Chapter nine
Long ago . . .

"Sakumo-san, thank you for coming," the blond Jounin said, stepping back into the office.

"Is everything all right? Kakashi--"

"Is in the yard, with the students. I called you because . . ." He petered off, sitting down at his desk and rubbing his eyes. "Sakumo, Kakashi has started wearing mask. Do you have any idea why?"

"No," Sakumo said, too tired to be truly concerned. "Have you asked him about it?"

The Jounin frowned. "I thought maybe you could ask him. I'm a bit worried about him; I've never had a student quite so--"

"Thank you," Saskumo interrupted, standing. He knew it was rude. He couldn't bring himself to care. This man had implied things about his son--his son, who was brilliant and--and--and now he had something else he had to deal with. He couldn't do all this. "I'll talk to him." He walked out of the office and into the yard.

Kakashi sat alone on a swing under an old tree, watching children play. A long cloth was tied around the lower portion of his face, knotted behind his head.

"Kakashi?" his father called, managing to smile slightly when blue eyes looked up at him. "Come on."

Kakashi got to his feet, very thin and straight. He had tested in the Chuunin exams just a few weeks before; only eight months after becoming a Genin. The Third had put him under the care of one of their younger Jounin, a man that everyone said was a genius. They had no other Genin they could pair a six-year-old with. No one else could compare with Kakashi. Sakumo was proud of his boy, and yet still wondered if his wife had been right. If it wasn't too much, too fast. He felt like he didn't even know his child anymore. The year had been . . . bad.

And now his son was wearing a mask.

They walked in silence for a long while. "Why?" Sakumo asked finally.

Kakashi shrugged.

Silence stretched awkwardly. "I'm very proud of you," Sakumo said after a while.

Kakashi didn't respond.

"We haven't spoken lately." Weeks, since they had had a real conversation. Anything beyond 'good morning' and 'have a nice day.' Sakumo blamed himself. There was no one else to blame. He had isolated them from their village. He had ostracized their entire family. He had become so involved in his own pain that he had forgotten his only child, leaving him almost entirely in the care of a Jounin he barely knew.

He was a failure, but Kakashi was suffering for it.

"Why are you wearing a mask?" Sakumo asked again, the words quiet. He put a hand on his son's arm, stopping him.

The boy--the child, really--pulled away, glaring. "I don't want to look like you. I don't want to see my face, and I don't want the others to see it, either. I hate you, and I hate what you did, and I hate that I look like you."

"Kakashi--" Sakumo started.

"Leave me alone," Kakashi snapped, turning and bolting down the street.

Sakumo almost followed. But--no point. Not in any of it. All he did was bring his child pain. He sat heavily on a bench, his head in his hands.

There was no way out of anything.

**
Now

"So, you were how old when you became a Jounin?" Iruka asked, a note of barely hidden incredulousness in his voice.

Kakashi didn't smile, though it was a chore. He was proud of what he'd accomplished, and it was nice to have someone he actually cared about sound impressed. "Thirteen."

"Huh. And how old when you became ANBU?" Iruka asked again, folding laundry.

That one, Kakashi had to think about. "Seventeen," he said finally. "I'm pretty sure I was seventeen."

"Huh." Iruka folded two towels, setting them on a pile, and reached for a bedsheet. "If you were a Jounin by the time you were thirteen," he said slowly, "who was in your team?"

Kakashi shifted. His limbs still felt vaguely sluggish, and he was getting cold again. It seemed like he slept most of the time, still. "Other Jounin," he said, pulling the blanket up around his legs. Outside, rain pattered against the building, distant and faint. He could taste the burn of ozone, and suspected they might have lightning later.

"Were there other Jounin your age?" Iruka asked. He was frowning at a hole in the sheet, his finger wiggling through it as if that might make it go away.

"Not really. Itachi, but he's a bit younger than me. And we didn't travel in the same circles."

Iruka just looked at him for a moment. Kakashi looked back. Discomfort grew. The impressed look had given way to an entirely too thoughtful one. "Yes?" Kakashi asked, uncomfortable.

"Hmm? Oh, nothing," Iruka said, shaking his head as if rooting himself back in his body, and returning to folding. "I just--well, you and Uchiha Itachi were really the only geniuses that had to grow up alone. The Sannin all had each other, and even still, Orochimaru turned out like he did. I was trying to figure out if there was a difference between those that handled it all right, and those that didn't. It seems like you'd be awfully isolated."

Kakashi frowned behind his mask. "I wasn't isolated."

"So you had friends?" Iruka asked, perking up.

"Well--I didn't need them."

Iruka was looking at him thoughtfully again. "Hmm," he said, and tied two socks together.

"Hmm?" Kakashi asked. He really disliked having someone draw conclusions about him. He drew conclusions about people, not the other way around. Another reason he preferred lying to telling the truth. People didn't make decisions about you.

Outside, thunder growled.

"Nothing." They were silent for a moment.

Kakashi sprawled back out on the couch, feeling sleepy once more. He stared out the window at the setting sun, at the reds splashed across the sky.

"Why do you wear the mask?" Iruka asked.

Kakashi just shrugged. Then he grinned, both eyes curving. "Makes me mysterious."

Iruka snorted and carried the clean clothes to his bedroom, then came back for towels and sheets. He tossed a blanket on the couch and it bounced across, half unfolding over Kakashi's legs. Kakashi pulled it farther up, enjoying the heat.

He was getting tired of being tired all the time. Of being cold, and exhausting easily, and sleeping for most of the day. Especially of this stupid damp storm, which made his bones hurt. Still, he could see the improvement. Taking a shower left him trembling from fatigue, but at least he could get all the way through one without having to sit down.

A few more days.

**

Iruka put the towels away, and walked back into the living room. He could sense Kakashi fading again, could feel the man's chakra ebbing, and knew that he'd be sound asleep in another half hour.

Still, Kakashi roused himself and blinked owlishly. Iruka was getting used to the Sharingan, and the clean scar that marred the smooth flesh around it. He no longer felt the urge to stare. He still wondered, though, why the mask.

Kakashi apparently wasn't willing to answer that question.

"What did you do today?" Kakashi asked, leaning heavily against the arm of the couch.

Iruka headed into the kitchen, talking through the doorway while he prepared dinner. The window was sleeted with rain, making the night even darker. "Oh, mostly work."

"You were home late."

He couldn't quite suppress the grin, and he leaned around the doorway to see Kakashi. "Sorry, honey," he said, near mockingly.

Kakashi snorted a laugh. "Well, Shikamaru's not quite as good company . . ."

"You win at Shougi yet?" Iruka asked, heading farther into the kitchen. He peered into cupboards, wishing he'd gone grocery shopping. But the storm had been threatening, and he hadn't wanted to get caught . . .

"I've won several times, thank you. He's just won more," Kakashi added, in an undertone.

Iruka laughed.

"Where were you?" Kakashi asked again.

"Visiting Mizuki," Iruka answered. He had ramen, mostly left over for Naruto, and some vegetables . . . maybe if he chopped enough vegetables, the ramen would be edible.

"Mizuki? Didn't he try to steal the--"

"Yes," Iruka said, before Kakashi could finish the thought. "He's still in prison. I try and see him at least once a week." The carrots had gone bad. He sighed and tossed them into the garbage. Scratch that idea.

A shadow fell across him, and Iruka looked up to see Kakashi leaning against the doorframe, trying to look nonchalant and still looking very pale. "Didn't he use you?" Kakashi asked.

The kitchen lit up for just a moment, and thunder snarled.

Iruka frowned. "Eventually. But he was a friend, and everyone makes mistakes."

"Most people don't try to kill each other," Kakashi said dryly. "You can't tell me that betrayal didn't hurt you."

Iruka scratched at his forehead. He hated these conversations. "Of course it did. He was my best friend. But everyone's redeemable, Kakashi," he said softly, back turned. "I have to believe that."

Kakashi was silent behind him. "Hn," he said at last.

Maybe they could just order food.

"Want me to cook?"

That was it. They were ordering food. "You go sit down before you fall down," Iruka said, frowning. "I'm going to the place down the street. What do you want?" He pulled a menu off his corkboard and handed it to Kakashi.

Kakashi shook his head. "Order often?"

Iruka didn't bother with an answer.

**

"Why are we talking about this?" Iruka asked, throwing out the pick-up dinner containers before settling back down on the floor with his plate. He could feel his face burning.

"Because it's funny," Kakashi said cheerfully.

"My sex life is not funny," Iruka muttered, only partially annoyed. Even he could see the humorous side, he had to admit.

"No, but your lack of a sex life is hilarious."

He mock-glared at Kakashi. "Isn't virginity supposed to be a turn-on?" he said, his plate in his lap. "Maybe I'm lying just to be sexier."

Kakashi laughed. "But you nearly had sex in a tree." It was almost a question.

Iruka groaned. "You know, when you made Genma stop teasing me, I thought you were going to let this drop."

"I was just making Genma drop it. That doesn't apply to me. So. Sex in a tree?"

"It was just fooling around, thank you," Iruka said, sniffing.

The apartment lit for a brief moment, as another bolt of lightning tore through the sky.

"With Mizuki?"

Iruka eyed Kakashi. "Apparently I have a thing for guys who look old," he said.

"Hey!" Kakashi protested instantly.

Iruka grinned.

"I was born with this hair," Kakashi said.

"So was Mizuki," Iruka answered. "Besides, why are you harassing me? I mean, I somehow doubt you have a secret life as a sex fiend."

Kakashi looked smug. "More than you."

"You don't know how much fooling around I did," Iruka countered.

"I know I'm not a virgin."

Iruka looked at him carefully. Kakashi looked utterly smug. "You're not a virgin?" Iruka asked doubtfully.

Kakashi shook his head.

"You've had sex?"

Kakashi nodded.

Iruka seriously doubted it. "When?" he demanded.

Kakashi hesitated.

"That's what I thought," he said, snorting. "You can't possibly tell me that you, the guy who says he had no friends because he was a Jounin at thirteen, has had sex. You don't even drink, so you couldn't have picked up at a bar."

Kakashi was looking mildly amused, eyes half lidded.

"And since you don't have a peer group--oh, wait, I know," Iruka said, waving his chipsticks in the air. "You had sex on a mission."

Kakashi grinned.

"I've got it!" Iruka said dramatically, standing up and carrying his plate into the kitchen. He still couldn't see out the window; rain was coming down in sheets. "You were on a mission, and something terrible happened, and so you had sympathy sex!"

There was no answer from the other room.

Iruka put his plate in the sink, grabbed a glass of water, and started to wander back out. "Only, you were really young," he said thoughtfully. "Got it! You were scared and got taken advantage of, but it was really okay because--"

He stopped dead in the doorway.

Kakashi wasn't smiling. He wasn't eating. He was staring at the doorway with half-lidded eyes, gaze cold. "I wasn't taken advantage of," he said quietly.

Iruka flinched, and went pale, the meaning of that statement sinking in with the realization that the rest of it hadn't been denied. "Oh. Oh, Kakashi, I'm sorry," he said softly.

Kakashi was sprawled back against the couch, feet propped on the table, gaze still half-lidded and deceptively bored.

"I didn't mean--" Iruka stopped, cringing internally. Of all the stupid things. It wasn't as if people having sex on missions was an uncommon occurrence. Not terribly common, either, but stranger things happened. "I'm really stupid sometimes," Iruka said, half stuttering over his own words.

Kakashi kept looking at him with that disinterested stare. "That's all right," he said casually. "Better to have sympathy sex than to be used and betrayed, and go back for more."

Iruka froze. Better to have sympathy sex than be used. Better, because to be used meant you were weak. To go back to the user was stupid, and foolish, and needy and--and desperate.

Mizuki.

Something tightened in his chest, something hard and cold and painful. Carefully, he picked up Kakashi's dinner plate and carried it back into the kitchen. Better to have sympathy sex then be used. He scraped off what was left of the meal, set it down in the sink, and started to run water. Stupid to allow yourself to be used. Worse to go back to the user.

Mizuki had used him. For sex? To steal? They hadn't been friends. Mizuki admitted it, told him he was foolish and na´ve and good for nothing. And yet he kept going back to the man.

He'd hurt Kakashi. That much had been obvious. He hadn't meant to, but--

But--

But what? But he had, so it made Kakashi lashing out all right? It made it all right for Kakashi to say something calculated to hurt? To imply weakness in Iruka? It was effective, that was certain.

Lightning tore through the sky, and in that moment he saw Kakashi's shadow blasted on the wall in front of him. Thunder pealed into the silence.

"I'm sorry." The words were still cold.

Iruka didn't respond. He was shaking. He didn't dare speak.

He heard Kakashi take a deep breath, and step forward. "I didn't mean that."

"Yes, you did," Iruka said. His jaw was so tight it hurt. Better to have sympathy sex then be used. To be used and return was pathetic.

"No. I'm sorry."

He dropped his water glass into the sink, and it shattered. "No, you're not," he snapped, picking out the still-whole base and throwing it toward the trashcan. "You say things like this, and I don't know why you feel a fucking need to say these things--to, what? Get a reaction? I've seen you do this before--hell, you did this to me when you nominated Team Seven for the Chuunin exams! Well, you got a reaction."

He felt the hand more than saw it, and snarled a look over his shoulder. "Don't touch me."

Kakashi pulled away.

Iruka swept up the last of the glass with a towel and tossed all of it into the garbage. Then he turned to face Kakashi.

He was still shaking. "Mizuki was a mistake," he said. "But before that, he was a friend when I needed one. You're just an asshole." He turned back to the sink, hands braced on the counter. "Get out of my kitchen."

"Iruka--"

"Get out!" Iruka yelled. There was a moment of silence. Then he felt Kakashi retreat.

He stared at the running water for a long time. It hurt. He'd hurt Kakashi, but it hadn't been on purpose. That--that had been calculated. And it worked. It brought up all the things that had torn at him when Mizuki had betrayed him. All the insecurities, that he was only good for being used. That Mizuki had only been his friend so he could laugh behind Iruka's back. That he, himself, wasn't worth anything.

Pathetically needy. Used.

"Shit," Iruka hissed. He couldn't stay here.

He looked at the rain out the window, then shut off the water and stormed into his bedroom. He ignored Kakashi, sitting carefully silent on the couch, and changed into sweatpants and shirt.

"I'm going jogging," he said, walking straight through the living room and to the door.

"It's raining."

Iruka didn't answer, just bolted out and slammed the door behind him.

He ran. If he went hard enough and fast enough, maybe the anger would burn out. Maybe he'd forget everything.

His clothing soaked through almost instantly. He kept running, splashing across empty streets and out, away from the people and bright windows. Somewhere dark.

Trees arched overhead. He ran deeper into the shadows, focusing on the uneven ground beneath his feet, the cold rain hitting hot skin, anything but the hurt.

Kakashi didn't know how to be friendly. This wasn't worth it. He'd thought they were friends. Iruka knew people, but somehow it seemed like every time he got close, things went bad.

Maybe there was something wrong with him.

Iruka stopped running. Rain streamed down his back, mingling with sweat. He put his hands on his knees and panted, breathing in gasps. His clothes were plastered to his skin, his flesh pimpling with cold.

When he looked up, he realized he was at the monument. He put a hand out, palm flat on the black stone. It was wet, and cold, and it made him shiver.

His chest hurt from breathing. He rubbed an arm across his face, wiping away moisture. It dripped back in, from his hair, from the rain. One finger traced the names of his parents, shaking. He fell forward slowly, folding his arms across the stone and leaning in, as if they were there. As if he could feel them, somewhere, watching.

"I need help," he whispered. Rain pelted his head, hammering down through his hair, on the back of his neck, on his spine. "I don’t know what to do."

He rolled, dropping his arms and staring up at the sky, leaning back against the monument.

They'd been gone for twelve years. Twelve long years, and suddenly it was like it had been two days. That darkness opened up inside him, nearly swallowing him, and he realized he was crying. Iruka slid to the wet ground, bracing his arms on his knees and resting his head.

He needed them, and they were gone. He'd needed a friend, and Mizuki had used him. Kakashi was right. Kakashi was an asshole, who hurt him. But Kakashi was right.

By the time he'd worn himself out, had berated himself and hated Kakashi and run through the entire gamut of emotions, the storm was fading. He was shivering, his teeth chattering, and he was soaked. Iruka stood, his body protesting, and started the long walk back to his apartment.

He was tired. Bone-weary. It took much longer to get back than it had to run away.

He opened the door and nearly staggered inside.

He froze. Silence reached him, broken by the sound of his teeth knocking. He clenched his jaw to hear over them, and realized what was missing.

Kakashi.

Carefully, he walked through the room, toward the back. The bathroom was empty. So was his bedroom. He looked out the window, at the drizzle still coming down, and remembered the cold. Remembered Kakashi, still struggling with blood loss and minor organ damage, and barely able to even keep his own body heat up.

He shrugged into a coat and ran out the door.


To chapter ten
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