Disclaimer: Not mine, but Kishimoto's.
"So how do you like teaching?"
Asuma regarded the young lady with the cascade of wavy black hair with a bemused grin. The two were standing on the third floor outdoor breezeway at the Academy, leaning against the metal railing.
"It has its moments. They're brats, after all. Even the smart ones are hard to reach."
Kurenai laughed as she turned around and faced the playground below where his class was currently enjoying recess.
"There must be some you are fond of. Teachers always have favorites."
Asuma held the lit cigarette between his lips and rubbed his beard thoughtfully with his fingers.
"Ah, I wish I was a jounin now," Kurenai sighed wistfully. "I'd love to be able to train my own genin cell. Have you given that any thought?"
Exhaling smoke, Asuma leaned against the balcony railing and ashed his cigarette.
"This batch is still a bit too young, though there are some that I am eyeing. They're barely six years old, you know."
"That isn't too young. That Uchiha prodigy graduated when he was seven didn't he? And I heard he's in ANBU now, just made captain."
Asuma snorted a little.
"The ones I have aren't as brilliant as Uchiha Itachi. His younger brother Sasuke is in my Tactical class, and he's the only one that's shown promise."
"Ah, so no awesome kunoichi in the ranks?"
"Actually, there is one that rivals the younger Uchiha's top grades: Haruno Sakura. But she's a little timid and doesn't have any skills in hand-to-hand combat - yet, anyway. She's number one in every other category except for taijutsu."
Kurenai wrinkled her nose. "Just because she doesn't throw herself around like an animal doesn't mean she can't be a brilliant shinobi, Asuma."
"I didn't mean it that way," Asuma said, slightly defensive. "It really doesn't matter now anyway. Sandaime is not advancing any of the Academy students. Regardless of talent, they will not be promoted early anymore. Something about fostering the importance of team-building…"
"Really? So we won't have geniuses like him shooting up the ranks?"
Asuma looked to where Kurenai pointed down in the play yard below and frowned in surprise.
"Kakashi?" He leaned over the rail as if making sure his eyes weren't fooling him. "What in the world is he doing here?"
"Hmm," was Asuma's only reply. He flicked his ground out cigarette and watched it fall precariously close to where Kakashi and another young chuunin instructor, Umino Iruka, were standing.
No sooner had the object fallen within six feet of the target when the Copy Nin whipped out a kunai from heaven knows where and sliced the cigarette clean in half.
Kurenai's eyes widened slightly, but Iruka's nearly bugged out of his head.
"Wow…" Iruka cooed, obviously in awe while nervously clutching his clipboard. "That was so cool…"
Kakashi peered upwards against the glare.
Both Asuma and Kurenai flinched. Kakashi's voice hadn't come from the body below, but from the one currently behind them.
The Kakashi on the ground disappeared in a burst of smoke.
"I was talking to a bunshin all this time?"
"Ah…" Kakashi managed sheepishly, rubbing his hand behind his neck. "Sorry, sorry…"
Kurenai raised her eyebrows.
"Tch!" Iruka huffed, clearly unamused.
"Since when did you start kidding around?" Kurenai asked, eyebrows still raised. In actuality, she was still a little bit intimidated by Kakashi. Not that he did anything to her, but his aloof and exacting persona hadn't been endearing either.
Yet ever since Asuma's party two days ago, she noticed a slight change in the young man's demeanor. Kurenai couldn't quite place what it was.
"So how is Rin?" Asuma asked while he blew on his cold hands and rubbed them together, his voice a little quieter than before. It was no secret that Kakashi and Rin were a solid couple now, even though the two of them hadn't actually said anything to anybody about it.
And as she watched Kakashi hesitate while he tried to think of a reply, Kurenai realized that it was Rin who had softened this lad from a hardened, unhappy boy to a more forgiving, young man.
"She's doing well. She's working less hours at the hospital and putting in more time with the Academy children at the gymnasium."
Iruka, who by now had climbed the three flights of stairs to reach the group, listened to the fringes of the conversation in disbelief.
"You're the one that won Rin's heart?"
The group turned to regard Iruka, startled; they had forgotten him.
Iruka stared at Kakashi for a long moment before turning around and proceeding to walk back down the stairs again.
"Nice to meet you, Kakashi-sensei. I'll see you in the faculty lounge bright and early Monday morning."
His light footsteps echoed softly into the distance.
"'Kakashi-sensei? I'll see you bright and early Monday?'" Asuma blurted, repeating Iruka's send off right down to the inflections. "What's going on here? Wait, don't tell me you're – "
But before Asuma could continue, Kakashi took his signature leave with a wave, a smile and a poof.
Asuma stood there still looked shocked, cold hands forrotten, but Kurenai was inwardly pleased. She wondered if being near Rin probably had something to do with Kakashi's sudden career change. He had been in ANBU for almost five years now, and from what she had gleaned from the chatter of her male associates (namely Genma and Hayate), Kakashi was well-respected and a rising star. He had copied a lot of jutsu's while tirelessly doing Konoha's bidding. Kurenai's cousin, a senior ANBU officer, mentioned over a family dinner one night that he had met Kakashi during one of his missions where they had to exchange reconnaissance information.
"Hatake-taichou was very professional of course, but there was something about him that I just can't explain which made him different from the other officers I've worked with. Not only was he a firm yet empathetic leader, he was also very team-oriented. He made sure he kept track of everyone and anticipated everyone's needs. By the end of it, my men worshipped him. And the wonderful thing about him is – he didn't even notice it."
Up until then, Kurenai's opinion of 'Hatake-taichou' was that of a stuck-up, conceited, cold fish. At the table then, she could hardly believe this description of her old classmate.
Rin was probably his only soft spot, and even that had been barely noticeable. It wasn't until Obito and their Sensei had died before Kakashi became grounded to everyday life.
Kurenai managed a small smile.
"Come on, Asuma," she said playfully. "Give the guy a break. The kids will absolutely love him."
Kakashi sighed in relief, thankful to escape from Asuma's impending twenty questions. He had reappeared on the other side of the Academy just outside the gates. Here the younger students were having their recess as well.
Observing their carefree fun and games, Kakashi found that he could easily group the children into different categories. Before he could mentally divide them out, his attention kept wandering to the less than quiet bunch nearby.
"Trying to fill that big forehead of yours?"
There was the sound of books scattering on the ground, then some jeering and snickering.
"Give that back!" a girl exclaimed, and from the sounds of the scuffling of feet, she was fighting her way for whatever it was that was hers.
"Aw, what's the matter, Forehead?" a different boy sneered. "Want your book on History of the Five Great Countries - Volume Three?"
This elicited some laughter and another lad jumped in with the teasing.
"You really are a nerd!"
There was the sound of a small struggle and then the pattering of feet before one of them collided right into Kakashi.
"Hey! What's the big idea – oh! "
Kakashi drew up right into the burly boy's personal space and snatched the rather large book from his grubby hands. By now, the rest of the group appeared.
"I've been wanting to read the History of the Five Great Countries: Volume Three."
"A-ah…" the bully collapsed in a heap, too frightened to move.
Kakashi narrowed his one visible eye. He smiled pleasantly, but there was a thin veneer of displeasure underlying the civility in his voice.
"Is there a problem here?"
The boys took that as a sign that they should leave before his mood changed to something worse. They scrambled away, wanting to get as far from Kakashi as possible.
When their voices finally faded, Kakashi went to look for the young girl, to find her sitting there in a heap, surrounded by a pile of other large books. Frankly, he was surprised that someone her age would be reading something so complex.
"Ah, this is yours, I believe?"
As if realizing her state, she jerked up, eyeing him through the shock of her light pink bangs before gingerly taking the book.
"Thank you," she whispered and then proceeded to gather her things together, hiding her embarrassment under the veil of her hair.
But Kakashi had taken the initiative and was already holding them out for her with a smile.
"I'm surprised you like to read the Histories," Kakashi remarked as the girl slowly took them from his hands. She looked at him with a bit of awe in her large green eyes.
"How old are you?" Kakashi asked congenially. "Fourteen?"
He was exaggerating, but it had the intended effect.
"I just turned nine this year," she answered, blushing fiercely.
Kakashi had to do a mental double take. Not only was this girl reading Histories, but other advanced subjects that normally would be boring for chuunins.
"Sakura-chan! I thought I told you to wait in front of the Academy today!"
"Oh!" Young Sakura looked apologetically over at Kakashi, carefully pushing her hair aside a bit. "I'm sorry, it's my Mother. Thank you…for helping me back there…"
Kakashi rubbed his neck, slightly embarrassed, his other hand raised in a half-hearted wave.
The girl smiled appreciatively, probably the first genuine one since Kakashi had met her.
How in the world is she reading all that at her age? Have I missed something here? Have they all gotten smarter? What have I gotten myself into?
But Asuma had told Kurenai that most of the students were hard to reach, meaning that only a few were pushing themselves.
"Did you just play the knight in shining armor for that little princess there?"
Kakashi turned to see Itoshi grinning mischievously, a smirk on her impish face and her hand on her hip. Her smirk then turned into a sad smile.
Kakashi raised his lone visible eyebrow in surprise.
Itoshi motioned for him to walk with her. But after strolling a little ways with her, Kakashi felt something was off.
"Is everything alright?" he asked lightly.
Looking at the path in front of them but not actually seeing it, Itoshi sighed.
"I wish I could honestly answer that question," she replied, smiling wanly.
The seriousness of her voice alarmed Kakashi. When she talked like that, Itoshi had something on her mind.
"You love her very much, don't you?"
Kakashi started. "What?"
Itoshi grabbed his wrist firmly, as if wanting his full attention. When Kakashi turned to give it to her, he was taken aback by her Sharingan-lit eyes
"Kakashi…I want you to listen to me."
And while he stared at her, now totally alert, she suddenly pulled herself close, pulled down his mask, and kissed him hard.
Kakashi knew that Itoshi had always been fond of him, even back when her brother was still alive. Itoshi wasn't around often, but she would always ruffle his hair or tease him when he and Rin would drop by with Obito after training.
But it wasn't until they were a team in ANBU that he became close to her - not in a romantic way, but with an intimate trust. He knew exactly how she wanted things done and vice versa. There was unspoken communication between them and it wasn't until after he was assigned for solo missions that he missed having her around.
Kakashi felt that being near Itoshi was almost like being around Obito and Rin at the same time. But once in a while, there was a lingering look…or a touch on his elbow longer than needed which made him wonder if she had feelings for him.
Stiffening from the suddenness, Kakashi didn't flinch from the kiss, but he also didn't move into it either. Her arms tightened around him, hoping that he would move his around her waist and reciprocate.
But he didn't. His heart belonged to Rin.
"What's wrong?" he whispered, his arms gently tugging hers away from him - his only acknowledgement of her closeness.
Kakashi found it hard to stay calm while Itoshi clung to him, her lips next to his ear. He wanted to look at her; he found it was easier to see what people were feeling by looking straight into their eyes.
He was surprised to see that her Sharingan eyes were moist, and tears had fallen midway to her cheeks. In all the years he had known her, she had never cried - not when Obito died, not when a kunai had found its way into her groin muscle. Guilt flooded him. For a second, he watched Itoshi fiercely rubbing away the offending tears, remembering Obito doing the very same thing all those years ago. Her trembling voice broke him out of his reverie.
"S-sorry…" she sputtered, laughing a little and smearing the tears away with the back of her hand. "Honestly, I don't know what came over me…"
She stood there awkwardly, looking a little pained while Kakashi watched her closely. She had pulled away a little, but still was only at arms length. In her eyes, he saw many conflicting emotions running together, but the one he was worried about the most was her fear.
Itoshi was never afraid of anything - except maybe for his life and well-being.
"You…do you remember Uchiha Shisui?" she asked, changing the subject.
The young man she spoke of was one of the best in the Uchiha clan and had committed suicide around half a year ago to Kakashi's recollection. It was highly unusual, but stranger things had happened.
"Shisui-taichou? I knew of him," he replied, but with obvious confusion in his voice.
"Yes, the youngest ANBU captain and the best Konoha has to – "
"He killed him," Itoshi interrupted, unhesitatingly. "They all say Shisui-san killed himself, but…in my heart, I know Shisui-san didn't want to die. Itachi drowned him in that River."
Kakashi stared at her. From kissing him to blurting out her theory that one of the Uchiha's prized boys had killed one of their own in one breath sent him reeling. He had to reorganize his thoughts.
"What? Are you absolutely sure?"
"There's been talk in the clan about you," she went on, her fingers beginning to grip his arms again. Her eyes drifted to his covered one. "They want back what is rightfully theirs."
Kakashi's lone eye narrowed, feeling a knot starting to form in his stomach.
"What does this have to do with Itachi-san?"
Itoshi blinked at him.
"They've been asking him to correct this situation."
Will the Hokage tolerate one of his own taking out a fellow shinobi?
"Why…why are you telling me this? Won't they kill you if they found out that you told me?"
Itoshi smiled and closed her eyes. When she opened them again, they were their usual black, but now, they looked open and vulnerable. She brought her lips close to Kakashi's ear again.
"It's…it's because…because I… "
Kakashi waited, his body tight with tension.
But Itoshi suddenly pulled away.
"Because…Kakashi-kun…that eye was a gift from my brother. He gave it to you freely. It's not up to anyone to take that away from you."
She lifted his hitae-ate and gently ran her fingers over the scar on that eye.
"I'll protect that gift with my life."
Touched, Kakashi could only watch her as her eyes traveled down to his lips again.
Itoshi kissed him again, knowing that Kakashi wouldn't respond, that her love would never be returned. Breaking the kiss, she squeezed his hand.
"Take good care of Rin," she said firmly, her eyes wide in their seriousness. "Alright?
Without waiting for his reply, Itoshi ran away. Yet before she could disappear behind the Academy building, she looked back one final time. Kakashi had already pulled his mask back up and his hand was up in a small wave. But he was frowning, anxious, and uneasy.
From that distance, he couldn't see that Itoshi had started to cry again.
The gymnasium was stuffy with chalk dust, sweat, and stale air - not that it bothered Rin or any of her young students. They were all quite enjoying watching one of the children balancing on a beam with one leg while attempting to do a back flip.
"Come on, Hiro-chan!"
"You can do it!"
There was a pregnant pause before Hiro finally performed the back flip perfectly and then dismounted. The rest of the class applauded loudly while Rin ruffled his hair and patted him on the back.
"Well done, Hiro-chan."
Hiro grinned from ear to ear. Rin clapped her hands loudly.
"Alright everyone, good job today! Remember to stretch every day to stay flexible and loose! I'll see you next week!"
As everyone gathered their things, Rin felt a distinctive presence that could only be Kakashi. She turned towards the entrance of the gym and saw him approaching, but something looked different. Kakashi looked as calm as always, his hands in his pockets, but his shirt and pants were torn and dirty. His hair was dusty and bits of mud were visible in the gray tufts. Rin dropped her things and ran up to him, concerned.
"Kakashi, what happened to – "
But before she could finish asking, he gently took her to the small alcove that had the water fountains, pulled down his mask, brought her face close to his and kissed her warmly.
Rin didn't put up any more resistance, closing her eyes and melting into his arms. It honestly was the first time he had done anything this open and spontaneous, though he still retained enough presence of mind to do it out of the curious eyes of her class. Her young charges would tease her incessantly if they saw her kissing her boyfriend.
When they finally pulled away from each other, breathing a bit heavily, Rin noticed that the normally loud, cavernous gym was eerily silent. The two of them both looked out towards the floor and realized that because the gym was completely surrounded by mirrors, their once private kiss was in plain view of all of the twenty wide-eyed seven year-olds, watching with their mouths open in awe.
Kakashi's face suddenly felt very hot.
But then all the kids broke out into a very enthusiastic applause, cheering their shy teacher on.
"Hooray for Rin-sensei!"
Immediately they milled around the two, peppering Kakashi with questions.
"How old are you?"
'How come your hair is white already?"
"Why do you wear a mask all the time?"
But it was one question from a tow-headed boy that tugged on Kakashi's sleeve.
"Neh, do you really love Rin-sensei?"
Rin blushed, feeling embarrassed for Kakashi.
"It's alright, Rin," Kakashi said reassuringly, squatting so that he could face the boy. "Yes, I love Rin-sensei very much."
Rin, standing behind Kyo with her hands on the boy's shoulders and facing Kakashi, watched him closely.
"She's the nicest person in the whole world!" Kyo exclaimed sheepishly, his cheeks pink with shyness. "Promise that you won't hurt her!"
Kakashi's black eye flicked upwards towards Rin's unblinking brown ones.
"That's a promise of a lifetime."
There was a moment's silence before the children clapped again, clamoring over Kakashi and laughing. Despite all that, Rin and Kakashi's eyes never lost contact. He calmly raised his mask over his face, but not before Rin noticed the ghost of a small smile on his lips.
She returned it with a demure smile of her own, thinking with her heart that she must be one of the luckiest girls in the world.
Yet if Rin could have read Kakashi's mind, she would have been surprised to hear that he would have said the exact same thing about her.
On the way home from the gym, Rin shyly took Kakashi's arm in hers.
"Promise of a lifetime…" she repeated, looking down at the handmade bracelet. Kakashi had refinished it and it was almost as good as new. While admiring the bracelet, she saw Kakashi's arm laced with hers and noticed the mud on it.
"Hey, did you fall off a cliff or something?" she asked, indicating his dirty shirt.
"Hm? Oh this?" Kakashi laughed a little. "I had to work off some stress and I saw Gai at the training fields…so…"
Rin sighed resignedly, knowing the tale of that story without Kakashi needing to continue. But she didn't miss his remark about "stress."
"What's bothering you so much that you had to take it out on poor Gai-kun?"
Kakashi's mood immediately darkened.
"I ran into Itoshi-senpai today. She was upset…" he paused, wondering if he should continue.
Rin waited. If there was one thing about Kakashi she knew, it was never to push him. If he wanted to reveal something, whether it was about himself or someone else, he'd be frank, but if he wasn't ready, prodding him would further push him away.
"Do you have to make a medical run tomorrow?" Kakashi easily asked instead. "I don't have to be at the Academy until Monday."
Rin had to laugh at Kakashi's thinly veiled attempt at changing the topic of conversation as well as asking for her attention. Faintly she worried that whatever Itoshi had said to him was something serious. Perhaps she could talk to him about it tomorrow while they traveled to the other nearby villages who had the herbs and compounds she needed.
"Really, Kakashi-kun," Rin said, lightly shoving Kakashi in jest. "Did you have to ask?"
Author's Notes: I must have lost most of my readership due to my lack of updates now. -- Sorry, everyone. You would think summer would be less hectic and all…but amongst work, tutoring algebra, soccer practice and fitness training, I don't have the energy to write. But I have so many scenes in my head that I want to use – and want to share. Please don't give up on me!
Thank you Leafygirl for betaing and for idea bouncing. You are my rock!
Inquisitive – I keep thinking of you when I write. I hope I didn't disappoint.
And thank you everyone who has been faithful to my story!