Kakashi paused and checked his grocery list. It was in his father's handwriting, and it took him a moment to read it. His father's handwriting used to be neater than this. Now everything was slanted and clumsy. Kakashi supposed that his father had dashed off the list and gone back to sleep. Well, at least he left it for me instead of letting me find out there was no dinner to be had. If he'd come home from training with Gai to find the house empty, he would have been severely upset.
Speaking of training with Gai, he'd been prepared to go to that when he found the shopping list and the note on the kitchen table. Kakashi – I love you. Please go buy everything on this list. – Dad.
So here he was, doing grocery shopping for the first time in his life, and hoping he didn't screw it up. He'd started with the dry goods, since that seemed the easiest place to start. And the stall owner was kind enough to explain how everything worked. Get a plastic bag, scoop up some of what you needed from the bins, weigh it, and give it to the man to have one's purchases rung up.
Kakashi supposed he was not surprised to feel a flare of chakra and see a flash of bright green through the crowd, out of the corner of his eye. Still, Gai could see that he was busy. It wasn't like he had to make excuses.
"Kakashi!" Gai yelled. "What could you be doing at the market at such an hour? You promised to train with me!"
Kakashi was not going to yell across the marketplace at his kind of, sort of, friend.
Gai sped across the market to him, somersaulting over a surprised pedestrian.
"Something came up," Kakashi said. He turned away and resumed weighing bulk rice on a scale.
"What are you doing with rice?" Gai asked.
"Buying it," Kakashi said.
"But why?" Gai asked.
"My father asked me to," Kakashi said. He moved the two pounds of rice to the front counter, where the old man who ran the stall bagged it for him. Kakashi exchanged money and bowed.
"Why did he do that?" Gai asked.
Kakashi shot Gai an irritated glance. He picked up the paper bag that also contained dry spices, including fish flakes for miso soup – one of Kakashi's favorite meals – and walked away from the stall. "I'm visiting the produce stalls next, Gai. If you want to tag along, you can, but it'll be a while before I can train."
"How come you're doing this stuff?" Gai asked. "I never saw you doing it before."
Kakashi glared at Gai defensively. "I can handle it."
"I know that you can," Gai said. "You can handle anything."
Something about that childish confidence – even though it was clearly not true – made Kakashi's irritation deflate. "Maa…Father asked me to."
"Ah! A mission from your father!" Gai lit up, smiling brightly.
Kakashi frowned. "No, not a mission, just…" He didn't think he'd be rewarded. He hoped that he would be, that his father would say more than ten words to him, but it wouldn't be the case. His father's depression was getting worse, not better. And as proud as he was that his father asked him for help, it also worried him. That means Father doesn't feel well enough to shop.
By the time Kakashi was done buying vegetables, fruit, and meat, he had too many bags to carry by himself. He considered summoning the ninken to help him with the bags from the meat stalls – he knew his ninken wouldn't dare eat any of it, unlike ordinary dogs – but Gai grabbed three of the bags, hefting them easily.
"What are you doing?" Kakashi asked.
"Helping," Gai said. "Otherwise, you'd have to summon your ninken. Right?"
Kakashi hated it when Gai was perceptive about his limitations. "Maa, what happened to me being able to do anything?"
"That was…" Gai trailed off. "I didn't mean you couldn't carry the groceries. Only that you would have to have help from someone, and I'm here, and I'm your rival!"
"I really don't need your help," Kakashi said, glaring at him. "I'm just accepting because I don't want to argue with you."
"You don't have to thank me," Gai said. His expression cleared, as if Kakashi's answer had somehow encouraged him. He hefted the paper bags in his arms. "This is what Rivals do."
Kakashi seriously doubted that any actual rival would help him carry his groceries, but he left that alone.
Kakashi unlocked the front door with a sigh and came in. "I'm home."
No answer from his father. But he didn't think there would be. The house was stuffy from the midday sun it had absorbed. For a moment, Kakashi thought there was a funny iron smell, but then he realized he was carrying the meat from the market, ten pounds of it, and felt foolish.
Gai came in behind him. "How may I further help?"
"I don't know," Kakashi muttered. "You don't have to be 'further help' at all. You can just hang out for a few minutes while I put everything away. Just don't be too loud. You'll wake Father." He's probably asleep upstairs. He's always sleeping, now.
Gai flashed him a thumbs up. "I'll put these things away in the pantry!"
"Whatever." Kakashi sighed. "Be helpful if you like." He walked across the kitchen, set the bags he'd carried down on the counter, and pulled out the first item he could reach: the quart of milk. Neither he nor his dad were big milk drinkers. They were always going off on missions, too. If they bought more than a quart of milk at a time, it would just sit in the refrigerator and spoil.
Kakashi opened the refrigerator, went to put the milk on the bottom shelf where it belonged, and glanced over into the living room as a glimmer of light from the blinds fell on an object in his peripheral vision.
He dropped the carton of milk. It hit the floor with a hollow thud.
"There's a dead man in my living room."
"What?" Gai asked loudly.
"There's a dead man in my living room," Kakashi whispered again, unable to raise his voice. His throat was completely constricted. "A dead man. In my living room." He was shaking. His knees were locked, his hands were useless, and his nose was suddenly running from unshed tears. "Gai," he hissed desperately. There aren't supposed to be any dead men here. Not here. They're all supposed to be out there! Dead people belonged on battlefields, not in his living room. Not in his house. His house was safe. His house was safe from things like that. Things were good here. Not bloody. There's blood on the carpet!
It seemed like forever before Gai put a hand on his shoulder.
"Gai!" Kakashi finally got a scream out. "Look –" He pointed to the pale white hand that was visible from where he stood. Next to the pool of dark, dark blood staining the off-white carpet. The carpet his father tried so hard to keep clean. Clean, damn it! He vacuums it twice a week! And you died on it! You bastard!
"There's a dead man!" he shrieked, enraged and driven beside himself with fear at the same time.
"Oh my god!" Gai exclaimed. He ran into the living room.
Kakashi raked a hand through his hair. "No, you idiot!" But he stumbled in on shaky legs, unable to stand for Gai to be in the living room with a dead body and him not to be. For supervision. Or something.
Gai stood by the man's head. He looked stricken. His mouth hung open, and he was pale. "It's your father."
"What?" Kakashi snapped. He scanned the dead man's body, his brow furrowed, his eyes narrowed. Then he jerked his gaze to Gai angrily. "It is not!"
Gai faltered. "But…" He looked from Kakashi to the man and back to his 'rival'. "It…It is, though…"
"My father never owned any clothes like that." Kakashi pointed at the body accusingly. It was all wrong. His father never wore red. The corpse was dressed in a red martial arts coat with frog buttons, and a strange white insignia on the left side of the chest, just below the shoulder. And he wore white martial arts pants, and traditional black martial arts shoes.
Kakashi's stomach turned to look at the corpse.
"But he…" Gai looked down at the dead man.
"He's not wearing a forehead protector," Kakashi said viciously. "My dad would be wearing that, wouldn't he? He'd have to be."
Gai untied his hitai-ate from his belt and knelt. He gently lifted the dead man's head and tied his forehead protector on, fastening it in place and straightening the man's snowy locks. "There. Maybe this helps." He looked up at Kakashi sadly. "It's the wrong color, but…you see what I mean now."
Kakashi looked down, was jarred, and looked away, his heart beating fast, and so hard he could feel it in his entire body. "Get off of it. That's not my father." Seeing Gai's green hitai-ate on the man's head made him want to throw up. "You're sick. And you're tampering with a crime scene." He turned on his heel and started towards the stairs. He stopped and clenched his fists when he realized he didn't feel his father's chakra upstairs. "Where is my father?" he yelled in frustration.
Gai trailed after him, wide-eyed. "Kashi…"
Kakashi turned around sharply and almost punched Gai in the face. Almost. At the last second, he averted his fist, missing Gai's ear by a centimeter. "Don't talk to me! If you want to make yourself useful, help me find my father!"
Gai hugged him fiercely and burst into tears. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry…"
Kakashi resisted for a moment, and then relaxed into the forcefulness of the embrace, unable to help it. He felt like crying again. "It's not him." His voice came out tinier than he intended. "It's just not. Gai, you've got to help me."
"Let's go to Sandaime," Gai suggested, his voice thick. He sniffled.
"Sandaime?" Kakashi was stunned. "But…"
"I don't know where else to go," Gai confessed. "He's bound to help, isn't he? He helps everyone."
Kakashi relented. He was scared of the old man, sometimes, but he couldn't deny that Sandaime seemed to have an almost magical power to make things right. He was called the God of Shinobi. And he was kind. Kakashi took a deep breath and nodded. "Okay…"
Gai led him out of the house, leaving the door ajar. Kakashi couldn't bring himself to complain. He was too sick to his stomach and wobbly.
Why did I react like that? he demanded of himself, running beside Gai. He'd gotten his breath back as soon as he couldn't see his house anymore. I fight people all the time. Kill people! So what if someone died in my house? I'm a ninja. It doesn't…bother me…
His stomach did flip-flops as soon as he allowed the image of the dead man on the living room carpet to seep through. He was horrified. It does bother me. It bothers me. It bothers me! Oh my god it bothers me it bothers me –
"Look!" Gai said, pointing.
Kakashi snapped out of it. The Hokage Tower loomed before them. The sight of it brought Kakashi an overwhelming wave of relief. Sandaime would be there. Sandaime would know what to do.
He knew the older ninjas just climbed the tower from the outside and popped through the window of the Hokage's office. But they would get in trouble if they did that. And it was rude. Kakashi couldn't imagine ever being that blasé towards someone in a position of power. Sandaime was awe-inspiring, and commanded everyone's respect.
They entered the tower from the bottom, from the front door, and raced up the spiral staircase to the top. They burst into the hallway and raced each other to the end.
"Sandaime," Gai called. "Sandaime, we need to speak to you."
"Hold on," a man standing by the door objected. "You can't just come in there. He's not at your beck and call. He's the Hokage. Make an appointment if you want to speak to the Hokage."
"I can't," Gai said, looking startled. "I need to see him now. It's important."
Kakashi looked up at the man darkly, his eyes flashing. "It's a security breach emergency," he said flatly.
The man blanched at Kakashi's tone.
The door to the Hokage's office opened of its own volition, and a venerable man in a distinctive red and white hat peered out. "What is this commotion?" he inquired.
Kakashi closed his eyes tightly for a moment to keep from crying and took a deep breath. Just thinking about what the problem was made him want to explode all over the grandfatherly man. "Hokage-sama, there's a man in my house. I think he's an intruder. I can't find my father anywhere and – " All his sick feelings came to the surface. "Please help." He started shaking again.
Sandaime looked from one boy to the other. "Is this true, Gai-san? Are you a part of this as well?"
Gai nodded. "It's true, Hokage-sama. There is a man in Kakashi's house. He's –" He hesitated and looked at Kakashi helplessly. That look seemed to go on for minutes.
Just say it, Kakashi wanted to snap at him. You think it's my Dad. You think it's my father, you raging idiot! Stupid!
Gai's expression became horrified, clearly getting the message that Kakashi was less than happy with him. Finally, Gai tore his gaze from Kakashi and back to the Hokage. "Well, he is in there. Dead, sir. Very dead. A sword through his stomach."
Sadness swept over Sandaime's features. He looked at them incredulously for a moment, his eyes widening, and then nodded. He absently lit the pipe already hanging from his mouth and shook out the match.
The man standing by the door took it from him with a bow and entered into the office, stubbing it out in an ashtray.
Sandaime seemed to take no notice of this. He blew a smoke ring instead, his brow furrowed thoughtfully. "I believe I shall take a look," he said quietly. "Please take me to your home, Kakashi-san."
Kakashi nodded and led the way.
Gai looked at Sandaime questioningly.
Sandaime motioned for him to go first.
On the way out of the Hokage Tower, Gai ended up falling in step with the old man, clinging to his hand. No one said anything. Gai was like that. There was no point in protesting, and Sandaime was not the kind of person to mind in the first place.
When they walked down the street, Kakashi ended up several paces in front of them.
"It's Sakumo, sir," Gai whispered.
Kakashi still heard. He clenched his jaw and said nothing, silently scorning Gai's statement. You can think what you like. I know my own father.
The walk back to his house was a blur. Somehow, the streets melted away, and he was left standing in front of his house. Kakashi felt sick, immediately reacting to the sight of his house with horror. It was irrational.
Damn it, this is my house. You're not taking it away from me, you dead bastard. I'm taking it back. Kakashi resolutely marched up to the doorstep and stood on it. He didn't quite dare push his way through the front door. As if he could disturb someone or some thing by entering. As though he should knock.
Kakashi lingered at the doorstep and looked over his shoulder at them, waiting for Gai and the Hokage to catch up.
"Was the door open?" Sandaime asked gently.
Gai looked sheepish. "I left it that way. I didn't think…well, I thought…"
Sandaime seemed to understand. He nodded. "It's alright. Show me inside."
Kakashi somehow didn't want to go back inside. But this was his house, and it couldn't be cowardice. His father had taught him never to be afraid of such things. It was only a dead man. Dead men couldn't hurt him, and they couldn't hurt people he loved.
He finally inched inside the door and made enough room for Gai and the Hokage to come in. He bowed. "Welcome to my home. Please come in."
"Thank you," Sandaime said softly. "Please forgive me for not taking off my sandals. I wish to be fully prepared in the case of any security risks."
Kakashi straightened and nodded his understanding.
Gai squeezed the Hokage's hand.
Kakashi walked inside the house as far as the kitchen and stopped, staring at the white tiles of the floor. The room seemed oddly tilted.
"Where did you find him?" Sandaime asked. "In the living room, you said?"
Kakashi turned to look at the Hokage and nodded. He noticed Gai was just watching him, pale and wide-eyed. Shows how brave you are, after all your big talk. He clenched his jaw. Well, I'm not afraid. "The living room is this way, Hokage-sama," he said evenly.
He walked across the kitchen with measured steps, around the corner and into the living room where the dead man lay, sprawled on his side with his hands still gripping the hilt of his katana. Kakashi caught a glimpse of one leg before he turned and faced Sandaime, clasping his hands behind his back. "This is it, sir. The intruder that came into my house while I and my father were away."
Sandaime's gaze fell upon the body. Then he looked at Kakashi gently. "Where did your father go, Kakashi-kun?"
"I don't know, sir," Kakashi said honestly. "He wasn't supposed to go somewhere at all. He was supposed to still be here when I got back."
"Where were you?" Sandaime asked.
"Getting groceries," Kakashi said. He glanced at his 'rival'. "With Gai." He added stubbornly, "Not that I wanted his help, but Gai insisted, sir. He always does. It doesn't matter what I'm doing."
Sandaime smiled. "I see."
Gai flushed and looked away. "You did need my help. You needed my help to carry the groceries."
"I could have taken more than one trip," Kakashi said. "I was prepared to. Or I could have – well, I could have done something." He'd forgotten entirely how he was going to handle the problem of too many groceries. Hadn't he solved it right away? He'd thought of something, surely.
"Let's leave that conversation for another day," Sandaime suggested kindly.
"Okay," Kakashi said, disheartened. Now the Hokage believes I can't even carry my own groceries. "But this man came in while I was gone, and he died on my carpet. My father's carpet." He struggled to explain how wrong that was. "It's not right. This carpet – it's white – and Father always likes it vacuumed – and you see, the ninken aren't even allowed in here, no matter how dear they are to us, and –" His eyes inexplicably filled with tears.
"I understand." Sandaime came forward with a swish of his robes and placed a warm hand on Kakashi's shoulder. "It's disconcerting to have things out of place, especially in one's home."
"Yes," Kakashi said, nodding, painfully grateful that Sandaime understood the source of his distress. "And it's not supposed to be that way, sir. It's not supposed to be that way in here." He pointed to the corpse. "It's bloody. And – terrible. And – it –" He shook his head. "Why did it have to be in here? When Father sees the carpet, he's going to be – Well, he's going to be so angry."
That was perhaps the worst part. Kakashi clenched his fists. "I can't stand it, sir. I tried so hard. I never meant to – l-let him down, but I – I guess – " He realized, horrified, that he was airing his feelings about his father instead of calmly and rationally discussing this intruder on his floor. "I went to get the groceries, to get exactly what he wanted, and then this happened." He turned halfway and gestured to the corpse. "I can't do anything right for him."
"Where did the green forehead protector come from?" Sandaime asked, sounding curious.
Kakashi wrinkled his nose in disgust. "Gai put it on him, sir. To try to convince me that he – this corpse – looks like my father."
Gai edged backwards with clear guilt.
"Does he?" Sandaime sounded surprised. "Does he look like your father, Kakashi?" He placed his hands on Kakashi's shoulders and turned Kakashi to face the man on the floor fully. "Why don't we look at him together and see what we think?"
Kakashi was curious about what that would prove, but he nodded slightly, willing to go about the implied order and look at the body again. He let his gaze fall to the body on the floor.
And he saw his father's face.
He jerked backwards, bumping into the Hokage, and scrambled, unwilling to care that he was physically backing himself into the man. "Th-That's not the way it was when we left!"
Sandaime caught him and steadied him, keeping a hold on his shoulders.
Kakashi twisted. "It's not the right face!" Let me go! He almost screamed at the Hokage. Only his sheer terror of what the consequences of that would be kept the words in his throat.
In spite of his struggling, Sandaime held him still. Kakashi felt as though he were in a nightmare. "It's not the right face, it's not the right face, it's not him –" The ground was spinning and sinking at the same time, tilting out of control.
Kakashi fell to his knees. From here, from this angle, the corpse looked even more like his father. The way the man's hair fell across his face and the shape of his nose and forehead and lips in profile was too familiar – an image he saw when his father fell asleep in the living room chair after a hard day of work, nodding off to the sound of the TV. His father would do that often of late. One minute they'd be watching Kakashi's favorite show, and the next moment Kakashi would look over to scan for a look of appreciation or concentration and see that his father was asleep instead.
Sandaime knelt with him, hands resting gently on his upper arms, almost hugging him.
Kakashi thought he was going insane. He felt as though he could collapse right here and now. "It's not him. It's not him. Is it? Is it – it's not him, is it – It's not!"
At the lack of a response, his chest rose and fell rapidly, his breaths panting. "He's – Touchan?"
He reached out one shaking hand to touch the corpse's arm – He's asleep. I'll wake him – and stopped, disturbed by the scattered thought that interrupted his consciousness. "No, no he's not – He's not –" Kakashi uttered a breathless laugh. He got back to his feet, half-straightening.
His eyes widened, taking in everything as a whole for the first time.
Everything flared with snapshot clarity: his father was wearing his dress uniform from when he was a young man, before he became a member of ANBU, before everything about his life was covered in secrecy, before he felt the need to wear masks and dull colors. Kakashi had seen a picture in a photo album from long ago. He'd been sitting in his father's lap. His father had pointed to the picture and explained that the picture was of him from his first jonin team. I was a young man, then. His father's voice flashed through Kakashi's mind. Those were happier days. The happiest. I met my wife your mother wearing those clothes. And his father's laugh. She thought I looked dashing.
Kakashi was suddenly clawing to reach his father and to pull out the sword, and it was Sandaime holding him back. Sandaime's hands were much stronger than they appeared. "Touchan! Touchan! My Touchan! Help me!"
Sandaime pulled him backwards, hugging him fiercely, virtually wrapping him up in those thick white and red robes.
"Let go of me!" Kakashi ripped an arm loose and reached out with all his might, his hand flailing. "You have to help me! You can't leave him like that!"
Sandaime dragged him back inside the kitchen, both arms wrapped around his waist in a hold that just wasn't going to give.
Kakashi glanced around wildly and saw that Gai was crying, flushed and frightened. He pressed up against the side of the counter, one hand curled around the handle of the silverware drawer.
"Help me," Kakashi said, but he was quickly running out of air. He felt as though two giant hands were pressing in on either side of his ribcage, and a horrible, lighter-than-air feeling was rising in his head. "You have to help me. It's my Touchan." His lungs were burning. With numb fingers, he scratched at his mask and yanked it down. A burning feeling spread throughout his limbs, pressure in his chest – Hot, too hot. Can't breathe. Can't –
In an instant, he knew that something horrible was happening to him, and no one could help. Then he was falling, and the world was going gray, and he was so heavy that he couldn't move. He thundered to the ground, and that was the last thing he remembered: a crooked shot of light streaking across the white tile floor from the window in the dining nook. His eyes followed the streaks of light automatically. They led him to the legs of the dining table. The pattern of light and shadow around the legs of the table didn't make sense anymore.
His nose and mouth burned white-hot, and then his vision went black.