The Meaning of Death

R. Winters

1. My Mother's Love

Summary: Everyone has their theories as to what happened to Kakashi's mother... Let's just hope this one's wrong.

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto. If I did, Kakashi would be seriously messed up. (As if he isn't bad enough already.)

I didn't mean this to end up as long as it did... I've read a few stories about how Kakashi lost his mother and was bored and so I thought, 'what's the most traumatic way for it to happen?' Then this was born. And didn't want to end. Let me know how you like it.

"Mama!" The three-year-old boy called out, laughing as he looked back at his mother.

"I see you, 'Kashi," the woman replied indulgently as her son balanced on a rock near the shore in a small stream.

"You know, Kakashi, since you're so big now, maybe you could help daddy and carry a box yourself," a silver-haired man complained, trailing behind his family, laden down with boxes and bags for their picnic.

Kakashi just grinned back at him before running ahead again. Sakumo rolled his eyes, but grinned as well.

"I could help, you know," the dark haired woman noted, "Just because I'm pregnant doesn't mean I can't carry a few bento boxes."

Sakumo smiled indulgently at his wife, "Yes, but then I'd feel bad. Besides, Kakashi will have to learn to help out more with a little brother or sister on the way."

And just as he said that, the little silver-haired boy came running back again, "What do you need me to carry, daddy?" The boy asked, breathless and wet from running in the stream.

Sakumo tried valiantly not to laugh but in the end he couldn't stop himself and received an offended glare for his misdemeanor. "Here, Kakashi," Sakumo offered, passing a sack to the boy as he continued to chuckle.

Kakashi grabbed the sack and ran ahead, shouting out to the dog that he was coming. Mikoto followed him with her eyes until he disappeared again.

"Are you sure this is safe, 'Kumo?" she asked with concern.

"Of course," the shinobi returned, "The rock-nin have been pulling back lately, Hokage-sama thinks we may be near the end of the war." He looked after Kakashi and grinned, "Besides, Ino-hime won't let anything happen to her pup."

Mikoto smiled as well—the large female dog was very protective of their young son, apparently having decided he was one of her own pups.

Not too much further on the small family regrouped for lunch, Kakashi helping his father with the preparations while his mother rested from the hike. They weren't even a mile out from the village, but the only part of Konoha visible from this distance was the roof of the Hokage's tower.

Lunch was a pleasant affair which Sakumo enjoyed greatly as a welcome change from the trials on the front line. Even after returning only yesterday, that terrifying world seemed a life time away now. He was glad for the lull as it gave him time to get reacquainted with his family, who he hadn't seen in just over two months. Kakashi, especially, had changed.

Just two months ago the boy had begun discovering his own interest in becoming a shinobi. Over the two months he'd been away, Kakashi had built an impressive foundation for his skills. He was maturing quickly, even showing signs of conscious chakra control already.

"He's grown up so much," Sakumo commented to his wife as they ate.

Mikoto smiled, "All for you, Sakumo," she said, "All he talks about these days is how he's going to be a great shinobi like his daddy."

"Oh, he'll be even greater than me," Sakumo stated proudly, "I've no doubt. His genius will make Jiraiya's "Yellow Flash" look mediocre."

"I hope you didn't tell him that," Mikoto said, imagining the way the man's friend would react to hearing something like that. Sakumo didn't have the chance to answer.

"Sakumo-taichou," a shinobi dropped through the leaves—little Kakashi stared with wide eyes at the ninja who called his daddy 'captain'.

Sakumo frowned, rising, "What is it?" He asked, all traces of good humor gone.

The shinobi glanced at the woman and boy uncertainly before leaning in closer and lowering his voice, making sure the others wouldn't hear what he said. Sakumo's frown deepened as he listened.

"I'll be right there," he announced when the shinobi had had his say. The younger ninja nodded and snapped off a salute before disappearing back into the trees.

"Sakumo," Mikoto started with concern, getting to her own feet with some difficulty and a hand up from her husband.

He was masked again already, snapped from a father and husband to a professional killer in the blink of an eye. "A team of Rock-nin was spotted by one of the patrol teams…" He raked a hand through silver hair, "It shouldn't be a concern but get yourself and Kakashi back to the village as quickly as possible."

Mikoto nodded and he was gone. She smiled down at the three-year-old's concerned expression, "Daddy had to go to work, 'Kashi-chan," she explained, "Can you help mama clean up?"

Wide-eyed, the boy nodded before hurrying to do so.

"… Mama?" He asked uncertainly after a few tense moments, "Are… the Rock-nin coming here?"

Mikoto smiled encouragingly at the boy as he handed her partially empty lunch boxes. "We're still very close to the village, 'Kashi, we'll be safe."

Kakashi nodded in acceptance and quickly gathered up the rest of their items silently. He stayed close to his mother as they began to walk back, never more than a few feet ahead of her and always looking back anxiously. The woman always met his eyes with a serene smile, her own concerns skillfully hidden, and slowly Kakashi relaxed. Because if his mother thought they were safe, then surely they were.

The three-year-old jumped onto a large builder by the path, grinning back at his mother. But his smile suddenly vanished when something flew past him and hit her, causing blood to spray from her chest with a look of surprise and pain twisting her face. Kakashi's eyes widened in horror.

"Mama!" He shouted, jumping from the rock only to be snatched out of thin air by thick muscled arms on a large, smelly man. Kakashi looked up, too startled to react immediately to the grinning face of the strangely clad shinobi.

"What have we here?" The man asked crisply, "Just a babe out walking with his mama?"

Kakashi was pale and sweating nervously, anxious to see his mother and get away from this strange man who he was sure he didn't like. He tried to push away from the man, but the muscular arms didn't budge an inch.

"Mama!" He screamed again, trying vainly to see around the man.

"Don't tease him, Ryu," a disapproving voice said behind him and Kakashi twisted his head around in alarm to see the other stranger, who was standing beside the boulder he had jumped from. "Hurry and get rid of him, we have more important things to do."

"Yeah, yeah," the bigger man holding the three-year-old returned. He grinned when the large, shining eyes turned back to him again. "Don't cry, baby," he said tauntingly, "You'll be with your mama in a minute. What's your name?"

"Ryu!" The second man snapped impatiently.

"Ka… Hatake Kakashi…" The three-year-old answered, staring with wide eyes at the man.

The strange shinobi's eyes lit up with interest, "Did you say Hatake?" He asked, glancing at his teammate meaningfully.

"As in the White Fang, Hatake Sakumo?" The second man asked, seeing where the first was going with this.

Kakashi twisted around to look at him again, sniffing, "You know my daddy?"

The second man smirked and the first laughed cruelly.

"Oh, we know your daddy all right, baby," the larger man laughed gruffly. He looked at his teammate, "This could be our ticket out of here, Toshi."

"Bring him with us, then," the second said, "We have to find Taeko and Yukami yet, anyway."

Kakashi's eyes widened when he was shifted in the large man's arms and they were suddenly running.

"Mama!" He screamed as loudly as he could, thrashing around, "No! Stop! Mama!"

The second man shot the first a glare and growled, "Ryu!"

The first returned the glare—'I know!'—and clamped a large, dirty hand over the three-year-old's mouth and nose. Kakashi let out another scream at the same time, but it was muffled and didn't carry far. Then he had something far more alarming to worry about as he found himself unable to breathe around the smothering hand. He tried to move away, but the man kept his hand firmly held across his nose and mouth. The boy struggled more desperately, managing to get a hand over his captor's to struggle furiously with it, but the larger hand wouldn't be moved.

He was beginning to feel light-headed and disoriented, the image of horror on his mother's face haunting him as he lost focus on his surroundings. Desperately, Kakashi put all his will into moving the man's hand. Suddenly, with a shout and a curse, Kakashi was dropped, landing in an ungraceful pile as he gasped for air with burning lungs and stinging eyes.

"Ryu! What happened!"

His vision slowly returned in chunks still spotted with black and pain blossomed suddenly as the large, muscular man struck him with a furious kick. Kakashi's vision reeled again and he skidded across the ground a few times, rocks and sticks scratching his skin, until he slammed into the base of a tree a few meters away.

"That little bastard!" The first man was roaring while his teammate tried to quiet him.

Kakashi shifted uncomfortably where he lay, every movement and breath causing him pain, his eyes already overflowing with tears. His breath came in harsh gasps and sobs as he tried to postpone the pain it caused him to move even his lungs.

"Look at what he did to me, Toshi! I don't know—burned me or something!" The man held out his wounded hand for his teammate to see, the skin raw and blackened in the outline of two small hands, "I'm going to kill that bastard punk!"

"He's no use to us dead, Ryu," the second man reminded him, "I'll carry him."

The first man growled, "You're too soft, Toshi, just 'cause you've got a baby of your own back home…"

Kakashi cried out in protest when he was lifted again, crying harder than ever now. He hurt so much—all he wanted was his mama.

"Now, now," the man holding him said, "Be good and stay quiet or I'll let Ryu have you again."

Kakashi whimpered miserably but quieted down a little, biting back screams as they started to run again. His vision was blurring once more around the sides and his eyes were sore and tired from all the crying, but he didn't manage to fall asleep before he was jostled painfully again. He bit off another cry of protest, which ended up coming out as more of a muffled whimper, as the man held him roughly in front of himself, something cold pressing uncomfortably against his neck.

"Don't come any closer," the man barked and through his blurry vision Kakashi could see the familiar uniforms of Konoha shinobi. They were all tense and stiff, uncertain of what to do in this situation.

"Kakashi… are you alright?" One called out and the three-year-old blearily turned to focus on him, only vaguely recognizing the face.

At the prospect of a sympathetic ear, Kakashi's tired eyes started crying in earnest again. "I w-want mama!" He wailed miserably.

The shinobi squared his jaw in anger and concern, "Give the boy to us now and we'll let you leave," he bargained.

The man holding Kakashi snorted, "So you can send more men after us once you have him back?" He demanded, "I don't think so. We'll release him when we get to the border. If anyone tries to stop us, we'll kill the kid."

The Leaf shinobi didn't have a chance to answer as the men ran again, Kakashi with them.

"Yamoto-san, Kakashi was with his mother," one shinobi said in concern to the one who had recognized the boy.

"Suoh, Kenji," the man barked, "Try to track those two back the way they came. See what happened to Sakumo-taichou's wife."

The two shinobi were gone with a double shout of, "Hai!"

"Ichigo, tell Hokage-sama what's happened," Yamato continued, "I'll shadow them."

"Hai!" The younger man confirmed, disappearing as well.

Kakashi was roughly awoken when he was dropped to the ground. His wounds protested at the harsh treatment and he curled up with a whimper, longing for his mama to make him feel better.

"Shut up," Ryu said gruffly.

Toshi rolled his eyes, "You're the one that kicked him, if he's crying it's your fault."

Ryu didn't feel the least bit remorseful, "It's the little bastard's own fault for attacking me like that."

"Imagine someone trying to fight against suffocation," Toshi said sarcastically. "Anyway, we'll give the others an hour to arrive. If they aren't here by then, we'll have to assume they're dead and continue to the border."

He pulled out a small med-kit from a pouch on his belt and turned to the three-year-old.

"You're going to have to lie still for a while if you want me to help you," he gently pulled the boy out flat, ignoring the quiet whimpers of protest. He cut down the length of the child's shirt and carefully peeled it off, getting his first look at the vibrant bruising and multiple small cuts which looked to be on the edge of infection from going so long without attention. He mentally cursed his teammate as he touched the boy's warm skin.

"Mama…" the boy whimpered miserably, blinking a few more tears out of his dry, itchy eyes.

"… This is gonna hurt a little, kid," Toshi warned, "Just… try to hold still."

Kakashi nodded slightly, biting his lower lip.

Sakumo stared in shock, wavering between grief and anger for a few moments before anger won out.

"I'll kill them." He growled, sounding more like one of his dogs than a human.

"I'll leave the decision to you, Sakumo," the Hokage said, "But whatever you do, don't act thoughtlessly. Yamoto's shadowing them, but I trust you'll be able to find them without difficulty."

The dogs picked up Kakashi's trail easily. His scent was strong with fear and they moved at a fast, anger-driven pace, smelling his blood quite strongly.

After Toshi patched him up a little, Kakashi slept for a while and was feeling a bit better when he woke. The pain had become slightly less sharp and he was thinking a little more clearly. He wiped his eyes and sniffed, longing again for his mama.

Toshi glanced at him, and then stood up, "Well, we've given them long enough. Let's go."

"We should kill the little bastard now and run for it," Ryu said crossly.

Kakashi stared at him with wide eyes, not even breathing.

"Let's just worry about getting to the border first," Toshi said as he picked the boy up and began heading out.

"Anô…" Kakashi hesitated as the man looked at him, "… Your hitai-ate are different…" he mumbled uncertainly, "Are you… are you Rock-nin?"

Toshi shifted and touched his head band with one hand, "That's right."

"But… daddy said the, that the Rock-nin were re… re… leaving," Kakashi said, "why are you here?"

"Your daddy underestimates us," Toshi said, "The Earth Nation is a strong one; we aren't going to run away. The Fire Nation will be brought to justice."

Kakashi's face scrunched up in thought, "Why?" He asked at length, "What did the Fire Nation do?"

"You know," Toshi said casually, "It's all about land, money, and power."

"The Fire Nation unfairly took land from the Earth Nation," the man continued, "They paid us less than it was worth and wound up taking a large portion of our clientele with it. When Earth demanded fair reimbursement, Fire refused."

Kakashi frowned in confusion, carefully following the explanation, "But… didn't the Earth Nation agree with the Fire Nation when they sold the land?"

"Kid… like I told you, it's political—it doesn't have to make sense," Toshi said.

Kakashi frowned pensively. To him it sounded like the Earth Nation should just leave them alone. The three-year-old's musings were cut off abruptly when the body behind him and arms around him tensed. He looked back at the man in concern and his eyes widened in horror when Toshi's mouth opened only to cough up blood as he fell forward.

The three-year-old screamed and was pinned to the ground under the heavy corpse, the landing jarring his injured bones. There was a clang of metal against metal and Kakashi twisted his head to see Ryu smirking at someone on the other side of him, where he couldn't see.

"So it's true," the large man mused, "That little bastard is your son, ne?" His cruel smirk widened, "Well, it'll be my pleasure to kill you both!"

Kakashi shrunk back in fear as a wave of killing intent flooded the area. But it wasn't coming from Ryu.

"I'll kill you!" A furious voice growled and Kakashi saw that someone was suddenly in front of the other man, a sword in his hand that was wreathed with white energy. Ryu's eyes widened and he brought up a kunai to block, trying to move at the same time, but the sword cut through it as if it weren't even there, and sliced the man's body in two, blood spraying everywhere in an instant, even going so far as to splatter on Kakashi's face where he cowered beneath Toshi's body.

He stared, wide-eyed and terrified, as the man flicked his weapon, blood shaking from the blade. Then he turned slowly, the harsh look still on his face as his eyes met with Kakashi's. Instantly, the boy broke out of shock and started sobbing, barely even recognizing the face of the man.

Just as quickly, Sakumo's features softened and he put his sword away to crouch beside the man's body and push his weight off his son. Kakashi's sobs hurt him, which only made the boy cry all the more, the fright disappearing into the pain. He was lifted into strong arms and he clung instinctively to the blood-sprayed vest, trying to see through the water in his eyes.

"D-d-daddy?" He asked uncertainly between sobs he wasn't able to quiet.

The man smiled sadly at his son, rubbing his back gently and soothingly, "Shh, Kakashi… it's over now."

With wide, watery eyes, Kakashi looked down at the dead body of Toshi, a kunai ring barely visible sticking out of his back. He started shaking and crying harder. Sakumo hushed him again and started walking from the sight, confident that Yamoto would take care of the bodies.

"Don't cry for them, Kakashi," he whispered soothingly, "They were shinobi who tried to take my precious person…"

Kakashi sniffed and sobbed out his words, "B-but—T-toshi-san—had—he had—a little boy—too, daddy…"

Sakumo wouldn't allow himself to feel anything towards the men he killed. He pulled Kakashi closer, mindful not to hold him too tightly. "Then he should have known better," he murmured to his son.

The three-year-old looked small and lost in his large hospital bed and loose hospital clothes. His knees were pulled up to his chest, in part because it eased the pain and in part just to have something to hold. He stared somberly at the white covers on the bed, eyes following the folds in the material, in part because they were there and in part just to have something to look at.

His father had brought him directly to the hospital, but he'd been quick to leave again, leaving the small boy alone and afraid with strange people in strange clothes poking and prodding him… That had been yesterday and he still hadn't seen him again.

"Mama…" The boy whispered hoarsely, his throat still sore from all the screaming and crying he'd done the day before.

He longed more than ever to have mama sitting by his bed. Not just because then someone would be there. Then he would know she was okay, not like those other men he had seen, spraying blood and lying stiffly on the ground never to wake up again.

Kakashi understood death. He had asked before and his mama had explained it to him. Death was when a shinobi didn't come back home to his family. When he disappeared into whatever mystery was beyond life. The only sure thing about death, his mama had told him, was that someone who was dead didn't come back to life. It was why they prayed at the family shrine, to wish their loved ones safety wherever they might be. Kakashi didn't remember any of the loved ones they prayed for, but he sat quietly while his parents prayed, anyway.

The door slid open and wide, haunted black eyes looked up hopefully. But the woman in the doorway was a stranger. He watched with wary eyes as she smiled at him and stepped inside the room.

"How are you feeling, Kakashi-kun?" The blonde haired woman asked.

Kakashi looked down and swallowed back the lump that was in his throat. He rubbed his dry eyes furiously before replying weakly, "I want mama…"

Because his mama would make everything all better in that special way that only a mama could.

The woman's eyes were soft as she looked down at the boy, "Oh, Sakumo…" She whispered.

The three-year-old looked up at her warily again, "Do you know daddy?" He asked, "Do you know where he went?"

The woman smiled sadly, "Your daddy's very busy right now," she replied softly, "I'm sure he'll come to see you soon."

The boy looked down again, "I wish mama was here…" He said forlornly.

The woman said nothing; there wasn't anything she could say. Nothing she wanted to, at any rate.

In a small, quiet voice, Kakashi voiced his fears, "Is… is mama dead?" He whispered fearfully, looking up again to meet the woman's eyes.

She didn't answer but looked a little afraid herself.

"I… she was bleeding," Kakashi said worriedly, "Just like those men… like those men daddy…" He couldn't bring himself to say it, that his daddy had killed those men. The thought was too horrible. And Toshi had been a daddy, as well.

"I don't think it's my place to say…" The woman started uncertainly before relenting with a sigh, "Kakashi… your mother… we weren't able to get her medical attention in time…"

The boy regarded her quizzically, trying his best to understand the complicated words she was using.

"Yes…" the woman said with another sigh, "Your mother didn't make it, Kakashi…"

Kakashi looked down again, feeling strange. He hurt, inside, but he wasn't sure how to show it. He felt, maybe, like crying, but he couldn't cry any more after yesterday. His eyes were still too tired. So he just sat there, staring, hoping the feeling would go away.

"I'm sorry… Kakashi…" the woman said sincerely.

Kakashi didn't understand, "What… what did mama do?" He wondered desperately, "Mama didn't… she was always nice, she didn't hurt anybody…"

The woman decided not to correct him—it would be better for him to remember his mother as that than as a ruthless Jounin. "She was just… in the wrong place at the wrong time… these things happen sometimes… and there's no good explanation," the woman sighed—she really had to get away from all this killing and dying. Being forced to tell a three-year-old boy that his mother was gone—it was never something she would have imagined doing back in her Academy classes. It wasn't something she wanted to do now.

Kakashi sat silently as the woman took note of his vital signs. She told him he was doing well and left him alone again. Kakashi stared at the creases in his bed sheets, just to have something to look at, as that horrible feeling gnawed inside of him.

The woman's words echoed in his head—'she was just… in the wrong place at the wrong time…'—he should have been faster to gather their picnic. The wrong place—maybe he should have held her hand, hurried her along like his anxious heart had wanted to. Maybe he should have led her through the shortcut Ino-hime had sniffed out. The wrong time—maybe if he hadn't stopped to play on the rock… if he'd just hurried straight home.

'It's my fault…' shock and something else hit Kakashi at the same time. It was his fault his mama had died. If he'd been faster… if he hadn't been playing around… if he'd protected her like he'd been learning… if he'd been more alert… but he hadn't. And now mama was dead.

'That's why he's not here…' realization was like a painful blow to the stomach and Kakashi curled up tighter around himself. His daddy must know it was his fault, too. 'He's angry, which is why he isn't visiting.' Kakashi wished he could cry to make the pain go away, but his eyes were still dry and no tears would come.

Sakumo sat in the dark corner of a bar, a bottle of strong sake and grief his only companions. Guilt ate at his insides like a demonic entity. It was painful and wouldn't go away, even at his fifth serving, more than enough to get the usually dry man drunk.

'It shouldn't be a concern…' that's what he'd told her. Of course, it had been a concern, and because of his comforting words she hadn't been prepared for the worst.

'Screw the village; I should have walked back with them!' He raged at himself. He didn't blame the village, of course, it was his own choice. Other shinobi could have handled the invasion just as well as he did. Or nearly as well.

'It shouldn't be a concern…' He had left his wife—his pregnant wife—in the guard of his three-year-old son. He had left his son—his three-year-old son—in the guard of his pregnant wife. It was the most foolish thing the genius Hatake had done in his life. Even more foolish than that time at the Academy…

Mikoto had been feeling the weight of the pregnancy on her. She liked to pretend she could do things just as well, but he knew even something as simple as a small picnic would tire her out.

Kakashi was just a little boy. He was becoming a genius ninja, but he was still untrained and inexperienced. He couldn't have been expected to do anything.

Guilt churned inside the man and he took another hard drink, draining the last of his current bottle and slurring a request for another. The waitress gave him a pitying look—she knew what he'd done because the alcohol had loosened his tongue—and left to fulfill his request.

And Kakashi… guilt and self-loathing devoured him at the thought of the small boy's wide eyes and blatant fear, focused not at his kidnappers, but at his own father.

"I can't believe you," a harsh, disapproving voice interrupted the man's self-depreciating thoughts. "You'd leave that poor boy alone in the hospital just to drink yourself dumb in some seedy bar? Selfish bastard."

Sakumo deserved it. He deserved more than what his friend was saying, far more.

"I'm a horr'ble pershon, Jira…" Sakumo agreed miserably. The waitress arrived with his fresh bottle but it was snatched away even as he reached for it.

"I think you've had enough," Jiraiya said coldly, glaring at his friend as he took the seat across from him.

"Go 'way, Jira… don' need you tellin' me wha'to…" he trailed off as his train of thought was muddled away by alcohol. He grasped for something to say to complete the sentence he'd already forgotten. "A'gashi…" he moaned miserably. How his son must hate him. It was the only thing he could think of and he completely forgot about the man sitting across from him.

He'd let his wife died and he'd become a monster right before the kid. Even a child's unconditional love couldn't withstand that.

"Sakumo!" Jiraiya snapped. His friend looked up at him, a little surprised and unfocused. "You need to go see him."

Even the drunken Sakumo didn't need to be told who.

"Can' do tha', Jira," the man slurred, "Can'… can' look at him… you shoulda… shoulda seen it…"

Jiraiya didn't have to ask what.

"He… the way he wash looki' at me… like a… a monster!" The single word was perfectly clear in his drawl. The word that triggered the tears. And Jiraiya found himself staring at his friend as he sobbed.

"A monster, Jira," he repeated brokenly, "I… he was… I made him cry, kami! His eyes… oh, his eyes… didn' even recog—cognize me… Ga'ashi… Kakashi! Like… like I was… some kinda monster…!" He rambled on, the slurring becoming worse from his sobs. It was painful to watch.

"He doesn't hate you, Sakumo," Jiraiya finally interrupted when the silver-haired man was so incoherent he couldn't pick out a single word.

Sakumo eyed him blearily—'how would you know?'

"He's your son, Sakumo…" Jiraiya insisted, "He doesn't… he was stressed yesterday… in pain. Tsunade said he had broken multiple ribs on his left side. Probably couldn't even think straight, let alone recognize you. He was already afraid and high strung, getting attacked again was just too much for him to handle."

Sakumo didn't look comforted.

Jiraiya sighed and rubbed his temples. "Tsunade just came from talking with him," he announced, "He asked after his mother and she told him… he asked after you, too, but she couldn't say much. You were busy, she said. The kid's all alone in there right now, he needs you."

"Doesn' need me… 'll jus' end up getti' him killed," Sakumo slurred, depressed.

"Of course… we'll need to get you sober, first," Jiraiya mused. He'd never seen his friend this drunk in his life—not even at his own bachelor party.

"Don' wanna ge' sober," Sakumo muttered in protest, "Feels bedder this way."

Jiraiya rolled his eyes and stood, setting the still full jug on his chair and crossing around the table to heft his friend up. Sakumo was dead weight on his shoulder. "How many did you have, anyway?"

"Dunno… five or six…" Sakumo answered sluggishly, suddenly feeling tired. Tired and worn and guilty. Maybe he could convince Jiraiya to just kill him now. He glanced across at the man and doubted it. Jiraiya wouldn't even kill him out of mercy.

The white-haired sannin looked to the waitress for confirmation. She shrugged, "At least a dozen, I think," she said, "I lost count somewhere around seven or eight."

"Probably die from alcohol poisoning," Jiraiya grumped. He sighed and hefted the man a little higher on his shoulder, "Come on; let's get you home and sober. At least try to use your legs, Sakumo."

"Home…" Sakumo mused sadly. Home was where she wouldn't be. Where Kakashi wouldn't be. Because he had failed to protect both of them.

Kakashi had had few visitors. That medic had come again, and he'd seen Jiraiya once or twice. But he still hadn't seen his father by the next day. He didn't respond at all when the nurse entered to check on his vitals again. She told him he'd be allowed to go home tomorrow.

Kakashi wondered if he had a home to go back to. He was sure his daddy wouldn't want him, not after what he did. Maybe Jiraiya would let him move in with him—he hadn't seemed too angry. Or maybe he would be sent to live at an orphanage. The other kids would probably know what he'd done, too. Their parents would have died in the war, but him… he would have killed his own mother—they probably wouldn't want to be friends with someone like him.

He didn't look up when the door slid open. He knew it wouldn't be his father, just some medic again, probably. Maybe Jiraiya. Definitely not his mother. Because she was dead and that meant she wouldn't be coming home. And it was his fault.

No one spoke. There wasn't a polite 'how are you feeling?' from the nurse. Nor was there a rough, 'you holding up, kid?' from Jiraiya.

The silence pressed down on him, making the bad feeling inside of him even worse. Whoever it was, they didn't even feel he was worth talking to. The door opened again and slid shut.

Kakashi listened disinterestedly to vague voices in the hallway. Then, a few seconds later, the door slid open again and shut a little harder than necessary.

"… Kakashi…"

The three-year-old's breath caught for an instant and his heart started beating faster. His hands clenched the fabric of his blanket. That voice… painfully familiar. He'd never expected to hear it again. Slowly, reluctantly, he raised his eyes to look at the somber figure of his father.

The tall man was frowning down at him, but his eyes were soft and sad, not the angry, hateful eyes his son had imagined. The eyes he'd seen the other day. Instead, they made him want to cry for a whole other reason, only his tears were all dried up.

"D-daddy…" he whimpered. He hesitated for a moment before holding his arms out for the man. He didn't care if it looked foolish or needy; he wanted to be held, to know that his daddy still cared for him, a little at least.

The man hesitated as well. His hands seemed too bloody with recent sins to embrace his son. But the painful look on the little boy's face pulled him forward and he held him tightly, desperate arms ringed around his own neck. He ran a hand through the child's errant silver hair soothingly.

"I… I'm sorry, daddy," the tears finally returned and Kakashi started crying again, "I didn't mean for… I didn't know it would… I'm so sorry—please don't hate me, daddy!"

Sakumo's guilt deepened at the pleading, desperate voice of his son. It was his fault he felt this way, too. He shouldn't have left him alone for so long. What was a boy supposed to think when his father willingly stayed away for days at a time?

"Kakashi…" he whispered again, his own voice husky with tears he refused to let fall. He had to be strong—someone had to.

"It wasn't your fault… none of it was," he assured the boy, "I don't hate you, you're the most precious person I have."

Kakashi looked up hopefully, eyes shining with tears, "Then… then you won't make me live with jisan? Or at the orp, no… orphanage?"

"No… no… of course not," Sakumo rubbed the boy's back, then hesitated, "You… don't want to live with Jiraiya, do you?"

Kakashi resumed his crying and buried his head in his father's shirt, "No, no, no!" He cried miserably, "I want to go home and live with you, daddy! Please!"

Sakumo was at a loss to understand why he would after what he'd seen the other day. What kind of kid wanted to live with a murderer? A monster? But he whispered soothingly anyway, "Shh… It's okay, Kakashi… we'll go home together once you're better."

Kakashi sniffed and hiccupped, trying to stop the torrent of tears that just kept coming.

Eventually the three-year-old cried himself to sleep and Sakumo gently pried the arms from his neck and tucked his son into his bed. He stared down at the sleeping face of his son, cheeks and eyes red from crying. Still, he looked peaceful.

He left the room to find Jiraiya leaning against the wall, still waiting faithfully. He couldn't believe how good of a friend he'd found—he certainly didn't deserve it. He quickly derailed that line of thinking; he didn't feel like he deserved anything at the moment and knew he would have to get his depression under control if he wanted to continue being a good father to his son. And Kakashi did deserve a good father. A better father than he could be, maybe, but he would have to do his best.

"How'd it go?" The white-haired sannin asked casually.

"I don't know what I did to deserve him," Sakumo let slip without meaning to. Jiraiya had always had that disarming effect on him—it was one of the reasons the two were such fast friends.

Jiraiya scoffed, "You deserve him more than anyone else," he said disapprovingly, "If you haven't done enough to deserve a loving kid no one in the human race has."

Sakumo chose not to argue—as if one could reason with the sannin. Besides, in the end all that mattered was what Kakashi wanted.