A/N: Set several years before the series begins, but after the kyuubi's attack. No actual spoilers for Kakashi Gaiden, but the story does have a bit more depth if you know the plot of gaiden. Thanks to my beta, Ashfae.
The first time Kakashi was deliberately late it was only by fifteen minutes. He arrived at the mission desk at a quarter past the hour. This put him near the end of the line for receiving the day's missions, but was otherwise unremarkable. After the hours he had spent convincing himself to do it, and the fifteen minutes he had spent staring at a wall in his apartment over a cold cup of tea, it was somewhat anticlimactic.
The next day, it was by twenty minutes, and his time spent staring at the wall seemed to fill with the arguments of the ghosts of two boys. One of them thought the world could be controlled and would make sense if you just followed the rules. The other knew that the world let you make your own rules. No one commented on his tardiness.
It was a half hour on the third day. Kakashi lost his battle with the ghosts and the wall, and went for a walk. Konoha was a busy town in the morning with shopkeepers setting out the best of their wares, housewives cleaning or gossiping, and young children running to school or the Academy. Kakashi didn't know if he was comforted or hurt by seeing so many people going about their lives, but at least he was seeing them.
This time he was the last one to show at the mission desk, but the chuunin assigned simply gave him an odd look and handed him his mission.
There was no fourth day, but only because he was away on a mission.
It was only twenty minutes on the fifth day. In the morning, he went to visit Obito (and so many others) at the stone. There was only so long that he could stay before it hurt too much. He ran all the way to headquarters, and took the highest ranking mission he could find.
For three days, his time was nothing but life and death.
The morning of the fourth found him staring at his wall again. There were no voices but his own, asking what he was doing. He was thirty-five minutes late that day, but it was excused due to the difficulty of his last mission.
The tenth day, he was an hour late. He had gone for a walk again, and when the people had become too much, had slipped into a bookstore. He browsed aimlessly, and eventually bought a book to stop the owner from glaring at him. He had no intention of reading it. There were no missions left when he visited the desk, and in fact, the chuunin who manned the desk was gone. Kakashi spent the day training.
He tried sleeping in the next day, but it was obviously something he would have to work at since he woke up at the usual time. There had been too many missions where his life depended on waking up. He went to train, but lost track of time and was actually an hour and a half late when he finally approached the mission desk. The chuunin there looked at him in surprise.
"You're late this morning, Hatake-san," she said.
Kakashi gave her a smile she couldn't see, which was just as well since it was a poor copy of Obito's. "Sorry, I-," he paused, realizing that at some point he had begun to believe that no one would ever question his tardiness, and he therefore hadn't prepared an excuse. "I was buying shampoo," he finished lamely.
She gaped at him, and he had to suppress a surprising need to laugh at her expression. Would people always react this way? Instead of laughing, he rubbed his hair back sheepishly – another action of Obito's – and waited patiently for her to speak.
"That's fine, Hatake-san. Just don't let it happen again," she scolded when she had finally recovered. He frowned at her presumption, but took his mission without comment.
He made the mistake the next morning of trying to read the book he had bought a few days before. It was surprisingly engrossing, and he was forty pages in before he realized that the pornographic content was actually meant to be there, and was vaguely connected to the plot. He stopped reading and stared at the book, fighting down a blush. After a long moment, he shrugged and went back to reading. No one would be able to see the blush beneath his mask anyway.
Because of the book, he was nearly two hours late. More importantly, because of the book, he hadn't noticed that he was two hours late. He couldn't help but pat the pocket where he had stored the book with an air of glee, but sobered quickly under the glare of the man at the desk. He made his expression as mild as possible.
"Sorry, I'm late. I got lost on the road of life." He was proud of that one. After the fiasco the day before, he had made a point of thinking up as many excuses as possible, and that had been his favourite. He was even prouder when the chuunin collapsed for a second in shock, only to spring up and shout at him.
"What do you mean by that!"
Kakashi gave him a blank look. There was no need to explain himself. That had always been Obito's mistake. The man groaned softly, perhaps realizing that there was no point in arguing with the jounin, nor was it his place.
"Here's your mission. I'm reporting you, as well."
Kakashi nodded amiably and took the proffered papers. It was only a B-rank. He wanted to go back to reading the book, but he compromised by reading the book while completing his mission.
On the thirteenth day, he had expected to be called before the Hokage, or at least yelled at. The chuunin behind the desk (the same man as before) merely growled at him when he walked in two hours late, book in hand. His proffered excuse, "I got stuck at a sheep crossing," was completely ignored.
It was the same for the next week. He walked in at least two hours late each day, reading his book (or rather, rereading), and gave his excuse. The face-faults, glares, and jaw dropping were all amusing, and he got a lot of practice at hiding his laughter. No one noticed how much better he was getting at his fake smiles.
"Sorry, I woke up this morning and realized my hair was grey."
"I got attacked by a bunch of rabid squirrels."
"I found a piece of string."
"Sorry, I forgot where headquarters was."
"You see, there was this old lady…" He went on for ten minutes. "…and then she gave me a lollipop!"
"Just take your mission, Hatake-san."
He had lost track of how many days it had been, but one day he was interrupted mid-excuse and told to see the Hokage. He was shown through to the Hokage's office, wondering if this was how children felt when they were caught stealing cookies or some other inane thing.
Sandaime looked older than Kakashi remembered, but that may have been because Kakashi was older too. The Hokage looked up when he entered, then pulled out a piece of paper from the pile near him.
"Kakashi-san. What's your excuse today?" he asked. Kakashi took a few steps nearer so that he could read the paper Sandaime was holding. If he wasn't mistaken, it was a list of his excuses from the past weeks. For once, his smile was genuine.
"Well, I was thinking of changing my image, so I went and bought a new mask that was slightly bluer. What do you think?"
Sandaime looked amused. "It suits you." He changed tones abruptly. "How long will this last?"
Kakashi had gotten used to giving flip answers in the past few weeks. It was both painful and a relief to return to the truth.
"As long as I can't forget."
They stared at each other and Kakashi could see memories of his sensei in Sandaime's eyes. That was probably the reason why the Hokage sighed.
"I trust you know how much time you need, Kakashi-san. If there is anything urgent, you'll be summoned. Here's your mission. You're dismissed."
Kakashi had wandered out, a bit bemused by the treatment. The mission he was handed was S-rank, and took over a week. When he got out of the hospital, he limped his way to the memorial stone.
The words ran smoothly off his tongue, even if it was the first time he said them.
"Sorry, I'm late, Obito."