Part Two
Much earlier than before

"Hokage-sama?" Kakashi asked, hands in his pockets as he waited.

The Third eyed the ANBU standing before him. Kakashi looked like he'd just rolled out of bed. He probably had; it was only eleven, and he didn’t have any missions.

"Kakashi. Good to see you. I was just looking over some files, and thought I'd find out how your mother is doing." The Third settled back in his chair, pipe between his teeth, and made himself as pleasant as possible. Not that Kakashi ever seemed awed by anyone--which was both good and bad--but it was habit.

Kakashi looked surprised. Or as surprised as he ever did. "Fine, Hokage-sama. Thank you for asking."

"So you've checked on her?" the Third asked. The thing about Kakashi was that if there was a way to lie, he'd probably use it. The Third had no idea why this was, but he suspected Kakashi really needed some creative outlets. Preferably ones that didn't involve lying.

However, since he was aware of Kakashi's lying, he simply asked questions he knew the answer to.

"Oh, well, I saw her--"

The Hokage lowered his head and eyed Kakashi over the tops of his scrolls. He knew exactly when Kakashi had last spoken to his mother.

"Well," Kakashi faltered, "I would think that if anything were wrong, someone would tell me."

"I see." The Third leaned back. "When was the last time you saw your mother, Kakashi?"

Kakashi took and released a large breath. "Oh . . . several years ago . . ."

"Several years?"

Kakashi came as close to glaring as he ever did. "Twenty. One."

The Third lifted an eyebrow. "I see."

Kakashi looked sidelong at the wall.

"And how many friends do you have in Konoha, Kakashi?" the Third asked, though he already knew the answer.

"I have friends," Kakashi said, smiling brightly. "Hokage-sama, you don't have to worry about me--"

"How many friends, Kakashi?" the Third asked again. He would not be derailed. He watched all his ninja closely, especially the ANBU, and he wasn't going to be sidetracked. He'd given Kakashi plenty of time--years--to form relationships. It still wasn't happening.

"Oh . . . at least three . . ."

"Really?" the Hokage asked. "Who?"

"Ah, Rin." Kakashi smiled brightly again, his single eye closing.

"She has been acting as an ambassador in the Country of the Sand for seven years now."

"Well, yes, that's true," Kakashi muttered, looking at the floor. "Asuma. Asuma is a very good friend of mine," Kakashi said, head snapping up.

"Ah, yes, Asuma." The Third leaned back again, looking out his window. "Asuma said he admired you greatly, but was rather worried that you spent so much time alone." The Third could feel his trap tightening. He suspected Kakashi could, too.

"Well, Gai . . ."

"Is your greatest rival. A strange friend." He looked back, watching the man he'd known from childhood.

Kakashi wouldn't look at him. The Third suspected it was because he was furious.

When he spoke, the Third's voice was soft. "My point, Kakashi, is that I'm worried about you."

Kakashi's gaze shifted to him, but his head didn't move.

"You've buried yourself in work and books, and have forgotten that Konoha--the village you protect--is made up of people. You can't risk your life for something you don't even know."

Kakashi was watching him closely. Or rather, as closely as Kakashi ever watched anyone.

"I'd like you to retire from ANBU. For the time being," the Third added, when Kakashi looked like he might protest. "Take some of the Genin, and start helping us test and train them. It'll remind you of what you're fighting for."

Kakashi looked mutinous. Still, he bowed stiffly. "Yes, Hokage-sama," he answered formally. He didn't wait to be dismissed before turning and marching rigidly from the room.

Then (as in, returning to just before 'Now.')

"I didn't mean to embarrass you."

Iruka jumped and looked up. Kakashi stood on the other side of the mission office table, Icha Icha Paradise held in one hand, the other in his pocket. He was slouching, lean body settled back on his hips, and his silver hair looked like it hadn't been brushed in days.

"You didn't embarrass me," Iruka muttered, handing a mission scroll to the Chuunin before him and marking it down on his sheet. The next Chuunin hesitated, then shuffled up alongside Kakashi.

"Oh. Of course. You were just suddenly sunburned."

He started to blush again, damn it. He refused to look up. Iruka realized he was rubbing his scar, and stopped. "Yes," he muttered. "I was just suddenly sunburned." He handed another scroll over and glanced around the office to see who was left. Three ninja waiting to turn in mission reports, two more waiting for missions, and Genma wandering around behind the desks, poking through scrolls.

"Like you are right now."

Iruka broke into a laugh and glanced at the other ninja. "Yes," he said finally. "Like I am right now."

"Ah." Kakashi looked solemn right up until he grinned. "Well, maybe ramen would make the sunburn better?"

Iruka eyed Kakashi closely. "I do not have a crush on you," he said, very serious. The last thing he needed was for this mission to go badly.

"Well, it was flattering while it lasted," Kakashi sighed, then grinned and winked.

Iruka just laughed again, shaking his head. "All right. I'm here for a few more hours . . ."

"I'll meet you after," Kakashi said, smiling again and heading out.

The door closed behind him.

Iruka felt a pencil thump against the back of his head. He whipped around, glaring.

"Distracted?" Genma asked, grinning around his toothpick. "So, you and Kakashi . . ?"

"We're just friends," Iruka muttered, picking the pencil up and throwing it back at Genma.

He caught it without looking. "Does Kakashi even have friends? Acquaintances, sure, and people who respect him, but friends?"

Iruka sighed. "He's nice. Doesn't throw things at me."

Genma just snorted.


Kakashi's eyes snapped open, black swirling violently in the red.

Silence. He took a shaky breath, rubbing a forearm across his face, wiping silver hair away, and glanced at the window.


He sat up, arms resting on his knees, and waited for his heart to slow down.

Dream. It had been a dream. Not like he didn't have enough of them. Just another one to add to the list.

He swung out of bed, grabbing his mask off the shelf above as he did so. A glance at the picture there, at the childish grins of himself and his Chuunin team, and he yanked the mask on over his face.

Sleep wouldn't return. He made tea, instead.

He hadn't realized how out of practice he was at dealing with people on more than a superficial level until he'd gone for ramen with Iruka the night before. Somehow, it hadn't mattered much that he didn't know anyone. He had his work and his books, and frankly, he didn't understand most people. Well, no. He understood them. They were too happy, or too oblivious, or just didn't catch on very quickly (which frustrated him to no end, since he caught on to everything. Even before the Sharingan).

He didn't know how to relate to people. He could predict them, and he could analyze them. He just wasn't sure what to do with them.

Kakashi pulled the teapot down from a shelf, scowling.

He really didn't know why he was letting Iruka hang around. He should stop. Friends were dangerous. Too troublesome.

The image of Iruka hanging from a cross, thousands of Itachi's stabbing him, appeared unbidden from the dream. He flinched, and the teapot dropped from his fingers. He jumped back just before it smashed to the floor.

Just another dream. That's all it was.

Kakashi snatched the broom and dustpan from their hook, and started sweeping up wicked shards.

He didn't often dream of his living friends. Obito, sure. All the time. And the Fourth, from before he'd been the Fourth. And his father (or rather, his father's body).

Iruka was fine. Iruka was alive and well. Iruka was probably at work right now. He could call and--

Kakashi looked at the clock. Okay, maybe Iruka wasn't at work. Iruka was probably in bed, sleeping.

He wouldn't call Iruka. He wouldn't. Absolutely not. It was not nice to wake someone from a sound sleep.

On the other hand, if you just checked on them and left them asleep, that was all right.

Kakashi hurried to get dressed.


Gai felt, rather than saw, the other Jounin. He glanced at his window but, predictably, it was empty. Well. He wasn't going to get back to meditating now, and he really didn't like it anyway, so . . .

He jumped to the vacant window and stared out. "Are you here to challenge me, worthy rival?" he asked, grinning broadly, hands on his hips.

Kakashi stopped in mid-escape. "Ah. No." He glanced back over his shoulder. "Not really."

Gai's smile slipped. "Oh." He looked around. No sign of anyone else. The streets were still dark. Down the road, a baker had begun his day, but even the animals were still asleep. When Gai spoke, he was quiet. "Are you making rounds?"

It was something the Jounin didn't talk about. The intense desire that arrived occasionally to leap from building to building. To peer into windows and watch to see if the occupants still breathed. Just to make sure those they cared about were still alive.

Kakashi hesitated. He nodded once.

Gai smiled. It was good to know he'd made Kakashi's list of 'people to check on.' Silently, he pulled his head back into his room and closed his window. Kakashi slipped off into the dark.

Long before that

Konoha's Yellow Flash knocked briefly on the door of the Hatake residence, a frown already in place.

It wasn't like Kakashi to be late. Granted, they'd done some extra training the night before, and he had taken his team out for ramen after, but even still, Kakashi was one of the few he could count on to be on time.

Everyone knew it wasn't Obito.

He knocked a second time, but there was still no answer.

Concerned, the blond Jounin opened the door to the house, feeling like a trespasser and prepared to have Hatake Sakumo ambush him at any moment.

Everything remained quiet.

"Hello?" he called.

The room echoed.

Moving slowly (the better to bolt for the door if anyone should appear, bellowing 'INTRUDER!'), the Jounin took off his shoes and began edging inside.

"Hello?" he called again.

Still no response. He considered heading toward the back, where the bedrooms were, but . . . well, he'd check everywhere else first. Bedrooms were private.

He inched through the silent tea room, with its empty tatami mats. He glanced into the small dojo, but left quickly. ANBU masks hung from the walls, their empty sockets glaring down at him accusingly. "Sakumo-san? Kakashi?"

He crept through the kitchen (sparkling clean, he noted. He wished he had the energy to keep his apartment this clean), and was about to leave when something caught his eye through the window.

Something silver in the back garden, nearly hidden behind a bush.

Glancing around once more, he headed out.

The garden was neatly trimmed and beautifully designed. He threaded his way around several wall-like bushes, circling ever closer to the shock of silver hair.

"Kakashi?" he called again. The morning was quiet; he could hear someone breathing. If it was Kakashi, he should answer. If it was the boy's father, he would at least look up.

Finally, jumping over a bush, he saw a break in the flora wall and hurried through to the center of the garden.

Kakashi sat on the stones surrounding a small pond, silver hair bedraggled and dripping. He didn't even look up at his sensei.

And there was good reason.

Konoha's Yellow Flash went perfectly still.

There were ants on the stones. Crawling through great pools of blood, and over torn black intestines tangled around a sword. Little black bodies writhed inside the vulgar smile stretched across the man's throat, cartilage and bone exposed. The head was tipped back into Kakashi's lap, open eyes staring up at the child.

Bloody fingers stroked through the corpse's silver hair. They trembled.

"Kakashi," his sensei said softly, kneeling.

Kakashi kept stroking, eyes unfocused. The Jounin reached out, and felt the child's chakra flickering unsteadily, pale and faint. He began to inch slowly closer. "What happened?"

Kakashi took a deep breath. "I smelled blood, when I came home." His voice was flat, wooden. The voice of a lone survivor filing a mission report. "I came out here . . ." He drifted off. Glassy eyes blinked slowly. Fingers sifted through his father's hair, then relaxed.

The Flash edged carefully closer, avoiding the blood Kakashi knelt in. "Kakashi? Come here."

Kakashi kept staring down, his face ashen against the stark black of his mask. "He'll be okay," he murmured. An ant crawled over his bare foot, then back down, walking on the bloated bodies of its fellows.

"Kakashi." He reached out and touched the boy. Kakashi flinched away, hands tightening in his father's hair.

"It's fine," Kakashi said. His voice was thready. The wind picked up, tugging at wet hair, unable to move it. Leaves swirled around them, flipping silver and green. "It's fine," Kakashi said again, settling back into his place, and forcibly relaxing his hands. His pupils were dilated. "I channeled chakra into him, like Rin showed me, so he should be okay."

The Jounin's blue eyes flashed, noting details in a single glance. The child was shrunken. His skin was almost gray. His eyes were washed out, now the palest of blue. He looked half dead himself. His chakra flickered raggedly around him.

"That's good," the Jounin said carefully. "That was smart of you, to channel chakra into him." He kept his voice low, steady. Soothing. "You should come with me now. Eat something. I'll call a doctor." He edged closer, still crouched, reaching out carefully.

White Fang's eyes stared flatly up, starting to sink into his head. An ant crawled into the slack mouth and vanished.

"Call the doctor. I'll stay here," Kakashi said softly. His hands trembled as he patted the hair down again. "He needs someone to keep him warm." He tugged the man's shirt tighter around the body. The cloth squelched between his fingers. He shivered. His clothing was wet through, soaked from morning dew and blood.

Carefully, the blond reached out and touched Kakashi again.

Cold. His chakra was faded. His stamina was used up. The boy was going into shock.

"Have you been out here all night?" he asked, inching ever closer.

"Is it morning?" Kakashi asked absently. "I'm going to be late for training. Am I late for training? I'm sorry."

Carefully, the Jounin moved until he sat behind the child, one leg on either side of the boy's. "That's all right. But, Kakashi-kun, we should go inside now."

The little body tensed up. There was a flare of chakra, the last little bit, as Kakashi worked to bring his mind farther into the present. "But Father--"

"It'll be okay. I promise. You've been very brave." Carefully, so carefully because he didn't want to panic a Chuunin ninja, he wrapped his arms around Kakashi and began to disentangle the child's fingers from the corpse's hair. "It's time to go, Kakashi."

There was a moment where he was still. Then Kakashi started to struggle, weakly, weaker than his sensei had ever seen him. "Wait, wait," the child breathed. "I have to put his body back--" he shoved at the blackened intestines, pushing them into the hole in the man's stomach. Flies swarmed up, and little ants ran every which way, trying to escape.

The Jounin caught the boy's hands, pulling him close against his chest, pulling him free of the body. The head dropped onto the stone with an ugly thump.

The child in his arms was all skin and bone, sharp angles and wiry muscle, but trembling and faint, like all the strength had left him. Left behind in the corpse. Pouring chakra into a dead man all night long . . . the young Jounin shuddered, wrapped the boy up, and carried Kakashi into the house.

"Wait--wait--Sensei--" Kakashi whimpered, twisting to look back.

He could hear the drone of bugs behind them. "It's all right, Kakashi-kun. It's okay. Come inside with me."

The little body was still shaking. He'd stopped fighting. His chakra was nearly gone, only the lightest of pulses, fading into shock. He laid against his sensei's shoulder, hands tucked between their chests. "I tried to keep him warm . . . "

His big hand covered the boy's entire head. Frightened, the Jounin began to channel his own energy into the little child, grabbing at the frayed ends of the boy's chakra and pulling them together, patching them, giving him enough that he wouldn't just fade into death.

"You did the very best you could. No one could ask for you to be any stronger." He closed the door behind them, and kept walking. Back, into the bedrooms. Into Kakashi's room, which was frighteningly adult. "I'm going to call some people. I want you to sleep now, okay?"

"I'm bleeding." The words were small.

He looked down, at Kakashi's hands, covered in his father's blood. Carefully, he settled the child on the edge of the futon, then began to wipe the blood away with his shirt.

"I picked up my father's sword . . . he always says I shouldn't play with them, but it was poking him . . ."

Small cuts across each palm. It didn't take long to find the first aid supplies, and bandage Kakashi's hands. Kakashi continued staring down at them long after they were covered with pristine, white cloth.

"Sleep now, Kakashi-kun," he said softly.

Kakashi looked up at him, eyes blank and pale.

"I'm going to call the doctor." And he would, too. Not for the body outside, but for the boy in front of him.

Kakashi just sat there, staring at him, through him. Finally, he took Kakashi's shoulders and gently pressed, until the boy was lying on his side. The Jounin covered him with the heaviest blankets he could find, called a medic, and with shaking hands started to make tea.

When he walked back into Kakashi's room, the boy was still staring at him with large, blank eyes.

"I tried to keep him warm," Kakashi said quietly.

He nodded and sat down on the futon, one hand on the silver head. "I know. You did the best you could. Sleep now, Kakashi."

Kakashi continued staring at the far wall.

Then (After the past, back to near-current times . . .)

He flipped dejectedly through his book. Not even Icha Icha Paradise could cheer him at the moment. (Three hours of sleep would do that to a person.)

Distantly, he could hear children playing in the creek. Far away, thank god. His tree was undisturbed, except by the occasional ant. He watched it crawl toward his boot, and moved his foot.

He flipped through the book again. No, no good. He'd already read it. Re-reading it wasn't going to make him feel any better.

Kakashi put his book back in his pocket and glared at the forest floor. Damn forest floor.

Nah, it was too much work to glare. He went back to staring at the leaves.

Damn Iruka, anyway. What did he think he was doing, hanging out, worming his way in until there was a while new host of bad dreams to deal with? Stupid man.


He jumped and looked down.

As if his thoughts had summoned the Chuunin, Iruka was standing by the bank of the creek, looking out over the water. Tan hands were on his hips, and he looked vaguely annoyed. Or maybe concerned. Constipated. Hungry. It was hard to tell from Kakashi's angle.

Kakashi watched him.

"Kakashi? Gai said you'd probably be here . . ." then, quieter, "though I'm starting to feel like a fool, talking to the trees."

Kakashi couldn't help it. He laughed. Damn Iruka for being able to pull him out of a bad mood, just like that. (Not that his bad moods ever lasted, anyway, but when he had one, he should be allowed to hang on to it.)

Kakashi swung down, landing silently. Iruka, however, had heard the laugh, and was already facing him.

"Is everything okay?" Iruka asked.

Kakashi cocked his head. "Of course. Why?"

"I don't know. I just went by your usual haunts and you weren't there . . ." Iruka petered off. No doubt because Kakashi was laughing.

"You know my usual haunts? That's a bit obsessive, Iruka."

Iruka glared at him.

Then Kakashi remembered what he had pretty much decided on before. He didn't need any more nightmares. Therefore, he didn't need any more friends.

"Want to go for ramen?" Iruka asked.

That sounded good. No, wait, he wasn't supposed to be friends anymore. "I don't think so." The bad mood was returning.

"You don't think so? Why not?" Iruka sounded annoyed. He rubbed at the scar across his face, frowning.

"I have things to do," Kakashi said airily.

"Like what? I work in the mission office, and I know we're slow this week."

Kakashi thought about glaring, but discarded the idea as requiring too much energy. "I'm just busy."

Iruka stared at him. "Are you trying to brush me off?" he asked after a moment, sounding . . . well, rather irritated. Not upset in the slightest, but definitely irritated.

Kakashi smiled brightly and nodded. At least the man was getting the idea.

"Any reason?"

Reason . . . reason. . . . For once in his life, a lie didn't pop to the forefront of his mind. "No."

"I see. You're just being insane."

When put that way, Kakashi's carefully thought out logic seemed to fail. "Yes."

Iruka shook his head slightly and stared at the ground for a moment. "All right. Do you want to go get friend-free ramen?"

Kakashi nodded before he could stop himself. Friend-free. He could do friend-free. Wait. Was there such a thing as friend-free ramen? He wanted there to be friend-free ramen. Two people could go get ramen and not be friends. And if they weren't friends, he wouldn't have nightmares.

Still, he wasn't sure it worked that way. But he didn't have experience in things like this, and Iruka did, and Iruka wouldn't lie to him, would he? No. People didn't generally lie, in Kakashi's experience. Still . . . He looked over, but Iruka was already walking away. No time now to take it back, at least not without seeming like a complete fool.

He rubbed his hands on his pants, then stuffed them in his pockets. Damn.


To chapter three
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