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now sounding like the man i was hoping to be

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He goes down with Obito’s eye still open, draining his constantly waning chakra further and further until it feels like he has nothing left – which, he supposes as he feels himself lose his footing and head toward the ground, is true.

He wakes up to the scent and sound of a hospital, his body weak and his chakra levels still low. He has no idea how long it’s been, though if the stubble he feels rubbing against his mask is anything to judge by, it’s been at least several days.

Longer than usual, he thinks with distaste. These hospital stints are getting even longer and more troublesome with every one that comes.

A flash of pink in the corner of his vision when he opens his eyes and then – “Ah, so Sleeping Beauty’s finally decided to grace us with his presence?” Sakura gives him a smirk and plucks his file from the end of the bed. “Yamato-san will be glad to hear that, eh, sensei?”

Kakashi stares at her seriously – there’s something off about her scent. She smells… younger. And there’s a strange scent on her, too, something he doesn’t quite recognize but that reminds him of… milk?

“You’re pregnant,” he says, and Sakura goes red.

"You’re the first to notice,” she mumbles. “I haven’t told anyone yet. I wanted to be sure and then… Shizune-senpai confirmed for me the other day. I was afraid to go to Tsunade-sama, she gets so strange about these things sometimes, you know? I was going to tell Sai tonight, and everyone else at dinner tomorrow.”

Dinner tomorrow? Making plans while he’s out of the village again, then. He sniffs the air again and frowns. “Twins?”

“That’s what Shizune-senpai says,” Sakura agrees. She sets down his file and walks to his side. He flinches when she reaches for his forehead protector, but she gives him a long look and he sits uncomfortably while she pushes it up and checks Obito’s eye. (Strange how, even nearly forty years later, he still can’t call it his eye.)

She lets him push the forehead protector back down on his own. Even having the eye open for that short period of time leaves him feeling weaker. Something has to be done about this, he decides. He can’t keep ending up in the hospital like this after every mission, chakra exhaustion draining him for days and leaving him in a bed for who knows how long. If nothing else, it’s a pain in his ass, and he doesn’t have time for it.

(Twins, he thinks, and the image of a twelve year-old Sakura, still mooning over Sasuke and ignoring Naruto, pops into his head. Twins. Wait. Then Sai and Sakura are—When did he get so old?)

Sakura checks his chakra levels with a single slow sweep of her hand over his chest, and he can feel her chakra echo against his. She makes a note on his file, looking troubled, and he honestly isn’t sure whether to hope she’s troubled about the pregnancy or troubled about him. They both seem like unfortunate options.

“Well, I’ll let Yamato-san know you’re awake,” she says faux-cheerfully, and she plasters on one of Sai’s fake smiles as she heads for the door. “I’m sure he’ll be here within minutes of getting the message, so you shouldn’t be lonely for too long. Do try to rest though, you’re—”

“Sakura,” he interrupts her. “What is it?”

She stops, concern sweeping slowly into her expression, and she takes her hand away from the door handle. She won’t look at him when she says, “There’s talk of you retiring.”

“Not from my mouth, I can promise you that,” he says, amused. Retirement is the last thing on his mind. He has things to do, people to protect, and he can’t do that from the sidelines. And besides, shinobi don’t retire. The shinobi retirement plan is death. You don’t live long enough to retire, and if you do, then you just keep going until you die.

(The faces of Team 7 flash in his mind again, young and impressionable and so naïve, all of them, even Sasuke. He remembers fighting Zabuza, their faces when he had to use the Sharingan in front of them for the first time – Sasuke’s indignation, Sakura’s amazement, Naruto’s confusion. It drained him even then. A Hatake body was never meant to carry the Uchiha doujutsu. He wonders if Obito knew that.)

“Maybe you should think about it,” Sakura says quietly. She looks up and meets his gaze, and she looks sad, and tired, and neither of those are things that he likes to see on any of his team’s faces, and yet there they are.

“I have no intention to retire,” he says slowly.

“You can’t keep up with these missions like you used to.” Sakura turns fully around to face him again. “I don’t need to read your reports to know that’s true. Naruto and Sai worry about you when they’re on missions with you. Sasuke came to check on you just about every hour after that time you got called in to work with his ANBU team. And your files always say the same thing – no major wounds, just chakra exhaustion.” She hesitates. “You’re getting older, sensei. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to think about it.”

He isn’t really sure what to say, so he just stares at her for a few moments. This isn’t the first time someone’s brought up retirement, but it’s the first time they’ve tried to actually convince him that it was a good idea.

But he’s not going to retire. He has too much to do and to protect to quit now. Maybe when Naruto is Hokage and Sasuke is ANBU commander and Sakura is head medic then he’ll consider it, but he has too many fingers in too many pies to pull himself out right now. He has things to do.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon,” he tells Sakura. He’s sure she knew he would say that but, to her credit, she doesn’t show it.

“I’ll tell Yamato-san you’re awake,” she says again and turns back to the door. “Try to get some rest.”

The way the door closes behind her seems to carry a certain note of finality, and Kakashi doesn’t know what to do with that.

They release him a few hours later, under Yamato’s watchful eyes and with Sakura’s grudging permission, and once they’ve gathered up his personal effects and he’s changed into clean jounin blacks that Yamato brought him, they head for Ichiraku, Kakashi’s stomach growling the whole way there.

They walk with hands close together but not actually touching, just brushing every now and then. Theirs is an intimacy that comes in waves – sometimes it’s appropriate, and sometimes it’s not. They’ve learned to understand instinctively when the other is comfortable with certain things, but public displays of affection will probably never be high on either of their lists. Kakashi still finds himself forgetting to kiss him, to touch him, even when just the team is around. But Yamato never seems to notice or care, and they more than make up for it in their more private moments.

“You were out for nearly two days,” Yamato says as Kakashi finishes his second bowl and debates a third. “They said you just collapsed.”

“The Sharingan drains me more than it used to,” Kakashi offers as explanation, frowning at the menu. If he eats more now, then he won’t have room for whatever Yamato makes them for dinner. But he also feels like he could eat more, and as much as they tease Naruto for his Ichiraku addiction, he can’t deny that it is good.

“I’ve noticed,” Yamato says dryly, and Kakashi glances over at him. He’s barely touched his food.

“Are you gonna eat that?” he asks, and Yamato pushes it over to him. Mm, so there is something bothering him. “Just kidding,” he says, and pushes it back. “What’s wrong?”

Yamato narrows his eyes. “What makes you think there’s something wrong?”

“You’re not eating,” Kakashi replies. He drops his chopsticks into the empty bowl and sets it on the counter for the young boy who’s been hired as help to take away. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Yamato protests, but Kakashi knows him better than that, and Yamato knows it, and they glare at each other for a few moments before Yamato sighs and gives in, turning back to his ramen. “I’m worried about you. These missions are draining you more and more.”

“You and Sakura could start a club,” Kakashi grumbles. He doesn’t want to have this conversation again, he wants to go home, he wants to shave and shower and reread Icha Icha for the umpteenth time and sleep in his own bed with Yamato curled up against his back. (Maybe he is getting old, he admits cautiously in the confines of his own mind.)

“Maybe Sakura has the right idea,” Yamato says carefully. “I don’t see why she shouldn’t worry about you. You’re her family, their family. Sakura and Sai and Naruto and Sasuke.”

(He hears family and thinks pack and has to force down a flinch. Team, he amends in his head. He hasn’t had a pack in a long time.)

“And what about you, Tenzou?” he asks, and Yamato goes a little pink. Kakashi’s proud of himself for that one. He doesn’t get many chances to embarrass his kouhai-boyfriend-lover-partner these days. Neither of them is a 20 year-old desperate to impress someone anymore.

“You’re a different kind of family for me, Kakashi-senpai,” Yamato throws back, and isn’t that just a blast from the past.

He leans over and kisses Yamato, and his partner goes stiff for a moment, and then relaxes into it. Kakashi smiles as he pulls away gently. “Don’t worry about me,” he says. “I’ll be fine. I always am.”

“Not always,” Yamato says quietly, and Kakashi thinks about Pein and Chouji and a nail flying through the air and Kamui draining him of all he has left, and he pushes that away. That was a long time ago. Yamato wasn’t even there.

“I’ll be fine,” he repeats, and that temporarily closes the matter, though it’s nothing like the way the door closed with such incredible finality behind Sakura as she left earlier that day.

“You’re what?


Sasuke is staring at Sakura in disbelief and Naruto is glaring at Sai and Sakura looks pissed and Sai looks half-scared and half-unflappable. Kakashi’s glad he figured this out already, because he’s not sure whether he would be on Sasuke’s side of the reaction or Naruto’s.

(Sakura is still a little girl in his mind, and maybe that’s part of his problem, maybe that’s why he never trained her properly, let her slip behind the boys until Tsunade-sama took over and cultivated what he’d left to rot.)

“I’m pregnant,” Sakura repeats. “Sai and I are having a baby. Babies, actually.”

“You—” Naruto is still glaring at Sai, and Kakashi reaches over to smack him in the back of the head.

“Adults do these things sometimes, Naruto,” he reminds him. “I’m sure you’re aware of this.”

Yamato snickers and sips from his beer. Kakashi makes a mental note to cut him off after this one unless he wants to have to drag him home, which he doesn’t think is a good idea considering he’s still recovering from that mission. Yamato never could hold his liquor.

Sasuke seems to have recovered from his shock (likely induced by his “irrational, unfounded, and frankly disappointing fear of children”, as Naruto dubbed it, Kakashi thinks) and is now looking carefully at both Sai and Sakura. “You’re sure about this?” he asks carefully.

“We’re ready,” Sakura says, and that’s all the convincing Sasuke seems to need. Naruto will probably still take some work, but Kakashi thinks he has the perfect pep talk stowed away in the back of his mind to take care of that. Sasuke’s calmed down – settled, simmered, stabilized – since he got away from Orochimaru and Madara, since he and Naruto settled down in their little apartment a couple blocks away from the one Naruto had grown up in. He’s learned to trust Sakura on her own merit. Naruto, Kakashi fears, will never learn to do that.

“We would like you two to be the godparents,” Sai says in his soft, easy voice, and Kakashi waits for Sasuke and Naruto’s reactions, only to hear Yamato’s sharp intake of breath. He snaps his head around to see that Sai is staring at them, at he and Yamato, not Naruto and Sasuke, and for a moment he’s completely confused.

“Us?” he echoes. “Me?”

“Both of you,” Sakura corrects him with a smile. “Naruto and Sasuke would be horrible with children, but you did a decent job with us, sensei, so I thought maybe you wouldn’t mind too much.”

(Decent, snorts the cynical part of him, the part that likes to whisper Rin and Obito and sensei when he’s sleeping. Decent? Not even close. Abandoned and a traitor and an outcast and Tsunade-sama and Orochimaru and Jiraiya-sama and they all did better than you ever could—)

“We’d be honored,” Yamato tells her, and there’s a power in his voice that rings true and warm in Kakashi’s chest. He tightens the grip he has with the arm around Yamato’s shoulders and forces down a proud smile.

“Agreed,” he chimes in, and Sakura positively beams at them, and Kakashi thinks, She’s going to be a good mother and oh god, she’s going to be a mother, and suddenly he understands why Tsunade-sama reacts the way she does to these things.

“A toast!” Yamato announces suddenly, his tipsiness getting the better of him as he raises his glass abruptly. “To Sakura and Sai and the family they’re starting!”

“Continuing,” Naruto protests as he bumps his glass against Sasuke’s. “We’re already a family, all six of us. They’re just making it a little bigger.”

Kakashi feels intense pride rise up in his chest at the same time that he feels a touch of sadness, and he wonders when these kids got so grown up that they were all more mature than he was.

He helps Sakura and Sai clean up the dinner table but gets kicked out of the kitchen the moment he tries to help with the dirty dishes, and instead he finds himself sitting at the kitchen table, listening to the sound of the conversation out on the balcony.

“…looks tired,” he hears Naruto say.

“Chakra exhaustion,” Yamato agrees, and they’re talking about him, of course they’re talking about him.

“That’s the third mission in a row,” Sasuke grunts. “Hasn’t anyone spoken to him about this yet? He’s going to get hurt if he keeps pushing himself like that.”

“He mentioned something about Sakura when we were out last night,” Yamato says. “She must have said something to him before he was discharged.”

“You’re worried,” Naruto says softly.

“Of course I’m worried,” Yamato sighs. “I love him, but his body’s been through a lot over the years, and he’s getting older. That Sharingan drains him faster than anything else, but he isn’t as fast as he used to be, so he has to rely on it even more if he wants to keep up. He can’t fight for nearly as long as he used to, and he’s lost some of his edge.”

“Kakashi-sensei’s one of the most powerful shinobi in—” Naruto starts, but Yamato cuts him off.

“I know, I know,” he says. “But even the most powerful shinobi in the village have to get old sometime, unless they die, and I don’t see that happening any time soon.”

“If he isn’t careful with how he throws himself around, that might happen sooner than you think,” Sasuke grumbles darkly, and Kakashi can hear his indignant little noise when Naruto shoves an elbow into his stomach.

“Don’t talk like that,” he scolds his boyfriend. “We’re talking about sensei here.”

“That’s the problem,” Yamato says, and he sounds weary. “This is him we’re talking about, and he’s stubborn as all hell. He won’t listen. He has a meeting with Tsunade-sama tomorrow about that last mission, and I’m hoping she’ll say something to him, but he’s probably too stubborn to even listen to her. He’s afraid to get taken out of the action. He still feels like he has to protect you three, you know. He worries about you.”

“Well tell him to stop worrying about us and start worrying about protecting his own ass,” Sasuke shoots back. “We’re all grown up, we can take care of ourselves. Meanwhile he’s so old he might need us to start taking care of him pretty soon.”

Yamato laughs. “He might take advantage of you saying that. He may still be stubborn as hell but he’s also still just as lazy.”

“Maybe somebody else should talk to him.” Naruto sounds worried still. “Just in case Tsunade-baachan can’t get through to him.”

“I’m afraid to bring it up again,” Yamato murmurs. “I don’t want to get him angry at me. And more than that, I can understand why he doesn’t want to be taken out of the action, and I can’t fight him when his reasons are sound. He’s just so sure of himself, he’s confident he won’t get hurt, even though there’s never any guarantee anymore, but all it would take is one misstep and… we would lose him.”

Still seated inside, Kakashi looks down at his hands. He can hear the worry and the concern and the love in Yamato’s voice, and it kills him, because he has no plans of quitting any time soon, no matter what any of them say.

“I’ll talk to him then,” Naruto decides, his voice suddenly brash and bold and carrying just as much weight as it did when he announced he would be Hokage on their first day of being a team. That kind of voice will stop wars and Council meetings in the future, but right now all it does is cause an irritation. Talk to him, will he? And what makes him think he’ll actually listen?

“And what makes you think he’ll actually listen?” Sasuke asks, and Kakashi blesses every deity in existence that there’s somebody at Naruto’s side to temper that wildfire.

“I’ll make him listen,” Naruto declares, and even when the matter concerns himself, Kakashi can’t take that seriously, so he just smiles to himself, his irritation dissipating. That’s why he’s still fighting, that’s why he’s still in the field – he has these kids to protect, to keep safe until they’ve reached the height of their power and can stand on their own. Until Naruto is Hokage and Sasuke is ANBU commander and Sakura is head medic (and a mother, god, she’s going to be a mother), Kakashi has to be there to guide them and urge them on and protect them, and he can’t do that from the sidelines.

He’s seen them go from a united genin team to three individual fighters to a family of jounin, and he’s not about to quit before they’ve reached their height. He still has work left to do with them. He’s not dropping out now.

“But you’re certain Kaede is dead?” Tsunade-sama says carefully. “We can’t have her coming back to haunt us a few months from now, you know that.”

“I saw the killing blow with my own eyes, and I personally delivered the body back to the village,” Kakashi answers. “She’s dead.”

Tsunade-sama sighs and sits back in her chair. “Good. Well, that’s one weight off my shoulders. What concerns me now are these bandits you ran into – how the hell did they manage to take you by surprise?”

“Kaede trained them personally,” Kakashi says. “They weren’t just bandits, they were all skilled genjutsu users, which wouldn’t have been a problem if we weren’t already tired from fighting Kaede herself. We’d only had a few hours to rest before we set back out for Konoha, and we weren’t expecting further resistance, not to mention the fact that they laid four different genjutsus in succession. I picked up on the first one almost immediately, but it didn’t occur to me that there would be more.”

“It didn’t occur to you?” Tsunade-sama asks, arching an eyebrow. “I would have thought a skilled Sharingan user like yourself would have been able to detect a secondary or tertiary genjutsu easily.”

He knows what she’s getting at – Yamato’s conversation with the boys the night before is still ringing in his ears. “We all miss things sometimes.”

“It’s not like you to make up excuses.” Tsunade-sama is watching him carefully. “Kakashi—”

“I know what you’re going to say, and I’m not retiring,” he cuts her off. She gives him a long look and he tacks on a respectful “Tsunade-sama” on the end, but he’s heard enough people try to convince him to retire in the last three days. He doesn’t need his superiors doing the same.

“I wasn’t going to say anything of the sort,” Tsunade-sama says with a glare. “I know just as well as you – better, probably – how hard people push things like this, and I’m not going to try to take you out of everything. But I do have a proposal for you, if you’ll listen to me.”

There’s a touch of amusement in her voice on that last part, and he feels a slight flush of shame run through him. This is the Hokage after all, and it’s not his place to be questioning her. “I apologize, Tsunade-sama,” he says quietly. “Of course I’ll listen.”

“Mm, good.” Tsunade-sama eyes him carefully. “The Council is getting restless. The clan heads are calling for change while the feudal lords are demanding we go back to the old ways. I don’t have the patience to deal with a long, drawn out feud between the two, especially considering neither is right in all matters. The clan heads are right in demanding change in certain areas, but they want everything to change, and they can’t see that some things are the way they are for a reason. Meanwhile, the feudal lords are convinced that any change that’s been made practically since Sarutobi-sensei held the Hokage seat needs to be undone. They’ll be trouble for Naruto when he takes the job.”

“I’m not sure I see where I come in, Hokage-sama,” Kakashi says.

“I’m getting there,” Tsunade-sama says with a dismissive wave of her hand. “The problem is that the two can’t see each other’s side of the argument, and even when they do, even when they know they’re wrong, they refuse to give in and just accept that they aren’t right about everything. What I need is someone who can tell them that they’re wrong – someone who isn’t me.” She gives him a long-suffering look. “Naruto’s been a bad influence on his generation, they think they can question me on anything they want. Shikamaru and Kiba are the worst about it. And the feudal lords have never trusted me, Danzo had too much of an influence on them from the start.”

“Still not seeing it.”

“I need a mediator between the two,” Tsunade-sama announces, running right over him as he tries to speak. “And you need to get out of the field, and it just so happens that there’s still an empty Hatake clan seat sitting in between Aburame and Inuzuka. The Council’s been putting pressure on me to get rid of it since the moment I took the job, but I’d hoped you might come to your senses one day and finally take your father’s job.”

“You want me to go into politics,” he says slowly. “You want me to go into politics.”

“Oh, don’t give me that look,” she snaps. “You’d be good at it, better than you realize. All of those kids in clan head seats look up to you, and the feudal lords still haven’t forgotten that you nearly became Hokage. They’d listen to you.”

“I’m not retiring—” he starts, but she cuts him off.

“I’m not suggesting retirement, I’m suggesting a change of course.” Tsunade-sama rests her hands on top of her desk. “I could use an ally on the Council, Kakashi, and you’re the one best suited for it, not to mention it would be an easy job getting you in. All you’d have to do is admit that you’re the head of your clan in front of a witness.”

“I’m not the head of my clan,” he snaps, frustration with everyone’s desperation to get him to retire making him irritable. “And I’m not leaving the field.”

“I could force you to,” Tsunade-sama says, and there’s a weight in her voice that settles over the entire room, pushing down on Kakashi’s shoulders and making him snap his mouth shut before he can shoot back a retort. Tsunade-sama’s gaze is deadly serious. “I could take you out of the field by force. You’ve ended up in the hospital with chakra exhaustion on four out of your last twelve missions. That means you’re pushing yourself to the absolute limit on a third of your missions, and since, as a shinobi, the state pays your medical bills, you’re costing us money on a third of your missions. Not to mention that when you’re that tired, you make mistakes. You stumble and lose your footing, you miss a secondary genjutsu. You can’t keep up with the way that the Sharingan drains your chakra anymore, and your body was never meant to have to deal with that strain to begin with. You can’t move as fast as you used to, and you don’t have the chakra to power your attacks like you could before. Every mission you take has to be carefully strategized to counter for the fact that you will undoubtedly be exhausted by the end of the mission and unable to put forth all the effort that you would have had at the beginning of the mission. It’s going to cost you your life, and it’s going to cost your teams their lives, and I won’t sit here and watch you continue to risk that much just so you can try to atone for some sin or protect your old team or whatever it is you think you’re doing. You’re putting everyone around you at risk every time you take a mission, and I’m not going to sit by and watch it keep happening.”

There’s a chill that settles into his bones with her every word, but he says nothing. She’s right, of course she’s right. They’ve all been right. He’s getting old, he’ll admit it. But he can’t quit, not now, not when his students are so close to achieving everything they’ve ever wanted, not when they’ve come this far. He has to see this through to the end, he has to make up for not seeing Obito become Hokage and Rin become head medic and himself become ANBU commander. He has too much left to finish.

“But,” Tsunade-sama continues, “you’re still one of the most brilliant minds on the force. You could even rival Shikamaru if you tried. Even if you can’t put yourself to work physically like you used to, you can still put yourself to work mentally. On top of that, you know the new generation better than anyone else on the Council, and that’s including the clan heads. They’re too biased – even Shikamaru can’t always see their weaknesses the way he should. You’d be a valuable asset to the Council. And this wouldn’t take you out of everything completely. You’d still have a hand in things. It’s not as if you’d be completely out of commission.”

He stays silent for a moment. “You wouldn’t force me to quit,” he says finally. “No more than you would force anyone else to quit.”

“No, I wouldn’t,” she agrees. “But I wouldn’t be above putting you on leave for a couple weeks between missions. I’m offering you a choice, Kakashi. You can either stay on the force, keep fighting and putting yourself and others at risk but have a direct hand in the missions, or you can take a step back and keep yourself and everyone around you safe.”

“Even if I were to take the seat,” Kakashi says, and he knows he’s grasping at the few straws he has left, “there would be no one to take it when I die. I have no heir, the Hatake clan is dead. If I can’t pass on the title to the next generation, then there’s no point.”

“So get an heir,” Tsunade-sama says flatly.

“And how do you propose I do that?” Kakashi asks incredulously. “Tsunade-sama, I’m almost fifty years old, it’s a little late for me to be having kids. And even if it weren’t, I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but I’m in a life partnership with someone who doesn’t exactly have the compatible genitalia for that.”

“So find someone.” Tsunade-sama shrugs. “Substitutions have been made before. I’m sure you’ll figure something out.”

With that, she turns her eyes back to the stack of papers on her desk and pretends to be busy with them. Kakashi knows better than to believe that she’s actually working, but he recognizes the dismissal for what it is, and in response he just turns and leaves.

You’re not getting rid of me that easily, he thinks.

(Minato-sensei in the back of his mind, shaking his head at Obito and saying, “You have to think first if you don’t want to mess up like that. Kakashi, show him.”)

They let up a little after Tsunade-sama talks to him, and as she promised, he doesn’t go out for his next mission for another two weeks. He and Sai set out solo, early in the morning, with a bag full of scrolls to be delivered to the Kazekage. Their path is fast and long, and they take few breaks until the sun starts to set, and that point Kakashi finds himself forced to call their progress to a stop for the day. Sai looks surprised, only a light sheen of sweat over his face, but Kakashi’s hair is sticking to his forehead under his headband, and his muscles are tired and weak, his chakra control slipping.

Sai sets up a fire while Kakashi lays out a bedroll and tries to massage the aches away from his shoulders. He catches Sai watching him every now and then, but the boy (man, he has to correct himself, like he has to correct boy to man for Sasuke and Naruto, like he has to correct girl to woman for Sakura) says nothing as he heats up two cups of ramen and passes one over.

They eat in silence, having said almost nothing for the entire mission thus far, which is fine with Kakashi. He appreciates the silence – it’s nice to be able to just think to himself for a little, with no one barging in with the intention of trying to get him to retire. Sai looks pensive, his thoughts troubled, but Kakashi doesn’t want to disturb him.

As it turns out, he doesn’t have to. A few minutes after he finishes eating, Sai speaks quietly and asks, “You grew up without your family, didn’t you?”

(Tou-san sobbing, holding him to his chest and cradling the cheek he’d just slapped without thinking – “Kakashi, please, you have to promise me, all right? You have to promise me you’ll find your pack, there’s no one left and you… You can’t be alone. I can’t let you be alone. I’m so sorry, please, just find your pack, otherwise there’ll be no one else and you’ll end up like—”)

“My mother died before I ever even graduated the Academy, and my father not too long after,” he agrees quietly. He doesn’t have to ask why, the question hangs in the air between them silently.

“And you raised – taught Sakura and Sasuke and Naruto just fine,” Sai murmurs.

(The Sannin did that for you—)

“I suppose so,” Kakashi says carefully.

“Did you have doubts?” Sai looks up. “Going into it, knowing that you’d never had that kind of guidance. I mean… you had your sensei, but…”

But Kakashi had been young. His parents both dead before Kakashi ever even graduated, and then only just over a year in the Academy – genin at 5, chuunin at 6, and then jounin at 10 and then Obito had died and their team had been split up. Five years of guidance under sensei, and then Obito died and Rin died and sensei was Hokage and he was alone again, and then he was ANBU and then every genin team the Sandaime had tried to give him had failed the only test he actually cared about and he kept wondering – was there something wrong with him?

“Of course I did,” Kakashi says, and he tries to put as much comfort into his voice as he can. (Sakura coming to find him the night that Naruto left with Jiraiya-sama – Sasuke when he was still naïve and innocent and alone and his whole family was gone – Naruto when they called him a demon, when they threw things at him, when they screamed until he ran away)

He rubs at Obito’s eye, stinging under his forehead protector. “You always worry,” he says gently. He thinks he knows where this conversation is going. “I think it comes with the territory. No matter what you’re in charge of, you worry, whether it’s your first solo mission or your first time leading an ANBU team or being put in charge of a bunch of naïve, irresponsible, immature, innocent genin… or becoming a father.”

He watches Sai’s expression carefully, but the other’s face remains neutral. “The only people I ever had to look up to were nii-san and Danzo-sama,” he says quietly. “I don’t remember my family, if I even had one. And after that… There was you and Yamato-senpai, and Naruto and Sasuke, and Sakura. But I…” Sai rubs at his eyes, and he looks tired, and even more scared than he did when he had to learn that sealing technique during the war. “I never had a father. Danzo-sama was the closest thing to that, and I… I can’t imagine that he would be much of a good example for me to follow.”

(“So find someone. Substitutions have been made before. I’m sure you’ll figure something out.”)

“Sometimes there are people who step into that place,” Kakashi tells Sai. “You don’t always know who they’ll be. Sometimes you don’t realize until much later.”

(“I believe the White Fang was a hero” and “Kushina asked me to tell you that we have an empty bed if you ever need somewhere to say” and “Eat your vegetables, Kakashi” and “Minato, don’t make the poor boy eat that crap” and “You’re not alone, Kakashi, you’ll never be alone”)

Sai falls silent, and Kakashi wishes there was more he could do, but this isn’t one of his twelve year old genin coming to him with tears in their eyes in the middle of the night in the middle of a mission because of a nightmare (left behind, left alive, left alone), and he’s never known Sai as well as the others, so he lets the other decide where this conversation is going.

They don’t say anything for the rest of the night except to change watches, but if that’s what Sai wants then Kakashi figures he’s okay with it.

They run into trouble the next day, though that’s not surprising. Nothing they can’t handle, though, just a group of rogue bandits after a small four-man genin team from Kumogakure. Kakashi can’t help but admire the quiet efficiency with which Sai takes down the two he’s facing – his jutsus are simple yet artful and beautiful, tigers roaring to life as they leap forward to take down the bandits. He holds back and doesn’t kill them, though, just leaves them unconscious in a heap at the base of a tree.

He reminds Kakashi of all three of his students – Sakura’s quiet, unapologetic strength, Sasuke’s confidence in his abilities, Naruto’s determination and his ability to get something done fast and powerfully. And there’s something else there, something that reminds Kakashi of himself in a way. Sai carries with him the look and feel of an ANBU operative. He’s efficient, he’s fast, he’s coolheaded – and he analyzes the situation with a speed that even Shikamaru would envy at times. If there was nothing else good that he could have taken out of Root, at least there’s that, Kakashi thinks – at least he has something.

But it’s the way he moves and the way he thinks that remind Kakashi of himself in his middle days at ANBU, working fast and hard and speeding through mission after mission and cutting down anything in his path. It’s the way Sai moves, the way he thinks, the way he fights – to anyone who’s seen it and lived it firsthand, it screams ANBU in a way that Kakashi can’t ignore.

“Are you all right?” Sai is asking the genin quietly as Kakashi lets the last one fall on top of the rest of the heap. He feels good – refreshed, like the battle restored some of his chakra instead of taking it away. It’s been a while since a fight managed to make him feel this young and strong and powerful.

The leader of the team, a young girl with dark hair falling into her eyes, nods and brushes the dirt and tears away from her cheek. “Thank you,” she murmurs softly with a small bow. She not-so-subtly elbows the boy nearest to her in the side, and he quickly bows as well, as do the other two.

“You’re a long way from home, kids,” Kakashi says as he approaches them. They’re nothing like his team, and yet he can’t help seeing them in the Kumo genin. Three boys and a girl – Sai, Sasuke, Naruto, and Sakura – and the girl standing in front, vouching for the rest. “You should head back.”

“We were on our way back when…” The girl starts to tear up again. She’s standing awkwardly on her left ankle, her weight shifted away from the right, and Kakashi can see it starting to swell. The boys all have cuts and bruises as well, and one is cradling his arm in a way that looks incredibly painful.

Kakashi exchanges a glance with Sai, who just gives him a nod. They’re on the same wavelength, then – ahead of schedule getting to Suna, they might as well pause for a little to help the kids out.

The one boy’s arm is definitely broken – Kakashi sets it as best he can and wraps it up with what supplies the kids have, not that it’s much. He starts them a small fire and sets a few cups of ramen to cook while he tends to the others, who luckily only have a few shallow gashes that don’t take much to stitch up. The girl seems to have taken a liking to Sai, so Kakashi leaves the two of them be for now – though he still keeps a close watch on them from the corner of his eye.

“It’s my fault,” the girl murmurs while Sai wraps up her ankle. She’s holding an ice pack to her left eye, and she’ll need another one for that ankle, Kakashi thinks. Not broken, but definitely sprained.

“I don’t see how that’s possible,” Sai responds. There’s a matter of fact tone in his voice that makes Kakashi smile. Only a few moments with her, but Sai can already tell that a standard coddling approach isn’t going to help much.

“I’m responsible for the team,” she says, her voice hoarse. She sounds like she’s going to cry again – or maybe she never stopped, Kakashi isn’t sure. “I’m the only one they put through the chuunin exams last time, I should have more experience. I saw the traps but I didn’t think… I thought we’d gotten them all, and then we missed just one and it…”

“Did you set those traps?” Sai asks.

The girl looks confused. She’s staring at Sai, but he’s not looking at her, his eyes focused on carefully wrapping the bandage around her ankle one more time and then taping it up with the small amount of medical tape the kids have left. “I don’t understand.”

“I asked you a question,” Sai says calmly. “Did you set the traps?”

“No, of course not—”

“And did you purposely lead your team into an ambush?”

“No, that—”

“Did you have any way of knowing that they were lying in wait?”

“If I’d paid more attention—”

“That’s not what I asked.” Sai looks up when he’s finished taping her ankle. “Did you physically, in any way, through chakra sensing or ninjutsu or your ordinary senses, have any way of knowing that they were lying in wait?”

“I…” The girl looks away. “No.”

“Then I’m not seeing how it could have possibly been your fault.” He gently pulls the ice pack away from her face to inspect the bruise forming there, and then moves it to her ankle. “You’re a young genin, not an experienced jounin. Nobody would have expected you to know they were there. And you’re forgetting something else.”

“What?” she asks tentatively.

“Just because you’re the leader doesn’t mean it’s all your responsibility,” Sai says quietly.

(Team 7 assembled once more and Sasuke facing them and Naruto and Sakura posed to strike and his own voice, harsh and – “This is my job!”)

The girl is looking at Sai with wide eyes as he speaks. “You have a team for a reason,” he says. “They’re there to back you up, to help you when you falter. Even if you’re the leader, your team should be there for you. If a mission fails, the blame is never entirely yours. It’s the responsibility of the whole team to take ownership when one of their own falters. That’s what a team is. Friends who back you up, who defend you and watch your back.” He reaches forward and brushes her long bangs back from her eyes. “Your team got out alive. Count that as a victory.”

(Tou-san coming back from that mission changed, his voice rougher and lower and he drills the clan doctrine into him but it’s only half in terms that he understands and – “Pack comes first, Kakashi, do you understand that? Always. I don’t care what’s at stake, whether it’s the mission or the clan or your life or the village, you always put pack first, always, don’t ever forget that.”)

“Now keep this ice pack here to keep the swelling down and make sure you eat.” Sai pats her hand where it rests on top of the ice and smiles. It’s a real smile, none of those fake ones he used to talk so much about. “Rest for a while, and then the four of you should start to head back. But if you need help, make sure you ask your teammates, got it?”

(“Kakashi-sensei, are you… are you going to kill Sasuke?” “Leave!”)

“Got it,” the girl mumbles, a light blush spreading across her cheeks as she watches Sai stand up and cross back over to Kakashi.

(“So find someone.”)

He watches Sai critically as the young man approaches him. “Any injuries?” Kakashi asks him, and when Sai shakes his head, Kakashi gives a curt nod and says, “Then let’s head out.”

Once they’ve left the clearing and the children behind, Kakashi glances over at Sai and says, “You know, you might have left that girl with a little crush.”

“What?” Sai asks, looking confused.

Kakashi chuckles and turns back to face in front of them. “You’ll be a good father, Sai. You don’t need to worry about a thing.”

“Thank you, Kakashi-senpai,” Sai says quietly, using the honorific he usually reserves only for moments like these, and Tsunade-sama’s words ring in Kakashi’s ears once more – You’ll figure something out.

Hmm, he thinks. Maybe he will.

They’re back in Konoha less than a week later, and the moment they set foot in the village, Sai tosses a hasty goodbye over his shoulder and rushes off to check on Sakura. Kakashi just shakes his head and goes to give his report.

When he’s finished, Tsunade-sama gives a sharp nod. “Very well, then. Thank you, Kakashi. I appreciate you taking that mission.”

It was an easy mission, he knows. It could have easily been handled by a pair of chuunin – hell, Sai could have handled it himself. She sent him on that mission for a reason. He’s not sure if she paired him with Sai for the same purpose, but regardless, it’s had the same effect.

As if she’s read his mind, Tsunade-sama glances over at him and asks, “So have you given any thought to what we spoke about before?”

Dancing around the word retirement, he thinks wearily, just like everyone else. Maybe the constant struggle to get him to quit wouldn’t be so tiresome if everyone would just admit out loud what it was they were trying to get him to do.

“I have, actually,” he says, but offers no further explanation.

“And?” Tsunade-sama asks, glaring at him.

“And I may have figured something out,” he answers cryptically. Before she can really get angry and start throwing things, though, he quickly tacks on, “But nothing’s solid yet. You’ll have your answer within the week.”

“You’re not going to worm your way out of this one, Kakashi,” Tsunade-sama threatens. “There’s no last minute announcement to save you this time. Either you take this seat or you don’t – you’re not getting out of this on a technicality.”

He thinks tiredly of the daimyo and his obsession with the numbers. The man’s long dead and replaced now, by someone much more competent if rumors are anything to judge by. He wonders if the new one would have spent so long deliberating over six versus seven.

“I know,” he tells Tsunade-sama. “I’m not so naïve as to believe you would let me off the hook like that.”

“Good,” Tsunade-sama responds sharply. “In that case, you’re dismissed.”

He bows slightly and leaves, heading home with the prospect of a bed and a warm meal and his partner sitting heavily in his mind. He arrives at their apartment to find Yamato napping on the couch with files spread out over him. Kakashi smiles slightly at the sight and crosses the floor to stand behind him, pulling his mask down and bending down just enough to kiss his forehead.

Yamato awakens with a jerk, files spilling onto the floor as he sits up too quickly. Kakashi ducks out of the way before their heads collide and gives his partner a moment to collect himself.

“Ugh.” Yamato rubs at his eyes and squints when he opens them, the light obviously too harsh for his still-weary body. “What time is it? Wait, when did you get home?”

“Just now.” He walks around to the front of the couch and carefully finds a spot to sit that isn’t covered in files. “Miss me?”

“Of course not,” Yamato answers, and leans over to give him a proper kiss. They linger a bit longer than usual, and Kakashi would be happy to enjoy that, but he pulls back after a moment.

“Something wrong?” Yamato asks, frowning. “Did the mission go okay?”

“It went fine.” Kakashi yawns and stretches, eventually settling an arm on the back of the couch behind Yamato’s head. “Everything all right here?”

“Yes…” Yamato looks suspicious, his eyes narrowed. “You’re up to something.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Kakashi answers, as straight-faced as he can possibly be, which may be overkill for the situation, but they don’t get to have many moments like this anymore. It feels good to tease his partner again.

“Kakashi…” Yamato says, the weight of the warning heavy in his voice. “What’s going on?”

Well, he might as well tell him. “Tsunade-sama offered me a seat on the Council,” he says. “As Hatake clan head. Nobody’s held the position since my father, not that they didn’t try to get me to take it.” On his sixteenth birthday, members of the Nara, Akimichi, Inuzuka, and Hyuuga clans had all shown up on his doorstep, asking him to accept his father’s inheritance and take up the seat tou-san had once sat in. Kakashi wasn’t stupid enough to accept. He’d already passed on everything else that his father had left him – the money, the old house, the handful of family heirlooms that no longer held any significance – and he didn’t see any reason he should take on the responsibility of a clan that no longer existed. So he’d turned them down. Rather ungracefully, of course – he’d told the Inuzuka to go fuck themselves, the memory of his father grumbling something about “domesticated little puppies” when he’d been young still fresh in his mind. By the time the Hyuuga representative had showed up, he’d simply slammed the door in the poor girl’s face and gone back to bed.

Yamato is watching him carefully, waiting for him to go on. Kakashi can see in his eyes what he wants to say. He wants to urge him to take the bargain, to get out of the field and do what he can from behind the scenes, but he’s holding back, waiting for Kakashi to explain fully before he says his part. In that moment, Kakashi loves him more than words.

“I told her no,” he says, and watches Yamato’s reaction carefully. No change in his face – still waiting, then. He knows there’s more that Kakashi has to say.

“I have no heir to pass the seat onto,” Kakashi says. “Tsunade-sama wants me in that seat so there’ll be someone to mediate between her generation of feudal lords demanding a return to the past and Naruto’s generation of clan heads demanding total change. But that fight isn’t going to end just because I’m there to keep them away from each other’s throats for a few years. Naruto will be Hokage and I’ll die and there’ll be no one to keep the two groups from ripping the village apart. If I were to take the seat, there would need to be someone to follow in my footsteps, someone smart enough and capable enough to keep the Council from killing each other. So I told her no.” He pauses. “And then I had this mission with Sai.”

That catches Yamato’s attention. “Sai?” he asks, surprise moving into his expression.

“Mmm.” Kakashi nods slowly, thoughtfully. “He’s smart, he’s strong, he’s good at standing neutral between two parties. He won’t let himself be swerved by Naruto’s passion – if he thinks something is right, then he’ll stand for it.” He drops his voice lower. “And he has no family. He’s been on his own since Danzo took him for Root. He looks up to me already and… I see myself in him, a little.”

“What do you have planned?” Yamato asks quietly.

“I could take Tsunade-sama’s offer,” Kakashi says. “Be sworn in as clan head, take the Council seat, and name Sai my heir. That way I don’t get taken out of the action completely, I can help Tsunade-sama out, and we can ensure that the whole thing doesn’t just fall apart the moment I die. And…” He hesitates. “And it makes this a family. A real family. You, me, Sakura, Sai, their kids, Naruto, Sasuke… All of us.”

“Team Kakashi,” Yamato murmurs, and he gently slips his fingers between Kakashi’s.

“Team 7,” Kakashi corrects him, thinking of the rising leaders among them. Naruto as Hokage, Sakura as head medic, Sasuke as ANBU commander, and Sai on the Council. “It’s not my team anymore.”

“It’s always been your team,” Yamato tells him, and he gently kisses him. “And now it’ll be your family.”

Kakashi feels his face flush and he rubs self-consciously at the back of his neck. “Well, as long as we’re together, it’s your family, too.”

“It’s all of our family,” Yamato agrees. “But you’re always going to be in charge.” He kisses him again. “Are you sure this is what you want?”

No, it’s not, to be honest. He wants to turn back the clock, to be able to jump into mission after mission with no fear, with his team falling into place behind him, steady and sure and strong. But that’s not going to happen, and he’s just going to have to settle for this.

He thinks of Sai and the little girl and feels a warmth in his stomach, pride at the fact that it was this family – his family – that turned him into that.

“I’m sure,” he says, and he feels the conviction surge up inside him. No, this isn’t what he wants, but he should have learned by now that sometimes you don’t get what you want. His students – his team, his family – are proof of that, his partner is proof of that, he himself is proof of that. This isn’t what he wants, but it’s what he has.

Yamato nods and a small smile spreads across his face. “Just to make sure,” he says conversationally, “my old man isn’t so old that he wouldn’t be interested in a trip to the bedroom?”

“Not that old,” Kakashi agrees, and he stands up quickly, pulling Yamato with him, who laughs as his files spill onto the floor, but Kakashi pays them no attention and drags Yamato towards their bedroom.

(Minato-sensei smiling at him, murmuring, “You’re going to find your place, Kakashi, I swear that to you. You aren’t going to be alone forever,” and he didn’t believe him until now.)

Of course, he’s not the only one who has to make a decision. There are still two parties who have to agree to this. Kakashi decides to deal with the easier of the two first – better to beg forgiveness later than ask permission now, he figures. They’ll have a harder time saying no if he’s got the boy standing right there next to him.

And his opportunity comes quickly – just a week after they get back, Tsunade-sama assigns the two of them to oversee the training of the new set of ANBU, fresh out of their examinations, their masks so clean Kakashi can see himself in them. They don’t have to do much – the ANBU commanders have already set up the training regimens and put the rookies to work, so all Kakashi and Sai really have to do is sit on the roof next to the training fields and watch.

Sasuke is easy to pick out between the hawk mask and the way the other commanders all defer to him, but Kakashi doesn’t dare approach him and he knows Sasuke won’t come to them either – he has to maintain the appearance of the cold, detached ANBU commander if he wants to get anywhere in this organization. And he’s so close to reaching the top, too, Kakashi thinks. He’ll beat all the others to the top of his chain. He’ll be ANBU commander long before Sakura becomes head medic or Naruto becomes Hokage or Sai takes a seat on the Council, and Kakashi thinks maybe that’s for the best. Sasuke’s had enough to work through in his life. Maybe it’s time something came to him easily and without a struggle.

“They look good,” Sai observes, and Kakashi glances away from his book, looking over at him in surprise. It’s not like him to start idle chitchat.

“Mm,” Kakashi agrees, keeping his eye on Sai. The young shinobi has his gaze fixed on the training fields, and his face is clear, ANBU’s poster boy for calm and collected, but Kakashi can see the tension in his shoulders. “Something bugging you?”

Sai’s mouth presses into a hard line. He’s become more expressive since he and Sakura first got together, Kakashi observes. She’s been good for him, he thinks. He’s no longer the killing machine blindly taking orders that Danzo tried to turn him into – he’s become something much stronger.

“Do you think those genin from Kumogakure got home all right?” Sai asks. It’s not an answer to Kakashi’s question though – it’s a deflection. So they’re playing this game, Kakashi thinks.

“I don’t know,” he says honestly. “I hope so, but you never know. There’s a long way between where we found them and the Lightning Country.”

Sai’s eyes flicker over to him, and then back to the rookies training in the field below them. He says nothing.

“What is it?” Kakashi asks, and it’s less of a question and more of a demand. He can’t help slipping into his sensei voice, the one that irritates Naruto to no end these days, which of course means he just uses it even more often. Naruto will glare at him and remind him that they’re not his genin anymore, and Kakashi will laugh and Sasuke will roll his eyes and Sakura will shake her head.

(“You’ll always be here, sensei, right?” A small Sakura, only twelve years old, tears in her eyes the night after their first fight while on the mission to the Land of Waves, and he held her close and murmured, “Of course,” and she cried into his chest until she fell back to sleep.)

“I know you said I shouldn’t worry.” Sai has his hands fisted in the fabric of his pants. “But I still do. Sakura is going to be the perfect mother. She’s strong, she’s smart, she’s beautiful… Our– the children will be lucky to have her. But I have nothing to give them. Not even a name.”

“What if you could change that?” Kakashi says abruptly. He hadn’t meant to bring it up so soon but… better now than never, he supposes.

“Change…” Sai looks over at him. “Change what?”

“That you don’t have a name to give them.” Kakashi closes his book and tucks it away. “What if you did have a name for them?”

Sai is staring at him, a frown on his face and his eyebrows pushed together. “I don’t understand.”

“I’m retiring,” Kakashi tells him. “Tsunade-sama wants me to take my father’s seat as Hatake clan head on the Council, but it seems pointless to do that if there’s no one to take the seat when I die. But I could name you my heir.”

Sai’s eyes widen slightly, the confusion turning to surprise. “You… Kakashi-senpai, I don’t understand.”

“You’re a powerful shinobi, Sai,” Kakashi says quietly. “You’ve got a good, calm head on your shoulders, and you won’t let yourself be swayed by other people. You’re smart, you’re strong, and you’re quick to learn. I’d be honored to call you my heir, and to know that your children and your grandchildren will carry my clan’s name.”

“Your heir,” Sai echoes, and his face is blank. Kakashi can’t read him, he realizes, a bit of worry sparking inside him – what if he’s judged the situation wrong? What if Sai doesn’t want this? If Sai isn’t willing, then there’s no point in him even retiring at all, and he’ll just be back to square one.

“Obviously you don’t have to,” Kakashi starts, but Sai cuts him off almost immediately.

“I would be honored,” he says quietly. “To carry the Hatake name, to call you my father, I…” He looks at Kakashi with shining eyes. “I would be honored, senpai.”

Kakashi feels his face flush under the mask – his father, well he certainly hadn’t been expecting that. “It’s settled then,” he decides, and he tugs his mask just a little bit higher, trying to hide his cheeks. “I’ll give Tsunade-sama my official acceptance as soon as we’ve taken care of the legal part of this. There’s just one little thing we need to take care of first.”

“What’s that?”

“The pack,” Kakashi says darkly, and the confused look that Sai gives him echoes his feelings about the matter in general. This, he thinks, is probably not going to go well.

Technically, every Hatake child is supposed to be indoctrinated into the pack at birth, or as close to it as possible. Kakashi’s mother hadn’t been raised under clan doctrine, and she’d never been taken in as one of the pack, so from the moment of Kakashi’s birth, she’d resisted his father’s desperate attempts to get Kakashi out to the pack, to have him accepted by the pack leader and recognized as a full member of the clan.

It had taken until Kakashi was four for Sakumo to finally take the journey out there with his son, and by that point the only clan members left were Kakashi and his parents, if his mother could even technically be counted among that group. The pack, unfortunately, hadn’t been very forgiving, and Kakashi’s bond with them has never been as strong as it should have been.

And that’s why he worries that this won’t work. Kakashi had only been four when his father had taken him to the pack, and his bond is still so weak. Sai is so much older than that, and Kakashi fears that his bond will be practically nonexistent – and that’s under the unlikely circumstances that he’s even accepted by the pack at all.

And yet, weak as it is, Kakashi still feels their power burning through him sometimes, when he’s reached his absolute limit and the Sharingan is draining him of what little he has left. Their howls on the full moon seem to reach him no matter where he is, whether he’s sleeping next to Yamato in the bed in their apartment or fighting an enemy a hundred thousand miles away. And now, casting his chakra out in a sweeping, searching arc, he can feel their presence in the forest, and it gives him hope that maybe this will turn out all right after all.

“East,” he says finally, hoping he got it right. It feels right, to turn himself in that direction. There’s something out there, an echo of something he felt a long time ago, but he hasn’t been to see the pack since then – since before Team 7, before ANBU even, after sensei and Kushina-san died and he was alone again and didn’t know where else to go.

“What exactly are we doing?” Sai asks from next to him on the branch they’re standing on. The forest is quiet.

“We have to go see someone,” Kakashi tells him, glancing over.

“Yes, the pack, you said that.” Sai frowns. “But you never explained what exactly that meant.”

“You’ll see,” Kakashi answers, and leaps forward.

Truth be told, Kakashi isn’t sure he could explain it, even if he tried. His knowledge of the pack is limited to the few visits he’s made over the years and the lessons his father gave him when he was young. If he’s completely honest, he knows almost nothing about them – and he certainly doesn’t know if they’ll accept Sai.

There’s suddenly a tingle at the back of his neck, the kind that normally comes in the midst of battle, accompanied by the feeling of anger and hatred radiating towards him – but this time there’s something else. It’s a small, itching curiosity that brushes against him, and almost the moment he notices it, it turns scared and jumps away, disappearing completely. He blinks, reaches out for it as it retreats, and – yes, that chakra’s familiar. The pack. They’re getting close.

A few more minutes of movement, trying to pinpoint the exact spot, and then, abruptly, he stops. Sai almost crashes into him, and it’s only the grace of an ANBU shinobi that lets him dodge away fast enough to save them both from a fall to the forest floor. “What is it?” Sai asks, breathless.

“They’re in there.” Kakashi nods ahead of them. He can just barely make out a clearing through the trees – the spring den, he thinks, though he doesn’t know how he knows that.

“The pack?” Sai questions, and the word sits uncomfortably on his mouth, but Kakashi just nods.

“Stay behind me.” He drops from the tree to the ground and puts his hands in his pockets, extending his awareness just enough to feel the pack on the other side of the trees. There’s a calm presence that responds to him, sliding into his mind as easily as he and Yamato slide under the sheets after a long day.

He asks the question silently, with just a single emotion, and he gives the best impression of not being alone that he can. His father could do this so much more easily, he thinks, remembering remorsefully the way that Sakumo had spoken to the pack with such ease and grace that he seemed to actually be one of them.

The answer comes quietly, like a silent nod of acceptance, and Kakashi motions for Sai to follow him, and slowly steps into the clearing.

The wolves are watching him, their eyes bright and their ears pricked forward. Kakashi hears Sai’s breath catch for a moment, but his attention is drawn away to a large female resting on top of a pile of rocks. She holds her head high, watching Kakashi with big, amber eyes, and he clenches his hands into fists in his pockets.

Slowly, the leader gets up, stretching momentarily and shaking out her fur, and then she leaps down to the ground and approaches. She’s huge – much larger than the last leader, who Kakashi remembers as a dark-furred male, more compact and muscular. But this one has a grace that the last one didn’t have. Kakashi wonders what happened to the last one and then realizes with a pang that maybe he should know that already.

The leader stands in front of him and looks up, then slowly extends her nose toward him, and he instinctively pulls a hand out of his pocket and reaches forward.

The moment his palm touches her nose, it’s like a wave of power rushes through him, and he staggers. Sai shoots forward to catch him, supporting him as he tries to recover from the rush, but as soon as he thinks he has a hold on it, he feels the wave roll over him again.

(Welcome, young one. We’ve been waiting a long time.)

He stares at the leader, a haze over his eyes that makes everything blurry. “I’m sorry I didn’t come…”

The leader tosses her head dismissively and sets her haunches on the ground, still staring him directly in the eyes. (That is no issue. Pack is pack.)

Pack is pack, he thinks, and he remembers tou-san saying something like that, during those days just before his death. “You know why I’m here?”

(Of course.) The leader looks past him, her eyes running up and down Sai’s body as she takes in a deep sniff. (They are not of the blood.)

“That isn’t an option,” Kakashi murmurs. He can feel Sai’s confusion practically radiating off of him, but he ignores it for now. There will be time to address his questions later.

The leader turns her eyes back to him, and if she was human he would swear there would be a frown on her face. (Why not?)

Kakashi focuses on that first sight of Yamato on the day he came back from the mission with Sai, on the love that swept through him at Yamato’s understanding his decision, on the feeling of holding him close under the sheets of their bed, and then broadcasts it out. The leader snorts in surprise, but there’s no disapproval, only a quiet huff of breath.

(This one understands.) Abruptly, she stands up and focuses on Sai again. (Do they know what is coming?)

“This one will tell them,” Kakashi says, slipping into the wolves’ ambiguous, genderless pronouns without thinking. He forces his feet back underneath him and stands of his own power, then turns to Sai.

He says nothing, but his eyes tell Kakashi that Sai is completely lost. “Don’t worry,” he murmurs. “In order to be recognized as a full member of the clan, you first have to be recognized and accepted by the pack.”

“I don’t understand,” Sai whispers, and there’s a light note of panic in his voice.

“The clan had—” He cuts himself off, corrects himself. “The clan has had an agreement with the pack since before Konoha was founded. A power-sharing agreement, to help each other in times of need, in any way possible. You can’t be a Hatake without also being a member of the pack.”

Sai still looks tense, and Kakashi wishes he had more to offer him, but it’s really all he knows. Maybe a trip to the library is in order, he thinks. Maybe it’s time to dig up what he spent so long trying to bury.

“Don’t be afraid,” Kakashi says, and he puts a hand on Sai’s shoulder, gives him a light push so that he’s standing in front of Kakashi, staring the pack leader dead in the eyes. “It may be a little overwhelming at first, just so you know.”

“What might be—” Sai says, but then the leader touches her nose to his knuckles, and his knees go out from underneath him.

“It felt like getting punched in the stomach and kicked in the balls at the same time,” Sai says, and Kakashi does his best to hold back a laugh, only just barely failing as a chuckle forces its way past his lips. Sai’s face is dead serious. Kakashi signs his name at the bottom of  a form and pushes it across the table towards him.

“I still don’t understand exactly what it is that you two went out there for,” Yamato says. He’s seated behind them on the couch, with Kakashi on the floor between his knees, his fingers in Kakashi’s hair. It’s a bit more intimate than Kakashi’s used to with other people around but… He glances up, watching as Sai artfully signs his name. Maybe this is okay. This is family.

“According to clan law, your name can’t be added to the clan register if you haven’t been accepted by the pack,” Kakashi explains. His mother had never been accepted by them – he remembers his father trying to explain to him why they couldn’t take her to the pack to be healed. They’d done it in the past, when Kakashi’s grandfather had been sick, when he’d been dying. He sees now how hard that decision must have felt for his father. At the time he’d just felt betrayed.

(“They won’t help her, Kakashi.” “But, why, it’s not fair, kaa-san—” “They haven’t accepted her, Kakashi, son, it wouldn’t work, please sit down—” “I want my mom—”)

“So legally,” he says, forcing himself out of his thoughts, “without the clan’s acceptance, I wouldn’t be able to name anyone as my heir.”

“Judging by the number of papers you’ve signed, I’d say it worked out all right, then,” Yamato says, a touch of amusement in his voice.

“Are there any left?” Sai asks, adding the form he’s just signed to the pile they’ve already filled out.

“Just this last one.” Kakashi picks the last form off the floor and sets it on the table, idly tapping his finger on top of it. “We don’t… technically have to do this one, if you don’t want to. But you’d mentioned it, so I went ahead and grabbed it just to be safe.”

“Legal name change,” Yamato murmurs, reading the top of the paper.

Kakashi locks eyes with Sai, who just gives him a small smile. It’s not one of the fake smiles he used to go on about, either. It’s a real, genuine smile, and the strength of it radiates out towards Kakashi. He’s felt closer to Sai ever since their trip to the pack. His awareness brushes Sai’s without meaning to sometimes, and it carries a sort of intimacy Kakashi’s never felt. He saw it in the Uchiha, once upon a time, a long time ago before everything started to fall apart. He’s sensed it among the Hyuuga and the Inuzuka and the Aburame and all the other clans of the village, but he’s never really felt it for himself before.

So Sai smiles at him and Kakashi feels Sai’s emotions hit him like a wave and it’s all the answer he needs – a strong, powerful yes, and Kakashi pushes the form over to him and he writes Hatake Sai on the bottom line and Kakashi feels his mouth go dry. Yamato’s fingers in his hair and his hand on Kakashi’s shoulder are his only anchor, and when he meets Sai’s eyes again, he feels like he’s going to lose it.

This is a family, he thinks. This is what he’s been missing, or— Maybe he hasn’t been missing it, so much as missing that it was already there to begin with. Sai to steady them and Sakura to protect and defend and support them and Naruto and Sasuke to fight for them and Yamato to anchor them and, at least for now, Kakashi himself to lead them.

“Thank you, Kakashi-senpai,” Sai says quietly, emotion sitting heavily in his words, and his face turns thoughtful. “Or, well, thank you, Kakashi-nii-san.”

This is enough, Kakashi thinks. He may never set foot in the field again, but this family? It will be enough to keep him going. It will always be enough.

(In the back of his mind, tou-san and Obito and sensei all smile, and Kakashi feels a little bit of him finally go to rest.)