Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto. Thank god for that really; just imagine all the ramen expenses!

A/N: Unlike Harry Potter, Naruto is a fandom I am still not entirely comfortable with. And yet, my growing fascination for the character of Hatake Kakashi has left me no choice but to write this little piece of cheesy literary garbage. It might become novel-sized. I don't know, to be honest. These things just... happen.

Ok, this is important: PAIRINGS: I don't care about them. Het, slash, I have no preference; thus I create this challenge for myself. Tell me in a review which pairing(s) you want done, and I will choose the most popular one and get it done the best and most realistic way I can.

The point of this story is NOT romance anyway, and it will be a good writing exercise for me.

Chapter 1

It is a beautiful morning in Konoha, the sun bright, the sky as blue as could be, decorated with the occasional fluffy cloud. The traces of last year's invasion are still visible to the knowing eye of course, but overall the rebuilding effort has been impressively fruitful and has given Konoha a bright, brand new face. There's children playing in the alleys, chasing one another and shouting out the names of imaginary jutsus, and there's women chirping cheerfully about the latest topic of gossip, and then there's shinobi of all ages walking down the paved streets, greeting each other warmly.

"All in all, it is an ordinary day in Konoha." Kakashi Hatake mutters to the memorial, scratching the back of his head a little uncomfortably as he stares at the large stone. "I'm afraid I've no exciting tales to tell today, Obito-kun." the silver-haired man adds, his voice low, soft and a little hoarse, but his face masked and unreadable.

And although he knows the boy isn't really there, the jounin can actually see him: throwing a beaming grin at the grown shinobi, his eyes gleaming behind the ridiculous goggles and his fingers forming the sign of victory. Even with only one eye, he can see him as clear as daylight. It is an image that will be forever carved in his mind with all its colourful details, forever unforgotten, no matter the days, the years.

"I guess that's that, then. I have to go train Naruto, you know. He'll be yelling at me again, if I'm late." he tells the boy, and boy smiles at him even more widely.

This mental image is precious to Hatake. It is a part of his personal pantheon, of the little temple he keeps inside his soul in memory of the ones he lost, and he is always guarding their forms with meticulous care, so that they may never fade into the sea of time. Obito, Rin, Minato-sensei… And his father too, lately. After their meeting in the plane between life and death.

He cannot stand the idea of forgetting even the slightest detail about them. Because then, he'd have to let go, and he is not ready for that. And probably never will be.

"You're LATE!" Nauruto yells, pointing a finger at his teacher in a blatantly accusatory fashion. Despite the fact that he still occasionally acts like a child, Naruto is no longer the senselessly loud, shamelessly orange bundle of energy he used to be. He is 17 now, Kakashi reminds himself, to be 18 soon, actually; and it seems surreal, almost miraculous. It feels like yesterday when he first met Team 7, his Team 7, right here in these very training grounds. It feels like yesterday when he'd immediately concluded that they were a bunch of irritating brats.

But then again, the jounin never did have a very good sense of time. Beause he feels like it was yesterday, too, when he was formulating snide remarks at Obito concerning his childish infatuation on Rin.

All his past feels like a giant yesterday.

"Yo" he greets the young Uzumaki, narrowing his eye in that familiar cheery manner. The boy no longer wears any orange at all, he notes to himself absent-mindedly; not since his battle against Sasuke during the Five Kage Summit. It was then perhaps that he realised he'd truly, irreversibly lost his friend, for the young Uchiha's hatred had been absolute, and rather frightening. Sasuke was still alive, but to Naruto he died that day; or at least the hope of reunating team 7 did. He wears black now, and the occasional grey or green, just like most shinobi. Only a thin, faded orange lining on his collar remains from his days as Konoha's orange troublemaker.

It is this year that for the first time ever, Kakashi starts seeing a bit of himself in his young student. Naruto's gaze, hardened by the knowledge of loss, the easy-going attitude he wears to smother his inner pain, his abruptly acquired maturity… Kakashi too had to go through this phase of sudden adulthood through pain; only he'd been younger, much younger.

"So, where's Sakura-chan?" the jounin asks curiously, but without lifting his eyes from his obligatory porn book. He hears the blond muttering something about a "nonchalant perverted attitude" under his breath and, behind his mask, he smiles.

"She's not coming today. She and Ino are helping Shikamaru with the wedding preparations and all, since he's lazy and stuff. And fairly useless with anything related to parties and fun." Naruto replies, his lips curving upwards into a fond grin. Right, Shikimaru's wedding. Kakashi knew that.

Little buggers sure grow up fast, he thinks to himself and chuckles.

And that young Nara, he's a good, brave kid, and insanely intelligent, too. Inwardly, Kakashi wishes him all the happiness he can possibly get, and all the love, because he knows that there are dark times ahead and that without something bright and meaningful to hold onto, no war can be properly fought. And although there is nothing particularly 'bright' about Sand's Temari, Hatake knows that love works in strange ways sometimes, so he simply shrugs, knowingly.

Sakura's matured too, in more ways than one. She has her emotions tightly under control now, and although the jounin is certain that she still grieves the lost of her childhood love intensely, she does not let it show. She no longer yells as much, either; the long hours spent in the hospital with the company of pain and death have shaped her into a serious, calm and strong individual. Of course, she still retains her occasional girly mannerism, but overall, Kakashi is very proud of the remarkable kunoichi she's become.

"I see. Well then, I'll tell you what. Since, under Killer Bee's tutelage, you've managed to gain control of the vast majority of your demonic chakra, I don't think you'll have much trouble with physical strength. I think we should start training on an entirely different subject now. Genjutsu." he suggests, still not lifting his eye from the little orange book, much to his student's obvious annoyance.

"Mah… Genjutsu? That's for the dark and mysterious shinobi type. Really not my style I'm afraid, sensei!" the kid who is no longer a kid mumbles, his blue eyes wandering off towards the trees. Genjutsu was Sasuke's specialty, Kakashi knows, and thus, somewhere inside Naruto's heart, touching it must feel like treading on a taboo. The silver-haired man does not blame him for feeling that way. He still remembers quite sharply how he felt the first few times he used Obito's Sharingan; he'd felt like a cheap imitator, a thief, a clown.

Yes, Hatake too feels a little uncomfortable with the subject of Genjutsu, and it is also because the ghost of Sasuke (is it right to talk of a ghost when he is still alive, he wonders idly) does not only hover above Naruto-kun, but above him as well. Although he knows, by now, that there was very little he could have done to save a kid so deeply damaged from making all the wrong choices, he still blames himself, at times. Blaming himself has become a habit, after all.

But this is a tough world, and shinobi need to be as strong as they can be.

"Genjutsu it is!" he states in a mockingly enthusiastic manner, turning another page of Icha Icha's tenth volume. Its last one ever, and the same one that he has been reading over and over again for the last year or so.

A few hours later, Yamato joins them as well, admitting to be interested in honing his Genjutsu skills under a master. Kakashi remembers how badly he used to suck at Genjutsu back during their ANBU days, and he teases him about it relentlessly, even though he is actually quite flattered by Tenzou's… well… flattery. However, he finds it a little odd how persistent Yamato is in calling him "sempai", as if something terrible would happen were he to not use the appropriate honorific, which makes no sense. Taking into account his inreasingly gobsmacking mastery of the Wood Release techinques, that are now at Kage level, Yamato is barely any weaker than he is, after all.

"Kakashi-sempai, could you please explain that thing about materialising emotions thourgh the molding of chakra in the eyes again...?" the brown-haired jounin mumbles humbly, already wincing in advance at the mockery that he knows is to come.

Kakashi is 31 years old now, and Tenzou's 29; they might still be amongst their village's most elite shinobi, but their ANBU days are over. That silly honorific feels out of place. By now, they should be very familiar with one another after all. After all, they've fought side by side countless times, and that ought to create some kind of familiarity.

And yet, the masked jounin is relieved by the distance Yamato keeps. He does not appreciate people getting too close to him, at least not closer than he can handle, because then he feels the obsessive need to protect them, a duty in which he always seems to fail in the most cruel, heart-breaking manner.

"Hey, Yamato-taichou! That was pretty bad. Even I could see through it!" Naruto comments, his eyes lively with excitement and a few trickles of perspiration glowing on his cheeks as his dispels a rather mediocre illusion. Despite all the negative memories that Genjutsu might awaken in him, the blond's love of learning new things and his unrestrainable excitement during training seem to persevere. Tenzou laughs nervously, and he is ridiculously endearing for a grown man. Naruto, who is as tall as them now, throws him arm around the embrassed man and declares some silly stuff about him not having to worry, and about his coolness factor remaining untouched by his suckiness at Genjutsu.

Kakashi had always thought Yamato's impressive uselessness with Genjutsu to be a rather cruel form of irony, since the previous owner of his cat-shaped ANBU mask had been none other than Itachi. It was perhaps the reason he had found himself disliking the gentle, brown-haired man when he first met him, a decade ago. But it probably wasn't.

He disliked everyone back then, and most of all himself.

"Mah, mah! Let's try again, alright? And the one that fails most will be paying for dinner." Kakashi suggests amicably, causing a strange fire to awaken in Naruto's eyes. Mentioning dinner always does that. Tenzou, too, is sick of being tricked into bying them dinner though, so his face morphs into a mask of frightening resolution. All can be done with the right incentive, Hatake deduces.

Sakura and Sai join them at Ichiraku's a few hours later. Warm greetings are exchanged, with the exception of Sai's case; he is still not too dexterous with social situations, and frankly, that fake grin of his is utterly unnerving. Kakashi is growing fond of him as well, however. Especially after that incident with Naruto and the Wave country squad, when Sai had chosen to interfere despite his orders, and even despite his better judgement. He is discovering the true meaning of power, thinks the masked teacher: that it is meaningful only if you have people you desire to keep safe, and that it is truly attainable only when you yourself are supported by such people.

Kakashi knows all of that, theoretically. It is the lesson Obito has taught him. And yet, in practice, he is still terribly, utterly alone, and has a sinking feeling that he will always be; the dead take up too much space in his heart, and there is very little left to give to the living. He does his best, though.

"So, why do you wear a mask, Kakashi-sensei?" Sai asks out of the blue, causing all others to cringe at his uncanny ability to constantly produce faux-pas. Of course he wasn't part of team back when Naruto, Sakura and Sasuke had spent an entire week trying to figure out what terrible, dark secret the jounin could possibly be hiding behind this dark veil of mystery.

By now, Naruto and Sakura seem to have no cusiosity left over that matter; they simply accept it as an obligatory fact of life, a necessity. Perhaps they have even sensed that, whatever the reason behind their teacher's odd stylistic choice, it is a decision that must be respected, and a part of his identity. Sai, of course, is compassionately challenged, and could never possibly attain such a silent understanding.

"Well I…" Kakashi mutters hesitantly, digging into his brain for a lame excuse that would nonetheless shut the unnaturally pale shinobi up for a while. Before he can come up with something even vaguely acceptable however, he is interrupted.

"It's because he has giant teeth." Naruto declares very calmly, not even bothering to raise his eyes from his… third… (or perhaps fourth...?) bowl of ramen.

"Yes. And terribly puffy lips. It's a genetic disease." Sakura adds matter-of-factly, but although she tries her best to keep a straight face, the jounin can see that the edges of her lip is twitching a little. She hides her nascent amusement by throwing her hair back in that sort of femme-fatale fashion. The one that makes Naruto stare.

"He also has a very embarrassing tattoo on his chin." Yamato offers in an equally factual manner, and he takes a bite off the large prawn floating inside his bowl.

Somehow, and for a reason that he can't really explain, an odd feeling of affection floods Kakashi's chest. Little does his team know that, while defending his right to keep a wall between himself and other people, they are actually slowly tearing that very wall down.

The Copy-nin is not really sure why he still wears that mask, anyway. There have been many reasons in the past, of course. He is not the sort of idiot to wear something for fun, or to look good. At first, it was because he was ashamed of his striking resemblance to his father; he had thought it to be an embarrassment to bear the features of a dishonourable man. And then, when Rin, Obito and Minato-sensei came barging into his life, he finally understood his father's choice, and was no longer ashamed of him, or of their resemblance.

Only by then, he was ashamed of his own self. Because he had lost Obito due to his own cowardly cynicism, and then Rin, because he had been unable to support her as well as the loud little Uchiha had. Then he lost the Yondaime, and then he lost Jiraiya, and Sasuke.

Somewhere in the middle, he lost himself, as well.

Now it was not really shame that kept his mask on, however. He was not sure was it was. Perhaps a sign of grief, or simply a habit. Perhaps the desire to drive people away, and his need to protect his private pain the best he can. It doesn't matter; it's part of his persona now, and there is something he really appreciates about the way the fabric brushes against his lips every time he secretly smiles.

"Indeed. And then there is that finely trimmed moustache that some people find highly offensive." he finally explains, offering his best thoroughly-happy face to the young ROOT member. Sai looks utterly confused for a second, and stares at them as if they'd grown fancy pairs of colourful horns. At some point though, perhaps when he notices Sakura's persistently twitching lip, his expression changes from incredulous to smug and knowing.

"You are making a JOKE! I know all about them. I have read it in a book." he states triumphantly, and Kakashi is indeed very proud of Sai's extraordinary progress with understanding people's social behaviour. Perhaps in a few decades, he'll be able to flirt, too. By the time he hits 80, he might even manage to engage in a serious relationship, who knows.

Eventually, Yamato pays, and they leave.

The Copy-nin still lives in that same old apartment; the one the Yondaime had provided for him after his family's extinction had become complete. He hasn't even bothered repainting the walls, since Konoha's warm and somewhat dry weather does not make it imperatively necessary. Even the bed is still the same, it occurs to him. That very same bed on which he'd mourned and cried endless times before his eyes ran permanently dry, the one in which he'd awoken from the most terrible nightmares after his first ANBU missions, the one on which he'd sit, staring at his own bloodied hands.

He doesn't have nightmares that often anymore, in spite of the fact that he does occasionally happen to lose himself in memories of bloodshed, murder and austerity. When he does have nightmares though, the mere sight of that terribly familiar ceiling is enough to reassure him, for it is the undeniable proof that, after all is done, life goes on.

Perhaps the most significant change in here is related to that set of framed pictures on his nightstand. By now there's more than ever before.

There's one of his father and mother, which he added after his battle with Pein.

There's one of his old team, and although it is now faded and old, to him it's always terribly, tragically beautiful.

There's one of team 7, and although it sometimes breaks his heart, it's quite a lovely photo of them, too.

And then there's one of him, Yamato, Naruto, Sai and Sakura: Team Kakashi, the Godaime had called when, in her infinite wisdom, she had chosen to form that team. It's shiny, and new.

As long as he has a family, things will be alright, Kakashi thinks to himself.

It is his last thought before he drifts to sleep.