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Remnants of Solitude

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Darkness, red-tinted and dusty, surrounded him. Ominous. Familiar. Bitter. All his finely honed senses and instincts screamed at him. Danger. Run. Hide. But he could not. His body was stretched wide on a rough pillar; arms pinned, legs bound, defenses destroyed. Trapped in a way he had seldom been before. Rendered helpless. Secrets exposed. Stripped of all skills. He hated the feeling but could only wait breathlessly for the true nightmare yet to come.

Because it was the dream again; the one he could never break free of once it took hold despite all his famed strength of will. Itachi's dream. He shuddered, wrenching himself against his bonds until blood flowed from cruel rope pressed tight against bare skin; fought to wake, to free himself, but still it held him tight in its merciless embrace. But he fought until he could only hang, limp, exhausted at last. Unwillingly resigned to the inevitable progression.

Fear curled up from his gut like a snake waking from slumber as he hung there, quested through his veins. Freezing him. Making him fall still. He gathered the last of his strength to him just to endure.

He had survived the reality once. But at a price heavy even by his own steep reckoning. If ever he fell into Itachi's hands again...

His waking mind suspected there were the remnants of jutsu involved. Like a virus lurking in his chakra. A terrible, lingering power granted by an equally terrible source; betrayal. But here, now, in the dream, only the coming torment mattered. Fed by memories of shame and loss and regrets of his own, fear burned through him like venom, paralyzing him, making him hang still against the ropes that dug cruelly deep into raw, torn limbs.

The whirling-eyed shade appeared before him. Watching. He struggled again, but was held fast. Helpless.

Held in the trap sprung through the selfless gift he had been given by the one he had failed utterly so long ago… Sharingan. As he thought of the eye that was his greatest strength and yet also his greatest weakness, the voice of his tormentor echoed through his mind with a dry hiss of contempt.

"All of space, all of time... everything is under my control..."

Pain burst through him with the slow thrust of a sword-blade -- or simply the memory of such pain. They were one and the same here. His body arched high, pierced, impaled... metal through flesh… searing him...

"... you will feel these blades forever, barely suitable host for an Uchiha eye…"

The blade was withdrawn. Agony rose with the sting of sand in a wound that never closed, leaking his lifeblood steadily onto the thirsty ground. Stubborn pride alone made him lift his head once more to face the next round of torment… and the one after. Each as inevitable as his own thundering heartbeat. Over and over and over again… forever…

He screamed there in the nothingness. Screamed until his throat was raw and the sound was swallowed up into the dusty red darkness. Unheard. Futile. And still he could not break free -- even knowing that this dream was only a cruel trick of his own tortured mind.

A blade's edge flashed again in anticipation of the next thrust. One of thousands…

He tensed despite himself... bracing... trying futilely to deny it with every tattered shred of will… When into the nightmare came an alien, unexpected thing; a soft chuckle. The sound was light and warm and utterly wrong for this dark place. And in that moment the dusty nothingness around him flickered, the relentless, deadly blade wavered. Even as the chuckle faded into softly spoken words, the sound rippled through the foundation of his torment like the echo of a bell until the words took its place rich and powerful in their whimsical ordinariness. Speaking of insects transformed into hair clips and fizzling smoke-notes left in desk drawers.

There was silence for a moment and the shadow's blade glinted again as it was raised to strike once more. But then the laugh returned and the blade paused, rippling and blurring away until it was as insubstantial as shadow while foreign joy spread a yellow tint on the dusty waste, faint but growing stronger like the promise of some kind of dawn. His breath caught, body arching now in surprised hope instead of pain as he listened intently.

The dusty landscape itself began to shimmer around him, melting into pale gold as the voice continued, still tender and delighted. Conveying feelings that clearly did not belong in this nightmare; happiness, patience, compassion. Honest amusement. Laughter. His tormentor had never laughed at him before. Not even in that toneless, flat voice that haunted him by its very lifelessness… If Itachi could even laugh. Had ever laughed. But if he did it would doubtless be a scathing, dark sound and nothing like this light sound of fond mirth.

He quivered on the pole he was bound to. Lifted his head this time not simply to dare the pain, but to seek the source of that unusual sound, gaze questing hard through the lightening haze, senses straining to pierce the nothingness beyond. Once-enveloping darkness melted away, slowly replaced by golden light. The hot wind of despair eased its sting against his narrowed eyes as he waited eagerly for the voice to continue.

At last there were more words. Low, amused, friendly. Speaking of nothing that surrounded him now. Speaking with patient exasperation of missed drills and incomplete lessons and assignment pages that bore the fold lines for birds and boxes and jumping frogs.

So ordinary. So mundane. Then the voice faded out. He waited in breathless silence until it crept back. Welcomed the sound of it trickling through his thoughts like the cooling promise of water in the parched waste of his nightmare… awakening his thirst for freedom, rather than simple endurance… spurring him to twist harder against his captivity…

Because it came from outside the dream… outside… where life existed… where there was still hope… hope for him?

Hatake Kakashi woke suddenly and completely, relief to have the nightmare's grasp broken filling him. But years of training made him lay relaxed with his eyes closed as if still in deep slumber. Unwilling to reveal his return to consciousness even as his ears strained to catch a hint of what had awakened him. But the voice had gone silent. Perhaps it had simply been an illusion after all. A will-o-wisp of comfort. A new taunt from his twisted psyche; but one that was far less taxing than his usual dream-visitors, at least. There was no pained guilt attached to this voice. No blood-soaked regret. Yet, in the continuing silence, he was left with the conclusion that it was not real after all. There was disappointment then, sharper than pain. It startled him, even as he lay quietly, letting his body become familiar to him again.

He'd been unconscious for a while. At least a day. Perhaps longer. His joints were stiff, his muscles aching from disuse.

His thoughts were sluggish, his mind hazy. He'd overextended himself by using the Sharingan too much, of course. He recognized all the signs. The eye throbbed faintly in its socket and his chakra was dangerously low. It had clearly been far too soon after his release from the effects of Uchiha Itachi's terrible jutsu to first go chasing without orders after Naruto and Sasuke, then take on yet another urgent A-Rank mission for the Godaime upon his return as penance for disobeying her.

Gods, but he was tired.

Mission barely completed, he'd been lucky to make it back inside Konohagakure's patrol range before he collapsed. But since he had already recognized the scent of his own rooms, the feel of his own bedding beneath him, it was clear that someone from Konoha had found him somewhere in the forest and brought him back inside the city.

Asuma or Aoba maybe, or even Kurenai; at least he fervently hoped it was one of them. Owing Gai again for a rescue would chafe more than he cared to acknowledge. But regardless of who his initial rescuer had been, there was someone unfamiliar in his room with him right now, he knew. Simply a medical nin assigned by the Godaime to watch over him, perhaps, but it was clearly someone his senses had long ago decided was no threat -- even if he'd not yet identified them with his conscious mind.

He heard a sigh. Focused his concentration then, waiting for more clues. Finally he was rewarded by a soft shifting sound, a rub of skin against skin. "Ah, that girl," the voice he'd been listening for said, making his pulse jump. It was carefully hushed so as not to disturb a sleeper yet still loud enough that a touch of affectionate exasperation came clearly through. "Where did she find another of those horrible purple pens to use on her copy book? I thought I confiscated them all..."

Male, young, but not too young, he identified, automatically building an impression. Dutiful. Responsible. The tone of the voice, even in whisper, was rich and modulated in the manner of someone who was well used to speaking before others. He heard a soft scratching sound - as of a pen on paper - and suddenly realized exactly who the Godaime had given the tedious duty of sitting guard over his passed-out body to...

Umino Iruka, Academy instructor. A teacher who maintained an unseemly interest in the well-being of genin who had long passed beyond his sphere of responsibility. Yet also a teacher whom the Sandaime had spent a great deal of time in conference with regarding those same genin while they were students. A bit of a pest with his concerns, as Asuma has said. Particularly for a man who was still a chuunin and showed no desire to become more.

Yet a chuunin who also happened to be Naruto's most precious Iruka-sensei.

He opened his eyes slowly - already aware that both his hitai-ate and his mask had been removed - and looked toward the source of the voice. The low table he'd put into storage months ago had been brought back out and set up between his futon and the tiny kitchen in the corner. Spread across the table's surface were several stacks of student copy books, scrolls and various piles of paper, as well as a neat row of pens, a tea pot and cup, and an empty take-out soup bowl with sticks laid neatly across the rim. The shaded lamp that burned in the middle of the table cast the only light in the room.

The man was correcting papers while he watched over him. A most efficient use of time, Kakashi noted with only a mild twinge, and doubtless the explanation for the low commentary that had invaded his dreams. The teacher's dark head was bent forward over an open copy book, his attention focused completely on his work. A lean hand propped a frowning chin up on a fist as the other hand suddenly made rapid marks in the book.

His return to consciousness had not yet been noticed. So he let his gaze wander freely, adding to his small store of impressions of the other man.

The scar over the bridge of the nose was unmistakable. As was the perfectly centered hitai-ate. And the neat, if bushy, ponytail formed high on the back of the head. But the smudge of ink on a lower lip certainly wasn't the norm. Nor was the casually unzipped vest. Despite himself, he found himself smiling slightly at the sight.

"Do you always talk to yourself while you work, Iruka-sensei?" he asked.

There was a shocked intake of breath, a hasty upward jerk of the lowered head and then he was staring straight into wide, startled eyes. They were brown eyes, he noted and remembered all at the same time. Dark like a moonless summer night sky in the scant light and just as deep... His thoughts whirled and he thought he heard the echo of impassioned words: "Not caring about the fate of the ones I love… I'll break that idea of a shinobi!"

"Kakashi-san! You're awake," the other man said, dropping his pen into the book and slipping out from behind the table to come toward the futon. "How do you feel?" One hand was reaching for a small dish with a cloth draped over it on the floor beside the table as the chuunin's attention was suddenly focused on him as utterly as it had been focused on the copy book before It was odd, the effect of those rich, expressive eyes on his weary mind -- so intense. And he hadn't heard the echo of Obito's voice in his waking mind in years… He shook himself mentally back to the moment as the other man neared.

He most definitely did not need to have his brow laved. He wasn't fevered; he was just exhausted. To his relief, he only had to narrow his gaze slightly for the chuunin to come to an abrupt halt, half kneeling by the futon, damp cloth already in hand. He quirked his lips slightly and noted how a faint blush bloomed high on the other man's cheeks even as their gazes remained locked.

So dark those eyes… so open at first… like the ones he remembered from long ago. Showing everything -- concern, astonishment, relief -- but now mirroring only polite concern, mild embarrassment, dutiful determination.

"I'm fine, Iruka-sensei," Kakashi said quietly into the odd, faintly charged moment. So very like a Uchiha eye before the Sharingan awoke, those eyes… "Do you always talk to yourself when you work?" he asked again.

The other flushed very faintly, but that calm gaze held steady. "Only when correcting schoolwork, jounin-sensei." He could read a hint of defensiveness in the other man's eyes, but no shame. "It helps me keep their work in perspective to remind myself of their personal quirks... and strengths."

"Aa. I see." He blinked both eyes slowly once, then just the left one again. Felt the steady drain of chakra that always fed it drop to a trickle as he did so. "I would like my hitai-ate returned, if you don't mind," he said quietly. The teacher was staring at him still, unmoving. Kakashi was well aware of the trance-like effect the sight of his Sharingan eye could have. It seemed this chuunin sensei was no exception. He cleared his throat after a moment and the other jumped slightly. With the eye closed now, Iruka managed to turn his gaze away at last. The man blushed brighter as he apparently became aware of what he had been doing, olive skin darkening until the pale scar over his nose and cheeks almost gleamed by contrast in the dim light.

"O-of course, Kakashi-san," Iruka murmured before rising to cross the room toward his desk. Kakashi lifted one hand to his own brow and knuckled the old scar there. For some reason, it had begun to throb in counterpoint to the eye beneath.

Iruka returned quickly with the headband. The chuunin knelt beside the futon, neatly and efficiently folded the cloth behind the metal plate into a pad, then extended it toward Kakashi with both hands. The blush had been subdued already, Kakashi noted – just in passing, of course.

When he reached for the hitai-ate, his fingertips brushed the other man's palm. They both jerked slightly at the contact. "Do you need assistance?" the chuunin said in a polite murmur, those dark eyes mostly masked by lowered lashes. Apparently to keep himself from staring again. Kakashi felt oddly deprived.

"No," he said, after lifting the headband out of the other man's hands. He didn't bother to tie it on, but only laid it across his face in it's familiar cocked position and tucked the long ends of cloth as securely beneath his head as he could. Since he was lying down, a knot would only get in the way. He felt a part of himself relax once the eye was covered again, even though he normally kept it closed behind the concealing cloth. Because he was still badly drained and even the risk of that slow flow of chakra was wearing him out. Truth to tell, even rubbing his eye and arranging the hitai-ate was becoming an effort.

Once done, he glanced at the other man to find him watching him still. The chuunin was sitting upright beside him nearly at attention, his hands braced flat on his thighs, expression neutral, the dark eyes barely visible behind lowered lashes. So polite and remote that he almost seemed unreal.

He couldn't resist a poke to see if his memory was more accurate than this apparent paragon of shinobi respect. "Are you here to give me my next mission?"

Immediately the dark eyes lifted to flash at him with distinct outrage while lean hands clenched into fists on thighs. "What?! Kakashi-san, you are in no condition to take on another mission!" the man said hotly. Ah. A more natural response from the chuunin, as he remembered. At last. The man seemed as easy to ruffle as a songbird. A most atypical shinobi… "Oh?" Kakashi said, finding himself grinning slightly for no readily apparent reason. "Tsunade-sama has decided to be merciful then."

"As if she has a choice," Iruka said with an annoyed snort and a sidelong frown, shifting on his knees slightly, but already calming as he apparently recognized that Kakashi had just been winding him up. Perceptive. Ah. And he seemed to take the teasing with good grace as well -- this time. There was a slightly wry twist to the other man's lips as he went on at least. "Hmph. Actually, you are quite drained. She's ordered you confined to your apartment for the next seven days to recover. She has also ordered us to tell you that she'll Seal you to a bed in the hospital if you give us any trouble: in the pediatric ward."

"Aa. A week then?" Kakashi said, lifting his brow high and frowning slightly. The pediatric ward threat was a cheap shot, but of a kind he fully expected from the Sannin healer. He remembered she could be vindictive that way. "Three more days rest and I'll be fine." A distinct exaggeration. He hadn't even been this drained after fighting Zabuza the first time and that had taken him nearly a week of recovery time. Granted, he'd managed to train his genin in tree-climbing during that time -- but this time he could feel that his chakra was far too low even to attempt something minor like that. He was as weak as a newborn child for the time being and all his finely-honed senses were screaming the dangers of his own vulnerability to him. The Godaime's orders meant that even though he was now conscious and would far prefer to nurse his recovery in isolation, that he would instead have company staying in his apartment for the duration of her prescribed week. Ah. Tsunade knew him too well after all. "Three days and you can go back to your classes again, Iruka-sensei," he assured the other man with a cool smile.

"Seven, Kakashi-san." The normally relaxed mouth thinned with determination as the other man jabbed a finger toward him rudely in emphasis. "The Godaime said your chakra is still dangerously depleted, enough that even attempting the most minor jutsu could very well kill you." Iruka fixed him with a sharp teacher-stare that nearly made him wince. "She told us all to be wary of you trying to trick us into thinking you were recovered and not to let you move unnecessarily until she personally cleared you." Iruka frowned darkly at him and for a brief moment Kakashi felt like Iruka's student's must; deeply ashamed of failing their teacher's expectations. But then he grimaced slightly, mentally applauding the other's skill. Nearly jutsu-grade guilt, that, loaded into such a simple statement. He mulled it over for a moment, then decided to try a different tact.

"Us?"

"Er, yes," Iruka said in a flat but far more normal tone. "Izumo-kun and Kotetsu-kun are here during the daytime."

Kakashi dimly recognized the names of two chuunin normally attached to the Hokage's office. Then he frowned faintly. They weren't medical nin either. Which meant the hospital was likely overloaded with more seriously injured shinobi. Not a happy realization to have. But he was jounin and an important asset to Konoha, thus why he rated watchers even outside the hospital. Important only to Konoha, of course… "How late is it?" he asked, brushing the surprisingly bleak, if not unfamiliar, thought away and letting his gaze roam through the shuttered dimness of his small apartment. The teacher had been using only the one small lamp to correct his papers by.

"Nearly midnight. You've been back in the village for almost two days now," the man said, shifting position slightly, his gaze flickering over Kakashi's face warily. "Because of the reduced class schedule at the Academy these days, I was asked to take the night shift." The chuunin was staring somewhere in the vicinity of his mouth, he became aware. Fascinated by it simply because it was usually hidden?

He watched the chuunin in return for a moment, easily resisting the sudden impulse to draw the blankets over his nose again but was annoyed to feel even that tiny touch of self-consciousness. But he mentally cursed the Godaime for taking his mask off anyway. He knew it had to have been her; nobody else would have dared. For some reason, the idea that Iruka had been watching over him while he slept unmasked began to bother him. Hmm. Unusual. His lips felt faintly chapped and dry from unaccustomed exposure. He licked them once. Felt them tingle slightly in the coolness of free air afterwards, so he licked them again.

"Kakashi-san? Are you thirsty? Or hungry?" He realized it was the second time Iruka had asked the questions only by the hint of concern growing in the other man's voice. But when he focused his gaze on those dark eyes, any concern was obscured by a mask of polite patience. He wondered what the other would look like if he was truly worried about him. Those dark eyes that could shine so brightly with emotion, brimming over with fear, distress, outrage. Would they reveal everything of the soul behind them to all... or only to those who dared to see…?

His thoughts, he recognized, were starting to wander into odd realms as the black tide of exhaustion crept steadily higher in his mind despite his best efforts to hold it off. Odd thoughts even for him. Licking his lips again, he forced himself to focus enough to answer the other man's question. "Ah... sorry. Water would be good."

Iruka rose to bare feet and padded into the tiny kitchen. He filled a pitcher with water from the sink, fetched a glass from the cupboard and returned to his side in only a few moments. Kakashi watched with avid curiosity the while, assessing automatically. The chuunin was economical and neat in his motions. No clumsy haste or uneasy fumbling. He seemed both undaunted and unconcerned by the fact that his time was considered for little better use than as babysitter to a sleeping jounin. Because he had to realize that was what his presence here meant. Umino Iruka was no fool.

Kakashi still remembered the dark, vehement fire of the other man's eyes as he protested Naruto's nomination to the chuunin exams. The passion and fear and worry that had vibrated richly in his voice. The firm determination to speak up despite the bounds of protocol.

Only a chuunin, yet he'd dared protest the judgment of jounin and, indirectly, of the Sandaime Hokage himself. So fierce, that protest… He'd known the possible consequences for speaking up, the risks of censure, yet had done so anyway. That was a different kind of bravery than the kind he usually saw… a strength of compassion that reminded him poignantly of someone else…

The subject of his silent speculations returned to his side with the glass and pitcher, scattering his hazy thoughts. The man moved well, Kakashi admitted grudgingly, if without flair. There was no hint of self-consciousness to the other's motions. Even though he had to be aware that he was being watched. By him. Of course, it wasn't as if there was anything else more exciting for him to do than watch the man anyway. And he was a pretty pathetic example of a jounin at the moment, after all, since he could barely lift his head off the pillow.

Yet he had seen no hint of mockery or pity or sense of superiority in the other man's eyes for his condition this evening. Only dutiful patience and mild concern. Was there no lingering resentment for their dispute? No sense of betrayal? Even in one who appeared to feel a responsibility so deep that he would risk the steady life and secure career he had made for himself just to attempt to coddle the boy who held the Kyuubi?

A moment of awkwardness finally came when Iruka presented him with the half-filled glass. Kakashi took it in one faintly trembling hand then smiled at it wryly. He couldn't very well drink from it lying down flat. With a softly murmured apology, the chuunin set down the pitcher on the floor beside him before slipping an arm under Kakashi's shoulders. Shifted closer and lifted him up just enough so that he could drink without soaking himself. He raised the glass to his own lips, drank deeply, ignoring the slight sloshing of water down his chin as his hand trembled. Iruka made no comment either.

To his relief, the chuunin had somehow managed to catch the loosely draped hitai-ate and hold it in place over Kakashi's eye as he leaned forward. He didn't even have to strain unduly to do it either. Iruka that was. Lifting him. Holding him up. Kakashi became aware that his thoughts were beginning to fracture and slow again, the deep weariness within calling him back into its determined clutches. Still Iruka's strength pleased him somehow. He wasn't exactly a lightweight, after all. All honed muscle and hard tendon… sinew and scar… his body weapon and tool…

Cool, strong fingers felt soothing where they brushed against his forehead. The steady strength of the arm behind his shoulders pleased him, he told himself, because it was comforting to know his unconscious self wouldn't be left utterly vulnerable.

"Would you like more water?" The quiet words stirred Kakashi's hair; warm breath washed past his ear.

He blinked. The glass in his hand was empty. Apparently, he'd been thirsty.

He blinked slowly at it again in surprise. Then it was too much effort to hold on to the glass any more. He let it slip down onto his blanket-covered lap.

"No... think... sleep more..." His words were slurring, eye drooping. He had no reason to fight his body's need. There was no danger here. No necessity for his iron will to force his body to go on past its limits… for once. He was safe. He let his eye fall the rest of the way closed, body sagging limp against the arm behind him.

He barely felt it when the other lowered him down onto the futon again as the familiar red-dark oblivion rose up and drew him back into its hungry embrace. Where the dreaded nightmare waited, dragging him down into pain and spiraling fear… how much more could he endure? Silently. Desperately. Agony gnawing at his will. The Sharingan eye in his head aching… always aching… throbbing in its borrowed socket in time with the blood that spurted from his side when the gleaming blade was withdrawn for yet another thrust… again… and again….

Until the chuunin's soft voice intruded once more. And Itachi's endless shades and the bitter blades they wielded flickered and drifted away harmlessly, dispelled even faster this time by mention of illicit games of shuriken-tag stopped in the hallways, of smoke-ball shooters confiscated and transformations gone hilariously wrong. Such ordinary things. So natural and comforting, the Academy as seen through Iruka's eyes… through Iruka…

He slipped into deeper sleep then. Resting fully for the first time in weeks. Or was it ever?

~*~*~*~

When he next woke it was to the nagging ache of a full bladder and the half-formed urge to kill the annoying idiot who currently stood in the open doorway of his apartment. The whispered argument going on there was both far louder than it should be for shinobi and annoyingly trivial. The owner of said voice most likely wrongly assumed he was using a discreet whisper to argue about whose turn it really was to stock a refrigerator in some distant location with food, but the hissed words were like nails across Kakashi's tired brain. He groped blearily under the edge of his futon. Found one of the cache of shuriken hidden there and tossed it toward the door frame. On the heels of the solid thunk of impact he heard a startled yelp, a quick shuffling of feet, then the sharp closing of the door before blessed silence fell.

"Barely passed Stealth lessons, did you?" Kakashi offered after a moment, slowly peeling just the right rather gummy-feeling eyelid open and turning toward the door. To his relief, someone had fixed his hitai-ate over his left eye so it stayed in place. At least... something was covering his eye. It felt considerably lighter than the hitai-ate, actually. He reached up and touched the covering with tentative fingertips. A gauze eye-dressing of some kind. One held in place by thin elastic straps. A clever solution and one far easier to sleep in.

"Kakashi-san! Y-you're awake," the blurry shape near the door said. Not in a completely familiar voice either – or the one he'd half been expecting. After another blink, the shape resolved itself into a young man in a vest with a lock of thick dark hair poking out from under a traditionally-worn hitai-ate so that it nearly obscured one eye. His mind noted that this man who was staring back at him in embarrassed dismay was not someone he knew by more than sight, but was definitely someone of Konoha and thus an ally.

"Izumo or Kotetsu?" he snapped, mildly annoyed to find he was disappointed.

"I-Izumo, jounin-sensei," the man said smartly, responding to the sharpness of his tone.

"Then tell Kotetsu out there to get lost and let you do your duty," Kakashi said irritably. "I need to get to the toilet."

The young man jumped, then paled slightly with guilt. But he turned obediently to the door, opened it a crack again and whispered furiously outside for a moment. Kakashi didn't even try to overhear the conversation, certain it would be just as mundane as the prior one. And for the moment, he was too busy concentrating on the simple act of levering himself onto his side anyway. Blood throbbed in his ears, his heart raced in his chest with the effort, body trembling and sweating slightly. He grimaced. For some reason his body was being far less cooperative this time than it had been last time he woke. Of course, last time he hadn't tried to do much more than lift a hand… someone else had done the rest for him.

And maybe this excessive weakness had something to do with the fact that his most recent sleep had been restless and broken, plagued by flashes of Itachi's flat, spiraling eyes and the gleam of endless katana blades just before they slid between his ribs again. He hadn't slept deeply at all. Hadn't dared to. Because after a time there'd been no voice curling through the dreams to dispel the terrible images with gently amused mutterings -- only the low, furious argument at the door that had strengthened Itachi's vaguely sibilant voice inside his mind until the argument became too loud and woke him, heart pounding wildly with alarm.

He shook his head slightly for his weakness, sighing to himself as the action only made him dizzier. His mouth felt stuffed full of cotton and his hands shook faintly. He barely identified the person approaching as friend not foe in time, almost going for the weapons under his mattress again before Izumo tentatively spoke his name and he remembered him.

Kakashi contented himself with shooting a cautioning glare over his shoulder. One that gave him the dubious satisfaction of making the young chuunin's face go pale with alarm.

And he did seem young. Young and untested. A chuunin from the times after the Wars ended and the Kyuubi came, he supposed. He grunted as Izumo tentatively took hold of his upraised arm and helped him stagger to his feet. It irritated him that he had to use more of the chuunin's strength to do so than he had wished. His muscles felt like half-cooked ramen; distinctly rubbery. "What time is it?" he asked gruffly, trying to recover his poise. His time-sense was utterly shot from sleeping so much and that fact added to his general sense of irritation as well.

"Uh... around four. You've been asleep for three days," the young man said, clearly nervous. "The Godaime assigned us here… er… we just... some business to discuss." Izumo waved his free hand toward the closed front door, his expression contrite. "I didn't think we'd bother you, jounin-san. I apologize for waking you."

"Forget about it." Kakashi pulled his arm away from Izumo's grasp once he was upright and shuffled his way slowly across the room and into the small toilet under his own power. Wishing silently for a different voice to soothe his faintly jangled nerves. The thin yukata he was wearing felt clammy against his skin, sweat-soaked and uncomfortable. Like his thoughts.

Kakashi paused in the narrow doorway, bracing himself there with shoulders hunched only slightly by the effort it took to remain standing. He wasn't acting like himself. He had to pull himself together. He could never let this… kid know how close he was to collapsing. "Oi," he said with careful indifference. "When does the night shift usually get here?"

"Er... not until eight," the young chuunin said. Four more hours. His fingers tightened on the door frame until his knuckles went white. "Is there something you need right now, jounin-san?" Izumo was clearly anxious to make amends for waking him up. Kakashi didn't care about that -- it was the odd sinking feeling the news had put in his gut that bothered him more.

"No," he said as he stepped into the toilet on shaking legs and slid the door sharply closed behind him.

~*~*~*~

When the soft knock finally came at the front door, Kakashi was only drowsing under his blankets with his face buried in the crook of one arm. He was more awake than not despite the hazy depths of exhaustion that lurked beyond the edges of his mind. It was true that he had slept more restfully the night before and felt much stronger today, but he was still very tired. Yet he was reluctant to slip back into the red-shot darkness where eyes that whirled and blades that pierced waited for him without that one voice to protect him. The Sharingan often gave far too much in its piercing clarity. But only a fool would deny the truths it revealed.

He was well aware that it was Iruka's voice that had eased the nightmares for him. Iruka's voice alone. But for now, why didn't matter. Only that it did.

At the first knock, Izumo sprang for the door like a condemned criminal expecting a reprieve. Kakashi slitted his eye open to watch, unable to keep his lips from twitching in amusement. He had to admit that he had run the kid ragged over the last few hours. Asking him to fetch the smallest things for him out of the blue purely by whim. His book, which he had been able to read for only a few moments before putting aside, brain too weary to process even it's simple phrases. Then wanting the window opened. Demanding a preferred soup from a certain stall that he barely even sampled once retrieved. Then ice chips. The window closed again. A fresh pillow. Water. Another trip to the toilet. More blankets. Tea; cold first, then hot. Less blankets.

The only thing he didn't demand was a new yukata to sleep in, though he badly wanted one that wasn't stale and rumpled. He also very badly wanted a hot bath, as his body was tense and sore from lying still so long, but doubted his ability to keep his own head above water during a soak. He'd passed on the idea because he didn't relish the idea of having this twitchy young chuunin sit in the building's small bathing room with him just to keep himself from drowning either. As a matter of fact he was getting pretty tired of the other man period. The kid fidgeted too much. Especially when the eight o'clock hour finally arrived and then passed uneventfully.

The twitching got almost unendurable then. He was beginning to wonder how the kid had ever become a shinobi in the first place, much less a chuunin.

So it was nearly eight-fifteen before the knock came and they were both more than ready for it. There was a rush of something that was alarmingly close to relief that went through Kakashi too.

"Finally! Iruka-sensei!" Izumo said as he yanked the door open and all but dragged the startled man inside. "Where have you been?"

"Well, er, good evening to you, Izumo-kun," Iruka said, glancing toward Kakashi as he struggled to toe off his sandals with the other man half-hanging on his loaded arms. "I got here as soon as I could... is something wrong?" Izumo darted a wary glance toward Kakashi and frowned before speaking again in his pitiful attempt at a low whisper. "No -- well just that he's… he's been awake since this afternoon. And… wanting stuff all the time." Izumo grimaced, then blanched slightly as he glanced toward the futon again.

Iruka followed the glance and his expression hardened slightly when he caught Kakashi's crinkled and very awake gaze upon him. "Oh? You didn't let him get up, did you? The Godaime was quite specific…"

Izumo grimaced and all but snatched half the stack of copy books out of Iruka's arms before moving over to drop them on the table with a thump. "N-no. Well, just to go to the toilet a time or two…"

"I'm not pissing in a bottle," Kakashi muttered sourly, suppressing a smirk beneath the edge of the blankets. It might be funny to see their faces if he asked for that kind of help, however, but they both ignored his comment.

Iruka frowned as he followed Izumo further inside, still grilling him. "No ninjutsu or genjutsu attempts?"

"I don't… think so," Izumo said, jamming his hands deep into his pants pockets and hunching his shoulders as he met Iruka's gaze sidelong. "I did go out to get soup once…" He flinched under Iruka's dark stare. "Er… I wasn't gone long… he was still where I left him… awake and everything…" Even the normally smart-mouthed chuunin was helpless before the teacher's disapproving glare it seemed.

"Oi. Still conscious here," Kakashi interjected quietly, dragging the blankets away from his face enough to smile disarmingly at them both. He waggled fingers at them in a friendly way just for good measure but was still ignored.

"No chakra-molding attempts that I could feel, anyway," Izumo admitted sheepishly, shooting a wary glance toward Kakashi, then back to Iruka, fidgeting nervously the while.

Iruka sighed deeply and set the remainder of the books down precisely on top of the others, then took his time straightening the stack out carefully so it didn't fall over. "Well, that's good," he said with false brightness once that small task was done, apparently oblivious to the way Izumo twitched nervously beside him the while. "Since he's still alive it seems no damage was done. It would have been a shame if he'd been foolish enough to kill himself on your watch." Izumo blanched sharply as Iruka turned to face Kakashi, inclining his head to him ever so slightly as he finally acknowledged him, his expression still vaguely forbidding in it's calmness. "Good evening, Kakashi-san. I understand that you have become a difficult convalescent. You really should be sleeping, you know. It's the fastest way to recover chakra."

Scary! "Slept too much already," he muttered peevishly, pulling the sheet back up over his nose to pout beneath it, faintly stung by the indirect attack on his intelligence. As if he'd kill himself while recovering…

The dark eyes met his sulky gaze steadily. "Hmm," was all the teacher said before turning back to Izumo with a falsely bright smile. "You can go home for the night, Izumo-kun. I've got it now."

"Got it?" Kakashi said, pulling the sheet down again and baring his teeth slightly. Annoyed by the phrasing, but more by the odd feeling of satisfaction that had filled him as soon as the door opened to reveal the teacher. It was for Izumo's imminent departure, of course. And Izumo himself was already half way to the door. Just as eager to escape, it seemed. "Um… thanks… I guess I'll see you tomorrow night, Iruka-sensei. Oh, and you too, Kakashi-san."

"Good night, Izumo-kun," Iruka said in a tone that was still a little too pleasant.

Kakashi waved again, even though the departing chuunin didn't acknowledge this one either. "Bye," he added lightly for good measure.

The outer door closed behind the other chuunin with a sharp thump and the room fell silent. Kakashi looked back from making certain Izumo was truly gone only to find that Iruka was standing on the far side of the table watching him with his arms folded over his chest, brows lowered ominously.

"Is this your doing?" he said before the teacher could say anything, running a fingertip along the bottom of the lightweight bandage over his left eye.

Clearly derailed from delivering a scold, Iruka blinked at him slightly in surprise. "Er… yes. I got it from the hospital." He shifted and, apparently slightly embarrassed for some reason, reached up to scratch at a cheek with one finger. "You seemed to rest easier with your eye covered… and I… well, that seemed like it would be more comfortable to sleep in."

Kakashi smiled brightly at him, making the other man blink even harder in surprise. "Yes it is. Thank you."

They stared at each other for a moment more, Iruka clearly at a loss as to whether to launch into his scold after being offered such honest gratitude. "You should really be more serious about your convalescence, Kakashi-san," Iruka settled for finally, frowning at him again. Kakashi just smiled wider, perversely pleased that the teacher's instincts had won over shinobi protocol. "You need to let Izumo-kun and Kotetsu-kun and I do what we can for you without complaint. The Godaime was quite explicit about what could happen to you if you don't let your chakra replenish itself without interference this time..."

"Yeah, yeah, death." He waved a hand in the air carelessly, heaving a dramatically bored sigh. "I know my limits, sensei. That's no news to me."

Iruka's glare flared hotter and his voice rose sharply, beyond mere scolding now. "No. Not 'just' death! The Godaime said you could scar pathways so that chakra would never flow properly again. Would you risk your skills for stubborn pride alone, Hatake-sensei?"

"What?" Kakashi blinked at the other in shock, eyes gone wide, even the one behind the bandage. No. That was not the usual threat from the healer-nin. And that it came from the Godaime herself -- Konoha's greatest healer -- only brought the difference more sharply home.

"What happened to you before… I don't know what it was, but the Godaime said it could only happen to a Sharingan user… like yourself," Iruka met his stare steadily despite the hitching of his voice, even if his face flushed a little at the intensity of Kakashi's astonished return look. "She said she overlooked the danger before, and was quite upset with herself for it. But apparently you must rest and not strain yourself or attempt a jutsu of any kind during this time... or it is possible that you may never be able to form chakra properly again."

Kakashi turned his stare away from the now somber-faced chuunin up toward the dingy ceiling of his apartment. Lost, abruptly, in thoughts both grim and desperate. To lose his abilities as a ninja would still mean his death, he knew. But in a slow, tortured way that could cost many lives before his own end finally came. He had too many enemies, too many bitter foes waiting for him to falter for them not to take advantage of his crippling once the word spread. And spread it would when he no longer appeared for missions. It would also mean he would no longer be an asset to Konoha but a burden, as they would still have to protect him for the unique secrets and changes his body contained.

Unless he chose to end his own life first, of course, thus allowing his body to be disposed of cleanly and properly.

It was no wonder the teacher and the two others had been set to watch over him. He was only surprised Shizune, the Godaime's own right hand, wasn't here herself to scold him this way. But that likely meant she was busy as well. The fact that only chuunin had been assigned to him had not escaped him either. Konoha was dangerously weak these days. He was just lucky, he thought with dark amusement, that Konoha was not yet so weak that genin had to be set to keep watch over a troublesomely damaged jounin like him.

The bitter awareness that his skills were critically needed at a time when he was forbidden from using them or risk losing them forever dug deep into his conscience. Itachi had even more to answer for now. His own personal Bingo Book was growing larger all the time. But some of the names in it were definitely daunting… even for the famed Copy Ninja.

"What happened while I was gone?" he demanded abruptly, gaze sharpening on the chuunin.

Iruka shifted on his feet a moment, darting worried, inquiring looks at him before moving at last to sit beside the table. Clearly unsettled. Worry lurked in the depths of the dark eyes. Kakashi watched as Iruka almost slumped there, looking abruptly tired and more than a little unhappy. Kakashi kept his gaze on him steady, his will focused.

"There was… another infiltration." The teacher glanced sidelong at him, more than a trace of anxious worry there. "They went straight for…" He paused, rubbing at the bridge of his nose as he considered his own thoughts a moment, but then forged on, clearly having made a decision of his own that likely went against someone else's advice. "The apartment building where Naruto's rooms are was destroyed by an unknown earth-jutsu. Several shinobi were badly wounded in the attempt to contain it before the Godaime could arrive. Somehow she managed to stop it before it spread too far through the city..."

Iruka fell silent, his expression grave. Alarm surged through Kakashi even though he knew that Jiraiya had taken Naruto far outside Konoha to train. He now fully appreciated the sennin's foresight regarding that matter. Naruto was safe enough on the move: the old lecher was canny that way. If something had happened to Naruto himself rather than just his apartment, he knew Iruka-sensei would not have been able to remain this calm. Yet still, he realized, the chuunin had managed to mask these deep concerns from him until now. Iruka was a far better shinobi than he had previously given him credit to be. Keeping things hidden underneath… His own thoughts raced from possibility to possiblity. So many plots and schemes in motion… so many enemies… circling like wolves… waiting for Konoha to stumble…

But there was nothing he could do right now, he knew, forcing back sharp frustration by main will. Nothing except wait and let both his body and his chakra heal at their own pace. He could be as patient as stone when necessary, but events were pushing him hard now, taxing that patience. He needed to be mobile soon. Jiraiya would have to be warned that Akatsuki was apparently moving far sooner than they had anticipated. And, frankly, there were none left free in Konoha who could track the sennin like he could. Yet he had to rest, or ruin himself utterly.

Shinobi had suffered. Jounin were taking double missions to cover for him, already dangerously weary. More mistakes would be made. Naruto's only home had been destroyed, and now Iruka-sensei feared more for the boy's safety. And he was stuck here… sleeping.

Frustration flared as failure loomed. Again he would let down those he cared about… friends… fellow jounin… all of Konoha… He had to recover faster. To regain his strength without hesitation. Become, once more, the deadly, precise weapon that Konoha needed most. Soon.

And the Sharingan had already shown him what could be used to reach that goal.

"Iruka-sensei," he said, sobered. The dark, troubled gaze rose to meet his, was caught and held. "Since I am confined to this apartment, I must ask you to inform the Godaime that I wish to speak with her regarding my condition."

"Tonight?" Iruka asked sharply, apparently startled by the abruptness of his request.

"Yes, sensei." He met Iruka's doubtful look steadily, all pretense abandoned. "If I promise most humbly to behave, and not kill myself stupidly while you are gone, can you go now?"

The other's gaze searched his, at first warily, then uneasily, until the teacher finally nodded, his face flushing slightly, his brows drawn into a faint frown. "Y-yes, Kakashi-san, of course," he murmured, rising hastily to his feet. The chuunin moved his hands quickly through the seals of transference and disappeared in a small swirl of smoke.

Alone, Kakashi settled down under the blankets. An empty silence filled the room. Taut and unpleasant. After a moment, he drew the blankets up over his nose, granting himself the small comfort familiar concealment gave him -- now that there was no one present to witness his weakness. Then he sighed deeply and closed his eyes to wait.