Sometimes, reading Icha Icha was more of a misery than a pleasure. The immersive effect of Jiraiya's storytelling usually distracted Kakashi from real life. Usually, there was nothing more satisfying than sinking into an alternate universe and caring about those characters and their struggles, their victories, and their romances. But sometimes, rather than distracting Kakashi, the story reminded him of all he couldn't have.

Kiuraga, one of twelve main characters, was about to get together with his love. He'd spent 14 volumes of Icha Icha realizing his feelings, their depth, and his need to confess to her in the hopes that she would love him, too.

Kakashi was reading volume 15, a landmark volume of Icha Icha because it contained the first marriage proposal of the story. And though he wasn't about to leave off his Icha Icha in volume 14 – at the height of Kiuraga's agony that Isaki couldn't possibly love him in return – Kakashi was justifiably pensive about reading the chapters contained in volume 15.

Isaki was the strong woman of the story, the self-sufficient warrior who had never been known to take a lover, who wore her hair short under her helmet, and who at the beginning of Icha Icha had been cast as Kiuraga's best friend.

That bore a striking resemblance to Kakashi's best friend, whom he was in love with. The only difference was that Isaki was a woman, and clearly based off of Tsunade.

Kakashi was well aware of Jiraiya's feelings for Tsunade. The character of Isaki could hardly be a surprise, nor was it a surprise that Kiuraga, a sort of fictional version of Jiraiya, was in love with Isaki. And in this fictional world of Sekiheki – a magical land that existed on a continent floating in the sky – Kiuraga and Isaki made sweet, passionate love.

Reminding Kakashi that such sweet, passionate love only happened in fairytales, because Jiraiya hadn't gotten Tsunade, and Kakashi wasn't going to get Gai, either.

It was painful, really.

Kakashi looked up from his book and found he'd wandered to the place he always went when he was in pain. The war memorial.

Visiting the memorials in the shinobi cemetery always dragged the words out of him. His only therapy. The peace of the silence, the bright sunlight, the background rustle of leaves mimicking the ocean…the sense of utter loneliness and isolation. The sense that he was in a tiny world of his own. It didn't matter if he stayed silent or not, here. No one could overhear and judge him.

He looked at the slab of names blankly. Then, uncharacteristically, he turned away and sought out the monument memorializing those lost in the Nine Tails attack instead. He reached out and touched the stone, tracing his fingers over a different name.

Minato had been his confidant. His teacher, but so much more. After his father died, Minato had taken that role, and modeled fatherhood in a way Kakashi never could have expected. A kind, caring, emotionally open father, whose gentle wisdom healed Kakashi's pain. Sakumo had privately been depressed, withdrawn, and cynical. No one Kakashi wanted to turn to for help. Minato had been different. He'd brought a light into Kakashi's life.

And if Kakashi could speak to Minato now, maybe he wouldn't hurt so much. He traced his fingers over the engraved kanji of Minato's name. "I want to tell him. I can't."

A breeze ruffled Kakashi's hair. Eerily, it reminded him of how Minato used to do that when he was still small. If he'd had any confidence about the afterlife, he would have taken that as a sign.

"I can't," Kakashi whispered. "I'm too scared." The words felt like a shuriken stuck in his chest, vibrating and ripping.

Kiuraga didn't have any trouble telling Isaki. All he needed to know was that he did love her, and then it was all smooth sailing from there.

True, Kiuraga had agonies of doubt. But that slowed him about as much as a boulder rolling downhill was stopped by a dandelion. Kakashi felt betrayed at Jiraiya's lack of realism for once, a trait he usually enjoyed in Icha Icha.

When he was fourteen, he'd confided everything to Minato. Except his growing feelings towards Gai. He hadn't known how to, hadn't known he was in love until Minato was killed, and the person he went to cry on was Gai. Gai had held him all day and all night. Kakashi hadn't given up his apartment, but for a month, he'd lived at Gai's instead. Slept in the same bed. Eaten the same food. And it was only Gai's compassion that had held him together that month. Kakashi wished sometimes he'd never left, that he had the callousness people accused him of having, which could have allowed him to think forcing himself on Gai permanently was okay.

"All I can do is desperately tease him," Kakashi whispered. "If he can't win, if he has to best me at these little games, if he thinks I don't care…then he has to come back." His sinuses burned. "Right?"

Part of Kakashi knew that Gai didn't keep coming back because of the challenges. He knew that it was a game to them both, window dressing for the real relationship that lay underneath.

But he'd never examined what was underneath, because he was terrified of what he'd find.

Some example I am, Kakashi thought bitterly. See underneath the underneath? He was the man with the sharingan, and he was the one being willingly blind.

In the instant Kakashi tried, the same panicked thought always popped up. What if he really doesn't love me? What if it's true? What if it is just a rivalry? I can't stand that!

Kakashi flattened his palm against the memorial stone and shut his eyes, desperately communing with something. Anything.

The memorial stone stayed cold under Kakashi's hand. No amount of caressing could turn the words Namikaze Minato into a person. But this one-sided conversation was all Kakashi could get. In the company of a real person, he froze like a deer. On the outside, he was the lazy, apathetic jonin reading a +18 manga in public. On the inside, he was frozen, locked up with anxiety.

Gai was the only person who had the ability to put him at ease, but when his problem was agony over his love for Gai, Gai wasn't an option.