Actions

Work Header

Unbreakable Bonds

Work Text:

 

Sakura’s got Kakashi’s blood under her fingernails and Iruka’s hitai-ate in her (shaking) hands. Her legs are tingling their way back to life from sitting and healing frantically until she was ready to drop. She thanks her lucky stars for what feels like the thirtieth time in the last four hours.

Both men are standing together in the entrance-way to her parents closed shop, looking like a pair of mismatched, bedraggled crows with their long black cloaks. Kakashi is half leaning on Iruka’s shoulder, grey hair sagging without his headband. There’s a pink band over it now, hastily snatched from her vanity when he appeared, bloody and broken, at her window in Iruka-sensei’s arms.

Blood still stains the sill. Kakashi’s still got bruises from where Tsunade had beaten his ass for -- apparently -- getting eloped! In secret!

To Iruka-sensei no less!

Sakura knows she’s staring. She’s almost out of chakra after healing Kakashi’s ribs from broken to merely cracked, from sealing a barrage of terrible gashes that made his body look like it fought a tiger and lost, badly.

But she’d never thought about her sensei having relationships. Those were things that happened to other people, not Kakashi, who would be chronically late to his own funeral someday. Especially not Iruka-sensei, who was a stable figure of childhood. Like parents, and the Shodaime’s forest, and Ino.

That they’d elope together isn’t the problem. That they’d do it without permission isn’t a problem, either! She doesn’t care if they’re both men or if they’re both idiots, but they’re both stable figures (more or less) of her life. She can’t believe this is how they’re bowing out.

“She threw him out the window,” Iruka’d said gravely, when Sakura unlocked her window, clad in the over-large t-shirt and shorts she’d worn to bed, fist raised and ready to brain whatever idiot was outside her window.

“Hurry,” Iruka implored, Kakashi’s head curled against his collarbone from where he held him against his chest.

Now, dawn was three hours away and both of Sakura’s sensei’s were -- apparently -- getting thrown out of the village.

“I’m not supposed to get married to a man,” Kakashi's explained, voice grave as she ever knew it to be. “Last of the clan, preserve the bloodline, yadda yadda.”

Iruka had been eerily silent while she’d gotten to work healing Kakashi. He’d been a quiet presence at her side, handing her towels, water, salve, bandages -- anything she needed almost before she needed it.

It was only after, when she finally sat back on her vanity stool with a sigh, that she’d noticed he was shaking.

“Sensei, are you alright?” She’d asked like an idiot.

“Oh, just fine.” Iruka’s smile was brittle and heartbreaking. He’d scratched the scar on his nose and looked away. Shame?

But when she reached out to sense his aura and try to get a feel for his mood, she almost jerked back at the feeling of furious chakra leaching out of him in waves.

It stutters to a stop when Kakashi sits up, reaching across to brush his knuckles across the back of Iruka’s hand.

Sakura draws a breath, mesmerized. There are rings. Two of them, shining with a chakra binding seal, on each of their ring fingers. Married. They got married, told Tsunade, and Kakashi had -- gotten disowned? Disgraced?

“I can’t believe she’d do this to you,” Sakura whispers. Traitors? Because of love? What the hell kind of reason was that? She’d drawn a great, heaving breath, and helped them gather supplies from the store downstairs. “I’m sorry I don’t have any soldier pills made, but this should be enough to help you a little.”

Now they stood in her entrance-way. Their heads were drawn together, mouths less than an inch apart while they whispered furiously to each other. Finally Iruka turned, lips pressed into a thin line.

“Thank you. Sakura, I know we can’t ask more from you than we already have,” Iruka’s eyes have dark shadows beneath them, like he hasn’t slept in a week. Sakura remembers a young sensei who energetically ran around after the foolish class clowns in her class. A sensei who had their best interests at heart, always. The only one in the entire village with a soft spot for Naruto.

The one who taught children to love the village, no matter what, more than anything.

Sakura’s hands curl into fists at her sides. She can feel herself shaking in anger. She reins tight on her emotions, holding them at bay while she meets his eyes.

The corner of his lip curls up when he asks, eyes bright and shining in the dim light of the kitchen behind her.

“Please, don’t tell Naruto.”

And Sakura, clever (foolish), strong (weak), Sakura, bows her head as they bid her farewell for the last time. As they, too, turn their backs on her.

--

They’re two shadows flying over the rooftops towards the south gate when Kakashi breaks into a soft chuckle. “Sensei, I didn’t know you had a mischievous side! I thought you were going to break cover by laughing in her face.”

Iruka almost misses his footing, skidding across tiles slightly. He ducks his head in the dark cloak he’s wrapped around. He’s not proud of it. She was so concerned, so full of righteous fury. He knew Sakura was a good person. He’s not sure Konoha, let alone the Godaime, will survive her wrath. “Really? Kakashi, I was infamous.”

Kakashi hmms to himself, dropping down in the shadow of an alley next to the gate. The Chuunin pair manning it are -- distracted with each other.

Behind him, Iruka sighs. “Kotetsu.”

Kotetsu, tongue down Izumo’s throat, is oblivious to the killing intent from the gate.

“Well it is late.” Kakashi says brightly, turning to Iruka with what could only ever be his cheeky grin.

Maybe it was that specific turn of the visible eye. Maybe Iruka was a lot better at reading bullshit when it smacked him in the face and married him.

“Let's just get this over with.”

“Right,” Kakashi’s tone is grim so fast Iruka might have gotten whiplash were he anyone else. “The faster we get this done, the better.”

Iruka watches his friends trip over themselves as they get distracted by the illusion Kakashi sets their way. He a prayer to the sky that this ridiculous mission won’t fail.

He looks back once as they high tail it out of Konoha, heart pounding and nerves strangling his gut.

--

Tsunade’s got a bottle of sake balanced in her lap. She’s got an S rank scroll open in front of her. Nobody’s in the room save for Kakashi, Iruka, and Tsunade.

Iruka’s trying not to let the chill run up his spine. He’s got a thousand things to do but it’s this sort of anxiety that sets his skin prickling.

“What’s up?” Kakashi asks after the silence gets to be too oppressive.

Tsunade’s golden eyes snap from Kakashi to Iruka. Iruka resists the urge to leap backwards out the door.

“Have you ever wanted to --” she digs around her cluttered desk, Ahing! When she finds what she’s looking for. She flings it forward on the table. Iruka glances down at it once, twice, and then --

“No,” he says, shaking his head emphatically. “Never.”

Kakashi shrugs mildly, but there’s a charged feeling to the air. “You know I don’t.”

Tsunade’s grin is almost feral. This time Iruka really does take a step back.

“This mission is the kind of hairbrained scheme I chose this job for.” Tsunade slams her hand down on the marriage certificate on the desk. In the other, she takes a great swig from her sake bottle.

A little dribbles at the corner of her pretty mouth. Iruka looks down at the mission report on the table, feeling faint.

“The elders would kill you.” Kakashi says, blunt. “They might kill Iruka too.”

“Oh, that’s no problem.” Tsunade waves a hand. “It’s only a problem if they can find him.”

Iruka slightly unfreezes from his position.

“Excuse me,” he lifts his head from where he was reading the mission report. “Does this say a band of married warriors?”

Tsunade nods, gleefully. “It sure does.”

“Give it to Asuma and Kurenai,” Kakashi says, voice cold.

“Can’t. The band is very specific.” She gestures between the two of them with her index fingers, drawing them together. Iruka’s mortified as his face heats up to a thousand degrees. “Only certain couples need apply.”

“Why me? Exactly?” Iruka asks, shifting when both their gazes land on him. He didn’t know the Hokage of all people kept tabs on his sexual preferences. He wasn’t ashamed, but he was a little surprised. The Umino line was going to end with him -- so what? No kekkei genkai to worry about here. “I’m no one special for this sort of important mission.”

“Yeah, why not Gai, or an Anbu?”

Tsunade shakes her head. “You’re more than enough of a high profile to garner the attention of a band like this. You can’t just show up to the Shinsei Sentai and apply, you’ve got to get their attention through infamy.” She sets a hand on her chin. “Unless you want to disgrace Iruka’s reputation, it’s better if I can say Kakashi and the chuunin fucked off and married behind my back instead.”

Iruka bit the inside of his lip, staring down at the table. Of course it made sense logically, but it still stung to be chosen for his unimportance. He’d said it himself hadn’t he? Put the words right in her mouth. It wasn’t like he could fall back on the academy at the moment, with war breaking out he’d been delegated to missions and the war effort more often than not.

“Besides, I can hardly think of anyone better suited, brat. I think our beloved sensei might surprise you.”

“Oh,” Kakashi’s voice is weary with resignation. “That, I don’t doubt.”

--

The mission is as follows:

Infiltrate and eliminate the leaders of the Shinsei Sentai, a band of warriors coming together under the ideals of the leader, Ito Asahi, and his murderous swordsman of a boyfriend known only as Kenji.

According to intelligence, only male couples who wish to form unbreakable bonds with one another are approached. Ito Asahi, the leader, grew up in a gang in some small town that had been rapidly torn apart by gang wars. He’d met his boyfriend from another rival gang and ran away after Konoha interfered and exterminated the leaders of the gangs.

As far as Konoha has been able to determine, they look for challenges to prove their bonds, to strengthen them, to prove that fighting for someone you love will make you stronger beyond jutsu, beyond how much chakra you have. To unlock the hidden depths of the human heart and lay all you are down on the line to keep your lover safe.

Iruka seals the scroll for the thousandth time, tapping it rhythmically against his knee by the fire pit they’d hastily put together. After running across the country for an entire day, Kakashi had finally called a halt to their mad dash from Konoha. They’d set up camp in a small clearing to risk a fire, upwind in the shelter of a rocky crag and a small river. It was almost romantic, despite the circumstances. Across the fire from him, Kakashi’s fanning the flames beneath two skewered fish.

Beyond the campfire the forest is dark, but Iruka senses nothing save a couple squirrels and a sleeping sparrow on her nest above when he pulses his echolocation jutsu.

“How are we going to gain their attention?” He asks, returning the scroll to its relative irrelevant appearance in his flak vest pocket. When he looks up he can see Kakashi’s one visible eye staring at him. Iruka looks down, sheepish.

He thinks Kakashi isn’t answering him on purpose until he pulls the fish back, shucking each one of their skins. He digs meat out of the carcass, plopping pieces at a time into the soup pot boiling away in one corner of the fire.

The smells coming from the pot make Iruka’s stomach growl in protest.

“Oh, we’ll pass through Riverside town and make some noise.” Kakashi’s all smiles when he ladles soup out into bowls. He passes one to Iruka. “Here you go, love.”

Iruka nearly drops it, hissing when it sloshes slightly over his bare skin.

“Don’t do that!” He snaps, cringing and curling his fingers. He blows on them, letting out a hiss of pained breath. No one has called him an endearment like that since -- well -- his mother.

Kakashi grasps his wrist, around the fire and at his side in a flash. His hip is flush against his knee, his knee against his thigh, flipping through signs at a dizzying speed. He blows through his mask and a puff of cold air flows over Iruka’s fingers. It soothes the ache until they sting from cold instead, throbbing and red from burns still.

“Sorry, sensei,” he says once he lets the jutsu die. His hand presses against Iruka’s, scrounging up a little green glow of healing energy. It’s a warm sensation, building up burnt cells and restoring them.

“It’s nothing,” Iruka grouses. “I was just startled.”

Kakashi’s still holding Iruka’s hand even though he’s cut the healing off.

“Perhaps but maybe so, we’re married now.” He tips his head, wrinkling his eyebrows. Iruka looks up at him, realizing with a start just how close they are. “We need to start building habits like these if we want to pass as a real couple.”

Iruka knows he’s right. These are warriors who are so good at fitting with another soul that their fighting is seamless. They know what each other are thinking as though they are one person split into two bodies. There is no fumbling awkwardness. No abuse.

It’s no wonder Kakashi asked for Gai.

Iruka leans close, until all he can see is the handsome silhouette of Kakashi’s face beneath his mask, the grey eye serious as it analyzes the situation.

And that’s what he’s doing -- Iruka realizes. He’s analyzing Iruka for weakness, for his inability to not jerk away when they’re close. For not allowing him to shore up habits so that he doesn’t do the same thing. Kakashi doesn’t let people in or close. The closest person is a man in green spandex who claims he’s his ‘rival’. Beyond that the closest relationship Kakashi holds is with his students.

Iruka’s never seen Kakashi show interest in anyone. Never thought to look for it, but then, he’d never thought Hatake Kakashi could be an option for him.

Iruka takes a deep breath. He pulls his hand free of the hold Kakashi has it in and places it slowly against Kakashi’s cheek.

He leans forward until he feels Kakashi’s soft hair beneath the skin of his bare forehead. And, with a shaky exhale, he closes his eyes, thumbs the mask down, and brushes their lips together.

Kakashi’s lips aren’t inflated, or disfigured, or odd. Naruto will be so disappointed, he thinks, urging the thin lips open with a prod of his tongue. There’s a moment where Iruka thinks Kakashi’s going to stonewall him, push him away, regret every decision he’s ever made, and then his lips part and Iruka tastes a hint of miso broth from the soup he still holds in one cooling hand. He licks, feeling the ribbed roof of his mouth, teeth, the pushing resistance of another tongue warring against his, and then he withdraws, pulling away and turning his head to the side, opening his eyes to stare into the treeline. His breath ghosts Kakashi’s ear.

Iruka pulls the mask back up before he meets his gaze.

“Like that?”

Kakashi clears his throat, shifting away and turning back to the bowl he’d abandoned across the fire.

“Yeah.” His voice is hoarse. “Like that.”

--

The village is one of those small tourist traps, settled between forest and a wide river that splits the town in two. The southern reaches of the land of fire are cut up with rolling hills and bluffs that break up the wind coming off the far off shores of the sea, creating an oppressive atmosphere of heat. Business-men snatched up river-land, building their hotels and resorts on top of old fisherman homes. Now the fisherman live up river, where the currents are strong and unsullied by the filth of business, and the little town is a bustling hovel of sex, gambling, gangs, and whatever other vice they could get up to under the shadow of the rich. All those things young lords about town go for, thoughts far away from the northern wars.

Kakashi keeps his hands in his pockets, shuffling lazily beside Iruka in the street.

The first thing they did upon arrival in Riverside town was get a room at one of the inns off the beaten path. One that was clean and not too flashy, but definitely not as expensive as the resorts. Kakashi let Iruka pick it out just to see what he’d do, and he couldn’t really fault him.

They’d donned civilian clothes before entering the village, sealing their shinobi uniforms and mission scrolls in a sealed scroll that Iruka trapped so well even Kakashi didn’t want to mess with it. Now they looked very much the part of other tourists. Though they’d entered in pretty standard wear -- neither of them spent much time out of their uniforms -- Kakashi had been collecting an eclectic array of touristy merch as they wandered down the row of shops that lined the street. He’d dropped Sakura’s headband for a soft black eyepatch so he could wear a pair of orange sunglasses. A few shops down he’d gotten them matching beach shirts, fitting Iruka into his with a lingering touch on his shoulders.

“Pineapples?” Iruka raises an eyebrow at him, looking him over critically.

“Maah, because you’re so prickly,” he says with a grin.

Kakashi’s still got his tantou at his back and they both have kunai and pouches strapped to their legs. Either way though, Kakashi’s mask and attached shirt are just the first layer behind a faded make out paradise t-shirt and a truly garish shirt covered in green palm trees and orange leaves.

“Aren’t you hot?” Iruka fiddles with the collar of the idiotic beach shirt, wiping sweat out of his brow. Iruka’s only got a tank top under the beach shirt Kakashi put on him.

“Boiling,” Kakashi admits, scratching the back of his head. The heat really is oppressive down in the streets. “Let’s go get something to drink?”

Iruka surveys him, hand reaching out to touch his elbow. “Lead the way.”

Kakashi leads them through the crowds of people for a while, meandering down the lane, listening to the bustle, looking for one specific shop.

The Red Lotus doesn’t look much different on the outside than any other tea house would, but Kakashi recalls it as a front for a pretty mighty gang in the area. The mightiest, in fact. Or at least it was before Kakashi’s mission to this little trap of a town years ago to kill it’s old leader It also just so happens to be the first stop on their plan of gaining their target’s attention.

Kakashi tips his head as they enter the tea house.

Fragrances of mixed incense and tea spices assault his nose instantly, but the air inside is cool. A waitress greets them and takes them down a row of tables to one on the corner, with a view of the narrow side street through slitted, covered windows. Kakashi lays his tantou down on the seat next to him, stretching out his legs under the table and orders a pot of green tea and tangerines.

An entertainer is strumming on a koto, playing a soothing, haunting melody. There are little water fountains on either side of the small stage. Every minute the blocks of the fountains will turn with a little thudding noise, reverberating noise through the house.

Overall the effect was incredibly traditional, and Kakashi noted Iruka plucking a little uncomfortably on his shirt. Kakashi leans forward, grasping Iruka’s hand and pulling it down to the table.

“Don’t worry, they’re used to patrons like us.” He says, tipping his head to the side to draw Iruka’s attention to the tourists in the room.

It’s glaringly obvious that beach shorts and island resort shirts are common out here. Iruka surveys the room with a sulk, glaring at a middle age man with two loa around his neck and two small women under each arm. If looks could kill, Kakashi thinks to himself, sitting back against the smooth wood of the booth wall.

“It doesn’t make me feel any better.”

Kakashi leans back, waving a hand in dismissal, “It’s nothing special, Iruka, just another place pretending to be something it’s not.” He says it louder than he needs to.

“It doesn’t make it right to look sloppy,” Iruka picks up the argument with hardly a blink, voice rising in time to the syllables. His shoulders hunch, elbows knocking as he leans forward over the table like he could do it all day. Remembering the man’s mission desk tirades, he amends his thought: he does do it all day.

“Sweetie,” Kakashi says with a grin, drinking in the way Iruka’s cheeks flush and his lips part in surprise, “This whole place is a sloppy den of idiocy, why care?”

“Kakashi,” Iruka’s voice rises sharply and with a snarl loud enough to startle the waitress coming over with their order.

She gasps, jerking to the side. She drops it, half on the floor and half on the patron behind her. Tangerines fly everywhere, peeled and juicy and sticky. One sails through the air and smacks the only man in the house dressed in a yukata right in the face. Kakashi grins through his mask, anticipation tightening his gut. He couldn’t have predicted an outcome this good if he tried.

“Oh, oh no, I’m so sorry,” Iruka’s up and out of his chair, helping the waitress in a flash. Kakashi watches him pat her down, stripping off the touristy shirt and using it as a makeshift cloth to collect the boiling hot tea burning into her kimono and the bare skin of her hand that got caught by the splash.

“It’s fine!” She says faintly, wavering in place. The customers at the table behind her rise up. One of the burly men has a red stripe across his face from where hot liquid splashed on him.

“You--” The man says, holding a napkin to his face. “Listen here you clumsy idiot--” he strikes out at the waitress. Iruka catches his hand before it can fall, glaring at him.

“It was my fault, sir,” Iruka’s politeness is a vicious snarl. Kakashi can sense a little chakra flowing into the grip he has on the man’s wrist to really bring home his point. The man flinches, pulling his hand away.

“You really have to mind your temper, darling,” Kakashi says mildly, peering over his orange-tinted sunglasses at the scene from his spot.

Iruka’s glare jerks to Kakashi, a snarl on his lips.

Whatever the comeback, Kakashi doesn’t get to hear it. There’s a flash of orange through the air. Kakashi acts on instinct, reaching out and grasping Iruka by the hand. He jerks him down towards him. Iruka’s weight carries him over in a heap, falling into his lap just in time. The tangerine sails over them where Iruka’s head had been a moment ago and splatters on the window slits, ripping paper and sailing out into the streets.

Kakashi’s got one hand on Iruka’s waist, the other reaching for the tantou he’d settled on the seat. Iruka’s face is an inch from his. He can feel his breath on his lips. Feel the beat of his heart against his palm. Iruka rights himself, blushing madly. Kakashi leaps up onto the seat cushions, kicking his flip flops off under the table. He’s got his tantou in his lap, a grin on his unseen lips.

“An impressive throw!” Kakashi whistles. Beside him, Iruka smacks his forehead with his palm for a moment before remembering himself.

Across the room the koto player has stopped. The man in the yukata stands on the stage instead, one hand on his sword, breathing heavily.

“Who dare throw food in this house?”

Kakashi winks down at Iruka, who chokes around a laugh.

“Hatake Kakashi,” Kakashi says, rising from his crouch, pulling his tantou into his lap. The irate customers and the waitress in front of their table all take a step back. “Hiroaka-san.”

“Hatake Kakashi,” Hiroaka repeats with a drawl, burly arms folded over his chest. His yukata has the swooping crest of his gang on the back. His hair, ridiculously, is in an old time queue. As though he were a samurai of renown instead of a gangster who got lucky when Kakashi took out his former boss. “Still kicking, hmm?”

Hiroaka thumbs his katana open. Instantly, five young men rise from various tables, all holding katana. “What brings you back to my town?”

Kakashi shrugs. “Seemed like a good honeymoon destination to me. Sweetie, say hello to my friends.”

Iruka, below him, groans into his hand.

Hiroaka’s eyebrows raise. He laughs, loud and boisterous. “Impressive! Who knew Hatake Kakashi could get himself hitched.” He claps his hands together. Twelve more men rise from tables, pulling swords out from under their seats and from hidden sheaths connected to the underside of the tabletops.

Iruka stands behind him, shakily, back falling against the window wall.

Beside them, the waitress also pulls out a thin blade, mouth set in a grim line.

“We wondered when you’d be back.” Hiroaka says, taking a step along the stage. As one each gang member takes a step towards their table.

Kakashi flicks his tantou lazily in a circle. “Maah, it looks like we overstayed our welcome.” He looks back to Iruka. Iruka’s nod is barely perceptible. “Ready?”

“Get them!” Hiroaka snarls.

Iruka slams himself backwards, pooling chakra into his shoulders. The paper and wood of the window bursts. The two of them tumble out. Iruka flips over the wreckage he made as it shatters across the ground, kicking off the wall opposite and using it to propel him forward and up. Kakashi dodges swords that fly at his head, turning on his wrist and shunshining up after him.

Shingles clatter and break beneath their feet as they both put too much pressure on them. Kakashi sucks in a breath, fingers flashing through one handed orders in a rush of sign language.

“Got it.” Iruka signs back, a careless flick of his fingers.

He jolts them jauntily in a ‘see ya’ and puts on a burst of speed, veering off to the right and vaulting up a red brothel sign. He takes himself to the rooftop with a quick leap. All Kakashi sees of him is the flash of a mischievous grin that makes his gut burn with more than adrenaline.

Kakashi continues straight on until he hits the edge of the roof. He halts, shingles dropping below onto the street where a veritable horde of Hiroaka’s men wait for him. One man throws a knife at him, and he knocks it away with the flat of his tantou.

“You’ll pay for the disgrace you showed us!” One man among many yells, waving his weapon inexpertly in the air.

Kakashi shrugs. “Why? It looks like you got the better end of the deal.”

He could remember killing their old boss. A vile old man capable only of being terrible. Of thinking only of himself. If he’d had family, he would have thrown them to the wolves. If he’d been around today, there wouldn’t be a resort town here. Kakashi remembers holding his expansive body still. Remembers sliding a kunai across his throat and letting him bleed out on the plush carpet of his mansion.

Gangs were chaotic, filthy things that preyed on the hapless and helpless. Kakashi looks down at them. Would any one of them protect the man next to him if it came to it, or were they all just out for themselves? Shinobi were trained for war from a young age, and even they still had trouble with teamwork and helping your fellow man. To think, their target had come from this sloppy group of people. Perhaps he too, had grown sick of people who only thought of themselves.

From above and behind there came a screech that set his teeth on edge. It was followed by the rush of thousands of gallons of water as Iruka broke the water tank at the top of the highest resort building open. A flare of chakra. The water casts a shadow over Kakashi’s roof as a great bubble of it floated over his head.

On the street a woman screams.

Kakashi grins down at the horde of gangsters. “Better run.”

They scramble backwards into one another. Too late though. The water bubble bursts.

Kakashi flicks his fingers into a water dragon jutsu and takes control of it. He weaves the dragon through the mass of gang members and up the street towards the tea house. He smiles privately to himself at their screams. He twists his fingers and it bursts through the top of the roof in a cacophony of shingles and wood splinters. He likes to think it roars, but it’s just the sound of irreversible property damage smashing Hiroaka’s commandeered property.

He watches with mild interest as Hiroaka stumbles out onto the wrecked street, water logged and steaming mad.

“What did I ever do to you, Kakashi?” He snarls, waving his sword inexpertly in the air to enunciate his rage. He really wasn’t the brightest man to run a gang, but that was what made him such a good target. He was loud and proud and enjoyed making money more than hurting. He’s stomping down the street towards Kakashi when Iruka hops down beside him on the roof.

It’s Iruka who answers. “It’s nothing personal, Hiroaka-san. There’s someone we need to talk to, and we’ve heard you know them best.”

“What.” Hiroaka forgets to wave his sword in the air in surprise. He barks out a laugh. “Who could I know that attracts your attention now, Kakashi? Why would I help you?”

Kakashi leans close to Iruka, putting an arm around his waist. He’s warm under his touch. “Well, we have nothing better to do now that Konoha kicked us out, we might as well have some fun. Send a message to Ito Asahi. His band of renegades sounds interesting to us.”

With that, they kick backwards together, flitting away from the roof faster than any civilian could ever see. They take the long way over the roofs just in case though, slipping through the window of their rented room as sunset is cresting over the rooftops and sparkling in the river.

Iruka plops down on the futon cover with a sigh, running a hand through hair. He pulls the tie loose, letting the brown locks fall over his shoulders. Kakashi sets a few chakra traps on the window and the door before peeling back layers of tourist nonsense he’d gathered. He takes a seat beside Iruka, who had peeled off his sandals.

“I think that was successful, don’t you?” Kakashi asks, laying on his stomach and propping his head up on his crossed arms. He lets his gaze meander over the line of Iruka’s shoulders, the bare skin of his ankle where the hem of his trousers rides up.

Iruka hums in consideration, not responding right away.

Kakashi’s still getting used to this side of Iruka. He’s used to the man blowing his top and impatiently flying through papers. Of him chasing Naruto around and yelling at pre-genin. But underneath that soft exterior there’s a tactical mind and he’s beginning to imagine there’s a lot more to Iruka than he’s ever let on to anyone.

Kakashi almost feels bad about wanting to pry that excellence out of him.

“It wasn’t the most efficient idea, but it should at least catch the attention of our wandering band of warriors.” Iruka sighs, propping himself up on his hands and leaning back to consider Kakashi. His head, tilted, looks like a bird. Kakashi’s not sure what to make of it, or the fathomless look in his eyes.

“Kakashi, when they come and if things go south, don’t worry about me.” Iruka’s got the tone of voice of a teacher, lecturing his students. Kakashi’s stomach swoops sourly. “I know I won’t be up to par when it comes down to it.”

Kakashi sits up abruptly, getting to his knees on the bed. Iruka looks away with a sad quirk of his lips. His gaze focused on the window, he continues. “If they expect you to protect me, it’ll give us an advantage of surprise when you don’t.”

I’m replaceable, Kakashi hears between the lines. A soft echo of Tsunade saying he was no one of significance. Kakashi tsks, leaning close to Iruka and touching his arm. Iruka’s gaze is blank and calculating when it looks back at him. Iruka, who teaches children to become efficient killers. Iruka, who gives his whole entire heart to them and expect them to cover their own up.

“There’s one thing you should know about me, sensei.” His hand is warm against Iruka’s elbow.

“You’re called Kakashi-friend killer, I know. If you can kill a friend, I’m sure I’ll be no problem.” Iruka says wryly. Kakashi flinches at the nickname. He thinks of Rin’s body around his hand, of his hand punching through her. Of the electric tang of chidori screaming in his ear, of her choking, final moments. Of blood on his hands.

“No,” Kakashi’s chest burns where his heart is. “Those who leave their team are worse than scum. I don’t know what you’ve heard but--”

“Kakashi,” Iruka’s hand is cold now, when he covers the hand on his elbow. “Mission success is more important.”

Kakashi flinches back, feeling a phantom echo of that same pain he felt when his father died, when his team died, when Minato sacrificed himself. When Kushina--

He closes his eyes, feeling the crushing force of exhaustion. Obito’s final smile burns behind his eyelids. His shoulders slumped, he slides out of the bed, avoiding Iruka’s gaze. “I’m taking a bath first.” He’s not proud of it, but he flees.

Kakashi thinks of Naruto’s eyes, the color of the sky above. He thinks of crushing that heart when he has to tell him he failed to bring Iruka back alive.

There’s no version of that ending that could ever be a mission success.

--

Two days of publicly flirting with Hatake Kakashi later Iruka’s doing the best he can to keep his heart shuttered internally to the onslaught of the man pushing into his personal space. No matter how often he tells himself that it’s for the mission only, his heart beats a little faster when their fingers brush, when Kakashi puts a hand to the small of his back, when they’re pressed together during the rush of tourists bustling by at dinner time.

Despite their physical closeness though, Kakashi’s taken care to keep an emotional distance since Iruka had told him to focus on the mission first. He probably thinks he’s being stealthy about it, but there’s a stifling awkwardness when they’re alone in their hotel room together. No matter how engrossed Kakashi seems in his books and talking to his ninken during the nightly scouting debrief, they don’t talk.

Iruka’s fled to the bathhouse, trying his best to drown his feelings in the onsen. It isn’t that he’s upset about Kakashi ignoring him, it’s more that he doesn’t entirely understand. Iruka’s been teaching for many years now. Of course it’s important for shinobi to take care of their fellow teammates. Leaving someone behind is the worst ultimatum possible. But to die on the field with honor is better than returning to the village disgraced.

He’s heard a lot of tales around the village about Kakashi over the years. Naruto talks about him as though he hates his guts and yet, all the same, would give up his life for him and all his teammates. Naruto, who was so hated by the village he got it in his head to prove himself the most worthy of it. Naruto, who starved for bonds.

Iruka leans his head back, looking up at the stars past the onsen steam.

From directly behind him, Iruka senses a killing intent so oppressive it freezes his joints. He’s frozen for a second, but that second is crucial. A hand grips his hair, snapping his head forward towards the water.

Despite being just a chuunin, it’s hard to surprise Iruka like this. The culmination of years of teaching pre-genin and a good sense of chakra help. He lashes out instinctively with his elbow, but it’s blocked easily.

“What’s this?” An unfamiliar voice asks. It’s rough around the edges, a little raspy and catching in the throat. “I thought you’d be a hard fish to catch.”

Iruka tries to turn his head to see who his guest could be. The fist holding his head down tightens, pulling his hair painfully. There’s a knee against his bare back, digging into the starburst scar there.

He hisses out a pained breath, teeth catching his bottom lip as his knees smack against the stone floor of the onsen. He keeps his head above water just barely.

“You can’t be the right person,” his assailant says, yanking his head backwards. Iruka’s muscles scream in protest as his head is jerked the wrong way. “Same description though.”

Iruka blinks past the steam to get a good look at his assailants face. From here he can see a broken nose, bristling eyebrows, hair for days. Broad shoulders that scream thug. There’s an intelligence gleaming past the steam and the brows though that keeps Iruka from confirming bully.

“Say, where’s Hatake Kakashi?” The man says. “I thought you’d be bathing together in a nice place like this.”

Iruka’s throat works as he swallows past the pain. “You know, he’s kind of lazy. I left him sleeping.”

The man cackles, releasing his hold on Iruka’s hair. Iruka staggers forward, gripping the stones on the other side of the pool. He rubs the sore muscles of his neck but tries not to reveal just how much his back is screaming at him.

“Who are you?” Iruka asks, “I have to admit this isn’t the best place to catch my attention.”

The man’s smile is broken by a thing scar along his bottom lip. It looks worse when he smiles. “I’m Kenji, Asahi’s man. No hard feelings, man. I don’t get to sneak up on shinobi very often you know.”

“Iruka. Pleasure’s not really mine, to be honest.”

“Aw, don’t be sore!” Kenji waves a hand at him. “I just wanted to judge for myself what kind of person you were.”

“By attacking me in the bath?” Iruka scoffs. He pulls himself out of the bath, wrapping his towel around his waist. “Next time just ask to join.”

He counts to ten inside his head, slowly crossing the path to the bathhouse entry and pulling his clothes out of the bin. He doesn’t look back to see whether or not Kenji follows him, but leaves the door open. When it shuts behind him as he’s pulling on his yukata, he steels himself and tries not to flinch.

“So, what can I do for you, Kenji-san?” Iruka asks, folding his arms inside his sleeves.

“Aren’t I the one who should be asking you that? What can the Shinsei Sentai do for you and Hatake Kakashi?”

Iruka rubs the back of his neck, cracking a sheepish smile. “Well, surely you know.”

Kenji tips his head, letting his hair fall over one shoulder. “Enlighten me.”

Iruka bites his lip. “Well, Konoha isn’t exactly thrilled about Kakashi marrying, you know. Shinobi aren’t supposed to really do things like that in secret, especially not -- er, well.”

“To other men?” Kenji raises his eyebrows. “Bonds make you stronger in a fight. The tighter the bond, the harder you fight. Why would they care so much?”

“A shinobi’s bond is to the village, no other bonds should supersede. We’re weapons who only care for mission success. Or, that’s how it’s supposed to be.”

“But not for you anymore?” Kenji asks. Iruka can feel the weight behind his stare. Iruka’s supposed to be killing this man.

Iruka levels his best glare at him. “No. Kakashi’s more important.”

He’s not altogether sure why his heart beats a faster tempo.

Kenji cracks another fearsome grin. “That’s what we wanted to know.”

Behind him the door to the room slides open. “Hatake is a known entity,” says a new voice. “You’re an unknown.”

When Iruka turns he sees a small man. He’s around his age, maybe. A head shorter, with long hair pulled back neatly into a long ponytail. He looks more like a lawyer with a black turtleneck and grey trousers. He could be a warrior of old or a scholar, from the way he holds himself. Nothing like the gangster runaway Iruka had expected. Because there’s no doubt in his mind who this man is.

Ito Asahi’s arms are folded over his chest, but there’s a sword at his hip and a tension to his frame that says he’s not to be underestimated. He doesn’t look like the sort of man to head a movement built upon something fickle like love.

“Satisfied, love?” Kenji asks, gesturing at Iruka but gaze never wavering from Asahi once.

Asahi tips his head like a lord granting permission. “For now.”

“Great,” Kenji slaps a hand to Iruka’s shoulder. Iruka flinches badly, cringing when he fails to cover it up. “Let's go get your man.”

Iruka leads them to the room on silent feet. He notes the way they almost fold together once they fall into step with one another, and turns away before his eyes betray the surge of longing. Their room is on the upper floor, meaning an awkward few minutes of silence before he stops before it.

He sends a prayer to the sky that Kakashi’s already aware and waiting just beyond the door to leave a killing blow. He tries not to let the tension show on his face or in his body language. It would be just like him to mess this up at the last second. His hands don’t shake as he cracks the door open. They don’t shake when nothing happens, when the soft glow of the lamp light falls over his face. The glow that should be darkness. There’s no killing intent in their room but surely Kakashi of all people would never let something so simple as that give him away.

Nothing happens. No kunai launch at his head for him to dodge.

Kakashi’s there, laying on his side with his infernal book propped in front of him.

Iruka feels a surge of fury -- surely Kakashi, the man whose been using his hounds all week to keep an eye out for these very same men, the man who couldn’t be snuck up on for all the ramen in the universe, the man who is quite probably the best shinobi in all of Konoha -- isn’t this unaware.

“Oh?” Kakashi sits up slowly, closing his book on his thumb to hold his place. “Honey, who are your friends?”

Iruka swallows down the fury rising up inside him with the worst attempt at a smile he’s ever given. Worse even than when he used to make a fool of himself for the attention of others. At least back then he could smile because he could get what he wanted.

Now, though, he’s got two enemies at his back and Kakashi not even trying to get this over with.

Iruka inhales deeply, trying to process through his frustration even as he turns to let their surprise guests inside. He’s furious because he’s tired of this charade. He’s furious because he wanted to finish it immediately, not play the pretend game.

He’s mad because he knows that Kakashi must know they were here. That he had the power to end the whole mission before it could get dragged out even further. That even if they used Iruka against him, he’d still have been able to kill two chakra-less civilians who play with swords.

Frustration makes his hands shake as he closes the door to their room. Kakashi offers their guests a seat at the table, kneeling down on the mat on the other side. Iruka moves to the kitchenette and prepares tea for something to do with his hands.

“It’s been a long time, Hatake-san,” Asahi says, gracefully settling across from Kakashi. Kenji sprawls next to him, shoulders and arms touching. “Last time I saw you, you’d changed my life.”

“We should really be thanking you.” Kenji says, “If you hadn’t killed all the gang leaders in the town we never would have been able to get away from our own gangs.”

Kakashi scratches his eye above the eyebrow. “Maah, you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t remember. You were part of Red Lotus?” He points to Asahi. “That I knew. But I don’t remember you at all.”

Kenji laughs at Kakashi’s confusion. “I was part of the River Rat gang.”

“Ah,” Kakashi says, snapping his fingers. “Sorry, sorry. I killed a lot of rich men that day.”

Kenji’s smile reminds Iruka of a shark. He turns back to preparing a tea tray, pouring hot water in the teapot the moment the kettle starts whining. He steps around the table, settling in place. Kakashi rests a hand on Iruka’s thigh the moment he sits down.

His hand is warm even through the fabric of his yukata.

It’s a warning, perhaps. Or it’s a warning of caution. Either way, it doesn’t help stifle the rage burning a hole in Iruka’s stomach. He tries not to crack porcelain together as he pours tea, but it’s a near thing as he hands mugs around the table.

“So what can we do for you?” Kenji asks, cupping his tea mug in his large hands. “It’s not every day that a celebrity makes noise for us.”

Kakashi laces his fingers together and rests his chin over top of them. His grey eye is calculating as it looks them over. “You could have killed Iruka today.”

Iruka goes still beside him.

Asahi tips his head to the side. “You expect me to believe that the two of us could sneak up on trained shinobi such as yourselves?”

“Mmhmm,” Kakashi hums, smiling obnoxiously. “You snuck up on Iruka.”

“Not you?”

Kakashi stays silent at this. Iruka feels a blush crawling over his skin at the embarrassment. He should have known. He shouldn’t have been distracted as he was. He should have paid attention.

Kenji sighs. “Why would we kill your husband?”

“Because we were sent here to kill you.” Kakashi says blandly.

“Kakashi!” He hisses through his teeth. “What are you doing?”

“I think what you’re doing is valiant, but you’ve attracted the attention of some important people.” Kakashi spreads his fingers. “If you keep it up here in the land of fire, you’re going to get killed.”

Asahi’s eyes narrow. “Another rich bastard out to decide our lives?”

“Rich bastards control the world,” Kakashi returns, flippant as always.

“I thought you got kicked out of your village,” Kenji says, looking from Iruka to Kakashi with furrowed brows.

“Do shinobi not treat missions as greater than life?” Asahi asks before Kenji can continue speaking. “Why would you tell us this?”

“Maybe I admire what you’re doing, can’t that be enough?”

“Kakashi,” Iruka snaps again. “What the hell are you doing?”

Kakashi reaches a hand out to cover Iruka’s. Iruka flinches back. It’s an instant, but that’s all they need. He can practically feel the pieces of their charade falling apart.

“So, let me see. You pretended to get kicked out of your village, pretended to be married, pretended to want to join my group, all so you could pretend to warn us? Then what, lead all of us into a trap?” Asahi ticks off his fingers as he lists. His voice betrays no emotion, just a matter-of-fact tone.

“It’s not pretend,” Kakashi almost sounds earnest. Or he would, if he ever sounded anything but weary. “Shinobi are always told not to form emotions when it comes to one another, and yet we’re expected to fight as teams and work together seamlessly. What you’re doing could change the world.

“Or at least it could change the way we think about ourselves.” Kakashi doesn’t glance Iruka’s way, but he feels like he’s been doused in cold water. “If you’d come a few days ago I would have killed you.”

“What changed your mind?”

Iruka closes his eyes as the weight of Kakashi’s gaze burns into his soul. “I don’t think people are pawns to be sacrificed at whim, lets say.”

--

Asahi and Kenji are long gone by the time Iruka returns from letting them out. He smells the the river when he closes the door behind him, crisp and clean and slightly winded. His hair is still unbound from when he’d been accosted at the bath. It falls over his shoulders in a neat wave.

Kakashi can practically taste the tension in the room.

“Why did you do that?” Iruka snarls. “We had them right where we wanted them. All you had to do was be prepared to strike.”

He’s in Kakashi’s face, fury flashing in his brown eyes. Kakashi’s seen Iruka mad plenty of times. He’s never quite seen this level of rage before.

Kakashi rests a hand over Iruka’s neck and collarbone. His pulse is rapid under his palm. “You were between them and the door, I couldn’t risk that.”

“I told you before--”

“--you’re disposable. I know.” Kakashi straightens his spine, looking Iruka in the eyes. “And that’s why I couldn’t do it.”

The mission--”

“It doesn’t always have to end in death and sacrifice, sensei.” Kakashi presses his hands to the sides of Iruka’s face, holding him still. “I don’t want to live with another life on my hands.”

Iruka bites his lip, flushing brilliantly under Kakashi’s heavy gaze. Kakashi does his best to make sure he throws the weight of everyone he’s ever loved behind it. Iruka breathes out, hard. His hands ball into fists, and then release. He raises them and slowly peels the mask from over Kakashi’s lips.

He closes his eyes tight, then opens them. He leans in, and Kakashi lets him. He catches his lips in his, and Kakashi wraps his arms around his shoulders, one hand on the back of his head. He pulls them down onto the bed.

Iruka straddles him. Iruka is heat and fury and rough that turns quickly to dough as Kakashi pushes back, kneads him back into the sheets. The kiss is all teeth and push and pull, until rage turns to lust and want.

“Iruka,” Kakashi breathes against his skin as he slips down to the floor on his knees, hands on his hips and reeling him close. Iruka’s fingers fist in his hair, rage mutating his handsome face. “Do you want this?”

Iruka hisses out a choked breath, like he’s working through an internal battle. There’s nothing but naked honesty in those brown eyes of his when their gazes meet. “Fuck, yes.”

Kakashi’s smile hurts a part of him. How to convey that he does, actually and unfathomably want this to last. He works him with his mouth until he comes, and when he does he presses him back against the sheets with a tenderness as foreign to him as to association of himself. He holds him through the comedown. He kisses the pulsepoint against his neck as he breathes in the scent of their sweat and mess.

They’re lying together, tangled in sheets. Kakashi’s erection is an ignorable offence throbbing against Iruka’s hip. Iruka turns his head to look him in the eye for the first time.

“I don’t understand why you’d just warn them.” Iruka’s hand is hot against Kakashi’s chest. “You aren’t the type to fail a mission on purpose.”

Kakashi swallows around bone-deep weariness. “Meeh, I said it already, didn’t I?” He runs a hand through Iruka’s sweat-slicked hair, brushing it away from his face. “Everyone I’ve ever gotten close to has died because I was afraid to grow close to them. All my life I’ve believed the best way is the shinobi way. To be a good soldier you just -- can’t. Be close.”

“It’s how we stay sane,” Iruka murmurs.

Kakashi dips his head in aquiecense. “It’s a lonely way to live, though.”

Iruka flinches like he just slapped him.

Iruka, who lost his family. Iruka, who had a loving family once. He’s witnessed love and affection first hand. They both know what it is to lose everyone they love, they both know the come-down after. Iruka throws himself into work without relief. Kakashi can’t say he’s any better.

But for the first time Kakashi finds he wants a taste of more.

“Would it be so bad if we just,” Kakashi breaks off, touching their ring fingers together. Iruka looks at their joined hands, jaw working.

“Yes,” he says, sitting up. “Kakashi, it’s not possible.”

Kakashi’s sighs, closing his visible eye. “You’re probably right.” He gets out of bed, feeling sticky and raw all over. There’s an ache in his heart that he can’t bear. He crosses towards the door to go to the baths.

“We could try it.” He looks over his shoulder at Iruka on the bed. He’s looking down at his lap, buried in the comforter. He looks so, so lonely it makes Kakashi ache. “Try to date or whatever.”

Kakashi hums. He wiggles the fingers on his hand so that the ring flashes in the light. “What about these?”

Iruka shifts. “Well, one thing at a time right? We don’t need Godaime to annul the marriage if this part works out.”

“You know, dating publicly might put you in danger.” Kakashi leans back against the door. “It might be better to keep it all secret.”

Iruka’s glare sends prickles of heat up Kakashi’s spine. “I’m not being some secret.”

Kakashi feels a half-giddy laugh bubble up from his gut. “Alright, sensei. We can try it. Go easy though, I’m no good at this sort of thing.”

Iruka’s smile is like dawn breaking across a bleak night. “Oh, I’m sure we can work on that.”

 

--

 

Sakura knocks on the door to Iruka-sensei’s apartment, struggling to free her hand around the basket in her arms. She’s beginning to wonder if maybe he isn’t home when the door finally bursts open.

“Sorry, sorry!” Iruka’s saying as he steps back. Sakura brushes by him, toeing off her sandals in the entry-way. “I didn’t realize the time.”

She passes the living room with it’s kotatsu piled high with student papers and a backlog of grading and enters the kitchen to set her basket down next to a suspect package wrapped in garish orange paper.

“Naruto,” Iruka says from behind her, running a hand through his hair. “I’m afraid to open it.”

“I didn’t tell him anything!” Sakura pouts, fingering the blue bow holding the monstrosity together.

Iruka laughs, crossing to the fridge to pour Sakura some juice. “Jiraiya probably told him.”

“How would he know?”

Iruka raises his eyebrows at her. “The legendary sannin were teammates for a long time, Sakura-chan. Juicy gossip probably gets around.”

Sakura settles her arms on the counter, settling into the stool. Iruka pours himself a glass of juice too, fiddling with things in his kitchen. “It’s been a few months since you were allowed back, Sensei. Why don’t you and Kakashi-sensei live together? I’ve seen you on dates around town, everyone says you’re a really handsome couple.”

Iruka runs a hand through his hair. She takes the time while he’s distracted to survey the bags under his eyes, the slimming cheeks, the way his scar stands out more on his face than usual.

“You’re not fighting, are you?”

“Eh?” Iruka squints at her. “Why would we be fighting?”

“He’s a lazy jerk, sensei. He’s like the complete opposite of you. Why wouldn’t you be fighting all the time?” She waves a hand dismissively. “Or, at least, that’s what Ino says.”

Iruka’s cringe is barely perceptible. “You talk to Ino? About us?”

Sakura nods, sagely. “Hospital shifts are really long, sensei. We live vicariously through you.”

“I guess,” he says. “Well, either way we aren’t fighting. He’s been busy on missions. I guess I’ve just been--”

“Worried?” Sakura tips her head, a grin slowly spreading across her lips. “Don’t worry, sensei. He’s like a cockroach. He doesn’t die.”

--

Iruka’s still awake burning the midnight oil when he feels his ward ping. They’re released with a nudge of familiar chakra and a figure crawls in through the kitchen window, slumping over the sink sluggishly.

Kakashi’s silver hair glints in the lamp-light. Iruka caps his pen, settling it on top of his student papers. He stretches his back, cringing at the way the muscles twinge.

“How was your mission?”

Kakashi looks more exhausted than usual, which is saying something. He limps his way towards the kotatsu with his sandals in one badly wrapped bloody hand. Iruka hisses between his teeth on inhale.

“Just a little clumsy,” Kakashi says, waving his good hand flippantly through the air. He settles next to Iruka under the kotatsu, nudging his way close. “Nothing to worry about.”

Iruka runs the knuckles of his hand over Kakashi’s skin. “Did you see Godaime?”

Kakashi makes a noise of affirmation, settling his chin against Iruka’s neck. He fits himself perfectly in the curve of Iruka’s body like he belongs there.

“Did you go to the hospital?” Iruka asks, knowing the answer.

“I wanted to see you.”

Iruka pulls Kakashi back with two hands on his shoulders, thumbing the mask down over his face.

“You’ve seen me,” he struggles to keep a smile off his face. “So go.”

“Don’t be mean,” Kakashi gives him his most pitiful face. “It’s only a scratch.”

“Oh?” Iruka grasps his hand, pulling the sandals out of his grip and opening the palm. A bloody bandage looks up at him from the palm. “Did you block a knife with your hand?”

Kakashi shrugs. “Like I said, it was nothing.”

Iruka looks at the ceiling, praying for strength. “It’s probably poisoned.”

“I dealt with it. I’m immune to it.”

“Really.”

“Really, sensei.” Kakashi smiles. Iruka hates the way his heart flutters. “Let's go to bed, mm? I want to open Naruto’s present in the morning.”

“Sakura says we should set wards.”

Kakashi nods, sagely. “I taught her well.”

“You--” Iruka bites off his immediate reply. “Did, yes.”

He pulls him up with two hands. “Let's go to sleep, husband.”

Kakashi’s hands almost fall out of Iruka’s grip in shock. “Really?”

Iruka looks down at him. He thinks about how hard everything is when Kakashi’s gone, how all his thoughts are with him. About how lonely he feels without him at his side. About how, somewhere, far away, there is a travelling band of bonded warriors wandering the countryside, not alone. About how his parents used to lean into one another for support during a trying afternoon, when Iruka had been a particular pain in the ass.

About how much he wants something just a little like that for himself.

“Yeah.” His fingers curl around Kakashi’s, warming his cold fingers. “Really.”