[ This story has been translated into Chinese. The link is on my profile.

SPOILERS up to manga chapter 654, and an obvious deviation from canon soon after that point! I also made a lot of stuff up. So, if you're not caught up with the manga, just pretend I made everything up, and you're good to go. =D

I highly recommend reading the companion story to this, 'Certain Things Rearrange, and This Whole World Seems Like a New Place', either after each chapter, or after you've finished the story. Enjoy!]

Things Just Ain't the Same Any Time the Hunter Gets Captured by the Game

Book I: Windswept Grass and Sunlight

Mother Nature was such a tease during the spring. You get excited about how nice the weather is, the scent of new things growing out of the soft dark earth is so intoxicating it makes you forget all about last spring, you frolic happily back home after a long mission because – by some miracle – you have the next day off, and just as you open your eyes to greet a sparklingly perfect morning of sunshine and butterflies the heavens bitch-slap you with a cold rainy day for being such a dumbass.

Kakashi let out a heavy sigh, giving the rain pelting his window a flat annoyed look from where he lay sprawled on his bed in a sleeveless shirt and dark slacks. The first half of the day hadn't been so bad. He'd entertained himself with his favorite books, and had managed to almost feel as if the walls of his tiny apartment weren't pressing in on him like a cage. However, his disappointment at the weather had lingered on, and he'd been forced to give up reading due to the twinges of jealousy that had started after a few hours.

Seriously...how low did you have to be to get jealous of the characters in a porn novel?! He gave another aggravated sigh, more directed at himself than anything, and turned on his side to stare at the door. He was bored to begin with, and damn it now he was lonely. 99% of the time being alone, and even lonely, was comfortable. He had gone as far as to request his new apartment be built in a small storage building so he wouldn't have neighbors. Solitude was as comfortable as wearing his mask. It was so intrinsically rooted into who he was that he honestly felt almost creeped out at the idea of sharing a place with someone else. Unfortunately, he felt like 1% of his usual self at the moment.

Lifting his hands from where they were dangling off the edge of the bed, he looked at them with his one open eye. He idly considered the idea of getting rid of his boredom and loneliness the old fashioned way, and then let his hands flop back down. No go. He didn't have the motivation for that at the moment. The front door seemed to mock him, laughing at how he was stuck staring at it. He suddenly started wishing someone would knock on that arrogant door. Or maybe kick it in. That would be an interesting break from the monotony.

It felt like the gloomy day was infecting him, sapping his will to do anything but lay there like a damp rag. He thought about leaving for his next mission early. He kept thinking about it for several minutes, but he honestly wasn't looking forward to the lone grueling assignment so his motivation to move remained at 0. He looked down at his hands again and formed a few quick seals, then held his right arm out so his palm was facing the door.

"Summoning Jutsu: Company," Kakashi said forcefully, willing someone – anyone – to spontaneously appear.

There was a polite rap on the door and the Jounin practically jumped out of his skin. He tumbled gracelessly to the floor, hitting his shoulder and back hard as his feet got tangled in his blanket. He simply lay there half upside-down for a few long seconds, looking at the ceiling in disbelief while his brain hit the reset button.

"Kakashi-sensei...?" Naruto's voice called hesitantly as the door cracked open an inch. The noise of the rain pounding on the small outside awning and pouring off onto the floor of the second-story walkway invaded the room loudly. "Um...is everything okay in there...?"

"Yeah," he replied blankly. There was another long pause, and he turned his head to look at the door as Naruto peeked around it with a somewhat befuddled expression. His wet hair clung to his cheeks and dripped into his eyes without the forehead protector there to keep it back. "Did you need something?"

"Sort of," the blonde replied, stepping into the entranceway. His clothes were plastered to his lean frame, heavy and soaked from the rain.

"Why are you so wet?" Kakashi asked, confused as to why the younger shinobi wasn't at least carrying an umbrella with him on a day like that.

"Hinata still has my umbrella," he shrugged, unzipping his coat and peeling it off. "Why are you on the floor?"

"I was trying a new summoning jutsu."

"How's that working out?" Naruto asked with slightly concerned curiosity as he reached his arms out the door to wring most of the water from his jacket.

"It's surprisingly effective," he said, pushing himself onto one elbow so he could untangle his feet and stand up. He walked the short distance to his washroom, grabbed a clean towel, and tossed it to Naruto. "Here."

"Thanks." After catching the towel, he clamped it in his teeth and struggled out of his wet shirt.

"You finished your mission early," Kakashi said as he rifled through his dresser for a shirt and pair of trousers. "Iruka said you wouldn't be back for another couple days."

"Nmm, i' 'ash eashier 'an 'e fought," Naruto mumbled through the towel before finally wriggling free of his clinging shirt. "I got into a big fight with Kiba, though," he said solemnly, slinging the towel around his neck so he could wring his shirt out.

"And this is new how...?" Kakashi drawled, setting the dry clothes on the short step between the entranceway and the room proper. He picked the damp coat up and then held his hand out for the shirt before the blonde could toss it on the floor as well. "Hand it over," he glowered subtly as Naruto hesitated and glanced at the folded dry clothes in surprise. "Some of us don't appreciate it when our homes look like a wet hobo just invaded."

"Ah, sorry," he chuckled guiltily, relinquishing the shirt and scrubbing his hair with the towel.

"So? What was the fight about?" The Jounin asked as he walked back into the washroom. There was a significant lack of response while he ran a length of wire from two high hooks on opposite sides of the tile walls in the shower. "That's what's bothering you, isn't it?" He prompted, draping the jacket and shirt over the wire before stepping back into the one-room apartment.

"Yeah..." Naruto said quietly, shaking out his slacks under the awning from where he was hiding inside the barely open door in his shorts.

Kakashi waited in silence on the step, idly noting that the young man had filled out a bit more over the past year. He would never be as muscular as Gai or Lee, but he also wasn't as slight as Sai. If he had one last unexpected growth spurt, he might get as tall as Iruka.

"Hey, Kakashi-sensei," Naruto said, a scowl of conflict on his face as he handed over his trousers. "Do you think I'm a glory hound?"

The silver-haired man's eye widened for a moment in surprise as he took the wet clothing. "Kiba called you that?" He asked neutrally, walking into the washroom to hang the clothing on the wire.

"He said he hated going on missions with me because all I did was show off how strong I'd gotten. You get upset with me sometimes when Team 7 does missions, saying I'm over-doing things. But you've never accused me of showing off."

"Because you don't," Kakashi shrugged, stepping back into the room and leaning against the doorframe of the washroom.

"That's what I told Kiba, but he didn't believe me!" He stuffed his legs angrily into the dark trousers and tied the drawstring at his waist. The extra length of material pooled around his heels. "He kept going on about me being a glory hound, and how he wasn't there just to be used as a stepping stone. After he left even Shino got on my case! He said I was holding them back!" He railed, hurling the damp towel to the floor. "How is that even possible?! The whole point of getting stronger in the first place was so I wouldn't hold anyone back!"

"Oi," Kakashi said firmly, pointing at the towel. Naruto grumbled an apology and tossed the towel to the Jounin. "I'm going to take a wild stab at this," he said, reaching into the washroom to hang the white cloth over the rack on the wall. "You saw Kiba get into a bit of a pinch, and then you rushed in to help."

"And then he got all pissed off at me for it!"

"You're holding him back."

"WHAT?!" Naruto raged, fists clenched at his sides and blue eyes flashing.

"Ah, well, maybe that's not quite an accurate way to say it," Kakashi mused calmly, tilting his head back to look at the ceiling. "It's more like you're standing in front of him, preventing him from moving forward."

"What?" Naruto asked, his temper cooling as confusion set in.

"You don't want to see anyone get hurt, so you always jump in front," he said, looking back at the blonde. "It's an admirable trait, wanting to protect everyone, but if you take it too far then you're only holding people back. You keep them behind you, blocking the danger from the front. However, with you standing in front of them, they can't move forward. They can't even stand beside you."

"...I see," he replied softly, the dawning realization washing away the last of his anger. He lowered his eyes and absently scratched his bare arm. "It's not going to be easy, is it? Stepping aside."


"Why didn't you tell me this stuff before?"

"I did. You wouldn't listen," Kakashi said wryly.

"Ahhah," Naruto sighed, lifting his arms and letting them flop to his sides. "I guess I'll just have to learn to get used to it. When I'm Hokage I'll be doing nothing but watching the backs of everyone as they go on missions, instead of them watching mine."

"When the hell did you get so old?" Kakashi arched an eyebrow, startled at the maturity of the statement.

"Eh?" Naruto gave the Jounin a quizzical look, leaning down to pick up the folded shirt on the step. "I turned 18 in October. We had a big party and destroyed half a block because Fuzzy Brows and Kiba got their drinks mixed up with Aoba and Tsunade baa-chan's sake. Don't you remember?"

"I stand corrected," he drawled. "Yes, I do remember that nightmare now, thank you."

"It was a great party," the youth grinned, pulling the shirt over his head and slipping his arms through the sleeves.

His hands didn't quite make it out of the ends, and he paused to scowl in mute disappointment at the four fingertips peeking out of the dark fabric. Kakashi snerked involuntarily, covering the mask over his mouth with his hand. Naruto's cheeks flushed pink as he snapped his head around to glare heatedly at the taller Jounin. Kakashi bit his lip as his shoulders shook with helpless laughter, the blonde's furiously embarrassed face turning bright red.

"Shut up!" Naruto fumed, pushing the sleeves up to his elbows.

"Wait, wait," Kakashi choked and waved his hand, doubling over slightly as he desperately tried to keep the laughter contained and stumbled toward his dresser. "I'll get you a t-shirt."

"I don't need one!"

A foot connected with the Jounin's back and he toppled over onto his side, limp with overwhelming amusement in the space between his bed and the dresser. He looked up at the tomato-red picture of enraged humiliation, then down at the bare feet half covered with the extra length of dark fabric, and just busted out laughing.

"Shut up!" Naruto shouted, pushing his heel into Kakashi's shoulder and kicking him somewhat forcefully onto his back. "Stupid scarecrow," he growled, stalking away and sitting angrily on the bed. "Not everyone is as freakishly tall as you are, you know!"

"I'm...I'm not that...tall," he gasped, clutching his sides.


A book came flying over the edge of the bed, the spine hitting Kakashi right between the eyes and bouncing to the floor. "...ow..." he snickered, taking deep breaths as his laughter abated. The sounds of objects shuffling and moving made him turn his head, but he couldn't see with the bed in the way. "What are you doing over there?"

"Looking for a pair of scissors."

"Oi!" Kakashi lurched to his side and grabbed the edge of the bed to pull himself up. Another book slammed into his face and dropped to the mattress.

"You're a surprisingly easy target on your own turf," Naruto grinned impishly, sitting on the floor in front of the small bookcase next to the bed.

"You're a not-so-surprisingly horrible guest..." Kakashi said flatly, giving the blonde a deadpan look of irritation.

Naruto just laughed remorselessly and turned back to examining the contents of the bookcase. "You know, I thought this would all be porn, but you've actually got real books here."

"Why thank you," he responded drolly as he picked up the two books that had been thrown at him. "They come in handy for research from time to time."

"Oohhh...?" Naruto mused suspiciously.

Kakashi walked up to the young man and rapped him over the head with the two books. He gave a satisfied smirk at the yelp of pain, then leaned forward to slide the books back onto the shelf. Undaunted, Naruto rubbed his head with one hand and trailed the fingers of his other over the various titles. Kakashi glanced down as he straightened back up, a little amazed at how comfortable Naruto was making himself as he rooted through the Jounin's belongings. He wondered if he should tell the blonde he was being rude, then shrugged indifferently and turned around to walk to his 'kitchen'.

The kitchen consisted of a small personal fridge sitting on the floor in the corner next to the washroom. Directly above it was a shelf that held a metal teapot and a one-burner portable range, and above that was a cupboard. Kakashi picked up the teapot and filled it in the washroom. When he walked out Naruto had turned around where he sat to face the Jounin, waving a book in front of him with a highly amused expression.

"How is haiku research material?"

"It's an old code key from when I was in ANBU," he replied, setting the pot on the burner and turning the flame on.

"Really? Can you teach it to me?"

"Why?" Kakashi asked, giving the young man a bemused look.

"It might come in handy one day," Naruto said, flipping slowly through the pages.

Kakashi had a sudden and uncomfortable image of Jiraiya's dying message flash into his head. "Okay." Shit! He'd meant to say 'no'.

"Thanks!" He beamed.

"Yeah, no problem," Kakashi sighed in resignation. "First thing you have to do is memorize that book."

"Huh?! Why? If I have the key, why do I need to memorize it?"

"You want me to teach you the code or not?" He scowled over his shoulder, reaching into the cupboard for a cup and a squat canister of tea.

"I got it, I got it," Naruto said hurriedly, closing the book and setting it aside. "I'll have it memorized in a week."

"Very bold of you to set such an unrealistic goal."

"Hey!" He protested.

"But you'll have to wait a month before I teach you anything," Kakashi continued, sliding his hands in his pockets as he turned around and leaned against the wall to wait for the water to heat.

"Figures," Naruto sighed, flopping onto his back and propping his feet up on the edge of the bed. Kakashi noticed he'd rolled the cuffs of the slacks to just above his ankles. "Who're you going on the mission with?"

"No one."

"You're going alone?" He asked, rolling his head to look up at the Jounin with a bit of concern.

"Some missions are like that," Kakashi shrugged nonchalantly.

"Where are you going?"

"Can't say."

"Why not?"

"Because it's an S-Rank mission and I can't say."

"I won't tell anyone else."

"That's not the point."

"Why won't you tell me?"

"Why do you even want to know?" Kakashi asked, starting to get annoyed and a little unnerved at the way Naruto was asking the questions and watching him with such a clear serious expression. Those eyes seemed to look straight through him...it was eerie

"I don't know," Naruto narrowed his eyes thoughtfully.

Kakashi dropped his head in exasperation. "Then stop asking..."

"Want me to come with you?"

The Jounin lifted his chin and gazed at the blonde on his floor in perplexed irritation. "No. I do not want you to come with me. Would you like me to shove this hot teapot in your face?"


"Good, we have an agreement," he growled, pushing off the wall and turning his attention to the steaming teapot.

"Why don't I get any solo missions?"

"Because you're reckless," Kakashi answered bluntly, pouring the tea and grabbing a bag of rice crackers from the cupboard.

"It's not going to be easy fixing that, either," Naruto sighed, rolling back to a sitting position.

The response startled Kakashi enough to make him pause briefly as he handed the teacup and crackers to Naruto. "You shouldn't think of it that way. It's not something that needs to be 'fixed', it just needs to be...tempered."

"'Tempered'?" He lifted an eyebrow as he took a sip of tea. "I thought my temper was part of the problem."

"Think of it like the stages of learning rasengan," the Jounin said, glossing over the word confusion and stepping past Naruto to search the bookcase for the deck of cards he was pretty sure he still had. He needed something to distract the persistent youth. It'd be a while before his clothes dried. "Right now you're in the last stage before it's complete. You don't need to actually change anything about yourself, you just need to contain it a bit."

"The last stage was the hardest," the blonde grumbled, crunching on a rice cracker.

"It always is," Kakashi shrugged. "And this time you can't just summon a clone to make it work."

"Mmm," Naruto tipped his head back thoughtfully, leaning back on his hands and looking up at the taller man. "I don't think I need one, though."

"Aren't we the philosophical little pestilence today," he said, placing the deck of cards on the upturned face and walking by to sit down across from him. "You've been hanging around Shikamaru recently."

"I helped him baby-sit last week," he grinned, taking the cards out of their pack and shuffling them. "Kurenai-sensei's kid is hilarious if you give her candy."

"You're a demon..."

"That's what Shikamaru said right before he passed out on the couch," Naruto snickered, placing four stacks of cards on the floor between them. "Kurenai-sensei seemed pretty happy to come back to a quiet house, though. Okay!" He clapped his hands together, then picked up five cards from the stack nearest to him. "If I beat you at Speed, you treat me to Ichiraku when you get home from your mission."

Kakashi narrowed his eye, considering the bet. "All right, but we play straight. No chakra use."

"Deal. You are so not leaving here with your wallet intact, old man."

"Bring it, punk," Kakashi shot back, picking up his five cards.

After the Jounin won five straight games, Naruto finally cracked.

"YOU'RE CHEATING!" He raged, throwing his last card down and flinging his arms in the air.

"Stop shouting. And how am I cheating?" Kakashi countered with a calm chuckle, leaning over to sweep up the playing cards.

A pair of overly-intense blue eyes were suddenly a few inches from his own, which startled him into freezing still for a heartbeat. Something irrational flashed into his mind for a split-second, but was quashed before it even formed into a proper thought. All that lingered was a sense of unease and the urge to move. Kakashi gave him a flat look, straightening back up to put some distance between them. Naruto's eyes narrowed, burning their way through the Jounin with unabated suspicion and determination.

"I don't know, but I'll figure it out," he huffed, crossing his arms. The perturbed expression was gone in a blink as his stomach decided to ruin the highly serious moment.

"Rice crackers just aren't good enough for you, huh?" Kakashi needled with dry humor, setting the cards aside.

"Sorry," Naruto replied with an embarrassed yet shameless grin, scratching the back of his head while his cheeks turned a light pink.

"Can't be helped, I suppose," he shrugged, pushing himself to his feet and stepping to the small cupboard above the range. "Here," he said, tossing a pear over his shoulder.

"Ah, thanks!"

He gave a silent laugh at the fact that there were no complaints about the pear not being ramen in disguise. Grabbing another pear for himself, he kept his back turned to quickly slip his mask and take a bite of the fruit before turning back around. The movement was fast enough and so unexpected he literally jumped back half a step in shock, almost choking on the food in his mouth. Naruto was standing six inches from him, his lean body rigid with excitement and his face blazing with an almost frantic curiosity.

What the fuck?!

Struggling to swallow the bite of pear that was threatening to kill him, Kakashi placed his empty palm square in the middle of the young man's chest and firmly pushed him back so he was an arm's length away. While there wasn't any real resistance to his hand, Naruto also didn't shy away from the touch, obviously determined to stay just as close as he possibly could to catch a glimpse of the face beneath the mask.

"What are you doing?!" Kakashi coughed. He kept his elbow locked, not sure if it was safe yet to remove the hand that was keeping this bizarre wild creature at bay.

"You're eating!" Naruto replied, as if it answered all questions in the known universe.

"It's my food, of course I'm eating it," the Jounin said, cautiously pulling his hand back. There was a long moment of uncomfortable silence, where neither he nor Naruto moved.

"Well, go on, keep eating," Naruto urged.

"I am not going to eat with you staring at me like that," Kakashi scowled.


"That's right, I am," he sighed, resting his face in his hand. "Just sit d-"


Kakashi rolled his eye and gave the cloud of smoke a flat look. "...really?"

"Kakashi-sensei, aren't you hungry...?" A feminine voice purred enticingly as the smoke cleared and the naked woman stepped forward.

The Jounin's eye widened in horror as he took a reflexive step back. Shit. This wasn't the squeaky-voiced wide-eyed flirt from years ago, this was a seriously dangerous god damn vixen! Her golden hair was loose, trailing down her bare back and framing her face in wispy strands. Sultry half-lidded blue eyes watched him with an eagerness and hunger that had nothing to do with eating food. Shit! Her body heat tingled across his bare arms as she leaned closer, and he died a little inside as his blood started to warm up. SHIT!

"I've lost my appetite..." Kakashi growled behind clenched teeth, glaring and refusing to look anywhere beyond her face. Flashes of irrationality began to pick at his nerves like crows on a carcass. How long had it been? He felt sick to his stomach.

"Mmm...that's too bad," the blonde woman sighed sadly, casting her eyes down sensuously and licking her lips. "Are you sure you don't want to eat something...?"

"Not! Happening!" Kakashi spat out. Juice dripped from his knuckles where his fingers had dug harshly into the pear, and he tried to focus on the pain of his nails digging into the palm of his other hand. It wasn't even about whether he'd take his mask off or not anymore. He couldn't risk moving at all with her that close to him, he had to concentrate! He wanted to throw up.

"Just one bite..." she whispered, looking up at him from beneath her eyelashes as she tilted her head at the perfect angle so a lock of her long hair swept across the side of her face.

"Change back, now!" He snapped. He wanted to touch her. I'll kill you! He wanted to devour her. I'll kill you! He wanted her to scratch her nails down his back till he bled. I'LL KILL YOU! He wanted to hear her screaming his name. I WILL FUCKING KILL YOU! Squeezing his eye shut, he retreated to the darkness till it was over.

"Don't you want a little taste...?"

Fingertips slid across the backs of both his hands, and Kakashi flinched violently at the touch. His eye flew open as he stumbled back, his assailant's expression going instantly from heated seduction to surprise and guilt. His empty hand was already swinging out wildly, his fingers just missing the woman's cheek and slipping through a lock of her loose hair as Kakashi desperately tried to throw his momentum backward with the movement.

Her eyes didn't even blink at the near contact, guilt shifting to concern. He tried to catch his balance, his heel contacting the floor heavily and sending a jolt through his bones that buckled his knee. The woman disappeared into a puff of smoke as Kakashi hit the floor on his side. In an instant he was up on his knees and plunging an arm into the smoke. His hand connected with Naruto's side just above his waist, and he grabbed onto it. Hard.

"Ow...Kakashi-sensei, that hurts!"

"You've improved your transformation, you twisted little shithead," Kakashi said in a low voice, glaring lethally at Naruto as the smoke cleared.

"Eh-heh, you noticed?" He winced, trying to laugh while cringing in pain at the same time.

"Yeah, I noticed," the sliver-haired man said darkly, digging his thumb deep into the toned flesh between Naruto's ribs so he dropped to his knees with a gurgle of agony. "Here...you were hungry, right? Don't you want a little taste?!" He snarled gleefully, cramming what remained of the pear in his other hand into the blonde's mouth.

Naruto's arms flailed, muffled protests going unheard as Kakashi let go of his side and gave a ferocious shove at the pear-covered face. Naruto flew across the floor, slamming into the far wall with enough force to knock a few books off the shelf next to him. Sucking air through his teeth, Kakashi furiously turned his attention inward to calm his racing heart and clear his mind while his guest dealt with the consequences of his actions. He pointedly ignored Naruto's coughing and gasping, dragging himself to the near wall and leaning back against it with his knees drawn up so he could rest his arms on them.

"You could've killed me!" Naruto wailed in protest, springing to his knees as he wiped his face clean on his borrowed shirt and gingerly held his bruised side.

Kakashi leveled a black look in the blonde's direction, his mind scrolling through the thousands of ways he could actually kill the young man. "You ever pull that shit on me again and I will," he replied quietly. The over-dramatic expression of horrified terror on Naruto's face as he threw one arm up in front of him as if to ward off an attack was priceless enough to make the Jounin's stomach clench painfully.

He took a deep breath, closed his eye, bowed his head, and concentrated on swallowing against the urge to vomit. He was disgusting. He'd let his guard down because he hadn't expected to see something he actually craved, and his wretched body had fallen into the trap. It wasn't like he'd never faced that kind of woman before and cooly brushed her off if he wasn't in the very rare mood to give in to his desire to rustle the sheets. But that had been Naruto! Fucking NARUTO!

Finally managing to settle his stomach after who knew how long, he was abruptly aware of a radiating warmth in front of his feet. His first thought was that the sun had come out, spilling on the floor in front of him, but he could still hear the rain pelting the window. He opened his eye and glared daggers at the back of a familiar dark shirt. Naruto was lying on his side, head resting on the floor as he quietly flipped through the pages of the haiku book.

Kakashi thought it might feel really really great to kick him with as much force as he could. He paused and sighed, knowing that was exactly what the blonde had intended. Placing his feet against the openly offered back, he simply straightened his legs to slide the young man away. Naruto's only reaction was to close the book, and Kakashi let his arms flop onto his lap while his feet rested against the warm back.

"Sorry," Naruto said, not moving.

"You should be," Kakashi grumbled.

"That's the first time I've used that version on anyone. I didn't expect her to do nothing but piss you off."

...'do nothing but piss you off'?... Kakashi's eye widened, a glimmer of hope breaking through the clouds. ...thank you, god, for making him so dense!...

"You know, your feet are really cold," Naruto said, his shoulder twitching uncomfortably. "Is there something wrong with the way your blood flows?"

"No," he replied, tilting a wicked grin and bracing his arms against the wall. "What, you thought it was just a metaphor when people described me as having ice in my veins?"

"Well, yeaaAAAAHHHHGHH!"

Kakashi's feet were up the back of the shirt in time to cut off the response, and he slid forward a bit to get enough leverage to pin the wriggling youth down under his icy toes.

"Holy shit, cold! OW! That's my sore rib, damn it!" He kicked out his legs to squirm away, batting at Kakashi's legs till he at last managed to get out of range and sit up.

"I should have broken it," Kakashi chuckled maliciously, slumping against the wall with his legs sprawled out in front of him. Forgiving the blonde idiot scowling indignantly at him was far too easy. "You're lucky I've gotten soft in my old age."

"'Soft', my ass," Naruto growled, grabbing the collar and bottom of the large shirt to rub his back like a towel. "And what's with the 'old' crack? You've been hanging around Gai-sensei too much. What are you, 28? 29?"

"32," the Jounin sang, holding out two fingers like a victory sign.

"So...when I'm 20, you'll be 34? That's not super old."

"Ooooh, it can do math without pen and paper!" Kakashi cooed and smiled with mock sweetness, drawing one knee up to rest his forearm on it.

"Bite me!"

"Ah, but I'm 58 in shinobi years," he said thoughtfully, completely ignoring the waspish retort.

"And how do you figure that?" The blond asked dryly.

"Every day you wear that symbol, you're two days nearer death," the Jounin tapped his forehead meaningfully.

"That's an awfully morbid way of looking at it..."

"Morbid but true," Kakashi smiled subtly. "Did you know the ANBU masks started as a superstition to ward off the shinigami? Spies and assassins have very short life spans because their missions constantly court death. They would make 'false faces' in the shape of masks to fool the shinigami, believing their souls wouldn't be reaped if the death god couldn't recognize their true face."

"Wow..." Naruto said softly, eyes wide as he listened raptly.

"Well, but that was long before Konoha existed. The tradition just kept getting passed down even after the original purpose was discarded as ridiculous. The masks are worn now for reasons that have nothing to do with that old tale," he shrugged. "It's just a uniform that's used for recognition and intimidation, as well as hiding the person's true identity."

"Do you still have your mask?"

"Nah, I tossed it after I left ANBU," Kakashi flicked his fingers dismissively. "There was no reason to keep it."

"Aww nuts! I wanted to see it," Naruto huffed, picking up the deck of cards still stacked near the foot of the bed.

"I've been retired long enough, there's probably someone else wearing a mask just like it."

"I don't want to see a copy of the Copy Ninja's mask, I want to see the Copy Ninja's mask."

Kakashi pointed at the cloth mask covering his face and smiled brightly. Naruto gave him a flat look and flicked a card at him like a shuriken. The Jounin caught it between his fingers without changing his expression, and then balanced it on its corner at the end of his index fingertip. Naruto's eyes widened at the trick, and he immediately attempted to do it himself. Distraction tactic #2: Successful!

The Jounin canted his head with an amused and somewhat patronizing smile as he watched the younger shinobi trying to balance the card on his fingertip without using chakra. His expression did what it was supposed to do; provoke Naruto's stubborn nature into shutting out everything but the desire to succeed at the task in front of him. Kakashi let his smile falter slightly when he was sure Naruto wasn't paying the smallest bit of attention to him. He couldn't recall the last time he'd had such a long casual conversation with anyone, let alone Naruto, and the odd way it flowed comfortably from absurd to serious was a little disconcerting.

"Rrrrrgh, fine! You win!" Naruto shouted, grabbing the card and holding it out like a kunai. "How'd you do that?!"

"You owe me a deck of cards," Kakashi smirked.


"Come on, say it."

"Pff, all right, whatever. I owe you a deck of cards."

"Chakra control," Kakashi flicked his wrist, splaying his fingers to show how the card stuck to his fingertip like it was glued there.

"...I hate you..." Naruto said after a long pause, hunching his shoulders and leveling a flat dark look at the Jounin.

"Flattery will get you nowhere," Kakashi grinned challengingly.

"It's just like climbing trees, so it can't be that hard."

"You think so?" Pushing off the wall, he leaned against his leg to rest his chin on his knee and idly flipped the card between his fingers.

"Of course," the blonde scoffed, forming the one-handed seal for building chakra. "I just have to-" *POP* The card he'd placed on his fingertip flew up toward the ceiling in several pieces.

"You just have to suppress your chakra..."

"I know that," Naruto groused.


"Ahhh, I'm not so sure you do."

"Shut up!"


"You're not suppressing it.

"Yes, I am."


"Bury it deeper."

"I am!"


"Are you even trying to hold back?"

"Of course I am!"


"It doesn't look like you are..."

"Stop bugging me, I'm trying to concentrate!"


"Your concentration sucks."

"Zip it!"


"Oooh, that one really exploded. It's like a party in here."

"Stop distracting me, damn it!"


"Stop letting me distract you."

"Shut up!"


"You're going to help me clean this mess up."

"I will shove this mess down your throat if you don't pipe down!"


"Is that any way to talk to your charming host?"

"Host this!" Naruto snapped, dropping one finger on his seal briefly to flip the Jounin off.

"If you insist," Kakashi replied affably, smoothly getting to his feet and walking the few paces to where Naruto was sitting.

"Huh?" Naruto blinked in confusion, eying the Jounin somewhat suspiciously as the man knelt down in front of him. "What are you going to do?"

"Host you. Here," Kakashi said, putting his fingers against Naruto's palm to complete the chakra-building seal.

The warm hand flinched almost imperceptibly from his touch, and Kakashi hesitated. It surprised him that deep down he felt a little hurt at the rejection. There wasn't enough time to pull his hand away and explain what he was trying to do, because Naruto's fingers curled firmly around his own to complete the seal.

"Okay, now what?" Naruto asked

"I'm going to build chakra in my fingers, just like this," he said, balancing his card on his free finger to demonstrate. "Can you feel it?"

"...not really..." Naruto squinted at the wall as he focused.

"Exactly," Kakashi smiled sweetly, tapping Naruto on the forehead with his card. "Now, mimic it."

The younger shinobi closed his eyes and took a deep breath as he built up his chakra. Kakashi felt the hair on his arms stand up at the amount of chakra resonating through Naruto's hand. He grimaced but kept silent, focusing on maintaining his own chakra so it wouldn't get disrupted and throw off Naruto's concentration. The blonde's brow started to furrow as he struggled to ratchet down his power output. Kakashi could feel it notch down bit by bit, then it would flare slightly before being reined back in. Naruto's scowl deepened, and Kakashi could sense the building frustration making the young man's chakra fluctuate even more.

"I swear, you're distracting me even when you're not talking," Naruto said with impatient irritation, quickly cupping Kakashi's hand in both of his own and leaning forward to blow hot air over the Jounin's fingers.

"What the fuck are you doing?!" Kakashi snatched his hand away, scrambling back a little and staring at the blonde with absolute disbelief.

"Your hand is freezing, I can't concentrate," he replied matter-of-factly, leaning forward onto his knees and reaching toward the somewhat horrified Jounin. "Give it back, it'll be fine once I've warmed it up."

"I refuse! Lesson's over!" Kakashi slapped Naruto's hand away and then placed his foot in the middle of the young man's chest to keep him back. His mind reeled with the inconceivable weirdness of the situation.

"But I was starting to get it. Come on, just give me a couple more minutes," Naruto insisted, putting his hand on Kakashi's knee as he prepared to climb over the leg holding him back while still reaching for the Jounin's hand.

Kakashi felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up at the pressure on his knee, his pulse jumping as he watched a worst case scenario start to unfold in front of him. Shit, this impulsive fool was dangerous to be around! He used a burst of chakra to maneuver himself out of the precarious position. It happened in the blink of an eye: he swiveled his hips, dropped his knee, pushed off the floor with his palm, kicked his leg out to turn the momentum into a spin, tucked his feet, and landed in a crouch on Naruto's back. No longer having anything to grab onto or hold him up, Naruto slammed into the floor face-first with Kakashi's full weight on his back.

"It's called 'hosting' for a reason," Kakashi said rigidly, giving the blonde head a wary look. "That technique has you acting like a parasite, learning from the host directly instead of learning on your own. I only did it because there was no other way you'd understand how much you'd need to suppress and control your chakra for that trick." Stepping off the young man, he leaned over and hauled Naruto up to his feet by the back of his shirt collar. "But now that you know, you can figure it out on your own," he said, marching Naruto to the washroom and pushing him in. "In your own place. Change. Your clothes should be dry enough by now."

He pulled the door shut on any protests and sagged bonelessly against the shelf that held his range. It was half his fault, and he knew it. Sighing, he started picking up the scattered bits of colorful paper strewn all over the floor. He'd been impulsive as well, and with that unpredictable wild creature in his house he really should have known better. The afternoon had been mostly enjoyable, if a bit traumatizing, and he wanted to end it now before it got too far out of hand. Next time he'd be better prepared.

Kakashi sat back on his heels, frowning at his handful of shredded cards. It startled him that he'd even thought there would be a next time, especially considering this was the first instance Naruto had spent more than five minutes in his apartment. However, what really boggled him was the tentative hope that the youth would come back. He shook himself out of his reverie, continuing to clean the mess. If he was feeling more like his usual self he wouldn't be thinking like that. He'd feel better in the morning, and then everything would be back to the way it had always been.

"Hey, I thought I was supposed to help you clean up," Naruto said with disappointment as he stepped out of the washroom and set the awkwardly folded borrowed clothes on the bed.

"You took too long," Kakashi shrugged, walking to the rubbish bin.

"You're still going to teach me the ANBU code when you get back, aren't you?" He asked, picking up the teacup, empty rice cracker bag, remaining cards and book of haiku.

"I told you I would," the Jounin said as he reached out for the cup and bag.


Kakashi's hands halted a few inches from retrieving the items, that eerie feeling coming back as Naruto's gaze went straight through him. It abruptly occurred to him why he considered the expression 'eerie'. He wasn't looking into the eyes of a child, no matter how childishly they could shine. They were the eyes of a half-grown man watching him with the shadow of understanding and defiance lurking in the depths, demanding he make an unreasonable agreement.

Promise me you'll come back.

Kakashi let out a heavy sigh, shoulders slumping in defeat. "Yeah...I promise," he lied as he took the teacup and empty bag, waving his hand for Naruto to pocket the cards. "Of course, it's not like you'll actually have the book memorized by then..." he smirked over his shoulder, tossing the bag into the rubbish bin and putting the cup on the shelf next to the range.

"Ha! Don't underestimate me," Naruto sniffed, rubbing his nose arrogantly after pocketing the cards and stuffing the book down the front of his jacket. "I'll even have that card trick down pat. See you in a month, Kakashi-sensei!" He waved, ducking out the door.

Kakashi stretched out his senses, feeling the swiftly retreating chakra dashing through the rain toward the other side of the village. He took a deep breath and pinched the bridge of his nose as he closed his eye. The whole apartment smelled like Naruto now. He shook his head and bundled the pile of borrowed clothes into his hamper. The Jounin stepped up to his bookshelf and scanned the titles till he found the one he was after. Plucking it off the shelf, he flopped onto his bed and started reading.

The continuing rain didn't distract him. The gloom didn't sneak in and cloud his focus. The weather outside didn't even exist anymore. He fell asleep halfway through the book, breathing in the familiar scent that always reminded him of windswept grass and sunlight.

He awoke at dawn panting and covered in sweat, his body shivering from the aftermath of a dream. His stomach churned as his mind whirled in horrified denial, and he scratched and fumbled at his window to slide it forcefully open. He put his head in his hands and pulled harshly on his hair. His breathing calmed after a little while and a slight breeze cooled the shirt clinging to his damp skin. He looked at his hands, a few silver threads draped loosely over the trembling fingers. Act like nothing happened.

Easier said than done.

He wasted no time leaving for his mission, only just barely remembering to stuff what little perishable food he had into his backpack. A few days passed without a repeat of that night, and he managed to follow his only lead to a seedy little town that reeked of corruption and dark secrets. The bartender's information was expensive, but well worth it for gaining the trust of a highly knowledgeable contact. The contact's price was much higher, unfortunately, and as he sat there trying not to show any fear he wondered if he would make it out of the place in one piece.

His muscles tensed and screamed at him to get the hell out of there as the woman approached, her golden hair loose and sweeping around her scantily-clad body. Desperately needed information was whispered in his ear as the lithe blonde slid her hand across his thigh to tuck a minuscule piece of paper under the white wrappings that held his kunai holster. His hands shook slightly as he played his part for anyone who might be watching, letting his fingers slip through the wispy gold strands framing her face and trying not to relish the soft texture.

She left him a hollow shell of a man with hands that threatened to stray too far from the path of decency. Her pale blue eyes were clever and understanding, and she even went so far as to genuinely offer to bed him that night. He told her to wait for an hour after the moon rose, but no longer.

He watched the moon rise from the edge of a cliff several miles away, then continued on his mission without looking back. Act like nothing happened.

Easier said than done.

The dream came back. Act like nothing happened.

Easier said than done.