Naruto was not the first kid that Iruka had ever flunked. Kids failed all the time -- they didn't pay attention to their lessons, they didn't practice what they were supposed to, they were too impatient, too immature, too something.
Sometimes, when Iruka told a student that they would not graduate from the Academy with their classmates, they cried or they shouted or they just stood there mutely before slowly shuffling away. But they all had one thing in common: the look in their eyes as they realized that just because you want something doesn't mean you get it. Sometimes, on rare occasions, students would realize they'd brought this on themselves -- but more often, Iruka was the big, bad teacher who was mean enough to fail them.
It would bother Iruka if he didn't know that he was saving their lives.
Still, none of his prior experience accounted for Naruto. Naruto just tilted his head to the side, visibly trying to process the information. "Can I like, get extra credit?"
Iruka took a moment to unclench his teeth. "Naruto, you failed. And when I say fail, I mean you didn't complete half the final exam. Two points of extra credit is not going to help you."
Naruto just looked at him, like he wasn't sure Iruka could do math correctly.
Iruka pinched the bridge of his nose. "Look, Naruto. If you want this, you've got to quit screwing around. If you become a genin, it will be because you earn it, because you buckle down and follow the rules and do what you're supposed to. Understand?"
The kid just looked down at his feet, and when he looked up again, his eyes were wet. "Are you sure I can't pass?"
Iruka sighed. "Not this year," he said gently. "Next year, maybe."
When the kid started to cry in earnest, Iruka circled to the front of the desk, and pulled Naruto forward. Naruto fought him for a moment, like he wasn't used to being touched by anyone, before he fell to pieces in Iruka's arms.
Naruto was just one of his many students, but Iruka always made time for the ones who realize early on that life's not fair, and all things are not equally possible.
Iruka lived in a nondescript apartment, with a closet that had pretensions of being a bathroom, a respectable kitchen, and a bed that actually had a decent mattress. He took the bed from his parents' house before he sold it; he probably could have kept the house, but even at twelve, he knew it was too big and too full of what would never be again. He supposed the apartment was full of its own lost possibilities, but Iruka found its blandness and its anonymity among the rest of the apartments in the same building to be soothing, somehow.
The teachers tended to go drinking together on Friday nights, and Iruka was no exception. He was one of them, now -- and he wouldn't say they were the greatest friends of his life, or that he was particularly close to them, but he'd come to realize that familiarity and shallow intimacy were better than nothing. They drank the house special, and gossiped about anything and everything, and Iruka leaned into those pats on his back, the occasional arm slung casually around his shoulders.
"Heard you failed the Uzumaki kid, Iruka," someone called from down the table.
"As if he'd really pass," another teacher snorted, and the rest of the table laughed.
Iruka didn't really feel like laughing, suddenly. "He could pass next year, maybe."
"Yeah, right," someone else hooted.
He realized that no one at the table thought Naruto had a shot. And until today, he mostly hadn't thought so either. "Excuse me," he murmured, and headed off for the men's room.
He locked himself in a stall, and stared blankly at the wall. When he was seven, twenty-two looked incomprehensibly far away. When he was a child, he'd been sure that at this age, he'd be a jounin, he'd have it all together, maybe have a family of his own. He really had not envisioned that he'd work hard most of his life to be a chuunin academy teacher, that he'd be alone and confused and wouldn't have all the answers. He couldn't have guessed that he would end up contemplating sleeping with Mizuki; not because he particularly wanted to, but because Mizuki seemed to want him, and Iruka was having a hard time coming up with a reason to refuse.
"Hey," someone said. "Are you finished?"
Iruka could see feet under the door. He supposed he shouldn't have an existential crisis in the only available stall. "Yeah, sorry," he said, and unlatched the door.
A man with a shock of silver hair and a mostly-hidden face gave him a look that managed to be both bored and assessing. "You don't look so good. Maybe you should call it a night."
"Yeah," Iruka said, his voice low. "Maybe I'll do that. Thanks."
The restroom door flew open, and Mizuki warbled, "Iruka, I found you! Did you puke?"
"Not yet," Iruka muttered.
Mizuki wrapped one arm around Iruka's shoulders. "We still have more drinking to do!"
The stranger was still looking at him.
"I think I'm going to call it an early night," Iruka said, worming his way out of Mizuki's half-embrace.
Mizuki looked a bit surprised, and looked between the stranger and Iruka. "Oh, I get it," he said, his voice remarkably sly for someone who had probably passed the stage of mild inebriation early in the evening. "I thought you were gone for a long time -- I didn't really take you for a bathroom-stall fuck kind of guy, Iruka. God knows you still won't give me the time of day, but you'll get down on your knees for a jounin, huh?"
Iruka could almost pinpoint the moment the atmosphere in the room changed.
"You shouldn't talk about things you don't understand," the stranger -- the jounin -- suggested mildly, but the one eye that was visible between his mask and his hitae-ate narrowed in a way that didn't bode well for Mizuki's continued good health.
"I'm sorry," Iruka said. "He's drunk and he doesn't know what he's saying. We'll be going now." He grabbed Mizuki by the elbow and propelled him out of the bathroom, and deposited him with the rest of the teachers at the table. They grumbled when he said he was going home, but a few moments later, he was out the door and headed home.
He felt someone fall into step with him, and his fingers stayed within easy reach of his kunai until he realized who it was.
"Nice night," the jounin said.
Iruka shut his eyes for a second. "I'm really sorry about my friend. He's an idiot when he's drunk, he shouldn't have implied that you -- that I --"
"Hn," the man said. "You apologize a lot."
Iruka almost apologized for apologizing, but managed to restrain himself.
They walked a few more blocks before the jounin said, "It's not that I have anything against it, in principle, but the floor was pretty grimy and all."
"Excuse me?" Iruka said, both of his eyebrows raised in confusion.
"Sex in bathrooms," the jounin clarified.
"Oh," Iruka said faintly.
They walked a few more blocks, and before he knew it, they were at his apartment. Iruka slowed to a stop. "This is my place," he murmured. He could hardly believe he was going to do this, but -- "Do you want to come up?"
He thought he could see the jounin smile a bit behind his mask, but maybe that was a trick of the moonlight. "You don't even know my name," he said, in that deceptively mild voice.
All things were not possible, it was true, but suddenly, Iruka knew that this was. "So tell me. Or don't. Just come up with me."
The jounin moved closer, into his personal space. "So you'll give me the time of day?"
"I'll give you the night," Iruka countered, getting goosebumps when the jounin trailed a single finger down his arm.
"Then let's not waste it," the jounin said.
Iruka hurried to unlock his door, and toed off his sandals inside. The jounin followed suit, and Iruka felt nervous for a moment, because he'd never really done this before, didn't know what has possessed him to invite someone he'd only just met tonight, when he'd been putting off Mizuki for months. But the jounin just looked at him calmly, and Iruka abruptly turned and led the way to his bedroom.
His room was dark, and the curtains were drawn almost shut. He almost turned the lights on, but he felt awkward enough -- it seemed safer to leave them off, with just enough light to see the jounin's dark form pressing him down onto the bed.
He wasn't sure when or how they lost their clothes, but he heard his hitae-ate fall to the floor with a clink, felt his hair fall to his shoulders when the jounin pulled out the tie. He heard himself make noises, and they sounded surprised and desperate and hopeful, and it felt like forever since anyone had touched him with purpose and intent.
He couldn't see the jounin's face -- not clearly, at any rate. Mostly, he just felt: felt the jounin lock lips with him, his tongue slipping into Iruka's mouth, his fingers doing distracting things to Iruka's nipples.
It was good, but it wasn't enough, and Iruka flailed out a hand for the bottle on his nightstand. "Please," he whispered, pressing the bottle into the jounin's hand. Their fingers tangled briefly, and Iruka could feel ridges of scarring on the jounin's fingers, free of the gloves he'd been wearing.
The jounin turned him onto his stomach, and Iruka nearly wept in his desperation to be something other than himself, to be something other than his hollow everyday self. The slick fingers that stretched him were uncomfortable, but he gritted his teeth and when the jounin tugged his hips up and finally slid inside --
Iruka was nearly blind in the darkness, but he felt surrounded, the jounin's chest rubbing slickly along his back, one arm curled around Iruka's waist and the other gripping his shoulder. He felt the jounin breathe against his neck, panting and occasionally dragging his lips against the sensitive skin of Iruka's nape. It should have felt anonymous, like it could have been anyone at all, but Iruka was intensely aware that it was this man, never mind that Iruka didn't know his face or his name. He was a stranger, yet not, and in the moment of open-mouthed orgasm, Iruka felt he must have known him forever.
He woke up to someone banging on his front door. Irritated and still mostly asleep, he stumbled out of bed, grabbing a robe on the way. His main room was flooded with light -- was it already that late? -- and he wrenched open the door.
Mizuki was on his doorstep, looking only a little worse for wear. And he was staring.
"What?" Iruka asked crossly.
"Who did you go home with?" Mizuki demanded, his expression hardening.
All of a sudden, Iruka was sick of this game they'd been playing for months, where Mizuki wanted answers that Iruka hadn't been willing to give. "It's none of your business," Iruka said coolly.
He saw Mizuki's fingers clench around the doorway, and in the back of his mind, he knew that he'd been trying not to see this for a while now -- he'd been trying to remember Mizuki as he had been, as a childhood friend who'd been close to him when he had needed it. He realized the reason he'd never said yes to this grown-up Mizuki was because he really didn't particularly like him, especially when he assumed that Iruka belonged to him.
"Oh dear, an early visitor," a voice behind Iruka said. Iruka may have only been a chuunin, but he was still too good to betray his surprise that the jounin was still in his apartment. He couldn't say the same for Mizuki, who stiffened in shock. The jounin wrapped an arm around Iruka's waist and gently pulled him back against his chest -- Iruka noted he was already dressed, his flak vest an uneven surface against Iruka's back. "What can we do for you?"
Mizuki was many things, but he wasn't stupid. He wasn't a jounin, not by a long shot, and he wasn't dumb enough to pick a fight with one. "I just wanted to check on Iruka, since he went home early last night," Mizuki said smoothly. It was probably true, but it made him sound a lot more concerned for Iruka's welfare than he actually was. Had Iruka really spent months ignoring this kind of behavior?
"Ah," the jounin said. "Well, that's easily done. Iruka, how are you?"
Several responses went through Iruka's head, but he settled for placing one hand on the arm the jounin had wrapped around his waist, and said, "Just....fine."
"Satisfied?" the jounin inquired, his tone lazy.
Mizuki's lips were pinched with anger.
"Excellent," the jounin said brightly, and shut the door in Mizuki's face.
Iruka started to laugh. Hard. "You didn't have to do that," he said, when he'd caught his breath.
"Well, I don't want to be the one to tell you this, but he's kind of an asshole. You should get better friends," the jounin said.
"I'll work on that," Iruka said.
The jounin reached out one hand to cup Iruka's cheek, his thumb brushing the corner of Iruka's still-smiling mouth. "I have to go. I'll see you around?"
"Yeah," Iruka said, brushing his lips against the jounin's palm.
When the man left, Iruka leaned back against the door. Not bad for hiding out in the men's room.
The Academy was in summer recess, so Iruka didn't have to deal with everyone commenting on the number and severity of hickeys that showed above the collar of his shirt. As it was, he did wear something a little higher-necked than usual for a few days -- his mysterious jounin apparently had sharp teeth, and hadn't been afraid to use them.
Iruka thought at first of trying to find him, or at least trying to find out from someone else who he was...but in the end, he decided against it. The jounin had never given a name, which didn't really suggest that he planned on seeing Iruka again. Still, Iruka was oddly okay with leaving his jounin without an identity. Somehow, it seemed like Iruka could keep the man to himself that way, although that was probably logic that wouldn't hold up in the cold light of day.
Still, it was a nice memory, one that Iruka brought out at regular intervals in the privacy of his own home to admire.
Naruto failed again the next year, and Iruka manfully restrained himself from beating his head against the wall.
"Can I --" Naruto started
"Naruto," Iruka interrupted. "It may have escaped your attention, but to pass class, you have to come to class."
"I already learned a bunch of stuff last year," Naruto said, a little sullen. "So I practiced hard by myself. You said I could pass this year."
"I said you could pass this year if you tried harder," Iruka corrected. "Next year is another term, Naruto. Come to class next time, and passing the exam will take care of itself."
Naruto shuffled away, muttering, and Iruka sat back in his chair with a sigh.
"Hey Iruka, the Sandaime wants to see you," Mizuki said, poking his head in the door. Since it was a fairly common occurrence for Iruka to have tea with the Hokage, it was barely cause for attention.
He put his things away and headed over to the Hokage's office, up the stairs where guards parted to let him pass and closed ranks as he shut the door.
"Good afternoon, Hokage-sama, how are you today?" Iruka asked, nearly by rote.
There was an unexpected bit of silence for a moment, broken only by the panting of a mangy silver-haired dog sitting by Sandaime's desk. Iruka didn't recall him ever mentioning a pet.
"Iruka," Sandaime said, exhaling slowly from his pipe. "I have a mission for you."
"A mission?" Iruka asked, hardly able to believe his ears. He hadn't had a mission since the last time school was out.
"Long-term," Sandaime said, lingering over the words. "Can I count on your honor and discretion, Iruka?"
Iruka snapped to attention. "Of course, Hokage-sama -- on my word as a ninja of Konoha."
"Excellent, excellent," the Hokage said. He stroked his beard for a moment. "I need you to be a contact person for another operative on assignment."
Iruka nodded cautiously.
"You should know that we suspect an information leak, so it is vital that you tell no one but myself the information that the contact places in your hands."
"How will the operative contact me?" Iruka asked.
"Perhaps the operative in question had better join the conversation," the Hokage said with a sidelong glance.
There was a puff of smoke, and then the silver-haired dog was a silver-haired man, and --
"Long time, no see," said his one-night-stand, waggling his fingers in an amiable greeting.
Iruka suspected he was not succeeding in keeping his jaw off the floor. He had daydreamed about running into his mysterious jounin someday at another bar, but the Hokage's office never even made the list.
"I'll stop by your apartment to submit periodic reports," the jounin said, and Iruka was trying very hard to pay attention to his words and not just drink in the sight of him. "You will memorize the content of my message, and then you will report to Hokage-sama on a regular basis -- no more than weekly, unless I indicate that it's vitally urgent."
"Understood," Iruka forced himself to say, not entirely able to tear his eyes away from the jounin.
"Do you know who this is?" the Hokage asked slowly.
"Actually, no," Iruka said. "But we've met."
"You can call me, 'Dakuten,'" the jounin said.
"'Dakuten'? As in the diacritical mark for kana?" Iruka asked disbelievingly. What kind of code name was that?
The jounin -- Dakuten, apparently -- just shrugged.
"You're dismissed, Iruka," the Hokage said. "I'll be expecting you next Wednesday, at our usual time."
"Yes, sir," Iruka said, wondering if he looked as blindsided as he felt.
The day the Hokage called him in for his new mission was the last day of the school year; consequently, Iruka was involved in spring cleaning when he received his first visit.
Granted, he hadn't expected his visitor to drop in through the kitchen window, so he might be forgiven for trying to drive the plunger handle into the intruder's throat.
As it was, Dakuten wrested the plunger away from him in an instant, before stopping and blinking. "Inventive. If you applied the cup with enough force, you might do some interesting damage."
"Um, thanks," Iruka said faintly. "Are you going to--"
Dakuten pressed careful fingers against his lips. "Some things are better left for the bedroom, don't you think?"
Iruka stared at him, before nodding slowly. They made their way at an agonizingly normal pace to Iruka's bedroom, where the jounin closed the door, shut the shades, and gently pushed Iruka towards the bed.
Iruka blinked -- it was hard to believe that they were in his room together, a year after the night when Iruka had thought he would never see the jounin again. Still, his bedroom -- did Dakuten want to pick up where he left off?
"Lie down," Dakuten said, and Iruka obeyed, carefully stretching out on the bed. Dakuten flipped the light off, and the next thing Iruka knew, the man's weight settled carefully on top of him, his bare lips next to Iruka's ear. "The wall and ground outside this window are wired with traps. I'll keep to the interior of the apartment while I'm here, and you should act as though you're having a discreet affair -- no one will look twice."
"Right," Iruka said, his voice a whisper.
"Memorize the following," Dakuten said.
They went through the information three times before he was satisfied that Iruka could recite his message verbatim.
"So is that it?" Iruka asked. "Why are you lying on --"
Dakuten licked a careful, shudder-inducing trail up Iruka's earlobe. "Well, the best lies are mostly truth."
"Oh," Iruka said, almost noiselessly.
"And if you think this is coincidence, then you don't have enough imagination after all."
"Oh," Iruka repeated, the pieces clicking together in his head.
"You're on the right track," Dakuten said, already busy shoving their clothes out of the way. "I'm also a fan of 'don't stop' and 'harder', but feel free to improvise."
Iruka thought about hitting him upside the head, but settled for curling one arm around Dakuten's neck instead. "How about, 'hurry up'?"
So much for a boring, routine summer.
Iruka usually used the time to catch up on training, make new lesson plans, or most gloriously of all -- to lie outside on the grass in just the perfect amount of shade with a book of no educational value whatsoever. He was still doing those things, but the usual calm was spiked with anticipation: would Dakuten be back tonight? Or maybe the next night? Would he have news to pass on to the Hokage this week?
There were also some odd new developments in Iruka's apartment -- an extra towel hanging up in his bathroom (it smelled a bit like wet dog, for reasons Iruka didn't really didn't want to contemplate), and a cheap razor in his medicine cabinet. In his fridge, the carton of milk had a little sign taped to it: "Helped myself -- almost out." At the bottom of the sign was a scribbled "henohenomoheji," a child's representation of a face with kana. Iruka smiled a little bit at the exaggerated dakuten mark that represented the ear of the face -- it was strangely fitting, considering their espionage activities. Iruka laughed to himself, and said, "All right, I get it, maybe it isn't such a dumb code name after all."
It was, of course, only a matter of time before Mizuki came by. Fortunately, Dakuten mostly visited in the evenings, so Iruka didn't think he would be in danger of blowing his cover in the early afternoon.
Iruka made tea while Mizuki made himself at home at the low table.
"You look well," Mizuki said, accepting a cup from Iruka. "Are you relaxing now that school is out of session?" It was a typical Mizuki question -- it could have been just an inquiry after Iruka's health, but somehow, he didn't think so.
Iruka settled down across from him with his own cup of tea. "Well, it's been good to have a regular training schedule again -- you know how hard it is to keep a proper regimen during the school year."
Mizuki's nose twitched, just a little -- but enough for Iruka to know that he'd twigged to something, although he may not have narrowed down what it was. "Of course, I understand," he said, his tone turning soothing. "But now that we have some free time, I thought we could see a little bit more of each other."
An impasse -- deny that he had a lover, and spend the rest of the summer fending Mizuki off, or acknowledge it: which would keep Mizuki furthest away?
Maybe Dakuten was right; the best lies were mostly the truth. "Ah, well -- you see, the thing is..."
Mizuki frowned a bit. "You're seeing someone?"
Iruka didn't have to manufacture the bit of heat that rose in his cheeks -- just thinking of his last visit from Dakuten took care of that. "You could say that."
Mizuki sat back, obviously a bit taken aback. "Oh. I see."
And even though Iruka could see that Mizuki was dying to ask, Dakuten was right -- a discreet love affair was a necessity of shinobi life. Not everyone could sing their significant other's praises from the rooftops, and indeed, in many cases, it could be lethally dangerous to so. Mizuki might want to know, but even he wouldn't pry on this subject.
Iruka was getting ready to turn off his bedside lamp and go to sleep when his bedroom door opened noiselessly. And just because he was getting really good sex on a regular basis did not mean he wasn't cautious -- he had a kunai in hand when Dakuten slipped into the room.
Dakuten was silent and looked a little strained, and that was when Iruka registered the hand clamped to his ribs, and the smell of blood in the air. "You're hurt -- sit down, I'll get the first aid kit --"
"We have to talk."
"We'll talk while I clean you up," Iruka insisted. Minutes later, he was carefully lifting the shredded cloth away from the man's side. "Broken ribs?" he asked, and Dakuten shook his head. The gashes, at least, weren't very deep. "I don't think you'll need stitches," Iruka said, while he worked on cleaning the wounds and taping them up.
"You have to go see the Hokage tomorrow," Dakuten said. "First thing, go see him at breakfast."
"Okay," Iruka said. "Come on, you can lie down while you tell me."
Dakuten curled close to him on the bed. "Memorize this," he said softly, and reeled off a sequence of names and numbers. Iruka repeated it back correctly after a few tries, and Dakuten seemed to relax all at once. "Breakfast," he said again.
"Yes, I'll go then," Iruka said. "Get some sleep -- you're safe here."
"S'why I came," Dakuten said, exhaustion threading his voice, and Iruka felt a wave of pure affection. It said something -- Iruka wasn't sure what, but a nebulous good something -- that Dakuten had chosen to stay after delivering his message, had chosen Iruka's home as a haven while injured and vulnerable.
Iruka carefully watched over him until he fell asleep, and when he clicked off the light, he shifted closer and tucked a kunai under his pillow.
For the first time, Dakuten was still in bed when Iruka woke up. He remained there, his eyes half-open, as Iruka got ready to go out.
"I have to go now if I want to catch the Sandaime before he starts his day," Iruka said apologetically. "I left some breakfast for you in the fridge -- try to stay and rest if you can, okay?"
Dakuten made some sort of sound that seemed to be agreement. Feeling greatly daring, Iruka leaned down and brushed a kiss against his cheek. "I'll be back soon."
Sandaime was finishing up reading his morning briefings when Iruka was shown into his office. "Ah, Iruka, so nice of you to join me for coffee this morning."
"Thank you for inviting me," Iruka said politely.
Sandaime pushed a cup of coffee his way, and then said, "You may speak freely."
Iruka took a breath, and then calmly recited Dakuten's latest message.
Sandaime looked troubled for a moment, and smoked in silence. "Anything else you'd like to add, Iruka?"
Iruka looked down for a moment, and then said, "Our mutual friend sustained a few injuries, but nothing life-threatening."
Sandaime looked at him steadily, the corner of his mouth twitching. "You're a credit to our village, Iruka, to tend to a wounded compatriot in need." He tapped his pipe once before drawing it to his mouth again. "I hope you'll continue to...tend to him in the future."
Iruka desperately willed the blush off his cheeks.
Iruka came back from the shower to find Dakuten reading in bed.
"I borrowed it from your bookshelf -- hope you don't mind," Dakuten murmured.
"That's fine," Iruka said absently, scrubbing at his hair with a towel.
After a moment, Dakuten put down the book with a disapproving noise. "Barbarian. What are you doing to your hair?"
Iruka paused. "I'm drying it."
Dakuten rolled his eye. "Give me the towel."
Iruka, a little surprised, obediently sat down on the bed and handed it to him.
Dakuten began to carefully pat Iruka's hair down, taking his time and being thorough about it. Iruka usually had no patience for it, and just rubbed the towel over his head until it wasn't dripping wet anymore, and pulled the whole thing up in a ponytail.
But Iruka could admit that this was kind of nice. Dakuten wordlessly held out a hand for the comb, and Iruka surrendered that too. When he was finished, Iruka's hair fell smoothly around his shoulders.
"All done," Dakuten said, running his fingers through Iruka's hair. It made a pleasant little shiver run through Iruka -- or maybe that was from Dakuten trailing his fingers down Iruka's spine and under the second towel wrapped around Iruka's hips.
"What, again?" Iruka asked as Dakuten nuzzled under his ear with intent.
"I'm inspired by your reading material," he said.
"Huh?" And then Iruka saw what Dakuten had been reading, and yelped. "Where did you find that?"
"Carefully hidden behind some terribly boring, terribly practical books," Dakuten said, his gaze smoldering. "It's just literary enough to be tasteful - but my, my, sensei. I really liked chapter six."
Iruka debated hiding his head under the towel. But then he remembered chapter six, and realized his hair now swung down around his shoulders. "You realize I'm going to have to take a shower again after this."
"Let's make it worth it, then," Dakuten purred, and Iruka sank down to his knees on the floor.
Classes started again, and autumn passed in a flurry of getting to know new students, piles of papers to grade, and more meetings than were probably strictly necessary. Dakuten's visits were more sporadic, but seemed to occur right when Iruka could really use some stress relief. Iruka was never quite sure if Dakuten timed things that way, but since he was grateful for both the endorphin rush and the good night's sleep that always followed, he decided not to question his good fortune.
When autumn turned into winter, Iruka began to wonder -- just how long-term was long-term? He'd rather thought that Dakuten would have disappeared from his life before now, but if anything, the man seemed to have taken up semi-regular residence.
When he said as much to Dakuten, the man rolled on his side to face him, his masked face cushioned on one of the two new, fluffier pillows that Iruka had bought for his bed. "It's best not to rush these things. If you're patient, you can get the whole snake, not just the head."
Iruka mulled that over. "So that's why you check in, even if you don't have anything to report?"
Dakuten traced a fingertip down Iruka's sternum, to rest lightly on the waist of his sleeping pants. "If you like."
Iruka turned the light down low, and tugged down Dakuten's mask, and showed him how much he liked it.
It was nice to have someone besides himself to cook for -- Dakuten ate Iruka's simple cooking with the fervor of someone who had lived far too long on field rations and had nearly convinced himself that he liked it. Still, it was nice to make hot pot meals and not have to eat the leftovers for days.
"I think you've broken your record for consecutive hours in my apartment," Iruka said one night over dinner.
Dakuten paused in the act of devouring miso with eggplant and raised an eyebrow. "It may have escaped your notice, but there is something of a raging blizzard outside. Even traitors are subject to inclement weather, so there's no need to risk my extremities unnecessarily."
Iruka blinked. "Right," he said, although it wasn't all right, not at all. It had become all too easy to overlook the fact that Dakuten was here for a reason, and not entirely by choice. Weather might force Dakuten indoors, but Iruka himself couldn't keep him there.
This was dangerous, he knew. He should be more vigilant about his feelings -- he shouldn't forget that this was a setup, and Dakuten would probably disappear from his life as quickly as he came.
He watched Dakuten meticulously eat his meal, his mask shoved down around his neck. In the first few months, Iruka had never seen him without the mask, but little by little, Dakuten had bared his face for everyday activities, like eating and sex and brushing his teeth.
"Another?" Iruka asked as Dakuten emptied his rice bowl.
"Thank you," Dakuten said. "Is there more soup, too?"
"I made extra," Iruka said, smiling at the honest pleasure on Dakuten's face. This might all be a convenience and a fabrication, but that was no reason not to enjoy it while it lasted.
It was spring, and Iruka hadn't seen Dakuten for a month.
Actually, if he was being totally accurate, he hadn't seen him for five weeks and six days.
His weekly meetings with Sandaime held only small talk, but this week, Iruka was sufficiently concerned to break protocol and ask. "Hokage-sama, do you know how our mutual friend is doing?"
Sandaime gave him a faintly disapproving look. "Iruka, you know better."
And Iruka did, he really did, but he couldn't help himself. Because the fear that the mission hadn't gone well, maybe even gone even fatally bad, nagged at the back of his mind until he nearly felt sick.
He stared into his tea for a few moments. It was a bad time to ask, especially after such an unprofessional question, but he'd keep putting it off if he didn't ask now. "Hokage-sama, I'd like to volunteer for shifts at the mission desk."
Sandaime sipped his tea. "I know very well how demanding the job of teaching is, Iruka. Can you really spare the time?"
Iruka couldn't tell him that he'd found too many empty hours in his day that used to be occupied, nor that Mizuki was getting too close for comfort again now that it looked like his manufactured affair was over. He couldn't tell him that teaching didn't seem like enough, lately, even though he wasn't sure what he was looking for.
"I can make the time," Iruka said firmly. "I want to do more, and you just told me yourself that you've been short-staffed."
Sandaime looked a bit troubled, but finally sighed. "You can start this weekend, I suppose."
"Thank you, Hokage-sama," Iruka said, bowing his head.
As it turned out, a monkey could do the job at the mission desk -- if a monkey had the right security clearance, that was. Shinobi submitted their reports, and then Iruka made sure they were all in working order and stamped them. Handing out missions was a bit trickier, but as it turned out, the coding of missions was such that the mission desk only really handled missions ranked D, C, and B -- anything above that came directly under the supervision of the Hokage himself.
He was also getting to know a lot more people. He'd already met scores of children and their parents though teaching, but this was an entirely different level of exposure. He met dozens of reliable chuunin, and even began to meet some of the jounin. They were, by and large, really odd people, but Iruka liked them anyway.
"Genma-san, you forgot to fill out an entire section," Iruka pointed out.
Genma gave him a look that might have stopped a lesser mortal in his tracks, but clearly Genma had never faced the horror of teaching thirty ten-year-olds how to use sharp pointy objects to kill.
"Genma-san, please fill it out correctly and then hand it in," Iruka said politely, with the same hard smile he reserved for students who thought they could get away with turning in a shabby piece of homework.
Genma stared for another long minute, and then started to laugh. "You're a holy terror, aren't you, sensei? I like it," he said, and obediently filled out the rest of the form. "I'll have to warn Raidou and Azuma about you -- no nonsense while Iruka-sensei is manning the desk."
"Well, I don't know that you need to go warning people," Iruka said demurely.
Genma grinned. "On second thought, I'll let them find out for themselves. And then I'll laugh at them when you smack their knuckles with a ruler."
"I've never actually used a ruler," Iruka confessed.
"Well, don't tell anyone -- keep that more-sensei-than-thou attitude, and you'll have even Hatake Kakashi eating out of your hand."
Iruka laughed. "The Copy-Nin? Master of a Thousand Jutsu? You're out of your mind."
"Well, stranger things have happened," Genma said. "See you around."
Iruka stamped the completed form, and filed it away, and felt rather satisfied with his new duties on the whole. He tried not to think about Dakuten, but surely he'd see him sooner or later. He just had to be patient, and not think the worst. Even if their pretend affair was over, Iruka hoped he could still see Dakuten again.
Dakuten, he thought. Dakuten, don't be dead.
Iruka had a line of waiting shinobi running from his desk to out the door, and normally he'd have someone else stationed with him at this point in the afternoon. But the other chuunin on duty had been called away on an emergency, and apparently everyone else in the village decided that they had to go to the mission desk at two in the afternoon.
"Here's your assignment," Iruka said to pair of young genin. "Mind that you fill out the forms promptly on your return." They went on their way, and the jounin Azuma was next in line.
Iruka took his form wordlessly, scrutinized it for completeness, and stamped it. Azuma, he found, was a man of few words when he got back from a mission, although he was perfectly chatty at other times. Iruka just smiled politely, and set the form to the side to file later.
Genma was next in line, although he appeared to be holding two forms.
"Genma-san?" Iruka asked. "You're next, and I have a long line to get through, so if you could hurry?"
"Right, sorry," Genma said. "Kakashi, hurry up!" he hollered. "I'm not saving your place in line anymore!"
There was a small breeze -- a transportation jutsu -- and Iruka was staring at Dakuten.
Dakuten -- Hatake Kakashi -- looked genuinely startled, his one visible eye wide. And Iruka knew he was startled, because he'd spent the better part of a year in close proximity to Hatake Kakashi, who liked miso soup with eggplant and loved Iruka on his hands and knees and begging for it.
Iruka felt distinctly faint.
Genma poked his head around to look at them. "You okay, Iruka-sensei? You look a little...grey," he said, concerned.
"He's fine," Kakashi said, his voice clipped and totally unlike his usual lazy drawl.
Iruka forced himself to look over Kakashi's report, although he wanted to do anything other than that -- ask him where he'd been, if their former mission had succeeded, throw caution to the wind and --
"Kakashi," he said, and looked up. Kakashi's eye was cold, remote and seemed to bear little resemblance to the Dakuten for whom Iruka had come to care so much.
"Don't be so familiar," Kakashi said, his voice as wintry as a season of evenings they'd spent together. "After all, we've never met before."
"Forgive me," Iruka said, almost soundlessly, and stamped Kakashi's form.
Kakashi stalked away, and Genma looked a bit gobsmacked. "Sensei, don't -- don't take it personally, he's not usually like that."
'I know,' Iruka said silently to himself, his heart breaking. 'I know.'
He trudged home, feeling too exhausted from the day to think about drinking away his misery in a public place, and too raw to even think about calling someone over to console him.
Besides, it wasn't like he could tell anyone. And even if he could, who would believe him?
There was leftover dango jiru in his fridge, which he'd had the last three nights in a row. Everything seemed to last so long, now. He'd eat dinner, and then maybe have a nice quiet breakdown in the shower, while he thought about all the reasons why it had been a terrible idea to mistake a mission cover for reality.
"Your reflexes are slipping," Hatake Kakashi said.
Iruka dropped his chopsticks and drew his kunai in the same second.
"What can I do for you, Hatake-san?" Iruka said finally.
Kakashi looked bored. "Two things -- don't gape like a fish when you see me in public. And don't tell anyone about the last mission."
Iruka stood up straight, incensed. "As if I would! If you think I would honestly divulge a classified mission, then you don't -- you don't know me at all!"
Kakashi's gaze flickered downward momentarily, in some emotion that Iruka was hard-pressed to identify.
"One more thing," Kakashi said. "Come straight home after the Academy graduation ceremony tomorrow."
"Why should I listen to you?" Iruka asked. "Your mission is over, right?"
"Promise me," Kakashi said, and his voice wasn't chilly anymore; there was something dark and burning hot about it.
"I don't see what it matters --"
"Promise me," Kakashi demanded.
Iruka looked at him, really looked at him. He wanted Dakuten back so badly, but this was what he got instead. He'd obey one last request, even though he'd rather have a farewell kiss. "Fine. I'll come straight home tomorrow."
"Do that," Kakashi said, and then he was gone.
Iruka had meant to keep his promise. But that was before Naruto -- whom he'd just failed for the third time that morning -- had run off with one of the sealed scrolls.
And when he found Naruto, he found betrayal waiting in the form of Mizuki, his eyes half-mad with jealousy and hate.
In the moment that he took a fuuma shuriken in the back for the frightened boy sheltered beneath him, he thought -- ah, that thing I was looking for, wasn't it right here all along? Because if he died to protect this child -- this one child, so like himself, whom he'd ignored for so long -- that would be more than enough for him.
Native cunning and all the tricks in his teacher's bag kept him in the fight long enough to stall Mizuki, while Naruto -- Naruto, of all people! -- executed a forbidden jutsu and saved his life.
"Naruto, you passed," he said, knowing his body was in shock when he tied his hitae-ate around Naruto's forehead. And when the boy gripped him painfully and began to cry, Iruka thought, This is it.
Fortunately, some ANBU finally arrived and took custody of Mizuki, at which point Iruka felt he was more than justified in blacking out.
He thought he heard Naruto say, "Is he going to be okay? Is he? You're going to make Iruka-sensei better, right?" but it seemed distant and sort of fuzzy, and ultimately Iruka decided it wasn't worth worrying about, and went back to nothingness.
When he woke up, he could feel the pain and tightness between his shoulder blades. "With us again, are you?" asked a medic-nin.
"Stitches?" he asked.
"No, and quit squirming. There wasn't enough of anything left for stitches, so we had to regenerate the skin and muscle. It's still very fragile, though, so you'll have to stay quiet and remain for observation." She checked his chart, frowning a bit as she noted something down.
Iruka sighed. "Is the boy I came in with okay?"
The medic-nin snorted. "Healthiest boy I ever saw. I couldn't believe he was in the same fight as you -- but you shielded him, hmm?"
Iruka didn't respond, but he didn't need to, really.
"Well, stay still and try to rest. We'll release you in the morning barring further complications," she said, her tone brisk. "If you need anything, press the call button and a nurse will come."
"Thank you," he said reflexively. He experimentally shifted over to his side, which briefly hurt like hell but then seemed to subside.
He ate dinner and then slept for awhile, and woke up hours later with his heart racing when he didn't even know why.
Or maybe he did.
"I know you're there," Iruka said quietly. He could feel the aura that came from the shadows of the room, knew it and named it "Dakuten" immediately.
Kakashi slowly stepped away from the wall, but not too far away. Iruka had an uncomfortable feeling, like he was being watched by a panther on a tree limb who hadn't yet decided if it was hungry or not. Kakashi considered him silently for several long minutes, and Iruka felt his hackles rise.
"What do you want?" Iruka asked finally, because he really couldn't imagine. Kakashi had made himself clear that day in the mission room, and the evening after in Iruka's apartment -- the mission was over.
He could read the tenseness in Kakashi's posture, like he was poised for battle. "You didn't go straight home."
"Naruto is my student," Iruka said. "I didn't want to give up on him, even if he'd done something so dangerously stupid as to steal a sealed scroll." He paused for a moment. "Naruto should have known better, but he trusted Mizuki."
There was something like disdain in Kakashi's eye. "So did you."
That gouged deeper into the self-recriminations that had chased Iruka since he'd woken up in the hospital. He had known something felt off with Mizuki, but he'd written it off as nothing dangerous. And rather than honestly deal with the issues between them, he'd turned his head and refused to think that the changes in Mizuki would have any impact on the village beyond their friendship.
"I trusted you, too," Iruka said softly.
"Why?" Kakashi asked, a hint of emotion coloring his voice for the first time that night. With a start, Iruka reevaluated Kakashi's body language, and realized something.
Kakashi was angry.
Iruka turned that over in his mind. Why had he trusted Kakashi? He'd trusted him within the bounds of the code of shinobi conduct. But from the beginning, Iruka was realizing, their time together had included too much outside the rules. Iruka had owed Kakashi his cooperation, but nothing in the regulations specified that Iruka owed Kakashi his care or his body. Iruka had given that of his own free will. He'd wanted to give it.
Iruka looked up, feeling a bit discomfited. "I liked you, I suppose. You were kind to me when you didn't even know my name."
Kakashi stared at him. "And because of that, you let me into your house, into your bed? I could have killed you in your sleep, you know." Iruka could still hear the barely-buried thread of fury in his voice.
That still didn't make sense. Kakashi was angry at him because Iruka had trusted him? Then why had he...
"Make up your mind, Hatake-san," Iruka said softly, hearing the chill in his own voice. "Either it's okay for me to trust you enough to agree to go home after graduation only on your say-so, or it's not." He could see now that Kakashi had probably known what Mizuki was planning, and had warned Iruka away to keep him out of it. "Am I only to trust Sharingan Kakashi when he gives me orders?"
Kakashi took a step forward, and Iruka tensed. "Were you lying to me when you told me that you didn't care about my name, sensei?"
Iruka sat up straight, filled with indignation. "I never cared," he said fiercely. "I never cared if you were the Copy-nin or the baker's assistant, I just wanted you back." He was a little surprised that he had finally said it, but it was out in the open between them now -- no taking it back or hiding from the truth.
Kakashi took another few, slow steps toward the bed. "You don't even know who you want."
Iruka looked him straight in the eye. "Don't I?"
They stared at each other for another long moment, the air between them nearly vibrating with tension and suppressed emotion. And before Iruka really registered any movement, Kakashi closed this distance between them, put one knee on the bed while yanking down his mask, and pulled Iruka forward into a harsh kiss. The violence drained away quickly to leave desperation in its wake, Kakashi's hands tracing Iruka's body with none-too-subtle relief.
"I'm supposed to stay quiet," Iruka gasped, when Kakashi stripped him of the thin hospital garb.
"I could gag you," Kakashi said, working on his own clothes.
Iruka tried to kiss every part of Kakashi that he could reach. "I'm supposed to stay still."
Kakashi guided Iruka to lie on his stomach with gentleness that belied his words. "Guess that means you don't get to ride me tonight. A shame -- your hair's even longer than it was this winter." He shoved a pillow under Iruka's hips, and trailed a finger down Iruka's flank.
"We don't have--"
"I robbed the nurse's station before I came in," Kakashi said. "Are you done making excuses?"
Iruka craned his head back enough to make eye contact, and whispered, "Please."
It reminded Iruka of the first night they had ever slept together, but there was something so different about this. The man dropping kisses on Iruka's neck as he eased inside wasn't a nameless, kindly stranger, but someone that Iruka had known and actively loved, mostly against his better judgment. He felt the warm puffs of Kakashi's breath against his shoulders as Kakashi set a pace that was probably inadvisable but definitely what Iruka wanted.
Iruka tried to stay quiet, tried to muffle his cries in the pillow under his face, but he didn't think he was entirely succeeding. And for that matter, neither was Kakashi, who panted and groaned and thrust just so. Someone was going to find them, someone was going to know--
But Kakashi apparently didn't care, because he hissed in Iruka's ear, "Come for me, I want to hear you." And his thrusts drove Iruka's erection forward into the pillow, and that was enough, more than enough, and Iruka came all over the formerly pristine hospital linen.
Kakashi moved a little faster and panted against Iruka's neck.
"Come on," Iruka urged, stretching back one languid hand to stroke Kakashi's hip.
When he turned his head, he could see that Kakashi was biting his lip, his eyes nearly screwed shut.
"Tell me," Kakashi gasped out hoarsely.
Iruka smiled and squeezed his inner muscles around Kakashi's erection. "I want you. I want all of you."
Kakashi came then, not even trying to be quiet about it, but still had the awareness not to collapse on Iruka's back when he was finished.
It was almost as if Kakashi wanted everyone to know, Iruka mused sleepily.
He woke up alone, but there was a note on the table next to him. It said, "Out and about -- see you at home." In lieu of a signature, there was a henohenomoheji scribbled at the bottom, and suddenly Iruka put it together. The henohenomoheji was the scarecrow's face, and the scarecrow was none other than "kakashi." Iruka touched the dakuten mark with his fingertip, and thought, He was right there, all along.
He checked himself out of the hospital, with promises to return in a week for a check-up. Somehow, a sizeable contingent of the nurses had a hard time looking him in the face.
On his way home, he ran into Naruto, who apparently had just gone to check on him in the hospital, only to find that he was already gone.
"But you're okay?" Naruto asked, his tone anxious despite trying to play it cool.
Iruka ruffled his hair. "Just fine. How about you and I go have ramen sometime soon, hmm? You can tell me everything that happened after I passed out."
Naruto bounced on his heels. "We could go tonight, if you want!"
Iruka smiled. "Not tonight, I'm afraid. Tomorrow?"
Naruto looked abashed. "Is it because you're still hurt?" He looked fretful, and Iruka realized that he'd probably made Naruto worry a great deal.
Iruka shook his head. "Not at all. I've just got someone waiting at home, is all."
"Oh. Oh," Naruto said in abrupt realization. Naruto wasn't the most socially adept person in the village, but even he knew better than to ask questions.
Iruka laughed and put an arm around his shoulder. "I'll tell you someday soon," he promised, and the grin Naruto gave him in return for that demonstration of trust was nearly blinding.
When he got back to his apartment, Kakashi opened the door before his hand touched the knob. "How long has that oden been in the fridge?" Kakashi asked.
"Well, I certainly hope you didn't try to eat it," Iruka said dryly, slipping off his sandals inside.
"Of course not. It grew its own army -- I threw it out before it could take over."
"I don't suppose you can cook."
Kakashi was silent for a minute. "I can fry an egg."
"Works for me," Iruka said, and pulled down Kakashi's mask to be properly welcomed home.