Chapter 02: For Me

"Good! That's good. Now do it again."

Naruto gaped desolately up at him and tried not to let him see the tears that felt like they were already gathering. "Again? But... but I've already done it at least a hundred times already!"

Kakashi-sensei raised a finger. "Seventy-four. I told you we were going to go through this eighty times. Count your lucky stars; I was originally going to put our goal at two hundred."

"But I'm tired, and I hurt all over, and I'm hungry, and I just, I'm just, I'm tired, and- and-" his lip trembled. Naruto bit it viciously and looked at the ground, hoping he could hold in his tears. His knees were shaking, and the stars had come out, and he just wanted to lay down and sleep...

Kakashi watched him impassively, utterly emotionless. Naruto knew that this usually meant that he would say something like "It doesn't matter if you're tired; would an enemy let you have a ten minute break?" He sighed and turned miserably back to the beaten-up log he was practicing on and tried to get his feet in the right place and his arms up, but he was just so tired, and his hands fell back to his sides and he could feel the tears on his face. "I can't," he said in a very small voice. "I can't."

"Yes, you can." Kakashi-sensei knelt beside him and gently positioned him, pointing him towards the log. "Six more times, Naru. Just six more, then we can rest, I promise."

"You said that last time," Naruto answered bitterly, but he traced the move anyway, trying to encourage himself with a little resentment, but it didn't help at all. All it did was make him want to cry more. He pressed his lips together stubbornly and sniffed, hard, as he redid the move again, and again, and again, and again, and again. And then he wobbled and fell sideways, but Kakashi-sensei was in the way, and he caught him before he could hit the ground.

"There. See? Now you're done," he said softly, letting Naruto sink to his knees. "We can stop for the night."

"I don't want to do this anymore." Naruto sniffed again and rubbed his nose on his sleeve. "I don't want to do all this anymore."

"Yes, but you have to." Kakashi settled cross-legged beside him. Naruto hesitated, then allowed himself to collapse into his sensei's lap, his head thumping against the jonin's chest.

"No, I don't want to. I know I have to. I just don't want to." he closed his burning eyes, forcing down the lump in his throat. He was just so tired...

"I know. None of us want to do this. But we have to, so we do." Kakashi-sensei put his arm around Naruto and leaned back a little, propping himself up with his other hand. "Don't worry. Eventually, you'll get used to it, and then it'll be easier. It still won't be a walk in the park, but it will be easier. You won't break down crying every night." he brushed a tear from Naruto's cheek as the boy laughed weakly.

"I don't cry every night. Just... sometimes."

"You've cried every night for the past eight, nine days. How about, tomorrow, we take things easy? You can't be doing too well with only a few hours of sleep. You are a kid, after all."

"Mmm. Okay. That sounds good." Naruto turned his head and buried his face in Kakashi's vest. "Just... no more running laps around the village. Please. My legs still hurt."

"Drink some water before you go to bed, and walk around for a bit when you get home."

"Does that mean I still have to run tomorrow?"

"Every day, kiddo."

"Damn."

Kakashi laughed and squeezed him a little. "Where and when did you learn that? I hope not from me."

"Mmm, I can't remember. Don't know why I didn't know it earlier. It's a nice word. It's... is solid the right word?" Naruto tilted his head back to look up at his sensei. "It's solid, but it isn't sharp. It's like... it's like a river rock, all smooth and worn-down, but it still hurts when it hits you in the face."

The jonin smiled. "Maa, that sounds right. Do you always describe words like that?"

"Yeah. No. Not usually. All the time." Naruto shook his head. "I'm too tired to think right now. Can I go home?"

"Yes." Kakashi heaved himself to his feet, pulling Naruto up with him. "I'm tired just looking at you. Want me to walk you back?"

"No, I can get there on my own." Naruto rubbed his eyes vigorously and yawned widely. "It'll be fun trying to get past all the drunks with my legs about to cramp." he grinned and Kakashi chuckled.

"Maa, and just think, if they catch you, you've got a new move to try on them. Just remember to aim below the belt, alright?"

"Yessir. G'night, sensei!" Naruto skipped away, humming to himself. He didn't know why, but he just couldn't hate Kakashi-sensei. He didn't particularly like him, but at least he couldn't hate him. He was nice, sometimes, but he was also really strict, and, as Iruka-nii had said, a perfectionist. Somehow, that was a good thing. He didn't know why he felt that way, but it was nice, being able to trust someone. Even if they were mean sometimes.

He took his sensei's advice and walked around his room, dragging his feet, as he sipped a glass of water. Several times, his legs felt on the edge of cramping, but every time, they relaxed soon afterward. It was one in the morning when he felt that it was safe to go to bed.

Dreams...

Someone was chasing him, but he couldn't look over his shoulder to see who it was. His legs hurt, there was a stitch in his side, and his feet were like lead, dragging as if through thick mud. Heartbeats pounded in his ear like temple drums. And yet, oddly, he was not afraid; on the contrary, he was laughing breathlessly, happy as he never was when awake. He knew that, even though the someone was dangerous, they would never hurt him, or catch him. They were a good person, they were someone he could trust-

"Idiot! Keep running!"

He started, stumbled, began running again. He couldn't remember dropping to a jog. Looking around for whoever had spoken, bewildered, he saw himself running with him.

The boy who looked like him turned his head and stared at him. His eyes seemed... wrong, somehow. Wrong and upside down and inside out and frightening...

"Run, dammit!" the boy snarled, "D'you want him to catch us? He'll hurt us, you know he will!"

"But... he's... my friend..." he gasped, confused and slightly frightened. He stumbled again, and the boy grabbed his elbow, dragging him along. He looked barely inconvenienced, though his pace was much faster than Naruto's.

"No, he isn't! No one is our friend, no one but each other! We don't need anyone else." The boy jerked him forward suddenly, and wrapped his arm around Naruto's waist. "Hold on. We're gonna jump it."

"Jump what?" Naruto got out, and then they were in the air, and below them flashed an ocean of shadows, seething and roiling with dark red beasts that gamboled, laughing, in the shadows. Naruto smiled at their obvious joy. "Why did we jump? Why can't we play with them? Aren't they our friends, too?"

"Idiot!" the boy pinched his waist viciously. "I told you, no one is our friend. They're a trap laid by the Old One."

"Old One?"

"Don't you even know about the people inside you?" The boy cast him a disdainful glare. "The Old One! The One sealed within us at our birth! Well, your birth. No one knows about me." The boy grinned as they touched down on the other side of the sea. "There. That should buy us time. No one gets to break into our head and mess with us but me." the boy let go of Naruto and stepped back, his strange, sickening eyes shining with triumph. "Now, go play somewhere else. We don't need you letting third parties into our problems."

"Who are you?" Naruto asked, staring, fascinated. "What's up with your eyes? Are they... oh... oh god..." he recoiled from the boy, a whimper pressing at his throat.

The boy blinked his skinned eyes, his grin fading. "My eyes? What do you mean? They've always been like this." he reached up and touched his cheekbone. "You made them like this, remember? When you made me. You wanted me to see things more clearly than you." he grinned again. "As for who I am... you can just call me Kai."

And suddenly everything was swept away in a howling vortex of darkness, gray things flitting past him, brushing his skin, and he screamed with fear, because there were boys with eyes that wept blood and oceans of shadow filled with disgusting, horrifying demons and people who chased him forever and suddenly everything was clear, how COULD he not see how frightening and disturbing and terrifying this all was, a hell on earth, a hell in his head, and he wept and wept and wept until his hands were stained with blood, and the skin came off his eyes, leaving marbles of muscle and goo and veins in his sockets, and he screamed again, but silently, because how could he be scared of what he was? What they were?

And he continued to weep...

~~~\0/~~~

"Alright... team seven, your next mission is to guard Master Haike as he and his mother visit his cousins, across the border in the Land of Mist."

Kakashi sighed and rubbed the back of his neck, glancing at his students. Sasuke and Sakura's expressions lightened slightly as they recognized a mission out of the village; Naruto looked worried and tired, turned within. Maybe he shouldn't have pushed him so hard... but if he hadn't, Naruto wouldn't have improved so much, so quickly. He was still sub-standard... but he was getting better. He WAS.

"Go and meet him at the gates in twenty-five minutes. He will have further instructions for you when you arrive."

Kakashi inclined his head. "Yes, sir. C'mon." he turned and began walking out of the room. Naruto snapped back to the present, and hurried after him, Sasuke and Sakura following. Kakashi slowed until the last two past him, but put out his hand to halt Naruto. "You all right, kid?" he asked softly, "You still look exhausted."

"Uh? Oh..." Naruto hung his head. "I... I had a really weird dream. There was this boy... he looked like me, but he wasn't, and his eyes... something about his eyes... they were... WRONG. There was something really wrong with them." he pressed the heels of his palms against his eyes. "I don't know. I've been trying to remember, because it seemed important, but... I... I can't."

"Maa, well, don't fry your brain. Maybe if you don't try to remember, you will. Now hurry, we've got twenty minutes to get there."

"Okay." Naruto jogged past Sasuke and Sakura and down the stairs, whistling quietly. The other two children looked up at Kakashi, Sasuke raising an eyebrow.

"Well? What are you looking at?" Kakashi demanded brusquely, "Get going. We haven't got all day."

Twenty minutes later, they had gathered a few streets away from the gate and were making their way there. Kakashi had decided not to be late; Master Haike was notorious for underpaying if his hired ninja were late, and they needed every bit of money they could scrape together, these days.

At twenty-three minutes, they were standing before their client, who looked them over and scowled. "Hmph. Distinctly sub-grade," he muttered, turning away. The children bristled, but they were used to it by now. Kakashi rubbed the back of his head, resigning himself to a trip full of snide remarks and insults.

Master Haike was not that old; late thirties to early forties, at least. He looked younger because of his refusal to grow a beard to hide his baby-face. His mother, wrapped in furs and bundled into a sedan chair carried by eight miserable-looking servants, was ancient. This had no impact on her beauty, which had turned ice-cold and formidable with age. She eyed all four of them as her son mounted his (expensive) riding horse.

"...You and you." she pointed at Sakura and Naruto. "You are useless. You," she pointed to Sasuke next, "have potential, but you are also weak. You, however..." her finger trailed to Kakashi, who braced himself for whatever insult she deemed appropriate.

"...You are not a good teacher," she sniffed, frowning at him, "You are a good solider, I can see that, but you are not a teacher. What the devil were you thinking, accepting a post as sensei?"

"With all respect, my lady, I couldn't refuse." Kakashi bowed slightly, mockingly. "The Hokage himself contacted me for this post, and I can't refuse my paycheck."

A cold little smile curled her painted lips. "Oh, I like you," she purred, settling back in her sedan chair, "I like you very much. Haike-chan, we are hiring this one next time as well."

"Yes, mother," Haike acquiesced sulkily, kicking his horse into a trot. The servants groaned as one and began trotting to keep up. The children ranged around the small group, with Kakashi at the back. Setting out this time, Naruto did not scream or shout with amazement; in fact, he looked distinctly put-out, though Kakashi could only see his back. He decided it must have been the lady's comment on his being useless.

"You." a bejeweled hand beckoned from around the corner of the sedan chair. "Come here."

Kakashi sighed and sped up into a tireless lope that he had picked up from observing the wolves up in the mountains of Iwa. "Yes, lady?" he inquired, looking up at her apathetically.

"My son forgot to explain the situation, as he often does." she adjusted her furs fussily. "We are going to visit my nieces and nephews in Mist. They are not rich, but they pretend." her lip curled. "Utterly ridiculous, but I am not in a position to order my sister to run her household differently. As it is, she is still young; younger than I, at any rate. She also has a taste for young men, thus her husband's ridiculous youth. I suggest that you avoid being alone with her, at all costs. As you will also be escorting us home, and we are to stay for several days, you and your students shall be quartering with the servants. Your job is to discourage robbers, brigands, and the like."

Kakashi nodded. "As expected. Forgive me, my lady, but the last time we took a mission similar to this one, our client had... several very powerful enemies. The situation got slightly out of hand. Do you know of anyone who would be targeting you or your son?"

She snorted. "That buffoon? Of course no one would attack him. I love him, but he is utterly ridiculous." Kakashi decided that she liked the word ridiculous. "As for myself, I would not know. No one has yet to be openly hostile towards me except ruffians in the street, and I doubt they would be much trouble."

"You'd be surprised," Kakashi murmured, but inclined his head respectfully. "Any further orders, lady?"

"No, that is all." she waved her hand in a vague dismissal, and Kakashi dropped back behind her chair again, though he did not drop out of his stride. It was very comfortable, and he could go for miles like this.

They did not encounter any trouble until they reached the checkpoint at the border. Master Haike was reaching for his papers when the shinobi guards realized that the children and man with them were not mere retainers, but enemy ninja, and had reached for their weapons before Haike could stop them.

Kakashi stepped forward and raised one hand in salute. "The dove flies above the valley and the desert both," he annunciated clearly. The guards hesitated, and one raised his own hand.

"The eagle's aerie accepts the dove," he replied, reluctantly. Kakashi smiled and dropped his hand.

"Thank you."

"Oh, just shut it," the guard growled, "We're only gonna let you pass because you're a genin team." he gestured towards the children. "Don't get cocky, though."

"We won't, I promise." Kakashi assured him as Haike fumbled over his papers. The guard grunted and handed over four bands of white cloth.

"You know the drill," he told the shinobi harshly, before he and his three counterparts retreated into their guardhouse.

Kakashi tied his band around his bicep and watched to make sure the children did the same. "What are these for, anyway?" Sakura asked, frowning as she tightened it. "They didn't say anything about this in our classes."

"They're to mark you as enemy shinobi, of course," Kakashi replied. "You're an enemy, but the guards have let you pass, which means you must have said the appropriate pass-phrase. By the way, that whole dove thing isn't the only phrase, so you don't have to use it if you don't want to. And since I'm the senior shinobi, you three don't even have to talk."

"Cool!" Naruto chirruped, actually grinning. "I don't know Mist-speak anyway."

Kakashi chuckled as they set out again. "Mist-speak? You do know that shinobi learn a central language that's shared by all the villages, right?"

"Is that what they were trying to teach us?" Naruto replied vaguely, "I never really had a knack for it."

"Ah, one more thing to add to our lessons, then," Kakashi sighed, smiling as Naruto yelped. "I mean, I'm not very good, but I can speak it! I promise I can! I don't need anymore lessons!"

"Nope, too late. You can't take it back. Now, should we work on languages before or after the one hundred push-ups...?"

"Never! We don't need to work on it!"

"Yes, you do!" Sakura snapped, shooting him a glare, "You failed that class miserably. Everyone could tell! You don't even know how to say hello!"

"Yes I do! I swear I do!" Naruto cried, looking desperate. "Sensei, please, my brain is already melting into sludge with all those drills you keep putting me through!"

"Well, eat more protein, I guess. That's supposed to be good for your brain." Kakashi shrugged. "If it hurts just from physical drills, then there's something wrong with you."

Naruto groaned in defeat, as the lady chuckled throatily. "Well, you are certainly an amusing duo," she hummed, smiling. Master Haike rubbed his forehead, and the servants grinned among themselves.

Not long after, they had a rest break. Naruto and a couple servants dashed into the woods to take a leak, while the lady descended gracefully from her chair and stood in the middle of the small clearing Sasuke had found off the side of the road. One of her chair-bearers hurried to extract a folding cloth chair from the pile of luggage and get it open for her to rest upon. The remaining servants flopped down in the grass and chattered quietly to each other. Sasuke, Sakura, and Kakashi stood off to one side, the jonin leaning against a tree with his eyes closed.

When Naruto and the servants returned, there was a small scramble to set up an awning so that the lady and her son would not burn from the sun. Master Haike was forced to sit on a log, below his mother, because only one chair had been packed. The lady smirked faintly at this arrangement.

The genin sat a short ways away from their clients while Kakashi circled the camp area, checking for traps or hovering enemy nin. He couldn't set any traps of his own; that would be a breach of the treaty, though no one but him and a few legal personnel would know or care about that. It was only a small break, anyway. He turned back and noticed that his students were busy quarreling over whether it was better to learn many ninjutsu techniques and skills of one element, or to diversify your repertoire. Sakura firmly believed the first, but Naruto was strictly of the second frame of mind. Sasuke showed signs of agreeing with both of them, though he didn't actually say anything.

Kakashi watched for a while, then turned his attention to the servants. They sat and gossiped quietly among themselves, stretching weary muscles and chewing bits of jerked meat and dried fruit for a sustaining snack. They were all plain enough, but two of them had scars on their hands from handling weapons, and there were imprints of blades under their jackets and pant legs. "Guards," Kakashi whispered to himself, so softly as to be inaudible to the average human being. "Guards, and yet they hire us? Well, I guess two guards and a couple of servants wouldn't be enough..."

'But then... why didn't they travel with a larger caravan? I know there was one that was passing through the village we're headed for... maybe Dame Haike doesn't like traveling with others? Do they not have enough coin to join a caravan or bring more servants? But again, why hire us? Shinobi have a higher fee than freelance mercenaries and protection services, even if we are much, much more reliable and trustworthy. We'd better be careful... Just in case.'

He turned his gaze to Dame Haike and her son. They sat perfectly upright, both of them. The lady daintily sipped her tea, a slight smile on her lined, icily-beautiful face. The young master scowled into the distance, doubtlessly thinking of new money-making schemes to feed his mother's traveling addiction. No threats there. Not yet.

They were soon up and moving again. Kakashi taught the genin hand signals and phrases to identify themselves to various allies and enemies. Dame Haike engaged him in conversation again, and they spent an hour and a half exchanging dry remarks and sarcastic comments, heavy with irony. She looked more and more pleased as the day wore on, and when they finally broke off the conversation, she called to Master Haike, "Dear, I'm slightly disappointed in you. This charming young man is an even finer conversationalist than your father. When will you perfect the art of speaking?"

"When you lose your voice," he called back, irate, "So you can't tell me what I'm doing wrong."

Dame Haike only laughed softly, and Kakashi smiled serenely, hoping fervently that the mission ended soon.

Late in the afternoon, they reached a small village and stopped at the inn for supper. Master Haike dismounted and stalked inside to arrange for a private parlor, while Kakashi politely handed Dame Haike out of the sedan chair. Sakura and Sasuke looked at him suspiciously, but he ignore them, watching Naruto worriedly. The boy was looking distinctly unsettled.

The innkeeper led mother and son away, fluttering and laughing too loudly and smiling very wide, leaving the servants and the shinobi to lounge about the common room and mingle with the locals, who were slowly trickling in as the news that a rich couple and their Konoha ninja had come to town. Kakashi was always fascinated by the dynamics of village gossip; he hadn't seen a single person leave the common room, and he was sure he'd have heard a servant running out of kitchen, near the back though it was. And yet, everyone knew that there were strangers in the village.

He wondered how much they must hate them.

He shooed his children to an empty table in a corner, one that had a beautiful view of the entire room and some of the kitchen, and settled them there, while Dame Haike's sedan bearers scattered and sat chattering and nursing their drinks of choice. A serving maid bustled up to them and smiled winningly at Kakashi, who noted dispassionately that her neckline was now lower than it had been when they had first walked in.

"What can I get for ye?" she asked, sharing her smile with the children. Naruto summoned up a grin from some wellspring of eternal good cheer, and Sakura smiled back too. "We've got a good stir fry, and fried rice, and pretty much anything with pork in it."

"Do you have dumplings?" Sakura asked hopefully, "The kind with sweet bean paste?"

"Tha we do." the serving maid agreed genially, "What would the sirs be having, then?"

"...fried rice sounds fine." Sasuke said in a monotone.

"Any ramen?" Naruto asked eagerly, "I really love ramen."

"Well... none tha's being made at the moment, but I can ask Cook if she c'n whip some up for you. And you?" She smiled prettily at Kakashi, who smiled emptily back.

"I'm fine. Maybe a glass of sake?"

"Of course," she flustered, cheeks turning pink. Kakashi wasn't surprised; Kurenai and Anko had done the same thing upon his first meeting with them. According to Anko, it was something about his voice. He'd forgotten exactly what she'd said, but apparently his speech sounded like dark chocolate, whatever that meant. "Ah, s-so that would be, bean paste dumplings, fried rice, ramen if we've got any," she flicked a grin at Naruto, who nodded happily, "and a sake. Right. I'll be back with your food soon. In the meantime, I'll send over a pot of tea. We've got the best green tea in the country, we do." she curtsied and hurried away, tugging her neckline higher. Kakashi sighed and shook his head.

"Why is it," he began morosely, "That women are so determined to make themselves look like whores in front of me? She looked barely sixteen..."

"Maybe it's something to do with your voice," Sasuke commented in a tone that suggested he didn't believe a word of what he was saying. "She only blushed when you spoke."

"Maa, maybe. A girl I know told me I sounded like dark chocolate, whatever that means." he shrugged and leaned back on his stool, propped up by the wall. "She isn't very good at describing people."

"No, you just aren't poetic," Sakura argued testily, "By dark chocolate, she meant that your voice is smooth and bittersweet, but it has dark undertones, and it's, it's strong, and a little cold, whereas milk chocolate is warm and melts easily. That's what dark chocolate means. But I guess she was wrong, because you just sound like an old man to me," she snorted, turning away. Kakashi blinked and raised an eyebrow.

"Maa, I would think I sound more like a person than a piece of candy," he murmured, leaning his head back and crossing his arms over his chest. "Although, according to some people, being called 'delicious' is a good thing..."

"Being called delicious means the speaker is aroused," Sakura told him stiffly.

"And they want a taste?" he asked, amused, as she blustered and flushed angrily. "Because I'm pretty sure I've seen women drooling over me and my friends before..."

"I thought you didn't have friends," Naruto blurted.

Kakashi took a breath to reply, and held it, staring at Naruto and thinking hard. "...well, yes, I do have friends," he answered slowly, "At least, I think I do. I don't see them very much anymore."

"Because you're too busy drinking and picking up women?" Sasuke guessed, amusement touching his face and lifting one corner of his mouth. Kakashi shook his head sadly.

"I wish. No, I'm stuck tutoring the dunce." he nodded towards Naruto, who colored at the name. "His form is getting better, but he still sucks. Also, Iruka told me you still haven't covered a tenth of the jutsu that the other academy students have. We'll begin working on that once we get home. Who knows, maybe we'll figure out what affinity you have."

"What's an affinity?" Naruto asked, just as the serving maid set down a small tray with four cups and a beautiful iron teapot.

"An affinity is when a shinobi, thank you very much, a shinobi has a preference for a certain element and style of jutsu. Not just a preference that's accepted by the conscious mind, a preference and ability that the body, soul, and subconscious mind all accept and are attuned to." he picked up his tea and held it close to his mask, hesitating before he took a drink. "You'd better all become interested in the rest of the room, or I'll be very, very angry." he said calmly. The children reluctantly turned and looked out at the common room, which was growing more and more crowded. Kakashi pulled his mask down and quickly downed a swallow, replacing the cloth before anyone got a good look at his face.

"Okay, you can turn around, now. An affinity is like, Sasuke's clan is- was- renowned for its prowess with fire jutsu. Another example is the Hokage; the bulk of his repertoire is earth-based jutsu. He knows more, much more, than just earth, but that's the element he's most comfortable with. He and my father were reasonably close, which is how I know." he fiddled with his cup, trying to hold off the dark mood that threatened to engulf him. "Maybe that's why he took pity on me..."

He shook himself suddenly, setting down the cup and grinning at his students. "Maa, what am I saying? There's no point in talking about the past. So, we were speaking of affinities."

Naruto nodded silently, still looking slightly uneasy. Sakura and Sasuke stared at him openly. There was silence at their table until the serving maid appeared with their food. Kakashi thanked her quietly, and the silence returned, the children eating without a word. She had brought the bottle of sake as well; Kakashi drained his cup when no one was looking and refilled it immediately, wondering why the tension was so palatable in their corner of the room. He played with his glass, scanning the room, more alert now that he had his guard up. There were many glares being shot in their direction, but their white bands proclaimed their safety behind the border. The commoners knew what those meant, so close to the edge of their country.

Dame and Master Haike were taking a while. But maybe he was being overly suspicious. After all, he'd taken a meal with many a fine family, and everything was always pomp and ceremony with the upper classes.

The servants looked in good cheer, and the guards, though wary, were also openly friendly. A good strategy, but not for a visible warrior. They, at least, had uniforms and subterfuge to hide behind; due to the treaty, Kakashi and his students did not. If caught in an openly, or not so openly hostile activity, even if it were just hiding their headbands and wearing civilian clothes, they forfeited the privilege of safe passage.

He scanned the room again, slowly. There was a small group of brigands to one side, looking casual and distant and furtive. The wind was up with them. Kakashi slowly, oh so slowly, began to stand up. His students looked up, puzzled. None of the servers noticed. One of the brigands did.

Their eyes met, black and silver. Kakashi held his gaze a moment, then gave the man a slow nod and sat back down again. The brigand allowed discomfort and a bit of confusion to fill his face before he turned back to his companions, talking fast and low at them. They glanced at Kakashi, surprised, then uneasy, as he met each of their gazes. He wanted them to be sure that he existed.

His children looked from him to the brigands. Sasuke was the one who spoke, wiping a grain of rice from his chin.

"Are they a threat, sensei?" he asked calmly, almost blandly, sipping his tea.

"Not sure. Probably." Kakashi watched until they stopped staring, and reluctantly turned back to his children. "Just keep on your toes. Naruto, we're not going to do any training tonight. I want all of you ready, and you won't be if I exhaust you for the fun of it. Ah. Our master and mistress emerge." he slipped a tip under the tea pot and stood again as Dame and Master Haike swept out into the common room, searching for their people. The servants also sprang to their feet, bowing and hurrying out to ready the sedan chair. The shinobi wound their way through the crush, taking their sweet time. Master Haike was having a whispered argument with the innkeeper, anyway. Dame Haike looked in desperate need of a good laugh and a little interesting conversation, so Kakashi, upon drawing even with her, murmured a low "Strange, isn't it, how commoners hate and fear the nobility as well as us shinobi? A single Daimyo could hire a dozen shinobi and command them as he wills, but a single shinobi can control all the Daimyo in the country, with the right words and enough money."

She smiled thinly. "A shinobi is very different from a noble, and yet we are not that different. I pity you; a great mind like yours, turned to warfare. You would have been a fine scholar and politician, if you had never entered the horrible business of killing for money."

"It's not just killing; it's guardianship, and letting little brats spit up on you, and fetching heads back to your client," Kakashi told her cheerfully, stuffing his hands in his pockets. "I could have been a scholar, or a politician, or even the head of a crime syndicate; but I like being a shinobi. There's a... a freedom to it, do you see? I may be nothing but a tool, but I hold no responsibility. Just as the nobility may control the lives of their serfs and peasants, but you ultimately cannot be expected to understand that they really are human, because you have been taught all your lives that peasants are nothing but pigs. It's sad, really, but, as you said, we are not so different from one another. Neither of us know better."

She looked at him, a long and thoughtful stare. "...Such a pity," she said softly, "Such a great pity that you shall be leaving us in a mere week's time. We have much to talk of, and much to say."

"And little words to say them with. Ah, I believe the negotiation has been concluded." he straightened a little as Master Haike, looking sour, stomped back to them, the innkeeper smiling broadly and thanking him loudly for his generosity. "How went it, sir?"

"Terribly," he spat back, looking daggers at Kakashi. "Come; Lady Futekietsu expects us."

"And it would be a terrible thing to keep Lady Futekietsu waiting," Kakashi replied cheerfully, smiling broadly. "Shall we, then?"

~~~\0/~~~

Again, he ran through golden fields. Now the one who chased him was no friend, but no longer an enemy, either; they were a sad, lost being, running because they had to, because they needed to. He felt badly for them, but he couldn't stop. If he did, the being would have to stop too, and then they would lose their purpose, and fade.

Kai ran with him, their pace matched evenly, the blood and mucus trailing in speed lines across the other boy's cheekbones, like colored tears. He grinned.

"There will be a battle soon. Can't you smell it?" He took a deep, appreciative breath and let it out in a breathy, eager laugh. "Bloodshed, and adrenaline, and a chance to show our skills... sensei will be proud, ne?"

"Maybe," he gasped in reply to his other self. "Maybe not. How can you tell a battle is coming? All I smell is a storm on the way. But it's not the rain and lightning kind."

"That's what I meant by smelling battle." Kai angled his stride so that he swerved closer to him, and hooked his arm around the other's, elbows locked snugly. He grinned, peeled eyes somehow bright and focused. "The storm is coming. The storm of anger and fear and hurt, the storm of war and battles and death. It is a big thing, and it is coming. We'll be ready, Naru. We'll be ready for it."

Naruto smiled, slowly. "I believe you. Yes. We will be ready for it."

~~~\0/~~~

Hello, my lovelies~ Thank you for the reviews, favorites, and alerts! You make my day brighter by dropping off those little pieces of electronic love. XD

A small concern that I must voice: I'm not good at timing, or calling attention to the passing of days, weeks, months, etc. So, last chapter spanned three, four weeks. This one spans two days. Good lord, things certainly do pick up when you have an actual plot all planned out. XD If any of you have suggestions for directions this story could take... well, anon reviews are on, and my messages are open! Come! Come forth and flood me with criticism and scorn! -flings arms wide- I await thee eagerly!

(*The world loves you!*)