The Long Way Around

"Now," Iruka paced slightly on the stage at the front of his class, "there are four categories that are not only directed towards fighting, but also to your movements and to the way that you think. Each method is then further broken into two more methods. These four categories are based off the elements: Earth, Fire, Wind and Water. Each have a distinct style to them, each with their own pros and cons.

"Earth," he lectured, pausing slightly to tap on a student's desk who seemed about to fall asleep, "is all about muscle power. Their basic instinct is to corner their opponent, or get them into position where they can either down them with one blow, or keeping pounding at them until they concede. It is a very useful technique for the incredibly strong and does not take a lot of skill. It also builds up the fighter's bodies allowing them to take a great deal more damage than others. These sorts of fighters are labeled 'Tanks' and are generally the first line of defense. However, it is a very unsubtle and 'graceless' form and can be easily be beaten with superior speed and technique.

"Fire is the compliment to Earth. It requires a good balance of speed and strength, reflex is the key to Fire. It is basically using a rushing technique, hitting your opponent with one swift attack or line of attack to stun them and or take them out. Though many that use the Fire have a low defense and generally are unable to take as much damage as the others, their speed generally keeps them from harm. However, if their attacks are blocked or broken before their line is finished, they are generally unbalanced and easy to take down."

His eye roamed over the class, they seemed rather attentive as he spoke. "The opposite of Earth is Wind. They generally use an indirect method of attacking, letting their opponent make the first mistake and exploit any weakness they find. This method is generally used by intellects and those with a vast amount of patience. Wind has a very strong defense, but tend not to take hits as well as others. Their strength is also generally very low. They have the reputation of 'fighting dirty', but then, any sort of fighting is most certainly in-bounds when you're fighting for your life.

"The fourth category and the compliment of Wind is Water. Water is a very smooth form, a combination of both aggressive and defensive tactics, Water wears the enemy down, breaks apart their defense. Though Water is one of the more well-rounded styles, they generally lack power and most will focus their full attention on their enemy's movement, leaving them open to any sort of outside or unforseen attack."

Returning to the stage, Iruka cleared his throat. "The two methods used further in each category are the Static and Mutable methods. Static is a very fixed style, where the fighter will rarely change their style of fighting unless given a very unusual situation. They perfect a limited number of movements and will stick to those. That means that the skills that they know and use are nearly flawless it also means that they are generally easy to predict. The second is Mutable whose style will almost always be different depending on who they fight and what situation they are in. Though it is very difficult to predict and defend against a fighter using the Mutable style, their imperfect use of movements they have not fully practice could leave very obvious openings. Though it is very rare to find someone who sticks solely to one category or method of attack, everyone generally gravitates to one sort and only using what is needed out of the others." He looked up at the clock. "That's it for class today." He told his students, raising his voice as they began to move out. "Though I don't expect you to know what yours is, I want you to practice fighting tonight to at least get an idea under which category you each fall under."

He smiled and waved as the children left, turning to bid him good night with wide grins. There was a tugging at his pants and he looked down into the small, flat face of one of his students. He let out an inner groan, this one was known through all the instructors as one to ask hard questions.

"What can I help you with?" He asked, kneeling down next to the little girl.

"Is there one that's better than the others?" She asked, holding her small bag tight in pudgy hands that already showed the calloused markings of practice.

Iruka breathed a silent sigh of relief. "The only one that's better than others," he said with an easy smile, "is the one that's best for you. I have the style I'm good at and if I try another, I'll be very bad at it. So," he poked her nose charmingly, "the one you're best in is the strongest one for you."

She giggled a bit. "Thank you, Iruka-sensei!" She ran out, waving at him before she disappeared out the doorway. He just chuckled and waved back. Children were just so adorable.

~*~*~*~

He found him sitting on the edge of his bed, fully clothed, not looking at anything, hands folded in his lap. He eased through the window and padded with silent ease to his side, nuzzling at the unbound hair.

"Is something wrong?" He rumbled quietly.

With a sigh, Iruka replied, "No...."

He pulled back slightly to look at the younger man in the face. "Are you sure?"

For a moment it seemed that Iruka was about to say something, but paused. In the dim light from the village below them, he thought he saw something. The light reflected a dull red flash of Kakashi's left eye. "No, it's all right."

Though not entirely convinced, he knew better than to try to force anything out of him. Planting a gentle kiss on Iruka's forehead, Kakashi told himself to take it slow and easy tonight as he laid them out over the bed.

~*~*~*~

"Iruka-sensei," the young man looked up at the scratchy voice of the Hokage, "is there something bothering you?"

"Not really, Hokage-sama."

"You don't seem very convincing."

He gave a weak smile. "I don't feel it, either."

"Feel free to talk to me about it, Iruka-sensei." He pulled his pipe from his mouth. "After all, I take great pride in our instructors. If there's anything I could do to help, it would be a great honor."

Iruka's smile grew a small deal of strength from his assurance. "Thank you, Hokage-sama. Perhaps if.... when I gain enough strength, I will come to you."

He patted Iruka's shoulder and nodded before moving away. "Good lad. Now go on. You're class should be gathered about now."

~*~*~*~

"Now that we all fully understand the basics, on a sheet of paper, I want you to write out four columns, label they as Earth, Fire, Wind and Water. Write in the corresponding column which category you fall under, naming all the main points that your own fighting style shares. Then, in the other columns, write down what similar characteristics you share with each. If you do not share any characteristics, write none in the column. Then, underneath, do the same for Static and Mutable."

"Iruka-sensei!" The little girl rose her hand. "Give us an example! What are you?"

He gave her a little smile. "I'm primarily Mutable Water with aspects of Wind. My compliment is Fire."

~*~*~*~

The moon was beginning to drop and the sky was starting to lighten up slightly in the east. He had stayed longer than he had intended.

But he couldn't help it. There was something wrong with the way Iruka had been acting recently. A little too submissive, too distracted.

Kakashi wished he knew why, but his instincts told him to leave before the other man woke up. Placing a final kiss against his head, he said his goodbyes and left.

~*~*~*~

"Hokage-sama."

"Yes, Iruka-sensei?"

The young man let out a deep breath. "I was wondering about strength."

"Yes?" He set down his brush on a spare sheet of parchment, focusing his full attention on the raven hair instructor. "Have a seat."

"Thank you." He seemed hesitant on where he should start. "What exactly would you consider strength?" He asked after a long pause.

The Hokage leaned back and pushed back the brim of his hat. "That's a rather broad question, Iruka-sensei."

"I know, but...."

"Hmmmm, strength...." He rubbed his chin and puffed thoughtfully at his pipe. "I would probably say strength is what lets you do the right thing. No matter how difficult it is."

"But how do you know what the right thing is?" Iruka asked, his desperation beginning to show just a bit.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, take for example," he colored slightly, obviously still a little uneasy at the idea of disrupting his Hokage with strange questions. "Say that you're comfortable and happy doing one thing, because it's something that you really want. But something in the back of your head is telling you that it shouldn't be that way. That it should be a different way, but if you try to change it, you may not have it at all."

The Hokage puffed at his pipe again. "A rather vague description."

"I'm sorry, Hokage-sama."

But he leaned back, skeletal hand stroking at his thin beard. "Hmmm, but I think I understand what you're getting at. In which case, I would have to ask which do you think is more important? Being happy? Or knowing that what you're doing is right?"

Iruka shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "....Which one shows that you would have more strength?"

"In this case, I don't think strength is an issue. Granted, it would take great strength to see it through either way. But would you rather be happy and yet know that you're wrong? In which case, your happiness would probably be short-lived. Or would you rather lose that happiness but know that it is right? At least then you know that you can move on to something else that has the potential of being right /and/ giving you happiness." He folded his hands on the table. "Does that help you any?"

Iruka let out a deep breath. "Yes.... Yes, I believe it has, Hokage-sama. Thank you very much."

~*~*~*~

His hands gripped the pillow at his face tightly, trying to ignore the tight pain in his chest that grew increasingly unbearable as time went by. Behind and above him, Kakashi's arms circled around his waist, the taller man bent over him to kiss his heat-kissed shoulders.

"I love you." He said in that husky voice that haunted his dreams.

Iruka's hand twitched. ".....it hurts."

He stopped in the middle of his motions. "Are you okay?" His voice betrayed the depths of concern that he wouldn't show around others.

"It's fine." Iruka held up his hand and Kakashi unwound an arm to grab it and kissed his knuckles. It just hurts, he thought, that you can say it so freely.

~*~*~*~

"In review, we have found that strength isn't just about power, but also will, spirit and skill. Can anyone tell when, in recent history, someone or a group of people showed great strength?" A hand went up near the back. "Yes?"

"When everyone was fighting the Kyuubi." He said. "The Kyuubi was very strong and fast and powerful and a lot of people got hurt and killed. But no one gave up and eventually it got sealed."

Iruka smiled somewhat bitter sweetly at the answer. "That is correct. Anyone else?" Another hand went up and he nodded towards the boy.

"That trouble-making guy all the adults tell us to stay away from, I saw his tournament against the Hyuuga guy. Even though he really wasn't as powerful or as skilled, he didn't give up and eventually won."

Iruka's smile widened. "Yes, for someone like that to have such great strength is amazing, isn't it? It really wants to inspire you, doesn't it?" The class nodded emphatically. "Do any of you think you can be as strong?" Several of the children shouted, claiming they'd be even stronger. Then, another hand went up in the air. "Yes?"

The little girl blinked at him. "Iruka-sensei, are you strong?"

The question caught him by surprise and he couldn't help but to look away. His gaze went out towards the window where he could imagine Kakashi talking to his team, or sitting there, waiting for him to finish class for the day. He turned back to the girl with a sad smile.

"No. Not really."

~*~*~*~

Arms reached around him, pulling him back against the strong chest that felt so familiar to him.

"Iruka, we need to talk."

He bowed his head and said nothing. Why was it that the dark- something a shinobi should know and cherish like a lover, one that gave them strength -made he feel so vulnerable?

"What's wrong?" Iruka asked, voice quiet and obscenely hollow.

With obvious irritation, Kakashi bumped his head against Iruka's. "That's what I want to know. What's bothering you so much?"

Iruka just sighed. "You know."

"Iruka," his grip tightened. "I can't stand you being like this."

Finally, the younger man turned around. "Then tell me." His eyes searched in the dark. "Tell me and make me believe why it has to be like this."

He could tell Kakashi was looking away. "You already know why."

"Tell me and make me understand! Are you embarrassed? Are you ashamed? Do you not trust me?"

"Don't say stuff like that. You know why."

"No. No, I don't. I know what you tell me, but you won't tell me /why/ it has to be like this!"

He kissed Iruka's shoulder in assurance. "Calm down."

"Stop it!" He broke away from the hold and got off the bed, sliding down the adjacent wall. Knees drawn up close to his chest, he buried his hands in his hair. "I can't live like this anymore. It feels like.... Like I don't even know you. I don't know who you are, what you like, what you even look like. The only thing I know for certain is the sound of your voice!"

"Iruka-"

"I can't deal with it, Kakashi." His voice was muffled against his knees. "This can't keep going when all I have are uncertainties."

His eyes narrowed in the dark. "What are you saying?" Fear trickled down his back.

"Even if it's just once, I want to be able to see your face. No shadows, no tricks. Just once and I'll be happy." He looked up at Kakashi, eyes pleading and lined with tears of frustration. "Please? Is it so difficult?"

The other looked away. "You don't understand-"

"Can you really not honor such a simple request?"

"It's not that simple."

"I'm sorry, Kakashi." Iruka hugged his knees. "I can't keep this up."

A cold shiver bunched at his shoulders. "Then it's over?" Iruka nodded and Kakashi was silent for a long while. "If that's the way it must be." He stood from the bed and went over to the window. After a moment of thought, he went to the small table by the bed and picked up his book. "Thank you," he said roughly, "for taking care of it."

Iruka said nothing, just waited until he was alone with the darkness before he allowed his tears to fall.

~*~*~*~

"You seem to be in a less than decent mood today, Iruka-sensei."

He bowed his head. "I'm sorry, Hokage-sama."

"For what? Not feeling well? We can find someone else to teach your class today if you're feeling under the weather, you know. They won't hold anything against you."

"I'm fine. Thank you."

The old man patted Iruka's shoulder. "That I sincerely doubt. Why don't you tell me about it?"

With a wavering smile, Iruka could barely stop the sting from coming to his eyes. "I wonder if it's really better this way. Or if this feeling was inevitable. I'd have to deal with it sooner or later."

"Risk is something we all take, Iruka-sensei." He said. "You judged if it was worth the risk, and you took it."

"I just wish it didn't have to turn out this way. I feel so empty." Iruka bit his lip. "But it will pass. I'm sure of it."

"Heartbreak is not something that can just be overlooked, Iruka-sensei." The chonin looked up at him in surprise. "Gai-sensei had told me that Kakashi-sensei is also in a rather unusually somber mood today. Said that he let his students have the day off. Rather smart of him, seeing as a distracted instructor with a group like his is very dangerous." The Hokage looked down at Iruka. "Perhaps you should talk to him. You two might be able to find a similarity in your problems."

Iruka's face went red. He knows..... he thought miserably. But, as the Hokage chuckled and patted his shoulder, he also realized that..... he doesn't care. In fact.... He turned to watch the other man walk away.

"Good luck to you both." He said over his shoulder.

In fact..... Iruka's face became even redder, it seemed as if he were giving them his blessing.....

~*~*~*~

It didn't take long for Iruka to find him. Despite all their nights of not talking, it seemed that he knew Kakashi very well, knew the places that he found peaceful and relieving. Or perhaps it was something he picked up from the times when they were merely acquaintances.

It was on top of the roof of one of the warehouses that sat on one side of the mountain. The thatched roof was dry and echoed Iruka's footsteps with a dull crunch.

Kakashi looked over his shoulder, though he already knew who it was. "What can I do for you?" He asked, his voice low and dull.

Suddenly feeling foolish, Iruka looked away. "Hokage-sama.... sent me. Because we both aren't feeling well."

"Ah." He turned back to look at the village.

"He said we might be able to talk out our problems." He continued, trying to get some point across, though he really wasn't sure what.

For a long while, neither said anything and for a moment, Kakashi duked his head, wanting to say something but unsure how to say it.

"Adults," he eventually said, "are allowed to make mistakes, aren't they?"

"Yes." Iruka replied automatically.

"Even those that once were Anbu?"

"Of course." He moved over to the edge of the roof to sit next to the older man.

"Is it ever too late for them to regret."

"No. It shouldn't be." He cast an askew glance at Kakashi, watching as he cast his lone amber gaze into the sky. And then it occurred to Iruka just exactly where he was sitting and he sat up straight in surprise as Kakashi turned to look at him with both eyes open.

"Is it too late for me?"

"Ka..... Kakashi....."

The older man turned back, his gaze going back down to the village. Even from the profile, the pale skin of the scare was barely visible. "I'm sorry, Iruka. I was selfish."

"Wh-Why did you change your mind?"

"It's amazing, isn't it? How mature children are when you don't pay attention?" He smiled under the mask. "Yesterday during an exercise Naruto was yelling at Sasuke because he didn't complete a task to uphold his end of their practice. It was an easily overlooked mistake, but it would've cost them a lot in the long run if it were a real mission. And Sasuke..... he apologized for it because it was his mistake and he took responsibility. Naruto didn't say anything about it, just looked at him for a moment and seemed to have forgotten it entirely. He didn't brag or rub it in or anything." Kakashi looked back up at the sky. "And this morning, when I let them go on their own, the two were talking as if they were friends. I wonder how they could've gotten so close without me noticing."

Iruka smiled at the thought. "You know, in a way, I see a lot of you in Sasuke."

"Strange, I see a lot of you in Naruto." He smiled. "The way you always push yourself and the way you wish to be treated equally. And how easily you forgive."

Iruka turned to look back at Kakashi and suddenly it felt like he was in a dream. And the only way he could be sure it was reality was by a simple touch.... He reached out and placed a hand on Kakashi's cheek and the man did nothing. When he hooked his fingers on the mask, he hesitated and Kakashi grabbed his wrist. Instead of pulling the hand away like he thought he would, the larger hand spread over his, entwining their fingers and guided Iruka's hand, pulling the mask as he went an placing a passing kiss on his fingertips.

And Iruka found himself seeing Kakashi's face in its entirety for the first time.

All the feelings he's held back, feelings he didn't even know where there suddenly came rushing out as a great weight lifted, unseen, from his chest. Tears came to his eyes and he looked away, a hand coming up to keep the tears from flowing.

"You don't know how happy I am," he said thickly, "I...."

"I'm sorry, Iruka."

In surprise, he looked up at Kakashi's face again, as perfect and handsome as he thought, more so than he ever deemed possible. "What?"

"Can you forgive me for my weakness?"

"You're not weak. Don't say that." He grabbed Kakashi's hand in his.

"Compared to you I am." He kissed Iruka's knuckled, loving the valleys and rough hills with the tip of his tongue. "You had the strength to do what I would never had been able to do. If it were me in that situation, I would've let it continue, I would've been too afraid to do anything else because you're all I ever wanted. And I would've let it build up until I broke. But you had the strength to endure what would've broken me. You're a far stronger man than I am."

In a fit of emotion, Iruka threw himself at the older man, burying his face against Kakashi's shoulder. "No more words, Kakashi." He said, somehow unable to get close enough. "This is enough. This is all I want."

Understanding, he wrapped his arms around Iruka tightly, unwilling to ever let go, unwilling to make another mistake that might cost him the man he held so dearly. And there the two stayed, unspeakably happy above their unknowing village.

~*~*~*~

"All right, that's it for this class!" Iruka quickly shooed the children out. "Now go out there and wreck havoc! I have other things to deal with than you lot!" They laughed and waved at him and he grinned. He loved children and he adored his class. They were all so wonderful.

Again he felt the familiar tug at his pant leg. Kneeling down, he looked the small girl in her eyes. "What can I do for you?" He asked.

"Are you happy now?"

He gave her an honest smile. "I'm very happy now."

"You seem a bit stronger."

His face became quizzical. "What do you mean by that?"

"My father says that every time you become happy after being so sad, you become a little bit stronger each time. Because you learn to overcome sadness. So you must've become stronger." She leaned in closely. "But I think you've always been strong."

With a smile, he patted her head. "Thank you." He stood up, gentle hand guiding her shoulders. "C'mon, don't want to keep your father waiting, do you?" "Nope." She smiled brilliantly. "Goodbye, Iruka-sensei!"

"Bye!" He waved as she disappeared. Then he turned to the windowsill, watching as Kakashi lazed across it, the leg dangling inside the class swinging absentmindedly.

"You have a way with children."

"I believe I have a way with people."

Kakashi just smiled. "You certainly have something." He held out an arm, indicating for Iruka to come to him. Once his hand could grab hold of his waist, he brought the younger man to lean against his hip, nearly laying on him.

"Do you suppose," Iruka asked thoughtfully, "that it would've happened regardless?"

"I think it already had." The chounin looked at him curiously. "This should've happened a long time ago. We just took the long way around."

Satisfied at the answer, Iruka nestled against Kakashi's chest. "Yes. I suppose we did."

"You know," Kakashi nuzzled his hair, "you're too good for me."

"If that were true," he said with a smile, "do you really think I'd care?"

"You don't now."

"True."

With a wide smile, Kakashi pulled his mask down over his chin and kissed him. "You really are too good for me."