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Speaking to Machines Who Listen Poorly

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"You falsified the aptitude test, Umino."

The voice was faint, echoing like it had crossed a vast space to reach him. A chill had soaked into his cheeks and his fingers, which made sense with a cold expanse between him and whoever was trying to talk to him. Then he opened his eyes and found he was in a small, dark room instead and the person speaking was very, very close.

A wide glass window in the ceiling above him looked into a much bigger room with rows of electronics and cooling systems, all blinking with cool blue -- oh, there was a red light blinking there in the back, looking pretty angry, and it seemed to be spreading.

Fingers on his cheek pulled his face to the side, something tugging at the back of his neck as he turned.

“Ow,” Iruka said, lifting a hand to his head, surprised to find it unrestrained.

Someone was leaning over him wearing a combat helmet, the smooth outline backlit by the door behind them. Iruka recognized the model, maybe, it looked almost familiar -- he shut his eyes quickly, head throbbing. Whoever it was started pulling on Iruka's other arm, wires disconnecting one after the other until that arm was free too. He left it lying on the bench. His whole body ached like a fever.

"Time to get up," the figure said, his exosuit a smooth matte black against the silver shine of the walls, the blue lights in the room above. He got a hand under Iruka’s shoulder, another around his arm and heaved.

Iruka clutched at the stiff, textured surface of the exosuit, holding himself upright, and frowned at a red spiral insignia on the shoulder. “Konoha," he said stupidly.

Exosuit stopped clearing away wires. “Do you know what that is?”

Iruka slumped forward, staring at his knees. He didn’t know. From somewhere, he dredged up the appropriate response for not knowing the answer: “Can I have some more time? Is this open book?”

Iruka’s legs were covered in the same matte black material as this figure in the combat helmet. He'd been expecting his suit to match the room: white, silver, and icy blue lines, but it was much too dark. His legs rested in a tray lined with a firm cushion that held him still. Abruptly, Exosuit drove a thin knife into the tray next to Iruka’s thigh. Air hissed, the cushion deflating. His legs were free.

“I’m going to be annoyed if those answers were a bad imitation of who’s supposed to be in that body.” The words were mild, except Exosuit was still holding that narrow knife with a mirror-like gleam.

Iruka put a hand to his chest, a scandalized: Me?

Exosuit yanked him out of the tray, pulling him towards the door. Iruka saw a pile of bundled wires hanging off the head of the bench, pooled on the floor, and -- blood? Splashed across the bodyform tray where Iruka’s neck had been lying.

“Am I alright?” he asked, startled.

“Probably not,” Exosuit said, dry.

Outside the room things were louder. Electricity was sparking from a broken wall panel. The floor rocked beneath them, the sound of the explosion muted by distance. Through thick port windows Iruka saw small pieces of the ship break apart, the whole corridor vibrating around them. Iruka waited, wondering if he would feel afraid, but everything was muted. He didn’t feel bad at all, just a little unsteady on his feet.

A group of people wearing exosuits in a different style rounded the corner at a run, skidding to a stop as they saw Iruka and his companion. Guns came up, and went down again in three expert shots from Exosuit’s blaster, the bodies hitting the deck.

Iruka compared his forearm to the texture of the exosuit on Exosuit’s chest. They both had the same pebbly black fabric that reflected blue in the light’s glare. “Do you have a name?” he asked absently.

“Hound.”

“Really?”

“No,” Hound said. He propped Iruka against the window while he rifled through the gear of the attackers. Their suits had an angular grid pattern to the fabric and a greenish look, not like the ship at all. Probably not crew defending Iruka from kidnapping, then. Pirates maybe if they were on a ship that didn’t belong to them.

“I'm going to assume you're not kidnapping me,” Iruka said magnanimously. He might as well build a rapport. Their suits matched.

“They kidnapped you,” Hound said, this time sounding neither mild nor dry, “because you falsified the aptitude test.”

“I wouldn’t!” Iruka said earnestly. He wasn’t a cheat. He just didn’t know where he was, or what he’d supposedly cheated at. “What aptitude test?”

Hound’s helmet turned towards him. Iruka couldn’t see much of his expression through the visor, shadowed by the full helmet. What he could see just looked bored. Disinterested. Iruka turned back to the window, crossing him arms in frustration.

He could see part of the ship they were on curving in towards him. It was impressively huge, a small city in space, but sleek, even as Iruka watched power failing and a fire spreading in the far launch bay.

A cold feeling washed over him, and he forgot to be annoyed with Hound. Iruka recognized those curves. His hand flew to the back of his neck and felt the port he knew would be there, a lump of plastic and metal nestled between nobs of his spine, warmed by his body heat. His blood slowed down in his veins; his throat closed.

“This is an Uchiha ship,” he whispered. Where had he found one? How? And why had anyone thought he should be -- Iruka was the literal worst person to plug into a ship. He felt -- he thought he was pretty certain of that.

“Yes.” Hound had a few extra charge units and a communicator. He had taken a helmet off of one of the bodies and was inspecting the connection mechanism.

“What aptitude test?” Iruka asked, hoarse.

“It's not worth explaining until it looks like you’ll survive separation.”

“Excuse me?” Iruka said. There was his offended voice again. He didn’t know why he kept having this reflex. An Uchiha ship. A death machine run by an invasive, impossible user interface. His fingers tightened around the port, a needle of pain darting up his spine.

“You know which kind of test,” Hound said. He stood, offering the helmet to Iruka.

More footsteps in the next corridor, and two small figures in Konoha exosuits came barreling around the corner. The first had a splash of orange across his helmet, a custom design.

“Iruka-sensei!” the orange helmet shouted. “What are you doing?” His head swung back and forth in an exaggerated motion searching the floor around Iruka’s feet and back up the corridor.

Hound held the stolen helmet out wordlessly. Orange helmet snatched it up as he charged past, fetching up in front of Iruka, so close that Iruka tried to backpedal out through the plexiglass into vacuum. The small stranger immediately started trying to shove the helmet over Iruka’s head.

“Excuse me,” Iruka said, ducking away, hands up.

Hound walked down the corridor, abandoning Iruka to a minor duel with the tiny soldier. “Sakura, the ship?” he said.

“On their way,” said the third. “The council -- well, Shimura-san -- wants to send a team to check the status of the interface system. If it could be brought online with a -- replacement.”

“Too bad,” Hound said, unimpressed. “Iruka-sensei has done irreparable damage. It will be unrecoverable by the time they get here.” He held out the charge units he’d taken from the bodies.

“Oh, good,” Sakura said. She sounded relieved.

Hound wiggled the charge units to get her attention, an oddly playful gesture next to his dry voice. “The interface room is just down the hall.”

Sakura dipped her helmet towards the charge units and then back up to his face. She snatched the units. “Right. Unrecoverable. One, maybe two minutes, max!”

Iruka pushed the helmet away again. It looked tight and claustrophobic. “Hold on! I can put it on myself. Is the atmospheric system broken in the next corridor?”

“Iruka-sensei,” the little soldier sounded miserable through his helmet’s speakers, “it’s broken in this corridor!”

Iruka stared. He opened his mouth, but he couldn’t remember how to take a breath. He blinked, he frowned, his hands opened and closed convulsively. He couldn’t seem to -- his lungs wouldn’t expand. Iruka stared dumbstruck straight ahead.

“Let him be, Naruto,” Hound said. “It will take a little while for him to run out of power and revert to biological backup.”

Behind them up the corridor, the interface room exploded, belching flame and debris out of the open door. Sakura was silhouetted in front of the flames, running towards them.

“Whoops,” Hound said. “Who could have seen that coming.”

**

“I’m Naruto, this is Sakura-chan, and that other guy was Kakashi-sensei,” orange helmet said.

Iruka was wedged into an alcove, his head lolling back. He’d put the helmet on and remembered how to breathe, but it hurt, like every expansion of his lungs was pulling at things in his chest that weren’t supposed to be there. Whatever was powering his artificial systems had run out, and it felt like there was nothing left. Biological backup. Just thinking about it made his head spin dizzily, even with his helmet pressed against the wall.

“Ok,” Iruka said, in between one painful, deliberate breath and the next.

“I’m your favorite, Iruka-sensei.”

“Naruto,” Sakura said annoyed, her weapon propped on the blast shield they’d dragged out of the hangar.

“Hey, hey,” Naruto said, “I’m the one on first-aid duty here, you said.”

“I would like some,” Iruka managed to get out. First-aid sounded wonderful. Especially if it involved injecting something directly into his veins or perhaps unconsciousness.

“Some what? Oh, oh,” Naruto said. “Sorry, it’s -- the first aid for dis-integration is talking. And moving. So your nervous system wins instead of, uh, the ship’s. Drugs wouldn’t -- they’d suppress that. If this were a drug problem, it’d be Sakura’s job.”

“Also, my aim is better,” Sakura said. “Naruto, start with his hands. Ten minute ETA on Kakashi-sensei and the evac.”

Naruto curled his fingers around Iruka’s. “Can you grip, Iruka-sensei?”

It sent little sparks of pain up his arm like they had been too long asleep, tiny, fiery bees stinging his skin. Iruka closed his eyes and closed his hands into a full fist over Naruto’s fingers, sending bright lights exploding behind his eyelids, gasping.

“What -- happened?” he asked.

Naruto’s hands gripped back, sympathetic and painful, sparking at Iruka’s nerves. “We were on our way from the Hub after the Federation exams -- “

“Naruto failed,” Sakura said. “Again.”

No, they rejected my application because I don’t want to be a Hub rat! I’m going to stay on a ship and I’m going to fight pirates.” He rubbed a soothing circle over Iruka’s knuckles as Iruka straightened his fingers, gasping, and closed them again. Though the visor was dim, Iruka could see his white teeth flashing. “That’s good, Iruka-sensei! Kakashi-sensei says integration is totally reversible in the first 48 hours.”

Sakura turned her head sharply. But she said nothing, shifting her grip on her weapon restlessly before she turned back to watching the hall.

“Naruto,” Iruka said, tired. “Hub certification helps even if you’re not stationed at the Hub.”

Naruto’s fingers slowed. “Iruka-sensei?” he said tentatively, his voice rising with hope.

Though it felt like dragging his fingers through broken glass, Iruka squeezed his fingers around Naruto’s. “It’s okay, just keep telling me what happened.”

The truth was he couldn’t have told Naruto what Hub certification was or why reminding Naruto of its importance had been the right thing to do. He'd just known it was the right thing -- also the familiar and exasperating thing. Saying it had put a comforting warmth in the middle of his aching chest. Probably Naruto was Iruka’s favorite.

Anyway,” Naruto said, singsong, “we were coming back from the Hub when Sound knocked us out of hyperspace mid-jump -- which is how we knew they were, you know, them -- away from our escorts, and they came on board looking for aptitude scores and then quizzing us about them.”

Naruto scuttled back a few inches and lifted one of Iruka’s feet into his lap, digging his fingers into Iruka's calf to get past the exosuit. "Hey, push against me?" It seemed to double as a form of torture, but at least he kept talking so Iruka didn’t need to. “They didn’t have the firepower to keep all of us, and I don’t know what you did, Iruka-sensei, but at the end of it, they thought you were their best bet.”

Iruka had his head pressed into the corner of the alcove, eyes shut, just focusing on breathing through Naruto’s fingers carving lines of fire into his leg. Iruka could hear the nervous uncertainty in Naruto’s voice, the implied question.

“I don’t have any interface aptitude,” he said weakly. “I had the lowest score in my class. I don’t know how I’d fake it.”

Sakura turned away from the barricade to stare at him. The ship was still shuddering around them as it slowly fell to pieces. Sakura’s eyes were wide behind her visor. “You don't think….?”

“Wait,” Iruka said. “The Hub cert test happens at -- how old are you? What were your interface aptitude scores?”

“Uh,” Naruto said. His hand stopped massaging Iruka's calf, though the burning pins and needles feeling lingered.

“15 and a half,” Sakura said. “Naruto is almost 18 because he got held back. And I'm not going to tell you our scores before extraction is complete.” Iruka could hear the echo of Hound’s -- Kakashi’s -- matter-of-fact way of talking in her voice, and his confused, messed-up brain didn’t know how to feel about that.

He glared, his voice rising as he forgot his sore throat. “If I faked that test so the pirates would take me instead, wasn’t the point that you all wouldn’t be here?

“The ship is blowing up! They couldn't plug us in if they wanted to!” Naruto said.

“What if it hadn’t been?”

“Uh,” Naruto said.

Iruka wanted to put his face in his hands, but he was wearing a helmet, and he couldn’t really move anyway. He sighed; that hurt too.

“Besides, Iruka-sensei,” Sakura said, “we aren’t the ones with the highest interface aptitude score on record.”

“Sasuke?” Naruto guessed.

“No,” Sakura said, a current of worry in her voice. At that moment her communicator crackled: Kakashi, telling them the Yamanaka had found a working airlock.

**

They put Iruka in a cabin on the Yamanaka after surgery, which surprised him. He had expected more supervision after Naruto’s anxious hovering and Kakashi’s offhand comments about separation fatalities.

“There's nothing you need in the medical wing,” Kakashi said as the doctor left the cabin, leaving behind a monitor unit hooked up to Iruka almost as completely as the Uchiha destroyer had been. At least the hookup was painless. Iruka was ignoring it, busy melting into the cabin’s thin mattress, so glad no one was making him curl his fingers and toes to help his brain forget he'd almost been a ship.

Getting to the medical bay had been awful. Until the port had been removed, they said, he needed to use his biological, non-Uchiha nervous system as much as possible. They had made him walk from the airlock. Naruto and Sakura had all but carried him between them.

Kakashi had gone in front of Iruka, a bulkhead against the Yamanaka's docking and medical crews, some of them young people who stared at Iruka wide-eyed. Naruto and Sakura greeted those crew members in friendly voices.

Iruka had been looking for any way to forget he existed as an entity that could feel pain, and the crew's recognition felt like it was trapping him inside his head. He looked at Kakashi instead, straight ahead like he had blinders on, counting the small imperfections in Kakashi's armor, squinting at the short silver hair haphazardly flattened by his helmet. Iruka hadn't seen his face yet, not clearly. Kakashi hadn't really looked at him since coming on board.

The Yamanaka was a very different ship than the Uchiha destroyer, all warm grays and gold tones and lacking the Uchiha obsession with smooth lines. There were floral insignias in each hallway that Sakura said tracked the Yamanaka lineages. Iruka had just assumed somebody had finally realized space was depressing without nature and tried to fix it.

“It feels comforting,” Iruka had said, deeply grateful for any comfort since his body seemed to be giving out around him, each step a trial. He'd twitched a finger towards the bright pink peach blossoms that loomed large at each intersection. “I like that one best.”

The look on Sakura and Naruto’s face told Iruka he'd misstepped somehow. In front of him, Kakashi’s head tipped slightly towards them.

“That's the largest branch clan,” Sakura had said finally.

“More like the root clan,” Naruto muttered barely loud enough for Iruka to hear, but it had been enough to make Sakura jam her fist into Naruto’s kidney around Iruka’s back.

After surgery, they had finally let him lie down.

He had bandages around his neck, his arms. Another patch between his shoulder blades. Iruka had expected to recover in the medical ward, under observation. His nervous system had just been hijacked by an ancient warship under enemy control. But instead Kakashi had told the medical staff Iruka would be moving to Kakashi's assigned cabin, and the medical team had moved Iruka without fuss. No, not just without fuss. They'd hopped to it like it had been an order from on high.

The reaction was a little extreme for someone who only commanded a two man team, wasn't it?

Kakashi’s cabin was large enough for a double wide bunk, a small desk, and a private toiletry facility. Locking cabinets and mesh on the walls allowed for storage, though they were empty at the moment. A packed duffle had been tied to a safety strap in the corner. Iruka didn't think private rooms got handed out to just anybody. Space was a limited resource in, well, space.

Why had they been so willing to move him? Was it all Kakashi? Had they worried Iruka would be too close to hooking into the ship's systems in the medical wing? He remembered stories of Uchiha interfaces, people who after getting hooked into a ship became so intuitive about ship systems that they could read, predict, even control other ships. It didn't matter that the machine languages had been designed systems or centuries apart. Iruka couldn’t do that, but maybe the crew of the Yamanaka didn’t know that. They wouldn't want a Uchiha interface anywhere near them.

Iruka could only remember fragments before Hound -- Kakashi -- had woken him, but none of those memories were of a ship speaking to him. Just disorienting noise and vertigo and pain.

“I guess it looks like I'll survive separation,” Iruka said. He had his hands tucked around his ribs, and no one had made him do any exercises for at least an hour. The sparks of pins and needles had faded a little, especially if he kept still. No pain killers yet, and the localized numbness from the surgery was fading. He was waiting for narcotic intervention. Attentively.

“Hmm?” Kakashi had stripped down to the undersuit worn on combat vessels whose atmosphere systems were functioning properly. Iruka had been given scrubs instead.

“Since you explained something to me.”

“That you don’t need anything in the medical wing? You count that as an explanation?”

“Not a good one,” Iruka admitted.

Kakashi seemed to take that as a request to elaborate. It hadn't been, only because Iruka would never have expected it to work. “You're my responsibility," Kakashi said, "and I make them nervous. They could release you, or I could move in to the medical wing. They made a choice.”

Iruka squinted. That wasn't a much better explanation, and his brain hurt too much to unpack it.

“Naruto said you remembered him,” Kakashi said.

“I remembered what I should say to him,” Iruka said, conscientious of accuracy. He wasn't sure why. It seemed he was a stickler. A natural correction machine. “Like it was a reflex, like I say it all the time.”

Kakashi nodded. “Hub exams.”

Iruka sighed. Apparently it was a reflex for everyone. And now he was worried about the academic future of a child he didn’t even remember knowing. Typical. Probably. Probably typical. “I guess that's a good sign? Or should I remember more?”

“I don't care if your memory comes back.”

The response startled Iruka. Kakashi had been blunt, even callous since he'd pulled Iruka from the interface, but unlike Naruto’s exam scores, Iruka didn't have any muscle memory for Kakashi's coldness. It kept surprising him.

Kakashi didn't look at him. He pulled the desk chair over. There was a foot pedal to unlock it from its spot and another lock point by the bed. Iruka had to tip his head to give Kakashi his full, judgemental attention.

“Sometimes integration…” Kakashi hesitated. He never done that before. Iruka's whole body went still, watching with wide-eyed interest as Kakashi's throat worked around words that wouldn't come. He was staring at the wall above the bunk; he couldn't even look at Iruka. “Sometimes the personality of a previous interface overwrites the new one,” Kakashi said finally, “especially if the ship is old and has a preference.”

Iruka remembered now what Kakashi had said to him when he'd first woken up. An imitation of who’s supposed to be in that body. It was more frightening now. Iruka didn't know what to say. “I suppose... I suppose I'd rather lose my memory than turn into some old, mean Uchiha the ship ate a hundred years ago.”

Kakashi picked at a thread on the sheets. “They weren't all mean.”

“What?”

“You don't remember the ship trying to push back?”

Iruka thought carefully back to the memories he had of a mostly silent darkness, feeling sometimes like he was right side up or upside down. Falling. Then spinning until he wanted to throw up but didn't know how. There had been a few bright moments of deafening static. Maybe something had been yelling at him as it fell apart.

What he said was: “I didn't speak the language.”

Kakashi raised a skeptical eyebrow. “It's a mental link. It should self-translate.”

“It didn't. I didn't catch a word.”

Kakashi blinked at him, bemused like Iruka had hit a low Kakashi hadn’t known existed. His expression faded back to the bland matter-of-factness he'd worn since Iruka had woken up. No more struggling for words.

Iruka's cheeks warmed. He lifted his chin and said, a little blustery like it was all a joke and didn’t matter: “I had the lowest interface aptitude score in my year at the Academy.”

But Kakashi didn’t laugh. He was watching Iruka carefully. “You remember that.”

Iruka did. The memory wasn't a kneejerk response like the Hub exams either.

“I think it had reason to be at the front of my mind.” Maybe he'd been inside the interface, remembering his bad score and railing at a fate he didn't deserve. But if that were true, he should feel sick or desperate. Instead, he felt purpose and satisfaction. “I think it’s what I was thinking about when I lied through my teeth to pirates trying to steal my kids.”

Kakashi sighed, long and slow. “No ability to speak to ships, but a master rating on sabotaging them.”

Iruka blinked at him. “Oh god, really?”

“Technically, the business we're all in. I wondered if you'd directed the ship to systematically destroy itself.” He took a breath, added, “and you.”

Iruka watched that careful pause with wide eyes. It was another tiny tell Kakashi did not give out generously. And the content -- total sacrifice to defeat an enemy -- was heavy enough to warrant it. It took Iruka’s breath away. Because he didn’t know. It sounded better, didn’t it, to take out the ship and himself rather than let his sense of self be wholly ground up and remade into whatever Sound had wanted. But it would take guts Iruka literally didn't know he had. And something more than guts, maybe, to make Kakashi take that long breath like someone had just slid a cold knife between his ribs.

“Could you tell?” Iruka asked tentatively. He hadn’t minded not knowing before. This he wanted to know. “Did it look deliberate?”

He had a feeling there were methods to this sort of thing.

“No,” Kakashi said. “The damage to the ship was not directed and it was slow, not very effective at first. Sakura thinks you destroyed the ship by being so atrociously bad at interfacing that the systems catastrophically misaligned.”

Hmm, Iruka thought. That would take out room for error. Iruka wouldn’t even have needed to be in control to pull that plan off. “It does sound like me.”

“It does?”

“Well, I don't know, obviously, and have no evidence to back it up, but it sounds elegantly simple in a way that I think I would enjoy -- I'm enjoying it now.”

“An elegantly simple disaster?” Kakashi paused again. “Yes, it does.” He opened a drawer and pulled out a bottle, pills rattling inside.

“Is that -- ?” Iruka asked hopefully.

“Yes.” Kakashi handed Iruka one pill and the water bottle Sakura had brought. He spun on the chair, reaching for Iruka’s leg like Naruto had done on the ship. His attitude was business-like, nothing more than a doctor reaching for a chart, like he didn't expect an objection. Iruka flinched back.

“Don’t worry -- I'm better at this than Naruto is.”

And Kakashi did something unexpected. He smiled. It wasn't wry. It wasn't exuberant. It was small and a little doofy, like someone putting on a silly face who knew it and was doing you the favor of pretending to be embarrassed about it. His eyebrows waggled slightly.

Iruka was hit with a sense of deja vu. Kakashi's bluntness had given him nothing. Now all the muscle memory of how to chide Naruto about his grades or how to duck your head to step through an airlock was rising up for Kakashi's stupid face.

Slowly, Iruka let himself uncoil. He clutched at his water and nodded.

Kakashi was right. He was better.

**

Iruka woke groggily to the sound of voices. The lights were dim, meaning either the ship was still in its night schedule or that Kakashi and Sakura were respecting Iruka’s sleep.

“You told Naruto integration was reversible within the first forty eight hours,” Sakura said.

“It’s only been thirty six.”

“Kakashi-sensei, you reported your integration with Obito’s fighter forty-nine hours after integration. Did you really get back one hour too late to undo it?”

“You read the file.” Surprise from Kakashi. And deflection too, Iruka thought sleepily. Which was so familiar to his half-awake mind that it wasn’t worth waking up for, and Iruka drifted without taking it in.

“I’m a reader, sensei."

Awkward laughter from Kakashi. Groggily, Iruka found himself thinking: Oh, don't let him get away with that. He'll never give you an inch if you let him get away with that. “I got a little lost on the way back.”

“Sensei, I'm not a pre-genin anymore -- ” A sigh. “Right. Okay.” Sakura’s frustration was audible. There was a long silence. Sakura spoke, more timid than before. “Kakashi-sensei, what if I didn’t destroy the interface thoroughly enough?”

“It looked on fire to me.”

“This ship belongs to -- you know. His supporters. What if they want to put you. There. The Uchiha destroyer.”

“Iruka couldn’t speak to the ship, and look at the damage he did. You think our opposition wants me in it?”

“You said yourself when you're connected, you don't make decisions the same way as when you're not. If they were smart, they'd find a way to space Naruto and me and keep Iruka-sensei for good behavior.” There was a long pause. Sakura said uncertainly, “Sensei?”

She'd been hoping he'd have a ready answer for that, Iruka realized. He was coming awake now, unable to pretend the conversation was casual or harmless. They were talking about that ship. Iruka’s ship. Iruka’s former ship, good riddance. He heaved himself into wakefulness, eyes shut and breathing slow. He had to know they weren’t talking about sending him back.

“Trying to disappear someone like Naruto or a Hokage's protégé like you isn't a casual thing.”

“You're not thinking like them, sensei. Isn't it worth any risk? Who else could handle that ship? And they know you’re too loyal, to act against them without --”

“Without a reason? Tossing my two students out an airlock might do it for me, I think. No promises though," Kakashi said as Sakura huffed impatiently. "We’ll be back on the Sharingan in two days. Then nothing can touch us.”

“Nothing short range,” Sakura muttered.

Iruka wondered what this ship they were headed for would be like. He didn't remember it, not even in a sideways, kneejerk way. As though he knew everyone who crewed it, but had never seen it himself.

“Sakura,” Kakashi said, “I don't want to worry anymore tonight.”

“I know, I know. I just can't believe they have you and Iruka and Naruto and me all together on one of their ships, three systems away from Konoha space. Isn't each of those things something we’re supposed to prevent by themselves?”

There was a wince in Kakashi's voice. "Let's hope Iruka-sensei takes a very long time to remember that.”

Sakura sighed. “I wish he were yelling at us. I wish he knew he was supposed to.”

Iruka's shoulders tightened. He hadn't felt like he was eavesdropping until this moment, and now he felt the discomfort of being rude in public intensely. He had not realized somehow that in knowing him and caring for him these people might also depend on him. There was a role he played for them that he wasn't playing now.

Kakashi shifted on the bed next to Iruka's head, touching Iruka's shoulder lightly. Iruka flushed; Kakashi knew he was awake. “That’s enough, Sakura. How do you feel, Iruka?”

Iruka opened his eyes, his eyelids heavy. He caught a glimpse of dim, warm light catching the rosy curve of Sakura’s cheek, Kakashi's silver hair. She was leaning towards him in the desk chair, still locked near the bed. There was a small device in her hand, blinking with a green ready light. Counter-surveillance, he thought muzzily. What a useless thing to remember.

“Fine,” Iruka mumbled, embarrassed. He pushed his cheek into the pillow. In pretending to be all but asleep, he found that he actually was. The whole thing started to feel familiar as he slipped away. Midnight strategy in Kakashi’s room, protecting themselves from… someone...

**

It took them three days to get back to Kakashi's ship. By the second day, Iruka could move stiffly but without pain. Everything tired him. Unsympathetic, Kakashi gave him an undersuit to wear and made him prove, three times, that he could get into the exosuit without help. Then he took Iruka on tours of the ship, to small observation decks and engineering corridors. There didn't seem to be a schedule or a destination because Iruka was allowed to rest as often as he wanted.

But it wasn't recreational either because Kakashi never laughed his awkward laugh or cracked that who me? grin. He had his mission face on.

Naruto and Sakura popped in and out, too, whispering with their sensei before disappearing again, but Iruka was never without Kakashi. When Naruto and Sakura weren't there, Kakashi had a tendency to blandly ask Yamanaka crew members to take them messages. Usually these were people who had just jumped at finding Kakashi standing behind them.

Eventually Iruka understood: the Yamanaka internal sensors could track Naruto and Sakura. The crew members always knew where to send the message. The sensors couldn't track Kakashi. Or Iruka either, it seemed, while Kakashi was near.

More counter surveillance, though this technique Iruka didn't understand.

Eventually on one of Naruto’s visits, he leaned in and murmured, “A retrieval in Kiri space. Joint team. Jump off point in Konoha space.”

His expression was determined, the face of someone who had found more success in stubbornness than skill. It was true; Iruka did like him best. Naruto watched Kakashi, waiting for judgement. Iruka was starting to get an idea. The flowers on the wall weren't quite so comforting anymore.

“Reasonable,” Kakashi said finally.

Naruto pumped his fist in the air. After that, Kakashi let Iruka go back to the cabin and sleep. He woke to an announcement over the comms: they'd arrived, an impressive twelve hours ahead of schedule.

“Lucky,” Kakashi said dryly with only the tiniest of skeptical tilts to his eyebrow. Iruka matched it, ready to be out of this place where everything had a sinister meaning that Kakashi's team understood as easily as breathing and Iruka didn't. Kakashi pulled the duffle over his shoulder, tossing Iruka his helmet.

As they stepped off the Yamanaka into the airlock of the Sharingan, the shoulders of his escorts sank in relief, a weight lifted. Iruka ducked out of the airlock behind them and froze at the sight of familiar curving silver halls, his boots rooted to the deck.

Of course, of course, the Sharingan was an Uchiha ship.

It looked a lot like the ship Iruka had woken up on, except smaller and not on fire. Fighter class, not destroyer. Narrow silver halls and cool blue lights were broken up by sharp crimson crests, the mark of an extinct clan of engineers whose work was still unmatched in the galaxy.

Sakura went straight to the bridge, dropping into the pilot’s chair. Iruka watched warily as she began busily flipping switches and tapping touch screens, Kakashi walking past without a second glance. Naruto was at the hatch, exchanging formal if exuberant goodbyes with the Yamanaka crew as the ships carefully detached.

An uneasy feeling started at the back of Iruka's neck. Kakashi had stripped out if his exosuit, and underneath his pale hair, above the collar of his undersuit, Iruka saw what he hadn't wanted to notice before: the edge of pale plastic port just like Iruka’s, only a little paler than Kakashi's skin.

Kakashi veered around the pilot’s chair to a small service ladder near the nose of the ship. Iruka stopped at the edge of the hatch, watching Kakashi’s silver hair descend, unnerved and anxious and trying very hard not to know why.

“There’s enough space,” Sakura said. “You can -- ” She nodded towards the ladder.

Iruka looked at Naruto, who shrugged, nose wrinkling like this was business he didn’t get into.

“What,” Iruka said mildly, forcing a smile, “you’re my favorite, and Sakura is Kakashi’s favorite, is that it?”

Sakura rolled her eyes. Naruto sighed, deeply put upon. “No, Iruka-sensei, she’s the Hokage’s favorite.”

“Then who’s Kakashi’s?” Iruka made the joke, weak as it was, because he didn’t want them to know he’d just spotted the edges of an interface tray in the little cabin down below, which told him what this little room down below was and what Kakashi was doing down there. Phantom nerve pain prickled at his fingertips, at his toes, at the very tip of his tongue.

When he looked up, Sakura and Naruto were staring at him, a message in their expressions. Their eyes widened; their eyebrows went up. A nonverbal nudge. A hello, are you kidding?

“Oh,” Iruka said. “Oh.

He climbed down the hatch.

Kakashi was already lying on the bodyform tray looking up at the ceiling. Iruka felt for a second unnerved as though he were in the room with a coma patient or a sleepwalker, but then Kakashi’s eyes moved towards him. He was conscious and aware.

“You want a try?” Kakashi said. His eyebrows waggled. They were inside a mirror of the scariest place Iruka could remember, and Kakashi was acting like a weight had been lifted. Much better the belly of a mind-devouring weapon than a cruiser with flowers on every corner.

“No,” Iruka said firmly. “I don’t even know how I’d -- I have no idea what I said to convince them I could do this.”

“You don’t speak casually, Iruka. People can sense your sincerity. It works even when you’re lying.”

That didn’t mean anything to Iruka without the context of memory -- he’d been so certain he wasn’t a cheat. He reached for Kakashi’s hand on the tray, curious if this was right, and nodded to himself when Kakashi’s fingers closed over his. “I know I’m just guessing when I say these things, but I feel like I’m actually a pretty chatty person. Very casual. Of the two of us, I'd think you were the serious one.”

Kakashi smiled. “But sensei, it's me who has a reputation for insincerity and inattentiveness.”

Iruka gave him his best skeptical look. Kakashi’s eyes flicked away to the wall, and Iruka wondered if he were embarrassed. Iruka sighed, self-deprecating. “The funny thing is, I believe that too.”

He wasn’t sure how those two qualities fit together in one person. He supposed it didn't matter. Judging by the fingers curled comfortably around his own, he was on a course to find out. If he didn’t remember on his own first.

“Iruka,” Kakashi said, “to protect children in your care, you could find a way to enrapture any audience.”

Iruka dropped his eyes to study the connected wire ports along Kakashi’s arm, ready lights blinking at each of them. He considered deflecting -- it was too big a compliment from someone important enough to have his own one-of-a-kind ancient warship and to be the subject of political plots -- but there was something else in Iruka's chest: a fierce, protective certainty. His heart agreed with Kakashi. It didn't want to deflect.

It wanted to say proudly: “Yes. I would.”

“Also,” Kakashi said, “I saw the aptitude numbers they had for you. They weren’t your numbers. They were mine.” His fingers tightened around Iruka’s. “You sold yourself to pirates by stealing my two-decade-old test results.”

“Oh, that does make more sense.”

“How did you get those results, Iruka?”

Kakashi was frowning at him, his ominous mission face. That face was really something, wasn't it. Iruka patted Kakashi's hand soothingly, sailing right on by the question. Apparently Iruka was both a liar and a sneak, and Kakashi should really know that about him already.

Kakashi sighed, conceding that battle without a fight. Iruka wondered how many years it had taken them to get to this point, to knowing which battles were worth fighting and which ones could only be sighed over. “Can you hear it?”

“The ship?” There was a murmur that might be the white noise of machinery. It got a little louder when Iruka listened for it, but it was nonsense, not information. He couldn't even identify separate words. “Nothing. Not even a little bit.”

“Hmm. You did have the lowest score in academy history. “

Iruka blinked. He’d known he was the wrong person to be there, but he hadn’t thought -- “Really? The worst?” He ran his hand down Kakashi’s arm around the wires. It felt more familiar already. Like scolding Naruto for his test scores. “Is this okay for you? The interface? I… didn’t like it.”

“It was a gift. From a friend.”

Kakashi’s eyes unfocused. Iruka heard a whirring through the ship -- engines and systems powering up for departure. “Iruka -- I need to run the ship now. You can come down anytime, but don’t touch me unless I notice you myself, alright?”

“Ok.” Iruka turned to the hatch.

“Iruka,” Kakashi said. Iruka turned. Kakashi was watching him, red light reflecting in his irises. “Thank you for making sure none of those kids ended up like me.”

Iruka stopped with his hands on the ladder. Of course, it had been Kakashi that Sakura had been talking about. Kakashi was the jackpot that Sound would want to catch.

He turned that over in his head, but he didn't think he could yell at Kakashi the way he had yelled at Naruto and Sakura. In the same way Iruka knew he himself was chatty and pragmatic and Naruto an endearing mess of a cadet, he knew that Hatake Kakashi did not make strategic mistakes. Kakashi had come here to bring Iruka back, and he’d known that just by coming into range, he’d put a trade on the table. Himself for Iruka. Whether with Sound or whoever it was that controlled the Yamanaka.

Iruka wondered if Sakura and Naruto had known how deliberate that was or if they’d thought Kakashi was being stupid for love.

“Thank you for bringing me home,” Iruka said.

Kakashi acknowledged him with a wiggly wave of his fingers, and then his eyes were flashing red, his gaze drifting to the ceiling. The sounds of the ship kicked up around them.

Iruka climbed up the hatch to ride out the jump with two of the kids he’d saved because Iruka loved them very much. Like Kakashi, Iruka was stupid for love, every time.