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Avoiding the Question

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“…and you’re coming, too, right, sensei?”

Kakashi pulls his gaze away from his book to view the expectant, upturned faces of his young teammates. He shuffles in place and asks, “…what was that Naruto?”

Sakura rolls her eyes, but her exasperation is tinged with fondness, every inch the Godaime’s protégé. Naruto splutters, expression scrunched with rage, “How come you never listen to anything we say, huh!? It’s rude, ya know!”

“A thousand apologies,” Kakashi drawls, holding up his book in a mockery of self-defense. “But it’s a compelling narrative,”

Naruto pulls a face – every inch Kushina’s son and isn’t that a kick in the teeth? – and mutters, “They really aren’t.”

Kakashi’s about to defend his beloved novels when Sakura sighs and says, “Come on, Naruto! Iruka-sensei is waiting for us and we’re late enough as it is. Are you coming with us to Ichiraku or not, Kakashi-sensei?”

“Oh,” Kakashi has years of experience appearing bored and listless in conversation and he needs all of it to say his next sentence without flushing, cringing, or obviously avoiding eye contact. “I’m not really in the mood for ramen.”

“Huh?” Naruto asks, pausing with one foot raised in the direction of his favorite ramen stand, and turns to scrunch his nose up at Kakashi. “Who’s ever not in the mood for ramen?” He puts a finger on his chin and levels Kakashi with a curious look for so long he’s worried this is about to be one of Naruto’s rare moments of total insight and prepares to bolt. “Did you and Iruka-sensei have a fight or somethin’?”

“...no.”

Warm hands slide under the hem of his shirt. A warm mouth moves down his neck. A warm torso starts to pull away from his chest and Kakashi chases it with his whole body. Has he always felt this cold or is Iruka just unnaturally warm? He doesn’t know, doesn’t care, just keeps pulling off clothes so he can press more of himself against that perfect warmth.

“Nothing so dramatic.” Kakashi slips his hands, book and all, into his pockets, and shrugs. Sakura is watching him with suspicious eyes even when Naruto starts to move away, so he adds, “I had ramen yesterday. Tsunade-sama says I need to watch my sodium intake at my age.”

The evocation of her beloved shishou is enough to placate the girl for now and both his young teammates wish him well before hurrying off to make their appointment. Kakashi feels a little bad. If he’d known Iruka was waiting for them, he wouldn’t have dragged out training. Shaking the feeling off, Kakashi takes to the roofs to get home to his apartment and a solid meal of rice, veg, and a little boiled chicken.

If the beat of his heart sounds like coward, coward, coward in his head? Well, he ignores that as easily as he’s ignored it for the last year.

 

“Thanks again for letting me crash here, Sensei!” Naruto tosses his sandals onto the shoe rack with so much enthusiasm one of them bounces out and lands back on the floor. He’s flopping onto the overstuffed couch in the middle of the living room and fiddling with the TV remote before Iruka is even in the door. “I’m supposed to stick around the village for some extra training with Kakashi-sensei and Yamato-san for a few days, so I’m sure I’ll find my own place again real soon.”

“Of course, you will.” Iruka nods gamely, placing the stray shoe back on the rack before removing his own. “But don’t rush into anything on my account. You’ll need to find a landlord who understands the life of a shinobi. You don’t want to come home after a long mission to find yourself evicted just because you weren’t around to pay the rent on the first of the month.”

Naruto lets out a noise of dismay and scratches the back of his head, “Oh, geez, I think finding an apartment’s going to be a lot harder than I thought.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Passing through the living room on the way to the kitchen, Iruka smiles and ruffles the boy’s hair briefly, “We’ll figure it out together.”

Naruto had been disappointed to learn his belongings had been placed in storage while he was away and the village-issued studio where he had lived much of his pre-genin life had been allocated to another orphan starting up in the academy just a few months ago. But he’d cheered up when he saw how much cup ramen Iruka kept stored in his cabinets. And Iruka was prepared to go into ramen-related debt if it kept Naruto around.

His third year of full-time teaching had come with a raise. It was nothing crazy, but it was enough to end the lease on his bachelor’s studio and rent a respectable one bedroom in a nicer part of town. A one bedroom, one bathroom with a den. A den that could be used as a study or a library or even a small guest room. Iruka had never bothered to put his desk in it.

He also never bothered to tell Naruto that when the housing shortage had come up in a general meeting, he was the one who mentioned Naruto’s unoccupied apartment to Tsunade. He hoped it didn’t come up any time soon. Call him selfish, but Naruto had been away for almost three years. After so much time apart, Iruka just wanted to know when he was coming and going from the village.

“Help yourself to anything in the kitchen.” Iruka says as he sets water to boil in the kettle. “I’ve got a mountain of grading to do, so I’m going to disappear for the rest of the night.”

“Mm’kay, Sensei.” Naruto answers at half his usual volume. The television hasn’t flickered on yet. Iruka pauses the hunt for clean mugs to peer at the sliver of the boy’s head he can see from the kitchen. It’s distinctly down turned; a sure sign Naruto is thinking about something that troubles him. Usually Sasuke.

“Is everything okay?” He asks, almost unconsciously leaning towards the living room.

“Yeah. No. It’s just…” Naruto sits up a little straighter on the couch, giving Iruka a better view of his face. There is worry in his eyes, focused and dark. Iruka avoids watching too closely (and risking hovering) by turning back to the search for mugs. “Are you and Kakashi-sensei fighting?”

“Um, no?”

He’s never had a partner that can just pick him up before. Like he weighs nothing. He’s definitely never had a partner that can carry him across the room, still kissing his mouth all the while. He had no idea it would be so fucking hot.

“I don’t think so.” Iruka coughs a little, but otherwise manages to sound neutrally curious. Never, in the history of the universe, has Iruka put so much care and concern into measuring loose leaf tea. He draws out the task for as long as is required to get control over his raging blush. “We didn’t see each other much after you left town.”

Except for one drunken, angry, body-numbingly good hookup, but Iruka would not admit that to Naruto under pain of torture.

(Not that drunk, his treacherous memory reminds him. He’d only split a bottle of horrendously sweet soju with Anko and Kakashi had been nursing a beer through a straw. It wasn’t even that angry, or they would have stopped after the first time…)

“Oh, okay.” Naruto shrugs and settles back against the couch. “That’s good, I guess.”

Iruka’s shaking off unwanted memories and grabbing the kettle when it starts to boil, so it takes a minute for him to cautiously ask, “Why did you think we were fighting?”

“It was nothin’, I guess.” Naruto shrugs again and Iruka can picture him fiddling with the buttons on the remote even though he can’t see him. “Me and Sakura invited Kakashi-sensei for ramen, but he made a weird excuse and left. He used to act bored or annoyed, but he always came with before… well, you know. I was worried that maybe you guys didn’t get along anymore.”

Iruka is good at reading between the lines of what his students want him to think and what they actually mean. His heart painfully constricts at the many implications in Naruto’s words. He’s worried not having Sasuke around means Kakashi is less invested in the team overall. Or that Kakashi only ever joined them because of Sasuke. He’s worried two of the few stable, adult figures in his life are fighting and he will have to make choices between them. He’s worried about all the things a kid separated from his parents too young worries about.

“I’m sure it’s nothing.” Iruka says, dropping a bright orange mug of steeping peppermint tea on the end table, just inside of Naruto’s reach. He smiles when Naruto’s gaze hesitantly lifts up and gives another ruffle for good measure. “Kakashi-san has been very busy since you went off to train. I’m sure he was just tired.”

Iruka dodges Naruto’s flailing retaliation at having his hair mussed and deftly keeps his own steaming gray mug out of reach. They’re both laughing when he pauses at the edge of the hallway and adds, “But I’ll talk to him just in case. If it’ll make you feel better.”

He catches the corner of Naruto’s smile before the boy can hide it in a pillow.

“Thanks, Sensei.” The sound is muffled by the pillow and the subsequent ‘goodnight’ is almost completely overwhelmed by the sound of the TV flickering on. It brings a quiet grin to Iruka’s face anyway.

“Good night, Naruto.” He says quietly before making his way down the short hallway. It’s been a long time since he’s had anyone around to wish goodnight. It feels nicer than he thought it would. For the first time since he moved in, the apartment feels like a home instead of a place to live.

When he reaches his bedroom door, Iruka pointedly does not think about being pressed against it or the bruise that lingered on his collar bone for a week after. He gets to work grading and promises himself that tomorrow is the day he stops being a coward. For Naruto’s sake.

 

Iruka’s class lets out and a beautiful, golden afternoon still stretches before them. One of the rare days when the air has cooled, but the sun doesn’t yet set too early. After he straightens his classroom and gathers his things, he walks out into an evening tinged green and orange by the fading sun. The leaves in Konoha never fully lose their color even in the dead of winter, but they do catch more and more of the sunset as the year stretches on.

Usually, Iruka would take the long route home and maybe see if Anko or Kotetsu were free to grab dinner on this kind of peaceful evening. Instead, he meanders to a space beneath a sturdy tree he knows has a good view into his classroom from the top branches, leans against the rough tree bark, and talks to the air without preamble.

“Naruto is under the impression we’re having a fight.” He tucks his hands into his pockets and hopes he is affecting something approaching nonchalance about the whole thing. “Are we?”

He pretends his heart doesn’t thud in his chest when there’s a brief rustle of leaves above his head. That’s as much warning as he gets before Kakashi is suddenly also leaning against the tree, just slightly to his left. Close enough that Iruka can feel warmth bleeding off of him. Far enough that they are not touching.

Anyone casually passing by would think they’re just two teachers sharing notes at the end of a long day.

“Maa, Sensei, I think that’s up to you.”

Iruka reigns in his annoyance, barely, by directing his negative energy into a rock that sits just to the right of his left toe. He glares at the rock when he says, as evenly as he can manage, “It takes two people to fight or to fuck so I’d say it’s up to both of us.”

Kakashi only lets small slivers of himself be exposed to the world, so he feels more than a little betrayed when a corner of one of those slivers heats bright pink and Iruka doesn’t miss the way he ducks his head. Iruka isn’t prone to swearing, but he does in the right company. Kakashi, however, has only heard him swear in one context. Privately, they both think he’s a bit of a pervert for his reaction.

Clearing his throat, Kakashi says, “I didn’t mean to worry Naruto. I’ll be more subtle in the future.”

Iruka huffs, kicking the offensive rock away. “I’m not asking you to – agh!”

Pushing off the tree, the teacher abandons the strategy of playing cool and collected. He is not cool. He has never been collected. He doesn’t know why he thought he could start now. Rounding on the jounin with one finger raised in accusation, he announces, “I am here to make amends, okay? I was way out of line that night. Rude and cruel and vindictive. I’m sorry. I was angry and I took it out on you and that doesn’t excuse it, but I apologize, alright? I’d appreciate it if you accept and we try to get along. For Naruto’s sake, if nothing else.”

 

The bar is dark; the music is loud but steady and not an impediment to conversation between close groups. The long, rounded booths preferred by most jounin were especially effective at keeping conversations contained. A moment ago, Iruka had been pressed between Anko and Asuma and half a dozen other shinobi. Now, he’s alone in the booth with just one other person because he’d foolishly refused to participate in a round of shots at the bar. Just his luck it was the one person he most wanted to avoid.

In two days, it will be a full year since Naruto left the village. Iruka had passed the other first anniversaries with relative grace. The Sandaime’s death. Sasuke’s defection. He’d kept his head down, focused on work, and refused to dwell on the maudlin. But he feels Naruto’s absence more keenly than the others because he’d felt responsible for Naruto. He’d felt kinship with Naruto that he hadn’t felt with anyone in a long time.

When the man who would still be training him if not for his own self-important delusions of grandeur has the audacity to sigh into his beer, Iruka downs the last of Anko’s soju for comfort before spitting, “What’s the matter Kakashi? Is it not fun anymore?”

 

Kakashi’s good eye blinks slowly. Once. Then twice. The flush fades replaced with undisguised confusion. “You think I’ve been avoiding you because you were justifiably kind of mean to me one time a year and a half ago?”

 

Kakashi is tired of feeling pitied. More than anything he wants to be home, reading or desperately trying to read, in comfort. But he’s aware of how tenuous most of his current friendships are. Unfortunately, he is also aware that Gai had left standing orders among their jounin peers that Kakashi was not to be allowed to wallow this weekend even though Gai himself would be out of town on a mission. He didn’t know how to politely tell the group that had dragged him from his home to fuck off. So, he followed along with barhopping and kept avoiding various calls for "Shots!" like his life depended on it.

Which is how he ends up alone with one other person in the booth. That person says something, and it takes a long moment for Kakashi’s brain to register that he is being spoken to. And another to summon up the context for what those words mean. He glances up from his book and meets chocolate brown eyes that glare at him on the edge of disgust and killing intent.

A truly terrible plan forms in an instant. Asuma will be pissed, but that might actually buy him an additional day or two of solitude. Kakashi tucks his book out of sight and makes his move.

 

Iruka is thrown off by the question. He wracks his brain for what else might have been wrong about that night and absolutely can’t find anything, despite how often and how clearly his brain replayed the events that followed his insult whenever he tried to go to sleep. As a result, he stutters rather embarrassingly while trying to come up with a response. “I don’t- You were- well, why else would you be avoiding me if you aren’t still mad?”

“Still?” Kakashi repeats, incredulous, “I was never mad. Sensei, I grabbed your dick in public because I thought you’d punch me in the face, and I’d get kicked out of the bar. I assumed you wouldn’t want to speak to me after everything else that happened.”

“You did WHAT!?” Iruka processes shock followed by confusion and then bone-deep embarrassment. Clutching his hair and pacing, he moans, “Oh my god. You thought I’d hit you and instead I let you fuck me against my bedroom door. Shit. I have to go missing-nin, right? I can never look you in the eyes again!”

“What did you think I was doing?” Kakashi asks, caught between confusion and amusement at Iruka’s display of dismay.

“I don’t know!” Iruka throws his hands out to either side of him and decides any passersby can figure out for themselves what is going on between the Academy Sensei and the infamous Copy Nin. “We were both sad and angry about the same things. I assumed it was some kind of a hate sex thing!”

A silver eyebrow raises delicately – almost scandalously – and Iruka glares at it. “Don’t give me that! Fucking your feelings out is way more normal than assaulting someone to get out of a social engagement you can leave at any time!”

Put that way – and unwilling to explain his weird and intense friendship with Gai – Kakashi kind of had to concede that point. And he had felt better after. Still not great, but the rush of endorphins at least seemed to remind his brain it was supposed be produce serotonin and he didn’t totally crash even on the anniversary of Naruto’s departure a few days later.

“Fair enough.” Kakashi shrugs, “So, where does that leave us? We’ve been avoiding each other for exactly no reason for a year and a half. So, cam we just stop whenever we want?”

“I guess.” Iruka deflates a little, sighing. “Will you come to ramen after training tomorrow?”

“I’d like that.” Kakashi smiles and means it. “But there is one more thing we should discuss…”

“What- mmff!

Kakashi grabs him by edges of his flak vest, turning until their positions are reversed and his body presses him into the tree, faster than the teacher can muster a response. He keeps the mask on so he can’t kiss the other man exactly the way he wants to, but Iruka arches into his body and doesn’t pull away. He’s still warm, warm, warm the way Kakashi remembers and it’s enough. Pulling away, Kakashi can feel a foreign breath against his face when he says, “Let me know next time you’re feeling sad and angry.”

Iruka decks him. Hard. Kakashi doesn’t even try to dodge.