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The Mirror Wheel Eye

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Iruka saw his first execution barely a year after the Kyuubi.

Back then, Iruka's jounin-sensei had been a real jounin, before the Uchiha’s bloody end had halved the village's already decimated jounin roster, before the Academy program had grown ever more desperate and inventive.

The day was sunny and too bright, everyone sweating on the bare concrete of the tower roof. The boom and groan of construction sounded in the street below, and clouds of fine dust shifted in the breeze. Iruka leaned past Mizuki until Tsume-sensei’s hand closed on his shoulder.

His genin teammate, Uchiha Kikka, stood unsteadily with her family, bandages wrapped around her head and her skin translucently pale. The whole Uchiha clan had arrayed behind her, a crowd of dark crows with bloody red crests. Iruka tried to catch her eye -- the one she had left -- and smile, but she wasn't looking at her genin team.

The condemned man knelt in the center of the square. He was one of those ginger-haired branch family Yamanaka, his limbs secured all the way down to his fingers and toes. Iruka didn't like looking at the paper seals over his eyes and mouth. They made him shiver in vicarious claustrophobia.

The council and the Hokage sat on field stools in front of the condemned. The banners of Konoha, the Sarutobi, the Senju, and the Uchiha fluttered in the breeze behind them.

“Yamanaka Aoto,” said the Hokage, “you are sentenced to death for the theft of biological secrets, for irreparable damage done to a child of this village, and for the attempted sale of those secrets to Hidden Mist.”

One of the council members stood, an old man in a rich kimono, wearing a shawl even in the heat. His dark eyes squinted in the sun, but they were sharp on the condemned man’s face. With a twist of his hand, he withdrew a long blade of watered steel from inside his cane.

On any other day, the sword cane would have delighted Iruka with its subterfuge. Today, his world narrowed to the blinding sun reflected along the steel. Everything faded except the flashing sword like Iruka had retreated into a well of himself, glimpsing the world through a tiny window at the top. He'd never seen a person kill a person. Murder was something done by mountain sized monsters whose fur crackled with lightning. He didn't want to fail this test by looking away or flinching -- or worse, crying.

Iruka's hitae-ate slipped down his forehead. It was clean but askew. Tsume-sensei didn't bother with the details of his appearance the way Yoshino-sensei would in a few years, after Kikka died on Itachi’s blade with the rest of her clan and Tsume-sensei returned to active duty.

Iruka still thought he could be ANBU like his mother and that days like this were preparing him for duty as a shinobi. He didn't know yet how much of his life Konoha would spend wondering what exactly they ought to do with him.

The old man offered his sword across his open palms with ritual grace. A wire thin ninja in combat uniform stepped forward. He had one eye covered just like Kikka, only not with bandages, and his hair was almost white in the brutal sun.

A hissing went up among the Uchiha. Kikka disappeared into her family, absorbed into raven-colored quicksand. “Oh --” Mizuki started, as always encyclopedic in his knowledge of Konoha's active rosters. Tsume-sensei’s hand dug violently into their shoulders silencing them, but not before Iruka noticed the jounin commander take a small step to the side, just enough to put himself between the executioner and the Hokage.

The blade came down with a teapot whistle and a white flash like molten steel.

Iruka shut his eyes.

**

Eight years after the Kyuubi, Hatake Kakashi held Konoha's only active sharingan, and everyone knew who he was, not just obsessive combat statisticians like Mizuki. Iruka still wasn't ANBU, and Konoha was perennially under construction, trying ineffectively to erase the footprints of three wars and a demon fox.

Winter winds blew loose snow in biting gusts up the street. Iruka turned his collar up and pressed his fingers together in the salamander seal. Two slow, easy breaths pushed warm abdominal chakra to his fingers and toes and flushed his cheeks a healthy pink.

Behind him, sun-bleached ropes blocked off the old Academy building. The barrier had been there since before Iruka had joined his first genin team: swinging gently in the wind, drooping in the snow, fading in the sun. The building itself stood askew. For eight years, it had been slowly caving in around a hole in the roof the same size as a demon fox’s paw. They’d fix it one day. Probably.

Iruka stood in front of the only gate that wasn't roped off, a well worn path leading to the Academy’s rickety but functional annex. He was waiting for Izumo.

For the last eight years, the annex had housed Konoha’s much reduced Academy programs. Administration had scraped together temporary postings for Iruka and Izumo here -- just until mission assignments picked up again. Soon, they promised. Konoha was getting stronger every day.

Hasty footsteps beat against the half-frozen dirt. Izumo, looking skinnier and more undersized than usual in his cousin’s hand-me-down uniform, called out, “Iruka! Iruka, did you see them?”

Iruka’s grin was weak but real. He had. He’d stopped to gawk with the rest of the crowded street when the three cloaked figures had passed overhead, white avian masks over their faces and hoods over their hair. He’d watched frozen until they’d disappeared behind a tall chimney stack and failed to reappear on the other side.

ANBU, the elite of the elite. Konoha’s greatest protectors and the Hokage’s loyal agents. Even in the middle of a half-ruined village, Iruka’s heart had swelled to see them. Someday, he would find a way demonstrate his loyalty as fiercely as they did. Even if it didn't look that way right now, what with mission administration apparently determined to reject his applications for solo B-class mission credentials.

“Maybe they found something in one of the empty sectors,” Izumo mused dreamily. “Like a forgotten, secret clan jutsu.”

Iruka laughed. Izumo shrugged with a self-conscious grin, following Iruka into the annex.

They had an hour until the senior instructors rolled in, the Under-12s with Iruka, Under-8s with Izumo, and Iruka was infamous for making the handover as difficult as possible. If there had been anyone else available, Iruka probably wouldn't have a job.

He watched an Akimichi leave a streak of blue paint across a bench and smiled with satisfaction at the chaos level -- this was where Administration thought he was supposed to be, huh? -- but he felt guilty too. When Iruka had been a pre-genin, the Academy program had been in shambles, too many teachers called off to war. It made sense that he’d been ignored and forgotten in school. These kids shouldn’t be.

The next time he looked up, there were ninja in the doorway.

Iruka signed: monkey, mouse, snake, letting the seals shape his chakra and cast it out like a net. The classroom went silent. The kids’ still talked, paint supplies still bounced against the desks, but none of it made any sound.

Even though they couldn’t make a sound, the kids didn't stop talking, heads swiveling curiously towards the door. A good number of them had the training and practice at home to read lips, and they had all had a basic introduction to field signs. The only person who didn't react was the deaf Inuzuka in the back who only looked up when he felt his nin puppy's cold nose against his elbow.

“Please be respectful of our guests,” Iruka signed at the class.

The ninja at the door wore field blacks and vests with pockets stuffed full, scrolls and tags ready for immediate use. The metal plates of their combat gloves glinted dully in the slanting morning light, scratched from a long history of impact. Iruka thought he'd seen the woman at the tower, one of those terrifying shinobi that didn't always bother covering her ANBU tattoo. He tried not to stare. It wasn't like he'd be able to tell by build if she'd been one of the operatives he'd seen that morning; those ANBU had been wearing hoods and baggy cloaks.

The kunoichi lifted a hand and then brought it down, a puzzled expression on her face.

She must have intended to cut the silence jutsu but she didn’t know that Iruka was holding the chakra thread that tied it all together in the palm of his hand. She probably wished Iruka hadn't made such a production, which meant she didn't know how greedy children were for interesting interruptions. She thought the kids wouldn’t be gawking if Iruka hadn’t cast his jutsu.

“Uh, just you, please, sensei,” the woman said, and she looked relieved to be heard. Iruka had aimed the jutsu at the classroom only.

The second ninja wore his face nearly covered, just one black eye peeking out. He was skinny enough to be young or very old, and the white hair could go either way in a ninja village. He was leaning too close to the door frame, frowning at the wood in front of his nose, bony elbows jutting out and hands in his pockets.

Iruka gave him a startled look as he came into the hall, hit with a sense memory of a hot rooftop and a flashing blade. Despite Sharingan no Kakashi's fame, Iruka had only seen him in distant glimpses since that day on the tower roof.

Iruka opened his hand and the cacophony of children came back into the world. One of them had been yelling continuously since the jutsu had gone into effect. She got two more beats out before her neighbor punched her in the arm. Iruka smiled at her. The kids knew Iruka liked it when they experimented. Well. Actually, they knew Iruka liked riling them up right before Senior Instructor Fujisawa-sensei walked in at ten. Iruka should probably work on that.

“Yugao,” the jounin tapped her chest and pointed at her partner, “and Kakashi. Internal security response team, A-class.”

An excited oooooh rippled through his kids, starting right from the other side of the doorway, meaning they'd sent a scout to eavesdrop and pass back information via sign. Iruka was proud but wished he’d left the jutsu on, considering the annoyed frown Yugao was shooting his classroom.

Iruka tried not to stare at Kakashi’s covered left eye. He had never seen a sharingan. Kikka’s hadn’t awoken yet when she'd been on Iruka's genin team, no matter how Iruka and Mizuki had pleaded with her to show them. After the attack that led to the rooftop execution, they’d stopped bothering her.

“Do you recognize all your students today?” Sharingan no Kakashi murmured. He would have sounded entirely disinterested except that he was making the effort to keep his voice low.

Iruka blinked at him stupidly. The last breach of Konoha security that had affected Iruka had been the Kyuubi.

“I think I do, but I’m new,” Iruka said. The three of them turned silently to look at the riotous landscape that was Iruka’s classroom. Iruka tried not to blush; he hadn't meant to bring field jounin into his skirmish with senior faculty. He couldn’t spot anyone unfamiliar, but then again, the kids were moving constantly.

Reflexively, he expanded his senses. Only years of training kept him from reacting audibly. Behind him, Yugao was a sharp, softly snapping buzz, but beside her -- nothing.

Hatake Kakashi wasn’t just quiet in Iruka’s senses; he was totally absent. Iruka turned to stare at him, needing to confirm Kansai had not been replaced by a wood block substitution jutsu. He forgot completely to evaluate his students’ chakra signatures.

Kakashi blinked back at him, bored, and Iruka flushed at being so overt.

How could Kakashi be that quiet when he had something like the sharingan to support? The control that demanded was stunning. Iruka would have said impossible.

“Maybe another class,” murmured the kunoichi. Her voice was almost swallowed up by the yelling and laughing. The kids kept looking their way, wide-eyed and giggling. The more precocious ones tried to hide their furtive glances behind over-enthusiastic bouts of painting.

“No,” the white-haired man said blandly, “this is the one to choose if you’re hiding.”

The two field nin gave Iruka their own embarrassingly direct once over: 19 years old, sunburned, and a chuunin vest stained more with paint than blood.

Iruka flushed. He wanted to say, This is my talent. I know what I’m doing with chaos! Only it did look more like a prank he’d play on an absent teacher than a real class.

“I’ll search the perimeter,” said Kakashi.

“I’ll stay here,” agreed the kunoichi -- reluctantly? Iruka wondered. Her body language was squared not to the classroom but to the Copy Nin.

Kakashi headed for the roof by way of the window. Iruka could tell he was climbing, not wall-walking by the way his body slipped slowly out of view from his chest to his waist to his knees. As he pulled himself up, he wedged his foot against the frame and --

Iruka’s eyes widened.

-- his foot slipped a little before finding its grip and disappearing out of view with the rest of him.

Iruka knew he was staring. All ninja at genin level learned to stick themselves to surfaces using chakra, up to and including liquid water. No shinobi should ever lose a foothold in a non-combat situation. For the Copy Ninja to do so, that was… it wasn’t even chuunin level.

What, Iruka thought.

**

Iruka left his shoes near the door, spotting Izumo and Anko’s in the pile. The electric kettle in the common room was already bubbling, so Iruka pulled out the teapot and tea canister before going to his room to change. Genma’s mix of clothes, weaponry, and comic books had been pushed into one corner, a folded futon peeking out from underneath. Iruka didn't know when he'd be back. Of all his friends, Genma never seemed to lack for mission assignments.

He stripped his uniform off, giving it a cautious sniff before draping it over the back of his desk chair to air out. Laundry tomorrow, he thought, pulling on a set of soft sweats from his small dresser. Back in the common room, Anko was standing at the counter watching Iruka’s tea steep, the hair flattened along one side of her head and her pajamas creased. Without opening her eyes, she poured the rest of the hot water into three instant noodle containers, pushing one towards Iruka.

Iruka sighed mournfully at his teapot. “You poured it in too hot.”

Anko glared at him blearily. “Buy cheaper tea.”

“It’s pretty cheap already,” Iruka admitted, pulling the cup noodle closer, one finger resting on the paper cover to keep the steam in. “Night shift?”

“Night shift,” Anko said and disappeared back into her room with her two noodle cups.

“Are you sharing that?” a gruff voice said. Iruka blinked, eyes darting around the empty room. He was used to the constant motion of other chakra presences in the dormitory, but he hadn’t noticed anyone come in.

Ah, there. It was coming from the floor.

Iruka raised an eyebrow at the wrinkly-faced pug behind him. Sitting quietly on the floor with its bulging eyes and drooping lips, it looked like the saddest dog Iruka had ever seen. And it was... almost as fully dressed as Iruka at the moment with a vest and a Konoha hitae-ate.

Based on the clothing -- and the speech -- Iruka was not surprised to sense a chakra presence from the dog equal to that of an adult shinobi. Iruka had met an animal summons a few times before, so he didn’t feel too stupid saying, “Um. Hello?”

“Hello,” the dog said impatiently in its rumbling old-man voice. “I said -- ”

“I heard,” Iruka said, “but this is my dinner. I can offer you some tea?”

“He doesn’t like tea.”

Iruka whipped around. Hatake Kakashi leaned over Iruka’s counter, still in his field uniform, lifting the lid of the teapot to peer inside. He looked up, that lazy, half-lidded eye staring into Iruka’s own. “Your water is too hot,” he said.

“It’s cheap so it doesn’t matter,” Iruka said, kneejerk. He blinked, feeling chakra buzzing at the edge of his senses -- not just from the pug ninken but from Kakashi himself. That eerie total absence of chakra that Iruka had sensed earlier was gone. In fact, Kakashi’s chakra felt the same as the dog’s.

Iruka couldn’t remember if the Sandaime and his monkey ninken had felt so similar. He had seen them together so soon after the Kyuubi that the fires had still been burning. He hadn’t cared about chakra.

“Then shouldn’t you make the most of what you have?” Kakashi had one of those tall, thin frames that always seemed to be folding to fit itself into human spaces. He held his weight propped on his forearms on the counter. They were almost the only bit of skin exposed on Kakashi’s whole body, lean and corded tightly with muscle. Iruka looked away, self-conscious.

“Can I help you, shinobi-san?”

“Mm, I had some questions.” Kakashi didn’t look at him, poking at the teapot lid like a shy pre-genin. “About the school.”

The dog jumped awkwardly onto the counter, claws clicking against the surface. He dropped a sheaf of photographs between them. They were pictures of the good luck seals carved into the school’s doorways and lintels. Photos of every seal in the building, it seemed like. Iruka remembered Kakashi frowning at the door frame.

“Did you find your target?” Iruka asked.

“No,” Kakashi said bluntly. “What’s the purpose of these?”

Iruka tried to see if there was anything else in the picture besides the seals. “Protection, I think? That one promotes health, and this other is supposed to counteract murderous intent.”

“Do they work?”

“Well, they would in theory. But they don’t have any chakra in them right now, so they’re really for… luck. Here.” Iruka dipped his finger in his tea and wrote the seal in the photograph onto the countertop. He took a deep breath, feeling his chest open up as chakra moved through it. His shoulders unknotted, his muscles relaxed. He pushed the chakra into the tea-formed kanji.

“Protection,” Iruka said, and then he frowned.

He didn't feel the buzzing on his skin he was expecting. He squinted at the fading kanji. In fact, it gave him a headache to look at. Maybe the tea wasn’t a good chakra medium.

Kakashi swiped a hand through it, destroying any sense of leftover chakra in the air. He looked curiously at his hand like he was annoyed to find it wet.

He slid the next, nearly identical photograph towards Iruka with his dry hand. “And these?”

“The same.”

Another photo. “These?”

“Protection against murderous intent and this one is… diligence? Kakashi-san, these are standard signs, and they’re on every door in the Academy.”

He got a blank look in return. Iruka wondered if Kakashi had ever been to the Academy before today. Iruka had been hearing stories about a transplanted sharingan since before -- since before the Kyuubi. During the war, clan children had sometimes skipped the Academy entirely.

Kakashi reached into his vest pocket, half pulling out a mission scroll. Iruka’s eyes widened at the seal -- A-class! “Yes, okay! I’m sorry. We can look at all of them.”

Baffled, Iruka let Kakashi flip through photos of doorways and windows, every place that had a lucky seal carved into it. Iruka’s attention drifted a few times as Kakashi stopped to stare intently at one photo or another. The dog had flopped over and gone to sleep next to a basket of fruit and tomatoes. It snored.

This wasn’t what Iruka would have guessed if Izumo had asked him last week to predict what the Copy Nin would be like: brusque, uncommunicative, and dull. But then, Iruka didn't know how to picture Hatake Kakashi without that white blade cutting down.

As Kakashi showed him more photos, Iruka started to notice that a part of the seals looked newer: the wood paler, the edges sharper, like someone recently had come in and changed them just a little bit. Actually the one that Iruka had been calling ‘protection’ didn’t quite say that anymore. “Oh, is that -- different? Did someone change it?”

Kakashi looked at him a long moment, his single eye studying Iruka’s face until Iruka started to feel, well, more uncomfortable than he already did. Kakashi said, “Did someone change it?”

“What? I don’t know. That’s why I -- do you know?”

Instead of answering, Kakashi swiped the photos back towards himself, patting them together into a neat little stack on top of a storage scroll. Iruka barely paid attention to that. He was more interested in the abrupt end of the interview than in Kakashi's storage technique -- it was about as unusual as zipping up your vest -- until Kakashi slid the scroll over to the sleeping dog and clicked his tongue impatiently.

The dog shook himself awake. “Whuh -- what now? Again?” He sighed. “Bringing honor and glory to my family, as always.” He slapped a paw onto the storage seal to activate. Iruka felt his face go carefully, politely blank. Kakashi didn’t make eye contact.

Kakashi quickly rolled up the now empty scroll, packed it back into his vest, and walked out the front door, pausing only to let his ninken waddle out ahead. The door even slammed audibly behind him.

Well, Iruka thought, he must be good. He’s too weird not to be.

**

When Iruka had been younger, adults had always wanted to talk to him about consequences. Their warnings slid off Iruka's back like water off a duck. He’d thought they meant something catastrophic, something that would end in death or maiming -- like dropping a flash-bang behind the wrong battle-twitchy jounin. As if Iruka didn't know what he was doing, as if he didn't think before he acted. Konoha’s streets still bore the imprints of fox feet, and the village needed someone like Iruka to be loud, to be happy, to make them forget.

These days, Iruka understood that the consequences they’d been taking about were more mundane. He’d never considered the slow accumulation of a dozen missed classes, a hundred little details laughed off, or the casual disrespect that had built up into a hardened patina between Iruka and authority. Iruka had the Sandaime’s love after all, and in Konoha, the Sandaime was king.

Not, it turned out, as much a king as Iruka had believed at age thirteen.

And now Iruka was assistant teaching and struggling to get his B-class credentials while his friends collected A class completions on their records. Genma had made tokubetsu jounin last year.

“He didn't say what they were looking for?” Izumo asked, stabbing at the burnt-on rice that he'd managed to weld to the pan.

“No,” Iruka said. “Just that they didn't find it.”

“Well, if the sharingan couldn't find it, there wasn't anything there.”

Iruka poked at his slightly blackened fried rice, frustrated. It felt like nothing in his life was working the way he'd expected, and the bitterness made it appealing to disagree on principle, especially if it meant thinking bad things of other people's lives too. “No one's ever seen his sharingan, you know. He only takes solo missions.”

“And he's, what, bluffing?” Izumo gave him a baffled look. He’d always been terrible at deception. “What for?”

"To frighten the other Kage, I guess.” Iruka said, because building on his hypothesis was sweeter than despairing about another rejected B-class status application. “We’re bottom rung these days. We used to be the village of the Senju and Uchiha, but now all we have is Hatake Kakashi. If he didn't have a sharingan, would we tell anyone?”

“The Sarutobi are Senju,” Izumo said, full of goodwill.

“Not really,” Iruka said, full of no goodwill at all. The Sarutobi certainly flew the Senju banner whenever they could. That was true.

“Iruka,” Izumo said, “they wouldn't let us stay in the school if it wasn't safe.”

Iruka pushed his plate away sharply. Izumo had graduated on time. He'd completed his chuunin exam with the same genin team he’d started with, and he’d only ever had one jounin-sensei. He didn't understand about people who slipped through the cracks.

“What are you going to do? Chase down Hatake Kakashi and ask him for an update?”

“Maybe,” Iruka said.

**

“Sensei,” Iruka said.

“Ah, Iruka,” said Yoshino, rubbing at a soap sud on her cheek with the back of her hand. The sun through the kitchen window was bright on her face. An ink painting of running deer hung on the wall, one of Iruka’s favorites. He’d spent so many afternoons looking at it whenever Yoshino-sensei had invited Team Yoshino -- Iruka, Hayate, and Anko -- over to stay.

She gave her young son a last rinse and pulled him out of the sink. The boy waited patiently as she wrapped him in a fluffy towel bigger than he was, slipping a kunai into his hand. Iruka kept a wary eye on that -- the elite clans were a whole different country when it came to child rearing -- but the boy just rolled over to the kotatsu and apparently went to sleep, bundled up like a well-armed terrycloth burrito.

That taken care of, Yoshino gave Iruka a politely expectant look. He’d been well trained to respond to that look. “Yoshino-sensei, I was wondering how you check on an active investigation?”

“A mission? Or an internal investigation?”

“They said internal security. I have my notes. It’s just that it’s at the school --”

“Your temporary position?” Yoshino always put an air of skepticism behind ‘temporary’ that made Iruka sigh. Iruka wanted to protect the village, not teach its children to finger-paint. She could at least pretend to believe in him.

“Yes,” Iruka said stiffly.

Yoshino stepped gracefully over her sleeping burrito child and leaned into the next room. “Husband, Iruka would like to help the investigation at the school.”

Water splashed. “Is it internal security? That’s not my area. Maybe someone at Intel HQ --” Shikaku appeared in the doorway, holding a razor, cheeks hidden behind white foam. “Do you know who the nin investigators were?”

“They said Yugao and -- ” Iruka stumbled self-consciously. It sounded a little unlikely when he was saying it to adults, not just bragging to his friends. “ -- uh, Hatake Kakashi.”

Shikaku jerked forward. A dollop of shaving cream landed on the floor. “Kakashi? Hatake Kakashi. On an internal security team?”

“Yes, that’s what he said -- ”

“White hair? Can’t see his face?”

“Yes,” Iruka said gratefully.

Shikaku pulled Iruka’s notebook from his hand, flipping it open and starting to sink to his knees before the kotatsu before jerking up and leaving the room. He held up a hand when Yoshino-sensei made to follow.

“Um,” Iruka said, wide-eyed. He was glad Shikaku believed him, but -- maybe Kakashi visiting the school was an even bigger deal than Izumo or Iruka had dared to speculate.

Iruka heard cursing, and then Shikaku was ducking back into the room. He waved the notebook back and forth a little, like he thought Iruka had forgotten. “Excuse me, Iruka. I need to borrow this.” He looked pleadingly at Yoshino. Yoshino turned patiently from her husband to Iruka, her expression expectant.

“Oh, uh, yes,” Iruka said. “Yes, that’s fine.”

Yoshino-sensei showed him politely out.

**

A few days later, Genma’s mission returned home loudly and with flare.

It was the sort of flare that took place at the hospital. Iruka found out because he was listed as Genma’s de facto emergency contact -- that is, as his roommate, Iruka was the person best able to bring him a clean change of clothes.

“Was it Mist?” Kotetsu shouted down the hall. Iruka was in the common bathroom with the door open, folding Genma’s toothbrush into the small bundle of clothing Iruka had pulled from Genma’s things.

“I don’t know!” Iruka shouted back before shoving a piece of toast in his mouth and running for the hospital.

Kotetsu’s mournful voice trailed after him: “I have money on this, Iruka.”

Iruka found himself in the doorway of a very crowded room, peering past medics and field ninja. There were more nin than just Genma’s team, which meant they had needed extraction. Worry curled in Iruka’s gut. He inched into the room, looking for Genma’s bandana and ruler straight hair.

Instead he found Kakashi, sitting on a cot closest to the door, his body language nonchalant as though he’d chosen it for the relaxing atmosphere. He had his face turned towards the window, one arm resting on a raised knee. He looked like he hadn’t even noticed the two medical ninja trying to close a gash in his side.

Wow, Iruka thought, that’s two non-solo missions in a week. Everyone knew Kakashi was a solo operative. Even other villages’ bingo books knew enough to identify him as a solo operative.

Iruka extended his senses tentatively, but there were so many people in the room actively using chakra, Iruka couldn’t tell if Kakashi’s chakra had gone silent again.

“Oh, you,” said a gruff voice by his feet.

“Hi,” Iruka said to the pug. The dog had mud on its vest and a spot of what might be blood.

“You’re here to see the boss?”

“No,” Iruka said, surprised. He hoped Sharingan no Kakashi rated better visitors than someone he’d once interrogated briefly.

“Oh,” said the pug. It looked at the floor and sniffed, wiggling its butt a little across the tile. Eventually, it said, “It’s alright. He’s not much fun to visit. Or talk to really.”

Iruka shot a baffled look at Kakashi who was still staring out the window. The medics had pushed him down flat on the bed and lifted one arm above his head and out of the way. Iruka couldn’t even tell if he was uncomfortable or unusually pale or anything except bored.

“Who’s that for then?” said the pug, looking at the bundle of clothes and a toothbrush Iruka was carrying.

“Genma. Shiranui Genma. Have you seen him?”

“Uh, Shiranui, huh,” said the pug uncertainly.

“Brown hair, bandana hitae-ate over his hair. About my height but skinnier?”

“Mm-hm,” said the pug, squinting.

Iruka moved his hands uselessly. Of course, a dog wouldn’t care about that. “He -- uses senbon?”

“Ah! Shiranui -- smells like flowers that are very bad for you.” The pug jumped up and wriggled into the crowd, fitting easily between people’s feet. Iruka hurried to follow him, bumping shoulders and eeling past carts of medical supplies.

He found Genma on the other side of the room, looking terrible but not as terrible as Iruka had been afraid of when he’d gotten the message to come to the hospital. He had the beginnings of an impressive black eye that seemed to cover most of his face, stitches at his temple, and a temporary splint around his ankle currently being adjusted by a medic.

“Your stuff,” Iruka said, smiling with relief as he dropped the clothes onto Genma’s lap. His field pants were definitely going to need stitching; the medics had cut them entirely away from his right leg. “Next time, you could mention in your note that you’re not dead.”

“Wouldn’t need clothes then.” Genma tried for a winning smile that turned into a wince.

“Funeral clothes,” Iruka said pragmatically.

Genma winced. “You're so cold these days. Remember when you used to be fun?”

Iruka put on his most unimpressed face. “Remember when the Konoha Orphan Fund used to pay all my bills, and none of my friends went on A-class missions?”

“Excuse me,” said the pug from down by Iruka’s ankle. “A lift?”

Iruka eyed the pug. “Didn’t I just see you jump on my counters yesterday?”

“I’d had dinner and a nap. Give me a break.”

Iruka bent down with a sigh. He didn’t really mind; it seemed a fair exchange for bringing him to Genma. Genma was leaning over the side of the bed trying to spot the source of such a deep, rumbly voice. The pug sounded like it smoked two packs a day.

“Hold still,” said the medic.

“Sorry,” Genma said, and then, “Uh,” when Iruka dropped the wrinkle-faced little dog next to his hip.

“Pakkun,” said the dog. “You’re Shiranui. Nice poisons. Didn’t kill any of the wrong people.”

“Thanks, I guess. Iruka, you get a summons?” The look on Genma’s face said he’d have some things to say about Iruka’s taste when they were alone.

“No, he’s not mine.” Iruka craned his neck, trying to spot Kakashi. “He’s -- “

“Umino!” Mizuki was there, uninjured and apparently medically released. “You have no idea what we just -- wow. This is good. This is good for you, Genma -- make sure you get that report in. We want our names on this.” He put a sympathetic hand on Iruka’s arm. Iruka boggled at him. “I’m sorry you didn’t get this one. It would have helped you, you know -- in your situation.”

“That’s alright,” Iruka said evenly. Nobody could turn ‘gracious winner’ sour as fast as Mizuki.

“Danger just rolls off of you, doesn’t it.” Genma was looking Mizuki up and down with annoyance.

Mizuki smiled thinly. “It’s all about battlefield awareness.”

Genma’s eyes narrowed. Iruka cut in quickly, “I’m glad you’re alright. What happened?”

“Well, we were tracking that Mist nin -- uh. Iruka, you brought a dog.”

“He’s not mine. He’s Kakashi’s,” Iruka said absently.

Genma jerked his bandaged foot, nearly levitating off the bed in his haste to get away. “Excuse me!” shouted the medic working on his foot. Mizuki jumped behind Iruka, a warm flesh barrier between Mizuki and the ninken. Iruka stared at them.

“Where’s the other one?” hissed Mizuki.

“Oh, there isn’t another one,” Pakkun said. “There’s just me.”

“You look... different,” Genma said, pressed back against the pillows.

“No, I don’t,” said Pakkun cheerfully. His tail wagged just the tiniest bit, and he had tipped his head up so his velvety brown ears fell back against his head. Is he preening? Iruka wondered. Pakkun slanted a look at Iruka from under his lashes, tongue lolling. Iruka thought for a moment he was looking for Iruka’s reaction, but Pakkun knew Iruka hadn’t been on the mission. No, it was like Pakkun wanted somebody to share the great joke he'd just played on these silly field chuunin.

Iruka didn't know what Mizuki and Genma had seen, but he was tired of always being the person left behind. He wasn't the sort of person to leave a fellow prankster hanging either.

So he scratched Pakkun behind the ear, just as if he were a harmless pet, grinning when Pakkun leaned into it and even more at Mizuki and Genma’s faces. Pakkun's expression was as close to a satisfied smirk as a dog could get.

Something was going on at the other end of the room. People were moving around more but also getting quieter. A voice, older and male, spoke over everyone else, sounding hoarse at having to speak so loudly. “Konoha shinobi,” it said warmly.

The crowd started to settle, people pulling away from the front of the room, and Iruka saw a sturdy old man in a long gray kimono standing by Kakashi’s bed. “Oh, jeez,” Pakkun muttered under his breath and jumped off the bed. Iruka heard the faint sound of his claws on the tile.

“Who’s that?” Iruka asked.

“Shimura Danzo,” Mizuki said, the encyclopedia of notable shinobi.

“What, is he on the council?” Iruka recognized the name from history classes, but not many history-class shinobi were still alive. “I mean, does he do anything?”

“Give speeches, apparently. And -- well.” Mizuki slanted him an unimpressed look, and that's when Iruka recognized the old man leaning on his cane -- a cane Iruka knew contained three feet of combat grade steel.

Genma’s hand closed around Iruka’s wrist, tight enough to hurt. He pulled Iruka slightly to the side and closer to the wall. Iruka started to protest -- Genma had put him in the worst possible place for line of sight -- but Genma curled his fingers so that his nails were biting into Iruka’s skin. Cool unease prickled across his shoulders. He let Genma move him.

“I wanted to thank our shinobi here for his good work,” said the old man. “When the Uchiha clan destroyed itself, we lost half of Konoha’s legacy. Sharingan no Kakashi has done the impossible. He uses the Uchiha Eye -- an eye given to him by the selfless act of a friend -- as though he were born to it, and he uses it to protect our own.”

Iruka wondered why Danzo was giving this speech now. He craned his head to see Kakashi, and yes, there he was next to Danzo, one eye still covered, even half-undressed for the medics to tend his wound. It looked sort of silly -- the old man with his head and face totally uncovered, next to Kakashi all bundled up. Was this -- oh, wow, was this really the Sharingan’s first team combat mission? Maybe no one had seen the sharingan in action until now, not just low level chuunin like Iruka.

Iruka remembered his own doubt -- that Kakashi’s sharingan was a rumor Konoha had spread to save its reputation as the village of the Uchiha. Maybe Iruka hadn’t been the only one to come up with that fanciful theory. Maybe there was a reason this was all so public: to silence the doubters.

“I hope,” Danzo was saying, his voice effusively proud, “that as we rebuild, Konoha will raise many more shinobi like you, my boy.”

Iruka could see only a piece of Kakashi’s shoulder through the crowd and none of Danzo, but he saw Kakashi shift away when Danzo’s hand landed on his arm. His head was down, staring at his lap. Iruka frowned. He had grown up with unwanted orphans who had no rich clans to look after them. He knew and hated that look.

The crowd applauded on cue. Mizuki slammed his hands together enthusiastically. Genma still had his hand on Iruka’s wrist.

Iruka stiffened as he realized Mizuki was staring at him: smug, expectant, pleased.

Ah, of course. Mizuki’s record would now show that he had been on a mission with a sharingan, one of Konoha’s last, and he had taken no casualties. Starting today, he could comment at parties and in interviews about the sharingan’s use in the field and mention that his observations were first hand. He could approach Sharingan no Kakashi himself with the casual opening of, When we served together --

The look on Mizuki’s face said, I win this round, Iruka. It was Iruka’s least favorite of Mizuki’s expressions, most especially because seeing it was usually the first warning Iruka had that they’d been competing at all.

He was grateful when Genma gave him an excuse to look away, tapping carefully at Iruka’s wrist. “Did you see it?” Iruka asked, to cover up the coded exchange.

Nobody really saw anything,” Genma said severely. Against Iruka’s wrist, he tapped out, Stay away from him. “He pulled some weird shit with the dog. It looked like a fucking bear.”

“Can a summons do a henge?” Iruka tapped back, Who?

“Who the fuck knows,” Genma said. His posture was rigidly uncomfortable, and he was staring into Iruka’s face like he wanted something Iruka had no idea how to give him.

Both, Genma tapped.

**

Iruka took the hit as he was walking home.

He'd been feeling absently through his pockets for his keys when something heavy and hard jerked his arms behind him. The world tilted crazily, and then he was stumbling, bent over, guided by a grip that kept him expertly off balance.

He felt a cold, roughwall against his face, his assailant’s fingers digging painfully into his wrists and forcing his weight uncomfortably onto his shoulders. He tried to protect the chakra points that could be used to immobilize him, but instead someone said into his ear, “Don’t use your front door.”

-- and the hold disappeared. Iruka stumbled two steps farther into the alley, tripping over a drain and fetching up against a trash bin in a burst of rotten-smelling air.

He was still reeling from the grab, so for a moment he thought the figure standing silent against the wall was a wood-log misdirection, an optical illusion jutsu working on the deep shadow of the buildings. It had no chakra; it didn’t feel alive.

Then it stepped away from the wall and became Kakashi, his chakra gone dark again. His eye was narrow and his posture stiff even as his fingers moved restlessly, curling and uncurling.

Iruka goggled at Kakashi like an idiot, his limbs akimbo like a sailor on the deck of a rolling ship. Coldness gripped his chest. I should have listened to Genma.

This -- this could be official, right? Kakashi was Internal Security. He said it to himself like a reassuring mantra. Kakashi is Internal Security.

It wasn’t very reassuring. If internal security had reached the point of physical attack, if they had sent the most famous active field jounin in Konoha, Iruka ought to have done something terrible. But he hadn’t done anything. And -- this was a stupid thought -- Iruka had thought Kakashi’s dog liked him.

In his head, that white blade sliced down again and again. In reality, it had taken only one effortless strike, the moment of contact hidden by Iruka's closed eyes but not the two-part thud of the body hitting the ground. Iruka was 19 years old, and he'd never seen combat. The only things he knew about death he'd learned from the nine-tailed fox and Hatake Kakashi.

“Did you tell someone about the questions I asked you?” Kakashi said.

Iruka's back went ramrod straight. Automatically, he slipped into mission debrief: “I followed up with Internal Security. I'm a teacher. The -- the mission scroll was coded public.”

He'd only seen the scroll for the second Kakashi had pulled it out, but he was certain -- mostly certain. Ice rolled down Iruka’s spine; indiscretion was a cardinal shinobi sin. Sometimes it was treason.

But Shikaku hadn’t said anything about Iruka breaking confidentiality. Shikaku couldn’t be so committed to underneath the underneath that he wouldn’t tell Iruka he’d made a mistake, could he? Not when Iruka was so willing to apologize and repent.

Kakashi’s voice got low and frayed. “It’s an internal investigation against internal parties.

“Maybe you should have said so!” Iruka hissed back, panicking a little. Didn’t Shikaku know how willing Iruka was to be a good shinobi?

The dark silhouette sank back against the wall and pressed the heel of his hand to his -- oh, to his covered eye. Iruka watched with a voyeur’s interest until the shape of Kakashi’s head turned to watch him, and Iruka’s eyes darted quickly to the wall.

“You have no idea -- “ Kakashi didn't finish. His hands clenched, then moved to his pockets, then out again to hang still at his sides.

Iruka didn’t understand how Kakashi could fail to give Iruka any instructions and then be angry when Iruka didn’t follow them. Unless Kakashi had expected Iruka to forget Kakashi’s visit. A multi-page nondisclosure agreement would have tended to stick in the brain, but then so did vague undisclosed threats to children. Even if it was temporary, Iruka was still a teacher. Obviously, Kakashi wasn't.

“Why can’t I use my front door?” Iruka asked.

“Why did you bring the investigation to the jounin commander?” Kakashi said.

“The jounin commander?” Iruka hadn't done that, not on purpose. He'd brought it to his sensei, a retired chuunin stay-at-home mom. “He's -- he's married to my sensei.”

Kakashi hesitated. The anger that had been spilling out into restless movements and cold words pulled back, his body stilling. He was studying Iruka like he’d seen something that didn’t make sense.

“That was a bad idea,” Kakashi said, though he didn't sound as certain.

“Why?” Iruka said, darting a glance to the head of the alley.

“Because -- ” Iruka blinked and Kakashi was right in front of him. His chakra was so tamped down he couldn’t have body-flickered. He must have timed his movement for the exact moment Iruka was distracted. For the first time since he'd come to the school, Kakashi matched his own rumors: someone exceptionally, lethally dangerous. “ -- now some other internal parties would like to ask you some questions, too.”

“But I don’t know anything.”

“Maybe not,” Kakashi said. Iruka could feel his body heat. “You’ll convince them of that -- eventually.”

He meant interrogation. Iruka shut his eyes, grotesque images flashing against his eyelids. The smell of the garbage cans felt like it was suffocating him.

“That’s alright,” Iruka said, pulling himself up like each vertebrae was a machine part locking into place. He wouldn’t be knocked over. “I’m a loyal Konoha shinobi. I have nothing to hide.”

Kakashi stared at him. Iruka swallowed. He tilted his chin up, letting his face go blank. He put his hand out towards Kakashi, palm up expectantly. “I want to see the mission scroll.”

“No.” Kakashi looked away to the wall of the alley. His jaw tightened underneath his mask.

“Why not?”

“You’re not cleared.”

“That scroll you flashed at me was public coded.”

“You think they write ‘secret’ on the secret ones?” The anger was starting to spill out again, Kakashi’s fingers twitching like they wanted a kunai.

Iruka had a moment of doubt. He had no idea what he was dealing with. He stuck out his chin anyway. “Yeah,” he said, “I do.

Kakashi said nothing. His weight was still on his toes bringing him into Iruka’s space. Iruka didn’t think, didn’t plan, he jumped back in one chakra-charged motion as hard and fast as he could. Kakashi’s first grab missed. His second didn't, but Iruka was already holding out the tag, the paper sizzling under the chakra in his thumb.

“It’s a flash-bang,” he said.

Kakashi froze.

-- and Iruka went cold all over. There was no good reason for Kakashi to want to avoid public attention. Either he was nuts, gone totally round the bend, or he was a traitor, and Iruka was dead. Maybe, maybe his investigation was real but so high up and illicit that Iruka was still probably dead for threatening to expose it, even accidentally.

Why the Academy, Iruka thought crazily.

“There’s no mission scroll,” Kakashi admitted. The skin around his eye was tight, his gaze focused on the tag in Iruka's hand. “Not for this.”

“I know,” Iruka said, though he hadn't really. “Is someone trying to hurt the kids?”

“The kids?” Kakashi frowned. “You… really went to Shikaku because you're a teacher.” His grip loosened and then came back full force. “You shouldn’t have let your fondness for your students override your shinobi duty.”

Iruka clenched his teeth. Nobody thought kids were that important, he knew that. Not as important as the wall around the village or the high risk missions to evaluate military strength of enemy villages. In eight years, Konoha still hadn’t rebuilt the school the Kyuubi had destroyed. The students were probably just going to be collateral in all the stop-gap survival measures. Nobody would think to regret it until there just wasn’t a next generation of shinobi and Konoha finished falling totally apart, just like Whirlpool.

“Are you trying to hurt the kids?” Iruka said quietly.

“No,” Kakashi said. Iruka set his jaw. After a moment Kakashi added, “That isn’t provable. You have no way to judge if I’m telling the truth.”

Which was true, Iruka thought. Don’t tell the mark that you’re probably lying to them, he wanted to say, as though Kakashi were one of his students.

“I’m going to keep holding this flash-bang, and you’re going to try to convince me,” Iruka said. Lie to me, please. And maybe if Kakashi believed Iruka believed him, he’d ignore Iruka long enough for Iruka to run straight to Yoshino-sensei and never leave. Even Sharingan no Kakashi couldn’t face down the Nara.

“I’ll just take it as soon as you’re distracted, ” Kakashi said, looking down his cloth-covered nose at Iruka. “I won’t have to wait more than a minute.”

“My chakra is what’s keeping it from going off, not the other way around.” Iruka's dizzy, unprepared for the way adrenaline disordered his thoughts. Somehow he managed to speak without a waver in his voice. “If I'm distracted or unconscious, it goes off. You don't want anyone to hear you, right?”

Kakashi shot a look at the little orange ember underneath Iruka’s thumb, bright in the dark alley. Even though the paper was thin and dry, the ember didn’t go out or spread. A thread of smoke no thicker than a hair rose up into the air, dissipating long before it cleared the rooftops.

Kakashi frowned at him for a long moment. It was like being in the woods with a wolf that hadn't decided if it was hungry.

“No,” Kakashi said.

No?”

“No.”

“I'll really set this off!”

“So? Whoever comes, I just have to outrun you.”

“I told you I'm not going to run,” Iruka said, teeth gritted and full of bluster now -- like Kakashi had dared him. Iruka had never ignored a dare. “If they want to interrogate me, I’ll let them. I hope they find something that helps Konoha!”

Kakashi’s eye narrowed in disbelief. But he'd frozen even as he turned toward the mouth of the alley. He really didn’t want the attention, Iruka thought. What is he doing here.

“I want to know what's happening at the school.”

Kakashi’s shoulders dropped slowly. All that anger spilling out seemed to run dry, and he was just standing there with his terrible posture, staring at the alley wall with an unfocused eye.

“Upstairs,” Kakashi said finally.

“The front door?” Iruka reminded him.

“You have a window, don’t you.”

“Won’t they -- ”

“You’re sloppy, so your surveillance is sloppy, too.”

Iruka gritted his teeth, but he was still terrified, so he led Kakashi to the bathroom window hidden beneath the eaves that looked out on nothing except the neighbor’s wall.

Iruka wall-walked, keeping careful thought on his little safety precaution. He looked back to see Kakashi climbing carefully with fingers and toes and not even a whiff of chakra.

**

Iruka snuck them into Anko’s room. She’d left on night shift already, and Iruka had never seen a roommate. One handed, Iruka activated the seals Iruka and Anko had built together for each of their rooms, pulling warm chakra from his chest and pushing it through his arm into the wall. The seals flared at the window frame and the doorway, and the glass went dark.

The room was now sealed tight, light and sound trapped inside.

Iruka flipped on the light with his elbow. He held a jutsu in each hand, which wasn’t particularly comfortable. The blackout jutsu especially felt like a balloon on a windy day, tugging at his hand every time the shadows shifted or Iruka made a sound. He curled the edges of the jutsu around his pinky and started feeling around the paper seals for a good place to tie it off. The paper was meant for chakra bonding, Iruka just had to find a sturdy part of the paper they hadn’t already used.

“What are you doing,” Kakashi said.

“I’m trying to tie off the blackout jutsu.”

Kakashi had dropped into a crouch against the wall beside the door, hands hanging limply between his knees. He looked -- empty, exhausted. Like the anger had been keeping him going. Iruka’s heart was still thrumming hummingbird fast, and he had no space anywhere for sympathy.

Iruka held the flash-bang away from the wall. The pinky of his other hand was curled in close, holding the jutsu while he used his first finger to prod at the papers plastered to the window edge. The ember on the flash-bang was dim in the overhead light.

“Tie off,” Kakashi repeated flatly.

“Look,” Iruka said, irritated. “I’m sorry I didn’t learn to do it the right way, but it works.”

Kakashi closed his eye. His skin looked tissue paper pale, and Iruka noticed a little sweat beading on his forehead. He abruptly remembered that he’d seen Kakashi at the hospital not twelve hours ago bleeding from a gut wound. Strong chakra users were supposed to heal quickly, but Kakashi kept his chakra so locked down that he didn’t appear to have any all.

Except Kakashi's chakra didn't feel like someone with good chakra control locking their chakra down until they felt like a non-non civilian. Even people without moldable chakra didn’t feel like this, and the sharingan -- that was the sort of thing for people with kage-level chakra supplies.

“How do you do that?” Iruka asked, while his fingers looked for a place to secure the jutsu.

Kakashi opened his eye slowly. Iruka tried not to stare at the hitae-ate hiding his left eye. Did he ever remove it outside of battle? Was the sharingan off when it was hidden or was he looking at Iruka with it now?

“What?”

“How do you -- be chakra dead, almost. Is it part of the sharingan?”

Kakashi looked meaningfully at the flash-bang in Iruka’s hand. Iruka kicked himself mentally. This wasn’t what they were supposed to be talking about. Kakashi’s expression didn’t look impatient though, and he flicked an amused glance to the jutsu in Iruka’s other hand --

Iruka’s eyes widened. Oh, you idiot. He hastily fumbled his hands together. The only bargaining chip he had was the loud, unwelcome noise the flash-bang would make going off, and he’d just activated a jutsu to keep the room totally silent and dark from the outside. With a quick twist, Iruka tied the blackout jutsu to the edge of the flash-bang’s chakra paper.

“Smart,” Kakashi said politely. As though he hadn’t just had ten full seconds in which to do whatever he wanted to Iruka. He had probably only needed two.

“Why didn’t you --” Iruka stopped. Swallowed. “I would have lost my grip on the blackout jutsu if the flash-bang went off. It would still have worked.”

“Unless I caught the blackout jutsu when you dropped it,” Kakashi said.

Cold rolled over Iruka. Kakashi probably could have. “I’m sorry if I’m not used to trying to hold off a jounin of my own village.

“Good lesson, then,” Kakashi said. He blinked a few times like he was trying to stay awake.

Iruka stared at him. “That’s -- ok. Fine. That’s not what I wanted to talk about anyway.” Iruka shook the flash-bang at him. It had stopped Kakashi in the alleyway, but now he seemed not to care, and it was sending Iruka’s skin crawling. He didn’t have anything else. “I don’t want to hold this all day. You have to convince me you’re loyal to Konoha and it’s children.”

“That could be difficult,” Kakashi said, gaze drifting, “because I'm not.”

Iruka froze mid-wave. Kakashi’s head was tilted back to study the dust motes near the ceiling like none of Iruka’s noise and bluster was sinking in. Kakashi looked as droopy-eyed as his weird dog, and he’d just said bald-faced that he wasn’t loyal to Konoha.

Iruka didn’t know what to do. If Kakashi were the agent of another village, the flash-bang ought to have been more of a threat, and he shouldn’t have ignored the chance to incapacitate Iruka when he could have.

Iruka had wanted nothing more his whole life than to give Konoha back what it had given to him, what it had given to his parents when they had come here from Whirlpool before Iruka was born. Konoha had placed so much hope in Kakashi’s sharingan to repair the village’s reputation, and Kakashi didn’t... care.

“You’re a -- uh -- a double agent?” Iruka said awkwardly. I’m dead.

Kakashi snorted softly. “What for? Is there any difference between villages, really?”

A white hot fury started building in Iruka's chest. He sat back on his heels, stymied by Kakashi’s apathy towards everything Iruka held dear. It was hard to take anything he said as real.

If the things he said were true, Iruka should go to the window and shove the flash-bang out of it right now. Let Internal Security come. Iruka would be dead a second later, probably, if Kakashi really were some kind of traitor. Probably a lot of people would be dead trying to take down the Copy Nin. And maybe Konoha needed that from Iruka as a good ninja. He was -- wanted to be -- a good ninja, unlike this person sitting in his room.

“Am I supposed to kill you?” Iruka said. “Are you going to kill me?”

The thought made something cold and sick twist in Iruka’s belly, made his eyes prick, but maybe that was what made it noble.

“You probably couldn’t,” Kakashi said. “Anyway, that seems wasteful.”

Iruka couldn’t stop the exhausted, exasperated glare he sent Kakashi’s way. “Could you explain anything? If you don’t care, and you don’t want to kill me, what are you doing here? Why did you attack me?”

Kakashi blinked at Iruka -- like Iruka had actually surprised him. What a fucking mess! Maybe Kakashi was unhinged after all.

“I wanted to see your face,” Kakashi said finally, “when I told you who was waiting for you.”

Iruka shut his eyes. He'd met bullies before, though none had sounded as bloodlessly matter of fact as Kakashi. “Thanks,” Iruka said with awful bitterness. “I hope it was as good as you imagined.”

Kakashi’s hands clenched into fists between his knees, a hint of his previous anger, but he didn’t look up to fling it at Iruka. “It wasn't. But now we both feel this way.”

Iruka opened his eyes, startled. What kind of jounin was in danger of interrogation? By his own village? Iruka was a nobody. It made sense paranoid higher ups would wonder what he was doing in the middle of their classified investigation and react accordingly, but a jounin like Kakashi --

Iruka had never been interrogated by T&I. They were the favorite bogeyman of every ninja story, but they weren’t -- they weren’t supposed to damage you, not permanently, not unless the interrogator meant to harm. Interrogation was part of the standard counter-intelligence training, the same training that Iruka couldn’t get because a bankrupt Konoha had cut the classes from the budget. It was the requirement standing between Iruka and B class certification.

“You made things difficult for me,” Kakashi added like he was commenting on the weather.

“I'm sorry,” Iruka said. “Only I'm not if you're planning to hurt anybody in Konoha.”

“I work for Root,” Kakashi said.

Iruka waited. Kakashi watched him blandly, silent. “Root” sat between them like a burned out lamp, illuminating nothing.

“I don’t know what that is,” Iruka said.

“They built this dormitory,” Kakashi said, watching Iruka’s reaction closely like he was trying to catch Iruka in a lie.

“A… construction company?”

Kakashi's eye narrowed. “Where do you think Konoha gets its money for repairs?”

“Nowhere,” Iruka said bitterly, “since they’re not repairing anything.”

To his surprise, Kakashi gave a soft, almost silent huff of laughter. “You don’t remember the village before the Kyuubi very well, do you?”

Iruka sat down against the wall under the window. He wrapped his arms around his knees, frowning at the little ember on the flash-bang under his thumb. Iruka had seen Kakashi with his shirt mostly off at the hospital. His skin had been as smooth and youthful as Iruka's underneath the scars. It wasn’t like Kakashi was old.

“Yeah, I guess I’m young, sorry.” Young and inexperienced, so inexperienced they barely let him out of the village to get experience. He’d probably live longer this way, he thought bitterly. Konoha wouldn't need him at all.

“Root is Konoha’s smuggling arm.” Kakashi slanted a look at Iruka. “You know Konoha is forbidden to keep any of its profits.”

“I know that. The daimyo supports us.”

“But not too much. He's always afraid of a military coup, and ninja are expensive to maintain. They're even more expensive to rebuild -- especially now, when he wants Konoha to give him more jounin than we have.”

“Oh,” Iruka said. “But -- doesn’t he believe we’re loyal?”

“Loyalty is a strange thing to rely on from people whose families and children you send to death.”

“We’re ninja. If that weren’t true, we might as well be farmers.”

Kakashi’s shoulders curled forward, his weight sinking into his bent knees. His voice was soft. “That doesn’t sound so bad, does it?”

“Yes, it does!” Iruka was horrified. Every poem or story Iruka had ever read had made the death of ninja sound powerful and admirable. He'd never heard anyone imply ninja shouldn't die. “You're stalling. What does Root have to do with the Academy?”

Kakashi sighed. “The head of Root is the only ninja in Konoha with actual money -- I mean liquid capital, not titles or honor or old houses. Root can’t spend its money too obviously because of the daimyo, so the Tower stays broken and the Academy keeps its fox-hole in the roof. But you live in a new dormitory with modern plumbing, and Intel Division has a new underground records room under the flower shop.”

“Root sounds pretty good for Konoha,” Iruka said, mostly because Kakashi was making it all sound so ominous.

“Maybe. Everything has a price.”

“Is this the answer to my question?”

“The answer to your question is power. Money is power. The daimyo holds it over us, and so does Root.”

“That still doesn’t -- ”

“The Sarutobi are Senju, right?”

Iruka tipped his head back against the wall. He’d heard this one before. “Not really. They just want to be.”

“Well, Root isn’t really the Uchiha either.”

Iruka pulled his head back from the wall slowly. The flash-bang hung limply from his fingers as he stared at Kakashi. Kakashi stared back, arms wrapped around his knees, looking more like a tired kid than the jounin who’d attacked him in an alley. Unbidden, Iruka remembered a somber little boy in Izumo’s class who didn’t like cucumber and who had come to the first day of school with seven of his own kunai hidden on his person.

“Uchiha Sasuke,” Iruka breathed.

Kakashi shrugged, but he was staring at Iruka’s wall like he was boring through it. With a sharingan of his own, maybe he could.

**

“Excuse me,” said the ANBU in the owl mask.

Iruka turned around, arms full of salty rice crackers and one fizzy soda that had been in the cupboard so long Iruka was confident it had been abandoned.

An ANBU stood in the kitchen. He wasn't wearing a cloak so Iruka got the full visual benefit of the gray, brutally streamlined uniform, standing at parade rest next to their bowl of browning bananas.

Kakashi waited for him in Anko’s room. Iruka had more questions for him -- what was Root really? Did they really have some kind of power-grabbing scheme targeted at the littlest Uchiha? If they did, wouldn't that make Kakashi a part of it? It all sounded like something pre-genin Iruka might have made up while hiding under the sheets with Genma and Kotetsu.

The point was: an ANBU was exactly what Iruka needed.

Someone who wasn't a part of whatever internal security team Kakashi said was watching Iruka. Someone who had a direct line to the Hokage and who wouldn't be intimidated by a jounin, even one as famous as Kakashi. And Iruka felt comfortable with ANBU. He saw then more than most shinobi his age, after all. It was ANBU who brought Iruka messages when the Hokage needed to reschedule their weekly tea dates, which was often.

“I have a message for the Hokage,” Iruka said.

“The Hokage?” the ANBU said, twitching like he'd been about to step forward but had aborted the motion. Iruka frowned. The ANBU sounded surprised. ANBU weren’t supposed to sound like anything.

“Yes. Sorry, were you not here for me?”

The ANBU paused. “Yes,” it said finally. “Please come with me.”

“Now?” Iruka thought nervously of Kakashi, sitting against Anko’s wall. All the anger had drained out of him until Iruka saw nothing left but lethargy, like Kakashi didn't know where else to go. If Iruka left, Kakashi might stay there forever -- and that was a hell of a mess to leave for Anko. Maybe Iruka should turn him in for interrogation.

“We will leave now,” the ANBU said. “To take your message to -- the Hokage.”

It was a strange way to say it, like the ANBU didn't know who Iruka was even though Iruka saw plenty of ANBU at the Hokage’s tower at least once a week. At any other time, Iruka might have paid more attention to the discrepancy, but today he was tired and distracted.

“Yes,” Iruka said. He put down his snacks. “I'm sorry -- we can go now.”

**

Everything was blurry. Iruka didn't remember how he had gotten here.

He was a boy again, having tea with the Hokage for the first time. He had to sit up straight so his elbows would be high enough to rest on the table. He held his tea cup so carefully, terrified he would spill and the Hokage would think Iruka’s parents hadn’t done their best to raise him.

But instead of asking Iruka about his parents or his studies, the Hokage held out a hand, palm up, and said, “Tell me about your friend, Iruka.”

There was someone sitting next to Iruka, someone just as small and skinny as him with a shock of silver hair. His lips were pale and thin like the rest of him, his nose a little crooked. The boy had something wrong with his left eye. It was too big and all red, no iris or pupil at all. It seemed to be glowing.

Does this kid know anything? whispered a voice Iruka didn't recognize. That isn’t what the sharingan looks like.

Iruka twitched, looking for the source of the whispering voice, but he couldn’t find it. He looked uncertainly at the boy, who stared back with his one black eye, one red.

To be fair, we don’t even know if that’s what Hatake looks like, murmured another voice.

“I don’t know who that is,” Iruka told the Hokage, politely not mentioning the eye. “I’m sorry,” he said to the silver-haired boy, “are you an orphan too?”

“Are you sure, Iruka?” said the Hokage.

The red eye was growing, eating away at the face around it even though the boy’s expression stayed blank and empty. Iruka leaned away, squeezing his eyes shut and pressing his palms to his forehead where something had started to throb.

“Hokage-sama,” he pleaded, and the floor fell away beneath him.

**

Iruka woke up slowly.

His joints ached with a pervasive, feverish cold, and there was a bright, heavy pain behind his eyes. He could feel blankets over him and a soft pillow against his face. His chest was warm. Something alive had burrowed under his arm, against his chest, and the little body moved softly up and down, breathing in a cycle smaller and faster than Iruka’s own.

“Are you awake yet,” Pakkun whispered in his grumbly old man voice.

Pakkun? That didn’t make sense. Iruka turned his face into the pillow, which smelled like his pillow, but the air against his face was much colder than the dormitory. The blankets slipped down his shoulder over his eyes, and he sighed gratefully. It was humid and stuffy under here, and it smelled like dog, but the dark was the only thing that made his head feel a little better.

There was something he should remember.

“I’m only asking because once you wake up, you're probably going to be upset, and I wanted to warn you about that. Well, the boss wanted me to warn you. He wants you treated with goose down and bubble wrap. Hot cocoa next, probably. I don’t know what you did, but there it is.” After a moment, Pakkun added thoughtfully, “I suppose you don’t smell bad.”

“Pakkun, shut up,” Iruka murmured, pulling him closer and pressing his face against the dog’s wiry fur. He could feel Pakkun’s velvet-soft ear against his forehead, so it seemed like the dog really was here.

“Oh, alright.”

As Iruka started to drift off, he thought he felt Pakkun licking his hair. It was weird but kind of nice. Iruka hadn’t had anyone to kiss him goodnight for a long time. Maybe it would all dissolve in a minute, and Iruka would wake up to another red, angry eye.

“Pakkun,” Iruka whispered, “what happened?”

“Interrogation, kid. S’not fatal.”

Iruka tightened his arms. “What -- when -- ”

“Kid, sleep.” Pakkun rubbed his face against Iruka’s. “Sleep.”

“Ok,” Iruka murmured. He closed his eyes, already half gone.

When he woke next, it was dark. Cold air rushed in as he peeled the blankets down. He didn’t recognize anything except the pillow, which it turned out really was his from his dorm room. The blankets and futon were new, literally new. Even in the dark, Iruka could feel the slight stiffness of the fabric and smell their chemical newness.

A gas camping lantern sat on the floor, flame turned down low. It barely illuminated part of a wall and a dusty floor. In the dark, fabric rustled; Iruka could just make out a tarp covering a set of windows. A thin vine with sad, drooping leaves grew along the wall next to the lantern. Pakkun was asleep under Iruka’s arm.

Iruka could feel his own chakra shifting softly as Pakkun breathed. As Iruka breathed with it, he became aware of an answering chakra echo in the dark.

“...Kakashi?” Iruka whispered, pulse speeding up.

A pair of ninja sandals moved into the edge of the lantern’s glow. Kakashi’s slim figure rose above them, slouching with hands in his pockets.

“How do you feel?”

“Beat up,” Iruka mumbled, eyeing Kakashi. How did Iruka look like he felt?

“That happens. It means you put up a fight.” Kakashi crouched by the futon, setting a canteen onto the floor, two pills sitting on the lid. “These will help with the fever and the pain.”

“Did you kidnap me?” Iruka asked suspiciously. What he remembered didn’t make sense. It felt like very vivid dreams.

“Yamanaka Fu gave you a full, standard interrogation. Memory loss is expected.”

“Who.” A fever chill shook Iruka’s body. His elbow ached from being bent tightly around Pakkun for too long, but Pakkun was too warm not to clutch.

“Root,” Kakashi said. “The second ANBU.”

Iruka looked up, wide-eyed. “ANBU? Why didn’t you tell me they were ANBU?”

Another shiver hit him, and this one turned into a runaway chain reaction, full body shudders shaking through him. Pakkun jerked up with a sleepy grumble.

“What would you have done?” Kakashi asked. “Resisting would had made it worse. I tried to warn you. I didn’t know the order had already gone out.”

Iruka’s teeth had started chattering. “I thought you c-came to gloat and scare me.”

There was a long pause. “Yes, that too.”

Iruka didn’t know what to say to that so it was good he was shivering too hard to talk. He tried to ride out the shaking, but it wasn’t going away. He felt Kakashi pull the blankets more tightly over him, and that surprised Iruka. It wasn’t aloof enough or cold enough to be Sharingan no Kakashi.

“Boss,” Pakkun sounded annoyed, “he was fine a minute ago. What did you do?”

Iruka curled up under the blankets, putting his hands together on the other side of Pakkun, the dog still tucked up against his chest. His hands were unsteady as they moved through the seals. For a moment, his chakra felt like it was out of reach, concentration broken by the muscle aches that flared up with each involuntary shake.

Finally his chakra rose to his call, warm and familiar, moving through his limbs until even the tips of his fingers and the end of his nose felt like he was holding them over a heating vent. It sank into his muscles to the bone, soothing and so welcome. Iruka let out a groan of pleasure.

“Nice job,” Pakkun said against his cheek. “You use chakra a lot, huh.”

Iruka didn’t answer, lying there and waiting for the shudders to calm. Eventually, he felt capable of speaking. “I don't understand.” He looked at Kakashi. “I thought you were Root.”

“I quit.”

“When?” Iruka asked incredulously.

Kakashi seemed to think for a moment. “Today, I guess.”

Iruka stared. Kakashi looked at his feet, wiggling his toes in his sandals. He wouldn't look up, and after a moment, Iruka asked, “But what about the seals?”

“The seals,” Kakashi repeated.

“They didn’t ask me about the seals at the Academy, just about you. Does that mean Root was the one that changed them?”

“We don’t know,” Pakkun said. “They stopped telling him things months ago, right about the time he started picking up missions from the mission desk. Scared the hell out of somebody up high, that’s for sure.” Pakkun chortled to himself like there was something inherently funny about getting mission assignments from the mission assignment desk.

“Are you allowed to just quit?” Iruka asked uncertainly.

Kakashi shrugged. “They can’t give me a mission if they can’t find me.”

Iruka looked around the derelict apartment set up like a field camp. Kakashi sounded so calm, but Iruka remembered Pakkun hoping that Iruka had come to visit Kakashi. He remembered the way Kakashi had flinched away from Danzo’s hand. It sounded crazy that someone so strong wouldn’t have anyone on their side. But Kakashi didn’t have the Nara clan compound to hide in or Yoshino-sensei to feed him soup and dress him in Shikaku’s giant sweaters when he got sick. He didn’t have the Hokage asking him every month if he was happy.

“Can’t you go to the Hokage?” Iruka asked and then had a horrifying thought. “He’s not -- he’s not Root, is he?”

Pakkun started laughing. Kakashi shot him a dry look. The shifting shadows from the gaslight made it harder to read him than normal.

“The head of Root is Shimura Danzo. He is -- not working with the Hokage.”

“Oh. Nara Shikaku? Yoshino?”

“ANBU. Very loyal Hokage supporters,” Kakashi said.

Iruka sank gratefully back into the futon. Pakkun gave him a reassuring lick. Those weren’t surprises, he supposed. There was just one more, and Iruka had to force himself to ask it. “Shiranui Genma?”

“Shiranui?”

Iruka closed his eyes, feeling sick. “I found a mask in his room. There were fruit flies, and I was trying to -- we’re roommates.”

“I hope his captain kicks the shit out of him for that,” Pakkun said.

“What kind of mask?”

Iruka glared. “It was an ANBU -- oh, a, uh, a rat, I think.”

“He’s with the Hokage then,” Kakashi said, and Iruka slumped with relief, happy enough to give Pakkun two big scritches behind the ears. The dog rumbled happily. “ANBU are mammals. Root aren't. We take action if we’re impersonated, and so do they, so you can count on that.”

“Thank you.” A new worry occurred to him: “Is any of this going to get me in trouble if I get interrogated again?”

“I wouldn't worry about Root interrogating you again.”

Iruka frowned at the dark ceiling. “Then why am I here? You did kidnap me, didn’t you?”

“Kid,” Pakkun said, “Root won’t interrogate you.”

“Then who -- “ Iruka stared at him incredulously. “The Hokage? He and the Nara are my friends. Yoshino-sensei is like -- they’re the closest I have to parents.”

Kakashi said nothing.

That’s who you’re hiding me from?” Iruka wouldn’t hear it. The Hokage was his Konoha, not Kakashi’s. It wasn’t possible. “You're the one they're scared of, not me. Why does everyone act like you’re such a bogeyman, anyway?”

Kakashi didn’t say anything. “Boss,” Pakkun said, “don’t.”

Kakashi didn’t, whatever it was. Kakashi didn’t do anything.

“I want to go home,” Iruka said.

“It’s a bad idea.”

“It’s my bad idea. You don’t need to save me from my friends.

Kakashi looked away. “I owed you an obligation,” he said finally, “for getting you into this. When you went to Shikaku, I thought it was an attack. Spreading information without discretion -- if you were Root or ANBU -- would have been... an intentional strategy.”

So you mugged me? Out loud, Iruka said, “I just wanted to know if my kids were okay.”

Kakashi gave him a look like Iruka had walked in wearing his pants on his head but not like he was unhappy about it. “I’m sorry about the interrogation. You said -- you said you had nothing to hide. It was the best way to convince Root you weren’t important. They’ll leave you alone now.”

“Oh,” Iruka said, hollow. He couldn’t make himself say thank you. He wished it had never happened. He wished he hadn’t said something so stupid just to be brave.

“If your strong friends had stopped it, Root would have always wondered if there had been another motive, if maybe you weren't an operative after all.”

Iruka looked dumbly around the room, at the dark abandoned corners and at the futon that had probably been stolen. He had no idea how long he’d been here. Had he missed class? This didn’t look like it was making him less involved.

“Then why -- ” Iruka looked back at Kakashi and saw him staring at the floor. His expression was blank -- no, that was embarrassment. Kakashi had been prepared to explain everything except why he’d kidnapped Iruka. Of the whole incident -- the seals at the Academy, the interrogation, the secret Konoha politics -- taking Iruka back to his hideout was the part that didn’t make sense even to Kakashi. He should have taken Iruka home and disappeared from his life, and Kakashi knew it. It made Iruka scared all over again.

“Why is it okay for Root to interrogate me, but not the Hokage? Shouldn't you take me back and let the Hokage interrogate me, too, if that’s the smart thing to do?”

“Yes,” Kakashi said, looking intently at the floor. “I -- changed my mind.”

That hit Iruka in the chest in a way he wasn't expecting. He said uncertainly, “I thought you didn’t care about anybody.”

Kakashi picked at the splintered wood of the floor. He looked suddenly not much older than Iruka. “Konoha and Root don’t need me to care about them.”

Boss,” Pakkun warned.

“That’s a stupid reason not to care about something,” Iruka said.

It was a terrifying glimpse into Kakashi’s worldview. Lying in the dark in pain, it wasn’t so hard to follow Kakashi to that place of icy cynicism, but Iruka had grown up in a better Konoha. He wanted to eat breakfast at his own table in the sunlight and remember that the village was his home. Pakkun had gone tense against Iruka’s chest.

“My parents didn’t need me to care about them, or my sensei, and I don’t need you to care about me either.”

“You need someone,” Kakashi said quietly, sounding upset. “I’m sorry I attacked you.”

Iruka pulled the blankets around himself mulishly. If the motion cuddled Kakashi's ninken even more tightly up to his chest, Iruka chose to ignore it. “I was doing okay.”

“No.” Kakashi's hands clenched around his shins. He was crouched so low his chin was at his knees. “You don’t know -- Konoha eats its own. ANBU and Root survive because they spend all their time making sure their skin’s too hard to cut. People like you -- you should run away if you want to live. Konoha won’t even notice the bump when it runs you over.”

Heat flooded Iruka’s face, but when he opened his mouth, his voice had been stolen away like he’d been jutsued. What was he supposed to say? He’d never met such an unhappy person.

“Kakashi,” Pakkun said quiet and serious, “this is not someone to whom you should make treasonous remarks.”

“I want to go home,” Iruka said again. No, that wasn’t right: “To the Nara Compound.”

Kakashi stood up, already stepping back into the dark. “In the morning.”

**

Iruka tried to walk by himself at first. Kakashi let him. He seemed to respect the desire to get somewhere on one’s own feet, no matter how clumsy and slow. But Iruka couldn’t make it more than a block. He probably should have been in a hospital, except he'd been rescued by someone who'd made ninja paranoia his religion.

Kakashi’s safe house was in an abandoned part of the market district. Most of the big clan compounds, including the Nara, were a few kilometers away, nestled at the foot of the Hokage Monument. It felt like another country.

Iruka sank down onto a curb that smelled like fish and thought about giving up. Even the dim light in the side street hurt.

“We could go back inside,” Kakashi suggested. He had his hands in his pockets, but Iruka could tell they were fists. His eye kept flickering to the buildings around them. It bothered him for Iruka to be out here.

It would be sweet except Iruka hadn't done anything to deserve this.

“No,” Iruka said, though at this point he wanted nothing more than to crawl back into bed. But he had to know if Kakashi would let him go home or if he was a prisoner.

“We should probably just leave him,” Pakkun suggested, except he was nuzzling his head under Iruka’s arm, trying to hold him up. “Someone will come get him.”

Kakashi walked away. Iruka wondered if he was going to follow Pakkun's advice. Iruka didn’t want to worry about it, so he dozed instead. A blanket dropped over his shoulders. Kakashi had crouched down in front of him, his back to Iruka.

“Get on.”

By the time they arrived, Iruka was barely conscious. He only knew they were there because the wind stopped. Kakashi’s voice vibrated against Iruka’s ear where it was pressed to Kakashi’s shoulder, telling Pakkun to get out of sight.

Iruka opened his eyes. He'd left a streak of snot across the collar of Kakashi's vest, and his arms felt numb like set concrete around Kakashi's neck.

They were standing in front of a meticulously maintained wooden gate, painted Nara green. When an ANBU opened the door, Iruka saw the mask’s slender, pointed muzzle, and blurted, stupid with exhaustion and relief, “Genma.”

The ANBU Rat went stiff.

“Iruka,” Kakashi murmured, chiding.

“Hatake,” said Rat.

“Yo,” said Kakashi.

Iruka dropped his cheek against Kakashi’s shoulder rather than try to hold his head up. It was easy to feel that Kakashi was tense, but he hadn’t moved, not even to shift Iruka’s weight to a more flexible position.

Back when Iruka was falling for Kakashi’s harmless act, he’d never realized how aggressive Kakashi’s disinterest really was. No one would be so callous to ANBU without the ability to back it up, and so the very fact that Kakashi refused to put Iruka down -- in fact acted like he didn’t need to put Iruka down -- made for an arrogant but effective threat display.

“Give him to me,” Rat said.

“Ah,” Kakashi mused, breezily unconcerned, “I would like to deliver him to someone better able to make promises.”

“What promises?” Rat said flatly.

Iruka lifted his head. “This is fine! I can get off here.”

Kakashi’s arms stayed locked under Iruka’s knees. Iruka waited, breath caught. He didn't know if Kakashi could let go; he was too sensitized to the slightest threat, and Iruka knew by now that he saw threats everywhere.

Finally Kakashi murmured, “Take -- would you take Pakkun?”

Iruka felt his heart clench a little -- no, Iruka! He mugged you, and then kidnapped you! “Kakashi, these are my friends. This is my home.”

“If Iruka wants to go -- ” Rat started. Another white mask appeared behind him: ANBU Bear.

Kakashi’s muscles were like granite under Iruka’s hands. Iruka turned pleadingly to Genma: “He thinks you’re going to interrogate me again.”

The Rat's shoulders went back. Iruka could picture the pinched expression Genma would be wearing “You haven’t had counter-interrogation training, Umino. You can't be interrogated outside of a village emergency.”

“...What?” said Kakashi.

“Why did you think he was so fucked up?” snarled Rat, not even trying to maintain proper ANBU distance.

Kakashi's fingers clenched around Iruka's thighs, and Iruka thought, Great, you're never going to get him to put me down now.

Rat noticed Kakashi's reaction with a tilt of his head. Iruka tried to make a face over Kakashi's shoulder that said I'm okay! Be nice! He's only a little unhinged!

“Inoichi himself is here,” Rat said, voice cold. “Give me Iruka, and we'll get him treated.”

“Kakashi,” Iruka tried, “I'm not involved, remember?”

Kakashi turned his head. Iruka could just make out the edge of his pale eyelashes as he blinked. “No, you're not.”

He put Iruka down.

Hands came immediately to Iruka's arms, pulling him quickly back through ANBU to the interior of the compound, where the people supporting him became unmasked, black-eyed Nara. They carried him inside to Yoshino-sensei, who was waiting with one of Shikaku’s giant sweaters and a tight embrace.

“The soup’s coming,” she said.

“Okay,” Iruka said, finally home, finally safe, and he put his face against her shoulder so nobody would see his eyes were wet.

**

“What promises?” Shikaku asked, interested.

Iruka was sitting on the padded exam table of the Nara’s personal medical suite. He wore the big sweater Yoshino had pulled over his head, and he was letting Yamanaka Inoichi shine a light in his eyes and ask him questions.

Iruka didn't have a clear memory of the Yamanaka who'd interrogated him, but having Inoichi close enough for Iruka to feel his breath was making Iruka's heart flutter in his throat. Inoichi was a mountain of a man, the kind of person whose volume and energy expanded to fill a room. Iruka was pretty loud himself, but he was used to the quiet, purposeful Nara.

Iruka kept wanting to tell them he was fine and that they could both please go back to their very important, busy jobs rather than wasting time on Iruka.

“He wanted you to promise not to interrogate Iruka,” Genma said. He’d pushed his mask up as soon as the people in the room had been reduced to Shikaku, Inoichi, and Yoshino. He had his arms crossed and he was chomping angrily on a senbon.

Shikaku leaned forward, eyes intent. “What was he willing to pay for that promise?”

“Shikaku,” Yoshino snapped, sitting on the table with Iruka’s hand between her own on her lap.

Shikaku put up his hands apologetically.

“Iruka, tell us again,” Yoshino said. “They were more interested in Kakashi than the seals?”

Iruka nodded.

“They knew we'd found the work order,” Inoichi mused. “Switching topics is tricky during a mental probe. They probably knew they only had time for one question, and they chose Kakashi.”

“Are the seals important?” Iruka asked, obediently tracking Inoichi’s finger as he moved it left to right in front of Iruka’s face.

Shikaku hmmed thoughtfully, but he said to Yoshino, “Why so interested in their own attack dog, do you think?”

"He's always been a candidate for going rabid, even when he was ours.”

“He didn't go rabid. He quit,” Iruka said.

Conversation screeched to a halt. “What?” Shikaku said just as Inoichi demanded, “When?”

“Yesterday,” Iruka said.

The whole room stared. Iruka wondered if it sounded like Kakashi had quit over Iruka and then wondered if it were true.

“Iruka,” Yoshino said slowly, “how are you a part of this? Are you and Kakashi… friends?”

“No!” Iruka flushed. He'd said that too loud. “I talked to his ninken once.

“Shikaku,” Inoichi said, “if the Copy Nin is ripe for recruitment…”

“You know why we lost him the first time. I'm not committing until I know how and why.”

“You heard what he told your kid,” Inoichi said. “That poor sap’s OD’ed on adrenaline. Can't recognize a threat-free scenario, et cetera, you know the deal.” Inoichi pointed at Iruka. “He makes a regular human friend, and he has a realization -- his whole life would kill a normal person. It's like he went to the river and made friends with a fish.”

“Please don't metaphor,” Yoshino said, pressing fingers to her forehead. “You know how I feel about your metaphors.”

“You think it'll stick?” Shikaku pressed.

Inoichi sighed. “I'd like to say yes, but...Change is hard. Once the disruption’s over, he’ll settle back into what he’s used to. It won't matter that he was forced for a moment to notice that his life is inimical to the average shinobi.”

“What he's used to is Root,” Iruka said. He felt something sick settle on his stomach, and he wished he had brought Pakkun. Everyone would look at him strangely if he suddenly hugged Yoshino-sensei.

Inoichi gave him a startled look, like he'd forgotten Iruka was there. He had the grace to sound apologetic. “Yes, probably.”

“If only he wasn't so damn good at it,” Shikaku sighed.

Genma stared at Iruka, a worried frowned carved into his forehead.

**

They took him home.

They gave him his uniform back, cleaned and neatly folded, and checked his room thoroughly for surveillance. Iruka was home, just like he'd wanted, but he didn't feel safe or calm or happy. He still felt Root on his skin like a grime.

“Hatake was right,” Genma said, back in standard uniform. He said Kakashi's name with obvious distaste. “We found the interrogation file. You've been cleared as a person of interest.”

“Ok,” Iruka said, sitting on his futon, staring warily at his own door. He'd gone his whole life without knowing Root existed. They could be anywhere.

Genma caught his hesitation. “If you stayed with the Nara, you might look important. We need to act as though Root’s assessment is correct.”

“They are correct.” Iruka looked around. His pillow was missing.

“Yes, they are,” Genma said too quickly. “How are you feeling? Do you want juice?”

Iruka shook his head. “He said I should run away from Konoha. That the village would chew me up and spit me out.”

“That guy,” Genma said furiously, “doesn't know a thing about being ninja.”

No, I'm the one who doesn't know. Iruka pulled back his sheets, needing something to do besides look at Genma. He was still dressed in the clothes the Nara had given him after his exam. They were soft and broken in, the sweater warm around his tired body.

“He acted like anyone who wasn't jounin was just a squatter, hiding out between Root and ANBU. And it's sort of true, isn't it? If ANBU and Root disappeared, we wouldn’t be one of the five great shinobi villages. If I or Izumo did, who cares?”

"I don't matter like that either. Most shinobi don't matter like that.”

“But Kakashi matters like that,” Iruka said bitterly, “doesn't he?”

“It's the sharingan,” Genma said. “Everyone wants it.”

Iruka’s lips twisted. He picked furiously at a stray thread on his sweater. “Right.”

“The worst part,” Genma sighed, “is that you can tell he knows. He knows Shikaku looks at him and sees the funding he'd bring in, sees a new Academy, new medical kits, new field vests, you name it.” Genma sounded almost wistful. “Hatake can do the impossible, and that makes him a million yen walking and talking.”

“I guess,” Iruka said skeptically. Genma hadn't seen how little Kakashi had, for someone who had such bargaining power. “Maybe you wouldn’t need Root’s money so much either.”

Genma shot him a sharp look.

“We -- I meant we wouldn’t need it,” Iruka said stupidly. It didn’t make Genma stop looking at him. He dropped his chin to his crossed arms, staring at his small window. He could see the brick wall of the building across the alley. “Kakashi explained it.”

“Kakashi explained a lot of things to you,” Genma observed in an odd tone of voice. “Though I don’t know that he’s worth enough for that. Not enough for you to lie back and think of Konoha, anyway.”

Iruka turned away from the window, startled and glaring to cover it.

Genma put up his hands. It was the same gesture Shikaku used on Yoshino, which was embarrassing given that Shikaku already claimed Yoshino had given Iruka her management style. “Joking!”

Iruka made a disgusted sound, picking again at his sweater. It was huge and smelled like spiced aftershave. If he’d stayed with Yoshino any longer, he’d probably be wearing three of them.

Genma fiddled nervously with his hands. After a moment, he said in fits and starts: “Look -- if anybody does come at you with -- a suggestion like that, you come to me, ok?”

Iruka's chest went tight. He couldn't tell if it was fear or -- Inoichi had said Kakashi would go back to Root if the ‘disruption’ ended. “Is someone going to…?”

“No, okay? No one’s going to -- you submitted to interrogation, which means Root knows. They know you know nothing, they know you're not harboring important secrets, they know you don't know Kakashi, and they know that the Hokage and Shikaku will raise hell if you disappear.”

“Okay,” Iruka said warily. If Genma said the interrogation had been good luck, he was going to storm out -- if he could stand up. He still felt shaky and gross, and it had hurt folding himself up to sit on the futon.

“You have no political capital, is what I’m saying. That's why you could go home.” It sounded a lot like what Kakashi had said, too. “And please don’t get any political capital, ok?”

Iruka folded his hands into the giant sleeves of Shikaku’s sweater. He couldn't look at Genma. They acted like Iruka was important to Kakashi. Iruka had misled them all somehow by accident, or Kakashi had, maybe on purpose. “You guys act like it’s some big deal. I don’t even know him.” He opened his mouth, closed it. Don’t, he thought, but he couldn’t stop himself; it all came out in a stupid, whiny rush: “I told you what he said -- I’m going to get rolled over. Konoha would be better off without me. I'm probably the weakest shinobi he's ever met.”

He felt Genma’s hand on his shoulder, pulling him back around. Genma’s eyes were intense, the same as when he’d pulled Iruka out of view in the hospital. “Iruka. What you told me, what I heard, is that this guy hates strong shinobi. They are the literal bane of his existence.”

Iruka shook his head. “I’m the one that’s going to get chewed up and spit out, remember?”

“Yeah, because that’s what defines strong shinobi: they get weaker people killed. That makes you, Umino Iruka, children’s teacher, the kind of person Hatake needs to protect to prove he’s not as bad as the rest of us.”

Iruka studied his bundled hands. Kakashi had taken it on faith that ANBU would treat him ungently, that there was no way their touch couldn't bruise. Kakashi had barely been able to let go of Iruka at their door.

“And you think Shikaku wants me to seduce him?” The words felt weird in his mouth. Iruka wasn’t -- he wasn’t seductive.

No.” Genma took a breath. “You’re not the only person in Konoha who could be hurt by a jounin. There are lots of ‘weaker people’ to choose from. Which is why you would say no if someone asked you, ok?”

Iruka rolled his eyes, even as he wrapped his arms tightly around himself. He tried to imagine Shikaku looking for a beautiful chuunin or maybe a shopkeeper and asking her to be Kakashi’s protected person. Ugh. Kakashi sounded like a real idiot.

Iruka rolled over and pulled the blanket over his head. After a moment, the light clicked off.

Are they going to recruit Kakashi?” Iruka whispered in the dark. His neck ached without his pillow.

“Iruka, stop asking about him,” Genma whispered back. “And also I can’t tell you.”

“Yoshino-sensei said he was ANBU before. Why did he leave?”

“It's -- I can't tell you that.”

“Ok,” Iruka said.

But after a moment, Genma added, sounding fierce, “But I will tell you, the reason he left is also the reason they'll never bring him back.”

**

Iruka didn't sleep for a long time.

He dreamt of a red eye devouring his room and of paralysis, of people he didn't know strapping him down. They were annoyed by his lack of professionalism and asked over and over about his missing credentials.

He jolted awake in a bright empty room, Genma’s futon rolled up in the corner, with fifteen minutes until class started.

Iruka had never noticed before how many pre-genin there were running to class, how many civilian shopkeepers and housewives. Even the adult genin who’d specialized in a trade instead of combat. These were the people Kakashi found invisible.

He nearly tripped over a stray dog sleeping at the base of the dormitory stairs, all four legs in the air, long hound-dog ears spread out like wings. When the dog transitioned seamlessly from startled wakefulness to obsequious begging, Iruka gave her a piece of his breakfast rice ball, thinking, You're one of the invisible people too.

The stray followed him all the way to the Academy gate. Iruka fed her again even though he shouldn't because as long as the dog was licking his fingers Iruka had an excuse not to go inside. He wished he had let Kakashi send Pakkun with him.

The annex’s old scratched floors were comfortable under Iruka's feet and the rattling of the heater familiar to his ears. Then he turned his head and caught the edge of a little carving on the door frame, one kanji a touch paler than the rest. His pulse started to race. His knees were unsteady as he walked to his desk, and without meaning to, he started planning reasons to get out of the room, to go home sick, get a new job.

You can't.

If Iruka left, Uchiha Sasuke would be here alone with no one who knew how closely Root was watching and waiting. No one would know to get the other children out. Iruka didn't have to get involved, but he could -- he could tell Yoshino-sensei when something changed.

He went down the hall to the second classroom, the one with the very youngest students, setting his feet carefully every step. Breathe.

“Izumo,” he said.

Izumo looked up from his book, legs swinging as he sat on the desk. Five minutes to start time, there were only a few kids in the room, including a little dark-haired boy sitting in the middle row, hands clasped on the table, staring murder at the blackboard. Uchiha Sasuke.

“Yo, Iruka,” Izumo said. “Not home sick today?”

He barely looked up. Iruka realized he didn’t know. It was Tuesday. Iruka had only missed one day.

“Switch with me,” Iruka said. He didn't have the focus to be anything but blunt. There was an altered seal in here too, just behind Izumo’s head on the lintel. Iruka had to force the words past the shivering dread in his stomach.

Izumo fell forward off the desk, catching himself in a few quick strides to Iruka. “You want the first years? Are you sure -- ”

An explosion of flour erupted from the back of the classroom. A spiky ball of white-dusted yellow and orange rolled down the stairs, cackling madly. The kid fetched up against Iruka’s shin and righted himself on Iruka’s leg, leaving a trail of little white handprints. His face was so caked in white Iruka couldn’t see anything but the boy’s grinning teeth. The grin was deeply satisfied, but compared to Iruka’s prime, the prank was amateur level. Iruka would make him clean it up later.

Iruka looked up past him to Sasuke, who was trying very hard to pretend he hadn’t noticed any noise at all.

“I’m sure,” Iruka said.

Izumo had taken two baffling steps back from the harmless little flour ball on the floor. Two spots of blue appeared as the boy stared up at Iruka in surprise and -- as his mouth dropped open -- awe. Iruka didn’t have time for that right now. “Izumo.”

“Yes, right, sure,” Izumo said, already backing out. “They’re all yours.

**

“Iruka,” Genma caught his arm. He smelled like stale sweat and clay, standing half-undressed in the doorway of the showers. “You switched classes.”

Iruka looked both ways, pausing in wrapping his scarf around his neck. He dropped his voice. “I thought Sasuke should have a teacher who -- knows.”

Genma's hand tightened. “Iruka stay out of this.”

“I am. I just -- when are you going to fix the seals? Do you need some sort of -- cover?”

Now Genma was the one looking both ways up the hall, wincing. “Iruka. We. If we want something that sticks, we have to catch our -- competitor activating the seals. They're too good at throwing us scapegoats. And -- ” Genma rubbed a hand over his face, “I can't be telling you this. Don't get involved.

Iruka said nothing for a long moment. They weren't going to do anything. His face felt stiff. He could feel every blink. “Okay.” He turned towards the door, mechanically wrapping his scarf the rest of the way around his neck.

“Iruka.”

Iruka let his expression show some of the fear and uncertainty he felt in the middle of the night. “I know. I know. It's just -- there are fewer Yamanaka in Sasuke’s class.”

Genma's face contorted like Iruka had stuck one of his senbon in his back.

Iruka was already out the door. Trauma was good for something after all. “Come on,” he said, walking past the little hound mutt sleeping in a patch of sun, offering her a bit of chicken from his lunch between two fingers. The dog shook herself awake and scratched furiously at a flea on her chin before trotting after Iruka. Finally, here was someone who thought Iruka was good for something besides wrapping up in cotton wool.

Kakashi's squatters' camp was empty. Iruka crouched in the corner where the futon had been, trying to convince himself it was the same room. There was that dying vine, and the windows were right. The little hound dog made a circuit of the room, nose to the ground in search of forgotten rations. Iruka sighed. It made sense. He was dealing with jounin-level paranoia here.

He bit his lip. Should he leave a note? This was pretty stupid in retrospect. Why should a damaged jounin with more enemies than friends help Iruka when his best friend wouldn't? Iruka was putting all his money on Inoichi and Genma's nonsense theories. But if Kakashi was more attached to Iruka than he should be, what would he expect from Iruka in return?

And, for that matter, why did this abandoned (and probably condemned) apartment feel safer to Iruka than his own? Idiot, idiot, idiot.

Maybe Iruka was doing more harm than good, crashing around inelegantly when Kakashi didn't want to be found. He didn't want to get Kakashi hurt by the same people who had hurt Iruka. There was no one to take Kakashi home and wrap him in blankets and dogs afterwards. Iruka rubbed his hands over his face tiredly.

“You're not spying for Root are you?” he said wryly to the dog, laughing at himself. Give him time, he'd be jounin-level in paranoia too.

The little dog jumped. “Who, me? No!”

Iruka flailed his way into a combat stance, eyes wide. The dog stared back. “Shit,” she said, “you were joking.”

“Uh -- yeah,” Iruka said.

“Oh, that -- well -- do you have any more chicken?”

“Who are you?”

“I'm Biscuit,” said the dog, “from the Yama-inu clan of Makami Woods, the land of dogs.”

“Ninken,” Iruka breathed.

Biscuit dipped her head self-consciously, long ears flopping. “Unemployed. I'm just doing Pakkun a favor.” She looked around. “Not very well, I guess. This doesn’t look like you're staying out of trouble.”

Iruka took a half-step forward, too eager. “Can you take me to Kakashi?”

“Wow, no! Absolutely not! That's directive number one.”

“He doesn't have to worry about me -- ”

“Ha,” the dog laughed, long ears swinging, “it's not for your safety.”

Iruka gave her a startled look. She smiled up at him, tongue lolling. Her tail thumped once experimentally in the dust.

He thought about giving up. Genma would be watching him, and if Iruka went home now, he would have Biscuit. No one knew she was connected to Kakashi. She would lick his fingers and sit with him and know which of the harmless strangers walking by were really Root. It was hard not to just take that and go.

But Iruka wasn't here to get involved. He could still go home after he did this one small thing. It would be safe. Everyone would be safe.

Iruka pulled out his lunch. Chicken katsu.

**

“You -- you corrupt traitor! A bribe!” Pakkun shouted at Biscuit, who was still licking her lips for the last bit of cutlet sauce. His face was about the level of her shoulder, making his deep, rocky voice seem even more out of place than usual.

“Kakashi doesn't hold my contract,” Biscuit said. She mused dreamily, “Maybe I'll sign Iruka's contract.”

“Yeah,” Pakkun growled, “you'll bring the family great renown with that one.”

Iruka wasn’t listening, his eyes on Kakashi’s back across the room. Kakashi hadn’t moved since Iruka had come in, apparently focused on the work in front of him, but his shoulders were slanted with how hard his hands were pressing into the table.

Iruka had his full attention.

The cold air of the unheated apartment sank into Iruka’s bones, and the details distracted him: the pale curve of Kakashi’s cheek, the carefully repaired stitches on his field vest. Iruka told himself he'd come because of the expert opinions of jounin like Inoichi and Genma. But what stuck in Iruka's mind was the careful way Kakashi had carried him to the Nara. How reluctant he'd been to put Iruka down -- and that he'd done it anyway.

Now that Iruka was here, all the rest of it -- the cold distance, the barely-restrained anger, the kidnapping -- politely knocked on the front of Iruka's brain. Kakashi, Root’s executioner. Remember?

“You're not doing any better, uncle,” Biscuit sniffed, “and I've got plenty of time, lots more than you. Iruka could be my practice contract.”

Pakkun made an incoherent sound of rage.

Kakashi didn’t move even as Iruka came so close that Kakashi’s chakra felt warm through his uniform. It was Pakkun’s chakra again, not quite human. Two scrolls on the table buzzed almost inaudibly with sealing jutsu, both with S-class markings.

“Two?” Iruka said, feeling his own awkwardness, but he had to say something to get Kakashi to look at him. “You’re not doing them both at once?”

“They're both solo assignments,” Pakkun growled, his presence an echo of Kakashi’s chakra but popping with irritation. “Root and ANBU.”

Iruka shot a startled glance at the scrolls. “Why -- you think you can keep both of them happy?”

Kakashi flicked a glance at Iruka, his eye half-lidded and bored as usual. Only the white knuckles of the hand pressed to the table suggested he was uncomfortable. His gaze moved up and down Iruka once and then away. “I'm a solo operative. This is my job.”

“That’s stupid,” Iruka said, horrified. Kakashi thought Iruka needed someone looking out for him? “Solo operatives still have backup and support teams. You just have Pakkun.”

“Hey,” Pakkun growled.

“Don't you have anyone --” Iruka stopped at the empty look on Kakashi's face. “What about Biscuit?”

“No contract.”

“She'll sign up, won't she?”

“No way, no how,” said Biscuit.

“No ninken is going to sign on with him,” Pakkun said, exasperated. “Our job is to bring honor to our family through legendary ninja. This idiot just wants to be forgotten, not to mention, he's -- ” Pakkun cut himself off, finishing awkwardly, “ -- not in a good position.”

“What about you then?”

Pakkun looked pointedly away, muttering, “That trick won't work twice.”

Iruka knelt next to Biscuit who tilted her head up to accept head scratches. “Biscuit, you'd sign my contract if I fed you chicken katsu every day?”

Biscuit laughed. “Well, not really. That would be -- ” She gave him a hopeful look. “Would you though?”

“Sure, I will. But what if I still gave you the katsu every day, only you signed Kakashi's contract instead? He'd be a much better practice contract than me. He goes on more missions, and your uncle would be there to help you out.”

“That sounds nice, Iruka,” Biscuit murmured, eyeing Kakashi, “but everyone would know you were a practice contract, and they'd understand. What if my family really thought I thought that guy would get somewhere?”

Iruka couldn't believe he was hearing this about Hatake Kakashi. “He's a jounin -- one of the most famous in Konoha. That's ‘somewhere’, isn't it?”

“I guess so,” Biscuit sounded apologetic, “but... he doesn't have any chakra. That's a bit embarrassing.”

Doesn't have --? But the sharingan was public now. Genma had the bandages to prove it. There was no more room for bluffing.

“Biscuit,” Pakkun said sharply, ears going flat.

“Iruka,” Kakashi was standing over him, “why are you here?”

Iruka scratched Biscuit’s ears. He didn't want to watch Kakashi's immediate rejection. “I want you to help me fix the seals at the school.”

“Fix them?”

“I don’t know -- Root changed them a little. Couldn’t we just change them a little back?”

Kakashi lifted his eyebrow. “You want me to hold your hand?”

Now Iruka did look up to glare at him. “I’m not a fuinjutsu expert. I don’t want to mess with an S-class seal without -- ” he had to force the words out because it was suddenly so obviously presumptuous, “I thought -- the sharingan -- ”

For a moment, Kakashi stared, and then he turned sharply back to his scrolls.

Iruka felt sick. Oh, why the hell had he believed Genma’s stupid theory. If anyone found out he’d been here, talking to Kakashi… why had he thought this wasn't getting involved.

He went to stand by Kakashi who ignored him, his eyes on the work table. Iruka said softly, “Konoha shouldn't be a place where the weak are get run over by the strong.”

He felt a soft touch on his arm just above the wrist, barely enough to feel through his sleeve. He couldn't even react before Kakashi was jerking his hand back, his eye at little wide like he hadn’t meant to do that. Like he didn't know at all what he was doing.Like he was just like Iruka.

This had happened before too, when Iruka was recovering in the other safe house. Sometimes Kakashi’s reputation peeled back and showed Iruka a person nearly his own age who was at once very desperately unhappy and even more desperately alone. It was too much.

Kakashi tore his gaze away. “I’m not a person who can -- who is in a position to do that.”

“Yes, you are,” Iruka said, the heat in his cheeks making him frustrated and blustery. “I’m not asking you to -- I just want you to stand next to me and tell me where the chakra is. I’ll do everything.”

Even as he said it, Iruka hoped that he would be able to. Who knew how tangled up S-class chakra knots could be.

“Futile gestures are easy.” Kakashi crossed his arms, tucking his fingers carefully into the crooks of his elbows, safely contained. His posture had closed off, and there was that cold, acidic tone again. Iruka was getting tired of it.

“How do you know it's futile?”

“Boss,” Pakkun said. “Don't.”

Iruka shot a look between Pakkun and Kakashi, his expression turning bitter. Kakashi wasn't going to help his kids, and Iruka spoke coldly, meaning to wound, “Is it a bluff then? The sharingan?”

Boss.” Pakkun was shaking anxiously, pacing between Iruka and Kakashi at a waddling trot. Kakashi’s gaze seemed trapped by Iruka, his expression far away. His shoulders lifted with an indrawn breath. His hands gripped his elbows. His eye cleared.

“I have a sharingan,” Kakashi said, breath leaving him like a small explosion. “It just doesn’t work.”

“You idiot,” Pakkun sighed.

**

Kakashi went with him to the school. Iruka didn't understand why, not really.

Kakashi’s sharingan didn’t work. Kakashi couldn’t help him. Kakashi was helping him anyway. Kakashi’s sharingan didn’t work. Kakashi was an S-class operative and ANBU’s bogeyman anyway.

A piece of debris shifted under Iruka’s foot, and he made himself focus on what was in front of him. IT was hard not to keep looking back, to make sure that Kakashi was still trailing him, back against the wall and a careful eye on the hole in the roof where the sky glowed dark blue, littered with stars.

“Here,” Kakashi said, crouched next to the collapsed doorway of Iruka’s very first Academy classroom. He had more memories of it like this than when it was intact. “You remember how to use it?”

“Yeah.” Iruka pulled out the flashlight Kakashi had given him, pushing his chakra into it to active the stored jutsu. It didn't give off any light, but Iruka could feel the jutsu’s faint connection to his chakra. The carving didn’t react. Kakashi leaned past him to rub his thumb over the wood -- no fresh shavings.

“Unaltered,” Kakashi said.

Iruka nodded. It was what they’d expected -- the alterations had been made after the kyuubi’s attack so only the Annex was affected. “The seals weren’t why you came that day?”

“The Academy security protocols are designed to detect unannounced high-ranking ninja,” Kakashi murmured. “They tried to place an operative in the school.”

Iruka gave him a startled look. They -- Root. No wonder that ANBU kunoichi had been so focused on Kakashi; she’d been investigating a Root breach of protocol with a Root operative.

They sent you?”

“No,” Kakashi said. He stood up moving to the next doorway before Iruka could ask about that. Iruka followed him, looking at the ruined school around them, which he’d always taken as a sign of egregious neglect. He wondered if the security protections were a sign of ANBU benevolence or just another aspect of the power struggle between Root and ANBU, trying to mutually limit recruitment.

“Are we setting off the protocols?”

“We aren’t what they’re designed to catch.”

But you are, Iruka thought. An S-class ANBU operative. Right?

“Is it because your -- because it’s broken?”

Suddenly, Kakashi’s hand was on his elbow, drawing Iruka to him until Iruka’s hands brushed Kakashi’s battleworn tactical vest.

His other hand slid gently over Iruka's mouth. Iruka went still.

“Please be discrete, Iruka-sensei,” Kakashi murmured directly into Iruka's ear. Something flipped over in Iruka's stomach. “You know things others don’t.”

“I do?” Iruka mouthed against Kakashi's glove, smelling the chalk shinobi used to keep their grip dry during battle. ‘But -- they know.”

Kakashi looked at him through his half-lidded eye and said nothing.

Iruka’s hands tightened around the flashlight. He couldn’t feel the floor underneath his feet. There was an ocean of difference between telling Iruka something chuunin school teachers didn’t know and telling him something Root and the Hokage didn’t know.

Iruka hadn’t been special since Fujisawa-sensei had called Iruka and his posse the Trouble & Instigation Department. Then, Iruka had been undisputed field commander. Now even Izumo had B-class clearance, and Genma visited the jounin commander to receive orders not to be given sympathy tea and wrapped in pity sweaters.

He knew he shouldn’t let Kakashi hand him secrets like presents, and yet he wanted them very, very badly.

“How?” Iruka murmured, incredulous, and then he thought No, I don’t want to know, but Kakashi was already dipping his head to Iruka’s ear like Iruka had any right to know these things.

“Bad neurology,” Kakashi whispered. “Without the bloodline brain, there’s no off switch. Catastrophic chakra drain. Survival was considered proof of success.”

Pakkun, Iruka thought, you are going to be so mad at him. What if -- what if Iruka told someone. He had tea with the Hokage once a month, his beloved jounin -- chuunin --- whatever -- sensei was the jounin commander’s wife. Iruka was not a person Kakashi should speak to indiscretely.. His hands spasmed around the flashlight. What if Root interrogated him again?

And what would he say if Genma found him here cheek to cheek with Kakashi, so close it was like being enveloped? Genma had told him Kakashi could get attached to anyone, any shinobi weak enough to need protection. Iruka was the one who couldn’t handle being left behind again, the one who’d come back to make sure the attachment stuck, using his kids as an excuse.

Kakashi was watching him. Iruka found his hand picking at one of the worn pockets on Kakashi’s vest. “They didn’t -- they didn’t try again?”

Kakashi didn’t lean in. He didn’t mind letting this travel a few extra inches, apparently. “I'm special. My success can't be reproduced.”

Iruka stared at him. That didn’t sound like something a shinobi would take on faith.

They’re too good at throwing us scapegoats, Genma had said. In Iruka’s head, a blade flashed down while the bandage around Kikka’s eye glowed white in the hot sun.

“What about -- before the massacre. Uchiha Kikka.”

Kakashi shot him a sharp look. At the execution, he’d had no expression at all.

“She was my genin teammate. I -- I was there.”

It took Kakashi a moment to understand -- maybe it hadn't been a memorable day for him -- and then he shied away from Iruka. The same way he had reacted to sending Iruka to the Nara, to leaving Iruka exposed on the street. Iruka pressed his lips together. Of course, Iruka’s appeal to Kakashi was as a vulnerable person as though Iruka had somehow missed that Kakashi and Iruka had been raised to professional violence, espionage, and assassination.

Iruka had enjoyed the privileges Kakashi gave him, had come back for them against all common sense. This he didn’t like.

“I'm a shinobi,” Iruka said, “even if you don't want me to be. I'm not a princess you rescued.”

Kakashi didn't say anything for a long moment. Iruka wondered if this was it, a nice glimpse of how the other half lived, but it was over now. Then Kakashi said as though to himself, “In the best stories, the princesses are always fierce.”

Iruka looked heavenward for patience, trying to pretend his cheeks weren't hot. Kakashi took his hand. Iruka braced himself for -- for princess nonsense, but Kakashi only turned Iruka's hand and the flashlight he was holding towards the broken door frame.

“Time to keep looking,” he said.

Kakashi followed Iruka out towards the annex, stepping over collapsed beams and around splintered holes in the floor.

“I know you’re a shinobi,” Kakashi said quietly. “But if -- my employer -- ”

Iruka shook his head. This was his specialty. “If they come, we henge into children and drop spray paint.”

Kakashi looked thoughtful. After a moment, he nodded his acceptance. Iruka shot him a fiercely pleased look. I am a shinobi. Kakashi’s attention and his secrets were too dear to Iruka after being so long forgotten by his own village. Maybe it was too much, to demand his respect too, but right now Iruka did have it, and he'd hold that close.

“...you’ll have to do the henge for me,” Kakashi murmured, barely audible.

Iruka startled. When they’d left Pakkun behind, when the pug had refused to come, Kakashi’s chakra had dwindled with each step towards the school until it disappeared, leaving behind a faint pop in Iruka's eardrums like he’d just climbed down the Hokage monument. Kakashi’s face had been carefully neutral, inviting no comment. Iruka had been too speechless to offer one.

“Your chakra, is it because...?”

Iruka's fingers closed tightly around the flashlight as Kakashi leaned towards him. His voice was a warm breath against Iruka's ear, a strange and shivery feeling that did not make it easier to do what Iruka should have done and stop taking these secrets Kakashi offered him.

“The person who gave me this eye was… my best friend,” Kakashi whispered. He sounded uncertain, even confused, and it grabbed Iruka’s focus so that he forgot for a moment how close Kakashi stood. “It was a field surgery. We didn't know until we got back that I couldn't turn it off.”

A field transplant -- even a stay-at-home like Iruka knew what that meant for Kakashi’s friend. And he knew -- well, he knew what he'd done to comfort his friends at the orphanage on bad nights. He didn’t know if Kakashi wanted that.

He touched Kakashi’s wrist, expecting to be thrown off at any moment, but when Kakashi’s hand twisted, it was to grip Iruka’s wrist in turn, gratitude in the tightness of his fingers. Iruka held on.

“I was afraid that if I told anyone I didn’t know how to stop it, they would take it away from me to save me,” Kakashi said, “but it was -- given to me. It was all I had of him. My… my other best friend helped me seal my chakra, so it couldn’t reach it.”

Two best friends -- a genin team. Kakashi wasn't so unlike every other ninja after all. Except how surprised he sounded to be using the words out loud. They must both be gone.

“You can use jutsu to mimic the Uchiha brain, though it’s... awkward. But the seal -- we made it too strong. We panicked.”

They were standing so close together the clasps of their vest pockets were catching. Kakashi’s voice had become thick, erratic. Iruka stared at the shadowy shapes of the broken classroom, straining not to miss a word. This story -- this impossible deception -- no one alive knew it, at least no one who stood on two legs. And now Iruka. At that moment, he would not have noticed an Akimichi landing next to him.

“We made it as strong as we could,” Kakashi said. “It can be opened temporarily by another person. She and Pakkun together could -- but with just Pakkun, it eats the chakra up as fast as I can pull it out.”

“When students don't have enough moldable chakra, they describe it like you do -- like it's being eaten up before they can use it. They graduate if they get very good at chakra control. My friend Izumo can beat nin surgeons in chakra precision games, but he can't hold a henge for longer than a minute. Do you use -- which technique do you use?”

“Technique?” Kakashi pulled away, his eye searching Iruka’s face.

“The Academy teaches Maeda Bonsai and Tanaka Folding Cranes techniques.”

“I… never went to the Academy.”

“Oh!” Iruka himself out of his daze, turning in circle in the Annex classroom. He handed Kakashi the chakra flashlight, opening drawers. Yes, there was the grid for the nature-affinity game. Here was the maze of chakra sensitive paper and the stack of refill paper.

“These...” Kakashi said.

Iruka gave a nod towards the door. “Go check the rest of the seals, I’ll be right there.”

The flashlight jutsu was still running, a thread of his chakra wrapped around the handle. Kakashi turned it towards the classroom doorway, and Iruka saw the seal glow dimly in dark -- unlike old seals in the broken down main Academy, these had been imbued with chakra. The glow made Iruka uneasy, like Root was in the room with them, just a shadow.

Kakashi ducked into the hall. Iruka felt the chakra thread stretch. He grabbed the supplies, hurriedly stuffing them into a storage scroll and meeting Kakashi at the door.

Iruka held out the scroll. “Here, these -- ”

He cut himself off. Kakashi wasn't looking at him. He'd gone rigid, staring at the doorway seal. The glow from the chakra flashlight came from only one kanji. Iruka didn't see how it could be very strong that way.

“We need to leave,” Kakashi said. Iruka shot a nervous glance at the seal, but he didn’t understand what Kakashi saw. “This is -- they should never have let me leave if they're willing to -- ”

Kakashi looked sharply at the window. His hand moved into the sign for abort. Iruka stuffed the training supplies into his vest, dropping the flashlight jutsu instantly and flinging the henge over him and Kakashi both. For a moment, it slipped across Kakashi’s skin like he wasn't there, and Iruka started to panic -- but, there, it caught!

Kakashi had already pulled the scroll of vandalism supplies out of Iruka's vest, rolling it open for Iruka even as they each shrank a foot, gaining chubby cheeks and new hair colors. Iruka activated it with a quick swipe of his hand, spilling paint supplies and super glue behind them as they ran for the window.

Their goal was the residential district, where their chakra would be lost in the crowd of sleeping people in their homes. Iruka led Kakashi to an old hideaway, through a loophole in the traps of a shinobi pharmacy and out into the back garden of medicinal herbs, good for concealing chakra.

They lay in the dark behind the shed, Kakashi's hand on Iruka's hip, ready to fling him out of the way of whatever strike would come. Their rapid breaths slowed, fogging in the cold. Nobody found them.

**

"Iruka, if you’re going to use my room for a hook-up,” Anko said, yawning, “you should at least try to be gone by the time I get home.” She had her T&I uniform still on, disturbingly stained. She put her hand up to block the sliver of early sunlight through the small window.

“Sorry,” Iruka said sheepishly. “I was waiting for Genma to leave.”

Anko’s eyebrows went up, and she laughed.

Iruka went bright red up to his hairline, belatedly realizing it sounded like he wanted to use his own room for ‘round two’. Anko didn’t notice -- she’d moved on to appraising the lanky, dark-haired civilian sitting against her wall, his long legs stretching out over her spare futon. Her hand signed “mission success” next to her hip -- Iruka's tastes fully approved.

Kakashi lifted a hand, eyes crinkling. He had thin lips but a broad smile with a small scar on the lower lip that Iruka hadn’t erased in the henge. It was another secret given freely that Iruka should have had the strength to refuse.

“Yo,” Kakashi said.

Genma’s head poked around the edge of the door, looking sleepy and bandana free and immediately turning Iruka’s stomach to lead. “Oh there you are,” he said to Iruka. He looked curiously at Kakashi. The look he shot Iruka was more severe, like -- This is what you kept me up worrying for?

Genma was probably glad Iruka had finally decided to act out through sex instead of through interference in S-class politics.

More importantly, he didn't look at Kakashi twice. Iruka had done this second henge a little sloppily so Kakashi would have that barely-there chakra buzz of someone without moldable chakra. Iruka could probably hold this henge a half an hour, longer if he could take breaks when they were alone. He'd meant to make Kakashi try it himself, even if it would be ambitious after just one night of practice, but he'd forgotten how early Anko came home.

“This is Yuuto,” Iruka said, shoving the storage scrolls of chakra-training back into his vest and slipping past Genma. Kakashi got awkwardly to his feet behind him, unfolding like a beach umbrella. “Thanks, Anko.”

They all followed him into the kitchen, drawn by the promise of gossip like stray cats after a fish truck. Iruka tried to ignore them, pulling out leftover pickles and fish, dishing some day-old rice out of the restaurant-grade rice cooker they all shared. Genma sipped at a cup of what Iruka knew would be egregiously over-sweetened tea while Anko cocked her hip against the counter in a vaguely threatening way -- as was her right as a T&I employee.

That was fine until Iruka made the mistake of yawning and a spate of snickers and snorts broke out. Great, Izumo was awake too, cracking his neck for a glimpse of Kakashi, sitting unperturbed at the kitchen island, watching Iruka politely like an attentive student on his first day of class.

He barely even glanced Genma’s way. But of course, how would a civilian know he was the highest ranking ninja in the building, anyway?

Iruka glared at him.

“So this is a ninja house, huh?” Kakashi said.

Iruka rolled his eyes quickly at the wall. He wrapped his hands around the bowl of rice, performing a quick warming jutsu, and slid it over to Kakashi visibly steaming. Just the right amount of chakra to make it warm without burning it or Kakashi. A perfectly executed application of fine chakra control. So there, Hatake.

Kakashi cupped his hands gently around the warm bowl like someone huddling around a fire -- the room was a little chilly -- and said, filthily, “Oh, sensei.”

It was a huge hit with the audience. Iruka had to press his lips together so hard it hurt to keep from laughing himself. Genma raised his eyebrow, shooting Iruka a look a lot like the one he'd worn when he'd thought Pakkun was Iruka's new summons. He seemed satisfied though because he left to get ready, shoving Izumo down the hall and telling Anko, “Go to sleep already.”

“Nice friends,” Kakashi said. They were alone in the kitchen.

“They’re pretty good,” Iruka said. “Got any?”

Kakashi tilted his head. “Yes, I have one friend.”

It tripped Iruka up a little. Unless Kakashi meant Iruka…? But he hadn't given Iruka a knowing look or a wink or any sign the answer was tongue in cheek. Iruka had asked as a joke, an attempt to score a few points since he wasn't used to being the butt of the joke these days the way he had been in the kitchen surrounded by gawkers. He hasn't expected Kakashi to answer or the bitter disappointment he would feel when Kakashi did.

Of course it was stupid for Iruka to think he was Kakashi’s only connection to -- to humanity or happiness or something. Iruka wasn’t the only person Kakashi had ever met or anything.

But Iruka had thought that. He'd felt like the most generous person in the world just letting Kakashi stand next to him, touching Kakashi's hand like no one had ever touched his hand before. What was Iruka hanging around for then, if he wasn't doing Kakashi a huge favor by breathing his air?

The kitchen was still empty. It wouldn't last. Izumo would be out of the bathroom and grabbing his lunch in just another minute.

“Hey,” Iruka said before he could think too much about it. He leaned against the counter next to Kakashi, picking at a caked-on stain. “Would you want to -- kiss me?”

Kakashi’s chopsticks stopped poking at his bowl. He didn’t look up. “Here?”

“Yeah. I mean, no one would be surprised. They think -- “ Iruka knew he was babbling. Kiss me for our cover. What an idiot.

“I wouldn't know how.”

“Oh!” Iruka stared. “Oh. You --”

Kakashi’s lips quirked in frustration. “No, I know that. I just -- ” The grimace disappeared. His shoulders ticked down half an inch. He said very quietly into his rice bowl, “I don't think it would be that kind of kiss.”

Iruka nodded, swallowing. He stared determinedly at the coupons attached to the fridge. Of course. He’d misunderstood. He’d assumed -- He’s a jounin. One of the strongest in Konoha. You aren’t his whole world, Iruka, like some kind of fairy tale. “Ok. Sorry.”

Iruka finished his own breakfast, and Kakashi silently helped him put things away. In the doorway, he slipped Kakashi the storage scrolls of chakra practice materials.

“Practice, okay?” he whispered picking up his bag. They walked to the corner together.

“I'll be gone for a few days,” Kakashi said, and Iruka realized with a jolt that he still meant to go on his double-solo S-class. Iruka hadn’t ever finished convincing Biscuit to go with him.

“Please be careful,” Iruka said.

“Have a safe day at class, sensei,” Kakashi said, unconcerned.

And then he put his hands on Iruka's cheeks and pressed his henged lips to Iruka's temple. His thumb brushed across Iruka's cheekbone tenderly like someone memorizing something they didn't want to forget.

Iruka's eyes widened, heart jumping. His stomach turned over.

Not that kind of kiss, he thought stupidly. Kakashi had been right. This kiss was something else entirely, something huger and more fragile than he'd been prepared for. Iruka, you idiot, what have you gotten into.

At lunch, he saw Biscuit outside the annex -- she hadn't gone with Kakashi then, not even for chicken katsu. He felt weak with worry. He turned away from the window, setting his jaw. Biscuit hung her head and didn't come in to ask for chicken.

You're involved, he thought. You're so, so involved. What are you going to do?

**

Go right back apparently.

Biscuit came to get him a few days later, not making eye contact. “You might want to come by,” she'd said.

Iruka didn't know what that meant -- he's dying, come say goodbye? Or it's time for another round of chakra practice?

Iruka smelled blood in the hallway. As his hand brushed the knob, he felt the brush of a chakra presence inside the room that wasn't a dog. Biscuit still stood hopefully at his side, not bothered by whoever was in the room, so he threw open the door before he could decide to run away.

Kakashi was sitting at the desk, slumped over with this head on his hand. He was wearing a sleeveless shirt with a mask, and every bit of exposed skin along his left side seemed to be one big bruise. Iruka couldn't see more because of the large figure in green standing over him.

Iruka stiffened, but nothing in Kakashi’s body language reflected a threat. His eyes were closed, and his slumped posture left his injured side open to attack. Pakkun slept curled next to his elbow, a bandage on his leg, snoring.

“Ah,” said the mystery figure brightly, his smile broad and sincere. He was a blunt, bony looking man from the big knuckles on his hands to the sturdy crest of his nose and chin. He looked at Iruka with recognition. “Look who it is!”

“Oh,” Iruka said. “I’m sorry -- ”

The man bowed deeply. “Maito Gai, Umino Iruka-sensei.”

Kakashi had… talked about him?

Behind him Kakashi opened his eye and shied away, brow furrowed unhappily. “Tell him to go away,” he said hoarsely.

Iruka knew what that was. More princess nonsense. He set his feet. He wouldn't be moved.

“Away?” said Maito Gai. “Kakashi, I know who he is. The spirit needs recuperation, too.”

Kakashi put his hand over his normal eye. He sounded exhausted. “That’s why he should leave.”

“No,” Iruka said.

Gai turned to him with delighted surprise. He held out his hand like a host welcoming in a guest, ushering Iruka towards him. Iruka came forward awkwardly, standing in the shadow of this effusive stranger. Kakashi ignored them both, face hidden in his hands.

It was weird seeing Kakashi and Gai share the same space. Iruka was always aware of Kakashi the way a deer tracked a wolf, and Kakashi returned the favor, always gentling his steps in Iruka's presence, holding himself back so as not to startle. Nothing at all like he'd been in the alley. It made Iruka feel special, even when he felt coddled, but watching Kakashi and Gai --

Iruka had never seen Kakashi so relaxed and unvigilant, like he might slide off the table and fall asleep on the floor. His elbows seemed to be the only thing holding his head up. He didn’t twitch when Gai moved. For his part, Gai didn't need to look at Kakashi to know his expression.

This was Kakashi's one friend, then. A close friend, judging by Pakkun’s total disregard for his presence and by the open medical kit on the table.

“Can I help?” Iruka said.

“Please,” Gai said, a hand on his sternum, “just the support of your heart!”

Kakashi still wouldn’t look at Iruka. It wasn’t like Iruka didn’t know Kakashi hated the idea of Iruka being touched by Kakashi’s violence. From that perspective, Iruka shouldn’t be surprised to meet someone like Gai, someone who knew the whole of Kakashi’s life. Iruka was someone on the periphery. Someone for childlike goodbye kisses and fantasies of sheltered, kinder lives. He wasn't supposed to see the blood and bandages.

There was a need in his chest he didn't really understand, but it was clogging up his throat and pushing him closer to the table whether Kakashi wanted him there or not.

He pulled Kakashi’s unbruised hand gently away from Kakashi’s face. He'd been given a job after all. Kakashi’s fingers closed around Iruka’s.

“On my field bag,” Kakashi said.

“What?”

Kakashi’s eye opened a sliver. He tipped his head towards the corner where a battered field pack sat half open. A folded sheet of paper rested on top. Gai’s hand fell on his shoulder, Gai shaking his head minutely when Iruka made to walk away. Kakashi turned his head brusquely to the wall, a flush rising above his mask, but he didn’t drop Iruka’s hand either.

Gai brought the paper over. It was a geometric diagram, drawn a bit like a maze.

“It's the school layout,” Kakashi said, “but mirrored and doubled. I marked where to break the jutsu.”

Iruka clutched the paper gratefully. It mattered that Kakashi had done this, even on a mission, even with a friend like Gai. “Thank you.”

“It's the simplest way I could find. Just one connection. They might not notice it's broken. Not for a while.”

Iruka nodded. “I know just how to do it.”

Kakashi looked him in the eye then. “Your kids will be safe after this. You can be done being involved.”

“I'll be careful. You'll protect me,” Iruka said. That was what Kakashi wanted, wasn’t it? Someone to protect?

“Please don't have such faith in me.”

Iruka looked at him helplessly, holding the map tightly against his chest.

“You came to visit?” Gai asked.

"I came to teach.” He looked at Kakashi. “How did it go?”

Kakashi straightened. He was a professional delivering a mission report. Iruka watched closely, wondering if he could teach this to his kids.

“The sharingan eats everything immediately,” Kakashi said. “But it felt like maybe not as quickly. I was able to tree walk.”

Iruka stared at him. “Really? That was -- fast. That's great.

"He is a fast learner, sensei,” Gai said proudly. “You will be well rewarded for your instruction.”

“Oh, jeez,” Pakkun rolled over, grumbling, “don’t encourage them.”

Iruka looked down at the encrypted map of the school, the simple instructions that would let a chuunin school teacher stand between his kids and a secret shinobi organization. He knew when Gai said ‘rewarded’ that Gai didn’t mean -- well. But Iruka was blushing anyway.

**

It didn’t take much to let the class ‘find out’ Iruka had tried to outsmart them by hiding his ungraded tests and homework in the wall. It took even less to accidentally dare Uzumaki Naruto to ungracefully break them out.

Iruka watched the sparks fly and the wall crack, the rift running all the way to the door frame. He was overcome with a feeling of such expansive relief that he forgot not to hide his impressed smile.

Naruto’s expression of “Ha! Take that!” faded in confusion when Iruka didn't yell, his eyes blowing wide before his grin came back, defensiveness replaced with the brightest joy.

Iruka finally remembered to shake his head, but he was laughing, too.

**

Biscuit was outside again with that same sheepish look. Iruka sighed and crouched down to give her a bit of his leftover lunch. Things were okay now. As she licked his fingers, ears pricking up hopefully, he scratched her chin enthusiastically to cover his whisper of “Tell him: mission success.”

Izumo burst through the gate, Genma in tow. “Hayate got an A-class, Iruka! We’re going out.”

“Hayate is coming too?”

“Hell, no, he's on his mission! This is for luck!”

Iruka laughed. He had enough happiness of his own to share. It was like he'd finished an A-class of his own, returning finally home to old familiar friends.

“Alright, I’ll be there,” he said.

Izumo, Genma, Kotetsu, Hayate -- they had been Iruka’s crew since he’d been a little boy: his lookouts and co-planners, the people Iruka had protected every time he gleefully took full credit in the face of glaring authority figures. Kotetsu met them at the bar with Inuzuka Kenshi, Genma’s genin teammate who had been neither poor nor pathetic enough to hang out with them as pre-genin.

They’d chosen a mixed civilian and shinobi place, though Izumo complained Genma could have used his rank to get them into a more exclusive bar. Iruka ignored it until he glanced Genma’s way and found Genma wouldn’t look him in the eye. He didn't want Iruka near strong ninja. Near Root.

Iruka rolled his eyes and bought another round. He couldn't exactly tell Genma, I fixed it. I'm done. At least in the civilian bars no one cared about your age if you wore a field vest.

Iruka didn’t understand why his gaze kept straying away from his friends until he saw Biscuit standing between tables, tail wagging hopefully. Gai was just pushing open the door behind her, and behind him came Kakashi wearing the henge Iruka had made for him.

Izumo leaned over Iruka’s lap in excitement, noticing ‘Yuuto’ at the same time Iruka did. “Oh, hey!”

“Hmm?” Kenshi said. “Who’s this?”

Izumo’s whisper was nowhere near quiet enough to keep Iruka from hearing him: “Iruka disappeared all night last weekend and came back with’Yuuto’.

“In Anko’s room, not mine,” Genma put in, “which is what really matters.”

None of which really prepared them for Gai. Genma did a double take to see him with Kakashi, and Iruka wondered if Gai was Root, too. Or jounin?

“Umino Iruka!” Gai bellowed. With the music playing, it was almost an appropriate volume. “Look who I’ve met in my civilian taijutsu class!”

“You teach a civilian taijutsu class?” Iruka asked. He tried to imagine what civilians would think of Maito Gai.

“Health is a good thing for everyone, sensei,” Gai said seriously, and Iruka had no doubt he meant every word. “Not only ninja are affected by our dangerous life, and it lifts my spirit to lift the spirits of others.”

“Oh.” Iruka couldn’t help but grin. “Gai, I think I like you.”

Gai bowed. “Thank you, Iruka-sensei!”

Kakashi was scuffing his foot like a shy kid in Iruka’s class. Iruka found himself filled with delight watching it in context of his friends. He pushed Izumo back to climb out from their cluster of ratty couches, and impulsively, he wrapped his arms around Kakashi’s neck, tangling his hands in the dark hair at the back of ‘Yuuto’s’ neck. He pulled Kakashi’s face down to meet his. Kakashi had shown Iruka his ‘kind of kiss’. Now Kakashi could see Iruka's.

Kakashi pulled back, totally flummoxed. Iruka's hands tightened. He was always getting ahead of himself with Kakashi.

“Sorry, was that okay?” Iruka whispered.

Kakashi shot an uncertain glance behind Iruka, at everyone there. He kissed Iruka’s forehead at his hairline -- prompting loud laughter from Izumo and an “Aww” from Kotetsu and Kenshi. Kakashi slid a hand around Iruka, running over his rib cage to his waist. Iruka couldn't meet the eyes of his laughing friends, who were shouting questions about Yuuto’s sheltered -- or perhaps religious? -- lifestyle, but a sliver of unexpected happiness had crept into his heart. So he shouted back that he was working on unsheltering him and pressed his shoulder up against Kakashi’s.

Izumo cheered.

Kakashi did kiss him for real that night, away from prying eyes in the dark alcove next to the coat rack (which was really a measure of how many civilians were in the bar. No ninja would leave his coat someplace where a stranger could reach it). The kiss felt like an answer to the need that had been building in Iruka's chest, the barely intelligible urge to step closer.

The kiss broke with Kakashi's hand on his chest pushing him farther into the alcove, hiding him with his body. Through the window between Kakashi's body and the wall, Iruka saw shinobi walking by, active field nin by the way they held themselves and the practical weaponry they carried. They didn’t look much different from Iruka's friends. One of them was even smiling.

They had to be Root.

Across the room, Genma was watching.

He’d come around the corner and stopped there, expression flat and murderous, eyes on Kakashi boxing Iruka into the corner. He must have come to get Iruka for the same reason -- to keep Iruka as far away from Root as possible. He’d seen ‘Yuuto’ move to hide Iruka, and he’d known.

"Go wait outside. I'm going to get our coats,” Iruka said. Kakashi lifted an eyebrow, but he stepped away when Iruka shook his head.

Genma turned to follow as Iruka pushed by. “Iruka.”

“We’re just leaving,” Iruka said. “Leave me alone.”

“Iruka. I’m not -- you act like I'm being an asshole -- ”

They were too close to the tables. Kenshi heard them, sighing: “Genma, are you scaring them off? We don't mind non-ninja.”

“What?” Izumo said, lurching around.

Iruka left. Genma followed him, herding him into the first sheltered place he could find -- ha, it was the same little nook where Kakashi had kissed him. Iruka pulled the memory around him like a moat against Genma's disapproval.

“Is this Shikaku? Did they ask you…” Genma trailed off, unusually prudish for a ninja.

“No,” Iruka said mulishly.

“So you’re doing this. I get -- I get why he seems exciting.” Genma closed his eyes tightly, blew air out through his teeth. “You know why he switched organizations?”

Iruka gave him a flat stare. Determined to weather this. He wanted to say He protected my kids better than you did. But he couldn't say that. Root and ANBU seemed to always know each other's business. If he said it, Root would find out. Terrible gossips, killers.

Genma gritted his teeth in frustration. “He left the organization because our competitor promised him he would be the one to kill Sarutobi Hiruzen.”

Iruka swayed like he'd punched in the gut. He looked at Genma, really seeing him instead of putting up an icy wall to keep him out.

Genma let out a sharp, satisfied sigh, shoulders dropping. “Iruka, it was his condition to join. If they're making a move now? One guess as to who they're acting through. You're an asset Iruka. You're the Hokage's only regular visitor who's not in administration or a jounin. You’re his unguarded flank.”

Iruka shook his head.

“Iruka.”

“He’s not with them,” Iruka said. Something caught in his throat, and he was furious that he might sound uncertain. "If they’re a problem, then you need him, and I'm -- doing you a favor. He doesn't know any shinobi who aren't -- he'd forgotten -- “ Iruka stumbled to a halt, lost. He touched his cheek. His eyes were wet.

He shoved past Genma, angry and wondering how someone with barely functional chakra could have everyone so scared of him.

He didn't kiss Kakashi again that night.

**

Two days later, Iruka turned the corner to the sound of demolition. A wall fell with a crash, a cloud of dust rushing across the street. Iruka covered his mouth, coughing and blinking. The yellow top of a bulldozer stuck up over the fence at the old Academy. Genin engineers crawled over the unstable structure, setting tags and shouting down measurements to companions on the ground.

They were rebuilding the old Academy. Root was rebuilding it. If ANBU were involved, Genma would have told him as a bargaining chip, anything to keep Iruka away from Kakashi.

Nausea rose in his throat. No, no, no. He turned and ran for the abandoned section of the market district, barely remembering to circle back in case of pursuit.

It didn’t matter. Kakashi wasn’t home.

Iruka stared stupidly at the door. Kakashi was supposed to be his partner in this, the one who told him, You can do exactly this and be safe. The one who knew where to find him if it all went wrong.

He heard Genma’s voice in his head: You’re an asset, Iruka. But Iruka didn’t really believe that. Kakashi was on a mission. Or practicing his chakra control someplace like Iruka had told him to.

He couldn’t wait. Root could build whatever jutsu and tricks they wanted right into the mortar. Iruka had stopped them, had fixed it, and they were just starting all over again because Kakashi was right. Root and ANBU were two brawling giants. An ant like Iruka only existed to get crushed between them.

He could delay them. A malfunction. Something he’d done before. Hadn't Fujisawa-sensei used to call him “an unholy destructive terror”? This was his moment. None of his kids were ever going to find out the best treatment for the post-interrogation shakes. There weren't enough Pakkuns to go around anyway.

Pipelines, he thought. I once poured dish detergent in the pipes. They can’t build a school without plumbing.

The bell was ringing as Iruka got back to the Academy. Class starting. His chest clenched. Would Root notice he wasn’t there?

Too late. Doesn’t matter.

He snuck around to a small side street one building over. This was the sewer entrance Iruka had used for one of his more elaborate pranks and his first experience with Academic suspension. Good, he still remembered how to open it.

There were half a dozen pipes in here. Iruka crouched inside the tiny space, frowning. How had he figured out which one went to the school? Should he have tried for an electrical problem? Working plumbing seemed like something that mattered late in the process. Maybe he could flood the site...

He ducked his head, shutting his eyes and just breathing. You need to think this through, Iruka. You need to know where the pipe goes, which one goes to the annex and which one to the main building. Then you make a plan. Come on, you used to know how to do this.

Ok. That’s what he’d do. Teach class. Recon. They won’t finish today. It's okay.

But when he climbed out of the sewer, there were ANBU masks waiting.

Owl. And Hawk. Iruka’s stomach sank.

**

They put a paper seal along his spine just between his shoulder blades. It burned with every step and breath, snapping at Iruka’s chakra. Iruka had never known he used his chakra to breathe. If the seal on Kakashi’s chakra felt like this all the time, it must be excruciating just to live. How desperate and terrified had he been to be willing to cripple himself like this just to keep the sharingan from eating him alive.

Iruka wished he’d left a note.

They took him underground almost immediately. As kids, Iruka and his friends had always claimed there were tunnels everywhere. He didn't feel vindicated to find that it was true. It was warmer down here, definitely above freezing and damp in a way that seemed to get into Iruka's bones. One of the Root operatives wrapped a blindfold around Iruka's head, and he didn’t see anything after that.

Maybe Root would file another work order like they did for Iruka’s interrogation. ANBU would find it. The Nara would see it. The worst they could accuse Iruka of was vandalism, right?

He felt cold and shivery, only a little at first but soon the Root operatives had to help him walk. Bright colors were bursting behind his eyelids, and he kept tripping over flat ground.

Velcro ripped -- one of the Root ANBU had opened Iruka’s vest pocket, the one with the high grade chakra tags Kakashi had slipped in before they’d gone to investigate the school. Fabric shifted as the operative showed them to his companion.

“He’s the Nara’s pet,” said the other. Iruka remembered that voice from his kitchen. Owl.

“No,” said Hawk. “ANBU changed their standard set a few months ago. These are ours.”

A snort. “He is Hatake’s asset, then.”

They let go of him, and his knees cracked painfully against a stone floor. Owl grabbed Iruka’s shoulder as he fell, dislocating it with a professional twist and a tangible grinding of bone on bone. He curled in on himself, breathing in controlled gasps as the pain washed over him. He managed not to scream, he thought, turning his face to the cold, gritty floor. You’re a shinobi.

A sandaled foot rested on his shoulder blade, not pushing down -- yet. A calm promise of future brutality.

They were talking shop above him.

“This one? Why?” said Owl.

“Teacher,” said the Hawk knowledgeably. “And an ANBU darling for some reason. Intel says he has tea with the Hokage nearly weekly.”

So ANBU and Root both felt they could explain Kakashi and Iruka. It was so easy. Iruka clenched his eyes shut and tried to go someplace where he couldn't hear them.

“Ah,” said the Owl, politely interested.

They went quiet. One of them reached down to yank Iruka’s blindfold off, sending a streak of pain through his throbbing shoulder. He cried out a little then.

Danzo Shimura rose above him in heavy, layered robes, his big, scarred hands resting on knees set far apart, legs planted like anchors. He made a hulking figure worse by far than Yamanaka Inoichi. The stool he sat on was the same used by generals in the field, the same kind the Hokage and the council had used at the execution of Uchiha Kikka’s attacker. Danzo even had his banners behind him -- the Konoha leaf and the Uchiha fan.

Looking at them made Iruka cold all over with despair. Kakashi had warned him. It didn’t matter that it was impossible; Danzo meant to be the heir of the Uchiha. He would never let Kakashi go.

“Sabotage, Umino-sensei?” Danzo said pleasantly, leaning forward with his hands clasped between his knees. His expression was soft, grandfatherly. “You know that is a serious offense. Treason, even, depending on what you seek to destroy. You’ve seen the effects of treason before, haven’t you?”

Danzo had been the one to hand Kakashi his blade that day, when Kakashi had killed a barely-known Yamanaka for cutting a sharingan out of a little girl’s face. They’re too good at throwing us scapegoats. Who had they executed that day in the heat? Where was poor Kikka’s eye now? Reunited with her other probably, somewhere on a shelf with the rest of the Uchiha sharingan. The Uchiha were cremated. What idiot would believe that.

Thinking about the Uchiha was better than thinking about the Owl’s foot pressing on his back or the tears dripping down his cheek with every throb of pain from his shoulder. If he stopped, even for a second, he knew he’d be overcome by the memory of that flashing blade cutting down in the sunlight.

Maybe they’d make Kakashi wield it this time, too.

“He has Hatake’s gear,” said the Owl, “and there’s a possible report of Hatake with him at a Yakisugi Street bar.”

“Ah,” Danzo said. “ANBU’s little whispering siren. Kind. Vulnerable. Good with children. How painfully… effective.”

Iruka stared up at him. They couldn’t really think -- ?

“I’ve sent for Fu,” said the Owl.

Yamanaka Fu. Iruka started to shiver.

“No,” Danzo said. “The jounin commander reminded me that Umino-sensei hasn’t had his counter-intelligence training. It would be unethical of us to subject him to those methods. We’ll have to be more traditional.”

The foot on Iruka’s shoulder blade slammed down with the full weight of the adult shinobi behind it. Iruka’s cheek cracked against the stone, dissolving his vision in white. His shoulder burst into bright, burning pain. This time, he screamed.

Time stopped making sense. He couldn’t tell where the next blow was coming from. He couldn’t gather enough coherence to ask them to stop. They didn’t bother restraining him. Every so often they'd stop, letting him catch his breath long after he'd already lost it, letting the anticipation build.

“I'm not an operative,” he gasped desperately during one of these breaks. It came out a mumble, no air behind it, his tongue feeling numb. The floor was slick with blood. The shinobi above him were talking about the weather.

Danzo leaned forward on his stool until his face was close to Iruka’s ear. He whispered, “I know.”

**

A medic came by when they were letting Iruka doze, trying to find a position that didn’t hurt. The medic just touched a few pressure points and congratulated the Owl and the Hawk on their technique. “No permanent damage,” she said. “Here’s something to give him if the shock affects his attention span.”

Iruka curled up a little tighter, his shoulder protesting every time he shivered on the cold floor. And then he heard someone say, “Hatake Kakashi to see you, Shimura-sama.”

Iruka couldn’t lift his head, and so he didn’t see Kakashi until he was standing almost at Danzo’s right hand. Kakashi had a dark stain on his mask like something underneath it was bleeding. The bruising on his face had faded to a subtle, green tinge. He walked with the same unimpressed confidence that had driven Genma up the wall at the Nara compound.

Relief flooded through Iruka like a painkiller. Is it over? It has to be over, please, please. Iruka imagined he was curled up on Kakashi’s futon again, hugging Pakkun, and sleeping for days someplace where no one could find him.

“Ah,” Danzo said, smiling down at Iruka, “so we have identified a connection. It’s good to know Intel does not miss everything.

Kakashi didn’t look at Iruka. “What do you want?”

“What do you want, Hatake?” Danzo asked. “We’ve known each other for so long, and yet I feel I get whiplash trying to meet your needs.”

“Return him to the Nara. The ANBU Rat has already identified me as a threat to Umino. Whatever you do will be on me.”

“And what are you worried about? That there will be no place for you there if he’s too damaged? Testing the water with your old employer?”

“I don’t want a mask,” Kakashi said evenly. “I want to be a field operative for Konoha again. Public, team missions. I can be an asset to you by being visible.”

Danzo sighed, studying his fingernails mournfully. He kept talking like Kakashi hadn’t said anything at all. “I can’t believe that you of all people would cultivate a weakness like this. I want to congratulate ANBU on their strategy except I know they didn't do this.” He nudged Iruka’s shin, not even bothering to make it hurt. Iruka flinched anyway. “If they had, we wouldn't have taken him so easily.”

Kakashi’s posture had started to look stiff instead of loose, his shoulders not so much still as rigid. “Do you want me to return to service? I’ll do it.”

“No,” Danzo said. “I want you to tell me how it works.”

“I don’t know,” Kakashi said. “It just happens. I see it, and I move.”

It sounded like a refrain. Like Kakashi had been repeating this for ten years, and this was the first time it hadn’t worked.

Danzo’s smile turned to bared teeth. His soothing voice dripped sarcasm and leashed violence. “You are unique, truly. I always suspected it might be bloodline -- an Uchiha by-blow somewhere in your family tree. They always kept such tight control on their descendants, I thought.”

“Yes,” Kakashi said, but quiet like he didn't have the breath.

Danzo slammed his cane against the stone floor, a thunderous crack that echoed through the room and made Iruka flinch and moan. “We’ve spent ten years inspecting your family tree, Hatake. And we found nothing.”

Danzo’s fingers flicked furiously towards someone over Iruka’s head. Iruka flung his hands over his head, muscles clenching in a wash of pain that become white-edge agony when the foot came down. They’d spent the last few hours calibrating Iruka’s scream, building tender spots that they could play like an instrument. It had been for this. Iruka understood now why Kakashi shied away from showing Iruka his violence, the worst part of him.

Iruka didn’t want Kakashi to see him at his worst either. He didn’t want Kakashi to see him sobbing life this, pleading exactly Danzo wanted him, no chance at strength or dignity.

When the haze faded away, and Iruka was aware of himself again, gasping and shaking on the ground, he saw Kakashi had taken a step towards him. Iruka looked at him in despair -- No. They can ask for anything now. They won’t stop hurting me now that they know.

Kakashi shut his eye, and Iruka knew that he knew his mistake. Iruka turned his head rather than hate Kakashi for it. He wanted to go home.

“You have no Uchiha bloodline, no genetically specialized neurology,” Danzo said. “The story you told us, you and Nohara -- of fighting off Iwa with a brand new sharingan, still bleeding -- that story was a lie. There is nothing special about you at all, Hatake, and if you can master the eye,anyone can.”

He stood, putting his boot over Iruka’s wrist on the floor. “Tell me how you did it.”

Kakashi gave Iruka a sad hopeless look. He can do it, Iruka realized. He could give Danzo a working sharingan. He could tell Danzo how to put a working sharingan into every Root operative. Kakashi wasn’t a special case at all -- except that he’d figured out how to do the impossible on his own with jury-rigged jutsu, and it had taken a decade for anyone to notice.

Iruka remembered when he thought Kakashi had been the enemy, when he’d held Kakashi off with nothing but a flashbang and guts. Iruka had wondered then if Konoha had needed him to die to prove he was a good shinobi. Maybe now was that time.

But he couldn’t make himself say it. He was too much a coward, too afraid what dying would look down here, how long it would take if Kakashi walked out. He wasn’t ready for this. He didn’t care if Danzo got to use every sharingan the Uchiha ever had, not really, not if it would let him go home.

But he didn’t want it to be his fault

He waited, unable to look away from Kakashi. Every moment of pain it was possible to suffer in life depended on this, and Iruka couldn't breathe for the terror of waiting.

After a long awful moment, Kakashi spoke, his voice hollow and dead: “My visual cortex can only process visual information.”

Iruka closed his eyes, so painfully grateful and ashamed by his gratefulness.

“The sharingan is meant to detect and predict non-visual characteristics such as chakra. It is possible to replace the functions of an Uchiha visual cortex using altered common jutsus.”

“Don’t play me, Hatake. We tried that,” Danzo said.

“Not like this,” Kakashi said. He hesitated. “Let -- let me see him.”

Iruka opened his eyes, Kakashi’s sandals on the ground in front of him, the same way he’d seen them the night after his interrogation. Kakashi’s knees lowered to the ground. His hand didn’t shake, but when Iruka followed it up to Kakashi’s face, tension had carved deep lines around his eye.

“I really want to go home,” Iruka whispered like a confession. He should say, Don’t tell them.

“I know,” Kakashi said. He ran his hand over Iruka’s ribs, lingering at his shoulder.

“ANBU will come get me,” Iruka tried. He could take a little more of this, couldn’t he? That was noble too.

“No, they won’t.”

Iruka swallowed. “If you want to protect the weak in Konoha, you should protect all of them not just me.”

Kakashi brushed a hand over Iruka’s cheek, wiping away the snot and blood with his glove. He sat back and turned to Danzo: “The first step is to sever the sharingan’s connection to your chakra. The only effective jutsu is the forbidden Seven Hidden Rivers technique. I can teach you to do all these things.”

Danzo smiled.

Owl laid his long blade against Iruka’s neck. Kakashi froze, weight shifting to strike, and then in one smooth, forceful motion, Hawk put his blade through Kakashi’s stomach from behind, the point grazing Iruka’s open palm. Hot blood splashed against his skin, flooding over his vest.

“No!” Iruka shouted, hoarse, lurching forward even as his arms refused to obey him.

“Let’s discuss your medical care, Hatake-san,” Danzo was saying somewhere far away and indistinct.

Kakashi’s hands hit the stone with a grunt, catching himself as he fell. His eye was unfocused, staring at something between himself and Iruka.

“No,” Iruka said again, and then, “no,” even as they dragged him away. Someone pressed a paper seal at the base of his throat, zipping his coat and then his vest up over it. It stole his voice away, but he kept chanting it in his head -- no, no, no -- even as his lips moved soundlessly.

The light outside the tunnels blinded him. Root left him on the street in front of the hospital, weeping unashamedly at the light and the pain. Iruka couldn’t talk to the medics who came out to get him. They called some who could read lips, but she said he was too incoherent. His bruised hands couldn’t handle field signs and were too numb to pull his zipper down to get at the seal on his neck. He was panicking and crying, and he fought them when they tried to take him inside.

Genma was suddenly there, yanking down the zipper and ripping off the paper. He was shouting at the medic team, his face pale and horrified. “Get me the S-class squad! T&I recovery, ok? Go, go!”

Then he gathered Iruka up, lifting him off the steps, tipping Iruka’s face against his shoulder as he carried Iruka up the steps into the ward. “Shit! Shit! Iruka, fuck.”

“Kakashi --” Iruka gasped, so grateful for his own voice.

Genma’s face went pinched with rage. “I’ll kill --”

“No, no,” Iruka babbled clutching at his vest. There was a gaping hole inside of him, and he was collapsing into it, the hollow space echoing with my fault, my fault. How could he have made such a huge mistake. “He has Kakashi. Danzo has Kakashi, you have to help -- he saved me and he shouldn’t have -- I don’t deserve it -- you’re right, it was just psychology, he got attached, so stupid -- you have to-- “

“Iruka, shh, shh, Iruka, calm down. Ok, ok.”

Iruka couldn’t calm down. He’d basked in Kakashi’s attention, in his adoration, but he'd never really understood what it meant to have someone who would die for you. That they just might. He didn’t know it would feel like this. I was responsible for him, and I didn’t know.

The new medical team met them on the stairs in a clattering of footsteps and shouted commands. Genma followed them into one of the private exam rooms, an S-class emergency suite. Iruka had visited his mother here once. They didn’t try to talk to him, like Genma had volunteered for that duty, letting Iruka press his face into his shirt as they reset Iruka's dislocated shoulder. The world whited out.

He came back to Biscuit tearing into the room, barking, dodging Genma’s reflexive strike. She scrambled up against Iruka’s hip on the cot, and he put his good arm around her, feeling the both of them shake together.

“Genma,” Iruka said, gathering the scraps of his coherence, “he’s going to tell Danzo how the sharingan works. Because of me. Please stop him.”

“How? By killing him?”

Iruka crumpled, face against his hands. No, no, that wasn’t the only solution. That couldn’t be.

“Shit, shit.” Genma’s hand ran carefully up and down his back. The medics were hooking Iruka up to something in an IV stand, touching his chakra points until the pain started to slowly fade. “Danzo already knows how the sharingan works, Iruka. Danzo has probably a quarter of the Yamanaka on his side, and our only sharingan user has been fanatically loyal to him for a decade.”

“No, no, not like -- Kakashi can tell Danzo how to make the sharingan work for anyone.”

That startled Genma into silence. “It’s a quirk of his biology, Iruka -- unless you mean he’s found another matching candidate?”

“No.” Iruka started to sway. “It’s not -- it’s not a quirk. That’s the point -- ”

“Iruka, Kakashi is Danzo’s. I told you, he’s stated his intention to kill the Hokage. Why on earth would he have kept the sharingan a secret?”

Iruka shook his head, frustrated. “He’s not Danzo’s.

“Shikaku is coming here. You can tell him what you know about Danzo’s plans. If Kakashi told you something -- maybe you can get some leniency for him.”

Kakashi had a sword through him. Leniency wasn’t what he needed. Iruka tightened his arm around Biscuit. He let himself collapse a little over her, and she pushed up to meet him, so eager to help. He whispered, “Can you take me to the land of dogs?”

“Yeah,” Biscuit said softly, uncertain and trying to sound confident, “a reverse summons. That’s easy.”

“Good,” Iruka said, trying to blink through the blurriness. “Good -- I need --”

Biscuit disappeared in a poof of smoke. Iruka fell over, letting out a cry when he jarred his shoulder. Genma grabbed him, pulling him back up and brushing Iruka’s hair out of his face. Iruka looked around, startled. He’d hoped --

“Iruka --” Genma said. He said that a lot lately.

The room tilted. Something swooped in Iruka’s stomach. Genma lurched toward him, and the world disappeared.

**

The Land of Dogs was a place of rolling hills carpeted in thin, tall trees. Sunlight filtered through the canopy, and the first floor was hidden by a thick layer of old leaves in brown and fading orange.

Iruka sank to his knees as he appeared, retching from the disorientation. His shoulder hurt with each convulsion but whatever the medi-nin had done had hidden the pain under a fuzzy layer of numbness. Biscuit’s front paws tapped against his back, followed by the sound of paper ripping between his shoulder blades.

Warmth flooded through him. His breathing got easier like his chest had just opened up. The chakra block. He hadn't even been in the hospital long enough for them to take it off. He hadn’t been there long enough to get a sling. He was still wearing his bloody vest.

“Iruka, Iruka, are you okay?” Biscuit asked.

Iruka pushed to his feet, cradling his bad arm. “Hold on,” he said breathlessly. He unzipped his vest, carefully pulling his bad arm out of it and tucking it inside before he zipped it up again. The whole front of it was sticky with Kakashi’s blood. He swallowed another bout of nausea.

“This way,” Biscuit said, once Iruka had swayed a few times but not fallen. She took off up the hill, scattering vibrantly orange leaves behind her as she went.

At the top was a hilltop clearing, leaves fetched up in the corners of rocky outcrops and everything damp as from an early morning rain. It was warmer here. No snow anywhere, and barely a bite in the air. Iruka’s body leaned into it gratefully.

A big, old dog with brindled fur lay sleeping on a rocky ledge. Biscuit scurried to the top of the biggest rock she could reach, claws clicking against the stone, and started barking her head off. The sound cut sharply through the cool air, the echo swallowed up by the damp rotting leaves.

The old dog woke up, lurching stiffly to his feet, one eye drooping nearly shut. He was as tall as Iruka at the shoulder, and he wore a round broad hat of beaten copper on his head, a samurai's’ war hat painted black and marked with the seal of a stylized paw print.

“A request! A request!” Biscuit barked.

Dogs started waking up from nooks and hidey-holes Iruka hadn't seen. More of them walked out of the woods.

“Little one, what are you doing?” said the big dog in an expansive rumbling voice, full of deep tones and extra notes like an old organ.

“A contract request!” said Biscuit. “For Umino Iruka.”

“For Hatake Kakashi,” Iruka rasped.

Biscuit shot him an uncertain look. “-- for Hatake Kakashi.”

The boss dog tipped his head back, nose flaring, sniffing at the wind as if for an explanation. “We already have a contract with Hatake Kakashi. Where is Pakkun of the Yama-Inu?”

“He’s with Kakashi,” Biscuit said, voice quavering a little. “He can’t come.”

“He wasn’t there when I -- ”

Biscuit looked at him sadly. “He is now. He sent me to get you before he went.”

“Remember, little one, that we are dogs,” said the boss, tipping his nose severely down at Biscuit. “We value loyalty and strength and those who live as part of a pack.”

“Please, dog-san, sir,” Iruka said. “Hatake Kakashi is all of those things. He is in the bad position he's in because of loyalty and his desire to protect people -- his pack.”

The dog shifted stiffly to look down at Iruka, standing unsteadily in the leaves below Biscuit’s perch. “We are familiar with Hatake Kakashi, having held his contract for almost ten years. He swore his loyalty to ANBU, betrayed them for Root, and now betrays Root -- for you?”

“That’s not who he’s loyal to,” Iruka pleaded. He wished Kakashi hadn’t kept so many secrets from everyone. Why was Iruka the only one who knew him? Where was Gai? “He's trying to find someone to help him protect the people who can’t protect themselves. They're his pack. He’s going to die to prevent a bad man from becoming even stronger.”

The dog sighed, a shiver shaking his furry body. "We aren't here to judge you humans. We can't risk our people on those who are going to die when we have no proof they were worth much in the first place.”

“But he is loyal! He's -- he’s loyal to me.” Iruka’s voice cracked. He wasn't sure he could keep standing up. No one understood how truly it deserved to be Iruka stuck down there with Danzo, and how grateful he was that it wasn't. “He’s going to die for me. And I don't deserve it.”

The general dog left in slow plodding steps, as if annoyed Iruka had disturbed his napping spot.

Iruka sank to the ground and let himself cry, his arms wrapped around his knees. He didn’t have any ideas left. Be clever, Iruka. Be clever. It's the only reason anyone has ever looked at you your whole life. This is your moment to be clever. Think of something --

But he couldn’t pull his thoughts together. He was breaking down, Biscuit nervously leaning against his side.

“Is that all, Iruka?” she said. “I could try to get them back? If you had anything else to say?” She gave a jerk against his side. “Oh!

Iruka lifted his face slowly from his knees. A big dog was walking towards him out of the departing crowd. He had a big, blunt bulldog face, his coat a soft sable, his paws as big around as Iruka's spread hands. Beside him, a scruffy retriever leapt over a fallen log. And there were dogs who'd never left, brown and white mutts sitting on the rocks watching Iruka thoughtfully. There were six of them, seven counting Biscuit.

The big black dog sat down in front of Iruka with a thump that shook the leaves around him.

Iruka stared. The dog stared back.

“We’ll go,” it said.

“We admire loyalty and protecting your pack,” said the retriever, running up alongside. “Do you have any of his blood?”

"Yes,” Iruka said. He touched the bloody field vest holding his bad arm to his side. “This is all his.”

“Can you sign for him? Are you able to act in his interest?”

“Yes,” Iruka said. “Yes, I'll do whatever you need.”

**

They landed nearly on top of the Root shinobi guarding Kakashi, following the trail of Pakkun’s chakra from the Land of Dogs. Iruka didn't see more than a flash of white masks before they were covered in canine bodies. Pakkun lay motionless in a kennel in the corner, blood matted into his fur, unconscious or drugged. The decor was the same sterile gray and white as the hospital Iruka had just been in, only underground, no windows.

They had Kakashi strapped to an operating table, his vest gone and his shirt cut away. The wound in his gut had been stitched and treated, but what made Iruka sick to his stomach was the way Kakashi’s left eye had been taped open, a tray of gruesome surgical tools pulled up next to his head.

Kakashi turned his head groggily as Iruka came up to him, and Iruka saw the sharingan for the first time.

This close, the shockingly red iris of legend about was actually transparent, an intricate network of blood vessels visible behind the slowly spinning black tomoe. Looking at it made Iruka dizzy, made the edges of his vision dim, and he tore his gaze away to Kakashi’s own, homegrown eye, which was watching him with gentle disbelief.

Quickly, Iruka pulled the tape away from Kakashi’s skin, smoothing the eyelid shut and letting his hand rest there as Kakashi turned his face into it.

“I can’t decide between ‘You should go’ and ‘Who are they?’” Kakashi admitted muzzily.

“They’re your ninken,” Iruka said. “You have eight now.”

He ducked over the chakra-locks on Kakashi’s bindings rather than see in Kakashi’s face exactly how nuts Iruka sounded. He’d known how to pick chakra-locks since the first time he’d broken into the school to play with the fuuma-shuriken. He had Kakashi and Pakkun free by the time the new dogs had gotten the Root shinobi into the hall and barricaded the door. They were lucky there hadn't been more, but who would have expected an attack like this? Root's defensive strategies were designed for a wilier, more practical opponent -- ANBU.

“Now what?” said the scruffy retriever wearing sunglasses.

Pakkun shifted, slowly waking up where Iruka had tucked him between Kakashi’s arm and torso on the operating table. Iruka wasn’t looking forward to getting the both of them vertical. Pakkun, he could carry. But Kakashi -- could he walk?

“What? Iruka?” Pakkun stared at him.

“Yes, me,” Iruka said.

Pakkun blinked past Iruka at Biscuit, at the big black dog whose name was Bull and all his furry friends.

“Hullo, cousin,” said the retriever.

“This -- isn’t possible,” Pakkun muttered. “I’m hallucinating.”

A bang sounded at the door.

“It’s not a hallucination. I signed their contract for Kakashi.” Iruka's hand drifted self-consciously to his blood-stained vest, his bad armed still zipped inside it. “I think I can break us out through the ground, maybe, but we’re going to have company coming at us while we do it.”

Pakkun’s eyes went from unfocused to sharp, staring at the bloody stain on Iruka’s vest. His gaze snapped over to the ninken in a cluster by the door. “Alright, you lot -- this is what we need to do. I’m not good for much at the moment, so someone will have to ‘be’ me.”

Kakashi started pushing himself up off the table.

Pakkun snapped out instructions for a jutsu. Iruka recognized something about chakra pathways -- it must be how he opened the ‘door’ in Kakashi’s chakra seal. The dogs’ ears pricked forward, tails wagging in determination. They all jumped forward at once.

“Wait, not all of you!” Pakkun snapped. “What are you -- shit!”

Lightning crackled on the table like thunder, deafening in the small space. The light overhead fizzled on and off and on again. Iruka saw Kakashi fall. The door shattered open at the same moment.

A blurred flash of a blade thrust towards Iruka's face at the end of a long, armored arm. Iruka dropped but too slow.

Kakashi caught the Root shinobi’s wrist, lighting crackling at his fingertips. The sharingan spun wildly, alive, awake, and hungry. They moved quickly, bodies spinning and unfolding, and at the end of every strike, Kakashi was there. Even pale and unsteady, each movement he made seemed to be exactly enough. It was like Kakashi already had the kind of efficient control over his body that Iruka was trying to teach him with chakra.

Iruka dragged himself away from the fight. In his pocket, he had a scroll he’d used a dozen times as a genin. It was a scroll of stored earth jutsu, meant to shape the earth, open it, close it, break it, melt it -- everything an ambitious prankster needed to terrify his friends.

He’d been worried about being clever. Right now, blunt was better. He activated the jutsu over and over, slamming his hands to the steel-enforced wall of Root’s medical bunker, and feeling the earth on the other side punch back. Iruka's hands were bloody with sympathetic chakra blowback before the wall finally burst inwards, giving way to bare earth.

Kakashi was suddenly at his back. His hands formed the same jutsu Iruka had been using, and the earth parted before him with intent, beautifully, surgically precise in a way Iruka had never been -- a tunnel out. Kakashi grabbed Iruka’s hands and pulled him forward. The dogs followed, Kakashi opening the way ahead, Iruka collapsing it behind them, and the dogs tearing into the flesh of anyone who got in the way.

They ran for the Hokage's office once they hit the surface and fresh air. Iruka didn't tell Kakashi that's where they were going. Kakashi had to know, but he followed as though he trusted Iruka completely. Iruka almost choked on it. He understood what that burden meant now. He'd be worthy.

Iruka took them through the back ways, the shortcuts and secret routes that he’d learned in years of getting places he wasn’t supposed to be. Back when he didn't get caught, except on purpose. It wasn't that these paths were totally unknown to adult shinobi, but they were just a little different, the perspective just a little bit skewed.

They tumbled into the Hokage’s office through a broken ceiling panel, the one in the back with the loophole in the guardian jutsu that had never been fixed.

ANBU blades came out, startled by their entrance and by the fact that they were covered in blood and barely standing. Iruka threw his hands wide, palms out and empty, a hopeful barrier between the guards and Kakashi. Behind him, Kakashi fell heavily to one knee.

Suddenly, the ANBU were whipping away from them, blades bristling toward the windows at the pale bird masks framed by blue sky. The Root operatives skidded to a halt at the threshold, bloodthirsty but not so far gone they'd violate the sanctum of their only real adversary.

Kakashi swayed and fell from his knee onto his hands. His elbow bent and he went down.

“Kakashi!” Iruka said, reaching for him, his hands leaving red streaks across Kakashi’s pale skin.

“I’m okay,” Kakashi said, staring a little confused at the floor in front of his face.

“What's wrong?” Iruka asked. He was aware vaguely that there were people at the Hokage's desk and a standoff at the windows, but the Hokage meant safety to Iruka. He'd forgotten everyone else as soon as he fell through the ceiling.

“I don't know,” Kakashi said, sounding baffled. “I can't move. But I'm okay.”

“That's not going to make me feel better, you idiot! You can’t move?”

“Iruka,” said a voice mildly from above, “what is going on? Is that Hatake Kakashi?”

The Hokage stood above him, eyebrows raised in his wrinkled face. The ANBU next to him practically vibrated with the need to pull him away. The Hokage looked… bemused.

Iruka babbled out everything. Everything he’d said to Kakashi when he’d come to get Iruka from Danzo, everything he’d said in the Land of Dogs. He is loyal and dedicated and kind. “Yes," he finished desperately, "this is Hatake Kakashi, my friend. He saved me. He was Root, but he quit. Please don't hurt him.”

The dogs piled on, laying across Kakashi’s legs, setting up a defensive wall between Iruka and Kakashi and the Hokage.

The Hokage watched all of this, eyes raking over Iruka’s bloody, beaten body. He looked at the dogs, several hundred pounds of fur and muscle, at the way they protected Kakashi and Iruka like pack.

The Hokage rubbed a tired, weather-worn hand over his mouth. “Alright,” he said. “Alright, stand down. All of you.” He turned to the Root operatives at the window. “And you -- get out.”

“Hatake is-- ” protested the Hawk.

“ -- valuable,” the Hokage finished for him. “Yes, we all know. Perhaps you should have kept better track of your things.” He turned away, adding mildly, “Get out or my body guards will assume you're threatening me.”

The ANBU at the widows shifted eagerly.

Iruka bent over Kakashi, a hand in his hair, another on his cheek, so he could feel Kakashi breathing even though Kakashi couldn’t put his arms around Iruka. He moved his fingers weakly, brushing against Iruka's thigh until Iruka took his hand.

Genma arrived in full ANBU regalia, Rat mask pulled down over his face. “Someone’s blasted a hole underneath the hospital all the way to Root’s main base.”

His mask turned towards Kakashi and Iruka and the pile of dogs on the floor.

“Oh,” he said.

“Iruka had some interesting things to say,” said the Sandaime.

Iruka couldn’t see Genma's expression as the Hokage spoke, but he heard Genma say clearly, “Iruka’s story is true, Hokage-sama, from everything we’ve found. ”

“Kakashi gave himself up to save me,” Iruka said again, “because he believes being strong in Konoha shouldn't mean hurting those weaker than you.” He looked directly at the Hokage in a way he hadn't dared before. “This is what you should value in your shinobi, Hokage-sama.”

And to Iruka’s surprise, the Hokage said, “Yes”.

Iruka looked down. Kakashi couldn’t really move, and he was surrounded by eight dogs that seemed unable to decide between licking Iruka’s ears and looking around with interest.

It sunk in slowly: The dogs don’t perceive any threat in ANBU or the Hokage. The weight of a mountain fell from Iruka's shoulders, leaving behind a giddy lightness. He clenched Kakashi's hand so tightly his knuckles went white, grinning like a fool. Genma dropped to a crouch next to him. "The medical team is a minute behind me. They'll be here soon."

Iruka nodded, his eyes on Kakashi. One hand rested limply on his chest, the other curled weakly around Iruka's. Pakkun lay across his stomach, Biscuit by his head. He had his head turned to watch the dog's wagging tails thump against the floor, and he still wore that expression of distant disbelief he'd had since Iruka had appeared in Root's operating room.

The sharingan spun wildly, taking it all in, recording so that Kakashi would never forget -- and, Iruka realized with a start, at the same draining Kakashi's chakra through however big a door eight nin dogs could open at once. Iruka cupped his hand over that angry red eye, and he felt Kakashi sag in relief.

“Thank you, sensei,” Kakashi said quietly, his eye crinkling in the beginnings of a smile. Iruka bent over and kissed him in the middle of his forehead as gently as Kakashi had once kissed him -- exactly 'that kind of kiss'.

Iruka knew he was crying again. It had been a very embarrassing day for the shinobi code of emotionless distance. He put his other hand over Kakashi’s and didn't hide his face, not the blood or the bruises or the snot or the tears. He knew what kind of shinobi Konoha needed him to be.