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So we have decided to take the Whiskey Developer Podcast (The Speakeasy) in a new direction. In the upcoming podcasts (and related blog posts) we'll be talking more about code and the tools and tricks we're using to help us build our sites. Along with each podcast, we'll be publishing code snippets and examples to help listeners follow along and hopefully use/discuss the code we're releasing. The goal being, to give the community a deeper understanding of the technology we use to build our sites and to help budding developers grow 

In this podcast, we discuss how we go about setting up the data structures for our sites - as well as how we use Python and Django to abstract a number of repetitive tasks in the process. We also talk about the current projects each of us are currently working on, as well as what you can expect from the team in the near future.

The associated code samples (and all future code samples) are hosted at GitHub.

The Podcast:

The Source Code:


As a side note - Dave's audio gets a little wonked up about halfway through the podcast (I'm still trying to nail it all down) -- so bear w/ us :)

Enjoy... and as always, we welcome all feedback and questions.
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He looks the part, I'm not arguing that. Does he have the chops? Light's not the most complicated character out there in movie-land, even if he is more layered than your average teen movie hero. So it's plausible.

But I don't relish the idea of having to sit with all his screechy little fangirls in a movie theater for two hours.

...If I wanted that, I'd spend more time at YaoiCon.
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"50 Hottest Sci-Fi Women" feature on UGO
"50 Hottest Sci-Fi Women" feature on UGO





I was checking the mail on my domain and saw the above sponsored link tonight. I clicked on it and was taken to a page-by-page photo feature (I HATE THOSE!) on UGO called "50 Hottest Sci-Fi Women" from last November. Faye Valentine from Cowboy Bebop was #44 [link] and desired for being "strong in all the right ways" and "not just a steteotypical anime chick". The only video-game character was Samus Aran at #8 [link].





















Among the "Related Features" in the sidebar was
"Top 50 Animated Hotties" and being curious, I clicked down that trail. The earliest comment is from December 8th so I'm guessing that's when the feature appeared. Each entry explained "what makes her hot" and "who should play her" if there were a live-action adaptation. Anime characters took 11 spots: Maya Natsume from Tenjho Tenge (#4), Kei and Yuri from Dirty Pair (#11), Sailor Mars from Sailor Moon (#12), Faye from Bebop (#16 - with text & image copy-pasted from the Sci-Fi Women feature! Lazy UGO!) , female Ranma from Ranma 1/2 (#20), Asuka from Evangelion (#28), Ryoko from Tenchi Muyo (#31), Motoko Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell (#35), Saya from Blood: The Last Vampire (#37), Trixie from Speed Racer (#45), and Agatha June/Princess from Battle of the Planets/G-Force (#47). [Chun-Li from Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie (#15) and Tifa Loveheart from FF VII: Advent Children (#10) were also listed but I consider them to be primarily video game characters.]

Characters I'd never heard of before were Holli Would from Cool World (#3), Kimberly from Space Ace (#18), Firestar from Spider-Man & His Amazing Friends (#22), Taarna from Heavy Metal (#33), M'Ress from Star Trek: The Animated Series (#36), and Kylie Griffin from Extreme Ghostbusters (#38).

Personally, I don't care for UGO's young male demographic bent but I would include Motoko, Asuka, and Faye among some of my favorite female anime characters, although there are some others I like more (e.g., Saki, Genshiken; Mireille, Noir, et al.)
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"Parallel universe or alternative reality is a self-contained separate reality coexisting with one's own." - Wikipedia

Rebooting a franchise is difficult, especially one with such a history and fandom as the Star Trek fandom. One needs a thick skin and a love for the franchise and the fandom. J. J. Abrams has definitely proven that love and care over the course of two hours that is the new Star Trek, which manages to start a completely new thread of story telling that old fans know nothing about without screwing up what they already know (already no small feat) while still paying a faithful homage to the original (perhaps an even larger feat). All the while, Abrams creates a fun and entertaining movie that is easily accessible and doesn't require intense experience of the franchise to understand or enjoy (probably the largest feat overall).

Besides, it's not the first time the franchise has played with alternate realities. Mirror universe, anyone?

Abrams and his writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman manage to create fun-filled and entertaining ride while simultaneously remaining unshackled by and utilizing the original Star Trek canon. The story is eventful and action-packed, but it has meaning aside from being a simple summer blockbuster. Indeed, the Federation and the galazy are in danger again, and it's up to Kirk and crew to save it both once more and for the first time.

Is this confusing anyone? Time travel tends to do that. Don't think about it too hard and enjoy the movie.

Back to Kirk and crew, you'll find many of the actors doing their roles incredible justice. The three that particularly come to mind are Karl Urban (Bones), Simon Pegg (Scotty) and Anton Yelchin (Chekov). You'll almost have a hard time believing they aren't the incarnations of the late Deforest Kelly and James Doohan and the thankfully still-with-us Walter Koening while they are also able to stand independent of their seniors in their roles. Zachary Quinto of Heroes fame does a great job of Spock as well, made all the more intriguing with Leonard Nemoy actually Spock as well, giving two different takes on the same character that both fit incredible well. Chris Pine does a good job capturing the essence of Kirk, as does Zoe Saldana with Uhura, but they don't seem to adapt their senior actor's performances as much as they make the parts their own. It does not detract from the movie or their roles, however, as they perform just as well as everyone and make their parts believable (some heavy-handed romance not withstanding).

With the villain of the movie, Nero (played by Eric Bana), his actions and mannerisms seem befitting someone with his situation and experience. He is not a great military tacticion, instead acting out of emotion. This brings a slightly-more unbridled fury not typically seen in major Star Trek villains that tend to be more cold and calculating. This does not seem out of sync with the franchise though as his origin and methodology fits in quite well. It is a turn to the more action orientation this film has over some previous films. However, Nero's rage and the subsequent battles that stem from it are very fitting.

And of course, one cannot forget the most important member of the franchise: the NCC-1701 USS Enterprise. She's pretty. Very pretty. There's a lot of nice shots of the ship in space, in combat and generally in any sort of action or just being stationed. She seems a faithful redesign of the original. The sets of the interior (and the technology overall) do a good job maintaining something that would look futuristic to us but not too futuristic in the Trek time line. Be warned though for those with intimate Trek ship design knowledge, I can't speak to the sets staying to scale inside the ship there they would actually fit, although talking with friends tell me that might be just as on par with the original series as most everything else.

Now in full disclosure, I consider myself a Star Trek fan. I'm not to the caliber of many people I know, especially not with an encyclopedic knowledge of the franchise or the technical data of every ship. Aside from Enterprise though, I have seen either a good majority, if not all, of every series and movie ever since I was watching The Next Generation as it aired on television. I used to run around as a little kid with a little TNG Starfleet emblem stuck on my shirt and even made my own cardboard Enterprise-D set for my action figures.

Speaking as a fan of the franchise, I enjoyed this movie and its faithfulness to the characters and the overall story. Speaking as someone who typically enjoys summer blockbusters, this won't disappoint and does not require heavy Trek experience to understand or enjoy. This summer will be packed with blockbusters from pre-existing franchises, such as Transformers: Rise of the Fallen and G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra. With any luck, they'll be just as accessible and entertaining while full of fan service as Star Trek is. I recommend seeing this movie.
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http://moonstorm.podomatic.com/entry/2009-05-07T14_22_22-07_00
The week me and lunermoth talk bout Japan's plan to promote anime overseas.
San Francisco is going to get one cool building the summer.
There more trouble in the anime world with BEI and broccoli but ADV make a save and Kodansha is bringing a classic back.
Is this all because some bubble has burst.
Next up will the US Death Note be bad or awesome.
Cruchyroll gives some translators a chance and gives of some Gundam 00 love.
Then how do you manage a 48 member band? Check out some of Takashi Murakami other work.
Also why haven't anyone incensed library wars.
We also admire some vary hot figures.
Give a shout out the HeeroYuy for wining this weeks Userday. A meh to moot and a grate AMV by Aceofclub5.
News on Spice and Wolf II OP and ED
Finally SPJA Finalist.
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ANIME EXPO® ANNOUNCES KARI WAHLGREN AS AN OFFICIAL 2009 AMERICAN GUEST OF
HONOR

Nation¹s Largest Anime and Manga Convention Welcomes Voice Actress of FLCL,
LUCKY STAR, BLOOD+, WITCH HUNTER ROBIN, SAMURAI CHAMPLOO, WOLF¹S RAIN, LAST
EXILE, EUREKA 7, SCRAPPED PRINCESS, IGPX: IMMORTAL GRAND PRIX, NARUTO,
ROBOTECH: THE SHADOW CHRONICLES, STEAMBOY and Many More!

Anaheim, California (May 5, 2009) ‹ Anime Expo® is proud to announce Ms.
Kari Wahlfren as an official Guest of Honor of the nation¹s largest anime
and manga convention held July 2-5, 2009 at the Los Angeles Convention
Center. More information can be found on the website www.anime-expo.org
<http://www.anime-expo.org> .

Ms. Wahlgren has entertained millions of anime audiences. First as the
Vespa-riding, guitar-bashing Haruko in FLCL. Since then, she has played a
number of significant anime roles including Kagami in LUCKY STAR, Saya in
BLOOD+, Robin in WITCH HUNTER ROBIN, Fuu in SAMURAI CHAMPLOO, Cher in WOLF¹S
RAIN, Lavie in LAST EXILE, Anemone in EUREKA 7, Pacifica in SCRAPPED
PRINCESS, Satomi and Luca the Cat in IGPX: IMMORTAL GRAND PRIX, and Tayuya
in NARUTO. Ms. Wahlgren also provided the voice of Ariel in the movie
³Robotech: the Shadow Chronicles,² Scarlett in the anime feature ³Steamboy,²
and the Princess in the movie ³Naruto: Ninja Clash in the Land of Snow.²

Ms. Wahlgren has also done voicework for a number of video games including
Prince of Persia, Final Fantasy: Dirge of Cerebus, Dead or Alive Extreme 2,
Spiderman II, Justice League Heroes and James Bond: From Russia with Love.
Other games that Ms. Wahlgren worked on include Tales from Symphonia, Metal
Gear Solid: Portable Ops, Tekken 5, Command and Conquer III, Star Wars: the
Force Unleashed, Star Wars: Empire at War, Star Wars Episode III: Return of
the Sith, Armored Core IV, Guild Wars III and IV, Transformers, and all
three games in the Xenosaga series.

Ms. Wahlgren is also active in original animation; she plays Emma Frost in
the animated ³Wolverine and the X-Men² series, she provided the voices of
Li¹l Condi and Li¹l Hillary on season 2 of Comedy Central¹s ³Li¹l Bush² and
was Saturn Girl, Triplicate Girl/ Duo Damsel and Shrinking Violet on the
Kids WB¹s ³Legion of Superheroes.² Ms. Wahlgren also voices the role of
Jeera on Nickelodeon¹s ³Tak and the Power of Juju² and played Nova, the
Yellow Monkey, in ³Super Robot Monkey Team Hyperforce Go!² Ms. Wahlgren has
appeared on Ben 10, The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, Kim Possible,
Disney¹s feature films ³BOLT² and ³The Little Mermaid III² and Dreamwork¹s
³Shrek III.²

Ms. Wahlgren joins Daisuke Ishiwatari, Toshimichi Mori and Morning Musume as
official Anime Expo® 2009 Guests of Honor.

Attendees, Press and Industry Members are also encouraged to view the video
coverage site of the 2008 convention at www.AXBackstage.org
<http://www.AXBackstage.org> .

Red & Black Sponsors include: FUNimation, Silver Sponsors include: Anime
News Network and Digital Manga Press, Patron Sponsors include: COPIC,
Central Park Media and The Right Stuf, Media Sponsors include: ImaginAsian
TV, Animation Magazine, Anime Insider Magazine and Anime News Network.


About Anime Expo®
Located in Los Angeles, California - Anime Expo®, the nation¹s largest
anime/manga convention, serves to foster trade, commerce and the interests
of the general public and animation/ comics industry. This event serves as a
key meeting place for the general public to express their interest and
explore various aspects of anime/manga, as well as for members of the
industry to conduct business. AX 2009 will be held July 2 ­ July 5, 2009 at
the Los Angeles Convention Center in Southern California. More information
can be found at its website (www.anime-expo.org).

About Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation
The Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation (SPJA) is a non-profit
organization with a mission to popularize and educate the American public
about anime and manga, as well as provide a forum to facilitate
communication between professionals and fans. This organization is more
popularly known by its entertainment property ­ Anime Expo®. More
information can be found at its website (www.spja.org <http://www.spja.org>
).

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VIZ PICTURES TO RELEASE THE DARK ROMANTIC COMEDY HAPPILY EVER AFTER ON DVD 

Director Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s Award Winning Film About A Married Couple’s Unconventional Relationship Is Based On Popular

Manga Comic  

San Francisco, CA, May 5, 2009 – VIZ Pictures, an affiliate of VIZ Media, LLC that focuses on Japanese live-action film distribution, has announced the DVD release of the live-action feature film - HAPPILY EVER AFTER on May 12th. The DVD will also include the original theatrical trailers, director and cast profiles, and insightful tips on Japanese culture. The DVD will carry a suggested retail price of $24.92 U.S. / $35.99 CAN and will be distributed in North America by VIZ Media.  

To complement the release, VIZ Pictures has launched a HAPPILY EVER AFTER giveaway contest for a prize package that includes the DVD, film poster, a premium Japanese cotton towel, and an Anime Sampler Pack courtesy of The Right Stuf / Nozomi Entertainment. Fans are encouraged to visit www.shojobeat.com/moviepack47 for contest details and online entry forms. 

HAPPILY EVER AFTER is a visually striking romantic comedy from celebrated director, Yukihiko Tsutsumi (Memories of Tomorrow, 20th Century Boys) and based on a popular manga (graphic novel) series created by Yoshiie Gouda that has sold more than half a million copies in Japan. The film stars popular comedic leading man Hiroshi Abe and actress Miki Nakatani, who drew international acclaim for her role in TRAIN MAN: DENSHA OTOKO (also available on DVD from VIZ Pictures). 

In this heart-warming film, Yukie (Miki Nakatani) works hard at a noodle shop and struggles to make ends meet, while her husband Isao (Hiroshi Abe) hangs around all day gambling and getting into trouble. On top of everything, Isao's uncontrollable temper often results in the dinner table getting overturned and their meal on the floor. Everyone advises Yukie to leave Isao, but her love for him is unconditional because he was the one who initially saved her from misery with his unconditional love. Miki Nakatani won the 31st Japanese Academy Awards for Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role for her portrayal of Yukie. 

“Director Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s unflinching camera style captures the drama of the strife this couple encounters, as well as the many comedic moments that will incite laughs and tears with equal measure,” says Seiji Horibuchi, President and CEO of VIZ Pictures. “Despite the many struggles this couple faces, they always manage to face adversity with laughter and ultimately remain in each other’s hearts. We look forward to this unique film resonating with domestic audiences.” 

About VIZ Pictures, Inc.

Based in San Francisco, CA, VIZ Pictures, Inc. distributes Japanese live-action films and DVDs, with particular focus on Japanese "kawaii (cute) and cool" pop culture. VIZ Pictures approaches each release from a J-pop fan's point of view to serve manga and anime generation in North America. VIZ Pictures titles include DEATH NOTE, KAMIKAZE GIRLS, LINDA LINDA LINDA, PING PONG, THE TASTE OF TEA, TRAIN MAN: DENSHA OTOKO and others. The company will continue to offer the hottest visual entertainment straight from the "Kingdom of Pop" for audiences of all ages in North America. VIZ Pictures, Inc. is an affiliate of VIZ Media, LLC, the San Francisco-based leading U.S. publisher of Japanese manga (comics) and merchandise licensor of Japanese animation such as the popular "NARUTO" animated TV series. For more information please visit www.viz-pictures.com or www.viz.com. 

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IRASSHAIMASE! ANIME EXPO® 2009 ANNOUNCES ANIMAID CAFÉ TO DEBUT AT THIS YEAR¹S CONVENTION

Nation¹s Largest Anime and Manga Convention Looking for Maids & Hosts

Anaheim, California (May 6, 2009) ‹ Ever imagined or wanted to experience
the maid cafes of Akihabara, Japan in the U.S.? After much anticipation and
planning, Anime Expo® 2009 is proud to present its first ever Maid Café at
the nation¹s largest anime and manga convention held July 2-5, 2009 at the
Los Angeles Convention Center. More information can be found on the website
www.anime-expo.org <http://www.anime-expo.org> .

Hosted by the Funky Fresh Cosplay Group, AniMaid Café is an event you will
not want to miss! The AniMaid Café caters to all guests with both Maids and
Hosts. Enjoy the evening with food, drinks, live performances, fun
interactive games, contests, prizes, merriment and much more! Don¹t miss
out on your chance to be a ³master² at the nation¹s largest anime and manga
convention.

The AniMaid Café is also looking for volunteer Maids and Hosts!

Volunteers assist with serving of guests and looking after certain areas.
Interested individuals/parties are encouraged to apply and final decisions
will be maid by the AniMaid Café management staff. Requirements are as
follows:

· Must be at least 18 years of age or older
· Must have a great personality and works well with others
· Must be in good health (in order to participate in live events)
· Must be willing the make/buy his/her own Maid/Host outfits (subject to
approval by the AniMaid Café management staff and must be in line with the
Anime Expo® dress code)
· Must be able to make meetings for trainings (Most trainings will be
conducted in the Southern California region consisting of Los Angeles and/or
Orange County areas)

Interested individuals/parties should send an email correspondence to
animaidcafe@yahoo.com with basic information about themselves and a picture.
Further information will be provided upon receipt of initial application.

Attendees, Press and Industry Members are also encouraged to view the video
coverage site of the 2008 convention at www.AXBackstage.org
<http://www.AXBackstage.org> .

Red & Black Sponsors include: FUNimation, Silver Sponsors include: Anime
News Network and Digital Manga Press, Patron Sponsors include: COPIC,
Central Park Media and The Right Stuf, Media Sponsors include: ImaginAsian
TV, Animation Magazine, Anime Insider Magazine and Anime News Network.


About Anime Expo®
Located in Los Angeles, California - Anime Expo®, the nation¹s largest
anime/manga convention, serves to foster trade, commerce and the interests
of the general public and animation/ comics industry. This event serves as a
key meeting place for the general public to express their interest and
explore various aspects of anime/manga, as well as for members of the
industry to conduct business. AX 2009 will be held July 2 ­ July 5, 2009 at
the Los Angeles Convention Center in Southern California. More information
can be found at its website (www.anime-expo.org).

About Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation
The Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation (SPJA) is a non-profit
organization with a mission to popularize and educate the American public
about anime and manga, as well as provide a forum to facilitate
communication between professionals and fans. This organization is more
popularly known by its entertainment property ­ Anime Expo®. More
information can be found at its website (www.spja.org <http://www.spja.org>
).

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Chapter nine
Long ago . . .

"Sakumo-san, thank you for coming," the blond Jounin said, stepping back into the office.

"Is everything all right? Kakashi--"

"Is in the yard, with the students. I called you because . . ." He petered off, sitting down at his desk and rubbing his eyes. "Sakumo, Kakashi has started wearing mask. Do you have any idea why?"

"No," Sakumo said, too tired to be truly concerned. "Have you asked him about it?"

The Jounin frowned. "I thought maybe you could ask him. I'm a bit worried about him; I've never had a student quite so--"

"Thank you," Saskumo interrupted, standing. He knew it was rude. He couldn't bring himself to care. This man had implied things about his son--his son, who was brilliant and--and--and now he had something else he had to deal with. He couldn't do all this. "I'll talk to him." He walked out of the office and into the yard.

Kakashi sat alone on a swing under an old tree, watching children play. A long cloth was tied around the lower portion of his face, knotted behind his head.

"Kakashi?" his father called, managing to smile slightly when blue eyes looked up at him. "Come on."

Kakashi got to his feet, very thin and straight. He had tested in the Chuunin exams just a few weeks before; only eight months after becoming a Genin. The Third had put him under the care of one of their younger Jounin, a man that everyone said was a genius. They had no other Genin they could pair a six-year-old with. No one else could compare with Kakashi. Sakumo was proud of his boy, and yet still wondered if his wife had been right. If it wasn't too much, too fast. He felt like he didn't even know his child anymore. The year had been . . . bad.

And now his son was wearing a mask.

They walked in silence for a long while. "Why?" Sakumo asked finally.

Kakashi shrugged.

Silence stretched awkwardly. "I'm very proud of you," Sakumo said after a while.

Kakashi didn't respond.

"We haven't spoken lately." Weeks, since they had had a real conversation. Anything beyond 'good morning' and 'have a nice day.' Sakumo blamed himself. There was no one else to blame. He had isolated them from their village. He had ostracized their entire family. He had become so involved in his own pain that he had forgotten his only child, leaving him almost entirely in the care of a Jounin he barely knew.

He was a failure, but Kakashi was suffering for it.

"Why are you wearing a mask?" Sakumo asked again, the words quiet. He put a hand on his son's arm, stopping him.

The boy--the child, really--pulled away, glaring. "I don't want to look like you. I don't want to see my face, and I don't want the others to see it, either. I hate you, and I hate what you did, and I hate that I look like you."

"Kakashi--" Sakumo started.

"Leave me alone," Kakashi snapped, turning and bolting down the street.

Sakumo almost followed. But--no point. Not in any of it. All he did was bring his child pain. He sat heavily on a bench, his head in his hands.

There was no way out of anything.

**
Now

"So, you were how old when you became a Jounin?" Iruka asked, a note of barely hidden incredulousness in his voice.

Kakashi didn't smile, though it was a chore. He was proud of what he'd accomplished, and it was nice to have someone he actually cared about sound impressed. "Thirteen."

"Huh. And how old when you became ANBU?" Iruka asked again, folding laundry.

That one, Kakashi had to think about. "Seventeen," he said finally. "I'm pretty sure I was seventeen."

"Huh." Iruka folded two towels, setting them on a pile, and reached for a bedsheet. "If you were a Jounin by the time you were thirteen," he said slowly, "who was in your team?"

Kakashi shifted. His limbs still felt vaguely sluggish, and he was getting cold again. It seemed like he slept most of the time, still. "Other Jounin," he said, pulling the blanket up around his legs. Outside, rain pattered against the building, distant and faint. He could taste the burn of ozone, and suspected they might have lightning later.

"Were there other Jounin your age?" Iruka asked. He was frowning at a hole in the sheet, his finger wiggling through it as if that might make it go away.

"Not really. Itachi, but he's a bit younger than me. And we didn't travel in the same circles."

Iruka just looked at him for a moment. Kakashi looked back. Discomfort grew. The impressed look had given way to an entirely too thoughtful one. "Yes?" Kakashi asked, uncomfortable.

"Hmm? Oh, nothing," Iruka said, shaking his head as if rooting himself back in his body, and returning to folding. "I just--well, you and Uchiha Itachi were really the only geniuses that had to grow up alone. The Sannin all had each other, and even still, Orochimaru turned out like he did. I was trying to figure out if there was a difference between those that handled it all right, and those that didn't. It seems like you'd be awfully isolated."

Kakashi frowned behind his mask. "I wasn't isolated."

"So you had friends?" Iruka asked, perking up.

"Well--I didn't need them."

Iruka was looking at him thoughtfully again. "Hmm," he said, and tied two socks together.

"Hmm?" Kakashi asked. He really disliked having someone draw conclusions about him. He drew conclusions about people, not the other way around. Another reason he preferred lying to telling the truth. People didn't make decisions about you.

Outside, thunder growled.

"Nothing." They were silent for a moment.

Kakashi sprawled back out on the couch, feeling sleepy once more. He stared out the window at the setting sun, at the reds splashed across the sky.

"Why do you wear the mask?" Iruka asked.

Kakashi just shrugged. Then he grinned, both eyes curving. "Makes me mysterious."

Iruka snorted and carried the clean clothes to his bedroom, then came back for towels and sheets. He tossed a blanket on the couch and it bounced across, half unfolding over Kakashi's legs. Kakashi pulled it farther up, enjoying the heat.

He was getting tired of being tired all the time. Of being cold, and exhausting easily, and sleeping for most of the day. Especially of this stupid damp storm, which made his bones hurt. Still, he could see the improvement. Taking a shower left him trembling from fatigue, but at least he could get all the way through one without having to sit down.

A few more days.

**

Iruka put the towels away, and walked back into the living room. He could sense Kakashi fading again, could feel the man's chakra ebbing, and knew that he'd be sound asleep in another half hour.

Still, Kakashi roused himself and blinked owlishly. Iruka was getting used to the Sharingan, and the clean scar that marred the smooth flesh around it. He no longer felt the urge to stare. He still wondered, though, why the mask.

Kakashi apparently wasn't willing to answer that question.

"What did you do today?" Kakashi asked, leaning heavily against the arm of the couch.

Iruka headed into the kitchen, talking through the doorway while he prepared dinner. The window was sleeted with rain, making the night even darker. "Oh, mostly work."

"You were home late."

He couldn't quite suppress the grin, and he leaned around the doorway to see Kakashi. "Sorry, honey," he said, near mockingly.

Kakashi snorted a laugh. "Well, Shikamaru's not quite as good company . . ."

"You win at Shougi yet?" Iruka asked, heading farther into the kitchen. He peered into cupboards, wishing he'd gone grocery shopping. But the storm had been threatening, and he hadn't wanted to get caught . . .

"I've won several times, thank you. He's just won more," Kakashi added, in an undertone.

Iruka laughed.

"Where were you?" Kakashi asked again.

"Visiting Mizuki," Iruka answered. He had ramen, mostly left over for Naruto, and some vegetables . . . maybe if he chopped enough vegetables, the ramen would be edible.

"Mizuki? Didn't he try to steal the--"

"Yes," Iruka said, before Kakashi could finish the thought. "He's still in prison. I try and see him at least once a week." The carrots had gone bad. He sighed and tossed them into the garbage. Scratch that idea.

A shadow fell across him, and Iruka looked up to see Kakashi leaning against the doorframe, trying to look nonchalant and still looking very pale. "Didn't he use you?" Kakashi asked.

The kitchen lit up for just a moment, and thunder snarled.

Iruka frowned. "Eventually. But he was a friend, and everyone makes mistakes."

"Most people don't try to kill each other," Kakashi said dryly. "You can't tell me that betrayal didn't hurt you."

Iruka scratched at his forehead. He hated these conversations. "Of course it did. He was my best friend. But everyone's redeemable, Kakashi," he said softly, back turned. "I have to believe that."

Kakashi was silent behind him. "Hn," he said at last.

Maybe they could just order food.

"Want me to cook?"

That was it. They were ordering food. "You go sit down before you fall down," Iruka said, frowning. "I'm going to the place down the street. What do you want?" He pulled a menu off his corkboard and handed it to Kakashi.

Kakashi shook his head. "Order often?"

Iruka didn't bother with an answer.

**

"Why are we talking about this?" Iruka asked, throwing out the pick-up dinner containers before settling back down on the floor with his plate. He could feel his face burning.

"Because it's funny," Kakashi said cheerfully.

"My sex life is not funny," Iruka muttered, only partially annoyed. Even he could see the humorous side, he had to admit.

"No, but your lack of a sex life is hilarious."

He mock-glared at Kakashi. "Isn't virginity supposed to be a turn-on?" he said, his plate in his lap. "Maybe I'm lying just to be sexier."

Kakashi laughed. "But you nearly had sex in a tree." It was almost a question.

Iruka groaned. "You know, when you made Genma stop teasing me, I thought you were going to let this drop."

"I was just making Genma drop it. That doesn't apply to me. So. Sex in a tree?"

"It was just fooling around, thank you," Iruka said, sniffing.

The apartment lit for a brief moment, as another bolt of lightning tore through the sky.

"With Mizuki?"

Iruka eyed Kakashi. "Apparently I have a thing for guys who look old," he said.

"Hey!" Kakashi protested instantly.

Iruka grinned.

"I was born with this hair," Kakashi said.

"So was Mizuki," Iruka answered. "Besides, why are you harassing me? I mean, I somehow doubt you have a secret life as a sex fiend."

Kakashi looked smug. "More than you."

"You don't know how much fooling around I did," Iruka countered.

"I know I'm not a virgin."

Iruka looked at him carefully. Kakashi looked utterly smug. "You're not a virgin?" Iruka asked doubtfully.

Kakashi shook his head.

"You've had sex?"

Kakashi nodded.

Iruka seriously doubted it. "When?" he demanded.

Kakashi hesitated.

"That's what I thought," he said, snorting. "You can't possibly tell me that you, the guy who says he had no friends because he was a Jounin at thirteen, has had sex. You don't even drink, so you couldn't have picked up at a bar."

Kakashi was looking mildly amused, eyes half lidded.

"And since you don't have a peer group--oh, wait, I know," Iruka said, waving his chipsticks in the air. "You had sex on a mission."

Kakashi grinned.

"I've got it!" Iruka said dramatically, standing up and carrying his plate into the kitchen. He still couldn't see out the window; rain was coming down in sheets. "You were on a mission, and something terrible happened, and so you had sympathy sex!"

There was no answer from the other room.

Iruka put his plate in the sink, grabbed a glass of water, and started to wander back out. "Only, you were really young," he said thoughtfully. "Got it! You were scared and got taken advantage of, but it was really okay because--"

He stopped dead in the doorway.

Kakashi wasn't smiling. He wasn't eating. He was staring at the doorway with half-lidded eyes, gaze cold. "I wasn't taken advantage of," he said quietly.

Iruka flinched, and went pale, the meaning of that statement sinking in with the realization that the rest of it hadn't been denied. "Oh. Oh, Kakashi, I'm sorry," he said softly.

Kakashi was sprawled back against the couch, feet propped on the table, gaze still half-lidded and deceptively bored.

"I didn't mean--" Iruka stopped, cringing internally. Of all the stupid things. It wasn't as if people having sex on missions was an uncommon occurrence. Not terribly common, either, but stranger things happened. "I'm really stupid sometimes," Iruka said, half stuttering over his own words.

Kakashi kept looking at him with that disinterested stare. "That's all right," he said casually. "Better to have sympathy sex than to be used and betrayed, and go back for more."

Iruka froze. Better to have sympathy sex than be used. Better, because to be used meant you were weak. To go back to the user was stupid, and foolish, and needy and--and desperate.

Mizuki.

Something tightened in his chest, something hard and cold and painful. Carefully, he picked up Kakashi's dinner plate and carried it back into the kitchen. Better to have sympathy sex then be used. He scraped off what was left of the meal, set it down in the sink, and started to run water. Stupid to allow yourself to be used. Worse to go back to the user.

Mizuki had used him. For sex? To steal? They hadn't been friends. Mizuki admitted it, told him he was foolish and naïve and good for nothing. And yet he kept going back to the man.

He'd hurt Kakashi. That much had been obvious. He hadn't meant to, but--

But--

But what? But he had, so it made Kakashi lashing out all right? It made it all right for Kakashi to say something calculated to hurt? To imply weakness in Iruka? It was effective, that was certain.

Lightning tore through the sky, and in that moment he saw Kakashi's shadow blasted on the wall in front of him. Thunder pealed into the silence.

"I'm sorry." The words were still cold.

Iruka didn't respond. He was shaking. He didn't dare speak.

He heard Kakashi take a deep breath, and step forward. "I didn't mean that."

"Yes, you did," Iruka said. His jaw was so tight it hurt. Better to have sympathy sex then be used. To be used and return was pathetic.

"No. I'm sorry."

He dropped his water glass into the sink, and it shattered. "No, you're not," he snapped, picking out the still-whole base and throwing it toward the trashcan. "You say things like this, and I don't know why you feel a fucking need to say these things--to, what? Get a reaction? I've seen you do this before--hell, you did this to me when you nominated Team Seven for the Chuunin exams! Well, you got a reaction."

He felt the hand more than saw it, and snarled a look over his shoulder. "Don't touch me."

Kakashi pulled away.

Iruka swept up the last of the glass with a towel and tossed all of it into the garbage. Then he turned to face Kakashi.

He was still shaking. "Mizuki was a mistake," he said. "But before that, he was a friend when I needed one. You're just an asshole." He turned back to the sink, hands braced on the counter. "Get out of my kitchen."

"Iruka--"

"Get out!" Iruka yelled. There was a moment of silence. Then he felt Kakashi retreat.

He stared at the running water for a long time. It hurt. He'd hurt Kakashi, but it hadn't been on purpose. That--that had been calculated. And it worked. It brought up all the things that had torn at him when Mizuki had betrayed him. All the insecurities, that he was only good for being used. That Mizuki had only been his friend so he could laugh behind Iruka's back. That he, himself, wasn't worth anything.

Pathetically needy. Used.

"Shit," Iruka hissed. He couldn't stay here.

He looked at the rain out the window, then shut off the water and stormed into his bedroom. He ignored Kakashi, sitting carefully silent on the couch, and changed into sweatpants and shirt.

"I'm going jogging," he said, walking straight through the living room and to the door.

"It's raining."

Iruka didn't answer, just bolted out and slammed the door behind him.

He ran. If he went hard enough and fast enough, maybe the anger would burn out. Maybe he'd forget everything.

His clothing soaked through almost instantly. He kept running, splashing across empty streets and out, away from the people and bright windows. Somewhere dark.

Trees arched overhead. He ran deeper into the shadows, focusing on the uneven ground beneath his feet, the cold rain hitting hot skin, anything but the hurt.

Kakashi didn't know how to be friendly. This wasn't worth it. He'd thought they were friends. Iruka knew people, but somehow it seemed like every time he got close, things went bad.

Maybe there was something wrong with him.

Iruka stopped running. Rain streamed down his back, mingling with sweat. He put his hands on his knees and panted, breathing in gasps. His clothes were plastered to his skin, his flesh pimpling with cold.

When he looked up, he realized he was at the monument. He put a hand out, palm flat on the black stone. It was wet, and cold, and it made him shiver.

His chest hurt from breathing. He rubbed an arm across his face, wiping away moisture. It dripped back in, from his hair, from the rain. One finger traced the names of his parents, shaking. He fell forward slowly, folding his arms across the stone and leaning in, as if they were there. As if he could feel them, somewhere, watching.

"I need help," he whispered. Rain pelted his head, hammering down through his hair, on the back of his neck, on his spine. "I don’t know what to do."

He rolled, dropping his arms and staring up at the sky, leaning back against the monument.

They'd been gone for twelve years. Twelve long years, and suddenly it was like it had been two days. That darkness opened up inside him, nearly swallowing him, and he realized he was crying. Iruka slid to the wet ground, bracing his arms on his knees and resting his head.

He needed them, and they were gone. He'd needed a friend, and Mizuki had used him. Kakashi was right. Kakashi was an asshole, who hurt him. But Kakashi was right.

By the time he'd worn himself out, had berated himself and hated Kakashi and run through the entire gamut of emotions, the storm was fading. He was shivering, his teeth chattering, and he was soaked. Iruka stood, his body protesting, and started the long walk back to his apartment.

He was tired. Bone-weary. It took much longer to get back than it had to run away.

He opened the door and nearly staggered inside.

He froze. Silence reached him, broken by the sound of his teeth knocking. He clenched his jaw to hear over them, and realized what was missing.

Kakashi.

Carefully, he walked through the room, toward the back. The bathroom was empty. So was his bedroom. He looked out the window, at the drizzle still coming down, and remembered the cold. Remembered Kakashi, still struggling with blood loss and minor organ damage, and barely able to even keep his own body heat up.

He shrugged into a coat and ran out the door.

| |

Chapter Eight
Now

"Ow."

Iruka looked up, frowning. "How can you be such a baby?"

"You're pulling my stitches," Kakashi grumbled.

"I'm not pulling your stitches. I'm not even near your stitches," Iruka said, frustrated. He lifted the ball of cotton, preparing to dab antiseptic on the slash along the back of Kakashi's arm.

"Ow."

"I haven't touched you yet!" Iruka exploded.

Kakashi flinched, and looked back over his shoulder. "Sorry."

Iruka took a deep breath. He needed to act like Kakashi was a child. That was all. Just the same way he would treat one of his students.

One of his students who was naked to the waist (with the exception of the mask). Who was very well muscled. Whose skin was crisscrossed and threaded with long, pale scars.

Iruka paused, eyes tracing the mesh of white lines. His mouth had gone dry. "You get injured often?" he asked softly.

Kakashi twisted, peering back farther, shoulders sliding under Iruka's hands. "Sometimes. Not usually badly."

Iruka nodded wordlessly. He touched a knot of flesh, twisted and gnarled, just under one shoulderblade. "How did this happen?"

Kakashi reached back with one long hand, feeling the scar for himself. "Kunai. Moved enough to keep it from getting my spine, but not quite enough to dodge entirely," he said nonchalantly.

Iruka kept staring.

"Iruka?"

"Hmm?" That scar traveled up, under Kakashi's mask. Three more scars traveled across it.

"You all right?"

"Fine," Iruka said absently. His hands slipped, sliding down the indent of Kakashi's spine. Wickedly twisted flesh wrapped around the Jounin's waist, notching over one hip, and vanishing into his pants. Iruka's fingers drifted over what he could see, feeling how the chakra was fainter there than everywhere else. The chakra pathways healed better than skin, but not perfectly. Damage them badly enough, and the person would never recover.

His mother had lain in a hospital bed, her chakra lines cut, bones and nerves shattered and torn. She had slowly faded away into nothingness.

The body under him twisted, and hands grabbed his. Iruka jumped and looked up into mismatched eyes. He blinked several times.

"Are you all right?" Kakashi asked quietly. His eyes flickered back and forth, between Iruka's own.

"Fine," Iruka said after a moment. Then he smiled sheepishly, realizing how distant he'd gotten. "I'm fine. Really. Sorry. I just--I don't--"

"You have scars, too," Kakashi said, smiling and releasing Iruka's hands to tap the bridge of his own nose.

Iruka touched his scar reflexively, then slid back on the couch. "I know. It's not that, I just--" he gestured to Kakashi. With the other man turned to watch him, he could see scars on his chest as well. "Sorry. I'm not used to so many. I mean, not since my parents--" he stopped there. "I'm just not used to it."

Kakashi watched him. "You've been on missions," he said finally. "I'm sure you have a few yourself."

Iruka felt his face turning pink. "Not so many. I haven't really done that many missions."

Kakashi turned his head away, smothering a sudden yawn, then turned back. "Why not? You're a Chunnin. You could do missions."

Iruka shook his head. "I prefer teaching. I like the kids, and I'm good at it. And I really don't like killing people."

Kakashi watched him for a moment more before nodding solemnly. "Some don't." He settled back against the couch, his energy fading. Iruka scooted closer, lifting the man's arm and dabbing antiseptic on the wound inside his elbow.

"Do you ever talk about your parents?" Kakashi asked, almost sleepily.

Iruka glanced at him. He was staring across the room, and Iruka followed his gaze.

A picture of the three of them, before their death, smiled back at him. He looked away. "Not really. Who wants to hear about that?"

Kakashi lifted his shoulders and dropped them again. "My parents died. I'd listen."

Iruka stopped and looked at Kakashi, who was staring right back at him, slouched on the couch. Something niggled in the back of his mind. Something he didn't like about that statement, that he couldn't quite place. After a moment, Iruka stood, bending over Kakashi to reach the rest of the cuts. On his neck, and the back of the man's arm, and various smaller, less dangerous ones, on his torso. He bandaged them wordlessly, then picked up his things and headed into the bathroom to put them away. By the time he came back out, Kakashi was asleep.

**
A long time ago

"I don't understand."

Sakumo sighed and shifted, gathering Kakashi's knees in one hand and pulling him more snugly into his lap.

"Is it because I joined the academy?"

There was a bare pause. Not long. But long enough.

Kakashi swallowed and stared hard at his knees. "I know Mother doesn't want me to be a ninja. I can stop. I won't be a ninja anymore."

"It's not because you joined the academy," his father said quietly.

Too late, though; the silence said everything. His mother was gone, and Kakashi knew why. He remembered them fighting. They fought about it a lot.

"It's not because of that," his father said again.

Kakashi squirmed until his father let him down. He stood in front of the man, looking up at him solemnly. "I'll quit."

"No," Sakumo said loudly.

Kakashi's eyes widened. He'd never heard his father talk to him like that.

"Kakashi . . ." Sakumo wilted, elbows on his knees. "Kakashi, something very bad has happened with your mother. She's going to live in a different place now."

"Very bad?" Kakashi asked softly. Suddenly, he wanted to cry. "Will she be okay?"

"She'll be fine," his father said, refusing to look up from his hands. "But she can't live with us anymore."

"Can I see her?" Kakashi asked.

Sakumo hesitated. "When you're older," he said finally.

Kakashi stared at him, as if he could divine the truth from what his father was saying. Finally, though, he had to concede defeat. "Promise?" he asked softly. He wouldn't cry. He wouldn't do anything like that. He was strong. He was going to be a ninja.

"Promise."

**
Now

It had been bothering Iruka all day, and it wasn't until he saw Genma snap his toothpick in two--though why that triggered his memory, he had no idea--that he realized what it was.

"My parents died," Kakashi had said.

"Just wait," Genma had said, "the next thing he'll tell you is that his mother is dead."

Iruka took a deep breath as his temper rose, snarling through his blood. There had to be a reason. A misunderstanding. Maybe Genma was wrong. Maybe Kakashi had meant his father was dead, not both parents.

"Genma?" Iruka asked, deceptively calm.

Genma--who was studying his broken toothpick with a frown--grunted.

"Where's Kakashi's mother?"

The Special Jounin shrugged, fishing a senbon out of his pocket. "Not sure anymore." He flipped it through the air, catching it in his teeth before chewing on it.

"Are you certain she's alive?" Iruka asked. He nearly held his breath, waiting for the answer. If he wasn't certain, then maybe she was dead, and Kakashi hadn't misled him.

"No idea. But last I heard she was." The senbon flicked from one side of his mouth to the other, sharp and glimmering.

The rest of the day passed in a haze. Eventually, Iruka closed up and headed back to his apartment.

By that time, anger had had a chance to boil. His parents were dead. There was nothing even remotely all right about saying someone was dead when they weren't.

He opened the door, fury building to a storm, and immediately had to swallow it.

Shikamaru was sitting across from Kakashi, staring hard at a Shougi board. Kakashi was slouched back in a nest of blankets, eyes half-lidded.

"Shikamaru?" Iruka asked. "What are you doing here?"

The boy looked up and shrugged, frowning slightly. "Asuma asked me to come keep Kakashi company for a while."

"Ah." Iruka wondered how to get rid of him. Shikamaru, however, didn't need a prompt--after a moment's study, he stood.

"I should go. We can finish tomorrow," he said, and made a quick exit.

"I think he cheats," Kakashi grumbled, staring at the board. "He won three games out of five. That's just not normal. I'm good at this . . ."

Iruka stood, nearly trembling. He took a deep breath. Then another. Kakashi still hadn't noticed. "What happened to your mother?" he said at last, trying to sound as conversational as possible.

Kakashi didn't look up. "Dead."

Iruka nodded. "Oh. When?"

"Years ago."

"How?"

"On a mission. What do you think about this set-up he has going?" Kakashi asked, poking at pieces.

Iruka still hadn't come entirely into the room.

Kakashi finally looked up.

"Genma seems to think she was alive fairly recently."

Kakashi just watched him.

Slowly, Iruka took off his shoes and entered the room. He didn't look at Kakashi. He wasn't sure if he could. "Is she dead or not?"

There was a long moment of silence. Iruka prayed she was dead. That it was a misunderstanding. Anything.

"No," Kakashi said finally. "She's not."

Anger and hurt rose like a tsunami, swamping Iruka. She wasn't dead. Kakashi had lied to him, and for no reason he could see. The man had made something so important nothing more than--than--

"Why would you say that she was dead?" Iruka nearly yelled, furious. "Is this your twisted way of trying to make friends? To say something I might relate to?"

Kakashi's eyes closed, a smile under his mask, and he shrugged nonchalantly. "She's dead to me."

"Dead to you and dead aren't the same thing!" Iruka shouted. "Dead to you means you were angry and glad she's gone, but if you ever decide you still love her you can go see her!" Something twisted in his stomach, something black and yawning. "I can't! My mother is dead, no matter what I wish!" It was then that he realized how much it hurt. To use something like that, to make everything he'd dealt with nothing more than a device to get close--

Iruka whipped away, stalked to the kitchen, turned, stalked back. Kakashi was staring hard at his hands. The smile had been wiped from his face.

"I'm sorry," Kakashi said quietly. "I didn't mean to hurt you."

Iruka glared at him. "You asked me what I wanted, in order to date you. I want truth. Where is your mother?" he ground out finally.

Kakashi was silent for a long time. When he spoke, he didn't look up. "In another country. Being held for trading vital information to one of our enemies."

He felt like the room had dropped out from underneath him. Iruka stared. "What?"

Kakashi still didn't look up. "She hated being a ninja. When my father enrolled me, she was going to take me and run. In trade for sanctuary, she traded information on our village. My father found out. He stopped her. I learned about it when I was older."

He was very wooden. Iruka, hands braced on his hips, glared at the far wall. Then he glared at Kakashi. Then the wall.

He stood, silent.

"I understand," Iruka said finally, still angry but trying to be reasonable, "why you might tell someone your mother was dead if they asked. But why volunteer that information? Why lie?"

Kakashi didn't squirm. "You looked like you wanted to talk. I thought maybe . . . maybe if you wanted to talk, you'd talk to me."

"Kakashi--" Iruka said loudly. He heard his own voice and stopped dead, took a deep breath, and tried again. "Kakashi, if I wanted to talk to you, I would. I would talk to you if I felt I knew you, and trusted you. But I don't!" His voice was rising again, and this time he couldn't bring himself to care. "You lie about nearly everything from what I can tell, and I'm not sure I even know you!"

Kakashi sank further into the couch. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be sorry!" Iruka yelled. "Tell me the damn truth!"

Kakashi stared at his hands. "I did."

"After I caught you in a lie!"

He glared even harder at his hands. "I'm sorry."

Iruka opened his mouth to shout something else, but nothing came to mind. Instead, he stormed into his bedroom and slammed the door.

It felt so good, he slammed it again, just for good measure.

**

He rolled over on his futon, staring at the bedside clock.

Three thirty.

With a frustrated sigh, he swung his legs over the side and stood, shuffling out of his bedroom in nothing more than drawstring pants. A glance at the couch showed Kakashi, sprawled out in black ninja basics, a vague shape in the dark.

Iruka stared for a moment. The man's eyes were closed, but his breathing was fast. Awake.

Iruka walked into the kitchen, got a glass of water, and walked back out into the living room. He stood in front of the table with the game of Shougi still laid out, and watched the man pretend to sleep.

"I loved my parents very much," he said into the silence.

An eye fluttered open, but Kakashi didn't otherwise move.

"When they died, I was--" he couldn't even begin to explain that hurt. That sense of utter despair. Of loneliness. The void that opened up, that not even the village could fill. The anger at being left alone, and the guilt at being angry. The firm belief that, had he been there, he could have done something. That he should have died too.

He realized he was holding his glass tight enough to make his hand sore, and forcefully relaxed. "It hurt," he said finally. "More than anything else ever has. And it never stopped."

One eye glowed dully red in the dark, almost invisible.

"I reacted more than I should have. But when you lied about that--" he stopped again. He was shaking.

Kakashi sat up slowly. Blankets slid as he shifted, moving over on the couch. The sound of fabric against fabric whispered through the air.

If he apologized again, Iruka might kill him. Apologies meant nothing.

"I don't remember much of my mother," Kakashi said quietly. "And I wasn't close to my fa--" he stopped dead. His head dipped, a silhouette against the window. It came back up a moment later. "I was angry at my father. I didn't mean disrespect towards you, or what you've gone through."

Iruka's eyes were burning. He nodded sharply, hoping Kakashi couldn't see how wet they were. It was too much for a single day. Too much anger, and remembered grief.

"I never changed your bandages," Iruka said after a moment, when he was sure he could talk.

"It's all right," Kakashi answered simply.

Iruka set down his glass of water and picked up the supplies, shifting over to the couch. He sat down in the vacated spot, settling things in his first aid box while Kakashi pulled off his shirt. Slowly, the anger was draining out of him, replaced by exhaustion and weariness.

He untaped the worst of the injuries, a stitched gash near Kakashi's spine, and swished alcohol onto a pad.

They sat in silence for a long time. The sting of alcohol drifted between them, quickly dispersing, leaving only the way Kakashi smelled. Clean, and warm, and vaguely of sun. Then Iruka spilled more alcohol onto a pad, and the sting was back between them.

"This is bleeding," Iruka said, watching the gauze turn pink.

"I ripped the stitches earlier."

Iruka didn't respond, only checked it before putting a new cloth on top and taping it over once more. The silence stretched between them, bordering on uncomfortable. All Iruka could think of were his parents dying. Not much else would come to mind. But--he could work with that. "How old were you, when your father died?" he asked into the silence.

Kakashi 'hmm'ed. "Eight," he said finally, and said nothing more.

"That must have been hard."

Kakashi's hand tightened on the edge of the couch. Underneath his fingers, Iruka felt the man's muscles tense.

"Not really," Kakashi said. "It was his choice." The hands relaxed after a moment, but the tension didn't ease.

"Just because it's his choice, doesn't mean it doesn't hurt." Iruka re-bandaged Kakashi's arm, then let his hands travel across the man's shoulders to the other side. Quietly, he dug his fingers into heavy muscle, hitting pressure points. The knots gave way, and some of the tension drained off.

"Whoa," Kakashi said quietly.

Iruka grinned, where Kakashi couldn't see. "Where did you live, afterwards?"

Kakashi shrugged, gracefully. "The Fourth let me stay with him for a while. Before he was the Fourth."

Iruka nodded, checking the deep cut under Kakashi's arm.

"Five years later, I moved into the Jounin bachelor apartments, and just stayed."

Iruka's mind sped, thinking. Five years. "You were thirteen?"

Kakashi 'hmm'ed again. "What about you? Where did you live, after your parents died?"

Iruka flinched from the memories, then took a deep breath. It wasn't fair to ask Kakashi, and expect to not be asked in return. "In a foster home, for a while. Eventually, in my own apartment that the village paid for." He remembered being lonely, and feeling lost.

Mostly, that had gone away.

His hands fell to his knees, looking at the broad expanse of Kakashi's back. In the dark, he couldn't see the scars; only a lot of pale skin. "I should let you go back to bed. You need to sleep."

"I'm feeling better," Kakashi said, twisting to look back. The expanse of his skin was broken by the mask, black and inky. Silver hair sprouted above it, half of it crushed and the other half sticking up.

"I know. You'll probably be well enough to go home in a day or two. But right now, sleep."

Kakashi sighed and looked like he might protest, but Iruka could read the exhaustion radiating from him. He stood and got his glass of water again, heading toward the bedroom before Kakashi could argue.

*********

| |

Chapter seven
Now

"So, can he cook?" Genma asked, wandering into the mission office.

"Why are you here?" Iruka asked, rubbing his eyes. "You don't work here. I know you have missions. You must have somewhere to go home to."

Genma grinned around his toothpick. "Everyone comes through here eventually. It's the perfect place to be."

Iruka sighed and gave into the inevitable. "Yes. He can cook."

"And you had fun last night?"

"Yes. We had fun."

"Not too much fun, I hope," Genma said, grinning again.

Iruka only glared at him.

Genma sobered. "All right, what's wrong?"

Iruka paused, not really sure if he wanted to share this. It seemed silly. "Everyone is taking this whole me liking men thing really well," he said finally. "I mean, this is a big realization for me. It's just so . . . so . . . anti-climactic."

Genma laughed. "That's because we already knew. Mizuki--"

"Yeah, I know," Iruka muttered. He stared down at the school forms, still vaguely annoyed.

Genma hopped onto the desk, leaning back on his hands. "Besides, he told us about both times."

"Both times?" Iruka squeaked. "There was only the once!"

"Mizuki said you were on a mission together--"

"That doesn't count," Iruka snapped. "We didn't get very far--" he stopped. Genma was laughing.

"And you didn't realize you liked men earlier?" the Special Jounin crowed.

Iruka folded his arms over his chest and glared at nothing.

Genma kept laughing. And laughing. And then he finally stopped, but when he looked at Iruka, he started laughing again.

Tsunade walked in the door and stopped dead. "Something funny?" she asked after a minute.

"Iruka--Iruka--he says he didn't know he was gay, even though he practically had sex with Mizuki in a tree--"

"We didn't practically have sex," Iruka ground out. His face was burning. He was going to kill someone. Mizuki had been a mistake. A really bad mistake, starting from the first day they'd met. He just hadn't realized it at the time.

"You practically had sex--" Genma laughed. "Mizuki told me in detail--"

Iruka stood up, grabbed his bags, and headed for the door. Tsunade was still watching them.

"--said the bark was really uncomfortable--"

"Can I help you, Tsunade-sama?" he asked politely, trying to ignore the fact that his face was nearly purple.

"--and Iruka says he didn't know--"

Tsunade handed him a satchel of mission scrolls. "If you'd hand these out to the appropriate people?"

He nodded and took them.

"--didn't know!"

Tsunade looked at Genma, then back at Iruka. "You're gay?"

Iruka's lips thinned down to a line. "Apparently."

"Really?"

"He's seeing Kakashi," Genma managed.

Iruka turned to glare at the Special Jounin. He was sitting on the floor, holding his stomach, and when he looked at Iruka he started laughing again. "How could you not know?"

"What's going on?" Kurenai asked, pausing in the doorway.

"Nothing," Iruka ground out.

"We're watching Genma be hysterical over Iruka's apparent obliviousness," Tsunade said.

"I wasn't oblivious," Iruka said through clenched teeth. "I just didn't know I liked men."

"After having sex with Mizuki in a tree," Tsunade added.

"We didn't have sex!" Iruka shouted.

"Who?" Asuma asked, walking up and stopping beside Kurenai. "You and Kakashi?"

"You had sex with Kakashi?" Shizune asked.

This couldn't possibly get worse. Why was it, Iruka wondered, that people always arrived at the worst times? Like some sort of strange summoning technique. The slightest bit of gossip, and there were people everywhere. "I haven't had sex with anyone!" he yelled, frustrated.

"Guess dinner didn't go as well as it could have," Asuma murmured. Kurenai elbowed him, and Iruka gave her a grateful look.

"Not with anyone? He's a virgin?" someone--he thought it was Shizune--said quietly.

He couldn't win. He really couldn't. And with everyone crowding the hall, he couldn't even escape.

"Who's a virgin?" asked an overly familiar voice.

Iruka turned still redder and dropped his head. He was not even going to look up. He really, really wasn't.

"Iruka is," Tsunade said. "So be nice, Kakashi."

"Hey," he said calmly, "I wouldn't take advantage. Don't know why you assume I would . . ."

Iruka felt Kakashi stop in front of him. He still didn't look up. "Hi," he muttered.

"Iruka, you look sunburned again."

Iruka moved his eyes, but not his head, glaring up at Kakashi from under his brows.

Kakashi was looking into the mission office, though, at Genma, who was still on the floor. Kakashi sauntered in, and knelt in front of the other man. He looked back over his shoulder, single eye half-lidded. "Is he troubling you?"

"Just teasing," Iruka sighed.

Kakashi nodded. Then he looked back at Genma, who had stopped laughing (though not smirking) and said, "Remember that mission we were on, together? The one with Inuzuka Tsume? And her dog?" The last words were stressed, and Kakashi smiled brightly. "Remember that night--"

"Uh, yeah," Genma said, smirk gone. "Thanks. I remember." The toothpick flicked from one side to the other.

Kakashi nodded happily and stood. "Now--Tsunade? You asked to see me?"

**

Kakashi left the Hokage's office with his mission scroll in hand, and headed to the main office. He poked his head inside, where Genma was flipping through files.

"Iruka?" Kakashi asked.

"Went outside," Genma answered, without turning.

Kakashi nodded and headed out.

Iruka was sitting in the grass under a tree, stacks of paper around him held down by rocks.

"Yo," Kakashi said, stopping in front of the Chuunin.

Iruka looked up, lifting one hand to shade his eyes. He smiled. "Hello, Kakashi."

Kakashi put his hands in his pockets, unsure now what he should say. He felt he should say something. This hadn't been so hard the day before, when Iruka had gone to his apartment for dinner.

Iruka saved him. "Thank you for stopping Genma. I appreciated that."

Which only reminded him of overhearing that Iruka hadn't had sex, which he was trying not to think about. "You're welcome," he said, battling back the urge to say something that would make the younger man blush. It was just so funny to make people squirm. But he was trying to be charming. Or something like that.

They stared at each other a moment more.

"You have a mission?" Iruka asked finally.

Kakashi nodded. "I'll probably be gone a few days."

"All right. Be careful."

Kakashi's mind stopped, for just an instant. He couldn't remember the last time someone had told him to be careful. Rin, maybe. And before her--no one he could think of. "All right," he said finally. "I will."

Iruka just nodded and smiled, like he hadn't just said something shocking.

After a moment, Kakashi wandered away.

**

"What is wrong with you?" Genma asked, astounded and horrified.

Iruka hid his face. Looking back on it, sneaking into Genma's apartment and putting itching powder in his shaving cream really hadn't been the most mature thing to do. It had been something he would have done years ago. He just couldn't help it. After listening to Genma call him "virgin-boy" and "oblivious-man" for the last two days, it seemed only fair.

He glanced up at the Special Jounin. The man's jaw was bright red. Iruka smirked, then told himself he shouldn’t be laughing at another's pain, and returned to staring at his hands. "Sorry, Genma," he said contritely.

"No, you're not!" Genma yelped.

Iruka couldn't hide the smile this time, though he did smother it as quickly as he could.

"You are a truly sick individual, Iruka!" Genma said.

Iruka stared at the mission office doorway, wishing someone would come by. Maybe Tsunade could give him more work, or--

A small dog in a blue vest went racing by the door, a scroll clamped in its jaws.

Iruka frowned. That wasn't Akamaru, and the only other person he knew of that could summon dogs--

He stood and hurried to the doorway. The dog had vanished into the Hokage's office. A moment later, Tsunade opened the door, following the pug out. "Iruka," she said, stopping dead. The scroll was in her hand, her fist tight. "Get a medic. Follow Pakkun--he'll take you to Kakashi."

"Hurry up, kid," the dog said, and started to run.

**

He couldn't be hurt. He couldn't. Rumors said Sharingan Kakashi never got hurt.

The three of them ran through the forest, two men following a pug in ninja clothes. Pakkun had given them the basics; the scroll Kakashi had stolen contained plans for an attack on an allied village. The attackers realized he had it long before they should have, and while he managed to make it most of the way back, a group of them--a squad of twenty Chuunin--had caught up.

Kakashi wasn't dead. Beyond that, Pakkun couldn't be sure how he was doing.

Iruka ran, searching for signs of enemies as he kept up with the medic and the dog. They passed from shadow to light and back again, the forest dim even in mid-afternoon. The three of them were breathing hard, air rasping through lungs. Pakkun scratched the trees, sending leaves and bark and moss scattering down to the forest floor.

Ninja got hurt on missions all the time. Iruka repeated that, trying to make this real. But it couldn't be Kakashi. Kakashi was supposed to be invincible.

"Here!" Pakkun called, and with a flurry of claws and bark, he was up into an ancient tree. Boughs hung, darkening the interior, creating a perfect hiding place.

Iruka jumped, propelling himself up. He flew through a shaft of light, and then into the darkness of the canopy. Birds hushed at his passing, or darted quickly out of the way.

He nearly stepped on the body. Iruka tripped, caught himself, and knelt, eyes looking everywhere but at the man before him. No signs of the enemy.

The medic landed beside him. Put a hand on the Jounin.

Iruka looked.

The man lay on a branch on his stomach, curled slightly. He was breathing. Blood soaked his shirt, soaked the branch. The moss squelched.

Iruka's heart hammered into his throat. Silver hair. Silver hair that was normally bright and shining, and was now matted with blood. What he could see of Kakashi's face was smeared with it. Iruka tore his eyes away, straining to listen for sounds of pursuers, of anyone moving around below. His job was to keep them safe, and he couldn't do it while staring at the fallen Jounin. He couldn't do it if he panicked.

Iruka breathed carefully, trying to measure each one. Leaves twisted, turning long strands of ivy that hung down into the darkness. One of them glimmered red in the half-light, and Iruka looked away again.

"Nothing's broken," the medic said softly. "They got some fairly major veins, though he bandaged them before he passed out."

Relief shuddered through Iruka. Nothing broken. Blood loss. Blood loss could be bad, but--Kakashi was breathing.

"We have to get him to the hospital," the medic said. "I can't treat him here."

Iruka nodded, silent. "Take him. I'll watch for followers."

**

The Jounin had spent three hours in the operating room, while they repaired internal damage, stopped the bleeding, and transferred enough blood to keep his organs functioning.

Iruka waited through all of it, but not inside. He sat on a ledge around the building, peering in through a window. He couldn't stand hospitals. Not since he was a child. Not since his parents died.

So he sat on the ledge and peered in the window, and only when they put Kakashi in a normal room did he enter.

They let him see the other man almost immediately, but warned him Kakashi wouldn’t wake for another few hours. Possibly longer.

Iruka stood beside the bed, watching the slender chest rise and fall. The doctors had pulled the mask down far enough to expose his nose--or, more likely, they'd pulled it off but replaced it--and tubes threaded into him, bringing extra oxygen and who knew what else.

He was very small.

They were nearly the same height, but Kakashi--he looked like a strong breeze might blow him away.

Eventually, Iruka touched him. Just the back of his hand. To see that he was real.

He was cold. Iruka sat down on the edge of the bed, putting Kakashi's hand in both of his and rubbing.

Kakashi's hands were longer. Slender, almost bony, fingers stretched beyond Iruka's grip. His skin, normally pale, was now so white Iruka could easily make out blue veins threading underneath.

He tried hard to ignore it. Everything would be okay. Kakashi was fine. Just needed to rest.

**
Long ago . . .

"I don't want my son--"

"He's my son too, Li," Sakumo snapped.

Kakashi tried to sink smaller on the floor, tucked into the corner. He didn't want to hear this. He didn't want them to fight.

"Do you have any idea what will happen? He's only five!" his mother shouted, enraged.

"He's a genius! A genius unlike anyone has seen since the Sannin! You can't honestly expect him to wait until he's older--"

"I can wait," Kakashi offered, nearly trembling. "I can wait. I won't do anymore ninja things." He should have known not to do them in the house. He'd broken the lamp, and now everyone was so angry . . .

"Kakashi, why don't you go to your room for a little while," his mother said without looking at him.

"Please don't fight," Kakashi murmured. "I won't be a ninja until it's okay--"

"Kakashi," his father said softly. "Let us talk about this, all right?"

He wilted. "Yes, sir," he said quietly, and shuffled out of the room. He stood in the hall, though, listening.

"I do not want Kakashi to join the academy." It was his mother. She had to be angry about the lamp. He wanted to tell her that he wouldn't break anything else, but they'd asked him to go to his room . . .

"Why not?" his father said, sounding like he was hurt. "He's brilliant!"

"That's the problem, Sakumo. He's brilliant. Do you know what happens to brilliant ninja? They test out early. I was a Chuunin at ten. I wouldn't wish that on anyone, much less my own son. I won’t have it."

Kakashi curled down by the wall, hugging his knees. He hated it when people were angry. He could feel something in the air, pressing against him. It hurt.

When his father spoke, there was steel in his voice. "You're being ridiculous. He'll be fine. I've already enrolled him--"

"You did what? How could you do that? You know how I feel about this!"

"You were on a mission and enrollment was due. He's a genius, Li! He's going to learn whether you want him to or not! Better he learn at the academy, under someone's tutelage!"

"He'll have no one to talk to because he'll be too young, and he'll get hurt!"

Kakashi put his hands over his ears, hiding his face. He wished he were normal. Then they wouldn't fight. It was all his fault.

"He won't get hurt, he'll be at the acade--"

"And when he graduates? What then? What happens--"

Kakashi got up. The air was too heavy, and filled with color. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn't do anything, and it was all his fault. He ran out the door, into the yard, and heard behind him, "--I want my son to be safe!"

**
Now

When Iruka saw Kakashi awake for the first time after a full day of unconsciousness, he couldn't hold back his smile.

The man had his mask all the way up again, and he was leaning heavily against the doorframe, talking to a nurse.

"You may not leave, Kakashi-san," the woman was saying, standing firmly in Kakashi's path. "You can go lay back down and stay there while you regain some strength."

"But there's nothing wrong with me," Kakashi said persuasively. "Really. I'm just a little tired."

Iruka paused, and then went in search of a doctor. It took a few minutes, and he had to wait while the man finished something, but eventually they were able to talk.

"How is Hatake Kakashi?" Iruka asked quietly. "If he's able to go home, he would rest better." From what he'd seen in the doorway, with Kakashi still so pale he was almost blue and looking like he could be knocked over by Pakkun, and yet still obviously determined to leave, Iruka had the impression that the Jounin wasn't going to stay peacefully.

The doctor sighed and cleaned his glasses before settling them back on his face. "Kakashi is weak. The blood loss was fairly extreme; we saved his organs, so there was mostly only minor damage, but his body needs time to replenish. He's going to be sleeping quite a bit over the next few days, even with his advanced chakra. Furthermore, I don't know if he'll be functional enough to take care of himself."

Just then, Kakashi walked past the door wearing a lab coat and pushing an empty gurney.

"Excuse me," Iruka said, stepping out of the little exam room they were in. He followed Kakashi for a few steps. "Going somewhere?"

Kakashi jumped, then turned and smiled sheepishly behind the mask. "Just, ah, for a walk."

Iruka stared at him, arms folded. "Why don't you come talk to the doctor with me," he said finally, taking Kakashi by the arms and steering him toward the exam room.

He was surprised when the ninja didn't fight him. He was frightened at how thin the man was, and his skin was cool to the touch.

"Doctor, could you please repeat what you said a moment ago?" Iruka asked, blocking the doorway, Kakashi in front of him.

The doctor repeated it.

Kakashi wouldn’t look at either of them. "So I'll go home and sleep," he said lazily. "I can refrain from doing anything else."

"And when you start sleeping through meals? Weakening because you aren't eating? Start showing warning signs but are too tired to make it back to the hospital?" the doctor asked.

"I'm not staying here," Kakashi grumbled. "There's no reason."

"Kakashi-san," the doctor said, sounding like it was only with great effort that he used the suffix, "you came very close to dying. We have to watch for internal bleeding, for any stitches that might be re-opened--"

"What if he stayed with me?" Iruka asked. His eyes widened when he heard what he'd just said. But he hated hospitals, and he couldn't blame Kakashi for wanting to leave, and that way--well, they were friends . . .

Kakashi was staring at him.

"If you're willing to change bandages, check for warning signs, and take care of him . . ." the doctor said dubiously.

"Mostly he needs rest, right?" Iruka asked, his mouth going dry. He wasn't sure what he was doing, but he couldn't seem to stop.

"I'm standing right here," Kakashi muttered.

Iruka and the doctor ignored him.

"He's going to sleep. He just needs someone to watch over him. Right?" Iruka asked again.

"Yes," the doctor said finally. "I suppose."

Iruka gave a weak smile. "I could do that."

"I want to go back to my apartment," Kakashi said sullenly.

The doctor turned to glare at him. "Here are your choices. You can either go with Iruka-san, or stay here."

Kakashi looked utterly mutinous. "I'd like to go back to my apartment," he said again, much more distinctly this time.

"You are not fit to stay by yourself," the doctor repeated.

"It's sleeping," Kakashi said, the normal indolent tones back. "I'm sure I can rest on my own."

"And feed yourself? And check your wounds? Change bandages?" the doctor asked.

"Of course."

Iruka reached out with one finger and pushed the slim man.

Kakashi's eye widened in surprise, and he had to take three steps before fetching up against the wall. "What was that for?" he asked, leaning.

"You're strong enough to take care of yourself?" Iruka asked.

Kakashi glared. Then he glared at the doctor. "I'll stay with Iruka," he muttered finally.

**

"I certainly don't need a babysitter," Kakashi was still protesting, nearly two hours later.

"I know," Iruka said, not for the first time, as he opened to the door to his apartment. "But humor the doctors." He glanced around the living room self-consciously, toe-ing off his sandals. It wasn't filthy, but it certainly wasn't like Kakashi's apartment.

Okay, it was filthy. Kakashi went in past him, pausing to stand beside the couch. Iruka hurried to close the door, then grabbed laundry off of the pull-out.

Kakashi folded down onto it even before the clothes were entirely out of the way. "I don't need someone to look after me. I've changed my own bandages."

"Do you need anything from your apartment?" Iruka asked, ignoring Kakashi's statement and quickly tidying.

Kakashi leaned against the arm. "No. Nothing. Maybe clothes. Later."

Iruka only nodded. "Well, let me get you some food, and change your bandages, and then if you want to nap . . ."

"I don't need to nap," Kakashi muttered, peering around. "I'm fine."

Iruka did his best to ignore the sulky tone. "Right," he said. "Let me just go get some bandages." He took his armload of clothes into the bedroom, shoving them into the hamper.

His apartment was only slightly bigger than Kakashi's; still, he had a separate bedroom and living room. There was a linen closet between them, and he dug through it quickly, looking for sheets and blankets. "You'll have to sleep on the couch," Iruka called. "I mean, you can use my futon during the day if you like, but I’m just not nice enough to give it up at night." There was no response from the other room. He hurried into the bathroom, grabbing gauze pads and medical tape. He hesitated, then picked up a container of salve, too. "We'll get you settled, and I'll head to your place to get you a change of clothes," he said, coming back into the living room.

Iruka froze.

Kakashi had fallen asleep, curled into a ball in the corner of the couch. His head was pillowed on the arm, his mouth slightly open.

"Or, you can nap first," Iruka said softly, shaking his head with a smile. He draped the blanket over Kakashi, and went into the kitchen to fix dinner.

*********

| |

Part One
Then (as in, before 'Now.' But not by much.)

"You asked for me, Hokage-sama?" Iruka said, bowing.

Tsunade looked up, then waved a hand at him to sit. He looked distinctly uncomfortable. "Do you know Hatake Kakashi?"

"The Copy Ninja? Of course. He's teaching--was teaching--um. I mean, yes." He settled himself in a chair on the other side of the massive desk and continued to look uneasy.

"Right. Well." Tsunade shuffled papers and wondered, exactly, how she was going to go about this. "I have a strange mission for you," she said finally, "and I can't explain it. You're welcome to decline it, however." She wasn't about to tell him about the files she'd found that the former Hokage had compiled on all the ninja, or how alarming Kakashi's had been, complete with notes from the Third that simply made it worse.

Not that Jounin were known for being very stable anyway, but none of the others had just lost their first Genin team to Orochimaru or other sensei.

"I . . . I would be honored, Hokage-sama. What's the mission?"

"You can't tell anyone about it," Tsunade warned. "Especially not Kakashi."

Iruka's eyes widened. "All right."

"I want you to watch over him."

As expected, he looked confused. Iruka started to rub the scar across his nose, then stopped self-consciously. "Hatake Kakashi? Why?"

Tsunade steepled slender fingers and stared at him.

"Oh. Right. You can't explain it." Iruka thought about that for a moment. "Why me?" he asked finally.

She smiled. "You're a teacher."

He stared at her.

"You know how to handle people who don't necessarily want to be where they are."

"And is Kakashi-san going to be somewhere he doesn't want to be?" Iruka asked cautiously.

"No. Well, yes. Rather, he won't be doing what he wants to do." Tsunade cringed inwardly. She couldn't really have made that more confusing if she'd tried. "That is, he won't be going on any ANBU missions any time soon."

"And . . . he wants to?" Iruka asked.

"I'm guessing he will want to soon, yes."

"But he can't?" Iruka was obviously looking for the reason without asking.

Tsunade just looked at him.

Iruka thought about it for a little while again. "I don't think I can tail him without being noticed."

Tsunade knew he couldn't, and guessed Iruka knew it as well. She sat back, waving a hand at the details. "So don't try and tail him. Make friends or something. That's up to you."

Iruka nodded slowly. "Very well."

Tsunade gave a silent sigh. That was good. One problem down, twelve hundred more to deal with before the day was out. She could already see Shizune hovering in the doorway with more papers to sign. "Thank you, Iruka. You're dismissed."

He stood, bowed, and walked quickly away.

**

Gai looked up from his tedious job to see Iruka standing before him, glancing around the open field. Gai dropped the daisy chain and stood, beaming. He liked Iruka-sensei. He liked pretty much everyone, though, so it wasn't saying much.

"Iruka-sensei!" he bellowed. "So good to see you! What can I do for you on this beautiful day, filled with the romance of spring and--"

"I've been talking to some people," Iruka interrupted, "and they say you're probably the closest to Hatake Kakashi. I was hoping you could give me some information."

Gai's arms fell. He thought about it. The wind picked up, tugging at Iruka's ponytail and tossing leaves. "Why do you need information on my most esteemed rival?" he asked.

"Well . . . it's . . . you see--I, uh, just wanted to talk to him. But I didn't know what to talk about. Or even how to find him." Iruka, Gai noticed, was turning pink.

"Ahhhh. You have an infatuation. How sweet! Springtime in the Land of the Leaves strikes again! Flowers bloom and hearts flutter!" Distantly, he thought he heard Iruka saying, "No! Nothing like that! Nonono!" but he didn't really pay attention until Iruka grabbed his arm and pulled.

He looked down. And smiled. "I will surely help you, great teacher of my beloved students!"

"Thank you, Gai-san," Iruka sighed.

"What is it you would like to know about my worthy rival?"

"Well, I'm not sure, exactly," Iruka said slowly, brown eyes thoughtful. "I suppose I just need something to talk to him about."

"Ah," Gai said knowingly, bushy eyebrows lifting in understanding. "He likes the Icha Icha Paradise books."

Iruka turned bright red. "Everyone knows that. I'd rather not talk to him about those."

"Ah." Gai thought some more. "He enjoys a good romp."

Iruka turned even brighter red. "I'm not interested in him in that way, Gai-san."

Gai looked at him quizzically. "I meant a battle."

Iruka turned nearly purple. "Of course. Um. So did I."

Gai smiled. "Ah, some of our best romps have occurred in the springtime, when the flowers are in bloom and the blood boils hot in our veins! When romance is in the air and young people are frolicking about! That is when Kakashi and I are at our best, when we get together so we can--"

A choked noise stopped him. The music fell silent, and Gai looked down.

"Iruka-sensei? Are you all right?" He looked a little . . . pained. Gai looked him over, but the smaller man didn't seem to have any injuries.

Iruka nodded. "Maybe I'll just think of something on my own. Do you know where I could find him, Gai-san?"

"Often, his apartment. Or the monument, in the mornings."

Iruka nodded and gave a short bow. "Thank you."

"Iruka," Gai said as the other man turned to leave, "I should warn you. He isn't like the rest of us." He looked around, then leaned in closer, lowering his voice. "He doesn't really have many social skills."

Iruka nodded once and left.

"I have social skills," Kakashi said from behind the tree, sounding bemused.

Gai lowered himself back to the ground, leaning back against the massive trunk. "Not really," he responded amiably. "And you're also very arrogant."

"Just realistic," Kakashi muttered.

Gai ignored him. "Now, worthy opponent! I shall braid a longer daisy-chain necklace than you before the sun is directly above us!"

Kakashi held one around the trunk of the tree. It dangled from a single slender finger. "Mine's already a foot long."

"I will do it, or I will run five hundred laps around Konoha, backwards!"

**

There was another knock at the door. Kakashi looked up at the clock. Sure enough, it was 5:00. There had been a knock at the door at 5:00 for the last three nights.

Normally, he ignored it, and Iruka eventually went away. He supposed he should throw the man a bone, though. Or at least find out why he was being stalked. Maybe Iruka did have an infatuation, and they could have a lot of sex.

With that firmly in mind, Kakashi unfolded from his chair, setting his book down on the little table, and walked to the door. He opened it and stared out.

Iruka jumped and looked up at him, brown eyes wide. "Oh! Uh, Kakashi-san! I was, um, just, ah, passing through and--"

"You pass through here every night at five?" Kakashi asked reasonably, slouching against the door, his hands in his pockets.

Iruka turned red. "Oh. Well. I thought you weren't home."

Kakashi just smiled.

Iruka turned redder.

There was something very satisfying about watching the younger man get flustered. He really supposed he shouldn't do it on purpose, but it was so fun.

"Genma-san just came back from a mission, and he saw Naruto and Jiraiya-sama while he was out. I thought you might want to hear their progress," Iruka said, rubbing at the long scar across his face. He smiled hesitantly.

Actually, he did want to hear how Naruto was doing. He crossed his ankles and smiled again, waiting.

Iruka looked at him.

He looked back, leaning against the door.

"May I come in?" Iruka asked finally. "Or would you like to go out somewhere, perhaps?"

Kakashi paused. Letting Iruka in meant letting Iruka into his apartment. Or, rather, his apartment. "Let's go get ramen," he suggested, feeling brilliant (he was, after all, a genius). He turned to get his shoes, then looked back. "Stay here," he said.

Iruka looked confused.

Kakashi ignored it and got his shoes.

**

Iruka never did figure out how Kakashi managed to eat his ramen without once showing his face. It wasn't that the man avoided it, exactly. More like, as casual as he was, something always got in the way when he took the mask down--or pulled it up, since Iruka wasn't sure which he did.

Either way, the Chuunin tried not to think about it too much.

"It's good to know Naruto's doing well," Kakashi was saying, leaning back in his chair. His single blue eye cast absently around the restaurant, and Iruka couldn't help but wonder what patterns the Jounin noticed that he didn't even see.

"Yes. And I hear Sakura's training is coming along nicely," Iruka added as an afterthought.

Kakashi nodded, watching a couple sitting across the room. He itched absently at the edge of his forehead protector, then re-settled it slanted across his face. "They have good teachers."

Iruka looked at him. "They did before, too."

Kakashi glanced over, then smiled. His single visible eye crinkled, and Iruka thought he could just see the movement of his cheeks behind the mask. "This was fun, Iruka-sensei. Thank you."

Iruka found himself grinning back. If he were to tell the truth, he'd enjoyed himself more than he'd expected. Mostly, they'd just talked about Naruto. Kakashi had some stories about the boy that Iruka hadn't heard, and Iruka knew all the old stories that hadn't made it as far as the Copy-Ninja.

They paid their bill and swung out of the little ramen shop, wandering back down the street. Kakashi's hands were in his pockets, and he meandered almost aimlessly, peering into darkened store windows as they passed.

"What will you do now that you don't have--" Iruka stopped. It hadn't occurred to him that this might be a sore topic.

But the eye was crinkled again, and Kakashi only shrugged. "Back to training, I suppose."

"Training?" Iruka asked. "You train?" Of course he trained, you idiot, he thought to himself. Everyone trained.

Still, it somehow seemed that Sharingan Kakashi shouldn't have to do something as mundane as train.

"I've been on easy missions lately," Kakashi said conversationally. "If I'm going to get back into ANBU, I need to polish my skills."

Iruka suddenly remembered what the Hokage had said, and wondered if he should warn Kakashi.

Easier to let the Hokage do it.

"Do the ANBU train somewhere particular?" Iruka asked, half holding his breath. Everyone knew the ANBU had to train somewhere, but most people didn't even know which of their Jounin *were* ANBU, much less where they trained.

"Mmm," Kakashi said noncommittally. He smiled behind the mask. "Would you like to see?"

Iruka tried not to bounce in his excitement. He tried to play it cool. By the growing smile on Kakashi's face, he failed miserably. "That would be fun." He didn't manage to stop grinning like a fool.

Oh well. No one had ever said he was good at faking. Anything.

**

Kakashi picked him up at lunch the next day, and carried him, blindfolded, to the ANBU training site.

It was in the forest, outside the village--which wasn't much of a surprise, really. Small animals hid themselves, knowing danger when they saw it, and the large old trees stood guard over the training ninja. Forms and shapes flickered across a small meadow, men and women stretching or checking equipment before they started.

"Why do you all wear masks while training?" Iruka asked, steadying himself against the tree trunk and ignoring the fact that Kakashi was putting on his own hard, painted mask. He knew the masks were to protect the ninja's identities from both enemies and their fellow ninja--who tended to be wary of the ANBU--but it seemed strange that they were hiding from each other.

"To get used to it. It affects your breathing, hearing, and sight," Kakashi answered, voice muffled even farther than usual by the faceplate. "Also, so people who stumble onto the site don't recognize anyone."

Iruka thought the other man might have smiled again, but couldn't really be sure. Then Kakashi was gone, melting into the forest with the other masked ghosts.

It was both one of the most beautiful and one of the most terrifying things Iruka had ever seen. Like watching a tiger stalk its prey, all sleek grace and fluid movements, shifting almost faster than the eye could follow, and knowing while you watched them that you could be lunch. They moved like dancers, twisting and shifting, missing each other or connecting and spinning away.

It didn’t take long to lose Kakashi. Iruka didn't mind. This was something that few people ever saw, and he suspected he wasn't supposed to. Not that Hatake Kakashi ever paid attention to the rules.

For a moment there was a flash of metal, crystal bright, and then it was gone. Another and another, and the tink of kunai hitting kunai. The rest of the world was silent, watching.

It was nearly an hour before Iruka remembered he still had classes to teach.

"Kakashi?" he whispered, afraid to break the silence, superstitious about attracting the attention of one of the wraiths dancing through the trees.

"Here."

Iruka jumped and twisted, only to come face to mask with a man he assumed had to be the Copy-Ninja. His heart stuttered back to beating.

"You scared me," he said, and only then realized it was probably needless.

Kakashi removed the faceplate, exposing his sweat-soaked hair and cloth mask, and smiled. "Sorry."

"I have to get back to class," Iruka pointed out.

Kakashi nodded, held up the blindfold, and waited while Iruka put it on. It seemed silly to him, but then, ANBU couldn't be too careful. As soon as it was tight, Kakashi lifted him (and it was just a little embarrassing how easily he did that) and they were running through the trees, back to the village proper.

**

Evening was falling, making the sky turn pink and purple over the treetops. Iruka leaned back in the porch chair and watched.

His befriending of Kakashi was going fairly well, he thought. He still didn’t understand why the Hokage had asked him to do it, and he was a still a little in awe of the Copy-Ninja, but overall, things seemed to be progressing nicely.

The door opened and closed again, and Kakashi wandered out onto the communal apartment porch, holding a tray with tea settings for two in one hand. He set it down on the front rail, then hopped up on the side. Leaning back against the wall of the building, legs stretched out in front of him, Kakashi somehow managing to sprawl despite the fact that the rail was less then four inches wide.

"Nice night," Iruka said, settling back after pouring himself tea. Kakashi apparently didn't take playing host that far.

Kakashi 'Hmmm'ed and tucked both hands behind his head, staring up.

"Do you ever take the mask off?" Iruka asked, watching the other man out of the corner of his eye. He wished he could move like that. At least, he could console himself with the fact that half the other Jounins didn't move like that, either.

"Of course."

Iruka watched him for a moment more. "When?" he asked finally.

Kakashi grinned down at him. "When I shower."

That was it? When he showered? "What about when you sleep?" Iruka prodded.

Kakashi shrugged.

"Is there a reason you don't take it off?" Iruka asked.

Kakashi shrugged again.

Iruka sighed and settled back against his chair once more. It shifted under his weight, worn and old. One of the men who lived in Kakashi's building waved as he went past them. Kakashi ignored him, so Iruka waved back. It seemed polite.

"How's the training going?" Iruka asked as the silence stretched.

"Oh, it's training. Going well."

Iruka didn't ask about the bulk around one of Kakashi's ankles. He probably didn't want to know about injuries received in ANBU training.

"Iruka?" Kakashi asked.

Iruka looked up.

"Why, exactly, are you following me? Gai seems to think you have a crush, but--" Iruka didn't manage to strangle back his "Huh?" and Kakashi stopped.

The Chuunin was pretty sure his face was purple from blood rushing upward. "I do not have a crush!" he ground out. "It just so happens," he said between his teeth, "that I thought we might be friends. Naruto spoke highly of you." Iruka refused to look at Kakashi. He could feel the other man laughing silently at him. He wasn't going to look. He wasn't. Damn Kakashi. He needed to change the subject. Quickly. "Why did you leave ANBU, if you want to join back up?"

Kakashi stared at him for a moment more, then finally--finally!--turned away. "Oh, the Third and I thought it would be a good idea to take a break."

They sat in silence for a while. Iruka sipped tea, watching people walk past the little building. Kakashi's eye was closed, his hands linked behind his head and making a worse mess of his hair than it already was. A child skipped by, kicking up dust. It spread lazily through the air.

"Gai's pretty sure you have a crush on me," Kakashi said.

Iruka coughed his tea all over the porch. "Gai thinks Inuzuka Kiba has a crush on Akamaru, so his opinion isn't necessarily the most authoritative," he snapped.

He could feel Kakashi looking at him again, as he mopped up spat tea. "Or, there's something going on with the Inuzuka clan that's verrrrry interesting."

Iruka froze. Then he turned to glare up at Kakashi.

Kakashi was grinning. Even through the mask, he could see it.

"I'm going home now," Iruka muttered, and, as quickly as he could, he did exactly what he'd said.

*************

Chapter seven
Now

"So, can he cook?" Genma asked, wandering into the mission office.

"Why are you here?" Iruka asked, rubbing his eyes. "You don't work here. I know you have missions. You must have somewhere to go home to."

Genma grinned around his toothpick. "Everyone comes through here eventually. It's the perfect place to be."

Iruka sighed and gave into the inevitable. "Yes. He can cook."

"And you had fun last night?"

"Yes. We had fun."

"Not too much fun, I hope," Genma said, grinning again.

Iruka only glared at him.

Genma sobered. "All right, what's wrong?"

Iruka paused, not really sure if he wanted to share this. It seemed silly. "Everyone is taking this whole me liking men thing really well," he said finally. "I mean, this is a big realization for me. It's just so . . . so . . . anti-climactic."

Genma laughed. "That's because we already knew. Mizuki--"

"Yeah, I know," Iruka muttered. He stared down at the school forms, still vaguely annoyed.

Genma hopped onto the desk, leaning back on his hands. "Besides, he told us about both times."

"Both times?" Iruka squeaked. "There was only the once!"

"Mizuki said you were on a mission together--"

"That doesn't count," Iruka snapped. "We didn't get very far--" he stopped. Genma was laughing.

"And you didn't realize you liked men earlier?" the Special Jounin crowed.

Iruka folded his arms over his chest and glared at nothing.

Genma kept laughing. And laughing. And then he finally stopped, but when he looked at Iruka, he started laughing again.

Tsunade walked in the door and stopped dead. "Something funny?" she asked after a minute.

"Iruka--Iruka--he says he didn't know he was gay, even though he practically had sex with Mizuki in a tree--"

"We didn't practically have sex," Iruka ground out. His face was burning. He was going to kill someone. Mizuki had been a mistake. A really bad mistake, starting from the first day they'd met. He just hadn't realized it at the time.

"You practically had sex--" Genma laughed. "Mizuki told me in detail--"

Iruka stood up, grabbed his bags, and headed for the door. Tsunade was still watching them.

"--said the bark was really uncomfortable--"

"Can I help you, Tsunade-sama?" he asked politely, trying to ignore the fact that his face was nearly purple.

"--and Iruka says he didn't know--"

Tsunade handed him a satchel of mission scrolls. "If you'd hand these out to the appropriate people?"

He nodded and took them.

"--didn't know!"

Tsunade looked at Genma, then back at Iruka. "You're gay?"

Iruka's lips thinned down to a line. "Apparently."

"Really?"

"He's seeing Kakashi," Genma managed.

Iruka turned to glare at the Special Jounin. He was sitting on the floor, holding his stomach, and when he looked at Iruka he started laughing again. "How could you not know?"

"What's going on?" Kurenai asked, pausing in the doorway.

"Nothing," Iruka ground out.

"We're watching Genma be hysterical over Iruka's apparent obliviousness," Tsunade said.

"I wasn't oblivious," Iruka said through clenched teeth. "I just didn't know I liked men."

"After having sex with Mizuki in a tree," Tsunade added.

"We didn't have sex!" Iruka shouted.

"Who?" Asuma asked, walking up and stopping beside Kurenai. "You and Kakashi?"

"You had sex with Kakashi?" Shizune asked.

This couldn't possibly get worse. Why was it, Iruka wondered, that people always arrived at the worst times? Like some sort of strange summoning technique. The slightest bit of gossip, and there were people everywhere. "I haven't had sex with anyone!" he yelled, frustrated.

"Guess dinner didn't go as well as it could have," Asuma murmured. Kurenai elbowed him, and Iruka gave her a grateful look.

"Not with anyone? He's a virgin?" someone--he thought it was Shizune--said quietly.

He couldn't win. He really couldn't. And with everyone crowding the hall, he couldn't even escape.

"Who's a virgin?" asked an overly familiar voice.

Iruka turned still redder and dropped his head. He was not even going to look up. He really, really wasn't.

"Iruka is," Tsunade said. "So be nice, Kakashi."

"Hey," he said calmly, "I wouldn't take advantage. Don't know why you assume I would . . ."

Iruka felt Kakashi stop in front of him. He still didn't look up. "Hi," he muttered.

"Iruka, you look sunburned again."

Iruka moved his eyes, but not his head, glaring up at Kakashi from under his brows.

Kakashi was looking into the mission office, though, at Genma, who was still on the floor. Kakashi sauntered in, and knelt in front of the other man. He looked back over his shoulder, single eye half-lidded. "Is he troubling you?"

"Just teasing," Iruka sighed.

Kakashi nodded. Then he looked back at Genma, who had stopped laughing (though not smirking) and said, "Remember that mission we were on, together? The one with Inuzuka Tsume? And her dog?" The last words were stressed, and Kakashi smiled brightly. "Remember that night--"

"Uh, yeah," Genma said, smirk gone. "Thanks. I remember." The toothpick flicked from one side to the other.

Kakashi nodded happily and stood. "Now--Tsunade? You asked to see me?"

**

Kakashi left the Hokage's office with his mission scroll in hand, and headed to the main office. He poked his head inside, where Genma was flipping through files.

"Iruka?" Kakashi asked.

"Went outside," Genma answered, without turning.

Kakashi nodded and headed out.

Iruka was sitting in the grass under a tree, stacks of paper around him held down by rocks.

"Yo," Kakashi said, stopping in front of the Chuunin.

Iruka looked up, lifting one hand to shade his eyes. He smiled. "Hello, Kakashi."

Kakashi put his hands in his pockets, unsure now what he should say. He felt he should say something. This hadn't been so hard the day before, when Iruka had gone to his apartment for dinner.

Iruka saved him. "Thank you for stopping Genma. I appreciated that."

Which only reminded him of overhearing that Iruka hadn't had sex, which he was trying not to think about. "You're welcome," he said, battling back the urge to say something that would make the younger man blush. It was just so funny to make people squirm. But he was trying to be charming. Or something like that.

They stared at each other a moment more.

"You have a mission?" Iruka asked finally.

Kakashi nodded. "I'll probably be gone a few days."

"All right. Be careful."

Kakashi's mind stopped, for just an instant. He couldn't remember the last time someone had told him to be careful. Rin, maybe. And before her--no one he could think of. "All right," he said finally. "I will."

Iruka just nodded and smiled, like he hadn't just said something shocking.

After a moment, Kakashi wandered away.

**

"What is wrong with you?" Genma asked, astounded and horrified.

Iruka hid his face. Looking back on it, sneaking into Genma's apartment and putting itching powder in his shaving cream really hadn't been the most mature thing to do. It had been something he would have done years ago. He just couldn't help it. After listening to Genma call him "virgin-boy" and "oblivious-man" for the last two days, it seemed only fair.

He glanced up at the Special Jounin. The man's jaw was bright red. Iruka smirked, then told himself he shouldn’t be laughing at another's pain, and returned to staring at his hands. "Sorry, Genma," he said contritely.

"No, you're not!" Genma yelped.

Iruka couldn't hide the smile this time, though he did smother it as quickly as he could.

"You are a truly sick individual, Iruka!" Genma said.

Iruka stared at the mission office doorway, wishing someone would come by. Maybe Tsunade could give him more work, or--

A small dog in a blue vest went racing by the door, a scroll clamped in its jaws.

Iruka frowned. That wasn't Akamaru, and the only other person he knew of that could summon dogs--

He stood and hurried to the doorway. The dog had vanished into the Hokage's office. A moment later, Tsunade opened the door, following the pug out. "Iruka," she said, stopping dead. The scroll was in her hand, her fist tight. "Get a medic. Follow Pakkun--he'll take you to Kakashi."

"Hurry up, kid," the dog said, and started to run.

**

He couldn't be hurt. He couldn't. Rumors said Sharingan Kakashi never got hurt.

The three of them ran through the forest, two men following a pug in ninja clothes. Pakkun had given them the basics; the scroll Kakashi had stolen contained plans for an attack on an allied village. The attackers realized he had it long before they should have, and while he managed to make it most of the way back, a group of them--a squad of twenty Chuunin--had caught up.

Kakashi wasn't dead. Beyond that, Pakkun couldn't be sure how he was doing.

Iruka ran, searching for signs of enemies as he kept up with the medic and the dog. They passed from shadow to light and back again, the forest dim even in mid-afternoon. The three of them were breathing hard, air rasping through lungs. Pakkun scratched the trees, sending leaves and bark and moss scattering down to the forest floor.

Ninja got hurt on missions all the time. Iruka repeated that, trying to make this real. But it couldn't be Kakashi. Kakashi was supposed to be invincible.

"Here!" Pakkun called, and with a flurry of claws and bark, he was up into an ancient tree. Boughs hung, darkening the interior, creating a perfect hiding place.

Iruka jumped, propelling himself up. He flew through a shaft of light, and then into the darkness of the canopy. Birds hushed at his passing, or darted quickly out of the way.

He nearly stepped on the body. Iruka tripped, caught himself, and knelt, eyes looking everywhere but at the man before him. No signs of the enemy.

The medic landed beside him. Put a hand on the Jounin.

Iruka looked.

The man lay on a branch on his stomach, curled slightly. He was breathing. Blood soaked his shirt, soaked the branch. The moss squelched.

Iruka's heart hammered into his throat. Silver hair. Silver hair that was normally bright and shining, and was now matted with blood. What he could see of Kakashi's face was smeared with it. Iruka tore his eyes away, straining to listen for sounds of pursuers, of anyone moving around below. His job was to keep them safe, and he couldn't do it while staring at the fallen Jounin. He couldn't do it if he panicked.

Iruka breathed carefully, trying to measure each one. Leaves twisted, turning long strands of ivy that hung down into the darkness. One of them glimmered red in the half-light, and Iruka looked away again.

"Nothing's broken," the medic said softly. "They got some fairly major veins, though he bandaged them before he passed out."

Relief shuddered through Iruka. Nothing broken. Blood loss. Blood loss could be bad, but--Kakashi was breathing.

"We have to get him to the hospital," the medic said. "I can't treat him here."

Iruka nodded, silent. "Take him. I'll watch for followers."

**

The Jounin had spent three hours in the operating room, while they repaired internal damage, stopped the bleeding, and transferred enough blood to keep his organs functioning.

Iruka waited through all of it, but not inside. He sat on a ledge around the building, peering in through a window. He couldn't stand hospitals. Not since he was a child. Not since his parents died.

So he sat on the ledge and peered in the window, and only when they put Kakashi in a normal room did he enter.

They let him see the other man almost immediately, but warned him Kakashi wouldn’t wake for another few hours. Possibly longer.

Iruka stood beside the bed, watching the slender chest rise and fall. The doctors had pulled the mask down far enough to expose his nose--or, more likely, they'd pulled it off but replaced it--and tubes threaded into him, bringing extra oxygen and who knew what else.

He was very small.

They were nearly the same height, but Kakashi--he looked like a strong breeze might blow him away.

Eventually, Iruka touched him. Just the back of his hand. To see that he was real.

He was cold. Iruka sat down on the edge of the bed, putting Kakashi's hand in both of his and rubbing.

Kakashi's hands were longer. Slender, almost bony, fingers stretched beyond Iruka's grip. His skin, normally pale, was now so white Iruka could easily make out blue veins threading underneath.

He tried hard to ignore it. Everything would be okay. Kakashi was fine. Just needed to rest.

**
Long ago . . .

"I don't want my son--"

"He's my son too, Li," Sakumo snapped.

Kakashi tried to sink smaller on the floor, tucked into the corner. He didn't want to hear this. He didn't want them to fight.

"Do you have any idea what will happen? He's only five!" his mother shouted, enraged.

"He's a genius! A genius unlike anyone has seen since the Sannin! You can't honestly expect him to wait until he's older--"

"I can wait," Kakashi offered, nearly trembling. "I can wait. I won't do anymore ninja things." He should have known not to do them in the house. He'd broken the lamp, and now everyone was so angry . . .

"Kakashi, why don't you go to your room for a little while," his mother said without looking at him.

"Please don't fight," Kakashi murmured. "I won't be a ninja until it's okay--"

"Kakashi," his father said softly. "Let us talk about this, all right?"

He wilted. "Yes, sir," he said quietly, and shuffled out of the room. He stood in the hall, though, listening.

"I do not want Kakashi to join the academy." It was his mother. She had to be angry about the lamp. He wanted to tell her that he wouldn't break anything else, but they'd asked him to go to his room . . .

"Why not?" his father said, sounding like he was hurt. "He's brilliant!"

"That's the problem, Sakumo. He's brilliant. Do you know what happens to brilliant ninja? They test out early. I was a Chuunin at ten. I wouldn't wish that on anyone, much less my own son. I won’t have it."

Kakashi curled down by the wall, hugging his knees. He hated it when people were angry. He could feel something in the air, pressing against him. It hurt.

When his father spoke, there was steel in his voice. "You're being ridiculous. He'll be fine. I've already enrolled him--"

"You did what? How could you do that? You know how I feel about this!"

"You were on a mission and enrollment was due. He's a genius, Li! He's going to learn whether you want him to or not! Better he learn at the academy, under someone's tutelage!"

"He'll have no one to talk to because he'll be too young, and he'll get hurt!"

Kakashi put his hands over his ears, hiding his face. He wished he were normal. Then they wouldn't fight. It was all his fault.

"He won't get hurt, he'll be at the acade--"

"And when he graduates? What then? What happens--"

Kakashi got up. The air was too heavy, and filled with color. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn't do anything, and it was all his fault. He ran out the door, into the yard, and heard behind him, "--I want my son to be safe!"

**
Now

When Iruka saw Kakashi awake for the first time after a full day of unconsciousness, he couldn't hold back his smile.

The man had his mask all the way up again, and he was leaning heavily against the doorframe, talking to a nurse.

"You may not leave, Kakashi-san," the woman was saying, standing firmly in Kakashi's path. "You can go lay back down and stay there while you regain some strength."

"But there's nothing wrong with me," Kakashi said persuasively. "Really. I'm just a little tired."

Iruka paused, and then went in search of a doctor. It took a few minutes, and he had to wait while the man finished something, but eventually they were able to talk.

"How is Hatake Kakashi?" Iruka asked quietly. "If he's able to go home, he would rest better." From what he'd seen in the doorway, with Kakashi still so pale he was almost blue and looking like he could be knocked over by Pakkun, and yet still obviously determined to leave, Iruka had the impression that the Jounin wasn't going to stay peacefully.

The doctor sighed and cleaned his glasses before settling them back on his face. "Kakashi is weak. The blood loss was fairly extreme; we saved his organs, so there was mostly only minor damage, but his body needs time to replenish. He's going to be sleeping quite a bit over the next few days, even with his advanced chakra. Furthermore, I don't know if he'll be functional enough to take care of himself."

Just then, Kakashi walked past the door wearing a lab coat and pushing an empty gurney.

"Excuse me," Iruka said, stepping out of the little exam room they were in. He followed Kakashi for a few steps. "Going somewhere?"

Kakashi jumped, then turned and smiled sheepishly behind the mask. "Just, ah, for a walk."

Iruka stared at him, arms folded. "Why don't you come talk to the doctor with me," he said finally, taking Kakashi by the arms and steering him toward the exam room.

He was surprised when the ninja didn't fight him. He was frightened at how thin the man was, and his skin was cool to the touch.

"Doctor, could you please repeat what you said a moment ago?" Iruka asked, blocking the doorway, Kakashi in front of him.

The doctor repeated it.

Kakashi wouldn’t look at either of them. "So I'll go home and sleep," he said lazily. "I can refrain from doing anything else."

"And when you start sleeping through meals? Weakening because you aren't eating? Start showing warning signs but are too tired to make it back to the hospital?" the doctor asked.

"I'm not staying here," Kakashi grumbled. "There's no reason."

"Kakashi-san," the doctor said, sounding like it was only with great effort that he used the suffix, "you came very close to dying. We have to watch for internal bleeding, for any stitches that might be re-opened--"

"What if he stayed with me?" Iruka asked. His eyes widened when he heard what he'd just said. But he hated hospitals, and he couldn't blame Kakashi for wanting to leave, and that way--well, they were friends . . .

Kakashi was staring at him.

"If you're willing to change bandages, check for warning signs, and take care of him . . ." the doctor said dubiously.

"Mostly he needs rest, right?" Iruka asked, his mouth going dry. He wasn't sure what he was doing, but he couldn't seem to stop.

"I'm standing right here," Kakashi muttered.

Iruka and the doctor ignored him.

"He's going to sleep. He just needs someone to watch over him. Right?" Iruka asked again.

"Yes," the doctor said finally. "I suppose."

Iruka gave a weak smile. "I could do that."

"I want to go back to my apartment," Kakashi said sullenly.

The doctor turned to glare at him. "Here are your choices. You can either go with Iruka-san, or stay here."

Kakashi looked utterly mutinous. "I'd like to go back to my apartment," he said again, much more distinctly this time.

"You are not fit to stay by yourself," the doctor repeated.

"It's sleeping," Kakashi said, the normal indolent tones back. "I'm sure I can rest on my own."

"And feed yourself? And check your wounds? Change bandages?" the doctor asked.

"Of course."

Iruka reached out with one finger and pushed the slim man.

Kakashi's eye widened in surprise, and he had to take three steps before fetching up against the wall. "What was that for?" he asked, leaning.

"You're strong enough to take care of yourself?" Iruka asked.

Kakashi glared. Then he glared at the doctor. "I'll stay with Iruka," he muttered finally.

**

"I certainly don't need a babysitter," Kakashi was still protesting, nearly two hours later.

"I know," Iruka said, not for the first time, as he opened to the door to his apartment. "But humor the doctors." He glanced around the living room self-consciously, toe-ing off his sandals. It wasn't filthy, but it certainly wasn't like Kakashi's apartment.

Okay, it was filthy. Kakashi went in past him, pausing to stand beside the couch. Iruka hurried to close the door, then grabbed laundry off of the pull-out.

Kakashi folded down onto it even before the clothes were entirely out of the way. "I don't need someone to look after me. I've changed my own bandages."

"Do you need anything from your apartment?" Iruka asked, ignoring Kakashi's statement and quickly tidying.

Kakashi leaned against the arm. "No. Nothing. Maybe clothes. Later."

Iruka only nodded. "Well, let me get you some food, and change your bandages, and then if you want to nap . . ."

"I don't need to nap," Kakashi muttered, peering around. "I'm fine."

Iruka did his best to ignore the sulky tone. "Right," he said. "Let me just go get some bandages." He took his armload of clothes into the bedroom, shoving them into the hamper.

His apartment was only slightly bigger than Kakashi's; still, he had a separate bedroom and living room. There was a linen closet between them, and he dug through it quickly, looking for sheets and blankets. "You'll have to sleep on the couch," Iruka called. "I mean, you can use my futon during the day if you like, but I’m just not nice enough to give it up at night." There was no response from the other room. He hurried into the bathroom, grabbing gauze pads and medical tape. He hesitated, then picked up a container of salve, too. "We'll get you settled, and I'll head to your place to get you a change of clothes," he said, coming back into the living room.

Iruka froze.

Kakashi had fallen asleep, curled into a ball in the corner of the couch. His head was pillowed on the arm, his mouth slightly open.

"Or, you can nap first," Iruka said softly, shaking his head with a smile. He draped the blanket over Kakashi, and went into the kitchen to fix dinner.

*********

Chapter Eight
Now

"Ow."

Iruka looked up, frowning. "How can you be such a baby?"

"You're pulling my stitches," Kakashi grumbled.

"I'm not pulling your stitches. I'm not even near your stitches," Iruka said, frustrated. He lifted the ball of cotton, preparing to dab antiseptic on the slash along the back of Kakashi's arm.

"Ow."

"I haven't touched you yet!" Iruka exploded.

Kakashi flinched, and looked back over his shoulder. "Sorry."

Iruka took a deep breath. He needed to act like Kakashi was a child. That was all. Just the same way he would treat one of his students.

One of his students who was naked to the waist (with the exception of the mask). Who was very well muscled. Whose skin was crisscrossed and threaded with long, pale scars.

Iruka paused, eyes tracing the mesh of white lines. His mouth had gone dry. "You get injured often?" he asked softly.

Kakashi twisted, peering back farther, shoulders sliding under Iruka's hands. "Sometimes. Not usually badly."

Iruka nodded wordlessly. He touched a knot of flesh, twisted and gnarled, just under one shoulderblade. "How did this happen?"

Kakashi reached back with one long hand, feeling the scar for himself. "Kunai. Moved enough to keep it from getting my spine, but not quite enough to dodge entirely," he said nonchalantly.

Iruka kept staring.

"Iruka?"

"Hmm?" That scar traveled up, under Kakashi's mask. Three more scars traveled across it.

"You all right?"

"Fine," Iruka said absently. His hands slipped, sliding down the indent of Kakashi's spine. Wickedly twisted flesh wrapped around the Jounin's waist, notching over one hip, and vanishing into his pants. Iruka's fingers drifted over what he could see, feeling how the chakra was fainter there than everywhere else. The chakra pathways healed better than skin, but not perfectly. Damage them badly enough, and the person would never recover.

His mother had lain in a hospital bed, her chakra lines cut, bones and nerves shattered and torn. She had slowly faded away into nothingness.

The body under him twisted, and hands grabbed his. Iruka jumped and looked up into mismatched eyes. He blinked several times.

"Are you all right?" Kakashi asked quietly. His eyes flickered back and forth, between Iruka's own.

"Fine," Iruka said after a moment. Then he smiled sheepishly, realizing how distant he'd gotten. "I'm fine. Really. Sorry. I just--I don't--"

"You have scars, too," Kakashi said, smiling and releasing Iruka's hands to tap the bridge of his own nose.

Iruka touched his scar reflexively, then slid back on the couch. "I know. It's not that, I just--" he gestured to Kakashi. With the other man turned to watch him, he could see scars on his chest as well. "Sorry. I'm not used to so many. I mean, not since my parents--" he stopped there. "I'm just not used to it."

Kakashi watched him. "You've been on missions," he said finally. "I'm sure you have a few yourself."

Iruka felt his face turning pink. "Not so many. I haven't really done that many missions."

Kakashi turned his head away, smothering a sudden yawn, then turned back. "Why not? You're a Chunnin. You could do missions."

Iruka shook his head. "I prefer teaching. I like the kids, and I'm good at it. And I really don't like killing people."

Kakashi watched him for a moment more before nodding solemnly. "Some don't." He settled back against the couch, his energy fading. Iruka scooted closer, lifting the man's arm and dabbing antiseptic on the wound inside his elbow.

"Do you ever talk about your parents?" Kakashi asked, almost sleepily.

Iruka glanced at him. He was staring across the room, and Iruka followed his gaze.

A picture of the three of them, before their death, smiled back at him. He looked away. "Not really. Who wants to hear about that?"

Kakashi lifted his shoulders and dropped them again. "My parents died. I'd listen."

Iruka stopped and looked at Kakashi, who was staring right back at him, slouched on the couch. Something niggled in the back of his mind. Something he didn't like about that statement, that he couldn't quite place. After a moment, Iruka stood, bending over Kakashi to reach the rest of the cuts. On his neck, and the back of the man's arm, and various smaller, less dangerous ones, on his torso. He bandaged them wordlessly, then picked up his things and headed into the bathroom to put them away. By the time he came back out, Kakashi was asleep.

**
A long time ago

"I don't understand."

Sakumo sighed and shifted, gathering Kakashi's knees in one hand and pulling him more snugly into his lap.

"Is it because I joined the academy?"

There was a bare pause. Not long. But long enough.

Kakashi swallowed and stared hard at his knees. "I know Mother doesn't want me to be a ninja. I can stop. I won't be a ninja anymore."

"It's not because you joined the academy," his father said quietly.

Too late, though; the silence said everything. His mother was gone, and Kakashi knew why. He remembered them fighting. They fought about it a lot.

"It's not because of that," his father said again.

Kakashi squirmed until his father let him down. He stood in front of the man, looking up at him solemnly. "I'll quit."

"No," Sakumo said loudly.

Kakashi's eyes widened. He'd never heard his father talk to him like that.

"Kakashi . . ." Sakumo wilted, elbows on his knees. "Kakashi, something very bad has happened with your mother. She's going to live in a different place now."

"Very bad?" Kakashi asked softly. Suddenly, he wanted to cry. "Will she be okay?"

"She'll be fine," his father said, refusing to look up from his hands. "But she can't live with us anymore."

"Can I see her?" Kakashi asked.

Sakumo hesitated. "When you're older," he said finally.

Kakashi stared at him, as if he could divine the truth from what his father was saying. Finally, though, he had to concede defeat. "Promise?" he asked softly. He wouldn't cry. He wouldn't do anything like that. He was strong. He was going to be a ninja.

"Promise."

**
Now

It had been bothering Iruka all day, and it wasn't until he saw Genma snap his toothpick in two--though why that triggered his memory, he had no idea--that he realized what it was.

"My parents died," Kakashi had said.

"Just wait," Genma had said, "the next thing he'll tell you is that his mother is dead."

Iruka took a deep breath as his temper rose, snarling through his blood. There had to be a reason. A misunderstanding. Maybe Genma was wrong. Maybe Kakashi had meant his father was dead, not both parents.

"Genma?" Iruka asked, deceptively calm.

Genma--who was studying his broken toothpick with a frown--grunted.

"Where's Kakashi's mother?"

The Special Jounin shrugged, fishing a senbon out of his pocket. "Not sure anymore." He flipped it through the air, catching it in his teeth before chewing on it.

"Are you certain she's alive?" Iruka asked. He nearly held his breath, waiting for the answer. If he wasn't certain, then maybe she was dead, and Kakashi hadn't misled him.

"No idea. But last I heard she was." The senbon flicked from one side of his mouth to the other, sharp and glimmering.

The rest of the day passed in a haze. Eventually, Iruka closed up and headed back to his apartment.

By that time, anger had had a chance to boil. His parents were dead. There was nothing even remotely all right about saying someone was dead when they weren't.

He opened the door, fury building to a storm, and immediately had to swallow it.

Shikamaru was sitting across from Kakashi, staring hard at a Shougi board. Kakashi was slouched back in a nest of blankets, eyes half-lidded.

"Shikamaru?" Iruka asked. "What are you doing here?"

The boy looked up and shrugged, frowning slightly. "Asuma asked me to come keep Kakashi company for a while."

"Ah." Iruka wondered how to get rid of him. Shikamaru, however, didn't need a prompt--after a moment's study, he stood.

"I should go. We can finish tomorrow," he said, and made a quick exit.

"I think he cheats," Kakashi grumbled, staring at the board. "He won three games out of five. That's just not normal. I'm good at this . . ."

Iruka stood, nearly trembling. He took a deep breath. Then another. Kakashi still hadn't noticed. "What happened to your mother?" he said at last, trying to sound as conversational as possible.

Kakashi didn't look up. "Dead."

Iruka nodded. "Oh. When?"

"Years ago."

"How?"

"On a mission. What do you think about this set-up he has going?" Kakashi asked, poking at pieces.

Iruka still hadn't come entirely into the room.

Kakashi finally looked up.

"Genma seems to think she was alive fairly recently."

Kakashi just watched him.

Slowly, Iruka took off his shoes and entered the room. He didn't look at Kakashi. He wasn't sure if he could. "Is she dead or not?"

There was a long moment of silence. Iruka prayed she was dead. That it was a misunderstanding. Anything.

"No," Kakashi said finally. "She's not."

Anger and hurt rose like a tsunami, swamping Iruka. She wasn't dead. Kakashi had lied to him, and for no reason he could see. The man had made something so important nothing more than--than--

"Why would you say that she was dead?" Iruka nearly yelled, furious. "Is this your twisted way of trying to make friends? To say something I might relate to?"

Kakashi's eyes closed, a smile under his mask, and he shrugged nonchalantly. "She's dead to me."

"Dead to you and dead aren't the same thing!" Iruka shouted. "Dead to you means you were angry and glad she's gone, but if you ever decide you still love her you can go see her!" Something twisted in his stomach, something black and yawning. "I can't! My mother is dead, no matter what I wish!" It was then that he realized how much it hurt. To use something like that, to make everything he'd dealt with nothing more than a device to get close--

Iruka whipped away, stalked to the kitchen, turned, stalked back. Kakashi was staring hard at his hands. The smile had been wiped from his face.

"I'm sorry," Kakashi said quietly. "I didn't mean to hurt you."

Iruka glared at him. "You asked me what I wanted, in order to date you. I want truth. Where is your mother?" he ground out finally.

Kakashi was silent for a long time. When he spoke, he didn't look up. "In another country. Being held for trading vital information to one of our enemies."

He felt like the room had dropped out from underneath him. Iruka stared. "What?"

Kakashi still didn't look up. "She hated being a ninja. When my father enrolled me, she was going to take me and run. In trade for sanctuary, she traded information on our village. My father found out. He stopped her. I learned about it when I was older."

He was very wooden. Iruka, hands braced on his hips, glared at the far wall. Then he glared at Kakashi. Then the wall.

He stood, silent.

"I understand," Iruka said finally, still angry but trying to be reasonable, "why you might tell someone your mother was dead if they asked. But why volunteer that information? Why lie?"

Kakashi didn't squirm. "You looked like you wanted to talk. I thought maybe . . . maybe if you wanted to talk, you'd talk to me."

"Kakashi--" Iruka said loudly. He heard his own voice and stopped dead, took a deep breath, and tried again. "Kakashi, if I wanted to talk to you, I would. I would talk to you if I felt I knew you, and trusted you. But I don't!" His voice was rising again, and this time he couldn't bring himself to care. "You lie about nearly everything from what I can tell, and I'm not sure I even know you!"

Kakashi sank further into the couch. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be sorry!" Iruka yelled. "Tell me the damn truth!"

Kakashi stared at his hands. "I did."

"After I caught you in a lie!"

He glared even harder at his hands. "I'm sorry."

Iruka opened his mouth to shout something else, but nothing came to mind. Instead, he stormed into his bedroom and slammed the door.

It felt so good, he slammed it again, just for good measure.

**

He rolled over on his futon, staring at the bedside clock.

Three thirty.

With a frustrated sigh, he swung his legs over the side and stood, shuffling out of his bedroom in nothing more than drawstring pants. A glance at the couch showed Kakashi, sprawled out in black ninja basics, a vague shape in the dark.

Iruka stared for a moment. The man's eyes were closed, but his breathing was fast. Awake.

Iruka walked into the kitchen, got a glass of water, and walked back out into the living room. He stood in front of the table with the game of Shougi still laid out, and watched the man pretend to sleep.

"I loved my parents very much," he said into the silence.

An eye fluttered open, but Kakashi didn't otherwise move.

"When they died, I was--" he couldn't even begin to explain that hurt. That sense of utter despair. Of loneliness. The void that opened up, that not even the village could fill. The anger at being left alone, and the guilt at being angry. The firm belief that, had he been there, he could have done something. That he should have died too.

He realized he was holding his glass tight enough to make his hand sore, and forcefully relaxed. "It hurt," he said finally. "More than anything else ever has. And it never stopped."

One eye glowed dully red in the dark, almost invisible.

"I reacted more than I should have. But when you lied about that--" he stopped again. He was shaking.

Kakashi sat up slowly. Blankets slid as he shifted, moving over on the couch. The sound of fabric against fabric whispered through the air.

If he apologized again, Iruka might kill him. Apologies meant nothing.

"I don't remember much of my mother," Kakashi said quietly. "And I wasn't close to my fa--" he stopped dead. His head dipped, a silhouette against the window. It came back up a moment later. "I was angry at my father. I didn't mean disrespect towards you, or what you've gone through."

Iruka's eyes were burning. He nodded sharply, hoping Kakashi couldn't see how wet they were. It was too much for a single day. Too much anger, and remembered grief.

"I never changed your bandages," Iruka said after a moment, when he was sure he could talk.

"It's all right," Kakashi answered simply.

Iruka set down his glass of water and picked up the supplies, shifting over to the couch. He sat down in the vacated spot, settling things in his first aid box while Kakashi pulled off his shirt. Slowly, the anger was draining out of him, replaced by exhaustion and weariness.

He untaped the worst of the injuries, a stitched gash near Kakashi's spine, and swished alcohol onto a pad.

They sat in silence for a long time. The sting of alcohol drifted between them, quickly dispersing, leaving only the way Kakashi smelled. Clean, and warm, and vaguely of sun. Then Iruka spilled more alcohol onto a pad, and the sting was back between them.

"This is bleeding," Iruka said, watching the gauze turn pink.

"I ripped the stitches earlier."

Iruka didn't respond, only checked it before putting a new cloth on top and taping it over once more. The silence stretched between them, bordering on uncomfortable. All Iruka could think of were his parents dying. Not much else would come to mind. But--he could work with that. "How old were you, when your father died?" he asked into the silence.

Kakashi 'hmm'ed. "Eight," he said finally, and said nothing more.

"That must have been hard."

Kakashi's hand tightened on the edge of the couch. Underneath his fingers, Iruka felt the man's muscles tense.

"Not really," Kakashi said. "It was his choice." The hands relaxed after a moment, but the tension didn't ease.

"Just because it's his choice, doesn't mean it doesn't hurt." Iruka re-bandaged Kakashi's arm, then let his hands travel across the man's shoulders to the other side. Quietly, he dug his fingers into heavy muscle, hitting pressure points. The knots gave way, and some of the tension drained off.

"Whoa," Kakashi said quietly.

Iruka grinned, where Kakashi couldn't see. "Where did you live, afterwards?"

Kakashi shrugged, gracefully. "The Fourth let me stay with him for a while. Before he was the Fourth."

Iruka nodded, checking the deep cut under Kakashi's arm.

"Five years later, I moved into the Jounin bachelor apartments, and just stayed."

Iruka's mind sped, thinking. Five years. "You were thirteen?"

Kakashi 'hmm'ed again. "What about you? Where did you live, after your parents died?"

Iruka flinched from the memories, then took a deep breath. It wasn't fair to ask Kakashi, and expect to not be asked in return. "In a foster home, for a while. Eventually, in my own apartment that the village paid for." He remembered being lonely, and feeling lost.

Mostly, that had gone away.

His hands fell to his knees, looking at the broad expanse of Kakashi's back. In the dark, he couldn't see the scars; only a lot of pale skin. "I should let you go back to bed. You need to sleep."

"I'm feeling better," Kakashi said, twisting to look back. The expanse of his skin was broken by the mask, black and inky. Silver hair sprouted above it, half of it crushed and the other half sticking up.

"I know. You'll probably be well enough to go home in a day or two. But right now, sleep."

Kakashi sighed and looked like he might protest, but Iruka could read the exhaustion radiating from him. He stood and got his glass of water again, heading toward the bedroom before Kakashi could argue.

*********

Chapter nine
Long ago . . .

"Sakumo-san, thank you for coming," the blond Jounin said, stepping back into the office.

"Is everything all right? Kakashi--"

"Is in the yard, with the students. I called you because . . ." He petered off, sitting down at his desk and rubbing his eyes. "Sakumo, Kakashi has started wearing mask. Do you have any idea why?"

"No," Sakumo said, too tired to be truly concerned. "Have you asked him about it?"

The Jounin frowned. "I thought maybe you could ask him. I'm a bit worried about him; I've never had a student quite so--"

"Thank you," Saskumo interrupted, standing. He knew it was rude. He couldn't bring himself to care. This man had implied things about his son--his son, who was brilliant and--and--and now he had something else he had to deal with. He couldn't do all this. "I'll talk to him." He walked out of the office and into the yard.

Kakashi sat alone on a swing under an old tree, watching children play. A long cloth was tied around the lower portion of his face, knotted behind his head.

"Kakashi?" his father called, managing to smile slightly when blue eyes looked up at him. "Come on."

Kakashi got to his feet, very thin and straight. He had tested in the Chuunin exams just a few weeks before; only eight months after becoming a Genin. The Third had put him under the care of one of their younger Jounin, a man that everyone said was a genius. They had no other Genin they could pair a six-year-old with. No one else could compare with Kakashi. Sakumo was proud of his boy, and yet still wondered if his wife had been right. If it wasn't too much, too fast. He felt like he didn't even know his child anymore. The year had been . . . bad.

And now his son was wearing a mask.

They walked in silence for a long while. "Why?" Sakumo asked finally.

Kakashi shrugged.

Silence stretched awkwardly. "I'm very proud of you," Sakumo said after a while.

Kakashi didn't respond.

"We haven't spoken lately." Weeks, since they had had a real conversation. Anything beyond 'good morning' and 'have a nice day.' Sakumo blamed himself. There was no one else to blame. He had isolated them from their village. He had ostracized their entire family. He had become so involved in his own pain that he had forgotten his only child, leaving him almost entirely in the care of a Jounin he barely knew.

He was a failure, but Kakashi was suffering for it.

"Why are you wearing a mask?" Sakumo asked again, the words quiet. He put a hand on his son's arm, stopping him.

The boy--the child, really--pulled away, glaring. "I don't want to look like you. I don't want to see my face, and I don't want the others to see it, either. I hate you, and I hate what you did, and I hate that I look like you."

"Kakashi--" Sakumo started.

"Leave me alone," Kakashi snapped, turning and bolting down the street.

Sakumo almost followed. But--no point. Not in any of it. All he did was bring his child pain. He sat heavily on a bench, his head in his hands.

There was no way out of anything.

**
Now

"So, you were how old when you became a Jounin?" Iruka asked, a note of barely hidden incredulousness in his voice.

Kakashi didn't smile, though it was a chore. He was proud of what he'd accomplished, and it was nice to have someone he actually cared about sound impressed. "Thirteen."

"Huh. And how old when you became ANBU?" Iruka asked again, folding laundry.

That one, Kakashi had to think about. "Seventeen," he said finally. "I'm pretty sure I was seventeen."

"Huh." Iruka folded two towels, setting them on a pile, and reached for a bedsheet. "If you were a Jounin by the time you were thirteen," he said slowly, "who was in your team?"

Kakashi shifted. His limbs still felt vaguely sluggish, and he was getting cold again. It seemed like he slept most of the time, still. "Other Jounin," he said, pulling the blanket up around his legs. Outside, rain pattered against the building, distant and faint. He could taste the burn of ozone, and suspected they might have lightning later.

"Were there other Jounin your age?" Iruka asked. He was frowning at a hole in the sheet, his finger wiggling through it as if that might make it go away.

"Not really. Itachi, but he's a bit younger than me. And we didn't travel in the same circles."

Iruka just looked at him for a moment. Kakashi looked back. Discomfort grew. The impressed look had given way to an entirely too thoughtful one. "Yes?" Kakashi asked, uncomfortable.

"Hmm? Oh, nothing," Iruka said, shaking his head as if rooting himself back in his body, and returning to folding. "I just--well, you and Uchiha Itachi were really the only geniuses that had to grow up alone. The Sannin all had each other, and even still, Orochimaru turned out like he did. I was trying to figure out if there was a difference between those that handled it all right, and those that didn't. It seems like you'd be awfully isolated."

Kakashi frowned behind his mask. "I wasn't isolated."

"So you had friends?" Iruka asked, perking up.

"Well--I didn't need them."

Iruka was looking at him thoughtfully again. "Hmm," he said, and tied two socks together.

"Hmm?" Kakashi asked. He really disliked having someone draw conclusions about him. He drew conclusions about people, not the other way around. Another reason he preferred lying to telling the truth. People didn't make decisions about you.

Outside, thunder growled.

"Nothing." They were silent for a moment.

Kakashi sprawled back out on the couch, feeling sleepy once more. He stared out the window at the setting sun, at the reds splashed across the sky.

"Why do you wear the mask?" Iruka asked.

Kakashi just shrugged. Then he grinned, both eyes curving. "Makes me mysterious."

Iruka snorted and carried the clean clothes to his bedroom, then came back for towels and sheets. He tossed a blanket on the couch and it bounced across, half unfolding over Kakashi's legs. Kakashi pulled it farther up, enjoying the heat.

He was getting tired of being tired all the time. Of being cold, and exhausting easily, and sleeping for most of the day. Especially of this stupid damp storm, which made his bones hurt. Still, he could see the improvement. Taking a shower left him trembling from fatigue, but at least he could get all the way through one without having to sit down.

A few more days.

**

Iruka put the towels away, and walked back into the living room. He could sense Kakashi fading again, could feel the man's chakra ebbing, and knew that he'd be sound asleep in another half hour.

Still, Kakashi roused himself and blinked owlishly. Iruka was getting used to the Sharingan, and the clean scar that marred the smooth flesh around it. He no longer felt the urge to stare. He still wondered, though, why the mask.

Kakashi apparently wasn't willing to answer that question.

"What did you do today?" Kakashi asked, leaning heavily against the arm of the couch.

Iruka headed into the kitchen, talking through the doorway while he prepared dinner. The window was sleeted with rain, making the night even darker. "Oh, mostly work."

"You were home late."

He couldn't quite suppress the grin, and he leaned around the doorway to see Kakashi. "Sorry, honey," he said, near mockingly.

Kakashi snorted a laugh. "Well, Shikamaru's not quite as good company . . ."

"You win at Shougi yet?" Iruka asked, heading farther into the kitchen. He peered into cupboards, wishing he'd gone grocery shopping. But the storm had been threatening, and he hadn't wanted to get caught . . .

"I've won several times, thank you. He's just won more," Kakashi added, in an undertone.

Iruka laughed.

"Where were you?" Kakashi asked again.

"Visiting Mizuki," Iruka answered. He had ramen, mostly left over for Naruto, and some vegetables . . . maybe if he chopped enough vegetables, the ramen would be edible.

"Mizuki? Didn't he try to steal the--"

"Yes," Iruka said, before Kakashi could finish the thought. "He's still in prison. I try and see him at least once a week." The carrots had gone bad. He sighed and tossed them into the garbage. Scratch that idea.

A shadow fell across him, and Iruka looked up to see Kakashi leaning against the doorframe, trying to look nonchalant and still looking very pale. "Didn't he use you?" Kakashi asked.

The kitchen lit up for just a moment, and thunder snarled.

Iruka frowned. "Eventually. But he was a friend, and everyone makes mistakes."

"Most people don't try to kill each other," Kakashi said dryly. "You can't tell me that betrayal didn't hurt you."

Iruka scratched at his forehead. He hated these conversations. "Of course it did. He was my best friend. But everyone's redeemable, Kakashi," he said softly, back turned. "I have to believe that."

Kakashi was silent behind him. "Hn," he said at last.

Maybe they could just order food.

"Want me to cook?"

That was it. They were ordering food. "You go sit down before you fall down," Iruka said, frowning. "I'm going to the place down the street. What do you want?" He pulled a menu off his corkboard and handed it to Kakashi.

Kakashi shook his head. "Order often?"

Iruka didn't bother with an answer.

**

"Why are we talking about this?" Iruka asked, throwing out the pick-up dinner containers before settling back down on the floor with his plate. He could feel his face burning.

"Because it's funny," Kakashi said cheerfully.

"My sex life is not funny," Iruka muttered, only partially annoyed. Even he could see the humorous side, he had to admit.

"No, but your lack of a sex life is hilarious."

He mock-glared at Kakashi. "Isn't virginity supposed to be a turn-on?" he said, his plate in his lap. "Maybe I'm lying just to be sexier."

Kakashi laughed. "But you nearly had sex in a tree." It was almost a question.

Iruka groaned. "You know, when you made Genma stop teasing me, I thought you were going to let this drop."

"I was just making Genma drop it. That doesn't apply to me. So. Sex in a tree?"

"It was just fooling around, thank you," Iruka said, sniffing.

The apartment lit for a brief moment, as another bolt of lightning tore through the sky.

"With Mizuki?"

Iruka eyed Kakashi. "Apparently I have a thing for guys who look old," he said.

"Hey!" Kakashi protested instantly.

Iruka grinned.

"I was born with this hair," Kakashi said.

"So was Mizuki," Iruka answered. "Besides, why are you harassing me? I mean, I somehow doubt you have a secret life as a sex fiend."

Kakashi looked smug. "More than you."

"You don't know how much fooling around I did," Iruka countered.

"I know I'm not a virgin."

Iruka looked at him carefully. Kakashi looked utterly smug. "You're not a virgin?" Iruka asked doubtfully.

Kakashi shook his head.

"You've had sex?"

Kakashi nodded.

Iruka seriously doubted it. "When?" he demanded.

Kakashi hesitated.

"That's what I thought," he said, snorting. "You can't possibly tell me that you, the guy who says he had no friends because he was a Jounin at thirteen, has had sex. You don't even drink, so you couldn't have picked up at a bar."

Kakashi was looking mildly amused, eyes half lidded.

"And since you don't have a peer group--oh, wait, I know," Iruka said, waving his chipsticks in the air. "You had sex on a mission."

Kakashi grinned.

"I've got it!" Iruka said dramatically, standing up and carrying his plate into the kitchen. He still couldn't see out the window; rain was coming down in sheets. "You were on a mission, and something terrible happened, and so you had sympathy sex!"

There was no answer from the other room.

Iruka put his plate in the sink, grabbed a glass of water, and started to wander back out. "Only, you were really young," he said thoughtfully. "Got it! You were scared and got taken advantage of, but it was really okay because--"

He stopped dead in the doorway.

Kakashi wasn't smiling. He wasn't eating. He was staring at the doorway with half-lidded eyes, gaze cold. "I wasn't taken advantage of," he said quietly.

Iruka flinched, and went pale, the meaning of that statement sinking in with the realization that the rest of it hadn't been denied. "Oh. Oh, Kakashi, I'm sorry," he said softly.

Kakashi was sprawled back against the couch, feet propped on the table, gaze still half-lidded and deceptively bored.

"I didn't mean--" Iruka stopped, cringing internally. Of all the stupid things. It wasn't as if people having sex on missions was an uncommon occurrence. Not terribly common, either, but stranger things happened. "I'm really stupid sometimes," Iruka said, half stuttering over his own words.

Kakashi kept looking at him with that disinterested stare. "That's all right," he said casually. "Better to have sympathy sex than to be used and betrayed, and go back for more."

Iruka froze. Better to have sympathy sex than be used. Better, because to be used meant you were weak. To go back to the user was stupid, and foolish, and needy and--and desperate.

Mizuki.

Something tightened in his chest, something hard and cold and painful. Carefully, he picked up Kakashi's dinner plate and carried it back into the kitchen. Better to have sympathy sex then be used. He scraped off what was left of the meal, set it down in the sink, and started to run water. Stupid to allow yourself to be used. Worse to go back to the user.

Mizuki had used him. For sex? To steal? They hadn't been friends. Mizuki admitted it, told him he was foolish and naïve and good for nothing. And yet he kept going back to the man.

He'd hurt Kakashi. That much had been obvious. He hadn't meant to, but--

But--

But what? But he had, so it made Kakashi lashing out all right? It made it all right for Kakashi to say something calculated to hurt? To imply weakness in Iruka? It was effective, that was certain.

Lightning tore through the sky, and in that moment he saw Kakashi's shadow blasted on the wall in front of him. Thunder pealed into the silence.

"I'm sorry." The words were still cold.

Iruka didn't respond. He was shaking. He didn't dare speak.

He heard Kakashi take a deep breath, and step forward. "I didn't mean that."

"Yes, you did," Iruka said. His jaw was so tight it hurt. Better to have sympathy sex then be used. To be used and return was pathetic.

"No. I'm sorry."

He dropped his water glass into the sink, and it shattered. "No, you're not," he snapped, picking out the still-whole base and throwing it toward the trashcan. "You say things like this, and I don't know why you feel a fucking need to say these things--to, what? Get a reaction? I've seen you do this before--hell, you did this to me when you nominated Team Seven for the Chuunin exams! Well, you got a reaction."

He felt the hand more than saw it, and snarled a look over his shoulder. "Don't touch me."

Kakashi pulled away.

Iruka swept up the last of the glass with a towel and tossed all of it into the garbage. Then he turned to face Kakashi.

He was still shaking. "Mizuki was a mistake," he said. "But before that, he was a friend when I needed one. You're just an asshole." He turned back to the sink, hands braced on the counter. "Get out of my kitchen."

"Iruka--"

"Get out!" Iruka yelled. There was a moment of silence. Then he felt Kakashi retreat.

He stared at the running water for a long time. It hurt. He'd hurt Kakashi, but it hadn't been on purpose. That--that had been calculated. And it worked. It brought up all the things that had torn at him when Mizuki had betrayed him. All the insecurities, that he was only good for being used. That Mizuki had only been his friend so he could laugh behind Iruka's back. That he, himself, wasn't worth anything.

Pathetically needy. Used.

"Shit," Iruka hissed. He couldn't stay here.

He looked at the rain out the window, then shut off the water and stormed into his bedroom. He ignored Kakashi, sitting carefully silent on the couch, and changed into sweatpants and shirt.

"I'm going jogging," he said, walking straight through the living room and to the door.

"It's raining."

Iruka didn't answer, just bolted out and slammed the door behind him.

He ran. If he went hard enough and fast enough, maybe the anger would burn out. Maybe he'd forget everything.

His clothing soaked through almost instantly. He kept running, splashing across empty streets and out, away from the people and bright windows. Somewhere dark.

Trees arched overhead. He ran deeper into the shadows, focusing on the uneven ground beneath his feet, the cold rain hitting hot skin, anything but the hurt.

Kakashi didn't know how to be friendly. This wasn't worth it. He'd thought they were friends. Iruka knew people, but somehow it seemed like every time he got close, things went bad.

Maybe there was something wrong with him.

Iruka stopped running. Rain streamed down his back, mingling with sweat. He put his hands on his knees and panted, breathing in gasps. His clothes were plastered to his skin, his flesh pimpling with cold.

When he looked up, he realized he was at the monument. He put a hand out, palm flat on the black stone. It was wet, and cold, and it made him shiver.

His chest hurt from breathing. He rubbed an arm across his face, wiping away moisture. It dripped back in, from his hair, from the rain. One finger traced the names of his parents, shaking. He fell forward slowly, folding his arms across the stone and leaning in, as if they were there. As if he could feel them, somewhere, watching.

"I need help," he whispered. Rain pelted his head, hammering down through his hair, on the back of his neck, on his spine. "I don’t know what to do."

He rolled, dropping his arms and staring up at the sky, leaning back against the monument.

They'd been gone for twelve years. Twelve long years, and suddenly it was like it had been two days. That darkness opened up inside him, nearly swallowing him, and he realized he was crying. Iruka slid to the wet ground, bracing his arms on his knees and resting his head.

He needed them, and they were gone. He'd needed a friend, and Mizuki had used him. Kakashi was right. Kakashi was an asshole, who hurt him. But Kakashi was right.

By the time he'd worn himself out, had berated himself and hated Kakashi and run through the entire gamut of emotions, the storm was fading. He was shivering, his teeth chattering, and he was soaked. Iruka stood, his body protesting, and started the long walk back to his apartment.

He was tired. Bone-weary. It took much longer to get back than it had to run away.

He opened the door and nearly staggered inside.

He froze. Silence reached him, broken by the sound of his teeth knocking. He clenched his jaw to hear over them, and realized what was missing.

Kakashi.

Carefully, he walked through the room, toward the back. The bathroom was empty. So was his bedroom. He looked out the window, at the drizzle still coming down, and remembered the cold. Remembered Kakashi, still struggling with blood loss and minor organ damage, and barely able to even keep his own body heat up.

He shrugged into a coat and ran out the door

Chapter ten
Years ago. . .

"We need to find out what they know." The ANBU squad leader, Kazou, looked anxiously over his shoulder.

"And find the rest of the team," Kakashi said, his eyes following where the Lightning Country troop had gone with their people.

The captain looked at him, pulling a mask down over his face. "You find out what they learned. I'll get our squad." Then the ANBU was gone, leaping into the trees and vanishing into the forest.

Kakashi turned back to their captive, who was glaring at him darkly. "I'm not going to tell you anything," the ninja snarled.

Kakashi cocked his head and smiled grimly. "Yes. You are."

The screaming started not long after. It was a long time before it stopped.

Kakashi walked slowly through a clearing. He passed from sunlight to shadow. Walked under the trees. To the stream nearby.

He took three deep breaths. Then the ice shattered around his chest, and he dropped to his knees. The smell of blood clung to him. Acid burned in his nose. He retched, ripping his mask down and coughing vomit into the dirt between his hands.

His gloves were red, and wet. He was shaking. Cold. And he could hear the man screaming. He wouldn't stop screaming, even though Kakashi kept telling himself it was all in his mind.

Just in his mind. The screaming was gone. The man was dead. He'd killed him. He could still hear the screaming and the man was dead.

Kakashi retched again. It dripped from his mouth and nose, burning his sinuses. It smelled like blood. He was cold. Someone cried, long and loud and begging--no, the man was dead.

A hand touched him. He jumped, flinching away, expecting to see a corpse. It would kill him, and--

Kakashi stared at his squad captain, the figure coming into focus slowly. Breath whistled through the teenager's lungs. His chest burned.

"Kakashi," Kazou said, but his voice seemed too quiet. Distant. The man looked around, and Kakashi's vision blurred. He started to tremble, and held onto the ground. "Head back to the village," the captain said, in that same slow voice. "We'll catch up."

Two shapes that Kakashi hadn't seen vanished.

Something sparkled. He jumped, turned. Light glittered on the water. His heart hammered. Blood thrummed in his ears. Birds sung, shrill and piercing. Wind ruffled through his hair, and the man begged him to stop, and his kunai severed a tendon but only in the man's mind--

Everything smelled sweet. Someone was talking. Kakashi shook. Cold. So, so cold. Wet, and slick. Blood, pooled around his feet, churning to mud and--

He bent over, choking on nothing. A hand on his back rubbed circles, and offered him water from a flask.

His hands wouldn't work. He couldn't hold onto it. Someone else did, fingers on the back of his head, tipping water into his mouth. Words. Words babbling, telling him everything he asked--

Someone screamed.

Pain rocked through him. Kakashi's head whirled, and he blinked, and looked up--

His squad captain was staring hard at him, face inches from his, hands on either side of his head.

Kakashi grabbed Kazou's wrists, clinging to the only thing that was solid, real.

"Look at me. That's right. Just keep looking at me," his captain said, brown eyes pinning his.

Kakashi realized he was whimpering. He bit down on his lip, tasted something sweet, and--

He twisted away, stomach heaving again.

"It's all right. It'll be okay. I shouldn’t have--I'm sorry. It's okay. Focus on the present. Forget what happened. It'll be fine."

He listened to the words like a lifeline, hearing them fade in and out, and waited for the ground to stop screaming.

"He won't stop," he heard himself whisper. "He keeps crying . . ."

"Try not to think about it," his captain said.

He felt hands on his jacket, pulling at him. It was off, and on the ground, and he was still shivering.

"Wait--" he managed, feeling more hands tugging on his clothes.

"You're going into shock," Kazou said, yanking the black shirt off over Kakashi's head.

Shock. Shock was bad. Still screaming. Still bloody. Begging to be killed. The snap of a broken bone, like breaking a dry twig. He heard himself whine, but couldn't stop.

"Think about what's going on now," Kazou said, holding onto Kakashi's shoulders. Kakashi bit back a hysterical sob. Skin, burningly hot, seared through his clothes and roasted him. Kakashi focused on it, clinging to the sensation.

"That's it," the captain said, wrapping a blanket around the smaller man and pulling him close.

Kakashi curled into the chest, listening to the heartbeat hammering there. Heat radiated from the man's body. Kazou chafed his arm. Kakashi sat there, trying desperately to do as his captain said, to focus on what was happening at that moment--

--not on the screaming, the man was screaming--

No. No, it was a warm day and the stream was gurgling--

--blood in his captive's throat while the man tried to speak--

--that hadn't happened and it was water in the stream.

"C-can't," Kakashi stuttered, memories crashing back in painfully. He cried and clung to Kazou's shirt, burying his face into the man's neck, breathing the sharp smell of adrenaline and sweat. "Help," he whispered.

"I forgot how young--Kakashi, it's all right. I'm sorry. Listen to my voice, all right? Find something to hold onto. Smell, touch, think of the way the blanket feels."

He listened to the voice, trying to match his breathing with the body he was plastered against. Slow, long breaths. Felt the sunlight on his hair, and his face, and the rough weave of the blanket. Slow strokes from Kazou, his hand traveling up and down Kakashi's spine.

He was still shaking. Still cold. But the screams were receding. He wiped at his face, felt skin rather than cloth, and realized his mask was down. He twisted, panic rising, grabbing for it and trying to yank it up with numb fingers.

"It's all right, I've got it. It's all right," Kazou said, pulling the material up and putting it in place. "There. See? All right." He left his hand there, brushing his thumb along the material. "You're fine."

Kakashi burrowed into the touch, focusing on it. It was . . . nice. It wasn't frightening, or painful. Kazou's skin smelled good. Ice melted a little bit in his stomach, as if the heat could thaw it. He turned his head and kissed the man's palm, through the mask.

Kazou froze. "That's not a great idea, kiddo," he said quietly.

"S-stay in the present, right?" Kakashi asked. His voice was trembling. Everything was still so cold. Cold, and dead, and--

He shuddered, breath hitching, and buried his face against Kazou's neck. Warm. He smelled good. Kakashi rubbed his face against the skin, trying desperately to find something that would root him in the present. Away from the things he'd just done.

Warm skin, and it smelled good, safe, and the more he rubbed the easier it was not to think about--about--that.

He kissed Kazou again, breathing through the mask. Kazou was carefully still.

"You're too young," Kazou said, finally shifting. He rubbed a hand up and down Kakashi's spine, exactly as he'd been doing before.

Kakashi wanted to cry. Was afraid he might, but not because he was frustrated. His eyes burned, and for a moment, he felt everything that he'd just done was trying to drag him under again. He dug his hands into Kazou's shirt, rubbing burning eyes--eyes staring at him in terror as he knelt before them, blade coming closer--He shuddered and nearly screamed into the man's shoulder.

"It's all right. Stay here," Kazou whispered.

"Please. Please." His voice broke. Staying in the present with nothing to focus on was impossible. He could focus on touch. It was active, and it was good, and--his breath hitched in his chest and he kneaded his fingers against Kazou's chest. "I can't not think about it. Kazou, please--"

"Shit," the ANBU hissed. Then Kakashi was shifted, resettling with a knee on either side of the man's hips. "This is not the healthy way to deal with things," Kazou muttered.

Hand slid under the blanket, against bare skin. Kakashi shivered. Hot. Almost hot enough to burn, which only told him he was cold. He leaned in again, wrapping his arms around Kazou's chest, breathing deeply against the man's neck. Hands slid down his back, tugged at the buckle on his pants, and slid under.

Kakashi bit down on a cry, unsure himself whether it was a good noise or a bad one, and--

--screaming the man was screaming--

He closed both eyes, his arms tightening around Kazou.

"I know. It's all right," Kazou breathed, air warm on Kakashi's skin. "Think about me, all right? Focus on touch. Trust me."

Touch. Focus on touch. On the heat of the body in front of him, and the pressure from hands sliding over his hips. On--

--the way blood slicked his fingers--

Kakashi bit his lip until the skin broke, until that pain brought him back. Kazou was talking, a constant murmur of assurances and apologies. His hands were petting, sliding up Kakashi's back, only to reverse and travel back down, beneath the waistband of his pants, as far down as they could reach, and father than anyone else ever had.

His body wouldn't react properly. He could only focus for so long before the past swept over him again and he saw blood and heard screaming. Kazou brought him back and started over, playing Kakashi carefully, building lust and tension. When Kakashi finally stopped thinking, when his brain gave in to his body and finally--finally--he stopped hearing the Jounin begging and pleading for it to end, when his body released in a surge of hormones and endorphins, he started crying for the first time in years.

Kazou rolled them both over, wrapping the blanket around them, Kakashi's masked face buried in his chest, and petted him.

------------
Now

Iruka peered in the window to Kakashi's tiny apartment. It was dark, the bed neatly made, the two photos together on the shelf above.

There was no sign of Kakashi. No sign of him there, and no sign of him on the way, and Iruka was running out of ideas. He was soaked to the skin once more, so cold he couldn't stop shivering. He couldn't imagine how Kakashi, who was still recovering, would feel.

He jumped, focusing chakra and using it to reach the rooftop.

A black bundle lay there, draped over a peak. Iruka headed toward it, hope and fear both leaping through him.

He put a hand on the bundle's shoulder, and turned it.

Kakashi whimpered. His single visible eye, the other once more covered by his forehead protector, opened slightly. "Iruka?"

Iruka took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. "What are you doing here?"

Kakashi started to smile; Iruka could see the movement of his eye, the shape of his face changing. "You said to get out."

"Of the kitchen. I said to get out of the kitchen," Iruka growled. He put a hand on the side of Kakashi's face, the only skin showing.

The man was freezing.

"Hold on," Iruka said, and then grabbed Kakashi's wrist and ankle and pulled him up and over, slinging the lanky man across his shoulders. He nearly slipped on the way off of the roof, focusing his chakra quickly again to keep from plunging to the street below.

"You still mad at me?" Kakashi mumbled.

"Yes," Iruka answered instantly. "Right now, compassion is overriding that. Don't expect it to be true later, though."

Kakashi just hung limply.

By the time he got to the hospital, Kakashi was almost entirely unresponsive. Iruka burst through the doors, let Kakashi drop onto a gurney--to Kakashi's whimpered protest--and gave into the urge to cough.

They were surrounded by medical ninja almost instantly.

"He left the apartment, and by the time I found him he was like this," Iruka said to the million and one questions. He was still shaking, teeth chattering so hard now he could barely speak. Kakashi was nearly as bad, his skin almost blue, barely arguing as they stripped him of his shirt and pants, tossing a blanket over him as they went. Next thing Iruka knew, they were pushing him down onto a gurney as well, pulling his jacket off. His hair was a tangled mass when they were done, and he batted at hands that were aiming for his waistband. "I'm fine!" he tried to yell, but had to stop due to another coughing fit.

Kakashi coughed, too, as if in sympathy, but it was frighteningly weak. Then he was gone, wheeled down the hall and through double doors.

"You're soaked, and freezing," a nurse said, draping a blanket over his shoulders. Another nurse was pulling off his boots, while the first one shoved him back to his feet. Someone yanked his sweatpants right off him, and he yelped, suddenly almost-naked under the blanket.

"This way," the first nurse said, shoving him not very gently toward the doors.

"But I'm fine!" Iruka protested, shivering too hard to put up any kind of a decent fight.

"You've been in the rain for who knows how long, you're soaked, you're freezing, and you've used up most of your chakra--let me guess--carrying Kakashi across slick rooftops? Did it ever occur to you to use the street?"

He didn't answer, but glowered mightily at her instead. Then he was settled in a room, a mug of hot tea cradled between both hands, most of him under piles of blankets.

"You're staying here for the night," the nurse said, a note of absolute authority in her voice. "You can keep an eye on each other."

It was then that he noticed the other occupant of the room was Kakashi, bundled up in nearly as many blankets, and hooked up to a beeping machine.

Iruka cursed softly as the door closed.

"Iruka--"

"Shut up."

Amazingly enough, Kakashi did.

-----------

Kakashi's hope that he could talk at Iruka until the Chuunin forgave him was dashed when they informed him he had another two days to remain in the hospital. Iruka left that same morning, and they put an ANBU guard on the door.

Damn.

He considered writing a letter, but he wasn't so good at that. He also wasn't sure what to say. "Dear Iruka. I messed up. You messed up. Want to mess up together?" didn't seem right. Neither did, "Dear Iruka, at least I didn't lie."

So he stared at the ceiling and tried to plan what to do next.

------------

Iruka shuffled papers and tried to keep his mind on his job.

He hadn't seen Kakashi in three days. He hadn't even thought about Kakashi. Or, rather, he had tried not to think about Kakashi, but had failed miserably.

Iruka sighed. Genma looked up at him, questioningly.

"Nothing," Iruka said, shuffling papers.

Genma just kept looking at him. The senbon he'd stuck in his mouth flipped from one side to the other, though his expression didn't change.

"Genma--" Iruka started, then stopped. He began to blush. He could feel it, crawling up his neck.

Genma's eyebrows rose.

"That is, would you like to go get, ah, tea?" He shuffled his papers and didn't look up. The blush grew.

He could feel Genma staring at him. "Wouldn't that upset Kakashi?"

Anger sliced through him. "I don't care if it upsets Kakashi," Iruka snapped. "We're not dating. I'm not even sure I like him." He picked up the pile of already straight papers and bounced the ends on the desk, straightening them again.

"All right," Genma said slowly. "We can go get tea."

----------

Kakashi stood in his little apartment, looking around unhappily. It seemed too big. Which was strange, because it was smaller than Iruka's. Still, it was . . . lonely. And cold. There were no pictures on the walls, and his refrigerator was a normal white. Iruka's was white, too, but drawings and photos, either by his students or of his students, were held on with magnets.

Kakashi didn't even have magnets.

He wasn't sure how to fix it. How to make his apartment comfortable, like Iruka's had been.

He needed Iruka. There were no two ways around it.

Within minutes he was on his way to the other man's apartment, traveling over rooftops and leaping from building to building. He was winded by the time he got there; another sign of his continuing weakness, though he was almost entirely better.

Kakashi jumped to a window, clinging outside and peering in.

No one was there.

Frowning, he leapt to the ground and considered his next option.

The mission office. It was just after five o' clock, and Iruka often stayed a bit late, finishing up paperwork or arguing with Genma. He was probably still there.

Kakashi jumped back to the roof, sprinting toward the large building at the center of the village.

He was panting hard by the time he got there, and swung in through an open window rather than jumping to the ground and using the door.

Iruka had to be at the office. He had to be, because Kakashi needed to apologize and win him back, somehow, even though he'd never really had him in the first place, and--

And--

It was empty.

Kakashi slumped onto a desk. Iruka wasn't there. He wasn't at his apartment. Kakashi didn't know where else to look.

He wouldn’t give up. There was always a way to do something, if you just put your mind to it. He'd gotten through many impossible missions with that belief, and he'd get through this.

Eyes narrowed, Kakashi formed seals and dropped, slapping both hands on the ground.

With a puff of smoke, Pakkun appeared, peering up at him with his usual look of disgruntlement. "What?" the dog growled.

"I need you to track down Iruka."

Pakkun looked around. "You brought me all the way here for that? There doesn't seem to be a battle . . . "

"No, no, we had a fight, and--would you please just do it?" Kakashi said, folding his hands over his chest and giving his half-lidded glare.

Pakkun sat down. "No."

"What?" Kakashi asked, unimpressed.

"No. This isn't healthy."

Kakashi eyed the pug.

Pakkun eyed him back.

"I'll buy you a beef steak that's as big as you are," Kakashi said, finally.

Pakkun's ears lifted. "Two."

"Two," Kakashi agreed.

Pakkun stood, his nose to the ground, and started sniffing.

It didn't take long for him to catch the scent, and then they were off, racing out of the office and down the street. Pakkun darted through the crowd, nearly leaving Kakashi behind. The ninja barely managed to keep the dog in sight, twisting and leaping to keep from knocking people over. After a moment a path started to clear for him, as the people in the village realized who he was.

They probably thought he was on some sort of mission. Close enough.

Kakashi caught up to Pakkun just outside the doors to a tea house, and they went inside together.

"What's he doing here?" Kakashi muttered.

"Genma's scent's been along the whole time," Pakkun growled.

Kakashi's heart stuttered. He played it nonchalantly. "Oh?"

Pakkun just woofed, and looked up at a single occupant of a little table.

Genma looked up at Kakashi. He smiled slightly. "Hi."

"Yo," Kakashi said, settling back on his hips, hands in his pockets. "Where's Iruka?"

Genma nodded toward the back of the room. "Bathroom."

"You're in my seat," Kakashi said calmly.

"No, I’m in the seat Iruka asked me to sit in," Genma answered.

Kakashi smiled. Then he pulled his hands out of his pockets, and started making seals.

"All right, all right," Genma yelped, leaping up out of the chair. "I told Iruka this wasn't a great idea," he muttered, leaving the place.

"What about my steak?" Pakkun asked.

Kakashi glanced down at him. "Later."

Pakkun whuffed and trotted out the doors.

Kakashi waited. And waited. And waited. And finally, when he was getting ready to go into the bathroom after Iruka, Iruka appeared at the table.

"What are you doing here?" Iruka snapped, arms folding over his chest. "And where's Genma?"

"Genma had to go," Kakashi answered quickly, standing as well. Better that way to block Iruka, if the Chuunin should try to leave. "And I came to apologize."

Iruka just stared at him. "But you were right," he said finally, the words oddly nice.

Kakashi tensed.

"I am pathetically needy, and let people do things they shouldn't, and continue to like them. So I'm trying to change. Starting with you. Go away."

Kakashi flinched. "I'm sorry," he began.

Iruka walked toward the door.

Luckily, he had to walk past Kakashi to get there. Kakashi stepped in his path, grabbing the other man's wrist just for good measure.

Iruka jumped back, snatching his hand away. "I'm not interested in you, Kakashi," Iruka said, his voice rising.

The people at the nearest tables glanced their way, then studiously went back to their tea.

"Please, just let me explain," Kakashi said, nearly begging. Iruka was the first friend he'd made in a long time. He was starting to think Iruka was significantly more than that, though he didn't have much experience in relationships.

"I don't want to hear it," Iruka snapped. "Get out of my way."

Kakashi took a deep breath, steeling himself. "I'm sorry for what I did. It was wrong, and I was an ass, and--"

Iruka tried to walk past him again.

Kakashi grabbed the man's jacket. "Someone I respect once said everyone's redeemable," he said quietly.

Iruka froze, back to Kakashi.

They stood there for a moment, silent and still. "Please," Kakashi said. "Just tea. If you still don't want to talk to me then--I'll go. And I'll leave you alone. Just tea."

Iruka looked over his shoulder, brown eyes burning. "Tea," he said finally. Very stiffly, he turned and walked back to the table.

Chapter Eleven
Now

Iruka held his teacup in both hands, examining the design on the outside, feeling the little ridges with callused hands. He didn't want to be here. He didn't want to give Kakashi another chance. There had been too many emotional ups and downs in the last few weeks, and he wasn't ready for any more.

"I went back to my apartment," Kakashi said, after they'd been quiet for a long time.

Iruka grunted.

"It's not as nice as yours."

Iruka glanced up at the Jounin, then away.

"I thought you might know why. Or how to fix it," Kakashi said.

Iruka was tempted to say 'no,' that he had no idea how to fix it. Somehow, he couldn't. He could leave, but he couldn't refuse help when it was so easy to give. "You just need some pictures. Maybe more furniture," he said grudgingly.

"Pictures of what?" Kakashi asked.

Iruka sipped tea, then watched it swirl in the bottom of his cup. "Friends. Family."

"I have pictures of those."

Iruka smiled reluctantly, remembering the photos on the shelf. "You have two. Put up some more."

"I don't have any more," Kakashi murmured.

Iruka glanced up. Kakashi was glaring at the teacup he held. Genma's teacup. "So take some pictures of your friends, and put them up." He didn’t try to hide his exasperation.

Kakashi twirled the cup, then sipped. "I don't really have friends to take pictures of."

Iruka watched him. The man looked up, and Iruka looked back down at his tea. He poured more from the pot, watching steam curl. How to explain? Finally, he took a deep breath. "When you wanted to have dinner," he asked slowly, "who did you borrow clothes from?"

Kakashi frowned. "Genma. Raidou. Only, I asked Gai and Asuma first. And Kurenai was there, though I'm not sure why . . ."

"And the table?"

"Asuma."

Iruka nodded and looked at Kakashi expectantly.

Kakashi still looked like he didn't understand the point.

Iruka made a noise in frustration, a small sound in the back of his throat. "Kakashi, Kurenai was there because she likes you. So do Raidou, Genma, Gai and Asuma, or they wouldn't have helped. The only reason you're not friends with them is because you don't ever ask them to do things. They're left with the assumption that you don't want to be friends. I bet if you asked Asuma to dinner, he'd go."

Kakashi frowned. "I'm not interested in him like that . . ."

"No, I mean as friends," Iruka said, nearly laughing at the look on Kakashi's face. He caught himself just in time. He was still angry, after all.

Kakashi looked thoughtful. "What if I do it wrong?"

"I think the fact that you're trying will make up for it," Iruka said softly.

The Jounin glanced at him. This time, Iruka didn't look away. "Will you help me?"

Iruka went back to staring at his tea. "No."

"Why not?"

"Because I don't want to get involved," he muttered.

"Please?"

The word was so soft, Iruka almost didn't hear it. He closed his eyes and swallowed.

"Iruka . . ." Kakashi started, and stopped.

Iruka looked at him. Kakashi wasn't squirming, because he never did, but he looked like he wanted to. "I didn't mean to hurt you." The man stopped, frowning into his tea, as if this was the hardest thing he'd ever done.

Iruka suspected it probably was.

"I was an ass, and . . . I apologize. But I rea--" His teeth closed with a click. Kakashi stared hard at the tabletop. "I'll try not to do it again." He looked up, finally, the single eye almost pleading. Pleading to understand, Iruka guessed, because Kakashi couldn't find the words.

Iruka wondered if the man even understood what he was feeling.

Iruka looked away. "I'll help you make friends," he said finally. "But nothing more."

Kakashi just nodded, obviously relieved to have that much.

It hurt. Iruka stared down at his hands.

**

"Why don't you ask Asuma if he'd like to have dinner at your place?" Iruka suggested, sitting at the counter in the little ramen shop two days later.

Kakashi shook his head. "He might think I like him like that."

Iruka sighed internally. "So ask both him and Kurenai. Then they'll know it's just friendly."

Kakashi was silent for a long time.

"What?" Iruka asked.

"What if they say no?"

"They won't say no. Unless it's a bad day, in which case you just change days."

"They might say no."

Iruka ground his teeth and rubbed the scar across his nose. "You won't know unless you try."

Kakashi picked at his ramen, then finally pushed the bowl away. "What should I say?"

"Just ask them if they'd like to come to dinner," Iruka said, not for the first time. He was beginning to feel a bit like a recording.

"But--how?"

"Kakashi," Iruka snapped. He took a deep breath, then tossed money on the counter. "I have to get back to work. I'll talk to you later tonight."

Kakashi nodded, still sitting hunched over. "All right."

**
Many years ago . . .

On his ninth birthday he found himself outside the prison, sitting on the steps, a flower in his hand. He hadn't seen his mother in four years. He was starting to forget what she looked like.

He twirled the flower, peering down at it. Maybe this was a bad idea. Maybe he should go now.

The door opened, and a guard stepped out. "Hatake Kakashi?"

Kakashi jumped, and looked up.

"This way."

Too late to run. He stood and walked after the guard, down long, empty corridors. Their steps echoed, even when he tried to walk silently. After a long time, they stopped at a set of double doors. The guard pulled out keys that chattered noisily on their ring, and shuffled through them until he'd found the right one. The door opened with the smell of rust and too much oil used too late, and Kakashi found himself looking at yet another set of doors. He followed the guard up to those, and they stopped.

A metal grate was in the center of them, giving him a limited view of what was inside. A room, with a bench on one side. He couldn't see anything else.

"Get up here, Hatake," the guard barked.

Kakashi jumped, looking up. Then he realized the man wasn't talking to him, and he went back to staring at the door. His heart thundered, hammering almost painfully in his chest, and he was nearly crushing his flower.

His mother was in that room. The only family he had left in the world, and she was inside there, just a few feet from him.

He couldn't decide how he felt about that. Other than so anxious he was nearly sick. He hadn't told anyone he was coming here. Didn't want the questions, and the shame that went with having a parent who was a traitor. Having a parent who killed himself was bad enough.

"Hatake!" the man shouted again.

Kakashi's nails bit into the stem of his flower.

"Go away," a female voice called back.

The guard glanced down at Kakashi, then back into the room. "You've got a visitor."

There was a moment of silence. "Who?"

Kakashi got another look. He licked his lips and said, "Kakashi," as softly as he could.

"Kakashi!" the man bellowed.

They waited. Kakashi didn't fidget because ninja didn't. He waited quietly, perfectly still, breathing through his nose so his mask didn't puff away from his face.

When she spoke again, it was soft. "Tell him to go away. I don't want to see him."

Kakashi didn't move for a long moment. Not until the guard reached out to touch him, to put a big hand on his shoulder. Then he pulled back, slicing a disdainful look up at the guard with the best 'stay away' attitude he knew how to pull. He turned, and walked quickly from the prison.

"Kid, wait," the guard called.

Kakashi broke into a run, out through the main doors, down the steps. He dropped the flower in the mud and bolted, out the long expanse of yard, through the gates, feet slipping and sinking in the soft earth. Into the forest.

She didn't even want to see him.

**
Now

Kakashi sidled into the mission office door, hands in his pockets, nodding once at Genma.

The senbon in Genma's mouth flicked to the other side in acknowledgement.

Iruka looked up, then back down at the papers he was stuffing into a satchel. "Did you ask Asuma?"

Kakashi hesitated. "No," he said finally.

Iruka looked up again, a frown drawing a line between his brows. "No? Why not?"

He'd tried. He'd stood over the table Asuma and Kurenai were at for several minutes, stuttering and making a fool of himself. Somehow, the right words just wouldn't come. In fact, no words would come. They talked awkwardly about missions and the Hokage for a few minutes, and then Kakashi had fled.

Kakashi waited in silence until Iruka had packed his bag and hoisted it, and then he followed the other man out the doors, down the hall. "I couldn't," he said at last. "I don't know how."

Iruka was obviously annoyed. He'd been vaguely annoyed ever since that night. At this point, Kakashi wasn't certain it would ever go away. He might just have screwed things up that badly.

"What do you mean, you don't know how? You just say, 'Asuma, Kurenai! Want to have dinner at my place on Friday?' and see what they say."

"I can't do that," Kakashi muttered, slouching down the corridor. "You can't just walk up to someone and ask them--"

They turned a corner and nearly ran into Shizune, carrying a large stack of bound scrolls. She yelped and nearly dropped them, and only Iruka's quick reflexes kept them both standing.

Kakashi waited while they sorted everything out, Shizune smiling and apologizing, and Iruka doing the same. Then Iruka glanced over his shoulder, eyes narrowed at Kakashi, and turned back to the girl. "Shizune-san, I was thinking about going to the park tomorrow at lunch. Want to join me?"

She smiled, tossing her head to get hair out of her eyes. "Thanks, Iruka-san, but I've got too much work to do. I appreciate the offer, though."

"Maybe some other time, then," he said, and waved cheerfully as the woman went around the corner. Iruka turned to look at Kakashi. "Like that," he said.

Kakashi frowned. Iruka made it look so easy. "Maybe you should ask them," he suggested casually, following Iruka out of the building and toward his apartment.

"No. It's your dinner party. You ask them," Iruka said.

"But asking them to dinner at my place is different than asking them to join me at lunch," Kakashi said, frustrated but careful not to let it show. Then a terrifying thought occurred to him. "What if they say yes?"

"They're supposed to say yes," Iruka snorted.

"But if they say yes, and they show up, then what do we talk about?"

"Whatever comes up." Iruka looked at him expectantly.

It took Kakashi a moment to realize they were standing in front of his apartment. He frowned. Shouldn't they be continuing to Iruka's place? He looked at his door, then back at Iruka. "Did you want to come in?" he asked, confused.

"Do you want help with this or not?" Iruka barked.

Kakashi jumped, and opened the door.

Iruka walked in, toeing off his sandals.

Kakashi pulled off his own shoes, looking around his apartment anxiously. He hadn't planned for this, and his apartment was a mess. There was dust on the shelf above his bed, and bathroom things just sitting out on the edge of the shower, where anyone could see them, and--

He hurried there first, grabbing his shampoo bottle and turning to stuff it in the cupboard. He froze when he saw Iruka standing in the doorway, frowning. Not sure what else to do, Kakashi dropped his arm to his side and slightly behind him, hiding the bottle.

Iruka's frown deepened. "Kakashi, relax. Apartments are supposed to have personal things in them."

Kakashi glanced around. His razor was sitting on the sink, next to a can of shaving cream, and there were fine, silver hairs that hadn't quite washed down the drain.

"Kakashi," Iruka said again, stepping forward into the tiny bathroom. "Trust me." He stepped close enough that a deep breath would have connected them, reaching down and wrapping his fingers around the bottle of shampoo.

Kakashi refused to let it go.

Iruka tugged, brown eyes holding Kakashi's gaze. "Trust me," he said again.

Reluctantly, Kakashi released the bottle. Iruka stepped to one side, squeezing past him to set it back on the edge of the shower. "You asked me why my apartment was nicer than yours," Iruka said, straightening. "It's because my apartment looks like someone lives there. There should be your things sitting around. It's your apartment. That's okay."

Kakashi didn't respond. His hands itched to hide everything away again, make it as impersonal as possible. He wouldn’t give into that. He wouldn't.

He did, however, rinse the rest of the hairs down the sink before he left.

"Do you have a table?" Iruka asked, hands on his hips as he looked around.

"Just that one." Kakashi pointed to the little fold-out table he ate at; the one that flattened down against the wall.

Iruka sighed and scratched his head, digging a finger under his hair band. "For three people, you might consider borrowing a bigger one."

Panic struck again. "Three? You're coming too, right? Shouldn't there be four?"

Iruka opened his mouth, and Kakashi could see the denial there.

"Iruka!" he nearly shouted. "You can't leave me alone with this! What if I don't have anything to say? Or--"

"All right, all right," Iruka said. "I'll come. This once."

Kakashi calmed. "And you have to be here before they get here," he said anxiously, though he made sure it still sounded vaguely unimportant.

"What? Why?" Iruka asked.

Kakashi forced himself to settle back on one hip, seemingly relaxed, and answered calmly, "What if I do something wrong? You have to check things."

Iruka just looked at him for a moment, then finally shrugged and nodded. "All right. This once."

Kakashi took a deep breath, relaxing again. This hosting stuff was hard.

"So you're going to ask Asuma tomorrow, right?" Iruka asked.

Kakashi started to say yes. Then he scratched the back of his head and stuffed both hands into his pockets, attempting to keep his casual demeanor. Everything was spinning out of control. He could at least control that. "How?"

Iruka dropped his satchel on the floor and sat down on the futon. "Just walk up to him and ask."

Kakashi eyed the satchel. It was sitting there, all flopped over, and papers and scrolls looked like they might fall out at any moment. He reached down to pick it up and put it someplace safer, out of the way. Maybe in the closet.

"Leave it."

He froze and looked at Iruka, eyebrow raised.

"Just leave it there. It doesn't need to be picked up."

Reluctantly, Kakashi left it. They stood there, silently. It was mocking him. Practically screaming to be put away somewhere. Someone could trip on it, there. If a ninja broke in at that moment, and Kakashi had to defend them, he could step in that strap and--

"Kakashi?"

He jumped. "Yes?"

"You're going to ask Asuma tomorrow, right?"

It was still sitting there. Slumped over. Like he was some sort of slob. "Ah, yes." A slob who left things lying around in his apartment, and didn't clean up after himself or his guests.

"Kakashi!"

He jumped and looked up at Iruka again. "I'm sorry?"

Iruka stared at him for a minute. "If I let you put it somewhere, will you please pay attention?"

Kakashi nodded, relieved. Iruka moved his foot, and Kakashi snatched the bag up, opening his little closet and putting it on a hanger inside. He closed it and leaned against the door. "Shouldn't I at least pick up my shaving cream?" he asked, catching it through the open bathroom door out of the corner of his eye.

Iruka stood and closed the bathroom door. Kakashi quickly leaned forward and twitched the wrinkles out of the blanket that was spread across his futon before Iruka could sit back down.

Iruka made a bland expression that made Kakashi's blank expressions look outright emotive.

"You can't be doing things like that when you're having dinner," Iruka said.

"But it looks better."

"It's neurotic," Iruka responded.

Right. And he was trying to fit in. "All right," Kakashi said quietly.

"Now, pretend I’m Asuma, and you're going to ask me to dinner," Iruka said, fishing a pen out of his pocket and sticking it in his mouth in lieu of a cigarette. He looked away.

Kakashi fidgeted. Finally, he shoved his hands in his pockets, affected a casual air, and walked up to "Asuma." "Yo, Asuma!" he said cheerfully.

Iruka looked at him, eyebrows raised expectantly. "Kakashi. How are you?" Iruka asked in a deep voice.

Kakashi grinned at it, then quickly smothered that and tried to be serious. "I'm all right. You?"

"Oh, my knee is hurting again. Tsunade says I should keep off it, but then she assigns me missions . . ."

"Yeah," Kakashi sighed, commiserating. "She tells me I can't be in ANBU and then assigns me missions that are nearly that level anyway . . . "

Iruka was looking at him oddly.

"What?" Kakashi asked self-consciously.

"You're supposed to ask me to dinner, not get involved in a conversation," he said.

"Right. Of course," Kakashi said, smiling brightly to hide his fluster. "So, ah, Asuma . . . would you like to have dinner with me?" That sounded bad. "I mean, not in a romantic way, just--with you and Kurenai. And me. Not romantic, not with the three of us--or even two of us--" he stopped and wilted. "This isn't working."

"It's all right," Iruka said, settling back on his hands. "Let's start over." Once again, he looked at the far wall.

Kakashi took several deep breaths, then started again. "Yo, Asuma!"

"Hello, Kakahsi," Iruka said in his deep voice.

"I was wondering--that is, if you're free, and if you're not I understand--if you wanted to have dinner with me. At my apartment. Or elsewhere, if you'd--" he stopped again, and shook his head. "It's still not working."

Iruka sighed, stood, and pulled the pen out of his mouth. "Pay attention," he said sternly. He turned away, then turned back, smile bright on his face. "Asuma! I was wondering if you'd like to have dinner with myself and Kakashi this Friday. Nothing fancy, just at his place."

Kakashi managed not to gape, but only because he'd practiced holding one expression for years. The Chuunin made it look so easy.

"Your turn," Iruka said, and sat back down.

Kakashi took a deep breath, and smiled brightly. "Yo, Asuma!"

Iruka looked up.

"I was wondering if you'd like to have dinner with myself and Iruka this Friday. Nothing fancy, just at my place."

Iruka's mouth kicked up in a smile before he straightened back up and assumed his Asuma-expression. "Hmm, well, I'm not sure. I think Kurenai and I have a date . . . "

"Iruka!" Kakashi snapped. "That's not what you're supposed to say!"

Iruka laughed, spitting out the pen. "Sorry, I couldn't help it. But if he does say that, then just say maybe another time, and walk away."

Maybe another time, walk away. He could do that. Kakashi nodded slowly, memorizing the words. Then he realized Iruka had stood and opened the closet--and was that ever a mess, what with his pants and shirts all mixed up right now--and was pulling out his satchel.

"What are you doing?" Kakashi asked, anxiety rising again.

"Heading home. It's late, and I have an early day tomorrow. Meeting with the school staff."

"But--I need more practice," Kakashi said.

Iruka smiled at him. "You'll be fine. Just relax. Asuma already likes you. Trust that."

Kakashi couldn’t trust that. Apparently it was obvious, because Iruka sighed and looked at the floor before looking back up. "Then trust me."

Kakashi swallowed. That he could do. Wordlessly, he escorted Iruka to the door, and watched him walk away down the street. Then he headed toward the mirror in the bathroom, and practiced his lines.

Chapter Twelve
Now

Kakashi's palms were sweaty. He wanted to believe it was because he was wearing gloves, but he suspected otherwise.

He took a deep breath, and walked up to the table Asuma and Kurenai sat at, smiling brightly. "Yo Asuma I was wondering if you'd like to have dinner with myself and Iruka this Friday nothing fancy just at my place." He realized afterward that he'd forgotten to pause. He felt his face turn pink and smiled brighter to hide it.

Asuma and Kurenai were both looking at him, Asuma with chopsticks halfway to his mouth. The man put them down, scratching at his beard thoughtfully. "I don't think I'm doing anything," he said after a moment. "Kurenai?"

"Sounds fun. What time should we be there?" she asked, turning red eyes on Kakashi.

Kakashi froze. Time? He and Iruka hadn't talked about time. There had to be a simple answer. Had to. All he could think about was what an idiot he looked like, though, standing there with his jaw hanging open--well, not really, but it was the idea of the thing--and at any minute they were going to take it back and why couldn?t he just go back to doing life-or-death missions all the time? They were so much easier.

"How about eight?" Asuma suggested after a moment.

"Eight. Yes. Eight. On Friday," Kakashi said, and smiled again. His jaw hurt.

"All right," Kurenai said, smiling not nearly as brightly. "It's a plan."

Kakashi nodded and backed away, his entire body trembling. It was done. Just like that. All that fuss, and they'd just said yes and set a time and everything was done.

He got out of the café and down an alley before he had to yank his mask down and throw up. This was hard. At least with Iruka, he'd already known the man liked him. This was--this was-- he couldn't imagine how people did this all the time.

He leaned against the wall behind him and stared blankly at the next building over. Then he realized what he'd just done. For the first time in his life, he'd invited not-friends to do something. And they'd said yes.

He grinned.

**

"What are you doing?" Kurenai asked, standing in Asuma's doorway, her long, black hair tied back. It spilled in curls down her spine, refusing to behave. "We're going to be late."

Asuma finished dismantling his table, then put all the relatively small pieces--nuts, bolts, legs--in a cloth bag and slung it over his shoulder. "Iruka called and asked me to bring my table. I guess Kakashi forgot he doesn't have one," he said with a smile.

If he recalled correctly--and he usually did--Kakashi was his age. Somehow, the man didn't seem it. He always seemed either much older or much younger, depending on the situation. Iruka, on the other hand, always seemed younger. Young, and wise in a common sensical sort of way. They made an interesting pair, and one that Asuma couldn't help but think would be good for each other. It wasn't like either of them had any family to get support from.

"Did you bring the sake?" Asuma asked, hefting the tabletop up onto his shoulder and holding it there with one arm.

Kurenai lifted the bottle, watching him with bemusement in her red eyes. "This could be a very strange night," she said, lips curling upward.

Asuma walked toward the door, pausing to bend and kiss her carefully. Nothing made him feel as big as Kurenai did, with her pale skin and slender body. He waited afterward, while she rubbed the lipstick off his mouth with a steady thumb. "Probably," Asuma said, when it was safe to speak again. "But I'm glad Kakashi's finally showing an interest in other people. Not healthy, the way he holes himself up . . ."

"He's a grown man," Kurenai reminded him as he headed out the door. "He can do as he pleases. Should I lock the door?"

Asuma turned to look back. "Why bother? In a village full of ninja, if someone wants in, they'll get in."

Kurenai sighed and shook her head. "I still say it's safer to lock it."

Asuma only grunted, used to this particular exchange, and headed down the street.

It didn't take long to reach Kakashi's apartment; he still lived in the Jounin bachelor housing, despite the fact that most Jounin moved out when they could afford it.

Asuma started to knock, then paused. There was a heated discussion going on inside, and he couldn't decide if it would be better to wait, or to just knock. He glanced at Kurenai.

That's when he realized what they were saying.

"It looks dirty." That was Kakashi, the words rushed for his standards, and still slow for anyone else's.

"It looks fine. Everyone has toothpaste tubes in their bathroom. Leave it." And Iruka, speaking utterly calmly.

"I can't just leave it! What if--"

"Kakashi, trust me. It'll be fine."

Breaking this up could only help them, Asuma decided, and knocked. There was a moment of silence. Then footsteps, and the door was yanked open.

Kakashi looked strained, even with the mask. His forehead protector was gone, somewhere with the rest of his uniform, Asuma guessed, though he wore black uniform pants. His shirt was black, too, but button-down. Asuma was certain he'd seen it in Raidou's closet before. He didn't say anything, just smiled jovially and greeted Kakashi.

It took the smaller man a moment to relax. Kurenai, bless her heart, took her cue from Asuma and just acted like it was normal to stand in someone's doorway rather than walking in. Or maybe she figured that one out on her own. She was smart that way; observant of people, though she tended to be quiet.

Eventually, Kakashi moved. They stepped inside, slipping off their shoes. Asuma carried the table past Iruka, who was also showing signs of strain, and glanced around the tiny apartment.

Tiny. Only one room, with a half-wall that separated the kitchen. At least the bathroom was separate. He remembered his own bachelor apartment being bigger than this. "Where would you like me to put the table?" he asked cheerfully.

It took them a few minutes to set it all up, and Iruka pulled blankets and pillows off the futon and out of a closet to sit on. For a moment, Asuma thought Kakashi might protest. Then the slender man smiled again, and excused himself to the bathroom.

"Kakashi made dinner," Iruka said, keeping half an eye on the door. "His cooking is quite good, so I'm sure you'll like it." He walked to the little nightstand beside the bed, opened the top drawer, and pulled out two photographs. Calmly, he put them on the shelf above the bed.

"We brought sake," Kurenai offered, holding the bottle up once more.

"Thank you!" Iruka said, beaming. "Should I open this now?"

They all made positive noises, and Iruka headed into the kitchen. A moment later, Kakashi came out of the bathroom. He looked around, appearing slightly less flustered, then realized Iruka was in the kitchen and went dashing in. There was a whispered conversation, and Iruka was shoved around the wall.

He looked unimpressed. "Kakashi's a bit paranoid about his meal getting wrecked," he said in a dry voice.

"Kurenai gets the same way," Asuma said, grinning, even knowing she was going to hit him.

She hit him. He moved with the blow, absorbing most of it, and laughed.

"Just don't break anything," Iruka said, smiling as he walked into the bathroom. He opened a cupboard and pulled out a razor, shaving cream, and various other everyday items, setting them on the sink or in the shower. When he caught Asuma's gaze in the mirror he just shook his head and mouthed, "Don't ask."

Asuma smothered a laugh.

"All right," Kakashi said, appearing suddenly from the kitchen. "If you'll just give me some room, I have dinner . . ."

Everyone shifted out of the way. The smells filling the apartment were wonderful, slightly spicy but not burning Asuma's sinuses. Kakashi set several dishes down, then put out plates and cutlery and little sake cups. "Does anyone need anything else?" he asked, glancing over the table.

"Water," Iruka suggested.

Kakashi vanished, appearing a moment later with several glasses of water. After another moment's hesitation, they all sat down to dinner.

Asuma didn't recognize most of it. But, he was willing to try anything, if only because Kakashi was still looking anxious. It helped that Kurenai was courageous, and took several large bites of several different things, proclaiming them all amazing.

Asuma tried something orange carefully. It was good, he had to admit.

"You made all of this?" Kurenai asked, a combination of awe and jealousy in her voice.

Kakashi just nodded, obviously pleased.

"Maybe you could teach some things to Asuma," Kurenai muttered.

"Hey, now! I can cook!" He leaned closer to Iruka and added conspiratorially, "I make the best ribs in Konoha."

"He does," Kurenai said supportively. "Unfortunately, that's all he makes."

Asuma shrugged good naturedly. "Who needs more when one is perfect?"

After that, Kakashi seemed to relax. They ate, and talked, and it didn't take much time at all for Kakashi to return to his dry wit and half-lidded gaze. The mask was a little odd--moreso, because even though Asuma knew the other Jounin was eating, he never actually saw Kakashi take the mask down. He hadn't really expected the man to be wearing a mask in his own home, anyway, though he wasn't sure what he was expecting. It was such a part of Kakashi now that he had to wonder why he even noticed--except that with the forehead protector gone, it seemed more obvious. Yes, that was it.

Without the forehead protector, Kakashi?s expressions were clearer. Now, Asuma could almost see whenever some sort of neurosis would start to come over the other man. The Sharingan would twist for a moment, his eyes shifting suddenly. Hands would tense, though he was too good a ninja to actually move, and he'd look at Iruka.

Iruka, smiling, would suggest he get someone a glass of water or more sake, or he'd suggest something else to distract the Jounin, and Kakashi would leap up to do so--often stuffing something in a drawer or vanishing into the bathroom for a moment on the way. Afterward, Iruka would calmly excuse himself, and go put back whatever Kakashi had hidden away.

Kurenai was right; dinner was strange. But, still, it was an entertaining one, and the conversation between bouts of neuroticism was good--even if Kakashi was acting unlike himself.

Iruka was good for Kakashi, Asuma decided. He wasn't sure yet what Kakashi brought to the equation, but that was all right.

Once the food was all gone--Asuma freely admitted he ate most of it--he smiled and stood. He needed a cigarette. The need was buzzing under his skin, gnawing at his consciousness. "If you'll excuse me," he said, already feeling for his pack, tucked safely in his pocket, "I'm just going to step outside for a smoke." He had the distinct impression that if he tried to smoke inside, Kakashi might throw him through a window. Not that Kakashi had ever said anything about his smoking, but the place was very clean.

Iruka, ever the polite host, offered to join him.

Kakashi's head snapped up from where he was stacking dirty dishes. "Oh. Ah, me too," he said, looking frantically at Iruka.

Iruka grabbed his arm, took the dishes right out of his hands and set them back on the table, then smiled firmly. "You stay here and talk with Kurenai."

Kakashi paused. Then he grinned brightly and turned to Kurenai. "Of course. What was I thinking?"

Iruka turned and followed Asuma from the room.

The communal patio was empty at this time of night. Asuma wasted no time in lighting up and taking a long draw, smoke curling through his mouth and lungs. He felt almost instantly better. He blew it out in a long stream, then glanced over at Iruka. "So, you and Kakashi . . . ?"

Iruka's mouth tightened. "No."

Asuma didn't react, though he wanted to. "Really," he said. "I'd heard--"

"We were," Iruka sighed. "We decided it wasn't working. I'm teaching him to make friends, and then we'll go our separate ways."

Asuma glanced toward the apartment. He could see shapes through the window; Kakashi and Kurenai at the table. Kurenai was saying something, gesturing with her hands in that graceful way she had. "What happened?" he asked. As soon as the words were out, though, he knew Iruka wouldn't answer. They weren't close, and from what he did know of the Chuunin, Iruka was fairly private.

"Oh, nothing really. But you and Kurenai . . .?"

Asuma waved a hand. That was public knowledge. Not that either of them had ever announced it, but anyone who hadn't figured it out was as dense as a brick. Not that that stopped Gai from asking her out occasionally, but that was Gai. Asuma was pretty sure that one of the boys in Kurenai's team had a crush on her, too, but she would hear none of that. Not like a thirteen-year-old was a threat anyway, but it was funny.

They made small talk while Asuma finished his cigarette--quickly, because Iruka kept glancing in the window, as if checking on Kakashi. Asuma didn't ask about their relationship again; he figured he'd just get another diversion. Still, there was more than one way to skin a cat.

When they went back inside, Kakashi immediately stood and started taking plates into the kitchen. Iruka helped him, then bodily dragged him back out, muttering something about washing them later.

Asuma just sat back and waited for things to wrap up, knowing they would soon. When Kurenai said she needed to go--early mission the next morning--and Iruka said he did, too, Asuma just smiled. "I think I'll stay and help Kakashi with the dishes," he said calmly, a toothpick in his mouth. He rolled it with his tongue, and ignored the panicked vibes coming from the Jounin.

"Iruka?" Kakashi asked.

"I have to go," Iruka said firmly. "You two have fun."

There could have been an awkward silence after they left, but Asuma filled it almost instantly. He picked up the rest of the dinner dishes off the little table and carried them into the kitchen, Kakashi following him uncertainly.

"So, what happened with you and Iruka?" Asuma asked, setting the dishes down and moving away. Despite the fact that Kakashi had asked them over, he was obviously uncomfortable with them fiddling with his things; Asuma guessed that actually helping to wash dishes would be unforgivable.

"Nothing happened with us," Kakashi said with a casual shrug.

"Hn." Asuma leaned against the sink, arms folded over his chest, watching Kakashi run water. "Iruka says you aren't dating."

Kakashi said nothing, pouring dish soap into the sink.

"I can't help if you don't tell me what's going on," Asuma said, exasperated.

"There's nothing to help with." Kakashi scrubbed a bit of cheese off a plate with his fingernail, then dunked it back in the soapy water.

"But you were dating, and now you're not," Asuma pointed out.

Kakashi made a noncommittal noise and examined his plate.

This was more like the Kakashi Asuma was used to. He crossed his arms over his chest and glared. "Why aren't you dating?" he asked bluntly.

Kakashi thought about it for a long time, eyes half-lidded and regarding Asuma sideways. He was obviously debating on how much to say. Then, finally, he shrugged. "Iruka doesn't want to date me."

"Why not?" Asuma said, refusing to let this go. Iruka was the healthiest thing that had ever happened to Kakashi, and he worried about the ninja.

Kakashi shrugged. "Oh," he said breezily, "I said some things that made him angry."

The swirling Sharingan belied that he was as nonchalant about it as he'd have Asuma believe.

Asuma tucked his chin into his chest, thinking. "You probably don't remember Iruka as a kid, do you? He was a few years younger than us, and you were gone on missions all the time . . ." He stopped, trying to think back.

Kakashi was watching him out of the corner of his eye; Asuma could feel it.

"Iruka had a temper. He's learned to control it a lot better, but when he was a child--well, I haven't seen many people with a temper like it. Not only did he have a temper, but he was constantly in trouble. See, he'd retaliate. He'd do the most rotten things to people, or places, or monuments. The only thing I never saw him do was hold a grudge. In fact, he'd bend over backward to make people like him--or at least laugh at him." Asuma frowned, remembering. "It was actually kind of sad, sometimes," he said softly. Then he shook his head, bringing his mind back to the present. "My point is, he might not want to talk to you now, but I think he'll get over it. You just need to give him some time."

Kakashi was drying things now, very slowly. "I don't think that'll work," he said finally. "By the time he'll have calmed down, we won't be seeing each other much."

Asuma rubbed his chin thoughtfully, scratching at his scruff. "You just need time together. He'll remember he likes you." And if he didn't, well, maybe they weren't as good together as Asuma thought.

Kakashi was watching him now, overtly, waiting.

"Genma, Iruka, and I were going to go camping next weekend," Asuma said slowly. "Why don't you come? I'll ask Raidou, too, so Iruka doesn't get too suspicious."

Kakashi straightened slightly. "All right."

"And don't talk to Iruka until then. Give him space. He needs some room to stop being angry."

Kakashi nodded, settling back on his hips, eyes crinkling slightly as he smiled behind the mask. "I can do that."

Asuma grinned, teeth clenching on his toothpick. "We'll see what we can manage. You're not lost yet," he said, and stood up, no longer leaning against the counter. "Next weekend, then. I'll give you details later. Just--make sure not to bring any camping equipment. Leave everything to me."

Kakashi nodded.

Asuma grinned even wider, then headed toward the door. Kakashi walked with him, though he got the impression it was more to make sure he didn't touch anything than to say goodbye. Asuma didn't take offense. Everyone had their own little neuroses. Frankly, he was surprised that Kakashi had let them all stay as long as he had.

"Next weekend," Asuma said in farewell, slipping on his boots and heading out the door.

"Later," Kakashi responded, and closed it behind him.

**
Long ago . . .

Kakashi sat in his bachelor apartment, staring at the blank wall. Behind him, fireworks shot through the air, and the light came in through the window. For a moment the wall exploded in color, and he could distantly hear cheering.

Maybe he should have stayed at Rin's party. But everyone there--well, they were all his age. They were talking about C and D ranked missions, and every time he tried to talk about his missions they looked at him funny. They talked about music, which he didn't listen to, and mutual friends he didn't know, and problems with their senseis, which he didn't have. There were a lot of people, and that made him nervous, and his Sharingan was starting to hurt from all the patterns the crowd made.

No, better to come home. He didn't fit there.

He wished the other Jounin hadn't all gone away. He'd asked them over, but they had plans. They were going to the adults-only place on the edge of the village, and since he was only fourteen, he wasn't allowed.

Kakashi swung his feet again. Color splashed against the wall. The window muffled the sound of the people watching outside.

Light flashed again, followed by the rumble and pop of fireworks.

He picked up a book, curling back on the futon, and read by the lights of the explosions. He didn't need people in his apartment, anyway. This way, it stayed clean. Quiet. He didn't have to worry about anyone messing things up, or getting too much information about him. Yes, it was better when it was empty.

Chapter Thirteen
Many years ago . . .

"Why are we doing this?" Kakashi asked, arms folded over his very small chest, brows drawn down almost comically.

His sensei didn't laugh, but it took great effort. Instead, the blond Jounin ruffled Kakashi's hair, just for the duck-and-glower he always got, and dropped the portion of camping supplies he was carrying. "For fun."

With a grateful moan, Obito dropped his supplies, too. "We're here?" the Uchiha boy said hopefully.

"We're here!"

"There's no point to this," Kakashi said, slightly louder this time, as if that might make his point more clearly.

"I'm going to share a tent with Sensei," Rin announced, "because you two are too close to my age, and that would be improper."

Obito snorted. "Like you ever worry about what's improper."

Rin stuck her tongue out at him.

Kakashi was giving the Jounin a pained looked. "I could be training right now."

"Kakashi," the man laughed, "even ANBU have fun sometimes. Just enjoy it. You're stuck with us for the next two days. Time to learn how to relax."

**
Now

"How many people are coming?" Iruka asked, dropping his bags beside a tent and glancing around the clearing.

A firepit sat in the middle, lined with stones, already set up with wood and tinder. Logs and stumps had been dragged into a ring around it, and Genma's hammock swung between two trees.

"A bunch of people," Asuma said from nearby, where he was clearing rocks so he could pitch another tent. "Gai is bringing Raidou, and I asked Kakashi to come, plus you, me, and Genma's already here--hunting for firewood."

Iruka's eyebrows rose as he headed toward Asuma, helping to pull branches out of the way. "Quite a group. Kakashi's coming?"

Asuma nodded, spreading out the tent with sure movements. "It's good that he's finally branching out. I asked him after dinner last week."

Iruka pulled out long, slender lengths of bamboo, threading them through loops in the tarp. Within moments they had a two-man tent set up, and Asuma was moving on to another site. "That's good," Iruka said neutrally. He hadn't seen Kakashi all week. He wasn't sure how he felt about it. One the one hand, it seemed he'd fulfilled his mission; Kakashi was all right. On the other hand, he was starting to miss him, in an odd sort of way.

It was just that he was worried about the Jounin. That was all.

"Hey, we made it!" Raidou shouted, leaping down out of a large tree, Gai hot on his heels.

"Ha ha!" Gai laughed, hands on his hips and his teeth gleaming. "I beat Kakashi, as I said I would!"

Raidou rolled his eyes.

Kakashi jumped down out of the foliage, looking distinctly unimpressed. "Yes, Gai," he said in a voice that screamed he didn't care, "you won."

Gai's smile was replaced by a frown. "Kakashi! Always so cool! Acting like you don't ca--"

"I brought food," Kakashi said to the group at large.

Iruka perked up. "Really? What?"

"I brought ribs," Asuma reminded him darkly.

"So we'll be incredibly well-fed this weekend," Iruka said diplomatically, smiling as brightly as he could.

"Who wants to go swimming?" Iruka heard Genma call. He turned in time to see the Special Jounin drop an armful of firewood by the pit, letting it clatter and crash at his feet. Genma was already stripped down to his underwear and boots--no one wanted to walk barefoot on the forest floor.

"Me!" Raidou answered instantly, tugging off his shirt and dropping it on his pile of supplies.

"I've got two more tents to set up," Asuma said, glancing around. "And then I'll come."

An hour later had all of them down by the creek, nearly everyone stripped down to underwear or bathing suits or--in Kakashi's case--an extra pair of pants and his mask.

"You coming in, Iruka?" Raidou shouted from the headlock Genma had put him in.

"Maybe later," Iruka answered, sitting on a boulder in the sun, his arms around his knees.

"Iruka's shyyyyy," Genma singsonged, grinning wickedly.

Kakashi was looking at him oddly. "No, he's not," he said, eyes narrowed. "I've seen him half-naked around a million children."

Iruka ignored them all, stretching to lean back on his hands and bask in the sun. It was an odd group, and one that he'd fallen into quite by accident. They were all a bit older than he was, and all Jounin--or higher. Working in the mission office gave him access to people he wouldn't have really gotten to know otherwise.

They were a good group, he had to say.

Then he felt hands on his shirt, yanking forward and down. "Oh my god!" Raidou said, his head of brown hair in Iruka's face as he peered down. "He's got burn scars all over his chest!"

Iruka slapped Raidou's temple, bringing a leg up sharply. Anyone else he would have been kneed, but Raidou was a high level ninja; he dodged, laughing the whole time.

"You're a jerk," Iruka muttered.

Raidou flopped down next to him, still laughing, the burn scars across his face and chest shiny in the sun.

"I don't understand," Kakashi said, standing hip-deep in water and looking puzzled.

"He doesn't have any scars," Genma said, grinning at Iruka.

Iruka glared at him, but didn't really mean it.

Genma just grinned. "Raidou thinks that's why he never takes off his shirt."

Kakashi looked up at him, eyebrow quirked.

Iruka didn?t bother to say anything. There wasn't much to say, either. He could deny it, which would only make Raidou tease him more, or he could agree to it--which would only make Raidou tease him more. So he sat quietly and waited for the Jounin to lose interest.

"You should come swimming, Iruka," Raidou said, sprawled on the boulder and leaving a man-sized puddle.

"I don't feel like it," Iruka answered.

"What if we whined at you?" Raidou asked.

Iruka gave him his best Stern Sensei glare. "Don't."

It didn't work on Raidou. "Iiiiiiiirrrrrukaaaaaaaa," he said nasally. "Come swiiiiiiming with--"

Iruka lunged to his feet, grabbed the Jounin by his hair and underwear, and hauled him off the boulder.

As the Chuunin expected, Raidou wrapped himself around Iruka's waist and one leg, the threat unmistakable; I go, and you go, too.

That didn't matter so much, though. With a yell Iruka toppled them both off the rock and into the creek.

They emerged sputtering, hair flattened to their skulls. Laughing, Raidou slicked his back off his face, while Iruka dove under once more, swimming forward and coming up so his ponytail was at least out of his eyes.

"I can swim clear down to the bend and back!" Gai announced loudly. "Faster than you, my oh-so-cool rival!"

"Not now, Gai," Kakashi muttered.

"Oh, I don't know," Genma said, a mischievous glint in his eyes, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "I think Kakashi could beat you . . ."

Iruka laughed as Gai's chest puffed out, and Kakashi gave Genma a dirty look. The Special Jounin only grinned wickedly.

"Now we must truly find out which of us is the faster swimmer!" Gai bellowed. "I have already beaten you once, my esteemed rival! Be aware if I beat you again, I'll have the title of most fearsome warrior in Konoha! And if you win, I'll--"

"Take down all the tents and bring them back yourself," Asuma interjected, floating on his back in the water.

"YES! Take down all the tents and bring them back to our beautiful city alone!" Gai's teeth glimmered.

Kakashi sighed. "All right," he said with a nonchalant shrug. "If you really want to."

"I do! On the count of three we'll--"

Kakashi turned and dove, striking off into the deeper area in the middle of the creek with powerful strokes.

"Ah, you are truly a master of being sneaky!" Gai shouted, and leapt after him.

"That was mean," Iruka laughed, pushing toward a deeper area where he could tread water without smacking his feet.

"Yeah," Asuma agreed, a sleepy smile on his face.

Raidou held a finger to his lips, sinking down into the creek until only his head peeked above. Silently, moving gracefully through the water, he crept toward Asuma.

"Don't," Asuma said.

Raidou stopped barely a foot from the bigger man. His eyes moved, looking first at Iruka, then at Genma. Then he jumped up out of the water and belly-flopped onto Asuma.

"Gah! You ass!" Asuma shouted as he went under.

Iruka and Genma laughed, Iruka sinking further down.

Distantly, they could still hear Gai and Kakashi splashing away, though it was mostly drowned out by Asuma and Raidou.

The sun sank below the treeline, leaving them in sudden shadow. Iruka, treading water, shivered. "I think I?m going to go start the bonfire," he said, twisting to grab hold of the overhanging ledge and swinging himself up.

Genma ducked under the water again, coming up with a mouthful and spitting it at Iruka. It fell short.

"Lovely," Iruka snorted. He padded away from the creek, wet feet slapping on the ground, muffled by leaves and heavy dirt. Behind him, he could hear Gai bellowing about his worthy rival, and how he would most certainly take down all the tents himself. Iruka grinned. Guess he'd lost.

**

An owl peered down at them, eyes reflecting the glowing fire, and hooted.

Genma hooted in return at it, then slugged back another gulp of beer. He sighed and leaned forward, head hanging between bent knees, giving Iruka's hands more room on his shoulders. "That feels soooooo good, 'Ruka," he said into the dirt. "I love you and want to have your babies."

Everyone laughed, then laughed harder when Raidou piped up with, "Careful! He's serious!"

Kakashi leaned back on his elbows, all long limbs and darkness in the flickering light, and watched. Iruka's hands were apparently magic, though he knew that himself. Muscles and tendons shifted, shadows growing and vanishing as strong fingers moved over Genma's back and shoulders, following lines of tension and pressing carefully on knots and nerve clusters.

"Oi! Iruka-hog!" Raidou finally called, standing unsteadily. "Share!"

"You already had him!" Genma yelled back. "It's still my turn!"

"Sake?" Asuma asked quietly.

Kakashi glanced up and smiled, content. "No, thank you."

"Hey, hey," Genma burbled. "You haven't had anything to drink, Kakashi. Want beer?"

"Wine?" Raidou offered.

"Pina colada?"

Everyone looked at Gai.

He smiled sloppily and took another sip, adjusting the little umbrella with precise care.

"No, thank you," Kakashi said again, a laugh in his voice. "I don't generally drink."

"This isn't generally," Genma slurred. "And once in a while won't hurt you."

"Besides," Raidou announced, managing to hold his head at a superior angle for just a moment, "it's a good way to say, 'I trust you all.'"

"I trust you to hold my hair back if I start barfing!" Genma shouted.

"Or at least to not let me sleep in it," Asuma said dryly.

Genma nodded solemnly. "It's a good way to say it, without all the sloppy, sappy stuff." He frowned and mouthed the last three words again.

"Do you trust us, my most esteemed rival?" Gai asked on a hiccup.

Kakashi looked at them all, slightly befuddled. Raidou and Genma had already moved on, swapping alcoholic drinks to see whose was better. Raidou carefully gave Iruka a taste of each so he could vote, too, without pausing in his massage. Most of it dribbled down Iruka's chin and into Genma's hair, but none of them seemed to mind too much. In fact, Genma thought it was hilarious.

Kakashi couldn't figure out how drinking was a matter of trust.

Asuma was grinning down at him. "Have a drink." He offered the sake bottle again.

Kakashi took it after another moment. "Shouldn't one of us be sober enough, in case--"

"Stop worrying. Have a drink." Asuma's eyes twinkled. "No one here's going to kill you in the middle of the night."

So that was how it was trust. Kakashi contemplated the bottle. Then, when no one was looking, he pulled down his mask and had a drink.

He nearly coughed it all back up, much to the hilarity of those present. "Thank you," he muttered good-naturedly.

"Remember that time we put stuff in Hayate's sake?" Raidou asked, sliding over to lean shoulder-to-shoulder against Genma.

"Oh, yeah. Like beer."

"And wine," Iruka laughed softly.

"And he spit it all over the fire," Genma continued, grinning and staring into the flames. "Only we'd forgotten to keep the fire going, so he managed to put it out . . ."

"And then it was dark, so we couldn?t get it started again," Raidou laughed.

"And Asuma and Genma ended up sleeping together--" Iruka said, tears starting to form in the corners of his eyes.

"Oh, that," Asuma groaned.

Kakashi looked at him, grinning.

"Genma gets horny when he's drunk," Asuma murmured.

"Cuddly!" Genma protested. Then he giggled, face rolling into Raidou's chest. "Horny, too," he muffled.

"And Hayate was so upset, because he thought he was going to get to sleep with Genma," Raidou cackled.

The three men, Iruka, Genma and Raidou, laughed uproariously for another moment, and then almost as suddenly went quiet.

A stillness came over the small clearing. A nightingale sang mournfully.

"To fallen teammates," Gai said softly, lifting his glass.

The others did as well, murmuring names into the dark, letting them hang and burn over the crackling fire.

Kakashi sipped sake, carefully this time, letting it spread heat into his stomach. He could feel the fumes in his nose, curling up through his sinuses as if he could breathe them back out again.

"I need a drink," Genma sighed.

Iruka patted his back like he would that of a dog he was particularly fond of. Raidou handed him wine.

"You stopped," Genma said, looking back over his shoulder.

"It's someone else's turn," Iruka answered.

Genma sighed and laid his face against Iruka's leg. "You sure?"

Iruka patted him on the head. Then he glanced up, catching Kakashi's eyes. He raised both eyebrows, as if asking a question.

Kakashi tried to think of what he might have missed. Then Asuma leaned down and whispered, "I think it's your turn."

Kakashi's eyebrows rose right back at Iruka.

Iruka laughed and tilted his head in a 'get over here' way.

"I think he needs to be told," Raidou stage-whispered.

"Kakashi, it's your turn!" Genma yelled.

He stood, and realized the ground was much farther away then he'd thought. He had to just wait a moment for it to stop falling farther.

"You really don't drink, do you?" Asuma said, laughing deep in his barrel chest.

"I'm just a bit dizzy," Kakashi defended. Then he carefully walked around the fire and plopped himself down in front of Iruka.

Iruka tugged at his shirt. "Take it off."

Buttons slipped through holes, and shortly Kakashi was as bare-chested as both Raidou and Genma. He sighed happily as warm hands rubbed carefully over his shoulders, fingers seeking out knots. "Are you still mad at me?" Kakashi asked quietly, while Genma and Raidou roughhoused alarmingly close to the fire.

Iruka sighed. "I suppose not."

"I didn't mean to hurt you," Kakashi murmured.

Iruka slid his fingers up along the back of Kakashi's neck, pressing gently and smoothing out tension. "I know. But try to be a little less of an ass, will you?"

Kakashi smiled behind his mask, folding his knees and settling his elbows on them. "All right."

"Asuma!" Genma shouted, somehow having ended up in Gai's lap. "We should shadow-dance!"

"Shadow-dance?" Kakashi asked.

"Genma, we're too drunk to play shadow-dance," Iruka said.

"So we'll all have the same disadvantage!"

Raidou, lying on the ground, lifted both fists and cheered. "Shadow-dancing!"

Kakashi felt Iruka's forehead fall against his silver hair. "Oh, dear. This could get weird."

**************************

Chapter Fourteen
Now

"Oh, shhh," Raidou whispered loudly, giggling against Genma's chest.

Kakashi clung desperately to his tree and thought, 'Act like a branch.'

"He's looking this way!" Iruka hissed.

Raidou buried his face against Genma. Kakashi could see the man's body still shaking with laughter.

The light from Asuma's lantern glittered through the trees.

"Crap! He's coming this way!" Iruka whispered, breath hot where he was crowding Kakashi in an effort to see.

Kakashi whipped around, dodging to the other side of the trunk, taking Iruka with him. He staggered and nearly fell, all his normal grace completely gone with the alcohol he was certain he'd peed out by now. Apparently, there was some left. A lot left. He grabbed for the tree, planting a hand on either side of Iruka's head and bracing himself.

Iruka was laughing silently, holding onto Kakahsi's waist. Kakashi suspected that if either of them let go, they'd both fall over.

Asuma's light swept over the trees; they barely remained in the shadows. Raidou yelped as Genma kicked him into the light and scrambled up, almost silently.

Luckily for him, Asuma was drunk, too, and didn't hear.

"Hi," Raidou said, squinting. He giggled.

Asuma snorted and handed him an extra lantern.

Raidou took it and sat down, waiting the few seconds the rest of them had to escape.

Kakashi grabbed Iruka and hauled him away through the forest. They were almost free when Gai appeared out of nowhere and beamed his lantern at them.

"Ha ha!" Gai bellowed. "Found you!"

Kakashi lifted a hand to shade his eyes, and realized he was still holding Iruka's arm.

The younger man was laughing quietly, leaning against his shoulder.

"Ah, the springtime of youth," Gai started on an oddly soft sigh.

Iruka laughed, and nearly pulled Kakashi over as he tipped. The Jounin staggered and grabbed hold of a tree branch. The world had never swirled so much--or so oddly pleasantly--before.

"Bedtime!" Genma announced, trouncing past them wearing only his boots and Asuma's big coat.

And just that suddenly, the game was over and everyone was heading back to the nearly dead fire and black tent-like shapes.

"Hmmm," Asuma said, weaving on his feet. "I didn't bring enough tents. Someone needs to share."

Kakashi saw Genma open his mouth to offer, and Asuma tromped on the Special Jounin's foot.

"Since you two already shared an apartment," Asuma said, turning toward Kakashi and Iruka and nearly continuing to swirl around, "do you mind sharing a tent?"

"Not at all!" Kakashi said brightly.

Iruka looked slightly befuddled, and muttered something polite.

**

They lay, each bundled in their own sleeping bags. Kakashi stared at the peak of the tent, where he could see the shadow of something crawling outside. Something small and bug-like.

"Do you miss her that much?" he asked the darkness.

Iruka turned to face him. "Miss who?"

Kakashi smiled behind his mask and watched the bug leap off their tent. It vanished. "Your mother."

"Of course."

They were quiet for a long time. Kakashi rolled over onto his side, keeping a few inches between his body and the younger man's. He could see the outline of Iruka's profile in the dark, but couldn't make out the scar. "What do you miss?"

Iruka smiled. His teeth were white, and his eyes were unfocused. Still half-drunk. "I miss her cookies."

"Cookies?" Kakashi laughed.

Iruka giggled in return, nodding dramatically. "They were so yummy." His grin faded to a soft smile. "And I miss the way she smelled."

Kakashi snorted softly. "How was that?"

Iruka rolled over and looked up at the other man sleepily. "Good."

The Chuunin was so close that Kakashi's eyes nearly crossed, trying to look at him. He felt warm all over. "Good?" he whispered.

Iruka nodded contentedly, eyelids drooping, hair tickling the other man's forehead. He was barely a blink away. When he spoke, his breath ghosted over Kakashi's throat. "You smell good. But not like her."

"I smell like campfire," Kakashi pointed out on a laugh.

Iruka grinned sloppily and shifted, coming the few inches closer.

Kakashi went perfectly still, feeling more than seeing Iruka squirm through his sleeping bag, until he had an arm free. He was laughing softly still, little drunken giggles that sent puffs of air to dance across Kakashi's neck. Then those careful fingers tugged the edge of his mask up--he stiffened, but they stopped far short of his chin.

He felt Iruka burrow closer. Heat curled over his neck, the little hairs prickling with the closeness of the other man. Still giggling, Iruka inhaled. Then the younger man flopped back, rolling away, and grinned up. "See? Good."

Kakashi swallowed and tried to gather thoughts that had left him entirely, apparently taking the rest of the alcohol in his bloodstream along for a good party.

"Oh," was all he could think of to say.

Iruka faced him once more, practically nose-to-nose. "She had brown eyes, like mine," he whispered solemnly.

Kakashi nodded, not sure what else he should do. Iruka's gaze was darting back and forth, and Kakashi realized he was focusing on each of his eyes in turn. First blue, then red, and back again. Iruka started squirming, and eventually got an arm up, a hand hovering slightly above them. There wasn't any room between them.

Kakashi waited, then quickly closed his eyes when he saw Iruka's hand lower. But the man, even drunk, was very careful.

Blind, Kakashi could feel the heat from Iruka's body. He swallowed, heard it through his bones, and felt skin gently touch his eyebrow. Fingers trailed up, following the long scar halfway up his forehead. Then, just as carefully, they ghosted down over his face, brushing along his eyelashes and hovering at the edge of his mask, tracing what had once been a gouge in Kakashi's face.

"Did that hurt?" Iruka asked.

Kakashi resisted the urge to open his eyes or pull away. His body was tingling, shivers trilling up and down his spine. He almost said no. Instead, he remembered the pain of the attack, and started to nod. But--he didn't want Iruka to move his hand. The man was still touching him, tracing the line of his cheekbone up and back, feathering over his skin. Kakashi wondered if he even realized he was doing it.

"Yes," he said. His voice was rough. He swallowed several times.

"It looks like it would hurt." Iruka's breath tickled his skin, across the mask. Fingers stuttered up the scar once more, brushed his eyelashes smooth, then up the arch of his eyebrow, pausing where the scar bisected it. "Your eyes aren't like my mother's at all," Iruka said solemnly.

Kakashi bit back a laugh. "No, probably not."

"Open your eyes?"

Kakashi did, carefully, half expecting a drunken index finger to poke him. But Iruka was very cautious.

And very close.

His brown eyes looked black in the dark. Pools of ink in his face.

"You have nice eyes," Iruka said, still so very somber.

Kakashi said nothing.

A thumb traced the scar again, just to his eyebrow, then Iruka's hand wrapped around the back of Kakashi's head and tugged.

Kakashi moved closer and down, not sure what to expect.

Iruka shuffled, moved in and up, and very, very carefully, breathed a kiss across the scar. "I'm sorry it hurt," he said. Then he flopped over onto his back, arm thrown away. "Night."

Kakashi waited a beat. Iruka's breathing evened out, and just like that the man was asleep.

Slowly, Kakashi rolled onto his back. He stared up at the peak of the tent, heart hammering.

He stayed awake for a very long time.

**
Long ago . . .

That stupid, arrogant, conceited, boorish, ill-mannered--

Rin got to Kakashi's doorway and didn't bother knocking. How dare he say something like that to her, in front of her parents? She was going to kill him. She kicked in his door.

It was probably only that that kept him from driving the blade in. She could see the bathroom mirror from her angle, could see the kunai he'd placed carefully at the Sharingan, could see blood--

Rin acted before she thought. She pulled out two kunai and threw them.

The glass in the mirror shattered. The blades ricocheted, the blunt ends spinning around and smashing into Kakashi.

She heard him drop, but nothing else. "Kakashi!" Rin shouted, bolting into the tiny apartment. She tore around the corner, one hand on the doorjamb to whip her body around faster.

Kakashi was slumped on the bathroom floor, his head bleeding, his eye bleeding.

"Kakashi," Rin said again, dropping to her knees and holding her hands above his torso, feeling his chakra. Drugged. She could sense it, making his energy move sluggishly. It was that, she suspected, that had slowed his reactions enough to let the kunai hit.

Rin grabbed under his arms and pulled hard, laying him out on the floor of the main room, then she knelt again, taking deep breaths and focusing.

The damage to the eye could have been severe if left for very long. She fixed that first, reattaching nerve endings and veins and tissue. Then she checked his head, where she'd gotten him. Nothing major there. She considered cleaning out the drug but--well, maybe that was what affected his actions. Maybe he was under a jutsus and would fight her when he woke.

As quickly as she could, she found some rope--old sheets that she tore, but good enough--and bound him to his futon. She laced it between his fingers so he couldn?Äôt move them, and stretched him tight so there wasn't any play in his limbs.

He was better at this than she was. He was a Jounin and she was only a Chuunin. She was taking no chances.

Before she woke him she walked back to the bathroom.

A pot of water, still steaming, sat on the counter. Several kunai rested on the edge. Their handles had been wrapped in cloth, and the blades themselves were hot. There was a paper seal--a fire one. She remembered seeing Kakashi use it once to cauterize a wound. And there was a half-empty bottle of pills. Rin frowned, picking them up and examining the label.

Pain killers. Incredibly high potency. She even recognized the name of the medical ninja who'd prescribed them.

Still holding the bottle, she walked back into the main room. She hadn't known he was taking these. She dropped to her knees beside the futon and felt for his chakra.

This was the disturbance. She was certain of it. She pulled the eyelid of his normal eye up, checking his pupils. They were dilated far past normal. His eyes were bloodshot, and the skin around them puffy. He looked like--

No. But he looked like--like he'd been crying. Kakashi didn't cry.

Rin took a deep breath, settling herself, and began to clear the drugs out of his system.

Twenty minutes later, he woke. He was too good a ninja to struggle immediately, so he lay very still for several seconds. So still Rin wasn't entirely certain he was conscious.

"Kakashi?" she asked.

His eyes snapped open, then closed again with a shudder. He tried to bring his hands down and discovered he'd been tied. His eyes opened again, and this time Rin saw fear, though only for a moment, before he got his face under control. He looked at her, and she could see muscles flexing subtly across his shoulders; testing the bonds.

Rin put a hand on his chest, and pretended like she didn't see him flinch. "Kakashi, I came in and you were--you had a kunai to your eye. I tied you down to make sure you weren't going to attack me when you woke. I had to be certain you weren't under a jutsus."

"I'm not," he croaked.

Rin didn't untie him. "What were you doing?"

"Let me up."

"In a minute," Rin said calmly. He was pulling harder now. He was going to have bruises. "What were you doing?"

"You don't understand," he said in a near-whisper.

"I know," Rin agreed. "So tell me. What were you doing?"

Kakashi closed his eyes, clenched them until his eyebrows drew down. "Obito hates me."

"Obito--" panic flooded her. She pushed it down. Dear lord, don't let him be gone. Don't let Kakashi have lost his mind. "Kakashi," she said calmly. "Obito's dead."

"I know that!" Kakashi yelled, then started to shake, his breath hitching in his chest. "Rin . . . it hurts."

Her chakra flickered out again, along his. "What hurts?"

"Obito's eye. It hurts. I can't--I can't sleep and the pills they don't . . . they're not . . . Get it out!" His eyes opened reflexively, and he bit back a shout and closed them again. His body was as taut as a wire, so tight he looked like his muscles could shatter his bones.

Rin tried to ignore that. She moved to his head, hands hovering around his eyes. "I don't feel anything . . ."

"I know that!" Kakashi yelled again. His breath really was hitching now, coming in gasps and starts. "I've been to the medics and they say--they say--there's nothing wrong. They can't fix it. It's in my head," the last he said on a near-hysterical laugh, and then closed his mouth on the rest with a snap. His next words were quiet again. "But it hurts. And it's only getting worse. Obito hates me."

"Obito gave this to you," Rin said, still searching. There--a flux in his chakra. Something working harder than it should. Not near the eye; near the back of his brain. And his paths were worn; raw and angry and incredibly painful. She'd seen it from people who constantly channeled too much chakra. The pills suddenly made sense.

"How long has it been hurting?" she asked.

He was still trembling. "Always. It gets worse when I use the Sharingan. It's getting constantly worse the last weeks. The medical ninja said not to use it."

Chakra depletion. Sharingan eyes used chakra to see patterns, copy moves, and so on.

"Kakashi," Rin asked softly. "Do you trust me?"

He swallowed, then nodded.

"Keep your eyes closed." She reached over, untying his hands, then took one of the sheet pieces and tied it around his eyes. "Keep this on, all right?"

Kakashi nodded. He was still shaking.

Rin untied his feet, then threw a blanket over him. "And sleep. How long has it been since you slept?"

"Three days," he whispered.

Rin cringed. "Because it hurts?"

He nodded, curled on his side, blindfolded.

"All right." Rin sat down on the edge of the futon, mostly so he would know where she was. "Obito doesn't hate you. But you don't have Uchiha blood. I think--well, you can't turn it off, can you?"

He shook his head.

"I think it's burning out your chakra pathways. I think your body's straining to understand the information the Sharingan is giving you. I have to double check some things, but . . . well, I think if you just keep your eyes closed . . ." It seemed so simple, and it seemed so obvious that this would happen. They should have caught it earlier.

"Okay," Kakashi whispered. Just like that. Agreeing to be blind for the foreseeable future.

He had to be in pain.

"You were going to cut it out?" Rin asked softly. Her stomach turned.

"I didn't know what else to do."

"Get help, idiot!" she shouted.

Kakashi flinched. "The medic said it couldn't be helped . . ."

Rin was going to find that ninja and kill him. Slowly. She kicked herself for not seeing the signs, but . . . well, with Sensei dead she'd been spending more time at the hospital and less time with Kakashi.

Rin brushed Kakashi's hair away from his forehead, ignoring when he pulled back slightly. "I'm going to talk to some people. But I think just keeping it closed will help. Just to let your body rest. At least for now."

Kakashi only nodded.

**
Now

Kakashi sat over the tiny morning fire, cradling a mug of tea and wishing the birds would just shut up. His head was pounding. He'd drawn his forehead protector back down over his eye, but even that wasn't enough. And to make matters worse, he'd dreamt about Obito all night long.

Iruka staggered out of their shared tent, made it as far as a bush, and vomited. Kakashi wished he would please vomit just a little bit quieter.

Raidou whimpered and clutched his stomach. Genma just patted the head that was in his lap, smoothing a finger over the shiny, pulled scars across the other man's nose.

Even Asuma was quiet, a rag soaked in the stream laid over his head.

Iruka staggered closer, settling himself gingerly on the log next to Kakashi. "Who thought that was a good idea?" he practically whispered, taking deep breaths through his mouth.

"GOOD MORNING, FELLOW SHINOBI!" Gai bellowed.

Iruka went pale and lurched up, making for the bush again.

"Gai!" Raidou shouted, then clutched his head and whined, "make it stop . . ."

Genma threw a kunai at Gai.

"Why the long faces this morning?" Gai asked, ducking. "It's a beautiful day! The birds are singing, the land is fresh, the sun is up!"

"How can you have had all those drinks," Asuma groaned, "and not feel it?"

"A strong constitution!" Gai announced, chest out and fists on hips. The light, which hadn't quite made it through the trees all morning, suddenly shot through several branches and glinted off his teeth.

"I'm going to bash your strong constitution right up your backside," Genma growled.

"Gai, why don't you find us something to eat?" Kakashi suggested mildly, carefully balancing his head on the end of his neck. He'd never realized how long and wobbly necks were before.

"I shall do just that!" Gai announced, heading back out. He was still talking, but no one paid attention.

"Somehow," Iruka whined, "I always forget this part of camping."

Asuma only grunted.

**************************

Chapter Fifteen
Now

Kakashi hesitated at Iruka's doorway.

Locked.

He could pick the lock, he supposed. Instead, he went around to the window, placed both hands flat against the glass, and pushed up.

It was open.

He climbed in, bringing grocery bags with him, then closed it again. And locked it, just for good measure. Silly to lock a door and leave the window open. Of course, in a ninja village it seemed silly to lock the doors, period.

Kakashi took the bags into the kitchen, walking quietly through the empty apartment. It seemed much more lifeless when Iruka wasn't here, but it was still friendlier than his place. (He had gone out and bought kitchen magnets. He kept trying to put them up, but they always looked so disorderly. So he'd gone back out and bought all of the exact same design, then lined them up along the top of his fridge. That had been more acceptable.)

Iruka's magnets were all different shapes and sizes, pinning notes and photos and drawings to the refrigerator. There was even a pamphlet about the school fair, and several newspaper clippings. Kakashi set the bags down and studied the clippings. One was on a child who'd won some sort of achievement award. Kakashi could only assume it was a former student. Another was Hayate's death announcement, and the article that followed it up. A third was old, yellowed at the edges. A listing of all the people who had died by the fox.

Kakashi studied it, and finally found Iruka's father. His mother wasn't listed, but another clipping was of her death in the hospital, a week later. There was a picture, too. He pulled it from under the magnet and studied it.

Iruka had her nose and eyes.

Kakashi put it back, and only then saw the picture half hidden. He stopped, head cocked, studying it.

It was him. Looking rather bored and unimpressed with the world, and he thought he recognized it as a political function. Kakashi smiled slightly, and turned to making dinner.

It was another hour before Iruka got home. Kakashi heard the door click, and then silence. Probably the Chuunin realizing someone was there. He poked his head around the corner of the kitchen and waved, smiling brightly. "Yo, Iruka."

Iruka looked confused, his arms full of papers. He toed off his sandals. "Kakashi? What are you doing here? How'd you get in?"

"Window," Kakashi said, pointing. "And I thought you might want dinner . . ." Iruka was still frowning. That wasn't good.

Then the Chuunin sighed and set down his stack of papers, rubbing his scar. "Thank you. I'd love dinner. But maybe next time, warn me?"

Kakashi smiled and nodded. "How was the first day of school?"

Iruka groaned. "Konohamaru is in my class. He's spoiled, ill-behaved, and worse than Naruto ever was."

Kakashi cringed.

"Let's please talk about something else."

**

Iruka was full, and warm, and slightly sleepy. He had a stack of papers to look at before he went to bed, but couldn't seem to bring himself to care. He had a voice in the back of his head that was nattering on about Kakashi thinking this was a date, but he couldn't bring himself to care about that, either. Kakashi could be an ass, but everyone had problems. And, Iruka hated to admit it, he'd missed the Jounin. As insane as it was, and as little sense as it made to him, he liked having Kakashi around.

He rubbed his toes and watched Kakashi in his kitchen, washing dishes quickly and setting them in the drying rack. Iruka would have left them for the night, probably until the next night, when he needed them. At least this way he didn't have to worry about it.

Eventually, Kakashi dried his hands and walked out into the main room, at ease. "You liked dinner?" he asked, though Iruka guessed he already knew the answer.

"Dinner was excellent. I think I ate too much." He dug his thumb into the arch of his foot, trying to make it stop hurting. He'd spent most of the day on his feet, pacing back and forth in front of the blackboard. It was a change from the mission office, where he had sat most of the time.

Kakashi walked closer, hands in his pockets, and knelt in front of the couch. Carefully, he took one of Iruka's feet and placed it on his bent knee. Iruka sighed happily, curled on the couch, and let Kakashi massage.

"You really care about your students, don't you?" Kakashi said softly, head bent over his task.

Iruka reach out to touch the messy silver hair, then paused. Finally, he let strands drift through his fingers. "I do. It's my job to make sure they can survive as Genins. My job to make sure our village stays strong." Then he realized how conceited that sounded, and blushed. "Well, my job and of course that of the other senseis and squad leaders."

Kakashi's fingers hit a knot and kneaded it out smoothly, sending tingles up Iruka's leg. "You know them well?"

He still could only see the top of the Jounin's head. "My students? Most of them. Maybe later, after they've graduated, I'll start forgetting names and faces. I've only been doing this for a short while, compared to some of the other teachers."

Kakashi hmm'ed. He reached the pad of Iruka's foot and pressed, sliding fingers along toes, drawing out the joints and loosening the muscles.

Iruka almost groaned.

Kakashi set that foot down and picked up the other one, shifting his position slightly. Putting Iruka's foot on his thigh, he started the process over again. "You must hate me."

The words were so quiet, it took Iruka a moment realize what he'd said. "Hate you?" he asked finally. "Why?"

Kakashi's head remained bent over his task. "I lost your students."

Iruka could only stare. "Kakashi--"

"Jiraiya had to take Naruto away from the village. I ignored Sakura, and now she's training with the Hokage, and Sasuke--well, I failed him completely. He was so like me, I thought--" he bit off the rest, then shook his head slightly. "I was wrong."

"Kakashi," Iruka said again, threading his fingers through silver hair. He started to say none of it was Kakashi's fault, but the Jounin wouldn't believe that. Instead, he said, "Jiraiya-sama has more experience dealing with boys like Naruto. Sakura isn't a fighter; she's better off with Tsunade-sama. And Sasuke . . . was troubled. There's no telling how he would have turned out with another sensei. But that was his choice, not your fault."

Kakashi had stopped moving. Slowly, he started to massage again. "Hmm."

Iruka petted his head, not sure what else to do.

A tapping broke the silence. Iruka frowned and started to look around, only to realize that Kakashi was looking intently at the window. Iruka turned. A dove sat at the sill, peering in.

The Jounin rose, all grace and lean lines. "I have to go." He put his hands in his pockets, and looked down at Iruka.

For a moment, Iruka thought he saw an apology in that one blue eye. "Go," he said with a smile. The next moment Kakashi was out the window and gone into the dark. Iruka sighed and picked up his stack of papers. He had work to do anyway.

**

It was only the third day of school, and already he had parents in his office, wanting to know why their children were on detention. Some of them wanted to know so they could talk to their children, but others just wanted to argue.

Iruka dealt with them the same way he dealt with their offspring; a smile, firm resolve, and the knowledge that He Was Right.

Of course, he could understand why the parents were upset. After all, it wasn't often that the entire class got detention. He thought a paint war and attacking their sensei was reason enough.

In fact, his skin was starting to stiffen with paint. His hair was crusty, and his clothing itched. It made him feel only slightly better to know that his students were in a stuffy little room, and while he could go home and change, they were stuck for another hour.

Iruka saw the last parent out his door, then crammed all his paperwork into a satchel and slung it over one shoulder.

He was in the hall when he saw Genma lounging toward him, senbon still in his mouth.

"Some day," Iruka pointed out, "you're going to trip and fall and kill yourself with that thing."

"And if I tripped and fell that easily, I deserve to die," Genma replied cheerfully. "Kakashi's back."

Iruka's heart started pounding. The Jounin had left the village the same night he'd left Iruka's apartment, and no one had heard from him since. Iruka had been trying not to worry. "Is he--?"

"At his place."

Iruka smiled. "Thank you, Genma."

Genma snorted and continued down the hall.

Iruka tried to keep himself to a walk, but by the time he hit the doors he was jogging, and when he got halfway down the street he broke into a run. He couldn't help it.

He made it to Kakashi's apartment in just a few minutes, and paused long enough to bang on the door before opening it and walking inside. He could see the reflection in the bathroom mirror; could see Kakashi inside, shirtless, dabbing antiseptic on a scratch.

Iruka dropped his things and walked over quickly. Kakashi's gaze came up as he neared, and the man smiled, eye creasing above the mask.

"You're all right?" Iruka asked, though the answer was obvious.

"Fine," Kakashi said. He sounded bone-weary.

Iruka sidled into the bathroom, squeezing between Kakashi and the sink. Silently, he jumped up to sit on it, then took the antiseptic Kakashi was using and poured some on a cotton ball sitting nearby. "You're a mess."

Kakashi smiled ruefully. "Had to hide in a thorn thicket."

Iruka cringed. "A thorn thicket? What were you doing?" He didn't even know of any thorn thickets nearby . . .

Kakashi was silent. Iruka looked up. The man was very solemn. "I can't tell you that," Kakashi said quietly, an apology in his single visible eye.

Iruka nodded and returned to his work. Of course Kakashi couldn't tell him that. Any missions important enough to send the Copy Ninja on at the last minute were probably high ranking missions.

He worked on cleaning the man up, putting small bandages over scratches that were still bleeding sluggishly. Nothing was terribly deep, and most of it would heal within a few days. None if it really needed first aid. But somehow, he couldn't make himself stop.

Surely Kakashi could bandage himself. He had been doing it for a frightening number of years. But the Jounin was slouched back against the wall, not protesting, and--it was a relief to see him alive and whole.

After a little while, Kakashi smiled slightly. "You entering a fashion show?"

Iruka looked at him, confused. "What?"

Kakashi reached out and picked up a lock of paint-crusted hair.

It wasn't until then that Iruka remembered how he looked. "Oh," he said, feeling his cheeks heat. "My students . . . it's complicated."

Kakashi had taken a damp cloth and was rubbing at Iruka's neck, stepping closer as he did so. "Paint's toxic," he said quietly.

"Not in these doses," Iruka snorted. He looked over the broad expanse of chest in front of him, searching for any more scratches. There weren't any--at least, none that needed attention. His eyes lingered, drawn toward Kakashi's collarbone. There was a hitch in the smooth bone; broken some time before. Kakashi was nearly hairless, and scarred skin worked over his muscles like silk. He was so close, peeling and scrubbing pain off Iruka, that the Chuunin could smell him. He smelled like pine and soap and warmth, and he radiated heat.

"Lift your chin," Kakashi said quietly.

Iruka did so, shivering when a wet cloth ran up his neck, followed by careful fingenails scratching lightly to get the paint off. Sitting, he was shorter than Kakashi was standing. Not by much, but--well, with his head tilted up . . . he closed his eyes so he didn't have to look at Kakashi, inches away. Closed his eyes and could feel the man's hands on his skin, warm and callused. Drifting over his neck, across his shoulder. He realized his hands were still on Kakashi, too, and let them slide slightly. Down the slim waist, over slender muscles, back up across his chest.

Iruka sensed the Jounin move closer, and opened his eyes.

The man's head was beside his, hands on his waist. Kakashi pulled, and Iruka slipped off the counter, landing on his feet, and suddenly they were of a height again. Of a height, and chest-to-chest, Kakashi's breath warm in his ear. He felt the man's nose nuzzle at his neck, hands sliding around his back.

Iruka broke out in goosebumps. Tentatively, he kissed the bump where Kakashi's collarbone met with his shoulder. Hands slid up his spine, cloth still in the way, and then back down over his ribs. He shivered when Kakashi breathed in his ear, feeling it curl in his stomach. He rubbed his thumbs over the muscle caps on the Jounin's shoulders, felt the other man tighten in response, then slid his hands down his chest, over soft skin and ridges of scars and hit--something wet.

Iruka pulled back. Kakashi did, too, more out of surprise than anything. Iruka barked a laugh and rubbed at the splash of yellow paint on Kakashi's skin, blushing self-consciously as he did so. "I'm getting you covered in paint."

"It's not toxic at these doses," Kakashi said, shifting closer, one of his legs sliding alongside one of Iruka's.

Iruka swallowed. "I should go shower."

"I have a shower here."

"I--" he was suddenly nervous. He pulled back again, smiling apologetically. "I have to be up early tomorrow," was all he could think of. They weren't supposed to be dating. Right? Right. They were just friends. They were friends until Kakashi figured out how to make friends.

Even though Iruka had missed the Jounin something fierce.

Kakashi gave him a look he couldn't interpret, and stepped away. "All right."

Iruka slid out of the bathroom, leaving streaks of paint on the counter. "Oh--geez, sorry," he said, watching Kakashi start to rub them off.

"It's all right," Kakashi said again.

"I--I just--" this wasn't working. Iruka turned toward the door, then turned back. Kakashi was standing in the doorway to the bathroom, pants low on his hips, barefoot and bare chested. He lifted one hand, bracing it on the wall. Iruka licked his lips and swallowed. Pale and battle-scarred, the man looked like some sort of warrior diety. Iruka shook his head. That was stupid, and cliche, and worthy only of one of those ridiculous Icha Icha books Kakashi liked so much.

He was also aware, suddenly, of how utterly goofy he looked, covered in paint, his hair stiffened and his clothes spattered. He felt himself blushing again.

Kakashi raised one eyebrow.

"I have to go." He turned and fled out the door, then froze on the communal porch. He'd forgotten his satchel. For a moment, he debated leaving it. But it had things he needed for the morning, and--damn. Iruka turned and bounded back up to the door, opening it and nearly running into Kakashi, who was holding it in one hand.

"Oh," Iruka said, blushing again. "Um. Thank you." He reached out to take it, and Kakashi pulled it back.

Iruka scowled. Then the Jounin leaned forward, wrapping his free hand around Iruka's neck, his mouth beside the Chuunin's ear. Iruka went very still. "It's okay," Kakashi murmured, a smile in his voice. Then he kissed the delicate skin just under a paint-smeared jaw. A brief meeting of mouth and skin, cloth between them, but--Iruka shivered.

Kakashi released him and stepped back, offering the satchel.

Iruka took it, blushing brightly. He smiled hesitantly and scratched the back of his head. "Um. Maybe--maybe I'll see you tomorrow?"

Kakashi smiled slightly and nodded.

Iruka nodded back. "All right. Okay. Then." He laughed and stepped away, nearly falling off the single stair. He laughed nervously at that too, then slung his satchel over his shoulder and started down the street.

He looked back once, and saw Kakashi still standing in the doorway, hands in his pockets, lamplight turning his skin a warm gold. Iruka smiled and kept going.

**
Then

The two of them stood, panting, bodies littered around them.

Kakashi glanced up at the other ANBU--thirty, to Kakashi's nineteen--and smiled.

The man smiled back.

All the enemy dead. The hostage rescued and returned. The base of the missing ninja emptied, the men inside killed. It hadn't been an easy task, by any means, but it was over.

Kakashi stood, hands in his lower back, stretching. Then he pulled off the ANBU mask and dropped it in a shadow, making a mental note to get it later. Right now, he needed the air on what was showing of his face.

He walked into the hide-out, looking around cautiously. All the ninja were accounted for, but one never knew who else might be lurking.

The place was empty, though. Filled only a bit more when his ANBU partner entered, chakra flaring as the man looked for traps.

There must have been nothing. Silence reigned, rather than a warning.

Kakashi felt the ANBU step up to him, and turned his head slightly.

"How many missions?" the man asked. He, too, had shed his mask, showing plain brown eyes and scruffy brown hair.

"Enough," Kakashi answered. Truthfully, he'd lost count. He'd done it almost spitefully, knowing the other ANBU counted and compared, and knowing it would frustrate them that he didn't compete.

He was better than they were.

The man stepped closer, and Kakashi turned, stepping back.

"Relax," the man snorted. But he stepped forward again. Kakashi held his ground, eyes narrowed, already cataloging all the ways he could take the man down.

Then the ninja kissed him.

He didn't react at first, stunned into stillness. The man pressed, and Kakashi fell back, coming up against a wall. There were hands on him and--oh, okay, that felt good. He swallowed and started kissing back, whatever he could reach. The man's hands were at his shirt, pulling both that and the vest off in one fell swoop, running over very sensitive skin. Kaksahi bit back a groan as the adrenaline from the fight shifted into an entirely different sort of adrenaline, helped along by hormones.

He'd only done this once before, and that hadn't been in the greatest circumstances. The ANBU didn't seem to mind, stripping them both of clothes, his hands all over and--good grief, but that felt nice.

Kakashi bit down on the man's shoulder, got an answering growl in return, and much more careful teeth on his neck.

This sort of after-fight adrenaline he could deal with.

Chapter Sixteen
Now

"I heard something interesting about your sensei," Ino said, smiling wickedly.

Sakura frowned, balancing her books as she headed home. "What?"

"Your sensei and Iruka-sensei are dating."

Sakura nearly dropped her books, scrambling to keep them upright. "Tsunade-sama and--"

"No, idiot!" Ino snapped. "Kakashi-san and Iruka-sensei!"

Sakura lost her books. "What?" she yelped. "Where did you hear that! You'd better not be lying, Ino!" she shouted, waving a threatening fist in the other girl's face.

Ino only smirked. "I overheard Asuma-sensei and Kurenai-san talking. Iruka and Kakashi are dating."

That couldn't possibly be right. Neither of them seemed very girl-like. At least, not from what Sakura could remember. "I don't think Iruka's a pervert," she said tartly, "and Kakashi-sensei is a pervert, but not that type."

Ino only smirked.

Sakura glared at her. "Help me with my books, Ino-pig."

Ino sniffed. "Only because you're too weak to help yourself," she shot back, stooping to help Sakura gather her things.

Sakura thought about what Ino had said all the way home. Kakashi-sensei wasn't a pervert. Not like that. And Iruka-sensei certainly wasn't any kind of pervert. Ino had to be wrong.

But Sakura headed toward Kakashi's apartment, just in case. Iruka was out for the day--his class had gone outside the village on a field trip--but if Kakashi-sensei was home, certainly she could find out what was going on.

She knocked on the door and waited impatiently.

Eventually he answered, face masked, Icha Icha Paradise in one hand, eye half-lidded and his entire stance screaming, 'Bored.' "Yo," he said.

"Kakashi-sensei!" Sakura chirped. Her brain stalled. She couldn?Äôt just come out and ask him. "I thought we could talk! It's been so long since I've seen you!"

He stared at her. Then, finally, he stepped out of his apartment and gestured to a chair on the porch, taking the one opposite.

Sakura sat primly, glad when he tucked his book back into his pocket. He didn't offer tea, but that didn't surprise her. Kakashi-sensei wasn't the most polite of people.

He stared at her, bored. She fidgeted. "So," she said, falsely bright, "I hear you're doing missions."

He just watched her.

"That's nice. I mean, you're a good Jounin and all . . ."

He looked even more unimpressed. "Yes. Good."

Sakura could see his hand inching toward the pocket where his book was. She had to act fast. "I hear you're training with Iruka-sensei now," she blurted out.

The hand stopped inching, and he looked at her. "Oh?"

"Is it true?"

"We're not training."

She sighed. He said nothing else. This was not going as well as she'd hoped. On the other hand, he didn't seem anymore girl-like than he ever had. If it was a romance, shouldn't he be looking dreamy and sighing constantly?

**

"Stay together," Iruka barked, catching a rugrat by the back of his shirt before he could dart off into the forest. "Now, who can find an edible plant?"

Half a dozen children squealed. Iruka kept a close eye on Konohamaru and his troupe, knowing they would be the ones to try to vanish.

He was supposed to have a teaching apprentice to help him today, but the man had taken a child off to go the bathroom and still hadn't returned. The coward.

"How about this one, Sensei?" a pretty little girl yelled.

Iruka cringed. "That's poison ivy. Don't touch anything if you're not sure what it is. And don't scratch." There was a parent he was going to have to answer to.

"This is edible, right Sensei?" one of Konohamaru's gang--the girl--yelled.

"Sure is!" Konohamaru said, and bit down on the green that was sticking between her fingers. She squealed and laughed while the boy chewed vigorously.

Iruka rubbed his scar. "No, that's not edible. It'll make you sick."

Konohamaru froze. Then he spat the plant out, bellowing about how he was going to die and it was all Sensei's fault. He even tried to wipe off his tongue on a tree.

"Konohamaru," Iruka shouted, "cut that out! You're not going to die!"

"Sensei . . . " a child said quietly.

"Just a moment, Kieko," he answered without looking, already walking toward Konohamaru. Why did he always get the troublesome children? It was payback from the other teachers for his misspent youth, he was sure.

"Sensei . . . " the same little girl said again, louder this time.

"Not now, Kieko," Iruka barked, grabbing Konohamaru just as the boy tried to wipe his tongue with a leaf. Where was his TA? "That's poisonous, too," Iruka muttered, grabbing the plant and tossing it to the ground.

"Sensei!" Kieko shouted.

"What?" Iruka snapped, whipping around.

He froze.

A man stood above the tiny girl, arms folded over his chest, his face a mess of scars. Iruka didn't recognize him. He did recognize the line etched through the forehead protector.

Missing ninja.

Iruka ran forward, yanking Konohamaru with him, letting the boy go in the middle of the pack. Drawing two kunai, he hurled them at the intruder. While the man blocked, Iruka grabbed Kieko and hauled her away, spinning to put his body between the ninja and the girl.

Someone laughed. He looked up, following the sound of the voice, and saw another ninja in the tree.

And another stepping out from behind a massive trunk. And more. Two women and three men, all told, scattered through the forest, in a circle around his little class.

"Everyone come here," Iruka said, as calmly and firmly as he could.

The children obeyed without question, congregating around him tightly.

Iruka turned back to the first man, back straight, meeting his scar-twisted eyes. "What do you want?"

"Konoha's youth," the man laughed. "This is the next generation of ninja, right? Konoha would pay dearly to have them back, mostly alive." He smiled, showing rows of sharpened teeth. "That's all I want."

One of the children started crying.

Iruka glanced around the group, sizing them up. It was unlikely they were Jounin, but there were five of them and one of him, and they had no reason to keep the children alive. If he could get them alone--

"All of you, follow her," the ninja said, pointing to the woman in the tree. The woman jumped down and started to walk.

Each and every child looked up at Iruka, waiting for his orders. He almost told them to scatter. If they ran fast enough, and he was able to unleash enough weapons at the enemy, maybe he could distract them long enough to let the kids escape.

Maybe.

He had three shuriken and five kunai. There were five missing ninja, all at least veteran Chuunin, from the way they moved.

The children would be slaughtered.

He looked down at them, eyes focusing. He could feel the leader's gaze boring into his back, waiting for him to do something stupid. The children looked like they were about to fall apart, beginning to panic.

"All right, then," he said cheerfully, clapping his hands together. "Time for organization training! Everyone take the hand of the person next to you, and in a single-file line follow the ninja woman!"

The children sniffled and wiped at noses. It was Konohamaru who grabbed one of his friends and started marching resolutely toward their captors. Soon twenty-nine little children were marching in a line, Iruka following at the back, watching as missing ninja flitted through the trees on either side of them. He didn't look back at the leader. He tried not to think about his missing student and teaching apprentice.

"Well done," the man snorted, walking up close.

Iruka debated killing him then. He had a kunai near his hand, if he grabbed it and twisted, dropped to one knee to avoid the shuriken that would undoubtedly come from the man, and jabbed upward--

Another ninja fell to the ground on his other side.

"Tell the children to keep going," the leader said quietly. "We'll catch up."

Iruka took a deep breath. "All right, then, students! Keep following that woman! This is an exercise in--" what? "--obeying orders! I want you to follow her orders like she was your squad leader!"

They looked back at him fearfully, but he smiled and nodded and projected as much assurance as he could.

They wound out of sight among the trees. He stared after them, keenly aware of the ninja on either side. If he stretched his chakra, he could just make out another energy above.

"Strip."

"What?" Iruka yelped, turning to look at the head ninja.

The man smiled grimly. "We don't want you with your weapons, but we do want you controlling the kiddies. Strip."

Iruka hesitated. If he jabbed a kunai forward--the man behind would kill him. If he jabbed forward and kicked back, the one above--if he jabbed forward and kicked back, and flipped to one side--

The likelihood that it would work was slim to none.

"You do anything foolish, and your kids suffer," the ninja behind him said, breathing into his ear. "We just need them alive. Not whole."

Iruka swallowed and started to pull off his vest.

**

Shikamaru bolted up the stairs, nearly out of breath. He'd been there when the teaching apprentice and a student had come back, babbling something about missing ninja. The Hokage had sent him out instantly.

Kakashi was, luckily, at home. Sitting on the porch with Sakura, staring at each other silently.

Shikamaru slid to a stop, clutching the railing and staring at Kakashi. "Tsunade-sama urgently requests your assistance. Now."

Kakashi's eyes widened briefly, then he stood, bowed, and disappeared.

"What was that all about?" Sakura demanded.

Shikamaru collapsed in a chair, his job done for the moment. "The--the--guy came with news--" he panted. "Iruka's children have been taken hostage. Missing ninja."

Sakura paled. "Are they okay?"

Shikamura shrugged and stood, preparing to run again. They needed Inuzuka Tsume, one of the only other Jounin not out on a mission. "Have to go."

Sakura only nodded, and Shikamaru took off, flying over the railing and tearing down the street.

He had to hurry.

**

"I've sent my personal ANBU guard after Iruka's group," Tsunade said, staring out her window. "But we have other groups out today. They need to be brought back. There's no telling if this is localized or not."

"I'll go find Iruka's kids," Kakashi said, deceptively calm. "The ANBU can get the other groups."

"The ANBU are already gone," Tsunade barked. "Besides, I need your dog's nose to find the groups. Tsume-san will be looking for them, too. There are three--"

"I'll find Iruka," Kakashi said again, firmer this time.

"Damn it, Kakashi!" Tsunade shouted, banging her fist against her desk. Wood cracked. "I need you to help here! This is how you can help the most!"

He froze.

"You can help find Iruka when the others are safe," she said, quieter.

Stiffly, he bowed and left.

**
Then

People were screaming outside. The fox was still on the loose. They were being slaughtered.

Inside the war council, the Fourth addressed those Jounin who could be pulled from the fighting. He looked haggard and old. Kakashi hung in the back corner, waiting.

"I have a plan to stop him," the Fourth said, the words slow and tired. His eyes were red from smoke and chakra use, but no worse than the rest of them.

Kakashi's head throbbed. It wasn't decapitating. Yet.

"I think it'll work, but--Kakashi, Rin, I need you to clear out the young ones. Anyone under sixteen. Take them to the school, put them in the basement. Keep them there."

Kakashi straightened, frowning. "Why?" He didn't point out that he and Rin were both under sixteen. They were Chuunin and Jounin, after all. They didn't count.

"I'm going to seal the demon, but it's going to take power. The fox will fight, and I don't want them hurt."

"All right. Wait until we get back, and--"

The Fourth's eyes flickered. He stood, beckoning to them.

Kakashi sidled forward slowly, Rin walking a bit faster. He had a bad feeling about this. Really bad. Anything big enough to need to clear people out . . .

"Kakashi, Rin, this is going to take a lot of power. I want you safe. Take the children and go. It's important, and there aren't many other people I trust to keep them there. They won't want to leave."

"I don't want to leave," Kakashi snapped. "I can help."

"Help when you get back."

He hesitated. "I can come back?"

"Once you make sure the children are safe. Yes. Come back. I'd love your help." The Fourth smiled softly, eyes sad.

Kakashi looked at Rin. She wouldn't meet his gaze. He looked back at the Fourth. "Don't do anything stupid," he muttered.

The Fourth looked pained, and put a hand on Kakashi's head. For once, the young Jounin didn't duck out. "Thank you. You're both growing up amazingly well. I'm very proud of you. Now, Kakashi--start getting them out of here. I'm going to fill Rin in on the plan, and she'll explain so you'll know as soon as you're done."

Kakashi eyed him. His sensei looked weary. Beyond tired, like he'd found the answer, and it was worse than anyone had guessed. "I'll be back soon," Kakashi promised.

The Fourth bowed. Kakashi returned it, and left.

**
Now

Iruka knelt on the forest floor, head bent, a katana at his neck. Bark bit into the bare skin on his knees and palms, and he shivered, naked.

They were being very thorough with his clothing. He could have told them they'd found all the weapons, but doubted they'd believe him. He didn't carry too many things with the children around. Didn't want someone to get hurt.

The irony hadn't escaped him.

"All right," the leader said, kicking Iruka's underwear closer. "Dress. Hurry up."

The blade lifted off the delicate skin of the nape of his neck, and he shook his ponytail back down protectively. Iruka grabbed his briefs, pulling them on, glad to be covered up, then snatched up his pants and shoved his legs in.

"We'll send a ransom notice twenty-four hours from now. Don't expect to be saved," the leader said, glancing around.

He yanked his shirt on and reached for his vest. A foot stopped him.

"You don't need armor," the ninja said, exposing sharpened teeth with a smile. "I'm starting to think you don't trust us."

Iruka took a deep breath and straightened.

"He doesn't really need his shirt, either, does he?" a woman laughed. He glared at her over his shoulder.

"Oh, come on, it's a compliment," she said, grinning widely. "Such smooth skin . . ."

He gave her his best bored look, imitating Kakashi as much as possible.

Her smile vanished, eyebrows rising. "Move," she snapped, slapping him with the flat of her blade.

Iruka felt cloth rip on the sharpened edge, and started forward. He walked wordlessly through the forest, flanked by ninja.

He prayed his kids were safe.

**

Kakashi flew over the fallen tree, planting a hand and channeling chakra to give him an extra push.

Half a dozen dogs had raced off, searching for any scent of the other groups, and checking for any strange ninja scents. The mastif had caught a smell first, and Kakashi was racing after him. He had to bring back the children before he could go after Iruka. But if he got them back, there was nothing to stop him.

Iruka just had to hold on. Just wait.

**
Then

Kakashi grabbed a Genin, hauled the boy away, over the barriers, away from the fighting. An explosion seared his back, but he kept going, running. He had to get the children safe, and then he could go back to his sensei and help. Only then could he help his most important person.

Rin was nowhere to be seen. Kakashi tossed the child to a young Chuunin, then headed back over the barriers. He crouched, the Sharingan spinning wildly. There--a burst of barely controlled chakra, dangerously close to the fox. He leaped, channeling energy to his legs, shoving away from the ground. The fox's head swiveled toward the girl, who was gathering her chakra as quickly as she could, but not quickly enough.

Kakashi slammed into her. No time for subtly. He felt teeth snap just behind him, felt the air of the bite, but no pain. He rolled and sprung up, girl tucked into his body, and ran.

**
Now

Iruka stood in the cave, checking that the children were all right. Frightened, but not hurt.

"I guarded them while you were gone, Sensei," Konohamaru said solemnly, face pinched and arms folded over his little chest.

"Very brave of you, Konohamaru," Iruka said.

"Sensei! What happened to your clothes?"

They were muddy and disheveled, and half of his outfit was gone, buried in the forest.

"They didn't hurt you, did they?" Moegi said, concern sprawled across her voice and face.

"No, Moegi-chan. They just were looking for weapons. Remember, any time you take a hostage, you should always check them for weapons," Iruka said, trying to act like everything was normal.

The children nodded solemnly.

"Having fun teaching?" one of the women asked on a smirk.

Iruka shot a glare her way. "Who else can tell me what to do in a hostage situation?" he asked his kids, trying to distract them.

A boy in the back tentatively raised his hand.

"Yes, Akeno?"

"Do as your captors say?"

"Correct! Why?"

"Because Konoha doesn't leave their ninja behind, so you should stay alive until help comes," Konohamaru announced loudly.

"That's right," Iruka agreed, smiling brightly.

"So our Jounin are going to come and kick your butt!" Konohamaru added in a near-shout.

Iruka shoved him back and checked over his shoulder.

The woman was fingering a kunai and watching them thoughtfully.

"You also shouldn't antagonize your captors," Iruka snapped. He could only do so much. The cave was wide; if he could cram all the children into a corner, protected on three sides, he could keep the fourth safe. But the ninja were smart; they'd pushed the group against the back wall, so there were three open sides--two of which Iruka couldn't shield.

"Sorry, Sensei," Konohamaru murmured.

"Better keep the rugrats quiet, Sensei," the woman mocked. "'Cause if you can't, we will."

One of the children started to cry. "Shh," Konohamaru whispered. "Ninja have to be brave."

"I want to go home," a boy whimpered.

"Soon," Iruka promised. "Just be quiet and still, and our Jounin will come." He had to believe that.

"Shut him up," the woman growled.

Iruka glared. "If you'd stop threatening them, it would help." He glanced around the cave, at his three guards. The man was gone from the opening, he realized suddenly. That left only the woman between them and freedom, and a man to his right.

"I have to go pee," a boy whispered loudly.

"Not now, Akeno," Iruka muttered.

"Senseiiiii . . . really badly . . . "

He glanced down at the child, then up at the woman, eyebrows raised.

She snorted. "You stay there, Sensei. Kid, you can piss there." She gestured with her kunai to a spot just outside the cave and around the corner.

The boy looked pitifully at Iruka, who could only smile and hope everything would be all right, and then the child was moving out of the group.

"I have to pee, too!" Konohamaru announced.

Iruka grabbed the boy's arm. "Not now," he said sternly.

"I sure as hell don't want him pissing in here," the woman barked.

Iruka doubted very much Konohamaru had to go to the bathroom. His face was set in a determined appearance, and his little hands were fisted at his sides. Iruka knew that expression.

"Konohamaru," Iruka murmured, "don't do anything. Just go to the bathroom, and come back. Do you understand me?"

Konohamaru looked at him steadily, and put his little hand in Iruka's bigger one. "It's okay, Sensei," he said, and broke away.

He left a shuriken behind. Crap. Crap crap crap. Iruka's stomach tightened into knots, even as his fingers closed around the weapon. He watched the two boys walk around the corner, out of his sight but still in the woman's.

She watched them with half an eye, leaning back against the cave wall, foot propped up. Iruka watched her, waiting, praying.

She straightened. "Hey! Rugrat! No farther!"

Iruka tensed.

"You little shithead!" she yelled, jumping forward with a burst of speed.

Iruka twisted, hurling the shuriken at the other guard, and leaped after the woman.

Don't kill the boys, he prayed, a mantra running through his mind. Don't kill the boys.

A child screamed.

No. He rounded the corner to see Akeno on the ground, clutching a bloody thigh. Konohamaru was nowhere to be seen, but he'd left tracks. The woman was gone as well, after him, and two other ninja who had been absent were suddenly there.

They were closing in fast, kunai and shuriken flying toward him. Iruka twisted and ducked, felt the skin on his arm part from something too sharp to even hurt. He jumped sideways, into a bush, trying to follow the child.

"Konohamaru!" he bellowed, tucking and rolling with his jump, trying to put a tree between him and the missing ninja. "You're putting your team in danger! FREEZE!" He could only pray that it would be enough, that Konohamaru would listen and they wouldn't kill him or--please no--the others in the cave in retaliation.

Iruka scrambled to his feet and raced down Konohamaru's path, jumping over bushes and twisting around trees. His speed was good, he knew, so if he could just stay ahead of the missing ninja--

He saw them, the woman perched in a tree and aiming while Konohamaru kept running, tiny legs speeding him through the forest. Iruka felt the kunai behind him and twisted. They thunked into the ground and he kept going, only barely ahead of the ninja, no time--no time at all because she was throwing--

He barreled into the boy, dragging him down to the ground as he felt the shuriken meant for Konohamaru's head dig into his back. Iruka screamed as blades tore through flesh and muscle, gouging wetly into his body. Eyes closed, he let himself drop to his side, skidding through forest derbis, trying not to land on the shuriken and trying not to smash the boy.

He had no armor. His arms tightened around the child and he twisted them both, around and up, feeling the metal tear skin and muscle further with the movement. But he had to block anything more, keep Konohamaru safe. That was his job.

His eyes still closed, he half expected to feel more weapons rip into his body. Pain was spreading over his back, burning through his lungs with every breath. Konohamaru started to squirm and Iruka tightened his hold.

"Sensei! I could have escaped!"

"Don't move," Iruka murmured, trying to push the pain to the back of his mind. "Just don't move."

Something in his tone got through to the boy. He froze.

There were several thumps, and the sound of someone panting.

"Bastard's fast," the man muttered.

"Give up the kid." The woman.

Iruka shook his head and curled tighter over Konohamaru. "No. I'll take him back."

"Give him to me so I can cut his fucking legs off."

Iruka's arms tightened. He heard Konohamaru's breath hitch as he nearly crushed the boy, but didn't loosen his grip. "No."

"Son of a bitch," someone muttered. Then Iruka felt a hand near his spine and braced. Fingers grabbed the shuriken still sticking out of his flesh and yanked.

He couldn't stop the cry, but didn't let go of his student.

He felt the tip of a katana at his ear. "Let him go."

"No," Iruka said again, through a shout as the man ripped another shuriken out. "Kill me, and then you'll have no way to control them, and Konoha won't pay you for dead children."

He was shaking, in shock and pain. Konohamaru made a little noise, as if just realizing what sort of danger they were in.

"Shit," the woman muttered. "Shit. Get up. Take him back to the cave."

Iruka waited for the last shuriken to be yanked out, then he stood slowly, still holding Konohamaru, and started the long trek back.

The three ninja stayed around him, watching him warily. The fourth, he guessed, had stayed to guard the others, and he hoped viciously that the fifth one--the one he'd thrown the shuriken at--was dead.

He prayed the children were safe.

**************************

Now

The missing ninja had done a good job of healing him, the medics said. They gave him a blood transfusion and Tsunade herself finished the job--something Iruka had been, thankfully, too woozy to feel self-conscious about. He was ordered to rest for a few days, but he would be fine.

Iruka asked after his kids, and was told they were safe. All heading back to their respective homes. Shaken, but unharmed. The one injured boy had already been healed; it hadn't been bad. Shizune had seen to him.

Iruka sat on the hospital bed, tired beyond belief after a very long day, and contemplated going home. It seemed terribly far.

The door slammed open while he was still sitting there, and he jumped, looking up.

Kakashi was already striding in, single blue eye sweeping over him assessingly. "You're all right?"

Iruka nodded, offering a hesitant smile. "I'm fine," he started to say, and then Kakashi was on him, hands on his face, down his neck, over his arms as if checking for himself.

"I'm all right. Really," Iruka said.

"They said you were stabbed."

"Three shuriken, but--" Iruka stopped talking because Kakashi had yanked him to his feet, unbuttoning his shirt. "Kakashi!" he snapped, unable to really put the force behind it he wanted.

"Where?" the Jounin demanded.

Iruka hesitated, but was too tired to argue. "My back." His shirt was yanked off, and Kakashi spun him, inspecting the damage himself. "Ow," Iruka said quietly as fingers probed the tissue.

"That hurts?"

"Of course it hurts. It's only barely healed," Iruka snapped, grabbing his shirt and turning back around. "Are you quite done?"

Kakashi was inspecting him, gaze boring into his eyes as if he could read something there. "Why did you get hit?"

Iruka sighed. "I was protecting one of the children." He hadn't told anyone that that child had run off, putting them all in danger, and he wasn't going to start with Kakashi. Let them all think that the missing ninja were just vile enough to try to hurt a boy for no reason.

Kakashi's eye narrowed. Iruka looked back steadily. "You're not going to tell the rest," Kakashi said, the words not quite a question.

Iruka shook his head.

Kakashi took a deep breath. "All right. Come on."

Iruka frowned. "Come on? Where? I'm supposed to go home and sleep--"

"You can sleep at my place." Kakashi grabbed his wrist and pulled, yanking him inexorably toward the door.

"But--"

"I'll make you dinner. Then you'll eat, and you'll be at my place, and you'll be safe."

"I'm safe now," Iruka protested, trying to go fast enough to keep up with Kakashi. The world was still spinning slightly, though, and he was certain that at any moment he was going to fall over.

"I'll keep you safer," Kakashi said, then seemed to realize Iruka's instability. He stopped and looked back. "Are you all right?"

"Blood loss, Kakashi," Iruka ground out. "I'm still a little woozy."

Kakashi stared at him for a moment, then grabbed him, swinging him up onto a strong back and heading out the door.

"I don't need to be carried," Iruka yelled, "I just need to walk slower!"

"Better this way," Kakashi said, and jumped for a rooftop.

**

Iruka leaned against the wall of the shower, letting water pour down on him. The pain was fading from his back as the muscles attached a bit more strongly. He was just tired.

"Are you all right?"

Iruka jumped, and glanced toward the door--not that he could see it, since there was a shower curtain in the way. Which was probably a good thing, since Kakashi sounded like he was in the room. "Go away," Iruka snarled.

The door closed.

Slowly, Iruka stood up and washed the rest of his blood from the ends of his hair, then turned off the water and peeked around the curtain, just to make sure Kakashi really wasn't there.

He wasn't, but he had left black pants and briefs on the toilet. Iruka dried off before putting them on, checking his wounds in the mirror.

They had already faded to scars, though they still looked remarkably fresh. It was a relief that the Hokage herself had come down to treat them, otherwise they would still be actual wounds. Not even their best medics could manage this.

Iruka opened the bathroom door and stepped out in a cloud of steam. "Do you have a sweatshirt?" he asked, feeling the ends of his hair drip water down his back. He pulled the pants up with one hand, but they just fell back around his hips. Kakashi was skinnier than he was, so these would have been huge on the Jounin; he suspected they were borrowed from a neighbor. A neighbor who was big, because these weren't staying up easily.

Kakashi looked up from the kitchen and froze for just a moment.

Iruka scowled and ran a hand through his wet hair self-consciously, feeling it spill around his shoulders. "What?" He couldn't look that bad.

"Nothing," Kakashi said, and walked to the closet. He opened it, fishing out a black shirt and handing it to Iruka. "How's your back?"

"Fine," Iruka muttered, but when Kakashi moved to check, he didn't stop the man. He waited, shirt in his hands, while careful fingers probed the new flesh. Finally, Kakashi moved away. "I told you," Iruka muttered, sliding the shirt on over his arms.

"At least Tsunade's good for something," Kakashi muttered back.

Iruka's eyes widened. "Tsunade-sama is the Hokage," he said, aghast. "You shouldn't talk about her like--"

"She had me finding children, Iruka!" Kakashi snapped. "Finding the idiot groups who were still in the forest when I should have been looking for you! You shouldn't go into the forest anymore."

Iruka stared. "You're kidding me," he said quietly, on a disbelieving laugh. "Because the forest is so dangerous, and we have missing ninja appear and kidnap us all the time."

Kakashi was stirring soup and didn't answer.

"Don't be ridiculous," Iruka muttered. "You were needed to find the kids. The ANBU found us."

"And maybe if I'd been there you wouldn?Äôt have been stabbed and nearly killed," Kakashi said bitterly.

"Kakashi--" Iruka stopped and frowned at the tense line of the man's back. The Jounin stopped stirring, hands braced on either side of the stove.

"I can't protect you if I?Äôm not there."

Iruka walked slowly forward, shirt hanging open--it was uncomfortably snug. "You don't need to protect me--"

Kakashi whipped around. "We shouldn't be friends anymore."

"What?" Iruka yelped.

"We shouldn?Äôt be friends. I don't want you dead, and--"

"Kakashi, listen to yourself!" Iruka yelled. "I'm not going to die because we're friends! You're being paranoid!"

Kakashi closed his eye tightly, still holding onto the sink behind him.

Iruka sighed and stepped closer, crowding the other man. He put his hand on Kakashi's face, hoping to get his attention.

Kakashi opened his uncovered eye and looked at him.

"I'm fine. Really."

Hands that were white from tension peeled off of the counter and rose, settling on either side of Iruka's jaw. It was then he realized Kakashi was shaking.

"I'm all right. I'm safe," Iruka repeated.

Kakashi closed his eye and leaned his forehead against Iruka's, breathing shaky. "I know. But I wasn't there."

"You can't always be there. You have to trust other people. The village is good. We protect each other."

Hands tightened in his hair, pulling slightly. Iruka didn't say anything. "You're all right?" Kakashi asked.

"I'm fine," Iruka said again.

Kakashi nodded wordlessly. "All right."

**************************

A/N: The hair-down Iruka? SO inspired by Devo's artwork. Check out Devolution (it's in the garage). So. Unbelieavebly. Hot. *drools*

J

Chapter Eighteen
Now

They'd had dinner--soup, salad, and bread, and Kakashi had apologized for it not being better, even though it was delicious--and then they settled down on the floor, Kakashi at Iruka's back. Iruka had realized pretty quickly that he wasn't going home tonight. He'd never seen the Jounin touch anyone so much, as if making sure that Iruka really was alive, and not a figment of his imagination. The ninja had even stripped Iruka's shirt off, insisting he needed to check the scars again.

Iruka just let him. He liked the contact, and Kakashi seemed to need it.

"I like your hair down," Kakashi said once, threading fingers through it. "Soft."

Iruka smiled slightly. It was almost dry, heavy on his neck, and silky. He liked it best at this stage. "So where am I sleeping tonight?" he asked, glancing around. There wasn't much room in the tiny apartment; no couch, and only the one futon.

"There," Kakashi said, pointing to the bed.

Iruka eyed it. "Then where will you sleep?"

Kakashi shrugged. "On the floor."

"Why don't I sleep on the floor, and you can sleep in your bed?"

There was a horrified silence.

"I haven't vacuumed in three days," Kakashi said.

Iruka rolled his eyes. "Three whole days?" he teased, glancing back. Kakashi continued checking the fresh scars, like he'd been doing for nearly twenty minutes, as if afraid they might open up again. At Iruka's question he just nodded solemnly, apparently not realizing it wasn't a serious query.

Iruka laughed and leaned back into the other man's chest. He felt Kakashi stiffen, then relax slowly. A moment later arms wrapped around the Chuunin's waist, a head of silver hair coming down to nuzzle Iruka's neck. Iruka sighed happily. He could hear Kakashi's heart thumping under his skin, slow and comfortable.

"Why do you wear the forehead protector in your home?" he asked, looking up at the masked face.

Kakashi shrugged. "The Sharingan gives me a headache. I can't turn it off." Then he reached up and pulled the cloth off, setting it on the floor.

"Well, if it makes you hurt, leave it on," Iruka said with a frown.

Kakashi smiled. "It won't hurt just for a night."

Iruka kept his frown. "If you're sure . . ."

"I've lived with it for fifteen years. I?Äôm sure."

Iruka gave in and settled again, his skin prickling against Kakashi's shirt. He moved as the scars tingled. "Feels funny," he explained, when Kakashi made an inquisitive noise.

"It's going to feel funnier in a second, if you keep wiggling like that," Kakashi murmured.

Iruka frowned, started to say he didn't get it, and then saw Kakashi's face and both raised eyebrows. He realized how he was sitting--leaning back against the man's lap and chest--and blushed hotly. "Oh. Right. Sorry."

"I didn't say it was a bad thing." Kakashi's voice was low.

Iruka hadn't thought it was possible, but his blush deepened. "You're terrible."

"That's not what other people tell me . . ."

Iruka snorted and tried to elbow the Jounin. Kakashi just moved, swiftly enough to block it and lock Iruka's arms in place. "That's better," he said smugly.

"Bastard," Iruka muttered, trying to yank free.

Kakashi only shifted his grip and held on, fingers strong around the younger man's wrists.

"Let me go," Iruka said, scowling.

"What's the magic word?"

"Now."

Kakashi laughed softly, breath gusting against the shell of an ear. "I don't think so."

Iruka struggled again. Kakashi started to move, inching them both back until he was sitting against the wall, Iruka in his lap. "You asshole," Iruka groused, twisting his wrists to break Kakashi's hold.

Kakashi's hold didn't break. "That's definitely not the magic word."

"Who talks about magic words anymore, anyway? Mothers do that to little kids, not--" he stopped.

"Not what?"

"Nothing."

"What?" Kakashi asked, sitting up slightly straighter. "What were you going to call me?"

"Nothing," Iruka ground out. "Would you let me go?"

"No. What were you going to say?"

Iruka felt himself start to blush again. "You're an ass."

"We're going to sit here until you tell me what you were going to say."

"Please let me go," Iruka said, giving in.

"Too late for the magic word. Besides, the magic word is 'salsa.'"

"What?" Iruka yelped, laughing. "The magic word can't be salsa! That makes no sense!"

"What were you going to say?"

Iruka blushed harder and fell silent. He wasn't going to say it. It was embarrassing. What if Kakashi didn't agree?

"What?" Kakashi breathed into his ear.

The bastard was teasing him. He was certain of it. Kakashi's pinkies moved, drifting up and down Iruka's bare skin. Iruka didn't squirm. He would not squirm. And damn it, he wasn't going to get turned on, either, because if he thought blushing was embarrassing, that was even worse.

He felt Kakashi's nose drift behind his earlobe. "What were you going to say?"

Crap. He was getting turned on, and in a minute Kakashi was going to know that, and--crap. "I was going to say," Iruka bit off, "'Mothers do that to little kids, not adults who are dating.'" He was pretty sure no one had ever died from blushing before, so he hoped when it happened to him he at least got an award for it.

"Dating? Is that what we're doing?" Kakashi was still speaking into his ear, breath warm against Iruka's skin.

"I don't know," Iruka said, managing not to stutter. "Are we?"

"Hmm. I'd like that."

His heart dropped out of his throat. He turned his head slightly, catching Kakashi out of the corner of his eye. The man turned too, nuzzling at his neck.

Iruka swallowed. "Kakashi?"

"Hmm?"

He wasn't sure what he was going to ask, so he just stayed silent. Kakashi nuzzled his throat and then around, warming the skin, lifting his hair.

"Will you let me go now?" Iruka asked quietly.

"No," Kakashi said into the nape of his neck. "I thought you were dead. I'm not letting you out of my sight."

"I'm not dead. I wasn't anywhere near being dead, and you can't exactly come to class with me," Iruka said, trying desperately not to think about how tight his pants were getting. He brought his knees up. "That would cause questions."

"Mmm." Kakashi didn't seem to care. He blew on Iruka's skin, making goosebumps.

"Kakashi . . ."

"Yes?"

He bit his lip. He didn't know what to say. He shivered when Kakashi's pinkies shifted again, rubbing against his ribs. He turned his head, because at least he could kiss back, and saw mask.

He'd be damned if he was going to kiss cloth. "Take the mask off?" he asked quietly.

Kakashi froze.

Iruka's heart sank. "Kakashi, I?Äôm not kissing a mask," he said patiently, hoping. "Please. Take it off."

The grip on his wrists released, freeing him. He rolled forward, crouching, lust rapidly replaced by fright. The neurosis couldn't be this strong. Please, please it couldn't be this strong.

"I can't . . ." Kakashi said quietly, refusing to meet his gaze. Then the eyes flickered up, filled with pain and confusion and a scary dollop of fear.

Iruka's heart sank. He stood slowly, nodding, and walked toward the door.

"Iruka--" Kakashi started, the word almost choked out.

Iruka paused. Outside, a dog howled. "It's all right," he said softly. He reached out and turned off the light. Blackness fell so completely he couldn't see his hand in front of his face.

Everyone had neuroses. He had known this would be a strong one. "Take off the mask?" he asked into the dark, softly.

There was a hesitation, and then the sound of cloth being pulled away. Iruka made his way slowly back to Kakashi, for once glad that there was so little furniture to trip on. He knelt when he found the man, fingers on Kakashi's shoulders to guide him. He slid his hands down wiry arms, feeling the tremble beneath the shirt, and then, when he was on the floor, slid his hands back up to the Jounin's shoulders.

He hesitated there, afraid to push, but--

He brushed his fingers up Kakashi's neck, over his jawline, drifting over the man's mouth. His skin was damp from the moisture trapped by the mask, but mostly smooth. Iruka could feel a scar on one cheek, and suspected it was the continuation of the one over the Sharingan eye. Something thin trailed down the side of his neck. An old scar, cutting frighteningly close to the jugular.

Kakashi let him feel for several seconds before trapping his fingers and pulling them away. The Jounin's hands were still trembling. Iruka leaned forward and kissed him. After a moment, with a shaky breath, Kakashi kissed back.

Later, lying in a tangle of sheets and limbs, some vague part of Iruka wondered what had happened to their clothes, and how much of a mess they'd just made. Most of him really didn't care. All of him was rapidly drifting into sleep.

He woke a bit when Kakashi sprawled half over him, reaching out. Iruka turned his head and saw a black pile of clothing, barely a shape in the dark, the Jounin shaking something free. With a frown Iruka realized it was the mask.

He reached out with a sleepy hand and stopped the other man. "Don't," he said softly, holding Kakashi's forearm. Deep in the back of his mind, he wondered how bad the compulsion was, that Kakashi would feel the need to wear a mask to bed.

Most of him was too tired and sated to think about it much.

Kakashi hesitated, then completed the motion, bringing the mask to the futon. There, he paused again, and just set it on the nightstand rather than putting it on.

Iruka sighed happily and let himself go to sleep.

**
Then

Kakashi stared in the mirror, peering at his face. He looked like his father. He looked like his entire family.

He rubbed away the dried blood on his lip, knowing his sensei would ask questions if he saw it. He didn't want to say that the Genins tried to beat him up, and he let them. That would only cause more questions.

His hands were shaking. He didn't want to look at himself. He couldn't not look. Ugly, and horrible, and--and--

He made a fist and smashed it into the mirror. The mirror was stronger than he was, though, and held. He wanted to scream at it. Slash his skin off so he looked nothing like that man that was his father. So people wouldn't hate him so much.

But that would cause questions.

He stumbled back, dropping onto his futon, and stared at the floor.

He would cover it up. That would work. He would cover his face, and no one would ever see him, and everything would be better. His sensei might ask questions, but--but--ninja used to cover their faces. He would say it was out of respect. Sensei would believe him.

Kakashi looked around, eyes finally falling on his bedsheet. That would do. He grabbed a kunai off the dresser and ripped into it, tearing off a corner. Once he had a long enough piece to wrap around his head he stood, walking back to the mirror.

He stared hard at his reflection. Then, slowly, he covered his face and tied the black cloth tight around his skull.

He never wanted to see himself again.

******************************

 
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VIZ PICTURES PRESENTS THE FIRST ADVENTURE OF THE J-POP CENTER PROJECT WITH THE GRAND OPENING OF NEW PEOPLE IN SAN FRANCISCO THIS SUMMER

UNIQUE DESTINATION IN HISTORIC JAPANTOWN BRINGS THE LATEST JAPANESE POP CULTURE, FILM, ANIME, FASHION AND ART TO NORTH AMERICA; OPENING CELEBRATIONS COMMENCE IN AUGUST 2009

San Francisco, CA, May 6, 2009 – VIZ Pictures, a Japanese live-action film distributor and producer of the J-Pop Center Project, adds a captivating new dimension to the city of San Francisco with the opening of a vivid new attraction – NEW PEOPLE – in the heart of the city’s historic Japantown. This unique entertainment destination will epitomize the latest examples Japanese popular culture expressed though film, art, fashion, and a variety of specialty boutiques and ongoing monthly events. The project, three and a half years in the making, celebrates its Grand Opening this summer with an all day outdoor music and performance event and gala to be held this August. Specific details will be announced shortly.

A dedicated NEW PEOPLE web site is also now available at: www.NewPeopleWorld.com

NEW PEOPLE is a 20,000 square foot contemporary building located at 1746 Post Street in the city’s Japantown (one of only three remaining in the country), an area steeped in more than a century of history. The structure features a striking 3-floor transparent glass façade that invokes a fun and exotic new environment to engage the imagination for the 21st Century.

With three stories above and a basement cinema below, NEW PEOPLE will offer the latest films, art, and retail brands from Japan. The spacious 143-seat underground cinema space is equipped with cutting edge High Definition digital projection and THX®-certified sound and is the soul of the NEW PEOPLE experience. Its core focus will be on some of the latest and hottest films from Japan, as well as an incredible legacy of classics, documentaries and anime – making it the only cinema of its type in the United States. These film genres are some of the most recognizable examples of Japanese pop culture and have captured the world’s attention.

Film lineup and details will be announced closer to the Grand Opening date.

NEW PEOPLE will also feature an entire floor devoted to several distinctive, trend-setting clothing labels from Japan including Baby, The Stars Shine Bright (Tokyo), Black Peace Now (Tokyo), 6% DOKIDOKI (Tokyo), and a short-term rotating storefront to showcase a new brand every two to three months. These shops will all mark their retail debut in United States at NEW PEOPLE. Baby, Black Peace Now, and 6% are pioneers of Harajuku street fashion, which has turned this vibrant district of Tokyo into an internationally-respected fashion Mecca of renowned for its unique designers.

NEW PEOPLE will also tout a café featuring organic roast Blue Bottle Coffee and Japanese delicatessen Delica rf-1, an inventive NEW PEOPLE retail store, and a 2,000 square foot art gallery providing an important showcase for a new generation of artists inspired by Japanese pop culture. The opening exhibit is expected to draw worldwide interest not only from anime fans but also serious collectors of Japanese pop art.

Details on the opening art exhibit will be announced in coming weeks.

“NEW PEOPLE is a truly unique space devoted to creativity and self expression, and will become a cultural destination unlike any other in the United States,” says Seiji Horibuchi, the founder and CEO of VIZ Pictures and the founder of VIZ Media as well as the J-pop Center Project. “NEW PEOPLE will help nurture Japanese pop culture and also connect the public with its diverse creators. As North America continues to embrace a variety of hip trends from Japan, we look forward to expanding the vision of NEW PEOPLE globally through film, art and other multimedia and forging innovative cross-cultural creative partnerships.”

About VIZ Pictures, Inc.:

Based in San Francisco, California, VIZ Pictures, Inc. distributes Japanese live-action films and DVDs, with particular focus on Japanese "kawaii (cute) and cool" pop culture. VIZ Pictures approaches each release from a J-pop fan’s point of view to serve the manga and anime generation in North America. VIZ Pictures titles include DEATH NOTE, NANA, KAMIKAZE GIRLS, LINDA LINDA LINDA, PING PONG, THE TASTE OF TEA, TRAIN MAN: DENSHA OTOKO and others. The company will continue to offer the hottest visual entertainment straight from the "Kingdom of Pop" for audiences of all ages in North America. VIZ Pictures, Inc. is an affiliate of VIZ Media, LLC, the San Francisco-based leading U.S. publisher of Japanese manga (comics) and merchandise licensor of Japanese animation such as the popular "NARUTO" animated TV series.

For more information please visit www.viz-pictures.com or www.viz.com

© 2006 VIZ Pictures, Inc

About The J-pop Center Project:

Launched by creative visionary Seiji Horibuchi, the founder and CEO of VIZ Pictures and the founder of VIZ Media, The J-pop Center Project develops and extends innovative creative alliances and collaborations across different media: film, animation, music, art and retail products. The project also represents a $15 million investment by Shogakukan, one of the largest publishers of Japan. For more information please visit www.NewPeopleWorld.com.

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While everyone else in Japan seems to be wasting their money on left handed guitars that they'll probably never learn to play right, I've been hit by K-On's subtle brilliant marketing tactics with something else.

AKG-K701s....*drool*
AKG-K701s....*drool*


*more drooling*
*more drooling*



















































Now, to be fair I was already in the market for a pair of high-tier headphones before I saw this episode thanks to a friend of mine, but this short little scene certainly hit me like an AMRAAM missile. (On a sidenote, I'm still in the market shopping around for a pair... I have no clue if I want AKG-K701/702s, Grado SR80/225is, or Sennheiser HD650s or what....there's too many choices!....and may I say listening to the Gundam X opening "Dreams" on Alessandro MS2's is akin to Kamina giving you his sunglasses personally)


In any case, this brings me to a point I've been wanting to address for a while: Product Placement in anime.

Since anime fans are probably one of the easiest crowds to market to, I wanted to go into an analysis of tactics various shows and series have done, and explored what works particularly well and what does not.

I'll continue using my first example of K-On and move from there. Here we have one of the flagship female characters of a popular Kyoto Animation (KyoAni) series who could arguably fall into the same crowd of fans as past characters like Tomoyo Sakagami, Kyou Fujibayashi, and Kagami Hiiragi. This by itself places her in a very prime position for product placement since she has her own established fanbase that is even pulling from older fanbases. Some may argue the moe-factor of a character may improve the marketing potential of a character, but if you look even at other past KyoAni characters that's not necessarily true (I still have yet to hear of Dangos making a huge comeback or selling amazingly well).

Aside from the character, another important factor is the method of presentation. Continuing with Mio's example, arguably the best method of presentation is going for a subtle approach. Subtle enough that the audience can still recognize what it is, yet not so subtle that they don't notice or can't make it out. In this case Mio's AKG-K701 example probably wouldn't not be considered a good instance since only audiophiles would be able to recognize them, yet at the same time, this can be a good thing because then you are marketing at a target audience who already has some expressed interest, though you could ultimately argue either way.

An example that I believe portrays an excellent mix of subtlety, character potential, and even a little something more would be from the first Kara no Kyoukai film, Kara no Kyoukai: Overlooking View. At first the film opens up with two characters that newcomers to the series probably have no clue who they are whatsoever, and the male lead tells the female lead Shiki Ryougi that he bought her Strawberry Haagen Dazs before putting it away in her fridge.

"Sutorawberi Haagenu Datsu dayo!"
"Sutorawberi Haagenu Datsu dayo!"





















That by itself wouldn't matter at all and I would consider that an absolutely failed product placement attempt if it weren't for the second part.

Later in the same film, Shiki (who by then has established herself as at least a fairly interesting character) feels depressed and goes into the fridge to eat one of the halfpints. What results could possibly be considered perhaps one of the most brilliant scenes of marketing I have every laid eyes on. Since a fight that happened earlier in the film caused her mechanical left arm to need repairs, the scene shows her struggling with and eating it entirely with one hand for about 30 seconds. The spectacle in of itself is probably a quarter of the reason many people consider Shiki to be moe, but regardless, the brilliance of the tactic in this situation lies within using the product itself in a development scene of a character.

Not only that, but this scene made me really hungry...
Not only that, but this scene made me really hungry...



















In addition, by now the viewer is more familiar with the characters, and so if they remember (or later rewatch it) the opening scene using the "strawberry's belong to the rose family" and poetically relating it to Shiki greater reinforces a certain ambiance, almost like a "classy" nature to preferring Haagen Dazs over some other brand.

Now, several films later we are brought to the fifth Kara no Kyoukai film, Kara no Kyoukai: Paradox Spiral. Unfortunately with this film (-as awesome as everything else was-) the marketing approach they utilized was drastically shifted. Subtlety was thrown out the window, as was just about any sense of class with it.

a little "in-your-face"?
a little "in-your-face"?






















If I didn't know better I'd almost assume the production staff was intentionally trying to reverse their previous marketing success, as if the Haagen Dazs company threw a hissy fit at the ufotable production crew or something to that effect. The blatant over-selling radiance of it all was by far most evident through the "sink full of empty containers" scene. Portrayed in such an excessive and borderline disgusting level, it's hard to tell whether the animators were trying to make a joke to the viewer or not. On top of that, the fact that a new (and somewhat unkempt) male character is the one this time shown eating the ice cream regularly, they effectively removed all of the original methods from the first movie that made Haagen Dazs seem "professional" or "classy".

For my last example (and probably one of the most famous), I'm going to use Code Geass and it's Pizza Hut obsession.

If Paradox Spiral was beating a person upside the head with a club, then Code Geass would be punching them with a mobile suit (a fitting analogy, seeing as this IS Sunrise we're talking about). The absolutely blatant advertising and showcasing all throughout the series showed very little professional marketing taste. Using a female lead like C.C. was probably the only aspect they managed to get right, but the absolutely ridiculous exhibitionism of Pizza Hut pizza in every scene possible came across as distasteful. When every scene showing C.C. eating has her with greasy cheese hanging off her lips, that's not really a good thing. I could delve into it further, but just about anyone who has scene the show or heard the pizza hut jokes following in it's wake probably understands well enough already.


Ultimately it seems there three important things to keep in mind for effective product marketing in anime: Subtelty, the character representing/using it, and the method of using it in the scene. Further examples anyone would like to pont out are very welcome in the comments, as are thoughts and other analytical opinions.
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Now im gonna say this out front im not a figure kinda guy, never have been,
well i did have all the power rangers.....

But any way Destructoid just posted a story about a Rise figure, and ive gotta say its looking pretty damn awesome.
Original article above.

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in the last seasion of the Maggnoriyion, Haseo and his crew come across a planet that had strange readings coming frome it! they desided to explore it and lonched landing parties all over one of the contanents and found a large hidden door leading underground!! its was big anoff to fit a ship throught so Haseo desided to check it out. when his ship hovered over the gate/door it started to open and with some unkown gravatasional pull, pulled them in and shut the door behind the leaving the landing parties stranded intill they came back 2 hours later(after going throught so meany coridores)  they came across an opening leading inside the planet and this is what they saw


 a world within a world, then it hit him, it was the holy land of the Valhallians, a all mity powerful race that lived thrillions of years ago, the were the first"humans" in existence!!!! and these were there worlds they live on!!!
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JapanFiles and Nitroplus begin partnership with soundtracks for "Phantom of Inferno" + 15 more!

 May 6, 2009 - JapanFiles.com announces an ongoing partnership with Japanese game studio NITROPLUS, producers of such titles as PHANTOM OF INFERNO, DEUS MACHINA DEMONBANE, SONG OF SAYA, TOGAINU NO CHI (True Blood), "Hello, world." and the recent hit STAR MINE GIRL (SUMAGA).

NITROPLUS celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2009, having established a solid reputation with gaming fans worldwide for quality storylines and professional-level soundtracks for its games on PC, XBOX 360, and PS2 platforms.

Soundtracks for 16 NITROPLUS titles are now available on JapanFiles.com, DRM-free and 320 kbps. For music fans unfamiliar with NITROPLUS works, game summaries and videos have been provided for each title.

In addition, many of the artists from Nitroplus's mainstream label GEORIDE are also available, including fan-favorite Kanako Ito (CHAOS;HEAD NOAH, DEMONBANE, TRUE BLOOD, LAMENTO). 

Links!

Nitroplus spotlight on JapanFiles.com - http://www.japanfiles.com/spotlight/nitroplus

Kanako ito on JapanFiles.com - http://www.japanfiles.com/kanakoito

Nitroplus official website - http://www.nitroplus.co.jp/pc/

About JAPANFILES.COM:

Supporting Japanese artists since 2004, JapanFiles.com specializes in digital music sales and media promotion for Japanese music, with over 300 indie and major artists reaching their USA fans - rock, hip-hop, punk, and techno! All downloads are DRM-free and only 99 cents each!

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Part Six
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.

**
Now

"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."

"Ask!"

"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 . . ."

"Please sit."

"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--

Oh, crap.

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.

Really.

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.

"Why not?"

"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?"

Iruka nodded.

"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."

*********

| |
part Five
Then (as in, shortly after the water fight)

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?"

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.

Kakashi waited.

"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."

Gai stared.

"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.

Kakashi cringed.

"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--"

"Gai."

"—who you respect and admire and want to spend your time with--"

"Gai."

"--who can make your heart race, and we all know and love Iruka-san--"

"Gai."

"--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.

Gai nodded.

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.

"Why not?"

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--"

"Kakashi-san--"

"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.

They sat.

"I'm leaving."

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.

"I'm not."

"Bullshit."

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.

"Wonderful!"

"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.

*********

| |

Part Four
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.

Kakashi "Hmm"ed.

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.

Iruka waited.

Birds started chirping.

Iruka waited.

A large, iridescent beetle hummed through the air.

Iruka waited.

A small animal, protecting its den, chattered at them angrily.

Iruka waited.

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."

"Like mango?"

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.

Damn.

"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.

Kakashi beamed.

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.

*********

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