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There's only so long Iruka is willing to feel like someone's dirty secret, only so much that mind-blowing sex can make him accept. Even meant to be stretches thin under the weight of enough lies.

Because as much as this feels right, it isn't. Perfection wouldn't make him hide it from his friends and former students, especially not the former students who are closer to family than anything Iruka has had in a long time. It can't be home when he has to sneak his way into it, when he has to be so painstakingly careful about what he says, what he does, because, well, ninja village. It's nothing short of a miracle that they've made it this long without someone finding out.

His friends know that he's slept with Kakashi. They'd been there the night Kakashi had picked him up. The next day they'd asked if he'd seen his face. Iruka hadn't at that time, only felt his mouth on the back of his neck, the ghost of breath against his ear.

Thankfully, they don't ask him now. He tries not to lie, not directly at least. But if lies of omission were a valid area of specialization, he'd be a tokubetsu jounin five times over by noon most days.

They still give him shit about that night. Kotetsu pretends to get teary-eyed. Iruka's One Night Stand. He'd been so proud. They'd never thought Iruka was the type to have casual sex. It turns out they're more right than they know.

Iruka doesn't like to think about exactly how long it's been since that night, how a normal couple would have had anniversaries by now. Multiple of them.

He pretends he doesn't know which date it falls on, but every year he gets his hopes up no matter how many times he tells himself not to. Kakashi seems to know the date too, if the way he spends a little extra time driving Iruka insane with pleasure on that night every year is any clue. But maybe that's just wishful thinking. It could be a celebration or a distraction or Iruka's imagination, but it's never what he really wants.

He could make it through a dozen more unacknowledged anniversaries, but nothing is going to change. He knows that now and he's done with waiting for something more, has been done for weeks, possibly even months. He just hasn't found the right time, the right way to say it out loud.

Which would be fine, except Kakashi knows. He knows and won't let Iruka say it, won't give him the chance. Like desperate hands and heated kisses might make things better, might keep Iruka there, in this... thing they have. Relationship is far too generous a term.

It was never supposed to be anything but a meaningless fuck in the first place. He'd known what Kakashi was offering. Wanting more is entirely his own fault.

Iruka wishes it could be enough, wishes it harder than anything ever before in his life.

But it isn't.

It'd be easier if Kakashi were anyone else, if he weren't so damn perceptive, if Iruka could have ended it before Kakashi had figured it out. If somehow Kakashi didn't know how much Iruka loves him, even if it's never been said out loud. If he didn't know how it's not enough. How he's not enough. If that were the case, maybe Iruka could go with the cliche. It's not you, it's me.

But it is Kakashi. He's the problem. And they both know it.

It's driving Iruka insane. Every look Kakashi gives him, deep and searching. The hunted expressions he can't quite conceal. The way he tenses, battle ready, every time Iruka opens his mouth. He avoids fights now, avoids provoking Iruka on even the littlest of things. The tiniest disagreement could lead to a bigger fight where it'd be all too easy to say what he needs to say. We're through. This is finished.

Kakashi never used to back down from fights. If anything, he'd enjoyed getting a rise out of Iruka. Now he's almost timid, cowed. It doesn't suit him, it feels wrong to see him like this. Iruka hates it, hates the fact that he is the one causing it even more.

Dragging things out is only causing pain, not saving them from it. Each extra night they wring out of this thing just makes the cut deeper, but not deep enough. He needs to shove the kunai in and be done with it.

"Kakashi," he says, "we need to-" It's hard to finish his sentence with Kakashi's tongue in his mouth.

"Kakashi," he tries to say again. Kakashi pulls back just enough to speak, still too close for Iruka to see his face properly. He isn't sure he wants to.

"Just give me this," Kakashi says. His tone isn't pleading, but it's close.

Iruka does, but he takes it for himself too.

Kakashi's hands cling to him, the Sharingan spins in his eye. His grip is tight enough to bruise. Iruka wants him to leave marks all over his body, an echo on his skin of what he's feeling inside.

Afterwards, Iruka's stomach feels like he's swallowed a sack full of shuriken, but he needs to do this. He's never been the type to run away from his problems, and he's been running from this for too long.

Kakashi doesn't fight it, doesn't look him in the eye, seems resigned to it before Iruka has even said all the words he needs to say. But then, Kakashi probably saw this coming long before Iruka had admitted it to himself.

It's for the best, for both of them, Iruka tells himself. It hurts now, but that won't last. They can both move on. Kakashi might find someone he cares for enough, trusts enough to be in an open relationship with. Iruka might... he doesn't know. He might find someone who makes him feel the way Kakashi does, but is willing to hold his hand in public. Someone he doesn't have to hide from his friends, who he won't need to sneak around in the middle of the night to see.

He might find all that. He might be happy. It's just hard to believe that right now. Not when Kakashi's hands are balled so tight the knuckles are white and everything in Iruka's body is screaming at him to reach out and touch him, to lace their fingers together, to take it back and say it's okay, it doesn't matter, this is enough.

But it's not. So Iruka leaves. He sneaks back home one last time, repeating his new mantra with each step. It's for the best. It's for the best. It's for the best.

Even if it doesn't feel like it. Even if he's left part of himself in Kakashi's apartment. Even if it's the worst decision he's made in his life.

It's for the best.

~*~*~

Chapter Text

Old habits die hard, but they do eventually die. It gets easier to remember that he doesn't need to lie to his coworkers about what he does on his days off. He gradually loses the fear that someone might find out and ruin it all, the foolish hope that they could have a real life together someday.

He hasn't quite shaken the urge to slip out of his apartment in the middle of the night to go to Kakashi's, the need to leave his window open in invitation. Not that a locked window would be a deterrent to Kakashi if it really mattered. Those things linger, but Iruka knows they will fade. It'll happen one day. Everything else is fading, has faded. The scent of Kakashi on his sheets, the fingertip bruises on his hips. The feeling of him, warm and relaxed, pressed up against his side. It's all gone or soon will be.

All those imagined moments of perfect domestic happiness and definitely not imagined moments of earth-shaking orgasmic bliss are replaced by a raw ache just beneath his sternum that he feels when he is alone in bed late at night, or when he makes dinner for one, not two. But that will also fade. It's just taking its time.

Iruka's friends notice. They'd have to be blind not to. They don't know what's wrong and don't ask for details, because they know he'll give them when he's ready. If he is ever ready.

Instead they take him out and get him drunk. They make no secret of the fact that they are trying to get him laid as well. They invite "friends" along who have never gone out drinking with them before. Good-looking guys and girls that always end up sitting next to Iruka. They linger at the end of the night, waiting for something Iruka isn't ready to give. He wants to laugh at the irony of it, but he isn't there yet.

They should be his type. Attractive, safe, not too paranoid for a public relationship. Iruka doesn't want any of them.

When he does start to date again, he feels like he's cheating. It's ridiculous, he knows that. He isn't even sure what he'd had with Kakashi was something he could cheat on. After all, it'd never technically existed in the first place. But it still feels wrong to go out with someone else. Never more so than the times he runs into Kakashi while he's on one of those dates. He feels Kakashi's eyes on him, but whenever Iruka looks towards him, he turns away. He wants Kakashi to yell, to feel betrayed, to be jealous. But he never will.

Iruka tells himself over and over again that he isn't cheating until it feels like it might be true.

But when he thinks about Kakashi while he is in bed with someone else, that is cheating.

It's wrong. It's not fair to his dates. It's not their fault they don't compare. No one compares.

Iruka doesn't know if Kakashi dates, he doesn't want to know. He sees him once at a bar, body language open, inviting, as he leans close to a brown-haired tokubetsu jounin. It's the first thing Iruka sees when he walks in, like everything else has ceased to exist but Kakashi and the man he is picking up. Kakashi's eye finds Iruka just as quickly.

That smooth confidence Kakashi uses in moments like this is as much a mask as any other he wears, one he puts on when his self-imposed isolation gets too much for even him to bear. It'd seemed so transparent to Iruka from the first time Kakashi had tried it on him. The cool persona hadn't been what had convinced him to let Kakashi take him home. It'd been the honest need for connection that had lurked just underneath, flickering through no matter how much Kakashi tried to hide it. There had been something broken and fragile in those glimpses that'd called to Iruka more than he'd wanted to admit. He doesn't understand how that remnant of a cover identity can be Kakashi to other people, how they can't see it for the disguise it is, but the tokujou is eating it up.

Iruka feels sick as he follows his date to a table. He remembers being picked up and the night that followed. He isn't sure he wants to forget.

When he works up the nerve to look over again, Kakashi is gone. The other shinobi is still there. A twisted sort of triumph shoots through Iruka and he is ashamed of it.

He focuses on his date and tries not to pick at old wounds.

When they go back to his place, Iruka wonders if Kakashi's apartment feels as empty as his own, even with someone else there. It probably doesn't. The little concessions of space that had been eked out for Iruka over the years had likely been happily reclaimed. No need to have extra towels in the bathroom closet, or the pile of disposable guest toothbrushes that had shown up around Iruka's birthday one year. Iruka's heart had skipped a beat when he'd first seen them, but then he'd realized exactly what they were; disposable, meant to be thrown away after the night was over, no room for them next to Kakashi's.

None of Iruka's relationships last, but eventually they will. He just has to figure out how to want it enough, want it more than he still wants things he can never have.

He's not there yet, but he will be. Someday.

~*~*~

Chapter Text

Iruka keeps his distance, Kakashi does the same. They can be civil when need be, but they make sure those situations are few and far between. Publicly they were never close, so as far as everyone else is concerned, nothing has changed.

After the war, Kakashi is around more. He seems different, though Iruka isn't sure in what way. It's not just the loss of the Sharingan. He seems more at peace, more settled. It makes Iruka curious, but he pushes it down. He hasn't let himself be curious about Kakashi for a long while, he isn't going to start now.

They run into each other often enough that sometimes it feels like the world is conspiring against him, like it wants to push him into Kakashi's path. Often it's little moments, glimpses of Kakashi when Iruka is out running errands that make his heart skip a beat and his grocery list fly out of his head. Passing Kakashi in the hallways of the Tower with a polite nod while suppressing the instinct to turn on his heel and flee. But he has learned to deal with those over the years. The village isn't that big, there's no way he can avoid Kakashi completely.

The times they have to interact take longer to get used to, but he makes himself face them. Consulting with previous hokage about Academy-related things was never a problem before, he isn't going to let it become one now. Naruto wanting to go to dinner with both his former teachers isn't strange. He doesn't know why it'd be weird for them, why it's so close, yet still so far from something Iruka wanted for too long.

It's no one's fault but his own that being around Kakashi more means thinking about him more, means remembering things he's tried to bury. Iruka does his best to ignore those things. Digging into the past will only open old wounds and that will get them nowhere. This has lasted too long, he refuses to let it continue.

It takes time, but they become something like friends, though it hurts more than friendship ever should. They get better at making casual small talk and exchanging pleasantries whenever there are other people around. From time to time Iruka even forgets himself and publicly rips into Kakashi when he's being particularly idiotic. Kakashi watches him intently during those moments, like nothing short of a fifth Shinobi War could tear his eyes away, and Iruka has to remind himself that even if it feels like he can't breathe, he isn't the type to back down, not even for Kakashi.

There's still an awkward tension whenever they're alone that could never be mistaken for completely platonic, but they deal with it by pretending it doesn't exist. If Iruka's smile is a little strained, only Kakashi knows him well enough to notice. Thankfully they aren't alone often. Naruto acts as a buffer when they go out for dinner, and Kakashi's staff do the same in his office. It's easier when there are others around. After all, they'd only been whatever they were when they were alone.

Iruka tells himself there aren't moments when Kakashi is standing too close and it'd be so easy to lean in closer, or when their fingers brush together as he passes over documents and his whole body remembers Kakashi's touch. Those things don't happen. Everything is normal.

He doesn't let himself want, forces himself to stand on his own, refuses to let what they didn't have destroy the friendship they could have.

They can be friends. Friendship is enough.

~*~*~

Chapter Text

Work brings them together even more once Iruka moves into administration. Kakashi has his back the whole way there. He's this constant source of support, pushing Iruka to where he wants to go, believing in him.

There are moments when Iruka forgets that it's supposed to be awkward between them, that he should have finished moving on years ago. There are late nights in the Hokage's office, hashing out the minutiae of Academy administration, debating curriculum plans and funding. It feels so normal, so right. The ache returns, if it ever really went away.

Iruka can imagine some other version of himself, one that didn't say anything all those years ago, that was able to put up with being Kakashi's dirty secret until eventually he'd convinced him to be open about their relationship. Maybe they'd leave Hokage Tower together, go home together. He can picture what their house would be like, bookshelves lining most of the walls, dog beds scattered around the living room, and a spare bedroom just in case Naruto or his kids ever needed it.

Iruka doesn't regret his decision. He knows the situation was killing him, killing them, a little each time they were together. But he does wonder what walking home with Kakashi would have been like.

It'd be so very easy to fall into old patterns, but Iruka doesn't want to. So he ignores it. Ignores the fact that he has just caught Kakashi staring, a sad sort of longing in his eyes. For once, Kakashi isn't the first one to look away. He ignores the moments Kakashi reaches out like he is going to touch him, then stops halfway, drops his hand, clenching his fist tight enough his knuckles go white in a way that makes Iruka flash back to their last night together. He ignores the hints that Kakashi drops, the not-so-concealed invitations. Iruka feels himself blush, wants to hiss at him that someone might see, might hear, that he needs to be more careful, that they are in public. But Kakashi doesn't seem to care, and Iruka can't make sense of it.

~*~*~

"I need to apologize to you," Kakashi says one night when they are alone in his office, working out possible field trips to another hidden village, something that never could have happened before the war.

"Why?" Iruka asks, wondering how a discussion about methods of transportation to Suna would require an apology.

"For making you hide our relationship and lie to your friends."

Iruka's chest clenches. So Kakashi had thought of it as a relationship, Iruka had never been sure.

The idea of Kakashi apologizing for their past hadn't been anywhere near his mind. He isn't prepared for this conversation.

"You didn't make me do anything," Iruka says after collecting his thoughts. "I wouldn't have done it if I hadn't..." he trails off, unsure how to finish that sentence. He can't say "if I hadn't wanted to," that would be a lie. He can't say "if I hadn't loved you," because even if it had been a relationship, it hadn't been that type of relationship.

Kakashi doesn't prompt him to finish, just studies him with intent eyes. "Still, I was the reason for it, and I'm sorry for that."

Iruka nods, feeling numb. This was easier when they were ignoring it.

"I keep wondering what would have happened if I'd been," Kakashi says, far more to the table between them than Iruka, "if I hadn't..."

Neither of them is good at this, Iruka thinks as he watches Kakashi struggle for the right words.

"If I could have been open about it," Kakashi says, looking up at him again, "would you have stayed?"

Iruka feels like he has just been sucker punched, unable to contain his flinch as he is pinned under Kakashi's gaze. Yes is his immediate answer, but he doesn't say it. Instead he shrugs, an uncomfortable sort of who knows? "Best not to dwell on the past, right?"

Kakashi doesn't look away and Iruka shifts. He knows Iruka too well, knows exactly how to read him.

"I wouldn't make the same mistake again," Kakashi says. He means it too. Iruka can see it in his eyes, but he looks away, trying to get his heart to stop racing.

Iruka rubs his hands against his thighs, then starts to gather his papers. "It's getting late," he says, feeling like an absolute coward.

Kakashi catches one of his hands and Iruka looks at him automatically. Kakashi's eyes pull him in. "Tell me there's no chance and I'll never mention it again."

Iruka can't breathe, can't do anything but stare back at Kakashi. He swallows the lump in his throat and pulls his hand away, not missing the sadness in Kakashi's gaze before he can wrench his eyes away as well. He looks down at his hand, feels how Kakashi's warmth still lingers there. "I... don't know," he says quietly after a moment. His chest aches.

"Okay," Kakashi says, just as quietly, but far more firmly. "I can wait until you do."

Iruka nods, not looking at him. He finishes gathering his things and leaves.

It's taken years to get over Kakashi, if anyone would even consider him truly over Kakashi. He can't go through it again.

The memory of the look in Kakashi's eyes, the warmth of his fingers, the certainty in his voice, none of it lets Iruka sleep much that night.

~*~*~

Kakashi doesn't hide what he wants. He's open about it to a point it terrifies Iruka. Everyone must see and Iruka knows what will happen if people find out.

Every Friday Kakashi asks Iruka to dinner after their meeting and every Friday Iruka says no.

After each no, Kakashi asks, "Can I ask you again next week?"

The first answer to leap into Iruka's head is always yes, but right on its heels is a vehement no so quick that both words get caught in his throat and he can't breathe around them.

If he says no, Kakashi won't ask again. But he can never make himself say no. Instead he just nods almost imperceptibly and leaves as quickly as possible.

Kakashi keeps asking.

~*~*~

"Are you dating Kakashi-sensei?" Naruto asks one night out of the blue. Iruka's heart nearly stops as he spins into immediate damage control.

"No," he denies, too quickly and with too much force. An ingrained reflex that comes out too hard, too fast to be convincing. He takes a breath and steadies himself. He doesn't need to lie about this.

"We aren't dating," he says, and it sounds like the truth it is.

Naruto's face falls. "Oh."

"Oh?" Iruka asks, confused by the disappointment in Naruto's tone.

"I thought maybe you were," he says.

"Why would you think that?" Iruka asks, laughing nervously.

Naruto gives him a look that is far too serious and grown up for Iruka's liking. "You know he loves you, right? I think he has for years."

Iruka flinches. The boy could throw a punch to the gut stronger than anything Tsunade had to offer.

"I know," Iruka says after the silence stretches to an uncomfortable level. He hates how small his voice sounds.

"Okay," Naruto says. "Just as long as you know."

They're quiet for a few more moments and then Naruto is back to his usual sunny disposition, launching into another story about his latest travels, but Iruka can't shake his words completely. You know he loves you, right?

Iruka might know, but it still takes time to believe it means anything.

~*~*~

Iruka is sick of running from it. He'd let their relationship drag on for far too long because he'd been too much of a coward to deal with it, he isn't going to do the same now.

The next time Kakashi asks him out, he says yes.

Emotions flicker through Kakashi's eyes in rapid succession. Surprise, then elation. He shifts and for a moment Iruka thinks Kakashi is going to reach out and touch him, pull him close, maybe even kiss him. But he contains himself just as quickly.

"Wherever you want to go," Kakashi says, and it feels like he means more than just a restaurant.

~*~*~

Going on a date with Kakashi, sitting at a table across from him, being seen with him outside business hours, it's all surreal. Iruka has thought about it, dreamed about it so often, it feels like they should have done this before, or like he's dreaming now and about to wake up.

He sees people glancing at them and has to resist the urge to make it clear that this is only for business. Kakashi seems to have no such conflict in his mind. He reaches a hand across the table and brushes his fingers against Iruka's, watching him closely. When Iruka doesn't pull away, he weaves their fingers together, leaves their hands right there, out in the open where anyone can see.

And people do see.

Iruka wants to pull away, but it's too late. People know. Kakashi will realize that any moment now. It'll all be over.

Kakashi squeezes his hand tight, his eyes still focused only on Iruka, and Iruka remembers to breathe.

The moment passes, the world doesn't end. Kakashi is holding his hand in public and doesn't seem like he has any intention of stopping.

Iruka breathes a little easier.

Kakashi doesn't let go of his hand until their food comes, and even then he seems reluctant. The way he is angled hides his face from everyone else in the restaurant, but they'd have to be foolish not to realize that Iruka can see.

Iruka tries not to listen to the curious whispers that surround them. Kakashi brushes their legs together under the table whenever he starts to focus on one of those speculative conversations a little too much, and slowly Iruka realizes it doesn't matter what they're saying. It won't change anything.

~*~*~

It's not a perfect date, but it's far closer than he'd ever believed was possible.

All the good things about their time together come flooding back. The easy conversations, the feeling of Kakashi next to him, the intensity of Kakashi's focus on him. It all feels so familiar, it's hard not to want more again. Especially not now that he can have it.

Walking to Kakashi's place is new. Not just because Kakashi is in the Hokage residence instead of the jounin apartments, but because they are doing it together, out in the open. Iruka isn't sneaking there in the middle of the night. Kakashi entwines their fingers as they walk and it feels right. Kissing him again once they are inside, even more so.

Falling into bed together is as easy as it always has been, but this time it doesn't weigh on Iruka. He'd feel like an idiot for needing to blink back tears, if it weren't for the fact that Kakashi's eyes aren't entirely dry either.

Iruka stays the night, another first.

Waking up next to Kakashi in the morning is even better than he'd ever imagined it would be. None of his daydreams had included Kakashi making breakfast.

And when Iruka does eventually go back to his place, after breakfast, after another few hours in Kakashi's bed, after it's well into the day, he does it out in the open too and with the knowledge that he'll be coming back no matter who knows.

They might be older and have a few more scars, but they're together and Iruka doesn't need to lie about it.

So the next time he sees Naruto, Iruka can tell him the truth. He is dating Kakashi.

Naruto's grin is blinding and Iruka can't help but smile back.

~*~*~