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A New School of Magic

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Iruka was having a busy week. Sasuke was still in the hospital following his confrontation with Gaara, and Naruto, who had always healed fast, had never really been hospitalized at all. That left the boy with too much free time and no one in his team to hang out with. Which meant he was bored. Which meant he was hungry. Iruka had treated him to ramen three days in a row and fully expected to spot that tousled head of blonde hair the moment his class let out for the day. He didn't really mind being used as a distraction. He just wished Naruto would hurry up and visit Sasuke before his favorite ex-teacher went broke.

His busy but normal week was disturbed when he stepped out of the academy to find, not Naruto, but Kakashi waiting for him. That was unusual, but not precisely strange. They had gotten along better lately, no more embarrassed explosions that led Kakashi to put him, condescendingly, in his place. He was the chuunin, Kakashi was the jounin, he was the former teacher, Kakashi was the current teacher. Iruka had come to terms with it. He had no problem being calm and friendly on the occasions they ran into each other. And there was always the possibility that Naruto had been bugging Kakashi as much in the last week as he had Iruka. That would explain why Kakashi might wait for him after his classes.

The strangeness began with Kakashi's appearance. He was wearing a plain blue cloth band over his eye instead of his forehead protector. His clothes were unusual in their casualness - a long black coat that was unbuttoned just enough to show a dark gray shirt and black pants combined with his typical cloth mask. Even his shoes were different, black boots that wouldn't be practical in anything requiring taijutsu. It wasn't unheard of for a ninja to dress casually, even eccentrically - Gai's green spandex was a prime example. But the lack of a forehead protector stood out. Most ninja didn't even take them off for festivals, the hitaiate standing out in glaring contrast to loose kimonos and formal wear. He had never expected to see Kakashi without that.

The strangeness got worse when Kakashi saw him, let out a startled laugh, and started circling and eyeballing him. Iruka tensed and blushed and stood rooted in place, his head turning one way and then the other to follow the circling jounin. Kakashi circled him three times, slowly, staring, before coming to a stop in front of him. Then he gave that laugh again. Iruka found the furious blush burning his face.

"What?" Iruka snapped. Embarrassing him when he had spoken out of place was one thing. They had gotten past that. There was no reason for Kakashi to look at him like that without at least explaining the joke first.

"You look good," Kakashi said, his tone happily surprised. "Got some nice muscles going for you. Been working out?"

Iruka blinked and frowned, that blush darkening even more. "Of course," he said sharply. Teaching at the academy wasn't a stationary job no matter what some people liked to think. Admittedly he didn't train as often as he would have liked to, especially recently with Naruto roping him into nightly ramen trips. He still stayed in shape as much as possible with his schedule. A few shinobi children might be nothing to a ninja, but a whole class of them was at least as challenging to control as a C rank mission. And he did it daily.

"That's good," said Kakashi. He sounded thoughtful now, a sly thoughtful, the way he would have sounded if someone had asked him what the little orange books he read were about and he was considering whether or not to enlighten, and possibly traumatize, the curious person. "I like that," he murmured, so quietly Iruka wasn't sure he had heard him correctly. "Should let him out of bed more often..."

Iruka was sure he had heard that last part wrong. If he hadn't, he was going to pretend he had. Jounin were secretive about their personal affairs. It was common practice in a role where anyone close was a potential target. He hadn't heard anything about Kakashi having a lover before and as far as he was concerned, he still hadn't heard anything. He ignored that little part of him that jerked in annoyance, disappointment, and maybe a dash of jealousy. He barely found time to train, forget a personal life.

"Can I help you?" Iruka asked, testy now. "Did you need something?"

"You don't want to chat with me?" Kakashi blinked. His expression, what little of it was visible, sobered abruptly. He almost sounded suspicious and...angry, maybe. "You don't like me?"

Iruka had heard plenty of rumors about Kakashi. That he could be too serious, or too flippant depending on his mood. That he liked to torment and poke at his friends, or drive them to over exuberant craziness like poor Gai. That he mocked his students with jokes that weren't funny and made no sense. That he was a lazy loner who didn't associate with anyone or do anything unless he had to. Iruka had heard it all, but he had never experienced any of it firsthand. To be blunt, he was below Kakashi's line of sight. So he had no idea if Kakashi were serious or joking, and he didn't particularly care either way. This weirdness was as tiring as distracting Naruto for days on end.

"I like you fine, Kakashi-sensei," Iruka said calmly. "I'm just curious what you wanted to talk to me about. Is this about your team?"

Kakashi shrugged, still eyeing him with a strange mix of disappointment and resentment, though it didn't seem aimed at Iruka in particular. "My team. Ah, I guess that's good. Tell me about them. They're young, eh? Talented?"

"Of course," Iruka frowned. Was he doubting that? "Are you worried because Sasuke's still in the hospital? You shouldn't be. He'll be out soon enough. Naruto told me about their fight with Gaara." That half of it was certainly exaggerated went unsaid; if Kakashi wasn't familiar with Naruto by now, he never would be. "They're definitely the strongest genin in Konoha right now, even if Shikamaru was the only one to pass the exam. Asuma-sensei says he's even more of a genius than Sasuke, so that's no surprise. He'd do well leading Team 7 in the future." He winced a little and added, "Providing he learns to work with women. Sakura would probably kill him if he-"

"I'm not really interested in girls," Kakashi cut him off. "Where are the boys now? Sasuke's in the hospital, be out soon, that's good. What about Naruto?"

Iruka had flinched at the casual dismissive statement. His first instinct was to defend Sakura. She wasn't as powerful as her male teammates, but she showed plenty of potential and she was definitely less troublesome than either of the boys. He kept his tongue just because of that - Sakura wasn't troublesome. Maybe Kakashi was simply worried about the rivalry that had kept Naruto roaming around Konoha for the last few days instead of admitting he was worried about his teammate and just visiting him already. If Kakashi had decided to step in and talk to Naruto about it, that was a good thing.

"He's probably bothering Shikamaru or playing somewhere with Konohamaru. If it's the first, you might try talking to Asuma-sensei."

"Asuma," Kakashi repeated, as if testing the name in his mouth. He didn't seem to notice the confused way Iruka was staring at him. "You think we get along?"

"I..." Iruka blinked and frowned at Kakashi, a dash of worry starting to build in his stomach. There was something really wrong here if Kakashi were asking him whether or not one of his closest friends 'got along' with him. Iruka barely even spoke to Kakashi, let alone Asuma. How was he supposed to know?

"I would think so," Iruka said, finally. "I hear he's one of your closest friends after Gai-sensei..."

"All right, then," Kakashi said, smiling suddenly and looking relieved. "I tell you what, Iru-kun, it's just not right for us not to get along better. I'll do you a favor. The next time you see me, you return the favor and I promise, we'll be a lot closer. The way we should be."

The strangeness that had started the moment Iruka stepped out of the academy peaked then and tipped over from the realm of strangely weird into the pool of outright bizarre.

Kakashi eased to him, slipped his arms around him and bent him into a probing kiss that was, quite frankly, a little too familiar and stimulating for Iruka to handle. He did it as if he'd been kissing him for years, and his hands...they went right to the small of his back and his neck and...teased...rubbing sensitive spots Iruka hadn't even known were there. The kiss and the embrace smothered him and he made a small whimpering sound in the back of his throat that he would obsess over and be mortified about for the rest of the week while he hid out for fear of running into Kakashi again and being expected to 'return the favor.'

A moment later, Kakashi stepped back with a pleased hum. He adjusted his mask slowly enough so Iruka had a clear view of his face. Then he winked and disappeared without so much as a waft of the usual smoke and breeze accompanied by teleportation jutsu. Iruka was left standing in shock, his lips feeling bruised and damp, his fingers tingling, goosebumps breaking out on his arms, and his thoughts frozen for an indeterminable time before he snapped out of it, blushed furiously, and teleported to his apartment to start the aforementioned obsessing and hiding.

.-.

Iruka wasn't the only one in Konoha under the impression that Asuma was one of Kakashi's closest friends. What he didn't realize was that 'second closest friend' didn't mean much when it came to Hatake Kakashi, and even less when it came to Asuma. The rough chainsmoking man got along with everybody. He didn't ask questions, didn't say anything unless there was a reason to, so it was easy for a loner to just happen to spend time near him now and then. That was the extent of their friendship. They were at ease in each other's company, didn't mind exchanging words now and then, and shared a mutual trust and respect if they were ever on a mission together. Aside from that, Kakashi visited Asuma about as often as he sought out Gai. Meaning not at all.

Shikamaru marked the visit as suspicious immediately. He had never once seen Kakashi come to talk to Asuma during his entire time as part of Asuma's team. Not once. That alone was strange enough to make him pay lazy, but very careful, attention.

Asuma didn't seem to think anything strange about it, since he was easygoing and it wasn't hard to assume Kakashi had just happened to be passing by. The sudden questions made him raise a bushy eyebrow, and he did look at Kakashi for a moment before answering. But his casual demeanor never changed, an easy smile, loose tone, and relaxed leaning in the booth across from his newly graduated student while he talked with his sometime friend. He made one comment about Kakashi's outfit and that was all.

"I'm slumming," Kakashi had answered, with a deadpanned expression that made Asuma snort and light up a fresh cigarette. "Tell me, in your opinion, which boys are the strongest in Konoha right now?"

"That a loaded question?" Asuma drawled. He didn't wait for Kakashi to answer. He just waved a hand at the seemingly inattentive Shikamaru sitting across from him. "He's the only one who made it to chuunin. Eh, Shikamaru?"

Shikamaru glowered and hunched over his untouched meal. He was used to the casual and not-so-casual praise he had been getting. He didn't care anymore. What he didn't like was the avid way Kakashi was looking him over. It was almost disturbing.

"I see," Kakashi murmured. He eyed Shikamaru until his slow smile closed the visible eye. Then he turned back to Asuma. "And after him?"

"Sasuke," Asuma shrugged.

He didn't put any emphasis on the name. He knew Kakashi wasn't begging for compliments on his team, so he took it as nothing more than a fellow leader asking his opinion of the current genin in the village. This wasn't the first time he had discussed that. Gai had talked his ear off about the exact same thing a week before the exam, getting more and more heated at how low some of his team members were ranked on Asuma's scale. At least with Kakashi, Asuma knew he wouldn't get any arguments. Kakashi wanted to hear his opinion, not to force his own onto someone else.

"Sasuke," Kakashi repeated.

"Yeah," Asuma muttered, taking a drag off his cigarette and exhaling to the side where it wouldn't hit Shikamaru in the face. "Same as what we thought before the exam. Most promising genin and all that. I would have put Hyuuga next, but Naruto beat him, so I guess he's grown a lot lately. So I'd say Naruto, then Neji. Tough after that. That Aburame Shino's a wild card. No telling how he'd fare in a fight with any of the others. I would have tied him up with Lee if, you know, he weren't so bad off."

"Bad," Kakashi prodded, making it a question more than a statement.

"No telling if he'll recover," Asuma said, quiet and frowning now. "Gai's real messed up over it. But that Lee...one tough kid taking on Gaara like that. Just bad luck he had to match up with him."

"About Gaara," Kakakashi prodded again, a little less casual now.

Asuma didn't seem to notice the way Shikamaru tensed and shot Kakashi a sharp look.

"Yeah," Asuma sighed, as if Kakashi had said something besides the kid's name. "I don't think we'll be seeing much of the Sand for a while. Good thing. We have enough trouble now as it is..."

"So," Kakashi said, casual again, "if Gaara weren't Sand you'd put him...?"

"I would have said over all of ours," Asuma scowled. "Knowing what he is," and he shot a pointed look at Kakashi, since he couldn't mention containers in front of Shikamaru. "But then Naruto beat him, well, with help from Sasuke in that match, still Naruto mostly. I guess he'd be up there with the two of them. He's got no self control, though. He'll never make chuunin like that, powerful or not."

Kakashi nodded. "So after Lee, assuming he recovers...?"

"Then it gets all messy," said Asuma. "You're just talking about the boys, right? Well, I'd say Kiba and then Chouji. You know, Chouji could be up there with Hyuuga Neji if he had to be, if he ever went full out. Not much that can get him motivated enough for that though, aside from Shikamaru. I've got a real loyal team."

He flashed a fond, surly look at his student. Shikamaru grimaced and shifted in his seat. Kakashi beamed.

"Ah, loyalty," Kakashi sighed, "such a good trait."

"Yeah," Asuma snorted with a half grin, his cigarette clamped in his teeth. "Not that you'd know much about that. I hear Naruto still hasn't visited Sasuke. He was down there with Shikamaru the other day, checking up on Lee, you know, and didn't so much as peek in on his teammate. That's poor morale you got there, Kakashi."

Kakashi sighed, looking playfully sad. "Ah, guess I'll have to work on that. Lock them in a room together, maybe."

Asuma stared for a second and then let out a barking laugh, almost dropping his cigarette. "Best damn idea you've had yet. Should have done it right from the start, you ask me."

"Well, better late than never," smiled Kakashi. He stood smoothly and flashed a look at Shikamaru. It wasn't a suspicious look, but it made the boy's eyes sharpen noticeably. "You two busy later?"

Asuma shrugged and scrubbed his cigarette out on a saucer. "I got stuff, probably should of gone to it a while ago."

"What about you?" Kakashi asked Shikamaru, his eye crinkling closed as he smiled.

"Why?" asked Shikamaru, his tone more suspicious than annoyed. Asuma finally noticed and gave him a faint frown.

"I was hoping you'd help me hunt down Naruto," Kakashi beamed. "He won't be so quick to run off if he thinks it's just you, right? I wouldn't want him to catch on that I plan to get him to visit Sasuke, after all."

Shikamaru gave him a long stare. There was something off. It wasn't just Kakashi's odd outfit. It was the way he had talked with Asuma as if he were only pretending to be causal, when really he had been paying avid attention to every bit of information he could get. There wasn't enough strangeness to tell anyone about it, but he thought it would be a good idea to keep an eye on Kakashi, until the reason for the strangeness was revealed.

On the other hand, finding Naruto and helping to get him to visit his teammate was more trouble than it was worth. Way too much trouble. He knew Naruto had only egged him into visiting Lee because it gave him an excuse to go to the hospital. Naruto didn't need encouragement to visit Sasuke. What he needed was to get Sakura out of the room so he wouldn't feel like a third uncomfortable wheel. Every time Naruto dragged him out for a visit to Lee, she was already there visiting Sasuke. And if Kakashi hadn't figured that out yet, he was acting even stranger than Shikamaru had suspected.

"Mendokuse," Shikamaru sighed, frowning at Kakashi.

"Is that a yes?" Kakashi beamed back at him.

"I guess," said Shikamaru, with a reluctance that went bone deep. He hated it when his responsibility led him to doing things that were so troublesome. "I already know where he'll be, anyway."

The same place he had been for days. Naruto might have made a habit of being surprising, but when it came to his personal life he was entirely too predictable. Maybe it would come as a shock to Kakashi to find his student sitting and staring at Hokage mountain. That boy brooded more than Sasuke. Shikamaru was just one of the few people who had ever paid enough attention to notice.

.-.
TBC