Sasuke had only ever seen the Hokage three times in his life: once, at cousin Keiko's entrance ceremony for the Academy and the Hokage had sat in his great big chair, his craggy face smiling down at Keiko and her yearmates; once, when Sasuke was very, very small and Father had brought both him and Itachi to the Tower to deliver the paperwork that officially instated aniki as the Uchiha Heir; once, at the annual Memorial in the fall, when Father had finally deemed Sasuke old enough to sit with the members and listen to the Hokage read aloud the names of the dead.
When he saw the swirling robes of crimson and white glide past the gates of the compound for the fourth time of his life, Sasuke gasped in surprise. The Hokage was so short!
Aniki tugged gently at Sasuke's hand. "Bow," Itachi said in a low voice and Sasuke bowed, heart hammering away in his chest. The Hokage! In the compound! His thoughts chased themselves round and round inside his head like a dog chasing its tail. Sasuke snuck a glance carefully and saw, with an excited leap of his heart, a flash of bone-white mask and silver arm-guards. ANBU! Sasuke squeezed Itachi's hand tightly, hoping that he wouldn't hear how loudly his heart was pounding.
"Ahh, you must be Fugaku's boys, yes?"
Itachi bowed even deeper, his hand tugging Sasuke down. "Yes, Hokage-sama."
"You must have grown an inch since I last saw you, Uchiha-kun. And this must be Sasuke, your younger brother?"
Sasuke straightened up at the sound of his name. "Hokage-sama," he said in his politest voice, like Aunt Riko had taught him, and bowed again.
The Hokage caught his chin with a gentle hand and Sasuke felt rough calluses slide against his skin. "You have your Mother's eyes," the Hokage said, in his deep rumbly voice. His face was very old and solemn, brown like a raisin left too long in the sun, and twice as wrinkled.
"Thank you," Sasuke mumbled, unsure how to deal with the fact that the Hokage told him he had girl eyes.
White flashed against dark skin as the Hokage laughed, deep and round and rough with smoke. "And your Father's spirit. I see the best of the Uchiha clan in you, Uchiha Sasuke."
Sasuke pressed against Itachi's leg, the gentle strength of aniki's hand giving him courage. "Thank you Hokage-sama," he said again and smiled, forgetting that he had lost two teeth that morning and his subsequent vow to remain grim-faced and solemn until they grew back.
"We are most grateful for your presence Hokage-sama," Itachi cut in smoothly, inclining his head again. "If you require any aid while in the compound…"
"As a matter of fact, I'm here to see Uzumaki Naruto," the Hokage said. "I've been informed that Kakashi entrusted his care to your family, Uchiha-kun."
Sasuke scrunched his nose, trying to think why the Hokage would want to see Naruto- and then guiltily remembered how they'd accidentally-on-purpose covered the Temple laundry in exploding ink tags. It was only a little bit of laundry and there was no way the Temple monks would have told the Hokage...would they?
"He's not in any trouble," the Hokage continued and Sasuke froze, trying very hard to make it seem like he wasn't trying to hide behind aniki's leg. "But I confess to missing our weekly engagements."
"Naruto-kun's helping Mother with the housework today," Itachi said with a quiet smile, carefully maneuvering his feet so that Sasuke was now standing side by side with Itachi again, instead of behind. "If you would like, Hokage-sama, I could escort you. Sasuke, you remember the way to Aunt Riko's home?"
Sasuke bit back a frown and crossed his arms over his chest, forgetting that one hand was still holding onto Itachi, so it was only his right arm that crossed his chest. "I go there all the time by all by myself when you're not here," he said scornfully. "I'm almost seven you know."
"I know," Itachi said and the Hokage gave Itachi one of those looks that grown ups always gave each other when they thought he wasn't looking. "You tell me so every day." Sasuke squirmed and pulled his hand free, rubbing the sticky sweat on his trouser leg.
"I have to go to lessons," Sasuke said very seriously. "So go help the Hokage, aniki." He peered up at the craggy face, careful not to make direct eye contact, and marvelled at the great big hat the Hokage wore, big enough that it cast a shadow large enough to swallow Sasuke's feet.
"I would be very grateful for your help, Uchiha-kun," the Hokage said, inclining his head at the two of them. "And I thank you, Sasuke, for lending me the use of your brother today."
"Aniki's the best," Sasuke nodded knowingly. "You'll be very safe, Hokage-sama."
"That's enough, Sasuke," Itachi said, fingers snaking out viper-quick and poking Sasuke right in the forehead. "Didn't you say you had somewhere else to be?" Sasuke hissed and swiped at aniki's hand, just a few seconds too late. "I'll come back at three to pick you up, so I better hear good things from Riko-san."
Sasuke made a face at Itachi and sketched out a quick respectful bow to the Hokage before running away just in time to dodge another stupid forehead-poke. "See you later ani-!" he shouted, waving backwards, and ran towards the rising sun. He saw the Hokage! And the Hokage talked to him face-to-face and called him by his name! Sasuke grinned and thought of the million different stories he could tell everyone at lunch today about the Hokage's hat and his wrinkly raisin face and the mysterious ANBU that hovered at his shoulder, mask painted with bright red fangs.
"The tea is quite splendid, you know," the Sandaime said peaceably, cradling a steaming celadon cup in his old and knotted hands. "Gold-leaf green tea from the Hua Ding province in Tea Country, if I'm not mistaken."
Fugaku bowed deeply from the doorway, hair falling forward with the smooth motion. "Hokage-sama, you honor my family with your presence."
"Sit, sit," the Hokage said, setting the cup down with a gentle grace. "There's no need to stand on formality, Fugaku-dono. Especially when I'm the one intruding."
Fugaku made his way over to the low set table on the ground and settled himself on the cushion directly facing the Hokage, taking care to hide the ink splatters on his left hand. He'd been so surprised of the news of the Sandaime's visit that he'd upset an entire inkwell and ruined the stack of paperwork he was working on.
Fugaku started to shake his head and then caught the Hokage's impenetrable gaze. "If it pleases you," he said a little reluctantly and reached out for the teapot.
"No, no, let me," the Sandaime said, batting away Fugaku's hand with surprising strength. Fugaku watched in shocked silence as the Hokage poured out a cup of tea and picked out a selection of daifuku, deftly sliding over the tea and sweets to Fugaku's side.
Tea, poured by the Hokage's own hand! Fugaku could only mutely raise the cup to his lips and drink, breathing in a bittersweet clarity. It was delicious.
"Mikoto-san runs a very fine household," the Sandaime said, nodding in approval. "The complementary nature of both the food and the porcelain is impeccably matched. I haven't had tea this fine since my wife passed."
"A great loss to our village," Fugaku said automatically and drank some more tea. Tea that was poured by the Hokage. Was he trying to curry favor with the Uchiha? Was Danzou the one orchestrating this meeting? Fugaku wracked his mind, searching furiously for meaning and motivations, but could only think of the simple grace of the Hokage's movements, the sweet airy fragrance of pressed flowers hovering in the air. The last time he'd been so close with the Hokage was- was when the Yondaime still reigned, the two of them sharing bottomless cups of tea over shougi games, their two wives bent together and laughing, dark hair mixing with bright. Fugaku closed his eyes and tried to forget.
"We lost much that day," the Hokage sighed, the sound coming from deep inside his chest. "Including Naruto's family."
"He's doing very well here," Fugaku said sharply, the Hokage's words drawing him out of half-faded memories. "Hatake came to us and entrusted the boy to my care. I give him no reason to doubt his trust."
"And so he is," Sandaime-sama agreed serenely. "Naruto only has good things to say about his stay here."
"As he should," Fugaku said and drank to hide the frown tugging at his mouth. What exactly was the other man hinting at?
"I will not deny, it surprised me at first, that Kakashi should choose to come to your doorstep and not perhaps mine." The Hokage's eyes fluttered closed as he savored a bite of mochi flavored with ume. "But I begin to see his reasoning now." The Hokage's eyes opened and Fugaku was caught blind-sided by the immense sorrow in those hidden depths, still clear and bright after nearly a century of life.
"I am old and unfit for my post, Fugaku," the Sandaime said, his voice growing rougher. "More suited to dandling grandchildren on my knee than overseeing this Village and I have used my exhaustion and age as an excuse to close my eyes to the growing disquiet."
The Hokage shook his head, hat tipping to the side with the violent motion. "Things are changing, even more rapidly than I can guess, and I have been blind to it all. Willfully, perhaps. But blind all the same. Kakashi's recent actions have shed light on- well." The Hokage's mouth twisted harshly. "I trust you share some of my anxieties about Councilman Danzou."
Fugaku's grip tightened on his teacup, heat burning a blazing brand onto his palm. "Some," he echoed, face carefully kept blank.
"He grows ever more bold and dangerous," the Hokage said slowly, clasping his hands together with a sharp hum of chakra. "And I cannot even begin to fathom the depths of his machinations." The Hokage raised his keen gaze, dark eyes peering at Fugaku's own.
Fugaku tore his eyes away and looked down sightlessly at the cup in his hands. The slight tremor in his fingers betrayed itself in the rippling surface of the tea. "Why now?" he asked hoarsely. He thought of Bill 56AB, of Elder Miyamoto and Itachi's grave face; he thought of his wife and little Sasuke, swept up by the tides of pride and war.
"I have heard of some disturbing rumors, Fugaku-dono," the Hokage said, the tips of his fingers pressed together, tea now entirely abandoned.
"The Uchiha would never-" Fugaku began harshly, looking up and again was struck by the deep compassion he saw. He cleared his throat. "It is thinking like that which drives us even farther from the Village."
"From the Village or from your seat in the Council?" the Hokage asked gently. "From the hearts of the people or from power and respect?"
Fugaku gave him a startled look.
"It's true, power alienates. People fear what they cannot comprehend, what frightens them. Danzou is both frightened of and lusts for the power the Uchiha hold in their hands, in the history that permeates this clan. He is loyal to Konoha and Konoha only. To him, the Uchiha represent the greatest threat to harm the Village and the greatest weapon to protect it." The Hokage gave Fugaku a wry smile, marking instantly the quick flash of surprise that he felt. "'Know Thy Enemy as Thou Knowest Thyself'," the Sandaime quoted, referencing the work of a war-philosopher from the Land of Iron some hundred years past. "I have tried, a little, to understand my old friend and enemy."
The Hokage shook his head. "And so I am here, trying to understand one of the clans of my Village. Tell me, Fugaku, for it is my understanding that the Sharingan can see a bit of the future: what do you see in the future should it continue down this path?"
Fugaku swallowed, remembering the bloodthirst that rose in the hearts of his fellow clansmen, Itachi's face, eyes bleeding red-and-black, and Miyamoto's wizened face lined with grief, only son lost to the Third Great Shinobi War. "I fear there is no turning back," he said, head bowed.
"There is always hope." A hand reached out, the skin wrinkled and threaded with thick, dark-blue veins. "Will you not take my hand, Fugaku-dono?"
Fugaku held his breath, blood pounding away in his ears and chakra flooding the familiar channels threading his eyes, Sharingan a dull pulsing ache that begged to be freed. For a moment, just the span of a heartbeat, he let his eyes bleed into red, tomoe swirling as he saw the lines of future laid out before him. The Sandaime's hand, so old and shaking in reality, shone like a burning blaze, lit by a chakra so bright that it brought tears to his eyes.
He saw the possibility of his own hand reaching out, read the faint tension in his muscles and saw his hand taking the Hokage's; he saw his hand staying quiescent at his side and the Hokage's drawing away, the old man's arm betraying the tiny quivers of weakness, of doubt, of fear as he held out his hand and hoped that Fugaku would meet it; he saw his hand reaching out and slapping the Hokage's away, read the chakra building up in his hand almost before he thought it, saw the Hokage bracing himself in the way his shoulders tensed, the way the chakra heart-fire in his chest flickered and waved.
With a shuddering gasp, Fugaku forced the chakra out of his eyes and the future melted away, leaving only the ever uncertainty of the present and a decision to be made.
"Sandaime-sama," Fugaku bowed and clasped forearms with the Hokage, man to a man, as one would greet a fellow warrior.
"Fugaku-dono," the Sandaime greeted in return, his grip firm and sure. There was a flutter of paper as the Hokage withdrew his hand and Fugaku found himself gripping a sheaf of papers, rolled up and tied with a ribbon bearing the Hokage's personal seal.
"A beginning," the Sandaime said, looking pleased while mysteriously pulling his smoking pipe out a voluminous sleeve. "You don't mind if I?"
"No, no, of course not," Fugaku said blankly as he unrolled the papers and an outline of a bill -several bills- came into view. Plans of opening the Uchiha district to petitioning civilians; of opening the police force to include non-Uchiha; plans to hold exhibition matches between the Senju and Uchiha and festivals honoring the founding of the village; plans to incorporate a new Academy structure that marked entrance through merit and allowed no family name or special ability to help or hinder a student's application.
"Opening the police force!" Fugaku had long since abandoned the idea of dignity and scrubbed a hand through his hair. "Sandaime-sama you cannot be serious. And opening the district- the elders-"
"Compromise," the Hokage said firmly, lighting his pipe with a snap of his fingers. "We have to start somewhere, young one." He breathed out a long stream of smoke, chakra breath shaping it into fantastic beasts from legend. A dragon coiled around the stem of the pipes, curves undulating with power, before fading away into the air. "In exchange, I will take the Academy bill off the table permanently."
Fugaku blinked. "How…?"
The Hokage smiled grimly. "I have a little power to me left. It should be enough to calm your elders and to set the rest of these in motion."
"I-" Fugaku held the papers tightly in hand, fragile rice paper starting to tear and crumple in his trembling grasp. "I beg a little time to think about all of this, Hokage-sama."
"Decide quickly," the Sandaime said, dark eyes thoughtful. "We do not have much time left at our disposal before Danzou's next act."
Fugaku held his breath and silenced the quiet, insidious voice in the back of his head that wondered, if in fact they weren't too late after all.
Hiroki clattered down the stairs winding around the small, two storey house, door slamming shut behind him. With a deft hand, he juggled a sack of pork buns and several canteens of watered-down wine he'd filched from Dad's secret cabinet of booze in the cellar that Dad thought he didn't know about.
"Don't slam the goddamn door, Hiro-kun!" his mother roared from inside the house and Hiroki could almost see the mop she wielded in her hands like the naginata she went to war with nearly fifteen years ago, before she had him and Minako-neesan and married Dad three months pregnant with little Kenji-chan.
"I didn't slam it!" Hiroki bellowed back, sturdy ninja sandals slapping against stone steps.
"Are you getting fresh with me boy?" The walls shivered as Hiroki's mother shouted, her voice echoing with power.
"Never," Hiroki shouted back and vaulted down the last few stairs, stone molding and rippling where he landed with a cheerful grin. "I'll be back in time for dinner!"
The weatherman had forecast a bright day, with a clean kind of heat that cut to the bone and killed the unprepared. Just another summer day in Iwa. Hiroki tied the canteens to his belt and slung the pork buns over his shoulder, whistling and waving at the occasional neighbor he passed by. He was tall for his age, growth spurt well underway with none of the lean awkwardness that marked so many other boys. He was built like his mother, as solid as an earth wall and had the quick grin of his father, who wielded an ink brush just as well as his wife did a knife.
It was only a few minutes before he entered the market square and he brightened, hailing Ryou with a wild whoop. "Oi, where's my bookbound idiot of a friend!"
Ryou popped his head out of the Watanabe tent pitched in the corner of the market square, dark eyes brightening as he caught sight of Hiroki's face. The silk scarves draped over the entrance of the tent fluttered at Ryou waved his arm enthusiastically. "Takahashi!"
Hiroki cut across the square (more of a wobbly egg-shaped circle, but everyone called it the square so the square it was) in three easy strides and pounded Ryou on the back enthusiastically, canteens thumping solidly against his hip. "Ryou, you sneaky conniving little bastard. Are the rumors true that you made out with the hedgewitch's girl?"
Ryou wheezed, waving his hands up in surrender. "You're gonna break me in half, Takahashi."
Hiroki rubbed the back of his sheepishly. Sometimes he forgot that Ryou was actually a civilian instead of a ninja like him. But Ryou looked well enough, if a little bruised and winded. "Well?" he demanded. "Did you?"
Ryou flushed a deep red and ducked back into the tent. Hiroki followed him, bowing once in front of the entrance and to the two faced profile of a god hanging from a peg driven into a tentpole. Ryou had explained that he was a minor god back home in Lightning Country, who guarded all entrances and exits, whose two heads looked to both the future and the past. Hiroki figured that it couldn't help honoring a god, even a foreign one, and always paid his respects when visiting his friend.
The tent was larger than expected, wide and long and airy, light filtering through the strong canvas and illuminating the wondrous fabrics hanging from the walls. Silk, muslin, cotton, taffeta, cambric, even a bolt of silk patterned with chakra-fire. Ryou's cousin, Riku-san, had explained that it was made by highly skilled weavers trained to use their chakra, weaving chakra strings in with silk to create a hidden pattern that could only be revealed with a spark of chakra, illuminating the secret design for a single, heart-breaking instant.
They traveled to the back, where a low table already sat ready with a steaming pot of tea and rice crackers, Ryou's older brother Ichirou napping in one of the cushions with a book planted over his face.
Once they were properly settled in, Hiroki unslung the sack from his shoulder and handed it off to Ryou, who nodded appreciatively. The canteens of wine, he casually slid under the table; booze, Hiroki thought, was best enjoyed with an air of secrecy.
Ryou busied himself with pouring out the tea, cheeks still a dull red. "I just walked her home," he muttered. "It was late and she was all alone so-" His shoulder jerked awkwardly and he nearly spilled boiling hot tea all over his lap. Ryou was two years his elder, but he was quiet and a little awkward, always caught up in his books or stoically putting up with Ichirou's teasing. Hiroki laughed, delighted with Ryou's good fortune.
"She kissed you?"
"Just on the cheek," Ryou ducked his head, but Hiroki could see the small flicker of a smile that Ryou tried to hide.
"You sly fox," Hiroki grinned and bit into a pork bun with the hunger of a fourteen year old boy's appetite. "You've only been mooning after her all bleeding month."
"I haven't," Ryou protested, digging into the pork buns after a brief prayer to his gods. "She's- she's-"
"Hot," Hiroki nodded sagely. "And with a rack to make even the Legendary Sucker look tiny."
Ryou flushed even brighter. "Takahashi Hiroki! I was going to say she was nice," he said a little stiffly.
"She is very nice," Hiroki winked, blowing on his fourth pork bun. "Veeerrry nice."
"Everything you say about her is going to be useless and crass so I'm going to ignore you," Ryou said, making the stern scary face that had frightened all the little children in the market square and one of them had to be taken home to change his pants for clean ones.
"Sure, sure," Hiroki said unfazed. "You still up for the trip to the stone forest? I want that pair of gloves you're wagering that it doesn't exist."
Ryou's face tightened and he looked down at his cup of tea, steam slowly rising from the cup. Hiroki hadn't the faintest idea how the Watanabes could tolerate tea like that in this sort of weather, but that was Lightning folk for you. They were all a little touched in the head. "We're leaving next week," Ryou said in a quiet voice. "Our commission's almost up and it's time for us to go home."
The half-chewed pork bun became dust in his mouth. "But I thought you were applying for an extension, just a little more time-"
Ryou shook his head. "It's been denied. We're leaving in a few days, after we finish up business and pack everything up."
"But-" Hiroki swallowed, the food going down like a lump of stone. For all that they had only known each other for a few weeks, they were friends- close friends, if Hiroki admitted it to himself. In between missions, they had talked and played and Hiroki had shown his friend the hidden secrets of the Village, taking pride in the wonder in his friend's face.
"You'll come back next year, right?"
Ryou gave him a small smile. "Yes, I think so. We always honor our contracts."
"Then it's settled," Hiroki said firmly. "We'll make the best of it before you go and then you'll come back next year and we'll see each other again."
"Next year," Ryou echoed and looked away, drinking that infernally hot tea.
"I don't have a mission until the day after tomorrow," Hiroki said doggedly. "We'll go see the stone forests and get drunk and do all the things we planned to do, just- just all in a day."
Ryou snorted. "Do you want to kill us both with exhaustion?"
"No, no this is the best idea!" Hiroki jumped up, scattering his plate of food onto the ground, and nearly banged his head on an overhead tent pole. "I'm a ninja, I won't get tired, and I can carry you on my back, you're tiny and don't even weigh all that much."
"I just haven't had my growth spurt yet," Ryou said a little darkly.
"So you're up for it!"
Ryou gave him a long suffering sigh. "Alright, we'll do it. But only if Riku-kun and Nii-san allows for it."
"Of course I will, brat," Ichirou's voice floated up lazily from the floor and Hiroki flinched and sat back down immediately. He'd forgotten that Ryou's older brother was sleeping on the cushion in the corner, face still hidden by an open book splayed facedown across his nose.
"Sorry Nii-san," Ryou mumbled. "Did we wake you?"
"Only a little bit," Ichirou said, his voice drier than the heat outside. "But to answer your previous question, yes, of course." With a rustle of silk, Ichirou rose up from the nest of cushions he had been resting in, dark hair rising up in messy spikes; Hiroki could see why he used the gel if it normally looked like that. He still held the book up to his face, hiding his mouth and nose.
"Riku and I are more than capable of running a business without a sixteen year old brat's interference."
"Nii-san!" Ryou said indignantly and punched Ichirou in the shoulder.
"Go have your fun, brat. Enjoy it while it lasts." Ichirou tilted his head, one hand holding the book up, the other reaching out for a chopstick. With a quick flash, he had a pork bun pierced on one end before Hiroki could blink.
"Don't you have training tomorrow?" Ryou asked, distracting Hiroki.
"Nah, I can beg off for this," Hiroki said casually, knowing that Gari-sensei would flay him alive and probably drag him by his balls, skin-less, to his mother to face his true punishment. It was worth it, to have another day with his friend.
"It's settled then," Ichirou said and put down the empty chopstick. He'd somehow made the pork bun disappear without ever moving the book or even appearing to chew. "You boys have your fun." He flopped back into his cushion and went back to napping.
"Your brother's so weird," Hiroki observed, not even bothering to lower his voice.
"He is," Ryou said, scrubbing his nose, embarrassed. "He's normally not so-"
"Lightning Country," Hiroki shook his head. He caught the bells tolling in the distance and counted them, as automatic to him as breathing. Fourteen long deep tolls and three short ones- Hiroki jumped up again.
"Oh shit, Gari-sensei's gonna kill me, I'm late for training-"
Ryou grinned up at him. "You better get going and save yourself. We have lots to do tomorrow."
Shit shit shit shit- "We'll meet at the cave tomorrow at seven bells, alright?" Sensei was going to make him do that stupid crane dance, gah, he hated that stupid limb-contorting pain that Gari-sensei called exercise. More like torture.
"Seven bells," Ryou nodded back. "Go!"
Hiroki went, leaving a trail of swirling dust in his wake.
Tenzou picked up the food scattered on the ground, brushed the dust off of them and set them back on the plate. He found the canteens and sniffed them with a wrinkled nose.
"Kenichi would want some of that," Kakashi said in a drowsy voice.
"You!" Tenzou hissed and picked his way over to Kakashi's body. "You almost broke cover! The book and the chopstick and the hair!" Kakashi's right eye popped open. "Senpai," Tenzou added belatedly.
"Sorry, sorry, habit," Kakashi said and closed his eye. "Besides, it doesn't even matter anymore, not with all the work you've done."
"I suppose not," Tenzou said, a little mollified, and he sat down, sitting in proper seiza this time instead of cross-legged like a Lightning Country native. "Takahashi sees what he wants to and not what he really does."
"Are you ready for it tomorrow?"
"Of course I am, we've only been preparing all this time-"
"Are you really?" Kakashi's quiet voice cut like steel and Tenzou looked away, intently studying the beautiful and intricate patterns of the carpet laying on the floor.
"He's a nice boy," Kakashi said.
"Would that there had been any other way," Kakashi said, voice muffled by the thick pages of the book on his face. "I would have spared you this."
"It's my choice!" Tenzou said sharply. "My choice," he said again, knuckles whitening.
"So it is," Kakashi agreed and the two of them fell into silence, thinking of what tomorrow might bring them.
There was never any serious threat. Two jounin and two tokubetsu jounin against a genin who walked in expecting a friend's embrace and instead received a knife to his throat and the wrathful gaze of a demon.
"Serum," Kakashi said and Genma nodded, kit already out and glass vial in his hand. Green chakra shimmered in his hands as he pressed them against Takahashi Hiroki's left humerus, slowly injecting a full dose of truth serum. Sweat beaded on Kakashi's forehead as he held the genjutsu together, gently washing the pain away with a sweet numbness that left Hiroki's mouth slack, drool slowly dripping onto the front of his shirt. Tenzou looked away, mouth twisting.
Kakashi waited a full five minutes for the serum to take effect before slowly drawing the genjutsu away, enough so that the child could control his mouth again, restoring a faint amount of mental acuity.
"Takahashi Hiroki, Genin, ID Number 1097364," Kakashi commanded and even reduced to simple sentences, Hiroki's back straightened and he attempted an awkward salute.
"Sir," Hiroki said dreamily, eyes unfocused.
"Show me the seal that Gari placed on you."
Slowly, with clumsy hands, Hiroki unbutton his shirt and pulled it off, pressing a hand against his breast. "Here," he said, words coming out syrupy slow. "Sensei said only to use in times of danger…"
With the eye of the Sharingan, he could see the chakra-ink tattooed onto Hiroki's chest, resting quiet and dormant without the trigger. "Brush," Kakashi said tersely and Raidou handed over the inkwell, mixed with Hiroki's blood and a brush made of Hiroki's hair.
Carefully, with feather-soft movements, Kakashi altered the seal. It was magnificent work, no doubt the creation of a seal-master. The fluid grace of the characters, the strength and love imbued in them. Gari must love his students very much, Kakashi noted distantly. It was slow-going, with Kakashi stopping every few minutes to let each brushstroke dry, carefully monitoring the activity of the seal. It stayed quiet, accepting each alteration with hardly a quiver.
Kakashi leaned back on his heels and handed the brush off to Raidou. "Is everyone ready?"
His soldiers nodded.
Carefully, ever so carefully, Kakashi drew back his control over the boy, genjutsu slipping away inch by precarious inch. "Takahashi Hiroki, activate your seal."
Hiroki smiled, sweet as a child. "Yes, sir." He pressed his hand against it and the seal flared bright red, singing with purpose.
Kakashi felt the matching flare of chakra in the distance, roaring bright and angry. Gari was coming.
The tomatoes split open evenly, revealing beautiful rows of greenish seeds, coated in jelly. Mikoto smiled as she slid the pile of sliced tomatoes into a bowl and moved towards the stove, checking the simmering pot of stock. Tomato salad and udon for her two little boys, who no doubt would be hungry after a long day of being six year old boys. Mikoto unwrapped the plastic film around the box of dango she'd bought and set it to the side. And for her biggest little boy, his favorite dessert.
Mikoto smiled gently. It was good to have so many faces around the table again.
She took a step towards the counter and felt the air around her twist and bend- within an instant she had the kitchen knife against the intruder's throat, pressed gently against his pulsing carotid. One movement and he would cut himself, bleeding out in an instant on her kitchen floor. Mikoto blinked at the sight of curly black hair and wide red eyes, tomoe spinning.
"Aunt Mikoto-" Shisui flushed and Mikoto drew back her knife instantly. "My apologies for my rudeness but-"
Mikoto set her knife on the countertop and accepted his apology with a graceful nod of her head. "What is it, Shisui-kun?"
"It's Sasuke," Shisui said, white-lipped. "He's gone missing."
Hiroki sat down in the middle of the cave, shirt still unbuttoned. He blinked slowly, willing himself to stay awake. He couldn't go to sleep, he had to wait for Ryou. Hiroki smiled, head lolling to the side. They were going to have adventures today before Ryou went away forever and ever to Lightning Country and then they would have to wait a whole year to play again. The rock was cold. Hiroki patted it gently. Rocks were his friends. They would play together until Ryou came back.
There was an explosion and rocks flew everywhere and there was lots of smoke. Hiroki watched this all, wondering if it was Ryou coming for him.
"Hiroki! Hiroki damn it, answer me!"
Hiroki smiled. No, it was Gari-sensei and he was making the rocks explode again. Was it time to be training? No, he was waiting for Ryou, not training.
Gari-sensei tore through the clouds of smoke, rocks vibrating around him, shaking and growing smaller and smaller and turning into littler rocks.
"Gari-sensei," Hiroki said and smiled up at him.
"Heavens above, you're-" Gari-sensei stopped short and he bent down, his dark eyes staring very very very hard at Hiroki. "What have they done to you?"
"I'm waiting," Hiroki said patiently.
"Heaven have mercy," Gari-sensei said in his deep voice. "For I will not." And then he gathered Hiroki up in his arms, like Hiroki weighed nothing at all. And then the world exploded again, but this time Hiroki could not keep his eyes open and the darkness washed over him, while he waited for Ryou.
The target had taken the bait.
Kakashi flared his chakra and Raidou set off the exploding bombs. It was nothing but a distraction- Gari was more than enough a competent ninja to easily evade the exploding tags, but it was enough to put him off-guard, especially with the burden he now carried.
Kakashi waited, tracking the wake of chakra Gari left as fled underground, feeling the roiling rage pulse beneath the ground, a twisted version of the hell some civilians preached about in the outskirts of Fire Country. It was only seconds but Kakashi felt time stretched to the point of breaking, watching, waiting, listening. They only had so long before the Village started sending people over to investigate, wondering at the amount of chakra being expended in one of the training grounds.
There was no sign, only the sudden explosion of dust and shattered earth, spewing up from the ground in a geyser of rage, instantly filling the clearing with a chakra-enhanced smoke that refused to clear. It was begun.
Kakashi unsheathed his ninjato and began the hunt. Gari had already cloaked his and the boy's chakra but they had planned for that.
"Quadrant 5C," Tenzou radioed in from his perch high up in the mountainous crag that bordered the training ground, the same one that Hiroki once waited for Ryou in. "I can feel my tag on Ta- the bait there."
Kakashi clicked back in acknowledgement and made his way, senses stretched to the limit. Quadrant 5C- that was near the base of the crag. Kakashi ghosted his way over, ninjato at the ready and then felt the sudden ache in his teeth, the shiver down his back as chakra scraped against chakra
"Tiger and Wolf have engaged the target," Tenzou radioed in tersely.
Kakashi cursed and sped up, using a touch of wind chakra to clear the smoke ahead of him, just in time to catch a glimpse of Raidou skidding away into the dirt, unmarked armor completely obliterated in the chest. Genma caught the brunt of Raidou's fall, head snapping back to hit the ground. Kakashi could see the white bone of Raidou's ribs and his breath caught in his throat.
There was a tale they told during the war, shared in the trenches over games of poker, betting condoms and pieces of hard candy. The Council had once sent an entire battalion of men over to the border with Grass to deal with the Iwa soldiers stationed there. For weeks, the war raged on, but neither side budged an inch. A stalemate.
Then, Gari came.
The only thing left was their armor, shattered and blown to pieces.
Kakashi's mouth twisted into a silent howl and he vaulted into the fight, ninjato screaming with chakra. Gari stood with his back to him, planted like a tree over a dome of smooth earth, chest heaving, sleeves in tatters all the way up to his shoulders.
"Who's next?!" Gari shouted, blood dripping from his fists. "Who dares to cross me and my student?"
Kakashi raised his blade and let it speak for him. Rippling with pure white chakra, it cut the air with the shriek of a thousand dying birds, bringing Gari's attention straight on him. Behind him, he could feel Genma crawling snake-like on the ground, dragging Raidou away with him. Gari twisted towards him and breathed in sharply.
"The White Fang-!"
Gari's moment of hesitation bought just enough time for Kakashi to dive in, Obito's eye snapped wide open and reading the lines of the future, his blade but a scalpel in his hands. A swift cut and Kakashi reeled away just in time, as an explosion of air cut right above his head and hit the crag with a tremendous crushing noise, scattering shattered stone and dust everywhere.
Kakashi cooly flicked his blade, blood spattering onto the ground.
"Tiger's critical," Genma radioed in, voice staticky. "Looking at compromised c-spine, liver laceration, abdomen's already distended, and a developing pneumothorax from broken ribs."
Gari staggered, left hamstring neatly sliced through and cauterized with burning hot chakra, the tang of ozone heavy in the air.
"Heal as much as you can, you're not coming back here," Kakashi spoke quickly, in clipped tones. "Cat, I'm calling you down."
Genma and Tenzou both clicked their acknowledgements and Kakashi raised his blade again, chakra humming in his blade. Too long, too much and it would shatter in half; ANBU-issue steel wasn't meant to channel chakra in such a way and for so long. Kakashi adjusted his stance. And if it all went according to plan, he wouldn't have to.
"Konoha," Gari growled, chakra pulsing wildly in his limbs. "I should have known you rat-faced maggot fuckers were behind all of this."
Kakashi tilted his head, evaluating the target. Just one more, one more and then-
Tenzou bore down from the heavens like a figure from legend, cloak fluttering in the wind, face glowing with the light of chakra pulsing in his hands. When he landed, earth roiled and rippled in waves instead of cracking and Gari snarled, hand already drawn back for a finishing blow. He was frighteningly quick, air already exploding with pent-up energy.
Kakashi silently blessed Tenzou for the distraction and flickered over to the dome, blade singing for blood, close enough that he could see Gari's sweating face imprinted in Obito's eye-
It was just a touch, just a gentle tap of Gari's hand and Kakashi felt stars exploding behind his eyes, blue dots exploding and dying with every ragged breath. Kakashi staggered back, left leg unable to bear weight any longer, not when bone was shattered and cracked beyond recognition.
"A leg for a leg, White Fang," Gari smiled, teeth white against blood.
Steel sank into earth as Kakashi used it to prop himself up, fuzzy blue dots scattered across his vision, pain and chakra exhaustion threatening to bring him to his knees. Tenzou howled in fury behind a shield of splintering trees, as it was slowly eaten away by Gari's tremendous waves of explosive chakra from his outstretched arm and slowly replaced by Tenzou's faltering strength.
"I'm not the White Fang," Kakashi spat and drove the sword all the way into the earth, lightning chakra screaming as he cut deep into the earthen dome the two of them stood on, revealing Hiroki's peacefully sleeping face. His blade cut into earth like a hot knife in butter and Kakashi split the dome in half, earth crumbling into dust as the chakra working that held it together was sliced in half.
Gari screamed and dove at Hiroki, but he was a moment too late, the chakra attack against Tenzou holding him back just long enough.
Kakashi was already there, blade tilted against Hiroki's neck, ready to slice through the carotid.
"I'll kill you," Gari whispered, face white beneath his deep tan. His hands trembled and Kakashi marked the slow, sluggish movements Gari made.
"Not before I kill the boy," Kakashi said hoarsely.
"What do you want?"
Kakashi closed Obito's eye. He couldn't have him see this- not this, ever.
"Your life in exchange for the boy," Kakashi jerked his head, feeling Tenzou move to position himself behind Gari's back, blade at the ready. He could barely feel the kid's chakra, a guttering candle in the winter wind.
There was a long silence as Gari considered it, green eyes unreadable as he took in Hiroki's sleeping face. "I'll take my chances," he said and raised his arm, chakra building up, air boiling with fire and rage and-
Gari gasped and dropped his arm, instead clutching at his chest. His skin went grey and the chakra faded away into the dust.
"What- what did you- how-"
With the point of his blade, Kakashi carefully pushed Hiroki's unbuttoned shirt to the side, revealing the pulsing red mark of Gari's seal on Hiroki's chest. It beat in time to Hiroki's heart, color growing and fading in perfect rhythm, like a living thing.
"His mark calls to yours, drawing you closer and closer to him."
Gari gasped for breath, sweat dripping off of him in buckets, both hands now pressed against the seal in his chest.
"I made it so that it called at your chakra, pulling more and more as time went on, from your seal to his. Your own lack of regard for your reserves-" Kakashi shrugged with one shoulder. "That, you can only blame yourself."
Gari looked down at his student, chest straining to breathe. "Hiroki-"
Sharingan closed, pain dulling his reflexes, Kakashi was too slow. Gari had activated his kekkei genkai for the very last time, pulling at every last bit of chakra inside of him, condemning himself to death as he pulled his arm back, sorrow etched onto every line of his body.
"Let us die together," Gari wept and his arm moved forward.
Kakashi could only watch, as the air exploded outwards, smoke and fire headed straight towards him.
A keen silver blade sprouted from Gari's throat and slashed sideways, spraying Kakashi with bright red blood, hot and tasting of copper. "Sorry, but I can't let you you do that," Tenzou panted, crouched on the ground, bloody sword raised in the air.
Tenzou gave him a wobbly grin and toppled backwards onto the ground, legs giving out from under him.
"Since I saved the day, can I pass out now?" Tenzou's voice was soft and paper-thin.
Kakashi leaned back on his sword and gave him a rough, hacking laugh that couldn't even really be called a laugh at all. "Knock yourself out, kid."