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Phantom Pains

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Minato couldn’t say for certain when exactly he had first noticed it. Perhaps it was when Kakashi inexplicably came late to training one day. Perhaps it was when Kakashi then proceeded to comply to Minato’s orders with a detached obedience that was nothing like him. Perhaps it was the penitent stare that Kakashi subjected them all to when he thought they weren’t looking.

Whatever it was, once Minato saw it, it couldn’t be unseen. The filters and plastic facade that Kakashi habitually hide himself away behind suddenly meant nothing to Minato anymore.

Minato could see the way Kakashi was struggling to keep his emotions in check lately. The dam the teen was so used to cramming all his feelings into was overflowing, seeping through the cracks of his fingers even while he tried to push it back. Kakashi’s attempts at keeping it all in just wasn’t enough anymore – he was so much more weary and restless than ever.

Trepidation grew and grew with each passing day; something was obviously going on with Kakashi for him to look like this, but Minato didn’t know what.

There was a period of time where Kakashi’s anger and hate at the world – normally pent up to simmer violently under his skin – had a target. It had unexpectedly lashed out at Obito for all of a week, before it moved on and gradually started to curl inwards onto himself. Underneath Kakashi’s subtle mood swings, Minato had seen hints of self-blame that tethered his every action, restraining tighter the longer Kakashi spent time with them.

Minato couldn’t help the fear deep within his heart that he was slowly losing his precious student to a nightmare that wouldn’t let Kakashi go. Kakashi – everything that made Kakashi Kakashi – was disappearing into a ghost of a human. A being with a mind everywhere and anywhere else but the present. Sometimes Minato swore Kakashi was expecting them to disappear before his very eyes every time he so as much blinked. Kakashi’s mind tended to drift so often now, seeing apparitions that caused his hands to clench into trembling fists and eyes to reflect the cracked windows of a broken soul.

What was Kakashi seeing? Minato didn’t know, but whatever it was, Minato swore it was ruining his student and the brittle mind the thirteen-year-old possessed, without a sign of resolving any time soon.

 


 

Minato waited until Obito and Rin left for the day before he took action. Minato shrouded himself with an air of idle curiosity, knowing better than to let himself appear too concerned for this particular student of his. Kakashi would likely take it as an insult to his self-competency. “You seem like you have a lot on your mind lately, Kakash,” the blond began, addressing the silver-haired teen in a casual voice – a stark contrast to the actual turmoil the weeks of worry had caused him.

The careful way Minato tried to maneuver onto the topic spoke of how much practice he had with dealing with the teen. Still, despite his experiences in subtly pulling personal information from Kakashi, they were still usually hit or miss depending on Kakashi’s mood. The blond stilled as he waited for Kakashi’s answer, half-cringing at the long silence that, as he recalled, normally preceded an irritated scoff. Minato waited for the inevitable that would occur after the scoff; for Kakashi to brush him off – give him the harsh “I’m fine,” that Kakashi insisted on spitting out in order to halt all possibilities of inquisition down that line of questioning.

Minato waited, but it never came.

Instead, Kakashi was eying him with a contemplative look.“Do I?” Kakashi asked lightly, voice swirling in an unreadable tone. Something on the teen’s face loosened to Minato’s concerned query, and the blond had a feeling it was an unconscious motion on Kakashi’s part.

Minato almost didn’t know what to say next, never expected Kakashi to prolong the conversation without persistence from him. “A bit, yes,” the blond finally answered, in a collect lull that spoke nothing of his unease. “Is anything the matter?” he pressed on.

Kakashi looked away. The pause Kakashi gave between hearing Minato’s question and answering to it was lengthy, stretching on for much longer than necessary, giving the boy too much time to dwell on things. It was no wonder when Kakashi spoke once more, he was back to his usual guarded responses. “Nothing and everything,” was the cryptic answer.

Behind those words, layers upon layers of masks slowly reapplied themselves to form a face Minato could read nothing from.

“Ah,” Minato offered from the back of his throat.

Still, regardless of what clearly sounded like a dismissive end to the conversation, Minato didn’t move. He waited patiently by Kakashi’s side. Minato normally knew better than to push his luck, but normally, Kakashi wouldn’t have accidentally relaxed his carefully applied façade and directly shown Minato anything near his true face, or the weariness pulsing behind his grey-blue eyes.

Kakashi dithered in the silence, flexed his fingers, twining and untwining them in a need for movement even as the teen stood otherwise motionless. When Minato only continues to hold his tongue while refusing to budge, did Kakashi let out a long breath and turned to faced him once more. “Have you,” Kakashi began, in a nebulous voice that sounded so distant, “felt the weight of knowing there are things that have to be done, but don’t know how to go about doing it?”

Minato supposed it was the best opening he would get. The blond edged closer to the teen. “If you’re willing to share, I could try to be of assistance,” he suggested, body language shifted to show his complete earnestness. Because sometimes, his kids were so oblivious to the fact that Minato was honestly, honestly willing to help them, if they’d only just ask.

Despite the fact that Minato knew Kakashi saw his posture, the teen didn’t elaborate. “Perhaps,” was Kakashi’s soft reply, and he didn’t say anything more, only gracing Minato with an appreciative smile.

Minato couldn’t let the conversation end there. “What do you not know how to go about doing?” the man probed, trying to pull some sense into Kakashi words that he could proceed with.

The teen turned away and shut his eyes tightly, head turned upwards towards the sky. Kakashi’s voice was stretched so strained when he spoke out next. “Perhaps ‘can’t’ is more accurate. Even after everything …”

“’Can’t …’?” Minato prodded gently when the teen drifted off, “Can’t what?” But Kakashi’s lips seemed to be sealed shut by now, answering only with the smallest shake of his head. Minato waited a hopeful second longer in Kakashi’s stubborn silence. “Kakashi, you know that no matter what it is, I’m willing to listen to you whenever you need to talk,” the blond promised, “I’ll always make time for you.”

Kakashi rocked silently on his heels before he shoved his hands into his pockets, leaning forwards into a slouch. “Maybe,” the teen finally said, “Maybe one day, but not now.” There was something wistful in those whispered words of Kakashi’s, but the teen’s tone demanded finalization of the topic, and even if Minato asked again, he doubted Kakashi would reply.

With a small nod to Minato, Kakashi turned slowly around and walked out of the training area, hands still firmly lodged in his pockets. Minato’s gaze latched onto Kakashi’s dragging, retreating back until Kakashi was fully out of his sight. And even then, Minato couldn’t stop his eyes from lingering in the direction the young teen had disappeared off to. Kakashi’s enervated movements were nothing like the sharp, determined military steps the teen usually took on. Minato supposed it meant nothing, but he couldn’t help but feel like he was staring at the back of someone crushed under the weight of loss and defeat.

All the while, Minato could do nothing to help.

 


 

Much to Minato’s consternation, other than keeping a closer watch on Kakashi, there wasn’t much Minato could do if Kakashi wouldn’t open up to him. With an agitated heart, Minato had reluctantly allowed the melancholy days pass one after the other as mornings of training blurred into an undiscernible week of worry.

Even while the blond corrected Obito on his stance, Minato still found himself simultaneously watching Kakashi from the corner of his eyes. The teen slipped under the umbrageous trees, melting into the shade until he could hardly be seen. As much as Minato despised to say it, Kakashi’s forlorn form was starting to look like the norm nowadays. Minato was so afraid he would soon become accustomed to it and forget to worry as much as he honestly should for the downtrodden teen.

“Sensei! You’re supposed to be teaching me!” Obito whined, frustration in his tone from his repeatedly unheard calls.

Minato let out a low “Ah,” offering the Uchiha a chuckle of embarrassment. “My bad, Obito. I got distracted,” he replied with cheeriness that hid away his worries.

Obito shot a glare over at where Minato’s preoccupied gaze had lingered, seeing only Kakashi and nothing of the pain the boy carried. “What’s Kakashi doing that’s so interesting?” the boy sulked, “I can do it better than him.”

Obito was never the most perceptive ninja, but of the three Chunin in Team Seven, Minato had always considered him the best at spotting and understanding the pains of others - it was something Obito could relate with, living as the scorned black sheep in the stifling family of Uchihas. Yet, with Kakashi around, Obito seem to become oblivious to everything, too irritated at the silver-haired prodigy to make sound observations.

“Now, now, I was only checking up on him and Rin. I did promise I would be training you one-on-one today, didn’t I?” the blond placated immediately.

Minato watched Obito’s expression light up at the reminder. “Well duh you’re training me today! Who wouldn’t want to train me? When I get my Sharingan, I’ll be the strongest shinobi ever!” Obito cheered enthusiastically, drawing a smile on Minato’s face from the teen’s utter liveliness and normality, “I’ll be even stronger than Bakakashi, and then I’ll become Hokage! I’ll be the strongest, kindest Hokage this village has ever seen! No one will ever worry about being hurt because I’ll be there to protect them all,” Obito declared.

“Liar.”

Minato froze at the low hiss of words, as sharp as a kunai, thrown so quickly and cuttingly at them that the blond had to wonder for a second if Kakashi had honestly spoken out or not.

Minato turned towards the silver-haired teen at the same time as Obito, vastly different expressions on their two faces. “Sorry, did you say something, Kakashi?” Minato asked cautiously, ready to quell any sign of a budding argument.

Kakashi’s head turned over to them, eyes burning on Obito, so focused on the raven-haired teen that Minato wondered if Kakashi even noticed him standing beside Obito at all. “You became trash,” Kakashi said brusquely, in a voice so peculiar.

Obito visibly bristled. “If I’m trash, then you’re worse than trash,” the teen spat out, never one to back down, rant ready on his lips, “All you care about is the stupid Rules and Regulation, you heartless bastard. You don’t even see us at all! I bet you wouldn’t even care if a teammate was dying in front of you – I bet no one trusts you with their lives! But me, I’ll never let anyone hurt Rin or Sensei or anyone I care about, unlike you!”

“Obito!” Minato snapped in chagrin, because some things should never be said, in childish spite or otherwise.

Kakashi was quiet, swaying gently as he stayed rooted in spot. “Well, maybe not you,” the teen amended after a second, in a sentence with an oddly placed emphasis that only served to confuse Minato even more. That wasn’t supposed to happen. Kakashi always bit back, or at least walked haughtily away – anything to make Obito fume even angrier.

Even Obito could tell something was wrong. “Ahh … Yeah, well, I … uh, still hate trash like you,” Obito responded, off-balance, and finally looking as though he was giving Kakashi a good look well past the teen usual façade. Minato saw Obito shoot him a glance but he couldn’t offer the Uchiha anything other than a tight, unconvincing smile, because he didn’t have a clue what was going on either.

Kakashi watched their exchanged in silence. When Obito turned expectantly at him for a response, the teen finally let out a half-hearted chuckle that was more of a breath of exhaled air than anything. “That’s fine,” Kakashi said in a voice very much accepting of Obito’s stinging words. “That’s fine,” he murmured, eyes sweeping slowly over Minato, Obito, then Rin.

Minato wondered if he was the only one who was anticipating a: “You’re right to hate me,” from Kakashi in the silence that followed, but seemed only too natural after the tone Kakashi had used.

When had Kakashi been so self-deprecating and fragile? What had Kakashi done for him to think it was fine for his own teammates to hate him like so?

 


 

When Obito approached Minato, the teen had an uncharacteristically serious look underneath his nervous demeanor. And even deeper underneath that, was a strangely determined spark, resolute on confronting the issue with Minato.

Minato supposed he had been expecting Obito to talk to him about it for a while now. Rin had already approached him with her concerns, and Minato hadn’t been able to do anything else but placate her with well-meaning lies of ‘it’ll pass in time’.

Minato didn’t think he could offer Obito anything better.

“Is something the matter, Obito?”

Obito shuffled his sandaled feet on the ground, hands wringing nervously in each other. Minato urged the boy with encouraging hums, until at last the teen finally blurted out: “It’s about Kakashi.” Minato suspected as much.

“I realise you two don’t always see eye-to-eye –“ Minato began, trying to guide a response from the clammed teen.

Obito cut him off immediately. “No! I mean, yeah we don’t get along, that bastard’s always acting like he’s better than me even when –“

“Obito,” Minato said pointedly, knowing full well the raven-haired teen wasn’t there to rant.

The teen blushed before looking nervous once more. “Ahh, that wasn’t what I wanted to talk about,” the boy corrected. “The thing is, Kakashi’s acting weird.” The boy paused. “Well, he’s always weird, and who wouldn’t be weird wearing a mask all year long, and –“

“Obito,” Minato interrupted once more, without much heat. He knew the little Uchiha tended to babble when nervousness got the better of him. It would’ve been an endearing habit were they not ninjas.

Obito’s jaw snapped shut again. The teen clenched his fists, teeth biting and grinding into his lip as he peeked up hesitantly at his teacher. “I – I just wanted to know if Kakashi’s doing okay? He’s not … um, sick, is he?”

“Not that I’m aware of.” Minato couldn’t confirm nor deny anything, not without actually knowing what was going on himself, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t assuage his student. “I think Kakashi needs some time to himself to sort out the issue plaguing his mind. I can’t say I know whether or not trying to sort it out alone is his best course of action, but won’t you keep an eye on him for me just in case, Obito?”

If a determined ‘Yes,’ was what Minato was expecting, it wasn’t what he received.

Obito’s eyes widened needingly, leaning forward towards Minato as if closer contact would allow him to quicker pull the answers from his Sensei’s mouth. “But otherwise he’s fine? You’re sure? Absolutely?” Obito confirmed, sounding pleadingly urgent.

Minato felt like he was missing something. “What are you getting at?“

“People aren’t hurting him? I know Kakashi’s a bastard, and I should know, being his teammate and all, but that doesn’t give them an excuse,” the Uchiha rushed out, words tumbling one over the other, “Kakashi’s just naturally like that, you know?”

Minato froze. “Repeat that?” he asked tightly, harshly.

Obito seemed to shrink into himself, suddenly unsure of his own words. Minato was more concerned with what had caused Obito to suggest such wild accusations in the first place. “Uh…”

“What gave you the idea someone was hurting Kakashi?” Minato demanded without even allowing Obito a chance to think.

“Uhh …”

“Obito.”

“There … er – I saw … uh.”

Obito.”

“There were wounds on Kakashi that weren’t there before!” the raven-haired boy cried out hasty, cracking under Minato’s unusually dark tone. Minato waited patiently – or as patient as he could seem, suddenly faced with the idea that someone within the village had been causing Kakashi’s plunging mood. The teen was starting to ramble again, placed under the pressure of Minato’s glaring gaze just barely kept in check. “So after that C-rank a few days ago, Rin insisted to help bandage our injuries when we got home. I had a few cuts on me, and Kakashi has this wound on his palm from grabbing a kunai out of the air to save me when I didn’t listen to his nagging orders to stay back, yeah … ?” Obito paused for a second as if expecting confirmation, but Minato gave him none, filtering through the excess information.

Obito hurried on, “So anyways, Kakashi let Rin patch him up. The next day, Rin wanted to change the bandages and make sure Kakashi was taking care of his wound. Well, it wasn’t even that deep, but Rin’s nice like that, even if Kakashi didn’t want to show it to her. So then I tackled him, but he dodged, and we started to fight a bit … It wasn’t a serious fight, Sensei, honest! I just told him after all Rin’s done for us, he should listen to her and show her some respect.”

Minato shook his head, “Go on.”

“Right, so, Kakashi suddenly had this odd look on his face, but in the end he gave in. But then Rin frowned at him and said she noticed he was limping when we were fighting, and told him to pull up his pant leg. Eventually Kakashi caved in to Rin and pulled it up.” Here, Obito stopped completely, seeming unwilling to go on.

“Then what, Obito?” Minato insisted.

Obito looked down, wriggling his toes through his sandaled feet, trying to stall before he had to say the inevitable. “We saw,” the boy began slowly, “that Kakashi had bandages wrapped over an area Rin hadn’t noticed injured the day before. I thought maybe it was just a little measly scratch we easily missed over…” Obito rubbed his arm, “but when we unravelled it, there was another wound there, deeper and nastier than the one on his hand.” The teen bit nervously on his lower lip, eyebrows slanting worryingly. “There would’ve been no way we would have miss something that bad. Kakashi refused to tell us where he got it from after the mission – he said training, but how do you stab yourself in the leg that bad while training? He really wouldn’t talk about it no matter what, and so I thought … I thought someone might have done it to Kakashi. He’s been acting so weird lately, you know?”

Minato’s inner turmoil was unreadable to Obito when the blond tipped his head into a nod. “I see.”

“You don’t think it’s true, do you?” For all the angry, bitter rivalry between Obito and Kakashi, there was a reason why Minato never minded it much. They were teammates who cared for each other, under the harsh spew of insults flung every day.

“To be honest, Obito,” Minato said softly, “I don’t know. But I can promise you I will check up on it.”

Obito dropped his head, his hope falling with it, “Okay.”

Minato ran a soothing hand over the teen raven black locks, tousling Obito’s hair calmingly, hating his inability to confidently reassure the teen. “It’s going to be alright. Let me worry about it. Just keep being yourself around Kakashi,” Minato advised. If Kakashi caught even a hint of change in Obito’s behaviour around him and linked it back to his own self as the cause, the silver-haired teen might assume the worse – like think he was being pitied. If anything, that would only make matters worse, irritating Kakashi and causing a larger rift between the two boys.  Minato didn’t want that to happen – not when the Uchiha could do so much good for him. “You know how Kakashi’s like,” Minato said softly, “Let me deal with it, Obito. I promise it’ll be alright.”

 


 

It seemed like the moment he was aware of it, more and more wounds started to appear. – or maybe Minato was more conscious of them now, now that he had been given reason to doubt Kakashi’s usual reasons for injuries.

Konoha was reaching the season when more missions were put through, but Minato was noticing what Obito had – Kakashi’s wounds were not from their missions. Indeed they would start to appear around the same time they were deployed out on missions, but Minato had watched his team beadily like a hawk for several assignments, and somehow Kakasi always ended up with more injuries the next day than he’d received in battle.

They were in the lull between potential missions, when Minato saw a visible wound he could finally document without needing to rip the boy’s shirt off in order to get a good sight of it, as most of the previous injuries had required.

There was a small pinkish scratch by Kakashi’s upper arm, peaking just under his short sleeves, almost hidden by his forearm guards. Minato made no comment on it as he continued his observation, lest the teen tried to cover it up immediately.

The next day the scratch was still there, but darker, redder, and marginally deeper.

Minato tailed the silver-haired teen with the utmost silence that day. He slipped in and out of shadows like a ghostly figure, unseen and unheard by anyone around.

But nothing happened at all.

Kakashi had trained viciously after Minato dismissed the team, striking hits on the training dummy so violently and urgently that Minato had to wonder what Kakashi was imagining through those glassy, distant eyes of his. Nobody approached the teen any time after that - not even after Minato inconspicuously escorted Kakashi back home and sat on a rooftop watching for the lights of Kakashi’s apartment to turn off when stars finally dotted the dimming night sky.

And yet despite all this, the day after, the wound was redder and deeper still.

Then one day it was bandaged up, without even the littlest indication of warning on Kakashi’s part.

Minato was situated on a tree, spying on his kids when he noticed the bandage. “Kakashi, what happened to your arm?” the blond heard Rin ask, sparing Minato the need to appear before them and ask for himself.

Minato strained from his spot to hear Kakashi’s answer, but as it turned out, it wasn’t necessary – it was the same response as always. “Training,” Kakashi answered succinctly as he turned away.

That was a lie.

Even so, at those words, Rin smiled understandingly, appearing to accept the answer on face value. The glance she discreetly shared with Obito a second after Kakashi had turned away told Minato otherwise.

Obito shot an anxious, sweeping gaze around the training field, as if wishing Minato was around to help, before turning back to the silver-haired teen, usual snipes on an unsteady grin. “Hah, who’s the clumsy one now?”

“Obito,” Rin chided, if anything because that’s what she normally did, no matter how worried she was feeling.

The Uchiha gave an abashed chuckle that sounded close enough to his usual careless chuckles, if not a bit strained. But then again, it wasn’t the raven-haired teen that Minato was paying attention to, but Kakashi. Obito’s words were such a common start of another one of the boys’ arguments, but for a split second, Minato could see a clash between fond exasperation and animosity on Kakashi’s face before the teen rolled his grey-blue eyes. “Just because you don’t train after Sensei dismisses us doesn’t mean I don’t.”

“I train!”

“Inefficiently, I bet.”

Obito looked marginally better hearing the usual pace their childish arguments normally fell into. “I can do a running back-handed throw. On water. With two kuani.”

“Do they both hit the target?”

“That’s not the point!”

“Kakashi! Obito!” Rin giggled, equally finding relief from Kakashi’s usual attitude as Obito had.

Now was a good time as any to interrupt them, Minato supposed. It was best to split them up on a good mood, before Kakashi did something uncharacteristic to worry the other two once more. Hopping down from the branch he’d been standing on, Minato showed himself at last. “Good morning you three, I see you’re catching up with each other’s training regime before we start?”

A small flush tinged Rin and Obito’s faces while Kakashi arched a single brow upwards.

Minato smiled nonchalantly, reaching outwards in a casual stretch as he gave his orders. “We might as well start straight away today. I’m breaking you guys up to spar one-on-one with each other. Rin, with Obito. Kakashi, with me to analyse their techniques,” he said, leading the silver-haired teen away.

The moment Rin and Obito formed the seal of confrontation and began, Minato turned towards Kakashi, keeping only a fraction of his attention on the spar in front of them. “What happened to your arm?” the blond asked mildly, wording it to sound like a passing wonder.

 “Weren’t you listening?”

So Kakashi had noticed him. Nevertheless, Minato gave an innocent, disarming grin. “I only arrived a minute ago!”

“Of course,” Kakashi deadpanned. There was a moment of a pause as Kakashi turned away to stare ever-so wistfully at Obito and Rin sparing happily together. Then his expression hardened like a stone carved mask that had been molded especially for his face. “I got it from training,” the teen said, staying true to his previous excuse.

Minato held out his hand, “May I?”

The way Kakashi shifted away from his open hand so slowly and naturally, almost fooled Minato from realising Kakashi was trying to run away. Almost, but it didn’t, and it still wouldn’t no matter how apathetically Kakashi tried to wave him off. “Don’t worry, it’s bandaged up properly, Sensei.”

“That’s not that I’m worried about,” Minato answered, hand still held out. In fact, that was the last thing on his mind. “Now,” the blond commanded.

The team knew better than to disobey when Minato sounded like that. Even if they were all Chunin now, Minato was and would always be their Jounin instructor. Obediently, Kakashi untangled the coil of bandages with what Minato could tell was hesitance in his jerking actions.

Kakashi’s cut was uglier than before.

“It’s only a small wound,” Kakashi commented idly before Minato could get anything in. Minato gave the teen an unimpressed stare, to which Kakashi only skillfully ignored.

“You got this from training?” Minato confirmed, letting every skeptic thought that had entered his mind flood out with that single sentence.

Kakashi didn’t even blink at it. “Yes.”

“It looks pretty deep for a scratch from a stray kunai.”

“I throw pretty hard,” the teen countered smoothly.

The dismissal tone Kakashi uttered his responses in irked Minato who only wanted to get to the bottom of the problem and make sure Kakashi truly was alright. “I seem to recall this exact wound not as badly injured just a few days prior,” the blond stated directly, trying to trap the teen onto the topic straight away, before Kakashi could skillfully maneuver from it.

Kakashi sidestepped it completely. “Ah, I’m still working on the same technique.”

“Is that so?”

“The same routine practice,” Kakashi elaborated, to Minato’s impassive response, as if he expected Minato to believe it the more he explained, “it nicked the same place each time.”

No one, let alone a thirteen-year-old, prodigy or not, could be that precise – especially if the kunai was accidently scratching him each time. “How accurate your technique must be,” Minato said, cynicism compressed in every word.

“Isn’t it?” Kakashi agreed.

Kakashi was dancing around the issue with such seemingly oblivious responses that Minato was certain every action was carefully planned. He wouldn’t be able to pull the truth out from Kakashi unless the teen allowed it. Realising that itself was maddening enough – what could Kakashi be possibly guarding so secretively? Short of full-on interrogating Kakashi, Minato didn’t think he could get anything more that was useful. And for a second, Minato did considering an interrogation, but he knew that would only make matters worse. Kakashi would either clam up or feel betrayed by him for all eternity afterwards, and neither was an agreeable outcome.

Minato considered the right wording for his next sentence. “You will tell me if something harmful is affecting you, won’t you?” the blond asked seriously, eyes boring into Kakashi’s avoiding grey-blues. The teen seemed reluctant to respond, but Minato wasn’t backing down. “Kakashi, I want you to answer me.”

The teen opened his mouth to speak, but Minato cut him off to revise his wording. “I want you to answer me truthfully.”

Kakashi bowed his head, looking towards the ground, studying the sprouting grass beneath their feet. “I will when I can’t handle it on my own,” Kakashi finally said when Minato was starting to think the teen was contemplating ignoring him. He didn’t say anything more.

Minato mentally took that as a ‘no’.

 


 

By now, regarding anything concerning Kakashi, Minato was as tense as strung ninja wire, stretched to the limit and taut enough to slice through any and all reasonable judgement.

It was during his lecture on campfires when Minato noticed Kakashi suddenly stiffening as he stared into the crackling bonfire the blond had lit. Kakashi’s breathing seemed too slow and too even to be anything but carefully controlled. His eyes were captured in the drifting white smoke emitting from the flames, bearing so intently on it like he was trying to twist pictures of lingering ghosts to match the fading fumes.

Minato hadn’t stopped Kakashi from leaving when he finally dismissed his students, uncertain if he should confront the teen about it. He’d been noticing so much sorrow surrounding Kakashi that Minato just wanted to wrap him up and store him somewhere warm and safe until he was all better again. Minato was certain Kakashi had realised his worrying attention on him by now, but Minato didn’t think Kakashi knew just how much he worried. If Minato persistently held Kakashi back for talks, Minato knew Kakashi would eventually see, but that would only convince Kakashi to attempt to hide his pain and suffering better from then on. Minato didn’t want that.

Even so, even if Minato tried, he knew he wouldn’t be able to rid of the image of Kakashi’s hunched stance in front of that roaring flame, squirming in place with so much repentance and ache. The moment Minato could resist it no longer, the blond raced to Kakashi’s apartment, determined to drop in to check up on the teen - if only just for a second.

The apartment was as it’d always been – why would it suddenly change? – but for a second, the angle Minato viewed Kakashi’s place from made it feel so cold, unused, and utterly empty that Minato couldn’t help but fear the worst. It was an illogical thing to think, but dread was building upon the trepidation that had already been steadily piling heavily on his chest since Kakashi’s capricious mood swings first began. The teen’s latest expressions only put a more terrible pressure against it, compressing it all into a concentrated box in the pit of his stomach. With two large strides and a leap, Minato reached the front door. He banged against the entrance as calmly as he could make himself sound.

The teen wasn’t home.

Minato took a breath. “Right, this is Kakashi. If he’s not at home, he’s training,” the man mumbled quietly, keeping himself from an irrational panic.

Kakashi lived his life as nothing but a tool for his village after his sixth birthday, after the terrible event with his father, after the constant scorning from fellow villagers of his father’s deeds. He took the words of the Shinobi Rulebook as gospel to lead his icy cracked heart. From what Minato had seen, Kakashi’s life had never been more than training and sleeping, because that was the only way the teen knew to shield himself from the world outside that had hurt him so much.

So, when all of Kakashi’s usual training grounds bore no presence of the teen, Minato heart truly started to hammer urgently against his chest. Suddenly the low, low spirits Kakashi had been in lately spoke too loudly to Minato, whispering malignant suspicions that Minato never allowed himself to previously dwell on.

Minato’s hands wrapped themselves around thighs as he tried not to clench them into trembling fists. If no one had approached Kakashi to cause those wounds on the teen, then there was only one other way they got there.

From himself.

But Kakashi wouldn’t … couldn’t …

Kakashi!” the man cried out suddenly at the unexpected sight of silver hair swaying in the wind, turning the corner of the street. The teen froze and looked up, visibly startled as Minato jumped down in front of him. He held Kakashi in place by his shoulder with two large, gripping hands. “Where have you been?” Minato demanded in a rushing sentence that rammed into the boy like a charging bull.

“What’s wrong? What happened?” the teen asked, bewildered, before his face contorted to the look of fear that Minato’s voice conveyed. His eyes flickered behind Minato as if he could find his answer there. “Did something happen to Obito? Rin?” he tensed, looking like he was ready for action.

The concern in Kakashi’s voice for his teammates was appreciated, but disconcerting. Kakashi cared about his teammates, but never this blatantly. He’d sooner scoff at Obito’s fault for being so weak, before allowing himself to be seen panicking for them. Things were really, really wrong, and Minato still was nowhere closer to explaining the root of the cause.

Focusing back to the rattled teen before him, Minato skilfully relaxed his posture. “No, no,” he said in controlled calmness. “Sorry, I might have overreacted a bit.” The man offered a smile, “I was looking all around for you. Where have you been?”

Minato was held in a pensive stare for all of a minute before the teen answered: “At home.”

“No you weren’t,” Minato replied instantaneously, frustrated at the lie. Had Kakashi truly been at home, the fear coiling around Minato’s heart and restraining it from beating would not have taken hold. “I checked your apartment.”

“Aaa, the family Compound,” Kakashi corrected lightly.

Minato’s mind slowed to a stop. The family Compound? The Hatake Compound? Why?

Kakashi despised the Compound immensely for reminding him so much of his father by just sitting there bearing the name Hatake on its sturdy oak front doors for all to see – the father whom Kakashi had taken to pretending not to have existed.

Suddenly, Minato could smell the scent of sandalwood incense, clung to Kakashi’s clothes so strongly that he must have been sitting next to the lit incense as it was burning out. “Were you … paying your respects?” Minato questioned hesitantly, uncertain if it was wise to bring up.

The serene “Yes” from Kakashi startled Minato because he had been fully expecting Kakashi to lash out at him at even the mention of Sakumo. His next words were even more unsettling. “I need to give my father closure or else he would be waiting forever, unable to move on.”

What was going on? It felt like Kakashi was tying up loose ends, ready to move on himself. But move on to what? Should he have pressed harder on Kakashi to reveal the real cause of those wounds mysteriously appearing all over his body?

Minato grabbed at Kakashi’s arm before the action even consciously formed in the blond’s mind, yanking it up to inspect. The scar that had marred Kakashi’s skin was healed now and there seemed to be no new wounds. Yet the uneasiness in the pit of Minato’s stomach still wouldn’t pass.

“Sensei!” Kakashi cried, tugging at his arm against his teacher’s hold.

Minato dropped it hastily with an apologetic “sorry,” watching with a cringe as the boy rubbed his wrists to quell the blooming of purple bruises. “Ah, I’m really sorry, Kakashi. I didn’t mean to grab you so suddenly.”

The teen looked away. “It’s fine. What did you need me for, Sensei?”

“I-“ Minato’s mind withdrew from the panicked turmoil it’d flung itself into, eyes finally taking a step back from the narrowing vision that had focused so entirely on Kakashi. “I … oh,” Minato pushed an embarrassed grin on his face, “Oh, that’s a good question. I don’t remember anymore,” he said airily alongside some echoing, meaningless chuckles, “How silly of me. I must be getting old.”

Minato doubted Kakashi believed his excuse, but the teen didn’t call him out on it. Kakashi only eyed Minato a second longer before he dismissed himself with a nod, turning on his heel and leaving Minato to chuckle hollowly to his solitude self.

 


 

“I don’t know what I’m doing anymore,” Minato confessed to Kushina over dinner at her house. The blond clasped his hands in front of his half-eaten bowl of rice, unable to stomach another bite.

Kushina leaned across the table they were sitting at, letting her long red hair drape in front of her. She wagged her chopsticks playfully at Minato. “The kids giving you trouble again?” she teased. “Definitely can’t be Rin – she such a sweetie. Kakashi and Obito are driving you up the wall again, aren’t they?” Kushina laughed, snatching a piece of meat from Minato’s dish at the same time.

Minato tried to smile at her antics, but it fell short. “More Kakashi than Obito, actually.”

Kushina cocked her head in surprise, “Oh? It’s rare of Kakashi to act out unless Obito’s the cause of it.”

“I think he’s harming himself,” Minato suddenly interjected, driving to the point without another word of preamble.

All humor washed off the redhead’s face as Kushina sat up stiffly at those words. Her chopsticks slipped out of her grasp, clattering forgotten on the table. “Kakashi? Impossible,” she said instantly, before her face constricted in worry, suddenly not so sure of herself. “He wouldn’t …” Kushina glanced over at Minato with wide eyes, “would he?”

Minato wanted to wash away the look of distress from his girlfriend, but he couldn’t force himself to lie. “Kakashi’s been getting an alarming amount of injuries that have nothing to do with our missions,” Minato found himself explaining instead, “There was one I noticed that kept scarring deeper and deeper as the days went by, like he – or somebody,” Minato tacked hastily in because he didn’t want to believe Kakashi was hurting himself, even if that was what Minato had managed to conclude in the end, “was deliberately cutting at the same spot over and over again. Somebody, I say, but then again, I saw no one approach Kakashi. And then there was this look he had when he went to the Hatake Compound to give closure to Sakumo.”

Kushina gnawed at her lower lip as she gripped her hands together. “That sounds … foreboding,” the redhead said in an uneasy tone. “I would’ve just assumed it was some sort of training … like maybe he found an obscure jutsu that required blood to activate,” Kushina continued, “But hearing that he suddenly stopped trying to deny Sakumo’s existence and went to give him closure? Minato…” the woman whispered with a frightened cry. She knew as well as Minato did just how deep Kakashi’s hatred ran for his ‘cowardly’ father.

“I know.”

“What’s causing it?” Kushina asked.

Minato only shook his head. “That I don’t know.”

The woman glared at his uselessness, but it didn’t stop her from attempting to help. Kushina racked her mind, her mouth quickly babbling on without restraint. “Did anything occur to him recently? Is it stress? Is he advancing too quickly through the ranks?”

Minato couldn’t give a definitive yes or no to any of Kushina’s questions.

“Have you … I don’t know, set up an appointment with a psychiatrist, or something?” Kushina urged, burning her impatient gaze onto the blond.

Minato rubbed his cold hands together, staring down onto the table where their dinner laid half-eaten and completely forgotten. “I’ve watched the boy grow up, and he never seemed to have any tendencies to… you know, hurt himself.” Dark thoughts filled Minato’s mind, and the blond shook them away with a physical shake of his head, continuing, “I know I should be considering getting someone to help with this issue. I’m sure if I get a psychiatrist involved they could help figure out what’s wrong, but the problem is, they’ll request a session with Kakashi. If that occurs, even if it isn’t my intentions, Kakashi might assume that meant I’ve given up trying to help him myself. To him, it might look like I decided to immediately shove him away the moment I couldn’t deal with his problems anymore. Something like that -“ Would Kakashi forgive him if Minato sent him to a psychiatrist before he’d managed to exhaust all of his own attempts?

“That’s the worst course of action to take with Kakashi,” Kushina finished needlessly. Kushina knew that just as well as Minato. Kakashi was already filled with all sorts of betrayal after the whole ordeal with his father – it changed his entire life, until he had to rely on the shinobi rules as crutches to get through his life. The teen was a patchwork of insecurities, threatening to come apart at the seams the moment things hit too close to home. Minato wouldn’t allow yet another layer of mask to slip over the boy and hide Kakashi’s true self even deeper away. Especially not one he inadvertently caused.

“Exactly.” Minato tried to twitch the corner of his lips up into something more of a smile. “Besides,” he said, in a voice forcefully light, “Haven’t you heard of Kakashi’s Hospital escapades? I don’t think Kakashi likes doctors of any sort very much.”

Kushina sighed softly, shaking her head. "How about when Sakumo died?" the woman asked thoughtfully, "Who helped Kakashi get through that?"

Minato pressed his lips into a tight line. “Kakashi was assigned mandatory psychological checkups. He reluctantly went for several weeks, before he deemed them unnecessary." Minato shook his head helplessly. "The thing was, his request couldn't be denied because he showed no signs of trauma - Kakashi stood stricter to the rules, yes, but that couldn't be argued as a detrimental behavior."

Kushina’s eyes leaped wide open, and blazed furiously at his words. "So he was sent back into the field with minimal help? Kakashi was six, and he just saw his father’s cold, dead body lying in front of him."

Minato let out a sigh, "I know it’s no excuse, but we are in a middle of a war – every serviceable shinobi counts. Kakashi explicitly stated that he was fine, and wished to resume duty, so that was that. Kakashi was already Chunin by then, and fully emancipated and capable of making his own decisions."

 “Still, he was six – a child!”

“We are shinobi, Kushina. Like it or not, most shinobi deliberately seek missions to get their minds off of personal tragedies. That is how we are. Instead of speaking out our inner pain, we let it drive our battles.” This was why, no matter how much it maddened Minato that Kakashi wouldn’t tell him his problems, he knew he couldn’t fault the kid. Most shinobi were like that. “Even if he was six, we’ve all stopped being children the day we put on our hitai-ate and swore our lives to serve the Hokage.”

Kushina’s frustration at the excuse, no matter how legitimate it was, plainly marred every crease on her glaring face. “Maybe because of that lack of intervention, he’s having a relapse. That’s what’s causing his depression, and leading to possible self-injuries,” she snarled, anger fueling every word.

Minato couldn’t deny that. “Maybe.”

There was nothing else Minato could say. For all he knew, Kushina was right, but until Kakashi opened up to him, he would never know for sure. He watched as the stern glare Kushina had fixed on him slowly melted back into worry as time elapsed. Kushina let out a sigh of defeat at last when she realised ‘maybe’ was the best answer Minato could give her. “Well, I won’t deny it appeared to have worked for seven years. Maybe that honestly isn’t the problem. Maybeif he continues going out on missions it’ll serve to do him better once more. Maybe not.” Kushina leaned over to tug at Minato’s sleeve, “Just keep an eye out on him, please, Minato?”

“I already am.”

“Then keep both eyes on him,” Kushina said intensely, overflowing with protectiveness that the blond could relate with. “Because I won’t ever forgive you if you lose that boy.”

Minato closed his eyes. “I know,” he said softly and full of understanding, “because I won’t forgive myself either.”

 


 

In between the missions Minato undertook with other the Jounin, there hadn’t been much time he could spend with Team Seven. As often as he could, Minato would schedule training practice with the team just to check up on them – as of late, that statement seemed to read more along the lines of ‘just to check up on Kakashi’.

Today’s training practice was nothing different. However, with Kushina’s growling voice firmly implanted in the back on his mind since the day he talked about Kakashi with her, the moment Minato noticed Kakashi flinching to even the slightest brush of Obito’s evaded punch, Minato leaped at it.

“Obito, Rin, Kakashi, that’s all for today. Same time tomorrow. We’ll work on our stamina and brush up on our taijutsu again,” Minato called out, forcing the three Chunin to stop immediately.

Obito let out a groan, “Again? It’s been ages since we even left the village!”

Minato gave a half-hearted chuckle, but his mind was still on his silver-haired Chunin, only paying minimally attention to anything else. “Now, now, every ninja has to work on the basics if they want to advance,” he said nonchalantly. Even if asked, Minato would deny that the slowness in missions appointed for Team Seven was his doing, as he picked and chose through the piles of mission scrolls for ones he had no fear of allowing his team out on.

Obito eventually left with a pout on his lips and grumblings under his not-so quiet breath. Rin followed moments later as she lightly admonished the boy. Minato was left in an amused mood as he stared after the two. It was gone the moment Kakashi started moving away as well.

“Kakashi, stay for a moment,” Minato called out.

Kakashi paused mid-step. “Yes, Sensei,” the teen answered with immediate military compliance. But despite is submissive tone, Kakashi turned towards Minato with caution swimming in the back of his eyes.

“There’s something we need to talk about,” Minato said seriously, the usual jovial aura that was characteristic of him completely gone. The blond looked around them for a second to judge the discretion of the training grounds they were in, before he bore a steely eye on the teen. “I have a feeling you’re more than aware of what I want to talk about,” Minato remarked.

“Perhaps,” Kakashi agreed defiantly, refusing to say anything more.

There was a small stewing storm in the depths of Minato’s chest, as another dash of irritation was added into the growing cocktail of anxiety and fear. Minato ordered out a brusque hiss of: “Kakashi. Strip.”

“Excuse me?” the teen cried incredulously.

Minato crossed his arms imposingly in front of him. “I let you go last time with your flimsy excuse, but you are clearly hurt again.” Kakashi tried to make sounds of protest, but Minato cut him off with a wave of his hand. “Don’t give me that, Kakashi! I saw you wincing when you evaded Obito’s attack. How bad is it?”

Minato could see Kakashi clenching his teeth beneath that navy blue mask of his. “Nothing’s the matter,” the teen tried again, but Minato would have none of it. Not with the memory of his conversation with Kushina fresh on his mind. Was it really the lack of intervention that had been causing this? Would he lose Kakashi by being too conscientious and compliant of the teen’s need for privacy?

“Then you’ll strip and show me you’re not hurt?” Minato asked candidly.

Kakashi hesitated, hand creeping ever so slightly to his stomach, and then Minato saw all he needed to. “Who is doing this to you?” he demanded in a harsh growl.

“What?”

Self-harm, Minato had concluded – had confided fearfully to Kushina – and believed with only the littlest of doubts. Yet, here he was pertinaciously hoping Kakashi would give him a name, because despite all the hints and clues, Minato still couldn’t believe it. This was Kakashi, the boy who’d always managed to stand up tall despite everything thrown at him. “We haven’t gone on missions lately, and I’ve been deliberately giving the team simple training to avoid injury.” Minato lowered his eyes to the stomach Kakashi’s hand was now resting lightly on. “Where are your injuries coming from?”

“I train on my own.”

“Do you always attempt to throw weapons at yourself?” Minato scoffed, knowing full well self-training resulted more with sprains and burns than sharp, deliberate cuts. Especially someone who trained in seclusion like Kakashi.

“Yes.” At Minato’s disbelieving gaze, Kakashi was forced to elaborate. “I spar with a shadow clone.”

Minato’s eyes narrowed. “Which you shouldn’t know as a Chuunin. It is a forbidden jutsu, only taught to Jounin or higher when necessary.”

Kakashi pressed his lips together but didn’t answer.

With his eyes narrowed, Minato shook his head, allowing that particular issue to drop at the moment. Still, he wasn’t done with Kakashi just yet. Not until he saw the wound Kakashi was hiding beneath the fold of his shirt. “I’m still waiting, Kakashi. Clothes off,” Minato commanded in an unchallengeable demand.

There was a long stretch of still silence, disrupted only by the rustling of the evening breeze, as the two shinobi stood faced off against each other. For a second, Minato thought Kakashi would let the wind sweep him away, disappearing with a swirl of leaves in a stubborn attempt to hide his secret to the grave – for Kakashi really looked like he’d rather be written in on insubordination than to let Minato see anything that had to do with the horrors haunting him lately. But slowly and hesitantly, Kakashi eventually discarded his armour and slipped his shirt over his head.

There were minor scratches here and there, like Kakashi had been on a mission even though Minato certainly hadn’t allowed many to be approved of as of late, but what really caught Minato’s eyes were the thick bandages circling around Kakashi’s stomach in a way that spoke of a deep, agonizing injury.

Fingers reached out tenderly towards the bandage, drawn by Minato need to see what was underneath; to see what the marks were made with, who the marks were made by, how long ago, and why Kakashi hadn’t gone to him for help.

The wound, when he saw it, was smaller than the nightmare of Minato’s initial fear. It was slashed almost diagonally along his stomach, but not yet through to the ribcage. It was cleaned and sown together professionally, leaving raw red skin that still managed to hold together even though it had clearly been stretched too ungratefully over the course of the day.

“I have not been informed about this,” Minato murmured apprehensively, knowing he’d explicitly ordered to be told the moment any of his students visited the hospital for any sort of emergency. Despite the Chuunin status all three of his students had obtained, they’d yet to break apart the team, and so Minato was still their Jounin instructor and guardian, responsible for their wellbeing.

A cringing thought suddenly crept into his mind. “Did you stitch it up yourself?” Minato questioned.

Kakashi laid a hand over the wound, as he contemplated the question. His face was blank and unrevealing as he answered at last in a quiet “Yes,” that sounded as much of a truth as it was a lie. There was a small, almost indiscernible crease between his silver brows that was the hint of a frown, as if Kakashi was uncertain himself. That itself was a disconcerting fact because did that mean even Kakashi himself didn’t know how it was stitched up?

Minato shook his head, “Alright,” he accepted at last, knowing that line of questioning would get him nowhere, “But you still haven’t responded, Kakashi – how did you get hurt?”

Kakashi’s eyes rose to the sky in a painfully slow ascend that seemed to take all of the teen’s energy to accomplish. It was done so as a futile endeavour at relaxing, clearly doing nothing to help. “Maybe once upon a time, we might’ve gotten a mission these past few days,” Kakashi suggested wispily, and certainly not a proper answer to Minato’s question, “and I could have easily gotten hurt then,” he continued with low, dragged out murmurs.

“We can divulge into the ‘maybe’s, ‘perhaps’ and ‘what if’s, some other time. It is facts I want, Kakashi,” Minato interjected, impatience beginning to colour his tone.

“The fact is, I received a wound,” was the answer.

“Where?”

Kakashi shot Minato a smile with so much humourless amusement. “I don’t quite remember. A forest somewhere?” he said nonchalantly.

“By who, then?” Minato insisted. He still was not able to fully accept that Kakashi himself was the culprit. He truly couldn’t believe it – not until he heard the confession with his own two ears. But then again, would Kakashi really ever confess?

“So many people, yet none of them, and perhaps never again.” The words flowed from Kakashi’s mouth in a saturnine voice. “Still, they’ll keep on appearing until I’ve lived them all out once more.” Kakashi’s expression never changed, still looking so burdened like it shouldn’t belong to a face as young as his.

“I don’t understand.”

Minato watched Kakashi give an unconcerned shrug. “You don’t need to. Not yet,” he said laconically, swiftly pulling back on his shirt and taking giant steps away before Minato could gather himself once more.

Kakashi was retreating from him, never stopping, and continuing to take further and further steps in Minato’s silence. It hurt the blond to see. “Why won’t you tell me what’s wrong?” Minato whispered into the wind.

Kakashi faltered at the question. He turned his head back to Minato with a glance under long silver eyelashes that only served to accentuate his eyes and made him look smaller, younger, and more delicate than ever. In contrast, there was a cruel, bittersweet twist on his lips. “The whole world is wrong,” were the words Minato thought he heard drifting hollowly back.

The boy was completely gone before the words fully registered in Minato’s mind, and even after they finally did, Kakashi’s words still didn’t make any sense.

 


 

“Maybe I’m the one at fault here?” Minato wondered to his redheaded companion as they sat in his living room that lazy evening. Kushina glanced inquiringly at him, and Minato continued, wrapping his arms around the woman for comfort. “I’ve been talking about not wanting to betray Kakashi’s trust as an excuse not to go to the professionals for help. What’s more important,” the blond asked rhetorically, “Kakashi’s wellbeing for the rest of his life, or me keeping myself from betraying Kakashi? I’m not qualified to try and treat this myself. As long as Kakashi is fine in the end, it doesn’t matter if he hates me, right? I’m only one person of the hundreds he’ll meet in his whole life. He can hate and scorn me all he likes, but eventually he’ll forget about me and live the rest of his life healthy and peacefully. At the end of the day, that’s all I want for Kakashi.”

Kushina’s eyes narrowed down into a frown. “Tell me what happened,” she demanded, refusing to let Minato keep her ignorant of the issue at hand. She turned in Minato’s arm, staring him straight into his wavering cerulean blue eyes.

Minato was more than willing to share – he was at his wit’s end, and any advice on how to continue was more than appreciated. The blond lifted his head, staring into the ceiling, allowing the thoughts he’d been rolling in the back of his mind to surface. “There was another wound, and again, Kakashi tried to hide it. It was bad enough it needed to be stitched up, and if I hadn’t pressed, I would have never known about it.” Minato closed his eyes, recalling the long gash, lined with uniform stitches that looked so much like the only thing keeping Kakashi’s innards from spilling out. “I don’t know what he was thinking – did he not realise we all would’ve help if he’d only asked? Or was that wound something he couldn’t show any of us?”

Kushina leaned forwards to hear his words as Minato finished his sentence in a near-whisper. His pace had also quickly degenerated into slow, hesitating pauses.

“Something he couldn’t show us?” the woman echoed, uncertain of his meaning.

Minato closed his eyes, trying to wash the terrifying thought that entered his mind the moment Kakashi showed him where his wound was. Couple that with Kakashi’s previous words and actions, gave a horrifying conclusion that Minato didn’t dare to speak out.

Kakashi had been at the Hatake Compound. Kakashi finally forgave Sakumo. Kakashi with a wound on his stomach.

There had been an unexpected overlapped image of the two Hatakes that Minato hadn’t been able to shake clear from his mind. Because sudden at that moment, Minato had realised: what if Kakashi wasn’t only harming himself? What if he tried an attempt at seppuku?

What made Kakashi finally forgive his father? Was it because he saw the reasoning behind his father’s action? Because he now understood why his father had to commit suicide? Because he was contemplating it himself?

Assuming he had deduced correctly, Minato didn’t know what scared him more - the idea that his negligence of the situation caused things to spin so quickly out of control, or that Kakashi might attempt it once more because this was clearly a failed attempt.

On the other hand, Kakashi hadn’t even confirmed Minato’s suspicions he was harming himself, so who was to say which conclusion of his, if any, were correctly presumed?

Kushina listened without as word as Minato outlined his concerns. It was soothing to be able to share his worries with someone, but speaking them out gave them a sort of finality Minato hadn’t needed to previously acknowledge when they merely floated as detached inklings in the back of his mind. It was painful to express his ideas, his sentences full of ‘I think’, ‘maybe’, ‘possibly’, and hastily tacked on, ‘completely in my opinion’s, just to never forget the possibility that he could have been wrong and foolish and only stupidly overreacting.

“You know,” Minato finished, “I’m doing what I think is right, but what if I’ve only been making matters worse? I have to be realistic about my lack of knowledge regarding these things.”

Kushina eased her head around until she managed to lean into the nook of Minato’s neck, musing over the problem. She slipped her arm around Minato to pull the man in closer. “How about you talk with Inoichi? He’s part of the T and I division, and they’re trained to understand the psychology of the shinobi mind, right?” the kunoichi suggested in a low, soothing query. “The two of you are friends,” she continued hastily when Minato looked ready to interrupt, “So it won’t look weird if you invite him over, and Kakashi just happens to be over at the same time. He’ll never know.”

Minato was certain Kushina thought her plan was ingenious, but Minato was skeptical. He had a feeling it wouldn’t take Kakashi too long to figure it out something as transparent as that.

But then again, it was better than sitting around twiddling his thumbs worryingly as he’d been doing up until now.

“Why don’t you keep track of Kakashi’s actions for a consultation with Inoichi?” Kushina continued, drawing upon what little she knew about psychotherapy herself. “Just tell him what you’ve attempted so far to make sure you haven’t been making things worse for Kakashi? I’m sure if Inoichi thinks Kakashi actually needs immediate intervention that we haven’t been giving him, he’ll tell you right away. Kakashi will be fine.”

The blond relaxed to her voice. “Where will I ever be without you, Kushina?” Minato asked softly. There was a laugh and a half-hearted snipe in response, but still it was achingly miserable for neither of them could feel anything near lively with Kakashi’s plight still firmly lodged in their minds.

 


 

Minato watched pleasantly as Kakashi ate breakfast across the table from him, in a calm, relaxed slouch that conveyed how much the silver-haired teen trusted being in his house with him.

Minato had invited Kakashi over for breakfast after he caught the boy strolling through the village the other day, admiring the village. He didn’t know Kakashi had an interest in old architectural buildings, but the teen only shrugged and offered him a ‘things change so quickly.’

Minato had taken advantage of Kakashi’s tame mood, and hastily dropped his invitation onto the boy. He was momentarily surprised when Kakashi accepted. Still, the blond knew better than to look the gift horse in the mouth. With a cheer, Minato promised a feast, before laughing it off when the teen fixed an exasperate eye-roll at him at those words.

To be honest, Minato had been stewing all the way until early that morning at Kakashi’s response. The boy was certain to see his promises through, but Minato knew there was a chance Kakashi, given the whole night to rethink his decision, could end up trudging grudgingly over if he regretted his answer.

And so, when Kakashi did arrive without a sulking dark look on his face, Minato was elated. He almost wished he could spend the rest of the day with the teen instead of what he had schemed.

Minato doubted the teen would trust him that much anymore after he manipulated him into a meeting with Inoichi. Still, it had to be done.

When breakfast was over and Minato was loading the dishes into the sink, he turned towards Kakashi with an apologetic tone in his voice, eager to get it over with as quickly as possible. “Kakashi, do you mind staying here a little bit longer?” he asked hopefully, trying not to sound too guilty of the plot he had planned. “I’m expecting a guest, but Kushina asked me to come over for a little while. Could you keep my guest entertained until I return?”

Kakashi fixed his eyes on him, contemplating the question. “Who is it?”

“… Inoichi.” Minato didn’t know if Kakashi could already guess his plot with that single answer, but any sort of amusement quickly slid from Kakashi’s face. “Please?” Minato added to the silence Kakashi gave. When Kakashi finally nodded a yes, however reluctant, Minato beamed. “Thank you!”

Minato was sure he heard an annoyed little ‘tsk’ sound coming from the back of Kakashi’s throat as the teen hopped off his chair and wandered into the living room. But whatever it was, Minato didn’t have time to feel affronted. “That must be him now,” Minato said, to the soft knocking on his front door.

Minato had given the other blond a brief explanation of his suspicions regarding Kakashi’s behaviour patterns the day before. Inoichi had listened with a thoughtful hum, but hadn’t said anything more, wishing to judge for himself before forming his unbiased opinions. Minato understood that was for best, but it didn’t help the bubbling of anticipation that rose in his chest every time Inoichi so much as spoke to him.

At the door, the two nodded silently at each other before Minato showed Inoichi in.

“Kakashi, you remember Yamanaka Inoichi?” Minato introduced, leading the blond to the silver-haired Chunin.

“Hello Kakashi, how are you today?” Inoichi asked, grabbing a chair by the teen.

“Yamanaka-san,” Kakashi greeted casually.

Minato grinned. “Alright, I’ll be off now. Play nice, you two!” Minato called over his shoulder before he slowly slid back towards the front door.

Behind him, Kakashi’s preadolescence voice, no matter how gruff it sounded spoken with dull boredom, was high enough to carry easily through the house. Minato could hear the teen clearly when he spoke. “I see Sensei requested your assistance.”

“Assistance for what? I’m just here to hang out with Minato, but I guess his girlfriend is his first priority, huh?” Inoichi replied good-naturedly.

“We both know that’s not true.”

“All I’ve said is ‘hello’ and ‘how are you’. Don’t you think you’re looking too deeply into my simple greeting?” the Yamanaka defended.

Minato could hear the huffing sigh Kakashi responded with. “Minato-sensei is concerned for my mental wellbeing, and sought your help confirm or refute his assessment.” There was a pause. “I could have Sensei confirm my speculation right now, unless he decides to actually leave instead of eavesdropping on us.”

Minato’s cheeks reddened at Kakashi’s pointed words. He quickened his pace for the door. Behind him, Inoichi sounded calm despite Kakashi’s accusation. He was quiet for a few seconds, likely deliberating his options. “Very well. If you won’t believe otherwise, then shall I assess you, as you claim I am here to do?” Inoichi offered, pausing for Kakashi to ponder over his proposal.

Minato wanted to hear Kakashi’s response but he’d lingered in front of the door for far longer than necessary already. By the time Minato was sure Kakashi had finally made up his mind, Minato was already outside his the entrance, and momentum had already slammed the door behind him.

 


 

The couch was swallowing Minato whole as the blond leaned into it, wondering if he really wanted to hear Inoichi’s final evaluation. Then again, what was the point of setting this whole thing up if he was just going to hold his hands to his ears and pretend nothing was wrong as long as he couldn’t hear it? His desire to help Kakashi was stronger than that cowardly bind that was trying to restrict his voice from vibrating.

“Inoichi,” Minato started weakly, lifting his head to look over to the window seat Inoichi had settled himself down on to watch Kakashi leave. “How did it go?”

“I promised confidentiality,” the man answered, if just slightly apologetic.

“Should I take that as a good sign?” Minato wondered out loud. If Kakashi’s state of mind honestly was being questioned, Inoichi would be doing something about it instead of keeping mum. But then again, how bad would it have to be before Inoichi considered it to be something that Kakashi needed help with? “Nothing specific, then – just tell me your professional opinion,” the blond insisted.

Inoichi considered his wording with a thoughtful hum before finally speaking, “He was very vague the whole time, that boy, but from what we’ve talked about, I know that Kakashi is mentally sound. As a shinobi, that boy is as stable as you or I. He is haunted by the pain and suffering of death and war, but he is determined to fight it through it to achieve peace. Kakashi is adamant about ending the war for the future generations,” Inoichi accentuated pointedly, “and his death would not help him achieve this. That is something you don’t have to worry about.”

Minato let out a sigh in relief, but Inoichi wasn’t finished yet. “Kakashi has seen too many horrors to be still considered a young child. His eyes are dyed with the sight of blood; they’re weary eyes that speak of death and lost innocence. Kakashi’s started this career at a young age. Too young, perhaps, for him to already reach this stage, but it happens to all of us sooner or later,” Inoichi said, his own eyes echoing what he’d described. Minato was certain his own were no different. “I believe some of the fear you feel when you look at Kakashi is from underestimating the experiences he’s endured. He may look like your other thirteen-year-old Chunin, but you have to remember he’s not like them – he’s almost as experienced as we are, and you have to adjust your mentality to judge him as such.”

Minato nodded thoughtfully. Everything Inoichi said had been helpful, but Minato couldn’t help but want more. “You mentioned that Kakashi is mentally stable and that he’s not attempting suicide, but what about all those wounds I noticed?”

“Ah, yes, those,” Inoichi acknowledged before shaking his head slowly, “Kakashi didn’t say much to your suspicions of his self-harm. He denied it, but wouldn’t clarify its origins.” The Yanamaka let out a sigh, “If we give him enough time, he’ll open up about it.” The man looked over at Minato, “Kakashi is your student, and I’m sure if you try, he’ll open up to you more than he ever will for me.”

Minato let out a defeated huff at those words. “But I have tried,” the blond insisted, “and if anything, I think if I badger him any more, he’ll only push me away with a stronger determination than ever. Besides, after this affair, I doubt Kakashi will talk to me again.” That’s what he got for trying to trick Kakashi, no matter how well meaning it was.

Inoichi let out a chuckle, shaking his head. Minato frowned in confusion as the other blond enlightened him with a light smile on his lips. “I think you sorely underestimate the importance of your presence to those children of yours. Kakashi adores you, I could tell right away. I doubt you could make him hate you.” Inoichi got up from his seat with a cracking stretch of his back. He circled around where Minato sat, leaning on the armrest when Minato moved over for him. “Anyways, perhaps a more indirect approach might help?” the man suggested, “Kakashi’s the type with an instinctive ‘I’m fine’ on the tip of his tongue, ready for any occasion. Don’t push him to talk. Hint at it, but don’t push him. Keep the topic present in the background so that whenever he feels comfortable to talk with you about it, there will be a smooth segue between the topics, instead of an intimidating sudden change in topics that he needs to hurtle over first.”

Minato nodded thoughtfully.

Inoichi gave Minato a quick pat on the back for his efforts so far. “Sometimes it’ll take a while to get through to him, but you need to have patience. You have to show him that you’re not making a fuss about it just because he’s there, but because you actually care, and that no matter how long it takes, you’ll never stop caring.”

“And it’ll be fine after that?” Minato wondered with a small voice, hating how ignorant he was of these things.

“No,” Inoichi said, quickly collapsing the feeling of hope that had started to climb its way up from the bottom of Minato’s stomach. “Just like there is no fit-all solution, any plans made have to be constantly evaluated and readjusted. The human mind is a fickle thing,” the man concluded regretfully.

 


 

Minato was waiting for Kakashi when the teen exited the Hokage Tower after a formal promotion to Jounin class. The blond grinned broadly and moved in to ruffle the teen’s silver hair, mildly surprised Kakashi didn’t dodge his reaching hand. “Congratulations!”

“Thank you, Sensei,” Kakashi replied.

“Sorry I couldn’t make it to the actual exam. When I arrived back from my mission yesterday, the exam was already over.”

True to Inoichi’s words, Kakashi hadn’t pushed Minato away when he saw the teen next. There was no dark storm brewing in betrayal when Kakashi had met with Minato the day after Minato’s scheme with Inoichi. There was not even annoyance or bitterness, but instead, the lightest dusting of fondness in Kakashi’s tone when Minato dared to talk to him. Minato had left for his subsequent mission with a lightened heart – still heavy from not being able to do much, but lightened nevertheless knowing he was still allowed to help Kakashi.

“Don’t worry about it,” Kakashi said with a small smile on his lips, “Besides, you’re here now.”

Minato chuckled, scratching his chin. “Well, compared to watching you take on other prominent Chunin, watching you receive the Hokage’s formal blessings is quite lacking,” he sulked good-naturedly.

“Your loss,” Kakashi joked, but Minato could tell his whole heart wasn’t in it.

The two strolled down the street as Minato escorted the teen to where he’d promised was the best ramen he’ll ever taste. “Are you worried about something?” Minato asked beside Kakashi, glancing at the teen from the corner of his eyes. The sky was darkened from the downpour of rain that had only tapered off earlier that day. Minato couldn’t see the teen’s face as well as he’d wished to be able to under the diming sky, but Kakashi’s voice was telling enough. It sounded like he was lost in the road of his life, unable to choose the correct path to proceed down.

Kakashi let the question linger for a couple more steps. “Mmmm, no,” he said finally, “just wary about fate and things set in stone.”

Minato cocked his head at those words, pondering over them in earnest. “Things set in stone? Our destiny is decided by our own choices. Nothing is set in stone,” Minato stated seriously before turning to Kakashi to hear his response.

Kakashi seemed to stifle a chuckle at his words, surprising Minato with that unexpected action.

“I meant what I said, Kakashi!” Minato defended hastily, worried Kakashi was finding amusement in his words because of differing views. “Some people may feel that life never goes their way because that is their fate, but it is not. Nothing predetermines how we live.”

Minato was certain there was a grin under his mask when Kakashi spoke next. “I’ve heard the same thing before.”

“Oh? From whom?”

“Another blond, with straight unyielding ideals much like your own. He’s a stubborn, knuckle-headed shinobi who never gives up on what he believes in.” Kakashi leaned his head back and blew out a long breath. “I could learn a thing or two from him.”

Minato didn’t know who this other person was. The only other blond Minato could recall Kakashi coming into contact with was Inoichi. He highly doubted Kakashi was talking about him though. What other blonds were there in the village? The whole of the Yamanaka clan, and a Konoha shinobi here or there, perhaps. Still, there was no one in that group who Kakashi knew. Or at least no one Minato had seen Kakashi spend any amount of time with.

“Well, if you don’t believe me, you should believe him at least,” Minato decided to reply with, still uncertain who this elusive ‘he’ was.

“But if I can’t determine he’ll change his choices in life, can I still change his fate?” The stress on the pronoun indicated to Minato Kakashi was talking about another person this time. Really, when did Kakashi get to know so many people?

Minato slipped his hands into his pockets, leaning forwards, bending until his gaze was near parallel to Kakashi’s. “Who are you talking about now?” he asked curiously, trying not to show his burning desire to know. Minato had a sudden feeling these were the people who had been the curse of Kakashi’s plummeting moods.

“A wayward friend,” was the only detail Kakashi would give.

“I don’t know how I feel about you associating with such people.”

“Don’t worry, I’m not. Or maybe I am already, and I just don’t know it yet,” Kakashi replied. Minato stared blankly at Kakashi, wondering if his words were supposed to make sense. The teen looked over for a second before brightening up suddenly, crinkling his eyes into a smiling squint. Minato tensed for a second at the oddness of it, too used to Kakashi’s impassive face. “Aaaa, or maybe I’m just speaking nonsense. You can attest to the fact I don’t have many friends in the first place,” Kakashi said with an offhanded shrug.

Minato gaped after Kakashi as the kid turned away, seemingly distracted at the sight of Ichiraku around the corner. Yes, he could attest Kakashi didn’t have many friends, but it didn’t seem like the teen had been lying either.

If the swiftness Kakashi was moving at to reach the ramen bar was any indication, that particular topic was closed for discussion. With a stretching sigh, Minato strode after the teen’s retreating figure. One day he would get it all out from Kakashi, he was sure. Compared to the muteness Kakashi had addressed him questions with previously, so many months back, things were already taking a step in the positive direction.

The lights of the Ichiraku were blinding as Minato finally reached the bar and lifted the noren to join Kakashi on a stool. “I’ve ordered for you,” Kakashi said as soon as Minato sat down. “Pork ramen, right?”

Minato nodded, mildly surprised Kakashih remembered his favourite type, before his eyes finally adjusted to the light. He was able to see cuts and bruises littered all over the silver-haired teen that he couldn’t before under the darkening evening sky.

Minato stiffened, stool squeaking as he spun on it. “Kakashi! Did you get all this from the Jounin Exam?” the man exclaimed, reaching over to pull the boy’s crossed arms apart and categorising each cut. He supposed every now and then a Chunin would manage to come out of it this injured. Even so, Kakashi would not be one of them, not with Kakashi’s astonishing skills.

“It was competitive,” Kakashi replied simply.

Minato’s only response was a bland: “It looks like you competed twice.”

“I does, doesn’t it?” Kakashi said with an unusual air of amusement at Minato’s observation. “I thought the same thing,” he muttered, only an octave away from humourlessly stating it so.

Their orders arrived at that moment, so Minato reluctantly let Kakashi off. Instead, he took to silently projecting his disapproval at Kakashi’s meaningless reply with a single raised eyebrow. In response, Kakashi shrugged, breaking apart his chopsticks and pulling his bowl of miso ramen closer to himself.

Minato followed suit. In between slurps of noodle and broth, he spoke. “I’m sure the Hokage mentioned it to you already, but he’s assigning your first Jounin mission tomorrow. Are you sure you’re up to it in that state?” he waited a moment before turning to Kakashi, who, by then, had his mask covering up his face once more.

“Yes,” Kakashi said succinctly, eyes bearing deep into Minato, as if threatening him to relinquish this mission from him if he dared.

Minato gave a thoughtful hum before nodded in response. He was wary about giving Kakashi such a responsibility after these discomfiting few months, but it’d been a while since he’d seen Kakashi that determined about something so relatively mundane. “Very well,” Minato agreed with only the mildest tone of reluctance.

And so the next day, Team Minato met up on an empty training field just by the village gates.

Kakashi was early, Rin was on time, and Obito was late, as usual.

Minato watched Obito stumbling into their sight, hair littered with stray leaves and mud on the cuff of his pants. The goggled boy faltered in step as Kakashi turned towards him. And then as unbelievable as it was, Kakashi ignored him, opting to turn his back on Obito instead.

“Uhh, sorry I’m late,” Obito apologised to his silent greeting.

Minato stalled warily, hoping for a second Kakashi was waiting for the right moment to spin back onto Obito with a snarl on the tip of his tongue. Not that Minato wanted his students to fight, but it was one of the few things he could rely on to stay constant, no matter how the rest of the world changed. ‘Had been’ being the key words now.

When it was clear that Kakashi had no intention of acknowledging his teammate’s presence, Minato answered. “Don’t worry about it, Obito.”

Rin nodded. “Kakashi’s not mad today, right?” she said cheerfully as she glanced over at the silver-haired teen, “because today’s a very important day!” Minato hoped that was the only reason. Or maybe his newly appointed status as a Jounin convinced Kakashi to act more mature?

There was a noncommittal sound from the back of Kakashi’s throat which Minato took as a confirmation.

“Today is Kakashi’s first mission as an official Jounin,” the blond declared just to make it clear. Mainly, it was for Obito’s sake, but no one needed to know that. Digging into his pocket, Minato hooked out a three-pronged kunai, offering it to Kakashi. “Here’s a special kunai from me to commemorate,” he said with a wink, mildly disappointed the teen didn’t respond to the oddly shaped weapon. That boy never reacted the way Minato wanted him to.

“Yup!” Rin grinned. She rummaged through the small pouch she had on her before pulling out a closed package. “This is from me,” she said. From what Minato could tell, the small bundle in her hands was a personal medical pouch. It was just the thing Minato expected from the sweet, ever-caring Rin. She’d taken Kakashi’s character into consideration, knowing silver-haired teen wouldn’t like anything impractical.

Kakashi accepted it humbly.

Obito was standing next in line, but Kakashi didn’t seem to notice him, busy putting away his gifts. Kakashi walked past Obito without sparing him a glance.

“Hey, I have something for you too!” Obito finally snapped when it was clear he was being deliberately ignored.

Minato saw the odd way Kakashi froze at those words - the teen’s feet jerked to a halt, and even Kakashi’s breathing seemed to slow until Minato wasn’t certain if Kakashi remembered his body’s need to inhale. Nothing happened for the next few seconds as Kakashi seemed to painfully digest those words. Slowly, the teen’s left hand crept up to rub his eye, and then he shot Obito a look that was equal parts loathing and longing. “I don’t want anything from you.”

Obito bristled. “The hell, Kakashi. See if I’m ever nice to you again!” the teen growled out irascibly.

Kakashi didn’t answer.

“You made me waste the whole day trying to find this for you, and you’re not even grateful!” Winding up his arm, Obito launched a lumpy brown package straight into Kakashi’s chest, stomping away. It was instinct that had Kakashi catching the present before it fell, but the way the teen delicately held it in his two hands like it was something precious was not.

“Thank you,” Kakashi murmured softly, but Obito had already long stomped away. Minato had a feeling Kakashi had timed it just so.

Still, there was a time and place to dwell on such things. Right before a mission, when the village’s future was at stake, was not one of those times. Dusting off his pants, Minato pulled a scroll out of his flak jacket. “Rin, Boys,” he called out, raising his voice, “Gather. I’m explaining the mission now.” Another day would Minato muse about Kakashi’s odd need to irk Obito when he clearly was happy that the Uchiha celebrated his promotion with him.

Minato dove into the details of the mission instead. He pointed out and circled areas on the map he pulled out, observing his team’s understanding every other sentence. “We will be travelling together until we reach the checkpoint at Hidden Grass. Thereafter, we will be splitting into two groups. Team Kakashi, you will be handling the destruction of Kannabi Bridge in order to halt Iwa’s supply route. I will be heading off to join the battlefront with the other Jounin there.”

Kakashi seemed mildly distracted as Minato was explaining this to his kids, but this was Kakashi Minato was talking about; the teen had likely gone over all this information the night before to prepare for his role as Commander.

“Are you ready?” Minato asked the collective group when he was finished his explanation. Sometime between Minato’s briefing, Kakashi had replaced his tender hold on Obito’s present with Minato’s own. The teen’s hand was reached into his weapons pouch, but Minato could see the peeking points of the three-pronged kunai he had given him, clutched in Kakashi’s concealed hand. For what reason, though, Minato couldn’t tell.

“Yes’sir,” the teen said, with his hand closed tight.

Minato gave a nod. “Then let’s move out.”

It wasn’t long until the four man team passed the Fire Country border and into Hidden Grass. Hidden Grass was neutral land, stuck between Konoha and Iwa’s war. The Konoha team had no worries of Grass ninja attacking them, but Iwa ninja hidden around Grass’ land was another story.

They were cutting through a shaded forest, weaving under long reaching branches and curling bushes, when Kakashi strolled up beside Minato, a soft, “There’s roughly twenty enemies surrounding us,” spoken to the blond in the casual lull of someone merely discussing the weather.

Minato wondered when Kakashi learned to be so calm. The kid was intelligent, but his utter need to prove himself worthy despite of his age made Kakashi unpredictably hot-headed in the prospect of battle. Minato half expected Kakashi to have declared he would take them all out himself already, and yet all the teen did was glance up at him as if awaiting orders.

“Show me you are ready to be Commander,” Minato challenged.

Kakashi discreetly led the group to a well-covered area by the roots of Hidden Grass’ gigantic trees. “They’re likely Iwa’s scouters,” Kakashi reasoned logically. Minato had a feeling Kakashi was talking out loud for Rin and Obito’s sake. “If they meet a threat, they’re meant to assess the situation and send back a runner while stalling them. We need take them all down swiftly. Our mission will be in danger if even one manages to slip away. We had no time for mindless brawls.”

Kakashi turned to the three, “That being said, Minato-sensei and I will take care of them. Rin, stay here – save your energy in case we’re injured. Obito, stay here and watch Rin’s back, and …” The teen tilted his head thoughtfully, the smallest of smiles behind his mask, “… and don’t cry.”

Obito’s indignant howl was muted behind Rin’s hands, and Kakashi and Minato slipped away.

“Those were sound orders,” Minato commented, “Other than riling Obito up at the end.”

Kakashi shrugged. “It was a nostalgic memory,” he said, before holding out his hand. The teen alternated between looking at his hand and the possible locations of the enemy surrounding them as if calculating distances and time. At last he turned towards the blond. “Can you watch my back?” he asked, nothing like the past Kakashi who would rather shoulder the whole thousand tonne world on his sole back than to show any weakness.

“Of course,” Minato said immediately. Kakashi’s hand swirled in chakra at his words, tingling the air in electricity as birds chirped in their ears.

“I hope you’re fast,” Kakashi said, sounding so teasing. And then he shot off.

Down went the enemy nin in the hands of the Kakashi’s glowing ball of chakra. One by one the enemy dropped.

“I’m right behind you,” Minato murmured to Kakashi to remind him of his presence, indirectly informing the teen he was able to keep up with Kakashi’s pace and thus able to watch his back. Kakashi had grunted back in response, clearly never considered otherwise.

The battle was over in record time, terminated by the seemingly continuous streaks of white and yellow. Minato was hesitant to even call it a battle anymore – more like a one-sided encounter.

“Kakashi, good job,” Minato said as they skidded to a stop, assessing their blood spotted clothing. Minato wiped a bloody kuani on the grass as he regarded his student. “However, I don’t recommend you using that jutsu if you don’t have backup with you to keep them from retaliating first. It’s fast and has a powerful destructive force, but if you had been out there alone, you would have ran straight into your enemies’ counters without being able to stop in time.”

“Of course,” was Kakashi’s knowing nod. Minato supposed he did know, considering he had asked Minato to aid him before rushing out.

“Rin, Obito, good job to the both of you as well,” Minato added when they reached the other two.

“One man tried to get us, but Obito took care of him,” Rin reported as she was bandaging up the raven-haired boy’s small cut. Minato glanced over at Kakashi for injuries. Blood looked like it was dripping down his right arm from under his short sleeve, and yet his shirt hadn’t been cut. Minato could only presume it was splatter from enemy wounds. Other than that, Kakashi looked fine.

Obito nodded with a boasting grin, “I’m Uchiha Obito. That man was nothing against me!” He shot Kakashi a glare, “I told you I wouldn’t cry.”

Minato watched as Kakashi’s face softened, before he slipped his hands into his pockets and assumed an uncaring slouch that was quickly echoed by his expression. “Whatever,” he said, but Minato thought he sounded rather pleased.

The glowing sun in the sky seemed to drop quickly after that, forcing the team to set up camp. The night was cold and silent, and over much too soon. Minato laid in a contemplative silence as he thought, eyes seeking out the newly risen sun. The rise of the morning sun brought along a new day - one where Minato had to let his student depart as they diverged into two separate units.

He was wary – of course he was, those kids of his were so young and impulsive, and brought heaps of parental protectiveness out of him – but Minato knew he couldn’t coddle them forever.

Besides, Minato had growing hope everything might actually work out – Kakashi seemed more level-headed recently, if their last battle was anything to go by. Obito had a grudging respect for the other boy after seeing Kakashi’s talent as Commander. And if they fought, Rin would always be there to keep her boys in order.

Surely nothing could go wrong?

“Alright you three, this is where we split.”

“Yes’sir!” the three answered back, looking so determined and strong, and more mature than the thirteen years they really were.

Minato glanced over at Kakashi, who seemed so fidgety (nerves, Minato was certain – this was his first Jounin mission after all), and grinned comfortingly over at the kid. Kakashi kept his head ducked, letting his silver bangs shadowed over his eyes. “Make sure to keep your team safe, Commander,” Minato said.

“I will.”

It was only when they’d finally split, Minato casually crossing around Kakashi so he could give Rin and Obito a final reassuring pat on the back, that Kakashi looked up as he unconsciously tracked the blond’s abrupt movement. It was then that Minato noticed the pale line crossing vertically across Kakashi’s left eye. It was unassuming, like a scratch on the skin with dull fingernails that dug a little too harshly. And yet Minato had this odd, odd feeling it was growing darker and darker with every passing second - like an ominous premonition slowly catching up with them.

 


 

The back of Minato’s mind was occupied by the presence of one, and only one thing: the tug of the seal on the three-pronged kunai he’d given Kakashi. As confident as he was of his student’s skills, he was equally as fearful of the dangers they were in. In the past he was always there with them to save them in case anything went wrong. But this time, they had separate missions.

Kakashi’s mission wasn’t exactly high-risk, especially with Minato’s end drawing attention away from the Kannabi Bridge, but still, could his kids handle it if there were more enemy scouters than the small group they’d encountered by the border of Grass?

The way Kakashi had been lately was the root cause of Minato’s uncertainty. Minato felt so inadequate at judging his team’s chances with his data on one of his students so incomplete. Should he have declined the mission for Kakashi and waited until the teen looked better, despite what Kakashi had wanted?

But then again, he did already seem better – especially compared to how he had been months ago.

Ever since Inoichi’s involvement, Kakashi seemed to be truly pulling through from whatever plight had hailed him. Maybe he was finally healing after given the chance to unload to the blond. Or perhaps after that day, Kakashi realised just how worried Minato had to have been, in order for him to call in Inoichi for help, and this calmness from Kakashi was just him trying so much harder to hide his pain from the world.

Minato would never know.

The ground under Minato shook suddenly at that last thought.  With a quick shake of his head, Minato pulled himself back into the present. He dodged falling rocks as he made his way towards one of the Konoha men stationed around.

“You’re here at last!” the man cried in visible relief. He launched into a brief explanation of all Minato needed to know, but it was nothing new. A quick survey of the situation before him told Minato just as much as the man’s next words. “There’re around 50 enemies left out there. In comparison, there only four of us left alive.”

It was a grim state, but that was why he was here to help. Minato would be no use if he kept obsessing over his three students instead of the present.

Pulling out his bundle of three-pronged kunai, each one painfully drawn up the day before his mission for this reason exactly, Minato allowed the four remaining men to split them up between them. “Everyone,” Minato commanded in a quiet but powerful demand, “throw these kunai at the enemy side together. I’ll take care of it from there.”

Metal glistened under the sunlight as the kunai arched through the air, one after another, like a flock of metallic birds taking flight.

“Watch carefully. Don’t blink,” one of the men said from where he was crouching as Minato he walked up to the ledge of the boulder they were taking cover behind, hand curled in a seal. “Now we get to see the fight of Konoha’s ‘Yellow Flash’.”

At those words, Minato vanished.

Knowing the moniker “Yellow Flash” was one thing, but no enemy lived long enough to be able to pass on the message that those special kunai the Konoha shinobi threw their way played any role in Minato’s attack. As such, the kunai were overlooked as feeble attempts to intimidate the enemy. When they least expected it, Minato appeared.

“Hey, wha-“

“Watc-“

Minato weaved under hastily thrown weapons as he sliced his way through the horde of shinobi. No one had their chance to finish their sentences before the blond turned their way.

“Where’d he-“

By the time they registered his presence near them, Minato had already leaped to the next seal, striking each of them down with swift, precise cuts until no one was left. 

Within seconds, the other four Konoha shinobi rushed into action. “Naeri, Hotoru, Utaki, spread out – make sure that’s the last of them,” the fourth Konoha shinobi called out.

It was only a little later, certain there had been no survivors left alive to rely any information back to their village, that the men worked on clearing the battle area. Utaki had struck up a conversation with Minato while they worked, visibly awed at the blond’s single-handed defeat. “It took a bit of work to modify–“ Minato was saying casually, before he cut off mid word.

“Minato-san?” Utaki probed hesitantly. With a shake of his head, Minato offered the man a smile before quickly dismissing himself. Over by the mess Minato had caused in the body-littered field, Minato sought out the apparent leader in charge of the remaining four men.

“Should we be expecting another wave of attack?” Minato wondered.

The man shook his head. “No, if our information is correct, this is their last line of defence in this area,” the man surveyed the ground with narrowed eyes. “This territory is under our command now.” A smirk twitched on his lip, “Not that we need it, but as long as they think this was our main objective, everything is under control.”

Minato contemplated this before he gave a nod. “Then, if that is all, please allow me to depart.” After the last of the enemy bodies fell, the Konoha shinobi had been busy retrieving the blond’s scattered three-pronged kunai. Most were sealed back into the scroll Minato had brought to the battle with him. Minato slipped his hand into his pocket and extracted a kunai he had yet to put away. “I can leave you with this should anything unexpected occur, however, there is something else I need to take care of at this time.”

“Ah,” the man murmured, rather understandingly, a soft smile on his lips, “I hear your students are on their first mission alone?”

“Yes.”

“Well, we really aren’t expecting anything now that we’ve managed to take over this area. Go ahead to your kids.”

With distracted nod, Minato focused back in his mind, tracking down that sudden spark he felt that indicating Kakashi had thrown that special kunai of his. There was only one reason why Kakashi would even consider using such an odd projectile he wasn’t familiar with, and that was because Kakashi was desperate. Anything that made a prodigy shinobi like Kakashi desperate was never a good sign.

In a flash of yellow, the scenery in front of Minato changed.

Minato had held himself tense and ready the moment he activated his Hiraishin seal. He’d expected to have to appear in the middle of the battle, with men surrounding him at all sides. Stray kunai tended to be littered on the ground directly between the two opposing sides, after all.

Minato didn’t expect his three-pronged kunai to be thrown way, way off into the clearing. He didn’t expect it to be so well hidden behind the throngs of trees, giving him time to survey the situation before forced to storm in to help his precious students.

On the field in front of him, in front of a collapsed cave, stood his three kids. They were standing in a defensive formation, back against back against back. Obito and Rin seemed relatively fine, if not breathing heavily from the exertion. Then again, with the amount of Rock-nin surround them their tight little circle, who wouldn’t? Kakashi was furthest away from Minato, with his back turned his way. The blond couldn’t see how the prodigy looked, but Kakashi seemed like the most composed one in the situation they were thrown in. Somehow Kakashi didn’t look as desperate as Minato was led to believe.

Then, Kakashi flinched suddenly. His movement flowed stiffer for all of a second, before the teen visibly shook it off. Minato’s eyes narrowed. Kakashi was clearly hurt and laboriously trying not to show it. Who knew how long the silver-haired teen had been holding in that pain?

That was enough for Minato.

With the element of surprise and his speed on his side, Minato lunged for the enemy nin. A cut to the throat brought three down, before the rest of them finally caught sight of Minato.

Doton: Retsudo Tenshou,” one of them cried, slamming his hands onto the ground. The field shook and crumbled, forcing Minato to leap away from the trees as some tipped his way.

Still, that was no hindrance to Minato.

Chakra surged down to his fingertips as Minato rushed through a few hand seals. “Kaze no Yaiba.” A gust of wind pushed the approaching Rock nin back, slicing biting slashes in each blast like invisible blades.

With flung kunai amidst all the dust, Minato was lost from the Rock nin’s view. Before they could locate him, Minato had already swung his leg and knocked out yet another Iwa nin with a solid, cracking kick to the neck. He spun in spot, jabbing another who was lunging for him. Minato launched the man backwards with a charka enhanced punch, catching two with the thrown body, before relocating himself with the Hiraishin.

Lost from their view once more, Minato quickly dispatched a few more of the enemy nin. It didn’t take long for them to drop like flies, one after another, after another. There was a reason why Minato was considered a Hokage candidate. These grunts were nothing against him.

Within moments, Minato picked off the last of the remaining Rock ninjas, throwing them down on the growing heap on the floor with a careless flick of his wrist.

“Sensei!” Obito cried out in relief.

Now no longer trapped in by the enemies, the three kids moved out of their formation, hurrying over to where Minato stood.

“Minato-sensei, what happened to your mission?” Rin questioned, ever the sensible girl.

Minato gave her a comforting smile. “Don’t worry about that. I finished it up before I decided to come over to check on you three.”

There was a quiet snort from Kakashi as the teen strode past the right of group to pick up the stray three-pronged kunai from where it was embedded on the ground. Somehow, Minato suddenly had a feeling Kakashi had knew exactly what that kunai did, and knew Minato’s appearance back with them was more than mere good timing on his part.

Minato kept an eye on Kakashi’s back as the kid carefully cleaned his present before storing away the kunai so much more delicately than one would for a carelessly thrown weapon. Yes, Minato decided, Kakashi definitely knew.

Casually, Kakashi wandered off, keeping a suspiciously odd distance between Minato and himself. The blond frowned when Kakashi turned again, head continuously tilted off to the side. Minato suddenly realised Kakashi had yet to face him head on this entire time, always pivoting his body so that Minato stood by his right side.

“Kakashi,” Minato ordered, beckoning the boy with one hand, “Come here for a second.”

The teen stilled.

Slowly, ever-so slowly, Kakashi spun on his heel. When Kakashi faced him, Minato could finally see what was wrong. Kakashi’s hitai-ate was pulled down into a tilt, covering his left eye. Perhaps if that was all, Minato wouldn’t have frozen as rigidly as he did.

The problem was, the blue cloth of the headband was so much darker than Minato remembered it to be. It was saturated in blood.

“What happened?” Minato demanded immediately, eyes burning on his young Jounin.

“Nothing,” Kakashi answered defiantly.

Beside Minato, Obito flinched at the sight of Kakashi. “Eh? You got injured? When did anyone cut you?” Obito cried out in horror, his own two eyes wide with surprise. “I didn’t notice anything!” The Uchiha hunched his shoulders, hand pressed on his head to think. Minato could tell that no matter how hard the teen thought, he couldn’t remember when Kakashi was hurt. That was interesting to note – had Kakashi been that good at hiding his wounds? Even in heat of battle?

Rin rushed up to Kakashi without another word, one hand already rummaging through her medical pouch. The silver-haired jounin twisted to dodge her.

Where Rin had failed, Minato tried, reaching out with long finger towards the tilted headband. Minato felt the wet, oozing warmth of soaked blood, and saw the peeking jagged ends of a deep, unforgiving cut when he neared, stalling him in shock long enough for Kakashi to jerk his head back.

Don’t touch,” Kakashi hissed, whether in pain or annoyance, Minato couldn’t tell. Kakashi shook his head clear, before taking control of his voice once more. “I’ll deal with it later – we haven’t finished the mission yet,” he offered in a calmer tone.

“Kakashi –“ Minato started.

The teen cut him off with a bark of: “I’m Commander. This is my mission. My word is law.”

Minato couldn’t complain - he was the one who appointed Kakashi as the Commander after all. “Alright, fine. Tell me what happened along the way,” Minato said instead, challenging Kakashi to deny him that.

The teen didn’t bother to answer, leading the way to the bridge in large, determined strides that had the other two Chunin racing to catch up. Kakashi seemed eager to escape something. Perhaps it was the scene that had so nearly downed his teammates and almost failed his first ever Jounin mission. Whatever it was, Kakashi seemed so eager to leave and never lay eyes on that crumbled cave ever again.

When Minato was starting to get the impression that Kakashi was trying to escape not only the cave, but his questioning as well, the boy turned towards him, never breaking stride. “There were complications,” he said vaguely – not that Minato hadn’t already seen for himself.

“We took care of it!” Obito cut in, drawing Minato’s attention. “I mean, at the end, when there were like a hundred guys out there, we wouldn’t have made it without your help, Sensei, but everything before we handled amazingly!”

“Roughly fifteen,” Kakashi corrected idly, shooting Obito a dry glance. “Don’t exaggerate.”

The Uchiha huffed and crossed his arm. Behind Minato, Rin shook her head before clearly explaining what had truly happened, filling in the blanks that came with the Uchiha’s embellished and over-exaggerated tale. She explained, regrettably, how she had been kidnapped while Kakashi and Obito had been distracted – though Minato had a feeling she truly meant ‘when Kakashi and Obito had been fighting’.

Obito happily jumped into the tale whenever he could, cheering of his moments. “I took care of one of those guys by myself. He was so close to hitting me, but I beat him in the end. All by myself. The second guy, uhh, I was close. But anyways, I was still awesome. And then we got into the cave where they held Rin, and kicked some butt.”

Minato looked at Kakashi who was strangely quiescent throughout the whole debriefing. “Nothing to add, Commander?” Minato asked, reminding him of his role. “Don’t you want to tell us the truth before Obito decides to claim credit for all the fights?” Minato added jokingly as Obito whined beside him.

A dark grey-blue eye flickered up to him, held Minato’s gaze for a short minute, before Kakashi squeezed it shut. “The truth?” he scoffed.

Minato didn’t like that tone. “What wrong with the truth?” the blond asked.

There was another long pause. “The truth was that I watched him hit Obito,” the teen finally confessed, painfully and slow, “I watched Obito get hit. I …” Kakashi looked away, but not before Minato saw his glassy, unfocused eye. Eyes that reminded the blond so much of the teen when Minato first recalled realising something was wrong with Kakashi. “I was prepared to let him die.”

Minato held himself back from reacting to those words, desperately telling himself not to judge before Kakashi could explain his reasoning to him. He knew Obito’s naïve behaviour tended to irk Kakashi, if their constant bickering was any indication, but ‘die’ was not a word the teen casually threw around.

There had to be something deeper to it than that.

Beside him, Obito was yelling. “’Prepared to let him die’? Let who die? Me? What the hell, Kakashi. You better not mean me, you bastard!”

“No, no!” Rin was crying between the two boy, when it was clear Kakashi had nothing more to say to them. “That’s not true, Obito,” Rin placated, eyes urging Kakashi to speak up and fix the problem. “Kakashi was working together with you to finish off that guy who kidnapped me, remember? Kakashi wouldn’t have been working with you if he wanted you dead.”

Obito huffed, but stopped shouting. He gave Kakashi a narrow glare, looking like he was thinking hard, but perhaps, Minato thought, he was making time - waiting for Kakashi to agree with Rin’s words. Kakashi only looked away from them, eye glued on the ground, the sky, the trees beside them, everything but the group itself.

“Ehhh, I guess so,” Obito finally acknowledged, kicking a stray pebble at Kakashi, watching as it bounced off the other boy’s leg in his small act of vengeance. “Geez, Bakakashi, pretending you’re heartless doesn’t make you sound cooler, you know? Just more of a jerk. Don’t tell me that’s why you’ve been a jerk all these years.”

Kakashi gave a chuckle at those words, low and short. Minato wished he could delude himself into naively accepting Obito’s assumption, or to think that Kakashi’s chuckle was much, much happier than it sounded. Because if he was honest with himself, Kakashi sounded more like he was choking back a sob, and Minato didn’t know if he wanted to hear Kakashi’s real reasons after all.

 


 

The crumbling remains of Kannabi Bridge was a consoling sight to Minato. Or rather it should have been, signalling the end of his precious students’ first solo team mission. However, the sight held nothing but uncertainty, for even after this crucial mission was over, there still was heaps upon heaps of questions and problems that had yet to be solved. If he was honest with himself, Minato was afraid of solving them, fearful of the conclusions it would lead to.

Minato took advantage of Obito’s obvious infatuation with Rin, letting the two of the wander slightly ahead as the four of them made their way back to Konoha. Minato fell into step with Kakashi. Sometime over the night it took to reach the Bridge, Kakashi had replaced his saturated headband with a clean, washed one - one that thankfully lacked the stomach-curling scent of dank, drying blood.

With Minato walking so grimly beside him, eyes burning holes in the back of Kakashi’s head, the silver-haired teen could understand what he wanted before he even spoke. Kakashi started talking before Minato could figure out a way to bring up the topic without seeming too abrupt.

“It’s not like I wanted Obito to die,” Kakashi said firmly, though sounding like he wasn’t certain why he was explaining himself. “But I didn’t step in to assist him either. I stood and watched Obito fight alone – I wanted him to determine the outcome of his own future.” Kakashi’s voice slipped into a hushed murmur, so disbelieving in the words he spoke next, even if it was said by himself, “and yet I couldn’t stop my body from moving and stopping the final fatal blow.”

There seemed to be a story behind Kakashi’s words.  A story only Kakashi himself knew, as he offered Minato nothing but fragments and fragments of an incomplete puzzle compiled with so many holes that the overall picture was nothing but a fool’s dream.

“Hesitation,” Minato proposed, trying to fill in the gaps with anything he could scour up. Eventually, he would hit something close – something that would have Kakashi offering more pieces. “It’s instinctive to falter at the sight of a close one injured. It’s not something we every think about, and suddenly bombarded with the idea we might have to live without them makes us hesitate in a momentary panic.  You were scared.”

Kakashi pondered the excuse Minato provided him with. “Scared,” the teen repeated.

“Weren’t you?” Minato asked, suddenly hoping Kakashi would just say ‘yes’ so that he could stop worrying about things that made his head spin and heart clench in anxiety for his precious student.

Scared.” Kakashi contemplated the idea much more profoundly than Minato intended the question to be. “I suppose. In a way,” the teen finally answered. “I was scared of what would happen to Obito. Scared of what he would become.”

Minato tried to make sense of the odd wording, because Kakashi had a reason to say it the way he did, didn’t he? “Become? Another name on the memorial stone, you mean?” the blond clarified.

Kakashi looked past Minato’s broad shoulders, staring into the trees beyond, remembering another forest in their home village that housed a sleek black stone with names upon names carved on its face. “A name discarded on the stone,” the teen spat bitterly.

Minato took in Kakashi’s angry words with a frown. Discarded? “They may no longer have use for their names anymore, but it is hardly discarded. Just because they’re gone doesn’t mean they’ve ceased to exist in our minds. I’m sure the deceased appreciate it when you spread their names, their victories, and their ideals to the younger generations.”

Kakashi scoffed a quiet “If only,” before letting out a sigh.

“I was prepared to let him die for the world to prosper,” Kakashi breathed out, not even paying Minato any heed anymore. He seemed deep inside himself, talking out lingering whispers meant for no ears but his own. “I wasn’t planning to interfere. But in the end, it seems I am driven by an idiot’s nindo, even if the idiot doesn’t believe in it himself anymore.”

Minato didn’t know who the ‘idiot’ was, but he didn’t like the hush way Kakashi was talking; the way he seemed to waver in the wind, like he could dissolve into wisps of untouchable haze from the slightest gust and be lost from them forever. “In the end, you saved Obito, and that’s all that matters, isnt’ it?” Minato replied softly.

Kakashi hummed thoughtfully, before allowing his head to dip into a small nod. “In the end, Obito is still the Obito I remember. I can’t fault him for things yet to come; for things I won’t allow to occur again.”

There was something mystifying about that sentence, but underneath the baffling confusion, Minato saw one brightly glowing fact that overshadowed it all. Minato smiled softly, “You care a lot about Obito.” They’d grown so quickly over the years, from classmates, to teammates, to friends, to family.

“Yes,” Kakashi agreed without a pause.

“Then don’t say you would have watched him die. We are not alone for a reason. If Obito is dying, save him, and never give up on him. That’s what friends are for.”

“Those who disobey the rules are trash, but those who abandon their friends are worse than trash.”

“That’s right,” Minato agreed, surprised at the words that seemed so reminiscent of something that would have come out of Obito’s mouth than Kakashi’s own.

“I didn’t give up on him,” Kakashi told Minato. Or rather, he was still talking to himself. “But he gave up on me. But maybe that was my fault; I didn’t show him I cared until it was much too late.”

Talking to Kakashi was an art form these days, trying futility to make sense of everything that didn’t, and still be able to answer the teen with meaningful responses. “It’s never too late for anything,” Minato said, “It’s better late than never,” to which Kakashi nodded understandingly.

 


 

“Kakashi, be sure to have your eye checked, alright?” Rin said before she left for home.

Kakashi nodded wordlessly at her as the Konoha Gate guards waved him off after checking his identification. Obito bumped into the other teen as he scrambled past. “I’m heading home too. You’re taking care of the report, right Commander?” the Uchiha smirked, laughing gleefully at his own freedom while Kakashi was stuck with the task.

“When you lead a team of your own, you’ll be taking care of the report as well,” Minato lectured.

“Yeah, yeah,” Obito laughed, skipping off. “See you tomorrow, Sensei!”

“See you.”

Minato let himself chuckle out loud at Obito’s antics, before he turned back to his remaining student. Kakashi was quiet, staring at Obito’s retreating back in a wavering look of relief, blinking rapidly like he was trying to convince himself of the reality of the sight before him.  He stood an hour of a minute too long with his eyes latched on the empty space Obito had occupied minutes before.

“You feeling alright?” Minato asked softly.

The boy shook his head. “I’ve dreamed about this,” Kakashi said quietly, “but I always wake up by this point.”

“You’re awake now.”

“Am I?” the boy wondered distantly – there was nothing of belief or disbelief in his voice, only the undertone of someone flowing with what he was given. The teen rubbed a gloved hand across his forehead, before kneading his knuckles in slow circles around his temples. “I need to think,” he said at last to Minato’s silent scrutiny. “I need to plan.” Without dismissing himself, the teen wandered off.

Minato frowned at the direction he was heading. “Wrong way, Kakashi.”

“I live that way,” the boy said dully, waving a hand vaguely over to the direction of his apartment.

“Shouldn’t you be heading towards the Hospital?” Minato said pointedly, staring at the tilted headband Kakashi had tried his hardest to make them forget about.

“I have a report due.”

“That can wait,” Minato cut in, “It has been days since your eye was injured, and you still haven’t let any of us treat it.”

“I took care of it myself.” Kakashi trying too hard resisting such a simple thing. What was wrong with his eye that he was so adamant not to let Minato see?

“Let me see your eye,” Minato demanded.

“No.”

Minato couldn’t understand the problem. Was Kakashi afraid Minato would pull him out of duty if it turned out Kakashi was half-blind? Was Kakashi afraid how it would affect his shinobi career? But that was silly since greater shinobi had dealt and overcome losses in function and mobility more extensive than this. “It was bleeding, Kakashi,” Minato pointed out helplessly, wishing he knew the workings of Kakashi’s intricate mind. “How badly cut was it? Let me make sure it’s not infected, at the very least.”

“It is fine. It’ll be stitched up,” was the only response Kakashi would give him, unyielding as he refused to break from stride as he continued his way home. He cut through unused training grounds to speed up his journey.

Minato kept up with his every step. “By you?”

“Yes. No. It will be stitched up, so don’t worry about it.”

Once more Kakashi was throwing that unsolved mystery into Minato’s face. Mysteriously stitched up wounds that were the work of nobody Kakashi could name? Minato still didn’t have the answer to that. At least this time Kakashi wasn’t lying about stitching it up himself. “At least let me see it. Kakashi,” Minato begged relentlessly, trailing after the teen, “I need to see if your eye is alright. Is it still usable? Is it still there?” Minato shot forwards, catching up behind him. “Kakashi, have you even looked at it yourself? Do you know what’s left under your headband?”

Minato couldn’t be too certain what, but something of the words he’d said had Kakashi suddenly stumbling in place. A small hand started to jump to his headband only for it to lower down before he could reach it, muscles visibly twitching as he forced his wayward arms to obey. “I … I know what’s underneath.”

“You sound uncertain.”

“It’s –“ Kakashi swallowed, words falling with it. His hand sought out his headband once more. “It’s probably still there?” the teen said slowly, and perhaps it was only speed that held the sentence back from wavering through every syllable.

Minato didn’t like the sound of that. “Kakashi, let me see it.”

But by that time, Kakashi wasn’t listening anymore. His eyebrows were knitted as he slouched in spot, looking ever-so much like he wanted to just curl up and forget the world. “I can’t escape my future,” Kakashi murmured to himself, staring into his scratched up hands, littered with so many more grazes than Minato remembered from the day before. “If it’s like everything else, then it’ll come back as well … but an eye can’t just appear from thin air. It’s finally where it belongs now.”

Kakashi’s narrowed eye was so unrestraint and lost, he finally looked like the kid he was supposed to be. For once, Minato hated to see Kakashi act his age – not under these circumstances.

Minato took a hesitant half-step closer to Kakashi, hoping it wouldn’t startle the distraught teen. “There can’t be three of them,” Kakashi wondered, fear leeching his words, so quiet Minato had to strain to hear. “Then, will I take his? Rob his?” Kakashi leaped towards Minato in a fit of motion, hands clamped on the blond’s sleeves. “Where’s Obito?” the boy demanded, before frantically pulling away once more. Kakashi’s shattered equanimity was a sight Minato never wanted to see.

Minato tugged the teen by the back of his collar, catching Kakashi as he tumbled into his arms. “Kakashi, what are you talking about?” the man pressed pleadingly, unable to keep up with the cryptic unfinished sentences and sudden topic changes. However, if there was one thing he understood, it was that Kakashi was starting to panic. “Obito just left a minute ago. He’s fine, remember?” Minato tried to placate.

All Kakashi did was rub his covered eye with the palm of his hand, vigorously as ever.

“Just let me see it,” Minato commanded, no mood for disobedience, not after hearing the terror in Kakashi's voice. He settled the kid on his lap, pulling him close. He wanted Kakashi to feel the heat of his body and to cling onto him for comfort, because he needed Kakashi to physically feel him and understand he wasn’t alone. “Kakashi,” Minato murmured soothingly, “whatever it is, we’ll take care of this together, so let me in on what’s wrong. Please.

Kakashi finally closed an unsteady hand around a fistful of Minato’s flak jacket, his other gripped onto the lowered end of his tilted headband. Then, in one breath the headband was abruptly pushed up. In another, his eye was opened. And in a third, Kakashi used the hand on Minato’s jacket to pull himself up to lean so utterly close to Minato’s face that Minato didn’t dare to breath for a second.

Kakashi stared into the depths of Minato’s cerulean irises, focusing on the convexed image of himself in his eyes. Kakashi jolted back at the reflection, a hissing “it’s back” on his lips, and Minato was left staring, astonished at the sight he saw.

In place of what had been - should’ve been - a grey-blue eye, was the swirling of red, slowly, slowly bleeding a crimson shade that was quickly overtaking the whole of his iris. It was the building of what Mianto suddenly dreaded to be the Sharingan.

Kakashi’s legs stumbled as they seemed to be unable to listen, half-standing and trying to run backwards while the whole of his body was frozen stiff. Minato caught the teen in his arms, pinning Kakashi in place.

“What is going on?” Minato wanted to demand, but Kakashi’s frantic words rushed over him.

“Obito,” the silver-haired teen muttered above clenched and pulling fists that dug into Minato’s shirt, “Obito.”

And suddenly, as illogical as it initially (and still) sounded, Minato understood Kakashi’s babbling from just seconds before. Kakashi had Obito’s eye.

“That’s not –“ not possible, but then why was the Sharingan slowly blooming in Kakashi’s uncovered eye? “It’s not Obito’s,” Minato finally stuttered out from the depths of his whirling mind. It couldn’t be Obito’s eye. Why would it be Obito’s? Obito was safe and sound at home, finishing the mission with scrapes and bruises and cringing cuts, but none that had marred his face, let alone his precious clan’s eyes.

Why did Kakashi presume it was?

“It is,” Kakashi hissed, crossed between a tremble and a plead.

Minato reached out with his hands, cupped round to match the curve of Kakashi’s delicate face, wanting to pull the child inwards towards him to embrace.

Kakashi fled from his hold. His pale fingers tugged at his headband, covering up the eye like it was a sin he could never stomach – a sin Minato could be tainted with. But Minato was unrelenting. He was stubborn, he was determined, he was Kakashi’s teacher, brother, father, and everything in between. Did Kakashi really think that after Minato saw the fear and dread on Kakashi that was at long last unfiltered by his usual mask of indifference, that Minato would really let him suffer alone?

Kakashi’s shoulders slumped in resignation to Minato’s stubbornness, and Minato pulled him back close.

Kakashi wasn’t leaning into his body as a child would do, but his tense body did seemed to relax in Minato's warm, enveloping hold. A hand caressed continuous circles on Kakashi’s small back. “It’s fine, it’s fine,” Minato murmured comfortingly, even though nothing was. The world was flipped on its side, where the impossible suddenly seemed quite possible, and Minato had a feeling the wonders weren’t quite over yet.

“I – I need to think,” Kakashi mumbled disjointedly, mind jumbled, trying to think of a logical step to take next. Kakashi’s breath inhaled and exhaled in harsh jerks. In a tug, Kakashi pulled off his headband completely, staring down at the metal plate which grandly bore their village’s symbol, like it held the answer to life itself. “No, I need to see Obito,” the teen corrected.

Still, he made no move to get up, and nor did Minato let go. Mismatched eyes turned towards the blond, staring so unguardedly that it drew in Minato's gaze. It was seconds later before a whispered wonder echoed through the eerie silence between them, sounding too much like a wearily man too, too tired to be able to support the world on his own anymore. “What do I do now?”

“Tell me everything,” Minato said.

Kakashi closed his eyes and let out an extensively long breath, as if preparing himself for the inevitable. When the silence started to stretch just a little bit too long for comfort, the teen began in a voice thick with feeling, “It all started when I fell through a crack in the space-time dimension where Obito left me to bleed to death…”

Minato’s world wasn’t the same after that.