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.


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.


To chapter two
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