The tall red and white dog appeared at his side from the darkness silently, padding along just as if she had always been there when he turned the corner beneath the dim streetlight to leave the Academy grounds. She was wound in white cloth wrappings from ears to chest and was wearing both a Konoha hitai-ate around her neck and a blue cape marked with familiar black symbols on it.
"You really should talk this out with him, sensei-san," the dog said to him in a soft, feminine voice. "It's the only reasonable thing to do."
Iruka looked down at the dog and frowned. He didn't enjoy being scolded - no matter how gently - by a dog. She glanced up at him as they continued walking, her manner businesslike and brisk at first, then slipping toward downcast and humble as he continued to frown sternly at her. Before they'd gone more than a block away from the Academy along evening-quiet streets, her long whip-like tail was drooping behind her and she was looking quite dejected.
"You're very stubborn, sensei-san," she said, shooting him a mildly petulant look.
"You know he's just making you do his dirty work, Uuhei-chan," Iruka said at last, as sternly as possible. Completely forgetting that since he was annoyed with her, he shouldn't be sticking the familiar honorific on the end of her name if he wanted her to keep that fact in mind. The ninja dog looked up at him from her startlingly pale blue eyes and panted once in a quick dog-like smile, realizing full well by that slip-up that it wasn't really her he was angry with, and thus leaving the door wide open for her to pester him further. She wagged her tail cheerfully. Irritated with himself, Iruka shifted the stack of class record books he held in his left arm to a more comfortable position, making certain to keep his throwing hand free as a properly wary shinobi should. He was hyper conscious of his training these days. Ever since… he shook the grim memory away firmly.
"He's truly very sorry, sensei-san. He is. I've never seen him this way - he can't rest. So why won't you speak with him yet?" Her pink tongue lolled slightly from her mouth as she spoke.
Iruka met the dog's pleading gaze as coolly as possible and firmly tamped down the automatic flash of concern. Damn Kakashi anyway. He was far too clever; the man well knew he had a particular soft spot for Uuhei. He sighed and the dog's ears pricked up slightly as they walked on, her doggy brows rising with growing hope, a little bounce returning to her stride. A happier dog already by just anticipating improved communications between her master and the chuunin teacher.
After a moment, she looked at him reproachfully; he wasn't rubbing her ears yet, and the look said he always knew just exactly where to scratch best… She let out a longing sigh, still looking up at him with doggy optimism.
"He embarrassed me, Uuhei-chan," Iruka said, jerking his gaze away from the dog's before he succumbed to her ploy. She was a ruthless hunter who always brought down her prey, he knew; it didn't matter how her mission had been altered by the one who had summoned her.
"Respectfully, sensei-san, he often embarrasses you," the dog said gravely, a little of the bounce leaving her step again when it became clear he wasn't going to pet her yet. "Why was this time so different?"
"Not like this he doesn't," Iruka said stiffly before letting out a heavy sigh. "And not on Visit Day…"
Uuhei sighed too, sobering completely as the heart of the dissention between her master and Iruka was mentioned at last. "Master forgot. He was weary from the mission and misremembered the date… truly…" Iruka snorted impatiently, irritation and indignation rising. He stepped up his pace, wanting to get home as soon as possible but not quite ready to take to the rooftops to try to shake her. Not that he could for long anyway… but he'd give her a run for a little while. He'd had a lot of practice trying to avoid Kakashi's dogs lately. Uuhei changed tactics, apparently recognizing that she'd lost ground with him. She sighed once more, a deep, weary sound this time. "We haven't been away since this happened, you know," she said dejectedly, stopping the tail-wagging cold again. "I'm starting to get worried. He hasn't sent us away since. Master's chakra is beginning to get rather thin…"
"I didn't ask him to keep you all around!" Iruka snapped, feeling no guilt for that at all. Even if it had been his punch that had bloodied Kakashi's nose -- which apparently became the blood Kakashi had used to summon his dogs to track Iruka for him through the village once he was asked to leave the utter debacle that had destroyed the carefully rehearsed demonstration of his newest student's abilities to their parents. Visit Day was even his own invention. It had caught on slowly, but this quarter nearly all parents had agreed to come, a few of them respected shinobi curious to see current Academy methods first-hand. But mostly the day was something that Iruka did with and for his beginning students. So it was important to him personally too. To see parents interact with their own children at school; it encouraged the children and strengthened their will to learn. It made him both proud and awed to see how much of a difference it made to his more borderline students. And for those few who had no parents, he had begun to recruit older students to mentor them and act as surrogate siblings on the day. That practice was going quite well so far. So well, that some orphans were perhaps even going to be adopted into their mentoring student's families. Those would be his greatest triumphs, if they happened. He'd been very concerned about general opinion this time because of that.
So it stung… no, it outright hurt… that Kakashi had so blithely interrupted that special day at school with one of his impromptu visits. Being caught in a distinctly compromising clinch by several impressionable young students and their parents had certainly not been the highlight of Iruka's already difficult year. Because no one caught Kakashi if he didn't want to be caught… so the fact that it had happened at all was nearly unforgivable in itself. Tae-kun's mother, a newly elevated jounin, had certainly thought so; grabbing her daughter and hauling her away indignantly, all while practically screaming about perverts loose in the schools and stunted chuunin who should know better than to reach beyond their rank.
He hadn't even been able to find the words to defend himself, utterly stunned by the woman's venom. And Kakashi hadn't helped at all by calling the woman a jealous old crow… the result of which had been the room erupting further into chaos… which was probably why Iruka had hit him. Then the Godaime herself had asked them both to leave until she could get everyone calmed down, rolling her eyes at the screeching woman the while. That had eased the sting a bit, but still… the humiliation had been intense. His mood had only been capped by Kakashi suddenly deciding he had to go turn in his mission report.
The day actually rated close to being one of the worst of his life. Which was saying quite a bit, considering the Kyuubi.
Of course, so had being estranged from his lover turned out to be - and they were going on day three of that as well - but there were some things that didn't warrant immediate forgiveness. Iruka could put up with the chronic tardiness, the questionable reading material, the languid air of eternal boredom - because he knew most of it was an act. But to so casually humiliate his lower-ranked lover like that at the one event in which he took true pride…
His eyes stung slightly and his chest ached. He fought the sensations back firmly. He just needed a little more distance from the event, that was all… The Godaime had come to him and offered support and understanding to him afterwards, praising the event as a whole and assuring him there was no stain on his record. The jounin in question who had been so abusive had been sternly reprimanded, Tae-kun had been allowed to stay in his class, and things were under control at the Academy again. It was only Kakashi who was the problem now.
He needed an apology from the man that didn't come from the mouth of a dog.
He'd been walking in thoughtful silence for several minutes now and was nearly home. Iruka stopped in the middle of the block that held his apartment, beneath the weak street lamp, and eyed the darkened windows of his unit warily. There was no sense even trying to be stealthy when Kakashi well knew where he lived. Uuhei stopped beside him, still looking up at him longingly, hoping for an ear-scratch. He didn't see or sense anyone lurking about, but he knew that ninja dogs were far better at masking their chakra than a human could ever be.
"Uuhei-chan, please go back and tell him to let all of you rest," Iruka said tightly. That would rest Kakashi as well, but he deliberately didn't say that part.
Uuhei sat down in front of him, her ears pricking high as she looked up at him beseechingly. "Just meet with him, sensei-san. And let him speak before you push him away again."
Iruka met the dog's gaze firmly, steeling himself against the sad entreaty in her eyes.
"So far he isn't able to say the right thing, Uuhei-chan. And he knows it. That's why he keeps sending you guys instead."
The dog stayed silent and Iruka's mouth thinned to a grim, unhappy line as he lifted his gaze to stare blankly at his own apartment's windows. They were empty and dark, mocking him with his continued self-imposed solitude. He didn't enjoy being alone. He never really had. And there wasn't even Naruto to offer to buy dinner for either. He was gone training with Jiraiya-sama. Besides, it wouldn't be fair to use the boy as a buffer anyway. Of course, he could always use a bracing dose of the boy's endless enthusiasm. Being with Naruto almost always had the side-effect of cheering him up and making him smile. He missed the boy terribly. Nearly as much as he missed Kakashi…
"No, sensei-san, that's not it," the dog said finally, cocking her head to the side. "It's that he doesn't know how to say it to you…"
Iruka started, meeting the dog's gaze again for a moment. She looked so earnest. So unhappy. So contrite. Was it an honest reflection of her master's feelings? Conscience prickled him. Kakashi hadn't meant to be deliberately cruel he knew. He'd simply been thoughtless. Selfish. Arrogantly shameless. But then why…?
Iruka heard the soft click of claws behind him and turned to see the huge bulldog, Bull, approaching from behind a tree. His heavy face seemed even more somber than normal.
"Sensei-sama," the dog said, his voice an imposing rumble as he sat down across from Uuhei, a looming shadow at the edge of the weak pool of light. Bull rarely spoke and his low voice was rough from disuse. "Won't you listen this time?"
Iruka sighed, closed his eyes wearily. "You're missing the point…"
"Sensei-san?" He opened his eyes to see that Guruko and Urushi had joined the other two at the edge of the circle and were now sitting rigidly at attention. For once the wolf-dog Urushi didn't look as if she'd far rather be bathing in one's blood. Her gaze was actually slightly soft - for her; she was growling only a little bit. While Guruko was just blinking at him accusingly from under his hitai-ate, his long, soft ears drooping over the binding cloth even further than usual. He knew them both so well; Urushi -chan whimpered with delight when he clipped the knotted hair out from between her pads, while Guruko liked to be slipped fishcake from ramen bowls.
Iruka frowned, shifting uneasily. Until now Kakashi's dogs had approached him one at a time to plead their master's case. Was this a new tactic to break down his resolve all at once?
He drew a breath to order them all away shen something brushed his foot. He looked down to find little Bisuke with a paw placed on a sandaled foot to catch his attention. The essence of stealth, he would never have sensed her otherwise. "Sensei-chan?" she said in her soft little voice. Her drooping eyes looked up at him hopefully, their expression even more wan and sad than usual. He crouched down automatically, his hand reaching out to stroke her over the character-charm for stealth etched into her forehead. She whined softly, butting her head up against his hand until he scratched her behind the ears. Then she closed her eyes with a contented sigh and leaned into his touch.
"Please… everyone…" he whispered, throat tight as he glanced around. Yes, there were Shiba and Akino now as well, one on either side of him; Shiba's usual goofy happy-dog expression gone somber and the topknot on his head drooping, and Akino blinking at him directly from over his obscuring sunglasses for once and looking to be in dire need of a good combing.
The only one missing now was Pakkun. And their master Kakashi, of course.
"He really doesn't play fair," Iruka said with a sigh, sliding forward onto his knees and setting down his books on the stone curb before gathering little Bisuke up into his arms. She snuggled under his chin with a happy whuffle, burying her cold nose inside the collar of his vest as Iruka closed his eyes in defeat.
He could face them down one at a time… but all at once?
"Of course he doesn't play fair; he's jounin. They can't afford to. You should know that already, sensei," came the gruff, chiding words from somewhere behind him. Pakkun's voice. All of the hunter dogs surrounded him now. It was a position any other ninja would die from if they found themselves in it, and yet all he felt was an ache in his chest that was more sadness and regret than fear.
"Enough, Pakkun," a low voice said from somewhere beyond the circle of dogs. Iruka stiffened slightly, arms tightening around Bisuke until she whined and squirmed in his grasp.
"You are here…" he breathed, keeping his eyes closed and his head bowed. A trembling started deep inside of him, causing Bisuke to whine again, then lick at his chin reassuringly.
"Iruka-sensei," Kakashi said quietly, from closer this time. Iruka could feel the other man's chakra now, familiar and powerful, smoldering at the edge of his senses. He could tell Kakashi had stopped halfway between Shiba and Urushi-chan, gaze no doubt fixed on the prey caught in the center of the dog's circle. Him. Iruka gave Bisuke a last gentle squeeze and set her down on the ground in front of him with a sigh. Then he turned and looked straight at his errant lover who he hadn't seen in three days.
The first thing he noticed was the other man's exhaustion. Kakashi's face was pale and haggard beneath his mask even by the faint light of the old streetlight, his single exposed eye deeply circled. Even his bushy hair seemed to droop with weariness. The jounin was crouched low to the ground, braced forward on one fist, ready for action, but still it looked as if he had barely slept over the last few days. Indeed, Iruka realized suddenly, he might not have slept at all since that day… and he'd been on a difficult mission the whole week before that too. Sharp concern washed through him, followed swiftly by tendrils of guilt. He frowned, then said before he could stop himself, "Well, you look terrible. You'd better release the summoning jutsu soon before you faint."
Kakashi's single eye burned, its gaze hollow and raw, holding his with unwavering intensity. "Will you run again?"
Iruka swallowed through a suddenly tight throat but shook his head once, unable to tear his gaze away. Kakashi's gaze searched his for a moment longer, looking for reassurance. Whether he found it or not, Iruka couldn't be certain, but finally Kakashi bent his head. Swaying slightly, he lifted his bracing hand from the ground and made a quick dispelling hand-sign. The dogs disappeared from around them with little claps of imploding air, leaving only small swirls of smoke behind.
"They're gone," Kakashi murmured, stating the obvious.
Iruka just waited in silence, still watching the other man from where he knelt in the thankfully empty street, his hands lying flat on his thighs. But doing more than just watching him, actually, he acknowledged with a touch of guilt somewhere deep inside. He was devouring Kakashi hungrily with his gaze, all while sternly fighting the intense urge to go over and wrap his arms around him and draw his head down onto his shoulder and tell him to rest at last. But remembered humiliation and a sharp sense of betrayal still lingered.
"Why?" he asked instead, the word a plea disguised as a question.
Kakashi shifted, his eye closing briefly before he met Iruka's glare somberly. "I behaved badly, sensei. I have no good excuse… save that I misjudged how drained I was by the mission."
Iruka swallowed hard, taken aback for a moment. But the memory of humiliation still flared sharp. "But why right there at the Academy?" Iruka demanded, his voice rising until it was shrill with pained anger. Maybe he wasn't ready to face Kakashi again yet after all. He clenched his hands into fists where they lay on his thighs, aware that he was trembling slightly. "Why couldn't you wait until later to… to… maul me like a…"
"…because I had to see you as soon as I returned," Kakashi interrupted him, expression gone fixed and more than a little grim as he snapped off the words in a rush. Almost as if he didn't expect Iruka to let him finish.
But Iruka could only blink back at him in shock, unable to form words of his own in light of what he had heard.
"I couldn’t wait," Kakashi continued gruffly, lifting his chin higher as Iruka stayed silent, his gaze holding steady on Iruka's as he pulled the hitai-ate away from his face until blue and red eyes both were boring into Iruka's startled ones. "So I came to see you even before I filed my mission report. Only for a moment. Just long enough to be certain you were… ah, but once I got my hands on you again -- I couldn't seem to let go." The mismatched eyes glittered faintly with pained remorse before the gray-white head bent. "I deeply regret having ruined your special day, Umino-sensei."
Iruka's heart jerked oddly in his chest as he stared at that bent head, pulse throbbing in his ears suddenly with something akin to panic. He knew his mouth had fallen open in pure stunned amazement but he couldn't make it close as the improbable thought flashed through his mind that he might just have been offered -- in an odd, backhanded, Kakashi kind of way, of course -- an incredibly rare and precious gift; a glimpse straight into Hatake Kakashi's heart.
He felt a wash of heat stain his cheeks as the implications of Kakashi's words tumbled through his mind, shattering his pre-conceived notions and rocking his certainty. It hadn't been arrogance, but raw need that had driven him. Not simply a desire to tease or discomfit Iruka that had made him act so recklessly, but an overwhelming longing to be close to someone again after a week apart. Something that, Iruka had learned piecemeal and from careful sifting of Kakashi's evasions over time, the jounin had not allowed himself to do for many, many years… if ever.
He felt suddenly small and petty. And the anger at the memory of what he now understood to be inadvertent exposure faded before a growing sense of shame for his own failure to recognize Kakashi's need for what it was ssoner. Because no one took Kakashi unaware - unless he was unconscious… or unless he was so focused on one thing he simply couldn't notice.
Iruka swallowed hard as tears stung his eyes. Him. Kakashi had been completely and utterly focused on him.
Dazed, Iruka let himself remember the oddly heated intensity he'd felt in Kakashi's embrace in the heady moments before everything went so wrong. The way half-gloved hands had cupped his face so gently for a long, breathless instant when he first saw him. The way rough fingertips had stroked across his skin, tracing his brows, smoothing across his lips, skimming along the bridge of his nose as if for reassurance that everything was just as remembered. Then the way the single eye went desire-dark with shocking speed just before Kakashi yanked his mask down in order to devour Iruka's mouth with his own. The faint quiver he thought he'd felt in the lean body pressing his so tightly against the wall of the classroom that he could barely breathe. The sharp contrast with the curiously gentle hold that had held his wrists trapped above his head.
And most of all, here and now, he reminded himself of the way he'd surrendered utterly to the embrace; groaning hungrily into Kakashi's mouth in return and even wrapping one leg around his hips to press him even closer without sparing another thought of his own for the group of people he had known were on their way to that very classroom.
He'd been just as much to blame for the ensuing humiliation as Kakashi, Iruka acknowledged at last with a small gasp.
"Y-you didn't ruin the whole day," Iruka said hoarsely, his heart thundering wildly in his chest and interfering with his voice. "The kissing part was pretty nice." Kakashi's head jerked up abruptly and both eyes blazed at him. "I think I'd like to give that part a try again… maybe… just to see if it was as nice as I remember..."
Almost before the last words had left his mouth, Kakashi was kneeling beside him, hard arms closing tight around him right there in the middle of the street. Iruka clutched wildly at the back of the jounin's vest as his cheek was pressed against the other man's, the mask riding slick between them.
They just stayed like that for endless minutes
"Forgive me," Iruka said into his ear.
"No need," Kakashi replied.