Playing cards in the dark was, no doubt, out of reach of most men. It wasn't even Kakashi's deck; he'd had to guess the code of bent edges and creases on the identical rectangles of cardboard from scratch. It had been an uphill battle, but he wasn't doing too badly now : Jiraiya's nose wasn't keen enough to smell the difference between red and black ink, and Kakashi had taken to rubbing his fingers on his smoke bombs before handling hearts or spades.
Of course, the game was based as much on bluff as on sleight of hand, seeing as both of them had to trust in their belief that the cards they held were actually the ones they believed them to be. Or at least, had to move and sound like they trusted their belief enough that the other man would trust it too.
Really, it was a game made for liars; the cards were almost an excuse.
Kakashi had won a blank scroll, and a sneak peek at the next Icha Icha book, and lost a box of mint pastilles, five kunai and a backup mask, when the barrier went up around the Uchiha district, locking them in. He went on to lose a length of razor wire and get back a shuriken and a toothbrush before the game was put on hold.
Outside of the abandoned garden shack, the night was a lot less dark; not so much because of the full moon, or the streetlamps of the village behind the Uchiha walls -- but because three streets away, there was his brats' temporary house, with a cold, silvery glow streaming out of every single crack.
The windows were high and narrow, made more for aeration than for a look or a way out, and no house faced them directly. Vantage points were rare, and Kakashi knew better than to try sticking to the walls of the dojo itself. Jiraiya was the specialist; Kakashi ceded his claim to the only signpost close to the dojo and waited on the nearest roof, his eye on Jiraiya's face. He could see the fluctuations of the chakra glow from the corner of his eye, but the best information on their progress he could get was the pinched look of the old sage's lips or his occasional approving nod.
They'd done the best they could to give his kids all information pertaining to their little attempt. But Kakashi hadn't been able to do more than steal a glance at Sakura's part of the equations; and even if Sasuke's were also perfect... Well, there was a risk. There was always a risk, when doing such a seal alone.
He'd wanted to be there from the start, but Jiraiya hadn't approved. If something went wrong, it was better for them to come across as the teachers who hadn't known, but had managed to salvage the situation anyway, than as having aided and abetted such a risky gamble. They couldn't help the brats if they were all locked up in the same cell, after all.
So they waited.
Comparatively speaking, they didn't have to wait very long. Kakashi didn't even need to see the flash of alarm on Jiraiya's face; the sudden burst of red-gold chakra was telling enough. He was breaking into the main house before he even heard the first tinkle of cracking glass. Red light filtered under the communication door between the house and the dojo.
The walls trembled. He heard a dull, heavy impact, Sasuke's gasp; he rushed for the door.
A sigil flared at him, burning his fingers before he could catch the handle, and he was torn between admiration at his kids' healthy professional paranoia and despair that this might give them the few seconds Kyuubi needed. They had redirected the excess energy from the sealing process to use as a power source for a barrier around the dojo.
It was a brilliant piece of work. If it didn't kill them, he would. He could see one of Jiraiya's huge frogs outside in the garden, kicking and kicking at the walls, which didn't budge any.
He could feel the Kyuubi's chakra behind the door, huge and malevolent, seeping into everything.
"Sakura! Breathe, damn it -- breathe! Don't you dare-- Sakura!"
The Chidori was supposed to be used against physical targets; he had never tried to see what would happen if it hit a barrier. Likely enough, it would overload and explode outwards with lethal force. He started to shape the seals.
"Kakashi," Jiraiya snapped from the garden. He sat atop his frog, a scroll tucked between thumb and index as he shaped a hand seal. Kakashi forced himself to be still, even when more glass broke, when the walls trembled again. He could barely hear Sasuke's voice over the crackle of red chakra.
"--okay? You can do this. Listen to me. On three..."
... Good. Sasuke had kept his cool. Good boy. Don't panic. Keep in control. The demon chakra pulsed, once, twice; Kakashi waited for a sudden flare. Jiraiya was still working on taking down the barrier. It had only been two minutes; that was already two minutes too long.
The red chakra started to build up. And build up, and up, like an avalanche waiting to happen, reeking of old blood and rage and death. Kakashi had felt it before; he didn't stumble, didn't pull back and throw up, but the bile still rose in his throat.
"Naruto! What the hell are you doing?!"
He started to ready the Chidori again.
"Naruto, damn it, don't make me--"
The rising tension in the dojo suddenly petered out, leaving Kakashi reeling. He braced himself for a reflux, but while the decrease of the malevolent chakra slowed down, it never did go back up.
But it didn't disappear -- Naruto's presence didn't disappear. Kakashi latched onto that, the hint of rambunctious chakra flickering behind that door. He didn't even want to think about what it would have done to Sasuke to be forced to put down his best friend.
The red light under the door died. Kakashi was still staring, trying to understand enough of their muffled mutterings to tell what was going on, when he heard Sakura laugh. He closed his eyes briefly, glanced at the old sage. Jiraiya's shoulders sagged in relief.
Slowly, Kakashi moved away from the door, and slunk out of the window to join the man and his frog in the garden.
Jiraiya nodded. "The sigils on the floor look correct from here. The new seal seems to have taken hold properly..."
Jiraiya slid down his frog's back to stand in the overgrown grass. "Even if the seal is imperfect, we should have at least a few hours, at best a week, to fix it."
Kakashi shook his head ruefully. "Those brats are going to make me go gray early."
Jiraiya snorted at the poor joke, though it carried more agreement than mockery.
"I'll stay here to watch for trouble; you go and tell the ANBU to stand down."
Kakashi gave Jiraiya and his noble, responsible countenance a weary look. He could have bet the sage just didn't want to run the risk of having to deal with Tsunade-sama.
"Yes, yes..." he agreed tiredly, and went.
The Uchiha district's barrier was undoubtedly a great achievement, but, like any static defense, the lack of human casters to readjust to attacks gave it some vulnerabilities. Kakashi recognized an old barrier specialist, who looked like the ANBU had dragged him out of bed, at the head of the team prying away at one of the angles. Sasuke probably wouldn't appreciate seeing his barrier dismantled, especially since he didn't have the competences to build it back up, so Kakashi strolled that way first.
"Tachibana-san, hello!" he greeted cheerily from his roof.
The withered old man gave him a glare that would have stopped a whole platoon in their tracks -- a look that many of the jounin waiting on the opposing roofs echoed. Kakashi rubbed the back of his head guiltily, and waited as the commanders of two ANBU squads converged on him.
"Jiraiya-sama has the situation under control," he assured them before they could ask.
"What the hell is going on?" Crow mask demanded.
Kakashi shrugged noncommittally. "Where is Tsunade-sama?"
The set of Crow's shoulders indicated a whole lot of annoyance, but Bear stepped forward and Crow relaxed. Kakashi nodded amiably at the older female, who, despite the mask hiding her eyes, managed to convey her "cut the bullshit" look just fine.
"Jiraiya-sama is inside the barrier?" she asked for confirmation.
Kakashi nodded, amused that his reputation for evasiveness and willful misunderstandings was still going strong. "Yes. He's standing guard no farther than fifteen feet away from Naruto. There's no need to break open the barrier now. Sasuke-kun will take it down as soon as possible."
She considered him in silence for a few seconds, and then sighed briefly. "I suppose you can't tell us what happened yet."
"Sorry," Kakashi replied, almost sincerely.
"If you're trying to cover up for your students..."
Kakashi snorted softly. "Even with the barrier down, I don't see where they'd run to. If I'm covering for them, that's not going to do anything but delay the inevitable."
He was pretty sure they weren't convinced, and with good reason -- there was plenty you could do with a sufficient delay -- but Bear dispatched one of her men anyway. Kakashi sat on his heels and waited for Tsunade's orders.
She came directly instead, with two Councilmen trailing after her; Aburame Shibi and that old woman who had been the Third's teammate and personal advisor, Koharu. Tsunade looked positively thunderous.
"Kakashi," she growled, and briefly he was glad for the barrier between them.
"...Tsunade-sama!" He laughed, somewhat nervously. She looked furious enough to punch right through the barrier. "Ah, you didn't get Jiraiya's message?"
The Hokage went from thunderous to apocalyptic. "What kind of message is --" She managed to stop herself before a critical meltdown; Kakashi wasn't sure how. The barrier-breakers and the ANBU were doing their best to pretend that they weren't listening. "... Yes. I got his message. Five minutes ago."
"Ah. ...Well." Kakashi sighed. Maybe not warning Tsunade before her ANBU reported the incident was part of Jiraiya's plan, but if so, Kakashi wasn't sure what sort of spin to put on it. "I'll go and fetch him, then, shall I?"
He was gone before she could stop him.
Jiraiya and he had planned to stress to Tsunade that Team Seven had needed to try their own way to save Sakura. If things had progressed any longer as they were, with training that didn't go anywhere and without anything to strive forward, Naruto and Sasuke would have eventually lost patience, grabbed Sakura, and skipped town. Sasuke had already proved that if push came to shove, he would look for his solutions elsewhere, and Naruto... Naruto still wanted to become Hokage, but Hokage was abstract, far away, and his lovers and potential child weren't.
If Sakura had died -- Tsunade couldn't deny how likely that had been, even with her emergency, last-resort measures, however much she downplayed it for the children -- Konoha would have lost them both forever.
With Koharu around, though... The old woman already thought that Tsunade was way too personally attached to what amounted to a living, ticking time-bomb; she didn't need more ammunition to use against Naruto. Kakashi was also pretty sure that amongst the ANBU were a few of Danzou's men, and Danzou didn't bother hiding that he thought Sasuke should have been destroyed the second they brought him back; at most, he would compromise far enough to accept that Sasuke would only be executed after making sure they had enough sperm samples to preserve the Sharingan genes.
Kakashi didn't have enough pull to smooth out the whole incident with Tsunade herself, much less with her advisors, and his allegiance was already suspect as it was. Teachers were supposed to be fond of their students, but apparently not when the students were a traitor and a demon. Who would have known.
He had expected Jiraiya to be inside, checking on Sakura's seal. But Jiraiya was sitting alone on the gallery, a strange chagrined-yet-amused look on his face. He smirked up at Kakashi as Kakashi approached.
"Tsunade-sama is asking for you," Kakashi said first, just for the pleasure of watching that smugness falter a bit. "How do their seals check out?"
Jiraiya pushed himself up, another smirk blooming on his face. "I wouldn't know."
Kakashi arched his visible eyebrow. If the seals were stable now, they would hold on a little while longer, but still.
"I'll check later," Jiraiya added breezily. "It's going to take a while anyway, and Tsunade will be very displeased if her explanation has to wait that long. You're welcome to check on them, of course; I took down the barrier around the dojo."
He walked away from the house, long ponytail swinging with his purposeful steps. Kakashi watched him go, trying to shake off the unpleasant feeling that the man had omitted some critical piece of information.
When he stepped up on the gallery and nudged open the door to the living room where his kids had made their bed, he got an unwelcome confirmation. Tsunade's displeasure was probably the last thing on Jiraiya's mind when he decided to push back the check-up.
Also, the kids weren't in the dojo anymore.
Kakashi pulled the door closed again, turned around, walked to the other end of the gallery in silence and sat down, wondering if there was a way, other than head trauma, to unsee what he'd seen. He had never really wanted to know that his adorable students were bendy and motivated enough to do Volume 2, page 35. Really.
Annoying little brats.
He was really quite glad today wouldn't be the day he lost one of them.
[The Plan (b)] [Sakura interlude]