Then (But getting closer and closer to 'Now.')
"Gai!" Kakashi jumped into Gai's window and hung on, leaning in without actually stepping inside. He glanced down and was suddenly glad for not going inside; a pile of dishes sat below the window, unwashed.
Gai appeared in the kitchen doorway, a bowl full of toast in one hand.
For a long moment Kakashi considered bringing the man vegetables. Then he wondered how, exactly, Gai managed to stay so healthy. Maybe he had a demon, too. Kakashi dragged his mind back to the reason for the visit. "I'm having dinner with Iruka tomorrow night. But I don't know what to wear."
It had been a week since they'd had lunch, though Kakashi had spent most of that time on missions. He'd only seen Iruka briefly.
Gai finished chewing, swallowed, and smiled. "Wear something other than your uniform."
And the real problem was addressed. Kakashi smiled weakly. "I don't have anything other than my uniform."
Gai frowned. "Normal clothing?"
Kakashi shook his head. He never went out; he never had reasons for other clothing. Besides, it was so much easier to just have several uniforms. They always matched.
"Oh." Gai thought about it, folding a piece of toast in half and eating the whole thing at once. One cheek bulged as he chewed. Then he swallowed, and, looking up, smiled brightly. "Ah, my most esteemed rival, and dear acquaintance who has finally fallen in love! I have the perfect thing! Wait here!"
Kakashi waited while Gai disappeared into his bedroom.
"Ah ha!" Gai said, whipping back into the main room, a long, green suit flourished in one hand.
Kakashi looked at it blandly. "I don't think so."
"It will increase your stamina!" Gai shoved the giant longjohns toward Kakashi.
Kakashi pulled away from them, and nearly fell out the window. "Thank you, Gai, but that's not for me."
"It will drive him wild!"
Kakashi was not impressed. "Maybe I'll ask Asuma." Surely Asuma had clothes. While Kakashi didn't want too many people to know what he was doing--it made him uncomfortable--Asuma would be all right. He respected and liked Asuma.
Gai's smile faltered. "Oh. Well, I suppose if you think that's best . . ."
Kakashi nodded and smiled. "I do."
Ten minutes later Kakashi stood in Asuma's thankfully clean apartment. Somehow, Gai had tagged along, which Kakashi wasn't too happy with, but since Gai already knew . . . The Jounin boomed about true love while Asuma chewed on a cigarette and looked at Kakashi oddly.
Kakashi smiled. "I just need clothing," he said, feeling himself turn bright red. Being him, Gai continued waxing poetic. Kakashi kept grinning cheerfully to hide his embarrassment, closing his eye so he didn't have to see Asuma's half-bemused look.
"I don't think I have anything that would fit you," Asuma said, when Gai finally let him get a word in edgewise. "But maybe Genma . . ."
At that, Kakashi thought maybe his uniform would do. Since he really didn't want the whole village knowing, and since Genma worked with Iruka and that would be just a little embarrassing . . .
But by the time Kakashi had voiced this, Gai had already taken off. A half-desperate look at Asuma had the other Jounin racing after Gai, and five minutes after that Gai and Kakashi were standing outside the mission office while Asuma spoke with Genma.
Kakashi tried to look at the bright side. He supposed this meant he'd have clothes, which was good. It also meant three people knew what was going on, and if dinner didn't work out that was three people he was going to have to explain to.
Finally, Genma looked out the window and grinned around his toothpick.
Another ten minutes after that found them in Genma's apartment. "Did Raidou have to be here?" Kakashi asked. "Or Kurenai? Doesn't everybody have missions?"
"Slow week," Kurenai said, poking through the pile of shirts Genma had put on the bed. "Besides, none of us have ever heard of you having a date before."
"It's not a date," Kakashi muttered, leaning back against a wall, his hands in his pockets. "Just dinner." He didn't add that if he'd wanted them to know, he would have told them. He liked, even respected, Asuma, and Kurenai had always been very nice, but he wasn't sure he wanted them dressing him. Or knowing this much about his life. Or poking around his--"Leave my jacket alone," he said quietly, pinning Genma with a half-lidded glare as the man tried to pull it off.
"You can't try on clothes over it," Genma muttered, looking put-upon.
Kakashi hesitated, then finally shrugged out of his jacket.
Iruka yawned, covering his mouth with the back of a hand and packing up his things. Genma was nowhere around. Hadn't been around for a few days, actually, and even when he was there he was . . . odd.
Iruka walked out of the office, turning to lock the door behind him. He paused; there was a noise, off toward--
Pain lanced through the back of his head. Iruka dropped.
"I cannot believe you kidnapped me so you could make me dinner!" Iruka yelled. "You just don't do things like that!"
"Well, if you had said 'yes' when I asked you--"
Iruka stared disbelievingly. "Kakashi! I knew you were insane but I didn't think you were that insane!"
Kakashi looked vaguely disgruntled. "I'm not that insane. I made dinner."
"But I don't want to date you!" Iruka bellowed. In his hands, the chopstick he hadn't thrown broke.
"But why not?" Kakashi asked, still calm if frowning slightly. "Gai says I'm attractive, and you and I have been doing things--"
"That has nothing to do with it!" Iruka yelled.
"--and I made dinner, and got new clothes, and look!" Kakashi brightened suddenly, leaping past Iruka to the futon and pointing at the shelf there. "I left my pictures up!"
Iruka took a deep breath and did his best to leash his temper. "It was very nice of you to leave your pictures up," he said finally, as calmly as he could manage. "But it is not appropriate to kidnap someone--" he stopped, realizing his voice was rising again. He took another breath and lowered it. "It is not appropriate to kidnap someone and force them to have dinner with you." He spoke carefully, like he was talking to one of his students.
Kakashi was looking mutinous. "I didn't know how else to get you here."
"You said no," Kakashi pointed out.
Iruka closed his eyes and rubbed his scar.
"Wine?" Kakashi asked. "Or sake?"
"Yes. Sake. No. I mean--" Iruka opened his eyes and turned; Kakashi had gotten past him and was standing at the little table, pouring sake. He had no idea where to go from here, except that he really should leave. Iruka couldn't even say he was angry anymore; his head hurt too much, and he was thoroughly confused and couldn't keep up with Kakashi's logic. "Where did this table come from?" he asked finally.
"Asuma's," Kakashi said simply, holding out a small cup.
Iruka took it, but refused to sit down. Kakashi stood as well, one hand in the pocket of his black slacks. He did look nice, Iruka had to admit. The slacks fell well, hugging his slim hips. He was wearing a silver shirt, the silk sliding over his narrow shoulders, outlining defined muscles and hinting at more.
"You look nice," Iruka said grudgingly.
Kakashi looked down, as if he'd forgotten what he was wearing. Then he smiled behind the mask. "Genma and Raidou's, actually."
Iruka gave a half desperate laugh and shook his head in tired defeat. "Kakashi . . ."
"You can't kidnap someone to make them date you."
Kakashi stared at the floor. "All right. But, since I made the food . . ."
Iruka tried to glare, but his head was hurting too much. He sipped sake instead, and finally sat. "I just want you to know, this doesn't make this behavior acceptable."
"All right," Kakashi said, sinking to the ground.
"And if you do it again, I--" he couldn't think of a threat. His normally creative mind was still whimpering about having pressure points hit. "I don't know what I'll do, but it'll be bad."
"All right," Kakashi said simply. He dished food onto a plate, and handed it to Iruka.
Iruka looked at it suspiciously. There was nothing that he recognized. He sipped sake. "Are you sure about this stuff?"
Kakashi smiled behind the mask. "Of course. Try it."
"I should go home," Iruka said, exhaustion and headache catching up with him. The rest of his anger was gone, and it took him a moment to realize he'd been drinking sake a bit too quickly.
"I'll take you home later, but right now you should eat." Kakashi put another dollop of strange looking food on his plate.
Iruka finally put his sake down and picked up chopsticks, poking at his meal. He took a careful bite and chewed slowly. Then he nodded, taking another bite. "It is good," he said, his mouth full.
Kakashi smiled, and relaxed suddenly. Until then, Iruka hadn't realized he'd been tense. "What did you do to my head?" he asked, trying another lump of food. He thought it might be some sort of vegetable.
"Just hit a nerve cluster. It should feel better soon. Try this." He put some sort of bread on Iruka's plate.
Iruka took bite. "Mmm," he said, taking another. Suddenly, he was starving.
Kakashi smiled and sat back, leaning on his hands.
"You're not eating?" Iruka asked, glancing up.
Kakashi smiled sheepishly. "I ate while I was cooking, and by the time I was done . . ."
"Oh. No--wait," Iruka said, realizing suddenly that he was playing right into Kakashi's hands. "Kakashi--I am not going to date you."
Kakashi eyed him. "Why not?"
"What do you mean, 'why not'?" Iruka said. He thought it was obvious, personally. He wasn't interested.
"I mean, why not? Why won't you date me? If you're not interested in men, then--well, have you tried?"
Iruka stared. "This isn't a matter of whether or not I'm interested in men," he said finally. "It's--" he stopped. Frowned. Thought. "Because--" stopped again. None of his reasons, which, frankly, weren't coming to him anyway, would stand up to Kakashi's logic. "There are problems here!" he said finally.
Kakashi frowned. "Are you interested in men?"
Iruka stared some more. "No!"
"Are you sure?"
Iruka started to snarl something, his temper finally rising above the exhaustion and headache, when he realized he wasn't, actually, sure. He'd never thought about it. He didn't date, really. There had been a few girls in school, but not many. He somehow always got stuck in the 'like a brother to me' role. But he didn't look at men, either, beyond things like wishing Genma would spit that damn toothpick out, because he was going to stab himself in the throat with it one day, and besides it was really suggestive and Iruka didn't need that--
Iruka looked up.
Kakashi was smiling slightly.
It didn't mean anything. Things in mouths were suggestive, and that's just the way it was. It wasn't like he was going around lusting after men, and he'd certainly never done--well, all right, that once with Mizuki, but they'd been into Mizuki's father's sake and couldn't really be held responsible for their actions.
Kakashi was still smiling, like he could read these facts right off of Iruka's face.
"I think I need to go home," Iruka said quietly.
Kakashi's smile vanished. "What? Why?"
Iruka stared at him. "I might be gay!" he said loudly.
Kakashi nodded. "I know. That's why I have you here."
It was so matter-of-fact and blasé that Iruka didn't know what reaction to have. Surely this information was more stunning than that. He was slightly put out.
"So you'll date me?" Kakashi asked.
"No!" Iruka snapped.
"Because you don't kidnap people and then expect them to date you!"
Kakashi sighed. "I already said, you weren't kidnapped. You're welcome to leave at any time."
Iruka glared at him.
"All right, then what do you want?" Kakashi asked finally.
That was a good question. Iruka frowned. "I don't know. But not being kidnapped. And I don't know if I want to date you, period. You might not be my type." It was near-spiteful, and he knew it.
Kakashi's face didn't fall. Not quite.
Iruka went silent. "I'm sorry," he said finally.
Kakashi just smiled and shrugged, but it looked forced.
"I just--I'm going to go home. Think about things. All right?" Iruka asked quietly.
Kakashi nodded again. "Do you want to take food?" he asked, looking at the mostly uneaten meal spread out before them. "I can't eat all this . . . "
Iruka hesitated, and in that moment Kakashi started packing it up, complete with the bottle of sake.
"Thank you," Iruka said afterward, standing at Kakashi's door, a grocery bag in each hand.
"You're welcome," Kakashi said, just as quietly.
Iruka paused, then walked out the door.
"We're still friends?" Kakashi asked.
Iruka stopped and looked back over his shoulder. "Yeah. Friends."
"How'd dinner go?"
Iruka's head snapped up, and he stared in shock at Genma. "You knew about that?"
Genma grinned. "Of course. How'd it go?"
Iruka glared. "He kidnapped me and took me to his apartment."
Genma's smile faltered. "He did?"
"Oh. We didn't know about the kidnapping part." He went to sit down, and Iruka grabbed a stack of papers before they were smashed underneath the Special Jounin.
They sat in silence for a time. Iruka stared at his sheets of papers; registration forms for the new school year. "Genma," Iruka said slowly, "I might be gay."
"Yeah, I know," Genma said disinterestedly.
Iruka looked up at him, frustration lancing through his body. "How can you know? You're not me."
"Mizuki," Genma said, flipping through registration forms.
Iruka turned red. He could feel the heat burning his ears. "Mizuki?" he squeaked. "He told you that?"
"He told everyone who'd listen that," Genma snorted. "You ever notice," he started conversationally, as if the previous subject was closed, "how no one names their kids Kakashi? Or Tsunade? Not that Kakashi's in her league, but it's just interesting--"
"I can't believe he told you that!" Iruka nearly yelled.
Genma looked at him. "He did. In case you hadn't noticed, he was kind of a slut."
"I was drunk," Iruka said.
Genma shrugged. "Are you going to date Kakashi?"
"No," Iruka muttered. "He's not my type."
Genma just stared at him.
"What?" Iruka snapped.
"Right. I can see how Mizuki's silver hair and lean build is nothing like--"
Iruka glared. Genma fell silent, grinning. Iruka went back to sorting registration forms.
It was lunchtime when Kakashi arrived. He smiled, standing in the doorway, and lifted a bag. "I brought lunch. I can't stay, but I thought you might--well--here."
Before Iruka could even say 'thanks,' Kakashi had dropped the bag and fled.
Genma picked it up and peered inside. "You date Kakashi," he said, grinning, "and you'll never have to cook again. Smell."
Iruka had to admit, it smelled nice.
Kakashi opened the door, and smiled. Iruka stood there, looking awkward. "I just wanted to say thank you," Iruka said after a moment. "For lunch."
Kakashi put both hands in his pockets, leaning against the doorway. "You're welcome." Asuma had suggested it, oh so casually, when they'd seen each other at the market.
"And I wanted to apologize," Iruka continued. "While what you did yesterday wasn't appropriate, I overreacted. To a lot of things."
Kakashi breathed a silent sigh of relief. He hadn't totally messed up, then. "I'm sorry I upset you," he said quietly. "I do try not to upset people." Except Gai, but that was funny. And his Genin team, because they all had such hilarious reactions. And Tsunade, but that was just to remind her that she was still a person, and not infallible. And sometimes Iruka, because that was funny, too. But he hadn't been trying to do that earlier.
"And, well, Genma and I were talking . . . and apparently everyone but me knew I liked other men . . ."
Kakashi nodded. Even he'd known Iruka liked other men, just from the way the Chuunin looked at them.
"And Genma pointed out that I could do wor--I mean, that you might--that is--" Iruka scowled, staring down at his sandals. He twiddled with the hem of shirt. "Genma suggested I could ask you--that we could--maybe--"
Kakashi watched with near-glee while Iruka's face turned red. He really couldn't help it if he had a sadistic streak.
"Help me, here," Iruka muttered.
"Would you like to have dinner with me?" Kakashi asked.
"Yes," Iruka sighed. "That would be nice."
Kakashi stepped aside, and Iruka walked into his apartment.
A long time ago . . .
Kakashi peered around the corner, lying on his stomach on the floor, his head flat against the wood so his parents wouldn’t see.
They were eating dinner.
Soft words and softer light, and the gentle laugh that was his mother. She had been gone for days, and only just returned. He could smell the dark of forest and sweetness of sweat. Could almost taste the dirt that creased into her skin.
His father didn't seem to mind. His father kissed her across the table, then stood, smiling as he walked toward the doorway.
Kakashi jumped to his feet and ran, hurrying down the hall, into his room, leaping into his bed and burying his face into his pillow.
Sleep. Really. He'd been sleeping. Sleeping sleeping sleeping sleeping.
He heard footsteps stop in his doorway. "If you're already awake, you might as well come say hello."
He cracked one eye and looked up. "Really?"
His father smiled and nodded.
Kakashi sat up, swinging his legs over the bed. "Even though my tutor comes tomorrow?"
His father only stepped out of the way, waiting.
Kakashi ran down the hall once more, bare feet slapping against polished wood, his shadow stretching and shrinking in the lamp light. This time he ran right through the sliding doors. He went as fast as he could across the room, around the table, flying against his mother. She smelled soft and sharp, and she wrapped strong arms around him and held on.
"Missed you," Kakashi murmured into her neck.
"Missed you, too," she said back. She tightened her hold in a fierce hug, then released him. He fell back onto his heels, smiling happily.
"Let your mother eat, Kakashi," his father said, settling once more on the other side of the table. "She's had a long day, trying to get back to us."
Kakashi settled quietly, hugging his knees and letting his chin fall to them. They ate, his mother and father, and spoke softly. He listened to the rise and fall of their voices, and ate food off his father's chopsticks. Warmth and candlelight flickered, surrounding the three, and food filled Kakashi's belly, making him sleepy and content.
"Would you like more rice?" he asked his mother when she started to run low.
"No, thank you, Kakashi. I've had lots of food. I think I'm going to have a bath, then go to bed," she said, smiling. Then she rose, pausing over him. "Love you," she said, dropping a kiss onto his forehead before leaving the room, as quietly as she must have entered.
Kakashi watched his father pick up dishes, stacking dirty ones together and carrying them into the kitchen. He followed quietly, climbing up onto the counter. "She must not eat much, when she's out," Kakashi said solemnly.
His father looked at him quizzically.
"You always make her dinner when she gets back. No matter how late."
His father smiled, and offered him a cookie. "I think she's probably hungry when she gets home, you're right," he said. "But it's how I can show her I love her. If she's tired and hungry, and has had a hard mission, I can give her warm food and a full stomach before she goes to bed. She does the same for me, when I have missions."
Kakashi chewed his cookie thoughtfully. "Can I help next time?" he asked hopefully. "I can make rice."
His father smiled and flicked water at him.
Kakashi ducked, then rubbed his nose. "I love Mother. I want to help make her dinner."
His father looked at him for a long moment, then smiled. "Kakashi, I would love your help."
There was something very wrong with him. He was sure of it. He was sick. The children at the lake had gotten him sick. It was the only explanation for how he was feeling, because damn it, he couldn't be feeling anything else.
He certainly couldn't be obsessing over Iruka.
Kakashi jumped, flattening himself against the fence.
"Are you all right?" Gai asked hesitantly. "You look a little . . . ill."
"Ill," Kakashi said, trying to smile and failing badly. "Yes. I think I'm ill."
Gai reached out to put a big hand on Kakashi's forehead. Kakashi didn't pull back, but only by force of will. He wondered if Gai could feel a fever through the forehead protector.
Gai pulled his hand back and looked puzzled. "What's wrong?"
Kakashi took several deep breaths. Then several more. He tried to smile again, and once more failed. He didn't like this feeling. He'd never felt it before--or at least, not since he'd been a teenager. "I don't know," he said.
Gai frowned. Whenever Gai frowned, it gave Kakashi the sense that something was very wrong with the world. That something terrible and monstrous must have happened, because Gai never frowned. "Describe it."
He wasn't sure he wanted to describe it. He wanted it to go away. It wasn't comfortable, and it was dangerous. But he didn't know how to make it go away, beyond waiting, and he didn't have that much time. He was distracted. Distracted ninja got killed. "I can't get Iruka off my mind."
"Iruka? My beloved students' former sensei? Umino Iruka-san?"
"Of course Umino Iruka. He's the only Iruka in the village," Kakashi said, the words lazy despite his frustration.
Gai was looking at him thoughtfully.
"Maybe it's just a phase."
"It's not a phase!" Desperation bloomed. It wasn't going to go away, he knew that much. "Gai--" He looked around and dropped his voice to a whisper. "I let him into my apartment."
"I know," Kakashi said, mentally berating himself. He never let people into his apartment. It wasn't good. It was his.
Gai started to smile.
"It is the springtime of your youth, Kakashi! You've finally found someone your heart can beat for!"
If Kakashi hadn't been certain it was noon, he would have sworn the sun was setting over Gai, who was still waxing poetic. Kakashi sighed. "Gai, really."
"It is wonderful that you've finally found another young person--"
"—who you respect and admire and want to spend your time with--"
"--who can make your heart race, and we all know and love Iruka-san--"
"--this is wonderful, Kakashi! Congratulations!"
Kakashi debated just walking away. Then Gai grabbed him and hugged him. That was it. He sucker-punched the other Jounin.
Several years earlier…
The Third Hokage looked up from his desk at the young man hovering in the doorway. He smiled and set down his pen, resting on his elbows.
The silver haired teenager, all arms and legs and long, lean muscle, twirled a flower and stared at his boots.
"Kakashi? Did you bring me a flower?" He already knew the answer to that one, but he couldn't help asking--laughingly--anyway. "I'm a little old for you . . ."
Kakashi turned pink above his mask and somehow managed to lounge his way inside the room, until he was leaning against the desk. He offered the flower.
The Third took it wordlessly, looking it over. A daisy.
"Is there something wrong with it?" Kakashi asked quietly.
The Third studied it carefully, treating the question as seriously as it had been asked.
He wished the Fourth hadn't died so suddenly. He had the feeling that this was going to be a conversation better suited for Kakashi to have with a man closer to his own age--but as far as the Third knew, Kakashi didn't talk much with boys his own age. Or maybe boys his own age didn't talk to him. Either way, since the Fourth had died so terribly, Kakashi didn't seem to talk much with anyone.
It worried the Third that a sixteen-year-old spoke mostly with a man in his late fifties. And even they didn't speak that much.
He returned his attention to the flower, examining it closely. "There doesn't seem to be anything wrong with it," he said finally, handing it back.
Kakashi took it forlornly. "Oh."
The Third waited, but when the boy didn't continue--only kept staring morosely at his flower--asked, "Is there a reason you thought there might be something wrong with it?"
Kakashi looked at him sidelong, then looked back down at the flower. "I tried to give it to this girl. She just walked faster."
The Third cringed inwardly.
"So I thought maybe there was something wrong with it." He sounded like he hoped there was something wrong with it, but really knew otherwise.
The Third sighed. "Women are mysterious, Kakashi," he said slowly.
Kakashi shook his head. "It's not just them, though. I don't--I don't understand them. Any of them." His face flushed, and he adjusted the forehead protector he had taken to wearing over Obito's Sharingan. His flak jacket seemed big on his small frame, though he'd finally grown large enough to fit into his shirt. "I didn't understand them when I was little, though I knew that they didn't like me because of my father. But now people don't look at me and see what my father did, and they still don't like me." He twisted his fingers, nails piercing the stem. "I don't know how to fix it."
The Hokage cringed. "Kakashi . . ." He had no idea how to say this. "You are somewhat outside the bounds of normal people."
Kakashi looked up at him.
"You're a genius."
Kakashi gave him a look that clearly said, "Well, I know that."
The Third smiled slightly. "Before, you were too far ahead of others your age to relate to them very well. Now," with Obito gone, he didn't say, "the people you work with are adults." Who may respect and even fear you, but don't want to associate with a teenager, he didn't say. "You're in an awkward place, and it might take time to figure out how to make things work."
Kakashi plucked a petal and let it drop onto the desk. Two more followed. He arranged them into a careful triangle. "So what now?"
"Maybe you should find the places the other boys and girls your age go to, and start joining them," the Hokage suggested.
He pushed the petals around into an arrow. "They don't like me."
They're afraid of you, the Hokage didn't say. They understood him as little as he understood them. Too young, too adult, too powerful, too much of a skipped youth. "They just have to learn. Like you."
"Yeah," Kakashi said, though he didn't sound convinced. He looked at the mangled flower, then smiled behind his mask and handed it to the Hokage. "For you."
"Why, thank you," the Third said with a chuckle. He took the broken and bare flower, and set it carefully to one side. "I'll treasure it." It stuck up jauntily, refusing to wilt despite its treatment.
Kakashi grinned, both hands in his pockets, and meandered out of the office.
Then (that is, after Gai was waxing poetic)
"I can't ask him to dinner," Kakashi said, his head in his hands.
"Why not?" Gai asked between sips of sake.
Kakashi sat back, rolling his teacup between his palms. He didn’t say that he'd never been to dinner with anyone. The two people he'd asked had either ignored him or said no, and while two people wasn't a bad rejection list, the fact that he'd never managed to successfully do anything with anyone was telling.
But Gai didn't need to know that much. It wasn't something Kakashi liked about himself, and it wasn't something he wanted others to know. Somehow, over the last few years, people had started to think he was 'cool.' He was pretty sure 'cool' people didn't struggle with relating as much as he did. But--being cool was good. People looked at him with awe instead of uncertainty.
He wasn't about to ruin the lie by admitting he didn't know how to date. Besides, the few friends Kakashi had made hadn't turned out so well (his mind shied around Obito, twisted around the Fourth, and he tried hard not to think about his Chuunin team, scattered and maybe in danger). The whole thing was just a bad idea, and entirely confused in his mind. "I can't go to dinner with people," he said finally, latching onto the last thought as the easiest to explain. "What if he gets hurt?"
"At dinner? I suppose you shouldn't serve something that will make him sick . . ."
"That's not what I meant," Kakashi muttered.
"Oh. Well, you said he felt you following him and set a trap. Obviously, he can take care of himself."
Kakashi looked up. He mulled the thought over, replaying the trap and remembering other times when he'd seen Iruka fight. "That's right," he said slowly. "He's a Chuunin. Obviously a good one. He can take care of himself. I don't have to worry about that. Right?" He looked at Gai hopefully, mentally begging the man to agree. He didn't need more nightmares. He didn't want Iruka in danger.
"Right," Gai said firmly, and ordered another bottle.
"Right," Kakashi repeated in an undertone. He wouldn't kill Iruka. Iruka could take care of himself. Iruka had been taking care of himself for twenty-three years. It was perfect. He had experience.
All Kakashi had to do was ask him to dinner.
No one had ever agreed to dinner before. He had learned that if he asked people things, they said no, and Iruka hadn't asked him to dinner, so Kakashi didn't have the chance to simply say yes. This would never work. "What if he doesn’t like me?"
"Iruka is obsessed with you," Gai said. "His heartbeat triples whenever you're near!"
"Really?" Kakashi asked hopefully.
If that was true, then--Kakashi frowned and looked at Gai suspiciously. "How do you know that?"
"Oh, well, I can tell," Gai said airily.
There went that source of information. Kakashi looked around the little area, glancing over tables and booths with a practiced eye. There were only a few other people in the establishment, mostly off-duty ninja, and the waitress. "I can't ask him out," he said softly.
Kakashi didn't fidget, but it took effort. Very purposefully, he relaxed back into his seat and looked as indolent as possible. "I don't know how." He didn't look at Gai.
"Just say," Gai's voice suddenly gained in volume, "'Beloved Iruka--'"
Kakashi's eyes widened, though he remained carefully still.
Gai didn't seem to notice. "'Beloved Iruka, please join me in a celebration of my love for you! At dinner!'"
Kakashi tried to sink farther into the chair. He smiled weakly at the other patrons, who were now staring at them. "Thank you, Gai," he muttered. "I'll do just that."
Iruka pretended not to notice Kakashi walk past the office door for the fourth time in ten minutes.
"Any idea what he's doing?" Genma asked quietly, digging through scrolls.
"None." Iruka glanced over and frowned. "Are you supposed to be looking at those? Put them down," he said, taking the scrolls away from the Special Jounin. He set them down on his other side and went back to filing mission reports.
"Isn't Kakashi supposed to be on a mission?" Genma asked, flopping down in a chair.
"He got back yesterday," Iruka muttered, sorting papers.
"Really? Is his mission report around? Those are always fun to read . . ."
Iruka took the stack of reports from Genma with a frown, and set them aside. "Those are not for your amusement."
Genman sighed. His toothpick flicked from one side of his mouth to the other.
Iruka ignored him, returning to his filing. Asuma's report went under 'C' for completed, and Raidou's needed to go into the pile for the Hokage to see, since there were injuries.
"I'm off. Do you need anything done?" Genma asked, standing.
"No, I'm fine."
Genma jumped over the desk and wandered out. Less than a second went by before Kakashi walked in.
"I don't have any missions for you," Iruka said, putting the ANBU scrolls into a drawer and locking it as subtly as possible. "The Hokage has some she hasn't handed out yet . . ."
"I know. No missions for me. No fun ones, anyway."
Iruka watched the man carefully. Something was off. His hands were in his pockets, but his arms seemed tense. He was smiling, but it looked forced--even with only one eye visible. "What's wrong?" Iruka asked finally.
Kakashi paced, then finally settled in front of the desk. He was still wearing that stiff smile. "I just--that is, I had a question--well, more of a suggestion--"
"What is it?" Iruka asked. His anxiety levels were steadily rising. Something was going on.
"I'm having dinner on Friday--well, of course, I have dinner every night because skipping meals just isn't healthy, and--"
Iruka rubbed his scar tiredly. "Kakashi, what's wrong?"
Kakashi's smile got more strained. "Did you want to have dinner with me?"
Iruka froze. He looked up. He studied Kakashi. The man was sweating now, and the smile was still fixed in place. "I'm sorry?"
"Would you like to have dinner with me?" Kakashi said. Even his voice sounded tense.
He was serious. This wasn't good. Iruka knew something like this was going to happen. He'd known it from that day on the porch, and the discussion about Gai's theories of crushes. "Kakashi-san . . ." Iruka said slowly, straightening a pile of scrolls, "this isn't--"
"We can have food. I mean, of course there will be food. Or--"
"Don't call me that." The smile was gone. So was the tension in his shoulders, though Iruka suddenly wished it were back. The man stared at the ground, slouched back, his hands in his pockets. He seemed deflated. "I'm sorry," he said, glancing up and smiling half-heartedly. "Bad idea." He turned and started toward the door.
"Kakashi, I'm flattered," Iruka said, watching the man freeze. "And I'd love to be friends. But--"
Kakashi turned, looking back over his shoulder. "Will you come for a friendly, ah, something, then?" he asked, sounding only marginally hopeful.
Iruka nodded, glad to have something he could offer the Jounin. "Of course."
Kakashi turned farther, almost facing him. "Tomorrow?"
Iruka hesitated, mentally reviewing his schedule. "I could meet you around lunch."
A nod, and the smile was back--relaxed, this time. "Lunch, then. I'll meet you here."
Iruka smiled. "Don't be late."
A long time ago . . .
Rin found him. She sat down beside him, in the puddle in front of the monument.
It kept raining. Kakashi shivered, soaked through.
Kakashi didn’t look at her. "You already said that."
She ducked her head, staring at the ground. "You have no right to be angry with me about this," she said finally.
Kakashi's head snapped around, and he glared at her. "Do you expect me to be happy that you're heading to the country of the Sand?" he asked quietly.
"Why not? You've been in ANBU now for two years. I don't want to do that. Maybe there I can work on my medical techniques and--"
"You could do that here," Kakashi said.
Rin was quiet.
"Is this because I asked you out?" he asked, staring at his hands.
"No," Rin sighed. "It's been coming, anyway."
They sat, silent. Rain pattered down. Distantly, thunder rolled.
"It's not the end of the world, Kakashi," Rin said. "You'll make other friends. There'll be other girls."
Kakashi's gaze burned, but he didn't turn it on her. "When do you leave?" he asked, finally.
"A few days. There's a group going."
Kakashi just nodded.
They sat. Rin shivered, as water soaked slowly through her clothing. "You will make other friends, you know," she murmured.
Kakashi said nothing. Except for Rin, the people he'd loved were all dead. Not that there had been many of them. Maybe she was right. Maybe he would make more friends.
He doubted it.
Back to 'Then' and lunchtime . . .
Kakashi stared around his apartment. The bed was made. His toothbrush, toothpaste, mouthwash and floss were all put away, as were all his shaving things. He poked his head inside the bathroom just to double check, grabbed the shampoo off the edge of the shower, and stuffed it under the sink.
He came back out and stood in the middle of the tiny apartment. The box of books had a blanket tossed over it. The bed was made. He'd taken the pictures down, and put them in a drawer, then put them back out--it seemed disrespectful to put pictures of fallen teammates in a drawer--and on the shelf, but behind the window curtain.
The apartment was clean. It was always clean, though. He spent as little time there as possible.
All he had to do was go get Iruka. He looked at the bedside clock. Ten minutes. Kakashi picked the clock up off the nightstand, started to put it in a drawer, then realized he was probably being neurotic. He put it back in its normal place. He stood, debating, then finally pulled the photos from behind the curtain and put them back on the shelf. He was trying to be social. Social people shared personal facts, like friends and family. He wanted Iruka to be his friend. He hadn't realized how lonely he was until Iruka started talking to him. Rin had always said he didn't share things, so he would share this, and then--
Then they would be friends. And Iruka wouldn't leave.
Right. Time to go. He slipped into sandals, and headed out. He could be at the office in eight minutes and thirty-three seconds.
But did Iruka really need to know so many personal facts about him? He felt exposed. His apartment was private, and--
Kakashi gave in, and raced back to the apartment to hide the pictures.
Iruka looked up just in time to see Kakashi fly from a rooftop and land beside him, smiling brightly.
"Hi," Iruka said.
The other ninja grinned, his single visible eye squinting shut. "Hi."
Iruka watched him. "You look flushed. Did you run?" he asked, vaguely surprised. Kakashi ran for no one, from what Iruka could tell.
"Hmm. Shall we get lunch?" Kakashi asked.
Iruka thought about asking again, but . . . well, obviously Kakashi was uncomfortable. He left it alone. Besides, it wouldn't be good to appear too interested. Kakashi might think he was that kind of interested.
They wandered down the street, Kakashi with his hands in his pockets, Iruka smiling at people as they passed.
"School starts again soon, doesn't it?" Kakashi asked suddenly.
Iruka nodded, trying to appear relaxed. It was hard, with Kakashi tense. And despite how he was trying to appear, Iruka could feel the tension. "In another month."
"You'll be teaching again?"
Iruka nodded and smiled. "Will you be taking on another Genin team?"
Kakashi shrugged. "Tsunade hasn't asked me to."
Iruka didn't know what to say to that, so he remained silent. "Where are we going?" he asked after a little while.
"My apartment. I didn't know when you had to be back, so it's close and I have food . . ." Kakashi trailed off.
Iruka stared at him for a moment. His apartment? Iruka didn't think people were allowed in there. He wondered how this was really going to work. Maybe they'd eat on the porch again.
Maybe this was Kakashi's way of showing affection.
Iruka stopped walking. "Kakashi," he said slowly, "I'm really not interested in you. That way." The words were out before he even realized what he was saying. He cringed internally, and hoped he hadn't just made an ass out of himself.
Kakashi froze. "I know," he said finally. He looked at the ground, hands still in his pockets, then looked up and smiled. "But, we're friends, right? And friends hang out in each others' apartments?"
Iruka hesitated. "If you're not comfortable with it . . ." He had agreed to friends. Heck, being friends with Kakashi was supposed to be his mission anyway.
"I'm comfortable with it," Kakashi said. "And I cleaned."
Iruka wasn't sure it had been dirty in the first place, if his initial peek inside had been any indication.
They stood there for a moment. Kakashi looked back at the ground again, studiously examining his shoes. "If I'm not doing it right . . ."
Iruka frowned. "Doing it right? Doing what right?"
There was a pause, then Kakashi looked up, smiling brightly. Iruka was starting to realize that the bright smile was to hide embarrassment, rather than for any real joy. It made him wince. "Being friends right. If I'm making you uncomfortable--"
Iruka mentally flinched. "You're doing fine," he said quickly. "I'm just--I just need you to know that it's not going to go farther than that. And part of being friends is knowing each other's boundaries, so if one of yours is not having people in your apartment, that's okay." He was suddenly hyper-aware of the fact that they were standing in the middle of the sidewalk, at lunch hour. He tried to ignore the funny looks shot their way. Think teacher, he told himself. A teacher teaching something. That's all.
Not being friends right . . ? No wonder Tsunade had been worried about Kakashi.
"I could have you in my apartment," Kakashi said at last. "That would be okay."
Iruka nodded slowly. "All right. If you're sure."
Kakashi nodded. "Of course. Hurry, or we'll waste you entire lunch break." Then he turned and wandered down the street.
Iruka set aside his concerns and followed.
"We had lunch," Kakashi said, sitting in the window to Gai's apartment, one leg propped up, the other dangling outside.
"And we even went into my apartment again," Kakashi said. He still wasn't sure about that; it felt strange to have someone else in his personal space. Still, he was trying to be friendly. He was making a friend. Only seven years since he'd lost the last one, since Rin had gone to the Sand, and he was making a friend.
At least Iruka wasn't like Gai. He didn't fill the space with his own presence.
"Kakashi! You're in love!"
Kakashi didn't look at Gai, because he might have to hit the man. He continued to stare blandly out the window, at the people walking around below. "He doesn't want to be more than friends," he said. Damn it.
"You must not take no for an answer! This is true love! You must pursue him! He will feel it, too!"
Kakashi looked at Gai thoughtfully. "Does that work?"
"I have had many loves, and all of them started out by saying no! Be persistent!"
Kakashi stared back out the window.
"Would you like tea?"
Kakashi glanced over. Having tea meant going all the way into Gai's apartment. Gai's apartment was filthy. He smiled and declined.
'Don't take no for an answer,' Gai had said. Gai certainly had more experience than Kakashi did. Maybe that would work.
Long before 'Then'
"I don't like it."
The Third chewed on his pipe and said nothing. There was nothing to say, really. The fact was that Hatake Kakashi had passed the ANBU tests two years in a row. The boy knew he'd passed them the year before, and had been furious when the Third told him he couldn't join the ranks. Not yet. Now, Kakashi was watching him, blue eye nearly black in its intensity, even across the large stadium.
"I don’t like it either," the Third said at last. "But we can't keep holding him back. We need him." It had been three years since the demon, since the Fourth had died, since so many powerful ninja had been killed, and still their ranks were badly depleted. All those youths, gone.
Below, Hatake Kakashi stepped forward and received a mask, white and red and blue. The stadium was quiet, empty of all but current ANBU and the Hokage.
"It means the world to him," the Third said.
"Why?" the squad leader asked softly. "He's still a boy."
Kakashi put the mask on, over his own, hiding a face that would be angular once the baby fat was gone. The Hokage had a sudden, vivid memory of the year before, when the boy had brought him a flower and asked why no one liked him. "I don't know what drives him. He hasn't told me."
Kakashi stepped back, narrow shoulders straight, flak jacket making him look thinner than he was.
"I hope he finds it," the squad leader said softly.
Then--not quite 'Now,' but getting closer.
Kakashi came storming into the mission office--or as storming as he ever got. He marched past the line of shinobi waiting for missions and straight up to Iruka. "I'll take that mission," he said, pointing.
Iruka slapped a hand down on the scrolls. "Not unless the Hokage says," he answered.
Just then, as if summoned, the Hokage blazed into the room.
"You are NOT ANBU," she snarled.
The room cleared.
Iruka wanted to follow, but he had the feeling that if he took his hand off the scrolls, Kakashi would grab one.
The Copy-Ninja didn't even acknowledge the Hokage. "Did you know about this?" he asked, single eye glaring at Iruka.
Iruka sank lower in his seat and prayed for help.
Kakashi twisted, looking half back at the Hokage as she neared. "Did you know that this old woman thinks she can--"
Help arrived--the Hokage punched Kakashi.
Kakashi's head snapped forward, and he sailed over the desk. Iruka yelped, diving for cover. Too late. It was already too late, he knew, and the man was going to smash right into him. Then Genma reappeared and, just as Kakashi would have landed on Iruka, they vanished.
Iruka staggered on the ground that was suddenly beneath his feet, glad for the arm Genma wrapped around him.
They were outside. In the yard. Most of the ninja who had been in the building were present, scattered across the grass and among the few trees.
Inside, the sounds of a battle smashed through the office.
"Well," Iruka murmured, "that went . . . as expected."
Genma just shifted his toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other.
Inside, the crashing stopped. There was silence for a long time. Then something silver and black streaked from a window, disappearing into the forest. A moment later, the Fifth leaned out. Glass bits sprinkled down into the lawn below.
"Iruka!" she shouted, and tossed a black pouch down. Genma caught it, glanced at it, then handed it over.
It was a first aid kit.
"Is he okay?" Iruka shouted up, alarmed.
"I think so. Go after him!"
Iruka just nodded, and bolted after the streak.
It didn’t take long to find Kakashi; he hadn't bothered to cover his tracks, and broken branches and stomped moss led straight to the ninja. He was sitting in a tree, forehead protector resting on his leg, dabbing blood out of his Sharingan eye.
"Are you all right?" Iruka asked, landing carefully on a nearby branch and crouching to look.
Kakashi glanced up at him, then away again. "Fine."
Iruka unzipped the medical pouch, looking quickly for gauze. "What happened?"
"She threw me into a chair." Kakashi looked at him. He smiled briefly. "Your chair. It fell, I fell . . . " He stopped smiling and wiped his face, smearing blood. In the shadows from the trees, it was a darker streak on his pale skin.
"Let me see," Iruka murmured, jumping to the limb Kakashi was on.
Kakashi's legs fell to either side, dangling in the air, and Iruka crouched between them. The Jounin was slouched back against the trunk, the fight apparently drained from his tall frame. He wiped at dripping blood once more.
Iruka tried not to stare at the red eye, reaching up to clean the cut just above it. "You're all right," he said after a minute. "Looks like the metal bit into your skin. It's not deep." Bleeding fairly well, but head wounds did that.
Iruka glanced down, realized how close he was standing--not that he could help it really, with Kakashi slouched back the way he was--and shifted back a little.
Kakashi was staring at him.
"What?" Iruka asked, self-conscious. He turned away to dig through the pouch, looking for small bandages. When he looked back, Kakashi was still staring at him.
"Where'd you get that scar?" the man asked after a moment.
Iruka frowned. Wordlessly, he dabbed antiseptic on Kakashi's forehead. "Where'd you get the Sharingan?" he countered.
The black flecks swirled, and settled again. "Did you know the Fifth wasn't going to let me be an ANBU?" he asked, the words oddly calm, though his gaze was intense.
Iruka thought about lying. He thought about it all through cutting gauze, and laying it carefully across skin, and taping it into place. No matter how much he thought about it, he just couldn't do it. He looked at Kakashi, then had to look away from the alien red eye. "Yes."
The black swirled again, but was covered when the Jounin tied his forehead protector back around his face. "Why didn't you tell me?"
Iruka sighed and settled back on his haunches. "I didn't want you to be mad at me."
Kakashi looked at him out of a normal blue eye. "Do you know why she won't let me go back?"
Iruka shook his head wordlessly.
"She thinks that I've isolated myself and that I'm in danger of having a breakdown or becoming rogue ninja. She actually said that. Until I start making some friends and not just working, she's not going to let me back into ANBU."
Iruka settled down on the branch. He thought that might be the most talking he'd ever heard out of the other man. "Well," he said slowly, "then it seems to me you should just enjoy your enforced retirement, and not worry about it."
Kakashi stared for a long moment. Then he stretched both legs out, forcing Iruka back, and linked his hands behind his head. "Hmm. Maybe."
He hurt. He was screaming, and people were asking questions, and all he could do was scream because he couldn't see and there was blood all over and it hurt.
He could hear his mother telling him everything would be okay, to let the medic see, to take his hands away from his face, but all he could think was that it wouldn't be okay and his face was probably gone because it hurt so much, and the other boy was crying and he just wanted to punch him because he had no reason to be crying--he wasn't the one with blood all over and his nose probably cut off and his eyeballs falling out, and he wasn't the one who was screaming with people pulling at him and his hands slick with his own blood and--
Iruka bolted out of bed and slammed back against the wall. Dark. He was alone. He looked down.
A kunai glimmered in his hand.
He took several deep breaths, walked back to his futon, and set the weapon down on the nightstand. He hadn't had that particular dream in a long time. In fact, other than images, impressions, and memories he'd cobbled together from being told how it had happened, he could barely remember it.
He scrubbed his hands through his hair and looked at the clock.
Five a.m. Too late to go back to bed, too early to be up. Damn.
He dug both palms into his eyes, then scratched his head. Might as well start the day.
It didn’t take long to shower and dress, and the sun was rising as Iruka left his apartment. He walked out through the village, waving occasionally at other early risers, and headed through the large main gates. Once in the forest he broke into a jog. The ground cushioned his steps, the leaves crunching with every footfall. Small animals burst through foliage in starts and stops, watching him to make sure he wasn't a predator.
It took ten minutes for him to realize he was being followed. He couldn't catch sight of his pursuer, but they didn't seem to be getting any closer; simply biding their time. In a village full of ninja there wasn't much crime, but it still existed.
He hoped he had enough time to set the trap before whoever it was made their move.
It took him five minutes--and several careful zigs and zags, disappearing from sight and leaving a clone behind to set the trap--before it was ready. Then he leapt for a tree on his left, swung around out of sight, and watched himself continue jogging, back toward the village. Set. As long as his follower didn't realize Iruka had caught on . . . Sprung.
There was a yelp. Iruka smiled grimly and raced to investigate--
Only to come to a dead stop.
He cocked his head. "Kakashi-san?"
Kakashi smiled brightly and waved from the complex net, sending himself swinging, before detangling and dropping to a branch.
"Were you following me?" Iruka asked, a note of disbelief entering his voice.
Kakashi rubbed the back of his head, his face turning pink. "Ah, well . . . that was a good trap." Quieter, he added, "I can't believe I fell for it."
Iruka's eyes narrowed. "I may not be a Jounin, but I am a ninja." People seemed to forget that. Heck, he probably used his ninja skills more than any other Chuunin did, teaching a classroom full of children.
"Ah, yes, of course."
They stood there.
Birds started chirping.
A large, iridescent beetle hummed through the air.
A small animal, protecting its den, chattered at them angrily.
When it became very clear that Kakashi was perfectly happy to stand there forever, he asked again. "Were you following me?"
"Not . . . exactly."
"For the last twenty minutes?"
"It was more like thirty."
Iruka stared. "Why?" he asked finally.
"Well . . ." Kakashi rubbed the back of his head, then smiled brightly. "I was going to get breakfast. Would you like to come?"
"I--" Iruka stopped. He stared. He really wasn't sure what reaction to have, so he finally gave up trying to find an appropriate one and shrugged. "Sure."
They bought fruit and wandered through the awakening village. Kakashi really wasn't sure what to say. He was still vaguely embarrassed that he'd fallen for the trap. Between being overly intent on following Iruka, and not expecting a fellow Konoha ninja to set a trap--and, if he were honest, not expecting Iruka to be good enough to sense him--he had completely missed it. He shouldn't have. It was almost humiliating. Only 'almost,' because Iruka didn't seem to notice.
"You took not being ANBU very well," the other ninja said after a little while.
Kakashi shrugged. "There's nothing I can do about it, for now. So I might as well enjoy my enforced retirement. Right?" He grinned.
Iruka looked at him for a moment, then laughed quietly, shaking his head. "Right."
They kept walking. Kakashi could see Iruka out of the corner of his eye, peeling a mango with his teeth, dropping the rind as he walked. His fingers were a mess, and he had to walk stooped over to keep juice from dripping on his clothes.
"You must really like those," Kakashi said finally, a dubious note to his voice.
"Mmm," Iruka said around a mouthful of fruit. "One of my favorites. And durian. Have you ever had durian?"
Kakashi shook his head.
"It smells awful, but if you can get past that, they're fantastic."
Iruka looked up in nearly offended surprise. "Mango doesn't smell awful."
Personally, Kakashi was glad his mask hid the worst of the smell. The curse of having an overly sensitive nose was that every scent was magnified a thousandfold. Including mango. Which smelled rather like purified sugar, or old blood. "Yes, it does," he said solemnly.
Iruka looked puzzled and sniffed his mango-seed. Then he shrugged and kept eating.
Kakashi went back to chewing on his barely-ripe pear.
Someone called out, and Iruka waved. They kept walking, though Kakashi turned back to watch the woman for another moment. "You know her?"
"One of my student's parents."
"Ah." It was the third person they'd passed that had called out to Iruka. "You know a lot of people."
Iruka nodded amiably. "No more than most, I guess."
Kakashi certainly didn't know that many people. Another person, a man this time, greeted them. Iruka stopped walking for a moment to talk, and Kakashi just waited. Then they kept going, wandering vaguely back in the direction of their respective apartments.
"Is this why the Hokage asked you to keep an eye on me?" Kakashi asked. He didn't know if that was really true, but had to suspect it.
Iruka turned pink. "She told you that?"
Well, there was his answer. Kakashi just "Hmmm"ed. Then, before Iruka could start excusing or explaining or anything like that, he rephrased, "The Hokage asked you to keep an eye on me because you're likable?"
"I--" Iruka turned pink again. The scar stayed white against his skin. "I suppose."
Kakashi just nodded.
They kept walking.
It was upsetting, now that he thought about it. Here he had been thinking that Iruka was inviting him places because Iruka thought he was charming--or something like that--when in fact he'd been told to.
Iruka licked juice off his fingers absently. "Is this your stop?" he asked, motioning to the apartment Kakashi lived in.
Kakashi glanced up at it. He frowned, behind the mask, where no one could see. "It is." He glanced back at Iruka. The man was likable; the Hokage had done her job well. Damn it, he liked having Iruka around. He just didn’t know how to keep him around. There was a difference between the way he related to people and the way everyone else did. He wasn't sure what the difference was, and he didn't know how to fix it, but he knew it was there. He wasn't sure how to make Iruka like him.
And now, maybe Iruka would head back to his own life, because there was no reason to pretend he was making friends anymore.
"I should go," Iruka said.
"Have you ever had jicama?" Kakashi heard himself ask.
Iruka looked at him. "I don’t think so."
Kakashi wasn't sure where to go next. "I have some," he said finally. "If you'd like to try. It's a vegetable."
Iruka glanced down the road, then back again. "Is it good?"
Kakashi smiled brightly. "I think so."
Iruka hesitated. "All right--I have a few more minutes before I need to be anywhere."
They stepped up onto the communal porch, and Kakashi headed inside.
He stopped. Iruka was waiting patiently in the doorway.
Kakashi shifted from foot to foot, uncomfortable, hands stuffed in his pockets. "Do--do you want to come in?"
Iruka looked up sharply. He was quiet for a moment. "All right," he said finally. "If you're sure."
Kakashi forced a smile and nodded.
Iruka took his shoes off, and didn't touch anything. He put his hands in his pockets, tried to ignore Kakashi hovering nearby, and looked around.
The room they had walked into was small, obsessively neat, and mostly taken up by a futon. There was a shelf above it, with two framed pictures. Iruka started to look closer, but Kakashi bolted to the head of the futon and slapped both photos facedown.
Iruka pretended like he didn't notice, letting his gaze travel elsewhere. There was a box of books beside the bed, nearly overflowing with novels and magazines and even a few comics. "You read a lot?" Iruka asked conversationally.
Kakashi stepped in front of the box, nudging it toward the bed with his foot. "Hmm."
Iruka looked elsewhere again, wondering what, exactly, he was allowed to look at. The rest of the apartment was tiny; a closet, a chest of drawers, a little kitchen, also sparklingly clean, and a bathroom. From what he could see of the bathroom, it was just as neat as the rest of the place, all the normal bathroom things apparently hidden in small cupboards.
They stood there.
Obviously, Kakashi was waiting for some sort of reaction. "It's very . . ." Iruka tried desperately to think of a nice way to say 'sterile.' "Clean." He almost added, "and yellow," but he was pretty sure the apartment had come painted yellow, and the color had nothing to do with Kakashi.
Other than the two pictures Iruka hadn't seen, and the box of books Kakashi kept pushing toward the bed, there were no other personal effects. Of any kind.
Iruka stood there silently. Finally, he stared at the kitchen.
"Jicama!" Kakashi said, and bolted past him. Moments later Iruka was holding slices of a white root vegetable, still cold from the crisper.
He bit into it tentatively. It was good. Crunchy, and vaguely, but not overpoweringly, sweet. Almost like a carrot, only milder, and better. He made a 'good' face and nodded appreciatively.
Kakashi beamed and gave him the rest before sending him on his way.
Kakashi was waiting when Iruka finally got out of the office. Iruka stopped and smiled, more puzzled than anything, then kept walking when the Jounin fell into step beside him.
Kakashi took a deep breath and said, "A friend."
Iruka looked up quizzically, wondering if he'd somehow missed the first part of that sentence. "I'm sorry?"
"The Sharingan. A friend . . . gave it to me." He rubbed a hand through silver hair, which couldn't possibly increase the messiness of it, but did make it stick out in all new ways, and smiled.
Iruka's brain stopped working for just an instant. Then it stuttered back to life again. "Oh." He looked at his feet, watched where they were going, and tried not to think about how that could have happened. "I was playing with a boy when I was four, and he threw a kunai at me. I didn't duck."
Kakashi just nodded. Everyone else always winced. "That doesn't seem so bad."
Iruka just smiled. "I know." But when you were four, it was horrific.
"Are you--" Kakashi hesitated. "Doing things tonight?" he asked haltingly.
Iruka looked at him, and smiled slowly. "You're not used to asking people if they want to join you somewhere, are you?"
Kakashi just smiled and shrugged.
Iruka laughed. "I am doing something, actually. A group of kids are going to the lake to swim tonight, and I told their parents I would chaperone. But you're welcome to come."
Kakashi thought about that. Then he smiled again, and nodded. "All right."
He had to be losing his mind. He didn't know what to do with children. Even when he was a child, he hadn't known how to relate to the other children. And yet, he was standing in a tree above the lake, looking down at ten pre-teens--even younger than his Genin team, lord help him--splashing and screaming in the water. Boys and girls old enough to want time away from their parents, but young enough for their parents to worry.
Iruka was standing knee-deep in the creek, yelling at someone that no, they couldn't dive off the rocks on the other side into the shallows, and if they kept heading in that direction--
Kakashi raised his eyebrows at the rather creative threat that followed.
This was a bad idea. He hadn't brought swimming clothes. Actually, he didn't own swimming clothes.
Iruka came splashing out of the water, the end of his ponytail wet and swinging as one clump. He stopped and looked up, and Kakashi realized he'd been spotted.
He smiled and waved, trying to keep calm. They were only children.
"Come down!" Iruka shouted.
After a moment's hesitation, Kakashi jumped from the bough to the pebbled ground below, landing carefully. The swimming area was in a bend in the creek, providing them with the semblance of a beach and safety from the current. Large trees loomed fifteen feet away, but the sun helped to bake away some of the gloom and a good deal of the humidity.
Two of the younger children--maybe seven and eight--went screaming past. Kakashi realized that they weren't going to go around him, and jumped out of the way just in time to keep from getting bowled over. Iruka, on the other hand, just stood there. Both children swerved around, like water rushing past a particularly large boulder.
Iruka smiled and rubbed his scar. "I didn't think you were going to come."
Kakashi grinned back, though it was fake. He really should go. He wasn't comfortable here. He didn’t know what to do with little mini-people, and he probably looked like a fool, standing there in his gear when it was obvious he should have worn swimming clothes.
Make an escape, he told himself. Any escape. This was not the way to impress Iruka. "I just stopped by to say that I can't really come," he said, then shook his head at himself. "I mean, I didn't want you to think that I'd forgotten, but I can't stay."
Iruka crossed his arms over his wet shirt. "Really." It wasn't a question.
Kakashi didn't flinch. "I have some errands to run."
"I think you just don't want to get wet," Iruka said. "Or maybe you're leaving me to look after these ankle-biters on my own--" there was a screamed, "We are not, Sensei!" and Iruka's mouth quirked up, though he didn't look around. "--when I've been looking forward to having an adult to talk to all day."
"Don't you want to talk to us, Sensei?" a tiny little girl asked, her blue eyes wide.
Iruka smiled down at her. "I love talking to you, Keiko-chan. But you know what? Kakashi-san has come to visit me--" his voice got suddenly louder, "--and he really wants to go swimming."
"What?" Kakashi yelped. "I don't have--"
They mobbed him.
"Back!" Kakashi shouted, trying to fight his way free without actually hurting any of the children. Unfortunately, they didn't have the same handicap. "Ow! No biting!" he roared once, to a chorus of giggles.
To his horror, they were winning. "Iruka!" he pleaded, dragging five of them forward toward the trees.
Iruka was laughing.
Ten more seemed to appear out of nowhere--he'd have sworn there were only ten to begin with--and they leapt on him, forcing him to stagger toward the water. One dropped to his knees behind Kakashi, and the next thing the ninja knew he'd fallen, taking half of the miniature army with him.
They didn’t seem to mind. In fact, they grabbed him by whatever extremity they could manage and dragged him that much closer to the water.
That was it. He was not going to be dunked by a horde of nose-miners. Not when he'd beaten off half the ninja in all the countries. With a roar he managed to get back to his feet, children dangling from his arms and shoulders, and one even hanging around his neck.
Then he was confronted by Iruka, who smiled brightly and said, "Here," before shoving the tiny girl--Keiko, he remembered--into his arms.
Kakashi caught her more by instinct than anything. She was giggling.
"Now! While his hands are full!" Iruka bellowed.
Kakashi yelped as three boys barreled into him, knocking him back over a fourth and sending him sprawling, hands still in the air as he tried to keep the tiny girl from being crushed.
Someone grabbed her, and the horde rolled him off the edge of a little embankment. Kakashi splashed into the water, knees scraping the bottom, the shock of wet driving the air from his lungs.
It was only waist-deep. He surfaced, sputtering, amid much laughter. Iruka was standing on the bank, arms around his waist, tears rolling down his face.
"Congratulations!" Iruka said between gasps. "You've just defeated the notorious Sharingan Kakashi, the most feared ninja in Konoha! Make sure you tell your parents when you go home later!"
The horde cheered. Five boys jumped into the water in their enthusiasm, and promptly started a water fight.
Iruka was still laughing, his knees slowly giving out.
Kakashi grinned, then felt some sort of munchkin leap onto his back. He staggered, grabbing him, flipping the boy over his shoulder and into the water. The child landed with a delighted squeal, and the next thing Kakashi knew, he was being mobbed by kids screaming, "Me next! Me next!"
"I'll take down every one of you!" Kakashi said, his voice a mock-growl.
The children laughed, shouting back, and jumped all over him.
"Starting with your leader," Kakashi muttered. He reached up, grabbed Iruka's ponytail, and yanked.
With an aborted yelp, and amid much hilarity, the children's sensei splashed back into the water.
"I didn't think about this part of it," Iruka admitted, carefully drying kunai and shuriken. He laid the latest glimmer of metal out on the branch, high above where children might stumble across them.
"Yes, well . . . " Kakashi trailed off, peering down at the ground below. Carefully, he leaned over and twisted his shirt, wringing it out. Water spilled on a girl under the tree, and she squealed and ran away laughing.
Iruka glanced up with a smile. They'd pretty much stripped Kakashi of everything, laying his clothes across branches and boulders, and threatening the children with a fate worse than death (two extra pop quizzes) if they touched any of it. Currently, Kakashi wore his pants and the mask, and that was it. Long, skinny toes stretched across the bark, as if he could cling with them.
Iruka was trying not to stare, but it was hard. Scars criss-crossed the slender body like spider-webs, moving with every breath. Kakashi was so pale his skin seemed almost translucent, like it might glow gently in the shade--even though Iruka knew that was silly, especially since Kakashi was currently sitting in the shade.
His silver hair was dark when it was wet, though little spikes were starting to dry, sticking up brightly. The rest lay bedraggled down his neck and in his eyes, and Iruka had never really realized how long it all was, when it wasn't sticking out in every direction.
Kakashi brushed it out of his face for the fourth time in as many minutes.
With a grimace, Iruka tugged his band out of his own hair and offered it. After a moment, Kakashi took it and pulled his hair back. Most of it was just barely too short to really stay, and he ended up with an utterly ridiculous tuft on the back of his head. But his hair was out of his face, and that was all he seemed to care about.
Iruka grinned. "I'm glad you came out."
Kakashi smiled gently, and the black flecks swirled softly in his red eye. "Me too."
Iruka polished the metal on Kakashi's forehead protector, making sure all the moisture was out of the cracks. "You seemed to have fun."
The other ninja was silent, still not looking up. He was slowly emptying the pockets of his flak jacket, pulling out bits of parchment with seals on them and checking to see which ones were still salvageable. "I did." He seemed surprised.
Iruka just smiled and said nothing.
Then (the same 'Then' we left with . . .)
"How's your mission going?" Tsunade asked, pausing as Iruka locked up the mission office door.
Iruka hesitated. "Well, I'm not sure. He's a bit . . . odd."
Tsunade just laughed. "He's a Jounin."
Iruka nodded. Worse than a child, sometimes. It was easier to teach summer school. He slung his bag over his shoulder and headed out; Tsunade had already left.
Ramen tonight with Kakashi. Then--well, he wasn't sure. He was eating a lot of ramen lately, though. At this rate, he was going to go broke.
Maybe he could convince Kakashi to do something else. He hadn't heard anything about the Jounin joining any of the games--not even the mock-training games--that the other Chuunin and Jounin sometimes arranged, so that was probably a bust.
Or maybe no one had asked. He'd ask. That was a good idea.
It didn't take long to get to the ramen shop. Kakashi wasn't there, but that was no surprise. Iruka sat, ordered tea, and started on some paperwork.
Thirty minutes later, Kakashi arrived. Iruka glanced up, finished what he was doing, and put his things away. "Get lost?" he asked dryly.
Kakashi smiled. "I did." He swung onto a chair, making the motion prettier than it should have been. Really, Iruka thought, someone swinging onto a chair shouldn't be pretty. It should be masculine, only somehow, Kakashi wasn't.
Not that he wasn't masculine, because of course he was, but in that movement--oh, hell. Iruka just stopped thinking. They ordered their food, then ate in silence for several moments.
"There's a game going on tomorrow night," Iruka said at last. "I thought you might want to come."
"Ah . . . no." Kakashi smiled.
Iruka scowled. "Why not? I don't think I've seen you at any of the games. Ever."
Kakashi's expression turned serious, even with the mask. "When I was a child, a friend of mine was hurt in a game. I don't play them anymore."
"Oh," Iruka said, mentally berating himself. "I'm sorry. I didn't know."
Kakashi grinned again, eye crinkling. "That's all right. No reason you should have."
Iruka rubbed his eyes and sat back in his chair, staring absently at the nearly empty mission office. "Genma-san, don't," he said without looking.
Genma appeared beside him, dropping a paper airplane on the desk. "I'm bored."
"You're a Special Jounin, find something to do," Iruka muttered.
Instead, Genma flopped into the seat beside him and stared.
Iruka glanced over. "What?"
"You're grumpy today."
Iruka tapped his pencil on the desk, flipping it around and tapping the other end as well. "I'm trying to make friends with Kakashi," he said finally, "but I'm running out of ideas."
"I asked him if he wanted to join the game Asuma arranged for tonight, but he says he doesn't play games. That his friend was hurt."
There was a suspicious silence. Iruka glanced over.
Genma was staring at him, chewing on his toothpick. The Jounin looked away, then back up. "Iruka, look, there's something you should know about Kakashi."
"He's a liar."
"We all know that," Iruka said, frowning. Kakashi certainly didn't get lost in his own village on a daily basis. Nor did he meet naked Amazonians on every mission. Iruka still wasn't sure about whether or not Kakashi had seen Asuma and Kurenai making out while on a mission, but he was sure the Jounin hadn't seen them in an orgy.
"Right. We all know Kakashi will lie right to our faces about ridiculous things. He also lies about pretty much everything else. He didn't have a friend get hurt in a game. He hasn't ever played a game, and the closest thing he has to a friend is Gai. Just wait, the next thing he'll tell you is that his mother is dead."
Iruka stared at the Jounin. "Why would he lie?"
Genma shrugged. "Ask Kakashi."
Kakashi opened the door on the third knock, and looked in surprise at an obviously angry Iruka standing on his doorstep.
"You lied to me," Iruka snapped.
Kakashi blinked. "I did?"
"You said you had a friend get hurt, and that was why you didn't join in the games."
Oh, right, he had said that. "Well, you see--"
"You lied to me, Kakashi. You don't lie to your friends."
Maybe other people didn't lie to their friends . . . besides, who said he and Iruka were friends?
"Why would you do that? If you don't want to play, just say so."
Kakashi took a deep breath. That never worked. But if Iruka wanted to try it . . . "I don't want to play."
Never worked. "I just don't."
"There has to be a reason."
"This is why I lie," Kakashi muttered. "People don't question you."
Iruka frowned even more at him, and glanced around. "Can I come in?"
Kakashi looked at his tiny apartment. "I'll come out."
Iruka was still glaring at him when he stepped outside. "I would like to talk to you, in private. So choose. We can go back into your apartment, or we can go to mine."
Kakashi froze. "But apartments are personal," he said finally.
Iruka glared even harder. At this rate, his eyes were going to burn out.
"Your apartment," Kakashi said.
It didn't take them long to get there, and the whole way Kakashi kept wondering why he didn't just tell Iruka to go away. Here he was, following a man who undoubtedly was going to tell him about how angry he was, and how Kakashi had done something wrong, and probably how evil and terrible Kakashi was. And yet he couldn’t seem to stop.
Iruka opened the door and stepped back so Kakashi could enter.
He did, carefully, slipping off his shoes and doing his best not to touch anything.
There were dozens of pictures on the walls. Children--students, Kakashi realized--and friends, and even a picture of a very young Iruka with his parents. Even then, he had the scar, though it was red and angry instead of the faded line it was now.
"Now, why don't you want to play the games?"
Kakashi turned slowly. The best thing to do would be to lie. He opened his mouth.
"And don't lie to me."
He closed his mouth. He could lie, and Iruka would never know. Except Iruka had figured the last lie out, somehow. But the truth would be awful. It was embarrassing. He watched Iruka and debated.
"Kakashi . . ." Iruka said warningly.
Kakashi took a deep breath and smiled, settling for a partial truth. "It seems a little silly for grown ninja to be playing games."
Iruka frowned. Harder. "Kakashi, it's a stress-release. A way to relax and a reason to see people, to laugh and have some fun."
"It still seems silly," Kakashi said.
"It's fun. If you need a better reason, you can read Asuma-san's paper about why ninja need to have friends and some sort of stress-release to stay healthy. We play the games because they're funny, they make us socialize, and we hone skills rather than wasting time."
This tack obviously wasn't working. Kakashi wavered. Damn it. He was going to have to tell the whole truth. He smiled, covering his embarrassment. "I don't know the rules."
Iruka stared at him. "We can teach you the rules," he said finally. "It's a lot like playing Ninja Mission when you were little."
Kakashi kept his smile in place by force of will alone. "I never played that."
"You never--? Kakashi, everyone's played that."
He smiled even wider, making his eye narrow. "Nope."
Kakashi tried to push his embarrassment to the back corner of his mind.
"All right. I'll teach it to you."
"Teach it to you. I am a teacher."
Kakashi shook his head. Nice of Iruka to offer, really, but-- "No, that's all right, I--"
"Please. It's fun, and you'll learn it quick. Stop arguing, because you're coming with me tonight, and you'd better know it by then or you'll never hear the end of it. Now, sit."
Stunned, Kakashi sat. He closed his mouth and smiled again, but really smiled this time. "Yes, Sensei."
Even before 'Then'
"You going to go play?" his father asked, smiling down.
Kakashi glanced over at the other children, screaming and shouting and throwing water at each other. "No."
A hand landed on his head, ruffling his hair. "Why not?"
He ducked away. "They don't like me."
"Of course they do. They just don't know you. Go play." His father gave him a push. Kakashi stopped as soon as he was out of reach. "Go play," his father said again. "You're too serious, Kakashi."
Too serious. Too smart. Too spoiled. Too fast.
Tomorrow he tested for Chuunin. These kids had only just started at the academy.
Slowly, because his father was watching, Kakashi dragged himself toward the group of kids. He glanced back over his shoulder when he got there. His father was still watching.
"Can I play?" he asked obediently.
"No," the nearest kid yelled back.
There. Done. He'd asked, he'd been refused. Just like he knew would happen. Just like always happened, so what was the point in asking any more? Kakashi turned back across the street, trotting up to his father.
His father stopped picking through fruit and looked down. "You're not playing?"
"They said I couldn't." He was relieved. Playing with the other kids always made him feel bad. They didn't like him.
"What?" his father snapped. Then he took Kakashi's hand and marched them back over to the park.
Kakashi dragged behind. This would be bad. He didn’t want to play. It was really all right. A ninja didn't need friends anyway.
"Kakashi would like to play," his father said sternly, to what was obviously the ringleader.
The boy--a few years older--looked at Kakashi. Then looked at the White Fang. Then he shrugged. "Sure."
His father smiled down and winked. "Have fun."
Kakashi stood there while his father walked back across the street toward the market.
"You can guard the fort," the boy said, pointing imperiously.
Kakashi glanced over at the fort. It was empty. "I want to throw water balloons," he protested.
"Well, we don't want you to throw water balloons. You guard the fort."
Kakashi looked at the fort again. It stood alone and dark under the trees. He looked at the field. Kids were screaming and running and soaking wet, water shining in the sunlight. "But I want to throw water balloons."
"Yeah, well, we don't want to play with you. Your dad wrecked things for my dad, and I don't get to go to the academy until next year, so I don't want to even look at you. You're stupid and you're going to wreck things and mess up everything in the village just like your dad did. You go guard the fort."
Kakashi thought about arguing. He turned, looking at his father, walking through fruit and vegetable stands. There was a clear space around the man, as people near him edged away.
"I'm not going to wreck things," he muttered.
"Yeah, right. Hatake's are just stupid. I heard about what happened to your mom. You're gonna wreck everything, and make everyone unhappy, just like your dad."
"He didn't mean to make everyone unhappy," Kakashi defended. "And I'm not going to."
The boy just glared at him. "I don't want to look at you, so if you want to play, you go guard the fort."
Kakashi turned and walked back across the street. He stood beside his father silently, thinking.
"You're not going to play?"
Kakashi looked up. His father had hurt the village. He knew that. Now no one liked his father, though the man tried hard to pretend like everything was all right. Kakashi wouldn’t be like that. He wouldn't--
"No. I'm going to go home."
"Are you okay?" his father asked.
Kakashi just nodded. "I'm fine. But I'm going to go home."
Kakashi turned and started down the road, kicking at pebbles as he walked.
The other kids hated him. And he couldn't blame them. He hated that the village had been hurt, and that people suffered because of it. Some people wouldn’t even talk to his father anymore. Some even crossed to the other side of the street when they saw a Hatake coming, and not all of the children were allowed to play with him.
None of them wanted to.
Kakashi kicked another pebble.
He couldn't blame them.
He was ashamed of his father, and he didn't want to be. But he was. No one liked him. "I don't even want to look at you," the boy had said. It wasn't the first time. Things were only getting worse.
He opened the door to his empty house and stepped inside.
The mirror at the end of the hall echoed him. His father's face, his father's hair. He hated it. The other kids hated him. He hated himself. He wished he'd been born into any other family, and he hated that, too, but it was true.
Kakashi slipped off his shoes and walked further inside. He didn't need the other kids. He'd be a great ninja, and they'd all look up to him, and everyone would want to know him.
But right now, he still hated his father. His mother. His entire family, including himself, because their shame was his.
He stopped at his bedroom. There were mirrors in his bedroom, and he didn't want to look at himself right then. "I don’t even want to look at you," the boy had said, and Kakashi agreed.
There were mirrors throughout the house. His mother had said it made things look bigger.
He glanced down the hall, into the open door of his father's training room. On the wall hung ANBU masks.
That would be perfect. He would be ANBU, and then he would never have to look at his face again, and no one else would have to look at him, either. They would forget that he was part of the shamed family, and then people would like him.
If they didn't see him, maybe the other kids would let him play.
Once more back to 'Then'
Playing Ninja Mission as a kid was probably exhausting (Kakashi didn't know from experience, though he could guess), but playing Ninja Mission as an adult, with other Chuunin and Jounin, was utterly painful.
Kakashi had lost. He blamed the fact that he hadn't been allowed to use any Genjutsu or Ninjutsu, and his team consisted only of himself, Iruka, and Raidou, whereas the other teams all had six people each.
They said since he was one of the strongest ninja that had shown up, he got handicapped. Asuma had, too, so Kakashi supposed it was fair.
Still, they'd only lost by a very small margin.
He lay in bed and thought about the game, laughing occasionally. The rules were just ridiculous enough to keep it from getting serious, or being too much like a real mission.
Kakashi smiled, stretched out in bed, and wondered what Iruka was doing later.
Wait. No. They weren't friends. Not at all. He didn't need more nightmares.
Maybe there was another game soon.
Much earlier than before
"Hokage-sama?" Kakashi asked, hands in his pockets as he waited.
The Third eyed the ANBU standing before him. Kakashi looked like he'd just rolled out of bed. He probably had; it was only eleven, and he didn’t have any missions.
"Kakashi. Good to see you. I was just looking over some files, and thought I'd find out how your mother is doing." The Third settled back in his chair, pipe between his teeth, and made himself as pleasant as possible. Not that Kakashi ever seemed awed by anyone--which was both good and bad--but it was habit.
Kakashi looked surprised. Or as surprised as he ever did. "Fine, Hokage-sama. Thank you for asking."
"So you've checked on her?" the Third asked. The thing about Kakashi was that if there was a way to lie, he'd probably use it. The Third had no idea why this was, but he suspected Kakashi really needed some creative outlets. Preferably ones that didn't involve lying.
However, since he was aware of Kakashi's lying, he simply asked questions he knew the answer to.
"Oh, well, I saw her--"
The Hokage lowered his head and eyed Kakashi over the tops of his scrolls. He knew exactly when Kakashi had last spoken to his mother.
"Well," Kakashi faltered, "I would think that if anything were wrong, someone would tell me."
"I see." The Third leaned back. "When was the last time you saw your mother, Kakashi?"
Kakashi took and released a large breath. "Oh . . . several years ago . . ."
Kakashi came as close to glaring as he ever did. "Twenty. One."
The Third lifted an eyebrow. "I see."
Kakashi looked sidelong at the wall.
"And how many friends do you have in Konoha, Kakashi?" the Third asked, though he already knew the answer.
"I have friends," Kakashi said, smiling brightly. "Hokage-sama, you don't have to worry about me--"
"How many friends, Kakashi?" the Third asked again. He would not be derailed. He watched all his ninja closely, especially the ANBU, and he wasn't going to be sidetracked. He'd given Kakashi plenty of time--years--to form relationships. It still wasn't happening.
"Oh . . . at least three . . ."
"Really?" the Hokage asked. "Who?"
"Ah, Rin." Kakashi smiled brightly again, his single eye closing.
"She has been acting as an ambassador in the Country of the Sand for seven years now."
"Well, yes, that's true," Kakashi muttered, looking at the floor. "Asuma. Asuma is a very good friend of mine," Kakashi said, head snapping up.
"Ah, yes, Asuma." The Third leaned back again, looking out his window. "Asuma said he admired you greatly, but was rather worried that you spent so much time alone." The Third could feel his trap tightening. He suspected Kakashi could, too.
"Well, Gai . . ."
"Is your greatest rival. A strange friend." He looked back, watching the man he'd known from childhood.
Kakashi wouldn't look at him. The Third suspected it was because he was furious.
When he spoke, the Third's voice was soft. "My point, Kakashi, is that I'm worried about you."
Kakashi's gaze shifted to him, but his head didn't move.
"You've buried yourself in work and books, and have forgotten that Konoha--the village you protect--is made up of people. You can't risk your life for something you don't even know."
Kakashi was watching him closely. Or rather, as closely as Kakashi ever watched anyone.
"I'd like you to retire from ANBU. For the time being," the Third added, when Kakashi looked like he might protest. "Take some of the Genin, and start helping us test and train them. It'll remind you of what you're fighting for."
Kakashi looked mutinous. Still, he bowed stiffly. "Yes, Hokage-sama," he answered formally. He didn't wait to be dismissed before turning and marching rigidly from the room.
Then (as in, returning to just before 'Now.')
"I didn't mean to embarrass you."
Iruka jumped and looked up. Kakashi stood on the other side of the mission office table, Icha Icha Paradise held in one hand, the other in his pocket. He was slouching, lean body settled back on his hips, and his silver hair looked like it hadn't been brushed in days.
"You didn't embarrass me," Iruka muttered, handing a mission scroll to the Chuunin before him and marking it down on his sheet. The next Chuunin hesitated, then shuffled up alongside Kakashi.
"Oh. Of course. You were just suddenly sunburned."
He started to blush again, damn it. He refused to look up. Iruka realized he was rubbing his scar, and stopped. "Yes," he muttered. "I was just suddenly sunburned." He handed another scroll over and glanced around the office to see who was left. Three ninja waiting to turn in mission reports, two more waiting for missions, and Genma wandering around behind the desks, poking through scrolls.
"Like you are right now."
Iruka broke into a laugh and glanced at the other ninja. "Yes," he said finally. "Like I am right now."
"Ah." Kakashi looked solemn right up until he grinned. "Well, maybe ramen would make the sunburn better?"
Iruka eyed Kakashi closely. "I do not have a crush on you," he said, very serious. The last thing he needed was for this mission to go badly.
"Well, it was flattering while it lasted," Kakashi sighed, then grinned and winked.
Iruka just laughed again, shaking his head. "All right. I'm here for a few more hours . . ."
"I'll meet you after," Kakashi said, smiling again and heading out.
The door closed behind him.
Iruka felt a pencil thump against the back of his head. He whipped around, glaring.
"Distracted?" Genma asked, grinning around his toothpick. "So, you and Kakashi . . ?"
"We're just friends," Iruka muttered, picking the pencil up and throwing it back at Genma.
He caught it without looking. "Does Kakashi even have friends? Acquaintances, sure, and people who respect him, but friends?"
Iruka sighed. "He's nice. Doesn't throw things at me."
Genma just snorted.
Kakashi's eyes snapped open, black swirling violently in the red.
Silence. He took a shaky breath, rubbing a forearm across his face, wiping silver hair away, and glanced at the window.
He sat up, arms resting on his knees, and waited for his heart to slow down.
Dream. It had been a dream. Not like he didn't have enough of them. Just another one to add to the list.
He swung out of bed, grabbing his mask off the shelf above as he did so. A glance at the picture there, at the childish grins of himself and his Chuunin team, and he yanked the mask on over his face.
Sleep wouldn't return. He made tea, instead.
He hadn't realized how out of practice he was at dealing with people on more than a superficial level until he'd gone for ramen with Iruka the night before. Somehow, it hadn't mattered much that he didn't know anyone. He had his work and his books, and frankly, he didn't understand most people. Well, no. He understood them. They were too happy, or too oblivious, or just didn't catch on very quickly (which frustrated him to no end, since he caught on to everything. Even before the Sharingan).
He didn't know how to relate to people. He could predict them, and he could analyze them. He just wasn't sure what to do with them.
Kakashi pulled the teapot down from a shelf, scowling.
He really didn't know why he was letting Iruka hang around. He should stop. Friends were dangerous. Too troublesome.
The image of Iruka hanging from a cross, thousands of Itachi's stabbing him, appeared unbidden from the dream. He flinched, and the teapot dropped from his fingers. He jumped back just before it smashed to the floor.
Just another dream. That's all it was.
Kakashi snatched the broom and dustpan from their hook, and started sweeping up wicked shards.
He didn't often dream of his living friends. Obito, sure. All the time. And the Fourth, from before he'd been the Fourth. And his father (or rather, his father's body).
Iruka was fine. Iruka was alive and well. Iruka was probably at work right now. He could call and--
Kakashi looked at the clock. Okay, maybe Iruka wasn't at work. Iruka was probably in bed, sleeping.
He wouldn't call Iruka. He wouldn't. Absolutely not. It was not nice to wake someone from a sound sleep.
On the other hand, if you just checked on them and left them asleep, that was all right.
Kakashi hurried to get dressed.
Gai felt, rather than saw, the other Jounin. He glanced at his window but, predictably, it was empty. Well. He wasn't going to get back to meditating now, and he really didn't like it anyway, so . . .
He jumped to the vacant window and stared out. "Are you here to challenge me, worthy rival?" he asked, grinning broadly, hands on his hips.
Kakashi stopped in mid-escape. "Ah. No." He glanced back over his shoulder. "Not really."
Gai's smile slipped. "Oh." He looked around. No sign of anyone else. The streets were still dark. Down the road, a baker had begun his day, but even the animals were still asleep. When Gai spoke, he was quiet. "Are you making rounds?"
It was something the Jounin didn't talk about. The intense desire that arrived occasionally to leap from building to building. To peer into windows and watch to see if the occupants still breathed. Just to make sure those they cared about were still alive.
Kakashi hesitated. He nodded once.
Gai smiled. It was good to know he'd made Kakashi's list of 'people to check on.' Silently, he pulled his head back into his room and closed his window. Kakashi slipped off into the dark.
Long before that
Konoha's Yellow Flash knocked briefly on the door of the Hatake residence, a frown already in place.
It wasn't like Kakashi to be late. Granted, they'd done some extra training the night before, and he had taken his team out for ramen after, but even still, Kakashi was one of the few he could count on to be on time.
Everyone knew it wasn't Obito.
He knocked a second time, but there was still no answer.
Concerned, the blond Jounin opened the door to the house, feeling like a trespasser and prepared to have Hatake Sakumo ambush him at any moment.
Everything remained quiet.
"Hello?" he called.
The room echoed.
Moving slowly (the better to bolt for the door if anyone should appear, bellowing 'INTRUDER!'), the Jounin took off his shoes and began edging inside.
"Hello?" he called again.
Still no response. He considered heading toward the back, where the bedrooms were, but . . . well, he'd check everywhere else first. Bedrooms were private.
He inched through the silent tea room, with its empty tatami mats. He glanced into the small dojo, but left quickly. ANBU masks hung from the walls, their empty sockets glaring down at him accusingly. "Sakumo-san? Kakashi?"
He crept through the kitchen (sparkling clean, he noted. He wished he had the energy to keep his apartment this clean), and was about to leave when something caught his eye through the window.
Something silver in the back garden, nearly hidden behind a bush.
Glancing around once more, he headed out.
The garden was neatly trimmed and beautifully designed. He threaded his way around several wall-like bushes, circling ever closer to the shock of silver hair.
"Kakashi?" he called again. The morning was quiet; he could hear someone breathing. If it was Kakashi, he should answer. If it was the boy's father, he would at least look up.
Finally, jumping over a bush, he saw a break in the flora wall and hurried through to the center of the garden.
Kakashi sat on the stones surrounding a small pond, silver hair bedraggled and dripping. He didn't even look up at his sensei.
And there was good reason.
Konoha's Yellow Flash went perfectly still.
There were ants on the stones. Crawling through great pools of blood, and over torn black intestines tangled around a sword. Little black bodies writhed inside the vulgar smile stretched across the man's throat, cartilage and bone exposed. The head was tipped back into Kakashi's lap, open eyes staring up at the child.
Bloody fingers stroked through the corpse's silver hair. They trembled.
"Kakashi," his sensei said softly, kneeling.
Kakashi kept stroking, eyes unfocused. The Jounin reached out, and felt the child's chakra flickering unsteadily, pale and faint. He began to inch slowly closer. "What happened?"
Kakashi took a deep breath. "I smelled blood, when I came home." His voice was flat, wooden. The voice of a lone survivor filing a mission report. "I came out here . . ." He drifted off. Glassy eyes blinked slowly. Fingers sifted through his father's hair, then relaxed.
The Flash edged carefully closer, avoiding the blood Kakashi knelt in. "Kakashi? Come here."
Kakashi kept staring down, his face ashen against the stark black of his mask. "He'll be okay," he murmured. An ant crawled over his bare foot, then back down, walking on the bloated bodies of its fellows.
"Kakashi." He reached out and touched the boy. Kakashi flinched away, hands tightening in his father's hair.
"It's fine," Kakashi said. His voice was thready. The wind picked up, tugging at wet hair, unable to move it. Leaves swirled around them, flipping silver and green. "It's fine," Kakashi said again, settling back into his place, and forcibly relaxing his hands. His pupils were dilated. "I channeled chakra into him, like Rin showed me, so he should be okay."
The Jounin's blue eyes flashed, noting details in a single glance. The child was shrunken. His skin was almost gray. His eyes were washed out, now the palest of blue. He looked half dead himself. His chakra flickered raggedly around him.
"That's good," the Jounin said carefully. "That was smart of you, to channel chakra into him." He kept his voice low, steady. Soothing. "You should come with me now. Eat something. I'll call a doctor." He edged closer, still crouched, reaching out carefully.
White Fang's eyes stared flatly up, starting to sink into his head. An ant crawled into the slack mouth and vanished.
"Call the doctor. I'll stay here," Kakashi said softly. His hands trembled as he patted the hair down again. "He needs someone to keep him warm." He tugged the man's shirt tighter around the body. The cloth squelched between his fingers. He shivered. His clothing was wet through, soaked from morning dew and blood.
Carefully, the blond reached out and touched Kakashi again.
Cold. His chakra was faded. His stamina was used up. The boy was going into shock.
"Have you been out here all night?" he asked, inching ever closer.
"Is it morning?" Kakashi asked absently. "I'm going to be late for training. Am I late for training? I'm sorry."
Carefully, the Jounin moved until he sat behind the child, one leg on either side of the boy's. "That's all right. But, Kakashi-kun, we should go inside now."
The little body tensed up. There was a flare of chakra, the last little bit, as Kakashi worked to bring his mind farther into the present. "But Father--"
"It'll be okay. I promise. You've been very brave." Carefully, so carefully because he didn't want to panic a Chuunin ninja, he wrapped his arms around Kakashi and began to disentangle the child's fingers from the corpse's hair. "It's time to go, Kakashi."
There was a moment where he was still. Then Kakashi started to struggle, weakly, weaker than his sensei had ever seen him. "Wait, wait," the child breathed. "I have to put his body back--" he shoved at the blackened intestines, pushing them into the hole in the man's stomach. Flies swarmed up, and little ants ran every which way, trying to escape.
The Jounin caught the boy's hands, pulling him close against his chest, pulling him free of the body. The head dropped onto the stone with an ugly thump.
The child in his arms was all skin and bone, sharp angles and wiry muscle, but trembling and faint, like all the strength had left him. Left behind in the corpse. Pouring chakra into a dead man all night long . . . the young Jounin shuddered, wrapped the boy up, and carried Kakashi into the house.
"Wait--wait--Sensei--" Kakashi whimpered, twisting to look back.
He could hear the drone of bugs behind them. "It's all right, Kakashi-kun. It's okay. Come inside with me."
The little body was still shaking. He'd stopped fighting. His chakra was nearly gone, only the lightest of pulses, fading into shock. He laid against his sensei's shoulder, hands tucked between their chests. "I tried to keep him warm . . . "
His big hand covered the boy's entire head. Frightened, the Jounin began to channel his own energy into the little child, grabbing at the frayed ends of the boy's chakra and pulling them together, patching them, giving him enough that he wouldn't just fade into death.
"You did the very best you could. No one could ask for you to be any stronger." He closed the door behind them, and kept walking. Back, into the bedrooms. Into Kakashi's room, which was frighteningly adult. "I'm going to call some people. I want you to sleep now, okay?"
"I'm bleeding." The words were small.
He looked down, at Kakashi's hands, covered in his father's blood. Carefully, he settled the child on the edge of the futon, then began to wipe the blood away with his shirt.
"I picked up my father's sword . . . he always says I shouldn't play with them, but it was poking him . . ."
Small cuts across each palm. It didn't take long to find the first aid supplies, and bandage Kakashi's hands. Kakashi continued staring down at them long after they were covered with pristine, white cloth.
"Sleep now, Kakashi-kun," he said softly.
Kakashi looked up at him, eyes blank and pale.
"I'm going to call the doctor." And he would, too. Not for the body outside, but for the boy in front of him.
Kakashi just sat there, staring at him, through him. Finally, he took Kakashi's shoulders and gently pressed, until the boy was lying on his side. The Jounin covered him with the heaviest blankets he could find, called a medic, and with shaking hands started to make tea.
When he walked back into Kakashi's room, the boy was still staring at him with large, blank eyes.
"I tried to keep him warm," Kakashi said quietly.
He nodded and sat down on the futon, one hand on the silver head. "I know. You did the best you could. Sleep now, Kakashi."
Kakashi continued staring at the far wall.
Then (After the past, back to near-current times . . .)
He flipped dejectedly through his book. Not even Icha Icha Paradise could cheer him at the moment. (Three hours of sleep would do that to a person.)
Distantly, he could hear children playing in the creek. Far away, thank god. His tree was undisturbed, except by the occasional ant. He watched it crawl toward his boot, and moved his foot.
He flipped through the book again. No, no good. He'd already read it. Re-reading it wasn't going to make him feel any better.
Kakashi put his book back in his pocket and glared at the forest floor. Damn forest floor.
Nah, it was too much work to glare. He went back to staring at the leaves.
Damn Iruka, anyway. What did he think he was doing, hanging out, worming his way in until there was a while new host of bad dreams to deal with? Stupid man.
He jumped and looked down.
As if his thoughts had summoned the Chuunin, Iruka was standing by the bank of the creek, looking out over the water. Tan hands were on his hips, and he looked vaguely annoyed. Or maybe concerned. Constipated. Hungry. It was hard to tell from Kakashi's angle.
Kakashi watched him.
"Kakashi? Gai said you'd probably be here . . ." then, quieter, "though I'm starting to feel like a fool, talking to the trees."
Kakashi couldn't help it. He laughed. Damn Iruka for being able to pull him out of a bad mood, just like that. (Not that his bad moods ever lasted, anyway, but when he had one, he should be allowed to hang on to it.)
Kakashi swung down, landing silently. Iruka, however, had heard the laugh, and was already facing him.
"Is everything okay?" Iruka asked.
Kakashi cocked his head. "Of course. Why?"
"I don't know. I just went by your usual haunts and you weren't there . . ." Iruka petered off. No doubt because Kakashi was laughing.
"You know my usual haunts? That's a bit obsessive, Iruka."
Iruka glared at him.
Then Kakashi remembered what he had pretty much decided on before. He didn't need any more nightmares. Therefore, he didn't need any more friends.
"Want to go for ramen?" Iruka asked.
That sounded good. No, wait, he wasn't supposed to be friends anymore. "I don't think so." The bad mood was returning.
"You don't think so? Why not?" Iruka sounded annoyed. He rubbed at the scar across his face, frowning.
"I have things to do," Kakashi said airily.
"Like what? I work in the mission office, and I know we're slow this week."
Kakashi thought about glaring, but discarded the idea as requiring too much energy. "I'm just busy."
Iruka stared at him. "Are you trying to brush me off?" he asked after a moment, sounding . . . well, rather irritated. Not upset in the slightest, but definitely irritated.
Kakashi smiled brightly and nodded. At least the man was getting the idea.
Reason . . . reason. . . . For once in his life, a lie didn't pop to the forefront of his mind. "No."
"I see. You're just being insane."
When put that way, Kakashi's carefully thought out logic seemed to fail. "Yes."
Iruka shook his head slightly and stared at the ground for a moment. "All right. Do you want to go get friend-free ramen?"
Kakashi nodded before he could stop himself. Friend-free. He could do friend-free. Wait. Was there such a thing as friend-free ramen? He wanted there to be friend-free ramen. Two people could go get ramen and not be friends. And if they weren't friends, he wouldn't have nightmares.
Still, he wasn't sure it worked that way. But he didn't have experience in things like this, and Iruka did, and Iruka wouldn't lie to him, would he? No. People didn't generally lie, in Kakashi's experience. Still . . . He looked over, but Iruka was already walking away. No time now to take it back, at least not without seeming like a complete fool.
He rubbed his hands on his pants, then stuffed them in his pockets. Damn.
So, I read the recent rumor that they will be releasing a Gold/Silver/Crystal remake game for the DS and that it will be announced on the 10th of this month. I can't stand remakes likes this or "3rd versions" of Pokémon generation rpg games on the handhelds that are basically cut and paste version of their counterparts with minor bonuses thrown in. What I want to come out is the true next generation Pokémon games so that I can actually get more than just 1-3 Pokémon that weren't catchable in the new one. Also with a new generation there is the possibility that they can add some revolutionary features, beef up the computer a.i., add more customizations, etc. I can't stand how Nintendo milks the Pokémon franchise like this and also in the past they have released pathetic Pokémon games on GameCube luckily though they didn't try to cut and paste from the handhelds but they did make a generic and terrible adventure game just the same that didn't match the polish or charm of the handheld games. I may be in the minority but I don't want to play another freaking remake of a Pokémon game. (previous remakes were of Red/Blue) Since Nintendo loves remakes to death I can almost bet they will remake Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald LOL.
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