[ Here's a belated birthday fic for Naruto. I felt all obligated to write something since I did one for Kakashi, and this idea has been sitting on my computer for a while. The fact that it's late is actually somehow appropriate considering the gift I got him. XD

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

Notes

Hiruzen's day was not going well. It had started at 3am, when he had been awakened because there was an unstable ANBU agent at the hospital in dire need of medical attention, and had gone downhill steadily for him. There was a strict protocol that hospital staff followed when a shinobi showed signs of a specific state of trauma, appearing to be conscious but giving no physical or verbal indication of being aware of their surroundings. ANBU was immediately contacted to assess the situation before any treatment could be given. If the rare occasion happened that an ANBU arrived in that condition, then the Hokage was called.

It was extremely dangerous approaching someone in that state because the person was essentially unconscious, mindless and acting on instinct and reflex alone after injuries, exhaustion or trauma had forced their conscious minds to completely shut down. They were no longer considered a person capable of coherent thought; they did not think at all, they only reacted. They had no concept of recognition outside a set number of people carved deeply into their subconscious.

In nearly all cases anyone not on that subconscious list was regarded as a threat, and would be viciously attacked until that perceived threat retreated, was killed, or managed to overpower and subdue the unstable shinobi. While an ANBU was a much deadlier threat, they were surprisingly less trouble than a shinobi that was not a part of the special forces unit. An ANBU operative's obedience to the Hokage was absolute, which made them far more predictable and easier to control without having to resort to sedatives and brute force. The downside, of course, was that the Hokage had to be present in order to exact that control.

Not for the first time that day, Hiruzen sighed heavily and found his thoughts drifting in a mournful direction as his mind scrolled through a myriad of possible things he could have done differently three years, ten months and six days ago to prevent the situation he was facing. Pulling himself out of his reverie, he sincerely wished he could bring out his pipe and have a puff. Unfortunately, that was forbidden inside the hospital, and he was forced to deal with the wild accusations of four angry adults without the decided pleasure of watching their eyes water as he casually blew smoke in their faces every time they referred to Naruto as 'that'.

Scolding himself for the reprehensible thought, he tried to soothe his twitching nerves by telling himself he was getting unnecessarily irritated because he hadn't gotten enough sleep. And because two of his ANBU agents were dead. And because they had died a short while before the third member of the team hobbled through the hospital doors with their bodies slung over his shoulders that morning, having burned through a near fatal amount of chakra in a desperate attempt to reach medical help in time to save them.

And because Kakashi had done that with his leg rigidly splinted with three sets of arm guards and his katana so he could walk on the shattered limb, while his wrists were lashed together by a length of rope so the bodies of his teammates wouldn't fall when the strength in his arms gave out. And because it made him sick to his stomach that he was supposed to punish the teen for putting the information gathered on the mission at a greater risk of being lost by not abandoning his teammates to dispose of themselves when it must have been obvious they wouldn't make it. And because he couldn't figure out why Kakashi's instincts were still keeping him 'awake', sitting alone in a dark room and staring vacantly at the wall as if he was waiting for something.

And because he had only just been able to get through that haze in order to force some much-needed food and medicine down Kakashi's throat since the stubborn fool kept ripping his IV lines out every time Hiruzen left the room. And because that vital step necessary for keeping the half-starved teen in the land of the living had been interrupted with his assistant telling him that Naruto had gotten into another fight. And because he was getting too old for this nonsense. And because Minato would have been able to take care of everything while he smoked his pipe contentedly and filled in at the Mission Assignment Desk for the Yondaime.

That last thought brought him back to the present, and his eyes narrowed subtly at the continued absence of Naruto's name being mentioned while the angry parents complained about the boy. The barely noticeable shift in his expression had the desired effect, and their voices trailed off as they shuffled uncomfortably beneath his not-so-neutral-anymore gaze. Taking the opportunity, he curtly informed them that he would reprimand Naruto just as surely as he knew they would reprimand their own boys for starting the fight in the first place.

Hiruzen walked away from the stunned silence and guilty-looking pair of four year-olds, leaving the rest of the affair in the hands of one of his assistants. He was in no mood to pacify anyone, and he was going to have to have a determinedly stern talk with Naruto about learning to control his temper. His fights were still childish scuffles, but they were starting to become more violent, and the injuries were increasing on both sides.

He had just gripped the door handle that led to the stairs up to the pediatric wing when a wave of bloodlust slammed against his senses like a physical blow. Horrified and furious, he snapped his head around to glare in the direction of the restricted section of the hospital the moment before he used a burst of chakra to transport himself to the hallway outside Kakashi's room. It couldn't have been more than a few seconds since the attack had begun, but the hallway already looked like a battle zone with blood smeared on the floor and peppered across the walls where the plaster had been cracked, scorched and ripped away.

"STAND DOWN!" Hiruzen roared. He was the Sandaime Hokage, and by god those two idiotic ANBU agents of his would obey him or he would beat them senseless himself!

And they did obey. Instantly. It was clear they were both wounded, but nothing in their movements as they darted away from each other gave an indication that those injuries were going to hinder their ability to kill anything they set their sights on. Hiruzen found himself standing between them when they settled into wary predatory crouches, never taking their eyes off each other. He took a brief moment to survey the territorial boundaries they'd taken stances to defend, trying to work out a theory as to what had happened while they cooled their heels a bit in the heavy silence.

It wasn't until their stifling auras were dulled to a jumpy tension that made the air tingle with electricity that he caught the unmistakable sound of a child sniffling. In a crushing wave of comprehension, Hiruzen turned his gaze away from the pale terrified nurse huddling behind Tanuki's ripped and bloodied cloak as she attempted to focus enough to heal the burns and shallow scratches at her throat. With slow deliberation he walked to where Kakashi was balanced forward on red-stained fingers to keep the weight off his broken leg, the dim malicious glow of his sharingan casting eerie shadows on his gaunt face.

Looking beyond where the 17 year-old was effectively blocking the open doorway to his room, Hiruzen saw the suspicious lump under the blanket on the hospital bed move slightly as Naruto sniffled again. Hiruzen took a deep breath and suppressed the urge to groan. Barking a sharp order, he followed Kakashi into the room and turned on the lights as he closed the door behind him. He'd only turned them off when he'd left to prevent Kakashi from getting out of bed and doing it himself as soon as he became aware of the fact that he was alone.

He waited until Kakashi had situated himself back on the mattress before lifting the blanket off Naruto, unsure of the dynamics between the pair that had prompted Kakashi to not only allow the little boy into his room, but also to attack a nurse in order to defend that room. He was glad he'd sent Tanuki back to keep an eye on things when it became clear he would be stuck listening to some long-winded complaints from four upset parents. It had been the nurse's saving grace. Unfortunately, that meant Naruto had somehow managed to sneak his way into a highly restricted area of the hospital in the brief window of time after Hiruzen had left the boy and before Tanuki had arrived.

"Naruto, what are you doing in here?" He asked, leaning down and picking Naruto up to sit him at the edge of the bed.

He kept his voice calm but firm, and made sure his movements were carefully controlled as he watched Kakashi out of the corner of his eye. The teen shifted his empty gaze to follow the motion, registering Naruto's presence but giving no sign of recognizing who the child was. That solved the mystery of why Kakashi hadn't attacked Naruto when the boy had first entered the room, at least. Naruto was too weak to be considered even remotely threatening.

Naruto was unusually subdued, refusing to look up. He hugged a bowl flat to his chest that had splattered the remnants of the medicinal soup on his brown and orange shirt, as well as on the blanket. Considering the strength of the bloodlust both ANBU had been radiating, and his own furious shouting, he certainly couldn't blame Naruto for being frightened. Still...his blue eyes were too puffed up and red to have only just started crying. Hiruzen rested his hands on Naruto's shoulders, and noted that Kakashi gave a minuscule reaction.

"He was dead," Naruto mumbled, pulling the bowl off his chest and looking down at the mess on his shirt. "I was giving him med'cine to make him better."

The response took Hiruzen off guard, and he let his hands fall from Naruto's shoulders as he blinked at the blonde head in bewildered shock.

"And it worked!" Naruto said, looking up defiantly and apparently misinterpreting Hiruzen's silence for disapproval. "He got up and walked around, so that means he's not dead anymore! I didn't do nothing wrong!"

"'Anything wrong'," he corrected reflexively.

"I did not!" Naruto shouted, scrunching up his face angrily.

"We do not shout in the hospital, Naruto," Hiruzen scolded. "Without permission," he swiftly added, seeing the flash of resentment at the unfairness of the initial statement in Naruto's eyes. Satisfied at the stubborn and silent pout from the three year-old, he pulled a kerchief out of a pocket in his robes to wipe the soup off Naruto's shirt. "Now, tell me exactly how you ended up in this room."

There was a significant pause as Naruto pressed his lips together and scowled at the floor in a mixture of embarrassment and ire. Hiruzen placed the dirty kerchief in the bowl, and reached out to pick up the fallen spoon as he waited for an answer.

"I got lost trying to escape," he grumbled sourly, plucking at his soiled shirt. "I was hiding till the coast was clear again, and then I saw the dead teenager on the bed and I thought I could try and fix him."

Hiruzen was again taken aback at how Naruto referred to Kakashi as being 'dead'. Not that he could blame the child for thinking that with the way Kakashi looked at the moment, but that was certainly not something he wanted Naruto to start believing he could 'fix'. A twisted logic like that, no matter how innocent it was, would only bring devastating consequences later on in life.

"He was never dead, Naruto," Hiruzen said quietly, his heart aching as Naruto looked up at him with wide eyes. "He got into a terrible fight with an enemy, and was hurt badly enough to make him very sick. That's all. It doesn't matter what kind of medicine you have, you can't fix someone who's dead. If people could do that, then he wouldn't have lost his teammates today, and I wouldn't have lost two very important shinobi," he said, not really knowing why he was telling Naruto that and feeling disgusted at himself for the whisper of comfort he'd gleaned from confiding his troubles in the small child.

"I'm sorry," Naruto replied in a small voice, looking between the two older men.

"Thank you," Hiruzen said, placing his hand on the soft blonde locks for a moment. The air in the room suddenly felt very heavy, and he glanced at Kakashi to see a shadow of pain pull at his features before it faded. The tension in the teen's frame subtly began to ease, and Hiruzen closed his eyes. "I should have known that's what you were waiting for. All right, Naruto," he said, turning to the boy and lifting him off the bed to set him on the floor. "We need to let him sleep now that he's had his medicine. You can set the bowl on the chair by the bed."

"Can he sleep sitting up like that?" Naruto asked in slightly awed curiosity, trotting around the foot of the bed to the chair.

"He'll lay down eventually," Hiruzen sighed, pulling the blanket off the bed.

There wasn't much soup on it since the bowl had been nearly empty when it had been upturned onto Naruto's shirt, but there was just something inherently wrong about leaving Kakashi with nothing but a dirty blanket to cover himself. Putting the linen in a small hamper in the corner, he opened the narrow closet at the wall to pull out another blanket. After a moment of thought, he grabbed a second one as well.

It was the abrupt and unexpected spike in Kakashi's chakra that had him spinning around and almost screaming. Naruto had climbed back up onto the bed, kneeling next to Kakashi and reaching out as if to push the teen back so he was laying down properly. There was nothing Hiruzen could do, no time at all to save the child if Kakashi reflexively lashed out at the sensation of someone grabbing him! At that distance Kakashi would be able to snap Naruto's neck before Hiruzen could get there!

It had never occurred to him to warn Naruto not to touch Kakashi, because Naruto did not normally initiate casual physical contact. Certainly not with strangers, and especially not with anyone outside his general age group. In slow motion he saw Naruto's tiny hands grip Kakashi's shirt and start to push at the same time Kakashi's sharingan began to spin as his hand shot up toward Naruto's chest, blood-stained fingertips sparking with just enough lightning-laced chakra to cut through flesh.

Hiruzen didn't want to watch the nightmare, but he never tore his gaze away as he forced chakra into his muscles, knowing he'd be too late. Naruto flinched at the touch, surprise crossing his features. Kakashi blinked, the shadow of registering Naruto's presence drifting through his eyes as his hand dropped to his lap. Hiruzen suddenly froze, something in Kakashi's expression halting him where he stood next to the bed with his arm half outstretched and reaching for Kakashi's wrist.

Little small thing.

The phrase jolted through Hiruzen's thoughts without warning, and he found himself clutching the blankets to his stomach. Kakashi turned to look at him, and he saw the recognition stir under the vacant gaze. Naruto scowled at Kakashi as he pulled his hands back and rubbed his chest.

"He zapped me good," Naruto said, reaching back out to again push firmly at Kakashi's chest.

Kakashi's fingers twitched while his sharingan made a lazy rotation, but other than that the teen did nothing more than slide his gaze to look at Naruto without a shred of recognition before relenting and allowing himself to be pushed down to the mattress.

Such a little small thing.

"Are you hurt, Naruto?" Hiruzen heard himself ask hoarsely, trying to wrap his mind around the phrase that kept popping into his head as he watched the surreal scene. It was something his mother used to say to him when he'd been very young.

You're such a little small thing, I can't help but love you.

Answers came at him from every direction, threatening to tip him off balance. Kakashi hadn't reacted violently to Naruto entering his room because Naruto was a harmless and helpless child. There hadn't been much soup left to make a mess when it spilled because Kakashi had let Naruto feed him. Naruto hadn't covered himself with the blanket out of fright, it had been draped completely over the edge of the bed because Kakashi had thrown it over Naruto to hide him. All the nurse would have had to do was open the door, and Kakashi would have reacted without hesitation. He would have taken the aggressive stance and eliminated the potential threat before it even breached his territory because there was a baby in the room that needed to be protected.

"No," Naruto shook his head, sitting back on his heels once Kakashi's head sank into the pillow. "Should we get a dryer sheet before we tuck him in?"

"What?" Hiruzen questioned, his brain continuing to spin its wheels. It was bad enough that he couldn't fathom what Naruto needed a dryer sheet for, but now he was also stuck with the ridiculousness of being in the position to help a three year-old 'tuck in' an ANBU assassin suffering from an extremely violent case of post traumatic stress disorder.

"A dryer sheet," Naruto said matter-of-factly, looking at Hiruzen and pointing at his blonde hair. "To stop the zapping and static stuff that's making his hair all funny."

"Dryer sheets are for the dryer, Naruto," Hiruzen said, relaxing his hold on the blankets as his thought process finally began to get back on track.

"They work on people, too," he replied, drawing his eyebrows together and frowning at Hiruzen's lack of grasping the common knowledge.

"And who told you this?" Hiruzen asked, unfolding the first blanket as he arched a brow at the boy.

"One of my baby-sitters," Naruto said, crawling up to the head of the bed and folding his legs so Hiruzen could settle the blanket over Kakashi. "She showed me how I could make a balloon stick to my face if I rubbed my feet on the carpet real fast. It was awesome! But then I got in trouble cause I zapped some old lady's noisy little dog when we went outside for a walk, and she made me apologize. And then she took me home and scrubbed me with a dryer sheet to take the static away, and said I wasn't allowed to zap people or pets and stuff."

Hiruzen busied himself with smoothing the blanket at the foot of the bed, biting his lip to keep from laughing outright. Naruto was already irreverent and brash, he did not want to somehow destroy the fragile moral lesson the baby-sitter had instilled by making that whole situation seem like a joke. The idea of Naruto studiously rubbing Kakashi's head with a dryer sheet, and the absolutely scandalized expression the young ANBU would have had if he'd been conscious wasn't making things easy, either.

Clearing his throat, he unfolded the second blanket and considered something that cleared all the mirth away in an instant: Naruto had been taught how to stick a balloon to his face. He had no problem with the game itself. Quite the contrary, he was delighted that the boy was having fun and that whoever the woman was had taken an interactive role instead of simply leaving Naruto to entertain himself after he'd been fed and washed up.

However, he was not about to let Naruto be under the care of someone who was teaching him a 'game' to cover his face because she didn't want to look at him. He made a mental note to look into the incident. All it would take was one question to the woman, and he'd find his answer. He hoped he could send Naruto back to her. She sounded interesting, and Naruto wouldn't be needing the part-time baby-sitters for much longer. He was learning to cook for himself, and he was beginning to understand how to properly manage a set amount of money.

"Ah, well, I think we should probably leave the dryer sheet for another time," Hiruzen said as he handed a corner of the second blanket to Naruto with a placating smile.

"If you say so," Naruto shrugged, helping to spread the blanket out before pulling it up to Kakashi's chin and giving it a few clumsy pats.

Hiruzen had the impression the boy was mimicking something he'd seen in a picture book. He felt like crying.

"It's time to go, Naruto," he said quietly. "He needs to rest so he can get better."

"But his eyes are still open," Naruto said, tilting his head and scrunching his face into a look of stern disapproval as he scowled at Kakashi.

"He's being polite because we're still in the room," Hiruzen chuckled, walking around the bed and picking Naruto up to set him on the floor. "He'll close his eyes to sleep when we turn out the lights and leave him alone."

"That's kinda silly," Naruto said, taking the hand Hiruzen offered him. "I fall asleep in front of people all the time when I'm tired."

"Yes, well, you're allowed to do that when you're small," he smiled, leading the boy out of the room at a stately pace so Naruto's short legs could keep up with him without having to run. As soon as the door was closed behind them, he glanced at where the nurse and Tanuki were standing and waiting for him.

"Whoa! What happened?!" Naruto gasped, staring at the damaged wall. Thankfully, the blood had been cleaned up.

"A naughty imp broke out of his room and ran amok," Hiruzen sighed, motioning for the two adults to stay where they were as he tugged Naruto down the hall and out of the restricted wing.

"Is that what all the noise and shouting was about?"

"Yes, it was. And speaking of naughty imps, we need to talk about the fights you've been getting into lately," he said firmly, not letting Naruto pull his hand away as the boy ducked his head.

"They started it," Naruto grumbled.

"But you threw the first punch," Hiruzen scolded. "You're getting bigger, Naruto. If you don't learn to hold your temper you're going to hurt someone."

Naruto came to such a sudden halt that Hiruzen lost his hold on the small hand and had to turn to look back at the child. He'd paled noticeably, gazing fearfully at the door to Kakashi's room before looking back up at Hiruzen with wide moist eyes.

"Are they okay?" Naruto asked, pulling at the hem of his shirt furtively.

"Yes, they are," Hiruzen said, gently ruffling the boy's hair. "Thank you for asking. You're still going to be punished for fighting and for trying to escape the hospital, though," he said, taking Naruto's hand again and stepping up to press his fingers against the door to the stairs.

He unlocked it with a flare of chakra, adding yet another note to his growing mental file. He needed to get a member of the Inuzuka Clan to the hospital as soon as possible to attempt to track the path Naruto had taken that had led him into the restricted area. Along with that, he needed to have the security measures checked for blind spots and flaws.

"But I hate it here!" Naruto sulked, dragging his feet in protest.

"Then stop fighting," Hiruzen retorted placidly

Naruto brooded over that conundrum for a moment, stomping his way down the stairs. The stomping eventually softened to lighter pattering steps as they neared the bottom.

"Jiji?"

"Hmm?" Hiruzen opened the door to the ground floor and glanced down at Naruto, who was gnawing on his bottom lip thoughtfully.

"Is he gonna be in the hospital for a long time?" Naruto asked.

"Probably."

"Can I come visit tomorrow?"

"I'm afraid not," Hiruzen said, shaking his head and fighting the absurd urge to grin. As tempting as it was to set Naruto loose on Kakashi, he knew Kakashi was not yet ready for that. The teen had too many unseen wounds that required years to heal. "He needs to sleep as much as possible, and visitors will only keep him awake."

"Won't he get bored?"

"No."

"Won't he get lonely?"

Hiruzen couldn't bring himself to answer that right away, and he continued to walk down the hallway in silence for a minute. "He's a very private person, he likes to be left alone."

"Oh," Naruto said, chewing on his lip again. "Can I come visit the day after, then?"

Stopping as they entered the main lobby, he looked down at Naruto and considered his options. He needed to derail the boy's single-minded train of thought, but flat out denying him would only have the opposite effect. There had to be a compromise that would satisfy Naruto enough to prevent him from actively seeking answers about Kakashi. If he could do that, then setting up a very distracting schedule for Naruto over the next few weeks should hopefully allow him to forget about the incident.

"No, Naruto, you may not," Hiruzen said firmly. "However, I'll make a deal with you. But first, I want you to go out into the fields and pick a flower."

"What for?" Naruto asked, wrinkling his nose in distaste and suspicion.

"When people have a friend in the hospital, sometimes they bring flowers to cheer their friend up. Since you can't visit that young man, I am willing to take the flower to him in your place as long as you stay out of trouble for the rest of the day. After you've collected a good and proper flower that you did not steal from someone's personal garden, bring it to my office. Now, go home and wash up for lunch before your baby-sitter comes to pick you up."

Naruto gave a joyful whoop and darted across the lobby to the front doors. As much as Hiruzen wanted to remind Naruto that he shouldn't shout in the hospital, he would have had to shout in order to get the boy to hear him. Content with the idea that Naruto would spend the next few hours absorbed in his task, and out of the collective hair of the village, he walked to the front desk to ask for Naruto's medical file. Picking up a pen, he opened the folder and began to write in the small empty space at the bottom of the first page that was reserved for any special notes that the medics needed to know about the patient.

'HIGH RISK ESCAPE PATIENT! Naruto will use any available opportunity and route to leave the hospital without permission. Maintain careful watch over all exits, and double security measures to restricted areas AT ALL TIMES! Should the patient vacate the hospital before his doctor has released him from care, contact the Hokage's Office immediately.'

Hiruzen returned the folder to the nurse at the desk after signing his name. As he made his way back to the restricted wing to speak to the pair awaiting him, it never occurred to him that his notation would remain unaltered in Naruto's medical file for the rest of the boy's life with the exception of two names being added to the list of contacts several years later: Haruno Sakura and Hatake Kakashi. Had he known that, he probably would have been tickled to pieces, but since he didn't know it he simply sighed heavily and tapped his fingers along the stem of the pipe in his pocket as he listened to the reports from Tanuki and the nurse that had been attacked.

By the time he was able to return to the Hokage Tower, satisfied with knowing that Tanuki and the nurse wouldn't need more than a day to recover - the former from a dislocated shoulder and several deep lacerations, and the latter from some deep bruises and shock - he managed to make it in time to relax behind the Mission Assignment Desk for an hour. Naruto showed up just as he finished a meeting in his office, and Hiruzen finally gave in to laughter.

Covered in grass stains with colorful petals in his hair and trailing clods of dirt all over the floor from some of the more stubborn plants that had apparently needed to be uprooted, the only thing visible of Naruto's face was his eyes. Glaring at Hiruzen over the ridiculously large bundle of flowers, Naruto stomped his foot and explained caustically that he hadn't been able to make up his mind, so he'd just brought all of them. And that the kunoichi teacher was a big fat liar if she said he'd been causing trouble, because it was the girls that had been bothering him and trying to tell him what to do.

Hiruzen cleared his throat and suppressed his mirth, lighting his pipe as he told Naruto it was rude to call people liars when they hadn't even said anything. Asking one of his assistants to bring them a vase, he cut the stems and placed them in the glass container with some water. Telling Naruto to choose one of the flowers so they could make a proper card to go with the bouquet, Hiruzen taught him how to sandwich it between a folded piece of paper and place it beneath some thick books so it could be pressed.

Scooting the books against the wall, he sat Naruto on the small stack and calmly informed the boy that he was going to be staying there for the next few hours as his punishment for the trouble he'd caused earlier. It was dreadfully easy to quell the instant protest by telling Naruto that the card would be ruined if he continued to squirm. Using the random times of quiet between Naruto whining about being bored and requests to use the washroom, Hiruzen worked his way through the mountain of general complaint files until he found the one he was looking for.

Cross-checking the claim that Naruto had harassed an older woman's Pomeranian with his schedule of baby-sitters, he found the right name and wrote it down on his notepad. That issue taken care of, he returned to his usual paperwork and kept Naruto's complaining to a tolerable level by occasionally threatening to put him behind a sound barrier. By the time the baby-sitter came to pick the boy up for dinner and a thorough scrubbing, Hiruzen had promised to deliver the flowers and the card exactly 17 times. The coincidence of the number made him smile.

A few hours and another lengthy meeting later, he walked back to the hospital carrying the vase of flowers, the unsigned card, a stack of folders and a newly purchased copy of Icha Icha. While Kakashi wasn't technically 18 years old yet, he only had a month to go. Besides, leaving the emotionally reclusive and somewhat prudish teen confined in a hospital room with no escape from his boredom except a flagrantly romantic porn novel he would normally rather burn than read constituted a punishment in Hiruzen's opinion.

He didn't turn the main light on when he entered Kakashi's room, sitting down in the chair by the bed and switching on the small lamp on the bedside table instead. He wasn't surprised to see Kakashi still had his eyes open to stare vacantly at the ceiling, knowing it would take quite a while for the teen to cycle down from everything that had happened. But the fact that he was still laying down beneath the blankets, and his eyelids were heavy with drowsiness meant it wouldn't be long before he finally slept.

"The flowers and card are from Naruto," Hiruzen said, placing the items next to the lamp. "The book is from me, and I expect you to read it. While your sexuality is none of my business, I'm getting tired of hearing the rumor that the Uchiha Clan had you castrated for stealing the sharingan every time you feign ignorance in order to brush off anyone trying to flirt with you. If you don't like it, you can consider it a form of punishment for putting the welfare of two ANBU agents above securing the safety of yourself and the information you still have locked in that thick head of yours.

"I have also come here to inform you of a decision I've made to alter your current rank based upon your previous records of conduct, your confidential profile history and the actions you took today," he continued, leveling the folders on his lap and placing a blank form on top so he could begin filling it out. "If you feel I'm in error at any point during this discussion, you are free to contradict me in order to make corrections. All you need to do is speak up," he smiled, glancing up from his writing at the unresponsive figure staring at the ceiling.

"The village of Konoha has a screening process to determine suitable candidates for becoming Jounin Sensei of newly graduated Genin teams," Hiruzen said, returning to his writing. "The graduate's various immaturity levels, lack of team-building experience in the field, and unpredictable nature of their judgment calls in completely unfamiliar situations pose quite a challenge to any team commander. It takes a patient and dedicated person to make order out of the chaos; qualities which I believe you possess.

"You are not expected to teach any kind of specialized Clan techniques, but understanding the theory behind those techniques is necessary so you can work on specific fundamentals for any given Genin on your team. It should come as no surprise to you that your grasp of jutsu theory is the main reason your picture is in the Bingo Book of every village outside Konoha. Using the sharingan to commit a technique to memory is one thing, but being able to perform that technique instantaneously is something else altogether. Do you have any questions so far?"

Hiruzen waited a polite few moments, the only sound in the room being the rhythmic scratching of pen on parchment.

"Good. I expect a certain level of professionalism from my Jounin sensei. You will be in the position of having an extraordinary amount of influence over malleable young hearts and minds, and I will not tolerate any kind of malicious, self-serving, or unsavory emotional manipulation. Relationships that go beyond platonic friendship between sensei and student are strictly forbidden, and you will be reprimanded according to the situation should something occur.

"I apologize if that offends you, but it's something that needs to be stated," Hiruzen said, letting his eyes settle on the Icha Icha book before gazing wryly at Kakashi. "I am aware that your issues concerning relationships are on the other end of the spectrum to a depressing degree." Shaking his head, he returned to filling out the last part of the form. "Having said that, it should be obvious that the priority of all Jounin Sensei is the safety of their Genin team. A sensei must protect his Genin at all costs until they are strong enough to protect themselves. Even from himself.

"There is a test normally performed with genjutsu to ensure the final qualification for becoming a Jounin Sensei of a newly graduated Genin team is met. Children have a way of startling even the most seasoned Jounin, and there is the risk of that Jounin reacting reflexively with unintentional deadly force. I would like to congratulate you on passing that test under the most severe circumstances conceivable," Hiruzen smiled, signing the bottom of the form and holding it up with a flourish. The dramatic movement drew Kakashi's weary blank gaze to the paper.

"This is your Jounin Sensei Recommendation Application, please take a moment to look it over and commit the number at the top left corner to memory. It will be filed at 9am tomorrow morning. If you have not brought any objections to me before that time, you will need that number to retrieve the file from Archives in order to fill out the proper forms before you can lodge a formal request to have your rank changed. Since you are both injured and in ANBU at the moment, you will notice that I have made a note at the bottom showing you as 'Currently unavailable due to mission requirements.'

"When the time comes that I see fit to remove that note and put you on the availability list, you will be informed by a messenger bird. The arrangement of team members and which Jounin will be assigned to them are based on recommendations from the Academy teachers and Exam Board, but their final approval and arrangement are up to me. Do you have any questions or objections, Kakashi?" Hiruzen asked sweetly. Upon receiving no answer, he placed the form into one of his folders with a smile. "Welcome to the world of herding cats, otherwise known as 'teaching'."

Opening another of the folders, he picked up his pen again to continue the paperwork he hadn't been able to finish in his office. It took four more hours for Kakashi to close his eyes and slip into a genuine state of unconsciousness. Sighing, Hiruzen pulled the teen's mask up and turned off the lamp before he left the room. After removing the bright red warning sign from the door, he notified the staff in the restricted wing that they were cleared to enter Kakashi's room and attend to his injuries without needing his supervision.

When he filed Kakashi's application the next morning, he never imagined it would take six more years before he was able to send out that messenger bird. It brought him a great deal of amusement that the very next day he received two notes; one from Archives complaining about a Jounin refusing to leave the premises, and one from the Academy with the list of students who would be taking the graduation test. Naruto's name was on the list for the first time, and Kakashi had yet to report in with his summons notice of being put on the availability list for becoming a Jounin Sensei.


END