The dark windows of his apartment stared down blankly at him as he mounted the stairs, and he squashed the disappointment crawling up his spine. Kakashi hadn't turned up for dinner for almost four days now and hadn't left any sort of reason for his sudden disappearance.
Naruto was still around, so it was unlikely that he was on a mission, but not absolutely impossible. Even so, Iruka couldn't just accept that excuse. His instincts said that, somehow or other, he'd blown his pseudo-friendship with Kakashi. He kept telling himself that this would be easier – he'd been finding it harder and harder not to treat Kakashi the same way he had in his dream as the distinctive lines between the two became fuzzier. Besides, he was getting a little worried about Kakashi's motives for seeing him. This was probably for the best.
He made a cup of instant ramen, and wondered just exactly when he'd become like Naruto. As he pushed the noodles around, he had to keep reminding himself that he was glad Kakashi had found a different activity to occupy his evenings. He was happy. He most certainly was not feeling lonely or disappointed or frustrated or….
His appetite evaporated. The ramen went in the garbage, and he yanked open the hall closet, determined to busy himself with one of his many home projects. He was not going to sulk.
And he had to tell himself that about every five minutes.
The sun rose and set and rose again. The minute he'd left Tsunade's office, he'd sent word to Tenzou that he'd be in charge of training the team for a few days. The other man had not questioned the directive, and Kakashi was immensely grateful for that.
From that moment on, he'd been sitting on the worn flagstones surrounding the memorial. He usually stood. He usually didn't plan on staying very long – not that he ever managed to follow those plans - but this time, he wasn't here for atonement. He wasn't asking for forgiveness. He was asking for advice. They may not have been able to actually reply, but even if he was just arguing with himself, it always seemed to help.
The story he told the silent stone started from the very beginning. He recounted his first encounter with Iruka, the confusion over his reaction in the hospital, and all the way to the most recent dinner. Finally, he reached the crux of the issue – the incident with Himura.
"I'm in trouble."
Iruka froze at the top of the steps, surprise holding his almost uncontrollable shivering at bay. He was drenched to the bone having left his umbrella by the door that morning. It would have been all right if it hadn't been pouring during his entire walk home, but nature was just not that kind to him.
It didn't look like it had been all that kind to the person hovering in front of his door either.
Kakashi's hair was slumped over his face; water dripping slowly from the strands. Twice he raised his hand and almost knocked. Iruka hadn't seen him in over two weeks, and he knew he should say something.
But the words died in his throat, and he sighed.
"Come on in." He pushed by Kakashi without a second glance. "You're drenched, and if you stay out here, you're just going to catch a cold."
"Iruka…?" Kakashi's eyes leapt to his face. The jounin looked immensely surprised to see him.
He paused in the doorway, "Are you coming?"
Kakashi slowly followed him inside.
Kakashi pressed himself up against the door, attempting to give Iruka enough room in the entryway to shed his shoes and outer layer. The chuunin was moving gingerly, trying to avoid dripping all over the floor. He tipped his head to one side and wrung out his sodden ponytail.
The moment should have been awkward. He'd been gone for so long, and he owed Iruka an explanation. Simply behaving like nothing had changed was not an option. But the chuunin was soaked and doing a fairly good impression of a bedraggled, wet dog, as was he. He said the only thing that came to mind.
"Do you have any dry clothes I can borrow?"
Iruka'd peeled his vest off and draped it over the umbrella stand by the door. He shook some water out of his sleeves, looked down at himself and said, "Yeah. Wait right there, and I'll get a towel and something to change into."
And with that, the moment had passed. It was almost as if the intervening time had disappeared without a trace. Iruka returned a few minutes later in clean clothes and with a towel draped around his neck. He held out a second towel to Kakashi without meeting the jounin's eyes, and Kakashi accepted it gratefully, mopping his face and hair.
"I left some clothes for you in the bathroom." Iruka didn't need to tell him where it was.
The water from the shower was almost scalding. Despite its many other problems, Iruka's apartment seemed to have an intact and very efficient water heater. He combed his hair back from his face and let the heat soak in to banish the chill in his bones.
How long had he been standing out there? He hadn't meant to be caught by Iruka, but the chuunin had returned to his house later than usual. Usually, he arrived after Iruka got home, and stood outside, thinking about knocking.
"I'm an idiot."
The clothes fit pretty well, which was no surprise considering how close in size he and Iruka were, and the fact that the uniforms only came in two, one-size-fits-most options. Nobody's uniform fit them well, as one size was invariably two small while the other was too big.
When he emerged, still toweling off his hair, Iruka was standing at the stove. "Dinner'll be ready in a few minutes." He turned around and reached past Kakashi to grab the salt shaker.
There was nothing extraordinary about the kiss. No momentary stopage of the Earth's rotation, no golden halo of light from the setting sun shone through the window and framed their faces in a soft, diffuse glow. No. He had simply been standing one second and leaning into the other's warmth in the next before he had even definitively decided what he was going to do.
It may not have been earth shattering, but it certainly was sweet, until the hands that had been resting on the front of his shirt suddenly switched from almost pulling him closer to determinately pushing him away.
As soon as the lips separated from his, he caught the barely audible, almost sobbed words.
"No." The first was strong, but the following trailed off. "No, no, no... We can't. We..."
"Why not?" He gripped the chuunin's forearms harder, fully expecting Iruka's protests to revolve around the fact that he'd just left.
Iruka was practically shaking under his stare. He looked away, refusing to meet the jounin's eyes. "It's a self-fulfilling prophecy, you know?" He whispered. "You believe that I can predict your actions. You find out that you kissed me, so you believe that you will come around to this conclusion - this, right here - eventually. It's affecting your actions, whether subconsciously or not, and the only reason you've decided to kiss me now is because you think you're supposed to! It's all just a giant mental suggestion, and the fact of the matter is that we wouldn't be here if it wasn't for that stupid, fucking coma!"
His heart started beating again. Iruka had been a teacher for many years. His brain was hard-wired to avoid swearing even in the most dire situations as parents tended to get really pissy when their kids came home spouting words that they should definitely not know at their age. The fact that he had broken down and cursed meant that he didn't want to believe what he was saying. Kakashi had no doubts that Iruka believed what he'd said the morning after the interrogation.
"You're the copy-nin, for god's sake! You could sleep with anyone you wanted. Why would you stoop to sleeping with an academy chuunin? They'd never believe it! I wouldn't even believe it!"
Iruka may not want to believe it, but hope was a dangerous thing. The coma had given him a glimpse of a different life, and it was possible that he was just as desperate to believe that he had this gift of insight, because it meant that the world in the coma might just become reality. But it also terrified him, because he simply couldn't believe that Kakashi would react like this unless he was being influenced…by the knowledge of Iruka's coma, as he'd said.
If he had been an outside observer, Kakashi would have agreed whole-heartedly with him.
"You're right." Kakashi let Iruka finish in a broken huff before responding. "You're absolutely right that we wouldn't be here if it wasn't for that. But I was never - look at me, Iruka - I was never looking for someone to care about. The last time I did that…I…." He closed his eyes and tried not to remember Obito's face as he slipped away. He tried not to remember standing by Rin's mother as she was presented with the small box that held Rin's hitae-ate, the only thing that was left of her daughter. He let his forehead rest on Iruka's shoulder and ignored the way the chuunin tensed against the touch. "I can't loose anyone else I care about. And the simple solution is just not to care. I don't make friends because friendship can bloom into something more even if you have the best of intentions."
Kakashi pressed a finger against his lips, "Let me finish. I kept telling myself that I was just helping you deal with what had happened. That I was just being a good teammate. But I genuinely enjoyed spending time with you. Even then, I kept insisting that it was only friendship, but…" He let go of Iruka's arms and backed away, needing space before he started telling this. "We caught the guy who was committing those murders."
Iruka's head snapped up at the change of subject. "Was he…?"
"Yes. He was the guy you predicted. We managed to stop him right before he added another victim to the list. We found his list of targets." Iruka looked sick. "You were on there. He told me…that he would have gone after you next."
The chuunin's eyes widened and he gripped the counter to keep from simply sliding to the floor. He swallowed hard. "Well, that's more than a little disturbing."
"I hit him."
"Even better." The chuunin folded his arms across his chest and looked murderous
"You…?" He shook his head, trying to understand the reaction. "I beat him because he thought about hurting you! I can't pretend anymore. I don't want this, but I can't…I can't pretend anymore."
"Then why the hell are you here?" Swearing again. Kakashi could feel the anger boiling under the surface and heard the unvoiced beginning to that question. If you don't want this, then why?
"Because I tried. The best thing would have been just to sever it." It was the conclusion he'd come to after several hours of arguing with himself in front of the memorial stone. The fact that he was on the slippery slope - the fact that he had already started to slide – terrified him. The simplest solution was to break it off, and that's what he had intended to do. "Do you know how many times in the last week I've wound up on your porch?"
He saw Iruka's eyes widen. "Ah, it was you."
The insight didn't come as a surprise. Three times he'd vaulted onto the roof right before Iruka had opened the door and peered outside.
"Every time I went home, I came here without thinking about it. This is not a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is not something that I've looked for or wanted. But you're right that we wouldn't be here if it weren't for that coma. None of this would have happened if it weren't for that all-important first step. It forced me to notice you. Now, I can't forget about you. And I don't want to."
Iruka stared at him for a long moment before snorting.
"Yeah, that was…really lame." He shook his head in disbelief.
"Just be glad Gai-sensei isn't here to watch you break out of your uber-cool idiom." His lips twitched slightly, breaking his absolutely straight face.
"Are you laughing at me, sensei?"
"I wouldn't dream of it." The timer on the stove began chiming irritably. As Iruka turned towards it, Kakashi caught his chin and kissed him gently.
When he pulled away, he was smirking.
"What?" Iruka's voice was defensive.
"You didn't push me away."
That earned him a haughty look. "Your point?" He shoved a plateful of food into Kakashi's hands.
"I thought we couldn't do this. That you didn't want this."
Iruka gave him a dark look. "Well, you've managed to convince me." He jabbed a finger into Kakashi's chest when the man grinned stupidly. "Don't push your luck."
Over dinner, Kakashi regaled him with the antics of his team. It got to the point where Iruka had his hand over his mouth and was laughing uproariously.
After a minute, he wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and sobered. "I…missed you."
"Me?" Kakahsi couldn't help but ask the question.
Iruka shrugged. "Either." His eyes flicked up over his cup to meet Kakashi's gaze, a warm smile spreading across his face. "You're not all that different, you know."
Iruka pulled on his clothes and wiped the mirror free of condensation before finger-combing his hair out and pulling it back. Kakashi was just putting away the last of the dishes when he came back into the main room.
"Maa, you went to the trouble to cook. I think I can handle the dishes." Kakashi dried his hands on the towel hung over the cabinet.
He crossed to the window and knelt on the sill. Rain hammered against the panes – both because it was coming down hard and driven by wind. "It's still raining."
The streets below were doing a fair impression of small creeks, and there seemed to be a waterfall forming off the edge of his roof. They were in luck that the porch sloped outwards because years of weathering had weakened the wood, so at least the apartment wasn't likely to flood.
"It's really coming down." Kakashi sat down on the sill next to him, and his eyes followed him when Iruka turned away and headed down the hall. Instinct caught the pillow aimed at the general vicinity of his head, and Iruka dropped a blanket on the couch.
"It's probably not all that comfortable – this couch is older than I am – but it's better than getting completely soaked again." He sat down on the sill as Kakashi reorganized the blanket and pillow to create something approximating a bed.
"I've definitely slept on worse." He flopped down on the couch and propped his book open on his knees. Iruka leaned against the window and watched the lightning scatter across the far sky.
"So what was it like when I kissed you before?" Kakashi rolled his head back over the arm of the couch to look at the chuunin.
"In the coma."
"We were just talking and then you… It surprised me. Why?" He leaned forward, quizzical.
"Maa, I just wanted to make sure that it hadn't happened in some romantically-emotional, falling-sakura-petal scene. I'd hate for real life to fall short."
"You really do read too many romance novels."
"It's not a romance novel. It's porn."
"Of course it is."
Kakashi held up the book and was tapping his finger against the bright red 'no' symbol plastered across the back of the book. Iruka chuckled softly.
The sun was just a little too high in the sky for him to be leaving on time, but he hadn't gotten much sleep the previous night. Hopefully his classroom would survive unsupervised for the five or ten minutes.
Amazingly, considering his new companion, this was the first time in the past three weeks that he and Kakashi had been 'seeing each other' – he supposed that was the best phrase to describe it – that he had been late. It was good to know that bad habits didn't tend to wear off.
But Kakashi had kept him up the night before and had tackled him back into the bed when he'd tried to get up to go to work.
He pushed out the door, emerging right behind his neighbors. Izumo spun around and grinned slyly at him. "Satisfying?"
"Shut up." He snapped back, but it rather lacked in vehemence.
He stuffed his hands deep into his pockets and stared down at the names on the stone. Slowly, Rin and Obito's voices faded into his thoughts. They were only portions of his consciousness given a different tone and pitch, but, as always, he found the ability to converse comforting.
"You love him, don't you?" Rin's voice was tainted with amusement.
"I don't know." Kakashi's lips twitched into a slight smile. "But that does seem awfully plausible."
"And it scares the pants off of you."
"You know what? It scares him too. He's lost people, Kakashi. And if you think about it, your life expectancy is a lot shorter than his. He knows he's likely to lose you, not the other way around."
"I know, but even with the statistics, there's a chance I might lose him."
"And?" Obito joined the conversation for the first time.
"If I could have done it all over again….given the choice between hating you right up until the end or having you kick me in the ass until I got my head screwed on straight, I would choose the later every time. Even though the time was short, with all of us," He unconsciously reached out and touched Rin's name on the stone. "I would rather have those moments and have to deal with the loss than not to have them at all."
"Well, it took you long enough to remember that. Idiot." He aimed a half-hearted mental glare at Obito.
"The point is moot. You've made such a big deal about not wanting the results to be biased, but all that means is that it's a one time deal." Tsunade pointed out. "He'll be suspicious any time he's called into the hospital!"
Iruka really wished they wouldn't walk about him like he wasn't sitting between them.
Mitokado and Tsunade had been arguing this point for several hours. The elder was reluctant to let Iruka's 'ability' pass by the wayside. The hokage was worried about side effects of the drugs needed to induce the coma.
"If I may," Iruka held up a hand and barely suppressed a flinch when two pairs of narrowed eyes snapped in his direction. "I…I have to agree with Mitokado-sama. Whether or not this thing continues to work, it would be foolish to let this opportunity slide. I would be suspicious of the hospital, but I'm just a chuunin. I'm sure there are lots of ways to drug me without bringing me all the way in here. And there must be a safe dosage?" He turned to Tsunade.
"I would be comfortable with every other month. But no more often!" She sat back in her chair and folded her arms, glaring darkly at Mitokado. "He'll need that time to metabolize the remains of the drug."
"So, you're just going to turn him over to the investigations department and hope they don't wind up killing him?" The voice came from the window, which had been shut, locked and sealed to prevent eavesdropping.
"Kakashi…sensei." A minute to late, Iruka remembered that he really should add the honorific in this particular setting, even though he'd dropped it several days ago. He clamped his lips together and fought down the blush threatening to burn it's way through to the surface of his skin as he remembered fumbling through Kakashi's name complete with the tag on at the end. The words had been particularly hard to enunciate because of the lips nuzzling up against his jawbone. The touch had shifted to feathering over his pulse, and words were murmured against his skin: 'Given the circumstances, I think it's about time you call me by my name.'
Tsunade raised an eyebrow and glanced between the two men, her face plastered with a speculative expression. "Do you have a suggestion?"
"You need someone to interface – to provide the injection and to guide the coma to focus on the information you want." Kakashi ambled towards the desk, the picture of disinterest.
"Are you volunteering?" The hokage steepled her fingers and watched him with interest.
"No." He stepped between Iruka and Mitokado. "I'm telling you that if I'm not involved, this will not happen." The elder met his gaze before shaking his head and waving an accepting hand. "Besides, I have experience and a key to his house."
Tsunade barely smothered laughter at the strangled, embarrassed expression on Iruka's face.
Kakashi half-turned towards him, "You're not angry?"
"About?" It took Iruka a moment of rewinding the conversation in Tsunade's office to find what he was supposed to be upset about. "Oh, the key comment? Please, Kotetsu and Izumo knew three days ago. I'd be amazed if there's a single person in the village who doesn't know."
"Huh, I figured I would have noticed if word had gotten out."
"Are you kidding? I've been getting high fives from half the shinobi here." He didn't see a reason to mention Gai's sudden appearance this morning with tears streaming down his face. The spandex-clothed teacher had fallen to his knees, pressed his forehead to the floor and profusely thanked Iruka for opening Kakashi's heart and for taking the jounin into his house and his life.
Given that he hadn't gone to Kakashi with a congratulatory speech about taking that first, all-important step to becoming an emotionally-whole human being again, Iruka was fairly certain that Gai didn't want the incident passed on to his eternal rival.
"You do have a bit of a reputation. Anko's been begging me to tell her about the…" He waived his hands in the air, hoping that the gesture would fill in the words he wasn't sure he could say without turning the same color as a tomato.
"About the what? Butterflies? Windmills? Homicidal aardvarks?" He started to add another guess.
"Sex!" Iruka snapped the word out and clapped a hand over his mouth.
"Now you're angry at me?" He teased. The smoldering look he got answered his question.
"…but I'm also grateful." Iruka's stance relaxed slowly. "I would have followed through with it, whether it was managed by the investigations goons or not, but I'll feel much better – and safer – knowing that you'll be looking after me."
The silence hung between them, and Kakashi felt a swelling of happiness inside his ribs.
"Now who's being lame?" But he couldn't resist the urge to poke some fun at the chuunin. Plus, he didn't have a vast experience in expressing his emotion.
"Guess it's contagious." Iruka grinned over his shoulder at him.
Somehow, Iruka still got the message.
Every person only gets one life. Those precious seconds should not be wasted wondering what could have happened – if only – because the reality of what can happen is never tied to what you believe should happen and only rarely tied to what you want.
And true happiness is usually in the last place you're looking, if you even bother looking in that direction at all.
For several hours, his sleep was dreamless. He vaguely noticed a gentle touch on his arm and a slight pinch that he knew he should have been able to recognize. The empty surroundings slowly dissolved into a village street that opened onto the gates at one end and the hokage tower on the other. The mountain looming over the village had four faces, not five.
The dream was too real, and yet small details were wrong. If he hadn't experienced it before, he might have been persuaded to believe that he was awake. He turned slowly, wondering where he should go.
"To the gate."
He turned back and faced the figure that had not been standing there a moment before.
The smell of the hospital had always bothered him; it was the main reason why he always left as soon as his injuries were closed enough that he wasn't likely to bleed to death on the way to his apartment.
But he was willing to put up with it. Some things were more important.
He brushed a stray lock away from the chuunin's closed eyes before telling him where he needed to be. Iruka's lips parted and moved in barely visible patterns. Kakashi leaned over and pressed his forehead against the other man's, answering the inaudible statement that was almost a question, but didn't have to be.
"Always." His lips curled up in response to the small smile forming on Iruka's face.
Yes. It is the end. I know that people have really enjoyed this story and a lot of people were looking forward to where it was going (which is really stressful, by the way ^^ Not that I'm complaining too much, I'm glad to create something people like, just means that I have to keep it up...which is tough). All I can hope for is that the ending lives up to those expectations...*fingers crossed*
Thank you so much for reading and reviewing over these past several months!