Summer, Sandaime Year 20, ten years before the Kyuubi
The mask was waiting for him in the hallway.
Kakashi stuck his head cautiously around the kitchen door, saw the red-lacquered eyeholes gleaming in the shadows, and ducked back into the kitchen. His mother found him rooting through the cutlery drawer, balanced on a tall stool to reach the handles. Her long, dark hair was knotted in a complicated twist, with calligraphy brushes rammed through it. A few drops of ink splattered one cheekbone.
“Looking for something?” she asked.
He’d read Shizuoka Noburu’s Lessons From Behind Enemy Lines last week. The chief principle had been Deny everything. “No,” he said.
Her eyebrows lifted.
“I wanted chopsticks?” he tried.
“And decided to look for them in the knife drawer?” Sadayo said, plucking up the black-handled skinning knife he’d had his fingers on. She held it like a kunai, then changed to a rabbit-skinning grip. The difference was subtle, and Kakashi was proud for recognizing it. “Explain, please.”
“Um,” he said, and wanted to kick himself. Great warriors didn’t say um.
“Kakashi-chan,” she said.
He dropped his eyes, studying his feet. “I needed it,” he mumbled.
“Why?” she said, in the level, listening way that meant he was really in trouble.
He bit his lip.
“Were you going to play with it?” she asked. “You know the rule about weapons.”
There were lots of rules, but she probably meant the big one: not unsupervised. Not until his birthday, when he’d be old enough to join the academy and get his own weapons.
“I was just gonna borrow it for a minute.” He looked up, meeting dark brown eyes. “Not for play! I just—”
A shinobi spoke with purpose.
“I had a mission,” he invented on the spot. It was pretty much true.
“This is about the mask again, isn’t it?” she said.
“It’s evil,” Kakashi cried.
Sadayo sighed. “Get down,” she said, and nodded once when he jumped and landed silently, like they’d been practicing. “Wait here.”
“Wait,” she ordered, and left the kitchen, going into the garden.
Kakashi shifted from foot to foot, fighting the urge to jig on the spot. Unnecessary movement wasted energy, but he always had energy.
After what seemed like forever, a foot scuffed at the kitchen door. A white head poked in.
“What’s this about arming for battle?” Sakumo said.
She’d told on him.
Kakashi fought down an un-shinobi-like sound of outrage. “Not for battle. I was just—I wanted— It looks like a demon, dad. I don’t think it’s safe.”
Sakumo’s mouth twitched. He stepped into the house and removed his shoes. “Come with me, Kakashi-chan.”
Into the hallway.
Very reluctantly, Kakashi followed his father, trying to hide behind long legs without making it obvious. The dark wooden walls were lined with lots of things: painted scrolls, Sadayo’s calligraphy, a crossed set of curving blades with red tassels that Kakashi was allowed to admire and not touch, and a row of masks. The first six weren’t bad—a dragon, a fox, an old man with a drooping mustache, a beautiful woman with blue feathers. Kakashi actually liked the snarling wolf, with its gleaming ivory fangs. The blank-faced man was boring, and therefore ignorable.
The demon over the door glared at him.
His hand caught the back of Sakumo’s pants, clenching tight. He let go immediately, an unknowable sense of shame making his stomach clench—ninja weren’t afraid—but a broad, warm hand caught his wrist gently.
“Come up here,” Sakumo said, and picked Kakashi up, settling him on one hip.
“Dad,” Kakashi protested.
“Shh,” Sakumo hushed him firmly. “You need to meet Tengu.”
Meeting had not been part of the plan. Stabbing had been the plan, followed by a secretive burial under a pile of big heavy rocks, just to make sure.
Sakumo lifted him up. Kakashi abandoned all pretense of uncrackable bravery and grabbed his father around the neck, hiding his face against the soft collar of Sakumo’s shirt. He could feel the weight of the gold-eyed glare on the back of his head. Beneath his nose, the smell of grass and dirt and metal oil was only slightly comforting—Sakumo had been weeding.
A laugh rumbled deep in Sakumo’s chest. “It’s okay to be afraid, as long as you can function around it.”
“M’not afraid,” Kakashi said.
Sakumo’s voice sharpened. “Don’t lie to me, Kakashi-chan.”
Stung, Kakashi pulled back, but his intent to argue in fierce self-defense wilted under Sakumo’s cool grey gaze. He fiddled with Sakumo’s collar. “Maybe a little,” he admitted.
Sakumo’s hand wrapped around his, stilling the fidget. “That’s because you don’t understand it. Do you know what Tengu means?”
Kakashi shook his head.
A twist of Sakumo’s chakra turned the air liquid and golden, pulling dust motes into visible shapes. Kanji formed at Kakashi’s eye-level.
“Dog,” he read. “Something-dog. Soldier dog?”
“Close,” said Sakumo. He tapped the half-recognized kanji, scattering gold flecks. “Heavenly dog.”
Kakashi risked a look at the mask. Up close, it looked more demon-like—the skin was blood-red, with heavy black eyebrows scowling over bulging golden eyes. Frown lines cut like arrow heads down the center of the forehead. The nose was nearly the length of Kakashi’s whole arm, jutting out in a straight line from the lumpy face. Giant square teeth filled the broad mouth, except for a pair of interlocking fangs at the front.
“It doesn’t look anything like a dog,” Kakashi said, baring his own sharp teeth at it.
“He’s not, really. The first tengu looked like fierce birds, with wings and beaks, and you’re right, they are demons.”
A thrill went up the back of Kakashi’s neck. “I knew it!”
“But you’re assuming demons are bad,” Sakumo went on.
Kakashi blinked. “They are! They kill people!”
Sakumo resettled Kakashi more comfortably on his chest, turning sideways so Kakashi could still see the glaring mask. “Well, ninja kill people. Does that make us bad?”
“No,” Kakashi said immediately, because that was obvious.
“There are people who call us demons,” Sakumo said quietly. “They’re not always wrong.”
Kakashi didn’t like this conversation. “It’s different,” he insisted. “Ninja follow orders, an’ protect the village, and—” He fumbled for words, trying to shape concepts he knew into an argument that worked. “It’s just different.”
“The first tengu were tricksters and harbingers of war. Do you understand that word, harbingers?”
Kakashi thought. “It’s like, someone who starts something?”
“Close. It’s a sign of something to come, like frost is a harbinger of winter. Tengu were heralds of battle—selfish creatures, profiting from chaos. But legends tell us that some of them changed. They settled in forests and mountains, and became guardians—still very dangerous, but with a purpose. Some of them were even worshiped as beneficial kami. They have their own temples.”
“People worship demons?”
Sakumo smiled, and rumpled a hand through Kakashi’s hair. “People worship lots of things.”
“Do they worship ninja?” said Kakashi, who thought he’d identified the point of this lesson.
Sakumo’s hand paused. “I’m sure some people do, but I don’t think they should.” He poked Kakashi gently in the stomach. “Do you feel like a god?”
Kakashi giggled. “Yes!”
“Oh really?” Sakumo’s long, calloused fingers skittered up Kakashi’s ribcage, making him yelp and twist and kick before he remembered to try a nerve-cluster pinch on Sakumo’s wrist. He missed the right spot and his pinch wasn’t hard enough, but the tickling ceased. Sakumo tweaked his nose. “Very godly.”
Kakashi grinned, and looked back up at the mask. “So this tengu—he’s a guardian? That’s why he looks so mean?”
“That’s right,” said Sakumo. He reached up and lifted the mask off the lintel, bringing it down. Kakashi gave it a wary look. Sakumo turned the mask around, showing the shiny varnished interior. Anchoring red ribbons had been neatly folded and pinned out of the way; unfolded, they’d tie the mask around someone’s head. “Take a look through his eyes.”
“He’s too big,” Kakashi protested, rather than his first reaction of I don’t want to.
Sakumo just looked at him, grey eyes level.
The outline of teeth was very clear on the inside of the mask, pale cream against the red. They looked sharp, and not like anything Kakashi wanted to put his naked face near.
He swallowed and screwed his nerve up. The polished wood was heavy and cold in his hands when he reached out and took it—a little too heavy. Sakumo had to brace the mask as Kakashi put his face inside.
It smelled like dust and wood polish, and the eye holes were too widely spaced. He could only see through the right. He closed his left eye, and looked at the hallway through the demon’s face. It didn’t bite him. Slightly reassured, Kakashi leaned forward, until his mouth brushed the teeth.
An electric spark zipped through him.
He yelped and yanked back, and when he saw Sakumo laughing, elbowed his father in the face. “Dad.”
Little sparks of white light danced between Sakumo’s fingers, jumping over the mask. “Sorry,” he said, not sounding sorry at all. “How did it look?”
Unrebuked for the elbow, Kakashi stretched his luck and yanked on Sakumo’s wild, white hair, making the loosely bound wolftail twitch. “The same,” he said.
“Darker, I guess.”
“Less scary on the inside?”
“Until you burned me,” Kakashi accused.
“Electrocuted,” Sakumo corrected. “And only a little bit.” He set the mask back on the lintel, making sure it was correctly balanced, and lowered Kakashi down.
Slightly bereft, Kakashi leaned against Sakumo’s long leg, forehead about level with the kunai-holster strapped to one thigh. Safe in Sakumo’s shadow, he guessed the tengu mask maybe didn’t look so scary from down here.
Sakumo’s hand settled on his head, broad and warm. “Feel better?”
“Are ninja really like demons?” Kakashi asked, small-voiced.
Behind him, the deliberate scuff of a foot over wood made him turn. His mother stood in the doorway to her office, watching them both with dark, quiet eyes. “We are,” she said.
“Sadayo,” said Sakumo.
“You can’t coddle him,” she said. “What do you think all his training is for?”
“He’s four,” said Sakumo.
“He understands,” Sadayo said, and held her hand out. “Kakashi-chan, come here.”
Slowly, Kakashi stepped away from Sakumo and went to his mother, who crouched and put a cool hand on the side of his face.
“Ninja are wolves,” she said. “We waged war and bled the world for our own pride, just like the tengu. The first Kages tamed us when they struck alliances and built the villages, brokering peace with the civilians, and with each other. But we are still wolves, even bound with rules and brought to heel, and we cannot forget it.”
Tentatively, Kakashi touched her hand. “‘s that why Iwa wants to kill us? Because they forgot?”
Her eyebrows arched. “Who told you that?”
“No one,” he said, dropping his eyes guiltily to the floor. “Jiraiya-ojisan was talking to Dad, an’ I overheard.”
Over his head, Sadayo gave Sakumo a look. Sakumo spread his hands.
“There are a lot of reasons for the tension with Iwa,” Sadayo said, even though Jiraiya-ojisan had said war. “But essentially, yes.”
Kakashi nodded and lapsed into thoughtful silence.
“Kakashi-chan?” said Sakumo, after a moment.
“I’m going to be a dragon,” Kakashi decided. “And the wolves an’ the demons can run.”
Sakumo laughed. A rare, beautiful smile broke over Sadayo’s face. She leaned forward and kissed his forehead, right between the eyes. “I’d like to see that.”
“Me, too,” said Sakumo, dropping a hand on Kakashi’s shoulder.
“Now,” said Sadayo, more businesslike. “I think the dragon is late doing his lunch chores.”
“Mom,” said Kakashi, yanked down from his cloud.
“Mom nothing. There’s sweeping to do. And you need to finish weeding,” she added, looking up at Sakumo with glinting eyes.
Sakumo vented a sigh. “Aye-aye, captain.” He nudged Kakashi in the back with one knee. “C’mon, lizard-boy. I’ll race you. First one to finish gets an extra pork bun.”
“Dragon,” Kakashi said. “Not lizard-boy. Dragon.”
There was a swoop of chakra, and Sakumo vanished past him, making the kitchen door clatter. “Losing dragon!” he yelled over his shoulder.
“Argh!” said Kakashi, outraged, and ran to get the broom.
Laughing softly, Sadayo unbent from her crouch, adjusted the scowling guardian over the front door, and returned to her calligraphy as her son and husband shouted at each other.