Kakashi cut effortlessly through the string of red seal tags encircling the Uchiha Police Headquarters with a tiny spark of lightning, the charred papers fluttering uselessly to the ground. All around him, ninja ebbed and flowed with purpose, with rhythm, bearing supplies, messages, hostages who were slowly being evacuated from the still-treacherous building. He stepped over the blackened mark burnt deeply in the earth, the only sign of the shattered Four Violet Flames Barrier, putting one foot in front of the other, moving forward because it was the only thing he knew how to do.
He walked past the medical tents pitched in front of the library, medics hurriedly ducking in and out, the chuunin message runners stretching in front of a dumpling shop, the ANBU agent lurking watchfully in the shadows of the telephone pole, one hand steady on the hilt of the ninjato resting on her hip. Kakashi walked and walked and walked until he came at last to a crimson red tent marked with the seal of the Hokage, the eye of quiet calm amidst the hurricane of activity encircling all around it.
Two ANBU guards flickered to life by the entryway, slipping into existence in the fragile gap between breaths.
"Hatake Kakashi," said one on the right, black cloak rippling over scarred shoulders. "The Hokage is expecting you."
Kakashi passed through the flaps of the tent, foreign chakra hooking deep into skin, before melting away into emptiness. The inside of the tent was dimly lit and it took a moment for his eye to adjust, his chakra senses stretching out towards the two bright signatures flaring into life as he slipped through the wards. Time stretched like a rubber band, slowing down so Kakashi could make out the freshly-dried tear tracks cutting through dusty cheeks, the individual strands in a halo of yellow hair floating in the breeze from the open tent flap, caught the faint hint of artificially scented banana shampoo through his mask.
Naruto slammed into his shins and Kakashi felt time snap back into place all at once. He sank to his knees as he came to a final stop, caught in place by a small, sobbing boy.
"You came back, you really came back," Naruto cried, his tears soaking through Kakashi's bloodied chuunin blues instantly and leaving rusty brown stains on his whiskered cheeks. "You're so late! You said it was only going to be for a little while and it was forever and ever and ever and I thought you weren't never ever gonna come back."
Kakashi pressed his masked nose in Naruto's hair, breathing in the smell of fake bananas and sweat, and pure, unadulterated joy. He closed his eye.
"Hi Naruto," Kakashi said at last, his voice hoarse. "I'm sorry I'm late. I got a little lost on my way back here."
Naruto wriggled his way into Kakashi's chest, using the vest pockets and zippers as handholds, hauling himself up so they were face to face. His blue eyes stared directly into Kakashi's. "You kill all the bad guys?" Naruto demanded, and Kakashi's heart stuttered, because those were Minato's eyes and Kushina's sharp mouth and a determination that was all Naruto's own.
"Yes," Kakashi said, thinking of the sound that Gari's head had made when it hit the ground, the rattling rasp of Danzou's final breath, the weight of Rin's still-beating heart, nestled in his fist. These he would carry with him for the rest of his life, no matter his past, present, and future. "They're all dead now."
He caught the eye of the Sandaime over Naruto's shoulder, his rich crimson robes blending in with the fabric of the tent. The Hokage's chakra signature lay deceptively dormant, the power banked like a coal fire at night.
The Sandaime inclined his head a notch, the brim of his hat casting his eyes into shadow.
"I'm finished. I've served the Hokage as I've sworn." Kakashi gently wiped at a tear falling down Naruto's cheek. "And I'm not going anywhere else for a long, long time. I promise."
It was a beautiful morning, softly blue like a robin's egg, the air still smelling faintly of the night's rain and damp earth. Uchiha Shisui and Shiranui Genma were laid to rest with full honors, as hundreds of Villagers spilled across the green in front of the Memorial Stone like liquid pools of solemn, shifting black. Uchiha fans brushed against the curling symbol of the Hyuuga Clan, the fangs of the Inuzuka, the waves of the Nara, all bearing and bound by the spiral leaf of Konohagakure, the Village Hidden in the Leaves.
Itachi observed this all underneath his long lashes, with a cold, numb detachment, and there was only one thought circling emptily in his head: This is what he died for.
The Hokage raised his hands in the air, the air rippling with intent. The crowd stilled.
"We have gathered here today to honor the sacrifice of our greatest shinobi…"
"That's a little rude, isn't it? Watching from the shadows and not even bothering to grace your cousin's funeral with your real presence."
Itachi tensed slightly as a freshly sharpened kunai hit the tree he was leaning on with a dull thunk, cutting away a few stray wisps of his bangs.
"Aunt Kiyoko," Itachi, his voice pitched so low that it was nearly indistinguishable from the leaves rustling in the wind.
His aunt acknowledged him with a wide grin, too much like Shisui's and yet not enough. Her curls whipped wildly in the wind, framing her pale face in a fluttering halo. "That's a very good shadow clone you have there standing next to your father." She jerked her hand over to the sea of black, where a reflection of him stood stolidly next to his parents, indistinguishable in the crowd of mourners. "Did you mix some genjutsu in there? Give it your actual clothes so it would smell like you too?"
Itachi said nothing.
The wide grin fragmented into something jagged and broken, a gaping window that Itachi couldn't quite bear to peer into.
"You know, he really did love you," she said, quiet, and it hurt more than any flesh wound, more than if she had just cursed him and damned him to hell. "He loved us all so much more than we deserved." Itachi flinched, his fingers digging into the tree for purchase.
Kiyoko turned away, looking distantly towards the horizon, past the memorial service and the gathered villagers. "Mikoto told me about...your group."
Kiyoko turned her head back towards him. "Your little rebellion. When was the last time you met?"
"I - before." Itachi cleared his throat, the words scraping his throat raw. "Before Shisui left."
Kiyoko nodded sharply. "I don't care about this stupid clan. I don't care what the Elders want. Ambition, wealth, power - what does it mean to the mothers who lose their sons and daughters to endless wars? Honor and duty are cold comfort when we have sacrificed our flesh and blood."
She stalked closer to him, her chakra burning as bright as the sun, a twisted, refracted echo of Shisui's signature. "Carry your regret with you for the rest of your life," she said, coldly. "Remember your part in his death." She leaned into him, her eyes twin coals boring deep into his heart. "And if you ever loved him, you will do your duty and honor his death by fixing this clan, Heir."
Kiyoko effortlessly tugged the kunai out of the tree trunk, bits of dust and chipped bark marring the clean black Itachi's mourning clothes.
Gently, she placed the blade in his hand, then curled his fingers around the worn handle, her callouses catching against his.
"I'll be watching," she said, and in the small eternity between one heartbeat and the next, she vanished.
They had no bells here.
Twenty two had woken up for the past three days to the unusual sound of silence. Sometimes when he woke up, there was a strange woman who smiled kindly at him and prodded him with cold metal things on his chest and back. Other times, there was a meal tray sitting on the little table next to him, filled with weird things like grilled fish and soup with egg floating in it. Twenty two always ate quickly, keeping an eye on the door to make sure no one came in to take the tray away too early. He hid some of the juice boxes they gave him inside his socks for safekeeping and emergency crackers underneath his bed, just in case.
Today, there was a knock on the door, and the strange woman came in after a beat. This time she held a clipboard in her hand and she had a big exaggerated smile that stretched her mouth, showing all of her teeth.
"Hello," she said. "How are you?"
Twenty two looked at her silently, counting the teeth in her mouth.
"Well, uh-" She faltered a little over his assigned number, like she always did. "Twenty two. I have some good news. It's finally safe for you to go out and it looks like physically, you're all okay."
Twenty two counted up to ten teeth, but forgot what came after ten. Eleventy teeth?
"Do you know what that means?"
Twenty two shook his head.
"It means you can join the other children in the playroom," she said, her voice pitched high and cheery. "And you can finally begin your sessions with Yamanaka-sensei, who will help you sort out how you feel on the inside. How does that sound?"
Twenty two felt his heart squish into a tight ball. "Where's sixteen?"
The strange woman blinked, her mouth parting into an 'o'. "Sixteen?" She looked down at the clipboard in her hand. "Sixteen… let me see…"
"He's my brother," twenty two said solemnly. "He has white hair."
"Oh," the woman said, her hand covering her mouth. "Well, if that's your brother sixteen, I think I might know where he is. Do you want to come with me and look for him?"
She held out her other hand and twenty two looked at it for a long moment. She had calloused hands, but they were all the wrong kinds of calluses. He didn't see the ones that came from holding a blade for a long time, nor any dried blood deep in her fingernails.
"Okay," he said, and took her hand in his own. For the first time since he woke up in this strange new world, twenty two left the room to look for his brother.
They slipped into a big white empty hallway with no windows, but twenty two could fuzzily feel some kind of chakra embedded in the walls. It made his hand tingle every time he touched it. The strange woman walked slowly so twenty two didn't have to run, and let him take his time looking at different spots of the wall that felt even more tingly against his hand.
"So you can feel the seals, huh," the woman said.
Twenty two nodded, even though he didn't know what seals were.
They made their way down the hallway - it was two left turns, then a right, before she stopped in front of another door. This time a tall strange man with a bright orange book stood in front of it. He had long white hair like sixteen, except it stuck straight up in the air,
"Hatake-dono," the strange woman said. "I've brought one of the children well enough to play. We're looking for his brother, actually. He's got white hair, like yours."
The tall man looked down at twenty two, and twenty two could see the mark of at least six different knives hidden against the line of his long legs and arms. Maybe more. "Well," the man said, most of his face hidden by a mask and tilted forehead protector. His one visible eye made an upside down U shape. "Look who we have here. What's your name?"
Twenty two couldn't count how many teeth or knives this man had. "Don't have one," he said.
The man didn't say anything, but the air became a touch heavier. "You know," he said at last, casually. "That's something you can change. Maybe you can pick your own name out when you feel ready."
"Pick a name?" Twenty two squinted up at him. "That doesn't make sense."
"Neither does have a number assigned instead," the tall man said and twenty two couldn't think of anything to say back. "Just think on it a little. Maybe you can name yourself after something you like."
Twenty two frowned, turning the tall strange man's words over in his head.
"At any rate, go on in. I've seen his brother play with my ward in there."
"Thank you," the lady said, and her hand flare a bright blue as she pressed it against the door. It swung open, revealing a big, wide, sunlit room, filled with colorful blankets and blocks and a group of other kids huddled around a television (in color! twenty two saw with awe). The door slammed shut behind them and all of the kids looked around, but twenty two paid that no mind.
"It's Super Sentai Samurai Warriors!" twenty two shouted. "It's real!"
One of the kids jumped up to his feet, stumbling only a little bit as he pressed his hand against his bandaged head. "I told you so!" Uchiha Sasuke said. "Now you believe me! Are you gonna come watch it or not?"
"Shhhh," sixteen hissed, elbowing Uchiha Sasuke. "Hurry up and get over here twenty two. You're missing the best part."
"Hey, hey," one of the other kids said, and twenty two didn't recognize him. He had bright yellow hair and funny lines on his face. "What's going on? Who's this guy?"
"He's one of Sasuke's friends that Kakashi-nii-san and Itachi-nii-san saved, obviously," another kid said scornfully. Twenty two also did not recognize her and her pink hair. They looked a little like the kid versions of the Super Sentai Samurai Warriors with their bright hair.
"Come and sit down," she said impatiently. "Otherwise Sasuke's going to fall over again and then we all have to stop watching."
"I am not," Sasuke sulked, but he sat down again next to Naruto and sixteen, still looking a little wobbly.
"Come on, little brother," sixteen smiled, and twenty two went over to sit next to his brother and Uchiha Sasuke and the boy with bright yellow hair.
"Hey, hey," the strange boy whispered very loudly, prodding his finger into twenty two's ribs. "If you're Sasuke's friend then you can be my friend too."
He stuck his hand out. "I'm Uzumaki Naruto. Friends?"
Twenty two took Naruto's hand, soft as a new kid's hand, like someone who had never held a knife in his hand before. "Okay," he said and shook it. "Friends."
Naruto grinned at him and pumped his fist. "Yeah! I've got a new friend!"
"Shhhhh!" Sasuke, sixteen, and the girl with pink hair shushed them, all at the same time. "Quiet!"
"They can be your friends too," Naruto whispered loudly again, ignoring them. "You ever play exploding note tag?"
Twenty two shook his head.
Naruto grinned, his mouth stretching open wide enough to show teeth that were pointy and sharp, like an animal's. "Oh man, we're gonna have so much fun."
Tenzou slipped in through one of the hidden ANBU passageways, keying past the wards, twisting around the traps, and came to a final stop in front of the window to the Hokage's office. He flared his chakra once, then waited politely on the windowsill for the returning flare of chakra from the Hokage's personal guard, indicating permission to enter.
Tenzou waited a beat. Then another.
Suddenly, the window cracked open and Tenzou flinched, nearly teetering off the edge and down ten stories. He steadied himself with a bit of chakra and immense gratitude for the ANBU mask that hid his bright red cheeks.
"Hello, Cat," the Sandaime said, a touch of amusement in his voice. "Come on in."
The Hokage stepped back and cranked the window all the way open with a touch of chakra-laced strength, ignoring the ANBU guards that lurked protectively in his shadow. Delicately, Tenzou stepped through and into the office, careful not to step on the hem of the Hokage's robes.
The Hokage shut the window behind Tenzou with a deafening screech, then stood back with crossed arms, looking out over the village sprawled underneath. It was just barely past dawn, the pinkish rays of the sun bleeding into the blue black of the receding night. Curls of smoke rose from waking households and flickers of traveling shinobi skimming over the rooftops glinted in the rising light, the village slowly coming awake, as the shinobi were illuminated in the day.
"Why are you here?"
Tenzou dropped into a subservient crouch, masked face tilted towards the ground. "I've sworn to protect and obey. Your word is my command, Hokage-sama," Tenzou said, echoing the ANBU oath he swore a little over a year ago.
There was a light touch on his shoulder and Tenzou dared to look up at his Hokage's face, craggy and lined with the weight of two wars and a lifetime of leadership.
"More than your oath drives you," the Sandaime said, his dark eyes unreadable. "I don't mean to diminish the honor of your service. But I wish to understand what else drives you to me, to this particular mission."
Tenzou breathed out slowly, the weight of his mask suddenly pressing heavily on his face, the ninjato tucked into the curve of his spine, steel against bone.
"Kakashi-senpai made his choice," Tenzou said, deliberately weighing each word. "He is staying behind, to protect what lies behind these walls."
The Sandaime's grip on Tenzou's shoulder tightened, inches away from the tattoo carved in his bicep.
"I have made my own choice," Tenzou said steadily. "I am leaving, to protect what is here. How can I serve, Hokage-sama?"
The Sandaime closed his eyes and his hand flared hot with chakra for a searing moment, before he pulled his hand away.
"Jiraiya is in Rain right now, tracking the roots of Danzou's ties in the area. He's sighted Orochimaru in the area."
Ice flooded Tenzou's veins and the floorboards underneath him creaked with strained potential.
"Your first mission will be to investigate Danzou's ties to Hanzo and potentially Orochimaru's in regards to the political regime that Hanzo has established. Are you ready for this?"
"Yes," Tenzou said, and smiled.
Thank you for everything! It's been a long six years; so long, and thanks for all the fish.
(All titles from the Led Zeppelin song "Ten Years Gone").