A/N: Thanks to my beta, Kilerkki:)

I should probably mention that my fic, The Way is set in the same timeline as this fic (and covers Kakashi's academy graduation). You don't need to read it to enjoy this fic, but if you're curious about how Kakashi and Kai became friends, it's there. Other than that, one of the character's I've introduced in this chapter is actually an obscure canon character. Kudos to anyone who can identify him/her;)

Kakashi watched the children on the playground in front of him with a practical eye. He could see how several of their games could be useful for training. That big plastic dome with holes in it that they were running in and out of was a perfect area to place ambushes, and the sand on the ground could always be thrown in your opponent's eyes as a distraction.

A tap on his shoulder signaled that his sensei was ready to leave. Kakashi should probably have thanked the Obaasan for making Gai leave him alone, but it was too late now. He followed Minato-sensei as they headed deeper into the village proper. Hopefully, Sensei had a mission or more training planned, and not just a trip to the nearest ramen stand for a late lunch.

"Have you ever played on a playground, Kakashi-kun?" Sensei asked.

Kakashi thought about it. He could remember the past three years of his life in a detail that would have left most adults astonished, but his memories of before then were nearly non-existent.

"Not that I know of," he answered truthfully.

"Well, it's never too late."

Kakashi gave him a skeptical look. Minato-sensei was always serious on missions, but he could occasionally be a bit weird when it came to training or off duty activities. Kakashi watched him subtly and tried to figure out if this was one of those times.

Minato-sensei stopped in front of an old fence. The boards had warped so that the whole thing sagged to the left. "Over here," said Sensei before jumping to the top of the fence, then disappearing behind it. Kakashi gauged the height of the fence and opted to slip through at ground level using a loose board he had spotted.

"Ah. I guess you're more tired from making those bunshins than I thought," said Sensei, once Kakashi was through.

"No," Kakashi denied angrily. "I took the most ef-f-ficient path." He glared at his sensei, daring him to say anything about his mispronunciation.

Sensei held up his hands, palms out, as if to ward off his anger. "I was teasing you about the bunshins, Kakashi-kun. I know what you're capable of."

Kakashi looked around to cover his faint blush, certain that Sensei could see it despite the mask. How were you supposed to tell when someone was teasing you?

They were in an abandoned lot that smelt of old leaves and rotten wood. Trees and bushes grew all over, and there was random garbage scattered about. Beneath the debris were the remains of an old wooden playground. Wooden posts stood out all over, forming bridges and steps. There was a rusted metal slide, and a swing set where the seats had broken off. Other than that, the only thing of interest was the number of trees with strange spiral patterns etched into their trunks.

"This was a popular playground when I was younger," said Minato-sensei. "Later, I used it for training since everyone seems to have forgotten it's here."

"What kind of training?"

"The ridiculously difficult kind," said Sensei with a grin. He changed the subject. "Seeing that playground today reminded me. I thought we could use this place for a different type of training. Come on." He walked over and jumped onto one of the low wooden bridges. Kakashi climbed easily onto one of the pillars next to it. His pillar felt solid, but the bridge was creaking under his sensei's weight.

"If your feet touch the ground, I win. If my feet touch the ground, you win. Don't hold back." Minato-sensei struck an arrogant pose.

Kakashi grinned as he threw a kunai at the bridge, causing it to collapse under his startled sensei. He could get used to this type of playing.

The next morning found Kakashi waiting at their usual spot. Sensei was rarely late, but he always had a good reason when he was, so Kakashi waited patiently. He spent the time trying to get a splinter out of his hand that had lodged there during yesterday's training. He should have known better than to use such a decrepit looking board for his back flip, but it had been that or let his feet touch the ground. Most of the splinter's had been easy to pull out, but this one was lodged so firmly, Kakashi was considering using a kunai to dig it out.

An hour later, the splinter was still there and Kakashi's attention had wandered. Part of him wished he could have brought the book he was reading the night before. It was obvious that the villain was the hero's stepbrother, but he wanted to read more and see. Yet it was one thing to bring a scroll on ninjutsu to read. It was another to bring a book solely for recreation.

It was a bit longer before Minato-sensei arrived. He was smiling cheerfully, but that didn't tell Kakashi anything. Sensei was always smiling. Instead, he focused on the piece of paper he could see in his sensei's hand.

When Sensei handed him the paper, he didn't waste time asking what it was, since it was written across the top. "Inter-village Chuunin Exam Registration," he read out. He glanced at his sensei before scanning the rest of the page. It looked real, but who ever heard of an inter-village chuunin exam?

"I recommended you today. It's in two weeks at Hidden Stone."

"That's soon." And strange, since Konoha had just finished their own chuunin exams.

"Yes. All of the villages agreed to it as a sign of cooperation. The finals will be watched by the head lords and merchants of all the lands," Minato-sensei said in a neutral tone.

"So," said Kakashi slowly, "we're showing off?"

"Yes!" Minato-sensei beamed at him. "Missions as a whole have been down."

"Don't I need a team?"

"Six genin have been nominated. You and Kai-kun are the only ones who didn't participate in the last exam. It'll be the usual three man teams, and I made sure Kai-kun is on yours."

"Is he out of the hospital yet?" asked Kakashi. Kai hadn't been able to participate in the exams because he'd walked into a particularly nasty plant jutsu on a mission. The plant had tried to rip his legs apart, like a vine strangling a tree. By the time the jutsu stopped, Kai's legs had been a bloody mess of destroyed tissue and crushed bone. There had even been talk of amputation until Tsunade-sama had stepped in and worked one of her miracles, but even with that, he'd been confined to a hospital bed for the past month.

Minato-sensei gave him a stern look. "He got out yesterday. As his friend, you should have known that."

Kakashi shrugged. They were friends, true, but not close ones. He had visited the other boy in the hospital a few times and that should have been enough.

"Well, come on. We're meeting the rest of your team so you can get to know each other."

"Yes, Sensei."

They headed off towards one of the other training fields. Four genin and one jounin were waiting. Kakashi hung back, unconsciously using his sensei's body to block their view of him. Kai wasn't there yet, so one of the four would be his teammate.

There was a girl with bright orange hair. She looked to be about thirteen and had a thick bandage wrapped around her throat. Slouched next to her was a black-haired boy with a worried expression on his face. Standing off to the side was a thin girl with dark brown hair and eyes. She and the orange-haired girl kept exchanging glares whenever they thought their jounin sensei wasn't watching. The final genin was sitting on the ground. He looked older than everyone else, and was playing with a roll of wire.

The other jounin intercepted them before Kakashi and Minato-sensei could get closer. He was a short man with an eye patch and a smooth face. "Minato-san, I know I was supposed to give you Hideaki Yoshino, but I just found out she has skills that would make her invaluable to my team. Providing she and Ume-san don't kill each other." It was hard to tell if the jounin was joking. "You don't mind taking Shinamoto Masuyo, do you?"

"I don't, Saburou-san, but you should ask Kiku-san," said Sensei.

The other jounin's face turned pink at the mention of Kai's jounin sensei. "She should be back soon," muttered Saburou, then excused himself to find Kiku-san and Kai.

"Poor guy," mused Minato-sensei. "I've seen him face down an S-rank missing nin without blinking, but put him in front of a pretty woman he wants to ask out and he gets tongue-tied. Lucky I don't get that way, ne?"

"You say weird things, and they slap you," Kakashi reminded him.

"Not always!"

Kakashi shrugged. He was more interested in figuring out which of the genin was Masuyo-san.

"Masuyo-kun is the one sitting down," said Sensei, doing that annoying trick of reading his student's mind. "Why don't you introduce yourself while we wait for Kai-kun?"

Kakashi nodded and walked over to the young man. Masuyo had short, dirty-blond hair that peeked out from underneath the bandana style hitae'ate that he wore. His face, when he looked up, was narrow and tanned. Kakashi's eyes immediately went to the scar that started in the middle of the young man's cheek and curved up past his ear and into his hairline.

Belatedly, he remembered he was supposed to talk to the other genin. "I'm Hatake Kakashi."

Masuyo glanced down at his hands. They were adorned with plain metal rings. That, and the Shinamoto name reminded him of something. "You lost, or what?" Masuyo asked, taking his roll of nearly transparent wire and stringing it expertly between his hands. Now Kakashi knew what he had been trying to remember. The Shinamoto clan all fought with wires and used their jewelry to protect themselves from its razor sharpness during battle.

"What do you think?" retorted Kakashi.

"I think you should go back to sucking your mother's teats." Masuyo's smile was more a barring of the teeth.

Kakashi's foot was a blur. He kicked expertly, hitting a point on the older genin's ankle. Masuyo flinched from the pain, and looked in shock at Kakashi. "You little brat!"

"You were the one being rude."

"I can be rude to a brat like you. What are you, five?"

"Six," said Kakashi flatly.

"That makes me three times your age," said Masuyo triumphantly.

"And still a genin?" Kakashi couldn't keep the disgust from his voice.

"You-" Masuyo jumped up, spreading his arms wide so that the wire glinted in a web in front of him. Kakashi grabbed a few shuriken, planning to slice through the wires before they reached him. And then Sensei was standing between them.

"Ah, Masuyo-kun. I'm Namikaze Minato. I'll be your new jounin sensei for this exam. Pleased to meet you. Kakashi-kun here is your teammate." His voice became serious. "Do you know what that means?"

"That he'll die like everyone else?" said the teenager sarcastically. He straightened under Sensei's hard stare. "Not by my own hand though!"

"Good to know," said Sensei with a nod. "I'm sorry about your teammates, Masuyo-kun." Masuyo looked away, muttering something Kakashi couldn't hear.

Sensei turned to him. "Kakashi-kun, don't bait your teammate."

Kakashi looked down. Minato-sensei was always too fair. Masuyo had baited him first.

The sound of voices heralded the arrival of the two jounin and Kai. Kakashi sniffed the air. He could smell flowers, and that was exactly what Kiku-sensei held in her hands when they appeared. Kiku-sensei didn't seem to know what to do with them and was casting Saburou strange glances. For his part, the other jounin was turning red and was looking at anything but his companions.

Kai looked very happy to get away from them, and headed immediately towards Kakashi. The other boy's green and brown outfit stood out here on the grass, but in a forest it would allow him to disappear. Kai wore a number of pouches, bandolier style across his chest. They were one of the reasons Kakashi was pleased to have Kai on his team. Not only did Kai have above chuunin level stealth skills, but he also carried anything a ninja could possibly need in his pouches.

The eleven-year old looked pale from a month in the hospital, but his walk was steady. Hopefully, Kai's stamina hadn't suffered too much since they had little time to build it up.

"Now that my colleagues are here, gather around everyone!" said Minato-sensei, taking charge. Kakashi joined the rough line of genin after exchanging a nod of hello with Kai. Sensei conferred a moment with the other jounin, and Kiku-sensei disappeared after a brief wave goodbye to Kai. "All right. You will be on two teams for this exam with a jounin sensei each. My team will be Kakashi-kun, Kai-kun, and Masuyo-kun. The other team under Saburou-san will be Ume-san, Arata-kun, and Yoshino-san."

The orange-haired girl, Ume, looked ready to kill her sensei. "Can't we choose our own teams?" she asked, interrupting Minato-sensei.

"Don't make me regret those blades missing your voice box," threatened Saburou. Kakashi wondered if the jounin was joking or serious. Either way, the comment made Ume shut her mouth.

Sensei continued as if there had been no interruption. "We leave for the exam in ten days. You have until that time to get comfortable with your teams. Remember, this is not the usual exam. There will be no friendly nin other than your teammates to rely on. Working well together will keep you alive." He nodded to Saburou.

"Each team will now go off and get to know each other." Saburou sounded like he was reading an inventory list. "You have an hour to learn ten things about each of your teammates. These facts can be hobbies, birthdates, favorite foods, etcetera. Report back here and we will test your knowledge."

It sounded like a stupid idea to Kakashi, and he was pleased to see from their faces that the other genin agreed. There was no point in arguing though, so he followed Kai off to the side. Masuyo followed close behind him, invading his personal space.

It was going to be a long hour.

Later that evening, Kakashi was curled up on his bed, reading the last pages of his book. Dealing with Masuyo today had been tiring. The older boy hadn't said much beyond what was required, but he had "clumsily" gotten in Kakashi's way while they were doing some training exercises. Both of them didn't want to upset Minato-sensei, so it didn't go further than that, but Kakashi wondered what was going to happen during the exams when they were out from under sensei's watchful eye. Kakashi's only consolation was that Masuyo was highly competent with his wires. If it weren't for his attitude, Kakashi would have been happy to have the other boy on his team.

At least his father had been proud. He had hugged Kakashi when he came home, and promised to teach him something special for the exam. Kakashi was briefed on the ramifications of the exams and Hidden Rock's actions over dinner. The Hatake clan was always prepared.

Kakashi read through the paragraph in front of him again, his eyes catching on one of the words. It was time to go downstairs. He composed himself, pushing his chakra levels down and hiding them as he had been taught. Very carefully, he made his way down the stairs, feet landing evenly and softly. He was light so he could still walk silently over the squeaky floorboards if he went slowly. Besides, the walls and ceiling were rigged to make even more noise if you tried them.

It took him about ten minutes to reach his father's open door.

"Come in, son."

Kakashi frowned. How?

His father was sitting comfortably in front of a low table, his mask gone. He wore a light blue robe that shimmered in the lamp-light, and the empty sake cup and jar next to him gave some indication of what he was doing. "The moon's bright tonight, and the hall has windows," his father reminded him once he was seated respectfully across the table. "You forgot to hide your shadow."

Kakashi nodded mutely, accepting the rebuke. It wouldn't happen again. Remembering his reason for coming, he put his book on the table, opening it to where he had marked. He turned the book so his father could see it, then pointed to a word.

"Serendipitous," read his father.

"Ser-rendipitous," repeated Kakashi. So many words sounded differently from the way they looked on the page, and his father never laughed at him no matter what he wanted pronounced.

"Is that another book from your sensei?"

"A sequel," said Kakashi.

"He's a strange man. But then, most of us are." Father's eyes were slightly unfocused. He usually had an intense gaze that he turned on whoever he was talking to, but tonight Father was staring into the shadows. Kakashi had seen his father drink before, but it had never affected Father like this.

Neither of them were the type to talk much. Kakashi usually left after his questions were asked, but his father's change in behavior, slight though it was, set all of Kakashi's senses on edge. He settled back on his heels, and tried to think of something to say.

"You're not strange."

His father grinned, still staring off at some point behind Kakashi's head. "No?" He met Kakashi's eyes for a moment. "Would you like to drink to the dead, Kakashi?"

"Who?" asked Kakashi, his voice small. He had no memory of his mother or her death, but he dearly wished he did at that moment so he would know if this was his father's normal reaction to death. This man was not his usual composed father.

"We received word today that my friend, Yojiro, was killed." He was back to staring at the shadows again. "He was the last of my genin team."

"I'm sorry."

Father didn't seem to hear him. "Do you remember him, Kakashi? He spent an afternoon once, teaching you to throw shuriken."

"Yes," Kakashi replied, even though he couldn't remember. All he could think was that he wanted out of this room. He would go to sleep and leave his father to mourn. And then his father could go back to being… to being strong again. He got up to leave, but his father grabbed the sake bottle and stood up as well.

"Come, Kakashi. Yojiro needs a drink too." Father's low chuckle was disturbing.

Kakashi was always an obedient son. He followed his father out of the house, scared when Father didn't even stop to put on his mask. The streets were empty and dark, and Kakashi didn't complain when his father took his hand. They followed one of the paths out of the village and into a familiar clearing. Kakashi should have known they were heading to the Memorial Stone. No ninja in Konoha was a stranger to it. Even Kakashi, who had largely been kept out of the war, knew people whose names were on the stone. Many were from his graduating class.

Father upended the jar of sake on the stone then stood there, head bent and lips moving, as if he were reading each name from the beginning. Unsure if his father even remembered he was there, Kakashi stood by his side. It felt awkward to be mourning someone he didn't even know. Was this even the right way for a ninja to grieve? A ninja was supposed to show no emotion, yet his father was here with his glassy eyes and his face filled with emotion. Kakashi didn't want to look, so he stared at the stone upset for more reasons than he could explain. He was angry at his father too. Angry with him for bringing him here and making him see this.

Kakashi had never cried, and he wasn't going to start. But he desperately wished, as the earth around them turned grey in the morning twilight, that his father hadn't decided that tonight was the night when Kakashi had to be stronger than either of them.