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Equilibrium

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A sickle of a crescent moon hangs overhead, illuminating the sleeping village. There is an utter stillness to the nights in Konoha, broken only by the gentle swaying of trees in the wind, that always filled Iruka with a reassured calm. Like watching the ocean. He knows somewhere people are awake — lovers whispering in the dark, the Hokage glowering over paperwork, ANBU keeping silent vigil. Iruka can’t see any of them from the balcony of his apartment, so he lets himself enjoy the illusion of being alone with the forest. He’d stopped waiting hours ago. He’s been busy ever since, evidenced by the rags drying on the railing and the faint scent of cleaner that mingles with the autumn air through the open windows.

It’s the night Kakashi usually comes by. At some point their arrangement had transformed from an official obligation into something to look forward to. He never expected that to happen, but he’s glad for the change. He’s only now realizing how much he’s come to enjoy the company, in the absence of it. He’s not disappointed, not really. It’s not like Kakashi has a choice. The only times he’s missed their night together have been when he was away from the village on a mission, and Iruka doesn’t doubt that is the case now. He should probably sleep, himself. Still, he doesn’t move from where he’s slumped against the railing, head leaning heavy on his arms. He knows he looks a mess, hair falling out of the ponytail he’d tied it into this morning, but he’s too tired to fix it. It’s not like it matters anyway.

These weeks at home, waking up to nothing but the same four walls and the inside of his head, have been more exhausting than he ever would’ve imagined. He’d always been too busy, before, to examine his own thoughts much. Perhaps he’s always been a bit neurotic; he doesn’t remember if it was like this after his parents died. If the thought possessed him so his mind could never wander far without circling back to the crux, the irreconcilable, the way it does with the boy he killed. Near enough to call a man, to some, and a shinobi in any case, but still a teenage boy. Surely snatched as a small child, because he can’t imagine any other way a person that young could’ve already been shaped into someone who would fight to the death for Orochimaru. Iruka had no choice, he knows that now, but still he mourns for him.

And yet, when he has nightmares, it’s always their faces as he was carried away. Backlit by the trees, his village, the night itself on fire.

It isn’t ghosts keeping him awake, but still he finds himself drawn to the traces they’ve left behind. Iruka is a shinobi of the Leaf, as his parents were before him. He’s all the legacy they have left — he’s acutely aware of that. Most times he feels he’s done them justice. Whatever his shortcomings, he can acknowledge that he’s grown into a compassionate teacher, a fine chuunin, an admirable man. But not a shinobi who fights unflinchingly. Who does his duty with cold efficiency. Able to slip into combat readiness at a moment’s notice, like a second skin. If he were ambushed again, he isn’t confident he’d come out of it alive. Neither is he confident that the answer is as simple as staying away from combat altogether.

Iruka is the son of two shinobi of the Leaf, fine jounin who died screaming within the walls of their own village.

He becomes aware of a presence only a moment before it appears as a shadow beside him. He isn’t alarmed; he knows it’s Kakashi. He brings with him the smell of deep forest and dirt, with an edge of something sharper. It clings to the metal guards of his gloves, black on silver in the moonlight. Iruka looks away.

“I figured you weren’t coming.”

“I meant to come this afternoon,” Kakashi says, leaning back on the rail. “I got held up.”

Another mission. Always another mission these days. More than once he’s seen the Hokage send Kakashi out again not an hour after he’d passed through the gates. Iruka wonders how far he’d traveled since this afternoon, how close their enemies were encroaching on the village, whose blood he hadn’t been able to wipe his hands clean of. He doesn’t ask. “Think you’ll get any sleep this week?”

“Who can say?” he replies airily, raising his brows in a way that’s probably meant to be nonchalant but only serves to emphasize how deeply tired his one visible eye looks. “Ask me tomorrow.”

“You’re not leaving again…”

Kakashi shakes his head. “Not until the morning.”

Iruka settles back down on his forearms on the rail. “Good.”

For a while neither of them speaks, and the quiet murmur of wind in trees and night creatures reigns again. It’s almost enough to lull Iruka to sleep, and he might be tired enough to try it.

A look over at Kakashi — half-asleep on his feet — and he’s ready to demand that the man go home to bed, but he hesitates.

Even as he speaks, he’s not sure it’s a good idea. “About that offer you made.”

Kakashi pries open his eye and turns it on him, curious. “Have you been considering it?”

“Maybe,” Iruka says, which feels too weak an answer. “Yes. But I haven’t decided.”

Kakashi studies him a moment longer, as if deciding something himself. “Mm. Well, think on it some more, and we’ll talk when I get back.”

Iruka nods. The smile follows, belated. “Be safe.”

Crouched on the railing, ready to depart, Kakashi gives him a lazy salute. “Enjoy the night, Iruka-san.”

He supposes he does.

  

  

He begins his training again in the morning.

It feels long overdue. He kicks himself for how long he’s waited, inertia weighing on his limbs and slowing them in every strike. Kotetsu is a solid sparring partner — he’s always obliged when Iruka had need of him before, and now he has one more request.

“Don’t go easy on me.”

Kotetsu pauses, loosening the grip on his kunai. “You sure?”

Iruka nods, wiping perspiration from his brow and slipping back into defensive position. “I need practice. It doesn’t count if you’re not trying. Again.”

There’s only the slightest hint of doubt in Kotetsu’s eyes before he finds his resolve. This time when he comes at Iruka it’s full-speed, with an attack Iruka just barely turns aside. Metal grazes his cheek and he ignores the trickle of warmth that follows, while his own return strike is swatted aside with embarrassingly little effort. He guards against the next blow, which turns out to be a feint, leaving him open to the real one. Kotetsu’s kick lays him flat on his back.

It takes a minute for him to recover. It’d been a hard fall, but he hasn’t hit his head. He’s grateful for that. He lays in the dirt, breathing in forest air, breathing out his frustration. Birds flit in and out of the canopy overhead.

“I’m s—”

“Don’t say it.” Slowly, Iruka stands. “Again.”

  

  

Ask me tomorrow, Kakashi had said. When tomorrow has come and gone, and the day after it, Iruka quietly grieves for Kakashi’s sleep schedule and goes on with his life. He’s accepted the fact that he’ll see him when he sees him. He only hopes that wherever he is, Kakashi is safe.

When he turns up on the third day, Iruka is relieved to see him in one piece, and not much worse for wear. Iruka only becomes aware of the grin on his face when he registers Kakashi’s own expression, and it promptly dies.

“Are you okay?”

Kakashi looks almost surprised at the question, but he answers readily enough. “Yeah, I’m okay.”

Iruka only has to look at him to know how not okay he is, but he supposes to Kakashi it might not seem like a lie. In a strictly utilitarian sense, it’s true — four limbs intact and fully functional, still fit to do his duty. It’s whatever could bleed through the mask of stoicism he’s so thoroughly perfected and leave the indelible marks of being troubled that concerns Iruka. He doesn’t feel like it’s his place to ask for anything more than what Kakashi gives him, so instead of pressing him further, he remembers his manners.

“Would you like to come in?”

Kakashi gives him a mostly convincing eye-smile. “Sure. Thank you.”

He’s started the water for a pot of tea when Kakashi speaks up from the table. “I can’t stay long. I need to meet with the Hokage in the morning, but I think if I don’t crash for a couple hours I might die.”

Iruka can’t even begin to hide his disappointment. “It better be more than a couple. If she doesn’t understand that even her best shinobi need a full night’s sleep sometimes, I might have to have a few words with her.”

This smile seems a good deal more genuine, accompanied as it is by Kakashi’s gaze darting away from his and the hand that rifles through his hair absently. If Iruka didn’t know any better, he’d think Kakashi was embarrassed by the praise. Surely that couldn’t be possible. “Ahh, no need,” Kakashi is saying. “It’s my fault too. I should really stop agreeing to everything they throw at me.”

Iruka feels a pang of sympathy for him, sharp and bittersweet. “You deserve a break. I think you work harder than anyone.”

Kakashi makes a noncommittal sound in his throat and watches the steam pouring out of the kettle. “Always more work to be done.”

And there it is, the hint of whatever is wrong, plain as the mask on his face. Iruka’s curiosity deepens, but he’s already decided not to push him. The kettle screeching gives him something else to focus on.

Tea in the pot and brewing, he leans back against the counter and looks over at Kakashi again. He’s grasping for something to say when Kakashi beats him to it.

“Have you made up your mind?”

He should have anticipated this. Well, he did, but it had slipped so far down his list of priorities in the past few days that only now does he realize he’s been consciously avoiding it. He takes a breath to steel himself. “Yeah. I think I can do it.” A pause, and he goes a step further. “I want to.”

Kakashi gives him a lingering look, as if searching for any doubt that belies the certainty of his words, but finally he nods. “All right. I’ll talk to Godaime when I see her.”

Iruka wonders if this will be the first time Kakashi has brought it up. The thought fills him with anxiety, a low buzzing of the nerves, but he ignores it. He trusts Kakashi to make the best possible case for this proposal, even if it does sound wildly irresponsible at face value.

Iruka is a shinobi of the Leaf. Only he gets to decide what that means.

He can’t ask what’s really bothering Kakashi, but he figures it wouldn’t be so bad to ask other things. The unspoken question of why he’d been gone so much longer than he’d anticipated still hangs in the air, and he edges around it. “Was it a hard one, this mission?”

Kakashi doesn’t answer right away. When he does his voice is flat, revealing nothing. “Not particularly.”

He edges around another question, one he doesn’t know how to verbalize. “Did you have to kill anyone?”

“I did.”

When Kakashi offers no more details, Iruka pushes further, getting closer to the heart of it. He’s acutely aware of his pulse, of the sweat beading in his palms.

“What did it feel like?”

The beat of silence is a short one. “Neutralizing a threat.”

But Kakashi must have read it in his face, that he meant it in a different sense, because he soon speaks again — keeping his gaze fixed out the open window and his voice light, disorientingly so.

“You know, it’s a common misconception about Raikiri that the Lightning energy forms a barrier of some sort. A protective shield, or what have you. I suppose it’s only natural to assume such visible chakra is tangible as well.”

Bewildered as to why this conversation has taken an academic turn, Iruka can see no choice but to play along. “It’s not?”

“Not really. Of course, there’s the sheer voltage, and it burns hotter than any fire, but no. For all intents and purposes, there is nothing between my hand and whatever I put it through. I feel everything.”

For a moment Iruka can’t breathe. The image has him gripped in silent horror. He feels everything — the crack of sternum and burst lung, tearing into muscle, into heart. The breeze from outside isn’t enough to keep Iruka from feeling sick.

“It never stops feeling like what it is. You don’t have to worry about that.”

Iruka doesn’t fully comprehend the tears that threaten to spill from his eyes. He wills them away. The sudden ache in his throat doesn’t go away as easily, and even the hot tea does nothing to touch it.

When Kakashi leaves, he almost raises a hand to do something, but stops himself. A pat on the shoulder, maybe. Even if it never came into existence, Iruka is thankful for it.

 

 

The next day dawns with the feeling of anticipation mingled with dread that he takes the entire morning to shake off. He’s mostly recovered by the time Kakashi finds him. But there’s no simple answer on his lips for Iruka. There’s a pause heavy-laden with unspoken things, and a request he hadn’t prepared for. “She wants to see you.”

The feeling is back, and it consumes him slowly on the long walk to the Hokage tower.

When they’re inside and seated, Tsunade dismisses her guards and turns a scrutinizing glare on Iruka. He tries not to wither under it, ignoring how transparent that look of hers makes him feel. He sits up straighter, pulling his shoulders back, and breathes.

“I hear you’re ready for combat again.”

He gives her a nod and something like a smile. “That’s right.”

She considers him a moment longer. When she speaks again, her voice is almost gentle. “You don’t have to do this, you know.”

Iruka manages not to sigh. It’s nice of her to give him an out, in case he was only doing this out of obligation, but his resolve is only growing stronger in the face of this lack of faith in his abilities. “I know I don’t have to. I want to.” Tsunade keeps her gaze steady and says nothing, and he gets the feeling that she’s waiting for him to elaborate, so he tries. “I want to be prepared for any possibility. I never want to be ambushed like that again. I want to know I can defend myself, and defend the people I love.”

For a moment it seems as if the Hokage is about to break into a smile, but it dies before it ever lives, leaving only sternness. “You’re truly ready for combat? Say at this very moment, if someone were to attack, you could handle it?”

Iruka is starting to get annoyed. He keeps his voice neutral, even pleasant. “Yes, I think I could.”

“Even if you couldn’t use jutsu? Couldn’t use any chakra?”

The questions throw him, but only slightly. “Yes.”

“Even if you were emotionally compromised?”

Iruka rankles at that, but he stays calm. He doesn’t get why she’s pressing him this hard. He answers with conviction, undaunted. “Yes. I would pull my weight in that battle and not be a liability.”

Tsunade studies him for so long he starts to grow uncomfortable. He can’t help but feel like there’s something he’s missing, something he should already know. He’s about to ask what it is when she breaks the silence.

“Fine then. You’re cleared for combat. I’ll put the paperwork in. You’ll be able to take D through A rank…” Her eyes drift over to Kakashi. “Use your discretion with those.” When she stands, he finally allows himself to breathe a sigh of relief. “Well, Iruka. Thank you for your service. Be safe out there.”

 

 

Relief is short-lived.

Kakashi walks him home. Their usual friendly goodbye is absent, replaced by a palpable tension in the air between them. “You want to come inside?” Iruka asks.

“Yeah, I probably should.”

Something about the way he says it makes Iruka’s heart drop.

He holds it together long enough to let them inside. He sits down at the table with Kakashi, eyeing him warily. “What is it?”

Kakashi seems to take a moment to prepare himself for this conversation, and Iruka knows it’s bad.

“On that last mission, the shinobi I was trailing turned out to be one of a five-man squad. I had my ninken, so the odds weren’t really a problem. We left one alive. I took him back to T&I, and it didn’t take long to get him to crack.”

There’s no escape from the dread creeping steadily into Iruka’s veins, freezing him in place. He doesn’t ask what they found out — he’s not sure he wants to know — but Kakashi tells him anyway.

“Their squad was one of several. How many, he didn’t know. Yamanaka was in charge of his interrogation, so if he was withholding anything, we would know about it. The one thing he did know that Inoichi couldn’t get out of him was Orochimaru’s location. Trying to force it out of him brought Inoichi to a dead end. Literally. He described it as a seal on the body that corresponded to a seal in his mind, fixed to a locked door that concealed whatever intel he might have that would be most useful to us, I’m sure.” Kakashi isn’t even bothering to hide the agitation slowly overtaking him the longer he speaks. “There was one thing he did manage to extract, which he rightfully shouldn’t have been able to. It was too easy for something this big.”

Iruka tries to ask what it is, but his voice fails him. He isn’t going to like the answer.

“Their mission is the same, all of them. It only has one objective: to capture the jinchuuriki of the Ninetails.”

Iruka’s voice comes back before his composure. It almost breaks. “I’m going with you.”

Kakashi doesn’t look surprised at all. He even flashes what could almost be called a smile, wry and humorless. “I know you are. I told her as much. And yeah, that was why she gave you the third degree. I’m sorry about that, by the way, but it seemed necessary.”

His earlier annoyance means nothing at all now. He doesn’t even bother to respond, to tell him it’s okay, because he can’t get the words out.

Nothing is okay. And it won’t be until he knows for sure that Naruto is safe.

 

 

They set out in the morning, before the sun has even had a chance to fully rise. For once Iruka doesn’t complain about waking so early. He’s silent and sullen the first hour of their journey, until they stop to coordinate and share a meager breakfast of rations. Kakashi summons his pack of hounds and briefs them on the mission. Minutes later they take off running, each one in a different direction.

“One of them is bound to find a trail. Until then we search on our own.”

Iruka nods his agreement. They’ll search, but who they will find is less certain. With any luck, they’ll come across the Sound-nin before they catch up to Naruto. With even more luck, it’ll be the two of them who find Naruto first. Part of Iruka wishes for nothing more than to see the boy again, but the wiser part of him hopes they prove impossible to find for anyone.

“Are you all right?”

Kakashi’s voice pulls him out of his head, and he swallows the bite of dried something-or-other he’d been trying to chew some life back into. "Yeah. I’m just worried for him.”

“Well, he is with Jiraiya,” Kakashi points out. “So even if Orochimaru himself finds them, he should be evenly matched.”

Iruka knows he’d been trying to reassure him. But it somehow makes him feel even worse. The idea of that monster getting anywhere near Naruto, trying to take him like he’s taken Sasuke…

The thought gives him a strange, sick feeling. Naruto can never know. Iruka doesn’t want to imagine how he’d react, what it’d lead him to do, but it plays out in his mind anyway.

“Ahh, don’t look so grim. It’s extremely unlikely.”

There’s really nothing Kakashi can say that makes this any better.

Another two hours of silence later, Iruka starts to feel bad for how standoffish he’s been. He doesn’t want to freeze Kakashi out again. He still regrets that. Being so cold when all Kakashi had done was try to help.

“I wanted to thank you.”

Kakashi is several trees away from him as they leap through the branches at the fastest pace they can sustain, but he knows Kakashi can hear him.

“For what?”

He doubts Kakashi can see the tiny smile playing on his lips. “For everything, I guess. Being stubborn with me when I didn’t want your help. Some of the things you said that I needed to hear.” The pause isn’t to catch his breath, but it does give him time to let the tightness in his chest ease up. “For having faith in me.”

Iruka can’t see Kakashi’s smile either, but he thinks he can hear it in whatever Kakashi mumbles in response.

 

 

It’s an hour after sundown when Kakashi calls it a day. Iruka wants to protest, at first, but fatigue has settled so deeply into his muscles that once they’ve stopped he finds he doesn’t want to start again. He nods numbly, slumping down against a tree. Kakashi wanders off, but Iruka can hear the dead leaves crunching under his feet, and he doesn’t go far.

“Hey, there’s a clearing over here where we could set up camp.”

Iruka pulls himself back up and follows. They set up together, working without the need for words. Kakashi busies himself with their dinner, while Iruka stretches out on his sleeping bag, gazing up at the stars. They seem brighter out here, far away from civilization.

“You really think he’ll be okay?” Iruka asks.

He doesn’t have to turn his head to know that Kakashi’s staring at him. He feels his gaze on him, searching, considering.

“I think there are a lot more people who want to protect him than people who want to hurt him.”

It isn’t really an answer to what he’d asked, but it does more to reassure Iruka than anything has since this nightmare began.

Dinner is a humble one, and it doesn’t take long to eat. There are still hours left before Iruka will be tired enough for sleep. He’s wondering what he’s supposed to do with himself for all that time when Kakashi breaks the comfortable silence.

“If there’s anything you need from me, don’t hesitate to let me know. Please.”

Iruka smiles at the offer, inwardly thinking it sounds a little solicitous, and could be taken any number of ways if he so chose. He chides himself for the stray thought. This isn’t the time or place for anything so frivolous. It’s not that he has feelings for Kakashi — well, he feels something, but he’s not sure what. All he knows is he’s grown so used to Kakashi’s company, grown to respect and understand and appreciate him so much more lately, he can’t help being a little preoccupied. Whatever this is, he’s relatively sure it’s still platonic, so it doesn’t matter anyway.

He tries to think of something useful to say. Physically, he feels fine. Tired, yes, but nothing too bad. Mentally he is exhausted, but he doesn’t want to explore that particular nest of vipers any more than he needs to. It takes him a moment, but he thinks of one thing Kakashi could help with.

“I started my training again.”

Kakashi makes an amused sound, one that manages to convey that he approves. “I noticed. The cuts and bruises were kind of a dead giveaway.”

Iruka feels his face get hot, but he’s mostly immune to Kakashi’s teasing by now. “Yeah, well. It’s not that I’ve forgotten how to fight, or that I’m out of shape, but I guess I have been feeling a bit rusty…”

He’s glad when Kakashi picks up on the question he doesn’t have the nerve to ask. “You want to spar?”

Iruka takes a moment to fully appreciate the madness of his request. Fight Kakashi? “Yeah.” His mouth is moving somehow anyway. “Yeah, I kind of do.”

He only really feels the smile on his face when he realizes Kakashi has returned it. “All right.” He looks around their encampment, as if deciding if they have enough space.

“We can pile our stuff up over there,” Iruka says, already standing to roll up the sleeping bags.

A minute later and they have a perfectly adequate training ground. Kakashi still doesn’t seem satisfied. He breathes a barely audible sigh, staring out into the endless forest.

“What is it?” Iruka asks.

“Just that I’d feel more comfortable if I knew we weren’t going to draw unwanted attention to ourselves. I’d call one of the dogs back for a quick scout, to make sure we’re the only shinobi in the area, but what they’re doing right now is more important.”

Another solution has come to Iruka while Kakashi was talking. He reaches into his equipment pack, thumbing through a stack of various seals until he finds the one he’d been looking for.

When he throws it down on the ground at the center of the clearing, the effect is immediate. No doubt Kakashi can feel the barrier activating, even if he can’t see it. It is visible, but only just — a ripple through the air, subtle as the surface of a calm lake. Iruka is particularly proud of this one.

He answers the question Kakashi’s raised eyebrow asks. “Soundproof.”

“Ah.”

If Kakashi looks at him a little differently for a moment, Iruka is sure he’d imagined it.

It starts the same as any other sparring match. The first few strikes tentative, slowly building up in intensity once the two of them have gotten a feel for each other’s form and technique. Iruka can’t deny that he’s intimidated. But he asked for this.

A few minutes in and Kakashi is getting the better of him, Iruka has to admit. He’d expected this. Sweat drips down his temple and he clenches his teeth against the impact of yet another blocked strike. He’s trying his hardest, which is almost good enough to hold Kakashi off, if not win. He has a feeling Kakashi is still holding back, but he doesn’t ask him to do otherwise — this isn’t Kotetsu.

But Kakashi is the one to stop it, signaling for a time-out. He looks right at Iruka and voices his own thoughts, thrown back at him. “You’re not giving me everything you’ve got.”

“I’m trying,” Iruka grits out.

“Try harder. And stop worrying about hurting me.”

I’m not, Iruka wants to say, but he can’t. Kakashi is right. It’s hard to deliver a proper attack on someone you care about.

The hand holding his kunai drops. “Kakashi…”

“I’m not Kakashi.” When Iruka only stares, confused, Kakashi rips off his hitai-ate with its Konoha symbol, throwing it carelessly aside. He doesn’t open the eye that’d been concealed beneath it, to Iruka’s dazed relief. “I’m a Sound shinobi, and I want to kill you. I’m going to kill you.”

Iruka’s heart is already starting to pound more insistently, adrenaline trickling into his bloodstream, when Kakashi pulls down the mask that always hides half his face. Oh, Iruka thinks, some small part of his mind amazed at being one of what is surely a lucky few, while the rest of his consciousness is still tuned to his senses, battle-sharpened, hungry for detail. His eyes take in the illusion. He really does look like a different person.

“I’ll kill you,” not-Kakashi repeats in a voice that turns Iruka’s stomach, that’s somehow his but it isn’t, too convincing in its sadistic relish. “And then I’ll kill that little demon brat.”

When Iruka rushes him, the anger surging down his arms and into his fists is real. Twice his kunai comes within inches of his enemy’s skin before it’s blocked with the ringing of steel on steel. He thinks Kakashi looks satisfied, under the act he’s putting on. He doesn’t have time to dwell on it. His edge doesn’t last long, but even kept on the defensive he is able to block each strike aimed at him. He’s soon out of breath, exhaustion creeping into his limbs after a particularly hard impact that jars him to the bone. Close combat has never been his forte — he knows that. So the next opening he gets, barely a split-second’s reprieve, he frees a paper tag from his equipment pouch and flings it hard at his opponent, leaping up into the trees overhead as it explodes.

He doesn’t look to see if Kakashi’s been caught in the blast. He hears his pursuit, though, some moments later. He hears the clink of metal and pre-empts the attack, spinning around with a handful of shuriken. Only one of them hits Kakashi — or it would have if he hadn’t brought his kunai up to deflect. Iruka rushes him again, barely aware of the frustrated growl rising up in his throat as he presses the attack, driving Kakashi back toward the trunk of the tree. He slashes once, twice, and a savage third that Kakashi only manages to avoid by dropping down to a lower branch. Iruka follows, and before he can pull the same move twice, Iruka lunges, throwing him off-balance.

They hit the ground together, hard. Iruka pushes himself upright and savors the feel of victory, of his blade pressed into his enemy’s throat. Kakashi raises his hands, as if in surrender, and Iruka blinks, awareness finally catching up to him after the whirlwind of battle. He moves the kunai away and drops it, suddenly horrified. He rises abruptly from on top of Kakashi and heads back through the darkness.

Kakashi comes up beside him along the way. Iruka can tell he wants to say something, but he walks faster.

As Iruka finishes setting up their camp again, he can’t avoid him any longer. Kakashi stops in front of him, waiting to gain his attention. Iruka is relieved to see he’s wearing his mask again.

“My advice?”

He tosses Iruka’s kunai back to him, and he catches it mid-air.

“Get pissed off. It makes you a better fighter.”

 

 

Iruka can’t have been asleep long when it wakes him — the surfacing awareness of a presence. When his heavy lids finally open, he’s disoriented by what he’s perceiving. It’s too bright to still be nighttime, but he can hardly see anything around him. He can only make out a blurry figure above him, and when he hears a faraway sound that might be the chime of bells, even that fades away. And there is only white, drowning everything out. He tries to move, only to realize that he can’t. His limbs feel bound, leaden, dead weight.

It’s at this point he has regained enough consciousness to realize he is caught in a genjutsu.

The panic clawing its way up his spine is impossible to ignore, but he tries to keep his head. There’s a way out of this. Immobilized, hand seals are out of the question. There are other ways… something to do with chakra… But his mind is slowing the deeper he falls into the genjutsu, and things he knows he should know are slipping away, out of his reach.

Out of his reach… the kunai he’d fallen asleep with by his side, if he could only move his hand a little, he could reach—!

Before his hand has moved an inch, the white haze dispels abruptly, jarring him back into reality. The sky beyond the trees is still dark. There’s a figure standing above him, one whose face he cannot see. All he can see is the lighting crackling through his chest, burning brighter than the sun.

The glare blinds him. He has to look away. He only hears Kakashi pull his arm out, feels the gush of blood that follows, that spatters his face. The body falls and he succumbs to his own body’s reaction, scrambling away from it in a panic, fighting the urge to throw up. He wipes furiously at his face with a sleeve, but then Kakashi is kneeling in front of him and pulling him into his arms, holding him tight.

“I’m sorry,” Iruka moans, his voice miserable. He hates that he’s trembling, and tries to make himself stop. “You’d think it was the first time I saw blood…”

“No, I’m sorry. I didn’t get back in time. I’m so sorry.”

Iruka finally moves his arms, gingerly returning the embrace. He’s too aware of the blood staining the front of his flak jacket, now staining Kakashi’s too. It bothers him, but he doesn’t want to let go. “What happened?”

Kakashi sighs, his breath ghosting over Iruka’s neck. “Pakkun came back. He told me he’d found someone. He took me to where he’d caught the scent, and we trailed it for a while. When I realized it was headed straight for our camp, I came as fast as I could, but it wasn’t fast enough.”

He sounds so disappointed in himself, Iruka has to comfort him. “Hey, I’m alive, aren’t I?” he asks with a gentle laugh.

Kakashi pulls back to look at his face. And Iruka can't do anything but gasp — only in part because he’s forgotten to close the Sharingan. It has more to do with the hand that brushes his cheek, so tenderly it almost breaks his heart. Kakashi’s eyes fall to his hand after he takes it away, and he wipes away the droplets of blood that’d gathered there. Iruka immediately feels foolish. He’d only been trying to clean up the mess he’d made.

Though the look in Kakashi’s eyes when they meet his again leaves him wondering.

He’s soon recovered enough to get his priorities straight. “If he was traveling alone… do you think he was part of a squad? Scouting alone like the one you tracked on your last mission?”

“That’s exactly what I was thinking.” Kakashi doesn’t sound pleased at the prospect.

“So the rest of his team is probably nearby.” It’s not a question. Iruka knows this much. He sighs. “So I guess we won’t be sleeping.”

Kakashi commiserates with a smile. “Welcome to my life.”

 

 

They take no chances the next day.

Kakashi has sent Pakkun to scout ahead of them. Hours pass in tense silence with the two of them following the ninken at a safe distance, communicating only in hand signs. They barely stop to eat. It’s nearing sundown when Pakkun doubles back, fixing Kakashi with a look that says everything he needs to know.

He nods, and looks to Iruka. Iruka signs his reply. I’m ready.

They fall on the clearing from above, taking their first two opponents off-guard — Kakashi hadn’t activated Raikiri. The sound would have given them away. He makes a clean stab to the heart of the first Sound ninja to rise, and Iruka grabs the next, slitting his throat. He’s aware of the adrenaline, of his heart racing, his stomach roiling, but he doesn’t have time to process any of it now. Kakashi has taken out the third by the time he whirls around, looking for the fourth. He spots him re-entering the clearing. The man takes one look at them and laughs.

“Huh. Konoha.”

Iruka breathes in deeply, tightening his grip on the kunai at his side.

“You must be here because of the Ninetails.” He looks around at his dead comrades, sighing lightly as if it’s nothing more than an inconvenience, their deaths, and maybe his own. “It won’t do any good. There’s too many of us. We’ll find him eventually.”

Iruka doesn’t want to hear any more. He closes the distance between them. The man doesn’t raise any weapons if he has them; unarmed, or unhinged, Iruka doesn’t know. He starts to laugh again, looking so smug that all Iruka can feel is rage, consuming him.

“You can’t keep him safe forever.”

Iruka’s kunai runs through his throat, and with his last laugh he chokes on blood.

“The hell I can’t.”

The body falls with a thud. Iruka turns away, breathing hard. His eyes meet Kakashi’s — meet for a long moment, taking in all they find there. He looks relieved. He looks proud.

  

  

It’s days before they find another sign of life.

This time it’s Uuhei who finds them. The initial shock of her appearance gives way to confusion. Either Iruka is imagining things in his sleep deprivation, or she looks entirely too happy given the circumstances.

He only understands when she leads them not to another hidden encampment in the forest, but right into the heart of an isolated town. Its streets are full of civilians, all happily going about their business. It seems the war hasn’t touched here.

Iruka’s heart is in his throat by the time they’ve reached the inn and Kakashi is knocking at their door.

It opens to Jiraiya, six feet of suspicion that melts into elation upon seeing Kakashi’s face.

“Well, I’ll be damned.”

“Can we talk somewhere private?” Kakashi asks quietly. Jiraiya looks thrown, but only for an instant. He nods and follows them to a stairwell, leading up to the rooftop.

“Something you don’t want Naruto to hear?”

Kakashi takes one more look around to be sure they’re alone before he says a word.

“That thing you told me about.”

Jiraiya’s eyes narrow. “Akatsuki?”

Iruka feels uncomfortably out of the loop. He knows the name. Can put at least one face to them too — the red eyes and black hair he can almost see in front of him now. He knows next to nothing of the organization and its activities, other than the fact that they are all missing-nin.

“Orochimaru now too.”

Jiraiya’s frown deepens, and Iruka understands. He rounds on Kakashi.

They’re after Naruto?”

It’s Jiraiya who explains. “I’ve known about the Akatsuki’s plan to gather the Tailed Beasts for some time now. It didn’t seem to be something they were actively pursuing yet, but I’ve been keeping my ear to the ground. And keeping Naruto close.”

It clicks. “This is why you left.” Iruka’s face feels numb.

“One of the reasons. He needs training. He needs experience. And if it makes him hard to find, then it’s better for everyone. But Orochimaru… why now?”

Kakashi’s scowling. “You know his history with them. What do you think he would do if he caught wind of this plan of theirs?”

Jiraiya sighs. “Take the most powerful for himself, so they could never complete it.”

Iruka is fuming. Who do they think they are, to treat him like some prize they could wrest from someone else’s hands and not a human being?

“It’s probably best if no one mentions Orochimaru,” Jiraiya advises.

Iruka is glad he didn’t have to be the one to say it. He feels guilty keeping Naruto in the dark, but it’s protecting him from his own impulsiveness. If he should get it in his head to confront Orochimaru himself, to try and bring back Sasuke while he’s at it, Iruka doubts any one of them could stop him.

“Thanks for the warning,” Jiraiya is saying to Kakashi. “I’ll stay on alert until the rest of those teams are found. I won’t let Naruto out of my sight.”

“Thank you,” Kakashi says earnestly, and Iruka can hear the relief in the next breath he sighs out.

He finally feels it’s safe to ask.

“Can I see him?”

  

  

The bright blue eyes staring up at him are full of surprise. “Iruka-sensei?”

Kakashi peers over Iruka’s shoulder, waving, though he’d been perfectly visible already. “Hello, I’m here too.”

“Kakashi-sensei…” Naruto looks confused for a moment, and turns his eyes back to Iruka. “Why are you here? Is everything okay?”

Iruka smiles. “Yeah, Naruto. Everything is okay.” He’s glad it doesn’t feel like a lie.

“There are some rogue ninja who got the crazy idea to come after you,” Kakashi explains, which isn’t technically a lie either. “But we’re not gonna let them get anywhere near you. Me and Iruka-sensei will stop them.”

“Yeah?” Naruto is grinning now, but Iruka can see the shimmer in his eyes. When Naruto hugs him, he doesn’t even bother to hide his own tears.

This. This is worth everything.

 

 

They end up staying the night, crowding their sleeping bags onto the floor of the rented room. Naruto is too excited to sleep for half the night, and though Iruka is dead on his feet by this point, he doesn’t want him to stop talking. He wants to hear everything, because Naruto never did have enough people who listened to him. Really listened to him, like family would.

They leave the next morning, though not without leaving one of Kakashi’s ninken behind. He insists.

 

 

It’s two days before they come across a trio of injured Sound-nin near the border with Takigakure. Two have apparently been killed already by Waterfall shinobi, and the living three seem resigned to their fates. They put up an admirable fight regardless.

Five days of rainstorms trekking through Fire Country and into the Land of Hot Water pays off with the discovery of the next squad.

They only conclude it had been the last after two weeks of nothing.

  

   

Iruka feels dazed on the journey home, as if he’s walking next to himself and only watching, not the one piloting those heavy limbs that somehow keep moving. He’s profoundly exhausted from running on next to no sleep, and adrenaline, and soldier pills. He gets through it by imagining how good it will feel to be home and in his own bed. He’ll sleep till noon if he wants to. No one can stop him.

Kakashi points out that they should stop by and see Tsunade first, in case she’s actually worried that they’re dead by now. Iruka grumbles about it but he knows Kakashi’s right.

He really should be offended at the surprise on her face when Kakashi tells her that the mission went as planned with no problems. He should be, but the smile she gives him nearly makes up for it.

  

  

Kakashi walks him home, and Iruka delays saying goodnight as long as he can. He wants to thank Kakashi, to kiss him, to stay up talking till they both pass out. He wants to cry out all the tension built up in his body, safe in Kakashi's arms. He wants so many things he doesn’t know how to ask for.

It’s Kakashi who summons up the nerve first. He asks to come in — and once inside, he asks Iruka if he can cook them dinner. Iruka, stunned, only laughs and agrees. Why not?

“I didn’t realize you knew how to cook,” Iruka muses, peering into the frying pan on the stove. His pantry is running awfully low on ingredients, but Kakashi has found something to throw together anyway.

“I know a few things,” Kakashi admits humbly. Whatever he’s making smells delicious, and Iruka is acutely aware that he hasn’t eaten properly in days.

“Thank you.” Iruka says it for the food, but he means it for a lot more.

It seems Kakashi knows it. The gaze he lets linger on Iruka is full of fondness, tinged with sadness, and many more things Iruka doesn’t pretend to understand. Just when he’s sure he’s about to ruin it by saying something embarrassing Kakashi blinks and turns his attention back to the food.

Iruka breathes, unaware he’d been practically holding his breath. This is ridiculous — he feels half a teenager again. He hasn’t gotten flustered around someone like this in years. He leans against the counter, focusing with all his might on keeping his head, on keeping it casual. It shouldn’t be this hard.

“So,” Kakashi starts, his voice purposely light. “Now that the mission’s over, things might start to catch up to you, if they haven’t already. It happens like that sometimes. I just want you to be prepared for that.”

It only sends a mild shock of panic through his system, one that passes before long. Of course. He should have thought of that. Just because he feels fine now doesn’t mean he will tomorrow, or next week. “Yeah. I understand.”

Kakashi glances over at him again, and he doesn’t look away. “I could stay the night if you wanted. Just to make sure you’re all right.”

Iruka takes a steady breath. “I think I’m okay.” Kakashi nods, and Iruka rolls the words around on his tongue, trying them out. In the end, he dares to use them. “But I think I want you to stay anyway.”

Kakashi manages to keep his face inscrutable. He gives the pan another stir, a thoughtful hum the only answer Iruka gets for a long moment. “Whatever you’d like.”

He doesn’t look over at Iruka again. Pulse thudding in his ears, Iruka knows if he doesn’t get the nerve this very moment he might never ask. “It’s not just me, right?” His voice is quiet, as if it won’t do as much damage if Kakashi barely hears. “I mean, tell me I’m not imagining this.”

Kakashi turns fully to face him. Iruka’s heart nearly stops. “You’re not imagining this.”

Iruka lets out one shaky sigh and all his insecurities with it. “How long?” he whispers.

He thinks Kakashi looks pained as he answers. “Too long.”

Iruka’s hands tug him closer by the shirt. He complies easily. The mask is gone somehow and their lips meet in a kiss, and the feel of Kakashi’s tongue against his leaves him breathless by the time he pulls away. “Holy shit.”

Kakashi chuckles to hear him curse, such a rarity. He leans his forehead against Iruka’s. “Tell me about it.”

Their dinner burns, but neither of them minds.