May 4, Yondaime Year 5]
Naruto woke up too hot. His hair was sticky, all over his head, and his new footie pajamas with the frogs on them were all twisted up around around his belly and too tight. He squirmed, trying to get comfy, and kicked something.
Something said, “Nrgh.”
Naruto froze, clutching his blankie. This was his bed. There wasn’t supposed to be anybody else in it. Monsters lived under the bed sometimes, but Dad always went under the bed with a kunai and when he came out the monsters were all dead. But Dad wasn’t here. What if the monsters got brave, with Dad away, and tried to come up on the bed and eat him?
A monster that fit under the bed couldn’t be very big. Kakashi-niisan and Tousaki-san had killed a bug in the Forest of Death that was big big big, bigger than Tousaki-san. If this monster was smaller than the bed, Naruto could kill it too. Then Kakashi would be proud and all the ANBU would be embarrassed and they would put its head in the living room for Dad to see when he came home.
Naruto twisted around to face the monster.
It wasn’t a monster. It had bright gold hair, very messy, and a stained blue shirt and a very tired sleeping face and it was Dad.
Naruto screamed, and threw himself onto him.
They fell off the bed.
Dad grabbed Naruto by the back of the head and wrapped his arms around him and rolled, bump bump across the caltrops and halfway under the bed. “Stay down,” he said, all rough-voiced and scratchy. “Don’t—”
Then he stopped, blinking his eyes open. Naruto beamed at him. “You’re back!”
“Oww,” Dad said. He unwrapped one arm from around Naruto, pulled a caltrop out from under his hip, and blinked at it some more. “Why did we think it was a good idea to give you these?”
“Rin-neechan gave them to me for my birthday,” Naruto said happily.
“Rin doesn’t have to live with you,” Dad sighed. He dropped the caltrop and wrapped his arms around Naruto again. Naruto snuggled in against his chest. He was still too hot but he didn’t care anymore. Dad smelled like steel and blood and smoke but there was still Dad underneath that, all bright and hot and salty, like sunflowers.
Naruto said, muffled into his shirt, “I missed you.”
Dad squeezed him tighter. “Missed you too, little frog.”
“Missed you more,” Naruto said. “You didn’t say goodbye.”
Dad bent his head down and pressed his lips to the top of Naruto’s hair. “Sorry,” he said roughly. “I won’t do that again.”
Naruto wriggled against him, so that Dad had to roll out from underneath the bed and Naruto could sit up on his chest, fists bunched in Dad’s shirt, and pull at him the way Captain Seaweed pulled at First Mate’s shirt when she was mad at him. Dad was too big to come off the floor the way First Mate did, because First Mate was a seagull, but he sat up a little with his shoulders. He was listening.
“You have to say goodbye,” Naruto told him. “And if you go for a long time again you have to come on the radio and tell me you’re okay. Or send bird messages. Or just come back! Or else I’ll have to come rescue you this time.”
Dad’s chest did the funny shaky thing where he wasn’t really laughing, and in the dimness of the curtained room his eyes were all bright and sparkly. He sat up for real and put his arms around Naruto and pulled him in. The top of Naruto’s head fit just under his chin. Naruto could hear Dad’s heart beating, thump thump against his ear. Dad said very quietly, with a kind of lump in his voice, “I wish your mother could see you.” He kissed the top of Naruto’s head again, and then turned his head and rested his cheek on Naruto’s hair. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll be good. I might have to go away again soon, but I’ll tell you before I go, and I’ll radio every night that I can. But you have to stay here and be good, too. Be nice to Saya-san and eat all your vegetables…”
“Um,” Naruto said, guiltily. He wiggled. “Let’s go wake up Kakashi-niisan!”
Dad laughed properly this time. “I think you already did.” He unwrapped Naruto and tilted his head back, toward the door. “You can come in, Kakashi. The wild thing has been appeased.”
Naruto hadn’t even seen the white-tipped shadow just beyond the door. He squealed, jumped off Dad’s lap, and ran over to throw the door open, grab Kakashi by the hand, and drag him in. “Dad came back!”
Kakashi let himself be towed. “I see that.”
He’d felt it, when Naruto had screamed and Minato’s chakra had flared in bright, hot surprise. For Kakashi in the next room, it’d been a lot like getting sucker punched in the coils. But at least he was awake.
On the floor, Minato gave an unrepentant grin.
He looked like he’d been through a second war. The flame-decorated coat was absent, leaving a torn, stained jounin uniform in its wake. His hair was dark with old sweat and lopsidedly spiked, as if he’d spent a few days dragging his hands through it. Tired shadows cut under his eyes, and the lines around his mouth had deepened. He’d been gone a week, and looked like he’d aged about five years.
He didn’t seem to be actually injured, but there were old blood stains caught under his nails, dried around the roots of his hair, and flecked at the edges of his face. Rasengan, Kakashi thought, and poor clean up. That was a fight he wanted to know about.
At Naruto’s insistent tugging, Kakashi crouched and asked, “Did you bring us any presents back?”
Naruto’s eyes went big. “Presents?”
Minato grimaced, which served him right. “Not this time. Sorry, Naruto. Might have a mission for your team though, Kakashi.” He held out a hand, and Kakashi hauled him up. “How did the first one go?”
“Well,” Kakashi hedged. “It was successful.”
“Missing-nin? No—missing villagers, right.” Minato rubbed a hand over his face. “Were you able to recover any of them?”
“Two,” Kakashi said. Fujiyama-san had definitely survived, and Hisa was still a question mark in the hospital—both details which Minato would get when he eventually worked around to the slaughtered forest of paperwork awaiting him, but he didn’t need them now. “We took care of the main problem and I didn’t murder any of my teammates, so hey.”
“It’s good not to murder your teammates!” Naruto piped up, confused but supportive.
Minato’s smile was wry and knowing. “I’m very proud of you.” He dropped a hand onto Kakashi’s shoulder and squeezed briefly, fingers warm where black cloth gave way to bare skin. “And I was glad to see you here, when I got back.”
Kakashi cleared his throat awkwardly. “About that—”
“Kakashi-niisan spent the night here! An’ all day with me yesterday! An’ the night before! We stayed at his place then, though. An’ we met Tousaki-san and watched movies and ate everything. Then yesterday I skipped preschool and we trained for hours an’ had a picnic on Shodai’s head and skipped rocks an’ went shoppin’ an’ niisan made dinner—” Naruto drew a deep breath, and finished triumphantly: “An’ we watched Captain Seaweed until bedtime!”
Minato’s eyebrows completed the slow climb they’d begun around I skipped preschool. “Well, that sounds like quite a day.” He picked Naruto up, protecting everyone’s knees from the scrambling dance of small child excitement, and balanced him on a hip. “Why did you skip preschool? And where was Saya-san in all this?” He cocked his head, sniffing. “Actually, where is she now? It’s late for breakfast. Did she call in sick?”
“Niisan fired her,” Naruto said, demonstrating his usual habit of delivering news with the tact of a sledgehammer.
“Naruto set the kitchen on fire,” Kakashi returned.
Minato’s eyes lit up. “With chakra?” he asked eagerly. “I mean, no—Wait, let’s hear the full report.”
Kakashi tipped his head at Naruto.
Naruto looked at the floor. He fidgeted for a moment, kicking his heels and tugging the edge of Minato’s collar. “I was gonna run away and find you. So I had to make a battle plan but then I had to burn it on the stove. And there was lots of smoke and maybe some fire and Saya came and yelled a lot and called me a little devil so I went away and found niisan instead.” Sadly, he added, “I don’t have any chakra yet.”
Minato’s expression did something extremely complicated.
“I had words with Saya-san,” Kakashi said, putting a slight edge on words. “And Sagara-san reassigned the afternoon ANBU guard.”
Naruto burst out, “I don’t like Wolf anyway! He tells scary stories.”
“He’s not the only one,” Minato muttered. “Naruto, where did you go to find Kakashi?”
Naruto didn’t have the skills yet to recognize an obvious trap. “I went all the way up the Monument—I said Hi to your face, Dad!—and then I went to the ANBU place an’ I hid in a tree ’cause I didn’t know where Kakashi lived. But he came by with Tousaki-san an’ I jumped on him! An’ then niisan took me home to his room, so now I know how to get there!”
Kakashi felt his mouth tilt wryly. “Welcome home,” he told Minato. “Don’t leave again.”
“I wish I could say I won’t have to,” Minato said quietly.
Naruto blinked up at him. “But you’re the Hokage, Dad! You get to do what you want to do, right?”
If only. “That’s the lie they tell you to get you to take the dumb hat,” Minato warned. “Don’t believe ’em. Not even the Daimyou gets to do whatever he wants.”
“Though he likes to think he can,” Kakashi murmured, under his breath. Minato flicked him a quick glance. Kakashi gazed blandly back. What stories had he heard?
“The Daimyou has been…chastened, the last few days,” Minato said, finally. “As you should be, O Hellspawn.” He gave Naruto a small shake. “If I recall correctly, you aren’t allowed to use the stove. Or leave the Palace without a guard. What should your punishment be?”
Naruto thought about this. “You could make niisan be my guard,” he suggested craftily. “I can’t lose him.”
“Nice try. Kakashi gets a reward here, not a punishment. Opinions on either, Kakashi?”
“Ritual sacrifice of Fukkura-san,” Kakashi said immediately. “I can test a new jutsu on him.”
Naruto howled, threw himself violently out of Minato’s arms, and sprinted to the bed to snatch up his favorite stuffed rabbit. “Not Fukafuka!” He curled protectively around the toy.
“Only a small jutsu,” Kakashi said, heartless. “We could glue his ears back on afterward.”
“Not his ears!” Naruto wailed, and bit down on one of them in distress.
“Or perhaps a bath,” Kakashi relented, “and school without protest — I know your dad is fresh home, but he needs sleep — and this time, you’re required to help find and keep a housekeeper, Naruto-kun, even if you have to pay her in chores.”
Minato would have been happy to keep Naruto home from preschool and play with him until they both fell over from exhaustion, but these were Kakashi’s negotiations. Kakashi had viewed the scene of the crime and dealt with the aftermath; his justice would be more appropriate than Minato’s.
Though, new jutsu? Minato needed to ask about that.
Naruto thought the counter-offer over, Fukkura-san clutched tight to his chest. “Can I take my bath with you and Dad?”
Kakashi blinked. They hadn’t bathed together in several months; perhaps he hadn’t realized Naruto missed it. “No,” he said finally. “Enjoying your punishment would defeat the point.”
Naruto drooped. “I don’t want to go to school,” he said forlornly, but he slid off the bed, still clutching Fukkura-san, and padded across the floor to lean against Minato’s leg. “Will you come watch me in my bath?” he asked Kakashi, last-ditch pleading.
Something softened in the line of Kakashi’s mouth under the mask. He dropped into a crouch, hands resting loose between his knees. “Don’t you want your dad? You’ve had me for two days.”
“Want you both,” Naruto said stubbornly, and hid his face in Fukkura-san’s fur.
Negotiations and justice were one thing, but Minato’s throat was too tight, suddenly. He dropped a hand onto the tousled blond head. “You can have us both. I’ll wash your hair and Kakashi can keep me from falling asleep. But we’ll have to be quick, because we’ll be late for your school. Can you get the bath started?”
“You promised you’ll come,” Naruto told Kakashi. He shoved Fukkura-san into Minato’s hands and took off in a slippery dash for the bathroom before Kakashi could counter that he said no such thing.
“You set yourself up for that,” Minato said, amused. He smoothed a hand over the rabbit’s raggedy ears, so well-loved that they were losing their fur in patches. “Thank you for looking after him,” he added quietly. “I should’ve known Saya would be overwhelmed. I should’ve made other arrangements, but— I didn’t expect to be away so long, or out of communication like that.”
He’d have to make sure Naruto was in a more stable environment before he left again. Rin was far too busy at the hospital for him to ask her to look after Naruto — she had less downtime than Kakashi, these days. Could he vet, hire, and train another competent housekeeper in time? The hiring process for Saya had been a nightmare, three months ago. Maybe a retired ANBU might be interested in the challenge…
“Well,” Kakashi said, “for subduing a revolution, saving a city, and managing the, what, third crisis this month? I think the price of a small kitchen fire isn’t too high.”
“Hah,” Minato said. “The revolution was mostly subdued when I got there. We were the clean-up crew.” He tossed Fukkura-san back at Naruto’s bed, and bumped his shoulder against Kakashi’s. “You forgot to add the price of a day and a half of your downtime in there. Or is a three-year-old’s company still preferable to your new team’s?”
“The three-year-old makes more sense,” Kakashi muttered, looking at the swirling pattern of blue spirals and lily-pads decorating the borders of Naruto’s room. Kushina had painted them during her pregnancy—and re-painted them, and re-painted them again, until she’d thrown the brush down and declared her child would have to live with crooked leaves. After nearly four years, they were starting to sun-bleach.
Minato’s sympathetic expression was slightly ruined by the amusement dancing in blue eyes. “Still want to transfer?”
“BATH IS READY,” Naruto bellowed, before Kakashi could answer. Water splashed distantly, in an overflowing kind of way. “UH. VERY READY.”
“I expect an answer,” Minato said, and vanished in burst of chakra.
There were Hiraishin seals planted all over the house, because why scramble down the hallway like a normal person when you could get the last word and step out of the universe?
Kakashi rolled his eye and took four seconds to straighten Naruto’s bed sheets before he followed at a walking pace. The Hokage’s quarters had two main bathrooms, one with modern shower appointments that was largely for guests who wanted privacy, or for when Minato was in a hurry, and a larger bathroom with a more traditional set up. Kakashi paused at the door of the second, eyeing the gleaming puddle of water seeping out into the hallway. As he watched, the spread halted and sucked back under the door, yanked by the threads of Minato’s chakra.
Kakashi knocked. “Permission to enter the asylum?”
“I’m naaaaaaked!” Naruto sing-songed joyfully, and then continued, obviously to Minato: “An’ I’m going to get a tattoo here, just like Tousaki-san, and niisan’s going to get a butterfly on his faaaace!”
Kid was going to get Kakashi skinned.
But when he pushed the door open, Minato was laughing, and managing to keep his squirming son balanced on one of the small scrubbing stools with a single, practiced hand, while he attacked Naruto’s hair with a palmful of suds. Naruto’s pyjamas had decidedly vanished, sacrificed to the gods of happy bathing. The small lake of water had come from one of the scrubbing buckets Naruto had enthusiastically over-filled, and was now neatly returned.
Kakashi settled down into a crouch in front of Naruto, and took over the role of shiny distraction. “Dragons or horses?”
Naruto blinked, brow furrowing. “Dragons?”
“Good choice.” Kakashi flicked through several rapid seals, calling up a spark of chakra, and set it loose on the soap suds spilling down Naruto’s narrow shoulders. Two foamy lotus buds formed, rapidly growing, and bloomed in a spread of white petals, unleashing a pair of small bubble dragons that shot up and danced around Naruto’s head.
Naruto’s laugh pealed like silver bells. He held his hands up to them, fingers splayed, and kicked his feet with delight when one of the dragons alighted gently on his fingertips. Over his head, Minato met Kakashi’s eye, and grinned like the sun. For the first time in recent memory, he didn’t look tired, or battle-worn, or worried; he looked like any young father taking joy in his son’s happiness.
Warmed by the glow of helping, Kakashi sent the second dragon to land on Minato’s nose.
It took Naruto a second to notice, enraptured by his own tiny bubble-beast, but then he caught sight of Minato going cross-eyed and nearly fell off his stool. “You have a dragon on your nose. Nosedragon!”
Minato sniffed, caught a bubble the wrong way, and sneezed loudly. The dragon exploded in a tiny cascade of sparks.
“Aww,” Kakashi said.
Minato rubbed his nose with the back of his wrist, and then flickered through a fast set of one-handed seals. “Here,” he said, and offered up a soap lotus that bloomed into a translucent lion-dog.
Naruto gave it a disapproving look as it gallivanted over to prance about on Kakashi’s shoulders. “That dog has curls.”
“It’s a lion-dog. A komainu,” Kakashi said, studying the tiny creation. Minato had managed to pack all the proper details in, because of course he had; there were even little flaring nostrils, and the curlicue of the closed mouth. “They’re temple guardians. My ANBU mask has the same design.”
“Oooh!” said Naruto, excited again, and scrambled up off the stool to get a closer look. His dragon flew up to land safely in his hair. Minato took the opportunity to simply give Naruto a full-body scrubdown, shoulders to toes.
Kakashi captured the lion-dog carefully, and brought it down to give Naruto a better look. “See how his mouth is closed? That’s because he’s saying ‘um’, like ummmm,” he hummed, drawing the sound out into a low, meditative monotone. “If the mouth is open, they’re saying ‘a’, like aaaaahhh. Put them together, and you get aum, which is a sacred syllable, because ‘a’ is beginning and ‘um’ is ending, and together they mean the beginning and ending of all things.”
Minato had paused scrubbing to listen, eyes bright with surprise and a little intrigue, but Naruto had completely glazed over. “Because you kill everything?” he said, lost.
Explaining the theory of creation—well, one of them—was probably a little much before breakfast, especially since Minato wasn’t trying to pull much religion into Naruto’s life anyway. They already had enough trouble with demons and demigods. Until the bigger deities actually showed themselves and caused problems, they could stay quasi-neglected legends.
“Not everything,” Kakashi said. “I haven’t killed anything in almost a week.”
Though his lion-dog mask was closed-mouthed, making it an um. Presumably the Quartermaster’s idea of humor.
Naruto twisted around. “What about you?” he asked Minato.
Minato looked caught short, just for a moment, and his grin slipped. “I—Last night,” he said, and picked up the wash ladle. “Let’s rinse off.”
“‘kay,” Naruto said agreeably, and actually stood still while he was sluiced, looking at the lion-dog, still on Kakashi’s hand, and the dragon now circling his head. There was a brief moment of upset when Minato washed out his hair—Naruto’s constant bath fear was getting soap in his eyes—but he recovered and ran, wet and gleaming, to wrestle with the wooden lid covering the large soaking tub.
Minato stayed crouched for just a moment, looking at the dried reddish-brown rims under his fingernails.
It hit Kakashi too, every now and then, what his hands had done before he picked Naruto up with them. Usually followed by the brief, ugly thought that Naruto’s neck was so fragile, and it would barely take a thoughtless slip…
He straightened up and clapped a hand on Minato’s shoulder, giving it a brief squeeze, and tugged his former teacher up. Minato barely needed the nudge; once he made it to his feet, his usual clarity snapped back into place, and he moved to rescue the soaking tub and Naruto from each other. When the tub was uncovered, water steaming gently, Naruto flung himself in with gleeful abandon, splashing a miniature tidal wave across the tiled floor.
Minato settled himself down, resting against the side, and watched his son play.
“Butterflies!” Naruto demanded, after a few minutes.
Kakashi obliged, and Minato immediately outdid him with a magnificent bubble phoenix that spread its wings and refracted the light into a hundred splintered rainbows. Kakashi returned fire with a small long-legged horse galloping over the bath surface, foamy mane streaming. Minato counter-attacked with an elephant that threw back its trunk and trumpeted a stream of bubbles at the ceiling. Kakashi was starting to get the beginnings of a headache from fine-tuning his chakra down to a minute level after a night of attempting to peel Katsuko’s face off with it, but he created a pair of dogs that tumbled and play-wrestled, chasing each other around Naruto’s head. And Minato won the day with a perfect miniature Gamabunta, which reduced Naruto to fits of laughter.
“Show off,” Kakashi said, letting the jutsu go.
Minato grinned at him, glowing with victory, but some of the shine peeled off when a familiar knock came at the door.
Turtle, the usual morning ANBU guard, stuck her head in. She didn’t react to the—in fairness, quite standard—display of naked, frolicking child and exhausted Hokage. “Five minute school warning,” she said.
And Naruto hadn’t eaten breakfast yet, or had a bento packed. Or put on clothes.
Minato shoved himself up from the side of the tub. “Thanks, Turtle,” he said wearily. “C’mon, little frog—”
“Imma shark,” Naruto declared, and sank underwater.
“Not with five minutes to get ready for school, you’re not.” Minato braced one hand on the edge of the tub and reached in with the other. The clear, steaming water lent Naruto no hiding place; Minato hooked a slippery ankle and fished his wriggling son out upside-down. Naruto shrieked and tried to jackknife up, snapping his jaws at Minato’s hand. Minato shook him, and he dropped back to hang upside down, streaming water and squealing in delight.
Kakashi had practiced his eye-roll often enough over the years that it was almost audible. “Four minutes,” he drawled.
“Clothes,” Minato said, and jerked a towel off the wall to bundle Naruto up.
“Go to school in my skin!” Naruto chanted gleefully.
Minato was beginning to regret winding him up with the soap bubbles. No— nothing about Naruto’s transparent joy and Kakashi’s fierce talent was worthy of regret. Naruto’d been late to school before, and convenience store onigiri wouldn’t kill him. They’d both likely be living on conbini meals or takeout for a while anyway, until Minato found a new housekeeper.
“You can wear your skin,” he said, tossing the squirming bundle over his shoulder and heading for the door, “so long as you wear clothes over it. Kakashi, could you rustle him up some breakfast? Glass of milk and a ration bar if nothing else. Turtle—”
“I’ll be on stand-by to take him to school,” she said simply, standing aside to let him pass. “Sagara-sama gave orders you’re not to leave your quarters until this afternoon.”
Kakashi covered a laugh, very badly, with a cough. “Three minutes,” he said, and slipped away down the other end of the hall.
Three minutes was plenty of time to dry Naruto off with a rough towelling and help him into briefs, pants, and his favorite Captain Seaweed tee-shirt. Naruto didn’t even protest much at having to wear a jacket, in case the fractious May sunshine turned to rain. “You’ll still be here when I get back?” he asked for the fifth time, as Minato zipped him up. “You won’t go away again?”
“Didn’t you hear Turtle?” Minato asked. “The ANBU won’t even let me go to my office until you get back. I’m under house-arrest.”
Naruto was not, evidently, impressed by the ANBU’s containment abilities. “I’ll tell niisan to guard you,” he decided, and pattered off to the kitchen.
Minato dragged himself after. He propped up against the kitchen doorframe in time to see Kakashi tucking a milk carton and a banana into Naruto’s hands, with a ration bar stuffed into his jacket pocket for later. Naruto was chattering animatedly, but glanced back when Minato came in and lowered his voice to a secretive whisper. Kakashi nodded seriously, but Naruto insisted on a pinky-locking thumb-promise before he accepted a neatly wrapped bento, stacked his milk carton and banana on top, and smashed the whole armful to his chest.
“You stay here,” he said, leveling a fierce glare at Minato.
Minato sketched a weak salute. “I’ll be napping on the kitchen floor when you come back,” he said.
Naruto huffed a sigh. “Nap in bed. Or the sofa is okay too. Niisan, you promised, okay?”
“I’ll staple his pants to the wall if he tries anything,” Kakashi said, serious as a stone behind his black mask. He and Naruto nodded gravely to each other, and then Naruto allowed Turtle to take his bento and milk carton—he claimed the privilege of opening the banana himself—and escort him out into the hall. Naruto’s voice rose in a final complaint about the indignity of shoes; Turtle answered in a quiet, amused murmur, and the door closed behind them.
Kakashi glanced over at Minato. “I will, you know.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Minato said. “Though I suspect you’d use kunai, not staples.” He rested his forehead gently against the doorframe. “I don’t suppose you have another ration bar somewhere.”
Across the kitchen, the fridge opened and closed. Kakashi’s bare feet scuffed across the floor, and the microwave started. The low purr nearly lulled Minato into a doze, but the timer chimed and the door clicked. Kakashi scuffed an approaching warning again, and Minato reluctantly straightened.
Kakashi held out a sports drink and a steaming bowl of something that looked very much like Naruto’s massacred omurice leftovers. It smelled better than anything Minato had eaten for days. He took the bowl first, and didn’t bother relocating to the table; the doorframe was doing a fine job of propping him up.
“Headache?” Kakashi switched the sports drink to his other hand and pressed the cool back of his palm to Minato’s bare forehead. He frowned. “Or getting sick?”
“Too many dead and too little sleep,” Minato said, around a mouthful of fried rice and omelet. “You’ve been holding out on me, Kakashi. This is good.”
“I’m not going to be your housemaid,” Kakashi said. He vanished back into the kitchen, returning a moment later with a rattling bottle of painkillers. Minato tossed down three and chased them with another overloaded spoonful of omurice. Kakashi capped the bottle, set it on the closest countertop, and leaned next to Minato. He asked quietly, “How bad was it?”
Minato swallowed. “Bad. The Daimyou’s still alive—maybe I told you that already, stop me if I repeat anything—but most of the Guardian Twelve and a good number of his palace guard are not. We’ve eliminated one of the feudal lords who supported the coup, but I lost two ANBU and an Intel chuunin doing it. And we’re still searching for the rest. There’ll be a bloodbath before we’re done.”
Kakashi’s thin, mobile mouth pulled tight beneath his mask, and his narrow brows drew together. “Most of the Guardian Twelve?”
“Sarutobi Asuma was injured. We found him with his back to the Daimyou’s safehouse door and a whole sea of the dead at his feet.” Minato took another bite, chewed, swallowed. “He gave us the first account of the coup, and the Daimyou and the surviving guards corroborated. The Twelve split down the middle, apparently, and Sarutobi was the only survivor. I brought him back with me. Yoshihara-sama wanted to keep him, but—Sarutobi said he’d had enough of Hikouto politics.”
Well, Sarutobi had fought his former comrades to a bloody end in the wide palace corridors. And after nearly seven hours of questioning, Shibata had agreed that Sarutobi was telling the truth. Minato still remembered that relief, overwhelming: he wouldn’t have to execute the Sandaime’s son, after all.
“Shiranui will be pleased,” Kakashi murmured. His gaze had focused somewhere in the middle distance, giving him a peculiarly bland, distracted look that Minato recognized as his expression for processing eighteen different thoughts at once.
“Shiranui?” Minato said, just in case there was anything more to that thought than random chance bringing one to the surface before the rest.
“My lieutenant. They were friends.” Kakashi twitched his shoulders, shaking that off as currently unimportant—as though he took a personal interest in other people any other day of the week. Just what had his team gone through, buried in that mountain of paperwork somewhere up on Minato’s desk? But if there was more to the story he didn’t say it, just ran his fingers lightly up and down the ridged sides of the sports drink bottle for a long moment. Finally he said, “Six is better than all twelve, but this has been a bad year for loyalty.”
“Wait till we send you out to kill another feudal lord,” Minato said tiredly. He scraped the last bite of rice from the bottom of the bowl and set it aside in exchange for Kakashi’s bottle. “I don’t know… Maybe we’re wrong and there is someone behind all of this, pulling strings. We didn’t hear a whisper after the attack at the Trials, but then not two weeks later the Daimyou’s palace erupts in flame and treason. Shibata says there’s no link, and Sagara says it’s not his style, but what if the snake is behind this, too?”
“If he is, at least I know I’m not crazy,” Kakashi muttered.
“We call it paranoia,” Minato informed him kindly. “It’s a job requirement.” He took another swig from the bottle, capped it, and jostled his shoulder against Kakashi’s. “The water’s still hot. Come keep me from falling asleep and drowning in the bath, and I’ll think out loud at you.”
“If you make any executive decisions, I want credit,” Kakashi said. “You can put a little picture of me at the bottom of the scroll.”
Minato gave a rough, tired chuckle and reached over to tug a lock of Kakashi’s hair. Dried mud crumbled into a fine dust cloud. “They’d make you take the mask off for the photo.”
“I’d accept a cartoon,” Kakashi informed him, and pushed away from the wall.
Even dog-tired, Minato was enough of a ninja not to need hand-guiding back to the bathroom, but he did weave on his feet a few times, as if the horizon wasn’t quite staying steady. When had he last slept?
As soon as they crossed the bathroom threshold, Minato stripped his weapon holsters off, letting them fall with a clank of kunai. Shirt, belt, leg-wrappings, and pants joined in short order. Kakashi was right; Minato hadn’t been injured. At least, not enough to need bandages. There were the usual bruises of a hard fight along the striking edges of his forearms and shins, the slight reddening of joints that had been put under hard strain. Against naked forearms, Minato’s hands actually looked a little inflamed, as if he’d channeled a great deal of chakra through them.
He stood in his dark boxer-briefs and stared blankly at Naruto’s abandoned scrubbing stool.
“You could try sitting down,” Kakashi prompted.
Minato groaned and skinned out of his underwear. “You could try not being a smartass, but I doubt it’d go well.” He collapsed down onto the stool. Naruto’s remaining wash-water was still in the bucket; Minato dumped it unceremoniously over his head, plastering his hair down and slicking the first layer of dust off, and tossed the scrubbing sponge at Kakashi. “Strip down and make yourself useful. Tell me about your mission.”
“Only if you promise not to fall off your stool,” Kakashi said.
“You drive a hard bargain,” Minato said, grabbing for soap. “I demand details. You never told me if you still want that transfer.”
Kakashi stripped down to his mask and black trunks—at least they matched—and drew up a second stool before he answered. “I don’t know.”
“Huh.” Minato glanced over his shoulder, blue eyes thoughtful beneath a damp fall of hair. “That’s good. I thought it would take you two or three missions to hit that point.”
“… now you get no details, only scrubbing,” Kakashi said, and confiscated the soap before Minato could blind himself with it in a fit of tired enthusiasm. Unlike his son, Minato actually sat patiently still while Kakashi lathered up his hair and scrubbed down his back. He only moved once—to brace an elbow on his knee and prop his chin in his hand.
They hadn’t done this in a long time.
It wasn’t like the manhandling he’d had to drag Ryouma and Katsuko through, back in Hayama, or the wriggly bathtime adventures Naruto enjoyed so much. Time alone with Minato, without guards or duty between them, was rare and getting rarer—and in theory that was good for them. Minato had a child and a village to focus on. Kakashi had a career to build. They were weapons, and they needed to stay sharp.
Minato didn’t let himself sit quiet with just anyone, trusting his unprotected back to killing hands. It was a unique privilege. And not only because half the village would trade their eye-teeth to swap places with Kakashi right now, resting one hand on the warm, soapy skin of Minato’s shoulder to help him stay upright, but because there were so many things Kakashi owed Minato, and this was one tiny, tiny way to pay a fraction back.
Because Kushina should have been here, and wasn’t.
When Kakashi handed the sponge over, Minato did a reasonably acceptable job cleaning down his front, but it took a second round of work for Kakashi to get the red under his nails, the dirt on his feet, and the grime on his face washed away. Minato really needed a shave; his stubble was bright gold and light, and he had at least four day’s worth. But naked blades could probably wait until he was more awake.
Minato rubbed his jaw, and muttered, “Urgh.”
Kakashi collected the kit from the sink and pulled his stool around. Minato cracked one eye open, lazily amused. “Offering barbering services as well?”
“You can do it yourself, but Naruto might be annoyed if you accidentally cut your own head off,” Kakashi said.
“Come on,” Minato said, opening the other eye just enough to look offended. “Massive facial scarring is absolutely the worst I’d ever do.”
“So nothing that’d make a difference?” Kakashi said, feeling a smile curl briefly. He tipped Minato’s chin up, making him drop his hand, and lathered him up with the thick, white, sandalwood-scented foam that Minato kept as one of his few indulgences.
“Maybe it’d get the Council to take me a little more seriously.” Minato tilted his head up to give Kakashi access to his neck, and closed his eyes again. “So what do you think of Namiashi as a captain?”
“I think you’re testing the patience of someone with a blade at your throat,” Kakashi said, cutting the first razor-stripe through the foam. Minato preferred a safety razor, because he thought it was classy. The hilt was a solid steel weight in Kakashi’s hand, familiar, even though they’d only done this a handful of times. “Weren’t you supposed to be thinking at me?”
“I am,” Minato said dreamily. “I’m thinking of whether I can send a raw rookie team out on a vital mission of national security, when every member is a competent solo assassin but I still don’t know whether they work together as a unit. Whether their captain can lead. Whether one particular rookie will follow.”
Kakashi made an aggravated sound. “I follow orders. Why is everyone so convinced I’m an insubordinate dick?”
Minato’s mouth twitched, and a sliver of blue showed beneath his eyelids. “You follow orders. You just bitch about them. For years, in some cases.”
“If you can’t take constructive criticism, you shouldn’t have become a public figure,” Kakashi said shortly, finishing Minato’s left side. He switched to the right, razor tracing a careful path. At the end of every stroke, he flicked foam from the polished steel head. “The team is—rough. And I think you don’t like Namiashi very much, given the subordinates you dropped on him.”
Minato gave a rippling little chuckle. “His previous captain reported him as an excellent lieutenant with a talent for leadership, especially for handling temperamental subordinates—and I know how well he’s done with Ueno.” He opened his eyes. “I also know that you respect valid authority, that you never disobey orders—though you can sometimes be creative in your methods of carrying them out—and that you’re harder on yourself than any good captain would ever be. I don’t consider you a problem subordinate, Kakashi. It’s an honor for Namiashi to command you.” He added, thoughtfully, “Though certainly a prickly one.”
“Sounds like he can cope,” Kakashi said, dry.
He wasn’t sure what to do with the rest. Minato wasn’t stingy with praise; when he thought you’d earned it, he gave it freely, but he’d never said honor before. Kakashi felt a little hot behind his mask.
He cleared his throat and flicked a handful of chakra at the tub, catching a skein of water. It ribboned over as he finished the last blade stroke, hovering above Minato’s head, then dropped like a bucket of water. Minato’s hair flattened again, and suds, foam, and water streamed over the tiled floor, spiralling down the drain. Clean-shaven and scrubbed, he already looked improved, if slightly drowned.
Minato shook his head like a dog, raked dripping hair back from his eyes, and rubbed a hand over his chin. “Not even a scratch,” he said with satisfaction. “Thanks, Kakashi. Normally I’d offer to reciprocate, but I think this time I’ll wallow in hedonistic bliss and let you scrub your own back.” He levered himself upright, shining-naked and unselfconscious about it, which was about the norm, and flicked a spike of Kakashi’s hair. “Early training again?”
Kakashi shrugged, and waited for Minato to get halfway into the bath before he said, “With Ueno, actually.”
Minato made a startled sound. There was a slip and a splash before he caught himself hastily against the side of the tub, and Kakashi snagged the overflowing water to start his own scrub-down.
“Your comedic timing is improving,” Minato said, prying his fingers from their white-knuckle grip on the edge of the bath. “Also I’m wide awake now, thanks for the adrenaline rush. Ueno kept up well?”
Kakashi turned his head, displaying the left side of his face in cool, cut-marble profile. He hooked his fingers under the edge of the mask and tugged it down just low enough to display a vivid bruise sunrising up across his cheek. It was still raw and red, not yet purpling, though an older bruise showed green-yellow around the edges and bled down toward his jaw. “Pretty well,” he said. He pulled the mask off entirely, triggering a brief cloud of dust from his hair, and turned his back to begin scrubbing.
He had a fresh cut across his upper arm, shallow and clean-edged, from a blade. The other injuries across his bare body looked older, mostly healed: pinkish scrapes and gouges across both shoulders, a nasty-looking bite dimpling on his right arm, jagged slashes red and angry on his lower legs. Those hadn’t come from any blades, and the bite looked like it had involved fangs.
But they were all clean and healed, or healing; he’d seen a medic, though obviously not Rin. She didn’t leave scars anymore, if she could help it. Minato eased himself down into the water, hissing at the heat on his own bruises, and leaned back against the warm wall of the tub. “You still haven’t told me about your mission.”
Kakashi paused, fingers buried in grey hair and brownish suds. “Might be a better discussion to have when you’ve slept.”
“Because it’ll give me nightmares?” Minato said, amused. “You’ve been spending too much time with Naruto. I pulverized the lord of Taishin Province’s chest cavity five hours ago; you can’t horrify me. Was it bandits with mutant guard dogs, or not bandits at all?”
“It was demons,” Kakashi said.
The water bubbled around Minato’s hands. He pulled his chakra back in. “Not a tailed beast.”
“Giant scorpion-dog,” Kakashi said, stripping lather out of his hair. “I only counted one tail, and I’m pretty sure Suna still has the Ichibi. So, regular monster. It was taking villagers to hatch eggs in them.”
Intel would have reported if the One-Tails had managed to rip free of the Kazekage’s son. Even if Suna had successfully concealed the child’s death and the bijuu’s loss, the Ichibi could hardly have reincarnated so soon. And the Shodai Hokage’s notes recorded the Ichibi’s appearance as an immense tanuki, nothing like a scorpion. Minato let himself breathe again.
Kakashi would hardly have mentioned the appearance of a tailed beast so casually, anyway. And if it had been a bijuu—if it had been the Kyuubi, returned alone to the mortal world—Kakashi probably wouldn’t have come back at all.
Naruto wasn’t the only one with nightmares.
Even a monster that didn’t quite measure up to the stature of a demon-god of chakra could still wreak a devastation worthy of nightmares, though, and Kakashi’s abraded shoulders were tight and tense. Minato said, “Did you seal it? Or could it be killed?”
“I did say we resolved things,” Kakashi pointed out, shifting to pump more shampoo into his hand. The slight turn revealed a momentary slice of pale face, and the lifted corner of his scar-cut mouth. “I cracked it. Ueno blinded it. Namiashi bound it, and Tousaki punched through and melted it all over a mountain. We killed all the spawn we could. Sagara-san sent out a sealing team to clean up the aftermath. We did bring you back the head, though.”
“I always appreciate presents,” Minato said, fascinated. Was that pride in Kakashi’s voice? No wonder he wasn’t sure whether he still wanted the transfer he’d all but asked for, two weeks ago. “How big was it? Did you get a read on its chakra?”
“Obito got a look,” Kakashi said, dropping his sudsy hands down to rest on his thighs. “Want a description, or want to see for yourself?”
If Kakashi had withstood it without flinching, Minato could do no less.
“Show me,” he said, resigned. He pushed himself up to his knees and braced his forearms on the rim of the tub. Goose-pimples prickled his shoulders in the sudden absence of heat.
Kakashi dumped one of the scrubbing buckets over his head, pushed the sodden but newly clean hair back from his face, and turned, opening his Sharingan eye. It spun slowly, black on crimson. He tucked a stray lock of hair behind his ear, freeing his hands, and shaped four quick seals. Undoubtedly he could see his chakra spinning out into the genjutsu net; Minato sensed only the cool warning touch Kakashi’d thoughtfully built in before the bathroom vanished, and he was standing in a rainy forest at twilight.
Events unfolded dizzyingly fast from Kakashi’s point of view: fuzzy first with memory, then snapshot-sharp when he opened the Sharingan to record and memorize. The team split to follow tracks through the forest, met again just before a blindingly fast attack; Minato rode on Kakashi’s shoulder as they drove a handful of lightning through a demon’s thorax. Then they were skimming along again, skipping over tracking and conversational interludes; they slowed down for an eerie creep through mountain tunnels to find first corpses and then grossly distended survivors, lingered over the gut-wrenching necessity of killing these villagers too far gone to save. Then another fight in the dark corridors, Shiranui attacked and abducted, Kakashi tracking down more survivors and rescuing those who still had a chance, giving the mercy-blade to those who didn’t.
They dropped inside the mountain together, landed tumbling on something hard and moving, and Minato saw through Kakashi’s eyes the way the demon-queen’s chakra fountained out like a blood-lake, impossible, inexorable. The brief flurry of a fight in the dark, severing the demon’s stinger, cracking her armor, scream-bluffing her into flight, rescuing his paralyzed lieutenant. And then another dizzying skip to a mountainside opening up under rain-grey skies, a river of rot spilling away from the shell of the demon-queen’s immense corpse, the tiny huddle of teammates far below.
The genjutsu broke. Kakashi settled into the bath beside Minato with the faintest ripple of blood-warm water. His hair was scrubbed cleanly grey, and while he’d stripped out of his trunks he’d replaced the mask with a washcloth draped over his face. He tipped his head back against the edge of the bath, and sighed.
“You look ridiculous,” Minato said, before he’d quite caught his breath.
Kakashi’s grey eye cracked open; the Sharingan was closed again now, hidden behind a wet fall of hair. “I’m in good company.”
Panting and sweat-sheened in a bath probably wasn’t Minato’s best look, but he shrugged that off. He settled down again at the opposite end of the tub, facing Kakashi; the tub was big enough they didn’t have to touch, so long as they kept their feet tucked in. “That—wasn’t what I’d planned for your first mission. You did well. You all did.”
A little tension lightened, sliding off Kakashi’s shoulders. He’d had almost a week of self-reflection between the boat ride home and his captain-enforced downtime, though a lot of that mental energy had been spent worrying about Minato, but he’d still raked over the coals of the mission. They’d made mistakes, there were things he would have done differently, but overall it hadn’t been nearly the disaster it could have been.
Apparently Minato thought so, too.
“Next time you should just give us the S-rank,” Kakashi said, teasing. “At least we’d get the intel up front.”
Minato snorted softly. “Watch what you ask for. It may be an S-rank, after all. After that performance…” He spread his arms out along the tub edge and dropped his head back, staring at the ceiling. Beads of water dripped from the ruffled spikes of his hair, sliding down over his collarbones. “I took five shinobi—four ANBU and an Intel agent—to kill the lord of Taishin Province, and lost or injured all but one of them. He knew we’d come for him; he’d hired guards from Iwa already…”
Figured that Iwa had gotten involved. Any chance they had to stab Konoha.
“I hope we’ll have some element of surprise when we strike the others,” Minato continued, “but I can’t afford to send out two ANBU teams for each target without stripping Konoha of its defenses. If Team Six can hold its own against a demon, I’d hope you can survive whatever a traitor can hire against you.”
Kakashi thought of the blood-specks on Minato’s skin spiralled around the memory of a Ransengan. A fight that had tired him and taken four agents was a hell of a battle.
“Anything you can do,” Kakashi said, letting the rest of the sentence hang. I can do better.
Minato smiled wearily at the ceiling. “I hope you can.”
“Hey,” said Kakashi, and stretched out a leg to kick Minato on the ankle. Minato flinched, making the bath-water ripple, and finally looked down from whatever invisible nightmare-chessboard he was trying to track. “I haven’t died on you yet. And you made it back home in one piece with a saved city behind you.” And three dead bodies, but everything had a cost. “You can breathe for a minute.”
Minato looked both amused, and like it had taken him effort to get there. “Hey, motivational speaker is my job. You trying to muscle me into retirement already?”
“I have a six year plan,” Kakashi said comfortably, and settled lower until the water came up to his chin.
Minato laughed softly, which brightened his eyes and deepened the lines around them. “You were born with a plan.”
“Someone needed to be,” Kakashi agreed. And then, quieter, he added, “I’m sorry about your team.”
Minato’s smile faded. “They knew what end they’d likely come to. And Hajime may run again—I made sure Rin took him….” Kakashi was sure he knew that name, but he couldn’t place it. Minato scrubbed a wet hand over his face. “One in five ANBU teams don’t survive their first year intact, Kakashi. Don’t let yours be one of them.”
Well, everyone had survived their first mission. That was already a better track record than his first jounin mission.
They didn’t feel like his team yet. He hadn’t even been thinking about them in the neighborhood of ‘his’. They were more like the ruptured insides of a pocket watch, every piece ticking slightly out of sync, grinding each other’s gears. Except—
Kakashi’s mind stepped back, unfolding around the few moments that had been itching at him for a week. The first night of the mission, when the team had settled into sleep, and Raidou had turned away from the campfire with thoughtful eyes: Want to spar? Like he’d known Kakashi needed to do something before sleep was an option. He’d promised another taijutsu fight, and Kakashi wanted to take him up on that.
And Genma, who’d pulled him aside to say, I know it’s hard at first, and treated minor injuries as if they were just as important as broken bones. He’d answered honestly when Kakashi had asked, Did something happen in Konoha? And self-induced a fever to deal with demon poison, because he was a crazy man.
Katsuko, who flirted and fought and demanded Kakashi take his shirt off, and pulled slaughtered children from underneath blood-soaked tatami with her bare hands. He owed her another spar, too, since he’d won the second—a third would break the tie. And she’d promised to teach him her family’s Hyoho Niten.
Then there was Ryouma.
Kakashi slouched lower in the water, until it crept up warm over his mouth, soaking the facecloth so that it clung wetly to the bridge of his nose.
Ryouma who also flirted and fought, and promised a taste of his signature jutsu for a glimpse at Kakashi’s face. Who’d massacred the demon Kakashi couldn’t finish, and played with Naruto, and corrupted Kakashi’s points system, and curled a hand around Kakashi’s hip while he said I’m flexible.
If they were a team, they were also a walking carnival. But they were Konoha’s, and that alone made them his.
The thought clicked into place like a missing piece, and Kakashi realized abruptly that he was looking forward to tomorrow morning, when team training would resume. For starters, he needed to kick one long-legged, rot-handed ass up and down the field a few times, until normalcy reasserted itself.
He sat up and looked at Minato, who was watching him with patient blue eyes.
“My team can handle it,” Kakashi told him.
“I’m glad to hear it,” Minato said quietly.
Something had changed in Kakashi’s eye, in that long moment of soaking and thought; the wet washcloth clung to a jaw more resolute, and his shoulders had squared up, as if he’d found a better way to balance the world’s weight. Had killing a demon together made so much difference, after all?
He couldn’t source demon-killing missions for all his problematic ANBU teams. Youkai and chakra-spirits were an occasional problem in remote villages and smaller towns, like bandits or crop failures; it was even odds whether the locals requested help from Konoha or from the Fire Temple and its priests. Demons like the one Kakashi had shown him were on another scale entirely, vastly more dangerous than garden-variety youkai. Though still nothing like the Kyuubi’s rampaging force of nature.
Only one woman had ever killed a Tailed Beast—and she’d died to do it. They’d known, even then, that it wouldn’t last. The Kyuubi might be driven out of the world of the living for a few years, sealed out by Kushina’s death, but it would find its way back. What if this new outcropping of demons prefigured its return?
Would Kushina come with it?
“So how soon is this mission?” Kakashi stirred, stretching his legs out along Minato’s hip. “Taishin’s lord’s death is probably already making ripples. If you want surprise, it’s slipping by the day.”
“And making your job more dangerous, I know.” Minato dragged his thoughts back together. “Nobunori’s name was the only one we knew, when we set out. He didn’t cover his tracks well enough; one of the traitor guards recognized the vassal who brought payment to their barracks as a Taishin man. Shibata’s had eighteen more hours to work since then, though, and I brought him back a few of Nobunori’s higher-ranking vassals from Taishin. They’ll know more names. I’m looking for a list by this afternoon.”
“I think you mean Sagara-san is,” Kakashi said dryly. “Since you will be sleeping this afternoon.”
“Tyrant,” Minato said, and yawned.
“Learned from the best.” Kakashi nudged a foot against Minato’s hip. “Soak your shoulders. They’ve earned it.”
They were sore. Minato slid down until the water lapped his chin and his feet tucked against Kakashi’s side. The water was high enough that he could just tip his head against the edge of the bath. He should’ve padded it with a towel, but there were none within reach now, and he was too tired to move…
Kakashi said, quietly, “How did we miss this was coming?”
“Intel will be explaining that,” Minato said, without opening his eyes, “at great length, and with sweat and blood. Our network’s thinner in Hikouto than on the borders, though. We’re still expecting the next eruption to come from Iwa, not from our own lords…” He pried his eyelids open at last and blinked up at the ceiling. “The nominal excuse for the coup was the Daimyou’s refusal to support military action against Konoha. Specifically, removing me and replacing me with a bureaucratic flunky who’d answer only to Hikouto’s command.”
Maybe it was merely an excuse, a demand they’d known the Daimyou wouldn’t meet. But there were already lord and merchants enough who complained about the exorbitant fees Konoha charged for its shinobi’s blood, and Minato had no difficulty imagining the bureaucrats and industrialists in Hikouto who’d seize on the opportunity to turn Konoha’s shinobi from independent contractors into obedient soldiers, as badly trained and paid as their own private armies. They wouldn’t understand that in doing so they’d destroy everything that made Konoha strong. Likely they wouldn’t even care, as long as they could save a few ryou along the way.
Kakashi’s lip curled beneath the damp washcloth mask. “So, replace the Daimyou, then replace you, and what— Hope that Konoha would roll over and accept it?”
“I think it was technically replace me, then replace the Daimyou when he didn’t agree, but yeah.” Minato smiled crookedly. “Obviously they didn’t think it through. Who’d want the dumb hat, especially when you’re around to kick their asses for trying to take it?”
The water at Kakashi’s end of the tub chilled, suddenly. A spark of blue-white lightning crackled across his wet hair, before his jaw bunched and his shoulders tensed again, re-establishing control. “When Shibata finds out,” he grated, “I look forward to meeting them.”
“My champion,” Minato murmured. “Rule 25, Kakashi. Don’t lose your head. There’ll be blood enough to spill.”
Wasn’t my head I was thinking of.
Kakashi took a breath and leashed the dark swell of anger back down, where it could temper until he was free to stab someone with it. You weren’t supposed to show emotions. Didn’t mean you couldn’t have them.
And Kakashi had some very specific ones about people who made plans to murder his former sensei. Especially Fire Country nobles who’d sworn oaths.
Naruto was too young to be an orphan.
“I’m calm,” he said, focusing back on the more immediate concern of Minato’s slow, increasingly sleepy-eyed slide down into the bathwater. The level was up to his mouth. “And you’re about to pass out. Time for bed, old man.”
Minato made an attempt to rouse himself. “You’re adorable when you get bossy, Kakashi-kun,” he said fondly, levering himself up against the side. Water cascaded down his bare shoulders—and further down, as he stood up.
Kakashi’s glanced aside. “I’ll remember you said that.”
His crush was old, well-worn, and mostly burned out, but every now and then it rekindled to bite him—especially when the rest of him was stirred up. Crush was the wrong word, really. It was love, and sometimes it wanted to rip out throats. He took a slow breath and a half-second reality check. Minato was his Hokage, his former teacher, still grieving a marriage that had ended in blood and fire, and most importantly, not interested. Never would be. Which was how it was supposed to work. Kakashi could guard him, kill for him, and learn from him—and that was where the line ended.
“Just so long as you remember Naruto’s adorable, too, and I still don’t let him get away with everything he wants.” Minato stepped out of the tub, steadying himself on the side. “Just mostly everything.”
“Naruto knows less blackmail material than I do,” Kakashi said, and climbed out of the bath. He liberated one of the fluffy white towels, knotting it efficiently around his waist, and—when Minato stood staring blankly at the towel rack like he’d forgotten what it was for—dropped a second towel over his teacher’s head. “Like this moment, for instance.”
“Sell it to the tabloids,” Minato said, pulling the towel down and wrapping it around his waist. “‘Hokage Nude In His Own Bathroom! Those Abs — We Knew They Were Painted On!’ You’d have to cut me in for a share of the profits, though.” He grabbed a second, smaller towel and rumpled it through his hair. “Sixty percent.”
“I could see an argument for fifteen,” Kakashi said.
Minato gave him a wounded look. “You’re taking the food from my child’s mouth.”
“Chocolate Frosted Pirate Ships are not food,” Kakashi said, naming one of his top culinary pet peeves in the Namikaze household. He set a hand between Minato’s shoulderblades, giving him a push. “Brush your teeth.”
“And now you’re depriving my dentist of income, too.” Minato heaved a heavy sigh, but allowed himself to relocated to the sink, where he reached for toothbrush and paste. “Remind me never to let you near Payroll.”
“Math,” Kakashi said with distaste, and left Minato working on a mouthful of foam while he went to change clothes—jounin blues, new mask—and collect clean pyjamas from Minato’s room, taking a second to pull the covers back on the bed. When he returned, Minato was still standing at the sink, eyes closed, with his toothbrush hanging down from the corner of his mouth.
Kakashi cleared his throat.
Minato jumped, chakra rippling, and caught himself in the next split second, spitting guiltily into the sink. He wiped his mouth. Kakashi handed him the pyjamas, and when Minato was dressed—in plain dark blue, none of Naruto’s frogs—cajoled him back to his bedroom. By the time they reached the door, Minato was leaning on his shoulder. Kakashi tumbled him down onto the Hokage’s king-sized bed, and Minato rolled reflexively to the right side, settling into his usual spot. Kakashi pulled the covers back up.
“Need anything?” he asked.
Minato shook his head drowsily, damp hair fanning across the pillow. “You heading back to barracks?”
“And suffer the wrath of your offspring?” Kakashi said, wry, like he wouldn’t have stayed anyway. “I’ll be on the couch.”
Minato let out a long, slow sigh, and slouched further down, blankets lapping at his nose. Visibly grappling with the edges of consciousness, he mumbled, “You’ve got my kunai?”
He couldn’t actually mean a hiraishin kunai, that would signal Minato when thrown. They were in the same house.
Of course he meant that.
“I’ll be a room away,” Kakashi said, stone dry. “If I get attacked so badly that I need you to come through and fall on them, I’ll toss a shoe at the wall.”
“Don’ waste weaponry,” Minato slurred, words melting together. “Toss’t at th’enemy.” Dark gold eyelashes flickered against his cheekbones, some final thought sleeting past, and then he was out.
Kakashi let out a breath.
And then another, deeper, sinking into the living silence of a home that finally had all its people accounted for. The only person he hadn’t heard from was his mother, and as far as he knew, she was on the other side of the world, handling politics in an entirely different battleground. Which made her as safe as she ever was.
On the left bedside table, Kushina’s picture grinned at him from a plain wooden frame. It was from the early days of her pregnancy, when she’d only just started to show. She was wearing denim overalls, one hand curled protectively over her stomach, and managing to look thrilled, nervous, and ever so faintly vengeful—as Kakashi recalled, that had been a bad day for morning sickness. He nodded at her, and left her watching over Minato.
True to his word, he went back to the couch—taking a brief side-stop to clean up both the bathroom and the kitchen—and stretched out again, feeling weariness drag at him. Between the spar with Katsuko and Minato getting home, he’d only managed a few hours sleep. At least hot water had helped the bruises and sore muscles. The television was still playing a faint buzz of sound; it had changed over to a documentary about Tea Country imports.
Kakashi spent thirty seconds learning about a new kind of blue-tipped tea leaf before he slipped sideways into a doze, senses resting easy near the warm, familiar signature of Minato’s chakra.