and seen new glory sprout from the ashes of despair. Some of the greatest heroes, and the greatest villains have all at one point called this village their home. This tradition began with its founding by two of the most powerful shinobi that this world has ever known. One would come to use that power for good, and the other for unspeakable evil. But within this hidden village at least, good has prevailed. There is a sense of joy, courage and above all, hope. And this is what they call the Will of Fire.

Pain surveyed the group of eight S-rank felons – his subordinates. They were now gathered in another of the Akatsuki's main hideouts. The Leader had deemed it safe to send Zetsu back to their previous location. He'd asked the plant-like shinobi to analyse any occurrences since their departure. And now, the carapaced, monochrome figure was about to deliver his report.

"Speak," Pain commanded simply.

Zetsu nodded. "Firstly," he began, "it is clear that Konoha has left, and that they have taken the Hatake's body with them."

Hidan chuckled darkly. "I wouldn't have minded seeing the look on the Hokage's face when she found her favourite pet Jonin dead."

"Well that is the oddity of the situation…" Zetsu continued in his deep, unsettling voice.

The Leader's eyes narrowed. "Explain."

The freakish shinobi seemed unfazed by Pain's stern glare. "Well," he answered steadily, "in order to reach the Copy-Ninja, Konoha would have had to break through the entrance's barrier; this would have left a sizable chakra imprint. However, it appears that the barrier was undone from the inside."

"What? No way! That's impossible!" came Tobi's impetuous cry.

Pain sighed. Clearly all was not as it seemed. His mind immediately went to the Akatsuki member who had been last to join them. Itachi. The Uchiha had shown up a full five minutes after the others with only the sodden, illegible remains of the poison's recipe to show for it. Although, the Leader had mainly blamed Kakuzu for being careless. And as a result they would never be able to implement the same scheme elsewhere. He almost felt that the Hatake had planned this even before he'd created that water jutsu. But going so far as to open the hideout's barrier was certainly an impossible feat for one purported to be dead.

"You were the last to arrive, Itachi. Do you know anything about this?" The Leader turned the glare of his Rinnegan on the Uchiha. His eyes could normally discern truth from falsehood. But somehow – perhaps due to being such a prolific genjutsu user himself – Itachi always managed to keep a part of his soul concealed from Pain's ocular infiltration.

His response was icy calm. "When I left, the barrier was in place and the Hatake was dead."

However hard he tried, Pain simply could not detect any fallacy in the Uchiha's statement. And so if Itachi had truly not done it, and he had been the last to leave, then it only left one other person. And that was Kakashi Hatake. He also happened to be the only person for whom coming back from the dead could actually seem like a feasible option. It wasn't as though they had carried out a full examination. They had fled before they'd had the chance. But the Leader of the Akatsuki did not like to be fooled. And if he did find out that the Copy-Ninja had tricked them, then one way or another, Kakashi would suffer for it and ultimately pay with his life.

Then Kisame, who up until this point had remained silent, decided to air his views. "Hasn't Konoha and its pathetic shinobi humiliated us enough? I think it's about time we showed them our true strength."

Although Pain was tempted to give his consent to the shark-like sadist's proposal, he knew that the time was not yet ripe. And so he kept his tone stern.

"No. Kakashi Hatake has proven that the Will of Fire is a force to be reckoned with. For now we'll wait. After all, we have other objectives to complete first."

Hidan sounded rather put out. "But we can still slaughter any Konoha shinobi we come across, right? I've been dying to use some of them in my Ritual."

Pain glared at the zealot. "Only if they engage you directly. But if they do, by all means leave none alive."

Hidan grinned, a homicidal glint shining in his bright purple eyes.

Pain continued. "On that note, Hidan, Kakuzu, you will now commence your search for the Two-Tailed Beast. Kisame, Itachi, I appoint you to the finding of the Four-Tailed Beast. I will not accept failure from anyone."

The Leader noticed Itachi narrow his eyes. After all, that last comment had primarily been aimed at the Uchiha. Although, Pain had in some ways also been addressing himself. For far too long he had let Konoha pollute the world with its war-mongering, hypocritical, pacifist prattlings. Acting all high and mighty and letting nations like Amegakure crumble. They would be taught a lesson that would make the Copy-Ninja's death seem a small price to pay.

Sai's brush moved effortlessly across the page, tracing out a masterpiece with a will of its own. But he wasn't looking at the painting unfolding in front of him. He was sitting on a bench outside Konoha Hospital, waiting for Sakura to give him the latest news on their Sensei's condition. After Lady Tsunade had thrown everyone out of the ward except for Sakura – whose help she clearly needed – Captain Yamato had explained to Sai exactly what had happened over the last few weeks.

The young Operative had felt a tightness in his chest, a light-headed sensation, and an unexpected warmth that'd seemed to come from the very depths of his being. If he had to put names to these feelings – based on what he'd read – he would have identified his current emotions as concern, disbelief, and for some reason pride. He did not want Kakashi-Sensei to die. He could not believe that even such a formidable shinobi had been prepared to face the entire Akatsuki alone. And the fact that Kakashi was willing to sacrifice everything for his comrades, without a second thought, filled the Root member with what could only be described as admiration. Perhaps he didn't fully understand the concept of bonds yet, but the thought of his Sensei caring so much for his friends and his village helped explain to Sai just how the Copy-Ninja had amassed such devotion and respect. It seemed that there were no lengths to which the Jonin would not go in order to save his friends. And for that reason, Sai sincerely hoped that he would never end up hurting anyone that Kakashi Hatake counted as a comrade.

Briefly he thought of the differences between his two masters. He didn't need to be an expert at analysing people to know that Kakashi and Danzo were cut from very different cloth. And when it came down to it, he knew where his true loyalties lay. He'd been somewhat surprised by Captain Yamato's account of Root betraying their Leader. All of the Operatives involved had clearly become disillusioned – or perhaps a better word was enlightened. And they'd since defected and joined the main branch of the ANBU. It was a loss for Danzo – doubly so now that the position of Hokage rested once again on Lady Tsunade's shoulders. But Lord Danzo had many more soldiers at his command, and Sai knew that the old man would never give up his search for power.

The Root member looked down at the painting in his lap, it made little sense to him, and certainly no titles came to mind. In the centre was the symbol of the Leaf, but the spiral in the middle of the design had been replaced by a Sharingan. The background was silver with flecks of white, black, and occasionally gold. It took a while for Sai to notice that it held the exact same texture as a wolf's fur. Something about the painting spoke to him, and Sai almost wished that he was able to find a fitting title for it. But a moment later when Sakura came running out of the building towards him, those thoughts were promptly pushed aside.

The young medic was crying. Normally this meant that she was sad, but she was smiling at the same time. This confused Sai.

"How is Kakashi-Sensei, Sakura-chan?" he asked before she'd reached him.

The pink-haired kunoichi didn't respond straight away. Instead she crossed over to where Sai was sitting and slumped down beside him. He thought that perhaps she'd not heard him, and repeated the question.

"How is Kakashi-Sensei?"

Sakura closed her eyes and gave a deep sigh before saying, "He's alive, somehow."

Sai looked at his team-mate and then smiled from his heart. "We should tell Naruto."

Sakura returned his smile, her eyes shining. "When Lady Tsunade chucked him out of the Hospital I sent him over to Kakashi-Sensei's apartment to pick up some clothes. Though it was really just to get him out of the way."

Sai nodded. "Naruto does tend to disrupt things."

"Hey!" came an outraged voice from somewhere behind them. "At least I'm doing something useful not just sitting there like an idiot!"

Sai looked up to see five Narutos staring down at him, they were supporting a large wardrobe between them.

"What the hell did you bring that thing for?" Sakura yelled.

Naruto's cheeks reddened and he answered defensively, "I didn't know how long he'd be staying, or what clothes he wanted. And I didn't want to bring Kakashi-Sensei the wrong stuff. So I thought I'd just take it all."

Sakura closed her eyes and put one hand to her forehead, while the other was clenched into a fist – Sai had observed Lady Tsunade strike this exact pose many times. And he felt that the kunoichi probably would have hit Naruto, had it not run the risk of breaking Kakashi-Sensei's furniture.

Sakura glared at the idiot as she emphasised each syllable. "Just… put… it… down!"

The blonde did as he was told. And Sakura continued in a slightly calmer tone.

"Lady Tsunade said that Kakashi-Sensei isn't allowed visitors for at least twenty-four hours, and only then if his condition is stable enough."

"So what actually happened?" asked Naruto as he joined them on the bench.

For a while, the question was left unanswered. But Sai eventually realised that, out of the three of them, he was probably the best informed. And so it would be up to him to recount to the others Kakashi's tale of what – by even the strictest definition – could only be called heroism.

Kakashi's first lucid sensation was one of profound confusion. He had no idea whether he was alive or dead, conscious or unconscious, safe or in danger. But as recent events began to unfold in his memory, the Jonin gradually deduced his whereabouts. And there were very few places in the world that the Copy-Ninja more dreaded waking up to. Why did it always have to be Konoha Hospital?

He opened his eyes and let them adjust to the light before analysing the scene around him. It was the usual: white walls, grey floor, tiled ceiling and one glowering Hokage.

"Yo." He greeted Tsunade with a smile.

She did not return it. "Why is it that the only thing you're ever early for is waking up when I don't want you to, Hatake?"

Kakashi's smile widened into a grin. "It must be the knowledge that you'll be there waiting for me, Hokage."

Tsunade raised an eyebrow. "Well if that's the case then you can start showing up on time to Jonin Council meetings."

Kakashi chuckled. "I wouldn't go that far."

The Hokage sighed before moving to sit on the bed beside him. And all mirth instantly vanished from the Copy-Ninja's face as he saw Tsunade's anxious expression. He would never have let the Sannin admit it and she certainly wouldn't have wanted to, but Kakashi knew how much he meant to her. He was all she had left of Sakumo. And so if Kakashi died, he knew that Tsunade would lose much more than just one Jonin. And if living meant sparing her that pain, then being subjected to the torture of a stay at Konoha Hospital might just become a little more bearable.

He heard Tsunade inhale deeply and knew what would come next. Her tone held a mixture of admonition and despair. "You know you can't just throw your life away at every given opportunity."

Kakashi kept his response steady. "If it means protecting my comrades, I'll happily sacrifice myself any day. Because without those I care about, my life means nothing."

The Hokage's voice grew stern. "You are the most insufferable, reckless, obstinate Brat I've ever met! And those are just your good qualities."

Kakashi smiled to himself, knowing that Tsunade's rant was far from over.

Sure enough, she continued. "You know the next time you use up all your chakra and get yourself killed, no one's going to miraculously revive you."

Kakashi smirked. "You never know."

Even as the Sannin's growl of anger reached his ears, Kakashi noticed the sound lose focus. And then gradually, his vision began to fade. After all, the Copy-Ninja knew that his body was far from healed, and the longer he stayed conscious, the longer he'd have to sit through the Hokage's lecture. And so he allowed himself to lose consciousness peacefully, content to accept the fact that his mission had been a success. For once he could afford to relax.

The longest day of Tsunade's life was finally winding to a close. She'd spent all of last night and most of the morning making sure that Kakashi wasn't going to die before she'd even had a chance to properly rebuke him. And when that chance had finally come, the brat had decided to pass out before she'd even gotten started properly. Then she'd been summoned to the Daimyo's residence to be officially reinstated as Hokage – and fortunately Danzo had decided not to grace them all with his presence at the handover of power. And now she was finally heading back to the Hospital to double check that the brat hadn't somehow managed to get himself killed in her absence. She'd ordered the chief-medic to put a seal on his chakra as soon as he woke up again, and gather a three-man ANBU cell to stand guard outside his room. Of course, this last precaution was more to stop the Copy-Ninja from breaking out than an intruder breaking in.

But as soon as she set foot inside the Hospital, Tsunade knew that her safety measures had failed. One of the junior medics rushed up to her. His face was pale and his eyes were wide.

"Lady Hokage, we need you in Kakashi Hatake's room immediately!"

Fearing the worst, Tsunade raced after her frantic subordinate. And when she entered the room, the source of the medic's panic quickly became apparent. Kakashi had disappeared. And based on the distinct taint of chakra that clearly only she was able to detect, the Hokage straight away put the pieces together.

The sheer volume of her voice caused the young medic to cower in fear. "You didn't seal his chakra? What the hell were you thinking!"

The orderly stammered his response. "We… we were sure that he wouldn't have regained c-consciousness yet. And certainly wouldn't be in any condition to… to use chakra!"

Tsunade glared at him. "Well clearly you were wrong."

"Should we send a cell to try and retrieve him?" the young man suggested hopefully.

Tsunade sighed. "Don't bother. If that Brat was able to escape from under the noses of his ANBU guards, then I highly doubt anyone you send will be able to find him."

The medic's face reddened slightly. "I'm so sorry, but that isn't the end of the bad news."

"Oh really?" Tsunade had a feeling that she wasn't going to like what she was about to hear.

And clearly the young man didn't particularly like having to report it. "One of the ANBU guards has disappeared as well."

Tsunade responded to this new revelation through clenched teeth. "Can I assume that no one bothered to check the identities of the cell members?"

The medic cringed. "I can only apologise Hokage, we didn't realise it was so important."

"Why am I not surprised?" she muttered bitterly.

Then Tsunade turned her back on the medic and crossed over to the window before leaning her head despairingly against the cool glass. She waited for her flustered subordinate to show himself out and then gazed down at the streets below her. They were bathed in the orange glow of the setting sun. The Will of Fire shone in the air, and somehow it caused all anger to drain out of her. In spite of all that had happened, Tsunade had never been prouder to be the Hokage of Konohagakure.

She thought of all the people who would never know just how hard the Copy-Ninja had fought for them. That kid was a handful, but in the end he was always worth it. With a small smile she whispered into the glass, "Good job, Brat."

The Hokage took one more look at her village before making her unhurried way from the room. She had a fair idea of just where she might find the Copy-Ninja, and a certain few other shinobi, including that ANBU guard who had so mysteriously disappeared along with him. She knew that asking the chief-medic to gather the cell had been a mistake. Why was it that when it came to Sakumo's brat she had to do everything herself if she wanted it done right?

Tsunade paced down the corridor, and as she passed the two remaining ANBU they each stood to attention – as if they hadn't been in on the whole operation! She didn't even bother to interrogate them. Instead she left the Hospital and headed towards Konoha's most secluded, unfrequented tavern. And Tsunade had a sneaking suspicion that hers wasn't the only custom it would receive tonight.

The room was dimly lit, the air was filled with smoke, and the barstools were virtually all empty. This was exactly how the group of four liked it. Asuma dragged contentedly on his cigarette and Genma alternated methodically between chewing a senbon and downing glasses of saké. Kakashi and Yamato arrived together to complete the gathering. The ANBU was noticeably taking most of the Jonin's weight. But seeing as the far from recovered Copy-Ninja had just used a teleportation jutsu, this was no surprise.

Genma ordered another round of drinks while the other two crossed steadily over to the bar.

The Tokubetsu Jonin smirked. "So you made it after all."

"Fortunately I had some help along the way," replied Kakashi, returning his friend's knowing smile.

Asuma's face, however, was serious. "I hope you've realised that I'm not paying."

"Sure. I know that," Kakashi answered, his every word dripping with sincerity.

Asuma narrowed his eyes. But even he knew that after a certain amount of saké no one was going to remember whose cash it was anyway.

They each received their glasses gratefully, deciding to worry about the tab later. Kakashi looked down at his saké and then around the room, making sure that they were the only customers. After his routine scan was complete, the Jonin raised one hand to the edge of his mask. He lowered it slowly, letting the fabric slide gradually down over his habitually concealed features. His friends looked up. They had all seen his face on more than a few occasions over the years, but some inexplicable compulsion caused them to stare each time. Genma noticed the subtle prominence of Kakashi's cheekbones. Asuma took in the rare sight of his small, perfectly straight nose. And Yamato felt himself blushing slightly as he observed the effortless smile form on his Senpai's gently curving lips. Clearly the man was well aware that he was being scrutinised. And as one, the Copy-Ninja's comrades all wondered – not for the first time – what the hell he ever wore that mask for.

Then, while those three were distracted, Kakashi sensed another presence somewhere behind them. He turned in time to see the Hokage framed in the doorway. The look on her face was a curious mixture of amusement and outright fury. Kakashi flashed her an irresistible grin and she couldn't help smirking in return. That was the one reason why Tsunade was glad Kakashi always wore a mask. There was something about his face that made it simply impossible to stay angry with him.

But this silent exchange lasted only a moment. The Hokage had confirmed her suspicions, but decided it would be best to let the friends finish their night out. Although that did not mean she had any intention of going easy on them tomorrow. No matter how hungover they claimed to be. For now though, she'd let them have a few hours of respite; after all, they'd earned it.

Tsunade and Kakashi shared one more meaningful smile before the Hokage turned and slowly began to walk away, leaving the four shinobi alone once more. And so the comrades laughed and joked and drank throughout the night. Until eventually morning came and the sun's first light began to filter in through the door of the grimy tavern. At this unspoken signal, they all refilled their cups and prepared to drink one final toast. Silently, different thoughts passed through each of those four heroes' minds. Asuma drank to the fact that the threat of the Akatsuki had been averted. Yamato drank to the fact that order had finally been restored to the village. Genma drank to the overall success of the mission. And as the Copy-Ninja watched his friends drain the last of their saké, a smile graced his flawless features. A few moments passed before he too raised his cup. Then slowly, and with deep sincerity, Kakashi drank to the fact that they'd all lived to see another dawn.

~ End ~