Flowers on Old Graves
by me

There are not many people in the world that Kakashi would call a friend.

In fact, there is no one in the world that Kakashi would truly call a friend. Not any more. He has comrades, and there are many people he trusts, but he hasn't any friends.

It's not a complicated thing, though. There are probably those, he knows, who think he isolates himself by plan or by nature, but it's nothing so serious or thought through as that. Simply, it's fate - destiny - whatever one might want to call the series of accidents and coincidences that have killed his friends and family.

There is the incident with the eye, of course, but for that, Kakashi holds no one responsible but himself. He does not hold grudges against the dead.

It's a dry taste in his mouth, standing in front of his mother and father's graves, but the pain is dulled by time. Iruka knows he doesn't come here often enough. He comes more, actually, since he's met Naruto. Strange, maybe, that knowing the boy with the demon within makes it easier to honor his parents' honorable deaths.

Perhaps he feels redeemed in some way to think he's pointing what could be a monster down the path of humanity and goodness. But he knows that's not all it is - how could it be? Naruto is not the monster, only the cage.

You'd think people would appreciate the cage more, but mostly, people just notice what's within.

He breathes deep, and the dryness fades.

They hardly know each other, although they know of each other. One, the teacher of the ninja students from the Northeast quarter of Konoha, the best prefecture of the community - the other, a former Anbu, supposedly the only man not of the Uchiha clan to possess the Sharingan - stolen, paid for, bought by blood, it is his, and his legacy is sealed by it.

In the stories they'd meet on a sunny day with the sakura blossoms just losing their leaves, somewhere in that graveyard that their friends and family share. Perhaps they'd talk about their losses, and feel the connection on some deep, profound level. Perhaps they do share that connection. Perhaps, but they may never know.

In fact, they do meet in the graveyard - they have passed each other six times over the course of two years, and have never spoken a word to each other. Each is only another meaningless face to the other - they know of each other, they do not know each other.

The third time they exchange words is in the graveyard nonetheless, but in midafternoon, and the sakura petals are long gone. Iruka is rising just after saying his prayers to his parents. He turns, and there is Kakashi.

"Yo, teacher," says Kakashi, and he raises a hand in greeting. "I think I've seen you here before. Your parents?"

"Yes," Iruka says, in a tone that is both wistful and firm. He does not ask why Kakashi is there, but plants his feet as a schoolteacher does, and crosses his arms. He is straight to the point - it's his nature. "I always mean to find you and ask, but there's never time. How is Naruto these days?"

"He's as exuberant as ever," Kakashi says in a tone that suggests that maybe he's being sarcastic, but maybe not. "He learns slowly, but he learns. What, no questions about your class' golden boy? Sasuke's potential is soaring."

"I don't have to worry about him," Iruka observes, and it's true. Sasuke would not let others worry about him. Naruto wouldn't notice.

"Hm," says Kakashi, and his one visible eye drifts from Iruka, across the graveyard. His posture suggests he's bored - bored with life, maybe. Iruka sometimes wonders, after the first time they talked, why Kakashi offered to teach in the first place. Perhaps to amuse himself.

"Ah," Kakashi says, suddenly, and his gaze swivels back to Iruka. "I meant to speak to you, you know. About the upcoming chuunin exam. I expect I'll be able to enter my team--" - and that stings, a little, that it's his team, his students, now - "--but I thought, perhaps, I'd like to hear more about them." His tone is cheerful, and Iruka wonders if he should bring notes about their technical progress so as not to forget a single detail.

Maybe he can convince Kakashi that to enter the team now is ridiculous.

"Don't you think we should meet somewhere more appropriate?" Iruka asks, but he doesn't wait for an answer. "If you're free tomorrow, we should meet then. Classes end after two o'clock."

"Mm, perhaps. At three, then, at the corner of the marketing district. You know the one," he adds, irreverently. And then he is walking past Iruka, onwards towards the dead, flipping his hand in a goodbye gesture. "Tomorrow, then."

Iruka may have sensed some connection, then, but it is through the living, not the dead.

Kakashi is always late.

Iruka knows this because he knows Naruto, and Naruto likes to complain, loudly and messily through a mouthful of ramen, about the faults of others. So he arrives at the corner of the marketing district at four, and Kakashi is just coming around the bend. "Yo! You didn't wait long, did you?" His eye seems to sparkle, and Iruka wonders if it's a kind of game he plays, being late. If so, it's a game that no one knows the rules to.

"No, of course not," he says.

"Then let's go." And Kakashi leads the way, shoulders slumped, to wherever they may be going.

Kakashi is strange, defined to a caricature of his own reality. Naruto may not notice - maybe not even Sakura, or Sasuke. But they are twelve years old, and genius does not substitute for experience.

Iruka notices, and lets it slip by. He is not Kakashi's teacher.

They sit down at a ramen bar that is not far from Naruto's favorite ramen store, and let cups of green tea steam in front of them while Kakashi leans back and turns to Iruka, and starts asking questions. Iruka leans forward and does his best to answer. Who does Sakura look up to? Naruto's potential - is it measured? Sasuke is brooding, yes, he knows, and he knows why. What is the percent chance of desertion? Naruto's kyuubi can be released, you know, was there ever any sign of a natural weakening of the seal? Sakura is brittle because she's encountering puberty, of course, but technically her chakra is sound. What initiated the most progress in her in class? Does she have strong anxieties over those around her often?

It's the last questions regarding each student that give Iruka pause, make him think. He is a teacher - he knows his students. But Kakashi might know them better, and it's another little hurt to him.

It didn't hurt before, so much, before he met the cage of his parents' graves.

Kakashi stops asking questions eventually, and Iruka sits back and sips his tea for a moment, thoughtful, while Kakashi reads the little book of porn that, from Naruto's description, he half-suspects Kakashi carries along for show.

"Perverted, isn't it?" Kakashi says, a little later on, and Iruka thinks he's referring to the book - but Kakashi's eye is on Iruka. "Sometimes it's the things that hurt us the most we hang the tightest onto." He swings a finger to his lopsided forehead protector, and Iruka knows what he's talking about.

"Naruto didn't hurt me," he says reflexively, and Kakashi smiles under his mask, or at least that's what it looks like.

"But you wonder," he says. "And aren't we all a little frightened? What would happen if the Kyuubi emerged again?" His tone might be bitter; it's probably not. More ironic.

Iruka shakes his head, slowly, watching Kakashi, but he's surprised by the first thought that springs to mind. He always thought it would be his parents - he always thought it was his parents - that would come to him. But -- "I'm afraid--" he begins, and then he takes a breath. "--Naruto would die."

Kakashi watches him in turn, and there's a silence for a moment. Then he smiles again. "It's good," he says, "that you haven't lost your whole family."

"No; you've borrowed it for a while," Iruka hears himself say.

He is surprised when Kakashi laughs.

It's not so much that they're similar or that they're different; it's like two different planes of existance, and there's no comparison. And Kakashi does not spend his free time pining after Iruka, and Iruka does not often think of Kakashi. But they meet more often, now, and not always at that ramen bar - wherever is convenient - and they talk, at first about the students, and sometimes about other things. Mostly politics, and the upcoming exams, and the chance of bad weather the next week.

They will never fight side-by-side or share war experiences. Maybe, someday, Kakashi will explain about his eye to Iruka - or maybe not.

Kakashi still visits the graves of the many fallen alone. Iruka would not understand. He would not insult him by expecting him to.

Iruka is, he reflects, as he looks down on one old grave, the first friend he has had that is weaker than himself.

He thinks it might be his saving grace.