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.


"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.


To chapter five
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