Morning of April 17, Yondaime Year 5

kakashi and narutoA hospital was a good place to reflect on your shortcomings.

Of course, with a little practice, anywhere could serve as a place to yank your flaws out, sharpen up the edges, and stab yourself with them—repeatedly, for preference, until you’d finished bleeding incompetence over the floor and could actually stand your own company again.

Not that Kakashi had that kind of problem.

Or difficulty looking at himself in the private bathroom’s tiny, depressing mirror.

He washed his hands, careful not to wet the edges of the new white bandage wrapped around his wrist, and shoved his hair back from his forehead. It fell forward one spike at a time until it looked exactly the same. He gave up on it.

Minato-sensei was waiting for him back in the hospital room, backlit by milky dawn light.

“No news,” he said, preempting Kakashi’s question. “If Orochimaru planned an attack, he hasn’t followed through yet. How was your debriefing?”

“Lengthy,” Kakashi said, after disregarding exhausting. Talking about an event was always worse than living it, somehow. “How’re the candidates?”

“All brought back,” Minato said. “No obvious traitors, but Akiyama wasn’t obvious until you put a hole through him, so. Intel’s combing over the rest.”


“Him, too. Why, you think they shouldn’t?”

“No, I meant—” Kakashi paused, then continued. “How’s his hand?”

“He’ll keep it,” Minato said. “And full finger function, if I’m correctly reading between the lines of Asuka-sensai’s very conservative report. He’s getting a week in bandages.”

There were worse things.

“Akiyama used my name to take him down,” Kakashi said.

“I heard.”

Kakashi sat on the edge of the bed. “I don’t understand why that worked.”

“What, you’re the only one who can risk your life to rescue someone you barely know?” Minato said dryly. He lounged against the wall, hands shoved deep in his flame-coat pockets. “Granted, you did it better.”

An empty IV stand stood next to the bed like a leafless tree. Kakashi flicked the chrome pole, making it chime. “Not much better,” he said.

They’d run antitoxin through him until he’d seen double and peed orange, but his head was clear again, and he could talk without slurring. The scratches barely ached. His left shoulder was stiff at the joint, where the scalpel had sliced muscle and nicked a nerve, but the medics had promised it would be back to normal by the week’s end.

Medics who weren’t Rin, Kakashi noted.

She hadn’t visited yet.

Minato pushed away from the wall and came over to sit down next to him, just close enough that a warm shoulder brushed against the sleeve of Kakashi’s ridiculous hospital shirt. “You’re looking a little gloomy, for ANBU’s top candidate,” Minato said.

“Well, now I’m having concerns about ANBU’s hiring standards,” Kakashi drawled.

Minato jostled him. “Spit it out.”

He was too good at listening, that was Minato’s problem. It was easy to talk to him, especially when all that clear blue focus was narrowed down to fixing your problem. But Kakashi couldn’t spend the rest of his life running to his jounin-sensei for band-aids and fix-its. Minato would make it better, but Minato was Konohagakure’s overburdened leader and his focus was deserved elsewhere.

Kakashi had to learn to self-regulate.

He shrugged and straightened up, finding a half-smile. “It was just a long night. So what’s next? Orochimaru’s never failed to follow-through before—why dodge out this time, if it was him?”

Minato gave him a sidelong look of distrust, but didn’t press the point. He leaned forward, bracing elbows on his knees. “He never failed to follow-through when he was a Konoha nin. Who knows what game he’s playing these days? Jiraiya caught wind of him with a rogue group in Earth Country, but that was three months ago. Maybe he got tired of them. Maybe…” He sighed and, always restless, canted back, resting the heels of his hands on the rumpled bed. “Intel will come up with the maybes. And whether Akiyama was the only one the snake suborned. And when, and where, and why…” He blew out a breath and looked sideways at Kakashi. “I can’t fault your actions in saving a comrade, Kakashi-kun, but the interrogators do like it when you leave them something to work with.”

“If I had, we’d have been picking up Tousaki’s brains with a sponge,” Kakashi said. He touched a fingertip to his temple. “Akiyama had the scalpel here, and anything else fast enough to take him down—”

“Would have brought the cave down on all three of you,” Minato finished.

“I almost went for his shoulder, but I couldn’t risk not hitting him if he dodged.” Kakashi flexed his own shoulder, feeling the stretch of lacerated muscle. “He was quick.”

Minato’s mouth quirked. “Well, I’m sure the scar will look very dashing in ANBU blacks. And that Tousaki will be appropriately grateful.”

Kakashi gave him a sharp look, but Minato radiated bland, politely supportive innocence.

“You’re very convinced I’m going to make it into ANBU,” Kakashi said at last. “I thought the Hokage was supposed to be impartial?”

Minato sighed, but let the topic of Tousaki-gratitude go. “The Yondaime will be impartial. Sagara and her captains are the ones who make the real decisions, anyway; I just sign off on ‘em,” he said, as if the Hokage had no direct input selecting the Hokage’s soldiers. “But I happen to have been observing you a lot longer than they have.”

He flicked one hand in a quick jounin hand-sign: Eyes on.

Kakashi snorted.

“I know what you’re made of,” Minato said firmly, and then went for his familiar hair-scruff, raking calloused fingers through Kakashi’s bedhead. “Besides, Naruto’s convinced you’re going to be on palace guard duty every day. You wouldn’t want to break a little boy’s heart, would you?”

“Do I have to answer that?” Kakashi asked, ducking out from under Minato’s hand.

“Better not,” Minato said, and switched gears. “Come to dinner tonight? I’m not cooking.”

“Because you’ll be working.”

“I’ll make time,” Minato said, with the sudden iron will of a man who made it home by seven p.m. every day he wasn’t actively bleeding out or banging council-member heads together, to attempt mac and cheese for his three-and-a-half-year-old.

Kakashi’s mouth lilted crookedly. “Maybe,” he said.

Minato’s wide grin was like a scatter-shot of sunlight breaking through clouds. Kakashi realized, with an abrupt pinch in his chest, that he hadn’t seen it much recently—he hadn’t been around to see it, in all the training build up for Trials.

Had Minato actually missed him?

“I almost helped Akiyama,” Kakashi admitted, finally.

Minato’s smile vanished. “What?”

“Not like that,” Kakashi said. “Before the cave, when I ran into him in the desert—he played me, and I fell for it. That’s how this happened.” He turned his arm over, showing the bandage covering heavily debrided scratches. “I knew I couldn’t trust him, but I still got too close. If I hadn’t had a baseline immunity—”

Minato waited.

“I would have lost Obito,” Kakashi finished quietly.

The bed creaked when Minato leaned against him, shoulder warm against Kakashi’s arm, chakra shifting like a mellow supernova beneath Minato’s skin. It was a little like being nudged by a furnace. “You can thank your mother for those immunities, after all,” he said.

“Hah,” said Kakashi, remembering miserable nights of mild—and less mild—poisonings. “Never tell her.”

“She scares me, too,” Minato assured him, with complete sincerity.

In fairness, Kakashi thought, she had stabbed Minato once.

“That the only secret?” Minato asked.

It was enough for now. “Well,” Kakashi said, drawing the word out. Weeeeell. “I did notice something else…”

It was like putting a treat in front of a golden labrador. He could almost see Minato’s ears prick up. “Oh?”

“Yeah,” said Kakashi, and elbowed him hard in the ribs. “You’re a nosy bastard.”

Minato collapsed like a felled tree, sprawling across the bed. “I’m wounded,” he said, with dramatic hands. “Also disappointed. Eight years you’ve known me, and you’ve only just noticed?”

“You used to be subtle about it,” Kakashi said dryly, feeling his shoulders begin to untense.

“I was never subtle.” Minato shifted on the mattress, digging into the covers. “Gods, I could sleep here. When did hospital beds actually get comfortable?”

“They didn’t. You’re just old and tired,” Kakashi said. “You should go home and sleep.”

Minato folded an arm over his face. “Can’t,” he said, muffled into the crook of his elbow. “Too much to do.”

A whole village to defend, Kakashi thought, for starters. But there had to be fallout from the second Trial’s aborted ending—clans to appease, councilmembers to bring in line, diplomats to spin. A thousand strands of information to pluck, and a hundred alliances to preserve. The Trials were, in theory, secret, but other villages had ways of finding out information, and Konoha couldn’t afford to look weak.

And then there was the matter of one Konoha ninja slaughtering another.

Akiyama had a family; they needed to know why Kakashi had executed their son.

But not right this second.

“Will Konoha implode if you sleep for three hours?” he asked.

Minato pulled his arm down enough to reveal one dark-shadowed blue eye. “I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Well, if it does, your ANBU will tell you,” Kakashi said, and kicked Minato pointedly on the ankle, making him wince.

“Isn’t it my job to abuse you—” Minato began, when a thump of chakra outside the door and a high-pitched wail of distress cut him off. He sighed deeply and clawed the pillow over his face. “I’m not here. Tell them I’m not here.”

Someone rapped on the door.

“He’s in here,” Kakashi called.

Minato made a smothered noise of betrayal, but sat up when the door opened and an ANBU stepped carefully in, bearing an armload of small, pink-faced, screaming boy. Despite his fearsome wolf mask, the ANBU managed to look like every one of his cells was trying to say sorry all at once.

Minato scrubbed both hands over his face. “Nightmares again? C’mere, Naruto-chan.” He held his arms out as the ANBU set Naruto down; the little boy streaked across the floor, skidding on pyjama’d feet, and scrambled up into Minato’s lap.

“My apologies, Hokage-sama,” the ANBU said. “When he woke up and you weren’t there…”

“I know.” Minato gave a distracted nod, busy pulling Naruto into a rough hug and petting his sleep-tumbled hair. “I’ll look after him now—huh, Naruto-chan? Bet it wasn’t a nightmare at all. Bet you knew I was visiting Kakashi-kun and you got jealous.”

Naruto rubbed his snotty face into Minato’s shirt, sniffling—then looked up suspiciously. “Kashi?” He peered around Minato’s arm.

Kakashi waved his fingertips.

Naruto made a fist—not quite correctly; he tucked his thumb at the wrong angle—and thumped Minato with it, which was an achievement not many people claimed. “You left me behind! I told you I wanna see Kakashi-niisan!” He launched himself out of Minato’s lap and scrambled to Kakashi’s side, tears apparently forgotten. “How come you’re in the hospital?” he demanded. “Did you get hurt? Did you hurt anybody?” Then, with ghoulish interest: “Did you eat anybody?”

Wolf-mask slipped quietly out the door.

“You need to stop letting ANBU babysit,” Kakashi said to Minato, after a beat, and flicked Naruto gently on the nose. “Why would I eat anyone? We get ration bars.”

Naruto pulled a face. “Were they peanut butter?”

“Dried cardboard and orphan’s tears,” Kakashi said, making Minato snort.

Naruto’s blue eyes lit up. “So you did eat people. Wolf-san said you run barefoot on a volcano. And you have to fight a giant demon. And there are wolves chasing you. And—”

Minato reached across and lightly tugged Naruto’s blond spikes. “No wonder you had bad dreams.”

“I was helping,” Naruto defended. “Kakashi-niisan was gonna be all alone when I woke up!”

“I was?” said Kakashi, confused.

Thirty-five pounds of eager little boy clambered into his lap. Naruto stood straddle-legged on Kakashi’s knees, balancing well without any help, and reached up to try and flatten Kakashi’s hair down. “There were demons,” Naruto chided, as if Kakashi was a little slow for not noticing. He directed an accusing glance at Minato. “I went into your room to tell you Kakashi was getting eaten by demons! But you weren’t there. And you weren’t in your office. So I yelled for you, and the ANBU came and said you were gone.”

“So then you yelled a lot,” Minato said dryly.

Naruto shrugged, unembarrassed, and returned to his battle with Kakashi’s hair. The slanting hitai-ate was evidently in his way; he corrected that by pulling it down over both of Kakashi’s eyes, and mauled Kakashi’s head with tiny, pointy hands.

Minato chuckled, sandy-rough, and yawned.

“I can watch him,” Kakashi offered, before he thought better of it. “I’m checking out soon anyway.”

Minato hesitated for just a moment. “Two hours?”

“Three,” said Kakashi firmly, meaning six, and felt the bed rock gently as Minato flopped back across it. There was a shuffle of covers being moved, and Naruto left Kakashi alone to go and helpfully cover his father’s head with pillows.

Kakashi lifted his hitai-ate back up. Minato was sprawled awkwardly, legs dangling, sheets half-drawn across one arm, face obscured by flat hospital pillows. His hair was a tangled splash of yellow, and his chakra felt like a guttering forest fire—low for Minato, after his multiple dimension-jumps, but brimming over by anyone else’s standards.

He didn’t protest when Kakashi got up and hiked his legs onto the bed, forcing him to re-sprawl in a slightly less back-murdering way. Five minutes, Kakashi figured, and he’d be dead asleep.

“The hospital cafeteria has jello,” Kakashi informed Naruto. “Want to help me find it?”

Bright blue eyes, exactly like Minato’s, sparked excitement. “Yeah!” Naruto grabbed Kakashi’s hand and towed him towards the door—then stopped, frowning. “You gotta get dressed before you go outside.”

Kakashi looked down at his hospital-issue blue cotton pants and the loose, irritating shirt, and then at Naruto’s bright footie pyjamas.

“You’re not,” he pointed out.

Naruto looked down, surprised. He stole a glance at Minato, who was starting to make quiet snuffly sounds, and tugged Kakashi’s sleeve until Kakashi bent down. Naruto stretched up on his tiptoes to whisper, “I won’t tell if you don’t.”

“Deal,” Kakashi said gravely, and let Naruto tug him out of the room.

Wolf-mask was still lurking at end of the corridor, making a matching set with a tall woman in a panther mask. They started forward, but stopped when Kakashi closed the door behind him.

“He’s asleep,” Kakashi said, readying himself for battle.

Panther-mask surprised him. “Thank God,” she said, shoulders relaxing.

“Did he say how long?” said Wolf-mask.

“Three hours,” Kakashi said. “But I want to give him six.”

“Done,” said Wolf-mask.

The two ANBU came forward and took up posts either side of the door, arms folded, masks a blank warning for any potential intruder to reconsider. Their tightly coiled chakra signatures were like smooth glass against Kakashi’s senses, ready to fracture and slice someone.

Well, that was surprisingly easy. He nodded gratitude.

“Come on, Kakashi-niisan!” Naruto’s feet skidded on the floor in his eagerness to achieve jello.

Kakashi let himself be dragged.

The cafeteria was mostly empty, except for a few tired nurses and one hollow-looking woman nursing a cup of cold coffee. It smelled like bacon and eggs and morning miso. To facilitate Naruto’s early training, Kakashi created a brief diversion by falling over, while Naruto liberated four bright cardboard jello cups from the cold display.

They split their spoils on the roof, tucked into a quiet, breezy alcove. As a successful trainee-thief, Naruto took a 75% cut. Kakashi chose lime-flavored jello with fruit bits.

“Naruto-kun,” he said.

Naruto had opened all three cups and was trying to balance equal amounts of different colors on his flimsy plastic spoon. He grunted.

“Do you dream about demons a lot?”

Thin shoulders hunched slightly as Naruto devoted his entire attention to his jello, carefully portioning out exact strips of red, purple and yellow. “Sometimes I don’t,” he said finally. “And sometimes we beat ‘em.”

“You and me?” Kakashi asked.

“An’ Dad!” Naruto said, enthusiasm flaring up. “He goes zip—zip—flash across the battlefield.” The spoon ascribed a zigzagging arc through the air, sending jello tumbling in all directions. “You and me, we fight like a team.” Naruto lowered his voice confidingly, “Sometimes we save him. And sometimes I save everybody.”

Kakashi’s mouth quirked. “Yeah?”

Naruto sighed happily and ate the scrap of jello left on his spoon. “I like those dreams.”

Nightmares again? Minato had asked, and he hadn’t batted an eye at the content—though sometimes Minato could be harder to read than plate glass. But he had to know, which meant he was already handling it in much better-qualified ways than Kakashi could.

Kakashi offered Naruto a bite of lime to complete his next rainbow attempt. “Want to hear something gross and cool?”

Naruto attacked the bite like a shark, taking the spoon and narrowly missing Kakashi’s fingertips. He spat the spoon accurately into one of his cups and clacked his teeth together. “Didja really eat somebody?”

“Not this week,” Kakashi said. “But I did meet someone who can make people melt.”

Naruto’s mouth dropped open, showing a purple tongue. “Melt all away?” he demanded. “Like an ice cube?”

“Like turning them into soup. One touch and floosh—people-puddle,” Kakashi said, taking a slightly editorial slant on Ryouma’s method of turning flesh into black slag.

Naruto found that hilarious. “People-puddle,” he repeated. “They melt all down, down, down, and their clothes an’ faces an’ eyeballs float on top—” He spilled over sideways, waving his arms and legs in a parody of agonized writhing, and laughed hysterically.

Kakashi propped his chin on his hand and wondered what normal civilian children looked like. Their parents must be so bored.

Eyeballs,” he said, just to see Naruto get giggle-fits all over again. “You know he wouldn’t let me copy it? He got all offended about it. And then he punched me.”

Naruto stopped laughing. “Did you kill him?” he said fiercely.

“For being a jerk? If I killed everyone who was a jerk, I wouldn’t have time to sleep,” Kakashi said, amused by the staunch outrage.

Naruto considered that. “You could eat soldier pills? Sometimes Dad does that when he doesn’t have time to sleep.”

“You’re slightly missing the point,” Kakashi said. “Remember rule fifty-seven?”

“No,” said Naruto.

Kakashi poked the round little belly, making Naruto squeak and slap at him. “‘A shinobi puts his comrades’ lives above his own, for the good of the mission and the village.’ Nothing in there about murdering people for being mean.”

Naruto’s lower lip jutted out mutinously. “Okay. What does he look like? I’ll kick him for you.”

Kakashi laughed. “Will you?” he said, and caught Naruto under the arm with a quick attack of ticklish fingers, making the boy drop and roll, yelling. Kakashi pinned him with a leg and scruffled him like a pup. “He’s four times your height and twice as wide, and he melts people, but you’re going to kick him for me?”

Naruto shrieked and twisted, scrabbling at Kakashi’s leg and laughing like a banshee. “I will! I will! I’ll kick him an’ run really fast.”

“You’re going to be a soup-boy. Your father will have to dress you in a bucket,” Kakashi threatened, grinning. He aimed for the bright blue printed stars over Naruto’s ribcage. “You’ll drip down stairs.”

Naruto flailed, kicking. “I don’t want to drip!”

Kakashi hauled him up, settling Naruto on one thigh, and rumpled the bright gold hair. “You’re already a drip,” he said.

“Am not,” Naruto said instantly, even though his blank look suggested he had no idea what that meant, but he assumed it was an insult. He shifted on Kakashi’s lap, cuddling closer in the easy, proprietary way that Kakashi never knew what to do with, and reached up a hand to tug the edge of Kakashi’s mask. “Will you be Dad’s guard sometimes when you’re in ANBU?”

Kakashi caught the curious fingers before they unmasked him. “Probably,” he said. “I’ll try my best not to eat him.”

Naruto gnashed his teeth again. “If you do, I’ll eat you.”

“I’d taste bad. You’d probably throw up everywhere,” Kakashi said, fighting a smile. “You’re violent today, Naruto-kun. Maybe you should join ANBU.”

“When I’m bigger,” Naruto said confidently. “Then I’ll be Hokage.”

Every now and then, Naruto sounded so much like Obito that listening to him was like being gently gutted. Kakashi curled an arm around the small, warm body, fingers splayed over Naruto’s ribcage. The hot heartbeat was an even march beneath his hand, alive and steadying.

“Or you could be a plumber,” he said.

Naruto made a noise of vague interest. “What’s a plumber?”

“Someone who fixes drains and bathrooms. Very important job.”

“I don’t fix things,” Naruto said scornfully. “I break ‘em.”

That was undeniably accurate.

“Demolitions specialist?” Kakashi suggested.

Naruto’s three-year-old resolve could have cracked rocks. “Hokage. You can be my guard.”

“Well, as long as you get a very fancy hat,” Kakashi said, giving that up as a lost cause. He nudged Naruto in the side. “I’m not a chair, you know.”

Naruto gave him a stealthy look. “Horsie?”

“Hell no.” Kakashi shoved him into the litter of half-empty jello cups. “Hokages-to-be make their own transport; they don’t abuse their ANBUs-to-be.”

Naruto rebounded like a rubber ball and attached himself to Kakashi’s arm, bouncing up and down. “Horsie! Horsie! Kakashi-niisan’s a horsie!”

Six hours.

Now what, genius?

Kakashi swept the cups up, and, at a loss for trashcans, burned the cardboard to a crisp and tossed the ashes off the roof. He peeled Naruto free and dangled him by one ankle, swinging like a noisy purse. “You want to see the melty guy?”

Shrieking with laughter, Naruto tried to crunch up and grab Kakashi, but he missed and kept swinging. “Yes! People soup!”

“Think you can be quiet around the sick people?”

“No!” Naruto yelled, demonstrating exactly why Kakashi was a terrible child-minder who should know better than to wind his tiny charge up before taking him through a hospital.

Kakashi flipped Naruto up, caught him, set him down, and dropped into a crouch that put them on eye-level with each other. Naruto grabbed at Kakashi’s hair; Kakashi caught him gently but firmly by the wrists.

“I can’t take you in there if you’re going to scream,” he said. “Sick people need quiet, and if you wake Minato-sensei up, I’ll skin you and wear you as a hat.”

Naruto giggled.

“So what do you think we should do?” Kakashi challenged him.

Naruto’s brow creased in heavy thought, then inspiration hit. “Sneak like a ninja!”

From covert observation, Kakashi had noticed most regular full-time parents tended to treat every child-idea like an attack of genius, but he didn’t like giving Naruto unrealistic impressions about himself—especially when Naruto was pretty sharp, if not blindingly brilliant. Minato could do the gushing.

He nodded once, seriously. “Good. We need to go down three floors—you know how many that is, right?”

Naruto held up four fingers. Kakashi folded one down for him.

“I knew that!”

“Then we turn right—this hand,” Kakashi said, tapping Naruto’s right hand. “And you wait for my signal. Got it?”

Naruto freed himself, almost vibrating with excitement. “Yes, yes, let’s go!”

“Like a ninja,” Kakashi reminded him, and opened the roof access door.

Naruto took off like a slingshot.

“I don’t know what I expected,” Kakashi told the empty wind. He let the door slip shut behind him, and followed.

For two floors, Naruto did reasonably well flying down the stairwells on his slippery pyjama’d feet. He grabbed the metal bannister at each turn to whip himself around, and even managed to skid to a stop just before a door opened, hiding in its shadow to escape detection by the harried nurse.

The third floor gave him more trouble.

In fairness, Kakashi might have had some small difficulty dodging three grouchy shinobi in a space less than six feet wide, but he wouldn’t have tried to leg-sweep a man’s crutches out from under him.

Well, maybe he would.

An enemy shinobi, obviously.

The hallway ninja weren’t expecting an ambush from knee-height, but their reflexes were still dangerous. Kakashi hurled himself down the stairwell, grabbed Naruto, vaulted over three surprised heads, and made it through the door before anyone had the chance to paste Naruto to the wall. Muffled swearing followed them.

“Four out of ten,” he hissed at Naruto, hustling him quietly past a distracted medic. “Three and a half, even. What was that?”

“Ninja fight!” Naruto said, with mingled guilt and defiance.

Not their own teammates, Kakashi almost said, but he’d only finished scrubbing Akiyama’s blood out from his nailbeds an hour ago.

“Ninja win,” he said instead, letting Naruto down when they reached the branching hallway crossroads. “You remember which way?”

Naruto studied his hands. “Right!” he said, and took off in a scramble.

This time, Kakashi stuck closer on his heels.

A passing set of medics gave them a slightly puzzled glance when Naruto’s next attempt at subtlety involved him sliding along the wall, humming the theme tune of his favorite action cartoon, but he remembered to look for a signal when they reached the next turn.

Kakashi nodded left.

There wasn’t an ANBU-specific wing anymore. Minato had changed things when he’d taken over, folding ANBU into the hospital’s general care and re-designating the private wings for high trauma cases—tortured ninja, generally, but that was a broad term. Kakashi had seen battlefield jutsu that de-sleeved skin from whole limbs, pulling it off in an eyeblink. You couldn’t treat that on a general floor.

He’d copied that jutsu, actually.

Ryouma’s bed was on a general floor, in one of the wings that catered to a dozen ninja at a time, separating the one-person beds with hanging curtains. Kakashi had checked with a nurse earlier, when he’d been able to think clearly again. Floor three, ward six, bed thirteen.

Which was empty.

“Dammit,” he said, eyeing the crisply made sheets. Ryouma must have been discharged already.

“Oooh, I heard that! Fifty ryou in the jar!” Naruto said, with a gleeful bounce that made Kakashi want to say shit. “Was the melty ninja here? Did he run away?” A glimmer of disappointment surfaced. “I wanted to see him soup somebody!”

The curtain surrounding the next bed twitched aside. “Lookin’ for the handsome lad?” said an older woman with a face like a cheerful wrinkled apple—a kunoichi, by her orderly chakra signature. Both her legs were wrapped in bandages.

“He left?” said Kakashi.

“Took his first chance and ran with it,” the woman said, with an earthy chuckle. “The doctors took him out for more treatments, I think, which was a shame. If he’d slept longer, I could’ve sold tickets.”

Kakashi raised an eyebrow.

“To watch someone sleep?” Naruto asked, nose scrunching.

“Among other things,” said the woman.

Kakashi picked Naruto up, wrapping an arm around his head to cover his ears and smother his confused question. “We have to go now,” Kakashi said.

“Sure you don’t want to sit a spell?” the woman asked, with a travelling look that started at his neck and moved down. She patted the bed next to her. “Keep an old lady company.”

“Another time,” Kakashi said, rather than hell no.

The woman sighed. “At least I can watch you leave.”

Kakashi had never had a reason to prefer hospital pants over jounin blues, but now he did: they were looser. He left the ward with an extra touch of speed, and almost tripped over three nurses clustered around the door. They cleared the way, apologizing with little bows—and fell about laughing when he turned the hallway corner.

“They need more TVs here,” he told Naruto darkly.

Naruto pulled his head free, hair ruffled. “What was that old grandma talking about? How come she wants to watch you leave?”

“You know how I try to tell you the truth?”

“Yeah,” said Naruto slowly.

“I’ll give you the choice this time. Ask me again, and I’ll tell you.”

Naruto’s face crinkled in baffled concentration, making him look slightly like a blond pug. “Tell me!”

Kakashi boosted him up, settling the boy on his shoulders. “She wanted to look at my butt.”

Naruto giggled, high and scandalized, and grabbed Kakashi’s hitai-ate tails like a pair of reins. “Why?”

“People are weird?” Kakashi suggested.

There was a protracted silence as Naruto thought that over. Then, with guilty, half-whispered delight: “Do you like to look at butts?”

Should’ve seen that one coming.

“Sometimes,” he said, because honesty was a continuous curve. “I think minds are more interesting.”

“You should go to the bathhouse. Lots of butts there,” Naruto informed him sagely, as befitted someone who was growing up with Jiraiya-sensei as a visiting uncle. “Where do you find minds?”

Kakashi smiled. “Everywhere.”

“How about the melty ninja?” Naruto asked, because nosiness was genetic.

How sharp was Ryouma’s mind? He’d gotten caught and nearly crippled by letting his guard down, but he’d also unraveled Kakashi’s first Trial’s not-quite-illusion in under a minute, and he’d had the intelligence to come up with a brand new class of jutsu by himself.

“Too soon to tell,” Kakashi said.

Perhaps he’d find out at the third Trial, if they both made it in. And through.

Naruto sighed and collapsed on top of Kakashi’s head, like a deflating hat. “Well, you gotta tell me first when you find out.”

Kakashi canted a look up. “Y’know, sometimes you sound just like your dad.”

Naruto wrenched on his hair.

“Ow, hey!”

He grabbed; Naruto scrambled. There was a brief moment of Kakashi being throttled by his own shirt collar, then he wrangled Naruto back under control, held safely against his chest.

“I can make you walk,” Kakashi threatened.

“I’m hungry,” Naruto said, shifting restlessly. “Buy me breakfast, Kakashi-niisan.”

“With what money?” Kakashi patted the pocketless hospital pants with his free hand.

Naruto thought about it. “Steal me breakfast, Kakashi-niisan.”

Kakashi snorted. “You’re going to end up in prison before you ever make it to Hokage, tiny miscreant,” he said, ignoring their earlier instance of blatant thievery. “Tell you what: let me get discharged so the medics don’t panic, then we can go to my place where there’s actual clothes and food, and you can play with the dogs. Viable plan?”

“Pakkun!” said Naruto, delighted, which Kakashi took for agreement.

His jaw cracked with a yawn. He still had the vaguely unreal feeling that came with too little sleep and the aftermath of murder, which, despite years of practice, had still not become something he could shrug off without some processing—at least, not when it was a Konoha nin.

Also, recent poisoning.

Fortunately, he was able to function with light purple haloes surrounding everything he looked at, and minding Naruto wasn’t much worse than a B-rank. A lot better, in many ways.

It was hard to hate yourself when someone else loved you so much that even other people could see it.

He settled Naruto a little higher on his good shoulder, feeling the hot, messy thrum of Naruto’s disorganized chakra signature tickling against the edges of his, and went to get on with the rest of the morning.

If the village was still standing, he’d sleep at noon.

And tomorrow—

He would be ANBU’s best candidate.

2 thoughts on “Take Me Back to the Start

  1. This is one (of many) I always come back to reread, especially when I need something comforting. It makes me so happy

  2. Of course, with a little practice, anywhere could serve as a place to yank your flaws out, sharpen up the edges, and stab yourself with them—repeatedly, for preference, until you’d finished bleeding incompetence over the floor and could actually stand your own company again. — this line is so raw, it took my breath away seriously. And it’s such a Kakashi thing to say/think. I love it, I love it so much

    Naruto and Kakashi is the most wholesome duo ever. I’m so soft. Kakashi makes such a good older brother T_T and when he and Naruto sneaked like ‘ninja’ man that was too adorable seriously. And Naruto casually attacking the knees of shinobi I meant that’s hilarious. The mental image of Kakashi grabbing him and vaulting over said Shinobi heads had me in tears. Everything about that interaction was perfect 😂

    The pervy old grandma had me rolling. “They need more TVs here,” he told Naruto darkly. — actually had me in tears xD

    Naruto and Kakashi … gosh they’re so wholesome. And how Kakashi finds it hard to hate himself around Naruto because Naruto just loves him so much… i cri

    Thank you so much for this beautiful chapter it made me deeply happy.

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