Iruka twisted and landed hard, jarring his feet. There wasn’t time to worry about that, though – he let himself fall from the branch, using his body weight to assist his descent, avoiding the barrage of needle-sharp kunai coming directly for his face. Still, one caught him on the shoulder, ripping into his flak vest and sending small droplets of blood spraying into the air. Iruka could feel the warm stickiness of blood dripping down his cheekbone and he wiped it away with the back of his hand.
“OI! Konoha! Stop hiding and fight like a man!”
The seemingly disembodied voice floated through the trees. Iruka blocked out the biting pain in his shoulder and attempted to pinpoint the source of the mocking voice, but it seemed to come from all directions.
Dammit, I need to deliver this scroll; I don’t have time to play games with a bored missing-nin.
After Iruka officially failed his mission to keep Naruto on Turtle Island, Tsunade had generously allowed Iruka to redeem himself – by delivering a particularly sensitive message to the front lines. Iruka wasn’t actually sure there was anything generous involved in Tsunade’s decision to use him; after all, he had no classes to teach while the war raged. But, he was still a capable shinobi and the Joint Shinobi Army needed every person it could get at the moment.
Another set of kunai thudded into the tree beside Iruka with a dull thunk, drawing his attention fully back to the matter at hand. Apparently, missing nin didn’t care about the war against Akatsuki and Madara. If anything, it was inevitable that certain unsavory elements of the shinobi population would use the war as a golden opportunity to get ahead.
Iruka let a few kunai loose in two different directions, listening carefully for telltale signs of having flushed his nemesis from the undergrowth. Ignoring the ache in his shoulder, he leapt back into the trees, hopping backward from branch to branch, scanning the area. Come on, Iruka, you are in your element; you’re in the trees. How many times have you gone through this self-same exercise with your pre-genin classes? This is basically hide and seek – use your knowledge, he chided himself.
He could almost feel Tsunade’s scroll burning a hole through the left pocket of his vest, nestled near his heart. This scroll was his redemption; his opportunity to prove he hadn’t failed Konoha or the Joint Shinobi forces. He didn’t know what the missive contained, but whatever it was, it was important enough to not be trusted to one of the messenger birds Konoha usually used. Tsunade had also said that the information was time sensitive and that it was imperative the information reach the Third Division.
Iruka leapt to the side once more. A flash of fast-moving green caught his eye – no more than a blur and he managed to avoid a hastily thrown exploding tag. Lethal slivers of bark and wood exploded around him and he pushed off the disintegrating branch, one arm over his eyes to shield his face from the shrapnel and the searing heat of the explosion. As he landed, Iruka felt something grab his ankle. Confused, he looked down to see a white hand, extended from the branch, fingers clenched tightly around his ankle. Iruka immediately felt a drain on his chakra, making him lightheaded and his vision start to swim dangerously. The hand became a blur as the dizziness took hold. Is this some kind of enemy jutsu I’ve not encountered before? he wondered, before stabbing down with a kunai, dislodging the hand from around his ankle.
Laughter echoed around the forest. “Oi, Konoha? Come out and play, little chuunin!”
Iruka was getting mightily sick of the taunting voice. He had a job to do, and he was damn well going to do it, missing-nin or not. Iruka stood up on the branch and pulled his tanto free of its bindings at the bottom of his vest.
Kakashi was still wound up tightly, his nerves on edge. As he’d said earlier on the battlefield, his boiling-point had never been so low. Going on a rampage with Zabuza’s sword had helped somewhat. Once his division had finished sealing their enemies, they’d retreated back into the forest to regroup overnight. Tents had been set up, one for the medical unit and one for Kakashi. Kakashi hated the idea of having a tent; it went against many years of training instilled into him by his teachers, the Yondaime, and his own experiences. He was a shinobi; one simply didn’t set up a big white tent and say ‘Here I am! Come and get me!’ No, quite the contrary; a shinobi operated in the shadows and being this visible to an as-yet unknown enemy made him antsy.
Edo Tensei – the Impure World Resurrection. Kakashi ran the words through his mind over and over again. What enemy would use such a horrific jutsu? Well, one enemy in particular came to mind – Orochimaru – but he was dead, killed by Konoha’s other traitor, Uchiha Sasuke. Kakashi had sent a messenger bird to headquarters as soon as the division had set up camp, detailing the battle and the appearance of not only Zabuza and Haku, but also the Seven Swordsmen of the Mist. Kakashi had his suspicions who was behind the Edo Tensei, but until he received proof from one of the other divisions it couldn’t be confirmed.
Paperwork, paperwork. How does an army generate so much paperwork in such a short time – and why the hell am I sorting through it? Kakashi dropped a scroll onto the table and sighed. He needed to calm down, to think clearly and formulate a plan of action for the next day. The division needed to rest and then at first light move out. He needed to be at least three steps ahead of the enemy and also any jutsu Madara could throw at them.
A slight rustling on Kakashi’s blind side drew his attention and he turned, letting loose a handful of kunai mainly out of well-honed instinct. Before his would-be assassin could strike, Kakashi had slit his opponent’s throat with his remaining kunai. It took Kakashi precious seconds for his adrenaline-stoked haze to recede somewhat and when it did, Kakashi’s one visible eye widened in horror.
Before him, clutching his throat with one hand to stall the bleeding stood Umino Iruka, brown eyes wide with surprise and his lips slightly parted as though he was trying to speak. Kakashi stood frozen to the spot, a wealth of questions unspoken, and his mind whirling.
Iruka smiled and the short tanto blade in his hand dropped to the ground, sliding from death-numbed fingers.
“Why?” Kakashi bit out before he could stop himself. The comment was so unlike him; he was usually so stoic, hard to crack, almost impossible to break, as many nin had found out in the past. This particular treachery however was too close to home, this was the one person Kakashi could not, would not believe could betray the Joint Shinobi Forces.
Iruka couldn’t have answered Kakashi if he wanted to; he dropped his hand from his throat, revealing a gaping wound that matched the scar across his cheekbones and nose. Those dark brown eyes rolled up into Iruka’s head and he slumped to the floor.
It took Kakashi precious seconds to realize the body wasn’t bleeding like a human should. It was bleeding, but instead of blood the wound seeped slowly with a thick white liquid. Kakashi clutched the kunai tightly in his fist and crouched over the body, holding the kunai point downward above the things chest. Not Iruka’s chest, he reminded himself. This wasn’t Naruto’s sensei, the man he’d spent a good number of hours trying to get a rise out of simply because he enjoyed watching the chuunin blush, or get irritated. This thing was something else, masquerading as Iruka-sensei. Hell, it even had Iruka’s chakra patterns: it felt like Iruka, it even smiled like Iruka – or it did, before Kakashi had slit its throat.
The viscous white liquid continued to seep like blood from the wound in its throat. Kakashi watched its chest rise and fall rapidly, and noted in a detached manner that the thing seemed scared of him, perhaps even shocked that Kakashi had lashed out like he did. After a moment the thing gave a shuddering sigh and then it began to transform, seeming almost to melt, its features changing from those of Iruka’s to something else. Its skin changed from Iruka’s sun-kissed tan to bleached white, like old driftwood. Iruka’s shinobi uniform disappeared, revealing a zigzag pattern on the thing’s bare stomach and small spikes grew out of its shoulders.
Zetsu. It suddenly clicked into place for Kakashi and he didn’t even pause, just stabbed downward violently with the kunai, right into the thing’s heart. Kakashi was not taking chances with a member of Akatsuki. He was puzzled however; Zetsu looked different this time. Where is its black half? Zetsu gave a small sigh, as though of regret, and stopped breathing altogether.
Kakashi echoed the Zetsu’s sigh, but his was of relief, not regret. He hadn’t killed Iruka-sensei. Kakashi was surprised to realize how much that death would have weighed on his soul. He shoved that surprising revelation away for the moment and focused on other things, things he could deal with at the moment. The major question being, why did the white Zetsu have Iruka’s shape and his chakra? How was that possible? Kakashi needed to get a message to headquarters immediately; both to warn them and to try to find out if anyone else had encountered more of these beings. Kakashi couldn’t imagine that the original Zetsu would sacrifice his white side just to kill Kakashi – that didn’t make sound tactical sense. The white Zetsu had to be a clone, which meant there were possibly more of them, and even worse, possibly some that still looked like Umino Iruka.
Once he’d sent a message to headquarters, Kakashi decided, he’d send out search parties to scout ahead for any other possible Iruka- clones that might be in the area. This was war and Kakashi didn’t have the time or the inclination to play it safe.
Iruka could feel the weight of the tanto strapped to his lower back as he moved through the trees. He’d just killed a man, and the weight of that settled on his soul and translated through the tanto, making it feel heavier. Iruka knew the psychological weight was all in his mind, it was his way of dealing with the outcome of ‘kill or be killed’; the shinobi way. The fight had used up a lot of his chakra and Iruka picked his way carefully through the tree canopy, glancing left to right. He couldn’t afford another distraction – it was getting dark and Iruka needed to reach the Third Division before night fell properly. Tsunade had provided Iruka with a rough idea of the last known location of the division and now Iruka was working on instinct and what he knew of shinobi in order to track them down.
By nature, shinobi kept to the shadows and the first thing they learned was to camouflage themselves and their intent. Even now Iruka was doing just that, using the deepening shadows to cloak his movements. The sound of his passing was lost to the myriad small sounds of nocturnal animals foraging and hunting below. It seemed strange to be searching for a large army – a visible force, one that was not trying to blend in with its surroundings.
Iruka knew he should have found the Third Division by now. Shinobi could move fast, but they would have had a backup support unit with them, slowing them down. His neck began to prickle with unease; the small hairs at the base of his neck standing on end in warning. Iruka dove to the side and dropped down to a lower branch, avoiding the ninja that had suddenly appeared before him. Iruka’s mind noted the ‘shinobi’ symbol on his headband and breathed a sigh of relief. This wasn’t a missing-nin; simply a scout for the division.
He stopped, dropping fully to the ground. More ninja appeared around him, forming a loose circle around him. “State your intent.” One large shinobi with shorn red hair approached Iruka.
Despite the wound in his shoulder, and his fatigue, Iruka was relieved to finally find the division. Wearily he pulled himself upright and stood to attention. “Umino Iruka. I have a message from the Hokage for General Hatake Kakashi.”
“Sure you do.” The ninja scowled and placed on hand on his katana. “Are you going to have a second attempt at completing your mission since you failed the first time?”
“I’m sorry?” Iruka paused and risked a frown. What was the man talking about? Failed the first time? Failed what? “I don’t understand.”
The man grinned unpleasantly. “Well then, you won’t mind coming with us, will you?” Although framed as a request, it was clear that Iruka was not supposed to resist. A small thread of doubt began to cloud Iruka’s thoughts. Was this a group of ninja that had defected? Were they missing-nin disguised as part of the army? Could he afford to gamble and go with this group, knowing that he had his mission to complete and Tsunade’s scroll?
Decision made, Iruka took a step forward, intending to break free of the ambush, only to find he couldn’t move. His muscles fought to obey his command but he was effectively pinned into place. Shadow Imitation Technique, Iruka’s brain helpfully supplied. One of the group must be a Nara, although Iruka couldn’t move his head to confirm his thoughts. This knowledge alone was enough for Iruka; he’d taught Shikamaru and trusted the Nara as a family. Any dealings the Nara clan were part of must therefore be legitimate. Iruka would stake his life on that fact.
“I’ll come with you,” Iruka said slowly, consciously relaxing his posture so as not to appear any more of a threat. He waited patiently while he was liberated of his tanto blade and his weapons. They were thorough; unusually so – removing his shirt and vest, shoes and leg-bindings, as well as his hitai-ite and untying his hair. It fell messily around Iruka’s face and he resisted the urge to shake his hair out of his face. He felt fingers running though his hair, searching for senbon. This is standard practice against suspected assassins, Iruka thought as they tied his hands tightly behind his back with chakra rope, binding his fingers so he couldn’t form seals. What the hell’s happened in the last few days to warrant so much suspicion?
“Let’s go.” The redhead signaled to the group once they had Iruka restrained. The Shadow Imitation Technique was released and Iruka could once again move. He glanced back, taking note of the group of unfriendly, blank faces surrounding him, none of which he recognized.
The group moved off at a walk, so Iruka knew the camp couldn’t be far away. He tried not to tense up when one of the ninjas grabbed him by the arm in a vice-like grip, but it was hard work trying to restrain years of carefully cultivated survival instincts. On top of that, the skin around Iruka’s wrists itched where the foreign chakra bound the rope around his wrists. It was a heavy, invasive chakra; rock-nin if Iruka had to guess. The shinobi who had tied his wrists was heavy-handed and Iruka had to make a conscious effort not to fidget in his bonds.
He began to wonder where they were taking him – he could see no visible sign of the army that should have numbered in the thousands. However, just because Iruka couldn’t see them didn’t mean they weren’t there. Something had definitely happened, Iruka decided – something that warranted extreme measures in order to protect the division. He pushed out with his chakra, earning a vicious warning shake from the ninja who was holding his arm. That brief second was more than enough time for Iruka to pick up faint chakra traces though – enough to confirm that the division had dampened their chakra as a whole so that it was negligible unless you were almost on top of them. Hmm, interesting, and yet slightly worrying.
After ten minutes of walking, Iruka was surprised to find the way ahead open into a small clearing, which held a tent – a large tent, big enough to act as general headquarters for the division. Kakashi-san is going to hate that, Iruka thought with an internal smile. He wondered who’d managed to convince Kakashi to use it, and pitied them for a moment.
Iruka’s train of thought was curtailed abruptly when he was shoved through the opening of the tent. After the darkness the lamplight was bright and Iruka blinked furiously as his vision tried to adapt to the change. The air inside felt close and charged but before he could put more of an impression together his knees buckled as his captor kicked him none-too-gently in the back of the knees. Iruka dropped to the ground with a grunt, only narrowly avoiding a full face-plant because the bastard gripping his arm hadn’t let go.
“I see you found another one?”
Iruka looked up in relief at the familiar tone. That relief quickly changed to concern when he met Kakashi’s gaze and he had to force himself not to look away from the barely concealed rage written across the visible part of Kakashi’s face.
“Kakashi-san, this is ridiculous! Please untie me at once.” Iruka couldn’t help the outburst and regretted it almost as soon as he’d spoken.
“Oh?” Kakashi’s tone sounded interested, but Iruka had dealt with the jounin enough in the past to recognize the thinly-veiled threat behind the casual tone. “Ridiculous, is it?” Kakashi crouched in front of Iruka so that they were eye-level. “Tell me, Iruka-sensei, would it be ridiculous to take extreme measures when someone has just attempted to assassinate you? What would you teach your class – that I should not take such a threat seriously in the middle of a war?”
“Of course not.” Iruka looked away, acknowledging the truth of Kakashi’s words. If he stepped back and viewed the situation objectively, he would have taken the very same precautions himself. It was just a hard lesson to deal with when you were the suspected assassin and the brunt of those countermeasures and suspicion.
Iruka took a calming, deep breath and looked up to meet Kakashi’s gaze. “Why do you suspect me of trying to assassinate you? I’ve come straight from the Hokage with a scroll for your attention. It’s time-sensitive information, or so I was informed.”
“First things first – if you are who you say you are.” Kakashi stood up. “Where is this scroll?”
“In my vest, the left pocket. For your eyes only, as per Tsunade-sama’s instructions.” Iruka watched as Kakashi took Iruka’s vest from one of the group that had brought him in and removed the scroll, unfurling it and reading it intently. He placed the scroll on the low table in the center of the room and stepped outside for a moment. Iruka was left alone to deal with the suspicious stares that seemed to bore into him. He swallowed hard and dropped his gaze, staring between his knees at the ground, trying not to think too hard about what might happen to him should they deem him a traitor. This was a war; by its very nature, war did not make time for things like tribunals and military courts. If he was found to be a traitor, regardless of his innocence or not, Iruka might find his remaining time to be rather short. It was a sobering, horrifying thought.
Iruka heard the heavy weight of the tent flap rustle behind him, and then Kakashi returned to his previous position directly in front of Iruka, his business with the scroll apparently dealt with. Kakashi’s gaze sharpened and he appeared to be considering Iruka for a moment, probably weighing up his options.
“General, we need to verify this man is actually who he says he is, and as soon as possible. If he is the enemy, the longer we keep him here, the more information he can gather to take back to Akatsuki.”
Iruka turned his head toward the speaker. It was the rock-nin who’d bound his wrists earlier; a short, stocky individual with braided brown hair, wearing a light brown vest. Iruka clenched his fists, still feeling that invasive chakra prickling over his skin. The rock-nin sneered at him, obviously aware of Iruka’s discomfort.
“Wait – Akatsuki?” Iruka’s brain finally caught up with the conversation. “You think I’m an Akatsuki spy?”
“Prove you are not, sensei.” Kakashi appeared to consider Iruka further, rather like someone would view an interesting bug.
“Can’t you use your sharingan?” Iruka was mostly ignorant to the why’s and wherefore’s of how the sharingan worked – he only had his old memories of past Uchiha clan members to base his reasoning on, and of course the Konoha gossip vine. How they had all loved to gossip about the true abilities of the Copy-nin’s sharingan; it had filled many a boring hour in the mission room in between accepting reports.
Kakashi’s eye crinkled up into an arch. Iruka was not fooled for a moment; the more Kakashi smiled with his visible eye, the less sincere he was being. Iruka began to suspect he might be in serious trouble unless this was resolved quickly.
“No, sensei, my sharingan can’t pick up on a fake chakra pattern when it’s identical to the original person’s chakra.”
Kakashi crouched down again in front of Iruka, uncomfortably close. Iruka resisted the urge to shift backward – or toward Kakashi. Even though he was in danger, Iruka still found his body responding to Kakashi’s proximity. It was disturbing considering the situation.
Iruka blinked up into Kakashi’s eye and tried to focus. “I’m sorry, Kakashi-san. You were talking about fake chakra signatures.”
“Someone who looked like you attempted to assassinate the General earlier on this evening.” It was the rock-nin again. The man wandered around until he was in Iruka’s line of sight. Iruka was relieved; he didn’t have to strain to see the speaker any longer. However the bare skin on his back still prickled from the other chakra signals behind and to the side of him – the other shinobi that had brought him in. Standard interrogation technique, Iruka’s mind parroted. Designed to keep the subject constantly off-kilter, not knowing who is behind them, who is in a position to strike with a weapon, or words.
“The assassin looked like me?”
“Hn,” Kakashi affirmed. “However I was faster. I took him down before I even had time to register it wore your face.”
Iruka swallowed, his mind playing that scene over before he could stop himself. “How did you know it wasn’t me?”
“Oh.” But you killed him anyway. Iruka didn’t have to meet Kakashi’s gaze this time to know the unspoken answer to that.
“My reaction was pure instinct.”
“Well, that’s comforting.” Iruka couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of his voice.
Kakashi shifted in front of Iruka, drawing Iruka’s attention back to the matter at hand. “Once the assassin was dead, it was clear he was a white Zetsu.”
Iruka drew in a sudden breath, things suddenly clicking into place. “I saw one – earlier.”
“Oh?” Kakashi cocked his head to one side.
Iruka ignored the shifting of one of his guards just behind him, focusing on his memories of the fight with the missing-nin. “On my way here, I ran into a missing-nin. During the fight, I felt something grab my ankle – all I could see was a white hand – and my chakra began to drain. I stabbed a kunai into the hand, thinking it was some sort of strange jutsu the missing-nin was using, and continued the fight.”
“It’s possible.” One of Iruka’s captors spoke up – possibly the Nara that Iruka didn’t recognize. “Since the attempt on your life General Kakashi, we’ve had reports from the other divisions that the white Zetsu can use what they call a Substitute Technique – if they touch someone they can copy that person and their chakra. If Iruka-sensei is telling the truth, it’s possible that’s what happened. The Zetsu Umino-san encountered may have travelled here afterward to attempt your assassination. A couple of the other divisions report they have been having a hell of a time telling friend from foe. It’s created a lot of fear within the ranks.”
“It sounds too easy.” The rock-nin again. Iruka decided he really didn’t like the man.
“Sometimes the simplest explanation is the only one.” Kakashi stared at Iruka, considering. “I have a better way of solving the problem, however.”
Iruka started when Kakashi reached into the pouch strapped at his thigh and drew out a kunai. The sound of the sharp metal sliding against the other kunai in the pouch had Iruka’s blood run suddenly cold and he licked his lips nervously. This close he noted that Kakashi was smiling underneath the mask. It was disturbing to say the least.
“Are you going to kill me again, Kakashi-san?” Iruka bit out. I will not show fear, I will not. I am innocent.
“Not yet, sensei.” That smile again. “One thing I did note about the white Zetsu is that they bleed differently than a human does. Zetsu is basically a plant – and the white Zetsu bleed like one.” Kakashi paused and appeared to be thinking. “I’m reminded of a Narcissus; when you break the steam they bleed a thick, white puss that looks like congealed blood.”
Iruka grimaced at the description. “I’m hardly Narcissus, content to spend hours watching my reflection in a forest pool. Please hurry up and do whatever it is you intend to.”
Kakashi did laugh properly that time, although it was strained and tense. “Now you sound more like Naruto’s favorite sensei.”
Iruka wouldn’t let himself succumb to the relief he felt at hearing that comment. That sounded much more like the lazy, at ease jounin he was used to dealing with. However before he could be exonerated, there was a small matter of paying with some blood, apparently.
Kakashi twirled the kunai on one finger, before clasping it in his palm. “Ready, sensei?”
Iruka twisted his wrists in his bindings, ignoring the shifting of his guards. Finally he nodded.
“This is probably going to hurt,” Kakashi said as an aside, before placing the sharp kunai against Iruka’s bare skin, just below his collarbone.
“Did anyone ever tell you that you have a terrible bedside manner, Kakashi-san?”
“Hmm, no. But you can chastise me later, Iruka-sensei.” Kakashi reached out and loosely rested his hand along the side of Iruka’s neck, holding him still. His touch was firm and absolute, the weight of his hand holding Iruka in place more completely than any spoken command could.
Iruka froze at Kakashi’s touch. All the forced humor left him and his mind and body focused solely on the point where cold metal touched the skin just below his collarbone. His skin felt hyper-sensitive suddenly and Iruka knew that any touch right now would probably make him flinch. He wanted to turn away, he wanted to say, why the hell couldn’t you do this on my arm? but realized that would require him being untied, which until his innocence was proven was not going to happen. At least it wasn’t his neck, Iruka decided. Without warning Kakashi drew the blade steadily downward, pressing in. Of course Kakashi wasn’t going to deal him a shallow graze with the knife; Kakashi was obviously aiming for irrefutable proof, and besides Iruka told himself, he was a ninja and could cope with a little pain if it meant keeping his life.
He kept telling himself that as he forced his body to not react to the sharp pain of the blade parting his skin. He felt his own hot blood well from the wound and run freely over his pectoral and down his chest. He bit his lip and refused to make a sound, instead turning his head away from the blade, until he could feel Kakashi’s hand resting against his jaw and neck, holding him still. He felt Kakashi’s thumb stroke across his neck, just below his ear.
The pressure from the kunai was suddenly released and Kakashi drew back slightly. Iruka unclenched his fists, not realizing he’d been digging his blunt nails into his palms. That pain was almost worse than the wound from the kunai.
“Congratulations, you passed!”
Iruka glared at Kakashi, who was smiling like an idiot. He watched as Kakashi thrust the point of the kunai into the ground. It sunk in about three inches, making Iruka uncomfortably aware that Kakashi could have dealt out a lot more damage if he’d been so inclined.
Continued in next chapter..