Skin Deep
Minor spoilers up to the Chuunin exams. Kakashi-centric. Talent comes up a lot in the Naruto series.

Kakashi hates praise. He never has dealt with it very well, performing tricks that first surprised his teachers and then came to be expected by them, receiving compliment after compliment matched with slowly-rising standards. Talent. Kakashi doesn't understand that word very much except to see it as an illusion, the very best one of all, because it always seems like everyone is more capable than everyone else. If people were really good, he figures, then they would never die--and even Orochimaru has his flaws.

When he was young, and the report cards kept coming back with A after red-scrawled A, Kakashi would hide his face out of habit so that no one would be able to connect his identity to his achievements. He would hide the report cards too, but those required parent-guardian signatures. If you were really unlucky, you'd be approved by the teachers themselves, which involved a lot of smiling faces and being told you should be proud of yourself.

After genin graduation, they put him on a team of older children because they didn't know what else to do with someone that young. They reshuffled him when the first assignment didn't work. Then the second. Special instructors were called in to handle the Hatake prodigy, parceling out smaller missions that the boy accepted and completed with a shrug.

By the time he ended up assigned to partners who didn't mind the age discrepancy, Kakashi learned to wear a mask so that he would be able to blend in with his team, his cheeks still child-fat. He showed up in every picture since with his face obscured.

When he was a teenager, and the ninja roster would be flipped past his section or he'd catch sight of himself in a brook, Hatake started to see an inky flatness where his features used to be. Eventually, he could believe that he did not have a face at all, that he was somehow less than human. Just a shape.

This was comforting.

Kakashi learned to drink through the cloth cover. Only water--anything else would leave a residue--and even then Kakashi tasted soap and dust filtered through his mask. When he ate, he gathered the fabric down to his chin and cupped the fingers of his free hand over his nose, quick-picking at his food with his chopsticks, feeding himself beneath the shield of his palm. He was fast whenever he had to use both hands, barely giving enough time to announce his acceptance of the meal before he was already setting it down.

Because of this, Kakashi usually chose to dine at home, and refrain otherwise. Even then, as the rice bowl slowly heated his hand and he skirted around his small apartment, Kakashi ate with the blinds drawn.

When he is older, Kakashi still does not like to be singled out. Looked at. Sometimes after a particularly good mission, he excuses himself hastily and locks himself in the nearest bathroom. Wraps his arms around his stomach while he doubles over, wondering just who it is that the other nin think they're speaking to when they compliment him. The reaction is essentially neurotic, he knows--but if Kakashi enjoyed the spotlight, he would never cover his face to begin with.

In person, Kakashi pretends he doesn't hear compliments. Or chooses not to respond. He reads the same book for hours even when he knows the ending. He dislikes his own ceremonies and usually tries to skip them altogether.

Kakashi is too afraid of being confident in pure skill anymore. He knows how it goes lacking just when you need it most. Prowess is not what he sees when he looks in the bathroom mirror at home, rubbing his fingers against the steam-clouded mute reflection. Instead, Hatake sees scars. One runs right over the eye he likes to believe isn't there either.

He wears the mask at times even when he's alone, and the silhouette of his face keeps him company.

Eventually, Kakashi expects this mysterious lie known as talent to fail. He may have been an early achiever. He may have been astounding as a genin, chuunin, jounin, or Anbu. Because he may have been good, Kakashi has spent most of his time working at childhood tasks that were preliminary training for a full-blown career.

By twenty years of age, when other nin are talking about marriage and heirs, Hatake finds that working is really all that's left for him.

After the Nine-tails devastation, Kakashi watches talent become the biggest catchphrase in all of Konoha. Part of this is his fault.

But only part.

Because his face is still covered at twenty-six, Kakashi doesn't have to worry about the small, involuntary winces that his mouth makes whenever the genin compete. He watches Neji harp endlessly about birth-gifts in his private vendetta with Rock Lee, which in itself is only a manifestation of their own wars with the Hyuuga clan and the Uchiha, respectively.

Secretly, Kakashi hates it when Gai brings up their rivalry. He does not let himself think that he is better than Maito, because if he did, one day he'd be proven wrong just when he thought he could count on himself again. He does not brag because he does not believe he has accorded so many S-rank missions, and that causes some to call him the most arrogant of all.

Above all, he does not like to talk about the Sharingan Eye he should not have.

What Kakashi doesn't say because he can't say is that the more that is on his mind, the more language runs right out of it. Words are water, water is words; he backsteps through his day's events as they mount around him, thick and angry as dog-sized hornets. The more complex the thought, the more his mouth betrays himself, silent behind his mask.

Until the end result, when he is so full of emotion that Kakashi thinks he will dissolve into fireclouds of it--the end result is that his face is completely and totally impassive, and he cannot speak to save his life. The best Hatake can do is joke. He copies nonchalance.

He hides his face for that reason too, so no one will be offended when they confess their life's passions and his expression does not change at all.

Kakashi is known to be irregular in relationships. Other ninja have tried numerous ways of catching his attention. They forget, all too soon, that it is Kakashi who possesses the eye of the hypnotist; that when they are trying to bedazzle him, he has already seen through their illusions and is politely pretending to look the other way. Critics like to say he is bloodless, and Kakashi wonders when he earned those too, scowling mouths to match the ones upturned. He doesn't want either. Never did.

Sincerity is better, and there is plenty of it in Konoha.

Sincerity also hurts more. Kakashi does not know what to say to it either sometimes, so he usually pushes his chair out and reaches for a book.

He is late to everything. At times, it's because he doesn't know what people will expect--the Copy Ninja, the early graduate--so he deliberates at the funeral grounds until he can't make excuses anymore. Fundamentally uncomfortable with himself, Kakashi finds the cool line of the honorary marker press into his back while he imagines the kanji lettering of his teammates branding itself on his spine.

He talks to their ghosts, because they don't need him to speak.

Sometimes the mask comes off. Usually, it involves death. In fact, it involves death quite a lot of the time, because that's the one thing that turned Kakashi's childhood foible into a permanent one, keeps him hiding from his own reputation behind a layer of cloth. Like talent, Kakashi cannot confront death and expect to win. Unlike talent, Kakashi tries anyway.

During training hours, Kakashi spends most of his attention on Sasuke--not Naruto, not Sakura, and often he wonders if they notice it. If they're hurt in some kind of betrayal, or if they justify it as genius seeks genius. Not in the textbook fashion--Sakura is more intelligent than them both, quite probably because she doesn't have excess of chakra to distract her--but in the blood. Sharingan eyes.

In his own way, he thinks they're lucky, but also in his own way he knows that they will be mortally insulted if he says this. Hard work saves people, whereas natural skill can become complacent. Kakashi watches Sasuke steep in his own self-determined bile from day to day, and inwardly groans when Gai passes them in the hall and launches into another tirade about dedication overcoming inborn traits.

Occasionally he wants to tell Gai he's right despite all the prancing and posturing and ridiculous nindo, but the words to explain why dry up in Kakashi's mouth and die behind his mask. They flavor his water when he drinks. He resorts to indifference.

Kakashi never passed teams because he has been convinced that any threesome would only find themselves dead. He thinks the same of his current students, but never before had there been the same need confronting him, looking back with his own slow-dying eyes.

What keeps Kakashi teaching his crumbling rookies is his same bitter relationship with talent. What he's really afraid of is that Sasuke will fall under the spell that will convince him that skill is all that you need. Not teammates. That all a person requires is a collection of jutsus just like a coffin-box of weapons slid under the bed, judged by other people to be the best.

But in the end, techniques can't bring back the dead. Talent can't undo the bad choices you make when you're younger, some of them deliberate. It involves other people's labels and a sick-blooded wondering for when the next great prodigy will come around, or when someone better will show up down the line, and then that's all your world becomes, just you embodying what you can do. Nothing more.

Kakashi watches Sasuke as the team quarrels over where they will eat for lunch. Naruto wins by dint of his voice, which refuses to shut up even when Sakura coos enthusiastically at Sasuke's request for dumplings. Kakashi turns the page in a book he's read so many times that the chapters have become soft and stained with finger-oils, and he remains silent inside his skin because he's never known how to react.