------------------------ ---------------------------------------------------

 

Part 5: Misunderstanding

Kakashi's Side of the Story

` Hurry, hurry! If we're late, we won't get lucky!' said the Obito voice in Kakashi's head.

Kakashi was late again. He really had meant to be on time to meet Kaori at Hot Springs Village after his mission, but the client took longer than usual to settle his account. A-class missions were very expensive and the client did not have the full amount at hand. Kakashi finally had to lean on him with subtle threats before the man agreed to pay the full commission by borrowing from several friends and relatives. Debt collection was the worst part of his missions. Most regular clients already had accounts set up, but some paid by the mission and gave only a small deposit up front. Kakashi did not like to dirty his hands with petty monetary matters (although blood was okay), but if he didn't, the money would come out of his pocket. Tsunade-sama was obsessive about collecting debts, despite having been on the opposite end for years.

After arguing with Obito all week, Kakashi finally decided to take a chance on the pretty little nurse despite his initial misgivings. Of course, it was a very bold invitation and he was curious to see how she would react. Would she agree to a private bath with just the two of them, or insist on separate bath areas for men and women? Maybe she'd even be bold enough for the public mixed gender bath. Then afterwards, they'd have a nice dinner together and then who knows. The inns there also rented rooms by the hour. And if she had to be at work the next day, the village was close enough to Konoha that he could carry her on his back if they missed the late wagon that ran between the villages in the area.

It was off peak season, so he expected the resort to be fairly empty and they would have some privacy. He was now looking forward to a nice long soak in the mineral rich waters at Hot Springs Village .

When he arrived at the main desk, Kaori was nowhere to be seen. He worried that maybe she got tired of waiting and left. He quickly scouted the area, hoping she had wandered off to look around, but there was no sign of her. The man at the front desk did not see anyone matching Kaori's description, but he had just started his shift. Kakashi waited for another hour before he resigned himself to the fact that he had been stood up.

But wasn't he the one being presumptuous? Yes he had sent her an invitation to the hot springs , but she didn't actually reply back - he just assumed that she would say yes. Maybe she had given up on him after what happened at dinner. He knew he had behaved badly, but for some reason he couldn't help it. It was as though the Obito part of him took over and he had to act like an inconsiderate jerk. Maybe he didn't want them to like him. Maybe he didn't want her to have feelings for him. It was something he often did to keep people at bay, so no one could get close. But whenever he thought back to that time, watching her squabbling siblings, he felt what he had been missing all his life - the closeness and warmth of a family.

Yet despite his behavior, she didn't seem to be upset. In fact she had apologized to him for putting him through the scrutiny of her family and allowed him to break his promise. Deep down, he wanted another date with her, but his conscious self reasoned that it was because he owed Kaori another date, and because he felt guilty about not following her instructions. So he had decided to make it up to her with a romantic date at the Hot Springs .

But it seemed he was too late.

Kakashi decided to head home to Konoha, foregoing a soak in the hot springs . He was no longer in the mood. A hot shower would have to do instead. And instead of a nice warm body to spend his night with, the Icha Icha books would have to do again.

"You blew it! A girl's more important than money. Tsunade could've sent a debt collector later," griped the Obito voice. "You did this on purpose! You always do this!"

"I don't think she showed up," Kakashi replied calmly.

"Of course she did. I'm telling you she still wants us. But only a complete idiot would wait for more than two hours..." The Obito voice continued to berate Kakashi all the way home.

-.-.-.-

The next morning, since Kakashi still owed Kaori an apology for pissing off her family, and maybe another apology for being late, he headed over to the hospital. He found Kaori sitting at the front desk looking as perfectly coifed as usual, though her eyes seemed rather red and very tired.

"I'm sorry..." he was about to say when Kaori cut him off.

"There's no need to apologize. I took care of you while you were here because it was my job. I might have gotten too personally involved, but that was my mistake. You are no longer under any obligation to me," she said coldly. She thought he was there to apologize for missing their date and for two-timing her with the ramen girl.

Her icy tone and the anger in her eyes surprised Kakashi. She must have waited for him, he surmised, since she didn't seem that upset the last time he saw her, but then again maybe something happened with her family. Instead of helping her out with her family problems, all he did was make more trouble for her. He tried again to apologize, "I'm sorry about yesterday, I..."

"I'm fine with it. Like I said, you're under no obligation. I'm not going to bother you again and Gai sensei won't be either, so you can go back to your life as it was. Please leave now - I'm very busy." Kaori then turned her back on him and began to shuffle papers around.

"Right then, well, I'll see you around," he said to her back. He hesitated a bit before finally leaving. As he walked away he could hear her sniffle and blow her nose. ` She either has a cold, allergies, or is crying,' he thought in his detached analytical way. Was she that upset just because he was a couple of hours late? Was that really so bad? She had waited an hour or more during the other dates and didn't complain at all. Like any stubborn bachelor, he did not want to change for a woman. He wanted someone who would accept him as he was, flaws and all. No one had ever passed the test.

Now it was time to head over to the administration building for another assignment. In some ways keeping himself occupied with dangerous missions was better than sitting around reading fantasy books, which would never come true for him, or sitting around thinking of the life he missed out on when he chose, or rather inherited, the life of a shinobi. As the son of the great White Fang, who taught him shinobi tactics from the time he could crawl, he had no choice. Maybe it would have been better if he had not been born a genius. But then he'd probably be dead. But if he were really, really lucky, he'd have his own family by now.

It was unlike Kakashi to have these thoughts of having his own family. It was just that seeing the pretty nurse with her family made him feel that profound ache and need to belong to someone. But family life was just not for him, so he pushed those thoughts out of his mind. It was a waste of time to dwell on such fantasies when he could easily be dead the next mission. His life was as it was and there was little he could do to change it.

So he was back to his so-called life. Mission after mission. It was nearly non-stop these days. Not even the luxury of easy missions with his team. His genin were deemed advanced enough to be on their own now, without a chuunin or jounin leader. They had been away for days on a mission involving a shrine race. ` That would have been a fun mission, ' he thought enviously.

But the confrontation with Kaori puzzled him all day as he completed his mission, a short and relatively easy one involving the recovery of some ancient artifacts stolen from the Konoha museum. There was something not quite right, but he couldn't place his finger on it. Something tugged at the back of his mind even as he caught and tied up the perpetrators.

Back home, he took out the special messenger scroll that all chuunin and jounin carried, and summoned his assigned messenger bird which had carried his note to Kaori. The little brown hawk waited for Kakashi to tie another note to its leg, but instead Kakashi asked, "Do you remember a couple of days ago I asked you to carry a message to a pretty nurse at the hospital?"

"Yes, of course, quite pretty and nice. In fact, she gave me some of her lunch - said she wasn't hungry."

"Describe her."

"Hmm, rather small for an adult human female. Reddish brown feathers, I mean hair, almost like my feathers. Light brown eyes..."

"How did she react after reading the message?"

"Ecstatic! That's why she offered me her lunch."

"Was there anything unusual about her or anything else that day?"

"Why all the questions? Did something happen?"

"Nothing...she didn't show up at the hot springs ."

"Which hot springs ?"

"At Hot Springs Village , of course."

"Oh..."

"Oh?"

"Well...she tore the note off my leg since it was a bit stuck, so a little piece of it remained. I took it off myself later on. There was something written on it. I think it was the word village."

"You mean she met me at some other hot springs ?" He gave the poor little bird a dangerous look.

"I.I.I don't know. It's not m.m.my fault. I did my job. You can't blame me..." the bird stammered.

"I see...she probably waited for me somewhere else. Probably the Konoha hot springs." He had opted for Hot Springs Village because it was farther away, had private baths for rent, and they would be away from the prying eyes and gossip of the Konoha villagers.

"Look, if you don't have a task for me, I'm off." The little hawk wanted out of the situation as soon as possible, afraid that Kakashi would place a black mark on his record and he would be given more dangerous routes to fly next time.

"Fine, but next time, make sure the whole message gets delivered!" Kakashi said to the puff of smoke which marked the disappearance of a summoned animal.

To confirm his suspicions, Kakashi checked the Konoha hot springs . The middle-aged woman at the front desk, who managed the springs, confirmed that Kaori had been there waiting for him, for hours, until quite late, and had even left a note for him. She added that Kaori was very worried and had expressed concern that something had happened during his mission. She handed the note to him.

To: Kakashi sensei

I hope your mission was successful and you are well. I waited as long as I could, but I need to get dinner now. Maybe I'll see you when you get back.

Kaori

That was even stranger. If Kaori had been worried about him, and wanted to see him, why would she act so coldly now? He could have let it go, but his curiosity would not, so he followed the only clue he had to recreate the hours between the time she wrote him the note and when he saw her that morning.

She had left the hot springs to get dinner. Knowing Kaori, who apparently was a lazy cook, she probably picked up takeout. Since it was already late, and she had to work the next day, it had to be on her way home from the hot springs . There were only a few places on the way and of these, Ichiraku was the most likely, so he headed there directly.

Kakashi saw the Ichiraku ramen waitress in her off-white uniform, busily wiping down the counters in preparation for the dinner rush. She looked up when she heard someone approach.

"Hello," Kakashi said pleasantly.

Ayame smiled back. "Welcome Kakashi-sensei. What can I get you?"

"Well, actually, I'm not here for dinner. I'd just like to ask if you saw nurse Kuchiki Kaori yesterday night. Umm, reddish brown hair, about so tall."

"I wasn't here last night but you can ask my dad." She turned her head and yelled out, "Hey dad, Kakashi-sensei wants to know if you saw that nurse last night! You know, the pretty one you like!"

Her father quickly came out, red in the face. He gave his daughter a look of annoyance before addressing Kakashi. "Yeah, she was here. Had the seafood ramen. Looked kind of down. You do something?" he glared at Kakashi suspiciously.

Kakashi shrugged and asked, "Did she say something?"

"Nothing out of the ordinary. She placed her order and while waiting she asked about Ayame and I told her she was out on a date with Iruka-sensei."

Ayame blushed. She really wanted Kakashi, but had to settle for Iruka, whom she found nice enough, though the ponytail just had to go.

"Is Kaori-san all right?" Ayame asked when she saw Kakashi not acting like his usual cool indifferent self.

"She's fine. It's nothing. Sorry I bothered you. I better get going before Naruto shows up expecting me to treat him." He quickly disappeared before they could ask him any more personal questions.

Kakashi contemplated what the old ramen chef had told him and it did not seem like anything that would send Kaori over the edge. Unless it was because Ayame had a nice steady boyfriend while Kaori's love interest was unreliable. Iruka had a relatively easy teaching position with regular hours, though recently he too was being sent out on missions. Iruka was obviously the type to settle down and have a family.

Maybe Kaori finally realized that he was not the man for her. Kakashi sighed.

-.-.-.-.-

Double Date

`I hate you! Hatake Kakashi, I hate you more than anyone I've ever hated in my entire life! You knew how much I liked you, but you didn't have the guts to turn me down. You purposely set me up for a fall. How could I be so blind and stupid? Stupid, stupid, stupid! May you roast in frog oil. May you die a thousand and one deaths by Itachi's genjutsu. May you break all 206 bones in your body, and any extra ones. May the deserts of the Sand entomb you. '

Kaori struggled to think of more curses, but after days of crying and cursing, she no longer had any more original ones.

Since that day, Kaori threw herself into work, clocking four hours of overtime everyday. It was better than being alone at home where all she did was dwell on what happened. She managed to put up a brave front at work and told people her red eyes were due to allergies, but home alone, with nary a pet to confide in, all she could do was cry and curse the man responsible for her heartache.

`I am sooooo over him!' Kaori would say, but she knew it wasn't true. Broken hearts often took longer to mend than broken legs. And sometimes they never mended at all.

` Kakashi had some nerve to come to me apologizing and expecting me to forgive him. And then what? Allow him to continue to date that ramen waitress at the same time?! ' Yet if he had come crawling back to her, she would have seriously thought about it, though she would not admit that to herself.

It seemed she had little success in love. Was it her own fault for letting the good ones get away? Like Gai sensei. If she had given him an honest chance, if she had taken the time to mold him into the man she wanted. Look at him now with Otoha. Gai would come by whenever he could and he always brought something. At first it was something weird like household cleaning products and insect repellent, but then Otoha instructed him to bring flowers and candy, which she ate with exaggerated relish, smacking her too red lips in front of her superior. Kaori enviously hoped that her rude subordinate would gain lots of weight for her transgressions.

Otoha also had Gai in normal clothes when he wasn't on duty, and with his hair slicked back, he wasn't bad looking at all. He had a strong rugged look, not refined like Kakashi, but rather attractive in some respect. But that was all artificial, just the exterior of a man. Kaori knew she was being shallow, but no matter what anyone said, looks were important. She didn't need a man to be as handsome as Kakashi, just one she could look at without wincing.

What was important, as she always agreed, was what was on the inside. And it seemed she had misjudged Kakashi. He was not the man of integrity she thought he was. She had given him the benefit of a doubt for months, claiming he wasn't a pervert, though he read those books, not believing Otoha's claim that he was involved with the ramen girl, sticking up for him each time. His mysterious persona did not hide any deeper feelings as she had romantically thought. He was just another skirt-chasing pervert! He must have been playing hard to get with her, knowing that she was the type of woman who wanted a man more when he showed less interest. Maybe that was her real problem - she only wanted things she couldn't have.

After much introspection, Kaori resolved to go for the next guy she dated - no matter who it was, how he looked, how much money he had, or his status in life, as long as he was not married.

These were Kaori's thoughts as she stared at the blank computer screen at work, which had timed out again after ten minutes. With Tsunade's return, her workload had decreased. Or rather the number of patients staying longer than overnight had decreased, but for some reason paperwork still increased. She heard someone coughing slightly to get her attention so Kaori returned to professional mode, smiled and looked up.

But it was just Shizune who had dropped by the hospital to see her old friend. "Kaori-san," she said in her deferential way, "can you do me a favor?"

Kaori was even more wary of doing favors after what happened with Kakashi, so she said rather curtly, "Maybe. What is it?"

"Well, umm, if you're not seeing anyone right now.how would you like to go on a double date?"

"Double date? With you?"

"Yes, er, Shiranui Genma sort of asked me out the other day, but I was so flustered I asked if I could bring a friend and he said no problem. Then he said he'd bring his friend, too. But then I couldn't think of anyone appropriate who was still unattached except you."

Kaori did not know whether to be flattered or insulted. But maybe this was what she needed - a no pressure, no stress date, with some normal people, not someone who wore a mask even while in a coma.

"What are you guys planning?" asked Kaori.

"There's a traveling exhibit of ancient weapons from Hidden Sand Village at the Konoha museum. We plan to go Saturday late afternoon, around five, and then dinner afterwards. Can you make it?"

"Well, I should be able to leave an hour early and meet you at the museum." Kaori became depressed again as she recalled how she took last Saturday off in preparation for her date with Kakashi. This time she would just go after work.

"Thanks Kaori-san, you're a life-saver. I haven't been on a date in years. I wouldn't know what to say or how to act since it's not a mission. I'm not even sure it's a real date. We just sort of agreed to go to the exhibit together," Shizune said excitedly. "Well, I know you're busy so I'll leave you alone. Let me know if anything changes, okay?"

Kaori was hardly listening. All she could think about was how neither of the men was likely to be anywhere near as handsome as Kakashi, but she had to jump back into the dating scene and she was determined to make the next relationship work out.

As head nurse, she coerced one of her subordinates to come in earlier on Saturday so she could leave early. She even had enough time to run home and change into a simple blue blouse and black pants before heading over to the museum. Since she was in "test date mode" she did not do much with her hair, which was pinned up in her characteristic bun, or make-up, and left those untouched.

The Shinobi Museum was a relatively small three story building of stone rather than wood like the other buildings of Konoha, and stood at the foot of the Hokage monument. It mostly housed shinobi artifacts for posterity, but also contained a number of works of fine art - sculptures and paintings of famous or infamous shinobi. Once in a while, in the name of friendship and trade relations, there was a traveling exhibit from an allied country.

Kaori easily found Shizune and company after a quick scan of the museum foyer. They were huddled around one of the airtight boxes which held a few examples of ancient weaponry. Luckily, the museum was free as it was subsidized by not only the village itself, but also the feudal lords of Fire Country, so she did not have to buy a ticket to join them. She walked over to Shizune who was talking to a shinobi in uniform with straight light brown hair that reached the nape of his neck. The other shinobi, whom she could only see from the back, was also in uniform, but his brown hair was short and spiky.

Shizune turned to greet her friend. "Kaori-san, I'm so glad you could join us. I'd like to introduce you to Shiranui Genma-san and Namiashi Raidou-san."

The two men bowed simultaneously in greeting.

Kaori smiled and bowed to Genma and then turned to face Raidou and.

She stopped mid bow and stared at him. The left side of his face was hideously scarred. She caught herself staring and quickly finished her bow.

"I'm please to meet you Kaori-san. I believe I've seen you at the hospital. You look much better out of uniform, er, I mean in civilian clothes," said Raidou. He frowned at his own slip of the tongue.

"Thank you, I think." Kaori was not happy. Shizune got to be with Genma, who Kaori noticed had eyes like Kakashi's. He wasn't as cool or handsome, but he was quite a good looking man, while Raidou.

Kaori then reminded herself she would no longer go by looks and she was going to be open to a relationship with Raidou. She just had to stand on his right side, so the left side wouldn't seem as bad. So she forced a smile and took her place on Raidou's right side and looked into the exhibition showcase.

"That's a bronze kunai from three thousand years ago, before they developed iron and steel," Raidou explained.

Kaori nodded and pretended that was the most interesting thing she had ever seen.

Raidou went on and pointed out some unusual ancient weapons. "See these? They originated from farmers' tools. Did you know that the original shinobi were from an agrarian society?"

Kaori almost said, "Yes, I know. I was at the academy," but instead she smiled vacantly and said, "How interesting."

"Isn't it? Genma and I are big history buffs, but he's more into the art and literature, while I prefer anthropology and archeology..."

Kaori stifled a yawn and continued to smile. She glanced over at Shizune and Genma. It seemed Genma was giving Shizune a history lesson as well. Men liked to believe they were smarter and stronger. The latter was usually true, except in Tsunade-sama's case. The former.well, it depended on what one meant by smart. Kaori did not have the analytical ability of a shinobi, or the knowledge of a historian, but she prided herself as having street smarts and common sense.

"You're wondering about my face," Raidou suddenly said, interrupting her random thoughts when he noticed her spacing out.

"Huh, no I'm not," Kaori immediately denied. But then she admitted, "Well, actually the thought did cross my mind."

"I obtained this," he pointed at the heavy scars, "during Kyuubi's attack. A stray flame scorched my face. There were so many people with more serious injuries that the medics couldn't get to me in time to prevent the scarring."

"That's terrible." The nurse side of Kaori had great sympathy for him while the non-professional Kaori could not get over the how the scarred skin looked red, ragged, and raw. Still, she forced herself to look at him and even moved in a bit to stand closer to him.

He shrugged. "No big deal, considering I'm still alive, but it has killed my social life. I'll understand if you want out of this date," he said seriously.

Apparently the serious minded Raidou was one of those people, like cripples, or rather the physically challenged, or rather the specially abled, who preyed on the sympathies of others to get what they wanted. He found the perfect victim in Kaori, a compassionate nurse.

"Of course not. Don't be silly. Looks don't matter to me at all. It's what's on the inside that counts," Kaori smiled, though the smile wavered a bit.

Raidou did not smile back. He continued to look dour. He had had enough experience with women to know that that wasn't true at all.

The group of four moved further into the museum and into the special exhibit. To Kaori's surprise, she saw Kakashi standing guard by the special exhibit room. Actually, he was supposed to be standing guard, but he was just leaning against the wall while reading a book.

Shizune greeted him with, "Hello, Kakashi-sempai."

Raidou nodded and simply said, "Kakashi-san."

Genma casually commented, "I'm surprised Godaime assigned you to this."

"I worked a theft case for the museum the other day so they wanted to keep me on for a while." Kakashi looked impassively at Kaori and nodded.

Kaori could feel herself blush. She simply nodded back without a word.

"So, you four double dating? With the mixed company, it's not a shinobi meeting." Kakashi cocked his right eyebrow in amusement.

"Oh no, I mean, not really. We're all here to see the exhibit," Shizune quickly denied, then retracted her denial. She was also blushing.

The two men were too cool to respond to Kakashi's taunt. They just shrugged and continued into the room.

Kaori said nothing either. She did not look at Kakashi as she followed the others, but she could feel her heart speed up. But was that because she still wanted him or because she was still furious with him? She shook off any further thought of Kakashi and boldly gripped Raidou by his right arm.

With her back to him, she could not see the look of profound disappointment in Kakashi's single exposed eye.

-.-.-.-

Mischief

The special exhibit section of the Konoha Shinobi Museum consisted of two large rooms. One contained four large glass exhibit cases in the center of the room and numerous stone and clay sculptures lining the walls. The other room housed stands of mannequins wearing ancient shinobi uniforms and ceremonial attire, while scowling faces peered out from paintings hung around them. The group of three shinobi and a nurse had made their way around the ancient apparel and portraits and were now in the other room, where shinobi weapons were displayed.

"These weapons from Hidden Sand Village date back to the first Kazekage. You can tell by this motif that was most popular at the time," Raidou explain to Kaori, pointing at a design that looked like a geometric interpretation of a dragon.

Kaori nodded and said in her most impressed voice, "I see. You really know a lot about foreign shinobi weapons." She looked down with genuine interest at the various painted gourds and fans housed in the glass exhibit case. They looked just like regular household items. Maybe they were. Maybe the Sand curators were just fooling Konoha into thinking these were actually weapons. They looked more like decorative items to her without any hint of lethality.

As if reading her thoughts, Raidou continued, "Hidden in the folds of these fans are poison senbon. With chakra, they can be propelled with lethal force at over a hundred feet, able to pierce shinobi flak jackets and light armor. And these decorative gourds actually contain an assortment of poisons and anti-poisons."

Suddenly, the two heard a familiar lazy lulling voice behind them. "Actually, these items date back a couple of hundred years before the first Kazekage. These designs originated back then and their popularity was revived during the first Kazekage's reign. You can tell by the coarse detail that these are older. And these fans are actually used by courtesan assassins. They usually contain small thin daggers, not senbon."

Kaori could physically feel Raidou's rage and embarrassment. His usual dour demeanor dipped several levels lower to abysmal. "I didn't realize you're an expert on ancient Sand weaponry," he said coldly.

Kakashi shrugged and nonchalantly replied, "I have lots of hobbies."

Raidou glared at him while taking Kaori by the arm. He steered her to the next exhibit case. To his great consternation, the annoying third wheel followed. "These are some examples of canopic jars or funerary urns, used to keep the viscera of mummified corpses." he began to say.

"Actually, these are more recent crematory jars used to hold ashes that are sometimes used as medicinal ingredients," Kakashi interrupted. He boldly looked Raidou in the eye as if challenging him to disagree.

What Raidou and the others didn't know was that Kakashi had made up his historical facts. Raidou was right about everything, but he did not have the confidence to argue against the great Sharingan no Kakashi, who by reputation was the most intelligent jounin in Konoha. Kakashi had to be right.

After a moment of tense silence, Kaori suggested, "Umm, I think it's time we go to dinner." She thought it was quite rude of Kakashi to correct Raidou in front of her, though she was very impressed at his apparently superior intelligence.

"It's dinner time already?" Kakashi said flippantly.

"You weren't invited," growled Raidou. His entire face was now as red as the scar tissue on the left side of his face. He moved to stand protectively in front of Kaori.

Genma and Shizune, who were looking at the clay sculptures, heard the interchange. Genma knew his friend had a quick temper and walked over to diffuse the awkward situation.

"Don't you still have guard duty, Kakashi?" Genma asked calmly while rolling the senbon in his mouth from corner to corner.

"We'll be happy to have you join us next time," Shizune offered in her diplomatic way.

"Let's go," Genma said as he patted Raidou on the back, placing himself between Raidou and Kakashi. He escorted his best friend and Kaori out of the room.

Shizune quickly bowed to Kakashi and then followed the others.

Kaori looked behind her to see if Shizune was following them. For a second, her eyes met Kakashi's. She immediately turned her head and looked away, refusing to be taken in again.

Kakashi stood in the room alone, outwardly looking like he had not a care in the world. If Kaori had looked a little deeper, she would have seen the same look that was reflected in the mirror when she was alone and thinking of him - a sad pensive look resigned to a life of eternal solitude.

-.-.-.-

The group of four made their way to Omiya 's Sushi-Go-Round where sushi, sashimi, and other assorted bite size dishes rotated around on a conveyor belt. It was a relatively new restaurant in Konoha frequented by couples because of the atmosphere and reasonable prices. The food was all self serve except for the drinks. Patrons selected dishes from the conveyor belt and at the end of the meal, the bill was calculated based on the number of dishes which were color coded for price. It was an interesting way to conduct business and was often the topic of conversation. The large selection of dishes and fun way to order was perfect for first dates as couples struggled to get to know each other.

They found a booth, good for four people, fairly close to the food. Genma sat next to Shizune while Raidou sat next to Kaori and across from Genma. A pretty young girl in a frilly white apron over a candy striped uniform came by to take their drink orders. Genma ordered a large bottle of their finest sake, expecting to share with everyone, but Shizune and Kaori ordered a pot of green tea. They knew unexpected things, often bad, could happen with too much sake. After settling down, they took turns getting food or holding their seats. It was exciting just watching the sumptuous food of different shapes and colors slowly roll by. Kaori took just two dishes to start while the others took many more, somehow balancing them all on their outstretched arms.

After the initial small talk about the restaurant décor and the assortment of appealing dishes, conversation drifted to what happened at the museum. At first it was just a rehash of what they saw and what they found interesting, but the three shinobi were all dying to know what was up with Kakashi. The Kakashi they knew avoided company. He did not normally insinuate himself into other people's affairs or rudely interrupt conversations. He had nothing against Raidou, that they knew of, so they all concluded that the pretty little nurse must have been his target.

Raidou gave his friend a look with a raised eyebrow from across the table. Genma gently prodded Shizune with his elbow, indicating that she should ask Kaori. Since Shizune was a girl, and Kaori's friend, it would be less awkward for her to ask, the two men reasoned.

Shizune did not like to pry into other people's lives, but she was also overwhelmed with curiosity since Kaori had never mentioned Kakashi in all this time. "So, umm, Kaori-san, were you and Kakashi-san somehow involved?" she asked hesitantly.

"Involved? Well, only in a professional sense. I looked after him while he was in a coma," Kaori replied, not wanting to admit she had stalked him for a while.

"Well, he seems interested in you," Raidou said bluntly. "Of course I'd completely understand if you prefer to be with him. I know his face is perfectly fine even though he wears a mask. I considered that, but the way my face is damaged, it'd be hard to cover just the left side. I don't want to cover my left eye. That ruins your depth perception."

"You don't need to hide behind a mask. I think you look fine." Kaori smiled, trying her hardest to be nice, but all the while thinking of Kakashi's fine smooth skin rather than Raidou's ragged scars. But she did mean it. Sitting on Raidou's right side, the view wasn't so bad at all.

She decided to examine the conveyor belt for desserts and excused herself as the three shinobi continued to work on their other dishes. There was a decent assortment of colorful sweets: mochi with red bean paste, or sesame paste, or strawberry flavored filling or orange flavored filling; little custard tarts; tiny taiyaki cakes filled with either red bean paste or custard; skewered dango of various colors.

"Those look good, don't they," said a lovely lush voice right by her left ear.

Kaori turned her head slightly and found Kakashi leaning over her shoulder - way too close to be appropriate.

"I.er." Kaori stammered in her surprise. He was so close she could feel his breath on her ear. It tickled. There was just something about this man which simultaneously aggravated her and attracted her. But before she could organize her thoughts or feelings, Raidou appeared protectively by her side.

"I thought you had guard duty, Kakashi-san," Raidou said dangerously.

Kakashi shrugged and replied, "I left a kage bunshin there. No one will notice. Thought I'd skip out to grab a meal."

"Right, at the same restaurant."

Kakashi shrugged again. "Konoha's pretty small you know."

Before Raidou could respond again, Kaori grabbed his arm and pulled him back toward the table.

She was confused. What was Kakashi doing here? Was he really here to pick up dinner or was he stalking her? And why would he stalk her when he was the one who clearly wasn't interested in the first place?

"What's going on over there?" Genma asked when the two returned.

"Kakashi's being his usual pain-in-the-ass-self," muttered his friend.

"That's not a nice thing to say," said a lovely lush lulling voice with a hint of laziness.

All four heads turned in the direction of the voice which came from behind Raidou and Kaori. The sharingan user had hypnotized the couple sitting in the booth behind them into leaving. Kakashi now occupied it alone except for his dish of octopus balls and a skewer of dango. But he wasn't eating. He still had his mask on and was obviously eavesdropping on their conversation.

"That's it! I think we need to talk, Kakashi-san." Kaori stood up and angrily walked over to the other table. "Stop following me. I'm not interested. Get that through your thick head. If you can't, maybe a haircut will help."

He shrugged as if he had no clue what she was talking about. Then he motioned for a waitress. "I think I'll take these to go," he said coolly, as if her words had not hurt him at all.

Raidou stood up as Kaori returned and waited like a perfect gentleman for her to sit down again. He gave her one of his very rare smiles, though it was more of a half smile. Since he rarely smiled or laughed at all, the muscles just couldn't go any further due to atrophy.

It was not everyday, or ever, that a woman would choose to be with him, Namiashi Raidou with the ravaged face, over Konoha's perfect prodigy, Hatake Kakashi. He had not wanted to go on another double date with his friend Genma. It always ended in heartbreak for him. In the past he would get his hopes up, but they were soon dashed and ground into the dirt by high-heeled sandals, usually after one date.

For a while he thought it was because they couldn't help but compare him to his handsome friend. But even when he went on solo dates, the results were the same. If anything, the dates were worse. He was innately taciturn and found small talk tedious and meaningless, so he struggled to find common ground with his dates. But with Genma, he felt more relaxed, just knowing his friend was there to help him out.

But each time, he could see the revulsion and disappointment in their eyes, even in the nice ones who didn't want to hurt his feelings. Some of them didn't bother to try to hide it, like that other nurse Otoha, who practically laughed at him when he paid her a compliment.

After so many negative experiences, he no longer had any expectations of love or finding someone special.

But maybe Kaori was someone special.

-.-.-.-.-

Kakashi's Genin

It was Sunday, but Kaori was at work, filling in for a nurse who called in sick that morning. Last night's events coupled with this unwelcome development made her doubly cranky. And to top it off, Otoha was on duty so that made her triply cranky.

Otoha came to work carrying a heart shaped box of expensive chocolates with truffle cream filling. She opened it slowly in front of Kaori while smiling all the while. "Would you like one, Kaori-san?" she asked sweetly.

Kaori immediately became suspicious. Otoha had never offered her any chocolates before. "No, thank you. That's very high in calories," she said pointedly.

"I can handle it. I mean all the exercise I've been getting with Gai-sensei," Otoha said as she stretched her arms above her head and thrusted out her ample chest.

"That's nice. Don't you have work to do? Don't get chocolate on the forms." Kaori slammed a stack of paperwork on Otoha's desk.

"Oh, I'll be careful. So, have you gotten anything like this from your new beau?"

"My new beau?"

"I heard you were out with Raidou, Mr. Half-man half-melted wax mannequin. Really Kaori, I didn't realize you were so desperate. Just because things didn't work out with Houshou, or Gai, or Kakashi."

"There's nothing wrong with Raidou. He was injured fighting for Konoha like many other honorable shinobi," Kaori said defensively, all the while feeling very hypocritical because she had thought the same thing herself. "And my private life is none of your business. Save your candy for later and get back to work or."

"Right boss, whatever you say." Otoha smiled sarcastically and very carefully put her heart shaped box in full sight of all visitors.

Kaori's teeth were very straight and even - thanks to grinding her teeth from dealing with Otoha on an almost daily basis. She had tried not to think too much about last night's events but now she couldn't help but review what happened again.

Why did she snap at Kakashi? He seemed like he was actually interested in her now and wasn't that what she wanted all along? Maybe he was done with the ramen girl. Maybe she should forgive him for standing her up. Why did she brush him off so easily while it took her so long to get rid of Gai whom she didn't want at all? But her pride said no way could she forgive something like that. Was she using Raidou to get back at Kakashi? No, she wasn't such a horrible person. She wouldn't use someone like that.

Raidou, from what she gleaned on their first date, was a serious and strong man. He was blunt with words and spare with humor. She did not feel comfortable with someone so dour. He was an introvert and she could tell he was making a monumental effort to join in conversations. Only when he was speaking on his favorite subjects did he seem at ease. He also seemed like the jealous type, hot-headed and irascible. The way he jumped to protect her from Kakashi was flattering, but also intimidating since he was not officially her boyfriend. It was just a first date and just a double-date at that, which only counted as half a date. He had no claim to her and should not have been so confrontational with Kakashi. But that also showed that he valued her and that's what she wanted.

His comrade in arms seemed more desirable. Genma was calm and casual, much like Kakashi not only in looks. But Kakashi had a flippant attitude while Genma was appropriately serious when the occasion required it. Genma did have a tendency to go on tangents with his philosophical musings, which made him seem rather pretentious, Kaori evaluated.

Neither was as good as Kakashi.

So it seemed, after all these years of dating, there was no such thing as the perfect man. She had to lower her standards or be willing to face a life alone. With that as an unfathomable option, Kaori had agreed to go on another date with Raidou.

He had said, "Tonight wasn't that bad, was it? I'd like to see you again. Of course, I'll completely understand if you say no. I mean after Kakashi, I must seem like a let down."

How could she say no to that? If she turned down Raidou just because of his looks, she would be more shallow and lower than Otoha.

Kaori's thoughts were interrupted by a ruckus at the hospital entrance. She could hear raised voices arguing loudly. She got up from her station to investigate, while Otoha continued to file her nails. It was Kakashi's genin who were the source of the disturbance.

"I'm fine! I don't need to be here. Sasuke's the one who needs to be babied!" Naruto protested.

"You're not fine!" Sakura hit him on the arm. Naruto grimaced. "See, you're hurt too," Sakura said pointedly.

"That's because you just hit me!"

"Shut up, idiot. Just get checked out. They won't let you on another mission until you do," growled Sasuke.

"That's right, Naruto-san," Kaori said as she walked over. "What happened? Did you get hurt on a mission?" She noted that Naruto's orange jacket and pants were ripped and dirty. There were a few bloodstains on his clothes but from what she could tell, his exposed skin looked fine.

"I didn't, but Sasuke sure did!" Naruto gleefully explained.

Sasuke said nothing, but he looked ready to kill Naruto, even if he had to rip out his jugular with his teeth.

Kaori noted that Sasuke was limping and he was holding his left shoulder with his right hand in pain. His clothes were in the same condition as Naruto's, but there were visible bruises, lacerations, and puncture wounds on his face, arms and legs.

"How about you Sakura-san?" Kaori looked over at Sakura who appeared to be the only one without any obvious injuries. Her red dress was a bit dirty but otherwise in good condition.

"It's just these two who need to be looked at. I.er.wasn't involved with all the fighting," she admitted shamefacedly.

"All right, Naruto-san you wait in exam room one and Sasuke-san in room two please. Sakura-san you can wait in the lounge. I'll page the medics."

Since it was not an emergency, Iashi, the medic currently on duty, instructed Kaori to perform the standard tests while he finished his rounds. Kaori first checked in on Sasuke, the more serious case.

The boy glared at her with his dark eyes. Kaori, used to that look from uncooperative patients, paid it no mind at all. She instructed Sasuke to remove his arm warmers so she could take his blood pressure. She noticed his blue shirt was not only ripped and dirty, but also singed. They must have been on a tough mission.

"So, Sasuke-san," the nurse said brightly, "how did your mission go? My, you look bigger and stronger every time I see you."

"Hmmf, maybe you should get your eyes checked," he said in his usual cold voice. Having been beaten by the ex-Konoha/Rain shinobi Aoi, he was in no mood for banter, especially since his archrival Naruto was the successful one.

Kaori decided to use the oral thermometer instead of the ear thermometer on the rude boy. She stuck it a bit roughly in his mouth and wrapped the blood pressure monitor a bit too tightly. His blood pressure was normal but his temperature was a bit elevated. Next she drew some blood to screen for any poisons the enemy might have used.

"The medic will be here shortly. Since your temperature's a bit high and I noticed a number of contusions on your body and head, you'll probably be kept for observation."

"Since when did you get your degree and become a doctor? I though nurses weren't allowed to make those decisions," Sasuke sneered.

"I'm just giving you my experienced opinion." Kaori smiled tightly, while thinking how someone needed to take that boy across his lap and apply a nice big solid paddle. Then she reminded herself that the poor boy had nobody to reprimand him. His family had been massacred years ago. She smiled again, more gently this time. "I'm sure you'll be fine. It's just precautionary. I'm grateful the village has such talented young shinobi like you to protect us."

Sasuke did not deign to reply. He never knew how to respond to kindness.

Kaori left him with orders to change into a medical gown for a full exam by the medics. Next she went to look in on Naruto. She also took his blood pressure and temperature (with an ear thermometer) and checked for wounds. There seemed to be little wrong with him that a bath couldn't remedy.

"So Naruto-san," she said while they waited for a medic, "how was your mission?"

"Super! We got to visit Tea Country and participate in the shrine race! And I was the hero, as usual."

"Is it hard for your team to be without your sensei? I guess you don't see him much now that he's on solo missions and with his new girlfriend. He must have little time for you."

"Huh? You mean Kakashi-sensei or Iruka-sensei? You must be confused. Kakashi-sensei's our team leader. Iruka-sensei's the one with the girl."

Kaori did a double take. Her hands shook so much, she nearly dropped the thermometer she was sterilizing with alcohol. "You mean Iruka-sensei is the one going out with the I-chi-ra-ku ra-men waitress?" she asked the question slowly, making sure her words were perfectly clear.

"Of course. What girl would want a lazy weird pervert like Kakashi-sensei?"

"Yes, ha-ha, of course." Kaori felt like shoving the thermometer into her own ears.

-.-.-.-

Kaori had pushed Kakashi away, twice, just as he actually showed interest. She had assumed that he stood her up for the ramen girl when he wasn't to blame at all. Now it was too late - she had made her bed without realizing the sheets were the wrong size but she had to sleep in it. It was all her fault, again. No wonder why none of her relationships worked out. She was the recurrent factor. She was selfish and judgmental, domineering and demanding, while pretending to be this wonderful compassionate caregiver. Even Otoha was better - at least she did not pretend to be anything else.

Somehow Kaori managed to hold it together at the hospital. She did it by shutting down all sensory input. She went about her work mechanically, all the while thinking sadly, `I'm just a pretentious, faithless fool. Stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid...'

Some of her patients thought she had been replaced by an automaton. She worked in stunned silence and did not heed their requests for water or anything else. She just performed the routine tests without smiling or speaking.

She did not say anything to anyone the rest of her time at work. Her subordinates saw that her eyes had glazed over as if she had been hypnotized. They thought about reporting it to the medics but a silent Kaori meant fewer orders from her and more free time for them. And it was the perfect opportunity to ask for time off, a change in schedule, even a raise. Kaori just nodded absently at every request.

She depended on instinct and routine to get her through the rest of the day. As soon as the clock struck five, she picked up her bag and left the hospital. Her feet walked the path they had walked for years, not stopping for food or to say hello to those who waved at her.

Back at home, she dropped her bag on the floor and closed the door without locking it. She sat in the nearest chair in silence until the sun started to set. There were no tears. After crying so many times for the man she wanted, there was no point anymore. Her emotions had effectively shut down to prevent her from feeling any further pain. It was an autonomic response, survivor's instinct.

The only thought that continuously reverberated in her mind was "stupid faithless fool."

Some time after the sun had gone down, someone knocked hard on her door. Kaori did not bother to answer it. But she had left the door open and the person slipped in.

"Kaori-san? Are you all right? I knocked but you didn't answer. The door was opened so I was concerned. I guess you fell asleep in your chair. You must have had a tough day. I'll understand if you want to cancel our date tonight."

Kaori had forgotten that she had a date with Raidou. The last thing she wanted to do was to go on a date, but she robotically rose from her chair to get dressed, all the while thinking, what did it matter, Kakashi was gone forever.

-...-...-...-