A/N: I've also posted another accompanying one-shot titled Scattered Leaf Piles: Darkness & Betrayal. It's a side story fitting with chapters 11 & 12. It was complicated and hard to write because of the dark subject matter, so I wasn't able to get it out at the same time I published those chapters. It's basically my version of the original Mizuki incident and how it shaped Naruto for this story.
Anyway, enough of my yammering and on with the story!
Night passes uneventfully on the mountainside for Kakashi and Naruto, which is a refreshing change. Rarely are they in a secure location with the freedom from keeping their guard up all the time.
Neither speaks much. Naruto periodically applies a towel soaked in the cold stream water to the swelling around her nose. Meanwhile, Kakashi contentedly sits in silence. Both simply enjoy the other's company until they turn in for the night.
With her head elevated Naruto sleeps solidly, only waking up once to her own snoring. Feeling the blockage weighing heavily in her sinuses behind her nose she sits up and reaches for her makeshift spittoon, which is an old plastic container with a lid. With a prolonged snort followed by the usual coughing fit she dislodges the gooey mass into the container.
Closing the container and setting it aside she isn't surprised to feel the blood begin to flow over her upper lip. Tsunade warned she'd keep getting periodic nosebleeds because of all the inflamed sinus tissue. She assured Naruto that as long as the bleeding stopped within a reasonable amount of time there was nothing to worry about.
"Need help stopping the bleeding?" Kakashi's voice pierces the pitch darkness.
"Nah," she mumbles around the kerchief pinched over her nose. "Sorry for waking you."
"Wasn't too bad. Just uncomfortable."
"All right," he acquiesces, allowing the silence to stretch out again.
A few minutes later Naruto pulls the kerchief away from her nose. When she doesn't feel any more blood oozing out, she lies back down. Getting comfortable she closes her eyes and drifts back to sleep.
Kakashi rouses early the next morning thanks to the mildly diffused sunshine burning brightly through the canvas. Angling his head he looks over to Naruto. Easing into a sitting position he shifts closer to examine her. Satisfied she's resting comfortably he eases out of his bedroll and slips out of the tent.
Gazing into the red hued sky of early morning, he determines there will be a storm later. Sighing in acceptance he walks over to the dormant fire and makes something to eat while mentally planning his preparations.
After eating he cleans up and checks on Naruto. Seeing she's still dead to the world he smiles and backs out of the tent, heading toward the pile of dead trees he noted last night. Getting to work he cuts plenty of firewood, storing it within scrolls.
It isn't even mid morning when he finishes. He considers sitting back and reading, but opts to wander the clearing instead.
It's definitely a nice, secure refuge with plenty of space for developing and practicing jutsu. Exploring the mountainside he finds several well-hidden cave entrances. If the openings are big enough, he only ventures in a few steps before exiting.
Once his curiosity is sufficiently satisfied, he eventually settles back against one of the trees near the tent to read while waiting for Naruto to get up. He understands why Naruto wanted to keep this place a secret. Admittedly it's very relaxing and if he had found it first, he would've been just as reluctant to share it.
Naruto doesn't emerge from the tent to squint up at the sun until noon. Frowning, she wanders over to join Kakashi by the campfire.
"Sleep well?" he asks while continuing to prepare lunch.
"Too well, apparently," she grouses, settling against the log. "Why didn't you wake me?"
"You obviously needed the sleep," he shrugs. "You didn't get much the night before. Besides, it's not like we have any pressing engagements. We are hiding out after all."
"True," Naruto agrees grudgingly before adding, "But I could've been doing something more constructive than sleeping half the day away."
"Like what, train? A little out of the question since you're still healing from a broken nose and hypothermia."
Naruto opens her mouth to retort, but closes it. There really isn't anything more constructive she could be doing. Still feeling tired she drops the topic and settles for watching Kakashi instead.
"So what've you been up to all morning?" she asks several minutes later while they eat.
"Exploring," he replies. "I found a few cave entrances. A couple are large enough to enter."
"Yeah, I know about those. Cool, huh?"
"Interesting enough to encourage exploration," he agrees. "Have you explored them before?"
"A little," she shrugs. "My demonic pain in the ass warned me not to poke around too much 'cause they're too dark and treacherous to explore alone without the right skill or equipment."
"The fox knows?" Kakashi asks, gaping at her in surprise.
His former student nods. "I asked about them on a previous visit. This is after we actually started talking instead of threatening each other," she quips. "Anyway, she said this mountain used to be one of her lairs."
Naruto stops to frown at Kakashi. "Yeah, well, I think so, anyway."
"I understood chakra demons are genderless," he points out, arching a brow.
"How the fuck do I know?" Naruto snaps. "I'm a girl, so I assume it's a girl. And who the fuck cares? I'm not going to try flipping her over to check and I'm not going to ask."
"It's not important, but you've only referred to the fox as 'it' or something gender neutral. This is the first time I've heard you refer to it as a 'she'."
Naruto blinks in surprise before scowling. "Okay, so I'm referring to the walking rug as a girl now. Whatever. So do you want to hear about the caves or what?" she asks peevishly.
Kakashi briefly closes his eye and angles his head in acquiescence, silently encouraging her to continue.
"Anyways," she huffs, "Her main den is located several kilometers away toward Suna near River Country, but she also had several smaller ones scattered throughout her territory. In fact, this clearing used to be a cave. The passage that leads deeper into the mountain used to be where the stream emerges from that small cavern. It just got blocked up by tons of debris when it collapsed and created the waterfall at the mouth of the stream," she explains, pointing over to the other side of the clearing.
Fascinated Kakashi states, "I never heard of an earthquake collapsing a cave like this."
"It wasn't an earthquake," Naruto shakes her head. "It collapsed during a battle the Kyuubi fought against another demon encroaching on her territory, a badger, I think. Kyuubi dodged one of the badger's attacks and it hit the mountain, pretty much blowing away most of the face and causing the cave to collapse."
Gesturing to the cliff above them she points at a row of horizontally striped indentations. "Those were caused by one of her claws when she braced for a counter attack."
Naruto then points to the pool beneath the cavern opening and waterfall. "That pool is really another paw indentation."
"Sounds like one hell of a battle," Kakashi muses.
"It really changed the landscape," she agrees. "Kyuubi says there were at least two other mountains that used to be a part of this range, but they were obliterated in the fight. Two underground rivers surfaced and merge into one, which eventually resulted in that really deep gorge bordering the far side of Konoha."
"When did all this happen?"
Naruto shrugs. "The walking flea circus doesn't live by a calendar. She knows it was long before the first humans set foot on this continent. She just cares about remembering the battle itself, which she obviously won."
"Obviously," Kakashi deadpans. "That's all most victors care about anyway."
"Yep, but it isn't just the Kyuubi bragging. It had to be a pretty spectacular fight to change the landscape so dramatically."
Kakashi considers her words before another thought occurs to him. "How did you find this place? Did the Kyuubi tell you about it?"
Naruto shakes her head. "Found it by accident on my eighth birthday. I was doing my usual birthday ritual, 'Drunk Dodge.' It was only a handful of drunks that year, which probably was because of how hard the Third came down on the group that tried barbequing me the year before."
She pauses to shift and set her plate aside before settling back in to continue her story.
"Anyway, I couldn't stay hidden inside my place because it had been trashed and all the locks were busted. Didn't have anywhere else to go so I went to hide in the forest. Unfortunately I was being tracked by two shinobi who were pretty good. I'd never been to this part of the forest before. Well," she admits sheepishly, "I'd never been that deep into it before, so in reality I was lost."
"It was late afternoon when I found the waterfall and saw the boulder. Thought it might be a good hiding place. When I crossed the stream to check it out I looked over at the waterfall and noticed the little alcove. I heard the drunks approaching, so I gave it a shot and hid in there."
Feeling like her nose is dripping, Naruto pauses again to check for blood. Seeing none, she continues.
"I could barely make them out through the water and was relieved to realize they couldn't see me. The alcove was shadowed and if I didn't move they weren't going to. I got bored waiting while they moved off. I looked around and up and that's when I noticed there might be an opening because the shadows got lighter than the rest of the alcove. I climbed up and that's how found this place."
Looking around she smiles fondly. "It didn't take long to figure out how secure it was and I spent the night here. At that point it was the best birthday I ever had and claimed this place as my own. A present to myself."
Recognizing another chance to get her talking, he asks, "Is this where you runaway from the world?"
"No," Naruto frowns. "It's just my private oasis. Who'd want to share such a cool place?"
"If Iruka or anyone else can't find you, you hide here, don't you?" he pushes.
"I'm not hiding anymore than you do at the memorial stone," she snaps.
A tense silence falls between them, neither knowing what to say next. Kakashi's face reveals nothing as he rises to his feet and collects their dirty dishes.
"There are a couple of things I have to do before the storm hits. Stay by the fire and rest," he orders, starting to walk away.
Realizing she has gone too far, Naruto takes a deep breath. "I'm not criticizing your visits to the stone, Kakashi."
Without turning around he stops to listen.
"You don't go to the stone to wallow in the past," she muses, staring into the fire. "You go to regain your equilibrium. That's what I do here. Both serve the same purpose, but for different reasons."
She's not surprised when he walks away.
When the afternoon shadows lengthened considerably Kakashi returns to the now solitary fire pit. After checking the tent he scans the immediate area with no success. Naruto hadn't left since he spent the past couple of hours chopping more firewood in the vicinity of the clearing entrance. He would've felt her leave.
Wandering, he searches more intensively and finds her where the small waterfall flows out of the mountain. She's perched on a flat boulder, her shoulder leaning against the rock framing the waterfall. Her legs are folded and slightly tucked up underneath her as she dozes in the waning sunlight. Her left hand rests palm up next to her, loosely holding a washcloth.
Mesmerized, Kakashi watches her for several minutes. Reaching out, he almost touches her cheek before dropping it to her shoulder and gently shakes her awake.
Rousing, bleary blue eyes glance around in a daze before focusing on him. Smiling softly, she stifles a yawn.
"Sorry for dozing off."
"You need the rest," he gently chides, easing down to sit next to her. "I wouldn't have woken you except it's getting late and growing colder. It's better if you stay close to the fire."
"Okay," she nods. "I'll move in a bit. I'm too comfortable right now and probably won't get to sit here after the storm hits later tonight."
"It's a nice relaxing spot," he comments, listening to the soothing rush of the waterfall.
Nodding again, Naruto watches the water for a few minutes before breaking the silence.
"I don't come up here as often as I'd like, but I've managed enough times to make it worthwhile."
Falling silent again, she inwardly debates with herself before deciding to broach the topic that sparked their spat earlier.
"I don't come here to runaway from my problems, only to get temporary relief and have space to think."
Without looking, she senses Kakashi's confusion and decides to share more.
"Here I can be myself," she explains, still gazing into the rushing waters. "I don't have to pretend to be happy and harmless. I don't have to worry about upsetting anyone or scaring them because I'm moody. I have the space and solitude to work out my thoughts without keeping my guard up against someone drawing the wrong conclusion and deciding the demon's taking over."
"Your friends don't treat you that way," Kakashi comments.
Looking sidelong at him, Naruto softly snorts, "They're the worst sometimes."
At his confused expression, she sighs in exasperation. "Everyone holds me to a different standard, Kakashi. Even if they bother asking why I'm upset, they're quick to say I'm blowing things out of proportion. As much as I've grown and matured since graduating, no one sees me as anything but a goofy, clumsy baka."
"Iruka doesn't treat you that way," Kakashi points out reasonably.
Naruto agrees, "Yeah, he's always been the exception."
"Why do you hold out on him then?" he arches a brow, pinning her with his gaze.
"Because I dump on him too much," she muses softly, letting her gaze drift back to the water. "He's got his own life to live without my shit piling on top and getting in his way."
"That's not how Iruka sees it."
"No," she nods, meeting his gaze again, "but he tries to fix things that can't be fixed and feels guilty when he can't make things better for me. He deserves better. And since nothing changes, there's no point in constantly bitching about it." Naruto pauses to let her gaze wander around the clearing. "Here I can work through all that shit without having to keep holding it in and bothering anyone else with it. Here I actually feel free."
Kakashi stares at her, struggling to understand.
Glancing over, she notices his expression and rolls her eyes. "C'mon, you don't actually think I'm free in the village, do you?" Blowing out a breath of frustration at his incredulous look she explains, "The rules are different for me because I'm the Jinchuriki. I have to watch what I say and do or someone will jump to the wrong conclusion. I can't go where I want 'cause there are still shops and restaurants I can't set foot in. I can't live where I want either, which is why I lived in the same dump for years before someone finally succeeded in forcing me out."
"You have the income to afford to live anywhere you want to," he points out nonplussed.
"So?" she challenges. "I couldn't even get a unit in your building last year. Hell, I'm surprised the landlord hasn't been giving you shit over me living with you because he told me to never come back again."
"What?" Kakashi asks in shock.
"Ask your dumbass landlord," Naruto huffs irritably. "He'll probably give you a colorful commentary regarding me living with you now. He mutters crap under his breath every time he sees me. Oh, and on top of not being able to do, say or go where I want, I can't even disappear up here for a couple of days when I need to anymore. Unlike the Old Man, Baa-chan panics if I'm missing longer than 24 hours."
"Tsunade isn't that bad," he rolls his eyes.
"Wanna bet?" she arches a brow at him. "Baa-chan won't even allow me to take a vacation anywhere outside the village. The only reason we're even here now is because you're with me, otherwise she would've let me suffer through all the idiot bettors while doing jack shit about it."
Seeing the disbelief in his eye Naruto groans and gently wipes her face with both hands in exasperation.
"Alright, here's an example," she states, dropping her hands, she shifts to lean her back against the rock, crossing her legs to sit lotus style. "When I got back from training with Ero-sennin, Ino thought it'd be fun if all the rookies went on a vacation together. Nothing fancy, just a weekend stay at an onsen in Rice Country. Baa-chan flat out refused to let me go even with the added assurance of having Neji there, who was a jounin by then. We even got Ero-sennin to agree to go. Not that it was hard to convince him," she rolls her eyes, "but anyway, Baa-chan still wouldn't let me go. Said it was too dangerous because of the Akatsuki. She then got Ero-sennin to change his mind and side with her."
Crossing her arms, she sullenly looks off to the side back at the waterfall, quietly stating, "There was no point in bothering to fight for it anymore. So, the others took off for a fun filled weekend and I got to stay and help Shizune with the ever-important task of cleaning up and organizing the Hokage's private library."
Angling her head to look back sidelong at Kakashi Naruto notices his arched brow. "Baa-chan insisted it had to be done that weekend," she explains sardonically. "Obviously her not so subtle way to make sure I didn't defy orders and go with the others. Funny, she has no problem with sending me on month long, solo missions into enemy territory, but it's too dangerous for me to take off to an onsen for the weekend. So, in ten years of being a shinobi I've never had a vacation and, by the looks of things, never will."
"Speaking of being a shinobi," the redhead continues, not giving him a chance to reply. "That's something else I didn't have a say in. Yeah, I love being a kunoichi, but I never had a choice. So, after all that, how can you or anyone else say I'm free? Especially when no one else has to keep all this crap in mind?"
She watches the gears spin in her former sensei's head while struggling for an answer.
"Those are questions without answers, y'know," she points out, holding his gaze. "I'm just saying that you can't claim things aren't different for me."
A soft smile graces her lips as her gaze drifts past him to the clearing.
"That's why I'm so selfish about this place. It's even better than going to the hot springs because no one else knows about it, I never have to worry about crowds and don't have to worry about upsetting someone just because I'm there defiling the waters." Her smile turns mischievous as she adds, "As a joke I christened it 'Naruto's Demon Lair' to make fun of all the idiots who still can't see me from the Kyuubi."
Still not meeting his gaze she shrugs, "And none of it's a big deal. I've had this place to think and figure out why things are the way they are. And understanding everyone else's perspective, right or wrong, makes it easier to live this life."
Climbing to her feet Naruto dusts herself off, adding, "I learned from Gaara things could've been a lot worse and I accept the simple truth that the day the Kyuubi was imprisoned is the same day I was too." Grinning at Kakashi, she declares, "I'm hungry. It's probably a good idea to get started on dinner early since the clouds are rolling in."
"Okay," he agrees, climbing to his feet. Knowing this is all he'll get out of her, he decides not to push it.
As they walk back over to the campfire he muses Naruto shared a lot more than he expected.
Instead of dwelling on what she shared, he focuses on making dinner and the final preparations for the storm. He calculates they'll start seeing a change in the weather later tonight, but the actual storm won't hit until early morning. The drop in barometric pressure probably will cause Naruto some discomfort because of her damaged sinuses he wants everything done so he can take care of her.
The steady afternoon breeze morphs into a strong wind after nightfall, prompting the two jounin to turn in early. Naruto falls asleep immediately once she settles in her bedroll.
Kakashi lies awake for a long time, listening to her soft snores and thinking about what she told him earlier.
His initial urge was to deny her statements. Her stubbornness and strict belief to follow her own nindo, by all appearances, stand in direct contrast. However, once she laid it all out there's no denying the truth and he's been just as complicit in making her hide her true self.
Like everyone else he believed Naruto's life in Konoha as a Jinchuriki was much better than other containers.
And to a certain extent it was true.
However, upon closer inspection the truth is far uglier. He of all people should've realized the truth much sooner because he can appreciate her experiences far better than anyone else.
People often described Sasuke as being similar to him, but Kakashi never really saw much of himself in the Uchiha. True, when he was younger he was just as broody. Both had to contend with living in someone else's shadow for most of their lives and both lost their family.
Kakashi accepted others considered him a genius and knew he was exceptional at a young age, but he never arrogantly dwelled on it or rubbed it in people's faces. He worked hard to prove himself to his comrades and earned every acknowledgement he got.
On the other hand, everyone knew exactly who Sasuke was. Many mistakenly considered him a prodigy like Itachi when his skills didn't come close. He was never without his family crest prominently displayed and ignored anyone he felt was inferior to his station, which included nearly everyone.
The most significant difference between himself and his former student is that he never would've betrayed the village and his comrades for power and vengeance. Like Sasuke, he had plenty of reasons to chose that path, but he never stooped that low.
Sakura was easy to understand and the one he worried about most. She was far too focused on capturing the heart of her Sasuke-kun as opposed to exploring her great potential and improving as a kunoichi. She failed to realize how much danger she was putting herself in by not preparing properly for the field. Instead of being a shining example that exceptional shinobi can be culled from civilians she was more a reason not to train civilians as shinobi.
Fortunately, Sasuke's defection and Naruto's dedication to improving her skills ultimately inspired Sakura to work on improving herself, making her a formidable kunoichi.
Shifting onto his side as the wind batters the tent walls, Kakashi can't help being irritated with himself. Out of all his students, he can relate to and understand Naruto the best because, ironically, she's the most similar to him.
He never worried about Naruto. She understood what it meant to be a shinobi and was eager to learn and improve, devoting herself to becoming as strong as possible. Like him, she struggled to get acknowledged, but without the benefit of being a prodigy.
As a result, both led very solitary childhoods, albeit for very different reasons. By shinobi standards he was far too young and she contained a demon. Yet she's the one who suffered more than the rest of her team combined and all alone.
Staring into the pitch-blackness, Kakashi feels stupid for never realizing how easy, and justified, Naruto would've been in destroying the village. He's always been aware she walked a very fine line between protecting the village and destroying it. He's amazed she managed to keep from crossing that line into darkness and at how loving and caring she's become. No one showed her the compassion she's known for; she'd learned that all on her own.
Shifting again onto his back, Kakashi stares up toward the ceiling. He's ashamed of himself for all the times he was surprised by her insight and ignorantly restricted it to people who were ostracized and isolated like she was. Her empathy is far more flexible than that. Then there were those times where he scolded or criticized her for behavior he let slide in his other students.
He's also angry on her behalf. As the container of a very old and powerful demon it's expected people would fear and shun Naruto for it. It would've been difficult for anyone old enough to remember that night to simply accept such a destructive and terrifying force was securely contained in an infant.
However, it was up to those who understood and believed in the Yondaime to set the example and demonstrate Naruto was still a child like any other.
As their hero, Naruto deserves so much better. Yet, despite all that she still turned out to be a much greater human being than they had any right to expect.
Kakashi isn't sure when he finally fell asleep, but wakes when he hears Naruto moving around. The temperature is significantly colder. The wind outside still rages, but he's sure it hasn't begun snowing yet.
"Are you all right?"
All movement stops. "Sorry for waking you," her voice drifts from the darkness. "I was grabbing a scarf because the cold is bothering me."
Knowing she always had trouble dealing with the cold, and not just because of the hypothermia, Kakashi asks, "Are the blankets keeping you warm enough?"
The sound of wind and rustling canvas fills the pause before she hesitantly admits, "Not really. I'm having trouble warming up."
Reaching out, Kakashi turns on the chakra lamp and gets up. Grabbing her ANBU cloak he moves to drape it around her shoulders.
"Kakashi! I didn't mean for you to get up!" she protests.
Steering her to sit off to the side, he orders, "Stay put."
"You're making a big deal out of nothing! I'll be fine! I just need to readjust my blankets."
Ignoring her protests, he slides her bedroll next to his and overlaps the blankets. He then guides her back over and pulls her down to lie next to him.
"You can't afford to risk becoming hypothermic again," he explains, forcing her head to rest on his chest while tucking the blankets securely around them. "This is a simple, effective, preventative measure."
"You're going overboard," she huffs irritably.
"Shut up and go to sleep," he orders, reaching over to turn off the lamp.
Reluctantly, she adjusts her scarf so the lower part of her face is loosely covered. Finally she relaxes and wraps an arm across his waist before drifting to sleep listening to the soothing rhythm of his heart.
Wrapping his arms around her, Kakashi buries his nose in her scarf wrapped hair and silently vows to start doing a better job of taking care of her.
The storm blew its course by the time Kakashi wakes the next morning. Glancing down he notes Naruto is still deep in sleep. On missions she's typically a light sleeper, ready to jump into action at moment's notice. However, because of her recent injuries and the fact she knows she's in a secure place she's dead to the world.
He has little difficulty disentangling from her and elevating her head before emerging from the tent into a world of shimmering white. Although the sun was out, judging by the sky they are due for more snow later.
Using a fire jutsu, he clears their campfire pit of snow. The intense flames scorched the ground and the log, but he now can get another fire going.
After breakfast he knocks the snow off the tent and clears the ground surrounding it. Afterward he settles down by the fire to read until Naruto wakes up.
When she emerges from the tent near midday she still has a scarf wrapped around her head, obscuring the lower half of her face and clutches her ANBU cloak tightly around her.
"Morning, Naruto," Kakashi greets, looking up from his cooking.
"Mornin'," she greets back, her voice still thick with sleep. Sitting down against the log she complains, "This is getting ridiculous. I'm getting too used to sleeping late and it's going to be hard getting back on schedule when we go home."
Dishing up a plate he hands it to her before serving himself and settling down next to her.
"It's expected you'd be sleeping late," he finally answers. "In a way, you're on vacation."
Naruto stops eating and stares into the fire, blinking in confusion. Having pulled up his mask again, he watches the realization spread across her face in the form of a pleased smile.
"Yeah, it is kinda like a vacation isn't it?"
"If it weren't for the circumstances that forced us to leave the village, everything about the situation pretty much fits the description of a vacation."
She shrugs as she continues eating. "I'm not greedy. I'll take what I can get and enjoy it for what it is, a chance for a break."
Deciding to change the subject, Kakashi glances up and comments, "Judging the sky, we're in for more snow later."
"Yeah," she agrees, looking up at the sky. "It'll hit earlier than last nights storm, probably after nightfall by the looks of it."
Both fall into a companionable silence as they continue eating.
When they finish, Kakashi gathers their plates, ignoring her glare.
"I don't clean with my nose," she protests waspishly. "At least let me do the dishes."
"No," he replies simply, reaching for the cooking pot.
As he starts to walk toward the stream her voice stops him.
Thinking she's still insisting on helping, he says over his shoulder, "Be a good girl and stay put."
"I know you won't let me help with your happy little homemaker duties," she snaps, earning a glare over his shoulder. "I just want to know if you brought an extra mask."
Blinking in surprise, Kakashi recovers his wits to ask, "If I say 'no' are you planning on destroying my mask to get a peek at my face?"
Leveling a glare Sasuke would be proud of, she growls, "No. You're full of yourself if you think that's one of my ultimate life goals." Before he can retort, her annoyed voice adds, "I want to know if you have an extra one I borrow? It hurts to breathe the cold air through my nose and I can't seem to adjust my scarf right to stay put."
Eyeing her he says, "I do, but it might be a bit loose for you. They're all a little stretched out from use."
Naruto nods, "Yeah, I figured it might because you've got such a big head."
"The extra room is to fit my big, intelligent brain," he replies easily.
She snorts, "More like to accommodate all the hot, empty air."
Glaring at her, he asks, "Do you want the mask or not?"
Smirking at winning this round of wits she airily declares, "If you don't want to lend it to me, that's fine, I'll survive the discomfort of my healing nose. The same injury that seems to keep me from helping out around the camp."
Arching a brow he mutters, "Brat. I'll get it after cleaning up."
A short while later Kakashi returns and hands her the mask. Grateful, she takes it and removes her scarf before carefully slipping the mask over her head. Adjusting it in place over her nose, she proceeds to rewrap the scarf over her head, only this time she doesn't try to cover any portion of her face.
Having settled next to her against the log, he eyes her over the top of his book.
"Looks like it fits pretty well," he comments while silently thinking it looks pretty good on her too.
"It's a little loose, but not by much," she replies. "Which is good since it's not putting any pressure on my nose. I thought the mask must be uncomfortable, but it hardly feels like I have anything on."
"Is it diminishing the effects of the cold air?"
"Yeah, it's much better. Thanks for loaning it to me."
After several minutes of companionable silence she states, "A mask might've come in really handy when I was younger."
Kakashi looks up from his book in confusion.
Noticing, she gestures at her cloth covered cheeks.
Frowning slightly he replies, "A mask may have hid the whisker marks, but your hair color made you a little distinctive in the village."
"I could've dyed my hair brown for a few years. Maybe the Old Man could've moved me to a new place. I might've had fewer problems."
Kakashi stays silent, not knowing how to respond.
Naruto saves him the trouble by shrugging, "Hindsight is 20/20, so there's no point wishing to change things you can't. I should've thought of it sooner. Besides, even if the Old Man allowed me to do all that, he wouldn't have let me change my name and a lot of people would've still known who I was by name alone." Climbing to her feet she states, "I'm going to see if my spot by the waterfall isn't too icy and maybe sit and enjoy the sunshine for a bit."
Staying silent, Kakashi watches her wander off, recognizing this as one of those times she needs to be alone.
Later on he checks on Naruto at the waterfall. Sensing his approach, she turns and he can see her smile through the mask as he settles next to her.
"How are you feeling?"
"Fine," she assures him as she turns her attention back to the frigid waterfall.
Ice coats most of the rocks framing the opening where the water emerges. Some of the more jagged sections situated close to the waters edge sports intriguing mini ice sculptures of deformed icicles, which glisten in the waning sunlight.
After a few minutes of silence he asks, "Are you ready to talk about Genma?"
She turns to gape at him. "That was blunt."
"Don't you prefer me to just get to the point?" he smiles.
"Yeah," she smirks before turning her attention back to the waterfall.
"Well?" he asks after letting the silence to stretch out again.
"Not going to leave it alone are you?" she sighs in annoyance.
"Nope because I know better. If given the opportunity you won't say anything."
Sighing again in resignation she says, "There's really not much to say. We're done. End of story."
Feeling the weight of his steady gaze Naruto turns to meet it then rolls her eyes. Staring back at the water rushing over the rocks, she takes a deep breath.
"I never expected us to last. I didn't love him and Genma didn't love me. There was an attraction and we gave it a go. Didn't take me long to realize the truth. Like all shinobi he lost too much and believed every person he loves will leave, so he deliberately sets up every relationship to fail to avoid the pain."
Closing her eyes briefly, she adds, "I should've jumped ship as soon as I figured him out, but he was hurting and too used to pushing others away that he had no clue what he was doing to himself. But I didn't go in expecting to save and change him for the better." Rolling her eyes she mutters, "Gee, like any woman ever successfully changed a man before. That's a guaranteed relationship killer."
"Usually is," Kakashi smirks.
Turning to look at him, Naruto smirks back before becoming serious again and shaking her head.
"Changing him wasn't my goal. I just wanted to show him that sometimes it's worth the effort to make a relationship work."
Pausing to adjust into a more comfortable position to face Kakashi better Naruto continues, "Genma actively kills his relationships, but the blame is always on the ex." Pinning Kakashi with her gaze, she surprises him when she points out, "Genma has never once broken up with a girlfriend. They always break up with him. It's partly why I refused to break up with him sooner. 'Sides, I'm not a quitter and I wasn't going to make it easy."
"That's probably why he went for the jugular and cheated," she sighs wearily. "It was the only thing guaranteed to make me break up with him. Well, that and beating on me, but he was smart enough not to attempt that one because I would've killed him the second he curled his fist."
"If you didn't, we would've been fighting with each other to do it," Kakashi mutters.
"You guys would've felt cheated because there'd have been nothing left," she smirks with a malicious gleam in her eye. Her expression softens as she adds, "I'm not surprised he cheated. I gave him more credit than he deserved, thinking he wouldn't disrespect me like that. Despite what anyone else thinks, I already accepted it's over between us, but it's Genma who'll suffer in the long run. It's just hard because it went down in the most humiliating way possible."
Kakashi watches Naruto close her eyes. Reaching out he pulls her into a hug, which she gladly accepts. Not breaking from his embrace, she shifts to rest her head on his shoulder before continuing.
"The worst part is what everyone else's reaction will be. I'm not talking about those who are just pissed at Genma for what he pulled. They're just angry on my behalf because they care. I mean those who're gonna harp on what an ass Genma is before saying, 'I told you so!'"
Naruto pauses to take a deep, slow breath before softly adding, "That's why I got so pissed at Shizune. She made it sound like I deserve being humiliated and getting punched in the nose because, as usual, I'm too stupid to know better."
"She didn't mean to be insulting," Kakashi reasons.
Naruto lifts her head to glare, snapping, "She may not have meant that, but it's hard not being insulted when she said maybe I should've broken up with him sooner. Who the hell is she to judge?"
Releasing a harsh breath she rests her head back on his shoulder, muttering, "I know I'm not the sharpest kunai in the pouch. I try to be savvy and street smart, but I learned a lot of things the hard way by myself. I don't ask anyone anything because usually they'll laugh and call me stupid for not knowing in the first place and then don't bother explaining it anyway. I'm not stupid, but everyone thinks I am. So to 'educate' me, they'll repeatedly point out my mistakes so I don't forget."
She falls silent again for a moment before softly adding, "I stayed with Genma for longer than reasonable, but even if no one else gets my reasons, my friends should respect me enough to accept it and leave things alone. It's hard enough standing in a crowded room with shit on my face, but I don't need them rubbing it in."
Raising her eyes to look at Kakashi, she says, "It's not all my friends. Most respect me now and don't dismiss me as the baka anymore, but there's still a couple who slip back into old habits and that, more than anything, stings the worst."
She sighs again, closing her eyes briefly before opening them again to look at her former sensei. "Thanks for everything, Kakashi. And thanks for listening even though I didn't want to talk about it."
Squeezing her shoulders he chuckles, "It was for your own good. You hold too much in."
"You're one to talk," she snorts.
At his glare Naruto arches a brow, "Don't deny it. You're just as bad 'cause there's no way in hell you're gonna convince me you have a confidant you share all your woes with."
Kakashi sighs, "I don't deny it, but I don't want you to end up like me."
"It's hard to share with others when they don't understand and then you get so used to not sharing that it's hard to find the words when you do find someone to share with."
He stares in stunned shock before looking back out at the waterfall while silently admonishing himself for underestimating her insight because he's not giving her enough credit again.
Glancing up at the sky Kakashi judges the weather will start worsening soon.
"Do you regret telling me about your breakup with Genma?"
"No," she admits honestly after thinking about it. "Yeah, I didn't want to talk about it, but it's nice to have someone else besides Iruka to dump on who didn't try scolding or lecturing me about it. It feels good getting it out of my system."
Kakashi squeezes her shoulders again. "You're welcome to dump on me anytime. Maybe it'd be easier if you split it between Iruka and I."
"Maybe," Naruto reluctantly replies.
Deciding to let it go for now he suggests, "Let's have dinner early because the sky is already changing."
"Okay," she agrees, allowing him to help her up before returning to camp with him.
As expected, the kicks up fiercely, howling with the promise of more snow. Kakashi bullies Naruto into sleeping next to him again although she doesn't put up much of a fight.
When Naruto wakes up late the following morning she's not surprised to see she's alone in the tent again. Feeling a lot better than she has in days, she rises and gets ready. Although the damn furball still isn't doing anything to aid in the healing of her nose she feels more relaxed and centered than she has in a while.
Emerging from the tent, keen blue eyes lock on Kakashi sitting and reading by the fire. Taking in all the new snow and the fact he hasn't noticed her yet, an idea pops into her head and a devious smirk slowly spreads across her masked face before she disappears.
Out of nowhere a fistful of compacted snow hurtles with frightening speed towards the blissfully ignorant silver-haired jounin from his blind spot. The hidden redhead silently cackles as the projectile strikes home before mentally cursing when he disappears with a soft 'poof.'
Moving swiftly to a new position she stealthily scans the clearing, keeping out of sight. Searching the area on the opposite side the stream and coming up empty she wonders if he hid in the caves just to annoy her when a faint rumbling sound reaches her ears.
Her eyes widen and she leaps across the stream, making a mad dash toward one of the cave entrances. A firm tug on her ankle is her only warning when she suddenly finds herself neck deep in snow and dirt.
An evilly chuckling Kakashi crouches on his haunches in front of her while casually tossing and catching an ominous looking snowball in one hand.
"Shit," he softly curses when the glaring redhead suddenly disperses into smoke.
Spinning to his feet with the snowball ready he finds himself the target of a barrage of incoming snowballs zooming from all directions.
Leaping out of the way he dodges another onslaught as Naruto emerges to pursue him. Two clones close in from different directions. All three fire on the cornered jounin only to simultaneously growl in irritation when he disappears as soon as the snow hits.
Before any of the triplets can make a move they find themselves in the midst of a fierce snow battle with the great Copy Ninja.
He makes quick work of the clones before facing Naruto. Both silently square off for several minutes, waiting for the other to make a move.
The standoff is disrupted by a surprised shriek coming from the direction of the tent. Kakashi looks over there as "Naruto" 'poofs' out of existence.
Most of the snow weighing down the branches forms a deep pile at the base of a now bare tree. Quickly closing the distance he watches a clearly disgruntled and snow covered Naruto slowly emerge from the newly made snowdrift.
Unable to suppress his chuckles, Kakashi grabs her arm and helps her out.
Amusement colors his voice while he dusts Naruto off. "The object of a snowball fight is to cover your opponent in snow, not yourself."
Naruto grumbles, "Yeah, well, that's true unless the trap you're in the middle of setting up is triggered by a ticked off frog summons annoyed at having to deliver a message in cold weather."
"Summons?" he pauses to ask.
Handing over the scroll, she explains, "It's from Baa-chan."
Eyeing the scroll in his hand for a moment he tucks it into a pocket. "I'll make lunch while you change into dry clothes. Give me the mask so I can hang it out to dry. I've got another you can use. Then we'll deal with Tsunade's message."
Already shivering from the cold, Naruto nods before smirking, "This battle is pretty much a draw. Too bad. It was getting really good."
Ruffling her hair Kakashi smiles back. "Not really. I was toying with you before going in for the kill."
Pulling the mask off and handing it to him she says, "Was not."
"Was not," she immediately calls over her shoulder while walking to the tent.
"Was too," his voice promptly drifts back as moves to the fire.
"Was not!" she snaps indignantly before disappearing inside the tent.
Proceeding to make lunch, he grins at the growl emanating from the tent when he calmly repeats, "Was too."
An hour later after they finish eating Kakashi insists on cleaning up again before opening Tsunade's message.
"The betting pool was effectively squashed," he reveals while his eye scans the note. "So we don't have to worry about any more harassment. Anyone who continues pestering us will be dealt with immediately."
Naruto muses, "Baa-chan probably threatened them with a month long patrol of the cesspools."
Kakashi nods. "She included an encoded message. Sasuke notified her via one of his snake summons that Danzo approached him offering advice and aid. We need to return soon and resume the investigation to maintain appearances as a cover for him." Rolling up the scroll he sighs, "It seems like the pace is starting to pick up."
When he gets no response, he looks over at Naruto who appears lost in thought.
Feeling his gaze, she glances over and smiles. "Sorry for zoning out."
"What are you thinking about?"
"The timing is odd," she admits, chewing her bottom lip thoughtfully. "Granted, Danzo periodically approached Sasuke since his return, but those conversations were random. Like he was feeling the teme out. It's been more than a couple of months since he last approached him, so why now? I can't really explain it, but it doesn't feel right and I'm wondering if he's planning a big move."
Kakashi considers her words before stating, "Nothing stands out to me right now, but we might get more ideas after speaking to Sasuke."
"There's a whole other problem I'm not looking forward to dealing with yet, but there's no avoiding it," she sighs wearily. "Well, at least once we're done with it we can move on."
Kakashi studies her for a few more moments. "Do you feel up to returning today? We don't have to. Tsunade's message didn't imply there was a rush, so we can go back to the village tomorrow if you want."
Naruto thinks about it. "Although I'd love to stay longer, there's really no need for it. I feel a lot better than I have in days and I'm ready to face the world again."
Kakashi nods and rises to his feet to start breaking down camp. Noticing Naruto climbing to her feet he walks back over and places both hands on her shoulders to firmly but gently push her down again.
Glaring she protests, "I felt good enough to engage your sorry ass in a snowball fight! Why won't you let me help break down camp?"
Smiling, he ignores her question and cheerfully states, "My previous threat of hogtying you to the log still stands."
When she growls, he places both hands on his hips while rolling his eye with a sigh, muttering, "Why do you become a workaholic whenever you're injured, but bitch and moan about setting up and breaking down camp any other time?"
Crossing her arms, Naruto sarcastically huffs, "'Cause all those other times you're being lazy and make me do all the work without lifting a finger, saying you're the supervisor, so you're supervising."
Smiling down at her again he reaches out and pats her on the head. "Don't make me add a gag too."
Rolling her eyes she gets up, retorting, "If you're going to be that way I'm going to sit by the waterfall if my spot is ice free."
Kakashi smirks at her retreating back before creating two clones to help him.
A little over an hour later he has everything packed and ready to go. Heading over to the waterfall settles down next to Naruto.
At her questioning look he says, "We're ready to leave anytime."
Nodding her head she then brightens up with a smile and surprises him with a hug.
"Thanks for coming here with me. I didn't want to tell you about it, but it's been really nice sharing it with you." Pulling back slightly her smile turns wistful. "Too bad it's gonna be awhile before I can come back again."
Rubbing her back soothingly Kakashi replies, "We can return in the spring by convincing Tsunade we're both due for an intense training session without interruption. As long as I'm with you, the Old Hag will likely to let you disappear for a few days without question."
Naruto gapes in shock for a moment before a big grin spreads across her face.
"It's a great idea!" Her smile drops as she hesitantly asks, "You don't mind?"
"Of course not," he smiles. "I've never gone on vacation either. Mostly that's because there's never been anywhere I wanted to go," he shrugs indifferently.
"Not to mention you're an incorrigible workaholic," she quips, earning a light cuff on the side of the head.
"I didn't realize it before, but I needed this break too," he admits, gazing around the clearing. "So, if you don't mind sharing, I'll be more than happy to convince the Old Hag to let you out for some breathing room from time to time."
"It's a deal." Glancing up at the sky she adds, "We should probably get going. Looks like more snow is coming later and who knows what the hell else is waiting for us back at the village."
Kakashi nods and helps her to her feet.
Within an hour they slip back into the village just as stealthily as they left and head straight to their apartment. Neither felt the need to see the Hokage and risk drawing attention to the fact they've been gone for three days.
After they finish settling back in, Kakashi summons Pakkun and sends a message to Tsunade notifying her of their return.
When the pug leaves, Naruto comments, "I told Sasuke I wanted to talk to him in a couple of days. Well, it's been a couple of days, so maybe we oughta stop by and pay him a visit tomorrow."
"Sounds like a good idea," he agrees. Scrutinizing her from across the sofa, he suggests, "Maybe you should take a nap before dinner."
Naruto considers it. "Yeah, that sounds like a good idea." Rising to her feet she walks across the living room, saying, "I'll be out to help whether you like it or not."
Kakashi cheerfully states, "The hogtying isn't restricted to logs. It can be applied to any stationary object."
"Now you're being kinky," she pauses in the doorway of the hallway to retort over her shoulder. "We can argue about this when I come back."
As she disappears from sight, Kakashi chuckles as he pulls out 'The art of shattering her world' and stretches out on the sofa to read. Silently he reminds himself again not to torment her too much or she won't lend him this wonderful book again.
A/N: Contrary to appearances, I haven't abandoned this story. Nor have I experienced a horrible writer's block. It's simply a case of having the time and inclination.
Simply put, if my muses aren't cooperating, my chapters turn out incredibly shitty.
Thank you very much to all my reviewers and readers. I also want to thank those who've put my stories into their communities, who favorited and are following me.
It's great to know that so many are enjoying this as much as I enjoy writing this story. I do wish I could crank out the chapters more quickly, but I'd rather take the time to do it right than to give you guys crap.
I will do my best to update a hell of a lot sooner than this chapter came out.
As always, please feel free to review and let me know what you guys think.