Iruka had opened the wrong locker.
In the background, Kotetsu was telling somebody that scratching their butt was a private-time activity. Iruka's school bag sat like a lump across his feet, and all around him were the muddiest, smelliest students from the Academy’s fall field trip. Iruka was benignly ignoring the Nara methodically trying the door of every locker she could reach. Fatal traps were prohibited; she might as well learn by touching the stove.
He'd kept an eye on her though, and he hadn't walked far enough down the row. Now he stood frozen with his hand on the door, blinking at the dark hole in front of him. The locker was just too big; a breeze had come out when he’d opened it. An Inuzuka boy lifted his head and sniffed curiously.
Inside the locker, shadowed racks of white porcelain gleamed faintly in the overhead lights -- ANBU masks. Iruka let out an involuntary laugh. This was the sort of story you heard in a bar in the hour before it closed told in whispers and giggles: secret ANBU stashes, hidden throughout Konoha. Watch out, there’s one under your bed!
“Iruka?” Kotetsu said. A student slept on his shoulder, her hand locked into his collar. Both the girl’s hands and Kotetsu’s face showed signs of an encounter with a jar of jam.
Iruka shut the locker with a clang. His heart beat furiously; he was no better than a star struck civilian. Kotetsu eyed the door. “You change lockers, Iruka?”
Iruka shrugged helplessly. There was a locker full of ANBU masks in the second chuunin locker room in the basement of the training administration building. Over there, Aburame Unshuu had a maple leaf stuck to his forehead and hadn’t noticed yet. How could these two things both exist in his life?
Iruka cracked the door, just to be sure. A sliver of light cut across smooth white faces and blood red accents. He took in a breath, overcome with a sensory flashback of dusty hallways and the smell of high tree branches, an era of pranks and chases and sneaking through forbidden places to see if anyone would notice. If his little self saw him now, Iruka thought he would be unrecognizable. So organized and careful of the rules.
Common sense made an appearance then. There was a reason the situation was so unbelievable – something had gone wrong to create it. To see such human error in persons trusted with S-class secrets bothered him. Like ANBU needed a few Umino Irukas around to make sure they dotted their i’s and crossed their t’s.
With a sigh, he put little pre-genin Iruka back into his box of memories and closed it with a firm mental nudge. Time for business.
"Iruka – " Kotetsu said.
"Hold on," Iruka said.
Cautiously, he wiggled the door back and forth on its hinges. He felt no tingle of chakra, saw no traps – no strings or poison pouches. It was just... open. He snuck another look: empty black eye sockets peered back at him, perfectly in character.
Kotetsu put a hand on Iruka’s back, craning his neck to get a look over Iruka’s shoulder. Iruka jerked the door shut. He opened his mouth, but what came out was -- “It’s nothing.”
Oh god, that was -- awful. Not convincing in the least.
“Yeah, I don’t think so,” Kotetsu said, edging around Iruka.
Iruka took a breath, grounding himself. He tried to imagine he was one of his muddy-fingered students and somewhere another Iruka-sensei was coaxing him through the five steps for situation evaluation.
“Did you find somebody’s – uh -- magazine stash?” Kotetsu’s voice was too stiff to be casual. He’d noticed Iruka’s shocked reaction, and he was too much a ninja not to want to see it himself. In other words, what Iruka was learning here was that they were both awful liars. He hoped the children weren’t paying attention.
First step: honesty with team members. Iruka put his back against the locker door; the metal felt cool through his shirt. He said: “I don’t think it was supposed to be unlocked.”
Kotetsu looked at the closed locker in open longing. “Something classified?”
All around him children perked up like little wolves. The girl on Kotetsu’s shoulder was suddenly wide-awake. Ah, a Yamanaka. Of course.
Iruka felt more confident now. This course of action was correct. “I opened it by mistake.”
“Iruka,” Kotetsu said with feeling, “I am a red-blooded ninja in my active-duty years. You cannot keep this from me.”
“Iruka-sensei, Iruka-sensei,” said the little wolves.
“I’m red-blooded too,” said the Yamanaka girl, pale eyes earnest.
“No, you’re not,” Iruka said automatically. He gave Kotetsu his best blank faced stare. He knew what was coming. Kotetsu faked left and dodged right when Iruka bit. When Iruka followed, Kotetsu lobbed the Yamanaka girl at him, who squealed happily. Iruka yelped - children, what an awful weakness to have – and he caught her one handed, lowering her hastily to the floor. Kotetsu’s fingers touched the latch, but Iruka pushed up with his legs lightning quick and jammed two chakra-charged fingers into Kotetsu’s armpit.
“Arrgh, sensei!” Kotetsu curled protectively over his side.
Iruka crossed his arms.
“Iruka-sensei, Iruka-sensei!” shouted the students in adoration.
“Ah, it’s Iruka-sensei even to your friends?” Kotetsu rubbed ruefully at the sore spot under his arm.
“Yes, it is.” Iruka tried not to feel too proud, but he couldn’t help smiling at his adoring muck-encrusted subjects.
He cracked open the locker one last time. In the dark he could see the faint glow of a chakra seal inked into the metal of the locker door. It was deactivated. There were a lot more frills and layers than Iruka was used to, but the “on” switch was the same. Iruka bit into his thumb and pressed his own chakra signature in the seal’s “keyhole”. Symbols flared and turned like gears. This time when Iruka closed the door, the locker sucked itself shut like a vacuum.
Kotetsu sighed enviously. “At least tell me it was cool.”
“Mind-blowing,” Iruka said. He paused in the middle of palming the chakra lock of his own locker, remembering the hooks filled with abstracted animal faces fading away into darkness, every one of them waiting silently for a mission so dangerous as to make it forbidden to the common ranks. Involuntarily, he grinned. A shiver ran down his spine. He laughed: “Really, we’re too old for it. It’s the sort of thing you’re meant to see and go – ‘Maybe me! Maybe one day!’”
“Iruka-sensei, that means you should have let us see it,” said the Yamanaka girl.
Iruka tapped her on the nose. “Maybe one day.”
“Iruka, Iruka,” Kotetsu slung an arm over his shoulder, grinning like he’d split his face, “Remember, the war is over! This is the era of peace – we don’t all have to be child ninja. You can be an old ninja too.”
Iruka laughed at him. “That’s right! Maybe one day we can all retire like Hatake Kakashi.”
It was surprisingly difficult to figure out how to report the ANBU locker. For one thing, Iruka didn’t know who the ANBU commander was. He didn’t know anyone who had ANBU clearance because that was classified information. The only person whose clearance Iruka knew with absolute certainty was high enough was the hokage, but Tsunade had been on indefinite sick leave since the end of the war.
Iruka groaned in frustration. The chuunin at the head of the line, one of the less distinguished Sarutobis, ducked a little behind his mission report. Iruka stuck his hand out impatiently. Quick scan for basic info, then stamp and file. He roared, “Next!”
Kotetsu propped his chin on his hand and smirked at him. “Trouble, Iruka? Something I can help with?”
“You know damn well what the trouble is,” Iruka snapped, slamming a stamp on another mission report.
In the end, Iruka wrote the locker up on a blank S-class mission form. He dropped it in the sealed lock box behind the mission desk with a thunk. Iruka watched it curiously, but the box remained motionless, only the padlock swaying a little. Iruka had never put a mission report in there before. He’d never seen anyone put one in; S-class operatives deposited their reports on their own after hours. It was a parting gift from the ANBU locker – one last moment of forbidden excitement.
Iruka realized he felt disappointed. He’d never get to know how it turned out.
He turned around and saw a chuunin he didn’t know staring at him curiously. The chuunin’s eyebrows went up and his mouth opened like he might ask. Belatedly, Iruka remembered the ‘after hours’ part of the equation and dropped his eyes to the tabletop, sorting mission reports with extra force, cheeks hot. He couldn’t wait to hear how that one made it through the rumor mill.
Oh, well. Iruka got back to work.
He didn’t hear anything about it for days. He taught his classes, watered his plants, fed his fish. He took Naruto to Ichiraku twice during a break between the kid’s missions, and he held a round of parent teacher conferences.
“I’m sorry, Yamanaka-san,” Iruka was saying to one of Inoichi’s younger cousins. It was the father of the same Yamanka girl who’d been asleep on Kotetsu’s shoulder a few days ago. “I’m flattered, but — “
“ – but you don’t date parents of your students.” Yamanaka Eri nodded. “The Iruka-sensei ‘post-graduation rule’.”
“Oh,” Iruka said, off balance and a little pleased – no more explanations necessary, how convenient. “I hadn’t -- realized that had gotten around.”
“You’re famously strict on it, sensei.” Yamanaka Eri smiled with every one of his straight, white teeth. “I just wanted to get my name on the list.”
Iruka shuffled his papers awkwardly. He wondered if there was special etiquette in politely turning down a professional mind reader. Thank the Leaf, that was when Shikamaru stuck his head in the door with a message from the tower. Presence requested: ASAP.
“Iruka-sensei, yes, get in here.” Shikaku was standing over Shizune at a small desk against the wall. They were sorting through a pyramid of rolled maps. Iruka watched the slanting, afternoon sunlight fall on the Hokage’s empty chair.
Tsunade’s books and papers still filled the bookshelf and covered the desk, but the chair was pushed in and the workspace was dusty. All of Shikaku’s things rested on a smaller desk that had been used by Shizune and later by Tsunade’s many assistants as the war escalated.
The Godaime had disappeared from the public view at the end of the war, more than a year ago. Shikaku read announcements on her behalf sometimes at village meetings. Iruka thought some people did see her – an inner circle of officers and intimates – and he believed what Shikaku told them was true, that she was resting, that she still cared deeply about the village. But he didn’t understand why she wouldn’t visit, even if she was ill.
There had been panic initially, after Naruto had firmly announced his ambitions to be Shichidaime, successor to Tsunade’s successor. He was too young, inexperienced, and -- Iruka was pretty certain this was the main reason – he wasn’t done traveling. The village kept on functioning day-to-day with Tsunade in the shadows and Shikaku acting as her hand at the mission desk, but Iruka wondered if it was sustainable. The daimyo was starting to take an interest. He had set up an embassy in Konoha in the last month of the war, and it had been fully staffed with anxious civil servants ever since, bustling in and out of the tower – often thrown out, judging by Shikaku’s yells. Clearly Konoha’s weakness had been noticed outside Konoha.
Hatake Kakashi – infamous “Hokage for a Day” -- had been voted in once before, of course, and was now a victorious general. But within a day of Kabuto’s carefully monitored execution, Hatake Kakashi had gone from “active” to “non-combatant” status in Konoha’s register. No one needed to ask why. They all remembered him standing next to Kabuto’s execution block, both eyes uncovered – and both black as pitch.
The Sharingan was gone. Uchiha Obito, the Eye of the Moon, had defanged the Copy Ninja. Hatake Kakashi was the latest casualty in the slow loss of Konoha’s elite to war, madness, and disability. No wonder all their best Hokage candidates were in the generation that wasn’t done growing up.
“You wanted to see me?” Iruka asked.
“I have a mission for you,” Shikaku said.
“Oh, what sort?” Iruka frowned. It wasn’t the locker after all. But no mission Shikaku would hand out personally would involve Iruka, who fulfilled his annual field work requirement with C class assignments from the mission desk. Maybe another field trip for the academy students?
Shizune handed Shikaku a rolled up map. He lifted it up to his eye like a pirate scouting out a distant ship. After a moment, he said, “Earth Country border, second war.”
Shizune grimaced and made a mark in a notebook. Then she turned and handed the notebook to a cloaked ANBU in the corner. Iruka bit his lip on a startled twitch; he hadn’t noticed anyone else in the room. The ANBU wore a crow mask, striped in red at the forehead as a crest of feathers. Like most ANBU, it was tall and slight. Iruka wondered if ANBU deliberately recruited people of matching build to increase anonymity.
No, that wasn’t true. He was really wondering the same thing he wondered every time he saw ANBU: is that one of my students?
“You’re in charge of incoming evaluations, yes?” Shikaku said.
“Yes, I’ve been overseeing that responsibility since Victory Day.”
“You filter civilians also?”
“Good. Iruka-sensei, we need you to evaluate a possible student. Young, no shinobi background in the family, though there may be an issue of… misidentified parentage.”
Iruka nodded. The importance of bloodlines in the ninja world meant family lines were carefully tracked, but they were often obfuscated for the same reason. Internally, he was already compiling a list of what he would need, categorizing tests and puzzles into appropriate age groups.
“Where is the candidate?”
Instead of answering with an address in Konoha – or even better, an appointment time! -- Shikaku held out his hand, and the ANBU rocked forward silently to fill it with a mission scroll. The scroll was smallish, sealed with white paper marked “S” in thick black ink. Shikaku dropped it into Iruka’s hands where it buzzed against his skin with layers of heavy chakra seals.
Iruka started to understand that something odd was happening. Shizune had stopped sorting maps, watching him carefully.
“The candidate is the youngest daughter of Yamabashi Hojiro,” Shikaku said. He sounded like he was apologizing for something.
Iruka stared at him. “The daimyo’s brother? Isn’t he – uh, I thought he was in prison.”
“The daimyo has reluctantly cleared Hojiro of any collusion charges in the attack on the capital. He remains concerned by his brother’s ambitions. While we have not been explicitly forbidden to recruit the daughter, it has been strongly implied.”
“But we aren’t honoring that?”
“No. For one thing, we’d like to have Lord Hojiro tied to us by blood. For another – “
“There’s a rumor that the girl’s mother was a missing nin,” Shizune said.
Shikaku slapped the rolled up map against his palm. “We like that most of all.”
Iruka nodded. That would be exceptional. Would she have a bloodline limit? Evaluating young children was tricky; very little could be measured directly. His heart sped up as he realized: this was a specialized mission where Iruka was the expert to be escorted. Was he allowed to tell anyone? And, oh, he needed to run himself through the chuunin obstacle course. Immediately.
“How will we conduct the evaluations?”
“At the Daimyo’s palace. You will be part of the guard for a – diplomatic entity from Konoha. To anyone outside of the team, you wouldn’t know a lesson plan from Icha Icha, understand?”
“Yes, but… which diplomatic entity?”
“I’m working on that.” Shikaku frowned, map crinkling as his fingers twitched. “He’s digging in his heels, but he’s too young to outsmart me in this.”
Iruka wasn’t sure he wanted to be guarding someone who didn’t feel a direct order was a good enough reason to go on a mission. And there was one other thing:
“I don’t have the rank to be a diplomatic guard,” Iruka said. “And any intelligence report on Naruto includes me.”
“I know,” Shikaku said wryly. He seemed to be smiling at some private, dark-humored joke. It irked Iruka a little.
“I know too – I’ve seen it,” Iruka said. Actually, Naruto had gotten that page framed and it now hung on Iruka’s wall. Umino Iruka – the teacher who taught the most surprising ninja. Iruka had meant to yell at Naruto for stealing intelligence materials and defacing them, but he just hadn’t been able to get out the words.
Shikaku smiled. “Oh, we’re working on that too. Crow over here will give you the details."
“Please listen carefully, Umino-san,” Crow said and began to explain. Iruka had a moment to think Oh, not my student after all, before Crow’s words started to sink in, and Iruka’s curiosity gave way to disbelief.
Crow had handed Iruka the ANBU equivalent of a paint-by-numbers kit and sent him home. It was the chuunin locker room all over again – two things that couldn’t both exist in Iruka’s reality. In this case it was highly classified material inside his old satchel, nestled next to school papers and a box of chalk. What had happened to make this his life?
Was this a promotion? It felt like a promotion. Iruka’s head was a complicated mess – on one side, little pre-genin Iruka was so excited he could die. On the other, regular chuunin Iruka was pretty certain he just might.
He wondered if any of the ninja he passed could tell he was carrying something valuable. He spent the whole walk home trying not to feel centered around the bag resting on his hip. It was exhausting.
He was most afraid of his old lady neighbor, who Iruka suspected had been T&I under, oh who knows, probably the Shodaime. Now she spent all day sitting outside the tea shop next to Iruka’s building, holding a cup of decaffeinated tea in her old, big-knuckled hands and making cutting observations of what she considered to be “baby ninja” passing by. Iruka didn’t mind sitting with her and listening, but he didn’t like being the target.
“Naosu-san,” he greeted her as he headed for the building gate.
“Iruka-sensei.” She murmured his name like it was a move she was considering in battle. Her eyes moved over his face, across his shoulders, and then like a bloodhound to his school bag. “Hmm!”
Iruka fled through the gate and up the stairs.
He took the extra five minutes to set up the full range of wards and traps, the ones he used during exam periods and graduation. He made himself tidy the kitchen and clean the breakfast dishes. He set some chicken to defrost, turned up the thermostat, and organized his mail until he realized he was re-reading sentences without understanding them.
Well, then. There could be nothing more to gain by self-denial. Time to face up to his fate.
He emptied his school bag across the kotatsu. Pens clattered, papers slipped, and a heavy scroll bounced across the table. Iruka shot out a hand and caught it before it rolled off the edge. It was his S-class mission scroll, locked to his chakra and trapped explosively should someone other than Iruka open it or should Iruka do so under duress. Inside was a smaller scroll with a storage seal. Iruka steeled himself and bit his thumb.
Thunk! There was now a blank ANBU mask sitting on his table.
Iruka stared at it. It looked like a death threat. For a Jounin commander and veteran of three wars, Shikaku had some awful ideas.
What Shikaku hadn’t said, what he’d let poor Crow explain, was that the diplomat he planned to send to the capital was so highly ranked as to justify an ANBU guard. That way Iruka could wear a mask and no one would have any idea he was Umino Iruka, the most beloved academy teacher of the most famous jinchuriki. See, it all worked!
Iruka had never thought he was the type to yell at a superior, but he’d wanted to right then. Everyone had heard of ANBU posing as lower ranked ninja and civilians. But lower ranked ninja posing as ANBU? That made his head hurt.
He’d tried hinting at it: “What happens if someone tries to fight me?”
But Shikaku had scoffed. “You don’t realize – but it’s almost taboo to attack ANBU. People instinctively stay hands off. If you ever see anybody go for ANBU without hesitation, I guarantee you they have ANBU background themselves.” He had looked thoughtful. “Though I suppose that wouldn’t make you feel better.”
No, Iruka did not feel better.
And now there was a blank, white mask sitting on Iruka’s table. It wasn’t painted like the ones Iruka had seen in the locker. In fact, Shikaku had said with a smile, why didn’t Iruka paint it himself? Few people (actually, no people, Iruka thought) were allowed to tag along on ANBU missions; he should have something to remember it by.
He was interrupted by a knocking. “Iruka-sensei!” Sakura called through the door.
Shit! Iruka fumbled for the scroll and the mask. He didn’t know how the reversal command for the ANBU storage seal worked, and he didn’t have the time to figure it out. Not if Sakura got impatient and tried the heavily-trapped door knob. He shoved both under his couch cushions – it would do for now – and tamped down a moment of deep self-directed embarrassment. Couch cushions, Iruka-sensei? Really. “Sakura-chan,” he said as he opened the door, smiling.
“Iruka-sensei!” Sakura’s smile dimmed, studying his face. “Did your students give you trouble today?”
“No, no, I’m fine. Just a lot of grading.”
Like a courteous ninja, Sakura was standing directly in the light cast by Iruka’s door. Less courteous was the tall shadow next to her, topped by pale skin and a wiry scruff of silver hair. The shadow lifted a hand in greeting, “Yo, Iruka-sensei.”
“Kakashi-san.” Iruka's expression went stiff. He’d been counting on Sakura’s lingering respect for his authority to keep her from prying. He felt a lot less sanguine about Kakashi coming into his apartment when there was an ANBU mask inside his couch.
All of Iruka’s memories of Kakashi were from before the war. Memories of Naruto’s plots to see under Kakashi’s mask, leading to a whole week of dinners out with team seven, of Kakashi’s infamously illegible mission reports, or once, of Kakashi slouching against the pillar of an overhang, reading his books in the rain. These brief intersections of Kakashi with Iruka’s life had stopped as the war escalated. Iruka had only seen him during visits to the front, always at a distance. He had been difficult to recognize; General Hatake stood differently than Kakashi-sensei.
“What brings you?” Iruka asked weakly, blocking the doorway. Kakashi lifted his eyebrows in surprise.
“I need to give Kakashi-sensei a medical treatment for his eye,” Sakura said, shooting a weighted glance at Kakashi. Her hair was pulled back, business-like, on the clock. “But we mistimed it, and he doesn’t like to receive them in public. Do you mind if we borrow your kitchen?”
Kitchen, Iruka thought. Kitchen should be okay. He stepped aside.
Most ninja of Kakashi’s caliber practiced what Iruka called the 360 evaluation when they switched between inside and outside. He had seen Kakashi do it plenty of times, a subtle glance to either side followed by a small pause to take in the other senses. Today, Kakashi didn’t do it. Sakura did.
Kakashi wasn’t wearing a hitai-ate either, and his jacket looked almost civilian, though it had too many pockets to be anything other than shinobi-made. It was retiree gear, Iruka realized. He found himself staring at Kakashi’s left eye, dull and black just like the rumors promised. Kakashi had, of course, kept his mask.
He also – yes, Iruka looked again – he had a spattering of small, pale freckles across the bridge of his nose. Like he’d taken a vacation someplace with sun.
Sakura set herself up at Iruka’s kitchen island, where she started pulling items out of her bag, many of them sealed in wax paper and plastic with long, printed labels. Iruka watched, impressed. He recognized only one: a chakra inhibitor, extracted from a parasitic vine found in the coastal forests. He’d half wondered – after that glance she’d shot Kakashi – if Sakura had been manufacturing a reason to come in. If she had, they had clearly planned it in advance. If so, well, he would be too proud of her to mind.
Kakashi immediately wandered off like one of Iruka’s less focused students after a long lesson. He peered curiously at knick knacks and bookshelves and nearly gave Iruka a heart attack every time he circled by the couch. Iruka knew that drawing attention would also draw interest, but he still wanted to ask Kakashi to please sit down in the kitchen.
So Iruka made tea and a plate of rice crackers, and served it at the kitchen island. Kakashi sat down. Perfect. Iruka beamed at him. Kakashi stared back.
“Any missions planned?” Kakashi asked.
This has also been in the mission scroll. “Yes, a C class to retrieve supplies for the new Academy obstacle course.”
“You still haven’t updated it?” Sakura sounded outraged, lining up small glass vials on Iruka’s counter. “Iruka-sensei, that course is falling apart. Those injuries were all Tsunade-shishou let me treat my first year.”
“Am I a bad teacher if I say a few scrapes won’t kill anybody?” Iruka was feeling pretty good about his rice cracker trap. Absently, he wondered what animal his ANBU self should be. He was feeling better about that too.
“The Academy can spare you?” Kakashi asked. Iruka was amused to see that he sipped tea through his mask and counted on the dark fabric to hide the stain.
“Fall break starts Friday.”
Kakashi stopped with his tea cup halfway to his mouth. “I didn’t know that.”
Sakura made an exasperated sound. “How would you have, Kakashi-sensei? You don’t teach anymore. Oh.” She pulled out a folded napkin from the downstairs tea house. “The old lady downstairs asked me to give you this, Iruka-sensei.”
“Naosu-san?” Iruka opened the napkin and froze. The old woman had written: You’d make a great badger.
“Iruka-sensei, do you have a clean towel I could borrow? An old one.” Neither of them had noticed his reaction: Sakura was taking notes. Kakashi had his nose in his tea cup.
“Yes, sorry. I’ll get one,” Iruka said awkwardly. He crumpled the napkin and walked into the backroom to the linen closet. He slid open the door, looking at the folded towels and sheets, and abruptly felt sick to his stomach.
He looked at the crumpled paper napkin in his hand. All the brief confidence he’d built had evaporated. There were these people in the world much more suited to missions like these – Shikaku, Naosu-san, General Hatake Kakashi – and he felt like they were all looming over him, staring and laughing.
What was he doing? His heart thundered in his chest. He was a chuunin with a nine-to-five job and a regular bedtime. What kind of ninja was home often enough to keep an entire windowsill of plants alive and even a tank of fish? To decide now to join an S-class undercover impersonating ANBU – there could be no one more likely to fail than Umino Iruka.
He would have to tell Shikaku in the morning. Iruka rested his head against his clean sheets, breathing in the smell of soap. His heart slowed. He picked up a towel for Sakura.
When he came back out, Kakashi was sitting at Iruka’s kitchen island holding the ANBU mask.
“Oh no,” Iruka said.
They were all sitting at the kitchen island. Sakura’s eyes were round with disbelief. Iruka supposed it came from discovering your bumbling Academy teacher was an elite ANBU operative. Maybe Iruka had been a top secret assassin her whole life. He cracked a smile thinking about it, but it just made her look more incredulous.
Kakashi had been blank-faced since the mask came out. Iruka couldn’t tell if he was angry or if he’d just stopped pretending. It was obvious the motive for their visit had been ulterior after all.
“It’s not mine,” Iruka said.
“Not yet, right?” Kakashi said, sounding bored. Dismissive. “Which animal were you thinking? Frog? Whale?”
Iruka flushed at the mockery. “Monkey,” he snapped, “because I’m good at traps.”
Sakura flipped over the mission scroll so that the “S” designation was face up. Her lips went tight. She pushed up from the table, medical supplies forgotten. “I don’t have clearance for this. Just tell me when you’re done, ok?”
“Sakura,” Kakashi said in that same bored monotone. He held up his hand like a Shinto priest giving a blessing. The irony was thick. “Clearance granted.”
Iruka started – Kakashi’s sleeve had fallen down, revealing a tight burnished metal bracelet around his wrist that Iruka easily recognized as a chakra-restricting cuff.
Unexpectedly, Sakura’s face crumbled unhappily. “You can’t just give me things, Kakashi-sensei. I have to earn them.”
It had the rhythm of an old argument. Iruka blinked as the spotlight rotated definitively away from him. He wasn’t a monkey, a frog, or a whale anymore but the unwilling fly on the wall.
“Sakura,” Kakashi said. He stopped like he didn’t know what to say. After a moment, he tried, “I’m a general.”
“You retired,” Sakura said firmly, and then she walked out the door.
Silence. Kakashi stared distantly at Iruka’s door. Iruka sat across from him awkwardly. Their roles – Iruka humiliated by his error and Kakashi as the vengeful authority – had been wiped clean by Sakura’s exit. Instead, Iruka felt like he was looking at Kakashi with clear eyes, and he could evaluate the situation like he taught his kids. For one thing, Kakashi had known exactly what he was looking for; Sakura hadn’t.
“You’re the diplomat Shikaku wants to send,” Iruka said. He knew he was frowning; he hadn’t thought Hatake Kakashi was the type to pout like a pre-genin when given an order.
Kakashi looked irritated: confirmation. Iruka looked irritated right back at him. Who was the one in the room with a current ANBU mask? Oh that’s right; it was Iruka.
“It’s an overreaction,” Kakashi said.
“Everything. Diplomats, ANBU – you. You’re not field-ranked for S-class. Exceptions are only made for specialists. They should at least be bringing an expert in chakra eval.”
“I’m the head of the Academy’s evaluation programs,” Iruka said tightly.
It was small, but Kakashi faltered – a hesitation in the hands, an extra blink out of sequence.
“You didn’t know that either,” Iruka said in surprise. “Do you know that Sakura has a new position too? Her own research team – repairing chakra pathways.”
Kakashi said nothing. He was looking at the mask on the counter. With his head tipped down, it was easier to see his freckles, only a shade darker than the rest of his skin, maybe half a dozen scattered over the top of his nose and his forehead. He had one on his left eye lid. Iruka was used to children changing. Adults were just supposed to get older.
After a long time, Kakashi admitted, “I knew she had a new position. I didn’t know what it was.” He added with visible difficulty, avoiding eye contact, “Does Naruto still live here?”
“He has a room,” Iruka said dryly, “but he hasn’t lived here since he started bringing dates home. He and Sai share a bachelor pad near the business district.”
“Kakashi-sensei, I’m a chuunin. I don’t question where Shikaku wants to send me. But – do you think there’s another reason he wants so much pomp and circumstance?”
“I’m not a window dressing, Iruka,” Kakashi said coldly. “No matter how many bits of me stop working.”
Iruka closed his eyes and took a deep calming breath. He hadn’t invited Kakashi here; he hadn’t asked for this conversation, but it was happening. “We don’t have a hokage – ”
Kakashi pushed away from the table, coming up against the door in the two quick strides before turning back to pace out the dimensions of Iruka’s small kitchen.
“—I thought maybe he just wanted you to be seen,” Iruka finished, watching Kakashi with a gawking sort of curiosity – what would he do next? -- and a little bit of wariness. All afternoon, he had been imagining the unhinged, deadly jounin who would be against him on an S-class mission; he hadn’t known it would start before he’d left the village.
Kakashi shook his head. “Shinobi reputations travel by whispers, not parades. Publicity damages our credibility.”
“Well, he can’t be sending you just so I can wear a mask,” Iruka snapped. “I mean, for pete’s sake, I spend nine months out of the year teaching basic henges to eight year olds. I can do one in my sleep.”
Kakashi’s eyes snapped back to the mission scroll lying face-down on the counter. All the lights in the room dimmed once. Iruka’s ears popped. Either Kakashi had just gathered a lot of chakra or he was putting a lid on a serious amount of killing intent. Slowly, Iruka pushed a few inches away from the island, watching Kakashi. There were stories of jounin who could kill by killing intent alone. He’d believe it of Hatake Kakashi.
“Kakashi-san?” Iruka said.
“Yes, he had another reason.” Kakashi laughed to himself: “Underneath the underneath, old man.”
Kakashi was already headed for the door. “Check your scroll! If you’re cleared to know it, it’ll be there.”
And he left Iruka sitting in his kitchen with an ANBU mask and all of Sakura’s forgotten medical supplies.
“Am I cleared to know this?” Kotetsu mumbled into his arm. He was half-asleep at Iruka’s table, two beer bottles near his elbow.
“Know what?” Iruka said. There was a trick to reading through a scroll without opening it all the way. For every centimeter he unrolled the bottom, he rolled up the top edge just that much. Iruka called it treadmill style, and he taught it as a technique to first year students. It was amazing all the things you didn’t know until somebody taught you. “I told you not to look.”
“The scroll is right there.” Kotetsu waved a hand without looking up.
“It’s just an Academy evaluation.” Iruka pushed another beer at him. He couldn’t find anything in the scroll except what Shikaku had told him. With or without an ANBU mask, Iruka was still a chuunin academy teacher. He smiled wryly. Don’t get uppity, Iruka!
“You are three months too early for evals, Iruka.”
Iruka tapped sharply at the notebook sitting open in front of Kotetsu. “That’s probably why I won’t let you read the scroll. Now take this down.”
“Female subject, two years old,” Iruka recited clearly. And then stopped. There was literally nothing else in the scroll that he could tell Kotetsu, even with the details removed.
“How old do you have to be for a chakra eval?”
“Recommended age is six years. The chakra pathways aren’t fully developed at younger ages.” Iruka took the notebook back and wrote:
- Yamabashi Taiyou, aged 2, to be evaluated for chakra-ability and basic aptitude
- Top priority: secrecy, abort before discovery
- Positive result to be: expected potential of chuunin or higher.
- Results not to be recorded.
- Results to be verbally reported to Mission Leader. 2x verbal confirmation required.
He circled “2x verbal confirmation” and wrote next to it incredulously: twice?!
Kotetsu stopped fiddling with his beer and started poking through the contents of Iruka’s eval kit, sitting open on the table. It was a small hinged case divided into small compartments, their contents carefully packaged and tied down. Papers, seals, inks, and chakra-sensitive tools. Folded charts and instructions. Some of them were open where Iruka had been replacing supplies that were missing or expired.
“Don’t touch that,” Iruka said when Kotetsu poked at a wax paper packet of small paper squares. “There’s enough chakra in your bare skin to set them off.”
Kotetsu looked interested. “Are they gonna blow?”
“No, it’s chakra-sensitive paper, but they’re one use only. If you really want to go through it -- use a bunshin. Nothing in there will react to a clone.”
Kotetsu drooped back to the table top, uninterested. Bunshins took significant chakra. Too much effort. He sipped lazily at his beer, staring carefully at some spot behind Iruka’s head. “Isn’t there some story about the Sandaime and early eval? They put it on the pamphlets.”
Iruka nodded absently. “He tested chakra-dead at age three, and his father withheld him from training. He was enrolled when he used a katon on a burglar.”
“Maybe you should get your boss one of those pamphlets.”
Iruka ignored him. He still felt out of place, and he wasn’t going to exacerbate it by being the clueless chuunin handing out pamphlets. He told himself he could still return the scroll in the morning, ask Shikaku to find someone else. He was just… going to read it a few more times first.
Like the locker full of ANBU masks, Iruka felt like a window had opened in front of him into something forbidden and unexplained. Kakashi had wrenched it farther open. And the more Iruka looked, the more he started to feel the fuzzy edges of something missing. He knew that somewhere, hidden in a classified file, there was a reason that Shikaku hadn’t just asked Iruka to sneak into the girl’s window with a decent henge and a genjutsu expert.
Why couldn’t Shikaku wait a few years to evaluate a ninja who wouldn’t mature for many more? Something must be wrong right now. What decision hinged on the eval results? Iruka was forbidden to record them, but he had to confirm the outcome twice even before returning to Konoha. Whatever the actions the results triggered, it triggered them immediately. No wonder Shikaku was sending an ANBU team. And no wonder he wanted Hatake Kakashi out of retirement.
Iruka just hoped that was a good idea for the mission and for the Kakashi Iruka had seen in his kitchen. Volatile, cold, and out of touch.
“I’m serious, Iruka. If you’re the consulting expert, it’s your job to consult.”
Iruka shook his head. “No, that’s not my place. They have to know the problems, and there’s a reason they want to try anyway. That’s my duty.”
Kotetsu was watching him intently. “This is ranked up there, huh. At the top.” He pinched Iruka’s arm. “You rising star.”
Unease prickled at the back of Iruka’s neck. This window into ANBU was turning into a long, unlit staircase going down, down, down.
For a moment, he thought with relief: Kakashi is going; he knows ANBU, and I know him. His fear made him forget how irritated he had been last night, made him replace the bitter Kakashi at his kitchen island with the Kakashi the village remembered: the dutiful protector. Then an image popped into his head of Kakashi’s matching eyes, inky black, and Sakura’s little vials lined up on his countertop. Maybe Kakashi needed as much protection from what-was-missing as Iruka himself.
Iruka pressed his hands against his face. “There’s no way I know something they don’t.”
“Okay, okay. Tell me about Kakashi instead. You saw him, right? What was he like? Did he look sick? Did you see the eye?”
“It’s just an eye now, Kotetsu. No blood, no puss, no empty socket. Don’t look so disappointed! And he seemed – ” He tried to think of something that didn’t feel disrespectful. “I don’t know Kotetsu. I didn’t know him well before. Distracted, maybe.”
“He was a jackass, huh?” Kotetsu was too good at reading between Iruka's lines. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “You think he really is retired? I always figured he must just be doing something neither you or I was cleared to know about.” Kotetsu shot an uncomfortable glance at the scroll.
“I think he really is. He was so frustrated, like he didn’t know what to do with himself. He – he has freckles, Kotetsu.” Iruka sighed helplessly. “What on earth has he been doing to get freckles?”
Kotetsu set his beer down slowly, squinting at Iruka. “Is that your worrying voice? I know you and worrying – you start to feel all territorial and yelly.”
“Oh, don’t – he came into my home and blamed me for someone else bothering him. That is not how a person earns me worrying about them.”
“But you do sound worried.” Kotetsu watched him with narrowed eyes: a man with a puzzle. “I mean, this guy was Naruto’s sensei, right? Naruto likes him. He can’t be all bad.”
“He wasn’t like this when he was teaching Naruto. Well, not as much like this. To me.”
“It’s okay to worry; it’s how you’re put together. But be careful! First comes worrying, then comes adopting a jinchuriki. I mean, are you going to put a claim on the Copy-Nin?”
Iruka laughed. “Maybe I will.” It would be ridiculous, of course. Kakashi was like a black box, all his internal workings concealed, inaccessible. Freckles couldn’t change that. Freckles probably couldn’t change that. Damn, now he was thinking about it. It wasn’t Iruka’s fault Kakashi was so – tall. And nice to Naruto. Last night had been so unlike what Iruka remembered of him from before the war.
“He meets your post-graduation requirement!” Kotetsu gestured gleefully with his beer.
Iruka ignored that. He tapped his pen thoughtfully against the notebook. “He was never like that before. Even Sakura seemed unhappy. Though I suppose there’s one good thing – ” Iruka looked down at the scroll and his lips twitched.
Pretext for visit: Diplomatic entity to accept medal of valor and commendation for services rendered to the citizens of the world
Maybe it was only funny to Iruka, but he didn’t think Kakashi knew how Shikaku was justifying his visit to the capital. It soothed Iruka’s wounded pride to imagine Kakashi’s face after Shikaku told him he’d rendered services to the entire world -- and that the daimyo would be thanking him for it.
“ – he’s about to receive a medal,” Iruka finished.
“No shit?” Kotetsu said, impressed. He took another swig of his beer.
Naruto was waiting at the building gate the next morning, looking thunderous and not just from the hour, the sun hugging the horizon in a smudge of pink. Hands crossed over his chest, Naruto had his back to Iruka’s old lady neighbor, ensconced in the tea shop for the day with a down blanket over her lap. She was also calling Naruto a “nice boy” as loud as she could. Iruka watched in bemusement, tying a scarf around his neck against the chill.
“Ugh,” Naruto said, “stop talking like a sweet old lady!”
“Good morning, Iruka-sensei,” Naosu said gleefully. Eyeing Naruto, she added in a loud voice, “Now, here’s a nice young man! He takes the time to sit with me sometimes, did you know? Even bought me a pot of tea.”
Naruto grabbed Iruka’s arm. “Don’t talk to her, Iruka-sensei. She’s scary, and she’s just ninja-ing it away because she’s got a grandma face.”
Iruka was impressed that Naruto had picked Naosu out as a veteran, though there were probably less outrageously rude ways to show it. “You don’t like scary people?”
Naruto looked offended. “My best friends are scary people. Just – when somebody’s scary and pretending otherwise, they’re usually my enemy.” He shot a dark look at Naosu, who waggled her eyebrows. Iruka smacked Naruto in the back of the head. “Iruka-sensei!”
“Naruto! Apologize immediately. I’m sorry, Naosu-san. I’ll buy you a pot tonight, alright?”
“What? No, Iruka-sensei – ow! Arggh, I’m sorry, old lady-baa-chan.”
Naosu smiled with all her perfect, fake teeth. She flapped a hand at him. “Oh, you.”
Naruto let out a scream of frustration while Iruka frowned in disappointment.
Naruto was still grumbling when they got to the Academy. He looked confused when Iruka pulled out a bundle wrapped in a paper bag. It contained Sakura’s medical supplies from last night.
“Could you please return this to Sakura-chan?” Iruka asked.
Naruto shuffled his feet; no doubt aware that the whole village took an interest in their now-beloved jinchuriki and his ’ten year crush’. “Aw, she is always leaving things, Iruka-sensei. Why does everybody always think I’m the one who knows where she is?” He peeked into the brown paper bag, and his face turned serious. “Oh. Yeah, yeah, I can give her these.”
Iruka filed that away. Naruto clearly recognized the supplies. It seemed that both the remaining members of Team Kakashi were keeping tabs on their jounin sensei in retirement. Iruka was proud of him.
Iruka sat down at his desk and pulled out his collection of substitute lesson plans. The mission scroll had advised Iruka to prepare for anywhere from 5 to 30 days absence. Fall break was only a week.
“You’re going on a mission, Iruka-sensei?” Naruto asked, tucking the medical supplies away into one of the huge pockets of his baggy orange jacket.
“Yes, to pick up supplies – ”
“With Kakashi, right?” Naruto said. Iruka blinked. Naruto beamed. “I have pretty high clearance, Iruka-sensei. I’m cleared to know things Kakashi doesn’t know.”
Iruka laughed. ‘Things Kakashi doesn’t know’ – the best metric of high clearance; except these days Kakashi didn’t know when Fall Break was or what his students were working on. Iruka wondered if Naruto was cleared to know what Kakashi had figured out last night. Whatever it was that was missing from Iruka’s scroll.
Naruto poked at a spare pen on Iruka’s desk. “It’s good you’re going with Kakashi. He’ll keep you safe.”
“Kakashi-san won’t be going as protection,” Iruka said gently, “but there will be very skilled ninja with us.”
“Don’t doubt him, Iruka-sensei,” Naruto said with a certainty that hung in the air like weight. “The Sharingan was just a shortcut. You’ll see.”
It should have been heartwarming, but all Iruka could think was that he’d heard that same certainty before -- when Naruto talked about Sasuke. And that story had ended in an unmarked grave with 6ft of S-class chakra seals, location redacted.
“I won’t,” Iruka promised. He pulled Naruto to him and hugged him until he squirmed.
“Your mask?” Yamato asked.
Iruka handed him the storage scroll. He had chosen a monkey after all, basing the design on the cover of a book of traditional plays his mother had owned. He’d stuck to classic red, even though the kit Crow had given him had included a full set of colors. It seemed safe. The mask had one broad stripe up the nose and a simple curl around the eyes.
Iruka looked casually away while Yamato inspected it. He was proud of it, but he didn’t want to look proud.
“Thank you, Iruka-sensei,” Yamato said after a moment of study. He was sitting at a lonely folding table in the middle of the ANBU training facility. As far as Iruka could tell, it was just a regular training facility with a “Closed for fumigation” sign on the front door.
Yamato slipped the storage scroll with Iruka’s mask into a vest pocket. He unrolled another scroll and tripped the seal. A stack of folded clothes popped into existence, the standard gray and black ANBU uniform. Iruka touched them with a sense of disbelief. The fabric was softer than he’d thought.
There was a mask on top of the pile, a dog or maybe a wolf.
“Please use these for today. Mouse and Bear will instruct you.”
“This is --?”
“Please put it on, Iruka-sensei. A piece of etiquette you’ll learn today is that you may not discuss ANBU business unmasked without permission of your captain. Today, that will be me.”
A voice right next to Iruka said, “We’ve got a lot to talk about, friend.”
Another said, “I’ll tie your mask for you, sensei.”
There were two masked ANBU standing to him, so close he could feel the heat of their skin. Bear, shorter and slighter, probably a woman. Mouse, taller but shorter than Iruka. Mouse’s bare arms had the too-perfect healthy glow of youth. It was more than likely that he’d been through the Academy during Iruka’s tenure. And unlike the ANBU Crow in Shikaku’s office, Mouse had called Iruka ‘sensei’.
Iruka felt old. Like his joints were going to start creaking as he put on the uniform. He left his chuunin gear on the table and turned to the mask.
The dog mask was different than Iruka’s monkey mask. For one, it looked inert, but it buzzed with chakra once he had it in his hand. He sent out a stringer of chakra, and lines of jutsu glowed to life inside the mask. It was the same as the seal on the ANBU locker he’d found – basic frameworks he recognized under more elaborate details.
“You’ll need to prime it,” Yamato said. “Just a pinprick so that it knows you’re the only one allowed to wear it.”
Iruka bit his thumb. He recognized a cluster of swirls hidden in the curve of one cheek: a shock-type trap with – was that? Yes, that was a chakra signature recorder. Clearly a booby trap for anyone trying to take the mask. He hesitated, but – this was his job now. He turned on the trap.
“You don’t know how to fasten it,” said Mouse. Before Iruka realized what he was doing, Mouse had taken the dog mask.
– and shouted, skidding back ten feet. The mask went up, spinning, red ribbons arching as Yamato and Bear both dropped into defensive crouches. Shadows shifted at the edges of the room.
Iruka caught the mask.
“What was that?” Yamato said.
“Shock trap,” Mouse hissed.
“Shock trap? Ah, well done, Iruka.” Yamato straightened, shoulders dropping to at-ease. “Why don’t you leave those off for now…”
“Didn’t you see him activate it?” Bear said, amused.
“You could have told me if you did,” Mouse snapped. “I’m just glad he didn’t find the other one. You know – ”
Yamato held out his hand. Iruka thumbed the trap back to neutral before handing over the mask. He felt – well, good, actually. Like the water level in here had fallen from over his head to a little bit below his chin. Dangerous, but he could breathe. He let Yamato fasten the mask to his face. The cool porcelain warmed quickly, and there was some kind of subtle padding wherever the weight rested. It was more comfortable than he’d expected, with less of his peripheral vision blocked. It must have been matched to his measurements.
It was still claustrophobic. Readjusting it was an unending process. He’d notice limited vision in one direction, nudge the mask a bit; then notice a blind spot on the other side. Move it up, move it down, resettle the ribbon behind his ear. Repeat.
“You need to practice moving with it,” Mouse said, rubbing his sore fingers against his thigh. “If you look like it’s weird for you, you’ll be outed for sure.”
Iruka pulled his hands away from his face. He smiled wryly, but no one could see it. He tried to put the friendliness into his tone. His voice came out oddly modulated, like the mask was changing the sound. “I look pretty out of place, don’t I?”
Mouse shrugged. Iruka took note – that was an easy expression not hidden by the mask. Good one! He barely stopped from saying it aloud; Mouse was not a student needing approval.
“That’s not all we’ll practice. We took a rookie vote on which ten ANBU signals we ought to teach you first,” Mouse said.
“They’re different than your standard set,” said Bear.
“Also which ten ANBU jutsu. Those are the same as you’re used to, but you have to keep to the list. No family specialties here.”
The way he said it made Iruka wonder if Mouse had a bloodline limit. So he was young, probably Iruka’s student, new to ANBU, and from an established ninja family. Iruka started crossing names off of his list of possibilities. His breath felt hot behind the mask. The sound was strange, too loud. His brain hadn’t started filtering it out.
While Mouse talked, Iruka looked around the room. Absently, he tugged the mask down a few millimeters. The room was a standard tournament chamber. The scuff of his feet on the stone floor echoed towards the high ceiling. He wondered if it was really empty – there were some suspicious shadows up there, places that were darker than the lighting suggested. Had more ANBU rookies come to see the Academy teacher try on a mask? Some veterans too?
Mouse stopped talking. In the silence, Yamato’s chair scraped against the floor. Iruka turned around.
Kakashi stood by the door, his hands in the pockets of his pseudo-civilian gear. He had his head tilted back, looking up into the dimness like a tourist in a Cathedral. Behind him, the silence and concealment jutsus looked unbroken. Based on Yamato’s constipated expression, those jutsus were supposed to keep out Kakashi too. Iruka was impressed and that made him want to smile with pride – which meant Kotetsu had been right, damn.
“Is he cleared – ” Bear murmured. She sounded uncomfortable. Then again, suggesting you throw Hatake Kakashi out of anything because of clearance was pretty sacrilegious.
Yamato sighed. “Special precautions are required to avoid detection by former operatives. We didn’t take them, ergo he’s cleared.”
Kakashi wiggled his fingers in greeting. He strolled up to Yamato with a casual slouch, looking over the three masked ANBU standing near Yamato – which, wow, that included Iruka. Kakashi paused when he got a better look at Iruka’s mask. His forehead wrinkled under his freckles, and he tilted his head, leaning back on his heels to look Iruka up and down.
He doesn’t know who I am, Iruka realized. A little buzz of excitement ran down his spine.
Iruka hadn’t known known that Kakashi had been ANBU, though it was a general assumption for solo assassins of his rank. From the way Kakashi’s entrance had shifted the orbits of the people in the room, Kakashi hadn’t just been ANBU – he’d been an ANBU rockstar.
“Nice mask,” Kakashi said.
“It’s new,” Iruka said dryly.
Kakashi lifted an eyebrow. “Used, I think. But in good condition.”
There was a joke there Iruka didn’t get, so he applied the only ANBU lesson he’d learned so far and shrugged. Kakashi didn’t look impressed. Iruka smiled – a secret, hidden ANBU smile.
“What are you doing here, sempai?” Yamato asked.
“I came to see what Shikaku is going to subject me to, Tenzou,” Kakashi said cheerfully. “The loyal guards for the leftover ninja.”
Yamato winced. “This is a special training session. If I promise to show you the mission roster, will you come back later?”
“Training? Are they rookies?” Kakashi said in disbelief. His eyes drifted to Iruka and stopped. Eyebrows lifted; understanding dawned.
Iruka wasn’t sure what to do. He’d never seen an ANBU make a joke or get angry or show any personality at all. He should stand at attention quietly, he supposed, act professional even though he’d been outed, but he didn’t like the way it made him feel inactive, embarrassed, while Kakashi, ANBU rockstar, looked him over critically.
So Iruka cocked one hip and spread his arms – Ta da! – like he’d just come out of the dressing room and wanted feedback on his new outfit. Kakashi’s eyebrows tilted skeptically, but his eyes crinkled at the edges like a smile was trying to work its way out. “Learning the ropes, Hound-san?” Kakashi said.
“These very nice children in animal masks are teaching me the ten most important ANBU jutsu. And I’m a dog.”
“You’re a hound. And they can teach you those, if they want.” Kakashi watched Iruka thoughtfully. He nodded like he’d made a decision. “But I’m going to teach you to move like you’re in the Organization. It’s going to keep you alive.” In the corner of Iruka’s vision, Yamato sagged a little at the table, hopes dashed. Iruka couldn’t help but smile. Kakashi caught Iruka’s hand as it reached up to adjust the mask again. “Lesson One: Don’t pick at it, or it won’t get better.”
Iruka smiled ruefully. He liked this Kakashi better than the one at his kitchen island. “I’ll try.”
Kakashi shot a look at the ceiling. “Hey -- scram.”
All the shadows vanished abruptly. Even the ones that had looked natural. Iruka stared; it turned out the ceiling had lights on it and they were on. The water level rose back up to lap at his chin. He took a steadying breath: remember that shock trap? You’ve got this.
Yamato murmured, “Nice bluff.”
“There’s no point in bluffing predictable people. Ready, Hound-san?” Kakashi’s smile looked twisty even under his mask. There was that joke again. Maybe the dog mask was a joke mask only rookies had to use. Yamato twitched ever so slightly. Iruka noticed.
He had to clear his throat twice, but when he got out, “Oh, boy am I ever,” it sounded just as sarcastic as he’d been hoping.
Kakashi made Iruka practice crouching “without any extraneous movement” so many times that Iruka wondered if he were trying to sneak in a squat regimen. It made Iruka feel a little better that Bear and Mouse were stuck participating as “control groups”. Kakashi made no attempt to pretend he wasn’t entertained by their failures, and he accepted nothing less than perfection. All of Naruto’s years of furious complaining, which had once made Iruka laugh fondly in incomprehension, now became perfectly, agonizingly clear.
Iruka was panting on the ground next to an extremely irritated Bear, when he overheard Yamato speaking quietly to Kakashi:
“How did you find us?” Yamato asked. “Don’t lie.”
“How do you think?”
“I don’t know, you jackass. Last year I would have said the Sharingan, but now – I honestly thought we were safe from your ‘helpful check-ups’.” Yamato hesitated. “I mean, you don’t – it isn’t – ?”
The hope in Yamato’s voice was intimate enough to embarrass Iruka. He shared a look with Bear. The mask hid her expression, but he knew they were both straining desperately for the answer.
“No,” Kakashi said flatly. “I don’t. It isn’t.”
Yamato sighed. “Sorry.”
“I didn’t need it anyway. Closed for fumigation?”
“There are ten buildings with that sign out today!”
Kakashi hesitated. Iruka was learning that pauses, hesitations, unexpected blinks were how Kakashi showed his most sincere emotions. This one Iruka had seen himself -- Yamato had just caught Kakashi off guard with something Kakashi hadn’t known. “Huh, I guess I got lucky.”
“Lucky…?” Yamato’s head drooped in despair.
Kakashi slapped a hand on his shoulder, smile back in place. “Buck up, Tenzou! And get up, Iruka. You’re not done, yet!”
On the morning of departure, Iruka thumped a ten kilo stack of substitute lesson plans onto Kotetsu’s desk (just in case) and went to meet his team at the gate. Yamato had told him not to put on the mask before leaving Konoha. Iruka was glad – he liked to feel the bite of the wind on his face: the best part of roof top travel.
The gate hut looked empty until Iruka stepped inside. Three masked ANBU were waiting for him, plus Yamato. Bear, Mouse, and Crow.
“Your decoy mission team will be waiting at the first way point,” Yamato told them. “You will leave the city with the ANBU under henge until rendezvous with the decoy team. The decoy team will complete Iruka’s C-class cover mission.”
Iruka looked around. “Will Kakashi meet us there?”
And that was how Iruka found himself roof-hopping his way to the ancestral Hatake estate. Iruka didn’t mind so much. Kotetsu had been right: worrying about someone made Iruka feel proprietary. And Kakashi had seemed so – together in the training room, in a way he hadn’t in Iruka’s kitchen. Kakashi’s playful confidence had made Iruka feel comfortable, less aware of the damage he’d seen in the missing Sharingan, in Sakura’s vials, in Kakashi’s confusion about current events.
Except now Kakashi was late to an S-class mission. Iruka wanted to check on him personally, but he wanted to do it where there wasn’t anybody of rank around to make him feel presumptuous.
It was a dangerous road to start down – worrying meant caring, even with irritation mixed in, and Iruka had never been able to stop caring once he started. Kotetsu was right again; Iruka lacked a middle ground. The last time he’d gone down this road, he’d ended up legal guardian to a jinchuriki.
The eastern side of the city was beautiful, hilly and filled with traditional houses, each courtyard bright with the reds and yellows of autumn. Iruka moved to street level once he reached the really old family compounds. Rooftops here tended to be trapped and warded. Weathered wooden fences lined the street, hiding everything but the very tips of tiled roofs and carefully trimmed trees.
A piece of paper fluttered on a gate down the street. Iruka heard it before he saw it; the wind gave it a fthwip sound a little like a kunai cutting through the air. It was probably causing Jounin to jump several streets away. A worn carving ran down one gate post: Hatake. The paper taped to it showed a henohenomoheji with an arrow aimed at the door. Iruka followed it and saw that the door had been propped open by a brick. It startled a laugh out of him.
Unbelievably, he couldn’t find any traps. There wasn’t even the casual hiss of chakra wards as he stepped over the threshold. Iruka’s smile turned into a frown. Yes, he thought, he definitely wanted to check on Kakashi with his own eyes.
Iruka didn’t know what had happened to Kakashi during the war. He knew that the man who had claimed to be Uchiha Madara had been a member of Kakashi’s genin team. Everyone knew the name now. Everyone would know his name for a long time to come: Obito, the Eye of the Moon. Iruka hadn’t seen Kakashi after that report had made its way through the ranks, but he had seen the devastation on the faces of Sakura and Naruto when they spoke about their sensei. He knew that Obito had been someone fundamental.
The courtyard’s dark gray stones had overgrown with moss. Dry leaves skittered in the wind. The low buildings were dark, their paper doors shut. Through a break between the buildings, Iruka heard water bubbling and saw a little brown terrier curled up with his tail over his face.
The dog woke up when Iruka dropped his pack on the steps.
“Iruka-sensei,” the dog said. “You’re punctual. Boss is out back.” He tucked his nose under his tail, smacked his lips a few times, and went back to sleep.
There were more gardens behind the main buildings. Tall trees in need of trimming, and piles of leaves raked but not bagged. Koi swam in a pond overgrown with water plants. Two more dogs slept here, and a third drank from the koi pond. They were a patchwork of breeds and sizes, and they all wore blue vests with Kakashi’s signature henohenomoheji. It was peaceful.
“Just keep going, Iruka-sensei,” said the one at the pond. “He’s in the vegetable patch.”
Iruka caught sight of a patch of black fence behind the biggest elm. He hesitated. It felt like his business because of the worrying, but he knew that it wasn’t, not really.
The long-haired retriever followed Iruka around the pond, watching as Iruka scraped a fingernail against the blackened fence. Charred. The gravel border that ran along the fence had been scorched, patches of grass, too. Looking around the garden again, Iruka spotted more shadows that were probably burns. The house was too peaceful and unprotected to have fended off an attack. Iruka wondered if it were a misfired justu, like his pre-genin experimenting with their parents’ chakra tags.
“Chakra doesn’t work the same way for the Boss anymore.” The retriever looked anxiously up at Iruka, ears lifted. “Sakura-chan told us to clean it up. We’re going to, I promise.”
“You know, his doctor,” said the dog.
“Iruka-sensei!” and there was Sakura, waving at him from the porch. Iruka waved back.
Iruka walked up to the porch, looking at the burn residue on his fingers. When he looked up, at the base of the steps, Sakura was looking at the burn residue on Iruka’s fingers too.
“You’re here for Kakashi-sensei, right?” Sakura said.
“Yes, is he here?”
The house’s back doors were open and Iruka could hear people moving around inside the house. A young child played with a wooden horse on the steps: Yuuhi Sumu, child of Asuma and Kurenai. Iruka craned his neck, expecting to find Kurenai inside, but he didn’t see her or Kakashi. He did catch sight of an arm and a leg in a green body suit through the kitchen doorway.
Naruto was crouched over a travel pack outside the kitchen, frowning into its open top like he was trying to will its contents into place. Clothes, weapons, and for some reason, a watermelon were arrayed on the floor around him. Iruka spotted the standard Konoha blacks, which Naruto had never worn in his life, and realized Naruto was putting together Kakashi’s pack. Iruka’s skin crawled. Jounin packed their own kits, period.
Iruka pointed. “Kakashi isn’t going to use that if Naruto packs it.”
Sakura glanced at it and grimaced. “Iruka-sensei, you’re going on the same mission, aren’t you?”
Iruka hesitated, though of course why else had Iruka come to collect Kakashi. He hadn’t expected so many people. He had thought he’d find Kakashi sleeping in or caught up in a book with no one around to push him out the door. Instead, he’d walked in on a party.
Sakura flushed. “I know, I don’t have clearance, but, just -- will you keep an eye on him, sensei? And you have to remind him to take his medicine if anything – acts up.”
“Is he – alright?” Iruka looked down at the black ash on his fingers.
Sakura nodded. “The Sharingan burns through a lot of chakra, and when it just – stopped, everything was out of balance. We thought he was going to lose the eye, but it – he’s got a handle on it now, I think. But you have to make sure he wears that cuff, alright?”
Now it was Iruka’s turn to worry about his clearance. It had never occurred to him before, but Iruka -- undistinguished chuunin Academy teacher! -- was in a unique information-gathering position because he was a teacher. The more years passed, the more thoroughly Iruka was seeding the village with his students, students who still loved and respected him just enough to let slip things they should not, like the private medical information of elite ninja.
Interesting too that Sakura wanted Iruka to protect Kakashi where Naruto expected the opposite. Iruka supposed it was that for Naruto, Iruka was his most precious sensei, but Iruka had never been any closer to Sakura than any other student. For her, Kakashi was the more important.
“Yes,” Iruka promised her. “I’ll keep an eye out.”
Sakura pointed out the back porch, towards an open space that had been hidden by a bend in the fence. “You’ll find Kakashi-sensei in the vegetable garden.”
The vegetable garden was big green patch with several rows of plants sprouting from soft, dark soil. In between the vegetables were strips of mowed lawn, like whoever had planted it had meant it for afternoon strolls as much as for farming. Kakashi lay on his back in the sun on one of the grassy spots, asleep with Pakkun belly-up on his stomach. Dirty tools and garden gloves lay on the grass. Kakashi was bright pink across the cheeks, and the rest of his skin reflected the sunlight like an overexposed photo. There were more freckles on his nose and his jaw. He wasn’t, Iruka realized distantly, wearing a mask. Iruka blinked and looked again. No, there was a still a bare-faced stranger with muddy knees lying on his back in between the lettuce and the cucumbers. He looked back at the house, but it was hidden by trees, and he couldn’t see if Sakura was still there.
Iruka walked to the edge of the row. No movement. Iruka walked to a few feet away. Kakashi’s chest kept rising in slow, rhythmic breaths. Iruka crouched by his head. Pakkun opened one eye and grunted. That was as good as carte blanche. Iruka planted both hands in the grass by Kakashi’s ear and leaned over for a good, long look.
Kakashi’s face bothered him. Iruka pondered it until – yes, it felt like watching a movie adaptation of a beloved book. Whoever had done the casting here hadn’t captured the Kakashi Iruka had been picturing. Kakashi’s jaw was less powerfully square, for one, his lips thin rather than full, and – Iruka tilted his head thoughtfully – Kakashi’s mouth looked asymmetrical, like he’d be one of those sideways smilers. Also, his nose was too long.
“Can I help you, Iruka-sensei, or are you just browsing?” Pakkun asked.
Iruka squinted. “Is he faking it?”
“The sleeping? I wish. What a shinobi, huh?” Pakkun looked aggrieved. “Don’t worry, we’re keeping a look out for him.”
Iruka was having trouble fitting the pieces together. It was just – messy. There was the Kakashi who left his home unlocked and unwarded, who slept through the arrival of an almost-stranger, who didn’t know fall break or Sakura’s promotion. And then there was the Kakashi who could bluff a whole room of elite operatives into thinking he could see through shadows, Sharingan or no Sharingan. He didn’t seem in pain; he just seemed – absent-minded. Directionless.
Iruka laid a finger on Kakashi’s cheek, right over the bone. At least the casting director had gotten those right.
Kakashi gave a slight but comprehensive twitch. His breathing skipped, then evened out, and a few seconds later, he opened his eyes: “Ah, I thought they’d send Tenzou.”
“Rookie gets the worst jobs,” Iruka said, pulling him up.
Naruto met them at the house, dragging Kakashi’s pack – now comically overstuffed. It felt like things concerned family would do: Naruto packing for Kakashi, Sakura ordering his dogs around. More signs that Iruka wasn’t the only one worried about Kakashi in retirement.
And Iruka was worried now. As a rule, elite shinobi did not let other shinobi pack their field kit. Especially not Uzumaki Naruto.
From inside the house, Iruka heard someone ask, “Has he given him the pack yet?” followed by someone else’s “Ooh!” Gai came out of the house, a dishrag over one shoulder. He had his hands clasped in excitement.
Naruto dropped the pack at Kakashi’s feet; it was so heavy it left a divot in the lawn. Iruka stared in disbelief. Kakashi wore a tranquil expression, scratching at this chin.
“I finished packing for you, Kakashi-sensei. What do you think?”
“Hmm,” Kakashi said. He smiled. “Thanks, Naruto-kun!”
Iruka looked back and forth between them, deeply curious. Naruto was staring at Kakashi like he thought he could bore through him, but there wasn’t a hint of surprise on his face. Obviously, Kakashi had been without his mask before. Long enough for even Naruto to get used to it, yet Naruto hadn’t told a soul, not even Iruka. Naruto didn’t like it, Iruka realized. He hadn’t told anyone because he was still waiting for Kakashi to – to go back to the way he was. The same way Iruka had been so grateful for Kakashi’s competence inside the ANBU training room.
Naruto and Kakashi stared at each other: Naruto intense, with his brow pushed down and his lips pulled up; Kakashi serene.
“Whelp,” Kakashi said, a sound effect, not a word, and reached down for the pack.
Naruto broke, slumping forward with his arms dangling to his knees and heaving a sigh so loud it was almost a moan. Gai cried mournfully, “Kakashi!”
“You can’t just – jeez, Kakashi-sensei.” Naruto flipped open the top flap to reveal the curved surface of something smooth and dark and green. Iruka laughed; it was the watermelon, a prank. Naruto tipped the pack and let the melon roll out, wobbling onto the ground. He looked up at Kakashi, but Kakashi still wore the same serene expression, eyebrows lifted curiously.
Naruto growled in frustration. He tipped the pack again: another watermelon rolled unsteadily out. He unbuckled a side pocket: there were lead weights inside. An eggplant in another, then a few pairs of dirty socks. A green jumpsuit was eventually removed as Gai sighed in disappointment, hands over his face. Now Kakashi did twitch – from the nose up he looked the same, but he’d lifted a hand like he was covering a cough, and behind it, his lips had stretched out into a disbelieving line, half-smile, half-grimace. Kakashi wasn’t used to the absence of a mask either.
More footsteps. Iruka was expecting Kurenai, but it was Shizune, followed by Sakura, who came out and swung Yuuhi Sumu onto her hip. Iruka looked at them lined up on the back porch and started to frown.
“Iruka-sensei,” Shizune smiled, “you’re the retrieval specialist today?”
“Hello, yes, Shizune-san – sorry, are all of you here to see Kakashi off?”
Shizune looked around the porch, and then down at Sumu who was ignoring everyone to carefully canter her wooden horse across Shizune’s collarbone. “Well, Gai was helping babysit, and we thought we’d stop by -- I guess it just seemed like an event. Are you – you look annoyed, Iruka.”
Iruka put a hand to his forehead. “You were all here, and you let him sleep in the garden?”
Shizune looked startled. Everybody was giving Iruka an interested look. He flushed. This was exactly the audience he didn’t want. He picked up Kakashi’s pack, freed of its extra weight but oddly distended, and grabbed Kakashi’s elbow. Kakashi looked down at Iruka’s hand curiously, raising one lazy eyebrow. Iruka gave him an experimental tug; Kakashi took a step forward. Good. Iruka tugged again and then again, until he had towed Kakashi around the corner of the veranda.
“I was irresponsible, sensei,” Kakashi said but his smile didn’t look at all regretful. Iruka was struck again -- he could see Kakashi’s smile. It was the same lazy smile he’d had in the ANBU training facility, none of the bitter frustration he’d shown in Iruka’s kitchen. It didn’t make Kakashi feel any less… strange.
Iruka shoved Kakashi’s mission shirt at him, acutely self-conscious and avoiding eye contact. He saw enough to know that Kakashi was obediently dressing in whatever Iruka handed him. Pretty quickly though, Iruka went from handing Kakashi things while looking the other away, to zipping Kakashi’s vest, rolling up Kakashi’s sleeves, holding Kakashi’s gloves open so Kakashi could slip his hand into them. He noticed Kakashi was still wearing the chakra-restricting cuff, just one on his right hand.
Iruka wondered if this was the point at which he should exercise some self-control, but Kakashi was standing there waiting for his second glove, fingers wiggling. Iruka pressed his lips together helplessly. He knew he was claiming territory: I take care of this thing; therefore it belongs to me. He just hoped Kakashi didn’t notice.
Kakashi accepted all of it willingly and even tipped his head down for the hitae-ate. He seemed to be enjoying himself, willing to play this out to see Iruka’s next move. Iruka was filled with sympathy for Yamato.
Then Iruka made the mistake of looking up. His brain must have had time to process the universe’s poor casting job because now his brain saw a twisty smile, angular jaw, and thought, Oh hello, freckles. And all of it on a shinobi who looked damn good in a uniform Iruka hadn’t seen him wear for over a year. It was like Iruka had put him back together piece by piece, until Kakashi looked like the Kakashi Iruka remembered.
Great, Iruka, as if joining a mission three ranks above your pay grade weren’t enough of a mine field.
Iruka cleared his throat. “It’s dangerous, letting Naruto pack for you. I thought you’d be more particular about your mission kit.”
Kakashi shrugged. “It’s not my mission. I’m just a guest.”
Iruka stared at him. He sounded sincere. This was the ninja who propped his gate open with a cinderblock. “Kakashi-san,” Iruka said, heavy with disapproval, “it’s still a mission. S-class!”
“Kakashi-sensei!” Naruto said, coming around the corner. He was a carrying a small medical kit. Sakura trailed behind him, carefully folding a set of what must be instructions. “You have to be careful anyway! And you have Iruka-sensei to take care of.”
Kakashi watched them pack away the kit and instructions into his pack. Kakashi offered no advice or adjustment to their packing, and it raised the hairs on Iruka’s neck. Kakashi said, “Iruka-sensei is my bodyguard, Naruto.”
Iruka wondered how true that was. Who was right about who was protecting who – Naruto or Sakura? Iruka acknowledged Kakashi with a little mock bow, just a tip of his head as he held up Kakashi’s second glove. “Thank you, Kakashi-sama.”
Kakashi stuck his hand in the glove, watching Iruka’s fingers. He looked perplexed. It was weird to see it on his whole face. “Is this the special treatment you get, Naruto?”
Naruto shrugged and scuffed his foot. Iruka rolled his eyes: yes, many mornings an entire pageant had been required to get Naruto out of the house. He pulled Kakashi’s mask up over his nose. Ta da, all done. “You must have been working him too hard. He always overslept.”
Naruto muttered, pink-cheeked, “I used to wake up late on purpose.”
Iruka didn’t get it immediately, and then he felt something close around his heart. Sakura put a hand over her mouth.
“Naruto,” Kakashi said. It was strange how much weight the mask added to his presence. “You can’t say things like that to shinobi about to leave on a mission. He’ll never make it out of the village.”
“Well, maybe I want him to come back!” Naruto said, his eyes shiny. “And I don’t care if you’re retired, you have to take care of him anyway, Kakashi-sensei. Or I’m going to come check up on you.”
Iruka pulled him into a bone-crushing hug, Naruto’s fingers digging into his back.
“I promise,” Kakashi said.
Sakura was watching Iruka. She wasn’t as loud as Naruto nor so demanding, but her eyes were just as insistent. Iruka gave her a small nod: I promise, too.
“Would you hold this paper, please? Thank you sweetheart.”
Yamabashi Taiyou sat on her nurse’s lap wearing her best kimono. Or rather, on Bear’s lap henged into Taiyou-chan’s nurse. The nurse and any of the entourage not attending the party slept in their beds under a genjutsu Bear had cast with admirable ease.
It had been a long time since Iruka had used a henge for interaction with a target. It was a thrill to hear one’s own voice, see one’s own arms but not be able to recognize them. Even clothes fit differently, the sash of the robe tight around a narrower waist.
The chakra paper crumpled between Taiyou’s small fingers. “Oh dear,” said Bear-nurse.
“It’s alright, I have more,” Iruka said. He picked up another sheet carefully with tweezers, absently noticing his fingers -- thinner and more delicate than usual. He’d added dark maroon polish to the nails, a bit of last minute whimsy. Research suggested children, especially non-nin children, found women less threatening, but the research didn’t have anything to say about nail color.
Iruka took the two sheets back from Taiyou and stored them carefully in the kit. Already he – or she, at the moment -- could see there had been no clear reaction. It had been the same with all the other tests.
“Anything, Kujira-san?” Bear-nurse asked.
“Just one more. Taiyou-chan, please put your hands to mine.” Iruka held his hands palm out. Taiyou had to be convinced to let go of the woman she believed to be her nurse, but eventually she put her small, warm palms against Iruka’s. Iruka pushed chakra gently from the tenketsu, or chakra point, in his left palm into the tenketsu on Taiyou’s right palm. He waited, counting regularly under his breath. After only a few moments, he felt a buzz against his right hand.
Chakra pathways functional and not particularly slow. That much at least had gone right. He almost wrote it down before he remembered – no records. That was the last of the tests, and Iruka began packing up the kit. Bear watched him over Taiyou’s head, sensing his disappointment. It felt clumsy to be returning neither a positive nor negative result – as though he had wasted Shikaku’s investment in him, Konoha’s trust.
He fumbled the kit as he was closing it. The spare chakra papers slipped from their sleeve, and he caught one before he remembered he was not wearing gloves. The paper immediately darkened like he’d used it to sop up a puddle. The wetness reflected Iruka’s elemental affinity: water. He supposed it was good to confirm that they were working. He packed up the box carefully.
“Nothing?” Crow asked coolly once Iruka was back in the rooms reserved for Konoha’s small party.
A table lay on its side near the door – a casualty of the moment they’d told Kakashi the daimyo expected him to give a speech. Kakashi had only twitched in irritation; it had been Crow who had overturned the table reacting to that twitch. Inside the village walls, Iruka had never thought to be wary of Kakashi’s easy calm. Watching Crow knock over a table made Kakashi real in a way watching Kakashi never had. It put him in context.
Over the day long trip between Konoha and the capital, Iruka had noticed that Crow, more than Mouse or Bear, moved most like he was ‘in the Organization’, as Kakashi put it, the way Kakashi had tried to teach Iruka to do. Crow’s hands were as smooth and young as Mouse’s, but he was not a rookie. And it was the person with more ANBU experience, not less, who was most wary of Kakashi.
“Totally inconclusive,” Iruka said. He tried not to sound like he was apologizing. They must have known this was the most likely outcome. “The chakra pathways are developing normally, but I couldn’t detect chakra strength or molding ability.”
“No, just not detectable. She’s too young.” Iruka laid Taiyou’s chakra paper out next to the type-response chart. In mature shinobi, indicators were straight forward. Water – wet paper. Wind – split paper. Fire – burnt paper. Earth – paper disintegrated into dirt. Lightning – crumpled paper. Taiyou’s papers were a little crumpled, a little torn, and a little damp, all of which could come from a child’s sweaty, clumsy grip.
Iruka tried to compare the creases in Taiyou’s paper to the sketches in the response chart. A true lightning response affected the whole paper at once; the pattern it produced was more regular than you’d get crumpling it by hand. In other words, crumpling the paper in your hand would produce wrinkles pointed every which way. Crumpling the paper with lighting chakra would produce wrinkles that were all parallel to each other. He studied the chakra paper – did this section of Taiyou’s creases seem more parallel than the others?
He’d have to plot the crease orientations on graph paper to measure the strength of the correlation. Tedious, but necessary. If Taiyou had enough movable chakra to identify her elemental affinity, she probably had at least chuunin-level potential. It was the best he could do.
“We need a clear yes or no, Hound-san.”
“It isn’t possible, I’m sorry. Both her shintai and seishin energies are too low. The first is physical energy and might be increased by a few weeks of exercise, but the latter is energy of the mind and cannot be increased past the rate of human growth.”
“You knew her age,” Crow said. “You are ordered to find a way to measure the lower levels.”
Iruka felt himself shrinking back. Crow didn’t sound angry, just absolutely certain. His certainty made Iruka more uncertain.
Mouse appeared in the doorway. He looked insubstantial: a little blurring at the edges, a little translucent. A clone that didn’t need anyone to think it wasn’t a clone. A clone that used the bare minimum of chakra. “Hound-san,” the Mouse clone said. “Hatake-sama would like you to come down.”
Iruka realized Crow and Mouse were staring at each other, a silent argument, but Mouse was mission leader and won by default. He looked down at his kit. In the choice between Kakashi and Crow, Iruka chose Kakashi.
Downstairs, the daimyo was throwing a party. Musicians played delicate stringed instruments for painted dancers, and unobtrusive servants served food in impressive quantities. Paper lanterns shaped like animals mythical and real hung through the courtyard, tinting the guests many colors.
The main attraction ran from the courtyard gate all the way to the daimyo’s chair in a bright streak of red and gold: a dragon made up of lantern segments strung together, curling around the U-shaped dais. The head, adorned with beads and feathered streamers, measured more than a meter across and hung behind the daimyo’s chair.
Iruka slipped along the edge of the roof, staying low to avoid a silhouette. He found Mouse waiting in a line of animal statues along the corner of the roof, just one more guardian crouched and waiting. He nodded at Iruka, reaching up to tap his mask – reminding Iruka not to fiddle with his own, a bad habit Iruka hadn’t quite shaken. Iruka tapped his hand against his chest once: I understand. He turned back to the party.
In all of this, it was difficult to pick out the daimyo himself in the dragon’s umbra, a small, disinterested looking man in a fan headdress. He looked ill. Mouse had said he was having health problems; Iruka tried to remember how old the daimyo was.
Iruka recognized Hojiro by his resemblance to the daimyo, sitting at the farthest end of the dais with his own supporters. They had the same hangdog look, but Hojiro was healthy. Kakashi and his small escort sat on the daimyo’s section of the dais with his highest officials, close enough that the red glow of the dragon tinted Kakashi’s hair pink. Iruka would be sure to point that out later.
No samurai guarded the dais behind Kakashi. Kakashi had requested and been granted the right to guard his own back. ANBU knelt behind him in ready position. They had a bubble around them that even the most curious courtier refused to enter. The ANBU wore their field gear, though new and freshly cleaned. Their reputation lay over them like a nearly tangible cloak. Kakashi, on the other hand, had suffered the consequences of his retirement. As mission leader, Mouse had insisted on formal court clothing, pleated hakama and a wide sleeved hitarare in a blue so dark it looked black. A pattern lightened the edges of the sleeves, but Iruka couldn’t make it out from up here.
Kakashi looked like one of the officials who were always running into and out of the daimyo’s embassy in Konoha. Except much better looking, Iruka admitted to himself. Look at that silver hair against all that indigo!
Before the dais, the crowd of courtiers actively circled, talking, and the servants were busy filling plates and glasses. Iruka looked again at Kakashi and saw a silk ribbon across the back of his neck – he was already wearing his medal, which meant Iruka had missed the speech. He felt a passing sting of disappointment.
He looked to Mouse who lifted a fist with the last two fingers raised – freeze. Mouse whistled softly, two quick notes. One of the ANBU behind Kakashi turned and leapt up to the roof. Iruka contained a start of surprise – the ANBU wore the hound mask and had Iruka’s own build. Iruka couldn’t see his hair – the full ANBU uniform included a light hood to conceal hair color, though Mouse had told him some ANBU used dye. Iruka hadn’t realized that someone was cloning him. Laying an effective henge on a clone and maintaining both for a long period required a high level of skill and chakra.
The fake ANBU-Iruka nodded acknowledgement and settled in among the statues with Mouse before giving Iruka the all clear sign. Iruka nodded back and wondered if the gesture looked the same.
Iruka dropped silently onto the dais behind Kakashi. A few gasps rose up from nearby officials, trailed by a ripple of murmurs spreading through the crowd. Iruka saw hands go up as courtiers pointed him out to their companions. They had caused a stir showing up at all, much less showing up with such a small party. Kakashi had been right – the ninja image was better maintained through minimalism. The tiny size of their party, in which only one of them was unmasked, made them seem more mysterious, dangerous, and precise, a scalpel instead of a cannon. Iruka was suddenly glad Kakashi had drilled him in something so minor as how to walk like ANBU.
Without turning, Kakashi lifted a hand over his shoulder to beckon Iruka. Iruka stook two smooth steps to him, arms hanging loose at his sides, and dropped fluidly to one knee. No extra movement, Kakashi had said over and over. The effect was impressive, eerie on one and terrifying on many, but it made Iruka want to laugh a little, knowing how carefully it was rehearsed. Like ANBU moonlighted as a dance troop.
“Inconclusive,” Iruka murmured right by Kakashi’s ear. “Her pathways are developing normally, but moldable chakra is too low to detect. No detectable affinity.”
“Try again,” Kakashi said. He’d lifted a plain white fan in front of his face. Their masks protected them from lip-reading, but the fan would prevent anyone from knowing if Kakashi had responded at all. Iruka had seen the daimyo’s officials do the same when speaking to their attendants. Intrigue was alive and well in this court.
Iruka stared at Kakashi, upset and surprised by how upset he was. He'd expected Kakashi at least to accept Iruka's expertise. Damn it. There was knowing – hypothetically -- that becoming attached to a superior on a mission was a bad idea, and then there was running head first into the brick wall reality.
Iruka should have known better than to expect special treatment. Kakashi in the village had been unpredictable, but this was a mission, where Kakashi’s actions affected the lives of his team members. Of course all of that odd behavior had fallen away. Underneath Kakashi was still the Kakashi the village had relied on for so long. He hadn’t really changed at all.
Iruka had just been mistaken.
“She’s too young,” Iruka said. “The eval doesn’t work.”
“We knew the limitations,” Kakashi said, unconcerned. “Please defy them.”
Iruka took a breath. Kakashi and Crow were speaking truth as they saw it, he told himself. He knew that something vital would be decided based on the outcome of this test, as strange as it seemed to decide anything on an unreliable prediction of a two year old’s future. Konoha’s leadership, whatever remained, was not made up of idiots, Iruka reminded himself. Something had persuaded – or driven – them to hope that maybe this once up was down, and the sky might turn red at noon.
From that perspective, he understood that they would ignore all of his objections. Konoha needed Iruka to want this evaluation desperately, to look again and again for the smallest chance, a tinge of pink in the blue sky. Instead Iruka had accepted their time, their training, their trust, and as far as they could tell, all he’d done was look up and say yes, still blue up there, when’s lunch.
It didn’t make it less frustrating or Iruka’s results less true, but it made him willing to try again.
Kakashi was watching him. Iruka took a breath: “Of course, Hatake-sama.”
He turned and leapt for the roof.
Crow crouched over Iruka’s kit at a low writing desk. He had a sheet of graph paper and a protractor, two wonderfully incongruous things on a man dressed in the internationally recognized uniform for silent murder. He handed Iruka the graph paper.
Iruka studied it. Crow had finished plotting the orientations of the crinkles in Taiyou’s paper on a rose diagram. If one petal of the rose dominated all the others in length, that meant that one direction of wrinkle was more common than all the others, and Iruka could argue – but not prove -- that Taiyou had a lightning affinity. Iruka’s shoulders drooped in disappointment; Taiyou’s rose was many-petaled and symmetric. The wrinkles were random.
Examining the graph while Crow waited at the desk made Iruka feel like a teacher to a student, and it made Crow less intimidating. He noticed with bemusement that Crow had beautiful handwriting, and Iruka had an inappropriate urge to offer him a gold star just to see what he’d do.
“Would it help to heighten her emotion? Anger? Fear?”
Iruka shook his head. “To mold chakra, she needs enough of it to manipulate, which would be detectable. It’s like asking me to frighten a legless man into walking.” Iruka remembered what he’d thought about on the dais and sighed. “But we can try it.”
Suddenly, all the hairs on the back of Iruka’s neck stood on end. A heavy cold washed over him, followed by nausea. He broke out into a sweat; his heart rate accelerated. Rising anxiety pressured him to step back, step away, step anywhere. A civilian would have fled, but Iruka flared his chakra, pushing it to the tips of his body until the pressure faded, became external.
He took a few gasping breaths as the terrible feeling faded. Crow was already on his feet, kunai in hand.
They had just been hit with the killing intent of an elite ninja. A quick jutsu turned Crow’s graph to ash, and Iruka dropped to his knees to pack up the kit. The ash had gotten inside the kit, and it got on Iruka’s hands as he hastily packed. He slammed the lid, sealing it with a self-destruct jutsu. His heart was racing. The killing intent had come from nearby – which meant it was likely not a Konoha nin. He wanted to get to the dais, to the rest of his team.
No, Crow had a clone on the dais. If the clone had been destroyed, Crow would know. All its memories would have returned to Crow at the moment of its destruction.
Something big and heavy thumped onto the balcony. A chakra source flickered overhead, quickly muted. Iruka heard the small sound of a tile shifting on the roof above them and then nothing. Someone was on the roof – and on the balcony too? Iruka's pulse pounded in his ears, all his senses alert, waiting.
Crow’s hands moved into a wind jutsu, blasting open the balcony doors. In the lamplight, Iruka saw a body lying on the floor in an ANBU mask, blood running across the wood. His chest went cold, and adrenaline flooded his body. The hood ANBU used to cover their hair had fallen down, revealing short pale hair.
They split up. Iruka checked the hall -- empty, no foreign chakra. His muscles felt like they were on a hair trigger. On the balcony, Crow mirrored Iruka’s all-clear sign. Then he rolled the body onto its back.
Iruka took a startled step forward. The dead ANBU wore Iruka’s monkey mask – the same one he’d painted with the thick red stripe on the nose and two curlicues under the eyes. The ANBU was too tall to be Bear or Mouse, and a henge wouldn’t last past death; he was a secret, sixth team member. Iruka remembered the glimpse of short, pale hair, and a jolt of fear ran through him. He reached down and pulled off the mask to reveal the face of Yamanaka Eri. Iruka started in surprise.
“Oh,” he breathed. He felt sick, thinking of Eri’s daughter and Eri’s earnest flirting at every parent-teacher conference. Why had he been here wearing Iruka’s ANBU mask?
Crow had produced an ink brush from somewhere and marked out the shape of a bird in a few quick strokes. Finished, the ink lines shivered, and the bird pulled itself from the paper, leaping away into the dark towards the party.
Iruka stared after the bird, feeling numb. He was still holding Eri’s mask. “That was a standard ANBU jutsu?”
“Some of us are better at it than others.” Crow pulled the mask out of his hands. “Please step inside, Hound-san. Your time for evaluation may be limited now, and you’ll need to be ready.”
The evaluation again.
Footsteps sounded in the hall. Kakashi burst in, sleeves flying, with Mouse behind him. Bear and Crow’s clones followed too, puffing into smoke as they crossed the threshold. Iruka picked up his kit; he knew what was coming.
But Kakashi grabbed Iruka’s shoulders tight enough to bruise, turning him left, then right. His eyes above his mask were wide and serious as he searched up and down Iruka’s body. Kakashi had never behaved this way before. Iruka felt his shakiness start to fade.
“Hatake-sama – ” Iruka started, barely remembering the proper address, but Kakashi cut him off, pushing Iruka’s mask up to his forehead, effectively dismissing mission protocol. The shock trap went off, electricity dancing over Kakashi’s arm. Kakashi didn’t even twitch, just shook his fingers out with distant irritation as he leaned in to study Iruka’s – quickly reddening – face.
“Are you alright?” Kakashi asked. “Iruka – were you hit?”
Iruka glared at him, even though his heart was flopping around like a stranded fish. “Yes, I’m fine. They just dropped off – they just left Eri.”
“Eri?” Kakashi stared blankly at the body on the balcony. Iruka looked between them in confusion. In a different tone of voice, Kakashi said, “Report.”
Iruka shook himself; he was a Konoha nin. “An unknown nin traveling by rooftop dropped the body from the roof about five minutes ago. We didn’t see the attacker.”
“No traps found on the body,” Crow added.
“Who is he?” Kakashi asked. Iruka gave him a startled look.
“It was in your mission scroll,” Crow said.
“Where did you lose him?” Mouse asked.
Crow’s eyes cut to Iruka. “I didn’t attempt to pursue.” He handed Mouse the mask. Kakashi frowned, deep furrows appearing on his forehead. He took the mask from Mouse, running his thumb slowly over the stripe on the chin.
“That’s mine,” Iruka said.
“I know.” Kakashi looked at Crow. “Go. Split-clone team, follow the trail if possible, reconnaissance of palace grounds if not. We’ll deal with the body. You have twenty minutes.”
“No,” Crow said.
"I'm sorry?" Kakashi said evenly as though bored.
Crow stared back. Mouse was already turning to follow orders, Iruka too. Kakashi looked at Crow like he’d found something on his shoe and that something was Crow.
“You heard your orders,” Kakashi said in that bored, dangerous way he had.
“Mouse is mission leader. You –” Crow tilted his head. The mask hid everything but the disdain in his voice. “You’re not ANBU. You're barely a shinobi.”
The temperature in the room physically dropped. Iruka’s ears popped just as they had in his kitchen when he’d mentioned the hokage. Pressure built inside his skull, but flaring his chakra didn’t disperse it, barely seemed to keep it at bay. He started to sweat, and he saw Crow and Mouse both shiver in unison.
Crow kept talking, even as he shifted his feet to accept the onslaught of Kakashi’s killing intent. Iruka glanced anxiously at the door. Who was on watch? Could someone just walk in? Nobody was behaving like ANBU right now.
“You discussed the mission unmasked,” Crow said, “with Uzumaki Naruto and with Umino Iruka, who don’t understand the protocols for top secret material. You didn’t read your mission scroll and allowed Mouse to brief you -- as though you were no more than a prostitute hired to bait a honey trap. You aren't qualified to command.”
Iruka flinched, waiting anxiously for Kakash's rebuttal as cold sweat ran down his spine. There had to be one -- because Iruka was just a chuunin Academy teacher out of his depth, and Kakashi was a legend who might have been hokage.
But one second passed, then two, under that horrible pressure, and Kakashi said nothing.
Iruka had known that something was off, something that had its roots in freckles, in vials, and in cinder blocks propping open doors. Kakashi had referred to his part in this mission derisively as no better than a window dressing. He’d said repeatedly that he wasn’t on a mission, that he was retired, that he was a guest. Kakashi before the war would never had let Naruto pack his mission kit.
It was like Kakashi no longer held himself accountable.
Iruka realized what had been bothering him about Kakashi, even though he had seemed healthy and happy in his sunny vegetable garden, even though his friends still spoke to him. Kakashi had cut himself off as much as possible from active shinobi life. He might as well have moved into the mountains and started throwing rocks at visitors because that’s what Kakashi was --- a hermit.
The only connections he still had – Sakura, Naruto, Gai – were the people willing to track Kakashi down inside his house. And Kakashi didn’t seem to leave his house very much. After all, Yamato had felt secure not putting up any Kakashi-specific protections on his training room. And when Shikaku had provoked Kakashi enough to venture out to Iruka’s apartment, he had taken Sakura with him like he needed an escort.
Kakashi’s behavior in the training room, Kakashi on the daimyo’s dais -- these were remnants, old habits dying hard. Put Kakashi on a mission and he would talk mission talk. Put him in an ANBU training room, and he would train ANBU.
Looking at Kakashi now, feeling the overpowering weight of his killing intent, Iruka didn’t think Kakashi had known how disconnected he was until Crow had told him. How could he know? Kakashi could still scare a pack of ANBU off the ceiling couldn’t he? And he’d just been given a medal from the people of the whole world. No wonder he was giving off enough killing intent to make Iruka shudder and want to weep.
“You didn’t even read the mission scroll?” Iruka asked.
The pressure broke. Kakashi looked at Iruka like he wasn’t seeing what was in front of him. His gaze dropped to the monkey mask in his hand, marked with Eri’s blood. Iruka couldn’t help feeling like this had all come to a head over Iruka, and he didn’t know why. The elegant court gear which had previously made Kakashi look so broad-shouldered and strong now looked like a deflated balloon hanging from the flimsy string of Kakashi’s body.
Iruka looked away from Kakashi's face. He could see the pattern on Kakashi’s sleeves that he hadn’t been able to make out from the roof; it was lightning bolts. The Raikiri. It seemed hopelessly out of date.
Iruka flushed. There was a knot of anger growing in his chest. It covered a smaller knot of shame. He had put himself into this mission full of fears and doubts, taking each step into deeper water afraid that the current would pull him under, and he had been using Kakashi as his fixed point. Kakashi would get him through this. Stupidly, he’d let himself believe that Kakashi had been using Iruka the same way.
To make the embarrassment worse, the proprietary feeling that Kotetsu had predicted hadn’t gone away. Instead of walking fast in the opposite direction, Iruka wanted to take Kakashi away from ANBU and slam him down in the front row for one of Iruka’s Academy lectures on duty and teamwork. Anything to make Iruka feel important again -- and not just another team member Kakashi hadn't cared enough about to bother reading his mission scroll.
Mouse said, “Crow, you and I will make the split-clone team. Check in within the half hour.”
Kakashi looked like the losing man in a sword duel that hadn’t yet noticed he was dead. He had to try twice to speak, and it came out a whisper as he said to Mouse, “Your orders?”
Mouse cleared his throat. Iruka thought he probably wasn’t grateful for the authority Crow had just put squarely back in his hands. “You’ll need to deal with the daimyo’s men when they come. Please – uh, compose yourself, Hatake-sama.”
Kakashi looked away. His head jerked in a tiny nod.
Crow and Mouse both put their hands together. A moment later, perfect copies of themselves condensed out of smoke with a sharp pop. The clone pair and the original pair shuffled partners. The Mouse-clone followed Crow off the balcony. Iruka heard them land softly on the roof. Meanwhile, the Crow-clone joined Mouse inspecting the body
Crow-clone said, “Somebody had enough information to pick a target. Are we blown?”
“They fell for the decoy,” Mouse said. “It means all they knew was that we were concealing someone within our party. They don’t know why. They’re trying to warn us off without knowing what we’re doing.”
Iruka had been focused wholly on Kakashi, but his brain slowly began to filter what Mouse and Crow were saying. Decoy? He looked at Eri’s body, who had Iruka’s same slender-but-sturdy build. Both Crow and Kakashi’s response to the attack had been to secure Iruka, not Kakashi, not the kit. A chill ran down Iruka’s neck, and his perspective began to shift in a terrifying way. He stared at the mask in Kakashi’s hands. Weakly, he said, “When they didn’t give it back, I thought it had been some kind of psychological test.”
“It has been used that way,” Kakashi said. He sounded hollow. Then his head twitched towards the door. Iruka heard it too, the sound of heavy footsteps not trained to silence. Many footsteps. Mouse looked at Iruka and held his hand up like a bear claw, making a pulling motion downwards. Iruka blinked in confusion, then hastily pulled his mask down over his face.
“Incoming samurai,” Mouse murmured. “Hatake-sama – ”
“Yes,” Kakashi said. He straightened slowly, slipping the mask into his robes. It didn’t help – all the presence he’d had on the dais had vanished. He seemed empty. Iruka worried what the daimyo’s men would see.
Uniformed guards appeared in the doorway, spreading out across the woven floor mats. Most were foot soldiers with a few samurai in court gear, identified by the swords at their waist. Iruka couldn’t tell if they were simple swordsmen or true samurai with chakra abilities akin to ninjutsu.
A heavy, older man in more elaborate robes stepped to the front, a pair of swords on his hip. Iruka recognized him from the dais; he was one of the daimyo’s top advisors. He brought an aura with him like killing intent, but this one had to do with power and ownership. It was an effect of training in chakra control but not concealment, an aura characteristic of samurai.
“General Hatake, has something happened?” asked the samurai mildly. He looked at Iruka, standing at attention against the wall. One of his feet started inching along the floor towards Iruka, deliberate but slow. He seemed to be trying to get a reaction, the way a child taunts a fenced dog. It was another reminder that to an outsider, Iruka just looked like any other ANBU.
Iruka disliked him intensely.
Kakashi faltered, like he couldn’t think what to say. He followed the samurai’s gaze to the balcony, and said eventually, “Tekitaisha-san, yes, one of my guards has been killed.”
Tekitaisha spread his hands graciously. “Of course, General. We’ll seal the grounds immediately. Was the attacker shinobi?”
“Unknown,” said the Crow-clone, sounding even more mechanical when speaking to non-team, “but it was a strong chakra user.”
Tekitaisha sighed expansively, turning to share a look with his subordinates, as if inviting them into the conversation. “The daimyo often tells me this is the problem with keeping the ninja villages separate from their liege lords. You become targets of each other. An attack on the Leaf should be an attack on the Fire Country.”
“Yes,” Kakashi said, monotone, “I remember our discussion.”
Tekitaisha frowned at him, smile slipping away. Iruka watched, worried that the samurai could sense Kakashi’s weakness, afraid he might strike. And what was the samurai talking about? Combining Konoha with the capital? Was this part of what had been missing from Iruka’s scroll?
As he watched and thought, he had his hands clasped behind his back. There was ash on his fingers from Crow’s chart, and Iruka absently rubbed it between his fingers, back and forth, feeling the grit roll around against his skin. It didn’t feel ashy; it felt like little bits of rock. Slowly, a thought came to him, or rather a question. He went still; he thought he might not be breathing.
The sounds of the room muted as little pieces of earth fell into place inside his head. He blinked back to himself, and found to his frustration that the room was still infested with samurai. He needed to talk to Crow and to see his kit. If he moved, attention would surely be drawn to him. He tried to think of an excuse to go to the balcony, what would he say when the daimyo’s men asked him what he was doing.
But then Iruka remembered two of the most important rules of undercover work: people are gullible and never give your enemy credit he hasn’t earned.
Iruka took a breath, straightened his posture, and walked confidently to the balcony. No one stopped him; Iruka felt giddy. He crouched down next to Mouse, who was examining the body. Crow stood across from him watching the samurai. Iruka waited for Crow to glance at him, and then he signed with the hand hanging casually between his legs: What’s your element affinity?
Iruka didn’t know any more than ten ANBU signs, so he’d had to resort to Konoha’s standard sign language. He was afraid for a moment that Crow wouldn’t answer him. Iruka needed to hear his answer; Crow had been through the kit while Iruka was downstairs. He might have touched some of the chakra papers. If he were earth affinity, he might be the source of the dirt on Iruka’s fingers.
Crow gave him a long look. Iruka held his breath. Then Crow crossed his arms and his left hand tapped three fingers on his forearm: Water.
Iruka let out a sharp breath, heart racing. He made eye contact with Mouse, and signed: Test results: positive.
Mouse didn’t move for one beat, then two. Finally, his hand moved into one of the ten ANBU signs Iruka knew: go. Crow stepped over the body to the edge of the balcony, hidden from the room by the broken doors. Then he brought his kunai swiftly across his own throat, and the clone dispersed in a cloud of smoke. Wherever Crow was, searching the grounds, he now knew what his clone had known: that Yamabashi Taiyou had passed the test.
Iruka clasped his hands between his knees and reminded himself, Breathe, breathe.
They left in the morning. The search had continued all night without success. Iruka joined the search, but only with Mouse as escort. Every time they checked in, Kakashi was with Tekitaisha or the daimyo, and his spine got more and more rigid. Iruka learned to dislike Tekitaisha more and more with the decreasing curve of Kakashi’s spine.
Iruka had not been able to get into the kit until they left the palace. At their first break, he opened it on a stump and started rifling through it, looking for the second chakra paper. Not the one that Taiyou had crumpled, but the one that Iruka had touched accidentally after testing Taiyou’s chakra pathways. The one that looked like it had been used to mop up a lake.
The chakra paper wasn’t there.
But in one corner of one compartment, there was a small pile of dry, brown dirt. The same dirt between Iruka’s fingers. Somehow earth chakra had gotten mixed with Iruka’s water chakra before he’d touched that paper. Only a little so that the reaction had gone slowly. It must have happened during the test where Iruka had pushed some of his own chakra through Taiyou’s pathways. After all, earth was strong against water.
Iruka picked up the first chakra paper, the one Taiyou’s small hands had crumpled, and looked at it under the kit’s magnifying glass. The small tear Iruka had noticed earlier had tiny rough edges like a shark bite, and the two sides did not match up. He rubbed the tear between his fingers and felt grit. It was not a tear at all but a missing piece where part of the paper had disintegrated into dirt. Earth affinity again, second confirmation.
Iruka had been right. Taiyou had earth-affinity chakra potential. She would be an acceptable applicant to the Academy. He still didn’t know what chain of events that outcome had set in motion. Though -- looking at the small redheaded girl sitting across the camp next to Bear – at least one outcome was obvious.
Kakashi fell into place next to Iruka as they moved through the trees. Iruka stiffened. His heart hadn’t slowed down since he’d passed the results to Mouse. He didn’t know how to react to Kakashi, and he was in no fit state to improvise.
Kakashi took a long time to say anything, and Iruka settled back into the rhythm of step-step-jump that went with picking a path along tree branches.
“Do you have a whetstone?” Kakashi asked finally. His expression was half-lidded, calm, but unmoving like it was carved from stone. It seemed to cost him something to ask it. Iruka was surprised. A whetstone was a common piece of a shinobi mission kit, and many nin, Iruka included, used it like meditation during lulls. A shinobi’s fighting edge and his kunai edge were said to be one and the same. That Kakashi was asking now meant that something had changed.
“You don’t have – ” and then Iruka felt his face go blank because of course, Kakashi hadn’t packed for himself. Naruto had packed for him, and Naruto didn’t care about the sharpness of his weapons when his main cutting tool was overpowering chakra. “Yes. I’ll – can I give it to you at the next break?”
“Yes, thank you,” Kakashi said, monotone.
They reached the end of the branch, just as it started to dip under their weight, and leapt for the next. As Kakashi landed, Iruka caught a flash of color flapping in the corner of his eye. It was a bunched up red ribbon around Kakashi’s neck, disappearing under the collar of his flak jacket.
Iruka frowned to himself uncomfortably. That Kakashi had changed out of court gear without taking off the medal seemed childish, like he was hiding from Crow’s rebuke behind a little metal disc of validation.
Kakashi noticed Iruka’s hesitation. He glanced down at his chest. “Oh, this is odd, to still be wearing this, isn’t it?”
Iruka didn’t look at him. “Maybe. It’s your medal.”
Kakashi nodded. “It probably has a jutsu to keep me from wanting to remove it. It isn’t poisoned, so it’s probably tracking us.” As though he couldn’t see Iruka staring at him, he added, “You should expect an ambush.”
“If you can’t take it off, let me take it off,” Iruka said urgently. “Have you told Mouse?”
Kakashi’s eyelid twitched at this suggestion of further negligence, but Iruka refused to feel bad. “Yes. It’s probably booby-trapped against removal. I can’t tell.” He said it like an afterthought, sounding baffled, and put a hand to his vest over where the medal must be. Iruka looked at it like he was expecting a monster to eat its way out of Kakashi’s chest.
He realized Kakashi was thinking of the Sharingan, which would have told him everything about the medal before he’d ever put it on, and Iruka felt the stiff shell of his anger chip just a little bit. “I can look at it. There are some things in the kit that might be able to tell.”
Kakashi nodded. It had the same absent feel as all the rest of his expressions, almost mechanical. “When they come, your job is to go with Bear and the girl. That’s an order.” His expression came alive for the first time in the conversation, breaking into uncertainty. “You can confirm with Mouse.”
“It’s okay,” Iruka said. “I – believe you.”
They stopped next on a broad branch close to the central trunk of one of the forest’s old giants. They waited for Mouse to give the all clear before everyone pulled out water and trail snacks – dried meat, fruit and nuts. Those in masks took turns pushing them up to their foreheads to eat. Bear crouched down to offer fruit to Taiyou, who still saw Bear as her nurse through Bear’s genjutsu. Iruka thought she was coming to Konoha as a foster rather than a hostage, but he realized he didn’t know for sure. She would be treated well at the Academy; Iruka would make sure of it.
He pulled out his kit. The chakra paper reacted only to sources of living chakra, but Iruka had a few tricks up his sleeve. He took out a bottle of the ink used in chakra tags, which he mixed with water and spread over a blank tag in a thin wash. He laid the paper over the medal Kakashi was cradling in his hands next to his chest. The paper balanced precariously, held in place by the weight of the water and braced by the edges of Kakashi’s hands.
“This will take a few minutes,” Iruka said. He pulled out his own rations and began to snack, mask pushed up to his forehead. He cast a guilty glance at Kakashi, waiting quietly with both hands occupied, but Kakashi didn’t so much as peek at Iruka’s food.
“Sorry, I – do you – here,” Iruka mumbled. Kakashi went still when Iruka stepped into his space, holding a piece of dried meat in offering. He didn’t object as Iruka reached awkwardly for his mask. Why had Iruka thought that nose didn’t fit Kakashi? His thumb brushed Kakahi’s bottom lip. It felt like a furnace against Iruka’s skin. He pulled back quickly, hastily dragging Kakashi’s mask back up to the bridge of his nose.
Iruka flushed and wished he had pulled the Hound mask back down. He had meant the offer to be pragmatic, but it had become intimate. It felt like an olive branch – like Iruka couldn’t have done it if all he’d felt was anger. Kakashi looked away, swallowing more than he needed to just to get down some fruits and nuts.
“I wasn’t supposed to ever have to do this again,” Kakashi said quietly. No one was close enough to hear except Iruka. “It was supposed to be taken over by better ninja, whose Will of Fire isn’t built on rotten foundations.”
Iruka had no idea what to say to that. Kakashi’s foundations included people like the Yondaime Hokage, Uzumaki Kushina, and Hatake Sakumo, not to mention a list of commendations longer than Iruka’s entire mission history. But to call his foundations rotten, it meant that only one foundation mattered to Kakashi: Uchiha Obito.
Iruka’s heart clenched against his will. The fence of anger he’d built around himself crumbled a little more.
“Is it done?” Kakashi asked, looking down at his hands.
“What? Oh, yes, maybe.” Iruka rolled his snacks back up and pulled down his mask. The ink in the wash had concentrated onto specific parts of the paper. If he squinted, the dark blotches looked like blurred kanji. Part of the paper over the medal had gone entirely black, indicating a complex jutsu. Iruka pointed. “This black bit must be the jutsu to keep you from wanting to take it off. Over here, things are more simple. It looks like a two part character – first part thin, second part blocky with a – grid? – and pointy feet.”
“Baku,” Kakashi said.
Iruka jerked up in horror. Baku was the kanji on an exploding tag. “Kakashi, you need to – ”
Iruka heard a distant whistling, and for a second he thought Mouse was giving the signal to move out. Then Kakashi threw him off the branch and the world got very loud and bright. His heart clenched – no, no, no -- but as he righted himself, reflexively sending chakra to his feet to cling to the trunk, he saw Kakashi land on a branch a few meters away. Whatever had exploded, it hadn’t been the trap inside the medal. Yet.
Pieces of white paper fluttered through the air – the explosion had hit Iruka’s kit. Well, Iruka thought, watching all his preparation drift down like confetti, they had told him not to keep any records.
There was a missing nin crouched on a branch about them, hair in a very long thin braid that seemed to twitch independently of the wind. The hitae-ate wrapped around his arm had the vertical squiggles of Mist, scratched through to indicate his betrayal. Iruka had no idea where he’d come from.
Crow, Mouse, and Bear with Taiyou on her back stood on higher branches. Iruka and Kakashi had been knocked down to the lowest rung, only a dozen meters above the ground. Iruka felt a fiery chakra signature approaching, like a flashlight shining in his eye. It was coming along ground level at a chakra-enhanced run.
“Hatake Kakashi!” came a roar from below.
Iruka looked down and saw Tekitaisha, the daimyo’s samurai advisor, followed by six other samurai. He was dressed in a warrior’s hakama and robe, sleeves tied back, and minimal armor on his chest and the back of his hands. The partial chakra signature Iruka had felt in the capital was now unrestrained. Tekitaisha and his companions were jounin level or close enough that they all blurred together. Without the chakra-concealment practiced by shinobi, the effect was stunning, a constant hum in Iruka’s ears.
The missing nin did not react, sticking to his crouch and looking bored. Iruka was not impressed – he had seen Kakashi pull off that psychological technique too many times to buy it completely. Regardless, the nin’s lack of reaction told Iruka that he and Tekitaisha were working together.
“General!” Tekitaisha said. “You have borrowed something that the daimyo would like returned.”
Kakashi said nothing. Iruka shot a glance at Bear out of the corner of his eyes, but all he saw was Bear wearing a larger-than-usual travel pack. Iruka wasn’t sure he bought Tekitaisha’s implication that he, Tekitaisha, was acting on the daimyo’s orders. Would the daimyo hire a missing nin? Then again, the daimyo would have no other recourse when acting against Konoha.
The missing nin’s braid twitched like a cat tail. “You’d better give it up, Hatake. I don’t know how far you’ve gone to seed, but there’s a trap in the medal that’ll go off it I bat my eyes at it just right.”
Kakashi turned with exaggerated unconcern to look at Mouse, who was standing with his arms crossed on an upper branch. It came off, to the outside observer, as a calculated insult.
“Oh, you have got to be kidding me!” snapped the missing nin. Of course, he would never believe that Hatake Kakashi was not in command.
Mouse flipped a hand lazily at Kakashi: full discretion. Kakashi turned back to the nin and Tekitaisha. “I’m sorry, we have nothing to share.”
Tekitaisha’s expression darkened. “That’s unfortunate.” His men had begun to spread out through the trees, circling the Konoha shinobi above. One of them positioned himself beneath Iruka. He had his sword out, tip to the ground, but his hands on the hilt were sure. Iruka knew those swords were as fast as a kunai, and they tended to cut things much farther away than the length of the blade.
The nin made a sudden fist, jaw clenching with effort. Kakashi’s body jerked forward, curling around the medal hanging from his neck, and he grunted in surprise or pain. He had to backstep to keep from falling off the branch. Iruka’s hands tightened into fists – explosive tags could destroy a small house, and this one was lying an inch away from Kakashi’s sternum. Mouse should have made him take it off. He should have done whatever necessary. Kakashi wasn’t ready for this, and no matter how angry Iruka was, this was not a fair punishment.
“You didn’t notice probably, being a leftover washout,” the missing nin said airily, “but you haven’t been able to cast external jutsu since you put that on. You haven’t wanted to. That includes clones, Hatake-sama. You can’t swap your way out of this.”
“What is it you think we have?” Kakashi asked. “You invited us to the capital; you killed my guard.”
Tekitaisha didn’t deny it, spreading his hands. “We have to be cautious when shinobi come to the capital. You do it so rarely – and with the daimyo’s sudden illness…”
“It’s not sudden,” Kakashi said mildly. “We’ve been hearing about it at the embassy for months. Are you trying to blame your power grab on us?” Iruka gave him a startled look. Sometime between Eri’s death and now, Kakashi had read his mission scroll.
And that was enough to remind Iruka that he had a job to do. Behind his back, his hands moved into the seal for a clone. He would make a water clone from the moisture of the tree and leave it here while he joined up with Bear. The clone wouldn’t last long once Iruka moved away from it; even Crow, Mouse, and Bear had maintained their clones at the palace only as long as needed and looked for constant chances to refresh.
“Enough! Hatake Kakashi, my nin friend will blow a hole in your rib cage large enough for your guards to crawl through, should I but ask. You will return to the capital in our power, and voluntarily submit yourself and your team to my investigation -- are you listening?”
Kakashi had tipped his head to watch a white paper square drift slowly down from the tree tops. A piece of Iruka’s kit that had been blown higher than the others. It was the wrong size for a tag – it must be chakra paper. Every village used the same standard size.
As it drifted by his face, Kakashi caught it between his first two fingers. Iruka felt his heart skip in surprise. The paper stayed perfect, square, and white between Kakashi fingers: no detectable chakra affinity.
“Shit, he’s chakra-dead?” burst out the samurai under Iruka’s tree. No one shushed him. They were too busy staring. Iruka’s hand were frozen in the clone-making seal, running over everything he’d seen Kakashi do since that night in Iruka’s kitchen. It couldn’t be – but no, he’d seen Kakashi tree-walk coming and going from the capital, and he’d seen the chakra burns on Kakashi’s fence. Kakashi wasn’t chakra dead. There was only one other way Kakashi could touch the paper bare-handed without response –
“Don’t bluff me; I know you’re not a clone,” the missing nin sneered. “I’ve been locked onto your chakra since you entered the palace.”
“Has he been a clone since he entered the palace?” Tekitaisha asked.
The nin’s braid curled up so far it almost made a loop before it snapped downward again. “Not a chance. Maintaining a kage bunshin without break for over forty eight hours -- it’d be a fucking chakra black hole. That’s just regular paper.”
He was right about the chakra drain, and a clone that mimicked Kakashi’s chakra so completely would have to be a shadow clone, the most demanding of the bunch. Jounin dropped dead from that sort of thing every year. There was a reason Naruto’s bunshin struck such awe into his opponents. And if this Kakashi was a clone, where was Kakashi?
The snap of bone breaking cut through the silent clearing. One of the samurai next to Tekitaisha screamed. Iruka slammed his hands together, completing the seal. In the moment the clone formed, he teleported to the other side of the trunk, leaving the clone in his place, and sprinted silently towards Bear, keeping trunks and branches between him and the samurai.
The missing nin roared in fury, and an explosion shook the trees, wind and smoke rushing past the edges of the trees that hid Iruka from the battle. The exploding tag in the Kakashi's medal had gone off. Iruka jerked halfway around, heart skipping, but he made himself continue forward even as his throat closed up. It was too late; either Kakashi had been a clone or he hadn’t. Iruka would finish the mission.
Through the trees, he caught glimpses of a white masked figure standing suddenly between Tekitaisha and his samurai: an ANBU in a Hound-mask moving fluidly in powerful bursts of taijutsu, lightning in his hand. The grass scorched black around him. Sword blades flashed in the dappled sunlight through the canopy; above the battle, tree branches fell, sliced through by the samurai’s chakra-extended swords. Then the view disappeared behind a tree. Iruka ran, furrows in the bark blurring beneath his feet.
He felt a tapping coming up through the wood through his feet, a series of shorts and longs in the standard Konoha code: up here. Iruka moved until he found the direction the vibration got stronger, and then Bear was there next to him, making the ANBU sign for go.
Iruka nodded, and they ran for Konoha.
There was no pursuit. But Kakashi didn’t catch up either. Iruka’s throat got tighter and tighter as he ran. They ran for a long time. His muscles grew tired and began to burn and then went beyond that into the fuzzy-minded high of long distance running. He felt like his heart was taking up important space in his chest that he’d reserved for his lungs. There was still no one behind them. They had come so far that turning back would hurt rather than help, and their best hope for their team was to reach Konoha and ask for back up.
Taiyou slept all the way to the village on Bear’s back under a genjutsu. They stopped only to fasten her more securely to Bear, Iruka’s fingers fumbling the straps in his agitation. He watched Taiyou, smiling softly in her genjutsu dreams, and was struck by what they were doing. Had he done this? He had felt so powerful, caught up in the rush of solving the puzzle Kakashi and Crow demanded that he solve. It had seemed like a great big thing, a mountain peak reached, and now the mountain had transformed into the pudgy, round face of a sleeping toddler, carted off far from her home.
Shikaku had said her father wanted her evaluated, hadn’t he? Or had he just said the daimyo didn’t? No, Iruka told himself, Hojiro-sama must have given his blessing. Konoha was not in a position to deal with the hostilities a hostage would bring, and Hojiro was not an ambitionless innocent.
At least, Iruka hoped so.
In the end, it didn’t matter whether Taiyou had been stolen or given to seal an alliance; neither option viewed her as a child. Iruka knew he would not return her. Because he did serve Konoha; it was his home and the home of the people he loved, and because of that Taiyou would grow up a Konoha ninja. It had been a good life for Iruka. He would make sure she found it a good life too. He ran a hand over her soft hair, murmuring an apology.
Bear nodded as he tapped her shoulder, and they continued on.
They didn’t enter Konoha by the main gate, instead scaling the main wall, exchanging a coded call with the perimeter guard who carefully looked the other way as they came up and over. Taiyou was once again playing the part of a large travel pack.
Iruka’s legs burned, and he wanted to raise the alarm now, but no, secrecy still mattered. They made their way to the tower along the roof tops. ANBU were seen coming and going all the time, so there was no need to conceal themselves. Iruka saw a child in the street point as they jumped over, busy building in his mind the same awe and excitement that Iruka had built at that age. Look, up there -- ANBU!
It felt surreal, the effect heightened by exhaustion and worry. He kept trying to function on mission autopilot and had to correct himself to follow Bear, to go the ANBU way. They entered the hokage’s office through the windows, not the door, landing heavily behind the hokage’s desk. The conversation inside stopped immediately; someone quickly shut the door.
Shikaku stood by the assistant’s desk, mysterious documents piled high. Sakura sat across from the hokage’s chair, half out of her chair, watching Iruka and Bear curiously, ready to leave the same way she had left Iruka’s kitchen. There was a hand holding Sakura’s wrist, the reason she hadn’t left. Iruka followed that worn, wrinkled hand to a thin wrist to a frail arm, all the way across the desk to the hokage’s chair.
There was someone in the hokage’s chair.
Iruka ignored everything Kakashi had taught him, all but running to the front of the desk – and stopped in confusion. Naosu-san was sitting in Tsunade’s chair, that same down blanket from the tea shop laying across her lap and pulled up to her neck. Deep crow’s feet marked her green eyes and the weathered skin around her mouth quivered with the small imprecise movements of the elderly. There was a frailty there that had never been there before the war, even under the layers and layers of glamour Tsunade had worn the way most people wore clothes.
“Iruka,” she said, sounding irritated. Her hoarse, old woman’s voice was steely, “you’re late.”
Iruka pulled his mask off, smiling hesitantly in surprise. He was so tired. “Hokage-sama.”
Tsunade put a hand to her neck, reaching up to touch her chin, her lips. Iruka realized slowly that she was embarrassed to be seen like this when Iruka knew who she was. He had just run for two hours through the trees, afraid both that he had kidnapped an innocent child and that a person he had become attached to might well be dead. He didn’t care one bit whether Tsunade’s face was wrinkled or her breasts were sagging; he loved her all the same.
“Well?” Tsunade snapped. “Report!”
“Hokage-sama,” Bear said. Her voice shook, and Iruka realized she hadn’t ever seen Tsunade without her youthful glamor either. “We need a relief team ten miles down the northeast road, near way station 14. Six samurai, elite level, and one missing nin, tokubetsu jounin or above. They were attacked about two hours ago. Kakashi, Mouse, and Crow. Monkey was killed in the capital.”
Shikaku swore. Tsunade tapped a paper on her desk. It was cut into the shape of the bird and covered in shorthand – a note from Crow. “We’ve sent the team,” she said, “though we hadn’t heard about Eri. No news yet. What else?”
“Iruka was able to confirm Yamabisha Taiyou’s chakra potential. She is healthy, but under genjutsu and believes her nurse has been traveling with us. Lord Hojiro is prepared to announce he is fostering her on the coast because of her weak constitution.”
Iruka’s shoulders relaxed minutely. He hadn’t known that. He noted with amusement that his clearance appeared to have gone up again, and he shared a wry glance with Sakura. She still looked a little overwhelmed, staring in disbelief at the mask on Iruka’s forehead. Tsunade patted her wrist reassuringly. Iruka wondered again if there was some joke about the Hound mask that everyone understood but him.
“He did? How?” Tsunade shot Iruka an impressed look, her lips pursed thoughtfully. “She’s two goddamned years old. You know what chakra pathways look like in a two year old?”
“I’ve been saying that for the last few days, Hokage-sama,” Iruka said ruefully. “She’s here – if you could please look her over and tell us where to take her.”
Tsunade waved a hand – hurry up, hurry up. So Iruka turned to Bear, and they untied Taiyou from Bear’s back as she slept through it all. Iruka held her against his hip, her head on his shoulder. He didn’t like it at all, keeping her asleep. What if she were the sort of friendly kid who liked strangers -- as long as Bear played the part of her nurse. Iruka sighed. He just wanted to get her to a stable, quiet place so they could wake her up and Taiyou could start adjusting the way Taiyou wanted to adjust instead of the way they wanted her to.
“Good, good,” Tsunade was saying. “I can see her pathways are quite strong for her age. What was her affinity?”
“Earth,” Iruka said impatiently. “Does that affect pathway development?”
“Not a bit, just which missing nin I’ll put my money on in the parentage pool.”
“Pool,” Iruka repeated. “Hokage-sama, do you mind my asking where she’ll be staying?”
“The pediatric ward for tonight, just to make sure everything’s alright. And after that we’ll move her into the children’s home.” Tsunade’s face turned distant. “She’ll have plenty of playmates there, sadly – the war took its toll. May it do her much good.”
Iruka knew that orphanages in ninja villages were well funded and well looked after, but his connection to the Konoha children’s home was through Naruto, and his stomach turned at leaving Taiyou there. It was not acceptable.
“No – never mind,” Iruka said. Tsunade looked up curiously. He knew he was speaking his thoughts before they’d had a chance to do a full circuit of his brain, but the momentum was right, and he didn’t care. He handed Taiyou to Sakura, who took her awkwardly, unfamiliar with children. “Please take her to the medical ward. I’ll come get her tomorrow. I have some adjustments I need to make to Naruto’s room. And,” he turned to Bear, “I would appreciate if you would stay with us for a few days as her nurse before, uh, traveling back to the capital.”
He was aware of everyone staring at him, and he bit his lip, waiting for Bear’s disbelief. But she only said warmly, winking at him through the mask, “It won’t be a problem, Iruka-sensei, but you’re going to have to babysit my kid too.”
“Oh! Uh, yes, of course,” Iruka said. He had a flashback to the ANBU training room and winced. “I’m sorry about the ‘children in animal masks’ comment I made earlier?”
“You did what?” Tsunade asked, delighted.
“Don’t sweat it, Iruka. You were scoring points off Kakashi, which is worth it any time. Permission to be dismissed?” Bear turned to Tsunade.
Tsunade waved them out. Her eyes were on Iruka. “Are you sure?”
“I’ve been told I have a problem with worrying about people, Hokage-sama. I start to feel like they belong to me.”
Tsunade smiled. “Iruka-sensei, you are a fitting guide for the children of our village.”
Iruka flushed, uncertain what to say. He realized his eyes were wet and his knees were shaking. He was so exhausted.
“Iruka,” Tsunade said. “Go home and sleep.”
He still had to go to the ANBU locker room to shower and change into publicly acceptable clothing before trudging home. Shikaku had bowed to Iruka as he left the office and formally thanked him for his performance. Iruka had only been able to look at him in confusion. There was still no word from Kakashi, Crow, and Mouse.
Iruka knew he was crashing as he got home. He made himself go through his fridge until he found an apple he’d stashed in there to make it last. He bit into it as he walked stiffly into Naruto’s room, trying not to remember the blast of air from the explosion he hadn’t seen. Kakashi and the others were already an hour behind Iruka and Bear, but if they’d won, they wouldn’t have been running as fast as Iruka had been. They might even have stopped to rest.
There were still so many things Iruka didn’t know. He had helped Konoha forge a secret alliance with the daimyo’s brother, and the daimyo was suffering an illness his advisor suspected was unnatural. But had that really been enough to justify the secrecy and what-was-missing from Iruka’s scroll? Iruka would probably never know, and Taiyou would always be in danger from that unknown. It would not stop him from protecting her.
He looked around the room. There would be a two year old in here tomorrow. One side of the room was a mess from the nights Naruto stayed over, though Iruka had gone through it for dirty dishes and perishables. He’d have to get some boxes in here for Naruto’s things. The bed at least was made, and Iruka found himself looking at it in dismay. What kind of bed did two year olds use? He had been thinking about this like it was something he’d already done once with Naruto. But Naruto had been able to feed and clean and dress himself (mostly). Did Iruka need to get a crib? Was Taiyou potty-trained?
Iruka sat down on the bed. It was too much to deal with, and tomorrow seemed impossibly far away. There was still no word from Kakashi. Iruka lay down on his side on Naruto’s bed, just for a moment, the apple in his hands resting loosely on the pillow.
He really, really wanted Kakashi to be okay. Please be okay. I forgive you. I’ll help you be a ninja again. I’ll…
Iruka woke up when someone took the apple out of his hand. The room was dark, a street light casting a shadow of the power lines outside his window across the bed. The person sitting on his bed was tall and dressed in mission blacks but no vest. He smelled like the soap in the ANBU locker room. The moonlight turned his hair an ethereal silver.
“Kakashi,” Iruka murmured, fear unwinding itself from his chest. Half-asleep, he reached for Kakashi’s face, the remnants of dream logic demanding that Iruka see him, all of him, to prove he was here and safe. Kakashi huffed a surprised laugh, trying to catch Iruka’s hands, but the apple made him one-handed, and he didn’t want it like Iruka did. Iruka pulled Kakashi’s mask down to his neck, splaying his fingers tips lightly across Kakashi’s cheek, over the arch of his long, elegant nose. Each of Iruka’s fingers rested on top of a pale freckle, nearly indistinguishable in the darkness. Iruka had picked them out mostly from memory.
“Hello, sensei,” Kakashi said quietly, lips lifting at the edges, parting to show just a hint of teeth. He looked… cautiously pleased.
Iruka came the rest of the way awake, embarrassed to find himself so forward. He pulled his hands away, whispering, “Sorry.”
Kakashi smiled – and took a bite of the apple he’d stolen, his expression turning a little cheeky. He took Iruka’s hand in his free hand, pressing his thumb firmly into the heel and rubbing it up into Iruka’s palm. Iruka let out a groan, and put a hand over his mouth, face heating.
Kakashi grinned with his whole face. Yes, Iruka decided, he was definitely on board with the universe’s casting job now, full support.
“You found him? Is he okay?” someone whispered from the door. Naruto was peeking in.
Iruka leaned up on his elbows. “Sorry, I just fell asleep in here. I came in because –” He hesitated not sure what to say. Not sure if he’d sound crazy even to himself when he wasn’t in some kind of post-mission fugue.
But Naruto gave him the famous Naruto grin. It was visible even in the dark room, his teeth shiny in the moonlight. He held up a fist, thumb up. “We heard, Iruka-sensei. I can’t wait to meet her – I’ll be the most surprising big brother, you’ll see.”
Iruka felt like something opened up inside his chest, something warm and all encompassing. He had to put a hand over his eyes. Kakashi touched his thumb to Iruka’s cheek, and Iruka realized he was crying. “I’m happy, sorry.”
“Iruka-sensei, please don’t cry,” Naruto said. “You should ask Kakashi-sensei what he talked to Tsunade about.”
Iruka looked at Kakashi, blinking against the wetness in his eyes, but Kakashi shook his head. His smile was wry and self-deprecating. Iruka wondered if he made expressions like this all the time and people just couldn’t see. “Please stop saying I’m sorry, sensei. The person who has to apologize here is me. I’m sorry for putting you in danger through my neglect.”
“But you’re back, aren’t you? From wherever you went?” Iruka didn’t know how else to sum up the freckles, the cinder block, and weird uncaring distance.
Kakashi understood. “Yes, I think so.”
“How did you do it? Switch a clone out through the jutsu on that medal? You scared me.”
“Oh, I didn’t. I was posing as your clone for the entire visit.”
Iruka frowned at him. “But that nin was right – do you have that much chakra – ”
“Hm,” Kakashi said, “I guess you don’t know how big the pot is until you fix the leak.” Iruka stared at him. Without the Sharingan, Kakashi didn’t have uncontrollable chakra; he had too much chakra. Kakashi winced self-consciously. Naruto was looking self-satisfied in the doorway – as clear an I told you so as any Iruka had ever seen.
Kakashi ran a hand over his face. The chakra cuff glinted in the moonlight. “Ne, sensei, did you really tell Tsunade that worrying about people makes you feel like they belong to you?”
He was watching Iruka carefully, too casual. Hadn’t Iruka called Kakashi a black box whose inner workings were inscrutable and unknowable? He was so transparent now. Iruka smiled, feeling for the first time in a long time that he didn’t need to worry about anyone. “It’s a bad habit of mine.”
Kakashi’s expression flickered with hope, breaking into a full smile when Iruka hooked a finger in Kakashi’s mask hanging loose around his neck. He pulled Kakashi down until Iruka’s lips were next to his ear, loving how willingly Kakashi let himself be pulled, how interested he seemed in what would happen next, just the same as he had the day they left for the mission. This was the sort of person who wouldn’t mind Iruka getting territorial, who would delight in it.
“Kakashi-sensei,” Iruka murmured, feeling his cheeks flush with embarrassment and not minding at all, “would you like to spend the night?”
He felt Kakashi smile against his cheek. “I would, sensei.”
“Then you should probably get rid of the kid.”
“Ugh, I can hear you, Iruka-sensei! And I am leaving right now!” Naruto’s voice faded as he moved away. “But please get out of my room first!” And quieter still, followed by the click of the door latch: “And ask him what he said to Tsunade!”
Iruka wrapped an arm around Kakashi’s neck. “He seems really stuck on that. Alright, what did you say? Was it, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry’?”
Kakashi’s face was directly in the square of moonlight cast by the window, and Iruka was shocked to see Kakashi’s cheeks turn red, so red it was visible even in the dimness. He dipped his head to Iruka’s chest, so Iruka could only see the fluffy white curve of the back of his head. “I did say that,” Kakashi said, muffled. “I said it many times, and I was lucky it was accepted. But I think – uh – I think what Naruto meant was, uh – ”
Kakashi mumbled something into Iruka’s chest. Iruka had never heard him stumble like that before. Kakashi’s weight had come to rest against Iruka’s torso, his forearms bracketing Iruka’s ribs, and Iruka had his hand on Kakashi’s back, spreading his hand over lean muscle. Iruka’s pulse kicked up. Kakashi’s warm breath through his shirt was making it difficult to focus on anything at all.
“What?” Iruka said, not really caring. He started to run his hands through Kakashi’s hair, clean and soft from the shower.
“—I asked her to get out of my chair,” Kakashi managed finally, and Iruka froze all over. Kakashi lifted his head. “Is that okay?”
Iruka stared at him in disbelief. He had thought his life was done changing. That the chance for excitement had passed him by, and his 80th birthday would look much the same as his 30th. Tomorrow, he would be a father of two, and tonight, the Rokudaime Hokage of Konoha was lying across his chest.
“Yes,” Iruka said, laughing. “Yes, that’s okay.”