Many apologies for how long it took for this chapter to be written. Anyway, this is the last chapter. A big thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read and review, all the comments have really helped encourage me through this story, especially at times when I felt I should give up on it entirely. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!
And now, the concluding chapter…
Rules of Friendship
Iruka was still smiling after the boy when a voice, slightly hoarse and still muzzy with sleep, murmured.
"Good kids, all of them. Wouldn't have turned out so well if it weren't for you, you know, teaching them."
The chunin started, blushed; then turned around, crossing his arms with an exasperated huff. "Awake this whole time and didn't even try to help me out." He grumbled accusingly, but couldn't keep the relief from his face as he moved closer to stand by the bed. "Kakashi-sensei."
A pale blue eye cracked open and crinkled into a cheerful smile. "Yo." He beamed in greeting. "I thought you were doing just fine on your own, Iruka-sensei." He countered lightly, a teasing lit in his voice.
"Hmph. You could at least open your eyes and say 'hi'. The kids were pretty worried."
"Ah…that…" The jounin cleared his throat and averted his gaze, running a hand through his hair self-consciously. "Well…er…that is…"
He's not used to dealing with concern from others, is he? Iruka watched with growing amusement as Kakashi pushed himself up stiffly to sit in bed, glancing around momentarily with both eyes for his hitai-ate, seeming almost embarrassed as his eyes darted everywhere but at him.
"Why, Kakashi-sensei." Iruka grinned, pleased that for once, he was doing the teasing. "If I didn't know better, I'll say you were afraid to face your students."
"Then I suppose you do know me better." There was just the tiniest hint of petulance in his reply as he reached over and retrieved his hitai-ate from the bedside table, wincing a bit as he stretched the wound in his side.
Blinking at the strands of silver hair that fell over the metal plate into his eye, he glared at Iruka. "It's nothing. Kids worry too much these days." But there was a soft smile on his face as he twirled the stalk of daffodil carelessly in his hands, fingering the white petals, his eye distant and thoughtful.
Then, he frowned quizzically at Iruka. "What happened to you?"
"That." Kakashi started to point at something on his face then gestured to his own face instead to demonstrate, one finger circling his masked cheek. "That cut. Where did you get it?"
Iruka touched the wound made by the wire trap the previous night. It wasn't very deep and after cleaning it out with water, he had forgotten all about it. But now, the mention of the scratch made him remember the complex traps and their tortuous arrangement, no more than sadistic mind-games designed with the sole purpose to frustrate.
He bristled. "Got caught by the trap outside your window when I was trying to get in last night." He said sourly, smoothing a finger over the cut and feeling out the newly scabbed skin.
"The secret wire one in the window sill?" Kakashi was entirely too cheerful. "Beautiful, isn't it? It's my favourite."
Iruka rolled his eyes. "Yes, that one." He snapped.
"Hmmm…" Kakashi eyed the irritated chunin contemplatively for a moment, then his shoulders sagged, crestfallen. "How unfortunate." He sighed regretfully and Iruka thought he was going to apologize until he heard what the man had to say next.
"It was supposed to take out your eye."
"What? Why you-!"
"Joking, Iruka-sensei. I was joking." The jounin soothed, holding his hands up in surrender, smiling in what Iruka supposed was meant to be an innocent manner. It reminded the chunin of his first encounter with Kakashi's strange, dark and entirely inopportune sense of humor at the chunin exam nominations.
It still made his head ache.
The vein was twitching against the side of his forehead again. He took a deep breath and willed his hands to unclench the fists they had formed. Kakashi had just woken from a collapse, he repeated to himself like a calming mantra. It was simply not right to shout at a patient, no matter how annoying he might be.
And annoyance soon gave way to concern when he saw how obviously unwell the jounin was.
Although Kakashi was all smiles and easy banter, Iruka couldn't help but notice the slow, careful way he had moved as he reached for his hitai-ate earlier. He frowned at the way the jounin sat in bed now, listed ever so slightly to one side as if he barely had the strength to remain upright.
Concern turned to alarm when the Copy Ninja broke into a bout of hacking coughs that left him shaking and curled over with breathlessness, a palm pressed against the metal plate of his hitai-ate in pain.
"Oh dear! Should I get the doctor? Or perhaps you should lie down? Maybe some water?" He flustered.
"Iruka-sensei." The jounin sounded way too amused when he recovered enough breath to speak. "You worry too much."
"I worry too much?" Iruka demanded, nerves still frazzled and temper rubbed short by the Kakashi's lackadaisical attitude. "I worry too much?"
He propped a pillow up behind Kakashi, making him lean back and rest against it with a firm push and fixed the jounin with a lethal glare, taking in the usual bored one-eyed, half-lidded gaze and a total lack of concern in the jounin's expression.
That flippant attitude, that infuriating indifference…!
Suddenly, it was all too much for Iruka. His anxiety, Dr. Haruki's outburst and the worried faces of the children this morning simmered in his mind until they burst into a hot, indignant rage.
"Should I not have been concerned when Naruto said you didn't show up? Should I not have bothered to check up on you? Should I not have worried for you? Stayed with you all night to make sure you're alright?" He exploded, voice rising to a shout.
Kakashi froze. The single blue eye widened, fixed unwaveringly on him, glimmering with an unreadable emotion.
Then, between one heartbeat and the next, his eye shuttered. The face, which was difficult to read at the best of times, became completely devoid of emotions. Iruka could almost feel the barrier that he raised to shut himself off.
Something he said had hit home.
Kakashi bowed as well as he could, what with sitting in bed and a wound in his side. "I have inconvenienced you, Iruka-sensei." He said, with stiff formality. "It was very kind of you, but you should not have bothered."
"I apologize for being a nuisance and am deeply sorry for all the trouble I have caused you." He forced a smile at the schoolteacher. "I'm fine now. Please leave if you wish. I am very sorry to have wasted your time, Iruka-sensei."
Iruka bit back a growl and pinched the bridge of his nose tightly. "That's not what I meant." He snapped, then deflated with a sigh, his anger cooling at the self-deprecating tone in Kakashi's voice.
"I'm sorry…I yell a lot at people when they're being stupid, genius jounin or otherwise." He cracked a smile, hoping to lighten the mood but faltered. "Ummm…I mean…you should take better care of yourself. Really, exhaustion and chakra depletion are not nothing. Even the students in my class knows everyone has limited reserves and-"
"And a person who does not monitor chakra usage responsibly is a danger to himself and his teammates." Kakashi parroted the phrase he had told Team 7 earlier right back at him, but not without a small smile to show he wasn't making fun of him. "However, chakra depletion is usually the least of our concerns out in the field, you know." He chided gently.
"Yes, but-" Iruka shook his head and sighed. "But you should have come straight to the hospital when you returned. What were you thinking?"
There was a long moment of awkward silence.
"But it's Tuesday." Kakashi said finally, his voice low and quiet.
"We always meet for dinner on Tuesdays." He clasped his hands loosely together, a deceptively light-hearted gesture but the gravity of the statement was clear.
Iruka frowned, rubbing absently at the scar across his nose as he looked uncomprehendingly at his companion. The importance of the statement was completely lost on him. He knew the jounin and he viewed the world in very different ways, and the chunin had learnt that the best way to deal when he found himself confounded by Kakashi's unique brand of logic was to accept their differences and move on. But something was obviously troubling the man and Iruka struggled to make sense of it.
"There's always next week." He offered tentatively.
"I can't." Kakashi shook his head, dropping his gaze to stare at his laced fingers resting in his lap. "I've got another mission."
They're sending him out again? But he's barely recovered from this one. Iruka fretted but he made no comment. With the damage Konoha suffered from the unexpected attack during the chunin exams, everyone had been working doubly hard to restore the village.
"Well, I guess the next next Tuesday then."
"You don't understand!" Kakashi looked up at him abruptly and the chunin was taken aback by the depth of emotions he saw in the blue eye. "I don't have many next Tuesdays left!"
Iruka stared at him, shocked. The Copy Ninja was usually calm and collected. Nothing ever seemed to faze the man. The schoolteacher didn't know whether to be surprised by the rare loss of composure or be worried at the implications of his remark.
Was the Hokage sending him on some secret suicide mission that he had little chance of returning from?
His insides turned to ice.
"W-What do you mean?" There was a tremor in his voice and his throat suddenly felt dry. He sank into the chair beside the bed and reached out to touch one of Kakashi's tightly clenched hands in a silent offer of comfort.
Kakashi did not look up. Tousled silver hair fell over his face and shadowed his eyes. For a long time, he did not speak and when he did, it was strained and halting, as if it took a great effort for him to make the admission.
"Children learn fast. Naruto and the others…they didn't do half bad in this chunin exams." He began slowly. "They may not pass this one, but the next chunin exam, I'm sure they will. And when they do, they'll no longer be my students."
"And we won't meet for Tuesday dinners anymore." His voice turned bitter and he gave a hollow sounding laugh. "There's no reason for two ex-teachers to meet…I'll have nothing to offer, no information about the kids…can't talk about my missions…there's nothing much left that you'll want to hear anyway. That's okay I guess…I mean I'm used to it but I do enjoy your company and-"
He caught himself rambling and closed his eye briefly for a moment to compose himself then looked up at Iruka with a falsely bright smile that was painful to see. "Maa, I'm sorry, Iruka-sensei, I don't know what came over me." Rubbing the back of his neck embarrassedly, he struck a casual tone, trying to dismiss what he had unwittingly disclosed. "Please ignore all the nonsense I've said."
Iruka was stunned; he didn't know whether to laugh at Kakashi's ridiculous logic or to be insulted that Kakashi thought he had agreed to the dinners only because he wanted to know about the children. He sat staring at the jounin, amazed that the normally self-assured, elite shinobi was sounding as socially awkward and insecure as any child in his class.
But that was exactly what it was, wasn't it? Just as Naruto wanted people to acknowledge him and he himself had tried to find recognition through pranks in his younger days, Kakashi too was seeking for acceptance.
Not as an elite shinobi, but as a human. A human capable of emotions and in need of friendship.
Things a shinobi can never show.
Kakashi was still smiling at him, a stoic bracing smile of a person who had too many things gone wrong in his life. A smile that was brittle at the edges but with a core of quiet strength built on a tenuous hope that the future might hold better things if one could just find a way go on. Despite the false cheer, he looked forlorn. Exhaustion and the pain from the wounds had chipped tiny cracks into his unruffled façade to reveal a raw vulnerability he seldom showed.
Pity filled his heart and Iruka was overcome by a sudden, irrational urge to give the man a hug. But he could not pity a man who was obviously strong enough to survive all the miseries life had dished out to him. Nor can he hope to comfort a hurt this old and this deep with a hug as he could with the children.
So he pursed his lips and pretended to give the matter serious thought. "It's true. We'll have no reason to meet on Tuesdays if they're no longer your students…"
Kakashi looked away, pretending to pick nonchalantly at a loose thread on the blanket, but his shoulders sagged just the slightest bit further.
"But friends can meet anytime."
"Friends?" All pretenses at being unaffected were abandoned as Kakashi's head whipped around to look at him. His blue eye was wide and filled with wonder. "Are we friends?"
Holding back a chuckle at the earnest expression and almost child-like question, Iruka considered the question with mock seriousness. "Let me see." He said solemnly as he counted off with his fingers. "Do I worry about you when you're away on missions? Yes. Do I care enough to check on you when you didn't show up? Yes, I think we've just established that. Do I enjoy your company? I believe that's a yes as well."
"Now, in my considerable experience at making friends, I have to conclude that yes, we are indeed friends." He informed the jounin gravely, then quirked an eyebrow in challenge at him. "Unless, you have some reason to think we're not?"
Kakashi scratched the back of his head and stared at the ceiling for a moment as though he might find the answer there. "Hmmm…" He hummed thoughtfully. "I must admit I am unfamiliar with the intricacies of making friends, so I would have to respect your esteemed authority on this matter Iruka-sensei."
He looked at Iruka then, breaking into a wide smile, his grin mischievous but his eye was dark with seriousness, deeply moved. "So yes, we are indeed friends."
Iruka laughed. Instinctively, they both reached out and clasped hands in the age-old gesture of brotherhood, grinning madly at each other like a pair of fools. Warmth touched his heart as he looked at the genuine joy in Kakashi's smile, the grip of his hand strong and firm in his.
In the next instant, the moment passed and the jounin was suddenly looking unsure and abashed, as if unexpectedly overwhelmed and uncertain what to do next.
"Tired. Sleep now." He announced, promptly lying down, drawing the blankets around himself and curling on his side, refusing to deal with this 'making friends' business which was obviously strange and unfamiliar to him.
The schoolteacher smiled and shook his head a little in despair. Could he ever understand this odd dear friend of his? He thought fondly.
"Fine. Do that. But I'll be back to visit in the evening." He warned, in case Kakashi thought he didn't mean what he had said.
A loud, exaggerated snore answered him.
With a huff, Iruka rolled his eyes and prepared to leave. He had one foot out of the door when he heard it, spoken so softly as if it wasn't meant for him to hear.
"Thank you, Iruka. Thank you for everything."
The chunin smiled to himself and closed the door quietly behind him.
Anytime, my friend…anytime.
Author's notes: Okay, so that's the end. I hope this story has provided some amusement and enjoyment for everyone. On a side note, I had a "Kakashi moment" the other day. (wry smile) I just moved to a new country to attend school so being in a completely new place, I have next to no friends in the first few weeks. We had to register with the student health office and this was what happened.
I gave the nurse my contact number, then she said "Ok, give me another number." and I looked at her blankly.
"You know, the number of a friend or someone we can contact in case there's an emergency."
At that moment, I had a flashback to this story because I couldn't, for the life of me, think of a person who might want to be informed if something should happen to me. (laugh) So there I was, frantically running through the few names of classmates I've met over the past few days in my mind, while the nurse was staring at me impatiently, but with increasing sympathy.
"Anyone at all?" She asked gently and oh, I was so embarrassed and apologetic, and just gave her the first name and phone number that came to my mind.
Later, I met the classmate and apologized profusely for using her as a contact when I haven't asked her permission first and if she minded terribly? She gave me the oddest look like I've grown an extra head and said "Of course not!"
Seems like I've made friends without knowing it as well…(sheepish grin)