The next day Iruka went to the hospital.
He knocked timidly at the door, and when there was no answer, he went inside. Kakashi had not yet woken up. He had been unconscious for almost two weeks.
The room was empty and deathly silent. Iruka bit his lip, and walked over to the bed. He felt like an intruder.
When he glanced at the bed, he gasped in surprise at its occupant.
Kakashi looked nothing like himself. Well, Iruka did not know precisely what Kakashi looked like, as his face was always hidden. But there was always a certain air, a certain strength about him, that made him easily recognizable. There was nothing strong about the man that lay in the bed. This man could have been crushed by the weight of a thimble.
His skin was pale, and his eyes were closed with deep purple circles beneath them. A respirator covered the bottom half of his face. His chest rose and fell slowly and laboriously. His torso was wrapped in bandages, and one leg was in a cast. There were smaller bandages covering the whole of his body. A green and black bruise snaked its way around his neck in the perfect semblance of a hand. Iruka covered his mouth.
He glanced at the chart at the foot of the bed. The list of injuries seemed endless. Kakashi had broken bones that the chuunin had not even heard of. Iruka remembered what Naruto had told him. Not only had Kakashi taken a blow that would have killed a lesser man, he had also withstood an explosion that had killed his enemy.
Kakashi murmured something in his sleep. It sounded like a name. Iruka did not recognize it. He sat down in the chair next to the bed. For some reason, he did not want to leave the man alone. Not now, when it seemed that a reaper was waiting anxiously for him to turn his back.
And there was no one visiting him, although Gai had left numerous green get well cards -- the best of which reading 'a challenge: who can live the longest. You are losing. Please don't lose.' Tsunade continued to distract Naruto and Sakura from the gravity of the situation by sending them away, and the village was shorthanded in any case, and needed everyone in order to fill its demands.
He placed the flowers on the table.
Right now, Iruka felt that this man needed someone to guard him. And for the first time since he had known Kakashi, Iruka was willing to do it. He decided he would stay.
The beeping machines sounded too much like chirps. He turned his head. There was no grass, no dirt, no bamboo stalks, and no starry night sky. Just the dimpled, tiled ceiling of a hospital, and the flicker of artificial light. It was such a stark white, it could have been the blinding beams of the moon.
His eyes began to adjust. No, it was just the ceiling.
The room was cold and quiet, and wholly imbued with the melancholy reserved for the dying. Yet he had not died. The tiny start of a grin spread across his face.
"I'm pretty tough, for an old man," he wheezed.
Something jumped beside him. Papers spilled to the floor.
"Kakashi-san, you're awake!"
The voice was familiar. But not too familiar.
It ignored him.
"Tsunade-sama! He's awake!"
His eyes rolled over to see who it was that was shouting. Really, it was a hospital. There were people resting. Iruka-sensei, he ought to know better.
Kakashi groaned. Why did he never wake up next to the person he expected? What was Iruka-sensei doing here? If the chuunin were here to say 'I told you so,' then Kakashi felt that he had seriously underestimated the other's maleficence. However, something told him that was not the case. He could not say what exactly, except that vaguely, from amidst his coma induced haze, he remembered the scent of flowers, and the shiff of papers, and the comfort of being watched over.
Heels clicked in the hallway. Actually, they did not so much click as storm.
"I'm glad he's not dead!" He heard a woman's voice shout, barging into the room. "That way I can kill him!" Tsunade clicked over to the bed. A shadow blocked out the yellow glow of the light bulb. Tsunade was looming over him, furious and menacing. Kakashi sunk a little into his pillow. She exhaled deeply, all her anxiety and all her fears whooshing away in a breath of relief. She was building up to something. And then. . .
"What were you thinking throwing yourself into a punch like that!" she shrieked. It was not a question. Kakashi flinched. His head began to throb. "Do you have any idea how long it took me to put you back together!? Moron!"
"Tsunade-sama, he only just woke up. . . I don't think you should yell at him." Iruka was standing at the foot of the bed. Was the man actually defending him?
"He's been out for two weeks, now is as good a time as any," Tsunade snapped, throwing a mean glare at the academy instructor. She turned on Kakashi. "Look at me when I talk, brat!" She narrowed her eyes. "This has to be the most reckless, most irresponsible, most asinine, . . . " Kakashi braced himself. Her fourth insult was always most vicious. "Most self-less thing you've ever done."
Kakashi blinked. Was that meant as an insult? Because it wasn't very insulting. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Iruka grin. Perhaps he had misheard; perhaps she had meant selfish.
"Did you mean selfish?" he asked, in wonder.
Tsunade huffed, sitting down on the bed. Why was she getting so close? Kakashi's eyes widened as she bent over him. Is she. . . going to kill me?
She kissed him gingerly on the forehead.
"Naruto told me everything." She looked out the window, her hand coming to rest lightly on one of his arms. She shook her head, and when she looked back at him, her eyes were sincere. "Thank you."
Kakashi blushed. For a moment, she seemed almost kind.
She slapped the mattress.
"Guh." The price of her compliments, Kakashi decided, was too steep.
"Next time don't almost die," she barked, back to her harsh, reproving self. She stood. Iruka smiled; under the tough facade, the fifth hokage truly did care for Kakashi. It had been heartwarming to watch. Motherly, even. "Iruka!" While it lasted.
"Don't you have somewhere to be?"
"No." He scratched his head, confused.
"Then make yourself useful," she cocked her head towards her patient. "Keep an eye on this numbskull. Jiraiya won't be here for another couple of hours." Iruka nodded, understanding.
Kakashi was still in bad shape. It couldn't hurt to keep him under close supervision, even if he was finally conscious. Tsunade lingered in the doorway. She lifted her chin, jaw set.
"Kakashi, play nice. He's been visiting you."
"Oh?" Kakashi raised a brow. Then winced. Somehow, it hurt to raise his eyebrows. Then he realized that they had been singed. Tsunade made a disinterested "hmph" and glanced at Iruka. Her eyes washed over him, curious.
"I don't know why either. I thought the two of you hated each other." She shrugged. "Oh well," and walked out the door.
Kakashi observed Iruka as he collected his scattered papers, suspicious, and just as curious as Tsunade. Why, indeed, was the man here? Kakashi was truly perplexed. It was not as though he hated Iruka. Really, he had no opinion on the other. He knew him only as the face behind the missions desk, and occasionally as Naruto's esteemed confidant. They rarely spoke. Although, he recalled, they had parted last on tense terms. Iruka sat down in a chair next to the bed; clearly, from the way he avoided Kakashi's mismatched gaze, he also remembered.
Kakashi felt like folding his arms. But he couldn't. He felt like turning on his side. But he couldn't. He felt like leaving. But he definitely couldn't. It was going to be a long couple of hours. He stared at the ceiling.
Twenty minutes later, he was still staring.
He had counted almost all of the tiny dots speckling its surface - one million two hundred and three - when Iruka cleared his throat and he lost his place. Kakashi sighed, too bored to be anything more than disappointed. There was the scritching sound of a pen, then the squeak of a marker.
He chanced a glance at his overseer. Grading papers, as he had suspected. Also disappointing. Iruka capped his pen suddenly, and stacked the papers.
"What is it, Kakashi?"
Kakashi had no response. He hadn't thought Iruka to be paying him any attention. Besides, he couldn't tell the truth, that he had been interrupted in his tally of ceiling dots. That would sound ridiculous. Things were awkward enough as it was.
Iruka frowned, looking down his nose at the bedridden jounin. Too bad he didn't wear glasses, thought Kakashi detachedly, the effect would have been more impressive. Iruka exhaled loudly, setting his papers on the bed stand.
"You're probably wondering why I'm here." Iruka pinched the scar on his nose.
Not really. But I suppose you're going to tell me. He had already decided -- somewhere around dot six thousand sixty -- that he didn't care why the other was here. Currently, he had other things on his mind, such as ceiling dots and keeping himself alive.
Iruka fiddled with the zipper on his vest.
"I feel like we got off on the wrong foot."
Kakashi had to agree. Their bleak acquaintanceship, if it could even be called that, was based on collisions. It was one of head-butts and slights. Yet it had never seemed to bother the pony-tailed chuunin before.
"Well. . ." Iruka fiddled with his pen. "Naruto told me what happened. I came to say thank you, and that I shouldn't have doubted you."
Kakashi eyed him dubiously. He thought briefly that he might be hallucinating. There were so many medications coursing through his system, it was entirely possible. However, it seemed an unlikely thing for him to be hallucinating about.
"So. . . this is an apology?"
Kakashi blinked. Iruka had just apologized to him. Although he hardly knew the chuunin, there was one thing he knew for certain. And that was that Iruka hated to apologize. Kakashi turned to the other man, incredulous. He thought about his next words, knowing someplace in the back of his battered head that it was important that he say something affable. After all, Kakashi was well aware of the amount of courage it took to apologize.
"Um . . . " Kakashi coughed. ". . . thank you."
Iruka looked at him in surprise. He had expected arrogance and perhaps a noncommittal grunt in response. He had expected it to be humilitiating. But Kakashi was genuine, and it seemed to him that he was thanking him for more than a mere apology.
At that moment, Iruka understood that there was much more to Kakashi than he had realized. He was much more than a mask and a name -- there really was something underneath the underneath. And maybe, just maybe, he was actually worth getting to know.
For the moment, however, Iruka had realized something much more important. The respirator had long ago fallen off. And there was a face beneath it. And he had just seen it.
Kakashi felt that it made for a fitting metaphor. The reaction was a bonus.
Because Iruka had promptly fainted.