Naruto looked up at him suspiciously. "You seem different today, Kaka-sensei."
Kakashi looked away and studied a slow-floating cloud in the sky. "Ah…In what way?"
Naruto squinted. "I dunno…you seem…kind of…" He gestured helplessly at the diffuse cloud of Kakashi's chakra. It was a blue mist looking aura. Most people either had blue or green chakra. When they had some other kind of chakra, it was strange. People could tell when he drew on the Kyuubi because the Kyuubi's chakra was red – way different than his. His chakra was green.
"Keep your head down, Naruto," Kakashi said, affecting a bored tone. He smiled to himself under his mask.
Naruto sighed. "Why do we have to do this, anyway?"
"You really have to ask?" Kakashi glanced down at the ground pointedly.
They were all standing halfway up a three story building, sticking out sideways from the wall.
"The villagers would need complicated scaffolding to get up here, and it would be dangerous for them," Kakashi said. "For shinobi it is simple. Now concentrate on your task."
"Hai, hai…" Naruto applied himself to hammering a new board over the broken section of wall and promptly hit his own thumb instead of the nail. He flinched. "Itai!"
Sasuke glanced over, unamused. "You call yourself a ninja?"
Naruto glared at his teammate. "I'm keeping up with you, aren't I?"
Sasuke snorted and glanced at Naruto's trail of crooked boards. "For what it's worth." He muttered under his breath, "Not much."
"What was that?" Naruto shook his fist, his chakra blazing.
The paths the different students left through the destruction were obvious. All of Naruto's boards were crooked and had unevenly spaced nails hammered in at all different angles. Sasuke left an efficient path of new, straight wood with uniform nails hammered in flat. A beautiful job. Lagging behind was Sakura, who was slow and finicky, trying to mimic Sasuke's orderly patch-ups. She turned out good work for the effort, but was much slower than the rest of her team.
Kakashi had the luxury of standing over his students looking bored because he had already fixed the roof. He'd used the precise accuracy and power of his wind release to re-tile the roof of the hotel after spreading the mortar. As the teacher, he'd assigned himself the most difficult job.
"Oi, oi. Calm down." Kakashi stared down both of his students. "You can't afford to bicker. We have seven more buildings to repair before the sun goes down."
"Seven?" Naruto protested.
Sasuke went back to work, calmly smirking.
Several feet below them, Sakura panted with the effort of driving her nails in straight. "I'm okay," she called. "I doing fine down here…"
Kakashi turned and smiled at her. "Ne, I can see that, Sakura-chan. Keep up the good work."
Sakura was heartened by the praise.
"What about me?" Naruto protested.
Kakashi looked at him sternly. "You are racing." He pointed to Naruto's latest crooked nail. "You should be focusing on quality instead of speed. Let every person go according to their level of speed according to the quality of their work. You have no business challenging Sasuke to these foolish games. This is serious business. Konoha needs restoring after Orochimaru's attack."
Naruto made a face. "I know…" He eyed his handiwork and tools with dislike. "I wish we could do something exciting. We are ninja. We should be doing something more exciting and ninja-like than repairing these buildings."
"This is our home," Kakashi said. "Love your home, and respect it. Take care of it. Don't let Konoha fall to ruin because of your pride."
"What are you doing while we're doing all this work?" Naruto pouted. He hammered in a nail more carefully, distrustfully watching the head of his hammer. He didn't want to smash a finger again.
"Supervising," Kakashi said cheerfully. "My work on this building is already done."
"Hai." Naruto sighed.
"I have to keep you all in line." Kakashi grinned. The lines around his eyes made the expression unmistakable. "Especially you."
Naruto stuck his tongue out at his sensei.
Kakashi took out his book from his pocket and started reading where he left off.
"I still think there's something different about Kaka-sensei," Naruto muttered to Sasuke, assuming Kakashi had tuned out.
"That is none of your business, Naruto," Kakashi said blandly. "Focus on your work."
Naruto flinched. "Hai." He hated to be caught out talking when he was supposed to be working. Still, the change in Kakashi was driving him crazy. He could feel that Kakashi was different somehow. But he'd never felt Kakashi's chakra feel any other way than when he'd first been assigned to Kakashi's team. This was the first time Kakashi's chakra had been uncharacteristic. It wasn't a negative change. He wasn't worried. But at the same time, he'd give anything to know what had caused his teacher's chakra to feel different.
Since he'd known Kaka-sensei, his teacher's chakra had been kind of…still and lifeless. Unreadable, really. He'd heard that Kakashi was from ANBU, and for a while he thought that was the explanation for his teacher's chakra, but it had creeped him out. Most of the time, Kakashi was a nice enough guy, but that odd, stiff chakra had always thrown him off.
Kakashi's chakra felt like a softly shifting mist today. It was a loose, carefree cloud around his teacher's body.
"Ne, Kaka-sensei," Naruto said suddenly.
"Mm?" Kakashi glanced up from his book.
"Are you happy today?"
Kakashi paused, taking in Naruto's confusion and curiosity. He nodded, then looked down at his book with a bemused smile. "Yes. Indeed, I am."
"Oh…" Naruto studied him for a moment. "Are you happier than you were yesterday?"
Kakashi glanced at his student and raised an eyebrow. "Hai…"
Naruto lit up with understanding. "Ah! Then you were sad yesterday!" He laughed, proud of himself. "That's what it is! You were sad."
Kakashi, taken off guard, almost dropped his book. "Ah…"
Naruto pointed at him. "You're sad a lot, Kaka-sensei."
Kakashi, flustered, almost put his book away. At the last moment, he thought better of it and raised his book up to hide his face. "I don't know –"
Naruto grinned. "But you're happy now. It's okay!"
Kakashi blushed red. He used his book as a shield to hide the fact. Naruto reminded him of Gai at moments like this. Oblivious but somehow piercingly perceptive, in an unexpected way. And always blunt about his observations. "Ah…Hai."
"How come?" Naruto asked.
"I…" Kakashi knew he had to tread carefully, or he'd end up being grilled by Naruto for the rest of the day. Naruto's curiosity never rested – one reason why Naruto came up from behind and became a respectably powerful genin in the end. Once Naruto decided to learn something, he would never rest. This almost alarming quality could eventually qualify Naruto for ANBU service…if Naruto ever got over this clumsy, bull-headed stage where he solved everything by sheer determination.
Kakashi sweated as he realized the easiest solution was to tell part of the truth.
Sasuke looked up at him in curiosity, his long pause finally drawing Sasuke's attention.
Kakashi turned to the next page in his book, pretending as though he were reading. "I decided to move in with Gai."
Naruto almost fell off the side of the building. "Huh?"
Sasuke furrowed his brow. "Gai-sensei?"
"Why would you wanna do a thing like that?" Naruto stared at him. "That made you happy?"
"Ah…well…" Kakashi lowered his book fractionally and gave Naruto his best mild smile. "Yes."
Naruto looked bewildered and horrified. "But he's…strange." He shuddered.
Kakashi laughed. "You're strange, too." He glanced up from his book. "I still like you."
Naruto frowned thoughtfully. "Yeah…but…" His mind was made up. "Gai-sensei is stranger."
Kakashi smiled at Naruto ruefully. "You have me there."
Naruto gave him a suspicious glance. "So you like strange people."
"Yes," Kakashi agreed. He turned another page. "Besides, we're all strange in our own ways."
"Gai-sensei is strange in his own way," Naruto agreed.
"As long as it makes you happy," Sasuke said diplomatically.
"Thank you, Sasuke." Things were always simpler to explain to Sasuke than Naruto.
"Ne, Kaka-sensei…" Naruto studied him.
Kakashi hid his face again. He'd hoped the inquest would be over, but apparently Naruto still had questions. "Hmm?"
"Why were you unhappy before?" Naruto asked.
"That's a little personal, don't you think?" Kakashi asked in his best casual voice.
"Well…Yeah…But we're friends, aren't we?" Naruto asked.
Kakashi inwardly flinched. Naruto couldn't have stabbed his soft spot harder if he'd tried. "Ah…" He lowered his book and put it away in his pocket, resigned. "You see…I was subject to much unhappiness."
"Oh…" Naruto pounded nails into the board he was working on carefully and then looked up at his sensei. "Like…what kind of stuff?"
Kakashi knew Naruto wasn't exactly clueless on the subject of unhappiness, no matter how much Naruto hid behind brash laughter and aggressive optimism. "Loneliness," he said simply. He knew that was a subject that all of his students would be able to understand. Naruto, who'd been deemed an outcast for becoming Kyuubi's vessel at birth. Sasuke, whose family had been slaughtered. Sakura, whose family was civilian and didn't understand the kind of atrocities and danger that she faced in the course of an everyday mission.
"You've got us, don't you?" Naruto asked.
Kakashi sighed. "Indeed."
"He means adult company." Sasuke shot Naruto a glare. "Baka. We're just kids to him."
Kakashi held up his hands hastily. "I find you all quite capable adults. Graduation from the academy is the same thing as adulthood in the shinobi world."
Naruto squinted at his teacher, screwing up his expression. "Ne, does that mean you were considered an adult at six years old, Kaka-sensei?"
"That's a little young even for you, don't you think?" Naruto asked.
Kakashi looked away. "Hmm."
Sakura yelled up at them, waving her hammer. "Naruto! You lay off of Kaka-sensei or I'll put this hammer through your skull! Get back to work already!"
Naruto cringed. "Sakura…don't…"
Kakashi was embarrassed that Sakura, as the person with the best sensory abilities in the group, had read his discomfort off his chakra. "Ah…violence is not necessary."
"Hmph." Sakura scowled at Naruto. "It's none of our business. We don't have the right to pry into Kaka-sensei's life. He's our sensei. Show him a little respect."
"I'm fine," Kakashi said, though he suspected any argument with Sakura was futile, no matter who was doing the talking. Sometimes he suspected that Sakura had turned out largely the way she had because she was the lone female on a team with two boys, and a laidback sensei. She felt the need to discipline because Kakashi likely wouldn't. He wondered sometimes if he'd been wrong to treat his students' everyday problems so carelessly.
Then he realized he'd never had the energy. His severe depression had impacted his teaching. He inwardly flinched as a needle of pain shot through his heart. I failed them. My students. I failed all of them. Why didn't I get help? Why was I so proud?
But it hadn't been pride; he'd simply thought himself beyond help. He had no way of knowing that Gai would prove him wrong, that this day would come, when he felt lighter and better than he ever had before. Today, he could see why someone could be content to sit down and watch the clouds move across the sky, to sit and simply be content at the sun filtering through the trees, the breeze blowing across the field.
With the clarity that came from the muffling curtain of depression drawing back, he saw his mistakes. Kakashi wondered how his students had ever become as attached to him as they were now. How could they claim to care about someone like me? How can Naruto say 'We are friends, aren't we?' How can Sasuke wish me well? How can Sakura find it in her heart to defend me when she senses me become uncomfortable? What have I ever done to pay back their feelings except ignore them and turn my back on their suffering when they need me the most? How can I be 'Kaka-sensei'?
Sasuke looked at him sharply.
Naruto pointed at him weakly, looking worried. "Kaka-sensei…Your chakra froze up again. What does it mean? Are you angry now?"
Kakashi bit back the pain as best he could. He looked at Naruto with a level expression. "No, Naruto. I'm not mad."
"You must be sad, then." Naruto watched him with wide eyes.
Kakashi couldn't answer. He couldn't find his voice. I want connections. I do. I'm not cold-hearted, really. I'm just confused. He thought of Gai. Gai believed in him. Gai didn't see him as cold-hearted. He swallowed and forced himself to nod. "Yes."
Sasuke and Sakura froze.
Kakashi found all of his students gathered around him. He hardly knew what to do with the attention.
"We…We're all sad because Sandaime died," Sakura offered.
Kakashi shook his head. "N…No. It's not that." He withdrew to a place of numbness so that he could close off the pain and communicate. It was no good being silent. "I am saddened by the fact that I have failed you. Naruto. Sakura. Sasuke." He looked at them each in turn. "I am not a good sensei."
"What are you talking about?" Naruto protested. "You're the best sensei!" He clenched his fists around his hammer and bucket of nails. "I never want to have another sensei! You rock!"
Sasuke looked troubled. "Kakashi…"
"Kaka-sensei…" Sakura looked torn up by his declaration. "How have you failed us?"
Kakashi looked away, looking out across the rooftops of their village, watching the clouds drift lazily across the blue sky. He caught sight of the stone monument, with the expressionless faces of their past Hokages. He could barely recognize the unsmiling visage of the Third, and the depiction of his old sensei caused no jar of recognition at all inside of him. "I have been cold. As cold as those stone faces." He nodded to the monument. "If my sensei had been as cold as I have been to you, I would not have loved him."
"Cold?" Naruto's brow furrowed.
"You were as hard as you had to be," Sakura said. "Sensei are supposed to be hard on their students. We are shinobi…"
Kakashi shook his head, refusing to look at her. "No. A sensei is not required to be cold. Not hard. Minato was never either of those things to me. He was like a father. He took care of me. He cared." His eyes stung. "I have not been a good sensei. Minato would be disappointed in me if he could see me today. If he could see what I have done, he would say, 'You are no student of mine. I did not raise you. What did you do that for? Why have you neglected these children? Are you hard-hearted? What is wrong with you?'"
"Sounds like a pretty harsh assessment from a man you characterized as never being hard on you," Sasuke said. He stared at Kakashi. "Which is it? Was he hard or soft? Because if he is as you say, he would never say that to you."
Kakashi's gaze snapped to Sasuke, stunned. He looked at his student with wide eyes. "No?"
"That's not love," Sasuke said. "You say he loved you. Love doesn't sound like that."
Kakashi stared at Sasuke in silence for a few moments. Finally, he found his voice. "What does love sound like?"
Sasuke looked directly into his eyes. "Regret. In this case, at least."
Kakashi flinched in shock. He couldn't speak. He was too busy registering how close he was to crying.
His students dropped their hammers and buckets of nails and hugged him.
Kakashi mutely took in their care. What did I do to deserve this? Their chakras blazed around him, protective and fiercely loyal. He reluctantly felt their warmth piercing his misery. He glanced over his shoulder at the ground. "Who's going to pick up all those nails? And the pails are dented, too."
Sasuke smirked. "It should be a simple job…for shinobi."
"Ah. Right." Kakashi smiled at his students ruefully. I guess they do care about me, after all. Gai had tried to tell him as much. He put his arms around his students, pulling all three of them to him, and looked out across the village at the stone monument. Minato, would you really forgive me?
The whisper came unbidden to his mind: I would.
He smiled bemusedly at his overactive imagination. Still, he had to admit that the words eased the pain in his heart. I will carry on for you. Minato…Watch over me and my students. Will you? Please? I still need you.
Wind ruffling his hair was all he got in response. Kakashi somehow felt that might be enough.