IMPORTANT - PLEASE READ
Twin 1: Hi, all. We have received a lot of PMs recently asking about our stories and our general health. Thank you all for your concern.
I have decided to post an explanation for our sudden absence.
Unfortunately, poor health has come to our family. Mum contracted a major illness with a 15 percent mortality rate. Twin 2 and I both became ill as well with another illness with a 0.12 percent mortality rate. Little brother has been struggling with a disorder that has a 10 percent mortality rate.
We are all alive and gradually recovering. Twin2 and especially myself are in intensive treatment. This has been a challenging few years and a time of great stress and sadness.
Naturally, our stories fell by the wayside. They are still very dear to us, and I hope to pick up and complete UP as health permits. That said, there are no guarantees. I happened to open up this document and notice that I'd had this chapter mostly finished for a long, long time. I decided to patch it together and post it up. I'm not sure when the next chapter will be written.
Please know that I read and treasure every single review and PM. Thank you for your support and encouragement. Feel free to drop me a line anytime with suggestions or feedback for any of our fics - that's actually the thing that I find most inspiring. This chapter is dedicated to every one of you lovely people who for some reason are still reading the fanfic I started on a napkin in English class way back in high school.
Chapter Sixteen: Growing Up
This mission, Genma decided, had been the most gruelling of his entire career. Ever. Dealing with a hopped-up nervous Copy Nin Kakashi at his absolute most impossible was the stuff nightmares were made of.
Not that Kakashi was anything but focused on their mission. Kakashi was, after all, a shinobi. A shinobi of the highest caliber, one of Konoha's elite. The best of the best.
He was also being torn up inside with worry over his only child, so he had thrown himself into his mission with a tenacity that would have a weaker man feeling a little intimidated. Not Genma.
"Kakashi," he said for easily the ninth time, holding up a wad of paper with the details of one of the foreign genin teams on it. "You cannot mark every team as suspicious. We don't have the manpower to re-vet each one of these teams. They've already been passed through security, we're just double-checking."
"So double-check," Kakashi challenged. "That squad needs it."
"Justify this to me," Genma said, waving the paper. "Kiko-sensei has filled out all of our paperwork, he's been recommended by his own kage, he's cooperated with Konoha teams when missions have intersected. There is nothing in here that warrants extra scrutiny."
"He's from Kiri," Kakashi said.
"So? Kakashi-senpai, we really can't use this mission to discriminate against a village you don't like," said Tenzou, face-down on a wooden bench he had created about three hours into this mission. Kakashi crossed his arms.
"Firstly, I have nothing against the village as a whole," he said blandly. "Secondly, take another look at the genin stats. The younger boy."
"What about him?"
"He has a bloodline."
"So he's from Kiri. With an acknowledged bloodline."
There was a long silence. Then Genma sighed and placed the papers on the 'reinvestigate' pile. "Sometimes I hate how much work you generate, Hatake."
Around the time it was estimated that the genin squads should be returning, Genma ushered Kakashi into the jounin standby lounge to wait. He was thoroughly over his role as babysitter by that point, and had decided that whoever had failed to drown Kakashi as an infant had unleashed a terrible blight on the world. Kakashi seemed to have formed a similar opinion of his minder, and they waited on opposite ends of the lounge in prickled silence.
Gai was the first to reappear, pristine as always but actually looking vaguely irritated. He all but stomped into the lounge, hesitated when he spotted his friends, and walked right past them.
"Your Student requires Rigorous work," he said. Kakashi raised a hidden eyebrow.
"Really?" Honestly, he'd have expected Sasuke to be able to keep up with Gai's team, at least well enough to avoid frustrating Gai to this degree. The Green Beast nodded, tipping hot water into a tea cup with sharp motions.
"His attitude is Infuriating."
...Ah. Kakashi chose not to respond.
Kurenai was next through the door, half an hour later and wearing mud and a smile. "Good afternoon," she chirped happily. "Sakura did really well, Kakashi, you should be proud. Might pay to pawn her off on a female jounin now and then, though - she's been taking advantage of all-male company."
"She has?" That was news to Kakashi, but whatever. He didn't have much mental space for Sakura at the best of times, and right now he was preoccupied. Where was Asuma - and Naruto?
By the time Asuma finally returned, last, Genma was about ready to kill him. Kakashi had been all but chewing the carpet in his worry, and it had only made him worse the more time ticked by. The older jounin didn't get a chance to yell, however: Asuma stomped right up to Kakashi and began shouting first.
"What the hell is that kid?" he demanded. "I know he didn't inherit any of that crazy shit from you!"
Kakashi froze, then lurched to his feet. "Is Naruto okay? What happened? Where is he?"
Asuma shook his head. "I sent him to the hospital with the others to get checked over."
Strangely - stupidly - Asuma blocked Kakashi before he could leave. "Tell me what is up with that kid," he said. "I've never seen that much power before. It was - did he get it from his mother?"
"I'll explain later, let me-" Kakashi said impatiently, trying to pry his arm from Asuma's grip. He didn't want to hurt his friend, yet, but he was getting close to that point. Asuma held on.
"Oh for goodness' sake, Kakashi, he's not hurt! Calm down for once, would you?"
The sharp tone actually got through, and Kakashi stilled, narrowing his eye. "Then you had better tell me what happened, quickly. And why you sent him to the hospital."
"That's what you're supposed to do when a genin activates a kekkai genkai, isn't it?" said Asuma, frustrated. "Look - we were supposed to be clearing out a wild animal, but it turned out to be a massive summon and things got a little out of hand. And in the time between me realising that and signalling Yuugao to help us out, Naruto had -"
Kakashi looked grey. "Naruto what?" he said. Asuma shivered.
"He flared all over with a weird chakra," he said. "I - I almost feel like I knew it, but I couldn't place it. I just - it felt... bad. Scary."
Kakashi drew in a quick breath, but it was obvious Asuma had no idea where he had felt that chakra before. He probably assumed he'd encountered one of Naruto's maternal relatives in the field before. Which he had, technically.
The story actually helped Kakashi place the chakra taint clinging to Asuma. He fought against the revulsion, the nausea that rose when he recognised Kyuubi, and tried to steel himself against memories of that day.
"I suppose that is a legacy from his mother," he said, trying to keep his voice level. "I doubt it would mix well with white chakra." All perfectly true. "I need to go find him before the medics set him off. I don't think he can control it yet."
"And you can?" Genma said dubiously. Kakashi fixed him with a flat glare.
"I guess we'll find out."
Naruto was sitting between Shikamaru and Neji. Kakashi was mildly surprised to see the Hyuuga, but his arm was sporting a bandage that might have hidden stitches, so perhaps he had a reason to be here. A bigger surprise was Sasuke, whom he knew from Gai's report was totally unharmed, leaning against the wall a few yards away.
A wave of inexplicable affection rose in him when he realised Sasuke was here out of concern for Naruto, and he reached out to ruffle the Uchiha's hair. Sasuke jumped, then scowled with the embarrassment of being discovered.
"I'll take it from here, kids," Kakashi announced.
"They're saying Naruto activated his bloodline limit," Sasuke said, words so heavy with resentment it was a wonder they didn't choke him.
"Maa. People talk a lot. Don't mind it too much."
"Dad?" Naruto looked up at him. "Am I alright? I'm not... sick or anything, right?"
"Of course not," Kakashi said, missing 'cheerful' by a few crucial notes. "Come on, Pup, let's find somewhere to sort this out."
It was hard to sense Kyuubi's chakra tainting Naruto's clean, bubbly essence. Harder to put a hand on his shoulder and guide him instead of flinching away, but Kakashi would never hurt his son like that.
"Hatake-san?" A nurse called the name, then blinked as she recognised the adult in the little cluster of genin. "Hatake-san!" she said again, tone completely different. "We were just about to check your son over. The doctor is ready for him now."
"Thanks, Nurse-san," Kakashi said lightly. "But I think I'm gonna take him home instead. I got this."
The nurse looked concerned, but technically it was the family's prerogative if they wanted to deal with a bloodline activation in-house. She did extract promises to return if even the slightest thing seemed amiss, then reluctantly let Kakashi steer the little troop to the door.
He shooed away the kids he wasn't responsible for and took a firm hold of the one he was. Two flicker-steps later and they were on a rooftop a block away.
"Alright," Kakashi said, letting Naruto go. "Wanna tell me what happened?"
Naruto looked almost scared. "I don't really know," he blurted. The whole mission came tumbling out, everything that had happened.
"We were on the mission, and Asuma-sensei told us that there was a wild tiger terrorising a bunch of farmers, so we had to kill it. But it was a summons from this crazy guy who totally wanted to take a bunch of Konoha shinobi hostage - dunno why, something about revenge on this shinobi dude who stole his girlfriend. He was mad, it was a dumb plan."
"Uh huh," Kakashi said, making a mental note to get the details from Asuma and find out if the rogue man still needed dealing with or not.
"Anyway, so we totally were doing okay tracking the tiger but then we found it and it's like huge. I might have frozen up a bit at first but then we got into it and it was alright. And we were fighting and suddenly the guy is there and there's like eight of the tigers and Asuma-sensei's freaking out and telling us to fall back. And then one of the tigers got Kiba in its mouth and he screamed." Naruto paused and swallowed. "It was awful, Dad. I thought he was dead. I got so angry."
"That's understandable," Kakashi said. He was gripping Naruto's hand tightly, trying not to fall into a retrospective panic attack at the news of the danger his son had been in.
"I - I don't really remember what happened after that, I guess I kinda blacked out. But when I came to, the bad guy was gone and Asuma-sensei looked majorly freaked out. He asked me what happened and when I said I didn't know he wanted to know about my bloodline." Naruto shrugged. "I told him about the white chakra, but he didn't - that wasn't what he meant. Then he went all quiet and brought us straight home to the hospital."
"Yes, this is something that you haven't inherited from me," his father confirmed. Naruto's forehead was furrowed in deep concern.
"You think that this is - from my mum?"
Oh, if only he knew. "Your mother had many gifts," Kakashi hedged. "And - well, we weren't a good match."
Damn straight, they weren't a good match. Kakashi's inner nine year old curled up in revulsion at the idea of pairing himself and Kushina. Urruaguagh. He pushed aside the inner cringe and refocused on diffusing a situation that had the potential to completely expose his son to unfathomable danger. Not to mention bring to light every lie he'd ever told his son.
"I'm worried that our genes may not have mixed too well," he continued. "There seems to be some issues now that you're mixing bloodline inheritance from your mother as well as me."
"So I'm... wrong?"
"No, Naruto, you are not wrong. You are... a question that has never been posed before," Kakashi said. He reached out and put a hand on his son's head. "There is nothing wrong with you. But I have no framework for what's going to happen, no prior experience. I can't guide you through what will happen as you grow."
Naruto looked frightened, and Kakashi's heart clenched. "We'll work it out together," he promised. Then he smiled. "Until then, though, I might call Jiraiya. We're gonna lock down the extra chakra with a seal until you're a bit older and ready to deal with it, okay?"
A moment of indecision flickered over his face, then Naruto nodded. "Okay," he said quietly. His voice strengthened when he added, "That's a good plan."
The boy tossed himself at his father, and Kakashi caught him and tucked him under an arm. "It's gonna be okay," he promised. Naruto nodded against his side.
"I'm glad you're here, Dad."
Kakashi hummed a little, patting golden hair. He was already plotting what he would have Jiraiya do - a five-point seal to dampen the Kyuubi further, perhaps, and maybe it would be a good opportunity to integrate it into the original containment seal. That would give them a great excuse if Naruto or anyone else ever noticed it.
"Of course I'm here," he said to the boy. "Where else would I be?"
By mutual consent, everyone was allowed a day to recover before debriefing. As a result, Kakashi wasn't surprised to see Gai approaching across the training field the next morning with a look on his face that indicated they had Things to Discuss. Kakashi turned towards him, ready to listen to the account of how Sasuke had gone on the mission. He would receive similar reports in the next twenty-four hours from Kurenai and Asuma.
Kakashi glanced at Sasuke, who had gone an interesting kind of milky grey colour. "Hmm?" he said. "Did you say something, Sasuke?"
"I'm not going back on his team," the teen said, gesturing at Gai with something like desperation. "You can't make me! I won't do it! I'll resign first."
"Wuss," Kakashi said unfeelingly. "Go practice that double flip then."
Sasuke was relieved enough to actually bob his head in a tiny, shallow bow of thanks before bolting for the other end of the training ground - further away than he strictly needed to go for room to practice the manoeuvre.
Kakashi turned away from watching his student flee at top speed and smiled at his peer. "So. How did he do yesterday?"
Sasuke landed from his latest attempt at the flip - off-centre, but at least he was managing to get his feet beneath him now - and stood. He didn't move, eyeing Gai off suspiciously. Kakashi raised his hand in an unmissable summon.
"Get over here, Uchiha."
Grudgingly, Sasuke approached. "Yes?" he said, stopping a good ten yards from Gai. Kakashi was willing to forgive the 'Gai Radius'. It had taken years to chip away his own. To this day, he wasn't really sure how Gai had managed it.
"You owe Gai-sensei an apology for your rudeness," he said sternly. Sasuke's face fell into an immediate scowl. He looked resentfully through his bangs first at Kakashi and then at Gai.
"They were rude to me," he said.
"Gai's genin outrank you. They're allowed to be rude," Kakashi pointed out. "Apologise."
"...Sorry." The word was correct, but the tone was about as close to a 'screw you' as possible. Gai seemed to sigh at him.
"You seem Terribly Impatient, child. You are making Good Progress," he told him. "Trust your teachers, we shall Guide You To Greatness."
An actual growl burst from Sasuke at that, too quickly to be stifled. He clenched his fists, glaring at the adult. "That's not true!" he snarled. "Why are you even here? At least Kakashi doesn't lie. I'm nowhere near as advanced as - I don't even have my sharingan!"
Gai blinked. For a moment, he actually looked shocked to the core. "You have not," he agreed. "But I have always considered that a Triumph."
"A..." Words failed Sasuke at how unimaginably ignorant this - this freak was. He felt another flash of irritation that he was being forced to suffer him when he could be doing something useful. "A triumph?" he managed to spit. "It's a failure! I'm too weak! When he was my age, he was already-" Sasuke's own anger and frustration choked him, so he rounded the rant off with a growl. He watched Gai glance at the other genin who had stopped to watch the altercation and then glance at Kakashi, and vaguely registered that the adults were considering moving this conversation. Sasuke raised his chin stubbornly. He had no intention of taking a single step to shield his peers from this 'sensei's' stupidity.
After a significant pause, Gai spoke again. "When I was Young," he said, choosing every word carefully, "I too compared myself to Another. It seemed that he was Better than I in every way. My elders would point at him and scold me, Admonish me to be More Like Him. It took me Many Years to understand that My Own strength was as great as his, but Different."
He seemed strangely determined not to look at Kakashi as he spoke, and Kakashi seemed about to say something but stilled too quickly for Sasuke to tell for certain. He didn't care, anyway - just like he didn't care about the learnings of this idiot. This extrovertic weirdo would never understand.
But his next sentence shocked Sasuke. "I have spent Many Years and much Youthful Vigour on studying your clan's Blood Gifts so that I could develop the Ultimate Sharigan Defence," Gai told him. "I have seen invariably that possessing such skills does not help, Sasuke-kun. Your brother, I believe, was twisted by the sharingan he possessed, and it drove him mad. You, by contrast, have the chance to become Truly Great in your own right, without relying on a Sharingan Crutch."
"You know about the sharingan?" Sasuke blurted. Could that possibly be true? Could this strange man teach him how to defeat Itachi? Was that even possible? He looked at Kakashi in search for some confirmation, explanation, anything. Kakashi just watched him with an unreadable eye before pointedly looking over at his comrade.
Following the prompt, Sasuke looked the jounin over again with new eyes. Yes, he was eccentric and yes he had appalling fashion sense, but... He stood like a shinobi. Like a killer. He held himself with the same easy confidence that Itachi had, that Kakashi had. The confidence that came with long hours of practice and proving time and again that no matter what the world threw up in his face, he would survive it.
The new clarity shook Sasuke to the core, rattled him in a way he didn't understand. He took a step back, then another.
"I'm sorry I was rude," he found himself saying in an attempt to excuse himself. "I'm going back now."
The adults let him go.
"Before you all leave," Kakashi said, stopping the genin in their tracks. The day was all but done, and all three had been doing their final cool-down stretches. Three sets of eyes on him and he smiled easily.
"I'm sure you've all heard the rumours by now," he said. "The Chuunin Exam will be hosted by Konoha this year. You three will not be participating." He paused and waited for the response. There wasn't really one.
"Figured," Sakura said, shrugging.
"You're not completely scot-free," Kakashi protested, a little disappointed at the lack of reaction. "I've been asked to help proctor some of the exam, since you lot aren't in it, so I think we should use this as a learning exercise. You lot can come, watch and learn, and in six months or so when I enter you, you'll know exactly what to do and I won't have to refuse to show my face in public out of sheer embarrassment," Kakashi finished up with a mask-hidden smile. His son rolled his eyes.
"Yeah, 'cause that would be such a huge change," he muttered.
"Now, there are going to be a lot of foreign ninja around," Kakashi lectured. "I want you all to look out for one another and watch each other's backs. Report anything suspicious, don't accept anything offered to you and don't follow them anywhere. Alright?"
"This is stupid," Sasuke muttered, turning away with a growl. "Dammit – even if you won't enter the baby, you could still enter me!" he exploded at Kakashi. The jounin raised a silver eyebrow at him, inwardly delighted to have the reaction he had been looking for - albeit a little delayed.
"Sasuke," he said flatly, "A rank doesn't necessarily denote skill. You could be labelled a chuunin now and you wouldn't be any more skilled than you were ten minutes ago. I'd have thought you'd be pleased with me, not wasting your time on an exam that, for all intents and purposes, gets you no closer to your goal. Do you really need the Hokage to assess your skill level? Or would you rather me help you improve it? Yeah, you'd probably survive the exam – might even be promoted, if you're lucky and impress the judges – but I promise you, your brother is above chuunin level. When I think you can survive the ANBU Captain exam, then I'll waste your time with assessment. Okay?"
Sasuke scowled and turned away, but he was obviously appeased by Kakashi's little speech. "I'm going home," he announced, and left. Sakura chewed her lip, looking between the pouting, cross Naruto and the smiling teacher.
"Um, Sensei," she said anxiously, "We're not... we're not going to... oh, I'm sorry, Naruto but we're not getting heldbackbecausehe'slittleareweSensei?" The question came out in a rush, as if speed would blur it and make it less painful for the youngest member of the team. The girl felt awful, Naruto tried so hard, but she had to know – she had to. Sensei looked at her kindly.
"Sakura," he said simply, "In order to become a chuunin, you have to prove that you are a chuunin. That means surviving B-ranked situations, on your own. Genin have died in this exam. Now, I know I tend to over- rather than under-protect, but be honest, what do you think?"
Sakura, who had gone a little white, just nodded, squeaked out some sort of thanks and farewell, and left in a hurry to avoid Naruto's accusing gaze.
There was silence on the red bridge for a while. Kakashi happily watched the water flowing beneath them, his inner sadist purring contentedly.
Finally, Naruto shifted and uncrossed his arms, putting hands on his hips instead. "Well?"
"Hmm?" Kakashi didn't look away from the clear water. "Well what, Naru-pup?"
"Don't call me that. Aren't you going to tell me some bull about why I'm not in this exam too? Or am I supposed to be psychic?"
Kakashi finally turned to look directly at his son. His voice was light as he said, "Language, Naru-pup. And I already told you. You're just too little!" His voice adopted a singsong tone. Naruto growled and thumped his father's vest-clad chest.
"I'm not a baby!"
"I know, I know, but I could never let my little boy loose with all those nasty genin from other countries, now, could I?" Kakashi sang, catching the fist that swung at him a second time, as well as the follow up. Naruto kicked him instead, and he laughed.
"I hate you," Naruto said stoutly, and Kakashi felt the words that usually amused him drive a shard deep into his chest. This chuunin exam would fly by, and in a blink the next one would be here, then the next and the next, and before he'd had time to catch his breath Naruto would be saying those words and actually meaning them. When that happened...
The laughter drained out of his dad's face and the strong grip on his wrists slackened, allowing Naruto to slide away. "Dad?" he said cautiously. "I didn't actually mean it, y'know? I... I guess we've only been genin for, like, a year. In peace time, don't most genin take double that before even attempting the chuunin exam? Dad?"
"Hm? Oh, yes, that's what's normal, I suppose," Kakashi agreed, reaching out and tugging the blonde closer to card fingers through his hair, savouring the fact that he was still allowed to do so, knowing his moments with his son were counted.
"So can we watch the exam, yeah?" Naruto said, beginning to lead the way home. Kakashi fell in step and settled into the casual conversation.
"Yes you can - the parts that are open to the public. It will be good for you to see it, anyway."
"Awesome. So what's the exam like, anyway?"
"Did you bring a puppy to our dinner?" Asuma demanded. Kakashi smiled as he slipped into the booth.
"Maa, why not?"
Kurenai cooed. "Aww, she's so cute!" she said, lifting the dog from Kakashi's arms and holding her up. The puppy licked her nose. "And so sweet! What's her name?"
"Sakura II," Kakashi said, sounding vaguely amused. "Naruto brought her home from the festival and named her after his teammate.
"She's so... fluffy," said Genma, leaning away as if the dog's pink collar might infect him.
"Hand me a beer," Kakashi said instead of commenting on the relative poofyness of Sakura II's fur.
"Well, here's to a successful mission!" Asuma said, handing over one bottle and raising another.
"It was a C-rank with genin," Anko said derisively.
"Not mine," Genma said dryly, clinking his bottle against Asuma's. "Cheers."
"Let's eat before we get smashed," Kurenai suggested quickly, seeing how this could easily descend into the sort of chaos that got them kicked out hungry.
"Spoilsport," said Anko, setting down her already-empty first drink.
"Are you guys happy with your intervention?" Kakashi asked. He put up his hand to signal the waitstaff. A pretty young waitress spotted him and started to make her way to their table. "Or do I need to brace myself for part two?"
"It seems to have Helped," Gai offered. "You have Seen that your Beloved Offspring is Capable."
"Hatake-san, you can't bring a puppy in here, it's a restaurant," the waitress said, reaching their table. Kakashi looked down at where Sakura II was chewing his fingers and then back up at the waitress.
"She's a ninken," he lied with a perfectly straight face. The waitress looked at him disbelievingly.
Like a good friend, Asuma backed Kakashi in his fib. "It's true," he said. "Not cool to try and separate a shinobi and his familiar."
"Fine, fine," the waitress sighed. "Just try not to let it chew the furniture, okay? What can I get for you?" By the time she had taken everyone's order, accounted for alterations and dealt with Anko changing her mind three times, the poor girl looked very ready to leave the difficult table. Perhaps she had learnt why her manager had been refusing to let his gaze wander in the direction of the large gathering of shinobi.
"Alright, this will be out soon," she said, and vanished into the kitchen. Kakashi placed Sakura II on the table, where the puppy immediately began to attack a paper menu.
"Who's a fierce ninken?" Anko cooed. "Who's a fluffy little killer?"
Sakura II growled at the menu, trying to shake her head to tear off a piece. Instead she ended up tumbling over in a mess of too-large paws, teeth still clenched on the menu. She squirmed, found herself unable to get up without first releasing the menu, and seemed to accept her new reality. She blinked upside down at the humans and began to chew happily.
Kakashi tickled her exposed stomach and smiled as her fluffy tail began to thump. "Totally a ninken," he told his friends.
"How is your kid, anyway?" Asuma asked. Kakashi shrugged.
"Very pleased with himself but largely unchanged," he said. "I am reasonably convinced that you didn't bring me back the wrong child."
"I meant his bloodline," Asuma said, rolling his eyes.
"Suppressed for now. Until we can sort it out." Kakashi used a dismissive tone, hoping to get him to drop the topic as soon as possible. To his surprise, Asuma nodded approvingly.
"Good. I was worried it was going to tear Naruto apart," he admitted. "The way he screamed - I went to help him and couldn't touch him. Couldn't even get close. He burnt my hand." Sheepishly, Asuma showed his bandaged hand.
"Shit, man," Genma said. It wasn't often that something like that couldn't be healed to the point of not needing dressing after a visit to a medic.
"Is Naruto alright?" Kurenai asked. She looked at Kakashi with eyes full of gentle concern. "I didn't realise this was an unknown bloodline..."
"He's fine," said Kakashi a little more firmly than he should have. Then: "Sasuke seems to have adopted him as the world's most trying little brother in order to help him with bloodline groundwork."
"Wait, seriously?" Anko demanded. She started to laugh. "Holy crap, I have to see that!"
"What a Brilliant display of Youthful Teamwork!" Gai cheered. "What Wonderful and Immediate Progress! I'm Certain that his time Exposed to My Springtime of Youth has Triggered this new Largess!" Gai seemed to have totally forgotten the frustration he had expressed to Kakashi after his time with Sasuke.
"Maybe," Kakashi said in the same tone he'd used to declare Sakura II a ninken. "You should approach him about extra training." Okay, maybe he was still a little hung up on how much of a brat the Last Uchiha was. Nothing wrong with a little harmless revenge.
"You're lucky Jiraiya was close by to help," commented Kurenai, who had been told about the sealing when she visited Kakashi during his team training.
"Ah, he's always around near the Chuunin Exam," Kakashi said, shrugging. "He wasn't hard to track down."
Before long, their meals had arrived and the gathering dissolved into theft and chopstick duels. Kakashi resorted to throwing Sakura II like a hand grenade to get an opening to steal two of Anko's dumplings. This was immediately followed by Anko lunging over the table in an attempt to retrieve them. She ended up in Kakashi's lap, wrestling him for the food clutched precariously in his chopsticks.
They struggled for a long moment before Kakashi proved victor in terms of sheer strength and was able to stuff both dumplings into his mouth. Anko immediately picked his pocket in petty revenge.
"What is this?" she exclaimed, coming away with a folded slip of paper. Kakashi made a grab but she was already over his shoulder, balancing on the backrest of the booth. Without pause she jumped to the other side and settled back into her seat.
"Ooooh, a letter," she crooned. She broke the seal and opened the paper.
"Give that back," Kakashi said. He looked at his peers, all of whom were starting to grin as they spotted a way to tease one of the most untouchable - and yet most vulnerable - members of their group.
"All the way from Hikoshanta Outpost," Anko said, putting on her 'storytelling' voice. "'Dear Kakashi' - ooh, dear Kakashi, huh?"
"A Promising start," said Gai.
"Do you even need me here for this, or can you just mock me while Sakura II and I drink at the bar?" Kakashi asked, trying to sound bored.
"We really, really do need you here," said Genma, grinning. Anko cleared her throat.
"'Dear Kakashi,'" she read again, "'I'm sure by the time you get this, Naruto will be home safe and all your worries have not come to pass.'" Her tone changed. "Aw, did you tell on us, Kakashi?"
"Of course he told on us. He's always been a tattle tale," said Asuma.
"Not always. Sometimes I solve my problems by beating the tar out of people who bug me," Kakashi threatened. Frustratingly, he was just laughed at even though he had personally beaten every person at that table into the ground at least once in his career.
'"You do know that your friends are only trying to help you,'" Anko continued reading. "'I hope that Naruto learns lots and comes back with a good'- ha! She's crossed out 'good' and written 'boring ' over the top!" Anko began to laugh so hard that Genma took the letter from her hand to continue it himself.
"'-A boring story to tell you,'" he finished. "'All is well here. There has been some wild weather. I had a patient last night who was tossed off the cliff by the wind and fell thirty feet into the fjord. He only survived because he was very drunk, and because his friends managed to fish him out and bring him into the hospital wing of the outpost.'"
Genma was interrupted by a theatrical snore. Anko, recovered from her laughing fit, was now miming sleep. "Boring!" she declared, popping up again. "Gimme." Genma surrendered the letter easily and she looked down the page. "Okay, patient story, patient story, moved to new quarters, got a new uniform, blah, blah, blah - oh! Here we go! 'I've been thinking about you a lot.'"
"Ooooooh," said the rest of the table in unison.
"Okay, give me my letter back now," Kakashi said, trying to sound stern enough to not give away how his heart rate had skyrocketed. This was starting to sound like the sort of thing he'd really much prefer to keep private. The joke was suddenly changing from annoying to genuinely threatening. Naturally, Anko ignored him.
"'I was wondering if you really meant it when you wrote that you would like to see me if I was ever in town? I have some leave coming up and I thought I might come back to Konoha for a visit.'"
"I can't believe that Kakashi has a penpal girlfriend!" Asuma exclaimed.
"It is Most Unjust for you to keep this a Secret, My Rival," added Gai, who was enjoying this just as much as everyone else. Kakashi glared at him.
"She's not my girlfriend. We're friends. I'm friends with Kurenai, too."
"I don't appreciate the tone in which you said that," Kurenai said primly. "Have some more alcohol and be a good sport."
Kakashi grumbled but he did accept the half-finished beer that Genma handed him.
"'Don't be afraid to tell me if you'd rather I not,'" Anko continued to read. "'But I'd love to see you in person and get to know Naruto a little better. Write soon. Rin' - wait, Rin?" she blurted. "Your mystery sweetheart is Rin?"
"She's not my sweetheart," Kakashi said again. "We were teammates. We are now friends. Can I have my letter back now?"
"Do we need another intervention?" Genma asked, and it was toned very much like a threat. Kakashi growled.
"Rin made a mistake last time she was in town. She over-reacted but her priorities were in line with my own. She just wanted to protect Naruto."
"Holy shit, he is in love," complained Asuma. "Fuck. Kakashi-wrangling just got like twenty times harder."
"I don't need to be wrangled," Kakashi protested. Asuma just waved like he was shooing the words away. He dug in his pocket for his cigarettes and pulled one out of the pack to light up. "You're all making more of this than you should," Kakashi tried, thoroughly exasperated with the extended and varied over-reaction. "Rin was your friend, too, remember?"
"...Good point," said Kurenai, who had spent many mornings arranging flowers and trading hair care tips with Rin in her youth.
"Perhaps we too should Reconnect with our Comrade?" Gai suggested. "If My Rival Kakashi has taken it upon himself to extend the Youthful Hand of Friendship, we should Follow Suit."
"Hey, good idea, Gai," said Anko, sitting up straighter. "When she comes to town, we're having a class reunion dinner." She levelled a finger at Kakashi. "You bring her to see us. We'll make... friends."
Kakashi dropped his face to rest on the table. A delighted puppy rushed across the table to lick his exposed ear. "Someone get me another beer," he ordered his impossible friends. Honestly, whose bright idea was it to have friends?
The ruined Hyuuga Compound was bustling with noise and movement. It was likely more activity than those serene acres had ever known. Buildings were being gutted to the barest salvageable bits and scaffolding was going up all over the place. Builders and bricklayers and stone masons and tilers and electricians scrambled all over the site, busily following the plans that Hiashi and the Clan Elders had finally signed off on. Rebuilding had begun.
Picking their way through the worksite of their old to new home was a tall, imposing figure in white followed by a smaller figure in cream. Hiashi paused frequently to inspect some work or another. Neji trailed a few feet behind, deep in stubborn teenage boredom. He didn't know why his uncle had brought him along, but it was monotonous and frustrating.
"Neji," Hiashi said. Neji hurried to catch up to his guardian.
Hiashi nodded towards a wooden frame. "You might not recognise it, but this is to become our new family home," he said. "We are in the master bedroom right now. Off to that side will be the girl's rooms, and your room will be down to the left. What do you think?"
"Of the construction," Hiashi clarified. "What do you think?"
Neji gave him an alarmed look, but duly turned his gaze to studying the wooden framework. "It looks solid, Uncle. The work is good, it will stand for a long time to come. But-"
"If you were to offset the jibbing - so that they alternated, it would mean that the wall to each room stood alone, with several millimetres of space between them."
"Oh? And what would that achieve?" Hiashi asked. Neji lifted his head, clearly deciding to stay the course despite his nerves.
"It would leave a layer of air as insulation. It would... it would soundproof the house, for very little extra cost."
When Neji chanced a look at his uncle's face, he found the almost unheard of sight of a slow smile spreading across Hiashi's face. Just a small one, but it was there.
"What a wonderful notion," he said, and the proud look in his eyes was enough to kindle something beneath Neji's sternum. They continued their pilgrimage in silence. Again, it was Hiashi who broke it.
"I hear from Hinata that you have recently completed a mixed-team C-rank," he said. Neji's face didn't change. He nodded.
"Yes, Uncle. Uchiha Sasuke-san was assigned to our squad."
"And the mission was a success?" Honestly, it was like pulling teeth getting Neji to open up. The boy tipped one shoulder up half an inch before the muscles in his back tensed to suppress the motion. Hiashi didn't respond, which was as good as a congratulations - he was forever scolding his children not to resort to such vulgar means of communicating their thoughts.
"The mission was completed successfully," Neji said carefully. "There were some interpersonal issues that made us an ineffective team in itself, despite that outcome."
"Yes, clashes like that can make things difficult," Hiashi agreed. He hopped over a pile of plasterboard in a graceful two-point bound and waited for Neji to clamber over himself.
"And Sasuke-kun? What did you think of him?" he prompted as his nephew scaled the plasterboard and slid down the other side without causing it to collapse.
"He is a fine shinobi." Neji could have been reading a script verbatim for all the expression in his voice. "He is skilled and intelligent, and shows both autonomy and ingenuity."
"He does," Hiashi agreed. "Not unlike yourself in that regard. I rather wondered if the two of you would rub each other the wrong way."
Neji didn't look very happy with the news that his uncle found himself and the bratty tag along kid similar.
"He has no manners," he complained. "And no interest in cohesive teamwork. He's talented, but a liability in the field."
"Yes. Sasuke-kun's troubles are well-known," Hiashi agreed. He reached out to pet a peach tree that had mostly survived, but would be uprooted to make way for a new footpath. Then he indicated to his shadow that they were to scale the scaffolding surrounding one of the new buildings so they could inspect the progress being made on the roof.
"He is - inconsolable, sir. And very driven," Neji said.
"Hm. And this troubles you?"
Neji was quiet, looking at his feet as they picked their way across scaffolding. Hiashi watched him, wondering if his nephew would admit to noticing parallels between the Uchiha boy and himself. He chose not to notice the dirty smudges that were appearing on Neji's pale clothing as they progressed through the construction site.
"I believe that the path Sasuke-kun has chosen will lead only to suffering," Neji said at length, and Hiashi inclined his head.
"It is very likely," he said. "What ought Sasuke-kun do instead? What would you council him, were you in his confidence?"
"To... accept his situation, and make peace with it?"
That was a guess, and a question. The child was fishing for the answer his uncle wanted. Hiashi folded his hands before him, letting his muslin robe fall over them in a graceful cascade. It was still a pristine white, no trace of the dust and grime surrounding them. "Would you accept such advice, in Sasuke-kun's position?" he asked dryly. "Would you consider it good advice?"
"No, sir," Neji admitted quietly. "I don't think I would."
"And perhaps quite rightly so. Such loss, such betrayal, is hard to simply accept. There must be restitution for great wrongs."
"So he should let hatred fester?" Neji asked. "And fix himself on the pursuit of revenge?"
They were no longer discussing Uchiha Sasuke, if they ever really had been. Hiashi considered his answer carefully. "I think that such a path cannot lead to fulfilment. As you yourself have already observed," he said. "However, I do think that the emotions must be addressed in the end. How, is hard to say." He paused, letting the heavy moment rest on his heart for a few moments, then continued. "Neji, you too have known great loss, and the weight of a clan," he said. "You and Sasuke-kun have much in common. But you have a great many advantages that Sasuke-kun does not. You still have the love and support of your family, even if your father is no longer with us. And I will protect and shelter you as long as I live."
Neji was looking at him with wide eyes. Hiashi put a hand on his shoulder.
"Try to be kind to Sasuke-kun," he said. "His burden is heavier than yours, and there are forces at work that neither of you understand."
"Come on, let's get some food. My treat!" Naruto said. The others eyed him suspiciously.
"Where did you suddenly get funds from?" Sasuke asked. Naruto grinned and held up a slender brown rectangle.
"I stole Dad's wallet when he took off his pouch during training today. Just because I could."
"You cheeky little brat!" exclaimed Sakura with absolute affection. "Let's try the barbecue place Ino's team always goes to!"
"Haven't we already done a team meal there?" Naruto wondered, but pointed his feet towards the restaurant anyway. Sakura pointedly didn't answer.
"You're different," Sasuke said. He was looking at Sakura like he couldn't quite figure her out. Like she was an ornamental box on the mantle he'd ignored his whole life, only to suddenly realise it had a hidden compartment built in. Sakura met his eyes and only blushed a little.
"On the mission," she said, "the C-rank on Kurenai-sensei's team, she was... amazing. I've never seen anything like that before, not from a woman. And she's so pretty and confident and - I froze up, when we were attacked by the bandits. Kurenai-sensei saved me. When the battle was over, she started to shout at me. I've never seen her so angry! And she said - she said if I wanted to be a kunoichi, I had better learn to be a good one before I got myself and my team killed."
"That's pretty harsh," Naruto mused. Sasuke didn't say anything. He understood, in a way that the younger boy didn't yet. Sakura had been rattled as he had been, shown every inch of her limitations and dared to improve them.
"I think she was just trying to give me a bit of a wake up call," Sakura was saying to Naruto, shrugging. "She wasn't being nasty for the sake of it. And it made me think - I'd never be able to live with myself if I got you or Sasuke-kun killed... so I need to get better." Her eyes slid back to Sasuke. "Besides, Kurenai-sensei said that you might like me better if I was less of a burden. She told me to become a rival, if I can."
Sasuke raised an eyebrow. He privately doubted Sakura's ability to ever get to a level where he might be able to consider her a rival. On the other hand, it was an admirable goal. Much better than her fawning over him until he couldn't breathe, anyway.
"Hey - look over there." Naruto broke through his thoughts by gesturing at a little cluster of people off to the right, nearly twenty feet away. It was a group of ninja. They were kids, dressed strangely and looking very out of place standing on the corner of a crossroad beneath a large tree. They had the look of a genin team about them: one blonde girl, a boy in black with a large pack strapped to him, and a short redhead with a mean expression.
"They're from Suna," Sakura reported, her sharp eyes picking up the symbols on their clothing. "Here for the exam, I bet."
"Do you think they're lost?" Naruto asked. They did look pretty scared. He took a step towards them only to find his way suddenly blocked by his teammate.
"Come on, let's go," Sasuke said. He gripped Naruto's elbow and tugged, pulling him along. "They'll find their way. Stay away from those people, Naruto. They're foreigners."
"Sakura said they're from Suna," Naruto protested, struggling against he hold. "Suna are our allies."
"Don't trust that," Sasuke said, glaring at Sakura. "You shouldn't tell the kid stuff like that when he doesn't understand! And you," to Naruto, "make sure you stay away from the foreign teams! Especially the ones who look half-unhinged!"
"Sasuke-kun is right, Naruto," Sakura put in, looking sheepishly at her crush. "I didn't think. We - that is, Konoha - has all sorts of alliances and treaties with other villages, but it doesn't mean much. Not when there's something to be gained by double-crossing. They'd betray us in a heartbeat."
"So use that brain I know you have," Sasuke growled, rapping his knuckles hard against Naruto's skull. "If you can do algebra you can remember the basics of stranger danger. Or do I need to dump you in the first year academy class for a refresher?"
"Ow! Stop that, you jerk!" Naruto said, managing to squirm his way to freedom and jumping up to walk along the top of a handy fence, out of range. He rubbed his sore head resentfully. "You don't have to be mean, you know, Sasuke. We'd still love you if you were nice."
Sasuke missed a step and stumbled, causing Sakura to try and help him, causing Sasuke to scowl and go pink, causing Naruto to laugh.
"I think it's turning my dad grey, all the stress from having so many strangers in the village," he said, offering a new topic before Sasuke stormed off in a huff of bruised pride. He flipped himself off the fence, landing easily on his feet. Sakura giggled, and he grinned at her. "He says the colour is my fault, but I think he's just a nervous personality," he added, fishing. That got even Sasuke to smirk.
"Maybe we added a few," Sakura suggested. "Because now he has three of us to worry over."
Sasuke snorted. "If you think our teacher wastes a single one of his worries on us you're dreaming, Sakura," he said. "He spends them all on the brat."
"That's not my fault," Naruto complained.
"Sure it is," said Sasuke in a mocking tone. "You're daddy's little boy."
Naruto shouted at him in wordless outrage, Sakura laughed, and the next moment the team were racing together down the street. The strange Suna team was completely forgotten.
Finally, the day of the exam actually arrived. Team Seven met as usual by the red bridge, each feeling pretty put out by the lack of examination in their immediate future. So when Kakashi turned up and almost immediately dismissed them, it was a delightful surprise.
"Go and check out the pre-exam jitters," Kakashi had said. "Meet back here at ten-thirty, when they've all gone inside to sit the written test. We're going to be covering reconnaissance and information gathering, so make sure you keep your eyes open at the Academy. I'm going to ask you some questions."
The genin had run all the way to the building where the exam was to be held, only to come to a stop in the middle of the play yard. There were so many people milling around. Really, it was pretty exciting.
"Ugh, look at those guys from Grass," Sakura said in an undertone, and Naruto obligingly looked around until he spotted them.
"Pretty creepy," he agreed. "But I bet we could take 'em!"
"No, no," Sakura said. "Look at their clothes. Is that really the fashion there? How do they move?"
...What? Naruto glanced at Sasuke just in time to see Sasuke glancing at him. The two shared an unexpected moment of camaraderie in the form of male bewilderment.
"Why do you care?" Sasuke demanded. Sakura shrugged.
"I don't, I guess. I'm just judging them for their life choices," she said, grinning. "But seriously, sleeves falling over their hands? Not exactly practical shinobi wear."
"Said the girl wearing the pink dress."
"At least I'm not going to trip over my clothes when I do a high kick."
"Hey, I've seen you fall on your face doing high kicks before. Might wanna keep the fact that you didn't need your clothes to trip you to yourself," Sasuke said, crossing his arms.
"Rude." Sakura pouted at him.
Twin1: Send me your suggestions for the chuunin exam! No promises but it could be really fun. Let's pool your combined creativity!