May 14, Yondaime Year 5
On Saturday afternoon, Ogata-san didn’t come to pick Naruto up from preschool.
Dad came instead. Naruto knew it from the moment he squeezed past Shikamaru out the door and saw most of the moms and nannies bunched up in a cluster at the play-yard fence, like pigeons on a roofline with a cat at the other end. Only Dad wasn’t going to eat them.
He was just standing at the gate, chatting to Shikamaru’s mom and Kiba’s uncle, and he wasn’t even wearing his white Hokage coat. He had jounin blues and a flak vest, just like Kiba’s uncle. Nobody was going to mistake him for Kiba’s uncle, though. He didn’t have the tattoos, or the big brindled dog looking over the fence and perking up her ears when she saw Kiba come shrieking.
Since Kiba was shrieking, and trying to scramble over the fence and launch himself at the dog, Naruto tried sneaking. Dad was right in front of the gate, but there was a loose board on the side yard that Shikamaru and Naruto had made looser and none of the sensei had found yet. Naruto went that way. He had to wriggle, and he scraped his hand and tore his shirt but only a little. Kiba was still yelling when Naruto stood up.
Dad had stepped aside from the fence, so the more nervous nannies could scrunch past and collect their children. He was still talking to Shikamaru’s mom, though now both of them were watching Kiba’s uncle wrestle Kiba and the dog out of the flowerbeds. Naruto crept a little closer and heard Shikamaru’s mom say, very quietly, “—back to Hikouto?”
“Not yet,” Dad said, just as quietly. “They’ll survive without him. He’s earned some leave. Keep him at home a few days. Tell him Sagara has standing orders to sic the vice-commander on him if she sees him back at HQ before Tuesday.”
She looked up sharply at him, and then down. “It’s not the vice-commander he should be scared of,” she grumbled, but there was a little smile crinkling her dark eyes, like Kakashi when he was trying to pretend he wasn’t pleased. She bowed to Dad and went to collect Shikamaru from beneath the shrubbery in the play-yard, and Naruto seized the moment of distraction to fling himself at Dad’s back.
Dad caught him, of course. He swung Naruto around in the air—Naruto shrieked with delight, even louder than Kiba—and then pulled him in snug and warm, his chin tucked into the cutout collar of Dad’s vest and Dad’s breath ruffling his hair. “You weren’t creeping up to assassinate me, were you?” Dad said, all growly and low. “I’d hate to have to turn a little kid like you over to Tickles & Interrogation…”
“No tickling!” Naruto struck first, just in case, scrunching his fingers against Dad’s ribs. The thick padded jounin vest got in the way. Dad laughed, and tugged Naruto around to ride on his hip as he started down the street towards the village center.
“As it happens,” he said, “I may have need of a teammate. Someone bold and crafty, someone no one will ever suspect. I have a mission. It may be dangerous. We need to extract a wounded comrade from a secure facility guarded by ruthless opponents—”
“Who got captured?” Naruto grabbed frantically at Dad’s collar, hauling himself up. “Did they get Ogata-san? Fukafuka?” He clutched at Dad’s head. “Where’s Kakashi-niisan?”
“He’s in the hospital,” Dad said quickly, steadying Naruto’s bottom with one hand and reaching up with the other to untangle Naruto’s fingers from his hair. “He’s getting better, though. We’re going to spring him today, if Rin-chan says we can. Ogata-san and Fukafuka are at home cooking. We’ll bring Kakashi home for dinner, okay?”
Naruto relaxed his death-grip, finally, and let Dad pull him back down. Several gold hairs stuck to his fingers. He tried to wipe them off on Dad’s shoulders. “I left him First Mate so niisan wasn’t alone. Is he sad? Did they take First Mate away?”
“He’s got First Mate,” Dad reassured him. “He showed me yesterday. And his teammates have been visiting him, too. But his treatment is nearly over, so I thought maybe he could come stay with us for the next few days, while he gets his strength back. Ogata-san’ll make sure he eats. And Rin’ll stop worrying he’s just going to sneak out of the hospital before he’s ready to look after himself.”
“Niisan doesn’t like hospitals,” Naruto remembered. “We snuck out together last time.” Except Kakashi had stopped at the big front desk to sign lots of papers, so the medics wouldn’t panic and send Rin-neesan after him. Then they’d gone back to Kakashi’s apartment and played with his dogs and eaten cup ramen for breakfast.
He wanted cup ramen now.
But he also wanted to see Kakashi-niisan, and ramen could always come later. Maybe Ogata-san would let him have a snack before dinner when he brought Kakashi-niisan home. If he was going to help Dad rescue Kakashi-niisan then he was going to be a hero, and heroes deserved feasts.
“Can Ogata-san make shabu-shabu?” He tried climbing up onto Dad’s shoulder again, swaying with Dad’s swift walk. “For niisan! Because we never had a party for him. We should have cake.”
Dad pulled him straight and locked his hands around Naruto’s dangling ankles. “For you, or for Kakashi?”
“Kakashi likes cake! It’s just a secret,” Naruto explained. “Because he thinks he shouldn’t.”
“Is it a secret you were meant to tell?” Dad asked mildly.
Maybe not. But Dad knew everything anyway, didn’t he? Was it still secret-breaking if you told someone who already knew?
Naruto was still wrestling with that when they arrived at the hospital. Dad made his way swiftly through the lobby and up the stairs, collecting bows and exchanging greetings from people in passing; no one tried to stop him, but a tall Hyuuga lady with white eyes and a long white coat tossed Naruto a lollipop. Naruto’s hands and face were already sticky with it by the time they arrived at Rin-neesan’s office.
It was much smaller than Dad’s, with only one window overlooking the busy street below, but the same stacks of paper grew in neatly organized towers from the wooden trays on her desk. She even had the same picture Dad did, of herself and Kakashi and Dad and a black-haired boy with funny goggles.
Naruto saw that picture almost every day. He’d always paid attention to the people he knew, before, ignoring the one he didn’t. For the first time, now, he wondered who it was. Obito-san, who’d given Kakashi his eye? Kakashi didn’t look happy next to his friend in the picture, but maybe he only got broccoli in his bento that day.
At least Rin in the picture looked happy, with her eyes all squeezed shut by her smile and her fingers making ‘victory’ signs. Rin in real life looked much tireder, with her long hair pulled back at the base of her neck and a dark pink stain on the front of her white coat, but she still put her pen down and smiled up at him. “Naruto-kun, you’ve grown!”
He wriggled on Dad’s shoulders. “I’m taller than everybody.”
“Do you want to see how tall?” Rin rummaged in a drawer for her measuring tape, then pushed her spinny wheely chair back from her desk.
Naruto eyed the chair greedily as Dad gripped him by the waist and swung him down. He’d ride on it later. Last time he spun on it so much it made him sick, but he was bigger now. He ran to the wall by the window, and stood with his back straight and his chin up in the air while Rin-neesan knelt beside him and very carefully measured him. She made a mark on the wall with a pencil above his head.
“Ninety-nine centimeters,” she said proudly, sitting back on her heels. “You may be taller than your dad, someday.”
“Taller than Kakashi-niisan?” Naruto demanded.
She winked at him. “If you eat your vegetables and drink your milk.”
“I had vegetables for lunch,” he bragged. “Ogata-san put snowpeas and radishes in my bento. And I ate half Shikamaru’s bento too. I’m gonna grow tall—tall—tall— taller than…than Tousaki-san!”
“You might’ve picked the wrong parents for that, kid,” Dad said, with a hint of laughter at the back of his voice. He sank into the chair in front of Rin-neesan’s desk and picked up one of the puzzle-boxes perched beside her nameplate. “Your mom was taller than Rin, but not by much.”
Naruto looked up at Rin-neesan. She didn’t lose her smile, but it did grow a little soft at the edges, and her eyes were sad. She reached up to the third picture on her desk, between the one with Kakashi and the one of her parents. This one had Dad in it too, but it also had Naruto’s mom, with her long red hair and her dancing blue eyes. She was leaning over Rin’s shoulder and laughing about something. Rin in the picture was laughing too, with her hands up over her mouth, while Dad had one arm around their shoulders and the other stretched up to take the picture.
“We have this one at home,” Naruto said. “We have all Mom’s pictures at home.” He took the picture anyway, leaving sticky thumbprints on the frame, and looked up craftily sideways at Rin. “If you come over for dinner today you can look through the picture-book with me again. You can tell me the story when Mom threw the frying pan at Jiraiya-ojisan’s head and it stuck in the wall and she made him buy her a new one.”
Rin laughed. “And she made him replaster the wall.”
“Though I had to do the repainting,” Dad said dryly. “Rin-chan, if Naruto’s sly wiles don’t make up your mind for you, I promised Kakashi I’d spring him from your latex-gloved clutches today. He can spend a few days in my spare bedroom watching Captain Seaweed with Naruto. If, that is, you think he can be allowed out of the intensive ward.” He twisted the puzzle-box sharply and put it back on Rin’s desk, all of its colors neatly arranged on its sides. “His pathways seemed to be healing, but I’ll defer to your judgment. So long as you’re aware that Ogata-san has spent all day in the kitchen, and if Kakashi misses out, you’ll have to make up for it by eating his share.”
That didn’t sound like a punishment to Naruto.
A sixteen-hour shift with breaks for food and not much else meant Rin had no patience for frivolities. There were appointments to schedule, monthly evaluations to discuss with her new medical team, and a list of patients that never grew shorter. She looked at Naruto, who was staring at her with a hopeful expression, and then at Minato-sensei, who had more lines at the corners of his eyes every time she saw him. She dredged up a smile from behind the cloud of exhaustion and obligations. Her mouth felt stiff and creaky, lifting up in stops and starts, but something warm lit her up from the inside; Naruto and her old team would always have that effect on her.
Speaking of her old team…
“I trust Kakashi not to overtax himself about as much as I trust the sun will rise in the west,” she said, getting to her feet. “So, not at all. But if you’re looking after him, Minato-sensei, then I’m sure he’ll rest and refrain from using his chakra.” She smiled again, sweetly. “Right?”
Minato-sensei didn’t flinch, like some of her medical team did, but Minato-sensei had known her since she was ten. “I can set Naruto to guard him.” He paused while Naruto bounced and cheered. More quietly, he said, “Failing that, I could seal his chakra until he’s more fully recovered. Do you think that’s necessary?”
Rin sighed and watched Naruto’s ecstatic celebration. “For now, no, but I understand he’s invested in his ANBU team’s… situation. More invested than I’ve ever seen him, considering he’s only known them a month.” Kakashi never changed his opinions on people this quickly. Her brief conversations with him during her visits hadn’t covered much detail, but she could read between the lines. “No sealing for now, but tell him I’ve given you permission to put him in timeout if he starts to pull stunts again. Ripping his own coils out once was enough.”
Naruto was waving the picture frame in the air like a victory sparkler. Minato carefully rescued it and grabbed a tissue to wipe off the glass before returning it to her desk. “Tell him yourself. You need to eat at some point tonight, too.”
She’d been sustaining herself on light, frequent snacks, eaten while dashing through the halls to her next appointment. An apple or a ration bar every two hours had nothing on a homecooked meal, though. Rin leaned over her desk and dug a small sheaf of papers out from underneath a pile. “Good idea. Let me fill out the release forms. Naruto-kun, are you ready to rescue Kakashi?”
Her chair squeaked as Naruto scrambled up onto it. “Do we haveta be quiet? Or can I make a distraction?”
A burst of affection made Rin chuckle and smooth her hand gently over his hair, ruffling blond spikes. “Can you make a quiet distraction?”
Minato smiled, wry. “Only if he gets to hum his theme song while he does it. Naruto, Rin-chan and I can run interference on this one. I need you to bodyguard Kakashi. He may be wobbly.”
To Rin, he said, “I haven’t seen him out of bed, yet. Can he walk? Or should I just Hiraishin us all straight back to my spare bedroom?”
“As his doctor, I should recommend that he walk back for the exercise,” Rin said. “It’s a good thing I’m on break. Hiraishin would be nice, Minato-sensei. Kakashi and I haven’t had a homecooked meal in a while.”
A warm, strong hand dropped onto her shoulder and squeezed lightly. “It’s been too long for all of us,” Minato said, quiet in a way that told Rin he wasn’t just talking about homecooked meals. He glanced aside. “Naruto, if you make yourself sick spinning, you won’t want dinner.”
“I always want dinner.” Naruto spun once more, just to prove it, and then hopped off Rin’s chair and went to stand by the door, bouncing. “Can we go now, Rin-neesan?”
He was growing so fast. She wanted to stoop down and hug him, suddenly, with a fierceness that made her chest ache. She smiled instead. It felt a little wobbly. “Yes. Let’s go get your Niisan.”
The clock in Kakashi’s room was possessed. No matter how much he stared at it, the hands crawled around at the speed of slow death. Sometimes he swore it was going backwards.
Minato had promised freedom by 1700. Kakashi was slightly afraid he might commit accidental homicide before then.
(Well, not actual homicide. He was better trained than that, even under duress. But he would be sorely tempted to hurl an IV stand.)
(Or the bedside table.)
He’d been so relieved to get the drugs out of his system, desperate to regain clear thought and the ability to stay awake for more than eight minutes, that he’d forgotten the other side of the coin. Morphine made the hospital experience survivable. Without it, everything was hard and sharp and invasive. The lights were too bright. The nurses were too noisy. The doctors were not Rin. He’d read Hisakawa’s novel three times and sworn at the cliffhanger three times, before staging a tactical operation to steal more magazines from the nearest waiting room. There was one with an incomplete crossword, which killed fifteen minutes, and another with a choice of three questionnaires: What Do Your Shoes Say About Your Style?; What Kind Of Sexy Are You?; and Are You A Secret Bitch?
He got Get Help, STAT, Untouchable Ice Queen, and You’re Not Even Secret, Chick.
There was also a free sample packet of lip gloss that he resolved to give to Katsuko, since she apparently had ‘autumn coloring’. Ryouma was a winter. (“You receive compliments in bold shades, black, white, red and jewel tones.”)
That got him to 1600 by the skin of his teeth, when the afternoon rounds began. By 1620 he’d been examined, needled, touched with extremely cold hands, and had his mask questioned by a trainee medic who was not going to survive to the end of the shift. By 1626, he was seriously considering mugging a medic for a white coat and an escape route.
At 1627, he heard the first loud, tuneless notes of Naruto’s personal theme song, and almost fell out of the bed with relief.
“—I’m a ninja, I’m a ninja, oooooh I’m a ninja, the BEST ninja, an’ also a dragon-slayer—s’cuse me, I’m being a distraction—OOOOH, I’m a ninja—NIISAN, I FOUND YOU. I’M HERE TO RESCUE YOU.” A blond blur careened into the door, rebounded, and tumbled into the room, managing to lose both shoes in the process.
Kakashi leaned hastily over and caught Naruto by the collar before the rescue attempt became a concussion against the bed frame. Tiny hands grabbed his wrist and Naruto monkey-swarmed up his arm, giggling and demanding to know if First Mate had defended Kakashi against The Doctors.
There was air in the room again. Kakashi pulled his pillows aside and showed Naruto that First Mate was still present in a defensive seagull capacity, and had also achieved appropriate weaponry. (Namely: one tanto and one sample mascara packet, acquired in addition to the lip gloss.)
Naruto looked deeply satisfied. “I knew he’d look after you.”
“Almost as good as a nin-dog,” Kakashi said, and craned his neck at the door. “Is your dad coming?”
“He’n Rin-neesan are doing paperwork,” Naruto said dismissively. “They’re coming, though.” He shinned down off the bed to poke about the room. “I gotta get you dressed first. Dad said—” he gave a little giggle— “he said he doesn’t want to see your skinny backside.”
Kakashi felt his eyebrows climb. “Oh really? Well then you better pass me the pants in that cabinet — third drawer down, no, next one, little lower, that’s it — so we can all be appropriately dressed to admire his giant slabs of muscle when he finally gets here.”
Naruto broke into laughter. “Dad’s not giant! Dad’s skinny, too!”
“Slabs of muscle,” Kakashi persisted, because Naruto hadn’t quite grasped the concept of sarcasm yet, but repeated exposure might get him there. “There has never been a specimen like him, so uniquely qualified to judge the backsides of others. Pass me that shirt, too?”
Ryouma had swung by earlier in the day to pick up Kakashi’s reluctantly completed paperwork and drop off a pair of clean jounin blues in the process, because even he understood the indignity of trying to escape a hospital in flimsy pajamas. Well, perhaps not understood, since shame was foreign territory to him, but someone had probably explained the concept.
Naruto trotted back over with jounin blues trailing from his arms. “That old lady last time liked your butt,” he said thoughtfully.
The one in the ER pit who’d wanted to sell tickets for Ryouma-viewings, Kakashi recalled, and might have warped Naruto for life.
“Adults are strange,” Kakashi said. “When you get older, you should look for inside things first.”
Naruto’s brow crumpled. “Like intestines?”
“Like personality,” Kakashi said. “And good shinobi skills.” He changed quickly, leaving the pajamas in a crumpled heap on the bed, and staggered upright to achieve socks and shoes and whatever might pass for acceptable hair. The tiny mirror in the room’s adjoining bathroom suggested there was probably no hope.
Naruto sat on the closed toilet seat lid, kicking his feet. “When I grow up I’m gonna be the best shinobi ever. I’ll fight everybody first and then if they’re good I’ll say ‘Okay you can be my friend!’ And then they’ll join my crew like Captain Seaweed and First Mate did. Is that how you got your team, niisan? Did you have to fight them all? How do you tell if they have a good personality, too?”
Kakashi paused midway through raking water into his hair. “That would probably work,” he said, after a beat. “I got assigned to my team, and I did fight three of them.” Well, Ryouma had punched him in the ribs. Katsuko had crossed swords with him under sleepless moonlight. Raidou had grappled him down by a riverbank. He just needed to arm-wrestle the lieutenant and he’d be four for four.
Now that he thought about it, he’d lost all three of those fights.
He turned and looked at Naruto thoughtfully. “Fighting’s a good way to see what people are really like, so long as you don’t just pick random fights on the street. How do you tell if you like people now?”
Naruto’s face went blank. “I just… like them? I like you and Dad and Rin-neesan and I didn’t decide that. Oh, but I like Ogata-san and Turtle and Shikamaru-kun and Kiba-kun and Tousaki-san, too.” He thought about that for a moment, chewing the corner of his lip. Something shifted in his expression, and just for a second Kakashi could see an edge of what Naruto might look like as an adult, when the baby-fat had melted into strength and training, and the nascent instinct had truly bloomed. “They’re funny,” Naruto said at last. “And they don’t act weird ‘cause Dad’s the Hokage. And Shikamaru-kun lets me eat his lunch and Kiba-kun let me play with his toy dog. And you like Tousaki-san so I knew he was okay.”
Kakashi felt his mouth twitch. He crouched stiffly down in front of Naruto, bracing one hand on the sink for support. “You’re already better at people than I am, Naruto-kun.” He poked Naruto gently in the stomach with his free hand. “Just keep looking at more than butts and you’ll be fine.”
Naruto’s nose wrinkled. “Butts are weird anyway. Fight everybody instead.” He nodded, short and satisfied. “I fought Kiba-kun already.”
A warm, amused tenor from the door to the main hospital room made Kakashi twitch, startled. “Did you? Is there where that rip in your shirt came from?”
“Dad!” Naruto bounced off the toilet and shot over to the bathroom door, clutching the frame in his excitement. “I didn’t fight Kiba today. But I got Kakashi dressed and now we can escape!”
As soon as Kakashi gets off the floor. He tightened his grip on the sink and hauled himself up, arm shaking. When he joined Naruto at the bathroom door, he’d managed to get mostly steady again, though his stupid hair was dripping water down the back of his collar.
Minato gave him an appraising look, eyes the color of sunlight on fresh water.
“Agent Hatake, reporting for extraction,” Kakashi said, endeavoring to appear competent and refreshed, rather than ready for the nearest couch.
Minato gifted him with a quick smile, then turned and spoke over his shoulder. “I win, sensei. He’s on his feet without support. I’m taking him home.”
“I guess you do win this round, sensei,” Rin said lightly, stepping through the door. She gave Kakashi a narrow-eyed look that added, For now. It contained all the jaded cynicism of a woman who’d heard Kakashi declare on multiple occasions that he was perfectly fine, before faceplanting spectacularly.
Kakashi smiled blandly at her, and suppressed the urge to hide behind Naruto.
“So Rin-chan will be helping Naruto with the dishes tonight,” Minato said with satisfaction, because of course they’d made an actual bet. The early days of Team Minato had been full of little wagers, with the loser being forced to dig latrines, or cook dinner, or sharpen weapons, or anything else Minato could think of to torture someone. Obito had lost every time, until Minato had started to rig the game.
Blue eyes flicked to the stuffed seagull on the bed, still cradling Kakashi’s tanto with one wing. “Anything else you need to bring, Kakashi?” Minato asked. “I assume your teammates took your gear.”
“Yesterday,” Kakashi confirmed. He scooped up First Mate and accompanying weaponry (mascara and lip balm included), and cast a suspicious look at the door. There didn’t seem to be a wheelchair lurking…
Naruto was bouncing from foot to foot with barely restrained excitement. He grabbed Kakashi’s hand and pulled. “Let’s gooo!”
Startled, Kakashi lurched off-balance and made a grab for his abandoned IV stand, desperately trying to stay on his feet and not crush the Hokage’s only beloved offspring. Before his fingers touched metal, a strong hand caught his shoulder. Reflexively, Kakashi grabbed back, and found himself suspended at a quarter-tilt, with Naruto still dangling from his wrist, a stuffed seagull jammed awkwardly against his side, and Minato glinting amusement down at him.
“If you dip me, I’ll kill you,” Kakashi promised.
“If I drop you, Naruto will cry,” Minato pointed out. “You’ll forgive me if I choose to take my chances with homicide instead.” He levered Kakashi back upright, but didn’t drop the hand.
He didn’t need physical contact to carry a passenger on the journey between dimensions with Hiraishin, not with only three people all standing within the sphere of his chakra reach. Still, Kakashi was a little too white around the eye for Minato’s peace of mind. Ride-alongs were never easy, but the closer Minato stood, the smoother the trip. And he had no intention of dropping Kakashi on his living room floor with an extra dose of spacetime nausea to damper his day.
“Count to three, Naruto-kun,” he said, and opened up the universe.
They landed on the rug in front of the sofa while Naruto was still deciding between “ni” and “san.” Kakashi thumped down on a cushion as if his knees had given out. Rin stepped down off the coffee-table with a wry glance at Minato and laid a slim hand against Kakashi’s forehead.
“Still feel fine?” she asked. The cool water of her chakra brushed against Minato’s, filtering into Kakashi’s inflamed pathways. Kakashi’s own chakra stirred sluggishly in response. He swallowed, bare throat bobbing, and sighed.
“I’m out of the hospital.” Eye closed, he leaned a little into Rin’s hand. “You can upgrade me to radiant, so long as I can be radiant and sitting down.”
“Stay put, and we’ll use you for a reading lamp this evening.” Minato collected Naruto into his lap and settled down on the other end of the couch. He could feel the smooth polish of Ogata-san’s chakra in the kitchen, hear the faint, resuming schwick of her knife against a cutting board; she’d recognized his own chakra in turn, and gone back to her work. A floor below, Lynx was supervising the secretarial army as they sorted out paperwork in Minato’s office; on the roof above, two ANBU whose chakra signatures Minato didn’t immediately recognize wove a silent patrol.
Somewhere out in the streets Panther, his assigned shadow for the day, was probably only just now realizing he’d left the hospital. Hopefully she’d beat last week’s record for tracking him down again.
Rin’s chakra flared in a complicated little pattern, sealing her work into Kakashi’s flesh. She stood with her head tilted thoughtfully, studying him. Then she nodded to herself and sank down onto the far edge of the couch, tucking her heels up gracefully beneath her and smothering a yawn with her hand. “One thing about pulling sixteen-hour shifts,” she murmured, “is that as soon as you let yourself rest, it all catches up with you.”
Kakashi slouched down into the couch beside her as if all his muscles had turned to water. He dug his shoulderblades into the cushion and sighed blissfully. “This couch is my most favorite couch. Never get rid of it, sensei.”
“I invited you both over for dinner, not naptime,” Minato said, amused. “We had naptime already, didn’t we, Naruto-kun?”
“I did.” Naruto clambered out of Minato’s lap to rescue First Mate from Kakashi’s loose grasp and plant the stuffed seagull firmly on top of Kakashi’s head.
“I’m conserving energy for food,” Kakashi said, looping an arm around Naruto’s waist and tugging him down sideways into a very gentle headlock. “I haven’t seen you since Thursday, shrimp, and you’re torturing me with waterfowl.”
Naruto squealed. “No torturing! Tickling!” He twisted around and went for Kakashi’s vulnerable ribs, hiking up the hem of the overlarge jounin blues and scrabbling his sharp little fingers over milk-pale skin.
Kakashi yelped and actually flailed sideways into Rin, jolting her out of her half-doze, before he recovered himself. He grabbed for Naruto’s wrists and got them on the second try. Reactions dulled from recovery, or mere overacting for the boy’s benefit? Minato was inclined to believe the second, though Kakashi’s initial surprise did seem genuine. Maybe he hadn’t been the recipient of one of Naruto’s surprise tickle attacks before. They were relatively new, and Naruto hadn’t yet learned not to use his nails.
But with Kakashi’s hands occupied, and Rin on his blind side, he’d left himself open.
Rin was Kakashi’s doctor; she’d known where all his weak spots were for years. She smiled and stuck her hands up his shirt with unerring accuracy. Kakashi’s yell echoed off the walls loud enough to make her ears ring. He twisted away like a startled eel, pulling a laughing Naruto along with him, and grabbed the sofa before he could actually fall off. First Mate wasn’t so lucky. The plush seagull toppled off Kakashi’s head and landed on the floor with a quiet, sad plop.
“Rin,” Kakashi said, outraged betrayal in every line of his body. Her smile broadened.
“Yes?” she asked sweetly, and scooted closer, wiggling her fingers. Loyalty was for people who hadn’t just been woken from a nap.
Naruto cheered, “Get ‘im, Rin-neesan!”
Minato-sensei just pulled his legs out of the way, a soft, fond smile on his face as he watched them all.
Kakashi wasn’t so sanguine. “Traitor.” He lifted Naruto up and tossed him at Rin, who plucked Naruto out of the air with the delicacy she reserved for all precious things. Kakashi used the distraction to bolt off his end of the couch and over to Minato’s. By the time she looked up from Naruto’s delighted expression, all she could see of Kakashi was his forehead and a shock of grey hair sticking up over Minato’s shoulder.
“You know running only makes it worse,” she said.
“That’s why I ran to safety.”
“You think Minato-sensei will protect you after you used his son as a projectile weapon?”
“It’s good training,” Minato-sensei said, still amused. “He’s a projectile weapon with a secondary attack. Naruto-kun, Rin hasn’t been tickled yet…”
But Naruto, against all odds, curled in on himself in Rin’s arms. “Rin-neesan doesn’t get tickled,” he said firmly.
“That’s right,” Rin said, resting her cheek on top of Naruto’s blond, fluffy head. He smelled like baby shampoo. “Only your Kakashi-niisan gets tickled, because he avoids so many of his doctor’s appointments.”
“I go to mine!” Naruto bragged. “I get lollipops.”
Rin kissed his forehead. “Maybe if Kakashi went to his doctor’s appointments, he would get lollipops too.” She slanted a look over Naruto’s head. “Maybe.”
Kakashi’s hair twitched. “In that case, you owe me…” he paused for a moment, counting behind the safety of Minato’s shoulder. “Twenty-seven lollipops for this week.”
“It only counts if you’re polite during,” Rin said. “Don’t think I don’t know you made one of our trainee medics cry. Trainees aren’t useful when they cry, Kakashi.”
“They’re learning, though,” Kakashi said, without even an effort at contrition.
Minato reached back over his shoulder and tugged gently on Kakashi’s hair. “Rin already has training programs for them. You’re interfering.”
“Thank you, Minato-sensei,” Rin said primly. “I need them to fear me, Kakashi, not you.”
“Multi-tasking is good for mental health,” Kakashi said, ducking away from Minato and collapsing down on Minato’s couch. “Besides, you don’t fear me, so that makes you even scarier. Everyone wins, except the idiot blonde who couldn’t find a vein.”
Rin looked up at the ceiling in silent exasperation, a reluctant smile tugging at her mouth. She was about to suggest to Naruto that maybe his niisan needed more tickles when Minato shifted. He glanced at the door just before a polite flare of chakra announced the housekeeper’s arrival.
Hiring a former ANBU as Naruto’s new nanny had been wise on Minato-sensei’s part, and Rin had been even more pleased when she’d done a background check on Ogata-san. Naruto could learn a lot from the woman’s wise, practical lethality.
Ogata-san stuck her silver head into the room. “Dinner’s ready, Hokage-sama.”
Rin could smell something heavenly from the kitchen. Her stomach growled. She shifted Naruto onto her hip and stood up, trying to hide her eagerness.
“Come on, lazybones,” she said to Kakashi and Minato, bouncing Naruto on her hip to make him giggle. “Hurry up or Naruto-kun and I will take all the food for ourselves.”
Kakashi groaned from the soft gravity-well of the sofa. “I’m not moving again. Someone tie a plate to Naruto and send him back to me.”
“If Naruto sees you eating in the living room, we’ll never be free of crumbs in the sofa,” Minato said, not unkindly. “Some sacrifices must be made.” He leaned down and wrapped a warm, strong hand around Kakashi’s wrist, which was enough to get Kakashi moving. A second hand steadied Kakashi’s shoulder, helping him keep his balance.
For a splintered moment, it was like being fourteen again. Which, between surviving the last days of the war and learning to cope with the drain of Obito’s final gift, was a year Kakashi had mostly spent falling over, and Minato had spent hauling him back upright.
He was taller than Minato now, two whole inches (six if you counted hair), and old enough to know better, but the feeling was still the same: the world was a tipping point, and Minato was the solid axis in the middle. The one still place.
Which Kakashi was supposed to be outgrowing.
Maybe tomorrow. Tonight there was food, and soft, warm light, and probably fifteen different retellings of Naruto’s adventures in playgroup to look forward to. There was room to be tired. Tomorrow he could be an adult. Tonight, he could take the excuse to drape his arm over Minato’s shoulders and lean against his teacher’s side as they made their slow, staggering way to the dining room.
Kakashi paused in the doorway and blinked. “Wow.”
Food in Minato’s house was usually a grab-and-go affair, eaten standing in the kitchen or sprawled in the living room. Naruto had graduated from his high chair at the kitchen table more than a year ago, and could be trusted to wrangle his own plate and chopsticks with only minimal casualties. As far as Kakashi knew, the formal dining room had only been used once, when Minato had decorated it in streamers and hundreds of nylon balloons to celebrate Kushina’s 27th birthday. After her death, it had been left to the dust and spiders.
It wasn’t dusty now. White candles lined the long oak table, which had been polished to a buttery sheen and draped with a crimson cloth runner — a color chosen for Minato’s flames and ANBU’s spiral mark, Kakashi guessed. Four places had been set, and one of the chairs piled with pillows to raise a small body up to conversation height. A small galaxy of dishes had been arranged around the table, organized into little constellations: bamboo shoots in dashi, sesame tofu, cucumbers quick-pickled in salt and powdered kelp; spicy pollock roe, sauteed fiddleheads; octopus braised with daikon and surrounded by delicate new potatoes simmered in soy sauce with new onions.
In pride of place at the center, a perfectly cooked sea bream lay on a red lacquer tray. Steam gently scented the air with fresh ginger.
Standing on the other side of the table, Ogata inclined her head and smiled, visible eye crinkling. Candlelight glinted in her silver hair. “Welcome home, Hatake-san.”
Kakashi swallowed hard, and pretended it was just because his mouth was watering. “Thank you,” he rasped.
Minato squeezed his shoulder and pushed him towards a chair. Rin and Naruto were already seated, smiling and gilded in golden light; Naruto had his special rice bowl in hand, decorated with blue spirals and dancing frogs. A trace of dangling seaweed at the corner of his mouth betrayed his inability to wait, but Rin — or possibly Ogata — had prevented him from actually clambering on the table and attacking the feast. He waved his chopsticks in the air and announced, “It’s a celebration, niisan, so you hafta make a wish.”
“I thought that was birthdays?” Kakashi said.
“And fish days,” Naruto said decisively. “Make a fish wish!”
Minato took his seat and looked like he was trying very hard not to laugh. When Kakashi looked imploringly at her, Rin simply smiled and said, “Don’t keep us waiting.”
Kakashi picked up his chopsticks and leaned over the sea bream, acutely aware of all eyes on him. It was nice, in a deeply embarrassing kind of way. He slid the tip of his chopsticks into tender white flesh; it opened like butter, releasing more steam. “Itadakimasu,” he murmured. “I wish for more fish days.”
Minato grinned, eyes too bright; Rin’s smile folded into the soft, warm sadness that held open spaces for every missing face at the table; Naruto booed and accused Kakashi of wishing for more wishes. “That’s not a proper wish, niisan!”
“I wish for ten million ryou and a month’s vacation at the beach,” Kakashi said, transferring a portion of bream to Naruto’s plate. “And blue hair.”
Rin supplied Naruto with an additional gift of vegetables. Thanks to Ogata’s considerable kitchen skills, they looked like vegetables Naruto might actually try. “Just blue hair? Why not manageable hair?”
“We might need to catch a bigger fish, for that wish,” Minato said.
“That was a nice moment for about four seconds,” Kakashi said. “Naruto, help me think of more wishes before they ruin fish day. I wish for a boat — no, a ship.”
Naruto barely needed prompting. “An’ a big hat! An’ a giant wolf-shark to ride on. An’, an’ a dragon.”
“Two dragons!” Kakashi said, stealing potatoes out from underneath Minato’s chopsticks. “And a long coat with dramatic wind.”
“I always knew you’d come around to my style,” Minato said easily. “Do you want flames or puppies on yours?”
“I can’t hear you through the dramatic wind,” Kakashi said. “What else, Naruto-kun?”
Naruto bit his lip with effort, visibly straining for the most exciting ideas he could conjure. “A castle! With a big lake where the dragons and the wolf-shark can live. And a forest where we can run with your dogs and fight bad guys. And—it’s on top of a mountain so we have to fly our dragons to get there, and we’re faster than the wind—” Excitement propelled him to stand up on his chair, words tumbling over themselves faster and faster. He flailed his arms, making rushing wind sounds.
And a sharp, swift burst of air blew every single candle out.
Minato stared in one perfect moment of shock and dawning delight, as the tingles of bright new chakra faded away, and then he was out of his chair, blurring across the room to sweep Naruto up into his arms. Rin pressed a hand over her mouth, joy brimming into tears that rolled down over her tattooed cheeks.
“That was chakra,” Kakashi said blankly. “Naruto, you made chakra.”
Naruto squealed giddily as his father flung him up into the air and caught him, hugging him close. Minato was crying too, and laughing, looking the youngest he had in years. They were a matched set, blonde and blue-eyed, with smiles like the sun.
“That was chakra,” Kakashi said again, because his brain had switched off.
Rin’s hand curled over his shoulder. He hadn’t seen her get out of her chair, but she was at his back now, smelling like salt and bittersweet happiness.
“He—” Kakashi stumbled.
“I know,” she said, and her face was wet and shining.
“He’s going to be a ninja,” Kakashi said.
Rin’s fingers tightened. “He is,” she said softly.
Pride finally won over shock, followed just a moment late by biting terror, and a part of Kakashi’s mind that always managed to stay separate and aloof, watching everything else, said, Well, what did you think you were training him for, idiot? The future was coming hard and fast, and there was no way to slow it down.
They could only celebrate tonight. And give Naruto as many happy memories to carry with him as possible. He was already starting to look a little alarmed at all the melting adults, lower lip quivering like he thought he needed to join in.
Kakashi rubbed a hand over his eye — still dry; it always was — and cleared his throat. Then he crumpled up his napkin and tossed it at Naruto’s spiky head. “Hey, tiny miscreant. Why are you upstaging my big night?”
“You could do with a bit more upstaging,” Rin said, patting Kakashi on the shoulder. “It’s good for your character.” She looked at Naruto and smiled warmly. “Well done, Naruto-kun. I’m so proud of you.”
The launched napkin had mostly confused Naruto, but Rin’s praise was a more familiar lifeline — he visibly latched onto it and looked less wobbly, clutching his father’s shirt with both hands.
Minato looked up over Naruto’s head, smiling, one hand cupped around the fragile curve of his son’s skull, tears still shining in his eyes, and mouthed, Thank you.
Kakashi smiled back. Rin left him to go rumple her hand through Naruto’s yellow spikes and press kisses to his forehead and cheeks until he giggled and demanded eagerly, “Does this mean I get cake?”
Minato laughed, only a little watery, and looked to where Ogata was standing, beaming, in the door from the kitchen. He looked back at Kakashi. “If Kakashi’ll share his.”
And just like that, the dark, grasping shadows of the future receded. Kakashi sat up in his chair. “There’s cake?”
Minato confirmed, “Chocolate.”
“You should both finish dinner first,” Rin said. “Then cake.” She booped Naruto gently on the nose, which made him go cross-eyed. He immediately shoved out of Minato’s arms and scrambled back up into his chair, grabbing his dinner plate with the air of a man prepared to deal with an arduous task for sufficient reward.
Rin chuckled and slid back into her seat. Minato hung back for a moment longer, simply looking at Naruto. It was the same look that accompanied all of Naruto’s milestones — aching pride, a little shellshock, old grief worn smooth as a river stone. Single parenthood was nothing Minato had ever planned for, though he’d risen to the occasion.
As quickly as the look arose, it washed away again, as Minato tucked it away behind a smile. He wiped his face and sat back down at the table, admonishing Naruto to chew his food, praising Ogata’s exceptional cooking, debating whether showing wind-nature at such a tender age demonstrated keen genius, since Naruto was taking after his father…
The fish was swiftly demolished, along with its delicate accompanying dishes. They traded stories of their own first chakra appearances — Kakashi’s lightning had set a cherry tree on fire; Minato’s wind had blown an annoying uncle into a garden pond; Rin’s water had brought down indoor rain on an ailing succulent — and despite much laughing encouragement, Naruto wasn’t able to summon up a repeat performance, though he tried until the effort turned him bright red.
When the dishes were cleared away, Ogata reappeared carrying an elegant red tray. The smell of dark, rich chocolate hit Kakashi first, like a golden spike wrapped in cacao and sugar. Re-lit candles made light gleam on dark frosting. Ogata wasn’t given to frills, which suited Kakashi; the cake was a tall, simple circle of decadence carved out of a karmic reward Kakashi wasn’t sure he’d earned, but definitely didn’t intend to argue with. Ogata placed it in the center of the table, with a silver knife laid precisely down next to it.
One light grey eye rested for a moment on Naruto, glinting warmly. “Well done, Naruto-kun,” she said, which made Naruto beam like he’d scaled a mountain range by himself. She nodded at the rest of the table and withdrew.
Kakashi stared at the cake.
“Go ahead,” Minato said, laughing. “It’s for you.”
“It’s too pretty to eat,” Kakashi said. “I just want to look at it.”
Naruto made an anguished noise that stretched out and made the candlelight waver: caaaaaaaaaaaaake!
“If you do that, Naruto might die,” Rin said, but her mouth was curving.
Even with that, it took Minato’s highly amused insistence to make Kakashi cut the cake and dish it out, once it had been firmly established that Ogata wouldn’t fly back out of the kitchen and murder him with a spatula for ruining her masterwork. Naruto abandoned his own seat to climb up in Kakashi’s lap and ‘help,’ which mostly took the form of filching licks of frosting and making sure his piece was cut large enough. He stayed there as they ate, a warm weight cuddled up against Kakashi’s chest, and made rapturous chocolatey noises that faded into sleepy murmurs as the evening wore on and the lights dimmed.
Kakashi propped his elbow on the table, resting his chin on his hand, and curled his other arm around Naruto’s waist, listening as Rin and Minato traded the old, good stories that made them smile. His mouth tasted of chocolate and his stomach was full of warm, perfect food. Naruto had fallen asleep, exhausted from his first nearly deliberate energy use. Kakashi could feel himself drooping, too, as the efforts of the day caught up with him, but he wouldn’t have moved even if Sagara-sama burst in the door and ordered him out.
Somewhere between the retelling of Rin’s first successful jounin mission and Minato’s fourth attempt at asking Kushina out, he fell asleep, and barely woke when warm hands lifted Naruto off him, pulled him gently up, and steered him to bed.
He had good dreams.