Twin1: I'm back, baby! Okay, sorry about that hiatus involving no updates of ANYTHING. Blame Kishimoto, it's his fault. Chapter 600. WHY? But anyway, after reading many, many heartfelt reviews with tears, begging, pleading and death threats, my muse and I decided to finish the story! (Yay!) We have the rest planned out – should be another, like, five or ten chapters. So look forward to that… if you dare.

Happy Valentine's Day, consider this my gift of love to all my fans. And ransom paid to the ones who wanted to kill me.

EDIT: Sorry for the mention of Rin being dead. That particular scene was written before I decided I needed her alive, and it slipped through my editing process. It's fixed now. Incidentally, this is the second chapter in a row I've had to post one of these notes. Excuse me while I die of embarrassment.

Chapter Fifteen: A Bit of Fun, in which Time Passes and Life Goes On

(AKA: I'm Sure the Plot's Around Here Somewhere)

Squad Seven paused within a few moments of one another and, as a team, turned to look up at the ominous storm clouds gathering overhead.

There was a silence, their exercises forgotten. Sakura looked around, hoping for Kakashi-sensei to magically appear and grant a reprieve. No such luck: the man was true to his word, gone for the afternoon.

"We're going to get wet," she commented.

"Hn," Sasuke grunted back, head tilted so that his face was exposed to the sky. "This is going to be a big storm."

Naruto shook the ringing out of his ears and scrambled to his feet. "We should go home for the day, then," he said. Sakura protested instantly.

"But Kakashi-sensei said to stay here until-"

"-Until it was dark or we collapsed, yes, I know," Naruto replied calmly, picking at the sleeve of his warm autumn jacket. "But it's a storm. At the end of September. When it's cold. Trust me, Dad'll be cross if we don't disregard his latest order and take cover. Best get home quick, Sakura, and I'll take the blame if Dad gets mad."

The girl still hesitated, but a rolling volley of thunder overhead made her mind up. "I'll see you guys tomorrow!" she announced, and took off at a quick trot.

There was a silence between the boys for a moment. Sasuke was still watching the clouds carefully: he slowly lowered his gaze and weighed the kunai in his hand as if trying to decide whether or not to abandon his training for the day. After a brief moment of indecision, he stowed the kunai back in his pouch and grabbed Naruto's arm, giving the boy a rough but not entirely unfriendly shove in the direction of the ten year old's home.

"Get moving, brat. I want to get home before it starts really raining."

Naruto's scowl turned to an expression of confusion as Sasuke took several brisk steps – in the wrong direction. "Where-?" Sasuke cut him off with a scoff.

"I know better than to leave you to fend for yourself. I'll walk you home – hurry up!"

The young Hatake just barely caught a protest as it tried to launch itself at the Uchiha, and settled for glaring at the elder boy as he was marched towards home. The nerve of him, acting like Naruto needed an escort! Just like he was so very grown up himself, with all of his twelve years!

The blonde huffed, hating the fact that this little stunt would earn Sasuke so many gold stars with Kakashi that the Uchiha would be swimming in them, but kept pace without fuss, not wanting to discover how Sasuke went about controlling unruly children who raced ahead or dragged their feet. Chances were he'd do something mortifying like Dad did – grabbing his hand and leading him like a toddler, or something.


As if the event had been choreographed by the fates, the heavens opened and torrential, half-frozen rain poured down not a second after the pre-teen duo had stepped onto Naruto's porch. There was a long pause, both boys looking at the heavy, icy downpour, and without a word Naruto unlocked the front door and walked in, leaving it wide open and saying flatly, "Take your shoes off, 'kay?"

Sasuke followed the blonde into his teacher's house almost reverently. He was more than a bit ill at ease, truth be told. He had never been inside Kakashi-sensei's house before, or indeed any house containing a broken family. It was surprisingly… normal. Coats and spare shinobi vests were hung on hooks by the door, some pairs of clearly less-worn shoes were placed neatly on a shoe rack while others (including the sandals that Naruto had just kicked off) were tossed on the floor nearby.

Naruto had disappeared, so Sasuke explored further, somehow fascinated by this place. He knew, somewhere in the back of his mind, that Naruto's home life was different than his had been – before – when he'd had a home, and a family. Somehow, when he'd deigned to spare a thought on the blonde misfit youngling who'd turned up in his class, he'd supposed that he had to have a mother somewhere, right? Just one who was a little absent-minded, or busy, because Naruto often came in with a nose smudged with dirt, or a shirt crinkled like it hadn't been ironed since it was purchased.

Now, though, Sasuke knew better. Naruto had said so blatantly, after all, that day on the rooftop when he'd first met Kakashi-sensei. Curiously, Sasuke wandered into the kitchen, looking around at the home a single parent had made. It wasn't as bad as he'd expected – that day's breakfast dishes were still in the sink, but everything else was clean. Everywhere were reminders of Naruto's youth; art and photographs and tiny handprints in unknown substances left behind on the white plaster walls, with very few indicators of the adult who also lived here.

On the fridge, pinned by a magnet, was a photograph that from the height of it had been put there by Naruto rather than Kakashi-sensei. Sasuke glanced around to see if the blonde had returned yet, then bent to examine it.

Kiba and the brat, and a few of their other former classmates, all grinning and gathered around a finger-printed cake bearing the words 'Happy Birthday'. Searching the young faces, he guessed Kiba to be around seven, making Naruto five or so. Kakashi was standing in the background beside a woman that even Sasuke recognised as Kiba's mother, though her given name escaped him.

The Uchiha heir frowned, one slender finger reaching to almost touch the ink faces. Their children were in the same generation, but standing together like that, the difference in their ages seemed glaringly obvious. Why was Kakashi…?

A crash from above and ahead made Sasuke jump, and he was out of the kitchen and halfway up the stairs before he even escaped his previous train of thought.

Once he did, it was totally forgotten, and his only thoughts revolved around what Sensei would do to him if the baby hurt himself on the Uchiha's watch.

"Brat, where are you?" he called, even as his feet guided him towards the most likely candidate, the only open door on the landing.

Pausing in the doorway, he peered in and instantly saw that the blonde idiot hadn't come to harm. A lamp had fallen off the desk, probably as Naruto backed into it, and had made the noise. Naruto himself glared at Sasuke, halfway through changing his clothes. Sasuke smirked, pushing into the room.

"So this is the baby's nursery, eh?" he drawled, looking around.

"It's none of your business, bastard!" Naruto growled. "Get out!"

Sasuke's eyes skipped about the untidy space, noting a surprising number of books and the many, many kunai stuck in the ceiling in a macabre design, before alighting on the bed. Naruto watched a gleam enter the dark eyes that Sakura spent so long sighing over, and cringed.

"What have we here?" Sasuke purred, plucking Oink from his spot on Naruto's pillow – the blonde flushed bright red, instantly wishing that he'd hidden the toy under the bed that morning. The Uchiha sneered, brandishing the toy like a weapon. "Still sleeping with plushies, brat? Heh. Do you have a bottle, too?"

"Give him back." The words were low and either desperate or angry – Sasuke could quite decide. The little boy took a step forwards and held out his hand, shirt only half-on and hair damp from where he'd obviously scrubbed his face clean. Sasuke's smirk widened.

"Him?" he mocked. "You call it a him? Does it have a name too?"

"Give him back!" Naruto made a lunge, but Sasuke took advantage of his superior height and held the toy out of the way.

"Tell me its name first," he challenged. Blue eyes stared at him with absolute loathing.

"…Oink," Naruto muttered eventually, folding. "Now give him back."

Sasuke laughed, a cruel sound learned from his elder brother, and tossed the toy in Naruto's face. The younger child's arms snapped up automatically to hold the ragged animal.

"Have it, baby. Wouldn't want to part you from your precious Pig." With another derisive sound, the Uchiha stalked out of the room, leaving Naruto alone.

"Oink," the boy corrected mutinously. His hand tightened angrily around the plush as if around the stuck up prick's neck, before he carefully laid his toy back on the pillow where he belonged. "Bastard."

Below, he heard the door open with a slightly-less-than-perfectly-shinobi-calm energy and his father's voice echoing through the house, "Hello? Naruto? You weren't in the training field so you better damn well be here!"

Naruto crept out to the upstairs landing in time to see his father, soaked through and shivering, be met by Sasuke in the kitchen doorway below.

"Sasuke!" Kakashi sounded justifiably surprised to find the Uchiha Heir in his home. "Is Naruto…?"

"Upstairs," Sasuke replied, a superior smirk forming on his lips as he read Kakashi's body language and figured out that he had finally erased the last lingering remnants of the grudge the man had carried against him ever since the genin exam. "I walked him home before it started raining."

"Good." Kakashi looked up as Naruto slunk down the stairs, very much put out. He pouted at his father, hoping that Dad would ask what was wrong, but Kakashi took one look at him, assumed that the child's mood had to do with Sasuke's escorting him home and chose not to bring it up. Instead, the jounin spoke a few approving words to the both of them, thanking Sasuke for seeing the blonde home, praising Naruto for having the sense to leave the training field in face of such a storm, and inviting the Uchiha to stay until the worst was over. Then he excused himself and slipped upstairs to get out of his sodden uniform.

Naruto and Sasuke glared at one another when he was gone.

"I'm not a baby," Naruto announced in a deadly undertone.

"Could have fooled me," Sasuke hissed back.

The weather wailed outside, and Kakashi reappeared. "You better stay put tonight, Sasuke," he said, rubbing a towel over his wet hair.

"No thank you, Sensei," Sasuke said stiffly, glaring at the Brat again. He didn't want to spend one minute more than he had to in Hatake Naruto's company. "I'll go home."

Kakashi had his best Concerned and Serious Parent face on. Genin or not, Uchiha or not, Enemy-of-Naruto or not, Sasuke was still a child with limited frontal lobe activity. This lack of foresight – which he would not develop until mid-twenties, long after his life expectancy – and experience meant that Kakashi would have to look after him.

"Don't be an idiot," he said. "You don't go out in this sort of storm. This sort of storm brings down trees and blows away cattle. Not to mention, the river was flooding when I was coming home – by now, at least a suburb will be under."

Well, when he put it like that… Sasuke nodded his consent and allowed himself to be chivvied into the kitchen. He watched his teacher putter about, cobbling together a meal. Naruto, meanwhile, had set himself up with a workbook and pencil, and seemed to be struggling through the infamous parent-assigned homework.

He took a peek over the kid's shoulder and was almost blinded by the rows and rows of numbers, symbols and frustrated squiggles. "What are you doing?" he blurted before he could stop himself. Naruto made a face.

"I'm trying something called 'the quadratic formula'," he said, his tone leaving no doubt about just how much he was enjoying himself. Sasuke just stared. It was mathematics on a level he'd never seen, way beyond the basic stuff taught at the Academy. Only scholars usually extended themselves to algebra.

"Why do you need to learn this?" he asked. Naruto made an unhappy noise.

"Dad, why do I need to learn this?" he echoed.

"You don't," said Kakashi pleasantly. He continued tossing random vegetables into the stirfry as he added, "But the process of taking a series of baby steps to arrive at a logical conclusion – that, you will use the rest of your life. It might even prolong your life. Which is why I am making you learn it."

Naruto's torment only lasted until Kakashi was satisfied with the meal, and before long the three were sitting in awkward silence around the table holding mismatched chopsticks.

Sasuke focused on eating so he didn't have to make small talk. It was a little too bizarre, and uncomfortable enough to make his skin itch. The Hatakes spoke a little, mostly Kakashi asking if this window or that door had been locked against the weather. Sasuke wondered if they were usually this quiet at home, or if their conversation was being stifled by his presence.

It was almost salvation when a shout startled him into spilling milk down his shirt.

"Hatake-san! Hatake-san!"

With a clatter and a squeal, a sopping wet ANBU was flung through the kitchen window. Kakashi sighed and gestured with his chopsticks. "That's what you get for not coming in through the front door. I warned you guys, my kitchen window is not a public walkway."

"…Ow," groaned the ANBU, peeling himself off the tiles. "What did you put in that ward?"

"Something nasty," smiled Kakashi. "What can I do for you, ANBU-kun? Unless you just wanted in out of the rain?"

As the ANBU shook himself out and huffed in annoyance, Sasuke noticed the look on Naruto's face. The little boy had gone completely blank, in a way that had to be hiding some negative emotion. Fear? Anger? A bit of both, perhaps?

"Hatake-san, the Hokage has summoned you. ANBU Squad Four is stranded in a flash-flood – Hawk-san just barely managed to get a message through. Ame-nin are pursuing – you need to come now."

"Seriously?" Kakashi broke in. "You're seriously going to go into classified details with two kids sitting right here? There're not even hiding, or anything."

The ANBU hesitated, head tilted down in a way that could have accompanied a blush – not that anyone could tell if he was blushing or not. "Sorry, sir."

Kakashi made an unhappy noise. "We'll talk about this later, rookie. You're panicking because of a bit of rain. Go tell Hokage-sama I'm coming." He turned to the genin. "At least Sakura isn't here. Sasuke should be able to keep a secret," he muttered, standing and dumping his half-full bowl in the sink. He reached out and caught a fistful of cloth that coincidentally belonged to the departing ANBU's cloak. "What did I say about my window? Go out the front door. And lock it after!"

The ANBU left sulkily, and Kakashi shut and locked the window over the sink. "Sorry, kids," he said, tapping something on the sill – resetting the wards, Sasuke wondered? "Duty calls." Spotting both boys staring at him, he flicked a hand in their direction. "Eat," he said. "I'm going to go get changed."

He disappeared up the stairs. Naruto looked down at his half-finished dinner and made a half-hearted attempt at another mouthful. It was obviously hard to swallow, so he gave up and took his plates to the sink, beginning the process of scraping the leftovers into a dog bowl and filling the sink to wash up.

"Brat," Sasuke said, coming up behind him and dropping his dishes into the water with a splash. "What was that about? Why did Hokage-sama send for Kakashi-sensei?"

Naruto looked at his teammate. "You do know our teacher is a shinobi, right?" he said. "Didn't your father ever go on missions?"

Sasuke scowled. Quite aside from hating anyone referencing his family, he did not appreciate the kid talking to him like he was an idiot. "Your father is a jounin sensei," he said. "He's a full-time teacher, the only missions he should be assigned are D-ranks."

"My father is a jounin," Naruto snarked back. "He's not like an Academy sensei, genius. And we are his day job. Ever wonder why he's late all the time? Or why we get days off all the time? He does A- and S-ranked missions full-time and crams us into his free minutes."

"Telling secrets, Naruto?" Kakashi was coming back down the stairs, dressed in the black cotton clothes that ANBU wore under their armour. He reached the kitchen, put his cloak on the table and started to slide into his armoured breastplate. "Well, I guess after Raccoon's performance, it's a little unavoidable. Sasuke, surprise!"

He closed his eye and smiled, pulling on arm guards with a blind ease. Then the cheerfulness faded away and he was Kakashi the Shinobi, already mentally in the ANBU mission zone. When he spoke, it was in the same tone he used to command his A-ranked teammates.

"Sasuke, don't you leave tonight. I don't need to be worrying about you two as well tonight. Naruto, you know the drill." Kakashi was speaking rapidly, buckling together the front and back plate of the armour with impressive dexterity. "I can't afford to leave a dog with you, but Sasuke is here. Don't leave the house while it's raining. If it floods, go upstairs – just leave the furniture, don't try and save anything. We shouldn't lose the roof, but if we do I want you to get into the bathroom, in the bath, and wait it out. I should be back by morning, but if I'm not I need you to go to Tsume-san or Hiashi-san – if the rain has stopped. If not, you wait here and Tsume-san will come looking for you when it does."

Sasuke's head spun with the information – though it had been spoken to Naruto, the speech was clearly meant for him as well. What did he mean, 'if he didn't come back'?

Naruto moved forwards to help fasten that one buckle his dad could never reach, and got a hair-ruffle for his trouble. "Sleep well, Pup. Don't stay up too late." The father tugged his cloak's hood up but didn't put on his mask – Sasuke may know he was ANBU, but he didn't have to know which ANBU.

"Dad! Wait! What happened to 'you don't go out in this storm'?"

Kakashi turned back and reached to cup Naruto's chin. "Naru-pup, you don't. I'm being sent out to rescue the idiots who did."

Sasuke was a little perturbed by how upset his teammate looked. "But you might get hurt," the blonde was saying, holding to his father's shirt. Kakashi was gentle as he extricated his clothing from his son's grip, but unyielding.

"Naruto," he said, and his voice was hard. "This is my job. Now let me go."

Blue eyes dropped, and Naruto nodded. Kakashi patted his head, an affectionate consolation, and swept towards the front door. Sasuke hung back, watching Kakashi open the door, watching the muscles in his teacher's bare arms worked to force the door closed after him. He managed it, and suddenly the genin were alone. Naruto made a visible effort to shake off his worry and trotted to the linen cupboard, pulling out a few towels to soak up the rainwater that had leaked inside with the ANBU and his father's departures.

Sasuke stepped back, letting the blonde get to the puddle. "What will happen," he said, "if he doesn't come back?"

Naruto shook his head and put down his final towel under the window for some reason. "Dunno. Dad wants Tsume-san to look after me, but I reckon Ero-jiji – Jiraiya, my godfather – will take me. Hang on." He unlatched the window and threw it open, ignoring the almost-horizontal rain that blew into the living room. "Heya, ANBU-san," he said, leaning on the frame and seemingly speaking to the bushes below. "Wanna come in? It's a bit cold and wet for stakeout duty, isn't it?"

There was no reply – or none Sasuke heard, but Naruto pouted. "Aw, come on," he said. "I'll feel bad if you drown out there. Hide somewhere inside, if you're so set on protocol."

He pulled his head back in and forced the window closed. Water trickled down his collar, and he shook his head like a dog to get rid of the moisture. He noticed Sasuke staring at him.

"What?" he said. "I didn't want ANBU banging on the door about rookies with pneumonia."

"How did you know there was an ANBU there?" Sasuke demanded. "I couldn't sense anything!"

Naruto blinked. "I dunno. I can just see them."

"You can see them?" Sasuke tried not to be impressed, but it was hard. ANBU were kings of invisibility.

Naruto shrugged. "Eh. I've never had trouble spotting ANBU. Dad says it's cause I spent so much time with them when I was a little kid. There's a couple on the roof, too, but I'm pretty sure they're hiding in the chimney. They'll come inside before they drown, but they won't come out into the open. They never do."

Sasuke looked at the boy, at the sadness on his face and the loneliness in his voice, and wondered what it would be like being all alone in this house. Surrounded but unaccompanied, watched but isolated.

He still has his father, piped up the bitter voice in his mind that had never been truly silent since That Night. He's still luckier than I am.

"It's late for babies," he said, cruel. "Bed time, brat." Of course, that sparked an argument.

"You can't tell me what to do!"

"Actually, since Kakashi-sensei left me in charge, yes I can."

"He didn't leave you in charge! I'm not a baby!"

"Then stop acting like one! Go get ready for bed."

Naruto's defiant scowl raised Sasuke's ire, and he reacted. The hand came up before he could help himself, and he jabbed two fingers at the kid's forehead.

Naruto backpedalled, slapping a hand up to cover the injury. "OW! Bastard, what was that for? Okay, I'm going. Sheesh."

The younger genin stomped off, but Sasuke stood frozen, staring at his own hand. Where had that come from? He'd never done that – to anyone – in his life. He'd only ever been on the receiving end of – of –

"Do you want to inspect me, Sasuke-sama?" Naruto's sarcasm floated down the stairs, and Sasuke pulled himself out of his daze to walk to the upstairs landing. There was Naruto, looking mulish, in an oversized shirt that was probably his father's. "Pyjamas," he said, tugging at the shirt. "Teeth," he said, pulling back his lips as if Sasuke could tell at a glance whether or not they'd been brushed. "Are you happy now?"

The younger boy was standing there, looking up at his elder teammate. Somehow, that picture made an impression on the Uchiha. It was a familiar scene, only now it was Sasuke who was the elder, the bully. The thought was a shock to Sasuke, with his well-defined 'little brother' complex, and it dawned on him for perhaps the first time that he'd been acting like a spoiled brat. It wasn't Naruto's fault he was on the squad – or that his dad had OCD.

These thoughts were shoved down by the Uchiha's pride, but bubbled in the back of his mind as he followed Naruto into the kid's colourful room.

Oink had been evicted from the bed, lying in a sad crumple between some dirty clothes and a crate of spare kunai. Stooping, Sasuke picked up the ragged toy dog from where it had obviously been lobbed with some force. Naruto tensed up, effectively drying the taunt on Sasuke's lips. The guarded look in the littler boy's eyes made Sasuke's gut clench.

Dammit. He was an Avenger. He wasn't supposed to have this twisted-up feeling inside. He wasn't supposed to care what ten year olds thought of him. The bitter voice told him to suck it up and mock the kid, but the tiny part that was left from Before begged him to reconsider.

He turned the dog around and looked at it, noting the wear that came with love. One of its ears was a different material, as if it had been replaced at one stage, and the end of its tail seemed to have been chewed clean off. He didn't need to focus very hard to feel his sensei's chakra imbued in the toy from long exposure to Kakashi, and suddenly had no doubt as to why Naruto slept with it.

Taking a deep breath, he offered the toy to his teammate, suddenly wanting to make peace with a desperation that surprised him. "…When I'm at home, I sleep under my father's coat," he said. Naruto didn't respond to the bizarre admission, watching the Uchiha with suspicion. Sasuke brandished the toy again. "Here." When the kid still didn't take it, he laid it on the bedspread and shifted from foot to foot, uncomfortable. "I…shouldn't have said that stuff about the toy. I'm…"

"If you say 'sorry' I'm going to assume you're an imposter and attack," Naruto warned. "In fact, I might anyway."

Sasuke rolled his eyes. "I behaved badly, Brat. Don't think it changes things."

The awkwardness of the moment was shattered, but something had changed. Sasuke suddenly felt easy in the young Hatake's presence, in a way he never had before. "If you're not asleep in twenty minutes, I'm coming back with chloroform," he said.

"Goodnight, Sasuke."

Morning in the Hatake household was very different from both the serene family breakfasts of Before and the heartbreaking silence of After in Sasuke's life. While it wasn't a screaming mess of chaos either, it certainly was disorganised. When Sasuke woke early in the morning and wandered downstairs, he was surprised to find Kakashi-sensei half-naked in the kitchen, busily disinfecting a nasty-looking graze on his collar. His mask was on the table, allowing Sasuke his first look at the man's face. Again, he was struck strongly by how young his teacher was, for a parent. In the early morning light, he looked barely older than Itachi.

"Good morning, Sasuke!" The cheerful tone that should have been a criminal offense at five-thirty in the morning jerked Sasuke away from staring like a kid. He did spare a second to be impressed that his sensei was able to pass a bandage around himself at such an awkward angle even when injured.

"Did you sleep well?" the teacher said, using a foot to kick a chair out from the table. Sasuke stumbled into it and stared stupidly at Kakashi for a few more moments, watching the newly-uncovered features rearrange themselves into a smile.

"Are you okay?" he asked. Kakashi blinked, then glanced down at the mostly-bandaged graze.

"Oh, this? Yeah, it's fine. Night job got a little rough, don't worry about it. On the upside, the rain has stopped. It's a bit muddy, but the weather is fine enough for more fun D-ranks!"

"Ugh," Sasuke groaned.

A noise that could only be described as a wail echoed down from upstairs, making Sasuke jump. Kakashi, bizarrely, just seemed amused. The reason he hadn't jumped straight into Uber Protective Death Ninja mode became apparent a moment later, when Naruto clomped down the stairs in pyjamas, the hair on one side of his head wet and sticking straight up. A large dog followed more sedately, looking undeniably smug.

"Da-ad," whined Naruto, assaulting the jounin at the table. "Why'd you sic Bull on me?"

"Well, if you got up on time…" Kakashi let the mild statement hang, pulling a shirt on and settling it carefully over his injury before reaching for his mask. Naruto pouted.

"You're mean," he said, collapsing into another chair. He spotted Sasuke and froze, as if he'd forgotten all about the Uchiha spending the night. "…Dad's dogs…" he said, after a moment. "They tend to jump on me in the morning."

"You have dogs, Sensei?" It was a mostly-polite, partially-genuine question. Sasuke had never had a pet, and somehow liked the idea of a dog in this big house. The Hatakes seemed to share a look that held great significance.

"Oh, yes, Sasuke. We have dogs," Kakashi said, then clapped his hand. "Now, eat up. The council has hired you lot for some menial labour."

"What are we going to be doing, Dad?"

"Oh, you'll see."

"Okay, kids," Kakashi said. A dozen genin looked in his direction from their various positions. Gai's team, for example, were directly before him on the sidewalk, giving the damp wooden planks an energetic and youthful sanding down. Kurenai's squad was avoiding puddles and pinning posters and decorations to the walls skirting windows in front of the shops along this street while Asuma's team argued over how best to decorate the sodden handrails, benches and poles with the ribbons they'd been given. His own team was spread out, having apparently chosen to save time by approaching multiple tasks at once and avoiding fights through the dividing of ranks. Sasuke was creating holes and slamming wooden posts into them at regular intervals while Sakura followed his progress, hanging banners from the poles as they were designed to do. Naruto, the little monkey, was shimmying up sign posts and wrapping fairy lights around them.

It was festival time. Yay. Every genin in the village had been 'hired' by the council to decorate the village in preparation for Konoha's biggest celebration.

Tenth of October. The defeat of the dreaded demon, Kyuubi, by the Yondaime Hokage. Glancing up, one of Sakura's banners caught his eye and his heart momentarily stalled, seeing his sensei looking down at him, flickering back and forth in the wind. Forcing himself to take a deep breath, the jounin tore his eye away, reminding himself to stay calm.

He hated this celebration. Hated it. Not only because it was a terrible, harsh reminder that everyone he'd ever loved (barring his son) had been taken from him brutally, or because everyone always seemed so gods-damned happy at the festival, as if it wasn't the anniversary of their Hokage's suicide, or even because every Kyuubi Festival that rolled around, he hated himself a little more for feeling, somewhere in the depths of his heart in a place he couldn't ever quite stamp out, a little glad that it had happened – if it hadn't, he wouldn't have Naruto, and Kakashi often thought that if he didn't have his son he'd have followed his father's example to the grave before his twentieth birthday.

Most of all, he hated the festival for the ulcer-inducing fear that permeated every second of it, every moment a tense nightmare – what if someone realised who Naruto was? What if Naruto realised who Naruto was? What if someone got drunk and mistook Hatake Naruto for Uzumaki Naruto, or decided he didn't care who the kid was – that being 'Naruto' at all was an executable offence. What if? What if? What if?

Thankfully, last night's storm had blown itself out, leaving nothing but puddles and leaf litter behind as evidence. That was one less thing to worry about.

"Yes, Kakashi-sensei?" one of Gai's students – the Hyuuga – said, breaking through Kakashi's internal panic-induced seizure. Kakashi shook his head to clear it and willed his heart to stop pounding.

"Oh, yes. Who's finished their tasks?"

"Me, Dad," Naruto said, sliding down the last signpost and landing lightly on his toes. "Fairy lights are up and functioning."

"We're done too," piped up the bossy blonde female on Asuma's team, glaring at her male counterparts.

"Good. You lot need to move on to the next block, and once it's done, you'll be done too. So the faster you work, the sooner you'll be done. You twelve are only responsible as far as Elmer Street: another group is doing Hanson Lane and beyond. Okay?"

A dozen "Yes, Kakashi-sensei"s were mumbled back at him, and Kakashi turned to leave, absently ruffling Naruto's fluffy blonde hair on the way past.

"Da-ad," he whined, combing the locks with his fingers as if to righten his hairdo. Kakashi knew for a fact that Naruto didn't even own a brush, though, and so knew it was just posturing to appear 'grown up' to his peers. He was grinning as he slipped back to the rooftop the jounin sensei were lounging on, sipping cups of tea. Kurenai and Asuma were playing go while Gai was in the midst of a thousand-squat set that he had promised to do if he lost the latest 'challenge' he'd issued Kakashi.

"FIVE HUNDRED AND FIFTY-EIGHT! FIVE HUNDRED AND FIFTY-NINE! FIVE HUNDRED AND SIXTY!" Konoha's Green Beast was shouting at the top of his lungs in time with his deep dips to the ground, the exercise one used to build pretty much all leg muscles. "FIVE HUNDRED AND – HELLO, MY RIVAL KAKASHI! YOU ARE BACK FROM CHECKING ON OUR YOUTHFUL STUDENTS! – SIXTY-ONE! FIVE HUNDRED AND SIXTY-TWO!"

"Thank you, Gai. I hadn't realised," Kakashi said pleasantly.

"How go the minions?" the only female asked, glancing up from the board game. Kakashi shrugged, digging in his pockets for his latest novel from his father's library.

"Eh," he said, flicking it open. "I think Inoichi's kid may be about to kill her teammates, but other than that they're getting on pretty well." Asuma winced. "We should be out of here in another hour or so."


"I believe you," Kakashi said placidly, turning the page of his book and leaning against the guard rail. And if from this position he could watch the kids omnisciently, what of it? Purely coincidental.

Below, Naruto was busily trying to find the one defective light in a row of fairy lights eight metres long, a box of spare bulbs by his elbow. Sakura, having strung all of her banners, came and sat on the kerb beside him, lifting the other end of the string of lights and beginning to look from that end.

"It's really exciting, isn't it?" she said. Naruto glanced at her, then shrugged. "I can't believe it's time for the festival again – it's my favourite time of the year, you know."

Naruto made a polite, vague noise. Sakura watched him with pretty green eyes, her hands still working the row of lights, searching for the broken link.

"Um, look," she said awkwardly, "My parents… um… we always go to the festival and I was thinking that maybe you and Sensei would like to come with us… or we could meet you there, or… Sasuke-kun's already said he'll meet up with us at the festival, and so I thought we could go as a team, which might be… y'know, fun."

Naruto's hands stilled and he turned to look up at his older teammate, slight confusion tainting his blue eyes. "My dad doesn't go to the festival," he said at length. "I'm too… little…" he gritted the word out, "to go by myself, and ero-jiji isn't in town, so I just won't… go."

The total shock on her face made him break out in giggles, but he quietened before she scolded him, and her smile was bright as she said, "Well, it's decided then! You can come with my family!"

Naruto hesitated. "I'll… I'll ask Dad," he said. Sakura made a noise of triumph as she found the broken bulb and replaced it, before handing the whole line back to Naruto and saying firmly, "I'll asked Kakashi-sensei."

And then she left, leaving a confused ten year old frowning in the wake of an aggressively organised female.

Squad seven was only fifteen minutes late to the memorial service conducted every October tenth to remember those who fell in the battle with Kyuubi – and those who died in the war preceding it. Kakashi was frankly unable to let go of his small tribute to Obito on the day dedicated to remembering him, so the Sandaime had made it a habit to start the ceremony twenty minutes behind schedule, just for him.

He told no one, of course.

It was easy to pick those who had fought Kyuubi – they were all dressed in funeral garb. Kunoichi fisted their widow's weeds while shinobi pretended they didn't know they were supposed to be in uniform. Kakashi was no different, and his son obligingly donned black on this one day of the year as well, which somehow made Kakashi feel a fraction better.

They assembled before the Hokage Tower, falling into formation. Kakashi's task through this service was to keep his three brats in line, and so far things were going well.

Naruto's hair had been combed into something resembling a distant relative of neatness, Sasuke had shucked his traditional clan shirt in favour of a formal kimino and Sakura had disposed of her usual bright and pretty ornaments, going so far as to bind her vivid hair back to sober her appearance.

Then the Hokage appeared on the balcony a storey above them, and the crowd hushed.

"My friends," the old man said, looking down at them, "Today we have gathered to remember. Today, we remember the sacrifice of the dozens of shinobi who fought and died for us – good ninja, brave ninja, loyal and loved…"

Kakashi listened woodenly as Sarutobi once again reminded them of the events of that horrible, terrifying day twelve full years ago, hating every moment, hanging on every word. Once the tale was done, the aged leader began to read from a list in his hand, the name of every shinobi felled in that battle. Kakashi found himself flinching now and again as the name of a close friend was read out, but stood with his comrades like statues, enduring the torment of it all.

He started as something warm touched him, but looked down to see that it was only Naruto's hand, small and adorned with calluses new and old, sliding into his own. The blonde's blue eyes were fixed firmly forward, as if trying to ignore the moment of childishness by making it as discreet as possible.

The sun was climbing to the heavens by the time the Hokage rolled up his scroll and made a few closing remarks. They were dismissed three minutes before noon, and Sakura and Naruto both became animated instantly, moving and squirming after so long standing at attention. Kakashi felt a moment of loss as his son's hand was tugged out of his own, but brushed it aside easily and smiled at his squad.

"Well, you can go," he said lightly. "Have fun at the festival tonight, and stay safe. If you get in any trouble, just speak to one of the chuunin or jounin who'll be everywhere today."

"Naruto, Sasuke, meet me on the red bridge in an hour, okay?" Sakura put in excitedly. Naruto glanced at his father briefly before murmuring his agreement: Sasuke 'hn'ed and turned on his heel to leave. Sakura looked up at her teacher one last time, as if weighing her chances of a positive answer if she asked him to attend again, but backed down upon determining them to be not good.

Kakashi had given Naruto permission to attend the festival with Sakura, Sasuke and the Haruno parents, but he wouldn't partake in a celebration of his sensei's death. He wouldn't.

Sakura bounced off home to change in preparation for the merriment that was to follow, and soon the square was emptying of shinobi until only a few scattered groups of twos and threes remained. The Hatake elder looked down at the younger and held out his hand. Naruto took it, and the pair of them made their unerring way towards the Memorial Stone, gleaming a polished black in the sunlight.

When they arrived, they stopped and stood there, a two-person chain linked by hands and silence, and looked at the monument to people who had fallen. After a moment, the father let Naruto's hand drop and dug in his weapon pouch, pulling out a small bottle of Sake, a bottle of water and two sake cups.

Setting the cups on the ledge of the memorial stone, he unstoppered the sake and filled one of them. Then, twisting the cap off the water bottle, he poured a measured amount of alcohol into the water, clear liquid mingling with clear liquid. Setting the sake jar down on the stone ledge and dropping the cork stopper beside it, he re-sealed the water bottle and shook it vigorously before distilling a cupful into the empty sake dish and stowing the rest of the tainted water back in his pouch to be disposed of later, at home.

"Here, Naruto," he said quietly, passing the child the much-diluted cup. Naruto took it quietly, expression uncharacteristically sombre. "Drink to the dead," Kakashi added in a gentle order, lifting the undiluted cup himself. Pulling down his mask, he downed the shot in one. Naruto waited until he did so to copy him, and this year he barely spluttered at all at the unusual, burning taste of the alcohol, scant though it was.

With a swift movement, Kakashi knocked the sake bottle over, watching its contents spill and spread over the Memorial Stone, wetting the names of people he loved dearly.

There was silence for a long while.

Finally, Kakashi shifted, bending to pick up the empty, dripping bottle and relieve Naruto of his cup. "You had better go, or you'll be late to meet Sakura," he said, trying for business-like. Naruto chewed his lip, looking up at his father. The pain in his eyes was purely sympathetic, Kakashi knew – he was sad because Dad was sad. The fact had a sweetly childish simplicity about it, so unlike Kakashi's confused and torn feelings, and the elder smiled a little and rubbed his hand over Naruto's golden head.

"Will you be okay if I go?" the boy asked anxiously. Kakashi nodded.

"I'll be fine," he said. "I'll stay here for a while, and be home by the time you're done at the festival. You be good and mind Sakura and Sasuke, understand? They'll look after you. And stay out of trouble, and be home after the first set of fireworks – they're scheduled for eight thirty, so I want you home no later than nine. Sasuke should walk you home, but if he doesn't, I want you to ask Haruno-san – Sakura's father – to do so, okay? Do you need me to send one of my dogs with you? Maybe that would be a good idea. Pakkun? Or would you like Bull, he's big and scary-"

"Da-ad," Naruto said in an exasperated half-growl. "I'm not a baby. I'll be fine, I promise. I don't need one of the dogs to baby-sit me. I'll be home on time, if no-one will walk me home I'll send word for you to come and get me, and stay with the Harunos until then, and I won't follow any signs saying 'free hugs' down dark alleyways. Okay?"

Kakashi half-chuckled despite himself. "Yes, okay," he said, ruffling Naruto's hair one last time. "Off you go. Have fun."

With a grin and a salute, Naruto was gone.

Sakura was thrumming with excitement as she waited for her squad on the red bridge. Her parents were waiting a little way back, talking to one another to pass the time. Sasuke was the first to arrive, two minutes ahead of schedule, still wearing the stiff, formal clothing that his clan had once worn on special occasions. He slid into place beside her silently and stood, waiting.

Finally, the last member of their team arrived, still dressed (curiously enough) in the black clothes of mourning he'd been wearing at the memorial service. Sakura smiled brightly at him.

"Naruto! You made it!" she said. Naruto nodded, his eyes travelling over her dress with the interest of a small child (it was pretty, with many ribbons and sparkles, and Naruto was so little she assumed him to be devoid of any lecherous thoughts). "Come on," the girl said, grabbing his arm and Sasuke's in the same moment. "Come meet my parents! Mom, Dad, this is Uchiha Sasuke and Hatake Naruto. Sasuke-kun, Naruto, these are my parents."

Sasuke bowed shortly and said, "It is an honour to meet you," in a bored monotone, clearly regurgitating manners that had been branded into his mind. Naruto offered a shy smile.

"Hi," he said. "Um, it's nice to meet you… I don't know many civilians, so…"

"Ah, yes, you're the son of one of the higher-ranked shinobi in the village, aren't you?" Sakura's father said, looking him over with renewed interest. "And Sakura's teacher?"

Naruto ducked his head and nodded.

"Well, it's certainly nice to meet the two boys Sakura's told me so much about," the girl's mother said. "Come on: let's head off – we don't want to miss the festival!" The group began to move, the woman chattering all the way. "Usually we're there by nine in the morning – I don't know why we had to wait until now this year."

"Mom," Sakura put in hurriedly, agitation tinging her voice, "I told you already, I had to go to the memorial service!"

"But why?" This apparently was a source of irritation for Haruno-senior, who frowned at her daughter. "It's dreary and terribly long, and you could be doing such fun things at the festival instead-"

"Ima," Sakura's father tried to divert the rant, but he just got an annoyed look and a swat from his wife. Sakura cringed, wishing to disappear forever so she wouldn't have to deal with her mother's inability to accept that she was a kunoichi and not a kid.

"-and honestly, why do they keep dragging those names out and dusting them off – it was more than a decade ago, and I think it's well and truly time to let them rest in peace, and besides, you should be having fun and enjoying your holiday instead of wasting it listening to speeches-"

"Haruno-san," Sasuke cut in smoothly, making the woman blink at being interrupted. "If we do not remember those who died to save us, what meaning would this festival hold? The festival does not officially start until one pm for that very reason – it is only civilians and fools who begin early. How disrespectful would it be to forget our mothers, fathers, cousins and comrades who died on the anniversary we are marking, and simply use their suffering as an excuse to skip work and play games? Your daughter is very smart: she knows that if we ever are to move forward, we must look back, and remember."

"My dad lost his teacher today twelve years ago," Naruto piped up. "And his best friend four days ago, thirteen years ago. He says my granddad died in the war, too." Here, Sakura (vastly relieved that her teammates were, in fact, standing up for her and not laughing at her) noticed a tightening in her father's mouth, but didn't call him on it. "So it's good to remember. I don't have any family 'cept for Dad – I'm glad that there's today put aside for us to remember people who… aren't here anymore."

There was a heavy silence for a while, until the group entered into the hubbub and excitement that was the village centre, the festival in full swing. Sakura turned to Naruto, the kid, first. "What do you like to do at the festival?" she asked the younger, thinking vaguely of heading for the children's stalls – throwing darts at water balloons or scooping fish out of water with paper nets. Naruto looked at her in confusion.

"I dunno," he said. "Never been to it before."

Another moment of silence.

"Never?" Sakura's mother looked scandalised. Naruto shrugged.

"My dad says 'I refuse to participate in a festival teeming with fools who want nothing more than to celebrate the suicide of my foster father.' And I can't come by myself, and my godfather's never been in town in October, except once when I was really little, so he might have taken me then, but I don't remember it."

"Oh. Well, you have to try some games, then!" Sakura said, enthused. "Sasuke, come on – we can show him all the games we liked as kids! Mom, Dad, um, how about we meet up later? It'll probably be boring for you, but we'll be fine – we'll stay together and everything!"

Sakura's mother hesitated, but her father nodded. "Okay, sweetheart," he said fondly. "Have fun."

An instant later, the trio had vanished into the crowd.

Festivals, Naruto was discovering, were fun. In the last hour, they'd played eight games, won two stuffed bears, a whistle and a rainbow ball between them. They'd also tried a half-dozen different kinds of food, including fluffy clouds of spun sugar – which would have sent Kakashi into spastic twitches if he knew – and found a good spot on a rooftop to rest for a while.

It was exhilarating, as the sun went down and the energy of the village rose. It seemed like everyone in the world was crushed into Konoha's streets that evening.

"This is fun!" Naruto announced to the rest of the world, then bounced ahead of his teammates so he could beam at them both at once, too excited to sit still all of a sudden. "Isn't this fun?"

The two smiled back at him, and maybe he was imagining it but they seemed to be more sharing in his excitement than looking down on him for it. Then Sasuke spat all over the moment by realising what he was doing and backpedalling into nastiness as quickly as possible. "Che. Sure, if you're a baby. This whole thing is so childish."

The words were fuel to Naruto's quick temper, and Sakura wilted. But he was having such a good time, he couldn't raise the ire to be properly mad. Instead, he rolled his eyes and said, "You know, Sasuke, you put so much effort into being a bastard. If you'd drop the act for a few minutes, you'd actually be a decent guy."

Sasuke was silent for a few steps. "You're not that bad… I guess," he said instead of the myriad of insults that had leapt to mind. "You're okay, for a kid."

Sakura grinned. That was about as close to an 'I like you, I'm sorry I've been a jerk, let's be friends' as boys could manage. The truce had somehow been restored, and she inwardly claimed it as her own victory – if she hadn't insisted on a team outing to the festival, they'd never have had the opportunity to be social and mend bridges. Feeling rather fond of both boys, she tucked an arm under the elbow of each and felt another small thrill when neither shrugged her off.

"Come on!" she announced cheerfully. "Let's go to the Goldfish Bob stand next!"

"Whoa, hang on!" Naruto spluttered with laughter as she tugged him along. "My dad will kill me if I bring home any more goldfish!"

"We could always win you a puppy," Sasuke suggested. His finger was elegantly pointed at a balloon-decked stall where several small dogs were scurrying around in a pen marked 'PRIZES'.

"Great idea, Sasuke-kun," said Sakura, giggling at the thought of Naruto coming home with a puppy in tow. Surely their uptight sensei would dislike a pet – especially a pet that could bite his precious baby. As an added bonus, the little cocker spaniel puppies were cute enough to cause aneurisms. "But can we play? Are we allowed?" she added, suddenly realising that there were no shinobi in the line – just children without hitai-ates. Sasuke grunted.

"Naruto can," he said. "He's not wearing his headband, and the sign says the game is for players 'under twelve'."

"I don't think that's what it means," Sakura said. It was fairly obvious that the game was meant for non-shinobi. Sasuke twitched his shoulders.

"But it's what it says."

"Awesome. Loop holes for the win!" cheered Naruto, and the trio stepped into line. They chattered amongst themselves for a few minutes, until a shout reached them through the general noise of the crowd.

"Friend of Gai-sensei!"

Naruto stopped dead in the middle of a sentence. Both his teammates looked at him, waiting for an explanation, so he said, "Brace for an assault. Mini-Froggie-san has arrived."

The words were barely out of his mouth when he was – as per his warning – tackle-glomped from behind by a green blur of energy. Naruto screwed up his face in mock-horror for the amusement of his team, then schooled his features back to politeness when his attacker crawled around to face him.

"Hi… Lee-san?" Naruto said, half-guessing the name. The little clone probably wouldn't like being called 'Mini-Froggie-san' to his face. It seemed he'd both miscalculated and guessed correctly: he was enveloped in another hug.

"Honoured Comrade! You have remembered me! Shall we then be Glorious Friends?"

Naruto had to hand it to the teenager, he managed a very accurate Froggie-san impersonation. He levered himself away and forced a smile. "…Sure, Lee-san. Can you please excuse us? We're… um…"

Miraculously, Sasuke came to his rescue. "You just cut the line at the balloon dart stall," he said, crossing his arms. "Let him go so he can play, or you'll cost him his turn."

Lee dropped Naruto like a hot cake. "Oh! I am sorry, my Glorious Friend! I will also play!"

"No shinobi," said the man handling the game. "Under twelves only. You four step out of line."

"Naruto's ten. We're just here to watch him," Sakura said quickly, and the man huffed and grabbed a handful of darts for them.

Lee was almost comical in his Pose of Dismay. Then he paused and appeared to consider. "We will not compete," he said to Naruto. "It is probably for the best, considering our Glorious Friendship. I will cheer for you and show my support! I SHALL ALWAYS LOOK AFTER YOU AND CHEER FOR YOU, MY FRIEND! YOSH!"

Naruto spend several moments just blinking at the green enthusiast, imagining the hell that cheer had painted for his working career. "…I think I'd prefer to be rivals," he said weakly. Lee patted him rather vigorously on the head.

"We cannot be Rivals, Naruto-kun!" he announced as he pulled the blonde into proper gaming position and forced a few darts into his hands. The rest of Team Seven hung back, exchanging smirks and giggles at Naruto's misfortune. "You are Much Younger than I! It would be unwise for us to compete. No, we shall be Glorious Friends instead! Now we will play a vigorous game of Youth!"

Naruto groaned.

Officially, Tenzou was on-duty. Just about every ANBU in the village was. It was a security nightmare, the same nightmare every high-end shinobi had been complaining about since the Kyuubi Festival was founded. At any rate, Tenzou had more important things to do tonight than his job.

He was sitting in his stakeout position in the south-east quadrant of the village. The memorial stone, important enough to be magnetic for drunk vandals. Tenzou was supposed to be in the north-east quadrant, patrolling between Hoi Chi Square and that big statue of the tree that probably had some obscure significance. He'd twisted Owl's arm until the old man had agreed to swap with him.

He'd heard a rumour that his Kakashi-senpai had a hard time of it on this day every year. Officially, he was here out of concern – and it was true, the need to watch over one's friends was a frowned upon but immovable fact in ANBU. Most of those guys would camp out in hell to keep one another from breaking. But maybe (just maybe) Tenzou was here because he was… well, nosy.

…Seeing the great Hatake Kakashi have a weak moment? Tenzou struggled to picture it. Hence sitting here, getting his butt wet in the grass. It was less fun than he'd imagined, seeing Kakashi-senpai low. One of the strongest shinobi in the village was standing like a lost puppy by the stone, head down. His arms were around himself in an unconscious self-comforting gesture, which was heartbreaking – hugging himself because there was no one left to do it for him. He'd been speaking before, and Tenzou had wished he were anywhere but there, listening to his friend's voice crack again and again.

Poor Kakashi-senpai, he looked like he needed a hug. Tenzou didn't have the guts to do that, though – what would he say, anyway? "No homo, senpai, I just thought you could use a cuddle?"

…Kakashi would take his head off. Best to stay sitting quietly in the grass.

He was nearly startled into flight when someone brushed passed him. A Hyuuga? The man walked sedately to where Kakashi was standing and clasped his hands behind his back. They stood quietly for so long, Tenzou had almost fallen asleep before the Hyuuga spoke.

"It was a cruel thing," he said, "to send children so young into such bloody wars."

"That was a long time ago." Kakashi hadn't moved, hadn't looked at the man who'd joined him.

"And yet I think you still live in its midst," said the Hyuuga – and now Tenzou recognised the clan's leader, Hiashi. "The past is a place to visit, Kakashi-san, but it is only that. You must live in the present and dwell on the future. Think of your son."

"I do. Every day. I think that if I had just – just been different, been better, then he'd have a better life now."

"Or maybe you had to suffer so that he does not." Kakashi shifted, obviously dismissing the idea. Hiashi seemed to change tact. "Who do you come here for?" he asked. "Your teacher? Naruto-kun's mother?"


Hiashi was silent after that little admission, made in a voice so forlorn Tenzou was ready to tear his ears off just so he didn't have to hear it again.

"His teammate, genius," said a female voice. Both at the stone glanced up as Inuzuka Tsume jumped down from the trees edging the field and stalked towards them. "Honestly, if you're going to come out here and try and defuse The Kakashi Bomb, you should at least do your homework."

"And how do you know about it?" Hiashi challenged.

"I threatened the other teammate, Tamanaka," Tsume grinned. Kakashi sighed, eyes still fixed on the memorial.

"Hello, Tsume-san. You know, she would have told you just as easily if you'd asked."

"Probably, but I kinda liked threatening her," Tsume said easily. "Hi, kid. You look miserable."

Kakashi shrugged one shoulder. He was beginning to look, in Tenzou's expert opinion, like he wanted very much to leave but couldn't quite tear himself from the names on the stone.

He probably regretted staying a moment later, when the woman was suddenly right next to him. "Oh, c'mere." Her arms grabbed Kakashi from the side and pulled, forcing him right against her. Tenzou caught a glimpse of Kakashi's single eye widen with alarm at suddenly finding himself pressed against the fearsome woman's bosom. "You can cry, you know. I wore my extra-absorbent vest just for the occasion."

"I… I…" It seemed the jounin didn't know what to say. A stuttering Kakashi-senpai was another thing Tenzou thought he'd never see. "I don't cry. Obito would think it was… weird. Don't bring flowers, either."

"I don't think Kakashi-san is enjoying your embrace, Tsume-san," Hiashi noted.

"Oh, hush, Hiashi." Tsume was familiar enough with Hiashi, Tenzou noted with surprise, to not only be comfortable scolding him, but to address him with no suffix at all. Maybe she was just preternaturally bold – she was holding a squirming Kakashi to herself, after all, which was brave by anyone's standards.

"Tsume-san, please," Kakashi said. "I'm okay, please let me go."

"You are getting a hug and that is final," Tsume informed him severely. Kakashi made a noise that was almost a whimper, but stopped trying to escape. Tenzou was fascinated: he'd just seen the impossible. Kakashi-senpai had been defeated.

"What are you going to do with it?" said Sasuke. Naruto looked at the squirming bundle in his arms and shrugged.

"What do you normally do with a puppy?"

"It is awfully cute," said Sakura, leaning around Sasuke to pet the little thing again. "What will you name her?"

"Why don't you name her?" Naruto said as they rounded the final corner before the main market square in the centre of Konoha. Sakura looked surprised, then flattered.

"Well… how about Cupcake?"

She thought it was a perfectly good name for a puppy, but both boys screwed up their noses. "No!" they said in unison.

"Sakura, you'd never be able to call the dog with a name like that," Sasuke said. "It would be too humiliating."

"How about we call it 'Sakura Two'?" said Naruto. He bounced the puppy and dangled it so the others could see. "It looks like a 'Sakura Two' to me."

"Sakura! Kids!"

Sakura's parents were up ahead, waving. They had that weird kind of glow that longstanding couples got when they escaped responsibility and went on a reserved-for-the-young date. "Did you have fun?" the father said as they reached one another.

"Yeah!" said Naruto.

"We won a puppy!" Sakura cheered. The Haruno's faces froze, looked at the dog squirming in Naruto's arms, realised that Naruto and not Sakura was holding it, and relaxed in unison.

"Oh, my," said the mother. "It is a sweet little thing. But, won't your father mind you coming back with a dog, dear?"

Naruto grinned. "I doubt it. He might be a bit irritated by how fluffy it is, but that's the worst of it, Haruno-san."

The Haruno matriarch looked dubious, but didn't feel the need to fight this particular fight. It wasn't like it was Sakura bringing home a furry mouth to feed. "Well, we'd better go. We'll miss the fireworks."

They managed to snag a great spot near the river – the Haruno parents wouldn't let them climb the water tower. The fireworks shot into the sky and exploded with fervour enough to please even the least whimsical among the crowd. Naruto smiled up at the sparkling crescendo to what he had already mentally labelled as the Best Day Ever, very glad that he'd been coerced into coming.

"Thank you, Sakura," he said as the last few colours faded. "Thanks for inviting me. And convincing Dad – I don't know how you managed that, it was very impressive."

"Have you considered a career as a hostage negotiator?" Sasuke deadpanned, causing his teammates to dissolve into giggles as the comparison.

"Thank you for letting us join you, Haruno-san, Haruno-san," Naruto said, clambering to his feet and bowing to each of Sakura's parents in turn.

"It was great to meet you, Naruto-kun," Sakura's father said.

"Are you headed home already, dear?" the mother put in. Naruto winced.

"Yeah… Dad wanted me home right after the first set of fireworks. He's probably at home with a search-and-rescue kit in one hand and a stopwatch in the other, so I'd better get going." A thought occurred to him, and he made a pained face. "Ugh. I have to get someone to walk me home. Sasuke, please not you."

Sasuke smirked. "Come on, brat. Let's go."

Naruto made a noise like a wounded animal, and Sakura giggled. "Why don't we both walk you home?" she suggested. "That way it's actually 'walking you home' and not 'Naru-chan needs an escort'."

Naruto twitched. "Never call me 'Naru-chan' again," he said. "Ever. Ever."

That had a predictable response, and within a minute the Hatake scion was chasing the Last Uchiha and the cloth merchant's daughter down the street, both of whom were hollering 'Naru-chan, Naru-chan!' in an infuriating chant.

Anko reversed her out-of-the-window lean and looked across the sticky booth at Asuma. "Did you just see what I thought I saw?" she slurred. Asuma grinned the grin of a happy drunk.

"Looks like Kashi-kun's team's gettin' on… better," said Genma, choosing each word carefully as if it held great meaning. He was a philosophical drunk. Asuma dissolved into girlish giggles, and Gai – who tended to swing between an aggressive drunk and a sleepy drunk – put his head down and started to snore.

"Maybe the kids have been at the moonshine, too," said Kurenai. She seemed sober, though she wasn't. A sensible drunk: the most boring drunk there was.

"We should convince Kakashi to come to the festival one year," said Asuma through another shot of something that glowed. Gai snorted without raising his head.

"It will never happen. My Eternal Rival is too hip and cool to ever – hic – join us on… this… day of… zzz…"

"Is he actually asleep this time?" said Anko.

"He is asleep if he's sleeping," said Genma seriously. "But if he's awake, he's not asleep."

"That is deep," Anko replied, blinking as she tried to get her fuzzied brain around Genma's logic. "You should be, like, a theologist or something."

Asuma began to giggle. "This is the best holiday of the year!" he announced.

"Not for the ones working," Kurenai pointed out. "Yuugao, Hayate, that other guy." Each name made Asuma laugh harder.

"I want more booze!" Genma announced.

"Ooh, get a jug of that glowy stuff – the blue glowy stuff, not the green glowy stuff!" Anko demanded. This was met with a cheer and Kurenai swayed towards the bar for some more liquid poison. They really did have great fun when they got together and relaxed for an evening, and the festival was the best time of year to do it.

They stayed at that bar until Gai woke up and started a fight with another patron for 'not wearing youthful green!' They took that, or rather the bouncers that surrounded them, as the cue to move along.

"Tsume-san, please. I think you're embarrassing him."

Tsume didn't let up her embrace but used a spare hand to press down Kakashi's hair so she could glare at Hiashi over it. "If you're gonna try to instate some tag-team parenting, you'd better wise up to the fact that, when dealing with kids, the woman is always right."

That made Kakashi restart his squirming. "I'm not a child," he said.

"You are to me, kid. You are to me," Tsume said. "And to Hiashi. Right, Hiashi?"

The Hyuuga's face was perfectly blank, but Tenzou watched him squirm a little with embarrassment. Again, the ANBU wondered what on earth was going on between the two clan heads.

"You are young, Kakashi-san," was all he said on the matter, but that was enough to make his opinion known.

Kakashi groaned, finally levering himself away from Tsume and glaring at the memorial stone. "If I didn't know better, I'd think you had something to do with this, Obito," he muttered accusingly. "Now I have parents." Louder, he said, "Look, I appreciate what you're doing, but I'm okay. I'm coping."

"You're repressing," Hiashi said clinically. "Eventually, this is going to come to the surface – probably at the worst possible time."

"Then you'll be in trouble," Tsume said.

Kakashi looked at the pair of them helplessly. "…What do you want me to do?" he asked eventually.

"Get over it," Tsume replied promptly.

"Bury your dead," Hiashi rephrased. Kakashi's hand reached up and began to rub at his temple: a sure sign of an evolving headache.

"That's impossible."

Tsume looked like she wanted to shout or try and shake some sense into him – or maybe hug him again, which would be far worse – but Hiashi put a hand out to check her. "Will you make a promise, then?" he said. "Give me your word that you will come to one of us – or the Hokage, or Jiraiya-sama, or anyone old enough to deal with these problems – if you need help. If it gets too much, if you feel yourself losing control."

Kakashi hesitated. It was obvious even from a distance that he was trying to interpret the hidden meaning behind that promise, and was coming up empty. Still, he nodded his head and said, "…I promise."

"That means proper grownups, not just your little friends," Tsume said with a warning flash of fang. Kakashi sighed.

"We're twenty-six."

Tsume nodded, as if Kakashi had proved her point. "Like I said, not your little friends. Grownups only. Swear."

"Fine, fine."

Before anything else could happen, an animal appeared from the treeline and trotted towards the group, effectively interrupting the conference. Kakashi turned to it instantly with a little too much attentiveness, clearly relieved for the distraction.

"Yo, Kakashi." The little brown dog – the one with whose teeth Tenzou was a bit too intimately acquainted – sat up on his haunches to make himself a few inches taller. "Your kid's on the way home. You need to go if you're gonna meet him. You want I can go instead…?"

Kakashi roused himself, pushing away from his company. "No, that's fine. I'll go. I don't want him to know I made you stalk him. Thanks, Pakkun." He glanced at Hiashi and Tsume. "…Bye."

Tenzou found himself part of a trio watching the Hatake and his dog disappear into the night. Once he was out of sight, Hiashi sighed and brushed an invisible crease out of his clothing. "My children are not expected back until after the midnight fireworks. May I buy you a drink at the festival?"

Tsume grunted. "You bet you can. I need it after dealing with that brat."

They left as well, together, and Tenzou found himself left with a goldmine of potential gossip. The respective heads of Inuzuka and Hyuuga going out so informally? It sounded like the setup for a joke. 'A Hyuuga and an Inuzuka walk into a bar…' Time to tell all his friends.

It took him a long moment to realise that 'all his friends' was not a very long list, and the only one living and not in jail wouldn't care at all. "Damnit!" he said. "Why is Kakashi my only buddy? I need to tell someone!"

It was time for some networking.

Normally, the day after the festival started slowly. Kids slept off sugar rushes while adults nursed hangovers and groaned into their pillows. This particular morning after, however, was buzzing due to a rumour that had spread like wildfire.

It was a sad but true fact of life that shinobi – and shinobi villages – were terrible gossips. It probably came from living such regimented lives, where the slightest irregularity was something to be relished and picked over. Add to that the vast intra-village networks each formed by professional necessity, and a rumour could go from birth to common knowledge in the space of an hour.

The fate of the Hyuuga had been a hot topic for more than a month, ever since the clan had been rendered homeless. Everyone knew that they had been taken in by the other clans indefinitely, everyone knew that the clan head was shacking up with the Inuzuka Head.

So when the rumours of an illicit fling between the two leaders began to spread, it was accepted as fact without struggle. Everyone had something to say about it.

"Did you hear? Hyuuga-sama and Inuzuka-sama are in love!"

"Well, of course they're sleeping together. It's sooo obvious."

"Did you hear what she said?"

"Did you see what he did?"

"It's so romantic!"

"It's disgraceful."

"I heard they were planning to elope."

"I heard Tsume-san is pregnant."

"I heard they're going to marry their children."

It was getting worse by the minute. When the two at the centre of the scandal ventured out – together – around mid-afternoon, it was amazing that the buzz didn't kill off those with weaker dispositions.

As seasoned shinobi, Tsume and Hiashi were well aware of the eyes watching them sip tea together. Both were privately baffled by the attention, but didn't want to admit it. Neither thought much on it before dismissing the irregularity.

Similarly, Hiashi didn't think twice before refilling Tsume's tea cup for her. He was well-bred, after all, and it would never do for her to wait on herself when he was the one treating her. Add to that that he wasn't entirely sure he trusted rough Tsume to handle the delicate teapot, and it became a natural thing to wait on her.

It was comparable to the way Tsume didn't hesitate to steal one of Hiashi's dango sticks – in her mind, they were friends, and friends shared. Frankly, she lacked the breeding to know better manners. Hiashi let it go with barely an annoyed glance, completely unaware of how they were feeding a theory that would mortify him.

"Now I've got you fer a quiet minute," Tsume said, flashing sharp teeth in a grin, "How d'you reckon Hinata-chan's doin'? She's so timid, I'm a little worried she's being squashed by my lot. D'you think she's okay? I c'n see if I c'n move ya to the Aburame compound or something, where it's not as rough."

Hiashi took his usual long moment to consider an answer. "No," he said eventually, looking for ripples in the surface of his tea. "I believe that she is doing well, even improving. I admit that I was worried when she was first assigned to her squad, with a green jounin and your… rambunctious son," Tsume grinned at the diplomatic wording, sure that her friend would rather say 'hellion', "but I was wrong. She has grown much more confident in the last few months. I thought this latest business with Kumo would upset her, but she seems fine. Kiba-kun has looked after her. He is good for her, I think."

A glowing report for a mother to hear. Tsume beamed unabashedly.

The smile made the group of watching young women on the other side of the garden almost wild to know what was being discussed.

"What are they saying?" hissed one

"They're… they're talking about their kids," another said, squinting to make out the lip movements. Her eyes widened as he recognised a particular phrase. "Hiashi-san just said 'Kiba-kun is good for Hinata-chan'! You were right! They are so totally hooking them up!"

That seemed to seal the deal. The girls dispersed to tell the tale to all their friends, leaving with enough clatter and flurry to make both clan heads watch them go with bemusement.

"Hanabi! You didn't tell me you were engaged!"

The call echoed through the Academy playground, and Hanabi wheeled to face her on-again-off-again friend Kiki.


"It's all over the village that you're engaged to Hatake Naruto-san!" Kiki gushed. "My O-neesan said Hyuuga-sama was going to make the announcement any day! She said your sister was to marry Inuzuka Kiba-san and you Hatake Naruto-san! Oh, I'm so excited."

"Your sister was misinformed," Hanabi informed her friend with all the coldness she could muster.

"Oh, I don't think so," piped up Hanaku, another classmate. "It's all over the village, Hanabi. Everyone knows."

Hanabi looked from face to face, searching for a joke. There was none to be found – even random classmates she barely knew were nodding their agreement. "I… it's not possible," she said. "Father would have told me."

Probably. Unless he was trying to discreetly arrange a way to get her out of the family as soon as possible. Kiki seemed to take her stricken expression as confirmation and giggled. "At least Naruto-san's kind of cute. I mean, he's not Sasuke-san, but he's not bad-looking either."

Thankfully, their sensei appeared to call them back to class and saved Hanabi from answering. Her mind was reeling. She had to stop this, before it was formally announced. Had to. She shouldn't be engaged yet, not until she was at least sixteen – and then it should be to a Hyuuga, not some half-cast Outsider.

I'll find Neji-niisan after class, she decided. He'll help me.

It was noisy in the Inuzuka compound. Hiashi was struggling over his documents, trying to focus. He, as the Clan Head, was faced with the problem of feeding, clothing and sheltering his destitute family. The other clans had been surprisingly kind, splitting the Hyuuga between them, but that couldn't last. The Hyuuga compound must be rebuilt – and the Hyuuga fortune reamassed. The clan still had money – that which was kept in banks and in the Hokage's coffers – and were still the owners of a significant portion of the civilian section of the village. But so much had been lost. Priceless art and heirlooms, expensive clothes, antique weapons… the total cost was staggering.

Hiashi could feel his blood pressure inching upwards so he paused and closed his eyes, taking a few deep breaths. He reminded himself that no lives had been lost, and that the working Hyuuga were still earning money. They were okay. Everything was okay.

The door opened softly, heralding a visitor to the bedroom/study. "Uncle."


Hiashi, already halfway through turning after the first salutation, heard the second and dropped his brush. It clattered onto the table, then into his lap and made a spectacular ink stain on pristine papers and clothes. The Hyuuga man didn't notice, jumping out of his chair and rushing around to face his nephew and youngest daughter.

"Oh gods, what's happened?" he said. Images flashed through his mind, each more alarming than the last as he tried to conceive what could be horrific enough to unite these two. "Are you two alright? Is Hinata – is she hurt?"

Hanabi flashed him a perfect 'don't be stupid' look. "Father, we need to speak with you," she said in her sulky little voice. Hiashi frowned and opened his mouth to ask her what the problem was when they were interrupted. Their hostess stood at the base of the stairs and hollered, her voice reaching every corner of the home.


Hiashi hesitated, then stood. "We will discuss this after dinner," he said, looking between his daughter and nephew. He glanced down and realised how messy he was, and sighed. No time to change, but it would be unbearable to turn up looking like he'd been splashing in an ink puddle. Resigning himself to an evening of being overly warm, he lifted an over-robe and pulled it over his clothes, effectively concealing the mess.

"Come," he said to his children, and led them to the dining room.

The Inuzuka family were already there, fighting over dishes. This house belonged to Tsume, so only she and her two children lived there. It was something of a relief: Hiashi didn't think he could cope in a dorm-style room with eight or nine Inuzuka crawling all over the place.

It wasn't far into the meal before Kiba stopped loudly recounting his last training session and turned to the guests.


Hiashi observed the relief of Tsume's face as her son added the polite suffix. Hiding a smile, he said, "Yes, Kiba-kun?"

The genin chewed noisily, gulping down his mouthful in a way that made Hanabi turn up her nose and Hinata look on fondly. "Why d'ya need to build a new compound?" he asked, already chomping on more fish.

"Well, we must live somewhere."

Hiashi thought that answer perfectly mild and polite, but the boy still scowled at him as if he'd been insulting. "I know that!"

"Kiba, don't shout," said Hana, simultaneously shoving an overly bold puppy off the table and swatting the genin upside the head. As uncouth as the action was, it caused Kiba to modulate his behaviour and quieten down. Hiashi glanced at Hinata contemplatively: perhaps he could convince her to emulate Hana and take her sister in hand. Who knew? A sibling's punishment might succeed where his own had failed.

"It's a good point," said Hanabi, sounding as snooty and brattish as ever. "I mean, here we are homeless while the Uchiha compound stands empty."

Ah, damn. This argument again. Hiashi couldn't hold back his sigh as he laid aside his chopsticks and faced off against his daughter – again. "Although it is currently empty, we cannot simply take over the Uchiha compound," he said.

"Why not?"

Hiashi turned back to Kiba, who had asked. "Because it does not belong to us," he replied. "It belongs to Uchiha Sasuke-kun. I will not rob him because he is young and alone. Perhaps once I would have, but…"

"Well, why don't we just buy it?" said Neji, who was very tired of the Inuzuka boys teasing him about his stiff manners and Branch seal.

"Because it would be cheaper to rebuild our own," Hiashi replied, helping himself to some of the unidentifiable rice dish Hana had made. "We still own the land and the foundations, and the few buildings that survived."

The conversation died, allowing an unusual moment of silence to creep in. Hana dug at her rice with her chopsticks, one sharp canine chewing the corner of her mouth. It was obvious she was considering whether or not to speak.

"So," she said, a sparkle of humour in the eyes she glanced around the table with. "I hear there's cause for celebration."

"Why, hun?" said Tsume, refilling her bowl.

"It's all over the village that there's a new alliance being formed between the Hyuuga and Inuzuka."

Hiashi and Tsume blinked at one another. "A new alliance?" Hiashi repeated, perturbed. He hadn't heard such a rumour, but it would explain a few of the knowing grins he'd been receiving from men around the village. Perhaps they thought he was taking advantage of Tsume's gender to work an alliance contract to his advantage? Clearly, these men had never met Tsume – he had a feeling that if he were to ever sign a contract with her, he would be the one on the short end.

Hana was grinning, full of mischief. "Well," she said, drawing out the word, "it's being said that you two are so in love, adore one another to such a degree, that you are determined to unite our families. And, since you are both Clan Heads, you can't marry. The next best is to engage our respective scions."

The three Hyuuga had put on identical looks of horror. Tsume's mouth had fallen open, allowing a trickle of rice to tumble down her chin. Only Kiba was blank. "What's 'scion'?" he asked.

"Heir," Hana supplied. She watched the gears click around in her little brother's head, watched him realise who was the only son of the Inuzuka Head, and who was the Hyuuga Head's eldest daughter.

"WHAT?!" he hollered, jumping to his feet. Hinata turned all shades of red and began to sway. "MA!" Kiba said, turning to Tsume. The shout seemed to unstick her, and she closed her mouth, swallowed what little remained inside, and then turned to her daughter with murder in her eyes.

"Don't kill me, Ma," Hana defended. "Jiro-kun and Taka-san both asked me when the engagement was going to be formally announced during our mission today."

Hiashi reached to take his daughter in his arms as she swooned, holding her upright. "Breathe, Hinata," he said. "Don't faint. It's alright." To Hana, he said in a much harsher tone, "Where did you get this preposterous idea?"

"It's all over the village!" Hanabi put in, indignant. "That's what we wanted to talk to you about before dinner!"

"Uncle, you can't marry both your heirs outside the clan," Neji put in. "It's most unwise."

Hiashi wondered if Neji realised that – assuming this fairytale was true – he would be the next in line to lead the clan. Probably not, because chances were he'd jump at the chance to join the Main branch and remove that seal.

Tsume decided to intervene. "Okay, enough. Ain't nobody marryin' anybody for another ten years at least. We'll talk this all over then," she said. "'Cept you, Hana – you better get yer arse in gear and find yerself a man before I do it myself."

Hana made a face: she doubted her ma would make good on her threat.

Hiashi decided to put an end to the familial discord once and for all. "There is to be no betrothal of any kind," he said firmly. "There is no formal alliance between our clans, nor with the Hatake family. Tomorrow, I will make an announcement that I do not intend to engage my children and request that betrothal suits be put off until you are all old enough to accept them yourselves. That should resolve the issue."

The four children at the table looked at one another, the distress slowly leaking off every face to be replaced with a peculiar peace. Hiashi looked around the table and marvelled. He had just professed separation, but it seemed to have had the opposite effect. The young ones were united.

"So," drawled a voice, "I was thinking a June wedding."

The group froze at the sound, and one by one turned around to see the jounin crouched like a spider on top of the wall. He titled his head and smiled. "Yo."

"…Kakashi." Kurenai was the first to recover and smiled. "We don't often see you this time of day."

"Yeah." Kakashi slithered down the wall and stood to lean against it, terrifyingly casual. "Do you guys see this patch here?" He gestured to his left shoulder. A wet, brown patch had darkened it. "Naruto threw Mr Ukki at me while screaming something about arranged marriages. You guys wouldn't know anything about that, would you?"

Oh, look at that. Wide, innocent looks all around. "No, Kakashi," said Anko, pulling a dango stick through her teeth so her cheeks bulged with all three balls. Kurenai patted her on the back when she started to choke, shifting and accidentally giving Kakashi a clear view to-

"Tenzou. Since when do you hang out here?"

"You're a jerk, never introducing us to your ANBU friend, Kakashi," said Asuma. Kakashi noticed the protective circle his friends had – subconsciously, he was sure – formed around Tenzou, and had to suppress a laugh.

"You're allowed to have friends, Ten," he said. "I'm not mad. I'm not even going to dob you in to the Head of ANBU for this little… I'm going to go with unauthorised jaunt outside HQ."

"Are you on-duty, Tenzou?" Kurenai said, surprised. Most of the rest of the group shared a kind of smiling grimace at her innocence. She was the only one of them who'd had no contact with ANBU at any point in her career.

Anko rescued Tenzou before the embarrassed man had to explain. "You can't just wander around when you're in the corps," she said. "Ever wonder why you never bump into Yuugao or Hayate at the supermarket? You have to apply for leave to go into the village, or, well, anywhere."

"They keep you prisoner?" Kurenai shrieked, jumping to her feet in horror. Kakashi decided to step in.

"They don't keep them in cages, Kurenai," he said, putting a hand on her shoulder to stop her from flying off to boycott HQ with a 'free the operatives' sign. "The idea is to keep the village's best weapons ready to use. All of ANBU can be assembled and ready to fight a war in less than a minute. It's pretty easy to get permission for outings, and you can resign at any point as long as you're not on a mission."

The panic in the greener jounin's eyes calmed and she began to look embarrassed too. That was cute, standing next to the oh-so-uncomfortable-and-socially-awkward Tenzou. Kakashi briefly wondered if he'd be able to get the whole lot of them blushing. A photograph of that would be prime post-on-notice-board material. A moment later he dismissed the idea in favour of saying, "So, back to my problems."

"Because we all exist solely to solve them," teased Yuugao.

"No, you seem to exist to cause them, so you can listen to me whine when they happen." Kakashi crossed his arms, trying for an intimidating pose. "I know one of you was the source of these rumours. And when I find out who it was, I shall not hurt you, or scare you, or harm you in any way. Instead, I shall tell Naruto, Kiba-kun and each Hyuuga child who the culprit is."

Kakashi had no intension of following through on his threat – Naruto alone would tear them to pieces – but he enjoyed the uncomfortable look on his friends' faces. Especially Tenzou, the rumourmongerer. Even if Kakashi hadn't sensed him at the memorial stone during the festival, he'd be able to read it now in the ANBU's face.

Still, it was good that the shy Mokkuton user had made some new friends, friends he was apparently willing to sneak out of HQ for. Kakashi was pleased. He smiled, and said, "Well, now that's settled, I'm going to have a nap."

He wandered away, keeping an ear open to hear the conversation restart just before he was out of earshot – congratulating Tenzou on his escape, and assuring him that no one would betray him. With a grin, Kakashi jumped into a tree and pulled a piece of paper, a brush and a tube of ink from his vest. He thought about it for a moment, then dipped his brush into ink. Dear Rin, he wrote, This has been a crazy week. By now, you would have heard the rumours. Don't worry, I'm not auctioning off Naruto's hand in marriage. You see, since his compound was destroyed, Hyuuga Hiashi has been spending a lot of time with Inuzuka Tsume…

In a place as dark as his own mind, the constant drip, drip, drip of water that threatened to drive him further into insanity. The cold made old injuries ache.

"This is ridiculous!"

The man shifted, trying not to react as a teenager stormed up to him. "It's not like you to come in like that, Itachi," he said quietly. The teen hesitated, and spoke in a much more controlled manner.

"Madara, it is a total waste of my time to continue searching for the Kyuubi. I will not do it anymore!"

"You will do as you're told."

The younger raised his chin. "No," he said again. The man he'd called 'Madara' sighed inwardly, silently bemoaning how teenagerness made rebels out of the most compliant of boys. But he couldn't very well leave Itachi wandering around without a purpose, he'd get into trouble of some kind.

The trouble was, he'd been increasingly unsure of how to proceed. Kyuubi was gone with his host, and might never return. That great demon fox had slipped through his fingers and disappeared, taking any hopes of completing The Master Plan away with it. How would he do without the Kyuubi's power?

And meanwhile, they lived on in Konoha, happy and oblivious. Marada's fingers clenched around the arm of his chair at the thought. It made him furious, to think that he might be happy, might be anything less than absolutely miserable. He didn't deserve to be happy.

A new thought occurred to him, and he paused mid-mental rant. "Oh," he said aloud. "Very well, Itachi. I have a new task for you…"

Twin1: Yeah, I know that the exam is in June, this is in October, blah, but there's a huge hole in continuity in cannon, what with Naruto being thirteen sometime around the June exam… urgh. I've thought my way around it so many times, and decided I no longer care. The festival came first! So there! Next chapter, we get to the chuunin exam.

…Suspension of disbelief, for the purpose of moving this story forwards.

Twin2: Screw canon, we write fanfic!

Twin1: So, last time I had a super-long chapter, I split it. I got a lot of complaints, so this time I put the whole lot up. Any thoughts? Do you prefer this way, with pages and pages to read? It should tide you over, if nothing else.