Twin1: Recently, we've noticed that we have a lot of much loved, multi-chapter stories just sitting on our computers, being ignored because we didn't know how they'd be received. So, we've decided to put up a pilot chapter, just to test the waters and judge if the stories are worth putting up in their entireties. Your feedback will help us decide the most important question –

Twin2: To update or not to update. To write or not to write. To flog brother with a barbed whip for stealing notebook or not to flog brother with a-

Twin1: Yes, thank you, sister. Hush. So, the deal is, you tell us if you like this, we respond as you ask. This only works if you review, but whatev. If you don't, we'll just take your vote as a 'don't like it'.

Three Months Old

Sarutobi sighed heavily, leaning back in his worn padded chair. He loved the old thing. He'd chosen it especially when he'd first made Hokage as a teenager, back when he was too short for his feet to touch the floor if he sat back in the cushy, fluffy thing. In this chair, he'd faced many troublemakers and passed many laws. Here he'd cuddled his three children and one grandson, and played both aggravator and peacekeeper. From here, he'd ruled a kingdom.

Today, his faithful chair was the place he had chosen to sit as he rocked the plaintively crying infant in his arms gently, trying to soothe it.

The boy was barely three months old, but he already had vivid blonde hair and a wide smile. Of course, he wasn't smiling now. No, he was screaming, sobbing, his blue eyes clenched tightly closed against the world.

"Shh, shh, it's okay, little one," Sarutobi said calmly, unruffled by the loud noises. "You're safe now. Hush."

Eventually, the baby's wailing ebbed, until he was snuffling slightly against Sarutobi's chest, face buried in the old man's neck, breath catching in a sob occasionally.

Sarutobi waited patiently, rocking the infant to sleep, some distant part of him amused to see the ANBU who had brought him here still standing stiff and unmoving at attention in the middle of his office, and wondered vaguely how long he could keep it up…

"Dog," the Sandaime said eventually, shifting the now-sleeping baby to lie in his arms the conventional way instead of propped up against his chest in a hug. "Tell me what happened."

The ANBU bowed his head and began to speak in a brisk, clipped tone. "A group of intoxicated civilians broke into the house the boy has been inhabiting, and proceeded to attack as he lay on a rug on the living room floor," he said formally. "I intercepted and apprehended them, and with the help of my partner, Owl, subdued and arrested them. The infant was highly distressed but appeared unhurt."

Sarutobi nodded, tracing the little boy's soft cheek. "And what of Aya-san?" he asked. "Was she injured?"

Dog hesitated a beat before saying tonelessly, "The child's guardian was not present. She had left the house several hours before the attack."

The old man's hand clenched, gripping the soft blanket Dog had thought to wrap the child in before he'd brought him here. Aya, the woman he had charged with caring for the baby, had abandoned him, and then a group of drunken villagers attacked him.

"How much longer can hatred for this innocent child fester in my village?" he said sadly, almost to himself. The ANBU shifted slightly.

"Permission to speak freely, sir?" he asked. Sarutobi nodded once and waved his hand, gesturing Dog to continue. "This is getting ridiculous!" he burst forth. "Every other day, someone attacks him! The village wants him dead, Hokage-sama! It… he needs to be protected better than this," the masked man finished lamely.

The Hokage shook his head.

"I understand you, Dog, I really do," he said to the rather short ANBU standing before him. "But the problem is, what do we do with him? I can find no better way to deal with this situation than to leave things as is and hope and pray the villagers will grow to accept him."

Dog snorted derisively. "That's never going to happen," he said flatly. "People are far too good at holding grudges."

"Do you have a solution to offer?" Sarutobi questioned, sincerely curious and with a sneaking suspicion that the entire purpose of Dog's visit was to tell him one such solution.

As expected, Dog nodded. "I do, sir," he said. "I propose the child is taken into ANBU custody. There are sects that specialise in the raising and training of children. He could disappear into ANBU, at least until he is strong enough to defend himself from angry drunks."

Sarutobi frowned, unconsciously tightening his grip on the baby. "I had hoped to give him a childhood as close to normal as possible," he reminded the ANBU. "He needs to be among people, needs a chance to get to know children his own age and participate in a community."

"Sir, if things keep on the way they are, he won't get that," Dog replied. "People hate him. There's no way they're ever going to let their children play with him. It's not going to happen. And frankly, better isolated in ANBU than dead before his first birthday. However, if he disappears, in a few years' time, you can re-introduce him into the village under a different name, and he is sure to be better received."

Sarutobi considered, re-arranging the blanket around the sleeping bundle in his arms.

Finally, he sighed and nodded.

"Very well, Dog. I will accept your solution. Take the boy: give him to ANBU agent Mouse. She can be charged with his care for the first few months."

Dog nodded. Mouse had been pulled off active duty due to a severe leg injury, and had been cooped up in ANBU HQ since then. It was a good choice.

"Yes, sir."

"The boy is to be addressed as… Pup, I think, in any and all reports, requests, memos and notes sent from ANBU regarding him," Sarutobi continued. "If he is to disappear, he will disappear completely. His given name, however, should be used to his face. I will not take the name his father gave him away. He has no surname while in ANBU."

"Yes, sir." Dog bowed before carefully taking the baby in his arms. He held the infant gingerly, as if frightened the kid would break. A moment later, he was gone in a twist of smoke.

Sarutobi dug in his pocket for his pipe and leaned back in his well-loved chair. "Lemur," he called, and another ANBU – one of his guards – flickered into the visible spectrum.


"Go into the village," Sarutobi ordered, tapping his pipe to clear it before stuffing fresh tobacco into it. "Spread the news. Uzumaki Naruto was killed this morning."

ANBU codenamed Owl stood on one side of a two-way mirror, watching as the four men on the other side slowly sobered up. These people were little better than dirt in Owl's mind, having spent a month and a half guarding the brat they'd tried to kill and finding him to be nothing more than a baby.

What kind of monster kills a baby? Well, without an order from the Hokage to do so, the elite assassin had to add. These bloody civilians…

So here they were in an ANBU interrogation cell. Owl was desperately hoping for the chance to 'misinterpret' an order and give them a few marks to remember him by before he was forced to (once again) let them go.

The door opened behind him and Dog entered, holding that tell-tale blue bundle to his chest awkwardly. Owl grinned behind his porcelain mask: poor Dog, he had no clue when it came to babies. He was probably scared to put the kid down.

"Hey, Dog," he said casually to his teammate, turning back to the prisoners. "What'd the Hokage say?"

"The child will be raised in ANBU until he can be safely integrated back into the village. He's been officially declared dead."

Owl blinked. "So what'll that mean for them?" he asked, pointing at the four men, two of which were vomiting as their bodies rejected the alcohol they'd consumed. Owl fought a snigger. Civvies, couldn't hold their liquor.

Dog shrugged. "They attacked and killed a civilian child. That's pre-meditated murder of an infant. They'll be tried for treason and, if found guilty, should be executed. Somehow, though, I think they'll get off with a prison sentence."

Owl nodded. "If not a severe warning," he said bitterly. "The public will cry out for their release. But execution would be daft – why make them into martyrs?"

"Hn." Dog considered the men with distinct distaste for a moment, before turning away. "I have to take the kid to Mouse: do you know where she is this time of day?"

"Mouse? Good choice. Um, she's usually over at east wing – training, trying to force her leg to heal quicker and inevitably slowing the process," Owl said casually, leaning back against the mirror and looking down at the shorter-by-a-head ANBU. "Say… if they killed the brat and all… d'you think Head would mind if I roughed 'em up a bit?"

Dog rolled his eyes. "If you must," he sighed, turning away. "Just don't kill them, or make it too obvious; no blood. Don't make them into martyrs."

Owl's hidden grin was feral. "Gotcha," he said, turning back to peer predatorily at his four new victims. Then he thought of something and glanced back at Dog, who was making to leave. "Hey, Dog, what's the kid's name gonna be?"

Dog was halfway out the door, and paused half a beat before saying simply, "Pup," and sweeping away, arms awkwardly clamped around the infant.

Owl raised a brown eyebrow behind his mask. "'Pup'?" he repeated, shaking his head. "A codename already – that kid is destined for high places." Focusing once again on the four prisoners, Owl cracked his knuckles and cackled.

Oh, this was going to be fun.

That night, there was a celebration in the Village Hidden in the Leaves. Sarutobi watched the milling crowds below from the window of his tower, shaking his head regretfully as their shouts and laughter reached him. The fourth of January would likely become something of an unofficial festival in the years to come – the day the Kyuubi Brat was finally disposed of.

Someone pounded on his door, but he totally ignored it. People had been streaming into his office all day, each demanding the release of the four men who had done the deed. His council members wanted to gather and gloat at him, but he hadn't attended the meeting. Instead, he was enjoying the joys of a newly-installed lock on the door.

Said door rattled for a moment as whoever it was tried to force his or her way in, and then fell silent as he or she gave up.

"You can't ignore us forever, Hokage-sama!" a voice reached through to him, but he totally ignored it.

So, he mused to himself, what are you going to do with your 'murderers'?

He hadn't been able to place them with the Uchiha in the public jail, despite the numerous claims that, as they were civilians, they shouldn't be held by ANBU, simply because at the time they'd been getting false memories implanted in their minds so that their story would stand up under questioning.

But that was done now, and half an hour ago he'd given the order to have the men moved to maximum security in jail.

He couldn't execute them. That was for certain. Nor, judging from the crowds dancing and feasting below, could he imprison them for anything near as long as he wanted to.

He could give them a choice, Sarutobi thought. After their trial, once they were found guilty (and by hellfire, they would be) he could give them a choice: say, thirty years in jail (the maximum sentence for pre-meditated murder) or a public lashing. Knowing the men, they'd all choose the quick, painful route, and Sarutobi could feel slightly vindicated as he watched them beaten until they bled.

Ah, corporal punishment. How he loved it.

Mouse hummed to herself as she limped through her new (and larger) quarters. Agreeing to take in a child that had been officially declared dead had its perks. Reaching into the crib that had been set up for her, she lifted the fussing baby, cooing to him absently.

"There, now. Hush, hush. You're probably hungry, right? Well, we'll deal with that right now."

Propping the baby up against her shoulder with one arm, she walked to the kitchen section of her quarters (she had a sink, a fridge, and a dishwasher! How cool was that?) and digging around for some baby formula and a bottle.

She made it up quickly, double-checking the temperature was right and wouldn't burn the baby's mouth before she offered it to him.

Naruto latched onto the rubber teat instantly, blue eyes staring up at her in amazement before flicking around the room, taking in everything. Mouse smiled: she loved this age. They were just so interested in everything, wiring up their eyes before they learnt how to move anything else.

"Is that better, little Pup?" she asked, sitting down on her bed to feed the blonde infant. Naruto's response was to shift his gaze back to her masked face for a moment, before he went back to looking around. Mouse chuckled a little, running a hand over his little stomach and soft legs.

She was going to enjoy this assignment.

With her free hand, she reached up and pulled off her mask, allowing the boy to see her features and grinning as his eyes widened in surprise. He didn't stop drinking for a moment.

A soft knock on the door caught her attention and she quickly replaced the porcelain before calling, "Enter!"

The door opened slowly and Dog came in, carrying a manila folder.

"I've brought you the boy's file," he said without so much as a hello. "It contains birthday, blood type, allergies and so on. That should be all you need to look after him. The Hokage wants you to contact him directly if there is a problem." The short masked figure placed the folder on the table in the centre of the room (she got a table! Squee!), nodded and turned to leave, but Mouse called after him.

"Dog! Wait a moment. Are… do you want to… you know, if you want to visit the baby, you're welcome to-"

"I have no interest in the child," Dog cut in acidly. "I am merely following orders, and now my obligations have been fulfilled. Good day."

Mouse frowned at his back. "Kakashi!" she snapped. "You know you're being unfair. His father-"

"Is dead," Dog interrupted again without turning. "Let him rest. Either way, I want nothing more to do with his son."

Mouse winced as he left, closing the door with a little more force than necessary.

"Don't worry," she said to the baby in her arms. "He'll come around. He's just… hurting, you know? Grieving. And he really does care what happens to you. He saved you from those nasty men, didn't he? And he brought you here. Just give him time. I mean, he's really just a kid as well, isn't he? He's only fourteen…"

Shaking her head, the injured ANBU woman lift the baby higher and continued to feed him, firmly pushing her dog-masked comrade out of her mind.

Eighteen months old

Now eighteen months old, Naruto didn't need to be watched every second. He was sitting on a rug in the centre of a locked, child-safe room, surrounded by a great many educational toys.

Currently, he was sucking his left thumb, his favourite stuffed toy animal tucked into his left elbow, while his right hand worked to fit a square block through a triangular hole in the side of a box. After a few moments, he stopped and examined the block, then very carefully moved it to the square hole a few inches away from the triangular one. It fit in with minimal effort, and Naruto grinned widely.

Now that all the blocks were safe in the box, Naruto moved onto a weird device that frequently made noises and sounds when he pushed random buttons on it.

Tentatively, he pressed down on the red button. A siren sounded, and he grinned, happily banging the button again. Next, he pushed against the blue one, and a weird little chamber of the plastic device began to spin, showing him several pictures in quick succession.

A set of blue eyes lit up as the child spied the ultimate temptation: an orange button. Instantly, he hit it as hard as he could, and the device promptly seemed to explode, several noises going off at once as other buttons were bumped and a small compartment bursting open. Out popped a small, soft plastic toy – a pig with a huge grin, and a recorded voice said, "Oink, oink!" before the pig was retracted and the hinged door snapped shut.

"Oink, oink!" Naruto repeated happily, banging the button again. He loved this toy.

The door opened with a pressurised whoosh, and Naruto turned his stout upper body in time to see a small, brown animal trot into the room, pause, and sniff him.

"Well, you don't need to be changed," he said in a low, gravely voice. "KAKASHI! It's safe!"

Naruto frowned and cocked his head. He vaguely recognised this creature. "Doggie?" he questioned slowly, and the brown creature glanced at him. Naruto was sure now: this furry animal was a doggie, which meant that –

"DOGGIE!" he shouted as a growed-up entered the room, holding a brown paper bag. The man stopped and winced, but Naruto didn't notice as he climbed to his feet and made his wobbly way over to the silver-haired man.

"Hello, Pup," the man began, but yelped and snapped out his hands to catch the child as he stumbled and fell.

"Doggie," Naruto repeated seriously, looking up at the white-and-red patterned face. "Ook! Doggie!"

He held out his favourite plush toy. Kakashi stared at it for a second, then sighed. "Dammit, Mouse has a sick sense of humour. Yes, Pup, it's a dog. Well done."

Naruto was frowning in confusion at this speech, his head cocked as he tried to follow.

"…Doggie," he said eventually.

Kakashi stared at him for a long second. Growing up in ANBU, where the adults rarely spoke, meant that Naruto had a very limited vocabulary. The sum of all the words he could speak only amounted to seven words, three of which he couldn't say properly. He also had various baby words and half-sounds, but in the end, all he said was ook – meaning look, oink, brrring, 'ungry – instead of hungry, dat – 'that', un and, of course, doggie.

Why am I here? Kakashi asked himself. He looked down at his hands, still holding the toddler up, and remembered the paper bag. Oh yeah… Mouse is on a mission… someone had to feed him… Hummingbird asked me to pass it along… damn females.

"Doggie?" Naruto pressed, big, wide, familiar eyes looking hurt and confused. Kakashi sighed heavily.

"That's a nice toy," he said grudgingly. "What's its name?"

"Oink!" Naruto said brightly. Kakashi rolled his eyes. Figures.

"I need to go now," he said in a monotone. "Here is lunch. Are you hungry?"

"Ungry?" Naruto repeated the word he recognised. Kakashi offered him the paper bag, and his eyes lit up. "Un!"

Letting both the child and the bag go, Kakashi retreated quickly, pausing outside the door to take a shaky breath.

He hated seeing the kid. It reminded him too much of…

Of Sensei.

It was easier for the fifteen year old to stay away.

Twenty-eight months old

The old Hokage was sitting on the floor of the playroom, looking singularly undignified, smiling at the two-foot-high blonde bundle of energy that had recently turned two and four months old.

The child was sitting opposite him, and between them was a child's puzzle with only eight pieces. Naruto was just fitting the last piece in and he smiled widely.

"Doggie!" he announced. Sarutobi sighed and shook his head.

"No, Naruto, this is a frog," he said gently, pointing to the picture. "Froggie."

Naruto frowned. "Froggie?" he repeated cautiously. Sarutobi nodded, and his grin came back. "Doggie froggie!" he chanted, and giggled happily.

The Sandaime shook his head, smiling as he laughed. "Good enough," he said. Naruto didn't reply, instead hoisting himself onto his chubby legs and toddling away.

He had mastered the art of walking with scarcely a wobble, and Sarutobi knew that Ox and Bee had taken to taking him to the underground training area ANBU had and beginning basic exercises with him, incidentally going directly against orders but getting away with it by arguing that they'd been playing, not training.

Either way, Naruto seemed to enjoy it, so Sarutobi saw no need to interfere. And he was learning to talk better, too, which was a relief.

The child was unnaturally small for his age, so much so that Sarutobi would be concerned that he was being neglected and thus his growth being stunted if he didn't have it on good authority that Dog had terrified his various carers into feeding him at least four times a day.

The Hokage cracked a smile again at the thought. Despite the fact that Kakashi couldn't stand to be around the child, he still cared greatly for what happened to Minato's son. It was this distant protectiveness that let Sarutobi feel at ease with the child's current situation: no harm would ever befall Naruto on Kakashi's watch.

Unfortunately, Mouse had been killed on a mission eight months ago, so Naruto had no specific carer, but he seemed to be coping well when he was left generally to his own devices, not minding if different people came to change, feed and occasionally play with him.

Something that fascinated Sarutobi was the way Naruto seemed able to distinguish between the masks of the ANBU – even those he had never seen before – with the ease that many could distinguish between people's real faces. After speaking to a psychologist, he had learnt that a child's facial recognition system was wired up at a very young age and based on the people around him, so Naruto would always be able to distinguish different ANBU masks, but would have a hard time (at least at first, until his facial recognition system rewired) telling apart real human faces.

"What are you looking for, Naruto?" Sarutobi asked when Naruto began rooting through the drawers lining the side of the playroom.

"Oink," the boy said firmly. Sarutobi smiled and pulled himself to his feet, wincing as he felt his old bones creaking.

"Oink," he repeated, amusement tinging his voice. "Okay. Let's find him."

It took approximately eight minutes to find Oink stashed firmly behind the chest of drawers, and Naruto instantly latched onto the fuzzy canine, his legs giving out to land him with a plop on his sound behind on the floor.

Sarutobi joined the child a moment later, and soon he had Naruto (and Oink) curled up in his lap while he read the child a story.

As he read, Sarutobi mentally mused that it was probably getting near the time when Naruto would have to be reintegrated with society as a whole. He needed to be young enough not to tell anyone what had happened in his life, which meant under four, or else the Hokage would have to wait until he was old enough not to say anything, which would mean fifteen or sixteen. Waiting that long was unfair and unhealthy to the child, so Sarutobi made a mental note to begin arranging for the child to leave the protection of the ANBU.

Two years, ten months old

Sarutobi smiled just a little and stretched, working the kinks out of his aching back. It had taken him six hours of mind-numbing paperwork, but it was finally all arranged. Everything was in place, ready for Naruto to reappear in his village.

Just one thing left to do.

The Hokage hummed a little as he carefully emptied the third drawer in his desk and placed a stack of folders, files and papers half a foot high into it, locking it securely. They would be safe there until he was ready to begin Naruto's reintegration. Hopefully, things would go better this time.

With this pressing matter out of the way, he reached for a red scroll about the size of a cigar, quickly unsealing it and unrolling it across his desk, reading it swiftly.

It was an update from Kakashi, who had been on a long-term mission for the last six months, and was getting bored with stakeout duty, apparently. Sarutobi chuckled as he read the report, which was laced with a jaded undertone and contained many pleas for mercy. The Hokage shook his head – Kakashi would be done soon, anyway. He just had to survive another two months.

Dipping his brush into his inkwell, he quickly signed the scroll to say he had read it and placed it in his 'out' tray, ready to be logged and stored by his Hokage-slaves – uh, chuunin.

No, wait, Hokage-slaves.

With a triumphant grin, the Sandaime realised he had finished his paperwork. Maybe now he could go home and actually eat dinner with his family for once, catch up with his youngest son – who was just touching eighteen now and was the only one still living at home.

"Hokage-sama?" The door had been opened about three inches, and the brown eyes of one of the very Hokage-slaves he'd been musing over just a second ago appeared in the crack.

"Hiroko-san. Come in," Sarutobi invited. The chuunin nodded and pushed the door open, revealing herself to be holding a stack of papers.

"Um, these came from Suna just now," she said, placing them on his desk and retreating quickly. Sarutobi saw the red band over them, marking them 'urgent', and sighed heavily.

"So much for dinner," he mused aloud, reaching for the top paper.

Three years old, exactly

Kakashi hesitated a brief moment before opening the door leading to the small room Naruto slept in (not to be confused with his play room). It was eight o'clock: more than two hours past the kid's bedtime, and accordingly Naruto was curled in bed, fast asleep and sucking his thumb.

Today was his birthday. Today, three years ago, Sensei had given his life and condemned his son to save a village which, to date, had proved highly ungrateful.

Three years is a long time, Kashi, swirled the voice of his teacher in his mind. Kakashi shook his head, banishing it.

He knew his teacher would be horrified at how his son was being forced to live. He knew his teacher would want him to let him go enough to hold on to the boy who was still here, alive.

But it was hard.

Very carefully, unwilling to wake the toddler, Kakashi took a few steps forward and looked at him, tilting his head just a little.

He looks fine, the ANBU thought to himself, before turning and leaving silently, closing the door securely behind him.

In an instant, the boy was forced from his mind as he met up with the rest of his squad. He was a captain now, and he along with every ANBU not on a mission was slated to spend tonight policing the festival that was thrown in honour of the Yondaime's defeat of the dreaded Kyuubi.


Leading his subordinates to the festival grounds, Kakashi couldn't hold back a sigh, feeling particularly world-weary. He hated this festival…

Three years, two months old

"Somebody's in trouble!" sang Rabbit, the female member of Kakashi's team, the moment the silver-haired man walked into the room that morning. He paused and looked at her, confused even though his mask.

"What are you talking about?" he asked. She was grinning, he just knew it.

"Hokage wants you," she said airily. "Better hurry. Don't want to be late. You have nearly-" She checked the clock hanging on the wall, "-seven whole minutes to get there."

For a moment, Kakashi stared at her. Then, he deflated and shrugged.

"Eh. I'll be late, then."

He laughed as Rabbit's jaw dropped until her chin peeked out below her mask.

After dallying a few minutes with his team, checking in with each of them, Kakashi headed off to the Hokage Tower. Once he arrived, he was waved in to see the Hokage without having to wait at all, so it was with a slight (hidden) smirk that he knocked on the Hokage's office door.

Maybe there was method in Obito's madness, after all. It was murder standing at attention for the typical forty minutes it took the Hokage to get around to seeing you.

"Ah, Dog," Sarutobi said as the Hatake entered the office when prompted. A slight flicker of confusion passed over the old face. "You're late…"

"Only just," Kakashi said mildly. "I hear you wanted to see me, Hokage-sama?"

Sarutobi hesitated. He wasn't looking forward to this conversation. Not. At. All.

"Close the door, Kakashi," he said seriously. Kakashi paused when his name was spoken, and very slowly pushed the door until it clicked shut behind him. Then he reached up and removed his porcelain mask, coming further into the room. "Sit down," the Hokage said, gesturing the chair across the desk from Sarutobi.

Warily, Kakashi sat down, frowning at the old man. This couldn't be good.

After an awkward pause, Sarutobi leant forwards, steepled his fingers, and began to speak.

"Kakashi, I wonder if you are aware of the average life expectancy of an ANBU agent?"

The Hatake frowned at the odd way of beginning, but replied anyway, "Six months, sir."

"And you have been in the force how long now?" Sarutobi asked.

"Three years, sir. Give or take a few weeks," Kakashi answered in turn. The Hokage nodded at him.

"Why did you join, Kakashi?" he asked suddenly. Kakashi stiffened.

"My reasons are my own," he snapped, then winced. "Sir," he added, trying to make it sound more polite. The Sandaime just surveyed him seriously, unmoving. Kakashi felt himself grow hot and uncomfortable under the intensity of the look, and eventually shifted and said, "Is there a problem, sir? Has something happened? Did my last psych evaluation come back below-par, or have my superiors reported any problems with my conduct?"

After a moment, Sarutobi shook his head. "No, Kakashi. You are, as always, in top form. All I have heard about you are praises, in various states of crudeness, by the way." Kakashi winced, but the old man didn't call him on it. "Kakashi… you have now been in ANBU six times the expected length of active duty," he began uncomfortably. "As such, I believe the time has come for you to explore other opportunities."

Kakashi froze. He knew what this was. This was the dreaded moment when he would be forcibly discharged from ANBU. It was inevitable: hang around too long and refuse to either voluntarily retire or die, and the Hokage would pull you from the force. Something about 'protecting mentality' or similar.

Either way, Kakashi was stunned, unsettled and… frightened?

He wasn't ready to face the world again. He hadn't seen any non-ANBU comrades since he'd joined ANBU three years ago. Well, not out of uniform. Not when they recognised him, too.

"You're discharging me?" he blurted, interrupting the Hokage mid-sentence. Sarutobi stopped and considered him.

"Yes," he said simply. "I think it is time for you to take a break from ANBU, Kakashi."

"But I can't leave!" Kakashi insisted. "I can't! I… I don't think I can go back to being a jounin, sir!"

"You would be given special-jounin rank," Sarutobi commented. "Specialising in assassination."

"But what would I do?" Kakashi demanded. "Teach?" He barked out a laugh. "No. I don't teach. Nuh-uh. I'd destroy the brats, first training session."

"I will find something to keep you busy," Sarutobi said. Kakashi raked his hand through his hair, the look on his mostly-hidden face almost desperate.

"Please," he said. "Don't cut me from the force. I… I need it. I need to be… busy. Pressured. Otherwise… otherwise, I get nightmares… the memories… I… I need it," he said lamely.

Sarutobi watched him with concern. "This very dependence is what makes me think you need a break," he said. "And I insist. This is not negotiable. Just a break," he added, holding up a hand to stem the protests that had begun to burst forth. "In a few years' time, you may re-submit your application to re-join ANBU. Agreed?"

Kakashi considered. Honestly, it seemed fair – logical, even. A good way to keep ANBU agents sane would be to rotate them, three years in ANBU, three years out, giving their minds time to recover.

"Very well," he said eventually. "But the question still remains: what am I to do? Don't say teaching."

The Hokage took a deep breath. Now the real fight began. "Not teaching – yet," he agreed. "I already have a mission I wish to assign you. Unranked."

Kakashi stared. 'Unranked' usually meant it was too dangerous and unpredictable to be ranked and frequently ended up being more deadly than S-ranks. One could begin pulling weeds and end assassinating small children on an Unranked mission.

That was fine. Kakashi was good. He wasn't worried. But he was confused.

Why would the Hokage forcibly drag him (kicking and screaming) out of ANBU, only to give him an ANBU-esque mission?

"This mission extends indefinitely," Sarutobi continued. Kakashi felt his gut clench. He'd just gotten back from an eight-month long-term mission. Being back for two months had only begun to take the edge off the relief he had felt to being back in Konoha, and he wasn't sure he was ready to leave again, this time indefinitely.

"This mission will take place in Konoha," Sarutobi continued, almost missing the way Kakashi's shoulders slumped slightly in relief, and then twitched in annoyance at the thought of being stuck in the village indefinitely. "It is not a mission you may refuse."

Kakashi sighed and placed the porcelain mask he still held in his hand gently down on the desk with a soft chink. "What does this mission entail?" he asked in a low voice. Sarutobi hesitated.

"…I suppose you could say it is, on the surface, a bodyguard detail," he said eventually. Kakashi's eye narrowed.

"If your next sentence contains the Daimyo's wife, with or without that damnable kitten Tora, I will leave. Better a missing-nin than that hell."

Sarutobi chuckled. "No, no," he said, waving a hand to calm the (much) younger man. Kakashi's relief was obvious.

Hesitating again, Sarutobi decided to just brace and say it, and do his best to railroad Kakashi into doing his bidding.

"Kakashi, the child we will refer to as Pup is three years old now. It has been a little less than three full years since he was first taken into the custody of ANBU. I think the time has come to re-introduce him to Konoha."

Kakashi had gone stiff. "Sir, I think that is a very bad idea," he stressed. "Oh, Kami… you want me to guard him…? Sir, if it comes out that Uzumaki Naruto wasn't in fact killed three years ago, and was in fact living in the very nerve centre of our defences, the villagers will riot. I'm skilled, yes, but I'm not that skilled. Nobody's that skilled. The kid'll be slaughtered."

Sarutobi surveyed him with some amusement. "Kakashi, when you first came to me with the idea of hiding him three years ago, you said that he should be placed back in the general community after an appropriate amount of time."

"I meant after ten or fifteen years!" Kakashi exclaimed. "You can't honestly think that people won't start to connect the dots if a boy exactly Naruto's age looking exactly like Naruto turns up in the orphanage and inevitably begins to show signs of being rather abnormal?"

"That won't be an issue. He will be hidden in plain sight. No-one will suspect anything," Sarutobi said confidently. Kakashi stared at him.

"Have you been drinking?" he asked frankly. Sarutobi shot him an annoyed look.

"You, Kakashi, haven't been seen by any non-ANBU person since you joined Black-Ops. I have, as you know, answered every question pertaining to your whereabouts by saying that you are on a long-term mission and vaguely alluding to the fact that you won't be back for some time. Now, I have arranged for your honourable discharge from ANBU, and you are free to return to the village. No doubt your homecoming from that long mission away will be a cause for celebration among your peers – Maito Gai especially seems eager for your return."

Kakashi winced. Sarutobi pressed on.

"Also, it provides a unique opportunity to exploit. After all, who would question it if you were to come home with a child after a three-year absence? The so-dubbed 'mission babies' are very common among ninja in this situation."

The Hatake froze up. He was smart enough to put the pieces together.

"No!" he exploded instantly. "I won't do that! No!" He banged his fist down on the desk and Sarutobi quickly lifted his teacup out of harm's way.

"Kakashi-" he began, but the newly-reinstated jounin was talking over him.

"Even ignoring how utterly insane this idea is, he looks nothing like me! How are you going to explain that?"

"He takes after his mother," Sarutobi said dignifiedly. Bending down, he tugged open the third drawer and lifted out one of the files – the green one, offering it to Kakashi. The teen didn't take it, so he opened it for him and placed it in front of him.

Unwillingly, the man skimmed the paper before him, eye resting on the photograph of a beautiful, smiling woman who very clearly resembled Naruto – right down to the whisker marks. Below was a profile.

"Fuun Kita," he read out. "Unlucky North. How… appropriate. Deceased. Seventeen. Died in childbirth… ouch, Hokage-sama. That counts as my fault, you know. Whisker marks tattoos, a symbol of her clan, similar to the Inuzuka triangles. This is patently ridiculous." This whole monologue was said in the same unimpressed monotone. Sarutobi met his single grey eye seriously.

"Why is it ridiculous?" he asked.

"This will never work!" Kakashi exclaimed. "Never! I'm not the 'daddy' type, okay!"

"Kakashi, if you had caused a child to be conceived while on a long mission, what would you do?" the Sandaime questioned pointedly.

Kakashi didn't answer. He couldn't. He knew – knew – that if he really had through some horrifying mistake created a child, he would bring it home to Konoha and be the best father he could to it. But that didn't mean… he could swear someone was laughing at him. It sounded eerily like Obito.

"No," he protested weakly. "I… I can't do it. I'm not… ready to be a father. I… do you really hate the kid that much? Surely there are better candidates than me?" He tried to pretend he wasn't pleading. Sarutobi raised an eyebrow.

"Kakashi, you are the best candidate. You know everything about the child, where he comes from and who and what he is, and yet you do not hate him. And, like it or not, you're the closest thing to family the boy has. If you want, think of it as paying off a debt."

Kakashi bit back a groan. Of course, the Hokage had to bring that up. It was true that when his father had died, Minato had taken the newly-orphaned Kakashi in and all-but adopted him – would have adopted him if not for Kakashi's childish pride. If Minato had survived, he and Naruto would have been raised as brothers. The silver-haired man buried his face in his hands, guilt curling in his stomach.

"Hell," he mumbled into his hands. "Hokage-sama, please. There has to be another option…"

"Kakashi," Sarutobi's voice was firm. "This is non-negotiable. This is a direct order from your Hokage. You will take this mission."

"But his age!" Kakashi burst forth. "He's too old! It won't work, sir! People will know!"

"Uzumaki Naruto was born three years, two months ago," Sarutobi said seriously. "He died two years, eleven months ago. Hatake Naruto was born eighteen months ago."

Kakashi stared at the old man, mentally calculating. That would mean he'd been conceived when Kakashi was about half a month into his sixteenth year.

"It'll never work," he protested. "You can't pass Pup off as half his age. It's impossible."

Sarutobi shook his head. "Tell me, what is the difference, proportion-wise, between an eighteen month old and a three year old child?"

Kakashi mumbled, but Sarutobi caught it.

"That's right. Not much. And Naruto is very small for his age. He could easily pass as a big almost-two year old. It will work, Kakashi. I have already arranged for it. It's also backstopped: there are people in Lighting Country – which is where you were, by the way – who will swear to knowing Fuun Kita their whole lives, and will mutter darkly about the bastard undercover ninja – you – who she ended up falling for."

"Thanks," Kakashi said, highly sarcastic. He seemed to be wilting, his resolve crumbling when faced with Sarutobi's onslaught.

"Come on, Kakashi," Sarutobi said coaxingly. "Do it for Minato, if nothing else. Ensure that his son has a home and someone who cares about him."

There was a long, tense pause, before the last of Kakashi's resolve evaporated and he slumped forwards, resting his head on the desk.

"Fine," he groaned. Sarutobi's face lit up.

"Excellent!" he said, forcing Kakashi to lift his head by shoving the rest of the folders ferreted away in the third desk drawer at him. "In here, you will find everything you need to know about the last three years of your life, the girl you were involved with and the child you created together."

"There is something fundamentally wrong with this," Kakashi remarked, his composure recovered, now reading with morbid fascination a series of extensive facts about a woman he had apparently been involved with for more than a year until she tragically died.

They'd been the same age. She'd been the daughter of the local innkeeper – a good person to befriend if he wanted the local news and gossip, not to mention a reliable source on who was entering and leaving the town. Her father had threatened to kill him when he'd found out his daughter was pregnant.

Kakashi had to feel impressed. It was an extensive cover story. There was even a mission report, nicely forged in his handwriting.

Opening a new file, Kakashi found baby pictures and a birth certificate, as well as a profile for his 'son'. Hatake Naruto, eighteen months old, born April third, allergic to bee stings and the pollen of a tree that only grew in the far northern reaches of Lightning Country. Weighing eighteen kilograms, he stood seventy-two centimetres tall. Favourite colour, orange.

"Any problems? Suggestions? Questions?" Sarutobi prompted. Kakashi, still flicking through papers, hummed contemplatively.

"What will we tell Pup?" he asked.

"Naruto will be told the same as everyone else, until he is old enough to understand," Sarutobi said simply. Kakashi nodded, not looking up from his perusal.

"How do you propose I make it seem as though we have just returned from a long journey?" he asked. Sarutobi tapped another sheet of paper, and Kakashi picked it up.

And laughed.

"Ah," he said, nodding. "The obvious approach. Of course."

On the paper was a map, a travel path mapped out on it in red ink that would be easy enough for a child to navigate with a little help and would still make it appear as though whoever was walking it was coming from the general direction of Lightning Country.

"I want you and Naruto to go on a little journey for me," Sarutobi said. "That will give the child – and you – time to adjust. He needs to address and react to you in a manner that depicts that you are his father, not some stranger he's just met, and you need a little time to get used to caring for a child before you hit the public eye, as well. I guarantee that the moment you step through Konoha's gates when you return you'll be scrutinised, so it would be best to be convincing. The whole trip should take around two weeks, and by the end I imagine both of you will look as though you have just made a difficult, tiring journey from a foreign country."

Kakashi rolled his eyes. Well, duh.

"When do I leave?" he asked resignedly. Sarutobi checked his watch, and Kakashi groaned loudly. Sarutobi laughed.

"Kidding," he said. "Tomorrow. Take tonight to memorise those files. You need to know them perfectly. And I'd suggest you put some of the photographs in your pack. You know. In case. Oh, and don't forget when packing that you have to have room for all Naruto's gear, too!"

Grumbling under his breath, Kakashi gathered the files into his arms and stood, moving away before the old man could say anything to further rip his world to pieces and rearrange it into something frightening.

Outside, he stopped to lean against the hallway wall, breathing irregularly as it hit him exactly what he'd just agreed to.

He was a father.

Back in his office, Sarutobi smiled at the ceiling and waited. After a pause of maybe seven minutes, the door opened and Kakashi appeared again, glaring something awful. Wordlessly, without even looking down from a suddenly fascinating crack in the ceiling, Sarutobi held out Kakashi's porcelain mask that had been forgotten.

He had to fight a laugh as Kakashi snatched it and shunshined away.

Three months old