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Kakashi is well-accustomed to making excuses for not being someplace -- well, to be strictly accurate, for not being someplace on time. He usually shows up. Usually. Sometimes it's two weeks later, but that's not the point.

The point is, he's making different excuses now, and all to get back into Iruka's apartment, and more specifically, his kitchen.

Like a puppy begging for table scraps, he thinks, his mouth quirking under the safety of his mask.

"Hey, hey, hey, Kakashi-sensei, are you sure Iruka-sensei wants this?" Naruto says doubtfully, clutching a paper-wrapped package of fresh salmon.

"Who wouldn't want such a nice present from his number-one student?" Kakashi says brightly.

Naruto looks amazingly happy about that, and Kakashi experiences a brief moment of something that might be a very, very mild case of shame at manipulating him. But then again, if Naruto wants to keep being Konoha's most surprising ninja, he's going to have to wise up to people taking desperate advantage of him for semi-nefarious purposes. So really, Kakashi is doing him a favor.

Iruka opens the door when Naruto bangs on it repeatedly with his fist, and Kakashi thinks about at least hitting him upside the head for causing such a ruckus, but Iruka just looks genuinely pleased to see them. Well, to see Naruto. His nostrils actually flare when he looks at Kakashi.

"Iruka-sensei!" Naruto half-yells. "I brought you some fish!"

Iruka's eyebrows go up. "You did? That was...very thoughtful of you."

Naruto grins happily, and submits to Iruka playfully ruffling his hair in a way that, if Kakashi tried it, would probably get his hand bitten. "Kakashi-sensei said it was the best," Naruto says, puffed up with pride. "I didn't have any money so Kakashi-sensei--"

Kakashi swiftly clamps one hand over the brat's mouth, but the damage is done. Iruka looks both suspicious and confused, but Kakashi just fans himself with his other hand and says, "It's quite warm out today, isn't it? It wouldn't do for the fish to go off."

Iruka makes the tragic mistake of shifting his weight back onto his left foot, which Naruto takes as an invitation and pushes past him, kicking off his sandals in the entryway before padding off to the kitchen, precious fish in hand. Kakashi takes one smooth step in, only for Iruka to shift himself forward again, leaning a little closer. Kakashi has to admire the economy of the motion -- it manages to convey that Kakashi is not entirely welcome, but that Iruka can't quite bear to be so rude as to actually kick him out. Kakashi just smiles brightly at him.

If he really were a dog, Kakashi reflects, his tail would be wagging so hard it would thump against the wall.

"Oh, fine," Iruka huffs. "I don't even know what you -- fine. But I'm not cooking, just so we're clear."

"I would never dream of it," Kakashi says, with perfect honesty, and then leans in just a bit closer yet, enough to make Iruka visibly uncomfortable. "Please pardon the intrusion," he says sweetly, and he can hear Iruka's sharp inhale. And then he slides off his sandals and strolls into the kitchen.

Naruto is already sitting at the small table wedged in the corner, his legs swinging as he watches Kakashi with more concentration than he ever seems to muster during training. "Are you going to make something super good?"

"We'll see," Kakashi says, pulling open the refrigerator door to inspect the contents.

"I haven't been grocery shopping in a week," Iruka says behind him.

Kakashi looks back at him. "I do enjoy a challenge," he purrs. A vivid blush spreads along the scar crossing Iruka's nose, and then Iruka favors him with a particularly nasty glare.

It is a challenge, because some of the vegetables are wilted, and Iruka's spice collection has some crucial gaps. Cooking isn't like a jutsu -- it's not a matter of one-to-one replication. If it were, he wouldn't have fed Gai so many terrible experimental meals in his shabby bachelor's kitchen. Gai spent a great deal of time during Kakashi's initial foray into mastering the culinary arts with his complexion matching his jumpsuit.

Kakashi hates cooking for just himself, and never bothers to put any effort into cooking in the field -- rations are fuel, and nothing more. But here, in Iruka's kitchen, he feels equal to and eager for the challenge. Iruka's kitchen is nicely outfitted -- bright and reasonably clean, with orange enameled pots that Kakashi would lay money on being inherited from his mother, if only because while Iruka's kitchen looks very nice, it doesn't get a tremendous amount of use.

Kakashi assembles his battle plan, and goes to work. He hums a bit to himself, and his concentration is broken only when Iruka moves forward and says awkwardly, "Can I help?"

"Oh dear, I thought you had no intention of cooking," Kakashi drawls.

Iruka looks highly embarrassed. "Look," he says in a low tone, obviously trying not to be overheard by Naruto, "I'm just -- I'm not very good. But if you tell me what to do--"

"Then you'll do what I want?" Kakashi says, his voice husky with the effort to keep it down. Iruka's eyes meet his, and the frisson of heat between them has nothing to do with the stove. And then Kakashi breaks the mood by saying, "Wash the negi, then, will you?"

Like dough still rising in a pan, Kakashi knows they're not ready yet. But he'll keep making excuses to come back to this place, with its warmth and mismatched tea towels, with Naruto's cheerful burbling and the sound of fish sizzling in a hot pan, with a feeling that Kakashi's not yet willing to label -- but when he does, he might be tempted to call it home.

When dinner is ready, Iruka takes his first bite, looks appreciative and says, "It's delicious" -- and Kakashi knows that, like a good meal, Iruka will be worth the effort and the wait.