Disclaimer: I don't own anything. I'm just a sorry little proletarian.
A/N: This story is AU at this point. Zetsu and Tobi will be what I had imagined them to be before recent canon. New jutsus will be introduced. Some characters will be stronger than their current canon feats suggest. And so on. Just warning you to avoid the "but Naruto can't use this or that jutsu while in Nine Tails Chakra Mode, and Tobi is not Madara, and..." comments.
Thank you for all your kind reviews. And I am glad to see I have managed to convince some of my Harry Potter readers to temporarily plunge into the Naruto fandom. Also, a HP chapter will be coming. It's halfway done, I pinkie promise.
This is the last day, is Sakura's first thought as she wakes up to the rays of sunlight creeping into her room through the fluttering curtains. She feels her mind numb with silent dread as she dresses up swiftly, slipping into her usual outfit. This is the last day...
Suddenly a few of her daily habits, such as plucking her eyebrows to keep them in shape or applying the slightest bit of mascara on her naturally light-coloured eyelashes, seem silly, senseless, redundant. She cannot bring herself to bother.
I need to speak to my parents, the young woman reminds herself sternly as she faces herself in the mirror, pulling her unusual hair back into a strict, practical ponytail. She'd been meaning to talk to them yesterday, too, but she couldn't find it in her, for they'd been both in a surprisingly good mood when she'd come back home the other night, and she had not wanted to spoil the rest of the evening for them.
Sakura knows that, by now, her parents have pretty much come to terms with the fact their daughter is a kunoichi, and that every time she leaves the house, she might never come back. And yet, it's still quite different from telling them that this time, it is not only possible, but probable that they may never see her again, and the thought makes her chest ache, not with fear of her own death, but with fear of hurting those who care about her.
"Mum, Dad..." she mutters in a serious voice as she joins them around the breakfast table, and, intuitive parents as they are, they immediately snap their heads towards her, sensing the gravity in her tone. Megumi Haruno, a middle aged woman with soft, round features, slowly puts her knife down, and stops spreading butter onto her bread, her green eyes studying carefully her daughter's strangely taut expression.
Their (strikingly similar) eyes meet, and Megumi immediately knows, in a way that only a mother can know.
"Tomorrow morning I will leave for an especially dangerous mission. I love you both very, very much. I thank you profoundly for allowing me to pursue my dream of becoming a kunoichi, so please, no matter what happens, never regret your choice or blame yourselves. You have made me very happy." Sakura states in a loving, tender voice, and her soft lips spread into a gentle smile, before she spreads her arm to grab a slice of toasted bread. She spreads the fresh strawberry jam in silence, not daring to lift her gaze up, and face the grief in her parents' faces.
A few minutes later, as she walks out of the house, she hears a soft, muffled sob behind her, but even then, she cannot afford to turn around, because she is afraid that is she does, she, too, will find tears down her cheeks, and feel her will crumble.
I'm a kunoichi of the Hidden Leaf.
I'm the Hokage's apprentice.
I'm not afraid of you, Sasuke, or the fiendish master you now serve, and I shall protect my comrades, my loved ones, my village, no matter what.
Determination flashes brightly on her graceful face.
She arrives at the training grounds early, and the only one already there is Tenzou Yamato, the brown-haired jounin with the kind, weary face and the highly unusual genetic legacy. A tiny smile appearing on her face, the pink-haired kunoichi thinks to herself that she's grown to quite like the quiet man, with his scary faces, his sleep issues, his happuri-style forward protector, his amusingly cautious nature and his half-covered chin.
"Hey!" she greets him in a casual, amicable manner, as she walks towards the edge of the training field, towards the concrete ledge upon which the older man is sitting.
"Good morning, there." he replies, and he offers a gentle, slightly weary smile, the mourning sun reflecting off the metal surface of his protective gear, and his flak jacket unzipped, revealing the familiar, rather form-fitting dark shirt. That's something else she likes about him, she realises privately. Not the form-fitting shirt, of course, but rather his good manners and his easy-going, slightly humorous, soft manner of speech, and the way that, despite their having served in more than a few missions together, he does not cross the line between familiarity and discourtesy.
It's good to feel a bit like a woman before a gentleman, at times, is it not? Sakura notes in good humour as she approaches the jounin.
"Well, it hasn't been the best of mornings, honestly. But thank you nevertheless, Yamato-taichou." she replies with a pleasantly friendly tone, as she easily and fluidly lifts her body's weight to sit upon the ledge, a few feet from the Wood Release specialist. Despite her lingering sadness at her parents' evident grief, she does not want to complain and give off the impression of being a whiny, querulous child, and so she keeps her tone light and conversational, and her face soft and warm.
Tenzou, though, frowns a bit at her response, and in spite of her cordial smile and seemingly tranquil, peaceful demeanor, he decides to investigate.
"Why is that? Had a fight with the alarm clock?" he asks, a playful expression on his features, using humour to avoid appearing rudely inquisitive. Sakura turns her face towards him, her clear, teal eyes tracing his somewhat weathered but pleasant, easy facial traits idly, as she wonders whether there is much point in telling him of her family, and of the difficulties related to them being civilians, with a civilian mindset, and a civilian set of priorities.
"Well... I spoke to my parents of the mission. No details, but they did... sense the gravity of the situation. They seemed very worried, and it pains me to see them like that." the kunoichi eventually explains, omitting a lot of details, and raising her gaze towards the rosy light of the early morning sun in thought.
But you're probably thinking that I am an ungrateful little girl, aren't you, taichou? Talking of my parents to you, you who doesn't have any to begin with. She thinks, not without a stab of bitterness and self-depreciation.
Yamato, however, does not think that way at all.
He notices the subtle manner in which her soft lips press against one another and turn thin, he detects easily the slight strain behind her light tone, and he is concerned for the young woman, for he is certain it must be difficult to deal with the emotions within one's family, especially when matters of death and danger are concerned.
But then again, I wouldn't know, would I? Yamato notes mentally, in a dry manner.
"I understand they are civilians, no?" he formulates tentatively, as to not sound vexing or condescending, and he shifts his entire torso around to pay closer attention to her words.
"Yes, they are. I guess it is part of the issue; they simply lack the mentality required to understand my choices."
She lets out a sharp breath, and places a hand against her forehead, her voice mellowing.
"I am just... really afraid that, if something happens, they will blame themselves for sending me to the Academy, for allowing me to pursue this kind of career. I don't want them to think any fault lies with them. I am really happy to be a kunoichi, and grateful that they allowed me to chase my dream. I wouldn't have wanted to be... couldn't have been anything else."
"But I'm rambling, am I not? Don't mind me..." Sakura concludes, with a slightly uneasy smile on her comely face, her hand playing nervously with a strand of pink hair.
"No, you're not. I understand what you're saying, Sakura. I guess it must be difficult for you to help them understand why a person would choose such a rocky road in life even without being raised that way, without belonging to a shinobi clan or carrying a bloodline ability. And it is admirable of you to be so concerned with their feelings." the jounin answers, his dark brown eyes caring and sympathising, as he runs a hand through his mop of slightly messy, mouse-brown hair.
The green eyes fall upon the older man's modest and gentle smile, and Sakura feels her chest warm with a sudden wave of peaceful contentment, as well as gratitude and affection.
Thank you for always managing to, somehow, say the right thing, Yamato-taichou.
You're a brilliant commander, and a good man.
"Thank you." she mumbles, feeling a slight bit embarrassed at having stared at the older shinobi's face perhaps a little too openly and indiscreetly. "But I am sure my problems must seen very silly to you. From what I've heard and what I've seen at the hospital, ANBU is exceptionally tough and demanding, is it not?" she adds, wanting to express that she is well aware her own unpleasant experiences probably pale in comparison to what the jounin has had to see, or do.
Yamato lets out of a quiet, long breath, and his expression turns bittersweet as he notes the rising embarrassment on the young kunoichi's face.
So you think that your issues are minute compared to what I've seen, that I will think any less of you for your commonplace concerns?
You believe that the horrors of war and assassination subtract from the importance of simple human relationships? Quite the opposite, Sakura. ANBU, if anything, helped me appreciate the small, simple beauty of our daily lives.
"Yes, the ANBU is quite tough, that much is true. It requires you to be able to temporarily detach yourself completely from your emotions, else you lose your mind. That kind of detachment is not an ability to be envied, though, Sakura. It may be necessary, but it is also unhealthy." he tells the kunoichi, and his tone is oddly pleasant, especially taking into account the subject of their talk, and the content of his words. "However, I don't see how any of that lessens the importance of interpersonal relationships. The gravity of an issue is not judged by the amount of spilled blood required to solve it. There is nothing silly about caring for people." he states, in a rather quiet voice.
And again this mild, strangely soft and tired smile appears on the jounin's face, and Sakura scolds herself for being so strongly affected by it, and for so awkwardly averting her eyes in order to avoid the blood from rising into her cheeks.
"Thank you so much, Yamato..." she voices hesitantly, meekly, still slightly dazed by the surprising depth and wisdom of his words.
There's so much more to this slightly uncomfortable, sheepish jounin than one would assume, isn't there? Sakura inwardly observes, as she raises her gaze again, letting it rest discreetly on the older shinobi's figure. She has been wanting to ask him about his real name for the longest time, but she has never found the courage before, thinking it will seem rather nosy of her, if not downright rude.
But this is the last day, isn't it?
"I'm sorry if that's something you don't want to share but... do you... have a real name?" the young woman asks, and she feels her heartbeat pick up a little as the words leave her mouth, and her throat slightly dry. For an instant, she even regrets having asked at all.
The man's dark eyebrows are lifted slightly, in surprise, and he turns his entire body around, placing one leg over the other side of the cement ledge, as to face the kunoichi fully.
"I don't have a real name, no... I've had many, but none was more real than any other. And I don't mind you asking. Not at all." he confesses, with a small, timid smile, scratching the back of his head clumsily, and Sakura thinks his cheeks might be reddening a little. And somehow, she finds that to be absolutely endearing, and it makes her feel almost dizzy with some kind of unnamed agitation, some kind of beautiful tension.
"None you are more attached to?" the pink-haired woman asks him, and Yamato feels himself both flattered and flustered at her interest in him, unable to not notice how attractive she looks, with the sun caressing her unusually coloured mane, and her bright eyes pinned openly on him. She's grown much since the time he'd first joined their team, he knows; from a horribly insecure, temperamental girl, into a strong, serious, gentle young woman.
"Yamato." he states, after a few moments of thought. "Yamato is the one I prefer. I think I'll be quite happy to be Yamato forever more." he continues, and he places his deep, soulful eyes into hers, with meaning. And she, being intelligent and observant as she is, immediately perceives the implications of his reply, and discerns just how personal his words are.
I'm happier with my life now, with being part of this team, than I have ever been before. I feel like I've finally found my place.
This is who I want to be.
"Well, then, if Tsunade-sama intends to hand you a new identity, a new assignment, and take you away from us, as her student and assistant, I'll make sure she keeps losing important files and misplacing personal objects until she changes her mind on the subject." Sakura Haruno declares, a mischievous glint in her eyes. Her small, playful smirk is twitching, and, to his amazement, Yamato realises that this most probably qualifies as her flirting with him.
Yes, we might die tomorrow. But this is definitely a lovely morning... he thinks to himself, and, despite feeling a bit skittish, and certainly quite uneasy, he offers her a wide smile. "I'd definitely appreciate such a gesture." he throws at her in an equally impish manner, and he holds eye-contact long enough for her to flush a little.
She, too, is about to come up with an affectionate, witty comeback, but, to her unreasonably intense, almost physically painful disappointment, Sai enters her field of vision, walking towards them with his face eerily gleeful and pale.
Sakura, there's absolutely no reason you should be angry at Sai for arriving exactly on time, she scolds her wrathful inner self, and tries to hold back from unfairly snapping at the young, black-haired shinobi.
"Hello, dear team members! What is the subject of the conversation?" Sai greets the both of them in his typical, cheery manner; that manner that is so unrealistically warm, it ends up being creepily cool instead. Yamato nods his greeting with ample cordiality, even though he, too, is slightly disappointed at the interruption of his private conversation with the kunoichi.
"We were talking about my name, or rather lack thereof. I'd just mentioned that I've grown attached to, and actually prefer my most recent alias, Yamato. And I was about to say that... I think Kakashi-sempai calls me Tenzou just to spite me, sometimes." the jounin offers with a slightly frustrated, defeated expression, and Sai reacts by scratching his chin pensively, as if analysing some kind of complex combat strategy.
"Yes, now that you mention it, Kakashi-san does seem to enjoy it when others appear exasperated, doesn't he..?" the former ROOT member states matter-of-factly, and with the perfect neutrality of a scientific observation. The young woman cannot help but be entertained at his pragmatic, unnecessarily formal matter of speech.
He sure is unusual, but he's our Sai... she muses, not without fondness.
"You tell me about it... He was quite a terror back in ANBU. Half the corps was afraid of him, and believe me, it is not easy to frighten the ANBU. His cruel wit and cynicism were almost as legendary as his efficiency and talent." the jounin murmurs in a rather quiet voice, dropping his eyes to the ground, apparently remembering various scenes from the previous stages of his shinobi career.
Sakura's lips part in mild surprise at the words, and her eyes widen ever so slightly.
"Eeeh... Really? He has always been so friendly, and funny, and laid-back with us... His sense of humour is sometimes pretty mean, I'll give you that, but that kind of reputation really doesn't sound like him..." she states, frowning in confusion. "Then again, I guess I can believe you. I've seen his face during serious battles... He becomes a totally different person."
"Well, I can only say that I've known him for almost twenty years, and I have still absolutely no idea who he really is." Yamato concludes, and he sighs, shrugging at the young kunoichi. "But I do know that he's usually a pretty cool guy, and extremely skilled. I've always liked him, even back when he was my terribly sarcastic, and somewhat arrogant squadron leader." he adds, smiling, and Sakura is not surprised to hear the older shinobi say something like that. She remembers just how strongly flattered Yamato had been when the silver-haired jounin had told him he thought of him as an equal. It was obvious the Mokuton specialist admired the slightly older man a lot.
"Arrogant, huh... I really don't ever remember him being arrogant. Quite the opposite, actually. He always keeps saying that we've surpassed him. Especially Naruto; he keeps pointing out that the boy would probably obliterate him if he so chose to." Sakura observes thoughtfully, her genin instructor's plentiful contradictions piquing her interest.
"That's with Naruto, though. Kakashi-sempai would probably be willing to bite his fingers off one by one for that kid..." the jounin notes cryptically, his pensive, brown gaze flying off to the distance.
Yes, in all the years I've known Kakashi of the Sharingan, I've never quite seen him look at someone that way. Sometimes I almost wonder if...
"Well, Naruto does have this magical way of making everyone listen to him, and believe in him, doesn't he? He did literally talk Pein off annihilating the entire population of Konohagakure..." the pink-haired woman responds, a proud, beaming smile on her face as her mind runs off towards her comrade and best friend.
"I don't think it's magical. I think it's a special talking Genjutsu, that he places by..." Sai suddenly interjects, his tone quite serious, as he begins explicating some kind of conspiracy theory.
The other two are about to start chuckling, exchanging incredulous grins and amused looks at Sai's imaginative theories, when an excited voice booms from behind them.
"Genjutsu? Where's the Genjutsu? I'll dispel it in less three seconds, believe it!"
"Good morning to you, too, Naruto-kun..." Sakura laughs, the sun gleaming in her teal eyes, and flashing against the strands of her beautiful, peach-coloured hair.
Yes, all in all, it's a beautiful morning, isn't it, if one excludes the imminence of tomorrow's suicide assignment, Yamato concludes with defeated bitterness, his eyes tracing the young woman's brilliant grin, and suddenly, he is substantially displeased at the thought of tomorrow's accursed mission because, for once in his life, he is almost happy, and he does not really feel terribly willing to die. Not now. Not yet.
It would be too unfair.
A beautiful morning.
Invisible to everyone, his fist clenches.
Kakashi arrives some twenty minutes late, only this time, his tardiness is meticulously calculated.
He'd thought about making it on time, for once, taking into account the undeniable gravity of the situation, but it occurred to him that such uncharacteristic, unusual behaviour on his part would only alarm his team, and stress them out even further. Of course, he could not afford to be too late, either. Their time is running out. And so, the copy-nin had settled for a small and fashionable delay of twenty minutes, reaching the training grounds at exactly 7.21 am, and greeting the already gathered group with a light-hearted "Yo".
The team greets him back.
Early enough to avoid the yells and accusing fingers, but late enough to avoid arousing suspicion, Kakashi smiles inwardly as he walks towards the other shinobi in his usual leisurely, smooth manner.
His orange bible of porn is opened at page 132.
"So, 'Kashi, what are the sparring teams today? Can I be with Sai again? It was really awesome last time!" Naruto asks, energetic and childishly excited, his eyes sparkling with some innate sense of enthusiasm as he beams a large, toothy grin towards the silver-haired jounin. Kakashi is relatively sure that the young man is, at least in part, putting up an act of insouciance, but it's true that he certainly does not seem the slightest bit apprehensive about the approaching battle.
"Well, I think you and Kakashi-sempai should train on your synergy, too, since it will probably end up being the two of you against Madara at some point, if all goes according to plan and you manage to incapacitate Sasuke while Hatake keeps the older Uchiha distracted." Yamato begins, his expression manifestly pensive as he flicks his gaze sideways, towards the seemingly stirred up jinchuuriki.
"But then again, the two of you already have impeccable teamwork. It would probably be a waste of time." he adds after another moment of thought.
Sakura and Sai are about to word their own opinions on today's training schedule, but the team leader interrupts them all, his eye-smile still firmly in place.
"No physical training today." he declares with somewhat out-of-place sunniness, and lifts his arms to place them behind his head.
"What? But it's the last day! We have to train!" Naruto yells out in immediate response, and he looks simultaneously crestfallen and disbelieving, as well as ostensibly exasperated, the pleasantly excited expression dropping from his whiskered face, and replaced by uneasy trepidation.
So you are deeply nervous after all, Naruto.
"I never said we will not train. I merely said we will not train physically. Think about it, Naruto. The physical improvement you can achieve in one day is not worth the possible risk of straining a muscle, overexerting or getting accidentally wounded in this kind of case." Kakashi explains in a factual, flat tone, and the young blond whistles out a defeated sigh, knowing his former genin instructor to have a very valid point.
Sai, Sakura and the second jounin nod their silent understanding of Kakashi's decision, and simply look at him, awaiting further instructions.
"Well, what kind of training are we going to do then?" the slightly impatient blond inquires, eying the still marginally taller man with suspicion.
"I was getting to that." the oldest member of the team replies, sending his former student a slightly ticked off sideways glance, before he starts walking towards the Konoha woods, his fellow shinobi following uncertainly. "What we're going to do is... each one of you is going to have a very interesting, short but in depth talk with me, while we review a few of your personal issues through the use of my Genjutsu. That's all." Kakashi informs them, and offers them all a wide smile from behind the dark fabric of his mask.
"Ehhh? We're going to talk? How does that qualify as training?" Naruto demands in a quiet, confused voice, looking concerned and probably a little bit disappointed as he brings up a hand to scratch a whiskered cheek.
Sakura, too, does not seem to quite understand, but she remains silent and pensive. The other jounin's dark, almond-shaped eyes, however, fill with knowledge and realisation, and he purses his lips.
"You're talking about emotional conditioning, aren't you? Similar to what the ANBU sometimes demanded before solo S-classes. Sempai... Are you really certain...?" Yamato begins, looking unsure and nervous about going against Kakashi, but also openly concerned about whatever his former squadron leader is planning to put them through. Nonetheless, the brown-haired shinobi's words trail into silence as the copy-nin turns his head back towards him, causing their eyes to meet.
It is not a stern, authoritative look that he encounters on his sempai's face, one that would silently command him to keep his doubts to himself, however. It is rather a strangely heated look of iron determination, an expression that speaks of finality, and of a man who knows exactly what he is doing.
Well, Hatake-san is nothing like Morino Ibiki, and I am sure he does not have in mind the same kind of slightly traumatic "talks" as the ones we received from Ibiki in ANBU. He does not fool around when such crucial missions are concerned, and he would not be unnecessarily cruel to his students, the Wood-Release specialist concludes, reassured.
I trust you, sempai.
Soon enough, they reach a very pleasant, beautiful area of the forest, and the older jounin observes his surroundings with ample satisfaction, his visible eye narrowing with pleasure. "Well, this is a nice spot, neh? Why don't the rest of you just wait here and enjoy yourselves, while I start with Sai?" he eventually exclaims, and, signaling for said young man to follow him, he walks off, leaving the rest of them under a graceful willow tree.
A few minutes later, Kakashi Hatake and Sai are both leaning against two tree trunks, eying one another in the silence, until the Ink specialist finally decides to speak.
"I'm afraid I fail to comprehend the point of this exercise, Kakashi-san." he states in an exceedingly matter-of-factly fashion, and without any kind of sarcasm or reproach. The other man almost smiles at the statement, but he nevertheless completely ignores it, and he casts instead a very simple, primitive genjutsu.
Sasuke Uchiha appears, standing between the two shinobi.
"What is your opinion of this man, Sai-kun?" Kakashi asks, in a friendly, conversational tone, pointing at the illusion of the young avenger.
A flicker of raw emotion gleams behind Sai's dark eyes as he studies the form of the young Uchiha. "He is a threat to the safety of Konohagakure, and must be either incapacitated, or disposed of. However, he is dear to some of my comrades, and therefore an opportunity for him to return to the village should not be immediately rejected." he eventually replies, in a machine-like, monotone voice.
"I did not ask for a status report. I asked for a personal opinion." the jounin observes, and tilts his head amicably.
"I do not really like this man." the former ROOT member thus changes his previous statement, as to express his personal feelings more clearly, his words still dry and factual.
"Hnnn. Then why did you support Naruto when he was trying to prevent the Uchiha from being declared a criminal and missing-nin?"
Temporary silence, as Sai frowns, choosing his words with the fastidious care of a heart surgeon.
"Naruto is my friend." he finally states, almost defiantly.
"I see. So, why is it that you dislike Sasuke Uchiha, Sai-kun?"
"He is a missing-nin and a..."
"Not a status report, Sai. I want your personal thoughts on this subject." Kakashi insists, his voice now a slight, almost imperceptible bit more forceful, as the illusion between them smirks at the young, pale boy with open derision.
"He does not deserve the friendship of Saukra-chan and Naruto-kun." Sai replies, and this time his tone is not as fully homogeneous, and mechanical as before. It is painted with a tinge of conviction, and a tinge of resentment.
"And yet they still care about me more than they care about you, do they not?"
It is the Genjutsu that replies this time, and not Kakashi, the hollow, mocking voice dripping with amusement and disdain. Sai's eyes harden like cooling steel, and a frigid, wordless hatred fills them, the kind that is kept inside, silent and merciless, to eat one up slowly and discreetly. His marble face, though, remains stoic and smooth, unwilling to allow any emotion to display itself upon the pallid skin.
"You need them more than they ever needed you, replacement-kun."
The phantom-Sasuke hisses out another vitriolic statement, and this time Sai's visage finally twitches with ire. A truly rare, strange sight. However, the young man does not respond to the provocation. Instead, he throws his ebony eyes to the ground, shamefaced, bitter.
Kakashi-san read my shameful sentiments quite easily; how pitiful.
But the silver-haired jounin notices the venom and embarrassment on the young shinobi's face, and knows it's the moment for him to intervene. He dispels the vexing Genjutsu with ease, and stares at the younger man in silence for a while more, before he finally draws a rather deep breath.
"Sai, listen to me." Kakashi then says, softly, and he suddenly lifts the weight of his torso off the tree bark, and walks towards the young man, placing a hand on the former ROOT's angular shoulder. "There's no shame in being afraid you care about someone more than they care about you, and there's no shame in wanting to be loved. No one is safe from these fears and feelings. We are only human. However, you are wrong if you believe that your comrades need you less than you need them. You are their friend."
Sai's gaze narrows in irritation, presumably perceiving the older man's gentle tone as partonising. "How is this related to the mission at hand?" he inquires, coolly, and lifts his visage up to meet the team's current commander's mostly concealed face.
"Only if you come to terms with how much you care about people, can you protect them to the best of your abilities, Sai. If you stop resenting yourself for what you feel, and instead accept it, then, believe me, you will fight better. No one here sees you as a replacement"
Sai remains silent for the longest time after that statement, his face tense and thoughtful, before it finally softens once more, flooded with something akin to relief. Consequently, a powerful, ferocious gleam of determination and devotion flashes through the black eyes, and the young shinobi offers the older man a modest but confident smile.
I think I understand a little better now. Thank you, Hatake-san, Sai thinks to himself.
"Good then." exclaims Kakashi happily, and he flips out of his serious mode abruptly, his visible eye squinting in glee as he re-opens his most prized book. "Now go fetch me Sakura, won't you?"
And so, later still, it is Sakura who is resting against a tall, mossy tree, staring at her former teacher with a firm, resolute look on her face. She wears no make-up at all, today, and she has her haired pulled into a stern ponytail, the jounin notices, while her body has become increasingly toned under Tsunade's tutoring. She looks rather intimidating, actually; not a woman one should mess with.
But is your resolve as strong as you would want us to believe, Sakura-chan?
"Well, this will be a fairly straight-forward exercise, Sakura. In exactly one minute, I will create a Genjutsu, and I want you to react to it immediately and without delay as if it were a real, actual situation. Understood?" Kakashi explains, his tone light and smooth, and she nods her understanding, brow creasing in battle-readiness.
I'll treat everything I see as real. Real, she orders herself firmly.
The copy-nin brings his hands in front of his chest, ready to form seals, and he eyes his former student as the minute flows by in a tormentingly slow manner.
Tick-tock. Kakashi mutters inwardly, and then, suddenly, he disappears from the pink-haired kunoichi's field of vision, leaving behind an elaborate illusion.
A few metres before her lay two wounded bodies: Naruto's form, soaked in blood and breathing heavily, and Sasuke's figure, badly injured and hoarsely panting. Treat it as real. Real. Her hand glowing with healing chakra, she rushes towards the fallen shinobi, only to suddenly realise that the ground beneath the two males is slowly cracking open, and collapsing.
A Doton attack. They'll fall to their deaths! Sakura swiftly notes, trying to keep the horror from clouding her judgment, and runs towards them with blinding speed, her heart hammering in her chest even as she is aware that it is all an illusion. Naruto!
But as she approaches the two injured shinobi, it becomes evident that she cannot possibly manage to reach both of them in time, and that she'll have to make a choice, and make it swiftly. Naruto-kun, of course. Naruto is everything to me; my family, my friend, my comrade. Sasuke is the enemy now. The enemy, she shouts to herself inwardly, and she hastily plunges towards the bloodied blond, to pull him out of the trap.
And yet, one second before their hands make contact, her treacherous eyes flick sideways, and fall upon the handsome form of the wounded Uchiha.
Her chest constricts.
He's the enemy now. He's made his choice. Had I not been rescued, he would have killed me, killed me without a single moment of uncertainty. I know this, and I know that he is beyond redemption, lost to us forever. Our Sasuke, the one we knew and remember, is long gone.
Could I just let him die like that?
Can't there be a way to...
Save them both?
But this second, this one second of thought, of delay, is enough for the ground to finally collapse, pulling both young men down with it, and as desperately as Sakura throws her arm forward, her fingers barely brush against the hand of the illusionary Naruto, before he disappears into the darkness, eyes open in terror.
The Genjutsu dissipates, and Sakura is left kneeling, panting, before Kakashi's pensive eyes.
"Well, there goes Naruto." the instructor observes wryly, giving the distraught girl a slightly reproachful, but not entirely cruel look. She's done better than he had expected her to, anyway. She made the right choice, and made it fairly quickly.
"That was a very vicious thing to show me, sensei." she a murmurs her weak complaint pathetically, her voice slightly shaky as she, staggering a little still, gets back up upon her feet. Her lovat eyes are wide, and humid, her chest still heaving strongly and her fingers shaky.
"Reality can be even more vicious, Sakura-chan." he responds, softly and apologetically, and she drops her head, waiting for the inevitable scolding, her cheeks flushing up with stabbing shame.
"Don't be so dismayed, You did really well. You are mature enough, practical enough to make the right choices, and you no longer allow yourself to be easily swayed by irrational hopes..." he begins, and the kunoichi lifts her head, surprised at the unexpected compliment, her face softening and calming considerably. "But when you really do find yourself in such a position, you must not hesitate. Do you understand me?" She meets his visible eye, and she finds it unusually piercing and deep.
"You must not hesitate." he repeats, stressing his point gently but with force. "A single second of hesitation can condemn you to decades of regret and guilt, Sakura... I don't want you to have to learn this lesson the way I did."
Her soft lips part at his words and their implications, because she has never before heard Kakashi, this private, layered man, confess to something like that about himself before.
Kakashi-sensei... I understand. No hesitation. Never again.
"Hn!" she exclaims and nods with new-found energy, in a fashion almost reminiscent of Lee, her eyes and mind clear once more.
"Great!" he smiles at her widely, radiantly, and he ruffles her hair with uninhibited affection, completely messing up her previously neat ponytail. "Go call for that pesky kohai of mine, alright?"
"Sempai... Do you really think you can throw at me something worst than what Ibiki already has, time and time again?" Yamato asks warily, and secretly, he hopes for the answer to be no, since, if the answer is yes, then the next half hour will probably be highly unpleasant for him. To his mild annoyance and surprise, the slightly older man chuckles at his question, and throws a large eye-smile towards his general direction.
"Don't be silly, Yamato. I don't intend to try and mentally torture you, or put you in incredibly twisted imaginary situations, where you have to cut your own arm off with a spoon in order to save a comrade, or whatever sick ideas Morino tends to come up with. I couldn't hope to rival the man's disturbing imagination." the silver-haired shinobi declares cheerfully. The other man, though, is still looking as cautious as ever, his eyes slightly narrowed with manifest suspicion.
"So, I'm going to ask you a question now." Kakashi informs him, factually and in a dispassionate manner.
"A question." the Wood Release specialist repeats, ever humorously mistrustful towards his sly fellow warrior. I'm sure this is a trap. I can't tell what the trap is, yet, but it's obviously a freakin' trap, mutters to himself.
"Yes. And the question is, how strong are you, Yamato?" the copy-nin questions in a light, conversational fashion, his lazy eye lifted idly onto a nearby tree's foliage.
Yamato narrows his eyes with caginess, feeling overwhelmingly certain that this is some kind of fiendish trick question. "Well..." he begins, hesitantly, and opts for the relatively safe route of dry objectivity. "I have six kage-level Mokuton techniques, eight upper-jo.." he starts elaborating, when he is rudely interrupted by an eerily smiling Kakashi.
"I was your squadron leader for six years, and I've been your team commander for two more. If someone can recite your databook stats like a poem, it's me, neh, Yamato? It's your opinion I'm asking for. How strong do you think you are?"
So the trick here is not to be objective and distant. Right. This is not ANBU, remember. Perhaps I'm supposed to be really humble? Hmmm... Or, perhaps, the right answer is that power is relative? the marginally younger jounin ponders, thoughtful and guarded, and he absent-mindedly rubs a finger against his happuri-style forehead protector. Kakashi rolls his eye at the man's frown, and offers him a playful smirk from beneath the thick fabric of the mask.
"Hmmm. I guess... I'm quite good at what I do, but have a long way still to reach Shodai Hashirama's level of mastery. Is that an acceptable answer?" the genetic experiment phrases uncertainly, scratching the back of his head in an openly nervous manner. He might really admire the copy-nin, but that does not mean he finds the man to be any less unnerving.
"See... I asked you how strong you are, and instead, you talk to me about how you compare to the first Hokage. Interesting."
You bastard, the brown-haired man spits inwardly.
"So is that the plan, Hatake-sempai? (Ouch, Kakashi thinks, he must be pissed to address me that way...) Are you going to try and play the psychologist, and dig into my identity issues and the weight of my genetic burden? Nothing I haven't heard before." Yamato states, his voice cool and defensive, and his almond-shaped eyes grow the slightest bit hostile.
"No, I'm not. And I'm sorry if my insightful remarks bother you. Now stop thinking about the damn Shodai Hokage altogether." Kakashi responds smoothly and in an inappropriately carefree way, and the younger shinobi looks as is he wants to throttle him. "All I'm going to do, is ask a question, Tenzou. How strong are you?"
What the hell is this game you're playing at, Hatake!
You don't want a databook reply. You do not want me to compare myself to the source of the Mokuton ability. How else am I supposed to offer a measure or approximation my power?
"Well, I guess you could say..." he tries again, but Kakashi cuts in.
And then, it dawns upon Yamato, what the older jounin is trying to get him to say. So in order to get out of this, I'm supposed to say "I'm strong", yes? An exercise in self-confidence, or something. Sneaky, Kakashi, very sneaky, the shinobi concludes triumphantly, and his eyes gleam with the new knowledge, a modestly curved smirk forming upon his lined face.
But as he is about to utter these words, he realises that every time he tries to say them, he subconsciously craves to add a measure of uncertainty. I guess... Probably... Rather... Somewhat... One could say...
It simply feels so ridiculous, so theatrical to state something like "I'm strong" out loud, just like that. Just like these grandiose declarations Naruto comes up with. Yamato cringes, feeling his dignity crumble.
Oh, for heaven's sake... Lets just get over with this weird thing.
"I'm strong." he finally states, and strangely enough, when he eventually does manage to say it, he discovers it does not sound quite as excruciatingly corny and childish as he had imagined it to sound. In fact, it doesn't sound bad at all, and unwillingly, Yamato discovers himself smiling at the mildly pleasant sensation of having made such a claim out loud.
Well, this wasn't that bad... the younger jounin realises incredulously, and to his growing horror, it occurs to him that the copy-nin's disgustingly corny exercise did actually boost his self-confidence ostensibly.
"Of course you're strong. In other news, water is wet." Kakashi rebuts cheerfully, with a genuinely affectionate expression, and he wraps an arm around the young man's shoulder, in an exaggeration of camaraderie. "Now go fetch me my jinchuuriki, Pinocchio."
Sometimes I really hate you, sempai.
"So, what's the deal with these talks, Kakashi-sensei?" Naruto asks, and despite the superficial legerity of his tone, the azure eyes are serious and inquisitive, perhaps even the slightest bit disquieted, as the young man throws his body back languorously against the tree trunk.
"I could try to explain to you what I've been doing, but I doubt you'd understand." Kakashi replies, teasing the young shinobi a little, and yet quite honest about his answer. How does one begin to explain the delicacies and intricacies of emotional conditioning to someone with the impulsiveness and brashness of Uzumaki Naruto?
The jinchuuriki does not seem willing to take no for an answer, though (does he ever take no for an asnwer, Kakashi wonders), and he offers his former teacher a moody scowl.
"You're implying I'm stupid again, aren't you? Well, I might not be good with books, but I'm still sharp enough to have fooled lots of very dangerous enemies and stuff, so try me! Explain." the young man demands, his finger pointed at the masked shinobi. The jounin sighs in an unnecessarily loud, theatrical manner, and, well-aware of just how criminally stubborn Naruto can be, he tries to think of a way to put this concept into relatively simple words.
Besides, he's right. In his own, very personal way, he is indeed undeniably sharp. Some of the shadow clone feints and tricks he comes up with... They could even fool a Nara.
"Well, think of it that way... Our resolve and our will to accomplish something are like a chain armour, where each link is a thought, or an emotion, a source of motivation, a reason. However, everyone has a few weak links in their armour, that, when discovered by the enemy and hit, can lead to the entire thing crumbling, or going wild. What I am trying to do today, is to prepare the team for this kind of situation, by fortifying those soft spots." he clumsily explains, making a few movements with his hands as he speaks.
"Hnn." Naruto replies, and his bright eyes squint in thought. "You mean like how Choji will charge head on if you call him fat, right? Or how Ino loses her concentration if you call her ugly? You're trying to make sure no one in the team does anything like that, then?" he suggests, scratching his chin, and eying his former instructor with curiosity.
"I guess that's not a bad example. Only, of course, the insecurities and psychological weaknesses of experienced, well-trained shinobi like Sai or Yamato are somewhat subtler than that." the jounin states, and offers the blond a shiny eye-smile, before placing his gaze back onto the pages of Jiraiya's "literature".
"Hnnnn. So, I guess that for me and Sakura-chan, you are worried about how we will react to Sasuke's words, neh, sensei?" the jinchuuriki asks again, this time in a much quieter, gentler voice, and, breaking eye-contact, he throws his gaze to the ground, face suddenly flooded with a shade of melancholy.
Insightful inquiry, Naruto.
"Perhaps in the case of Sakura, I worry about it still, sometimes. But I know that you, at least, have come to terms now with Sasuke's choices and his decisions, and despite how much you might still care about him, you will not put that above protecting Konoha. I trust you, Naruto." Kakashi responds softly, and he takes a step or two towards the younger man, who is now lifting his head once again, quite surprised and pleased by his former teacher's unexpected vote of confidence, and with a small smile twitching on his tanned face.
Hell, yes, I will not fail Konoha! I'll protect it even against Sasuke! Thank you for believing in me, 'Kashi-sensei, the Uzumaki inwardly declares, and he offers the copy-nin a wide grin.
For a few minutes, both of them remain silent, Naruto thinking, and Kakashi reading through that saucy passage with the torture specialist and the young kunoichi.
"So, when it comes to me, what are you worried about then, Kakashi? What are my weak points?" Naruto finally questions, stretching his arms upwards and snapping his neck back in a lazy, carefree manner, but with a certain look to his eyes than suggests solemnity and sobriety.
"Well, honestly, Naruto-kun, I don't know. I don't think there's anything I can say that will improve how you'll do in battle. You're as ready as you'll ever be, I guess." Kakashi mumbles, but it's only a half-truth (because I am more worried about this than I've ever been for a battle before, and I have no idea if any of us are ready for it, the jounin mentally adds, with defeated bitterness). The demon host, though, very susceptible to compliments as he is, immediately flashes a ridiculously wide and dazzling grin, full of smugness and general self-satisfaction, while giving the silver-haired man a slightly corny thumbs up gesture.
"I am, however, worried about how you'll do after the battle, Naruto." the copy-nin continues, his voice suddenly much lower and graver, and his visible eye unreadable.
"What.. do you mean?" the younger man asks, his light-coloured eyebrows drawing closer to one another in slight confusion.
"Let me show you something."
And then, Naruto finds himself inside a Genjutsu, a perfect imitation of that part of Konoha behind the dome, two blocks away from the hospital, and just next to...
The memorial stone.
In front of the it, the blond notices the figure of a young man, wearing a khaki shirt with a slightly weathered orange trim, and without even needing to see his face, he knows that the man in the illusion is meant to be him. Warily, he approaches the stone and the ghostly vision of his older self, a sinking feeling of dread getting stronger within his stomach.
The ghostly Naruto is barely any older than he is, but he seems infinitely more exhausted, and worn, his eyes carrying the faded hue of grief as he pins them with savage intensity upon the reflective surface of the memorial monument.
When the jinchuuriki is done examining the reflection of his own self, he finally turns his eyes towards the stone.
They widen at the most recent names.
Sai of the Ink
"Kai!" yells the blond, his voice hoarse with anger, and maybe even desperation, and he uses the Bijuu's chakra to snap his own self out of the illusionary technique. In less than a fraction of a second, he is back at the forest's small clearing, breathing heavily, and a few inches away from Kakashi, who is looking as apathetic and unemotional as always.
"Why are you still going on about this! This is not going to happen!" the boy snarls with surprising fury, eyes blazing and chakra flaring around him erratically. The older man, however, does not react to the small bout of rage; not even the tiniest bit of cringing.
"I'm not saying it's probable." Even though I believe it actually is... "I am just saying it's possible, Naruto." Kakashi explains gently, patiently, with a voice filled with forced objectivity, his dark eye observing the blond's twitching lips. Naruto seems to want to disagree, lips parting in an attempt to protest and eyes brimming with some kind of exasperation, but he is a kid no longer, and he knows his teacher's words to be irrefutable fact, and ends up hanging his head low, aggravated but silent.
"Yes, it's possible, isn't it? It's what happened to you, after all." he mutters bitterly after a long period of heavy, thick silence, gaze still drilling holes into the ground, and fists clenching tightly as the words escape his lips. A part of him is probably trying to vex Kakashi that way, take revenge for that horrible vision, but the older man simply accepts the truth of these words, and does not react, keeping his face stone.
"Yes, it's what happened to me. And for that reason, I need you to promise me that no matter what happens to any of us during the days to come, you'll live on, pursue your dreams, become Hokage, and be happy. Is that clear, Naruto?" Kakashi asks, his tone suddenly forceful, demanding, and his glare oddly intense.
And the young man wants to be angry at this ridiculous conversation, and at all the nonsense his teacher is spewing, all that nonsense that is obviously not going to happen, but when he makes eye contact again, the urgency he discovers in Kakashi's expression, the overwhelming affection and the authoritative yet begging look, shocks him and softens him.
Kakashi-sensei... You want to help me avoid your own mistakes, don't you? To protect me from survivor's guilt or whatever it's called?
You want to make sure I don't end up miserable, living in the past, regretting.
"The best we can do to honour our dead is to live on for them", right? Tsunade-baa-chan told me so, after Jiraiya's sacrifice.
But you don't have to worry, because this will never happen.
I won't let any of you die.
I won't let you.
"I won't let any of you die." Naruto declares quietly, but with solemn gravity, his jaw clenched. The silver-haired jounin's face tenses in exasperation at the words, realising that the young man is still unwilling to explore the possibility of things not turning out as planned, is still unwilling to come to terms with a possible loss. He could repeat things he's told the boy before (that he can't always save everyone, that shinobi die, that life is life), but he knows he will accomplish nothing by trying to appeal to Naruto's rational side.
So he tries again, appealing purely to the jinchuuriki's emotions.
The good thing with always being so dreadfully composed, controlled, cool, is that when you rip your composure into pieces, when you choose to exhibit passion, the surprise factor is so large that the people before you can do little but stare, Kakashi knows, and so, despite feeling the slightest pang of guilt for being about to manipulate the younger man a bit, he decides that he simply needs to know that Naruto will look after himself no matter what, that he will be alright.
Besides, it's not manipulation if the sentiment I am exhibiting is actually honest, is it?
He lifts the hitai-ite.
Then, he walks up to the blond until their faces are almost touching, grabs his hand with a swift and savage motion and, crushing it between his own gloved hand and his chest while nailing the boy with ferocious, mismatched eyes, he repeats his request. "Promise me."
Naruto feels his heart hammer inside his chest, and his blue eyes widen, dazed.
Kakashi-sensei... This is really imporant to him.
I've never seen him like that before.
Asking for a promise... It's so unlike him.
"I... I promise." he finally mutters, and staggers back, shaken.
The jounin's eyes squint upwards with sudden glee, all seriousness vanishing from his face, and he slips his hand into the pockets of his flak jacket, reaching to retrieve the porn he'd put away a few minutes ago. "That's really nice of you, Naruto. Lets go back to the others, neh?" he states, and starts walking, slouchy as ever. The boy stares at the abrupt metamorphosis in absolute and utter disbelief, but he can do nothing but follow.
Back at the clearing, Kakashi gathers them all around him. "Now go rest. Go do all your teary family goodbye things, or your solitary existential meditations, because in a few short hours, I want you back here, fully ready. We'll leave before the sun rises," he tells them, wrapping his arms around Sakura's and Sai's shoulders as he speaks.
"What about the ones who have no family, and who don't know what "existential" means?" asks Naruto a fraction of a second letter, a frown on his whiskered face. There's no sadness in his voice as he mentions his lack of living biological family; he's well over the constant sense of loss he felt as a child.
"Well, my parents have already received their farewells, and I am not sure I want to face them again. Besides, you're as much my family as they are, Naruto. So, we could go get ramen together, and come back here, to eat. And then we could go get our things and sleep out here, too, you know, to get our minds into mission mode earlier rather than later." Sakura suggests with a cautious smile (she is always cautious when suggesting things, Kakashi notes, she does not accept anything less than a great idea from herself), and her green eyes meet Naruto's, where she is pleased to find much enthusiasm. He beams a huge grin her way, and she can tell it is not only because of the mention of his favourite food, but mostly because, despite being so self-sufficient, Naruto does not like being alone when it truly matters.
"Would that be alright if I come, too? Not that I like you that much, but I have nothing better to do." Sai inquires, his tone flat and uncaring and his attempt at humour fairly weak, but from the slightly increased rate of blinking, the silver-haired jounin can tell he cares about the answer he's about to receive, and seems as close to nervous as Sai could ever seem.
"Of course you can, Sai!" the jinchuuriki yells at him, scolding him for even having asked the question, while simultaneously shooting his lasers of friendly warmth at the unsuspecting ink nin.
"Yamato-taichou should come, too. If he wants to, that is..." Sakura adds in a seemingly light manner, as if the thought had only just occurred to her, but Kakashi, despite his one visible eye, is too observant to miss the slight colour on her cheeks, or the inconspicuous traces of tremour in her voice. Ah, so it's already quite mutual. I'm honestly glad for them, they are beautifully well-matched. Let us hope they will live long enough to find that out.
"Ahh..." Yamato stammers, and the Sharingan-wielder needs not be a prophet to know his predictable kohai will lift up his right hand and awkwardly scratch the back of his head, while bearing a sheepish smile. And of course, Yamato promptly does just that. "Yes... I... That would be nice." he finally manages to utter, his warm, brown eyes strictly limited to staring at a random rock near Sakura's feet.
"You, Kakashi? You must come, it's not the same without you." the blond suddenly says, almost snarls, interrupting the slightly awkward but fairly loveable antics of his two companions, his voice ringing clear and strong. The copy-nin is not sure why the invitation surprises him. It shouldn't. He is well-aware that Naruto cares about his comrades more than anything, and he obviously loves having them by his side, the more the better. He and Sakura have been forcing him to go out with them for years, pulling him into ramen shops by the sleeve while trying to peek under his mask.
Still, this is a bit different. Kakashi muses, slightly awed by how comfortable the Uzumaki seems with -demanding- his presence and by how the kid (who isn't a kid, Kakashi, stop forgetting that) is staring at him so heatedly, as if anything less than having him come along will simply not do.
"Sure," he throws casually, and takes out his dirty little book, this time not really to immerse himself in any saucy passages, but rather to hide himself from these impossibly scorching eyes, to shield himself from his own discomfort, and the strange feeling in his gut.
Well, at least tomorrow we'll probably die, so I won't really have to think about how to deal with this.