Chapter Twelve

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.

To chapter thirteen
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