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How Many Faces There Are

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I have never been aware before how many faces there are. There are quantities of human beings, but there are many more faces, for each person has several.
-Rainer Maria Rilke, Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

--

Iruka sat up so suddenly at the Missions Desk that the other attendants glanced over at him as they collected reports and handed out assignments, curious at his sharp flinch. A prickling sensation had run like a thorny wave over his skin: it was an alert, set off when an unauthorised individual gained access to the Hokage's archives. The Hokage, a few assistants and some high-level Anbu were informed through a strong wave of energy; Iruka, as a trusted junior aide, had had his chakra keyed to that system, but he hadn't realised the alarm would have been such a great jolt.

He rose from his post and hurried over to the supervising chuunin, a dour-faced man named Mamoru.

"I've been summoned," he explained, and Mamoru's rocky expression grew more churlish than usual, a feat Iruka had once thought impossible considering the man's cranky nature. "I'll need to go to the Hokage."

"Fine," Mamoru said with a heavy sigh, as if Iruka's absence from the desk would ruin his quota for the entire month. Iruka tried not to race out of the Missions Room, but it was a close thing. His presence was more than likely not needed; after all, Anbu would be there to collar the perpetrators, but he was the closest assistant on duty. Protocol required that if there was a breach, at least one of the Hokage's assistants was required to be in attendance.

The personnel archives were located at the same level as the Sandaime's office, about three doors down a curving, well-lit corridor. When he arrived, there were indeed three Anbu operatives standing just inside the open door of the large storage room. Their masked faces turned to him as he stepped within the archives; when he bowed to them in greeting, they bowed in response, the light from the overhead lamps gleaming on the painted porcelain which obscured their faces.

"Hokage-sama!" Iruka called as he ventured down the pathway between the tall filing cabinets. The protective energy wrapped around the files hummed as he passed them; some felt like plush layers of cushion, while others were quite bristly. In a few of them, he sensed traces of his own chakra which had been used to create the protective envelopes around the files, or lock them into scrolls for further safekeeping.

"Down here!" Sandaime Hokage said, his voice floating from where the corridor met another at right angles.

At the end of the pathway, around the corner, Iruka found the Hokage standing with Kakashi Hatake. He nearly stumbled in his hesitation, feeling his skin grow warm at the sight of the jounin. He hoped that his darker skin would effectively hide any rush of colour on his cheeks. Hatake stood slightly turned away, and Iruka couldn't see his face at all: the tilted forehead protector and the mask did their job well. Sandaime Hokage squinted at Iruka, pipe clenched firmly between his wrinkled lips.

"Hokage-sama?" Iruka said, and Kakashi-sensei's head moved just a little bit in his direction. Iruka felt the rest of his query stick at the back of his tongue, and had to clear his throat. "Have the trespassers been apprehended, sir?"

The Hokage's deep set eyes twinkled with a trace of mischief, mixed with in with a sort of satisfied amusement. "Well...Kakashi's team decided to break in here to get to his file, so they could see his face."

"What?" Iruka mentally staggered, stunned at the sheer audacity of Team 7. Then, he scowled: just wait until he caught Naruto. That little--!

"They had some help," the Hokage said, tracing the path of Iruka's thoughts with ease. "But we've managed to teach them all a lesson."

"I'm glad to hear that, sir." Iruka looked from the Hokage to Kakashi-sensei. The lanky jounin said nothing. He simply shifted a bit more so he could look at Iruka out of the side of his uncovered eye. "Well...if there's nothing else, sir?"

The Hokage smiled at him. "Dismissed, Iruka."

Iruka bowed to Sandaime; he also offered a bow to Kakashi-sensei, who barely dipped his head in response.

Iruka spun on one heel and left the Hokage's archive, returning to the Missions Desk to complete his shift. He was on his way home, half-dreaming about the grand scold he would dole out to Naruto and his team-mates. As if he had summoned the jinchūriki by the power of his thoughts, he heard a very familiar voice raised in a shrill screech.

"What?! Not even one of them? NONE?!"

Iruka paused at the cry and then hurried in its direction. It sounded as if it came from the lane which ran parallel to the one he was now on, separated by a long line of narrow buildings with two levels: shops on the ground floor and residences above.

When he got to the end of the road and dashed around the sharp corner, Iruka spotted Naruto standing near a fork at the other end of the road with his team-mates and an older man, a stranger. The man had some sort of papers handing over to Team 7, and the children looked through them with varying expressions of disgruntlement, astonishment and resignation.

"What's going on here?" he asked as he neared them. Team 7 whirled in his direction, all with some degree of guilt etched on their faces; even Sasuke seemed discomfited, blinking rapidly. The stranger looked at Iruka with what might have been curiousity, but Iruka ignored him for the moment.

"Nothing!" Naruto sang out, hands now hidden behind his back. His eyes were very bright and filled with such wondrous innocence. Iruka glared at him. "Nothing is going on here, nothing at all!"

Sakura and Sasuke made noises of assent, but some of the papers had fallen to Naruto's feet. Iruka stooped down before anyone else could move, snatching up the glossy sheaves. He flipped through them, growing more astonished by the moment.

"Who took these?" he asked, feeling his eyebrows furrow together. The papers were photographs, and the subject of every single one was Kakashi-sensei. Most of them were taken as he sat at some meal. In all of them, the man's unmasked face was obscured by something: a bird, his hand, even passing individuals.

"Oh, I did," the strange man said in a cheerful tone, and he smiled when Iruka stared at him. "We were on a mission, you see!"

Iruka blinked once, slowly, now taking a short moment to take in more details of this stranger. This man had what looked like Inuzuka markings on his face, but his were purple: they begun over his eyelids and travelled down his cheeks. He had tousled dark hair, and a very lovely pair of amber-coloured eyes which fixed on Iruka's with an intense sort of directness. He was also dressed in surprisingly heavy clothing for the warm weather; a long-sleeved cloak with a thick scarf wrapped around his neck.

"What sort of mission?" Iruka asked in a very low tone. Team 7 shifted worriedly. The man glanced over at the children with deep amusement. A grin tugged at his thin lips, shifting the mole under the left side of his mouth.

"A special mission," the man intoned, and laughed a little. Iruka actually felt his own face crumple in bemusement.

"We were trying to get a glimpse of Kakashi-sensei's face," Sasuke drawled with a roll of his eyes. "So Sukea took pictures while he ate, but none of them came out right."

"And I'm supposed to be a professional!" This Sukea said with another quick laugh which grated on Iruka's nerves. Iruka took a deep, steadying breath. It wouldn't do to yell at all of them right now; he was really trying to break the habit.

Finally, he managed: "So you were trying to get a look at your sensei's face, and hired a photographer to do it?"

"Oh, we didn't hire him!" Sakura exclaimed, her cheeks now nearly as pink as her hair. "He just...volunteered."

"Did he?" Iruka glowered at Sukea and the man had the nerve to simply beam back at him. He had a great smile, his light brown eyes twinkling, but Iruka had other concerns on his mind, namely: "You should all know better!"

"Aw, don't yell at us, Iruka-sensei," Naruto griped, trying to yank the pictures out of Iruka's hands. Iruka held them up out of his reach and Naruto gave up, putting his hands behind his shock of yellow hair. "The old man and Kakashi-sensei already told us off for going into the archives for the personnel records!"

"I know they did!" Iruka lost his cool completely, hands now firmly on his hips as he bent forwards. Naruto, quite accustomed to Iruka's yells, leaned away with one eye squinched shut. Sasuke and Sakura seemed stupefied. "Those files are protected! They're accessible only by the Hokage and a few others...who let you in there, anyway?"

As one, Team 7 turned to look at Sukea.

Sukea gave a cheerful little wave. "Retired Anbu here. Nowadays I go around taking pretty pictures." He jabbed a thumb at himself, and Iruka noticed the small camera hanging from a strap around Sukea's neck. "Oh, it's a hard job, the worst, but someone has to--"

"You should be ashamed of yourselves," Iruka hissed, shoving the photos at Sukea's chest. The other man barely managed to catch them in his hands, his eyes widening as Iruka fairly loomed at him. "Especially you. You're former Anbu. Why would you even think about exposing Kakashi-sensei's face?"

Sukea rolled his eyes. "What's the use in hiding it? Everyone wants to know what he looks like. He should should just get over himself and show us!" That infuriating amusement still evident in his features...his very attractive features. Iruka was annoyed, but he could admit that Sukea was quite easy on the eyes. At the same time, he was not very surprised at how his hands fairly itched to wrap around Sukea's neck now. Sukea's smile dimmed, though he still had that vaguely mocking air.

Naruto piped up, his voice worried. "Uh, Iruka--"

"Go home," Iruka snapped, and the children scattered. He decided to have dinner with Naruto later, maybe the other two as well, and try to explain that their obsession with their sensei's face would have to stop. It was an obsession he understood very well, but he had also learned how to temper it, to push it away and not think about how badly he wanted--

"Hey, what's it to you, anyway?" Sukea's voice broke through his thoughts and Iruka scowled at him. A thoughtful gleam lit up in those brown eyes. "Wait...do you like Hatake or something?"

Iruka felt his face go so hot, it was a wonder he didn't burst into flames right on the spot. He stepped forward and pointed at Sukea, nearly poking him on the nose.

"Quit trying to see Kakashi-sensei's face," he said. "Just stop."

"Oh, all right," Sukea agreed easily and his wide grin formed once more. "If I can't make a living, I'll just starve! But hey," and here, he wrapped long fingers around Iruka's wrist and moved his hand (and pointing finger) to one side, so he could lean in close. His palm was very cool against Iruka's skin.

Sukea murmured, "If you're so interested in him, you should try saying hello." He waggled his eyebrows and then his gaze shifted slightly. Iruka let his eyes slide in that direction. His pulse seemed to thud in his ears when he saw Kakashi Hatake ambling from the fork of the road, orange book held up in front of his face.

The book dipped and Hatake peered over the top of it. His eyebrow raised when he spotted Sukea and Iruka standing so close; then, his shoulders moved in a bare twitch and he continued past them without another word.

Iruka snatched his hand out of Sukea's grip and glowered at him. The other man just smiled, completely unrepentant. Iruka felt the urge to punch him in the face, stung by Hatake's lack of regard. It had felt like a dismissal of a sorts...but really, If the jounin had stopped and said anything to them, how would Iruka have responded? He had no idea.

"You should come to the Bare Legend later," Sukea told him. "Hatake's there sometimes."

"I've stopped drinking," Iruka told him, very tartly. "And I have work tomorrow."

Sukea's eyes twinkled at him. "What, all serious sensei now? Did you forget how to have fun?"

"More like I know my limits," Iruka said, stepping around Sukea and walking away. "And I'm really too old to be goaded into anything, so don't even try."

"All right, Iruka-sensei." Sukea's voice was a mocking sing-song, more fitting for the Academy playground than a grown person. "It's not like Hatake would be interested in someone so...boring, anyway."

It was such an obvious ploy, but Iruka felt his temper blaze up like gas being poured on a fire. He spun around on one heel and stared Sukea down. "Don't you get tired of being obnoxious?"

Sukea pursed his lips, obviously holding back laughter. Iruka rolled his eyes and then stomped away in the direction of his house... but not before he saw Sukea's smug smile widen even more.

--

"Well!" Takamura, the bodyguard on duty at the Bare Legend, straightened up from her book and gave Iruka a very broad smile. "If it isn't Iruka-sensei. We thought we lost you completely to those Academy brats." She waggled her thin eyebrows at him, a sly grin playing over her lips. Iruka gave her a wry smile in return.

"They're not brats," he told her, watching her eyes glow blue as she scanned his person and chakra. Her ability wasn't as probing as the other great dōjutsu, but it was sufficient to ascertain friend or foe, or the amount of weaponry being carried. Iruka had once asked her if she could see through clothing. Takamura had simply snickered at him and gave no clear answer.

She waved him in now, blinking away the scanning jutsu. "They're all brats to me," she said. "Go on in. I suppose I won't see you again for another, what...four or five years?"

"Taka-chan, you live right across the road from me," Iruka said with a fair amount of exasperation as he stepped through the open gate. "I see you every day." He barely dodged her pinching fingers aimed for his butt, and walked quickly down the darkened passage. An archway at the other end led him into the Bare Legend's main area, a fairly narrow space with the bar on one side, tables scattered in the middle and booths on the wall opposite to the bar. A few people were in a clear area to the back, dancing in that sinuous yet slightly awkward manner of drunk shinobi.

He saw Genma and Iwashi at one of the tables, but didn't approach them; he wasn't in the mood for Genma's continuous sarcasm and Iwashi's sniping. Instead, he went up to the bar and ordered a drink. He perched on a stool and looked around idly as he waited.

Iruka felt a jolt run up his back when his gaze meshed with Sukea's, who lounged against the wall with a dark bottle in one hand. Beside Sukea, Gai-sensei appeared to be lecturing the photographer, waggling a stern finger at Sukea's ear.

Sukea, for his part, seemed very bored by what was apparently a very thorough scolding. He said something, slanting those lovely eyes up at Gai, who seemed very perturbed at being interrupted in the middle of his scold. Sukea shrugged and left Gai's presence, making a beeline for Iruka. Along the way, a few other shinobi greeted him; two of them at a table, obviously from the Inuzuka clan, actually stopped Sukea, their faces bright with laughter as they shared their mirth.

"So you made it. Too bad Hatake's not here," Sukea said when finally he took the stool beside Iruka's, gaze dragging up and down Iruka's simple attire with obvious appreciation. Iruka had chosen to sport a black sleeveless shirt over fairly tight black trousers, knowing full well that his lean frame was nicely displayed in this outfit, muscles in his arms well defined. The bartender put a tall glass near Iruka's hand, dipping her head at his thanks.

Iruka took a very deliberate sip of his drink before turning to give Sukea his best chilly expression. "Did Gai-sensei tell you to stop messing with Kakashi-sensei? You should really follow his advice."

"He can't tell me what to do," Sukea shot back with that broad, irrepressible smile of his. Iruka felt his own mouth twitch in response and shook his head slightly, hoping Sukea didn't read it as some sort of validation. From the way Sukea's smile got impossibly wider, he read it exactly so. "So tell me: how is it you've appointed yourself an official Hatake Face Guardian?"

Taking a few more swallows from his glass, Iruka shoved down back his first, instinctive response of denial; Sukea was right, really, and so he gave the question quite a bit of consideration. After a few long beats, he murmured, "Doesn't he deserve our protection?"

Sukea's face was very close to Iruka's, so it was easy to see how his friendly expression altered subtly; it felt like Sukea had stepped away from Iruka, even though he hadn't moved at all.

"What do you mean?" Sukea asked, rubbing his forefinger up and down the side of his bottle, still staring at Iruka's face.

Iruka shrugged. "He's a loyal shinobi, he works hard to defend our village. He's not the friendliest person, but he's a good sensei, and he gets the job done. If he thinks it's important to hide his face, then he needs no other reason."

"Hmm." Sukea's gaze slid away and he considered the stacks of glass balanced in front the bar's mirrored backboard. "Maybe he's just looking for attention. Hiding his face makes everyone so curious."

"Yes, but everyone is curious only because he's popular, in his own way," Iruka pointed out. "Lots of shinobi hide their face, and no one really cares. But just because it's the Copynin, it's a big deal."

Sukea's golden gaze locked with Iruka's once more, and he pursed his lips mockingly before saying, "It's a big deal to you. Admit it."

"Fine!" Iruka actually burst out laughing. There was something so irreverent about Sukea that appealed to Iruka. He felt like a prankster discovering a new partner-in-crime, to partake in delightful shenanigans. "It's kind of a big deal, but like I said: I'll always protect his right to keep his face hidden. My turn: are you from the Inuzuka clan?"

"On my mother's side," Sukea responded without hesitation, not thrown one bit by Iruka's sudden rebound. "There are many side branches, and so on. I have a lot of cousins."

"But you're a loner," Iruka assumed and Sukea spread his hands out in a sort of what-can-I-say manner. "Why did you decide to become a photographer after retiring?"

Sukea actually leaned away now, his brow slightly furrowed. "Well....photography is easy, once you get into it," he began, picking his way through his words very slowly. "And if you get it right, you see people as they really are."

"You're a lot nicer than you let people think, aren't you," Iruka stated with more confidence than he actually felt. Sukea shrugged very eloquently, his face brightening.

"I can be even nicer if you let me." Sukea's voice dropped low and his gaze locked on Iruka's mouth. Iruka licked his lips, and felt warmth rush over his skin as Sukea shifted, and their hands brushed together atop the bar.

--

Sukea's attitude, amused and brash, underwent continuous alteration the closer they got to Iruka's apartment. By the time Iruka pushed open his door and deactivated his many layers of traps as they moved through the short hallway, Sukea seemed torn between impressed at the array of traps and a sort of dawning alarm.

"This is your home," Sukea said, looking around as if he expected a family to pounce out of the shadows. Iruka bent to switch on a lamp near the new sofa he'd bought the other day. "You brought me to your home."

"Did I?" Iruka straightened and plastered a look of surprise on his face. "Well, what do you know. How did I manage that?"

Sukea radiated disapproval. He tucked down his chin into the thick layer of scarf around his neck, almost obscuring his lower face. His eyes glinted at Iruka."You don't know me. I could harm you right now...even kill you."

Iruka stood very still for a beat, reaching out with every sense he possessed. It had been pure whim to invite Sukea to come with him, and that notion had grown into a heightened desire. He had simply wanted to...he wanted Sukea. It probably had not been the best decision.

Still, it was one he would own; and he had good instincts. He would follow them wherever they led.

"You're probably right," Iruka admitted and Sukea's amber gaze considered him somberly. Iruka pulled the tie out of his hair and then yanked off his shirt. He unsnapped the first button of his trousers, watching Sukea's eyebrows rise under the messy dark locks which flopped over his brow.

Iruka walked over to him and stood so close that he was almost leaning against Sukea. He felt the other man sway towards him and tilted his head up, his gaze dropping to Sukea's mouth.

"You could kill me," Iruka murmured, thrilled at the way Sukea's tongue darted out to moisten those thin lips. "So do you want to?"

"No," Sukea said, his voice hoarse.

Iruka touched his shoulder, sliding his hand up to take hold of the scarf. "Do you want to come to bed with me?" he asked as he tugged at the soft material.

Sukea nodded, lips parted. His breath felt softly against Iruka's mouth.

"Then stop stalling," Iruka told him, and kissed him. He smiled as he felt Sukea's soft moan against his tongue.

--

Iruka stretched and then blinked his eyes open. The dawn was a grey mystery outside his curtains. Beside him, Sukea lay curled up on his side, his back to Iruka. From this angle, Iruka could see part of the Anbu tattoo-spiral on his bicep; he could also make out the marks he'd left on Sukea's skin with his greedy mouth, mottled red blooming against the pale expanse.

He reached out, gently trailing his fingers over Sukea's shoulder and down to his elbow. Sukea flinched away, going from asleep to fully awake in moments. He rolled away, his golden gaze zeroing on Iruka as if searching for any and all vulnerabilities. The markings on his face, which Iruka had assumed were permanent, were smudged; purple blurred against his cheeks, giving him a wild countenance.

"Hey," Iruka said softly, and Sukea froze. "Good morning."

Sukea stayed in that position for a few moments, half in and half out of Iruka's bed, one hand clenched and slightly raised. Iruka slid over, and touched that upraised wrist, smiling up at Sukea's face. As Sukea's lean frame began to relax back towards him, Iruka moved closer, pressing a kiss to Sukea's chest.

"I--" Sukea started and let out a strangled sound as Iruka closed his lips over the closest nipple, sucking lightly. "Wait," he continued, even though his other hand had reached up to cup the back of Iruka's head, very gently. "I have to go."

"Why?" Iruka murmured, switching to the other nipple and flicking his tongue against the stiffening nub. Sukea's fingers clenched in his unbound hair, tilting back Iruka's head. Iruka looked up in his face and licked his lips.

"I have to go," Sukea repeated with a nonchalant tilt of his lips, but Iruka thought he heard a stilted note in that airy tone. "Photographs to take and so on."

"Can I see you again?" Iruka asked, taking hold of Sukea's wrist again, pulling it close to kiss where his pulse thudded rapidly. Sukea had very cold hands, palms almost icy as he had stroked Iruka; for some reason, Iruka found that a little endearing. Sukea let go of Iruka's hair and deftly twisted his hand out of Iruka's grasp. He turned away, now getting completely out of bed. Iruka fell back against the pillows, staring up at the ceiling as he listened to the soft rustle of Sukea locating his heavy clothing and pulling them on. It was just a one night stand, Iruka told himself. He'd had those before. It didn't matter, no matter how interesting he found Sukea.

"Goodbye," Sukea said and slipped out of Iruka's room as if he had been on a mission and now was the perfect moment to execute a stealthy escape. Iruka lay there for a long moment, going over the details of the previous night in his head: Sukea's soft murmurs; his strong body moving under Iruka's; the way he kissed, eager and needy.

Iruka shook his head, and then flung himself out bed, suddenly annoyed at the scent of himself and Sukea clinging to his sheets. He changed the bedding and then took a very quick shower, preparing for his day in record time. He fairly stomped through the hours; he terrorized his class and only regretted it a little bit, and his tongue was sharp as a kunai at the Missions Desk. Other shinobi began to avoid his post, and that curdled Iruka's odd mood even more.

He managed to compose himself for a session with the Hokage, aiding in reorganizing some of the personnel files which belonged to deceased shinobi.

"I'll take these into the archives, Hokage-sama, with your permission," he offered when they had completed the task, and Sandaime nodded, turning towards yet another pile of official papers. Iruka entered the archives and placed all the files in their assigned slots, locking them in their appropriate scrolls or drawers. Then--

He should have left. He wasn't supposed to make his way to the section assigned to the Inuzuka clan, nor was he to search through the scrolls for the side-branches until he located one very small file, innocuously flat. Iruka shoved away a small and worried voice in one corner of his mind, and swiftly decoded the chakra blocks on this particular document with key-codes which had been entrusted to him.

Iruka sat cross-legged on the floor of the archives, staring at what he saw inside Sukea's file; his temper, which had been building into a tower large enough to block out the sun, crumbled into a shameful pile. He took a deep breath, replaced the file very carefully and went back to the Hokage's office.

--

Sukea found him on the Hokage Rock, on top of the Nidaime's head. The Second Hokage was Iruka's favourite, apart from Sandaime. He had always been awed at the stories of Nidaime-sama, his blunt thinking and calm, even approach. Possibly, Iruka hoped, his current location would lend him some of the Nidaime's cool confidence. Sitting there with his legs drawn up and his arms wrapped around his knees, Iruka didn't think it was working so well.

Between the space of two breaths, Sukea appeared beside him, his expression carefully blank. "You're the first person to use Gai to send me a message," he told Iruka in a dry manner. "What on earth possessed you to do that?"

Iruka kept his gaze firmly on the ray of lights spreading away from the Hokage Rock, throwing warm radiance into the cool night. "I'm sorry," he answered. "I just really wanted to see you."

Sukea sighed, very heavily. "Look, Iruka--"

"Just listened to me for a moment, please," Iruka interrupted, still not daring to look up in Sukea's face. "I've been suspended from my position of the Hokage's aide for awhile."

There was a long silence. "Well, that's too bad?" Sukea ventured. "What does--"

"I looked for your file," Iruka cut in once more, and another silence spread between them, this one far more ominous. "I shouldn't have done it. Those archives are specially protected, for good reason. Sensitive information for every shinobi is noted, cross-referenced and stored there. I didn't have permission, and the Hokage was...very disappointed." He laughed hoarsely, recalling the darkening expression on Sandaime's face when Iruka had admitted his wrongdoing.

Sukea shifted, and to Iruka, he seemed to move miles away: to Suna, to the Moon. "What did you see?" His voice was pitched very low.

Iruka closed his eyes briefly and then opened them again, looking up with great reluctance. Sukea's face was shadowed, but his eyes glittered in the gloom. "It was just...stupid of me, Sukea, just an impulse--"

Sukea repeated, tone flat and cold, "What did you see."

"A slip of paper," Iruka admitted, not able to hold Sukea's gaze. He looked back out at Konoha, beautifully lit. "It has a code linking your file to another one in the Hokage's archive. That means...that you're not real. You're a mask for someone else."

Sukea did not offer any sort of confirmation or denial. Iruka rubbed his nose against the coarse material of his jacket and laughed softly.

"After all I said about protecting Kakashi-sensei's face, I was about to look at the real face you protect." Iruka swallowed hard, but forced himself to go on. "Whoever you are, you deserve just as much consideration and care as Hatake-san." He got to his feet and bent at the waist in a very low bow. "I ask for your forgiveness in this, and I promise that I will not betray your trust like this again."

When he straightened, he fully expected Sukea to have left in the same swift manner as he had appeared. Instead, Sukea still stood there, his hands tucked into his sleeves; he considered Iruka for a very long moment.

Then, he smiled. "You don't think I'm real?"

Iruka blinked at him, confused. "I--"

"I'm real enough," Sukea said easily, and pulled his hands out of his sleeves. In one of them was a narrow scroll. "The Hokage told me of your confession. I think I've made enough mistakes in my life to forgive you of this one." He tossed the scroll to Iruka and shrugged. "I thought I didn't want you close to me. But I think I wanted to you to be close to who I really am."

Iruka clutched the scroll tightly, eyes wide. At Sukea's slow nod, he opened it.

He felt his jaw unhinge; he was gaping at what he read, and he was sure it wasn't a good look. Nidaime, give me strength, he thought and lifted a stunned expression to the other man.

"Thank you for protecting me," Sukea--no, Kakashi, said with a smile that managed to be sly and shy at the same time. "Even from yourself."

fin