'round & 'round
(a shot of kakashi for your melancholy day)

Gregor was down again
Said: Come on, kick me again
Said: I'm so drunk
I don't mind if you kill me
Come on you, gutless
I'm alive I'm alive
Oh, I'm alive...
And how I know it
Ah, but for chips and for freedom
I could die

Franz Ferdinand - Jacqueline
round one.

Hatake Kakashi was born at precisely three in the afternoon; a most inconvenient time for everyone, as his late arrival caused all sorts of trouble for his father. (Sandaime Hokage had not appreciated one of his elite jounin crashing into an important meeting that he should have been at from the start, half-dazed, with only the excuse of "The sun was just so bright, I had to stare at it until I could no longer. That took three minutes - but I persevered, Sarutobi-sama - ")

Needless to say, such unusual things occurred more often until they became the usual with the White Fang, after his son was born. The newborn was oft seen in his father's company, sitting on his diapered tush, quietly occupying himself with his pacifier and the company of his father's summoned dogs. Before long, kunai and shuriken would be found, gathered around Kakashi's bare feet; a little later, those kunai and shuriken found their way into his hands - "Ah, 'Kashi-chan, you're going to get me in trouble with your mother," was all Sakumo would say, gently correcting the little boy's grip.

(This was all before Kakashi had learned how to walk or speak.)

His father would not get in trouble with his mother for any of this, after all - she was ill, and had been since a little before Kakashi himself was born. She had grown steadily worse as time went on, he was told later, because all he ever remembered about her were her weathered blue eyes and the sound of the bimbomushi beetles that lived in the floorboards underneath. He was a baby, and babies needed watching no matter how smart for their age they were; so he was more often than not strapped to his father's chest, taken to conferences and fed between, because his mother could not do that for him. He was a quiet and content little thing, and Sakumo loved him beyond anyone else in Konoha.

He was two years old when his mother died, and he hadn't had the chance to grow into the habit of sitting at her bedside and holding her hand company. The funeral was well-attended, the day bright and warm, and Sakumo had held to his son tightly, cheek against cheek as he told him, "Your 'kaa-chan has a nice new futon to rest on, ne? It's softer, I'm sure."

Kakashi, looking back, supposed that she had looked more comfortable on the funeral bed than back at home, and agreed.

round two.

"'Tou-san." By the time Kakashi was five, his aim was immaculate. His throw was simple, fast, and efficient, and Sakumo deemed him of age to start attending the academy. Despite this, Kakashi was still a child, and therefore (on occasion) acted as such. "'Tou-san, I can't sleep."

Sakumo merely lifted his blanket and Kakashi took the invitation to curl up at his father's side. "What's wrong, 'Kashi?"

The boy shook his head against his father's shoulder, and fixed his gaze on the elder man's hand. "The bimbomushi are noisy tonight. I asked them if they'd stop, but they keep singing."

He felt his father's sigh more than heard it, and was shifted as Sakumo turned to face him. "The bimbomushi won't stop singing if you ask them, 'Kashi-chan, because it's their job to sing when no one wants them to." Kakashi didn't blink. "Bimbomushi are the messengers of the Bimbogami, and they sing to foretell of poverty. You know what 'poverty' means, right?"


"Aa, well 'poverty' can mean many things. The easiest sort of poverty is monetary." The White Fang paused, then slung his unoccupied arm over his open eyes before continuing softly, "And most other types of poverty aren't so difficult to overcome, as long as there are old ladies whose groceries you can help carry."

He knew his father was a strong shinobi - one of the strongest in the village - and that he helped a lot of old ladies around. He wondered if that's why the bimbomushi didn't sing to his father as they did to him. He never heard their chirps over his father's heartbeat - a heartbeat for which he was grateful, because it was a sound he liked hearing against someone else's chest than his own (especially since he was the first to notice that his mother's had stopped).

Kakashi deduced that as long as he remained by his father's side, and helped old ladies with their groceries, the Bimbogami and his solemn agents would leave him be. Keeping his eyes on his father wasn't difficult - Kakashi had long been observant, and content with the placid habit of being so. (At least through most his childhood, for it was much later that he met Obito.) And by doing so, he managed to graduate from the academy within the year, and began his training as a genin. He became a chuunin soon after (and he knew that his proudest moment - having won the chuunin exam's final tournament, and looking up at the stands to see his father's white hair glistering in the sun, his father staring at it and him alternately - would be proud enough to last him his lifetime).

"'Kashi-chan's getting pretty good," Sakumo began to say more and more often, eyes bright and an armed hand up as they faced off. "But hold your guard - what if a cute little kitten gets underfoot? You wouldn't want to hurt it accidentally, would you? Work a little bit on that stance."

He had heard, of course, about that mission, as soon as his father had returned with his teammates but no scroll. His father never mentioned it, or the damage it caused when a squad of Iwa-nin managed to get through one of the southern defenses to kill seven chuunin and three jounin before they were stopped, but Kakashi could see... what it did to his father and what it did to the people around his father. It hadn't been his father's fault, because who could have known? He wouldn't have abandoned a mission unless it was worth it. Just like it was worth being late to the academy sometimes, because Kisuke had asked him if he'd help get his cat down from a tree, or Amane lost her favorite notebook.

His father was strong. His father would be okay. Because Kakashi would hold his hand. But his grip grows slack, grows weary and withered and weathered, just like mother's eyes had been, Kakashi would often have to refrain from realizing, though he said nothing of it. He kept that thought inside, didn't let it ripple to his father through the hand he steadily held.

He spent less time asleep and more time awake to hear the bimbomushi sing their symphony. It grew less bearable than it had been when he was younger, as he spent the time to wonder what kind of poverty they chose for him - how long he had until it would befall him. His father seemed far away, even when he was right beside him, because his mind began to wander to a place that Kakashi, for all his genius, could not follow. (He tried.) His hand wasn't enough to ground his father, and Kakashi wasn't sure what else he could offer.

Training with his father was no longer as it had been. His father had started wearing a face mask - "I don't want to tan" was his explanation - and when they sat to rest, outside and on the veranda that framed their home, there would be very little speaking.

"'Kashi," his father broke the silence, uncharacteristically, one day. "Do they still croon?"

And Kakashi knew exactly what his father was talking about. "...Un."

"Is that so..." The older man sprawled himself on his back - after a moment, Kakashi did as well.

They fell quiet, and watching the clouds was relaxing, Kakashi thought. The day was especially warm and the air thick with humidity, and he and his father were just mounds weighed down by gravity and sun. (He also thought of his mother, and wondered whether it was better to be weighed down by earth than be stifled by the very air one breathed.)

But his father exhaled again and Kakashi's sharp hearing caught the faint words: "I've wanted to give you my tanto for a while. Ever since I saw you help Kenpachi find the ramen stand down the street. He'd been lost several hours, hadn't he?"


"But you helped him find his way." The White Fang's eyes were shut and the wrinkles around his eyes seemed more pronounced than they had yesterday. "It's yours. I wouldn't give it to anyone else. Your mother would have been proud."

Kakashi knew his father was too, but he wondered whether his 'tou-san's grip would be stronger, if Kakashi were able to make him prouder.

"I'm smiling for you, 'Kashi-chan." Those shut eyes were crinkled further into a crescent-shaped expression that the old ladies he helped around usually wore, and Kakashi watched his father stand and return indoors to begin preparing the evening meal. Kakashi meandered after him a few minutes later, setting the table, though his efforts to provide any other help was rebuffed.

So he watched silently, and when he went to his father's room the next day to find the older man laying in a thick pool of his own blood, he had some sort of idea as to what the Bimbogami had lying in wait.

round three.

He was irritated enough to wish a very painful demise for his sensei - yes, that dumb blond man sitting beside him, jabbing him in the side as and wiggling his eyebrows at the blushing brunette standing on the other side of the serving counter at the ramen stand, saying, "Kakashi, isn't Ayame-chan the cuuuuutest girl you've ever seen?"

"If you say so."

He ducked as "jerk!" was bellowed in his direction, ducking and spinning in his seat just in time to throw the (attempted-)head-whacker into a nearby table, before spinning back, unruffled, to his original position. Ah, such was Obito.

"Ne, ne," the blond then said to the still-blushing, now-frowning girl behind the bar, "I think you're the cutest girl I've ever seen, Ayame-chan."

Obito's head made it to the counter, where it flopped down and glared at their sensei through narrowed eyes and orange goggles. "...Pervert."

The blond's expression was decidedly innocent as he only slurped up the ramen placed before him in reply, and Kakashi looked away to pick at his own. He wasn't very hungry, wasn't very happy, and wasn't sure what stayed him at their side. He was an orphan now, and understood all the bitterness that imbued the word, letter by letter.

"We don't have much time left for training today though," their sensei said after Obito had gotten his own steaming bowl, idly glancing between the cloth flaps that shielded the bar of Ichiraku. "Where's Rin?"

Obito seemed to deflate even more, and his eyes fixed onto the naruto drowning in miso. "...Ishida died in yesterday's raid. Just got back from his funeral. She was pretty good friends with him..." His blinked slowly and lifted his chopsticks again, plucking the fishcake from one swamp to drown it in another. He had barely finished chewing before he added, "She's probably at home now."

The blond slowed into a subdued tilt of the brows, and he finished off the rest of his ramen in the same droopy manner. Their sensei was a silent man, when he was serious, and (mostly) of a cheerful disposition when he wasn't. He had little to say in way of encouragement, other than what encouragement the weight of his eyes could offer. (Kakashi would often wonder if his sensei understood helplessness as well as he did - would often idle to think, to himself, that yes, his sensei knew it very well. He practiced it all the time.) Despite his strength, sensei was still relatively young - old, old, old, when it came to his eyes and long, still glances; an illogical sort of caring so deep that it became incomprehensible, transparent and thoughtless.

Kakashi respected his sensei, but he didn't love him in return. He wasn't sure why that was so, even if his team were all that was left. (He was no longer so naive as to misunderstand why the weight of his hand had never held his father back.)

He stood without a word and turned to go back home, assuming he'd be recalled if training was to commence and left alone if not. Rin not showing up usually meant as much, at least. They wouldn't be called to the battlefront for another week or so, as it were, and Kakashi himself would prefer to spend that time developing his new technique - chidori. Obito was a burden, and though he'd gotten used to seeing the faint pride in his sensei's crystalline eyes, he didn't like inviting the expression. The last person that had been proud of him had also had pride enough to kill himself before tasting the dirt he had become.

Kakashi wouldn't let that happen to himself. He wasn't trash, like his father had cast himself aside to die like, because he knew that the rules were important. He tried to have a good-enough grasp on this thought, but felt his grip slip every time Obito took out those silly eye drops of his, every time Rin had to butt into their spats and remind them that they're all on the same team, every time his sensei grinned... (I'm not trash, I'm not trash - I won't be trash, not even for them. Never.)

He noticed Obito tagging after him long before the chuunin actually caught up. ("Oi, Kakashi!" Obito bellowed anyway.) Once they were walking, side by side: "You want to go spar? Sensei said he'd be meeting with the Hokage over some stuff instead anyway - "

"You really just want to get beaten up, don't you?" Kakashi asked mildly. "That'll be forty ryou. I'm not wasting my time with you unless I'm getting paid."

Obito spent a few moments squawking, before getting contemplative. "What do you need to get paid for? Aren't you rich?"

Kakashi paused and considered telling Obito that he was dirt poor, so long as the bimbomushi lived under the floorboards. "Unlike some people, I don't make my income off old ladies."

"She asked - what was I supposed to do, say no?!"


"...You're so cold," Obito half whimpered, looking totally exasperated. "Fine, let's not spar. Come with me to the memorial."

Kakashi knew that Obito liked to stand there from time to time. His older sister had been killed years back - one of the first few casualties of the war - and Obito had taken to sitting by the stone on warm days, and talking aloud to his 'nee-chan, telling her about how training went and what a pervert sensei could be and what new, interesting thing Rin had taught him today and that Kakashi was not cool! Not cool at all, unless he was being cool... Kakashi usually sat beside him, quietly staring at the sky. (Chidori can wait, just a few moments longer, so I won't regret not keeping their hands company.)

So they sat there for hours, until the sun set and after, cloud-watching and saying little. Obito had stopped talking after the first half hour to pull out his eye drops, muttering to Kakashi that something had gotten in his eye, and Kakashi ignored that Obito'd been wearing his goggles.

"The mission in a couple weeks is pretty important, isn't it?"

Kakashi replied to Obito slowly, sighing, "Yeah. Scared?"

"N-no!" Obito exclaimed, wriggling agitatedly in his spot. His spoke more quietly after settling back down. "...It's just that I hope it all goes well. Sensei said we might even be able to stem the war, even push it into ending. I won't have to worry..."

"...As long as we follow the rules, everything should work out," Kakashi muttered, noting again how terrible he was at giving reassurance, getting to his feet and watching as Obito hesitated before standing as well. "We'll have to make up for being lazy tomorrow, so make sure to meet us on time."

Obito would grin as always and insist that he would be on time, no sweat - and they lingered only a moment longer to exchange wearied glances, before parting ways.

Kakashi always remembered those moments with startling clarity - perhaps more clearly than the mission itself, as a couple weeks later found he found himself sitting at the memorial, alone and on a warm night. For the first time, he was the one speaking. (It made sense that Obito had only been around while his eyes were dry.)

round four.

There was too much to be done between Obito's death and the end of the war, and in the short few months that followed, Kakashi could find himself unable to do more than do what he was told to do on missions, return to Konoha and stagger his way to the memorial, sometimes with Rin and sometimes with sensei (but never together, because that would make Obito's absence that much more apparent).

They hardly worked as a team anymore, because sensei was at the front lines and mediations, while Kakashi was doing A-class grunt work and Rin was reassigned to the hospital. He made a point of eating meals with Rin as often as possible; decided that he may have loved her back at some point, when he thought on it. She was strong in a way he wasn't, he remembered, stubborn and the first to wipe her tears at Obito's request and keep her hands steady to deliver him Obito's gift. She told him once that "Medics aren't supposed to cry," while they stood at the memorial, "it's what we're taught and sometimes I hate myself for it... but I cry a little, anyway." Yes, just like that.

He'd never be good enough for her, he had quickly concluded - I'm the sort of trash that would've left you behind, he remembered telling her, and it was true. They did become friends though, beyond teammates, and Kakashi would often pretend (to himself) that they were idling away, waiting for Obito to meet them because he had been waylaid by all the old ladies that would exploit the pushover in him. Rin would always notice, because she noticed everything, and sometimes she'd smile and not-cry and tell Kakashi that there was no way she'd ever fall out of love with trash like him, even if he didn't want to hear it. (He didn't want to hear it.)

It was hard to have Rin without Obito, and he was no replacement for what had been left behind that day. She was no replacement, either, as only Rin would tell him that she wanted him to take his face mask off, so she could see him smile. He told her that he smiled with his eyes.

"Like an old lady?" she teased kindly, poking in his direction with chopsticks slick from ramen. "You've always been that way, as far as I've known you. A little old, a little young, and a little strange. When are we going to see you hobbling down the streets, harassing genin to carry your things for you?"

His eyes had arched before he'd realized, and she laughed at him breathlessly, turning back to her ramen.

She had lived long enough to see the end of the war and their sensei's inauguration to Yondaime Hokage, three months after Obito had died, and the aftermath of the celebrations that followed after. Kakashi had followed her up the spiral steps to the hokage's office, and the three were in each others company for the first time since returning from that mission.

There was a heavy silence then, before Rin reached over to hug her sensei; the new hokage did not hesitate to hold her loosely and smile for her in return. His eyes were still the same as ever, to Kakashi, but it seemed like he could discern more and more from them each time they met, after the mission. (It was Kakashi's turn to be proud and to care, for once, and he hoped that it showed through his only visible eye better than it showed through his sensei's.) Their gazes met over Rin's head, and his sensei smiled for him, too. "Let's all go see Obito."

They spent the rest of the night sitting at the memorial, talking at the sky and pretending that the noise of the inauguration celebrations was noise for Obito as well.

It may have been okay, Kakashi thought, if things had remained that way and if there had been more than one person that remain behind to remember Obito. Rin collapsed the week after, breathing stiffly and pale, clutching his hand spastically and smiling, not-crying, telling him that to stay the same sort of trash he'd become the past few months. She was unconscious by the time he reached the hospital, and died the following morning, due to a prolonged exposure to a poison gas leak and unnoticed heart complications that had followed in its wake.

round five.

Kakashi saw more of his sensei than he thought he would, especially since the other had so much on his plate now that he was hokage. As a member of ANBU - to which he'd been promoted six months after Obito's death, three after Rin's - he slept so little that when he arrived back in Konoha, all he would do was report to his sensei before stopping at the memorial, then going home. The war had ended, but he was still overworked and grateful for it, because he didn't want a chance to think.

He didn't know why he stayed there. His father's blood had stained the floorboards of his room so thoroughly that Kakashi could hardly walk past without noticing the vague imprint of the shape and spread of the pond that hadn't quite been rinsed away. Sometimes he stopped to stare at it, smiling and not-crying, because he had begun to understand and was trying very hard to hold onto that, as it was the only thing that was pulling him through, recently.

He didn't often sleep well - spend some nights in a state of weak awareness and weak rest, spend other nights dead to the world, so tired that he would lose consciousness the moment he laid himself on his futon. He preferred the latter nights, because he wouldn't hear the bimbomushi over the numbing sleep. (They had not stopped their cacophony since four months before Obito's death, after having dulled to a murmur the night of his father's death.) Kakashi was sure he knew who would die next, though he wasn't sure what to go about doing for it.

So he went to his sensei, anyway, one night he was sure that neither would be sleeping on. Kakashi was greeted with a warm smile and he felt his heart suffer for it - he didn't want to lose another precious person, not ever again. "Ne, sensei..." He wasn't sure where to begin, so he started from the beginning, and finished at the end, and looked his teacher in the eyes to learn what the older man thought.

He couldn't tell, tonight, other than that his sensei had grown even older, even more statuesque and frozen in his flamed-hued robes than he had in his worn and thready jounin vest. The Yondaime Hokage put down the pen he had been fiddling with, the entire time Kakashi had been speaking, and threaded his fingers together under his chin. "I'm sorry that you had to go through all that, Kakashi. But you shouldn't be worrying for me, even if the Bimbogami thinks you should."

Kakashi said nothing. (After all, his sensei was a god, too.)

There was a soft sigh that escaped his sensei's lips, and he turned slightly, enough to look out the window behind him over the village. "I am hokage now; I was a shinobi of the leaf before that, and a citizen even earlier. I have a duty to uphold in this village, and I'd be a coward to back down from it. How would I face Obito and Rin?" His sensei grinned, and Kakashi could see the wrinkles around his eyes more pronounced than before, just like his father's had been, the day before he killed himself. He managed to keep his fingers from trembling.

His sensei turned back to face him fully. "Let me tell you something, Kakashi, and I fully expect you to keep that mask on tight and not leak a word of what I'm going to say to anyone else."

The ANBU member nodded.

And so his sensei told him that he'd found himself a really hot chick, and that they were living an Icha Icha sort of life. Kakashi promptly left, flinging the word "pervert" over his shoulder ala Obito as he did so. How would he face Obito and Rin? Kakashi wondered in faint disgust.

If nothing else, the yellow flash was definitely kind enough to be honest to the people he cared for. Months later, when they began getting reports of the Kyuubi no Kitsune's rampaging a mere forest-breadth away, when shinobi were sent ahead to hold the demon back for as long as possible, and Kakashi was waiting at his home as per Sandaime's orders, next to the blood stains on his father's floorboards, all he could hear were the chirps of the bimbomushi mingling with distant roars and pained shouts. Why am I here, he thought nervously, why can't I go back to the front lines? He wanted to, sorely, if only so the cracking of trees and the heat of those whipping tails would distract him from the fact that people would die tonight, one of whom was precious to him.

But he waited, because rules were rules and he would at least follow those that his sensei set for him, if he could not save him. He dug at the floorboards out of desperation, lifting them up and wondering how many bimbomushi he'd find hoarding underneath them, whether it would make a difference if he could kill them all before they killed his sensei. (He wasn't sure whether it was all right to laugh when he saw that there were none, even though he heard their warnings more clearly than ever.)

Within the next hour, Kakashi could hear the demon breaching the village. Sandaime had appeared and was waiting grimly at his side, wordlessly smoking his pipe after having inked an elaborate seal into the kitchen of Kakashi's home, candles placed around and lit, flames dimly flickering somewhat pointlessly, as the world outside was already ablaze.

By the time the Yondaime had arrived, a blue-eyed, blond-tufted baby clenched in his hands, the demon had veered into the the south side of the village, and Kakashi could feel the earth shaking. "Whose baby is that?" Kakashi asked, though he was sure he knew.

"Just watch out for him, all right, both of you? He's a hero - and Konoha needs for him - me - to do this." The blond's eyes glistened in the candlelight, and Kakashi realized suddenly that his sensei might have been dirt poor, too. "Naruto - his name is Naruto."

The baby cried the rest of the night, and kept Kakashi's tears company because he was too small to really hold hands. He wasn't sure how to take care of it either, but had been left with minimal instructions to keep him hidden and safe until Sarutobi-sama could make more appropriate arrangements. The little thing fell asleep soon, anyway, warm and tiny, and it was a wonder that the huge demon that had been destroying the village a few hours before was sealed up in the smooth skin of the newborn breathing softly against his chest.

round six.

Kakashi met Maito Gai after resigning from ANBU for a jounin status, upon invitation of the reinstated Sandaime hokage. It had been an odd meeting, to say the least - his quiet respite in the jounin lounge had been interrupted by the door being broken down, some green-clad fool bellowing "DYNAMIC ENTRY!" as he Konoha Senpuu'd his way into the room. Several jounin had immediately armed themselves, before realizing who it was and getting peeved, mumbling "Don't do that, Gai" over their shoulders as they ambled out, all of a sudden having things to get done.

Kakashi only ignored the man and continued reading the little orange book that had been gifted to him. Jiraiya had come back to Konoha for his student's funeral, and Kakashi was unable to see any remnants of the man that had been somewhat of an uncle to his team, until after the body had been buried and the grave doused in white roses and carnations. (Kakashi had brought chrysanthemums with his carnations, because he hardly thought his sensei had been pure.) He and Jiraiya had wordlessly met up again at the lonely grave at dusk, and this time Kakashi had Naruto in tow, a single white tulip clutched between the baby's fingers as he sleepily sucked on a pacifier, propped against Kakashi's much larger shoulder.

"That's the kid?" Jiraiya asked, glancing over briefly. "He really outdid himself this time, a jutsu like that... and naming the brat something as uncool as 'Naruto'. Figures. He always was bad at that." He looked back at the sky, still a thoroughly-smoked gray from the night before.

"Are you going to stay?" Kakashi asked, awkwardly gripping the now-awake newborn's hand and guiding it to hold the flower over the grave. He tried to be gentle, prying the stem of the tulip, but the baby cooed as if it were a game and brought it back to his chest, where he and the white petals formed a spot of color against Kakashi's funeral clothes. Kakashi watched Naruto for a few long moments, half-aware of Jiraiya's silence, gave up in lieu of the bleary blue eyes that watched him. (Naruto could keep his forgiveness, and hold it close to himself. Kakashi would not begrudge him that, as long as it was kept somewhere - he was old enough to know that the child's shell would harden once those eyes really saw the world it had been born into.)

"No," Jiraiya replied. "I won't stay for anything. My network is getting too important, and I'm the only one assigned to keep tabs on Orochimaru." Jiraiya approached, and had to bend to look at the baby closely - the baby that looked back just as closely, sucking at the pacifier complacently, eyes still bleary. After a short second, Jiraiya stood straight again, looking more stricken than Kakashi had ever seen him, before he wordlessly handed the jounin an orange book, patted his unoccupied shoulder, and walked away.

Kakashi had given Naruto to Sarutobi the day after, and had left without asking what would happen next. He didn't want to know, not until Sarutobi was getting too old to keep him safe and Kakashi was old enough to take the responsibility for it. He had been bumped up to ANBU captain, then, and given a month off. (It was only because of this that Kakashi found himself feeling lonely enough to pick up the orange book, and actually find some merit in it. A few years later, it still held his interest.)

Unfortunately, Maito Gai had spun to a stop right in front of him, posing in a wildly flamboyant manner. "Yo! I am Maito Gai, and you, Hatake Kakashi, are my rival!"

Kakashi had paused only to give the other jounin an incredulous squint of the eye.

Gai staggered back, looking defeated, only for a moment. "Oh, too hip to say anything!" He threw himself into the opposite seat, teeth sparkling nearly as brightly as the sunbeam that somehow pierced the room to illuminate him. "...Are you reading porn?"

Kakashi nodded.

Gai looked confused, for a moment, like he couldn't choose between several possible reactions, before changing the subject. "Have you seen Asuma anywhere?"

Sarutobi's estranged son? "No."

Gai told him that that was who he was looking for, before spending the next two hours pestering Kakashi into a round of janken. (Kakashi hadn't been able to get rid of him since.) Asuma had eventually shown up, supposedly for a match of shougi, but more likely to just fill the room with cigar smoke. "Cancer sticks," Asuma had grinned at him, teeth faintly yellowed. "If I don't get killed on a mission, I'll at least have picked my own way out."

So would Shiranui Genma, apparently: "I'm just waiting till someone manages to get me to swallow this senbon." He clinched it between his lips, before adding, "It probably won't happen till I'm really old, and I'll be the one to swallow it myself. It'll be a fantastically stupid way to go, and if I ever have a wife, she'll spend the rest of her days laughing at me for it."

Yamashiro Aoba would flick at his glasses from beside the stern-faced Ebisu more often than he'd speak, giving the impression that he thought his sunglasses were cooler. (But Kakashi would wonder why Ebisu glanced at Icha Icha more often than he wondered at the lack of taste both Aoba and Ebisu seemed to share.) Mitarashi Anko would only look amused with them, eating and idling and making snide comments as she saw fit, while Morino Ibiki stayed quiet, reading news reports and watching shougi alternately.

When he wasn't in the lounge, someplace that had grown more comfortable to him than his old family home, or the apartment into which he'd moved after the Kyuubi had gotten close enough to wreck the entirety of his childhood bedroom and the rooms surrounding it, he was at the memorial. (The kitchen had survived, something for which Kakashi was almost grateful for, as he'd been huddled there with Naruto against the lower cabinets, dry rice grains dotting the floors and sticking to his trembling feet.)

He'd stand there, sometimes alone and always silent, having grown out of speaking aloud and into staring forlornly out of his eye. There was someone else that seemed to frequent the memorial at around the same times he did - someone about his age with a scar across his nose, expression doused in sadness and dry with it. The fifteenth day they sat near each other to face the memorial stone, the other spoke.

"I've heard about you. Hatake Kakashi, right?"

Kakashi didn't reply, because the last person who'd bothered confirming that without bombarding him with questions or comments first was Gai - and though the young man looked normal enough (unlike Gai), Kakashi wasn't sure he wanted to take chances.

"My name is Umino Iruka." Iruka was still beside the memorial. "My parents died fighting against the Kyuubi, but you won't find their names on that." He pointed at the stone, then looked over at Kakashi, who was now observing him from his single eye. "This is my first year teaching at the academy. Why'd you fail the team I assigned to you?"

Ah. He was dealing with a mother-hen. "They lacked something that I find absolutely essential to a team..." There wasn't much more to say, really.

Iruka nodded shortly, before turning to Kakashi with a sheepish smile. "I'll keep that in mind for the next team I assign to you, Hatake-san." He bid him a good day and left.

Kakashi found himself part of a motley crew that grew to include Iruka, along with several others, over the following years. "We're all the king's horses and all the king's men, and Asu-su-suuuma plays shougi oh-so-well," Genma sang drunkenly one time, hunched over the shougi board and peering closely at its scattered pieces. Kakashi and Izumo both reached in unison to pluck the senbon from the other jounin's mouth. "..Heeey..."

It was true. (The "king" they served was the hokage, so they thought for years - until he died, and Tsunade-hime made it clear she didn't need to be smothered by their attention. That she had sacrificed years off of her life to protect Konoha's future, and that their "king", if any, would not be found in any high spiral towers, but resting among the former hokage, soaking up the sun.)

round seven.

Kakashi sometimes felt he owed Iruka either all the gratitude in the world, or a great bloody, broken nose. It fluctuated between one and the other, but he didn't think he would trade team seven for anything else. Sakura's bright hair and intelligent eyes didn't remind him of Rin (because Rin seemed stronger and less fragile to him from day one) - but he had always had high hopes for her to bloom away from Sasuke, so that if he, as her foundation, was torn from her, she'd still be able to survive.

"Ne, Sakura," he asked once during training, at a point when the sound of Sasuke and Naruto trying to outright kill each other while sparring had become the usual background noise, "why do you hold back during training? You let Sasuke think he completed yesterday's exercise before the rest of you." They had taken a break, and Kakashi had taken out Icha Icha Paradise, flipped back to the page he was on last, and started reading.

She looked uncomfortable at the question (which is why he'd asked her after the fact), her hands knotting behind her back, chewing her lip before she answered. "Sometimes I think Sasuke needs to feel like he's the best... when it comes to ninjutsu," she added quickly. "Sometimes it seems like he wouldn't take well to someone beating him - much less me." She laughed easily.

"That's not quite right," Kakashi said after a few moments. "He's proud of you for doing well, even if he doesn't say anything. I can tell."

Sakura looked up at him, eyes wide. (She really needed to hear this.) "R-really? ...How?"

Kakashi flipped the page. "Hm... I suppose it's because he tries harder. He doesn't want to be left behind, and he wants to be able to protect us all better than we can protect ourselves, so that means he has to get better than us, first, right?"

She was flustered and upset at this. "But I want to protect him too!"

He would have patted her on the head, like he did so often to Naruto, but wasn't sure if a girl would appreciate that sort of thing. Sakura could get kind of scary about her hair, sometimes. "That's what teamwork is. Everyone gets stronger for each other. Don't hold yourself back, okay?" He arched his eyes, and she looked hesitant before growing determined enough to nod and smile back.

The formation of team seven was the first time Kakashi had the pleasure of meeting Uchiha Sasuke as well; the boy was a genius and everything he himself had been, when he was the same age. Sasuke had suffered in a manner that had Kakashi wondering if the young genin could hear the bimbomushi too. (He never asked, though he was tempted to on more than one occasion.) Kakashi had hopes that Sasuke would leave revenge behind, because it seemed like he needed friends more.

Sasuke seemed to like his company more than he enjoyed the company of either Naruto or Sakura, though he never spoke or treated him differently than he did anyone else. (It was in a manner that he was sure his sensei would have considered rude, but Kakashi didn't mind so much. Sasuke had become dirt poor and helpless, just like he had, and it was in this shared curse that Kakashi thought the two might have felt kinship.)

Sasuke started off brusque, at first, when asking questions, as if he wasn't sure if Kakashi would just walk away, or as if Kakashi wouldn't answer if he asked politely. It took a few months before he wouldn't hesitate to ask questions, for extra help with taijutsu or ninjutsu, or if they could go get some dango while Kakashi explained a more complicated concept. (It was nice, Kakashi thought, though it would be nicer if he didn't have the inkling that Sasuke was going to throw all of it away for the chance to kill his brother.)

Sakura and Sasuke both had Naruto, in any case, and Kakashi had a bit more faith in their teamwork than he might have when the team was first formed. He could hardly remember the little baby he'd held the first few days after its birth, twelve years later, because this boy was gruff, loud, and slightly - dare he say it? - well, not the brightest crayon, not at first. Not later, either, when it came to the essence of being a ninja. (Nothing like himself.)

But he was a lot like others that Kakashi had known throughout his life, all of whom had been far greater people than he. "Why do you always eat ramen?" he'd asked one day, when Sasuke had gone home immediately with Sakura tagging along after, and Naruto had convinced him to pay for his meal, since the older man had been later than usual that afternoon.

"I like it," the genin replied simply, slurping up some right after.


"Why do you wear that mask?"

"I like it."

The boy accepted the answer wordlessly, ignoring him for the most part as he flipped through Icha Icha Paradise. Kakashi sometimes wondered about how Naruto's brain was wired as much as he wondered about how his chakra coils were wired. (He didn't think he'd ever figure it out.) After another twelve bowls, Naruto seemed full and Kakashi realized, as he paid, that they'd better not make it a habit. He hadn't ever thought someone so small could pack away that much food, and hoped that it wasn't really all the boy ate.

"Why are you always late, Kakashi-sensei?" Naruto looked genuinely concerned, the next time the boy managed convincing him for ramen. "You say it's 'cause you're helping around old ladies or getting cats down from trees and stuff, and I guess I could see you doing that - " (well, that was a first) " - but it's always at the same time and it's always while we're waiting, always three hours late."

"Hm..? I suppose that's true," Kakashi replied, still reading.

"But WHY?" the boy exclaimed, so bothered that even Kakashi had to look up and pay a little more attention than he was used to giving. "What's up with that?"

Kakashi considered his answer. "I really do get lost on the road of life, Naruto. I don't joke about that. If you believe me about the old ladies and kittens, you'll have to take my word on that one too."

They resumed their usual silence, but Kakashi could tell that the blond was thinking about it. (Naruto's hitai-ate always seemed so heavy over his light-colored brow, and it wasn't so often that the weight of his streaked whiskers seemed to tug the flip of his lips down.) He looked at the words that Jiraiya had penned over the years, words borne of loneliness, and couldn't help but anticipate what Konoha's number one surprising ninja would say next.

He wasn't disappointed when he heard Naruto murmur "As long as you come back," while poking at his ramen, a lot like Rin used to when she was thinking about him. "Okay, Kakashi-sensei?" Naruto looked up at this to meet his gaze, and unlike the yondaime's eyes, Kakashi was able to discern hundreds of things from the pair that faced him then. "You can get lost for a long time and be really late to meet us and whatever, but you have to come back. Because Sakura-chan gets worried when you keep her waiting and Sasuke is less of a bastard when you're around and I won't ever be hokage if you don't come to training!"

Kakashi was stunned, for a short moment, before smiling. "I promise."

(Naruto had always been dirt poor, he decided, but hardly helpless.)


Disclaimer: Naruto isn't mine.

Notes: The bimbomushi is known as the deathwatch beetle in western cultures. However, they do not carry the same mythological connotations.

Flower meanings:
White carnations remembrance
White roses purity
White chrysanthemums truth
White tulip forgiveness