Hi everyone! Yes, it took a while but the epilogue is finally done and this story is finally complete. (contented smile) Looking back on all the chapters, I can hardly believe I've worked on this story for years and right now, I'm feeling just a little bit disgusted that I can ramble on and write so much! (laugh) But it's a wonderful feeling to be able to work hard on a project and share with everyone, reading all your comments and seeing different perspectives on things. So thank you very much for coming on this journey with me! (grin)
And because you didn't leave an email address for me to reply your review,
To lecanis: I'm glad you kept coming back to this story even though I took so long in between chapters to update, thanks!
To sara, kathia and helda: I do take a long time to update but this is the last one for this story so hopefully, it'll be worth the wait. (smile)
To Senna-chan: Yes, finally it's happy tears! (grin) I'm so glad you've enjoyed the story. Thank you for always leaving me a review!
To Harvey: I'm also a bit sad the story has come to an end (sigh) but I'm really relieved I actually stuck with it and saw it through to the end.
To HH: It's ok you haven't seen this story before; you found it at a good time, right before the end…so you didn't have to suffer as much in between chapters for this slow author to update. (sheepish and apologetic)
To eve: Dry eye problem solution…hm, I should get this patented. (smile)
To mango: Wah! I know, slow updates…I'm very sorry. (bows in apology)
To Amanda: Glad you enjoyed it. I do like angst with a touch of happiness…so this story was good for me to write too.
To Anise: Yeah, these two have struggled not only with each other but also with themselves or so long, it's really such a relief for them to stop being so careful around each other and just come out and say what they mean.
To jazzy: Ah, sorry this story is making everyone cry so much…
To Annoukh: I do find the misunderstanding between the characters was getting a bit irritating as well but I'm glad you liked the rest of it.
To kennardaillard: I think it's not so much whether Iruka believes what Kakashi said about them being in love in the past or not, it's more like this piece of information is meaningless to him because he does not remember…it has no emotional significance for him. But it's frustrating for Iruka because Kakashi seems to be so fixated on the past that he does not know how to move forward. And I don't think any character, for example Tsunade, actually sees Kakashi as a person incapable of love. It's just they didn't know of the relationship so when Kakashi suddenly gets so obsessed with Iruka, it's a bit of a concern…and being the medic that she is, her first natural conclusion is that he's physically or mentally unwell. Lastly, Pakkun! I love dogs and enjoyed writing him and the ninken a lot but unfortunately, he wouldn't appear again in this story.
And finally, the sort-of-happy ending that I've promised. Hope everyone would enjoy it and thank you all very much once again for reading!
Iruka wanted to say everything was fine after that. He wished he could say that day at the hospital, was the start of their happily ever after.
But life was not a fairytale, much less a shinobi's life.
The poison on the kunai that had hit them both was a particularly strong one. While he had recovered well thanks to Kakashi's quick actions that day, help had come almost too late for jounin.
Even the antidote Tsunade managed to make could do nothing for the damage the poison had already dealt to Kakashi's system. The jounin suffered several alarming relapses, each one sending the man back into intensive care, face pale and fighting for breath.
And each time, Iruka found he was unable to leave his side.
As though bound by a spell, he would sit for hours and watched as Kakashi lay heavily sedated under a drug-induced sleep. In the sterile oppressive silence of the ward, he could only watch and wait, counting each slow labored breath the jounin took; feeling helpless and afraid, frustrated he could do so little for the person he most wanted to protect.
But just as the days of darkness and worry were starting to meld together, stretching out as though they would never end, Kakashi finally started getting better.
With the same nonchalant, unhurried attitude the Copynin took with everything, he healed slowly. His injuries and chakra pathways started mending with a grudging sort of pace that had the medics shaking their heads in exasperation but sighing in relief all the same.
And the best part of it all was Kakashi's smiles, growing steadily stronger with each passing day and more often seen.
It made a warm bubble of happiness expand in his chest every time he saw one of those smiles. To watch the jounin's eye crinkle up above his mask, or catch the corners of that gentle mouth lift into an expression of joy more genuine than he had ever seen from the man, touched him with an inexplicable emotion so complex he barely knew what to do. He only knew a secret part of him really hoped he was at least part of the reason for those smiles.
Yet, there were times when Iruka would catch the man watching him with a strange haunted look in his uncovered eye.
Those times, Kakashi's eye was always shuttered, dark with the shadows of an old wound that had yet to heal. He hid it behind his mask and easy smiles, but the tiny gleam of panic that flashed through jounin's eye every time visitors' hours at the hospital were over told him, the man was downright terrified he might not be back to see him the next day.
It surprised and worried him. Despite all appearances, he was starting to realize how emotionally fragile Kakashi really was. The fact that Kakashi was so needy of him now when the jounin had been so keen on avoiding him in the past few months left him utterly confounded.
It would probably be classified as borderline insane, but Iruka had learnt that to care for Hatake Kakashi, was to understand his special kind of crazy.
That's why the moment Kakashi gained enough strength and the doctors deemed him ready for discharge, Iruka decided to take matters into his own hands.
He signed all the required papers, bought an extra futon, and brought the man home.
Kakashi's relief, when he heard the news, was palpable.
The jounin tried to make a few customary polite protests anyway. He scratched at the back of his head uneasily, mumbling excuses like he did not want to impose, that he did not want to be a bother, that he was really quite capable of taking care of himself but thank you very much.
Iruka fought the urge to roll his eyes at the pathetic display. But he listened patiently to his excuses, humming in understanding and making the appropriate responses at all the right parts.
When the jounin ran out of things to say, he simply gave him a perfunctory nod, picked up his bags and promptly took him home.
And when Kakashi caught his hand and gave it a small squeeze in wordless gratitude as they turned up the quiet path towards the chunin's apartment, his heart swelled to ten times its size to know he was finally getting something right.
Still, it made his heart ache to see Kakashi shuffle almost apologetically into the living room, sitting down gingerly on the couch as though he wasn't quite sure what to do, looking around at his apartment and all its probably familiar things with a sad look in his eye.
It felt strange and awkward; the air was so heavy, it was stifling. He could feel all the unspoken regrets and should-have-beens hanging in the space between them as Kakashi let his solemn gaze rove slowly around the room to finally settle on him.
It hurt, just a little bit, to wonder what Kakashi saw as he looked at him.
Then, Kakashi smiled; the moment passed and he could breathe again.
The recuperating jounin dutifully allowed Iruka to march him to the bedroom and even waggled a suggestive eyebrow at him cheekily as he put him to bed. Iruka fluffed up the pillows for him to lean on and tucked the blankets firmly around him with an admonishing frown. Then, he had spread the futon on the ground beside the bed in a matter-of-fact, no-nonsense manner he hoped would chase away the haunted look in the jounin's eye the man was trying so hard to hide.
And if he was awoken in the middle of the night by the sudden weight of Kakashi's gaze on him, he did not comment.
He would get up to sit with the jounin for a while, reassure him through all his stumbling excuses and mumbled apologies, then coax him to lie down again and rest.
In the dark gloom of the night, he would pretend not to notice how badly the jounin was trembling, how desperately Kakashi clung to him, afraid to let go. And as he watched Kakashi fall back into an uneasy sleep, he wondered if he had done the right thing after all. As much as he cared for Kakashi, his very presence was a reminder of hurt and pain for the man and he despaired at how this arrangement could possibly be good for the jounin.
But as winter melted into spring, they too slowly settled into each other's existence.
Eventually, even the nightmares went away.
Kakashi still chose to spend as much time as he could around him, but it had become something the jounin drew comfort from, rather than driven by an awful desperation to fulfill a crippling need to be near the chunin.
And that, was exactly what the Copynin was doing right now.
Iruka looked up from the lesson plan he had been working on to the figure lounging on his couch and sighed.
The jounin lay sprawled with a careless grace, his head pillowed on the arm-rest, chin tucked into his chest, mask discarded and hitai-ate gone.
Propping a hand under his chin, Iruka took the chance to watch his sleeping companion for a while. It worried him that Kakashi was still dreadfully pale but his color had improved from the ashen grey he had been sporting while he had been in the hospital. The man was still too thin, but his face had slowly lost the gaunt, hollow look. It was heartening to see the signs of stress and ravages of the poison fading away one by one.
Warmth touched his heart and he allowed himself a small private smile. Sometimes, the feelings he has for this man still managed to surprise him.
His eyes were closed, the bruising around the Sharingan had faded to a faint smudge over his eyelid. His chest rose and fell easily, his breathing coming deep and even through his slightly parted lips. One leg was flopped over the edge of the couch, the other wedged against a corner, fighting with the cushions for space. The book he had been reading now dangled precariously from slack fingers over the side of the couch.
He looked decidedly uncomfortable, sleeping on a couch too small for his tall frame.
Iruka shook his head with an exasperated smile. Silently, he stood and retrieved a blanket. Shaking it out, he draped it over him, taking care not to wake the jounin as he tucked it gently around his shoulders.
But when he tried to ease Icha Icha Paradise from his hand, Kakashi stirred.
"Mmm?" He muttered sleepily, one dark eye blinking open slowly.
Iruka knelt down beside him, studying him carefully. The fact that the jounin woke slowly, instead of snapping from sleep to full wakefulness as all shinobi do, was a sign of how much his healing body still craved rest. The therapy session that morning at the hospital to rehabilitate his broken leg had certainly wore him out even more.
"Tired?" He raised an eyebrow and grinned evilly, trying to keep the smug triumph out of his voice. "Knew you would fall asleep but you just had to read your book out here."
"Maa…not tired at all." Kakashi insisted, completely unrepentant. He stretched lazily, smiling vaguely even as he fought back a yawn. "Just resting my eyes."
Iruka snorted. "Told you if you're this tired, you should go in and lie down properly to sleep."
"Not tired." He repeated somewhat petulantly.
Iruka bit back a smile at the stubborn twist in the corner of his mouth. But his playful mood vanished when he laid a hand against his forehead to check his temperature.
"You're feeling kind of warm." He frowned, suddenly concerned. "Did the doctor say anything this morning when you saw him?"
Kakashi waved his concerns off with a nonchalant hand. "Fine, fine. He said I'm fine."
"Hm, I don't know…" He chewed worriedly on his bottom lip as he pressed two fingers to the side of the jounin's neck to take his pulse. "You can always do with more rest. Maybe we shouldn't go to the festival tonight-"
"But we must!" In a flash, Kakashi sat up and seized his hand in a tight grip, drawing it away from his neck with a touch of panic in his eye.
"I feel fine, really! We must go to the festival!" Kakashi insisted, his smile bright and eager and just a bit painful to look at. "We'll bring food and maybe a bit of sake."
"-and later, there'll even be fireworks to start the new year." He was babbling now, the grip on his hand was becoming crushingly tight. "We went last year and it was wonderful! Don't you remember, we-"
He cut himself off with a sharp intake of breath, his expression instantly turning into one of horror and guilt.
Iruka bit his lip and looked away.
Another memory of them that only existed in Kakashi's mind.
Real or imagined, it was another glowing memory in Kakashi's mind he could neither touch or experience. And anything they tried to do now to re-capture the moment would only be a poor imitation.
His heart sank. He knew how much Kakashi was looking forward to the festival. But would it really be as wonderful as it had been the last time? Would he be able to say the right things, act the right way to make it as good as Kakashi remembered?
It's moments like this, when he was so acutely aware of all his inadequacies that he felt like he was holding his breath, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Waiting, perhaps for Kakashi to tell him he was tired of all the things that were missing between them; waiting for the jounin to tell him the second time round really wasn't worth it after all.
"Iruka, please…I'm sorry." Kakashi's voice broke his reverie and he looked up to see the jounin looking at him with an oddly helpless expression on his face. "I didn't mean…I was just…"
The jounin coughed, uncertainty clouding his features. "It's all right if you don't want to go…I mean we had a good time last year and I just thought…well…er…maybe…" He trailed off into miserable silence.
Iruka sighed. He could never deny Kakashi anything when the man was looking at him with that half-hopeful, half-pleading expression; forlorn and unloved as a kicked puppy.
Straightening his back, he folded his arms across his chest and regarded the jounin with mock sternness. "Tell you what. I'll make you a deal." He told him gravely. "If you promise to go lie down in bed properly and rest your eyes from now until it's time to leave for the festival, we'll go."
Kakashi's shoulders drooped and he sniffed piteously. "You drive a hard bargain, Iruka-sensei."
But he rose to his feet and padded off to the bedroom, dragging the blanket behind him. And when Iruka poked his head in to check on him a while later, the man was already fast asleep, blanket pulled up high so he could bury his nose in the warm quilt.
Iruka couldn't hold back his smile as he sat down quietly by his side, touching a hesitant hand to the tousled silver hair. He still had work to finish and preparations to make for the festival but he found himself wanting to spend as much time as he could near Kakashi as well.
Who knows when moments like this would end?
His smile faded a little, remembering the look on the jounin's face earlier. He was trying his best but how many times could he disappoint Kakashi before the jounin got tired of him? How long was he allowed to be by the jounin's side like this?
Somehow, he was afraid to know the answer.
"Come on, just one more block! We're almost there."
"Oh for goodness sake, be careful!" Iruka growled, catching hold of Kakashi's arm just in time to steady him as his foot slipped a bit on the snow covered roof. The doctors had strictly forbidden him from using his chakra and the last thing the recovering jounin needed was to break something by tumbling off the roof.
We probably shouldn't even be up here on the roof, he groaned as they made their way across another stretch of buildings. The weather was just starting to warm up with winter ending but the rooftops were still slick with ice. His heart gave another nervous tic of worry as Kakashi almost missed another step.
But the man himself was entirely unfazed. Stepping up to the edge of the roof, he leapt forward and caught the railings with one hand, swinging himself up easily onto the balcony that was just outside the Hokage's office.
He straightened slowly, peering into the gloom of the Hokage's office, taking a moment to make sure there was no one around despite the late hour. Then, he was leaning over the metal rails, grinning as he beckoned to him with an all-clear signal, happy and excited as a child.
Come on. He mouthed, his dark eye glinting in anticipation, his hair wind-swept and wild.
Iruka rolled his eyes in fond exasperation.
But Kakashi's enthusiasm was contagious and he found himself grinning back. Tossing the pack he was carrying up to the jounin, he swung himself up to land lightly beside him.
The view from the balcony was spectacular.
Konoha was spread out at their feet. The twinkling street lights marked out each and every winding road through the village. He could see every building and house from where they stood.
There was the tiny bake shop with its delicious sweets. There was the park where the old man sold ice-cream from his cart in the summer. There was the academy building, no long in ruins from the explosion; the rebuilding efforts were almost complete, just in time for when the new school term begins.
And at the center of it all, the bright lights and cheerful sound of the festival in the village square shone like a jewel in the night. Even this far away, he could hear the music, the joyous laughter, mingling with the sounds of hundreds of people gathered to celebrate the coming of the new year and surviving the old one.
This was the pulse of their village, their home.
He wondered if this was what the Hokages felt as they stood upon this very same balcony and suddenly, he was filled with tremendous relief once again that their mission to Takigakure had worked out.
Their situation with Waterfall was still tensed but news had reached them of a change in leadership in Takigakure. The new leader was a young man, inexperienced and with little political power over his council, but seemed keen on mending diplomatic ties with Konoha. There were even rumors Konoha might enter into peace talks with them in the spring.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" Kakashi murmured by his side as they gazed out over their village. "Kind of makes you wish you could be the Hokage, doesn't it?"
"Why, Kakashi." Iruka shot him a disbelieving look, a teasing smile on his lips. "You know the whole point of sneaking up here was to get the view without getting the job, right?"
Kakashi laughed and sat down. "No, the whole point of sneaking up here was because we sneaked up here last year and we absolutely enjoyed it."
Last year. He froze and shot his companion a sharp look.
He didn't know Kakashi was going to play out the evening exactly the way it happened a year ago. What was Kakashi hoping to achieve? Was it some secret test? Had he done something wrong already, something different?
But the jounin was oblivious to his concerns. He was unpacking the dinner they had brought, setting out the bento boxes in front of them, pulling down his mask to take a deep appreciative whiff of the eggplant miso soup in the thermos.
"Let's eat." He smiled, offering him a pair of chopsticks.
Iruka swallowed and nodded.
Sitting down side by side, they chatted as they ate, talking easily of everything and nothing. The night was cool with a hint of spring and gradually, Iruka relaxed.
They had been sitting in companionable silence for a while, enjoying the view of the village under the dark expanse of the night sky when Kakashi spoke.
"I guess you were right, you know."
"About what?" He asked absently, chewing on a piece of eel. The crowd had begun counting down to the new year; he could hear them in the distance.
Ten, nine, eight…
He kept his eyes glued to the eastern sky, not wanting to miss the sight of the first of the fireworks display, that he almost missed Kakashi's answer.
"About us." Kakashi's voice was quiet and serious. "About how it's never the same the second time round."
Everything went still. The crowd was still counting down, cheerfully going six, five, four…but he barely even heard them.
All he could hear was the pounding of his heart, trying to continue beating despite the pain tearing it in two.
He had failed the test. He had tried everything he could, tried to do things right; but in the end, it just wasn't enough.
"And?" He managed to ask, even though his throat had gone dry. Setting his bowl aside, he folded his hands in his lap nervously and snuck a careful sideway glance at his companion as he waited for him to speak.
Kakashi was staring contemplatively at the night sky and he was silent for a long moment.
"I think I have to agree it's really not the same the second time round." He said finally, with a terrible, grave certainty.
Iruka bit his lip, hard.
"Oh." He said in a very small voice, willing himself to be strong as his world-just so recently made whole-was falling to pieces again. "I…I-I see."
"Uh-huh, not one bit the same I must say." The cheerful turn in Kakashi's voice startled him.
When he looked over, he was surprised by the grin on his face and the way the single stormy grey eye was looking at him.
Heartfelt and full of adoration, burning with an unwavering belief that all the pain and suffering he had been through had been worth it.
"Because," He smiled a warm, genuine Kakashi smile as he laid a hand over Iruka's own. "the second time round, it's even better."
Because he was looking at Kakashi, he missed the first fireworks but he saw its reflection in the metal of his hitai-ate slanted over the Sharingan.
A golden starburst, which color and light could not outshine the brilliance of absolute happiness in Kakashi's eye.
"You…" Iruka choked, his vision suddenly blurry with tears.
He launched himself at him, heedless that they were out in the open where anyone could see them if they were to look up. Kakashi yelped in mock horror but he let himself be tackled. They went down in a tangled heap, knocking over one of the bento boxes, laughing breathlessly…perhaps crying a little too.
Kakashi flopped onto his back, running a hand back through his hair to get it out of his eye, trying to catch his breath. He was still laughing, a pure rich sound of such delight; laughing like he didn't care about all their yesterdays, only looking forward to all their tomorrows.
Still gasping a little to calm his own laughter, Iruka braced up on one elbow beside him and looked down at his face in wonderment. He reached out a hand and touched his cheek gently.
This was how he wanted Kakashi to always be, he decided, always happy, always smiling like he had never been hurt, like he had never known the meaning of heartache and pain.
And he would do everything in his power to keep the jounin this way, every day.
On impulse, he bent down and pressed a soft kiss to his lips.
"I love you." He said as he pulled away, surprised at how easily the words slipped out and how true they echoed in his heart. He smiled down into Kakashi's eye. "I love you."
Kakashi didn't say a word. He merely stared up at him, his eye wide with surprise.
Then he was reaching up, catching his lips with his own and kissing him back with all the pain and bittersweetness of a man who had been waiting for spring to come all alone in the land of eternal winter.
Their kiss tasted of pain and regret, of shadows of the past and the uncertainty of their future. But underneath all that, there was undeniable sense of hope, a sweetness in the knowledge that as long as they kept trying, they would somehow pull through.
In the distance, the temple bells began to toll, ringing in the new year.
Iruka closed his eyes and smiled against Kakashi's lips, lacing their hands tightly together. It was already looking to be a fantastic one.