Lessons

This didn't really come from anywhere in particular, just some random musings on the screwed-up life of everybody's favorite Copy Ninja. Kakashi Gaiden spoilers, as might be expected, but I hope everybody has read that by now. (Damn, they'd better animate it... -crosses fingers- ) For your reference, a tantou is a Japanese short sword or dagger, about the size of the "fang" young Kakashi and his father carried. Up until now I've always just called it a dagger in my fics, since I didn't know the proper name, but it's the same thing.
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Kakashi killed his first man when he was five.

Since then there have been an endless parade of names and faces - fellow shinobi, targets, people who saw too much, or people who were just unlucky enough to get in the way at the wrong time; men and women, boys and girls, children as young as he was when he started in this business - so many he would be hard pressed to even think of a number, let alone remember them all; but they say you never forget your first one, and true enough, he never has.

It was a mission on the border with Earth Country, and an Iwagakure-nin made the mistake of letting the little toddler get too close to him, and Kakashi shoved his tantou through the man's throat with all the strength his tiny body could muster. It was his father's tantou - his father who was dead now, three months in his grave because in a choice between the lives of his comrades and the success of his mission he made the stupid sentimental decision and paid the price for his enduring naivete.

The blood sprayed all over little Kakashi's face and his mask and the front of his shirt, and it got into his hair, and he thinks he remembers his sensei finding him there, standing over the body and trying to wipe his hitai-ate off. There was blood in the grooves of the Konoha leaf and his hands were too dirty, they just kept leaving red smudges on the metal, so he tried to use a clean spot on the sleeve of his well-stained shirt instead. He stubbornly doesn't remember whether or not he was shaking, but he does recall that he didn't cry.

He never does. He's not sure he can. But if he ever started, he's not sure he'd be able to stop, so it's probably better this way.

The lesson he learned from that kill was: Don't get too close.

When he was fourteen, they gave him his ANBU tattoo; and he started spending his nights crouched in trees on constant sentry duty until they tried him on his first assassination, and after that he mostly spent his nights shoving his hand through people's chests.

He'd come up with the move quite by accident when he was a little younger and had a few less people to mourn, practicing molding chakra into his father's tantou, the one that was broken now. The first time he tore someone's heart out he was thirteen years old, and he didn't have time to think about what he'd just done because Rin was going to die and Obito was dead already; and he's made a habit of not thinking about it since then, but just letting adrenaline and long-ingrained skill take his hand where it needs to go and getting out as fast as possible when he's done. He started molding his white chakra to burn a little hotter, so it would vaporize the beating heart and he wouldn't be left holding onto it afterwards.

His sensei had told him not to use that move - his sensei who was dead now, three months in his grave because in a choice between his own life and the lives of his villagers he made the only decision he could make and left his last student to pick up the pieces.

Kakashi ran his first ANBU assassination when he was fourteen and a half. Some feudal lord's son was planning a coup, and the daimyou liked his land and his retainers and his power better than he liked his offspring, so Kakashi was assigned to the task of showing the boy just what daring to stick your neck out got you. He didn't even know why the kid had been planning to take over, and he never would, but he thought he'd probably dream about the surprised look on the boy's face as the katana took his head off. He had been a couple years older than Kakashi - about Genma's age, maybe, or even Raidou's - and he looked like he ought to have been someone's big brother.

Kakashi took the head back to the daimyou, and they gave him a bonus. He spent it getting thoroughly drunk.

The lesson he learned from that kill was: Don't let them be human.

By the time he was eighteen, he'd perfected his adherence to Shinobi Rule 25, and people had started calling him Copy Ninja Kakashi. ANBU's red-eyed demon who had let himself forget everything his sensei and his teammates once stood for. He apologized to them daily for not being strong like they were, not being able to rip out a man's heart and slit a little girl's throat and still go home to smile at the world with innocent open eyes. He made himself the best at what he did because he couldn't be anything else, if he wasn't the perfect ninja then he wasn't useful enough, and if he wasn't making himself useful then there was hardly any reason for anyone to want him around, was there? And so he was a flawless weapon in his Hokage's hands, he asked for missions by himself because he couldn't bear to fail anyone else again, and he did the one thing he knew how to do.

His last ANBU assassination was another political dispute; he remembers thinking back to his first one - he had dreamed about it, after all - and musing how everything seemed to have come full-circle as he snuck past a battalion of well-armed guards to remove a pesky loose thread in an imperial line of succession. The girl was five, and he had time so he killed her quietly, turning her against her pillow and suffocating her. He thought distantly that he was glad he had at least been able to make it painless, as he snuck back out. One of the guards discovered him when he was near the front gates, and he quietly stabbed the man before he could call for reinforcements, and didn't pretend that it didn't feel good.

He tried to think he had learned a lesson from that kill. But he couldn't let himself think about it too hard.

When he was twenty (and getting old for an ANBU operative; the average age to enter the force was sixteen, and the average age to leave it was eighteen, usually exiting in an urn or body bag), Hokage-sama asked him to retire back into the ranks of the regulars, pass on some of his vaunted talent to the Genin as an instructor. He shuddered to think of himself as a role model, trying to teach kids, but he accepted anyway. The thought that he could still be useful somewhere else - doing something else - it made something inside his chest feel not quite so cold, just a little bit, for the first time in too many years.

The first team they gave him were three idiots who could hardly tell their backsides from a hole in the ground, let alone penetrate the genjutsu test he used on them; and the strongest emotion Kakashi had let himself feel in years was his sheer offense at the thought of himself, running missions on a real battlefield when he was half these brats' age, being given such incompetent students. He failed three teams in a row, shocked at how low Academy standards had fallen, until he remembered and realized -

This was what his sensei had been fighting for, all those years ago. To create a peaceful world like this. A world where young Genin could be allowed to be slow and stupid and to grow up at a gradual pace... A world that didn't need any more Hatake Kakashis.

After that, he went a little easier on them. But in six years, he still didn't meet any who had what he was looking for. Ninja and children could be such prideful creatures, always going around acting as if they themselves were more important, more necessary than the next shinobi; always pretending that skill and talent and Bloodline Limits made you a more worthy creature, when the reality was that one life weighed the same as the next, and he would not watch someone else realize it too late the way he had. If he was going to train a team, it was going to be one that wouldn't get each other killed through stupid overwhelming pride. It was the very last thing he could do for the ones who had left him behind.

And then he met them.

At first he started to apologize to his sensei, to Obito, as he watched them; Kakashi had made his promise to himself and he could already see that these children would not be able to fulfill it. But... one was an Uchiha, the last of them, the only other person in the world who might someday awaken his Sharingan eyes... a cold, competent prodigy that looked on his team with disdain, who made Kakashi think of things he had said when he was thirteen years old and stupid, and he was sure if he'd asked the boy would have agreed that for a ninja, emotion was an unnecessary thing...

One was his sensei's... legacy... a boy who Kakashi knew had gotten few breaks in his short, rough life, but who seemed to have weathered it all with an implacably determined grin that reminded him too much of another smile that played around the lips of another blond man, the grin that colored a dark-haired boy's face with exactly the same shade of idiotic enthusiasm...

And the girl, shallow as she seemed to be... she smiled like Rin.

He gave them a second test.
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Kakashi killed his first man when he was five. These kids are twelve years old, and have yet to kill anyone. They don't know anything about not getting too close, or not making them human, or the proper way to observe Shinobi Rule 25.

And he knows it's a futile dream, but he wishes they could stay that way.

Sometimes in the morning, when he comes back from the memorial to meet them by the bridge, he likes to hide and watch them bicker for a while. They're rowdy and loud and all-too-childish and so sweet that he might have shed a few tears, if he knew how to cry.

He feels it now, deep inside that spot in his chest; he knows what his sensei fought for, what his father died for. And if he ever blamed them, he can't anymore.

A world like this is a dream that he wants so badly to believe in.

And so, he's no leader and hardly much of a man, but they're ready to follow where he's ready to take them, and he'll do the very best he can and maybe somehow it will be good enough.

If he's learned a lesson from all of this, it's nothing he could put into words. But it makes him feel warm, deep down inside, and that's all he really needs to know.
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