Extra Story - 火影 (Hokage)

The sunlight made the platform above the Hokage Tower look divine.

The thirteen-year-old Kakashi raised his head, trying to see past the overlapping shadows of people around him and catch that glimpse of yellow that was reflecting gold under the light.

He moved, wanting to take a step forward, to slide past the crowd - so easy for a shinobi, right? - just so he could be closer and see better. But then, before he could take a step, he paused.

There was probably a place at the front that was saved for him - a place that Minato-sensei wanted him to be when the inauguration happened. It was supposed to be an honour, a privilege, and a duty bestowed on him as Minato-sensei's student - the student of the Yondaime Hokage.

But Kakashi felt his blood freeze even if the sun was warm enough to leave beads of sweat on his face. He eyed the direction he was supposed to go - the place where he was supposed to stand - and he couldn't help but remember that there were supposed to be others that should have stood beside him.

Rin and Obito should have also been there, but it was Kakashi's fault - his arrogance, his incompetence, his stupidity - that they weren't.

Kakashi didn't think he deserved that spot as much as he was the only one left to take it.

Suddenly, the crowd started rustling in excitement. Kakashi strained his neck and finally saw the blonde hair starting to appear behind the railing. Novelty and familiarity blended together as Kakashi made out the embroidered haori on his teacher, made just for the Yondaime Hokage just as Minato-sensei looked like he was made for it.

Minato-sensei bowed to Sandaime as the latter handed his successor the Hokage hat. Kakashi thought that he should move before Minato-sensei noticed; before he disappointed his teacher on the day when everything was supposed to go right.

But before he could move a single step, he felt a glance cast towards him when Minato-sensei took the hat and turned to the crowd assembled below. Of course, with the Hiraishin kunai on Kakashi, all it took was thought for Minato-sensei to pinpoint exactly where he was.

Kakashi expected some disappointment, maybe even some worry. He wasn't prepared for the gentle smile that graced him as the sunlight reflected on Minato-sensei's blue eyes, just before he put on the hat.

At that moment, it was like he could hear Minato-sensei's words, telling him, "It doesn't matter where you are, where you want to stand. I'll be able to see you just fine."

The crowd cheered as Minato-sensei raised his hand and pledged his oath to the village as its Yondaime Hokage. When the last word was sworn, Minato-sensei placed his hand on his chest as his gaze arrived at the assembly of shinobi and civilians alike, all citizens of Konoha.

With the sincerity, the care, and the reassurance that ebbed and flowed like waves in those eyes, Kakashi was sure that it wasn't just him that felt the rising emotion in his chest when they witnessed what could only be described as hope personified.

Suddenly, it was so much easier to move his legs as if those chilling shackles earlier were just an imagination. He moved - ran - without a beat of delay. For the first time in many months after Rin's death, he could feel how searing and blinding the sunlight was.

The thirteen-year-old Kakashi raised his head, trying to imprint the image of Minato-sensei waving under the sun in his eyes, in his mind, and in his heart.

He never wanted to forget that picture full of brilliance.

(づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ fuwa~fuwa~desu~~~

Kakashi woke up to the ray of sun shining on his face, swaying slightly with the movement of the curtain. For a second, he couldn't distinguish if the dream had ended because of how bright everything was in his vision.

He blinked once, forcing his eyes - more like, one eye - to focus. It was then that he saw the figure sitting on the window sill, her back resting against the window frame and a book in hand, hiding from the sun using a half-closed curtain.

Kakashi wondered what he did to deserve this - to dream about a picture of brilliance and then wake up to another.

"You're awake," Maiko said, noticing the movement from the bed. "It's only six, you can sleep a little longer." She nodded at the clock, but Kakashi didn't move his gaze as directed.

One of her legs dangled from the ledge, exposing the section below the hem of her training pants under the translucent sunlight. Kakashi couldn't help but notice the red marking around her ankle - highlighted, really, against the pale skin - and he remembered how he clasped his hand around it last night, apparently with enough force to leave a mark.

"Please put on some socks when you're at the Uchiha Compound," Kakashi heard himself saying. "Otherwise, I might get assassinated by Itachi."

It took Maiko a second to realize what he meant when she looked down at her ankle. Then, she burst into a string of laughter. "An Uchiha assassinating the Hokage? Never."

"Not a Hokage yet," Kakashi couldn't help but point out as he picked himself up from the bed and put on some clothes. If he was going to get assassinated, he should at least make sure that he died with dignity.

"Not yet, but you will be, in three hours," Maiko reminded him as she jumped down from the window ledge, footstep light and lithe as she made her way to the bookshelf in the corner.

Kakashi thought that maybe she was making a point with how promptly she ignored the shoes by the window and the socks scattered on the floor and instead, continued to walk with bare feet. The red marking around her left ankle moved with each of her steps, like the string of bells that dancers wore around their feet.

It was doing things to him - much like a lot of things Maiko did, consciously, or unconsciously. So, he forced his eyes to move up to find something else - anything - until they landed on the book she was putting back.

The 18+ symbol on the cover was staring back at Kakashi. Perhaps this is karma.

"You said I can touch anything in the apartment," Maiko said when she noticed the pain in his eyes. Yes, that's not the issue; the question is why … that in particular. "I just want to see what it's about since you like it so much."

"And?" Kakashi gave up. Might as well. "What do you think?"

"Well, I'm only halfway through the first book and …" Maiko paused a little as she pondered over her response. It was the 'how do I make it sound less judgemental' look. "I won't comment on the overall plot because I haven't finished it, but there are a lot, and I mean a lot of scenes that just happen without any build-up."

To make her point, she even pulled Icha Icha Paradise out again and flipped to what Kakashi believed to be chapter two. "Like here, the main character thwarts an assassination attempt from this kunoichi, and then the next second, they just start going at it in the forest for an entire chapter. Why? What's the thought process? And what's the purpose? The main character let the kunoichi go and it's like this encounter is just forgotten. Does she appear ever again, even as a mention?"

"... No, she doesn't," Kakashi replied, but not without making an attempt. "It's about the transience of human interaction." There were just a lot of those transient interactions.

Maiko looked skeptical and suddenly Kakashi felt defensive. "It's the first book and arguably not the best of Jiraiya's works. But the plot does get better and more intertwined in the second book - the blue one - and I would say peak at Tactics, the fourth one, which also contains some of the best—Okay, why are we discussing it so early in the morning?"

"You're the one that asked." Maiko laughed as she slipped the book back to where it was with a push of her fingers, probably finding this whole conversation and Kakashi's defensiveness a way better entertainment than the book itself. "The plot is building up to something, so I'll finish it the next time I stay over."

Stay over. Kakashi thought about those words, how it was a synonym of staying the night - a definitive, discontinuous clause. It wasn't like this apartment was made for anything more. The bed was just enough to fit two people; the closet only for one. There wasn't even enough space to put another nightstand on the other side.

In fact, the bookshelf was probably the only indication that the owner of this place had personalities and preferences. If that was removed, this place could blend in with an Anbu dormitory used for temporary residences, void of individual characteristics, designed to be anonymous.

Oh, there's also … "I think it's best if we—"

"Senpai! Are you awake yet—" Tenzō's face dropped down from above just as Maiko walked by the window. There was a second of staring involved as Tenzō glanced from Maiko, to Kakashi, to the wrinkled sheets on the bed, and then back to Kakashi.

Tenzō let his jaw fall as well as his balance.

"... close the window." Kakashi finished his sentence just as a loud crash came from below, mixed in with a few painful grunts. Maiko had to take a deep breath, before she leaned over the ledge, probably to check if Tenzō was still alive and in one piece.

"I'm so sorry! I didn't mean to—no, I mean, I don't mean anything." Another groan of pain along with branches being snapped. Maiko even drew a hiss, telling Kakashi that it looked like it hurt.

"Five minutes, Tenzō, then you can come in. Through the door, not the window," Maiko yelled out before she took a step back, closed the window, and pulled the curtain, all in one swift motion.

Kakashi named Tenzō as the leader of his Hokage guards, meaning that whatever reason he had for showing up outside of Kakashi's window was related to today's inauguration.

But you know what, Kakashi was thinking about a change of staff. The idea of wasting talented shinobi on Hokage Guards sounded stupid anyway.

"Should I feel lucky that we're actually dressed?" Maiko asked, hurrying up to pick up the rest of her clothing articles, starting from the socks that she ignored earlier.

"My bad. I told him that he can just drop by the window to get me if it's opened." Kakashi said, handing her the jacket that was flung to the end of the bed.

"It's been over a year and you think to tell me now?" Maiko sounded pissed off as she snatched the jacket from Kakashi's hand. As expected, a touch of red was already spreading at the rim of her ears.

As much as Kakashi found the reaction cute, he did agree that it would be mortifying if Tenzō did stumble upon some other snapshots of when Maiko was in his place. He always remembered to close the window - the privacy seals couldn't be activated otherwise - but as today had shown, accidents were always around the corner.

"I'm sorry," Kakashi said, grabbing Maiko's hand and pulling her closer as he sat on the edge of the bed. Maiko gave him another glare but nevertheless didn't resist when he pulled her down to sit on his lap. "It won't happen again, I promise."

"It better not, or I'm not coming over any …" Maiko lost the train of words when Kakashi planted a kiss on her ear. He could feel a shiver from his lover as well as a shaky breath on his neck. Maiko was sensitive there, just something that Kakashi learned over the months that they were together, along with practices in how to placate her anger.

"... I told Tenzō five minutes," Maiko whispered when Kakashi brushed his fingers against her ear, making her turn her head a little. "And you should get ready for your inauguration."

"He won't even touch the damn door until one of us opens it," Kakashi told her, tilting her head back for another kiss on the lips. The planning of the inauguration was done yesterday; there was a protocol for everything that might or might not happen, with every step written in minute marks.

On the day of the inauguration, the schedule was light and sparse to allow everything to be done right. It was something else that was supposed to be heavy.

"You should let him do his job, and I need to do mine," Maiko said between breaths, her anger towards Kakashi - and Tenzō - already dissipating. Still, despite what she said, she pressed her body against Kakashi's and closed the tiny distance between their mouths.

It was the last kiss of indulgence, before Maiko pulled apart, raising herself to stand up from Kakashi's lap as her fingers dragged across his hair in a lingering touch.

"I won't be able to stand with the rest of the village during your inauguration; you won't be able to see me," Maiko said, picking up the last thing that she had unravelled here last night - the storage seal that was placed in the drawer.

Just as Tenzō was given the job to protect the new Hokage, Maiko, as the Anbu Commander under Kakashi's government, was given the job to oversee the village's security during the inauguration, behind the mask, in the shadows.

"But my eyes will always follow you," Maiko said, a gentle smile sketching the outline of her eyes, flowing out from the corners, painting a sight that would surely imprint in Kakashi's memory as a picture full of radiance.

"I think you'll be a great Hokage, Kakashi." Nothing seemed to change from four years ago when he heard the same words, from the same person. Yet, much was different.

Maiko took a step towards the living room, but with a moment of contemplation, she turned around and headed for the window instead. "If Tenzō is coming through the door, then I'm definitely going out the window." With a spark of lightning, all that was left was the curtain swaying in the breeze.

"Am I going to get fired?" When Kakashi took pity on Tenzō and opened the door, that was the first thing his kouhai said, looking like he had returned from a mission gone wrong with all those cuts and splinters,

"The more you remind me, the more I'm considering it," Kakashi replied and Tenzō didn't need another cue to shut the memory in a deep, untouched corner of his mind.

"The schedule for today's ceremonies and meetings." Tenzō handed him a scroll. Kakashi took a look just for confirmation, but the content was already inked in his brain when he finalized it yesterday. "Also, bad news. It doesn't look like the Head Seamstress can finish the Hokage Haori on time."

Perfect, here comes the first thing that goes wrong. His admiration for the Head Seamstress's dedication was immense, but so was his stress just from watching her thread the needle. It was a good thing that Kakashi saw it coming. As he said, there was a protocol for everything.

"But we have a contingency plan, so here's the substitute." Kakashi took the folded haori from Tenzō and let it fall open in his hands. A piece of fabric with the Kanji 'Six' was patched over the original number sewn on the white jacket. Kakashi ran his hand over the mismatched fabric, feeling the difference in age, the white seam that secured the borders, and finally, the original character underneath that was stitched with red threads.

It should say 'Four'. This was one of the spare haori that used to belong to Minato-sensei. One without the flame pattern at the hems; one that was plain enough for Kakashi to deal with.

"The style will suit you, Senpai. It's also easy to wear over the shinobi attire that you're familiar with," Tenzō commented when he noticed the moment of distraction and probably thought that he was second guessing.

"That's good to hear," Kakashi replied as refolded the Haori into its neat little square. If it were just him, he would have probably let the Seamstress throw him into the dreary-looking robe - the traditional attire, the woman had stressed - and be done with it.

But Maiko took one look at him as she sat on the desk in his office, before commenting, "You're going to look like a cocoon."

"A cocoon at the end of its lifespan," Pakkun added from her lap. Kakashi narrowed his eyes at his canine companion, who was supposed to make his way out after he retrieved the message from the outpost.

For a moment, the Seamstress looked scandalized, whether that was because blasphemous words were spoken against the traditional attire, or because Maiko was sitting on his desk way too comfortably for it to be an infrequent occurrence, Kakashi decided not to dwell on it.

Looking back, passing over the robe was probably the right decision, given how much easier it would be to move in a haori. So no, it wasn't the style of what he was going to wear that he was second guessing.

There were still two hours until the public inauguration, but before that, Kakashi had many objectives to deal with at the Hokage Tower, from sending out timely replies to congratulatory messages arriving from all the shinobi villages to making sure that the reception for the Fire Daimyō's delegate was moving as planned.

However, before he left his apartment, he did remember to ask Tenzō, "About the matter that I asked you to check on …"

"Of course, Senpai. Everything should be working fine." It was nice of Tenzō to even pull up a mission report with pictures and detailed notes when Kakashi only meant to ask for a favour.

"It's nice," Tenzō said when he saw Kakashi's eyes stuck on the picture printed on the first page. I sure hope so. Kakashi thought as he looked up from the page and closed the report, giving Tenzō a well-deserved 'thank you'.

Then, he stepped out of the door and sped towards the Hokage Tower that was shining under the splash of sunlight.

(づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ fuwa~fuwa~desu~~~

"Nervous?" The kunai in Kakashi's hand paused in its intricate motion when he turned left to see the source of that question.

Tsunade-sama raised an eyebrow at the way he leaned against the wall, the Hokage Haori still draped in his arm instead of on him. "You're not getting cold feet, are you?"

"No, Tsunade-sama," Kakashi replied as he twirled the blade out of plain sight. Nervousness was a rare emotion for Kakashi after his teenage years. To be nervous, there needed to be anxiety about what was to come, panic for the unknown, and the bodily response that would halt what should be in motion.

But Kakashi trained himself to kill the enemy before agitation could mess up his brain, to fight for the way out before the panic numbed his body. He was used to getting stuck in unsightly situations where anxiety would do very little other than make him die faster.

Of course, he still feared, questioned, and lingered in the uncertainty. He just never let them interfere with what his body was already doing, with what needed to be done.

"Besides, It's a little late for that." Kakashi shifted the last bit of weight he had on the wall back to his feet. The crowd was already gathered to a spectacular size, overloading his senses with all those scents buzzing in excitement, curiosity, and impatience, making him want to tug his mask a little higher even if it would be a vain effort.

"Oh, it's never too late to run from responsibilities." Tsunade let out a snort as she said that. Kakashi wondered if that was the appropriate kind of wisdom to be given to her successor at the moment of the succession. "But you better have your shit together. I've waited long enough."

Kakashi let out a small laugh at that, nodding his head along to signal his agreement and confirmation of all of her words.

"In fact, I would have dumped this hat on you months ago if you didn't find yourself a little girlfriend." Tsunade-sama gave him a look, and the 'No need to thank me for all the sacrifices I made for your love life' was all spoken in silence.

"We appreciate that, Tsunade-sama." Kakashi gave the only acceptable answer. Although, Tsunade-sama had been shifting her duties onto Kakashi starting a few months back, or perhaps even before that. He had always suspected that there were certain things that weren't supposed to be a Jonin Commander's job but were made to be because Tsunade said so.

Thankfully, things were not as hectic as they were right after the war, where there seemed to be a million things all crashing down at once. Nevertheless, a week before the inauguration, Kakashi was basically doing all the things that the Hokage was supposed to do, which he guessed did make the transition a little less daunting.

"When shall we expect your return, Tsunade-sama?" Kakashi asked and his predecessor waved her hand in nonchalance.

"When I want to return, of course," Tsunade replied, the Hokage hat growing restless in her hand as if she couldn't wait to throw this thing on someone's head and be done with it. Kakashi was sure that she already had her bags packed, with cases of sake in the storage seals.

But this time, she would for sure return.

While Tsunade delegated her duties to Kakashi, she wasn't just waiting for her retirement. She was pushing for something else - restarting the research of Hashirama cells for regenerative healings.

Allocating the funding, establishing the ethics guidelines and the supervisory board, recruiting the staff, and putting forward the research proposals … Tsunade-sama worked through each one of the hurdles with care and diligence before she passed on her seat to Kakashi.

"I'll make sure the research facility is ready to run at your return, then." Kakashi didn't have much to do at this point other than to supervise the facility's completion and test the operational workflow. Tsunade didn't have to be there for that, but she wouldn't miss the chance to nurture it through its infancy as its director.

"That better be the case, Kakashi," Tsunade said with a warning in her tone. You'd be an inept fool to mess up at this stage, She was telling him, so if you do, I'll crack your worthless skull open.

"My grandfather left this part of him behind for a reason, something of his jutsu that's not used to tear enemies apart, but to mend the wounds of war." There was a pause as she surveyed Konoha. The lush, ancient forest that used to decorate the village like a crown was long gone, but what replaced them were newly planted saplings, raising their slender bodies to meet the sky. "I'm not one for sentiments, but this is my sapling."

"Kakashi, it's three minutes until the inauguration," Asuma called out from a few metres away. For once, his messy hair was combed and his beard was trimmed with neatness, aiming to look presentable as the newly appointed Jonin Commander.

Only until Shikamaru was more experienced, he insisted, telling Kakashi, 'Let's not strap down a boy to the office chair before he even becomes a man, am I right?' when he accepted the position.

"Or should I be calling you Hokage-sama already, so you can get the feel for it first," Asuma joked, making Kakashi shake his head as he unfolded the haori hanging from his arm.

"Please don't, or I might have to resort to calling you Commander Sarutobi." Kakashi saw a shiver going down Asuma's body as he cringed at the sheer formality in the title. Good, someone felt his pain. "Yeah, let's not hurt each other."

Kakashi swung the haori around him, letting the white fabrics fall around his Konoha Jonin attire. He pulled his arms out of the sleeves, tugging the collars close and tying them together with strings. His thumbs rubbed the hems - it was thicker than he thought - before straightening the fabrics, making sure that 'Rokudaime Hokage' flattened over his back without a wrinkle.

"Uncomfortable, isn't it? The appearances, the presentation, the show," Tsunade-sama remarked as she dusted her clothes, noting how the crowd's restlessness had settled in silent anticipation as the moment approached. "But to be a Kage, it's not enough for you to see the people; they have to be able to see you."

She didn't have to spell it out for Kakashi, not when he had days, weeks, and even months to let the fact that he would be under the gaze of thousands, even tens of thousands sink in. Those gazes placed on him would judge him, remind him of his responsibilities, and tell him of their expectations - some of which he would undoubtedly disappoint.

But Kakashi supposed that it was fine, for he was never more certain of the balance that he needed to reach between what he had to be, what he should be, and what he wanted to be. If he ever forgot that, there was always someone that would keep an eye on him.

Literally, Kakashi mused, with eyes that wouldn't tolerate any bullshit - least of all his - by raining down warnings made of divine flames.

So, Kakashi rolled his shoulders back for the haori to sit more naturally. It was kind of bewildering how easily Minato-sensei's old haori fit him, to think that he had grown from a thirteen-year-old to someone with shoulders wide enough to fit the gap.

Tsunade-sams walked past him, holding the Hokage hat in hand. She knew of the unfinished state of his own haori and the fact that they had to borrow one from Yondaime. Still, she let out a laugh when she saw the way Kakashi straightened his spine and tilted his head up a little, to let sunlight seep into his vision, no matter how searing and bright it felt.

"Indeed, it's the shinobi that wears the cape, not the cape that wears the shinobi," she commented before heading towards the edge of the platform, where they would address the citizens of Konoha. Perhaps it should have been a piece of advice, but she made it sound more like an acknowledgement.

After all, if Kakashi hadn't figured that part out, he didn't think he would have the guts to put on Minato-sensei's haori.

"Citizens of Konoha, we now begin the inauguration ceremony for the Rokudaime Hokage. It is my honour as the Godaime Hokage to introduce the person - a distinguished shinobi - that would become your next Hokage."

Kakashi stepped forward just as Tsunade-sama moved to the side, leaving the spot at the front and centre open for everyone to see. Just one more step and his hair, his face, his scarred eye, and his black mask would all be seen in the spotlight. In exchange, he would finally catch a glance at everyone that gathered.

"I hereby announce the Rokudaime Hokage, Hatake Kakashi."

He took that step forward.

(づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ fuwa~fuwa~desu~~~

"Hokage-sama!" "Rokudaime-sama!"

Kakashi nodded his head at yet the person who acknowledged him, returning their greetings with a smile. It had only been three hours since the inauguration and ten minutes after he was released from the meeting with the Daimyō's delegate, yet, he had already encountered more of those quick exchanges on the streets of Konoha than he could count.

But that would seem to stop for a while, as he stepped into the cemetery where the giant memorial stones were erected in the distance. It was a day where the celebratory mood loomed upon Konoha, meaning that very few would be paying visits to the cemetery.

"Hope you don't get tired of my visit, Rin," Kakashi muttered, placing a lily at the Konoha symbol carved next to Rin's name. His last monthly visit was only a few days ago, but after that dream this morning, he decided to take this spontaneous trip.

As he said, the schedule for today was light - except that a few piles of paperwork and reports were already growing in the Hokage's office - so he had some time to take a detour. Still, it was questionable what kind of image he would be producing by sulking in the graveyard on the day of his inauguration.

Oh well, it wasn't like he was going to turn into a ball of sunshine by putting on an expensive haori. Actually, give him a decade and it still wouldn't make a difference.

"Sometimes, I think it's a little too ironic how things turned out," Kakashi said. It wasn't just to Rin, but to Obito too, for his grave would forever stay with Kakashi. "It would make a horrible plot for a book, and even worse in reality."

"I won't say that I'm doing this for the Obito that we both knew, that I'm becoming the Hokage to continue Obito's dream," Kakashi continued. "I can't. God knows what kind of Hokage he would become, being so unreliable like that. There's no way I'll figure out what he wants."

The thirteen-year-old Obito would probably want to punch him after hearing those words, saying that he'd be an amazing Hokage and they'd better carve both his goggles and sharingan on the Hokage Rock to commemorate that. But the thirteen-year-old Rin would catch Obito's arm, soothing his temper with a chuckle full of fondness.

"So, Rin, Obito, you're just going to have to watch with me, how I do as the Hokage." Kakashi's eyes would always be their eyes and he would keep them open for as long as he could.

Kakashi picked up his foot and started walking again. He turned the corner and moved to the main path. The giant statue of fire stared back at him, casting a shadow that loomed over him as well as the headstones laid around it, commemorating the previous Hokage that had passed.

Unlike the rest of the cemetery, there were no bodies buried here. Nidaime ordered Tsunade to burn the bodies of the deceased Hokage if they weren't destroyed already, a decision solidified by his experience of going through Edo Tensei twice.

Kakashi's own body would be burned as well upon his demise and he had no complaint against that. Tsunade-sama too. She even pulled Maiko over, making her promise to burn her remains with Amaterasu.

Maiko remained a little skeptical, for her previous Hokage was very drunk with sake. But she did muse that it was funny how the Senju Hokage decreed themselves a fate that was awfully similar to the Uchiha Tradition.

"Hokage-sama?" Kakashi let out a small laugh when he heard that. Unlike all those greetings he had received before, this one had none of the respect and all the intention to tease.

"Not you too," Kakashi said, turning to see Maiko standing a few metres behind. While Kakashi had already taken off his Hokage attire, she was still in the formal haori with the Uchiha insignia sewn on the chest, a mark of her attendance in the meeting with the Daimyō's delegate.

It was an event for the Fire Daimyō's representative to meet the new Hokage and their government, including the commanding ranks, the Clan Heads, and the representatives from the clanless shinobi. It was basically for Kakashi to show the Fire Daimyō that even with a change in leadership, Konoha remained strong and solidified and would continue to live up to its reputation as Fire Country's military stronghold.

"Did you come to find the Hokage?" Kakashi asked. Seeing her again like this, not long after she left this morning as an Anbu, reminded Kakashi of the fact that they each held so many roles, and it wasn't as easy as switching on a jacket to discard one in favour of another.

"If you want to be Hokage right now, then I suppose that I do have some Anbu documents I need you to sign. Oh, Itachi also brought back reports about Konan, which the Hokage might find interesting. But I'm sure they're all piled up in your new office if you want to get to those." Maiko laughed when she saw how unimpressed Kakashi looked. If he wanted to get to the paperwork that seemed to multiply by the hour, he wouldn't be hiding here.

"But I see that you don't, so I guess not?" There was a certain delicateness in her inquiry as if she felt how Kakashi's mood sizzled like electricity, and she was willing to do anything he wanted to placate that unstable current.

But they learned as early as their days in Anbu, that they couldn't separate the different aspects of themselves, not when they were meant to coexist. So, Kakashi shook his head, telling her, "I shouldn't be running away from that title three hours after accepting it. I guess I'll just be a Hokage that's escaping his duty to find comfort from the dead."

"Please, I have the Mangekyou Sharingan. There's not a single day that I don't find comfort from the dead and I doubt that I'm the only one," Maiko said with a snort as if saying he'd had to step up his game to have the right to feel ashamed. "Besides, Tsunade-sama hides sake in her office drawer, with seals. I'd say the bar is pretty low already, at least in the paperwork front."

This was a shinobi village, making all of them, Hokage or not, shinobi first and foremost.

Kakashi extended his hand and just a second later, he felt Maiko's fingers intertwined with his. Refocusing his attention on where he was planning to go, they walked towards the symbolic headstone erected for the Yondaime Hokage.

"I'm not sure what I should say," Kakashi admitted to Maiko. He never dreamed of becoming the Hokage like Minato-sensei; in fact, he spent quite a few years of his life wanting to be nothing more than a tool - a blade for Konoha; a soldier for Minato-sensei.

Kakashi was sure that he made Minato-sensei worry as well as made him feel like he was a terrible teacher. After all, Minato-sensei just wanted him to be a little freer, but it was Kakashi who kept on chaining himself.

Even now, he was trying to take on the mantle that he didn't feel all that comfortable in - and probably never would. He had no doubt that Minato-sensei would be proud of him; he made plenty clear of that during the Edo Tensei. But he also wondered, in Minato-sensei's eyes, was he still chaining himself up?

"How about … the things you want to do as the Hokage?" Maiko suggested, her thumb rubbing against his knuckle in a small circle. "Let us hear what will happen under the reign of the Rokudaime Hokage."

That, Kakashi had the answers for.

"I'm trying to adjust the Academy curriculum, so our genin-to-be learns a little more about chakra control and bukijutsu before they graduate, especially those from civilian backgrounds," Kakashi said, remembering how he pushed for that proposal a few months ago and was immediately met with rebuttals from some clans who deemed it an unnecessary and inefficient use of resources.

The shinobi clans always had their own education going on, some even thought of the Academy as merely a formality. But for the students from a civilian background, the little education they got at the Academy was all they were going to learn before the village handed them a hitai-ate and sent them on missions.

"Naruto's generation is quite something. Konoha has young shinobi that are powerful enough to maintain the village's safety and reputation for some time." Kakashi cast a glance at Maiko, who was listening attentively even if she had heard everything from him before. "Right now, we can afford to take our time and raise our genin with more care."

There was another hearing to discuss the proposal - now fully his responsibility without Tsunade-sama's backing - in three weeks. Kakashi couldn't wait to hear what kinds of protests would appear this time. Really, how exciting.

"Tsunade-sama is opening a research facility dedicated to studying the regenerative properties of Hashirama cells. I know Konoha doesn't have the best track record with Shodaime's cells, but this time, we're determined to do it right. Tsunade-sama really believed - and as do I - that the Hashirama cells have so much potential for good, like emergency healing, prosthetics, and … treating sharingan-induced blindness …"

"The negotiation with Kumo and Iwa regarding the treatment of Tailed-Beasts has been ongoing. The tale of how Kirigakure maintained their relationship with Isobu is spreading throughout the villages and let's be honest, every village has had plenty of examples of how the old Jinchuuriki system is problematic and troublesome. Naruto somehow made friends with Isobu, if I can convince Kumo and Iwa to let him meet with their Tailed-Beasts after they reincarnate, then maybe we'll have an ambassador at hand …"

"I'm opening an orphanage - a real one, not a nest of potential spies where something like Root can just pick and choose the talented ones and wipe them off the records …"

"In the normal shinobi force too, it's harder for those without a clan or family ninjutsu to access accurate knowledge and training resources. I know that being a shinobi is mostly an individual effort, but being a shinobi village is not. I'm not sure how yet, but there might be some improvement that we can make …"

It had only been a few minutes, but Kakashi's mouth already felt dry. He could go on - he was sure that even more things would come up during his leadership - but he thought that this was plenty already. If Minato-sensei could indeed hear anything from the afterworld, then Kakashi was sure that he would relate to his headaches too.

"I won't be the only person that can make these changes, nor is it likely that I'm the best person for the job." Kakashi was far from a charismatic person like his sensei, and he wasn't going to win over the leader of another village with genuineness like Naruto had done with Gaara. No, Mei already saw him as a sly tactician and the feeling was mutual.

"But I want to see these changes happen, just as much and maybe even more than the others," Kakashi said, a smile appeared on his face, made visible by the curves formed by his eyes. He didn't know to what extent he could be 'free' and if he would ever make Minato-sensei stop worrying about him.

But at least when he thought about the things he wanted to do as the Hokage, even if not all of them would work out - hell, not all of them were great ideas, he was only human, after all - he could say that he was not disappointing himself.

Kakashi let out a breath, squeezing his hand, telling Maiko that he was ready to re-immerse himself with those Anbu documents he needed to sign and reports he needed to read - the Hokage would be interested in the intel of an ex-Akatsuki member, even if Konan had been deemed low threat.

He felt Maiko's response a moment later, squeezing his hand back before she pulled out a notebook from the inner pocket of her haori and pushed it in his direction.

"What's this?" Kakashi asked, flipping it open with one hand.

"Cheat sheets," Maiko answered, confusing Kakashi even more. Letting out a laugh, she clarified just as Kakashi made sense of the contents on the page, "cheat sheets for ninjutsu."

It was indeed cheat sheets for ninjutsu, marking out the chakra flow that should arise from the hand seals and tips on how to improve on the jutsu.

"The hand seals are supposed to guide the flow of chakra in certain ways for the final ninjutsu to form, but they're not always precise. The Sharingan, however, can see the flow path that corresponds to the hand seals, making it easy for us to copy ninjutsu," Maiko explained, leaning over to point at the section on Fire Release: Great Fireball. "It's not exactly the same, but this is the view under the sharingan in diagramed form; this is a more detailed instruction manual on how to make a ninjutsu work."

"You made these?" Kakashi asked, flipping through the pages, finding himself being awestruck at the variety of Nature Releases recorded in detail.

"Not just me, Itachi and Sasuke too," Maiko said, her voice lit up with a hint of enthusiasm as she helped Kakashi turn the pages. "It's mostly C-rank and below ninjutsu; the flow gets more complicated for more difficult ninjutsu. We recorded a lot of Fire Releases, obviously, but Itachi added a few on Water Releases, while Sasuke and I worked on the Lightning. Ryuu doesn't have the sharingan, but he performed the Wind Releases for us. Sadly, there's no Earth Release here because all of us sucked at it."

Kakashi followed where her fingers were pointing as she flipped through the pages, letting her voice guide his thoughts. The notebook itself wasn't thick, but he imagined that every page required not only the mastery of that ninjutsu but also much repetition to delineate and verify the chakra flow. It certainly wasn't for the sake of those that wrote the book.

"You know Shun, he's not exactly a clanless shinobi, but the Yamanaka really only cares about the Mind-Body Techniques. He told me that if this were available back when he was trying to learn water ninjutsu, he'd pay a month of rent for it. For him, that's already costing a limb." Maiko paused a little as she shifted her attention from the ink strokes to Kakashi.

"It's not a lot and it certainly won't work miracles, but I think this beats the old catalogue of ninjutsu stored at Konoha Library in terms of learning materials. I swear the only things that scroll gives you are the name of ninjutsu and the mold. Some of the jutsu cataloged don't even have complete hand seals."

Maiko was waiting for his response, but Kakashi had to take a moment to process the implication of her words - specifically, why and for whom the notebook was made.

Being a shinobi was mostly an individual effort. Talent, hard work, mentorship, and luck, all of those contribute to a shinobi's growth. To be able to learn certain ninjutsu, affinity and aptitude were both important, but with this, the barrier to accessing instruction became lower.

"This small book can be considered treasured heirlooms for some shinobi clans," Kakashi said, closing the notebook after giving the content one last glance. "There are also a lot of the Uchiha Fire Releases in here, are you sure it's okay to provide this for the public?"

However, Maiko just shook her head. "The Uchiha is known for our Fire Releases not because we can do it, but because we can do it really well. You're going to need a lot more than a book to achieve that."

There was a pause as Maiko slipped her left hand out of his and walked to stand in front of him. "But you're right, this material is provided by us Uchiha, so make no mistake, this is not an act to make amends. The Uchiha Clan doesn't owe Konoha anything and I'm already being generous in phrasing it that way."

There was a seriousness in her gaze that Kakashi couldn't disrespect. They were lovers, but Maiko was also the Uchiha Clan Head and he was the Hokage. Identities coexisted within them, so to make their relationship work, they always needed to find a balance.

So, Kakashi nodded, making a promise as the Hokage, the representative of Konoha.

It was then that Maiko's gaze softened. She pushed Kakashi's outstretched wrist along with the book in his hand towards his chest. "It's a gift. We did it because we believe in what you want to do. This Konoha, it's our home too."

"This is just the starting point. We don't mind recording the chakra flow of other ninjutsu using our Sharingan," Maiko added a moment later, her eyes flashed red as she continued, "For example, if you can just do an Earth Release, slowly and with proper hand seals please, then I should be able to diagram the flow with some repetition."

"We should do that," Kakashi answered without a pause, placing the notebook in his storage seal for safe keeping. He let his hand linger on the seal a little longer, just enough for him to make a decision. He reached out with his hand, brushing a lock of hair that escaped Maiko's braids back behind her ear.

"It's good that you're here. I have something to show you," Kakashi told her. Maiko raised an eyebrow, obviously trying to remind him that he was here on an escape, meaning that there were responsibilities waiting for him in his office. But the paperwork already waited this long, it could wait a bit longer.

Still, she followed him as they left the cemetery. Kakashi ditched the streets this time, opting to flicker across the roofs. He could hear the sound of Maiko's haori flutter in the wind as they raced, even louder than the sound of their footsteps hitting the tiles.

The traffic was much better one story higher. It wasn't long before they arrived at the destination in Kakashi's mind.

"It's …" Maiko was at a loss for words as she took in the full view of the house standing in front of them. Kakashi followed her gaze, seeing that it landed on the wooden plaque hanging below the mailbox.

"It's my family's house. The one that I lived in with my father when I was little," Kakashi explained as he walked up the porch. His fingers brushed against the carvings on the plaque that spelled out 'Hatake' before he pushed the door for the mailbox close. Pressing his hand on the storage seal, he fished out two sets of keys and unlocked the door.

"After Minato-sensei died, I rented this place out and moved to the dormitory apartment." Kakashi remembered those days when he said 'I'm leaving' and 'I'm home' towards the empty house. Eventually, he had to get out of here, when the silence not only reminded him of his dead father, but also the fact that everyone that he ever cared about was also six-feet under.

"Of course, the house also got reduced to ashes during the war. The civilian family that rented this place decided to move to a different village afterwards. Since there's no one living here, I didn't bother to get it rebuilt until recently." Kakashi stepped into the genkan, holding the door for Maiko to get in, who was still a little confused but went along with him anyway.

"I'm moving out of my apartment; it was always just an escape for me, anywhere will do, even if I don't know where I can escape to," Kakashi said, feeling the metal edges of the keys being imprinted in his palm. He was planning to wait a few more days, when he had more stuff in the house, other than the bare bone utilities.

But Tenzō checked for him that all the appliances were working, and at least it looked clean and presentable from the mission report. Kakashi didn't think he could wait any longer, so he took a deep breath and took Maiko's hand. He said while dropping a set of keys into her palm, "Move in with me."

The silence that followed made Kakashi think that he was doing this wrong. It was kind of out of the blue and did he just phrase it like a statement instead of a question? Also, he had seen the Uchiha Compound, whoever ordered the interior design had impeccable taste and Kakashi definitely did not.

But then, Kakashi felt a hand brushing the back of his neck just before Maiko pulled in for a hug. "Sure, I would want that." Kakashi heard the voice that vibrated next to his ear, calming down his mind but simultaneously making his heart beat faster.

Maiko raised her head from Kakashi's shoulder, one of her hands still latched around his neck. She flicked the keys with a light jiggle and Kakashi thought that sparks were being reflected in her eyes.

"It's good that you have a place after moving out of your apartment because I'm not sleeping with you in the Hokage Residence," Maiko said with a light-hearted laugh.

There was a suite in the Hokage Tower that served as the Hokage's living quarters. Kakashi remembered the angular furniture, the serious-looking office desk - as if the one in the Hokage's office wasn't traumatizing enough - and the portraits of the previous Hokage that were hung just outside the bedroom. Ahh, right.

"Yeah, I'm not sleeping with you when it feels like Nidaime is watching - and judging - right outside," Maiko said, noticing the look of enlightenment on Kakashi's face. "I'm pretty sure having an Uchiha on the Hokage's bed - achievable in more than one way - is going to make him roll in his metaphorical grave."

Kakashi really shouldn't, but he said it anyway. "I don't think anything is going to disturb Nidaime's grave more than what Edo Tensei already did - twice, to be specific."

Maiko looked like she was considering the validity of his words - and probably something else. Kakashi couldn't help but let out a small chuckle. He pulled down his mask and pressed a kiss on her temple, before tugging her along, saying, "Let me show you around."

The living room was quite empty, but Kakashi was going to move his lonely couch and singular chair here, so that was at least something. The kitchen was newly furnished, he even remembered to buy a new set of tableware and utensils. The bedroom was much more spacious than the one in his bachelor apartment, definitely enough space to put in a bigger closet and two nightstands.

Then, there was the small room at the end of the hallway.

"I'm home," Kakashi muttered, just a thought that slipped out consciously when he entered the room with his father's memorial tablet placed on the counter. He sounded like a wayward son and in a way, he was.

He turned a little, seeing Maiko standing by the door, unsure of what to do. So, Kakashi gave her a smile meant to reassure, before he turned back to the memorial tablet and said, "Dad, I brought my girlfriend. You would have liked her." Because I really do.

Maiko bowed her head to pay her respect. She asked Kakashi in a light voice, "How should I address your father?"

If Kakashi was being nice, he would tell her that just the last name was fine. It wasn't like Kakashi would ever get it mixed up, seeing that Maiko never bothered to address him by his last name, not after Kakashi pissed her off so many times as her Anbu Captain.

But Kakashi was never that nice, so he replied, "What do you think?" Shinobi learned to read beneath the lines, and Kakashi made it sound like the answer was already spoken, knowing that Maiko was trained to pick up what was implied.

"It's nice to meet you," Maiko voiced towards the memorial altar, pausing a little to get over her embarrassment, "Dad."

You know what, Kakashi walked into that one himself. He didn't think that the paperwork in the Hokage's office could get any less attractive, but apparently, it just did.

Maiko caught on to his trick after he closed the door. Of course, she jabbed her knuckle right below Kakashi's ribcage - and she was not playing around - before flickering to the direction of the backyard without sparing him a glance.

Ouch. Kakashi knew that it was going to bruise, but in the grand scheme of things, it was worth it. Still, when he caught up with Maiko, he found her already standing in the small clearing behind the house.

"You have a really big backyard," Maiko commented as Kakashi joined her on the grass.

"I grew up with a pack of ninken, this is already considered crowded," Kakashi said, kneeling down a little to feel the softness of the new grass. He pointed towards the fence and said, "I used to set up target practices over there and my pack would help me retrieve the ones that missed."

Maiko smiled when she heard that as if she could imagine the young Kakashi flinging his shuriken into the neighbour's yard. Her eyes travelled around her, from the grass, to the fence, to the house, and eventually back to Kakashi.

"You know, Naruto got you fireworks," she said all of a sudden. "Well, he tried to. Sasuke told me that he enlisted the help of academy students - including Sandaime's grandson if I'm not mistaken - to put up some homemade fireworks of questionable quality."

"I hope nothing exploded." Kakashi rubbed his temple. Surely, there was no explosion involving children that occurred during their three-hour-long meeting with the Daimyō's delegate. Otherwise, he would have gotten a report about it … unless it was already sitting on his desk.

"Thankfully, no. Iruka-san put a stop to it," Maiko said with a light laugh. "But I think there's some soundness to Naruto's idea."

"It won't be anything grand, so don't hold your breath." Maiko cupped her hands together and Kakashi could feel the chakra flaring in her body. "But this is for becoming the Hokage and I guess, now also for moving."

Clusters of ruby-red flame partitioned in her palms, shaping themselves into crystals of stars. It was like liquid gems. Kakashi had long learned that fire was Maiko's element. If she wanted to, she could make the flame burn as vividly as her love and as brilliantly as her passion.

With a slight push, she sent the stars into the clear blue sky.

"To think that control used to be your weak point," Kakashi exclaimed when the trajectories of the comets flashed in his vision. Just then, one of the stars exploded too early, setting off a cloud of red a few seconds before the rest.

"And I see that it still is." Kakashi laughed as he swiped his hand above Maiko's head, catching the few sparks that made it down before they could be extinguished. The fire barely made a mark on his black glove, but it would have ruined the pristine haori with the Uchiha insignia.

"Hey, it's not like I'm going to use this shape transformation in battles when it adds no practicality despite the increased effort." Maiko rolled her eyes, but she still grabbed his hand to make sure that only the glove was touched by the sparks. "Besides, who was it again that was tuning the range of Shiden the other day, in the dead of night?"

"And I fixed that in three days." Kakashi just had to say that, making Maiko squeeze his hand until the bones were complaining.

"Okay, I see that you have a lot of time on your temporary break." Maiko really emphasized the word 'temporary', reminding Kakashi yet again that he still had - very very unattractive - documents to sign and reports to read.

But Maiko didn't say it to tell him to go back to work. Instead, she took off her haori and folded it by the veranda, before turning to Kakashi with a glint of challenge in her eyes. "Let's see if the time spent at the desk is making your bones old."

Kakashi wouldn't back down from a spar. It was fine. He would start to care about his paperwork in an hour or so. Maybe. He wasn't sure. He flicked a kunai to Maiko and kept another for himself, signalling that it would be a rule of the first touch.

However, before they started, Kakashi made sure that he said, "It's pretty."

The stars, the fireworks, the person, everything.

(づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ fuwa~fuwa~desu~~~

Side Story: 浪人 (Ronin)

Konan woke up with the sound of drizzling rain in the background.

For a second, her mind went back to the sound of Amegakure. The sound of the rain that covered up Yahiko's footsteps when they were younger, the sound of the rain produced by Nagato's chakra veiling the entire city … She imagined the euphonious sound gracing her ears as droplets hit the ground, before sinking into the earth's embrace.

But it wasn't the sound of Amegakure's rain. Nothing could quite emulate that sound.

Still, Konan noted the similarity and it was enough for her to pause and realize, ah, she had drifted too close to Amegakure. Perhaps a few hours of travelling and Amegakure's jagged buildings would prop up in the skyline.

Konan tried to stay away from Amegakure after the war.

She went back only once, to find the house she used to live in with Yahiko, Nagato, and Jiraiya-sensei. The tap-in tap-out system they had left was buried in overgrown vines, entangling it in a manner that looked as if everyone was home, except for Konan.

So Konan turned her tablet, right before she closed Nagato's empty eyelids and burned his body.

The Shinobi villages would be looking for her after the war. The first place they'd look was Amegakure. At first, Konan wasn't sure what exactly she was going to do - hadn't planned out anything after holding Nagato's funerary service for one. But she figured that moving away from Amegakure would be a sound first step.

She wouldn't want to put her village in trouble with her presence here and perhaps, she wasn't ready to get caught yet and be put into a prison - or maybe execution - for the rest of her life.

Yet, the sound of the rain drew her in and after two years of staying away, Konan started walking towards it.

Letting her shikigami be stained with blood was not part of the plan. A piece of paper returned to her body after she shrugged off the red liquid with the chakra coating. She gave the bandits' lifeless bodies one more look before she turned her head.

The group of travelling merchants hadn't run away yet - Konan supposed that it was because their caravan was still here. That would be troublesome.

"Tenshi—" The teenage girl accidentally breathed out before an older woman - probably her mother - clasped a hand around the girl's mouth to stop her from saying another word.

Konan shouldn't be surprised. There were very few figures that residents of Amegakure considered to be memorable. Hanzō would be one, and Konan would be another.

Her snowy wings, her shikigami, her origami rose. She was meant to represent an image of beauty and hope, to rally the village ravaged by war and poverty under Nagato's reign. She performed miracles using her shikigami, promising heavenly protections, all in exchange for a little faith.

But that bubble had surely been burst by now after Akatsuki's scheme got foiled and she was declared a sinner of the world. She didn't know who was in charge of Amegakure nowadays, but the village hadn't fallen yet, and look, there was enough business to attract bandits.

There was an uncomfortable silence, making Konan wonder if it was a sign telling her that she should turn away before treading deeper. After all, her presence had been made and would no doubt travel to the authority at Amegakure, who then would have no choice but to inform the larger villages that the S-rank missing-nin had returned.

Konan should be on the run again.

"Thank you," the woman said all of a sudden, letting go of her daughter after the girl got the message. "We don't know who you are, but thank you for saving our lives."

For a moment, Konan was impressed by how easily she lied - with a straight face, not even a hitched breath or an uncomfortable shift - but she supposed that being a merchant and an Amegakure citizen during the war-torn years did warrant the cultivation of certain skills.

"Amegakure is in that direction, just an hour away, if you're looking for a stop." The woman raised her hand and pointed to the west, telling Konan something she already knew. Konan had to pause for a moment to consider if it was a trap, designed to lure her into the village.

But she nodded anyway, pulling the cape around her head a little lower. Like a lot of things, she hadn't figured out what to do after reaching Amegakure. If there were indeed armies waiting for her, she would figure out what she wanted to do when she got there.

"Tenshi-sama … " Konan tensed when the older woman said that. After all, it was such a drastic shift in the topic just when Konan got on the program of lying and pretending. "... was someone that used to look over Amegakure."

Ah, she was talking to her, but not really.

"The Major villages called her a wanted fugitive, saying that she was part of an organization that wanted to destroy the world," the woman continued, while her workers moved to get the caravan going, not sparing a glance in their direction.

"Perhaps it's true, but for us, the world has already been destroyed before she came." There was a faint smile on her face, as she finished her speech. "Regardless of how she is seen to the rest of the world, for many in Amegakure, she will be a memory."

"I see," Konan answered. A memory, that was good, she supposed. People had better things to dwell upon than a piece of memory and that was especially true for citizens of Amegakure. 'Tenshi' was a relic of the past, and it somehow made Konan feel more at ease.

The young girl even waved her goodbye as Konan picked up her footsteps and sped towards Amegakure.

The skyscrapers still looked the same as in Konan's memory. Such a contrast, seeing that in the two years she had wandered the continent, she had heard many things that were changing.

Suna had a young Kazekage now - just fourteen when he ascended.

Apparently, the Uchiha Clan had once tried to rebel against Konoha after being pushed to the brink by paranoia and discrimination. That led to the Uchiha Massacre and the making of Uchiha Itachi, the S-rank missing-nin. Whoa, it all makes sense now, Konan thought. She wasn't angry at Itachi anymore, even though she probably should.

Kirigakure left Three-Tail alone after the war. For how long, Konan wondered, but she wasn't sure if she would be around long enough to hear the results.

Oh, and a piece of news that was spreading more recently. Konoha was going to have a new Hokage soon.

The world seemed to be moving at a lightning speed, invigorated by a victory. But Amegakure looked more or less the same, just hitching along for the ride, shifting slowly outside the spotlight, being the silent player in this game of the world.

The sentinels needed work, Konan thought as she walked on the streets of Amegakure. But then again, the rain that fell on her hood didn't have an ounce of chakra in it.

"Konan." Apparently, her own sensory abilities needed work too.

"Itachi," Konan turned, letting the veil of genjutsu flow around them - all three of them - instead of ripping it apart. A few metres away stood Itachi and Jiraiya-sensei, but Konan was sure that to the onlooker, both civilians and shinobi alike, they were seeing something different.

It irked Konan a little to think that Itachi could just waltz in here and spin a little genjutsu as he always did. It was as if they were not in a shinobi village, a potentially hostile territory. But then again, the three of them were composed of two S-rank missing-nin, formerly or not, and a shinobi that could beat S-rank missing-nin.

"Can we talk?" Itachi asked, in his calm, composed voice. His sharingan was spinning slowly, but Konan didn't get an ounce of threat from those fearsome eyes.

"Why not," Konan said with a sigh. She made decisions on a whim now.

"How did you catch up to me?" Konan asked as they sat in a booth tucked away in the back of a tavern, genjutsu still active.

"My network - I supposed it's Itachi's now - is always picking up your trace," Jiraiya-sensei answered. Konan wasn't even surprised. "We noted that you've been moving close to Amegakure recently. Itachi suggested that we make a strip here, saying that you might drop by."

Konan glanced at Itachi, her eyes narrowing in irritation while the younger man took it in grace.

"Just a few more minutes, then I'll be out of here," Konan said, telling them that she never meant to stay, or cause any trouble, or take over the village that was once Akatsuki's base.

"We didn't mean for it to be an interrogation. Although, it's hard not to feel that when Itachi has the sharingan on, I know." Jiraiya-sensei let out a laugh with just a little bitterness underneath. Konan was going to pretend that it was the sake.

"Jiraiya-sama just wants to see you - to see how you're doing, and I as well," Itachi explained despite the skepticism in Konan's eyes.

Why now, Konan questioned with her gaze. Konoha never put a bounty on her head, presumably because of the tiny contribution she made to the battle against Black Zetsu. Suna and Kiri were the same, for Konan never affected their wellbeing directly.

But Kumo and Iwa were a different matter. She was a low priority on Kumo's hunting list after the war, probably because Killer B was never actually killed. But Iwa … Konan had a hand in the death of both of their Jinchuuriki. Iwa wanted her head on a spike.

Perhaps Konoha was planning to make a deal with Iwa and Konan was part of the bargaining chip. Or perhaps Konoha was feeling pity for Konan's miserable lifestyle as she wandered the continents aimlessly and felt like she could be utilized better.

As if seeing through her thoughts, Jiraiya-sensei shook his head all the while letting out an exasperated sigh. "Nothing like that, Konan. You've always been a strong kunoichi, and time was always more helpful for those that could endure."

Konan thought that her old teacher was giving her too much credit. She thought so too, that perhaps time would help her see, to figure out what she wanted to do with a second life traded using Nagato's life. But all it did was make her more tired and confused.

Konan wasn't just a missing-nin who had no village to go back to. She was a ronin, one who had lost the person that was her faith but had shamelessly chosen to continue wandering.

"Do you want your life to end?" Itachi asked, always cutting straight to the point, sharper than the ninja wire he used to behead his target.

"No, definitely not," Konan said, knowing that Itachi had seen the weariness in her bones. "I don't know what I want, but throwing away this life is not one of them."

Konan was tired, confused, and overall, aimless. But there was not a doubt in her that she would continue living. Continue, and maybe she would see something. Continue, and maybe she would find another spark of faith.

Nagato trusted her to do that, and Konan entrusted herself to do it for all of them.

Jiraiya-sensei looked relieved to hear that, the corner of his mouth lifted as he giddily chucked down another cup of sake. He was the only one drinking, but he didn't seem to mind that - maybe even preferred it, with her teacher's addiction to alcohol.

"Kisame is on a ship, or at least, that was what he told me he's going to do." Itachi changed the topic so effortlessly. Even Konan had to admit that it was something she was interested in. The news was welcomed, and perhaps familiarity wasn't all that bad.

"And you didn't have your spy network check on the validity of that?" Konan asked, and as expected, Itachi just shrugged. He definitely did, Konan was sure.

"Orochimaru is … still alive," Itachi said and Konan minced her mouth in disgust at the mention of that traitor - although Kisame and Itachi were also traitors, so what was the point? "I can't tell you a lot about him, mostly because he's been elusive and it's supposed to be sensitive information."

Silence came naturally after that. After all, there were only a few of their co-workers left.

"I'm glad to have seen you, Konan." It was Jiraiya-sensei who broke the silence. "I won't tell you that it will get better with time, that the world is big and it's changing, that there will be something that makes your journey easier. I don't think you want my lecture or my pity."

No, Konan didn't want to hear that, not from Jiraiya-sensei, whom she still felt a complex mixture of emotions. Sometimes, she would feel guilty for breaking her teacher's heart like that. Sometimes, she felt angry, wanting to ask him why he couldn't understand what drove her and Nagato to despair, after already holding on to his ideology for so many years with Yahiko.

But most of the time, she felt vaguely comforting, remembering how Jiraiya-sensei said that they would forever be his student, no matter what they became, no matter if they were determined to kill each other. At this point, she didn't need another lecture from Jiraiya-sensei to affirm that even as a ronin, Konan was still his student.

"Me too, Jiraiya-sensei. I supposed you as well, Itachi." Konan settled for that, finishing the cup of sake that she hadn't touched until now. The fiery liquid melted into her body, a contrast to the constant humidity of Amegakure that seeped into her skin.

Jiraiya-sensei gave her a smile at the way she addressed him, downing another cup as well. Itachi did the same, but it awfully felt like he was just pressured into it by the condemning look on the older man's face, asking, 'how can you waste such beauty?'

They didn't ask what she was going to do. Would she continue wandering, hearing the news that buzzed around in this ever-changing world while staying out of it? Or did something change from this spontaneous meeting? Where would she go? Would she return? None of that.

"I'd like to meet again in the future, not frequently, maybe once in a while, whenever you want," Jiraiya-sensei said as they stepped out of the tavern, still with that genjutsu.

Konan didn't answer for a long time. But eventually, she nodded.

She needed a lot of time, she thought, to figure out what to do with her life. Everything was new, including Konan herself, and nobody could tell her how to deal with it. But perhaps a little connection to the old nostalgia wouldn't be so bad.

Itachi handed her a small scroll, telling her, "It'll send a message to any node nearby, so please use it somewhere with people." There was a pause, before he added, "I'll give you another one the next time we meet, if you still want it. Your choice."

Konan took it.


A/N: So this takes place two years after the war. This started all deep and stuff with all those introspections, because let's be honest, Kakashi is a pot of unresolved emotional trauma, but it turned weirdly domestic at some point. But yes, Nidaime will definitely be rolling in his metaphorical grave. And that completes the trilogy on 'I'll sort out that relationship, I swear'.

Also, a little glimpse of Konan's story after the war. Ronin somehow suits her state very well. It's all very sad, but I hope it gets a little more comforting at the end.