a/n: Thanks for the responses for last chapter! I saw a lot of familiar names - it's good to be back :)

Chapter 50: Shadows


It was surprisingly easy slipping back into old habits. Kakashi had tried to act more like the bright-eyed child he was expected to be, to mimic his classmates' enthusiasm - if even just a fraction of it -, but that futile endeavour lasted not even the span of a week. Any Jounin would find themselves lulled into boredom if asked to retake the Academy curriculum – never mind one who'd soared through their classes the first time around, when he'd been no older than five.

It was no surprise Kakashi quickly lost interest.

The Academy was torture no man should suffer.

He felt like the center of a storm, as chaos, in the form of children, ensued around him. Personal space seemed to be a foreign concept, because they crowded like puppies - which would've been cute, because Kakashi had a love for canines, except they yapped just as loudly but didn't know basic commands like sit or be quiet.

Kakashi hoped Minato realised just how much he loved him to endure this misery for the blond.

Kakashi had taken to burying his head in his arms in order to try and get some peace and quiet, because nothing else seemed to stop those snort-nosed brats from persistently talking to him otherwise. Obito, unfortunately (fortunately?) seemed to be the sole exception. Ever since he'd agreed to be Obito's friend, that boy refused to get the hint. Obito was exactly as Kakashi remembered him to be, with no sense of danger, constantly prodded the sleeping dragon that was Kakashi. The Uchiha was lucky Kakashi was fond of him.

"Obito, go bother someone else," Kakashi uttered from under his arms, voice slurring ever so slightly. The moment he'd realised he had to endure an entire school term under these conditions, he already had half the mind to confront the chunin teacher and demand his graduation. Yet somehow, no matter how annoying the kids and Obito could be, he found himself unable to just up and lose the budding friendship they were slowly but surely building.

Although, knowing Obito, the fact that Kakashi was nice (nice enough) to him meant they were besties already. Still, it was healing to have the chance to actually connect with Obito Uchiha without the unnecessary need of the Uchiha's death to tie the bonds of their inevitable friendship together.

"Aww, but you're more fun to be around," Obito informed him.

"Because I insult you?" Kakashi said incredulously, because he never bothered too much with censoring his remarks, and overtime Obito had clearly become immune to him. It likely helped that Kakashi, this time, knew to avoid certain landmines.

"You're just constantly cranky," Obito replied flippantly. "My little nieces and nephews are like that too when they don't get enough sleep."

He was being compared to infants. Obito, of course, looked completely clueless to the insult he uttered out. Sometimes Kakashi wondered how many of their old arguments way back when, were due to Obito's careless mouth.

Kakashi supposed there were moments of true irritation he felt at the other boy (forgetting the fact that he decades older, this was Obito he was talking about, of course he was infuriating), but then again, after being stuck with Naruto of all people, Kakashi had more than enough practice taking it in stride. Naruto was the epitome of obnoxious when the kid first started out, and Obito was only a close second on that list.

That being said, expectedly, in less than a week, Obito Uchiha quickly became the bane of their sensei's existence. He was loud, stubborn, and mischievous – all the qualities no teacher could bear without prematurely growing white hair. Once upon a time, Kakashi would have found it below him to be amused by someone like Obito. Unsurprisingly, Kakashi had no qualms this time around; he had a thing for silly excuses nowadays.

-THP-

Obito raced towards where Kakashi was lounging, in loud thundering steps, trying to restrain himself from outwardly skipping. If it weren't such a childish thing to do, he'd do it in a heartbeat, because there was nothing he liked better than hanging out with his best friend.

Kakashi was under the shade of a solitary comer in the Academy courtyard, away from where the rest of the students were playing. His shoulder were hunched, hands in pockets, body weight entirely on the wall behind him, looking a breath away from falling asleep standing up. It was a common sight, and one that Nimori-sensei was prone to reprimanding Kakashi for. Apparently, Kakashi wouldn't have what it took to stay alert long enough to detect enemy-nin, if he persisted with such bad habits.

Kakashi only ever acknowledged Nimori's words with unintelligible hums from the back of his throat, or lazy stares that prolonged into awkward silences, and then ultimately a lethargic request for him to repeat his comment – multiple times.

Obito swore Nimori-sensei was likely to tear his hair out in frustration one of these days.

"Ka-ka-shi!" Obito sang happily when the raven-haired boy finally reached his friend.

The younger boy's grey-blue eyes softened at his appearance, an action that hadn't taken Obito long to notice only occurred with selected people, most notably his guardian Minato. The moment the Uchiha realised he was also a target to that endearing expression, his heart had overflowed and threatened to permanently stitch a wide grin on his face. It made Obito feel special, especially when the norm usually consisted of scornful glares from his family at the Uchiha Compound. It was no surprise Obito found himself going over to the Namikaze-Hatake Complex with an increasing tendency over the months. It was his home away from home – even if he got an earful from his relatives every day for spending his free time with 'the Hatake of all people'.

There'd been a story there about a Sakumo Hatake, which Obito hadn't bothered too much remembering, because knowing his family, the information was biased. And also, what did a Sakumo have anything to do with his friendship with Kakashi?

"Hmm?" Kakashi hummed, greeting Obito with a curt nod.

Obito's lips were stretched wide and bright, arms waving wildly. "Did you see me at taijutsu practice today? I so totally ruled! I dodged Endou's attack without breaking a sweat," the boy cheered, his grandeur actions easily making up for Kakashi's usual lack of.

Kakashi looked away to hide a grin. "I believe you tripped."

"It was a tactical trip," Obito corrected.

"You fell on your face."

"So that he couldn't hit my face!"

"You didn't move for a minute afterwards."

"It hurt," Obito whined, before glowing as he received a chuckle from the other boy. "Yes! I made you laugh!" Obito let the smile on his face pull into something more natural and golden, elated at Kakashi's amusement. Playing pranks to get cheap laughs were one thing, but making his best friend happy was something that surpassed even the greatest trick he could pull on his fellow classmates.

Obito pumped his fist in the air. "Alright! Today is going to be a wonderful day!" the boy cheered, "The sun is shining and everyone is happy!" because apparently, Kakashi counted as 'everyone'.

-THP-

Meanwhile, though the day seemed so bright and cheerful to some, as like the two boys by the Academy courtyard, this atmosphere was only one side of the coin. After all, beneath all things white and pure, still inevitably lurks an unyielding shadow, forever present. And such was the case, for not too far away, the flavour of dark suspicion clung onto the mission an Anbu had been assigned to only seconds ago, sent out by the Hokage.

When Minato first came to him with the word 'Root' hissing off his lips, it sparked an immediate notion to be considered. His suspicions were doubly confirmed after a bit of questioning revealed Danzou's clandestine meeting with Minato, and the nature of that conversation.

Hiruzen was hailed as The Professor by his peers for a reason - he had a brilliant mind unparalleled by many, and his age only served to expand that wisdom. But then again, he hadn't needed to be any bit scholarly to deduce the murky scheme that Danzou seemed entangled with. Why else would his old friend talk to Minato about adopting Kakashi into his family of orphans, suggesting the matter be kept between the two of them? Were it any other child, such a request could easily be overlooked, because Hiruzen's consent on adoptions was not strictly necessary. However Kakashi was a unique case because he held talent in the ninja arts that soared above those his age, yet he was alone and broken to the mercy of the world.

In such a circumstance, Danzou's insistence couldn't be disregarded, because the Elder knew better than that.

Hiruzen had an inkling his orphaned family wasn't something he approve of, and with the name 'Root' spoken so soon after, it drew a conclusion he couldn't turn a blind eye to.

The subdivision of Root had once-upon-a-time been under Danzou's control, until Hiruzen had gotten hints of untoward methods they may or may not have been using. With its uncertainty, and an internal audit that revealed little loss with the disbandment of the unsettling subdivision, Hiruzen had it promptly dismantle, letting its agents part or merge within the main Anbu branch.

Danzou had been livid at the time, waxing intricate arguments, worded so beautifully like interpretive poetry in an attempt to halt the disbandment. In the end, Danzou stepped down when Hiruzen refused to retract his order, finally conceding to his wishes.

Hiruzen had thought nothing about it at the time – he'd know Danzou's rage, but he'd only expected his old friend to simmer in the anger, sulkily ignoring him before finally realising nothing could be done and truly accepting that fact.

What he hadn't expected was Danzou to have defied him all these years, lying barefacedly through his teeth every time they met. He'd thought their years of friendship meant more to him than that.

Of course, such conjectures relied on the fact that these weren't deliberately whispered suggestion, placed for the sole purpose of incriminating Danzou. Words from the lips of the Copycat was not ones to be trusted implicitly, especially since he was the first to bring up the term 'Root', as though he knew the full impact that unassuming word would bring.

The cycle of Anbu Hiruzen dispatched over the course of the month to loosely keep an eye on Danzou all reported nothing of consequence. There were a few who could not help to mention the unease nudge of their instincts in the presence of the Elder - though reported in confidence and unofficially, of course – but nothing more concrete than that. Yet, while it couldn't be taken as proof of any dastardly deeds, but it did plague constantly in his heart, never allowing Hiruzen to fully replenish the faith he'd once had for his old friend.

Hiruzen knew he wouldn't have any peace of mind until he was truly convinced of the Elder's innocence (or guilt, as it might be). And if Danzou truly was involved … Hiruzen he couldn't overlook it as Hokage, not if his old friend's loyalty had truly rotted into a toxic seed, fermenting under the foundation of their beautiful Konohagakure.

"I want you to find and report to me every single action Danzou makes in this village, no matter how mundane. I want to know who he talks to, where he spends his time. Do not miss a thing, understood, Cat?" the Hokage had said to his Anbu with the read swirling whiskers of a Cat. There was guilt in his heart, but never in his tone, because the Hokage must consider all possibilities, even if it meant doubting his good friend. "Do not let yourself be seen, for I will not claim any involvement in this mission. The Hokage must never be seen to openly suspect anything of his councilmen or honourable elders without solid proof."

He really didn't need more worrying issues cropping up in Konoha – kids had been going missing, and now this. Hiruzen just hoped they weren't connected.

"Understood."


a/n: I haven't forgotten about Danzou. He's still... there.