Hatake Kakashi tucked his book back into a pocket of his flack jacket as the great gates of Konoha appeared in the distance. Technically, this was the eastern entrance, and there were several other main pathways into the village, but there was just something symbolic about the towering red pillars and the mighty Konoha swirl of the East Gate that most just referred to them as The Gates.
Chancing a glance at his Genin team, he couldn't help the bit of pride that swirled around in his darkened soul. They'd done splendidly for their first mission outside of the village, even moreso since they'd geared up for a simple C-rank when it turned out to be closer to an A-rank than anything. Zabuza and Haku had been deadly and there had been a few close calls, but Naruto, Sasuke, and Sakura had managed it with gusto. Hell, Naruto had even had enough chakra to pull a dozen Shadow Clones from his ass at the very end and still had stamina to spare.
Lately, Naruto's progress had been surprising the Jonin, and probably the other two Genin as well. His control was still appalling, and he could do without shouting out, "SNEAK ATTACK!" before an ambush, but the boy (Minato's son) was definitely improving by leaps and bounds.
His speed and agility whilst trapped within that Ice Mirror technique had been admirable, and he'd gotten the tree-climbing exercise done just after Sakura had finished. His aim and ingenuity with most of his shinobi tools had improved drastically as well; hell, it had been Naruto's clever use of ninja wire combined with some well-chosen Katon techniques from Sasuke which had overcome Haku's kekkei genkai.
But the thing that Kakashi had been most intrigued by was Naruto's confidence. Of course, anyone who knew of the boy would say he was overconfident, but that was hardly the case to anyone who even spoke with him for a few minutes. Naruto had some definite issues, chiefly those of solitude and self-esteem, and who could blame him with more than half of the village condemning him for having a demon sealed in his belly?
And while Kakashi was no therapist (when most of his acquaintances told him that he needed one), he'd been tempted one or two times to go see how Naruto had been holding up. The only thing that stopped him at first was the fact that Kakashi would have absolutely no idea what to say or how to comfort a boy with an injured soul such as Naruto.
Then, almost overnight, the Uzumaki's overall mood had done an about-face. While he was still loud and obnoxious, it wasn't nearly as bad as it had been when Naruto had sought out any form of attention including the negative kind. Instead, he threw himself into anything Kakashi taught the three aspiring shinobi.
And when Naruto had spoken to a dead enemy on that unfinished bridge, he'd said that he understood why Haku had impaled himself upon Kakashi's lightning-infused hand to replace Zabuza. His exact words had been: "I have someone precious to me as well. I wish, if circumstances had been different, you could have met him."
Who had Naruto been talking about? Sasuke was an obvious choice, but since the Uchiha had been there for the duration of the battle, it seemed unlikely. Umino, maybe? Kakashi had resolved to become a better instructor on that bridge where he'd almost lost his students, and part of that meant becoming closer to them on a personal level, as much as that frightened him.
He almost chuckled. A huge guy with his face half wrapped in bandages and wielding a sword bigger than his whole body shows up? Lightning Blade the bastard. Children with emotional problems come along? Tactical retreat to the farthest corner of the continent. God, he was such a coward, so very unlike his father.
As he was lost in his thoughts, Kakashi failed to notice Naruto perk up until the blonde began racing toward The Gates, waving happily and calling out, "ICHI-NI-SAN!"
"Why's that loser counting?" Sasuke huffed, but there was a certain upturn to the corners of his mouth at his teammate's antics.
"Probably trying to remind himself that two comes after one," Sakura put her own two cents in, although she, too, was sporting a wide grin.
"Come along, students," Kakashi said, strengthening his leg muscles with a dab of chakra and darting away. "We should catch up to Naruto before he tries something foolish again."
When they caught up to their teammate, Kakashi was surprised to find Naruto with someone, chattering about their mission and the weird boy who looked prettier than Sakura (which caused the pink-haired kunoichi to bristle indignantly) who had died for his precious comrade, and the giant man who wielded a zanbato as easily as a kitchen knife.
Naruto's companion looked fairly young, maybe seventeen at most, with hair a few shades darker than Naruto's and a serious face that was presently pulled into a scowl at having to listen to Naruto babble on.
"Sounds closer to an A-rank than a C-rank," the newcomer said, turning his eyes upon Kakashi. Kakashi almost faltered when he stared into those intense brown depths. They were the eyes of a hardened warrior who had seen too much for their years.
"The bridge-builder didn't really appreciate the severity of the situation he'd found himself in," Kakashi responded easily while Sakura and Sasuke moved to either side of Naruto. The man nodded his understanding, muttering under his breath as he glanced down at the Genin who were surrounding him.
"Naruto, you never said you had an older brother," Sakura stage-whispered, and Kakashi could kind of see where she got that idea. Their hair, spiky and bright, could certainly see them as brothers, but Kakashi had it from a fairly good source that Naruto didn't have any siblings, older or otherwise.
"Ichi-ni-san isn't my blood brother," Naruto explained, tugging on the man's sleeve, which was promptly yanked away with an annoyed expression. Kakashi, however, could see the hidden affection the older blonde harbored for Naruto. "But he's as much of one as I ever knew. I even have a room at his place!"
"Oi, that wasn't my choice, you know," the man grumbled. "You're the one who commandeered my guest room and started telling everyone it was yours. I'd look like a jerk to anyone you blabbed to if I refused."
"Anyway, this is Kurosaki Ichigo, my ni-san," Naruto finished proudly, conjuring two Shadow Clones so they could hold up a hastily-scribbled sign proclaiming the bond of brotherhood above Ichigo's head. "Ichi-ni-san, this is Sakura-chan and Sasuke-teme, oh, and Kakashi-sensei, too!"
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Ichigo-san," Sakura said, bowing politely, and Ichigo nodded in return. Kakashi offered a lazy salute, while Sasuke rolled his eyes and tried to pull off the brooding look to mask his interest.
"Just Ichigo's fine," he said, rubbing the back of his neck uncomfortably. "I don't use honorifics, and it makes me seem like an asshole if I'm not using 'em and other people do."
"Why did your parents name you 'Strawberry'?" Sasuke asked, his gaze very focused for someone who was trying desperately to seem bored.
"It's Ichi, like 'first prize', and Go, like 'guardian angel," Ichigo ground out. "My name means 'One who protects', not 'Strawberry'." It seemed like a sore subject to the poor guy. But it was a good name, and Kakashi approved of it.
"So, if we're done here," Ichigo continued, shading his eyes as the sun climbed higher into the sky, "I've got the water boiling and a few dozen packs of ramen waiting at the house. Has Cyclops taught you Shunshin yet?"
Kakashi raised an amused eyebrow when he realized that Ichigo was referring to him, and he shook his head. "Not yet, although with the way Naruto's been improving, I think we might just be able to start learning the basic steps soon."
Ichigo grimaced. "Well, I guess you're piggy-backing again, you little runt," he growled at Naruto, who looked absolutely thrilled. "You're gettin' too old for this kinda thing. I stopped giving Yuzu piggy-back rides when she was ten."
"You're going to piggy-back Naruto?" Sakura sounded halfway between highly amused and scandalized.
"Well, since your master over there still hasn't taught you high-speed techniques quite yet, and seeing as how my house is all the way in the civvies sector, yeah," Ichigo replied. "And for all the ramen this bottomless pit can put away, he's pretty light." To emphasize his point, Ichigo grabbed the offending boy by his jumpsuit's collar and hoisted him onto his shoulders single-handed.
"See how awesome my ni-san is, guys?" Naruto gloated happily, more genuinely pleased than Kakashi had ever seen the boy. "Practice at Training Grounds 3, right?"
The gray-haired shinobi instructor nodded, sketching a quick wave to the two bright-haired young men. "See ya tomorrow, Naruto. It was...interesting meeting you, Ichigo."
Kakashi swore that was amusement glittering in Ichigo's eyes as he smirked and answered, "Likewise, Copy-nin. Sasuke, Sakura, the pleasure was all mine."
And Kakashi almost missed Naruto tightening his grip around Ichigo's head just a second before they almost literally vanished. It took Kakashi a quarter of a second to find them, and by then they'd already moved almost forty yards down the road, the only trace of them being a cloud of dust kicked up by their passing.
Kakashi's jaw almost dropped. That movement had been far beyond any normal Shunshin he'd ever seen, and there hadn't even been a swirl of leaves or a puff of smoke to mask the departure. Kakashi himself was only able to track the pair because of his association with Maito Gai, and even that lunatic would have been impressed.
But the strangest thing...
"Kakashi-sensei." Sasuke's voice was much graver than usual. "I didn't sense any chakra from that man."
"Neither did I," Sakura added, her voice full of wonder and confusion. "Not even when he did that Shunshin. It was so fast he didn't even need to conceal it!"
"That wasn't Shunshin," Kakashi said, his voice betraying none of the growing concern in the back of his mind. "And I don't think that Naruto's ni-san has a drop of chakra in him, but I definitely noticed some sort of pressure as he initiated that technique."
Just who was this Kurosaki Ichigo, and what was his game?